Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

Brazil ends 'dark years' of human-rights abuse

Leonel Brizola and Luis Inacio da Silva have a common bond despite their differing political views, ages, and outcomes of their races for office in Brazil's recent elections.

They were victims of repression carried out under military rule during the 1960s and '70s. Mr. Brizola, a leftist in that era, fled into exile for 15 years. Mr. da Silva was in jail four times in the early '70s.

About these ads

Another bond is that both these men bounded back into political action in Brazil this year. Both were candidates in the Nov. 15 elections sponsored by soldier-President Joao Baptista de Oliveira Figueiredo, who is steering the country back toward civilian rule.

The fact that Brizola and da Silva were allowed to run unhampered campaigns, with the military still ruling, suggests how far Brazil has come with regard to human rights since 1964, when the military seized power. Mr. Brizola won the Rio de Janeiro State governorship. Mr. da Silva lost his bid for the Sao Paulo State governorship.

Just how many other Brazilians suffered military repression is a much-debated issue. Thousands lost their political rights during the late '60s and early '70 s. An estimated 25,000 Brazilians were jailed, and many others lost their lives.

In Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo, ''death squads'' generally thought to have been composed of off-duty policemen murdered several hundred labor agitators and others in dark years. A full accounting of this era (the ''dark years'' as they have come to be called) has yet to be made.

Even some prominent former presidents - Joao Goulart, Juscelino Kubitschek, and Janio Quadros - were exiled.

''We wandered through the desert of human misery during those years,'' says Edson Magalhaes, a lawyer with the Ministry of Justice here. ''It was not our finest hour and I am sure most Brazilians would agree.''

Most in the military also are glad to have that era behind them. Human-rights organizations here say there is no evidence that the military allows rights abuse today.

About these ads

''The climate here has changed radically,'' one of the human-rights groups says.

The groups still keep their files on persons who vanished or were murdered during the dark years though, and they note that, occasionally, police chiefs and military garrisons still intimidate civilians.

''The fight isn't over, but we are winning,'' says a spokesman for the Brazilian Human Rights Committee.

The era of repression surfaced as an issue now and then in the recent campaign - not as a major issue, but as an unspoken theme.

During campaign speeches Mr. Brizola occasionally mentioned his exile in Uruguay, but for the most part he steered clear of the subject. Some thought this was to keep the military from interfering with his campaign. But at one point he said: ''Why bring it up? Everyone knows what went on. It doesn't need to be mentioned all the time. . . .

''Right now, the important thing is to get on with the campaign and then, when I've won (as he did), to get on with the governing of the state.''

One reason Brizola may be treading carefully is that as governor he is going to have to work with the military, which controls the purse strings of the states. Yet he sincerely seems to want to let the past ''speak for itself.''

Other Brazilians, however, want to take the military to court for rights abuses. Some of Mr. da Silva's supporters said they would like to take this path. Their candidate did not do as well as many expected in the election, and there is some speculation that statements by his supporters were a factor in his loss.

In a way, the campaigns' generally low-key comment about the dark years is a very Brazilian approach - and very unlike the rest of Latin America. The human-rights record could become a hot subject in the hands of a demagogue - and Brazil has had quite a few those in the past - but most do not believe it will become the burning issue that it has in Argentina, for example.

Brazilians appear to believe that human-rights violations in their country were nothing compared to those in Argentina, where thousands have disappeared in the past six years. But even some military men admit that serious rights abuse occurred in Brazil. ''There were horrible excesses by the military,'' admits a colonel, who says it ''should never have happened.''

But he adds: ''Happily it was never as bad as in other countries. We deprived too many people of their political rights, forcing many to flee: We forgot some basic facts of human decency, but there was always a restraint on us.''

Not everyone who suffered the wrath of the military in those years would agree about restraint. But the change in Brazil in the late 1970s has to be seen in the light of a shift in the military mentality. Beginning with Gen. Ernesto Geisel, General Figueiredo's predecessor, repression abated.

Brazilian military leaders were always a bit uncomfortable in power. As they watched over the transformation of Brazil's economy, ruling generals are said to have realized that Brazil had to be a democracy to become a major economic power.

''There were two routes to follow,'' says a general close to Gen. Golbery do Couto e Silva, the gris eminence of recent military governments.

''One way to go was the autocratic route of the socialist bloc with its limitations on personal freedom. The other was the way of the Western democracies. There was really no choice. It had to be the way of democracy. And that mean an end to the repression.''

Jimmy Carter's human-rights stand was also a factor, although then it was bitterly resented. ''It played a key role in Brazilian military thinking,'' says a Brazilian economist. ''They came to recognize the importance of following basic norms of human conduct.

''It really wasn't so far from their own training and thinking, but they needed to be pushed, and Carter's approach will, I believe, be seen in the future as a key factor in that push.''

Others here will agree. Newspaper editors and columnists have recently run a number of pieces on the Carter human-rights activism. Most are favorable. ''It should serve as a reminder to Ronald Reagan when he visits here that human rights is an important theme and he ought to mention it to the generals,'' a newspaper editor in Rio de Janeiro says.

One of Brazil's most renowned thinkers, Ausregesilo de Athayde, says: ''That whole campaign (of Carter's) sprang from a basic belief in democracy.''

An unsigned column in a Salvador newspaper said: ''Jimmy Carter may have been a bit naive in his dealings with Latin America, but he spoke from democracy's heart. It is always a bit difficult to listen to such criticism, but we know it is true. We are the better for having listened and followed it.''

There is also another factor - the Roman Catholic Church. Its power here is large - not so much in the pastoral field where it is getting tremendous competition from Protestant groups, particularly the evangelical movement, but in the political realm.

Brazil's Roman Catholic Church, with some 350 bishops, is the world's largest Catholic community. Although it officially eschews party politics, it is becoming more and more a part of the political process here. Many priests were active in the campaign.

This more militant church approach springs from a 1966 meeting of Latin American bishops in Medellin, Colombia that spawned the so-called ''liberation'' theology.

With churchmen out knocking on doors for da Silva, the message was widely circulated that ''Brazil needs more than economic progress: It needs social justice,'' as one Roman Catholic priest, Heitor Barbosa de Silva, said as he campaigned for da Silva.

This Roman Catholic involvement in politics is a bit reminiscent of the era of repression in late 1960s when the church began speaking out against some of the abuses. Some priests suffered from torture and confinement, but clearly played a role in the change in the human-rights picture.

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.