Brazil can learn from Argentina and Chile’s reckoning with dictatorship past

. Feb 16, 2020
argentina chile brazil dictatorship past "Dictatorship Never Again" demonstration in São Paulo (August 2019). Photo: Roberto Parizotti/FP

Even before being elected President of Brazil in 2018, Jair Bolsonaro had a clear and unwavering position on the repressive and violent military dictatorship that ravaged the country from 1964 to 1985. Besides denying the existence of the military coup itself, Mr. Bolsonaro said back in the 1990s that he was “in favor of torture,” arguing that “through voting, you won’t change anything in the country.”

However, until becoming a household Brazilian name—which only happened in the last few years—Jair Bolsonaro’s opinions on the dictatorship were restricted to a dark corner of politics, making him an example of where not to cast your vote. Now, as president, Mr. Bolsonaro’s views on the military regime have permeated around factions of Brazil’s right-wing. 

The new government’s first international trial by fire happened in Chile, during Mr. Bolsonaro’s official visit to Santiago in March 2019. Members of the presidential entourage—including the sons Mr. Bolsonaro’s sons—exalted the regime of Augusto Pinochet, the Chilean general who oversaw more than 3,000 deaths as the country’s dictator between 1973 and 1990. 

But unlike Brazil, in Chile, only a bare minority in politics endorse the horrors of the dictatorship. Chilean President Sebastián Piñera called his Brazilian counterpart’s statements  “tremendously unfortunate,” while the head of Chile’s Senate called Jair Bolsonaro a “dictator dressed up as a democrat.” 

But why do Chile and Brazil view their authoritarian pasts so differently?

A people without a memory is a people without a future

These famous words can be found are written above one of the stands in the National Stadium of Santiago, a section which remains empty in remembrance of the stadium’s past as a prison camp for detractors of the Pinochet regime.

After the years of repression, the Chilean military tried to erase its past by creating a controversial Amnesty Commission, which literally took crimes of the dictatorship beyond the reach of criminal courts. A similar move was pulled in Brazil. In Chile, however, only crimes from within the first five years of regime were “absolved” by the Commission. 

With democracy re-established, Chilean courts decided that cases of missing prisoners would remain open as unsolved kidnappings. In 2018, eight former members of the Chilean army were convicted for the murder of singer-songwriter Víctor Jara, one of the symbols of Chilean resistance. The appeals court called the case a “human rights violation.”

The Andean nation was also fast in terms of reparation. While Brazil only created its National Truth Commission in 2011—with the sole purpose of exposing facts, not prosecuting crimes—Chile’s Rettig Commission was set up in 1990 and allowed its findings to be furthered in court. In 1998, the Supreme Court also ruled that the amnesty could not be applied to cases of human rights violations. 

According to Thiago Amparo, a human rights and law professor at Fundação Getúlio Vargas in São Paulo, Brazil failed to establish a good and transparent “transitional justice” period, when institutions gather in a task force against political crimes. 

“This includes a series of measures: the criminal conviction of those who committed violations, truth commissions, reparations for individual and collective victims, as well as the reform of laws derived from that period. Brazil failed in most of these measures, even though the Inter-American Court of Human Rights convicted the country twice,” he told The Brazilian Report. 

A massive setback occurred in 2010—the final year of the Lula government—when the Brazilian Supreme Court voted 7 to 2 to uphold amnesty for crimes of torture committed during the dictatorship. 

In 2019, Jair Bolsonaro’s Minister of Women, Family and Human Rights, Damares Alves, reviewed the powers of Brazil’s Political Dead and Disappeared Commission, removing the possibility of collecting new testimony on the reasons for the death of political prisoners and missing persons, effectively putting the committee to bed.

“The fact that the judiciary even prevents the investigation of crimes which have no statute of limitations—such as crimes against humanity—goes against other countries in the region. One possibility is to hold military officers accountable for acts during the dictatorship via civil damage suits, outside the criminal sphere,” Mr. Amparo added. 

An Argentinian torturer hiding out in France

In 2003, right after taking office, former Argentinian President Néstor Kirchner nullified a decree that prevented the extradition and trial of former members of the military with any sort of human rights violation accusation against their name dating from Argentina’s military dictatorship of 1976–1983. 

The measure made it easier to uncover the sordid secrets of the Argentinian dictatorship, and strengthened civilian movements such as the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, a group of mothers who campaigned for truth about their children disappeared during the military regime. 

Mr. Kirchner’s decision also sowed the seed for a historical moment of reparation in 2019, when the French government finally accepted Argentina’s extradition request of 66-year-old Mario Sandoval, a well-known torturer accused of crimes in a clandestine detention center. 

Mr. Sandoval was a clear case of impunity in exile. Since 1985, he had been living a normal life in Paris, giving lectures at the Latin American Studies Institute of the Sorbonne University. The authorities went to him after an anonymous tip. 

Of all the accusations against the former torturer, the first time he was hauled up in front of a judge was in the case of the kidnapping and murder of student Hernán Abriata in 1976. So far, Argentina has gone after 3,000 accused dictatorship criminals, making 800 convictions.

Not a matter of ideology

Crucially, the recognition of the crimes of Brazil’s military dictatorship is seen by the current government as something “left-wing.” Meanwhile, Argentina and Chile have correctly come to the conclusion that when crimes against humanity are involved, ideology or political leanings are irrelevant. In fact, the last and largest declassification of documents from the Argentinian dictatorship came under former right-wing President Mauricio Macri.

After a 2016 deal between the governments of Mr. Macri and then-U.S. President Barack Obama, over 40,000 files being held by the U.S.—the political sponsor of several military regimes in Latin America—came to light in April 2019. Donald Trump, idolized by Jair Bolsonaro, praised the initiative as “the biggest declassification of documents in the history of the U.S. government in relation to a foreign country.”[/restricted]

Lucas Berti

Lucas Berti covers international affairs — specialized in Latin American politics and markets. He has been published by Opera Mundi, Revista VIP, and The Intercept Brasil, among others.

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