Back in January 2017, the United States Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) lifted secrecy on 11,000 documents concerning Brazil. The formerly classified documents were produced between the 1940s and the 1990s, and represented a small portion of the 13 million documents that the CIA chose to declassify at the time.
Matias Spektor, a researcher at think tank Fundação Getulio Vargas, dug up what is probably one of the most disturbing documents from the military dictatorship period. It reveals that the tortures and assassinations were not only known by the Brazilian state – they were also vouched by the Brazilian federal administration.
A formerly classified 1974 document between then-CIA director William Colby, CIA director and former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger shows that the top of the federal hierarchy at the time was not only aware of the excessive violence occurring in political prisons, but they endorsed it. While you can access the full document here (with the exception of two non-declassified paragraphs), we at The Brazilian Report have selected what we believe to be the document’s most disturbing parts.
The cable describes a meeting between then-Brazilian President Ernesto Geisel, an Army General, with General Milton Tavares de Souza and General Confucio Avelino – respectively the outgoing and incoming chiefs of the Army Intelligence Center (CIE). Also present was General João Baptista Figueiredo, then-Chief of the Brazilian National Intelligence Service (SNI) and the officer who would later succeed Geisel in the presidency.
“General Milton said that about 104 [subversive persons] had been summarily executed by the CIE during the past year or so. Figueiredo supported this policy and urged its continuance.”
Torture as state policy
At this point, no one should be blindsided by the “revelation” that the military dictatorship killed its citizens. But Spektor’s discovery is extremely relevant from a historical standpoint. Knowing how the country’s highest office vouched for the torture and killing of “enemies of the state” adds insult to injury. Not only did the military authorize the killings, but they were also keeping tabs on the body count.
Since the end of the dictatorship, tortures and assassinations have been treated as an unwelcome consequence of the actions of wildcard officers who acted on their own – without the knowledge of their supervisors. This cable is material evidence that the opposite stands true: these actions were systematic and formed part of state policy.
It was already known that Geisel, the man who began leading the country towards the end of the dictatorship, was aware of politically-motivated killings. Journalist Elio Gaspari’s 2003 book A Ditadura Derrotada (“The defeated dictatorship”) reveals a conversation between the then-President and an Army General, in which Geisel describes the killings of communists “as barbaric, but should go on.”
The role of the U.S.
The fact that the cable was produced by then-CIA director William Colby and addressed to Henry Kissinger makes it all the more valuable in historical terms. It shows how preventing the rise of communist movements in Latin America was important to the American government during the Cold War.
In 1964, the Americans supported the military coup. If the Army hadn’t been able to seize power back then, they could have counted on American ships next to Guanabara Bay, ready to intervene in favor of the soon-to-be dictators.
It is also interesting to note the euphemisms employed by the American government to describe tortures and killings. To Kissinger, Colby referred to these practices as “extra-legal methods.” And, still according to the cables, these “extra-legal methods” would be justified – as long as they were employed “only against true subversives,” as recommended by then-Brazilian President Ernesto Geisel.
This document helps to explain why Brazil’s military has always refused to apologize for the human rights violations that occurred under their watch. They simply can’t – the tortures didn’t take place only in the basements of political prisons. They were given the green light from the presidential palace itself.