Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs
Brazil Initiative

For the last twenty years at the UN what I have basically been doing are reports on gross human rights violations. That is one of the main objectives of the Truth Commission: to document gross human rights violations perpetrated by agents of the state.

Paulo Sergio Pinheiro

Brazil's Truth Commission

An Interview with Paulo Sergio Pinheiro

March 6, 2015

In May 2012, President Dilma Rousseff appointed a seven member Brazilian National Truth Commission, which issued its final report on December 10, 2014. Leader of Watson's Brazil Initiative, Professor James Green, was actively engaged with the Commission's work, and Paulo Sergio Pinheiro--an affiliated faculty member at the Watson Institute--was appointed by President Rousseff to serve on the Commission. Graduate student of History Andre Pagliarini sits down with Paolo Pinheiro to talk about his work on the Truth Commission, his perspectives as an academic, and his thoughts about the Commission’s influence and impact.  

This interview with Paulo Sergio Pinheiro was conducted by Andre Pagliarini. It has been condensed and edited for clarity.

AP: To begin, some background: you are an academic, a diplomat, and you held a number of prominent public positions before being named one of seven members of the National Truth Commission. How have these various experiences contributed to your work on the Truth Commission? 

PSP: I don’t know the motivation for the president to have appointed me, but in a certain way what I have been doing over the last three years on the Truth Commission is very close to the several phases of my career over the last thirty years. For the last twenty years at the UN what I have basically been doing are reports on gross human rights violations. That is one of the main objectives of the Truth Commission: to document gross human rights violations perpetrated by agents of the state. I have worked in several countries, including Burundi, Myanmar, Burma, Togo, Timor-Leste.

AP: Syria too, correct?

PSP: And now Syria. So working on the Truth Commission is very close to the object of my previous work. The methodology of working with documents is also similar to when in 1971 I began research at the national archives on American consular dispatches related to the communist movement in Brazil, the labor movement in the 1930s. That was very close to the documentation that my colleagues and I work with on the Truth Commission. I see this as a continuation of that work due to the connection with human rights and also researching documentation.

AP: Your role as an academic, then, translates to your work on the Truth Commission. On that note, I’d like to discuss another matter, which is that Brazil has received increased academic attention in recent years, due to the Truth Commission and other reasons. How do you assess this moment of academic interest in Brazil? At Brown we launched the Brazil Initiative precisely to study Brazil in a more comprehensive fashion. What do you think is the potential for an undertaking like this considering that you have taught at Brown?

PSP: As far as I know, the interest in Brazil has always been present in the United States in terms of academics. The most recent foundational wave was the work of the founding fathers of the Brazilianists who, fortunately for us, worked during the dictatorship (1964-1985): Ralph Della Cava, Thomas Skidmore, Alfred Stepan, Kenneth Erickson on labor, Michael Hall on migration, Warren Dean, and those before this generation. The generation that was researching and working in the 1940s and 1950s. The interest in Brazil was always present. In a certain way it was hidden under Latin-American and Iberian studies. For instance, at Columbia University, where I have taught many times, there was the Ibero-Latin American studies or something of the sort and Brazil was something secondary. What is good at Brown University, and very funny in a certain way, is that while in many departments in the United States we are under the domination of Portuguese studies, precisely because at Brown University the prestige of the Portuguese scholars and the Portuguese community is so high there is a strong tradition of Brazilian studies. I think that this gives a great preeminence for Brazilian studies at Brown University. There was a perfect alliance between very good scholars in Portuguese literature and Portuguese history.

AP: As you mentioned, Brown is in a very good position to continue and build on this tradition of excellence in Brazilian studies. By the end of this summer our Opening the Archives project will have concluded the second phase of operations at the national archives. Opening the Archives is one of the centerpieces of the Brazil Initiative, having digitized all of the State Department files available from the period of the military regime. What are your thoughts on the project? What do you see as its significance to Brazil but also to the rest of the world? 

PSP: It is a great initiative. I am obliged here to refer to my own experiences because between 1971 and 1976 I went almost every year in December or January to the national archives in Washington. At that moment I was doing research about everything that was open on Brazil. I was researching about the 1920s and 1930s and most of the materials were already open. But it was very hard work because very few of the materials were microfilmed. I was looking at diplomatic dispatches, consular dispatches, military dispatches, labor dispatches and nothing was microfilmed. I remember that I was doing microfiche; it was something very modern at the time. When I compare that to the moment today it is something I could never imagine. That all the materials concerning contemporary Brazil—contemporary in terms of the 1960s and 1970s—will be completely accessible online is important because in a certain way this access to information consolidates the wave of research of the 1960s and 1970s by the founding fathers of Brazilian studies in the United States. The access to this documentation in a certain way prolongs their efforts, but also opens so many new perspectives for studies about the military dictatorship, for instance. For the work of the Truth Commission and for the mechanisms that will prolong the Truth Commission—because we will recommend, and the present government is very interested in establishing, a department or institution within the government to follow-up our recommendations and to continue working with the materials that we have collected—I think there is a great complementarity between what we are doing with sixteen million documents in the national archives, mostly concerning intelligence agencies, and the American dispatches I have worked with in the past. This will be fantastic for new dissertations, for new research, for new projects. This will also confirm Brown’s vocation to have a central role in the expansion of Brazilian studies. It is a very intelligent decision because, for instance, if you compare Brown to Oxford, Oxford recently closed their Brazilian center. At the very moment that Brazil becomes a global player Oxford decides to close their Brazilian center. By consolidating the Brazil Initiative, Brown sets an example to its peers.

AP: Is there a digitization plan in Brazil for the documentation the Truth Commission is collecting? Is the plan eventually to have these primary sources available online?

PSP: In 2005, when current president Dilma Rousseff was a minister, she created a project called Memórias Reveladas with resources given to digitize the sixteen million documents at the national archive. The Truth Commission has promoted the digitalization of documents that were priorities for us. I can’t tell you now what our priorities were, but they were defined by the kinds of investigations that we are doing at the Truth Commission. We are also promoting the digitalization of important collections of microfilms at the foreign affairs ministry because nothing was digitized. There were only microfilms of some telegrams. Then there is always a project to digitalize the archives of Itamaraty [Ministry of Foreign Relations]which are fantastic. I don’t know the number but it is immense. I think the digitalization that was done for the materials at the national archives was a very important step forward in terms of access for researchers. The materials put online by Brown University and Opening the Archives are very complementary. Having worked many years of my life in historical archives, it’s very difficult to find one silver bullet that will define the course of the research. What is important is that all the documents are pieces of a puzzle that we are completing. The Truth Commission will have some documents declassified, we’ll have maybe something like 300 documents declassified, but the bulk of the documentation that has already been declassified is very much complementary to the documentation that the Truth Commission will leave at the national archives in Brazil. Everything that we are collecting will be given to the national archives. This will end up saving resources. More people will be able to benefit from the same experience I had at the archives in the 1970s and this is great progress not only for us, but in encouraging further research related to Brazil in the United States. The digitization of this documentation on Brown’s part is a great investment in the multiplication of research on Brazil in the English-speaking academy. 

AP: On the issue of access and transparency, can you comment, at an institutional level, on what have been the biggest challenges faced by the Truth Commission? 

PSP: Let’s put it in comparative perspective. Most of the truth commissions in the Southern Cone, for instance the mother of truth commissions, the CONADEP in Argentina (Comisión Nacional sobre la Desaparición de Personas), had not a single page of paper. Everything was based on testimony. By contrast, we have this enormous cache of documents at the national archives concerning the intelligence agencies, the intelligence services of Itamaraty, and from several ministries. When you think about sixty million documents, it is paradise for a researcher. That is why it is somewhat nonsensical to say the Truth Commission in Brazil arrived too late. If you consider that in 1995, congress passed a law proposed by former president Fernando Henrique Cardoso that all the crimes perpetrated during the military dictatorship were the responsibility of the state. This was the founding rock of the process that would eventually lead to the installation of the Truth Commission. And then you have the establishment of the Comissão Especial sobre Mortos e Desaparecidos Políticos (Special Committee on the Dead and Disappeared) that has an enormous archive that has been published with about 450 documents. These are very accessible and available online. When the Truth Commission was created in 2010, we benefitted from the accumulation of all these waves of documentation that became public in Brazil. The big challenge is the same faced by the others in Chile, Argentina, and Uruguay, which is the lack of access to the archives of the repressive organs of the armed forces. We have some documentation from the air force, from the general staff of the armed forces, we have some catalogs of their archives, and several documents at the national archives sometimes recirculate information from police or repressive agencies. We have a lot of documentation.

AP: Final word: what do you see as the potential outcomes of the Truth Commission’s work in the short and long term?

PSP: There are many repercussions of the work of the Truth Commission. There will be several consequences. First, everything that has been revealed about the way the state operatives were working, and the state policy of torture. Brazil will be in a better position to combat torture and police killings as well as improving conditions in prisons. I have said in the past that the situation will change because with the report of the Truth Commission the question of accountability is elevated to another level. Even though we are not a judicial body or a public prosecutor’s office—we are not doing criminal investigations—because we have documented the facts, the circumstances, the culprits, Brazil will be in a better position to face the question of accountability. The report will help Brazilian society, the Brazilian judiciary, the Brazilian congress to deal with this issue that one day we need to face: that one day those who perpetrated all of these crimes against humanity and human rights violations have to be made accountable. I do not think the Truth Commission will say anything explicitly about the 1979 amnesty law, but because of the work of the Truth Commission the Brazilian judiciary and the federal prosecutor’s office will be better able to fight this self-amnesty that was imposed in 1979. It was not an agreement between government and opposition, it was imposed by the outgoing military regime. Of course we were happy that the exiles were able to return and several people were freed from prison but the price paid for that was impunity for those responsible. I think Brazil one day will need to put an end to that impunity.

Of Note: The Brazil Initiative will have several events this semester exploring the origins and implications of the Truth Commission. Please visit the website to learn more.