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Green Details 1970s Response to Torture in Brazil

February 14, 2011

In the 1960s and ‘70s, Brazil’s international image was transformed from “a land of carnaval and tropical delights to a land of torture,” according to James Green, professor of Latin American history at Brown University. Green recently spoke at Watson on the systematic human rights abuses that occurred during Brazil’s military regime, and also analyzed the legacy of the transnational campaign against torture that erupted in response.

Because of the fear instilled in the United States by the Cold War and the success of the Cuban revolution, the “lofty ideas” set forth by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, following the Second World War, were more or less ignored by the United States, explained Green. “Washington’s priority was to ensure loyal allies in Latin America’s largest country regardless of the means by which the generals in power maintained order,” he said. 

But in December of 1969, the opposition forces in Brazil took action. Veja, the leading weekly magazine in Brazil, published a cover story on the practice of torture in the country, which detailed the horrors that were occurring. The writers likened the torture methods to those that were used during the Inquisition and, in effect, provoked an immediate response from the Brazilian government. It announced, “The Brazilian government does not condone the torture of its citizens. When it occurs, it is due to uncontrolled forces within the police and the military,” quoted Green. This statement allowed the military regime to publicly distance itself from the practice, but also confirmed that torture practices were in place, which discouraged people from engaging in radical opposition to the dictatorship, he elaborated. 

After other unsuccessful attempts to put an end to the use of systematic torture, activists enlisted international help to pressure the government, said Green. As a result, there developed “a transnational, decentralized, grassroots movement of clergy, leftists, political prisoners, Brazilian exiles, academics, and students” that was determined to disseminate information about the use of torture by the military.
Green outlined the successful strategies employed by these activists to educate sectors of the US public about the political situation in Brazil, as they might be useful guidelines for future campaigns. He related that first and foremost, the activists put together a detailed and organized documentation about the torture practices, using first hand accounts from past and current political prisoners and their friends and families.

Activists also garnered a wide range of supporters, from civil rights leaders in the black community and prominent scholars, like Thomas Skidmore, to international bodies, like the largest Catholic organization, to allies in Congress. Together, using their roles in legislation creation and mobilizing the masses, these groups were able to exert pressure on the government. The media’s power and the utilization of creative strategies, such as spotlighting prisoners to personalize the cause, were also key to raising awareness of the practice of torture in Brazil, said Green.

So was torture stopped? “The short and simple answer is no,” answered Green. But, the more accurate answer is much more complex. For example, the Brazilian government initiated abertura, the slow liberalization and democratization process that began in 1973, enacted the Partial Amnesty Bill in 1979, which provided for the release of all political prisoners, and established the Amnesty Commission, to give compensation to those who were victims of torture. However, the proposal to create a Truth Commission, in which the actions of agents of the Brazilian government would be aired in public, has failed to pass, and the Partial Amnesty Bill also states that those who committed acts of torture would not be persecuted for the violation of human rights.

More recently though, there have been more steps forward than back. Dilma Rousseff, the current president of Brazil who had also been tortured in the ‘70s, has sent signs that proposals for a Truth Commission might pass under her administration, which Green actively supports. And in December 2010 the Inter-American Human Rights Court also determined in another case that the Brazilian government has no right to amnesty itself, said Green. 

Green recently published a book, We Cannot Remain Silent: Opposition to the Brazilian Military Dictatorship in the United States (Duke University Press Books, 2010), which addresses the points and issues he brought up in his lecture. “This is the first concerted effort in the United States to denounce the systematic use of violence on political prisoners in the western hemisphere,” said Green. He ended by leaving a take-away message: “A small group of dedicated people committed to a righteous cause can affect political change, especially if they are creative and persistent in their effort.”

This is the inaugural event in the Speaker Series “Contingency of Violence: Torture, Terrorism, and Gender Violence in Conflict Zones” sponsored by the Graduate International Colloquium Grant and the Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies.

Written by Watson Institute Student Rapporteur Kaori Ogawa ‘12