SÃO PAULO — It was more than two decades ago, but I still remember the shocked look my brother and I shared when our father first told us he had done time in prison for working against Brazil’s military government. In disbelief, we went straight to our mother. She was surprised: “I thought we were going to wait until they were older.”
While Argentina, Chile and to a lesser extent Uruguay have jailed military leaders from the dictatorships that engulfed the region four decades ago, Brazil is only now starting to grapple with the basics.
After more than two decades of sweeping the issue under the rug, activists managed to convince the government that it was time for a truth commission. President Dilma Roussef, who was imprisoned and tortured during the dictatorship, signed the commission into law last year. With the seven commissioners selected, it began its work in May.
Although it’s off to a slow start, the commission sent an encouraging sign last week when it declared that it would only analyze crimes committed by government agents, making it clear it won’t get bogged down by demands to also investigate leftist militants. A key aim of the commission must be to establish once and for all that there was a systematic, premeditated effort to imprison, torture and kill opponents of the regime.
A 1979 Amnesty Law prevents prosecution of any crimes that may come to light for the first time. Though many crimes will remain uncovered, the commission will help to show that impunity for the powerful will no longer be tolerated — a crucial step given that torture is still not uncommon in Brazil’s detention centers, according to a Human Rights Watch report this year. The dictatorship’s crimes will take center stage across the country, not only at commission hearings, but also in universities and professional associations carrying out complementary investigations.
After my father’s revelation, I was full of questions. My parents’ political activism didn’t surprise me. I knew they had met in Israel, an easy place for two Jews to seek refuge after they left their respective countries (my mother is Argentine) because of their political leanings. But a prison sentence suddenly made their story much more serious to my young mind.
As a university student in São Paulo, my father, Maurice Politi, was an activist in the leftist resistance group A.L.N. until he was detained in 1970. When officials found out the 21-year-old had contact with the A.L.N.’s leadership, two months of sustained torture began. He was finally released in 1974, but kicked out of the country. Although he had lived in Brazil since he was 9 (his family left Egypt when Jews were forced out), he wasn’t a citizen.
After almost five years in Israel, he returned in 1980. He began traveling for work, and like most Brazilians largely ignored the uncomfortable truths of those years. The military junta had begun an orderly transition to democracy, making it easy to forget the almost 500 people killed [pdf] in a nation of 120 million in 1980.
When my father retired in 2007, he began to reconnect with his past. It was good timing, as talk of the dictatorship was coming out of the shadows. He dove into his history, helped found a nongovernmental organizationdedicated to remembering the human rights violations that took place during the dictatorship, and received reparations in 2009.
He then went on to spend a year working at the Human Rights Secretariat in Brasília, with one goal: promoting awareness of the country’s dark past.
“Five years ago no one even knew what a truth commission was,” my father explained last week. “It’s disappointing my torturers still won’t face justice, but at least the country will know what happened.”
Sure, the commission is essentially a toothless organization that has no power to prosecute or issue subpoenas. But it’s a step.
Military officers are right to worry that it could eventually lead to overturning the amnesty law. The public at large remains woefully unawareof the country’s history, and opinion of the military remains high. That could easily change if Brazilians start to realize that the story of the benevolent dictators they learned in school was a lie.
I may not have fully understood the country’s secret at 11 years old, but I wasn’t too young to hear my father’s story. Surely now, more than 15 years after the dictatorship ended, Brazilians are ready to hear the truth.
Daniel Politi is a freelance writer living in Argentina
[Source: The New York Times – http://latitude.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/09/28/brazils-truth-commission-gets-to-work/?hpw%5D