Tuesday, 19 June 2012

Is my dictator better than yours?


South American dictatorships are a very delicate subject to me.

Not only because I’m Brazilian, but because my father’s family comes from a very long line of serving Army and Navy officers, and both my father and grandfather were active during the Brazilian military regime.

My granddad was a major and lieutenant-colonel (one below colonel) for the duration of it. He died in 1996, when I was 13, so I never asked him much about it. The only story I’ve ever heard, told by my father, was about a train full of political prisoners, and my father says, “you don’t want to know what happened to them”.

My father was a lieutenant at the time. He had left military academy in 1976, and became involved in it probably by 1979, but the only stories I know are from 1980/81.

On March 31, 1964, a coup d’etat by the Brazilian military deposed the then president Joao Goulart, who had been democratically elected in 1961, amid fears that a left-wing president was helping the growth of communism in the country, and that there was a communist revolution about to happen.

Goulart fled to Uruguay, and Marshal Castello Branco took office 15 days later. It would be the beginning of 30 years of torture, censorship, gagging of the press, and murder.

He was followed in office by General Costa e Silva, from 1967 to 1969, and then by General Medici, from 1969 until 1974.

It was when Medici was in power, that Institutional Act 5 (AI-5) was decreed, and when newspapers were truly gagged (not just asked to align with the government), artists (such as Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil) were forced into exile, and protesters and critics of the dictatorship started disappearing more often, never to be seen again.

Medici was followed in office by Generals Geisel and Figueiredo, and in 1985 the regime came to an end.

Officially, 457 people either died or disappeared during that period (the Brazilian government is currently reviewing that figure to add another 858 deaths). Journalists were muzzled and arrested - some killed.

In 1980, my father led a battalion within Rio de Janeiro’s Army police (Policia do Exercito). His job was to lead small groups into unsavoury areas (mainly favelas, where some of the activists would hide), after receiving intelligence information, to catch them during their “subversive meetings”.

The only proof I have seen of that was a document which explained the procedure to end those meetings and arrest “subversives”, and the scars of a pistol gunshot that entered the back of his left leg and exited through the front. He was shot as he was chasing someone in the narrow alleys of a favela.

In 1981, a car bomb went off outside a concert, at a venue called Rio Centro, celebrating the return of exiled artists. By that time, the way to a new democracy was already being paved, and some sections of the Army were prepared to do whatever they could to remain in power and make the population believe the guerrilla was dangerously out of control.

One of the versions of the incident was that a sergeant and a captain decided to plant a bomb at the gig, which was being attended by thousands, to create panic.

Unfortunately, for them, the bomb went off when they were still in the car, killing the sergeant and forcing the captain to walk 200 yards to the nearest road holding his exposed bowels to call for help. He survived and is still alive. He’s been known in the Army since then as “Captain Bomb”.

The Rio Centro bomb crime scene
My father was one of the crime scene forensic officers (I’m pretty sure he took the picture on the left – I’ve seen the original in one of his Army albums at home) for the military and one those responsible for drafting the report with the Army’s own version of events – that lefties had planted the bomb in the car.

In 1996, Brazil’s  biggest investigative TV show, Globo Reporter, sent one of their investigative reporters, Caco Barcellos, to our house, to interview my father on the 15th anniversary of the failed car bomb attack. He refused to speak to camera, but agreed to speak off the record briefly.

During the interview, the cameraman held the camera down and told my father it was off, but kept on filming, and caught him explaining where the bomb had been placed in the car. He maintained the Army line, but as he was still serving as a lieutenant-colonel at the time, he wasn’t allowed to talk about it, and received a mighty bollocking after the interview was aired.

As a young lieutenant, of course my father was obeying orders. He loved the military – it was his career, had been his father’s career, his grandfather’s career, and so on, and generally, even though it’s not my cup of tea, it’s not a bad career to have.

And I believed that was ok for a long time. It wasn’t until I was 16, in my last year at Military School, that I stopped repeating my parents’ political views and started developing my own. Deep down, I always knew there was something entirely unacceptable and utterly disgraceful about authoritarian governments, regardless of how good for the economy, as some claim in Brazil, they might have been.

That was also about the time I found out that my granddad on my mother’s side had been arrested for a few days for speaking out about the government in the 60s. The police knocked on his door one day, told him to pick up some clothes and go with them. Terrifying.

One of my history school teachers had been tortured in the 60s. Our current president, Dilma Rousseff, was part of the guerrilla movement, and was herself tortured at the time.

One of our most famous newspaper columnists, Hildegard Angel, lost her mother, Zuzu, and brother, Stuart, during the regime. Her brother was arrested and killed by the secret police – his body never found. His mother, Zuzu, tried to fight the state to get recover her son’s body, and was murdered too. 

These are only some of the examples of violence.

The main evidence that growth without civil and individual liberty, freedom of speech, and freedom of the press, is unsustainable, is that Brazil collapsed into the worst decade and a half of its economic existence from 1980.

After all the story-telling, my main point is I'm not proud of my family's own personal experience with a dictatorship, but I'm glad that hearing the most horrendous stories and political views at home has made me despise authoritarian regimes of all kinds.

So, anyone willing to praise any dictatorship to me, for whatever reason, will have to do better than say it did wonders for the inflation rate, or gave power to the "best" ideology.

And think of those murdered, abused, the violence, and all the censorship, before saying any dictatorship is ok.

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