Brazil: Is Democracy Under Threat?

By Marcio Cunha Filho*

A large group of Brazilians wave the Brazilian flag

A rally supporting former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in October 2017. / Eduardo Figueiredo / Midia NINJA / Flickr / Creative Commons

Brazil’s ongoing political turmoil hit a new peak last weekend – resulting in former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s decision to turn himself in to be imprisoned – and strongly suggests that the country’s democracy is in deeper trouble than previously thought.  Lula said he was a victim of political persecution by both prosecutors and the courts, including the six Supreme Court justices who ruled that he not be allowed the courtesy of remaining free during his appeals to Brazil’s higher courts on his conviction on corruption charges.

  • Lula’s Worker’s Party (PT) claims that the decision is part of a campaign against leftwing forces that has intensified since Dilma Rousseff’s impeachment in August 2016. Supporters say that Lula’s imprisonment at a time that he is leading in presidential polls is the culmination of a strategy aimed at making sure that the PT – the only party to have won the presidency in elections since 2002 – remains out of power.  Most mainstream media and some rightwing lawyers have argued that Lula’s arrest obeyed all legal procedures, but PT supporters are not alone in their allegation of impropriety.  José Afonso da Silva, one of the most prominent non-partisan constitutional law professors in Brazil, has written a legal opinion against Lula’s imprisonment.  Other experts claim that Lula’s imprisonment order was strangely rushed (jurist Celso Antônio Bandeira de Mello), while others have expressly criticized the Supreme Court for denying Lula Habeas Corpus (Prof. José Geraldo da Silva Júnior).
  • While proof remains elusive, strong circumstantial evidence of conspiracy persists. The lawsuit against Lula was tried much more rapidly by Judge Sérgio Moro than most cases, and the guilty verdict was reaffirmed by the regional court just in time to keep Lula out of the presidential election scheduled for October 7.  Moreover, the accusations against Lula are fragile:  Moro argues that the former president received a $1 million remodeled beach apartment as a bribe from a construction company in exchange for political favors, but there is no evidence that the apartment was Lula’s or that he used it in any way.  Neither is there evidence that the construction firm received any favors.

Other indications that Brazil is experiencing an “open season” against the left are emerging.  Civil society leaders have reported repressive practices against them, including violent protests at their public events.

  • The assassination of a Rio de Janeiro municipal legislator is widely thought to have been carried out by rightwing elements. At a recent political rally, unidentified gunmen shot at Lula’s vehicle.  A wealthy São Paulo night club owner is offering a reward for anyone willing to murder Lula in prison.  Radical and angry political movements such as Movimento Brasil Livre are gaining strength by angrily advocating and celebrating through social media the imprisonment of political opponents.  Congressman Jair Bolsonaro, a former military officer who praises the military dictatorship, has become the new frontrunner in the presidential race.
  • Another troubling sign was a tweet from the Armed Forces – issued the day before the Supreme Court’s judgment against Lula – that it will not tolerate impunity. It has been widely interpreted as the most direct threat to the Court since the end of military dictatorship.
  • Freedom of expression and academic freedom are under pressure as well, according to many observers. Local, state, and federal legislators are trying to ban the teaching of gender issues in public schools, claiming gender issues are a leftwing ideology should not be taught to young children.  At the university level, in Rio Grande do Sul a local congressman filed a complaint to the Public Prosecutor’s Office asking that a course entitled “The 2016 Coup d’état” – referring to the removal of Dilma Rousseff and inauguration of President Michel Temer – be disallowed.

Democracies rarely die as a result of the acts by one or even a small group of political leaders, but rather as the outcome of repressive actors’ manipulation of popular confusion and anxiety about the country’s direction.  Lula may not have been perfect – he was not – but he deserved fair treatment by the government and fair enforcement of the law.  Democracies cannot endure when one group or another uses government institutions, even with significant popular support, to impose its views on others, often violently.  We should not forget that, in its early stages, the military coup in Brazil was supported by the media (at least by the biggest TV network in the country, Rede Globo), by civil society institutions (such as the Ordem dos Advogados do Brasil), as well as by much of the political leadership.  Radicalization, inability to dialogue, and unwillingness to make political compromises are the factors that made Brazil descend in 1964 into two decades of repression.  We might now be slipping down this same path, and witnessing the rebirth of institutionalized and popularly-supported repression and intolerance.

April 10, 2018

* Marcio Cunha Filho is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Brasília; federal auditor in Brazil’s Office of the Comptroller General; and former CLALS Research Fellow.

The Untold Story of Manuel Contreras and the CIA

By John Dinges*

The man who designed and executed the massive human rights crimes of Chile’s military regime died last week.  Manuel Contreras remained a general in Chile’s Army even during the last 20 years in prison, with accumulated sentences of more than 500 years imposed by Chilean courts.  In the United States, his murky relationship with the CIA and masterminding of a shocking terrorist attack in Washington, dominate perceptions of his record.  Contreras, a nondescript, somewhat pudgy man who never tired of boasting about the effectiveness of his anti-subversive campaign, created a security police apparatus, DINA, independent of Chile’s military hierarchy.  He reported only to General Augusto Pinochet, with whom he met early each morning.  DINA was responsible for about half of the 3,200 killed by the Chilean military, and virtually all of the cases of desaparecidos – people detained, tortured and killed in secret interrogation centers, whose bodies were then disposed of in secret graves or dumped into the sea.

Chile was not the most brutal military dictatorship – more than 10,000 Argentines and 200,000 Guatemalans died during that era – but Contreras and Pinochet became the international face of Latin American state terrorism of the 1970s, for various reasons, including their intimate relationship with the United States and in particular with the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency.  It is not quite true that the CIA organized the military overthrow in 1973 of socialist president Salvador Allende, but the U.S. embrace of the violent coup was enough to create the widely accepted narrative that the United States brought Pinochet to power and made him a creature of its anti-communist foreign policy, whose global architect was Henry Kissinger.  In addition to ruthlessly persecuting political opponents in Chile, DINA carried out a spectacular act of international terrorism in the heart of Washington, D.C. – the 1976 car bomb assassination of Allende’s former foreign minister Orlando Letelier, in a blast that also killed an American woman, Ronni Moffitt, and wounded her husband Michael.

Some were quick to see the hand of the CIA in that horrendous crime, a charge that is repeated even today among some writers in Latin America.  But these writers may not be aware that Contreras actually promoted the idea of CIA involvement in Chile as a way to mask DINA’s crimes.  Here, briefly, is what Contreras did to point the finger at the CIA:

  • Contreras was the first to reveal, in an interview, that the CIA had sent intelligence trainers to Chile to help in the formation of DINA, a fact belatedly confirmed by the CIA to a Congressional investigation.
  • As his chief international assassin, Contreras hired Michael Townley, a U.S. citizen who had tried to join the CIA as a clandestine agent – a fact unquestionably known to Contreras and now well established in U.S. declassified documents.
  • Contreras developed a close operational relationship with the CIA, agreeing to provide intelligence in exchange for payment.  He is known to have traveled to the United States to consult with top CIA officials at least five times, including with CIA deputy director Vernon Walters in August 1975 – after which he went on to Caracas to lay out his plans for an international assassination alliance, Operation Condor.  Whether Contreras briefed Walters on the assassination plans is buried in CIA secrecy.
  • Contreras used Operation Condor to obtain false documents for Townley and another DINA agent to use in the first phase of the Letelier assassination.  With the plot under way, in July 1976, he visited Walters again.  Whatever the nature of those conversations (the declassified record is vague), Contreras was again associating himself with the CIA in relation to the impending murder.

When charged with killing Letelier, Contreras pulled out this defense: that the CIA had infiltrated DINA to commit crimes for its own purposes, that Michael Townley was really taking his orders from the CIA, and that the CIA, not DINA, killed Letelier in Washington. That version of events is false, according to my investigations.  Nonetheless, the charge of CIA involvement in Operation Condor and Letelier’s murder has become a kind of dogma, both on the right and the left.  It can be found in the writings of some U.S. academics and is extremely common in narratives of the period in Latin America.  Although there is no direct evidence for the charge, the history of CIA intervention, complicity in human rights violations and defense of military dictatorships is enough to convince many people that it must be true.  Few of those who believe it are aware they are making common cause with General Contreras, perhaps the most emblematic human rights criminal in Latin America.

August 12, 2015

*John Dinges teaches journalism at Columbia University.  He sorts out the documented, fact-based truth about the U.S. role in “The Condor Years: How Pinochet and his Allies Brought Terrorism to Three Continents” (The New Press 2004).

Brazilian Truth Commission Looks at Police Violence

By Paula Orlando

March in commemoration of the 22nd anniversary of the Carandiru massacre in 2014. Photo credit: veredaestreita / Flickr / CC BY-NC-SA

March in commemoration of the 22nd anniversary of the Carandiru massacre in 2014. Photo credit: veredaestreita / Flickr / CC BY-NC-SA

A new truth commission is about to investigate Brazil’s legendary police brutality and, for the first time, attempt to bring some public accountability for the crimes committed by the state. Police kill an estimated six people per day. Civil society organizations persuaded the Sao Paulo Legislative Assembly (ALESP) to establish the commission, the first to focus on human rights violations in the post-dictatorship period. It will hear testimony from witnesses and survivors of police brutality, and examine documents and other evidence related to major cases of police violence in the city and state in the last decades. The initiative follows the recent release of reports by the National and Sao Paulo State Truth Commissions on human rights violations during the military dictatorship (1964-1985). In fact, the reports suggested that present-day violence should be understood as a legacy of the lack of accountability for past violations.

The “Truth Commission of Democracy Maes de Maio” – named after a prominent movement of family members of victims of police violence that fights for justice and changes in security policies – held its first hearing on March 21. Parents of some of those killed in May 2006, when at least 493 civilians were killed in a period of 10 days, testified. (The National Truth Commission had accounted for 434 people killed during the 21 years of military rule.) The violence in May 2006 took place in the context of a conflict between the police forces and the “First Command of the Capital” (PCC) – a criminal organization formed within the detention system, and was justified as part of a “war on crime.” A study conducted by the International Human Rights Clinic of the Harvard Law School and the Brazilian Human Rights Organization Justiça Global contends that at least 122 deaths were directly linked to the police, and many of these bodies showed signs of execution. Four other civilians remain missing after nine years, and nearly all the cases have been archived without a resolution. With the participation of representatives designated by the National Secretariat of Human Rights, legislators, and members of social movements, the new commission will also examine other massacres, such as one at the Carandiru penitentiary in 1992 and the nighttime slaughter – also linked to police officers – of several people who were sleeping near the Sé Cathedral, in downtown Sao Paulo, in August of 2004.

The truth commission is more than a symbolic step towards recognizing and bringing some degree of state accountability in human rights violations; it shows the growing pressure of the movement against anti-police violence and in favor of justice and reparations for victims. Deputy Adriano Diogo, a major proponent of the panel, has warned that the way ahead “will be difficult; this is a discussion that the Brazilian government does not accept to have.” Insofar as the truth commission succeeds, it will not only create an institutional space linked to the state to clarify cases of police violence; it will stimulate an important discussion of the legitimization of police brutality in the context of “fighting crime.” In addition, it could contribute to the understanding that unlawful police violence is a form of political violence that no democratic society should endure.

April 6, 2015