THE Brazilian Defense Minister Nelson Jobim and the commanders of the three major branches of the military all signed a joint resignation letter addressed to President Luis Inacio Lula da Silva last week over a proposed law that would have created a National Program of Human Rights and set up a truth commission that would have had the power to try military officials for human rights abuses committed during the military dictatorship from 1964 to 1985.
A sweeping amnesty law passed by Congress in 1979 gave protection from prosecution for any crimes committed by members of both the military and left-wing guerrilla groups during the dictatorship. This was the major condition that the military demanded in return for allowing the country to be returned to civilian rule.
According to the O Globo and O Estado de São Paulo newspapers, President Lula had an emergency meeting with Defense Minister Jobim on Dec. 22 at the Brasilia Air Force Base, where the minister handed in the collective resignation. Lula rejected their resignations and promised to stop the proposed bill from being sent to Congress. According to press reports, the president claimed he was not aware of some of the provisions of the new bill.
The mentor and coordinator of the proposed National Human Rights Program is Lula’s own Minister of the Secretariat of Human Rights Paulo Vannuchi. According to the Estado de São Paulo paper, the military was extremely alarmed that the proposed reappraisal of human rights abuses during the military dictatorship mentioned only state actors, and did not include the various armed, left-wing guerilla groups that kidnapped, killed and robbed during that same period.
“If they want to put a colonel or a general in the defendant’s seat, then let’s also put Dilma and Franklin Martins there,” one active general told the newspaper. He was referring to Lula’s chief of cabinet Dilma Rouseff, who is his handpicked candidate for next year’s presidential elections, and the head of government communications, both of whom participated in armed struggle against the military dictatorship in the 1960s and 1970s.
It is obvious that Lula, the first left-wing president that Brazil has had since João Goulart was overthrown in 1964, is pushing the envelope on abuses committed during the dictatorship. He is testing the waters to see how the military will react. Their reaction was quite strong, causing Lula to backtrack and say that he and his Partido dos Trabalhadores, will not support the passage of the new law in Congress.
But it is also a sad fact that the whole military dictatorship period of twenty years is hardly talked about in Brazilian schools or in public discourse. I asked several Brazilian friends if this period was studied in detail in high schools and they told me “no”, that it was just mentioned in general terms.
Brazil is still suffering the effects of those years of dictatorship. Not talking about what happened during those dark years leaves questions unanswered and several generations of Brazilians without knowledge of crucial part of their history. A National Truth Commission, like the one set up in South Africa to deal with the aftermath of apartheid, would do a world of good to the country. Yes it would be traumatic in some cases, and yes, I think left-wing guerillas should be criticized as well, but I also think that confronting the many demons from that era would be cathartic and healing for the whole Brazilian nation.