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MSS0010.1177/1750698014552404Memory StudiesLissovsky and Lgia Leite e Aguiar


Memory Studies

The Brazilian dictatorship and the

The Author(s) 2014
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DOI: 10.1177/1750698014552404

Mauricio Lissovsky
Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro, Brasil

Ana Lgia Leite e Aguiar

Universidade Federal da Bahia, Brasil

In contrast to other South American countries, in Brazil, where a military dictatorship (19641985)
incarcerated, tortured and disappeared countless opponents, there have been very few initiatives to
construct a public memory in the form of memorials and museums. Only recently, when the National Truth
Commission was set up in 2012, debates on the importance of memory re-emerged, including a significant
increase in the number of proposals to construct memorials of national importance, taking as their point of
reference the coup in which the military seized power 50 years ago. This text offers a study of news sections
dealing with memories of the Brazilian dictatorship and the activities of the National Truth Commission as
they were reported in the daily press between 2012 and 2014 as well as visits to some of the monuments
and memorials erected or planned after the end of the dictatorship in various parts of the country. Cases
studied are divided into two groups: first, monuments stemming from the transition to democracy and the
political pact that underwrote it, and second, cases that reflect the fragility of this pact and the efforts to
undertake a revision of its terms. Rather than one succeeding the other, these two versions of memory are
interdependent and have contested the hegemony of public initiatives to shape our memory of the period.

Brazil, dictatorship, monuments, photography, transitional memories

The year 2014 saw the conjunction of two major events in Brazil: the FIFA World Cup and the 50th
anniversary of the military coup of 31 March 1964. The first required the construction or refurbish-
ment of various venues, and the second, the construction of memorials and monuments in homage
to the dictatorships victims. The stadiums were delivered on time and functioned well, inspite of
the pessimistic predictions and sporadic protests against the excessive costs.1 By contrast, the
planned memorials, museums and monuments have not yet been unveiled, and it is rather unlikely

Corresponding author:
Mauricio Lissovsky, Escola de Comunicao, Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro, Av. Pasteur, 250 fundos, CEP
22290-902, Praia Vermelha Rio de Janeiro, Brasil.
Email: mauricio.lissovsky@eco.ufrj.br

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2 Memory Studies

that any significant work will be concluded before the end of the year once the attention of politi-
cians and the media will have turned to the national elections taking place in October 2015. Is
Brazil, then, at the same time, the country of football and a country without memory? Such a
reductive statement, it seems to us, is insufficient to explain the debates and impasses surrounding
the question of how best to honour the victims of the dictatorship, how to rewrite their history and,
eventually, punish the crimes committed by the agents of repression.

The unending transition

Contrary to what happened in other South-American countries, the military dictatorship in Brazil
set up a political system that managed to preserve, at least in appearance, some of Republics insti-
tutions. The generals took turns as president of the country and were elected indirectly by a two-
party National Congress where moderate opposition was allowed as long as it did not threaten the
regime. After removing the main civic leaders from office in the years that followed the coup
(including the conservatives), the dictatorship waited another 4 or 5years before it showed its
harshest face. From 1969, the government struck a new tone with the intensification of censorship,
the temporary closure of Congress, the persecution of the student movement and the decimation of
all forms of resistance, in particular armed resistance by dozens of left-wing groups. The cruellest
years of the military regime (19691973) were characterised, on the one hand, by illegal prisons,
assassinations, kidnappings and torture of opponents and on the other by more or less spectacular
actions undertaken by urban and rural guerrilla-fighters of Guevarist and Maoist inspiration.
A Senate re-election victory by the moderate opposition in 1974 kindled the hope that a demo-
cratic transition could end the dictatorship, causing internal strife between different sections of the
military. Some wanted to keep the regime closed off, others started to work on a strategy they called
a slow and gradual opening up. The penultimate military government of general Ernesto Geisel
(19741979) was marked both by intense institutional machinations to make this opening up as slow
as possible and by internal resistance of hard liners within the military. Some of the emblematic
events of this period were the imprisonment and assassination of the editor-in-chief of TV Cultura
(the public broadcasting organisation of the State of So Paulo), who was a known sympathiser of
the Communist Party (which did not call for armed resistance even though it was clandestine), the
bomb attacks on civic institutions carried out by little-known right-wing groups, the first workers
strikes, led by Luiz Incio Lula da Silva as president of the Steel Workers Union of So Bernardo
do Campo and Diadema (he later founded the Workers Party and would be elected President of the
Republic in 2002) and the return of the student movement to the national scene.
The last military government (19791985) coincided with the abolition of press censorship and
a growing mobilisation of civic society focusing on two campaigns: amnesty for political prisoners
with the concomitant right for exiles to return (19771979) and, later, the demand for direct presi-
dential elections (19831984). These two campaigns ended up in negotiated solutions that were
acceptable to the military as they withdrew from power. The Amnesty Law promulgated in 1979
was reciprocal; in other words, the past was erased and all legal loopholes that could be used for
revanchism were closed. The amendment of the Constitution that would make direct election
possible did not make it through Congress, where the military party still held the majority, but it
did enable an agreement between the moderate opposition and part of the civic pro-government
leadership, resulting in the indirect election of a non-military president.
Observed from a distance, then, the Brazilian dictatorship seems to fall into two large periods of
similar length: the first half being the revolution as the military officially named the coup that
brought them to power and the other the transition to democracy (Aaro Reis, 2002: 11). During
the long drawn-out transition, there were no signs of any desire to settle the scores of the past,

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Lissovsky and Lgia Leite e Aguiar 3

Figure 1. Memorial da Liberdade Presidente Joo Goulart, project by Oscar Niemeyer (2011).
Source: Agncia Brasil/Empresa Brasil de Comunicao.

neither on the part of the political leadership nor on that of the so-called organised civil society (a
term much in vogue at the time). In spite of the activities of small victims organisations in par-
ticular the Rio-based human rights group Tortura Nunca Mais (Torture Never Again) who sys-
tematically spread information about political persecutions during the dictatorship, including
giving out lists with names of people who disappeared as well as those of torturers, the question of
the memory of those years of lead or of what happened in the torture chambers of the dictator-
ship was a marginal item on the agenda of political parties and human rights organisations (whose
priority was to ensure that the rights guaranteed by the 1988 Constitution were upheld). Thus, for
decades, the creation of spaces of memory and monuments has not been the object of significant
social or political mobilisation, being equally far removed from the priorities of the left-wing
political parties and the civilian presidents who governed Brazil after the end of the dictatorship.

Dictatorship as interruption
To see the military dictatorship as an interruption is one of the most significant aspects of what we
refer to here as memories of the transition. The last project of the centenarian Brazilian architect
Oscar Niemeyer (19072012) gives a good example of the vitality of this concept right up to the
present. His Freedom Memorial is dedicated to the memory of Joo Goulart, the president who
was deposed by the military in 1964, and houses an institute in his honour (Figure 1). Family mem-
bers of the former president claim that it was finished and inaugurated in Brasilia in 2014, but in
fact construction has not even begun.1 It was to be expected that an architect with Niemeyers track
record his most famous work includes the government buildings of the new capital Brasilia,
inaugurated in 1960 would succeed in portraying the military coup as an interruption in such an
intense (and sanguinary) way. In the projected building, a red triangle, on which 1964 can be read

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4 Memory Studies

in black numbers, sticks out of a white dome the likeness of which to the starred blue hemisphere
representing the Brazilian Republic in the national flag is evident.
Much more could be said about this monument starting with its formal resemblances to El
Lissitzkys famous revolutionary lithograph He Strikes the Whites with a Red Wedge (1919)
but we would like to call attention to a marginal element of the electronic model (of which the
image is a frame). As is customary, the model contains human figures in order to illustrate the scale
and perspective of the projected building. The red arrow designed by the architect not only pen-
etrates the dome, but also points at two men one in a suit, the other in shirt sleeves who are
walking towards each other with extended hands. This gesture does not fulfil any function in the
model, and we interpret it as symptomatic for the memory-creating process we are trying to
describe: the appropriation of the past by means of a memory pact established in the context of a
long overly long process of redemocratisation. Even though many decades have passed since
the events that gave rise to these two historical experiences took place, they are as vivid in the mind
of the centenarian architect as if they happened only yesterday.

Torture never again: dislocated memories

Once the dictatorship had come to be seen as a tragic interlude in the history of Brazil and Brazilians,
it was to be expected that the first events that shaped the political imagination of the period were
marked by a return to and reconciliation with the past. First, there was the return of exiles, then the
liberation of political prisoners and the return to power of politicians who had been removed from
office, like Leonel Brizola and Miguel Arraes both notoriously hated by the military who were
elected governor of Rio de Janeiro and Pernambuco, respectively. All this strengthened the impres-
sion that history was back on track. The dictatorship had been put between mental parentheses, but
even so, the events that characterised it most tragically were not forgotten. And their memories,
with their uncomfortable insistence, were dislocated rather than silenced.
The end of the dictatorship coincided with the creation of the first civic organisation founded by
former political prisoners and family members of those who died or disappeared: Torture Never
Again. One of its objectives was to salvage memory by insisting on clarification of the circum-
stances of the death and disappearance of political militants and the immediate removal from
public office of persons who had been involved in torture as well as continuing the fight against
impunity and for justice in the present time. If in the context of the pro-amnesty movement, politi-
cal prisoners and exiles had represented the typical victims of the dictatorship, urgently needing
immunity from prosecution in the years following the end of the regime, since then it is instead the
torture victim who has become more and more emblematic.
In 1986, before the end of its first year of existence, Torture Never Again had already commis-
sioned a monument by Oscar Niemeyer (Figure 2). From its first version, the theme of intrusion,
as in the memorial to Joo Goulart, is present. But here the violence is not directed at the Republic
as such but at one individual. The monument, which the architect himself called the Arch of Evil,
was never built, but it became the official logo of the anti-torture group. It can be seen in the form
of a bronze miniature in the organisations headquarters and as a small memorial, inaugurated in
2011, in one of Rio de Janeiros cevries where, between 1970 and 1974, the remains of 14 political
activists who had disappeared were buried in unmarked paupers graves. In spite of the architects
fame and the dramatic force of the design, the organisation never managed to find the necessary
funds to have the monument erected. Maybe the restrictions were more than just financial. The
initial project, to be built in Rio de Janeiro, consisted of a 25-m arch, and a later version, the first
stone of which was laid in Minas Gerais in 1995, was to measure 60m. The longer the arch extended
(according to Niemeyer, it is actually a lance representing the long years of dictatorship), the

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Lissovsky and Lgia Leite e Aguiar 5

Figure 2. Arco da Maldade (Arch of Evil). Monument created by Oscar Niemeyer for Grupo Tortura
Nunca Mais (1986).
Source: Fundao Oscar Niemeyer.

more the power of the State and the force of its instruments of violence monumentalised them-
selves to the detriment of the victims memory.

The pau de arara: torture Brazilian style

Ever since the end of the dictatorship, the torture victim has been the first and most enduring rep-
resentation of its victims.2 But its most frequently used symbol is not Niemeyers concrete lance,
but one of the oldest documented forms of torture in Brazil: the pau de arara or parrot perch. It first
appeared on an engraving by Jean-Baptiste Debret in which an overseer is seen punishing a slave.
On the original watercolour from 1828 Debret wrote in pencil: Feitores corrigant [sic] des ngres
la roa. The pau de arara migrated from slave-holding plantations to police stations and from
there to the torture chambers of the political police. In the course of this migration, the wooden
stick became an iron bar. And, as a student from Minas Gerais who was jailed in 1970 explains, it
occupied a privileged place in the macabre rites of Brazilian political prisons, being at the centre
of a series of other proceedings:

The parrot perch consists of an iron bar that is wedged between the victims tied-up wrists and bended
knees, after which the whole thing is placed between two tables, leaving the body of the victim hanging
about 20 or 30cm from the floor. This method was hardly ever used just by itself and its usual complements
were electroshocks, beatings on hands and feet and waterboarding. (Galvo, 1986 [1970]: 448450)

We cannot be sure if this was the most common form of torture in Brazil, but it is certainly its
most popular representation. An Internet search for images from Brazil combining the terms tor-
ture and dictatorship will invariably bring up the pau de arara as the first option. Among the sug-
gested images, one particular photograph stood out because of its convincing aspect and air of
authenticity. The torture, however, turned out to be staged, or more precisely, to be a demonstration
done for a reporter of the Jornal Movimento, a left-wing weekly that appeared between 1975 and
1981. The headline of the newspaper does not leave any room for doubt; the photograph was said
to show a truly national method of interrogation: torture Brazilian style.
It is not surprising, then, that the first monument referring to the victims of the dictatorship actu-
ally erected in the country was a parrot perch (Figure 3). In 1988, the government of Pernambuco

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6 Memory Studies

Figure 3. Monumento Tortura Nunca Mais, Recife (PE), 1993.

Photograph by Mauricio Lissovsky (2014).

in partnership with the local section of Torture Never Again organised a competition that was won
by a sculpture designed by architects Eric Perman, Albrico Paes Barreto, Luiz Augusto Rangel
and sculptor Demetrio Albuquerque. It shows a partly empty square of 7m7m with a life-size
human figure hanging in the middle. It was not until 1993, 5years after the competition, that the
monument was erected on the banks of the Capibaribe River, in an area the government wanted to
reurbanise. The construction was only possible thanks to the financial aid of the Brazilian Cement
Group Portland (ABCP), which wanted to turn the area into a park containing concrete sculptures.
That a political monument of this kind functioned as a marketing tool for one of the very compa-
nies that benefited from the great engineering projects carried out by the dictatorship in the 1970s
sparked an intense debate. Ironically, moreover, the monument was erected in the largest city of the
Brazilian Northeast where the expression pau de arara has a predominantly non-political meaning,
being used to refer to a type of truck for transporting migrants fleeing the dry interior to go on long,
uncomfortable journeys of thousands of kilometres to the more developed and industrialised South
in search for work. Thus, a monument to the pau de arara sponsored by an association of cement
producers also entails a dark reference to the means of transport that for decades provided cheap
labour for the building boom in metropolises like Rio de Janeiro and So Paulo.
There is, however, a more worrying image that came to light in the context of the investigations
of the National Truth Commission. The Commission was created by law in November 2011, but its
members were not appointed until 6months later. Since then, public access to archives has
improved, statements have been taken, public hearings held, dozens of commissions at state and
local level have been set up and committees of civic organisations, victims and families have
emerged to assist with the Commissions work.3 One of its principal innovations is the decision to
dedicate one of the chapters of its final report to human rights violations against peasants and
indigenous people. Far from the urban centres and the middle classes, these groups are not usually

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Lissovsky and Lgia Leite e Aguiar 7

Figure 4. Indigenous Guard parade, Belo Horizonte, 1970. Still from a film by Jesco von Puttkamer.
Source: http://www1.folha.uol.com.br/ilustrissima/2012/11/1182605-como-a-ditadura-ensinou-tecnicas-de-tortura-a-

part of the imaginary pantheon of the dictatorships victims.4 This initiative led to one of the most
surprising revelations since the Commission started its work: a fragment of a 16-mm film from the
archives of the Pontifical Catholic University of Gois where the original is kept (Capriglione,
2012). It shows the graduation of the first class of the Rural Indigenous Guard, which took place
on 5 February 1970 in Belo Horizonte. The guard consisted of 84 indigenous people of different
nations. In the ceremony, the Indigenous Guards march in uniform, complete with boots and
revolvers in their belt; they swear allegiance to the flag and show their skills in personal defence,
judo and the police technique of handling prisoners. At the end of the presentation, the Indigenous
Guard parades in front of the authorities carrying a man hanging from a parrot perch (Figure 4).
During the ceremony, a minister spoke in name of president Emlio Garrastazu Mdici, singing the
praises of the guard:

Nothing up till now has filled my heart with more pride than having supported the formation [] of this
Indigenous Guard, since I am convinced that the training they have received in this intense period will
serve as an example to all countries in the world.

After 3years later, the guard was already out of control, and at the end of the 1970s, it had to be
disbanded because of the excessive violence used by its members in indigenous reservations.5
This footage is so impressive because it proves that these torture techniques were taught to the
Indigenous Guard and that at some point during the dictatorship they were considered to be legiti-
mate enough to be shown in an official ceremony in front of a public of more than a thousand
people, including children. The fragment equally shows that the practice, perceived by prisoners as
central, had a symbolic dimension for the agents of repression, too. And it makes us see how under-
neath the Brazilianness of the parrot perch, there lies, unperturbed, its perverse naturalness.

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8 Memory Studies

The image is one of a kind and absolutely singular. When the dictatorship was in place, there
was no legal base for torture whatsoever, unlike censorship or holding prisoners incommunicado.
The practice of torture was never officially condoned, let alone publicly celebrated. Only very
recently has its existence been admitted in isolated statements by soldiers as well as by the Truth
Commission.6 How is it possible that in 1970, at the height of the repression, a parade of this sort
was allowed? One of the possible answers demands that we look beyond the obvious. According
to the legal framework that protects them, the Indigenous people cannot be charged with crimes.
To be more precise, they can only be judged by an ordinary court if it can be proved that they have
become completely acculturated. However much the soldiers trusted their own power and the pro-
tection of their superiors, their condition as civilised members of society did not give them any
legal immunity. The second allegorical dimension of the parade then becomes intelligible: It took
place at the very last Thursday before the beginning of Carnival. Carried aloft on the legally
immune arms of the indigenous guards, the military was parading its own impunity. An impunity
that for them, too, turned to inimputability.

Military regime or dictatorship?

The paucity of memorials and monuments has not prevented the gradual emergence of a public
imagination of the military dictatorship in Brazil in the course of the last few decades. School
textbooks have been the principal vehicles, especially through photographs illustrating the chapters
dedicated to the period. A quick glance suffices to note the repetition among the textbook illustra-
tions, the popular photographs on the Internet and the archive images habitually shown in newspa-
pers and on television. When we flick through these illustrations, we get the impression that only
two protagonists played any significant role in the conflict marking that particular period of
Brazilian history: the military and the students (the latter backed up by popular musicians). The
first, armed with guns and the second with placards and banners: a confrontation between a violent
and illiterate repression versus the silenced voice of culture. Symptomatic of this view is the most
popular of all hits on the Internet: this image is not a scene of conflict between these two forces,
but a synthesis-image of the difference between them; it shows a couple of students in Rio de
Janeiro in 1968 who are writing on the wall of a public building the most straightforward of slo-
gans: Down with the dictatorship. The same image, graphically reworked, can be seen at the
beginning of a chapter of one of the books we studied (Figure 5).
It should come as no surprise, then, that universities have become the privileged site for the
construction of monuments and memorials. The first of these was inaugurated in 2004 at the
Federal University of Minas Gerais (UFMG) and is placed, symbolically, in front of the library. It
is dedicated to five students who died or disappeared during the dictatorship. The same institution
promised to change the former building of the Faculty of Philosophy and Humanities into a
Memorial to Political Amnesty, but as with so many projects linked to the 50th anniversary of the
coup, it was never finished (Rezende, 2013).
It was to be expected that the University of So Paulo (USP), the largest in the country, would
also attempt to make good on its promise to uphold the memory of the dictatorships victims. In
August 2011, a fence appeared on its campus, screening off a large area of the square. At some
point, no one knows exactly when a notice was put up saying that a Monument to those who died
or were removed from office in the Revolution of 1964 would be erected there. The polemic that
followed is typical of the latent tensions surrounding what we have called the memory pact. We
do not know who crossed out the word revolution on the notice and wrote above it the word
coup, but we do know that on the night of 3 October 2011, a Political Sciences student added the
word dictatorship. Not satisfied with that, she returned the next morning and wrote massacre.

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Lissovsky and Lgia Leite e Aguiar 9

Figure 5. Textbook page for Secondary School education.

Source: Schmidt (1997: 325).

In the afternoon of the same day, the Deans Office took the notice down after the Secretariat for
Human Rights of the Presidency of the Republic, urged by the press, had declared, That notice is
absurd! The next day, student leaders staged a protest demanding that the monument be renamed
and, in a joint statement with the Universitys union of employees, that the words military dicta-
torship be used.
The Deans Office later apologised and explained that the notice had been a clerical error, also
announcing the notices substitution by another it considered to be correct: Monument in homage
to those who died and were removed from office by the Military Regime. Looking to strengthen
its position, the Deans Office explained that the construction of the monument was an initiative of
the universitys Centre for the Study of Violence (NEV-USP), a research group with enormous
national and international prestige. The Centre, for its part, published a letter signed by one of its
best-known collaborators, the sociologist Paulo Srgio Pinheiro who would later be asked to join
the National Truth Commission in which he defended the construction of the monument, refer-
ring to it as a Memorial to the Members of the Community of the University of So Paulo who fell
Victim to the Military Dictatorship Regime 19641985, a title that sounds so strange to Brazilian
ears (Military Dictatorship Regime) that it can only have been written impromptu. At the same
time, the public relations office of Petrobras, the national oil company that financed the construc-
tion of the memorial, let it be known that the project it had offered to support was called: Repression
at the USP: monument in homage to those who died or were removed from office. Hours later, the
official blog of the University published a revised version of the letter by the Centre for the Study
of Violence in which the memorial is given an unusually long and extensive name, clearly aimed
at reconciling multiple interests: Monument in Homage to the Victims of the Political Repression
promoted by the Military Dictatorship (19641985) among members of the community of lectur-
ers, students and employees of the University of So Paulo. The monuments inauguration was
planned for December 2011. In the months following the polemic, the notice that had been taken
away was never replaced and the construction was not finished on time. It was not until a year later,

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10 Memory Studies

during a vacation, that the fence was removed and the monument unveiled, without any official
ceremony and hardly any media coverage. On the monument, an inscription in stone reads,
Memorial in homage to the members of the community of the USP who were persecuted or killed
on political grounds during the military regime (19641985).
The strange polemic surrounding the USP memorial is of considerable interest. After all, every-
one involved recognised the justice of paying homage to the uspianos (members of the USP com-
munity) who were, to varying degrees, victims of (a) the revolution, (b) the military regime or
(c) the dictatorship. The tension between these terms can be summarised as follows: revolution
is the official term coined by the military, dictatorship is how the resistance referred to it, and
military regime is a compromise, a euphemism that facilitated the transition (which could at a
stretch be seen as a mere change-over from a military to a civilian regime). That is why this
term, as all compromises, embodies the latent tensions on which it was founded. Among other
aspects, it tends to obscure the fact that the dictatorship was hardly just a military one, but had
significant civilian support, particularly among those sectors of business that directly financed the
repression. However, rather than being a clash of ideologies, the polemic surrounding the memo-
rial at the USP reveals rifts relating to the very memory of the dictatorship itself.
What we would like to highlight here is the gesture of the students that sparked the polemic. By
offering the alternative terms coup, dictatorship and massacre, the latter revealed something
about the present state of affairs in Brazil, where everything seems to indicate that the reclaiming
of memory, the punishment of torturers, the opening up of secret archives (among others those of
the universities themselves),7 and the demand to know the truth about those who disappeared, all
gained momentum with the militancy of the youths who have no part in the memory pact. This is
probably because they were born after the end of the dictatorship but largely also because the con-
struction of this memory in terms of an interruption does not make any sense to them. In this
respect, the gesture of correcting the Deans notice is all the more revealing in that it inverts the
revision of the textbooks that these young people studied in middle school (Figure 5).
The uncertainty of what ought to be truly memorable the unclear definition of the iconic vic-
tim (torture victim, murder victim or victim of a disappearance?) and the hesitation with regard
to how to best characterise the nature of the state that victimised them (dictatorship or military
regime?) has condemned to obscurity the monuments and memorials erected to this date in
Brazil. The construction of the USP memorial took place in the midst of a real construction boom
of smaller monuments that started in 2010, stimulated by a programme of the federal Secretariat
for Human Rights entitled Right to Memory and Truth the Military Dictatorship in Brazil (1964
1985). By August 2012, 28 of these monuments had been erected in Brazil, frequently falling
under the generic rubric of Memorial to Indispensable People. It is not possible to foresee the
effect of this race against time that saw dozens of monuments inaugurated in the last 4 years. But
it is likely that they will end up like the few local monuments that were built before them: aban-
doned and forgotten like the Monument to those who Died and Disappeared in the Fight against
the Military Dictatorship in Goinia (Gois), unveiled in 2004 or the Monument to the people of
Santa Catarina who Disappeared on Political Grounds inaugurated in Cricuma (Santa Catarina)
in 1995, which is so insignificant that the local neighbourhood association proposed to have it
replaced by a leisure area and a playground for children.

Fact or fiction?
The transition to democracy in Brazil conceived the dictatorship as an interruption. The further we
are removed from the period of transition, the more we become aware of one of its most character-
istic aspects, namely the sensation, even the conviction, that there is a lack (a lack of documents,
a lack of truth, a lack of memory). We are used to filling this lack in many different ways. Among

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Lissovsky and Lgia Leite e Aguiar 11

these is the transfer of certain images from the field of fiction to that of documentation, from some-
thing that was staged to evidence that something actually took place. We have already seen how
this happened in the case of the photograph of the pau de arara: originally a reconstruction made
for an opposition newspaper, it ended up becoming visual evidence of this practice in countless
reproductions on the Internet. Another, even more famous image, likewise reproducing something
that was staged, had a similar trajectory. It is the photograph taken in the barracks of the DOI-
CODI (the intelligence section of the Second Army) in So Paulo in 1975, staging the suicide of
Vladimir Herzog, journalist, professor at the USP and editor-in-chief of the public television of So
Paulo. Having presented himself at the army barracks to testify, he died under torture within
24hours. In an attempt to hide the crime, the military staged a suicide scene in his cell. Since the
photograph was official, it circulated freely in all the Brazilian newspapers. It did not convince
anyone: after all, how could someone have committed suicide by hanging himself if the corpse was
not off the ground?
The drama of the episode, societys unexpected capacity to react, and the free circulation of the
image at the time all helped transform it into one of the most frequently cited and iconic images of
the dictatorship. But with the passing of the years, it gradually ceased to represent a farce and
instead became evidence of Herzogs assassination. Nowadays, it is possible to find the image in
textbooks or on the Internet, where it is published very frequently, without any reference whatso-
ever to the fact that the scene was staged; it is as if Herzog was murdered in the way shown in the
The mixing of fact and fiction is not exclusive to images that circulate freely in the media. In the
only building that was changed into a museum and a site of memory of the Brazilian dictatorship,
the Resistance Memorial, inaugurated in So Paulo in 2009, the same procedure is evident.
Constructed in 1914 as a railway depot, the building was handed over to the political police of So
Paulo state in 1940, during the Vargas dictatorship, which remained there until they were dis-
banded in 1983.8 In 1998, after years of pressure from human rights organisations, former political
prisoners and family members of those killed or disappeared, administration of the building
which had been partially refurbished was transferred to the State Department of Culture. From
that moment, the intention was to use the few remaining cells to create a memorial and to find a
democratic use for the rest of the building. In 1999, while these plans were still being discussed,
a play was staged in one of the outbuildings commemorating the 20th anniversary of the Amnesty
Law. The play was called Lembrar e Resistir (Remember and Resist), which became the motto of
the future memorial.
After its restoration, a project for a museum at the site was developed in 2007, eventually lead-
ing to its inauguration in 2009. The largest of the permanent spaces shows an extensive illustrated
chronology of political repression in Brazil (from the late nineteenth century until the end of the
dictatorship). Beyond this, there is a corridor of restored cells. One of them contains an exhibition
of texts and photographs telling the story of the memorials conception and construction (empha-
sising the participation of former inmates in the project). The second cell is meant to show the
original use of the jail. In spite of statements made by prisoners, who say that there were rarely
fewer than ten inmates per cell, this one only has three mattresses with plenty of room between
them as well as a lavatory. It would appear that the memorial privileged ease of visitation over
exactitude of reconstruction. In the next cell, the visitor can hear statements of ex-prisoners who
spent between a week and a couple of months in the police station, while the last cell gives an idea
of the famous archives of the political police containing decades worth of information. A real fil-
ing cabinet with index cards that cannot be touched stands in front of a life-scale photograph that
gives depth to the tiny room.
In spite of privileging evidence over a symbolic or allegorical representation, this memorial,
too, uses images that have their base in fiction and simulation. On one of the walls, we can see the

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12 Memory Studies

silhouettes of four men who are sitting around a table. This is an allusion to a mass celebrated by
four Dominican friars who were jailed and tortured in 1969. The image, projected life-size onto the
wall, comes from a feature film called Batismo de Sangue (Baptism of Blood) by Helvcio Ratton
(2006). The texts on the walls do not have any indication that they are anything other than original.
The curators claim that, even though it would have been possible to restore the original graffiti,
they opted for another methodology: those on display were actually made by a group of ex-pris-
oners on the eve of the official opening, mixing memories with homages and even historical refer-
ences. There are also those who claim that the few remaining inscriptions that were left in the
building when the restoration started were not original either, but were made by the actors who
played in Lembrar e Resistir (Remember and Resist), which was put on 10 years previously.

Conclusion: the memory of bodies

The Truth Commissions main objective is to produce a detailed report of human rights violations
over the course of a long period (from 1946 until 1988), but its principal focus is on the military
dictatorship. Its conclusion, which has been postponed various times, is currently announced for
December 2014. Even though its mandate does not include taking legal action, some truth effects
have nevertheless started to be felt even before the final reports publication. In March 2013, the
family of Vladimir Herzog received a new death certificate declaring that he had died of injuries
and ill treatment sustained during an interrogation in the barracks of the Second Army (DOI-
CODI)9 and had not committed suicide. That the straightforward recuperation of the truth in such
a notorious case as this took 38years goes to show just how huge the task of revision is that this
report can potentially bring about.
Parallel to this, accusations have started to be heard in court.10 These formal charges are part of a
long legal process and the final sentence will no doubt have to be reached by the Supreme Federal
Tribunal. A similar strategy was used by the Truth Commission when they asked military command-
ers to investigate deviations from duty that took place in military installations during the dictator-
ship (an infraction that is not subject to statutes of limitation for civil servants and is not covered by
the Amnesty Law).11
In the course of the Commissions activities, the tendency to identify and memorialise places
of incarceration and torture of political prisoners was strengthened and thus a programme for sites
of memory was created. An investigation led by the Federal University of Minas Gerais identified
82 sites in Brazil (of which 36 had already been endorsed by the Commission), 16 of them in Rio
de Janeiro. Many of these were located in regular police stations and military installations, but
there were also clandestine centres, such as the one in Petropolis, which was run by the Army
Information Centre (and set up to be a model for how to extract information). In all, 23 political
prisoners passed through what was called the House of Death, 22 of whom ended up being assas-
sinated. The premises, rented from private owners, were decreed to be of public use in August 2012
and expropriated a few months later.12
It is too early to tell if, as a result of the Truth Commissions work, a programme for sites of
memory will in effect be created once the 50th anniversary of the coup has passed. But the hearings
that have taken place and the reports that have been published have placed torture at the centre of
our memory of the period, right next to the whereabouts of those who disappeared for political
reasons in Brazil, of whom there are 147, out of a total of 380 people killed.13 However, there is
still no reliable estimate of the total number of those imprisoned or tortured by the dictatorship, and
there possibly never will be. We could be talking about tens of thousands of victims if we take into
account the many cases of people who were detained for a couple of hours or days for verification
and whose cases were never reported. A fair number of these opted not to ask for reparations or
indemnities by the Brazilian state, preferring to keep their personal stories out of the public sphere.

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Lissovsky and Lgia Leite e Aguiar 13

Figure 6. Dilma Rousseff being questioned by the Auditoria Militar, Rio de Janeiro, 1970. Photograph by
Adir Mera.
Source: ltima Hora/Arquivo do Estado de So Paulo.

The Institutional Act No. 5 issued on 13 December 1968, which was the starting signal for the
most violent phase of the dictatorship, suspended habeas corpus for political crimes. There was no
legal instrument that demanded of the state to present its prisoners, or even declare whom they had
detained. Notwithstanding, at some stage and for some prisoners, this presentation did occur. This
happened in particular to those who were put on trial by military tribunals after an indeterminate
period of interrogation. One such appearance has become famous in the media and on the Internet
in the last few years. It is the image of the young Dilma Rousseff, testifying before the judges of a
military tribunal in Rio de Janeiro (Figure 6). Aged 22, she was presented to the tribunal after 10
months imprisonment in army quarters, during which she was submitted to torture for 3 weeks.
Dilma is put on trial when the signs of her mistreatment are no longer visible. Nevertheless, the
judges, faced with this body covered in invisible marks, hide their faces. While the military with
their pre-carnivalesque parade of indigenous guards allegorised their own impunity, these judges,
who are carrying out an act prescribed by the formalities of military justice, fear to be identified.

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14 Memory Studies

Both Lula and Dilma belong to the generation who witnessed the transition to democracy and its
concomitant memory pact. But Lula, who was incarcerated in the initial stages of his career as a
union leader without being tortured, represents, as a three-times presidential candidate prior to his
election in 2002, a certain continuity of the process of redemocratisation and, in a way, the last stage
of the transitional memory pact.
With the image of Dilma, the torture victim at last acquires a body and the identification of her
torturers becomes a necessity. A necessity, first and foremost, of the image itself. It is the absolute
necessity of a body that demands a face. This photograph was first seen by the public in a biogra-
phy of the president (Amaral, 2011) when she was still only a candidate, to be reproduced subse-
quently in the main national newspapers and on the Internet, where it has been subjected to various
interpretations, including claims that she was never tortured. But the sexual tension of this image
is difficult to deny: the body of a young female, the short hair and the firm gaze on her face, reveal-
ing beautiful traits that her big glasses had hitherto hidden. Maybe the neckline of her top was a
little more low-cut than expected at a tribunal, but her lack of modesty was no less a serious affront
than her defying gaze with which she stares her accuser in the eye a gaze of someone having been
undressed innumerable times by her torturers.
This photograph imposes itself just as the Truth Commission imposed itself on Dilma in a way
it could never do with Lula. It would be premature to speculate how severely the revision of the
dictatorships history and crimes will affect Brazilian political culture. It is likely that new sites of
memory will be created, no longer within the framework of the amnesty or the transition but by
taking torture as the centre of their symbolic force.14 Yet, rather than the final report of the
Commission, what will determine the character of this memory will likely be the fate of Brazils
current head of state. President Dilma could have represented forgiveness, making her the epilogue
of a history of which Lula was the last chapter. But one photograph a photograph of a body
demanding faces prevented this. It imprinted Dilma with the mark of revelation and of con-
cealed memories, which is also the name given to a national programme responsible for publish-
ing and making accessible documents related to the dictatorship. But the force of the image risks
evaporating too soon, before it has been able to produce all of its effects.
The so-called June Days of 2013 brought hundreds of thousands of young people to the streets
in a number of Brazilian cities, protesting against the increase of bus fares, the excessive costs of
the World Cup and a long list of other complaints and demands. Ever since, a mental link between
the current administration and the dictatorship, between current police action and military repres-
sion, has become quite common. This historical short-cut was partially responsible for the fact that
the generation of social and political militants who lived through the transition and who still feel
that they are the guarantors of Brazilian democracy distanced themselves from this movement.
This feeling could not have been expressed more clearly than by Jos Gregori, national Secretary
for Human Rights and Minister of Justice from 1997 to 2001, giving his opinion about the pro-
posed changes to the Amnesty Law:

It is not necessary to change this amnesty, which helped the process of redemocratization. To send half a
dozen of old men who are left to jail does not mean that the country has healed. This is what they did in
Argentina, but that does not mean that their democracy is better than ours.15

There is a dominant perception that the various dictatorships are equivalent (the dictatorship of
the military and that of the banks, that of the torturers and that of the media, that of political assassina-
tions and that of police violence), and it is therefore quite likely that the end result of the Truth
Commission will turn out to be a re-edition of the terms of the transition, albeit more up to date and
better informed. But this insipid outcome does not merely depend on the political priorities of the
younger militants. It depends to a large extent on the removal of Dilma, of the removal of Dilmas

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Lissovsky and Lgia Leite e Aguiar 15

body above all. This has already begun to happen in many sectors of the middle class. At the opening
of the World Cup in So Paulo on 12 June 2014, the president was booed for a long time. This is in
itself nothing new in Brazil. At Brazilian sporting events, the crowd has never refrained from booing
presidents. The novelty here is that the people did not limit themselves to the usual catcalls, but that
the jeers assumed an uncommonly sexual character (Oy, Dilma, go take it up your ass! and Oy,
Dilma, go fuck yourself!). This episode cannot be reduced to people getting wound up because there
will be elections this year. In a way, the crowd in the stadium discharged itself. It discharged itself of
her body and the sexual tension it carries. Because in that body presenting itself to the military judges,
and in the disturbing desire it evoked, history was present once more. Faced with that photograph,
history became a necessity. But in the Narcissistic enjoyment of the crowd in a football stadium, in
the unisonous discharge of the sexual tension that removed the presidents body, history is banished
to the past and torture, becoming more and more Brazilian, regains its naturalness.

This research received no specific grant from any funding agency in the public, commercial or not-for-profit

1. See: http://www.institutojoaogoulart.org.br/conteudo.php?id=44 and http://g1.globo.com/distrito-fede-
2. This figure is surrounded by various silences that deserve to be pointed out: the silence with respect to
the torturers, equally protected by the amnesty; the silence of the victims, caused by trauma and by the
fear that they would be considered informers by their companions; silence due to the fact that their
testimony, tied to the past, would do the future no good; and silence surrounding the defeat of the armed
struggle in which many took part once the so-called democratic sectors of the Left presented them-
selves as the victorious custodians of the transition. More than once it was the cinema that from the end
of the decade onwards gave voice to the victims. The documentary by Lcia Murat, Que bom te ver viva
(Great to have you alive) from 1989 mixed fictional scenes with the testimony of eight women who were
captured and tortured.
3. One of the most active groups to assist the National Truth Commission in Rio de Janeiro is linked to the
Institute of Religious Studies (ISER). See http://www.iser.org.br/website/memoria-verdade-e-justica/.
4. At the end of 2012, the Truth Commission of the State of Amazonas published a report that mentions the
disappearance of around 2000 indigenous people. If confirmed, this finding alone would multiply by five
the total number of people who were killed or disappeared during the dictatorship. For the moment, we
can be more certain of the findings of the National Truth Commission with respect to peasants who were
killed and whose names had hitherto not appeared on the list of political militants who disappeared. The
number of peasants killed in Araguiaia could be as high as 31. O Globo (RJ), 13 April 2014, p. 11.
5. The film was shot by Jesco von Puttkamer (19191994), whose estate was donated to the Institute for
Prehistory and Anthropology of Gois (IGPA) by the Pontifical Catholic University of Gois in 1977. It
took a long time for the film to be discovered because the film maker, who had left behind a vast oeuvre
of documentaries dedicated to indigenous Brazilians, had prudently written Arara on the tin, which led
the archivists to think that it contained a documentary about Indians of the Arara tribe in the north of
6. Before the National Truth Commission was set up, only one officer had been recognised as a torturer
by the Court of So Paulo as the result of an act he perpetrated as a civilian. The deposition of Coronel
Brilhante Ustra before the Commission was one of the public hearings that had the most impact in the
press. O Globo (Rio de Janeiro), 11 May 2003, pp. 34
7. The Dean of the University of So Paulo (USP), Gama e Silva, for instance, being a lawyer, helped
draft the most violent law of the state of exception decreed by the military and known as AI-5, which,
together with the closure of Congress, was the starting point for the bloodiest phase of the dictatorship.
A report on the functioning of the Truth Commission published on 21 May 2013 comes to the surprising

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16 Memory Studies

conclusion that two universities had torture chambers on their campuses: the Federal Rural University of
Rio de Janeiro and the Federal University of Pernambuco. See O Globo (Rio de Janeiro), 22 May 2013,
p. 3
8. It is important to note that the activities of the political police in Brazil were not interrupted during the
democratic period between the end of the Estado Novo dictatorship in 1945 and the military coup in
1964, among others because the Communist Party was declared illegal in 1947 and its activities as well
as those of Soviet agents were considered a threat to national security.
9. Famlia recebe novo atestado de Herzog. Folha de So Paulo (So Paulo), 16 March 2013, p. 8.
10. These are not based on crimes that were committed, but that continued to be committed after the intro-
duction of the Amnesty Law, that is to say, crimes relating to disappearances: kidnapping and hiding
corpses, for example. The first charge of this kind was brought by the public prosecutor on 29 April
2013. Ministrio Pblico denuncia Ustra por ocultao de cadver. O Globo (Rio de Janeiro), 30 April
2013, p. 7.
11. On 17 June 2014, in spite of the notorious illegal use of army barracks and other locations as torture chambers
and prisons, the military published a report denying that there had been any deviations from duty. Cf. http://
12. Decreto inicia desapropriao da Casa da Morte. O Globo (RJ), 8 December 2012, p. 11.
13. See http://www.memoriasreveladas.arquivonacional.gov.br/campanha/desaparecidos/. Visited on 21 May
2013. Establishing a new total for the people who died or disappeared may turn out to be most polemic
aspect of the Commissions work, because since 2012 there have been frequent law suits demanding the
inclusion of new victims. See, for instance, http://www1.folha.uol.com.br/poder/1130193-aumento-na-
lista-oficial-de-mortos-gera-controversias.shtml. When an account of the work done by the Commission
was made public on 15 May 2013, Paulo Srgio Pinheiro said that he already had a basic list with the
names of 1500 torturers and agents of repression. O Globo (RJ), 16 May 2013. p. 3.
14. In August 2012, a group of civic organisations signed a petition demanding the registration by decree
of all known torture centres, but this initiative did not go anywhere. See http://global.org.br/programas/

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Capriglione L (2012) Como a ditadura ensinou tcnicas de tortura guarda rural indgena. Folha de So
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ditadura-ensinou-tecnicas-de-tortura-a-guarda-rural-indigena.shtml (accessed 1 July 2014).
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Author biographies
Mauricio Lissovsky is Professor at the School of Communication, Federal University of Rio de Janeiro and a
researcher at the Fundao Getlio Vargas Documentation Center for the Contemporary History of Brazil.
His books include Pausas do destino (Rio de Janeiro: Mauad, 2014) and A Mquina de Esperar: Origem e
Esttica da Fotografia Moderna (Rio de Janeiro: Mauad, 2009).
Ana Lgia Leite e Aguiar is Professor of Literary theory at the Federal University of Bahia, Salvador. Her work
focuses on Brazilian literature and film, biographical criticism and comparative literature.

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