“When I can no longer speak, you all will speak for me.”
On March 31, 1964, Brazil’s Armed Forces began a coup d’etat, overthrowing leftist President João Goulart and establishing what would be a 21 year long military dictatorship. On its fiftieth anniversary, I thought it would be fitting to visit São Paulo’s Memorial of Resistance.
O Memorial da Resistência de São Paulo, as it’s known in Portuguese, is a space to preserve the memory and encourage awareness of the dictatorship’s political repression and its resistance. It occupies a century-old building that once housed the DEOPS – SP, or State Department for Political and Social Order for the State of São Paulo, i.e., the institution responsible for the kidnapping, torture and death of countless citizens.
To commemorate the 50th anniversary of the coup, the Memorial has a special exhibit entitled Mortos e Desaparecidos Políticos: Percursos Pela Verdade e Justiça, or, Political Deaths and Missing Persons: Courses Towards Truth and Justice.
The wall of murdered or missing persons with names in tiny print below; the gray squares also have names but no faces.
The exhibit gives information to learn more about the people who went missing or died under the regime. Over half were under 30 years old. About 28 percent were students. Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo had the most reported missing persons and deaths with 111 and 109 respectively. Twenty nine cases were reported in other countries.
This 1990 Veja article reports how the SP city government unearthed 1,500 skeletons from a clandestine ditch in the Cemitério Dom Bosco in the neighborhood of Perus.
Eduardo Collen Leite (1945-1970) was one of the most active leftist guerrilla fighters of his time. Considered a terrorist by the state, he assisted in the kidnapping of several ambassadors and consuls, leading to the release of numerous political prisoners. He was killed after 109 days of torture.
The permanent section of the memorial has the prison cells in tact to give visitors an idea of what it was like.
The walls were covered in etched writing, including this list of names entitled The People’s Heroes. Some names have additional names in parentheses alongside them, as some activists had their names changed or went by an alias.
Prisoners were allowed to go “outside” in this concrete alley for an hour a week, one cell at a time, although it didn’t always happen. Because of the mirror at the end, it looks a lot longer than it is.
The Memorial also held a special screening of the documentary Memórias da Resistência, or Memories of the Resistance. It shows how a number of important DOPS (the federal version of DEOPS) records were uncovered by a farm laborer at a ranch owned by a former DOPS official. People involved in the leftist organization FALN (Armed Forces of National Liberation) and the periodical O Berro (The Cry) share their stories about their involvement and how they were imprisoned, tortured, sexually assaulted and released only to have to regularly report back to DOPS.
What really struck me was the discussion held afterwards. The filmmakers explained that the documentary is part of a larger project to create an open dialogue about the dictatorship and to reveal survivors’ testimonies. One of the men, who looked to be about thirty or so, said that he never learned about the coup or the dictatorship in school. I saw people around me nodding in agreement. I was floored. Consequently, there’s a huge gap between the older and new generations. But, he continued, young people are curious and eager to learn, claiming that the speaking events they’ve held so far are always full. One woman in the audience, a university professor from Paraná, shared that on April 30, a group of educators plan to speak in Congress to call for the inclusion of the dictatorship in public education, as well as Afro-Brazilian history.
Education is vital. Without knowledge and understanding of the past, a nation cannot completely move on. In 2011, President Dilma Rouseff (who was imprisoned and tortured during the era) approved a Law of Access to Public Education, which makes once-classified public documents available to view. Education is essential even to those who lived during the time, as the government is still uncovering information and piecing together history. One recently declassified document suggests that the number of missing persons and casualties may be triple the number once estimated.
Incredibly, no one has been tried or convicted for human rights abuses, thanks to an amnesty law that was passed in 1979 and upheld by the Supreme Court in 2010. Because no one has been held accountable, the dictatorship has not completely gone away. For example, many assert the Military Police are a remnant of the regime, particularly in the favelas where police brutality is often commonplace. While some have pushed for the amnesty law to be revised, Dilma has signaled she is against doing so. However, she signed into law a national truth commission to investigate human rights abuses committed during the time, with a findings report due this year.
Coming to terms with a controversial period in history is neither smooth nor quick, especially since there are many still who support the dictatorship. However the move towards a public dialogue and the push for more answers are positive signs that Brazil is looking to be a freer, more open state. I have faith that there will be a growing move towards accountability as Brazilians learn more about the past and a more complete history emerges. But it will take awhile.