BY MICHAEL UHL
"The Face of Evil," flashed the eye catching headline in Brazil's major daily on a morning late this March, and the accompanying photo of Army Lieutenant-Colonel Paulo Malhaes, retired, could not have portrayed a more convincing ogre had it been provided by central casting. Malhaes, a self-described torturer and murderer operated in the early 1970"s, the most repressive period in Brazil's harsh era of prolonged military rule.
In depositions covering many hours, first recorded by the journalists of O Globo who got the scoop, and then before the Rio de Janeiro State- and the Brazilian Federal Truth Commissions, Malhaes described in dispassionate but grisly detail how bodies of dissidents who died under torture were disposed of. "There was no DNA at the time; you'll grant me that, right? So when one was tasked with dismantling a corpse, you had to ask which are the body-parts that will help identify who the person was. Teeth and the fingers alone. We pulled the teeth and cut off the fingers. The hands, no. And that's how we made the bodies unidentifiable." After which, the mutilated dead were dumped at sea, having first been eviscerated to prevent them from floating to the surface.
In marking the recently passed 50th anniversary of Brazil's April 1, 1964 military coup that deposed President Joao Goulart, Brazilians have been offered a kaleidoscope of opportunities to revisit and discuss that troubling past, and, for some, to overlay the impact of the dictatorship years on a society restored to democracy for over a generation, but in which the deepest structural problems remain unchanged. Many axes were being ground on these topics in the rich offering of articles and opinion pieces in the daily press as the coup's anniversary day approached. Very few, of course, sought to defend the dictatorship, which, nonetheless, appears to have been the sole motivation behind Paulo Malhaes' sudden impulse to seek repeat performances for his macabre confessions on the public stage, an agenda cruelly underscored by his brazen refusal to express remorse or reveal the names of his commanders.
In one bizarre aside, Malhaes confided a disassociated feeling of "solidarity" for the family of Rubens Paiva, a federal deputy allied with Goulart's party whose murder and disappearance in 1971 Malhaes himself apparently had a hand in. It was "sad," the colonel said, that Paiva's family had to wait 38 years to learn the specifics of his fate, already made public from other sources. Malhaes quickly insisted that his comment not be interpreted as "sentimentality." He hadn't questioned his mission back then, and he still didn't. "There was no other solution. They [my superiors] provided me with a solution," writ enough for Malhaes to justify his butchery.
Most Brazilians, according to a recent poll, overwhelmingly favor Brazil's current form of representative democracy as far superior to any other way the country was governed in its predominantly authoritarian past. Constitutionally the Brazilian military is under civilian control in an arrangement, formally at least, similar to what prevails in the U.S. And, according to published comments by the current Minister of Defense in the Workers Party government of President Dilma Rousseff, the Brazilian Armed Forces are no longer fertile ground for anti-democratic elements. It should not be viewed automatically as a provocation to wonder if the minister, and highly regarded career diplomat, Celso Amorim, may not be whistling past the graveyard.
I guess the question would be, under what circumstances could it happen again? Not, are the Brazilian brass presently chaffing to impose another lock-down if, say, the country's increasingly vexing social and economic problem were to suddenly escalate out of control? In fact, while a strong majority of Brazilians, according to the same poll, wearily agree that their political system is broken, they are equally committed to using democratic means to fix it. The military option barely registers today in the opinion polls. And yet the Brazilian military, from an American vantage point, still appears to operate with a great deal of autonomy and maintains a rather intimidating social presence through its policia militar, the Robo Cop-outfitted riot police known for their brutality that the Brazilian Left condemns as a relic of a militarized police state.
Some evidence of the continued existence of an organized military party surfaced in minor news stories in the run-up to the anniversary, a reminder that currents of paternalistic conservatism remain deeply etched in Brazil. How else to explain the repeated election to public office of a man like Jair Bolsonaro, a federal deputy from Rio de Janeiro State (presumably the sticks) and a member of the military reserve. Bolsonaro expressed his nostalgia for the dictatorship during a session of Brazil's Chamber of Deputies called to officially "remember" the day of the coup by having associates unfurl a seventy-foot long banner that read, "Kudos to the military, thanks to you Brazil is not Cuba." The center left deputies in the Chamber turned their backs and refused to recognize that the offending recidivist had been conceded the floor. Pushing and shoving ensued, and the chair of the session, decrying a regrettable breach of parliamentary etiquette, reluctantly brought the session to a close.
Now, granted, Jair Bolsonaro is a piece of work as a quick scan of the man's reported opinions on social and cultural issues makes obvious, not least his chronic expressions of homophobia. But he clearly has an electoral base. Moreover, his current affiliation with the Brazilian Progressive Party puts him in the company of some of the major collaborators during the dictatorship who helped sustain and direct the regime from high posts in civil society, economists like the late Roberto Campos, and the still very active Antonio Delfim Netto, who at 85 poses in the Chamber of Deputies as a Democrat. What plays with the mind of an outsider trying to navigate the chutes and ladders of Brazilian politics is the seemingly ill placed fact that Bolsonaro's party today also supports the government of Dilma Rousseff.