Human Rights in Cardoso’s Brazil

Linda Rabben, Ph.D.

Amnesty International USA

A paper prepared for the Brazilian Studies Association Meetings in Recife, June 2000

First, I want to emphasize that I am speaking here as a human rights activist. I have been a Brazilianist for more than 20 years, but I am not an academic. I have always worked outside the university, dropping in from time to time to give a lecture or a course on Brazil. An anthropologist by training, I am a member of the Committee for Human Rights of the American Anthropological Association and a Brazil specialist for Amnesty International USA. The opinions I express here are my own.

When I mentioned the title of this paper to a friend who works for the Brazilian government, he asked, "Which Cardoso, the President or the General?" A good question. I think it expresses very well the eternal ambiguity surrounding the exercise of power in Brazil. Who gives the orders? It is a question with many answers, all of them equally plausible or implausible. Contemplating this essentially Brazilian mystery, let us go on.

In the field of human rights, the results of the Cardoso years are mixed: On the one hand, there have been some policies and measures that are not only positive but unprecedented. All are linked to a serious attempt to consolidate democracy in Brazil. On the other hand, the situation and the violations continue to be horrifying. The level of violence committed by agents of the state is much higher in Brazil than in the other Southern Cone countries. In all of South America, only Colombia, a country in an apparently chronic state of civil conflict, is more violent than Brazil.

But first the good news. Among the positive developments, the following should be mentioned:

1. Since 1995 the Cardoso government has recognized the state’s responsibility for disappearances, torture and killings committed by its agents during the dictatorship period. Through the Special Commission for Political Deaths and Disappearances, the Brazilian government has investigated 336 cases and assumed responsibility for 280 people. Indemnification has already been paid to the families of 265 victims. These actions promote the rule of law and respect for human rights in Brazilian society, prevent abuses, advance the cause of justice, help strengthen the judicial system and seek to put the dictatorship and its methods firmly in the past.

2. The Brazilian government now recognizes the jurisdiction of the Inter-American Court and Human Rights Commission. A few cases have already been resolved with the cooperation of the Brazilian government.

3. The National Human Rights Plan is the solid basis of the Cardoso government’s human rights policy. The mere existence of the Plan constitutes an important step.

4. The government has introduced or declared its support for several measures in Congress, such as police reform, federalization of human rights crimes, transfer of police crimes to the civilian justice system, and the definition of torture as a crime.

5. Veterans of human rights struggles during the military regime, including Hélio Bicudo, José Gregori and José Carlos Dias, have been named to important federal posts. .

Unfortunately, on the other hand, systematic violations of human rights by agents of the state continue at a high rate. They include:

1. Operation of death squads with the involvement of police, judges and high officials of various state governments;

2. Unpunished violence by police and hired gunmen against the landless;

3. Inhuman prison conditions for both adults and minors;

4. Torture and other abuses committed by police in the streets, jails and prisons;

5. Generalized impunity for state agents.

Another area where the federal government has a special responsibility is indigenous policy, which, in my view, has been a failure. The government does not fulfill its constitutional responsibilities to the Indians. It uses the indigenous reserves as bargaining chips with its allies in the Congressional Amazon bloc to obtain their support for economic reforms. The result is tension and violence between Indians and whites in states where large reserves are ready to be demarcated or have already been demarcated but have yet to be ratified by the President. As long as the reserves remain in this limbo, the climate of tension and violence will also continue. The federal government has the responsibility to protect indigenous rights and lives, but it continues to deliberately neglect that responsibility.

The tragicomic disaster of the 500 Years commemoration illustrates the government’s lack of respect for the rights of Indians, other minorities and the public in general. The federal government had a unique opportunity to redress centuries of crimes, genocide and injustice against Brazil’s indigenous peoples by including and honoring the Indians in the commemoration and especially by making a sincere apology on the occasion of the 500th anniversary. It did not take that opportunity.

Worse yet, the federal government left it to the Bahia state government to send police to exclude the Indians and the public, to violently suppress the indigenous protest, and to destroy the Pataxó monument. These actions expressed contempt for basic human rights such as freedom of speech and assembly, as well as for the Indians. They showed a brutal and arbitrary attitude toward citizens that should arouse acute feelings of shame and embarrassment in the heart of any government that considers itself modern and democratic. The federal government’s "delegation" of repression to the state government and its absence from the scenes of violence do not free it from responsibility.

All this happened on the symbolic level. Thank goodness, nobody was killed. But the lethal daily violence in slums, favelas and detention facilities, often committed by state agents, is very much a part of Brazilian life under Cardoso. This violence is an "accursed and never confronted legacy" of the military dictatorship, in the words of Dep. Nilmario Miranda at a seminar in Washington, DC, in February.

As Anthony Pereira shows in his article, "An Ugly Democracy," a "state within a state" still exists in Brazil: a security apparatus that operates with impunity outside the control of the authorities who are supposedly responsible for it. A story from the Quincentenary illustrates:

According to the indigenous conference coordinators, the military police

had already released the marchers, but then the shock police battalion

advanced on the crowd, chanting battle cries, stamping on the ground

and firing toward the group.

Thirty missionaries were detained. Judge Ailton Pinheiro, of the Santa Cruz Cabralia district, demanded that the group be freed; but when they

tried to leave, the missionaries were again detained by Col. Muller, who

gave orders to block the highway. A loud argument began between the

judge and the colonel. Judge Pinheiro ordered the arrest of Col.

Muller and was disobeyed. Arrogantly the colonel asked who

was going to arrest him. At the same time, the judge was

surrounded by almost 400 police. The detainees were let go only

after many hours of negotiation.

The PM colonel thinks that not even a judge can tell him what to do. It also seems that not even a state governor has enough authority to control the military police, who act on their own account, when and as they wish. Among many examples of this fact of Brazilian life are the massacres of Corumbiara and Eldorado de Carajas.

The autonomy of the military police, reinforced by the military justice system and the impunity it has established, goes back to 1977, when Pres. Geisel militarized the police and authorized them to participate in the "war against subversives" of the period. This structure still exists, changed only partially by the Bicudo Law of 1996. (This law transferred cases of PM accused of heinous crimes to the civilian justice system.) But the military philosophy, which characterizes the citizen as a potential enemy, survives and manifests itself in the violent and abusive behavior of the police toward the public.

The most recent incarnation of this philosophy can be seen in the proposal of Senate President Antonio Carlos Magalhães to put the army in the streets as a police force. Also in Congress is a strong lobby of parliamentarians who are former police. This bloc obstructs every attempt to change the militarized structure of the police or to combine civil and military police in one force. As a result, the reforms that could put an end to the "state within a state" are stuck in Congress. Meanwhile, the institutional culture of the police perpetrates violence and perpetuates impunity.

The new justice minister, José Gregori, has just announced that he will introduce a national security plan. Let us hope that this plan becomes something more than a scrap of paper. It can only be taken seriously if the police lobby resists it energetically.

At the same time, the recent indictment of several landless people under the National Security Law, a relic of the worst period of the military dictatorship, shows that the old style of the Brazilian state does not change easily.

The attempt after every massacre and scandal to make NGOs into scapegoats, to accuse foreign missionaries of inciting innocent Indians—in short, to blame the victim, contradicts the Cardoso government’s stated policy of admitting reality and being transparent, frank and honest about human rights problems. These rituals of guilt-shedding go along with the ebb and flow of the government’s political will. They have more to do with the progress or lack of progress of economic reforms in Congress than with the current violence and its daily effects on the populace.

In this context, carrying out the National Human Rights Plan would require extraordinary courage and determination in a president constrained by real limitations of his position and on his power.

With this reality in mind, what can be done? As an activist, I would say: Keep fighting. Some dear colleagues of mine, who work for the Pastoral Land Commission in southern Pará, are on a death list because of their legal and nonviolent activities on behalf of the region’s farmworkers. The Brazil where my friends live is also Cardoso’s Brazil—a feudal Brazil of big landowners whose hired guns spread terror by ripping off the ears of their victims. When the analysis is finished, I think of my Brazilian friends, from Roraima to Rio Grande do Sul, who are risking their lives to defend the human rights of others.

I would like to ask a favor of everybody here today. Help my friends. Please write a letter to the state and federal authorities, asking for protection for Fr. Henri, Ana, Anilson and Airton. It may be the most important thing you do at this meeting.

Thank you.


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Amnesty International. 1999. No One Here Sleeps Safely. Human Rights Violations against Detainees. London.

__________________. 2000. Urgent Action Appeal 134/00. London.

Dias, José Carlos. 2000. Opening speech, seminar on human rights in Brazil, Georgetown University, February 23.

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Pereira, Anthony. 2000. An Ugly Democracy? State Violence and the Rule of Law in Postauthoritarian Brazil. In Kingstone & Power: 217-35.

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