amnesty never again



In Latin America, those who left the crimes of the past unpunished saw them repeat themselves

Many voices warn Brazil about the priceless costs of making a mistake similar to the one made 40 years ago. At the end of the military dictatorship, sectors of society and the government imposed a lasting silence on the crimes against humanity perpetrated during the twenty years of authoritarian rule. The illusion that it was a question of political astuteness was being sold.

A country “in a hurry”, they said, could not waste time settling accounts with the past, elaborating the memory of its crimes, looking for those responsible for using the State apparatus to practice torture, murder, rape and kidnapping. The narrative was imposed that the duty of memory would be a mere exercise in “revanchism” – even if the entire Latin American continent ended up understanding that whoever left the crimes of the past unpunished would see them repeated.

In order to try to silence once and for all the demands for justice and truth, several sectors of Brazilian society, from the military to the hegemonic press, were not afraid to use the so-called “theory of the two demons”. According to her, all state violence would have been the result of a “war”, with “excesses” on both sides. It was ignored, therefore, that one of the fundamental human rights in democracy is the right of resistance against tyranny. Already in the eighteenth century, the philosopher John Locke, founder of liberalism, defended the right of every citizen to kill the tyrant. For every action against an illegal state is a legal action. Note: we are talking about the liberal tradition.

Latin American liberals, however, have this ability to always be below their own principles. Therefore, it is not surprising to hear the Minister of the Federal Supreme Court, Dias Toffoli, declare, in the middle of 2022, post-Bolsonaro: “We cannot let ourselves be carried away by what happened in Argentina, a society that was trapped in the past, in revenge, in hatred and looking back, to the rearview mirror, without being able to overcome itself (…) Brazil is much stronger than that”.

Aside from disrespect for one of the most important countries for Brazilian diplomacy, a magistrate who confuses the demand for justice with a cry of hatred, who sees punishment of torturers and perpetrators of coup d'état as nothing but revenge, is the best-finished expression of a country, this one, that never stopped looking at the rear view mirror. A country subjected to a government that, for four years, made torturers national heroes, turned its police apparatus into a machine for the extermination of the poor.

Some should think better about the social experience of “working through the past” as a condition for preserving the present. There is no “overcoming” where agreements are extorted and silencing is imposed. The proof is that, until further notice, Argentina has never again experienced any kind of threat to the institutional order. We, by contrast, have faced such attacks nearly every day for the past four years.

Nothing that has happened to us in recent years would have happened if we had established an effective transitional justice, capable of preventing members of authoritarian governments from granting themselves amnesty. Because in this way, it ended up allowing discourses and practices from a country that “got stuck in the past”. Hiding corpses, for example, was not something the military only did during the dictatorship. They did it now, when they were managing the fight against the pandemic, hiding numbers, denying information, imposing indifference to deaths as social affection, preventing collective mourning.

It is important that all of this is remembered at this time. Because we know the Brazilian tendency to forget. This was a country made by centuries of crimes without images, of deaths without tears, of erasure. This is its natural tendency, whatever the ruler and his speech. The secular forces of erasure are like specters that haunt the living. They shape not only the social body, but the psychic life of the subjects.

Making the mistake of forgetting again, repeating the political cowardice that established the New Republic and sealed its end, would be the surest way to weaken the new government. There is no reason to revel in the magical thought that everything we saw was a “nightmare” that will pass more quickly the less we say about it. What we saw, with all its violence, was the direct result of the forgetting policies in Brazil. It was a direct result of our amnesty.

Civil society needs to demand that the government initiate accountability for the crimes committed by Jair Bolsonaro and his managers. This can only be done in the first months of the new government, when there is still strength to do so. When we talk about crimes, we are talking about both the direct responsibility for managing the pandemic and the crimes committed in the electoral process.

The International Criminal Court agreed to analyze the opening of proceedings against Jair Bolsonaro for indigenous genocide in the management of the pandemic. There is a wealth of material raised by the Covid CPI, demonstrating the crimes of government responsibility that resulted in a country with 3% of the world's population contaminated and 15% of deaths in the pandemic. Punishing those responsible has nothing to do with revenge, but with respect for the population. This is the only way to provide the national State with guidelines for future actions related to similar health crises, which will certainly occur.

On the other hand, Brazil has known two forms of electoral crimes. First, the most explicit crime, such as the use of the police apparatus to prevent voters from voting, to support coup demonstrations after the elections. The Brazilian police is today a political party. Second, the worst of all crimes against democracy: the continuous blackmail of the Armed Forces against the population. Forces that today act as a state within the state, a separate power.

Two energetic attitudes are expected from the government: that it place in reserve the high command of the Armed Forces that blackmailed the Republic; and that it holds accountable the police officers who attacked Brazilian voters, modifying the archaic and military structure of the police force. If this is not done, we will see the scenes that haunted us repeat indefinitely.

There is nothing like a democracy without a total renewal of the command of the Armed Forces and without the fight against the police as a political party. The police can act in this way because they have always acted as an external force, as a military force to subdue society. If we fail once more and fail to understand the urgent and decisive character of such actions, we will continue the terrible history of a country founded on oblivion and which compulsively preserves the authoritarian cores of those who command state violence. Mobilizing society towards collective memory and its demands for justice has always been and continues to be the only way to effectively build a country.

*Vladimir Safari He is a professor of philosophy at USP. Author, among other books, of Ways of transforming worlds: Lacan, politics and emancipation (Authentic).


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