When Latin American Militaries Get Away with Murder

Schneider, Nina. 2011. “Impunity in Post-Authoritarian Brazil: The Supreme Court’s Recent Verdict on the Amnesty Law.” European Review of Latin American and Caribbean Studies 90 (April), 39-54.

In a prior blog post, I talked about the traditional mindset of the Latin American military, particularly about the fact that they saw themselves as saviors of the Fatherland in times of great national calamity. In the days of the Cold War, that calamity came in the form of anti-Christian, Communist subversion, and the bureaucratic authoritarian (BA) regimes imposed at that time in Brazil, Argentina, Chile, and Uruguay were especially adept at getting rid of it in the most decisive (and brutal) way possible. Then, along with democratization, came calls for human rights prosecutions, which became a contentious issue because military officers fought tooth and nail to avoid indictment. In many cases, it took decades for the military officers to stand trial. For instance, the late General Jorge Videla, de facto ruler of Argentina between 1976 and 1981, finally had his day in court in 2010.

In this article, Schneider makes the point that Brazil is an exception rather than the rule. All BA countries approved amnesty laws shielding the military from human rights prosecutions, but they were revoked in Argentina and Uruguay, and in Chile the Supreme Court declared that certain crimes were exempt from amnesty. In Brazil, there is currently no intention to revoke its amnesty law, which has remained impervious from protests and judicial challenges since its adoption in 1979. Consequently, the questions she asks are why has Brazil treated the issue of human rights prosecutions different from the other BA countries and what role did the 1979 Amnesty Law play in all this; and how should we construe this apparent lack of interest in prosecuting the military. The answer for the first question centers around a weak tradition of mobilization for civil rights causes, and the Law played right into it by unleashing a chilling effect on demands for prosecuting the military coming from a variety of social sectors. the divergent views of Brazilians regarding prosecutions, especially among the victims. Some of them insist that moral indictment is enough to punish the perpetrators, while others think that remembering the past will be sufficient. For certain people, it is better to leave things in the past.

One is left to ponder whether a more deeply embedded tradition of civil rights mobilization would make a difference. One reason, mentioned by Alfred Montero in his book chapter on the quality of Brazilian democracy, is the lack of responsiveness of the Brazilian government — listening is one thing, but acting on those demands (as the grassroots protests of last June have shown) is another. If there is no response or action from the current Brazilian government regarding this issue, it could be because it is not politically convenient to cross the military. Given the governing party’s precarious position for the next presidential election, to ruffle the feathers of the Brazilian military will not sit well with certain sectors — those described by Schneider as the most vocal opponents of revoking the Amnesty Law (including some active military officers). In this sense, Brazil also demonstrates how difficult can it be for democratic governments in the region to turn the page on politicized militaries, particularly when they have a toehold on formal political institutions. (The Brazilian Constitution has an article empowering the military to intervene in civilian politics in case of national distress, which could mean anything.)

On the other hand, I do not disagree with the main argument of this article. It is fair to consider that if there is no overwhelming public interest in prosecutions then the government will not take up that issue. Most important, Schneider makes us pay attention to the role of political culture in institutionalizing democracy, to which human rights prosecutions are inextricably related insofar as they serve to embed a culture of rule of law. She implicitly makes a connection between these attitudes toward punishing the military and the issue of citizen security: If Brazilians are this tolerant of military impunity, they are equally tolerant of police impunity, and that does not bode well for either rule of law or democracy itself. (For more on this issue, read this blog post.) Finally, the article does a great job at placing the Brazilian case in a comparative perspective, contrasting the importance given to prosecutions elsewhere with Brazil’s “indifference”. In that sense, the article can easily and effectively fulfill a pedagogical function, as it can be utilized in survey courses in Latin American politics to introduce the subject of human rights in the region.

In all, what this article has conveyed for us is that Latin America, after three decades of liberal democracy, still has skeletons in its closet. Democracy is the only game in town, to a point.

 

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