Silenced and unsilenced memories: Archival fonds of Brazil’s political police, 1964–1985

Renato P. Venancio and Adalson O. Nascimento


The present chapter aims at identifying the destination of the archives of the political police amassed during the civil-military dictatorship in Brazil and the use of these archives in rights reparation and in the identification of crimes committed over that period. First, we aim at understanding the phenomenon of the Brazilian dictatorship from 1964 to 1985 in the context of Latin America; once such historical framework is outlined, we aim at the archives of the political police transferred to archival institutions and suggesting the destination of those whose custody was not identified.

Over the second half of the twentieth century, Latin America faced not only dictatorships but also the so-called ‘Truth Commissions’ or ‘National Commissions on the Disappearance of Persons’. As proven records of actions, the archive documents are of paramount importance to such commissions. To a certain extent, they encompass broader contexts and support the use of‘dictatorship archives’ in rights reparation and liability. When it comes to a broader perspective on this debate, Charles Kecskemeti points out three periods: (1) the 1940s, at the end ofWorld War II, when access to Nazi-Fascist archives revealed appalling violations and crimes that were adjudicated by criminal courts and that led to ethical norms for human rights; (2) the 1970s - with the rise of a new round of debates on the opening of archives of repressive institutions, mainly in Spain, Portugal and Greece at the end of dictatorships. Such historic moments are known for the importance given to access to information laws and legislative regulation of the field; (3) the 1990s - with the fall of communist governments in Eastern Europe, which was followed by a number of actions to promote access to documents from the archives of political police of those countries as well as the rise of human rights campaigns aimed at reparation of political persecution.1

As one may note, the chronology' proposed by Kecskemeti is significantly framed by the events of European history, but it also has links to Latin America, leaving room for both parallelisms and counterarguments. In Brazil, a dictatorship period ended in 1945, followed by amnesty. However, unlike the European experience, it did not include rights reparations and was based mostly on the notions of conciliation and pacification.2 The second period holds some similarities. Despite the end of the military dictatorship occurring officially only in 1985 with the election of a new civilian president, the transition of the regime had begun in 1979, with the promulgation of a political amnesty law. It was in this period when an organised movement in defence of human rights arose alongside access to the documents from the archives of the repressive institutions of the dictatorship. From the 1990s, Brazil like several other countries in Latin America, benefitted from the end of the Cold War. The new global context after the collapse of communism left room for intense transference of archives from the military period as well as for fostering public access to them.

In order to understand such contexts, it is vital to provide an overview of Latin America during the implementation of the last and long-lasting Brazilian dictatorial government.

Brazilian dictatorship in the Latin American context

From 1964 to 1985, there were several military coups in a number of countries in Latin America on a par with that in Brazil. Indeed, this period encompasses just a short chronological period in a broader context of intense pollical instability in the region. As calculated by Lehoucq e Perez-Linan,‘Between 1900 and 2006, there were 162 coups d’etat in Latin America, which took place in 139 country years’. According to scholars, the most common definition for such ‘coups’ is a ‘successful attempt to overthrow the president executed by the armed forces’, which might also encompass the involvement of civil society. Furthermore, such a definition might comprise either ‘auto-coups’, in which the president asks for army intervention, or coups that occur while another coup is already in place, such as when institutional rules are broken by the government that has been implemented after a military intervention, such as occurred in Brazil in 1969?

Table 5.1 shows a sample of civil—military coups that occurred in several other Latin American countries during the Brazilian military dictatorship of 1964-1985. It is just a sample and it is worth noting that a number of additional military coups occurred over the continent in previous and subsequent periods.The first aspect to be noted in the table is the variation in the intensity of such coups. There are countries such as Bolivia in which breaking institutional order seems to be the norm. On the other hand, there are countries such as Chile, where there is one single intervention that lasts for several years; in addition, there are intermediate cases, such as Brazil, Argentina and Peru.

However, how could one explain such diversity? In a certain way, the data reveal the existence of phenomena that pervade those countries as well as specific traits

TABLE 5.1 Military coups in Latin America, 1964—1985, by country and year







El Salvador







Dominican Republic


  • 1966, 1971, 1976
  • 1964, 1969, 1970, 1971, 1978, 1979, 1980,1981, 1982
  • 1964, 1969
  • 1973
  • 1979
  • 1972
  • 1982,1983
  • 1972, 1975, 1978, 1980
  • 1968, 1982, 1984
  • 1989
  • 1968, 1975
  • 1963, 1965
  • 1973

Source: Lehoucq and Pérez-Linân,‘Breaking Out of the Coup Trap,* 1105—1129.

in each of them. A common pattern revealed by seminal works is the proliferation of coups d’état that occurred in Latin America as well as worldwide. According to literature, from the end ofWorld War II to the late twentieth century, the highest number of interventions occurred worldwide between 1965 and 1969, which was also a period of political instability in Latin America. Such generalised instability stemmed from the Cold War alongside the subsequent polarisation that divided the world into either communist or capitalist countries. From such a bipolar perspective, any movement in favour of autonomy was viewed warily as it was seen as a search for independence from the sphere that the country belonged to. Therefore, Latin America, capitalist countries aligned with the United States, was an arena where the American government fought against communist movements or revolutions as well as against democratic political movements, which they regarded as suspicious due to their nationalist nature. This was the experience of Brazil.4

When it comes to the chronological diversity of coups, the specificities of each country are also quite revealing. One of such specificities is the different forms of organisation of the military and the presence or absence of consolidated military leaders. In such a matter, it is worth comparing Bolivia and Chile. Whereas the former experienced a series of subsequent interventions resulting from weak and questionable military leaders, the latter was governed by Pinochet from 1974 to 1990 without opposition from within the military ranks. These contrasts could stem from different types of organisation of military education, just one example of causal correlation. The different chronologies might also suggest the presence of deeper influencing factors, such as different levels of economic development. However, one may note the warning of experts that direct correlation between economic development and the implementation of dictatorships may not be the norm in all circumstances:

Data since the mid-1960s are still generally consistent with such findings, with less ‘developed’ countries such as Bolivia, Haiti, and Honduras most prone to coups, for example ... although long periods of military rule in countries such as the more ‘developed’Brazil (1964), Chile (1973), and Uruguay (1973) tend to call into question such an association, and, above all, its significance.5

Another important perspective in terms of differing Latin American historical experiences is the specific political contexts.6 Besides the dictatorial civil-military government of 1964—1985, Brazil experienced a previous dictatorship from 1937 to 1945. Although the latter had been heavily supported by part of the was led by civilians and its dictator, Getúlio Vargas, had his political roots in the oligarchies of the State of Rio Grande do Sul. By contrast, in Argentina, military dictatorships occurred much earlier than the three of 1966-1976, namely, in 1930,1943 and 1955.

Such military interventions, as previously mentioned, go hand in hand with the extreme polarisation of the Cold War, which intensified from 1959 on with the revolution in Cuba and its subsequent Soviet alignment. On the other hand, there are specific political factors inherent to each country that must be taken into account. When it comes to Brazil, various crises occurred over the years prior to 1964. In the Brazilian political system of the time, president and vice-president were elected independently; thus the resignation of a right-wing president in 1961 left room for the nationalist left-wing vice-president Joao Goulart to take power. In that year, 1961, the army was inclined to orchestrate a coup d’état. It was not a mere attempt -it had already been tried in 1954 - but it was controlled by the nationalist group in the Brazilian army. Nevertheless, the crisis occurring in 1961 was partially resolved by means of a governmental shift to parliamentarianism, which would significantly restrict the power held by the new president. In order to be institutionalised, the new parliament relied on a referendum, which Brazilian voters rejected in 1963, thus allowing Goulart to take over in a presidential regime.7 This situation led to a new political crisis that ended up in a civil-military coup on 1 April 1964.8

In the military coup of 1964, the members of the Brazilian army did not act alone. This intervention was also supported by rural landlords, who were concerned about the implementation of agrarian reform. In addition to this segment of society, conservative groups from the Catholic Church and the middle class were also actively engaged in the movement, as they feared the ‘Communist Threat’ disseminated by the press. In fact, this coup favoured the business sector, which advocated for economic development of the country with international capital and, at the same time, expected commensal support from the army in the repression of labour unions in order to constrain their push for higher wages.

Due to its long-lasting nature, the Brazilian military dictatorship should be viewed in different stages. Prior to 1967, some institutional guarantees had been maintained, the National Congress had its autonomy and an opposition party was authorised: ‘Movimento Democrático Brasileiro’ (MDB). Conversely, the second phase of the dictatorship starts in 1968, with a subsequent suppression of elections: first, presidential, and then gubernatorial and even mayoral races in the state capitals. This situation enhanced extremist political actions with a proliferation of urban warfare against the dictatorship. In turn, the army adopted extremist actions, promulgating the Institutional Act Number 5, which allowed the National Congress to be closed and suppressed virtually all individual legal rights of habeas corpus.9

As shown in Table 5.1, such inclination for suppression of rights and political constraint in Brazil led to a new military coup in 1969. In that year, president General Costa e Silva died before completing his five-year term.The vice-president was Pedro Aleixo, a conservative politician, but a civilian. The death of Costa e Silva, who had been elected by an electoral college composed of military staff, had left room for a civilian to take office. Nevertheless, it did not happen, and a coup occurred in the midst of the political regime, which had resulted from the previous coup. Thus, the vice-president did not take over and a junta comprising three generals assumed power until another, General Emilio Garrastazu Medici, took office.

In the first three years after the coup in 1964, it is worth noting that the repressive actions were mainly aimed at nationalist and moderate political segments. Several senators and congressmen had their mandates abolished and, in the same vein, congressmen from state legislative assemblies, city councillors, as well as trade union leaders and civilian and military public servants faced similar repression. In 1968 and in the following years, guerrilla warfare groups became the new target of the dictatorship while repression spread further to members of the press, intellectuals, and even members of the Catholic Church, who had initially supported the military coup.

Such a wide array of persecution resulted in an increase in the violation of human rights, ranging from torture or murder committed by state agents to dismissal or compulsory retirement of public servants. Such violations of rights and the attribution of responsibility to those involved in the end would be identified in the archival collections by the political amnesty movement.

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