Politics, Business & Culture in the Americas

Bahia Empowered in Brazil’s Search for Truth



Brazil’s Comissão Nacional da Verdade (National Truth Commission—CNV), responsible for investigating human rights violations committed by state agents under the country’s military dictatorship between 1964 and 1985, was inaugurated on May 16, 2012 with much fanfare.

At the time, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff emphasized the importance of democratic progress, calling the ceremony “a celebration of transparency of truth of a nation that continues in its democratic path.”  But not everyone has agreed with Rousseff’s optimism.

Many military and police officials have raised questions about the Commission’s partiality, arguing that it fails to consider the “war” Brazil endured during the dictatorship against an “infiltrated enemy, [who was] armed, unknown, and used false identities.”  Some have even claimed that Rousseff designed the entity in retaliation for the torture she endured as a political prisoner during the military dictatorship. The Clube Naval (Naval Club), a private association for members of the Brazilian Navy, created a “parallel truth commission” to shield military officials who may be called to testify at the CNV and to present a countermeasure to possible criticism of the Armed Forces.

Non-military criticism also exists. Many human rights groups allege that,  lacking the ability to punish the accused, the CNV will not provide adequate justice to victims and their families.  Other critics argue that the CNV could “reopen wounds” in Brazilian society and “divide Brazilians,” thus threatening the country’s democratic progress.  Some suggest that two years—the period the Commission has been granted to execute its mandate—is an inadequate period of time for a commission of only five members. Others claim that the Brazilian government should have consulted the public before determining the role of the CNV.Rousseff and CNV members have also entered into contention. Rousseff demanded that the CNV provide more concrete results and give victims and their families the opportunity to express their suffering.   The CNV members agreed to overcome their internal divisions on the issue, but they also demanded greater support.  

To compensate for its limitations, the CNV endorsed the creation of state and local truth commissions.  The group identified this model as essential to promoting civic participation, protecting democracy and constructing a more cohesive truth. The partnerships have enabled the CNV to delegate its powers by requesting data and documents and organizing hearings and investigations across the country. According to the CNV, there are a total of 27 state and municipal truth commissions throughout Brazil.

Despite efforts to delegate truth-revealing efforts, local representation at the national level has remained problematic. Brazil’s northeastern state of Bahia is a prime example. Between 1964 and 1979, the military regime held 157 political prisoners, exiled 16 people and killed or forcibly disappeared 32 of the state’s residents.

On December 10, 2012, the United Nation’s International Human Rights Day, Bahia Governor Jacques Wagner symbolically announced and signed the decree establishing the Comissão da Verdade Estadual da Bahia  (State Truth Commission of Bahia). Nevertheless, the seven appointed state truth commissioners were not installed until almost a year later, on August 20, 2013.

The commission will have two years to investigate human rights violations committed by public officials in Bahia between 1946 and 1988. Its final report will also contain recommendations to improve public institutions. The members may collect information related to reported deaths and disappearances, solicit statements from victims and persons accused or suspected of being involved in abuses, and request documents to clarify allegations. 

Political science professor and president of Grupo Tortura Nunca Mais da Bahia (Torture Never Again Group of Bahia) and coordinator of the Comitê Baiano Pela Verdade (Bahian Committee for Truth), Joviniano Soares de Carvalho Neto, will serve as the commission’s first coordinator. Other members include professor and former state councilwoman Amabília Vilaronga de Pinho Almeida, journalists Walter Antonio Pinheiro Filho and Carlos Navarro, Federal University of Bahia Dean Dulce Tamara Lamego Silva e Aquino, and attorneys Jackson Keys Vera Azevedo and Christina Leonelli.

Despite criticisms, Commissioner Almeida has insisted on promoting the State Truth Commission of Bahia as a key component of the CNV’s democratic function: “[By] rescuing memory and truth, [Brazil] acquires higher consciousness about its own identity, [and] democracy is strengthened.” Therefore, delayed truth-telling initiatives are much better than absent initiatives. They will strengthen the CNV’s democratic identity by clarifying and amplifying dialogue on Brazilian history.

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