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Brazil’s Cold War History: Disputed Territory

John Martin

Late one afternoon in the summer of 1990, Brazilian police came to my hotel in Rio de Janeiro to arrest journalist John Martin.

Image courtesy of the San Diego State University Network Television News Research Archive Special Collection.

 Image courtesy of the San Diego State University Network Television News Research Archive Special Collection.

Ivan Seixas was arrested and tortured at the age of 16.

Late one afternoon in the summer of 1990, Brazilian police came to my hotel in Rio de Janeiro to arrest me. Guns drawn, they steered me and a colleague to their unmarked car and drove us away.

“They want our tapes,” said Scott Willis, my ABC News  producer, as we pulled up in front of a nondescript building.    

Inside, we were told to turn over our notebooks and videotapes of a young man we had interviewed hours earlier.

We refused. We had come to Brazil to tell the story of secret torture carried out during a dictatorship that spanned 21 years of the Cold War, from 1964 to 1985. Our report was for Ted Koppel’s “Nightline,” the late-night news program

Thanks to a determined U.S. consular officer who arrived  two hours later and talked us out of their custody, the police never learned from us the name of the young man, Ivan Seixas, or what he told us of being imprisoned and tortured.

Whether the police wanted to suppress his story or identify him as our source and retaliate, I never found out. But this incident symbolized the lawlessness that still gripped the country.

Ivan Seixas’s ordeal – his father was tortured to death in an adjoining cell and he spent years in a mental hospital – is almost certainly not widely known in Brazil today.

Yet the mayhem he and his family endured was common among thousands of cases of torture and murder.   

“I remained in prison six years, so I knew what was going on,” Sexias told me earlier that day. “But when I left, I realized people my age didn’t know, because of censorship. They accepted fear as the normal common thing.”

Partly as a result, none of the thousands of torture victims nor their families ever gained compensation for their mistreatment.

“Basically the Brazilian military got away scot free with the atrocities it committed,” said Peter Kornbluh, a scholar at the National Security Archive in Washington, DC.

Five years ago, a trove of secret documents for which Kornbluh helped gain declassification opened the door wider on Brazil’s chamber of Cold War horror.

One document, Kornbluh said, identified a general who “authorized the secret execution of more than 100 prisoners of the left who had been secretly kidnapped.”

At the time it was initially employed in Brazil, torture was justified as a necessity to gain tactical intelligence to fight an armed Communist insurgency. Many victims had no such information and suffered torture for it. Many confessed to crimes they did not commit.

“They’re still grappling with the lack of justice, the lack of accountability for all the human rights crimes that took place,” said Kornbluh, who directs the Brazil Documentation Project at the archive, based in Washington, D.C.

He blamed a compromise amnesty law passed in 1979 for unjustly shielding nearly 450 torturers identified by Brazilian  human rights investigators. Their study, Brazil Never Again, became the country’s best selling non-fiction book of all time.  

This report is still in print, according to Erika Robb Larkins, a cultural anthropologist who has spent many years researching the country and directs a Brazil study center at San Diego State University.

What worries her, she said, are reports that court records documenting the torture could be removed from a university archive outside Sao Paulo under the new government, which often praises torture’s use against suspected criminals.

Similar reports of a purge of liberals from Brazilian university faculties  raises questions of possible attempts to censor historical accounts of the Cold War dictatorship.

Recently, President Jair Bolsonaro told The Washington Post  that his view of the military’s takeover in 1964 is different from contemporary Cold War historical accounts.

“The military saved Brazil from a potential dictatorship in 1964,” he said.

Asked if he had “a commitment to democracy today, ” Bolsonaro said “we will shore up democracy at any cost.”

In another remark, he observed, “The armed forces are the guarantor of democracy.”

The comment reminded me of that day in Rio. The police arrested us on charges they did not reveal and argued vigorously that we had no right to withhold our notes and tapes nor the identity of our source, a young man who had been forced at the age of 16 to witness the murder of his father.

The story was important to tell, Ivan Seixas suggested, “to show the mood that produces dictatorship.”

Based on Mr. Bolsonaro’s mood, praising torture and Brazilian police and military behavior in the Cold War, there seems ample reason to protect the country’s historical records with all due scholarly determination.

About the Author

John Martin

John Martin

Public Policy Fellow;
Former Correspondent, ABC News, New York and Washington
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