The demonstrators dressed in brightly colored outfits sang their song of protest proudly, but it was really only symbolic. Shock troops moved in waving their batons, and beating with impunity. They rounded up the dissidents and carried them off to be disposed of. In real life a few decades ago, they would have been brought in to the basement or back room of Brazil’s Federal Police Department.
The demonstrators dressed in brightly colored outfits sang their song of protest proudly, but it was really only symbolic. Shock troops moved in waving their batons, and beating with impunity. They rounded up the dissidents and carried them off to be disposed of. In real life a few decades ago, they would have been brought in to the basement or back room of the Federal Police Department, or the DOPS (the Brazilian secret police), who would have stripped them naked and subjected them to electric shocks and countless other forms of torture. Many would never again have seen the light of day.
Today, the street performers quickly hurried around the outside of the crowd and prepared for their next character.
"You are amazing," cried one woman. "For not having lived through it, you are really good!"
Most of the performers were in their twenties and thirties. She was over sixty.
"I lived it," she said a few minutes later, although she wouldn’t give her name for fear of repercussions. "I was a high school student and university student during that time, and it was a terrible. Then I studied at the Federal University and they said that we used guns – and that was one of the lies they told – and we had to run, and then when we came near the military barracks and they would throw bombs and say that we had thrown them. They had a system of picking you up where they would lift you from behind with your arms twisted, beating you, and I can’t say I don’t have back problems, from the countless beatings I got."
She was just one of hundreds in the crowd that stopped to watch Thursday’s performance of the street theater group, Atuadores Ói Nóis Aqui Traveiz. Their piece,
O Amargo Santo da Purificação, told the story of Brazil, and highlighted the repression of the long twenty-year Brazilian military dictatorship.
It was just one of various activities happening across Brazil this week in commemoration of the 40th anniversary of the passage of the Institutional Act #5 (AI-5). Its decree, on December 13, 1968- four years into the Brazilian military dictatorship -is considered to have been the coup within the coup d’etat. AI-5 suspended guarantees in the 1967 Constitution, increased dictatorial powers of the President, and led to the closure of the Brazilian congress and the suspension of habeas corpus in the name of national security.
It essentially legalized torture and the death penalty, and by the end of the Brazilian dictatorship in the mid 80s, more than 40,000 people had been tortured and hundreds disappeared and murdered.
But for these street performers, the AI-5 isn’t just a thing of the past.
"I don’t think it is just a historical moment that is being commemorated," said Diego Begolin, a street vendor and member of the theater group. "The Brazilian dictatorship was a dark period in our history. It threw a lot of people in to poverty, and they are there until today. It is a structure of power that was installed, and pretended to leave, but it didn’t. They are still their hiding. Hiding the crimes that they committed against human rights, and that’s our struggle."
While some of Brazil’s neighbors- like Argentina -have begun to try ex-torturers for crimes committed under their dictatorships, no Brazilian officials have been brought to justice. Part of the reason lies in a 1979 amnesty, which still protects officials from being tried for crimes, committed during the dictatorship.
Activists say that this culture of impunity encourages further repression against the country’s social movements. "The police apparatus of repression is very strong in the state," said Annelise- who asked to be identified by her first name only, and was one of the organizers of events this week in Porto Alegre. "We were speaking with a lawyer of the Landless Worker’s Movement (MST) and in his opinion right now in the state of Rio Grande do Sul, human rights don’t exist."
Indeed, Human Rights Watch declared in its 2008 report that violations against human rights in Brazil are rarely brought to justice. The report identified police crime and impunity, forced worker camps, inhuman prison conditions, and the lack of justice for crimes under the dictatorship as major human rights concerns in Brazil.
Positive steps are being made. Last year Brazil’s Human Rights Secretary published a detailed book documenting the more than 300 disappeared under the dictatorship. Brazil’s first national convention on human rights is set to take place next week in Brasilia.
Nevertheless, many Brazilians agree that they have a long way to go before they completely turn this dark page in their history.
Michael Fox is a regular contributor to UpsideDownWorld.org and a producer, with Sílvia Leindecker of the new documentary, Beyond Elections: Redefining Democracy in the Americas