A review by Kenneth Maxwell
A Ditadura Acabada by Elio Gaspari (Rio de Janeiro, Intrínseca, 2016, 449 pp.)
The timing of the publication of the fifth and final volume of Elio Gaspari’s monumental history of the Brazilian military regime could not be more relevant. It is ironic that his new book—essentially the story of the government of General João Figueiredo (1918-1999) and the emergence of Tancredo Neves (1910-1985) as the civilian leader of the new civilian government—should appear just at the moment the democracy that emerged in Brazil out of the chaotic final years of the rule of the last of Brazil’s military dictators is facing its own existential crisis.
Many of the defects present in the process of creating the country’s democratic regime are every day more apparent at the moment of its potential decline. Even, amazingly, some of the same protagonists are still involved. The old generals have all now gone, to be sure. But the murky back-room deal makers very much remain. Elio Gaspari describes these machinations brilliantly in this new volume, as he did in his earlier four volumes on the origins and institutionalization of Brazil’s long-lasting military government.
This is an account written from inside the regime. It is based on years of prodigious research and detailed interviews with many of the participants, both members of the regime and their opponents. The book is based on unrivaled access to the documentation kept by key figures at the very center of the action, and a journalistic flair for following the multiple plots to their origins.
It is at times a shocking tale. Not a single member of the military nor a civilian has ever been held accountable in Brazil for the years of sometimes violent repression. Just as the military regime came to power with civilian support, the transition to democracy also brought with it important civilian and political figures of the previous regime, such as José Sarney. Two signatories of the notorious AI-5 (the Institutional Act Number Five which closed the Congress for over a year, instituted censorship, gave the federal government intervention powers in the states and municipalities, banned political meetings, and suspended habeas corpus for political motives), participated in the new democratic government: Jarbas Passarinho was Minister of Justice under Collor’s government, and Helio Beltrão was the president of Petrobras during the government of José Sarney.
But once again the book demonstrates a recurrent paradox of Brazilian history: in the end, nothing is ever “really new” in the long-term trajectory of Brazilian politics. As Tancredi said in Luchino Visconti’s interpretation of Giuseppe Tomasi de Lampedusa’s Il Gattopardo: “se vogliamo che tutto rimanga come è, bisogna che tutto cambi” (if we want everything to remain the same, everything must change).
Elio Gaspari, who was born in Naples, Italy, arrived in Brazil as a child with his mother in 1949. She ran a bar in Copacabana and in Duque de Caxias, and they lived in Lapa. Gaspari studied at the YMCA (ACM no Brasil). He was expelled from the University of Brazil in mid-June of 1964 at the instigation of Eremildo Viana, a notorious persecutor of students and faculty members. Subsequently Eremildo has appeared as a fictional participant (as an idiot) in Elio’s columns. Like any good Neapolitan, Gaspari does not forget his enemies.
But Elio Gaspari also remains committed to his friends. And one of his firmest friends was the late social columnist, Ibrahim Sued, to whom this final volume is dedicated. Gaspari worked for Sued from January of 1965 until he was arrested by the fuzileiros navais in mid-June 1969 and held for 59 days, first on the Ilha das Cobras, then in a collective cell on the Ilha das Flores. He was never threatened. But even though his interrogator made it clear that he would not face any physical violence, he did not believe it. At the time, Gaspari was a member of the PCB, the Brazilian Communist Party.
He owes his survival, and his release, to the intervention of Sued, who visited him both at the Ilha das Cobras, and at the Ilha das Flores. Later, Sued attended a seminar Gaspari gave at Columbia University in New York City. Gaspari was serving there as a prestigious Tinker Foundation visiting professor, a nice slap at Eremildo’s vindictiveness, as well as a vindication of those students expelled from the University of Brazil before they could complete their degrees. Gaspari’s debt of gratitude to Sued was never forgotten.
Elio Gaspari, who was the DRCLAS 2004-05 Lemann Visiting Fellow at Harvard, began an important trend among Brazilian journalists when he wrote his first volume on the history of the military regime. In recent years, other Brazilian journalists have followed his path and written substantial works of history. But Gaspari’s is an exceptional approach. He combines an almost cinematographic technique, with short dramatic chapters, divided overall into five parts, and beginning with the government of Ernesto Geisel (1907-1996). He examines Geisel’s commitment to a political (but a carefully controlled and limited) opening of the regime. He then explores the subsequent rule of General Figueiredo, the successor chosen by Geisel, a man who combined, as it turned out, a disastrous propensity for crude gaffes, chronic ill health, and colossal misjudgments of character and of the capacity of the people he needed to carry out his programs.
Gaspari follows Figueiredo’s period in office though what he calls the “explosion” of the economy, the “explosion” of the planalto (the Brazilian presidential palace), to the “explosion” of the streets, to the “construction” of Tancredo Neves. He ends with the untimely and unexpected death of Neves after he had been indirectly elected but before he could assume the presidency.
The book concludes with an epilogue describing 500 lives. This is a truly fascinating overview, bringing the story of individuals up to the present. Thus we see what happened to the presidents, the ministers, the generals, those exiled after the coup, those cassados (those whose political rights were removed) by Geisel, the businessmen, the church, the members of military intelligence agencies, SNI (The Servico Nacional de Informacao), CIE (The Centro de Informacao do Exercito), and DOI, the military officers who ran the casa da morte, those who ran the CISA and Cenimar (the air force and the navy’s repressive organizations), those who ran the “porão,” (the “underground cellar”... literally the torture dungeons of the regime), the military officers who participated in the anti-guerrilla campaign in Araguaia, and those young women, mainly students, who were held in the Torre das Donzelas in the Presídio Tiradentes, in São Paulo.
There is also a marvelously informative chronology with Geisel, Golbery de Couto e Silva (1911-1987), and Figueiredo, Política, Economia, Sociedade e Mundo, which does much to clarify the interrelationship between events, people, and political and international developments.
No one, in fact, escapes Gaspari’s forensic attention. His epilogue is an amazing tale of multiple lives forever altered by the experience of the military regime. It is the story of a “hidden” Brazil, which many Brazilians know about of course, at least in part, but which many even today are very unwilling to fully acknowledge. The account of the disaster of Figueiredo presidency is at the core of the story, and Gaspari deals with the growing problems and crises he so badly handled. They include Figueiredo’s disastrous mismanagement of the economy, where three ministers “thought” they were in control, but none in fact was, and continue to the growing role of what Gaspari calls the “Tigrada.”
The “Tigrada” is the growing disorder in the barracks, the out-of-control role of intelligence officers in bombings, and the increasing corruption among the families of leading military figures, including, it was claimed, one of the sons of General Figueiredo, as well as a son of the éminence grise of the regime, General Golbery, as well as deals with empreiteiros (contractors) in the German-Brazilian nuclear accord, and speculative deals involving contracts and major military figures.
Overall, Gaspari finds Figueiredo to be “patético e errático” (“pathetic and erratic”). “Faltou à cena final de seu governo. Num gestou infantil, recusouse a passar a faixa presidential a José Sarney e deixou o Palácio do Planalto por uma porta lateral” (“he even missed the final scene of his government. In an infantile gesture he refused to pass the presidential sash to Jose Sarney, leaving the presidential palace of the planalto by a back door”). But, in the end, he did end the period of military rule. This, Gaspari concludes, “não foi pouca coisa” (“was not a small thing”).
But a theme which Gaspari uses to draw this story together is the parallel lives of Captain Freddie Perdigão and Captain Heitor Ferreira, both junior officers at the beginning of the regime, one of whom became a leading participant in the most repressive aspects of Brazilian military rule, and the other, one of the leading participants in the regime’s efforts to decompress and reform from within.
As a coronel, Freddie Perdigão Pereira moved in the underworld of the military repressive apparatus. He moved from the CIE (The Centro de Informacao do Exercito, the “Army’s Center of Information” which was responsible for censorship, torture and repression) to SNI (The National Information Service, the main Brazilian intelligence agency). In 1982 he passed into the reserva, but continued for another five years in the service. He later became a friend of the banqueiros de bicho (the bosses of illegal gambling in Rio de Janeiro) in the Baixada Fluminense. He was accused of heading extermination groups. And his name was associated with the torture and forced disappearence of the civil engineer, journalist, and politician Rubens Paiva, the bombing attempt of Riocentro, and the assassination of journalist Alexandre von Baumgarten.
Baumgarten had been writing a book exposing the deal between the Brazilian military and Saddam Hussein (1937-2006) to supply “yellow cake” uranium to Iraq for its nuclear weapons program (Israel, however, bombed the Iraqi plant, putting Saddam Hussein’s nuclear ambitions, and Brazilian involvement in them, out of business). But Alexandre von Baumgarten knew too much, and he was assassinated because of this knowledge. Freddie Perdigão died in 1996.
Captain Heitor Ferreira left the military during the regime of Costa e Silva (1967- 1969), but he was known as the “peão do rei,” (literally “the peon of the King”) He was private secretary to General Golbery, to President Geisel, and for a time to President Figueiredo. There is very little about the inner workings of these years that Heitor Ferreira did not know. He never gives interviews, though he has been a long-time prime source for Elio Gaspari.
This final volume brings Elio Gaspari’s long years of work on the history of Brazil’s military regime to a triumphant conclusion. It is a fascinating and sobering story, with many subplots and characters, all described with telling detail in succinct and elegant prose. It is a book few will put down. It contains much that is new and revealing. It is essential reading for anyone seeking to understand Brazil, and especially at this particular moment in Brazilian history.
Kenneth Maxwell writes a monthly column for O Globo. He was the founding director of the Brazil Studies Program at DRCLAS and professor of history. Previously he had been the Nelson and David Rockefeller Senior Fellow for Inter-American Affairs at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York City.