Wednesday, 26 March 2014

On Authority and Resistance

Barely awake, I overheard a programme on the World Service yesterday at what must have been 4.30. It was about the years in which Brasil was ruled by the Generals, after a coup in 1964, half a century ago. The journalist recalled her father warning her as a child of about ten not to gather in groups around her school gates, and later told of going to interview a retired, and decidedly unrepentant, general about those times. She also interviewed an author who had written a novel based on the disappearance, torture, and murder, of his sister. It was a well-crafted piece, and it made two interesting points about Brasilian culture.

One contributor said that Brasil is essentially authoritarian - from the family, to the workplace, to the military and politics - and that lent it to rule by the Generals. I was very struck on my visits that a tourist needed to produce a passport to buy a coach ticket between towns, and that when I wanted to extend my visa, they docked 11 days off it, because my visit the previous year would make the total more than the permitted 90 (our Home Office wouldn't have had a clue). This must be a legacy of the days in which the state needed to keep a close watch on its citizens. One consequence was "disappearance", something we're familiar with in connexion with Argentina and Chile (although it is an issue in Northern Ireland in our own country too), and the lingering grief of those who know someone they loved has been killed, but will never know anything about it. The retired general said that the reason why some people couldn't be found is that they used fake identification documents. That sounded sly and corrupt.

It was tempting to find a reflexion of this authoritarianism in the way His Lordship deals with the cats, preferring to shout and whistle at them to go, when if you softly suggest they come along, they usually will, but I think that may not really be a cultural difference so much as a lesser affinity with animals. What was striking, though, was the way the journalist, and the novelist, and others in the programme were lamenting that after a general amnesty was issued in 1979, allowing the exiled home, but protecting the military from repercussions, not only is the time of the Generals not discussed, but no one has been punished for what they did, "no one has gone to prison". This was entirely at odds with (at least my understanding of) the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa, managed by the saintly Desmond Tutu. There, the truth could be told BECAUSE there was no fear of retaliation. And that required sacrifice on both sides, and in a sense the relinquishing of authority, because if the truth was told, that alone would be authoritative. And the truth might set them free.

The other revelation was the flipside of authoritarianism - resistance. The presenter suggested that Brasilian music and dance in particular, which has found such favour around the world, was the product initially of the slave culture (Brasil was the world's greatest slaving nation, a bigger market than the USA, and slavery was not abolished until 1889 under pressure from the UK), and as such, a mark of resistance to oppression. She quoted some interesting lyrics from forty-odd years ago about things disappearing, innocent enough out of context, but with the background, quietly political.

Dilma Rousseff, Brasil's current president, was herself tortured in the time of the Generals. In 2011 she signed into existence a National Truth Commission to look into those dark times. It was meant to report in two years. It didn't start until 2013. I don't hold out much hope for its achieving a lot. The retired General was adamant that the law must be obeyed and those who break it must be punished - and silenced. Another contributor noted chillingly that "the purpose of torture is not to make people talk, but to make them silent".

Brasil is a fascinating and complex country about which I know too little, and this programme was a brief taste of how some Brasilians are trying to reconcile its present with its past. When we stayed there for four months in 2006, I asked His Lordship how long it would be before there was a woman President in Brasil. He laughed out loud. Mrs Rousseff, who was elected in 2010, is living proof that resistance works better than authoritarianism. And our cats would agree.

Richard Haggis
Barton-upon-Bayswater, Oxford
March 2014

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