How we helped Brazil to torture its own people
Published 11/06/2014 | 08:30
We're not Brazil, we're Northern Ireland, but BBC2 suggested last week that Brazil might not be the country it is today if it hadn't been able to import torture techniques from the north in the 1970s.
Emily Buchanan reported on Newsnight that British agents had trained Brazilian generals in "special interrogation methods" introduced to deflect international outrage against the military's use of more traditional methods – pulling out fingernails, stubbing cigarettes on faces, clamping electrodes on to genitals.
The Brazilian military had come to power in 1964, overthrowing the government of leftist lawyer Joao Goulart. Hundreds of Goulart supporters were killed and thousands jailed. Political parties were suspended, trade unions outlawed and strict censorship imposed.
The extent of US involvement was to become apparent years later, when ambassador Lincoln Gordon confirmed that four US navy ships and the aircraft carrier USS Forrestal had been anchored off shore in the days leading up to the coup.
Correspondence between the ambassador and the White House in 1963 shows Gordon and President John Kennedy discussing the threat of a Soviet, or Cuban, takeover of Brazil and ways in which Goulart might be "put down" to prevent this happening.
Kennedy's successor, Lyndon Johnson, characterised the coup d'etat as an effort by "democratic forces" to save the country from communism.
The military regime choked off all outlets for democratic expression. Left-wingers, urban youth and landless peasants took to acts of individual terror. The generals in turn ratcheted up the repression. Assassinations, kidnappings, death squads and "disappearances" became standard aspects of political struggle.
Such was the savagery which had descended upon the land, the Catholic bishops broke the habit of a lifetime and publicly denounced the military. Human rights organisations documented recurring atrocities.
In the US, Kennedy liberals blackguarded Republican President Richard Nixon for supporting the regime. It was now that Northern Ireland stepped on to the stage.
The "special interrogation methods" became known in Brazil as "the English system". They included hooding, wall-standing, sleep deprivation, white noise and deprivation of food and drink. The top five techniques from Operation Demetrius, tried and tested in Ballykelly.
Buchanan quoted ex-colonel Paulo Malhaes, saying that he had travelled to England to learn new interrogation methods from British officers who "had latterly honed [their] techniques in Northern Ireland".
The Ballykelly approach worked well in Brazil. No more despairing screams from blood and burnt flesh, but whimpered confessions from shredded minds. Same result, but, for the perpetrators anyway, with fewer unfortunate side-effects.
It was only last month, almost three decades after the restoration of democracy, that the go-ahead was given for the first criminal proceedings arising from events during the dictatorship.
Meanwhile, the government of Dilma Rousseff, herself a victim of torture, defends "pacification" measures which have resulted in scores of controversial killings by special police units using the old anti-terrorist laws in a drive to make the country ready for the Fifa jamboree. And the economic disparities which restored democracy was designed to remedy remain as intractable as ever.
For World Cup purposes, both former officials and some former victims of the regime, cheered on by every major media outlet, call on Brazilians to put politics aside and leave the past in the past, stifle complaints and marginalise malcontents out to disrupt the party, so as to present the smiling face of a new Brazil to the world.
It is against this background that one great Brazilian footballer, Romario, 1994 World Cup winner and 1995 World Footballer of the Year, has described another, Pele, World Footballer of All Time, as "an imbecile".
"I called Pele an imbecile, because he said that people shouldn't demonstrate," Romario told Stephen Sackur on the BBC's Hardtalk. "The people are tired of being deceived and robbed. Pele can't say what's going on because he doesn't live it day to day.
"Politicians see it as their big chance to get rich. And there are other people ... like executives from the CBF [Brazilian Football Federation] and Fifa. These are also people who are getting rich with our money. The football bosses of Brazil are a cancer.
"There's this idea that everything for the World Cup should be up to the Fifa standard and the people have been told that the Fifa standard means 100% quality.
"Why can't we have the Fifa standard in hospitals, schools, public transport, security, disabled access? This is what the people are demanding on the streets. The people are right."
Isn't that amazingly sensible stuff to be coming from a footballer?