President Dilma Rousseff this week continued her delicate dance with the Brazilian military, which has expressed strong reservations about the government’s proposed new truth and justice commission to investigate human rights abuses committed during the period of the country’s military regime (1964-1985). On 5 April before 70 senior officers from the three military forces, Rousseff, made history anew by becoming the first woman to receive the Medal of the Order of Defence, the highest military decoration.
Afterwards, Rousseff, who was imprisoned under the 1964-1985 regime and did not want to be photographed receiving the medal, made her first speech to the military. Sticking rigourously to a short prepared script, the president struck a conciliatory tone, declaring, “A country that has, like Brazil, an armed force characterised by its strict adherence to its constitutional obligations is a country that has corrected its own paths and has reached high level of institutional maturity”. She went on to assure the military of their importance (despite defence budget cuts to the tune of US$2.5bn in 2011). “A totally developed Brazil will need equipped, trained, modern armed forces. Defence cannot be considered a lesser element on the national agenda”. Pointing to the need to defend Brazil’s vast offshore oil reserves, Rousseff argued that it would be a mistake to consider spending on the upgrading of military technology “an idle effort.”
Rousseff ’s predecessor and mentor, Lula da Silva (2002-2010), kept the military happy by increasing defence spending during his eight years in office. This was no mere sop, Lula and Rousseff both firmly believe that if Brazil is to become a genuine global superpower and provide a true regional counterweight to the US, it must match its soft economic power with hard military power. According to the International Institute for Strategic Studies, under Lula, defence spending went from US$9.14bn in 2003 (his first year in office) to US$34.7bn in 2010 (about 1.7% of GDP), dwarfing the rest of the region but nonetheless a fraction of the US defence budget (US$722bn in 2010).
Rousseff ’s message to the military was effectively: “you do your job and I’ll do mine.” There was pointedly no mention of the proposed new truth commission, but her justice minister, José Eduardo Cardozo, this week made clear that it will go ahead this year. The government is keen to get it up and running before the distraction of municipal elections in 2012. Notably, the defence minister, Nelson Jobim, who has previously given voice to the military objections, has latterly appeared to tone down his disapproval.
Justice and Truth, belatedly
The government is seeking to build congressional consensus for a draft bill sent to congress in May 2010 by Lula. Under the bill, the main objective of the truth commission would be “the promotion of national reconciliation” and the “circumstantial explanation of the cases of torture, deaths, forced disappearances, the hiding of corpses, and their authors, including those [cases] that took place abroad”. The bill would give the commission two years to investigate human rights violations. The members will not have prosecutorial powers, but the results might be used as a basis for subsequent criminal cases. Notably, the commission may examine abuses committed by both sides. The 1979 Amnesty Law also covered both sides. Brazil is among the last of the Latin American countries to re-examine its past. It has never sentenced anyone for crimes committed during the military regime, though it has approved reparations for victims of state sponsored violence. Human rights activists want Brazil to open up its military archives so as to allow court cases against suspected perpetrators to go ahead. Lula, however, extended the seal on the archives for another 30 years.

Latin American Weekly Report, 07 April 2011