Cablegate: Herzog Case Reopens Wounds From Brazil's

Published: Wed 27 Oct 2004 01:01 PM
This record is a partial extract of the original cable. The full text of the original cable is not available.
E.O. 12958: N/A
1. (SBU) SUMMARY. In 1975, during Brazil's military dictatorship, leftist journalist Vladimir Herzog died under suspicious circumstances in a government facility in Sao Paulo. The regime classified his death as a suicide, but most believed he had been murdered, and Herzog became a case study for regime abuses. Two weeks ago, Brasilia's daily paper "Correio Brasiliense" ran a story highlighted by leaked photos that apparently show a humiliated Herzog in his cell shortly before his death. If accurate, the photos of his abuse would support the theory that he was murdered. Shockingly, the Brazilian Army responded with a statement legitimizing the measures of the dictatorship and dismissing the press coverage as a "little attempt at revenge". President Lula was outraged and the Army Chief quickly issued a better statement expressing remorse for Herzog's death. In another twist, it then emerged that the man in at least two of the three photos was not Herzog at all, but a Canadian priest who ran afoul of the regime and was briefly detained in 1975. The legacy of the Herzog case will be a broader discussion about how to handle the military archives from the dictatorship period, which are currently sealed for fifty years. President Lula, mindful of the need for smooth relations with the military and the importance of moving forward with his policy agenda, is in no hurry to open the dictatorship's files. He will leave the next steps to the Congress, courts, and public opinion. END SUMMARY.
HERZOG'S DEATH AND THE FORGOTTEN FILES --------------------------------------
2. (U) When he was detained by the military regime on 24 October 1975, Vladimir Herzog was a member of the Brazilian Communist Party and Director of Journalism at "TV Cultura". He was taken for interrogation at a notorious regime facility in Sao Paulo, becoming one of about 3,000 political prisoners held at the time. The next day, photos of his body were released --he had been hanged from his cell's window (the window is so low to the ground that Herzog's knees nearly touch the floor, generating immediate doubts about the hanging scenario). Although the regime insisted Herzog had committed suicide, he was widely believed to have been tortured and murdered. The Sao Paulo rabbi who presided over his funeral refused to bury Herzog in the cemetery's suicide section.
3. (U) In 1997, twelve years after the return to civilian rule. An intelligence officer who, even as late as 1995, was spying on leftist political parties, had a crisis of conscience. He gathered up a stack of files from the military intelligence center and delivered them to the Human Rights Committee of the federal Chamber of Deputies, where they gathered dust until this month. The Human Rights Committee is now reorganizing its archives, and the files resurfaced. On 17 October 2004, in a splashy six-page spread, Brasilia's daily newspaper "Correio Brasiliense" ran three photos leaked by the committee that apparently show a nude and humiliated Vladimir Herzog, head in hands, sitting in his jail cell.
MILITARY'S SHOCKING FIRST RESPONSE ----------------------------------
4. (U) The response by the military to the articles was nothing short of shocking in its defense of the military dictatorship: "From the mid-1960s through the early 1970s", reads the statement issued by the Army's Communications Center, "there was a subversive movement in Brazil acting on orders from well-known centers of the International Communist Movement, planning to topple by force the legally constituted Brazilian government. At the time the Brazilian Army, responding to popular demand, put together, along with the other armed forces and police forces, a pacification force that returned Brazil to normality. The measures taken by the Legal Forces were a legitimate response to the violence of those who refused dialogue and opted for radicalism. ... The Movement of 1964 (i.e., the military coup), fruit of popular demand, created the conditions for building a new Brazil in an environment of peace and security."
5. (U) "The Ministry of Defense has insistently emphasized that there are no historical documents proving that deaths occurred during these operations --considering that the records of the intelligence activities from that time were destroyed in accordance with legal rulings. ... Media statements based on third parties who kept personal files are not the responsibility of the Armed Forces. ... With no change in our position or our conviction about what happened in that period, (we) consider this action (i.e. the "Correio" articles) a little attempt at revenge or to stimulate sterile discussions about past events, that lead to nothing."
AND THE SECOND STATEMENT SOON AFTER -----------------------------------
6. (SBU) The press, public, and President Lula --who was briefly jailed during the dictatorship-- were outraged by the Army's statement. Lula called in DefMin Viegas, who explained that the statement had been released without his clearance. Viegas called in Army Chief Gen. Francisco Albuquerque who quickly issued a second statement reading, "The Brazilian Army laments the death of journalist Vladimir Herzog. ... I understand that the way in which this was handled was not appropriate, and that only the absence of a deeper internal discussion could allow the Army's Communication Center to issue a statement so out of touch with the current historical moment." Viegas pronounced the case closed. One rumor that was privately confirmed for us by DefMin Viegas's deputy, Fernando Abreu, was that the first statement was a boilerplate that the Army had used for years without incident or review. Abreu labeled it "stupidity".
WHO IS THE MAN IN THE PHOTOS? -----------------------------
7. (U) The strange twists in the story did not stop. A few days later, the press and GoB officials examining the three photos revealed that at least two of them were not of Herzog, but of Canadian priest Leopold D'Astous, now retired in Canada, who lived in Brazil at the time and was briefly arrested for working with youth groups. Herzog's widow admitted that she may have been hasty in confirming the identity in the photos, but she believes the third photo may yet be of her husband.
COMMENT - WHAT TO DO WITH THE FILES? ------------------------------------
8. (SBU) The legacy of the Herzog case is a discussion that is now getting underway over the fate of the military archives from the dictatorship period. Most of the official files were sealed for fifty years by a decree of President Cardoso. The official records specifically relating to the "Battle of Araguaia" (the bloody suppression of a communist movement in the interior of Para state) have, by all accounts, been completely destroyed, although bootleg copies made by Army officers involved in the operation have reportedly surfaced. But many other files, including those relating to the treatment of political prisoners, still exist. President Lula is in no hurry to open them, telling the service chiefs on October 24 that he supports keeping them sealed and urging the officers to cooperate with the Human Rights Committee should it hold hearings. Lula is keenly aware that unsealing the archives would not only strain his relations with the military, it would also be a huge distraction from his policy agenda ("This issue is now with the Human Rights Committee, the administration ought to concern itself with creating jobs and developing the country", Lula told the officers). The Chairman of the Chamber's Human Rights Committee, Mario Heringer (PDT-MG), has ordered the Committee's archives to be reviewed to see if there are any more explosive revelations, and he has called the intelligence officer who gave the files to the committee in 1997 to testify. Meanwhile, press and pundits are offering a variety of opinions on how best to handle the archives in the longer-term.
9. (SBU) While Lula and DefMin Viegas appeared satisfied by the second official statement issued by Army Chief Albuquerque, the contretemps over the statements suggests that there are still some pockets of "old think" in the officer corps --but there is no reason to view this as an institutional threat to democratic authority over the military. Viegas' relations with the service chiefs, already strained, have only worsened with the Herzog case. And even beforehand, rumors had Viegas losing his job in Lula's next cabinet shuffle. While the Army got a black eye from this affair, Lula seems ready to move on to other issues and leave the sweeping-up to others.
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