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US-Based Brazilian Historians Write Open Letter Protesting Bolsonaro's National Archivist Appointment

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November 29, 2021

Open letter on Mr. Ricardo Braga's nomination as Director of the Brazilian National Archive

Brazil’s National Archive has been a crucial institution in efforts to investigate and publicize authoritarian actions held by the Brazilian dictatorship (1964-1985), being the official repository of thousands of items of that period, as determined by Decree 5,584 of 2005. These collections corroborate the use of state force against civil liberties, containing a wide array of sources, from censorship material to files from the regime’s intelligence bodies. Just the files of the dictatorship-era National Intelligence Service contain approximately ten million textual pages. Moreover, the archive contains thousands of documents germane to the history of Brazil since independence, making it one of the most important repositories in the country. The integrity of its collections and researchers' unfettered access to them are paramount to academic freedom and for rigorous research on Brazilian history.

On November 19, 2021, Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro nominated Mr. Ricardo Borda D’Água de Almeida Braga as the Director of the Brazilian National Archive. Mr. Braga lacks the necessary qualifications for the job, having never held any roles related to relevant fields of expertise, as stated by the open letter from the Fórum Nacional das Associações de Arquivologia do Brasil, undersigned by over sixty academic institutions and associations. The appointee, who  will replace librarian Neide de Sordi, has a career as the owner of a private security company.

As professional historians or historians-in-training of Brazil based in the United States, we are gravely concerned at potential ramifications of such an appointment. We are particularly alarmed by the possibility that the new Director may “use the National Archive to rewrite history” to fit the president’s authoritarian ideological inclinations. This threatens the mission of that archive as a repository of historical documents spanning from the Early Modern period to recent history, the latter including the 1964-85 military dictatorship, particularly considering the enormous cuts to federal education and research budgets enacted by the Bolsonaro administration.

Mr. Braga’s appointment poses special risk to documents related to the dictatorship, to which President Bolsonaro has repeatedly alluded to as a positive period in Brazilian history, having publicly joked about people disappeared by the military regime, stating that “whoever looks for bones is a dog” when responding to efforts to locate remains of victims of the 1964-85 dictatorship. Bolsonaro’s administration has also strategically appointed military men to government positions, and has insisted on appointing people of its interest to human rights-related posts. These statements and actions represent a breach of Article 25, section b, of the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance, signed and ratified by Brazil. They also indicate that the National Archive’s collections are at risk.

We understand this appointment as part of Bolsonaro government's efforts to undermine decades of research that reveal the military dictatorship's violations of civil and human rights. After democratization in 1985, different social groups and institutions started to investigate and report the violations of the military government. In these discussions it became clear that different groups remembered those 21 years very differently. During the era of military rule, and especially due to censorship, most of the population received little information about police persecution. Aside from the groups who were directly imprisoned and questioned, and their families, most Brazilian citizens, and in particular those who lived outside the most populated urban centers, did not receive consistent news about state violence. As the officers in power released decrees that imposed censorship or criminalized opposition, they invited those who opposed the regime to leave the country. Whoever challenged the official version of history was harassed, tortured, and sometimes killed. With the end of the dictatorship, different organizations were formed to investigate the regime's actions, and new information came to light. These groups pushed against the official version, or the official memory, of the history generals in power had constructed from 1964 to 1985.

Therefore, since 1964, different groups have engaged in battles to determine how Brazil must remember the military rule. And although social groups throughout Brazil remember the dictatorship in distinct ways, from 1985 up until the mid 2010s, two main memory poles fought for their own projects on a national scale: one that advocated for forgiving and leaving the history in the past as a way to move forward; and another that believed that the only way to move forward was remembering and addressing non-resolved issues so they would never be repeated in history. While many who served and supported the regime composed the first group, many of its opponents composed the second. This meant that with the end of military rule, the official version of events had lost strength in the public debate. This changed in the mid 2010s. Bolsonaro promoted the return of the official version of the history of the dictatorship in Brazil. Throughout time in public office, he praised military rule using the same rhetoric of military rulers. When voting in favor of Dilma Rousseff's impeachment in 2016, Bolsonaro dedicated his vote to Colonel Carlos Brilhante Ustra, who interrogated and tortured opponents of the dictatorship during the era. Doing so, he positioned himself against the work of the National Truth Commission—created by Rousseff in 2012—and the work of a generation of activists and scholars who uncovered the human rights violations of the dictatorship. Bolsonaro's numerous statements as an apologist of military rule served as an indication for which memory about the dictatorship he would support during his own government.

Interpreting the recent administrative changes at the Brazilian National Archive as part of Bolsonaro's efforts to memorialize the era of military dictatorship in Brazil in a positive light and sabotage academic production in Brazil more broadly, we call on our international allies to join us in the condemning of Mr. Borba's nomination, and to demand its immediate reversal. We also ask for the help of institutional partners to secure copies of whatever materials are available online, and for researchers to make relevant safeguards to protect the digital copies they may have made of physical files at the National Archive. We further ask researchers to please consider making their digital copies available for general use, at a later date, should our worst fears regarding the integrity of the collections be confirmed.



Brazilian Historians in the United States (BRAHUS)


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Alexandra Lemos Zagonel, Ph.D. Candidate, Emory University, BRAHUS Member

Lucas Koutsoukos-Chalhoub, Doctoral Candidate, University of Michigan, BRAHUS Member

Marilia Corrêa, Visiting Assistant Professor, Loyola University New Orleans, BRAHUS member

João Gabriel Rabello Sodré, PhD candidate at Georgetown University, BRAHUS member

Tiago Fernandes Maranhão, Ph.D. and Postdoc, Vanderbilt University, BRAHUS Member

Cassie Osei, PhD Candidate, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Allen Magana, Independent Researcher

Read entire article at Brazilian Historians in the United States (BRAHUS)