There’s an ironic Brazilian expression that goes something like: “from those you least expect, indeed you get nothing.” Nobody expects Congressman Jair Bolsonaro, a former military man, and fervent Catholic, to be sensible. He epitomizes hideous sectors of Brazilian society, and over the years has been known to erupt in racist, homophobic, and sexist rants. Last Sunday, though, Bolsonaro showed us that even he is capable of outdoing himself. When he took the stand to declare his predictable “yea” vote for the continuation of impeachment proceedings against President Dilma Rousseff, he gave a nauseating speech, even for his standards.
He started by congratulating House Speaker Eduardo Cunha, a man who hid bank accounts filled with millions he illegally received in the form of bribes. But that was just the warm-up. “They’ve lost in 1964, and have lost now, in 2016,” he went on, in a reference to the 1964 military coup that gave Brazil a 21-year dictatorship. “In the memory of Colonel Carlos Alberto Brilhante Ustra, Dilma’s nemesis,” he dedicated his vote.
Carlos Alberto Brilhante Ustra was a member of the Brazilian Army. From 1970 to 1974, he was head of the Department of Information Operations – Center for Internal Defense Operations, that is, the political police during the dictatorship. President Dilma Rousseff, as we know, bore arms against the military dictatorship and was arrested and tortured, hence the reference to her.
Ustra’s name is the very symbol of the regime’s most sordid years, when arbitrary arrests became an everyday affair, as did torture and killing perpetrated by state agents. He planned, supervised, and sometimes took part in brutalizing political prisoners. His victims even included pregnant women and children.
Maria Amélia Teles, who was conspiring with the underground Communist Party of Brazil, met Brilhante Ustra on December 28, 1972. She had been arrested, alongside with her husband, her pregnant sister, and a few other militants. Her first exchange with the man was a rather memorable one. While watching her husband and a friend being beaten by members of the political police, she turned to the man who was orchestrating the whole ordeal. “He slapped me with the back of his hand, shouting: ‘Fuck off, you communist,’ and ordered the three of us to be taken to a torture chamber,” she remembers.
Teles watched a friend tortured to death, but that wasn’t even the worst part of her nearly two-month period under Ustra’s control. One day, she was attached to the so-called “Dragon’s Chair,” a sort of electric chair, which the torturers used to jolt shocks into a prisoner’s sexual organs, anus, chest, mouth, and ears. She was naked and bleeding when Ustra brought her young children, four and five years old, to the torture room. “My husband suffered from tuberculosis – after a torture session, he turned green. My daughter asked me why her father was green, and I was blue. I couldn’t even hold them in my arms, as I was tied down. That I won’t forget.”
In 2008, Carlos Alberto Brilhante Ustra became the first former military officially recognized by the Brazilian justice system as a “torturer,” after a lawsuit by Teles and her family. During 2013 hearings of the Truth Committee that investigated crimes committed by agents of the state throughout the military regime, Ustra said that he followed orders and was fighting for democracy against terrorism. He died in October 2015, without ever paying his dues. Yesterday, Jair Bolsonaro backed his words, and called Brilhante Ustra a “national hero.”
This was not the first time Bolsonaro has praised torturers. In 2005, Congress held hearings to investigate corruption accusations against members of the Lula administration. On the day that former congressman José Genoino was to be questioned, Bolsonaro chaperoned a former military who had arrested– and allegedly tortured – Genoino.
In recent polls, congressman Jair Bolsonaro appears to have around 6 to 8% of voters supporting him. As dozens of congressmen said during Sunday’s vote: may God have mercy on our nation.