Newly-discovered documents suggest big international companies aided Brazil’s military regime in its war against ‘subversives’ and union activists. Academics and human rights activists have long believed that local and multinational companies helped Brazil’s military regime in their crackdown on “subversives.”
Now, the country’s Truth Commission, which is investigating crimes from the era believe they have discovered evidence that proves the link.
A government-appointed commission investigating abuses during Brazil’s 1964-1985 dictatorship has found documents that it says show how companies secretly helped the military identify suspected “subversives” and union activists on their payrolls.
Foreign and Brazilian companies are cited in the documents, including, most prominently, some of the world’s biggest automakers: Volkswagen AG, Ford Motor Co, Toyota Motor Corp and the Mercedes-Benz unit of Daimler AG, among others.
No companies have been accused of any crimes. Whether they collaborated with the dictatorship, and to what extent, are in dispute. Nevertheless, human rights advocates and some of the workers named in the documents say they may pursue civil lawsuits or other legal action as a result of the commission’s findings.
Some workers want the companies to pay reparations for lost wages. Others, including those who doubt the commission’s findings will be conclusive enough for a court case, say they would be satisfied with an apology.
The National Truth Commission was created in 2012 by President Dilma Rousseff, herself a former leftist militant who was jailed and tortured by the military in the early 1970s.
The commission is tasked with shedding new light on abuses during that era and who was responsible for them. The dictatorship killed some 300 people and tortured or imprisoned thousands more in what it saw as a fight to stop leftists from turning Brazil into a giant version of Fidel Castro’s Cuba.
Businesses in general benefited from the dictatorship’s conservative policies. Academics have long believed that local and multinational companies helped the regime identify employees who were fomenting labor unrest or otherwise posed a supposed threat to stability.
The documents do not provide a complete record of state repression during the dictatorship. Some papers from that period were burned by the military or otherwise vanished; some have been found in the past year in the homes of former officers after they died; others are scattered among state archives.
The commission’s most prized discovery to date is a document found in São Paulo state’s archives that researchers informally call “the black list.”
The typewritten list contains the names and home addresses of some 460 workers from 63 companies in an area of Greater São Paulo that is sometimes called “Brazil’s Detroit” because many foreign automakers are based there.
The list dates from the early 1980s. It was put together by the Department of Political and Social Order, or DOPS, a police intelligence agency that existed primarily to monitor and repress leftists. Historians say DOPS detained an undetermined number of people, and tortured many of them.
Volkswagen had the most employees on the DOPS list, with 73. Mercedes-Benz was second with 52. The document does not say what DOPS used the list for, or what criteria were used to select the names. The document also does not indicate how DOPS obtained the information.
Rosa Cardoso, a lawyer who heads the truth commission’s subcommittee investigating abuses against blue-collar workers, said the list appears to have been used to monitor labor activists at a time when unions in Greater São Paulo were becoming more assertive in their demands for better wages and working conditions.
The document, or some version of it, may have also been circulated to companies to prevent workers from getting jobs elsewhere once they were fired, she said, based on interviews the commission has conducted. The list includes so much proprietary information that, Cardoso argues, the data had to have been provided by the companies.
More than half the entries on the list include the area of the factory where the workers labored. That information, made in handwritten notes next to the workers’ names, is highly specific, denoting either the department’s function (“Maintenance”) or its internal name (“Sector 4530”).
“It’s proof that these companies conspired to repress their workers,” Cardoso said.
Some scholars caution that it is possible that worker information was obtained by other means: for instance, via union informants, or by the DOPS itself. Asked about these alternative explanations, Cardoso said: “Not in these numbers, with this detail.”
Some documents uncovered by the commission more clearly indicate that companies passed information to the military.
Volkswagen Brazil said it has not yet been contacted by the truth commission. Yet, in a development that may be the first of its kind in Brazil, Volkswagen said it would initiate its own probe.
“Without knowledge of the concrete documents we aren’t able to give you answers to all your questions,” spokesman Renato Acciarto said via email. “But Volkswagen will investigate all indications to get more information about the company and the state institutions during the period of military (rule).”
A spokesman for Mercedes-Benz in Brazil said that the company “does not confirm” giving information to DOPS, and that it “has among its values, the protection of the personal information of its employees.”
Toyota and Fiat, which now owns Chrysler, said they had no records of potential abuses during that era. “We would like to remind you that we’re talking about a period more than 30 years ago,” said Erick Boccia, a Toyota spokesman.
The big question looming over the commission’s work is what kind of justice is possible. Unlike some other South American countries that experienced Cold War-era dictatorships, Brazil until now has never seen a concerted effort to investigate serious abuses.