Gender and Memory in Truth Projects in Brazil
- Colin M. SniderColin M. SniderDepartment of History, University of Texas at Tyler
Truth commissions have become common instruments to document human rights violations for societies emerging from authoritarian violence around the world since the 1980s. First appearing as mechanisms to attempt to address rights violations and to pursue reconciliation or justice in the aftermath of Latin American dictatorships that ended in the 1980s and early 1990s, such commissions and their published reports became important tools for societies transitioning from authoritarianism and for addressing the state’s past rights violations in Asia, Africa, Latin America, Europe, and North America. These commissions, and the reports they issue, serve to recognize the state’s responsibility in violence and repression. Such reports can be an important factor in uncovering the truth of repression and the experiences and voices of victims, victims’ family members, and survivors. These reports also often address reconciliation and even justice for victims, though such reports’ successes in these areas are more mixed. Nonetheless, truth commission reports and other truth projects from non-governmental organizations are important artifacts in documenting the repressive past for societies transitioning from authoritarian regimes.
As important as such reports—from states and from non-governmental organizations alike—are, they are also a product of their particular historical, political, and social milieus. Consequently, truth project reports are important artifacts in understanding both the violently repressive past and resistance to it, and the historical moment in which such reports on that past are produced. Memory is especially integral in the production of such documents. The voices of survivors and of victims’ families allow previously silenced memories to gain public expression, even while their framing and use of language reflects the ways power operates in memory and in transitional societies. As a result, scholars can treat such reports not just as documents of authoritarian repression, but as snapshots of societies addressing transitional justice. These moments and documents not only seek to thoroughly narrate past repression; they reflect power relations at the very moment of a report’s production. As a study of these types of reports—non-governmental and official—in Brazil reveal, such documents can thus be read for expressions of power along gendered lines. The result is an ability to read truth reports both as a document detailing repression within and resistance to authoritarian regimes, and how memory serves as a site for the intersection of power along gendered, class-based, or other social markers present in the use of language, narrative structures, and memories of repression and resistance in a post-authoritarian setting.
- Comparative Politics
Truth Projects in Post-Dictatorship Brazil
When Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff signed into law the Comissão Nacional da Verdade (National Truth Commission [CNV]) in 2011, it was momentous on several levels. It was the latest in a string of investigations into Brazil’s dictatorial past, dating back to the 1980s and the end of the 1964–1985 dictatorship. Additionally, it began and was completed during the administrations of Brazil’s first woman president—a woman whom that very military regime had tortured and detained as a political prisoner 30 years earlier. The CNV was a milestone that marked the Brazilian state’s most thorough attempt to document and speak to the repressive past of military rule.
Yet the CNV was not the first or sole attempt to produce a report that chronicled the state’s use of violence, torture, murder, and “disappearances” or that narrated the lives of its victims. Already in the early 1970s, while the regime was in its most repressive phase, human rights organizations appeared under both religious and civilian institutions to document torture, disappearance, and other rights violations, and these organizations increased in number throughout the decade (Kelly, 2018; Quadrat, 2008, 2015). In 1979, well before the regime’s end, one of these groups published the first public documentation of the deaths and disappearances of opponents to military rule (Cabral & Lapa, 1979), marking one of the first attempts at a truth project that chronicled the contexts of victims’ deaths and the state’s responsibility for them.
Such reports flourished after the dictatorship, beginning in 1985 when the Archdiocese of São Paulo published Brasil: Nunca Mais, a synthesis of thousands of state documents secretly gathered and recorded in the BNM project (Weschler, 1998). The report, published in English as Torture in Brazil, detailed the use of torture and provided an early, non-comprehensive list of victims (Archdiocese of São Paulo, 1998). In the 1990s, the Comitê de Familiares dos Mortos e Desaparecidos Políticos (CFMDP) launched its own private efforts to detail the lives of those whom the regime killed, in an attempt to receive reparations in the wake of a 1995 government bill that offered victims’ families the opportunity to seek indemnities from the state for state violence, though the burden of proof fell on victims’ families rather than on the state. The result was the Dossiê dos Mortos e Desaparecidos Políticos a partir de 1964 (Dossier of the Political Dead and Disappeared since 1964), first published in 1995 and reissued in a second, more comprehensive edition in 2009 (Comissão de Familiares dos Mortos e Desaparecidos Políticos—Instituto de Estudo da Violência do Estado [CFMDP-IEVE, Commission of Families of the Political Dead and Disappeared—Institute of the Study of State Violence], 1995, 2009). A special committee in Congress, the Comissão Especial de Mortos e Desaparecidos Políticos (CEMDP), conducted reparations hearings, and in the wake of those hearings, it issued its own report, Direito à Memória e à Verdade (CEMDP, 2007). The CEMDP report marked the first time the federal government issued a report chronicling the state’s systematic use of repression, torture, and murder during the military dictatorship of 1964–1985. It was in this context that, after more than two and a half years of work, the CNV in 2014 issued its final report. The Relatório Final—over 4,000 pages long—fit within this longer tradition of documenting repression even while it also marked the most comprehensive effort yet—official, civilian, or religious—to uncover the fate of Brazil’s dead and disappeared and to document the mechanisms and reach of repression during military rule.
Brazil’s CNV also fit within a broader pattern throughout Latin America, beginning in 1984 when Argentina’s Comisión Nacional sobre la Desaparición de Personas (CONADEP, the National Commission on the Disappearance of People) published its report investigating the Argentine military dictatorship (1976–1983), finding the state responsible for at least 8,961 deaths at the time that the commission concluded its study in 1984 (CONADEP, 1984); subsequent estimates place the total at upward of 30,000 victims. Other countries that transitioned out of authoritarian states that committed widespread human rights violations followed suit as they transitioned to post-dictatorship regimes. Bolivia, Argentina, Chile, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Peru all established truth commissions within two years of the end of periods of state violence. In this regard, Brazil’s CNV lagged far behind that of other countries in the hemisphere in its timing, with the state only investigating past repression nearly 30 years after the end of the regime.
Nonetheless, despite its relative tardiness, Brazil’s CNV documented the repressive past not only to acknowledge the state’s role but to provide “memory and historical truth” in the hopes of “promoting national reconciliation,” if not justice (CNV, 2014). In the process, the CNV report both tacitly and overtly contributed to already extant collective memories of the dictatorship period, even as its thoroughness also expanded and institutionalized collective memories of the regime, its violation of human rights, and the lives of those who died at the regime’s hands.
Civilian and official reports—the Dossiê dos Mortos e Desaparecidos Políticos a Partir de 1964 and the Final Report of the CNV, respectively—illustrate how these truth projects offer a complex window into questions of gender and memory in transitional politics and societies. However, these reports—be it the CNV or its antecedents in Brazil—do much more than merely chronicle, contextualize, and explain the deployment of state repression and terror or commemorate victims of state terrorism. In documenting the particular lives of the more than 400 people killed or disappeared in the years surrounding the 1964–1985 dictatorship, these reports—both official and non-governmental—offer important insights into the individual lives and backgrounds of those whom the state killed as part of systematic human rights violations. The reports collectively reveal a complex and ambiguous interaction between gender and the production of memory, providing gendered narratives of women’s agency and political activism both during and after military rule. On the one hand, these truth projects can help improve our understanding of the political life and agency of women under Brazil’s dictatorship to varying degrees, challenging dominant narratives that have focused on activism as a heteronormative masculine arena (Dassin, 1992; Green, 2012, 2018), especially in the published testimonial literature (Bezerra, 2011; Da-Rin, 2008; Dirceu & Palmeira, 1998; Gabeira, 1979; Moura, 2016; Tavares, 1999). On the other hand, such truth projects also reinforce narratives that cast women’s subjectivity in gendered ways that give women greater historical value as bodies in death than as subjects in life. Thus, such truth projects further illuminate women’s agency and their roles in resisting authoritarian states while simultaneously reinforcing or incompletely challenging established meta-narratives that relegate women to secondary status within broader narratives of military rule and repression in Brazil. The result is enduring pockets of silence on women’s activism—a silence that resulted from the unmaking of the human world via the state’s use of terrorism, torture, murder, and disappearances (Scarry, 1985).
Memory and Truth Projects
Beginning in the 1980s and 1990s, truth commissions became one of the central instruments for societies that transitioned from repressive regimes violating human rights, and such reports flourished throughout much of Latin America, Africa, Asia, and elsewhere (Hayner, 2010). These projects were part of broader efforts to “‘historicize’ memories” (Jelin, 2003), and they played an important historical, political, and social role in shaping social frameworks of memory (Halbwachs, 1992) regarding the military past. Although scholarship has flourished alongside the proliferation of truth commissions at the end of the 20th century and beginning of the 21st, the function of truth commissions, their relation to collective memory, and their status as artifacts of a particular historical context and moment remain under-addressed. Instead, scholarship focuses either on juridical, legal, and political mechanisms and the effects of truth commissions (Wiebelhaus-Braun, 2010) or on truth commissions’ relationship with transitions to democracy (Brito, González-Enríquez, & Aguilar, 2001; Ferrara, 2015; Lessa, 2013). Such works rarely consider truth commissions and truth projects as artifacts of memory themselves, though some works (Hayner, 2010) begin to implicitly broach the connection of truth commissions as a means of confirming individual memories of repression, and others have begun to focus on reports as a “vehicle of memory” (Crenzel, 2017).
Meanwhile, a large and still-growing literature on memory in Latin America proliferated, but these works often focus on memory struggles in areas like collective memory (Amilivia, 2016; Gates-Madsen, 2018; Jelin, 2003; Lessa & Druliolle, 2011; Montaño & Crenzel, 2015; Robben, 2018; Stern, 2006; Villalón, 2017), post-memory and intergenerational memory (Huyse, 2005; Kaiser, 2005; Maguire, 2017; Racja, 2018; Ros, 2012), and cultural production (Díaz de Leon, Llorente, & Salvi, 2015; Gómez-Barris, 2008; Hite, 2012; Milton, 2014; Lazzara, 2011), without considering truth commission reports as elements of those national memory struggles. Some works have begun to situate truth commission reports in these broader historical and cultural struggles over memory and the repressive past (Atencio, 2014; Milton, 2018). However, just as such truth projects themselves are tied to their political and social contexts, so too is the language contained within such projects tied to its social and discursive context. Memory projects are in part an attempt to give permanence to memory before it is lost.
In their very goal of preventing the repressive past from being “buried” (Hayner, 2010), truth commissions are themselves “labors of memory” (Jelin, 2003) that represent a particular narrative form about the repressive past that separates that past from other forms of ongoing repression in the present (Racja, 2018). A central component in definitions of what constitutes a truth commission rests in its efforts to recover, document, and narrate “truths” that have gone unacknowledged or denied during and after periods of state violence. In this regard, truth commissions are not the only means for such memory-production. Non-state groups, including clergy, victims’ families’ associations, and non-governmental organizations, have also sought to provide their own reports that seek to chronicle, narrate, and document the lives of those who suffered and died at the hands of repressive states in Latin America (Servicio Paz y Justicia [SERPAJ], 1992; Archdiocese of São Paulo, 1998; CFMDP-IEVE, 1995). In this regard, truth commissions are part of a larger constellation of reports that link together memory and truth projects. In this constellation, the truth projects—be they state-sanctioned truth commissions or non-state reports—are themselves an act of memory production intended to prevent collective forgetting of victims with the passage of time.
At the same time, despite claims to establish the truth of suffering and repression under authoritarian regimes, truth projects cannot break free of their social and cultural milieu, remaining tied to their own present rather than merely representing the past (Nora, 1992). While providing invaluable details about the lives of those who suffered at the hands of rights-violating regimes, these narratives are also subject to the expression of discourses of power that operate in these milieu, including gendered discourses. Studies on truth commissions have recognized the truth commissions’ ability to document gendered sexual violence and repression (Hayner, 2010), but they tend to treat such reports as if they existed untethered from the broader discursive forms and social contexts that articulate inequality and power relations in society. Yet truth projects from state and non-state actors alike are engaged in the social and legal construction of victimhood (Layús, 2018). In their efforts to address the inherent tensions between documenting victimhood while portraying the victims as political agents, gendered discourses can emerge within the narratives of truth projects. As the case of Brazil demonstrates, gender and memory thus intersect in complex ways within truth projects. On the one hand, such projects illuminate our understanding of women’s political agency; on the other hand, these projects also continue to focus on women as objects or as unnamed, faceless victims in their efforts to document the truth of repression under dictatorship.
Memorializing Women in the Dossiê Ditadura of the CFMDP
The CFMDP had its genesis in 1979, at the same moment when the São Paulo Archdiocese was just beginning the work that would culminate in the publication of Brasil: Nunca mais in 1985 (Weschler, 1998). As the Comitê Brasileiro pela Anistia (CBA) organized and mobilized to pardon political prisoners in the late 1970s (Quadrat, 2015), a subcommittee of the Comitê de Familiares de Mortos e Desaparecidos (CFMD) formed. In 1979, with support from the CBA, the CFMD (the “P” was added later) published Desaparecidos Políticos: Prisões seqüestros assassinatos, which included a list of 280 dead and disappeared and biographies of dozens to provide emblematic examples of the variety of human rights violations between 1964 and 1979 (Cabral & Lapa, 1979). The book stands out as one of the only reports compiled and published during the dictatorship itself, and it provided the basis for what would eventually turn into the CFMDP’s Dossiê dos Mortos e Desaparecidos Políticos.
The CFMDP remained active after 1985, with the organization’s efforts aided by events like the 1990 discovery of over 1,000 bones of possibly disappeared bodies in the Perus section of the Cemitério Dom Bosco in São Paulo and a presidential order to open police archives. Simultaneously, individual states also began investigations into the fates of the disappeared in the early 1990s (Brito, 2001). This new context provided the CFMDP with the ability to further pursue truth and justice for their loved ones. In 1993, the CFMDP formed the Instituto de Estudos sobre a Violência do Estado (IEVE) to “promote continuing investigations into the circumstances of the deaths and the localization of the mortal remains of the military dictatorship’s victims” (CFMDP, n.d.). This led to the publication in 1995 of the Dossiê dos mortos e desaparecidos politicos a partir de 1964. In 2009, the CFMDP reissued the Dossiê in a second edition (CFMDP-IEVE, 2009), taking advantage of the release of new documents, interviews, and photographs acquired in the years since the first edition.
In the 1995 edition, across 333 pages CFMDP accounted for 358 dead and disappeared Brazilians between 1964 and 1985. The report divided those numbers into several categories: “official” deaths where state responsibility was acknowledged (185 deaths); “other deaths” that occurred under suspicious conditions (14); “deaths in exile” (8); those who “disappeared in Brazil” and whose fates were unknown (138); and those who were killed or disappeared in Argentina (7), Bolivia (1), and Chile (5)—other “Operation Condor” countries whose security forces worked with Brazil in a hemispheric repressive apparatus (Dinges, 2005). After an introduction that historically situates the report and acknowledges types of deaths not included—including the murders of over 1,000 rural workers during the dictatorship independently of state apparatuses—the 1995 dossier provides biographies of the 358 victims. Most commonly, these biographies constitute a paragraph-length passage on who they were and how they died, though some biographies of the regime’s most famous victims receive two to three pages of biographical detail. Building on the greater availability of documents made public since 1995, the 2009 edition of the CFMDP’s dossier more than doubled the 1995 edition, encompassing 753 pages and a total of 435 deaths between 1962 and 1985. The lengthier edition includes more biographical information for many of the victims, photographs of the individuals when available, and an annex featuring 123 graphic “photos of the dead found in the archives of political repression,” including the bodies of 14 women whom the regime killed (CFMDP-IEVE, 2009).
To understand the complex and ambiguous ways narratives and gender interweave in these truth projects, the CFMDP report is illuminating. Of the 435 victims included in the updated 2009 report, 54 (12.4%) were women (in the 1995 report, 46 of the 358 victims—12.8%—were women). These women’s lives illustrate the ways in which women were active in resisting the regime, both through armed conflict and through more quotidian measures such as trying to uncover their children’s fates or even being in the wrong place during police violence. However, several emblematic cases reveal the ways in which these narratives of women’s roles in the CFMDP report are gendered. Despite providing strong evidence of women’s activism and agency, the CFMDP report often subordinates women’s activism to men’s activism. Although the political agency (or lack thereof) ranges from case study to case study, collectively what emerges is a focus less on women as their own subjects in life than as objects in death that illuminate state repression in Brazil.
The case of Catarina Abi Eçab is illustrative of how these reports objectify women through their deaths. Abi Eçab was one of the earlier victims of the military regime, when she and her husband were found dead on the side of the road in Rio de Janeiro state in November 1968 in suspicious circumstances. In describing her death, the CFMDP’s report treats her life as auxiliary to that of her husband, Marco Antônio Abi Eçab. Although the file acknowledges her involvement in student politics, it spends much more time on her husband’s role in student movements, whereas her activism is limited to a single, curt declaration that “she was a university student and a militant of the Ação Libertadora Nacional [National Liberation Action].” This attention simultaneously buttresses the well-known reality that men ended up dominating positions of leadership in student movements, both in Brazil and elsewhere (Carey, 2005; Green, 2018; Langland, 2013), even while the emphasis on his activism rather than hers reinforces that very narrative. Whereas her identity operates primarily through her status as a student activist who married another student activist, his operates through his subjectivity as a student leader, activist, and militant. Her identity primarily hinges on her marriage; his, on his resistance.
Yet in death, the focus of the CFMDP report shifts almost entirely to her. It is her body that an ex-soldier in a 2001 interview recalled seeing; his gaze (and, through the report, the reader’s gaze) falls on her body rather than on her husband’s. Additionally, the report focuses primarily on the fate of her body, not his, and its utility in trying to understand the couple’s fate. Even while seeking to uncover the “truth” of both Catarina and Marco, the report ends up establishing a gendered narrative in which his role is dominant in life (as a student activist), whereas her body is dominant in death as a means to prove the couple were in fact murdered rather than the victims of a roadside accident. In the report’s account of the two lives, Marco carries a greater subjectivity in life, whereas Catarina becomes a body to prove a repressive death without offering an equal subjectivity or agency while she lived.
The CFMDP also portrays women based on their physical appearances and attractiveness in ways that are generally absent in similar biographies of male victims. Alceri Maria Gomes da Silva, a working-class woman from São Paulo, is emblematic of this phenomenon. Based on accounts of her life, in the late 1960s, she became involved in labor organizing and in cultural productions that criticized the regime. As the regime entered its most repressive phase, she joined the Vanguarda Popular Revolucionária (Popular Revolutionary Vanguard [VPR]) armed movement. The VPR was behind a number of successful kidnappings of diplomats in exchange for the release of political prisoners in the late 1960s and early 1970s (Green, 2018). Despite a clear history of labor and cultural mobilization and armed struggle, the CFMDP report ultimately portrays her political activism as occurring only when a man facilitated it. Perhaps more importantly, both editions of the CFMDP report make a point to quickly identify her as “a short, thin, very happy young woman” (“uma moça baixinha, magra, muito alegre”). The report thus first constitutes her identity through her appearance, and then through her activism; by contrast, Antônio dos Três Reis Oliveira, the man police killed alongside her, does not receive a similar treatment. Instead, the CFMDP file on him focuses not on his appearance, but his background as a student leader. Likewise, when documenting the death of Nilda Carvalho Cunha, a young woman involved in the Movimento Revolucionário 8 de outubro (MR-8) who died from the long-term effects of torture, the CFMDP report turns to the book Lamarca, o Capitão da Guerrilha to reconstruct her death, including the way people characterized her, based not on her youth or activism, but on her beauty (CFMDP, 1995).
Drawing on newspaper reports from the dictatorship era itself, the CFMDP report also inadvertently reifies narratives that identify women primarily through their relationship to men, even as it tries to shed light on their activism, repeating historically gendered tropes in truth project narratives. Marilena Villas Boas Pinto died in police custody in 1971 after police arrested her and Mario de Souza Prata, sending both to the infamous Casa da Morte (House of Death) in Petrópolis. In chronicling their case, the CFMDP cites three different 1971 newspaper headlines discussing Souza Prata’s death: “Terrorist couple dead after resisting arrest orders;” “Assassinated terrorist killed upon resisting arrest;” and “Terrorist and his lover dead in shootout.” In each of the headlines, Marilena is never portrayed as a political subject. Rather, the headlines treat her as just a part of a romantic couple in the first case, as completely absent in the second case, and as an apolitical “lover” in the third. Even the security apparatuses that the CFMDP draws on refer to her merely as “his [Mario’s] lover Marilena” (CFMDP, 1995). Despite the initial establishment of Marilena’s role in the student movement in the 1960s, the CFMDP report then uncritically turns to media and police accounts of her primarily as a lover when they mention her at all, mirroring and perpetuating gendered media discourses from the 1970s. Such an account implicitly establishes her subjectivity along the lines of her sexual relations rather than her political activism. Marilena only becomes the center of attention when the CFMDP report focuses on her body in death, rather than Mario’s, as had been the case in Catarina Abi Eçab’s death. The result is at best an ambiguous narrative that, after establishing some degree of political agency, renders Marilena a sexualized object in life worth greater focus only as a body in death.
This is not to suggest that the CFMDP report uniformly objectifies women’s bodies at the expense of their activism. In cases of more famous women like Iara Iavelberg, the report is thorough in portraying the ways that women openly resisted the regime by joining student and armed movements (CFMDP, 1995). Nor does it have to be through guerrilla activism that such agency is apparent, as evident in the case of one of the final victims of the regime. Margarida Maria Alves was a peasant labor activist whom landed elites murdered in 1983, and the CFMDP is attentive to her rural activism in life.
The result is a complex and ambiguous report through which the CFMDP, in its quest to uncover the “truth” of the regime’s victims’ lives and deaths, in some ways illuminates women’s subjectivity as agents resisting inequality and repression. However, as the examples of women like Catarina Abi Eçab, Marilena Villas Boas, and Alceri Maria Gomes da Silva illustrate, that agency and subjectivity of women varies from case to case, and the CFMDP report perhaps unintentionally slips into gendered narratives that deny women greater agency as subjects. Even while the CFMDP report sheds light on the degree to which women were targets of military repression and, to a lesser extent, agents in resisting military rule, it also ends up inadvertently falling into gendered narratives that often give women greater worth as objects in death than as subjects in life.
Memorializing Women in the Final Report of the CNV
If the CFMDP was designed to provide brief biographies of the politically dead and disappeared in order to obtain state recognition and recompense, the CNV had a much broader goal of documenting the dictatorial past as thoroughly as it could through a wide range of sources: oral testimony; previous reports from BNM, CFMDP, and CEMDP; declassified military records; state documents; and other written and oral materials. The impact of this wider range of materials is evident not just in the final report’s length (the CNV’s final report totaled 4,319 pages), but in its objectives. The CFMDP marked families’ efforts to discover the fates of their loved ones; thus, the two editions of the dossier focused primarily on tracing the fates of victims. The CNV did much more. Volumes I and II of the CNV report provided a context for the Commission, a narrative of the factors leading to the dictatorship, an analysis of the different types of groups the regime persecuted, the mechanisms of torture and repression the regime deployed, and its role in Operation Condor, among other topics. In Volume III, the CNV provided more thorough biographies of the victims’ lives and went beyond the CFMDP report in providing evidence on and conclusions regarding the repression they suffered, their fates, the archival and oral records on their lives and deaths, and the identities of those responsible for their deaths and disappearances. The CNV report also documented the ways victims have been publicly memorialized in street names, school names, and other forms of memorialization, as well as diagnosing all who were responsible for the individuals’ deaths, from presidents down to local police agents.
Volume III of the CNV’s final report is the lengthiest volume, containing the individual biographies and cases of all 434 dead or disappeared that the CNV documented between 1950 and 1985. Women are quite literally the first actors one encounters in reviewing the list of victims of state violence—the first of the 434 victims was Angelina Gonçalves, a textile factory worker killed by a police bullet during a May Day labor demonstration in Rio Grande do Sul in 1950. Although occurring 14 years before the dictatorship, Gonçalves’s death was the first between the 1946 and 1988 constitutions, and her death was the first for which CNV report found the state responsible in the 42-year span it studied. From Gonçalves forward, the CNV provides a thorough background on the demographics of woman victims of the regime. Overall, of the 434 victims of state violence, 52 of them (12%) were women, with the oldest victim 65 years of age, and the youngest, just three months. A majority of those women—34 of 52 (65%)—were in their twenties, with another 10 (19%) in their thirties, pointing to the predominance of younger victims within the report. Twenty-six of the women (50%) were or had been married, and several others had partners, and 12 women (23%) also had children. A majority (28 women; 54%) were born in Brazil’s Southeast, generally the wealthiest and most populous region of the country, and 13 (25%) were born in the North and Northeast. Rio de Janeiro was the most frequent site where state agents killed or disappeared women (16 out of 52; 32%), with the rural states of Pará and Tocantins, where a guerrilla movement fought against the regime in the Araguaia region from 1972–1974, as the sites of another 23% of the deaths and disappearances.
Quantitative data does not uncover the political role of women victims of the dictatorship, but it does paint a broader composite picture of the victims of the regime, even while revealing the heterogeneity of their social, economic, and political backgrounds. At the same time, this quantitative data, when juxtaposed with individual cases, further reveals narrative and historical complications of traditional accounts of persecution under the military regime, even as it also encounters limits in the ways in which memory and gender operate. The CNV details women’s diverse individual political backgrounds, experiences, and post-mortem memorialization. An overwhelming majority of the victims included in the report died due to their political activism and membership in leftist groups that often, though not always, advocated armed struggle against military rule. Indeed, of the 52 women for whose deaths the CNV held the state responsible, 40 (77%) were tied to leftist movements in Brazil, most of which advocated armed struggle against military rule, and another four were connected with either the Chilean Movimiento Izquierda Revolucionaria (Revolutionary Left Movement [MIR]) (3), or the Argentine Montoneros (1).
Although these data reinforce the reality that the military regime tended to target those who opposed military rule and who advocated for, or even took up, armed struggle against the military, they also offer an important contribution to our understanding of women in the armed struggle and resistance to Brazil, for they add women’s presence and resistance to a greater degree than many of the general narratives (Alves, 1985; Costa Couto, 1999; Gaspari, 2002a, 2002b, 2003, 2004, 2016; Skidmore, 1990). These numbers also complicate narratives of the leftist struggle against Brazil’s dictatorship that have overwhelmingly focused on heterosexual men. Even before the end of the military regime, a wave of testimonial literature by men involved in leftist movements blossomed between 1979 and 1984 (Dassin, 1992). Although these and subsequent testimonial and historical narratives occasionally referenced women’s presence in such movements, they were often dealt with superficially or even as a novelty, and women’s voices are generally absent from such testimonial literature. Reports like that of the CFMDP or CNV complicate such heteronormative masculine narratives. These memory projects provide accounts that also more thoroughly detail the role women played in resistance than what much of the testimonial literature offers.
Throughout the 52 women’s accounts in the CNV’s final report, their political activism and resistance to the military regime comes into sharper focus than it did in male-penned testimonial narratives or earlier non-governmental reports like the CFMDP. The case of Catarina Abi Eçab, and the difference in her portrayal between the two reports, is again emblematic. Where the CFMDP report portrayed Catarina Abi Eçab through her marriage, the CNV report focuses less on her status as a married woman and more on her own role in the student movement, allowing a greater degree of agency and subjectivity, though the focus on her body in death as a means to uncover the truth remains. Dinalva Oliveira Teixeira, a student who had graduated in geology from the Federal University of Bahia, ended up becoming one of just a handful of deputy commanders who led guerrilla forces in the Araguaia region in the early 1970s before the military disappeared nearly all of those engaged in the armed movement. Likewise, the CNV report goes some distance in offering as much information on Helenira Resende de Souza Nazareth and her role in the armed struggle. Whereas other works had pointed to her role as a student activist in Brazil’s tumultuous 1968, part of a global wave of student unrest (Langland, 2013), and her sense of self as an Afro-Brazilian, the CNV offers a clearer, if still incomplete, picture of Souza Nazareth as a guerrilla whose contributions were significant enough that, when the regime killed her and secreted away her remains, her companions named their brigade after her (CNV, 2014). The inclusion of Helenira’s role in the Araguaia struggle may be incomplete, but drawing on testimonies and documents provided to the CNV, it paints a fuller picture of her political activism and struggle against military rule than earlier reports had, while also demonstrating the ability for women to rise in the ranks of armed struggle. Thus, the CNV demonstrates the important role women also played in Brazil’s student movements and in armed struggles, even if it does not necessarily address the experiences of those women in their own voices in the ways survivors could express (Colling, 1997).
Volume III’s biographies also reveal the heterogeneity of the women’s backgrounds, challenging narratives that have focused on middle-class and university-educated women as the regime’s victims, but included women from working-class backgrounds, as well as women whose activism was more personal and quotidian than it was ideological. Although many of the women victims of the regime were from the middle classes, such activism was not limited to middle-class, college-educated women. Alceri Maria Gomes da Silva, whose physical appearance the CFMDP report highlighted, has a more thorough biography of activism in the CNV report, which details her work in a metalwokers’ union and her mobilization around workers’ rights in a political climate highly repressive of labor movements. In 1969, as the regime entered its most repressive phase, she participated in the play Pedro Pedreiro, a play adapted from Chico Buarque’s music to offer a critique of the military regime, and her participation led to her arrest, alongside others involved in its production and performance. Such repression led her to radicalize, moving to São Paulo to join the urban armed struggle against the dictatorship (CNV, 2014). Like the women of Araguaia, Alceri’s decision to join the armed struggle led to her becoming a target of the military, and she died under still uncertain circumstances. Where the CFMDP opened her case by emphasizing her physical appearance and had her joining the VPR through a man’s guidance, the CNV abandons such gendered accounts, instead focusing solely on her agency and her subjectivity as an activist resisting the dictatorship culturally and militarily. These cases are emblematic, but not exceptional, in shedding new light on the paths women took to political activism and resistance to the regime.
Yet even the CNV does not necessarily escape some of the gendered pitfalls in its narration of women’s lives. Catarina Abi-Eçab, whose life was treated so briefly in the CFMDP report, does not get much more biographical detail in the CNV report. The CNV report acknowledges she and her husband met and were both involved in the student movements in college before joining the Ação Libertadora Nacional (National Liberation Action [ALN]), but there is little detail beyond that. This brevity may highlight the lack of documentation available on her life prior to her death; nonetheless, while making her an equal to her husband in her activism, her identity still is inextricably intertwined with his in life.
Given its access to previously withheld documents and the infrastructure to interview witnesses, the CNV’s final report is also more thorough than the CFMDP report in showing the ways women engaged in transnational activism and resistance during the dictatorship. The life of Pauline Philipe Reichstul, whose family of Jewish Poles moved to Brazil when she was a child, reveals how women mobilized in exile. Reichstul spent the late 1960s in Switzerland, attending college and working in opposition to the dictatorship with other Brazilians in Europe, denouncing in the international community the regime’s violation of human rights. Frustrated by the inability of the international opposition movement to eliminate the dictatorship, she joined the VPR, training in Cuba before returning to Brazil in 1972 at the height of repression. Ultimately, the regime arrested her and killed her during torture.
If Pauline Reichstul’s transnational political path brought her from exile back to Brazil’s armed struggle, Jane Vanini’s activism took her in the opposite direction. Vanini had been involved in student movements since high school, and by 1969, as Brazil entered into the most repressive phase of the military dictatorship after the Ato Institucional No. 5 (Institutional Act 5 [AI-5]) of December 1968, Vanini affiliated with the ALN. On realizing that they were being monitored by Brazil’s security apparatus, Jane clandestinely fled into exile on a trajectory that took her from Uruguay to Cuba, where she joined the Movimento de Libertação Popular (Movement of Popular Liberation [MOLIPO]), an offshoot of the ALN, before returning to Brazil. As MOLIPO also fell under the military’s surveillance, she once again went into exile, this time in Allende’s Chile, where she joined Chile’s MIR. She remained in Chile even after the September 11, 1973, coup that brought Augusto Pinochet and a military junta into power. However, her affiliation with the MIR, her activism in Brazil, and her romance with MIR leader José “Pepe” Carrasco led the Pinochet regime to target her. In December 1974, the Centro de Inteligencia Regional of Concepción killed her in a raid on her apartment and disappeared her remains, though not before she held them off, returning gunfire while destroying documents she feared would incriminate Carrasco.
Like Vanini, Maria Regina Marcondes Pinto, who had gone into exile in Chile in 1970, joined MIR. After the coup of 1973, she moved to Buenos Aires, where she continued to work against the Chilean and Brazilian dictatorships through the MIR. In 1976, Argentina’s military ushered in its own dictatorship, and her activism in Brazil and involvement in MIR marked her; on April 10, 1976, just a month after the military assumed power in Argentina, she was disappeared. If Pauline Reichstul’s transnational activism led her to pick up the armed struggle in Brazil, Jane Vanini’s and Maria Regina Marcondes Pinto’s experiences in opposition movements in Brazil shaped their political transnational activism, and ultimately their respective deaths in Chile and Argentina. The CNV’s report helps us to better understand the role women played in transnational networks of resistance to the military regime beyond national borders.
The CNV also reveals the ways in which Brazil’s repressive apparatus collaborated with neighboring countries in killing foreign nationals in Brazil. In March of 1980, Mónica Susana Pinus de Binstock, who had participated in the Montoneros armed movement in Argentina in the 1970s, attempted to return to Argentina from exile in Mexico, passing through Brazil. Though she arrived in Rio de Janeiro, she never made it to Argentina, having “disappeared” while in Brazil. Five months later, Liliana Ines Goldenberg, who had also fought with armed groups in Argentina in the early 1970s, attempted to return from exile in Spain to Argentina by way of Brazil. As she and Eduardo Gonzalo Escabosa attempted to cross the Brazil-Argentine border, Argentine and Brazilian police apprehended them; facing being turned over to Argentine forces, likely to be tortured and disappeared, both she and Eduardo shouted that they were political prisoners before committing suicide by swallowing cyanide pills. The CNV found that Brazil’s regime, which by that point had begun the move toward democratization and had exited its most repressive phase, remained responsible for the deaths of Liliana and Eduardo, even as the collaboration between Brazilian and Argentine police made clear that the repressive apparatus remained active amidst limited political liberalization. These cases, which occurred in the early 1980s and after Operation Condor had effectively ceased operations, reveal the ways in which inter-state collaboration continued in South America even as Brazil was ostensibly moving toward democratization. That this collaboration and repression continued well after the end of Operation Condor and during Brazil’s supposed abertura (“opening”) complicates narratives of transnational collaboration in human rights violations and understandings of the nature of Brazil’s “opening” during the last years of the military regime.
If these cases illustrate how truth projects uncover women’s ideological agency and political activism, the CNV also illustrates that one did not have to be ideologically motivated to question the regime or become a victim of state violence. When the military coup occurred on April 1, 1964, Labibe Elias Abduch, a 65-year-old housewife with three grown children, went to downtown Rio de Janeiro to learn more about the coup and what was occurring in the state of Rio Grande do Sul, where one of her children lived. When the military opened fire into the crowd, police bullets killed her, and she became one of the first victims of the new regime. Her case points to the ways that the political mobilization was periodically born not of ideology, but of personal concerns, even while revealing the ways that women could become political symbols in death. Virtually nothing is known about Labibe’s politics in life; in the CNV, she is one of eight women (15%) who died at the hands of the military regime but for whom the CNV found no known political affiliation. Nonetheless, the lack of ideology may have rendered Labibe less “politicized” in life than those who took up arms in Araguaia or joined movements like the ALN or VPR, but it also meant her death displayed the far reach of military repression in Brazil—a repression that knew no ideological bounds in its victims.
Labibe’s death demonstrates how the mere reaction to political turmoil could lead to one becoming a victim of the regime on mobilizing in an effort to protect loved ones. As in the case of the Madres de la Plaza de Mayo in Argentina (Bouvard, 2004), some women in Brazil found themselves mobilizing in the wake of the torture or disappearance of their children. As the CNV points out through biographies and testimonies, mothers of women like Gastone Lúcia Carvalho Beltrão, Izis Dias de Oliveira, Jana Barroso Moroni, Maria Regina Marcondes Pinto, and others repeatedly tried to find their children, regularly going from prison to prison in an attempt to track them down, petitioning religious officials to seek aid, and even sending letters to President Emílio Garrastazu Médici (1969–1974) during the height of repression in Brazil.
In more than one case, this mobilization brought its own tragedies. Zuzu Angel’s case is perhaps the most famous; the regime disappeared the fashion designer’s son, Stuart, in 1971, and Angel took up his case internationally, creating a fashion line that referred to the regime’s repression and even petitioning the U.S. government to pressure Brazil. Ultimately, Zuzu herself died in a suspicious car crash in 1976, a crash that the CNV found was the result of the military forcing her off the road in order to silence her.
Yet Angel was not the sole instance of the mothers who sought to uncover their children’s fate becoming victims of the regime themselves. In 1971, the same year that the regime killed Stuart Angel Jones, 17-year-old Nilda Carvalho Cunha died a few months after security agents brutally tortured her. Her mother, Esmeraldina Carvalho Cunha, began to speak out against the regime for the death of her youngest daughter. Eleven months later, another daughter found Esmeraldina hanged in her home. The military insisted it was a suicide, but there were signs of blood on the floor; there were no marks from the wire from which she allegedly committed suicide; and the typical physical markers of a suicide by hanging were absent. As the CNV concluded, although the individuals responsible for her death remain unclear, her protest against her daughter’s death played a role in her own death and was ultimately the responsibility of the dictatorship. The CNV report itself overwhelmingly framed Esmeraldina’s life through her role as a mother; however, she mobilized against the regime in response to her daughter’s repression and suffering, a mobilization that likely led to her own death. Not all mobilization was as ideologically driven as that of those who joined armed leftist movements, and it could hinge on one’s identity as a mother involuntarily drawn into—and ultimately a victim of—the regime’s repressive politics. Whereas fashion designer Zuzu Angel was a transnationally known case of a mother mobilizing against the regime that killed her child, and ultimately becoming a victim of state violence because of that activism, Esmeraldina’s case illustrates how other, less globally known women also engaged in a similar activism and suffered a similar fate.
Collectively, these 52 accounts reveal the multifarious paths through which women resisted the regime, whether through armed struggle or through more quotidian forms of resistance. Consolidating the most thorough and comprehensive account yet of the lives and fates of the regime’s victims, the CNV report provides a fuller portrayal of women’s activism in a narrative that has all too often relied on men’s own actions and accounts. The result is an understanding not just of the demographics of who the regime’s victims were, but of the mechanisms of resistance to which women turned.
Silences and Gender in Truth Projects in Brazil
Although the CNV report does help us better understand these facets of women’s politicization and activism, there remain real limitations and silences in both the CFMDP and CNV reports. In no small part, this silence is obvious—the voices of the dead are noticeably absent, which was precisely the goal of such regimes that killed and disappeared its critics throughout the hemisphere (Feitlowitz, 2011; Taylor, 1997). Although women’s presence in leftist groups is obvious in the CNV, the report does not offer examples of their voices in life or shed light on what exact roles these women played within their respective movements or communities. The report details women’s affiliations with movements like the ALN, Partido Communista do Brazil (Communist Party of Brazil [PCdoB]), or others, but these women’s participation is visible primarily in their deaths at the hands of state agents; the report has little to say on how women were active in those organizations while they lived. In this way, these truth projects collectively may improve our understanding of the political agency and subjectivity of women who died opposing the regime, but they also constitute part of a broader silence on women’s roles within movements, a silence already established in testimonial literature (Dassin, 1992).
Although the memorialization and collective remembering of the women who died reinserts them into the narratives of resistance to military rule, it does not do so through their own voices. Instead, the voices of the women or (more often) men who fought alongside them or who were with them in prison must be relied on. More problematically, much of what is known about their lives and deaths come from military archives written by men who were antagonists to and targets of the very causes for which many of these women fought. The inclusion of these biographical sketches goes far in avoiding the elision of “questions of agency and resistance” that defined earlier truth commissions like South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (Ross, 2003), but such biographies can only go so far in illuminating women’s roles in resistance. By focusing on women victims of the regime and their experiences as bodies on which the state enacted violence, the CNV ultimately still privileges and memorializes a narrative of women whose exceptionalism rests less in what they did while they lived and more in the ways in which they died. Although it was their agency that led to their deaths, it is only in death, and thus at the moment of being “silenced,” that they become objects of inclusion in the national collective memory of the regime’s repression. Thus, although these truth projects illuminate how women contributed to opposition to the military regime through political activism or armed mobilization, they nonetheless still elide women’s agency within these movements. Such a portrayal renders these women more static, with the meaning of their lives only coming into existence through their deaths and through others’ memories of them.
There are also class-based silences in the experience of repression. Given how many of those whom the regime killed were from middle-class backgrounds, they are disproportionately represented in these truth projects in ways that do not illuminate the very real experiences of working-class activism, resistance, and repression. Over half of the women included among the 434 killed and disappeared in the CNV report—29 (56%)—were either students or teachers, often at the university level, and another 11 (21%) were white-collar professionals. What illustrations of working-class resistance there are, be they that of Alceri Maria Gomes da Silva or Margarida Maria Alves, tend to be exceptions; the report has little to say about women from favelas who died at the hands of “death squadrons” that operated against alleged criminal activity in the favelas, or rural women among the more than 1,000 rural workers killed whom the CFMDP report refers to, without falling under the CNV’s more limited definition of political violence. Although these truth projects help us to further understand the ways in which opposition to the military regime was often made up of middle-class voices that diverged from those in the middle classes who supported military rule (and in turn revealing the complexities of middle-class politics in Brazil), they end up also reifying a narrative that privileges middle-class forms of opposition and victimization over workers’ experiences during the military regime.
This interaction between commemoration and memory that privileges some women over others is not merely limited to the CNV either, but extends to broader questions and processes of collective memory in Brazil. In addition to the biographies and “Circumstances of Death/Disappearance,” the CNV reports also highlight other ways in which the victims of the regime have been publicly memorialized and commemorated. What becomes clear across the 52 entries for women is the ways in which certain class-based identities are commemorated over others. At its essence, there is an intersection between political mobilization and class background that ultimately leads to a privileging of middle-class activists in public memory in Brazil. Of the 52 women included in the CNV’s list of killed/disappeared victims, 36 (69%) are commemorated publicly in Brazil, be it through street names, health clinics, plaques, or other public memorials and spaces. However, in surveying the names of those who are memorialized in public spaces, the overwhelming majority are university students or those who died in the armed struggle. University students in particular have found memorialization not just in street names, but in plaques, student organizations, and buildings on campuses. Such public commemorations allow students in the present to link their own struggles to the struggles of student movements and activism in the past, contributing to an ongoing students’ construction of subjectivity as one of an oppositional force against undemocratic institutions (Snider, 2017). However, it also means that those who were not students or white-collar professionals who attended a university are not memorialized in the same way; the stories of housewives like Esmeraldina Carvalho Cunha and Labibe Elias Abduch or working-class women like Iris Amaral (domestic worker) or Neide Alves dos Santos (industrial worker) are less visible in the physical spaces of Brazilian society. Additionally, such memorials ignore the contributions of those who survived the dictatorship, thereby limiting the recognition of women who struggled against military rule to those who did not live to tell their tale.
There is another curious contradiction of these truth projects as well. The voices of those killed and disappeared are understandably silenced, forced into a perpetual subalternity through their deaths and their inability to speak of their own political activism, but survivors’ identities and stories are elided even as their testimony serves as the backbone of much of the evidence given at the CNV. Although the percentage of women offering testimony in Brazil was not as high as commissions like South Africa’s (Ross, 2003), Brazilian women played a key role in testifying and contributing to the production of collective memory of the dictatorship through the CNV’s hearings and final report. The CNV divided its testimonies into five categories—agents of the state, civil victims, military victims, witnesses, and experts. No women were included among the agents of state (made up of ex-military officials and collaborators with the regime) or experts, but women’s voices make up a significant portion of the remaining testimonies. Women made up the smallest percentage of witness testimony, providing 9 out of the 28 testimonies (32%) given before the CNV. However, the numbers go up substantially in both the testimonies of families (32 out of 61, or 52%) and of civil victims (122 out of 248, or 49%). Women did play a key part in reconstructing the past and providing alternative narratives to the forms of repression, political persecution, torture, and murder at the state’s hands in Brazil’s CNV.
In particular, women’s voices dominate when it comes to the question of state agents’ use of sexual violence—something completely absent in the CFMDP’s report but elaborated on in Volume I of the CNV final report. Women’s voices make up an overwhelming majority of the voices speaking out about the nature and horrors of state repression during Brazil’s military regime. Across just 30 pages of the CNV report, 47 women’s voices offer testimony of the physical and psychological effects of sexual torture they and their colleagues—female and male—faced.
Yet although this section of the CNV makes clear how important women’s voices are in reconstructing the military’s use of sexual violence and in understanding repression’s lasting effects on bodies and minds, the women themselves remain unrecognized beyond their status as bodies on whom the regime exerted sexual violence. Although the 47 women’s accounts contribute to the collective memory of the military regime, they are noticeably limited with regards to individual agency or subjectivity of the women testifying. In documenting sexual violence and torture, the CNV’s narrative focus falls primarily on women’s bodies as vessels of repression and abuse; it tells readers little about the women’s own political and social activism (or lack thereof) that led to the state subjecting them to repression in the first place. The descriptions of torture graphically illustrate the depth of depravity and violence of sexual torture in Brazil’s dictatorship, but they do little to characterize the surviving testifying women as anything other than victims or bodies on which the regime acted in a bubble of repression, bodies that can speak and confirm state violence but remain untethered from women’s own political agency and activism. The result is the valorization of these women in the collective memory of the CNV not for what they did during the dictatorship, but for their ability to testify to its horrors, to unmask the exact effects of torture, after the fact. Even in their effort to speak as subjects who suffered at the hands of the regime, their accounts end up hinging on the effect of the regime on their bodies as objects on which the dictatorship acted, complicating the survivors’ subjectivity within the memory labors of the CNV.
The legacies of Brazil’s dictatorship continued to be the source of memory struggles in Brazil more than three decades later. Dilma Rousseff may have seen the CNV conclude its study, but she did not get to conclude her own presidency—after winning re-election in 2014, an antagonistic Congress impeached her and removed her from office over politically charged claims of corruption, leading some of her supporters or critics of the impeachment (not necessarily overlapping groups) to call her removal a “coup” in the vein of 1964. And in the 2018 presidential elections, Brazil elected Jair Bolsonaro, who had long insisted the dictatorship was good for Brazil. In 2014, Bolsonaro had demanded a new truth commission to counter the “revanchist and calumnious” CNV report. The history and memory of Brazil’s military regime continued to be fraught more than 50 years after the military took power (Snider, 2018).
As is the case with truth commissions more generally, these truth projects have been an essential site of these memory struggles in Brazil. Since 1979, truth projects have attempted to acknowledge the repression of the dictatorship and to recover the lives and memories of those whom the regime sought to silence and erase from the historical record. Nevertheless, these projects themselves are of their own social moment and language, revealing both the strengths and limitations of such projects in uncovering the “truth.” Certainly, these projects—be they private reports like the CFMDP’s dossier or official reports like the CNV’s final report—help us better understand the lives, activism, and fates of the regime’s victims, men and women alike. Yet such reports also reinforce narratives that give primacy to men’s activism while providing an often-limited narration of women’s activism.
Narratives of victims’ lives loom large in truth reports from family associations and from the state, both in the efforts to reclaim the memories of repression’s victims and to preserve the lives in memory so as to ensure that such actions occur “never again.” These reports demonstrate how such memory projects simultaneously illuminate the ways in which gender shaped the lived experiences of regime’s victims, even while the telling of those lives also often reinforces gendered narrative frameworks that give greater political agency to men than to women and focuses on women’s bodies. Thus, such projects perhaps unintentionally reflect and are constitutive of gendered narratives of radicalism and resistance to authoritarianism. Reports such as the Dossie Ditadura of the CFMDP and the CNV’s 2014 report illuminate women’s political mobilization and leadership in resisting military rule. Simultaneously, they also implicitly reinforce gendered hierarchies of political mobilization by focusing on women’s bodies in life and death and by marginalizing victims’ voices while survivors’ voices remain anonymized. These reports—from both non-governmental organizations and from the state—are important mechanisms for understanding the ways in which women participated in resistance to military rule, even while they perpetuate certain gendered relations of truth-telling and memory in a complex nexus of gender, the politics of memory, and historical narratives of nation in a post-authoritarian setting.
As a result, when it comes to shedding light on women’s experiences and activism during military rule, these truth projects help expand our understanding of the role in women’s resistance to and experiences of military rule, but it can only do so through a pair of half-stories. On the one hand, the stories of the women whom the regime killed and/or disappeared briefly point to women’s own political agency in challenging the regime both overtly and in more quotidian fashions. Yet this approach treats women primarily as objects given meaning in the terms and nature of their deaths; what political narratives are accessible to are limited by the very silencing of these women in death. On the other hand, those women whose voices are heard directly in the CNV report or in the CFMDP report offer first-hand accounts of repression and subjectification at the hands of the regime, but these survivors’ stories reveal little about the broader efforts to challenge or resist the military regime. Collectively, these truth projects can help us better understand and incorporate women’s voices into the broader, male-dominated discursive field of memory in Brazil’s post-authoritarian setting, but they do so in ways that do not break free of gendered forms of narration that limit women’s subjectivity.
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