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Punishment or Witness Elimination?

Confessed Brazilian Torturer Found Murdered


            At approximately four o’clock this past Thursday afternoon, Paulo Malhaes, a retired officer who served in the ‘70s during the years of Brazil’s military dictatorship, was murdered at his small farm outside of Rio de Janeiro.

            Malhaes had become infamous in recent weeks, as I wrote in this space recently, for his lurid testimony before the Brazilian Truth Commission, where he described in graphic detail how the bodies of opponents of the repressive regime had been disappeared after being killed under torture.

            According to news reports, Malhaes, his wife and a house mate, in some reports described as a valet, had arrived at the farm around two p.m. and were confronted by three intruders already in their home.  The wife, Cristina Malhaes, and the house mate, later identified by police only as Rui, were restrained and led off into one room, while the former lieutenant colonel was taken to another.

            Cristina and Rui were later released unharmed as the assailants departed the scene by car.  Neither of the survivors reported having heard a sound to suggest the Malhaes had been worked over or “tortured.” But when police examined Malhaes’ body Friday morning they found marks on his face and neck, and have tentatively concluded that he died from asphyxiation.  The only items the murderers removed from the premises were a computer, a printer, and several weapons that had belonged to the victim.

            The announcement of Paulo Malhaes’ murder, reported in front pages all over Brazil, has sent shock waves through the country, including among surviving junta participants. The big question being debated is which side did him in.

Admitted Brazil junta torturer Lt. Col. Paulo Malhaes resting at the home where he was slain after testifying (left) before a TrAdmitted Brazil junta torturer Lt. Col. Paulo Malhaes resting at the home (left) where he was slain after testifying before a national Truth Commission (right) investigating the 1970s tortures and disappearances that took place under the US-backed junta

The Night of the Generals

When Brazilians Were Tortured and Disappeared

“The Face of Evil,” flashed the eye catching headline in Brazil’s major daily on a morning late this March, and the accompanying photo of Army lieutenant-colonel Paulo Malhaes, retired, could not have portrayed a more convincing ogre had it been photoshopped by central casting. Malhaes, a self-described torturer and murderer operated in the early 1970′s, the most repressive period in Brazil’s harsh era of prolonged military rule.

Retired Army Lieutenant Colonel Paulo Malhaes testifying to torture in the early 1970sRetired Army Lieutenant Colonel Paulo Malhaes testifying to torture in the early 1970s

In depositions covering many hours, first recorded by the journalists of O Globo who got the scoop, and then before the Rio de Janeiro State -- and the Brazilian Federal Truth Commission -- Malhaes described in dispassionate but grisly detail how bodies of dissidents who died under torture were disposed of. “There was no DNA at the time; you’ll grant me that, right? So when one was tasked with dismantling a corpse, you had to ask which are the body-parts that will help identify who the person was. Teeth and the fingers alone. We pulled the teeth and cut off the fingers. The hands, no. And that’s how we made the bodies unidentifiable.” After which, the mutilated dead were dumped at sea, having first been eviscerated to prevent them from floating to the surface.

In marking the recently passed 50th anniversary of Brazil’s April 1, 1964 military coup that deposed popularly elected President Joao Goulart, Brazilians have been offered a kaleidoscope of opportunities to revisit and discuss that troubling past, and, for some, to overlay the impact of the dictatorship years on a society restored to democracy for over a generation, but in which the deepest structural problems remain unchanged. Many axes were being ground on these topics in the rich offering of articles and opinion pieces in the daily press as the coup’s anniversary day approached. Very few, of course, sought to defend the dictatorship, which, nonetheless, appears to have been the sole motivation behind Paulo Malhaes’ sudden impulse to seek repeat performances for his macabre confessions on the public stage, an agenda cruelly underscored by his brazen refusal to express remorse or reveal the names of his commanders.

In one bizarre aside, Malhaes confided a disassociated feeling of “solidarity” for the family of Rubens Paiva, a federal deputy allied with Goulart’s party whose murder and disappearance in 1971 Malhaes himself apparently had a hand in. It was “sad,” the colonel said, that Paiva’s family had to wait 38 years to learn the specifics of his fate, already made public from other sources. Malhaes quickly insisted that his comment not be interpreted as “sentimentality.” He hadn’t questioned his mission back then, and he still didn’t. “There was no other solution. They [my superiors] provided me with a solution,” written broadly enough for Malhaes to justify his butchery.

Common Sense on Cannabis

Legalizing Medical Marijuana Long Overdue in Pennsylvania


A big reason why Philadelphia State Representative Mark Cohen keeps pushing for the legalization of medical marijuana in Pennsylvania is reality: many people need the substance for treatment of their illnesses and other states have already approved medical use of marijuana.

“Right now, marijuana is readily available to the vast majority of Pennsylvanians, but it’s illegal. This bill sets up a statutory framework which legalizes the use of marijuana for medical purposes,” Cohen said about his legislation (House Bill 1181) introduced on April 15, 2013 that would legalize the use of medical marijuana in the state.

Medical marijuana is already legal in 20 states including two states adjacent to Pennsylvania: New Jersey and Delaware. Maryland, another adjacent state – recently approved medical marijuana legislation and similar approval is pending New York state, located north of Pennsylvania.

California, in 1996, became the first state to approve the medical use of the substance that was once one of the most widely prescribed medications in the United States until the early decades of the 20th Century. Illinois and New Hampshire legalized medical marijuana in 2013. Medical marijuana is also legal in America’s capital, the District of Columbia, with one dispensary for medical marijuana located blocks from Capitol Hill.
Pot can be inhaled or ingested.Pot can be inhaled or ingested.

Revenue initiatives reform

State Senator Leach: Promise of Pot Tax Profits Will Prompt Pennsylvania Legalization


State Senator Daylin Leach knows he is fighting an uphill battle to win legalization of marijuana for adult use in Pennsylvania. But Leach is confident that the need for new state revenue will convince his colleagues in the state legislature that the time is ripe to change Pennsylvania’s position on marijuana prohibition.

“I think revenue from taxing legal and medical marijuana will drive this issue just like revenue drove approval for gambling,” Leach said.

“Remember, 40 years ago only one state had gambling. Now 48 states including Pennsylvania have gambling. What drove approvals of gambling was the money to be made by the states.”

California, for example, generates annual sales tax revenues of up to $105-million from medical use of marijuana, according to the California State Board of Equalization. That Board estimated that California could gain $1.4-billion in new revenue annually from the legalization of marijuana.

Colorado, which began sales of marijuana for non-medical adult use on New Year’s Day this year, collected $6.17-million in tax revenue during January and February alone. Officials in Washington State, which beings adult use marijuana sales in July, project receipt of $190-million in taxes and fees annually.

State Senator Daylin LeachState Senator Daylin Leach

To legalize or not to legalize

Popping the question on 'Pot'


State Sen. Daylin Leach is leading the fight to legalize marijuana in Pennsylvania.

But will the reward outweigh the risk if he succeeds and cannabis is legalized in the state?

Senator Leach clearly thinks the rewards from increased state revenues and decreased enforcement costs outweigh the risks. His legalization bill, introduced in April, would tax and regulate marijuana for adult use like alcohol in the state.

“It is time for Pennsylvania to be a leader in jettisoning this modern-day prohibition, and ending a policy that has been destructive, costly and anti-scientific,” said Leach, who has also introduced a bill that would allow people with certain serious illnesses in Pennsylvania to purchase and possess marijuana. This bill is commonly known as the medical marijuana bill.

Currently 20 states and the District of Columbia allow medical marijuana. Two states, Colorado and Washington, have legalized marijuana for adult recreational use.

While some agree with Sen. Leach and believe this is the time for Pennsylvania to change its marijuana laws, opponents point to health problems and other concerns with legalization.

50 Years Later

Brazil's 1964 Coup: What 'Communist Conspiracy'?

It all began with Cuba in 1959. That was a line in the sand for Tio Sam. Kennedy launched the Alliance for Progress in ‘61, and caudillos throughout South and Central America lined up for lessons on how to prevent their own homegrown communists from reproducing what Fidel and El Che had brought down from the Sierra Maestras. The School of the Americas’ manual of torture, originally drafted in Scotland and likely passed along during WWII to eager Yanks in the OSS, was in due course thumped like the bible into the hands of willing thugs in the pay of ruling elites from Guatemala to Chile. In Brazil, when the military grabbed the reins of government on April 1, 1964, the torture manual came off the shelf for immediate application to those who were obnoxious to the dictatorship ideologically, and with lethal consequences for some who fought from the more militant wings of the resistance.

Images from the 1964 coup; the man on the run was used to illustrate posters for a recent panel discussionImages from the 1964 coup; the man on the run was used to illustrate posters for a recent panel discussion

I was in Brazil at the time of the 1964 coup, spending a year at Rio’s exclusive Catholic University (PUC). I spent considerable time at first with a guy named Bud who worked for USIA, the “public” face of American overseas diplomacy. The agency operated cultural programs and libraries, also, back in D.C., Voice of America, where I worked part time as a Georgetown undergrad. My friend was a good guy, a kind of mentor twenty years my senior who welcomed me into his family as I slowly acclimated to the seductive lifestyle of the Brazilian gentry on the coattails of their sons and daughters, my classmates, who would invite me home for the hot sit-down midday meal, cooked and served by the black live-in empregadas. An American student was a novelty in those days, and, being short of funds, I was happy to eat out on it.

After a month I met Chris, an American my own age who’d been ski bumming in the Alps and drifted to Brazil to look up an uncle who held the second highest rank in the U.S. Embassy. Chris had just received his draft notice from home, and we got it in our heads to hitchhike to the Amazon where he’d hideout and avoid military service now that Vietnam was coming on with a vengeance. I don’t recall if we clued Bud in about the exact reason for our abrupt departure from Rio, but he very kindly provided contact info for other U.S. diplomats we could crash with as we made our way north along the coast. Our first stop was in Vitoria, a small coastal port for shipping ore from the neighboring but landlocked mineral rich state of Minas Gerais. The diplomat we stayed with in Vitoria, Bud had explained, was setting up a co-op to rival a similar effort influenced by the local communists who, by that time in Brazil, were organized into a mélange of currents on all sides of the Sino-Soviet split.

New Poem:

Shanghai Smog


There is a man reporting on how bad the smog is in China.
He is saying,
“See, right there,
at the end of this street that you don’t see
is the second tallest building in China.”
I squint. . . I don’t see anything!
“In fact”, he’s saying,
“the smog is so bad,
I’m actually standing right here in front of this camera,
so you wouldn’t have seen the building anyway,
but you can’t even see me!”
This guy is good!

The 50th Anniversary

Rio de Janeiro and the 1964 Military Coup

Rio de Janeiro in 1964 remained the de facto seat of the Brazilian government and home to its corps of international diplomats. Despite the fact that Brasilia, the modernist architectural ghost town erected in the scrublands of the country’s isolated interior was designated Brazil’s new capital in 1960, the foot dragging went on for years before the embassies and the governing bureaucrats accepted the inevitability that they would have to, not just occasionally commute between Rio and the new capital, but actually decamp and live there. Think of the founders and the whole apparatus of State being forced to abandon cosmopolitan Philadelphia in 1800 for swampy, malarial Washington. By 1964 standards, going to Brasilia, today Brazil’s 4th largest city, was worse.

Thus, when the coup unfolded on March 31, 1964 that brought down the democratically elected government of Joao (Jango) Goulart, American diplomats were still pulling strings on behalf of the Putschists from their comfortable embassy board rooms on the Avenida Woodrow Wilson in downtown Rio. And yours truly, a wet behind the ears undergraduate at the local Jesuit university for a year, in a Zelig-like coincidence, witnessed the military takeover from a window facing Copacabana beach in a building where the deposed president himself had an apartment.

Michael Uhl in March 1964 looking out a window onto the Copacabana, pictured at right circa 1960s.Michael Uhl in March 1964 looking out a window onto the Copacabana, pictured at right circa 1960s.

The dictatorship and its afterglow endured a quarter century until the direct election by popular vote of Fernando Collor de Mello in 1989, following the creation a year earlier of a new constitution, by far Brazil’s most democratic. Even then the military hovered in the wings having inserted into the new charter, according to historian Daniel Aarao Reis, the authoritarian wedge “of the military’s right to intervene in the national political life if they are summoned by the head of one of the three branches of government.”

Now, with twenty five years of democratic governments under their belt, and a flow of peaceful transitions from one presidential term to the next – including the resignation of President Collor under investigation for corruption – a Brazilian electorate many times larger than the one that brought Jango to office in 1961, might finally imagine itself immune from any future threat to democratic rule by the military, despite the menacing clause that lies dormant in their constitution.

Former Guerrilla Favored in Runoff

Observing Democracy in El Salvador


Panchimalco, El Salvador -- Thirty years ago, on a miserably hot and humid July day in 1983, I went to Washington DC with my wife and two-year-old son in his stroller. We were there with tens of thousands to protest US involvement in civil wars in Nicaragua and El Salvador. Last month, I became re-acquainted with the political struggle of El Salvador as a member of an international delegation to observe the first round of their presidential election on February 2nd.

Old enemies ran representing parties that either ruled during the civil war or grew out of the armed struggle after peace accords were signed in 1992. On the right, there’s the Nationalist Republican Alliance or ARENA, and on the left, the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front or FMLN. After the accords, ARENA retained the presidency until the 2009 election, when the FMLN and independents of the center and left won the presidency with the candidacy of Mauricio Funes, a respected Salvadoran journalist.

Salvador Sanchez Ceren during the war and running for president this yearSalvador Sanchez Ceren during the war and running for president this year

This election was among three candidates: Salvador Sánchez Cerén, a former guerrilla commander and the current vice president representing the FMLN; Norman Quijano, a former ARENA mayor of San Salvador; and Antonio Saca, the ARENA president from 2004 to 2009 who was expelled from ARENA in 2009 and formed a new party called the Grand Alliance for National Unity of GANA that has worked with the FMLN in the legislature.

I arrived in San Salvador a week before the election with a good friend. We were met at the airport by seven other members of the delegation and began a process of getting to know, and learning to work with, what eventually became a 70-person delegation that included supporters of CISPES (Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador), National Lawyers Guild, Share and Sister Cities. Together, we would observe voting at some 30 centers with more than 300 stations, each the voting location assigned to 500 people.

Even in Los Angeles

Gentle Things


            In brutish, crass, profanity-spitting L.A., in developer-ravaged $2500-a-month “elegant density” L.A., in have-and-have-not ethnically separated L.A., in get-out-of-my-way-asshole, hit-and-run texting-and-primping-while-driving L.A. . . .

            Gentle things still happen.

            She sat at the front table at Papa Cristo’s, the Greek place at Pico and Normandie in the so-called Byzantine-Latino Quarter. Across the street from St. Sofia’s Greek Orthodox Cathedral and St. Thomas the Apostle Catholic Church, or, more appropriately considering that masses come with mariachis, Iglesia Santo Tomas Apostol.

            “This is excellent!” she said, and, really, it was amazing she could say anything at all, let alone in a clear, commanding voice. The withered and dry autumn leaves on the sycamore trees in the neighborhood were stronger. This was, to be indelicate, a corpse that hadn’t gotten around to officially dying. Stick limbs, prune skin, sunken cheeks. Talk about frailty, thy name is woman. . .

            “Okay, Babe,” said her companion, a young guy with brown curls pulled back in a pony tail. “I’ve got you.” And he steadied her as he removed her walker, and then helped her ease into a wooden chair at one of Papa Cristo’s wobbly tables. She didn’t seem comfortable.

            “Does your butt hurt?” said her companion.

            What butt, I wondered. Nothing there but bones.

Esther Cicconi, lifetime Communist and icon of LA's left fringe, says 'hello, not goodbye'Esther Cicconi, lifetime Communist and icon of LA's left fringe, says 'hello, not goodbye'

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