• Media kings’ $18 billion fortune has roots in military era
  • Billionaire family’s foundation designed six Brazil museums

Brazil’s Marinho clan, with a combined family fortune of $18 billion, is trying to move beyond a past that keeps popping up between the cracks of today’s impeachment crisis.

As heirs to Grupo Globo, the most powerful media operation Latin America has ever known, their soap operas and news programs reach 99.7 percent of Brazilian televisions. Revenue is seven times greater than that of their biggest competitor. And they’ve been the primary broadcaster in Brazil of the Olympics, the World Cup and the nation’s rambunctious Carnival festivities.

But buried in the story behind how this family amassed a fortune that counts three of the top 10 spots on the Bloomberg Billionaires Index for Brazil is a chapter set in the nation’s dark age of military rule. Though the brothers who now control Globo have apologized for their late father’s support of the 1964 coup that ushered in a two-decade dictatorship, the legacy still haunts the Marinhos. Supporters of suspended President Dilma Rousseff, a former guerrilla fighter who was tortured during that era, say Globo’s news coverage in the run-up to her ongoing impeachment trial helped tip the scales against her. The media juggernaut denies any bias.

Dictatorship Era

“Globo was one of the business groups that benefited the most from the military dictatorship era,” said Joao Braga Areas, an historian who has researched Globo’s involvement in the military regime. “There are groups today that still see Globo not only as an opponent of Dilma, but as a coup monger.”

Dilma Rousseff
Dilma Rousseff
Photographer: Evaristro Sa/AFP via Getty Images

Rousseff, who presented her defense at her impeachment trial in the Senate Monday, says her ouster is a “coup” that must be righted with new elections, which are supported by a majority in polls. Globo’s logo -- a sphere representing the Earth with a TV screen inside that looks a lot like an eyeball -- often appears on picket signs at pro-Rousseff protests that pop up at airports and major thoroughfares and were a staple during the Olympic Games that ended this month. A favorite chant: “The people aren’t naïve -- down with Globo!”

An opinion piece published by the Guardian in April dredged up Globo’s support for the 1964 overthrow and said it’s acting in a similar way today to “agitate for the Brazilian rich.” Rousseff’s predecessor and mentor, Luis Inacio Lula da Silva, accused Globo of trying to “rewrite history.”

Joao Roberto Marinho, now the group’s chairman, fought back in a rare letter to the newspaper. “Globo Group fulfilled their duty to inform and will continue to do so,” he said. “When the impeachment proceedings began, we again allocated equal time and space for defense and prosecution.”

Grupo Globo declined to comment for this article.

Six Museums

In addition to owning the media empire, the Marinhos’ foundation has also designed six museums, giving the family a dominant hand in shaping the nation’s cultural and historical narrative. It’s a version of events, the historian Braga says, that makes little mention of the country’s complicated past with military rule or the media dominance that the regime helped Globo obtain.

Globo is mentioned 40 times in a 229-page report issued in December by Rio state’s Truth Commission, which investigated the 1964-1985 dictatorship, with a section by Braga on its business ties during that time. Roberto Marinho, the late patriarch who controlled Globo from 1925 to just before his death in 2003, is named eight times, including now-declassified documents in which the U.S. ambassador at the time describes him as the “main articulator” of the military regime.

That relationship helped Globo get around a ban on foreign media ownership to secure a lucrative partnership with U.S. media giant Time-Life, which sent $6 million to the company between 1962 and 1966 -- then worth 30 times the Brazilian group’s capital, according to the report. Many of Globo’s competitors denounced the deal in a congressional inquiry, and lawmakers ruled it unconstitutional. The regime’s attorney general gave his blessing anyway. Marinho ended the partnership in 1971, even though he considered it to be legal, according to a statement on Globo’s website.

Marinho’s influence remained after Brazil’s transition to democracy in the 1980s, with close ties to leaders such as former President Jose Sarney, whose family owned a Globo affiliate. “Dr. Roberto,” Sarney once observed about the patriarch, “was very contained when it came to talking about the past.”

Truth Commission

To be sure, Globo wasn’t alone in supporting the dictatorship and then collecting dividends for decades to come. The federal Truth Commission has detailed how military ties at Brazil’s biggest builders and at other enterprises from banks to newspapers helped them amass substantial fortunes. But Globo stands out because of its influence in the everyday lives of Brazilians, and its financial strength relative to its peers. Its profit grew 30 percent to 3 billion reais ($929 million) last year, and the Olympics helped it weather Brazil’s second year of recession.

Museum of Tomorrow
Museum of Tomorrow
Photographer: Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

Some of the Rio Truth Commission’s findings mirrored claims made in a 1993 documentary, “Beyond Citizen Kane,” about Globo’s ties to the dictatorship. It has been widely viewed online, even after Globo didn’t approve of the film’s use of its images and tried buying the rights to the documentary.

The commission’s efforts to turn a former torture center downtown into a tribute to the victims of the dictatorship have fallen flat so far. The building remains abandoned and its windows boarded up, standing in stark contrast to the Museum of Tomorrow a few blocks away, which juts out toward Rio’s Guanabara Bay like a sort of psychedelic white beacon.

That museum, designed by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava, serves as the epicenter of Brazil’s Olympic legacy, with exhibits highlighting how human activity affects climate change. Created by the city of Rio with the Roberto Marinho Foundation, its opening was covered by Globo Group’s newspapers and TV stations.

Slavery Exhibit

Hugo Barreto, secretary general of the charitable foundation, said Globo isn’t avoiding touchy parts of history with its existing and planned museums, which also look at the Portuguese language, culture through soccer and image and sound. The Rio art museum has an exhibit that focuses on slavery, for example, and he recounted a story about a military general who once wanted an educational program to refer to the coup as a “revolution.” The foundation refused.

Barreto says there are no plans for more museums, after designing six in 12 years. He hadn’t heard of the efforts to transform the former torture center, a project that Globo isn’t involved with.

On a recent afternoon, a rusty chain kept the doors shut at the building where dissidents of the military regime were held. A sign said the dusty edifice will be restored to create a police museum. The street outside was quiet, save for the sound of an Olympics swimming race, being broadcast by Globo on TV in a nearby bar.

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