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Brazil’s awkward reckoning with an atrocity that lives on

Dilma Rousseff’s 1970 mug shot: Today she is Brazil’s head of state.

Associated Press

A few days ago, Vera Paiva heard the voice of her father for the first time in 43 years.

Rubens Paiva was a left-wing member of Congress when the military seized control of Brazil. An outspoken critic of repression, he gave a speech on national radio the night of the coup, 50 years ago Monday, in which he exhorted Brazilians to go the streets and resist peacefully. He then went into exile, but came home a few years later and worked quietly with the resistance. In January, 1971, the police burst into his home in Rio de Janeiro and took him away. Ms. Paiva and her four siblings never saw him again.

The military told the family a story they found preposterous – that the car taking Mr. Paiva for questioning had been forced into an accident, and he had been "rescued" by unknown assailants.

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"We never believed it," his daughter says. But they had no other answers: Unlike its neighbours, Chile and Argentina, and other countries in Latin America that lived through dictatorship in the Cold War era, Brazil has left the events of those years largely unexamined.

Its military rulers, and their enforcers, were careful to shield themselves with an amnesty law when their power began to wane. But in 2010, survivors of dictatorship violence won a long-sought ruling: The Organization of American States' human-rights court found Brazil guilty of failure to investigate its state-sponsored repression. That judgment, in theory, overturned the amnesty law. Two years later, the government finally went through with long-debated plans to create a truth commission to "examine and clarify the severe violations of human rights" in that era.

Only a handful of former regime officials have testified, but this month two of them, military officers, finally brought Ms. Paiva and her family some answers. They denied playing any part, but told of seeing Rubens Paiva tortured to death and his body then dumped into the sea.

The national radio network, hunting in its archives for material on Mr. Paiva, uncovered a tape of the 1964 speech. His daughter (who believes it was no accident the tape was "missing") says she and her brothers and sisters held their breath through all four minutes as it played, unable to move.

"Now we know," says Ms. Paiva, 60, a psychologist in Sao Paulo. "I mean, we always knew they killed him. But now we know who and where and how, and we know what they did with his body."

The truth commission is illuminating some of the darkest moments in the nation's past just as it is preparing to step into the international spotlight.

Brazil today enjoys a reputation as an open, pluralist democracy. Yet the deeply repressive instinct that helped the generals take power is far from purged. For example, public-opinion polls show half of Brazilians feel that, in some circumstances, torture is an acceptable police tactic.

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Brazil will play host to soccer's World Cup in a few months; its economy recently became the sixth largest in the world (surpassing that of Britain); it is also flexing new foreign-policy muscle.

And even though its junta held power longer than any other in Latin America, few outsiders or visitors associate Brazil with dictatorship – in marked contrast to Chile and Argentina, whose repression and recovery have become part of popular culture. Many of the military, business and judicial powers in place before the return to democracy are unchanged – literally the same people.

The truth commission faces two huge challenges: first, given the lengthy time lapse, much of the evidence is lost or has been destroyed, and many witnesses are dead. Others, however, are very much alive – and still have the capacity to block investigations.

But supporters believe that it is critically important that some sort of process happens here, because a culture of impunity and acceptance of torture created in the dictatorship era endures today. "Only the victims have changed," says Cecilia Coimbra, a leader of Tortura Nunca Mais (Torture Never Again), an advocacy group for survivors. "It's not me any more, it's a young man, a black man, in a favela – but the police are exactly the same."

Brazil's export: brutality

On March 31, 1964, a lone general sent a khaki-clad battalion into the streets of Rio de Janeiro, and by the next day, the rest of the generals had joined him, ousting the elected president. It was the culmination of years of plotting – the product of increasingly violent friction between left and right.

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This was just 18 months after the Cuban missile crisis; the Argentine Marxist Che Guevera was working to export the success of the Cuban revolution across his home continent. The United States was deeply disturbed about growing Soviet influence in South America. Brazil's elected government was the first to fall, and it set off a wave of military takeovers in this region.

The dictatorship quickly developed a vast and mercilessly efficient system of repression – officers were posted in every university classroom; the media were entirely state-controlled. For those suspected of threatening its power, including the tiny, armed Communist underground, the dictatorship pioneered a brutal treatment: torture and disappearance. Brazil then exported its tactics, sending interrogators to teach those who seized power in Chile, Argentina, Uruguay and Bolivia – with the tacit approval of Washington.

The death toll in Brazil was far lower than that in, for example, Argentina – there, 30,000 people disappeared, while Brazil, with 10 times the population, had only about 500 desaparecidos. The government, says historian Daniel Aarao Reis, didn't need to kill en masse, because it had the backing, overt or implicit, of much of the population: The elite was nervous about safeguarding its wealth from the Communist menace, and a skilled propaganda campaign persuaded the middle class it was threatened as well.

Only when the military's skill at managing the economy began to fade, says Prof. Reis, who teaches at the Fluminense Federal University, did the elite turn on the dictatorship and support the transition back to democracy. Few of them see much value in a sweeping inquiry into who did what and when.

For Brazilians, the ongoing power held by people and companies with close ties to the military rulers is so common as to be utterly unremarkable. Through the 1970s, construction companies such as Odebrecht, now a wealthy multinational, prospered by building pharaonic state institutions, while family-owned Globo, now the country's dominant media network, was the dictatorship's mouthpiece.

"It is incredible how the elite is entrenched here, but then, it has had 400 years to tighten its hold," says Ms. Paiva. Even the 2002 election of union leader Luiz Inacio (Lula) da Silva, the first leftist to hold power since the coup, wasn't enough. "Lula was president," she adds, but little else in state institutions changed.

In 1979, as their hold loosened, the generals brought in the amnesty law, still in effect today, which "forgave" both sides, so the courts have always refused to hear cases against accused torturers. (In recent years, Ms. Coimbra's group and other human-rights activists have taken to encircling the homes of suspects and painting "A Torturer Lives Here" on the walls.)

Since the OAS decision, a national task force has waged a slow battle to allow prosecutions by having Brazil recognize international jurisprudence. So far, judges have granted supremacy to the amnesty law, but their rulings are all under appeal.

President da Silva started to open an inquiry into the events of the dictatorship, but his defence minister and the heads of the armed forces threatened to resign. Not only is the military portrayed in the constitution as the "guardian angel" of democracy, many now in its senior ranks were in uniform during military rule. Also, says Ms. Paiva, several judges who have ruled on issues to do with examining the regime were on the bench back then.

It was Mr. Da Silva's successor who finally created a truth commission, filling Ms. Coimbra with new hope – because this President is one of the world's most prominent torture survivors.

Dilma Rousseff was arrested as a guerrilla in 1970; she was held on military bases for two years and repeatedly subjected to interrogation methods such as electrical shocks on her ears and feet and being hung naked from a "parrot perch," arms and legs tied up behind her.

Startling as that may seem for someone now a head of state, it is not unique in this region. Chilean President Michelle Bachelet is the daughter of an air-force general who opposed Chile's 1973 coup. She was jailed herself as a teenager, then exiled. President Jose Mujica of Uruguay was an anti-dictatorship guerrilla who was shot six times by police and tortured while jailed for 14 years.

Ms. Rousseff has described her experience to scholars and investigators, but she leads a coalition that includes many political interests that are well entrenched. She has neither tried to revoke the amnesty law nor publicly challenged the insistence of senior officers there was no state policy of torture. Meanwhile, the man widely believed to have tortured her enjoys a seaside retirement.

Her reticence frustrates fellow survivors. "The marks torture leaves on you are there forever and I hoped those would speak louder than political agreements Dilma made," Ms. Coimbra says. "But apparently they don't."

The government began to apologize to survivors in 1995 and has paid some compensation (in a gesture of solidarity, Ms. Rousseff donated hers, about $10,000, to Tortura Nunca Mais). But the military will not acknowledge there was any torture, which Ms. Coimbra says contributes directly to the fact that it's still taking place.

Torture is common in Brazil's savage prison system, and there is considerable evidence it is part of the training manual of both civil and military police (who do much of the urban policing).

Late last year, 25 members of a vaunted new community policing unit in Rio de Janeiro were charged with torturing, murdering and hiding the body of Amarildo de Souza, a bricklayer they suspected knew something about the rampant drug dealing in the favelas. His disappearance wasn't especially unusual, but the community was fed up and protested enough to force an investigation.

"Amarildo and my father are the same," Ms. Paiva says. "My father is the prototype. Both of them had five kids, and both were tortured while many [other police officers] could hear. The impunity is terrible."

The 'enemy' is in power

The public is watching the heavy media coverage of the commission intently, but the military has made no secret of its distaste. "There is no actual military engagement: The co-operation is only formal and consists of the presentation of a few unimportant documents," says Pedro Dallari, a law professor who heads the commission. "But we must deal with it. I am convinced that the army has all the information related to the violations we are investigating."

Ivan Claudio Marx, the lawyer who heads the prosecution task force, says his team is constantly challenged by the lack of surviving evidence and witnesses, but is developing a clear picture of the chain of command within the regime structure, which helps them build cases.

The task force has 187 of them under way and eight before the courts. Typically, the military stonewalls, he says, and tells him it has no record of the people he is investigating, even when they are on active service.

"The army still has that thing about the 'internal enemy' [the Communists]," he says – except today that enemy is in power.

Mr. Marx is only 34, born in the last days of the dictatorship, and his family, its surname notwithstanding, was never active in politics. But he has immersed himself in the new task force because he believes its work is critical for the nation's future: "To have healthy democratic institutions, you have to cleanse them of the people who participated in the regime. Brazil hasn't done this."

Ms. Coimbra, too, believes that her country cannot progress until it can speak the truth. "We want the public to know who the torturers are. They are still in the shadows. Even though we've been saying their names for years."

At 63, she seems fierce, but as she reflects on how long she has worked for this, she weeps.

"We need to put a period at the end of this story. It's like it's still not over. … It's not that we want them to go to prison. But make everything public, so everyone knows who did it and what they did. I can't die until then. … We saw others die who cannot speak. And I must speak for them."

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