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

Brazil’s awkward reckoning with an atrocity that lives on Add to ...

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.

“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.

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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