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Brazil finally ready to confront abuses in past dictatorship

A truth commission in Brazil will investigate what happened under a military dictatorship in the 1970s when hundreds of people were killed or disappeared.

January 05, 2012|By Vincent Bevins, Los Angeles Times
  • Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, shown at the presidential palace in Brasilia last year, was part of a leftist guerrilla group in the 1960s and '70s that opposed the military dictatorship.
Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, shown at the presidential palace… (Fernando Bizerra Jr. / European…)

Reporting from Sao Paulo, Brazil — Vera Paiva has spent four decades trying to find out what happened to her father after he was arrested in 1971 during Brazil's military dictatorship.

Rubens Paiva, a former congressman, is one of the country's most famous desaparecidos, or "disappeared ones," whose cases finally will be investigated by the government.

"The last time we heard of anyone seeing him, he was inside the jail and had been barbarically tortured," Vera Paiva said, sitting in her house in Sao Paulo and going through details she has told journalists and officials hundreds of times.

"As his daughter, I would love to know what actually happened," said Paiva, 57. "But it's more important that the country know the truth, so it can move forward."

Long after South American neighbors Chile, Argentina and Uruguay underwent similar bouts of self-reflection over their violent histories, Brazil's government in November approved the formation of a truth commission to investigate human rights abuses under its military dictatorship from 1964 to 1985.

The commission's work is expected to last two years and comes as President Dilma Rousseff, who was among those imprisoned and tortured in the early 1970s for opposing the dictatorship, completes her first year overseeing a country that has seen its economy grow rapidly and is eager to take a prominent position on the world stage.

The dictatorship, which took over in a U.S.-backed coup, is suspected of killing or causing the disappearance of more than 450 people, and torturing or exiling thousands more. There is broad agreement on what the regime did, but government records have not been opened to reveal details since the military passed an amnesty law in 1979 while managing a gradual transition to civilian rule.

The truth commission will not lead to any trials. But after 16 years in which the country was governed by presidents who once were persecuted by military rule, proponents of a commission successfully argued that a full investigation would allow the country to confront its past. The commission findings could end an era of perceived impunity and secrecy for human rights abusers, they said, and help move the nation forward with boosted moral credibility.

Brazil's regime was less bloody than those of other countries, but victims, relatives and activists say orders of magnitude are not important when discussing the consequences of decades of repression. The regime took aim not only at the politically active, but artists, intellectuals and musicians as well.

"I heard the cries of the tortured in the night," said Caetano Veloso, a legendary musician who helped pioneer the Tropicalismo movement, which mixed Brazilian rhythms with '60s rock 'n' roll. Veloso was imprisoned for two months in the late 1960s and left for London soon after being released.

"The truth commission should mean a healthier public.… If it goes well, it should serve to pull Brazil out of the moral underworld" that the dictatorship plunged the country into, "and elevate it to a nation seriously committed to human rights," he said.

"The dictatorship was a nightmare for those who believed in democracy," Veloso said. "But that was the role that fell to Brazil between the forces of the Cold War."

Analysts say the commission could also stir some uncomfortable reflections on the role the United States played at the time. Washington provided aggressive support to movements opposed to any perceived communist threat, regardless of their democratic or human rights credentials.

"Of course the U.S. will have embarrassing moments, but it has had those all over the region," said Peter Hakim, president emeritus at Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington-based think tank focusing on hemispheric affairs. "Brazil's dictatorship was not quite as brutal as that in Argentina or Chile, and U.S. involvement there was more modest."

Supporters of the investigation said laying blame is less important than national reconciliation.

"The truth commission won't affect Dilma's relations with Washington, but will reveal a black period in US-Brazil relations," said Antonio Campos, a lawyer who will present evidence to the commission.

Declassified documents show that the Brazilian military government took power with U.S. logistical and military support, and then exiled left-wing President Joao Goulart in 1964. What was initially a so-called soft military dictatorship became increasingly repressive as the decade went on. The most frequent targets of fatal violence were leftist antigovernment guerrilla groups, in which the young Rousseff took part.

Rubens Paiva was one of the most emblematic of the disappeared, his daughter said, because he was a respected politician with a family, rather than a young radical suspected of involvement in armed struggle against the regime.

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