Brazil finally ready to confront abuses in past dictatorship


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.

Vera Paiva said her family does not know a lot about what happened to her father. After his position in Brazil’s legislature was revoked by the coup, she said, he maintained contact with friends and allies.

Vera Paiva believes that after her father received a letter from an exile in Chile — then still under President Salvador Allende before a military coup there in 1973 — the Brazilian regime must have come to the conclusion that he had some information on armed guerrilla organizations.

She said that in 1971 two plainclothes government agents picked him up in Rio de Janeiro as he returned from a beach for lunch. Most of the rest of his family members, including his wife, were also arrested and then released over the next few weeks. Their best guess is that he was tortured to death.

“But of course, no one knows,” Paiva said.

The delay in getting answers in Brazil came about partly because the military oversaw the transition to democracy and protected its interests, said David Fleischer, a political scientist at the University of Brasilia.


“The military wants zero investigation. They didn’t want any truth commission at all. They considered the amnesty enough,” he said.

The influence of still-active political parties that participated in the regime was another countervailing force to the movement for a commission, analysts say. This is despite the fact that since 1995, all Brazilian presidents had been personally affected by the military regime. During the dictatorship, center-right Fernando Henrique Cardoso was exiled in Paris and Chile, and left-wing Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva — Cardoso’s successor and Rousseff’s predecessor — was imprisoned as a labor leader.

“I hope the commission can reveal the truth,” Paiva said. “You can’t build a new future on lies and falsifications.”

Bevins is a special correspondent.