The view from the ground.

Dilma’s Secrets

In digging for dirt on Brazil's new president, a group of journalists and scholars may have come uncomfortably close to a more serious truth about a whole country.


RIO DE JANEIRO—It’s part of the deal when someone who was once a member of a guerrilla rebel group runs for president at the head of a mainstream political party: People are bound to try to find out what “really” happened. During Brazilian President-elect Dilma Rousseff’s campaign, journalists and researchers went to the national archives and the Superior Military Tribunal (known by its Portuguese acronym, STM) to dig up records on Brazil’s 21-year military dictatorship and the candidate’s resistance activities that led to three years of jail and brutal torture. And many say they were told: Not during the campaign.

With Rousseff about to be confirmed as president on Jan. 1 in Brasilia, the question of what’s in the archives — and why no one was allowed to get into them — has taken on new importance. It’s not that anyone expects Rousseff’s files to yield some shocking Patty Hearst moment. The documents released since the election — a batch of previously unpublished STM files reported on in November by a leading newspaper, Folha de Sao Paulo — add only a few new details to what’s already known about Rousseff’s days as a young rebel. But more importantly, the protest from journalists and transparency activists over an apparent cover-up may actually help enable a much-delayed reassessment of Brazil’s conduct during its U.S.-supported 1964-85 military dictatorship — something the country has still barely reckoned with.

The delicate subject of Rousseff’s background with the banned Revolutionary Marxist Workers Politics Organization was largely kept out of the light during the campaign. The candidate herself, in the few times she spoke about it, maintained that she was never armed and worked only as an organizer. For months before the Oct. 3 election and the Oct. 31 run-off, Folha had been seeking documents about Rousseff’s trial from the STM, which is run by ministers chosen by the president and branches of the armed forces. And for that entire time, the newspaper was stonewalled. “I don’t want political use [of the Supreme Military Tribunal’s documents]…. I’m not going to run the risk in the electoral period,” STM top justice Carlos Soares told the newspaper, saying that he had put the records in a safe.

Rousseff told Folha in a February interview that she received arms training in Uruguay, something she had previously denied. “My training was very dunce-like,” she said. “There was not much shooting. The [arms] were put together and taken apart. Also [there was training in] security. You [learn] how to make it so that you’re not followed.” She added that even her military captors never accused her of armed actions — she was only charged for subversion. But the documentary record was not released until after the election, when a court decision brought the files out of the safe and Folha ran its reports in late November.

One of the military records describes a 1970 confession given under torture by a Rousseff comrade, who claimed that Rousseff had the access code to find a hidden arsenal of weapons stolen the year before from Sao Paulo security forces. The tortured comrade, Joao Batista de Sousa, told Folha recently that Rousseff later said she used the code to find the address of the arsenal but that when she arrived, the house was already riddled with bullet holes. Another STM document describes how, in the years before her imprisonment, Rousseff gave classes on Marxism-Leninism. Folha spoke with a comrade from the old days who recalled giving Rousseff her first lessons on communism but now complained the future president was “too much a developmentalist” and had forgotten about the environment.

The details themselves were fairly bland, especially compared to the WikiLeaks cable released not long after the Folha story, calling Rousseff the “Joan of Arc of Subversion” and claiming that she’d co-founded her rebel group and played a key role in organizing armed robberies, something she has consistently denied (the U.S. ambassador to Brazil has told Brazilian journalists that he can’t confirm the allegations in the cable). But the details are not as interesting as how Folha‘s experience in obtaining them shows Brazil’s long-standing discomfort over its history: the 21-year-long dictatorship with its unresolved human-rights abuse record, the armed Marxist resistance, and the 1979 amnesty, recently upheld by the Brazilian Supreme Court, that protected both military torturers and guerrilla warriors from prosecution.

“In [Brazil] you clearly have military and to some degree government that does not want to open the door on the past,” says Peter Kornbluh, a Latin America specialist with the National Security Archive, an independent research institute run out of George Washington University. In other words, it’s not just the political right that’s not interested in exploring its hard-line past. Some members of the leftist resistance — now spread about the higher reaches of government, academia, and the media — have a stake in keeping their history of kidnappings and bank and arms robberies out of the limelight as well. Because of this, Brazil is in “virtual last place” among modern Latin American countries when it comes to access to information, Kornbluh adds.

Indeed, the Folha reporters weren’t the only ones trying and failing to get their hands on military-era records during the campaign. When Adrianna Setemy, a doctoral student in history at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, went to the National Archives in Brasília in October, she was told that she couldn’t have access to the records she normally uses to research the Foreign Ministry’s role in the dictatorship-era fight against communism — because journalists had asked for them, and because the archives wanted to “preserve the electoral process from the harm they could do with the information inside,” as Setemy says the archivist told her.

As it turns out, Setemy’s professor, Carlos Fico, is a historian who was involved with a digitization project connected with the National Archives — Memórias Reveladas (Revealed Memories), which is meant to scan and offer access to various records across Brazil’s state archives and was in fact founded by Rousseff herself last year when she was chief of staff to outgoing President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. Fico followed up on Setemy’s request with one of his own; he was also told to wait until the end of the campaign. Instead, he waited until the election was over to publicly announce his resignation from Memórias Reveladas. A group of his colleagues, including Folha journalist Fernando Rodrigues’s group Brazilian Association of Investigative Journalism (Abraji) and the government watchdog group Transparência Brasil, quit in protest as well.

“Today we’re a bit the focus of an attack, as though without understanding the law, they interpret that the archive arbitrates the law,” National Archive Director-General Jaime Antunes da Silva told me, pointing out that Brazilian law protects “the intimacy, the private life, the honor and the image” of an individual for up to 100 years. Fico and many other researchers believe the archives are being overzealous in their interpretation of this vaguely worded privacy clause and moreover, that the archives are being exceptionally cautious with dictatorship-era documents out of fear of political reprisal, since they are a subordinate of the Casa Civil, a ministry of the presidency. The archives could, for example, follow the Sao Paulo state archives in having the researcher sign an oath of responsibility for the use of the information or block out victims’ names.

So what are the archives being so cagey about? While it’s the STM that keeps the documents that most directly relate to Rousseff and her comrade’s trials and imprisonment, researchers told me that the capital city’s archive could either have copies of STM documents or related information from other organs responsible for repression during the dictatorship, some of which are now defunct. These are less likely to be smoking guns than potential political embarrassments — perhaps linking Rousseff’s comrades to further armed actions or offering more ambiguous details of her time as a Marxist. But their release could still prove politically complex, and not just for Rousseff.

The president-elect’s acceptance speech gingerly touched on her dictatorship days, describing herself as simply a pro-democratic freedom fighter rather than a revolutionary while discussing the liberty of the press: “We dedicated all of our youth to the right of expression,” she said. “I prefer the noise of a free press to the silence of the dictatorships.”

The press itself would agree. Fico, Transparência Brasil, Abraji, and even Antunes of the National Archives have been vocal in support of a draft law now in the Senate that would ease access to public information and quantify how much remains classified, something that is itself still a mystery. The draft includes a clause making clear that “information or documents that deal with conduct that implies a violation of human rights practiced by public agents or at the demand of public authorities will not be able to be an object of restricted access.”

Rodrigues of Folha and Abraji expects the Senate to take up the draft by next year. With broad access to military-era documents, there’s always the chance that the public might galvanize against the re-affirmed 1979 amnesty and finally carry out some kind of reconciliation process, like Chile and Argentina — a step that was left behind in Brazil’s astonishing charge toward democratization and emerging-power status. Michelle Bachelet, the former Chilean president who left office in March and was herself a torture victim during the Pinochet dictatorship, oversaw a freedom of information act in 2008 that could stand as an example.

And some ripples may already be reaching shore: On Dec. 14, in a landmark decision, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights ruled that Brazil must transfer all documents related to a famous case of “disappearance,” the Guerrilha do Araguaia, to the National Archives and open them to the public. The court ruled that the state is responsible for the disappearances of 70 peasants and militants between 1972-1975 and that Brazil’s amnesty law, which blocks investigation, is incompatible with the American Convention on Human Rights, to which Brazil is a signatory. It’s anyone’s guess what could happen next — but it will be instructive to see how Brazil’s new president, the former “Joan of Arc of Subversion,” handles this challenge to her young administration.

Taylor Barnes is this year's Inter American Press Association scholar based in Rio de Janeiro. She reports for the Christian Science Monitor and the Miami Herald, among other publications.

More from Foreign Policy

Keri Russell as Kate Wyler walks by a State Department Seal from a scene in The Diplomat, a new Netflix show about the foreign service.
Keri Russell as Kate Wyler walks by a State Department Seal from a scene in The Diplomat, a new Netflix show about the foreign service.

At Long Last, the Foreign Service Gets the Netflix Treatment

Keri Russell gets Drexel furniture but no Senate confirmation hearing.

Chinese President Xi Jinping and French President Emmanuel Macron speak in the garden of the governor of Guangdong's residence in Guangzhou, China, on April 7.
Chinese President Xi Jinping and French President Emmanuel Macron speak in the garden of the governor of Guangdong's residence in Guangzhou, China, on April 7.

How Macron Is Blocking EU Strategy on Russia and China

As a strategic consensus emerges in Europe, France is in the way.

Chinese President Jiang Zemin greets U.S. President George W. Bush prior to a meeting of APEC leaders in 2001.
Chinese President Jiang Zemin greets U.S. President George W. Bush prior to a meeting of APEC leaders in 2001.

What the Bush-Obama China Memos Reveal

Newly declassified documents contain important lessons for U.S. China policy.

A girl stands atop a destroyed Russian tank.
A girl stands atop a destroyed Russian tank.

Russia’s Boom Business Goes Bust

Moscow’s arms exports have fallen to levels not seen since the Soviet Union’s collapse.