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 The documents released since the election -- a batch of previously unpublished STM files reported on in November by a leading newspaper, Folha de Sao Paulo -- add only a few new details to what's already known about Rousseff's days as a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.



The Verdict Is In

The re-sentencing of Russia's No.1 dissident, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, wasn't unexpected, but the sheer brazenness of it is a striking and dangerous sign of bad things to come.

There is one word that comes to mind when watching the drama surrounding the Mikhail Khodorkovsky verdict and sentence today of 13.5 years in prison. Perhaps tellingly, it is a Russian word: naglost'. English simply doesn't have one word that packs into so few letters all that naglost' means: arrogance, contemptuous malice, obnoxiousness, brazenness, insolence, impudence, and sheer nerve. Google Translate suggests no fewer than 22 synonyms, none of which captures the fullness of the word as well as the Russian government has embodied it in this case.

There was, for instance, the postponement. The verdict was supposed to be read on the morning of Dec. 15. Camera crews, journalists, and a crowd of Khodorkovsky supporters showed up at the courthouse to find a piece of paper taped to the courtroom door. The verdict would now be read on Dec. 27, it read, when the world -- and foreign journalists -- would be on holiday. No one had bothered to alert Khodorkovsky's legal team. When asked for an explanation, the court spokeswoman snapped, "The court does not explain itself." 

When the court reconvened on Dec. 27, just before the reading of the verdict could commence, Judge Viktor Danilkin called a 15-minute recess. After it was over, he simply didn't let the journalists back in. Then he shut off the simulcast of the proceedings and kicked Khodorkovsky's wife and daughter out of the room.

And just when one thought the naglost' had surely peaked, the court -- and, by extension, the Russian government -- showed how much farther they could go. In October, the prosecution had cut the volume of oil allegedly stolen by Khodorkovsky from 350 million tons to 218 million, citing a lack of evidence and arithmetical error. But on Dec. 29, Judge Danilkin found Khodorkovsky and his partner Platon Lebedev guilty of stealing -- that's right -- 350 million tons of oil. The judge overrode the prosecution, apparently deciding that it was not being prosecutorial enough.

And there's more: On the second day of monotonous reading (the verdict is some 250 pages, most of which simply recapitulates the trial and all of which has to be read aloud), Danilkin challenged the testimonies of German Gref, the minister of economics and trade from 2000 to 2007, and of Viktor Khristenko, minister of industry. Both had reluctantly testified on Khodorkovsky's behalf this summer, but Danilkin said that their testimony merely proved Khodorkovsky's guilt. What had they said in court? Gref testified that had 350 million tons of oil been stolen under his watch, he surely would have noticed -- and he didn't notice any such theft. Khristenko, for his part, explained why it is impossible to accuse Yukos (Khodorkovsky's oil company) of stealing oil at all. But Danilkin seemed to think that it was, in fact, very possible, and reminded everyone of a crucial detail that, in his view, mortally compromised the two high-level government officials: They had been subpoenaed by the defense. And the defense, let's recall, is not anything the Russian judiciary takes seriously, even when trying to imitate a fair trial.

On Dec. 30, the third day of the reading, Danilkin accused Khodorkovsky and Lebedev of withholding dividends from shareholders -- which, he said, "hurt their feelings" -- even though the day before he had found the two former oil executives guilty of bribing board members and shareholders so they would participate in Khodorkovsky's plot to steal 218 million -- wait, no, 350 million tons of oil. How did he bribe them? He paid them dividends.

One could go further and expose more reasoning such as this, reasoning one could call circular if that circle didn't instantly collapse on itself. It seems a pointless exercise, however, when the charges themselves are completely nonsensical: Khodorkovsky has just been convicted and sentenced for stealing all the oil his company ever produced, after having been convicted and sentenced in 2005 for not paying taxes on all the oil his company ever produced.

Much of the coverage of the verdict and trial has described the affair as a farce, but farce cannot be the right word when, at every step, the court has displayed such a flippant disregard for even the barest semblance of logic, or when it pulls such childishly malicious stunts as coaxing the press out of the courtroom. (Or when it seems to just be half asleep: In the course of mechanically reading the verdict, Danilkin occasionally read pages twice, or pages from something else altogether that had somehow made it into his stack of paper.)

Sadly, this is not just about the Khodorkovsky case, which is still ignored by a massive -- if shrinking -- segment of the Russian population. This is about a large and growing arrogant impudence embodied not by the Kremlin, but by the real master of the house, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. Plans to hew a road through the federally protected Khimki forest this summer sparked an unexpectedly fierce public resistance, so President Dmitry Medvedev pulled the plug on the project until the experts could deliver their opinion (which no one had asked them for in the beginning). Earlier this month, however, the original plan for the road was reapproved: Putin's friend, Arkady Rotenberg, just had too much money riding on the project.

What else? In November, the lawyer-cum-blogger Alexei Navalny posted Treasury Department documents showing that Transneft, the state oil transport monopoly, had stolen a humble $4 billion in building an oil pipeline to China. How did the government respond? The next day, Putin publicly thanked Transneft "for its big contribution to the development of energy cooperation between the Russian Federation and the People's Republic of China."

During Putin's annual December phone-a-thon with the Russian public, he received a question from the town of Ivanovo, from a cardiologist named Ivan Khrenov. Khrenov alleged that all that hi-tech equipment and the happy, well-paid doctors the premier saw during his visit this November to Khrenov's hospital had been brought in for the occasion, a near-literal Potemkin Village. "What you saw in the wards also has little to do with the real situation," Khrenov said during the live broadcast. "Most of the patients were asked to leave the hospital on the day of your visit, and in some wards the patients were disguised as members of the hospital's staff." Putin, seemingly surprised and dismayed by this allegation, ordered an investigation. But the special commission investigating the charges found that Khrenov had been lying, of course. (Khrenov is now being accused of slander, in a turn of events reminiscent of Alexey Dymovsky, a police officer who issued a YouTube video detailing grotesque corruption in his unit. He was jailed and bankrupted.)

The most shocking example of this fuck-you attitude is the case of Sergei Magnitsky, a 37-year-old lawyer for Hermitage Capital, then the biggest foreign investment company in Russia. He died in November 2009 under stomach-turning conditions while being held in pre-trial detention. He had been put in prison ostensibly for evading taxes, though he was forced to recant his findings that three Interior Ministry employees had, through forged Hermitage documents, stolen $230 million of Russian tax revenue. Despite the shock over Magnitsky's death, this November the Interior Ministry awarded those same officers medals for exceptional service. Earlier, an investigative committee had found that Magnitsky himself was party to stealing that money. This after Medvedev pledged to punish those responsible for Magnitsky's death.

This is at the core of Putin's image as a salty man of the people who speaks his mind: He does things his way, and, when his way is challenged, he will contemptuously, insolently, flip the world and his subjects a giant, brazen bird. Thus his Foreign Ministry told foreign leaders -- like U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and German chancellor Angela Merkel, who issued flabbergasted statements criticizing the Khodorkovsky conviction -- to "mind [their] own business, both at home and abroad."

To many, it is reminiscent of the behavior of street thugs (of which Putin was one until he tried to join the KGB and was told to first go to college) or of the gulag barracks: Any sign of compromise is weakness, and any sign of weakness starts the countdown to your demise. How do you show strength and leadership in today's Russia? Be brazen, be rude, be ruthless.

"It is unaccountability par excellence," says political analyst Masha Lipman, of the Carnegie Moscow Center. "You can do whatever you want because you're the man of the house. And even when the action seems to be beyond the pale" -- say, postponing the hotly awaited Khodorkovsky verdict with a note on the door -- "they seem to say, ‘You'll eat it, and you'll like it.'" This is what's known in Russia as the Churov rule, named after Vladimir Churov, an eccentric old man doggedly loyal to Putin and known to his employees at the Russian Central Election Committee as "Grandpa." "Putin is always right," he told an interviewer in 2007. And if he's wrong? Churov replied: "Can Putin really be wrong?"