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 The documents released since the election -- a batch of previously unpublished STM files reported on in November by a leading newspaper, Folha de Sao Paulo -- add only a few new details to what's already known about Rousseff's days as a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