Reconcile this: what Brazil can tell us about the TRC

By Richard Poplak 6 August 2012

Brazil, our Brics partner, has its own nightmarish history. The country is currently paying fast attention to the allegations pouring forth from a truth commission. Brazil’s military rule, from 1964 to 1985, proved to be unpleasant for many of the country’s citizens. Primary among them: President Dilma Rousseff. By RICHARD POPLAK.

Consider the headline of this piece something of a McGuffin. Brazil, one of the world’s fastest emerging economies (slowing somewhat at the moment, but no need to panic yet), can’t tell South Africa much about Truth and Reconciliation, because the country is trying very hard to figure that stuff out on its own. Brazil has done less than its neighbours to deal with the darkness of its past. Ex-military establishment figures, like the loathed Pedro Ivo Moézia de Lima, have done no time, living high on the hog completely uninterested in either truth or reconciling. De Lima tried his damndest to stop the commission at its inception, to no real effect.

And so, the dirty laundry is slowly taken to the line. Four hundred people killed, many thousands more imprisoned, tortured, humiliated. The country has a large struggle-ista establishment, but unlike South Africa, the most famous among them don’t parade their credentials on a daily basis. The country’s president, Dilma Rousseff, once known by the nom de guerre Estela, is surprisingly quiet about her days on the frontlines.

The president had it as bad as any. She was imprisoned and tortured systematically and brutally. She spent three years in jail, where her interrogators used electric shocks on her feet and her ears. She was beaten, and forced into one of the country’s signature forms of humiliation: the pau de arera, or parrot’s perch, in which the unlucky leftist was hung naked, with their hands and ankles bound.

In other words, this wasn’t tickling. There are a generation of leftists in the country who suffered terribly at the hands of the regime, but their version of a truth commission has not had the same effect as our own TRC. Although Mr. Lopes de Lime has come under significant fire—his home has been surrounded and decorated with graffiti that reads “a torturer of the dictatorship lives here”—the commission remains controversial, and is certainly not binding the country in ribbons of satiny truth.

The country is wracked by a problem that South Africans know well: How much of the past can the future handle? Asked another way, in a country like Brazil that is focused on the coming World Cup Final and the next Olympics—a country obsessed with the future and its status as an emerging power—is the past of any use? Dilma Rousseff’s own ambivalence speaks to this. She does not play the victim, which is something that would be anathema to a South African politician of her standing. And while she has pushed for the transparency the commission would usher in, this is hardly unique to the commission. Transparency is a Brazilian buzzword; openness the road that will lead to a shining future. 

Ms. Rousseff, along with her ex-husband, belonged to a group called Palmares Armed Revolutionary Vanguard. She did not grow up in the favelas, but in upper-middle-class privilege as the daughter of a Bulgarian businessman and his Brazilian schoolteacher wife. But Rousseff was appalled by the abuses of the military regime, and like the other leftists that now form the Brazilian political elite, she joined a shadowy group and went underground.

The stakes were very, very high. She was thrown in prison at the age of 22, and spent three years there. After her release in 1976, she returned to her economics studies, gave birth to a daughter, and slowly wormed her way into politics. She did not rise as a strident woman-of-the-people, but as a hardnosed technocrat marinated in policy. She is a very tough leader—known to make grown men cry—but is also a moderate, having dispensed with the leftist rhetoric a long time ago. 

If the most prominent of Brazil’s former leftists isn’t willing to play the torture card, where does that leave the thousands who are still nursing their wounds and their histories? Civil society groups have been burgled, important documents stolen. And as we’ve already noted, the establishment of old has no interest in digging up the past. Does this mean Brazil is destined to repeat the mistakes of the past?

Not necessarily. Although the police still use a heavy hand in dealing with crime in the favelas, the country is subject to the rule of law. That law, unlike during the military regime, tends to favour its citizens. The country is by no means perfect, and the scars of the regime still mark the country’s best and brightest, but Brazil has undeniably moved forward.

What, then, is the point of hanging all the stained pairs of undies on the proverbial washing line? Brazil’s history isn’t a secret, and there are dozens of civil society and government initiatives to document to abuses of the past. In terms of redress, most victims have been compensated—Ms. Rousseff donated her $10,000 to civil society group helping torture victims. 

The likes of Mr. Lopes de Lima are unlikely to ever see justice. There are others who question Ms. Rousseff’s torture credentials. There is no consensus on whether the commission will do any good. This is the mess of a country coming to terms with itself, growing up, maturing. It’s an ungainly business, like any adolescent process—something that South Africans know all too well. Perhaps the only truth about Truth and Reconciliation Committees is that they air old divides that take generations to heal. It’s a tough business. Ask Dilma Rousseff. She knows all about tough. DM

Photo: Dilma Rousseff (Reuters)



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