Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff
Rio de Janeiro, Aug. 5: Her nom de guerre was Estela.
Part of a shadowy urban guerrilla group at the time of her capture in 1970, she spent three years behind bars, where interrogators repeatedly tortured her with electric shocks to her feet and ears, and forced her into the pau de arara, or parrot’s perch, in which victims are suspended upside down naked, from a stick, with bound wrists and ankles.
That former guerrilla is now Brazil’s President, Dilma Rousseff. As a truth commission begins examining the military’s crackdown on the population during a dictatorship that lasted two decades, Brazilians are riveted by chilling details emerging about the painful pasts of both their country and their President.
The schisms of that era, which stretched from 1964 to 1985, live on here. Retired military officials, including Maurício Lopes Lima, 76, a former lieutenant colonel accused of torturing Rousseff, have questioned the evidence linking the military to abuses.
While a 1979 amnesty still shields military officials from prosecution for abuses, the commission, which began in May and has a two-year mandate, is nevertheless stirring up ghosts. The dictatorship killed an estimated 400 people; torture victims are thought to number in the thousands.
The torture endured by Rousseff, who was 22 when the abuse began and is now 64, is among the most prominent of hundreds of decades-old cases that the commission is examining.
The President is not the region’s only political leader to rise to power after being imprisoned and tortured, a sign of the tumultuous pasts of other Latin American countries. As a young medical student, Chile’s former President, Michelle Bachelet, survived a harrowing stretch of detention and torture after a 1973 military coup. And Uruguay’s President, José Mujica underwent torture during nearly a decade and half of imprisonment.
Since Rousseff took office, she has refused to play the part of a victim while subtly pushing for more transparency into the years of Brazil’s military dictatorship. She rarely refers in public to the cruelty she endured.
Rousseff has evolved considerably since her days in the underground resistance. The daughter of a Bulgarian émigré businessman and his Brazilian schoolteacher wife, she grew up in relative privilege, only to abandon that upbringing to join a fledgling guerrilla group.
After her release from prison, she moved to the southern city of Porto Alegre, where her husband at the time, Carlos Franklin Paixã de Araújo, was completing his own prison sentence for subversion.
She resumed her studies in economics, gave birth to a daughter, Paula, in 1976, and entered local politics. Moderating her political views, she slowly rose to national prominence as a results-oriented technocrat. She served as chief of staff and energy minister for Brazil’s former President, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.
She governs with a markedly different style from that of da Silva, a gregarious former union leader. Even as Brazil’s economy slows, her approval rating stands around 77 per cent, as the government expands anti-poverty spending and stimulus projects.
She keeps a low profile in Brasília, where she lives in the Alvorada Palace with her mother and an aunt (she is divorced from Araújo, though the two remain close). News media pore over her interests, which range from René Magritte’s surrealist paintings to the HBO fantasy series Game of Thrones.
At the same time, her hard-charging governing style — she has been said to berate senior officials until they cry —has been enshrined in Brazilian popular culture, with Gustavo Mendes, a cross-dressing comedian, attaining fame by imitating her on the raunchy national television programme Casseta and Planeta Go Deep.
Such satirical derision on television of a Brazilian leader would have been almost unthinkable at the time of Rousseff’s incarceration, when Brazilians faced censorship, prison sentences — or worse — for criticising military rulers.
Her experiences in the torture chambers remained unknown to the public for decades. Some details emerged in 2005, when testimony she provided to an author was published in Brazilian newspapers.
She described the progression from palmatória, a torture method in which a paddle or stick is used to strike the knuckles and palms of the hand, to the next, when she was stripped naked, bound upside down and submitted to electric shocks on different parts of her body, including her breasts, inner thighs and head.
When she was still an obscure provincial official, she gave testimony in 2001 to an investigator, describing how interrogators there beat her in the face, distorting her dental ridge. One tooth came loose and became rotten from the pummelling, she said, and was later dislodged by a blow from another interrogator.
“I remember the fear when my skin trembled,” she said back in 2001. “Something like that marks us for the rest of our lives.”