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.

BY TAYLOR BARNES

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 The documents released since the election — a batch of previously unpublished STM files reported on in November by a leading newspaper, Folha de Sao Paulo — add only a few new details to what’s already known about Rousseff’s days as a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

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