Brazil Absorbs Revelations That Its Nasty Past Isn't so Bygone

The demise of Brazil's military dictatorship in 1985, after 21 dark years, was supposed to have ended government intrusiveness in people's lives.

But searching through government documents, the newspaper Folha de Sao Paulo has found evidence to the contrary. Papers show that Brazil’s secret service spied on both Dilma Rousseff, now the president, and her mentor and predecessor, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, from the time democracy was restored until the early 1990s.

Jose Sarney, who was president from 1985 to 1990, responded as if he had no knowledge of the surveillance. "I had determined that the SNI (National Information Service) would never do an investigation of any person," he told Folha.

A Twitter user identifying only as Mara wasn't sure what was worse: if he knew or didn't know. “This is really dirty or scary,” she tweeted.

Without commenting on Sarney's role, an anonymous chemical engineer in the city of Recife, writing on the blog "I'm Watching Double Dealing," endorsed scary. The blogger regarded the revelations as a sign that military dictatorship could emerge at any moment, as it did in the 1964 coup: "This just shows that the survivors of the regime are more alive than ever, in a state of latency, awaiting an opening just like in 1964."

According to Folha de Sao Paulo, the documents are part of the Dictatorship Archive, which consists of more than 8 million pages produced by intelligence agencies about surveillance of some 308,000 people. Rousseff is referenced in 181 documents, 17 of them dating from Sarney's presidency. These documented Rousseff’s role in the feminist movement and in a 1988 rally against extending Sarney’s mandate as president. The paper reported that 6,129 documents referred to Lula, a former firebrand union leader, who was monitored starting in 1976. One document referred to a 1988 Sao Paulo meeting in which Lula and other activists from his party discussed his candidacy for president. He won the office 15 years later.

Much of the commentary about the affair centered on the cynicism of Rousseff, Lula and their Worker's Party now being allied with Sarney and his Democratic Movement Party. Sarney is the president of the Senate and a powerful political figure. He and his family dominate politics in their home state of Maranhao, where his daughter Roseana is governor. In 2009, Sarney survived corruption allegations after the media revealed a number of secret Senate decisions, many involving benefits to his clan members. In the heat of the scandal, Lula famously defended him, saying, "Sarney has sufficient history in Brazil not to be treated as a common person.”

Reacting to a story on the news site Terra about the spying that went on under Sarney's presidency, a Brazilian identifying as Celio Leal quipped: “This is why Lula said Sarney is a special person!” Another, posting as Marcus Machado, accused the Workers' Party of being opportunistic. “Dilma and Lula on a platform against the extension of then president Sarney. Today, Lula and Dilma, in power, up for reelection, friends of Sarney." He added: “Could it be that the left is not the same once it comes to power?”

While the disclosure of espionage under Sarney's presidency invited mockery, another revelation about Rousseff struck a different chord. It is common knowledge that as a member of the country’s armed revolutionary movement, she was tortured in jail in Sao Paulo during the dictatorship. However, Rousseff has rarely discussed the subject and never in detail. Two weeks ago, the Estado de Minas newspaper revealed shocking details of previously unknown sessions of abuse that Rousseff endured in Juiz de Fora in her home state of Minas Gerais, in 1972.

This time, nobody made political capital. Instead, the response was one of shock, sympathy and soul-searching over the role of both left and right in the armed struggle against Brazil’s military rule.

The revelations of abuse, including beatings and electric shocks, came from a 2001 deposition by Rousseff to the Minas Gerais State Commission for Indemnification of Torture Victims. Rousseff spoke of having suffered a hemorrhage under torture in Sao Paulo and again in Minas Gerais:

It was a hemorrhage of the uterus. They gave me an injection and said they wouldn’t beat me that day. In Minas, when I started to have a hemorrhage, they called someone who gave me a pill and then an injection. But they were giving me electric shocks and afterwards stopped.

The secretary taking the testimony noted that Rousseff, then secretary of Mines and Energy in Rio Grande do Sul state, broke down and cried at this point.

Rousseff said that the solitude of prison and the uncertainty of when the torture might start again was the worst part:

The stress is fierce, unimaginable. I discovered, for the first time, that I was alone. I faced death and solitude. I remember that my skin trembled with fear. It is something that marks us for the rest of life.

“I didn’t vote for her, but I began to admire and respect her. Courageous!” tweeted a Brazilian calling himself Fabio Spavieri.

Rousseff’s revelations were widely published and discussed. After Augusto Ferreira shared a front-page story about them on his Facebook account, a debate quickly began among his friends. “I can’t understand, apart from torturers, that there is still someone in this country who defends institutionalized torture,” Ferreira wrote.

“Unfortunately the history of Brazil is permeated with many sordid episodes,” responded Angela Maria Barros.

Marco Agostinho raised the issue of the violent crimes the armed resistance committed. “If I resolve to rob or kidnap, as a way to justify what I judge is right, is there no problem? Or is a crime with political ends not a crime?"

Rafael Cesar had a response. “Tell me what alternative existed for dissidence at that time?”

It's a symptom of the fear and even the shame that Brazilians harbor over their dictatorial past that neither the surveillance nor torture story attracted much comment in official media. It was on social media that Brazilians felt free to have their say. Increasingly they use Twitter and Facebook to express what the mainstream media doesn’t.

A woman identifying as Carla Zahlouth asked on Twitter if it was right for Rousseff's revelations, given to a victims' commission, to have been published so widely, when the president herself has said so little on the subject openly. Zahlouth asked: “Did the media that reported Dilma's testimony have the dignity to ask her permission?” There was no reply to that.

(Dom Phillips is the Rio de Janeiro correspondent for World View. The opinions expressed are his own.)

To read more from World View, Bloomberg View's emerging markets blog, click here.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

    To contact the author of this story:

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    Lisa Beyer at

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.