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Last Updated: Monday, 26 November 2007, 00:31 GMT
Tackling Brazil's painful past
By Gary Duffy
BBC News, Sao Paulo

At his home in Sao Paulo, journalist Bernardo Kucinski lives with the memories of his sister and her husband who disappeared more than 30 years ago.

Ana Rosa Silva - photo courtesy of the Kucinski family
Ana Rosa's family still need to know what happened to her

Ana Rosa and her husband, Wilson Silva, were involved in a clandestine group that fought against the military dictatorship that ruled Brazil from 1964 until 1985.

Their bodies were never found, and Bernardo says even after they disappeared, the military continued to mislead the families and add to their suffering.

"They sent false information, false informants, false reports. You can not imagine what they did... On one occasion, my wife went to the airport because there was the news that my sister was coming from Portugal on a plane," he said.

"All lies and lies and lies - everything to make you give up."

An amnesty law passed in the closing years of the dictatorship meant neither security officials accused of torture nor those involved in the resistance faced prosecution, though some families have pursued civil cases.

And while the victims of Brazil's dictatorship numbered in the hundreds, and not the tens of thousands like some other Latin American countries, for the relatives left behind the demand for answers is just as great.


In recent months, the period of the dictatorship has been making news again in Brazil.

A book launched by the government has renewed debate over the darkest period of the country's recent history, known here as the "anos de chumbo" or "years of lead".

Worker organises secret documents from Brazil's military dictatorship at the National Library Archive in Brasilia
Researchers spent 11 years preparing the book

Some of the tensions surrounding this issue were laid bare at the August launch of this official government publication, which for the first time detailed atrocities carried out on behalf of the military dictatorship.

The country's three military chiefs did not go to the ceremony, and the army later indicated its discontent over what senior officers viewed as a "backward step".

Some senior figures in the government were involved in resistance to the dictatorship, but at the ceremony there were repeated denials that the book's publication was motivated by a desire for revenge against the armed forces.

President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva said the emphasis was on reconciliation and spoke of the sacred right of families to bury their loved ones.

Turning the page

Bernardo Kucinski says the families want full access to government archives and the truth.

"To know where the bodies were buried, how they died, who did it, you have to know what happened. You have to bury your dead people," he says.

"There is no question of not burying your dead. I mean all civilisations, all people, all cultures have a burial ritual, because this is necessary."

But there are those who argue that Brazil must turn the page on this difficult era, especially if it involves legal action against any suspects.

The amnesty... was not a pardon
Jarbas Passarinho
Former justice minister
They say the amnesty law allowed both the torturers and those who used violence against the state to go unpunished as a key part of the formula that paved the way for Brazil to return to democracy.

Jarbas Passarinho is a former army colonel, senator and justice minister who served in administrations during the dictatorship.

Now a feisty 87-year-old who writes frequently for the Brazilian press, he says the amnesty was meant to be a means to leave the past behind.

"When we made the amnesty and I was the leader for President Figueiredo, our idea was to forget - it was not a pardon," he says.

"The president used to say a pardon presupposes asking for forgiveness. No, what we want is to forget. Brazil is going to continue living from this page to the future.

"But you must consider, the amnesty also had crimes linked to it, so the government recognised overall that violence was practised by the state as well as by terrorists."

Answers needed

This is a view disputed by Paulo Markun, a leading journalist and president of the Padre Anchieta Foundation that runs the highly respected TV Cultura in Sao Paulo.

Paulo Markun
Paulo Markun says Brazil has not really confronted its past

As a young man he was active in the Communist Party and was imprisoned and tortured under the dictatorship. His colleague, Vladimir Herzog, a former BBC journalist, was murdered, causing widespread anger.

Paulo Markun says justice requires answers, but he has his doubts about whether it will actually happen.

"It is certainly justifiable, but whether it is possible I think not. The way the agreement was done in Brazil was the opposite of other countries in Latin America - the story was buried under a stone.

"The amnesty was presented as a pardon for both sides, as if there was an equality between someone who acts violently in a clandestine and illegal way and who is arrested and punished and killed, and someone who acts with violence legally such as the repressive organisations - they were part of the system."

President Lula has now promised full access to the remaining archives, and if that happens perhaps only then will the families left behind will have the answers they need.

Relatives of the disappeared

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Timeline: Brazil
11 Dec 03 |  Country profiles


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