Why Brazil is reluctant to air its 'dirty' past

While Chile, with the arrest Monday of former dictator Augusto Pinochet, is busy cleaning up from its "dirty war," on the other side of South America, Brazilians look at their own dark past rather differently. Two decades after the Brazilian military handed power to civilian leaders, officers are still in denial about their role in the dictatorship, and the country's government is unwilling to take them to task, experts say.

"Of all the Latin American countries that went through dictatorships, Brazil is the one that is most lagging behind in terms of investigating the past," says Cecilia Coimbra, a former political prisoner during the 1964-85 military regime. "In Argentina they are investigating, in Chile they are investigating. In Brazil, no authority has ever apologized for the crimes that were committed. Society has a right to know about its history, but the government is ignoring them."

Politicians, human rights activists, and former prisoners who were held and tortured under the regime all criticized the government of current President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva this week after he failed to take a harder line with the country's armed forces over the release of documents pertaining to Brazil's short-lived and hapless guerrilla war.

By voluntarily giving up the documents the government could have sent a sign to the generals that they must face up to abuses committed during the military regime, experts say. But its reluctance to do so is a sad example of Lula's lack of resolve on the issue, former victims say.

The debate erupted last week after a court ordered the government to release files that might help families locate the bodies of loved ones who were killed or disappeared during Brazil's guerrilla war in the early 1970s. Human rights groups say 69 rebels operating in the remote eastern Amazon were killed or "disappeared" by troops.

Brazil's dictatorship was less brutal than those of its neighbors - the number of dead and disappeared was in the hundreds rather than the thousands.

Families have been fighting for access to the files since 1982, but it wasn't until August last year that a judge ruled that the government must "make every effort to locate the bodies of those disappeared," interpreted as releasing any relevant government files. The Lula administration appealed, claiming it could not comply within the 60-day limit, but it was upheld last week by a higher court. The government's decision to appeal the original ruling angered Ms. Coimbra and others. Although the administration did not contest the higher court's decision, they say that Lula is unwilling to take on the generals he once fought to unseat. A former union leader who was himself jailed for challenging the regime, Lula won the presidency in 2002 by promising change. But he has proven less radical as president, and his dealings with the military have been conciliatory.

Experts say that even though the military does not pose a threat to the government, Lula does not want to incur its wrath - or lose the support of the nationalist members of Congress who are staunch allies of the generals.

"Lula gave absolute priority to themes that don't threaten stability," says Fernando Gabeira, one of the radical students who kidnapped the US ambassador in 1969 and is now an independent Congressman. "It is sad because Lula is in a position to open the documents more calmly and dispassionately than in Argentina or Chile. However, it seems he is afraid of political, economic, and military instability. The government does not want to address the problem."

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