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Dilma Rousseff: “Torture is About Pain and Death. They Want You to Lose Your Dignity”

Brazil’s ex-president talks about memory, camaraderie, resistance, and politics 50 years after her political incarceration.

A 22-year-old Dilma Rousseff is tried at a military court hearing in Rio de Janeiro in 1970, after being tortured for more than 20 days.,Brazil’s National Truth Commission Archives

Fifty years ago today, on Jan. 16, 1970, the 22-year-old militant Dilma Rousseff was arrested by agents of the military dictatorship that ruled Brazil from 1964 and 1985, a period when the country faced a crack down on civil liberties and freedom of speech. The regime persecuted political activists and anyone whose behavior was deemed to deviate from the norm.

“Torture is an extremely complex thing. I think that everyone who went through prison will always bear that mark. I don’t like to watch movies where there is torture, for example. It’s not that I don’t like them. I just don’t watch them. I don’t want to watch that. Torture is something that messes with the deepest part that makes you, you,” Rousseff told Brasil de Fato this week, about her experience as a political prisoner.

Her statements recall a process that marked Brazil’s history and still echoes in the country today. “Pain is always a death threat, when it comes to torture,” she says.

The daughter of a Bulgarian father and a Brazilian mother, Dilma Vana Rousseff was born on Dec. 14, 1947 in Belo Horizonte, Minas Gerais, the second of three siblings. Her first contact with the student movement and political activism happened during her high school years, in the mid-1960s, when the military junta had already risen to power.

The young Dilma Rousseff became a member of the organization Workers’ Politics (Polop) and, as an advocate of the armed struggle against the dictatorship, she joined the National Liberation Commando (Colina). She was around 20 years old and studied Economics at the Federal University of Minas Gerais. Dilma also lived and carried out political activities in the cities of Rio de Janeiro and Porto Alegre.

When the Colina merged with the People’s Revolutionary Vanguard (VPR), originating the Armed Revolutionary Vanguard-Palmares (VAR-Palmares), Rousseff became a leader in the new organization and later moved to São Paulo.

Dilma was arrested on Jan. 16, 1970 at a bar in downtown São Paulo, where militants held underground meetings.

Tortured by military agents and incarcerated in the Tiradentes Prison, also in São Paulo, Rousseff recalls those painful moments when she also showed fierce resistance.

In the five decades since that episode, the militant Dilma Rousseff has forged a political history for herself as an activist, served as a cabinet minister, and ultimately became president of Brazil. She was the first woman ever elected head of government in the country and took office in 2011. In 2016, the second year of her second presidential term, Rousseff suffered a huge blow when she was ousted by coup-plotting groups in political, media, and judiciary segments.

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The story of her ousting is portrayed in the documentary The Edge of Democracy, by filmmaker Petra Costa, a feature that got an Oscar nomination this week.

“I believe the film The Edge of Democracy has a great merit, which is exposing the emergence of a far-right process in Brazil, which, in a way, has similar characteristics to what is happening in other countries around the world,” the ex-president told Brasil de Fato.

About her story resisting the military rule and overcoming the violence inflicted against her, Rousseff says the key is to not hold hatred. “I think you can’t spend your whole life feeling resentful. That’s absurd. It’s not possible to feel that hatred. Hating is giving those who did that to you power that they cannot have. You have to look at them as they really are: pedestrian. They are pedestrian.”

Rousseff also spoke with Brasil de Fato about the upcoming elections in the country, arguing that, while she does not intend to run for office, she also is not ready to retire from politics.

About Brazil’s current political situation, she argued that a neofascist government was implemented in the country in order to impose neoliberalism.

Read the highlights of the interview:

Brasil de Fato: January 16th marks the 50th anniversary of your political imprisonment during the military dictatorship. At the time, you were 22 years old. This is a very important episode in your life history, so we would like you to tell us about your incarceration in 1970.

Dilma Rousseff: I was 22 when I was arrested, on January 16th, 1970. So that’s 50 years ago. At that moment, Brazil was moving away from a democratic government elected by popular vote, run by president João Goulart, and starting a fast-paced process into a dictatorship. That process started in 1964.

What is interesting about it is that the coup didn’t establish a dictatorship right away. It was established in growing layers of arbitrariness and authoritarianism. First, they incarcerate and take away the political rights of big political leaders of that time, and also of social movement and union leaders.

Then, they take away the political rights of some institutional agents, both in the Army and the Judicial system. Not only members of Congress, but also judges and military officers were banned.

The next step in this continuous process is that they start the shutting down. The dictatorship imposes censorship on the press, bans political parties, and sharply escalates its operations to shut down spaces of political and democratic participation.

So they take away the right to strike and the right to protest, arrest workers and demonstrators with the student movement. Artwork, like theater plays, for example, are broken into.

And it’s an interesting process, because, on the other hand, between 1964 and 1968 in Brazil, there was a process of great discontent and also huge demonstrations in the cinema scene. Cinema Novo [Brazil’s New Cinema movement], for example, has a very important body of work. That also happened in the music scene and all different segments. And it’s a process that also clamped down on Brazil’s cultural scene.

Actually, this is what happens in authoritarian and dictatorial processes, the shutting down of the cultural scene. Because the world of culture is a critical world. And a dictatorship doesn’t tolerate political criticism, but it also does not tolerate criticism of societal standards.

And that became increasingly strong. In December 1968, they impose the AI-5 [Institutional Act Number 5], which I believe is the clearest milestone in the ultimate establishment of the dictatorship. And that’s when the crackdown starts. They clamp down on social movements, workers’ movements, peasant movements. There is a brutal crackdown process. And that process starts to affect all alternative left-wing organizations that emerge in that process.

One of the most serious things about a dictatorship is that it makes people, especially the youth, stop believing in democracy. It makes them think that there is no room for democracy. In Brazil, for a period, there was this belief that they would never let people have a democratic space to demonstrate. All that leads to movements and the forging of political organizations outside the realm of traditional organizations, because the military regime established a two-party system and banned all other parties.

And so underground organizations emerge. I was arrested in the process of the military regime becoming tougher. From the end of 1969 to the early 1970, the regime sets off in a continuous pursuit to making political arrests, which were actually illegal. There was a radicalization of that process in the [Emílio Garrastazu] Médici government.

And that’s the process that starts and later produces not only torture – which was already happening – but systematic torture, including what they call the necessity of political deaths and killings, because they believe that people are irrecoverable.

I was arrested in São Paulo by the DOI-CODI 2 [Brazil’s intelligence and repression agency during the military regime], which was also called Operation Bandeirantes [named after Brazil’s brutal colonial settlers and fortune hunters]. Part of that was funded by a sector of the São Paulo economic elite that often paid, for example, for gas for the entire operation.

A film that portrays that period is Torre das Donzelas (Maidens’ Tower), released in 2019, which shows the women who were incarcerated during the military dictatorship at the Tiradentes Prison in São Paulo, where you were also held. About that, how was life in prison, the interaction with other political prisoners, and your routine?

The movie Torre das Donzelas displays the views of one segment. It’s a fictional film. It’s not a documentary, strictly speaking. There’s a fictional content to it. First, because they tried to rebuild the Tiradentes Prison, but that’s impossible, because it was an iron building. It was a place that is said to have been used in the past for the slave trade.

It had this tower – it was actually a tower – with very thick walls, those old, extremely thick colonial walls. I told them when I recorded [my interview for the film], “I think it’s not appropriate. You think you did it, but what I remember has nothing to do with that iron architecture. It’s not that.” And it’s important to understand why it was like that. Because you organize the routine in a prison by fighting over two things: time and space.

What is a prison? It’s the control over your time. And it’s about this: every time they impose discipline in a prison, they are taking away the control over your time. And the space, obviously, because they lock you in a cell.

What was the political initiative that the female inmates had in the Tower? They controlled their time and space within those limited possibilities. What does that mean? It means having your cell open as long as you can, which allowed you to walk around.

So we could walk from one cell to the other, because we controlled the space too, and the time. We decided what to do with the time. We started to cook our own food, and look for books, as many books as possible inside a prison. I think this was one of the most important things we accomplished: we had many books.

And we had records. I discovered tango in prison.

So the routine was a constant struggle. A prisoner is a prisoner, especially when they are in a group. An individual prisoner is different, alone. Loneliness in prison is a very tough thing. That’s why I think [ex-]president [Luiz Inácio] Lula [da Silva] has a great merit, because he was able to forge a decent life for himself inside prison [when he was held in solitary confinement for 580 days]. You forge a decent life, but we had many comrades with us. It was a lot of people. So we forged an everyday life, in spite of everything.

Meanwhile, we also forged a political life, because we conducted our lives, within our limited possibilities. We defined who would cook, how many teams there were, who would clean the Tower, how many times a week, who could come in… We forged an everyday life, in this sense I mentioned earlier, of taking over our time and space.

Prison in Brazil was like that at the time. You would go to jail and then disappear. There was no record of you being incarcerated. And then, systematic torture for a while. And usually that torture happened in the facilities controlled by the armed forces, basically the army.

After that, you were taken in after a certain while. In my time, it was about two months. You were taken to the DOPS, the Department of Order and Social Politics, and they booked you. They took those mugshots of you, your fingerprints, your deposition. The deposition they took within Operation Bandeirantes was not on the record, because they kept up the appearances while conducting the torture process in Brazil.

Torture is an extremely complex thing. I think that everyone who went through prison will always bear that mark. I don’t like to watch movies where there is torture, for example. It’s not that I don’t like them. I just don’t watch them. I don’t want to watch that. Torture is something that messes with the deepest part that makes you, you.

And what makes a human being? Their tremendous capacity of feeling physical and psychological pain. Pain is always a death threat, when it comes to torture. One thing is connected to the other. So it’s about pain. About the perception of pain and death. That’s what torture is about. And all of us are terrified of feeling pain.

And it’s a terrible thing, that makes people lose their dignity. That is the component of psychological pain. They want you to lose your dignity, make you betray your convictions, make you let go of what you think. That is perhaps the greatest consequence of prison.

I stand in tremendous solidarity with some comrades who were forced to forgo their convictions after a process of torture. This process of destroying someone makes people become living dead. What will a person do after they betray what they think, betray themselves? They wander around, dead.

I’ve seen people being taken over by these schemes, and I think we can only endure torture if we trick ourselves. You say you can take five, two minutes. “Now I can take another three minutes.” Because you can’t fathom enduring a whole day, that’s an eternity. So you trick yourself. That’s what you do.

A senator once told me, “You lied in face of torture.” I’m proud to have lied. In a dictatorship, you either lie or you don’t survive. It’s in a democracy that you tell the truth.

Today we witness a scenario in which the Jair Bolsonaro administration has the military supporting him. We’ve seen cases of censorship against researchers, artists, social organizations. Is it possible to compare these two moments?

I think they are different moments. During the dictatorship, you had one kind of government. They take away all rights: organization, demonstration. They shut down the Congress. They shut down all possibilities. Society as a whole is impacted.

The process we are living now, the crisis of neoliberalism, in the Brazilian case, has this kind of contamination that erodes democracy from within. So you have, for example, Operation Car Wash, which might have been the biggest tool to forge the neoliberal agenda.

They hand over Brazil’s sovereignty, because they are subjected to all the demands of late neoliberalism. That system is already facing a crisis around the world, as it creates brutal inequality and destroys the social policies and measures to reduce poverty, which we implemented.

That is only happening because Operation Car Wash is building a narrative around corruption, which is strategic to destroy not only the PT [Workers’ Party], but other parties, right-wing or centrists. That’s when Bolsonaro’s neofascism emerges. The neofascist phenomenon is typical of this process.

The military dictatorship is a different process. I think they are both terrible, but, in this case, neofascism still has democratic spaces. We have to acknowledge that. Even though it’s a situation of economic, social, political, and cultural disaster.

But take [Ernesto] Geisel’s government [during the dictatorship], for example. It authorized death, promoted terror, the absurd killing of opposers as a form of political struggle. But Geisel’s government has a merit in the sense that it defended the Brazilian economy. He didn’t hand over the country. He didn’t trade the country’s sovereignty.

We will have elections this year, and local elections signal what could be the forecast for the 2022 presidential election. You ran for Senate in 2018, in a race that was marked by the rise of Bolsonarism. Do you have plans to run at some point in the future?

No, not at all. I don’t have plans for any elections anymore. I have political plans. That doesn’t mean I have plans to run for office.

Translated by Aline Scatola