As a young woman, Dilma Rousseff joined a guerrilla group opposed to the military junta ruling Brazil. She was captured and spent three years in various prisons where she was repeatedly tortured. Now, four decades later, she is Brazil's president.
Rousseff's story, the subject of a front-page article in yesterday's New York Times, is remarkable, but it is not unique. So many of Latin America's politically active citizens were victims of state repression from the 1960s to the 1980s that we should not be terribly surprised to find that some of the ones who survived have now made it to the tops of their political systems. In addition to Rousseff, there is former Chilean president Michelle Bachelet who was tortured by Chile's military dictatorship in the mid-1970s. (Her father, a general loyal to President Salvador Allende, suffered a fatal heart attack while being tortured by the regime of General Augusto Pinochet, which ousted Allende.) José Mujica, president of Uruguay, was also tortured by his government.
Perhaps the best-known torture victim to experience such a dramatic change of fortune was South Africa's president from 1994 to 1999, Nelson Mandela. In Eastern Europe following the fall of communism, several former dissidents who had been imprisoned (but not tortured) for their anti-communist activities, including Václav Havel in Czechoslovakia and Lech Wałęsa in Poland, assumed the leadership of their states.