BRASILIA (Reuters) - The remains of former Brazilian President João Goulart were exhumed on Thursday and flown to Brasilia to determine whether he was poisoned by agents of the right-wing military regime that deposed him in 1964.
Goulart's coffin was received at an air force base in the capital with a 21-gun salute and full funeral honors that Brazil's military dictatorship denied the former president, a leftist, upon his death in 1976.
The exhumation and Thursday's ceremony, attended by President Dilma Rousseff and three other former heads of state, is part of an effort by Brazil's leftist government to answer unresolved questions about murders, kidnappings and other human rights abuses during the dictatorship, which ended in 1985.
When Goulart died, Brazil's government said the official cause of death was a heart attack, suffered at his ranch in neighboring Argentina.
But his family in 2007 called on Brazilian authorities to investigate statements by a Uruguayan intelligence officer who said he had been part of a plot to kill Goulart by tampering with his medication.
At the time, Argentina, Chile, Uruguay and Brazil were all ruled by military dictatorships that often collaborated in tracking down and eliminating leftist opponents. In what came to be known as a "dirty war," tens of thousands of leftist sympathizers and other perceived enemies of the regimes disappeared across South America.
Goulart was buried in his home state of Rio Grande do Sul in southern Brazil. There, beginning Wednesday, forensic experts worked 18 hours to remove his remains from a family mausoleum so they could be flown to Brasilia for tests.
The investigation is being conducted by a Truth Commission set up by Rousseff to look into abuses during the dictatorship. Rousseff herself was imprisoned and tortured by the regime as a young woman for her role in an urban guerrilla group.
"Brazil is reconnecting with its history today," Rousseff said in a Twitter message. She noted that Goulart was the only Brazilian president to die in exile and under still uncertain circumstances.
(Reporting by Anthony Boadle. Editing by Paulo Prada and Doina Chiacu)