This ongoing series has recently looked at the political activism of women who mobilized against the military dictatorship and fought for democracy. However, it did not take military repression for women to mobilize, and women’s struggles significantly predated the dictatorship. This week, we look at a feminist and key figure in the history of Brazil, a woman who played a vital role in fighting for women’s equality for nearly fifty years: Bertha Lutz.
Bertha Lutz was born in 1894 in São Paulo in 1894 to Amy Fowler, a nurse from England, and Adolpho Lutz, a Swiss-Brazilian who specialized in tropical medicines. Given her parents’ international backgrounds and professions, Bertha had opportunities both in travel and in education that only wealthier Brazilians could enjoy. Indeed, she first attended college at the Sorbonne in Paris, finishing with a degree in biology in 1918. She returned to Brazil, and in the 1930s, she enrolled in the National Law School in Rio de Janeiro (today a part of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro), earning her law degree.
In both of these professions, Lutz was an anomaly. In the first decades of the twentieth century, Brazilian politics and the professions connected to politics were overwhelmingly male-dominated. When Mirthes de Campos served as a defense lawyer in 1899, she became the first woman ever to work in a courtroom in Brazil. Though it was an important symbolic movement, it did not exactly destroy the barriers of women in white-collar professions, and there were only fourteen women lawyers total in Rio de Janeiro (9 women) and São Paulo (5 women) combined. Such gender-inequalities spread to other white-collar professions, like medicine and accounting.
It was in this context that Lutz began to push for feminist causes. While studying in Europe, she had been exposed to feminist movements and writings from European women, especially from the suffrage movement in England. She brought these concerns back to Brazil with her, writing feminist tracts in Portuguese by 1918. She had a vision of feminism that maintained that women should have equal access to educational opportunities and to professions beyond the home. Indeed, she insisted that women had important contributions they could make to society, and that they should not be bound to the home, “taking advantage of animal instincts of man.”* In 1919, Bertha became the head of the National Museum in Rio de Janeiro, the first woman appointed to that position. That same year, she also formed the Liga para a Emancipação Intelectual da Mulher (League for the Intellectual Emancipation of Woman). Her position at the National Museum allowed Bertha to have contacts with a variety of politicians and elites, to whom she could express her ideas on women’s equality. In 1922, Bertha officially formed the Federação Brasileira pelo Progresso Femenino (Brazilian Federation for Feminine Progress), which affiliated with the International Women’s Suffrage Alliance, a clear marker on the impact of Bertha’s experiences and time in Europe. As for her own organization, the name change alone signified how Bertha and the Liga’s members were broadening their struggles beyond mere “intellectual” pursuits to the broader pursuit of “progress.”
The Federação met with some successes early on. Pressure and lobbying led the government to allow women to enroll in the Colégio Pedro II. The federally-run public school was one of the best institutions of primary and secondary education in Brazil, and had often trained those who would attend the few public or private universities in Rio de Janeiro (then the national capital) or elsewhere in the country. Previously male-dominated, the Colégio had played no small role in perpetuating the domination of men in politics and white-collar professions; in that regard, the opening of the school to women marked a subtle but important shift.
Lutz continued to work both nationally and internationally in women’s movements. She attended a number of international conferences and meetings regarding women’s suffrage and feminism, representing Brazil in organizations such as the League of Women Voters in the US and the International Conference of Women in Berlin in 1929, and even being elected Vice President in the Pan-American Society of the League.
However, as was often the case with the “first-wave” feminism that was erupting in much of the Western world at this time, Lutz’s vision of feminism was not inclusive of all women, nor did it demand full equality everywhere. Lutz’s views on women’s labor were still gendered; she believed women were best-suited to work in fields like social welfare, which was an appropriate arena for their feminine morality and their natural caring abilities. Additionally, the appeal her demands and her tactics were limited to middle- and upper-middle class women living in urban centers. There was little applicability or attention to women in rural areas, or to women from lower social classes in the cities. With its emphasis on issues like access to higher education and white-collar professions, Lutz’s Federação and the issues it adopted often had little relevance to the majority of working women who were usually illiterate (after all, when the Federação formed, slavery had only been abolished 34 years earlier). Even Lutz’s ideas on “appropriate” contributions and jobs for women and their status as moral beacons drew on middle-class ideals that had few parallels with the lives of the poor in the cities and the countryside alike. Though fighting for women’s equality, Lutz’s vision was still an inherently class-based feminism that drew from and built upon her own upper-middle class background.
That is not to take away from Lutz’s accomplishments and her sheer force of personality in pushing for women’s rights. Indeed, the 1930s saw rapid transformations taking place. Shortly after the Constitutionalist Revolt in São Paulo that challenged the presidency of Getúlio Vargas, Brazil’s government began work on a new constitution. Though Lutz was not elected to the assembly, she drew on her years of activism and her connections that she’d made with Brazilian politicians to push the issue of suffrage. Her efforts won out, and the 1934 constitution granted women the right to vote, making Brazil only the third Latin American country to grant women’s suffrage.
With these new rights, Lutz herself ran for office, but was unable to win election. However, in 1936, she became one of several women to serve in Congress. Though this was an important step, politics nonetheless continued to be a male-dominated world. Indeed, as a congresswoman, she was elected president of the congressional Special Commission on the Status of Women, but she was the only woman on the committee, reflecting the ongoing inequalities and struggles women faced. Adding to the challenges, in 1937, Vargas closed Congress, indefinitely banned elections, and ushered in the Estado Novo; now, Brazilian women had the right to vote, but no significant national elections in which they could exercise the franchise.
Although shut out of electoral politics in 1937, Lutz continued to work both in women’s rights and in the sciences. She became the head of the Botanical Sector of the National Museum, and continued to make a name for herself as an accomplished botanist and herpetologist in the academic community. She also remained politically engaged, resigning her post at the National Museum in 1964, just as the military came into power. Although she continued to fight for women’s rights, she was also often isolated from her constituents, due both to her professional life and to her own personality and background. Nonetheless, Lutz remained an important figure, both politically and symbolically, coming to be seen as one of the “founders” of Brazilian feminism. Indeed, when the United Nations declared 1975 to be the “International Year of the Woman,” Brazil’s government invited Lutz to be the Brazilian representative to the International Conference on Women in Mexico City. It ended up being her last major public act in her nearly fifty-year struggle for feminism; in 1976, she passed away at the age of 84.
Though Lutz’s feminist visions had limits for women in other classes, her central role in Brazil’s feminist movement cannot be denied. Certainly, she was far from the only feminist, and hundreds and thousands of other women were involved in fighting for equality for women in Brazil throughout the twentieth century. Still, Lutz’s importance absolutely cannot be overstated, and her status as one of the “founders” of Brazilian feminism and the equal rights movement is well-deserved.
This is another entry in the usually-weekly series Get to Know a Brazilian.
This week, we turn from the political activism among women during Brazil’s military dictatorship to look at an increasingly important figure in Brazil’s religious iconography: Nhá Chica.
Nhá Chica was born Francisca de Paula de Jesus in the interior town of Santo Antônio do Rio das Mortes Pequeno in Minas Gerais in the early 1800s; though her name appears in the baptismal registries in 1810, it is not clear if that is when she was actually born. Nhá Chica was from a slave family in Minas Gerais. Although slavery in Brazil’s colonial period had originally concentrated on the sugar plantations and mills in Brazil’s Northeast, the Dutch occupation of Pernambuco and surrounding areas between 1630 and 1654 broke Brazil’s effective sugar monopoly and transformed the economy. By the early-1700s, gold and diamonds were found in Minas Gerais, and the slave economy began to shift to Brazil’s southeast. Minas Gerais [literally, "General Mines"] became an increasingly important source of wealth for the Portuguese crown, while Rio de Janeiro, the main port for the transportation of slaves from Africa to Minas Gerais and São Paulo, became a booming commercial center, leading to the colonial capital relocating from Salvador to Rio in 1763. Though the mining boom had mostly gone bust by the 1800s, the rise of coffee production in Minas Gerais, São Paulo, and Rio de Janeiro perpetuated the existence of slavery in the Southeast. Indeed, throughout the 1800s up until abolition in 1888, Brazil’s internal slave trade increasingly saw the relocation of slaves from the Northeast to the Southeast, where people like Nhá Chica’s family lived.
By the age of 10, Nhá Chica was an orphan. Before her mother died, however, she asked Nhá Chica to dedicate herself to God and to caring for others. Following her mother’s request, Nhá Chica refused to live with her brother, instead choosing to live alone and allegedly repeatedly refusing marriage proposals. In the city of Baependi, where her family had relocated before she was orphaned, she gathered donations and constructed a chapel dedicated to one of the many permutations of the Virgin Mary, Nossa Senhora da Conceição (“Our Lady of Conception”). From there, she offered advice, prayers, and counsel to those who visited. Although humble in origin (she was not only poor but also illiterate, a situation common to slaves and their descendants), she gained a reputation for the quality of her counsel and the effectiveness of her prayers. Over time, more and more people came to her chapel seeking her out. Her willingness to welcome any and all people into her home or chapel, including the poorest in the area, led to her reputation as the “Mother of the Poor” in the area. In spite of her growing fame, she remained illiterate and impoverished, using all donations and gifts given for her chapel. She continued her life’s work for decades, continuing to live a solitary life, finally dying in 1895.
Her work made her a popular figure in Brazil’s interior, and decades after her death, people continued to travel to the chapel to pray and seek spiritual comfort or aid. In the process, Nhá Chica’s reputation grew, and she gained increasing symbolic importance to Brazilian Catholics. Given her status as a popular (rather than official) saint, the local Diocese began to investigate, launching early ecclesiastical proceedings in 1993. After a series of stops and starts, the case has recently received attention from the Vatican, which beatified Nhá Chica this past week, based on the recognition last year of a miracle attributed to Nhá Chica.
With Pope Francis granting Nhá Chica the status of “Blessed,” she, like Oscar Romero, now doctrinally has the authority to intervene on behalf of those who pray for her. Thus, Nhá Chica has become the first Afro-Brazilian woman to be granted the title of “blessed” in the Catholic Church, making her a unique figure in Brazil’s Catholic Church.
While women like Vera Sílvia Magalhães and Maria Augusta Carneiro Ribeiro played key roles in the radicalism and student activism that challenged Brazil’s dictatorship, theirs was not the only way in which women could and did mobilize to challenge the military regime. Even as the dictatorship entered its most repressive phase under presidents Artur Costa e Silva and Emílio Médici, students found new ways to organize and mobilize, and new issues to confront, throughout the 1970s. Comba Marques Porto is an example not only of the role women students continued to play in challenging the dictatorship in the 1970s, but also of the struggle for women’s rights during military rule and in the post-dictatorship context, both in student movements and in society more generally.
Comba Marques Porto was born in 1945 in Rio de Janeiro. Her father was a journalist, and her mother a housewife, as was common in many urban middle class families at the time. Comba Porto seemed destined to be an elementary schoolteacher, another profession that women, especially single women, dominated (or were limited to, depending on one’s perspective). In Brazil at the time, teachers at the elementary level could be certified based on their performance and training in high school. And like many young women from her background, she remained relatively apolitical, in spite of the political context of the dictatorship and of some of her own family members participating in the student movements. However, after finishing her secondary schooling and getting her teaching certification, in 1966 Comba Porto decided to take the entrance exams for university. She passed, and began to attend Guanabara State University (UEG, now called Rio de Janeiro State University) in the city of Rio.
By the time she had enrolled and begun studying in UEG, the political and social atmosphere was intense, as the semi-illegal National Students Union (UNE) was gaining strength and becoming a key voice in challenging the military regime and its increasing use of repression. Thus, the already-strong history and tradition of student mobilization was only intensifying when she began attending classes.
However, things had changed significantly by the end of her second year of studies. In the face of growing protest not only from students but from parents, white-collar professionals, artists, and others, the hardliners were getting increasingly uneasy. In October 1968, the arrested around 900 students at the semi-clandestine UNE Congress in the interior of São Paulo state; Comba Porto, one of the delegates, was among them, and briefly served time in jail. Perhaps more importantly at the national level, in September 1968, Congressman Marcio Moreira Alves gave a speech on the floor of Congress a few days before Brazil’s Independence Day celebrations. Known retrospectively as the “Lysistrata speech,” Moreira Alves called on women to protest the regime by refusing to dance with, kiss, or date soldiers. Though the public paid the speech little attention, the generals were outraged (or feigned outrage). They demanded Congres strip Moreira Alves of his congressional immunity so that the military could prosecute him for offenses to the nation. On December 11, Congress not only voted to allow Moreira Alves to retain his immunity; they sang the national anthem, openly defying the military’s attempted monopolization on nationalism. The military acted swiftly. On Friday, December 13, Costa e Silva, with the support of other hardliners in the military, issued the Ato Institucional No. 5 (Institutional Act Number 5; AI-5), indefinitely closing Congress, intensifying censorship, escalating the use of torture, and ushering in the most repressive phase of Brazil’s dictatorship.
Given its central and vital role in challenging the dictatorship for its first four years, the student movement was an obvious target of this new political silencing. Indeed, as if AI-5 had not made the situation clear, in February 1969, the government also issued Decree-Law 477, which specifically focused on students by prohibiting political expressions or organization on campuses, with the threat of stripping students of funding, expulsion, and even arrest. The fact that many of the prohibitions and punishments outlined in Decree-Law 477 were also in AI-5 made clear just how determined to abolish all student mobilization the military was.
However, the regime’s power was not absolute, and already in 1969, students were finding new ways to organize at the local level as the regime went after UNE. Comba Porto was one of these figures, joining her campuses University Committee in the hopes that she could convince students to join the causes of the Leninist Brazilian Communist Party (PCB). She continued to work in new organizations and agitated to challenge the regime, including its educational policies. In one instance she attended a conference at the Ministry of Education where she challenged the regime’s educational policies and their failings to the Minister of Education. Speaking before high-ranking officials, she pointed to the failings in the educational system and talking about the opportunities and future she hoped awaited her daughter.
While Comba Porto and other students found ways to mobilize, the fact remained that the political and social atmosphere was greatly limited to all students, as the regime placed plainclothes police officers in classrooms and had them regularly report on student activities and pamphlets distributed on campuses. Further compounding the problem was the fact that, by this time, Brazil’s student movement itself had increasingly fragmented, as some activists from the late-1960s joined guerrilla movements in the cities or countryside, others went into exile, and still others split over what type of revolution should remove the dictatorship.
Yet even this fragmentation did not lead to an end of mobilization. By the mid-1970s, students shifted from party-based alliances that drew on shared ideologies, and instead moved to professionally-based alliances. Comba Porto’s experiences were again instructive of these new forms of mobilization. Upon finishing her degree at UEG, she enrolled in the National Law School at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ). While there, she participated in an official Week of Juridical Debates; though ostensibly about legal issues in Brazil, the conference doubled as a means for students from other law schools from throughout the country to gather, discuss the issues each faced on their campuses, and work together to reconstitute a new, more national student voice. The regime’s officials were aware of this threat, but they could not stop it; although the rector (whom the military dictatorship had directly appointed) called her to his office and condemned the conference, even threatening her, she continued to organize and mobilize at similar types of events, and she never was expelled.
Comba Porto’s activism was part of a broader nascent trend in student mobilizations. Whereas student leadership had by and large been dominated by men in the 1960s, both in Brazil and in much of the rest of the world, by the 1970s, women were not only taking a more prominent role in mobilizing, but also beginning to fight for the issues that affected women directly. Challenging the male-dominated hierarchy was a part of those issues. And it was not an imaginary struggle; though she had been a regular participant and activist in a number of student organizations on campuses, she had never reached a position of leadership in any of these organizations, reflecting the ongoing trouble women activists had in gaining the respect and support for official leadership positions.
As she finished her schooling, Comba Porto took her experiences as an activist and as a woman to her professional life. By the mid-1970s, she was working on cases of political prisoners. Even while working to defend prisoners (including many who were her former colleagues in the PCB), she also began to work in feminist causes, participating in the Seminar on the Brazilian Woman, where she met other politically engaged women and feminists. Coming into contact with a community that was limited in the student movement but with which she strongly identified, she herself became increasingly tied to fighting for women’s juridical and social rights in Brazil as well.
Although the dictatorship ended in 1985, Comba Porto, like many activists of the 1960s and 1970s, remained active in politics in the new democratic regime. In spite of this new context, however, she continued to run into obstacles as a woman politician, losing in her campaign to be mayor of Rio de Janeiro in 1982 and in her run for a seat in the Federal Chamber of Deputies in 1986, revealing in part the ways women still had trouble gaining access to positions of political leadership. Yet Comba Porto was not without her own triumphs, as she found other ways to shape Brazilian politics. As Brazil prepared to write a new constitution (to replace the military constitution of 1967), Comba Porto was a key figure in the constitutional hearings, adding an important voice to the debates and playing a key role in shaping the language and laws of the 1988 constitution as they pertained to women, including the fact that “men and women have equal rights,” that the government ensure equal protection for women in employment, and that the rights and opportunities of mothers and pregnant women be upheld. In the 1990s, Comba Porto became a judge, working in the Regional Labor Court in Rio de Janeiro. And though no longer involved heavily in party politics, she continues to provide a strong voice for women’s causes, even periodically writing on feminist issues facing Brazil in the 21st century (as well as writing on opera). Comba Porto’s path provides not only another way in which women were involved in student activism during the dictatorship, but insight into the ways in which politics and feminism merged for many students shut out of leadership in the 1970s, feminist struggles that Comba Porto, like many other women, continued to fight for in the post-dictatorship era and indeed continue to fight for even today.
While the past two weeks have looked at student activists who challenged Brazil’s dictatorship, this week we turn to a more unlikely activist and opponent to the military regime: fashion designer Zuzu Angel.
Zuleika “Zuzu” Angel was born in the large interior state of Minas Gerais in the early 1920s (some source list her birth date as 1921, others as 1923). As a child, her family moved to the state capital of Belo Horizonte, where she attended school. Already as a young woman, she began making clothes for family members. In 1947, she relocated to Rio de Janeiro, where by the 1950s she was working as a seamstress. She married US citizen Norman Jones and had two children, Stuart, born in 1945, and Hildegard, born in 1949.
By the 1960s, Zuzu Angel was gaining an international audience in a fashion world dominated by European men like Yves Saint Laurent. Her style was unique, as she incorporated Brazilian materials, colors, and themes like tropical birds and flowers into her outfits. Her individual angel trademark signified something was a Zuzu Angel design. The bright colors and Brazilian-influenced patterns caught the eye of many in the international community; she even had a show featuring her work in the US. By 1970, she had opened her own store in the upscale Ipanema neighborhood, reflecting both her local success and international renown.
Even while her professional career was reaching new heights, her personal life suffered catastrophic loss. Stuart, her first-born child, had become an activist against Brazil’s military dictatorship, and by the end of the 1960s, he’d joined the MR-8 (the group responsible for the kidnapping of US Ambassador Charles Elbrick in 1969). However, by 1969, the military regime had escalated its use of repression, relying on torture, state-sponsored murders, and “disappearing” bodies in the hopes of stamping out all forms of resistance to military rule. Stuart Angel became a victim of such repression. The air force’s security apparatus arrested him in June of 1971, and shortly after his arrest, he was “missing.” A few days later, Zuzu Angel received a letter from Alex Polari de Alvegra, a political prisoner at the prison where Stuart had been taken. In the letter, he described Stuart’s fate, which he witnessed from his cell. Stuart had been brutally tortured, but had not provided the information the military was seeking; in the face of his silence, Polari reported, they bound Stuart and tied him to the back of a military jeep, attaching his mouth to the exhaust pipe. The jeep then proceeded to drive around the grounds of the prison, dragging Stuart behind the jeep while he was forced to inhale the exhaust coming from the jeep, which killed him. After that, the military disposed of his body; its whereabouts are still unknown, making Stuart one of the “disappeared” of the military regime. (Stuart’s wife, Sonia Maria de Moraes Angel Jones, would be arrested and killed after torture two years later, in 1973. Like her husband, her body was also “disappeared,” though her remains were ultimately found and identified decades later.) In a pattern typical of bureaucratic authoritarian regimes, the military denied they had even arrested Stuart. Ironically, by 1973, a secret session of the Military Supreme Court absolved Stuart of the alleged charge of violating the National Security Act, the original “cause” of his arrest.
With the horrific death of her son, Zuzu Angel became an activist and critic of the military regime. Using her international contacts, she denounced the torture, murder, and disappearance of her son both in Brazil and in the international community. At fashion shows in Europe and the US, Zuzu Angel, now dressed in all black to reflect her mourning, took every chance to tell the media what had happened to her son, in the hopes of drawing attention to the military regime’s brutal practices. Since Stuart’s father was a US citizen, Stuart was a dual-citizen of Brazil and the US, and Zuzu used this fact to try to pressure the US to act, lobbying politicians like Frank Church and Ted Kennedy. When Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who had supported such regimes throughout South America, traveled to Rio in 1976, Zuzu Angel managed to give the dossier on her son to one of Kissinger’s aides. Nor did she rely simply on politicians to try to publicize her cause; her status as an internationally-renowned fashion designer gave her plenty of Hollywood contacts, and celebrities like Joan Crawford, Kim Novak, and Liza Minelli all came to Zuzu Angel’s and Stuart Angel’s defense. She even took her message to her medium, putting on “the first collection of political fashion in history,” replacing her traditional tropical images with military silhouettes, caged birds, and guns shooting at angels. Such efforts led the military to monitor her actions overseas, always aware of and bristling at her criticisms of torture and brutality under the dictatorship.
Zuzu Angel never learned the whereabouts of her son’s remains. While driving in Rio de Janeiro in March of 1976 (less than a month after passing her documents to Kissinger’s aides), she died in a car crash while exiting a tunnel. However, the crash appeared to perhaps be more than an accident. Eyewitnesses to the crash described a military jeep present briefly before and after the crash. The mystery surrounding the crash retroactively became more suspicious when in August of 1976, former president Juscelino Kubitschek, another outspoken critic of the regime, also died in a similar car crash under similarly mysterious circumstances, prompting some to argue that the military had found new ways to silence its critics (and leading to the Truth Commission re-investigating his death this year). However, even before the car crash, Angel knew she was a target of the military, prophetically declaring that, “If I appear dead, by accident or by other means, it will have been the work of the assassins of my beloved son.”
Zuzu Angel’s struggles serve as a powerful reminder that it was not just women students who fought against the military regime and who suffered at its hands. Her remarkable professional triumphs were met only with personal loss, and yet she persevered, and in 2006, her story was re-told and her message and suffering re-broadcast in the 2006 film Zuzu Angel. With the death of her son, she, like hundreds of other mothers, suffered the anguish of the loss of a child and of not knowing of the fate of his remains. She remained a tireless defender of human rights and critic of the regime, even while insisting that “I do not have courage, my son had courage. I have legitimacy.” In spite of her claims otherwise, Zuzu Angel was courageous, speaking out against the regime and becoming one of the more important voices in bringing international awareness to the brutality of its repression, even while suffering a mother’s loss.
While Vera Sílvia Magalhães gained distinction for her role in planning one of the boldest acts against Brazil’s military dictatorship, Maria Augusta Carneiro Ribeiro was not only attached to that event in her own way; she was an important figure in the fight against Brazil’s military dictatorship in the 1960s and a woman who fought for human rights and social justice long after the regime left power in 1985.
Although technically born in Minas Gerais to a middle-class family in 1947, Maria Augusta Carneiro Ribeiro (often referred to publicly by her nickname, “Guta”) spent most of her youth in the northeastern state of Bahia. From a young age, she followed in her parents’ and grandparents’ footsteps by taking an interest in questions of social justice. At the same time, she also enjoyed the material benefits that came with a middle-class upbringing, attending a private Catholic school in Rio de Janeiro after her parents relocated there in the 1950s. Thus, as she herself put it, her political activism and her Catholic upbringing were closely tied, and she joined the Juventude Estudantil Católica (Catholic Student Youth; JEC) when she was 15. Given her political activism, when the military took power in a coup in 1964, her parents opted to send her to spend a year studying abroad in the United States as an exchange student. While in the US, she witnessed firsthand the growing student protests against the Vietnam War in Berkeley, a political activism that made a strong impression upon her. However, her time away from Brazil also led her to detach from her Catholicism, and upon her return to Brazil, she looked for more radical options to fight for social causes and against the military dictatorship. At that moment, there was a generational divide among leftists: the Leninist Partido Comunista Brasileiro (Brazilian Communist Party; PCB) had rejected the armed path to revolution, much to the consternation of younger generations who looked to individuals like Che Guevara as role models for revolution. As a result, a series of small cells advocating a more violent path to communism, referred to collectively as the Dissidencias (Dissidences; DI), emerged, and Guta joined the Dissidencia in Rio de Janeiro (DI-GB).
Throughout 1967, Guta began to distinguish herself as a speaker at rallies and protests, and became an important part of the student movement as a leader, albeit in a “secondary” position, a status reserved for all too many women. Indeed, as was the case in places like Mexico, Chile, and elsewhere, men typically occupied the highest positions in student organizations, with women intentionally or unintentionally denied access to the highest positions in the student movements in spite of their key contributions and participation. Nonetheless, Guta was a figure important enough to attend the clandestine meeting of the National Students Union in Ibiúna, São Paulo, in October 1968. The meeting was poorly planned, with around 900 students gathering on a rural ranch. With so many students gathering in such a small place, the police acted, arresting all those present at the Congress, including top-ranking leaders like José Dirceu, Vladimir Palmeira, and Luís Travassos; though they would remain in prison until September 1969, hundreds of others were released. Guta was one of them.
Upon her release, she continued to organize resistance to the dictatorship. Indeed, her passion for resistance and her abilities made her one of the first women of the DI to work in the armed struggle. Although she’d been released in late-1968, the military ultimately ended up issuing a preventive-arrest order with her name on it, and in order to defend herself, she received arms training. She also entered into clandestinity, moving about regularly in an attempt to avoid arrest. Unfortunately for her, her luck ran out on May 1, 1969, when police spotted her with two other women handing out pamphlets against the dictatorship on International Workers’ Day. With the police closing in, a brief firefight broke out, and while a few escaped, Guta was not one of them.
Security forces ultimately relocated her from Rio to a prison in São Paulo, where she was the only woman in the entire prison. As a result, she was kept in isolation near the common criminals, separated from other male political prisoners. In the increasingly repressive context of 1969, she suffered torture regularly, including one instance that left two of her teeth broken. The treatment she received as a woman angered the common prisoners who witnessed police taking her to and from torture sessions, and they often berated the military, calling them cowards for regularly beating and torturing an unarmed woman. In spite of these protestations, the rough treatment continued, and she remained imprisoned for over three months.
In early September of 1969, her fate changed. When Vera Sílvia Magalhães and several other members of the DI-GB, now renamed the MR-8, kidnapped US Ambassador Charles Elbrick, they put together a list of 15 political prisoners whom they demanded the dictatorship release. The list included a variety of figures from different backgrounds: in addition to student leaders like Dirceu, Palmeira, and Travassos, who’d been imprisoned since October 1968; labor activist José Ibrahim; journalist and activist Flávio Tavares; and PCB member Gregório Bezerra, who had been imprisoned since the beginning of the coup in 1964. Guta was also on the list, due to her involvement in DI-GB; indeed, her inclusion gave her the distinction of being the only woman on the list of political prisoners to be released.
Although she was included on the list, Guta herself was unaware of what was going on; due to her isolation in prison, she, unlike her male colleagues, did not have access to a radio, television, or newspaper. All she knew was that the activity and police presence in the prison had suddenly increased, and one officer told her it was because of something involving her. The officers ordered her to take a shower, and they then gave her the only woman’s clothing they had available – a mini-skirt and a blouse. According to Guta, several officers took advantage of the outfit, slipping their hands up her skirt while she was being transported. Nonetheless, uncertain of her fate, there was little she could say or do at the moment. The military ultimately put her on a flight from São Paulo to Rio de Janeiro, along with some of the other 15 who were also detained in São Paulo. Upon arriving at the Galeão airport in Rio de Janeiro, the thirteen prisoners (two others, Bezerra and Mario Zanconato, were in prisons in the Northeast) were lined up for a photo. Some of the prisoners thought it was for “posterity,” while others, looking around at all the activists who were present, were certain the regime was documenting their impending murders.
The photo was indeed taken for posterity; the thirteen were among the fifteen who were to be exchanged in return for the release of Elbrick. They boarded the plane in handcuffs and sat with a soldier between each of them on the type of long benches designed for parachutists [the plane "Hercules 56," belonged to the military]. After stopping in Bahia and Belém to pick up Bezerra and Zanconato, the plane headed off to Mexico, sending the 15 into exile.
Even on the plane, however, the prisoners were uncertain of their fate, and the repressive tone of military rule even extended to the skies. The prisoners were forbidden from communicating; even the most basic conversations were prohibited. When one of the other prisoners noticed that Guta was particularly cold, given the altitude and her short skirt, he offered her his jacket to cover her legs, but the soldiers refused to even allow this innocuous gesture of kindness. In spite of no means to escape and no access to any sort of weaponry, the prisoners were kept in handcuffs for the entire flight. This caused problems when the prisoners were given bathroom breaks; while the men could urinate with their hands still cuffed, the logistics were different for Guta. Ushered to the toilet, she raised her handcuffed hands and commented that “I am different, I can’t just go like this!”, leading to a bit of confusion and embarrassment among the soldiers before one removed her handcuffs briefly, allowing her to urinate before again having to put on the cuffs. In one last, if increasingly-futile, reminder of the regime’s power, as the prisoners were nearing Mexico, a voice suddenly boomed over the PA, alarming all; it was September 7th, Brazil’s independence day, and the pilot used the opportunity to provide one last ultra-nationalist, pro-military message to the political prisoners.
The arrival in Mexico was an emotional one. On the one hand, the prisoners had arrived safely, but they were now in exile, shut off from their families and many of their colleagues, far from the fight they wanted to fight. Additionally, they’d arrived in a country that, only 11 months earlier, had committed its own massacre of students. Nonetheless, given that most had been in prison only 48 hours earlier and were even considering their possible impending deaths as the military lined them up for a photograph, there was definitely a sense of relief as well. And the arrival was not without its comedic moments, thanks to a linguistic misunderstanding. A Mexican official boarded the plane and ordered the military to remove the “esposas,” which in Spanish means both “handcuffs” and “wives,” but only means “wives” in Portuguese (“algemas” is “handcuffs” in Portuguese). Upon hearing that the esposas were to be taken, the Brazilian prisoners looked around in confusion, commenting that nobody had brought their wife with them. The misunderstanding provided a moment of levity after what had been a stressful journey indeed.
In Mexico, the exiles stayed together in a hotel, debating their future. They were uncertain about staying in Mexico. Ultimately, they ended up accepting an invitation from none other than Fidel Castro, and went to Cuba to continue to receive military training so that they might return to fight in Brazil. However, in the training, Guta severely injured her back. While some of her colleagues went back to Brazil clandestinely, she ended up relocating to Chile, where the military overthrew democratically-elected president Salvador Allende and ushered in its own military dictatorship under the leadership of Augusto Pinochet in 1973. Ultimately, Guta ended up in Sweden, where she earned a degree in Pedagogy.
With the 1979 amnesty for political prisoners (and for those who committed torture or state-sponsored murder), Guta returned to Brazil. Continuing her political activity, she became part of the group that founded the Partido dos Trabalhadores (Workers Party; PT), with labor leader Luís Inácio Lula da Silva and other politically-progressive individuals from both the labor movement and from the middle class. As a human rights activist during her time in exile (and as a victim of torture herself), Guta also worked with the Grupo Tortura Nunca Mais (Torture Never Again Group). She also worked in the government, working in a variety of posts in the government, including for Petrobrás. She participated in the documentary Hercules 56 (and its accompanying book), providing her own recollections of and reflections on her life and her role in one of the more dramatic moments of Brazil’s military dictatorship.
Sadly, Guta died from injuries she sustained in a car accident in 2009, passing away at the age of 62. In spite of her untimely death, she left a powerful historical record behind, both through her activism and through interviews and recorded memories that reveal some of the ways that women were at the heart of political and social change in Brazil in the latter half of the 20th century, even while traditional narratives often overlook their contributions. Though she rarely emphasized her status as a woman radical in a world all too regularly dominated by men, it was an important part both of who she was and of her significance to the student movement. She was more than just the only woman among those first 15 political prisoners released; she was somebody who fought against the military regime even in the context of repression and torture, and at risk to her own health and the lives of her loved ones. Through her life and her actions, Guta showed that, in spite of the gendered politics of the time, women were at the heart of the struggle against Brazil’s military dictatorship and made important contributions to social justice and political change in Brazil.
While recent posts in this series focused on the presidents of Brazil’s military dictatorship, no country’s history, society, or politics is defined merely by its (male) political leaders. During the dictatorship, millions of Brazilians resisted the military’s authority (even while millions more supported it), and support and/or opposition from various social groups ebbed and flowed throughout twenty-one years of military rule. While there is no shortage of materials on resistance to the dictatorship, especially in the 1960s, such work tends to focus on the men (often university students) who challenged the regime (and who later went on to play roles in the post-dictatorship state), even while women played key roles in the student movements that challenged military rule in a number of ways. Thus, this week we begin looking at the lives of these women, often ignored in the narrative of resistance to the dictatorship , by focusing on one of the most important yet most overlooked figures of student politics and resistance in the 1960s: Vera Sílvia Magalhães.Vera Sílvia Magalhães was born to a middle-class family in Rio de Janeiro in 1948. Although her family was from the carioca upper middle class, they did not shy away from communism; she allegedly first read Marx and Engels after a family member gave her the Communist Manifesto. Although apocryphal, what is certain is that, from an early age, she was exposed to the ideas of the left, and by the age of 15, she was a member of the Associação Municipal dos Estudantes Secundaristas (Municipal Association of Secondary Students; AMES). One year after she joined AMES, the military overthrew constitutional president João Goulart in a coup, ushering in a right-wing military regime.
Although president Humberto Castelo Branco’s government had made early attempts to crack down on the student movements in Brazil, they were not as thorough or persistent as efforts to persecute labor activists, high-ranking politicians, or members of Brazil’s Leninist Partido Comunista Brasileiro (Brazilian Communist Party; PCB). Thus, less than two years after the coup, university students had become one of the main groups still openly challenging the military dictatorship, criticizing it both along ideological lines while also making more quotidian demands that reflected their experiences as middle-class university students. While some students participated in protests through the “semi-clandestine” National Students Union (UNE), by 1967, other students were becoming more radical. Discontent with the failures of the PCB to adequately address the “Brazilian reality” and frustrated by the fact that, far from ending the dictatorship, street protests only seemed to lead to intensifying police violence under president Artur Costa e Silva, some leftist students looked for more radical solutions to transform Brazilian politics and society. Yet the older members of the PCB, Brazil’s first communist party, refused to endorse the armed struggle as a path towards social change and the end of the dictatorship. As a result, university students turned to alternate offshoot groups. Drawing on the model of the Cuban revolution and abandoning the “Old left” of Leninism for Maoist and/or “Dissident” versions of communism, a small number of urban youth began to see the luta armada, or armed struggle, as the only path to bring down the dictatorship.
Vera Magalhães was one such student. Amidst the regime’s increasing repression and its efforts to silence critics (even moderate ones), in 1968 Magalhães, now 20 and enrolled in university, joined the clandestine Movimento Revolucionário 8 de Outubro (Revolutionary Movement of October 8), or MR-8, named after the day CIA-supported Bolivian troops captured Ché Guevara in 1967 [they executed him one day later]. Another group had been operating with the name MR-8, but the regime had captured almost all of its members, trumpeting the regime’s triumph to the public. In an attempt to discredit the regime, Magalhães and other members of the MR-8 began launching increasingly high-profile actions under the MR-8 moniker to indicate that opposition did not end with the arrest of a handful of individuals. Throughout 1968 and 1969,these armed groups mobilized in high-profile actions, even while the student movement faced increasing repression. They attacked banks, where they “expropriated” money from foreign capital and from the bourgeoisie, abandoning the student movement for armed struggle and bank robberies that helped fund the organization and marked an ideological attack on capital both foreign and domestic. In these expropriations, Magalhães, with her blonde wig and her two .45-caliber pistols, captured the attention of the media, which named her “Blonde ’90.”
In this context, Magalhães came to play a vital role in one of the boldest moves against the dictatorship. As the military used the new repressive Institutional Act Number 5 and Decree-Law 477 increase arrests and the use of torture against prisoners even while censoring the media, Magalhães and the MR-8 decided to act more boldly. She and a few of her colleagues came up with a plot to kidnap Charles Burke Elbrick, the US Ambassador to Brazil. No ambassador had ever been kidnapped before, and so the move was as innovative as it was daring. Magalhães spent time watching Elbrick’s route from his home to the US embassy in Botafogo, and even flirted with the chief of security in order to get him to reveal information about Elbrick’s routine. With the information she had gathered and the plans she had helped create, the MR-8 moved, and on September 4, 1969, they kidnapped Elbrick, the first time in world history that an ambassador had been kidnapped. MR-8 pledged Elbrick’s safe release in return for the release of 15 political prisoners and the reading on television of a declaration that expressed the MR-8′s visions and would break through the censorship the military had imposed; if the military refused to meet their conditions, they promised to kill the ambassador. The conditions put thus put Elbrick’s fate as much in the hands of the military as in the hands of his captors.
Although they did not realize it, Magalhães and her colleagues had perfectly, albeit accidentally, timed the kidnapping. At the end of August, president Costa e Silva had a massive stroke that had left the president incapacitated; not wanting to make clear that the country was presently effectively leaderless, the military had not announced his condition to the country. The regime thought it could safely pretend everything was fine until it found a way to replace the now-semi-paralyzed president. Unfortunately for military brass, the kidnapping of Elbrick had left them both unprepared and unable to quickly respond. Adding to the complications was the fact that the US, a major economic and political supporter of the dictatorship, was more than a little interested in seeing its ambassador safely released no matter the cost. In this context, the military split; some insisted that the government had to meet their demands so as to not lose the US’s support; others insisted meeting the demands would be a sign of military weakness, and that it was better to let Elbrick die.
Ultimately, those in favor of meeting the demands prevailed, but barely. The government read the MR-8′s statement, which proclaimed that Brazil was living in a military dictatorship and that the fight of the people would continue, on television. The regime also released fifteen political prisoners that the MR-8 had provided them; the list included student leaders like José Dirceu and Vladimir Palmeira; members of urban guerrilla groups like Maria Augusta Carneiro Ribeiro and Ricardo Vilas; journalist Flávio Tavares; labor activists Agonalto Pacheco and José Ibrahim; and older leftists Rolando Frati and Gregório Bezerra (who had been arrested immediately after the 1964 coup and who had also spent 10 years in prison for his communist activism during the government of Getúlio Vargas). It loaded them on an airplane and sent them to Mexico. Immediately after the plane, named “Hercules 56″ (the title of an excellent documentary on the kidnapping), took off, paratroopers arrived at Rio de Janeiro’s Galeão airport to try to stop them. Nonetheless, they were late, and the prisoners safely arrived in Mexico before heading to Cuba, where they met with Fidel Castro. After receiving training in Cuba, some clandestinely returned to Brazil, while others went into exile. [Of those who returned to Brazil, the military captured and killed two, gunning down both ex-sergeant Onofre Pinto and militant João Leonardo da Silva Rocha in 1974.] As for Elbrick, MR-8 stayed true to their word; with the release of the 15 political prisoners and the reading of the declaration, on September 8 Elbrick’s captors dropped him off at Maracanã stadium just as a soccer game was ending, and MR-8′s members disappearing into the crowd.
Magalhães and the others who had planned the kidnapping managed to disappear into the crowd in 1969, but they could not escape the regime’s security apparatus. In March 1970, the military arrested Magalhães while she was handing out political pamphlets; in the arrest, she was hit in the head by gunfire. Although wounded, the regime showed her little tolerance; angry at the MR-8′s ability to challenge the regime and in a period of intense repression, the security forces tortured the wounded Magalhães. She sustained three months of beatings, electrical shocks, and psychological torture; the physical abuse was so severe that she was unable to stand on her own without the support of somebody else.
In spite of the physical and psychological abuse, she never revealed names. Nor could her legacy be undone; that July, members of the Ação Libertadora Nacional (National Liberating Action; ALN) and Vanguarda Popular Revolucionária (Popular Revolutionary Vanguard; VPR) followed MR-8′s model, kidnapping German ambassador Ehrenfried von Holleben and demanded the release of more political prisoners. Ultimately, in July of 1970, the regime released forty more prisoners, including Magalhães; however, the physical effects of torture on her were clear. In a photo of the prisoners, she was seated in a chair, still unable to stand on her own.
After her release, Magalhães went into exile, first in Algeria and then in Chile, where many Brazilian exiles remained until the military coup of 1973 ushered in a right-wing dictatorship there as well. From there, she went to Europe with her husband (and comrade in MR-8), Fernando Gabeira (they eventually divorced). She ultimately settled in Paris, studying sociology at the Sorbonne under Brazilian professor Fernando Henrique Cardoso, who had also gone into self-imposed exile. When João Figueiredo issued a general amnesty in 1979, Magalhães joined thousands of other exiles in returning to Brazil.
Although she returned to Brazil safely, Vera Magalhães was never able to shake the long-term effects of the horrible abuses and torture she suffered at the hands of the military regime. She worked as an urban planner in the state government of Rio de Janeiro for years, but ultimately retired early at the age of 54, unable to work any longer due to her health. Throughout the rest of her life, she suffered from periodic psychotic episodes, kidney problems (from the beatings), and troubles with her legs, even while the medicine she had to take caused dental problems. Though hesitant to use her long-term suffering for financial gain, in 2002, she became the first woman to receive financial reparations from the state for her suffering at the hands of the military (previously, such reparations had usually only gone to families of those who had died at the hands of the military during the dictatorship). While the financial aid helped her with her medical problems, it could not cure her of them, and in December 2007, she died of a heart attack at the age of 59.
Although often overlooked in general narratives of student mobilization and opposition to the military regime, there is no doubt that Vera Magalhães played a key role in challenging the dictatorship. Although her politics and her fight for social justice led her to suffer severely at the hands of the military, she was proud of her ability to maintain her “human sense, ethical and political.”
Having recently wrapped up a look at the five presidents during Brazil’s military dictatorship, this week focuses on Tancredo Neves, the first civilian elected to the presidency after the military dictatorship.
Tancredo de Almeida Neves was born on 4 March 1910 in the city of São João del Rei in the interior state of Minas Gerais, two and a half hours from the state capital of Belo Horizonte and four hours from Rio de Janeiro. After finishing his schooling, he attended the law school at what is today the Federal University of Minas Gerais, completing his degree in 1932. While in school, he supported the Liberal Alliance, the coalition of forces that helped to bring Getúlio Vargas to power in 1930. Neves was a lifelong politician, first being elected to the municipal council of São João del Rei in 1935. He ultimately became president of the municipal council shortly before Vargas ushered in the Estado Novo in 1937, which closed all municipal chambers throughout the country. Out of office, Neves practiced law, working for the railroad workers’ union in his hometown, while also operating his own textile business.
With the return to democracy after the end of the first Vargas government in 1945, Neves again returned to politics. He joined the Partido Social Democrático, one of two political parties Vargas created in the 1940s, and in 1947, won election as a congressman in Minas Gerais’s state legislature, where he served until 1950, when he won election to the Brazilian legislature as a representative from Minas. He ascent and ability, combined with the fact he was from one of Brazil’s most powerful states, led Vargas to name Neves his Minister of Justice and of Internal Affairs, posts he held until Vargas’s suicide in 1954. Once again jobless after another Vargas action, Neves returned to electoral politics, winning election and serving again as a federal representative from 1954-1955. He spent the latter half of the 1950s in a number of business-related posts in both the state government of Minas Gerais and in the federal government.
It was in 1961 when Neves became nationally known. In August of 1961, president Jânio Quadros resigned only seven months after his inauguration. The resignation threw the country into turmoil. The military fiercely opposed the legal succession of vice president João Goulart, fearing his progressive stances and his status as Vargas’s Minister of Labor from 1953-54 made him a threat to democracy in Brazil. Complicating matters, Goulart himself was out of the country when Quadros resigned, touring China on an official trip (a trip that the military viewed as proof of Goulart’s alleged communist sympathies). While some military leaders tried to stop Goulart from fulfilling the constitution and assuming the presidency, students and leftist politicians, including Leonel Brizola, Goulart’s brother-in-law and a governor, mobilized in favor of Goulart. Facing more opposition than it had originally expected, the military ultimately retreated somewhat, allowing Goulart to become president with one caveat: Brazil would become a parliamentary presidency, and Goulart would have to have a prime minister who created the cabinet and who could serve as a check on the president’s power. In that way, Goulart became president, albeit with powers greatly limited.
With the agreement in place, Goulart selected Neves as his Prime Minister; Congress overwhelmingly approved Neves’ selection, and he became the first vice president in the brief parliamentary system, a position he served until 1962. As Prime Minister, his cabinet saw the passage of a number of key reforms, including the Lei de Diretrizes e Bases, an educational reform law first proposed in 1948 that, among other things, made elementary school mandatory for all Brazilians, pledged 12% of the national budget to education, required elementary school teachers to have a high school diploma and secondary school teachers to have a college degree, and created a national academic calendar, alongside other administrative reforms. His cabinet also attempted to address socioeconomic inequalities in the countryside by moving towards a possible agrarian reform. However, in the increasingly-polarized context of Cold War politics in Brazil in the early-1960s, farmers and peasant organizations began radicalizing and demanding more rapid and sweeping reforms, even while conservative elites increasingly distanced themselves from the government. Facing growing criticisms from both the left and the right, the entire cabinet, including Neves, resigned in June 1962; the timing was not accidental, as it allowed the now-ex cabinet members to run in congressional elections in October 1962, something Neves took advantage of, easily winning election to Congress yet again and taking his seat in 1963.
Although Neves continued to support Goulart’s presidency, his support was not enough; increasing inflation and opposition ultimately set the stage for a military coup that overthrew Goulart on April 1, 1964. While many politicians supported what they at the time believed would be the military’s brief intervention, which they hoped would bring stabilization, Neves was not among them. When Congress indirectly selected Humberto Castelo Branco as the first military president, Neves was the only member of his party not to vote in favor of Castelo Branco. The vote established Neves as one of the leading critics of the regime from within the government, a position he would maintain throughout the dictatorship. When the military abolished all political parties and created two new parties, the “opposition” MDB and the pro-military ARENA [sardonically referred to as "the party of yes" and "the party of yes,sir!" for some years], Neves joined the MDB, becoming one of its leaders. While the military ruled with authoritarian powers, Brazil’s dictatorship tried to maintain legitimacy through the facade of democracy, and so limited elections, including congressional elections, took place throughout the dictatorship (though generals like Costa e Silva and Geisel did not hesitate to close Congress when legislators prove unwilling to rubber-stamp regime decrees). Thus, Neves was re-elected regularly, serving in the Chamber of Deputies continuously from 1963 to 1979 and becoming one of the elder statesmen of the opposition, which grew increasingly strong in the latter half of the 1970s.
In 1979, Neves was inaugurated as Senator after winning in the 1978 elections. Shortly after Neves’s inauguration, the new (and final) military president, João Figueiredo abolished the old two-party system, allowing opponents to create their own parties in the hopes that the MDB would fragment while ARENA could remain strong. Neves formed the Partido Popular, or Popular Party; in spite of its name, it was one of the more conservative new parties, bringing together conservatives from the ex-MDB and moderates from the ex-ARENA. Given this elite composition, the PP did not necessarily appeal to a large number of Brazilians, and in the face of difficult electoral rules, the PP opted to merge with the PMDB [the MDB's new guise] in the early-1980s. In spite of his party’s failure, Neves remained a key figure in national politics, becoming the vice-president of the PMDB, even while winning the governorship of Minas Gerais for the party.
It was in this context that Neves came to play a key role in national politics one last time. In 1983, legislator Dante de Oliveira submitted a bill that would have made the presidential elections scheduled for 1986 a direct election, rather than Congress indirectly selecting the next president, as was planned. The bill rapidly gained popular support throughout the country, and the opposition united under the banner of Diretas Já, or “Direct Elections now!” movement. Political figures from a variety of backgrounds, including Ulysses Guimarães, Fernando Henrique Cardoso, and former-union leader and founder of the PT, Lula da Silva, joined hundreds of thousands throughout the country at rallies.
Ultimately, the bill failed to garner the 2/3 majority it needed. However, Diretas Já had brought together the opposition and shown Congress the power of the people in the context of a dictatorship. In selecting a candidate to run against Paulo Maluf, the pro-military Social Democratic Party (PDS), the PMDB and others selected Neves. The selection was not universally lauded; Lula and the PT were critical of the move, arguing Neves was not radical enough to meet the demands of the people. However, it was this very position as a moderate that made Neves appealing to many; his deep political history, his ability to reach out to conservatives and the military, and his grandfatherly appearance (he was 74 by this point) made the opposition believe they had a candidate that the military could accept. In order to cement support, he reached out to a former member of ARENA and the PDS, José Sarney, to run as his vice president. Sarney accepted, and in January 1985, Brazil’s Congress elected Neves as the next president of Brazil; it appeared Brazil had its first non-military president since 1964.
Unfortunately, it did not take Brazil’s ecstasy to turn into tragedy. Neves was set to take office on March 15, 1985. The day before he was set to reach the peak of his political career, Neves fell ill, and went to the hospital with abdominal pain. He was unable to attend his inauguration on the 15th. The political path for Brazil was uncertain; Figueiredo was definitely leaving office, but who would succeed him was unclear. Constitutionally, the Speaker of the Chamber of Deputies, Ulysses Guimarães, was supposed to serve as interim president; however, Guimarães had been a very vocal and ardent critic of the military since the early-1970s, and feared that, if he were to take office, the military would block him and reassert control. Ultimately, José Sarney, who had been a member of the pro-military ARENA and PDS until the last minute, was inaugurated as vice-president and would act as president until Neves could take office.
But he was never able to take office. Neves underwent surgery, but faced complications in the wake of the surgery. He picked up an infection from the original hospital, and his situation worsened, leading to his transferral to a hospital in São Paulo. He underwent another six surgeries over the following three weeks, but he never fully recovered, dying on April 21, 1985.
Much of the country was grief-stricken. in just four months, they’d gone from elation over finally triumphing over the military dictatorship to losing the man Congress had elected on their behalf. Sarney became president, but that offered little comfort to many, given that he’d not been nominated as president and that he’d served in the pro-military party for so many years. Some even alleged that the military had poisoned or murdered Neves in order to prevent his inauguration, unable to completely let go of power after 21 years of rule. His funeral was broadcast on national television, and throughout the country, memorials, plaques, and other markers went up to commemorate the man who would have been president.
Although he never served, his impact on politics was profound. In many ways, Neves was perhaps the politician most able, through both his skill and his background, to navigate the difficult transition to democracy between 1983 and 1985, when the military’s departure was much-desired but far from assured. His articulation and his ability to reach out to a number of groups, from elder conservatives to university students, from peasants to conservative senators, helped the success of Diretas Já and helped make possible the election (albeit indirectly) of the opposition candidate in January 1985. Although he never served, his Tancredo Neves’ political legacies are far-reaching, and not just for the fact that he became the first civilian elected to the presidency since 1960; his grandson, Aécio Neves, is currently a candidate for president for the PSDB, aspiring to the office his grandfather won, but never served in.
This week we wrap up a sub-series on the presidents of Brazil’s military dictatorship (1964-1985) by looking at the final and longest-serving of the military presidents, João Baptista Figueiredo, who governed from 1979 to 1985, when the military stepped away from the presidency.
Born on January 15, 1918, João Baptista de Oliveira Figueiredo was the first president whose family came from a military background since the first president of the military dictatorship, Humberto Castelo Branco. Though Figueiredo was born in Rio de Janeiro, at 11 he enrolled at the Military School of Porto Alegre in Brazil’s southernmost state of Rio Grande do Sul; in that regard, he continued the trend of his previous 3 predecessors, all of whom hailed from Rio Grande do Sul. Like his predecessors, he had a direct tie to Getúlio Varga’ss regime, albeit of a very different nature. Where previous presidents had supported Vargas’s rise in 1930 and aided the federal government against the 1932 Constitutionalist revolt in São Paulo, Figueiredo’s father, Euclides Figueiredo, led the São Paulo forces in rebellion against Vargas, ultimately leading to his exile after federal forces triumphed over the paulistas. Although in exile in Portugal, João’s father continued to conspire with other Vargas opponents. Euclides returned in 1934 after an amnesty, but he continued his criticisms. After Vargas declared the Estado Novo in 1937, he supported the semi-fascist Integralista uprising in 1938, leading to his arrest. Stripped of his military commission, he was sentenced to four years in prison.
While João’s father continued to unsuccessfully challenge the government, Figueiredo continued along his military path. Indeed, even while his father was a vocal opponent of Varags, João received a sword from Vargas for finishing first in his class in 1937. A member of the cavalry (fitting well with the gaucho tradition of Rio Grande do Sul), Figueiredo continued to teach in military institutions even while improving his own training and rising through the ranks in the 1940s. After dictator Alfredo Stroessner rose to power in neighboring Paraguay in 1954, Figueiredo was a member of the Brazilian military mission in Paraguay between 1955 and 1958. Toward the end of the decade, he took courses at the War College in 1960; upon completing his training there, he worked in the Council of National Security in 1961, where he began a career path that would take him through Brazil’s security apparatuses and ultimately to the presidency.
When the military coup of 1964 took place, Figueiredo was an instructor at the Escola de Comando e Estado-Maior do Exército (Command and General Staff College; ECEME) while continuing to serve in national security. Figueiredo supported the coup, and his background in national security led to his nomination as the head of the Serviço Nacional de Informações (National Information Service; SNI) in Rio de Janeiro. Still not a general, he continued to rise through the ranks of the military. In 1969, Emílio Médici, a fellow gaucho, picked Figueiredo as his Chief of the Military Cabinet, a position he held from 1969 to the end of the Médici government in 1974. (During the regime, presidential cabinets were split between a military cabinet and a civilian cabinet, with a Chief of each reporting to the president.) With the selection of Ernesto Geisel in 1974, the military shifted from the hardliner governments of Costa e Silva and Médici back to the “Sorbonne school;” yet Figueiredo bridged the gap, becoming Geisel’s head of the SNI. Geisel decided Figueiredo should be his successor, and elevated his SNI chief to a full general in 1977 so that he could assume the presidency when Geisel left office in 1979. After Geisel successfully outmaneuvered the hard-liners in the military in 1977, Figueiredo’s pathway to the presidency opened. Although there still were no direct presidential elections in Brazil, Figueiredo nonetheless campaigned around the country, and Congress indirectly elected him at the end of 1978. On March 15, 1979, he was officially inaugurated as the fifth (and final) president of Brazil’s military regime.
Upon taking office, Figueiredo continued the path of reopening Brazilian politics, a process begun under Geisel’s distensão (“detachment”) and continuing with Figueiredo’s abertura (“opening”). In August of 1979, he issued a general amnesty that pardoned political prisoners (but not opponents of the regime who’d been convicted of violent crimes); just as importantly, however, the amnesty pardoned those members of the armed forces and the state under military rule who had committed torture, murder, and “disappearances.” At the time of its declaration, the amnesty covered both torturers and opposition in an effort to “move on,” and while many exiles celebrated the ability to return to Brazil, it also set the stage for a general public tendency to ignore and “forget” the crimes of the regime, with the result that only in the last year has Brazil officially had a truth commission investigate the regime. Figueiredo also undid other dictatorship-era legislation, allowing the previous two parties (MDB and ARENA, jokingly called “the party of ‘yes’ and the party of ‘yes, sir!’” during the most repressive parts of the regime). However, the move was not as democratic as it seemed. Figueiredo hoped that, in allowing new (and multiple) parties, the opposition in the MDB would fragment while the ARENA could continue, allowing an ARENA civilian candidate to win election when he stepped down in 1985. Early on, the move seemed to have success; ARENA simply became the Partido Democrático Social (Democratic Social Party; PDS), while the MDB splintered into a number of parties.
While Figueiredo attempted to control the political climate, economically and socially, he found things slipping out of his control. The long-term effects of the so-called “economic miracle” of 1967-74 were becoming increasingly clear, as Brazil’s foreign debt rapidly grew and the global oil crises of the 1970s hit the economy hard. By the early 1980s, inflation in Brazil had gone over 100%, which was no small matter; when the military overthrew democratically-elected president João Goulart in 1964, it cited 100% inflation as one of the justifications for military intervention. That inflation was now higher than it had ever been under Goulart undermined the regime’s legitimacy, even while foreign debt reached $61 billion in 1981.
These economic troubles were not abstract problems. The growing economic unrest, combined with years of military rule and a lack of electoral democracy at the state and federal levels led to growing challenges to the regime, challenges that first erupted in 1979, just months after Figueiredo took office. In November of 1979, over 170,000 metalworkers went on strike in São Paulo over wage issues. Led by Luís Inácio “Lula” da Silva, a charismatic metalworker and union leader who had lost his finger in a workplace accident, the workers demanded the government make up lost wages for underreporting inflation in the mid-1970s. While there were violent encounters between workers and armed forces, the workers continued to mobilize and the strikes spread throughout the country, marking the first time since before the dictatorship where workers had mobilized on such a large scale. The strike was a key moment in the dictatorship, showing both that the working classes had the will and ability to mobilize and challenge the regime while testing the government’s policy of abertura. Ultimately, in the new political context, the workers formed their own party, the Partido dos Trabalhadores (Workers Party; PT), with Lula at its head. The party also drew in middle-class activists who had been involved in the National Students Union (UNE) and in student protests in the 1960s, giving the PT a broader reach, and Lula became a national political figure.
The urban working class was not the only group to protest the regime. In the wake of 1968′s university reform, the military regime had emphasized enrollment in fields like applied science, engineering, medicine, and technology (what today is trendily called “STEM” education). However, the emphasis on these fields had predictable results: throughout the 1970s, enrollment went up, leading to a glutted job market. Thus, by the 1980s, a growing number of middle-class white-collar workers with university degrees were having a difficult time finding employment, even while inflation skyrocketed. Thus, doctors, engineers, university professors, and others increasingly took to the streets to protest and organize, and groups like university professors (who were still mostly federal employees) even formed their own union. Meanwhile, while UNE itself remained illegal, Figueiredo made clear he would not persecute it, and in 1979, it reconstituted itself after having been inactive due to repression throughout most of the 1970s.
In this context, the hardliners attempted one last, flailing attempt to stifle repression. After a series of bomb attacks against newspaper stands and the Ordem dos Advogados do Brazil (Order of Lawyers of Brazil; OAB) that left a number of people wounded (and killed a secretary at the OAB), there was one final attempt. On April 30, 1981, a number of musicians put on a show to celebrate International Workers’ Day the following day. While thousands of students inside the building sang along, Sergeant Guilherme Pereira do Rosário and Captain Wilson Dias Machado drove a car through the parking lot. The men hoped to deposit bombs to blow up the building, wounding students and perhaps creating a context where the hardliners could return to power and halt the abertura. However, one of the bombs went off in Rosário’s lap, immediately killing him and wounding Machado. Just like that, the hardliners’ efforts to reassert control literally blew up in their faces. When Machado was able to talk, it emerged that he was an officer in the military; while the attack completely and finally discredited the hardliners, Figueiredo’s slow movement in condemning the act and the SNI’s efforts to cover it up also discredited his own government, only adding to the criticisms of the regime
In this setting, the regime continued to suffer political setbacks in spite of its earlier efforts to control the political system. In 1982, the country enjoyed its first direct elections for governor and for Congress in over 16 years, and throughout the country, opposition candidates enjoyed a degree of success unprecedented up to that point in the dictatorship. In Congress, the opposition, while fragmented along different party lines, carried the Chamber of Deputies. However, the PDS carried the Senate and most of the governorships, suggesting perhaps Figueiredo’s strategy of dividing the opposition was working. Not all the governorships were successes for the regime, however. Perhaps most notably, the citizens of Rio de Janeiro elected Leonel Brizola, João Goulart’s brother-in-law who had tried to get Goulart to move further to the left, to the governorship; that Brizola had been one of the top targets of the regime when it exiled and stripped politicians of their rights in 1964 and was now governor showed just how tired many had grown of the military government.
In spite of conservative and military opposition to the shifting political tide, Figueiredo made clear he intended to stand by abertura and his pledge to exit office in 1985. He refused to annul any of the elections. When he had to travel to the Cleveland Clinic after a heart attack in 1981, civilian vice president Aureliano Chaves served his constitutional role as de facto president, marking the first time a civilian had governed Brazil since 1964. This transition, while temporary, was not insignificant; when Costa e Silva had a stroke that incapacitated him in 1969, the military refused to allow civilian vice president Pedro Aleixo assume his duties. Thus, Figueiredo’s insistence that the military was withdrawing from governance seemed sincere.
In this context, the opposition began to consider the possibility of forming a united front against the PDS. Pointing to the fact that the 1985 presidential election was still set to be an indirect election, with Congress electing the president, the regime’s opponents found a unifying platform. Representatives from and supporters of varying opposition parties began to unite under the banner of Diretas Já!, or “Direct elections now!” A congressman put forth a bill calling for the 1985 presidential election to be direct, and throughout the country, massive rallies took place, showing the popularity of the idea. Hundreds of thousands marched in Rio de Janeiro, the first time since 1968 that so many had taken to the streets, and in São Paulo, over one million gathered at the Praça da Sé. Although 298 voted in favor of the bill, it failed, as 112 pro-government politicians abstained, leaving Congress without a quorum.
Nonetheless, the movement was significant not only because of its magnitude, but because it set the stage for the indirect election at the end of the year. The opposition parties set aside differences to rally behind Tancredo Neves, a veteran politician who had been João Goulart’s Prime Minister in 1961-1962. Neves’ skill as a politician and the mobilization of the masses earlier in 1984 made clear to Congress that the country was tired of the regime and its allies. After a contentious convention, the PDS nominated corrupt São Paulo governor Paulo Maluf; the move alienated many in the PDS, including José who threw their support behind Neves. In exchange, Neves selected former ARENA/PDS leader José Sarney as his running mate. On January 15, 1985, Congress gathered to vote for the next president, and Tancredo Neves defeated Maluf, 480 to 180 votes. While Brazilians did not get the direct elections they’d demanded, they did get the first president since 1964 who was not tied to military rule.
As for Figueiredo himself, he willingly left politics. Tired of the fighting and of receiving blame for Brazil’s economy spiraling out of control, he left the stage quickly, if not necessarily gracefully. As he was preparing to exit office, an interviewer asked him how he wanted the Brazilian people to remember him; Figueiredo pointedly replied, “Forget me.” Though Neves was too ill to take office, dying before he could be inaugurated, Sarney assumed the presidency. Thus, Brazil’s military dictatorship came to an end. Figueiredo quietly left office and entered into private life, ultimately dying in 1999, the last of the military presidents to serve and the last to die.
This week continues the recent focus on military presidents by turning to Ernesto Geisel (1907-1996), the fourth and penultimate of the presidents of Brazil’s twenty-one year military dictatorship. Geisel governed from 1974 to 1979, overseeing growing economic turmoil, the beginning of political re-openings under military rule, and internal challenges from hardliners within the military during his administration (1974-1979).
Ernesto Beckmann Geisel was born in August 1907 to German immigrants in the southern-most state of Rio Grande do Sul, the third consecutive military president who was born there (after Artur Costa e Silva and Emílio Garrastazu Médici). Geisel was one of five children, and the youngest of four boys. In 1921, he followed the footsteps of two of his older brothers by joining the military (the other went on to become a chemical engineer and university professor), enrolling in the Military School of Porto Alegre, where he finished at the top of his class in 1924. His performance in military school was not an anomaly; he also finished first in his ongoing military training at schools in Realengo and in officer training in the 1930s.
As had so many others of the military in his generation, Geisel actively supported the 1930 revolution that brought Getúlio Vargas into power. Like his military presidential predecessors, he also served in the Revolution of 1932 that saw the state of São Paulo revolt against the Vargas government. After a brief stint in government in the 1930s, he returned to the School of Training for Army Officers, where in 1938 he once again finished at the top of his class. He continued his officer training from 1941-1943. Although Brazil had officially entered World War II by 1944, Geisel did not see action in the European theater, instead going to the United States, where in 1945 he finished training at Fort Leavenworth’s Army Command and General Staff College.
After the war, Geisel continued to balance his status as an officer with roles in government, serving as Brazil’s military aide to Brazil’s embassy in Uruguay before returning to serve in various functions, including serving as a member of Brazil’s Escola Superior de Guerra (War College; ESG), in the 1950s. After Vargas committed suicide in 1954, Geisel briefly served as the sub-chief of the Military Cabinet in the presidency of (former) vice president João Café Filho. He continued to move up through the military ranks, even while his background in government allowed him as a bridge between the military and technocratic worlds. Geisel opposed what many perceived to be the increasing leftism of president João Goulart, and when the military overthrew Goulart on April 1, 1964, Geisel quickly became a member of the new military regime, serving as the chief of the Military Cabinet under the first president of the regime, Humberto Castelo Branco.
Under Castelo Branco, Geisel became one of the key figures of the so-called “Sorbonne” group, thus named due to their alleged intellectual qualities. Although the military dictatorship presented a publicly unified face, behind the scenes, splits were emerging between Castelo Branco and the “Sorbonne” group on the one hand, and military hardliners (with Costa e Silva as their figurehead) who wanted more repressive measures taken against opponents. While Geisel condemned the use of torture after the coup and opposed the ascent of Costa e Silva (who was Castelo Branco’s Minister of War) behind closed doors, Castelo Branco ultimately was unwilling to divide the military regime, and stepped aside for Costa e Silva in 1967. The rise of the hardliners, first under Costa e Silva and then under Médici, meant the marginalization of Geisel in the military governments. Though he continued to serve as a minister in the Supreme Military Tribunal from 1967-1969 and as president from Petrobras, Brazil’s state-owned energy company, from 1969 to 1973, he was effectively ostracized from national politics under military rule.
Though Geisel was far from the organs of government under the hardliners, he had an ally in his older brother, Orlando Geisel, also a general. Orlando ultimately served as the head of the Serviço Nacional de Informações (National Information Service; SNI) under Médici during the most repressive years of the regime. The SNI had been Médici’s launching point for the presidency; when he asked Orlando to consider succeeding him, Orlando turned it down, instead recommending his brother. Médici convinced other military leaders to support the nomination, and Ernesto Geisel became the candidate for the president, overwhelmingly winning the indirect elections of 1973 and taking office in March 1974. With his election, the hardliners left office for the last time, and the so-called “moderate” “Sorbonne” school in the military returned to the presidency for the first time since 1967.
From the beginning, Geisel’s administration stood in marked contrast to that of his predecessor. Where Médici had been hands-off in governing, allowing his ministers to take care of matters in their departments and creating an atmosphere where the use of torture was widespread, Geisel was a micromanager, involved in the decisions of many of his ministries. Where Médici oversaw a period of heightened repression and crackdown on political rights (referred to as the anos de chumbo, or “years of lead”), Geisel initiated a program of a “gradual, slow, and secure distensão,” or “distending” the military from the government. Although he maintained some of the policies of his predecessors from both the hardliners and the Sorbonne school – notably the dual policy of “development and security” articulated in the ESG – his administration was in many ways a rupture.
However, the “gradual” opening was definitely gradual, and not always linear. While the government under Geisel eased censorship and even allowed candidates from the blanket “opposition” party Movimento Democrático Brasileiro (Democratic Brazilian Movement ; MDB) to campaign for congressional elections, his government continued to openly and brutally persecute the Leninist Brazilian Communist Party (PCB), and his regime finalized operations against guerrillas in the Araguaia region of Brazil, where the dictatorship “disappeared” dozens. And while Geisel himself privately opposed torture, he found it difficult to immediately rein it in after security apparatuses had operated with relatively free rein under Médici. Thus, in 1975, Vladimir Herzog, a journalist, was found dead in his cell; although the military officials in São Paulo claimed he had hanged himself, it was quickly clear that he had died under torture. The death of worker Manoel Fiel Filho under similar circumstances in 1976 made clear that, while Geisel might want an opening in the regime, the hardliners were less willing to acquiesce. This led Geisel to relieve of his duties the general responsible for troops in São Paulo, setting the stage for growing behind-the-scenes conflict between Geisel and the hardliners.
Although the public was generally unaware of these tensions within the military government, behind the scenes, things were coming to a head. In October 1977, Sylvio Frota, a hard-liner and Geisel’s Minister of the Army [previously called the Ministry of War, today's Minister of Defense], began to maneuver to become the next presidential candidate against Geisel’s wishes but with the support of hardliners. As Geisel refused to acknowledge Frota’s candidacy, Frota began to plan a plot to remove Geisel, but before he acted, the president outmaneuvered him, using a national holiday to fire Frota, knowing full well troops who might have rallied to Frota would not be in the barracks that day. Though Frota tried to rally his support, Geisel had already ensured the support of the generals who were considering supporting Frota; Frota’s failed power-grab ensured that the “moderates” would continue in office.
Though Geisel moved against hardliners in the state under military rule, he was by no means bereft of his own authoritarianism. That distensão that he sought was to be top-down; challenges to it from society would not be tolerated. Thus, after the opposition party MDB made significant gains in the 1974 congressional elections, he enacted a law in 1976 that prohibited candidates from making live appearances on television or radio. And in 1977, when Congress refused to pass a judicial reform bill that Geisel had sent to Congress, he closed Congress for 14 days, during which he continued the indirect elections of governors at the state level and established the indirect elections of 1/3 of the senators (perjoratively labeled “bionic senators”), thus giving the government enough of a majority to ensure Geisel’s future bills would pass. Nor were such actions limited to electoral politics. Although censorship eased under Geisel, it did not disappear, leading to bizarre cases of censorship; indeed, at one point, nearly all of popular and polemic singer Chico Buarque’s songs were censored, leading to Buarque to create an alter-ego, “Julinho da Adelaide,” a name under which he not only recorded a handful of songs, but gave interviews.
Geisel’s administration was an eventful one in other policy areas, as well. Although the military regime had issued a widespread university reform in 1968, by 1977, the shortcomings of that reform had become painfully obvious, leading Geisel to issue another reform focusing especially on graduate education in Brazil in 1977. He also inaugurated subway lines in both Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, and his administration oversaw a significant portion of the construction of the Itaipu Dam that Brazil and Paraguay share. Geisel also used his office to legalize divorce in Brazil, much to the consternation of many Catholics and cultural conservatives.
Although Geisel was fiercely anticommunist, he diversified Brazil’s diplomatic ties, including with Africa; indeed, under Geisel, Brazil was one of the first countries in the world to recognize the MPLA government in Angola in 1975, in spite of the fact that the MPLA was officially (if not realistically) Leninist while the Brazilian military regime was right-wing. Brazil entered into negotiations with West Germany to help Brazil get the parts and materials to start its own nuclear program in 1975 (though it would not be until ten years later that the first reactor at the Angra dos Reis plant was operational). In the final months of his presidency, he announced the expiration of the repressive Ato Institucional 5 (Institutional Act Number 5; AI-5), which Costa e Silva had issued in December 1968 and which had served as a key component in establishing the repression that followed throughout the late-1960s and throughout the 1970s. Though he hoped to continue the economic successes of Brazil’s economic “miracle” from 1967 to 1973, by 1974, global economic turmoil, including the 1973 oil crisis, hit Brazil hard, as did the fact that much of the economic growth of the “miracle” had depended on foreign loans whose repayment hit Brazil hard as global economic conditions worsened in the latter half of the 1970s. Thus, though he attempted to reduce dependency on foreign capital for infrastructure and industry, inflation was only worsening by the end of his term (though it would get much worse in the 1980s).
After leaving office, he continued to remain in close contact with the military. In 1985, he spoke out in favor of opposition candidate Tancredo Neves, helping to quell some of the opposition within the armed forces to Neves’s candidacy. He also continued to work in the oil business, where he’d acquired experience in his time as president of Petrobras. In the 1990s, he left much of his private and public documents, including from his presidency, to the Fundação Getúlio Vargas, and even sat down for interviews to provide an oral history of his government and his life. These collections and materials have given (and continue to give) scholars unprecedented insights into the operation of the military regime, and are one of the richest fonts for research on the dictatorship in Brazil. Shortly after his 89th birthday in 1996, Geisel died. Though his legacy is a complex one, the fact remains that his administration marked an important turning point in the dictatorship and in Brazilian politics.