This is part of an ongoing series. Previous entries can be found here.
Continuing the sub-series on the fifteen political prisoners released when young leftists kidnapped US ambassador Charles Elbrick in 1969, this week we look at the oldest prisoner released: Gregório Bezerra, who witnessed and played a key part in the rise and spread of leftist ideas throughout Brazil in the twentieth century.
Gregório Lourenço Bezerra was born 13 March 1900 in Pernambuco to poor parents in Brazil’s rural northeast, one of the last of twelve children in a family that did not own any land or even its own home. He was aware of the challenges facing workers from an extremely early age – when he was only four, he began to work in sugar fields alongside his parents in order to help them make enough money to survive. By the age of nine, both of Bezerra’s parents had died. By 10, he’d fled from a house where he worked in slave-like conditions. As a result, he was well aware of the inequalities and challenges that faced workers, and though he remained unable to read until 25, he was heavily interested in politics, and often asked people to read the newspaper to him. When the Russian Revolution broke out in February 1917, Bezerra joined other workers in marching in the streets in support of the revolution and in demanding better rights for Brazilian workers. His actions led to his arrest for “disrupting public order.” Only seventeen, he was sentenced to five years in prison for his actions; it would not be the last time he would receive such a sentence for his beliefs.
Upon his release in 1922, Bezerra decided to join the army, hoping to use the opportunity to learn to read. Though already well aware of workers’ struggles and having a genuine curiosity to learn more about socialism, it was only in 1927 that he finally was directly exposed to the ideas of communism. Drawing on the Russian Revolution and Lenin, in 1922 the Partido Comunista Brasileiro [Brazilian Communist Party; PCB] formed in secret, and began publishing a newspaper, A Nação ["The Nation," an ironic title, given Marx's original stance on nationalism and nations]. When Bezerra ran into an old military colleague in downtown Rio, his friend gave him a copy of the paper, and Bezerra found the ideas he’d felt and experienced since his childhood. Another chance encounter led to this same friend giving him a copy of “The Working Class,” another leftist paper. Bezerra described this experience as his own personal “catechism.”
In 1930, he returned to Pernambuco and became an official member of the PCB. Still in the military, he fought for the national government of Getúlio Vargas against rebels in São Paulo in the 1932 Constitutionalist Revolt. However, as the 1930s progressed, the radical right-wing, embodied by the pseudo-fascist Integralista Movement, was ascendant in Vargas’s government, and the left found itself increasingly persecuted. In an attempt to combat fascism, some leftists formed the Aliança Nacional Libertadora [National Liberating Alliance; ANL], which had ties to the PCB but was not officially a part of the Party. Bezerra joined the ANL, and in July 1935, the ANL, speaking out against fascism and defending the working class, rose up and called for an end to Vargas’s government. The movement failed, however, and the government quickly suppressed it; Bezerra himself was arrested and sentenced to 28 years in prison for his role in the ANL. The uprising was significant for other reasons, as well; though it would not be until November 1937 that Vargas’s Estado Novo dictatorship began, the repressive tactics and increasing censorship of that regime had its roots in the ANL’s failed revolt. While in prison in Rio de Janeiro, Bezerra shared a cell with PCB secretary general Luís Carlos Prestes, also in prison for his communist beliefs.
Under pressure, Vargas left power in 1945, and with the end of the Estado Novo, the government released its political prisoners, including Bezerra. The PCB was made legal again and ran candidates in elections. Ultimately, Prestes was elected the PCB’s sole representative in the Senate, but fourteen men were elected to the Chamber of Deputies; Bezerra was among them, getting more votes than any other candidate in the Chamber. As a Deputy, he used his power to speak out on behalf of workers, defending agrarian reform, the right to independent unions, the right to strike, the right of children not to work [a subject that was particularly personal to Bezerra], child care for single and working mothers, and the right to vote for those who could not read, among other issues. However, the institutional success of the PCB was short-lived; in 1947, he was stripped of his political rights (as were the other members of the PCB serving in Congress) and then arrested on trumped-up charges of arson, serving two more years before being absolved of any crime. Having already spent more than a third of his life in prison and fearing further persecution, he went into clandestinity for several years, remaining on the move but working with unions and organizing workers all the while. In 1957, he was finally caught and arrested once again, this time for his role in helping form Ligas Camponesas [Peasants' Leagues] in the Northeast, though he was released through habeas corpus. Bezerra remained active, though, and was elected to the General Committee of the PCB in 1960.
Like so many others from socially progressive and leftist parties and movements, Bezerra’s life changed with the military coup that overthrow constitutional president João Goulart on 1 April 1964. Given his high profile and his ties to the oldest communist party in Brazil, the military promptly arrested and tortured Bezerra. Indeed, he seemed to be the perfect example of what the military claimed was the reason for its coup (which it defined as a “revolution”): in the early 1960s, there was a growing fear among right-wing forces in both military and civilian camps that there was an “International Communist Movement” that had targeted Brazil. Given the PCB’s sympathies with and open support for the Soviet Communist Party and for Marxist-Leninism, it was the best example of the perceived threat that these right-wing forces feared and used to legitimize their rule. In arresting Bezerra, they were making a stand against the so-called “International” movement while hoping to drum up support by providing examples. However, the arrest of Bezerra backfired somewhat. Images of Bezerra, half-naked and clearly unarmed yet surrounded by soldiers in the middle of public in Pernambuco, circulated throughout the country, and many found the regime’s treatment of the now-64-year-old to be excessive. That did not prevent the military from sentencing Bezerra to nineteen years in prison for “subversion”; under the sentence, he would have remained in prison until he was 83.
While Bezerra was in prison, a major shift in radical politics was taking place in Brazil. Even before the military regime, some were beginning to question the PCB’s tactics; they felt that ties to the Soviet Union, discredited among the left when the horrors of Stalinism were made public in the latter half of the 1950s, undermined the party’s legitimacy. Additionally, they were increasingly critical of the PCB’s insistence on fomenting revolution through institutional means like elections and Congress. When the 1964 coup happened, many grew further discontented, saying that not only had the PCB’s tactics failed to create revolution, they’d failed to prevent a right-wing coup. Thus, a new generation of leftists, especially among university-age students and workers, began to turn to alternative models, be it the example of Ché Guevara’s foquismo as expressed by Régis Debray, or be it by the Maoist model. By 1968, a number of small guerrilla groups had formed, drawing on and adapting these newer models of leftism and swearing off the older Russian-influenced theories and models that the PCB had employed since 1922.
One of these new guerrilla groups was the Movimento Revolucionário 8 de Outubro [October 8 Revolutionary Movement; MR-8], named after the day Ché Guevara had been captured in 1967. In 1969, as Brazil was entering its most repressive phase of the dictatorship, the MR-8 hatched a plan: they would kidnap US Ambassador Charles Elbrick, and offer his release in exchange for fifteen political prisoners. The plan went off nearly perfectly – such an attack had never happened before, and Elbrick and his security were unprepared. The MR-8, with help from the Ação Libertadora Nacional [National Liberating Action], captured Elbrick, and put together their list of prisoners to be released. Near the top of the list was none other than Gregório Bezerra, who insisted on the means and instruments of revolution that groups like the MR-8 had disavowed. In spite of these differences, though, the students appreciated Bezerra’s contributions to leftism in Brazil historically and his efforts on behalf of workers, and the image of the older man under arrest in 1964 had made him a symbol of repression under the dictatorship.
Thus it was that, only five years into his nineteen-year sentence, Bezerra was released, joining fourteen other political prisoners who were sent to exile in Mexico in exchange for Elbrick. However, Bezerra did not appear in the famous photo of the prisoners; they departed from Rio de Janeiro, and stopped in Recife to pick up Bezerra, where he had been imprisoned. The other prisoners fondly recalled that, upon boarding, he began whistling “The Internationale,” and the young soldiers guarding the prisoners did nothing, unaware of what the song signified.
Though grateful for his freedom, Bezerra did not fully agree with how it had come about. Given the differences in ideology and party affiliation between Bezerra and leftist university students in the 1960s, even with his release he was critical of the students’ tactics to try to spur revolution. He openly admitted that he disapproved of isolated actions on the part of small guerrilla groups, believing them to contribute nothing to developing broader processes of revolution; nor did he approve of proactive violence. Like the Marxist-Leninist he was, he spoke out against individual acts of violence, saying he fought against power systems and not against individual people (like Elbrick). As he himself put it, “I only believe in violence of the masses against the violence of reaction.” With statements like these, it is not hard to see why students of the 1960s who looked to Che and Mao found little in Bezerra’s stance that they could agree with. Nonetheless, his status as one of the key figures of both Brazilian Communism and of repression under the dictatorship made him a sympathetic figure for youth, even if they did not agree with his ideologies. And considering the inability for later movements like the guerrilla movement in Araguaia to create peasant revolution, or the urban guerrilla movements in São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, and elsewhere to really undermine the power of the state, it is clear that Bezerra’s arguments and views were not necessarily unrealistic.
These generational and ideological differences manifested themselves in exile, as well. All fifteen prisoners went to Mexico and then to Cuba, where many of the younger exiles hoped to receive training before returning to Brazil to continue to fight. Bezerra, however, was uninterested in their models of revolution, and instead continued on to the Soviet Union, where he received medical treatment for the injuries and poor health he suffered under torture and in prison. He continued to serve as an activist, fighting for workers’ rights through international organizations. In 1979, the last military president, João Figueiredo, declared a general amnesty that pardoned political prisoners and exiles (as well as those within the state who were guilty of torture, kidnapping, and murder). With the amnesty, Bezerra returned to Brazil, welcomed as a hero by many who admitted that, even if they did not agree with his ideas or beliefs, they respected his adherence to them; additionally, in spite of all he had been through in life, Bezerra never seemed to bear any anger or ill will towards the regimes or people who had mistreated him in the past, making him a more admirable figure in the eyes of many in Brazil.
Upon his return, Bezerra broke with the PCB, though he continued to proclaim himself a Marxist-Leninist. He instead supported the broader, coalition-like opposition party, the Partido Movimento Democrático Brasileiro [Brazilian Democratic Movement Party], even running once more for the Chamber of Deputies under the PMDB umbrella in 1982. Though he did not win outright election, he did win a position as a surrogate to the Congress, a sign of the respect he had gained over the years.
However, he never did serve in Congress directly again. In October 1983, Bezerra had a heart attack and passed away at the age of 83 – ironically, the very age he would have been had he been forced to complete his prison sentence from 1964. His body lay in state in the Legislative Assembly of Pernambuco, and thousands turned out to offer their final respects. Overall, he’d spent more than twenty-two years of his life in prison for his beliefs. Nonetheless, he remained famous for his generosity, his story-telling abilities, and his willingness to fight for the oppressed. Throughout his life, he spoke out on behalf of the poor, the exploited, and the young. Indeed, toward the end of his life, he said he wanted to be remembered as someone who “was a friend to children, to the poor and the excluded; loved and respected by the people, by the exploited and suffering masses; hated and feared by the capitalists, considered enemy number 1 by Fascist Dictatorships.” Given the time he spent in prison during right-wing regimes, and the support he received upon his return to Brazil and the respect he was afforded in death, it seems fair to say that, in those terms, his life was a success. And even if the revolution and equality Bezerra fought for never materialized in ways he hoped, his success in improving the lives of workers in cities and countryside alike and his impact on Brazilian politics in the twentieth century are undeniable.
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.”
I’ve been remiss in not getting to this sooner, but, after the death of Hugo Chávez, former Brazilian president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva published an editorial in the New York Times addressing not just the legacy of Chávez, but the future of politics of the left in Latin America. Lula is praiseworthy of Chávez’s efforts to address social inequalities in his country. He also speaks highly of Chávez’s efforts towards regional integration, saying it falls on the surviving leaders in South America to
consolidate the advances toward international unity achieved in the past decade. Those tasks have gained new importance now that we are without the help of Mr. Chávez’s boundless energy; his deep belief in the potential for the integration of the nations of Latin America; and his commitment to the social transformations needed to ameliorate the misery of his people.
In theory, regional integration sounds wonderful, especially given the historical economic context in which local elites and international capital collaborated to extract resources while gross socioeconomic inequalities continued and even worsened throughout the nineteenth and into the twentieth centuries. And certainly, having regional institutions like the Bank of the South to serve as a counter to the attempted hegemony of the World Bank and IMF is a good thing. However, one can’t help if the idea of the Union of South American Nations attempting to “move the continent toward the model of the European Union” seems like a more questionable goal, particularly in light of the European Union’s recent troubles. Certainly, that’s not to say the Union of South American Nations has to take that same path,
The piece also contains what seems to be an awareness, if not concern, over the ability to institutionalize Chávez’s reforms in his absence:
Mr. Chávez’s legacy in the realm of ideas will need further work if they are to become a reality in the messy world of politics, where ideas are debated and contested. A world without him will require other leaders to display the effort and force of will he did, so that his dreams will not be remembered only on paper.
To maintain his legacy, Mr. Chávez’s sympathizers in Venezuela have much work ahead of them to construct and strengthen democratic institutions. They will have to help make the political system more organic and transparent; to make political participation more accessible; to enhance dialogue with opposition parties; and to strengthen unions and civil society groups. Venezuelan unity, and the survival of Mr. Chávez’s hard-won achievements, will require this.
That other leaders will have to continue his legacies if the reforms are to remain in place is clear; whether or not they can is another question. Although Lula states the challenges simply and elegantly, it is clear that they are not insignificant, and include subtle digs on Chávez’s own government: in addition to needing to “strengthen unions and civil society groups,” Lula points to the need for Chávez’s successors to make politics “transparent” and “to enhance dialogue with opposition parties,” things that were not always present under Chávez. In other words, Lula is saying that so-called Chavismo has to adapt and transform in the absence of its leader, and that there is room for improvements in how governance with reforms can occur. These comments aren’t exactly uncritical of Chávez, and show the ways in which there were and are real disagreements in both policy and style between leaders of “the” left in Latin America.
If Lula’s criticisms were not yet fully clear, he makes them so in a thinly-veiled description/critique of Chávez that simultaneously serves as a reminder that discussion of “a” Latin American left is misguided:
One need not agree with everything Mr. Chávez said or did. There is no denying that he was a controversial, often polarizing, figure, one who never fled from debate and for whom no topic was taboo. I must admit I often felt that it would have been more prudent for Mr. Chávez not to have said all that he did. But this was a personal characteristic of his that should not, even from afar, discredit his qualities.
One might also disagree with Mr. Chávez’s ideology, and a political style that his critics viewed as autocratic. He did not make easy political choices and he never wavered in his decisions.
This comment precisely cuts directly to the reason why a talk of “the” Latin American left is so frustrating. Such characterizations of a singular left assumes such a uniformity in ideologies, practices, and tactics among leaders as to almost be insulting, treating Latin American leaders as generic, interchangeable pieces without any regard for distinctions in their personal ways of governing, to say nothing of the varying contexts of their nations, the issues facing their individual countries, or the pluralities in their electorates. Lula’s clear that Chávez’s outspoken methods were not necessarily the type he would adopt, and when he says that “one might also disagree with Mr. Chávez’s ideology,” it seems reasonable to suppose that Lula includes himself in that category (current president Dilma Rousseff herself also pointed out that Brazil didn’t always agree with Chávez). Leaders can share similar goals – greater inequality, economic growth, more democratic openings, etc. – without being of the same ideology. Lula’s aware of this fact; would that more North American media commentators were as well.
In some ways, starting a “history of the left” in Latin America with the election of Salvador Allende in 1970 (and his overthrow in 1973) makes some small amount of sense. With his election in 1970, Allende became the first socialist leader in the hemisphere to enter office through existing electoral structures. Allende himself hoped to show the world that a “peaceful path to socialism” was possible. While right-wing violence and the military coup and subsequent Pinochet dictatorship brought an end to that path, if your telos is to trace the roots of leftist leaders in office in Latin America up to the present, then Allende’s a reasonable place to start. [And we'll simply not worry about whether or not "left" is a useful category for people as diverse as Dilma Rousseff, Evo Morales, Rafael Correa, Tabaré Vázquez, Michele Bachelet, etc.]
However, the problem is that Allende was far from the first case of leftist politics and parties shaping societies and politics in Latin America. As the piece itself points out, it’s been 54 years since Fidel Castro successfully helped overthrow the Fulgencio Batista government in 1959, and 52 years since Castro himself turned towards socialism in 1961-1962 after the US made clear its opposition to his government no matter what the ideology. And Castro’s not the sole example. Even before Allende’s peaceful election (and violent overthrow), Jacobo Arbenz of Guatemala won popular election in 1950 running on a campaign that one could easily consider “left,” including land reform. While Arbenz, like Allende, ultimately fell victim in 1954 to a right-wing coup that enjoyed US support (though at least Arbenz, unlike Allende, survived the coup), his efforts certainly showed “the left” in power well before 1970. Even Allende himself had a political career that well predated 1970, having worked with the Popular Front in the 1930s and 1940s and previously running for president in 1952, 1958, and 1964 before finally winning in 1970. All this is to say that, if you want to look at a history of leftist leaders in national politics, you ought to start well before 1970.
And that’s only if one wants to focus on political elections or struggles (like the Guatemalan civil war or the Contra War in Nicaragua). However, leftism, politics, and society in Latin America have a much richer and broader history than a focus on elections and warfare imply. In the early-20th century, leftist ideologies began to proliferate among labor movements and the working classes in countries like Chile, Brazil, Argentina, and elsewhere. Syndicalism, anarchism, socialism, and communism all had activists and proponents advocating alternatives to the global capitalist relationships that workers felt exploited not just the working classes but Latin American countries themselves. Although the numbers of syndicalists, anarchists, socialists, and others often numbered only in the thousands, they were very effective in mobilizing: whether it was the 1907 nitrate workers’ strike in Iquique, Chile, that led to the Santa Maria School Massacre and shaped Chilean memory into the 21st century; the 1917 general strike in São Paulo that saw 20,000 people walk off their jobs and ultimately win rare concessions from factory owners; or periodic anarchist activism and strikes from the 1890s to the 1920s among workers in Buenos Aires, the impact of leftist politics and activism was evident throughout Latin America in the early-20th century. And that’s to say nothing of the progressive, if ideologically undefined, demands for land reform or labor reform in Mexico during the Mexican Revolution (1910-1920). And intellectuals like José Carlos Mariátegui in Peru and Luis Carlos Prestes in Brazil were early examples of intellectually adapting Marxism to Latin American contexts and to creating Latin American Communist Parties, respectively. While these parties often faced repression or illegality, that did not stop them from mobilizing, theorizing, and advocating alternatives to capitalism, be it openly or clandestinely. And all of these events, processes, and actions took place well before Allende’s election and Pinochet’s coup.
All of this is to say that, while the effort to look at a history of the left in Latin America is good, to start only 40 years ago or to focus only on political leaders is to overlook the very deep and important history of the left across a variety of social sectors in Latin America, privileging a relatively elite vision of politics and action that neglects the very real daily impacts and experiences of leftists throughout the 20th century.
With Hugo Chávez’s passing, some further remarks on issues facing Venezuela in the immediate future.
First, there will almost inevitably be some political bloviating that his death marks the “end of the left” in Latin America (primarily because such articles have appeared periodically for nearly a year). Suffice to say, such narratives will be as lazy as they are wrong. Though many of Chávez’s opponents in the US media have liked to portray him as the head of some uniform bloc of Latin American leaders, nothing could be further from the truth. Even while he had close allies in people like Ecuador’s Rafael Correa or Bolivia’s Evo Morales, both of those men were their own politicians with their own domestic backgrounds in their own countries, elected by their own electorates based on their own policies. The idea that they were pawns in some bizarre hemispheric chess match is absurd. While they may have sympathized with Chávez regularly, they have had their own agendas and their own methods of ruling, methods that have regularly demonstrated significant distinctions from Chávez. Though Chávez was a vocal individual, he was far from a ringleader or a commandant for others; as President Dilma Rousseff of Brazil (another of these allegedly-”left” countries, and no slouch in regional politics by any stretch of the imagination) put it, Brazil “did not always agree with Chávez.” Narratives that treat him as the leader of a monolithic left in Latin America will show nothing but the authors’ own ignorance of the region.
Second, the process for selecting the next president will be worth watching. According to the Venezuelan constitution, a new election must be held in the next thirty days. Vice President Nicolás Maduro, acting on Chávez’s behalf for the past few months, has certainly had a chance to learn the ropes, but the constant focus on Chávez’s health even in his own governmental declarations has not really shed light on how he might govern should he win the office, nor how capable he is of governing; and even if he wins the election, it is not clear if he will be able to maintain the support from a variety of groups that Chávez sustained.
And then there’s the opposition, which inevitably will hope to take advantage of this new opening, but which has been unable to really create a concrete platform that might appeal to the majority of Venezuelan voters. Indeed, whether the opposition can remain unified witout Chávez, who was the key component in bringing a heterogeneous group of voters together, remains to be seen. Certainly, it seems Maduro has a leg up on the opposition in this context, what with his ties to Chávez, his (brief) tenure as de facto president, the emotional appeal many Chávez supporters will feel in continuity with Maduro, and the brief amount of time the opposition has to try to organize a successful campaign. Either way, though, whoever follows Chávez in the longer-term is in many ways going to have to contend with Chávez’s ghost, a task that could prove particularly burdensome if the economy and social programs that oil has supported for so many years begin to deteriorate.
What role the military will play going forward is another matter looming over Venezuela’s immediate future. While Chávez was able to sow strong ties with and support from the military (due to his own military background), Maduro does not have such ties, nor is it clear whether any opposition figures who may seek office can find support among the military. Given how instrumental the military was in Chávez’s rise, especially in the early years, there is a real question of how the military will respond to this new context: whether it will sit on the sidelines or actively work to support a particular candidate remains to be seen, but it seems unlikely that it will be a silent actor in the process of succession or in the implementation of policies going forward.
Additionally, and perhaps somewhat tied to the outcome of the previous three points, we’ll finally get a sense of if Chávez’s reforms can and/or will be institutionalized, and how different groups (Maduro, the next president, the military, the public) might assert themselves in the process. In many ways, this is the crux of defining Chavismo; whether it was a movement that transformed society, or a movement that was defined in a man, will become apparent in Chávez’s absence.
As for portrayals of Chávez himself, they have tended to focus on the monolithic and the simplistic, thanks in no small part to his own efforts to appeal to a personalist populism-of-sorts, to say nothing of the way media focus on his health in the last year-plus added to the individualistic narrative that equated Chávez-as-Venezuela. That said, there’s no question he was a complicated figure, having effected some real improvements for many Venezuelans even while making some bad moves that could display a singular use of power against his opponents.
Simply put, Chávez was neither as terrible as his most strident detractors maintained, nor as perfect as his most ardent supporters insisted. Beyond that, only time will tell the long-term impacts Chávez’s fourteen years of governance, social reform, and international relations will have on Venezuela.
Apparently, Argo wasn’t the only stranger-than-fiction story of its kind. In Paraguay, former members of Argentina’s Ejército Revolucionario del Pueblo (People’s Revolutionary Army; ERP) hatched a similar plan to assassinate Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza Debayle. Anastasio was the third in a line of Somozas who had exercised dictatorial authority in Nicaragua since the early-1930s. By 1979, the Somoza family owned 20% of the soil in the country, and had practiced both widespread repression and corruption so grotesque as to defy any sense of decency. When a massive earthquake struck in 1972, destroying much of the capital city of Managua, Somoza pocketed much of the $250 million in foreign donations that came in to aid the country. Somoza quite literally profited off the blood of his subjects: among other things, he owned a blood plasma factory that paid the poor $1 for their plasma, then sold it to the US at a profit. These blatant abuses of power were too much for Nicaraguans to bear, and the middle class and elite joined the opposition Sandinistas who had formed in the early-1960s and who sought his overthrow. By 1979, even the US withdrew its support, and Somoza went into exile as the Sandinistas marched into Managua in July.
Which is where Paraguay’s own “Argo” enters into the story. After Jimmy Carter denied Somoza asylum, he headed to Paraguay, where General Alfredo Stroessner’s right-wing military regime governed. Outraged at the presence of this symbol of right-wing repression, corruption, and greed, according to archival materials four men and three women from the ERP pretended to be actors and producers working on a film about Julio Iglesias. Renting a house under the auspices of working on the “movie,” they plotted the assassination of Somoza. On September 17, they successfully carried out their plan, ambushing Somoza near his home and killing him. Paraguayan authorities managed to arrest only one of the seven, Santiago Irurzún, who died under torture. And so it was that one of the most infamous of 20th century dictators in Latin America died, and Paraguay was host to its own strange “Argo.”
Last Sunday, Ecuador elected Rafael Correa to a third term. The election wasn’t even close, as Correa finished with 56% of the total vote, 33% more than the runner-up, making him the first Ecuadoran president to avoid a runoff in consecutive elections. As Greg Weeks points out, Correa’s re-election was also a “boring” re-election, and for a country that’s witnessed plenty of tumult in electoral presidential politics in recent decades, that’s a good thing. Certainly, while much of the US media’s portrayal of him relies on problematic terms and descriptors, there are certainly legitimate criticisms of Correa in areas like indigenous rights and freedom of the press. Yet if Correa finishes his third (and allegedly final) term, he will be the longest-serving president in Ecuador’s history.
While anything could change in the next four years, there seems to be one subtle indicator that, at least for now, Correa may be sincere in his expression to leave office after this term. Unlike Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez (to whom Correa is often compared) Correa seems to be playing an active role in attempting to institutionalize the reforms of the “Citizens’ Revolution” that he has overseen in his first two governments, unlike Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez, to whom Correa is often compared. While the country is still heavily dependent on oil revenues to provide the socioeconomic reforms that have improved the lives of many Ecuadorans, his stated goal of diversifying government revenue through tariffs seems to suggest a possible path to continue generating revenue for social programs even in the (inevitable) even that oil prices drop. Likewise, improving infrastructure, increasing autonomy in energy production, and restricting imports while still encouraging private capital development within Ecuador are all a part of Correa’s apparent agenda to ensure that the reforms and social changes over the previous 6 years of his two terms can remain in place. Even the selection of a technocrat rather than a traditional politician as his new vice president suggests a shift to a concern with governance and institutionalization rather than of politicking and elections. Thus, in many ways, it seems that Correa is preparing Ecuador to continue and cement the social reforms begun under his presidency even after he is possibly out of office, something that his Venezuelan counterpart was slow to do, in turn ultimately reminding us that simple categorizations of Venezuela and Ecuador as part of some (falsely) monolithic “new left” really glosses over significant differences in government, governance, and style between them (and other countries in the region).
I was going to write on Mark Weisbrot’s recent piece on what has been accomplished during Hugo Chávez’s governance, but Erik beat me to the punch:
I don’t think there’s any doubt that Chavez not exactly an ideal guy for the left to be following. I’ve always thought his version of socialism was too much bombast and not enough good governance. Sticking your thumb in the United States’ eye may have value, but not as much as ensuring good trash pickup for poor people. Anyway, Mark Weisbrot has a pretty good overview, arguing that Chavez may have been able to be Chavez because of oil money (and outright US hostility that only strengthened his hand at home), but at least it went to improving the lives of the Venezuelan people and not into offshore bank accounts.
Like Chavez or not, but don’t deny that life for the average Venezuelan is almost certainly better than when he took power. And even if you think that’s entirely because of high oil prices, remember that corrupt leaders in the past siphoned the money into their own pockets and that Chavez’s enemies want an austerity program in the country that would fall entirely on the backs of the poor. Or for a current example of this, see Nigeria.
I agree with this. I have had my own questions about how much Chávez is “left,” but by any reasonable metric (i.e., neither those from sycophantic and uncritical Chávez supporters or rabid anti-Chávez opponents), it seems he has been able to truly change the face of society and work towards some degree of social equality in Venezuela. Whether or not those reforms can be institutionalized in a way that allows issues of equality and social justice to continue to improve in a post-Chávez scenario (which will happen sooner or later) remains to be seen.