And Again, We Have to Ask: Who’s “Left” in Latin America?

I’ve written on the problem of defining/understanding what constitutes “left” in Latin America before. It’s an ongoing debate, in no small part because of the insistence of US media across a variety of political viewpoints to lump leaders as diverse as Brazil’s Dilma Rousseff and Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro, Argentina’s Cristina Fernández Kirchner and Bolivia’s Evo Morales, Chile’s Michele Bachelet and Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega, Ecuador’s Rafael Correa and (until recently) Uruguay’s Pepe Mujica, as some sort of singular, homogeneous “left.” The homogenization of these politicians is highly problematic for any number of practical, theoretical, or ideological reasons, not the least of which is how such visions disregard significant differences each leader has on social policies, economic policies, visions of the role of the state, and vision for society, even while they ignore the ways domestic histories and contexts have led these leaders down different paths.

Over at Latin America Goes Global, Christopher Sabatini tackles this issue yet again, from the actual political/ideological angle:

Quick: when you think of a leftist or progressive movement or the ideology generally, what do you think of? As someone who considers himself of the left, I think of greater state involvement in the economy to better re-distribute wealth and improve social safety nets; I think of support for minority groups and the disenfranchised; and I think of greater protections for social rights and groups.

Yet, in the countries many like to label leftist or socialist—President Nicolás Maduro’s Venezuela and President Rafael Correa’s Ecuador—only the first really applies, and in Venezuela, increasingly less so.

So, why do observers and the media continue to label Maduro or Correa leftists? I suppose it’s because those leaders themselves call themselves that. But let’s look at the facts.

He then looks at the records of leaders like Maduro and Correa when it comes to social arenas like indigenous rights, LGBTQ rights, and redistribution of wealth to improve the lives of the poor, he finds that, as far as leftism goes, Maduro, Correa, and Morales are….wanting.

Lost in all the facile labeling of Maduro and Correa as leftists is a simple fact: simply pumping money to the poor doesn’t make you socialist or even a leftist. It makes you a populist (and profligate).

A credible, ideological metric, though, never seems apply to Latin America. So as a result, anyone who declares themselves a socialist gets labeled so in popular media, despite that they exhibit none of the characteristics of the modern progressive left.   Have they championed the rights of minorities and excluded groups? Have they helped improve the lives of the poor in terms of security and sustainable social mobility?

No? No problem, as long as you declare yourself a socialist.

This is a very real problem, for failure to understand, or to take at face value, the ideological claims of Latin American politicians sets the stage not just for a grand misunderstanding of Latin American politics and societies (which is significant), but also for failure in any number of diplomatic, social, cultural, or economic spheres, due to the misunderstandings and mischaracterizations of Latin American politics.

Of course, complicit in these flawed narratives and understandings of politics, policy, and ideology is the frequent mis-portrayal of Latin American politicians and politics in much of the US media. Major outlets, be they print, television, or internet, accept that Maduro or Correa are “leftists” (or even “radical left”) because, well….because Maduro and Correa say so. There’s no real consideration of what it actually means to be “left;” rather, media portrayals of Latin American politicians so often accept such categorizations because they fit within the US’s own very narrow vision of a political spectrum, where the embrace of neoliberal policies like free trade combined with a limited program of social justice makes one a generalized “left,” while support for neoliberal policies like free trade combined with tax cuts makes one “right.” It’s all operating in a sphere in which neoliberalism dominates the political spectrum; while there are political voices outside of that spectrum in the population more generally, the media reflects the “beltway-bias” of political institutions in the US.

This isn’t just bashing on media narratives for the sake of complaining about a sometimes-easy target. It’s because these political representations of leaders, parties, and worldviews have a very real impact not just on understandings of the Lefts (rather than a singular “Left”) in Latin America, but of politics of the center and right, too. The fact that the US media can repeatedly refer to parties like Brazil’s PSDB (Partido Social Democrático Brasileiro, Brazilian Social Democratic Party) as “center-left” because it has the words “Social Democrat” in it is to disregard its platform that favors neoliberalism, free trade, tax cuts, cuts to social programs, and more recently, a reduction of the age of criminal responsibility from 18 to 16, which would have a devastating impact on vulnerable youths. Why do so many outlets see the PSDB as “center-left,” when, by any thorough metric, its policies lean right? Because since its formation in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the PSDB has claimed it is center-left, and too many, both in the US and elsewhere, accepted that claim without further consideration. Just as they do with Maduro when he claims he’s socialist.

Sabatini’s argument that we need to be more critical to those who characterize themselves as “left” is true, but it’s not limited to just them. Without a broader critical consideration of the actual policies that political leaders and political parties implement, the ability to actually understand not just Latin American politics or society, but politics and social relations more generally, will not just be wanting; it will be fatally flawed.

Posted in Latin American Politics, The "Left" in Latin America, The "Right" in Latin America

Get to Know a Brazilian – Ivens Marchetti

This is part of an ongoing series. Previous entries can be found here.

As we continue our look at the lives of the fifteen political prisoners exchanged for US ambassador Charles Elbrick, whom armed leftist groups took hostage in September 1969, we turn to Ivens Marchetti.

It is difficult to find much about Marchetti’s youth and the first decades of his life. By the early 1960s, he was an architect and was active in the Partido Comunista Brasileiro (PCB). He was also active in trying to address issues of social justice in urban centers, working in the favela of Rocinha, in Rio de Janeiro, where he saw the face of urban inequality in Brazil up close. With the coup of 1964, Marchetti, like many other members of the PCB, was caught up in the internal factionalism and fragmentation of the PCB, and like Onofre Pinto, João Leonardo da Rocha Silva, and others, he ended up joining a splinter group that came to be known as the Dissidência Comunista of Niterói, the large city that sat opposite Rio de Janeiro on Guanabara Bay. Early on, the Dissidências operated on university campuses, where they hoped to effect political revolution. However, by the end of 1968, as Brazil’s military entered its most repressive phase, the Dissidências turned away from political militancy and toward the armed struggle.

With this turn to the armed struggle, Marchetti’s group launched a failed attempt to establish a foco guerrilla movement in the southern state of Paraná. The foco theory of revolution drew heavily on the example of the Cuban Revolution and of the theoretical writings of Ché Guevara. Foquismo, as it is called in Portuguese, argued that small revolutionary groups operating in rural areas can strike rapidly, weakening repressive governments even while building broader connections with peasants and other people, ultimately sparking a general insurrection that could topple governments. At its best, Ché’s theory overstated the importance of guerrilla groups in Cuba while neglecting the role that a rural proletariat, urban university students, and others discontent with the repressive regime of Fulgencio Batista, played in the Cuban Revolution. Nonetheless, foquismo proved to be influential in Brazil in both the cities and the countryside, perhaps most famously in the failed Araguaia campaign.

Thus, Marchetti’s involvement in a foco in Paraná was part of a broader turn to armed struggle to try to topple Brazil’s military regime. Such efforts were not just limited to pockets of armed resistance; they also relied on “Expropriations Commands” in the cities, with armed members of the Dissidência or other opposition groups targeting banks, taking their money and “expropriating” it for the armed struggle in Paraná. Ultiamtely, hwoever, the Paraná foco, like other focos, ultimately fell, and military forces arrested Marchetti in April of 1969.

While imprisoned, the military subjected Marchetti to brutal forms of torture. In reports compiled for the Brasil: Nunca Mais (Brazil: Never Again) report, Marchetti was subjected to electrical shocks to his genitals and head, including while he was hung upside down. He also endured beatings and was subjected to the parrot’s perch, a favored mechanism for the regime to torture people physically. In addition to going through this torture, Marchetti was displayed to other prisoners while being tortured, with the other prisoners being told that if they did not provide information, they would end up in the same position as Marchetti.

 

The Pau de Arara (Parrot's Perch), a form of torture that exposed bodies to increasing pain and disorientation, even while the military deployed other forms of torture (including burning, simulated drowning, beatings, and electrical shocks) to political prisoners while they hung from the perch.

The Pau de Arara (Parrot’s Perch), a form of torture that exposed bodies to increasing pain and disorientation, even while the military deployed other forms of torture (including burning, simulated drowning, beatings, and electrical shocks) to political prisoners while they hung from the perch.

 

Although the military had virtually wiped out the initial members of the MR-8, as the Dissidência came to be known (based on the title of the group’s journal/pamphlets) by the middle of 1969, some of those leftists who were involved in the kidnapping of Elbrick decided to adopt the name themselves in an effort to show the regime, and the Brazilian public, that the MR-8 had not been, and could not be, so easily dispatched. Given his role in the first wave of the “MR-8,” Marchetti’s name ended up on the list of 15 political prisoners to be released in exchange for Elbrick.

 

Thirteen of the fifteen political prisoners released into exile in exchange for US ambassador Charles Elbrick in 1969. Ivens Marchetti is kneeling in the front row, second from the right.

Thirteen of the fifteen political prisoners released into exile in exchange for US ambassador Charles Elbrick in 1969. Ivens Marchetti is kneeling in the front row, second from the right.

Because of his training as an architect, upon arriving in Mexico, Marchetti immediately received “guaranteed” job offers to work in Mexico, which he said he would do when he had the “psychological conditions” to work again. Ultimately, Marchetti went to Cuba with the majority of the other political prisoners, before he relocated to Chile, where Salvador Allende was attempting the “peaceful path to Socialism” through electoral politics. Like so many other exiled Brazilians who hoped to be part of revolutionary social transformation in Chile, with the military coup of 1973 that installed the Pinochet regime, Marchetti was once arrested and imprisoned, this time in Chile, before again going into exile. Marchetti ended up spending most of his exile in Stockholm, Sweden, before returning to Brazil with the general amnesty of 1979. Ultimately, Marchetti lived until 2002, when he died of cancer. Although Marchetti survived the dictatorship, he did not live to see a renewed interest in, and examination of, the events behind the kidnapping of Elbrick. Unfortunately, this meant that his voice was not and could not be included in documentaries like Hércules 56, which interviewed both the surviving political prisoners and many of the leftists who participated in the kidnapping of Elbrick. For this reason alone, less is known of his life than of other prisoners; nonetheless, his story and legacy live on not just in the events of 1969, but in the memory of the regime’s use of torture and repression.

Posted in Brazil, Brazil's Military Dictatorship, Get to Know a Brazilian, Guerrilla Movements in Latin America, Human Rights Violations, Torture

Get to Know a Brazilian – João Leonardo da Silva Rocha,

This is part of an ongoing series. Previous entries can be found here.

This week, we look at João Leonardo da Silva Rocha, the sixth of fifteen political prisoners who were exchanged for US Ambassador Charles Elbrick in 1969, in the midst of the most repressive phase of Brazil’s military dictatorship.

João Leonardo da Silva Rocha was born in Salvador, Bahia. While his family moved to Amargosa, a small town near the interior, where he completed his primary schooling, he returned to Salvador to complete his secondary schooling. He then studied at the catholic Seminary of Aracaju in the small neighboring state of Sergipe until 1957. He then went on to work at the Banco do Brasil in the small town of Alagoinhas (also in Bahia), where he also taught Portuguese and Latin. By 1962, João Leonardo relocated to São Paulo, where he continued to work as an employee for Banco do Brasil even while giving classes to workers in the industrial “ABC” area. [The “ABC” region of São Paulo bordered (and eventually bled into) the city of São Paulo, and it was where many of the factories and industrial centers were. It received its name because it was made up of the cities of Santo Andre, São Bernardo, and São Caetano.] Even while teaching, João Leonardo was also a student, enrolling in the Largo de São Francisco Law School, part of the University of São Paulo system, where he also was director for the Student House, a low-cost residence for students at the law school.

With the military regime’s coup in 1964, João Leonardo, building on his experiences living in the impoverished Northeast and in teaching the industrial working class in São Paulo, further radicalized. A part of the Leninist Partido Comunista Brasileiro (Brazilian Communist Party, PCB), he ended up being one of the key figures in the PCB’s internal struggles over direction and ideology in the context of military dictatorship.  Ultimately, João Leonardo was one of the early members of the dissident the Ação Libertadora Nacional (National Liberating Action, ALN) that split off from the PCB, one of the numerous lefts emerging in Brazil in the context of military rule.

As a member of the ALN, João Leonardo participated in a number of armed actions, even while he continued teaching. Because of his activity in the urban armed struggle against the regime, the military arrested João Leonardo in January 1969 and charged him with participating in the ALN’s Tactical Armed Group. While they charged him with armed robbery, the military also suspected Leonardo of being involved with the assassination of US Major Charles Chandler. A West Point graduate, Chandler was studying sociology in São Paulo, but armed radical leftist groups in Brazil also believed him to be an operative for the CIA, working with the repressive regime (the CIA and the US had long been attached to Brazil’s military regime, even before the military took power in 1964). Thus, the ALN and the Popular Revolutionary Vanguard selected Chandler as a target in the broader anti-imperialist and anti-dictatorship ideological struggle, killing him as he left home on October 12, 1968. While the military charged Leonardo with involvement in Chandler’s execution, based on evidence gathered in Brazil’s Truth Commission, Leonardo did not seem to be directly involved in the assassination. Nonetheless, his affiliation with the armed made him another target for, and victim of, the military’s use of torture.

Charles Chandler, an army captain studying in Brazil. Brazilian leftist groups believed Chandler to be working with the CIA, and in a symbolic action against both the Brazilian dictatorship and its ties to the US, Chandler was assassinated in 1968.

Charles Chandler, an army captain studying in Brazil. Brazilian leftist groups believed Chandler to be working with the CIA, and in a symbolic action against both the Brazilian dictatorship and its ties to the US, Chandler was assassinated in 1968.

As was the case with the other political prisoners released in exchange for US ambassador Charles Elbrick in September 1969, João Leonardo went into exile first in Mexico, before continuing on to Cuba, where most of the fifteen freed political prisoners went. While receiving guerrilla training in Cuba, As was the case with the other political prisoners released in exchange for US ambassador Charles Elbrick in September 1969, João Leonardo also became a member of the Movimento de Libertação Popular (Movement of Popular Liberation, MOLIPO), a dissident offshoot of the ALN.

Thirteen of the fifteen political prisoners released into exile in exchange for US ambassador Charles Elbrick in 1969. João Leonardo da Silva Rocha is kneeling on the far left in the first row.

Thirteen of the fifteen political prisoners released into exile in exchange for US ambassador Charles Elbrick in 1969. João Leonardo da Silva Rocha is kneeling on the far left in the first row.

As was the case with the other political prisoners released in exchange for US ambassador Charles Elbrick in September 1969, João Leonardo went into exile first in Mexico, and then on to Cuba with most of the others. While receiving guerrilla training in Cuba, João Leonardo also became a member of the Movimento de Libertação Popular (Movement of Popular Liberation, Molipo), a dissident offshoot of the ALN. While the military regime portrayed its opponents as a single “left,” in reality, there were many “lefts” that split along ideological, tactical, and strategic lines. This resulted in numerous small, leftist groups, ranging from the ALN and the VPR to the Movimento Revolucionário – 8 de Outubro (MR-8) and Molipo, among many others.

João Leonardo was one of the first ex-political prisoners to return to Brazil. In 1971, he settled in São Vicente in the dry interior of the northeastern state of Pernambuco near the border of neighboring state Paraíba. Working as a farmer, João Leonardo shaved his head and adopted the pseudonym of Zé Careca (“Bald Zé,” with Zé being a shortened nickname of “José”). He spent much of 1971 and 1972 trying to establish grassroots support for Molipo in the rural areas of the interior. However, a mixture of limited successes, together with the suspicion that Brazil’s security apparatuses had begun monitoring his activity, João Leonardo relocated to the interior of his native state of Bahia.

Like Onofre Pinto, João Leonardo da Silva Rocha was one of the fifteen who did not live to see the end of the military dictatorship. The military cracked down on Molipo in both Bahia and Goiás, and João Leonardo was one of the few to survive this initial onslaught. However, his luck would run out. In what remain mysterious and unclear circumstances, João Leonardo fell into the hands of the Military Police in Palmas de Monte Alba, Bahia, and the military police extrajudicially executed him for opposing the regime on November 4, 1975. Like Onofre Pinto, the military then secretly disposed of (or destroyed) João Leonardo’s remains. Truth Commission testimony suggests that he was buried in an unmarked grave in a cemetery, but his remains have yet to be found. Although João Leonardo never had any children, his surviving brother has offered his own DNA so that testing may occur in the event a body is discovered in the cemetery. However, to date, the fate of Although João Leonardo never had any children, his surviving brother has offered his own DNA so that testing may occur in the event a body is discovered in the cemetery. However, to date, the circumstances of João Leonardo’s death, and the location of his body, remain unknown, rendering him not just one of the victims of the military regime, but one of Brazil’s 434 (documented) cases of “disappearance” and, alongside Onofre Pinto, the only two political prisoners freed in 1969 whom the military regime executed and “disappeared.”

Posted in Brazil, Brazil's Military Dictatorship, Human Rights Violations, Latin American Politics, The "Disappeared", The "Left" in Latin America

Get to Know a Brazilian – Onofre Pinto

This is part of an ongoing series. Previous entries can be found here.

Continuing the series looking at the fifteen political prisoners released in exchange for US Ambassador Charles Elbrick in 1969, this week we focus on the life of Onofre Pinto.

Onofre Pinto was born in Jacupiranga, a municipality in the southern part of the state of São Paulo, in 1937. It is difficult to find out much about his early years; what is known is that, after studying accounting, Pinto enlisted in the Army, where he rose to the rank of Sergeant. However, even while serving in the military, he became more radicalized. By the time he was 27, Onofre Pinto was one of the leaders in São Paulo of the “Sergeants’ Revolt.” Across late 1963 and early 1964, sergeants in the military demanded the right to be able to be elected to public office. High-ranking officials in the military saw the sergeants’ demand as undermining the very principle of hierarchy and command in the armed forces, and when president João Goulart sided with the sergeants in late March of 1964, it proved to be one of the final straws for the military, which soon overthrew Goulart and ushered in the twenty-one year military dictatorship.

Onofre Pinto, while still a member of the Brazilian Army.

Onofre Pinto, while still a member of the Brazilian Army.

Because of his role in the Sergeants’ Revolt, the military was quick to punish Onofre Pinto after taking power on April 1, 1964. Based on the Institutional Act No. 1 (Ato Institucional No. 1, AI-1), the military stripped Onofre Pinto of his political rights for 10 years. By the end of 1964, Onofre Pinto was also in prison.

However, Onofre Pinto’s time in prison did not last long, and once he was free, he returned to political activism, now challenging the new military regime. He soon joined the Movimento Nacionalista Revolucionário (Nationalist Revolutionary Movement, MNR), one of a number of nascent leftist groups that challenged the military regime. By 1967, as the MNR fell apart, Onofre Pinto became a founding member of the Vanguarda Popular Revolucionária (Popular Revolutionary Vanguard, VPR), alongside Carlos Lamarca, an ex-captain from the Brazilian Army who deserted and joined the fight against the military regime. The VPR sought to replace the right-wing military regime with a socialist government and society in Brazil.

Thirteen of the fifteen political prisoners released into exile in exchange for US ambassador Charles Elbrick in 1969. Onofre Pinto is in the back, fourth from left.

Thirteen of the fifteen political prisoners released into exile in exchange for US ambassador Charles Elbrick in 1969. Onofre Pinto is in the back, fourth from left.

As with most of the political prisoners released in September 1969, Onofre Pinto was a victim of the new wave of repression that the Institutional Act No. 5 (AI-5) had ushered in at the end of 1968. On March 2, 1969, agents from the Departamento de Ordem Político e Social (Department of Political and Social Order, DOPS) arrested him on the charge of participating in armed actions against the regime. Pinto remained imprisoned until September, when his name was on the list of political prisoners to be released in exchange for Elbrick.

After going from Brazil to Mexico to Cuba, and then to Europe, Pinto returned to South America where, like so many other exiles, he relocated to Chile while Salvador Allende was working to create a “peaceful path to socialism.” Shortly before the Chilean coup of September 11, 1973, Pinto relocated to Argentina, where he organized a group of militants from the VPR, training for another guerrilla campaign against Brazil’s military regime. However, the military had been closely monitoring the VPR, including arresting and executing six VPR militants in the northeastern state of Pernambuco in 1973. Seemingly unbeknownst to Onofre Pinto, by that point, Brazil’s security apparatus had been intensely monitoring leftist groups, including the VPR. In this effort, the military was aided in no small part by individuals like “Cabo” José Anselmo dos Santos, a marine who (ironically) had also challenged the military hierarchy in late March 1964 as part of a movement that demanded better conditions for the Marines and political reforms, yet who by the early 1970s had become an informant for the military regime.

Continuing to plan for a rural guerrilla movement that could challenge the military regime, in July 1974, Onofre Pinto and several other colleagues left Buenos Aires, where they had been operating, and eventually crossed the border into Brazil in order to begin their efforts. However, security apparatuses became aware of Pinto’s return and his plans for continuing the fight against the regime.

In July of 1974, Onofre Pinto was captured near Foz do Iguaçu in the state of Paraná. According to the findings of Brazil’s Truth Commission, Pinto remained at the base of operations while five others went on a mission, where the military ambushed and killed them. Although Onofre Pinto realized something had gone wrong, the military managed to capture him and imprisoned, tortured, and executed Onofre Pinto. Upon his murder, the military discarded (or destroyed) Onofre Pinto’s body in an unknown fashion/location. Ultimately, his body was never located, making him one of the over-400 “disappeared” in Brazil during the military regime, and one of the political prisoners released in 1969 who did not live to see the end of the military regime in 1985.

Posted in Brazil, Brazil's Military Dictatorship, Get to Know a Brazilian, Human Rights Violations

LASA 2015

I will be traveling to the Latin American Studies Association for the remainder of the week, where I will be presenting on the 2013 Brazilian protests in a historical context. However, given conference duties, blogging may be a bit light. I will do my best, and there will be another entry in “Get to Know a Brazilian” on Sunday as usual.

Posted in Uncategorized

Get to Know a Brazilian – Rolando Frati

This is part of an ongoing series. Previous entries can be found here.

The most recent entries in this series had looked at three of the fifteen political prisoners – Maria Augusta Carneiro Ribeiro, José Ibrahim, and Gregorio Bezerra – whom the Brazilian military regime (reluctantly) released in exchange for US Ambassador Charles Elbrick in 1969. In September of that year, a small number of leftists from the Aliança Libertadora Nacional (National Liberation Alliance, ALN) and the Movimento Revolucionário 8 de Outubro (October 8 Revolutionary Movement, MR-8, so named in honor of the date Bolivian forces with US aid captured Ché Guevara in 1967) acted upon the plans of Vera Silvia Magalhães and her colleagues to kidnap the US ambassador to Brazil, Charles Elbrick.

The kidnapping occurred amidst a context of growing repression in Brazil. Popular mobilizations in 1968 had led hundreds of thousands of Brazilians, led by students, to take to the streets to protest against the repression and lack of democracy under the regime. By the end of the year, the military issued Ato Institucional No. 5 (Institutional Act 5, AI-5), using as a pretext Congress’s refusal to strip opposition politician Márcio Moreira Alves of his immunity from prosecution in the wake of a speech Alves gave critiquing the regime. Among other things, AI-5 intensified repression, closed Congress indefinitely, and provided the military the opening to go after opposition even more fiercely, ushering in the “years of lead” of 1969-1974.

It was in this context of repression that the kidnapping of Elbrick occurred. The kidnapping marked the first time an ambassador anywhere in the world had been kidnapped. The ALN and MR-8 promised to free Elbrick in return for the release of 15 political prisoners and the reading/publication of a manifesto across the (heavily-censored and, in some cases, pro-dictatorship) Brazilian print and mass media. What the ALN and MR-8 did not know (because the military kept it secret) was that president Artur Costa e Silva had been rendered incapacitated by a stroke at the end of August, leaving a temporary vacuum in the military government. The regime’s top military leaders, uncertain what to do with a debilitated president, split over whether or not to release the political prisoners, who ranged from labor leaders to student leaders to Leninist-Communists; some suggested meeting the demands of the ALN and MR-8, while hardliners suggested letting Elbrick die. Ultimately, the hardliners lost out, and in spite of an attempt to prevent the release of the prisoners, fifteen people ultimately left Brazil, and Elbrick was released.

Thirteen of the fifteen political prisoners released into exile in exchange for US ambassador Charles Elbrick in 1969. José Ibrahim, a labor leader who was one of the 15 on the Hercules 56 flight (you can see the number on the plane in the top-left), stands in the second row, third from left.

Thirteen of the fifteen political prisoners released into exile in exchange for US ambassador Charles Elbrick in 1969. Rolando Frati, one of the 15 on the Hercules 56 flight (you can see the number on the plane in the top-left), stands in the second row on the far right.

Rolando Frati (sometimes spelled “Fratti”) was among those fifteen released. Frati was born in 1912 to a family of Italian immigrants in São Paulo. From his birth, he was raised in an environment of political activism – members of his family were active anarchists in the labor movement. This was not some meaningless phrase in the early 20th century. Anarchists, often bringing labor demands and mobilizing tactics with them as they immigrated from Italy and Spain to São Paulo, played a key part in helping establish labor organizations in the burgeoning industrial areas around São Paulo in the first decade of the 1900s. These activists simultaneously advocated workers fostering self-reliance as a class, even while challenging the industrial elites of São Paulo. The result was growing labor mobilization in the 1910s, culminating in (but not ending with) the São Paulo General Strike of 1917, when tens of thousands of workers managed to bring the city and neighboring areas of São Caetano, São Bernardo, and other industrial neighborhoods, to a grinding halt. Though anarchist activists, including Frati’s grandfather and father, were far from the only agents in this movement, they played a key role in organizing the working class along class-based interests and in opposition to the capitalism that benefited the industrial elites.

With this background, Frati became politically engaged from a very young age. In 1937, just as Getúlio Vargas was ushering in the Estado Novo, Frati, already at age 25 the president of the Civil Construction Workers’ Union in São Paulo, joined the Marxist-Leninist Partido Comunista Brasileiro (Brazilian Communist Party, PCB). Despite Vargas’s crackdown on communists during the Estado Novo, Frati continued his efforts for workers’ rights and challenged capitalism; by 1941, he was the secretary of the now-illegal and clandestine PCB, and by the 1950s, when Brazil had entered its Second Republic, he was serving on the PCB’s Central Committee, a position that led him to spend time in the Soviet Union in 1953-1954. His arrival in the USSR came at a momentous period, as Stalin died in 1953 and the country entered the earliest stages of de-Stalinization. The result was that, when Frati returned to Brazil in 1954, he had become anti-Stalinist even while maintaining his involvement with the PCB.

Rolando Frati (far right), with other key labor leaders in Santo Andre in 1945.

Rolando Frati (far right), with other key labor leaders in Santo Andre in 1945.

With the military coup of 1964, Frati once again found himself living in a political regime that openly repressed leftists. Frati avoided the immediate arrest that Gregorio Bezerra endured. At the same time, with the coup, the PCB saw growing internal dissent between the traditional Marxist-Leninists and those seeking new avenues to and models for revolution. Frati joined Carlos Marighella in these struggles and helped form the Agrupamento Comunista de São Paulo (Communist Group of São Paulo), which later changed its name to the Aliança Libertadora Nacional, a move that led to the PCB expelling Frati from its ranks in 1967.

Although no longer a member of the PCB, he remained a communist and thus a target for the military regime. In the climate of dramatically intensified repression in early 1969, the military regime arrested Frati, marking the twelfth time in his life he’d been imprisoned for his political beliefs. The repressive apparatus the Departamento de Ordem Politico e Social (Department of Political and Social Order, DOPS) held him incommunicado for over three months and denied gun legal or medical attention. It was Frati’s role as a member of the ALN that ultimately led to his name being included on the list of fifteen political prisoners to be released in exchange for Ambassador Elbrick. Frati was exceptional, as he was one of only two old-school Communists on the list and the second-oldest (behind only Gregorio Bezerra).

Upon their release, the political prisoners left Mexico for Cuba, where they met with Fidel Castro. [Rolando Frati is seated at the top-right, opposite Fidel.]

Upon their release, the political prisoners left Mexico for Cuba, where they met with Fidel Castro. [Rolando Frati is seated at the top-right, opposite Fidel.]

 With the remaining prisoners, he went into exile first in Mexico, and then on to Cuba, where he began to organize the Leninist Tendency of the ALN. From Cuba, he, like many other Brazilian exiles, headed to Chile in order to participate in the peaceful path to socialism under Salvador Allende. With the military coup in Chile in 1973, Frati once again was forced into exile, ultimately settling in Italy.

While in exile in Italy, Frati became familiar with, and more closely aligned himself with, the principles of Eurocommunism, which pushed for social transformation but in a more independent fashion than past models of relying on other communist (and especially Soviet) models, support, and guidance. He spent his time in exile traveling throughout Europe, giving talks about the military regime and repression in Brazil. In Rome, Frati also spoke before the Russell Tribunal, the private war-crimes tribunal that British Philosopher Bertrand Russell had organized. The Russell Tribunal originally formed in 1966 to consider the depth of allegations of US actions and war crimes in the Vietnam War, publishing its results in 1967. While lacking any real prosecutorial power, the Tribunal nonetheless helped make public the consequences of US foreign policy in Vietnam. In 1973, the Tribunal reconvened to consider and take testimony from South American exiles on allegations of torture in military regimes like that of Chile’s Augusto Pinochet, who had recently come to power, as well as of allegations of torture in Brazil. Frati appeared before the tribunal, detailing the degree of violations of legal and human rights in Brazil. He detailed the ways in which officers tortured him via beatings, simulated drownings, and electrical shocks to “my big toes, ears, and penis.” As for the physical and psychological effects of the torture, Frati testified that “The electric instrument used besides producing burnings, causes also a short-circuit which gives the prisoner a feeling that he’s undergoing a complete disintegration.” Frati’s testimony also highlighted the collusion of medical doctors with the military regime, as doctors were on hand to ensure that the torture did not last so long as to actually kill the victims.¹

In 1979, with the military regime pronouncing a general amnesty, Frati returned to Brazil. Dismayed by the regime’s crackdown not only on leftist guerrilla organizations like the ALN and MR-8, but even on leftist groups that advocated against the use of violence, like the PCB, Frati tried to help reconstitute leftist opposition in Brazil. Drawing on his background as a labor leader, he helped with union organizing and activism. With the death of Bezerra in 1983, Frati became one of the few living elder statesmen of leftist struggle and labor activism in Brazil, and he continued to speak out about the history of the left, of labor, and of socioeconomic inequality in Brazil. Frati died of natural causes at the age of 79 in 1991. While not the most celebrated of either the political prisoners or the early generations of Communists in Brazil, for his mere durability and grassroots contributions to the establishment of leftist alternatives and labor rights, Frati remains an important, if oft-overlooked, political and labor figure in Brazil and an important contributor to the fight against Brazil’s military regime both at home and in the international arena.

¹Torture in Brazil: Testimony Given to the Rome Session of the Russell Tribunal on Repression in Latin America, 1976, pp. 3-4.

Posted in Brazil, Brazil's Military Dictatorship, Get to Know a Brazilian

Today in Quixotic Endeavors

Angry at the administration of Dilma Rousseff, at a corruption (that crosses both the PSDB and PT years), and at the PT government more generally, some Brazilian activists have decided to march 600 miles in support of “free markets, lower taxes, and privatization.”

It’s difficult to say what’s more risible here. Is it their desire to draw on the role model of the bandeirantes who expanded into Brazil’s interior in the 1700s at the expense of indigenous peoples? (Sure, one of the activists admits that the bandeirantes were “not a great example in terms of human rights,” but to be fair, given the right’s support for the military regime and for police policies that targeted the urban poor, this seems to be a feature, not a bug.) Is it their desire to march inland, where many of the impoverished Brazilians who have benefited from the social policies of the PT and who likely remember the catastrophic impact of neoliberalism on their lives in the 1980s and 1990s (and thus are likely to be unsympathetic to the cause) live? Is it in their highlighting of such political US titans like Rand Paul? Is it their raising the ghost of Margaret Thatcher? Is it the comparison of the March to the Lord of the Rings? Let’s call it a wash – it’s all rather odd and absurd political theater.

Admittedly, Brazil is in the midst of a massive corruption scandal centering on the state-run Petrobras, the damaging effects of neoliberal policies from the 1980s and 1990s are still recent enough in many Brazilians’ memories that appeals to less regulation and more privatization are unlikely to resonate widely. And by relying on with white colonizers from 300 years ago, Rand Paul, and the ghost of Margaret Thatcher as your role models, the activists are really just showing how bereft Brazil is of any intellectual heft for a serious politically right-leaning leader. That said, the activists do (humorously) show the intellectual bankruptcy of original solutions or ideas and the dogmatic partisanship of at least parts of the middle- and upper-classes.

Posted in Brazil, The "Right" in Latin America