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.