One of the key moments in diplomatic history and in Brazilian history was the 1969 kidnapping of US ambassador Charles Elbrick. Living in the midst of a repressive dictatorship, a handful of students involved in the Revolutionary Movement October 8 (MR-8), with aid from the National Liberation Action (ANL), two leftist organizations who resisted military rule, decided to launch a daring plan: they would kidnap the US ambassador, a symbol of what they perceived as US imperialism in Latin America, and demand that the military regime release fifteen political prisoners and publicly release a manifesto the MR-8 had written. If their demands were not met, they said, they would kill Elbrick. The MR-8 provided a list of its 15 prisoners, including student activists, labor leaders, and lifelong members of the pro-Moscow Brazilian Communist Party (PCB). After much internal disagreement within the armed forces, the military agreed to accede to the demands; the regime released fifteen political prisoners, who were sent to Mexico and then on to Cuba. For its part, the MR-8, true to its word, released Elbrick.
The entire episode was transformative. It had been the first time any ambassador had been taken hostage in the modern world, and other groups both in Brazil and elsewhere in the world began to use similar tactics to make demands in what were often repressive regimes. Several of the members of MR-8 behind the action themselves were eventually caught and tortured (and at least two from the ANL died under torture); they, too were ultimately released when other leftists kidnapped West German ambassador Ehrenfried von Holleben in 1970. As for Elbrick, he returned to the US and, in his later years, forgave and spoke kindly of the youth who held him captive for 78 hours.
But what of the original fifteen political prisoners released in 1969? What happened to them after the events of early September, 1969? We will spend the coming weeks tracing their lives. A few weeks ago, we focused on one of those individuals, Maria Augusta Carneiro Ribeiro, the only woman among the 15 political prisoners released. Across the rest of the summer, we’ll look at the other fourteen people who were brought together on that fateful flight, the events that led them there, and the divergent paths they took after their exile in 1969. Today we begin with José Ibrahim.
José Ibrahim was born in the industrial city of Osasco, São Paulo, in 1946. His father, of Arabic ancestry, worked as a traveling salesman, and as a child, José often accompanied his father on trips. Like many working-class children, José received some education but did not end up attending university; indeed, by the early 1960s, Brazil had just over 100,000 university students in a country of over 70 million people. Thus, like many of his socioeconomic background, José’s education hinged on vocational training to prepare him for his own career as a blue-collar worker. Already at 14, José began working for COBRASMA, a privately owned company that manufactured materials for Brazil’s rail network. he also became active politically, joining the Juventude Operária Católica (Catholic Workers Youth; JOC) and later the Leninist Partido Comunista Brasileiro (Brazilian Communist Party), as well as in UBES, the secondary students’ movement. Although barely 21, in 1967 he already had several years’ experience of factory work, and, in spite of his youth, his colleagues elected him the president of the Metalworkers’ Union of Osasco.
The following year, José would become a national figure in the struggle against the military dictatorship. Though there had been voices of dissent and protest that challenged the military regime since 1964, by 1968, such criticisms were rapidly intensifying as hundreds of thousands of students were taking to the streets to demand democracy, often joined by parents, opposition politicians, musicians, artists, and others. However, the students were not alone. Workers themselves had increasingly been making their voices heard, joining in protests and marching in the streets. In July, well over 3000 industrial workers occupied a factory in Osasco and went on strike; it was only the second time since 1964 that the working class had mobilized on such a scale and in such a politicized fashion, and it was the biggest workers’ strike yet (the first, at Contagem in May of 1968, had fewer workers). As the president of the Union, José Ibrahim was at the forefront of the action, which, far from being spontaneous, was thought out and planned down to the slightest detail. The military regime, already losing control over the middle-class university students who were supposed to be the engine of national development, cracked down on the workers, invading the factory and arresting hundreds. Though José was not among those arrested, he had to go into clandestinity, constantly on the move throughout the rest of 1968. In spite of the military breaking the strike, however, José felt it to be a victory both politically and morally, as it showed that workers could still unify and mobilize even under conditions of repression, and it marked the first time that Brazilian workers had occupied their factories, and factory production continued to be paralyzed throughout much of 1968.
Though José went underground, by the end of 1968, Brazil had entered a new phase of repression, and the state security apparatuses were out to arrest anybody suspected of any form of “subversion”; given his role in Osasco, that included José , and in February 1969, the police caught him where he was staying. Even before they could get him to prison, they began torturing him, trying to find out anybody else he knew and exacting “revenge” on him for his actions the previous year. He was then taken to prison, where he continued to suffer torture at the hands of state agents. He remained imprisoned for seven months, until the kidnapping of Charles Elbrick. Given his role as a labor leader and his status in the wake of the Osasco strike, José was included on the list of the fifteen political prisoners to be released, a fact he heard on the radio that he had smuggled into his prison cell and hidden from officials. The plane, Hercules 56 (named for the model of plane, and the number), landed in Mexico, where the exiles arrived to much fanfare and international attention; after all, the kidnapping of an ambassador had never been attempted before, and that it was the US ambassador made the story resonate throughout much of the world.
After a brief time in Mexico, most of the exiles continued on to Cuba to receive training. However, José’s time in Cuba was a mixed experience. While many of the student leaders who had been freed were eager to continue studying and receive training to fight against the dictatorship, José with his blue-collar background, felt estranged from their goals. He ultimately opted to build on his experience as a labor leader, opting to work in a variety of factories, sugar mills, and elsewhere in Cuba. Feeling he’d done all he could in Cuba, he decided to go to Chile.
Chile was a common destination for exiles and for leftist activists from Brazil. In 1970, socialist Salvador Allende had won election as president at the head of the Popular Unity, a leftist coalition. Many Brazilian leftists saw Chile as a place where they could participate in the social and political revolution they’d sought in Brazil. Thus, like many other Brazilians, José headed to Chile. However, he and many other Brazilians ultimately saw their hopes dashed; on September 11, 1973, Chile’s military launched a coup that overthrew Allende. Suddenly, thousands of Brazilians who had fled from one right-wing dictatorship found themselves living in another one. They flooded embassies, seeking refuge and exile yet again. José was among them. Twenty-one days after Augusto Pinochet’s September 11 coup, he went to the Panamanian embassy, not so much out of any desire to travel to Panama, but because most of the other embassies were already overflowing, monitored by the right-wing dictatorship, and/or closed off. José managed to gain asylum in the Panamanian embassy, heading off to Panama before continuing on to Belgium.
While in Belgium, he worked with other labor leaders as well as other exiles and human rights organizations, ultimately helping create the Casa Latino-Americana, which, with support from the UN, helped exiles from Latin American dictatorships. José served as president of the Casa for five years. In spite of his activism, however, he continued to seek a way back to Brazil. Indeed, his experiences provided a reminder of how devastating even exile could be for those fleeing repressive dictatorships; although he’d escaped the repression and torture in Brazil, he still felt what he called a “civil death,” cut off entirely from his own home and a citizen of nowhere. This rupture even filtered into his family life; his son was born overseas and, given José’s status as a pariah in his own country, he had difficulties getting his son’s status as a Brazilian citizen (with all the rights citizenship entailed) established. As José’s experiences remind us, though exiles often avoided the torture, persecution, and even murder that activists in right-wing dictatorships like Brazil, Chile, or Argentina suffered, the trials of life in exile brought its own forms of suffering and difficulty.
As the political climate continued to slowly reopen in Brazil in the late-1970s, José plotted his return to Brazil, ultimately coming back in May 1979, just a few months before President João Figueiredo announced a general amnesty that pardoned political prisoners, exiles, and torturers alike. Upon returning, he drew again upon his labor activism; he came into contact with Luíz Inácio “Lula” da Silva, a metalworker and union leader who had been at the forefront of labor activism in the latter half of the 1970s. With Lula and seven others, José became one of the nine labor leaders who helped create the Partido dos Trabalhadores (Workers Party; PT).
Throughout the first half of the 1980s, José worked within the PT, becoming a member of the National Executive of the party. He ran as a PT candidate for the Chamber of Deputies in 1982. However, the PT itself was going through an identity crisis: some, like José, wanted to push for greater workers’ rights and a path towards socialism; others sought a more centrist approach that could perhaps lead to a broader appeal among the Brazilian electorate and greater strength within the government. This latter faction, known as the “Articulation,” gained a majority, and José (and others who shared his sentiments) left the PT. He worked for several years with leftist Leonel Brizola’s Partido Democrático Trabalhista (Brazilian Labor Party; PDT), but after Brizola failed to make it out of the first round of the 1989 presidential election, José left the PDT, choosing to focus on labor rights and organization rather than become further involved with the turbulent and fractured nature of partisan politics in Brazil. He helped form three different union groups and served as the Secretary-General of the Centro de Atendimento ao Trabalhador (Workers’ Service Center; CEAT), an organization designed to defend workers’ interests and provide them with education, representation, professional training, and other services. He also made a return to politics, running once more as a candidate for the Chamber of Deputies, this time for the Partido Verde (Green Party; PV) in 2006. Though he did not win, he continued to speak out for and work for the organization of Brazil’s blue-collar employees up until a little over a month ago, when he passed away at the age of 66.
José Ibrahim left behind a legacy that went far beyond his role in 1968; indeed, for over 40 years, he worked tirelessly for Brazilian workers. Though his release in 1969 made him part of an iconic moment in Brazilian political history, it is in his labor activism that his legacy was made, and it will continue to be felt for years to come.
This is part of an ongoing series. Previous entries can be found here.