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.