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.

About Colin M. Snider

I have a Ph.D. in history, specializing in Latin American History and Comparative Indigenous History. My dissertation focused on Brazil. Beyond Latin America generally, I'm particularly interested in class identities, military politics, human rights, labor, education, music, and nation. I can be found on Twitter at @ColinMSnider.
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