Get to Know a Brazilian – Luís Carlos Prestes

The political path of Luís Carlos Prestes shows just how varying the ideologies and trajectories of members of the tenente movement of the 1920s could be.

Prestes was born in Porto Alegre in the southern-most state of Rio Grande do Sul in January, 1898. His father had been an officer in the army. With his family enduring financial difficulties after his father left them, Prestes enrolled in the Military School of Realengo in Rio de Janeiro (where future fellow-tenentes Antônio de Siqueira Campos and Eduardo Gomes also attended) at the age of 11, completing his military training in 1919. Specializing in Military Engineering, he finished first in his class. Although he played a key part in the planning of the revolt of 1922, Prestes actually missed out on the fateful “March of the 18,” as he was in bed with typhoid fever when the revolt broke out.

A young Prestes in his military uniform.

A young Prestes in his military uniform.

Since Prestes was not directly involved in the revolt, he escaped the prison sentences of some of his colleagues, but he was transferred to Rio Grande do Sul. When the 1924 revolt broke out in an attempt to once again bring an end to the First Republic, Prestes rose to a key position in the Tenentes movement, named for the role the lower-ranking officers had played in the revolts of both 1922 and 1924. While not involved in the temporary takeover of São Paulo in July 1924,  Prestes rose to fame when, after a failed attempt to take over a garrison, he met the rebels from São Paulo and led the combined group of tenentes and rebels on what came to be known as the “Prestes Column.” Given his future political trajectory, it is more than a little ironic that Prestes rejected Siqueira Campos’s recommendation the tenentes affiliate with the communists in the international political arena. Across nearly 3 years, the column marched 25,000 kilometers (16,000 miles) across thirteen Brazilian states. The column, organized in protest of the politics and policies of the oligarchical First Republic (1889-1930), lacked the power to threaten the First Republic directly, but was likewise strong enough to resist the government’s efforts to apprehend and terminate the Prestes Column, which ultimately went into exile in Bolivia in 1927. His ability to avoid defeat at the hands of government forces made Prestes somewhat of a folk hero both in Brazil and internationally.

Luis Carlos Prestes in Bolivia in 1928, shortly after concluding the Prestes Column's 3-year march throughout Brazil's interior.

Luis Carlos Prestes in Bolivia in 1928, shortly after concluding the Prestes Column’s 3-year march throughout Brazil’s interior.

While in Bolivia, Prestes worked on road-building, sanitation, and other infrastructure projects in for the British enterprise Bolivian Company Limited. In late 1927, the secretary-general of the Partido Comunista Brasileira (Brazilian Communist Party; PCB), Astrojildo Pereira, went to Bolivia to meet Prestes. During the visit, he left some Marxist works with Prestes and recommended an alliance with the PCB. Ironically (given Prestes’ future political path), the tenente turned down Pereira’s recommendation, remaining in Bolivia until late 1928, when he went to Argentina and found work as an engineer. It was in this time that Prestes finally read Marxist works and began to identify with socialism, a process further facilitated by his conversations with the Rodolfo Ghioldi, a key figure in Argentine communist politics, and Abraham Guralski, who was the then-director of the Communist International (Comintern).

Yet Prestes’s ties to Brazilian communism remained nascent and sometimes ambiguous; when the PCB offered to nominate Prestes for a presidential candidate in the 1930 election, he declined, finding the PCB’s platform to be too radical. At the same time, he refused to join his former colleagues in supporting the Liberal Alliance, a conglomerate of opposition to the First Republic that threw its support behind Getúlio Vargas in the 1930 elections. When Vargas lost the election in March 1930, the Liberal Alliance again approached Prestes, this time to explore the possibility of Prestes helping lead a military revolt against the government of Washington Luís in order to prevent the inauguration of Júlio Prestes [of no relation to Luís Carlos Prestes]. Believing that the Liberal Alliance was merely going to replace one oligarchical system with another, Prestes fatefully declined. He attempted to create the League of Revolutionary Action, a “third path” that differed from the Liberal Alliance and the First Republic, but the movement failed to gain enough adherents to be sustainable. Continuing to deploy Marxist analysis in his consideration of Brazilian politics and society, he nonetheless was divided with the PCB, which had begun replacing intellectuals with workers in the party structure. Ultimately, Prestes once again went into a self-imposed exile, this time in Uruguay.

In November 1931, the Soviet Union invited Prestes to move to the communist country, and Prestes accepted, using the opportunity to dedicate himself more fully to the study of Marxism-Leninism, both in theory and in practice. While his relationship with the PCB had been fraught, in 1934, the Brazilian party accepted Prestes as a member after the Soviet Union pressured the PCB. Meeting with Brazilian representatives in Moscow, Prestes decided to promote an armed revolution to overthrow the Vargas government in Brazil, and at the end of 1934, he left the Soviet Union to return to Brazil, accompanied by his soon-to-be wife, Olga Benário, a member of the Comintern.

Even while former tenentes and colleagues like Eduardo Gomes, Juracy Magalhães, and Juarez Távora were increasingly moving rightward, Prestes, operating clandestinely, became affiliated with the Aliança Nacional Libertadora (National Liberating Alliance; ANL), which brought together socialists, communists, and tenentes who had soured on the Vargas government after supporting his rise in 1930. Brazilian politics in the 1930s mirrored the broader political transformations taking place globally in the 1930s, albeit with its own Brazilian flavor. Even as some former tenentes and others were forming the Brazilian Integralista movement, a fascistic movement, so the ANL advocated for an anti-fascist and anti-imperialist program. The fact that former tenentes were involved in both movements, as well as in more traditional conservative politics, revealed just how enigmatic and open-ended the movement of the 1920s had been; lacking a strong ideology beyond ending the First Republic and transforming Brazil, former tenentes ultimately occupied a variety of positions in the ideological spectrum.

With Prestes’ honorary involvement in the ANL, its membership grew in the course of 1935, and, in a moment of overconfidence, the ANL issued a manifesto that forecast the overthrow of the Vargas government. Vargas used the opportunity to declare the ANL an illegal organization; when Prestes and other members of the ANL launched an insurrection in November of 1935 in Rio Grande do Norte, Vargas’s government quickly cracked down and ended the resurrection. Miscalculating Vargas, the ANL ultimately created the conditions and the pretext that allowed Vargas to further solidify control, going after a broader range of critics and opponents to his government. Prestes avoided the initial wave of crackdowns, but by March 1936, both he and Olga had been imprisoned. Given her status as a foreigner (she’d been born in Munich), Vargas sent a pregnant Olga back to Nazi Germany; a Jew, she ultimately died in the gas chambers of Bernburg in 1942. [Their daughter, Anita Leocádia Prestes, was born in a concentration camp but survived after being released to her paternal grandmother.]

The arrest of Olga Benário Prestes in 1936. Olga would die in a death camp in Nazi Germany in 1942 after Getúlio Vargas deported her to Germany.

The arrest of Olga Benário Prestes in 1936. Olga would die in a death camp in Nazi Germany in 1942 after Getúlio Vargas deported her to Germany.

As for Prestes, as a Brazilian citizen, he was subjected to Vargas’s repression, and in 1937, he was sentenced to 30 years in prison. Despite remaining imprisoned, in 1943 the PCB elected him its secretary-general. As the Vargas regime moved toward democratization in 1945, Prestes was released, even while the PCB was temporarily granted legality as a political party.

Prestes on his way to his prison sentencing in 1937. He would spend 8 years in prison before the democratic opening of 1945.

Prestes on his way to his prison sentencing in 1937. He would spend 8 years in prison before the democratic opening of 1945.

Despite his own fate, and particularly the fate of his wife, Prestes threw his support behind Vargas in the name of national unity. With the overthrow of the Vargas regime in October 1945, new elections took place in December, and PRestes was elected to the Senate, representing the Federal District (the city of Rio de Janeiro). As a senator, Prestes played a part in the writing of a new constitution in 1946.

Prestes (bottom right) speaking on the floor of Congress as Senator in 1946.

Prestes (bottom right) speaking on the floor of Congress as Senator in 1946.

However, Prestes’ role in institutional politics would be short-lived. As the Cold War began, the new government of Eurico Gaspar Dutra (Vargas’s choice in the 1945 elections) once again outlawed the PCB in 1947, and in 1948, PCB politicians, including Prestes, were stripped of their political rights and offices. Having already lived the repression of anti-communism under Vargas’s Estado Novo, Prestes went into a preemptive clandestinity, though he continued to speak out in Brazilian politics. He refused to support any of the candidates in the 1950 election, and remained an open critic of Vargas’s presidency up through the latter’s suicide in 1954. Prestes did support the candidacy of Juscelino Kubitschek in 1955, and began to play a more public role even while the PCB remained illegal. With the ascendance of João Goulart to the presidency in the wake of Jânio Quadros’s abrupt resignation in August of 1961, Prestes, like others on the left (and not just in the PCB) saw a chance for real reform for Brazil’s workers and peasants, and he continually publicly pressured Goulart to accelerate reforms in Brazil. Of course, amidst the polarization of the Cold War, the middle classes, conservatives, and military saw the spectre of communism in Goulart’s eventual leftward shift; determined to prevent a communist “dictatorship,” the military overthrew Goulart and instead ushered in a conservative dictatorship.

Once again living under a right-wing regime, Prestes once again went into clandestinity as the military targeted other veteran PCB members like Gregório Bezerra. Even while former tentente Eduardo Gomes served as the Minister of the Air Force during the military regime, former tenente Luís Carlos Prestes was constantly attempting to avoid military repression. Yet that was not the least of Prestes’ problems. Long acknowledged as a leader in Brazilian Communism, the heterogeneity of Marxism both globally and in Brazil transformed his role in the 1960s. Ever since the failed revolt of 1935, Prestes and the PCB had opted for a nonviolent path to revolution in Brazil. With the rise of the dictatorship, a younger generation of leftists, and the examples of Cuba, Ché Guevara, Fidel Castro, and Mao, the PCB began to face internal dissension. Ultimately, former PCB members like Carlos Marighella and others abandoned the PCB, opting for Maoist, Guevarist, or other paths to armed revolution to resist the military regime. Thus, even as Prestes attempted to avoid repression and persecution under military rule, he watched as the PCB splintered.

This splintering perhaps paradoxically allowed Prestes to be spared the worst of the repression. After a tumultuous 1968 in Brazil (part of a broader history of social unrest throughout the world that year), the regime first targeted those armed movements, such as the Maoist Partido Comunista do Brasil (PCdoB, distinct from the PCB), the Movimento Revolucionário-8 de Outubro (October 8 Revolutionary Movement – MR-8), and others, rather than immediately going after the PCB. This allowed Prestes the time to go into exile yet again; in 1971, he returned to the Soviet Union. By the mid-1970s, the dictatorship, having effectively eliminated the other armed leftist movements, turned its sights on the PCB, targeting and killing some of its top leaders, but by that point, Prestes had been in exile for a couple of years.

Prestes in exile in the Soviet Union in the mid-1970s.

Prestes in exile in the Soviet Union in the mid-1970s.

Ultimately, Prestes returned to Brazil with the military’s general amnesty of 1979 that pardoned political prisoners and exiles (while also pardoning any and all military members and officials tied to torture or the execution of the regime’s opponents). Despite the return of the man many saw as the figurehead and leader of the PCB, the remnants of the party remained divided over what paths to pursue as Brazil returned to democratization, riven by questions over whether to support the institutional transition or to demand a more radical revolution.  While many could and did acknowledge Prestes’s historical importance to the left in Brazil, they felt that, at over 80 years old, he was no longer the appropriate leader, and he was removed from his position as secretary-general of the PCB; shortly thereafter, he left the party that he had led for more than 3o years.

Prestes returning to Brazil in 1979, shortly after the military dictatorship declared a general amnesty for political prisoners and exiles (as well as torturers and assassins in the military).

Prestes returning to Brazil in 1979, shortly after the military dictatorship declared a general amnesty for political prisoners and exiles (as well as torturers and assassins in the military).

As Brazil transitioned from military to civilian rule in 1985, wrote a new constitution in 1988, and held its first democratic elections in nearly 30 years in 1989, Prestes continued to speak out about politics. No longer tied to the PCB, he ultimately recommended his followers join the Partido Democrático Trabalhista (Democratic Labor Party, PDT), led by Leonel Brizola, another veteran politician and key figure in the fight for reforms in the early 1960s. Prestes lived long enough to see the return to democratic rule and witness what was only the fifth direct presidential election in his lifetime (in addition to the election of 1989, the elections of 1945, 1950, 1955, and 1960 had been direct elections).

Prestes with Leonel Brizola, whom Prestes supported in the 1980s after leaving the PCB.

Prestes (left) with Leonel Brizola (center), whom Prestes supported in the 1980s after leaving the PCB.

Prestes died on March 7, 1990, at the age of 92. He had lived through no fewer than two dictatorships and spent much of his life in clandestinity, exile, or prison. At the same time, he managed to outlive many who opted for more radical paths than he, particularly in the 1960s and early 1970s, as the military regime targeted leftist leaders who had split off from the PCB. His long-term affiliation with communism revealed just how diverse the members of the tenente movement of the 1920s were in their political trajectories. While Prestes only briefly served in any official political office, his role as the “father” and flag-bearer of Brazilian Communism for decades made him one of the more important political figures in Brazil’s 20th century.

Luis Carlos Prestes, 1898-1990.

Luis Carlos Prestes, 1898-1990.

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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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