This week, Brazil’s Truth Commission finally managed to get the Ministry of Defense to accede to requests to investigate the military and sites of torture during Brazil’s military dictatorship of 1964-1985.
I’m of two minds on this. On the one hand, this absolutely is a major victory in terms of efforts to confront the military’s repressive past. Military archives and records have often long been off-limits for historians and human rights activists, with the military alternately denying such archives and records exist or insisting they were already destroyed (and even sometimes contradictorily making both claims at the same time). Opening up centers where torture took place will not only allow for the forced recognition of the past; it will also help improve our mapping and understandings of the mechanisms of torture and repression in Brazil.
On the other hand, the military itself will be responsible for conducting these investigations, with internal “inquiry units” rather than external agents probing the past. Letting the military be in charge of its own policing on the past is troubling for a few reasons, and not just because it was the military that originally gave itself an amnesty in 1979, an amnesty it has stood behind and that seems unlikely to go away anytime soon. The fact that there remain both within the military and outside of it many people who continue to defend the military and its actions during the dictatorship, and there is certainly the potential that internal pressure from above within a system predicated on strict hierarchies could limit the findings. And it is not like there is a strong history of the military being fully transparent even in times of democracy. A culture of impunity (itself a major legacy of the dictatorship) continues to reign in much of Brazil both in its armed forces and in police forces, and rarely do military or police officials face punishment or even inquiries into their roles in human rights violations in Brazil’s cities or countryside. It is not unfair to wonder whether or how an investigation into past crimes will be any different.
To be clear, this is not to say that the investigations are doomed to failure, or that the military cannot directly and transparently confront its past, and the fact that it has finally agreed to participate in investigations, even internally led ones, is encouraging. At the same time, it will be worth watching to see how these investigations occur and what their findings are. Hopefully they provide full, frank, and honest accounts of the regime that further add to our understandings of repression under military rule, but given the recent trends in the armed forces and the contentious nature over Brazil’s military dictatorship today, questions will remain until the investigations can be (and hopefully are) brought to completion and published.
Yesterday, Brazil’s Congress marked the 50th anniversary of the military coup that overthrew constitutional president João Goulart and ushered in a 21-year military dictatorship that killed hundreds of its own citizens and tortured thousands others. In 1964, Congress was directly implicit in the coup and the subsequent military dictatorship: Congress proclaimed the presidency vacant even while Goulart remained in Brazil and declared Chamber of Deputies leader Ranieri Mazzilli as the acting President of Brazil for the second time in his life (he’d also assumed the role in the wake of Jânio Quadros’s abrupt resignation in 1961). Mazzilli was president in name only, as a military junta, led by Artur Costa e Silva, established control before Congress selected Humberto Castelo Branco as the country’s new president. By contrast, yesterday’s commemoration was to be a more solemn affair, recognizing the setbacks that human rights and democracy both suffered under Brazil’s military regime.
Of course, that did not mean all were willing to cooperate with such a dignified approach. Ultra-right wing congressman Jair Bolsonaro, a dictatorship apologist, decided to use the event to celebrate the military in his speech, with various other representatives turning their backs on him. Meanwhile, his supporters unfurled a banner thanking the military, through whose efforts “Brazil is not Cuba,” according to Bolsonaro, while another Bolsonaro supporter shouted to others, “I do not want communism in my Country.” Ultimately, the ceremony ended up being delayed for over an hour. Yet the event reminds us of the degree to which Brazil’s dictatorship continues to appear in politics even while torturers are publicly named but remain unpunished, something that seems unlikely to change anytime soon, given the reluctance of President Rousseff (herself a political prisoner and torture victim during the dictatorship) to review the 1979 amnesty that pardoned all those in the military regime who committed torture and murder.
The truth commission investigating repression and state-sponsored violence during Brazil’s military dictatorship of 1964-1985 has recently completed a full year of work, and issued a report of some of its major findings after one year:
Part 1. Hiding of Documentation from the Brazilian State. The Brazilian Navy deliberately concealed information from President Itamar Franco in 1993, when he requested information from the Brazilian Navy, Army and Air Force regarding political disappearances during the dictatorship. By cross-checking a 1972 report of deaths from the CENIMAR with its 1993 response to President Itamar Franco, Truth Commission analysts concluded that in 1972, the CENIMAR already recorded the deaths of many political prisoners, whereas in 1993 they reported that these same individuals were variously exiled, disappeared or imprisoned. The released documents on the 11 individuals presented by Heloísa Starling was the only disclosed information from the CENIMAR, whereas 12,071 pages of similar documentation remained undisclosed to President Itamar Franco.
Part. 2: Chain of command within the DOI-Codi. “Ultra-secret” documents detailing the structure of the DOI-Codi (Department of Information Operations – Center for Internal Defense Operations), the organ of political repression responsible for the disappearances, tortures and deaths of individuals arrested for opposition to the military regime, reveal that its chain of command reached and included the Brazilian Ministers of Defense, thus implicating the Brazilian State in crimes against humanity. The documents included a chart illustrating how local Secretaries of Defense, the Federal Police and other arms of government intel had three direct lines of communication to the Ministers of Defense—revealing two more in addition to the one of which was known. According to other documents, the DOI-Codi of Rio de Janeiro perpetrated 735 cases of torture between 1970 and 1973.
Part. 3 CENIMAR recognizes violence against its own agents Documents reveal that soldiers were trained by the CENIMAR to become infiltrators of leftist and revolutionary groups, notably to participate in the Student Movement. In a letter to the Minister of the Marines, the Commander of the CENIMAR recognizes that violence was done to one such double agent and that his actions were “full of merit.” This document shows that violence done to double agents was perpetrated to the same degree as normal revolutionaries, and it did not deter further violence, but rather it was seen as an occupational hazard.
Part. 4 The Use of Torture: 1964-1968
The Truth Commission’s research shows that torture had been used as a means of interrogation as early as 1964. It had been originally accepted that the use of torture had began with the Institutional Act Number 5 (“AI-5″), whose suspension of habeas corpus made torture de jure legal. Whereas torture as a means of repression did skyrocket after the imposition of the AI-5, the Truth Commission found that torture has always formed the base of repression since the installment of the military regime in 1964. Moreover, in 1964, all of the forms of torture which would be used throughout the entire period of the dictatorship had already been taught, used and established as early as 1964.
These are important findings, but not for their newness. Indeed, almost all of these matters have been well-known, and even documented, among historians, activists, human rights workers, political scientists, sociologists, and others. Indeed, taking the issue of the military hiding documents (points #1 above) as an example, this has long been a source of frustration to human rights activists and historians alike: the former because it has prevented the full knowledge of the experiences of the tortured and disappeared and those who perpetrated these acts, the latter because it has made archival work on the period more difficult. However, it has not made such work impossible. Indeed, the numerous branches of secret police and state security apparatuses that operated during the dictatorship resulted in an alphabet soup of organizations like DOI-CODI, DOPS, SNI, DSI, CENIMAR, etc. that were a part of the state’s broad repressive apparatus. Thus, while documents like CENIMAR reports are harder to come by, one can find them annexed or cited in the DOPS archives in the State Archive of Rio de Janeiro or the DSI archives at the National Archive. Indeed, documents that military officials insisted never existed are cited with regularity in other security apparatus reports, suggesting that they not only existed, but have been concealed for decades.
So if we’ve known all of this before, why does any of it matter? Well, in no small part, because it is finally the state doing the investigating. For example, regarding the state’s use of torture from 1964 to 1968, this was no secret – numerous victims have provided oral accounts of torture in that period, and sometimes it was publicly visible. Likewise, the military government itself had to issue a decree against torture in the first months of its regime, particularly after journalist Márcio Moreira Alves published thorough accounts of military torture. So the fact that the military tortured between 1964 and 1968 was not new to anybody who has studied the dictatorship. However, the state itself had never taken responsibility for it; rather, the more general officialist narrative insisted torture only came after AI-5. Again, there were numerous historical, activist, and sociological accounts that revealed how false that narrative is, but it had persisted nonetheless. With the Truth Commission’s official recognition of the state’s use of torture from the very first days of the military regime, the Brazilian state is finally acknowledging the systematic use of torture from its inception, rather than just in the “years of lead” from 1969 to 1974 (and beyond). Indeed, the point stands for all four of the conclusions mentioned above. Even if they were known, the fact that the state is acknowledging these facts at long last is more than symbolic, as it provides any number of psychological, historical, and legal points of closure and helps to build for future understanding the military regime in Brazil (and hopefully preventing future repressive regimes).
That is the biggest benefit of the truth commission’s findings thus far, but it’s far from the only reward. Particularly regarding the chain of command in DOI-CODI and in the military’s use of repression against its own agents, the commission has shed new light on processes scholars only previously had incomplete understandings of. Certainly, works like Ken Serbin’s have revealed the use of military repression against its own members, but the fact that it committed “acts of violence” even against its own double agents, and justified such violence. Likewise, while scholars long had a general sense of the chain of command in DOI-CODI, an infamously violent security apparatus, the truth commission’s findings have brought that sense into sharper focus, more concretely demonstrating a direct correspondence between the security apparatuses and the highest levels of government during military rule, a correspondence that was long suspected through the fragmentary archival records available but never in such detail.
Overall, the truth commission’s report after one year has to be considered a success, albeit a qualified one. After all, the truth commission still lacks the authority for any prosecutorial actions against those members of the regime who conducted torture, murder, and other forms of state violence. Additionally, the fact that the commission is operating more than 25 years after military rule actually came to an end means that many of the highest-ranking officials who ordered, oversaw, or were aware of such state-sponsored violence have long since passed away, meaning they could never face either prosecution or the public scorn that such findings might create. And some have even complained that its investigation only into the state violence, and not oppositional violence, is problematic (an assessment I understand but do not fully agree with). Nonetheless, the fact remains that the truth commission has finally provided state acknowledgement of repressive actions it had long ignored or denied, even while shedding new light on processes scholars often had glimpses of but lacked the archival resources and materials available to the commission itself. It will definitely be worth watching what paths the commission takes in the coming months, what its final report says, and how those findings are received by the public writ large.
Foreign Policy has published a piece I wrote on how South American dictatorships can provide important lessons for Egyptians clamoring for military rule:
As Egypt struggles to cope with economic turmoil and political divisions, citizens are increasingly seeking alternatives to the current Muslim Brotherhood government. Discontent with the religious tenor of Islamist rule and rhetoric under Mohammed Morsy, some opponents of the current Egyptian government are now looking to the military for help, viewing the military as a legitimate political actor that could intervene and save the country before the Muslim Brotherhood’s government becomes entrenched.
These pleas sound remarkably similar to those used by Brazilians, Chileans, Argentines, Paraguayans, and Uruguayans who were discontent with their own governments in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. Their tortured histories provide powerful reminders of what can happen when people turn to the military as a country’s savior. During the second half of the 20th century, military regimes in Brazil, Chile, Argentina, Paraguay, and Uruguay, all came to power in ways that many Egyptians now seem keen to emulate. However, far from “saving” their societies, these military regimes relied on political repression, torture, and state-sponsored terrorism, even while reaffirming the economic policies that created instability and led to a “lost decade” for the region in the 1980s.
You can read the whole thing here [it requires registration, but it is free].
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.
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.
Greg Weeks points to this incredible, if harrowing, collection of photos from Operation Condor. The photos were found in Paraguay’s “Archives of Terror,” which documented the deaths of tens of thousands of South Americans at the hands of military regimes and the collaboration between dictatorships in Chile, Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, Uruguay, Bolivia, and Peru. We can and do talk about the horrors of human rights violations, the injustices of regimes that extrajudicially murdered their own citizens, and the sheer numbers of those who died under such regimes, but there is something about the photographs like those from Operation Condor that convey in a unique way exactly what that violence looked like on a daily basis for many.