While recent posts in this series focused on the presidents of Brazil’s military dictatorship, no country’s history, society, or politics is defined merely by its (male) political leaders. During the dictatorship, millions of Brazilians resisted the military’s authority (even while millions more supported it), and support and/or opposition from various social groups ebbed and flowed throughout twenty-one years of military rule. While there is no shortage of materials on resistance to the dictatorship, especially in the 1960s, such work tends to focus on the men (often university students) who challenged the regime (and who later went on to play roles in the post-dictatorship state), even while women played key roles in the student movements that challenged military rule in a number of ways. Thus, this week we begin looking at the lives of these women, often ignored in the narrative of resistance to the dictatorship , by focusing on one of the most important yet most overlooked figures of student politics and resistance in the 1960s: Vera Sílvia Magalhães.Vera Sílvia Magalhães was born to a middle-class family in Rio de Janeiro in 1948. Although her family was from the carioca upper middle class, they did not shy away from communism; she allegedly first read Marx and Engels after a family member gave her the Communist Manifesto. Although apocryphal, what is certain is that, from an early age, she was exposed to the ideas of the left, and by the age of 15, she was a member of the Associação Municipal dos Estudantes Secundaristas (Municipal Association of Secondary Students; AMES). One year after she joined AMES, the military overthrew constitutional president João Goulart in a coup, ushering in a right-wing military regime.
Although president Humberto Castelo Branco’s government had made early attempts to crack down on the student movements in Brazil, they were not as thorough or persistent as efforts to persecute labor activists, high-ranking politicians, or members of Brazil’s Leninist Partido Comunista Brasileiro (Brazilian Communist Party; PCB). Thus, less than two years after the coup, university students had become one of the main groups still openly challenging the military dictatorship, criticizing it both along ideological lines while also making more quotidian demands that reflected their experiences as middle-class university students. While some students participated in protests through the “semi-clandestine” National Students Union (UNE), by 1967, other students were becoming more radical. Discontent with the failures of the PCB to adequately address the “Brazilian reality” and frustrated by the fact that, far from ending the dictatorship, street protests only seemed to lead to intensifying police violence under president Artur Costa e Silva, some leftist students looked for more radical solutions to transform Brazilian politics and society. Yet the older members of the PCB, Brazil’s first communist party, refused to endorse the armed struggle as a path towards social change and the end of the dictatorship. As a result, university students turned to alternate offshoot groups. Drawing on the model of the Cuban revolution and abandoning the “Old left” of Leninism for Maoist and/or “Dissident” versions of communism, a small number of urban youth began to see the luta armada, or armed struggle, as the only path to bring down the dictatorship.
Vera Magalhães was one such student. Amidst the regime’s increasing repression and its efforts to silence critics (even moderate ones), in 1968 Magalhães, now 20 and enrolled in university, joined the clandestine Movimento Revolucionário 8 de Outubro (Revolutionary Movement of October 8), or MR-8, named after the day CIA-supported Bolivian troops captured Ché Guevara in 1967 [they executed him one day later]. Another group had been operating with the name MR-8, but the regime had captured almost all of its members, trumpeting the regime’s triumph to the public. In an attempt to discredit the regime, Magalhães and other members of the MR-8 began launching increasingly high-profile actions under the MR-8 moniker to indicate that opposition did not end with the arrest of a handful of individuals. Throughout 1968 and 1969,these armed groups mobilized in high-profile actions, even while the student movement faced increasing repression. They attacked banks, where they “expropriated” money from foreign capital and from the bourgeoisie, abandoning the student movement for armed struggle and bank robberies that helped fund the organization and marked an ideological attack on capital both foreign and domestic. In these expropriations, Magalhães, with her blonde wig and her two .45-caliber pistols, captured the attention of the media, which named her “Blonde ’90.”
In this context, Magalhães came to play a vital role in one of the boldest moves against the dictatorship. As the military used the new repressive Institutional Act Number 5 and Decree-Law 477 increase arrests and the use of torture against prisoners even while censoring the media, Magalhães and the MR-8 decided to act more boldly. She and a few of her colleagues came up with a plot to kidnap Charles Burke Elbrick, the US Ambassador to Brazil. No ambassador had ever been kidnapped before, and so the move was as innovative as it was daring. Magalhães spent time watching Elbrick’s route from his home to the US embassy in Botafogo, and even flirted with the chief of security in order to get him to reveal information about Elbrick’s routine. With the information she had gathered and the plans she had helped create, the MR-8 moved, and on September 4, 1969, they kidnapped Elbrick, the first time in world history that an ambassador had been kidnapped. MR-8 pledged Elbrick’s safe release in return for the release of 15 political prisoners and the reading on television of a declaration that expressed the MR-8′s visions and would break through the censorship the military had imposed; if the military refused to meet their conditions, they promised to kill the ambassador. The conditions put thus put Elbrick’s fate as much in the hands of the military as in the hands of his captors.
Although they did not realize it, Magalhães and her colleagues had perfectly, albeit accidentally, timed the kidnapping. At the end of August, president Costa e Silva had a massive stroke that had left the president incapacitated; not wanting to make clear that the country was presently effectively leaderless, the military had not announced his condition to the country. The regime thought it could safely pretend everything was fine until it found a way to replace the now-semi-paralyzed president. Unfortunately for military brass, the kidnapping of Elbrick had left them both unprepared and unable to quickly respond. Adding to the complications was the fact that the US, a major economic and political supporter of the dictatorship, was more than a little interested in seeing its ambassador safely released no matter the cost. In this context, the military split; some insisted that the government had to meet their demands so as to not lose the US’s support; others insisted meeting the demands would be a sign of military weakness, and that it was better to let Elbrick die.
Ultimately, those in favor of meeting the demands prevailed, but barely. The government read the MR-8′s statement, which proclaimed that Brazil was living in a military dictatorship and that the fight of the people would continue, on television. The regime also released fifteen political prisoners that the MR-8 had provided them; the list included student leaders like José Dirceu and Vladimir Palmeira; members of urban guerrilla groups like Maria Augusta Carneiro Ribeiro and Ricardo Vilas; journalist Flávio Tavares; labor activists Agonalto Pacheco and José Ibrahim; and older leftists Rolando Frati and Gregório Bezerra (who had been arrested immediately after the 1964 coup and who had also spent 10 years in prison for his communist activism during the government of Getúlio Vargas). It loaded them on an airplane and sent them to Mexico. Immediately after the plane, named “Hercules 56″ (the title of an excellent documentary on the kidnapping), took off, paratroopers arrived at Rio de Janeiro’s Galeão airport to try to stop them. Nonetheless, they were late, and the prisoners safely arrived in Mexico before heading to Cuba, where they met with Fidel Castro. After receiving training in Cuba, some clandestinely returned to Brazil, while others went into exile. [Of those who returned to Brazil, the military captured and killed two, gunning down both ex-sergeant Onofre Pinto and militant João Leonardo da Silva Rocha in 1974.] As for Elbrick, MR-8 stayed true to their word; with the release of the 15 political prisoners and the reading of the declaration, on September 8 Elbrick’s captors dropped him off at Maracanã stadium just as a soccer game was ending, and MR-8′s members disappearing into the crowd.
Magalhães and the others who had planned the kidnapping managed to disappear into the crowd in 1969, but they could not escape the regime’s security apparatus. In March 1970, the military arrested Magalhães while she was handing out political pamphlets; in the arrest, she was hit in the head by gunfire. Although wounded, the regime showed her little tolerance; angry at the MR-8′s ability to challenge the regime and in a period of intense repression, the security forces tortured the wounded Magalhães. She sustained three months of beatings, electrical shocks, and psychological torture; the physical abuse was so severe that she was unable to stand on her own without the support of somebody else.
In spite of the physical and psychological abuse, she never revealed names. Nor could her legacy be undone; that July, members of the Ação Libertadora Nacional (National Liberating Action; ALN) and Vanguarda Popular Revolucionária (Popular Revolutionary Vanguard; VPR) followed MR-8′s model, kidnapping German ambassador Ehrenfried von Holleben and demanded the release of more political prisoners. Ultimately, in July of 1970, the regime released forty more prisoners, including Magalhães; however, the physical effects of torture on her were clear. In a photo of the prisoners, she was seated in a chair, still unable to stand on her own.
After her release, Magalhães went into exile, first in Algeria and then in Chile, where many Brazilian exiles remained until the military coup of 1973 ushered in a right-wing dictatorship there as well. From there, she went to Europe with her husband (and comrade in MR-8), Fernando Gabeira (they eventually divorced). She ultimately settled in Paris, studying sociology at the Sorbonne under Brazilian professor Fernando Henrique Cardoso, who had also gone into self-imposed exile. When João Figueiredo issued a general amnesty in 1979, Magalhães joined thousands of other exiles in returning to Brazil.
Although she returned to Brazil safely, Vera Magalhães was never able to shake the long-term effects of the horrible abuses and torture she suffered at the hands of the military regime. She worked as an urban planner in the state government of Rio de Janeiro for years, but ultimately retired early at the age of 54, unable to work any longer due to her health. Throughout the rest of her life, she suffered from periodic psychotic episodes, kidney problems (from the beatings), and troubles with her legs, even while the medicine she had to take caused dental problems. Though hesitant to use her long-term suffering for financial gain, in 2002, she became the first woman to receive financial reparations from the state for her suffering at the hands of the military (previously, such reparations had usually only gone to families of those who had died at the hands of the military during the dictatorship). While the financial aid helped her with her medical problems, it could not cure her of them, and in December 2007, she died of a heart attack at the age of 59.
Although often overlooked in general narratives of student mobilization and opposition to the military regime, there is no doubt that Vera Magalhães played a key role in challenging the dictatorship. Although her politics and her fight for social justice led her to suffer severely at the hands of the military, she was proud of her ability to maintain her “human sense, ethical and political.”
Continuing with presidents from Brazil’s military dictatorship, this week focuses on Artur Costa e Silva, who served from 1967-1969 as the second president of the military regime.
Born in 1899 to parents from Madeira, Costa e Silva was the first of three military presidents born in the southern-most state of Rio Grande do Sul. He enrolled at the Military College of Porto Alegre, the state capital, where he finished at the head of his class. In 1922, he joined the Tenetismo movement, a military movement that objected to the oligarchic and slow-moving governments of Brazil’s first republic and that had its roots in a doomed uprising at the Fort of Copacabana in July 1922. Costa e Silva joined the July movement, ultimately being arrested and then pardoned.
Like many of his generation, Costa e Silva participated in the “Revolution of 1930″ that brought Getúlio Vargas to power, and fought for the government against rebels in São Paulo two years later. Unlike Humberto Castelo Branco, his predecessor who had served in Europe during World War II, Costa e Silva never saw combat in the European theater, though he did help organize forces to go abroad; however, he himself did not accompany them, ending up in the United States instead. Throughout the 1940s and 1950s, he continued to rise through the ranks in a variety of posts, including time as the military aide to the Brazilian embassy in Argentina. In 1961, he was promoted to General of the Fourth Army in Recife, where he used his power to suppress student protests in the region, a harbinger of things to come later in the decade. However, he was removed from his post and was relocated Rio de Janeiro as the head of the Personnel Department of the Army.
In Rio, Costa e Silva was witness to President João Goulart’s rally at Central Station in downtown Rio de Janeiro, where he spoke before hundreds of thousands of supporters and called for land reform, electoral reform, university reform, and other social programs that marked a leftward shift in Goulart’s public pronouncements. The rally seemed to confirm the military’s worst fears that Goulart was a “communist,” fears that had led to the military initially preventing his constitutionally-guaranteed ascendance from the vice-presidency to the presidency when Jânio Quadros resigned in August 1961. On March 31, General Olympio Mourão Filho launched a revolt in Minas Gerais, moving on Rio de Janeiro; by April 1, Goulart had left the country, and the military dictatorship began.
In an attempt to keep up legal appearances, Chamber of Deputies leader Pascoal Ranieri Mazzilli formally assumed the presidency. However, Mazzilli’s position was just window-dressing; real power rested with a military junta (along with the heads of the Air Force and Navy). As the army was the strongest branch of the military, Costa e Silva’s power was effectively the leader of the junta, which was quick to issue the first Institutional Act (originally known as “the” Institutional Act until the regime issued a second Institutional Act in 1965). AI-1, as it came to be retroactively known, promptly ushered in military repression, giving the government the right to suspend the political rights of political opponents; the junta promptly stripped 102 politicians of their rights, allowing it to purge Congress and create an indirect election that would ensure military rule. However, though Costa e Silva had angled to be president, Castelo Branco’s higher rank (and experience in the European theater in World War II) made him the more popular choice. On April 15, Congress chose Castelo Branco as president, ending the charade of the Mazzilli “presidency.”
However, Costa e Silva was not forgotten, as Castelo Branco appointed the general his Minister of War. Using his high-ranking position and his ties to the military, he began angling behind the scenes to become the next president; while Castelo Branco allegedly initially hoped to return Brazil to civilian rule in 1965, elections in 1965 changed his mind, and the hard-liners, seeing a chance with Costa e Silva, began mobilizing to assume the presidency. While Castelo Branco and his aides, known as the “moderates” (and including future military president Ernesto Geisel), opposed the move, Castelo Branco himself did little to prevent Costa e Silva’s angling. Indeed, the hard-liners and Costa e Silva entered into a mutually beneficial relationship; he saw in them the way to the presidency, and they saw in him a man who would take a more hard-line stance against “subversion,” especially among university students; indeed, Costa e Silva’s crackdown on students in the early-1960s seemed to be a promising sign to the hard-liners. Though Geisel tried to prevent Costa e Silva’s candidacy, Costa e Silva outranked and outmaneuvered the “moderates” in Castelo Branco’s administration, and in October 1966, the pro-dictatorship Congress indirectly elected Costa e Silva to serve as the country’s next military president. He took office on March 15, 1967.
As president he sought to further strengthen ties to the U.S., appealing to Cold War rhetoric that pitted “democracy” against “subversives.” He also sought to continue the economic policies that had begun under Castelo Branco, pushing for industrial growth, a greater ease of access to credit, and inflation control; under his administration, the foundation was laid for Brazil’s “economic miracle,” which led to over 10% annual growth between 1969 and 1974 but that was built on a foundation of foreign debt that would send the economy spiraling out of control by the end of the 1970s. Costa e Silva also sought to establish a variety of social programs to improve Brazil’s “development” in a number of ways. He reformed the Indian Protection Services, renaming it the National Foundation of the Indian, in order to protect indigenous rights and lands. However, during his administration, the government also created the Indian Rural Guard, which became a key institution in targeting and repressing native communities. In an attempt to expand Brazil’s economy and strengthen its industry so as to appear more “developed” and compete on the global stage, he created the Empresa Brasileira de Aeronáutica, better known as Embraer, which makes military and commercial planes for the global market (and which was privatized in 1994 as part of neoliberal president Fernando Henrique Cardoso’s quest to sell of any and all state-owned companies he could). Education was also a major focus of his administration. In 1967, he created the Movimento Brasileiro de Alfabetização (Brazilian Literacy Movement; MOBRAL) to address the high illiteracy rates in the country, especially in rural areas. He launched several studies. Perhaps most importantly, he created several study-groups (both foreign and domestic) to examine the Brazilian university system; ultimately, these studies led to the dictatorship’s 1968 university reform. The new reforms, the first comprehensive higher education policy in over 30 years, would transform the university system in Brazil, leading to increasingly privatized universities throughout the 1970s and 1980s.
In spite of these economic and social policies, however, he faced an increasingly turbulent political landscape. As he took office, social mobilization against the regime was on the rise; a gradually-reconstituted National Students Union was increasingly mobilizing against the regime for its repression and its ties to the US through agreements between the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). Student protests prompted increasingly violent police crackdowns, which only furthered the protest movements. In March of 1968, at one protest, police opened fire, killing high-school student Edson Luís de Lima Souto. Students promptly took his body to the former Chamber of Deputies in Rio de Janeiro, putting it on display and draping it in a Brazilian flag; the funeral for the young man brought thousands to the street, marking an intensification in protests.
From March onward, protests intensified. Artists joined students in the streets, and middle-class parents whose children were often the victims of police violence began to pine for a return to democracy after four years of military rule. In June 1968, 100,000 people marched in Rio de Janeiro in what had been up to that point the largest street protest in Brazilian history. Though the military successfully arrested nearly 900 student-leaders at the failed UNE National Congress in rural São Paulo in October 1968, students continued to mobilize, insisting that the arrest of leadership would not stop them and chanting “UNE is us, our force and our voice” ["A UNE somos nós, nossa força e nossa voz"]. Behind the scenes, the hardliners grew increasingly frustrated and looked for a way to intensify repression and strengthen their control legally.
The excuse for intensified repression came in September 1968. That month, an opposition politician, Márcio Moreira Alves, gave a speech encouraging Brazilian women not to dance with or date members of the military. Though not many civilians paid attention to what became known as the “Lysistrata” speech, the military had a pretext to act. Insisting that their honor had been attacked, the military demanded that Congress strip Moreira Alves of his congressional immunity so that they could prosecute him. In December, Congress, which had been purged to create acquiescence to military demands, refused the military’s demand, voting to allow Moreira Alves to keep his immunity and even singing the national anthem after the vote. The military moved quickly, and on Friday, December 13, Costa e Silva issued Institutional Act No. 5. This act immediately and indefinitely suspended Congress, giving the president even greater authority; it also stripped even more politicians and other civilians of their political rights, prompted a wave of arrests against students, workers, and artists, and ushered in what came to be known as Brazil’s “years of lead,” with heavy repression and the intensified use of torture and state-sponsored murder. Although street confrontations and protests continued into 1969, the new atmosphere of repression ultimately forced many groups underground or into exile by the beginning of 1970s.
Though scholars and military members have debated to what degree Costa e Silva was involved in the crackdown, all generally agree he was sympathetic with the intensified repression. However, as 1969 progressed, his health began to waver under the stress of the job. In late August of 1969, he had a stroke that rendered him ineffective. Unprepared to deal with the crisis, the military leadership kept his condition a secret. His wife, Yolanda, assumed a greater degree of power behind the scenes, something that increasingly rankled many men in his cabinet. At the same time, in the first week of September, student radicals who, like the rest of Brazil, were completely unaware of Costa e Silva’s incapacitated state, kidnapped US ambassador Charles Elbrick, demanding the release of 15 imprisoned colleagues and the reading of their demands on national television and radio in exchange for the ambassador. The timing could not have been worse for the upper echelons of the military regime; with the one clear “leader” paralyzed from a stroke, they were divided over whether to fulfill the students’ demands or to let the ambassador die. Ultimately, the regime met the students’ demands; 15 political prisoners were sent to Mexico (though just barely – members of the air force arrived at the Galeão airport in Rio de Janeiro to stop the departure, but they were too late), and Elbrick was set free. Ultimately, a military junta led by the members of the Army, Air Force, and Navy once again assumed control temporarily, announcing Costa e Silva’s sickness and preparing for the selection of a new president. By the end of October, general Emílio Garrastazu Médici had been selected and “approved” by a briefly-reconvened Congress, and Costa e Silva left office formally.
His time as ex-president would be brief. He never recovered from his stroke, and on December 17, 1969, almost exactly one year after issuing Institutional Act No. 5, Costa e Silva died of a heart attack; like his predecessor, Castelo Branco, he died just a few months after formally leaving office. Though he did not survive to see the long-term effects of his policies, there is little doubt he transformed Brazil, and not for the better. His economic policies created the house of cards that (falsely) indicated success in the first part of the 1970s but that became increasingly illusory in the latter half of the decade. His educational policies often fell short of their goals, and even efforts to rapidly expand the federal university system created new infrastructural problems that needed a second reform in the mid-1970s and led to the increasing privatization of higher education. Perhaps most importantly, his issuance of Institutional Act No. 5 ushered in one of the most repressive eras in Brazil’s history, as the regime tortured thousands, murdered and “disappeared” hundreds, and forced the exile of thousands more between 1969 and 1979. Thus, though Costa e Silva’s presidency was relatively brief, its impact would play out and negatively affect the lives of hundreds of thousands of Brazilians for years to come.
This week marks the first of what will be a five-part series that chronologically looks at the lives of the five generals who served as president during Brazil’s military dictatorship of 1964-1985.
Humberto de Alencar Castelo Branco, born in the northeastern state of Ceará in 1897, came from a relatively well-known family. An only child, Humberto’s father had been a general himself, and he was also related to the well-known nineteenth-century author José de Alencar on his mother’s side. By 1918, he had followed his father’s path into the army, attending a military school in the southern-most state of Rio Grande do Sul before becoming a member of the infantry in 1921. He became a junior officer by 1923, and returned to serve as an instructor at his military school in 1927. In this time, he also married Argentina Viana, with whom he had two children. Allegedly, his short stature and square frame allegedly led his future father-in-law to question whether he had some genetic defect, but apparently satisfied that was not the case, the marriage took place.
Like many of his generation, Castelo Branco was a part of the Revolution of 1930 that installed Getúlio Vargas as president. During his career, Castelo Branco studied at both the US Command and General Staff College in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, as well as at the French Ecole Superior de Guerre. He continued to move up through the ranks throughout the 1930s, becoming a captain and then, by 1943, a lieutenant-colonel. His timing coincided with Brazil’s entrance into World War II, when, in 1943, the army created the Força Expedicionária Brasileira (Brazilian Expeditionary Force; FEB); with the FEB, Brazil became the only Latin American country to send troops to fight in the war. Castelo Branco was sent to the Italian theater with the FEB, where he was responsible for military maneuvers against Italian forces. While there, he also met Vernon A. Walters, a US officer (and future Ambassador to the United Nations under Ronald Reagan) responsible as a correspondent between the FEB and the US Fifth Army; the two men’s paths would cross again twenty years later.
With Vargas’s suicide in 1954, the military once again involved itself in politics, just as it had done in 1930, 1937, and 1945. Castelo Branco ended up supporting Minister of War General Henrique Lott, who pre-emptively moved against military leaders who wanted to prevent the inauguration of president-elect Juscelino Kubitschek and vice president-elect João Goulart; Lott’s actions ensured that the two men would constitutioally assume office. Though Castelo Branco had supported the constitutionalist faction in the army, the workers’ support of Kubitschek and his vice president (and former Minister of Labor under Vargas) led Castelo Branco to withdraw support from Lott. Castelo Branco continued to serve, becoming General overseeing the Fourth Army in Brazil’s northeast, and publishing essays on strategy and tactics for the army in the present and future. In the early-1960s, as ideological divisions widened in Brazil, he made clear his more conservative tendencies, promoting a worldview where the armed forces would play a central role in defending the “people” from both communism and fascism in a Cold War struggle that he (anachronistically) traced back to Lenin. His experience (including in World War II), high rank, and respect among his peers led to João Goulart, who had become president in 1961, to nominate Castelo Branco as Joint Chief of the Army in 1963; it would be a fateful decision.
By March of 1964, as inflation reached more than 100% (due in part to economic practices and governmental policies from the 1950s), Goulart finally embraced a more radical stance that many of his supporters, including students and workers, had been calling for. A speech in March 1964 at the base of the Ministry of War (where Castelo Branco sat, watching from his office as Goulart addressed hundreds of thousands of workers ) and Goulart’s support of striking sergeants in what the military elites saw as an undermining of military discipline and hierarchy, led to the military moving against the president. Vernon Walters, then the CIA attache to the US embassy, used his contacts from World War II, including Castelo Branco, and assured the military that US President Lyndon Johnson would support an effort to remove Goulart due to “communism;” ultimately, the military moved. Goulart’s government collapsed so quickly that the battleships and troops that Johnson had sent to Brazil had not yet arrived, and the president called them back. Nonetheless, the US had diplomatically played a part in the coup. The military regime that took power would last 21 years and use torture, repression, censorship, and “disappearances,” among other things, all in the name of the fight against “subversion.”
Though a provisional military junta, led by General Artur Costa e Silva, governed in the first days of the military regime, a consensus quickly emerged that Castelo Branco would make for the ideal president; his status as one of the highest-ranking officers in the army, the respect he earned for his service in Italy and his writings on war and the army in the Cold War, his perceived ability to reach out to the middle- and upper-classes for support, and his personal history with Walters were all seen as marks in his favor. Proclaiming itself both “revolutionary” and “democratic,” Congress indirectly elected Castelo Branco president on April 11, and he was formally inaugurated on April 15, 1964, with the expectation he would serve out the remainder of Goulart’s term (set to expire in January 1966). While many Brazilians who supported the coup expected this to be the case, the military ultimately would decide otherwise.
Even while the military hid behind the mask of protecting “democracy” from the “dictatorship” of communism, it increasingly limited democracy in Brazil. Castelo Branco assumed office with the Ato Institucional (Institutional Act) already in place; among other things, the Act allowed the use of torture against “subversives,” imposed limited censorship, and stripped the political rights of politicians perceived as threats (including the deposed Goulart and Kubitschek himself), purging Congress of those who vociferously opposed the military regime. Though the Ato Institucional was initially perceived as an exceptional and unique act, it would ultimately be the first of seventeen institutional acts that the military leaders imposed between 1964 and 1969.
Though Castelo Branco governed during a period of a variety of human rights violations, he was also considered the leader of the “moderate” faction, in contraposition to “hard-liners” who wanted a harsher crackdown on a wider number of subversive threats. Castelo Branco emphasized his desire to stabilize the Brazilian economy and reduce inflation; by 1966, he seemed to have some success, as it dropped to below 30%. He also strengthened the executive branch, creating the Serviço Nacional de Informações (National Information Services; SNI), an intelligence agency that oversaw internal spying, repression, and espionage. In an attempt to crack down on student opposition, he stripped the National Students Union of its official status, creating the National Directory of Students, which was directly responsible to the military regime, as an alternative; however, these efforts failed, and university students would become the most vocal and visible opponents of the regime throughout the remainder of the 1960s. Although it would not be completed until 1968, Castelo Branco also initiated several studies and projects that would ultimately shape the widespread reform of Brazil’s higher education system.
While Castelo Branco tried to reform Brazil’s economic and social landscape, he also transformed the political landscape for the worse, overseeing an intensification of repression and a reduction of democracy even while serving as a so-called “moderate” in a “democratic” regime. After the elections of 1965, when the citizens of the states of Guanabara [Rio de Janeiro city, incorporated into Rio de Janeiro state in 1975] and Minas Gerais elected opposition candidates, Castelo Branco implemented a crackdown on democracy, in part to placate those hardliners in the military. He issued Institutional Act Number 2, which, among other things: banned all political parties and created two new parties, the MDB and ARENA, which became referred to sardonically as the parties of “Yes” and “Yes, sir!”; reinstituted the removal of political rights of opponents; provided the president with the authority to establish a “state of siege” without Congressional approval, close Congress, and remove state officials; and create indirect elections for the presidency, in which the (purged) Congress would elect president. That was followed by Institutional Act No. 3 of 1966, which declared that the elections for governor would also be indirect, and that governors would appoint mayors for the capitals of each state. This not only denied democracy for the executive branch at both the federal and state levels; it also meant that citizens of Brazil’s largest cities (such as São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, Belo Horizonte, Recife, Salvador, and elsewhere) would not be able to elect their mayors, as the capitals of states were often the largest cities of the states. Consequently, the democratic options for an overwhelming majority of Brazilians were almost completely removed, even while the regime proclaimed itself to be “democratic.”
Though Castelo Branco had initially hoped to leave office in January 1966, the institutional acts, and the mobilization of the hard-liners, led to him remaining in office another fifteen months. Meanwhile, the hard-liners threw their support behind his minister of war, Artur Costa e Silva. Unwilling to split the army, Castelo Branco did little to prevent Costa e Silva’s election or the rise of the hard-liners in the military regime. Castelo Branco officially left office in March 1967; with his departure, the hard-liners had taken control of the regime, laying the foundation for the most repressive years of military rule, during which the regime and its security apparatuses tortured thousands of people, murdered hundreds, and led to the exile, forced or self-imposed, of thousands more.
However, Castelo Branco himself would not live to see the fullest extent of the repressive system he played no small part in creating. Only four months after he left office, he died when the plane he was traveling in collided with another in July 1967. Though it was seen as little more than an accident at the time, recently-discovered documents show that the military investigation into the crash was “superficial” at best, raising questions as to whether or not the accident was actually an “accident” (though nothing conclusive suggests it was planned either). Regardless, when he died, Castelo Branco was celebrated as a hero who had served his country in a variety of ways, from World War II to the presidency, and was seen as a leader who had “saved” Brazil from “subversion” and inflation; the fact that he was the first president of a regime that intensified the use of torture and repression and ultimately created financial policies that led to even worse inflation than when it overthrew Goulart in 1964 were events millions of other Brazilians would have to endure, but that Castelo Branco himself escaped.
-With Hugo Chávez in Cuba convalescing from further cancer treatment even while his inauguration looms, there is growing tension over whether Chávez will assume power constitutionally or not. Proponents say he does not have to be in the country to assume, while opponents say if he cannot be inaugurated on Thursday, then a new leader must be appointed. A new plan that could be implemented would delay the inauguration until Chávez is able to take office. Now, the Catholic Church in Venezuela has weighed in, proclaiming it to be “morally unacceptable” should Chávez remain in power without officially being present for his inauguration. While the Church’s stance is unlikely to turn the tide one way or another, it adds a powerful voice to a situation that’s already uncertain, and could add to the political tensions in the country.
-Students in Guatemala continue to take to the streets to protest the government’s planned educational reforms. The reforms include a plan to make teachers’ certification take five years instead of three (as it currently requires), a move that students say will cost them more, an issue that was at the heart of similar protests last year.
-Chilean authorities arrested eight military officials for the murder of folk singer Victor Jara in 1973. Jara, one of the best and most popular of the Nueva Canción movement that highlighted social inequalities and was often associated with leftist politics, was arrested, tortured, had his hands cut off, and was ultimately shot shortly after the military coup that overthrew democratically-elected president Salvador Allende and led to Augusto Pinochet’s regime. And while Chile has finally arrested eight officials tied to the murder, his widow, Joan, has asked the US to extradite Pedro Barrientos Nuñez, another official tied to the murder who currently lives in Florida.
-Haiti renewed ex-dictator Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier’s passport after a judge ordered Duvalier not face charges for human rights violations during his regime.
-In another example of the deep social impacts that migration and xenophobia filter into everyday life, rights activists in northern Mexico are increasingly facing threats from unnamed groups over their role in helping migrants.
-Argentina sentenced another sixteen former military officials and seven police officers and civilians for their roles in human rights violations during the military regime of 1976-1983, capping off a relatively successful year that saw a number of successes as human rights violators faced justice (and victims and their families saw some sense of closure) for their actions during the dictatorship.
-Speaking of human rights in Argentina, the use of torture, while widespread under the military rule, has never gone away. Fortunately, officials and rights activists are set to start using surprise visits to prisons, juvenile detention centers, and psychiatric hospitals in an attempt to discourage and prevent the torture of inmates.
-Honduras has fired its ambassador to Colombia after two computers were stolen during a party in which at least two suspected prostitutes were in attendance. Of course, this is not the first time that Colombian prostitutes have been connected to high-level security controversies for foreign powers.
-In an attempt to reduce the number of real crimes committed with fake weapons, Mexico City destroyed thousands of toy guns this week. While the effort to reduce crimes like robberies through the measure, one can only hope the move leads to a reduction in crime and not criminals using real guns that actually kill people in order to commit robberies.
-Last week, Salvadoran bus drivers and microbus operators launched a work stoppage to protest an end to government fuel subsidies. As Tim points out, although the work stoppage came to an end over the weekend, there’s the chance it could resume, as the issue of the subsidy has not yet been resolved.
-Finally, though it’s a few weeks old, Chilean Justice Minister and former rector of the Autonomous University of Chile, Teodoro Ribera, resigned his position as minister after he was tied to allegations of bribery and corruption, as well as to questionable accreditation practices, allegations that further hurt the already-unpopular president, Sebastián Piñera, who has faced mounting criticism and protests over the issue of the cost of higher education and demands for reforms.
-Colombia’s FARC has announced a cease-fire as peace talks to end a nearly-50 year civil war take place between one of the largest guerrilla forces and the Colombian government.
-In an ironic twist of history, Spain has asked Latin American countries to invest in it in order to help it through its economic crises. And where in colonial times Spain tried to dictate the economic ties between itself and its colonies in the Americas, the shoe is now on the other foot, as Latin America has said it will support Spain even while telling it it needed to avoid austerity measures.
-Chile’s influential student group, the Federación de los Estudiantes de la Universidad de Chile (Federation of Students of University of Chile; FECH) elected Andrés Fielbaum its new president, an office previously held by student leader Camila Vallejo. Meanwhile, Vallejo herself has announced she will run as a candidate for the Chamber of Deputies in Chile’s elections in November 2013.
-José Dirceu, former chief of staff to ex-president Luís Inácio Lula da Silva, was sentenced to ten years and ten months in prison for his role in the mensalão scandal, in which legislators were paid cash for supporting legislation in Congress. The sentence marks a remarkable fall from power for Dirceu, who was one of the key student leaders against the military regime in 1968 and a major player in the formation and operation of the Partido dos Trabalhadores (PT). Current PT president Dilma Rousseff has said she will uphold and will not discuss the sentencing. Lula himself has never been directly connected to the scheme.
-Adela Hernandez became Cuba’s first elected transgender political figure after winning a municipal election. The fact that Hernandez spent time in prison for “dangerousness” over her sexual identity in the 1980s and is now an elected official is a powerful reminder of the social transformations that have taken place in the last 20 years.
-Meanwhile, in gay rights in Rio de Janeiro, more than a million people are estimated to have attended the city’s Gay Pride Parade yesterday. While many Brazilians attend the parade as much for the party atmosphere as for any other reason, the fact that so many are exposed to anti-homophobia messages and willing to engage in a spirit of camaraderie with Brazil’s LGBT community is not-insignificant in improving the acceptance of gay peoples and cultures in Brazil.
-Police in Honduras have gone on protest after the government announced new measures designed to crack down on corruption. The efforts hinge upon a series of tests (including drug tests and psychometric tests), which have raised the ire of officers who insist they are not opposed to cleanup itself, but to the new methods involved.
-Although Alberto Fujimori is attempting to seek a pardon (even while living in some of the best conditions for any prisoner in Peru), a court has ruled that Alberto Fujimori should again stand trial, this time for corruption. Fujimori is currently serving 25 years in prison for his role in human rights violations during his presidency (1990-2000).
-In a unique and potentially-dubious attempt to combat extinction, Brazil has announced that it will attempt to clone endangered species, a move that conservationists fear will distract from the broader need to defend and protect ecosystems in which endangered species live.
-Argentines have taken to the streets to demonstrate against President Cristina Kirchner and to protest inflation, corruption, and what many believe will be her attempt to run for a third term as president (though she has made no move to suggest this will happen).
-Jamaica has finally abolished a slavery-era law that allowed flogging as a punishment for criminals. Though slavery was abolished in 1834, whipping inexplicably remained on the books into the twenty-first century.
-In a twist on the milk-carton ads, Mexico’s state of Chihuahua is putting on tortilla wrappers ads for missing persons in the state in an attempt to raise awareness of the problem and perhaps find some of those who have gone missing.
-Former mayor of São Paulo, Paulo Maluf, was convicted in a US court of diverting public funds from Brazil to an offshore account in the US, and ordered him to pay back more than $10.5 million. Maluf was mayor of São Paulo several times, and ended up being the pro-military party’s candidate for president when Brazil returned to a democracy in 1985; he ultimately lost the election to opposition candidate Tancredo Neves.
For those interested in the causes and fights of student leader Camila Vallejo who, along with Noam Titleman, was awarded the Letelier-Moffit Human Rights Award this week, check out the interview she did with IPS a few months ago. In the interview, she outlines what students have achieved (and can achieve) in Chile, discusses which tactics she thinks can work and which don’t, and talks about what it means to be a communist in the 21st century. It would have been nice if the interview spent a bit more time on the educational reforms Chile’s students are fighting for, but that caveat aside, it’s still a fascinating and well-done interview, and well worth the time.
Students in the state of Michoacán have recently protested changes in the curriculum, leading to increasing antagonisms and the occupation of three teachers’ colleges. The protests, and the government’s responses, get at the heart of the complexity of student movements and their connections to society more broadly.
The protests started with recent announcements that students at teachers’ colleges would have to take courses in English and computer science, fields that students felt were useless for programs designed to train teachers to help rural (and often still impoverished) areas. In the protests, some students ended up intercepting delivery trucks, not permitting the drivers or the trucks that entered the campuses to leave, leading the government to crack down by sending troops to the campuses to arrest anywhere from 120 to 300 students (based on initial reports), citing the loss of “hundreds of thousands of dollars per day” as the reason to violate the autonomy of college campuses.
This last point is not a small matter, neither in Mexico nor in Latin America more generally. Historically, university campuses have been seen as autonomous from government interference, and with justifiable reasons: the autonomy of the campus means that professors and students alike have the academic freedom to think and ask questions that may unsettle politicians or other powerful sectors of society. Campus invasions have happened in the past throughout the region – in Brazil in the early years of the dictatorship or in Mexico City in 1968, for example. But the repression involved in these invasions only reinforced the importance of campus autonomy, as the invasions were explicitly tied to dictatorial regimes. That’s not to say the occupying forces are dictatorial, but the move to occupy a campus is a rare one, and one fraught with political, social, and historical implications. It will be worth seeing if this becomes the new tactic for student protests in Mexico, or if this is an isolated incident.
Another issue at play, and one that is all too often overlooked, is the heterogeneity of student voices, and the ways in which it ultimately inhibits students’ ability to have input into how education in the Americas operates. While some students are protesting, many others are opposed to the protests. Separate protests at Mexico City’s National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM, the same school that the armed troops invaded in 1968) provide a powerful reminder of this:
This month, about 100 students at Mexico City’s Autonomous University rushed the gates of their seized campus and briefly forced out striking students, who later returned with a pickup truck to bash in the gates and retake the school. The two sides are now in talks to end the standoff.
With only a dozen or so masked students holding some campuses at the school, frustration has boiled over among hundreds of locked-out students who tried to take make-up classes in improvised classrooms. The strikers were backed by some professors and university employees.
“We are now holding classes in tents, at the soccer field next to the campus, and the conditions are deplorable,” said Gustavo Martinon, 23, a media arts student at the university’s Cuautepec campus. “When it rains, the tents flood.”
“The engineering students need labs and computers, and they don’t have them. We (media arts) students need the radio station, the video facilities, and all the equipment we need.”
Like most of the other students trying to take back the campus, Martinon said he has no position on whether the strikers have a legitimate grudge. Taking over a campus and affecting thousands of students, he said, isn’t the way to air a grievance.
This isn’t surprising. Although the tendency in the US media is to portray student movements as a unified bloc, they never are; even Chile’s student movement, which has been able to mobilize tens of thousands of students in recent months, it has not managed to have all students in Chile join, and it is one of the more successful of recent student mobilizations. Nor is it surprising that, when students find their own studies interrupted by those in other programs with different issues, they tend to be antagonistic towards the mobilization and strikes; as Erik Loomis has repeatedly pointed out (most recently with the Chicago Teachers’ Union strike), people who claim to support a movement suddenly turn against it the moment it interrupts their daily lives.
Martinon’s comments are a perfect example of that, and his failure to even consider the legitimacy of the demands shows the ways students themselves can undermine their own causes. By failing to consider whether the striking students’ demands are legitimate (and thus, worth supporting), he and thousands of others have refused to show solidarity. That matters for a number of reasons. First, by fragmenting internally, students ultimately weaken their position in the face of administration and state officials who gain the upper hand in imposing their vision and will on curriculum and campuses without necessarily listening to or heeding students’ voices or needs. Secondly, and in turn, such divisions hurt long-term student organization and defense of student interests; if one group fails to support another when they mobilize to protect their interests, why should the second group mobilize for the first group when the time comes for them to make their demands?
Additionally, Martinon’s argument that protests aren’t the appropriate way to air grievances is at best highly problematic. More often than not, protests and occupations are the best and even only way for students to make their voices collectively heard, and are usually a last resort after failure to use more “quiet” methods, such as petitions, lobbying, etc., have failed; this is the case throughout Latin America, be it in Mexico in 1968, Brazil in the 1960s, or even Chile today. Martinon himself doesn’t seem to realize that this is true; he complains about students protesting and shutting down campus because their educational experience is lacking, but then complains that everybody suffers on campus, as if these two things were unconnected, as if the university is not being run as an institution by state officials and university administrators; they see universities as a single, large organism, something students like Martinon fail to do.
And there are likely thousands of Martinons in these protests, both in Mexico City and Michoacán, whose irritation at inconveniences spurred by protests and campus shutdowns blinds them to the fact that the students are in fact all in this together, even if the immediate demands of the protesters has little to do with other colleges on campuses. Students could realize that curriculum reform, much-needed infrastructural improvements (like the engineering students’ needs for computers and labs or Martinon’s own need for a radio station and video labs) are part of the same struggle, and that protests are often the fastest way to bring attention to your causes and to see they are addressed; students in Brazil in the 1950s and 1960s increasingly took to the streets to make such demands, and ultimately the military regime ended up trying to address some of those issues students raised in protests via a massive university reform in 1968; though the regime had its own reasoning and defenses for the reform, there’s little doubt student complaints had created a broad awareness of the failings of the university system, failings the regime had to address. And again, more recently, by taking to the streets and making public their complaints themselves (rather than relying on media or politicians to frame the debate), students in Chile have been able to draw massive support to their cause of educational reform, leading to very low support for President Sebastián Piñera.
These are just some of the issues at play in the recent Mexican protests, but they do provide a good example both of the challenges facing students throughout the hemisphere today, not only in terms of opposition to governmental policies or weaknesses in curricula and infrastructure on campuses, but in terms of the challenges in working as a collective with shared interests as well.
On Thursday, Maria Rosa Leite Guimarães, human rights activist and mother of Honestino Guimarães, a student leader and one of the many of the Brazilian dictatorship’s “disappeared” victims, passed away at the age of 84. A professor (like her husband) and mother of four, she relocated to Brasília in the early-1960s, shortly after the city was officially inaugurated. In Brasília, her oldest son, Honestino, whom she described as being political “since childhood,” became increasingly involved in the student movement after the military coup of 1964. He became active in his high school student movement , first in high school and then in college when he enrolled in the Universidade de Brasília (UnB). Honestino quickly became a leading figure in the student movement in Brasília, directly under the eyes of the military regime that resided in the country’s new capital. As student protests increased in the 1966-1968 period, he became a key actor in the student movement on the national level (he is believed to be the youth with glasses and a white shirt on the left in this famous image of students protesting military rule). At first, Maria Rosa and her family did not think much about this activism, seeing it as logical with whom Honestino was. As she herself said in an interview in 2005, “at first, we thought what was happening was natural: it was a student thing, there were demands that should have been met, there were people preparing for a better world.”
However, with growing repression throughout 1968, Honestino’s family, including Maria Rosa, became increasingly worried. When the military invaded the campus of UnB in June 1968, she said the experience was “horrible, it was terrible! It was a signal of war that the people saw: all of the streets to UnB were occupied by soldiers [...] I passed by that line of soldiers, a crazy thing, knowing that all of that was in order to arrest, in order to liquidate Honestino. Thus, it was a terrible thing.” Honestino was arrested, but ultimately released. However, the sufferings were not his alone; the military monitored Maria Rosa’s apartment in Brasília, tapped the apartment’s phones, and made her family’s life increasingly unsafe. As the military regime entered its most repressive phase at the end of 1968, Honestino went underground. Nonetheless, Maria Rosa and her husband managed to occasionally visit Honestino, even under the threat of being discovered and arrested themselves or giving up the location of their son. When the president of the National Student Union, or UNE, was arrested in 1970, Honestino became interim president, being elected in 1971. He would be the last president of the organization until its semi-clandestine return in 1979. He continued to live in clandestinity, organizing protests and actions against the dictatorship, until 10 October 1972. On that date, he was arrested. It was the last anybody definitively heard from him.
With her son’s arrest, Maria Rosa began to try to find him. She went to visit him where she had been told he was held, but upon arriving, officials informed her he was not there. In a story all too common to mothers in Brazil and throughout South America in this period, she continued trying to track down the location of her son; every dead end only led to greater worry, panic, and uncertainty. By 1976, political prisoners familiar with the prisons and the regime’s repression were saying Honestino had been murdered and disappeared; only in 1996 was he finally declared officially dead. To this date, his fate and the location of his remains are unknown.
In the wake of the disappearance of her eldest son’s death, Maria Rosa became an important figure in the fight for human rights and a defender of the student movement in Brazil. Throughout the remainder of the military dictatorship, and up until the present, she was one of the more vocal critics of the regime’s use of repression, speaking out against human rights abuses it committed not only against her son, but against thousands of Brazilians, demanding information on the fate of her own son and the fates of hundreds of others “disappeared” during military rule. Although the regime ended and its horrors faded from public memory, she herself never stopped suffering the pain of her loss, and the loss of many other mothers like her, and she worked tirelessly to make sure Brazilians remembered the horrors and human rights violations under military rule. Her own observations on the event make clear just how deep the wound of a “disappeared” loved one was: in that 2005 interview, she commented, “I don’t think on these things, I don’t sit around remembering – I’m not a masochist…”.
She may not have been a masochist, but Maria Rosa Leite Guimarães was a crusader for human rights in Brazil, a woman who, like far too many other mothers and fathers, suffered the effects of military rule in Latin America. Her death is a major loss for activists in Brazil, but her activism itself will live on; as Daniel Iliescu, the current-president of the National Student Union that Honestino once presided over, said, “In this moment, we are all orphans“.
Que se descanse em paz, Dona Maria. May you finally be reunited with your long-lost son at last.