History and Memory - Brazil's Guerrilla Trap
What led middle-class students to join the urban guerrilla movement against the military regime in Brazil in the 1960s and 1970s? Alzira Alves de Abreu reports on the evidence from interviews with those who survived.
With the kidnapping of US ambassador Charles Burke Elbrick in Rio de Janeiro on September 4th, 1969, the world and Brazil were made aware of the existence of a guerrilla movement in the country. For the armed forces who had seized power in a 1964 coup d'état and for Brazil's public security services and the police, this event also showed that the guerrilla movement comprised young people in the fifteen to twenty-five age group who belonged to the urban middle classes and who resided in Rio de Janeiro's most sophisticated neighbourhoods. It further showed that a large number of these guerrilla fighters had attended the city's best secondary schools or were students at the country's top universities.
What led these young people to join political movements that would find them involved in violent actions (and forced some of them to go underground, under the constant threat of arrest, torture, or even death) can only be understood within the broader context of events in Brazil and abroad during the 1960s.
The 1950s and 1960s in Brazil were rich in economic and cultural experiences. The national economy grew at an annual rate of some 8 per cent while its industry grew at around 10 per cent per year. In the late 1950s, the country's industrial structure underwent noteworthy changes, with the durable consumer goods and capital goods sectors leading a process of industrialisation. Leaving behind its role as an exporter of agricultural products, Brazil was on the road to becoming an industrialised nation. This was also a time of great cultural effervescence. The bossa nova pushed Brazilian pop music in new directions; poetry became politically engaged; the so-called cinema novo, led by directors such as Glauber Rocha, brought the country's social and political problems into debate and introduced a new cinematographic language. Brazilian theatre underwent a revival, incorporating social and political issues, innovating its language, and introducing a new generation of authors and actors. Literature grew more introspective, placing greater emphasis on psychological analysis. Also during these two decades revolutionary ideas in urbanism and architecture took concrete shape, with the urban planner Lúcio Costa and the architect Oscar Niemeyer building the nation's new capital, Brasília.
This cultural revival, in which middle-class youth participated, occurred in parallel with a process of political radicalisation within Brazilian society. During the early 1960s, Brazil's political and cultural life saw active participation by left-wing intellectuals, artists and young people who believed they were speaking in the name of the masses and who worked at the grass roots to politicise and educate these masses so that they would acquire a political consciousness and support the socialist revolution. All these expectations were thwarted when the armed forces seized power.
The cornerstone for the generation of Brazil's 'years of darkness' was the 1964 military coup, under which the armed forces toppled President João Goulart's democratic regime and took power. From that moment on, the young people who had been active in the country's political and cultural life began to see an alternative way ahead: instead of politicising the apathetic masses, they opted for violent action. According to this youth movement, it was up to an enlightened minority, with weapons in its hands, to defend the immobile masses and make society more just and more egalitarian.
The other notable date in this decade's process of political radicalisation was 1968. The student protest movements unleashed that year in so many different parts of the world seemed for a time to supplant all other political movements. Such protests encompassed the realms of politics, culture, ethics, customs, sexuality, tastes and aesthetics, and their main target appeared to be authority, which the young challenged in all its aspects. In Brazil, university and high school student protests against the military government intensified, with constant marches in the face of police repression. On December l5th, 1968, fearful of student radicalisation and of co-ordinated political action against the dictatorship, Brazil's armed forces signed Institutional Act No. 5, suspending civil rights guarantees and giving the executive branch power over the legislature and the judiciary. From this moment onwards the regime intensified its repression and students were kicked off the streets. It was at this point that many joined the armed struggle and went underground.
Our research study conducted among survivors of those who took part in Brazil's guerrilla movement shows that political militancy was not in most of their minds before 1968; rather, these young people intended to finish their studies and take up professional lives. They did not intend school or college political activities to turn into full-time militancy. They wanted to become engineers, doctors, teachers, scientists, diplomats, and so on. But the regime's repressive actions, the absence of any space where ideas could be expressed, and the lack of freedom to act politically against the dominant forces pushed this generation towards a form of politics that involved violent action.
José, for example, who is now an engineer working in the environmental area, was an undergraduate student in engineering when he joined the armed struggle. He was from a middle-class family: his father worked at the Banco do Brasil and his mother was a teacher. He studied at Pedro II, a top-quality public high school. In explaining why he decided to join a revolutionary organisation, Jose said:
All of us were cut off from any participation in political life. I'd say we belonged to a generation that had its roads blocked. I had no idea my participation in the student movement would lead me to become a militant. The things I did back then were natural things, part of my universe. I collected stamps, was class officer, president of the student union; I organised parties, organised student assemblies, took part in strikes. My aim was to become an engineer. My going underground – shortly after Institutional Act No. 5 – was a consequence of the political moment we were living through.
The conviction that armed struggle was the only way to bring down the dictatorship and establish a socialist regime in Brazil was born as a result of the splits and divisions within the Brazilian Communist Party (Partido Comunista Brasileiro, or PCB). The PCB's 'old guard' challenged the Central Committee's policies and were the principal figures behind the organisation of the guerrilla movements that appeared in Brazil after 1967, which were joined by members of the student movement, especially in the cities of Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo. Some twenty organisations representing different political tendencies were active in Brazil during the late 1960s and the 1970s. Their political stripes included Marxism- Leninism, Maoism, Trotskyism, De- bray's guerrilla theory and the Albanian and Cuban causes, among others. This generation of young students considered the PCB itself to be a routed party, bearing responsibility for the downfall of Joao Goulart's constitutional presidency. Brazilian youth saw the entire pre-1964 Left as incompetent, a Left that had done nothing but make mistakes. Only the older leaders who organised the guerrilla movements were respected and admired.
These young people entered the guerrilla movements in stages, gradually growing closer step by step to full 'militancy'. Recruitment at schools or universities began with participation in lecture groups and debates, where Marxist classics were read and also papers delineating the political tendencies of Brazil's different guerrilla organisations. The future guerrilla fighters were thus introduced to a complex of strategies, tactics and theoretical divergences. During this initiation phase, the prospective guerrillas did not know the leaders of the group and had little information on the movement's organisational structure.
The transition from the position of initiate to that of full militant often entailed participation in so-called para-party organisations – or OPPs. This involved taking on tasks that ranged from distributing pamphlets at factory entrances to gathering information on the movement of security forces around banks, supermarkets, etc – the targets for hold- ups. Some individuals would receive military training during this stage.
Another step towards becoming a full militant involved introduction to a hierarchy of secrets: the more information a candidate had, or the more access he or she had to the organisation's secrets, the closer to being accepted as a full member.
Once accepted as a full member, an individual could continue performing political tasks and living an open life, or be forced to go underground. In the interviews with a large number of these ex-guerrilla fighters there is constant reference to the fact that no decision was ever made to join the armed struggle. They have no recollection of the exact moment when this took place. Going underground, however, was a decision that was discussed with the group, and all of those interviewed have a precise memory of this moment.
For these young people going underground meant not only breaking away from a normal family life and their circle of friends but also taking on a new identity, a new name, a new birth place and date, new names for their parents, a new address, a new occupation, a new identity card. They became someone else, someone invented, who had nothing to do with his or her real past or life story, although the false identity had to be reconciled with the real one.
The kidnapping of Ambassador Elbrick in September 1969 marked the apex of urban guerrilla actions in Brazil. From that point on, repression increased and the methods employed became more rational and refined. The armed forces took control of the fight against guerrilla movements, since neither the federal or state police were able to deal effectively with them. The action of the armed forces brought rapid results. Two months later, on November 4th, the police killed one of the most important guerrilla leaders, Carlos Marighela. From then on, the armed struggle lost ground and its members turned to actions that were aimed basically at assuring survival of their group, even though other kidnappings and attacks on banks, military barracks, and so on were carried out with the goal of freeing political prisoners and gathering the funds needed to keep the guerrillas going.
While the actions taken by the young guerrillas may have been looked on with some sympathy by the middle and working classes, this was not reflected in any effective support for their struggle. One aspect that should not be overlooked is that 1967-73 was a period of unprecedented economic growth for Brazil – the time of the Brazilian 'economic miracle'. Gross domestic product (GDP) grew by over 11 per cent per year between 1968 and 1973, the annual industrial growth rate was over 13 per cent and inflation did not rise much above 20 per cent per year. During the 1970s, the urban population surpassed the rural and the population growth rate began dropping.
During this process, the middle class – the major beneficiary of Brazil's so-called economic miracle – revised its political values and changed its attitudes towards the young revolutionaries whose actions had become violent. No longer able to count on the backing of the middle class, the young rebels lost support even among their own families and friends. In speaking about this period, Carlos, then a young revolutionary, recounts an incident that epitomises this change. During the 1968 marches and protest strikes against the military regime, one of Carlos' uncles was talking with a group of his friends, one of whom made a reference to two very important Jewish youths. The uncle proudly stated that one of them was his nephew. Not long after, Carlos was forced into exile, after which his uncle would no longer identify him to friends as his nephew; on the contrary, he denied any relationship with him. Carlos' father and uncles owned small businesses. He lived in a middle-class neighbourhood, went to a prestigious school and was studying economics when he joined the underground. Today he is a university professor.
The absence of support from the population at large pushed these armed groups into isolation. Life underground, especially from early 1970, became more and more difficult, not helped by news about the torture of political prisoners and reports of the large number of deaths during police raids and arrests. The active life of an urban guerrilla fighter in Brazil was short: about one year after initiation, ending in arrest, exile or death. Rarely did a guerrilla fighter survive four years of armed struggle.
While police and military repression intensified, the underground organisations began wielding ever greater control over the public and private lives of their members. Authoritarianism and repression was intensified in relation not only to political behaviour, but also to friendships and sexual relationships.
This period was especially hard for women, because it seemed that their victories in the fight for independence and equality vis-a-vis men had been for nothing. Females in any case were a minority of those involved in Brazil's armed struggle. If we look at 695 legal proceedings which the state brought against those who opposed the military regime, 88 per cent of the accused were men. Furthermore, the women who were active in groups on the armed Left rarely reached leadership positions. Defining strategies and tactics, political orientations and political analyses were tasks entrusted to men. Considering that the great majority of women (ie, 73 per cent) accused of having ties with armed groups were students or teachers or in other occupations requiring a college education, it is indeed revealing that they could not play a more central role when it came to drawing up political proposals or leading these organisations.
When speaking about their experiences, those women who managed to attain leadership positions within guerrilla organisations recall that the men wanted to relegate them to secondary or 'female' tasks. But many refused to go along with this. Vera, an ex-guerrilla fighter from a family of Communist intellectuals, talked about the problems she ran into when holding a leadership position in a clandestine organisation and in an armed commando unit made up almost exclusively of men:
It was an extremely tough situation, not at all easy far me. I took care of all the tasks essential to the success of an operation but when it came time for the operation, everyone else had a machine gun or a .38 while I got the worst revolver, the least powerful one.
By the early 1970s, it had already become clear to many that they had been defeated and that the armed forces had created an intense and violent system of repression which reached effectively into all organisations. So why did these young people insist on continuing in the armed struggle?
The testimonies of these guerrilla fighters today give a clear picture of the problems they came up against in deciding to leave their organisation, even after they realised that the armed struggle was hopeless. This decision was no longer individual; it involved the group, the organisation. As the ring closed in around them, the guerrilla fighters looked for alternatives, but by that time these were generally limited. Any attempt to leave an organisation was seen as a danger for those who stayed, since there was the risk that the 'repentant' would disclose secrets. It is true that some went abroad, while others handed themselves over to the police voluntarily, but most militants stayed where they were – and this decision to stay seems usually to have been made more on ethical than political grounds. Once it had become clear that insisting on this type of action would lead to death, some decided to keep on fighting in a gesture of fidelity to those who had died, even if they themselves no longer believed in this form of struggle.
The decision to 'not get out' involved the idea of 'sacrifice', of giving one's life for a cause, of participating in the construction of a new world, a new, more just and egalitarian society. These young people counted on recognition for the heroic roles they were playing. They saw themselves as heroes, as the vanguard of the revolutionary movement, the elite that would lead the masses.
Their rôle models were Che Guevara, Fidel Castro, Mao Tse-tung – contemporaries of these 1970 protesters. But it appears that heroes from the past had just as important a motivational role as contemporary ones. Tiradentes – the Brazilian revolutionary, José Joaquim da Silva Xavier, who fought against Portuguese colonial domination in the late eighteenth century – was the model who stayed in the popular imagination as one who 'sacrificed' himself in the name of the ideals of freedom, autonomy and independence for Brazil. Many guerrilla fighters used the figure of this national hero to justify or explain their decision not to quit the armed struggle.
Those who stayed because they could not or would not get out were eventually arrested and tortured, and many died in the hands of the police or armed forces. Imprisonment and even the possibility of death were ways of 'getting out'. Today when these individuals talk about this period, about the circumstances under which they were arrested, they seem to be saying that they chose this route to 'get out' of the armed struggle. In recounting the moment of their arrest, almost all of them show it was desired, albeit unconsciously. The revolutionaries left themselves exposed to arrest; imprisonment was a way of leaving behind the underground life – a life of tension, fleeing, fear and distrust.
It was with much emotion that the ex-guerrilla fighter JJ re-lived the moments leading up to her arrest. She said:
I'll tell you quite frankly, the circumstances of my arrest were terrible, because they coincided with my husband's death, and although I was in a state of shock for fifteen days, I had a feeling of great relief, in this sense: it's over. It's like a tumour – have you ever had a boil? When the darn thing bursts, it hurts, but it's a relief, because it's a different pain, not that constant pounding. For me, that's what the underground period was.
The guerrilla fighters' realisation that they had failed to bring down the dictatorship and build the new society of which they had dreamed brought them face to face with the possibility of having to give up their choice of life. They saw themselves as guerrilla fighters, as revolutionaries, and for many giving up this identity meant 'choosing death'.
Vera talked about how impossible it was to 'get out of' the organisation that she herself had helped create. She tells us:
I had to stay in the organisation. I had founded it; I felt very much tied to the whole group, in caring, affectionate terms even. They were my friends; it was my life. It was my life and my death. I had to live out this contradiction. Outside of the organisation, what was ? I had no identity. That was my identity: I was a guerrilla fighter – on the decline, surrounded by the police, however it may have been. We were people who had proposed to change society. I had joined the armed struggle when I was fifteen. I think that renouncing this social identity would have been to accept death.
Many of the ex-guerrilla fighters that were interviewed are now journalists, economists, historians, social scientists, lawyers, engineers, politicians etc. Fernando Gabeira was a journalist in Rio de Janeiro at the time he joined the guerrilla movement. After taking part in the kidnapping of the US ambassador, Gabeira was arrested and then went into exile. When he returned to Brazil, he went back to newspaper reporting and began a political career, founding the Green Party in Rio de Janeiro and winning a seat as a federal deputy. Another example is Daniel, whose father was a lawyer and whose mother, a teacher. He joined the guerrilla movement when he was in law school. As one of the leaders of MR-8, an armed movement, he was arrested, went into exile, and upon returning became a history professor. Cid, another leader of MR-8, also took part in the kidnapping of Elbrick. His father was an army officer and chemical engineer; his mother a chemist. He too attended a top high school. At the time he joined the armed struggle he was studying engineering. He was arrested, went into exile, and upon return became a journalist. He is an active member of the Workers' Party.
These biographical sketches show that, once they had finished their adventure in armed struggle, left prison, or returned from exile following the August 1979 amnesty, most of the surviving guerrilla fighters resumed the careers for which they had originally been preparing.
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