Lost Sambista

A Brazil never seen.

Archive for the tag “Cuban Revolution”

Lost Samba Chapter 08/02 – The birth of modern Brazil.

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The elected president Jânio Quadros resembled Britain’s Neville Chamberlain in appearance and in political positioning but he shared Churchill’s reputed love for the bottle. The masses adored him, but the elite ridiculed his over the top mannerisms and sneered at his mediocre intelligence. This was a time of great political turmoil with a growing influence of working class organizations on Brazilian public life, which made the middle and upper classes feel threatened. In 1961, Quadros resigned hoping the country would unite to demand his reinstatement.

This never happened and his vice president, João Goulart, took over. Goulart had strong links to trade unions and to left wing state governors, such as Miguel Arraes in Pernambuco and Leonel Brizola in Rio Grande do Sul. In contrast to the United States, Goulart saw no problem in maintaining good relations with Fidel Castro’s Cuba and he went so far as to invite Che Guevara to give a speech to the Brazilian Congress.

The Cuban revolution was still very much in the air. Confronting the political and economic control that the United States had over the region, that uprising had shown Latin America new possibilities. As far as the political left was concerned, Cuba had demonstrated that the continent had the ability to stand up for itself, choosing social justice, independence and development over the subservient path envisaged by the so-called “free world”. Societies striving towards cooperation rather than on profit scared the hell out of the establishment, especially at the height of the Cold War. Washington did everything in its power to crush the Cuban example, imposing a trade blockade, helping exiles in an aborted invasion and attempting to assassinate its leaders. The only result of this policy was to push the Cubans closer to the Soviet Union, and this alliance made a socialist – a communist even – Latin America a dreaded, but very real, possibility.

As for Brazil, the United States was determined to keep the largest country in South America “free” and in 1964 they actively supported a military coup. There were troops and tanks in the streets of the main cities, but they found no organized resistance to challenge them. Although the military leaders stated their aim was to restore democracy in Brazil by getting rid of the communists, it would take two decades for the country to return to political normality. The new regime exiled President Goulart and his allies, withdrew the political rights of numerous public and media figures, and imprisoned key leftist activists.

Despite outrage amongst the intelligentsia and at first a general indifference within the working class, the military delighted the business community, Dad included. For them, Brazil desperately needed to modernize to achieve its full economic potential: the giant had to wake up. With the business friendly, anti-communist military in power and guidance from Uncle Sam, nothing could go wrong.

*

Not until 1968 did Brazil’s civil society begin to stand up in opposition to the government, mirroring events in Paris, Chicago and Prague. After the police shot and killed a student, 100,000 people, including many eminent artists and intellectuals, took to the streets of Rio in the largest anti-government demonstration that Brazil had ever experienced. Opposition spread so fast that even military-appointed congressmen started to speak out against the undemocratic rulers. The regime’s response was swift and brutal, overruling the constitution to issue the infamous AI-5 – Unconstitutional Act Number Five – suspending congress and handing full political authority to the president. Members of the opposition, protest leaders and journalists were imprisoned. Torture became commonplace and many leftist politicians, writers and artists fled into exile.

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Policemen repressing a protester in 1968

Some students went underground and joined urban guerrilla organisations, staging successful bank robberies and high-profile kidnappings. In 1969, after the seizure of the American ambassador in Rio and the planting of bombs in military quarters, the authorities stepped up the repression. People started to disappear, including the son of our family doctor. Embryonic nuclei of revolutionary militias took to the countryside seeking to emulate the Cuban revolution. In one case, in the early 1970s, the Brazilian army dispatched a division of around 10,000 soldiers to hunt down some twenty Maoist youths in the remote Araguaia jungle region. The army executed most of the captured militants.

These were dark times and the authorities censured everything; books, plays, films, songs. They also kept a tight grip on the content of all newspapers and of all radio and television stations. Nevertheless, although the violent suppression of the Araguaia insurgency went unreported, people sensed the tension and the militants acquired a legendary status. There were all sorts of crazy theories about the reach of the guerrillas’ power. Like with anything else in life, when myth takes over problems emerge. In this case, both the militants and their suppressors overestimated what minute groups of extremists could possibly achieve in such a vast and complex country. Together, the opposing sides sent the country into a steady political decline. There was fear and mistrust everywhere, and sometimes my pre-adolescent friends and I would interrupt voicing our political fantasies when we saw someone suspicious around. At night in bed, listening to underground rock ‘n’ roll music and feeling oppressed by my parents; I transformed into a secret revolutionary, dreaming about taking up arms to fight for liberty and equality.

*

The brew of repression, rebellion and revolution on one side and the collapse of traditions, the new technologies, free sex and forbidden drugs on the other, affected everyone in one way or another, and resulted in a polarized society. A young person had to choose between being an agent of change or a supporter of the regime.

However, with the impossibility of political solutions, counterculture emerged as a tolerated middle ground. The subversive germ was kept alive in non-mainstream artistic expressions generating the famous slogan of “be a marginal, be a hero!” These anti-establishment devotees also wanted to change the world, but they did not belong to any left-wing organization aiming at regime change. This allowed them to voice the spirit of change and, because the system was able to dismiss their artistic creations as mere entertainment, record companies and other entrepreneurs were free to exploit these expressions as a lucrative, rich kid’s market. Although neither side liked each other, there was an explosion of talent backed by solid marketing strategies in what was one of Brazil’s most creative cultural periods.

On the other hand, if censorship had managed to mute local expressions it could not interfere with Brazil’s educated youth having access to foreign voices at a time when anti-establishment culture was at its peak abroad. Any Brazilian who had a dictionary around or who knew English, could easily connect to what was going on in the minds of their counterparts abroad. The loudest voice in counter culture was music, more specifically in Rock ‘n’ roll that still had plenty of revolutionary influence in it.

What may be hard to understand in today’s cynical world is that everyone – even the members of the greatest bands – believed in the changes they defended. Fame and fortune were not the only motors that drove the great rockers at their peak, they genuinely saw their creative outputs as being part of a wider movement to overthrow the political and social status quo. The technological edge of their music helped deepen its rupture with the past, and was celebrated with ecstatic solos on their distorted guitars, which gave a sound and even a spiritual edge to the dream.

This was my musical upbringing. I was eight when the Beatles split up; Led Zeppelin released “Stairway to Heaven” when I was nine; the Rolling Stones launched “Exile on Main Street” when I was ten; and Pink Floyd’s “The Dark Side of The Moon” was released when I was eleven. For someone from a traditional Jewish background living under a military dicatorship these were ground-breaking and mind-blowing cultural torpedoes and their energy guided my generation throughout its formative years. Although the outcome of most these bands were commercial triumphs, they were much more than this; their music separated the new from the old. By listening to them, and by adopting their attitude, young people suddenly became closer to each other, sometimes closer to “subversive” strangers than to their own family.

We, from the youngest generations, received these messages in our remote bedroom outposts – we had to resist the “squares” and fight to be ourselves, to create our own identities, and subvert the plans that the system had in store for us and for the future. The military noticed the agitation and knew that there was something uncontrollable in the air, but they could not put their finger on it, let alone halt it. They could imprison a hippy for smoking weed, but not for his thoughts.

This radical, libertarian, perhaps distorted and somewhat naive struggle consuming the youth would have more complicated consequences as it sank deeper into the social fabric. The consumption of drugs exploded in the favelas and crime became more frequent and more daring. In fact, the Brazilian organized underworld was born around this time, when in the 1970s, political detainees were confined together with some of the country’s most dangerous criminals in the high security prison of Ilha Grande, to the south of Rio. The militants viewed their cellmates’ fate as a consequence of a flawed economic system, and to move the revolution forward they sought to convert the so-called “common criminals” to their radical views. While it is doubtful that this campaign of politicisation was at all successful, the criminals did take on board the importance of group solidarity and of structure. With this in mind, they began a syndicate that operated outside the penitentiary system but that was controlled from inside the prison walls. They put in practice the techniques the militants had taught them and became competent bank robbers and kidnappers. This was the birth of the infamous Comando Vermelho (the Red Command) that would become Rio’s most powerful underworld organization, controlling most of the city’s drugs and arms trafficking.

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The Comando Vermelho’s insignia.

Lost Samba – Chapter 03/02 – Settling in Rio

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Before moving to Brazil, Raphael and Renée met Paulo through a mutual friend in their house in north London. Paulo lived in far-off place that everybody had heard about, to which many were attracted, but where few had actually been: Rio de Janeiro. He had moved there from Germany before the war and the colourful stories that he told about his new country, its people, its beauty and its customs convinced my parents to come over for a visit. When they did in 1955, it was love at first sight and they decided to make the move. Brazil was an uncommon destination for a young Jewish couple: after the war they were supposed to move to Israel by ideology, or to North America, South Africa or Australia, which were more familiar in terms of culture and as promising in terms of opportunities.

Apart from his exotic address, Paulo had another peculiarity: he was a member of the Communist Party, a huge statement at the height of the Cold War. After my father came over to live in Brazil, they became best friends. Dad was far from being left-wing but their long conversations reignited memories of the political discussions in Yiddish that had been at the heart of Jewish life in Eastern Europe. During one such debate, Paulo showed off a watch made in communist East Germany, the GDR. Although it was unimpressive, Dad spotted what he felt was an amazing business opportunity. In the popular mind, “German” was synonymous with “reliable” and, coming from a communist country, the prices of the watches would be extremely competitive. They would surely sell like water to the emerging Brazilian lower middle class.

Dad soon opened an importation business in Rio. For an outsider, at first thought it might have seemed strange for someone who had two thirds of his family slaughtered by the Nazis to make a living through selling German products. Nevertheless, Dad was at ease with the no-nonsense approach so typical of Germans and he pragmatically tried to apply this state of mind to his own business decisions. In this, he was little different to most of his Jewish friends; despite all they and their close ones had gone through during the war they sill maintained their respect for Teutonic pragmatism and straightforwardness. As most eastern Europeans they continued to see Germany as an incorruptible and innate leader. While they may have physically left Europe, the old continent had never left them.

With a business up and running, a rented flat facing the beach and furnished in the best British style, the comfort of a live in maid and promising prospects ahead, the next step was to start a family. Sarah arrived in 1958 and, five years later, my time came.

*

Thirty centimetres taller than the average local female, a strong gringo accent and a wardrobe full of fashionable clothes tailored in London, for Brazilians, Mum came across as a powerful, adventurous and open-minded woman who was ahead of her time. This was easy in a place where respectable housewives were never seen out at night, not even in restaurants with their husbands. Her bikinis – in vogue in post-war Europe – showed her belly button. This display of nudity shocked many people at the beach and, more than once, lifeguards asked her to leave.

Mum was also one of the first women drivers in Rio, which attracted many comments, some rude and some in admiration. Neither of these two approaches disturbed her, as in Renée’s opinion Brazilians transformed into uncivilized cowboys as soon as they were behind a steering wheel. In the country that was to provide the world with Formula One racing champions such as Emerson Fittipaldi, Nelson Piquet and Ayrton Senna, she took upon herself the mission of teaching the natives by example how to respect speed limits. Her car always ended up slowing down the fast lane, which put her on the receiving end of a constant flow of hooting and swearing from the drivers she had forced to overtake on the wrong side.

The attitude behind her driving was revealing. At home, she banned any novelty that suggested being more advanced or more forward than the image she had of herself. Because of this, our domestic life was stoic, almost puritan, with the occasional verbal and physical abuse when she lost control of things. There was no television, no comic magazines and no Brazilian or international popular music, be it jazz, bossa nova or rock ‘n’ roll. She also forbade sweets, chocolates, fizzy-drinks and pastries, insisting on a diet of generally tasteless, health-food.

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Mum and my sister.

Dad was born in 1900 in the Polish town of Krosno, in the Austro-Hungarian province of Galicia. Eastern European Jews considered the  Galitzers  as the peasants of their world while their fellow Austro-Hungarians looked down upon Jews from that region as being the peasants’ peasants. Therefore, in Dad’s mind it was a great social leap to marry into my mum’s well-established Golders Green family. Perhaps because of this, Dad went along with her rules. For him, his young wife – 20 years his junior – symbolized the highest expression of London’s refinement, a world that he wanted to belong to. However, he never really achieved this goal as, in so many ways, his thoughts and attitudes were lost in a time warp. He occasionally would let his world slip out in stories from his past: of the rabbi whose beard he had glued to the table while he was sleeping; the barn where he had managed to fool a Polish policeman searching for illegal alcohol; his grandfather, a wealthy anti-Zionist, who everyone came to seek advice; and a plethora of jokes, sayings and religious teachings from that vanished space-time that only lived on in his memories and in precious photographs.

For my Old Man, Brazil was an attempt at reinvention, but in his new life he could hardly have been more of an outsider. Not only was he a foreigner to Brazil, he was also foreigner to a life of middle class urban comfort and a foreigner by age and by experience to most of his social circle. The relative innocence and the joyousness in his new country contrasted with his hidden solitude and the disappearance of his former world, of which the last remaining thread of contact were his business links in East Germany, a Soviet satellite born of the country that had caused him so much pain.

Perhaps to maintain his sanity, whenever the weather permitted Dad reconnected to his universe on solitary dawn-walks along Copacabana’s oceanfront. At that time of the day, with no eyes on him, he was free to be himself. On his way to the beach, he shared the streets with the occasional maid sent out to buy the early-morning bread, with zealous porters cleaning the entrances to their precious buildings, and with packs of stray dogs chasing newspaper and milk delivery trucks.

Sometimes he took me with him and I enjoyed it. At that time of the day the early-morning mist covered the beach and the ground was still moistened by the dew that had settled during the night. We would walk at the water’s edge and talk mostly about existential issues where I would ask questions and he would answer them as easily to understand as he could. As the conversations became deeper and more interesting the haze dissipated while we left our footprints behind on the smooth wet sand.

We always went until the fishermen’s colony at the far end of Copacabana. Their base was one of the first constructions in the neighbourhood: an old wooden depot where they sold their catches to local restaurateurs and residents. Next to it, dozens of small fishing boats rested on the sand surrounded by nets where seagulls fought over the remains with skinny dogs, observed by sleepy donkeys and tied up goats. Around them were swarms of flies and a strong smell of salt and decaying fish permeating the air.

In groups of five or six, the fishermen would set out before sunrise while a small party would coordinate the activity from the beach, shouting and sending signals. By the time we reached the colony, the boats would already be on their way back. To haul them in, the men would lay tree trunks in front of their wooden vessels and then push those heavy wooden crafts until they came to rest on the beach close to the avenue. The daily act of catching and landing the fish was like a mini-festival. The fishermen always needed more people to help pull in the nets, and a gigantic human circle would form, trapping the hundreds of sea creatures leaping in all directions out of the water, gasping for air. Once the bosses separated the prize catches, they allowed anyone who had participated to take whatever they wanted. Sometimes I too made a point of claiming my own, but they always ended up in the rubbish bin as they were either too small or not good enough for our pretentious dinners.

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