Lost Sambista

A Brazil never seen.

Archive for the tag “revolution in Brazil”

Lost Samba – Chapter 17/01 – The end of the dictatorship in Brazil

Part23

Protest for going topless in Ipanema 1980

I was heading home from a rock concert at one of the main venues in Rio at the time, the Teatro Tereza Rachel in Copacabana. It was around midnight and I heard someone in the crowd say that John Lennon had been shot dead. No one knew whether to take him seriously, although everyone went home thinking about that disturbing possibility. The following morning, the newspapers confirmed what we had heard. Everyone was in a state of shock. Television reporters interviewed ordinary members of the public in the streets and famous artists, all of whom had tears in their eyes. For me, this final breakup of the Beatles seemed to interconnect with the extreme situation that I had experienced at the Noites Cariocas and another news that had also shocked us – the imprisonment of a couple of school friends for cannabis possession. On top of this there was Sarah’s dramatic split with her long-time fiancé. It didn’t make much sense, but the ripples from a wave of changes seemed to be affecting everything.

In the wider context, the Brazilian middle class had started to wake up to the fact that the lack of an alternative to the military-led government was a problem. The imprisonment, torture and then murder under the guise of “suicide” in 1975 of the distinguished journalist Wladmir Herzog in São Paulo triggered an unprecedented wave of indignation and numerous well-known political, cultural and religious figures expressed their dismay in newspapers across the country. On the other hand, now that no one could reasonably fear there was a risk of Latin America’s largest country becoming a Soviet satellite, the status of the Brazilian generals abroad was changing. Political movers and shakers in Washington as well as key figures of multinational corporations with economic interests in the country began to see Brazil’s brutal and corrupt military dictatorship as an unnecessary embarrassment.

Sensing the changing mood of their former supporters both inside and outside the country, the military took measures for appeasement. The most significant gesture was to grant amnesty to most political prisoners and to permit exiles to return home. Even if this move helped the military to remain in power, the policy of abertura politica – or political opening – was a victory for the opposition.

Overnight, the political dissidents went from being a virtually taboo subject to being courted as celebrities and hailed as heroes. They were in the press, on chat shows and their memoirs became best-sellers. Reading them we found out that they were regular upper middle class guys like us who had got carried away by the political turmoil of the times. In their books, we learned that some of them had spent periods training as guerrillas in Cuba and elsewhere abroad, before discretely infiltrating Brazil, where they took up arms, robbed banks and kidnapped important people. After the successful clamp down of their organizations, the ones who survived and went into exile were obliged to re-think their positions and to consider their next moves.

In a similar way to the artists, after the festivities for their return died off, they settled back in Brazil with more practical agendas. Many of the former exiles, as well as militants who had managed to survive in Brazil, used their popularity to progress within mainstream politics. José Genoíno, Fernando Gabeira and Carlos Minc, for example, became senators or ministers, while eventually Dilma Rousseff would be elected as president. Other non-guerrilla exiles also returned to Brazil, taking centre-stage in the re-democratization process. These included the veteran politicians Leonel Brizola who would become the governor of the state of Rio de Janeiro, the architect Oscar Niemeyer and the anthropologist Darcy Ribeiro as well as other more centrist politicians such as the sociologist president Fernando Henrique Cardoso and the future leader of the PSDB, José Serra.

Although we admired most of these people, for my generation their presence opened up issues of identity. If we had not been active in the organised resistance but shared similar views on the dictatoraship, recognised the social unfairness around us and also wanted a better and fairer world, should we conclude that we were useless ? Had everything already been done? It was clear, that for them the fight was over. However, it was disappointing to see the people who we considered as legends using their past unashamedly to reach career advancements. Without understanding how a democracy works, to us, it seemed that, as ambitious political figures, they were keen to join something that, at least ideologically, we were resisting. The big unanswered question was how could we make a difference, and how should we position ourselves?

Because the dictatorship had simplified attitudes, the abertura politica brought new challenges. Until that moment, being for or against the regime placed everyone within an uncomplicated framework: depending on which side of the fence you stood, you could blame all the evils of the world either on the generals or on the communists. With the end of the military government now on the horizon, people were no longer confident as to where they stood politically and it would take some time for the country to achieve a state of political maturity.

It seemed obvious that the military would cling to power for as long as they realistically could. Everybody knew that by the time they handed back the power to the civilians, the economy would be on the ropes. For Brazilians at large, there were two pressing questions: in what state would the military return the country to the civilians, and what would our lives be like once the mounting economic crisis kicked in?

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Image

Wladimir Herzog, the “suicide” that woke Brazil up.

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

che e Janio2

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.

repressao

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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CVermelho

The Comando Vermelho’s insignia.

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