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A Guerrillero-Gentleman: On Joaquim Câmara Ferreira | The Nation

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A Guerrillero-Gentleman: On Joaquim Câmara Ferreira

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Joaquim Câmara Ferreira

Joaquim Câmara Ferreira

Although my grandfather didn’t seek the limelight, I’m sure he would have liked his biographer. Luiz Henrique is the son of a steelworker from Volta Redonda, the center of Brazil’s steel industry, and worked eighteen years in the mills himself. A committed Christian, his political activism is rooted in the Catholic Workers Movement and liberation theology (the biography’s acknowledgments begin by giving thanks “to God, the fountain of all things”). My grandfather, by contrast, had been expelled from school for refusing to attend Mass. But Marx and the Gospels were often studied in tandem in Latin America. Among the most loyal supporters of the ALN was a group of Dominican friars. “We cannot love our neighbor,” they argued, “if we are competing with him in a capitalist society.” One of them, Frei Betto, helped my grandfather cross the border into Uruguay after the kidnapping of Burke Elbrick. (He arrived at the Dominican College in Rio Grande do Sul disguised as a theology professor—“Professor Cavalcanti”—in a gray suit with clerical collar and a cross pinned to the lapel.) Another, Frei Oswaldo, wrote a condolence letter to my mother on behalf of the ALN after my grandfather died. He described him as a “martyr” like Che Guevara and Carlos Marighella, but also compared him to Camillo Torres, the Catholic priest who joined the armed struggle in Colombia, claiming that “if Jesus were alive today he would be a guerrillero.”

“Why my grandfather?” I asked Luiz Henrique. He explained to me that when researching the fate of political prisoners in Volta Redonda during the period of the dictatorship, “I came across your grandfather’s name all the time, but couldn’t find any comprehensive treatment of him in the literature. So I wanted to find out more. The more I learned, the more I fell in love with him.” This love sustained Luiz Henrique, then already in his 30s, during the six years he worked on the biography, which he submitted first as an academic thesis, then turned into a book, while he also held down a day job as a high school teacher to support a family of four. He conducted dozens of interviews and sifted through stacks of documents, especially in the police archives, that storehouse of shadow chronicles about the lives led by people like my grandfather, who spent many of his years in hiding. Throughout the twentieth century, the ugly side of Brazilian politics—including two dictatorships—was justified by pointing to the specter of communism. Even in democratic times, the Communist Party was rarely legal. “I didn’t want him to disappear,” Luiz Henrique says. Without him, my grandfather would hardly have left a trace.

The biography’s title, The Revolutionary of Conviction, alludes to how the two key decisions my grandfather made in life—joining the Communist Party at age 20 in 1933, and leaving it to lead the ALN with Marighella in 1967—didn’t come naturally to him. “They were moral choices that went against the logic of his upbringing and of his political itinerary,” Luiz Henrique stresses. “That’s what most impressed me.” My grandfather was born into an illustrious family of coffee-plantation owners in Jaboticabal, a city in the state of São Paulo that his great-great-grandfather, João Pinto Ferreira, had founded in 1828. João Pinto came from Portugal, probably in the military entourage of Emperor João VI, who packed up the Portuguese court in 1807 and set sail for Brazil as Napoleon’s troops closed in on Lisbon. As mayor of Jaboticabal, my grandfather’s father, Joaquim Batista Ferreira, was allied with the land-owning oligarchy, Brazil’s de facto ruler during the “Old Republic” that replaced the monarchy in 1889. Yet as an engineer and director of São Paulo’s department of road construction, he was also part of the country’s emerging capitalist and industrial class, building new roads for a flourishing traffic of goods.

My grandfather, by contrast, quit his engineering studies at the Escola Politécnica of São Paulo (then, as now, the ticket to Brazil’s elite) to become a full-time communist. He must have seen the liberalism of the Old Republic that his father embodied for what it was: a justification of the power of the coffee barons (the few Brazilians who did vote at the time cast their ballots for the candidate that the coronéis—the political and economic bosses—had endorsed, in exchange for favors or to avoid punishment). On the coffee plantations of his family, he witnessed the exploitation of rural workers; and as an engineering student in São Paulo, Brazil’s main industrial hub, he saw factory workers taken advantage of as well. In the early 1930s, he started to seek out communists like Fosco Mazzoncini, a founder of Italy’s Communist Party, who had landed in Brazil on the run from Mussolini. They offered a theory that explained why wealth and power were divided so unjustly in Brazil and what was necessary to overcome it.

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“Communism, communism makes you happy,” my grandfather told his longtime friend Sara Mello when she asked why he smiled so much. “The day he became a member of the Communist Party was the most thrilling experience of his life,” she remembers. His devotion to communism was like that of those early Christians who were ready to die for their religion. When Getúlio Vargas consolidated power through a military coup in 1937 and established the Estado Novo dictatorship, he brutally cracked down on communists, branding them “the forces of evil and hate” and “the most dangerous enemy of Christian civilization.” In 1940, my grandfather fell into the hands of the military police, led by the Nazi sympathizer Filinto Müller, who had visited Germany at the invitation of Heinrich Himmler. My grandfather was in charge of the Communist Party’s secret contacts in the military sector and of the clandestine press in São Paulo, and for days the police tried to beat the information concerning those operations out of him. Between thrashings, he was left dangling upside down on the pau de arara (parrot’s perch). When he refused to talk, his keepers hammered bamboo splinters under his fingernails. As the pain became unbearable, he smashed a window, cut his wrists and was sent to the infirmary. He spent five years in prison, the second half on Ilha Grande, an island for political prisoners that became the unlikely setting of his courtship with the love of his life, my grandmother Leonora. Before they decided to marry, my grandfather asked her to consider well the hardships of living with a communist. “I don’t think I’ll die in bed,” he told her.

He was in Paris when Carlos Marighella was killed in November 1969 and decided immediately to return to Brazil to assume command of the ALN. Many tried to dissuade him, because they knew his chances of survival were slim. He insisted that he couldn’t abandon his companions. Before leaving for Brazil, he met Aloysio Nunes Ferreira, the ALN’s Paris contact, who recalls their walk to the Gare d’Austerlitz:

We passed by the Place du Panthéon and there was a hotel called L’Hôtel des Grands Hommes. So I said, “Câmara, next time you come to Paris, you’ll stay at this hotel!” He responded, “No Aloysio! I think what is waiting for me is over there,” and pointed to a funeral home.

Less than a year later, José da Silva Tavares, a young ALN militant who had been captured by the police, made a deal with the most notorious torturer at the time—police officer Sérgio Paranhos Fleury, the leader of São Paulo’s death squad, who had ambushed Marighella the year before. To save his own skin, Tavares agreed to lure my grandfather into a trap. Once captured, there was no time for him to swallow the cyanide capsule in his pocket. Fleury and his men took him to a clandestine farm outside São Paulo where two ALN militants were already being held. One of them, Maria de Lourdes, who had worked closely with my grandfather, witnessed his death. The only thing he asked them, she remembers, was not to kill her. After tying him to the pau de arara, they asked about his blood pressure. “Low,” he replied, suppressing the pain in his chest. He had lied, knowing his handlers would adjust the dosage of the electric shocks accordingly. “He smiled to me and I smiled back,” Lourdes tells. “He set them up. He wanted to commit suicide.” Much to Fleury’s dismay, my grandfather died of a heart attack before the interrogation started. 

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