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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

For my grandfather, the United States was the ultimate enemy: the imperialist power that endorsed and enabled Brazil’s system of oppression and exploitation. Already in 1952, during a visit to Brazil by Dean Acheson, Truman’s secretary of state, he’d set an American flag on fire on the Praça Sé in the center of São Paulo—as Acheson was sitting down with President Getúlio Vargas to eat “caviar, foie gras, pheasant and asparagus tips, followed by deep, flowery toasts in Pommery 1945.” In 1969, he was enthusiastic about the plan to kidnap Burke Elbrick, the American ambassador. Curiously, Elbrick—of all people—may have led my grandfather to develop a more nuanced view of the United States. As they got to know each other in the hideout in Rio de Janeiro, my grandfather discovered that the ambassador was not only critical of US support for nondemocratic regimes in developing countries, but also carried a top-secret file with biographical sketches of prominent Brazilians whom the Americans hoped could restore civilian government. One of them was Catholic Bishop Dom Hélder Câmara, the theologian of liberation and defender of human rights, who was denounced as the “red bishop” by the military regime for chastising its abuses. So surprised was my grandfather to find that someone in the enemy camp was an ally of sorts that he decided to tape a conversation with Elbrick to be broadcast on an occupied radio station, though in the tumultuous days after the kidnapping, the tape was lost. To protect his captors, Elbrick later lied that he had not seen their faces. 

If the purpose of the kidnapping was to prove that the enemy could be defeated, as the manifesto of the kidnappers stated, it achieved the opposite effect: over the next few years, the humiliated regime crushed the armed resistance. My grandfather’s immediate political goal was to unite the fractured opposition. That’s why the list of political prisoners to be exchanged for the ambassador included members of many different groups—from José Ibrahim, a union leader, to Gregório Bezerra, a veteran of the Communist Party, who made a point to distance himself from the armed struggle upon his release. One prisoner was known only by his nom de guerre, “Chuchu.” My grandfather insisted that they could not leave such an outstanding fighter behind. “How will they identify him if we don’t have a name?” others asked.

Don’t worry, the regime will find out. If they were able to get to him outside of prison, they’ll also get to him inside the prison.
   And how does one write “Chuchu”?
   Let’s give them some homework: Write “S-H-U hyphen S-H-U—Shu-Shu.” They will think that he’s a most dangerous Chinese agent, a well-trained Vietcong, a clandestine North-Korean…

While the Communist Party held on to the view that socialism could be achieved through a peaceful, democratic process, my grandfather left no doubt that, for him, violence was a legitimate means to fight the dictatorship. In 1969, he wrote:

We are openly and consciously in favor of using violence and terror against those who crush—with violence and terror—the freedoms and rights of the people: against the men of the dictatorship and their lackeys; against those who steal…the product of the labor of the working population; against the North American imperialists and their agents.

But not everything turned around violence at the end of my grandfather’s life. He never quite fit the picture, drawn in the Minimanual of the Urban Guerrilla, of the heroic fighter who has eliminated all personal attachments. Carlos Eugênio Paz, an ALN militant who often drove my grandfather to rendezvous, tells this striking story:

He would come to me and say: “Let’s go and see my old lady!” I already knew…about this strange habit of his. So I’d take the car and go with him to Vila Madalena where his wife lived…. I’d stop the car on the top of the street at the time she would go out to buy bread in the morning (he knew her exact schedule)…he would stay in the car, watching from afar how she went to the bakery and came back…. A man who at that time was the most sought-after person in Brazil…. This man never lost his tenderness…a couple of days before he was captured, and I’m taking him to watch his old lady buy bread.

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