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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

In the given historical context, was it morally wrong to use violence? Was it strategically wrong? Or was the end—that is, a communist society—wrong? The universal condemnation of violence as a means of resistance seems hard to defend. Few would claim that the attempts to assassinate Hitler were morally wrong, or the resistance against the Nazi occupation of Europe, or against Mussolini’s and Franco’s fascist dictatorships, or against European colonial powers, or against the apartheid regime in South Africa. A good case can be made that the armed struggle against military dictatorships in Latin America, including Brazil’s, was legitimate as well. My grandfather, at any rate, considered it his “moral duty.” At the same time, the ALN stressed that no innocent person should suffer: “the acts of revolutionary terrorism and sabotage do not aim to disturb, frighten or kill the people.” Many prominent artists, writers and intellectuals in Brazil and abroad expressed sympathy for the armed resistance and sometimes actively supported it. Caetano Veloso writes of how he and fellow musician Gilberto Gil, in their London exile, “romantically identified” with “the heroism of the guerrilleros as the only radical response to the perpetuation of the dictatorship.” Other sympathizers included Glauber Rocha, the pioneer of Brazil’s Cinema Novo, and Augusto Boal, creator of the “Theatre of the Oppressed” and a central figure in contemporary theater. Jean-Paul Sartre published a series of programmatic ALN texts in French translation in Les Temps Modernes. Jean-Luc Godard, who celebrated Maoism in his films at the time, donated money, and the Catalán painter Joan Miró sent sketches.

It is also not obvious that my grandfather’s choice was strategically wrong. The Cuban Revolution and the Vietnam War had proved that David had more than a stone’s throw of a chance against Goliath. And the worldwide wave of student protests suggested that the younger generation was rising up against the world of their parents. (Most members of the armed resistance in Brazil came from the radical wing of the student movement.) Perhaps the guerrilheiros would have enjoyed more popular support had Brazil not won the World Cup in 1970, at the same time that the economy started picking up—after the poor had paid the price for drastic stabilization measures. 

Counterfactuals aside, the central question is whether there would have been much support for a Castro-style regime had the guerrilheiros been successful. In an interview about Carlos Marighella, former President Lula imagines him looking down on Brazil from heaven: “He would say ‘it was worth dying’ because we are now reaping what he and his companions sowed.” For Lula, Marighella was a “national hero” who fought to restore democracy. Similar things were said about my grandfather when he was honored at the Memorial of Resistance in São Paulo in 2010. But does the armed resistance fit into a narrative that culminates in the government of the PT? After all, the lifelong project of people like my grandfather and Marighella was a socialist revolution. To be sure, many former guerrilheiros joined the PT, most prominently Dilma Rousseff—and quite possibly my grandfather and Marighella would have been among them when the PT was founded in the early 1980s. In fact, its first membership card was issued to Apolônio de Carvalho, whose political biography is very similar to my grandfather’s: he joined the Communist Party in the 1930s and became a leader of its branch in Rio after fighting Franco with the International Brigades in Spain and the Nazis with the Resistance in France. Under Brazil’s dictatorship, he too joined the armed resistance, was captured, imprisoned and tortured, and then set free in 1970 in exchange for German Ambassador Ehrenfried von Holleben—the second kidnapping in which the ALN played a key role.

Despite its roots in the labor unions, the PT soon became an umbrella for a wide range of progressive groups: from environmentalists and former Communists to Catholics close to liberation theology. As the Cold War was winding down, many on the left felt that they no longer had to choose between the United States and the Soviet Union or China; the democratic socialism that the PT advocated began to look like an attractive alternative. The big surprise came when Lula, after three unsuccessful runs, was finally elected president in 2002. Yet instead of pursuing a socialist agenda, he continued the neoliberal policies of his predecessor, Fernando Henrique Cardoso, which had set Brazil on a path to economic growth. At the same time, he redirected part of the national income to millions of poor families through his signature welfare program, the bolsa familia (family fund). Eligible families now receive small amounts of money on the condition that they vaccinate their children and send them to school. Because saving is still unrealistic when one has risen from nothing to almost nothing, the bolsa familia indirectly helped boost the economy by enabling consumption. Companies grew to the satisfaction of their rich owners, which in turn generated new jobs, lifting many poor Brazilians into Classe C, the lower-middle class, which today includes 50 percent of the population. Because the Classe C also spends rather than saves (people can finally afford the Nike sneakers, handbag, flat-screen TV or car they’d been dreaming about for so long), the economy is further stimulated. Everyone is better off in the end, which explains Lula’s stellar approval ratings (80 percent plus) when his second term ended in 2010. Many of the PT’s left-wing supporters, however, tore up their membership cards: Lula, they felt, had betrayed the ideals of his party. The social divide in Brazil was still one of the world’s largest; public schools and the healthcare system remained in a precarious state; and land reform wasn’t even remotely on the agenda. In short, Lula hadn’t altered the unjust structure of Brazilian society. 

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So are my grandfather and Marighella applauding the PT from a cloud in heaven, or are they turning in their graves? It’s important to keep in mind that the PT never had a majority in Brazil’s National Congress; hence it’s unclear whether it could have pursued a more ambitious reform program. (The Mensalão, the great corruption scandal in 2005 that could have cost Lula his job, was a botched attempt to buy off congressional votes.) The mass demonstrations that have recently rocked Brazilian cities can be seen as an expression of discontent with the PT’s record of achievement. But they can also be seen as the outcome of the social shifts triggered by Lula’s bolsa familia: a newly self-confident and better-educated middle class is standing up for its interests. Dilma Rousseff’s positive response to the protests may well betray her hope of turning them into political leverage to drum up support in Congress for more radical social reforms.

I don’t know if my grandfather and Marighella would share this optimistic interpretation. Like Apolônio de Carvalho, they probably wouldn’t equate justice with Soviet or Chinese communism anymore. But they surely would insist that Brazil today remains a far cry from a just society. Would they see the politics of the PT as the best way to gradually realize justice? Or would they argue that justice can be achieved only through radically changing Brazil’s political, economic and social institutions? Rather than simply portraying them as PT heroes, the best way to honor them and the ideals they lived and died for is to keep these questions alive in Brazil’s public conversation.

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