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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

“Gentleman” is not the first epithet that comes to mind when one thinks of Latin American revolutionaries, from Simón Bolívar to Fidel Castro. Yet that’s how relatives, friends and political companions describe my grandfather, Joaquim Câmara Ferreira. With Carlos Marighella and Carlos Lamarca, he was a leading figure of the armed resistance against the military dictatorship that ruled Brazil from 1964 to 1985. He is best known as the political strategist in the most spectacular act of Brazil’s guerrilla movement: the kidnapping in September 1969 of the American ambassador, Burke Elbrick, who after being held for three days was set free in exchange for fifteen political prisoners. That operation secured my grandfather a spot on the state’s list of top enemies. My uncle recalls an evening playing billiards in a bar: “Suddenly a friend asked me, ‘Isn’t that your father?’ When I looked up, I saw his photo on a poster of ‘Wanted Terrorists’ next to the counter.” A year later, the regime would hunt him down, torture and kill him.

A guerrillero-gentleman? Many who knew him still grapple with this seeming paradox. They remember my grandfather as an affable, tolerant and unassuming person. For decades, he was a leader of Brazil’s Communist Party, responsible in particular for its press operations (primarily newspapers). Why, in his mid-50s, did he decide to exchange the pen for the pistol? The transition wasn’t easy. “Starting military training at my age!” he said, self-mockingly, to a friend in Cuba, where Brazilians from the rebel group he helped found prepared for guerrilla warfare. But he showed up for shooting class every day.

My mother was pregnant with me when my grandfather was murdered. The last letter he wrote was addressed to my parents, who had settled in West Germany as political refugees. “Am I really old enough to become a grandfather?” he joked, and asked if they would honor “our great country” through the choice of my name: Rosa (for Rosa Luxemburg) if I was a girl, Carlos (for Carlos Marighella) if I was a boy. 

My grandfather’s life had been entwined with Marighella’s in the Communist Party for decades, but the most fateful decision they made together was to break with the party in 1967 to found the Ação Libertadora Nacional (ALN), which became the largest and most important organization of armed resistance in Brazil. In 1969, Marighella wrote the Minimanual of the Urban Guerrilla, describing their experience adapting the guerrilla tactics that Che Guevara and others had developed for the Cuban countryside to Brazil’s big cities. The Minimanual became a hit among militant movements the world over, from the Red Brigades in Italy to the Symbionese Liberation Army in the United States, not to mention revolutionary groups in Latin America. It also came back to haunt my parents in exile, when the Red Army Faction (RAF) adopted it to bring terror to West Germany’s model social democracy. The Federal Republic, the RAF claimed, was just fascism in disguise. My parents, who by then had moved to the center-left, didn’t buy it. In a photo of me at age 2, I wear a coat with a sticker saying “Willy wählen“—“Vote for Willy,” meaning Willy Brandt, the leader of Germany’s Social Democratic Party at the time.

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Although I never met my grandfather, I got to know him quite well through a political biography by the Brazilian historian Luiz Henrique de Castro Silva that was released in 2010, on the occasion of a ceremony in my grandfather’s honor at the Memorial of Resistance in São Paulo. The memorial is located in what used to be São Paulo’s Department of Political and Social Order (DOPS), one of the dictatorship’s instruments for suppressing political opposition. In the crowded auditorium, the Commission for Amnesty of the Ministry of Justice solemnly apologized for the crimes committed by the Brazilian state against my grandfather. He was declared a “hero of the Brazilian people” and made an honorary citizen of São Paulo.

This posthumous recognition is part of a comprehensive re-evaluation of the period of the military dictatorship that started in 1995 with the Law of the Disappeared and the Special Commission on Political Deaths and Disappearances, and picked up steam when the Partido dos Trabalhadores (PT), headed by Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, won the election in 2002. The efforts culminated in 2012 with the creation of the National Truth Commission by Lula’s successor, Dilma Rousseff, who had joined the armed resistance as a student and, after being arrested in 1970, was jailed and periodically tortured for three years (a good friend of my mother’s shared a prison cell with her). The commission’s mandate is to cast light on the violations of human rights by the Brazilian state between 1946 and 1988, focusing in particular on the period of the military dictatorship. This project is as controversial as it is important: at stake is Brazil’s historical memory. How is it being framed? Who has a right to be part of it, and in what role? Was my grandfather a terrorist and outlaw, or a fighter for freedom and justice? Were his torturers and killers the hangmen of a tyrannical regime, or the defenders of a good political order?

The charismatic Marighella was the public face of the ALN, whereas my grandfather preferred to pull strings in the background. Killed by the dictatorship in 1969, a year before my grandfather, Marighella has become a cultural icon in Brazil. At this year’s Carnival parades, one could dance with a bloco Marighella in several cities. As a rhymed tale, his deeds have found their way into Cordel booklets, the folk poetry of the country’s northeast. In 2012, two of Brazil’s best-known musicians—Caetano Veloso, champion of the subversive Tropicalismo art movement in the 1960s, and Mano Brown, the country’s leading rapper—celebrated Marighella in song (the latter’s hip-hop tribute was chosen as the top Brazilian song of 2012 by Rolling Stone). In the same year, a new documentary film about Marighella was released, as well as a biography by the journalist Mário Magalhães. At 784 pages (including more than 100 pages of notes), the book became an unlikely bestseller, widely recommended by the mainstream press as a Christmas present. I bought it in the Livraria Cultura, São Paulo’s largest bookstore, where dozens of copies had been stacked in the form of a Christmas tree. I don’t know how Marighella would have felt about this gesture, but it testifies to the remarkable shift in perception of the man who in the late 1960s had been declared the state’s “enemy number one.”

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