“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.”
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.
* * *
“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.
The novelist Jorge Amado, who in the late 1940s edited the Communist newspaper Hoje with my grandfather, described him as “the opposite” of a Stalinist sectarian: “He didn’t proclaim to be a Bolshevik, telling others that they had to be of steel or denouncing them as petit bourgeois.” His lifelong friendship with the conservative politician Lucas Nogueira Garcez, a former classmate, is a case in point. Their fathers had been friends since studying engineering together at the Escola Politécnica. My grandfather lived with the arch-Catholic Garcez family when he left Jaboticabal to go to school in São Paulo. Family lore has it that one of Garcez’s younger sisters fell in love with him; the parents discovered their teenage romance and sent the girl to a Carmelite convent, where she spent the rest of her life as a nun. When Garcez was governor of São Paulo from 1951 to 1955, my grandfather resolutely fought his politics. He played an important role in the Strike of the 300,000 that paralyzed São Paulo in 1953. Yet their friendship endured. During the dictatorship, Garcez became the president of the party supporting the military regime. But when my uncle was snubbed for a job because of my grandfather, Garcez called President Garrastazu Médici and told him that he would resign unless the decision was reversed. Until his own death in 1982, he regularly brought flowers to my grandfather’s grave in the Cemitério da Consolação in São Paulo.
* * *
How did the gentleman turn into a guerrillero? Leaving the Communist Party after more than thirty years cannot have been easy for my grandfather, who greatly admired its longtime leader, Luis Carlos Prestes. But I don’t see that there is a paradox. While surely not a violent man by nature, he didn’t shy away from violence when he deemed it necessary. In 1948, for example, he resisted with gun in hand the police attempt to shut down Hoje without a warrant. The shootout lasted all night, and at one point he called the office of São Paulo’s governor, Adhemar de Barros. “We’re forty-seven people ready to fight for the journal,” he yelled. “If a tragedy happens, the blood is on the governor’s hands.” A witness of the incident later commented: “This Câmara Ferreira with his demeanor of a polite intellectual can be ferocious!”
Since the end of the 1950s, Brazil’s Communist Party had moved away from the view that the only path to socialism was class war culminating in a revolution. The same goal, it now held, could also be attained through a democratic process. In a report, my grandfather explained this policy shift: the Soviet Union had built up enough power of deterrence to prevent the outbreak of an imperialist war; hence communism and capitalism could now compete in peace. If the Soviet Union showed that it could better promote the welfare of workers, it would become the model that workers the world over would try to emulate. In democratic countries, they could do so by electing socialist parties.
For a time, my grandfather’s optimism about a democratic path to socialism seemed justified. In the early 1960s, President João Goulart was able to successfully channel social ferment both in the countryside and in the cities into support for his “basic reforms” agenda. Hailed by the Communist Party as the antechamber of the socialist revolution, Goulart’s program remains the most audacious socioeconomic reform proposed by a Brazilian government. (The reforms of the PT government under Lula and Dilma Rousseff pale in comparison.) Aiming as much to modernize the country as to combat social inequality, Goulart promoted land reform, education reform and greater state involvement in the economy. Goulart wanted to make idle agricultural land productive by redistributing it from latifundíarios (semifeudal landlords) to the landless masses. Large-scale investment in the public school system and literacy campaigns following the method of Paulo Freire, author of the famous Pedagogy of the Oppressed, would create the skilled workforce needed for a modern economy, but also more equal opportunities for Brazilians. (To this day, lousy public schools and good but expensive private schools perpetuate Brazil’s social segregation.) And Goulart set limits on the profits that US companies and other foreign multinational corporations could transfer out of Brazil. In 1963, he held a referendum about restoring presidential power (which had been curtailed by opponents under a temporary parliamentary agreement) in order to implement these basic reforms. The turnout was 64 percent, of which 80 percent voted in favor—an overwhelming majority. A year later, Goulart was ousted by the military coup.
The degree of American involvement in the coup is a matter of debate. US Ambassador Lincoln Gordon had been sending alarming cables to Washington warning that Brazil might become “the China of the 1960s” and that Goulart was plotting to “seize dictatorial power” with the support of the communists. He hailed the coup as “the single most decisive victory for freedom in the mid-twentieth century.” Meanwhile, the CIA had been involved in covert operations to destabilize the government, from training officers of the Brazilian army to mobilizing street protests. President Lyndon Johnson authorized Operation Brother Sam to help overthrow Goulart. The Americans dispatched an aircraft carrier to the region; made guns, fuel and other military supplies available to the Brazilian army; and were ready to launch airstrikes and to land Marines in São Paulo. (Among the officers in charge of the logistics was Paul Tibbits, the pilot of the plane that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima.) In the end, though, the Americans didn’t need to get their hands dirty: the Brazilian generals managed to destroy the country’s democracy on their own. After the coup, a CIA agent candidly anticipated “a greatly improved climate for foreign investments.”
The dictatorship put a violent end to the peaceful democratic transformation of Brazil. For my grandfather, Carlos Marighella and many others, the generals enforced the political and economic interests of Brazil’s plantation owners and industry bosses, as well as their American allies, against the will of the Brazilian people, who had unequivocally supported Goulart’s reform agenda in the 1963 referendum. Over time, the violence increased. Under the regime’s first two presidents—Gen. Castelo Branco (1964–67) and Gen. Costa e Silva (1967–69)—its course did not yet seem settled. In 1968, however, it faced a number of serious challenges: a wave of strikes in São Paulo and Minas Gerais slowed down production in the country’s industrial centers, and after police killed a protesting student, 50,000 people turned out to express their outrage at the funeral. The tensions culminated in the Passeata dos 100 Mil (the March of the 100,000) in Rio de Janeiro, where many prominent artists, writers and intellectuals joined the calls for an end to the dictatorship. Meanwhile, the armed resistance began a campaign of “expropriations,” mostly bank heists, to fund its activities. The regime’s response came in December in the form of the Ato Institucional 5 (AI-5). The decree closed Congress and state parliaments indefinitely, enforced strict censorship and suspended the right to habeas corpus. From then on, the police could imprison and torture without trial anyone suspected of opposing the government. AI-5 set the stage for what journalist Elio Gaspari called the ditadura escancarada: the blatantly authoritarian regime under Gen. Garrastazu Médici. From 1969 to 1974, he unleashed the full repressive apparatus built up in earlier years to crush the “enemy” within. During these anos de chumbo (leaden years), hundreds were murdered or “disappeared,” while thousands more lost their jobs in the course of the anticommunist purges, were imprisoned and tortured, or fled into exile.
* * *
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.
* * *
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.
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.