“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.