Luís Carlos Prestes
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Prestes, also known as the "Knight of Hope", helped organize the failed tenente revolts of 1922, an uprising of the largely middle class officer corps and poor conscripted servicemen against the agrarian oligarchies that dominated Brazil's Old Republic (1889–1930). Because Prestes was sick with typhoid fever, he was unable to fight on the day of the revolt. From 1924, Prestes became one of the leaders of the insurrectionist movement, leading the Coluna Prestes (Prestes' Column) on a 25,000 km (15,534 mi) march through the Brazilian countryside. The march did not aim to defeat the enemy forces of the Federal government, but rather to ensure the insurrectionists' survival and their ability to continue threatening the dictatorship.
The tenente revolt heralded the end of the 'coffee and milk' coronelismo politics and the beginning of social reforms. The Revolution of 1930 ended Brazil's Old Republic. Joined by many moderate tenentes, but not Prestes, the Revolution of 1930 installed Getúlio Vargas as Brazil's provisional president. Although the tenentes sympathized with him, Vargas was a far more conservative figure. As the tenentes wanted Prestes to join Vargas, Prestes decided to meet him in Porto Alegre and explained his idea of socialist revolution to Vargas for about two hours. Vargas was highly impressed by Prestes and even donated 800 contos de réis (about 400,000 USD) to the revolution'c causes. However, Prestes viewed Vargas as the leader of a bourgeois revolution and decided to route most of the donated money to the Latin American branch of the Comintern, financing the group for a few years. Another part of the money was routed to tenente member Siqueira Campos, who died in a plane crash while flying from Argentina to Brazil. His body was discovered three days later, but the money was never found.
Alignment to Marxism
As Getúlio Vargas was gaining power in Brazil, Prestes turned to Marxism while in exile in Buenos Aires. In the 1930s he became the leader of the Aliança Nacional Libertadora (ANL), a left-wing popular front launched in 1935, consisting of socialists, communists, and other progressives led by the Communist Party in opposition to Vargas' crackdown against organized labor.
Getúlio Vargas, who had become Brazil's President (no longer interim President), would thus look to a form of authoritarian government. He endeavored to suppress his enemies on the left, led by Prestes, through violence and state terror in order to survive with his coalition intact during the agitated years that began in 1934. Vargas had become allied with Brazils' agrarian oligarchies, having an established network of economic and political power, and the Integralists, a fascist movement with a mass popular support-base in urban Brazil. Vargas' political power forced the Brazilian Congress to respond to the growth of the Communist movement.
As a result of Vargas' increased political power, the Brazilian Congress branded all leftist opposition as "subversive" under a March 1935 National Security Act. The new act allowed the President to ban the ANL. Vested with its new emergency powers, the federal government imposed a crackdown on the entire left, with arrests, torture, and summary trials. By mid-1935 Brazilian politics had become drastically destabilized. In July the government moved against the ANL, with troops raiding offices, confiscating propaganda, seizing records, and jailing leaders. The ANL became forced, reluctantly, to begin an armed insurrection in November. The authoritarian regime, like its fascist counterparts in Europe, responded by imprisoning and torturing Prestes and violently crushing the Communist movement through state terror.
Vargas, seeking to co-opt Brazil's fascist movement and paramilitary, known as "Integralism" and led by Plínio Salgado, tolerated a tide of anti-Semitism, and may have targeted Prestes' wife to appease his new supporters. Vargas deported the pregnant, German-Jewish wife of Luís Carlos Prestes, Olga Benario, to Nazi Germany, where she later died in a concentration camp. According to Prestes, he was a virgin until he met Olga Benario.
After Vargas began abandoning fascist-style autocracy in 1945, following his rapprochement with the World War II Allies in 1943, political prisoners were released, including Luís Carlos Prestes. Prestes gave an astute assessment of Vargas' politics, commenting, "Getúlio is very flexible. When it was fashionable to be a fascist, he was a fascist. Now that it is fashionable to be democratic, he will be a democrat." Many members of the Brazilian Communist Party were disgusted by Prestes and decided to leave the party.
However, Prestes was correct in his assessment. Vargas astutely responded to the newly liberal sentiments of a middle class that was no longer fearful of disorder and proletarian discontent by moving away from fascist repression. Vargas promised "a new postwar era of liberty" that included presidential elections, amnesty for political prisoners, and the legalization of opposition parties, including the Communist Party, which had become more moderate and weaker. When asked how he could give his support to the man who deported his wife to her death, he answered by saying that the good of the common man was above personal disputes.
In the elections of December 2, 1945, Prestes won the highest number of votes in his race for the Senator of the Federal District. Later that month, Vargas was ousted by the hard-right wing of the military partly because of these moves; the Communist movement became persecuted once again. The party, however, would make another comeback following Brazil's move toward democratization in the 1950s and early 1960s.
Under the presidency of João Goulart (1961–1964), a protégé of Getúlio Vargas, and another gaúcho from Rio Grande do Sul, the closeness of the government to the historically disenfranchised working class and peasantry and even to the Communist Party under none other than Luís Carlos Prestes was equally remarkable. Interestingly enough, Goulart appeared to have been co-opting the Communist movement in a manner reminiscent of Vargas' co-option of the Integralists shortly, and not coincidentally, before his ouster by reactionary forces. Once again, Prestes would be imprisoned and the Communist movement was persecuted.
The experience, however, of the failed tenente rebellion and Vargas' suppression of the Communist movement left Prestes, and some of his comrades, skeptical of armed conflict for the rest of his life. His well-cultivated skepticism would later help precipitate the permanent schism between hard-line Maoists and orthodox Marxist-Leninists in the Brazilian Communist Party during the early 1960s. Prestes went on to lead the pro-Soviet faction of the party known as the Brazilian Communist Party (or PCB) while the Maoists formed the Communist Party of Brazil (or PCdoB). While the Maoists went underground and engaged in urban combat against the military dictatorship after 1964, Prestes' faction would not do so.
In 1970, Prestes went to Moscow with his second wife and children, and only returned to Brazil after amnesty for political offenders was granted ten years later.
After his return to Brazil, Prestes later abandoned the PCB without renouncing Marxism. He became a supporter of the Brazil's Democratic Labour Party and took part in Leonel Brizola's presidential campaign in 1989. Prestes died in 1990.
- A brief overview of the Prestes Column in Brazil 1924-1927
- Prestes in Timeline The most important dates of his career.
- Ciclo revolucionário brasileiro: do Tenentismo ao Estado Novo (in Portuguese)
- O Velho - A História de Luiz Carlos Prestes (Documentary about the life of Luís Carlos Prestes)
- The Prestes Column: Revolution in Brazil, by Neill Macaulay (1974).