Pitched Battles Against Police-State Regression:
Student Struggles Engulf Brazil
[First printed in Young Spartacus #56, July/August 1977]
June 25-In a continent known for the unbridled savagery of its many military dictatorships, the Brazilian regime of “president” Ernesto Geisel has earned- a reputation for its wanton recourse to police-state terror.
Long the darling of imperialist investors and their academic braintrusters, the ruling camarilla of army generals is notorious throughout Latin America for its brutal repression and the systematic torture and “disappearance” of political opponents of the Brazilian regime. But in recent weeks the Brazilian gorilas have been confronted with an eruption of popular discontent that has shaken their ironheel “law and order.”
For the first time since 1968, a major upsurge of student protest against the military regime has sparked a series of courageous confrontations with the brutal armed forces of the state. Despite vicious beatings at the hands of the police and mass arrests, student strikes have continued to defy the authorities, demanding the release of political prisoners and the granting of full democratic rights-most notably, freedom of assembly and speech.
First Tremors of Protest
The first tremors of the current upheaval occurred On March 30, when students staged a demonstration in the industrial center of Sao Paulo. In response to a government announcement of a 40 percent reduction in the Universidade de Sao Paulo budget, widespread layoffs among faculty and campus workers and a price rise in the university restaurants, students took to the streets and distributed an “open letter, ” which in part declared,
“Our struggle is not ours alone; it is that of the whole population, of all who struggle against a hard life, for better wages, for more schools, for university restaurants, for the freedom to demonstrate” ,”
-reprinted in Informations Ouvrieres, 2 June 1977
Although this protest remained geographically isolated and politically limited to campus-parochial concerns, it nonetheless represented a tentative step toward a broader mobilization against the Geisel regime.
On April 28 the current wave of protest began when police seized eight students and workers (apparently members of a left-wing organization) as they were distributing leaflets calling for a “Day of Struggle” on May Day. Protests quickly escalated after students and trade-union oppositionists from the Sao Paulo metalworkers issued leaflets demanding the release of the imprisoned leftists.
To the dismay of Geisel, May 5 brought 10,000 students (supported by the metalworkers) into the streets of Sao Paolo in what was the largest protest rally since 1968. The demonstration- which electrified the entire spectrum of Brazilian political life – witnessed the issuing of a second “Open Letter to the Brazilian People,” which in a more political fashion demanded “that the authorities respect the freedom to demonstrate and the right of expression and organization of all oppressed sectors of the population” (quoted in Intercontinental Press, 13 June).
The open defiance of the authorities exhibited in Sao Paulo on May 5 intersected the pervasive disgruntlement of Brazilian working people with the continued arbitrariness and repression of the regime. Under the impact of the collapse of the “Brazilian miracle” (which impressionistic bourgeois economists such as Walt Rostow had taken as proof of the “take-off stage” in anti-Marxist theories of industrial development) rifts have become apparent even within the ruling bonapartist cabal. Increasingly isolated, Geisel was forced to dissolve Congress in April, and he has come under increased pressure from the fake-opposition Movimiento Democratico Braileiro (MDB) and from renewed stirrings of discontent among junior officers in the military.
Strike activity broadened, and by the May 19 “National Day of Struggle” at least ten campuses were shut down. Demonstrations spread to 16 cities, including Rio de Janeiro, Belo Horizonte, Salvador and Brasilia (where the entire student population of 15,800 struck).
Police around the country assaulted protesters with what eyewitnesses termed the most vicious repression since 1968. 77,000 police and troops were placed on alert in Sao Paulo as an estimated 8,000 students rallied at the University medical school. As the police closed in to arrest demonstrators, they beat reporters who had – despite a government ban – covered the earlier protests.
National Student Meeting
In the aftermath of the “National Day of Struggle,” “May 1 Amnesty Committees” began to spread across Brazil as students sought to create national bodies to press their struggle for democratic rights. In Sao Paulo freely elected Student Central Directorates were created. In the words of the student organizers, these bodies “are free because we do not abide by the laws imposed by the authorities that do not permit direct, free elections and that restrict our freedom to demonstrate and organize.” Over 16,000 of the 30,000 Sao Paulo students participated in the Central Directorate elections.
Meanwhile, an attempt was made to revive the National Student Union, the banned organization which led Brazilian student protest during the 1960’s. A call was issued for a student “National Meeting” on June 4 in Belo Horizonte – the capital of the industrial state of Minas Gerais with the aim of electing a delegated leadership body on a nationwide scale.
Police repression once again intensified as the government tried to halt the protests by arresting known strike leaders. In Rio de Janeiro 30 students suspected of being delegates to the Meeting were rounded up, interrogated and released only after it was too late to travel to Belo Horizonte. In Sao Paulo, the police were unable to round up the delegates, but according to the newsweekly Veja (8 June), “the Sao Paulo police have in their hands the names of a good number of the delegates to the Meeting – the score will be settled upon their return to Sao Paulo.” When the Meeting was staged as planned, the police attacked and arrested over 800 students en masse; 98 are to stand trial under the draconian National Security Law.
“SWAT”- Brazilian Style
The stage was set for a major confrontation on the second “National Day of Struggle” called by student leaders for June 15.
Activity centered in Sao Paulo, where 32,000 police were mobilized – 2,000 occupying a central square where a demonstration had been called for the evening rush hour. The head of “public security,” Colonel Erasmo Dias, arrived on the spot and took the opportunity to display his new anti-demonstrator “novelties” to the assembled press: a “flash-light” which projects a high-intensity beam capable of blinding demonstrators for several minutes, pocketsize tear gas cannisters (which he “playfully” set off among the reporters and a display of M-16 rifles (very popular among the Brazilian military after the introduction of the American television series “SWAT”). Wildly waving his favorite 9-millimeter Browning revolver, top-cop Dias blustered, “Nobody’s going to get through here” (quoted inVeja, 22 June).
Despite the police vigilance, a daring group of students managed to hold a brief rally in the square. Avoiding police scrutiny, approximately 50 students (in a square which regularly holds 500,000 during the evening rush hour) began to chant “freedom, freedom.” As it turned out, the chanting was a cue. Dias and his stormtroopers gaped in stunned amazement as the square suddenly became alive with chanting demonstrators. What appeared to be mere passers-by and shoppers turned out to be student protestors awaiting the cue to emerge from bus queues and cafes.
As the police gave chase with trained dogs and began savagely beating protestors with clubs and belts, onlookers cheered the’ students, and the streets were flooded with confetti thrown from overhead balconies. Even neighborhood storeowners solidarized with the students; Sao Paulo movie theaters opened their doors free the next day in a gesture of solidarity.
As we go to press, the strikes continue. Ten universities are completely shut down either by student protest or administration retaliation. Meetings of the Universidade de Brasilia student body continue to vote unanimously to remain on strike – and the rector closed the school for the entire period through the July recess. (Moreover, a Third Student National Meeting had been scheduled for Sao Paulo on June 21.)
Down with Geisel!
Despite the manifest courage of the student radicals, the campus centered protests lack any strategy for the revolutionary overthrow of the Geisel dictatorship. Banners proclaiming “Workers and Students Unite” appear at demonstrations, but far more prevalent is the moralistic slogan, “To be silent is to be complicit” (the Brazilian equivalent of the New Left dictum, “If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem”). The “Open Letters” to the Brazilian people were followed by an open letter to Rosalynn Carter during her stopover in Brazil – replete with appeals for the enforcement of “human rights” in Brazil. To top it off, the Economist (28 May) carried a photograph of students blindfolding a bust of John Kennedy in order to “shield his eyes” from the police onslaught – as if Kennedy had not been responsible for training torturers in Latin America and lending a helping hand to tin-pot tyrants and military dictators through his so-called” Alliance for Progress.”
Furthermore, student demonstrators have on several occasions not only joined forces with the MDB – which in itself is not incorrect – but expressed illusions in the MDB’s democratic pretenses. With the growing fissures in the military government, everyone in Brazil is paying lip service to “democratic” populist demagogy – from Geisel on down. When Geisel last spring arbitrarily altered the Brazilian constitution in such a way that appointment of state governors was firmly in the hands of his lackeys, he dashed the hopes of the MDB politicians who had expected to come to power in several states at the next election. Consequently, the MDB was driven into a mock “opposition” to Geisel. The MDB’s ultra-democratic utterances have gone so far as to call for “a Constituent Assembly [that] will be the synthesis of the struggle for democratic legality and the restoration of juridical dignity to the country” (Jornal do Brasil, 19 June).
But, its pseudo-democratic rhetoric aside, the MDB can be counted on to oppose the students the moment their struggles were to pose a serious challenge to the regime. The MDB was formed in 1965 by the military junta to provide a tame “electoral opposition” to the military’s captive National Renovating Alliance (ARENA). The MDB, which included formations such as the bourgeois “Labor” Party of former military strongman Getulio Vargas, has been complicit in the murderous activities of the Brazilian dictatorship throughout its thirteen-year reign of terror. Students must not rely upon any section of the Brazilian bourgeoisie to oppose continued military terror. The military seized power in 1964 to prevent former president Goulart from carrying through his proposal to implement the most minimal land reform (far less “reform” than was enacted by bourgeois governments in Italy and Guatemala in the post-World War II period), and to grant restricted democratic rights for soldiers and non-commissioned officers. The fear of arousing the masses’ was so intense among all sections of the bourgeoisie that there was no significant opposition to the coup -despite the knowledge that the military government would monopolize political power in its hands. Thus, even at the height of its “opposition,” MDB parliamentary leaders took pains to denounce the student demonstrations in June (Veja, 22 June).
In the epoch of capitalist decay, the tendency for bonapartist regimes generally based upon the military mounts in countries where imperialist domination and modern industry often stand alongside near – feudal land conditions. The “democratic” populist pretensions of junior officers and domesticated house oppositions are nothing but the demagogy of would be petty bonapartes out of power. These are the “oppositionists” who stood by and watched while the Brazilian generals have done for a period of thirteen years what the Argentine Anti-Communist Alliance has done for the last few: murder, torture and ruthless oppress.
For a Workers and Peasants Government in Brazil!
In the context of uneven and combined development in Brazil, what began as student protests has flourished and intersected a reservoir of generalized hatred for the dictatorship: “The “Brazilian miracle” has fizzled and in its wake remains the same mass poverty, police terror and imperialist plunder. The modern skyscrapers and technologically advanced factories coexist with sprawling shantytowns and the abject misery of plantation-worker peonage. This provides dramatic proof that in the epoch of imperialism, so long as the bourgeoisie holds state power, backward countries such as Brazil can neither reach the level of imperialist industrial development nor qualitatively raise the standard of living of the working masses. At the same time, a working-class centered revolutionary upsurge against the military rulers would clearly elicit mass popular support – including large sectors of the urban petty bourgeoisie.
Nowhere is this clearer, and nowhere is it more important to lay the basis for united actions between the working class and radicalized students than in Sao Paulo – the classic boom town of Brazil. In this modern industrial center there are as yet no sewage or sanitary facilities for many of its 11 million inhabitants. The average worker-whose subsistence ages are quickly eroded by the 44 percent annual rate of inflation spends six hours a day simply traveling to and from work. Unemployment, which is endemic among the unskilled masses, has been sharply rising among the skilled with 5,500 auto-workers as well as electrical and construction workers recently thrown on the street.
The social emancipation of the hideously oppressed and impoverished Brazilian masses awaits the seizure of power by the proletariat and the formation of a workers and peasants government. The student protests of today must be linked to the strategic power of the proletariat in the industrial zones of Sao Paulo, Rio de Janeiro and Minas Gerais.
The urban and rural masses must be mobilized around a revolutionary program which includes democratic demands including – for the immediate freedom of all victims of right-wing repression; for full trade-union rights; for a sweeping agrarian revolution; for freedom of political association, press and speech; and for a genuine constituent assembly based upon universal suffrage. The struggle for democratic freedoms, the overthrow of the Brazilian generals and the expropriation of the rapacious imperialists demand above all else the building of a Brazilian Trotskyist party, section of a reforged Fourth International.