The elected president Jânio Quadros resembled Britain’s Neville Chamberlain in appearance and in political positioning but he shared Churchill’s reputed love for the bottle. The masses adored him, but the elite ridiculed his over the top mannerisms and sneered at his mediocre intelligence. This was a time of great political turmoil with a growing influence of working class organizations on Brazilian public life, which made the middle and upper classes feel threatened. In 1961, Quadros resigned hoping the country would unite to demand his reinstatement.
This never happened and his vice president, João Goulart, took over. Goulart had strong links to trade unions and to left wing state governors, such as Miguel Arraes in Pernambuco and Leonel Brizola in Rio Grande do Sul. In contrast to the United States, Goulart saw no problem in maintaining good relations with Fidel Castro’s Cuba and he went so far as to invite Che Guevara to give a speech to the Brazilian Congress.
The Cuban revolution was still very much in the air. Confronting the political and economic control that the United States had over the region, that uprising had shown Latin America new possibilities. As far as the political left was concerned, Cuba had demonstrated that the continent had the ability to stand up for itself, choosing social justice, independence and development over the subservient path envisaged by the so-called “free world”. Societies striving towards cooperation rather than on profit scared the hell out of the establishment, especially at the height of the Cold War. Washington did everything in its power to crush the Cuban example, imposing a trade blockade, helping exiles in an aborted invasion and attempting to assassinate its leaders. The only result of this policy was to push the Cubans closer to the Soviet Union, and this alliance made a socialist – a communist even – Latin America a dreaded, but very real, possibility.
As for Brazil, the United States was determined to keep the largest country in South America “free” and in 1964 they actively supported a military coup. There were troops and tanks in the streets of the main cities, but they found no organized resistance to challenge them. Although the military leaders stated their aim was to restore democracy in Brazil by getting rid of the communists, it would take two decades for the country to return to political normality. The new regime exiled President Goulart and his allies, withdrew the political rights of numerous public and media figures, and imprisoned key leftist activists.
Despite outrage amongst the intelligentsia and at first a general indifference within the working class, the military delighted the business community, Dad included. For them, Brazil desperately needed to modernize to achieve its full economic potential: the giant had to wake up. With the business friendly, anti-communist military in power and guidance from Uncle Sam, nothing could go wrong.
Not until 1968 did Brazil’s civil society begin to stand up in opposition to the government, mirroring events in Paris, Chicago and Prague. After the police shot and killed a student, 100,000 people, including many eminent artists and intellectuals, took to the streets of Rio in the largest anti-government demonstration that Brazil had ever experienced. Opposition spread so fast that even military-appointed congressmen started to speak out against the undemocratic rulers. The regime’s response was swift and brutal, overruling the constitution to issue the infamous AI-5 – Unconstitutional Act Number Five – suspending congress and handing full political authority to the president. Members of the opposition, protest leaders and journalists were imprisoned. Torture became commonplace and many leftist politicians, writers and artists fled into exile.
Some students went underground and joined urban guerrilla organisations, staging successful bank robberies and high-profile kidnappings. In 1969, after the seizure of the American ambassador in Rio and the planting of bombs in military quarters, the authorities stepped up the repression. People started to disappear, including the son of our family doctor. Embryonic nuclei of revolutionary militias took to the countryside seeking to emulate the Cuban revolution. In one case, in the early 1970s, the Brazilian army dispatched a division of around 10,000 soldiers to hunt down some twenty Maoist youths in the remote Araguaia jungle region. The army executed most of the captured militants.
These were dark times and the authorities censured everything; books, plays, films, songs. They also kept a tight grip on the content of all newspapers and of all radio and television stations. Nevertheless, although the violent suppression of the Araguaia insurgency went unreported, people sensed the tension and the militants acquired a legendary status. There were all sorts of crazy theories about the reach of the guerrillas’ power. Like with anything else in life, when myth takes over problems emerge. In this case, both the militants and their suppressors overestimated what minute groups of extremists could possibly achieve in such a vast and complex country. Together, the opposing sides sent the country into a steady political decline. There was fear and mistrust everywhere, and sometimes my pre-adolescent friends and I would interrupt voicing our political fantasies when we saw someone suspicious around. At night in bed, listening to underground rock ‘n’ roll music and feeling oppressed by my parents; I transformed into a secret revolutionary, dreaming about taking up arms to fight for liberty and equality.
The brew of repression, rebellion and revolution on one side and the collapse of traditions, the new technologies, free sex and forbidden drugs on the other, affected everyone in one way or another, and resulted in a polarized society. A young person had to choose between being an agent of change or a supporter of the regime.
However, with the impossibility of political solutions, counterculture emerged as a tolerated middle ground. The subversive germ was kept alive in non-mainstream artistic expressions generating the famous slogan of “be a marginal, be a hero!” These anti-establishment devotees also wanted to change the world, but they did not belong to any left-wing organization aiming at regime change. This allowed them to voice the spirit of change and, because the system was able to dismiss their artistic creations as mere entertainment, record companies and other entrepreneurs were free to exploit these expressions as a lucrative, rich kid’s market. Although neither side liked each other, there was an explosion of talent backed by solid marketing strategies in what was one of Brazil’s most creative cultural periods.
On the other hand, if censorship had managed to mute local expressions it could not interfere with Brazil’s educated youth having access to foreign voices at a time when anti-establishment culture was at its peak abroad. Any Brazilian who had a dictionary around or who knew English, could easily connect to what was going on in the minds of their counterparts abroad. The loudest voice in counter culture was music, more specifically in Rock ‘n’ roll that still had plenty of revolutionary influence in it.
What may be hard to understand in today’s cynical world is that everyone – even the members of the greatest bands – believed in the changes they defended. Fame and fortune were not the only motors that drove the great rockers at their peak, they genuinely saw their creative outputs as being part of a wider movement to overthrow the political and social status quo. The technological edge of their music helped deepen its rupture with the past, and was celebrated with ecstatic solos on their distorted guitars, which gave a sound and even a spiritual edge to the dream.
This was my musical upbringing. I was eight when the Beatles split up; Led Zeppelin released “Stairway to Heaven” when I was nine; the Rolling Stones launched “Exile on Main Street” when I was ten; and Pink Floyd’s “The Dark Side of The Moon” was released when I was eleven. For someone from a traditional Jewish background living under a military dicatorship these were ground-breaking and mind-blowing cultural torpedoes and their energy guided my generation throughout its formative years. Although the outcome of most these bands were commercial triumphs, they were much more than this; their music separated the new from the old. By listening to them, and by adopting their attitude, young people suddenly became closer to each other, sometimes closer to “subversive” strangers than to their own family.
We, from the youngest generations, received these messages in our remote bedroom outposts – we had to resist the “squares” and fight to be ourselves, to create our own identities, and subvert the plans that the system had in store for us and for the future. The military noticed the agitation and knew that there was something uncontrollable in the air, but they could not put their finger on it, let alone halt it. They could imprison a hippy for smoking weed, but not for his thoughts.
This radical, libertarian, perhaps distorted and somewhat naive struggle consuming the youth would have more complicated consequences as it sank deeper into the social fabric. The consumption of drugs exploded in the favelas and crime became more frequent and more daring. In fact, the Brazilian organized underworld was born around this time, when in the 1970s, political detainees were confined together with some of the country’s most dangerous criminals in the high security prison of Ilha Grande, to the south of Rio. The militants viewed their cellmates’ fate as a consequence of a flawed economic system, and to move the revolution forward they sought to convert the so-called “common criminals” to their radical views. While it is doubtful that this campaign of politicisation was at all successful, the criminals did take on board the importance of group solidarity and of structure. With this in mind, they began a syndicate that operated outside the penitentiary system but that was controlled from inside the prison walls. They put in practice the techniques the militants had taught them and became competent bank robbers and kidnappers. This was the birth of the infamous Comando Vermelho (the Red Command) that would become Rio’s most powerful underworld organization, controlling most of the city’s drugs and arms trafficking.