1961: when the people won

Francis Picabia (1879–1953), Star Dancer and Her School of Dance, 1913.
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By FLAVIO AGUIAR*

Sixty years ago the people let themselves be glimpsed

Does the people exist? Is he like the Loch Ness monster, in Scotland, which the more it is glimpsed in fleeting photos, the more doubts about its existence are raised? The constitutions say that the people are sovereign and that powers will be exercised in their name, but we know that this is a chimera.

The left, in general, does not like the people, seeing in it a ruse by the ruling classes to maintain the yoke over the subordinate classes. But the lefts, in general, don't like the words “nation” and “nationalism” either. However, they exist, and they mobilize. Of course, they can mobilize on the right, with xenophobia and other prejudices. But they can also mobilize on the left, along with the anti-imperialist struggle.

These are words that can change meaning, depending on the latitude and longitude they are in. In Europe, in 90% of cases, “nationalism” appears in right-wing discourses, with “xenophobia” and “authoritarianism” in connection. However, when crossing the Atlantic, the word changed color, turning red, until it flourished in Latin America along with the liberation struggles against the colonial and imperialist yoke.

Here and there, the People, in fact, allow themselves to be glimpsed, in a flash, for those who have seen and heard them. One such moment was at the end of August 1961, sixty years ago. I was 14 and a half years old. One fine day, the 25th of August, like a bolt of lightning in a Brigadier's sky, the news broke: President Jânio Quadros had resigned.

Why did he make that gesture? To carry out a self-coup, some say, hoping that the People would appear and bring them back to power with exceptional powers, discarding the Federal Constitution. More or less as the current usurper of the Planalto Palace wants to do, without resorting to resignation. There is a difference between the two: Jânio really wanted the People, with a capital letter, to bring him back. The usurper of today, increasingly cornered, waits for “his people” to lead him back, that tiny sting made up of soldiers, officers with or without pajamas, by militiamen, bandits, second- and third-age bikers, corporate scum , the ruralists and truck drivers with hot heads and guns under their coats, the lumpen-bourgeoisie, the temple dealers in the name of Jesus, the rabble, the scum and the like. To see.

But there are also those who say that Jânio resigned because there was no one to lock him in the bathroom. Probably both versions have their dose or point of reason. Today it is known that Jânio suffered from moments of deep depression. Especially from Thursday or Friday afternoon, when the entire political world left Brasilia, until Monday or Tuesday, when the same world returned. The president had to stay in Brasília, alone. There are poignant reports – unconfirmed, as well as the Loch Ness monster – that the president, on Friday and Saturday nights, sat in the movie theater of the Planalto Palace with a bottle of whiskey by his side and watched a Western until both – the film and the bottle – ended. Go find out.

What is known is that, to the president's probable surprise, the National Congress accepted his resignation. And another fact that is known is that the military ministers – Odylio Denys, from War (today it is said from the Army), Grum Moss (from the Air Force) and Silvio Heck (from the Navy) – vetoed the inauguration of Vice João Goulart, who was on a trip to China, at the behest of President Jânio Quadros.

For many, this corroborates the hypothesis of Janista self-conspiracy: that at the time of resignation the deputy was in a communist country, which would increase the suspicion that he wanted to establish a revolutionary and unionist regime. Soon Jango!, always hesitant, fearful and conciliatory.

However, the unexpected happened. Governor Leonel Brizola did not accept the coup, mobilized the Military Brigade (the Military Police of Rio Grande do Sul), entrenched himself in the Piratini Palace, seat of the state government, requisitioned Guaíba radio and started what would go down in history as the Movement and the Legality Network.

Dissatisfied with the governor's preaching, the military ministers ordered him to be silent. It is said that General Costa e Silva telephoned him, demanding that he interrupt the radio broadcasts of the Legality Network. “No one is going to carry out the coup over the phone”, was the answer the general received.

After excruciating moments, the commander of the Third Army, based in Porto Alegre, then the largest and best armed in the country, joined the resistance movement against the coup. The most dramatic point of this expectation was the arrival of the news that a column of armored vehicles had left its barracks, in the Serraria neighborhood, and was heading towards the city center. Where would the tanks point? In the end, a relief: the tanks occupied the docks of the port, where Navy ships stationed there, with commanders favorable to the coup, threatened to bomb the Piratini Palace. But other dramatic moments would follow.

Desperate in the face of the success of the resistance, the coup ministers ordered the planes of the 5th. Zona Aérea, headquartered in Canoas, in Greater Porto Alegre, to take off and bomb the Palace. The password was: “All blue in Cumbica”, because the Gloster Meteor jets were to carry out the order and head to São Paulo, landing at the so-called Air Base, in Guarulhos. An amateur radio captured the order and warned Governor Leonel Brizola, who gave a historic farewell through the Legality Network, saying he would resist until the end and asking everyone to stay at home. The opposite happened.

For it was in the midst of this turmoil that the People entered the scene. When General Machado Lopes' car arrived at Praça da Martriz, in front of the Piratini Palace, the compact crowd stopped the vehicle. And began to sing the national anthem. The soldier got out of the car, lined up and sang along. It was the signal given that he was coming to join the movement, not to stifle it.

Next, an Air Force jeep arrived. The crowd, which at that time was estimated at 100 people (Porto Alegre, at the time, had around 650 inhabitants), blocked his way, shouting “coup plotters” and “murderers”, as they already knew about the bombing order. , but did not back down. They started trying to turn the vehicle around. Desperate, the sergeant who was driving the car, with an escort, shouted (he lied) that he was Governor Brizola's cousin, and that he had come to ask for his help. The crowd let the two pass.

New news: during the early hours of the morning, the Air Base sergeants rebelled and, armed, surrounded the barracks where the officers were preparing to take off and carry out the murderous order.

The situation was tense. Alerted, General Machado Lopes sent a detachment to occupy the Canoas Base. The coup officers fled to São Paulo in unarmed planes. Alfeu de Alcântara Monteiro, a loyalist, assumed command.

It was the 28th of August, 1961. There it was, without a doubt, allowing itself to be glimpsed, the mobilized People. Why the People? Because there are no statistics that cover those 100, and the others who started to spread around the city, carrying flags, pamphlets and winged words calling for the defense of Legality. What percentage of workers are present there? From students? From middle classes? From doctors, engineers, lawyers, civil servants, retirees, teachers, etc.? Of young and old? Of men and women? Even plainclothes soldiers, in addition to the Military Brigade, armed to the teeth in the improvised sandbag trenches around the Palace? It's impossible to know. Not only because this statistic was not made, but because what was there was the result of a transubstantiation, a change of identity and nature, even if fleeting and momentary. The dispersed and accommodated mass of people had risen to their feet and had become “the People”.

Paulo César Pereiro, inspired by the Marseillaise, composed the music and poet Lara de Lemos the lyrics of the Hymn of Legality: “Forward, Brazilians, on your feet,/United for Liberty./Let us all march together with the flag/That preaches the Loyalty.//Protest against the tyrant/Who preaches treason,/That a People will only be great/If its Nation is free!”. In demonstrations, it became the complement of the National Anthem and the Riograndense Anthem, which recalled the legendary Farrapos and Garibaldinos of yesteryear.

What followed was a troubled series of military movements, palace negotiations, with the provisional adoption of the parliamentary regime (deactivated by the 1963 plebiscite). There was widespread disappointment when, on his return to Brazil, still in Porto Alegre, João Goulart accepted the so-called parliamentary amendment, dismantling the Legality Movement. The People, once again gathered in Praça da Matriz, booed him mercilessly, hurling a string of curse words at him, unpublishable here. The crowd's fury reached such a point that Brizola decided to get the vice president out of there, making him leave through the back or underground of the Palace to a safe point where he could take his course.

There were other shocking moments, such as the one in which a non-conformist group of Air Force officers decided to shoot down the plane in which Jango was to travel from Porto Alegre to the capital, in the so-called “Operação Mosquito”. A complex “Tactical Operation” in response to that was set up from Porto Alegre, ensuring the flight and landing safely at Brasília airport.

In the years that followed, the conspirators of 61 became the victorious coup plotters and scoundrels of 64, when the People lost and disarticulated, only to reappear, only in the demonstrations for the Diretas, in 83/84, with gains and losses, until the funerals by Tancredo Neves, in 1985.

The previously mentioned Lieutenant Colonel Alfeu de Alcântara Monteiro, already promoted to colonel aviator, was assassinated on April 4, 1964, at the same Canoas Air Base, whose command he had assumed in 1961, as a loyalist officer. In those days right after the April coup, the street lights in Porto Alegre were not turned on at night. I remember one of those nights, when I was at the door of our house, and my father told me: “come in, my son, it got dark earlier today”. I think it was the night of this same April 4th.

In any case, the images and song of O Povo remain indelible in the eyes and eardrums of those who saw and heard him, even if they are somewhat worn by time.

PS For those who haven't seen it, I recommend the film (fictional and historical) Legality (2019), directed by Zeca Brito. A surprise: the director's father acts as an elderly Leonel Brizola at the end of the film. His resemblance to the former governor is such that there were those who thought that Brizola himself had staged his role, at the end of his life.

* Flavio Aguiar, journalist and writer, is a retired professor of Brazilian literature at USP. Author, among other books, of Chronicles of the World Upside Down (Boitempo).

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