General Villas Bôas – Conversations with the commander

Alberto Guignard, Family of Riflemen, 1935. Photographic reproduction Vicente de Mello.


Commentary on the recently released book, organized by Celso Castro.

Oral History is a consolidated field of knowledge, in Brazil and in other countries, with methodological debates in different perspectives, since the middle of the XNUMXth century. Its results derive from the interaction achieved by researchers, who choose issues and characters, and narrators, who react to questions raised by the former and are free to propose other problems. They are not limited, therefore, to the voice of the researcher, nor to the monologue of the person being interviewed: there is a joint construction of the final text.

The CPDOC (Center for Research and Documentation of Contemporary History of Brazil), of the Getúlio Vargas Foundation (FGV), in Rio de Janeiro, is a pioneer and important center of studies in the area in our country and has published a large number of works on the elite national policy, including on the military.

the volume edit General Villas Bôas – Conversations with the commander by this prestigious research center, with repercussions in the press and in the political debate, raises some methodological doubts.

Villas Bôas, in his acknowledgments, indicates Lieutenant Tabaczeniski (without first name) as responsible for transcribing his speeches, plus General Sergio Etchegoyen and Lara Villas Bôas (possibly civilian, without profession mentioned) in the role of reviewers of the final text. The formation of these three characters in the field of Oral History or History was not recorded. toto, which suggests a work made from knowledge acquired in other spheres of study and also personal ties with the person who commanded the last version of the work – the general of its title.

Celso Castro, from CPDOC, an experienced professional in Oral History, in the Presentation of the volume, makes technical indications about the preparation of the work (number of recorded hours, dates and place of recordings), records that he was responsible for transcribing and revising the text, with the warning that the narrator carried out a new revision later, when he introduced many additions (calculated at 30%) to what he had done before: “The book, in its final version, should be seen, therefore, less as a literal transcription of the interview than as a text developed from it.

Oral History is never just a literal transcription of an interview, it usually includes revisions and changes. Castro knows this very well. His caveat weighs heavily: there was probably more than the usual. The result differs from the usual rules of publications made by CPDOC in this universe, as it became a prolonged speech by the general.[1]

Gone is Oral History, the narrator's self-image remains, with copydesk professional “recopied” by the commander and his personal assistants. Castro's name as the volume's organizer is justified due to questions, notes and proposals for the division of the parts, preserved, and confers, together with FGV, academic authority on the volume. It is not clear whether some questions, with the flavor of a raised ball for the interviewee (such as those referring to Ernesto Geisel's project in the presidency and the pre-candidacy of Silvio Frota to his succession, aborted by the former), were originally formulated by Castro . One question practically restricts the answer: “Do you think it is important to differentiate between the institution and the government?”. It would be yes or no, and the whole volume, so far, had gone in the first direction. What is needed is an invitation to explain the effective functioning of this differentiation in Brazil.

The historian, in several passages of the book, records his own family ties in the military field, a cordial attitude that reinforces ties with the commander's universe, which is not observed in the volume on Geisel, mentioned above. This was due, perhaps, to the personal styles of each interviewee.

In the final version of Villas Bôas, his life does not include conflicts, tensions, struggles for space, winners and defeated, nobility in uniform and military without ancestry in the area. Or is there just one dispute: against the communist threat, which deserved the topic “Anticommunism”, later unfolded in comments, in the second half of the book, on Amnesty, the Truth Commission and the governments of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, Dilma Roussef, Michel Temer and Jair Bolsonaro. This anti-communism is not justified in terms of philosophical, economic, social and political options – what advantages does capitalism take? The general's recollections seem a little like light Hollywood narratives, set in the US armed forces, endowed with a reheated Cold War flavor, some of them talented.

Faced with such a view, 1964 and subsequent governments were remembered in the light of anticommunism, without counterpoints to the dominant memory of such episodes and periods. Social problems are not frequent in these evocations: the men of the Associação dos Marinheiros e Fuzileiros Navais do Brasil (AMFNB) in 1964, for example, appear only as undisciplined, perhaps instructed by João Goulart, Leonel Brizola and communists, without suffering real discrimination or violence – civil impediments (marriage, circulating socially without uniform outside the work shift, candidacies for elective posts), difficulties in educational and professional advancement, etc.[2]

Discreetly, Villas Bôas informs that he wrote a preface to Frota's memoirs.[3] The narrator does not directly oppose Ernesto, but the title of Silvio's volume transforms his opponent into a traitor of military ideals, which the frustrated pre-candidate would embody.

The interviewee demonstrates archival dedication by quoting, sometimes widely, excerpts from his speeches – including speeches – and from third parties about his professional path and other topics, which suggests notes from a lifetime, perhaps long entries in diaries or passages from classes given. Some answers resemble true dissertations, with a self-help touch. Without forgetting the vast series of photographs that closes the volume.

There are examples of fraternizations with elite civilians (farmer and doctor, plus their respective wives and their friends, in Acari, RN, high-value bill at the restaurant), with nothing similar in relation to popular sectors. There are also general rhetorical memories in this world, such as “In Aman, we breathe hope”, attributed to Judge Reis Friede, with a wide and unrestricted reach – even in public schools and slums, hope can exist.

One of the narrator's memories was denied in the press: when Tancredo Neves died, Ulysses Guimarães would have defended new presidential elections and General Leônidas Pires had opposed this proposal, hailing José Sarney as president, in the name of the Constitution. In Oral History, a version like this is less an object of refutation than an example of the personal vision of the one who narrates his truth, which cannot lead the reader to ignore other truths.

It is symptomatic that, in this reminiscent condition, the military appears as a defender of the Constitution against the greed of civilians, noble values ​​come from the barracks. The Historian's dialogue with passages of this nature becomes especially significant in evoking more memories on the subject, rather than just correcting or consolidating that version.

Villas Boas refers to public demonstrations at the same time as marked by “increasing organization and violence (…), mobs”, adding that the latter destroyed police vehicles. Although he mentions economic difficulties faced by Brazilians in that context, he does not associate such conflicts with real social problems, he is content with that succinct characterization by rejecting those who protested.

The observations about China, where he lived with his family for two years, are very complimentary, even exclamatory, without mentioning that country’s journey in the name of communism (he speaks of people with “defining ideology of their position in the world”, quote from geographer André Roberto Martin, in what seems to be a record of cultural particularities), although he briefly evokes Mao Zedong about the guerrilla in the middle of the population like a fish in water, when commenting on the activity of the CMA (Military Command of the Amazon).

His speech against the demarcation of the Raposa Serra do Sol Indigenous Reserve (Roraima), a governmental act that took place during the Fernando Henrique Cardoso presidential period and was ratified in 2005, during the Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva presidency, silences the protection of tribal groups’ rights in in relation to miners and land grabbers and claims greater military knowledge about that area, which he considers to have been neglected by the aforementioned governments. In a parallel sense, the criticism of what is believed to be the construction of a myth around Chico Mendes omits the murder, in 1988, of this Acre leader in the fight for the rights of the Peoples of the Forest.

Rhetorical excesses by Villas Bôas regarding the Amazon show lapses in relation to History and/or ideology in a radical state: “After Pombal (1699/1782), only in military governments would the Amazon see structured plans with a view to integration and development” . The preservation of the area as Brazilian territory in the 1903th century, the incorporation of Acre into Brazil in 1962 (Rodrigues Alves government) and its transformation into a state in XNUMX (João Goulart government), Cândido Rondon's action among indigenous peoples of the Western Amazon (first half of the XNUMXth century), all this disappears as if by magic. And there are praiseworthy environmental policies by Jair Bolsonaro and Ricardo Salles in that Brazilian region, a personal choice of the commander, lacking any justification for not compromising his knowledge on the subject. Villas Bôas states: “Self-criticism is a common practice on the left”. It would be worthwhile for other political orientations to adopt it as well.

Yes, it is the narrator's memory, but a narrator with degrees of academic training corresponding to successive graduate degrees, mixed with political-ideological preferences. Oral History is not to be confused with some spontaneous memory; if that were all, what would the Historian present there be for, from the initial project to completion? The aforementioned volume of interviews with Ernesto Geisel, for example, includes the researchers' counterpoints to this character's speeches, through questions and memories.

the episode of Twitter of the commander on the judgment of the request for habeas corpus of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva by the STF (Federal Supreme Court) in 2018, released minutes later by Jornal Nacional, from Rede Globo, was broken down, in the book, into conditional questions (a procedure repeated in relation to a possible presidential election of Fernando Haddad in 2018), Counterfactual history in a practical and a little wild, speculative state. The general's responses, elaborated after that situation, including the appeal to the difference between threat and warning (on the threshold of sophistry), assume a comfortable defense of legality if the request were accepted. It is the voice of the victor, given prestige in the next government, and the silencing of the vanquished.

The book acquires importance due to the presence of its character and commander in Brazilian politics, in addition to bringing a lot of information about the intellectual preparation and political practices of the national military elites.

Its subtitle projects an image of Villas Bôas: commander. There is no citizen, “No one is a citizen” (Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil, “Haiti”). Republic without citizenship, almost Monarchy, without King but endowed with aristocracy – nobility in uniform, in toga, in office…

New debates will emerge.

* Mark Silva He is a professor at the Department of History at FFLCH/USP.


Celso Castro (Org..). General Villas Bôas: Conversations with the commander. Rio de Janeiro, FGV Editora, 2021.


[1] An example of these rules is the publication: D'ARAÚJO, Maria Celina and CASTRO, Celso (Eds.). Ernesto Geisel. Rio de Janeiro: Getulio Vargas Foundation, 1997.

Cf. SILVA, Mark. “Filtered the voice, listen to the residues”. Review of Ernesto Geisel, Org. Maria Celina D'Araújo and Celso Castro, Cited edition. History Project. São Paulo: PUC/SP, 22: 425/429, June 2001

[2] RODRIGUES, Flávio Luís. Voices from the sea – The sailors’ movement and the 64 coup. São Paulo: Cortez, 2004.

[3] FROTA, Silvio. Betrayed ideals. Rio de Janeiro: Jorge Zahar, 2006.


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