About heroes and tombs

Image: Tuur Tisseghem


The path of restoring democracy makes it mandatory that the ideology of the dictatorship be purged from the institutions where it still finds shelter

“Hail the black navigator,\ Who has as a monument\ The trampled stones of the pier” (Aldir Blanc & João Bosco, The Master of the Seas).

In the city of Porto Alegre, on the shores of Lake Guaíba, there is a beautiful park called Marinha. The park houses a “civic space” where there is a nautical allegory, the mast of a frigate and an old fortress cannon. In this space there is also a bust of Tamandaré. In the distance, and half hidden by the trees, one can glimpse another bust, that of João Cândido, the sailor born in Rio Grande do Sul who led the Revolta da Chibata in 1910.

The movement led by João Cândido was an insurrection of sailors and enlisted men who served on the ships of the Brazilian navy, then the second most powerful in the world, claiming an end to the practice of physical punishment as a form of punishment for faults or mistakes. 21 years after the end of slavery, sailors in Brazil were still subjected to torture that João Bosco described as follows: “Red cascades gushed from the backs of the saints amid chants and whips”. Under the leadership of João Cândido, the rebels took over the Navy's main warships and threatened to bomb the city of Rio de Janeiro, capital of the Republic, to force the negotiation of their claims. Conversations followed and an agreement was reached that, in addition to abolishing physical punishment, offered amnesty to the rebels.

History tells us that the sailors were betrayed by President Hermes da Fonseca and his commanders, and the pact promised by the government was not fulfilled. If whipping was abolished, and not so much, physical punishment, although illegal, remains common in the Armed Forces to this day, such as an occurrence involving the unspeakable General Pazuello, who punished a subordinate by forcing him to parade through the barracks pulling a cart. Amnesty for the rebels never happened. On the contrary, many were persecuted until the end of their lives, like João Cândido himself, who was expelled from the Navy and started working as a loader on the Rio de Janeiro pier.

Today, 112 years after the event, a proposal is being discussed in the National Congress to include João Cândido in the book of the heroes of the Fatherland. However, and, astonishing the reader, the Brazilian Navy took a stand against the initiative. And, astonishing even more, he claimed in his demonstration that “there was no bravery” in the action of the “Black Admiral” and his comrades. For the High Command of the Naval Force, challenging a power that imposed humiliation and suffering, weapons in hand, risking their lives against an obvious injustice and in defense of their dignity, honor and physical integrity, was not an act of bravery. However, the perception of a contemporary of the facts was very different, as the same episode was classified as such by Rui Barbosa in a speech in the Senate: “Gentlemen, this is an honorable uprising”.

It is necessary to try to understand what leads our military to adopt this view, which, deep down, means contempt for subordinate positions in the armed forces, which are the heart and lungs of the combat organization. On the contrary, and in a prejudiced expression coined in Europe, soldiers and sailors would be mere “cannon fodder”. And one should not fail to point out that, in addition to social prejudice against sailors coming from the poorest strata of society, racism was also there and still is, as most of them have always been black and brown.

Now, such prejudice we can qualify as demophobia and identify that it is present in countless generations of officers and commanders in the career of arms since that time and until today. Its contemporary version, and which seems predominant mainly among current generals, brigadiers and admirals – trained during the dictatorship, in the 1970s and early 1980s – is distrust of any movement in society that aims to defend and promote the popular interests, almost always labeled as a subversion of order.

These are men who became professionals in an environment where criminals who practiced the most horrific and cowardly of villainies, torture – like the perverse Brilhante Ustra – were considered “heroes” of a war against the communist enemy. Due to the nature of the conflict, the containment of a supposed revolutionary war, his conduct would be justifiable. After all, in his opinion, it was a hybrid war in which the norm that imposes the untouchability of the prisoner should not be followed due to the need to obtain information at any cost and lower the morale of these “enemies”. If torture was accepted, what about the duty to preserve the lives of prisoners? Furthermore, as some of these criminals were their commanders, a precept of fidelity was imposed. This cult of former commanders is part of military traditions. But what leads to this contrast of perspectives?

I'm talking about the abysmal difference between a just revolt, the honorable uprising of Rui Barbosa, and a vile crime, a crime against humanity. The heart of the matter is the circumstances of each episode, the motivation of its actors and the interpretation that is made by the dominant thought, not only in the Navy, but in all the Armed Forces. The Revolta da Armada is considered, by conservative thought, a mere act of insubordination. His motivation to seek to extinguish the practice of a barbaric and inhumane act such as punishment by lashes is devalued in order to make the narrative of disobedience, of the breakdown of hierarchy, prevail.

The same happened with other episodes of struggle for the rights of subordinate military personnel in the forces, such as the movements of sergeants, corporals and soldiers in the 1960s. They were mobilizations for the political right to vote that, for the dominant way of thinking among the military, were considered processes of disruption of the hierarchical principle that governs the forces.

This vision practically became a unique thought after 1964. Especially because a huge purge of thousands of members of the Army, Navy and Air Force with democratic and leftist positions was carried out. At the same time, a process of political and ideological indoctrination was implemented as part of the professional training of the forces' cadres, which consolidated a complacent version of the dictatorship. An example of this ideological indoctrination is the large number of citations of works that have no scientific value by the astrologer Olavo de Carvalho in bachelor's degree monographs in military sciences at the Academia de Agulhas Negras.

It is interesting that in relation to other movements with the same content of insubordination, such as the Aragarças and Jacareacanga revolts – not to mention the betrayal that was the 1964 coup – in the 1950s, the hegemonic thought is benevolent. In these cases the insubordinates were not only forgiven but praised.

Now, all this revisionist and denialist mythology about movements that a slightly more distant and impartial look would see as part of a historical process in the path of deepening freedom, democracy and equality, its highest value, brings with it a distortion radical understanding of the mission of the Armed Forces in Brazil. If its ultimate objective is the defense of the Nation against possible enemies, the clumsy, reactionary, fanciful and blind interpretation of this constitutional mission begins with a false definition of what that Nation is to be defended and what would be the threats to challenge it.

First of all, this far-right ideology points to a supposed internal enemy manipulated by adverse forces on the international level as the most dangerous. Named as “Marxist globalism”, “gramscism”, “cultural Marxism” and so on, its objective would be to destroy the unity of the Fatherland in order to dominate it. The discourse is overwhelmingly present in the speeches and writings disseminated among the members of the forces by their commanders and instructors, as it appears in the writings of Avellar Coutinho or in the speech of General Villas Boas.

To begin with, such an enemy not only does not exist, strictly speaking, it never did. Even during the Cold War, the USSR was never expansionist and, since the end of World War II, the communist parties that were politically aligned to it disputed power within the democratic game, seeking votes. Only in national liberation struggles, which took place in Africa, Asia and Latin America and on very specific occasions of resistance to colonialism and dictatorial regimes, was there a call to arms. Furthermore, it is not the job of the armed forces to combat internal threats, as that is what the police and the Public Prosecutor's Office are for.

So what is this menacing specter? In fact, it is an aversion to everything that reminds the people and the promotion of their desires and interests and that goes back to the revolt against the lash of the times of João Cândido. Freedom of expression, better living conditions, democratization of property, union organization, income distribution, improvement in the provision of public education, health and assistance services, strengthening of the State as a promoter of rights, all these demands are interpreted as actions of the " Cultural Marxism”. Even a prosaic Brazilian history lesson that describes the dictatorial nature of the regime created by the 1964 coup is mistaken as one of the battles of its hybrid war.

Soldiers and sailors are thus trained to fight their own interests, since almost all of them come from the popular milieu. Hence another conceptual mistake What they understand by Nation starts from an inversion in its origin: first there is the territory. Well, it's just the opposite, the people, their common identity, culture and destiny are the ones who create space in the world's geography. Especially because, for about 200 thousand years, human societies formed nations without settling on a specific terrain, a fact that only occurred in the last 12 thousand years. The soldier's duty is to defend his people, and for that reason alone, he defends the territory that these people need to ensure their way of life.

This ideology, in fact, fantasizes about a “people” that is a unitary bloc, without contrasts and differences, without different colors and ideas, without divergent customs and interests. A society without classes, races and plural cultures that would resemble a gray, gloomy and dull monolith. Now, this conception is, without taking anything away from it, the same as that of Nazism and Fascism, which, through the tragedy of the Second World War and the genocide, took charge of extirpating from the bosom of society those who did not belong to what they prejudicedly defined as a people. German or Italian: Jews, gypsies, Slavs, communists, socialists and even patients and people with special needs. The dictatorship tried to do the same to us by persecuting, torturing, killing and exiling under the slogan of “love it or leave it”.

The crooked vision that puts the land before the people is behind all the distortion and misunderstanding that the military, for the most part, express when it comes to protecting the Amazon. They approve of the criminal action of land grabbers, miners, loggers and ruralists who set out to destroy the forest and kill its indigenous inhabitants under the lenient gaze of border squads. As if the interest of the Brazilian people was not the preservation of the forests and the sustainable use of its resources, and as if the indigenous people were not as Brazilian as any other born here.

If the fanciful internal enemy is such a caricature of historical, political, economic and social knowledge, when the same ideologues deal with international relations and the threats that come from abroad, the blindness is also impressive. With regard to the defense of Brazil's place in the world, a flattering and subordinate position was adopted in relation to the USA, as if that country were not precisely the greatest threat to Brazil's security since the end of the Second World War.

The action of the northern nation came to have a positive content for Brazilian national development, when investments from that country and its European and Japanese allies contributed to our industrialization. However, after the crisis that led to the resumption of American hegemony and the end of the Cold War in the 1970s, the US became the most powerful obstacle to the continuity of Brazilian and Latin American development.

Foreign investment turned into financial plunder and the country was drained of many billions of dollars, transferred to its foreign creditors. Only in the second half of the 2010s did this economic bleeding stop, unfortunately for a short time. From 2013 until the 2016 coup, the Americans sponsored and supported a process of regime change in Brazil that produced the stagnation and impoverishment promoted by Michel Temer and Jair Bolsonaro, their beloved allies. How did the military perceive this process of national destruction? “We were saved from cultural Marxism by the 'nationalists' Temer and Bolsonaro”.

When it was approved in 2012, the National Defense Policy had as one of its pillars the ability for Brazil to be able to say “no” to anyone who wanted to oppose our national development project. History showed in later years that its acceptance was, in fact, a dissimulation of the military leadership. As soon as they took power in 2016, Brazil began to say yes, yes sir. They destroyed UNASUR and turned Mercosur into a mere trade agreement, in addition to expressing enmity with most of our neighbors and with our partners in Africa and Asia. The defense strategy itself was reformulated in 2020, echoing reactionary prejudices and mythologies. Likewise, on the diplomatic level, the country has been there since 2016, and even more so after 2018, when the State was captured by reactionary militaries, militiamen, opportunists and bandits of different types, assuming a servile position in relation to the USA.

The adoption of this far-right orientation in foreign and defense policy is a clear violation of the constitutional mandate that adopted the principles of sovereignty, self-determination, non-intervention and Latin American integration. Likewise, it is in contradiction with Brazil's multilateral and cooperative tradition and the priority in relations with Latin America, Africa and the entire space that makes up the global South.

The path of restoring democracy makes it mandatory that the ideology of the dictatorship be purged from the institutions where it still finds shelter, notably the Armed Forces. To this end, a reform of the teaching and training of our military, the enhancement of the memory of the victims of those years of lead, the reaffirmation of the separation between military and politics, the return of these servants to the barracks and the consolidation of their unconditional subordination to the civil power these are urgent and necessary steps.

Thus, João Cândido will be able, 112 years later, to have his name inscribed in the book of heroes and his memory revered, thus occupying the place that is due to him in the hearts of his people and in the square that remembers the bravery of so many who are no longer among us.

*Luiz Augusto Estrella Faria and pprofessor of economics and international relations at UFRGS. Author, among other books, of The Size Key: economic development and prospects for Mercosur (Ed. UFRGS).


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