Luiz Carlos Prestes

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Luiz Carlos Prestes

Luiz Carlos Prestes (1898-1990) was an almost mythical Brazilian guerrilla-war leader in the 1920s. He became leader of the Brazilian Communist party in the 1930s and continued in that position for almost 40 years.

Luiz Carlos Prestes first gained national prominence in 1924, when, as a young captain of engineers, he led a group of army mutineers in the state of Rio Grande do Sul against the government of President Arturo Bernardes. Hard-pressed by troops loyal to the government, Prestes led his men several hundred miles north to a juncture with another group of rebels, from the state of São Paulo, who had retreated to the area of the great Iguassú Falls on the Argentine border.

From Iguassú, the rebels began an epic march through the interior of Brazil. They fought an almost classic guerrilla war against army and state police forces in a dozen states. Prestes was chief of staff of this rebel group, which became famous as the Prestes Column.

Exile and Travels

Soon after the rebels were finally driven into Bolivia, Prestes went to Buenos Aires, where he remained for several years. Until 1930 he remained titular head of the Tenentes, the former military rebels, and some civilians who had joined them to form a conspiratorial political movement.

In Buenos Aires, Prestes was courted by both Stalinist and Trotskyite Communists. Although he did not immediately join either, he did assume a much more radical position than the vague social nationalism of the Prestes Column. He opposed the revolution of October 1930—led by the former governor of Rio Grande do Sul, Getulio Vargas, and supported by the great majority of the Tenentes—on the grounds that it was "petty bourgeois."

In 1931 Prestes went to the Soviet Union, where he was employed on various engineering projects, became a Communist, and was elected to the Executive Committee of the Communist International. Early in 1935 Prestes returned to Brazil, where he was immediately elected to the Politburo of the Communist party. He was also named honorary president of the Alianca Nacional Libertadora (ANL), a broad left-wing opposition to President Vargas. Prestes and the Communists spoke in the name of the ANL without the authorization of its non-Communist leaders; and when the ANL was outlawed, Prestes led an attempted military insurrection in its name. When it failed, virtually all left-wing politicians were rounded up by the government. Prestes himself was captured a few weeks after the revolt, was reportedly badly tortured, and was finally sentenced to a long prison term. He remained in jail until May 1945, and his wife, a German Communist, was deported to Nazi Germany, where she died in a concentration camp.

National Politics

After Vargas had been forced to agree to end his dictatorship and had called elections for December 1945, he proclaimed a general political amnesty. It was widely rumored that before Prestes's release under this amnesty an agreement had been reached between him and Vargas. In any case, upon his release Prestes called on the Communists to support maintenance of Vargas in office until a new constitution had been written. In turn, Vargas legalized the Communist party and gave the Communists complete freedom in the labor movement.

In spite of efforts by Vargas, his supporters, and the Communists to keep him in power, he was ousted late in October 1945. In the election 6 weeks later, the Communists ran as presidential candidate Yeddo Fiuza, a former Vargas official, and presented candidates for Congress. Prestes was elected senator, and the Communists also elected 15 deputies.

Between 1945 and 1947 the Communists represented about 10 percent of the national electorate and gained extensive influence in organized labor. However, early in 1947 the Communist party was outlawed by the Supreme Electoral Tribunal, and in the following year Prestes and the Communist deputies lost their seats in Congress. Prestes went into hiding for the next 11 years.

During this period, Prestes was largely out of contact with the Communist rank and file and lower leadership. However, when a strong dissident movement against the Prestes "cult of the personality" arose in 1956, after Nikita Khrushchev's denunciation of Joseph Stalin at the Twentieth Congress of the Soviet Communist party, Prestes took the lead in purging the dissidents.

In the democratic atmosphere of the Juscelino Kubitschek administration, Prestes came out of hiding, went before a court, and purged the sedition charges pending against him. During the next 5 years, he traveled widely throughout the country in his capacity as secretary general of the Communist party. When the group who had run the party while he was in hiding tried to challenge Prestes's control, they were expelled in 1961 and established a rival pro-Chinese Communist party.

During the João Goulart administration (1961-1964), the Communists made considerable headway in organized labor and general politics. Prestes on several occasions appeared on the same platform with the President at political rallies.

However, with the overthrow of Goulart on April 1, 1964, Prestes again went into hiding, leaving behind a notebook with names and addresses of many of his associates which was captured by the police. Prestes remained secretary general of the Communist party, although his control was apparently contested by elements opposed to what they conceived to be his inept leadership. He remained the principal leader of the underground Communist party. In 1971, upon instructions from the party, Prestes moved to Moscow. He returned to Brazil in 1979, but was removed from his seat of secretary general and was eventually expelled from the party altogether. No longer a member of his party, Prestes spent his final days supporting the political ambitions of Leonel Brizola. Prestes died on March 7, 1990.

Further Reading

Useful material on Prestes's early career is in Robert M. Levine, The Vargas Regime: The Critical Years, 1934-1938 (1970). His later career is covered in two studies by John W. F. Dulles, Vargas of Brazil: A Political Biography (1967) and Unrest in Brazil: Political-Military Crises, 1955-1964 (1970). See also the excellent study by Thomas E. Skidmore, Politics in Brazil, 1930-1964: An Experiment in Democracy (1967).

Additional Sources

(Tenenbaum, Barbara, ed.) Encyclopedia of Latin American History and Culture, Simon & Schuster, 1996.

(Gorman, Robert, ed.) Biographical Dictionary of Marxism, Greenwood Press, 1986. □

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Luiz Carlos Prestes

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