Prestes, Luís Carlos (1898–1990)

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Prestes, Luís Carlos (1898–1990)

Luís Carlos Prestes (b. 3 January 1898; d. 7 March 1990), secretary-general of the Brazilian Communist Party (PCB) (1943–1980). Prestes was born in Porto Alegre, Rio Grande do Sul. He was in Rio de Janeiro in 1908 when his father, an army captain, died, leaving the family (Prestes had four sisters) with an insufficient pension. Prestes's mother gave lessons in French and music. Later Prestes occasionally tutored classmates in mathematics while attending the military school in Rio de Janeiro and the military academy, where, as an outstanding student, he earned a degree in engineering.

Prestes achieved fame in 1925–1927 as chief of staff of the revolutionary column that made what became known as the Long March in the interior. However, Prestes, the "Cavalier of Hope," condemned as insufficiently radical the objectives of the 1930 revolution that brought Getúlio Vargas to power. After working with Dmitri Manuilski in the Comintern in Russia, Prestes returned clandestinely to Brazil, where he helped prepare the uprising of 1935. Its failure was followed by anticommunist repression and torture. Prestes was arrested in 1936 and sentenced to 16.5 years of prison for having led the uprising. In 1940 the sentence was extended by 30 years because he was found guilty of having persuaded Communist leaders, before his arrest, to murder Elza Fernandes, a young woman accused by Communists of aiding the police. Olga Benário, a German Jewish Communist whom Prestes had married while abroad, was deported from Brazil to Germany, where she died, a prisoner of the Nazis, after giving birth to their daughter, Anita Leocádia.

A prisoner in Rio de Janeiro, Prestes supported the war effort of President Vargas. His "alliance with Vargas," which arose after his release in April 1945, was accompanied by Communist penetration of labor unions. The growing PCB espoused a moderate program and became legal until outlawed during a new presidential administration at the beginning of the cold war. Prestes then lost his Senate seat. From hiding he issued thunderous manifestos calling for uprisings.

During the administration of Juscelino Kubitschek, whom the Communists helped elect in 1955, Prestes emerged from hiding and campaigned for candidates who purchased PCB support in the local elections of 1958. Adhering to the Moscow line, he welcomed any ally who would oppose "United States imperialism." In the early 1960s, Prestes sought legality for the PCB and advocated achieving socialism by a peaceful path. But the very strength of the PCB in labor and student organizations, combined with the activities of violence-minded leftists, provided public support for the 1964 military coup that deposed left-leaning President João Goulart.

Prestes, forced again into hiding, was criticized by those advocating violent struggle against the new military regime. Following a party schism and the emergence of guerrilla groups and minor Communist parties, he denounced terrorism and went abroad. An amnesty decree of 1979 allowed Prestes to return to Brazil, where he accused PCB leaders of betraying the working class by cooperating with the government in the quest to legalize the party. He lost his post of secretary-general and sought, unsuccessfully, to have another party name him its senatorial candidate. Separated from the PCB, he spent his last days supporting the political aspirations of Leonel Brizola.

See alsoBrazil: Since 1889; Brazil, Political Parties: Brazilian Communist Party (PCB); Lacerda, Maurício Pavia de.


Dulles, John W. F. Brazilian Communism, 1935–1945: Repression during World Upheaval. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1983.

O Velho: A Historia de Luis Carlos Prestes (film), directed by Toni Venturi (1997).

Prestes, Anita Leocádia. Luiz Carlos Prestes e a Aliança Nacional Libertadora: Os caminhos da luta antifascista no Brasil. Petrópolis: Editora Vozes, 1998.

Vianna, Marly de Almeida Gomes. Revolucionários de 35: Sonho e realidade. São Paulo: Companhia das Letras, 1992.

                                 John W. F. Dulles