Professor and historian Anita Leocádia Prestes, daughter of revolutionaries Luiz Carlos Prestes and Olga Benário, received in her Rio de Janeiro home the newspaper A Verdade for an interview on the 90 years since the Prestes Column, one of the most important political movements of Brazilian history in the 20th century.
A Doctor in Social History at the Universidade Federal Fluminense (UFF), professor of the Comparative History Post-graduate Program at the Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ) and president of the Luiz Carlos Prestes Institute, Anita has extensive knowledge of the history of The Column. In the interview, she explains the ideas defended by the rebels and their relationship with the poor rural population of the country, criticises the attempts to falsify its history and defends the legend of the Knight of Hope and his comrades.
A Verdade: This year, the Prestes Column marks its 90th anniversary. What’s the importance of this movement in Brazilian history?
Anita Leocádia Prestes: The Prestes Column is the only movement in Brazil that has challenged the power of the establishment and not been defeated. There have been many fights in the country’s history, attempts at revolution, but all of those were defeated. Brazil developed in such a way that 400-years of slavery and rule of the large landowners ensured that our ruling classes became extremely powerful and had enough force to defeat all popular movements that dared to contest their power.
The Prestes Column was the first movement that the ruling classes didn’t manage to defeat. And why was this possible? It was a relatively small force, having less than 1,500 unarmed men (the few weapons they had were those that they managed to take from their enemies), without military logistics; compare the Brazilian Army, with all the Military Police that the government mobilised to the hired-guns of the North-Eastern Colonels, which the government spent a lot of money on. Therefore, it was these jagunços , hired guns that gave the Column most work, because they already were used to fighting on horseback, being left in the middle of the bush, things that the soldiers of the official army weren’t accustomed to.
It was a tactic of the war of movement- which was a great novelty in Brazil and, in a certain sense, in the world- which made it possible for the Column to evade the government troops, defeating 18 Generals and never having been beaten themselves. We can only explain this success as resulting from the willingness of the combatants in the fight. People think that the Prestes Column was formed by lieutenants, but, in reality they had less than 12 officers. Mostly they were soldiers, sergeants, corporals and a lot of civilians - workers, they were the majority in the field. There were also 50 women.
These people fought with a certain enthusiasm, heroism, without receiving anything in exchange. Unarmed, without provisions, eating what they could find along the way, crossing desserts, wetlands, the worst difficulties imaginable, always under enemy fire. There were 53 battles, in none of them did the government come out victorious; on the contrary, some times, they ended having to flee because the tactics of the war of movement and by their willingness to fight.
In your book The Prestes Column, you confirm that the Column was a different army, with characteristics of a people's army. This certainly was one of the reasons why they were never defeated…
Exactly! The Column wasn’t an elite army. The commanders lived just as the soldiers and made more sacrifices than the soldiers. When there weren’t enough horses, they would go to the soldiers, and the commander would go on foot. When they lacked food, what food they did have would go to the soldiers and the commanders would go without. This was the attitude: the soldiers of the Column knew they would never be abandoned. When they were wounded or sick, they would always be taken on the back of a horse, and when there weren’t any horses they would be carried by the others. This mindset in the movement had a lot to do with the confidence in the leadership and the belief in the cause, even though the cause was slightly ambiguous for them.
The combatants of the Column believed that they needed to defeat (President) Artur Bernardes, who, for them, represented all that was bad. To fight against Bernardes was to fight for liberty, and the Column did this with much heroism, contradicting the belief that Brazilians couldn’t fight, that they only liked samba, carnival and football. The Prestes Column showed that common people, the poor, the Brazilian people could fight with passion when they believed in the cause that they were fighting for and found leaders who they believed and trusted in.
The Column's "Long March" (25 000 kms)-Map taken from the book NOVA HISTÓRIA CRÍTICA DO BRASIL by Mário Schmidt, Editora Nova Geração
What was the Column’s plan?
The plan was the same as the lieutenants’ original plan. We can’t separate the Column from the lieutenants’ movement. The Column was what managed to come out of this movement, because the government couldn’t defeat them. The Prestes Column travelled 25 thousand kilometers across Brazil, crossing 13 states, defeating 18 Generals, lasting more than two years and was never beaten! The plan was, basically, to install the secret vote, which had been the main demand of the movement since 1910, when it was launched by Rui Barbosa's civil campaign, and that wasn’t achieved in the Old Republic; this was a question of principals for the agrarian oligarchs who dominated the country and who had an interest in continuing to control the populations vote.
They also wanted to reclaim the independence of the Electoral Justice system because the electoral process, besides being fraudulent, continued the practice of calling on the Verification Commission of Powers of National Congress, who decided which elected candidates could take their seats.
In a general way, the Column wanted the Republican Constitution of 1891 to be complied with. The lieutenants, not in any moment, intended to install a military dictatorship. Quite the opposite. They wanted to integrate a power into politics that was honest, and this was very naïve on their part, without a doubt. This was very much an elite idea, it would seem: they didn’t attend to mobilising the popular masses nor did they organise them. They didn’t know about agrarian reform. The only ones who spoke of agrarian reform in that time were the communists, with whom the lieutenants weren’t in contact with.
In the context of the 1920s, when the movement’s operations were in reflux, because it came out of a period of defeats towards the end of the 1910s, after the great strike of Sao Paulo, in 1917, and the anarchist uprising in Rio de Janeiro, in 1918, the urban middle class were unsatisfied with the impossibility of their influencing the elections, but they were unorganised, without leaders, lacking any real conditions to have any influence. Because of this, the lieutenants ended up taking a leading role in all of the opposition movements.
Fighters of the Prestes Column in Foz de Iguazú. Instituto Luiz Carlos Prestes
How did the population receive these proposals?
They had been very sympathetic, but the popular masses were disorganised, and the lieutenants also weren’t concerned with organising them. The Column had a subordinate view of the people, a very military view, and thought they would carry out the revolution on the people’s behalf. They didn’t have the objective to mobilise the masses of the countryside, nor organise them or make them aware of the situation. The idea was to attract the military forces of the government to the interior of the country to enable the tenentistas (revolting junior officers) to rise-up in the capitals. Prestes later said that the lieutenants, as typical petits-bourgeois, were disorganised, they didn’t know how to plan, they were always uncovered by the police, in the end, it was an awfully messy business. Who was the most organised was the Column, and Prestes’s role had a great importance in achieving this, because he managed to structure and organise the troops.
Candido Portinari Painting oil on canvas, 46 x 55cm, Paris
When did the expression “Knight of Hope” come about?
This didn’t come from inside the country nor was it the creation of Jorge Amado [author of The Knight of Hope, A Biography of Luiz Carlos Prestes, 1942
] , different to how many believe. At the end of 1927, with the Column already in Bolivia, Astrojildo Pereira, Secretary-General of the Brazilian Communist Party (PCB) at the time, went to Bolivia to meet with Prestes. On his return, the interview he did with Prestes was published in a Rio de Janeiro left-wing newspaper, and this was when the term “Knight of Hope” was coined.
At this time, Prestes’s credibility was huge. And Washington Luís’s government had suspended the censorship of the press. Out of this came an explosion of information about the Column, with reporters being sent to Bolivia to interview Prestes. The prestige of the Column and of Prestes was so great that, when the left come up with the term “Knight of Hope”, it stuck.
Through the eyes of a historian, how would you define the role of Luiz Carlos Prestes in the country’s history?
It started through the Column. Everyone who participated in it remembers the significant role that Prestes played, for having been responsible- not alone, but principally- regarding the creation of tactics of the war of movement, that was something extremely innovative in Brazil and it enabled the people to take the fight to the persecuting government. By going through the countryside of Brazil and he came to learn of the misery and the critical situation facing the large masses, not only did it affect him, but all of the commanders of the Column, and this profound shock stayed with them. Prestes was ahead of the others and decided that he had to do something to change this situation. It was at this moment that he was drawn to Marxism and discovered in communism the solution to the problems that existed in Brazil.
After the Column ended, Prestes searched for and studied to find answers. He studied The Capital, Marx, and the principal works of Marxism, and got in touch with not just Brazilian communists, but with communists from all over Latin America, because Buenos Aires (to where Prestes went after leaving Bolivia) was at the center of the continent’s communist movement.
During this process, he got closer to communism and came up with the manifesto of May 1930, when he officially broke from the lieutenants. This time was the most important not just in Prestes’s life, but also in the history of the Brazilian revolution, in the history of Brazil itself. This is because the dissident oligarchs bet on Prestes to make the movement of 1930 happen. Prestes, at this time, could have occupied the place of Getúlio (Vargas), because he had more credibility than Vargas. Enough so that even the press at the time could see this. Getúlio wasn’t a great figure on the national stage; just in Rio Grande do Sul. He had been a minister of Washington Luiz’s, but didn’t have the fame that Prestes did at the time. So much so that the Liberal Alliance’s campaign running up to the elections of 1 March 1930 were done under the banners of the Column, of Prestes and of the lieutenant revolt.
Prestes was the figure that really got the masses going. In the Northeast there was an enormous enthusiasm for him. His could have at that time assumed Getúlio’s place. The power was offered on a silver platter. It’s the measure of the man that he understood that that wouldn’t have been the solution to the problems of Brazil, and he stuck to the program of the PCB, which defended the agrarian revolution and anti-imperialism.
Prestes understood that, if he were to participate in the movement of 1930, he would be kept entirely subordinated to the objectives of the agrarian oligarchs that were driving the movement. So, he didn’t go along with this. This was a gesture that the ruling classes would never forgive him for, because they counted on Prestes and his leadership to serve their interests [those of the oligarchs]. He decided to break from the movement and to become a communist, leaving for the other trench of the class war and putting himself on the side of the blue-collar men and women, of the workers, of the oppressed and exploited, abandoning the groups of the ruling classes that had bet on his leadership.
Newspaper A Liberdade, official organ of the Revolutionay People's Government
Natal, 27 November 1935
The insurrection of 1935 is a watermark in this story…
1935 was the rebirth of the leadership of Prestes. In 1930, with this gesture to renounce his power, he became like a general without soldiers, completely isolated. However, shortly after Vargas’s victory and the movement of 1930, the process of wearing down the new regime began very quickly. This act of erosion was a process that happened mainly from within the urban middle class, trade union movements, blue-collar workers and their own lieutenants, they started to go back to Prestes and say: “Prestes was right”. All of Prestes credibility began coming back, even though he was far away, in Moscow. When he returned to Brazil, in 1935, his prestige was huge. Before his return, the National Liberation Alliance (ANL) had already been created and he had been anointed its honorary president. Prestes leadership was very important at this time. In the end, the 20th century had two important figures: one was Getúlio and the other, Prestes.
But in Brazilian schools these facts are seldom taught. Why?
This history it completely unknown, I think that the attitude taken towards him in 1930, when he stuck to Marxism and communism, and his loyalty in this direction for the rest of his life made him unforgivable in the eyes of the ruling classes.
After 1930, the other Column commanders stood by Getúlio and became his ministers. They weren’t interested in telling the Column’s story, because to speak of it they had to speak of Prestes, and how he had become a communist, they weren’t interested in this.
Within the New State this subject was completely forbidden. In this time it was spoken of very little. The party was very much occupied with other things. There was in the PCB, and in the left in a general sense, a very gross neglect with this part of history, a lack of concern regarding the necessity to know this story, to educate the new generations about the fights of the past. This was also a contributing factor. But mainly it was the ruling classes that weren’t interested in this history being known. These, the ruling classes strategy isn’t to defame Prestes, because he hasn’t been a factor so far. It’s not that they give him the silent treatment either; their strategy is to falsify history and present Prestes and other communists, like Gregório Bezerra and other revolutionary figures, as integrated into their system, figures like them have been watered down in a sense, and because they are already dead they can’t protest nor speak about this. So, if the people don’t protest, if the people don’t search for the truth, we lose a lot. This [the falsification of history] is being done in a heightened fashion in relation to Prestes.
I think that the PCB is positioning itself to be able to use Prestes’s image. For example: returning to the ideas and direction of Prestes. It has been 65-years of the withdrawal of not just his mandates, but of all of the communists in parliament, and never before have these men taken any initiative in this sense. Now that they are all dead, and they can’t say anything further, they no longer represent a threat, and they can take advantage of their reputations by restoring their mandates, which is all staged. I am sure that if Prestes was alive he would scream blue-bloody-murder and not accept this.
Just look, Renan Calheiros [President of the Senate, member of the PMDB, a party allied to the Wokers' Party] praised Prestes! It’s a disgusting business, this. Who is Renan Calheiros to speak of Prestes’s life, to make a eulogy? Now they are doing the same thing with the Column. There has already been the emergence of the idea to institutionalise the Column. This would mean to integrate the Column into the official history and empty it of all of its fighting and revolutionary contents.
How should the history of The Column be taught to the young generations?
I think that they have to be shown the true history of The Column, nothing needs to be contrived. Despite its limitations, The Column fought against power, against the ruling classes, against the establishment. They fought with a lot of passion, and this is what brought them together. I think that it’s important to show the people the nature of the struggle. As it stands, it ended up being a class struggle, although they didn’t have this in the forefront of their minds to being with. In this sense, The Column is an example. Prestes wasn’t a hero or a leader of all Brazilians, he was a leader of the workers, of the revolutionaries, of those who fought to dismantle capitalism.
Do the revolutionary ideas of Prestes and Olga exist to this day?
I think so, but they are so unknown and this came about due to all the repression that there was in Brazil, in the world, the defeat of real socialism, in the end, a series of factors that happened and that contributed to making todays youth strangers to these ideas. But I think that there’s interest in them. I have, in the last year, released my book- Luiz Carlos Prestes, The Fight for a Revolutionary Party- while travelling all over Brazil. I’ve given a lot of lectures in universities, and there is a lot of interest amongst the young.
So do you see hope in these youths?
I think that there is hope. I think that the youth are anxious for answers. The protests of the past year show this. People, all of a sudden, realised that they need to do something, to break out of their lethargy, to go to the street. They also see that it’s possible to make a change. The responsibility of the left, of those who are really committed to the fight of the people, are trying to organise- I think that this is the legend of Prestes too.