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Political science

Revolution à la cubaine

Studies analyze influence of Fidel's island on the Brazilian left and the armed struggle

HÉLIO DE ALMEIDAThere once was a time in Brazil when dreaming of a “cuba libre” was far more than mixing two tablespoons of lemon juice, one dose of rum, and half a can of Coca-Cola, all shaken with a few ice cubes. “It would hardly be possible to deal with the history of the Brazilian communist organizations in the 1960’s without highlighting the role of the Cuban revolution in the drawing up of the political program of the Brazilian communists of that period”, reckons historian Jean Rodrigues Sales, from Unicamp, the author of the recently-defended doctoral thesis “The impact of the Cuban revolution on the Brazilian communist organizations”.

From Leonel Brizola to José Dirceu, and between them Carlos Marighela and Luís Carlos Prestes, the left (and, for some time, before the Cuban alignment with the former Soviet Union (USSR), even sectors to the right of Brazilian politics fêted Fidel Castro) admired the group of “bearded men” that, in 1959, put an end to the dictatorship of Fulgêncio Batista and would mirror themselves on them to make a revolution here as well. After all, had not Che Guevara himself written that “Brazil is really a place for waging a battle, and we must always consider, in our relations with the American countries, that we are part of single family?”

These gained even more strength in 1961, when Cuba declared itself to be socialist and started to suffer intense pressure from the United States. “In this situation, it was of immense interest to the Cubans that other revolutions should break out on the continent, to diminish the pressure that Washington was making on the island. At the same time, the Brazilian left, prior to the coup, relied on the example of Cuba, which appeared as a victorious revolutionary path in the Latin American conditions”, the researcher explains.

Hence, before the coup of 1964, recalls Jean Sales, there were already sectors of the left that wanted to follow the path of armed struggle, such as, for example, the Ligas Camponesas [Peasant Leagues], a group that arose in 1955, in Pernambuco, run by Francisco Julião, which, if to start with it wanted an agrarian reform within the legal limits, after the passage of some of its leaders through Cuba, between 1960 and 1961, modified its political project to include a possible armed confrontation. Between 1960 and 1961, some of its members went to Cuba for guerilla training. “The Brazilian camps were laid waste by the police, but their existence serves to call attention to the presence of proposals for an armed confrontation that precede the coup”, he observes.

The PCB (then called Partido Comunista do Brasil [Communist Party of Brazil]) of Prestes also greeted with enthusiasm Fidel’s victory, but in a distorted way, since it was seen as an embodiment of the theory supported by the communists that a democratic-bourgeois revolution had preceded the arrival of socialism, and the leading role in this success would go to the Cuban Communist Party. “After the Cuban revolution, the questioning over the need for a party coordinating the masses had arrived at its apex. For a whole generation that had just joined the militants, it did not make sense to believe that the people’s revolt would only occur under the tutelage of a political leadership”, observes André Lopes Ferreira, a historian at Unesp.

“Cuba was the example most cited by those who disagreed with the traditional communist parties, linked to the USSR, as the revolution had been started by a group of guerrillas, without support from the Cuban party, a proof that political leadership was dispensable, in the light of the desire for transformation.” The PCB did not look kindly on armed struggle and rejected the so-called Castroist “focusism”, that is, to give priority to the armed struggle, started by a small group, whose actions would create the objective conditions for taking power. The revolution, according to this postulate, would begin with a guerilla focus and would spread, wrote Régis Debray in Révolution dans la Révolution – , a book in which, says historian Daniel Aarão Reis, “he exacerbated the role of the vanguard and obscured the complex forces that gave victory to the struggle in Cuba”.

“The reading of the revolution made by Debray’s little book, with the metaphor of a patch of oil spreading over the country, is a gross falsification of the Cuban revolution. The focus proposal was harmful to the left of Our America. Poured onto a left-wing youth without much legal leeway for acting, impatient with the notorious inefficiency of the old communist parties, with their consecutive defeats, had the effect of fire on gasoline: it set imaginations on fire, stimulating attacks without support and without grounds, a sure way to defeat”, is Reis’s analysis. Indeed, Havana ended up transforming itself into the apple of discord amongst the Brazilian left, particularly after the coup, when various sectors of the left blamed the inept policy of the PCB for the success of the military. “At that moment, the Cuban revolutionary model was seen by many militants as an example that could serve for Brazil, chiefly in the use of the armed struggle against the dictatorship”, Jean says.

Hundreds amongst them decided to leave the party to form left-wing revolutionary organizations, which had in common the use of focusism as an engine for its political projects. The PCdoB (Partido Comunista do Brasil [Communist Party of Brazil]), founded in 1962 as a dissident group from the PCB (which then came to call itself Partido Comunista Brasileiro [Brazilian Communist Party] ), likewise took an interest in Cuba, but in the opposite direction, presenting Fidel’s revolt as an example of the bankruptcy of the communist parties connected with Moscow and opting for the Chinese model. Even so, some historians, like Jean, see in the apex of the armed action of the PCdoB, the Araguaia guerilla, not a struggle along Maoist lines (a prolonged popular war), but an unprecedented example of focusism à la cubaine. “Even making a defense of the popular war and criticizing focusism, the PCdoB ended up, in Araguaia, practicing focusism. That is to say, there was no political work prior to the struggle, and when it started, the militants became completely isolated. With a difference in the scenario (the countryside instead of the city), the party suffered from the same isolation as the urban groups, which it criticized for adopting focusism as its inspiration”, the researcher explains.

But, well or ill spoken of, Cuba came to be the center of reference of the debate that originated the so-called New Left in Brazil. Fidel, in turn, looked for the most diverse partners in Brazil. After the failure of the Ligas and the advent of the dictatorship, he lodged his hopes with the exiled Leonel Brizola, and, with the latter’s failure, as from 1967, he turned to the ALN (Aliança Libertadora Nacional [National Liberating Alliance]) of Marighela, a dissident of the PCB. “So the left-wing groups became socially isolated, a crisis without precedent of the representation of the traditional opposition parties was disseminated”, observes Marcelo Ridenti, a sociologist from Unicamp. From the 1970’s, Cuba was to receive waves of militants to be trained as guerillas, coming, in their majority, from the ALN, from the VPR (Revolutionary Popular Vanguard) and from the MR-8 (October 8 Revolutionary Movement). More than ever, the mythical nature of the Cuban revolution, the “revolutionary showcase”, was in force.

“This myth (I am not talking in the sense of a lie) was a great mobilizer. Being called to Cuba for training gave the organization a strong legitimation in the eyes of the other groups from the Brazilian left. Although the ALN was chosen by the Cubans as the most qualified to start the revolutionary process in Brazil, Marighela, its leader, never accepted that the compensation for the support would be the interference of the Cubans in the course of the Brazilian revolution”, warns Denise Rollemberg, a historian from UERJ. “Another aspect to be mentioned is the transfiguration of the political nature of the revolutionary proposal into an ethical-moral proposal. The revolution had to be made, less because there were conditions for it, but because it was just”, analyzes Reis. “This conception, later on, would make it difficult to adopt self-criticism or the option for a retreat, even a tactical one, seen as cowardice.” With no point of return, militarized and believing that Fidel had actually beaten Batista merely with his romantic group of guerillas, the militants set off for armed action without the slightest conditions.

“The organizations that had their personnel trained on the island were only to benefit from this in a symbolic way, since their colleagues who stayed in Brazil felt motivated, imagining their colleagues with the best guerilla instructors”, says Ferreira. Unfortunately, the truth was quite different. “Besides being deficient, these courses were aimed at the struggle in the countryside, guerilla warfare. The Brazilian reality was happening in the urban centers and, accordingly, this training was distant from what was necessary, at that moment, in the struggle that was taking place in Brazil”, Jean observes.

Ferreira also recalls that the death rate of those trained in Cuba was higher than for those who had stayed in the country. “Infiltrated agents would advise of the arrival of the guerillas, who were soon captured by the bodies of repression. Regarded by the regime as being ‘highly dangerous’, they were the most persecuted by the rage of the police.” José Dirceu, who trained in Cuba (alongside the current minister Dilma Roussef, by the way), nicknamed the courses as “an entrance exam for the cemetery”. Despite everything, he was lucky. Of the 28 militants of the dissident group from the ALN, the so-called Island Group, who returned to Brazil from Cuba, the former Chief of Staff of the Presidency, is one of the only six survivors. Could it be that the passing through Cuba was so fundamental for to ex-deputy’s modus operandi, as the press at large has it?

“There is no way of saying that an experience lived through over 30 years can be so decisive in the taking up of positions by Dirceu or by other members of the current government who went through Cuba. A lot of things have happened in the lives of these militants, back in Brazil, until the arrival of the PT in the Presidency in 2002”, reckons Ferreira. After all, the researcher reminds us, the PT was created when the armed struggle was no longer in the order of the day, but rather redemocratization, which made these old militants aim their focus on fighting elections, demanding the opening up of the regime etc.

“I believe that the political cultures of the left collaborated to forge the sociability that there is today, particularly in the political, intellectual and artistic elites, however contradictory that may seem. But it is worth recalling that the past is not exclusive to the members of this government. Mayor José Serra, for example, also owes part of his administrative capability to his days of militancy in Ação Popular [Popular Action], which was close to Cuba and then to China”, Ridenti recalls. Reis is more emphatic: “What prevailed in many leaders of the PT was the assimilation of behaviors of the Brazilian elite, and that was not learnt in Cuba, but in the training given in Brasilia”, ironizes the historian.

For him, a good number of the left still relates with Cuba as if it were the “Disney of the left”. “They go as ideological tourists, without any critical spirit, conditioned more by a visceral resentment, partly justifiable, against the United States, than from a proper knowledge of the conditions and dynamics of the Cuban revolution”, he warns. Ridenti recalls, with propriety, the citation from Max Weber, in Politics as a Vocation: “The final result of political action often, no, even regularly, stands in completely inadequate and often even paradoxical relation to its original meaning.” After all, “cuba libre“, in Cuba, is just called “cuba“, and for ages has not been the island’s favorite drink; it was created at the beginning of the last century, Havana and Washington (hence the Coca-Cola) were getting on well, against Spain.