The Brazilian Dictatorship and the Battle of Maria Antônia

The Brazilian Dictatorship and the Battle of Maria Antônia

An interview with two former students about one of the most famous events in Brazil during the dictatorship period. The student street battles at Maria Antônia street and its impact. As well as a discussion on the legacy of the battle and the dictatorship particularly on contemporary Brazilian politics.


In October 1968, students from two neighbouring universities in the centre of São Paulo clashed in a battle which left one dead and many injured. We hear how the so-called 'Battle of Maria Antônia' drove Brazil deeper into a military dictatorship which is still controversial to this day.

Transcription of the above video, with the crucial assistance of Emma, a friend from Brazil on spelling and pronunciation of local names and places.
[Program Producer Max Pierson]

But we begin in Brazil where the current election process has
held out the possibility of a candidate Jair Bolsonaro being voted in as President,
even though or perhaps because he has professed himself an admirer of the
military Dictatorship, which ran from 1964 to 1985. There are five candidates
in total and a second run off vote between the two who come out on top on
Sunday is likely to be required.

But whoever wins the campaigning has harked back to the old
days of that dictatorship. So, we’re looking at one of the key events from that
period in October 1968, a violent street battle erupted between students from
the left and the right in the centre of São Paulo. It
became a symbol of political and social tension in Brazil, Thomas Pappon has
been talking to two former students who were there.

Thomas Pappon:
In 1968 Paulo de Tarso Venceslau was a student at
the university of São Paulo
Paulo de Tarso Venceslau:

They were ready for the attack, they had acid bombs, Molotov
cocktails and even guns.

Thomas Pappon:

Marcel Mendez was a student at Mackenzie University.

Marcel Mendez:

I saw people injured by stones, beaten with sticks, I saw people
bleeding.

Thomas Pappon:

Mackenzie Presbyterian University, a traditional private
institution founded in the 19th Century took up a whole block side
of Rue Antonia in the centre of São Paulo. On the other side of the street was
the Philosophy faculty of the University of São Paulo or USP, it was the
biggest and most important public higher education institution in Brazil.

Paulo de Tarso Venceslau:

There were lots of universities in the area and Rua Antonia
street was like a magnet for all these students, because of the lively bars
where they drank and played music. The Brazilian singer and composer Sergio
Barque, who studied at the architecture faculty around the corner, used to play
for us there.

So there was a strong cultural appeal at a time of political
struggle against a military dictatorship, Maria Antonia was a hub of political
activity. Culture and politics always walk together in Brazil.

Thomas Pappon:

As in many parts of the world, 1968 had been a year of
protests in Brazil. The killing of a student in March by the police in Rio had
triggered demonstrations in various cities, all violently repressed by security
forces.

In June a hundred thousand people took to the streets in Rio
in a march against the government, after four years of military rule Brazilians
wanted change.

Paulo de Tarso Venceslau:

We wanted freedom, political freedom, people are also very
unhappy with the economic situation, with the decrease in wages, and the students
were promoting new values, changes in social customs, mini-skirts, drugs,
music. All those influences came from outside, from Paris, the Latin Quarter.

Thomas Pappon:

At that time the Philosophy faculty was also attracting
younger high school students, who liked to hang around and take part in
political activities, like collecting money to organise a National Student
Congress scheduled for October. And it was the beginning of October that
hostilities with students from Mackenzie University started. Lots of students
at Mackenzie sympathised with the military regime. Marcel Mendez was an
engineering student there.

Marcel Mendez:

It started at a crossroads where many USP students were
asking for money from people in cars at traffic lights. Students from Mackenzie
watched them, and at some point, eggs started flying towards the students asking
for money.  Slaps and blows were
exchanged, there was some physical aggression but nothing vey serious but it
escalated later.

I was standing at the entrance to Mackenzie’s Engineering
school, what I saw looked like a fight between hooligans, groups fighting each
other, throwing stones, beating each other with sticks. Students from Mackenzie
were trying to invade the philosophy building and vice versa.

Thomas Pappon:

The groups kept on fighting on the street throughout the
afternoon of October 2nd, but things got much worse the next day, a Thursday.

Marcel Mendez:

The day started very tense, but now they were not only exchanging
sticks and stones, but also Molotov cocktails and rockets. They were making
them in Mackenzie’s chemistry laboratories. Things like gunpowder rockets with gasoline
when you fire them they explode, and bombs, they made them during the night.

I saw a freshman from Mackenzie throwing a metal cylinder
used as a concrete mould to the other site of the street without looking. If that
had hit someone it would have killed him. They were throwing whatever came to
hand, those desks, pieces of wood, some of them climbed to the top of a building
which was under construction and belonged to Mackenzie, and they started
throwing building materials. Even sinks and toilets they just threw them onto
the crowd on the street below.

Paulo de Tarso Venceslau:

At this point in the battle a group of high school students
decided to invade the building under construction. That’s when one of the
Mackenzie students shot at and killed one of the students.

Thomas Pappon:

José Guimarães a 20 year old high school student was shot in
the head and died on the way to hospital. At the time his death was not
investigated. In 2015 a Truth Commission which examined crimes committed by the
military dictatorship concluded that he was killed by Osni Ricardo, a police
informer and member of an anti-Communist paramilitary group called CCC [Comando
de Caça aos Comunistas] “Communist Hunting Commando”.

It isn’t clear if Osni was actually a student at Mackenzie,
but it is clear that the university
was infiltrated by members of the paramilitary group and by the police.

Marcel Mendez:

I remember one of them who always walked around wearing a
dark cloak, he always had a gun with him, we knew he was an agent, but there
could have been other members of the CCC amongst the students and maybe the
teachers.

Thomas Pappon:

At the end of the morning of the 3rd of October
the news about José Guimarães’s death had spread among the students changing
the dynamics of the conflict. Marcel Mendez tells what happened next.

Marcel Mendez:

The bloodied shirt of Guimarães motivated a huge march
through the centre of São Paulo. Thousands of students took part in the
protest, they claimed that Guimarães was killed by the Mackenzie students and
clashed with police. They overturned cars, set them on fire.

 Paulo de Tarso
Venceslau:

By the time the students left for the march through the city
centre the police had already taken up position around Mackenzie University. The
state forces were mobilised to defend a private institution instead of defending
a public institution, the Philosophy faculty.

Marcel Mendez:

At the end of the afternoon of the second day Rua Antonia
was empty, the next day the road had been closed by the police. That’s when the
invasion happened, a group with many armed people who I believe were with the
CCC invaded the Philosophy faculty and basically destroyed everything.  They burned documents, archives, vandalised
the whole building.

Thomas Pappon:

Two weeks later more than a thousand students were arrested
for in a clandestine National Congress and two months later the military
government brought in a new law. It was called Institutional Act 5, and it
would become infamous. It gave the military power to intervene in all levels of
government, to censor whatever they wanted and to suspend individual rights. The
law effectively institutionalised torture and censorship and for many students
identified with left wing movements -like Paulo de Tarso Venceslau- these
events drove them to extreme measures in the fight against the military regime.
They joined armed Guerrilla groups, many went to jail, were tortured, exiled or
killed.

Max Pierson:

Thomas Papon was talking to Paulo de Tarso Venceslau and
Marcel Mendez. So, what exactly was the battle of Maria Antonia? Joining me now
is Dr Fiona Macauley an expert on the history of
Brazil at the University of Bradford. Now we heard there how the battle led to
a more hardline phase of the Brazilian Dictatorship but first what was that
dictatorship like, and how did it differ from others in the region?

Dr Fiona Macauley:

Well it’s a very interesting question, the word dictatorship
because at the moment that very word is being questioned and has been ever since
1964. Those who conducted the military coup did so with a significant parcel of
support from the civilian population. So many of the supporters of what that
military coup represented and represents, will say well actually it was a civilian-military
government. They don’t call it a coup, they don’t call it a military regime,
they call it a counter-revolution.

And in that sense, it was quite similar to others in the
region, in Argentina, in Uruguay, in Chile, because they saw this as a counter-revolution
against communism, against subversion. So, they saw themselves as holding the
line of Western, Christian, anti-communist values. So that they have in common.
But perhaps what’s slightly different in the Brazilian case is that they very clearly
had civilian support and this was demonstrated because for twenty years they
actually maintained a two-party electoral system, underneath these dictatorial
conditions. So they had the façade of democracy, even within a very oppressive and
repressive environment.

Max Pierson:

 And is it clear when
it comes to something like that episode, the street battle in 1968. The military
in effect provoked what happened in order to justify a further crackdown on
civil liberties.

Dr Fiona Macauley:

Yes, I think that that is a fair interpretation of events. Because
the bogeyman of Communism always has to be invoked in order to justify the
draconian response. Actually, there weren’t many active Communists in Brazil,
in fact there weren’t very many active Communists across Latin America, what
you had was fairly nationalist mildly socialist movements who were then mischaracterised
as Cuban proxies and Communists. And at the moment the bogeyman is Venezuela,
so the current political climate is one of fear that somehow Brazil will turn
into Venezuela and a kind of Communist chaos.

So, it’s always quite useful to have moments and incidents that
heighten fear and anxiety and puts violence in the streets because of course
ordinary people are frightened of violence and chaos. So, they will tend to
support politically forces that will promise to eliminate that and bring about
social order.

Max Pierson:

So, is that why we have a candidate now in Mr Bolsonaro whom
almost champions that dictatorship? Why is this, is there nostalgia for those
times, which you know were quite harsh in many respects?

Dr Fiona Macauley:

There is a nostalgia and the nostalgia is one for political order.
Its not really an economic nostalgia because the military regime had its ups
and downs economically. It did very well for the first half and then it began
to decline.

But what we have at the moment in Brazil is extreme economic
anxiety, you’ve got unemployment, dropping wages, you’ve got a public security
crisis a law and order crisis. In Brazil something like 63,000 people a year
are murdered, and all of those anxieties together form this kind of climate of
fear and a desire for easy solutions and for a strongman politics.

I don’t even think it is nostalgia for the military regime,
because to be perfectly honest if you ask people what happened during that 20
year period they’ll be very vague. What they have in their minds is an idea
that there was order and that somebody was in charge and on that they build
their nostalgia and their hopes that somehow Mr Bolsonaro will resolve all of
those problems.

Max Pierson:

Going back though, over the last three decades or so how
would you characterise the way in which Brazil has dealt with the legacy of dictatorship?

Dr Fiona Macauley:

It really hasn’t dealt with it. The first difference from
other countries in the region is that they brought in an amnesty law which
other countries did, but it’s a very different amnesty law because it was asked
for by the people on the left who had lost their political rights under the
military regime.

So in order for that law to pass the military said “well
fine, you can have your political rights back but we want exemption from
prosecution as a counterpart”. That law has never been overturned, there was
finally a truth commission that investigated who had been killed and disappeared
and who was responsible, but it never got to the point of prosecution, and so
effectively the military and police forces who were involved from the 1960’s onwards
in this kind of repression they’ve never been brought to account, nobodies been
prosecuted, and nobodies lost their jobs, there was no kind of purge within
police ranks.

So the culture of the use of torture and extrajudicial
killings has simply continued from the 1960s and 70s onwards to the current day.

Max Pierson:

Dr Fiona Macauley from the University of Bradford, many
thanks.

Posted By

Reddebrek
Oct 25 2018 23:53

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  • As in many parts of the world, 1968 had been a year of protests in Brazil. The killing of a student in March by the police in Rio had triggered demonstrations in various cities, all violently repressed by security forces.

    Thomas Pappon

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