Luís Carlos Prestes

(b. 1898)

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(b. Porto Alegre, Rio Grande do Sul, 1898; d. Rio de Janeiro, 7 Mar. 1990)

Brazilian; Revolutionary leader and head of ‘Prestes Column’ 1924–7, Secretary-General of the PCB Luís Carlos Prestes was, for over six decades, the best-known, most charismatic leader of the left in South American politics, first as a military commander, then, for most of his life, as Secretary-General of the PCB, the Brazilian Communist Party. After long years of imprisonment, exile, and struggle, he was expelled from the PCB in 1984, but maintained his political commitment.

Prestes, like Getúlio Vargas and Ernesto Geisel, was a gaúcho, from Rio Grande do Sul, the son of an army officer. He was one of the leaders of the tenente movement, a group of young army officers opposed to the oligarchic government of the early 1920s. Because of a bout of typhoid, Prestes was not in the group of tenentes which seized the fort of Copacabana, in Rio de Janeiro, in 1922, leading to their heroic deaths on 5 July. He did, however, join the revolutionary movement, on 5 July 1924, which took control for three weeks of the city of São Paulo, centre of Brazil's coffee wealth.

Prestes, then jointly headed a column of troops which marched for over 14,000 miles through the interior of Brazil, from 1924 to 1927. The Prestes Column became a legend, fighting federal forces in over fifty battles, as well as the gunmen of land-owners. The national press followed its progress and its demands for land and other social reforms, till it entered Bolivia in 1927.

Prestes was expected to become the military leader of the Vargas revolution of 1930, but he was suspicious of its bourgeois nature and went to the Soviet Union, joining the PCB. The PCB (Brazilian Communist Party) had been founded in 1922 with a notably élitist leadership and a membership heavily drawn from foreign immigrants. In March 1935, Prestes, now back in Brazil, became honorary president of the ANL (the National Liberation Alliance), a united front force, including the PCB. In July, Prestes called for a popular revolutionary government. In November 1935, instead of a massive uprising, there was only a series of barrack revolts, all swiftly subdued. Thousands of arrests, included that of Prestes. In April 1945, Vargas, seeking new allies, freed nearly 500 political prisoners, including Prestes, who, to the nation's surprise, declared the PCB's support for the Vargas government.

In the presidential elections of 1945, the candidates of the now legalized PCB won 10 per cent of the vote. This performance largely reflected the personal popularity of Prestes, but, in May 1947, the Dutra government declared the PCB illegal. Prestes, in August 1947, again went underground. Throughout the whole period till the coup of 1964, the PCB continued to be active in politics, especially through the trade union movement, but the party was riven by fierce debate over strategy and tactics.

Prestes claimed to be taken by surprise by the coup of 1964. He was now driven further underground, losing contact with the party leadership. In February 1971, Prestes left the country for Moscow. He still kept up with events in Brazil, but, within the PCB, power was passing to Giocondo Dias. In August 1979, a political amnesty allowed Prestes and others to return to Brazil, to be received at the airport by about 10,000 people. Times, however, had changed and he could not recover ground already lost. He involved himself in wounding debates within the PCB, and, in May 1990, he was removed from his long-held post of Secretary-General.


Subjects: Politics.

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