Anarchism and the military dictatorship in Rio de Janeiro: Milton Lopes's recollections

On April Fool’s Day 1964 the despotic military rule that was to last for 21 years and which crushed every movement, be it leftist (including the anarchists) or even liberal, was imposed in Brazil. On that very day in Rio de Janeiro anarchist militants from the CEPJO (Professor José Oiticica Studies Centre), alert to omens of a political crackdown, removed materials stored on the CEPJO premises by Trotskyist activists whose activities CEPJO had been hosting. Later it was announced in the Official State Gazette that the CEPJO minutes book had allegedly been mislaid; the minutes were redrafted so that the police authorities might read them. On 1 May a meeting operating under the restrictions of the time was held in Nosso Sitio (Our Place) in São Paulo; Nosso Sitio was a meeting-place for the anarchist movement.

Over the ensuing years the CEPJO continued to operate with the requisite safeguards, muddling along with “curious types” who would turn up with a battery of questions and suggestions for compromising activities. In 1968, following the death of the student Edson Luis, Ideal Peres helped the MEL (Student Libertarian Movement) print pamphlets on a mimeograph machine at the CEPJO.

That same year, among the students who graduated from a course in psychology run by the CEPJO were Paulo Roberto da Costa Villalba Alvim and Tania Alves Pinheiro, who fell in love and wanted to get married, in defiance of the wishes of the Villalba family, Tania not being of white descent. Paulo Roberto, a minor, tampered with his birth certificate so that they could marry but was found out. His outraged stepfather, an army colonel, caught and tortured Tania and two of her friends (Pedro and Nadia), extracting information about the classes at CEPJO and the names of others who frequented the place. The upshot was that the CEPJO was raided by Air Force troops, materials were seized, the premises ransacked and 18 members of the Centre were jailed; these included Ideal Peres in October 1969. The Air Force launched a military police investigation into 16 militants who were charged with carrying out subversive activities through the CEPJO and MEL. In 1972 they were all acquitted on grounds of insufficient evidence.

Milton Lopes joined the anarchist movement in 1973, after the CEPJO trial was over, as a result of his having read a book published by the Editora Germinal. Milton and some other comrades lobbied the Portuguese anarchist Roberto das Neves (1907-1981), the owner of an anarchist publishing house, to carry on operating after the CEPJO trial ended. Roberto das Neves, who was one of those who had been arrested and put on trial, directed the youngsters to Ideal Peres who received them in his apartment in Leme. Out of that grew a series of study and discussion sessions that lasted for years. “From that point on” – Milton says – “we began to realise that in Rio de Janeiro city there was a group of anarchists and at that point their activism comprised three main sorts: welcoming and offering guidance to those approaching the movement, as in my own case; propaganda mounted through the Editora Germinal, and salvaging the historical memory of anarchism, something which was begun at the end of the 1960s by Edgar Rodrigues. Roberto das Neves and Edgar Rodrigues were representative of a group of Portuguese anarchists based in Rio de Janeiro, exiles who had fled fascism in Portugal.”

At the outset, Ideal was a bit wary about us, as was only to be expected of somebody who had recently been in serious difficulties with the dictatorship. But we got past that. From them on he encouraged a sort of youthful “radicalism” on our part by spelling out the reality of the anarchist movement in Brazil at the time, which had been undermined by a succession of historical set-backs but which had survived the forceful process of repression unleashed by the dictatorship. The softly-softly approach changed as the dictatorship softened, when it was thought that anarchists needed to resume public activity and try to expand the movement.”

According to Milton, it was a time of great wariness among anarchists in Rio de Janeiro (and elsewhere in the country). He recounts how libertarians kept in touch during the dictatorship, with the repression at its height: “One had to be very careful about speaking over the phone and in one’s correspondence, which was systematically opened. In both cases one had to be very careful and talk in such a way as only the interlocutor could understand. Ideal adopted this ploy in his correspondence with anarchist groups and individuals abroad. In Rio, as we learnt from Ideal, the older activists used to hold meetings out in the suburbs, in the home of some comrades in the Zona Sul and sometimes in the Editora Germinal office in the Darke do Matos building in the city centre (Roberto das Neves also used to hang around the Esperantists’ Cooperative in the Largo da Carioca in the late evening and occasionally a younger group would show up to chat with him). One great national (and international) meeting point for Brazilian anarchists was Nosso Sitio, which at that time lay near the town of Mogi das Cruzes in São Paulo state and which was run by the paulista (São Paulo) anarchists when I was there in 1974 or 1975.”

In the 1970s Ideal Peres organised a study group meeting in his home; Milton was one member. “The Sunday get-togethers at Ideal’s house would focus on comment and debate surrounding texts selected by the group. It could be argued that it was an ‘Introduction to Anarchism’ course and it lasted several years. I met the older militants there; off the top of my head, I can remember Roberto das Neves himself; Diamantino Augusto, another Portuguese, who made a big impression on us as he was even then well up in years and his activism dated back to the city of Santos back in the 1910s; there was the teacher Manuel José de Matos, another Portuguese, who lectured at the UFF Communications School. From the MEL, I met Antonio and Rogério there. Later, in the 1980s, I was at another meeting there with Pietro Ferrua and others when Pietro returned to Brazil. Among the anarchists, the first sign that the repression was easing up was definitely the appearance of the paper O Inimigo do Rei, initially published by a group in Bahia. Ideal and his partner Esther de Oliveira Redes were in the habit of visiting different states at holiday times and made contact with the Bahians. They came back from Salvador all filled with enthusiasm in 1976 or 1977. 1977 saw the appearance of the first issue of O Inimigo which eventually became a rallying point for several groups around Brazil. At one point the proof-reading was being done in Rio and it was being printed on the presses of the Jornal do Commércio which was the cheapest rate at the time.”

At uni, I met Nelson Tangerini who was one of the O Inimigo do Rei distributors in Rio and he did a little proof-reading for it himself as well as sending in copy for the paper. Nelson also did quite a bit of writing for the so-called ‘mainstream press’, complaining whenever they carried something incorrect or tendentious about anarchism.

Roberto das Neves handed on the Editora Mundo Livre publishing imprint to Nelson Abrantes. He and his partner lived in what was then the publisher’s office, a room in Evaristo da Veiga Street facing the military police barracks. At that time Mundo Livre published a few short books (including one by Roberto das Neves) plus Edgar Rodrigues’s book Novos Rumos. Nelson Abrantes was knocked down and died in 1981, I think it was. The publisher’s was already in difficulty with admin and financial problems.

In Rio a group was formed around the teacher Claudio Miranda and it eventually got into a dispute with the people up in Bahia. The Rio group maintained that the texts published in the paper seemed to be targeting the Marxists primarily, letting the rightwingers off easy.

When I went back up to uni, I set up an anarchist collective on campus with comrades who disagreed with the approach of the local leadership. The group that used to meet up regularly at Ideal’s place must have lasted up until 1977 or 1978, but I carried on dropping in on him regularly through the 70s and into the 80s. On two occasions I tried my hand at social intervention, but reckoned that the conditions just were not right for pressing on with it“, Milton recalls, before concluding his declaration: “The most positive thing about anarchism in Rio in the 80s, it seems to me, was the setting up of the Circulo de Estudos Libertários (Libertarian Studies Circle) – CEL, the very first meeting of which I attended; it drew a lot of people, for it had been advertised in the papers. It was held in the Senator Correia school in Laranjeiras where the CEL functioned up until 1992; it lasted for hours and attracted a lot of people whose interest had been piqued by the ads. I say ‘positive’ because the CEL was a real seed-bed for what emerged in Rio anarchism in the ensuing decades.”

From: emecê (Rio) No 23, August 2012. emecê is the bulletin of the Marques da Costa Research Group. Translated by: Paul Sharkey.