Looking Back After 70 Years on the Rua Frei Caneca Incident

It all started, I suppose, in mid-1921 when the Soviet government envoy to South America, Ramison Soubiroff, showed up at the offices of the anarchist newspaper A Vanguarda in São Paulo. He had come to offer Edgard Leuenroth, the paper’s editor, full powers to organise a Bolshevik party in Brazil. After an amiable meeting in the Palace Hotel, Edgard declined the invitation but suggested that the by then wavering anarchist Astrogildo Pereira who was living in Rio de Janeiro (then the Federal District) might be interested. A few days later, Astrogildo arrived in São Paulo and, through the good offices of his ‘kindly’ friend Leuenroth was received by Soubiroff at the same hotel where he agreed to take on the job of launching the Communist Party.

In the wake of countless strikes during the ‘teen years of the 20th century, culminating in the big 1917 strike and attempted uprising in Rio de Janeiro in 1918, the anarchist movement was suffering ferocious harassment at the hands of the Epitácio Pessoa government. Between 1919 and 1920 hundreds of foreign-born libertarian activists were deported. The unions were under heavy police pressure, many being banned and their members jailed. But in spite of all this repression the 3rd Brazilian Labour Congress went ahead in Rio de Janeiro at the end of April 1920 at the Textile Worker Union’s headquarters at 19, Rua do Acre.

In March 1922 Astrogildo Pereira and 11 other militants launched the Communist Party of Brazil (PCB). Initially most of Rio de Janeiro’s anarchists were guarded, since most of the founding fathers of the CP had anarcho-syndicalist backgrounds. However, a few libertarians reacted angrily to what they saw as treachery. One of these was the shoemaker Galileu Sánchez, better known as Pedro Bastos, who described the members of the Brazilian section of the Third International as ‘red cloaks’. It may well have been the last correct thing he ever said …

It was not long before the activists of the two tendencies clashed. The anarchists were by far the larger number, enjoying hegemony in several unions, chiefly the Civil Construction Workers’ Union (UOCC), the General Hotel, Restaurant, Cafe and Allied Workers (known simply as the ‘gastronomics’) and the Footwear and Allied Trades Workers’ Alliance (the shoemakers). From 1921 onwards the libertarian press was carrying reports of the harassment, shooting and deportation of anarchists in the Soviet Union, as the illusions that many libertarians had entertained about the Russian revolution crumbled. By 1923 the Bolshevists (as the anarchists termed them) were in control in two or three trade unions, especially the Tailors’ Union. With characteristic lack of principle, they were resorting in provocation, calumny and slander against anarchist militants, even carrying out ambushes, as in the case of the attacks mounted on Marques da Costa and Izidoro Augusto in 1923. The anarchists, meanwhile, were more concerned with the harsh crackdown being mounted by the police under Marechal Cerneiro da Fontoura (known as ‘Marechal Darkness’), with their militants being continually rounded up, their trade union premises invaded and their demonstrations banned. Even so, the Rio de Janeiro Labour Federation (FORJ) was reorganised after the second half of 1923 and by 1924 it included over ten organisations of anarcho-syndicalist persuasions.

In March 1924, the UOCC headquarters No 119, Rua Barão in São Felix was shut down. So the UOCC, the FORJ, the ‘gastronimics’, the shoemakers and coopers then moved into the 3rd floor at No 42, Praça da República. The jailing of anarchist activists continued and that month the São Paulo anarchist paper A Plebe was banned from using Brazilian postal services. On 5 July 1923 there was a revolt in São Paulo led by General Isidoro Dias Lopes against Artur Bernardes’s dictatorial rule. A number of São Paulo libertarians passed a motion in support of the rebels and requested weapons so that they might set up an anarchist battalion, but this request was of course turned down. The rout of the rebels and the venom of the Bernardes government unleashed ferocious persecution of the anarchists, especially the ones who had signed the motion of support. The headquarters of libertarian organisations in Rio and São Paulo were ransacked and closed down by the police and hundreds of activists were committed to the state prisons or deported to the islands of Rasa, Das Dolores and Bom Jesus, or to the remote Clevelândia prison farm on the border with French Guyana, where a number of comrades met their deaths.

Meanwhile, the worthy Bolsheviks played dead, capitalising upon the dismantling of the libertarian movement in order to make new recruits and expand their influence in the trade unions. The influence of the collaborationist (‘yellow’) unions also grew and would furnish the basis for Getúlio Vargas’s government-sponsored unionism in the 1930s.

With the ending of the Bernardes government and of the state of emergency at the beginning of 1927, many libertarian militants were freed and re-entered the fray inside the trade unions and the campaign on behalf of Sacco and Vanzetti. The movement bounced back again and relations with the Bolshevists deteriorated. In August that year, the anarchists were dealt another heavy blow when the great militant Domingos Passos, known as the ‘Brazilian Bakunin’, was jailed in São Paulo and died.

In 1928, Bolshevist militants in the country numbered around 1,250, according to Leoncio Basbaum: Edgar Rodrigues disputes this figure and cites a much lower one in his book Novos Rumos. The communist leaders Octavio Brandão and Minervino de Oliveira had offered themselves for election as town councillors on the Worker and Peasant Bloc ticket, and the year before, Dr Azevedo Lima had stood for election as a federal deputy. The battle between anarchists, Bolshevists and ‘yellows’ for control of the unions was intense. With even greater intensity the Bolshevists promoted acts of provocation during meetings of the trade unions under their control when they deliberately provoked brawling through their famous ‘Cheka boys’. Even in those sectors where they were in the minority, libertarians attended, in order to make their voices heard and to expose the Stalinists’ dictatorial methods.

At an election meeting for Azevedo Lima in the seamen’s union premises, in Praia Harmonia, José Oiticica and other libertarians showed up to expose the Bolshevists only to be threatened with violence by the ‘red cloak’ mob. Another meeting was scheduled for the weavers’ union headquarters at 19, Rua do Acre where the anarchist v. Bolshevist argument took an uglier turn when the CP candidates defended their decision to run for election and put forward rationalisations for Stalin’s crimes. Since the outcome was not favourable to them, they then accused the president of the Textile Factory Workers’ Union, Joaquim Pereira de Oliveira (who had defeated a communist in the union elections) of being a police spy. Azevedo Lima claimed that he could substantiate this charge and he challenged Pereira and other opponents to a new debate at the union headquarters of the printers and cabinet-makers at 4, Rua Frei Caneca on 14 February. According to statements from elderly comrades who were present at the meeting (see Edgar Rodrigues, Novos Rumos, p. 296) the meeting was a blatant set-up designed to spark disorder so as to furnish a pretext for the murder of the anarchists José Oiticica, João Pérez, Albino de Barros, Joaquim Pereira de Oliveira, Antonino Dominguez and other targets. After Azevedo Lima put all the charges against Pereira de Oliveira, the latter, when he attempted to defend himself, was prevented from doing so by a mob led by Roberto Morena and Octavio Brandão. When mayhem broke out, in stepped Eusebio Manjón and Galileu Sánchez (aka Pedro Bastos) ‘red cloak’ leaders, to fire their revolvers into the audience in an attempt to kill the anarchists and their associates. The anarchist shoemaker and great social activist Antonino Dominguez was fatally wounded and, because of the assailants’ lack of marksmanship, so was the communist printworker Damião José da Silva. Several other workers were wounded. Though bleeding, they were forced to flee the premises in order to avoid bleeding to death in the cells of the Rio de Janeiro police.

During Carnival, a long funeral procession left the Praia da República to the São Francisco Xavier cemetery where family, friends and comrades laid to rest the worker Antonino Dominguez, murdered by the red goon squad.

Renato Ramos, Rio de Janeiro, 1998.

Translated by: Paul Sharkey.