That day when the communists tried to seize power in Brazil

On March 31, 1964, the military seized power in Brazil. Between 1964 and 1985, five generals assumed the presidency of the country. The period is generally called the Military Dictatorship. Although it ended more than 30 years ago, this period is still influential in Brazil’s political environment. A part of the Brazilian right still praises the military regime as a golden period in Brazilian history. A part of the left still condemns the regime as the darkest period in our history. Jair Messias Bolsonaro, the current president of the republic, is an admirer of the military regime and considers that not only was this necessary but also beneficial for the country. Dilma Rousseff, the former president impeached in 2016, was an urban guerrilla during the military regime and as far as I know, she has never publicly regretted this episode of her biography. Hardly a week goes by without the mainstream media and left-wing observers warning that Bolsonaro intends to strike a blow and reinstitute the dictatorship. Although the military regime was undoubtedly striking in the Brazilian reality, I would like to remind you today that Brazilian history did not begin in 1964.

1935. Brazil is governed by President Getúlio Vargas. Vargas came to power in 1930 through a coup. Defeated candidate for the presidency that year, he did not accept the result of the elections and with the support of the army, he took the power. Vargas was provisional president until 1934 when he was indirectly elected by Congress to remain in office. Vargas is pressured on the one hand by Integralistas, a group with fascist characteristics, and on the other by the Communist Party of Brazil. Faced with this scenario, with support from the USSR, the communists led by Luiz Carlos Prestes decided to take power by force.

The attempted coup took place between November 23 and 27, 1935. Low-ranking leftist militaries revolted in barracks in several cities in the country, including the capital Rio de Janeiro. The military who participated in the coup attempt believed that the working class would support them. The Communist International, in particular, saw Brazil as a “semi-colonial” society, in which a revolt against the government would be enough to lead the population to a spontaneous upheaval. That’s not what happened. The coup d’état had no expressive support from the population and the revolutionaries were soon defeated by legalistic forces.

The consequences of the coup attempt were dire. Luiz Carlos Prestes could not accept that his movement had simply been poorly organized and that the population did not support communism. There had to be a culprit. Prestes decided that it was the fault of Elza Fernandes, code-named Elvira Cupello Colonio, then about 16 years old. Elvira joined the group of communists of the 1930s under the influence of her boyfriend, Antonio Maciel Bonfim, code-named Miranda, general secretary of the Brazilian Communist Party. Prestes suspected that she was a police informant and decided that she should be killed. Elvira was murdered by strangulation on March 2, 1936.

In response to the coup attempt, Vargas hardened his regime, effectively becoming a dictator in 1937. The entire period from 1930 to 1964 would be deeply influenced by him.

After 1935, the Brazilian army became progressively more anti-communist, culminating in the 1964 coup.

There is no doubt that the leaders of the movement were paid (and very well paid) by the Comintern. There is no doubt that they were aided by foreign spies, mostly Europeans.

I don’t want to fall into the Tu quoque fallacy here, but my experience is that Brazilian leftists hardly remember the country’s history before 1964. Many criticize the anti-democratic character of the regime that was established in the country that year. Many denounce that the 1964 coup was carried out with US support. But I don’t remember many leftists making similar criticisms to the 1935 coup attempt.

I don’t want to be unfair. I have friends who identify themselves as leftists and who value democracy. But I must say: socialism can start democratic, but it inevitably leads to dictatorship. This is the only way to have their plans realized. People don’t seem to have learned that in Brazil. Or in other parts of the world.

Brazil, the country of Carnival (?)

Maybe for most English speakers it isn’t even known, but we are in the Carnival week. Carnival is a festive season that occurs before the liturgical season of Lent. The main events typically occur during February or early March. It typically involves public celebrations, including events such as parades, public street parties and other entertainments. I’m unashamedly taking some elements from Wikipedia here to try to explain it. It is basically equivalent to Mardi Gras. Carnival (or Carnaval, as we say it in Portuguese) is a big thing in Brazil. Or maybe not. That’s what this post is about.

Carnival is a Christian feast, at least in its origin. It occurs right before lent. Lent is the forty days that antecede the Passover. The idea was that people would fast (at least to some degree) during the forty days of lent. Therefore, Carnival was the last opportunity for forty days to indulge in some pleasures of the flesh. Carnival literally means “remove meat”, from the Late Latin expression carne levare. “Farewell to meat” is another possible translation. However, carne is not solely meat in Latin; it also refers to the flesh, especially in the Christian association between sin and flesh. Carnaval, therefore, is the feast of the flesh – taken literally or not. At least in Brazil, to my knowledge, the relationship between Carnival, Lent and Passover is little known. I believe that most people just take it to be a major party that happens sometime between February and March.

Brazil is popularly known as the country of Carnival, Samba and Soccer. Of these three, I kind of like the last one. Not so much the first two. To my knowledge, Carnival has always been very popular in Rio de Janeiro, at least since the early 19th century. At that time, it was known as Entrudo, a celebration in which mostly people throw water on one another, like in a water balloon fight. However, there were some improvements: people started throwing some liquids other than water if you know what I mean and that even at strangers. The party was also an opportunity for slaves to poke on their masters. Carnaval eventually became associated with the slaves’ African culture, and I suppose that’s how the Christian origins were somewhat lost. Today, Carnaval in Rio is strongly associated with Samba music.

I haven’t done a very scientific research for this, but to my knowledge, most people in Rio actually don’t like Carnaval. Carnaval is a street party, with all that comes with it: people leave tons of trash behind; people get drunk, and often violent; the music can get really loud and sometimes going on for hours, even into the night. Given the specific nature of the festival, there are people having sex on the street and other things happening as well. It is hard to say this without sounding moralistic, but the thing is that Carnaval ends up being the most anti-libertarian thing one can imagine. If “don’t do onto others what you don’t want to be done onto you” is the golden rule we’re trying to put into practice, Carnaval is the undoing of this.

In the late 19th century, some authorities already realized that the festival was getting out of control and tried to organize it somehow, mostly to no avail. But things really got out of control in the early 20th century. Coming out of the monarchy, Brazilian intellectuals were dedicated to the task of identifying the Brazilian identity. Sérgio Buarque de Holanda made a huge contribution to this with is Roots of Brazil (Raízes do Brasil), in which he said that Brazilians had a hard time understanding and applying the impersonal relationships necessary for a modern capitalistic society. Another major contribution in this conversation was done in 1933 by anthropologist/sociologist Gilberto Freyre in his book Casa-Grande e Senzala (English: The Masters and the Slaves). In this book, Freyre argued that the Brazilian national identity was the result of miscegenation (both biological and cultural) between masters and slaves.

On the one hand, I want to say that Freyre’s argument was revolutionary because he was saying that Brazilians were not an “inferior race” because of race-mixing. Just the opposite: Brazilian culture was permeated by highly positive elements exactly because of miscegenation. Consider that Freyre was saying that in the 1930s, when race-mixing was still a major taboo in the US, not to mention Nazi Germany. But on the other hand, I believe that Freyre contributed to a movement that gave up trying to “civilize” Brazil.

The topic of civilization is always a polemic one because it implies that some cultures are superior to others. I don’t want to go that way. But I also don’t want to be a cultural relativistic. Some cultures are superior to others in some aspects. There is nothing culturally superior in leaving tons of trash in the streets after a street party. There is nothing culturally superior in imposing your music taste on others. There is nothing superior in imposing your take on sexuality on others.

In the late 19th century, some authorities were trying to organize Carnaval in Rio de Janeiro because things were getting out of control. In the early 20th century, most authorities gave up that enterprise because they decided that Rio de Janeiro (and Brazil) is that “mess”. Instead of trying to correct the bad aspects of Carnaval, they decided to celebrate it as the very essence of Brazilian culture. Eventually, into the 20th century, Carnaval became a great example of panem et circenses policy.

I understand that in the early 21st century more and more people in Brazil are getting sick and tired of Carnaval, and that has some connections with politics. Typically (though definitely not always) people on the left want to celebrate Carnaval. People on the right typically (though definitely not always) don’t want to. Some people on the left are already saying that Bolsonaro’s government represents the taking over of government by Christian fundamentalists. I doubt. They may be right at a very low degree. But for the most part, what is happening is that Brazil is too diverse for a single project of nation to work for everybody. Ironically Gilberto Freyre was right: we are the result of this mixture, and this is not a bad thing. People only need to learn to respect the opinions, tastes and preferences of the other elements in this mix.

Back in Brazil: more impressions

Another thing that calls my attention in Brazil (or rather, in Rio de Janeiro) are the crazy traffic jams. All day long, traffic moves painfully slowly. Really. There is no rush hour. Every hour is rush. The reason is not hard to understand: there are way too many buildings for too few streets and poor options in mass transportation.

Thinking about this, I came across this excellent text. It is in Portuguese, so for those who can’t read it, I’ll summarize. Basically, zoning laws in Rio de Janeiro through the 20th century were completely crazy, following a very nasty relationship between politicians and real state companies. A company wanted to build taller buildings and profit, the city hall would not oppose, especially when a luxurious apartment was waiting for the mayor. The result is that old neighborhoods like Tijuca and Botafogo simply have no space on the streets for so many cars.

But what is the problem with many tall buildings? That’s what New York is all about, and I simply love the Big Apple! Well, that’s true, but NY has something that Rio doesn’t: a great mass transit system. Rio has four subway lines. Or three. Wait, maybe it’s just one. Here is the thing: on paper, Rio has four subway lines, which already makes no sense, since it only has lines 1, 2 and 4. Line 3 was planned but never built. Line 4 is just an extension of line 1, and line 2 trains enter line 1 (!). Although the system was privatized in the 1990s, it is very clear that it maintains a very suspicious connection with the state government. Sergio Cabral, Rio’s former governor, and presently in jail, was married to a lawyer who defended the Metro company. It is also clear that bus companies subsidize politicians who maintain their interests. In sum, Cariocas are hostages to a terrible public transport system that favors a criminous relationship between big companies and politicians.

Rio ends up representing very well a problem we see all over Brazil: people believe this is capitalism. Because of that, they vote for socialist parties. It should be painfully obvious from the examples of USSR, Cuba, Venezuela, Nicaragua, North Korea, China, Vietnam, Eastern Europe, and so many others that socialism simply doesn’t work. But here is the thing: people in Rio (and actually in Brazil and Latin America in general) suffered and suffer so much under crony capitalists that they can’t help but thinking that socialism might be the answer.

Hear, World! Socialism failed, just like Mises predicted. But as long as people suffer under crony capitalists, it will still be appealing, be it in a poor neighborhood or a college campus in the US, be it in a poor country in Latin America. The job is not done. Freedom isn’t free. We still have a long way to go freeing people from evil.

Blame it on Rio

I grew up in Rio de Janeiro in a very middle-class neighborhood. Not the fanciest one, but also not the poorest. Very much in the middle. This neighborhood also had the characteristic of being surrounded by hills. Many if not most hills in Rio de Janeiro have favelas. Favelas are poor neighborhoods that are formed by poor people who mostly want to live close to where the jobs are. Because I grew up in a middle-class neighborhood, studied in middle-class schools and had a middle-class family I was in danger of only knowing middle-class people. The thing that prevented me from that the most was going to church. In church, I lived with people from all kind of social backgrounds – including people who lived in favelas.

The history of Rio de Janeiro is mostly a history of expansion from the area we today call downtown. On several occasions, poor people (including my grandfather and his mother) were relocated (or frankly expelled) from their houses by the government that wanted to make some urban reform. People faced two options: to be relocated to far removed areas, far away from their jobs, or to occupy some undeveloped area in the vicinities of where they previously lived and form a favela.

Because Rio de Janeiro is the historic capital of Brazil, it received a lot of investment by governments over the decades. Many governments wanted to make it a vitrine of Brazil’s development. Also, Brazil has a strong history of developmentalism. Especially since Getúlio Vargas, who rule the country from 1930 to 1945 and again from 1951 to 1954, Brazilian presidents tend to believe that it is their job to bring economic development to the country. The higher the GDP growth, the best. I mean, who am I to say that GDP growth is a bad thing?! But we have a lot of stories worldwide of countries that grew too fast in too little time leading among other things to major population dislocations and new pockets of poverty around great cities. Lagos, in Nigeria, is a textbook example. So is Caracas, in Venezuela. So is Rio de Janeiro. This kind of development is pretty much like using steroids: the results are fast, but the side effects are terrible. Fernando Henrique Cardoso tried to “flip the page” from Vargas in the 1990s, but Lula da Silva and Dilma Rousseff returned to developmentalist policies in the 2000s. Even Jair Bolsonaro often talks as a developmentalist, apparently a tic from his military years. Anyways, developmentalism led to the fast growth of Rio de Janeiro over the decades – and the formation of new favelas.

One of the best stories of developmentalism in Rio de Janeiro is the neighborhood of Barra da Tijuca. Until the 1960s this part of the city, caught between the hills and the ocean, was basically desert. That’s when the government commissioned the architect and urbanist Lucio Costa to develop the area. Mr. Costa was also responsible for designing the city of Brasília, and it shows: Brasília and Barra da Tijuca are fairly similar. Not my kind of city or neighborhood. It’s very hard or even impossible to explore Barra da Tijuca on foot. Its area is roughly the size of Manhattan, but it has no subway lines. The bus lines are not very dependable. The city blocks are very large. Everything is very distant.

In my evaluation, Mr. Costa thought that he was God. Brasília and Barra and very interesting if looked from above, from the sky. But if you are on the ground level and don’t have a car, they are just not friendly. But that’s how modernists (including socialists) are: they swear they love humanity but hate human beings.

The news that the government was developing the Barra da Tijuca area spread fast. Many families came to the region looking for jobs in construction. Many of them settled in the vicinity of Rio das Pedras. Rio das Pedras became one of the main favelas of the region. In the absence of government, people started to organize themselves in neighborhood associations. Even with most of the construction projects done, the families never left. Barra da Tijuca became an affluent neighborhood with many jobs. Alongside came drug trafficking.

The “pre-history” of drug trafficking in Rio de Janeiro is almost idyllic. You just have to watch the movie City of God (2002). Of course, one could not sell drugs in fancy neighborhoods like Ipanema or Copacabana, where the government is strongly present.

So, most drug trafficking happened in the favelas, including Rio das Pedras. The first generation of drug dealers was mostly respectful towards residents of the favelas and other poor neighborhoods. Some even became legendary for pacifying the neighborhoods from other forms of crime: because they didn’t want to have trouble with the police, drug dealers would punish criminals themselves. However, this changed very fast. The dispute for territory led drug dealers to become more and more violent.

In response to drug dealers and the slackness of the government, people organized in militias. What once were neighborhood associations became paramilitary organizations. Just like happened with the drug dealers, the vigilantes were initially friendly towards the people living in the neighborhoods. However, this changed very fast. The dispute for territory led militias to become more and more violent. Eventually, drug dealers and militias became mostly indistinguishable. Some militia leaders entered politics.

Marcelo Freixo, a Rio de Janeiro politician of the PSOL (Socialism and Liberty Party – as I said before, a contradiction in terms) rose to fame in the 2000s for presiding over a parliamentary inquiry on the militias. Mr. Freixo had a character inspired on him in the movie Elite Squad 2 (2010). The first Elite Squad (2007) was a very good movie. The sequel, not so much. Elite Squad is somewhat based on real events and tells the story of (what else?) BOPE, an elite squad in the Rio de Janeiro military police (somewhat analogous to the SWAT), especially during the visit of Pope John Paul II to the city in the late 1990s. The movie has some similarities to Black Hawk Down (2001). If you haven’t watched it and want to be spoil free, you might want to skip to the next paragraph.

Pope John Paul II decided to stay in a dangerous neighborhood, surrounded by favelas. The BOPE was responsible for his security. Although disagreeing with the strategic intelligence of allowing the Pope to stay in a dangerous region of the city, the squad did its job. In very military fashion, “orders are orders”. The movie shows the police officers as very dubious figures: they are extremely violent and often disrespectful towards citizens. But they are also very honest and dutybound. Captain Nascimento, the main character, is a tragic figure. He became a police officer to protect innocent citizens. He discovers that by obeying orders he is often just putting his life in risk for very little or no results. Worse, he is misunderstood by all those around him, including his family.

Even his son ends up calling him a fascist. Elite Squad also portrays the drug dealers in a nuanced way. They are violent and vengeful, but Captain Nascimento himself understands that no one grows up dreaming about becoming a drug dealer. Drug dealers and BOPE members fight a private war and ironically might be the only ones to truly understand one another. The real villains of the movie are the upper-middle class youngsters who use drugs, financing the drug dealers who the BOPE fights. It is against them that the police officers direct most of their rage.

So, I believe that Elite Squad is a very good movie, that pictures quite well how life in Rio de Janeiro is for many people. Most of the time it is hard to precisely identify villains or heroes. However, no wonder, despite being very popular, the movie was trashed by leftist intellectuals who called it fascist. The sequel gains in quality in almost everything but the characters, and this makes it worse than the original. The villains are completely villainous and the heroes, heroic. It lacks the nuances of the original. The character inspired by Marcelo Freixo is morally perfect. The vigilantes whom he fights are cartoonish evil.

Brazilian and international media gave much attention last year to the assassination of Marielle Franco, a Rio de Janeiro politician who, just like Mr. Freixo, was a member of the PSOL. Ms. Franco’s assassination, like any other, is a tragedy. The police investigation is still ongoing, and no one really knows who killed her, but it seems very likely that she was murdered by members of a militia. Despite what international media might lead one to believe, Ms. Franco was far from being the first Rio de Janeiro politician to be murdered in the last few years. Mr. Freixo himself is under police protection for many years now. Other politicians from several political parties were not so lucky and didn’t receive the same attention from the media. The left’s last blow against president Jair Bolsonaro is to say that one of his sons, Flávio Bolsonaro, is somehow connected to Ms. Franco assassination. In their narrative, Flávio would be connected to militias who in turn killed Ms. Franco. All things are possible. Not all are plausible. Definitely, not all are proven. To be honest, there are people in the right saying that Jean Wyllys, also from the PSOL, is connected to Jair Bolsonaro’s assassination attempt last September. Maybe they should all go have a drink together. They have much in common.

Making a generalization (but I hope not an overgeneralization), politicians and intellectuals from the left tend to romanticize drug dealers. They are pictured as social victims or social bandits, almost Robin Hoods. On the other hand, they vilify the militias in a cartoonish way. Just like Elite Squad 2. I began this text mentioning that going to church prevented me from entirely growing in a middle-class bubble. Because of that, I heard people saying that old drug dealers had at least some sense of justice. Younger ones (sometimes as young as 16 years old) are almost animals, psychopaths without any sense of empathy. If you watched The Godfather trilogy you know what I mean. I also heard people frustrated with the government, that offered no protection against criminals. The same people were (at least initially) supportive of militias.

Politicians in the right, in turn, consider unimaginable to legalize any drug. But on the other hand, they were very slow to understand the danger of the militias, and citizens making justice with their own hands in general.

So, this is a story about Rio de Janeiro, one of Brazil’s most important cities. For decades politicians believed it was their job to bring economic development to the country – and to the city. This led to fast economic growth, which in turn led to the development of favelas. Favelas are areas where the official government is generally not present.

Therefore, its residents form neighborhood associations. Favelas are also places where, because of the lack of government, drug dealers can work in relative peace. However, over time drug dealers become more and more violent in their dispute for territory. The neighborhood associations, in turn, become militias. And the militias quite often become mafias. Some politicians rise to fame fighting these mafias, but the policies they defend are the same that begin this story in the first place. Politicians on the right are accused of dangerous liaisons. And no one seems to be willing to limit government to its primary function of protecting life and private property.

Cities in capitalism are more beautiful

The other day I wrote about some of the reasons why I love capitalism. One of them is that cities in capitalism are more beautiful. I am convinced of this when I think about some cities I am more familiar with, including their geography and history.

Most foreigners I know have difficulty to answering correctly, when asked, “What is Brazil’s national capital?”. Most people answer Rio de Janeiro, but it is actually Brasilia. Many people say that beauty is in the eyes of the beholder, but I am very inclined to say that this is not so. I am still not 100% sure about this, but I believe that there is something objective about beauty. Maybe it is not something so strict, like a point. Maybe it is something broader, like an area. But still, I am inclined to say that there is something objective about it. At least for me, Brasilia is one of the ugliest cities conceivable. I am really glad to say that. Its architecture was designed by Oscar Niemeyer and Lucio Costa. Growing up in Brazil, questioning that Niemeyer was a genius is almost anathema, almost like saying that Maradona was better than Pelé or that Ayrton Senna was not the best Formula One pilot ever. Because of that, I was always happy to say that Niemeyer’s buildings are among the ugliest things on the surface of this planet. It was like shouting that the king is naked.

Brasilia is very beautiful from the sky. Its shape resembles an airplane or a cross. But that is the problem: the city is beautiful from heaven, but not for the people walking in it. It was made for God to see from up there. But, as Niemeyer was a convinced atheist, I am not sure who is watching his creation. My guess is that Niemeyer thought that he was a god. A very mean god, who didn’t care about people having to spend lots of time in cars driving long distances.

Niemeyer was also related, with Lucio Costa, to Barra da Tijuca, a neighborhood in Rio de Janeiro where I spent lots of time growing up. Lucio Costa, as far as I’m concerned, was not a communist. I believe he was closely connected to the Brazilian version of positivism. Because positivism and communism are basically the same, it doesn’t make much of a difference. Barra da Tijuca is very similar to Brasilia: very beautiful if looked at from the sky, but very unpleasant for the pedestrian. Very long distances to walk. Cars are mandatory.

The most pleasant neighborhoods in Rio de Janeiro are the result of spontaneous order. As Hayek noticed, spontaneous order is one of the central features of capitalism. People usually contrasted between planned economies (such as the USSR) and unplanned economies (such as the US in some moment of its history). But Hayek observed that all economies are planned. Some are centrally planned. Others are planned by several individuals who are not following a specific central plan.

I am convinced that cities that follow no plan, or a very simple plan, are more beautiful than cities that follow a very specific central plan. New York, as far as I know, followed a simple plan, a grid. But other than that, there was a lot of freedom in the use of the space for much of its history. It’s a city that I just love. I am more comfortable talking about Rio de Janeiro. It is a city that was at its best before modern architecture, positivism, socialism, Developmentalism, and other isms. It was better when Brazil had a little more classical liberalism.