One of the leading Communists in Brazil, Louis Carlos Prestes has been regarded by many as one of Brazil’s most charismatic yet tragic figures for his leadership of the 1924 tenente revolt and his subsequent work with the Brazilian Communist movement.
Prestes was born on January 3, 1898, at Porto Alegre, a port 400 kilometers from the Uruguayan border, and attended the Escola Militar in Rio de Janeiro. As a cadet he had a brilliant academic record but led the 1924 revolt against the government, forming what became known as the Prestes Column, a guerrilla group that sought to overthrow President Artur da Silva Bernardes. It was an attempt to overthrow the oligarchy that had entrenched itself in power after the declaration of Brazil as a republic in 1889. Unfortunately for Prestes, he was ill with typhoid on the day of the revolt, and the defeated rebels fled to Bahia.
The Communists fought 56 battles and also negotiated treaties with Indian tribes, and, when the Brazilian army moved against them, Prestes led what became known as Brazil’s equivalent of the Chinese Long March. They escaped from the soldiers and managed to get to the south of Brazil, resettling in the remote area along the Bolivian border. After operating there for three years, they moved into Bolivia, where they were interned. Prestes, however, managed to escape to Buenos Aires. The revolt was to foreshadow the 1930 revolution, which ended the “Old Republic” of Brazil, with Getulio Vargas becoming provisional president.
Becoming increasingly influenced by communism, Prestes went into exile, by now totally disenchanted with Vargas. In Argentina and Uruguay Prestes met with Marxists in Buenos Aires and Montevideo and then was contacted by Comintern officials, who persuaded him to go to the Soviet Union, where he was named the Comintern representative for the Brazilian Communist Party (PCB). In 1935 Prestes and his German wife, Olga Benaria, returned to Brazil in secret, and the two worked for a popular front that was known as the Alianca Nacional Libertadora (National Liberation Alliance). By now Vargas was strongly anticommunist and used the Brazilian congress to legislate against the Communists—in 1937 Vargas was to close the parliament down. He was seen as becoming increasingly profascist, and the police uncovered Prestes’s network and arrested the couple in late 1935. Olga, who was pregnant, was deported to Germany as a foreign alien. Because she was Jewish, she was jailed after her return to Germany and died in a concentration camp. Prestes was found guilty of sedition and sentenced to 17 years in jail.
After his release Prestes started organizing the newly legalized Brazilian Communist Party. He saw that Vargas was an opportunist who had supported fascism during the 1930s but was now embracing liberal democracy in an attempt to win favor with the United States. Many Brazilian Communists despaired of Prestes, who was seen as working with Vargas for concessions. When asked why he could support the man who had his wife deported, Prestes replied that he felt that he should not allow personal disputes to get in the way of his attempt for social reform. In 1945 Prestes contested the presidency in the elections and on December 2, 1945, was elected to the Brazilian senate for the Federal District. However, two months earlier, Vargas had been deposed, and the military set about trying to stop Communist political influence in the country. Two years later the PCB was again outlawed, and Prestes returned to his earlier life of organizing secretly. He died on March 7, 1990.
- Gunther, John. Inside Latin America. London: Hamish Hamilton, 1942;
- Picard, Roger, ed. The Trial of Luiz Carlos Prestes. Paris: International Association of Jurisprudence, 1936.