Friday, April 03, 2009

RIP - Marcio Moreira Alves

Brazilian journalist and politician Marcio Moreira Alves has died at 72. Born in 1936, Alves was from a well-off family, and like many in Brazil, he originally supported the military coup of 1964. However, Alves soon became disheartened when the military did not return power to civilians and stripped many of Brazil's politicians of their political rights for 10 years. Reports of torture also disturbed Alves, and he began to decry the torture and the dictatorship in his news reports. Deciding journalism wasn't enough, Alves ran for and won a position in Brazil's House of Deputies (the lower chamber of Brazil's Congress).

Alves would play a central role in the dictatorship's turn to its most repressive phase (from 1968-1973). In September 1968, Alves took the floor to issue what came to be called the "Lysistrata" speech, in which he suggested Brazilian women not date or even associate with any member of the military as a form of protest against the ongoing torture and lack of rights. Although little was originally made of this speech, the "hardliners" in the military claimed the speech to be a terrible affront, and used it as a pretext to try to usher in more extreme repression to combat the "subversion" they saw everywhere. Originally, the military government, under Gen. Artur Costa e Silva, asked the Deputies to strip Alves of his position so that they could prosecute him, something from which he was exempt as a member of Congress. The military expected that Congress would follow their request with little resistance. However, Congress, disturbed by the military's interference in the legislature and aware of the growing social unrest and protests against the dictatorship in 1968, voted 216-141 not to strip Alves of his position. In the wake of the vote, members of Congress even sang the national anthem in what was a pretty obvious defiance of the military's wishes.

In response, the government of Costa e Silva issued what came to be known as the "Institutional Act No. 5" on December 13, 1968. Among other things, AI-5 (as it is known) allowed the president to summarily and indefinitely close Congress (which Costa e Silva promptly did), as well as issue even more extreme measures for censorship, allowing broader use of torture against "subversives," increase the activities of the numerous security apparati in Brazil, and clamp down even further on political rights of individuals. AI-5 marked the initiation of the most repressive period of Brazil's dictatorship.

Although Alves was thrilled with the result, he also knew that, no matter the outcome, the military would come after him, so immediately after the vote and AI-5, he left the country. In self-imposed exile, Alves spent time in Chile, Cuba, the U.S., Mexico, Colombia, Ecuador, France, and Portugal, among other places. While exiled, Alves continued to fight against the dictatorship, publishing books (such as his English account of the events leading up to his exile, A Grain of Mustard Seed) and meeting with other exiles. In 1979, the government of Gen. Joao Baptista Figueiredo issued the General Amnesty Law, which allowed exiles to return to Brazil and freed political prisoners (while also giving amnesty to torturers and other members of Brazil's security apparati). After the end of the dictatorship, he continued to be involved in politics, as well as writing both in newspapers and his own books. His sister, Maria Helena Moreira Alves, also became one of the foremost scholars on Brazil's military regime, publishing one of the first books on the dictatorship (a must-read for any initiates interested in Brazil's military government).

Alves was not popular with all - like many, he initially supported the overthrow of the constitutional president of Brazi, and he was a firm centrist, which occasionally angered leftist leaders who also fought against repression during and after the dictatorship. However, the role he played in the dictatorship, and especially in the early years when he was one of the first journalists to detail and decry the military's use of torture, make him an important figure to 20th century Brazilian history, and his loss (in the same week that Brazil's military coup marked its 45th anniversary and Argentina's Raul Alfonsin, another important politician in fighting military governments in South America, died) is unfortunate if inevitable.