Go Back

Brazzil - Memory - June 2004

Saint Leonel Brizola of Brazil

In Brazil, you just need to die to become a saint. Take Leonel
Brizola, for example. Claiming to be a defender of democracy,
he spent his whole life worshiping dictator Getúlio Vargas. As
Governor of Rio, he helped drug dealers by forbidding the police
to enter the favelas. If Rio has no rule it started with Brizola.

Janer Cristaldo


Picture "He was not perfect, but he was always an important figure for the nation. It is a great loss because he was always ready to react when Brazil was going through difficult times", said the staunch Stalinist and world-renowned architect Oscar Niemeyer.

"He left an example of long years spent in public life. He struggled hard for democracy. The most important example he left was that of courage and perseverance," said that unsullied leader called Paulo Maluf. [He is responding to several charges of corruption in the courts].

"We disagreed many times, but no one can deny the honesty he showed not only in governing Rio Grande do Sul, but also in Rio de Janeiro," said that flawless character named Antonio Carlos Magalhães [a veteran senator from Bahia involved in more than a few scandals].

For former President and senator José Sarney, he "had in his soul the heritage of the old-fashioned leaders of Rio Grande do Sul, such as Bento Gonçalves, Davi Canabarro and so many others, never sleeping, with lance at the ready, prepared to fight, to cut throats. He was a battler".

"A model for those in the nationalist, anti-imperialist struggle," said of him the oldest dictator on the planet, who declared that he was "profoundly dismayed by the death of this friend of Cuba, tireless, an historic figure, a fighter for the causes and interests of the Brazilian people."

Once we leave the amen corner, let it be said that the subject of such homage did not have to be a flower. Elio Gaspari, old widow of communism, says that with the death of Leonel Brizola, Brazil's twentieth century also passes away. Of course, he thinks that Brazil arrived in the twentieth century…

Now, if politicians can be used to judge the change of century, Lula's election showed without doubt that we have just entered the nineteenth century, when the romanticism of socialists utopias dreamed of having a worker in power.

The worker is there, in power. Just that he will lead us into the last century. If we manage to get there. The New York Times Magazine understood this well. In a recent cover story it asked, "The Last Leftist Hero of Latin America?" The question mark shows caution on the part of the editor, since anything can happen in this backward continent.

He died, and became a saint. Even John Paul II, who makes saints by the bushel, can't compete with Brazil. The Vatican used to take centuries to canonize someone, though today this has tended to diminish to less than a decade. Quite a long time.

In Brazil, we can make a saint in 24 hours. You just need to die. The next minute, the hagiographies are hot off the presses. Any stains that the deceased may have had are sponged off.

If a sponge is not enough to polish the halo, a providential amnesia will suppress whole chunks of his past. Even before the wake, the new saint is on the market for the consumption of the faithful.

Suddenly, yes, very suddenly, all of Brazil seems to have forgotten that Leonel Brizola—who before being Leonel was called Itagiba—was born senile. He began his political career at the reins of an obsolete warhorse, the laborism of Getúlio Vargas, which was inspired by Mussolini's Carta del Lavoro.

Claiming to be a defender of democracy, he spent his whole life worshiping at the shrine of the dictator from São Borja (Tr. Note: the city in Rio Grande do Sul which was the birthplace of both Vargas and Brizola).

In his thirst for power, he bet on another dictator, Fidel Castro. The dictator of the Caribbean, who now pays homage to him, financed the guerrilla war in the Serra do Caparaó, which became a total fiasco. The administrator of this guerrilla effort was Brizola.

In Memórias do Esquecimento (Memoirs of Oblivion), the unsuspected Flávio Tavares tells us of the disappearance of a suitcase with a false bottom, in which he hid the thousands of dollars sent from Cuba to finance Brizola's adventure in the interior. According to the vox populi, Fidel Castro, from then on, began to call him El Ratón.

Rio's Favelas

As Governor of Rio, he stimulated the proliferation of favelas, by prohibiting their demolition and removal. He gave a green light to the drug dealers by forbidding the police to enter the favelas. If Rio today has no government, this started with Itagiba. If there are people who enter history as city builders, Itagiba can take pride in having destroyed one of the most beautiful cities in the world.

In the hagiographies published by the press in the last few days, his poor childhood and his adolescence as a shoeshine boy were praised. From a shoeshine boy he rose to be a great property owner in Uruguay.

The Palácio Piratini (note: the seat of government for the state of Rio Grande do Sul, http://www.palaciopiratini.rs.gov.br/historia.html) was always generous to its occupants. It should be said in passing that Itagiba is not the only shoeshine boy who became rich there.

During the 15 years in which he tasted the bitter caviar of exile, Castro's office-boy and the mentor of guerrillas flirted with European governments and returned from Uruguay disguised as a mild-mannered social democrat.

Once in Brazil, yearning for power, he approached Fernando Collor de Mello and condemned the commission that was investigating PC Farias.

With no success on that side of things, he jumped the fence and was candidate for vice-president in Lula's 1998 campaign.

Having cut his ties with the Lula's Workers' Party, he was the only person to publicly label Lula an alcoholic, in the recent brouhaha involving the New York Times. He not only accused him, but reiterated the accusation in one of his weekly "bricks", published as paid material in the newspapers.

Lula knew where to step. He tried to expel the correspondent from the Times, but didn't make a peep about Brizola, his most bruising accuser. In spite of all the insults, both past and recent, which Brizola heaped on him, Lula still joined the choir of mourners:

"Everyone knows that, even when we disagreed, I always had respect and admiration for Brizola's political history. He was a character in the history of Brazil over more than half a century. A very important political figure for Brazil. I think that we have lost another important marker for our political life."

Blessed be all those who once praised Castro. Be it anathema to direct any criticism at them. And blessed are all those who opposed the regime after 1964, even if they were planning a dictatorship a thousand times worse than that of the military.

In his posthumous praise for the caudillo, former President José Sarney evokes the memoirs of Flávio Tavares, where the latter describes the meeting between Brizola and Neiva Moreira in Montevideo.

With the nonchalance of someone picking petals off a daisy, these two leaders of democracy looked at who would be shot (or not) in Brazil, in the case of a victory by the left.

"Prepared to fight, to cut throats, " writes Sarney. He was wrong on one point: the butcher knife fell out of fashion in the last century—it was the rifle that was a must.

This is the hero that brings the twentieth century in Brazil to a close, the new saint canonized by the press, the champion of liberty mourned by droves of Gaúchos. By the side of San Ernesto de la Higuera, of Saint Lamarca and Saint Marighella, he takes his place on the leftist altar: the holy and merciful Saint Itagiba of Carazinho.

Janer Cristaldo—he holds a PhD from University of Paris, Sorbonne—is an author, translator, lawyer, philosopher and journalist and lives in São Paulo. His e-mail address is cristal@baguete.com.br.
Translated from the Portuguese by Tom Moore. Moore has been fascinated by the language and culture of Brazil since 1994. He translates from Portuguese, Spanish, French, Italian and German, and is also active as a musician. Comments welcome at querflote@hotmail.com.

Discuss it in our Forum

Send your comments to Brazzil

Anything to say about Brazil or Brazilians? Brazzil
wishes to publish your material. See what to do.