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50 Years Later

Brazil's 1964 Coup: What 'Communist Conspiracy'?

 
It all began with Cuba in 1959. That was a line in the sand for Tio Sam. Kennedy launched the Alliance for Progress in ‘61, and caudillos throughout South and Central America lined up for lessons on how to prevent their own homegrown communists from reproducing what Fidel and El Che had brought down from the Sierra Maestras. The School of the Americas’ manual of torture, originally drafted in Scotland and likely passed along during WWII to eager Yanks in the OSS, was in due course thumped like the bible into the hands of willing thugs in the pay of ruling elites from Guatemala to Chile. In Brazil, when the military grabbed the reins of government on April 1, 1964, the torture manual came off the shelf for immediate application to those who were obnoxious to the dictatorship ideologically, and with lethal consequences for some who fought from the more militant wings of the resistance.

Images from the 1964 coup; the man on the run was used to illustrate posters for a recent panel discussionImages from the 1964 coup; the man on the run was used to illustrate posters for a recent panel discussion

I was in Brazil at the time of the 1964 coup, spending a year at Rio’s exclusive Catholic University (PUC). I spent considerable time at first with a guy named Bud who worked for USIA, the “public” face of American overseas diplomacy. The agency operated cultural programs and libraries, also, back in D.C., Voice of America, where I worked part time as a Georgetown undergrad. My friend was a good guy, a kind of mentor twenty years my senior who welcomed me into his family as I slowly acclimated to the seductive lifestyle of the Brazilian gentry on the coattails of their sons and daughters, my classmates, who would invite me home for the hot sit-down midday meal, cooked and served by the black live-in empregadas. An American student was a novelty in those days, and, being short of funds, I was happy to eat out on it.

After a month I met Chris, an American my own age who’d been ski bumming in the Alps and drifted to Brazil to look up an uncle who held the second highest rank in the U.S. Embassy. Chris had just received his draft notice from home, and we got it in our heads to hitchhike to the Amazon where he’d hideout and avoid military service now that Vietnam was coming on with a vengeance. I don’t recall if we clued Bud in about the exact reason for our abrupt departure from Rio, but he very kindly provided contact info for other U.S. diplomats we could crash with as we made our way north along the coast. Our first stop was in Vitoria, a small coastal port for shipping ore from the neighboring but landlocked mineral rich state of Minas Gerais. The diplomat we stayed with in Vitoria, Bud had explained, was setting up a co-op to rival a similar effort influenced by the local communists who, by that time in Brazil, were organized into a mélange of currents on all sides of the Sino-Soviet split.

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