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Resisting Brazil's Military Regime

Resisting Brazil's Military Regime
An Account of the Battles of Sobral Pinto

The second and final volume of the definitive biography of one of Brazil’s greatest reformers.

October 2007
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324 pages | 6 x 9 | 72 b&w illus., 1 line drawing, 1 map |

Praised by his many admirers as a "courageous and fearless" defender of human rights, Heráclito Fontoura Sobral Pinto (1893-1991) was the most consistently forceful opponent of the regime of Brazilian dictator Getúlio Vargas. John W. F. Dulles chronicled Sobral's battles with the Vargas government in Sobral Pinto, "The Conscience of Brazil": Leading the Attack against Vargas (1930-1945), which History: Reviews of New Books called "a must-read for anyone wanting to understand twentieth-century Brazil."

In this second and final volume of his biography of Sobral Pinto, Professor Dulles completes the story of the fiery crusader's fight for democracy, morality, and justice, particularly for the downtrodden. Drawing on Sobral's vast correspondence, Dulles offers an extensive account of Sobral's opposition to the military regime that ruled Brazil from 1964 to 1985. He describes how Sobral Pinto defended those who had been politically influential before April, 1964, as well as other victims of the regime, including Communists, once-powerful labor leaders, priests, militant journalists, and students. Because Sobral Pinto participated in so many of the struggles against the military regime, his experiences provide vivid new insights into this important period in recent Brazilian history. They also shed light on developments in the Catholic Church (Sobral, a devout Catholic, vigorously opposed liberation theology), as well as on Sobral's key role in preserving Brazil's commission for defending human rights.

  • Introduction
  • Part I. Prologue (1946-1964)
  • Part II. Defending Men Punished by the New Regime (1964-1965)
  • Part III. A Second Institutional Act Crushes Democracy (October 1965)
  • Part IV. The Last Months of 1965
  • Part V. From Ato Three (1966) to Ato Five (1968)
  • Part VI. The Repression Reaches Its Pinnacle (1969-1971)
  • Part VII. The Repression Continues (1972-1977)
  • Part VIII. Abertura (1978-1985)
  • Part IX. Epilogue (1985-1991)
  • Notes
  • Index

John W. F. Dulles (1913-2008) was University Professor of Latin American Studies at the University of Texas at Austin.


After I spent a few years recording too many details of the career of lawyer Sobral Pinto between 1946 and the overthrow in 1964 of the government of President João Goulart, I was wisely informed by Sobral's grandson Roberto that what was most important in the career I was studying lay in the events that followed the coup against Goulart. And so my earlier effort was reduced to approximately one-third of its length, forming a Prologue that would allow that further research result in a full account of Sobral's reactions to the steps taken by the postcoup presidential administrations of a series of army generals and his reactions to the treatment, by the victors, of those who suffered after March 1964. About the politics and economics of those years I was much assisted by the works of Thomas E. Skidmore, Ronald M. Schneider, and Marshall C. Eakin.

Among Sobral's clients were former President Juscelino Kubitschek, whose life, Sobral pointed out, was turned into a "hell," and members of Goulart's administration, along with Governors Miguel Arraes and Mauro Borges. The list includes Francisco Julião, who had organized Peasant Leagues; Communists Carlos Marighella, Luiz Carlos Prestes, and Gregório Bezerra; and agents of the People's Republic of China who were in Brazil. Once-powerful labor leaders Clodsmith Riani and Oswaldo Pacheco turned for help to Sobral. So did the troubled bishop of Volta Redonda, foreign priests, "leftists" in the military, and militant journalists and students, in this period of about fifteen years, during much of which the torturing and killing of enemies of the military regime took place.

In a discussion about colonels who were threatening to imprison or otherwise punish Sobral in May 1965, Catholic writer Alceu Amoroso Lima asserted: "Sobral is the only person—I repeat the only person—who confronts them with his head held high and without mincing words." But Sobral found himself deserted by friends, including lawyers, and in 1965 he resigned from the presidency of the Brazilian Institute of Lawyers because it objected to his aggressive denouncements of those in power. Dario de Almeida Magalhães, a prominent lawyer who knew Sobral well, called attention to the need for friendships of "this affectionate, sentimental person" and to his "true heroism," a never capitulating, fiery passion for justice that, Dario said, "strained" these friendships. Sobral bewailed the loss of friends with some of his "cries of anguish."

To the generals who became presidents of Brazil, Sobral sent severe letters and telegrams. A letter sent to President Emílio Garrastazu Médici in 1971 brought a reply calling him "clearly afflicted by senility." Beyond Médici's office, however, the so-called senility came to be seen as heroism, and the lawyers' associations commenced to agree with its members who had been defying the military regime from the start and who declared, like Evaristo de Morais Filho and Heleno Cláudio Fragoso, that Sobral was their leader and inspiration.

Former journalist José Aparecido de Oliveira, who occupied important government positions in the postmilitary regime, described Sobral as having been "the leader of the pro-civilian campaign and the vanguard of resistance in favor of human rights." "No one in contemporary life," historian José Honório Rodrigues told the Brazilian Academy of Letters, "has better represented the sacred spirit of humanism than Sobral Pinto, courageous and fearless defender of public liberties and individual guarantees."

When many hundreds of thousands rallied enthusiastically in Rio de Janeiro on April 10, 1984, to demand a direct presidential election, the ovation for Sobral exceeded those given to well-known governors who were also opponents of undemocratic military rule, Leonel Brizola, Tancredo Neves, and Franco Montoro.

In that same year, the ninety-year-old Sobral became honorary president of the Movimento Nacional Tancredo Neves. After the indirect presidential election was won by Tancredo (whose death prevented his inauguration), Sobral immersed himself in generally unsuccessful election campaigns, local and national, of the conservative Partido Liberal.

Such was the reverence for Sobral, gained during the military regime, that honors were heaped upon him before he died at the age of ninety-eight. The feeling that he was a great figure remained strong even among many of those who disagreed with his positions. Famed architect Oscar Niemeyer, who could hardly agree with Sobral's criticism of Communism, saw in him "a person of greatest importance in the nation."

Sobral displeased the advocates of legalized divorce and the adepts of Liberation Theology, and, in his last years, attacked politicians who had popular followings. This staunch Catholic who expressed admiration for the religious thinking of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries continued to oppose the participation of women in professional and business activities in which men had predominated. The most important role of women, he argued, was the one they carried out in the family at home, preferably with "the spirit of renunciation" that he found in his wife, Maria José.

When I was in the late stages of gathering material for this biography, physical problems afflicted me and made it clear that this is my farewell to writing for publication. The problems prevented me from revisiting Brazil, and so it is with much gratitude that I acknowledge help in Brazil received from Roberto Sobral Pinto Ribeiro, Daphne F. Rodger, Francisco P. C. Teixeira, Clemente Hungria, Tito Lívio Cavalcanti de Medeiros, Valtair de Jesus Almeida, R. S. Rose (who devoted his outstanding research abilities to improving the photograph section), and my daughter Edith (a dear transporter of heavy piles of papers from Rio). In the United States I am deeply indebted to Flávia Leite, assistant in my office, and to Jan Rinaldi McCauley, producer of the manuscript. My largest debt of all is to those who, while helping me at home to tell this story, brought me happiness there with so much love, my wife CC and daughter Ellen.




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