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Sobral Pinto, "The Conscience of Brazil"

Sobral Pinto, "The Conscience of Brazil"
Leading the Attack against Vargas (1930-1945)

In addition to the many details that this volume adds to Brazilian history, it illuminates the character of a man who sacrificed professional advancement and emolument in the interest of fighting for justice and charity.

August 2002
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413 pages | 6 x 9 | 39 photos |

Praised by his admirers as "one of those rare heroic figures out of Plutarch" and as "an intrepid Don Quixote," Brazilian lawyer Heráclito Fontoura Sobral Pinto (1893-1991) was the most consistently forceful opponent of dictator Getúlio Vargas. Through legal cases, activism in Catholic and lawyers' associations, newspaper polemics, and a voluminous correspondence, Sobral Pinto fought for democracy, morality, and justice, particularly for the downtrodden.

This book is the first of a projected two-volume biography of Sobral Pinto. Drawing on Sobral's vast correspondence, which was not previously available to researchers, John W. F. Dulles confirms that Sobral Pinto was a true reformer, who had no equal in demonstrating courage and vehemence when facing judges, tribunals, and men in power. He traces the leading role that Sobral played in opposing the Vargas regime from 1930 to 1945 and sheds light on the personalities and activities of powerful figures in the National Security Tribunal, the police, the censorship bureau, and the Catholic Church.

In addition to the many details that this volume adds to Brazilian history, it illuminates the character of a man who sacrificed professional advancement and emolument in the interest of fighting for justice and charity. Thus, it will be important reading not only for students of Brazilian history, but also for a wider audience dedicated to the crusade for human rights and political freedom and the reformers who carry on that struggle.

  • Preface
  • Acknowledgments
  • Part I. Advocate of Order during the Old Republic (pre-1930)
  • Part II. Critic of Post-1930 Confusion (1931-1935)
  • Part III. Opponent of the Post-1935 Repression (1936-1938)
  • Part IV. In the Aftermath of the 1938 Uprisings (1938-1941)
  • Part V. Dealing with the Economia Popular and Matarazzo (1940-1944)
  • Part VI. Giving Attention to International Matters (1942-1943)
  • Part VII. Battling Cassiano Ricardo and the DIP (1943-1944)
  • Part VIII. Reacting to Catholic Conformity and Coriolano's Repression (1944-1945)
  • Part IX. Emerging as a Hero with Brazil's Return to Liberties (Early 1945)
  • Part X. Participant in Preparations for Elections (June-October 1945)
  • Part XI. Declining to Run for Congress and Explaining Vargas' Fall (October 1945)
  • Part XII. Shocked by the Electorate's Message (December 1945)
  • Notes
  • Index

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


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Soon after I finished writing this story about Sobral Pinto, two occurrences added to earlier recognition of his influence. At an impressive ceremony in Brasília, attended by leading magistrates and jurists of the country, his name was given to the sala dos advogados (the chamber used by lawyers) at the Supreme Court of Brazil. And steps were taken by Brazilian Catholic figures for his canonization, which, if successful, will place him at the side of Saint Ivo of Brittany, the patron of lawyers, as well as Saints Thomas Becket and Thomas More, also lawyers.

For three reasons, it seemed to me, attention should be given to Sobral Pinto's activities and writings during what Catholic leader Alceu Amoroso Lima said in 1945 was "the illegality of the last fifteen years": (1) his correspondence, (2) his role as the most constantly forceful oppositionist, and (3) his unusual character.

(1) Because the press was so much of the time under government control and because memórias and police records, while useful, have occasional drawbacks, historians can be grateful for the additional information and observations in the vast correspondence of Sobral Pinto, known as "the Marquise de Sévigné of the regime." They can also be grateful that Sobral was continually in close touch with the great figures of the period and with so many victims of the violence and that he was an inveterate faultfinder who made it a point to analyze political developments. It was his duty, he felt, to scold his friends, among them Justice Minister Francisco Campos and Catholic Church leaders, and to exchange letters with his jailed clients and their families (such as the distressed relatives, living abroad, of Communist prisoners Luiz Carlos Prestes and "Harry Berger"). His polemics with prominent journalists and his scathing denunciations of authorities, who included the top officers of the National Security Tribunal, the police, and the censorship bureau, sometimes developed into sensational conflicts. The correspondence, filled with judgments and accounts of the conflicts, throws light on the institutions, events, and personalities, but is so massive that only the tip of the iceberg appears in the pages that follow.

Alceu Amoroso Lima, in the United States in 1951, had some advice for a young professor at Princeton University who was trying to write about Brazil: "Put your work aside and wait until you can go to Rio. There you must look up Dr. Sobral Pinto and try to become familiar with his files of letters, at least with the parts that are not confidential. It is, at present, impossible to write the history of Brazil's last thirty years without making use of the files of Dr. Sobral Pinto, who has been preserving copies of the letters he has written." They represented, Alceu said, "the most extraordinary political apostleship" and revealed, in the best manner ever carried out in Brazil, secrets about morals to be found in the relations between persons.

(2) Sobral Pinto has been called "the epistolary chief of the resistance." But, as fellow lawyer Evandro Lins e Silva has made clear, his "famous letters" were only one of the tools of "this intrepid Don Quixote," who "fought against an avalanche of stupidity, incomprehension, and prejudices . . . and, with a solitary voice, . . . against accommodations, halfheartedness, and cowardice." Other tools were his arguments in government offices (leading in one case to a physical scuffle), his weekly newspaper articles (until silenced by the censorship), and the legal briefs that he turned into condemnations of the regime. Veteran jurist Clemente Hungria writes that he has known no other lawyer who could equal Sobral in demonstrating courage and vehemence when facing judges, tribunals, and men in power, and that Sobral did this with so much virility that his accusations were viewed by many as "acts of insanity" (along with his "vow of poverty"). The Ordem dos Advogados do Brasil, official organ of Brazil's lawyers, adopted a resolution, worded in 1944 by Dario de Almeida Magalhães, to point out that "the causes Sobral Pinto represents are not simply those that are submitted to him as a lawyer. Most of his time and extraordinary effort are expended on behalf of his fellow-citizens, the law, morality, justice, and the noblest of ideals. His voice is not intimidated by the powerful or by threats of the use of force." Unlike some of the other Brazilians who attacked the Vargas regime from the outset, Sobral did not have his effectiveness reduced by a forced exile.

Sobral, although a critic of the administration that fell in October 1930, denounced Brazil's new leaders as early as November of that year. In 1931 he railed against "the military mentality" that pushed civilians out of the governments of the states, and, starting in June 1932, he began his series of attacks on the influence of positivism on President Getúlio Vargas. As he wrote Archbishop Jayme Câmara in April 1944, he did recognize that some "important steps" had been taken "by our government to improve the future of our workers"; but he detested dictatorship and terrorism by the police.

(3) With the collapse of censorship in 1945, the Rio press, overwhelmingly anti-Vargas, was filled with articles praising Sobral and his long struggle. Diário Carioca columnist Joaquim de Sales declared that Sobral, "one of those rare heroic figures out of Plutarch," was Brazil's most fearless fighter for Christian truth. Columnist Raphael Corrêa de Oliveira wrote in the Diário de Notícias that no fulfillment of legal duty, even in the glorious age of defense lawyers during and after the French Revolution, exceeded that "achieved in Latin America a century later by Sobral Pinto."

Writers recalled that, without concern about legal fees, he had defended many far leftists during the repression. They could have added that the waiting room of the modest office of this dedicated Christian democrat became filled with desperate families of other unfortunates whose appeals he heeded, certain that justice and charity should be his first considerations, regardless of his excessive workload and the slim prospects of reducing his financial indebtedness. His clients included members of the fascist-like Integralista movement, soldiers and officers expelled from the military, Germans persecuted during the war, and many victims of the improper use of "popular economy" legislation. Among the latter was a lowly greengrocer whose imprisonment was ordered by the National Security Tribunal when he tried to collect payments for the fruit and vegetables he had been delivering to the home of the Tribunal's president.

Sobral came to the defense of priests and foreign missionaries who suffered at the hands of the dictatorship, and he preached the Gospel in his articles and speeches, frequently using his favorite adjectives, virile and arduous. He appealed to Church leaders and others for steps that would rid Brazil of its social structure, which he repeatedly described as un-Christian and unfair to the downtrodden majority. Denouncing the Catholic hierarchy for cooperating with the dictatorship, he was called "a naughty boy" by Rio's archbishop. This lack of understanding of what he saw as his "gigantic struggle"—a struggle that he attributed to the drama that raged in his religious conscience—was the cause of one of his many moments of acute agony.

Throughout his life he attended Mass daily and adhered strictly to the principles that he demanded of others. He sought nothing for himself. In declining government positions, such as a National Security Tribunal judgeship, he adhered to his statements that government positions should not be accepted by those who, like himself, were officers of Ação Católica Brasileira; and in declining appeals that he run for Congress in 1945 he remained true to his word about keeping apart from political posts (while offering plenty of comments about candidates). He became, rather, a sort of oracle, the conscience of Brazil—a "severe, indomitable and virile conscience" according to the Ordem dos Advogados do Brasil. Jurist Victor Nunes Leal called Sobral "the vigilant critic of public life" and "the conscience of every one of us in those cases when our own consciences fail us on account of passion, fear, anger, insecurity, pride, ambition, and vanity, and even in those cases of minor errors such as are sometimes made by the very best of men."

During debates, Sobral frequently mentioned his hard work, sacrifices, and poverty, leading adversaries to accuse him of the sin of ostentation. In reply, he pointed out that Saint Paul had revealed his good works not for reasons of ostentation but in order to strengthen his fellow Christians. Sobral, who remarked that "no lesson equals that of an example," would even speak, if he believed it useful, of his own youthful sin (adultery) and the great pain it had brought him. He discussed the unfortunate affair when he tried to persuade Francisco Campos to lead a more honorable private life and when he comforted Alceu Amoroso Lima with the explanation that Alceu's suffering was the result of Alceu's virtue and bore no resemblance to his own suffering, caused by his single act of infidelity.

Following Sobral's death in 1991 at the age of ninety-eight, the press was filled with tributes expressed by men who were familiar with his battles against the military regime that began in 1964. Evandro Lins e Silva, familiar also with episodes narrated in these pages, wrote that Sobral had left mankind a legend of altruism, abnegation, and honorability, and had died "in the most Franciscan poverty." "Yes," Evandro wrote, "Sobral Pinto was different from others; he was an anomaly; he was a marvel; he was enormous."1

In 1945 Alceu Amoroso Lima called Sobral "the chief of the Moral Resistance." He explained: "If I see in Sobral Pinto the leading figure of our generation and the best one to guide us . . . , it is precisely because his moral fortitude and juridical and democratic convictions are based on the immovable rock of Faith, Hope, and Charity, the supreme virtues that take us to God."




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