Episodes in Brazilian History #3 – The Prestes Column

At the beginning of the 20th century, there was a consensus in Brazil that foreign powers were circling the fledgling nation, hoping to stake a territorial claim to some of its untapped resources. According to the ‘cafe com leite‘ government, the short-term solution to this problem, pending the development of a domestic resource industry, was to reinforce the army. This would bind Brazil as a national entity and, should the need arise, help to defer would-be trespassers. As the army grew, it began to wield political power and the soldiers gained an independent political conciousness. They realised that the old agrarian elites were using Brazil to support their private agendas, as opposed to serving the will of the general population. Flexing their new poltical muscle, the army began to pressure the government to introduce reforms such as (almost) universal suffrage and secret ballots. The government resisted, triggering a series of revolutions, including the revolt of the 18 at Copacobana. The army never gained the critical mass necessary to overthrow the government, but their dissidence did not go unnoticed.

One of these revolutionaries was called Luiz Carlos Prestes. He was a Captain at the Realengo Military school in Rio de Janeiro during the first revolutions and as a punishment, he was sent to a remote army base in Rio Grande do Sul. Two years after being exiled, a series of larger revolutions took place in Rio and São Paulo. This time the troops in São Paulo gained popular support and, in an attempt to contain the revolt, the government ordered loyalist troops to surround the city. The rebels were outnumbered and unable to resist the government troops, being forced underground. In a final desperate act, they converged at a train depot, loaded a goods train with all of the artillery, supplies and troops they could find and fought thier way out of São Paulo, hoping to regroup in the wilderness.

Later that year, Prestes and a devoted band of supporters revolted in Santo Angela in Rio Grande do Sul, before marching into the wilds. These troops met up with the rebels from São Paulo and formed the Prestes column. In order to regroup and train, the rebels camped near Santa Helena in Parana. However, the government troops located them and launched an attack. There were heavy losses on both sides and the rebels only just escaped, blocking the advance of the loyalist forces by burning a wooden bridge. After this battle, Prestes decided that the only way to fight sustainably was to launch small raid and use guerilla tactics. For the next 21 months they marched and rode through the jungle for more than 25000 kilometres, attacking and taking control of several towns and cities. They preached social justice and emptied the jails of the poor, replacing them with rich landowners and others of the exploiting class. The column never contained more than 1600 people, and their chances of victory were almost nil, but the column became a important symbol of defiance for middle class urbanites, who were important in the coming revolution.

Prestes managed to keep the column going by recruiting rural inhabitants along the way. He also took the supplies from the people he encountered, although Prestes gave every ‘forced-donor’ a promissory note that could be redeemed when Prestes took political power. Eventually, however, the column dwindled to 600 people. Prestes decided to end his long March and the column took refuge in Bolivia in 1927, where Prestes obtained work for all his soldiers building railroads for the Bolivian Government.

Prestes himself continued on to Argentina, which was a hotbed of socialism at that time. He studied keenly, returning to Brazil a committed Marxist-Leninist. The newly installed Getulio Vargas met with Prestes, giving him R$400,000 to aid his communist colleagues, as well as the veterans of the column. The veterans, however, never recieved the money, as the plane carrying the money, along with courier Siqueira Campos (one of the 2 survivors from the Copa 18) mysteriously crashed, and the money was never found. The Prestes Column remains a symbol of revolution in Brazil, and Prestes continued to play an active role in Brazilian politics until his death in 1990, at the age of 92.