In the 1970s, Brazil’s intelligence agencies spied on black organizations; sought to frame the movement’s most outspoken activist

Movimento Negro activists identified by police in 1979
Movimento Negro activists identified by police in 1979 *

Note from BW of Brazil: Persons who are not familiar with Brazil’s history and the question of race often ask why it appears that the country’s black liberation movement seems to be 30-40 years behind similar movements that arose throughout the continent of Africa and in the United States. Some reasons include the long denial of the existence of racism even though it clearly existed (and still exists) and another being the widespread miscegenation that has consistently stifled and delayed collective resistance connected to racial identity politics. Of course these questions cannot be answered in simply one post, but taken into context with other pieces of the puzzle, the reasons for the delay in results from past social movements become clearer. In the 1970s, the military dictatorship that took hold of Brazil in 1964 and lasted 21 years  was notorious for its brutal repression, torture and surveillance of social movements. Today’s post provides another glimpse into the harassment black activists and organizations experienced under that regime. 

Intelligence services monitored black movements

Social and artistic movements such as the Black Rio and Black São Paulo, were the target of spies

By José Carlos Vieira and Carlos Alexandre

The warning above, accompanied by two stamps of “confidential” on each of the nine pages of the document was given by the Centro de Informação e Segurança da Aeronáutica (Cisa-RJ or Center for Information and Security of Aeronautics of Rio de Janeiro), on October 20, 1976. With the suggestive title “Racismo negro no Brasil” (black racism in Brazil), the folder reflects the preoccupation of governmental security organs led by General Ernesto Geisel with the infiltration of subversive organizations in popular movements. The agents of the dictatorship followed every step, recorded every word by militants, sympathizers and intellectuals in favor of inclusion of blacks in Brazilian society.

Marechal Castelo Branco was the first president under the military dictatorship (1964-1985). Also pictured are Ernesto Geisel and Arthur da Costa e Silva, both of whom would later serve as presidents under the regime.
Marechal Castelo Branco was the first president under the military dictatorship (1964-1985). Also pictured are Ernesto Geisel and Arthur da Costa e Silva, both of whom would later serve as presidents under the regime.

The document, which bears the seal of the Agência Central do Serviço Nacional de Informações (SNI or National Intelligence Agency Central), details what went on in lectures and debates promoted by cultural associations, responsible for working to recruit supporters connected to the black cause. “In this phase, the speakers preoccupied themselves with not talking openly about politics, but they conditioned listeners to accept the existence of a covert white racism in Brazil.” It was in these lectures, according to the agent reports, that the militants identify the most sensitive people to the ideas of the movement. Later, they were invited to participate in study groups of a reserved character.

Under Brazil's Military Dictatorship, thousands were tortured and disappeared which led to massive protests
Under Brazil’s Military Dictatorship, thousands were tortured and disappeared which led to massive protests

Obtained by the Correio newspaper at the National Archives, the account of the araponga (or spy) (1) connected to the Secret Service of the Aeronáutica (Air Force) is detailed and full of minutiae, and cites the main themes presented by the militants, such as:

» Any cultural movement cannot be disengaged from the political, as many cultural events, especially black, are crushed by a white political force that is adverse to any other cultural motif of another race;

» The problem of black in Brazil is socio-cultural, because the dominant society of the time of slavery to the present day is white and is not of its interest that black culture take effect;

» Blacks should always make themselves conscious of what they are, and to honor their ancestors who fought until the death for freedom, as was the case of Quilombo dos Palmares.

In a particular section of the document, the informant makes a caveat to point out that, during the debates, moderators avoid speaking clearly of political and social problems. But the action of the “radicals” is straightforward and, according to him, inspired by the Black Panthers, of the United States, and the cult of Idi Amin Dada, dictator of Uganda. The group preferred to recruit sympathizers in Soul clubs where young people wearing “cabelos black power” (afros) and colorful clothing filled the dance floor to the sound of music of James Brown, Tony Tornado and Gerson King Combo. “Until the present moment, it has not been possible to configure if the Soul musical groups are involved.” Radical groups, according to the account of the intelligence service, called themselves “almas negras (black souls)” and had socialism as an ideological basis, and possess some characteristics that identified them:

» The greeting between men and women is made with a kiss on the mouth;

» Greetings among the men is identical to that used by Black Panthers (various handshakes);

»At some meetings, some blacks made salutes in Communist fashion (arm raised and fist);

»They use some special terms and call whites “mucala” (mukala, meaning branco or white, emphasis added) and dress in fancy clothes.

An icon in the promotion of Afro-Brazilian culture and the Movimento Negro, Asfilófio de Oliveira Filho, or Filó, remembers being interrogated about his affiliations with international black liberation groups
An icon in the promotion of Afro-Brazilian culture and the Movimento Negro, Asfilófio de Oliveira Filho, or Filó, remembers being interrogated by police about his affiliations with international black liberation groups

Even today, the cultural producer Asfilófio de Oliveira Filho, better known as Filó, is an icon of the Movimento Negro of Rio de Janeiro. To the Correio website, he revealed the pressure the Movimento Negro suffered in the 1970s. On the one hand, the action of the military agents and on the other, the conduct of the left, almost always suspicious, although interested in co-opting militants of the black cause. “The pressure was hidden, totally silent. They (the spies) infiltrated the movement seeking to understand its nuances. Various times they tracked the day to day of leaders. Events like the “Encontro dos Blacks” or Meeting of the Blacks in Portelão (2) was the great signal for the military agents to realize that not everything they thought was true. It was a time of effervescence. The left questioned the Black Rio Movement for its “tendency” to American imperialism and the right was afraid of a revolução negra (black revolution). In fact, the ultimate goal of the movement was the construction of an identity and positive cultural politics.”

Filó also remembers when he was under arrest in army barracks in the Tijuca neighborhood of Rio: “I remember being asked: ‘Where was the million dollars that the Americans gave to the movement?’ In July of 1976, they promoted a report commissioned by a major Rio newspaper to discredit the movement. But the legacy left by Movimento Black Rio provided us a more open and conscious generation in search of its identity and in the struggle against racial discrimination.”

SNI wanted to frame anti-racism activist Abdias Nascimento

by Edson Luiz

Abdias Nascimento: forceful declarations in favor of the black movement in Brazil provoked the wrath of the military

Activist Abdias do Nascimento (1914-2011) in a 1970 interview
Activist Abdias do Nascimento (1914-2011) in a 1970 interview

The former congressman and researcher Abdias do Nascimento, considered one of the greatest activists of the black movement in Brazil in the last century, came close to being prosecuted by the Lei de Segurança Nacional (LSN or National Security Act) during the military regime. Moreover, on the recommendation of the Serviço Nacional de Informações (SNI or National Information Service), the Ministério da Justiça (Ministry of Justice) came to study the possibility of framing him for racial discrimination because of an interview he granted during a visit to the country. He lived in the United States, where he taught at a university in New York.

At one point, Brazil's intelligence agency, the SNI (Serviço Nacional de Informações) thought of framing Nascimento to curtail his activism
At one point, Brazil’s intelligence agency, the SNI (Serviço Nacional de Informações) thought of framing Nascimento to curtail his activism

The interview was given to Pasquim, one of the oppositional publications of the military regime. The former congressman, who was considered by the dictatorship itself as “the figure of the greatest projection of the black movement in Brazil”, had been critical of government policies for the sector. It was enough to instigate the SNI to instigate the then Minister of Justice, Armando Falcão, to analyze his inclusion in the dreaded National Security Law. For this, he pieced together different snippets of the activist’s testimony. The process, which began in September 1978, lasted nearly four years, and only terminated in March 1982.

Nascimento was the most outspoken Afro-Brazilian activist having taken the black struggle in Brazil onto the international stage
Nascimento was the most outspoken Afro-Brazilian activist having taken the black struggle in Brazil onto the international stage

To try to frame Abdias, SNI did a little analysis about the power of the activist because of his intellectual qualities. According to the military, he could constitute an influence capable of presenting an original political project for the country, targeted toward the black movement. Several ideas exposed in the interview bothered the military government, like the Afonso Arinos Law – which fights racism – was considered “a joke” by Abdias (3), as reported by the Divisão de Segurança e Informação (DSI or Division of Safety and Information) of the Ministry of Justice.

Persecution

One of the points made by the agents was the Carta de Princípios do Movimento Negro Unificado Contra a Discriminação Racial (Charter of Principles of the Unified Black Movement Against Racial Discrimination), which had five main items: the defense of the black community, a reassessment of the role of blacks in Brazil’s history, the extinction of the forms of persecution and repression, freedom of expression and organization and freedom for the international struggle of blacks. “The chief minister of SNI addresses Your Excellency forwarding information regarding Abdias Nascimento and requesting the study of this ministry on the possibility of prosecution based on the National Security Law,” reports the document sent to Armando Falcão, requesting analysis of their legal counsel.

The advice of the minister also made ​​an opinion based on other interviews with Abdias and, after an analysis of five pages, concludes that he could not be framed for not having committed any crime. “Nevertheless the injustice committed – that of the activist declaring the existence of racism in Brazil – we do not feel the respondent has committed the crime of the press or against national security because, although in his own way, his position is contrary to racial discrimination,” evaluated lawyers from the Ministry of Justice.

In the same interview, Abdias had complained to the reporter that he would travel from the US to Brazil with his identification card because his Brazilian passport had been denied by the authorities of the country. The legal advice of the Ministry of Justice suggested that Brazilian diplomacy have a meeting with the activist as a means to ease the situation. Thus, according to the report produced at the time, it would constitute “an instrument of our international propaganda, revealing the absence of any racial discrimination in Brazil.”

Notes

* – Photo courtesy of Kössling, Karin Sant’ Anna. As lutas anti-racistas de afro-descendentes sob vigilância do DEOPS/SP (1964-1983). Master’s Dissertation. USP. São Paulo, 2007.

1. Meaning bellbird, a tropical American bird of the cotinga family, with loud explosive calls. This is the nickname of police agents that illegally record telephone conversations.

2. Headquarters of the Grêmio Recreativo Escola de Samba Portela, or Portela Samba School, one of the most traditional and well-known Samba Schools in Brazil and Rio de Janeiro

3. Nascimento was absolutely correct in his assessment of the Lei Afonso Arinos (Afonso Arinos Law) which went into effect in July of 1951 as a means punishing those accused of racial crimes. After four decades it seemed as if the law didn’t exist as no one had ever been prosecuted and imprisoned on the basis of the law. It was later incorporated into the 1988 Constitution. In more recent times, the law dealing with  criminalizing racist attititudes is the 7.716 Law of January 5, 1989 also known as the Lei (Law) Caó named after the Movimento Negro activist Carlos Alberto de Oliveira (Caó) that fought (for it) in the Constituent Assembly. One could also argue that the Arinos Law was only meant to be “window dressing” and in fact may never have been instituted if not for the case of two non-Brazilians, the African-Americans dancer Katherine Dunham and singer Marian Anderson both of whom had been barred from the Hotel Esplanada in São Paulo in 1950. Although Afro-Brazilians had long denounced the existence of racism in Brazil, it was only the negative press of an international story that influenced the creation of the law, as the deputado (congressman) Afonso Arinos speaking pointed to the case as an example of racial discrimination. In fact, in 1949, members of Nascimento’s own group, the Teatro Experimental Negro (Black Experimental Theater) had been similarly barred from the Hotel Glória. This despite an invitation from the Sociedade Brasileira de Artistas (Brazilian Society of Artists).

Source: Correio Braziliense, Correio Braziliense (2), Nascimento, Elisa Larkin. Sankofa: Cultura em movimento : matrizes africanas e ativismo negro no Brasil. Selo Negro, 2008.

About Marques Travae 2897 Articles
Marques Travae. For more on the creator and editor of BLACK WOMEN OF BRAZIL, see the interview here.

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