Category Archives: Brazil

1972: Helenira Rezende, Brazil guerrilla

Brazilian Communist guerrilla Helenira Rezende was summarily executed in the field on this date in 1972.

“Preta” to her comrades, she was a silver-tongued student activist at the University of Sao Paulo who had been clapped in prison by the dictatorship.

Rezende was amnestied in December 1968 and went underground, eventually joining the guerrilla movement in the Araguaia River basin.

The 80 or so guerrillas operating in the eastern Amazon aspired to run that Che Guevara rural-insurgency playbook, as it announced in a May 1972 manifesto. It didn’t work: the Brazilian military successfully suppressed the revolution in a series of campaigns over the next two-plus years. Only about 20 of the guerrillas survived.

One of those lucky ones, Angelo Arroyo,* gave an account of her death:

On September 29, there was an ambush that resulted in the death of Helenira Resende. She, along with another companion, was on guard at a high point in the woods. On that occasion, troops came along the road. As they found the passage dangerous, they sent scouts to explore the side of the road, precisely where Helenira and the other companion were. The latter, when he saw the soldiers, fired the machine gun, which did not work. He ran and Helenira did not realize what was happening. When she saw the soldiers were already in front of her. Helenira fired a 16-round shotgun. The other soldier gave a blast of machine-gun fire that struck her. Injured, she pulled out the revolver and shot the soldier, who must have been hit. She was arrested and tortured to death.

Her bayoneted body was secretly buried by sympathetic campesinos and has never been recovered; officially, she’s still considered a fugitive. Her unit adopted the tributary name Destacamento Helenira Rezende; more recently, the University of Sao Paulo’s postgraduate association has been named in her honor.

* He wasn’t lucky for long: Arroyo was assassinated with a fellow Communist leader by military officials in Sao Paulo in 1976.

1821: Corporal Chaguinha, Brazil’s saint of freedom

On this date in 1821, Brazil’s saint of freedom was martyred by the Portuguese.

Francisco José das Chagas, fondly remembered as Corporal Chaguinha, led a mutiny in Santos of enlistees aggrieved by wages five years overdue, and the unequal treatment of Brazilian as compared to Portuguese soldiers.

It was a fraught and contradictory political moment; the Portuguese royal family had spent the past decade-plus in the quasi-exile of their New World colony after fleeing Napoleon. In the process they had (even formally) elevated Brazil from a mere dependency to a coequal in the empire, and attempts to reverse this promotion once the royals returned to Portugal in early 1821 found little welcome in Brazil.

Chaguinha was born to symbolize in his death his countrymen’s frustration.

To great popular indignation a customary pardon was not extended to the man, who was instead publicly hanged in a notorious botch. After the rope broke repeatedly — and again a public clamor for clemency was refused — they strangled him slowly with a leather strap. A Catholic priest named Diogo Antônio Feijó, who in time would rise to become the regent of independent Brazil, would describe seeing “with my own eyes” seeing the still-surviving Chaguinha being murdered lying under the gallows after his last noose failed to support him.

Brazil declared independence from Portugal one year later almost to the date (September 7, 1822), and won the war to clinch it. The martyred corporal was thereafter improved by veneration as a popular saint credited with miraculous intercessions for suitably patriotic Brazilians.