Joy erupted in laughter as well as mockery, in parody and circus as well as in the human body in search of the plenitude of pleasure and delight in one’s own pain. . . . Those in power became, contradictorily, optimistic and sad. Those who opposed the regime were at once sacrificed and joyful. —Silviano Santiago, “Poder e alegria” (1988)
Authoritarian military rule in Brazil between 1964 and 1985 coincided with an astonishingly effervescent period of cultural production and social transformation. To the multiple forms of state violence, censorship, and everyday forms of repression justified in the name of “national security,” Brazilians resisted in ingenious and numerous ways.
Several poems from the 1970s might help us to understand the emotions, impulses, and commitments among Brazilians who came of age under authoritarian rule. They are exemplary texts of poesia marginal, a poetic movement known for its colloquial informality and confessional tone. According to one critic, poesia marginal was characterized by its antitechnicism and anti-intellectualism and the politicization of everyday life.
Before the revolution I was a professor
When it came I was fired from the university
I began to demand stances from myself and others
(my parents were Marxists)
I’ve gotten better—
Today I don’t mistreat myself
Nor anyone else
In contrast to 1960s-era belief in the power of culture and the revolutionary vocation of artists and intellectuals, Alvim’s poem is about self-critique, disengagement from organized politics, and a reorientation toward personal behavior. Alvim’s poem foregrounds the ambiguous and contested meaning of its title—revolução. The word evokes, of course, the historic aspirations of Marxists, like his parents, for whom social revolution appeared visible on the horizon in the years immediately before the coup. The generals who came to power in 1964 recognized the rhetorical power of the word “revolution” and appropriated it to justify the implementation of a repressive national security state and an economic program of authoritarian modernization. Emptied of its historic association with national liberation and social transformation, Alvim invokes it ironically—the hopeful time “before the revolution” when he was a university professor. The “revolution” was, in fact, a catastrophe: Brazil fell under the rule of a right-wing military regime, and he lost his job, along with other prominent intellectuals who were fired from their posts due to their political convictions and activities. A period of frustration ensued, as the poet submitted himself and others to ideological critique, seen in retrospect as an unhealthy compulsion driven by personal resentment. The final three lines seem to reinforce a sense of melancholic retreat, as the poet seems to say, “I’m just working on myself.” In its focus on retreat and self-healing, Alvim’s poem almost suggests a kind of narcissism proper to what Walter Benjamin called the “melancholy Left”—a brooding, debilitating attachment to a loss or defeat that hinders or prevents any recovery.
While Alvim’s poem recommends introspection, other poems from this period celebrate erotic release and revelry in the face of repression. In “20 anos recolhidos,” the poet Chacal (Ricardo de Carvalho Duarte) dispenses with the first-person confessional voice of the sort used in Alvim’s poem and adopts instead an impersonal exhortative voice that appeals to his generation, which came of age as the dictatorship entered its most violent and repressive phase. The title suggests that the poem is highly personal, as Chacal was, in fact, twenty years old when he published this poem in his first collection, Muito prazer, in 1971. The adjective “recolhidos” is multivalent, suggesting twenty years “recalled,” as if to take stock of his life up to that point; but it could also mean twenty years “confined” or “withdrawn,” a state from which the poet now liberates himself:
the time has arrived to love desperately
the time has arrived to change styles
to change clothes
it arrived late like a train that’s
late but arrives
In the face of authoritarian violence and stifling repression, Chacal calls for an erotic, Dionysian gesture of release and self-affirmation. As the regime stimulated patriotic euphoria, dissenters needed to reclaim joy in a liberating way. Chacal’s poem is not about future promise but rather about acting in the here and now, as announced in the opening line, “the time has arrived.” But the time for what? Chacal’s poem is not a call to arms or even a call to protest. Instead, it points to new ways of being in the world based on the release of erotic energy. In referencing style and clothing as markers of the catharsis, Chacal suggests that consumption played a central role in this emergent youth culture. The poem also calls attention to the question of periodization: the Brazilian counterculture reached its height in 1972, not in 1968, thus his metaphor of the trem atrasado that is late but inevitably arrives.
Writers with the poesia marginal movement, as noted above, also engaged with quotidian interpersonal politics. The poem “Vã filosofia” (Vain philosophy) by Leila Miccolis, a leading female voice in the poesia marginal movement, explored the tensions and contradictions between political ideology and everyday behavior. The revolutionary Marxist ideals that mobilized left-wing intellectuals in the 1960s were at odds with deeply ingrained cultural habits, patterns, and roles that reinforced patriarchal class society:
You talk a lot about Marx,
About the division of labor
About grass-roots organizing
But when you get up
You don’t even make the bed.
As an activist in the feminist movement, Miccolis wrote the poem as a gendered critique of the left-wing male intellectual, who rails on about the division of labor and grassroots organizing but leaves domestic chores to wives or girlfriends. The poem can also be read more broadly as a critique of class privilege enjoyed by both male and female leftists, who depended on the labor of poor domestic workers, often black women, to maintain the house. “Vã filosofia” affirms an ethos of congruency between ideals and life practice that assigns primacy to everyday behavior over lofty pronouncements about a future utopia. Her poem captures with wry humor the notion that “the personal is political,” one of the key principles of second-wave feminism in the United States. In different ways, these poems convey a generational process, from disillusionment with the revolutionary project to the joyful defiance of personal liberation and, finally, to a rethinking of everyday politics.
The term “counterculture” has been used in diverse historical contexts to refer to individual and collective resistance to political authority, social conventions, or established aesthetic values. It first appeared in postwar U.S. sociological literature as a counterpoint to the category of “subculture.” John Milton Yinger’s definition of what he called “contraculture” emphasized “conflict with the values of the total society.”
One of the conceptual problems in using the term “counterculture” relates to context and periodization. Ken Goffman and Dan Joy have argued that countercultural movements are transhistorical, near-universal phenomena, providing examples that include Abraham, Socrates, Taoists, Zen Buddhists, Sufi mystics, Provençal poets, Enlightenment rationalists, American Transcendentalists, avant-garde artists, beatniks, hippies, punks, and cyberhackers.
Despite its applicability to a wide range of contexts, “counterculture” generally refers to forms of social and cultural dissent in the United States, Europe, and Latin America during the 1960s and 1970s. The counterculture flourished primarily in the United States, with its strong tradition of individualism, its obsession with youth, and its highly developed culture industry. Young radicals in Europe tended to have stronger ties to left-wing institutions devoted to class struggle through established trade unions.
Theodore Roszak’s The Making of a Counter Culture, published in 1969, popularized the term in the United States and Britain. Focusing on the U.S. context, Roszak argued that the counterculture was both a symptom of and a response to a sense of social alienation during a period of affluence and full employment.
Roszak’s analysis owed much to the work of Herbert Marcuse, the German émigré affiliated with the Frankfurt School, who was widely read in New Left circles at the time. His most influential work, One Dimensional Man (1964), was a critique of modern industrial society in its ability to co-opt dissent and subversion, thereby neutralizing dialectical, or “two-dimensional,” transformation. The only way to resist this state was through a “total transcendence of the existing order,” what Marcuse called the “Great Refusal.” Manifestations of this total negation might include “dropping out,” creating communal spaces, rejecting consumer society, and eschewing social conformity. Marcuse once referred to the hippies as “the only viable social revolution” in the way they “rejected the junk they’re supposed to buy, rejected the war, and rejected competitive performances.”
Contemporary scholars tend to be considerably more skeptical of the counterculture as a critique of technocratic society. Thomas Frank argues that the counterculture, far from instantiating a Marcusean “great refusal” from the margins, emerged from the ideological nerve center of “one-dimensional society.” Whereas Roszak acknowledged that consumer society took advantage of generational conflict and youthful rebellion to sell products, Frank argued that consumer society actually generated this ethos of dissent. The counterculture was a product of Madison Avenue innovations in the realm of advertisement that promoted niche-product consumption as a way of expressing individualism, nonconformity, and social distinction. Advertising executives were in the vanguard of promoting a rebellion against postwar social conformity within the middle class. Business culture paralleled and even anticipated the counterculture, especially in the way that it marketed youthful dissent, what Frank calls “hip consumerism.”
Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter are more strident in their critique of the counterculture, which they claim has done enormous damage to the patient work of political organizing and efforts to promote social justice through deviant nonconformity, hedonism, and unbridled individualism: “Doing guerrilla theater, playing in a band, making avant-garde art, taking drugs and having lots of wild sex certainly beat union organization as a way to spend the weekend.”
Critics of the counterculture offer an important corrective to an earlier tendency to interpret the rebellions of the late 1960s and early 1970s solely in terms of resistance and refusal. To be sure, from the perspective of Left orthodoxy, countercultural values and practices were hedonistic, self-centered, and impulsive. Even Roszak, a champion of the counterculture, had serious concerns about its drug-fueled irrationalism, its lack of discipline, and what he called its “commercial verminization.”
Despite its novel appearance, the counterculture responded to struggles and debates that had long histories dating back at least to the early twentieth century. As Jeremi Suri has noted, these youth “deployed a very usable political past” in confronting patriarchy, racial injustice, and imperial aggression.
Latin American Countercultures
Nearly every Latin American nation witnessed local countercultural movements, which were linked to transnational processes involving circulation of texts, films, and, above all, popular music. The modern Latin American historiography for the period of the 1960s and 1970s has concentrated largely on the armed insurgencies and state-directed counterinsurgencies. The 1959 Cuban Revolution provided impetus to armed revolutionary struggle and marked a generational shift away from traditional leftist parties while maintaining the social values and aesthetics associated with previous generations. The Latin American New Left distinguished itself from traditional, or “Old Left,” parties and organizations, whether communist or syndicalist, which tended to seek gradual reform while forming cautious broad-front alliances in politics. To use Greg Grandin’s concise definition, the Latin American New Left was characterized by its “will to act.”
Eric Zolov has argued for an expanded notion of the New Left in Latin America that takes into account the cultural and social upheavals of the so-called long 1960s, which stretch from the late 1950s to the early 1970s.
Zolov highlights the central place of Mexico as a transnational crossroads that attracted North American youth, including Beat writers Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, as well as Latin American exiles, including Ernesto “Che” Guevara and Fidel Castro, in the 1950s. While Mexico offered an exotic refuge from postwar America for Beat writers and other alternative tourists, it provided a training ground for the revolutionaries as they prepared to launch their assault on Cuba. Mexico provided the context for Guevara’s personal trajectory from a wandering and undisciplined bohemian to a committed and disciplined revolutionary.
As elsewhere, Latin American countercultures were closely associated with the worldwide spread of rock music, facilitated by the expansion of radio and television networks, the growth of multinational recording companies, the availability of cheap radios, turntables, and vinyl records, and the development of print media dedicated to the genre and its cultural styles. The groundbreaking collection of essays Rockin’ Las Américas (2004) shows that vibrant rock subcultures were emergent in urban centers throughout Latin America, from large nations such as Argentina, Brazil, and Mexico to smaller nations such as Guatemala, Cuba, and Uruguay. Latin American rock fans and performers were subject to government repression, intellectual scorn, and social opprobrium under both conservative and progressive, authoritarian and democratic regimes.
Following the worldwide success of The Beatles and other British Invasion groups, rock gained a measure of intellectual prestige as an art form with sophisticated lyrics and virtuoso musicianship. Distanced from its origins in African American dance music, rock attracted middle-class, predominantly white and male connoisseurs for whom rock was a musical genre for intellectual contemplation and cathartic revelry. By the early 1970s, the tension between rock and national musical traditions had largely dissipated, leading to greater fluidity between rockers and folk artists, as seen in the famous collaboration in 1971 between the Chilean group Los Blops and Victor Jara, the legendary singer-songwriter of Nueva Canción, who was tortured and executed two years later by army officers soon after the military coup led by Augusto Pinochet.
With the emergence of countercultural movements in the late 1960s and early 1970s, rock music (as well as new styles that combined rock with local musical traditions) increasingly embraced the language of social dissent and political protest. In Mexico, a rock movement known as La Onda Chicana rejected the imitation of foreign models and forged an original sound, albeit with English lyrics. For a brief period in the early 1970s, bands associated with La Onda Chicana enjoyed unprecedented support from multinational record companies and significant media exposure, allowing them to attract diverse, cross-class audiences.
In some national contexts, rock music was tolerated and even embraced by left-wing revolutionaries. Vania Markarian shows, for example, that Uruguayan communists were remarkably open-minded toward the rock counterculture in their efforts to appeal to a youth constituency.
While most frequently suppressed by conservative civilian and military regimes, rock music and other countercultural manifestations were also stifled by leftist regimes. The revolutionary government of Cuba denounced rock as frivolous entertainment complicit with U.S. cultural imperialism, rendering it incompatible with the nationalist cultural policy of the state. As the socialist regime consolidated its control over mass media, English-language rock was driven underground and even prohibited for a time from the Cuban airwaves.
Socialist governments were wary not only of rock but also of countercultural movements espousing heterodox ideas about achieving collective liberation through individual liberation, which turned Marxist theory on its head. Patrick Barr-Melej has shown that the Popular Unity government of Salvador Allende in Chile actively suppressed a movement known as Poder Joven, which was led by a charismatic leader known simply as “Silo.” Developing as “an esoteric fragment” of the Chilean counterculture, the siloístas shared affinities with local hippies but eschewed recreational drug use and free love.
The counterculture in Latin America was always open to the charge that it was imported and inauthentic. From this perspective, the counterculture would be one more idéia fora do lugar, an “out-of-place” idea, to remember Roberto Schwarz’s famous formulation pertaining to the circulation of classic liberalism among elite circles in nineteenth-century Brazil at a time when the economy was dependent on slave labor.
Brazilian students, 1967. Photo by Pimentel. Courtesy of the National Archive, Rio de Janeiro.
The Brazilian Sixties
Several years ago, I found a period photograph in the National Archive of Rio de Janeiro that provides a suggestive portrait of late 1960s Brazilian youth. Little information accompanied the image other than that it featured a group of university students, most likely in Rio de Janeiro, in April 1967. At the time, the military regime was implementing legal and constitutional mechanisms for institutionalizing authoritarian rule, while opposition forces, including political leaders, student groups, and a variety of armed organizations, intensified their activities. Despite the increasingly dire political climate, the students in the photo form a tableau of diverse subjectivities as they enjoy a moment of leisure. A young woman, dressed conservatively in a cotton dress and slipper flats, braids the hair of a friend, who wears similar attire. Sitting beside them, another woman sports a “mod” look, with loosely worn long hair, a black shirt, a plaid skirt, and leather boots. The young man who seeks her attention affects an emergent hippie style; he is a cabeludo (“long hair”) with a handlebar moustache, muttonchop sideburns, leather sandals, and a groovy flowered shirt. Behind them, a young black man, shirt unbuttoned, appears to clap, as if marking the rhythm together with others who are outside of the frame. In the upper left corner of the photo, a fragment of graffiti seems to pose a question about the responsibility of humanity to combat evil. On an adjacent wall, over the hippie couple, another bit of graffiti features the international peace symbol with the famous antiwar slogan of the United States, rendered ungrammatically as “make love, don’t war.” The graffiti calls attention to the international circulation of discourses and cultural artifacts relating to the youth counterculture of the United States and how these were “translated” and made into something new in other national contexts. In late 1960s Brazil, the slogan simultaneously protested the Vietnam War and the violence of the military government, but it could also be read as a rejection of armed struggle.
Although it was part of a global phenomenon, the counterculture emerged as a response to particular conflicts and crises in Brazilian society. The young Brazilians who would participate in varying degrees and ways in the counterculture came of age during a period of rapid modernization and intense political turmoil. Many were adolescents and young adults during the presidency of Juscelino Kubitschek (1955–60), a democratic populist committed to a program of rapid modernization, conceived broadly in terms of infrastructural development, industrialization, education, and social progress. The new futuristic capital city of Brasília, with buildings designed by world-renowned modernist architect Oscar Niemeyer, was inaugurated in 1960 as the crowning achievement for a president committed to positioning his country among the ranks of developed “first world” nations. Kubitschek’s deficit spending to finance his developmentalist ambitions contributed to a severe economic crisis in the early 1960s, one factor that provoked the abrupt resignation of his successor, Jânio Quadros, after just seven months in office. Despite fierce opposition from the military establishment and its conservative civilian allies, Quadros’s vice president, João Goulart, assumed the presidency in 1961.
During this period, an array of progressive political organizations, referred to as esquerdas, or the “lefts,” enjoyed considerable influence among students, workers, progressive intellectuals, and urban professionals. The National Student Union (UNE) became increasingly radicalized as it advocated for a central role for university students in national politics. Through its cultural wing, the People’s Center of Culture (CPC), the UNE reached out to urban and rural masses, the povo, in an attempt to mobilize society in support of social revolution. The Brazilian Communist Party (PCB), founded in 1922, was the dominant ideological force among the Brazilian lefts. The PCB, known as the partidão (“big party”), advocated an alliance of progressive national bourgeoisie, workers, and peasants against foreign capital allied with traditional landed elites. The PCB called for a popular front alliance in cooperation with the Goulart government in order to enact social transformation, starting with agrarian reform to address severe inequalities and alleviate misery in the rural areas.
The Brazilian lefts, as Marcelo Ridenti has written, embraced an ethos of “revolutionary romanticism,” which combined cultural nationalism with a rejection of modern capitalism.
For Brazilian leftists caught up in what at the time seemed like “pre-revolutionary winds,” the military coup of April 1, 1964, supported by the U.S. government, came as a bitter surprise. Their dismay was further compounded by the outpouring of support for the new regime among the urban middle classes, which had been alarmed by left-wing mobilization during the Goulart years. Supporters of the coup ransacked and torched the UNE headquarters, which had tremendous symbolic value to the student Left.
During the first phase of consolidation under the presidency of Humberto Castelo Branco, the regime aggressively suppressed established left-wing parties, such as the PCB and the Communist Party of Brazil (PCdoB), student groups such as the UNE, labor unions, peasant leagues, and other organizations involved in political organizing. Once order was restored and the threat of communist revolution was defeated, Castelo Branco hoped to call elections and return the country to civilian rule. The regime instituted a series of atos institucionais (institutional acts), known by numbered acronyms, that gave the regime broad powers to change the constitution, suspend political rights, remove legislators, and dismiss federal employees (AI-1), and to establish indirect elections for president (AI-2), as well as for governors and mayors of state capitals and other major cities (AI-3). All existing political parties were abolished and replaced by the pro-government Alliance for National Renovation (ARENA) and an officially sanctioned opposition, the Brazilian Democratic Movement (MDB). During the Castelo Branco years, civil society remained relatively open, with an unfettered national press and a vibrant cultural scene. Although the Left had been defeated, there were still opportunities to express dissent through organized demonstrations, labor strikes, political journalism, and anti-regime expressive culture. Many left-wing artists and intellectuals regarded the U.S.-backed coup as a surmountable obstacle and maintained an abiding belief in the revolutionary potential of protest culture to inspire and mobilize people.
As opposition to military rule grew, the regime intensified its efforts to violently suppress dissent. In turn, activists began to turn away from the aboveground opposition movement and join armed clandestine organizations, such as the Ação Libertadora Nacional (ALN), founded by Carlos Marighella in 1967 as a dissident group of the PCB. In quick succession, around thirty clandestine groups of various sizes formed with the intent to oppose and eventually overthrow the regime by force. Marcelo Ridenti has estimated that the armed Left involved around 2,465 people, mostly university students under the age of twenty-five.
In response to the radicalization of the opposition, the regime approved a fourth institutional act in 1967, which established a new constitution designed to concentrate power in the executive branch, restrict labor rights, and expand military justice, thereby providing a legal structure for establishing a national security state. That same year, the second military president, Artur da Costa e Silva, signed an executive decree that established a new National Security Law designed to combat political subversion or armed insurgency, especially those efforts motivated and/or funded by international communism. In addition to provisions one would expect to find in a law of this kind (for example, prohibitions against espionage, armed attacks on elected officials and government installations, and attempts to establish independent territories within the national boundaries), the 1967 decree-law effectively established a police state. It made all people and institutions responsible for national security, so that it would be incumbent on Brazilian citizens to police one another. In addition to provisions against armed insurgency, the law also prohibited oppositional discourse in the form of “antagonistic threats or pressures,” “propaganda or counterpropaganda,” or “false, tendentious, or distorted news” that might embarrass the regime or compromise the “prestige of Brazil.” The law reveals a particular anxiety in relation to external forces or actors that might attempt to introduce “propaganda of foreign origin” contrary to national interests as defined by the regime. The threat of international communism was the primary concern, but the law was written broadly so that it could also be applied to other discourses and ideologies deemed incompatible with national security. The secret police, known as the Departamento de Ordem e Política Social (Department of Political and Social Order), or DOPS, kept extensive files on citizens it regarded as potentially subversive, including dozens of artists and intellectuals. In a study of DOPS files concerning Brazilian musicians, Marcos Napolitano found that these reports were generally “guided by a mixture of ultra-moralist, anti-democratic, and anti-communist values,” yet also often “incoherent” and exaggerated.
1968: The Year That Never Ended
The year 1968 has accrued heightened symbolic value as a watershed year for political, social, and cultural transformation in many countries. Student protests erupted throughout Western Europe, most notably in France, where students forged a brief alliance with labor unions against the conservative Gaullist state and nearly brought the capitalist economy to a halt. The “events of May” disrupted social identities and produced conditions for cross-class communion in a deeply compartmentalized and hierarchical society.
In Brazil, 1968 holds particular significance as the year of mass demonstrations against the military regime, initially sparked in April 1968 when Edson Luis, a working-class student from Pará, was shot by the state police at a student cafeteria in downtown Rio. In her evocative account of this tragic incident, Victoria Langland has shown how the death of Edson Luis galvanized the student-led opposition and mobilized broad sectors of civil society against the dictatorship. Under the slogan “neste luto começa a luta” (in mourning, the struggle begins), many student activists imagined that a mass uprising against the regime was under way.
The year 1968 also witnessed tremendous cultural effervescence in Brazil. A vibrant culture of critique and dissent had developed in the years following the military coup, with powerful manifestations in all realms of cultural production. Serious divergences erupted among artists regarding the political relevancy, aesthetic innovation, and value of entertainment, pleasure, and joy in art. Some artists were committed to an instrumentalist vision of art as a vehicle for raising political consciousness and mobilizing people. Other artists, most conspicuously the poets and visual artists of the concretist avant-garde, which emerged in the 1950s, defended what Charles Perrone has called “the imperative of invention” and rejected overtly political art bereft of formal innovation.
A series of cultural interventions in popular music, visual arts, theater, and film erupted in 1967–68, eventually coalescing under the banner of “Tropicália” (or “Tropicalismo”). Tropicália is best understood as a cultural “moment,” although it briefly coalesced as an organized movement in popular music in 1968.
The historiography of Tropicália has tended to focus on popular music, the only field in which an actual movement coalesced, often leading to the erroneous perception that tropicalist phenomena in other fields were mere appendages of the music. Frederico Coelho has argued for making a clear distinction between tropicália, which involved avant-garde visual artists, writers, and filmmakers, and tropicalismo musical, which operated in the terrain of mass culture.
I have argued that Tropicália may be understood as an inaugural gesture of the Brazilian counterculture.
Although mass demonstrations waned after the March of 100,000 in June, tensions between the regime and the civilian opposition continued to mount throughout 1968. Meanwhile, the armed insurgency gathered momentum in the major cities, especially Rio and São Paulo. On December 13, the regime approved a fifth institutional act, known simply as AI-5, which suspended congress, prohibited political demonstrations, suspended habeas corpus, and established strict censorship over the press, music, theater, and film. AI-5 stripped dissenting public servants, including university professors, of their jobs and of their political rights. The fifth institutional act signaled the definitive ascension of hard-line forces within the military regime, such that it is often referred to as a “coup within the coup.” Prominent members of the civilian opposition fled the country or went into hiding. In late December, Veloso and Gil were arrested, imprisoned, and eventually placed under house arrest in Salvador, Bahia. In June 1969, they were sent into exile and relocated to London.
The Suffocating Miracle
AI-5 ushered in the most repressive phase of authoritarian rule, as the U.S.-backed military regime used unprecedented violence against the opposition in its efforts to safeguard the national security state. Known as the sufoco (suffocation) or as the anos de chumbo (years of lead), the period between 1969 and 1974 witnessed the triumph of the regime over opposition forces. Security agencies, mostly affiliated with branches of the military, made extensive use of torture to punish and extract information from insurgents, student leaders, and other dissidents. As the aboveground opposition was crushed, more Brazilians joined the clandestine insurgency, which was largely based in the cities. Armed organizations had some early successes, most spectacularly with the successful kidnapping in September 1969 of the American ambassador, Charles Elbrick. After four days, he was ransomed in exchange for fifteen imprisoned insurgents, who were then safely flown out of the country. Two subsequent kidnappings secured the release of more prisoners, but the regime redoubled its efforts to contain the insurgency and kill or imprison its leaders. By 1972, the armed movement had been defeated, except for a rural insurgency organized by the PCdoB in Araguaia, Pará, near the Amazon basin, which held out until 1974.
A new president, General Emílio Garrastazu Médici, presided over the most repressive phase of the dictatorship. A jovial leader with a populist touch, Médici enjoyed substantial popularity among Brazilians, despite the brutality of the regime he directed. Nationalist euphoria reached a peak in 1970 as Brazil became the first country to win three World Cup soccer championships. Some dissenters, rightly concerned that the regime would benefit from a World Cup victory, had met secretly to cheer for opposing teams.
It was a period when the Brazilian government “reinvented optimism,” in the words of historian Carlos Fico. Médici hired public relations experts, who mobilized a long tradition of patriotic sentiment, known as ufanismo, which exalted Brazil’s qualities as a cordial and prosperous country. The modern discourse of Brazilian optimism was forged in the 1930s during the rule of Getúlio Vargas, which used its powerful Department of the Press and Propaganda (DIP) to broadcast and circulate celebratory images and ideas pertaining to Brazil’s grandeur. The Vargas government coincided with the elaboration of a national discourse that asserted Brazil’s unique propensity for racial and cultural mixture, or mestiçagem, a discourse most closely associated with the patrician intellectual Gilberto Freyre. In the 1960s and 1970s, Freyre gained notoriety as the primary ideologue of “racial democracy,” which asserted the relative absence of racism in Brazilian society, especially in comparison to the United States. Freyre was an ardent supporter of the military regime that came to power in 1964, and his works were widely read and admired by military officials who endorsed the racial democracy thesis.
Regime publicists were careful to avoid heavy-handed official propaganda typical of the Vargas-era DIP and sought to convey a sense of levity and happiness in their celebration of Brazil.
Created in 1968, the Assessoria Especial de Relações Públicas (Special Office of Public Relations) developed campaigns that emphasized national optimism. Its consultants sought to avoid the repetition of an infamous campaign around the slogan “Brasil: ame-o ou deixe-o” (Brazil: love it or leave it), based on the Vietnam War–era slogan of the American right, which appeared on bumper stickers throughout Brazil. Created in 1969 by the special counterinsurgency unit Operação Bandeirantes (OBAN), the slogan was a menacing ultimatum that reinforced the dour and cantankerous image of the generals. To counter this image, consultants created buoyant slogans such as “Ninguém segura este país” (Nobody can hold back this country, 1970), “É tempo de construir” (It’s time to build, 1971), “Você constrói o Brasil” (You build Brazil, 1972), “País que se transforma e se constroí” (A country that changes and builds, 1973), “O Brasil merece nosso amor” (Brazil deserves our love, 1973), and “Este é um país que vai pra Frente” (This is a country that is moving forward, 1976).
AI-5 ushered in a period of intense political repression, producing what Zuenir Ventura famously described as a vazio cultural (cultural void)—a perceived dearth of creativity in comparison to the flourishing of artistic expression during the 1950s and 1960s. In an article published in the national magazine Visão in July 1971, Ventura observed: “In the field of architecture and urbanism, nothing comes close to the inventive grandiosity of Brasília; in the field of cinema, no movement like Cinema Novo; nothing comparable to Bossa Nova in music; the Arena Group in theater or the formalist investigations in literature by the concretists; nothing like those movements of critical self-reflection in relation to the country.”
While Ventura’s notion of vazio cultural captured the sense of malaise and disillusionment with the defeat of revolutionary aspirations in Brazil, it was also limited by a rather narrow view of what constituted culture (that is, middle- and upper-class urban artistic expression). It also idealized the achievements of the 1950s and 1960s while overlooking the unique dynamics of cultural production after AI-5. Despite a climate of intense repression, there was a remarkably vibrant alternative press, an emergent poetry movement (poesia marginal), experimental cinema with feature-length and short films made with Super 8 cameras (cinema marginal), and extraordinary innovations in popular music. Some of the most influential and critically acclaimed Brazilian albums of all time, such as Gal Costa’s -Fa-tal-Gal a todo vapor (1971), the Novos Baianos’ Acabou Chorare (1972), Milton Nascimento’s Clube da Esquina (1972), Caetano Veloso’s Transa (1972), and Raul Seixas’s Krig-ha, Bandolo! (1973), are from this period. Despite intense political repression and censorship, Brazilian artists managed to create works of great beauty and social relevance.
Marcos Napolitano has identified four principal sectors of left-wing political and cultural resistance to military rule in Brazil—liberals, communists, countercultural groups, and a New Left composed of progressive Catholics, socialists of various stripes, and emergent social movements.
During the years of the sufoco, most young Brazilians plodded along, avoided the authorities, and tried to take advantage of new opportunities for social advancement. Yet a significant minority, disillusioned with politics, unwilling to join the armed struggle, and alienated by society under authoritarian rule, embraced attitudes, ideas, and practices associated with the international youth counterculture. Embracing the counterculture could mean many different forms of dissent, from pursuing a modestly “alternative” lifestyle within a middle-class structure to more radical options of “dropping out,” avoiding formal employment, pursuing an itinerant hippie lifestyle, or living in a commune. Although primarily a middle-class phenomenon, the counterculture also appealed to working-class youth who sought to escape the social confines of a class society. In his documentary about a favela community in Rio de Janeiro, Babilônia 2000 (2001), Eduardo Coutinho interviewed a working-class woman named Fátima who fondly recalled her days as a hippie in the 1970s. Fátima had read Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha (1922), a story of Buddhist self-discovery that was popular among countercultural youth in the 1960s and 1970s, and had named her first son after the mystical protagonist. In one scene, Fátima stands on a bluff overlooking Rio’s south zone and passionately belts out her personal version of “Me and Bobby McGee,” a song made popular by her favorite singer, Janis Joplin. Although just one example, Fátima’s story suggests that the hippie movement and international icons of the counterculture circulated among working-class, as well as middle- and upper-class, Brazilian youth.
The recreational use of drugs, especially marijuana and hallucinogens, expanded dramatically among urban adolescents and young adults, becoming for many a central feature of daily life. Marijuana, or maconha (an anagram of cânhamo, or “hemp”), as it is called in Brazil, was introduced to Brazil by enslaved Africans, who valued the plant for its medicinal and recreational uses.
With the rise of the counterculture in the 1960s, the consumption of marijuana expanded dramatically among middle-class adolescents and young adults in urban Brazil. The expansion of drug use in Brazil provoked alarm and suspicion among agents of the regime and conservative opinion makers, who feared that it was part of a subversive plot to corrupt young people and lead them astray politically. In one DOPS report about a rock festival in Rio de Janeiro, the agent asserted that “drugs are used as a political weapon in order to attract and groom youth, create psychic dependence, and make them slaves to drugs in order to blackmail them into becoming new informants and faithful agents of international communism.”
Contrary to these paranoid fantasies, accounts of recreational drug use in Brazil during this period suggest that it correlated with political demobilization. In a classic ethnography on drug consumption and social behavior among a group of middle- and upper-class cariocas (as natives of Rio de Janeiro are known) from the city’s south zone (zona sul), Gilberto Velho noted that his informants began regular use of marijuana around 1969.
Antonio Risério has asserted that the consumption of marijuana brought together privileged and marginalized youth “in an exchange of life experiences and languages,” which would contribute to overcoming what he calls “the shield of whiteness.”
On one hand, the counterculture represented a generational revolt against conservative social and political values. Velho found that the parents of many of his informants were udenistas, or supporters of the National Democratic Union (UDN), a conservative, law-and-order party with substantial support from the urban middle class during the postwar period.
Many young Brazilians sought freedom from traditional family structures to live among friends or with romantic partners, which would have a profound impact on attitudes and behaviors relating to sexuality. Brazilian men had traditionally enjoyed sexual license, but middle-class women were expected to remain chaste and leave the family home only after marriage. Like their contemporaries elsewhere in the United States, Western Europe, and Latin America, thousands of Brazilian women migrated to urban centers, ran away to avoid the constraints of traditional family life, or simply moved out of their parents’ homes to live with friends. “Leaving home,” as Valeria Manzano has observed in the context of urban Argentina, “was a metaphor for young women’s life experiences and for public perceptions about them.”
A distinctly Brazilian neologism, desbunde, and its adjective, desbundado, were added to the urban lexicon to refer to a range of countercultural practices, from psychedelic revelry to quiet withdrawal from family and society to pursue a life less devoted to work and consumption and more oriented toward creative leisure. With etymological origins in bunda (buttocks), the most widely used Africanism in the Brazilian lexicon, desbunde began as an epithet used by guerrillas against former comrades who opted to leave the armed struggle. Turning Grandin’s phrase on its head, desbunde might be understood in the Brazilian context as the “will to not act”—a deliberate choice to reject the armed struggle and disengage from society. As it became more broadly associated with the hippie movement, desbunde accrued additional associations with heightened emotional, sensorial, and social experiences.
Agents of the regime and local police authorities predictably took a rather dim view of countercultural youth, particularly hippies, whom they regarded at best as unwanted vagrants, and at worst as dangerous subversives. Many left-wing intellectuals also dismissed the counterculture, which they perceived as an insidious import from the United States that distracted and weakened the opposition to the military regime. Writing for Opinião in 1973, Luciano Martins criticized a culture of “horoscopes, drugs, and magic,” which he regarded as part of the same “obscurantist syndrome” afflicting middle and upper classes, including members of the intelligentsia.
Martins identified three main tendencies of the counterculture that had alienating effects: drug use, the disarticulation of discourse, and psychoanalytic fads. Drugs produced physical dependency that suppressed the will of the subject. Taking drugs was, for Martins, a form of evasion, a means by which disaffected youth avoided confronting social and political realities with logic and reason.
As elsewhere in Latin America, the Brazilian counterculture emerged in dialogue with New Left, hippie, and underground movements in the United States and, to a lesser extent, Western Europe. An active alternative press, discussed in Chapter 1, provided a steady stream of information about the artistic, philosophical, and social trends connected to the counterculture. Roszak’s The Making of a Counter Culture was translated into Portuguese and published in 1972 as A contracultura by the progressive Catholic press Editora Vozes.
While Brazilian youth traveled to other countries in Latin America, they had relatively little knowledge of analogous countercultural scenes, even in the neighboring countries of the southern cone. For example, very few references to the vibrant rock cultures of Argentina and Uruguay appeared in the alternative press in Brazil. Judging from police reports and newspaper reports, Argentinian, Uruguayan, and Chilean hippies frequented the cities and beaches of Brazil, but relatively few Brazilian hippies traveled to the southern cone. Political violence and the rise of authoritarian regimes in neighboring countries likely deterred alternative travelers from Brazil, who would have been more likely to find spaces of relative freedom in the remote beaches and mountains of their own country. The long-standing prestige of U.S. and Western European (especially British, French, German, and Italian) cultures among Brazilian artists and intellectuals was transferable, even to countercultural movements that purported to reject Western civilization.
The Brazilian counterculture emerged as one of several responses to authoritarian modernization, which emphasized capital accumulation, infrastructural and technological development, expansion of communications networks, investment in higher education, and growth of consumer markets, while suppressing political dissent, curtailing labor demands, and establishing and enforcing a regime of heavy-handed national security. Claudio Novaes Pinto Coelho has argued that the counterculture in Brazil may be understood as the lado avesso (flip side) of authoritarian modernization, which emphasized the “rationalization of social life,” managed by technocrats and enforced by repressive agents of the state.
By the mid-1970s, the hippie counterculture of the desbunde began to wane as Brazil entered a new phase of authoritarian rule. The economic miracle had come to an abrupt halt with the petroleum crisis of 1973, and the regime experienced its first major political challenge as the mainstream opposition coalition scored victories over the official pro-regime civilian party in the 1974 congressional elections.
Maria Paula Nascimento Araújo argues that the revolutionary utopian project of the 1960s, founded on the universality of class struggle, ceded to a “fragmented utopia” of new social movements: “The utopia of the 1960s and 1970s incorporated into the project of transforming society the idea of changing everyday life: modify the affective and sexual relations between men and women, family relationships between parents and children, create new relations between man and nature, release desire, explore the possibilities of the unconscious. Create in short, a new sociability and a new sensibility. During the 1960s and a good part of the 1970s, this feeling inspired the specific movements and political minorities that constituted the groups and organizations of the dissident left.”
This book is divided into five chapters. Focusing on Rio de Janeiro, the epicenter of the countercultural scene in Brazil, Chapter 1 explores multiple dimensions of desbunde, including the Brazilian hippie movement, the alternative press, and key artists and intellectuals who articulated its values. This chapter also examines the tensions between the counterculture’s disengagement from capitalist society and the emergence of a consumer market with its own advertising language, which sought to appeal to a broader section of urban middle-class youth. Chapter 2 explores the connections between the artistic avant-garde and the counterculture. A small but influential group of artists, sometimes identified as “marginal” or “underground,” coalesced in the aftermath of Tropicália. Cultura marginal may be located at the intersection of two seemingly contrary cultural phenomena: On one hand, it had deep affinities with the emergent counterculture. On the other hand, cultura marginal was indebted to the midcentury constructivist avant-garde and its peculiar permutations in the 1960s. Chapter 3 will focus on the northeastern state of Bahia, particularly its capital, Salvador, which emerged as something of a mecca for Brazilian and other South American youth who identified with the counterculture. An important center for Afro-Brazilian culture, Bahia was imagined as a place of non-Western spirituality and cultural alterity, much in the way that Mexico and India, respectively, were seen by North American and European hippies. I will explore the significance of the Brazilian counterculture for a local discourse of regional identity, sometimes referred to as baianidade, which is central to the way the state has been promoted to national and international visitors. The last two chapters will explore connections between the Brazilian counterculture and new social and political movements that emerged in the late 1970s, when civil society activism against the regime was revived. Chapter 4 will examine the specifically black urban counterculture associated with the so-called Black Rio movement. Black Rio was a cultural phenomenon that brought together predominantly black, working-class youth from Rio’s north zone for dance parties featuring soul and funk music from the United States. Chapter 5 explores social and cultural practices that challenged traditional conventions of gender and sexuality in Brazilian society.
In the late 1970s, emergent feminist and gay movements succeeded in expanding the range of leftist political debates to include discussions around gender roles, sexual desire, corporeal pleasure, and other issues previously regarded as personal or private and therefore outside the realm of the political. When it erupted in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the Brazilian counterculture alarmed the military regime and its conservative supporters, as well as many Brazilians who defended traditional behaviors and values. Those affiliated with the left-wing opposition tended to see the counterculture as a lamentable and irresponsible abdication of political struggle. The turn away from the politics of national liberation toward individual quests for personal self-realization involved displays of self-indulgence and narcissism, but it also set in motion transformational processes and movements in Brazilian society that sought to expand the boundaries and redesign the contours of politics.
Coelho, Frederico. Eu, brasileiro, confesso minha culpa e meu pecado: Cultura marginal no Brasil nas décadas de 1960 e 1970. Rio de Janeiro: Civilização Brasileira, 2010.
Dunn, Christopher. Brutality Garden: Tropicália and the Emergence of a Brazilian Counterculture. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001.
Langland, Victoria. Speaking of Flowers: Student Movements and the Making and Remembering of 1968 in Military Brazil. Durham: Duke University Press, 2013.
Napolitano, Marcos. “A MPB sob suspeita: A censura musical vista pelo ótica dos serviços de vigilância política (1968-1981).” Revista Brasileira de História 24, no. 47 (2004): 103-26.
Perrone, Charles. Seven Faces: Brazilian Poetry since Modernism. Durham: Duke University Press, 1996.
Ross, Kristin. May ’68 and Its Afterlives. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002.
Ventura, Zuenir. 1968: O ano que não terminou. Rio de Janeiro: Pedra Q Ronca, 1977.
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Tropicalismo Fifty Years Later
In music, it denoted not a particular style, but rather an approach toward the Brazilian song tradition, international pop, and cultural modernity. Tropicália was a cultural response to the specific contradictions and tensions of Brazilian uneven modernity. At the time, Brazil was ruled by a military dictatorship, which entered its most repressive phase in 1968. The regime was committed to a program of conservative modernization, an array of economic, social and political measures that favored industrial development and infrastructural modernization, but invested little in programs fomenting social equality. The tropicalists advanced an irreverent critique of authoritarian rule and conservative social values, but were generally not regarded as proponents of ‘protest music.’
The core group of tropicalist musicians – Caetano Veloso, Gilberto Gil, Tom Zé, and Gal Costa – were from the northeastern state of Bahia and began to perform together in the state capital, Salvador, in 1964. After migrating south in the mid-1960s, the so-called grupo baiano formed a creative alliance with São Paulo-based artists, including a group of avant-garde composers, most notably Rogério Duprat and the psychedelic rock band Os Mutantes, featuring Rita Lee, Arnaldo Baptista, and Sérgio Baptista. They also befriended the concrete poets, most notably Augusto and Haroldo de Campos, who championed their work and schooled them on Brazilian and international avant-garde traditions. On one level, tropicalist music may be understood as a convergence of musicians from Bahia, a center of Afro-Brazilian culture, and from São Paulo, the largest and most industrialized Brazilian city. In the genesis of Tropicália, Rio de Janeiro also played a role, most notably in the realm of the visual arts. The Carioca experimental artist Hélio Oiticica coined the term Tropicália as the name of an environmental installation, or ambiente, created for the exhibition Nova Objetividade Brasileira of 1967. After Veloso appropriated the title for one of his own compositions, it came to designate a range of cultural interventions.
Veloso and Gil achieved critical and popular acclaim in the 1967 TV Record festival with the songs "Alegria, Alegria" (Happiness, Happiness) and "Domingo no Parque" (Sunday in the Park) respectively, which they described as the som universal or “universal sound.” Left-wing nationalists rejected the tropicalists’ music largely because they were using electric instruments and incorporating elements of rock, which the nationalists associated with U.S. cultural imperialism. Both songs initially met with disfavor among sectors of the live audience, which typically favored performances with acoustic instruments that drew heavily on Brazilian musical traditions. In the final round, Gil and Veloso won over the audience with songs backed by rock musicians using electric instruments, but were still recognized as essentially “Brazilian.” Within a few months, the musical movement initiated by Veloso and Gil was renamed "tropicalismo" in the national press.
In 1968–69 the tropicalists issued several solo albums and one collective manifesto, Tropicália, ou Panis et Circensis (1968), a concept album inspired by the Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Tropicália was not a new genre or style, but rather a pastiche of diverse musical forms, national and international, dated and ultra-modern. At its core, tropicalist music may be understood as a rereading, both reverential and ironic, of the tradition of Brazilian popular song in relation to international pop music and avant-garde experimentation. The tropicalists drew from a wide variety of musical traditions, including samba, bossa nova, baião (a northeastern dance music), capoeira music, British invasion rock, psychedelia, Brazilian iê-iê-iê (rock and roll), Spanish American bolero and cha cha chá, and classical music. They were interested, above all, in the phenomenon of pop music and its relation to youth culture, consumer society, and musical tradition. Some of the most important tropicalist songs, such as Veloso’s "Tropicália," Gil’s "Geléia Geral" (General Jam), and Tom Zé’s "Parque Industrial" (Industrial Park), may be understood as national allegories that juxtapose signs of underdevelopment and backwardness with signs of ultra-modernity. In an interview with the literary critic Marjorie Perloff at the 2016 Modern Language Association Convention, Veloso explained that Brazil was an underdeveloped, predominately rural nation with high rates of illiteracy, which made pop songs particularly influential, or as he put it, "culturally strong." The tropicalists were acutely attuned to the structural changes brought on by the military regime, its development program and its repressive mechanisms and found incisive ways of representing these transformations and their effect on everyday life in Brazil.
In their musical project, the tropicalists found theoretical support in antropofagia (cultural cannibalism), first formulated and articulated by modernist provocateur Oswald de Andrade in his "Manifesto Antropófago" (Cannibalist Manifesto) of 1928. They had been introduced to the work of Andrade by the concrete poets, who were then re-editing his works and reviving his critical and poetic legacy. For Andrade, the conceit of cannibalism, inspired by coastal Indians known to devour their captive enemies including Portuguese colonizers, provided a model for cultural production that was neither subservient to metropolitan trends in Europe nor defensive or narrowly nationalistic. For the tropicalists, the idea of cannibalism provided a model for revitalizing the Brazilian song tradition in light of contemporary developments in international pop.
Although the tropicalists were most vehemently criticized by artists and critics of the nationalist left, they also aroused the suspicions of the military regime for their anarchic, countercultural attitude toward authority. In late December 1968 Veloso and Gil were arrested, put in a military prison and then confined to house arrest in Salvador until they departed for exile in London, where they would stay until 1972. By 1969 Tropicália was over, but some of the fundamental qualities that oriented its practice – the critical dialogue with international cultural practices and projects and the attempt to fuse avant-garde practices and popular culture – continued to inform artistic practice in Brazil into the twenty-first century. Furthermore, nearly all of the tropicalist musicians continued to be active as professional musicians, public intellectuals, and cultural agents. The voracious eclecticism of the tropicalist project, once so startling to nationalist critics, is now the dominant paradigm for Brazilian popular music. The recent ascension of right-wing forces, denounced by some on the left as a parliamentary coup, has also occasioned a reconsideration of authoritarian rule, its lasting legacy, and the forms of resistance and critique that pushed back against it.