The forgotten story of the workers exiled during Brazil’s dictatorship

The forgotten story of the workers exiled during Brazil's dictatorship

The French-Brazilian author Mazé Torquato Chotil is the author of “Workers in exile – the saga of the Brazilians forced to leave (1964-1985)”.

(Bryan Carter)

Published in French in 2015 and in Portuguese in 2016, Workers in exile – the saga of the Brazilians forced to leave (1964-1985) by the French-Brazilian researcher Mazé Torquato Chotil, tells the story of the workers and trade unionists exiled to South America and Europe during the Brazilian dictatorship.

While the political exile of artists, intellectuals and students has been the subject of many books already, this unprecedented survey, carried out as part of the historian’s work on her thesis, records how exile took place and what the consequences were for these men and women of the people, the workers from the factories and the fields, activists and trade unionists, at a time when individual and freedoms were severely repressed by the ruling junta.

During the dictatorship, some 10,000 people were forced to leave Brazil, often for their own safety but also after being banned by the authorities. The individuals from the working class were a minority, about 20 per cent according to the researcher. Her survey also includes unskilled workers, the lowest ranking soldiers and some rural workers.

From Salvador Allende’s Chile to the feverish post-May 1968 Paris, via the training camps of Cuba, the author looked at the challenges of surviving abroad on usually very few resources, as individuals with little or no education sought to adapt culturally and linguistically. She also shows how the exiles learnt from the experience of their foreign friends and from seeing the developments in trade unionism in Europe and elsewhere.


During the dictatorship, how and why did some Brazilians find themselves banned from their own country and what were the consequences for these people?

This practice began after the first foreign ambassadors were taken hostage by activist opponents of the dictatorial regime. It was their way of seeking the release of their imprisoned comrades. The first target was the American ambassador, Charles Burke Elbrick, kidnapped in Rio de Janeiro in 1969.

In exchange for his release, the regime liberated 15 activists from prison, including the trade unionist José Ibrahim, leader of the first big strike of the dictatorship years. The political prisoners were expelled to Mexico, and then Cuba.

But the military then found an old decree that had been used to banish the Portuguese royal family in the 19th century. There were several hostage takings and a total of 130 people were banished. Those banished lost their Brazilian nationality, leaving them stateless and unable to return to Brazil.

In my study, which only looks at people from the working class, about half went into exile before being banned (52 out of a sample of 127 exiles). It was only after an amnesty law was passed in 1979 that they were able file an appeal to recover their nationality.


How did the proclamation of Decree AI-5 (Ato institucional cinco) in 1968 mark a turning point in the dictatorship and trigger a wave of exiles?

The military regime’s decree suspended political and trade union freedoms, banning political demonstrations and rallies.

Habeas corpus was suspended for political crimes and attacks on the security of the state. From that moment, the police gave themselves free rein to do whatever they liked, including torture and summary executions. It was the beginning of the “years of lead”.

For worker activists and trade unionists it became very difficult to stay. The period between 1969 and 1972 saw the highest number of departures, due to both banishments for hostage taking and forced departures in the wake of police threats.


How did you mange to trace the exiles? Which was the personal history that affected you the most?

It took me four years to do the research, because there were either no written documents or they had been destroyed. Brazil has an oral tradition and that applies all the more to the population group I was studying, who were not used to putting things in writing.

Furthermore, at the time some documents could have been extremely dangerous if they had been discovered by the police. So I had to go to meet the people in person. Some had died in exile or after their return. On the other hand, many were very young at the time (48 per cent were under 30).

All the stories I tell are very touching, but often it is the women’s stories that are the most striking: the companions of the male activists who had to flee the country, with no money and very young children, and also the female activists, such as Imaculada Conceição de Oliveira, from metalworkers union Contagem (Minas Gerais). She took part in one of the first major strikes in 1968, at an important time in the history of trade unionism, and was sent to prison. This young woman had started work at the age of 14, she had never been able to go to school. She was exiled to Chile where she worked in the mines, then went to Cuba to study.

It was a path that many of the exiled workers followed: they had to work in exile because they did not have a family that could send them money. They studied when the opportunity was before them, because in Brazil they had not been able to do so, being either too young or too poor.

Many found themselves facing exile after exile, when they had to change host country. I am thinking particularly of all the Brazilians who found themselves in Chile during the Allende years and who left following the coup d’état. For most of them this was both a physical and psychological wrench, but it was also a time to enrich their experience, discovering the world, learning new things, meeting new people.


How did the European and trade unionists and exiled Brazilian trade union activists influence each other during this time?

There were two types of exiles: the “old” trade unionists, of communist persuasion, who tended to go to the East (USSR, China), and the younger ones who preferred to go to Latin America, mainly Chile, and then Europe.

In Paris, they established links with the French Democratic Confederation of Labour (Confédération française démocratique du travail, or CFDT). First out of solidarity between trade unionists, but also because the French wanted to understand what was happening in Brazil, where there were already a lot of European companies.

The Brazilian exiles received training from the European national trade union centres. The links and contacts established at this time led, for example, to the visit by a representative of the CFDT to Brazil after the dictatorship to mark the foundation of the Single Workers’ Centre (Central Unica dos Trabalhadores, or CUT) and the Workers’ Party (Partido dos Trabalhadores, or PT).

Some of the exiles started to return from the end of the 1970s to take part in the burgeoning trade union opposition in the working class districts of São Paulo, helping to create new structures and training their colleagues.

The friendly relations between the Brazilian trade union movement and the European trade union movement continue today. The international committees that conduct collective bargaining with French, German, Japanese or Swedish car manufacturers were created thanks to those relations.

This story has been translated from French.