‘The dictatorship ruined this country’: how the coup


‘The dictatorship ruined this country’: how the coup

“I think the dictatorship ruined this country for a long time and keeps ruining it to this day.” Paulo Freire, one of Brazil’s greatest thinkers on education, said in an interview with TV Cultura’s Matéria Prima show at the end of the 1980s. The country had recently overcome more than two decades of military dictatorship.

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Freire was one of the most important intellectuals attacked by the 1964 coup. He was investigated, arrested and then exiled to Chile. He was classified as an enemy of the Brazilian people and subversive, a commonly used term to refer to leftist people or those with a social approach to their work. The reason? Paulo Freire himself recalls in the same interview.

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“I think many of you are curious, for example, about what happened in 1964 to a man who, due to his concerns about developing a plan – an adult literacy program for the country – was arrested.”

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In the second episode of the series “Futuro interrompido: as consequências da ditadura militar para o Nordeste” (Future interrupted: the consequences of the military dictatorship for the Northeast region), Brasil de Fato presents details of Paulo Freire’s experience in developing a method of adult literacy, which promised to eradicate illiteracy in the country and offer a new perspective for the region. In addition, we will look at the project that the military adopted as a substitute for Freire’s plans and the impact of the coup on Brazilian education.

The 40 hours of Angicos 

To look closer at the consequences of the coup on Paulo Freire’s ideas, we went to Angicos, a town with just over 11,000 residents in the semi-arid region of Rio Grande do Norte state. Despite its small size, the place became huge in 1963 and gained national prominence. It was there that Freire put into practice the so-called “40 hours of Angicos” experience, an initiative to teach reading and writing to young people and adults from a people’s perspective. 

“He said ‘Grandma, I think you’re so famous’. I said ‘Why, my son?’ He replied ‘Because you studied with Paulo Freire and I wanted so much to see him, to meet him.’ I said ‘There’s a photo.’ Every day he comes in and says ‘Because you studied in Paulo Freire’s classes, I find your things so interesting, grandma.’” 

That’s part of the memories of Maria do Ferreiro, 76, one of the students who attended Paulo Freire’s classes. With some difficulty, she remembers those days when she was only 17. Essential memories remain. She and her sister, Valdice Ivonete da Costa Santos, 75, were part of the group of 300 people who went through Freire’s innovative method. In just 40 hours, young people and adults were literate.

Paulo Freire was invited by the then governor of Rio Grande do Norte, Aluízio Alves, to work on a method to teach adults to read and write. He planned to develop a statewide initiative to help overcome illiteracy in the region. Initially, Freire would test his new ideas in Angicos. If the experiment succeeded, the government would adopt the method as state public policy. 

The ideas that would make Angicos famous worldwide had already been tried out in Pernambuco state. In the 1950s, Freire was part of the People’s Culture Movement (MCP, in Portuguese), an action that brought together diverse intellectuals in Recife, Pernambuco’s capital city, with a single goal: to raise people’s awareness through culture and education, intensifying a people’s literacy program.

The MCP gained momentum after Miguel Arraes’ election as mayor of Recife in 1959, who led the government with a sensitive approach to people’s demands.

“Within the framework of the People’s Culture Movement, he [Freire] began to develop a literacy method – later called a literacy system – with experiences in Recife’s mocambos, which we now call favelas, palafitas, those houses on the banks of rivers, in the flooded areas,” explains professor Dimas Brasileiro. 

“He did not adopt lectures. Instead, he creates a circle of debate with these industrial workers who are experimenting with people’s education. Freire realizes that this approach is much more effective both in the process of teaching and learning specific content, but also as a process of formation, of raising awareness of social issues,” summarizes Dimas.

To Paulo Freire, “there isn’t more or less knowledge: there are different knowledges”/ Photo: Reprodução

A popular and critical method

Paulo Freire arrived in Angicos in 1963, a year before the military coup. He brought with him a group of volunteers, including undergraduate students, professionals from various fields and people committed to the idea of people’s literacy. 

The classes were innovative. They respected the local environment and the culture of the workers. Initially, the group carried out a kind of survey of the vocabulary of the local population. The aim was to identify the main subjects of workers’ daily lives. Then, the group chose the so-called “generator words”, the first words the students learned to read and write in the project. 

As well as combining phonemes, the students also interpreted the reality in which they lived. The meetings lasted an hour a day, with topics that were part of the reality of people historically excluded.

The classes took place simultaneously in various places in the town, many of them unusual, as researcher Victor Souza, from the Federal Rural University of the Semi-Arid (Ufersa, in Portuguese), recalls. 

“The culture circles took place at various places. There was a group that used to meet at the police station, another at José Rufino [School] and there was another one at Alto da Esperança. There may have been others.”

“Here in Angicos, it was an experiment that worked. That’s why it ended up being designed to be applied throughout Brazil, a plan later broken by the establishment of the military dictatorship in Brazil,” concludes researcher Ana Aires, also from Ufersa.

Monument erected in Angicos in honor of Paulo Freire’s project /Afonso Bezerra

An idea interrupted by the coup 

The success of the project made João Goulart, the deposed Brazilian president, try to replicate the formula nationally. He visited Angicos to take a closer look at the project, during the ceremony to mark the conclusion of the classes and was encouraged by the idea of implementing it in other states.  

In May 1964, the government intended to launch the National Literacy Plan, inspired by Freire’s thinking. The expectation was that more than a million people would learn to read and write that year, through more than 60,000 circles of culture. 

Everything was canceled by the military dictatorship. Researcher Mariana Parise Brandalise, from the University of Caxias do Sul, revealed a conversation between General Humberto Castelo Branco and journalist Calazans Fernandes, the then Secretary of Education in Rio Grande do Norte, about Paulo Freire’s experience in Angicos. Castelo Branco allegedly said: “Young man, you’re fattening rattlesnakes in these lands.” Calazans Fernandes immediately replied: “It depends on which heel they bite, general.”

The military’s concern was that once literate, workers would put in place rights they hadn’t had before. One of the main achievements would be the right to vote, only granted to people who couldn’t read in 1985. In addition, Freire’s lessons guided the students towards awareness of labor rights. The 40 hours in Angicos confronted the privileges of many large landowners in Northeast Brazil. 

A few months after the experience in Angicos, the military coup of 1964 took place. Paulo Freire became one of the regime’s main enemies. The atmosphere of conspiracy spread fear among students. Rumors were disseminated that the classes were a communist experiment.

“They said they were going to send people, authorities, to burn the notebooks and even arrest him [Freire]. It was a huge revolution in the town,” recalls former student Valdice, about the mood that prevailed among the participants when news broke that Freire could be arrested by the dictatorship. 

Edited by: Thalita Pires

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