In response to:
The Mystery of Chico Mendes from the March 28, 1991 issue
To the Editors:
While I found the recent reviews by Kenneth Maxwell of the various books about Chico Mendes [NYR, March 28], including my own, to be excellent, fair, and most informative, there is just one small point I would like to clarify. This concerns his questions about Euclides Távora, the revolutionary ex-officer Chico Mendes met as a young man on the rubber estate where he lived. Maxwell writes: “Távora told Chico Mendes that he had been part of the Prestes Column,… But Távora’s participation seems unlikely, since he would have been far too young at the time.” Maxwell adds that no one seems to have attempted to verify the claims about Távora.
I would just like to mention that what Chico Mendes told me was that Távora had taken part in the attempted communist insurrection led by Luis Carlos Prestes in 1935, not the Prestes Column twelve years earlier. What sources the other authors might have used I do not know since none of them, except Adrian Cowell, had the opportunity to even meet Chico Mendes before he was killed.
Távora’s participation in the 1935 insurrection did not seem odd to me. Most of the insurgents, from what I have read of it, were idealistic young army officers, and many were imprisoned afterwards. If Távora were about twenty at the time of the Rebellion, he would have been forty-nine when he disappeared in 1964. Chico also gave me the impression that Távora returned to Brazil and lived in the forest not so much because he had fears about his politics, but more for philosophical, or perhaps psychological, reasons. I also think that is why he only worked with the young Chico Mendes, rather than with as many young men as he could find, as he should have.
In the end, yes, Távora is quite an enigma, as are many aspects of Chico’s life. I would, of course, very much like to have known more about Chico whom I came to consider a good friend, but had no idea at the time how quickly and tragically our friendship would come to an end.
Kenneth Maxwell replies:
Augusta Dwyer’s testimony is very welcome. Mendes does seem to have changed his story about Euclides Fernando Távora. Adrian Cowell in his book The Decade of Destruction reports that Mendes told him he had seen a photograph of Euclides Távora with the Prestes column (p. 178-179). Later Mendes placed Távora with the 1935 insurrectionists. Dwyer’s account parallels what Chico Mendes said during a two-and-a-half hour interview recorded in late November and early December 1988 shortly before his murder. This recording was later transcribed and published with additional material by Tony Gross as Fight for the Forest: Chico Mendes in his Own Words (New York, Monthly Review Press, 1990), p. 16. Here Mendes said of Távora:
…he began to tell me something about himself. One night he told me [he] had been in the army, that he had been a lieutenent in 1935. He and some of his colleagues had joined the movement led by Luís Carlos Prestes at that time….
The reason I spoke about verification is that none of this need remain a matter of speculation. Brazil is not a country without records (in fact it is a country which is suffocated by official documentation). It ought to be possible to check in the military archives and the court records to see if a Euclides Fernando Távora was or was not an army lieutenant in 1935.
Professor Robert Levine of the University of Miami, the leading authority on the 1935 revolt, put me in touch with Peter Beattie, a graduate student currently working in the military archives in Brazil. Peter was able to check the army lists of the period in question. He writes from Rio de Janeiro:
“…The name Euclides Fernando Távora is not listed in the index of the Almanaque do Ministério de Guerra for the years 1931–39. This almanac has been published annually by the army’s Estado Maior since the nineteenth century. It lists all active duty officers. If Sr. Távora participated in the 1935 insurrection, it is highly unlikely he did so as a career officer.
“Other slim possibilities exist. First, in 1935 Távora could have been a student at the Escola Militar, the source of all of Brazil’s career officers during this period. If this were the case, however, he would not have held the rank of lieutenant…. If he participated in the insurrection as a student, it is highly unlikely that he would have graduated from the military academy to later become an officer. A list of graduates and their commissions would have registered in the Almanaque.
“Second, Távora may have held the rank of subtenente (roughly, almost a lieutenant). This was the highest rank reserved for skilled officials in the army’s bureacratic class who rose from the ranks of sergeants, corporals, and soldiers (by the 1930s, most subtenentes had studied at the Escola dos Sargentos established in the 1910s).
“In the 1930s, the noncommissioned ranks were particularly politically active. They were crucial to the success of the 1930 revolution: some later participated in the 1935 revolt, and others became involved in the integralista movement. Sergeant Baptista’s rise to power in Cuba in 1933 worried the Brazilian high command almost as much as Castro’s revolution would unsettle officers a generation later. Non-commissioned officer’s political activity was a prime target of a high command seeking to depoliticize the armed forces, particularly after the Estado Novo was declared. In short, it would be plausable that Távora was a subtenente.
“However, subtenente was a rank reserved for those who pursued a career as a noncommissioned officer in the 1930s. Your time frame suggests that Távora was a young man (early twenties) in 1935. It is highly unlikely that he could of reached the rank of subtenente at such a young age.
“A similar publication to the Almanaque began to be published (apparently sporadically) for noncommissioned officers in the 1930s, the Annuário dos Subtenentes and Sargentos do Exército. The army archive only has one copy of this publication for the 1930s, covering the year 1936…but the name Euclides Fernando Távora does not appear in this volume….
“It seems that Távora’s participation in the 1935 insurrection as an army officer (i.e., active lieutenant) was an invention of his own or Chico Mendes’s imagination….”
In light of Augusta Dwyer’s comments and Mr. Beattie’s research, it is perhaps worth recalling how Cowell describes his own reactions to Chico Mendes’s account of Távora, as well as Chico Mendes’s claim to have met Che Guevera. Cowell writes on page 179 of Decade of Destruction:
That night, as I lay in my hammock listening to distant calls in the forest, I thought that no revolutionary could have had a more prophetic start. It was the stuff of legend, like the boy Arthur pulling the sword, Excaliber, from its stone. And though, of course, his meeting with Euclides had just been luck, Chico’s frequent telling of this story, and Che’s, did imply that was how he saw himself—as part of the great, international army of the left, fighting to liberate the working class from capitalism.
I would also like to take this occasion to note a clarification I have received from Laura Renshaw, Grants Manager for OXFAM America, concerning Tony Gross, the OXFAM representative who played an important role in the Chico Mendes story. Ms. Renshaw writes:
You refer to Tony Gross as being responsible for all OXFAM Amazon projects. Mr. Gross is the representative of OXFAM UK-Ireland (OXFAM-UKI), one of the seven autonomous OXFAM’s worldwide. OXFAM America has a separate Amazon program concentrated in Ecuador, Bolivia and Peru.
November 7, 1991