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Rio's Next Mayor Could Be Gabeira, Who Kidnapped U.S. Ambassador in '69

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Brazilian congressman Fernando Gabeira, a member of the Partido Verde (Green Party), will officially announce his candidacy for mayor of Rio de Janeiro today. He stands a good chance of winning the October election, given his high popularity. Gabeira has a reputation for being honest, ethical and uncorrupted, qualities that are in short supply in Brazil's government. He is also still notorious for having participated in the kidnapping of American ambassador Charles Burke Elbrick in 1969, an episode that was recounted in the 1997 film Four Days in September, in which Alan Arkin portrayed Elbrick.

That event took place when Gabeira, a journalist, was a member of the revolutionary group MR8, which opposed the Brazilian military dictatorship that ruled the country from 1964 to 1985. The generals had come into power in a U.S.-backed coup that overthrew a democratically elected government.

According to E. Bradford Burns, in his book A History of Brazil, "The Brazilian military received approval in their planning and execution of the coup from the United States government and the large U.S. military mission in Brazil. So committed was the U.S. government that it dispatched warships to Brazil at the end of March in case they were needed...Washington considered [President] Goulart to be far too radical, unfriendly to foreign businesses and investment, and a potential danger to hemispheric security." The naval task force traveled to Brazil under cover of a training exercise, and was part of a larger American plan code-named "Operation Brother Sam." As it turned out, Big Brother's participation wasn't necessary. The military initiated the coup on March 31, '64, removed Goulart from office, and purged the Congress.

Flashing forward to '69, the guerrillas freed Elbrick after the government agreed to release political prisoners in exchange for him. One might consider the kidnapping a terrorist act, but it is certainly no worse a crime than indirectly helping to overturn a democracy and giving support to a fascist regime that took away rights and killed and tortured thousands of dissidents. The United States government still owes Brazilian citizens an apology for such meddling (which included prior CIA aid to Goulart's opponents).

Gabeira was later caught, imprisoned, and then freed in another prisoner exchange, this time for the kidnapped West German ambassador. He lived in exile for ten years, returning to Brazil in 1979 when there was a political amnesty. He wrote about his experiences with MR8 in a bestselling book titled O Que É Isso, Companheiro? (What Is This, Comrade?), the basis for Four Days in September, which was directed by Bruno Barreto and received an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Film.

Gabeira entered politics and was one of the founders of Brazil's Green Party. He gained attention with his campaigns for women's rights and gay rights, for protection of the environment and for the decriminalization of marijuana. He had an unsuccessful run for governor of the state of Rio de Janeiro in 1986, then was elected a federal deputy (the equivalent of a representative) in 1995. In his 2006 re-election, he received the most votes of any deputy in the state. He is extremely popular in Rio's "Zona Sul," the southern part of the city that includes Copacabana and the wealthy neighborhoods of Ipanema and Leblon. Although Brazil is enjoying economic growth, Rio de Janeiro is plagued by high crime, a crumbling infrastructure, and poor neighborhoods ruled by either drug gangs or mafia-like "militias" formed by crooked cops.

Gabeira is just the sort of honest, progressive candidate Rio needs, if he can maintain his uncorruptibility. He fought against the obscene pay hikes the Brazilian congress awarded itself (they already have bloated payrolls for staffs and enormous expense allocations). And he led the successful drive to remove Severino Cavalcanti, the head of the house of deputies (representatives), who was accused of corruption. In his mayoral campaign, Gabeira stands a good chance to win, as he will have the backing of his own Green Party and the more powerful PPS and PSDB parties (President Lula is with PT, the Worker's Party).

Gabeira has not been allowed to step foot into the United States since the kidnapping. Even if he wins the mayoral election, he may not be able to arrange a visa at the American consulate in downtown Rio. That's a shame. If Brazil can forgive Uncle Sam for its "Brother Sam" activities, then the U.S. can grant a visa to Gabeira, a former guerrilla who could be a bright hope for a troubled city.