Luis Carlos Prestes, a major figure in Latin American history whose name was as synonymous with communism in Brazil as Vladimir I. Lenin’s was in the Soviet Union, died of a heart attack Wednesday.
He was 92.
Prestes, who participated in two armed uprisings in Brazil in the 1920s and was suspected of organizing an abortive revolt in 1935, had been in a coma at a Rio hospital for two days.
Prestes was secretary-general of his nation’s Communist Party and a Moscow-line follower for 37 years until he lost an internal dispute with reformists and left the post in 1980.
He had accused the Brazilian Communist Party of abandoning Marxist-Leninist dogma and eventually was expelled from the party in 1984.
In his final days, nearly penniless, Prestes was largely supported by architect Oscar Niemeyer, a long-time Communist sympathizer and designer of many buildings in Brasilia.
Born in the southern city of Porto Alegre, Prestes moved with his family to Rio de Janeiro, where he attended the prestigious Realengo military academy.
In the 1920s, Prestes took part in unsuccessful military uprisings against President Artur Bernardes, who was accused by critics of selling out national interests to England to pay the foreign debt.
In 1924, Prestes, an army captain, led rebel soldiers on a trek through Brazil’s remote interior to preach revolution. The legendary “Prestes Column” crossed 15,000 miles and 13 states, outmaneuvering and outfighting superior government forces. He became a popular hero.
Three years later, the Prestes Column with just 65 men crossed the border into Paraguay. In exile in Bolivia and Argentina, Prestes became a Marxist and moved to the Soviet Union.
In 1935, as head of the Brazilian Communist Party, Prestes returned to Brazil and led an unsuccessful uprising against the government of President Getulio Vargas.
The movement gave Vargas the excuse he needed to declare the “Estado Novo” dictatorship in 1937, and Prestes was sentenced to 46 years in prison.
After the dictatorship fell in 1945, Prestes was given amnesty and elected to the senate. Two years later the Communist Party was outlawed again and Prestes was forced into hiding.
He led opposition to a 1964 right-wing military coup, but in 1971 he fled the country for the Soviet Union. He returned with a new amnesty in 1979.
Prestes’ admirers called the quixotic revolutionary “The Knight of Hope,” and a book by that name was published about him.
In 1984, looking back on his life, Prestes said that “many people think I’m crazy. Most men who reach a certain age find their senses. In their youth, they are revolutionaries. Then they marry and must look after a family and settle down. But here I am at my age and I still haven’t got good sense.”
Prestes’ body was to lie in state at the Rio de Janeiro state assembly and will be buried at Rio’s Sao Joao Batista cemetery.
He is survived by his wife and 10 children.