It may sound a bit frivolous to say I became a Brazilianist because I fell in love with the bossa nova, but that is absolutely true. But that is only the beginning. My brother Averill, college roommate Jeff Berkowitz and I were all into jazz, and we made a habit of going to Saturday jazz concerts, that went from 2-5 am at the Adams West Theater--where they showed Japanese films during normal hours, in downtown Los Angeles. At 5, we would head straight to the beach in Santa Monica to watch the sun come up and get some sleep and later lunch on the famous lemonade and corn dogs at Muscle Beach.
The bossa nova is a fusion of Afro-Brazilian music and jazz. Who can forget the Stan Getz and Joao Gilberto album, with Astrud Gilberto singing The Girl from Ipanema? I am glad that another high school - college friend, Steve Einstein, one of the Pacoima boys, reminded me recently that we had also seen the French made movie Black Orfeus together which introduced me to the magic and appeal of Brazilian carnival. This inspired me to study Portuguese at UCLA for a year with a very nice professor named Mr. Dias. (Mr. Dias, being Portuguese and not Brazilian, was quite formal. I remember him saying "In Lisbon, I would not think of going to mail a letter without wearing a coat and tie." An event at UCLA would also set the stage for my interest in Brazil, a lecture in 1964 by a controversial Brazilian politician and journalist, Carlos Lacerda. I still have notes from that lecture, and it led me to write a term paper on him when I got to graduate school. Lacerda, a right wing figure, had tormented long time Brazilian strong man Getulio Vargas. A failed attempt on Lacerda's life in 1954, blamed on Vargas's coterie, led to Vargas's eventual suicide that same year.
Although I studied about Brazil at Columbia, University, I had no idea how I would ever get there. After joining the State Department as a Foreign Service officer, instead of going to Latin America, I went to Vietnam (a whole other story), but Vietnam was my ticket to Brazil. At the end of my 18 month assignment to Vietnam, a grateful nation asked me where I would like to be assigned. My answer was "Brazil, preferably Rio de Janeiro." And that is where I was sent, following some additional Portuguese language training in Washington. I then spent the next two years, with an unusual 6 month temporary assignment back to Vietnam in the middle of it, in Rio.
As I young vice consul in Rio, I learned the benefits of diplomatic and consular service abroad. I arrived in Rio in mid 1972, was met at the airport by my boss and the two other members of the Consulate staff, driven straight to a beautiful 3 bedroom apartment overlooking Guanabara Bay and the Sugarloaf mountain, and before long, I was driving a beautiful Brazilian-made car, a Volkswagen with the lines of a Jaguar, called an SP-2. Before departing Rio, two years later, I would win the hand of Yeda, a "nice Jewish girl.....from Ipanema" and begin an adventure together. I was not in the least the most important officer at the US Consulate General in Rio de Janeiro, but I did get to know quite a few politicians and leaders. I was the person most likely to visit university campuses, minor opposition leaders and to read 10 or 12 local newspapers to find out what was going on before deciding what major events to follow, who to go out and meet, and on which issues to report back to Washington. I also was the one to travel out of Rio to visit other cities and states in the consular district. Once asked to represent the Ambassador at the local Rose Parade in the town of Barbacena in the big state of Minas Gerais, I stopped off in the medium sized city of Juiz de Fora and met an energetic young mayor, Itamar Franco, who some fifteen years later would become the President of Brazil only because as Vice President, he succeeded the first popularly elected president since the military seized power, young Fernando Collor de Mello, impeached over corruption charges that led to his resignation.
Although only a short trip by hydrofoil across Guanabara Bay from the city-state and former national capital of Rio de Janeiro, officially called Guanabara state , the city of Niteroi, also the capital of the State of Rio de Janeiro, was rarely visited by US officials, and I had the whole state pretty much to myself. I interviewed a governor who had a history of belonging to the Brazilian equivalent of the Nazi Party (the Integralist Party). Many people did not understand why the Brazilian government had decided to "fuse" the city and state of Rio de Janeiro into a single state and build a very expensive Rio-Niteroi bridge across the span separating the two cities. To me it was obvious: a) the military-ruled Federal Government wanted to dilute the power of the opposition in Guanabara, the only state under nominal opposition party rule; b) there was so much corruption in the State of Rio de Janiero that the easiest way to clean up the problem was to simply "fuse" the state out of existence; and c) an argument could be made for economic advantages to improving transport between the land masses on both sides of the Bay, using political integration to drive economic integration and the development of the relatively backward hinterland of Rio de Janeiro. This may sound like a matter of little concern to the United States Government, but this was the type of issue that was of importance in the evolution of Brazil's former national capital.
Probably the most interesting political process that I covered in Rio was the coming to power of the new military government of Gen Ernesto Geisel in 1974. Geisel had been selected through a sham process which guaranteed control by the military and the old elites, but he was a different kind of military leader. Already retired, he had run the big state-controlled Brazilian petroleum company Petrobras, was far more Germanic than Brazilian and brought to office a more strategic view of his Presidency than the rather crude and repressive Medici government. Geisel appointed as he chief advisor the former head of Brazil's intelligence service, the SNI, a former general by the name of Golbery Cuoto e Silva, a noted geopolitical thinker who had served as the head of Brazil's Superior War College. Following his selection, Geisel spent several months in transition in Rio without going to Brasilia where ideas about his plans for the future government were systematically leaked to Rio's press. Nobody could meet these people. Their aparatus was impenetrable. However, over the weeks, I stitched together, based on press reports, the idea that the Geisel government planned to institute a path to a political "opening." It was during this period also that occasionally American political scientist Samual Huntington of Harvard, came to town to advise the Geisel government. If Huntington told the US Consul General of his involvement, I am unaware, but it was clear to me that his advice was having an impact on the regime. My only contact with him was when the CG brought him by my office and asked me to help him buy a Brazilian parrot and work out the legalities of shipping it to the U.S. , which I did. As far as I know, the parrot is still alive. What nobody could imagine, however, was that it would take the Brazilian military--already in power a decade in the guise of civilian appointed governments of retired military officers--ten more years to carry out the policy of "distensao," , relaxation or liberalization in English, which it described as "slow, gradual and sure." It is difficult to believe that duirng a total of only 16 months in Rio (my six month temporaty re-assigment to Vietnam was subtracted from my two years assignment in Rio), I was able to cover these rather important issues, meet a future President and find and marry the love of my life, but that is how it worked out.