Known as the "cavalier of hope", Prestes led the failed tenente rebellion of 1922, a legendary revolt by the largely middle class officer corps and poor conscripted servicemen against the agrarian oligarchies who dominated Brazil's Old Republic (1889-1930). In many respects a forerunner of Che Guevara, Prestes continued the insurrection, leading the legendary but futile "Long March" through the rural Brazilian interior where it was joined by the broad segments of Brazil's eighty percent peasant majority.
The tenente revolt heralded the end of the politics of café com leite and coronelismo and the beginning of social reforms. Eight years later, the 1930 Revolution would bring down the Old Republic. Joined by many moderate tenentes, but not Prestes, the Revolution of 1930 installed Getúlio Vargas as provisional president. Although an ex-tenente himself, Vargas was a far more conservative figure.
Under Getúlio Vargas, Prestes turned to Marxism while in exile in Buenos Aires. In the 1930s he would go on to lead the Aliança Nacional Libertadora (ANL), a leftwing popular front launched in 1935 of socialists, communists, and other progressives led by the Communist Party in opposition to Vargas' crackdown against organized labor.
Getulio Vargas, then Brazil's anti-Communist president, would thus look to a form of authoritarianism that could suppress his enemies on the left, led by Prestes, through violence and state terror to survive with his coalition intact during the agitated years unfolding after 1934. Thus, Vargas, now allied with the all agrarian oligarchies, with an established network of economic and political power, and the Integralists (a fascist movement with a mass, popular support-base in urban Brazil), forced the Brazilian Congress to respond to the growth of the Communist movement.
Congress branded all leftist opposition as "subversive" under a March 1935 National Security Act that allowed the President to ban the ANL, which was forced—reluctantly—to begin an armed insurrection in November. The authoritarian regime, like its fascist counterparts in Europe, responded by imprisoning and torturing Prestes and violently crushing the Communist movement through the state terror of the European police states. By mid-1935 Brazilian politics were drastically destabilized. In July 1935 the government moved against the ANL, with troops raiding offices, confiscating propaganda, seizing records, and jailing leaders. Vested with its new emergency powers, the federal government imposed a crackdown on the entire left—with arrests, torture, and summary trials.
Vargas, seeking to co-opt Brazil's fascist movement/paramilitary known as Integralism, led by fascist thug Plínio Salgado, tolerated a tide of anti-Semitism, and might have targeted Prestes' wife to appease his new supporters. Vargas deportated the pregnant, Jewish wife of Luís Carlos Prestes to Nazi Germany, where she would die in a concentration camp.
After Vargas started abandoning fascist-style autocracy in 1945 following his the rapprochement with the World War II Allies in 1943, all political prisoners were released, including Luís Carlos Prestes. Prestes gave an astute assessment of Vargas' politics, commenting, "Getúlio is very flexible. When it was fashionable to be a fascist, he was a fascist. Now that it is fashionable to be democratic, he will be a democrat."
And Prestes was right. Vargas astutely responded to the newly liberal sentiments of a middle class that was no longer fearful of disorder and proletariat discontent by moving away from fascist repression—promising "a new postwar era of liberty" that included amnesty for political prisoners, presidential elections, and the legalization of opposition parties—including the moderated and irreparably weakened Communist Party.
In 1945 Vargas was ousted by the hard-right in the military because of these moves and the Communist movement would be persecuted once again. The Party, however, would make another comeback following Brazil's move toward democratization in the 1950s and early 1960s.
Under the presidency of João Goulart (1961-64)—a protégé of Getúlio Vargas and another gaúcho from Rio Grande do Sul, the closeness of the government to the historically disenfranchised working class and peasantry and even to the Communist Party under none other than Luís Carlos Prestes was equally remarkable. Interestingly enough, Goulart appeared to have been co-opting the Communist movement in a manner reminiscent of Vargas' co-optation of the Integralists shortly—and not coincidentally—before his ouster by reactionary forces. Once again, Prestes would be imprisoned and the Communist movement would be persecuted.
The experience, however, of the failed tenente rebellion and Vargas' suppression of the Communist movement left Prestes and some of his comrades skeptical of armed conflict for the rest of his life. His well-cultivated skepticism would later help precipitate the permanent schism between hard-line Maoists and orthodox Marxist-Leninists in the Brazilian Communist Party in the early 1960s. Prestes went on to lead the pro-Soviet faction of the party known as the Brazilian Communist Party or PCB while the Maoists were reintegrated into the Communist Party of Brazil or PCdoB. While the Maoists went underground and engaged in urban combat against the military dictatorship after 1964, Prestes' faction would not.
Prestes later abandoned the PCB without renouncing Marxism. He died in 1990.