Ho Chi Minh, hero of the Vietnamese revolution, passed away on September 2, 1969. At the time of his death, the war in his homeland was still ongoing. But the Vietnamese resistance had already turned the tide against the US imperialist invasion.
In his youth, the communist militant who later became president of North Vietnam had traveled around the world as a ship’s cook. This episode remains little known, at least relative to his later life. And even less known is the fact that in the early 1910s this work led him to visit Rio de Janeiro.
The Brazil he saw was deeply unequal. Yet Rio was also a city full of hope and struggle — an environment which itself helped to shape one of the twentieth century’s leading revolutionaries.
When Ho was born in 1890 under the Christian name Nguyễn Sinh Cung, Vietnam simply wasn’t on the map. The region was known as “Indochina” — the curious and generic Western term to designate everything that was “between India and China,” i.e., the current Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam. At the time, the country was directly colonized by the French, as it had been since 1887.
Across centuries of imperialist domination, ports had been seized by the colonizers, who then slowly advanced inland through Catholic religious missions, establishing their total domination. These were times when Europeans worked to carve up Africa and Asia in a cruel, racist, dogged struggle.
In 1911, faced with political persecution by the colonial authorities, Ho was forced out of his homeland. Between this moment and his stay in Paris in revolutionary 1917, he lived countless adventures around the world. And one of the less known ones was in Rio. As Ariel Seleme explains — drawing on sources from the University of Hanoi — the young Nguyễn arrived in the city in 1912 because he had been left to die in its port, after contracting a mysterious disease aboard his ship.
In Rio, Ho found a fervid atmosphere. By the time of his arrival, slavery had already ended, but Brazil still saw the almost-total exclusion of the black population, the absence of labor rights, the silent decay of the Old Republic (1889–1930), and an intense social life. With its busy ports, Brazil took in not only cholera and other epidemics, but travelers and expatriates from all over the world. They brought new ideas, colors, and sounds from a country that doggedly continued to develop — despite its oligarchy.
Ho came to work in a restaurant in Lapa while living in the city’s Santa Teresa neighborhood. He frequently went back to the harbor to try to find a ship he could embark on, and regularly met with union leader José Leandro da Silva, a black cook from the Pernambuco state who worked in the port. The Brazilian militant had to confront racist authorities, who still applied punishments against black workers drawn from the time of slavery. Just two years earlier, the Revolt of the Lash had broken out in this same port, as black sailors rebelled against white officers who whipped them.
José Leandro’s struggle was later narrated by Ho in his article “International Solidarity” — a piece he wrote in 1921, nine years after passing through Rio. Here, he tells of how José Leandro led a strike in the port with two demands: an eight-hour working day and equal pay for blacks and whites. After throwing a policeman in the sea for not letting him get on a boat to agitate among the workers, José Leandro was surrounded by ten policemen and was shot eleven times, according to Ho’s article.
In the ambulance — even having been shot — José Leandro sang The Internationale. Later, the police authorities tried to incriminate the Brazilian militant for the death of an innocent man killed in the cross fire. But a solidarity movement built by workers and lawyers pressured the court to absolve him. Ultimately, the trade unionist won his freedom.
Impressed by the natural beauty of Rio, and its bohemian life, Ho was startled by a scenario of social degradation and emerging labor radicalism, where a peripheral capitalism intersected with a very recent history of slavery and socialism entered the ports along with the news — inspiring a strong union movement.
Although inspiring — and portrayed in the documentary O Rio de Janeiro de Ho Chi Minh — Ho’s passage through Rio was a short one. He soon got a ship that took him to Boston, in either September or October 1912. Only five years later did Ho finally settle in Paris, where he joined the French Communist Party. After World War I, he went to the Soviet Union and from there began his journey to return to Vietnam and fight the anti-imperialist struggle for the country’s independence.
The transformation of Nguyễn Sinh Cung into Ho Chi Minh — in Vietnamese, “the one who enlightens” — did not happen suddenly, and nor was it a purely personal process. This was part of the young Ho’s transformation and the revolutionary struggle that liberated modern Vietnam. We might say that Ho created Vietnam, but Vietnam had already created Ho. Indeed, if there was any good side of being born in the middle of the plague that was colonialism, it was that of having access to the whole world, through its shipping routes.
An iconic figure, Ho fought and defeated the imperialisms of France, Japan, and the United States. This record of struggle also sowed the seeds that would allow his people to guarantee its autonomy from the Chinese in the late 1970s, when socialist Vietnam resisted and defeated Cambodia’s barbaric Khmer Rouge regime.
Ho’s lesson was profoundly internationalist. With black Americans’ civil rights just won on the basis of a great struggle, the American working class stood up against the fact that their children were now being sent to kill and die on the other side of the world. This neocolonial war, like any such conflict, could only serve the powerful in the imperialist country.
Ho had already seen this in 1945, as the Vietnamese liberation movement had to confront both the Japanese — who had occupied Indochina, taking it from France — and the French themselves, supposedly on opposite sides to Tokyo. In the fight against the Japanese, the communist guerrillas had been part of the Allies. But unsurprisingly, after Tokyo’s surrender the winners of the war enlisted Japanese military help in restoring colonial rule over Vietnam, now in different terms.
Ho’s legacy of struggle teaches us that the revolution is necessarily internationalist. But it also tells us that internationalism doesn’t deny the need for national autonomy — and should be sensitive to the dangers of imperialism. It must always be remembered that the liberated Vietnam, hit by more American bombs than the Axis forces had dropped during World War II, was the very image of the “scorched earth.”
Today, Vietnam is a success story — it has a thriving economy and is a global model in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic. Although there is certainly a lot of work to build an effective socialism, the experience of the Vietcong, in the absolutely adverse conditions that they had to face, can never be underestimated. Ho’s struggle helps us remember that the victory of socialism is no utopian ideal — it’s a concrete and possible reality.