The Post-Vargas Republic, 1954-64

Brazil Table of Contents

If corporatism was the hallmark of the 1930s and 1940s, populism, nationalism, and developmentalism characterized the 1950s and early 1960s. Each of these contributed to the crisis that gripped Brazil and resulted in the authoritarian regime after 1964. At the core of the crisis was the continued unwillingness of the elite to share the benefits of Brazil's wealth with the majority of the people. By the early 1960s, the crisis was boiling in reverse, from the top down. The crisis had much more to do with elite fears of a mass uprising, supposedly instigated by international communism, than with the reality of social revolution. They, rather than the masses, believed the fiery rhetoric of leftist-populist politicians. What elites elsewhere might have seen as popular democratic mobilization, the Brazilian elites saw as revolutionary change that threatened their well-being. Because they portrayed their well-being as the same as the national well-being, and because they controlled the state and the instruments of power, they responded with a counterrevolution, what historian Joseph Page labeled "the revolution that never was."

Labor became more active in seeking to improve the status of the working class, and the population continued to grow beyond the state's ability to expand educational and social services. As a result, conservative elites feared that they were losing control of politics and of the state. The elites had opposed Vargas because he sought to use the state to spread benefits more broadly. The middle classes tended to identify with elite visions of society and to see the lower classes as a threat. Curiously, the term povo (people), which had meant the lowest class, the destitute, the squatters, the rural poor, had changed by the early 1950s to mean the politically active and economically mobile urban lower classes. Further, politicians appealed to the povo during election campaigns but once elected directed government benefits principally to the middle and upper classes.

Juscelino Kubitschek (1956-61), the only post-Vargas elected president to serve a full term, soothed opponents by avoiding the emotional appeals of the populists. Even so, his common touch reached millions, and his developmentalist and nationalist visions stirred the Brazilian imagination. Kubitschek co-opted the military by involving it in the decision-making process and by adequately funding it. He pushed the creation of an automotive industry, which in a generation would result in Brazil's leaping from the bull cart and mule train era into that of the internal combustion engine. The new factories turned out 321,000 vehicles in 1960. The great highway network of the late twentieth century and the world's eighth-largest automobile production are his legacies. And he yanked Brazil away from its fascination with the coast by moving the capital to Brasília in a new Federal District (Distrito Federal) carved out of then-distant Goiás. Thanks to the changes in transportation and the growing availability of motorized farm equipment, the vast countryside of Goiás and Mato Grosso would be cultivated in the next decades, and Brazil would become the world's number-two food exporter. The overall economy would expand 8.3 percent a year. There was a lot of truth in his government's motto: "Fifty Years' Progress in Five."

Brazil of 1960 was very different from that of 1930. The population, which had been 33.5 million in 1930, was now 70 million, with 44 percent in urban areas. A third of all Latin Americans were Brazilian. Life expectancy had improved noticeably. The number of industrial workers had more than doubled from a 1940 level of 1.6 million to 2.9 million, and the industrial share of GDP was higher (25.2 percent) than that of agriculture (22.5 percent). The underside of such progress was a continuous swelling of urban slums and inflation. The annual rate of inflation rose from 12 percent in 1949 to 26 percent in 1959, and then zoomed to a shocking 39.5 percent in 1960. Savings depreciated, lenders refused to offer long-term loans, interest rates soared, and the government refused to undertake orthodox, anti-inflationary programs styled after those of the International Monetary Fund (IMF--see Glossary). Moreover, the disparities between rich and poor remained, with 40 percent of national income enjoyed by 10 percent of the population, 36 percent going to the next 30 percent, and 24 percent being divided among the poorest 60 percent of Brazilians. Before national wealth could be redistributed, however, development had to be maintained.

Brazil had the potential, but it lacked the hard currency necessary to pay for the imports needed to sustain swift industrialization. Either it could cut imports, thereby paralyzing factories and transportation, or it could stop repayments on foreign loans and profit remittances from foreign investments. With such unpalatable alternatives, it is not surprising that Brazilian governments had difficulty formulating an economic plan that would both satisfy creditors and keep trade flowing.

The populist administrations of Jânio Quadros (January-August 1961) and João Goulart (1961-64) expanded the term povo once again to embrace the rural poor, thereby producing the image of a budding proletariat ready to join a reformist government against elite privilege and United States imperialism. Quadros, a former governor of São Paulo, could not keep his promise to sweep out corruption, because his bid for more presidential power ended with his sudden resignation on August 25, 1961. He had assembled a makeshift political coalition that gave him an impressive electoral margin but did not give him enough influence in Congress to get his legislation passed.

Frustrated, he planned to restructure the government, but before he could act, Carlos Lacerda, governor of Guanabara (the old Rio de Janeiro Federal District), revealed that Quadros intended to close Congress, decree reforms, and get the people's blessing in a plebiscite. Quadros and Lacerda clashed over the issue of an independent foreign policy. Such a policy, which Quadros supported, emphasized new markets for Brazilian products and a strong stance in favor of the developing world, while maintaining relations with the United States but refusing to isolate Cuba. Lacerda was particularly critical of Quadros's pro-Cuba policy. Quadros resigned believing that the military would be unwilling to allow Vice President João Goulart, a populist and former minister of labor under Vargas, to assume the presidency. Quadros hoped that his action would shock the povo into taking to the streets to demand his reimposition and would spur the military into pressuring Congress. He then flew to São Paulo, where he spent the next day at a military base waiting for the summons to return, but instead the head of the Chamber of Deputies was sworn in as acting president. People were shocked, but they tended to feel betrayed by Quadros rather than believe that "terrible forces" had risen against him. On that Friday in August 1961, the republic of 1945 began its painful death.

Instead of worrying how to restore Quadros, the politicians and military leaders focused on Goulart's succession. An uneasy country awaited Goulart on his return from a trade mission to China. Congress refused to agree to the request of the military ministers that it disavow his right to the presidency. His brother-in-law, Leonel de Moura Brizola, the fiery governor of Rio Grande do Sul, and the regional army commander announced that their forces would defend the constitution. The threat of civil war was ominous. Instead, a compromise changed the constitutional system from a presidential to a parliamentary one (1961-63), with Goulart as president and Tancredo de Almeida Neves of Minas Gerais as prime minister. In the next months, Goulart, chafing at the attempt to turn him into a figurehead, made heated appeals to the masses to mobilize in his favor. Goulart secured victory in a 1962 plebiscite, which restored the presidential system in January 1963. Unhappily, Goulart interpreted the five-to-one margin as a personal mandate, as opposed to a mandate for the presidential system.

Goulart's relations with the United States went from uneasy, when he visited President John F. Kennedy and gave a speech to the United States Congress in April 1963, to frigid, when President Lyndon B. Johnson took over in Washington in November 1963. The United States, smarting from Fidel Castro's radicalization of Cuba, resented Brazilian unwillingness to isolate Havana and became obsessed with peasants organizing in the impoverished Northeast. Washington poured millions of dollars directly into that region's states, bypassing Goulart's government. The regional elites happily accepted United States aid to expand their autonomy vis-à-vis Brasília.

Goulart carried his populism too far when he backed proposals for noncommissioned officers to hold political office and when he appeared sympathetic to rebelling sergeants in September 1963. The officer corps believed that the president was undermining discipline, thereby threatening military institutions.

Minister of Army General Amaury Kruel complained that the army had been subjected to a "survival" budget since 1958 and that most of its armaments and equipment were either obsolete, beyond repair, or required replacement. In 1962 every regional army headquarters reported that it was not in condition to hold regular exercises, and many officers concluded that their efforts were useless because of a generalized "disbelief and lack of incentive." General Kruel alerted President Goulart that inadequate funding was creating a "calamitous situation" in which the army was being "economically and financially asphyxiated."

The right and the military charged that Goulart's call for reforming legislation was merely a cover for a radical nationalist takeover. Publicly, they organized study groups, formed a shadow government, orchestrated an intense press campaign, and staged street marches. Secretly, they armed large landowners (fazendeiros ) in the countryside, developed plans to neutralize opposition and to topple the government, and sought help from the United States. The military was again about to break the bonds of obedience to a national government. The argument was that the armed forces should support any government as long as it was democratic.

Such logic grew more persuasive as political mobilization gripped the society. Peasant land seizures and urban food riots contributed to a sense of impending chaos. Brizola bragged foolishly that he had a 200,000-strong peoples' militia organized in groups of eleven. The opposition charged the government with arousing a "state of revolutionary war." In the months before March 1964, the staff and student officers of the Army General Staff School (Escola de Comando de Estado-Maior do Exército--ECEME) played a key role in convincing officers that they should support a move against Goulart. Even the highly respected chief of staff, Marshal Humberto de Alencar Castelo Branco, joined the conspiracy. Castelo Branco had served as FEB operations officer in Italy, director of studies at ECEME, and long-time head of the War College. The officers believed that rational economic development, internal security, and institutional well-being would occur only if economic and political structures were altered, and that the civilian leaders were unwilling to make the necessary changes. They believed that the left was so well-organized that the conspiracy might fail. They had plans to flee Brazil in that case, and United States officers had promised that they would receive training and logistical support to return to wage a guerrilla war.

Struggling to keep the impatient left on his side and to stave off the right, Goulart opted for a series of public rallies to mobilize pressure for basic reforms. In a huge rally in Rio de Janeiro on March 13, 1964, Goulart decreed agrarian reform and rent controls and promised more. A counter rally against the government, held six days later in São Paulo, put 500,000 people marching in the streets. Sailors and marines in Rio de Janeiro, led by an agent provocateur of the anti-Goulart conspiracy, mutinied in support of Goulart. However, Goulart mishandled the incident by agreeing that they would not be punished and that the navy minister would be changed. The uproar was immediate. Rio de Janeiro's Correio da Manhã published an unusual Easter Sunday edition with the headline "Enough!" It was followed the next day, March 30, with one saying "Out!" In the next two days, the military moved to secure the country, and Goulart fled to Uruguay. Brizola's resistance groups proved an illusion, as did the supposed arms caches of the unions and the readiness of favela residents to attack the wealthy. The period of the military republic had begun.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress