The Old or First Republic, 1889-1930

Brazil Table of Contents

The founders of the Brazilian republic faced a serious question of legitimacy. How could an illegal, treasonous act establish a legal political order? The officers who joined Field Marshal Deodoro da Fonseca in ending the empire were violating solemn oaths to uphold emperor and empire. The officer corps would eventually resolve the contradiction by linking its duty and destiny to Brazil, the motherland, rather than to transitory governments. In addition, the republic was born rather accidentally: Deodoro had intended only to replace the cabinet, but the republicans manipulated him into fathering a republic.

The Brazilian republic was not a spiritual offspring of the republics born of the French or American revolutions, even though the Brazilian regime would attempt to associate itself with both. The republic did not have enough popular support to risk open elections. It was a regime born of a coup d'état that maintained itself by force. The republicans made Deodoro president (1889-91) and, after a financial crisis, appointed Field Marshal Floriano Vieira Peixoto minister of war to ensure the allegiance of the military. Indeed, the Brazilian people were bystanders to the events shaping their history. In the last decades of the nineteenth century, the United States, much of Europe, and neighboring Argentina expanded the right to vote. Brazil, however, moved to restrict access to the polls. In 1874, in a population of about 10 million, the franchise was held by about 1 million, but in 1881 this had been cut to 145,296. This reduction was one reason the empire's legitimacy foundered, but the republic did not move to correct the situation. By 1910 there were only 627,000 voters in a population of 22 million. Throughout the 1920s, only between 2.3 percent and 3.4 percent of the total population voted.

The instability and violence of the 1890s were related to the absence of consensus among the elites regarding a governmental model; and the armed forces were divided over their status, relationship to the political regime, and institutional goals. The lack of military unity and the disagreement among civilian elites about the military's role in society explain partially why a long-term military dictatorship was not established, as some officers advocating positivism (see Glossary) wanted. However, military men were very active in politics; early in the decade, ten of the twenty state governors were officers.

The Constituent Assembly that drew up the constitution of 1891 was a battleground between those seeking to limit executive power, which was dictatorial under President Deodoro da Fonseca, and the Jacobins, radical authoritarians who opposed the Paulista coffee oligarchy and who wanted to preserve and intensify presidential authority. The new charter established a federation governed supposedly by a president, a bicameral National Congress (Congresso Nacional; hereafter, Congress), and a judiciary. However, real power was in the regional pátrias and in the hands of local potentates, called "colonels" (coroneis ; coronelismo --see Glossary). Thus, the constitutional system did not work as that document had envisaged. It would take until the end of the decade for an informal but real distribution of power, the so-called politics of the governors, to take shape as the result of armed struggles and bargaining.

Article 14 on the military was particularly important for the future. It declared the army and navy to be permanent national institutions responsible for maintaining law and order and for ensuring the continuance of the three constitutional powers. Officers insisted on the statement of permanent status because they feared that the elites would disband their services. The armed forces were to be the moderator of the system, and military officers were Brazil's only constitutionally mandated elite. The article also required the military to be obedient to the president but "within the limits of the law." Thus, the armed forces were to obey only if they determined a presidential order to be legal. Oddly, military officials were less than enthusiastic about discretionary obedience, which they saw as subversive; the civilian politicians, however, wanted it as a check on presidential power. Interestingly, the constitutions of 1934 and 1946 kept the discretionary clause unaltered. However, the 1937 constitution of the dictatorial Estado Novo, which was a military regime in civilian dress, put the military securely under obedience to the president.

In the election that followed the adoption of the new constitution in 1891, Deodoro da Fonseca and Floriano Peixoto were elected president and vice president, respectively, but with the former gaining only 129 votes and the latter 153. The first president, Deodoro da Fonseca, had difficulty adjusting to sharing power with Congress and, in imperial fashion, dissolved it in November 1891, provoking rebellions in the navy and in Rio Grande do Sul. To mollify the opposition, he resigned in favor of Vice President Peixoto (acting president, 1891-94). Peixoto, known as the "Iron Marshal" (marechal de ferro ), ousted all the state governors who had supported Deodoro, provoking violence in many parts of the country. One of the bloodiest of these struggles was the civil war that exploded in Rio Grande do Sul in 1893 and soon spread into Santa Catarina and Paraná, pitting former monarchist liberals against republicans. Concurrently, the fleet in Guanabara Bay at Rio de Janeiro challenged Peixoto, and the naval revolt quickly became linked to the struggle in the South. Peixoto's diplomat in Washington, Salvador de Mendonça, with the help of New York businessman Charles Flint, was able to assemble a squadron of ships with American crews, which proved decisive in ending the standoff in Guanabara Bay. The United States government, interested in Brazilian commerce and in the republic's survival, permitted this mercenary effort to occur and sent several cruisers to provide a barely concealed escort. This was the first documented American intervention in Brazil's internal affairs, and significantly it was organized privately.

Deodoro da Fonseca's dissolution of Congress, his resignation, Peixoto's assumption of power, and the outbreak of civil war split the officer corps and led to the arrest and expulsion of several senior officers. Although the power struggles that produced the fighting in Rio Grande do Sul during 1893-95 were local in origin, Peixoto made them national by siding with republican Governor Julio de Castilhos. The savage combat and the execution of prisoners and suspected sympathizers, in what historian José Maria Bello called the "cruelest of Brazil's civil wars," was shameful on both sides. Peixoto's fierce defense of the republic made him the darling of the Jacobins and from then on a symbol of Brazilian nationalism. In November 1894, because of his ill health (he died in 1895) and the military's disunity, Peixoto turned the government over to a spokesman for the agrarian coffee elite, São Paulo native Prudente José de Morais Barros, also known as Prudente de Morais, the first civilian president (1894-98). Prudente de Morais negotiated an end to the war in the South and granted amnesty to the rebels and the expelled officers. He weakened the army's staunchest republicans and sought to lower the military's political weight. He promoted officers committed to creating a professional force that would be at the disposal of the national authorities, who would determine how it was to be employed. A General Staff (Estado Geral), established in 1896 on the German model, was to shape this new army.

However, before the new army could take shape, it was used in 1897 to destroy the religious community of Canudos in the sertão of Bahia, which the Jacobins thought mistakenly was a hot-bed of monarchist sedition. The Rio de Janeiro government, which saw monarchists everywhere, threw a force of 9,500 against a population of perhaps 30,000. Some 4,193 soldiers were wounded between July and October 1897, and the townspeople were killed, taken prisoner, or fled. Canudos was erased in the same fashion that Indian villages had been and continued to be erased. Although the campaign's symbolic value as a defense of the republic faded as the reality became known, it remained a powerful warning to marginal (marginality--see Glossary) folk throughout Brazil that they would not be permitted to challenge the hierarchical order of society. In this sense, Canudos was a step in creating mechanisms of social control in the postslavery era.

Canudos affected the political scene immediately when a returning soldier, the foil in a high-level Jacobin conspiracy, attempted to assassinate President Prudente de Morais but killed the minister of war instead, thereby acting as a catalyst for rallying support for the government. The abortive assassination made possible the election of Manuel Ferraz de Campos Sales (president, 1898-1902). In the army, the attempt consolidated the hold of generals who opposed Floriano Peixoto and were interested in professionalizing the institution.

The turmoil of the 1890s and particularly Canudos suspended the military's capability to exercise the moderating role that it supposedly inherited from the monarchy. By 1898 the rural-based regional oligarchies had regained command of the political system. Their fiscal policies reflected their belief that Brazil was an agricultural country whose strength was in supplying Europe and North America with coffee, rubber, sugar, tobacco, and many natural resources. Brazil produced 75 percent of the world's coffee. With competition increasing, however, prices fell continually, causing the government to devalue the currency against the British pound. This devaluation forced up the price of imported goods, thus lowering consumption and government tax revenues from imports. Those shortfalls led to suspension of payments on the foreign debt, and the generally poor economy caused half of the banks to collapse. The oligarchy responded to the situation by attempting to preserve its own position and by limiting national industry and infrastructure to that necessary to support the agricultural economy. The society that the economy underlay was one in which the elites regarded the majority of the people merely as cheap labor. The elites encouraged immigration to keep labor plentiful and inexpensive, although they also wanted to "whiten" the population. They considered public education of little use and potentially subversive.

The political system that took shape at the beginning of the twentieth century had apparent and real aspects. There was the constitutional system, and there was the real system of unwritten agreements (coronelismo ) among local bosses, the colonels. Coronelismo , which supported state autonomy, was called the "politics of the governors." Under it, the local oligarchies chose the state governors, who in turn selected the president.

The populous and prosperous states of Minas Gerais and São Paulo dominated the system and swapped the presidency between them for many years. The system consolidated the state oligarchies around families that had been members of the old monarchial elite. And to check the nationalizing tendencies of the army, this oligarchic republic and its state components strengthened the navy and the state police. In the larger states, the state police were soon turned into small armies; in the extreme case of São Paulo, French military advisers were employed after 1906.

The "politics of the governors" kept a relative peace until the end of World War I. Urban Brazil, the one foreigners saw from the decks of ships, prospered. But there was no integrated national economy. Rather, Brazil had a grouping of regional economies that exported their own specialty products to European and North American markets. The absence of overland transportation, except for the mule trains, impeded internal economic integration, political cohesion, and military efficiency. The regions, "the Brazils" as the British called them, moved to their own rhythms. The Northeast exported its surplus cheap labor and saw its political influence decline as its sugar lost foreign markets to Caribbean producers. The wild rubber boom in Amazônia lost its world primacy to efficient Southeast Asian colonial plantations after 1912. The national-oriented market economies of the South were not dramatic, but their growth was steady and by the 1920s allowed Rio Grande do Sul to exercise considerable political leverage. Real power resided in the coffee-growing states of the Southeast (Sudeste)--São Paulo, Minas Gerais, and Rio de Janeiro--which produced the most export revenue. Those three and Rio Grande do Sul harvested 60 percent of Brazil's crops, turned out 75 percent of its industrial and meat products, and held 80 percent of its banking resources.

One factor that eventually would draw "the Brazils" closer together was the heightened sense of nationalism that developed among the urban middle and upper classes before World War I. This sense of nationalism can be explained partially by the Brazilian elite's focus on Rio de Janeiro as the center of their world. Although the national government was weak, it was still the source of prestige and patronage. Rio's sanitation projects and its remodeled downtown (1903-04) were soon copied by state capitals and ports.

The elites had reason to think that Brazil's status in the world was rising. In 1905 the archbishop of Rio de Janeiro received Latin America's first cardinalate. Brazil hosted the Third Pan-American Conference, raised its Washington legation to an embassy (1904), sent a notable delegation to the Second Hague Peace Conference (1907), gained possession via arbitration of hundreds of thousands of square kilometers of disputed territory, established the Indian Protective Service, tied together the far reaches of the country via telegraph, and purchased two of the world's largest dreadnoughts for its navy. Many cheered writer Afonso Celso when he asserted that the era was "the dawn of our greatness . . . . We will be the second or first power of the world."

However, the enthusiasm was not sufficient to overcome the resistance of Brazilians of all levels to military service. When an Obligatory Military Service Law was enacted in 1908, it went unenforced until 1916. Military service was unappealing because members were called on continually to take up arms. During the presidency of Marshal Hermes Rodrigues da Fonseca (1910-14), nephew of Deodoro da Fonseca, turmoil spread across Brazil. In 1910 sailors protesting extreme physical punishments in the navy seized the new dreadnoughts São Paulo and Minas Gerais and some smaller vessels in the bay at Rio de Janeiro and threatened to bombard the city. Hermes da Fonseca was forced to grant the rebels their demands and to give them amnesty.

The image of national stability with which the earlier Campos Sales administration had tried to dazzle foreign bankers also was shattered by a series of military interventions, known as the Salvations, that replaced a number of state governments. The national government, somewhat against Hermes da Fonseca's inclination, sponsored what amounted to coups d'état against state governments in Sergipe, Pernambuco, Alagoas, Pará, Piauí, Bahia, and Ceará. In disorderly fashion, one oligarchic alliance substituted for another, often with an army officer in charge. In the disastrous case of Bahia, the local army commander bombarded the governor's palace and surrounding buildings. In 1911 São Paulo's French-trained Public Force (Força Pública) and civilian Patriotic Battalions saved the city from similar federal intervention.

Struggling to keep control of the army, Hermes da Fonseca replaced the minister of war three times in sixteen months and forced the retirement of about 100 colonels and generals. But to keep them from rebelling, they were all retired at higher ranks and salaries. The Brazilian political system was not so much one of compromise as of co-optation. With this internal army purge, the Salvationist Movement spent itself, and the tide turned away from federal military interventions to replace dominant regional oligarchies toward neutrality or preserving the status quo. The movement can be seen as a messy attempt to reduce state autonomy and to heighten the power of the central government.

Meanwhile, the vision of Brazilian order and progress as seen by the urban elite, intellectuals, and newspaper editorials was challenged again by the supposedly anarchic sertão , this time in the South. In August 1914, as world attention focused on the outbreak of war in Europe, a very different conflict burst forth in the Contestado region of Santa Catarina. A popular rebellion, also known as the Contestado, confronted the "colonel"-dominated socioeconomic and political system. Where the Salvationist Movement aimed at substituting one oligarchy for another, the Contestado rebels rejected the national system and wanted to remake their part of the Brazilian reality. As with Canudos, the response of state and federal authorities was pulverizing violence.

The region's economy was based on livestock, the collection of maté, and lumbering. Its social structure concentrated wealth and power in the hands of a few "colonels," around whom lesser landowners were arrayed. Most families lived at the sufferance of those men or had shaky land titles. A jurisdictional dispute between Santa Catarina and Paraná arose because each state issued deeds to the same land. The no-man's-land attracted fugitives from throughout Brazil. The construction of the São Paulo-Rio Grande do Sul Railroad and the timbering and colonization operations of United States capitalist Percival Farquhar added foreign elements to the already volatile mix. The Brazil Railroad and the Southern Brazil Lumber and Colonization Company forced Brazilians off their expropriated lands, imported European immigrants, and sawed away at virgin pine, cedar, and walnut trees. People whose families had lived in the region for a century suddenly saw their lands rented or sold to others. As if that were not enough, in 1910 the threat of war with Argentina loomed, and authorities speeded the railroad's construction and expanded labor crews to about 8,000. In this environment of tumultuous destruction of the forests, social tensions rose with evictions and the sudden introduction of foreigners and modern technology. The local "colonels" secured their own interests, abandoning their customary paternalism and leaving the mass of people adrift. The Contestado was afflicted with a collective identity crisis, which caused many to turn to messianic religion as solace.

The people of the Contestado followed a local healer, Miguel Lucena Boaventura, known as José Maria, who soon died in a confrontation with Paraná Military Police. His followers refused to accept his death, however, and believed that he was either alive or would rise again. His story mixed with the Luso-Brazilian belief in supernatural assistance in desperate times. This phenomenon, called Sebastianism, transformed the submissive population, accustomed to acting only with the "colonel's" approval, into a resolute fighting force. Their attacks on the railway and lumbering operations and the failure of negotiations with federal authorities led to an escalation of hostilities in 1912 and a fierce military campaign that in 1915 involved 6,000 troops, modern artillery and machine guns, field telephones and telegraph, and the first use of aircraft in a Brazilian conflict. The fighting was spread over a wide area, and the many redoubts of about 20,000 "fanatics," as the army called them, made suppression slow and difficult and also revealed the military's weaknesses. The number of casualties was uncertain but sizeable, and henceforth the army maintained a garrison in the region. The Contestado was subdued by the end of 1917.

Army reformers, a key group of whom returned from training in Germany by the end of 1913, wrote commentaries on the campaign in the new military monthly, A Defesa Nacional . They regarded the Contestado as "an inglorious conflict that discredited our arms." They blamed the republic for its "lack of elevated political norms, the abandonment of thousands of Brazilians . . . segregated from national society by the lack of instruction, by the scarcity of easy means of communication, by the want of energy, and by the poverty of initiative that, unhappily, has characterized the administrations generally since the time of the monarchy." They warned military leaders that "the lesson of the Contestado" was that the army's passivity in accepting poorly conceived political measures would only damage it "morally" and would bring Brazil "the most funereal consequences."

The Contestado joined Canudos as an important component in the army's institutional memory. Veterans played meaningful roles in military and national affairs in the next decades. Within a few years, the reformist critique would be part of the thinking that underlay the tenente or lieutenants' revolts of the 1920s, beginning with the Copacabana Revolt in 1922. The Salvationist Movement and the Contestado drew the army and the central government deeply into the internal affairs of the states, thereby whittling away at their coveted autonomy. The era's legacy of political intervention and suppression of dissent muddied the army's mission and self-image, but it amplified the power of the central government (Rio de Janeiro).

The growing power of Rio de Janeiro was reflected in Brazilian foreign affairs under the guidance of José Maria da Silva Paranhos, the Baron of Rio Branco, who served as foreign minister from 1902 to 1912, under presidents Francisco de Paula Rodrigues Alves (acting president, 1902-3; president, 1903-6), and Afonso Pena (1906-9), Acting President Nilo Peçanha (1909-10), and President Hermes da Fonseca. His vision shaped both the boundaries of the country and the traditions of Brazilian foreign relations. In the heyday of international imperialism, he was instrumental in negotiating limits over which the great powers were not to intrude. He argued for military reform to back up energetic diplomacy, and he began the process of moving Brazil out of the British orbit and into that of the United States. The latter was taking half of Brazil's total exports by 1926, but Brazil still owed Britain over US$100 million in the mid-1920s. British banks financed the country's international commercial exchange, and British investors provided 53 percent of the total foreign investment until 1930. But by the late 1920s, United States banks held nearly 35 percent of the foreign debt. Rio Branco's goal, which was pursued by his successors, was to diffuse the country's dependency among the powers so that none could intervene without being checked by another. Trade and financial ties with the United States were increased at British expense, and these would be balanced by military links with Germany and then France. France would continue for decades to provide a cultural model for the elites.

The Rio Branco years were the basis for what became known as the Itamaraty tradition (named after the building that housed the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Rio de Janeiro), but not every administration grasped its purpose. Some confused its tactical aspects--reliance on foreign loans and investments, Pan-Americanism, and alliance with the United States--with its essential substance, the quest for independence and national greatness.

World War I found Brazil with nearly half of its army committed in the Contestado. The war in Europe was traumatic for the army, which was then beginning a reorganization under the influence of thirty-two officers who had recently returned from service in German army units. A German military mission had been expected, but pressure from São Paulo and from Paris resulted in a mission contract with France instead. Economics, Washington's decision to enter the war, and German submarine attacks on Brazilian merchant ships pulled Brazil into the conflict on the Allied side. The military mobilized, but the generals, feeling over-committed and ill-prepared, declined to send troops to Europe.

Pan-Americanism provided some outlet for Brazil's international status pretensions, but the period between the world wars often found its neighbor Argentina suspicious of harmless improvements in Brazil's armed forces. Brazil's obligatory military service, its construction of new barracks, its purchases of modern weapons, and its contracts for a French military mission and a United States naval mission were viewed by military officials in Buenos Aires as threatening. Brazilian leaders wanted their country regarded as the most powerful in South America but understood that the public would not accept, and the constitution outlawed, a war of aggression. Regardless of what the Argentines thought, the military was not prepared to wage a foreign war. Tension between Argentina and Brazil and maneuvering for greater influence in Paraguay and Uruguay have been characteristic of their relations since the War of the Triple Alliance.

The interwar years in Brazil saw an increase in labor agitation as the economy expanded, industrialization and urbanization stepped up, and immigrants flowed into the country. Coffee overproduction by the turn of the century had provoked subsidization programs at the state and national levels that helped the planters but could not prevent the decline in the economy's capacity to pay for imported manufactured goods. Local industry began to fill the gap. World War I restricted trade further, and Brazilian industrial production increased substantially. The government stressed the need for more industrial independence from foreign producers and stimulated import substitution, particularly in textiles. Many of the factories were small, with an average of twenty-one workers. In 1920 about a million urban workers were concentrated in Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo. Brazil was just beginning to develop its industrial base, but it was still mainly an agricultural country with 6.3 million people working the soil.

The living conditions of urban workers were bad. Housing, transportation, sewerage, and water supply trailed far behind the rapid population growth and produced serious public health problems. The clean-up campaigns at the beginning of the century struck at the high incidence of yellow fever, malaria, and smallpox in Rio de Janeiro, Santos, and Northeastern seaports. The city centers were made safer, but the workers who crowded into sordid "beehives" (cortiços --small crowded houses) and favelas (shantytowns) suffered all sorts of ailments.

The federal and state governments subsidized immigration from Italy, Portugal, Spain, Germany, and Japan to provide workers for the coffee plantations. However, many immigrants soon fled the rough conditions in the countryside for better opportunities in the cities. They flooded the labor pools, making it difficult for unions to force factory owners to pay better wages. Women, who were the majority of workers in the textile and clothing industries, were frequently active in organizing factory commissions to agitate for improved conditions, freedom from sexual abuse, and higher pay. Strikes had occurred in 1903, 1906, and 1912, and in 1917 general strikes broke out in Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo, Recife, Santos, and Porto Alegre. Because the mentality of the industrialists was rooted in the slavery era and emphasized their well-being over that of the commonwealth and because they functioned on a thin profit margin, they tended to fire workers for striking or joining unions. The industrialists also blacklisted troublemakers, employed armed thugs to keep control inside and outside the factories, and called on the government to repress any sign of labor organization. There were no large massacres of strikers, as occurred in Mexico and Chile, but the physical violence was marked.

Some advocates of reform were heard. For example, economic nationalists like Roberto Simonsen argued for improved pay incentives to prevent individual workers from unionizing. During the 1920s, the Roman Catholic Church, as part of its effort to revive its status, organized the Young Catholic Workers and preached the example of the Holy Family accepting "the will of Providence, in pain and in happiness." By 1930 church societies, private charities, factory-sponsored recreational clubs, and government agencies strove for more control over workers' organizations and leisure time.

During the Old Republic, Brazil changed at a frightening rate. As its population increased 162 percent between 1890 and 1930, it became more urbanized and industrialized, and its political system was stretched beyond tolerance. Concern over the resurgence of labor activity in the late 1920s was one of the factors that led to the collapse of the Old Republic in 1930 and to the subsequent significant change in labor and social policy.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress