The Era of Getúlio Vargas, 1930-54

Brazil Table of Contents

Just as the 1889 regime change led to a decade of unrest and painful adjustment, so too did the revolts of 1930. Provisional President Getúlio Dorneles Vargas ruled as dictator (1930-34), congressionally elected president (1934-37), and again dictator (1937-45), with the backing of his revolutionary coalition. He also served as a senator (1946-51) and the popularly elected president (1951-54). Vargas was a member of the gaucho-landed oligarchy and had risen through the system of patronage and clientelism, but he had a fresh vision of how Brazilian politics could be shaped to support national development. He understood that with the breakdown of direct relations between workers and owners in the expanding factories of Brazil, workers could become the basis for a new form of political power--populism. Using such insights, he would gradually establish such mastery over the Brazilian political world that he would stay in power for fifteen years. During those years, the preeminence of the agricultural elites ended, new urban industrial leaders acquired more influence nationally, and the middle class began to show some strength.

Tenentismo , or the lieutenants' rebellion against the army and governmental hierarchies, faded as a distinctive movement after 1931, in part because its adherents promoted the preservation of state autonomy when the trend toward increased centralization was strong. Individual lieutenants continued to exercise important roles, but they made their peace with the traditional political forces. In 1932 São Paulo, whose interests and pride suffered under the new regime, rose in revolt. The three-month civil war saw many officers who had lost out in 1930 or were otherwise disgruntled join the Paulistas, but federal forces defeated them.

A new constitution in 1934 reorganized the political system by creating a legislature with both state and social-sector representatives. It contained some electoral reforms, including women's suffrage, a secret ballot, and special courts to supervise elections. The Constituent Assembly elected Vargas president for a four-year term. However, the attempt to harness the revolution to the old system, somewhat remodeled, would soon fail completely and take Brazil into prolonged dictatorship. The left helped in that process by becoming a creditable threat. On misguided instructions from Moscow based on misinformation from Brazil, the Brazilian communists, led by a former tenente, staged a revolt in 1935, but it was rapidly suppressed.

In the 1930s, the civilian elites feared that Brazil would suffer a civil war similar to Spain's, and so for the first time in Brazilian history they supported a strong, unified military. The Estado Novo gave the army its long-held desire for control over the states' Military Police (Policia Militar) units. The elites of the old state pátrias gave up their independent military power in return for federal protection of their interests. This process was not always a willing one, as the Paulista revolt of 1932 showed, but federal monopoly of military force escalated the power of the central government to levels previously unknown. A significant turning point in the history of Brazil had been reached.

Under the Estado Novo, state autonomy ended, appointed federal officials replaced governors, and patronage flowed from the president downward. All political parties were dissolved until 1944, thus limiting opportunities for an opposition to organize. In the process, Vargas eliminated threats from the left and the right. At the local level, "colonels" survived by declaring their loyalty and accepting their share of patronage for distribution to their own underlings. The Vargas years had their greatest impact on national politics and economics and their least impact at the local level where the older forms of power continued well into the 1950s. Even in the 1990s, local political bosses were tagged "colonels." Vargas took care to absorb the rural and commercial elites into his power base. He had the ability to make former enemies supporters, or at least neutrals.

The Vargas years saw the reorganization of the armed forces, the economy, international trade, and foreign relations. The government restored the old imperial palace in Petrópolis and encouraged the preservation of historic buildings and towns. The average annual rise in the gross domestic product (GDP--see Glossary) was nearly 4 percent. Brazil's first steel mill at Volta Redonda (1944) was the start of the great industrial output of the second half of the century. The 1930-45 era added corporatism (see Glossary) to the Brazilian political lexicon.

Even as it channeled investment into industry, the Estado Novo classified strikes as crimes and grouped the government-controlled unions into separate sector federations that were not allowed to form across-the-board national organizations. The idea was to keep the lines of control vertical (vertical integration--see Glossary). The government decreed regular wage and benefits increases and slowly expanded an incomplete social security system. Its minimum wage levels were never satisfactory. The regime's propaganda touted state paternalism and protection and depicted Vargas as the benefactor of the working classes. He also was the benefactor of the factory owners, who saw industry expand 11.2 percent a year throughout the 1930s, which meant that it more than doubled during the decade. Indeed, growth and repression were the twin orders of the day. Journalists and novelists were censored, jailed, and discouraged. The army restricted access to the military schools to those with acceptable racial, familial, religious, educational, and political characteristics.

As a result of these repressive measures, the suspension of political activities, and the government's support of rearming and modernizing the military, the army gained a coherence and unity that it had not experienced since before 1922. The popular status that the army won by participating in the Italian campaign (1944-45) of World War II also permitted the High Command, under General Pedro Aurélio de Góes Monteiro, a long-time supporter of Vargas, to step into the successionist crisis of October 1945 to depose Vargas and to cut short the political mobilization of the masses that the generals believed would upset the social order. Not to have acted would have violated the implicit agreement made with the elites when the latter surrendered their independent state military forces to federal control.

The elected government over which President Eurico Gaspar Dutra presided from 1946 to 1951 opened under the decree laws of the Estado Novo and continued under the new constitution of 1946. This charter reflected the strong conservative tendency in Brazilian politics by incorporating ideas from the constitution of 1934 and the social legislation of the Estado Novo. Over the next years, the various cabinet changes traced the government's steady movement toward the right. The Dutra administration was supported by the same conservative interventionist army that had backed the previous regime. Indeed, Dutra, who though retired from active duty, was inaugurated in his dress uniform and was promoted to general of the army and then to marshal while in office, made the point that he still belonged to the military class (classe militar ), that he would not neglect its needs, and that he would guide the army politically.

More dispassionate observers see the ending of Vargas's productive leadership--during which the average annual rise in the GDP was nearly 4 percent--as the reaction of the landowning and business elite allied with the urban middle class against the processes of change. Dutra's years in office displayed a minimal level of state participation and intervention in the economy. It was indeed ironic that the man who led Brazil through the first steps of its "experiment with democracy" was a general who, in the early years of World War II, was so antiliberal that he had opposed aligning Brazil with the democratic countries against Nazi Germany. He was a fervent anticommunist, who quickly broke the diplomatic ties Vargas had established with the Soviet Union, outlawed the Brazilian Communist Party, and supported the United States in the opening phases of the Cold War. He exchanged official visits with President Harry S. Truman and sought American aid for continued economic development.

Dutra's government improved the railways, completed construction of roads that connected Rio de Janeiro to Salvador and São Paulo, and expanded the electrical generating and transmission systems. It also cooperated with the states in building more than 4,000 new rural schools and supported construction of new university buildings in various states. In 1951 it also created the National Research Council (Conselho Nacional de Pesquisas--CNPq), which would be important in developing capabilities and university faculties in coming decades (see Science and Technology as Modernization, 1945-64, ch. 6). His mandate was marked by heated disputes over the nationalization of oil and plans for an international institute to study Amazônia. The latter were shelved amidst emotional charges that they would lead to the loss of half of the national territory; and the campaign for the former was suppressed violently.

Dutra's military program included domestic arms production, sending many officers for training in the United States, expanding air force and naval schools and modernizing their equipment, and establishing the War College (Escola Superior de Guerra--ESG), which played such an important role in the political crises of the 1960s. Although Dutra could be criticized for not containing inflation and for allowing an importing frenzy that soon exhausted the savings of the war years, he managed to govern without declaring a state of siege, and he was the first elected president since 1926 to pass the office to his elected successor.

As a candidate for president in the 1950 elections, Vargas advocated accelerating industrialization and expanding social legislation, and he was rewarded with a sizeable 49 percent of the vote. Vargas's attempts to base his elected government (1951-54) firmly on populism induced military, elite, and United States fears of nationalism. Even so, it was a period of deepening political polarization. Anticommunist military officers saw red in every attempt to expand labor's influence and objected to wage increases for workers when the value of their own salaries was eroding steadily. The United States refused economic assistance that Brazilian leaders believed they deserved for providing bases, natural resources, and troops during World War II. The lack of postwar benefits, especially for the service of the Brazilian Expeditionary Force (Força Expedicionária Brasileira--FEB), caused Vargas and part of the military to reject the idea of sending troops to fight in Korea.

Although the United States government did not want to provide economic aid, it also did not want the Brazilian government to take an active role in developing the country's resources. Washington's desire to secure Brazil as a safe place for private United States investment clashed with Brazil's treatment of foreign-owned utilities. Foreign interests had been too slow in developing energy resources, so the Vargas government created the Brazilian Petroleum Corporation (Petróleo Brasileiro S.A.--Petrobrás) in 1953 and the Brazilian Electric Power Company (Centrais Elétricas Brasileiras S.A.--Eletrobrás) in 1961. The "Petroleum is Ours!" campaign of the nationalists caused arguments within the military over what was best to do. Some officers embraced the antistatist attitude that Washington was sponsoring. The bitterly fought, emotional debate over the creation of Petrobrás poisoned political life and contributed to the subsequent military interventions. The Vargas administration dissolved in frustration and charges of corruption; faced with military demands for his resignation, Vargas shot himself on August 24, 1954. His death produced considerable public sympathy, which in turn strengthened his reputation as "father of the poor." His influence in Brazilian politics was felt for decades.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress