The Era of Getúlio Vargas
The Era of Getúlio Vargas, 1930-54
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
Data as of April 1997