The Military Republic of Brazil
The Military Republic, 1964-85
The military held power from 1964 until March 1985 not by design
but because of political struggles within the new regime. Just as
the regime changes of 1889, 1930, and 1945 unleashed competing political
forces and caused splits in the military, so too did the regime
change of 1964. Because no civilian politician was acceptable to
all the revolutionary factions, the army chief of staff, Marshal
Humberto Castelo Branco (president, 1964-67), became president with
the intention of overseeing a reform of the political-economic system.
He refused to stay beyond the term of deposed João Goulart
or to institutionalize the military in power. However, competing
demands radicalized the situation; military hard-liners wanted a
complete purge of left-wing and populist influences, while civilian
politicians obstructed Castelo Branco's reforms. The latter accused
him of dictatorial methods, and the former criticized him for not
going far enough. To satisfy the military hard-liners, he recessed
and purged Congress, removed objectionable state governors, and
decreed expansion of the president's (and thereby the military's)
arbitrary powers at the expense of the legislature and judiciary.
His gamble succeeded in curbing the populist left but provided the
successor governments of Marshal Artur da Costa e Silva (1967-69)
and General Emílio Garrastazú Médici (1969-74)
with a basis for authoritarian rule. Anti-Goulart politicians understood
too late the forces they had helped unleash.
Castelo Branco tried to maintain a degree of democracy. His economic
reforms prepared the way for the Brazilian economic "miracle"
of the next decade, and his restructuring of the party system that
had existed since 1945 shaped the contours of government-opposition
relations for the next two decades. He preserved presidential supremacy
over the military and kept potential coup-makers in check, but in
the process he had to expand presidential powers in the infamous
Second Institutional Act of October 1965, and he had to accept the
succession of Minister of Army Costa e Silva.
As in earlier regime changes, the armed forces' officer corps was
divided between those who believed that they should confine themselves
to their professional duties and the hard-liners who regarded politicians
as scoundrels ready to betray Brazil to communism or some other
menace. The victory of the hard-liners dragged Brazil into what
political scientist Juan J. Linz called "an authoritarian situation."
However, because the hard-liners could not ignore the counterweight
opinions of their colleagues or the resistance of society, they
were unable to institutionalize their agenda politically. In addition,
they did not attempt to eliminate the trappings of liberal constitutionalism
because they feared disapproval of international opinion and damage
to the alliance with the United States. As the citadel of anticommunism,
the United States provided the ideology that the authoritarians
used to justify their hold on power. But Washington also preached
liberal democracy, which forced the authoritarians to assume the
contradictory position of defending democracy by destroying it.
Their concern for appearances caused them to abstain from personalist
dictatorship by requiring each successive general-president to pass
power to his replacement.
The role of the United States in these events was complex and at
times contradictory. An anti-Goulart press campaign was conducted
throughout 1963, and in 1964 the Johnson administration gave moral
support to the campaign. Ambassador Lincoln Gordon later admitted
that the embassy had given money to anti-Goulart candidates in the
1962 municipal elections and had encouraged the plotters; that many
extra United States military and intelligence personnel were operating
in Brazil; and that four United States Navy oil tankers and the
carrier Forrestal , in an operation code-named Brother Sam, had
stood off the coast in case of need during the 1964 coup. Washington
immediately recognized the new government in 1964 and joined the
chorus chanting that the coup d'état of the "democratic
forces" had staved off the hand of international communism.
In retrospect, it appears that the only foreign hand involved was
Washington's, although the United States was not the principal actor
in these events. Indeed, the hard-liners in the Brazilian military
pressured Costa e Silva into promulgating the Fifth Institutional
Act on December 13, 1968. This act gave the president dictatorial
powers, dissolved Congress and state legislatures, suspended the
constitution, and imposed censorship.
In October 1969, when President Costa e Silva died unexpectedly,
the democratic mask fell off as the officer corps of the three services
consulted among themselves to pick General Garrastazú Médici
for the presidency. Costa e Silva and Médici represented
the hard-line, antipolitics segment of the military, which seemingly
was content to hold authority as long as necessary to turn Brazil
into a great power. The Médici government illustrated how
it was possible to remain in power without popular support, without
a political party, and without a well-defined program. It was the
era of terrorist actions in the cities, replete with kidnappings
of diplomats, including the United States ambassador, and an extensive
antiguerrilla campaign in northern Goiás. The repressive
apparatus expanded into various agencies, which spied on political
opponents and engaged in dirty tricks, torture, and "disappearings"
(see The Military Role in the Intelligence Services, ch. 5). Those
operations caused an open break between the government and the hierarchy
of the Roman Catholic Church for the first time in Brazilian history.
They also produced a deterioration in relations with the United
States, whose leaders had expected the Castelo Branco vision of
the revolution to win out.
The Médici administration wrapped itself in the green and
gold flag when Brazil won the World Cup in soccer in 1970, began
to build the Trans-Amazonian Highway through the northern rain forests,
and dammed the Rio Paraná, creating the world's largest hydroelectric
dam at Itaipu. From 1968 to 1974, parallel with the darkest days
of the dictatorship, the military-civil technocratic alliance took
shape as the economy boomed, reaching annual GDP growth rates of
12 percent. It looked as if Brazil's dreams of full industrialization
and great-power status were possible. Sadly, in those years of the
supposed "economic miracles," criticism and labor unrest
were suppressed with arrests, torture, and censorship. Moreover,
this apparent success of mixing authoritarian rule and economic
growth encouraged officers in Argentina, Chile, Bolivia, and Uruguay
to seize power in their countries.
It was in this atmosphere that retired General Ernesto Geisel (1974-79)
came to the presidency with Médici's approval. There had
been intense behind-the-scenes maneuvering by the hard-liners against
him and by the more moderate supporters of Castelo Branco for him.
Fortunately for Geisel, his brother, Orlando Geisel, was the minister
of army, and his close ally, General João Baptista de Oliveira
Figueiredo, was chief of Médici's military staff.
Although not immediately understood by civilians, Ernesto Geisel's
accession signaled a move away from repression toward democratic
rule. Geisel replaced several regional commanders with trusted officers
and labeled his political program distensão , meaning a gradual
relaxation of authoritarian rule. It would be, in his words, "the
maximum of development possible with the minimum of indispensable
President Geisel sought to maintain high economic growth rates,
even while seeking to deal with the effects of the oil shocks. He
kept up massive investments in infrastructure--highways, telecommunications,
hydroelectric dams, mineral extraction, factories, and atomic energy.
Fending off nationalist objections, he opened Brazil to oil prospecting
by foreign firms for the first time since the early 1950s. His government
borrowed billions of dollars to see Brazil through the oil crisis.
Brazil shifted its foreign policy to meet its economic needs. "Responsible
pragmatism" replaced strict alignment with the United States
and a worldview based on ideological frontiers and blocs of nations.
Because Brazil was 80 percent dependent on imported oil, Geisel
shifted the country from a pro-Israeli stance to closer ties with
oil-rich Saudi Arabia and Iraq. His government also recognized China,
Angola, and Mozambique and moved closer to Spanish America, Europe,
and Japan. The 1975 agreement with the Federal Republic of Germany
(West Germany) to build nuclear reactors produced confrontation
with the Carter administration, which was also scolding the Geisel
government for the human rights abuses that it was fighting to stop.
Frustrated with what he saw as United States highhandedness and
lack of understanding, Geisel renounced the military alliance with
the United States in April 1977.
In 1977 and 1978, the succession issue caused further confrontations
with the hard-liners. Noting that Brazil was only a "relative
democracy," Geisel attempted in April 1977 to restrain the
growing strength of the opposition parties by creating an electoral
college that would approve his selected replacement. In October
he dismissed the far-right minister of army, General Sylvio Cueto
Coelho da Frota. In 1978 Geisel maneuvered through the first labor
strikes since 1964 and through the repeated electoral victories
of the opposition Brazilian Democratic Movement (Movimento Democrático
Brasileiro--MDB). He allowed the return of exiles, restored habeas
corpus, repealed the extraordinary powers decreed by the Fifth Institutional
Act, and imposed General João Figueiredo (1979-85) as his
successor in March 1979.
The last military president, João Figueiredo, said that
he took over the presidency more out of a sense of duty than political
ambition. He signed a general amnesty into law and turned Geisel's
distensão into a gradual abertura (the opening of the political
system), saying that his goal was "to make this country a democracy."
The hard-liners reacted to the opening with a series of terrorist
bombings. An April 1981 bombing incident confirmed direct military
involvement in terrorism, but Figueiredo proved too weak to punish
the guilty. The incident and the regime's inaction strengthened
the public's resolve to end military rule. Moreover, Figueiredo
faced other significant problems, such as soaring inflation, declining
productivity, and a mounting foreign debt.
Political liberalization and the declining world economy contributed
to Brazil's economic and social problems. In 1978 and 1980, huge
strikes took place in the industrial ring around São Paulo.
Protesters asserted that wage increases indexed to the inflation
rate were far below a livable level. Union leaders, including the
future 1990 presidential candidate Luis "Lula" Inácio
da Silva, were arrested for violation of national security laws.
The IMF imposed a painful austerity program on Brazil. Under that
program, Brazil was required to hold down wages to fight inflation.
In the North, Northeast, and even in relatively prosperous Rio Grande
do Sul, rural people seized unused, private land, forcing the government
to create a new land reform ministry. Tension with the Roman Catholic
Church, the major voice for societal change, peaked in the early
1980s with the expulsion of foreign priests involved in political
and land reform issues.
To attack the soaring debt, Figueiredo's administration stressed
exports--food, natural resources, automobiles, arms, clothing, shoes,
even electricity--and expanded petroleum exploration by foreign
companies. In foreign relations, the objective was to establish
ties with any country that would contribute to Brazilian economic
development. Washington was kept at a certain distance, and the
North-South dialogue was emphasized.
In 1983 the economy leaped ahead with 5.4 percent GDP growth, but
it was lost in the rising inflation and the failure of political
leadership. Figueiredo's heart condition led to bypass surgery in
the United States, removing him from control of the situation. In
an impressive display, millions of Brazilians took to the streets
in all the major cities demanding a direct vote (diretas já!
) in the choice of the next president. In April 1984, Congress failed
to achieve the necessary numbers to give the people their wish,
and the choice was left to an electoral college. Figueiredo did
not act forcefully to back a preference, so it became a scramble
as candidates pursued the collegial votes.
On January 15, 1985, the electoral college elected Tancredo Neves
of Minas Gerais, Vargas's minister of justice in the 1950s, and
former federal deputy, senator, and prime minister. Neves was a
sensible politician with a reputation for honesty. However, he collapsed
the night before his inaugural, and the presidency passed to Vice
President José Sarney (president, 1985-90), long-time supporter
of the military regime. Neves died on April 21. The hopes that 1985
would be a quick transition to a new regime faded as Brazilians
watched this turn of events in a state of shock. Like the regime
changes of 1822, 1889, 1930, 1946, and 1964, the 1985 change also
proved to be long and difficult (see Politics, 1985-96, ch. 4).
* * *
Charles Wagley's An Introduction to Brazil , although dated, is
still valuable for an understanding of Brazilian history. Darcy
Ribeiro provides a stimulating overview in O povo brasileiro . For
an examination of how race influenced thought and nationalism, see
Thomas E. Skidmore's Black into White . E. Bradford Burns's Nationalism
in Brazil: Historical Survey focuses on the creation of Brazilian
nationalism. There are several general histories, such as Burns's
A History of Brazil , Ronald M. Schneider's Order and Progress:
A Political History of Brazil , and Leslie Bethell's two edited
volumes for The Cambridge History of Latin America . Modern Brazil:
Elites and Masses in Historical Perspective , edited by Michael
L. Conniff and Frank D. McCann, sets contemporary Brazilian society
into its historical context.
The starting point for the vast literature in English on the 322-year-long
colonial era, is Francis A. Dutra's A Guide to the History of Brazil,
1500-1822 . Not to be missed are books by Charles R. Boxer, Stuart
B. Schwartz, Dauril Alden, and Kenneth R. Maxwell. The numerous
books covering the period 1808-22, when the Portuguese crown ruled
from Rio de Janeiro, into the independent Brazilian imperial era,
include Roderick J. Barman's Brazil: The Forging of a Nation, 1798-1852
; Clarence H. Haring's Empire in Brazil ; Neill Macauley's Dom Pedro:
The Struggle for Liberty in Brazil and Portugal ; Roderick Cavaliero's
The Independence of Brazil ; and Emília Viotti da Costa's
The Brazilian Empire . A fascinating study of Pedro II's Brazil
is O Brasil no tempo de Dom Pedro II, 1831-1889 by Frédéric
Mauro. Slavery is a key topic of many studies, including Stanley
J. Stein's Vassouras ; Mary C. Karasch's Slave Life in Rio de Janeiro,
1808-1850 ; Joaquim Nabuco's Abolitionism: The Brazilian Antislavery
Struggle ; and Robert Conrad's The Destruction of Brazilian Slavery,
An excellent overview of the 1889-64 period is in José Maria
Bello's A History of Modern Brazil, 1889-1964 . On the political
economy of 1889-1930, see Steven C. Topik's The Political Economy
of the Brazilian State, 1889-1930 . For daily life, work, and the
roles of women, see Ina von Binzer's Os meus Romanos , Maria Odila
Silva Dias's Power and Everyday Life , and Joel Wolfe's Working
Women, Working Men .
The military is the subject of José Augusto Drummond's fine
study of Tenentismo : O movimento tenentista ; Neill Macaulay's
The Prestes Column ; Stanley E. Hilton's 1932 and A rebelião
vermelha ; Alfred C. Stepan's The Military in Politics , Authoritarian
Brazil , and Rethinking Military Politics ; Frank D. McCann's "The
Brazilian Army and the Problem of Mission, 1939-1964" in Journal
of Latin; American Studies ; and Amado Luiz Cervo and Clodoaldo
Bueno's História da política exterior do Brasil .
Foreign relations are the focus of E. Bradford Burns's The Unwritten
Alliance: Rio-Branco and Brazilian-American Relations ; Joseph Smith's
Unequal Giants ; McCann's The Brazilian-American Alliance, 1937-1945
; Elizabeth A. Cobbs's The Rich Neighbor Policy ; Ruth Leacock's
Requiem for Revolution ; Michael W. Weis's Cold Warriors and Coups
d'État ; and Amado Luiz Cervo (ed.), O desafio internacional
The literature on politics after 1930 is extensive. Some suggestions
are Thomas E. Skidmore's Politics in Brazil, 1930-1964 and The Politics
of Military Rule in Brazil, 1964-85 ; Ronald M. Schneider's The
Political System of Brazil ; Maria Helena Moreira Alves's State
and Opposition in Military Brazil ; and Stepan's Democratizing Brazil
. For religion and the role of the Catholic Church, see Scott Mainwaring's
The Catholic Church and Politics in Brazil, 1916-1985 and Rowan
Ireland's Kingdoms Come . (For further information and complete
citations, see Bibliography.)
Data as of April 1997