Monday, March 02, 2009

How to Overthrow a Government (I): Brazil in 1964

Brazil's political trajectory since independence is one of the weirder ones in Latin America. In a nutshell, Brazil took a fundamentally different path from the rest of Latin America, gaining independence peacefully and immediately setting up a monarchical empire that lasted until 1889, when Brazil finally became a constitutional republic. However, the presidency from 1889 to 1930 was little more than a cyclical network of oligarchs alternately from the major states of Sao Paulo and Minas Gerais. In 1930, Getulio Vargas, from the southern state of Rio Grande do Sul, challenged this hegemony and, after losing what many felt was a fraudulent election, Vargas was swept into power via a bloodless revolution. Vargas was a figure far too complicated to go into here, but he ruled as president/dictator from 1930 to 1945, wildly vacillating from the left to the right and back again. After a five-year respite, Vargas returned to the office of president by being popularly elected in 1950. However, as scandal built up around him when one of his bodyguards try to kill one of his main rivals (the despicable Carlos Lacerda), Vargas committed suicide, becoming a national hero and leaving a gaping vacuum in the office of president. After much turmoil (including threats of military intervention), Juscelino Kubitschek was elected in 1955, serving until 1960 and overseeing an era of development that culminated in the creation of Brasilia in the middle of nowhere and a decreasing income for the growing expenses that arise from the basic model of import-substitution industrialization.

This brings us to the 1960s. In 1961, Janio Quadros, a relative political outsider who Brazil's right felt would represent their interests strongly, was elected president. However, Quadros ran an erratic administration, offering seemingly contradictory policies from day-to-day and giving one of Brazil's highest honors to Che Guevara, further alienating a right-wing that had been discontent with Vargas and Kubitschek and that, in the context of the Cold War and the Cuban revolution , was increasingly frightened of the "Communist threat." When Brazil's legislature resisted Quadros's efforts to increase his authority, he offered his resignation only six months into his administration, expecting the population to rise up and support him and the legislature to decline his offer. Instead, they accepted, and the leftist vice-president (at this time, the vice-president of the country was elected separately), Joao Goulart, a disciple of Vargas, was to assume power.

However, Goulart was on a visit to Communist China, which was even more threatening to the anti-communist right. With a sudden power vacuum, Brazil's military leaders, who had been vaguely and ominously hovering over the political happenings since at least 1945 and who were strongly anti-communist, entered into the political scene. They threatened a military coup if Goulart were given full control of the presidency. Not wanting to cede civilian governance, the legislature agreed to become a Presidental Parliamentary system, in which Goulart's power would be greatly reduced for an indeterminate amount of time. Goulart accepted this situation because he had too, but he soon began working to restore full presidential power, which finally happened after a special election on the matter was held in late 1963.

At this point, believing he had a mandate for social reform and progress, Goulart tried to shift Brazil further to the left. He pushed for land reform and expropriated refineries and unused farm land. This leftward shift was not playing well in an increasingly polarized Brazil, however. While many workers, Vargas supporters, and even soldiers rallied to Goulart's causes, the middle-class and elites (led by Carlos Lacerda), conservatives, military, and anti-communitsts increasingly felt threatened by Goulart. What is more, the United States under Lyndon Johnson in 1964 was increasingly aware of the situation in Brazil.

Nor was the political climate of the Cold War the only thing working against Goulart. The effects of ISI were getting more severe, and Brazil was facing rapidly increasing inflation during his administration, reaching 85% and higher. Basic goods like rice and bread were getting harder and harder to find in stores, leading to long lines. What is more, Goulart at times seemed uncertain of which way he was leading the country, wavering between the policies of his fiercely leftist brother-in-law (and governor of the southern state of Rio Grande do Sul), Leonel Brizola, and the unions, and a more conciliatory, centrist approach to reform. These vacillations only made Goulart appear weak, something the media jumped on in their portrayals of Goulart in the media. Finally, Lyndon Johnson, already getting the United States further involved in Vietnam, was increasingly sensitive of Brazil's situation, not wanting to see "another Cuba" in the America, particularly one that geographically occupied more than half of the South American continent.

The breaking point came in March of 1964. The soldier corps of the military was increasingly demanding greater pay and making clear their support of Goulart, something that troubled the military brass to no end - if they lost control of the conscripts, the leaders would have nothing. Goulart tried to capitalize on this in a major rally held in the center of Rio de Janeiro on March 13th, finally taking a stance with his brother-in-law and abandoning his half-hearted centrist efforts. At another speech in Rio, Goulart said that the conscripts should rise up against their officers if their political will was not respected or was repressed. This was the last thing the military wanted to hear. On March 31st, General Olympio Mourao Filho ordered his army unit, stationed on the border of Rio de Janeiro and Minas Gerais states, to move on Goulart in Rio.

However, the coup's success was far from a guaranteed thing. Many members of the military brass were initially hesitant to openly support such a blatant coup d'etat. What is more, many felt that Goulart would be able to rally the lower-class troops, students, union members, and others to his defense, and if the resistance were drawn out, the military would be irrevocably stained. However, none of that support really substantially materialized beyond isolated rallies supporting Goulart, and the president himself left Rio quietly on a plane for Brasilia before heading to the southern part of the country and then into Uruguay, where he would spend the rest of his life. Also, the previously-hesitant military brass on April 1st came out in full support of Moura's resistance, leading to the great comment that "Brazil's military went to bed in favor of the government and woke up revolutionaries." [The dictatorship and its supporters would try to legitimize the military government by claiming that it was they who had launched a "revolution" against Goulart, an argument I would still hear strains of occasionally when I was in Brazil].

However, in a sign of things to come later down the road, the military could not agree on how power should now be set up. The speaker of Brazil's house of representatives, Pascoal Ranieri Mazzilli, became the titular president of Brazil, as the constitution declared. However, Mazzilli was simply a front for an emerging military junta, led by Artur Costa e Silva. Costa e Silva wanted to have power to himself, but the rest of the military made it clear that they wanted Marshal Humberto Castelo Branco, one of the highest-ranking generals and a World War II veteran, to lead the country. Lyndon Johnson, who had begun sending ships covertly to the coast of Brazil "just in case," was satisfied when Marshal Humberto Castelo Branco, one of the highest-ranking leaders in the military, officially became president on April 8th, and called the ships back.

A majority of Brazilians were extremely satisfied and even relieved with the results. Political conservatives had genuinely feared the "godless" and "Communist" path they felt Goulart was leading them down, even marching by the hundreds of thousands in Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo in demonstrations against Goulart "for love of God and liberty." Many of the poor were tired of struggling to find basic foodstuffs and combatting the inflation that was disproportionately affecting them. What is more, Brazilians overwhelmingly and firmly believed that the military intervention was justified as a temporary measure to "restore order," and Brazil would soon return to democracy.

And so began Brazil's military dictatorship, which would last twenty-one years, five presidents and one junta, and oversee the torture of thousands and the disappearance of hundreds of people before it finally peacefully stepped down, as it eventually planned, in 1985.