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The Republican Era, 1889-1985

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 wanted. However, military men were very active in politics; early in the decade, ten of the twenty state governors were officers.

The history of the republic has been a search for a viable form of government to replace the monarchy. That search has lurched back and forth between state autonomy and centralization. The constitution of 1891, establishing the United States of Brazil (Estados Unidos do Brasil), restored autonomy to the provinces, now called states. It recognized that the central government did not rule at the local level, that it exercised control only through the local oligarchies. The empire had not absorbed fully the regional pátrias , and now they reasserted themselves. Into the 1920s, the federal government in Rio de Janeiro would be dominated and managed by a combination of the more powerful pátrias (São Paulo, Minas Gerais, Rio Grande do Sul, and to a lesser extent Pernambuco and Bahia).

After the revolution of 1930, the trend would be strongly toward absorption of the pátrias , reaching a peak in the New State (Estado Novo) of 1937-45. Centralization extended into the smallest remote villages as the nation-state's bureaucracy and power grew to previously unknown levels. Renewed autonomy would come with the constitution of 1946 but would disappear under the military regime. The constitution of 1988 once again restored a degree of state autonomy but in the context of a powerful, all-embracing nation-state. In the 1990s, the pátrias are more folkloric vestiges than autonomous centers of power.

The history of the republic is also the story of the development of the army as a national institution. The elimination of the monarchy had reduced the number of national institutions to one, the army. Although the Roman Catholic Church continued its presence throughout the country, it was not national but rather international in its personnel, doctrine, liturgy, and purposes. By the time of the 1964 coup, the political parties were not national parties; they were oriented more along regional, personalist, and special-interest lines. Only in the struggle to reestablish civilian rule in the 1980s did a fitful process of creating national parties take shape. Thus, the army was the core of the developing Brazilian state, a marked change from the marginal role that it had played during the empire. The army assumed this new position almost haphazardly, filling part of the vacuum left by the collapse of the monarchy and gradually acquiring a doctrine and vision to support its de facto role. Although it had more units and men in Rio de Janeiro and Rio Grande do Sul than elsewhere, its presence was felt throughout the country. Its personnel, its interests, its ideology, and its commitments were national in scope.

The republic's first decade was one of turmoil. It appears to be a pattern of Brazilian history that seemingly peaceful regime changes are followed by long periods of adjustment, often scarred by violence. Years of "regime change" in 1889, 1930, and 1964 introduced protracted adjustment that involved some authoritarian rule. Curiously, because the violence occurred over long periods, usually without overturning the government in Rio de Janeiro or Brasília, Brazil acquired an undeserved reputation for having a nonviolent history of political and social compromise.

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Page last modified: 14-05-2017 18:34:10 ZULU