The Military Republic, 1964-85
The military held power in Brazil 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 anti-communism, 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, anti-politics 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 anti-guerrilla campaign in northern Goiás. The repressive apparatus expanded into various agencies, which spied on political opponents and engaged in dirty tricks, torture, and "disappearings". 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 security."
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.
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