Intervention from the armed forces in Brazilian politics is a long-standing tradition. Maybe the Armed Forces's finest moment in early independent life in Brazil was when it removed Emperor D. Pedro II in 1889. Effective immediately, the leader of the revolution, Marshal Deodoro da Fonseca, became the self-appointed first president of Brazil.

Two years later, elections were held. Those who could vote - only a small parcel of the population - elected Deodoro da Fonseca for the job. Less than two years into his mandate, he was forced to quit. Although the constitution said that if a mandate is interrupted before half of it is complete new elections should be called, also-Marshal and vice-president, Floriano Peixoto, became president.

The Armed Forces's history is very closely tied to that of the Republic, but the initial troubles already hint at the nature of this relationship.

Brazil had six military chiefs of state between the Republic and the day of the military coup in 1964 (including a military junta that followed the 1930 coup), and other civilian presidents with close relationships with the Armed Forces.

The Armed Forces's support was essential to a successful president. It was very unlikely that a politician would get even close to office without their support. This happened due to both direct influence (the threat of a coup) and indirect influence ("popular" support for the Armed Forces and their ideals).

During the Vargas dictatorship between 1930 and 1945, the Army clearly favored the Axis. It was forced, though, to join the Allies. But World War II gave the Army a new track. An Air Force General (Golberi) said at the time:

"Going to Italy was an important event for the Air Force. Going to the United States was a major turning point."

The United States had promoted a series of events in which the Armed Forces participated. Both Armed Forces found common ground in the fight against communism. When it returned home, the Brazilian Armed Forces brought with them the doctrine of National Security.

The doctrine claimed that the enemy was not an external entity any more. Communism - the enemy - was in Brazil, and it had to be fought in Brazil.

The period between 1945 and 1964 was one of political unrest, as relations built tense between the political left and right. Juscelino Kubitschek almost didn't become president after being democratically elected in 1956.

After his progressive-if-debt-building government, right-wing, populist, incompetent leader Jânio Quadros was elected president in 1961 as a member of the famous UDN (National Democratic Union). His platform included fierce attacks on the elite, while he ran for president in the elitist UDN. Nevertheless, he won, though the vice-president, then chosen in a separate election, was leftist João Goulart.

Quadros's government was incredibly troubled. He broke relations with the very elite that supported him, and promoted a non-aligned foreign policy. Among his many feats were the prohibition on bikinis and his giving Cuban Communist revolutionary Che Guevara the highest medal of honor in the government, the Southern Cross medal. His non-aligned policy, however, was not due to a move to the left. It was sheer lunacy that made enemies everywhere in the political spectrum.

In 1961, the UDN's own Carlos Lacerda accused Quadros of trying to promote a coup d'état. In August, Quadros wrote a letter to Congress asking his resignation, in which he claimed was due to "terrible forces" that conspired against him. What exactly prompted this response is not known, and he never explained what were those "terrible forces". One of the theories was that he expected to have his resignation refused by Congress. Why he though it would be refused, and what he expected to achieve, nobody knows. Probably not even himself.

With Quadros out, vice-president João Goulart should become president. A crisis of several days took over. Not only was Goulart a well-known worker's right advocate (he was called a leftist, though nobody would classify him left of center today), Quadros's resignation happened while Goulart was on a trip to China. The president of Congress Ranieri Mailli took over as interim president, and the Armed Forces quickly acted to keep Goulart from taking office.

The governor of Rio Grande do Sul, Leonel Brizola, launched a campaign to protect Goulart. He mobilized his population, and even the Armed Forces in his state, to protect the constitution.

About one month later, a compromise was reached. Congress amended the constitution and instituted parliamentary rule through a prime minister, and Goulart was finally allowed to take office, albeit with limited powers.

He restored diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union, attacked president Kennedy's calls for international sanctions on Cuba, formed a work group to improve relations with Eastern Europe, and announced an economic package to lower inflation and take the country back to growth. He also promoted land reform - the first land his used was his own - and promoted reforms to curb the huge trade deficit. Rural worker's rights were established for the first time. In 1963, through a plebiscite, he gets all his powers as a president and extinguishes the prime minister.

His reforms greatly angered some sectors. Land-owners felt threatened by land reform. The rural worker's statute meant they were now bound by labor laws of which they were exempt, which included payed holidays, regular payments, thirteenth salary, sick days, weekly rest, extra payment for extra time, etc. Economic reforms were of great concern to the United States, which had a considerable trade surplus with Brazil and vested interests in many of the industries affected.

One year later, domestic and foreign pressure brought the country to near-anarchy. The United States boycotted all economic relations with the government, except for state governments where the governor opposed Goulart. The American embassy funded the Brazilian Institute for Democratic Action (IBAD), an anti-Goulart group. On March 13, 1964, he promoted an event with 150 thousand attendants in support of his government. Only six days later, in São Paulo, the March of Families with God for Freedom take splace, an event promoted by conservative sectors of society, such as the Armed Forces, land owners, and sectors of the Catholic Church. On March 31, Goulart tried for the last time to re-conciliate with the Armed Forces. Twenty-four hours later, he was deposed.

The military regime

João Goulart's life was made intolerable. Troops took government buildings and strategic points in several cities, and the president and his cabinet were essentially under curfew. Despite pressure to resist, on April 1st, 1964, Goulart fled to Rio Grande do Sul. That was the end of his government.

The military regime began with a farce. The day when the "revolution" was celebrated was March 31, and it was called the March 31 revolution - which sounds a lot better than "the April 1st revolution".

The coup was promoted by most of the generals, with support from state governors. It was funded with money which mysteriously appeared and disappeared on the bank accounts of several American companies like Gillette and General Motors. US President Lyndon Johnson was the first to recognize the new government, only a few hours after the events.

Military presidents

General Castelo Branco (1964-1967)

Castelo Branco ruled from 1964 to 1967. He was a supposed to lead a "transition" government. In 1965, he promoted a political reform in an Institutional Act (later known as Institutional Act One).

The political rights of the three previous presidents were revoked, as were the rights of a thousand politicians, including dozens of deputies and senators, state governors and local council members. Anyone who was a target of the National Security doctrine (read: communists, which was anyone even slightly left-leaning, anyone involved in worker's unions, and anyone who was supporting real democracy too loud), or posed any sort of risk to the regime, was included on the list. Furthermore, thousands of public sector workers and a hundred military commanders were sent into early retirement.

All political parties were outlawed and the political system changed to a two-party system: the Arena (National Renovation Alliance), the government's own party, and the MDB (Brazilian Democratic Movement), which included every opposition politician who did not have his political rights withdrawn.

The "president" should be elected by Congress for a 5-year term, no reelection permitted. He had the right to revoke any citizen's political rights for 10 years. In the second Institutional Act, some provisions were furthered. The Judicial system was reformed, with new judges appointed by the president. The president himself could not be judged.

In 1966, general elections for state governors were held. The oppositionist MDB won in all major states. Institutional Act Three soon followed, which instituted indirect vote for state governors, appointed by state legislatures. MDB governors were removed from power, Arena governors were allowed to remain.

Another Institutional Act demands a new constitution, and the Congress forms a Constituent Assembly. The proposed constitution, written by the military, is passed almost unaltered in the Arena-dominated parliament, except for the parts which allowed the dissolution of Congress, and a new article which grants parliamentary immunity to all deputies and senators.

General Costa e Silva is elected by the (always Arena-dominated) electoral college to be president from 1967-1971.

General Costa e Silva (1968-1969)

Costa e Silva faces the first major protests against the regime. The National Student's Union (UNE) promotes most of them. In São Paulo, the killing of a student becomes a symbol of the resistance.

Pressure in Congress begins to grow. Deputy Márcio Alves attacks the dictatorship. The military wants him arrested, but as he has immunity, only the Congress itself can allow that. His immunity is upheld by Congress. Tanks are placed in Brasília around the physical installations of the Congress, and Institutional Act 5 (AI-5) is passed by the president.

The dictatorship left behind any attempt to hide what it really was. The AI-5 had the following major points:

  • The president can dissolve Congress
  • The president can intervene in any local government
  • The president can revoke all civil rights
  • The president can fire or retire anyone, anywhere
  • The right for Habeas Corpus was revoked in political crimes
  • Censorship

This was all-out, unmasked, dictatorship, followed by new Institutional Acts and repression.

Costa e Silva was very sick, though, and he was forced to leave the government. The constitution said that the vice-president should become president. But Costa e Silva's vice-president was a soft-liner, and a civilian. A new Institutional Act is passed in 1969, calling early presidential elections. This was called the coup within the coup.

General Emílio Médici (1969-1974)

General Emílio Garrastazu Médici's government was the dictatorship's finest hour. A hard-liner, in a period of economic growth, Médici used his AI-5 rights liberally. Keeping the press under strict censorship and enjoying the benefits of an impressive period of economic growth, Médici becomes a popular president.

In his government, most of the major armed resistance groups are formed, in particular the ALN (National Liberation Action), and MR-8 (October 8th Revolutionary Movement), which were the organizations of such icons as Carlos Marighella and Carlos Lamarca. Both were organizations inspired by the Cuban and Chinese revolutions, adopting guerrilla as their method and communism as their goal. A guerrilla is established in the region of river Araguaya, until it is crushed in 1975.

The government was well aware of the growth of the opposition, and reacted accordingly. An elaborate repressive apparatus was quickly formed. The best-known organizations formed in Médici's government were the DOI-CODI (Operations and Information Department - Internal Defense Operation Central) and the Bandeirantes Organization (OBAN), the "second Army".

The dictatorship used torture and murder freely. Thousands of citizens were rounded up, taken to barracks, questioned, tortured, killed. Among the leading methods of torture at the time were electroshocks and drowning, but the repressive apparatus was creative. Drugs were used, psychological torture techniques were developed, children were tortured in front of their parents or kidnapped, torturers kicked the bellies of pregnant women. Documents issued by authorities at the time and released years later claimed they "had nothing to learn" from other violent regimes, as their techniques were "the best available".

Not only militants were arrested and tortured. Common citizens were commonly abused, accused of belonging to "terrorist" organizations and of conspiring against National Security. Even people who spontaneously went to the police to clarify their situations were tortured "preventively". The government employed a large network of spies, and people were encouraged to report suspicious "terrorist" activity.

But newspapers and TV could only report the successes of the government. In 1969, two new Institutional Acts are passed, one that sends into exile political prisoners (several major politicians and artists of the post-dictatorship period are sent abroad) and another one that permits the death penalty. The death penalty was never used formally, but thousands were killed by the repression.

Médici's economic successes were as good as he was a democrat. The country appeared to be growing, but that was due to unlimited borrowing which increased the country's foreign debt so considerably that even today nobody knows how to deal with it. Public money was used to build Itaipu (world's largest hydroelectric power plant), the huge bridge between Rio and Niterói (the foundations of which are graves for many left-wing militants) and the ill-fated Transamazônica (a road that should cross all of Amazon - to make a long story short, jungle beat man).

General Ernesto Geisel (1974 -1979)

Compared to Médici, Geisel was a soft liner. He talks about "Slow, safe, gradual openness", but doesn't go much further than that. The MDB grows like there is no tomorrow, despite all of the repression against its members. The death of imprisoned journalist Vladimir Herzog followed by a pathetic attempt to fake a suicide puts an end to the Bandeirantes Operation.

A new electoral law bans political debate on TV. Politicians are only allowed to say their names and numbers while campaigning.

As a response to the MDB's growth, new acts are passed and the Congress is dissolved. One third of the senators are now appointed by the president, and states where the Arena is stronger get more seats in Congress. Even so, the dictatorship is eroding fast, and some of the repressive apparatus is scaled back. This marks the beginning of right-wing terrorism, unhappy with the government's "openness".

Worker unrest grows. Strikes are attempted, with horrible repression. Left-leaning members of the Catholic Church, most related to Liberation Theology, become outspoken critics of the regime.

In 1979, the horrible AI-5 is revoked, only a few days before the end of his government. A ten-year transaction period back to democracy begins.

General João Batista Figueiredo (1979-1985)

Figueiredo inherited from his predecessor a 6-year term, and was the last general-president. During his government, Institutional Act Two is canceled, and new parties are allowed to exist.

The Arena became mostly the new PFL (Liberal Front Party) and the new PPS (Popular Socialist Party). The MDB became the PMDB (P for Party), PT (Worker's Party), PCB (Brazilian Communist Party), PC do B (Communist Party of Brazil - don't you love the left's ability to fragment?), and later on a few others.

Still in 1979, a general Amnesty is declared. All exilés are allowed to return. Political prisoners are released.

Figueiredo's government had to pay for the economic mistakes of the past. This was, indeed, the "lost decade" in Latin America.

In 1983, new governors are elected directly by the people.

Millions of people go to the streets in an attempt to have free, direct elections for president. The movement ultimately fails, and a new electoral college is formed to elect the next president. Two civilians are candidates: Paulo Maluf, the government's candidate, and Tancredo Neves.

In 1985, government is passed to civilian vice-president-elect José Sarney after president-elect Tancredo Neves dies. Sarney's election was the last indirect election in Brazil.

Sarney's government, though indirectly elected, is not generally considered a part of the dictatorship. The first elected president would be right-wing, impeached-for-corruption Fernando Collor, in 1989. Only in 1994 would a president be elected that would complete his term. Fernando Henrique Cardoso was elected and reelected, and in 2003 he left the government in the hands of also-elected Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.

Democracy took a long time.

Aftermath of the Dictatorship

- The economy grew as much as foreign debt. It was a fake growth, and the country will spend centuries paying for that error. As economic dependence grew, so did the country's vulnerability to foreign crisis. Furthermore, inequality, Brazil's main social problem, grew.

- Corruption was rife during the dictatorship. It is very reasonable to assume that Arena leaders stole openly, but were protected by censorship in the press. Reporting corruption was "communist" and "terrorist".

- The dictatorship was also the cradle of many of today's worst politicians. That includes people like Antônio Carlos Magalhães (senator), Paulo Maluf (ex-governor) and many others. Furthermore, the population was cast into democratic inexperience. One can only attribute the mistake of electing Fernando Collor to that (and, well, dictatorship-style fear of "communist" Lula).

Not to mention the countless human-right violations. Thousands of people were tortured and killed. People committed "suicide" with four shotgun shots on their own back. People "hanged themselves" in chairs. "Died in a violent shooting" while unarmed.

The Amnesty, fortunately, worked. Unfortunately it came at a high price, as many of tyrants of the past are allowed to roam freely.

Sources, among others:
Brasil: Nunca Mais

18-05-03 - The March happened in São Paulo, not Rio. Thank you, nosce.

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