Artur da Costa e Silva was the second of Brazil’s military presidents during its twenty-one year dictatorship, serving from 1967-1969. Costa e Silva is most notable for ushering in the most repressive phase of the military dictatorship of 1964-1985. Costa e Silva was a lifetime military member, entering the armed forces in the 1920s and spending time during World War II in the U.S.
Costa e Silva quickly assumed control of the military coup of April 1, 1964, seeking to crack down on all “subversives” and “leftists.” However, he did not have the prestige of Castelo Branco, who had actually served in Europe during World War II, in either military circles or among civilians. Thus, Castelo Branco became the first military president, with Costa e Silva forced to settle for a cabinet position as the Minister of War. He used his position to garner support among members of the military who felt Castelo Branco had been too lax and who wanted a more hard-line stance against what they perceived to be radicals, especially among university students. By late-1966, Costa e Silva had outmaneuvered Castelo Branco’s more “moderate” supporters in the military, and in March 1967, he became president. As president, he sought to further strengthen ties to the U.S., appealing to Cold War rhetoric that pitted “democracy” against “subversives.” At the same time, as street protests intensified (culminating in the anti-dictatorship “March of 100,000” in 1968), the army used increasing repression and brutality. When Congress refused to remove the congressional impunity of Márcio Moreira Alves, who had provided a perceived insult to the military in September 1968, the Costa e Silva regime acted swiftly, issuing Institutional Act Number Five. This act suspended Congress indefinitely, stripped many more politicians and other civilians of their political rights, and prompted a wave of arrests against students, workers, journalists, and others. Street confrontations continued into 1969, but the military’s increased use of torture and repression forced many groups underground by the beginning of 1970s.
In late-August 1969, Costa e Silva had a stroke that rendered him ineffective. At the beginning of September, student radicals kidnapped the U.S. ambassador, Charles Elbrick, and demanded the release of colleagues (among other things). With Costa e Silva incapacitated and military leadership uncertain how to proceed, the government met the students’ demands, and the kidnapping (and release) of Elbrick. The U.S. ambassador was fine, but Costa e Silva was not as fortunate; he never fully recovered, dying of a heart attack in December of 1969, almost exactly one year after his declaration of Institutional Act No. 5 began a period of massive repression that saw the Brazilian state murder hundreds of its own civilians, torture thousands others, and force the exile of tens of thousands more.