Image of the Day – Emílio Garrastazu Médici

Emílio Garrastazu Médici was the one president whose transition did not go according to the custom of the military dictatorship. With Costa e Silva’s stroke and incapacitation in late-August of 1969, military leaders had to make a quick decision on how to proceed. Although the short-lived military junta gave the dictatorship a unified face, behind the scenes, the military was split. The hard-liners wanted a president who would continue to crack down on challenges to the regime, while the “moderates” who had supported (and often worked under) Castelo Branco wanted a president less in the mold of Costa e Silva. After much internal debate, the military seetled on Médici, the head of the National Intelligence Service (SNI) under Costa e Silva and a relative unknown politically. That Médici had reached the highest levels of the security apparatus appealed to hard-liners, while his absence of firebrand rhetoric satisfied most of the moderates, who were in a minority. Thus, the military settled on Médici, who received Congress’s purely-symbolic rubber-stamp approval, in October 1969, taking office on the 30th.

Throughout his four-and-a-half year rule, Médici appeared to most Brazilians to lead the country ably. He proclaimed that he wasn’t terribly interested in politics, and let his cabinet ministers take care of the micromanagement of their offices. This gave him the appearance of an avuncular leader who stepped in when he needed to but was generally content to trust those whom he had chosen. However, the Brazilian use of torture reached its peak during the Médici years. Torture methods included arbitrary beatings, the intentional bursting of eardrums, submerging victims under water to simulate drowning, simulated executions, and electrical shocks to the ears, tongue, and genitals, among other techniques. The government tortured thousands, and some died under duress while being tortured. Additionally, police launched a campaign against “dangerous” leftist leaders that resulted in the murder of hundreds of civilians. Altogether, the heightened repression of the regime’s opponents led to scholars and activists calling these the “anos de chumbo,” or “years of lead.”

Paradoxically, although the use of torture reached its peak during the Médici years, the president also enjoyed massive popularity among most Brazilians, due in no small part to a marked (albeit temporary) improvement in Brazil’s economy, which grew on average 10% a year between 1969 and 1974. Also helping Médici’s popularity was the fact that, in the 1970 World Cup, the Brazilian national soccer team became the world’s first “tri-campeão” (triple champion). The team returned from Mexico with the Jules Rimet trophy, and Médici was quick to take advantage of the public relations opportunity as Brazilian popular sentiment rode high on a wave of happiness and shared unity. Together, these Those who challenged the government openly or through guerrilla movements were but a fraction of the percentage of the population. Even Luís Inácio “Lula” da Silva (who was just beginning his career as a metalworker in the early-1970s and who would become the leader of the labor movement that challenged the dictatorship in the late-1970s, founding the Partido dos Trabalhadores (Workers’ Party) and ultimately being elected president in 2002) commented that, had there been an election in 1970, Médici would have won in a landslide. Ultimately, when Médici left office in March 1974, he was riding a wave of popularity, enjoying the success of the economy and his public image as a president who “stabilized” Brazil. History has been less kind to him, however; in addition to the degree of torture on his watch, it has become clear that many of the economic policies he enacted had devastating long-term consequences on Brazil. When he died in 1985, Médici was still generally popular, though some politicians, scholars, and activists had begun to question his record both in terms of economics and human rights. Today, scholars generally recognize Médici as a president who at best was unable to control his subordinates in their blatant and extreme use of torture and murder, and at worst openly supported and encouraged such actions behind the scenes even while condemning the “isolated” use of torture publicly.

Emílio Garrastazu Médici, president of Brazil from October 1969 to March 1974, oversaw the most intense use of torture during Brazil's 21-year military dictatorship.

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About Colin M. Snider

I have a Ph.D. in history, specializing in Latin American History and Comparative Indigenous History. My dissertation focused on Brazil. Beyond Latin America generally, I'm particularly interested in class identities, military politics, human rights, labor, education, music, and nation. I can be found on Twitter at @ColinMSnider.
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