Image of the Day – Ernesto Geisel

The selection of Ernesto Geisel to serve as president beginning in 1974 marked the return of the “moderate” wing of the military to power after the hard-liner administrations of Costa e Silva, the interim junta, and Emílio Garrastazu Médici. Geisel had originally been a member of Castelo Branco‘s cabinet as the chief of staff, and strongly opposed Costa e Silva’s ultimately-successful candidacy. Between 1967 and 1974, Geisel fell out of favor with hardliners, ultimately occupying a post as the head of Petrobras, the nationalized Brazilian oil company. Geisel’s brother, Orlando, served as Médici’s chief of the National Information Service (SNI), the most important wing of the intelligence apparatus, and lobbied for his brother’s candidacy, and Médici acquiesced. Thus, in March of 1974, Geisel assumed the presidency, promising a “gradual” return to democracy under his watch.

Although Geisel began the process of returning Brazil to democracy, it was “gradual” indeed – it would be another eleven years before a civilian served as president, and another sixteen years before Brazilians were able to elect their own president (the 1985 election was indirect and determined in Congress). Indeed, Brazil’s return to democracy took more than half of the entire twenty-one year life-span of the military dictatorship. Additionally, Geisel’s efforts to return to democracy witnessed significant self-imposed regression, including the dissolution of Congress again in 1977 and the creation of presidentially-appointed senators (derisively called “bionic senators”) to ensure that the military maintained a majority in the senate.

This was not the only paradox of Geisel’s administration. During his presidency, the Brazilian armed forces killed more Brazilian citizens than during any other phase of military rule, including the “anos de chumbo.” A majority of these deaths occurred in the Araguaia River valley, where ex-students and radicals launched a doomed armed uprising that the military would finally quash in 1974. The military murdered well over 100 of these individuals, although numbers remain uncertain – the military ultimately disposed of bodies in locations that remain unidentified even today in the dense growth of the Brazilian interior, and numbers could be significantly north of 200 people murdered at the hands of the state with families never knowing their loved ones’ ultimate fate. At the same time, however, Geisel was able to reign in the hardliners’ use of torture. Where  Médici boasted of his hands-off approach, Geisel was a notorious micromanager during all of his administration, and when high-profile deaths occurred, Geisel removed generals who oversaw units that committed extreme acts of torture in 1976 and 1977. These moves earned him the animosity of the hardliners in the military (providing an important reminder of how publicly-unified military dictatorships regularly are factionalized and competing behind the scenes), and in 1977 Geisel found himself having to outmaneuver his Minister of War, Silvio Frota, who was planning a counter-coup to overthrow Geisel and bring the hardliners back to Power. Geisel successfully isolated Frota and managed to remain in power to the end of his term.

As Geisel governed, the economic policies of his predecessors began to take their toll. While national growth averaged over 10% between 1969 and 1974, it slowed down during the Geisel administration; more troubling to Brazilians, inflation, which had been over 100% in 1964 but dropped below 40% during the strongest years of economic growth, began to creep back up, and the first international oil crisis of the mid-1970s hit Brazilian industry (which depended heavily on foreign oil) particularly hard. Thus, Brazil’s economic security was increasingly uncertain as the 1970s passed, although the worst years of economic crisis would only hit Brazil in the 1980s and 1990s. Beyond these issues, Geisel was also anomalous for being a Protestant president in an overwhelmingly Catholic country; not coincidentally, Geisel made divorce in Brazil legal in 1977 (although it is much more difficult to get a divorce in Brazil than in the U.S. and Europe).

Upon leaving office, Geisel did not shy away from the events of his administration and what he felt to be his accomplishments, and he provided presidential files, personal documents, and even top-level presidential documents from his administration available to researchers. He continued to talk about his administration and provide interviews up until 1996, when he died at the age of 89.

Ernesto Geisel, president of the Brazilian military dictatorship from 1974-1979. Geisel witnessed an eventful (and often paradoxical) "opening" process in military rule.

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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