In March of 1979, João Figueiredo became the fifth and final military president of Brazil, beginning a six-year term that would end with the return of a civilian president in 1985. Although Figueiredo had close ties to Emílio Médici, he also served as head of the National Information Service (SNI) for Ernesto Geisel, who groomed Figueiredo for the presidency. Geisel found in Figueiredo a president who he (correctly) hoped would continue Geisel’s “gradual” process of returning Brazil to democracy.
Upon taking office, Figueiredo made clear that he would not drastically waver from his predecessor’s path. He kept Geisel’s chief of staff, Golbery do Couto e Silva, on as his own chief adviser. Shortly after taking office, Figueiredo issued an amnesty for exiles and political prisoners (save for those convicted of “violent activity”), a demand that Brazilians had been increasingly making throughout the latter half of the Geisel administration. However, many were ultimately dissatisfied and even angry with the amnesty, as it amnestied not only political prisoners and exiles, but also all members of the military who were connected with torture. Claiming a desire to “move on” and “forget the past,” Figeueiredo’s amnesty created a sore spot for torture victims and their families, who would never see justice for the crimes the armed forces committed against them.
Figueiredo also undertook the interesting task of trying to return politics to politicians even while keeping the military’s economic and social agendas in action. Thus, in 1980, he dissolved the two previous political parties that the regime created in 1965, allowing any group to form a political party. This immediately gave the military an advantage, as the opposition split into a variety of parties (including the blanket centrist Party of the Democratic Movement of Brazil, the , and most notably, Luis Inácio “Lula” da Silva’s leftist Workers Party) even while pro-military politicians already had a coherent and unified party and platform. Yet this advantage quickly eroded, thanks in no small part to public discontent. An entire generation of youth who had never known democracy joined with an increasingly-dissatisfied middle class, metal workers in São Paulo, and others to give the opposition parties an increasing presence. In 1982, Leonel Brizola, the leftist firebrand brother-in-law of president João Goulart (whom the military had overthrown in 1964) won the governorship of Rio de Janeiro; similarly, civilians in the largest state of São Paulo rebuked the military party, voting for the opposition candidate Franco Montoro. In 1984, millions of Brazilians took to the streets, demanding direct presidential elections. Although their efforts were unsuccessful, they did succeed in uniting the opposition parties into a movement even as the pro-military party fell apart due to competition between competing factions.
In spite of increasing opposition to the military regime, Figueiredo did little to slow the popular avalanche towards democratization. When he had a heart attack in 1981 and had to go to the U.S. for heart surgery, his vice-president, the civilian Aureliano Chaves, successfully assumed temporary control, something that the military had not permitted when Costa e Silva had a stroke in 1969, revealing just how far along the opening process had come along; indeed, Chaves exercised the function of president briefly, but it marked the first time since the coup of 1964 that a civilian had been at the head of the government. Hard-liners at one time would have tried to oppose this succession, but, with their position already considerably weakened after 1977, 1981 marked the final nail in the coffin of hard-liners’ control of the military after a bomb intended for a crowd of university students attending a concert prematurely exploded in the lap of a member of the military, killing him and wounding his colleague who had driven the car.
The turbulence of the political landscape during Figueiredo’s administration was matched by economic instability. Inflation, which had already begun creeping up under Geisel, worsened rapidly under Figueiredo as the second international oil crisis of the late-1970s took its toll on Brazil. By the early 1980s, inflation had exceeded 100%; ironically, it was the highest since 1964, when the military used high inflation as an excuse to overthrow leftist president João Goulart and establish what would become the twenty-one year military dictatorship.
Facing a rapidly-deteriorating economy and a public tired of military rule and all of its consequences, Congress listened to the public in the indirect elections for president in 1985. At the final count, the opposition candidate Tancredo Neves defeated the pro-military party’s candidate, Paulo Maluf, by a vote of 441-179. Figueiredo, tired of the limelight and of the way he felt politics had “tainted” the military, let the results stand, and when an interviewer asked the outgoing president how he wanted the Brazilian people to remember him, he pointedly said, “Forget me!”
As the last military president in Brazil, however, Brazilians couldn’t and didn’t forget him. Nonetheless, unlike Geisel, Figueiredo quietly retired, remaining out of the limelight up to his death in 1999 at the age of 81.