[In addition to being part of the “On This Date in Latin America” series, this marks the first in a new series I will be writing called “How to Overthrow a Government” that looks at the various historical instances and social, economic, and cultural contexts of political coups, overthrows, and takeovers in Latin American history.]
Forty-eight years today, the Brazilian military overthrew constitutional president João Goulart, initiating a twenty-one year military regime that would be responsible for hundreds of murders and thousands of cases of torture.
When João Goulart, of the leftist Partido Trabalhista Brasileira (Brazilian Labor Party), took office as President in September 1961, he did so under strange circumstances, to put it mildly. Goulart, the former labor minister of Getúlio Vargas (and seen by some, including right-wing opponents, as Vargas’s heir), served as vice-president under Juscelino Kubitschek from 1955-1960. In 1961, Goulart was re-elected vice-president on a split ticket, with Jânio Quadros winning the presidency. While the conservative middle-classes in Brazil saw Quadros as the man who would sweep away corruption and turn towards a more conservative path, he quickly began to run an erratic administration that offered seemingly contradictory policies from day to day. He particularly alienated his supporters in July 1961, when he gave one of Brazil’s highest honors to Che Guevara. When Brazil’s legislature resisted Quadros’s efforts to increase his authority, he offered his resignation only six months into his administration, expecting the population to rise up and support him and the legislature to decline his offer. Instead, Congress accepted, and, in accordance with the constitution, Goulart was to assume power.
However, Goulart was on a visit to Communist China, only confirming the right-wing’s most paranoid fears. Brazil’s military leaders, who had been vaguely and ominously hovering over the political happenings since at least 1945 and who were strongly anti-communist, tried to forestall Goulart’s ascension, but popular counter-mobilizations ensured the vice-president assumed power, albeit with limited authority via a presidential parliamentary system. By 1963, however, Goulart had reassumed full power (via a special election that overwhelmingly voted in favor of restoring full presidential authority to Goulart).
While Goulart had often wavered on his progressive stances, trying to find a path that would satisfy the left and calm the right (but failing to do either), by early-1964, he tried to shift Brazil further to the left. He pushed for land reform and expropriated refineries and unused farm land. This leftward shift was not playing well in an increasingly polarized Brazil, however. While many workers, students, Vargas supporters, and even soldiers rallied to Goulart’s causes, the middle-class and elites (led by Carlos Lacerda), conservatives, military, and anti-communitsts increasingly felt threatened by Goulart. What is more, the United States under Lyndon Johnson in 1964 was increasingly aware of the situation in Brazil. Years of accelerated industrialization and development under Kubitschek had led to rapidly increasing inflation, reaching upwards of 85% by 1964. Basic goods like rice and bread were getting harder and harder to find in stores, leading to long lines. What is more, Goulart at times seemed uncertain of which way he was leading the country, wavering between the policies of his fiercely leftist brother-in-law (and governor of the southern state of Rio Grande do Sul), Leonel Brizola, and the unions, and a more conciliatory, centrist approach to reform. These vacillations only made Goulart appear weak, something the media jumped on in their portrayals of Goulart in the media. Finally, Lyndon Johnson, already getting the United States further involved in Vietnam, was increasingly sensitive of Brazil’s situation, not wanting to see “another Cuba” in the America, particularly one that geographically occupied more than half of the South American continent.
The breaking point came in March of 1964. The soldier corps of the military was increasingly demanding greater pay and making clear their support of Goulart, something that troubled the military brass to no end – if they lost control of the conscripts, the leaders would have nothing. Goulart tried to capitalize on this in a major rally held in the center of Rio de Janeiro on March 13th, finally taking a stance with his brother-in-law and abandoning his half-hearted centrist efforts. At the Central Station Plaza (and in the shadows of the Ministry of War building), Goulart stood before tens of thousands of people and called for constitutional reforms, including land reform, electoral reform, and university reform.
The speech greatly worried the military, who looked down on the happenings from their offices in the Ministry of War building. While students and workers were thrilled to see Goulart finally take a hard tack to the left, the middle- and upper-classes began to mobilize, calling for the military to step in and restore “democracy.” They also took to the streets in a march of “Families for God and Freedom,” protesting Goulart’s policies.
If the rally at Central Station had worried the right, it was another address that tilted Brazil toward a military coup. When military conscripts went on strike for more political rights, Goulart sided with the conscripts, saying the strike was legitimate. This declaration amounted to subverting the entire order of hierarchy and command structure of the military. While several generals considered a coup, it was only on March 31st that General Olympio Mourao Filho, acting alone and without coordinating with the highest levels of the command structure, ordered his army unit to march from Minas Gerais to Rio de Janeiro. However, the coup’s success was far from a guaranteed thing. Many members of the military brass were initially hesitant to openly support such a blatant coup d’etat. What is more, many felt that Goulart would be able to rally the lower-class troops, students, union members, and others to his defense, and if the resistance were drawn out, the military would be irrevocably stained.
However, none of that support really substantially materialized beyond isolated rallies supporting Goulart, and after the start of the coup on March 31, on April 1, 1964, the military officially overthrew Goulart, who quietly left Rio on a plane for Brasilia before heading to the southern part of the country and then into Uruguay, where he would spend the rest of his life. The rapid collapse of Goulart’s administration left both his supporters and opponents stunned.Lyndon Johnson, who had begun sending ships covertly to the coast of Brazil “just in case,” ended up calling the ships back to US waters before they’d even had a chance to arrive in Brazil. Meanwhile, the military brass quickly rallied around Moura’s resistance, leading to Brazilian scholar Elio Gaspari to comment that “Brazil’s military went to bed in favor of the government and woke up revolutionaries.”*
*The dictatorship and its supporters would try to legitimize the military government by claiming that it was they who had launched a “revolution” against Goulart, an argument I would still hear strains of occasionally when I was in Brazil.
A majority of Brazilians were extremely satisfied and even relieved with the results. Political conservatives had genuinely feared the “godless” and “Communist” path they felt Goulart was leading them down, even marching by the hundreds of thousands in Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo in demonstrations against Goulart “for love of God and liberty.” Many of the poor were tired of struggling to find basic foodstuffs and combatting the inflation that was disproportionately affecting them. What is more, Brazilians overwhelmingly and firmly believed that the military intervention was justified as a temporary measure to “restore order,” and Brazil would soon return to democracy. However, that dream was a facade, as the military immediately began stripping individuals of their political rights and arbitrarily arresting, imprisoning, and torturing union leaders and other leftists, foreshadowing the greater repression, torture, and denial of basic political rights that would characterize the regime throughout the 1960s and 1970s. And so began Brazil’s military dictatorship, which would last twenty-one years, five presidents and one junta, and oversee the torture of thousands, the murder of hundreds, and the exile of tens of thousands of Brazilians between 1964 and 1985.