Fifty-eight years ago today, populist Brazilian president Getúlio Vargas, facing growing military opposition amidst political scandal, put a gun to his chest and pulled the trigger, ending his presidency but cementing his legacy on Brazilian politics, society, and culture for the remainder of the twentieth century.
Vargas had been a polemical figure for over two decades by the time of his suicide. Ushered into office via a military coup after losing the 1930 presidential election, Vargas governed Brazil “provisionally” and then constitutionally until 1937, when he ushered in his Estado Novo (“New State”) dictatorship. Under Vargas, Brazil sent troops to fight with the Allies in Italy during World War II; in joining the Allied forces in the presumed fight for “democracy,” however, Vargas opened himself up to growing criticisms at home, and although he began to reach out to a Brazilian working class that politicians had generally ignored, it was not enough to save his government, and he stepped down in 1945, though not before sowing the seeds for his eventual return as a populist with working-class appeal.
Vargas made his return to the presidency in 1951 after winning the 1950 elections by more than 1.5 million votes . Recast as a nationalist and as the “Father of the Poor” who fought for improved workers’ conditions, albeit in a highly-statist and top-down fashion, Vargas continued the national industrializing policies he had begun during the Estado Novo years. He also supported the creation of the state-run national oil company Petrobras. However, he was not opposed to working with the United States as he had during World War II, signing military agreements with the U.S. He also passed laws creating national organizations like the National Bank of Develpment (Banco Nacional de Desenvolvimento; BNDES) restricting the amount of profits foreign companies could extract from Brazil, and generally promoting policies that would improve economic independence and growth in Brazil.
However, these policies were not universally supported; the conservative National Democratic Union (União Democrático Nacional; UDN) fiercely opposed Vargas, his statism, and his popularity among the poor. One of the most vocal critics of the Vargas government was journalist and politician Carlos Lacerda, who used his newspapers to hurl invectives and calumnies against Vargas. On August 5th, two men from one of Vargas’s bodyguard corps attempted to assassinate Lacerda in front of his apartment building in Copacabana. Lacerda was allegedly wounded in the foot, but the gunman managed to kill officer Rubens Vaz of the Brazilian Air Force, leaving Vargas to allegedly say “Carlos Lacerda took a shot to the foot. I took two shots to the back!”
Although there is no evidence to suggest Vargas had ever ordered the attempt, the chief of his guard was implicated in the assassination. The UDN, which Vargas defeated in the 1950 elections, saw an opening, and pushed for Vargas’s ouster, insisting the president was involved and that he had to go; Lacerda in particular used his newspapers to continue the attacks on Vargas. Facing mounting pressure from both the UDN and the military to resign, Vargas met with his cabinet on the night of August 23. After the meeting, he retired to his room in the presidential Palácio do Catete where, in the wee hours of the morning of August 24, he put a gun to his heart and pulled the trigger, committing suicide at the age of 72.
By committing suicide rather than resigning, Vargas managed in death to gain the control over the narrative and his legacy that he had lost in life. Overnight, he went from a man implicated in a political scandal to the martyred “Father of the Poor.” Vargas himself played no small part in this transformation; in a suicide note he left behind, he condemned “the forces and the interests against the people” that had tried to hurt the nation by targeting Vargas, declaring
They do not accuse me, they insult me; they do not fight me, they slander me and do not give me the right to defend myself. They need to suffocate my voice and impede my actions, so that I do not continue to defend, as I have always defended, the people and especially the humble. I follow the fate that is imposed on me. […] Serenely, I take the first step on the path to eternity and I leave life to enter into history.
With these words, Vargas had outmaneuvered his opponents; Lacerda himself had to go into hiding, and nearly all sympathy he’d gained in the wake of the assassination attempt disappeared. Thousands of mourning Brazilians lined the streets of Rio de Janeiro to bid farewell to the “Father of the Poor” who they felt had fought for them and listened to their voices and needs more than other politicians. In the wake of his suicide, Vargas’s ghost hovered over Brazilian politics for years to come. Indeed, President João Goulart, whom the military ultimately overthrew in 1964 as it began its 21-year dictatorship, had briefly served as Vargas’s Minister of Labor before being elected Vice President in 1955 and again in 1960; and in 1985, Tancredo Neves, who had been Vargas’s Minister of Justice from 1953 until his suicide, became the first civilian elected to the presidency after 21 years of military rule (though Neves would die before he could take office). Even in the twenty-first century, politicians still refer to Vargas in order to indicate that they, like he, are populists who will fight for the people as he did.
Vargas may not have been able to control the scandal that erupted around him in August of 1954, but with that self-inflicted gunshot on August 24, he managed in no small part to shape his legacy, one that still resonates in Brazilian politics and society today.