Get to Know a Brazilian – Getúlio Vargas

With the anniversary of his suicide last week, this week we look in depth at Getúlio Vargas, president, dictator, populist, reformer, and a transformative figure in Brazilian history.

Getúlio Vargas (1882-1954), whose impact on Brazilian politics, society, culture, and memory still resonates in Brazil today.

Getúlio Dorneles Vargas was born to a gaúcho family in April 1882 in São Borja, bordering Argentina in Brazil’s southernmost state, Rio Grande do Sul. His parents sent him to study in Minas Gerais, one of the two main political poles during Brazil’s First Republic (1889-1930), but after a fight that resulted in the death of a fellow student, Vargas returned home, becoming a soldier at the age of 16. After several years and promotions, Vargas attended the Law School of what is today the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul. He settled in São Borja, where he practiced law, getting married in 1910. One year earlier, he was elected a state deputy in the legislature for Rio Grande do Sul, marking the beginning of what would be a long and complex political career. He continued to serve off and on in the Rio Grande do Sul state government throughout the 1910s and 1920s, making a name for himself regionally and nationally. He served as the Finance Minister of president Washington Luís beginning in 1926 for over a year. In 1928, he was elected Governor of Rio Grande do Sul, where he served until the tumultuous events of 1930.

In Brazil’s First Republic, there were no national political parties, and so a president was generally responsible for picking and guiding his successor while balancing regional political interests. This had led to a system in which politicians and agricultural elites from the powerful states of São Paulo and Minas Gerais had alternated presidencies in the “Café com leite,” or  “Coffee with milk” politics [São Paulo’s economy was driven by coffee, and Minas Gerais was Brazil’s largest dairy producer, hence the name]. Under the traditional politics, most expected Washington Luís, a paulista, to pick a mineiro.  However, some politicians, including powerful mineiros, suggested Luís nominate Vargas for the presidency in a “conciliatory” option that chose neither a politician from São Paulo or Minas Gerais.

Luís did buck the trend, but not the way some had wanted, instead nominating another São Paulo politician. While governors in seventeen of Brazil’s twenty states supported the nomination, Minas Gerais, Rio Grande do Sul, and Paraíba all objected, and Vargas ran against Júlio Prestes, losing in an election in March 1930 that both sides claimed was marked by fraud. However, by the election, Brazil’s economy, heavily dependent on monocrop coffee production, was in the throes of the Great Depression. As the bottom dropped out of the global coffee market, a growing number of dissatisfied groups merged, including industrialists who lamented the lack of development in Brazil and the control of the rural bourgeoisie over national politics and military officers who throughout the 1920s had increasingly challenged the cafe-com-leite politics. In October 1930 that year, the military, which had been actively involved in national politics since the nineteenth century, deposed Washington Luís and installed Getúlio Vargas as “provisional” president in what came to be known as the Revolution of 1930. In spite of his title as “provisional,” Vargas would continue to govern the country for the next fifteen years as president and dictator.

Getúlio Vargas enjoying a relaxed moment shortly after the military overthrew president Washington Luís and named Vargas “provisional” president in the Revolution of 1930.

As provisional president, Vargas was able to govern through decrees, and he used his powers to dissolve Congress,  suspend the 1891 Constitution, and remove all military members who had supported the previous presidency. With the Great Depression having revealed the flaws of monocrop coffee production and the failings of the federative system, Vargas was determined to centralize the federal government, creating the state power necessary to implement interventionist policies designed to reduce the impact of the Great Depression on Brazil. However, some states were unwilling to relinquish the power and autonomy they had exercised under the federative First Republic, and in 1932, São Paulo, the most powerful of these states, rose up in rebellion in the Constitutionalist Revolution. From July to October, Brazil was in a state of quasi-civil war, as more than 50,000 paulistas fought against state and national forces that ultimately numbered more than 100,000. In the nearly-three month conflict, upwards of 3000 Brazilians died on both sides; ultimately, the national forces were victorious, but Vargas agreed  to allow elections to create a new constitutional convention,one of the paulistas‘ demands.

An anti-Vargas poster from the 1932 Constitutionalist Revolution. The image includes the São Paulo flag and a “bandeirante,” the traditional figure of São Paulo, holding the hyper-diminutive Vargas.

Gaúcho troops from Rio Grande do Sul encamped in São Paulo during the Constitutionalist Revolution of 1932.

Elections were held in 1933, and was notable in that it was the first time women were allowed to vote in presidential elections in Brazil [they would not have the opportunity again until after World War II]. By July of 1934, Brazil had a new constitution that gave the newly-centralized government power unprecedented in Brazil up to that point. With the new Constitution, Vargas had the power to implement reforms throughout the country, and he began corporatist projects that saw state intervention in almost all aspects of life. He advocated import-substitution industrialization, designed to make Brazil simultaneously independent of foreign producers of finished goods while also spurring national development. He also began to regulate industry without gaining the opposition of industrialists who were pleased at the new emphasis on industrial development. Under his government, he also rapidly expanded social welfare programs, playing up his role as the populist “Father of the Poor” and improving wages even while he cracked down on union activity that ran against or created obstacles for his vision of development. His government even created new museums and monuments in an attempt to forge a “national” identity in a Brazil that had been defined by regionalism and federalism for generations.

Even while implementing these reforms, however, Vargas began to shift further to the right, demonstrating his ideological flexibility in the name of reforming the state, economy, and nation. By 1935, Vargas was using secret police and integralistas (Integralists), a form of Brazilian fascism, to persecute communists. Knowing he could not be re-elected in 1938 due to the new constitution, in 1937 Vargas used a fabricated Communist plot to assume emergency powers, dissolving Congress, cancelling the 1938 elections, and ushering in what came to be known as the “Estado Novo,” or “New State.” Without congressional opposition, Vargas intensified his centralization of state power in this period, establishing and nationalizing the first steel factory in the country among other things. The Estado Novo was also marked by increasing nationalism and authoritarianism, as Vargas employed censorship, directly nominated governors to states, and sponsored massive public events to spur patriotism and a sense of national citizenship in Brazil. Yet the period was also marked by significant social transformations, including the formation of Brazil’s National Student Union, the sponsoring of cultural projects designed to detail and archive Brazil’s folkloric expressions, and professionalizing the government bureaucracy.

Propaganda from the Estado Novo period, portraying Vargas as the national father. The text reads:
“Children! Learning, at home and in school, the cult of the Fatherland, you will bring all chances of success to life. Only love builds and, strongly loving Brazil, you will lead it to the greatest of destinies among Nations, fulfilling the desires of exaltation nestled in every Brazilian’s heart.”

With the advent of World War II, Vargas, ever the politician, broke off his ties with European fascists and allied with the United States, seeing in the North American power a chance for Brazilian industry to get both the infrastructure and the contracts it needed to thrive. With popular pressure mounting, including from the new National Student Union, Brazil declared war on the Axis Powers in 1942; one year later, Brazil created the Brazilian Expeditionary Force, ultimately sending over 27,000 soldiers and civilians to fight in the European theater, where 1600 died, making Brazil the only Latin American country to supply troops to the war effort.

However, in fighting for democracy against the Nazis in Europe, Vargas’s own position as a dictator who had governed for more than ten years was becoming increasingly untenable. Students again took to the streets, demanding a return to democracy, and the military forces, elites, and others were also beginning to align against Vargas. In this context, he again shifted somewhat left from his previous stances, declaring an amnesty for political prisoners, courting workers through labor regulations and reforms, ratcheting up his populist appeals, and creating two new political parties, the Partido Trabalhista Brasileiro [Brazilian Labor Party, PTB], and the Partido Social Democrático [Social Democratic Party, PSD]. These were not enough to save him, however, and in October of 1945, military leaders from his own government deposed him.

His removal from office did not lead to an equivalent disappearance from  politics, however. Vargas continued to be remarkably popular in his home state, which elected him senator in 1946; ironically, São Paulo, which had risen in rebellion against him just 14 years earlier, also elected him senator, showing just how effective his popularity among workers and some industrialists was. He served from 1946-1947 before returning to Rio Grande and beginning to build up the national networks for the PTB. In 1950, he announced he was running for president again, and he was the nominee on the tickets for both the PTB and the PSD, the parties he’d created in 1950. With the help of São Paulo’s governor, Ademar de Barros, Vargas carried the state and the country, winning the election with 3.6 million votes to Eduardo Gomes’s 2.3 million votes and Cristiano Machado’s 1.6 million.

While many were thrilled with Vargas’s return, many others were furious, fearing a return to dictatorship or contemptuous of Vargas’s willingness to work for the improvement of the lives of Brazil’s working classes via measures like increases in the minimum wage or pro-union legislation. He also continued his previous attempts towards nationalizing and strengthening Brazil’s economy; in 1953, he created the state-run company Petrobras and nationalized oil production, and he passed several laws that improved the banking infrastructure and stability in Brazil.

This was not enough, however, to stem conservative opposition to Vargas. In 1954, Brazilian conservatives in politics and the military seemed to be given a gift, as two of Vargas’s bodyguards were tied to an assassination attempt on politician and journalist Carlos Lacerda, an attempt that left an air force officer dead. With pressure mounting for Vargas to resign, he met with his cabinet and then retired to his room where, on August 24, he committed suicide. In the process, he became a martyr, and millions of Brazilians mourned the death of the man they’d called the “Father of the Poor.”

Vargas’s impact on Brazil at all levels cannot be overstated. Certainly, he influenced future politicians who were involved in his governments, including João Goulart and Tancredo Neves. He created the centralized government and a sense of national community that exist today; his populist approach to politics is something many Brazilian politicians have adapted and employed into the 21st century; much of his labor legislation remains in place or is the basis of more recent reforms; Brazil’s diverse economy and move away from dependence on coffee is traceable directly to the Vargas years; he transformed the way the bureaucracy operates; his patrimony projects laid the groundwork for cultural and historical preservation that aid researchers, scholars, architects, and others, both from Brazil and from the international community, today. And that only scratches the surface of Vargas’s legacy, as complex and wide-ranging as the man’s politics and actions themselves.

Previous posts in this series have included Vinicius de Moraes and Machado de Assis.

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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2 Responses to Get to Know a Brazilian – Getúlio Vargas

  1. Randy Paul says:

    Have you ever read Robert Levine’s book, “The Father of the Poor?” (the question mark is in the title). I recommend it. My father-in-law loved Vargas.

    I always found it interesting that both Vargas and Goulat both came from Sao Borja.

    • I have – it’s actually on the bookshelf. It certainly makes a compelling case (hence why I referred to PERCEPTIOMS of Vargas as Father of the Poor without actually SAYING he was).

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