This week marks the first of what will be a five-part series that chronologically looks at the lives of the five generals who served as president during Brazil’s military dictatorship of 1964-1985.
Humberto de Alencar Castelo Branco, born in the northeastern state of Ceará in 1897, came from a relatively well-known family. An only child, Humberto’s father had been a general himself, and he was also related to the well-known nineteenth-century author José de Alencar on his mother’s side. By 1918, he had followed his father’s path into the army, attending a military school in the southern-most state of Rio Grande do Sul before becoming a member of the infantry in 1921. He became a junior officer by 1923, and returned to serve as an instructor at his military school in 1927. In this time, he also married Argentina Viana, with whom he had two children. Allegedly, his short stature and square frame allegedly led his future father-in-law to question whether he had some genetic defect, but apparently satisfied that was not the case, the marriage took place.
Like many of his generation, Castelo Branco was a part of the Revolution of 1930 that installed Getúlio Vargas as president. During his career, Castelo Branco studied at both the US Command and General Staff College in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, as well as at the French Ecole Superior de Guerre. He continued to move up through the ranks throughout the 1930s, becoming a captain and then, by 1943, a lieutenant-colonel. His timing coincided with Brazil’s entrance into World War II, when, in 1943, the army created the Força Expedicionária Brasileira (Brazilian Expeditionary Force; FEB); with the FEB, Brazil became the only Latin American country to send troops to fight in the war. Castelo Branco was sent to the Italian theater with the FEB, where he was responsible for military maneuvers against Italian forces. While there, he also met Vernon A. Walters, a US officer (and future Ambassador to the United Nations under Ronald Reagan) responsible as a correspondent between the FEB and the US Fifth Army; the two men’s paths would cross again twenty years later.
With Vargas’s suicide in 1954, the military once again involved itself in politics, just as it had done in 1930, 1937, and 1945. Castelo Branco ended up supporting Minister of War General Henrique Lott, who pre-emptively moved against military leaders who wanted to prevent the inauguration of president-elect Juscelino Kubitschek and vice president-elect João Goulart; Lott’s actions ensured that the two men would constitutioally assume office. Though Castelo Branco had supported the constitutionalist faction in the army, the workers’ support of Kubitschek and his vice president (and former Minister of Labor under Vargas) led Castelo Branco to withdraw support from Lott. Castelo Branco continued to serve, becoming General overseeing the Fourth Army in Brazil’s northeast, and publishing essays on strategy and tactics for the army in the present and future. In the early-1960s, as ideological divisions widened in Brazil, he made clear his more conservative tendencies, promoting a worldview where the armed forces would play a central role in defending the “people” from both communism and fascism in a Cold War struggle that he (anachronistically) traced back to Lenin. His experience (including in World War II), high rank, and respect among his peers led to João Goulart, who had become president in 1961, to nominate Castelo Branco as Joint Chief of the Army in 1963; it would be a fateful decision.
By March of 1964, as inflation reached more than 100% (due in part to economic practices and governmental policies from the 1950s), Goulart finally embraced a more radical stance that many of his supporters, including students and workers, had been calling for. A speech in March 1964 at the base of the Ministry of War (where Castelo Branco sat, watching from his office as Goulart addressed hundreds of thousands of workers ) and Goulart’s support of striking sergeants in what the military elites saw as an undermining of military discipline and hierarchy, led to the military moving against the president. Vernon Walters, then the CIA attache to the US embassy, used his contacts from World War II, including Castelo Branco, and assured the military that US President Lyndon Johnson would support an effort to remove Goulart due to “communism;” ultimately, the military moved. Goulart’s government collapsed so quickly that the battleships and troops that Johnson had sent to Brazil had not yet arrived, and the president called them back. Nonetheless, the US had diplomatically played a part in the coup. The military regime that took power would last 21 years and use torture, repression, censorship, and “disappearances,” among other things, all in the name of the fight against “subversion.”
Though a provisional military junta, led by General Artur Costa e Silva, governed in the first days of the military regime, a consensus quickly emerged that Castelo Branco would make for the ideal president; his status as one of the highest-ranking officers in the army, the respect he earned for his service in Italy and his writings on war and the army in the Cold War, his perceived ability to reach out to the middle- and upper-classes for support, and his personal history with Walters were all seen as marks in his favor. Proclaiming itself both “revolutionary” and “democratic,” Congress indirectly elected Castelo Branco president on April 11, and he was formally inaugurated on April 15, 1964, with the expectation he would serve out the remainder of Goulart’s term (set to expire in January 1966). While many Brazilians who supported the coup expected this to be the case, the military ultimately would decide otherwise.
Even while the military hid behind the mask of protecting “democracy” from the “dictatorship” of communism, it increasingly limited democracy in Brazil. Castelo Branco assumed office with the Ato Institucional (Institutional Act) already in place; among other things, the Act allowed the use of torture against “subversives,” imposed limited censorship, and stripped the political rights of politicians perceived as threats (including the deposed Goulart and Kubitschek himself), purging Congress of those who vociferously opposed the military regime. Though the Ato Institucional was initially perceived as an exceptional and unique act, it would ultimately be the first of seventeen institutional acts that the military leaders imposed between 1964 and 1969.
Though Castelo Branco governed during a period of a variety of human rights violations, he was also considered the leader of the “moderate” faction, in contraposition to “hard-liners” who wanted a harsher crackdown on a wider number of subversive threats. Castelo Branco emphasized his desire to stabilize the Brazilian economy and reduce inflation; by 1966, he seemed to have some success, as it dropped to below 30%. He also strengthened the executive branch, creating the Serviço Nacional de Informações (National Information Services; SNI), an intelligence agency that oversaw internal spying, repression, and espionage. In an attempt to crack down on student opposition, he stripped the National Students Union of its official status, creating the National Directory of Students, which was directly responsible to the military regime, as an alternative; however, these efforts failed, and university students would become the most vocal and visible opponents of the regime throughout the remainder of the 1960s. Although it would not be completed until 1968, Castelo Branco also initiated several studies and projects that would ultimately shape the widespread reform of Brazil’s higher education system.
While Castelo Branco tried to reform Brazil’s economic and social landscape, he also transformed the political landscape for the worse, overseeing an intensification of repression and a reduction of democracy even while serving as a so-called “moderate” in a “democratic” regime. After the elections of 1965, when the citizens of the states of Guanabara [Rio de Janeiro city, incorporated into Rio de Janeiro state in 1975] and Minas Gerais elected opposition candidates, Castelo Branco implemented a crackdown on democracy, in part to placate those hardliners in the military. He issued Institutional Act Number 2, which, among other things: banned all political parties and created two new parties, the MDB and ARENA, which became referred to sardonically as the parties of “Yes” and “Yes, sir!”; reinstituted the removal of political rights of opponents; provided the president with the authority to establish a “state of siege” without Congressional approval, close Congress, and remove state officials; and create indirect elections for the presidency, in which the (purged) Congress would elect president. That was followed by Institutional Act No. 3 of 1966, which declared that the elections for governor would also be indirect, and that governors would appoint mayors for the capitals of each state. This not only denied democracy for the executive branch at both the federal and state levels; it also meant that citizens of Brazil’s largest cities (such as São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, Belo Horizonte, Recife, Salvador, and elsewhere) would not be able to elect their mayors, as the capitals of states were often the largest cities of the states. Consequently, the democratic options for an overwhelming majority of Brazilians were almost completely removed, even while the regime proclaimed itself to be “democratic.”
Though Castelo Branco had initially hoped to leave office in January 1966, the institutional acts, and the mobilization of the hard-liners, led to him remaining in office another fifteen months. Meanwhile, the hard-liners threw their support behind his minister of war, Artur Costa e Silva. Unwilling to split the army, Castelo Branco did little to prevent Costa e Silva’s election or the rise of the hard-liners in the military regime. Castelo Branco officially left office in March 1967; with his departure, the hard-liners had taken control of the regime, laying the foundation for the most repressive years of military rule, during which the regime and its security apparatuses tortured thousands of people, murdered hundreds, and led to the exile, forced or self-imposed, of thousands more.
However, Castelo Branco himself would not live to see the fullest extent of the repressive system he played no small part in creating. Only four months after he left office, he died when the plane he was traveling in collided with another in July 1967. Though it was seen as little more than an accident at the time, recently-discovered documents show that the military investigation into the crash was “superficial” at best, raising questions as to whether or not the accident was actually an “accident” (though nothing conclusive suggests it was planned either). Regardless, when he died, Castelo Branco was celebrated as a hero who had served his country in a variety of ways, from World War II to the presidency, and was seen as a leader who had “saved” Brazil from “subversion” and inflation; the fact that he was the first president of a regime that intensified the use of torture and repression and ultimately created financial policies that led to even worse inflation than when it overthrew Goulart in 1964 were events millions of other Brazilians would have to endure, but that Castelo Branco himself escaped.