Get to Know a Brazilian – Artur Costa e Silva

Continuing with presidents from Brazil’s military dictatorship, this week focuses on Artur Costa e Silva, who served from 1967-1969 as the second president of the military regime.

Artur Costa e Silva (1902-1969), the second president of Brazil's military dictatorship. During his administration, the hard-liners were ascendant, and he issued laws that ushered in the most repressive phase of Brazil's military dictatorship.

Artur Costa e Silva (1899-1969), the second president of Brazil’s military dictatorship. During his administration, the hard-liners were ascendant, and he issued laws that ushered in the most repressive phase of Brazil’s military dictatorship.

Born in 1899 to parents from Madeira, Costa e Silva was the first of three military presidents born in the southern-most state of Rio Grande do Sul. He enrolled at the Military College of Porto Alegre, the state capital, where he finished at the head of his class. In 1922, he joined the Tenetismo movement, a military movement that objected to the oligarchic and slow-moving governments of Brazil’s first republic and that had its roots in a doomed uprising at the Fort of Copacabana in July 1922. Costa e Silva joined the July movement, ultimately being arrested and then pardoned.

Like many of his generation, Costa e Silva participated in the “Revolution of 1930” that brought Getúlio Vargas to power, and fought for the government against rebels in São Paulo two years later.  Unlike Humberto Castelo Branco, his predecessor who had served in Europe during World War II, Costa e Silva never saw combat in the European theater, though he did help organize forces to go abroad; however, he himself did not accompany them, ending up in the United States instead. Throughout the 1940s and 1950s, he continued to rise through the ranks in a variety of posts, including time as the military aide to the Brazilian embassy in Argentina. In 1961, he was promoted to General of the Fourth Army in Recife, where he used his power to suppress student protests in the region, a harbinger of things to come later in the decade. However, he was removed from his post and was relocated Rio de Janeiro as the head of the Personnel Department of the Army.

Costa e Silva in the mid-1950s.

Costa e Silva in the mid-1950s.

In Rio, Costa e Silva was witness to President João Goulart’s rally at Central Station in downtown Rio de Janeiro, where he spoke before hundreds of thousands of supporters and called for land reform, electoral reform, university reform, and other social programs that marked a leftward shift in Goulart’s public pronouncements. The rally seemed to confirm the military’s worst fears that Goulart was a “communist,” fears that had led to the military initially preventing his constitutionally-guaranteed ascendance from the vice-presidency to the presidency when Jânio Quadros resigned in August 1961. On March 31, General Olympio Mourão Filho launched a revolt in Minas Gerais, moving on Rio de Janeiro; by April 1, Goulart had left the country, and the military dictatorship began.

In an attempt to keep up legal appearances, Chamber of Deputies leader Pascoal Ranieri Mazzilli formally assumed the presidency. However, Mazzilli’s position was just window-dressing; real power rested with a military junta (along with the heads of the Air Force and Navy). As the army was the strongest branch of the military, Costa e Silva’s power was effectively the leader of the junta, which was quick to issue the first Institutional Act (originally known as “the” Institutional Act until the regime issued a second Institutional Act in 1965). AI-1, as it came to be retroactively known, promptly ushered in military repression, giving the government the right to suspend the political rights of political opponents; the junta promptly stripped 102 politicians of their rights, allowing it to purge Congress and create an indirect election that would ensure military rule. However, though Costa e Silva had angled to be president, Castelo Branco’s higher rank (and experience in the European theater in World War II) made him the more popular choice. On April 15, Congress chose Castelo Branco as president, ending the charade of the Mazzilli “presidency.”

However, Costa e Silva was not forgotten, as Castelo Branco appointed the general his Minister of War. Using his high-ranking position and his ties to the military, he began angling behind the scenes to become the next president; while Castelo Branco allegedly initially hoped to return Brazil to civilian rule in 1965, elections in 1965 changed his mind, and the hard-liners, seeing a chance with Costa e Silva, began mobilizing to assume the presidency. While Castelo Branco and his aides, known as the “moderates” (and including future military president Ernesto Geisel), opposed the move, Castelo Branco himself did little to prevent Costa e Silva’s angling. Indeed, the hard-liners and Costa e Silva entered into a mutually beneficial relationship; he saw in them the way to the presidency, and they saw in him a man who would take a more hard-line stance against “subversion,” especially among university students; indeed, Costa e Silva’s crackdown on students in the early-1960s seemed to be a promising sign to the hard-liners. Though Geisel tried to prevent Costa e Silva’s candidacy, Costa e Silva outranked and outmaneuvered the “moderates” in Castelo Branco’s administration, and in October 1966, the pro-dictatorship Congress indirectly elected Costa e Silva to serve as the country’s next military president. He took office on March 15, 1967.

As president he sought to further strengthen ties to the U.S., appealing to Cold War rhetoric that pitted “democracy” against “subversives.” He also sought to continue the economic policies that had begun under Castelo Branco, pushing for industrial growth, a greater ease of access to credit, and inflation control; under his administration, the foundation was laid for Brazil’s “economic miracle,” which led to over 10% annual growth between 1969 and 1974 but that was built on a foundation of foreign debt that would send the economy spiraling out of control by the end of the 1970s. Costa e Silva also sought to establish a variety of social programs to improve Brazil’s “development” in a number of ways. He reformed the Indian Protection Services, renaming it the National Foundation of the Indian, in order to protect indigenous rights and lands. However, during his administration, the government also created the Indian Rural Guard, which became a key institution in targeting and repressing native communities. In an attempt to expand Brazil’s economy and strengthen its industry so as to appear more “developed” and compete on the global stage, he created the Empresa Brasileira de Aeronáutica, better known as Embraer, which makes military and commercial planes for the global market (and which was privatized in 1994 as part of neoliberal president Fernando Henrique Cardoso’s quest to sell of any and all state-owned companies he could). Education was also a major focus of his administration. In 1967, he created the Movimento Brasileiro de Alfabetização (Brazilian Literacy Movement; MOBRAL) to address the high illiteracy rates in the country, especially in rural areas. He launched several studies. Perhaps most importantly, he created several study-groups (both foreign and domestic) to examine the Brazilian university system; ultimately, these studies led to the dictatorship’s 1968 university reform. The new reforms, the first comprehensive higher education policy in over 30 years, would transform the university system in Brazil, leading to increasingly privatized universities throughout the 1970s and 1980s.

In spite of these economic and social policies, however, he faced an increasingly turbulent political landscape. As he took office, social mobilization against the regime was on the rise; a gradually-reconstituted National Students Union was increasingly mobilizing against the regime for its repression and its ties to the US through agreements between the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). Student protests prompted increasingly violent police crackdowns, which only furthered the protest movements. In March of 1968, at one protest, police opened fire, killing high-school student Edson Luís de Lima Souto. Students promptly took his body to the former Chamber of Deputies in Rio de Janeiro, putting it on display and draping it in a Brazilian flag; the funeral for the young man brought thousands to the street, marking an intensification in protests.

Students gathered around the body of Edson Luís de Lima Souto, a teenager whom police murdered during student protests in March 1968. Though there had been anti-dictatorship protests since 1966, the death of Edson Luís marked a new intensity that would define protests in Brazil throughout 1968.

Students gathered around the body of Edson Luís de Lima Souto, a teenager whom police murdered during student protests in March 1968. Though there had been anti-dictatorship protests since 1966, the death of Edson Luís marked a new intensity that would define protests in Brazil throughout 1968.

Thousands of students and protesters march through the streets of Rio de Janeiro, carrying Edson Luís's coffin (draped in a Brazilian flag) to a cemetery in Botafogo even while protesting against the military regime.

Thousands of students and protesters march through the streets of Rio de Janeiro, carrying Edson Luís’s coffin (draped in a Brazilian flag) to a cemetery in Botafogo even while protesting against the military regime.

From March onward, protests intensified. Artists joined students in the streets, and middle-class parents whose children were often the victims of police violence began to pine for a return to democracy after four years of military rule. In June 1968, 100,000 people marched in Rio de Janeiro in what had been up to that point the largest street protest in Brazilian history. Though the military successfully arrested nearly 900 student-leaders at the failed UNE National Congress in rural São Paulo in October 1968, students continued to mobilize, insisting that the arrest of leadership would not stop them and chanting “UNE is us, our force and our voice” [“A UNE somos nós, nossa força e nossa voz”]. Behind the scenes, the hardliners grew increasingly frustrated and looked for a way to intensify repression and strengthen their control legally.

The excuse for intensified repression came in September 1968. That month, an opposition politician, Márcio Moreira Alves, gave a speech encouraging Brazilian women not to dance with or date members of the military. Though not many civilians paid attention to what became known as the “Lysistrata” speech, the military had a pretext to act. Insisting that their honor had been attacked, the military demanded that Congress strip Moreira Alves of his congressional immunity so that they could prosecute him. In December, Congress, which had been purged to create acquiescence to military demands, refused the military’s demand, voting to allow Moreira Alves to keep his immunity and even singing the national anthem after the vote. The military moved quickly, and on Friday, December 13, Costa e Silva issued Institutional Act No. 5. This act immediately and indefinitely suspended Congress, giving the president even greater authority; it also stripped even more politicians and other civilians of their political rights, prompted a wave of arrests against students, workers, and artists, and ushered in what came to be known as Brazil’s “years of lead,” with heavy repression and the intensified use of torture and state-sponsored murder. Although street confrontations and protests continued into 1969, the new atmosphere of repression ultimately forced many groups underground or into exile by the beginning of 1970s.

Though scholars and military members have debated to what degree Costa e Silva was involved in the crackdown, all generally agree he was sympathetic with the intensified repression. However, as 1969 progressed, his health began to waver under the stress of the job. In late August of 1969, he had a stroke that rendered him ineffective. Unprepared to deal with the crisis, the military leadership kept his condition a secret. His wife, Yolanda, assumed a greater degree of power behind the scenes, something that increasingly rankled many men in his cabinet. At the same time, in the first week of September, student radicals who, like the rest of Brazil, were completely unaware of Costa e Silva’s incapacitated state, kidnapped US ambassador Charles Elbrick, demanding the release of 15 imprisoned colleagues and the reading of their demands on national television and radio in exchange for the ambassador. The timing could not have been worse for the upper echelons of the military regime; with the one clear “leader” paralyzed from a stroke, they were divided over whether to fulfill the students’ demands or to let the ambassador die. Ultimately, the regime met the students’ demands; 15 political prisoners were sent to Mexico (though just barely – members of the air force arrived at the Galeão airport in Rio de Janeiro to stop the departure, but they were too late), and Elbrick was set free. Ultimately, a military junta led by the members of the Army, Air Force, and Navy once again assumed control temporarily, announcing Costa e Silva’s sickness and preparing for the selection of a new president. By the end of October, general Emílio Garrastazu Médici had been selected and “approved” by a briefly-reconvened Congress, and Costa e Silva left office formally.

His time as ex-president would be brief. He never recovered from his stroke, and on December 17, 1969, almost exactly one year after issuing Institutional Act No. 5, Costa e Silva died of a heart attack; like his predecessor, Castelo Branco, he died just a few months after formally leaving office. Though he did not survive to see the long-term effects of his policies, there is little doubt he transformed Brazil, and not for the better. His economic policies created the house of cards that (falsely) indicated success in the first part of the 1970s but that became increasingly illusory in the latter half of the decade. His educational policies often fell short of their goals, and even efforts to rapidly expand the federal university system created new infrastructural problems that needed a second reform in the mid-1970s and led to the increasing privatization of higher education. Perhaps most importantly, his issuance of Institutional Act No. 5 ushered in one of the most repressive eras in Brazil’s history, as the regime tortured thousands, murdered and “disappeared” hundreds, and forced the exile of thousands more between 1969 and 1979. Thus, though Costa e Silva’s presidency was relatively brief, its impact would play out and negatively affect the lives of hundreds of thousands of Brazilians for years to come.

This is part of an ongoing series. Previous posts have looked at architect Oscar Niemeyer, musician Gilberto Gil, incomparable author João Guimarães Rosa, and anthropologist Gilberto Freyre.

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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