Get to Know a Brazilian – Ernesto Geisel

This week continues the recent focus on military presidents by turning to Ernesto Geisel (1907-1996), the fourth and penultimate of the presidents of Brazil’s twenty-one year military dictatorship. Geisel governed from 1974 to 1979, overseeing growing economic turmoil, the beginning of political re-openings under military rule, and internal challenges from hardliners within the military during his administration (1974-1979).

Ernesto Geisel (1907-1996), who from 1974-1979 served as the fourth president of Brazil’s military dictatorship of 1964-1985.

Ernesto Beckmann Geisel was born in August 1907 to German immigrants in the southern-most state of Rio Grande do Sul, the third consecutive military president who was born there (after Artur Costa e Silva and Emílio Garrastazu Médici). Geisel was one of five children, and the youngest of four boys. In 1921, he followed the footsteps of two of his older brothers by joining the military (the other went on to become a chemical engineer and university professor), enrolling in the Military School of Porto Alegre, where he finished at the top of his class in 1924. His performance in military school was not an anomaly; he also finished first in his ongoing military training at schools in Realengo and in officer training in the 1930s.

As had so many others of the military in his generation, Geisel actively supported the 1930 revolution that brought Getúlio Vargas into power. Like his military presidential predecessors, he also served in the Revolution of 1932 that saw the state of São Paulo revolt against the Vargas government. After a brief stint in government in the 1930s, he returned to the School of Training for Army Officers, where in 1938 he once again finished at the top of his class. He continued his officer training from 1941-1943. Although Brazil had officially entered World War II by 1944, Geisel did not see action in the European theater, instead going to the United States, where in 1945 he finished training at Fort Leavenworth’s Army Command and General Staff College.

Ernesto Geisel with Getúlio Vargas in 1940. Like many military men of his age (including the three men who served as military presidents prior to Geisel), Geisel had supported the 1930 Revolution that brought Vargas to power.

Ernesto Geisel with Getúlio Vargas in 1940. Like many military men of his age (including the three men who served as military presidents prior to Geisel), Geisel had supported the 1930 Revolution that brought Vargas to power.

After the war, Geisel continued to balance his status as an officer with roles in government, serving as Brazil’s military aide to Brazil’s embassy in Uruguay before returning  to serve in various functions, including serving as a member of Brazil’s Escola Superior de Guerra (War College; ESG), in the 1950s. After Vargas committed suicide in 1954, Geisel briefly served as the sub-chief of the Military Cabinet in the presidency of (former) vice president João Café Filho. He continued to move up through the military ranks, even while his background in government allowed him as a bridge between the military and technocratic worlds. Geisel opposed what many perceived to be the increasing leftism of president João Goulart, and when the military overthrew Goulart on April 1, 1964, Geisel quickly became a member of the new military regime, serving as the chief of the Military Cabinet under the first president of the regime, Humberto Castelo Branco.

Ernesto Geisel (second from right) while serving as head of the Military Cabinet during the presidency of Humberto Castelo Branco (on right, in suit) from 1964-1967.

Ernesto Geisel (second from right) while serving as head of the Military Cabinet during the presidency of Humberto Castelo Branco (on right, in suit) from 1964-1967.

Under Castelo Branco, Geisel became one of the key figures of the so-called “Sorbonne” group, thus named due to their alleged intellectual qualities. Although the military dictatorship presented a publicly unified face, behind the scenes, splits were emerging between Castelo Branco and the “Sorbonne” group on the one hand, and military hardliners (with Costa e Silva as their figurehead) who wanted more repressive measures taken against opponents. While Geisel condemned the use of torture after the coup and opposed the ascent of Costa e Silva (who was Castelo Branco’s Minister of War) behind closed doors, Castelo Branco ultimately was unwilling to divide the military regime, and stepped aside for Costa e Silva in 1967. The rise of the hardliners, first under Costa e Silva and then under Médici, meant the marginalization of Geisel in the military governments. Though he continued to serve as a minister in the Supreme Military Tribunal from 1967-1969 and as president from Petrobras, Brazil’s state-owned energy company, from 1969 to 1973, he was effectively ostracized from national politics under military rule.

Though Geisel was far from the organs of government under the hardliners, he had an ally in his older brother, Orlando Geisel, also a general. Orlando ultimately served as the head of the Serviço Nacional de Informações (National Information Service; SNI) under Médici during the most repressive years of the regime. The SNI had been Médici’s launching point for the presidency; when he asked Orlando to consider succeeding him, Orlando turned it down, instead recommending his brother. Médici convinced other military leaders to support the nomination, and Ernesto Geisel became the candidate for the president, overwhelmingly winning the indirect elections of 1973 and taking office in March 1974. With his election, the hardliners left office for the last time, and the so-called “moderate” “Sorbonne” school in the military returned to the presidency for the first time since 1967.

Orlando Geisel (1905-1979). In his position as the head of the National Information Service (SNI) under Médici, Orlando played a key role in the selection of his younger brother as president.

Orlando Geisel (1905-1979). In his position as the head of the National Information Service (SNI) under Médici, Orlando played a key role in the selection of his younger brother as president.

From the beginning, Geisel’s administration stood in marked contrast to that of his predecessor. Where Médici had been hands-off in governing, allowing his ministers to take care of matters in their departments and creating an atmosphere where the use of torture was widespread, Geisel was a micromanager, involved in the decisions of many of his ministries. Where Médici oversaw a period of heightened repression and crackdown on political rights (referred to as the anos de chumbo, or “years of lead”), Geisel initiated a program of a “gradual, slow, and secure distensão,” or “distending” the military from the government. Although he maintained some of the policies of his predecessors from both the hardliners and the Sorbonne school – notably the dual policy of “development and security” articulated in the ESG – his administration was in many ways a rupture.

However, the “gradual” opening was definitely gradual, and not always linear. While the government under Geisel eased censorship and even allowed candidates from the blanket “opposition” party Movimento Democrático Brasileiro (Democratic Brazilian Movement ; MDB) to campaign for congressional elections, his government continued to openly and brutally persecute the Leninist Brazilian Communist Party (PCB), and his regime finalized operations against guerrillas in the Araguaia region of Brazil, where the dictatorship “disappeared” dozens. And while Geisel himself privately opposed torture, he found it difficult to immediately rein it in after security apparatuses had operated with relatively free rein under Médici. Thus, in 1975, Vladimir Herzog, a journalist, was found dead in his cell; although the military officials in São Paulo claimed he had hanged himself, it was quickly clear that he had died under torture. The death of worker Manoel Fiel Filho under similar circumstances in 1976 made clear that, while Geisel might want an opening in the regime, the hardliners were less willing to acquiesce. This led Geisel to relieve of his duties the general responsible for troops in São Paulo, setting the stage for growing behind-the-scenes conflict between Geisel and the hardliners.

The body of Vladimir Herzog in his cell. Though military officials claimed Herzog had hanged himself and attempted to use this photo to prove it, the staged nature of the photo along with prisoners' accounts and Herzog's own history made clear he had died under torture. His death, and the death of others undermined Geisel's claims of an opening in government and set the stage for internal conflict in the military regime; meanwhile, Herzog's photo became a key symbol of the military's repression, both during the dictatorship and in the decades since.

The body of Vladimir Herzog in his cell. Though military officials claimed Herzog had hanged himself and attempted to use this photo to prove it, the staged nature of the photo along with prisoners’ accounts and Herzog’s own history made clear he had died under torture. His death, and the death of others undermined Geisel’s claims of an opening in government and set the stage for internal conflict in the military regime; meanwhile, Herzog’s photo became a key symbol of the military’s repression, both during the dictatorship and in the decades since.

Although the public was generally unaware of these tensions within the military government, behind the scenes, things were coming to a head. In October 1977, Sylvio Frota, a hard-liner and Geisel’s Minister of the Army [previously called the Ministry of War, today’s Minister of Defense], began to maneuver to become the next presidential candidate against Geisel’s wishes but with the support of hardliners. As Geisel refused to acknowledge Frota’s candidacy, Frota began to plan a plot to remove Geisel, but before he acted, the president outmaneuvered him, using a national holiday to fire Frota, knowing full well troops who might have rallied to Frota would not be in the barracks that day. Though Frota tried to rally his support, Geisel had already ensured the support of the generals who were considering supporting Frota; Frota’s failed power-grab ensured that the “moderates” would continue in office.

Ernesto Geisel's Minister of the Army Sylvio Frota (second from left), standing next to Geisel. Frota, a hardliner, attempted to run for president, but found himself outmaneuvered by Geisel in 1977.

Ernesto Geisel’s Minister of the Army Sylvio Frota (second from left), standing next to Geisel. Frota, a hardliner, attempted to run for president, but found himself outmaneuvered by Geisel in 1977.

Though Geisel moved against hardliners in the state under military rule, he was by no means bereft of his own authoritarianism. That distensão that he sought was to be top-down; challenges to it from society would not be tolerated. Thus, after the opposition party MDB made significant gains in the 1974 congressional elections, he enacted a law in 1976 that prohibited candidates from making live appearances on television or radio. And in 1977, when Congress refused to pass a judicial reform bill that Geisel had sent to Congress, he closed Congress for 14 days, during which he continued the indirect elections of governors at the state level and established the indirect elections of 1/3 of the senators (perjoratively labeled “bionic senators”), thus giving the government enough of a majority to ensure Geisel’s future bills would pass. Nor were such actions limited to electoral politics. Although censorship eased under Geisel, it did not disappear, leading to bizarre cases of censorship; indeed, at one point, nearly all of popular and polemic singer Chico Buarque’s songs were censored, leading to Buarque to create an alter-ego, “Julinho da Adelaide,” a name under which he not only recorded a handful of songs, but gave interviews.

Geisel’s administration was an eventful one in other policy areas, as well. Although the military regime had issued a widespread university reform in 1968, by 1977, the shortcomings of that reform had become painfully obvious, leading Geisel to issue another reform focusing especially on graduate education in Brazil in 1977. He also inaugurated subway lines in both Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, and his administration oversaw a significant portion of the construction of the Itaipu Dam that Brazil and Paraguay share. Geisel also used his office to legalize divorce in Brazil, much to the consternation of many Catholics and cultural conservatives.

Although Geisel was fiercely anticommunist, he diversified Brazil’s diplomatic ties, including with Africa; indeed, under Geisel, Brazil was one of the first countries in the world to recognize the MPLA government in Angola in 1975, in spite of the fact that the MPLA was officially (if not realistically) Leninist while the Brazilian military regime was right-wing. Brazil entered into negotiations with West Germany to help Brazil get the parts and materials to start its own nuclear program in 1975 (though it would not be until ten years later that the first reactor at the Angra dos Reis plant was operational). In the final months of his presidency, he announced the expiration of the repressive Ato Institucional 5 (Institutional Act Number 5; AI-5), which Costa e Silva had issued in December 1968 and which had served as a key component in establishing the repression that followed throughout the late-1960s and throughout the 1970s. Though he hoped to continue the economic successes of Brazil’s economic “miracle” from 1967 to 1973, by 1974, global economic turmoil, including the 1973 oil crisis, hit Brazil hard, as did the fact that much of the economic growth of the “miracle” had depended on foreign loans whose repayment hit Brazil hard as global economic conditions worsened in the latter half of the 1970s. Thus, though he attempted to reduce dependency on foreign capital for infrastructure and industry, inflation was only worsening by the end of his term (though it would get much worse in the 1980s).

After leaving office, he continued to remain in close contact with the military. In 1985, he spoke out in favor of opposition candidate Tancredo Neves, helping to quell some of the opposition within the armed forces to Neves’s candidacy. He also continued to work in the oil business, where he’d acquired experience in his time as president of Petrobras. In the 1990s, he left much of his private and public documents, including from his presidency, to the Fundação Getúlio Vargas, and even sat down for interviews to provide an oral history of his government and his life. These collections and materials have given (and continue to give) scholars unprecedented insights into the operation of the military regime, and are one of the richest fonts for research on the dictatorship in Brazil. Shortly after his 89th birthday in 1996, Geisel died. Though his legacy is a complex one, the fact remains that his administration marked an important turning point in the dictatorship and in Brazilian politics.

Advertisements

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.
This entry was posted in Brazil, Brazil's Military Dictatorship, Get to Know a Brazilian, Human Rights Issues, Human Rights Violations, Military Dictatorships, The "Disappeared", Torture. Bookmark the permalink.