Get to Know a Brazilian – João Baptista Figueiredo

This week we wrap up a sub-series on the presidents of Brazil’s military dictatorship (1964-1985) by looking at the final and longest-serving of the military presidents, João Baptista Figueiredo, who governed from 1979 to 1985, when the military stepped away from the presidency.

João Baptista Figueiredo (1918-1999), who served as the last president of Brazil's military dictatorship, governing from 1979 to 1985.

João Baptista Figueiredo (1918-1999), who served as the last president of Brazil’s military dictatorship, governing from 1979 to 1985.

Born on January 15, 1918, João Baptista de Oliveira Figueiredo was the first president whose family came from a military background since the first president of the military dictatorship, Humberto Castelo Branco. Though Figueiredo was born in Rio de Janeiro, at 11 he enrolled at the Military School of Porto Alegre in Brazil’s southernmost state of Rio Grande do Sul; in that regard, he continued the trend of his previous 3 predecessors, all of whom hailed from Rio Grande do Sul. Like his predecessors, he had a direct tie to Getúlio Varga’ss regime, albeit of a very different nature. Where previous presidents had supported Vargas’s rise in 1930 and aided the federal government against the 1932 Constitutionalist revolt in São Paulo, Figueiredo’s father, Euclides Figueiredo, led the São Paulo forces in rebellion against Vargas, ultimately leading to his exile after federal forces triumphed over the paulistas. Although in exile in Portugal, João’s father continued to conspire with other Vargas opponents. Euclides returned in 1934 after an amnesty, but he continued his criticisms. After Vargas declared the Estado Novo in 1937, he supported the semi-fascist Integralista uprising in 1938, leading to his arrest. Stripped of his military commission, he was sentenced to four years in prison.

Euclides Figueiredo (1883-1963), father of João Figueiredo. Euclides ended up playing a key role in the 1932 Constitutionalist revolt against Getúlio Vargas, and was both exiled and imprisoned for his opposition. He would die one year before the coup that created the military dictatorship that his son would be a key part of.

Euclides Figueiredo (1883-1963), father of João Figueiredo. Euclides ended up playing a key role in the 1932 Constitutionalist revolt against Getúlio Vargas, and was both exiled and imprisoned for his opposition. He would die one year before the coup that created the military dictatorship that his son would be a key part of.

While João’s father continued to unsuccessfully challenge the government, Figueiredo continued along his military path. Indeed, even while his father was a vocal opponent of Varags, João received a sword from Vargas for finishing first in his class in 1937. A member of the cavalry (fitting well with the gaucho tradition of Rio Grande do Sul), Figueiredo continued to teach in military institutions even while improving his own training and rising through the ranks in the 1940s. After dictator Alfredo Stroessner rose to power in neighboring Paraguay in 1954, Figueiredo was a member of the  Brazilian military mission in Paraguay between 1955 and 1958. Toward the end of the decade, he took courses at the War College in 1960; upon completing his training there, he worked in the Council of National Security in 1961, where he began a career path that would take him through Brazil’s security apparatuses and ultimately to the presidency.

When the military coup of 1964 took place, Figueiredo was an instructor at the Escola de Comando e Estado-Maior do Exército (Command and General Staff College; ECEME) while continuing to serve in national security. Figueiredo supported the coup, and his background in national security led to his nomination as the head of the Serviço Nacional de Informações (National Information Service; SNI) in Rio de Janeiro. Still not a general, he continued to rise through the ranks of the military. In 1969, Emílio Médici, a fellow gaucho, picked Figueiredo as his Chief of the Military Cabinet, a position he held from 1969 to the end of the Médici government in 1974. (During the regime, presidential cabinets were split between a military cabinet and a civilian cabinet, with a Chief of each reporting to the president.) With the selection of Ernesto Geisel in 1974, the military shifted from the hardliner governments of Costa e Silva and Médici back to the “Sorbonne school;” yet Figueiredo bridged the gap, becoming Geisel’s head of the SNI. Geisel decided Figueiredo should be his successor, and elevated his SNI chief to a full general in 1977 so that he could assume the presidency when Geisel left office in 1979. After Geisel successfully outmaneuvered the hard-liners in the military in 1977, Figueiredo’s pathway to the presidency opened. Although there still were no direct presidential elections in Brazil, Figueiredo nonetheless campaigned around the country, and Congress indirectly elected him at the end of 1978. On March 15, 1979, he was officially inaugurated as the fifth (and final) president of Brazil’s military regime.

Ernesto Geisel (left) with Figueiredo (right).

Ernesto Geisel (left) with Figueiredo (right) during Geisel’s presidency (1974-1979), when Figueiredo served as head of the SNI.

Upon taking office, Figueiredo continued the path of reopening Brazilian politics, a process begun under Geisel’s distensão (“detachment”) and continuing with Figueiredo’s abertura (“opening”). In August of 1979, he issued a general amnesty that pardoned political prisoners (but not opponents of the regime who’d been convicted of violent crimes); just as importantly, however, the amnesty pardoned those members of the armed forces and the state under military rule who had committed torture, murder, and “disappearances.” At the time of its declaration, the amnesty covered both torturers and opposition in an effort to “move on,” and while many exiles celebrated the ability to return to Brazil, it also set the stage for a general public tendency to ignore and “forget” the crimes of the regime, with the result that only in the last year has Brazil officially had a truth commission investigate the regime. Figueiredo also undid other dictatorship-era legislation, allowing the previous two parties (MDB and ARENA, jokingly called “the party of ‘yes’ and the party of ‘yes, sir!'” during the most repressive parts of the regime). However, the move was not as democratic as it seemed. Figueiredo hoped that, in allowing new (and multiple) parties, the opposition in the MDB would fragment while the ARENA could continue, allowing an ARENA civilian candidate to win election when he stepped down in 1985. Early on, the move seemed to have success; ARENA simply became the Partido Democrático Social (Democratic Social Party; PDS), while the MDB splintered into a number of parties.

While Figueiredo attempted to control the political climate, economically and socially, he found things slipping out of his control. The long-term effects of the so-called “economic miracle” of 1967-74 were becoming increasingly clear, as Brazil’s foreign debt rapidly grew and the global oil crises of the 1970s hit the economy hard. By the early 1980s, inflation in Brazil had gone over 100%, which was no small matter; when the military overthrew democratically-elected president João Goulart in 1964, it cited 100% inflation as one of the justifications for military intervention. That inflation was now higher than it had ever been under Goulart undermined the regime’s legitimacy, even while foreign debt reached $61 billion in 1981.

These economic troubles were not abstract problems. The growing economic unrest, combined with years of military rule and a lack of electoral democracy at the state and federal levels led to growing challenges to the regime, challenges that first erupted in 1979, just months after Figueiredo took office. In November of 1979, over 170,000 metalworkers went on strike in São Paulo over wage issues. Led by Luís Inácio “Lula” da Silva, a charismatic metalworker and union leader who had lost his finger in a workplace accident, the workers demanded the government make up lost wages for underreporting inflation in the mid-1970s. While there were violent encounters between workers and armed forces, the workers continued to mobilize and the strikes spread throughout the country, marking the first time since before the dictatorship where workers had mobilized on such a large scale. The strike was a key moment in the dictatorship, showing both that the working classes had the will and ability to mobilize and challenge the regime while testing the government’s policy of abertura. Ultimately, in the new political context, the workers formed their own party, the Partido dos Trabalhadores (Workers Party; PT), with Lula at its head. The party also drew in middle-class activists who had been involved in the National Students Union (UNE) and in student protests in the 1960s, giving the PT a broader reach, and Lula became a national political figure.

Luís Inácio Lula da Silva during the 1979 Metalworkers' Strike in São Paulo. The strike marked a significant moment in the history of the dictatorship and launched the political career of a man who would ultimately serve as president from 2003-2011.

Luís Inácio Lula da Silva during the 1979 Metalworkers’ Strike in São Paulo. The strike marked a significant moment in the history of the dictatorship and launched the political career of a man who would ultimately serve as president from 2003-2011.

The urban working class was not the only group to protest the regime. In the wake of 1968’s university reform, the military regime had emphasized enrollment in fields like applied science, engineering, medicine, and technology (what today is trendily called “STEM” education). However, the emphasis on these fields had predictable results: throughout the 1970s, enrollment went up, leading to a glutted job market. Thus, by the 1980s, a growing number of middle-class white-collar workers with university degrees were having a difficult time finding employment, even while inflation skyrocketed. Thus, doctors, engineers, university professors, and others increasingly took to the streets to protest and organize, and groups like university professors (who were still mostly federal employees) even formed their own union. Meanwhile, while UNE itself remained illegal, Figueiredo made clear he would not persecute it, and in 1979, it reconstituted itself after having been inactive due to repression throughout most of the 1970s.

In this context, the hardliners attempted one last, flailing attempt to stifle repression. After a series of bomb attacks against newspaper stands and the Ordem dos Advogados do Brazil (Order of Lawyers of Brazil; OAB) that left a number of people wounded (and killed a secretary at the OAB), there was one final attempt. On April 30, 1981, a number of musicians put on a show to celebrate International Workers’ Day the following day. While thousands of students inside the building sang along, Sergeant Guilherme Pereira do Rosário and Captain Wilson Dias Machado drove a car through the parking lot. The men hoped to deposit bombs to blow up the building, wounding students and perhaps creating a context where the hardliners could return to power and halt the abertura. However, one of the bombs went off in Rosário’s lap, immediately killing him and wounding Machado. Just like that, the hardliners’ efforts to reassert control literally blew up in their faces. When Machado was able to talk, it emerged that he was an officer in the military; while the attack completely and finally discredited the hardliners, Figueiredo’s slow movement in condemning the act and the SNI’s efforts to cover it up also discredited his own government, only adding to the criticisms of the regime

The body of Sergeant after the bomb he and Captain hoped to plant exploded. The incident marked the final exclamation point on the military hardliner's violence during the military regime.

The body of Sergeant Guilherme Pereira do Rosário after the bomb he and Captain Wilson Dias Machado carried with them exploded. The incident marked the final exclamation point on the military hardliner’s violence during the military regime.

In this setting, the regime continued to suffer political setbacks in spite of its earlier efforts to control the political system. In 1982, the country enjoyed its first direct elections for governor and for Congress in over 16 years, and throughout the country, opposition candidates enjoyed a degree of success unprecedented up to that point in the dictatorship. In Congress, the opposition, while fragmented along different party lines, carried the Chamber of Deputies. However, the PDS carried the Senate and most of the governorships, suggesting perhaps Figueiredo’s strategy of dividing the opposition was working. Not all the governorships were successes for the regime, however. Perhaps most notably, the citizens of Rio de Janeiro elected Leonel Brizola, João Goulart’s brother-in-law who had tried to get Goulart to move further to the left, to the governorship; that Brizola had been one of the top targets of the regime when it exiled and stripped politicians of their rights in 1964 and was now governor showed just how tired many had grown of the military government.

In spite of conservative and military opposition to the shifting political tide, Figueiredo made clear he intended to stand by abertura and his pledge to exit office in 1985. He refused to annul any of the elections. When he had to travel to the Cleveland Clinic after a heart attack in 1981, civilian vice president Aureliano Chaves served his constitutional role as de facto president, marking the first time a civilian had governed Brazil since 1964. This transition, while temporary, was not insignificant; when Costa e Silva had a stroke that incapacitated him in 1969, the military refused to allow civilian vice president Pedro Aleixo assume his duties. Thus, Figueiredo’s insistence that the military was withdrawing from governance seemed sincere.

In this context, the opposition began to consider the possibility of forming a united front against the PDS. Pointing to the fact that the 1985 presidential election was still set to be an indirect election, with Congress electing the president, the regime’s opponents found a unifying platform. Representatives from and supporters of varying opposition parties began to unite under the banner of Diretas Já!, or “Direct elections now!” A congressman put forth a bill calling for the 1985 presidential election to be direct, and throughout the country, massive rallies took place, showing the popularity of the idea. Hundreds of thousands marched in Rio de Janeiro, the first time since 1968 that so many had taken to the streets, and in São Paulo, over one million gathered at the Praça da Sé. Although 298 voted in favor of the bill, it failed, as 112 pro-government politicians abstained, leaving Congress without a quorum.

An aerial image of the million who gathered to demand direct elections in the Diretas Já rally in São Paulo in April 1984.

An aerial image of the million who gathered to demand direct elections in the Diretas Já rally in São Paulo in April 1984.

Nonetheless, the movement was significant not only because of its magnitude, but because it set the stage for the indirect election at the end of the year. The opposition parties set aside differences to rally behind Tancredo Neves, a veteran politician who had been João Goulart’s Prime Minister in 1961-1962. Neves’ skill as a politician and the mobilization of the masses earlier in 1984 made clear to Congress that the country was tired of the regime and its allies. After a contentious convention, the PDS nominated corrupt São Paulo governor Paulo Maluf; the move alienated many in the PDS, including José who threw their support behind Neves. In exchange, Neves selected former ARENA/PDS leader José Sarney as his running mate. On January 15, 1985, Congress gathered to vote for the next president, and Tancredo Neves defeated Maluf, 480 to 180 votes. While Brazilians did not get the direct elections they’d demanded, they did get the first president since 1964 who was not tied to military rule.

As for Figueiredo himself, he willingly left politics. Tired of the fighting and of receiving blame for Brazil’s economy spiraling out of control, he left the stage quickly, if not necessarily gracefully. As he was preparing to exit office, an interviewer asked him how he wanted the Brazilian people to remember him; Figueiredo pointedly replied, “Forget me.” Though Neves was too ill to take office, dying before he could be inaugurated, Sarney assumed the presidency. Thus, Brazil’s military dictatorship came to an end. Figueiredo quietly left office and entered into private life, ultimately dying in 1999, the last of the military presidents to serve and the last to die.

This is part of a series. Other entries have included composer and tropicalista Rogério Duprat, architect Oscar Niemeyer, and Princess Isabel.

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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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