Get to Know a Brazilian – Tancredo Neves

Having recently wrapped up a look at the five presidents during Brazil’s military dictatorship, this week focuses on Tancredo Neves, the first civilian elected to the presidency after the military dictatorship.

Tancredo Neves.

Tancredo Neves

Tancredo de Almeida Neves was born on 4 March 1910 in the city of São João del Rei in the interior state of Minas Gerais,  two and a half hours from the state capital of Belo Horizonte and four hours from Rio de Janeiro. After finishing his schooling, he attended the law school at what is today the Federal University of Minas Gerais, completing his degree in 1932. While in school, he supported the Liberal Alliance, the coalition of forces that helped to bring Getúlio Vargas to power in 1930. Neves was a lifelong politician, first being elected to the municipal council of São João del Rei in 1935. He ultimately became president of the municipal council shortly before Vargas ushered in the Estado Novo in 1937, which closed all municipal chambers throughout the country. Out of office, Neves practiced law, working for the railroad workers’ union in his hometown, while also operating his own textile business.

With the return to democracy after the end of the first Vargas government in 1945, Neves again returned to politics. He joined the Partido Social Democrático, one of two political parties Vargas created in the 1940s, and in 1947, won election as a congressman in Minas Gerais’s state legislature, where he served until 1950, when he won election to the Brazilian legislature as a representative from Minas. He ascent and ability, combined with the fact he was from one of Brazil’s most powerful states, led Vargas to name Neves his Minister of Justice and of Internal Affairs, posts he held until Vargas’s suicide in 1954. Once again jobless after another Vargas action, Neves returned to electoral politics, winning election and serving again as a federal representative from 1954-1955. He spent the latter half of the 1950s in a number of business-related posts in both the state government of Minas Gerais and in the federal government.

A young Tancredo Neves with Getúlio Vargas in the 1950s.

A young Tancredo Neves with Getúlio Vargas in the 1950s.

It was in 1961 when Neves became nationally known. In August of 1961, president Jânio Quadros resigned only seven months after his inauguration. The resignation threw the country into turmoil. The military fiercely opposed the legal succession of vice president João Goulart, fearing his progressive stances and his status as Vargas’s Minister of Labor from 1953-54 made him a threat to democracy in Brazil. Complicating matters, Goulart himself was out of the country when Quadros resigned, touring China on an official trip (a trip that the military viewed as proof of Goulart’s alleged communist sympathies). While some military leaders tried to stop Goulart from fulfilling the constitution and assuming the presidency, students and leftist politicians, including Leonel Brizola, Goulart’s brother-in-law and a governor, mobilized in favor of Goulart. Facing more opposition than it had originally expected, the military ultimately retreated somewhat, allowing Goulart to become president with one caveat: Brazil would become a parliamentary presidency, and Goulart would have to have a prime minister who created the cabinet and who could serve as a check on the president’s power. In that way, Goulart became president, albeit with powers greatly limited.

With the agreement in place, Goulart selected Neves as his Prime Minister; Congress overwhelmingly approved Neves’ selection, and he became the first vice president in the brief parliamentary system,  a position he served until 1962. As Prime Minister, his cabinet saw the passage of a number of key reforms, including the Lei de Diretrizes e Bases, an educational reform law first proposed in 1948 that, among other things, made elementary school mandatory for all Brazilians, pledged 12% of the national budget to education, required elementary school teachers to have a high school diploma and secondary school teachers to have a college degree, and created a national academic calendar, alongside other administrative reforms. His cabinet also attempted to address socioeconomic inequalities in the countryside by moving towards a possible agrarian reform. However, in the increasingly-polarized context of Cold War politics in Brazil in the early-1960s, farmers and peasant organizations began radicalizing and demanding more rapid and sweeping reforms, even while conservative elites increasingly distanced themselves from the government. Facing growing criticisms from both the left and the right, the entire cabinet, including Neves, resigned in June 1962; the timing was not accidental, as it allowed the now-ex cabinet members to run in congressional elections in October 1962, something Neves took advantage of, easily winning election to Congress yet again and taking his seat in 1963.

Neves with João Goulart during the compromise parliamentary presidency (1961-1962).

Neves with João Goulart during the compromise parliamentary presidency (1961-1962).

Although Neves continued to support Goulart’s presidency, his support was not enough; increasing inflation and opposition ultimately set the stage for a military coup that overthrew Goulart on April 1, 1964. While many politicians supported what they at the time believed would be the military’s brief intervention, which they hoped would bring stabilization, Neves was not among them. When Congress indirectly selected Humberto Castelo Branco as the first military president, Neves was the only member of his party not to vote in favor of Castelo Branco. The vote established Neves as one of the leading critics of the regime from within the government, a position he would maintain throughout the dictatorship. When the military abolished all political parties and created two new parties, the “opposition” MDB and the pro-military ARENA [sardonically referred to as “the party of yes” and “the party of yes,sir!” for some years], Neves joined the MDB, becoming one of its leaders. While the military ruled with authoritarian powers, Brazil’s dictatorship tried to maintain legitimacy through the facade of democracy, and so limited elections, including congressional elections, took place throughout the dictatorship (though generals like Costa e Silva and Geisel did not hesitate to close Congress when legislators prove unwilling to rubber-stamp regime decrees). Thus, Neves was re-elected regularly, serving in the Chamber of Deputies continuously from 1963 to 1979 and becoming one of the elder statesmen of the opposition, which grew increasingly strong in the latter half of the 1970s.

In 1979, Neves was inaugurated as Senator after winning in the 1978 elections. Shortly after Neves’s inauguration, the new (and final) military president, João Figueiredo abolished the old two-party system, allowing opponents to create their own parties in the hopes that the MDB would fragment while ARENA could remain strong. Neves formed the Partido Popular, or Popular Party; in spite of its name, it was one of the more conservative new parties, bringing together conservatives from the ex-MDB and moderates from the ex-ARENA. Given this elite composition, the PP did not necessarily appeal to a large number of Brazilians, and in the face of difficult electoral rules, the PP opted to merge with the PMDB [the MDB’s new guise] in the early-1980s. In spite of his party’s failure, Neves remained a key figure in national politics, becoming the vice-president of the PMDB, even while winning the governorship of Minas Gerais for the party.

It was in this context that Neves came to play a key role in national politics one last time. In 1983, legislator Dante de Oliveira submitted a bill that would have made the presidential elections scheduled for 1986 a direct election, rather than Congress indirectly selecting the next president, as was planned. The bill rapidly gained popular support throughout the country, and the opposition united under the banner of Diretas Já, or “Direct Elections now!” movement. Political figures from a variety of backgrounds, including  Ulysses Guimarães, Fernando Henrique Cardoso, and former-union leader and founder of the PT, Lula da Silva, joined hundreds of thousands throughout the country at rallies.

Neves (left) with Luis Inácio Lula da Silva (center, with beard) and Ulysses Guimarães (right) during a Diretas Já ("Direct Elections Now!") rally.

Neves (left) with Luis Inácio Lula da Silva (center, with beard) and Ulysses Guimarães (right, in yellow shirt) during a Diretas Já (“Direct Elections Now!”) rally.

Ultimately, the bill failed to garner the 2/3 majority it needed. However, Diretas Já had brought together the opposition and shown Congress the power of the people in the context of a dictatorship. In selecting a candidate to run against Paulo Maluf, the pro-military Social Democratic Party (PDS), the PMDB and others selected Neves. The selection was not universally lauded; Lula and the PT were critical of the move, arguing Neves was not radical enough to meet the demands of the people. However, it was this very position as a moderate that made Neves appealing to many; his deep political history, his ability to reach out to conservatives and the military, and his grandfatherly appearance (he was 74 by this point) made the opposition believe they had a candidate that the military could accept. In order to cement support, he reached out to a former member of ARENA and the PDS, José Sarney, to run as his vice president. Sarney accepted, and in January 1985, Brazil’s Congress elected Neves as the next president of Brazil; it appeared Brazil had its first non-military president since 1964.

Neves addressing Congress shortly after winning the indirect presidential election in January 1985.

Neves addressing Congress shortly after winning the indirect presidential election in January 1985.

Unfortunately, it did not take Brazil’s ecstasy to turn into tragedy. Neves was set to take office on March 15, 1985. The day before he was set to reach the peak of his political career, Neves fell ill, and went to the hospital with abdominal pain. He was unable to attend his inauguration on the 15th. The political path for Brazil was uncertain; Figueiredo was definitely leaving office, but who would succeed him was unclear. Constitutionally, the Speaker of the Chamber of Deputies, Ulysses Guimarães, was supposed to serve as interim president; however, Guimarães had been a very vocal and ardent critic of the military since the early-1970s, and feared that, if he were to take office, the military would block him and reassert control. Ultimately, José Sarney, who had been a member of the pro-military ARENA and PDS until the last minute, was inaugurated as vice-president and would act as president until Neves could take office.

Neves with his wife and doctors during his illness, from which he never recovered (and for which some Brazilians blamed the doctors themselves).

Neves with his wife and doctors during his illness, which prevented him from his officially-scheduled inauguration on March 15, 1985.

But he was never able to take office. Neves underwent surgery, but faced complications in the wake of the surgery. He picked up an infection from the original hospital, and his situation worsened, leading to his transferral to a hospital in São Paulo. He underwent another six surgeries over the following three weeks, but he never fully recovered, dying on April 21, 1985.

Much of the country was grief-stricken. in just four months, they’d gone from elation over finally triumphing over the military dictatorship to losing the man Congress had elected on their behalf. Sarney became president, but that offered little comfort to many, given that he’d not been nominated as president and that he’d served in the pro-military party for so many years. Some even alleged that the military had poisoned or murdered Neves in order to prevent his inauguration, unable to completely let go of power after 21 years of rule. His funeral was broadcast on national television, and throughout the country, memorials, plaques, and other markers went up to commemorate the man who would have been president.

Although he never served, his impact on politics was profound. In many ways, Neves was perhaps the politician most able, through both his skill and his background, to navigate the difficult transition to democracy between 1983 and 1985, when the military’s departure was much-desired but far from assured. His articulation and his ability to reach out to a number of groups, from elder conservatives to university students, from peasants to conservative senators, helped the success of Diretas Já and helped make possible the election (albeit indirectly) of the opposition candidate in January 1985. Although he never served, his Tancredo Neves’ political legacies are far-reaching, and not just for the fact that he became the first civilian elected to the presidency since 1960; his grandson, Aécio Neves, is currently a candidate for president for the PSDB, aspiring to the office his grandfather won, but never served in.

Tancredo Neves during his governorship, with his grandson, Aécio Neves, who, as a candidate for president next year, is hoping to fill the office his grandfather won but never served in.

Tancredo Neves during his governorship, with his grandson, Aécio Neves, who, as a candidate for president next year, is hoping to fill the office his grandfather won but never served in.

This is part of a series. Other entries have included author Clarice Lispector, composer/diplomat/poet Vinícius de Moraes, and tropicalista band Os Mutantes.

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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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