Since its establishment in 1889, the history of the Brazilian republic was marked by the centrality of the armed forces, particularly the army, in political life. But between 1964 and 1985, the military was in direct command of the state, imposing indirectly elected generals as president. After overthrowing the reformist center-left government of João Goulart on March 31, 1964, the military installed a tutelary authoritarian regime to control civil society and the political system, serving as a political model for similar regimes in Latin America during the Cold War.
The military passed arbitrary laws and severely repressed left-wing political groups and social movements while also seeking to accelerate capitalist development and the “national integration” of Brazil’s vast territory. They intended to modernize Brazilian industry and carry out bold infrastructure projects. On the other hand, they faced strong opposition from civil society, led by political groups, artists, intellectuals, and press outlets of diverse ideological backgrounds (Marxists, liberals, socialists, and progressive Catholics). These groups were divided between total refusal to negotiate with the military and critical adherence to the policies of the generals’ governments, composing a complex relationship between society and the state.
Understanding the role of the military regime in Brazilian history requires a combination of historical research and historiographic criticism in light of the disputes over memory that continue to divide social and political actors.
João Roberto Martins Filho
This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Latin American History. Please check back later for the full article.
The coup that took place in Brazil on March 31, 1964, can be understood as a typical cold war event. Supported by civilian forces, the action was carried out by the armed forces. Its origins hark back to the failed military revolt, headed by the Brazilian Communist Party (PCB), in November of 1935, stirring up strong anti-communist sentiments. The Estado Novo coup, which occurred two years later, was supported by the Army (War) and Navy ministers. It marked the beginnings of the dictatorial phase of Vargas, who had been in power since 1930.
At the end of the Second World War, officials who had taken part in the struggle against Nazism in Italy returned to Brazil and overthrew the dictatorial Vargas, who nonetheless returned to power through the 1950 presidential elections. In 1954, under pressure from right-wing military forces, he committed suicide, thereby frustrating existing plans for another coup d'état. The Higher War School (ESG), created in 1949, had become both the birthplace of the ideology of National Security and stage where the French doctrine of guerre révolutionnaire was welcomed. During the 1950s, the military field came to be divided into pro-American and nationalist factions.
The alliance between the Brazilian Labor Party (PTB) and the centrist Social Democratic Party (PSD), which had elected Vargas earlier, now allowed for Juscelino Kubitschek's victory in the 1955 elections, disappointing the conservatives of the National Democratic Union (UDN) and its military allies. The latter encountered brief encouragement when the 1960 presidential election put Jânio Quadros at the head of the executive. In August of 1961, when Quadros resigned, his military ministers tried to use force to keep vice president Goulart from taking office. The coup was frustrated by the resistance of the governor of the state of Rio Grande do Sul. Yet the Goulart administration was marked by instability, in the midst of intense social struggles and by sharp economic crisis. The outcome of this drama began to take shape as of March 1963, when the government took a leftwards turn. The March 13 popular demonstration served as an alert and the March 25 sailors’ revolt, as the match in the powder barrel. On March 31, military forces carried out the infamous coup. The Goulart administration collapsed. Social movements were left waiting for orders to resist, which never came.
In the late 1960s, several leftist political movements in Latin America began to claim the use of political violence as a means of social transformation. This second wave of leftist political violence was distinct from an earlier wave—composed of rural guerillas inspired by the Cuban Revolution, roughly a decade and a half earlier—in several ways. The later proponents of armed struggle emphasized the importance of cities in armed actions, not just rural settings. They also advocated interaction between armed organizations and other actors in social movements, including far-left nationalist and populist factions within traditional political parties and the Catholic Church. Armed action was seen by such groups as a valid response to increasingly repressive governments, and to limitations on political action that made social change through peaceful means impossible. The use of violence provided a way to develop collective action in the hostile environment of the Latin American Cold War, which was marked by extreme political and ideological polarization.