Summary and Keywords
Short and stout in physical stature, Brazilian statesman Getúlio Dornelles Vargas (1882–1954) still stands as an outsize figure in modern Latin American history. The politician’s long political career began in the 1910s and spanned terms as state deputy, federal minister, state governor, chief of state four times over, and federal senator. Vargas spent nearly two decades in the presidential palace, the longest of any figure during the republican period. By the time his second democratically elected presidential term (and his life) ended on August 24, 1954, Vargas had been dragged down by personnel scandals, factionalism, and economic destabilization. He likened the political climate of the final months in office to a “sea of mud.” Yet in his sudden death the president was able to free himself from the muck. Among adherents of the Brazilian Labor Party and key sectors of the working poor, “Getúlio” was elevated to the status of civic sainthood. Even after military rule dismantled the Brazilian Labor Party and banished Vargas’s political heirs to exile, the Vargas state managed to endure. Forty years after Getúlio’s death-by-suicide, president-elect Fernando Henrique Cardoso imagined the state interventionism of the Vargas years to be finally over. In reality, Vargas and his era still survive in the enduring Brazilian vocation for statism. Reminders of Vargas and his era are found in the innumerable streets, plazas, and commemorative plaques that bear the name of a politician of enigmatic charms and confounding contradictions.
This complex, resilient legacy draws in part from the bold accomplishments and ambiguous outcomes of the robust cultural policies of Vargas’s successive terms as chief of the provisional government (1930–1934), president (1934–1937), and president-dictator (1937–1945). Federal cultural policies during these fifteen years collectively known as the “First Vargas Regime” were innovative and far-reaching. Reversing decades of elite reverence for imported standards of civilization, official culture after 1930 was unapologetically and self-consciously nationalist. Policymakers, culture critics, entertainment entrepreneurs, and key figures in the arts and letters associated with the first Vargas regime self-presented as advocates for the cultural needs, aptitudes, and aspirations of the Brazilian povo (people). The central state, correspondingly, played a principal role in consolidating a canon of artistic and architectural treasures that endure in global imaginaries of Brazil and Brazilianness.
Paradoxically, the democratizing impulses of cultural management during the first Vargas regime drew their legitimacy from state authoritarianism and anti-popular politics. Most notably during the Estado Novo dictatorship (November 10, 1937–October 29, 1945), cultural policy and programming worked in tandem with censorship and manufactured paranoia. State agents orchestrated acts of violence against ideas, symbols, and creative expressions branded inimical to national interests. “Subversive” books were burned; dissidents confronted silencing. Some authors went into exile and novelist Graciliano Ramos (1892–1953) spent ten miserable months on an island penal colony for unproven charges of participation in a Communist insurrection. The oppositionist newspaper O Estado de São Paulo was outright expropriated by the state. Although the Vargas era included the official elevation of Carnaval, samba, and capoeira as authentically national cultural idioms, Afro-Brazilian popular culture remained under the watchful eyes of local police. Numerous cultural expressions vaunted as organically democratic were, in fact, shaped by regime demagoguery, symbolic violence, and, ironically, internationalism. The bold, sometimes mystifying contours of state- and culture-making in Brazil during Vargas’s first regime are explored here.
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