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Brazzil - History - March 2004

Vargas: Haunting Brazil, 50 Years Later

Brazilian President Lula and his Workers Party may well owe their
beginnings to Getúlio Vargas. By ensuring labour was organised
to support the government of the day, Vargas was able to
reduce the incidence of adverse industrial activity. Workers
like Lula organised unions forming the basis of the PT.

Guy Burton

At the end of this month, my sister will be travelling out to Rio. She will stay with my parents, who spend the English winter months there. There she will take up her current sporting interest, golf, with great gusto.

My father has already booked her some lessons at the Gávea Golf Club. He's quite pleased that another of his four children has finally taken up the game; I think he secretly hopes to have all of us playing in the next few years. Even my mother—who never showed any interest before—has been converted and every day or other day they can be found doing a round.

The Gávea Golf Club is situated in the Rio neighbourhood of that name. Between it and the beach there are several luxury hotels which always seems empty; near to its entrance is the Rocinha, the largest favela in South America and effectively cutting Gávea off from the other middle class communities in Leblon and Ipanema.

Nowhere can the contrast between the haves and have-nots be starker. From a distance Rocinha appears chaotic, a mixture of corrugated iron and recently built brick houses. Drying clothes hang on makeshift lines while all around is the buzz of human activity as traders set off for work and single mothers shout out their children's names. Meanwhile the Gávea Golf Club is a world apart.

It radiates exclusivity and silence; the occasional thawk of club against ball can be heard; here and there figures dressed in the latest golfing fashion walk, their caddies carrying an expensive bag of clubs. For those disinterested in the game, they can sit by the pool and look up into the lush green hills around which the golf course is set. Inside the clubhouse the sound of a piano can be heard and members sit down to a large buffet lunch.

To some, Rocinha is a sign of the future; of where Brazil might be heading. Like most favelas, it sprung up spontaneously, squatters desperate for somewhere to live. Initially it was ignored by the authorities with the resultant lack of utilities and services. It went through a difficult period, with drug traffickers taking advantage of its marginality and the occasional gunfight with invading police officers.

But slowly it's becoming a neighbourhood of Rio in its own right. Finally the streets have been paved, lighting has been put in, sanitation and running water is available to some of its residents and the city's buses include it on their routes.

By contrast the Gávea is a symbol of Brazil's past. It epitomises the social and economic inequality of Brazilian society; its continued presence opposite the Rocinha provides a stark contrast of the two sides of Brazil which live side by side.

And yet the Gávea Golf Club is important in another way. Just as it is an important social centre for my father today, around sixty years ago it was much the same for another man; a man who can easily lay claim to being the most influential Brazilian of the twentieth century.

And while the juxtaposition of the Gávea Golf Club alongside the Rocinha favela may appear contradictory, the life and career of Getúlio Dornelles Vargas can also be seen as equally confusing. The leader of a revolution backed by the military, Vargas became a dictator, during which period he took to golf and the Gávea.

But his time as dictator ended ignominiously when he was ejected by the same military forces which brought him to power. And yet he wasn't written off, for he returned as President several years later, following an election.

A Politician Is Born

Vargas was born in 1883 in the town of São Borja in the southern state of Rio Grande do Sul. His father was a rancher who had fought in the Paraguayan War during the 1860s. Initially, he seemed set to follow his father by going to a military academy with his brothers before dropping out and reading law in the state capital of Porto Alegre.

At the age of 26 he was elected to the state legislature and married soon after. During the following decade he rose to become a prominent politician before being elected to the Federal Congress and heading his state's delegation.

Although never charismatic, Vargas was well thought of by observers. It helped that he kept his cards close to his chest and revealed little, while always playing up his image as a rustic. For those used to the present-day stereotype of Brazilians as an extravagant and extrovert people, Vargas was far from the norm. But in truth he was probably a good representation of the times.

He came from Rio Grande do Sul, which only 40 years before Vargas's birth had been embroiled in a civil war to secede from Brazil. Natives of Rio Grande do Sul are known as gaúchos, after the cowboys and ranchers who worked the land. With a strong independent streak, they are perceived as hard-headed and strong-willed, and suspicious of the central authorities.

Although he had no fiscal experience, in 1926 Vargas was offered the post of finance minister in the new government. A year later, he abandoned his job to run and win the election for governor of his state. Brazil's economy at the time was dominated by its dependence on coffee exports.

When in 1929 the Wall Street crash triggered a decline first in shares and then in commodities, Brazil's economy was hit. The government was split over how to tackle the problem and the President, Washington Luís, decided to insist on naming Júlio Prestes as his successor in the 1930 campaign.

By naming Prestes as his successor, Washington Luis made a mistake. Both men came from the economically powerful São Paulo state. The announcement tore apart the existing convention that presidential candidates should come on alternate occasions from São Paulo and the other key state in the country, Minas Gerais. As a result Minas Gerais politicians felt the snub and agreed a secret deal with Rio Grande do Sul to name Vargas as the challenger to Prestes for the recently formed Liberal Alliance.

In March 1930, Prestes beat Vargas by one million votes to 700,000. But the Liberal Alliance refused to accept the results of the ballot. For the next six months there was tensions and division within the establishment. Eventually on 3 October supporters of the Liberal Alliance in the armed forces had enough and marched in several states and Rio, the federal capital, causing the government to flee. A military coup in all but name, Vargas was thrust into the spotlight as the leader of the new provisional government.

For the next four years Vargas ruled precariously. Differences remained, not least in São Paulo, where its politicians felt they had been robbed of victory. A civil war broke out, which was eventually quelled and a new constitution rewritten and ratified in 1934.

It was during this period that Vargas was thrown from his horse and hurt. Following his accident he took up golf for exercise and so began his regular trips to the Gávea. These are recounted in his diaries, which were published half a century later, although they don't make for particularly illuminating reading.

Just as his public persona was deemed dull and dry, so too were his comments and observations on his day-to-day life. Yet this stands in stark contrast to his private character which indicated that he had a sharp intellect, spoke French, enjoyed conversation and read widely.

In November 1937 Vargas took the decision which would yet again show his chameleon-like nature and established the government with which he achieved perhaps his greatest historical significance.

Fascism, Brazilian Style

With only a few months left as President, he managed to gain military support. Using the pretext of a communist threat, Vargas staged his own coup, halting the upcoming presidential election and ending the democracy. The Estado Novo (New State) was called into being and a new constitution decreed, giving Vargas almost total power.

Political opposition was banned, press censorship imposed and tough law and order measures enforced. Just as fascism became the dominant political style in Europe, so too was it applied in Brazil.

Labour was organised along corporatist lines, with the government rewarding those unions and workers who toed the line. Roads were built and government invested in building up Brazil's industry so that it could become self-sufficient and avoid being dependent on exports in a weak economic environment.

National unity and exhortations to work together were issued, including a brasilidade (Brazilian-ness) campaign which banned Brazilian-based German, Italian, Polish and Japanese communities from speaking their own languages. Meanwhile my grandparents carried on living their lives in Porto Alegre, where my grandfather worked in the shipping industry; four years after Vargas's self-coup, my father was born.

As head of the Estado Novo, Vargas passed from being a `revolutionary' chief of state to dictator. But to the Americans, he was a good dictator because he was on their side. Although he initially tried to remain neutral and play the Nazis and Americans off against each other, Vargas was unable to do so forever, especially when the coolness between the US and Germany erupted into war.

In 1942, Nazi submarines torpedoed Brazilian merchant shipping; Vargas used this as a pretext for war. Twenty-five thousand troops were mobilised and sent to Europe, where they served in the Italian campaign. Meanwhile, Vargas embraced the democratic cause and spoke of it in fulsome praise. When the war ended in 1945 the contradiction between this rhetoric and the reality of the Estado Novo couldn't be sustained.

While Vargas set a date for election, his relations with the military—who were less than pleased with the idea of democracy—deteriorated. When it seemed as if Vargas was eyeing the elections as a way to remain in power, the armed forces took steps against that. Military units took control of Rio and Vargas was forced to resign.

Although humiliated, Vargas didn't remain out of the public eye. Even though he wasn't able to participate in the presidential elections, he was elected as senator for two states and federal congressman for seven others. On his São Borja ranch back in Rio Grande do Sul he maintained an active retirement, meeting prominent people and maintaining contact with his political connections. So began the third stage of Vargas career. Formerly a dictator, he now transformed himself into a populist, a man of the people.

In 1950, Vargas accepted the nomination of the Brazilian Workers Party (Partido Trabalhista Brasileiro, PTB), which maintained many of the corporatist links with labour that he had established during the 1930s. He won and became a popularly elected President. But he soon discovered society had changed since he had been dictator.

Calls for national unity would no longer work. He had to change his style by accommodating different demands. He used patronage, with workers receiving state benefits for their loyalty. But he didn't extend those benefits far enough and many unskilled workers lost out.

Meanwhile Brazil was coping with difficult economic circumstances: while the industrial sector boomed, inflation and high prices weakened these advantages. The growth of the state and its responsibilities during the 1930s had contributed towards a large bureaucracy, which was slow and inefficient. For many, the return of Vargas wasn't a success; it was a disappointment.

Saint Getúlio

Into this mix came Vargas's final act. Carlos Lacerda, a publisher who had been critical of Vargas and his policies, was injured in a failed assassination plot. It later transpired the man who had fired the pistol had been hired by the chief of Vargas's bodyguard.

Although the President himself wasn't involved in the plot, his relationship with his bodyguard was questioned. As the public began to turn against Vargas the military called for his resignation.

But Vargas had something more extreme planned. On 24 August 1954, Vargas sat in his bed with a gun in his right hand. Having been at a crisis cabinet meeting the night before and spoken to his brother only a few hours earlier, at 8:41 am, the 73-year old Vargas shot himself through the heart.

The reaction was almost immediate. From being vilified, Vargas completed his conversion into a saint. The military was publicly and angrily denounced and rioting ensued. Eight days of mourning were announced by the government and Vargas's vice president, João Café Filho, became President for the last year and a half of Vargas's term.

Despite his passing, Vargas's legacy to Brazil can still be seen. Under his stewardship, he built up the Brazilian state from a small machine into a vast bureaucracy. Today's politicians are struggling with its sheer size and the need to cut back its cost. The present-day Lula government's biggest project during its first year in office was to try and reform the social security system, the origins which were first laid down during the 1930s.

Similarly, President Lula and his Workers Party may well owe their beginnings to Vargas. By ensuring labour was organised to support the government of the day, Vargas was able to reduce the incidence of adverse industrial activity. But with the return of a military dictatorship in 1964 sections of labour found themselves excluded from the political process and the benefits it produced.

Workers like Lula organised themselves independently, these `new unions' forming the basis of the Workers Party. It was this party which following the 2002 presidential election, committed itself to redressing the social and economic injustices in places like the Rocinha favela which Vargas's reforms did so little to tackle.

For two decades, Vargas's home was in the presidential palace in Rio. Today it is the Museu do Catete, a museum dedicated to Brazilian history. It stands on the Rua do Catete, a drag filled with cheap hotels and popular with backpackers.

From the outside it is distinguishable only for the sculptures of eagles which stand on its roof and the garden behind where babás (au pairs) take their young charges. Inside it is a kaleidoscope of Brazilian history, all crushed closely together in one room after room.

Few people go into the museum, usually going around the side to sit in the gardens. For the few that do though, there is one room which stands out from all others. Compared to the rest of the building, it is Spartan, with white-washed walls and a few items of furniture: a bed, a chest of drawers, a wardrobe, a vanity unit, a mirror.

This is the bedroom of Getúlio Vargas, designed to look as it did on the day he took his own life. In morbid fashion, mounted on one wall are his striped pyjamas, behind a glass frame. On the breast pocket are his initials, GV. Between the two letters is a hole, made by the bullet as it passed into his heart.

The lighting is low while in speakers along the walls a voice reads from the melodramatic suicide note of this enigmatic and contradictory man: "I have given you my life. I gave you my life. Now I offer you my death. Nothing remains. Serenely I take my first step on the road to eternity and I leave life to enter history."

Guy Burton was born in the same state as Getúlio Vargas, Rio Grande do Sul. Although he disappoints his father by not playing golf, he is one of the few people to visit the interior of the Museu do Catete more than once. His Brazilian friends don't understand why. He can be contacted at gjsburton@hotmail.com.

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