Following the fortieth anniversary of the military coup which deposed the government of João Goulart, on April 1, 1964, many articles were published last year in Brazil, as an attempt to explain what really happened back in those days.
On August 25, 1961, President Jânio Quadros shocked the nation by offering a letter of resignation. Actually, he did so as a strategy to artificially provoke an institutional crisis that he thought would make people demand his return as a popular dictator.
It seems that he thought they needed a ‘strong’ government, and that the National Congress was unworkable for such purpose. The strategy failed completely, and he never returned to office.
When Quadros offered his letter of resignation to National Congress, his vice-President, João Goulart, was serving in a diplomatic mission to communist China.
Goulart was Vargas’ Labour Minister in 1953, and had been popularly elected as vice-President with only 34 percent of the valid votes.
However, he was an anathema for many people, including military leaders, and, for this reason, the National Congress decided on September 2, 1961, to amend the Brazilian Constitution in order to establish a parliamentary system of government.
While Goulart tried to restore the presidential system, his first year of government was peaceful. After a plebiscite organized in 1963, whereby presidentialism was restored by a five-to-one margin of popular support, Goulart then started to gradually develop closer diplomatic relations with China, Cuba, and the Soviet Union.
In 1962, Goulart told U.S. ambassador Lincoln Gordon that the National Congress had lost ‘social prestige’, and, therefore, he could “arouse people overnight to shut it down”.
However, he also informed that it was not his intention doing so, although Gordon already had his own reasons for being not so sure about this. After all, João Goulart, a left-wing politician, once had paradoxically asked him why the U.S. government wouldn’t “just blow up” Cuba with a nuclear bomb.
Reminded by the U.S. ambassador that any nuclear attack would certainly cost the life of millions, Goulart retorted: “Well, what do you care? They are not Americans”.(1)
On the other hand, the Brazilian President supported the Ligas Camponesas, a Pro-Castro movement which was responsible for the distribution of millions of booklets containing Mao Tse-Tung’s essays on guerrilla tactics.
In 1963, an American communist who visited the country reported to his ‘comrades’ in the United States that ‘potential Fidel Castros’ were already seizing the lands, and, with the condition getting each time worse, he confidently predicted that the final result would “be a dictatorship of the Left, as in Cuba”.(2)
In fact, the great Brazilian sociologist Gilberto Freyre thought precisely the same, arguing in 1963 that his country was indeed passing through a “state of revolutionary ferment…, at the verge of becoming the new China of the West”.(3)
In February 1964, Premier Nikita Kruschev invited Brazil’s communist leader Luis Carlos Prestes for an official meeting at the Kremlin. On the occasion, Prestes informed about the ‘great prestige’ enjoyed by communists in the Goulart government.
Krushev was surprised to hear that two generals of the Alto Comando do Exército (Army’s High Command) were active members of the Communist Party.
Invited to speak at the Soviet Supreme, Prestes boldly stated that anyone who resisted communism in Brazil would have their heads cut off.(4)
He was so confident that the party’s printshop in São Paulo had even started to print large supplies of postage stamps, pamphlets, and bank notes, with the portraits of Lenin, Stalin, and Prestes himself.(5)
On October 3, 1963, Goulart requested the approval of National Congress for the enactment of martial law to allegedly combat subversion. If accepted, the measure would authorise Goulart to confiscate property and nationalize companies.
The decision was delayed and, informed about its probable rejection, withdrawn a few days later by Goulart himself. By the end of the year, however, congressmen decided to stay in extraordinary session over the Christmas holiday, because they feared that Goulart would decree a ‘state of siege’ while the legislature were in recess.
After all, Goulart’s brother-in-law Leonel Brizola was demanding the arbitrary dissolution of National Congress, and its replacement by workers and peasant assemblies. On September 1963, Brizola declared at the law faculty of Brazil University, in Rio de Janeiro:
“If the democracy we enjoy continues to be used as a screen for laws concealing the plunder of our people, we solemnly declare: We reject such a [democratic] system as an instrument of oppression and domination of our native land, and we shall use the methods of struggle at our disposal”.(6)
Relying on the staff advice of military supporters such as the head of military household, General Assis Brazil, Goulart was each day more confident to push for social, political, and economic reforms that couldn’t be implemented without parliamentary consent.
Thus in his Annual Address delivered in January 1964, he warned members of the National Congress about a ‘bloody convulsion’ that would take place if they rejected all the reforms wished by his administration.
On March 13, 1964, Goulart promised to 120 thousand supporters who attended a rally organized at the Central Railroad Station of Rio de Janeiro, to implement measures which included land confiscation and the nationalization of private companies.
Such measures had to be done through constitutional amendment, although the majority in both legislative Houses of the National Congress fiercely opposed them. However, Goulart also promised to modify ‘institutional methods’.
Invited to speak at the rally, Brizola declared that the National Congress was no longer recognized as the country’s representative body.
As Phyllis R. Parker pointed out, “His inflammatory discourse dramatically called for throwing out the Congress and for holding a plebiscite to install a Constitutional Assembly with a view to creating a popular congress made up of labourers, peasants, sergeants, and nationalist officers, and (sic) authentic men of the people”.(7)
The rally of March 13 raised issues like abolishing the 1946 Constitution and closing the National Congress. After that, many were convinced that Goulart was trying to use the ‘power of the masses’ to demand unconstitutional reforms, by pressuring, or even closing, the National Congress.
After that rally, even the military faction which were more sympathetic to his government started to believe that President Goulart was indeed planning to stay for many years in power as a populist leader.
According to Rollie E. Poppino, “Goulart reiterated [in that rally] his demand for a new constitution, insisted that a sweeping program of social and economic reforms be enacted, and defied the Congress by announcing presidential decrees nationalizing foreign-owned oil refineries and instituting a partial agrarian reform.
“His performance seemed to solidify labor-nationalist support for the government, but its impact on the rest of the population was not what he had anticipated. The civilian and military opposition was now certain that he sought to establish a left-wing dictatorship”.(8)
In 1964, surveys indicated only 15 percent of the population supported the government of Goulart. On March 19, 1964, for instance, women from the city of São Paulo organized a massive rally which directly involved the participation of at least one million people. It was called Marcha da Família com Deus pela Liberdade (March of the Family with God for Freedom.)
Organizers described it as an attempt to protect Brazilian women “from the fate and suffering of the martyred women of Cuba, Poland, Hungary and other enslaved nations”.(9)
A few days later, another massive anti-Goulart rally brought about 150 thousand people to the streets of the city of Santos, in São Paulo.
For Denis Rosenfield, a philosophy professor at the prestigious Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul, “When the military coup was carried out in 1964, there was an ongoing attempt to install a communist-like regime in Brazil. Although communist actions were taking unduly advantage of democratic legal institutions, it is no less true that their real intention was the total abolition of these institutions.
“In those days, the Brazilian society was much disturbed by the subversive activities of those who followed uncompromising communist models; from the Soviet to the Maoist, alongside with other radical versions such as the Trotskyite, the Guevarist, the Castrist, the Albanian, and so forth.
“The ideological context was dramatic above all because of terrible crimes committed during this process of radicalisation. It is important to remember that the vast majority of the people claimed for a military intervention, as a fact that might be easily observed by the clear support for intervention coming from leading newspapers, churchmen, and, as a matter of historical fact, the civil society as a whole”.(10)
On March 20, 1964, Governor Magalhães Pinto appeared on national television to declare that his state of Minas Gerais would resist the ‘revolution coming from above’. He vowed to organize a ‘state of belligerency’ against the Goulart government.
Also on this very day, Governor Adhemar de Barros went on television to declare that the state of São Paulo would resist any ‘auto-coup’ coming from the federal executive, declaring that the state militia of São Paulo was twice as large as the federal army garrisoned in the region.
In September 1963, Goulart refused to condemn a mutiny of sergeants. He believed they could neutralize other military officers who were opposed to his government. Actually, Goulart openly encouraged the political aspirations of sergeants who were barred from the public office under the law.
After that, Goulart also refused on March 26, 1964, to punish a second mutiny held by marines who refused to cease political activities and return to duty. He even dismissed the Navy Minister who tried to quell the rebellion.
Thus leading newspaper Jornal do Brasil editorialised: “The rule of law has submerged in Brazil… Only those who retain power of acting to re-establish the rule of law remain effectively legitimate…
“The armed forces were all – we repeat, all – wounded in what is most essential to them, the fundamentals of authority, hierarchy, and discipline…
“This is not the hour for indifference, especially on the part of the army, which has the power to prevent worse ills… The hour of resistance by all has now arrived”.(11)
The naval mutiny brought about a general agreement between the otherwise politically divided military officers. Even those who initially supported the government of Goulart would change their minds after that.
At first, most of the military leaders would be opposed to any radical step against a constitutionally elected President. However, the sanctioning of military indiscipline by Goulart made them start arguing among themselves that obedience to a president was only owed within the limits of legality, although it seemed now that Goulart himself was very decided to lie outside the law.
The military manoeuvre which deposed President Goulart initiated on March 31, 1964. It started with a radio proclamation in which General Olimpio Mourão, the commander of the 4th Military Region in the state of Minas Gerais, accused Goulart, among others, of giving to notorious communists the power to hire and fire ministers, generals, and high officials, seeking this way to undermine true democratic institutions.
When Goulart was sent to exile in Uruguay, on April 1, 1964, one million people took over the streets of Rio de Janeiro to celebrate his overthrow.
The country had never seen a rally such as that, which obviously reflected the support of the population towards the military action.
Even the Bar Association supported it, acknowledging the failure of President Goulart to comply with the constitutional order and basic principles of the rule of law.
In brief, popular support on behalf of military leaders was much bigger than the scattered efforts to save the government of Goulart. It seems that for those who lived in those days in Brazil, the alternative appeared to be military rule, totalitarianism, or anarchy.
(1) Parker, Phyllis R.; Brazil and the Quiet Intervention, 1964. Austin/London: University of Texas Press, 1972, p.29.
(2) A Traveling Observer; The Coming Latin American Revolution. From ‘Whither Latin America?’ Edited by. Leo Huberman and Paul M. Sweezy. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1963, p.46.
(3) Horowitz, Irving Louis; Revolution in Brazil. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1964, p.11.
(4) Gaspari, Elio; A Ditadura Envergonhada. São Paulo: Companhia das Letras, 2002, p.77.
(5) Levine, Robert M.; The History of Brazil. Westport: Greewood, 1999, p.128.
(6) Horowitz, Irving Louis; Revolution in Brazil. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1964, p.12.
(7) Parker, Phyllis R.; Brazil and the Quiet Intervention, 1964. Austin/London: University of Texas, 1979, p.60.
(8) Poppino, Rollie E.; Brazil Since 1954. From: Bello, José Maria; A History of Modern Brazil: 1889-1964, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1966, p.350
(9) Levine, Robert M.; The History of Brazil. Westport: Greenwood Press, p.126.
(10) Rosenfield, Denis; Os Combatentes da Liberdade. Defesanet.com, 18 November 2004.
(11) Stepan, Alfred; The Military in Politics: Changing Patterns in Brazil. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1971, pp.105-106.
Augusto Zimmermann is a Brazilian Law Professor and PhD candidate for Monash University – Faculty of Law, in Australia. The topic of his research is the (un)rule of law and legal culture in Brazil. He holds a LL.B and a LL.M (Hons.) from the Pontifical Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro, and is the author of two well-known law books (“Teoria Geral do Federalismo Democrático” and “Curso de Direito Constitucional”). His email is: firstname.lastname@example.org.