The Last Dictator

The Last Dictator

Former President general João Baptista Figueiredo died alone, forgotten
and filled with resentment.. Reporters assigned to the presidency used to say, "Where
Figueiredo’s horse passes no news will grow." He left the presidential Palácio do
Planalto literally through the back door, refusing to pass the presidential sash to his
successor José Sarney.
By Émerson Luís

With the end of João Baptista de Oliveira Figueiredo’s administration, Brazil closed
its cycle of general-presidents who ruled during the 1964-1985 military dictatorship. And
now with his death all of the former president-generals are gone. During Figueiredo’s
mandate, which lasted from 1979 to 1985, Brazil went into a deep recession and won the
title of country with the largest foreign debt. The nation’s foreign debt exploded,
surpassing $100 billion.

While he granted amnesty to those condemned for political crimes and kept his promise
of returning the power to civilians at the end of his term of office, the general will be
better remembered as one of the worst leaders the country has had and the man who said
upon leaving power, "I want people to forget me." His disapproval rate at the
end was 70%. In 1984, the country had an 223,8% annual inflation rate, a record at the

The general, who would be 82 in January, died at 9:35 AM on Christmas Eve in his Rio
apartment. Wife Dulce and João, one of his two sons, were at his side. He suffered from a
chronic kidney disease and emphysema. In the last two years he had been in very poor
health. Aloysio Salles, his doctor, explained that the general had suffered from
"episodic mental confusion in the last two months."

Despite Figueiredo’s distaste for pomp and ceremony he was buried with military honors.
The former president was taken from his apartment at the Condomínio Praia Guinle in the
São Conrado neighborhood of Rio in an Urutu—a Brazilian made military armored car,
which was also used to disperse protesters during the dictatorship—in a 20-mile
cortege to the Caju cemetery in the Rio docks district. The funeral procession was
received by 26 cavalrymen who took the casket enveloped with the Brazilian flag to the
cemetery’s chapel. This gesture was in response to the wish of the general, who was a
horse lover.

Most of the 200 people present at the ceremony were members of the military and
friends. Politicians shunned the service. President Fernando Henrique Cardoso even though
he was vacationing in Rio, sent Army chief, general Gleuber Vieira in his place. For
Adhemar de Barros Filho, son of former governor of São Paulo, Adhemar de Barros, the
funeral was the "clearest portrait of ingratitude," complaining about the
absence of politicians: "Neither the left nor the right showed up to say thank

Two years after taking the oath of office, in 1981, the athletic general suffered a
heart attack. From them on his life would become a series of uphill bouts with health
until the end. In 1983 he went to Cleveland in the United States for bypass surgery. In
1995, due to malpractice after surgery for an abdominal aneurysm at Rio’s Clínica São
Vicente, he lost more than 60 percent of his sight. He complained about the episode, but
never sued the hospital. Figueiredo said with resignation at the time: "Even the
fair-weather friends have disappeared."

He once said describing himself: "I am not the gorilla that I seem to be. Deep
down I am even a liberal. I am like a pineapple: I have a rough and thorny peel but the
center can be sweet." And after death? "I don’t want to go to heaven because
they only have one horse there and that’s a mere nag, the one from Saint George."

Bright Kid

His father, Euclides de Oliveira Figueiredo, was the troops commander during the 1932
Revolução Constitucionalista, the failed São Paulo state insurrection against the
Getúlio Vargas provisional government. Born in January 15, 1918, in Rio, Figueiredo
followed on the steps of his military father and was a gifted student. He was only 11
years old when he entered Porto Alegre’s (capital of Rio Grande do Sul) Colégio Militar
(Military School) in 1929. The next year he was transferred to Rio’s Colégio Militar and
then in 1935 went to Escola Militar do Realengo where he chose the cavalry.

The future general-president was still 19 when President Getúlio Vargas predicted a
brilliant career for him. It was November 11, 1937. Vargas, who had decreed the Estado
Novo dictatorship on the eve and out of precaution had incarcerated colonel Euclydes
Figueiredo—an opponent of the dictatorship—wanted to know who was the
enthusiastic official who was the top student. "He is the son of Euclydes," the
dictator was informed. Vargas went to young Figueiredo and told him: "I know you are
a great student. I hope you will be as competent and brilliant as your father." To
what the youngster answered: "I don’t think I will be able to, so as to stay out of
jail." "This boy is going places," Vargas concluded.

In 1958 he went to work with then colonel Golbery do Couto e Silva at the Army’s high
command. Three years later, at the start of the Jânio Quadros administration, he became
chief of the Serviço Federal de Informações e Contra-Informações (Federal Service of
Intelligence and Counter-Intelligence). When Quadros resigned from office on August 25, a
mere eight months after being inaugurated, Figueiredo became one of the main opponents of
João Goulart, the vice-president, who then took office.

In 1964 he became colonel and chief of the Rio’s bureau of the SNI (Serviço Nacional
de Informações—National Intelligence Service). He was promoted to general and chief
of the military staff in 1969 during general Emílio Garrastazu Médici’s presidency. In
1974, when general Ernesto Geisel became president, Figueiredo was chosen as the chief for
the national SNI.

Quintessential Curmudgeon

It was Figueiredo who signed August 28, 1979, the Lei da Anistia (Amnesty Law), which
reopened Brazil’s door to thousands of Brazilians who had lost their political rights and
had been jailed, banned and exiled. The law benefited 4650 people directly. More dragged
by the circumstances than by conviction, he also freed Brazil from the straitjacket of a
two-party system, which could not contain the diversity of opinions in the country.
However he was never a democrat, but someone who believed democracy was bad for you and a
utopia. The proof: he did his best to prevent the country to have direct elections for the
presidency, something that would happen later in November 1989.

The Riocentro bombing showed that he was not ready or willing to face the hardliners of
his regime. The terrorist act, which was never fully investigated, ended up killing
sergeant Guilherme Pereira do Rosário and hurting captain Wilson Machado. The bomb they
were carrying exploded in the parking of Riocentro convention center in Rio de Janeiro on
April 30, 1981. The place was full of people who had come for a show to celebrate May Day.
While not accepting the official version that the left was responsible for the action,
Figueiredo never pressed for a full investigation of the case.

Reporters assigned to the presidency used to say, "Where Figueiredo’s horse passes
no news will grow." He left the presidential Palácio do Planalto literally through
the back door, refusing to pass the presidential sash to his successor José Sarney.

He died alone, forgotten and filled with resentment. He hated Sarney and used to call
him a traitor. Figueiredo went into a deeper isolation the way he wanted. In the end, even
his wife avoided talking to him, sleeping when he was awake and taking walks in the dark
night, so as not to wake up her husband and have to carry on a conversation with him.

All the Christmas cards sent to the general this year were torn down by her. Friends
who tried to visit the ailing former dictator were turned down by Dona Dulce and were
asked to sign a guest book at the entrance of the building where the Figueiredos lived.

Figueiredo quotes:

"The smell of a horse, the sweet smell of a horse was better than the smell of
people." (1978)

"If the people like me, very good. If they don’t I will not change. (1978)

"It’s really to open. And whoever does not want to open I’ll send to prison and
smash." (after being chosen to substitute general Ernesto Geisel in the presidency,

"The only solution is to shoot yourself in the noodle." (Answering a kid who
wanted to know what he would do if he earned minimum wage, October 1979)

"Horse and women, only after you ride or marry." (1980)

"We will overfeed democracy to the opposition until they get an indigestion."

"If it was something from the other side, it couldn’t be smarter. If it was
something done by our side, there could not be greater stupidity." (May 1981,
commenting on the Riocentro terrorist bomb explosion)

"They opened me up like a roasted chicken. (1983, after his bypass surgery in
Cleveland, US)

"I am feeling better. So much so that I already feel like cussing." (in
Cleveland, USA, after bypass surgery, 1983)

"Brazil is a chick wanting to lay ostrich eggs." (1983)

"If inflation were a horse, I would already have tamed it." (1983)

"Tancredo Never." (1984, in English, showing his displeasure with the
candidacy of Tancredo Neves to the presidency)

"The table is too heavy to be overturned. (1984, discounting any possibility of a
military coup to prevent Tancredo Neves from being inaugurated as president)

"I want people to forget me, tell them that I died, that I had a heart
attack." (in an interview to Manchete TV in 1985)

"I am a Brazilian and I badmouth. Now I feel like a polo player. Get out of my
way, the ball is coming. I get in and I tear it apart. (1985)

"I don’t hate the Brazilian people. It’s the Brazilian people who hate me."
(in a interview with daily newspaper O Estado de S. Paulo, 1988)

"Women should be like those toothpastes you get on international trips. Whoever
does not like it throws the tube away. Those who like it just ask for another one."

"I am convinced that I was a schmuck." (1993)

"They pushed me into politics. As soon as they opened the door I got out."

"I was a victim of medical error. I cannot recognize the words without a
magnifying glass. When you are 79, to fight against a doctor and to prove his mistake is
as hard as facing bankers. (Interview with weekly newsmagazine Isto É, 1997)

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