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Brazil: President Vargas’s Most Enduring Legacy Is His Xenophobic Nationalism

Brazilian President Getúlio VargasThe ideology of nationalism has been Brazil’s most pervasive ideology since the first presidency of Getúlio Vargas (1930-1945). Indeed, nationalism unites under the same banner Brazilians from all sides of the political spectrum. A believer in strong government, not democracy, Vargas is revered in Brazil as a sort of patriotic martyr by these people. And yet, his nationalism rested mainly on resentment of foreign capital and foreign personnel, as well as suspicious of private enterprise and preference for state ownership.

A caudilho (rural oligarchy) from Rio Grande do Sul, Getúlio Vargas became the country’s President by means of a military coup. He entered Rio de Janeiro under army protection in November 1930, receiving the presidency from a military junta that had just a few days earlier deposed President Washington Luís.

Ruling as provisional leader, Vargas managed to dissolve the federal legislature, the state assemblies, and even city councils. His Justice Minister, Oswaldo Aranha, made it very clear that Vargas’ ‘revolutionary’ government did not recognize any right derived from the previous constitutional order.

The group which came with Vargas to power included numerous politicians from Rio Grande do Sul. Most of these people were authoritarians who deeply disliked the whole idea of liberal democracy. In fact, Rio Grande do Sul was the only state of the Brazilian federation to be ruled during the First Republic by a positivist dictatorship in which its state governor could freely enact all its legal rules.

Predictably, Vargas was not willing to govern the country by constitutional means. Because of this, São Paulo led in 1932 its famous Revolução Constitucionalista (Constitutionalist Revolution), an armed revolt that turned out to be a military disaster because Vargas falsely accused its leaders of willing to separate that state from the rest of the federation.

The insurgents were then utterly deprived of any support from the other states, helping the President to easily suppress the uprising and describe its constitutionalist leaders as old-fashioned liberals.

Vargas soon also started to receive pressure from political allies to re-constitutionalise Brazil. Though some of his allies were tenentes (lieutenants) opposed to any constitutionalisation, he was compelled by others to announce in May 1933 the advent of general elections for an Assembléia Constituinte (Constitutional Assembly) to draft a new constitution.

But Vargas had no intention of respecting the constitutional order. He instead wished to bring about a welfare state solely based on his paternal exercise of power. A November 1935 communist uprising served to give him the excuse he needed to suppress civil rights and liberties.

Though the extreme left believed the so-called ‘oppressed masses’ would support their uprising, people stood firmly on the side of the government.

On the other hand, their foolish action allowed Vargas to persecute his major political adversaries, communists or not. A decree of ‘national emergency’ then established the Estado Novo (‘New State’) as an authoritarian regime, which suppressed all political parties and cancelled popular elections.

To provide legitimacy to his new regime, Vargas invited Francisco Campos, a respected lawyer, to write the constitution of the Estado Novo. The result of this work was promulgated on November 15, 1937.

The Estado Novo regime represented a total eclipse of civil liberties in Brazil. Now Vargas, as he did in a 1938 speech, could finally declare that liberal democracy was just part of the past. Likewise, he observed in another speech, the Estado Novo did not recognize any right of the individual against the collective, because (in his words) “individuals do not have rights; they only have duties. Rights belong to the collective.”

This denial of individual rights did not prevent Vargas from receiving the enthusiastic support of the working people, which was in fact quite remarkable. The Estado Novo could be properly described as a paternalistic dictatorship, where people recognised in the populist Vargas all the attributes of a charismatic leadership. A foreigner who visited Brazil during this time would realise that its President could easily manipulate any law, including the constitution, according to his own personal will.

Playing the role of ‘father of the poor’, Vargas established a labour legislation based on Mussolini’s Carta del Lavoro. For this act of generosity from above, he expected the maximum loyalty of working people towards his dictatorial regime. Though he also suppressed their civil rights, his propaganda apparatus was quite efficient to the extent that it attracted a loyalty of workers that often verged on veneration of their ‘good’ dictator.

With no elections, no judicial independence, and not even a functioning legislature, Vargas was free to do whatever he wished in the country. There was no power to compete with him for power and popularity. Workers admired the dictator, and in fact were not too bothered if the government killed, arrested, tortured, or sent its political dissidents into exile.

Vargas during World War II sent an expeditionary force of 20,000 recruits to fight against the Nazi-fascist forces in Europe. Although he admired these totalitarian regimes, the United States, the main consumer of national products, offered many economic benefits in exchange for the country’s support during the war. As a result, an expeditionary force was sent to Europe, with around 600 Brazilians losing their lives during the Italian campaign.

The return of the soldiers home brought about demands for democratisation. It was indeed a great contradiction to be governed by a regime bearing so many similarities with those the country helped to defeat in the old continent. People started questioning why Brazil had gone to Europe to fight against fascism when it had a political regime at home not too dissimilar.

Under such pressure, Vargas attached in February 1945 an amendment to the Charter of 1937. He promised with that to leave power very soon, by announcing elections for president and members of Congress. He also announced the advent of state elections for state governors and state assemblies, and freed the political prisoners in April 1945.

But meanwhile, Vargas approached the communists, who subsequently organized the sinister Queremista movement, which literally meant ‘we want’ (queremos), as in, ‘we want Vargas’. The motto of the queremistas was ‘A Constituent Assembly with Vargas’. In fact, their real intention was to have Vargas remain in power and rule as populist dictator. Later, it was found that Vargas had been financing the Queremista movement.

When U.S. ambassador Adolph A. Berle Jr. expressed in June 1945 his optimism that Brazil could live democratically, many denounced this friendly statement as constituting undue foreign ‘intervention’ in local political affairs. Actually, the nationalists had started suggesting that free elections constituted manipulation by “reactionaries” at the service of “agents of international finance”.

Vargas ended up ousted from presidency on 29 October 1945, in a military manoeuvre carried out without bloodshed or social reaction. The action took place four days after he nominated his bad-tempered brother Benjamin Vargas as Chief-Police at the Federal District (Rio de Janeiro).

The strategy did not work as he hoped, and Vargas was then forced to resign by his own Minister of War, General Góes Monteiro. Curiously, the general who ousted him was one of the army leaders who had put him in power fifteen years earlier.

Even though Vargas was ousted by nationalist army officers, he wisely attributed his fall to liberal constitutionalists at the service of international capitalism. In a December 1946 interview, the dictator described himself as a poor victim of “foreign finance groups” who conspired with liberal constitutionalists to restore “old liberal capitalist democracy”.

In reality, as Thomas Skidmore explains, “The dictator was sent from office not by the power of the civilian opposition, but by decision of the Army command. It was not, therefore, a victory earned by the political influence of the liberal constitutionalists”.

Elected as president in 1950, by means of popular elections, Vargas was once again brought to power. The former dictator, however, lacked the necessary ability to govern democratically. He soon entered into conflict with legislators who weren’t always keen to obey everything he wished. On at least one occasion, Vargas lost his patience and warned congressmen about the day in which the workers would “take the law into their own hands”.

The end of his government became imminent after the failed attempt of Vargas’ cronies to kill the outspoken governor of Rio de Janeiro, Carlos Lacerda, on 5 August 1954. He was only slightly wounded in the attempt, but Air Force Major Rubens Vaz, who was walking with him, was the one murdered.

The police soon found that Vargas’ bodyguard Climério E. de Almeida was responsible for the crime. He confessed under interrogation that federal deputy Lutero Vargas, the son of President Vargas, had ordered the assassination attempt. It was further revealed that Almeida had been paid by the chief of the presidential guard, Gregório Fortunato.

After that, the editorials of all major newspapers were in agreement that the preservation of democratic legal institutions depended at that moment on the removal of Vargas from the presidency. Under the circumstances, Vargas seemed to have no other option other than to offer a letter of resignation.

But he did so in a most unexpected way, committing suicide by shooting himself in the heart on 24 August 1954. He left behind a letter describing himself as “a victim of subterranean campaign of international groups joined with national interests, revolting against the regime of workers’ guarantees”. The suicide provoked a great wave of violent actions against foreign properties and transformed Vargas into a sort of patriotic martyr for the many nationalists.

Ever since, some of Brazil’s most successful politicians have proudly defined themselves as disciples of Vargas. They would agree with the opinion of Professor Emir Sader, for whom a typical caudillo like Vargas was just a democratic leader whose only ‘sin’ was to fight against U.S. imperialism.

In reality, such ‘intellectuals’ and populist leaders honour Vargas because he much contributed in Brazil for the advance of their xenophobic nationalism, as an ideology whereby the ruling groups can more easily manipulate the popular masses, so as to make them eternally hoping for a saviour to inaugurate the tropical paradise on earth.

Augusto Zimmermann is a Brazilian Law Professor and the author of the well-known books Teoria Geral do Federalismo Democrático (General Theory of Democratic Federalism – Second Edition, 2005) and Curso de Direito Constitucional (Course on Constitutional Law, Fourth Edition – 2005). His e-mail is: augustozimmermann@hotmail.com,

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