Brazil’s Military Coup, 55 years later

Fifty-five years ago, in 1964, Brazilian president João Goulart was overthrown and substituted by Castelo Branco, a military president. Until 1985 the country was governed by military presidents. To this day people are still debating the coup (some even denying that there was a coup), much because the victims and perpetrators are still commanding the debate. In light of that, I’d like to offer some thoughts about 1964 here.

In 1789, only thirteen years after the American Revolution, a small group of Brazilian discontents planned an independent attempt in the region of Minas Gerais. The movement failed miserably, leaving one infamous victim, Tiradentes, who would much later be considered the patron of Brazilian independence. In the following years Brazil saw many other revolts and independence attempts, but in 1808 a significant change of events took over the country: instead of fighting in Europe a war against Napoleon he believed he could not win, Dom João VI, the Portuguese prince-regent, decided to move his capital from Lisbon to Rio de Janeiro. However, some years later Dom João had to choose between staying in Brazil or losing his crown. He decided to go back to Portugal. His son, Dom Pedro I, remained in Brazil as a new prince-regent. Legend has it that, when embarking back to Europe, João turned to Pedro and said, “make the independence of this country before someone else does.”

And he did: on September 7, 1822, Dom Pedro I proclaimed Brazil’s independence and became the country’s first emperor. His son, Dom Pedro II, would succeed him in 1840 and rule until 1889 when the monarchy was overthrown, and the republic established. Now, just imagine if the king or prince of England or Spain proclaimed himself emperor of America. Well, that’s what happened in Brazil. It seems to me that people forget how absurd this scenario really was.

Fast-forward: Dom Pedro I followed his father’s steps in 1831. He had to choose between staying in Brazil or jeopardizing his family’s position in Europe. He went back to Portugal but left his son to become emperor in Brazil. Because Dom Pedro II was still only four years old, that wouldn’t happen until almost a decade later. And so, the 1830s were a very turmoiled time in Brazilian history. The country was ruled by several regents and was about to be torn apart. This favored speeding up Dom Pedro II’s coronation. Although he was only 14 years old, his rise to power helped to heal several wounds and bring a union to Brazil. The country’s subsequent history, at least until the proclamation of the republic in 1889, was lived under the shadow of the 1830s. To a high degree the Brazilian elites were afraid that without a strong central power, represented by the emperor, the country would fall apart, much like Hispanic America. On top of that, Brazilian economy was majorly dependent on African slaves, and the same elites were afraid that the Haitian Revolution of 1803 would be emulated in their country in the absence of a strong centralized government.

These are in my view the basics of Brazilian history in the 19th century. To prevent regional fragmentation (as in Hispanic America) or a slave revolution (as in Haiti) a very strong and centralized government was established. Liberal on the surface, but very far from that in reality. I don’t question that in the absence of this choice Brazilian history might have been quite different. However, I think that it is important to notice that Brazilian political history didn’t have a very democratic beginning.

As I already mentioned, the monarchy in Brazil ended in 1889. Dom Pedro II suffered a textbook coup d’état: some economic elites colluded with the military (mostly the army) and took over the power. The first forty years of Brazilian republic were notoriously oligarchic, ruled mostly by the coffee elites of the states of São Paulo and Minas Gerais. These elites, however, tasted their own medicine when, in 1930, Getúlio Vargas took over power by force. He would be the country’s dictator until 1945.

Vargas deserves special attention, both because of his long time in power and his enduring influence. On many occasions, he has been classified as a fascist, or something close to that. Populist is also a label that has been associated with him. I prefer to label him as “getulist”. To be sure, Vargas had some resemblance to fascists in Europe and populists in Latin America, but I understand that this is mainly so because all these governments share in their anti-liberalism, centralization of power and tendency to extreme violence.

Vargas peacefully stepped down from power in 1945, only to come back (democratically elected!) in 1951. He committed suicide in 1954. The whole period of 1945-1964 was lived under his shadow. Many tried to be his successor. Juscelino Kubitsheck, president from 1956 to 1961, began his political career as Vargas’ protégé and remained faithful to the mentor until Getúlio’s death. Leonel Brizola, governor of Rio Grande do Sul (1959-1963) – Vargas’ home state – also tried to continue Getúlio’s legacy. Even more so did Brizola’s brother in law, João Goulart, president from 1961 until the 1964 coup.

Even more than Juscelino Kubitsheck, João Goulart began his political career as a protégé of Getúlio Vargas, but never achieved the political brilliance of his mentor. Jango, as he was called, was not a communist by any means. Very much like Vargas, his ideology was a confused mix of positivism, laborism, populism and any other -isms. Very pragmatic. However, above all, Jango was a fool. He was unable to understand that the World had changed. What was successful for Vargas in the 1930s could not be reproduced in the 1960s. Because of that, amid the Cold War scenario he was mistaken for a communist by some. Others, more pointedly, realized that he was too oblivion to the communist threat Brazil was facing.

Communists had been trying to come to power in Brazil (rarely democratically) since the 1920s. The Cold War only intensified this threat. After the Cuban Revolution of 1959 many feared that Brazil would be the next domino to fall.

And this is in short, the scenario in which the military came to power in Brazil in 1964. As late Brazilian economist Roberto Campos very lucidly pointed, democracy was sadly not an option for Brazil in 1964. The country had to choose between a right-wing or a left-wing dictatorship. I believe they chose correctly. The communists took power in Cuba in 1959. They are still there. The military seized control in Brazil in 1964. They pacifically laid over power 21 years after and never tried to come back. I am not saying that a right-wing dictatorship is a good solution against leftism. Anyone who reads this here is reading his prejudices solely. What I am saying is that Brazil sadly has little democratic tradition and had even less 55 years ago. Therefore, we should not be surprised that the military took over power in 1964. Surprisingly would be if things happened in any other way. I don’t celebrate the military government of 1964-1985. Just the opposite: as with so many things in Brazilian history (or in life!) it is not something to celebrate. Just to accept and live with it.

How the populists came to power

Jair Bolsonaro was elected president in Brazil. Donald Trump in the US. In other countries, similar politicians are gaining popular support. Some are calling these politicians “populists”. I don’t really know what they mean by this term. The populists that I know better are Getúlio Vargas, Brazil’s president for almost 20 years in the mid-20th century and Juan Peron, a leading political figure in Argentina in the same time period. What they had in common? Both fought the communist influence in Latin America, favored the labor movement and were anti-liberal. They were also extremely personalist, leading to something that could be understood as a cult of personality. I completely fail to see important similarities between Trump and Bolsonaro on the one hand and Vargas and Peron on the other. But I can see some similarities between Trump and Bolsonaro. The latter two both came to power against what the left became in the last few decades.

Once upon a time, there was a young German philosopher called Karl Marx. He was very well read but wasn’t very bright on economics. Anyway, he decided that he would correct the classical liberal economic theory of Adam Smith. The result was that Marx concluded that in the center of the economy, and actually in the center of history itself, was the class struggle between the workforce and the bourgeoisie. Of course, although appealing on the surface, Marx’s economic theory is pure nonsense. Maybe Marx himself knew it, for at the end of his life he was more interested in living a peaceful life in London than in leading a revolution. But this didn’t stop Marxists from starting Revolutions throughout the world, beginning in Russia.

Ludwig Von Mises brilliant pointed out that Marxism would never work as the economic foundation of a country, for it ignored private property. Without private property, there is no price formation and without prices economic calculation is impossible. In doing so, Mises founded the Austrian School of Economics. The economic debate between Austrians and Marxists ensued, but arguing with a Marxist is like playing chess with a pigeon. He will climb on the board, knock down the pieces and believe that he won. Regardless, facts don’t care about your feelings, and reality proved again and again that Mises was right.

However, at the same time, something else was happening. In Italy, a Marxist named Antonio Gramsci concluded that armed revolution was not the best way to power. He believed that a cultural approach would be better. Some German scholars in Frankfurt concluded pretty much the same. Their question was “why the proletariat will not follow us?”. The answer was that they were too alienated by capitalist culture.

Following Gramsci and the Frankfurt School, Marxists all over the world gave up studying economics and decided to study culture. They concluded that everyone can feel oppressed. The class struggle seized to be between factory workers and factory owners and turned into a fight between man and woman, black and white, gay and straight. Identity politics was born.

And that’s how the “populists” came to power. It is not so much that the common people (and especially conservatives and libertarians) are crazily in love with Bolsonaro or Trump. It is just that people eventually get tired of being called oppressors. The left, once legitimately concerned with the conditions of the poor, ignored that the best solution for poverty is the free market. Instead, they decided they would crush the common people they swore to protect, calling them homophobic, misogynists and so on. Common people answered by voting for whoever was on the other side of the political spectrum.

The problem with Brazil (and it’s not socialism)

The problem with Brazil is not Luis Inacio Lula da Silva. It’s not the Worker’s Party. It’s not Socialism.

Certainly one of the most important politicians in Brazilian History was Getulio Vargas. Vargas came to power in a coup (that symptomatically most Brazilian historians call a revolution) in 1930. He ended up staying in power, without ever being elected by popular vote, until 1945. Then he peacefully resigned, not without electing his chosen successor, Eurico Gaspar Dutra. Vargas came back to power immediately after Dutra, and committed suicide while in office. Almost all Brazilian presidents from 1945 to 1964 were from Vargas’ close circle.

Brazilians to this day are still taught that Vargas was a hero, persecuted by an evil opposition. Initially, Vargas was some kind of Brazilian positivist. He was anti-liberal because liberalism is weak and slow. We need a strong technical government, able to identify problems and come with solutions fast. However, while in office, he became “the father of the poor,” a defensor of the lower classes. Nothing could be farther from the truth, of course, but that’s how Vargas is remembered by many.

One of my favorite interpretation of Brazil comes from Sergio Buarque de Holanda. According to Holanda, the problem with Brazil is that Brazilians are cordial. What he means by that is this: using Weber’s models of authority, he identified that Brazilians were never able to support a Legal-Rational authority. Vargas was seen as “a father.” not a president. The country is seen as a big family. Lula used a very similar vocabulary and tried to reenact Vargas’ populism.

As I mentioned, Holanda’s interpretation is Weberian. Weber’s most famous book is The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. The problem with Brazil is that it never went through a protestant reformation. And because of that, it never developed the “spirit of capitalism” that Weber describes. Brazil is still, to a great degree, stuck with traditional and charismatic forms of authority.

To be sure, Brazil has many features of a modern liberal state. Since late 18th century Portugal tried to copy these from more advanced nations, especially England. Brazil followed suit. But you can’t have the accidents without the substance. Unless Brazil actually goes through a transformation in its soul, it will never become the modern liberal state many want it to be. Quoting Domingo Faustino Sarmiento, “An ignorant people will always choose Rosas.”