Brazil: A History of Military Interventions


The saying goes that those who can’t remember the past are doomed to repeat it. In Brazil, the country’s long history of military coups, dictatorships and interventions is far from forgotten, but that hasn’t stopped fears of a reoccurrence from taking hold. In January, President Michel Temer signed a decree ordering the military to take control of security in Rio de Janeiro, bringing the debate over civil-military relations to the forefront of Brazilian politics once again. The move was in response to escalating violence and drug-related crime in the state. Then, in April, Gen. Eduardo Villas Boas, commander of the Brazilian military, twice publicly criticized pervasive corruption in Brazilian politics. And in May, the government called in the army to help clear federal highways blocked by truckers protesting rising fuel prices.

Brazilians, it seems, have grown somewhat accustomed to having the military intervene to help solve the country’s problems. The Institute for Democracy and Media Democratization released a poll in May that revealed that about half the population would not oppose a larger role in government for the military under certain circumstances. With legislative and presidential elections approaching in October, the topic has come up more and more in political debates. The corruption scandal that led to President Dilma Rousseff’s impeachment and charges against many others has fueled calls for military intervention to put an end to the country’s political and economic struggles.

This Deep Dive will look at three important cases of military intervention in Brazil: the Proclamation of 1889, the 1930 revolution and the 1964 coup. Comparing these examples with what’s happening in Brazil today will help determine the likelihood that the military will intervene to help the country deal with the substantial challenges it is facing now.
Proclamation of the Republic, 1889
Brazil’s shift from a constitutional monarchy, which lasted from 1822 to 1889, to a federal republic has been officially called a proclamation, but it was initiated through a bloodless coup. The military essentially seized power from the monarchy and transferred it over time to civilian authorities.
The fall of the Brazilian monarchy began with the gradual erosion of its three historical pillars of support: the Catholic Church, the military and private-sector elites. Under the monarchy, Catholicism was the official religion of Brazil, and the church had strong ties to the government. But by the latter half of the 19th century, the Catholic Church’s political influence had declined. It still had an important social role, but its ties to the government had weakened.

As for the military, its main grievance with the monarchy was its lack of inclusion in national security planning and restrictions on military members publicly commenting on military issues. The government had close ties to business elites, leaving little room for military involvement even in matters directly related to security. The Paraguayan War (1864-1870), fought initially between Brazil and Paraguay, exacerbated the problem, creating a sense of solidarity among the armed forces and disaffection with the regime. The war also sparked a major economic crisis. The monarchy used extensive external credit to finance the conflict and keep the economy running after it ended. Government debt rose nearly sevenfold between 1871 and 1889.

In addition to these domestic issues, there were numerous international factors that ultimately led the monarchy to change its economic model. That Brazil was the only Portuguese-speaking country and the only country ruled by a monarchy in South America made it somewhat vulnerable. The rest of the major countries of the region were former Spanish colonies with wholly elected governments, and the monarchy was worried about the possibility of Spain once again conquering large parts of South America. It was also concerned about the United States’ Monroe Doctrine (fearing the U.S. might become more involved in South America and denounce Brazil’s ties with the U.K.) and the Catholic Church’s potential interference in political affairs.

To counter these threats, Brazil aligned itself with the United Kingdom, which also was an opponent of the Catholic Church, resented the U.S. for taking over some of its holdings in the Americas and was a historical rival of Spain. That the two countries had many adversaries in common made the U.K. the single most important foreign partner for Brazil, not only on a diplomatic level but also in terms of trade. In 1863, the U.K. accounted for 38 percent of Brazil’s exports and more than half its imports.

But this relationship came at a cost for Brazil. The U.K. abolished slavery in the West Indies in 1833, and shortly thereafter, it began to use its navy and economic ties with Brazil to pressure the country to do the same. From 1850 to 1888, the monarchy in Brazil passed laws that would lead to the gradual elimination of slavery in the country. Business elites were most affected by these legal changes because higher labor costs threatened to slash their profits from agricultural goods.

In 1889, a military official declared the end of colonial rule, and the monarchy put up little resistance. Within two days, the king and his family fled Brazil. The military assumed power and oversaw the transition to a democratic system known as the First Brazilian Republic.
Brazilian Revolution, 1930
The First Republic had a strong federal system and was governed through a power-sharing agreement among Brazil’s three richest states: Minas Gerais, Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. The arrangement became known as “coffee with milk” politics because it divided power among three regions dominated by the coffee and dairy industries. During this time, agriculture became critical not just to Brazil’s economy but also to its politics – oligarchs who made their wealth through agriculture had a lot of influence over regional politics, and some academics and historians have even referred to the 1889-1930 government in Brazil as an oligarch republic.
World War I created an opportunity for Brazil to industrialize. Before the war, places like Europe and the United States could produce manufactured goods more efficiently and cost effectively than Brazil. But when German warships started greatly restricting trade between Brazil and Europe, Brazil needed to supply its own manufactured goods, and domestic industries, uninhibited by outside competition, were able to develop. Industrialization led to urbanization, as people moved to cities to find manufacturing jobs.
Many of those people flowing into the cities were of European origin. After Brazil eliminated slavery, it had turned to European immigration to fill the gaps in its labor force. Help wasn’t hard to find – many Europeans wanted to escape the intense political turmoil that would later culminate in the Bolshevik Revolution and World War I and start a new life elsewhere. Millions of Europeans, especially from southern Europe, settled in Brazil. They brought with them their beliefs in workers’ rights and communist ideology. Industrialization and European immigration thus set the stage for a political movement against the Brazilian ruling class.

Brazil’s young military officers were also exposed to European ideologies, since much of their military education was based on European models. Younger officers became sympathetic to broader social movements and critical of the oligarchical government, partly because the military was kept on the fringes of power during the First Republic. This culminated in a series of small rebellions throughout the 1920s carried out by lieutenants and captains in Rio de Janeiro, Sao Paulo and Rio Grande do Sul. The rebellions never managed to topple the government, but they were important precursors to future events.
Meanwhile, the ruling elite faced another challenge on the economic front. Brazil depended heavily on coffee exports for revenue, but economic instability in Europe, particularly related to the war, forced down prices for commodities such as coffee. It also restricted Brazil’s access to markets like Germany, which was among Brazil’s leading coffee buyers at the time. In the 1920s, the Brazilian government sought foreign credit to help stabilize domestic coffee prices – which would also help stabilize the political elite. Accessing credit proved increasingly difficult, however. Brazil’s traditional sources of credit in Europe were in no position to continue in that role. By this time, the U.S. had become Brazil’s largest trade and business partner, but Washington was starting to face some economic problems of its own, and U.S. demand for all goods – foreign and domestic – plummeted with the onset of the Great Depression. The fate of the coffee industry – and thus of Brazil’s ruling elite – was sealed with the 1929 stock market crash.

Aspiring political leaders who were not from the three states that had previously dominated Brazilian politics seized on the opportunity to organize a revolt. Getulio Vargas, whose base was the working class, led this movement. Vargas and his political partners started working closely with sympathetic military officials, who were easily identified after the rebellions in the 1920s. When Vargas lost the 1930 presidential election, his band of aspiring political leaders and disgruntled military officers refused to recognize the results and instead declared Vargas president. The First Republic was no more.
Coup d’Etat, 1964
Vargas became increasingly dictatorial from 1937 to 1945, a period referred to as the Estado Novo, or New State. The government during this time was modeled on European fascist regimes. Vargas abolished the constitution, declared a state of emergency (in response to a supposed communist plot to overthrow the government), and centralized power by eliminating the position of vice president and refusing to hold legislative elections. Throughout World War II, Brazil tried to remain neutral and maintain relations with both the U.S. and Germany, until it became clear that Germany would end up on the losing side of the war. With a clear victory for the Allies, there was strong international pressure, mainly from the U.S., for Brazil to return to a more democratic system – one that was staunchly anti-communist.

In 1945, Vargas was overthrown in a coup, marking the start of the Second Brazilian Republic. His removal from office, however, did not stabilize politics in Brazil. During the turbulent times from 1945 to 1964, only two of 11 presidential terms were completed.
It was also a tumultuous time on the economic front. Throughout the 1950s, the Brazilian government pursued an import substitution policy to boost growth in important areas such as machinery, the chemicals industry and the auto industry. Though the policy spurred growth, it also had some negative consequences. Tariffs were imposed on imported goods, making them more expensive relative to domestically produced goods. They were more lenient, however, on input materials that Brazil couldn’t produce on its own and that were necessary for production. Foreign capital was used to help finance this policy, and a series of exchange rate measures were imposed to help further regulate trade. By the early 1960s, Brazil’s economic problems could no longer be ignored.
What’s more, the Cold War and pressure from the United States to reject any communist influence encouraged the military to take action. Maintaining a good relationship with the United States – Brazil’s largest trade partner and an important source of foreign funding – was critical to Brazil’s economic well being. Then-President Joao Goulart planned to make significant reforms, some of which had communist undertones. They included land redistribution, controls for urban housing and increased regulation in areas like banking, education and government administration. The U.S. encouraged Goulart to adopt more moderate policies, but it also curried favor with the Brazilian military in case Goulart refused to moderate his positions. Brazil could not risk economic isolation from the U.S. or some type of U.S. military intervention. Recognizing these constraints, the military took over with support from opposition political forces and ran a dictatorship until 1985, when civilian control over the government was restored.
Common Characteristics
All three of these military interventions occurred in different periods of Brazil’s history and under different circumstances, but they nonetheless have some things in common. First, they all occurred with the support of an organized civilian population that opposed the government. The civilian groups involved were often driven to support drastic political and social change at times when the government pursued policies that favored one group at the expense of another, usually one that was already disadvantaged to begin with. The justification for the military response was usually that the civilian leadership was no longer competent enough to run the state’s affairs. These conditions threatened economic development and, in turn, weakened national security.
The three examples above also reveal that successful military takeovers in Brazil have four main qualities. First, a political crisis results in an extremely weak government that has little or no backing from historical pillars of support. Second, an economic crisis threatens core components of the economy. Third, a large portion of the military, particularly officers, is frustrated with the government, often because the military has been excluded from state affairs. Fourth, foreign forces play some role.
The first two qualities are applicable to Brazil today. The military regime ended in 1985, marking the start of the Third Republic, and 22 years later, the country again finds itself in the midst of political and economic turmoil. President Michel Temer, who took over after Dilma Rousseff’s impeachment, has been a weak leader, unable to push through major economic reforms. Many political and business elites have been implicated in a series of high-profile corruption scandals. The scandals, along with high government spending, declining commodity prices, and lower global demand and investment, resulted in two years of severe economic hardship followed by a very slow recovery.

The worst of the economic and political upheaval seems to have passed, but it will still be a while before average Brazilians see any improvements in their living conditions, as employment and wages remain low and the government seeks opportunities to cut social spending. But the government, with the help of the judiciary, is making an effort to police itself and prove to the public that it doesn’t need the military to take over. The corruption investigations continue, and the government is trying to tackle the problem through reforms and prosecuting those who were allegedly involved in the scandals, rather than overhauling the system entirely. Some high-profile politicians such as former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, former President of the Chamber of Deputies Eduardo Cunha and Sen. Aecio Neves have even been charged, showing that no one is above the law. And throughout the scandal, the government has remained functional and the military has not intervened, which may not have been the case in the past.
But Brazil does not appear to have the latter two qualities. The military is not being neglected or undermined by the government today. In fact, over the past 25 years, the government has included military officers in national defense planning, debates and policy. Gen. Eduardo Villas Boas’ comments about corruption among Brazilian politicians sparked concerns that Brazil was moving backward, but that he was able to speak out about a political issue itself indicates that military officials are not merely observers of Brazilian politics but can also have some political influence. He has subsequently said the military respects state institutions and the constitution. Moreover, there are 71 candidates with military backgrounds running in the 2018 general elections, including one candidate running for president. Even if all are elected, they will represent a small minority of the public representatives in Brazil, but this is nevertheless an opportunity for former members of the military to participate in the political system and represent the military’s point of view on political and security matters.
On the international level, there are no signs that any foreign countries would support a military solution to the crisis in Brazil. All governments in South America are hesitant to become militarily involved in other countries in the region. Even in the case of Venezuela, which is experiencing a political and economic crisis of its own, countries in the region have been slow to take any concrete action (like cutting trade ties) against Nicolas Maduro’s government and are applying only moderate sanctions. Countries outside of South America, particularly the United States, want stability in Brazil. With ongoing NAFTA and Chinese trade talks and military operations in the Middle East, the U.S. is already overextended and would be unlikely to support a military intervention in Brazil. Outside of the Western Hemisphere, one of Brazil’s strongest relationships is with China, which imports natural resources from Brazil. If the Brazilian government were overthrown, it could destabilize the country and strain trade ties, making Beijing unlikely to support any move in that direction.
The recent suggestions that the military should become more involved in internal security may have raised some eyebrows, but this should not be seen as a prelude to another military dictatorship. In this case, at least, history is not repeating itself.

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