President Dilma Rousseff during her inauguration, Brasília, Jan. 1, 2011. Roberto Stuckert Filho/ Agence France- Presse/Getty Images
February 17, 2014
This year, the matches of the Fédération
Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) World Cup will be played on
pitches throughout Brazil. In a little more than two years, Rio de Janeiro will
host the 2016 Olympic Games. These sporting spectacles are an opportunity for a
country with regional and international ambitions to take a victory lap. Not so
long ago, Brazil was a nation plagued by runaway inflation and governed by
dictators. Today, it boasts a stable economy, which in size is akin to those of
France, the United Kingdom, and Russia, and some 40 million Brazilians made
their way into the middle class during the past decade. Meanwhile, Brazil has
achieved a remarkable transition to democracy after a century of political
The political and economic platform on which this
democracy is built is particularly striking because it has so little precedent
in Brazil’s history. Brazilian presidents are now elected with a wider base of
public support: illiterate Brazilians gained the right to vote in 1985, when
they still accounted for 20 percent of the adult population. By contrast, in
1960 and the last presidential election before the military coup, only 60
percent of adults were literate and therefore allowed to vote. Mistrust of the
political aims of illiterate Brazilians, most often very poor, was one of the
motives for the 1964 military coup. Brazil’s democracy today is not only more broadly
rooted, it is also able to accommodate the political pressure of social
policies aimed at alleviating conditions of misery in a country with some of
the world’s largest income inequalities.
For much of the twentieth century, these outcomes
would have been hard to imagine. The people who went on to become Brazil’s
three most recent presidents had been treated harshly by the military
dictatorship that ruled from 1964 to 1985. Fernando Henrique Cardoso, president
from 1995 to 2003, is a sociologist who had been one of the major theorists of
Marxist-influenced dependency theory and one of the early social scientists to
challenge the myth that Brazil was a country without racial inequality. The
dictatorship purged him from his faculty position at the University of São
Paulo in 1969. Along with other fired faculty, he formed a research institute,
the Brazilian Center for Analysis and Planning (CEBRAP), with funding from the
Ford Foundation. When CEBRAP suffered a bombing in 1976, the São Paulo state
secretary of security told the press “there are countless entities like CEBRAP
in São Paulo that deserve a bomb.”
Cardoso’s successor as president, Luiz Inácio Lula da
Silva, commonly known simply as Lula, is a former metalworker from São Paulo’s
industrial belt who led a series of wildcat strikes beginning in 1978 that
defied military rule and served as a catalyst for the creation of the Brazilian
Workers’ Party, or PT. The military regime purged him from the presidency of
the metalworker’s union and imprisoned him for a month during a 1980 strike
calling for a forty-hour work week as well as other labor reforms. Lula’s PT
became an umbrella for many stripes of opposition to the dictatorship, and
pressured for a return to direct presidential elections. Lula was elected
president in 2002 and was re-elected in 2006 with over 60 percent of the vote.
His popularity allowed him to realize a feat no predecessor had accomplished in
modern times: the election to the presidency of a protégé from his own party,
As a university student, Rousseff, who succeeded Lula
in 2011, participated in a succession of Marxist revolutionary organizations
that carried out guerrilla actions against the dictatorship. One of these
organizations’ actions included a botched assassination attempt against the
Bolivian officer who commanded the military unit that killed Che Guevara.
Rousseff was apprehended by state security forces, tortured, and convicted by a
military tribunal under the regime’s national security law. Where Cardoso and
Lula chose not to look back at the dictatorship, Rousseff has instead empaneled
Brazil’s first National Truth Commission. Though the 1979 amnesty law covering
crimes both by and against the state remains in place, the National Truth
Commission is a belated version of the reckoning that took place in Argentina
and Chile in the aftermath of dictatorships in those countries.
The best way to understand
Brazil’s transition from dictatorship to democracy is to understand how Brazil
became a dictatorship. The armed forces took over in a coup known as the
Revolution of 1964 and held power until 1985. In Brazil’s politically turbulent
twentieth century, it went through six different constitutions. Before 1964,
the armed forces had installed or removed presidents three times, and twice
forced a change in the nature of the regime; once to create dictatorial powers
for a president, and once to strip a president’s powers through the creation of
a parliamentary cabinet. Beneath these repeatedly successful efforts to change
Brazil’s political regime, the armed forces were a bottomless source of
conspiracies and insurrections. In other words, the armed forces were one of
the key political and governing arteries of the country.
The difference after 1964 is that the armed forces
asserted a monopoly on political power after overthrowing leftist President
João Goulart. Through this monopoly, the armed forces controlled the
presidency, culled the congress, modified and eventually replaced the
constitution, and arbitrated state and local elections. When the armed forces
seized direct power in 1964, the new regime was pulled in contradictory
directions by the army officer corps. Some officers sought a narrowly conceived
course correction that would shake leftist populists out of government and
engage in economic stabilization through a liberal and orthodox austerity plan.
This was the view of the first military president, General Humberto Castelo
Branco, who governed from 1964 to 1967. Castelo Branco and his allies identified
closely with the United States, often connected by bonds formed with U.S.
officers during their service together in Italy during the Second World War.
Politically, Castelo Branco’s
regime purged the congress and government ministries of leftists, crushed the
landless workers’ movement in the impoverished northeast, curbed labor unions,
and suppressed the student movement. Economically, the new military government
fought a rate of inflation that neared 100 percent through a combination of
spending cuts and caps on industrial and service wages. Having cleaned house,
the regime expected to restore civilian rule through direct elections to be
held in 1966, in which purged politicians on the left would be disqualified
from running for office.
If the coup initially brought to power officers who
foresaw limits on the armed forces in government, it also aroused deeper
ambitions within the armed forces which went back generations. Since the late
nineteenth century, army officers had embraced nationalist modernizing projects
that ranged from pursuit of the 1888 abolition of slavery to the coup that
deposed Brazil’s monarchy a year later and installed a republican regime.
Influenced by Comtean Positivism, these officers believed in modernization
through rational planning that could solve national problems. In the aftermath
of the First World War, this line of thought among officers was reinforced by
the perception that only industrialized nations could persevere in modern
warfare. An emerging national security doctrine thus combined the pursuit of
heavy industry with a concern for building a strong central state that could
integrate the vast country and secure national territory.
The scheduled 1966 presidential election never took
place. Beginning in 1967, four successive military presidents, followed by one
civilian president were anointed by an “electoral college” comprised of the
remaining members of purged legislative bodies. The direct popular election of
a president, last achieved in 1960, would not recur until 1989. The political
and economic stabilization realized by Castelo Branco became the springboard
for increasingly audacious developmental projects that coalesced around the
vision of a Brasil Grande. Theorists in the armed forces took it as a
matter of faith that their modernizing and developmental ambitions would make
Brazil a world power. As General Carlos de Meira Mattos, an influential
exponent of Brazil’s national security doctrine expressed in 1977, “We will be
a world power if we meet our development goals for the year 2000, regardless of
our vocation or desire for power. We must be prepared to exercise that power,
whose geo-strategic and economic dimensions will have a global reach.”
These ambitions drew Brazil’s generals in curious
directions. On one hand, they professed
alignment with the United States and adherence to liberal market principles. On
the other hand, they skirted market mechanisms or eschewed the United States
when they believed that economic growth and national development depended on
it. By the late 1970s, the Brazilian government pursued relations with the
Marxist regime in Angola, as well as commercial opportunities in Libya and
Iraq. In many respects, by deposing a populist president, squelching leftist
movements, and winning foreign investment, the military regime was the fruit of
the Cold War. But in many other ways, the regime reflected more historically
rooted aspects of the worldview of military officers. The dictatorship was the
full bloom of a particular culture of modernization, development, and security
that had germinated in the armed forces for nearly a century.
The generals pursued both economic development and
national integration, giving wide berth to technocrats and engineers in both
civilian ministries and the armed forces. The pursuit of national integration
was formidable. The regime partnered with Globo TV to develop a national
television network supplemented in 1985 by the country’s own transmission
satellite, along with early implementation of a nationally specific color
transmission standard. First through Globo and eventually through other
networks, this infrastructure brought the same news and entertainment
programming to all reaches of the country.
The expansion of road and railroad networks was
equally dramatic. The Trans-Amazonian Highway epitomized the push for national
integration. Inaugurated in 1972, the road stretches westward four thousand
kilometers from Brazil’s easternmost tip into the far western Amazonian region.
It is incomplete, and many of its completed segments unpaved, but the projected
route would reach from the Atlantic Ocean to the town of Benjamin Constant
(named after Brazil’s most influential Positivist thinker) at the border with
Colombia and Peru.
The Trans-Amazonian highway accelerated the
deforestation of the Amazon, though the generals did not regard this as a
problem: it meant the economic development of the region, as well as the
intensification of settlement in regions that military strategists saw as
vulnerable to foreign encroachment. State planners also viewed the highway as a
means of redirecting the great migration of rural workers from the impoverished
and arid northeast into new Amazonian farmlands rather than the crowded
industrial cities of the southeast, such as São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro.
development projects were fueled by accelerated economic growth, and this
growth was sustained by borrowing to continue to expand infrastructure. The
regime’s most influential finance minister, Antônio Delfim Netto, developed a
mechanism to ease credit without triggering inflation by resorting to
indexation and frequent small devaluations, essentially sweeping inflation
under the rug. The flood of credit helped fuel the Brazilian Miracle through
which the national economy grew at an average annual rate of 11.3 percent
between 1968 and 1973. Amid this growth, the generals grew confident that, as
the state planning blueprint published in 1974 proclaimed, Brazil had
capitalized on “the momentum the Revolution [of 1964] has sought to generate,
in order to cross the frontier between underdevelopment and development.”
The generals’ reaction to the 1973 Arab oil embargo
had disastrous consequences: committed to maintaining the high levels of
economic growth upon which the regime’s popularity floated, the regime chose to
subsidize oil prices through borrowing. At the time, Brazil imported half of
its oil, and the cost of those imports quadrupled: the country faced a soaring
balance of payments deficit and a debt burden that carried on in the belief
that future growth would offset current costs.
After the oil shock, the government doubled down on
infrastructure investments in order to ease dependency on oil imports. Massive
projects in hydroelectric dam construction, the development of a
sugarcane-based ethanol industry, and other energy projects compounded the
debt. Brazil became a leading borrower of petrodollars, with the largest
foreign debt in the developing world. The government and state-owned companies
extended their reach into the economy, competing with private sector firms for
profits that could ease its balance of payments deficit. By the end of the
1970s, nearly half of the economy was in the hands of the state—an ironic
outcome for a regime that took power out of fear of the socialist leanings of
the government it deposed.
The second oil shock in 1979, followed by a global
recession fueled by the increase in interest rates in the United States to curb
inflation, brought Brazil’s debt-fueled growth model to collapse. After the
first 1973 oil shock, Brazil’s foreign debt reached $12 billion, an amount so
large that the government needed to borrow simply to make payments on the debt.
By 1982, Brazil owed $82 billion. Interest rates on the debt soared, and amid
Mexico’s moratorium on debt payments and Argentina’s war with Britain over the
Falkland Islands (Islas Malvinas), Brazil’s capacity to borrow was exhausted.
The annual cost of interest payments alone was more than half the value of
Brazil’s exports. The result was the subsequent ‘lost decade’ of economic
stagnation and runaway inflation. In 1990, per capita GDP was lower than it had
been in 1980.
The military regime’s promise that rational and
purportedly apolitical planning would achieve the development aims that had
eluded the country was in tatters. The regime limped along seeking to manage
the financial crisis alongside a gradual transition to civilian rule. The
character of this crisis and its connection to re-democratization gave shape to
a particular culture of opposition that brought seemingly incompatible groups
together in a new political dynamic. Business groups that had long benefitted
from the regime came to see the dictatorship as an entity that was incapable of
reading and responding to market signals, and wanted to reduce their market
competition with state enterprises.
Their opposition took the form of promoting neoliberal
reforms that would curb what they saw as the statist and ruinous policies of
the dictatorship. By the early 1980s, this neoliberal opposition formed a
common cause with social movements that were often leftist but which
increasingly framed their demands in the language of individual human rights.
The combination of neoliberal economic pressure and opposition based on the
defense of the rights of the individual created a potent movement for
Rule of Law
Over the life of the
dictatorship, opposition had taken many forms. In 1968, public protests led by
students and workers filled main squares and central avenues across major
cities. The military’s crackdown on the protesters and its expansion of
national security laws to allow for the indefinite detention of dissenters
radicalized the opposition. Urban and rural guerrilla groups, many formed by
radicalized university students, waged campaigns of assassinations, bank
robberies, and the kidnapping of diplomats. The regime responded with a
proliferation of security agencies. One of the most notorious, OBAN, was formed
by soldiers and police and was funded by corporations including Ford and
General Motors—this corporate U.S. support of repression followed years of
training in torture and counterinsurgency techniques provided by the U.S.
government. It was OBAN that, in 1970, detained and tortured Rousseff.
The guerrilla groups, whose members mostly lacked
military training, were badly outmatched by a regime that confronted them
through torture, disappearance, and extrajudicial executions. By 1975, armed
opposition to the regime no longer existed, and popular dissent was muffled. A
congressional minority party, the Brazilian Democratic Movement, placed muted
pressure on the regime, but was cautious not to trigger purges of its
diminished caucus. The sprawling state security apparatus nonetheless continued
to voraciously seek out new targets. These could be a university valedictorian
who made an unguarded address to his class, or industrial workers with past
radical affiliations. In October 1975, the target was a São Paulo journalist,
Vladimir Herzog, who was news director at a public television station but had
once been a member of the Communist party.
Herzog died at the hands of the army intelligence
agency DOI-CODI, which claimed he committed suicide while in detention by
hanging himself with the belt of his prison uniform (the uniforms did not have
belts). When the president of the Israelite Congregation of São Paulo, Rabbi
Henry Sobel, buried Herzog in the main part of the Jewish cemetery rather than
a separate plot, which would be the custom for suicides, he implicitly
challenged the government’s account of the death. Cardinal Evaristo Arns held
an ecumenical service for Herzog in São Paulo’s cathedral, and 30,000 students
at multiple university campuses went on strike.
Herzog’s death stands out, among
many others at the hands of the regime, for the public response to it.
Religious leaders, student leaders, and the journalists’ union to which Herzog
had belonged resolved to avoid the kinds of noisy protests the regime was
accustomed to suppressing. In the place of political banners denouncing the
regime or advocating for socialist revolution and the chants and pot banging of
typical Brazilian political demonstrations, the public manifestations around
Herzog’s death were conducted in silence. Like the work of the Mothers of the
Plaza de Mayo in Argentina and the arpilleras—quilt-weavers—in Chile,
whose silence defied their respective dictatorships, the protesters in São
Paulo developed a powerful challenge to the regime.
The dictatorship had represented itself as the
defender of public order, the family, and moral values against the forces of
demagogic populism and radical subversion. The regime had always taken pains to
present itself as being the rule of law, for instance putting on elaborate
public performances of constitutional reform to legalize its arbitrary
decisions. Brazil’s military leaders wore civilian dress, and disdained the
ostentatious uniforms of neighboring dictators like Alfredo Stroessner and
Augusto Pinochet. They were not, in their own way of thinking, even dictators:
they were constitutional heads of state duly “elected” by an electoral college.
The protesters now turned this equation on its head.
Their demonstrations were not explicitly political in that they did not demand
the end of the regime, or its replacement with an ideologically different one.
Instead, the protesters championed the integrity of the individual before the
state and a return to a rule of law that the state itself would be subordinate
to. Defense of the rule of law grew into the advocacy for liberalization that
also spoke to business groups. Opponents began to challenge military rule not
ideologically but procedurally: pressing for an acceleration of the civilian
handover and advocating for direct presidential elections.
In 1985, a tenuous political transition took place.
The armed forces held to the indirect election by the congress of a civilian
president, and permitted two slates: one allied to the armed forces, and the
other a slate that included Tancredo Neves, a leader of the senate opposition
to the regime, as the presidential nominee, and José Sarney, who had been a
leader of the pro-regime majority in the senate, as the vice presidential
candidate. As the electoral college voted, a rock festival took place in Rio de
Janeiro. Between performances by bands like AC/DC and the Scorpions,
festival-goers kept track of the vote and cheered “Eu, eu, eu! Maluf se
fodeu!” (Politely: Paulo Maluf, the defeated candidate of the armed forces,
A Program for the Poor
The most immediate experience for Brazilians in the
years after the dictatorship was inflation. In 1964, the armed forces held up
the foreign debt of $3.2 billion and an inflation rate of nearly 88 percent per
year as evidence of the inability of civilian politicians to make difficult but
rational choices. Yet the military presidents bequeathed their first civilian
successor a foreign debt of $95 billion and an inflation rate of 235 percent.
The new civilian leaders had to confront the economic crisis using political
and governing institutions whose legitimacy had been ravaged by dictatorship.
Tancredo Neves fell ill and died before taking office,
leaving the presidency in the hands of a politician long identified with the
regime. Indirectly elected and not the first choice for presidency, José Sarney
lacked the popular mandate to make difficult economic choices. As a result,
repeated plans to curb inflation failed, and each triggered a backlash and a
growing loss of credibility. At moments, between 1985 and 1994, inflation
exceeded 3,000 percent, and public confidence in the capacity of the government
to solve problems collapsed.
The legacies of debt and
inflation left behind by the military regime devastated the public sector in
Brazil. Public enterprises such as the state telephone and electrical utilities
were repurposed to combat inflation by keeping the cost of public services low,
while budgets for public education and health, or maintenance of roads and rail
vaporized. By the 1990s, Brazilians had to wait several years to purchase a
phone line that cost hundreds of dollars and offered no guarantee either of a
dial tone or that a dialed number matched that of the intended recipient of the
call. Interstate roads became hazardous, passenger rail service disappeared,
and subway systems remained incomplete. Across Brazil, maintenance of
infrastructure and of the quality of services largely disappeared.
Brazil’s debt crisis fed the economic dimensions of
liberalization: inflation was tamed in 1994 and was kept low through high
interest rates and reduced public spending. The federal government privatized
utilities and other state enterprises. Agricultural cartels were disbanded.
Where public investment faltered in areas such as road or mass transit infrastructure,
large segments of public infrastructure were contracted to private concession
Ironically, the center-left governing coalition that
has held the presidency for the past twenty years has been a champion of
liberal market reforms and privatization, in contrast with the anti-communist
and pro-business military regime that had increasingly relied on central
planning, and state enterprises that controlled key economic sectors. The
failures of the military regime’s economic planning would inadvertently have
the most profound influence over Brazil’s future by placing successive
governments in a straightjacket of debt that has compelled adherence to liberal
market principles and access to foreign loans and investment.
The social side of liberalization proved harder to
achieve. The social movements that had been at the forefront of opposition to
the dictatorship included both old and new parties on the left, notably the
Workers’ Party, as well as the women’s movement, gay rights movement, black movement,
and environmentalists. For all these forces, the indirect election of a
civilian president was an unsatisfying transition. The judiciary, bureaucrats,
the legal code, and the constitution remained legacies of the dictatorship.
As police violence against frequently middle class and
affluent political opponents of the regime receded, it left in its wake
widespread police violence against the poor. Most Brazilians, particularly the
poor, spent an inordinate amount of their time simply contending with inflation.
Little room remained for social movements to challenge social and racial
inequalities, violence based on gender and sexual orientation, the rights of
minorities, or environmental questions. At first blush, the new democracy
offered little that was new and even less to cheer.
Social movements focused their
attention on the assembly that drafted a new constitution in 1988. The
constitution is in some respects a very specific document. For instance,
Article 230 guarantees the right of those over the age of sixty-five to ride
urban transport for free. This specificity reflects the remarkable degree to
which social movements succeeded in securing the protection of a broadly
defined set of human rights, including the rights to land for indigenous groups
and communities descended from slaves.
By the 1990s, the consensus around liberalization
among opponents of the dictatorship coalesced in two poles: a set of neoliberal
economic policies that responded to the dual challenges of debt and inflation;
and a set of social goals anchored in the 1988 constitution and the universal
right to vote—voluntary at the age of sixteen and obligatory after eighteen. In
recent decades, no one could win national office without both speaking to the
role of public policy in reducing social inequality, and adhering to the
liberal principles that keep inflation in check and the debt at bay.
In some respects, the results have been very
unexciting. Brazil’s economic growth over the past two decades has been meager
compared to many of its peers, held back by interest rates that are among the
highest in the world but which keep inflation in check. As a result, public
financing of the private sector remains considerable, and many private firms
have merged with international ones that have access to cheaper credit and
greater investment overseas. On the other hand, the social rights promised by
the constitution remain a work in progress: many, particularly the urban and
rural poor, lack full access to those rights, and are subject to high rates of
violence by criminal gangs, the police, or, in the countryside, land-grabbers.
In other respects, the results are impressive.
Cardoso’s success in taming inflation has created breathing room to focus on
other dynamics of social inequality. In its wake, public understanding of
racial inequalities has sharpened, allowing for new policies such as racial
quotas in public university admissions and public sector hiring. Cardoso’s
successor, Lula, defied his base of support among public employees to reform
and reduce public sector pensions, which freed up resources for the
implementation of conditional cash transfer programs that have revolutionized
Brazil’s social welfare network.
Lula’s Bolsa Família (modeled on Mexico’s Oportunidades
program and now one of many similar projects worldwide), provides cash
supplements to poor families who keep their children in school and meet other
benchmarks, such as vaccinations. Thirteen million families receive the
benefit, which ranges from $30 to $60 a month per child. The program serves a
long-term goal of alleviating poverty through higher educational attainment
while providing immediate economic relief that has generated a proliferation of
local economic activity in the communities where poor families are concentrated.
Bolsa Família has contributed to the first sustained reduction in income
inequality in Brazil: between 2001 and 2011, the income of the poorest 10
percent of the population increased 91 percent.
Running in Circles?
Military rule in Brazil generated utterly unrealistic
expectations for economic growth and national transformation. By leaving the
economy, public institutions, and political practices in chaos, it threw those
expectations into severe doubt. Fifty years after the military coup and twenty-five
years since the ratification of the constitution that undergirds Brazil’s new
democracy, the challenges of both managing and meeting public expectations
The protests that erupted across Brazil in June 2013
highlighted these challenges. They began over two unrelated concerns: a $0.08
increase in bus and subway fares in São Paulo, and the opening of the FIFA
Confederations Cup in Brasília—a prelude to the FIFA World Cup. Protests over
transportation costs were really protests about the rising cost of living and
the difficulty most inhabitants of major Brazilian cities have in both getting
around and getting by. The demonstrations at the FIFA tournament expressed
unease about the costs of hosting the 2014 World Cup as well as the 2016 Rio
Olympic Games. The last country to host these events in succession was Mexico,
in 1968 and 1970, where a similar phenomenon occurred: Mexico’s effort to
increase its international standing exposed its unresolved problems of poverty
and social exclusion. In 1968, Mexico’s government massacred protesters in
Tlatelolco in advance of the Olympic games, causing lasting damage to the
credibility of the ruling Revolutionary Institutional Party (PRI). In Brazil,
by the time the protests peaked, the protesters’ diffuse messages came
together: we want schools and hospitals as good as the stadiums FIFA demands
for the World Cup.
In the wake of dictatorship, Brazilians have achieved
hard-fought political and economic stability, as well as the country’s most
extensive, effective and consolidated democratic government. But Brazilians
still pay a high cost for the generals’ developmental ambitions: the military’s
efforts to solve the problems of poverty and underdevelopment actually did
lasting damage to the country’s ability to overcome these very problems.
Jerry Dávila is
the Jorge Paulo Lemann Professor of Brazilian History at the University of
Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He is the author of Hotel Trópico: Brazil and
the Challenge of African Decolonization and Diploma of Whiteness: Race
and Social Policy in Brazil, 1917-1945, and winner of the 2010 Latin
Studies Association Brazil Section Book prize. His most recent book is Dictatorship
in South America.