Today, 50 years after the 1964 coup, impressions left by the images of tanks moving through the darkened streets of Juiz de Fora, a city in Minas Gerais, headed for Rio de Janeiro—then one of the centers of Brazilian politics—still reverberate in the minds of people in certain parts of Brazilian society. The tanks were surrounded by troops commanded by General Olympio Mourão Filho, as if the coup that brought down then-President João Goulart, also known as Jango, and plunged the country into a dictatorship that lasted more than two decades had been the result of unilateral political engineering, imposed from the top down by the military. Recent studies, produced in different fields of knowledge, have sought to inform us more completely about the conditions, processes, and actions that culminated in the fall of Goulart, strengthening the argument by critics who say the coup was the fruit of a political crisis that involved several actors. And so it has become increasingly common for historians, sociologists and political scientists to argue that the coup was not just military, but civilian as well.
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“Participation by civilian groups in the coup is now undeniable, as is civilian support of the dictatorship,” says historian Miriam Doolhnikoff, of the Faculty of Philosophy, Languages and Literature, and Human Sciences of the University of São Paulo (FFLCH-USP).” The question is what criteria should be used to describe the regime that took over immediately thereafter. Although there was civilian participation and support, it is important to point out that the military kept control of political decisions in their own hands.”
To historian Marcos Napolitano, also of FFLCH-USP, the regime that followed the coup should be classified as purely military. “Construction of the regime was centered in the Armed Forces. After the coup, civilians were given a secondary role, from the political standpoint,” he explains. This does not mean to say that civilians were not beneficiaries of the regime. Many businessmen and politicians, as well as other people, were in partnership with the dictatorship. While the 1964 coup, he says, was the result of a broad and complex coalition in which civilians played a vital role, “the principal agents were really the military.”
Napolitano is author of the recently-published 1964: histórias do regime militar brasileiro (Context) (1964: Chronicles from the Brazilian Military Regime), a book that presents an historical overview of the João Goulart administration, the configuration of the movement that provoked the coup, and the military regime that followed it. The book is the result of master’s and doctoral research papers by candidates Napolitano served as advisor to. It also stems from a project devoted to an evaluation of the transition from the political crisis in Jango’s government to the coup of 1964. In it, Napolitano and David Ribeiro, the masters’ degree candidate he advised, examined academic theories that explained the coup by contending that it was the result of a radicalization of its leaders or an absence of a commitment to democracy. They describe the role of the Legislative Branch as protagonist during the conception, execution, and legitimization of the coup. Besides invigorating the ideological conflicts in Brazilian society, the political decisions made by the National Congress in the midst of the debates on reforms were, according to the authors, crucial to the erosion of Goulart’s political power and his isolation.
The involvement of other civilian sectors of the public was also vital in destabilizing Jango’s government, preparing the climate for the coup, and legitimizing the action taken by the military. Businessmen, the Catholic Church, and even the Brazilian Bar Association (OAB), for example, were in favor of military intervention. This conclusion was reached by historian Denise Rollemberg, of the History Department at Fluminense Federal University (UFF) in Rio de Janeiro. In her article Memória, opinião e cultura política – A Ordem dos Advogados do Brasil sob a ditadura (1964-1974) (Memory, Opinion and Political Culture – The Brazilian Bar Association under the Dictatorship (1964-1974)), published in the book Modernidades alternativas (Alternative Modernities) compiled by historian Daniel Aarão Reis of UFF Rollemberg reports that in a meeting held April 7, the Federal Council of the OAB celebrated the victory of the golpista movement, relieved at being “on the side of the just forces.”
The article is the result of a larger project that Rollemberg carried out at UFF’s Center for Contemporary Studies (NEC) that was funded by the National Council for Scientific and Technological Development (CNPq). In it, the researcher analyzes the official statements made by various institutions during the initial months after the coup. The Central Committee of the National Council of Bishops of Brazil (CNBB), in July 1964, published the “CNBB Declaration on the National Situation,” in which it takes a position by stating that “heeding the widespread and distressing expectations of the Brazilian people, who witnessed the accelerated march of communism toward winning power, the Armed Forces responded in time and prevented installation of the Bolshevik regime in our land.” According to Reis, the conservative Christian ecclesiastical leaders, like the Catholic Church—except for certain bishops and the Dominican Order—also helped impregnate the political struggle with religious values. “To them, it was not necessary merely to ‘save democracy’ but also to ‘save Christian civilization,’ thus raising the specter of communism.”
As for the Brazilian Press Association (ABI), it did not formalize its support as the OAB and CNBB had done, recalls Rollemberg. But a reading of the minutes of its annual and special meetings and the bulletin published by its board of directors suggests a certain diversity of positions within the debates.
The press became a key component of the conspiracy against Goulart in late 1963, according to Marcos Napolitano, when three of the leading Rio de Janeiro newspapers, O Jornal, published by Diários Associados, Jornal do Brasil, owned by the Nascimento Brito family, and the Marinho family’s O Globo, joined their voices in the so-called Democracy Network, a media arrangement in favor of the removal of the Goulart government. This movement was inspired by its opposing faction, the Legality Network, a network of resistance led three years earlier by Leonel Brizola, then- governor of the state of Rio Grande do Sul, against the violation of constitutional law by the Army, Navy, and Air Force in their attempt to prevent Jango, who was then vice president, from taking office after the resignation of Jânio Quadros, in 1961.
Like Brizola’s network, the Democracy Network used the radio to help weaken the Goulart government. Every day, the researcher explains, subsidized by organizations like the Institute for Social Research and Studies (IPES) and the Brazilian Democratic Action Institute (IBAD), politicians, businessmen, members of the military, journalists and labor union officials, among others, coordinated their efforts in opposition to the then-president, making speeches in favor of nationalism versus communism, criticizing the inefficiency of the Congress, Jango’s lack of legitimacy, and citing the danger that the government might give in to pressures from mass demonstrations and populist movements.
A half century later, the Democracy Network has been the subject of recurring studies, attracting the attention of historians who try to understand the extent to which it influenced the dispute over the control of the State through ideological indoctrination aimed at destabilizing the Goulart government. The most recent work on the subject is by historian Aloysio Castello de Carvalho. During his post-doctoral research in social history at USP, the results of which were published in the book entitled A Rede da Democracia: O Globo, O Jornal e Jornal do Brasil na queda do governo Goulart (1961-1964) (The Democracy Network: O Globo, O Jornal and the Jornal do Brasil in the fall of the Goulart government (1961-1964)) he tries to identify discursive patterns in the conservative and anti-reformist rhetoric used by the newspapers in their criticism of the Jango administration (see Pesquisa FAPESP Issue No. 181).
But it was not only through alliances that the press worked to destabilize Goulart and consolidate the idea that Brazil was on the road to communism. Besides the Jornal do Brasil and O Globo, the Correio da Manhã was one of the most important Brazilian newspapers of the time, not only in business terms but also with respect to participation in national politics. Historian Maria Helena Capelato, a professor at FFLCH-USP and for many years involved in studies about the press in Brazil, has analyzed the headlines and titles of editorials and articles that appeared in major press outlets during the period preceding the coup.
The Correio da Manhã published two articles that became part of Brazilian history, according to Capelato. An editorial entitled Basta! (Enough!), on March 31, 1964, called for Goulart to resign, arguing that by remaining, he would help cultivate unrest and uncertainty among the working class, allow inflation to soar, and break up the Armed Forces by permitting undisciplined activities. A day later, on April 1, another editorial published by the paper, entitled Fora! (Out!), was evidence of the climate of political radicalization that now prevailed in Brazil. To Capelato, these two editorials demonstrate the intense involvement in the coup by representatives of that newspaper. “The titles demonstrate the impact that certain expressions have. Some authors call them ‘bullet words’ because of their ability to penetrate the reader’s brain,” she says. She explains that in historiographical research into the military regime, newspapers are used only as a source. Rarely does a researcher use them as a specific object for study. “The press in general, and the major Brazilian outlets in particular, were extremely significant actors during that period.”
Capelato has just written an article on the role of the press in the coup for an anthology entitled Histórias do tempo presente (Chronicles from the Present Time) compiled by Marieta de Moraes Ferreira, a historian from the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ), which is about to be published by the Center for Research and Documentation of Contemporary History of Brazil (CPDOC), associated with the Getúlio Vargas Foundation (FGV). In March, Capelato coordinated an international symposium held at USP with support from FAPESP, entitled The Coup of 1964 and the Authoritarian Wave in Latin America.
On the other hand, the historian emphasizes that some of the newspapers that supported intervention by the military, Correio da Manhã among them, condemned the destruction of the premises of Última Hora, for example, after the military had taken power. According to Capelato, the publications that applauded the coup, as did other civilian groups, had called for a surgical intervention that would restore order and return the power to the people. “The press soon realized that the road ahead would be quite different. They were censured and then, years later, began to participate in movements for redemocratization,” she observes.
The position taken by Jornal do Brasil during the first phase of the regime was different than the one assumed by Correio da Manhã. The newspaper celebrated the victory of the golpistas with headlines like this one on April 1: “From North to South, Viva! the Counterrevolution.” Days after the change in power, Capelato says, the paper expressed its enthusiastic response to the swearing-in of Marshal Humberto de Alencar Castello Branco as president with a headline that read: “Rio Celebrates the Investiture of Castello.” It defended the cassação (stripping of political rights) of politicians, arguing that these were the fruit of the crisis the country had experienced. Equally explicit support was given by O Globo, which besides helping to legitimize the coup, supported the dictatorship throughout the years. “Its defense of the ‘economic miracle’ expressed in an 1984 editorial, for example, could be interpreted as an attempt to divert the attention of readers as regards the benefits the paper had received from authorities during that period,” Capelato says. In August 2013, Organizações Globo acknowledged that it had been a mistake to support the coup.
The course followed by leading São Paulo newspapers took the same tone. According to the researcher, O Estado de São Paulo initially appealed for military intervention, applauded the March of the Family With God for Liberty—a series of civilian demonstrations against communism, the government, and its reformist agenda that were organized between March and June 1964—and celebrated the success of the coup. Throughout the dictatorship, however, the paper took a critical attitude and so suffered from censorship. Its recourse to the publication of poems by Camus as well as cake recipes in the spaces where censured news reports were to have appeared is fairly well known. Capelato says that in the last years of the regime, O Estado joined the battle for redemocratization and “even today, boasts of having fought for the return of democracy in Brazil.”
Folha de São Paulo, however, according to the historian, was moderate in its criticisms of Goulart’s government and its reforms but also supported the march, expressed its opinion in favor of the coup, and soon after, praised new President Castello Branco. “Folha de São Paulo supported the coup, but took a more reserved attitude with regard to the new regime,” she remarks. “We could assume that this attitude was adopted so as not to risk the company’s property and the newspaper’s reputation.” She explains that following the issuance of Institutional Act No. 5, also known as AI-5, which gave the military absolute powers, Folha opted for self-censorship but later cooperated with agents of the repression who were in charge of the prisons and the torture. In all, the Brazilian State was responsible for the death of 426 people between 1964 and 1985, according to the Commission of Families on Political Deaths and Disappearances. But official figures from the Office of the President of the Republic show that 475 cases involving victims of the military dictatorship have been reviewed by the Special Commission on Political Deaths and Disappearances established by the National Human Rights Secretariat. In an editorial published on March 30, 2014, Folha also recognized that “by today’s standards, supporting the military dictatorship was a mistake, but the options available at the time were presented under conditions much more adverse than the current ones.”
Echoes of Conspiracy
In the opinion of social scientist Paulo Ribeiro da Cunha, a professor at the Marília campus of the School of Philosophy and Sciences of the Universidade Estadual Paulista (Unesp), important progress has been made in scientific production, as evidenced by research and books devoted to reflection on the period of the dictatorship, although he acknowledges that “there is still a great deal to be released.” But to historian Carlos Fico, of the Institute of Philosophy and Social Sciences at UFRJ and coordinator of history at the Brazilian Federal Agency for the Support and Evaluation of Graduate Education (Capes), despite the growing interest in the period of the dictatorship among young historians and graduate students in history, a high percentage of master’s and doctoral degree projects in that field do not propose studying the processes that led to the coup.
Fico cites a survey by the UFRJ’s Study Group on the Military Dictatorship, which found that between 1971 and 2000, 214 masters’ theses and doctoral dissertations had been written about the history of the military dictatorship, 205 of them in Brazil. According to Fico, a specialist in Brazilian historiographical production with respect to the military dictatorship, there has been a visible increase in the number of investigations into the subject, in part due to the increase in the number of students who enter the university. Between 1971 and 1975, for example, only two papers were defended. Between 1986 and 1990 there were 47 defenses, and between 1996 and 2000, 74 theses and dissertations were recorded. The principal focuses of interest were urban social movements, art and culture, economics and matters related to leftist politics, and the opposition in general. Ranking next are the press, censorship, and the student movement. During that entire period, he points out, only six studies focused on the nature of the coup.
This historiographical production reinforces the argument that the anti-government discourse in the press found adherents in many segments of civilian life, says Napolitano, currently coordinating a research project, supported by the CNPq, devoted to the study of the construction and compression of memories about the military regime put together by the press beginning in 1974. Allegations of corruption—as today, almost always blamed on leftist populism—and Jango’s administrative incompetence marked the tone of the criticism by sectors of society that were frightened by what they perceived as the “proletariatization” of Brazil. To Napolitano, that discourse actually served to conceal old interests. “The ascension of people ‘from the bottom’ is always seen as a threat by those who are on the upper floors of the social edifice.” The historian was referring to the basic reforms program, one of the hallmarks of the Goulart government.
To Marco Antonio Villa, a retired professor from the Department of Social Sciences of the Center for Education and Human Sciences of the Federal University of São Carlos (UFSCar), Jango had never clearly defined those measures. However, in his book Ditadura e democracia no Brasil (Dictatorship and Democracy in Brazil), published by Zahar, historian Daniel Aarão Reis determined that Goulart’s reformism had called for such actions as the distribution of land through the break-up of monopolies; the planned growth of cities, thus combating real estate speculation; the creation of a government system to finance activities that would ensure the nation’s autonomy; and the addition of soldiers, graduates of the Armed Forces, and illiterate persons to the voting rolls. Reis, however, says that one must view the role of Jango at that point in history in relative terms. “The basic reforms program was structured by a broad front of social movements and political leaders,” he says. “Faced with the situation, Goulart always hesitated and refused to make a decision. It was only during his last months in office that he began to lean toward the reformist positions.”
In his book, the result of an intense review of the bibliography, Reis explains that those measures were not enough to win Goulart unanimous support for his plans, inasmuch as more conservative opinions began to take shape within pressure groups, whose criticisms intensified when the Three-Year Plan was presented. The plan was a combination of incentives and restrictions drafted by Celso Furtado, then minister of planning, to encourage development and take control of inflation. “The Three-Year Plan was abandoned in the first half of 1963. And, because of the political unrest, inflation kept rising. In 1960, the rate stood at 30.5%. A year later it had soared to 47.8%, and in 1962, it jumped to 51.6%,” says Marco Antonio Villa, whose research led to the recently-published book entitled Ditadura à brasileira – A democracia golpeada à esquerda e à direita (Dictatorship Brazilian Style—Democracy Struck from both Left and Right) (published by LeYa).
Brazil had split. Civilian demonstrations spread to several states. On March 19, 1964, the first March of the Family With God for Liberty brought nearly 500,000 people to downtown São Paulo, including leaders from the middle class, the Catholic Church, and politicians like Ulysses Guimarães who, according to Reis, was one of its leaders. Other demonstrations, such as the one in Santos, on the São Paulo coast followed days later. These have been very little studied, according to Napolitano. In his research, the historian identified more than 100 civilian entities that had taken to the streets to oppose communism and Jango’s reformist agenda. Among them was the Feminist Civic Union, a conservative and anti-communist group at that time.
The Final Blow
Once the coup had been executed, the last card was played. Not by the military “but by the institution that, strictly speaking, is supposed to defend constitutional legality: the National Congress,” Paulo Cunha emphasizes. On April 2, 1964, in the midst of demonstrations like the March of Victory in Rio, the position held by Goulart—still in Rio Grande do Sul, ready to go into exile in Uruguay—was declared “vacant.” In practical terms, says Cunha, “the Congress had determined that Brazil was without a president, although the president was still in the country.” Days later, on April 11, 1964, the legislators chose Castello Branco to occupy Goulart’s post. “Given the context of political polarization, the Congress bore more responsibility for the steps it did not take, since it was unable to manage the political crisis or negotiate democratic institutional solutions,” concludes Miriam Dolhnikoff, also a researcher at the Brazilian Center for Analysis and Planning (Cebrap) that was founded right after the AI-5 by professors who had been compelled by the regime to retire.
Jango did not resist the coup, but could have done so, suggests Cunha. He argues that Goulart had support among the general public and even among a few important military commands. Since 2004, Cunha has been coordinating a project designed to study the political intervention by leftist military personnel and communists during the 20th century, particularly, the role of the military sector of the Brazilian Communist Party (PCB), a group known as Antimil, in the Armed Forces. The project is based on interviews, readings from the press, and documentary sources. More recently, Cunha has been trying to delve into the story of the Democratic and Nationalist Association of the Military (Adnam), an organization formed by members of the military who had been stripped of their political rights and whose political expression, according to Cunha, was the continuation of actions by the military Left in the years following 1964 aimed at winning amnesty and democracy.
In addition to support from some of the military, Jango also had popular support. According to Napolitano, figures released by IBOPE (Brazilian Public Opinion and Statistics Institute) in March 1964 show that the president had a good approval rating in the principal cities of Brazil, with 45% terming his government as “excellent” and “good,” and 49% saying they would vote for him if he became a candidate in 1965—perhaps not realizing that re-election was prohibited in those days. Only 16% considered his government to be “poor” or “very bad,” and 59% were in favor of the reforms introduced at the March 13 rallies held at the Central do Brasil, in Rio de Janeiro.
To Carlos Fico, there are several reasons why João Goulart decided not to resist. Among them was that the Congress was preventing it, and also because he no longer had support from sectors of the military. “Jango himself was pretty much a pacifist. Any attempt to contain the coup could have unleashed a civil war,” the historian suggests. According to Fico, the main reason why Goulart did not resist may have been the fact that on the morning of April 1, former treasury minister San Tiago Dantas had advised Goulart that the United States would recognize and support an alternative to his administration. Fico is coordinator of a research project aimed at expanding the understanding of the repressive systems that operated during the Brazilian military dictatorship and the influence of the USA on dictatorships in Brazil and in Argentina. His studies have resulted in such works as a book entitled O Grande Irmão: da Operação Brother Sam aos anos de chumbo – O governo dos Estados Unidos e a ditadura brasileira (The Big Brother: from Operation Brother Sam to the Years of Lead – The U.S. Government and the Brazilian Dictatorship) (published by Civilização Brasileira in 2008).
According to Fico, the principal findings about the U.S. role in the coup of 1964 were released between 1970 and 1980. These include the discovery of Operation Brother Sam, which involved making supplemental military equipment, including an aircraft carrier, available to the golpistas. “The U.S. viewed Goulart with tremendous mistrust. They did not want a second Cuba in Latin America,” he explains. “The Kennedy administration helped configure the coup. But since Goulart did not resist, that apparatus was not necessary.
Fico recently obtained a copy of the contingency plan that had been discussed by U.S. Ambassador Lincoln Gordon with the Department of State in December 1963, which supports the theory that Kennedy could intervene, if necessary. That discussion was revived more recently, in light of the release of new documents, previously classified as secret, about U.S. participation in the 1964 coup (see article). In a recent interview, political scientist and Brazilianist Thomas Skidmore, of Brown University in Rhode Island, USA, said he had been informed of the coup a day ahead of time, on March 31, at a dinner with Gordon in Rio. In 2006, Skidmore donated his personal files, containing about 6,000 documents in Portuguese and English, to Brown. They can be accessed at http://library.brown.edu/collections/skidmore/.
Despite all the progress that has been made in research on that period, there are still gaps in the history that need to be investigated. “Even the role of Congress needs more specific study,” Cunha observes. The same can be said about participation by the business community, before, during, and after the coup—something that has been very seldom studied. To Carlos Fico, many think of the coup as having been the inaugural event of the dictatorship. In fact, the historian says, it was the expression of an authoritarianism that had been lurking in Brazil for a long time. “This key event in the history of Brazil still needs to be studied more thoroughly,” Reis concludes. Furthermore, he stresses that we must still gain a better understanding of the connections between the dictatorship and labor union leaders—both urban and rural. “The subject is taboo, but that restriction will diminish in the coming years,” he says. According to Reis, unless the dictatorship is understood as a social and historical construct, very little progress will be made in understanding the dictatorial period.
1. From political crisis to coup d’etat: conflicts between the Executive and Legislative Branches during the government of João Goulart (No. 2013/25214-3); Grant mechanism Support for Research Publication – Topic Grant: Principal investigator Marcos Francisco Napolitano de Eugenio (FFLCH/USP); Investment R$6,000.00 (FAPESP).
2. From resignation to coup: the consolidation of the golpista effort in the National Congress (No. 2010/14533-2); Grant mechanism Master’s Degree Scholarship: Principal investigator Marcos Francisco Napolitano de Eugenio (FFLCH/ISP); Grant recipient David Ricardo Sousa Ribeiro; Investment R$25,752.10 (FAPESP.
3. The coup of 1964 and the authoritarian wave in Latin America (No. 2013/21149-2); Grant mechanism Regular Line of Organization Project Award; Principal investigator Maria Helena Rolim Capelato (FFLCH/USP); Investment R$20,766.76 (FAPESP).