Note from BW of Brazil: Yesterday and today are commemorative days in Brazil. Not celebratory, but commemorative, as in a reflective manner. It was 50 years ago today that started one of the most oppressive times in the history of the nation. Like several other countries in Latin America of that era, on March 31-April 1 of 1964, a military coup d’etat would overthrow President João Goulart and initiate 21 years of repression, murder, and disappearances. The reasons for the coup and the subsequent dictatorship years have been discussed and debated in academic circles ever since. With the sheer volume of material that is available about one of Brazil’s darkest period, this article does not intend to thoroughly cover what took place on that day in 1964 but rather just touch upon a few facts and remember the day. As such, here are just a few of those facts.
1. At the time of coup, the world was in the middle of the so-called Cold War with countries being split between the Capitalist bloc led by the United States and the Communist bloc being led by the Soviet Union. With Communism being erected in Cuba in 1959, there was fear that Brazil could also experience a Communist revolution, a threat that brought together right-wing politicians and military leaders in Brazil and the United States.
2. After the resignation of President Jânio Quadros, the military tried to veto the ascension of Vice President João Goulart to the presidential post. Having serious misgivings about the political trajectory of Jango, as Goulart was known, some members of the Armed Forces claimed that the transfer of authority jeopardized national security. In fact, several conservative political groups associated the then Vice President of the looming possibility of communism facility in Brazil.
3. João Goulart was on an official diplomatic trip to China when Quadros resigned in 1961. The VP only returned to Brazil after accepting to rule in a parliamentary regime. Once in power, he adopted what was considered a leftist discourse and implemented labor policies. The 1964 coup did not come solely from the mobilization of the armed forces. Part of civil society, that feared the approximation of Jango with the left, supported the military action and began to conspire for the ousting of the president.
4. A month and a half before being assassinated, US President John F. Kennedy met with American Ambassador to Brazil, Lincoln Gordon, in the Oval Office and asked what he thought he should do about his Brazilian counterpart. Gordon responded that, 1) Jango could be persuaded to abandon his leftist leanings or 2) he could be involuntarily removed.
5. When the leading members of the US diplomatic mission in Brazil held a meeting one-day in March 1964, they arrived at the consensus that President Goulart’s support of social and economic reforms was a contrived and thinly veiled vehicle to seize dictatorial power. The American ambassador, Lincoln Gordon, informed the State Department that “a desperate lunge [by Goulart] for totalitarian power might be made at any time.”
The Brazilian army chief of staff, General Humberto de Alencar Castelo (or Castello) Branco, provided the American Embassy with a memorandum in which he stated his fear that Goulart was seeking to close down Congress and initiate a dictatorship.
6. For many years US involvement in Goulart’s overthrow had been speculated but never officially acknowledged. But declassified audiotapes released in 2004, 40 years after the coup, prove that JFK’s successor, President Lyndon Johnson, was directly involved in giving the go ahead for full US military support for a coup if it was necessary.
Here is an excerpt about the coup and dictatorship taken from the Brazil chapter of the book Latin America’s Turbulent Transitions: The Future of 21st Century Socialism, by Roger Burbach, Michael Fox, and Federico Fuentes (Zed Books, 2013), courtesy of the NACLA website.
In 1964, the Brazilian military dictatorship rolled in like a bad dream. President João Goulart fled to Uruguay, and with him went the hopes of progressive reforms. The first of seventeen military decrees, or Institutional Acts (AI), were issued. Institutional Act 5, decreed by military president Artur da Costa e Silva on December 13, 1968, suspended habeas corpus and disbanded congress. Inspired by the 1959 Cuban revolution, and insurgent guerrilla movements in Argentina, Colombia, Guatemala, Peru, Uruguay, and Venezuela, Communist Party militants went underground and formed armed movements against the dictatorship, including the National Liberation Alliance and the Popular Revolutionary Vanguard, which would later become the Revolutionary Armed Vanguard Palmares (VAR-Palmares).
Dissidents were tracked down, arrested, imprisoned, tortured, disappeared, or worse. According to the 2007 report from the Brazilian government’s Special Commission on Murders and Political Disappeared entitled “The Right to Memory and the Truth,” 475 people were disappeared during the twenty-year-long military dictatorship. Thousands were imprisoned and roughly thirty thousand were tortured. More than 280 different types of torture were inflicted on “subversives” at 242 clandestine torture centers, by hundreds of individual torturers. Current Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff was at the time a student activist who became active in the VAR-Palmares (among other guerrilla groups). She was captured by the Brazilian military on January 16, 1970, tortured, and imprisoned for two and a half years, for participating with the guerrilla. Within a few years the armed resistance to the Brazilian dictatorship had been largely eliminated.
Meanwhile U.S.-Brazilian relations became tighter than ever, as the United States worked to turn Brazil into a “success story” in the fight against communism. According to a five-and-a-half-year 5,000-page investigation into the human rights violations of the dictatorship, entitled Brasil Nunca Mais (Brazil Never Again), CIA agents, such as U.S. officer Dan Mitrione, actively trained hundreds of Brazilian military and police officers in torture techniques, or what they called the “Scientific Methods to Extract Confessions and Obtain the Truth.”
Several documented accounts reveal that Mitrione tested his techniques on street kids and homeless beggars from the streets of Belo Horizonte. Many of these techniques would be replicated across the region through the U.S.-sponsored Plan Condor, as Brazil’s neighbors also fell to military dictatorships.
This was the direction that the United States hoped the region would turn. Internationally, the military dictatorship broke off relations with Cuba and the Soviet block and steered the country back into the U.S. sphere of influence (Cuba-Brazilian relations wouldn’t be resumed until 1986). “Never had there been such ideological convergence with the United States,” wrote the former Brazilian ambassador to the United States (1991–93), Ruben Ricupero, “not just in the perceived continuity and Cold War dangers, but in the acceptance of North American leadership and the feeling among Brazilian leaders that this was an inseparable and defining element in the internal struggle against communist subversion.”
Domestically, encouraged by the United States, Brazil liberalized its economy, pushed to increase exports, and opened up for foreign investment, but the economic model didn’t stick. Military president Costa e Silva steered the country back towards the import substitution model that would carry through the rest of the dictatorship. Meanwhile, ideologically, Brazilian military leaders continued their fight against the communist threat that would often place them even further to the right than U.S. officials.
Source: Revista Época, “13 questões sobre a ditadura no Brasil”, March 31, 2014. NACLA, Thomas, Jennifer Ann. Super Interresante, “Os EUA derrubaram o presidente do Brasil?”, March 2014. Brasil Escola. Instituto João Goulart. Folha. Lobe, Jim. “BRAZIL: Documents Shed New Light on U.S. Support for 1964 Coup”. March 31, 2004, Inter Press Service. Bachtold, Felipe. “Corpo de João Goulart será exumado amanhã.” Folha, November 12, 2013. Blum, William. Killing Hope: US Military and CIA Interventions Since World War II. Black Rose Books, 2000.