A History of Military Intervention in Brazil
Written by Andrew Allen
The Brazilian military has a long history of intervening in the nation’s political affairs, a pattern that many believe continues to this day. The first instance of such intervention occurred in 1889 when the military officially declared the end of the rule of then-Emperor Pedro II. During the latter half of the 19th century, Brazil went through a period of drastic societal and institutional transformation that caused the military and agricultural classes to become frustrated with the imperial government (James and Martins, 2018). These frustrations manifested themselves in 1889 when military officers organized and carried out a coup in Rio de Janeiro, leading to the formation of the Republic of Brazil.
Military intervention occurred once more in 1930 during a moment of heightened political and economic tension (Daniel, 1946). At the time, Brazil’s coffee-dependent economy was languishing as a result of the Great Depression. Meanwhile, a gentleman’s agreement between politicians from the states of São Paulo and Minas Gerais had held a stranglehold on the nation’s politics. Politicians from São Paulo broke this agreement and put forth their own presidential candidate in 1930, Júlio Prestes. In response to Mr. Prestes’ electoral victory, a group of civilians and military officials from theretofore underrepresented states – as well as Minas Gerais – coalesced in support of second-place candidate Getúlio Vargas. The Vargas-led group rejected the results of the election, and ultimately used military force to install Vargas as president in October of 1930.
The third and final instance of military intervention in Brazil occurred in 1964. Following a failed attempt at import-substitution policy and a period of high government spending, the Brazilian economy was rampant with inflation, debt, and stagnation (Geopolitical Futures, 2018). The government was experiencing a moment of political instability. President João Goulart, who inherited a weakened presidential position following the scandalous resignation of President Jânio Quadros, stood accused of being a communist following his attempts to enact land redistribution and other reforms. With significant support from domestic conservatives and the United States, the military took over the presidency and established a dictatorial regime, which lasted until 1985.
The current moment of political instability in Brazil is not the direct result of past military interventions in Brazil, but rather of a corrupt and ineffective political system. Nevertheless, the shadow of Brazil’s past coups hangs over the current 2018 election. As in instances of past intervention, the nation finds itself in the midst of an economic crisis. Political institutions are more unpopular and fragile than ever, as demonstrated by the 3% approval rating of current President Michel Temer (Folha de S. Paulo, 2018). Indeed, according to a Pew Research Center study, a mere 8% of Brazilians view democracy as a “very good” system of government, the lowest among all 38 countries in the study (Winter, 2018).
Meanwhile, a significant portion of the Brazilian public have displayed a remarkable level of comfort regarding the prospect of military rule. During a recent moment of crisis, a nationwide trucker’s strike, a small but vocal group of citizens made appeals for military intervention (Cowie and Phillips, 2018). In addition, the leading presidential candidate, Jair Bolsonaro, has made favorable remarks about the military regime of 1964 and suggested the need for greater military involvement in the government (Bolsonaro, 2016; Zeidan, 2018). His running mate, retired General Antônio Mourão, hinted at the possibility of a “self-coup” in the case of a crisis (Zeidan, 2018). These factors do not necessarily indicate that a military coup is imminent. However, it is important to note that insomuch as the prospect of a coup d’etat has not faded from the public consciousness, it is likely not to have faded from the minds of the military and its leaders either.
Bolsonaro, Jair. Twitter Post. December 4, 2016, 6:12 AM. https://twitter.com/jairbolsonaro/status/805399501401886721?lang=en
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Daniel, James M. “The Brazilian Revolution of 1930, Causes and Aftermath.” The Historian9, no. 1 (1946): 37-42. doi:10.1111/j.1540-6563.1946.tb01103.x.
Folha. “Governo Temer é Aprovado Por 3% Da População, Aponta Pesquisa CNT/MDA.” Folha De S.Paulo. August 20, 2018. Accessed September 29, 2018. https://www1.folha.uol.com.br/poder/2018/08/governo-temer-e-aprovado-por-3-da-populacao-aponta-pesquisa-cntmda.shtml.
James, Preston E., and Luciano Martins. “Brazil.” Encyclopædia Britannica. September 24, 2018. Accessed September 29, 2018. https://www.britannica.com/place/Brazil/The-collapse-of-the-empire.
Winter, Brian. “Oposição a Bolsonaro Repete Erros Dos EUA.” Folha De S.Paulo, 28 Sept. 2018, www1.folha.uol.com.br/poder/2018/09/oposicao-a-bolsonaro-repete-erros-dos-eua.shtml?utm_source=twitter&utm_medium=social&utm_campaign=comptw.
Zeidan, Rodrigo. “The Looming Military Coup in Brazil?” In the Americas | Americas Quarterly, www.americasquarterly.org/content/looming-military-coup-brazil.