Anatomy of a coup d’état

The United States' active participation in a president's deposition.

Published in 31/03/2014 - 17:47 By Ivan Richard, Danillo Macedo report from Agência Brasil - Brasília


Tanks rolling down the streets as the population became increasingly polarized under a helpless president: this was the state of affairs in Brazil when the military dictatorship started, 50 years ago. In the early hours of March 31, 1964, army troops set off to Rio de Janeiro from Minas Gerais and launched a coup d’état long plotted by the military forces. The new regime would last no less than 21 years.

















Three years earlier, when then President Jânio Quadros resigned, the military had attempted to prevent Vice President João Goulart, also known as Jango, from taking office. In an effort to keep the circumstances peaceful, the National Congress approved the shift in the government, from a presidential to a parliamentary system, which would limit Jango’s power as head of state.

In January 1963, a constitutional referendum was held, and presidentialism was restored. Jango rose to power willing to introduce his Basic Reforms Plan, which included the implementation of a land reform. The project, however, failed to garner enough support in Congress and was eventually abandoned.

Nonetheless, the military coup, plotted by commanders from the Armed Forces, had been gathering momentum over the years, says professor at the State University of São Paulo (UNESP), Paulo Ribeiro da Cunha. He adds, “An attempt had already occurred in 1954 – a preamble, which was aborted chiefly on account of Getúlio Vargas’s suicide. But many other coup attempts ensued.” Indeed, another one took place in 1955, with no success, aimed at preventing President-elect Juscelino Jubitschek from taking office. Also, two military uprisings were staged, in 1957 and 1959.

Doutor em História, Professor da Universidade de Brasília, Antonio Barbosa

Antonio Barbosa, PhD, History Professor at the University of BrasíliaPhoto by Elza Fiúza/Agência Brasil

Analysts underscore two key moments for the Armed Forces to mount the coup and overthrow the government in 1964. The first of them is the “Central do Brasil” rally, held on Friday, March 13, in Rio de Janeiro. From a platform erected outside the building of the now-extinct War Ministry, João Goulart gave a harsh speech on behalf of his future administration and his Basic Reforms Plan, which the military interpreted as an affront. A week later, the response from the right wing came in the form of a public demonstration named “Marcha da Família com Deus pela Liberdade” (Families' Walk for Freedom under God). “Over 500 thousand people took to the streets in São Paulo. And it happened 50 years ago, with no internet or social media. It was at that point that the leaders, who had long since been plotting the coup, realized it was the right moment,” notes Antonio Barbosa, a professor at the University of Brasília (UnB). He mentions that no one stood up in support of João Goulart. “We mustn’t forget that over 75% of Brazil’s population was illiterate and over 95% were followers of the Catholic Church. And, at that point, the church had plunged deeply into the anti-communist fight.”

On March 31, 1965, Jango is deposed, and during the following 21 years, five generals took over the reins of the country – a period called “Years of Lead”. An entire political generation was suppressed by the dictatorship; thousands of people were tortured and killed, and the country was faced with a major economic collapse, as the external debt rose to alarming levels during the years of the military regime.

Jango sought political asylum in Uruguay with his family, only to return dead on December 7, 1976. Originally reported as a heart attack, the cause of his death remains under investigation.

The role of Uncle Sam

As reported in official documents, the coup was staged by the Brazilian military, and had the support of society and the country’s major businessmen. However, historians and witnesses note that another actor played a decisive role in how the military carried out their plan: the US government.

Jango e o presidente dos Estados Unidos, John Kennedy

"Jango" (João Goulart) and US President John KennedyArquivo Nacional

Recorded conversations between President John Kennedy and then US Ambassador to Brazil Lincoln Gordon were released by the White House and reveals that the world’s biggest power regarded Brazil under Goulart with much concern.

UnB History Professor Virgílio Arraes argues that, during the Cold War, the US government was afraid the largest Latin-American country would follow the steps of Cuba, where Fidel Castro’s forces had overthrown dictator Fulgencio Batista in 1959 and established a socialist regime two years later, with the support of the Soviet Union.

Arraes also regards the United States’ military power as one of the main reasons why Jango’s response to the coup was such a lukewarm one. “There was probably more information Jango was aware of, and that kept him from showing willingness to resist.”

The discontent felt by the US with João Goulart’s administration had existed since 1962, when Ambassador Gordon warned the US Department of State about Jango. In one of a series of recordings made at the White House, Kennedy asks Gordon whether a military intervention in Brazil was advisable. This happened in October, 1963, 46 days before Kennedy was murdered. Later on, Ambassador Gordon resumed his debate with president Lyndon Johnson.

In order to prevent the supposed “communist threat” from succeeding, Washington worked to move closer to Brazilians. One of the strategies adopted was the Alliance for Progress, a comprehensive cooperation program for the development of several areas. A more dramatic one was the creation of the Brazilian Institute for Democratic Action (IBAD), which produced and released anti-communist material for the radio, television, newspapers and movies – all in clear opposition to Goulart’s government. Held under the suspicion of having financed the electoral campaigns of candidates opposing Jango in the 1952 elections, IBAD was dissolved by the Justice in 1963.

For Arraes, the knowledge that the US were sending a fleet to the Brazilian coast, which was later on confirmed by Ambassador Gordon himself, provides a good enough reason why Jango did not respond very vigorously. “If the army that defeated the Nazis and the imperial forces of Japan was moving towards any country in South America, what kind of hope could one have, from a warfare standpoint?”

Censorship tries to silence the soul of Brazilians

After 1964, circumventing censorship was a difficult task for Brazilian artists and intellectuals resisting the military regime. It became common among songwriters, for instance, to include metaphors in their lyrics in an attempt to voice their protests and escape the watchful eyes of the dictatorship.

Capa de um dos discos historicos de Chico Buarque

Chico BuarqueArchive image

Chico Buarque, Caetano Veloso, Milton Nascimento and Gonzaguinha, to mention a few, were part of a long list of songwriters who had their music censored during the military regime. The most notorious case, however, was the censorship of Geraldo Vandré’s song entitled “Pra não dizer que não falei das flores” (Not to say I didn’t mention the flowers, in a rough English translation), which ranked second in the national phase of the 1968 International Song Festival, in Rio de Janeiro. With its famous chorus (Come on, let's go / To wait is not to know / He who knows makes the moment / [and] does not wait [for it] to happen, in a literal translation) the song, originally named “Caminhando” (walking), became an anthem for all those fighting the dictatorship. Vandré later on sought political asylum abroad, after Institutional Act 5 (Portuguese: Ato Institucional 5, or simply “AI 5”) was passed that same year, granting even more authority to military leaders.

Geraldo Vandré, autor de Caminhando ou Para não dizer que não falei de flores.

Geraldo VandréArchive image

Chico Buarque, in turn, was the military’s favorite target, and protected his songs from censorship by adopting the pen name Julinho de Adelaide. This is how he managed to prevent “Acorda, amor” (Wake up, love) from being banned – a song whose lyrics depicted the nightmare it was to have “people knocking on the gate”.

Journalist-writer Carlos Heitor Cony describes the task of dealing with censorship: “Censors were really stupid, so they couldn’t see certain nuances. And, since they were really stupid, they would often find fault with things of no importance and ban the piece or song altogether,” he says.

Cultural producer Fabiano Canosa, one of the professionals in charge of the events at Cine Paissandu, a symbol of the cultural resistance in Rio de Janeiro during the 1960’s and 70’s, says that things were no different for filmmakers, especially for documentarians.

It did not take long before repression also reached the press.

Edição do Correio da Manhã do dia do golpe

A newspaper issue of Correio da ManhãArquivo Nacional

Brazil’s major newspapers, which had initially backed the military regime, started to withdraw their support as soon as the Brazilian middle class and entrepreneurs realized the direction in which the military were leading the country. As they saw themselves having less and less power of decision, and noticed that the political life in Brazil had been narrowed down to submission to the military dictatorship, many started to regard the government critically, which made it easier for intellectuals and jurists to express themselves against repression and violence. This is the context in which the first weekly magazines were created, inspired by the American “Time”. “Veja” was the first of its kind. It was created in 1968 and had several issues confiscated by the police, sometimes before leaving the newsstands. Daily “Estado de São Paulo”, the traditional voice of entrepreneurs in São Paulo, started publishing poems instead of news articles edited out by censors.

Meanwhile, on the other side, the military started using television as a tool to disseminate their propaganda. They gave their financial support to programs that would praise the government and its actions, like the show called “Amaral Netto, o Repórter”, aired by Globo TV. The work of young songwriters would also encouraged by the military, if they managed to convey in their lyrics a feeling of exaggerated patriotism, like Don & Ravel’s song “Eu te amo, meu Brasil” (“I love you, my Brazil”). “Brazil – love it or leave it” became the motto of the military regime at the time.

Translated by Fabrício Ferreira

Fonte: Anatomy of a coup d’état

Edition: Nira Foster / Olga Bardawil

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