On January 6, 1963, the nation of Brazil was asked to vote on changes to their constitution which had been made two years previously. The changes transferred powers from the President’s office to Brazil’s elected National Congress. In short, the amendment was an attempt at a sort of parliamentarianism. The entire concept was overwhelmingly rejected by the Brazilian people, 82% of whom voted against the changes.
On the surface, this appears to be a wholesale rejection of democratic principles, a landslide reactionary vote in favour of authoritarianism. But as is so often the case, there was a lot more to this national referendum than immediately meets the eye. And like the best instalments of The West Wing or House of Cards, this is a brilliantly complicated piece of political chaos involving multiple characters. Let’s run through the main players now.
Jânio da Silva Quadros – Quadros has risen meteorically from Mayor of São Paolo to President of Brazil, winning by an absolute landslide in 1960 off the back of some populist rhetoric and some pretty extravagant behaviour. Quadros risks it all in August 1961 by nationalising the iron ore reserves of the Minas Gerais region and cryptically resigning. He reckons the Brazilian people will clamour to have him back in power. To this day, no one is really sure of the logic behind this.
The Brazilian Army – At this time, the Armed Forces of Brazil are a conservative bunch, tending to side with the upper classes. They are not very big fans of Quadros’ National Labour Party, but are even more suspicious of the Brazilian Labour Party. I know those two sound exactly the same, but they’re not. The latter is left of the former.
João Goulart (nickname ‘Jango’ – the D is silent and also invisible) – Goulart is Vice-President, but from the Brazilian Labour Party rather than Quadros’ National Labour Party. In 1960, Brazilians could vote for candidates from different parties for President and VP. Ideological heir to former president Getúlio Vargas (one of the most important politicians in Brazil’s history), Goulart is in China on a state visit on August 25th, 1961 when this story begins…
President Quadros’ gambit immediately backfired, largely because he overestimated his own popularity among the Brazilian people. The Brazilian legislature accepted his resignation and with no large-scale brouhaha in sight, an ungainly power vacuum was created.
The legislature installed a replacement in Quadros’ place until Goulart returned from China, something which itself was proving difficult as the Brazilian Army were refusing to let their president re-enter the country. They feared how his left-wing tendencies and nationalist policies would play out in office and objected in particular to the idea of closer relations with communist countries. Congress were also reluctant to recognise Goulart as leader, but knew that he commanded tremendous support across the country. Simply removing him from office would result in a full-scale civil war. And so on September 2, Congress passed an amendment to the constitution establishing a parliamentary form of government. Goulart took the oath as president a week later but immediately found his powers as president significantly depleted.
Most of his powers were transferred to the newly-created position of Prime Minister, who Goulart was at least able to nominate, choosing Tancredo Neves of the Social Democratic Party. However, as part of the compromise establishing the parliamentary form of government, a plebiscite was scheduled for January 1963. The people would ultimately decide whether the parliament should retain their powers, or whether they should be returned to the office of the President. As you already know, an overwhelming 9.5 million Brazilians favoured returning presidential powers to Goulart.
Having regained his political clout, Goulart set about implementing his Basic Reforms, pieces of legislation aimed at reforming Brazil’s education system, expanding its electorate and reforming taxes so that multinational companies with headquarters abroad would have to reinvest some of their profits back into Brazil. Unfortunately for Goulart, the spirit of these reforms was considered rather too radically nationalistic by Congress and the Brazilian Army. He went through three Prime Ministers in just over a year and was deposed in a coup d’etat on March 31 1964.
The coup consistently installed right-wing hardliners to succeed Goulart. They proceeded to suspend the civil rights and liberties of the Brazilian people by abolishing all political parties and replacing them with only two. In this they were supported by the United States, who feared Goulart’s ties to socialist countries and his vigour for nuclear disarmament.
In April 1964, Goulart fled with his family and sought political asylum in Uruguay, where he farmed cattle and campaigned for the full restoration of Brazilian democracy through non-violent means. He died in Argentina in 1976, and Brazil would not elect another left-wing President until 2003.
Former President Jânio da Silva Quadros made a comeback in the Eighties, returning to his post as Mayor of São Paolo from 1985 until 1988.
Brazil’s military regime ruled until 1985, and fast became a model for military regimes across Latin America. Torturing dissidents and restricting freedom of speech, the regime justified its actions as operating in the interests of national security during a time of crisis, an argument which has proved popular with military regimes ever since.