Brazil's political crisis stemmed from the way in which the political tensions had been controlled in the 1930s and 1940s during the Vargas Era. Vargas' dictatorship and the presidencies of his democratic successors marked different stages of Brazilian populism (1930–1964), an era of economic nationalism, state-guided modernization, and import substitution trade policies. Vargas' policies were intended to foster an autonomous capitalist development in Brazil, by linking industrialization to nationalism, a formula based on a strategy of reconciling the conflicting interests of the middle class, foreign capital, the working class, and the landed oligarchy.

Essentially, this was the epic of the rise and fall of Brazilian populism from 1930 to 1964: Brazil witnessed over the course of this time period the change from export-orientation of the First Brazilian Republic (1889–1930) to the import substitution of the populist era (1930–1964) and then to a moderate structuralism of 1964–80. Each of these structural changes forced a realignment in society and caused a period of political crisis. Period of right-wing military dictatorship marked the transition between populist era and the current period of democratization.

The Brazilian Armed Forces acquired great political clout after the Paraguayan War. The politicization of the Armed Forces was evidenced by the Proclamation of the Republic, which overthrew the Empire, or within Tenentismo (Lieutenants' movement) and the Revolution of 1930. Tensions escalated again in the 1950s, as important military circles (the "hard-line militars", old positivists whose origins could be traced back to the AIB and the Estado Novo) joined the elite, medium classes and right-wing activists in attempts to stop Presidents Juscelino Kubitschek and João Goulart from taking office, due to their supposed support for Communist ideology. While Kubitschek proved to be friendly to capitalist institutions, Goulart promised far-reaching reforms, expropriated business interests and promoted economical-political neutrality with the US.

After Goulart suddenly assumed power in 1961, society became deeply polarized, with the elites fearing that Brazil would become another Cuba and join the Communist Bloc, while many thought that the reforms would boost greatly the growth of Brazil and end its economical subservience with the US, or even that Goulart could be used to increase the popularity of the Communist agenda. Influential politicians, such as Carlos Lacerda and even Kubitschek, media moguls (Roberto Marinho, Octávio Frias, Júlio de Mesquita Filho), the Church, landowners, businessmen, and the middle class called for a coup d'état by the Armed Forces to remove the government. The old "hard-line" army officers, seeing a chance to impose their positivist economic program, convinced the loyalists that Goulart was a communist menace.

Goulart and the fall of the Fourth Republic

João Goulart, a lawyer, was the left-leaning President ousted by the Armed Forces. He fled to Uruguay, where his family owned estâncias.

After the Presidency of Juscelino Kubitschek, the right wing opposition elected Jânio Quadros, who based his electoral campaign on criticizing Kubitschek and government corruption. Quadros' campaign symbol was a broom, with which the president would "sweep away the corruption."[8] In his brief tenure as president, Quadros made moves to resume relations with some communist countries, made some controversial laws and law proposals, but without legislative support, he couldn't follow his agenda.[9]

In the last days of August 1961, Quadros tried to break the impasse by resigning from the presidency, apparently with the intention of being reinstated by popular demand. João Goulart was Vice President. He was a member of the Brazilian Labour Party and has been active in politics since the Vargas Era. As Quadros resigned, Goulart was outside the country visiting China. At that time Brazil's President and Vice President were elected from different party tickets. Some military top brass tried to prevent Goulart from assuming the Presidency, accusing him of being communist, but the legalist campaign in support of Goulart was already strong. The crisis was solved by the "parliamentarian solution" - an arrangement that decreased the powers of the President by creating a new post of Prime Minister which was filled by Tancredo Neves and instituting a Parliamentary republic.

Brazil returned to Presidential government in 1963 after a referendum, and, as Goulart's powers grew, it became evident that he would seek to implement "base reforms" (bottom-up reforms) such as land reform and nationalization of enterprises in various economic sectors (which would remove the nation from its antique latifundial economy). The reforms were considered communist. Goulart sought to implement the reforms regardless of assent from established institutions such as Congress. Goulart had low parliamentarian support, due to the fact that his centrist attempts to win support from both sides of the spectrum gradually came to alienate both.[10] Over time, Goulart was forced to shift well to the left of his mentor Getúlio Vargas and was forced to mobilize the working class and even the peasantry amid falling urban bourgeois support. The core of Brazilian populism was economic nationalism, and that was no longer appealing to the middle classes.[citation needed]

On 1 April 1964, after a night of conspiracy, rebel troops made their way to Rio de Janeiro, considered a legalist bastion. São Paulo's and Rio de Janeiro's generals were convinced to join the coup. To prevent a civil war, and in knowledge that the USA would openly support the army, the President fled first to Rio Grande do Sul, and then went to exile in Uruguay, where his family owned large estates.

United States involvement

U.S. President John F. Kennedy (left) and President Goulart during a review of troops on 3 April 1962. Kennedy mulled possible military intervention in Brazil[11]

The US Ambassador Lincoln Gordon later admitted that the embassy had given money to anti-Goulart candidates in the 1962 municipal elections, and had encouraged the plotters; many extra United States military and intelligence personnel were operating in four United States Navy oil tankers and the aircraft carrier USS Forrestal, in an operation code-named Operation Brother Sam. These ships had positioned off the coast of Rio de Janeiro in case Brazilian troops required military assistance during the 1964 coup. A document from Gordon in 1963 to US president John F. Kennedy also describes the ways João Goulart should be put down, and his fears of a communist intervention supported by the Soviets or by Cuba.[12][13]

Washington immediately recognized the new government in 1964, and hailed the coup d'état as one of the "democratic forces" that had allegedly staved off the hand of international communism. American mass media outlets like Henry Luce's TIME also gave positive remarks about the dissolution of political parties and salary controls at the beginning of Castello Branco mandate.[14]

Brazil actively participated in the CIA-backed state terror campaign against left-wing dissidents known as Operation Condor.[15]

The Excuse of the "Communist Threat"

The argument used to justify the establishment of a military dictatorship in the country was the imminence of a "communist threat" in 1964. The historian Rodrigo Patto Sá Motta (pt) disputes the assertion that communism was of sufficient strength in Brasil to threaten the democratic system in 1964. In an interview, Motta said:[16]

If the political regime established in 1964 was popular and had the majority support of the population, why the hell did it need authoritarian mechanisms to stay in power?". And he adds: "Let us consider for a moment, just to construct hypothetical reasoning, that there was a serious communist threat and the military intervention aimed at defending democracy against totalitarianism (I reiterate that I consider such arguments unfounded). If so, what justification, then, for having installed a dictatorship and ending up in power for two decades? Why did they not hand over power to civilians after the "threat" had been defeated?

— Rodrigo Patto Sá Motta, 1964: “O Brasil não estava à beira do comunismo”

Instead, Motta asserts that the assertion of a "communist threat" was fabricated to unify the Brasilian armed forces and increase their support among the general population.[16]

...the big press and other institutions made a strong discursive dam in favor of the fall of Goulart, in which they mobilized to exhaustion the theme of red danger (communists) to increase the climate of panic. What is certain is that on leaving the HQs the Armed Forces unbalanced the situation and promoted the overthrow of Goulart, so their role was essential in the coup.

The Intercept[17] reported that the asserted threat of Jango's "guerrillas," the weapons in possession of the Peasant Leagues (pt) (considered the MST of the time) and the communist infiltrations into the armed forces were nothing more than fantasy, and that the coup of 64 occurred without resistance, since "there was no resistance." Moreover, the communist armed struggles only appeared after the implementation of the dictatorship, and not before it, and in fact never put Brazilian democracy at risk.[17]

Divisions within the officer corps

The armed forces' officer corps was divided between those who believed that they should confine themselves to their barracks, and the hard-liners who regarded politicians as willing to turn Brazil to communism. The victory of the hard-liners[who?] dragged Brazil into what political scientist Juan J. Linz called "an authoritarian situation." However, because the hard-liners could not ignore the counterweight opinions of their colleagues or the resistance of society, they were unable to institutionalize their agenda politically. In addition, they did not attempt to eliminate liberal constitutionalism because they feared disapproval of international opinion and damage to their alignment with the United States. The United States as bastion of anticommunism during the Cold War, provided the ideology that the authoritarians used to justify their hold on power. Washington also preached liberal democracy, which forced the authoritarians to assume the contradictory position of defending democracy, while destroying it. Their concern for appearances caused them to abstain from personal dictatorship by requiring each successive general-president to hand over power to his replacement.[18]