The Cold War and Conflicting Ideologies: How did the Cold War affect Brazil?
Brazil does not loom large in the American memory of the Cold War alongside such events as the Vietnam and Korean wars or the Cuban Missile Crisis. For Brazilians, however, the Cold War provided the setting for the one of their most important events in their modern history and one of their most controversial periods: the military dictatorship from 1964-1988.
Like many developing countries, Brazil needed to choose its strategic position during the Cold War: align with the United States, the Soviet Union, or remain neutral. While Brazil attempted to remain mostly neutral during the Cold War’s early years, complex internal politics made that goal increasingly difficult.
In 1960, Brazil elected to the presidency Janio Quadros, a politician further to the left than any previous Brazilian leader. Quadros attempted to maintain neutrality in foreign policy but his presidency was riddled with internal conflict. He lasted only about eight months and in August 1961 he suddenly resigned, putting another left-leaning politician, Joao Goulet, as the new head of state. The more conservative Brazilian Congress managed to basically rewrite the constitution during the transition to establish a parliamentary system and the post of prime minister, who would hold most of the power (rather than Goulart as the president).
Still, Goulart attempted to enact a series of nationalist reforms that also had whiffs of socialist philosophy, such as expropriation of large land tracts and educational and tax reforms. This met with the ire of the congress and the conservative military.
In the first months of 1964, a number of Brazilian generals were in contact with each other and with the United States government to discuss a possible military takeover. It is clear from tapes and memos from Lyndon Johnson’s White House that the United States knew of the plan and was prepared to assist if necessary. The navy sent ships steaming down the Atlantic to dock off the coast of Rio de Janeiro as a show of force and to be ready to lend a hand if the coup d’etat needed an extra boost.
Why was the United States so ready to help depose a democratically elected leader? In the Cold War, the United States viewed all of international relations within the framework of containment of the Communist threat so as to prevent the Domino Effect of one country after another turning red. Cuba had already become the first Communist country in the hemisphere. The United States certainly did not want the largest Latin American country to follow suit.
American support for the takeover, however, proved unnecessary. The Brazilian military under General Castelo Branco, on March 31, 1964, advanced on Rio de Janeiro and Goulart fled to Brasilia. There, it was evident that he had no support from the government or the military and he disappeared. He resurfaced soon after in exile in Uruguay.
The new Brazilian military government under Castelo Branco took the country, immediately, on a hard turn to the right. Brazilian citizens found their basic liberties to be severely curtailed, including basic freedoms of speech, assembly, and movement. The government censured all media, instituted propaganda during daily radio programs, and arrested thousands of real and possible political opponents, especially those who affiliated with the communist or socialist party. The real or imagined threat from the left, in the midst of the Cold War, provided much of the justification for the government’s suppression of civil rights and dissent. Numerous famous artists, particularly singers, were caught up in the dragnet of oppression and sent to jail or into exile. Some of the greatest Brazilian musicians like Caetano Veloso, Chico Buarque, and Gilberto Gil found themselves composing protest music from London.
Brazil, the country of boundless joy and street festivals that are the envy of the world, entered into two decades of considerable darkness. Curfews required all citizens to be indoors by a certain hour in the evening. There was near total censorship over the press, including the most prominent print media like Veja and O Estado de Sao Paulo. Governmental support of major TV channels like Globo led the channels to voluntarily follow the government’s programming policies. Additionally, The government monitored university lectures. The government used torture, such as electric shocks, beatings, and waterboarding, consistently to eliminate all opposition. The ever-lurking fear of being arrested in a state that no longer maintained basic judicial rights acted like a cloud blocking the normally overpowering sun. And Brazil entered into a partnership called Operation Condor with other South American dictatorships (Chile, Argentina, and Uruguay) to work together to root out any opposition. Not surprisingly, the United States knew about Operation Condor and tacitly, or perhaps even actively, supported it.
Despite the government’s attempt to stifle all opposition through censorship, arrests, and torture, many Brazilians found creative ways to voice their protest. Music has always been a central medium of Brazilian art and this period saw some remarkable Brazilian musicians emerge. Chico Buarque was, to some extent, the Bob Dylan of Brazil. He was known for his sophisticated and powerful lyrics more than for any particular vocal talent. His song “Calice” was a brilliant use of a homophone to avoid the censors, while his “Apesar de Voce” (“In Spite of You”) was immediately banned due to its clear attack on the military government.
Actual guerrilla groups emerged in Brazil to fight against the government, most of them formed by dedicated Marxists or radical nationalists. These protestors robbed banks to fund their movements and then began kidnapping prominent foreign diplomats, including the U.S. Burke Elbrick, which later on served as the plot of the excellent film Four Days in September. These actions failed to rally the population to their cause and, instead, led to even harsher government surveillance and torture. By 1974, the government had essentially eliminated all opposition but used the “threat” of communist insurgencies to continue to justify oppression. Many leftist activists had fled to country to Chile, although Chile’s own military coup in 1973 meant they needed to continue their journey, mostly to Mexico, Cuba, or France.
Like in Chile, the authoritarian government sought to justify its rule by also providing for economic growth and stabilization. The new regime reduced inflation from 94% in 1964 to 28% three years later. Economic growth averaged 10.9% over in the early 1970s. It is perhaps true that the fall of the military government, in 1985, was in part due to the return of hyperinflation, reaching 235% in the mid-1980s.
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