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Brazil's 1964 Coup: What 'Communist Conspiracy'?

50 Years Later

The hay day of the Brazilian communist movement, like in the U.S., had been in the years prior to World War II. Under Cold War pressures from the North, the Brazilian government – and not for the first time – declared the party illegal. After that, communist militants continued to operate cautiously among the more advanced sectors of the working class, like urban bank clerks and also within the rising industrial sector outside Sao Paulo. Its leaders in the meantime went underground. Communists were arrested, tortured and killed in this period, I was told. By the time of the coup, the Soviet affiliated party, the Big Party the Brazilians call it, was much depleted in membership and did not have a plan to govern, or an armed struggle strategy to take power through insurrection. It was, as one knowledgeable historian described it to me, essentially pacifist, certainly unarmed.

In a nutshell, the real contest over who would govern in Brazil pitted opposing sectors within the traditional political classes who distributed power among themselves through fluid coalitions that depended on greasing palms and horse trading. Joao Goulart, known as Jango, the president who would be toppled in ‘64, was leader of the forces that had once coalesced around Getulio Vargas, Brazil’s dictator from 1930 to 1945. Vargas had flirted with the Axis until FDR funded a steel mill at Volta Redonda in exchange for the use of airfields in Natal that gave the U.S. a logistical trampoline to support the early war on the coast of North Africa, and brought Brazil into the Allied orbit.

Jango served as Minister of Labor when Vargas was democratically elected president after the war. Vargas had created the Brazilian Labor Party (PTB), and set protectionist parameters that sustained state monopolies in the oil, steel, automotive and mineral extraction sectors, undoubtedly improving the lot of some working Brazilians. The PTB and its populist tendencies, inherited by Jango, was unpopular with the military who saw an even watered-down Keynesian social democracy as a gateway to communism, and in 1956 they tried unsuccessfully to block Jango’s nomination as VP on the ticket headed by Juscelino Kubitschek – the father of Brasilia.

When Jango ran again in 1960, this time for the presidency, opposing Janio Quadros, who would beat him, he was nonetheless reelected a second time as vice president since Brazilian voters were allowed to split their ticket among candidates of competing parties. When Quadros suddenly resigned in August 1961, Goulart was on a state visit to China. A strong opposition arose to prevent his succession, but after biding his time for several days in Montevideo, before crossing back into Brazil, Jango was installed as president, initially with reduced powers.

Jango was no radical, but, like Vargas and Janio Quadros, he favored a plan of national development based on a foreign policy of non-alignment and wanted to make it harder for foreign businesses to transfer their profits out of the country, favoring their reinvestment in Brazil. It should be noted that it was Janio Quadros -- not Joao Goulart -- who established relations with the Soviets, and, a year before in Brasilia to the utter horror and consternation of the Brazilian right and their military allies, pinned a decoration on the chest of Ernesto Guevara. There were many in the Brazilian ruling class who resented American bullying and domination.

story | by Dr. Radut