Working Paper #95-1, September, 1995

By Tracy Ann Breneman

Department of Sociology

University of Colorado, Boulder

This paper was written with a small grant from the Conflict Resolution Consortium, University of Colorado. Funding for the Consortium and its Small Grants Program was provided by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. The statements and ideas presented in this paper are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the Conflict Resolution Consortium, the University of Colorado, or the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. For more information, contact the Conflict Resolution Consortium, Campus Box 327, University of Colorado, Boulder, Colorado 80309-0327. Phone: (303) 492-1635, e-mail:

Copyright (C) 1995. Tracy Ann Breneman. Do not reprint without permission.

Originating violence has its roots in the elite institutions of power, in a social structure that protects the interests of the dominant groups, and in the extreme right, which will not tolerate any social change out of fear of losing its privileged status. As a result, many countries of the Third World are in the grips of state terrorism. Those who oppose the interests of capital or of the totalitarian state find themselves monitored, imprisoned, tortured, "disappeared" or assassinated.

- Frei Leonardo Boff, O.F.M., in Relentless Persistence: Nonviolent Action in Latin America.

Throughout the ten years of its existence, Amnesty International has observed with horror that there has been a growing tendency throughout the world for governments to authorize or condone the use of torture, or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment. There are several countries where, within a period of a few years, the use of torture, at the outset sporadic and exceptional, has become an invariable routine part of any interrogation. Amnesty International has been concerned for some time that such a situation has come to exist in Brazil.

- Amnesty International's Report on Allegations of Torture in Brazil


In 1964 the Brazilian military conducted what it referred to as a revolution, opponents called it a coup. Whichever term is used, the military assumed political power in Brazil and stayed there, formally, for twenty years. During this time it engaged in the horrifying and inhuman physical repression of those it considered subversives, a common attitude among the Latin American dictatorships of this period, but not restricted to this period. Physical violence was not unknown to "marginals" arrested for common acts of thievery or murder even before the military government took power. However, during this period, none, no matter what his or her socio-economic standing, escaped the horrors of power-wielding torturers. What could have been the reasoning and legitimacy for such acts?

What led to the Revolution1 of 1964 could be defined in political terms. Cuba had just fallen to a socialist revolution and the United States was determined to prevent the "threat of communism" from spreading throughout the western hemisphere.

Economic policy and capitalist development were also factors in 1964. Brazil's two civilian presidents before the military takeover had actively pursued nationalist policies, to the detriment of multinational investment in Brazil. President Joao Goulart2, had imposed restrictions on multinational investment and pursued a nationalist policy of supporting and subsidizing private national capital not associated with foreign capital. These nationalist policies, and an emphasis on social programs, led to the rapid organization of the working class; this threatened the upper class, which had never before made even minimal concessions regarding wages, working conditions or trade union organization (Alves, 1985). This provided justification for the military to step in before these newly organized groups made demands that would be incompatible with a system of dependent capitalist development.

The military's intervention toppled a system that would have led to serious losses for national and multinational capital. Alves (1985) notes that dependent development and its associated national and international interests provided the necessary context for the military's revolution. Brazil's development could be characterized by dependency based on an economic tripod: an alliance of private national capital, state capital and international capital. Multinational capital for Brazil's form of capitalism was essential.3 Economic and political issues moved the military to assume power in Brazil, in support of capitalist development - to promote the "first world" marriage of democracy and capitalism. Ironically, in the name of democracy, an authoritarian regime was established.

The period during which the military governed Brazil must be characterized by the dynamic succession in which events occurred and actors emerged. What transpired during those twenty years can only be understood as a sequence of events occurring in response to other events. Significant political moments, such as the transition from one military President to another, determined new, repressive government policies; these government policies led to specific forms of public opposition, which in turn led to an ever more repressive government response. Furthermore, the military had no blueprint for government, which ultimately left economics in the lead of politics.

Opposition and Government Control

The authoritarian period can be divided into stages which correspond generally to presidential terms and specifically to the cycles of repression. These periods are: 1964, when the military revolution/coup took place; 1965-1968 during which time the apparatus of repression was consolidated; 1969-1974 when repression and torture reached their heights and Brazil experienced the so-called "economic miracle"; and 1974-1985, the period of gradual liberalization and democratization. The purpose in establishing these periods is to more clearly define the positions of the government and opposition, their evolution and relative success. For each period, the main parties, their interests and goals, and the corresponding cycle of action-reaction will be addressed.

Actors, active in primary or secondary roles at different times during the conflict, were:


1) Military

1A) "duristas" - the hard line

1B) "castelistas" (after Castelo Branco, the first military President) - those interested in maintaining the stated goals of the Revolution, eventual liberalization

2) ARENA (Alianca Renovadora Nacional) - party of the government

3) Right-wing death squads, torturers - groups which originated in the late 1950's: official, unofficial, military, civilian

4) Technocrats - economic policy-makers

5) National private economic elite

Foreign Support and Opposition

6) Foreign investors and lenders

7) United States government

National Opposition

8) Student movement

9) Labor unions

10) Catholic Church

10A) Progressives - against government repression

10B) Conservatives - right-wing, denounced "subversives"

10C) Moderates - wanted to avoid a political position, but denounced torture of progressive clergy

11) MDB (Movimento Democratico Brasileiro) - institutional opposition, umbrella abridging liberals to communists, the only legal opposition party

12) Guerrilla insurgency

12A) PCB (Partido Comunista Brasileiro) - nonviolent resistance

12B) non PCB - backbone of armed resistance, Maoist or Trotskyist groups, radical Catholic or student guerrilla groups

1964 - Actors and Interests

Military. At this point, their objective was to secure power and redirect the nation according to certain political and economic goals focused on economic growth.

National private economic elite. Their goal was to prevent the nationalization of certain sectors which would result in the loss of private national capital and international capital.

United States. The motivating force behind U.S. policy was the prevention of the spread of communism through the western hemisphere after the fall of Cuba.

In the first days after the Revolution, the military institutionalized the system it would need to maintain control. A new constitution was drawn up, and subsequent Institutional Acts would address resistance with new mechanisms of repression. Authority was defined as coming not from the people but from the de facto exercise of power, although they claimed that their move to power was motivated by the need to redirect Brazil away from the communist path, back to democracy (democratization through authoritarianism). Institutional Act #1 was designed to give the new Executive the power it needed to carry out the "'economic, financial, political, and moral reconstruction of Brazil.' The objective was 'restoration of internal order and the international prestige of our country.'" (Skidmore, 1988). In this initial stage the military sought to prove to the U.S. and international aid agencies that Brazil was once again committed to a "free world" economy.

Castello Branco was the first of the military presidents, finishing out the term of the ousted civilian president. It was made clear that they chose to maintain a constitution, elections and the national Congress, although seriously restricted. A contradiction was immediately apparent between their declared goals to restore democracy and need for the apparatus of repression to eliminate opposition. The military quickly began to purge intellectuals and politicians who had been closely tied to the pre-1964 government, and others supposedly leading Brazil to communism. Targets included the progressive members of the Catholic Church and its youth organizations, the leftist political parties, urban and rural labor organizations, and academics and political activists. Torture for information and confession began with these groups. Opposition to the military grew during this time as the military completed a list of almost 5,000 enemies of the state. (Alves, 1985). Even given this use of force, there was initial support for the coup including most of the media, the Catholic Church, the Federal Bar Association, national economic elite, and the U.S. government.

1965-1968 - Actors and Interests

Military. At this stage they were investing heavily in austere economic measures aimed at stabilizing and developing Brazil. The military worked on repressing opposition to present the image of a country under control, while it counted on the technocrats to implant measures that would bring inflation under control and attract foreign investors and lenders.

ARENA. Before Congress was closed, members of this party enjoyed the protection of the government and comfortable assignments.

Technocrats. With the tight control the military could exercise over the country, they implanted economic measures designed to cut real wages and boost the gains of national elites. Economic stabilization was the main goal.

United States. Concern was expressed about the restriction of democratic institutions, but the U.S. still supported the military government.

MDB. Until Congress was closed in December 1968, the MDB was the only legal opposition party. Division within the MDB arose during this time as to whether the party should participate in the facade of military controlled elections.

Student opposition movement. With purges of professors and educational programs, students began to organize and protest, inspired by the worldwide student movements of this period. The military saw them as a tremendous threat and cracked down on demonstrations, which drove some underground to continue fighting against injustice and restricted mobility and voice.

Labor union opposition. As wages were cut, labor unions began to protest and strike. As they were newly formed, many did not have the organization to be entirely effective. The government quickly enacted laws against striking and labor unions in general.

Catholic Church. A consistent voice against injustice and torture. There were internal divisions as to the extent to which the Church should actively protest. It became directly involved when student protesters were protected by the Church after police attacked them during a demonstration.

Guerrilla insurgency. They began conducting sporadic acts of violence and proved to be an unacceptable challenge to the military.

During the second stage of the authoritarian period, 1965- 1968, the purges were completed and the military continued implanting the structures necessary for control. In an attempt to continue to appear at least structurally democratic, direct elections were maintained; although the Inelegibilities Act was introduced to bar candidates deemed opponents of the Revolution. In 1965 an attempt at semi-democratic rule backfired when two prominent members of the opposition were elected to important governorships. When President Castello Branco maintained they would assume office, a "coup within the coup" developed which threatened to depose him and consolidated the strength of the hard line military. As a compromise, Castello Branco issued the Institutional Act #2 which abolished political parties (creating a two-party system consisting of the ARENA and the MDB) and suspended direct elections of governors (Skidmore, 1988).

By 1967, the second military president, Costa e Silva still had hopes to humanize the Revolution. When he fell ill, the duristas prevented the vice president from taking office. They seized the opportunity to install one of their candidates and promptly enacted measures to give him a five-year term. In 1968, Institutional Act #5 would close the national and state Congresses indefinitely, suspend all legal opposition, establish decree rule, and give the president broad emergency powers. Official censorship was decreed later that year, outlawing criticism of any Institutional Act or member of the armed forces, it also prohibited news of workers' or student movements.4

Opposition to military repression became much more prominent. University students were leading protest marches with the purges of professors and educational programs. Inspired by the worldwide student protests of this period, they were seen as a tremendous threat. Sectors of the Catholic Church began to speak out against injustice and torture, and sheltered those blacklisted. Middle class and church involvement at this stage was more focused on securing the right to protest rather that the right to openly organize. This was also the beginning of dissent among the elite sectors.

In 1966 the national security state laid the foundation for the economic model, which established wage controls and incentives for multinational investment. The austere economic programs earned praise and financial support from the U.S. and U.S. based aid agencies. Inflation was falling and economic technocrats enjoyed political protection to employ more orthodox economic programs. Real wages were dramatically cut, foreign investment was granted concessions and the public sector was growing increasingly critical. These programs actually served to increase activity and membership in groups such as the student organizations and labor unions. Furthermore, various guerrilla groups were beginning to conduct minor terrorist attacks, which included strategic bombings.

1969-1974 - Actors and Interests

Military. The duristas, in power at this stage, were confirming their position that Brazil could not achieve economic growth under an open political system, and were more determined than ever to prevent the castelistas any access to power. Stability was defined as the absence of serious opposition. The military- technocrat alliance was more important now than ever before.

Technocrats. With Executive protection they were able to gain control over national development funds, reducing resources for the underdeveloped regions and maximizing foreign investment regardless of the regional effects. Their goal at this stage was to move from stabilization to economic development with the aid of massive international investment and loans.

Foreign investors. Potential investors were being attracted to the apparent stability of the political system and the growth and opportunities of the economic system.

United States. For the first five months of 1969 the U.S. froze new U.S. aid commitments because of worries over the "authoritarian turn" of the military. Aid was resumed in mid-1969 not because human rights improved, but because Brazil was reaching economic stability to the point that it was creating a shift in bargaining power and could take its own dollars elsewhere.

Amnesty International. A.I. denounced Brazilian torture in December 1969, supported by other international organizations and foreign governments. In August 1970 Brazil created a Human Rights Council to hear alleged violations, subordinate to the military Justice Minister who promptly denied all charges.

Right-wing death squads. These groups, originating in the late 1950's, were active especially during this time to quiet the opposition, while enjoying the protection of the military hierarchy.

Catholic Church. In the environment of acute repression the Church provided the only institutional center of opposition, due largely to mobilization of contacts abroad (the Vatican, and clergy and human rights activists in the U.S. and Europe) which brought foreign criticism against the military. Even so, many clergy were detained and tortured during this time.

Guerilla insurgency. Formed mainly of students who had gone underground, this group began to pose a challenge to the government. Their main interest was in freeing captured comrades and in making the military look bad to the international community. Repression of this opposition was relentless and especially brutal.

Brazilians. By this time most were terrified of the repressive capabilities of the military's torturers. They were, however, beginning to feel the effects of the "economic miracle" which actually gave the government an edge of legitimacy. Furthermore, Brazil was about to win the World Cup in soccer for the third time, which helped to relieve tension and distract them from the horrors many faced at home.

As authoritarian rule consolidated, the economy responded well to the austere programs. The military needed the technocrats' economic policies to succeed in order to maintain some element of legitimacy. When General Medici, the first durista military president, assumed power in 1969, censorship was widespread and the brutal institutions of repression and torture were in place, providing the appearance of control. Foreign investors were attracted to the apparent stability of the political system and the growth and opportunities of the economic system.

Segments of the opposition had been pacified by economic growth and terrorized into submission by the military torturers and the right-wing death squads. The guerilla insurgency, formed mainly of students who had gone underground, began to pose a challenge to the government. The guerrillas managed to kidnap international diplomats to negotiate the release of captured comrades and to force the recognition of foreign governments. For greater impact, nationally and internationally, the guerrillas kidnapped diplomats from the countries that were most heavily investing in Brazil's economic growth at the time: U.S., Japan, West Germany, and Switzerland. These actions were defensive, not offensive, by nature spectacular and required little organization. Only one person died at the hands of the guerrillas, a death which was accidental.

The first kidnapping occurred in September 1968 and set the precedence for future guerrilla acts. Demands were made in exchange for the release of the kidnapped diplomats which included radio broadcast of the guerrillas' manifesto and the release of specific political prisoners. The first kidnaped was the U.S. Ambassador to Brazil, and due to pressure from the United States, the guerrilla's demands were met quickly and he was released.

As these challenges to the military continued, Institutional Acts (AI) to the military's draft of the Constitution were issued. In response to the guerrilla's success in getting comrades released, the government issued AI #13 (which gave the government power to permanently exile all political prisoners released as a result of negotiation with "terrorists" or any Brazilian deemed dangerous to national security) and AI #14 (which restored the "formal" death penalty - nonexistent in peacetime Brazil since 1891). The National Security Law of 1969 was also passed, allowing the state to "exercise complete discretion in determining what may constitute a crime against national security." (Alves, 1985). It provided the legal framework for repression of anyone opposed to the policies of the national security state. An Amendment to the 1967 Constitution increased power of the Executive branch even more by issuing a decree-law which enabled the Executive to pass secret decree-laws whose texts would not be published. This provided the basis for arrest for the infringement of a law which was completely unknown (Alves, 1985).

As the guerrillas were successful in trading kidnapped diplomats for the release of political prisoners, the government became less willing to negotiate and the use of repression became relentless and especially brutal. After the first kidnapping, the government arrested and tortured members of the underground movement. The guerrillas responded with more kidnapings, and the government responded with more arrests and tortures - until the national security state was no longer willing to make concessions and used these subversive activities to justify the most violent period of repression. By 1971 the guerrilla groups had been largely liquidated.

These Acts served to consolidate and broaden the increasingly arbitrary power the military had granted itself, and constantly changed the rules of the game in its favor. The coalition in power did not have a model for the new state, it had only a doctrine of national security from which it developed and institutionalized, as the need arose, institutions and laws through which to exercise its power.

In 1970, Congress was reopened but the MDB boycotted congressional elections, giving Medici overwhelming majority strength to promote further economic programs designed for "development." The military was coming under criticism from abroad for unequal distribution and regional loss of development funds under the economic policies. One way Medici sought to recast his image was to begin construction of the Transamazon Highway, funded mainly by the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank.

As a means to provide relief for the over-populated, impoverished, drought stricken Northeast, the decision was made to open up and develop the Amazon region. The Transamazon Highway would open a path to the cheap, fertile land of the Amazon region as part of the policy to find and use new resources. Medici wanted to avoid regional redistribution from the devastated Northeast to the industrial Center-South, and settle and explore the Amazon region before another country claimed it. It was a superficial and temporary solution to several national problems which served fantastic symbolic value and provided great photo opportunities for the president, it was also an environmental disaster.

The Brazilian military never managed to reach political institutionalization as an authoritarian government, rather, it has been referred to as an "authoritarian situation" by political analysts. It failed to do so for many reasons. A lack of confidence to confront international opinion which did not look favorably on dictatorial regimes; U.S. support (the bastion of anti-communism) carried great military, economic, and symbolic importance. International support also directly affected foreign economic aid, loans and investment so crucial to the economic growth which maintained the support of the middle sector in Brazil. Two crucial, yet problematic areas depended on world opinion and the military's economic record: the inability to institutionalize an authoritarian regime and the continuation of its power (Alves, 1985).

1974-1985 - Actors and Interests

Military. The castelistas managed to gain the presidency and begin the process of liberalization.

MDB. Gradually the MDB re-entered the political scene as a legitimate source of opposition.

National opposition. The student movement, labor organizations, Catholic Church, the media, etc. gradually re-emerged and asserted their support for the liberalization of the political system.

Foreign investors. Many withdrew their economic support for Brazil as a result of the world oil crisis. Because of this, and the nature of the economic growth policies, Brazil was caught in a mode of industrialization it could not sustain, consequently plunging into debt.

The final period of the military government began with the policy of decompression in 1974 and was characterized by the search for legitimacy. Even so, repression still served two purposes: 1) to destroy the two underground parties, the PCB and PC do B; and 2) to destroy the human rights and grassroots movements forming in Sao Paulo, the economic center of the country. Repression during this last stage became class-selective (Alves, 1985). While it was the intention of the government to become more flexible, it was not prepared to admit opposition which might make still unacceptable social, economic or political demands. Working class and peasant movements could represent a threat to the economic model the military planned to extend into the civilian government it would install.

During this period, there was an increase in the use of paramilitary and clandestine forms of repression. Undercover terrorist actions represented the decentralization of the mechanisms of repression not formally tied to the state which would maintain the climate of terror necessary for economic and political control. Therefore, liberalization and the dismantling of the mechanisms of repression did not mean an improvement in human rights (Alves, 1985).

General Geisel, a castelista, became the president in 1974 and began discussions in line with the original goal of the Revolution. His goals were to maintain military support while controlling the hard line military, control existing subversives (some of which existed, but had largely been exaggerated by the hard line to further their political aims), return eventually to an undefined form of democracy, and maintain economic growth accompanied by a more equal distribution of benefits. To achieve the latter, he created the Ministry of Social Welfare.

In 1974 the opposition was active (though guarded) in formal politics and through civil organizations such as the Brazilian Bar Association (OAB), Brazilian Press Association (ABI), and the National Conference of Brazilian Bishops (CNBB). The student movements and labor organizations were also active. Opposition at this stage was represented by multi- class resistance to the overall framework of the national security state (Alves, 1985). The MDB became a source of strong opposition to the military, which forced the government to constantly change the rules governing electoral politics to favor ARENA, and resulted in weakening the military's already low level of credibility and legitimacy.

In 1976, the military's Lei Falcao limited MDB's access to radio and tv (essential sources for campaign effectiveness) in an attempt to manipulate the elections in favor of the government (Alves, 1985). This forced the MDB to organize locally, which served to strengthen its ties to the civil organizations. As opposition increased in the press, legal and religious communities, and the Congress, the military government was faced with economic trouble and the inefficiency of the over- centralized bureaucratic system. To survive, it would have to decentralize - which would ultimately mean its defeat.

Maria H. M. Alves notes,

"The disparity between the language and the practical need for repression [had] two important consequences. First, it [forced] the military government to seek legitimacy based on consensus established in formal institutions of political representation. The government [had] thus not been able to abolish such bodies as Congress, state and municipal assemblies, and political parties. Although elections [had] been manipulated, they ... continued to be necessary to maintain a minimum of legitimation. ... Second, [this gap] opened space for the opposition to maneuver, organize, and even negotiate within the system." (Alves, 1985).

The process of abertura, or opening, was a gradual and controlled process. Geisel sought to replace the government's exceptional powers with safeguards compatible with a constitutional framework, meaning the government party would continue to win elections. He made it very clear that the military was not to be pushed too fast or suffer pressures and challenges from several groups simultaneously, under the threat of returning Brazil to an even deeper state of authoritarianism. As the abertura process began, the conflict between the military's internal factions began to heighten. As Geisel sought to lead the country in a controlled liberalization of the state, he was bound to face a confrontation with the military duristas, the torturers and the National Intelligence Service (SNI). In an attempt to embarrass the Geisel government and create tension between the government and civil society, the duristas engaged in censorship and torture of prominent lawyers and journalists. As public opposition became more vocal, the government's goals and patience were tested. In 1977, Geisel closed Congress briefly to control presidential succession as conflict erupted between Geisel, the duristas, Congress, the Church, and the media. He managed to further pursue the liberalization program, eliminating such Institutional Acts as AI #5 and restoring habeas corpus.

In 1979 General Figueiredo assumed office as the last of the military presidents (although the military appointed his civilian successor in 1985), declaring amnesty to political exiles, releasing political prisoners and ending the two-party restrictions. Alves notes that the period of Figueiredo should not be understood as a stage in the transition to democracy, rather as a continuation of the policy of controlled decompression which sought to finally institutionalize the national security state. "The abertura policy [had] been bound by the Doctrine of National Security and Development, and thus [had] not been open to participation of marginalized sectors of the population, which [had] demanded substantial modification of the economic development model." (Alves, 1985).

In 1984 a nation-wide campaign (diretas ja') was led to reintroduce direct election for the president and other officials, and national support for the opposition parties heightened. In 1985 the military installed a civilian president, Jose Sarney, and in 1989 the country finally held direct elections for the office of the president, electing Fernando Collor de Mello.


The nature of Brazil's capitalist development was directly tied to the policies and legitimacy of the military government. The ideology of the national security state was elaborated in the Doctrine of National Security and Development, which included theories of war, internal subversion and revolution, Brazil's role in world politics, and economic development. The Doctrine was used to "justify the imposition of a system of controls and domination. It [did] not require the support of the masses to legitimize state power, nor [did] it attempt to elicit such support. ... [The Doctrine did] foresee the state's obtaining a degree of legitimacy based on continued capitalist development as well as on its function as defender of the nation against the threat of 'internal enemies' and 'psychological warfare.'" (Alves, 1985). The government's slogan was "security with development."

Initially the military promised to "'restore legality,' reinforce the 'threatened democratic institutions,' and re-establish the 'federative composition of the nation' by breaking up the excessively centralized power of the federal government and returning power to the states. Above all, it promised to 'eliminate the danger of subversion and communism,' and to punish those in government who had become rich through corruption." (Alves, 1985). The initial objective was to establish legitimacy with the national economic elite and the international aid agencies, by proving that Brazil was once again committed to a "free world" economy.

Legitimacy in the beginning of the military government was not widely questioned. On the contrary, the Revolution enjoyed widespread support for its economic principles. Political activity was restricted, but there was economic freedom and the promise of economic growth. The labor unions were newly formed and had not yet reached many workers; most Brazilians were not politically active or organized, so political, public life restrictions were not initially threatening to them. Furthermore, it was not immediately clear just how far the military would go.

The economic boom brought high salaries for professionals, and for those willing to reconcile themselves to living under a dictatorship, the economic rewards could be great. "The effect was strongest among the young of the middle and upper social sectors - the very strata from which the armed opposition had once successfully recruited. Thus the economic gains helped generate genuine middle-sector support for the government. The 1970 congressional elections, when ARENA won an overwhelming victory, seemed to confirm that support. Even Brazilians disgusted by authoritarian government drew pride from the evidence that Brazil was on the move." (Skidmore, 1988).

As this indicates, any legitimacy the military government enjoyed was directly tied to and dependent on continued success of the economic policies. This also explains why the opposition movements were so late in developing. The "real face" of the dictatorship did not directly show itself in the first few years. By the time it did and the opposition was beginning to organize, the mechanisms for repression were in place and the military could quickly respond.

As Skidmore notes, even in this environment of economic growth, the working classes enjoyed little collective power. Any gains in this sector represented individual job mobility. Distribution of income under the new economic plan had become increasingly unequal, and in 1972 the World Bank President, Robert McNamara, denounced Brazil for having neglected its poor in its drive for growth. The short-term emphasis on growth had taken precedence over improved distribution.

The military knew its legitimacy nationally and internationally depended entirely on the continuation of economic growth. The government and technocrats insisted on the argument that an increase in the pie would eventually mean a larger slice for everyone. This lack of distribution and increased inequality, however, would prove to be a challenge for the government as it was faced with the internal contradictions between stated goals for reinstituting a democratic government and the need for control.

Because one of the original goals of the revolution was to restore democracy, and since democracy carried international importance as a system of government and for access to international aid, the state was forced to periodically incorporate some of the demands of the opposition. Throughout the period the military remained in power, this led to the cycles of repression and liberalization which would eventually create the crisis of legitimacy in which it would become apparent that the military could less and less support the cost of controlling growing economic, political and social tensions. At the beginning of each term, every military president, except one, initiated a policy of liberalization intended to ease tension created by the previous president's policy of violent repression and legislative controls. All of the military presidents began their terms with the promise to restore a democratic government, and all at some point applied the force of repression (Alves, 1985). The strategy and justification for repression changed over time, in response to specific opposition.

As Wehr (1979) reproduces Dahrendorf (1959), we see that legitimacy provides an important dynamic in this type of situation: groups must be recognized as legitimate for their demands to be seen as legitimate. As long as a group is considered illegitimate by the dominant group, the actions in which it may engage will be considered illegitimate; therein the basis of repression is justified. "Before a struggling group is recognized as a legitimate conflict agent, the conflict may be violent, with structural changes resisted in every possible way by groups having dominant access to authority. When legitimacy is recognized, however, the possibilities for regulation of conflict through institutionalization are greatly improved." (Wehr, 1979).

This observation can be applied to the case of Brazil, although the military frequently oscillated in its position. Throughout the process, to maintain the facade of keeping with the stated goals for a return to a democratic form of government, the military was forced to recognize some opposition demands, until it became too costly and the next curve on the cycle of repression would begin. Once the liberalization process began and the opposition was legalized, it enjoyed the legitimacy it needed to negotiate its position, although in a very controlled and guided manner.


... I have reported here, your honor, the experiences that I have undergone. They are not relevant just for me but also for the millions of people who have followed the same path. When I was a young girl, I was taught to love Brazil, respect its flag, to do my best for its people, to dedicate to my country my brains, my work, and, if necessary, my life. These sentiments have not changed, the small girl is still inside me, but I know that the illusions died an abrupt death when I was tortured under Brazil's flag ...

- letter from Marlene de Souza Soccas in Amnesty International's Report on Allegations of Torture in Brazil

In trying to characterize the Brazilian people5 in their social and political relations, several problems arise. When considering Brazil's willingness to become involved in international conflicts, it could be said that Brazilians are historically nonconflictual, they have almost always remained neutral in such cases. However, they are extremely passionate about matters that affect their private lives, and are quick to engage that so-called "latin spirit" to defend what is dear to them. Even so, there are some issues that escape that fiery confrontal nature, which might be understood as those which have been incorporated as part of a recent past symbolized by hyperinflation - some sense of control has been lost during the submission to the realization that theirs is a society plagued by escalation. The economy has been in a run away mode for years which has led to the institutionalization of economic uncertainty, strikes in all sectors are frequent and expected occurrences which constantly force them to find creative alternatives to everyday needs. In a sense, it has become a society which reacts to upheaval rather than acting on plans -something which has become a near impossibility given the current situation.

This volatile environment, complicated by the fact that most Brazilians alive today were politically socialized under a military dictatorship which severely punished those who were the least bit outspoken, makes it difficult to fully understand or categorize their willingness (or not) to engage in conflict. To their benefit, their creativity serves them well as they are ever more able to maneuver around what we might understand as the traditional channels of participation, to eventually infiltrate these channels or modify them to their needs. We might suggest that this environment of uncertainty has sharpened their ability to adapt and expect the unexpected.

The universally upheld ideals of democracy and democratic participation have rendered successes and given Brazilians a sense of empowerment. Since the formal end of military power in 1985, the Brazilian people have enjoyed two nation-wide political victories: the fight to regain their political rights in 1988 during the "diretas ja" campaign, and the impeachment of the then President Collor in 1992 under charges of corruption.

The past is something we can not change, but from which we can take lesson. With that in mind, it is valuable to try to understand why the events of 1964 occurred and lasted almost twenty years, to ask what could have been done differently and how we can prevent them from happening again. With such seemingly simple questions, the answers will not be so simple. True intentions are often not revealed openly and actions are motivated by goals which prove to be less than ideal. Even if we are able to pinpoint the contributing factors, we may not be able to change them.

For example, it might be reasonable to suppose that what has become an almost global admiration for democracy could make it very difficult for authoritarian dictators to come to power. But as we continuously see, even the most "democratic" of governments has supported countless dictators all over the world. What a government will stand up for is increasingly relative and opportunistic. Furthermore, the predominant mode of exchange has been established and continues to expand to incorporate (centrally or peripherally, as supplier or consumer) more and more nation-markets. Economics and capitalist means of exchange have taken precedence over human relations as nations and individuals compete for resources and wealth.

In Brazil, the military assumed power for the stated and unstated reasons discussed above. Does the authoritarian period in Brazil represent a conflict which was "resolved," or one manifestation of an ongoing, deeper struggle? I think it could be thought of as both a particular power struggle and an eruption of class conflict resulting from a system based on inherent inequality.

This period in Brazil's history represents a particular power struggle because certain dynamics were very specific to Brazil and the stage it had reached economically and politically. It also clearly represents one manifestation of a larger conflict inherent to the capitalist system and indicative of how we have come to view human relations: everything enters into the marketplace, everything has a price. Those who assumed power in Brazil in 1964 gambled at the expense of the lives and welfare of people, and the price they paid was their ultimate defeat. In the capitalist system, it is supposed that all enter into exchange protected by the invisible hand that will regulate exchange, therefore it is seen as a system based on equality. However, those who espouse this system - usually the "winners" - fail to acknowledge that where there is gain there is loss, where there is a winner there is a loser. What the system offered the elite of Brazil at the expense of the masses, it eventually took away and cast those who once profited toward the same misfortune as those who always sacrificed.

It can not be said that the conflict in Brazil which lasted formally from 1964 until 1985 was resolved. It was not a negotiable situation; it was a power struggle in which one side had the power and was willing to exercise extreme coercive force to maintain that power, and the other side simply had to survive. The military was effective at initially catching the people off guard, swiftly establishing the mechanisms of repression, and changing the rules of the game during the cycles of repression and liberalization to keep potential opposition off guard.

There are incredible cases of inconsistencies on the part of the military during this period - adding to the people's uncertainty about what to expect - which can be explained through the lack of a political agenda and the lack of ability to institutionalize the authoritarian regime. Cases, for example, in which a labor union was allowed to continue to challenge an industry and eventually succeed, at the height of the military's economic program and physical repression. Even the military's willingness to maintain elections, going to the trouble to constantly reinvent the rules of the game, would seem not to be consistent with a dictatorial regime.

Marginalization and oppression existed in Brazil before 1964 and continues to exist under the "democratic" government today - street children are used by the "underground" and then assassinated, criminals face daily police brutality, squatters fighting for their rights continue to struggle against landowners backed by police forces and political support. What has changed, and inspires hope that aggression of this type will happen less easily next time, is the opposition that continues to grow and the sense of empowerment gained through big and small victories.

Mario Carvalho de Jesus and Judith Hurley offer accounts of the labor struggle and the landless movement in Brazil. These groups, the seemingly powerless (economically and politically) are becoming ever more organized and conscious of the power they can exercise, and of their obligation to act. They face incredible obstacles in the resources of those they oppose - political influence, corrupt judges, and police force. Yet, as they are described in one of the stories, they have associated themselves with the image of the queixadas, wild boars, which are the only animal to pull together as a group to confront danger, snarling and grinding their teeth, forcing their hunter to recoil or they will run him down. They are strengthened by their emotional ties to the land and their deep sense of community.

Capitalism is a system that reduces human relations to a system of competition and perpetuates the growing gap between the haves and have-nots. It is a system based on conflict and unequal advantage, one in which the strong will continue to dominate. As long as we allow ourselves to succumb to this equation of human nature, we can expect that conflicts of the type discussed above will continue to appear. However, as the traditionally oppressed continue to gain consciousness and improve organization, the nature of the conflict may shift to include a more equal sense of empowerment. Throughout this process, however, it is essential that those who benefit from this system become aware of what supports their position, what is lost so they may win.

Judith Hurley makes the appropriate observations and plea:

... People in North America and Europe have a crucial role to play in confronting the structural violence that is driving the poor in some parts of Latin America toward extreme measures. Brazilian power holders also bear responsibility, but the power centers of the Northern Hemisphere consistently buttress the ruling elites in countries like Brazil. Our governments and corporations are exacting repayment of the debt at the cost of millions of human lives.6 Our governments, through the projects they support, continue to redistribute wealth away from the poor to the rich at a moment in history when that process has become intolerable. The World Bank finances the dams on the Uruguay River that the farmers in Erexim are protesting. It also funded the agribusiness firm that forced peasants I met in Maranhao off their land. We must use the power we have as citizens to stop the bleeding of the Third World. Key institutions like the World Bank are sensitive to public opinion. Furthermore, North American and European public opinion has a significant impact on the Brazilian ruling class. ...


  1. The term "revolution" will be used throughout the text, according to its formal definition as given in the dictionary, very different from a substantive, Marxist use of the term.
  2. Janio Quadros was elected President and took office in January 1961. During his first few months in office, he presented Che Guevarra with the order of the Cruzeiro do Sul, Brazil's highest decoration for a non-citizen. This was seen as an openly pro-Cuban gesture which was unacceptable to many sectors, including the military. Criticism and speculation after this gesture, coupled with his unwillingness to adopt austere economic measures, led him to resign in August 1961. The legal successor was to be his Vice President, Joao Goulart, who was on a goodwill tour of the People's Republic of China at the time (indicating his ideological leanings).

The military attempted to block Goulart from assuming the presidency, accusing him of awarding key union positions to "agents of international Communism." This was met by national

resistance in support of Goulart's legal right to succession. The military finally agreed to let him assume office, but only after they managed to pass a constitutional amendment which changed the Brazilian political system from presidential to parliamentary, greatly reducing the power of the Executive. In 1963 a national plebiscite restored the presidential system (Skidmore, 1988).

3. For an analysis of associated-dependent capitalist development see Fernando H. CARDOSO and Enzo FALETTO, Dependency and Development in Latin America. Berkeley: University of California Press. 1979. (trans. Marjory Urquidi).

4. The government allowed newspapers to fill in censored articles with recipes and poems, which would indicate to readers how much had been cut from the article - a comical and devastating policy for the military.

5. "Characterizing the Brazilian people" presents an immediate problem in that Brazil is made up of very distinct social and economic classes, each characterized by very specific dynamics. Generalizing THE Brazilian people fails to bring out this essential distinction, but temporarily avoids a related and lengthy discussion in lieu of the structural limitations of this paper.

6. Hurley notes a UNICEF report that at least "half a million children died [in 1988] as a direct result of 'the slowing down or reversal of the development process in the 1980s.' UNICEF singles out the international debt crisis, which erupted in 1982, as a key cause of this startling reversal."


Maria H.M. ALVES. State and Opposition in Military Brazil. University of Texas Press, Austin, 1985.

AMNESTY INTERNATIONAL PUBLICATIONS. Report on Allegations of Torture in Brazil. Amnesty International Publications, London, 1970.

Wilfred A. BACCHUS. Mission in Mufti: Brazil's Military Regimes, 1964-1985. Greenwood Press, New York, 1990.

Fernando H. CARDOSO and Enzo FALETTO. Dependency and Development in Latin America. University of California Press, Berkeley, 1979. (translated by Marjory Mattingly Urquidi).

Alberto DINES (ed.). Os Idos de Marco e a Queda em Abril. Jose Alvaro Editor, Rio de Janeiro, 1964.

Irving Louis HOROWITZ. Revolution in Brazil: Politics and Society in a Developing Nation. E.P. Dutton & Co., Inc., New York, 1964.

Maria D'Alvo KINZO (ed.). Brazil: the Challenges of the 1990's. The Institute of Latin American Studies, University of London. British Academic Press, London, 1993.

Philip McMANUS and Gerald SCHLABACH (ed.). Relentless Persistence: Nonviolent Action in Latin America. New Society Publishers, Philadelphia. 1991. Judith HURLEY, "Brazil: A Troubled Journey to the Promised Land," pp 174-197. Mario CARVALHO DE JUSUS, "Firmeza Permanente: Labor Holds the Line in Brazil," pp 33-47.

Ronald M. SCHNEIDER. The Political System of Brazil: Emergence of a "Modernizing" Authoritarian Regime, 1964- 1970. Columbia University Press, New York, 1971.

Helio SILVA. 1964: Golpe ou Contragolpe? Editora Civilizacao Brasileira, Rio de Janeiro, 1975.

Thomas E. SKIDMORE. The Politics of Military Rule in Brazil, 1964-1985. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1988.

Paul WEHR, Conflict Regulation, Westview Press, Boulder, 1979.

Paul WEHR, Heidi BURGESS and Guy BURGESS (ed.). Justice Without Violence. Lynne Rienner Publishers, Boulder, 1994.