Arraes de Alencar, Miguel (1916–2005)

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Arraes de Alencar, Miguel (1916–2005)

The Brazilian populist politician Miguel Arraes was born on 15 December 1916, into a rural middle-class family in Araripe, in the interior of Ceará. He eventually settled in Recife and graduated with a degree in law from the Faculdade de Direito do Recife in 1937. A government job with the Instituto do Açúcar e do Álcool (IAA) and political connections provided by his family led to his appointment as finance secretary of Pernambuco in 1947. In 1950 he was elected state deputy for the Partido Social Democrático (PSD) and in 1954 for the Partido Social Trabalhista (PST). By 1955 he had joined the Frente do Recife, a reformist left-center coalition that reached out to urban popular classes.

Arraes won election as mayor of Recife in 1959 and gained a reputation as a populist by courting poor voters with urban improvement programs. Initially Arraes did not appear to diverge significantly either in content or style from his predecessor, Pelópidas Silveira. However, Arraes expanded his focus beyond that of Silveira and those who had come before. In his mind Recife was "a city in expansion," whose "indomitable population" was confronting not only grave problems in the areas of "housing, transportation … and public lighting," but more importantly was faced with an inadequate "supply of basic essential food stuffs, high cost of living and schools" (Barros, p. 51).

Although at this point Arraes had not yet evolved into the populist politician that he would later become, his campaign was clearly marked by a new orientation to the popular classes. He appealed to the povo (people) not only for their support in the election but for their active help in transforming Recife. Arraes most clearly diverged from past municipal governments when he followed up on his campaign promises to provide more schools by establishing the Movimento de Cultura Popular (MCP). This education program opened up a new sphere of action to Recife's municipal government and was the cornerstone of its social program.

In 1963 Arraes became governor of the state amid rising tensions throughout the country. Arraes, or Arraia, as he was known by the people, implemented a minimum wage for rural workers, expanded farm credit, and promoted unionization in the countryside. Perhaps his most important achievement was the Acordo do Campo. This 1963 agreement between the rural workers unions—the usineiros—and the government belatedly brought the Consolidation of Labor Laws (CLT or Consolidação das Leis do Trabalho) to the Zona da Mata. A product of the Estado Novo, or corporatist state of Gétulio Vargas, the CLT brought labor under the control of the state—for example, it established labor courts for resolving disputes between labor and management—but also offered significant gains for workers, including the regulation of wages (establishing a minimum wage and overtime) as well as health and safety. Arraes also pushed to expand rural electrification during his governorship. This further exemplifies both his attempt to appeal to the rural sectors and his drive to modernize Pernambuco.

Like most populists of this period Arraes was a vocal nationalist. As a result he often came into conflict with both SUDENE, Brazil's regional development agency for the Northeast, and the USAID/Alliance for Progress officials headquartered in Recife. He criticized SUDENE's director, Celso Furtado, for the role that foreign capital played in his Guiding Plans, and he broke relations with USAID in May 1963. In a speech that month he noted, "I will not negotiate with foreign powers. I am not president of the Republic" (Soares, p. 139). According to Arraes, the states had no right to sign agreements with USAID because this was the responsibility of the federal government. Arraes went on to accuse USAID of being an agent of imperialism and latifundio.

Arraes was acting not in isolation but rather within the national context of the presidency of João Goulart (1961–1964) and increasing leftist mobilization throughout the Northeast. The military coup of 1964 led to Arraes's arrest and imprisonment for over a year on Fernando de Noronha and in Rio de Janeiro. He would later go into exile in Algeria, where he spent most of the period 1965–1979. Although not an ally of Goulart, Arraes was accused of radicalizing politics in the Northeast and blamed for successive waves of strikes and lockouts. His support for the Peasant Leagues and agrarian reform made him suspect as well.

Arraes returned to Brazil in September of 1979 under the Lei de Anistia or General Amnesty Law (28 August 1979), and three years later won election to Congress. Using his image as an elder statesman, he ran for governor in 1986 and took office the following year, having been elected by the largest margin in the state's history. During this administration he implemented social welfare programs much in the spirit of his first administration. One such program was Chapéu de Palha (Straw Hat) guaranteed a minimum wage to sugarcane workers of the Zona da Mata region during the five-month period between sugar harvests. He also returned to the project of rural electrification, focusing on bringing electricity to small landowners.

Arraes failed to make a large showing in the primaries for president in 1989 but was elected federal deputy that year for the Partido do Movimento Democrático Brasileiro (PMDB). In 1990 he joined the Partido Socialista Brasileira (PSB). He was elected to his third term as governor of Pernambuco in 1994, with 54 percent of the vote. His final term as governor was marked by economic crisis and political strife. As a result he lost his bid for reelection in 1998 to his former ally Jarbas Vasconcelos. He was elected as a federal deputy again in 2003 and served as national president of the PSB until his death at age eighty-eight on August 13, 2005.

See alsoBrazil, Liberal Movements; Brazil, Political Parties: Party of Brazilian Social Democracy (PSDB).


Primary Work

Arraes, Miguel. Palavra de Arraes: Textos de Miguel Arraes. Rio de Janeiro: Editôra Civilização Brasileira, 1965.

Secondary Works

Barros, Adirson de. Ascenção e queda de Miguel Arraes. Rio de Janeiro: Equador, 1965.

Beloch, Israel, and Alzira Alves De Abreu, eds. Dicionario histórico-biográfico brasileiro, 1930–1983. Rio de Janeiro: Editora Forense-Universitária, 1984.

Callado, Antônio. Tempo de Arraes: Padres e comunistas na revolução sem violência. Rio de Janeiro: José Alvaro, 1964.

Debret, Guita Grin. Ideologia e populismo: A. de Barros, M. Arraes, C. Lacerda, L. Brizola. São Paulo: T. A. Queiroz, 1979.

Page, Joseph A. The Revolution That Never Was: Northeast Brazil, 1955–1964. New York: Grossman, 1972.

Soares, José Arlindo. A Frente do Recife e o governo do Arraes: Nacionalismo em crise 1955–1964. Rio de Janeiro: Paz e Terra, 1982.

Souza, João Francisco de. Uma Pedagogia da Revolução: A contribuição do governo Arraes (1960–1964) à reinvenção da educação brasileira. São Paulo: Cortez Editôra, 1987.

                                Tia Malkin-Fontecchio