Brazil, Populist Republic, 1945–1964

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Brazil, Populist Republic, 1945–1964

The so-called Populist Republic in Brazil was characterized by an unstable balance of alliances among unequal social classes and political forces, within a relatively democratic institutional framework. One of the main challenges was to reconcile different quarreling factions and interest groups in an increasingly complex society.

From 1945 to 1964, Brazil turned into something quite different from what it had been just a few years before. Extraordinary urban and industrial growth, the arrival of new players on the political scene, strong government intervention in the economy, some respect for the formal rules of democracy, unprecedented mobilization of the working class, and growing politicization of social movements shaped and defined these years.

The economy diversified considerably with rapid industrialization in the capital goods sector and most notably the automotive industry that started in the mid-1950s. The strong nationalism that pervaded policies in which the state intervened in the economy did not preclude incentives for private enterprise, or the entry of foreign technology and capital. From the mid-1930s to 1964 the real average annual growth rate was roughly 8 percent, an extremely fast pace compared to the world economy at that time (Oliveira 1997, p. 25).

The population grew from 30 million in 1920 to 41 million in 1940 and 52 million in 1950. In the 1950s Brazil had 3 million industrial workers. Urban growth turned São Paulo into a city with few peers anywhere in the world, through intense migration of workers from rural areas, particularly the northeast of the country, significantly modifying the social composition of the working class. Over the course of that decade, nearly 1 million people moved to the city, accounting for nearly 60 percent of its population growth (Fontes, 2002).

The postwar transition to democracy brought a wider range of people into the political process. The number of voters in Brazil jumped from 1 million in 1930 to 7.5 million in 1945, half of whom were women (Levine 2001, p. 113). Mass voter participation was an unprecedented, and for the first time, decisive phenomenon in the country's politics. Winning an election through patronage-based deals under the control of local oligarchies did not disappear, but it was no longer the political system's sole defining mechanism. A result of this change was the appearance of nationally organized political parties.

Within this context, it became more and more difficult to govern without taking into account urban workers and their interests. Yet, as both the economy and democracy expanded, other growing social groups entered the political stage, including civil servants, service-industry workers, low-ranking members of the armed forces, and an educated middle class with considerable influence in the public sphere.


The structure of a populist political system began to emerge at the end of World War II. Brazil's entry into the war provided the backdrop for tensions that defined both the internal conflicts and pressure from workers and groups opposed to the Estado Novo (New State) dictatorship (1937–1945). President Getúlio Vargas (1930–1945) gradually loosened the regime's authoritarian grip, but he sought to control the road to democracy and to ensure a smooth transition. In early 1945 he scheduled elections for the end of the year, legalized the Partido Comunista Brasileiro (PCB, Communist Party of Brazil), and granted amnesty to political prisoners. His strategy of reaching out to workers included the establishment of the Partido Trabalhista Brasileiro (PTB, Brazilian Labor Party), and the strengthening of trade unionism (Gomes 1988).

Unlike the case in other countries, as in England, in Brazil what became known as "Laborism" (trabalhismo in Portuguese, from the name of the PTB), meaning that part of the Labor Movement allied with Vargas and his political heirs, did not originate autonomously from the working class. The PTB represented a proposal aimed at urban workers. It sought to use union as a base on which to build its structure and militancy, touting Vargas as a protector of the working class and competing with the PCB to represent workers both in politics and at work (D'Araujo, 1996; Delgado 1989).

Laborism had close ties to the project aimed at preserving corporatist trade unionism during the transition to democracy. Since 1931, unions had been associated with the Ministry of Labor and defined as support agencies that collaborated with the public authorities. There were bans on political and ideological activities, any meaningful type of labor action in the workplace, and in any given city or county, only one labor union was allowed per sector or type of business. Rights had to be ensured through labor laws and official channels, creating an institutional framework that, for the most part, still remains intact (Hall 2002).

Social and labor policies undoubtedly played an important role in legitimizing Vargas's power and legacy. Welfare agencies offered public health, housing, retirement, and pension services. The labor court did not invariably side with big business, but its judgments sometimes went against employers even in economic circumstances not always favorable to workers (Pacheco 1996; Silva 1995). Yet justice was not achieved without a fight for rights. The laws and labor court system were an arena for legitimately demanding and securing broader rights brought about by workers' actions against their employers' arbitrary power, little by little modifying the original meaning of corporatism and of the control and cooptation of the working class. Institutional channels only really worked when there was mobilization, collective organization, and pressure from the working class (French 2004; Fortes 1999).

Indeed, in 1945 many workers saw Getúlio Vargas as a guarantor of their rights and one choice among other quarreling options. The Queremist movement (i.e., the "We Want" movement, short for "We Want a Constituent Assembly with Getúlio") began in mid-1945. It marked the PTB's first large political demonstration and its first broad mobilization of the people. The goal was to install a constituent assembly that included Vargas, so that elections could later be held with Vargas as a candidate for president of the republic.


Political tensions, however, were worsening, and the opposition believed that Vargas was taking steps to preserve the status quo. In October 1945 Getúlio Vargas was deposed in a coup led by his minister of war, Eurico Dutra. But the presidential election in December had surprising results. Brigadier Eduardo Gomes was the candidate from the União Democrática Nacional (UDN, National Democratic Union), a liberal-conservative party opposed to Vargas. Both the UDN and the growing prestige of the PCB among workers posed threats to Dutra's candidacy under the banner of the Partido Social Democrata (PSD, Social Democratic Party), another party that Vargas had established. Then, a branch of the PTB decided to support Dutra, and convinced Vargas to do the same.

Dutra was elected, and his government (1946–1950) did not follow the strategy of wooing workers; instead, it governed in alliance with the UDN. When Dutra took office, his administration soon faced an unprecedented mobilization of workers. There were numerous strikes, most of them called by committees that carried along with union leaders usually opposed to labor actions. Many groups negotiated directly with management, ignoring or running roughshod over the corporatist institutions that were retained in the 1946 constitution.

During the brief period when the PCB was legal, its candidates won significant victories in elections, mostly in cities with large working-class populations. In December 1945 fifteen Communists were elected as federal legislators, nine of whom were laborers themselves. Despite its policy of national unity, PCB militants participated actively in organizing and mobilizing workers (Costa 1995). But this momentum did not survive the repressive crackdown. In May 1947 the PCB was outlawed, its militants were jailed, and several labor unions came under government control. In January 1948 Communist legislators' terms of office were summarily ended. This repression showed how fragile democracy could be, though Dutra's government did not have a monopoly on repression. Throughout this period, the political police worked with business owners to keep mechanisms in place to monitor and control workers, both in and out of the workplace (Negro and Fontes 2001).


In 1950 support was clearly strong for Vargas and Laborism. Vargas returned to the presidency as a PTB candidate with significant political capital among workers, but he created and faced serious contradictions as he tried to form a coalition government (D'Araujo 2004). He formed alliances with politicians from the PSD, UDN, and the Partido Social Progress (PSP, Social Progress Party), whose leading figure was Adhemar de Barros (1901–1969), a populist governor of São Paulo. But these politicians questioned the sincerity of Vargas's intentions. Though he said he wanted to revitalize Laborism, he kept only the Ministry of Labor in the hands of the PTB. The nationalist wing of the armed forces lost face as a consequence of the government's military pacts with the United States. The nationalization of key industries and restrictions on sending profits abroad made foreign support less likely. Shrinking wages and the government's inflationary policies magnified workers' discontent and led to an explosion of massive strikes in 1953, such as the Rio de Janeiro seafarers' strike, and the "strike of the 300,000" in São Paulo, which united wage earners from a broad range of occupations.

Increasingly isolated, Vargas went on to court the working-class vote by naming João Belchior Marques Goulart ("Jango," 1918–1976) minister of labor. Jango launched a new era in the relationship with union officials, bringing them closer to the ministry through his informal and personal style. His short-lived administration implemented more flexible policies: For instance, it suspended government intervention in unions, halted the persecution of Communists, loosened laws governing strikes, and defended a nationalist project of social reforms. His boldest initiative was a decree doubling the minimum wage, which led to his removal as minister and stirred up opposition to the Vargas administration (Ferreira 2005).

In August, in the midst of a serious institutional crisis, the civilian and military oposition, led by the UDN, demanded the president's removal. On 24, August Vargas picked up a gun and committed suicide. Members of the opposition barely had time to celebrate before they were besieged with mass demonstrations (including rioting, fires, and uprisings) blaming them for the president's drastic act. The fiercely anti-Vargas UDN had lost its main rallying point: Vargas himself (Benevides 1981). It was Vargas's death that saved the statist, nationalist, and populist political tradition associated with Vargas, known as Getulismo, avoided a planned coup, and preserved the constitutional rule of law that eventually led to the victory of Juscelino Kubitschek (JK) in the 1955 elections.


Over time, Laborism revolved less and less around the figure of Vargas. The party opened itself up to a social-reform approach and formed closer ties to labor organizers who were involved in unions and who defended autonomous development of the national economy. Laborism was even taken up by other rising regional populist leaders, such as Adhemar de Barros and Jânio da Silva Quadros (1917–1992) in São Paulo, and Leonel Brizola (1922–2004) in Rio Grande do Sul. The success of these politicians hinged less on Laborism and unions and more on addressing public demand for urban infrastructure (Fontes 2002).

JK's administration (1955–1960) retained a nationalist rhetoric and a policy of nationalization. However, it strengthened the state bureaucratic machinery and invested heavily in the iron and steel industry, power, and major highways to attract a large influx of foreign capital and technology. In doing so, his administration furthered capitalism associated with multinational interests, especially in the automotive industry.

The Left's focus on working with national business interests and supporting the "nationalist face" of JK's government did not keep the Left from playing an active role in labor unions with ties to local industries or participating in large-scale actions, such as the October 1957 "strike of the 400,000" in São Paulo. The democratic climate was very favorable to organizing workers (Negro 2004).


The early 1960s were the golden age of the nationalist labor movement. The first trial by fire came after Jânio Quadros resigned as president of the republic in August 1961. The Left threw itself full throttle behind the cause of constitutional rule of law, given a threatened coup against the installation of Jânio's vice president, João Goulart, as president. A far-reaching, five-day work stoppage by 300,000 workers occurred in September, after which the victory of constitutional law was celebrated.

Communists and Laborists supported Jango and pressured him to impose a nationalist, reformist orientation on his administration, acting independently and seeking to structure a national workers' movement. In 1962 nearly 600 labor organizations joined together to create the Confederação Geral dos Trabalhadores (CGT, General Confederation of Workers), a national union confederation established outside the law. Beyond demanding better living and working conditions, the CGT launched a campaign for structural reforms (such as agrarian, welfare, banking, urban, and university reforms). The union movement fought for participation in the country's government and eventually managed to influence the choice of government ministers who were committed to their causes (Delgado 1986). Impressive growth even occurred in the struggle for rural workers' rights, leading to the formation of a strong confederation of rural workers in 1963.

The PTB became the second-largest party in Congress and achieved a majority in the Nationalist Parliamentary Front, an organization that stood up for structural reforms and also acted outside Congress, working with business people, students, and intellectuals.

The swift, remarkable growth of social movements under the Jango administration stirred up the opposition, which decried the Cubanization of the country and the Labor Union Republic. The government was accused of protecting and promoting nationalist groups within the unions, Congress, and the armed forces. "Enough!" cried the newspaper headlines. On April 1, 1964, a civilian and military coup brought down João Goulart. The new government took control of unions, deposing leaders, arresting militants (some of whom were eventually tortured and killed), and launching a long-term stringent control over workers.

The coup put an end to the unstable balance among diffuse alliances that characterized populism and that sought to incorporate workers into a multiclass political project. From 1945 to 1964 a network of institutions (parliament, unions, political parties, press, and so on) transcended the supposed direct relationship between leaders and the masses. Popu-list political maneuvering was open to negotiations and conflicts, whose twists and turns depended more on correlations of power at specific historical moments than simply on the will or style of specific politicians (French 1995; Silva and Costa 2001). The civil-military takeover in 1964 blocked that dynamic out of a belief that it would be possible to govern without the involvement of workers in the political process.

See alsoVargas, Getúlio Dornellesxml .


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                                 Fernando Teixeira da Silva

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Brazil, Populist Republic, 1945–1964

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