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Geisel, Ernesto (1908–1996)

Geisel, Ernesto (1908–1996)

Ernesto Geisel (b. 3 August 1908; d. 1996), president of Brazil (1974–1979). A career army officer of German Protestant parentage from Rio Grande do Sul, Geisel entered the army on 31 March 1925. After graduating from the military college of Realengo in Rio de Janeiro, he served with the Brazilian Expeditionary Force (FEB) during World War II. He attended the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, and went on to fill various command and general staff positions. As a colonel he directed the Brazilian National Petroleum (Petrobrás) Refinery at Cubatão, São Paulo, in 1955–1956, and the next year he joined the National Petroleum Council. After his promotion to general on 25 March 1961, he served a series of military presidents as chief of military household (1964–1967), minister of the superior military tribunal (1967–1969), and president of Petrobrás (1969–1973).

Geisel's presidential candidacy was initiated by the military high command (his brother, Orlando, held the post of army minister from 1969 to 1974), confirmed by the National Renovating Alliance (Arena), the government party, and certified by 400 out of 503 members of the electoral college. Once inaugurated (March 1974), Geisel was confronted with the collapse of the "Economic Miracle," brought on by the oil crisis of 1973. His administration launched a series of petroleum-substitution plans, including hydroelectric projects such as Itaipú and gasohol refineries to convert sugar to fuel. His initial efforts to come to terms with socially active elements of the Catholic Church failed, but tentative attempts at relaxation (distensão) of the political process restricted after the 1964 coup were evident by the end of his term.

Also taking place during the Geisel years was the end of the "unwritten alliance" between the United States and Brazil that had endured for three quarters of a century. The U.S. defeat in Southeast Asia, Cuban military intervention in Angola, Communist involvement in Mozambique, U.S.-USSR détente, and U.S. economic decline were capped by U.S. allegations of human-rights abuses. Geisel responded by canceling the defense agreement with the United States and redirecting Brazilian foreign policy to encompass more productive partners who were also interested in containing Soviet expansion. These included Japan, West Germany, and, briefly, Iran, along with the outcast quartet of South Korea, Taiwan, Israel, and South Africa. Investments from these members of the New Inter-Oceanic Alliance were encouraged. Concurrently, Brazil launched a cultural and commercial campaign in Lusophone Africa—Angola, Mozambique, and Guinea-Bissau—then proceeded to initiate development (since canceled) of its own nuclear weapons under Project Solimões (1977–1991).

Geisel's efforts at a democratic opening domestically (abertura) and reorientation in foreign policy precipitated a crisis in the hard-line military that was not resolved by the closure of congress in April 1977. It resurfaced in October 1977, when Geisel fired army minister General Sélvio Frota and other officers who contested the new directions.

As his successor Geisel selected General João Baptista Figueiredo, who promised to proceed with the democratic opening up of the country. After retiring from public office on 15 March 1979, Geisel dedicated himself to private entrepreneurial activities. He also remained active in the petrochemical industry in Brazil. He died in Rio de Janeiro on 12 September 1996.

See alsoBrazil: Since 1889 .


William Perry, Contemporary Brazilian Foreign Policy: The International Strategy of an Emerging Power (1976).

Riordan Roett, ed., Brazil in the Seventies (1976).

Walder De Goes, O Brasil do General Geisel (1978).

Jan Knippers Black, "The Military and Political Decompression in Brazil," in Armed Forces and Society 6, no. 4 (1980): 625-637.

Robert Levine, "Brazil: Democracy Without Adjective," in Current History 78 (1980): 49-52.

Additional Bibliography

Gaspari, Elio. A ditadura encurralada. Sao Paulo: Companhia das Letras, 2004.

Guabiraba, Maria Celia de Araœja, and Celso Castro. Dossie Geisel. Rio de Janeiro: FGV Editora, 2002.

Mathias, Suzeley Kalil. A distenso no Brasil: O projeto militar, 1973–1979. Campinas: Papyrus Editora, 1995.

                                        Lewis A. Tambs

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