Kubitschek de Oliveira, Juscelino (1902–1976)

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Kubitschek de Oliveira, Juscelino (1902–1976)

Juscelino Kubitschek de Oliveira (b. 12 September 1902; d. 22 August 1976), president of Brazil (1956–1961), founder of Brasília (1960). Born in Diamantina, Minas Gerais, an impoverished colonial diamond-mining town, Kubitschek and his older sister were raised on the spare resources of their resolute and independent schoolteacher mother. Their father died when they were very young. A great-uncle had been prominent in early republican (late nineteenth-century) state politics, favoring transfer of the capital from the baroque Ouro Prêto to a new, planned city, Belo Horizonte. Studying grade school with his mother and completing secondary education at a local seminary, Kubitschek entered the medical school of Belo Horizonte in 1922. Supporting himself as a telegraph operator, he became a doctor in 1927.

Income from his first years of medical practice allowed him to pursue specialized study in Europe during most of 1930. He established his own practice in Belo Horizonte the following year. That year he married Sarah Gomes de Lemos, member of a socially and politically prominent family. During an uprising in 1932 by the neighboring state of São Paulo against the federal government, Kubitschek was called to the borderline front as a medical officer. It was at this time that he met and impressed Benedito Valadares, a local politician serving as head of the military police in the region, who became Kubitschek's political mentor.

In 1933 President Getúlio Vargas appointed Valadares interventor, or chief executive, of Minas Gerais. Valadares made Kubitschek his chief of staff. Actively extending the political network of his boss, and building a base for himself in Diamantina, Kubitschek was elected a federal deputy the following year, occupying this position until the Vargas coup of 1937 closed Congress and established the authoritarian Estado Nôvo.

Uneasy about such a regime, he returned to his medical practice and profitably revived it. However, he entered public life again in 1940 when Valadares appointed him mayor of Belo Horizonte. His mayoralty gave singular impetus to the urban infrastructure of the still-developing city, augmenting streets, parks, water, and sewage systems; enhancing real estate; and encouraging commercial and industrial development. The model neighborhood of Pampulha became a signature of his administration with its dramatically modern church, designed by Oscar Niemeyer and bearing murals by Cândido Portinari.

As the strength of the Estado Nôvo withered by 1945 under the victory of democratic forces in World War II, Vargas and his state interventors sought to maintain their political control in the emerging era of political liberty. They organized the Social Democratic Party (PSD) as a powerful opponent to the anti-Vargas forces, which had coalesced in the National Democratic Union (UDN).

Kubitschek became the organizing secretary of the PSD in Minas Gerais, the largest section of the party in the country, extending throughout the state his network of contacts. Removed from the mayoralty of Belo Horizonte with the ouster of Vargas near the end of 1945, Kubitschek was voted in by a substantial margin as a federal deputy that year and began his term in the Constituent Assembly in 1946.

Maneuvering himself within the factions of the PSD of Minas Gerais, Kubitschek ran successfully for the governorship of the state in the election of 1950. He obtained the tacit support of Getúlio Vargas, who won the presidential election the same year through another party he had founded, the trade-union-based Brazilian Labor Party (PTB).

With a campaign slogan of "energy and transportation," Kubitschek began in 1951 an intensive gubernatorial administration dedicated to activating the state's economy through industrialization. He expanded or inaugurated numerous hydroelectric plants; brought the West German steel company, Mannesmann, to the state; enlarged the road network by many hundreds of miles; and built many clinics, schools, and bridges. These projects were financed through federal funds, foreign capital, and mixed public and private enterprises, a pattern he would also apply at the federal level.

Using the success of his administration in Minas Gerais, Kubitschek prepared himself for the presidential succession of 1955. He launched his campaign in the shadow of the August 1954 suicide of Vargas, who had been charged with massive corruption by the military and the UDN. Attempting to acquire the power base of the fallen president, Kubitschek renewed the alliance of the PSD and PTB by selecting as his vice presidential running mate the political heir of Vargas, João Goulart. He thereby also acquired the ire of the anti-Vargas forces. Kubitschek campaigned with an extensive plan for national development, pledging himself to fulfill a series of economic targets that would culminate in the building of a new national capital, Brasília, on the central plateau of the country. He won the October election, however, with only one-third of the votes, the lowest in Brazilian history, since he was relatively unknown in national politics and bore the burden of anti-Vargas sentiment. Only a protective coup the following month allowed Kubitschek and Goulart to take office for their five-year term in January 1956.

Because Kubitschek entered the presidency under such bitter and delicate circumstances, diligent execution of his campaign promise of "fifty years of progress in five" became paramount for solidifying his national support. Campaign targets were achieved as the production of concrete, steel, energy, and other components of industrial expansion dramatically increased. The automobile industry was created, soon making the country almost self-sufficient in such production. The latter years of the Kubitschek government witnessed economic growth at annual rates averaging over 7 percent. In April 1960 he inaugurated the futuristic and controversial new capital, Brasília, with buildings by Niemeyer and an urban design of Lúcio Costa, a bravura feat strikingly affirming national accomplishment.

The cost of such progress, however, was inflation. Kubitschek encouraged extensive foreign investment, and the vast market potential of a growing Brazil attracted it. However, declining income from Brazilian exports created a shortage of capital, pressuring inflation. Kubitschek was cooperative in international relations, suggesting Operation Pan American, a hemisphere-wide approach to Latin American problems, to U.S. president Dwight D. Eisenhower. But in 1959 Kubitschek rejected the International Monetary Fund's (IMF) efforts to make him reduce inflation by cutting his economic expansion program. As a result, inflation accelerated. This and charges of graft and favoritism, along with the fact that Kubitschek was constitutionally barred from succeeding himself, enabled the candidate of the opposition, Jânio Quadros, to win the 1960 presidential election.

Still popular personally, Kubitschek was elected a senator from Goiás the same year. However, with the establishment in 1964 of a military regime, the political rights of Kubitschek were canceled for ten years, thereby ending his plans to return to the presidency in the election of 1965. He went into intermittent exile in Europe or the United States, supporting an unsuccessful Frente Ampla, a broad front of civilian leaders allied across the political spectrum. After 1967 he remained in Brazil, becoming an investment banking executive. He died in 1976 in an automobile accident on a highway between São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. His funeral procession in Brasília produced one of the greatest popular outpourings of grief in the history of the city, and the military government was forced to decree three days of official mourning.

Although Kubitschek dominated the Brazilian national scene for a relatively brief period, his memory has proved lasting due to a concentration of exceptional personal, economic, political, and cultural factors. Possessed of great ambition and energy, he was able as an administrator to take advantage of economic opportunities resulting from increased Brazilian exports during World War II and then from the resurgence of international capital in the recovery from that war. He represented a generation of Brazilian elites that legitimized itself through modernization based on industrialization and accommodated itself to trade unionism growing from that development. During his presidency there occurred a rare combination of intensive economic production within a fully functioning democratic government. His administration bore, moreover, a cultural style, expressed in architecture, landscape design, sculpture, and even the rhythms of bossa nova, which projected itself as the embodiment of international modernism, giving Brazilians a sense of confidence and promise.

See alsoBrasília; Brazil, Political Parties: Party of Brazilian Social Democracy (PSDB); Estado Novo.


Robert J. Alexander, Juscelino Kubitschek and the Development of Brazil (1991).

Carlos Heitor Cony, JK, Memorial do Exílio (1982).

Francisco De Assis Barbosa, Juscelino Kubitschek: Uma Revisão na Política Brasileira (1960).

Abelardo Jurema, Juscelino & Jango: PSD & PTB (1979).

Juscelino Kubitschek, Meu Caminho para Brasília, 3 vols. (1974–1978), and Por Que Construí Brasília (1975).

Francisco Medaglia, Juscelino Kubitschek, President of Brazil: The Life of a Self-Made Man (1959).

Osvaldo Orico, Confissões do Exílio: JK (1977).

Sílvia Pantoja and Dora Flaksman, "Kubitschek, Juscelino," in Dicionário Histórico-Biográfico Brasileiro, 1930–1983, vol. 2 (1984), pp. 1,698-1,717.

Edward Anthony Riedinger, Como Se Faz um Presidente: A Campanha de J.K. (1988).

Maria Victória Benevides, O Governo Kubitschek: Desenvolvimento Econômico e Estabilidade Política, 1956–1961 (1976).

Additional Bibliography

Bojunga, Cláudio. JK: O artista do impossível. Rio de Janeiro: Objetiva, 2001.

Cohen, Marleine. JK: Juscelino Kubitschek: O presidente bossa-nova. São Paulo: Editora Globo, 2005.

Lafer, Celso. JK e o programa de metas, 1956–1961: Processo de planejamento e sistema politico no Brasil. Rio de Janeiro: FGV Editora, 2002.

                                   Edward A. Riedinger