Vargas, Getúlio Dornelles (1883–1954)

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Vargas, Getúlio Dornelles (1883–1954)

Getúlio Dornelles Vargas (b. 19 April 1883; d. 24 August 1954), president of Brazil (1930–1945 and 1951–1954). Vargas was the dominant political personality of Brazil for nearly a quarter century, and his legacy persisted after his death by suicide. He is widely regarded as the prime mover of the nationalistic social and economic changes that have prompted the modernization of Brazil since the 1930s.


Vargas's personal and political prowess stemmed largely from his family heritage and his experience in the authoritarian political system in the border state of Rio Grande do Sul. The third of five sons of a regionally prominent family, Vargas was born at São Borja, a small town in western Rio Grande do Sul on Brazil's frontier with Argentina. His parents, General Manoel do Nascimento Vargas and Candida Dornelles Vargas, were from rival clans that regularly took opposite sides in armed political contests. In this situation, young Getú lio learned the patience, tact, and tolerance that became the hallmark of his political style. Initially intent on pursuing a military career, he resigned from the army after five years to study law in Pôrto Alegre.


Vargas first became involved in state politics while a law student, campaigning for the gubernatorial candidate of the Republican Party. For this service, when he graduated in 1907, he was appointed to the district attorney's office in Pôrto Alegre, where he remained for two years. He then returned to São Borja to practice law and to run successfully for a seat in the state legislature. The only significant function of that body was to approve periodically the governor's budget. Membership in the legislature, however, assured the political future of those who demonstrated unquestioning support of the Republican governor. The Republican Party regime, based loosely on the hierarchical philosophy of positivism, was a veritable dictatorship in which the governor exercised absolute control over the state administration and party. The perennial governor, Borges De Medeiros, ruled by decree in all matters except finance, placed maintaining a balanced budget and treasury surplus above building public works and providing social services, and insisted upon personal loyalty from all party officials. In 1912, Vargas learned that even mild criticism of Borges's rule was unacceptable. For such a mistake he was removed from the state legislature and barred from reelection for five years, until he had displayed appropriate contrition and sworn renewed fealty to his party's boss. When he later became political head of the nation, Vargas was never to demand such obeisance from his followers, but he would share Borges's insistence upon keeping the reins of power in his own hands.

Vargas rose to national prominence in the 1920s, a decade of protest and revolts by young military officers (tenentes) and disgruntled civilians against corrupt rule by professional politicians in the service of the rural oligarchy. The tenentes were eventually defeated—killed, jailed, or exiled by the government—but they remained heroes to much of the press and the urban population. Vargas made no public statements against the young rebels, even though he held increasingly important posts in the established state and national governments. In 1922 he went to Rio de Janeiro as a newly elected congressman and head of his state's congressional delegation. Four years later he was elevated to the cabinet as finance minister of President Washington Luís Pereira De Sousa, and in 1928, following an uncontested election, Vargas succeeded Borges de Medeiros as governor of Rio Grande do Sul. In contrast to Borges's rigidly conservative fiscal management, Vargas secured federal funds for ambitious development projects of value to farmers and urban businessmen. He also abandoned Borges's strict partisanship, promoting a policy of collaboration with the opposition party. In these ways he united Rio Grande do Sul behind his bid for the presidency of Brazil in the March 1930 elections or, if that failed, by revolution.


Vargas had no scruples against the use of force for political ends, but preferred to secure his objectives by nonviolent means, if possible. Because no opposition candidate had ever been elected president in Brazil, he first sought to head the administration ticket, but was rebuffed by President Washington Luís. In these circumstances, Vargas authorized his colleagues to make contingency plans for revolution. At the same time he accepted the nomination of the reformist Liberal Alliance, a coalition formed from Republican Party regimes in three states and opposition parties elsewhere. The Vargas campaign was also supported by the tenentes and their civilian followers, who were clamoring for political and social change. Despite his popularity in the cities, he was badly defeated by the entrenched rural-based political machines in seventeen of the twenty states.

While Vargas appeared to accept defeat gracefully, he was in fact patiently waiting for the propitious moment to launch a decisive assault on the federal government. That moment came on 3 October 1930, when the revolution broke out simultaneously in Rio Grande do Sul, Minas Gerais, and Paraíba, the states that had backed his presidential campaign. The troops on both sides were primarily regular army units and militarized state police. After three weeks, by which time the rebels were in control of most of the coastal states, the army high command in Rio de Janeiro staged a coup d'état to halt the intraservice war. The military junta ordered a cease-fire, deposed and exiled President Washington Luís, and agreed to transfer power to the rebel leader when he reached the capital. On 3 November Getú lio Vargas was installed as chief of the provisional government for an unspecified term, with no limitations on his authority.


Moving quickly to consolidate his position, Vargas suspended the 1891 Constitution, announced the pending reorganization of the judiciary, dismissed the Congress and all the state legislatures, and replaced elected state governors with interventors responsible only to him. In response to widespread expectations for social reform, he created new cabinet ministries for labor and education, and appointed as their heads civilian reformers with strong ties to state Republican Party leaders. With regard to the armed forces, Vargas granted amnesty to the military rebels of the 1920s, authorized their return to active duty in their respective units, and appointed regular officers dedicated to the principles of hierarchy and discipline as war and navy ministers. By these actions Vargas eliminated constitutional checks on the executive power, deprived the once-dominant state parties of any legitimate public functions, and, through the interventors, gained control over political activity at all levels throughout the nation. He was now undisputed dictator of Brazil.

There was no protest, because it was widely agreed that a temporary dictatorship was necessary in order to carry out the aims of the revolution. Vargas's heterogeneous following, however, could not agree on the nature and extent of those aims or the length of time required to attain them. Professional politicians and senior military commanders were willing to accept moderate democratic reforms, but they expected the traditional political system to be restored, essentially intact, within a few months. In contrast, most junior officers and civilian radicals saw Vargas as the providential leader who must remain dictator as long as it might take to secure their goals of order, justice, and honest government for the Brazilian people.

Vargas did not publicly reject either interpretation of his role, but most of his actions tended to favor the radicals. He attempted to placate his conservative allies by making repeated vows to respect the de facto autonomy long enjoyed by state governments, and to hold elections to restore constitutional rule as soon as a thorough revision of the electoral laws could be completed. Eventually, however, he so antagonized the conservatives by ignoring states' rights and refusing to call for immediate elections that the establishment political elites in São Paulo and some of his former supporters in other states tried to overthrow him.

The Constitutionalist Revolution of 1932, which raged for three months before collapsing, was far costlier in lives and treasure than the Revolution of 1930. It was limited chiefly to the state of São Paulo, because elsewhere all interventors and the armed forces remained loyal to the dictatorship. Although Vargas's national popularity remained high, the São Paulo rebels claimed a moral victory, for within a year elections were held for the constituent assembly that wrote the Constitution of 1934. This charter incorporated all reforms enacted by the provisional government, restored full civil rights, and provided for the election of a new congress as well as elected state governors and legislatures. On 17 July 1934, the constituent assembly elected Vargas president of Brazil for a four-year term.

The changes introduced in Brazil under Vargas were expressed in national and often nationalistic terms, but could not fail to reflect the impact of the world economic depression and the struggle between fascism and democracy abroad. The Great Depression cut deeply into Brazil's revenues from agricultural exports and exposed the country's great dependence on foreign sources for industrial products. Vargas dealt pragmatically with these problems, nationalizing much of the nation's rail and sea transportation, setting up advisory councils and official agencies to revive the export economy, and promoting the growth of industry in Brazil by private foreign and domestic firms. These essentially economic policies not only enhanced the regulatory powers of the central government but also contributed to a great increase in the size and importance of the federal bureaucracy, the middle class, and the urban labor force, which then became permanent features of Brazilian society.

Vargas had no firm ideological convictions: He was motivated by love of power and what he saw as Brazil's national interests. These qualities determined his responses to the increasingly bitter rivalry among fascist and antifascist political systems in the Western world. Abroad, the United States and Nazi Germany were vying openly for Brazil's support. Within Brazil, neofascist, liberal democratic, and Communist organizations clashed and competed for followers, posing a potential threat to Vargas's rule. Thus, in foreign affairs he pursued a flexible policy seeking advantages for Brazil from both camps. At home, following the abortive Communist-led revolt in November 1935, Vargas relied on his congressional majority to suspend civil rights and strengthen his police powers for most of the remainder of his term. A spurious Communist threat was the avowed justification for the coup d'état of 10 November 1937, which Vargas and the armed forces staged to create the allegedly totalitarian Estado Nôvo (New State).

Ostensibly patterned on the European fascist dictatorships, the Estado Nôvo lacked the usual political party, militia, and national police loyal to the dictator. Vargas saw no role for political parties, and he relied upon the army to maintain order. For more than seven years he ruled Brazil without the constraints of Congress or the distractions of parties and elections. His domestic policies continued as before to focus chiefly on the urban population and on the need to strengthen the material and human bases for industrialization. Their fruits were seen in large national electrification and steel manufacturing projects, as well as in the great expansion in public health services and in education at all levels. The major social reforms under the Estado Nôvo were enactment of a minimum wage law and codification of all labor legislation enacted since 1930, which had the effect of bringing urban workers into the political arena as staunch supporters of Vargas.

Despite his apparent identification with fascism and the pro-German bias of some Brazilian military commanders, Vargas finally decided that Brazil's interests would best be served by a close relationship with the United States. In 1942 Brazil entered World War II as one of the Allied powers, and in 1944 Brazil sent a substantial expeditionary force to fight in the Italian campaign.

The incongruity of waging war against dictatorships in Europe while living under a dictator at home was not lost on the Brazilian people, who pressed for an early return to democracy. During 1945 Vargas abolished censorship, released political prisoners, issued a new electoral law authorizing political parties (two of which he himself organized), and called for the election of a new government in December. Fearing that he was planning another coup d'état, the army, led by officers recently returned from Italy, deposed Vargas on 29 October 1945, without recriminations, and installed an interim civilian regime to preside over the December elections.

Although he did not participate in the campaign, Vargas was elected to the Senate, but chose not to serve or to comment publicly on national issues. Rather, he spent the next five years quietly at his home in São Borja. He returned to politics as the candidate of his Brazilian Labor Party in the 1950 presidential elections. He waged a vociferously populist campaign and won with a large plurality. With the grudging acceptance of the armed forces, he was installed in office on 31 January 1951. However, as a democratically elected president obliged to share power with a bitterly divided Congress, Vargas proved unable to cope with the soaring inflation that eroded his labor following, or with the widespread ultranationalism to which his past policies had contributed. In mid-1954 he was overwhelmed by a wave of public revulsion caused by exposure of gross corruption and criminal activities within his official entourage. When the military withdrew its support and demanded his resignation, he complied on 24 August 1954; later that day he committed suicide. Vargas left a political testament in which he presented his death as a sacrifice on behalf of Brazilian workers.

See alsoBorges de Medeiros, Antônio Augusto; Brazil, Political Parties: Republican Party (PR); Brazil, Revolutions: Revolution of 1930; Estrada Novo; Luís Pereira de Sousa, Washington; Rio Grande do Sul.


José Maria Bello, A History of Modern Brazil, 1889–1964 (1966).

Paulo Brandi, Vargas, da vida para a história (1983).

John W. F. Dulles, Vargas of Brazil: A Political Biography (1967).

Stanley E. Hilton, Brazil and the Great Powers, 1930–1939: The Politics of Trade Rivalry (1975).

Robert M. Levine, The Vargas Regime: The Critical Years, 1934–1938 (1970).

Karl Loewenstein, Brazil Under Vargas (1942).

Thomas E. Skidmore, Politics in Brazil, 1930–1964: An Experiment in Democracy (1967).

Maria Celina Soares D'araujo, O segundo governo Vargas, 1951–1954: Democracia, partidos e crise política (1982).

John D. Wirth, The Politics of Brazilian Development, 1930–1954 (1970).

Alzira Vargas Do Amaral Peixoto, Getú lio Vargas, meu pai (1960).

Additional Bibliography

Araú jo, Maria Celina Soares de. As instituições brasileiras da era Vargas. Rio de Janeiro: EdUERJ, Editora FGV, 1999.

Barros, Edgard Luiz de, Getúlio! São Paulo: Nankin Editorial, 2004.

Davis, Darién J., Avoiding the Dark: Race and the Forging of National Culture in Modern Brazil. Aldershot, U.K.: Ashgate, 1999.

Levine, Robert M., Father of the Poor? Vargas and His Era. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

McCann, Bryan, Hello, Hello Brazil: Popular Music in the Making of Modern Brazil. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2004.

Williams, Daryle, Culture Wars in Brazil: The First Vargas Regime, 1930–1945. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2001.

                                    Rollie E. Poppino

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Vargas, Getúlio Dornelles (1883–1954)

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