Getulio Dornelles Vargas

views updated May 29 2018

Getulio Dornelles Vargas

Getulio Dornelles Vargas (1883-1954), certainly the most important Brazilian political leader of the 20th century, brought about fundamental changes in the economy, society, and politics of his native land.

Getulio Vargas was the son of a local political leader in the state of Rio Grande do Sul. After going through law school in Pôrto Alegre, he began his political career as a member of the state legislature of Rio Grande do Sul. Although he resigned his post for a short while because of disagreement with the state boss, Augusto Borges de Medeiros, Vargas was reinstated in the legislature and was promoted to a seat in the national Chamber of Deputies in 1923.

Vargas soon became leader of the Rio Grande do Sul delegation in Congress. With inauguration of President Washington Luiz in 1926, the new president chose Vargas as minister of finance. However, in 1928 Vargas resigned to become governor of his native state. In this post, he demonstrated outstanding ability as a reconciler, succeeding in bringing into his Cabinet members of the Federal party, which had been in violent opposition to the dominant Republican party since the establishment of the republic in 1889.

With the approach of the 1930 presidential election, Washington Luiz, himself a former governor of São Paulo, decided to choose as his successor the current Paulista governor, Julio Prestes. This violated the tradition that the presidency should be filled alternately by men from São Paulo and Minas Gerais, and Minas governor Antonio Carlos organized an opposition campaign, with Governor Vargas agreeing to be the opposition candidate.

The opposition organized the Liberal Alliance. Its program called for labor legislation, establishment of a steel industry, and other economic and social changes. Although Vargas had considerable popular support and the backing of the nationalistic young officers known as the Tenentes, he was overwhelmingly "counted out" by the government in May 1930. Then, after some months of hesitation, Vargas agreed to lead a revolution, with the backing of the Tenentes and the state police forces of Rio Grande do Sul, Minas Gerais, and Paraiba. This revolution was successful in October 1930.

Maintenance of Office

Vargas remained president from 1930 until 1945. During the first 2 years, as provisional president, he shared power with the Tenentes. However, after a 3-month revolt in São Paulo in 1932, discipline was reestablished in the army, and Vargas won dominance over the Tenentes.

A Constitutional Assembly elected late in 1933 chose Vargas as constitutional president a few months later. However, he was faced with strong opposition on the left from the Aliança Nacional Libertadora (ANL) and on the right from the fascist Acão Integralista. Vargas used the defeat of an attempted military uprising by the ANL in November 1935 to crack down on the leftist opposition.

Vargas's constitutional term was supposed to end in 1938. A campaign to choose his successor was started in 1937 but was brought to a sudden end on November 10 by a coup by President Vargas, with the help of Acão Integralista. Although the Integralistas hoped to maneuver Vargas out of power, he outlawed their party; and when their May 1938 revolt was unsuccessful, he completely crushed their organization.

New State

With the November 1937 coup, President Vargas established a semifascist regime, the Estado Novo. Under this system, the trade unions, established under a labor law passed in 1930 as one of the first acts of the Vargas regime, were forced to secure new recognition. To achieve it, they had to submit to almost complete government control. The Estado Novo also ended collective bargaining and substituted a system of labor courts. Vargas also enacted by decree a large body of labor and social security legislation during the Estado Novo.

During this long period as president, Vargas encouraged economic development of the country. His regime established tariff protection, used exchange controls to protect and subsidize new industries, converted the Banco do Brasil into the main source of credit for manufacturing firms, and had the government establish a national steel plant and other enterprises.

Vargas took Brazil into World War II on the Allied side. Brazilian troops fought in Italy. The propagation of the idea that Brazil was fighting for democracy in Europe undermined the Vargas dictatorship, and early in 1945 the President was forced to call elections for December. However, Vargas was not anxious to leave the presidency, and he organized two pro-government parties, the Partido Social Democrático and the Partido Trabalhista (PTB). The latter became particularly active in urging Vargas to remain in power.

Decline from Power

However, in October 1945 the President was ousted by the military. In elections in December, Vargas ran for the Senate from several states on the PTB ticket and became senator from Rio Grande do Sul. However, during the next 5 years he took virtually no part in the Senate's proceedings.

In 1950 Vargas ran for president again, as candidate of the Partido Trabalhista. He won in a four-cornered race. After some discussion, the military allowed him to take office. During the next 3½ years Vargas lost much popular support because of his inability to curb inflation. However, he pushed forward economic development through establishment of the National Bank of Economic Development, and he sponsored a law to set up a government oil company, Petroleos Brasileiros.

The military remained very skeptical of Vargas. When his protégé João Goulart sought as minister of labor to build up a powerful personal political machine in the labor movement and seemed to be the chosen political heir of Vargas, the soldiers forced Goulart's resignation early in 1954. A few months later, they presented Vargas himself with an ultimatum: take a "leave of absence" for the rest of his term or be overthrown.

In the face of this ultimatum, Vargas committed suicide on Aug. 25, 1954. He left a note accusing reactionaries at home and "powerful foreign interests" of plotting to prevent him from working on behalf of the Brazilian people and in defense of the interests of the Brazilian nation. His last phrase was "I am leaving life to enter history."

Further Reading

John W. F. Dulles, Vargas of Brazil: A Political Biography (1967), is comprehensive. More specialized is Robert M. Levine, The Vargas Regime: The Critical Years, 1934-1938 (1970). Thomas E. Skidmore, Politics in Brazil, 1930-1964: An Experiment in Democracy (1967), places Vargas's regimes in their historical context. □

Vargas, Getúlio Dornelles

views updated May 29 2018

Vargas, Getúlio Dornelles (1883–1954) Brazilian statesman, president (1930–45, 1951–54). He led a successful revolt after being defeated in presidential elections. Vargas' autocratic regime was bolstered by the army. He established a corporative state, but there were few signs of economic improvement. His refusal to grant elections led to a military coup. Scandal tainted Vargas' second term. Opposition from the right wing increased until, rather than resign, he committed suicide.