João Goulart (1918-1976) was a highly popular president of Brazil for a brief but turbulent two-and-a-half years. He was removed from office by the military in 1964; civilians did not rule the country again until 1985.
João Goulart was born in São Borja, Rio Grande do Sul, in March 1918. In 1939 he graduated from the law school of Pôrto Alegre. After practicing law for several years, he was elected president of the municipal committee of the Brazilian Labor party (PTB), which had been created by Getulio Vargas in 1945. Two years later, Goulart became a PTB member of the state legislature.
Goulart was a wealthy landowner in São Borja, with his fazenda ("farm") near that of President Getulio Vargas, and during the 5 years that Vargas spent in self-imposed exile (1945-1950) on his own fazenda, the two men became close friends. Vargas is credited with having urged Goulart to be candidate in his successful contest for federal deputy in 1950, when Vargas himself returned to the presidency. Soon afterward Goulart became state president of the PTB.
In 1953 Goulart was appointed minister of labor by President Vargas in order to get control of the ministry away from anti-Vargas factions. Goulart's appointment aroused immediate, extensive, and vocal opposition among the right-wing press and alarm among officers in the military. In early 1954, Goulart offered his proposals for a 100 percent increase in the minimum wage and at the same time offered his resignation because of the political embarrassment his proposals would be for Vargas. Vargas accepted Goulart's resignation, and Goulart returned to the Chamber of Deputies. With the suicide of Vargas in August 1954, Goulart succeeded to leadership of the Labor party. In the national election of 1955 he was the successful PTB candidate for vice president on a ticket headed by Juscelino Kubitschek of the Social Democratic party.
During the Kubitschek administration, Goulart was given extensive patronage, particularly in the social security system, and he continued as head of the Labor party. In the 1960 election Goulart was again candidate for vice president, only this time the electoral system had been changed to separate the election of president and vice president; as it happened, Goulart was chosen vice president in spite of the fact that his running mate, Gen. Henrique Teixeira Lott, was defeated by the conservative National Democratic Union's (UDN) Janio Quadros. During the brief Quadros presidency, Goulart, widely seen as Vargas's protege, was under constant attack.
President Quadros resigned his presidency after only seven months with the hope (given Goulart as the alternative) that he would be invited back and given more power; at the time, Goulart was on a state visit to Communist China at Quadros's request. Rather than take Quadros back, a Congressional committee proposed a constitutional change creating a parliamentary system with reduced presidential powers; when the change was adopted in September, 1961 Goulart was inaugurated as president.
During the first 15 months of his administration Goulart concentrated on trying to regain full presidential powers by establishing himself as a moderate, credible and reliable politician. His cabinet was relatively well balanced and moderate. In this period, Goulart nominated four persons to be Prime Minister, but for a variety of reasons they either resigned quickly or were not approved by Congress. At the Punta del Este meeting of Foreign Ministers in January 1962, Goulart's government stood against the United States by refusing to exclude Castro's Cuba from the community of Latin American nations, a move supported by the Brazilian Congress but negatively noted by Washington. Later that year, opinion had shifted even amongst Goulart's enemies in favor of returning to the presidential system (they thought that "only full executive power would reveal the president in his 'true colors"'). In January 1963 a national referendum restored the full power of the presidency by a margin of nine to one.
During the first months after his full powers were restored, Goulart committed himself to a three-year plan of economic development and restraint of inflation, as worked out by the minister of economy, Celso Furtado. Goulart often spoke of the need for "structural reforms"(especially agrarian reform) as being necessary for development, but he remained loyal to the ideas of economic emancipation and social justice bequeathed by Vargas. He wanted the existing system to work more smoothly and effectively. Stabilization of the economy was vigorously opposed by bankers and big industrialists who benefited most from inflation and by the press, but the biggest blow to stabilization came from the government's having to give in to the inflationary 70 percent wage hikes demanded first by civil servants and the armed forces, and then by trade union leaders and workers. People inside and outside Congress saw Goulart's agrarian reform bill as "an outrageous assault" on the ownership of land and rural property interests very strongly represented in Congress, which rejected the bill. Goulart abandoned the stabilization program and, trying to improvise solutions to meet mounting criticisms, in June 1963 dismissed his entire cabinet.
From that point on, politics in Brazil became increasingly polarized. Rhetoric overran reality; outside government, the left's over-inflated claims of growing support and successes provoked and alarmed their enemies on the right. Rumor fed on rumor, and all across the political spectrum confidence in Goulart's ability to hold the system together diminished.
Goulart was by early 1964 more the servant of opposing forces than their leader. Events were running ahead of him. Too many people believed either the system could no longer work or were unwilling to make it work. Goulart's Congressional base was gone, and his request of special powers from Congress failed. Goulart decided on a direct appeal to the mass of Brazilian people, articulating a program of basic reforms. His appeals grew more emotional, his rhetoric more heated and in the process, his enemies (especially in the military) more alarmed and more organized. The final blow for the military was a nationally televised speech Goulart made on March 30 to an association of enlisted personnel; in supporting the troops, Goulart incited the officers.
The coup was bloodless. It consisted of troop movements towards Goulart in Rio de Janeiro, and generals throughout the country withdrawing their support from him. Goulart flew to Brasilia, the capital, where there was no good news, then to Pôrto Alegre, and finally into exile in Montevideo, Uruguay.
Those who planned the coup knew the move would have the approval of the U.S. embassy. The American Ambassador to Brazil, Lincoln Gordon, characterized the coup as "the greatest victory of the West against Communism, greater than Cuba's nuclear disarmament, greater than the crisis of the Berlin Wall." Just after, the U.S. moved "with almost embarrassing speed" to recognize and welcome the new regime, and the U.S. was influential in the choice of Castello Branco as the new president.
Goulart died in December 1976 at the age of 59, still in exile. The regime in power in Brazil ordered that only a simple note of his death could appear in the press, with no extensive comment on his life or career. Nevertheless, more than 20,000 mourners filled the town of Sao Borja after the news came, and in the center of Rio de Janeiro shops and businesses were quietly closed by their owners "because the president has died."
Detailed accounts of Goulart's life and recent Brazilian history are in Thomas E. Skidmore, Politics in Brazil 1930-1964: An Experiment in Democracy (1967), and in John F.W. Dulles, Unrest in Brazil: Political-Military Crises, 1955-1964 (1970). See also José Maria Bello, A History of Modern Brazil, 1889-1964 (1940; 4th ed. 1959; trans. 1966), and Vladimir Reisky de Dubnic, Political Trends in Brazil (1968) For a recent account, see Peter Flynn, Brazil: A Political Analysis (1978). □