Coup d'état – history of an idea



Author introduction to newly released book

After all, what is a coup d'état?

The months leading up to March 31, 1964 in Brazil were dominated by a series of interventions by political actors that populated the Brazilian public scene and by many rumours. Throughout the Second Republic, there were many attempts to interfere in the nation's direction through a coup d'état, in such a way that the practice seemed to many to be something normal, which was part of the arsenal of the struggle for power.

That year, however, things were more explicit. On the one hand, President João Goulart (Jango) bet all his chips on carrying out his “basic reforms”, which should promote changes in the economy and in politics capable of putting Brazil on the path of overcoming its tremendous inequalities. He had the support of some unions, mainly civil servants, metallurgists and sectors of the Armed Forces, especially corporals and sergeants. On the other side, the right conspired. It relied on the inspired and radical speech of Carlos Lacerda, and was based on the discontent of broad sectors of the military hierarchy and parts of the urban middle class.

On March 19 of that year, a gigantic march against the government took place in São Paulo. Protesters denounced Jango and his alleged ties to communism, defended the traditional values ​​of the more conservative Catholicism, and had the decisive support of the US government.

The president did not take very seriously the opposition movement that brought the city to a halt that day with an estimated crowd of 500 people. He preferred to rely on the support of the left-wing sectors of society and on the alleged attachment to the legality of the military hierarchy, which, in fact, was increasingly revolted by the breakdown of order supposedly sponsored by the government through its support for sailors and sergeants rebels. The fact is that, in a haphazard manner, on March 31, General Olímpio Mourão Filho, commander of the 4th Military Region based in Juiz de Fora, put troops on the road thinking of taking over the Ministry of War in Rio de Janeiro and giving beginning of Jango's deposition.

His action was not carefully planned, it ran over the plans of other conspirators, but what is certain is that, by putting the tanks in motion and counting on Jango's hesitation, who preferred to go to Brasília instead of facing the general and his troops in the Rio de Janeiro, ended up initiating a coup d'état that would establish a dictatorship that lasted 21 years. The coup, in fact, was only consummated in the early hours of April 2, when the president of the Senate, Auro de Moura Andrade, after a secret session of the two legislative houses, declared the presidency of the Republic vacant. As President João Goulart was in Brazil, the act had no legal basis. But the die was cast and the country plunged into a long period of arbitration and violence.

The literature on the 1964 coup d'état is abundant and allows us to have an in-depth view of each moment that preceded the fateful March 31st and its consequences in the following years. Naturally, there is much research going on into the significance of those events, but no serious historian would think to dispute that it was a coup d'état. The military sought to put a veil over its actions and the consequent destruction of democratic institutions by calling the 1964 movement a “revolution”. With that, they intended, and some sectors of current Brazilian society still intend, to give prestige to an action of rupture with the democratic constitutional order.

We will see, in the course of the book, that these notions, that of coup d'état and revolution, appear together in many historical moments, but that, in my view, is not a reason to confuse them. Talking about the Revolution of 64 is just a way of denying the reality and nature of the actions that put an end to the Second Republic and inaugurated a long dictatorial period.

But let's leave the 1960s and move on to April 2016. As five decades before, the months leading up to the overthrow of President Dilma Rousseff were populated by street movements, political articulations and many rumors. On a Sunday afternoon, on April 17, 2016, perhaps chosen to give more visibility to the act, the Chamber of Deputies met to vote on the process of impeachment of the president, fueled by an opinion of rare legal mediocrity and a lot of noise in the streets and in the press, who often did not hesitate to take the side of those who wanted to remove Dilma from office.

This movement had already begun at the end of the 2014 elections, when the president's opponent in the second round of elections, Senator Aécio Neves, appealed to the Electoral Justice, claiming that there had been fraud in the process. His complaint proved to be unfounded, but it started a movement to remove the president that made the elected government difficult and, from a certain point on, made it unfeasible. Thus, when voting began that day, led by deputy Eduardo Cunha, who would later be arrested for corruption, there was little hope among Dilma's advisers that the result would be in her favor. In the end, 367 deputies voted in favour, 137 against and there were no abstentions. In the following months, the Senate would confirm, on August 31, the dismissal that ended the presence of the Workers' Party (PT) in power.

The intellectual indigence of the majority of deputies surprised many foreign observers little used to the profile of representatives of the Brazilian people; the opinions that served as the basis for the votes were devoid of legal coherence and only revealed the desire of many forces in Congress to put an end to PT governments. Various sectors of society took to the streets to ask for impeachment of the president. There were few serene analyzes of what was happening.

Faced with evidence that something had escaped the normal course of democratic life, the meaning of the President's removal act soon became a matter of debate. Excluding texts published by clearly oriented political movements and by some journalists, who preferred to participate directly in the political struggle instead of doing serious journalism, the question of understanding the nature of what happened populated the hearts and minds of politicians, journalists, social scientists and ordinary citizens. .

Perhaps the most acute problem was that of knowing whether what had happened was a coup d'état or a normal process of dismissal of a female ruler, who had fulfilled all the rites provided for by law. For the defenders of the second interpretation, the supposed legality of the acts was enough to guarantee the fairness and, therefore, the correctness of the Legislative votes. At the second pole, there were those who saw the whole process as a political farce destined to dislodge its legitimate occupant from power, to transfer it to interest groups that proved incapable of following the will of the population, which had voted for the candidate of the PT.

Those who were against the impeachment noted that Law No. 1.079, of April 10, 1950, and Article 85 of the 1988 Constitution, which characterize various behaviors as crimes for which the President of the Republic is responsible, including when he/she practices acts against the budget law or the probity in administration, do not specify exactly what these crimes are and could not be used on that occasion. Law nº 10.028, of October 19, 2000, in its article 3, deepens the question without allowing clarity, however, if the so-called “fiscal pedals”, a journalistic term that does not designate anything specific in Brazilian law, can be classified as a crime of responsibility.

What caught the attention of many was the fact that there was very little debate about the nature of the alleged crimes committed by the president and a flood of calls for her removal from actors from various parties. But, as journalist Elio Gaspari, a staunch opponent of PT governments, recalled, there was a strong desire to get rid of the PT, but no solid legal basis for expelling the president from the Planalto Palace.

Without delving into the examination of the events of recent years, but so that the reader does not wait for the revelation of my personal position on the events of 2016, suffice it to say that I align myself with those who believed that it was a coup. Despite the surprise of some analysts and their doubts as to the nature of the actions taken by various actors on the Brazilian public scene in that period, what happened was a parliamentary coup d'état that, as we will see, is part of the tradition of Western politics and it was nothing exceptional compared to what has happened several times in modern and contemporary history.

What matters is that the notion of a coup d'état is as popular as it is misunderstood. Even among social scientists, historians and philosophers, the concept is not univocal and tends to produce sharp debates between those who dedicate themselves to studying particular cases and those who seek to formulate general theories capable of explaining the underlying reasons for the many events that populate history and that are associated with the concept. My purpose is not to write an exhaustive history of the various theories that have dealt with the subject over the centuries. The simple presentation of the most recent debates would already require a great effort without it being possible for me to say that, in the end, we would be in possession of a complete picture of the ongoing investigations in various parts of the world.

This is a history of ideas book, but not only. Throughout the chapters, I try to place the thinkers in their time, in the face of the events that motivated them to write, but I also try to show how the reading of each one's arguments allows talking to them from our time. What interests me are the theories that throughout history have investigated the nature and meaning of radical actions that interrupt the normal course of political power governed by settled laws or customs.

*Newton Bignotto is professor of philosophy at UFMG. Author, among other books, of Matrixes of republicanism (UFMG Publisher).


Newton Bignotto. Coup d'état: history of an idea. Belo Horizonte, Bazar do Tempo, 2021, 384 pages.

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