Inflection points

Image: Jan van der Wolf


We did not change course with the military coup of 1964, but the intensification of the worst characteristics of our nationality represented a turning pointo


Inflection points define moments of change in previous directions. All of us, individuals, as well as peoples and nations, can list these points on a timeline. The 1964 military coup was, both in my personal life and in the history of Brazil, one of those points. But there are others in the past that illuminate this historic moment. Assessing what these points were and the dimensions of the change is an interesting exercise and, certainly, readers will have their own assessments.

Without wanting to be exhaustive and without pretensions to a scientific in-depth (if it is science at all), I want to remember elements of our history that formed the context of the so-called “Ides of March”.

Brazil was created as one of the first capitalist enterprises in the world. The Portuguese colony established itself as a company producing a commodity, sugar, in which work was imposed on enslaved black people. This pattern remained, changing commodities according to market conditions (sugar, coffee, cocoa, cotton, jerky, others) throughout most of our existence as a country. After the end of slavery, the cycle continued, more recently incorporating products such as soy, corn, meat, orange juice, cellulose, and others.

The rest of the national economy was of little relevance, with the products consumed by the white elite being imported and those consumed by enslaved labor or the rest of the population being produced by a small peasantry, occupying the marginal areas of export enterprises with or without enslaved labor. Over time, a local consumer market was created, supplied both by enslaved people and free artisans.

This socioeconomic pattern remained untouched until the second half of the 19th century, when incipient industrialization began to take over, as shown by the initiatives of the Viscount of Mauá. But the Brazilian economic elite was made up, above all, of the landowning class and they sabotaged, with the support of the Emperor, all industrialist and modernizing initiatives and led our first modern capitalist to bankruptcy.

Some consider that our first historical turning point was independence, although the way in which it occurred meant more continuity than a rupture. However, one can speculate whether this process would have been what allowed our existence as an almost continental unit, contrasting with the proliferation of countries resulting from the dissolution of the Spanish empire.

Other analysts point to the end of slavery as one or even the great turning point in our history. Despite the opposition of the landowners, the emancipation of the enslaved was approved by the majority of parliamentarians, but the price charged was the end of the empire, the following year. It can be said that the Lei Áurea was a lost opportunity for a real inflection, as it did not face the issue of the freed people's right to land to survive with dignity.

The issue of land and its ownership continued to be the key to the existence of a deeply unequal country, generating the huge contingent of marginalized poor, urban and rural, that remains today.


The Republic, proclaimed through a military coup, the first of many, perpetuated the socioeconomic model in force in the empire, altered only by the adoption of “free” labor, a significant part of which was carried out by European migration or, at the beginning of the 20th century, by Japanese migration. . This workforce was made up of peasants impoverished by the growing capitalization of agriculture in these countries.

Until the global crisis of 1929, we were essentially an agrarian country, populated by uneducated and miserable masses, based on an agro-export economy and with a restricted internal market. It is debated, to this day, whether the XNUMXs revolution was, in fact, a revolution, or a disorganized barrage. From the point of view of the productive structure, however, the Getúlio Vargas regime mobilized resources that were directed towards an industrialization process, centered on import substitution. The explanation for this modernizing phenomenon has more to do with the loss of influence of the agrarian elite, impoverished by the drop in the prices of coffee, sugar, rubber and cocoa.

Our industrial bourgeoisie has its origins in the capital of the agrarian elite who sought alternatives for their businesses and in the ample resources of the State, which took on the most massive and risky ventures, such as the steel industry and, later, the exploration of minerals and oil, in addition to to generously finance private companies. An incipient middle class begins to take shape and gain space, but it is worth noting that the marginalization of the broad rural and urban masses continued to be a permanent marker.

The fall of Getúlio Vargas is not due to any advanced program of the president, from the point of view of the economic project. It was another military coup that did not alter the bases of national production, but which opened the economy even further to foreign investment, still on the tide of import substitution, accelerated by the contingencies of the Second World War period.

Getúlio Vargas returned to government in 1950, riding on the wave of support from the newly created PTB, from a working class that had been growing rapidly, but carrying an agreement with the agrarian sector entrenched in the PSD. Getúlio Vargas of the second government came bolder (see the creation of Petrobras) and paved the way for a more active political participation of the proletariat through concessions that made his labor minister, João Goulart, popular (and repudiated). But during this period, the protagonism of an emerging middle class also grew, aligned with liberalism and Americanism, whose greatest expression was the UDN, which contradictorily combined democratic ideals with authoritarian right-wingism.

Getúlio Vargas' suicide ended yet another military coup in Brazil and allowed the resumption of a democratic process. In the succession, Juscelino's modernist expression was combined with the maintenance of all the privileges of the agrarian elite. The issue of agrarian reform remained a flame burning in a smothered fire, attenuated by the intense rural-urban migration, promoted by state or private investments that attracted millions to public works that multiplied in the “fifty years in five”.


Was the Juscelino era a turning point? Not so much. The marks of the industrialization process initiated by Getúlio Vargas continued to be combined with the strong marks of the rural latifundista economy. What this period brings new is a cultural movement that is renewing and progressive in content and form. And social movements, especially urban unions, began to gain greater evidence and forcefulness, challenging the conservative hegemony of the elites.

Despite these advances, it is worth remembering that the victor in the 1960 presidential elections was the populist conservative Jânio Quadros. But it is also worth remembering that the election of Jânio Quadros was due to the informal double with the candidate for vice-president on the Labor ticket, João Goulart. People voted for president and vice president separately and the “hybrid ticket”, Jan-Jan, won the election, showing the firepower of the popular masses, although it also shows the political myopia of its leaders.

Jânio Quadros attempted a coup to govern in an authoritarian manner, but failed and opened space for another coup attempt, this one by the Armed Forces, aiming to prevent Jango from taking office. The popular resistance led by Leonel Brizola, then governor of Rio Grande do Sul, pointed to a turning point, causing the division of the Armed Forces and a strong surge in participation by the oppressed classes. All of this was defeated by yet another conciliation between the elites, with Congress voting on the parliamentary amendment and the Armed Forces accepting Jango's inauguration, with greatly diminished powers, but with the possibility of resuming them in a plebiscite. No military personnel were punished for coup plotting.

What would have happened if Jango refused the agreement and commanded the legalist movement supported by our most powerful military unit, the Third Army? It is very likely that the other units would end up capitulating and that the correlation of political forces would change significantly, but this is just historical speculation. It was a missed turning point.

The Jango government inherits a degraded administrative framework, with a public deficit never seen before, the price paid for the construction of Brasília and the nonsense of Jânio Quadros. Inflation soared and the rate of investment, national and foreign, fell. There were years of crisis upon crisis, with the working class fighting to preserve the purchasing power of salaries. On the other hand, a very incipient peasant movement showed its face and organized itself into more conservative unions and the Peasant Leagues, with a more radical program and, above all, a more aggressive practice in the fight for Agrarian Reform.

The international context did not help these change processes. The cold war was at its height, reaching the brink of nuclear confrontation in the Russian missile crisis in Cuba in 1962. The role of political police was already established and the American armed forces and the CIA acted around the world to contain any advance politician who had suspicions of communist influence.

It is only in this context that one can understand, looking with today's eyes, the fierce reaction of national elites and agents of the American empire, to the timid “Basic Reforms” program of the Jango government. In particular, the agrarian reform proposal was beyond limited and the only boldness was that it was the first time that there was talk of expropriating land from large estates (but only the so-called unproductive land and only on land that bordered federal highways).

What scared the Brazilian political elite was the advance of progressive forces in the electoral processes. Although they were still in the minority, progressives were advancing, especially in the Chamber of Deputies, despite the influx of American money to finance their supporters in 1962.


And so we arrived at the 1964 coup. For many, especially on the left, this would have been an obvious turning point in the history of Brazil. I have no doubt that it was a decisive moment, but qualifying it as a turning point requires a more in-depth analysis.

To be a turning point, it would have been necessary to change the course the country was previously following and indicate the new direction adopted.

Was Brazil on the verge of a revolutionary process? The entire speech of the coup right, whether in uniform or not, pointed an accusing finger at Jango's government, although the threats were not always the same. For an important part of the conspirators and public opinion, we were on the path to communism. A joke that circulated in the sixties mirrored this position: “in Brazil, the most prudent are studying Russian, but the smartest are studying Chinese”. On the other hand, among conservative political forces and in the mainstream press, the threat was what was called a “syndicalist republic”, a kind of Vargasism with more latitude for social movements, or a Portuguese-speaking Peronism.

The second accusation was more anchored in our history and more coherent with the key character, Jango, seen as a candidate for populist autocrat. As my grandfather, a former federal deputy impeached by Getúlio Vargas, said, “the communist threat is an old wives’ tale, a story to scare old ladies”. For him, the danger was a Vargas dictatorship with another leader. The Americans, little accustomed to more subtle historical analyses, the threat was indeed communist, fueled by the Cuban revolution, carried out shortly before in the beards of the empire.

The country was experiencing a moment of great political mobilization of the masses, especially workers, but also students, although mobilizations in the countryside were of a more localized nature. The political forces that animated this process were left-wing, but with very varied nuances. Left-wing labor, especially that polarized by Leonel Brizola, was perhaps the numerically most important force, due to its weight in the urban union base.

The PCB had a more widespread influence, although minority in any of the sectors, workers, students or peasants. Its area of ​​greatest relative importance was in the intelligentsia and the cultural sector. It was, however, the best organized and disciplined movement. To the left of the PCB, the most expressive force was Ação Popular, originating from the Catholic church and with important bases in youth movements, especially university and peasant movements.

And there were other organizations independent of those mentioned, such as the Peasant Leagues movement, led by Francisco Julião, and which disputed the rural bases with the PCB and the AP. Exponents of these currents had a place in the government, the AP with a presence above its real influence and occupying ministries and programs of great political and social reach.

Although the advancement of these movements was significant, it is necessary to clarify the balance of forces in 1964. To begin with, Congress, especially the Senate, was dominated by conservative forces and Jango had to negotiate with the center and even make concessions to the right in order to govern, even after the parliamentary regime was annulled and the full powers of the presidency were regained.

Secondly, the union movement, although aggressive in its demands, was not politicized to the point of assuming a revolutionary program of the “workers control” type or anything of a socialist or communist nature. Thirdly, the organized peasant bases, even including the most conservative ones guided by more backward sectors of the Catholic church, were very minority and there is no doubt that the immense majority of the peasantry was under the political, ideological and social control of the rural elites, the called “colonels”.

It was a world threatened by the awakening of consciousness caused by left-wing forces, but still solidly under the control of the most right-wing portion of Brazilian society, the large estates. Fourthly, both the middle class and a good part of the popular classes were under the influence of the Catholic church, with the progressive wing that began to adopt the line of liberation theology being a very minority.

And to conclude this evaluative counterweight on the role of the right in 1964, we have to take into account the strength of conservative ideology and American influence in the Brazilian Armed Forces. Add to all this a media controlled by half a dozen families, all very conservative, and an elite that is extremely liberal in the economy, conservative in customs and authoritarian in politics so that the components that led to the coup came together, with precious financial help. , moral and organizational aspects of the CIA and the American embassy.


In other words, it can be noted that it doesn't seem to me that we are in a revolutionary process in Brazil, not by a long shot. But yes, I believe that we were experiencing an intense politicization process, with increasing mass participation. It is clear that, if we compare with situations like those in Chile or Argentina in 1973, Brazil was still far from the conditions of class struggle in these countries. In both cases, there were advanced revolutionary processes underway and the respective coups (Pinochet and Perón, followed by the military coup) broke these dynamics.

It is for no other reason that our “communist threat” or “syndicalist republic” collapsed like a house of cards, while in the aforementioned countries it took a massive massacre to impose the power of the right. I am not here minimizing repression in Brazil, as a well-known right-wing historian did when he coined the expression “ditabranda”. We can only accept a relativization when we compare the repression processes in the three countries.

The aforementioned coups, and many others, generated dictatorial regimes in almost all Latin American countries, including Paraguay, Uruguay, Bolivia, Peru, Colombia, Venezuela, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Guatemala, Dominican Republic. Our dictatorship was less bloody, especially if we put the numbers in proportion to the size of the populations of Brazil and other countries. But from the point of view of our political evolution the effect was the same: destruction of social movements and control of their forms of organization, censorship in communications and the arts, control of party organization and electoral processes.

It was a huge setback to the intense movement of politicization and participation of the early 1960s. Between 1964 and 1978, workers' strike movements could be counted on one hand, while peasant demonstrations had some expression until AI-5, although strictly localized. and unknown in the rest of the country (and heavily repressed). The great demonstrations against the military regime between 1966 and 1968 were the work of the student movement (ME), which was able to enlist the (inorganic) support of the urban middle class, but this success provoked an exacerbated repression that reduced the ME to almost nothing until the resumption of 1977.

The military regime in Brazil exhausts its cycle in power less due to the action of the democratic opposition or the left, armed or not, but due to its internal contradictions. General Ernesto Geisel's opening project was accelerated and expanded by pressure from civil society, but in essence it was created, applied and controlled by the regime itself, with the exception of the outcome, the succession of General João Figueiredo.

While we lived in the shadows of the repressive regime, the economy was going through a process of acceleration that intensified the already old movement of replacing inputs and expanded the role of industry and services, with a reduction in the place of agribusiness, including in exports. Contrary to the initial analyzes of progressive economists, Brazil did not “pastoralize”, a neologism created by Celso Furtado in 1965. Under the heel of repression that allowed the over-exploitation of labor, the economy grew at Chinese rates (previously it would be “ Asian tigers”) of 11 to 13% per year, driven by accelerated industrial growth. It didn't last long due to the oil shock of 1973, which caused galloping foreign debt that led to default in the following decade.

Even agribusiness has changed direction, in part. The military regime adopted a policy of favoring (and pressuring) the modernization of agriculture, with the creation of EMBRAPA and EMBRATER and with heavy subsidies to finance the use of chemical fertilizers, improved seeds, pesticides and machinery. All of this had a greater long-term effect and resulted in the creation of a powerful economic segment with international reach from the 1990s onwards.

The years of the military regime saw the migration of close to 30 million rural people, with a strong transfer of labor with a low level of education and professional training, both to the construction and industry sectors. This process relieved, for a time, the pressure for more land from the peasantry, also relieved by migration to the agricultural frontier to the north and west. Conflicts over land have multiplied, especially in these new areas of agricultural expansion, with large estates competing with family farming over the Cerrado and the Amazon. It is no less important, in this massive process of rural migration, the fact that the traditional agricultural sector in transformation got rid of a category of peasants, the residents and sharecroppers who lived in the shadow of the large estates and who practically disappeared between the 1960 censuses. and 1990.


This Brazil, profoundly modified in its social base by the military regime, is what we inherited in redemocratization. And the very repressed peasant movement resurfaced with full force, gradually resuming its union organizations and creating new forms such as the MST, placing the struggle for land back at the center of development policy. Agribusiness regains its preponderant role in the economy and politics, but the counterpoint of social movements is also shaping the country we have.

To complete this short synopsis of the changes imposed since the 1964 coup, it is worth noting that we have adopted the type of rural development applied in Europe and the USA, called the green revolution, with all its consequences: high immediate incomes, but high costs of inputs and energy and intense environmental destruction. It is an unsustainable system in the medium and long term and these deadlines are running out.

In conclusion, although there was no change in the economy, the intensification of the model brought significant social changes, always maintaining the exclusionary character of the broad urban and rural masses. We are world record holders in poor income distribution, food insecure population, environmental destruction, low level of education, health and sanitation problems and public insecurity. In contrast, we are among the eight most “developed” countries in the world (according to GDP size criteria), with a privileged minority among the richest on the planet.

We did not change course with the coup, but the intensification of the worst characteristics of our nationality did represent a turning point. This does not mean, of course, that if the coup hadn't happened we would have the best of all worlds within our reach. But an embryonic trajectory of social change, even moderate, was interrupted and this shaped our present and future.

The history of Brazil was made with a succession of arrangements between sectors of the dominant classes in such a way that changes in form served to mask the maintenance of the same content. The country continues on its path of plundering natural resources and destroying the environment, overexploiting labor and maintaining one of the highest levels of income inequality in the world.

E, last bur not least, alternating periods of relative democratic freedom with periods of setbacks in these rights and repression, with alienation from the world of work. This historical model leads us to our current situation, where crises of all types, economic, social, environmental and political, are worsening and interconnecting, without a viable alternative future emerging.

*Jean Marc von der Weid is a former president of the UNE (1969-71). Founder of the non-governmental organization Family Agriculture and Agroecology (ASTA).

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