Forty years of Diretas Já

Image: João Saplak


Diretas Já, as the 1984 days became known, were the largest mass political mobilization in the history of Brazil in the XNUMXth century

This article develops a theoretical argument, two hypotheses for political interpretation and a historical lesson. The theoretical argument is that, in contemporary historical times, transitions from dictatorial regimes to democratic regimes can essentially take two forms or typical patterns: concerted transitions or political revolutions. However, “chemically pure” processes will not be found in history. Mobilizations with a revolutionary impulse to overthrow hated regimes do not, to some extent, exclude negotiations or agreements.

The first hypothesis is that Geisel/Golbery/Figueiredo's plan for a slow and gradual opening – a controlled political transition project for a Bonapartist regime – was, partially, imploded. Respecting the institutional forms of the process of transition from dictatorship to democracy seemed like a negotiated transition, but they hid the political-historical content of what had happened. The government remained in place until the election of Tancredo and Sarney by the Electoral College, but together with Figueiredo it was the dictatorship that had been defeated. The Diretas were no longer in vain.

The second hypothesis is that the PMDB leadership was divided in relation to the objective of Diretas Já, since the beginning of the campaign. Ulysses Guimarães on one side, and Tancredo Neves on the other, competed against each other for the presidency. Ulysses Guimarães wanted to be a candidate in direct elections and Tancredo Neves believed that he could only win in indirect elections. But personal rivalry expressed different projects. Ulysses Guimarães bet on the campaign because he believed in the possibility of dividing the PDS and approving direct elections within the National Congress. Tancredo Neves maneuvered with the campaign to guarantee a split in the dictatorship's party, and win a majority within the Electoral College.

The historical lesson is that, in the class struggle, more important than betting on the division of class enemies, the decisive thing is to trust in the mass mobilization of workers, youth and the oppressed popular masses. Exploiting conflicts between different fractions of the ruling class to open a path is tactical intelligence. But nothing is more fundamental than preserving class independence – strategic firmness – to not allow the people to be manipulated.

The Figueiredo government did not fully achieve the objective that all dictatorships in crisis desire: a painless transition that would guarantee the inviolability of the interests they defended, although it achieved impunity for the dictatorship's crimes. The fall of the regime was offset by negotiation, and the transition project was displaced. Figueiredo was not overthrown, but the dictatorship ended. Figueiredo did not have a transition strategy for a democratic-electoral regime with full civic and political freedoms. As the unsuspecting Elio Gaspari pointed out, generally dazzled by Geisel's role: “Geisel carried the dictatorship's full bag of evil. What distanced him from Carter, bringing him closer to Generals Videla and Pinochet, was not just a different vision of the issue of human rights, but an antagonistic understanding of democracy.”[I]

From the beginning, that is, right after the inauguration of the governors on March 15, 1983, the liberal opposition viewed the articulation of the Diretas campaign as a pressure campaign for negotiations with Figueiredo. The bourgeois limits of the PMDB leadership conditioned its participation in a struggle through popular mobilization. Before the rally in Praça da Sé, Tancredo Neves had already decided to be a candidate in the indirect election by the Electoral College.[ii]

The PMDB leadership itself already felt defeated before the fight began in the streets. There was almost no presence of businesspeople in the campaign for Diretas. Those who took to the stands were an exception. Of the mainstream media, no TV channel and only one newspaper supported the campaign, Folha de S. Paul. Why, after twenty years, so much bourgeois hesitation? Due to the fear of the dynamics of the mobilization of workers and youth. Because they could not know, in advance, what the costs of destabilizing Figueiredo would be.

The day after the Praça da Sé rally on January 25, 1984, in an editorial, the Folha de S. Paul celebrated the grandeur of the demonstration, but highlighted that it was an orderly, peaceful, civilized gathering. In other words, she sighed with relief, because she was controlled. The PMDB actually abandoned the fight for Diretas before the defeat on April 25, when it became clear that it would not be possible to defeat Figueiredo in Congress. The Dante de Oliveira amendment would not have the votes for “cold” approval. A radicalization of mass mobilizations would be unavoidable. Something unthinkable by the leaders of the “Frente Amplio”.

Tancredo Neves was in discreet, but not secret, negotiations with the leaders of the General Staff of the Armed Forces, including Army General-Minister Leônidas Pires Gonçalves, with part of the leadership of the CNBB of the Catholic Church, and none other than that Globo (which was scandalously silent about the first mass rally in Praça da Sé). A Folha de S. Paul reported: “The spokesperson for Palácio do Planalto, Carlos Átila commented: the government can only welcome Governor Tancredo's attitude, President Figueiredo has reaffirmed his desire to negotiate”.[iii]

Tancredo Neves's participation in negotiations with the dictatorship, accepting his name as a candidate, before the vote on the Dante amendment on April 25th was public: “Tancredo Neves threw the limelight on the Amendment (..) by offering himself as mediator between the oppositions and the Federal government, already having a plan more of a government than a mediator”.[iv]

In fact, Tancredo Neves began negotiations with the PDS leadership before the Praça da Sé rally on January 25, 1984.[v]In fact, what deserves to be considered exceptional in the Diretas process is not that Tancredo Neves had conspired with the dictatorship, but that Ulysses Guimarães and Franco Montoro called for mass mobilization against Figueiredo.

Distrust of popular participation was the standard of political conduct of the Brazilian bourgeoisie. Only the obstinacy of the high-ranking officers of the Armed Forces in the obtuse defense of the regime, when a new relationship of internal and international forces left it obsolete, can explain the decision in extremis of Ulysses Guimarães and Franco Montoro to resolve conflict by appealing to mass mobilization.

The Diretas process was large enough to consolidate the achievement of democratic freedoms in the streets, and defeat the regime. It was a mobilization that defeated the dictatorship, however, paradoxically, it did not culminate in the fall of the Figueiredo government. The agreement on a consensus between the PMDB leadership and the political forces that supported the dictatorship – PDS and, above all, the Armed Forces – resulted in a political commitment to an institutional conciliation solution. The almost unanimous support in the ruling class for a negotiated solution left Ulysses Guimarães' faction isolated.

Renouncing the continuation of the campaign to win immediate direct elections, a campaign that required the radicalization of forms of struggle to challenge both Figueiredo and the Congress controlled by the dictatorship, the liberal opposition led by the PMDB made the calculation that it would be too dangerous to continue mobilizing millions of people on the streets.

But the “grand agreement” would not have been possible without the mass mobilization that subverted the country, and imposed a new political and social relationship of forces, which explains the division of the dictatorship party led by José Sarney, and the support for the candidacy of Tancredo Neves at the Electoral College. Comparatively, in Argentina a democratic revolution triumphed in 1982 against the military junta led by Galtieri, and in Chile a transition process took place after Pinochet's removal. In Brazil, an intermediate dynamic prevailed.

Diretas Já, as the 1984 days became known, were the largest mass political mobilization in the history of Brazil in the 300.000th century. It was during the Diretas campaign that Datafolha began calculating the number of people present at demonstrations using the measurement of the number of square meters occupied by those present. This method is a little controversial criterion. Datafolha estimated that 25 people were in Praça da Sé in São Paulo on January 1984, 5. During the ninety days of mobilizations, it is estimated that more than 1984 million people took to the streets across the country. In 40, the EAP (Economically Active Population) was estimated at XNUMX million.[vi] The scale of this mobilization would now correspond in 2024 to something close to 10 million on the streets.

From the beginning, the Diretas had the liberal-bourgeois leadership of the PMDB, although Lula was the most enthusiastically applauded speaker in all the events, and the most mobilized vanguard was PT. The dictatorship was surprised by the decision of part of the leadership of the main opposition party, which won the elections for governors in 1982, to try to promote a street mobilization by Diretas Já for the presidency, subverting the transition schedule controlled by the military regime.

The impact of the open economic crisis and the external debt crisis was decisive. In two years, between 1982/84, the growth of inflation and unemployment opened a social crisis that fueled unrest among workers and provoked a serious, albeit minority, bourgeois division, dragging the middle class into the opposition camp. to the dictatorship.

The “fatigue” of the regime was overwhelming. This new political relationship of forces translated into a political isolation of the government that made the transition project from above unfeasible, as it had been designed during the Geisel/Golbery mandate. A new generation entered the scene and, by the millions, discovered the shocking social force of their mobilization.

Although the Figueiredo government was paralyzed, it was not overthrown on April 25, 1984. The government crisis turned into a regime crisis. The main institution of the dictatorship, the Armed Forces themselves, found themselves demoralized in the face of the will of the nation expressed in the streets. Figueiredo was suspended in the air, that is, by a thread. The final push was missing.

Until the end of his term, Figueiredo was no longer able to govern. His downfall was avoided by a complex political operation that involved opposition governors such as Tancredo and Brizola, the high command of the Armed Forces, and even a wing of the Catholic Church. Only the young PT took a stand against it, boycotted the Electoral College and did not vote for the Tancredo/Sarney ticket. The government did not collapse, but the dictatorship ended.

Figueiredo maintained his mandate, but, politically, the military regime was defeated. The democratic freedoms conquered on the streets were guaranteed and, finally, the military regime ended. The political strength of Diretas has already proven to be insufficient to immediately achieve the right to elect the President of the Republic by universal suffrage. The tactic of calling a general strike for April 25th was defended by the CUT, led by Jari Meneguelli. Ulysses Guimarães even agreed with the idea of ​​a national civic strike, called for by employers and workers, but Tancredo Neves vetoed it.

Brazilian liberal democracy was born from a mass political struggle, the dictatorship was displaced, but the Figueiredo government did not fall. The end of the dictatorship was cushioned by a great agreement that, finally, despite being respected, could not even last. As luck would have it, the result of the Diretas ended up being strange: Tancredo Neves was elected president, with José Sarney as vice-president, but he did not take office, because he died from an illness that, mysteriously, no one suspected existed.

José Sarney, the civilian president of the party that defended the military dictatorship, was the first unelected president of the liberal-democratic regime, but he was held hostage by the Emedebista majority elected to the Constituent Assembly in 1986. Tancredo tripped Ulysses Guimarães, fate passed a trip on Tancredo Neves, and Ulysses Guimarães tripped Sarney.

There are things that are only in Brazil.

* Valerio Arcary is a retired professor of history at the IFSP. Author, among other books, of No one said it would be Easy (boitempo). []


[I] GASPARI, Elio. The cornered dictatorship. São Paulo, Companhia das Letras, 2004, p. 388.

[ii] LEONELLI, Domingos, and OLIVEIRA, Dante. Direct Now, 15 months that shook the dictatorship. Rio de Janeiro, Record, 2004

[iii] Folha de São Paulo, 25/04/1984, p.4.

[iv] Folha de São Paulo, 25/04/1984, p.4.

[v] The negotiations that Tancredo carried out with government interlocutors, since before the street mobilizations began in January, were not a secret. After the defeat of the Diretas amendment, they became public and involved Figueiredo himself. In the headline of Folha de São Paulo on April 27, 1984, none other than the minister of justice, Abi Ackel, from Minas Gerais, admitted that Tancredo could even be the consensus candidate of the government and opposition. CASOY, Boris. Planalto says he does not negotiate. Folha de São Paulo, São Paulo, 27 April. 1984. Available at:

[vi] more information andm:

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