The spectrum of dictatorships Part I

Lesson from Brazil’s history

With the prospect of a self-coup by President Bolsonaro looming over Brazil, it seems opportune to analyse the military dictatorship from 1964-85 that he and his supporters have praised, the history that preceded it and to place it in a broader South American context.

The regime was that took power in 64 was supposed to be temporary. As in Chile where the military coup was a response to Salvador Allende’s unexpected assumption of the presidency, the coup in Brazil was a response to

Brazil at the time was already a special case in that it had been led by a (very broad sense) ‘’’’Fascist’’’’’ dictator Vargas. Meaning that like Mussolini he pursued economic policies similar to FDR, or rather, like FDR, he followed economic policies similar to Mussolini. And it worked (unlike with FDR) this isn’t even really disputed). He supported class cooperation and tried to make all classes happy and largely succeeded.

He had come to power in 1930. After losing the highly disputed election with claims off voter fraud on both sides, Vargas was brought to power through a revolution.

His followers carried out an insurrection, walked into congress and simply overturned the vote.

Vargas unfortunately did not follow the constitutional option presented to him, refusing to govern as president under 1891 constitution, and instead a revolutionary provisional regime and repression followed. Local power was centralised, Vargas assumed both executive and legislative power and opponents were persecuted. But at least the independency of the judiciary was respected. A dictatorial rechtsstaat.[1]

Then Vargas enacted a new constitution and a new era of democracy, being democratically elected in 1934.

Then in 37 he instituted a full-blown dictatorship through a self-coup… against his own constitution??????? A self-coup justified because of the threat of communist revolution. Though the government had already successfully put down a Communist coup in 1935. Yet after his self-coup he would also put down an attempt coup by Integralist (Reactionaries) in 1938. Centrist dictatorship FTW.

But he did implement a new constitution that protected a strong independent judiciary and the possibility of constitutional review.[2]

And then he was smart enough to not support the Axis but the Allies during WWII. He was in a way, the Brazilian Salazar. Very fitting honesty.

But then he had to resign in 1945 due to the democratic momentum that followed from the Allied victory he supported. His democratic successor quickly squandered much of the national wealth he had build up.

But since Vargas was relatively popular, he was elected as a democratic president in 1950. But being a democratic leader is apparently much more stressful (dealing with deadlocks, strikes and ironically threats of coups by the Right and an orchestrated scandal that caused the military to push for his resignation), he shot himself in 54. An extremely tragic story honestly.

(Initially the Communist party was legalised during democratisation the post-WWII only to be outlawed again during the Cold War; part of a Western world trend that shows how shifts in the overtone window effect the boundaries of democracy, but that is a topic off its own).

Result of all of this craziness was that Brazil was a young democracy during the 60s, with an army that had (positive) experience with dictatorships.

Enter the Right-wing populist Quadros, who was a rather free spirit and appointed opposing politicians as ministers after he became president. The biggest mistake he made however was offering a pretend resignation that congress actually accepted, which resulted in a crisis.

(The current situation in Brazil is much simpler, hard-line authoritarian military men don’t mind dictatorship but do mind the return of Lula.)

Brazil’s history shows how unstable democracy and alterations between dictatorship and democracy increase the constant risk of coups and of violence during upheaval. The dangers of anocracy.

Vargas constantly respected the judiciary. His dictatorship was rather stable at the end of WWII. The subordination of bickering elements in the army to his rule and the gradual installation of a guided democracy may have proven more durable in the long term. Maybe a stable party economically centrist party could have been set up. Factionalism quelled?

Instead of the quick return towards full democracy followed by many coup attempts and a 20+ year dictatorship that went through various phases.

But Vargas served as the mentor to President João Goulart who was ousted in the coup of 64 and as inspiration for that very same coup.

That’s as if in Chile one man had inspired both Pinochet and Allende. Impressive. Most impressive. Vargas showed that a Centrist, even a left-leaning response to the Great Depression, could without a doubt deal with the crisis faster than either Socialism or waiting on the free market to fix itself. His mix of economic nationalism, strategic intervention, class cooperation and general pragmatic mindset, allowed the country to deal faster with the depression than either the UK or even the USA.[3][4][5]

Ramon Giralt


  4. Charles C. Mueller and Werner Baer. “A period of sweeping change, 1930-1945”.
  5. Skidmore, Thomas E. (2010). Brazil: Five Centuries of Change. p.123

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