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Politics in Brazil, 1930-1964: An Experiment in Democracy

Yi Liu

In 1967, when many Brazilians were still bewildered by the 1964 military coup d’état and startled by the accidental death of Castelo Branco, the first military ruler, a young American scholar, Thomas E. Skidmore, published an insightful book entitled Politics in Brazil, 1930-1964: An Experiment in Democracy. This work gave both the international and Brazilian readerships the first account of a series of confusing events in recent Brazilian political history. Its appearance shed a beam of heuristic light on the decades-long political chaos in Brazil.

The book written by the then thirty-five-year-old historian, who was trained as a scholar of modern European history, soon became a masterpiece of modern Brazilian history and the standard history (história padrão) of contemporary Brazil. Before Politics in Brazil, there were no works in Portuguese or English that provided a balanced synthesis of the links between political struggles and the vicissitudes of the Brazilian economy within the framework of the interplay between the civilians and the military. The book was selected by the Veja magazine as one the “Fundamental Books of Brazilianism” for its groundbreaking study of that complex period and the author’s illuminating interpretation of the historical facts.

Politics in Brazil is actually a byproduct of Skidmore’s investigation of the causes of the fall of João Goulart. However, without understanding the political system formed in the preceding decades, it is impossible to give a coherent account and convincing analysis of the 1964 revolution. Thus, the book begins in the year 1930, which marked the end of the republican structure established during the First Republic. Skidmore briefly outlines the period between 1930 and 1937, years of uncertainty and turmoil characterized by both fascist and communist movements with sporadic regional revolts. It was during this period that “the gap between the senior military and the political leadership had been opened,”[1] and military interventionism in civil politics began to loom. It was also during this period that Getúlio Vargas, the gaúcho politician and future dictator of the Estado Novo (1937-1945), emerged and subsequently dominated Brazilian politics for the next quarter-century.

During the Estado Novo, despite a variety of intense clashes, Brazil succeeded in maintaining its political stability and achieving economic development. These achievements demonstrate the success of the authoritarian moderating power in guaranteeing ordem e progresso in Brazilian politics. The subsequent political and economic turmoil of the 1950s and early 1960s contrasted sharply with the previous dictatorial regime and indicates that once the disorderly status reached a certain limit, dictatorship seemed likely to reign again. Therefore, although the starting point of Politics in Brazil is Goulart’s deposition in 1964, a narrative choice which adds a retrospective hue to the book, the author’s narrative depicts the history as a continuous process rather than an ad hoc happenchance by revealing the perennial symptoms that had inflicted severe instability on Brazilian politics since 1945: discord between urban and rural societies, conflicts among social classes, rivalry among states and feuds amidst ideological groups, as well as the chronic problem of industrialization. These issues were only reigned in by iron-handed dictatorship. Once the democratic process returned in 1945, Brazil, still deprived of a healthy economic base and a stable political structure to maintain democracy, was overwhelmed by chaos.

The end of WWII signaled the deposition of Vargas, and General Eurico Dutra, Vargas’s former war minister, assumed the presidency in 1945. During Dutra’s government (1946-1950), the state adopted a liberal economic stance by reducing its intervention in the economy, resulting in a sharp increase in imports. Consequently, the foreign exchange accumulated during the wartime was swiftly exhausted, and inflation began to take off. In the face of a class structure even more stratified, increasingly radicalized political dissidents and a more formidable challenge for economic development, Vargas staged an impressive comeback by winning the presidential election in 1950. However, this time, the former dictator found himself unable to resolve the situation in the existing political framework. The military, annoyed and threatened by Vargas’s populist/nationalist posture, demanded his resignation, which led to Vargas’ revengeful suicide in 1954. In the following years, Brazil experienced the prosperous and confident presidency of Juscelino Kubitschek (1955-1960) and the ephemeral interlude of Jânio Quadros (1961), but the former’s achievements were carried out at the cost of overdrawing the country’s financial resources, and the latter’s astounding resignation further worsened the already tense political situation in Brazil.

Once the ill-fated Goulart, Vargas’ former labor minister, was sworn in as president in an unfavorable atmosphere, it was most unlikely that he could manage the situation better than his dead mentor, who was much more tactful and popular than the “permanent” vice-president. Therefore, although, through the plebiscite in 1963, Goulart successfully restored the presidential system from a parliamentary one which was installed by the Congress to reduce his presidential power in 1961, he still proved incompetent at maintaining the political balance between the extreme leftists (like his brother-in-law Brizola) and rightists (like Carlos Lacerda). With his unpopular economic policy (wage increases, anti-inflation campaigns, etc.) and a pro-left posture, Goulart not only failed to court enough support from the left, but also aroused the suspicion of the centrists and the alarm of the rightists. Considering all the dissatisfaction he had provoked in the military, in opposition parties and even among his allies, it is not surprising that Goulart’s tampering with military discipline and “honor” in a navy incident would finally trigger the coup d’état.

In this way, Skidmore demonstrates the repetition of a similar pattern: the problems that plagued Vargas troubled Goulart twenty three years later, and the “dark forces” that pushed Vargas to death toppled Goulart.[2] The similar destiny of these two legally sworn-in populist presidents reveals “a sense of coherence of the apparently irrational oscillations of national politics in Brazil.”[3] From this perspective, Skidmore’s book illustrates in an enlightening way that the problems left at the collapse of the Estado Novo were never resolved, and despite plenty of historic uncertainties, the direction of Brazilian political history seemed not to change after WWII, proceeding straight to the breakdown of democracy. Thus, Goulart’s fall and the following military dictatorship turned out to be a corollary to rather than an accident in modern Brazilian history.

Thanks to Skidmore’s painstaking collection of secondary evidence during his research for the book, Politics in Brazil boasts a huge and systematic bibliography. The materials, ranging from daily newspapers to official archives from both the US and Brazilian governments, provide the author with a steady grounding for his conclusions, and offer valuable resources for students and scholars who plan to delve into similar subjects. In his review of Politics in Brazil, Howard Wiarda comments that “[the book] contains, in the footnotes, perhaps the best annotated bibliography that has been compiled on contemporary Brazilian politics.”[4] This point of view was also restated by Rollie Poppino in his review of the book.[5] The author inserted dozens of anecdotes (e.g. the story about Goulart’s beautiful wife) into the book, making the supposedly arid reading of a history book surprisingly vivid. Thanks to his “lavish documentation from Brazilian sources” and his “solid knowledge of [Brazilian] intricate political flora and fauna,”[6] Skidmore had even been suspected as a CIA agent stationed in Brazil, a rumor which has since faded. This Skidmorian-style bibliography was also utilized in his second book, Black Into White: Race and Nationality in Brazilian Thought, and other works, making his collected documentation a significant contribution to sources for the study of the history of Brazil.

In commenting on Skidmore’s debut in writing modern Brazilian history, the Financial Times wrote: “[Politics in Brazil is] a model of how a book on politics should be written. The story is told with such admirable lucidity and restraint that it must give outside observers a much more complete understanding of Brazil and its politics.”[7] Politics in Brazil, in which Skidmore chronicles the zigzag track of Brazilian politics with awe-inspiring clarity and sophistication, made him one of the greatest living historians. Through a panoramic view of Brazilian economy, a meticulous examination of political parties and subdivisions thereof, and an in-depth analysis of social institutions in Brazil, the book not only summarizes the sinuous past of the country’s politics, but also in some ways foretells the forthcoming grim period for the country. One year after Politics in Brazil was published, a military coup gave General Costa e Silva dictatorial power, and in the same year the notorious Fifth Institutional Act[8] was passed: the Dark Ages in Brazilian politics had commenced.


[1] Thomas E. Skidmore, Politics in Brazil, 1930-1964: An Experiment in Democracy (New York: Oxford University Press, 1967), 11.
[2] Both of the military interventions were provoked by incidents in lesser services: in 1954 the death of an Air Force major, bodyguard of a prominent anti-getulista, Carlos Lacerda; and in 1964 the revolt of sailors and the consequential dismissal of the Navy Minister by Goulart.
[3] Rollie E. Poppino, Book Review, The Hispanic American Historical Review, 48:2 (May 1968), 342.
[4] Howard J. Wiarda, Book Review, Journal of Inter-American Studies, 10:1 (Jan. 1968), 165.
[5] “The copious notes which supplement the book and occupy nearly one quarter constitute the most complete bibliography on Brazilian politics since 1930 yet published in English” (Rollie E. Poppino, Book Review, 343).
[6] This is an excerpt of the review from Visão on the back cover of Politics in Brazil, 1930-1964: An Experiment in Democracy (New York: Oxford University Press, 1967).
[7] Back cover of Politics in Brazil, 1930-1964: An Experiment in Democracy (New York: Oxford University Press, 1967).
[8] With the passage of the Fifth Institutional Act on December 13, 1968, Congress and state legislatures were dissolved, the Constitution suspended, and censorship imposed.