Preferred Citation: Rock, David, editor. Latin America in the 1940s: War and Postwar Transitions. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1994 1994.

6 The Populist Gamble of Getúlio Vargas in 1945 Political and Ideological Transitions in Brazil

The Populist Gamble of Getúlio Vargas in 1945
Political and Ideological Transitions in Brazil

John D. French

The victory of the United Nations over the Axis powers in 1945 coincided with the end of the eight-year dictatorship of the Estado Nôvo (New State) in Brazil and the reestablishment of electoral processes. In late 1944, as pressures intensified to end a regime inspired by European corporatist and fascist models and installed by a coup d'état in 1937, a small group of opposition politicians and top military personnel began to raise the issue of a successor to the rule of Getúlio Vargas. Although the Vargas government had started to shed its most extreme authoritarian features following Brazil's declaration of war against the Axis in 1942, these changes failed to contain the resentment, frustration, and anger of the economic and political elites displaced by the revolution of 1930 and by Vargas's cancellation of the elections of 1938.

As the political drama of 1945 began, the opposition recognized that if it was to emerge victorious in the contest with Vargas it had to construct ties with the military—always the ultimate source of power in Brazil.[1] For these members of the self-defined "political class," mass mobilization was never an option, for they agreed that only a select few should be admitted into the hermetic corridors of power. Armando de Salles Oliveira, the former interventor of the state of São Paulo and the exiled candidate in the 1938 elections, captured their outlook when he wrote, "I do not belong to those who, disillusioned by the army ...appeal to the people."[2]

As the end of the war approached, the most effective pressure for change


came from the top levels of the military. Months of secret meetings came to a head on March 1 when Pedro Aurélio de Goés Monteiro, a general in the army and an ultraconservative widely known as a former Nazi sympathizer, called publicly for Vargas to step down.[3] Goés Monteiro quickly found support from Francisco Campos, the corporatist jurist who was the author of the 1937 constitution.[4] Simultaneously, Gen. Eurico Dutra, the minister of war under the Estado Nôvo, began cultivating the anti-Vargas politicians and military men.[5] Members of the liberal civilian opposition sought to turn military discontent to their favor by launching the presidential candidacy of Brig. Eduardo Gomes, a hero of the famous tenentista revolt ("Revolt of Lieutenants") in Copacabana, Rio de Janeiro, in 1922. Encouraged by Dutra's maneuverings, Gomes offered to make the minister the head of the transitional military junta that would replace Vargas.[6]

Vargas attempted to counter the threat from its very beginnings. On 28 February 1945 the president signed the Ninth Amendment to the 1937 constitution, which pledged that an election date would be set within ninety days. Two weeks later Vargas again sought to neutralize the threat of a coup by offering Dutra his support as the "official" candidate in the upcoming elections. Recent research, however, has suggested that Dutra's candidacy was initiated without the prior approval of Vargas and was in fact imposed on him.[7]

Subsequently Dutra adroitly exploited his unique position as a member of the government who had extensive ties with the opposition. He offered Vargas protection from a coup and from the revenge of his opponents; but to the supporters of Gomes he held out the enticing prospect of overthrowing Vargas before the elections took place. In an effort to ensure that the elections would indeed take place, Dutra declared his support for universal, direct, and secret suffrage; freedom of expression; and an amnesty for political prisoners. His most unexpected gesture was to back the release of Luis Carlos Prestes, the leader of the Communist party, which occurred on 18 April.[8]

Thus the stage seemed set for a transition to democracy in which the leading candidates for office were two generals likely to pursue highly conservative policies. Yet Brazil had undergone profound changes during the years of the Vargas presidencies since 1930. Between 1920 and 1940 the number of industrial workers in the state of São Paulo had risen from 80,000 to 275,000; by 1945 the overwhelming majority of Brazil's one million industrial workers were concentrated in urban areas such as metropolitan


São Paulo.[9] Even though a majority of the population of Brazil, now forty-one million in total, still lived in rural areas, the urban industrial areas, led by Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, stood at the forefront of the nation's economic, social, and cultural development.

In 1945 Brazil stood at a political crossroads. Would the old coroneis , ("colonels"), the local-level political bosses, who controlled the rural vote again prevail and deliver a majority to the Partido Social Democrático or the União Dermocrático Nacional? Would the inhabitants of the cities, including the middle class and the industrial workers, follow the lead of the rural voters, or now strike out in new directions? Was the power of the urban population sufficient to determine the final outcome of the elections? Was any political leader in a position to capture their support?

Facing Brazil's Future: Getúlio Vargas and His Opponents

Since achieving power at the age of forty-seven in 1930, Getúlio Vargas had presided over a period of profound economic and social change. In 1930 Brazil possessed little more than its textile industry; fifteen years later it had developed a full range of intermediate factory products. The year 1943, which saw the establishment of the Volta Redonda steel plant, the first of its kind in Latin America and the underdeveloped world, marked the beginnings of heavy industry in Brazil.

As he approached his fifteenth year of office, President Vargas increasingly raised the banner of economic nationalism. He was pledged to "a struggle against economic colonialism"; before 1930, he argued, an unjust international economic order condemned Brazil to be "a simple semicolonial community." Trapped in this "primitivism of monoculture and the export of raw materials," the country had been forced to import nearly all its manufactured goods, and this system, Vargas believed, meant low profits and wages, and the impoverishment of the nation. The economic emancipation of Brazil, he declared, would be possible only through a policy of industrialization led by the state and protection of its industries from competition and interference from abroad.[10] Although he did not support rigid autarky, Vargas saw Brazil's new future being constructed primarily by its own people as opposed to foreign investors. His speeches warned constantly against allowing foreigners to take control of key industries and the strategic minerals necessary for military defense.[11]


Vargas thus repudiated the economic liberalism that had dominated Brazilian political discourse for the past century. He denied the validity of the concept of comparative advantage. The "disordered individualism" of liberalism, and the myth that labor was "a simple commodity," bred social injustice and communism, he declared. "Political equality alone" was insufficient for "social equilibrium"; the liberal prohibition against state intervention on social issues was a means for government to sustain "the rich against the poor, and the powerful against the weak."[12] To Vargas the attraction of industrial development was that it offered an instrument to break free of the zero-sum game that ruled relationships between the social classes. An expanding economy based on industry, he believed, might not lead to perfect equality, but it would ultimately benefit the whole population. Such populist policies and views were also part of a tide of social reform sweeping the United States and Western Europe, where liberal certainties had been shaken by depression and war. The landslide defeat of Winston Churchill, Britain's conservative wartime leader, in July 1945 astonished the world as the socialist Labour party took over the reins of power. In the words of Franklin D. Roosevelt, the architect of the New Deal, this did indeed seem to herald the move toward the "four freedoms," and "the beginning of the century of the common man."[13]

Stereotypes ill prepare us for the curious figure of Getúlio Vargas in 1945, the populist dictator who displayed neither the charismatic magnetism, the spellbinding oratory, nor the eclectic thinking that one tends to associate with populist politicians. Rather, we find a profoundly proud, intelligent, and private man, an enormously skilled politician with an integrated and coherent worldview, which he confidently believed to represent the collective interest and future of his country.

Aspiring to be a leader who embodied the interests of the nation and not merely one class, Vargas was willing to take risks, confident of his own judgment and ability to control the events he set in motion. Faced with strident enemies and dubious friends, the dictator decided on an unexpected course that was to profoundly affect both the 1945 electoral campaign and Brazilian history: reliance on the nation's working people.

To prevent the elections from becoming a means to turn back the clock to the era of the First Republic, Vargas sought to broaden the political arena by mobilizing the people of the new urban-industrial Brazil, who remained outside the Social Democratic party (Partido Social Democrático [PSD]) and the Democratic National Union (União Democrático Nacional [UDN]). Hav-


ing now lost most of his conservative civilian and military supporters, he was free to formulate his populist appeal more categorically. Speaking to an audience of workers and trade unionists in the Vasco da Gama stadium in Rio de Janeiro on May Day 1945, Vargas placed the urban workers at the center of the succession issue. Today's self-proclaimed "champions of democracy," he declared, had never tried to implement the token social legislation of the period before 1930. For decades these "opportunists and reactionaries" had supported the "policy of the police state ... to stifle by force the demands of the people and the workers, the true producers of the wealth of the nation." Vargas then hailed the social and labor legislation of his own administration: the legalization of the labor unions, the introduction of labor courts, the system of workers' compensation, the implementation of pension and vacation schemes, the regulation of conditions governing women and child workers. These measures, he claimed, constituted a "code of rights" that guaranteed the "economic emancipation" of the workers.[14]

As he launched this appeal, Vargas conveniently failed to mention that over the past fifteen years he himself had frequently used the methods of the police state against the workers. Under the constitution of the Estado Nóvo, which still remained in force in 1945, strikes were outlawed; the social legislation Vargas was now boasting about was inadequate, loosely enforced, or contradicted by other government measures. Even so, Vargas could accurately claim that the workers "had never received anything, nor could expect any benefits" from his conservative opponents. The stakes involved in the coming election, he warned his audience, were high. A victory for Gomes and the UDN, who represented the "backward mentality" of the First Republic, would be a disaster for both the workers and the nation, since it would spell the return of the "oligarchical groups [who had] made the country a colony of international finance." Vargas took a more restrained position on General Dutra, who deserved, he declared, the confidence of the nation because he acknowledged the "conquests of [Vargas's] social policy." But this was the last time Vargas mentioned the minister of war until the final weeks of the election campaign.

Vargas's rhetoric in 1945 was not, of course, totally new or untested in Brazilian politics. He had himself pledged the passage of social and labor measures in his 1930 presidential platform. And the social question had become the object of legislation and government regulation during the 1930s and was no longer treated as the exclusive responsibility of the police.

Populist rhetoric was not, however, the same as actually delivering con-


crete benefits. And much of Vargas's vaunted social and labor legislation of the early 1930s had remained so many paper promises during the first decade of his rule. Introduced on an ad hoc basis, they had been only sporadically enforced and lacked the coherence of systematic government policy until the Estado Nóvo.

Whatever their practical impact, however, Vargas's innovative social policies and rhetoric brought hope to the masses and had aroused the suspicion of many members of the conservative classes, especially after 1942. "I have never proposed," he had hastened to assure an audience in 1944, "to foment class struggle, but rather peace, harmony, and collaboration among them."[15]

All Brazilian politicians, naturally enough, shared this common rhetoric of "class cooperation" and "social peace." For most, however, "class peace" was a convenient shorthand for denying the legitimacy of any conflict between workers and their employers. But Vargas gave these clichés a different emphasis because he did not equate the interests of the state with the employers and workers. He recognized the divergence of sectoral interests between industrialists and workers but deemed both inferior to the collective interests of the nation as represented by the state.

Social injustice, class rivalry, and subversion, he believed, stemmed from a failure to meet the workers' legitimate needs. With labor's rights guaranteed by the state, class struggle would be eliminated and the "bonds of solidarity" strengthened as each group contributed to the supreme goal of national development.[16] In this approach the key concept was the social integration of workers but with the flexibility necessary to justify action against a strike or forms of workers' protest.

In his policy of working-class inclusion Vargas had the inevitable political objective of winning workers' support. He was conscious of the natural repulsion that existed between the potential working-class constituency and the PSD, which he had helped found, with its conservative politics and elitist style. To guarantee the desired popular participation, it was essential to establish a separate political vehicle.

On 15 May 1945 a new party was formed that would have an enduring role in the history of the following two decades. Although it could have simply been called the People's or Popular party, Labor Minister Alexandre Marcondes Filho chose a more daring and class-tinged name, the Brazilian Labor party (Partido Trabalhista Brasileiro [PTB]). The PTB was to be a


classic populist party that spoke to class differences without proclaiming itself a class party. Its name, while excluding employers and the rich, was designed to appeal to a wide audience of urban laborers and members of the lower middle class. Getúlio Vargas, that "loyal and dedicated friend of the laborers," was named the party's "president of honor." The founding platform of the PTB declared that the interests of working people clashed with those of the "moderate right" and the "extreme left," by which it meant both the PSD and the Brazilian Communist party (Partido Comunista Brasileiro [PCB]). Having praised existing social legislation, the PTB called for greater union autonomy and the political representation of working people by the workers themselves.[17]

Vargas's ambitious plans for the PTB could easily have been frustrated by the political marginality and electoral inexperience of its proposed constituency. If the opening toward the workers was to bear fruit, it was necessary to foster their participation in the forthcoming elections, and to achieve this Vargas had to alter the terms on which the elections would be conducted. Decree Law 7,586, the electoral legislation issued on 25 May 1945, differed radically from all its predecessors. It was designed to enfranchise the working class and to favor urban over rural voter registration and electoral participation.[18]

In this way Vargas sought to prevent the return to power of the conservative landed classes.[19] To create an urban-industrial counterweight to the coroneis , Vargas maintained a literacy requirement for the vote. Although this restriction was opposed by the Brazilian left, it represented a means to favor urban over rural voting.[20] For all literate Brazilians except women who did not work outside the home, voting now became compulsory, and those who failed to vote were subject to a fine.[21] The law, which drew upon a plan prepared in 1943 by Marcondes Filho, also created a new voter registration system specifically designed to favor urban areas.[22]

These steps posed a serious challenge to the antigetulistas led by Gomes. In an interview on 17 April, soon after the announcement of future elections by Vargas, Gomes insisted that the only way to prevent government interference in the election process was for the president to resign. Brazilian soldiers were fighting for "the freedom of oppressed countries," Gomes declared, but at home they were "dominated by a regime identical" to those they were seeking to destroy in Europe.[23] In response Vargas mocked the "strange mentality of the enemies of the government. They demand democracy, the


vote, elections; but when they are given the opportunity for democracy, their reply [is] to call for a coup d'état."[24]

Until around June 1945 Gomes focused almost exclusively on the deposition of Vargas prior to the elections. However, the links between Gomes and the military were now being checked by Dutra's intrigues to win military backing for his own efforts to secure the succession.[25] These conditions eventually forced the supporters of the UDN into searching for support beyond the military and therefore to confront the broader issues of national development policies. Gomes himself made this transition slowly and uneasily. In an interview on 3 May he continued to insist that the "illegitimate regime" should first be brought to an end by passing power to the judiciary, which he claimed was the only surviving institution from the country's last valid constitution of 1934.[26]

In these exchanges there was an ironic reversal of roles. Vargas, the large rancher who had originally been among the beneficiaries of the First Republic as a loyal member of the corrupt political machine of Rio Grande do Sul, was now the impassioned enemy of the old Brazil. Gomes, in contrast, the former tenente revolutionary who had fought to bring the First Republic down, was idealizing the agrarian oligarchical Brazil of his youth. In 1945 Gomes repeatedly attacked Vargas for blaming the "errors" of Brazil on the "representative regime in force until 1930." Gomes's rhetoric presented democracy as a restoration and reestablishment, but it was a return to a past that he himself had helped to destroy.[27]

As Vargas compelled him to address broader policy issues, Gomes began to campaign openly on behalf of the plantation owners and the export agriculture that had sustained Brazilian society for centuries. Casting himself as the defender of the "rural producer," Gomes posed as the leader of an aggrieved majority, neglected and exploited since 1930. Arguing against "currently fashionable ideas," he emphasized that "the basic wealth that sustained Brazil as a civilized nation" stemmed from its mining and agricultural exports. The million Brazilians who now subsisted on urban industry, he argued, lived and prospered only at the expense of the rural majority. Victimized by bureaucracy, deficit spending, and the "confiscatory foreign exchange rates" instituted in 1931, the "considerable influence" of the agricultural producer had declined with the recent growth of industry. After 1937, Gomes continued, the plantation owners became relegated to an even more secondary role since under a dictatorship that had abolished elections


the votes they commanded no longer carried any political weight. Vargas's policies were based on the "false theory" that Brazil had to "break its armature as an agricultural country, because only industrialized nations [were] strong and rich." Reviving the old arguments in favor of free trade in Brazil, Gomes held that tariff barriers and the wartime disruption of trade had fostered an unnatural industrialization based on "excessive profits." Rural producers were thus forced to pay artificially high prices for inferior Brazilian manufactured goods.[28]

Gomes denounced the ill effects of the growth of industry and the cities on agriculture. Workers who were desperately needed on the plantations were being drawn into the cities by the government's public works and by "higher and higher" wages and shorter working hours offered by industry. The policy of "fascinating the multitudes in the cities with costly, luxurious projects" was provoking an "exodus" from rural areas and the "overcrowding" of the cities.[29]

Gomes took a stand against the nationalism represented by Vargas, stressing that an alliance with the United States should be at the foundation of Brazil's foreign affairs. Whereas Vargas repeatedly denounced foreign powers and influences, Gomes warmly acknowledged their contributions and argued that the support of foreign capital was essential to the development of both industry and Brazilian oil. Gomes denounced a recent antitrust law enacted by Vargas, the Lei Malaia, as a "Nazi-like" attack on free enterprise, and the "thoughtless opinion of a current hostile to foreign capital" that believed foreign investment made the country poorer.[30]

Gomes dismissed the president's recent "flattery" of the people as a "demagogic appeal." Yet, in a nine page interview on 3 May, Gomes devoted only three sentences to "the misery and hunger" of the "poorer classes." He qualified even that statement, however, blaming the problem on the disorganization of "public finances" and proposing no concrete steps to remedy it.[31] Not surprisingly, Gomes had few followers among the workers. His opening campaign rally held at the Pacaembu stadium in São Paulo on 16 June illustrated his weakness among urban workers, since the stadium was only half full and contained an exclusively middle- and upper-class audience. According to the radio publicity of the PTB, Gomes disdained the marmiteiros , a derogatory term for the votes of unskilled workers that derived from the metal pails in which they carried their lunches.[32]

Eager to counter these accusations, Gomes began to incorporate the


workers, if not into his program, at least into his speeches. Praising the "resistance" to the Estado Nôvo among a number of groups including the workers, he claimed that the workers had never been seduced by the dictatorship and understood the need to "divorce themselves" from the fascist state. Invoking Catholic ideas, Gomes declared that Brazil must move toward a society in which "the sad spectacle of excessive wealth does not confront extreme misery, ... in which the rich would be less powerful and the poor less suffering."

Beyond these paternalistic platitudes on the one hand Gomes pledged to perfect existing social legislation by eliminating its "fascist" features, while saying that workers needed "trade union freedoms and the right to strike." But on the other, he countered and undermined this commitment within a few sentences through language designed to appeal to employers: "state intervention should have in mind the stimulation of personal initiatives and activities and not its destruction."[33] Even if Gomes was sincere in upholding the right to strike, he failed to suggest that he would ever support this right in any practical terms.

A few middle-class Socialists in the small and ineffectual Esquerda Democrática (Democratic Left) founded in August 1945 supported Gomes for president, but the workers remained at a distance.[34] In a speech on 22 November in the São Paulo textile city of Sorocaba that he was subsequently forced to disavow, Gomes revealed his true attitude on the social question. The conflicts between labor and capital would be resolved, he said, when each side realized it needed and depended on the other, as the Church had for so long argued. Ignoring the past realities of repression, Gomes insisted that the workers of Brazil were not so weak and feeble that they required "vigorous" as opposed to "cautious and prudent" state intervention." Capital, he went on, required protection from "confiscatory assault by the state," and he suggested that the government should uphold only what was "beneficial" in existing social legislation.

Thus Gomes appeared to threaten even the small advances made by labor during recent years, and he assumed, in line with standard capitalist theory, that labor and employers stood in a relation of equality with each other, thus denying any objective basis for class conflict. The source of the labor problem, he argued, lay in the subjective and unfounded "belief" by both sides that their interests were opposed. The "free trade unions" in possession of the full "autonomy" he advocated would be led by men "conscious of their


duties, not just their rights." Disputes would be resolved without "disturbing the social order or by recourse to the always-pernicious general or partial strikes." This attack on strikes appeared in clear contradiction with his earlier pledge to honor the workers' right to strike.[35]

Thus unlike Vargas, who recognized the inevitability of class conflict, Gomes wanted a system of labor relations in perfect harmony. It was not hard to imagine him responding to strikes by using the police to restore the "natural" nonconflictual state of affairs, or blaming strikes on agitators and their wrong "beliefs." This opponent of the "fascist" Estado Nôvo offered a kind of free enterprise trade unionism whose "independence" and "autonomy" would leave workers wide open to the depredations of their employers.

Gomes's opponent, Gen. Eurico Dutra of the PSD, showed an equal lack of sympathy toward labor. But while Gomes opposed state-supported unionism, Dutra saw himself as the beneficiary of Vargas's influence among the workers. He therefore contented himself with vague references to "economic unification" and the "complete assimilation of classes," while pledging that labor issues would be resolved through the "impartial organs" established by "social law."[36] Although it was based on the agrarian oligarchies, Dutra's coalition included the rising class of Brazilian industrialists who feared the backward-looking policies proposed by Gomes almost as much as Vargas's trabalhismo . Thus the great difference between Dutra and Gomes lay in the future role they ascribed to industry. When questioned on this issue Dutra declared that Brazil "was on the road to industrialization. The 'essentially agricultural' epoch [was] passing. Such countries...[were] countries of pauperism." This development-minded military leader called for the "industrial utilization" of the nation's natural resources and the mechanization of agriculture. Brazil should develop its exports of manufactured goods, he declared in an echo of economic nationalism, despite possible opposition from the already industrialized nations.[37]

Luis Carlos Prestes, Queremismo, and the Fall of Vargas

In mid-1945 neither of the declared candidates were attempting to appeal to the urban workers, whose potential impact on the election had been increased by the recent electoral legislation. Yet Vargas did not go unchallenged at the forefront of the new popular politics. On 18 April Luis Carlos


Prestes, the hero of the tenentista Long March of 1924–1927, was released after spending a decade in the regime's prisons. Now forty-seven years old, Prestes was soon to prove that he had lost none of his great popularity.

The release of Prestes, the most illustrious political prisoner throughout South America, occurred at a decisive moment in the international arena, when the rigid divisions between right and left had temporarily weakened. If the Western allies could work together with the Soviet Union for a common purpose, surely a similar tolerance was demanded on the domestic front in Brazil. In 1945 Prestes and the Brazilian Communist party were able to operate in a more open atmosphere than at any other moment in Brazilian history.

The contending parties eagerly awaited the pronouncements of Prestes on the succession while courting his support. But Prestes waited until 23 May and the spectacular rally organized by the Communists at the Vasco da Gama stadium in Rio de Janeiro. To the great surprise of the antigetulistas , Prestes rejected the demand of the UDN for the immediate resignation of Vargas. He decried the "spirit of unrestrained and threatening party feeling" with which the campaign had begun. The solution to Brazil's great problems, he declared, would not be found in "civil wars or in redemptory coups."[38] Unlike the followers of the UDN, Prestes detected different phases and turning points during the Estado Nôvo, and he drew a distinction between Vargas and the reactionary groups supporting the regime. Prestes spoke of the thousands jailed, tortured, and killed by the dictatorship. Yet "hatreds" and "personal resentments" had no place in his own politics so long as the regime was willing to liquidate the "decrepit remains of reaction." Prestes appeared extraordinarily generous in taking this position, since Vargas had been personally responsible for sending his German-born wife to her death in a German concentration camp.[39]

Prestes, however, positioned himself carefully to the left of Vargas and independently of him. Like Gomes he claimed that Vargas was exaggerating his concessions to labor, and he refused to condemn the 1935 revolt led by the Communists through the Aliança Nacional Libertadora. Prestes issued an unrelenting attack on the "painful" and "miserable" conditions of the poor and offered specific proposals for radical change. His program called for land reform, credits to increase the production of foodstuffs, the elimination of taxes on necessities, a doubling of the minimum wage, a progressive income tax, and a tax on excess profits.


In these measures, he declared, lay the keys to the unity of the popular masses and the foundation of democracy. While Vargas promised state intervention to resolve the problems of the working class, Prestes argued in favor of self-help. Grass-roots organization, he urged, was the way to reshape the country to meet the needs of the people. "Broad committees" should be established "in the workplaces, streets and neighborhoods." Uniting "bit by bit, from the bottom up," these democratic organizations, open to all except "reactionaries" and "the fascist fifth-column," would help to elect "genuine representatives of the people."[40]

During the next six months thousands of such committees did spring up, and the Communist party, now operating freely for the first time since 1927, gained tens of thousands of new supporters. Working with enormous energy, the followers of Prestes attempted to forge links with members of other classes and parties, and their conspicuous moderation dispelled any lurking fears of another revolt like that of November 1935.

Prestes had therefore sided with Vargas, partly because the Communists were aware of the president's popularity among those it regarded as its own potential constituency. "You can't throw stones at the people's idol," Prestes informally told his supporters.[41] Some leftist intellectuals were disenchanted by what they viewed as Communist collaboration with a loathsome regime, while many working people and trade unionists now viewed Prestes less an alternative to Vargas than as one of Vargas's allies.[42] As a result Prestes began to take a harder line on the Estado Nôvo. The upcoming presidential elections, he declared, would not guarantee the real "democratization of the country" since the constitutional amendment of February 1945 implied the recognition of the charter of the Estado Nôvo of 1937. The way forward, Prestes concluded, lay in nullifying the 1937 constitution and establishing a freely elected Constituent Assembly.[43]

The links between Prestes and Vargas, his former jailer, in 1945 have long been a subject of heated debate. Were they the result of a prearranged deal by which Prestes received his freedom in exchange for his support? Was this a case of two totalitarians brought together by their xenophobic nationalism and hatred of liberal democracy? Or was this coalition merely the Brazilian representation of a general policy directive of world communism? Lastly, was the deal a sellout by the Communists of their revolutionary calling?

With so much passion invested in the debate, it might seem less than satisfying to say that the links stemmed from the practical needs and congru-


ent goals, however short range, of these two politicians and the urban masses they sought to lead. Both men had a common interest in overturning the political scenario dictated by the conspiracies among the elites in early 1945. Citing the "manifest disinterest" of the people, Prestes rejected the candidacies of Gomes and Dutra that were both built "from the top down" around a candidate rather than a party or a program. Prestes shared with Vargas certain nationalist prescriptions for Brazil's future, and both leaders were seeking to awaken the sleeping giant in Brazil—its people. Vargas was confident dealing with the Communists because, as he informed Adolph Berle, the U.S. ambassador, the masses supported him rather than Prestes and the Communist party.[44] Moreover, the support of Prestes would assist Vargas in gaining access to certain urban constituencies, labor in particular. Friendly relations with his regime's most persecuted opponent would further help to neutralize the "fascist" label that was the president's chief liability in 1945. Making contact with the Communists was less hazardous at this point than at any previous moment. After all, the U.S. ambassador himself had received Prestes in April, and photographs of the two men on the balcony of the embassy appeared to symbolize the newfound respectability of the Communists.

The cooperation between the two men, who never met personally, was a radical departure in Brazilian politics, but it fell far short of a true alliance. No Communist was allowed to speak at a getulista rally, and none of the PTB leaders appeared at the mass events and functions sponsored by the Communists. Conducted at arms length through intermediaries, the relationship was a matter of parallel action rather than formal agreements.[45] In an interview in August 1946 Prestes denied meeting with or entering into any formal agreement with Vargas. "The policies of Vargas and the CP," he explained, simply "ran along parallel lines.... Vargas was against a military coup because it would overthrow him, and the CP [was] against [it] because it would probably be aimed at them first. The army was primarily in the hands of fascist elements that hated the PCB."[46]

Vargas also set the terms under which the Communists operated. The Communists enjoyed an ambiguous status in that they were allowed to campaign but as yet had no legal standing to do so, at least until 27 October 1945, only two days before Vargas was ousted. For several months the Communist party's application for legal standing had been on hold on the grounds that the electoral legislation of May 1945 banned parties "whose programs violate the democratic principles, or the fundamental rights of man


defined in the constitution. " In this way throughout mid-1945 the initiative remained with the president, who kept the fate of the Communists in his own hands.

Vargas formally reentered the political scene in mid-1945 by means of the "We want Getúilio!" movement known as queremismo . The idea that Vargas himself might become a third presidential candidate first surfaced in late May in the president's home state of Rio Grande do Sul. But the appearance of queremismo as an organized movement was delayed until late July following the creation of a committee in Rio de Janeiro. Within days the organization spread to São Paulo, with employees of the ministry of labor taking a prominent part.[47]

In August 1945 queremismo burst onto the scene amidst large demonstrations of workers in the cities. At first the chief of police in Rio de Janeiro refused to grant the queremistas permission to hold marches and rallies, but the ban ended quickly following intercession from above. Addressing one of the queremista rallies in Rio de Janeiro on 30 August, Vargas hailed "the protest of the people" as a response to the "invective" of his opponents. His enemies, he declared, were those who, "living in abundance, [did] not wish to pay the men who work just payment for their labor."[48] The "laboring man," Vargas continued in a departure from his usual emphasis on the links between the state and the workers, was "no longer dependent on his boss or the state."[49]

The discourse of Vargas was strikingly different from that of Gomes. Vargas addressed an audience he defined as those who "labor[ed] and produce[d] in the fields and the cities, in the workshops, offices, factories, on the railroads, on board ship, ... behind the counters of banks and in the places where public functionaries work."[50] Gomes directed his appeal, by contrast, at "the class of magistrates, public functionaries, the military men, the middle class, small commerce, the employees in all branches of activities, salaried workers in general, and manual workers."[51]

The queremistas practiced mass urban politics on a national scale, combining spontaneous popular action with careful organization.[52] The movement had ample financial resources, and one of its striking innovations, which the UDN failed to match, was the use of radio on a large scale. In an effort to reach a broader audience among the literate and to circumvent the opposition from the press, the queremistas also placed paid advertisements in the printed media.[53]

The unruly demonstrations, in which tens of thousands of urban working


people were now taking part, took the conservative groups by surprise and produced an atmosphere of resentment and unease.[54] It now appeared that a dictatorship set up to put an end to class struggle and social disorder was now disintegrating in the wake of the largest popular mobilization in a decade. Vargas was now distancing himself from the Estado Nôvo, leaving Dutra and the PSD to inherit its legacy. Yet, as Adolph Berle noted, queremismo was also driving Dutra and Gomes "into a common camp, and probably with them the Army."[55] Indeed the army chief of staff, Gen. Christovão Barcelos, warned that the military would "oppose any action or the extremisms of creed or ambition that would lead [Brazil] into anarchy."[56] The conservative classes were fearful of and revolted by this unruly popular explosion. Speaking in Bahia, Gomes, for example, quoted Rui Barbosa, one of the most prominent figures under the First Republic, who had spoken of the "unconscious masses" that "oscillate[d] between bondage and disorder."[57]

In August 1945 in an incident at the Rio Law School, a traditional cultural redoubt of the upper class, the queremistas stoned supporters of the UDN. The latter replied by denouncing the episode as "one of the saddest, most degrading and grotesque spectacles" in Brazil's history as a "civilized nation." The UDN denounced the part played by the Communists in these disorders but believed Vargas was instigating them. "The rabble," they alleged, was now being greeted in the presidential palace. Vargas, who was a member of the Brazilian elite, was betraying his own class to its enemies, and practicing "subversive" behavior, dubbed comuno-queremismo .[58]

Communism itself became a major issue in September, as Gomes began to classify the Soviet Union, a wartime ally to which Brazil had recently accorded diplomatic recognition, with the regimes of Hitler and Mussolini.[59] In Brazil, therefore, the theme of anticommunism appeared almost immediately after the surrender of Japan and long before the onset of the Cold War. Gomes was now using this issue among his military colleagues to achieve his original goal of deposing Vargas prior to the elections. To remain silent in the face of the resurgence of communism in Brazil, Gomes told a group of graduating military officers, was to fail to meet "unavoidable responsibilities." He denounced the "radical materialism" of communism that denied God and sought to establish a regime based on compulsion and coercion.[60]

Despite the UDN's allegations that queremismo was merely a mask for Vargas's desire to stay in office, it is clear that Vargas had no illusions in late


1945 that he would be able to cancel the elections as he had done in 1937.[61] With his loss of military backing, Vargas could not fail to see that he continued in office only at the sufferance of the armed forces led by General Dutra.

Dutra resigned as minister of war on 9 August 1945, but he had chosen his own successor over Vargas's opposition. Gen. Goés Monteiro, one of the military strongmen of the 1937 coup, accepted the post only on condition that the elections be held and that Vargas avoid "ties of any sort" with the Communists.[62] At this point Vargas could draw some comfort from recent events in Argentina, where the triumph of Juan Perón in the events of 17 October 1945 demonstrated the power of the masses. But in Argentina it was the army that had allowed the people to act in the way they did; likewise in Brazil Vargas now recognized that he survived in office thanks only to the army. Dutra's candidacy was secure as long as he maintained his firm grip on the military. In September and October 1945 he concentrated on warding off Vargas's probing in military and political circles. The Estado Nôvo's top military man did not favor a coup unless absolutely necessary, especially if it meant a weakening of PSD control over the government. Nor did he share Gomes's degree of concern about queremismo , which he called "a sentimental movement."[63]

Yet queremismo had clearly unsettled Vargas's opponents and restored his political initiative. Unleashing new forces in the political arena, the movement had altered the terms of debate by encouraging the emergence of a third popular camp in national politics, following Vargas and not his elite opponents. Queremismo also increased the president's leverage over his "official" candidate Dutra, who was reminded of his need for the votes of Vargas's urban supporters. While placing Vargas squarely back in the center of the succession process, queremismo had deepened the rift with traditional conservative elites, both civilian and military.

In late September Vargas's own ambitions received a further blow when Berle, the U.S. ambassador, issued remarks that were widely understood as hostile to his candidacy. [64] A diplomatic incident followed, but by this point Vargas appeared to recognize that he could not bridge the chasm between the old elite politics and the new popular politics he was creating. His main object, it now seemed, was to maintain a popular following pledged to his nationalist agenda. In a rally attended by around one hundred thousand people at the Palacio Guanabara on 3 October, an impassioned crowd urged


Vargas to stay on in office. Vargas now stated that he was not a candidate, but he warned against the "powerful reactionary forces" that were opposed to a "genuinely democratic process."[65] .

On 10 October Vargas issued Decree 8,063, which added gubernatorial elections to those for the presidency in December. This measure antagonized Gomes's UDN, which was strongly opposed to local elections and some months earlier had succeeded in having them postponed. Yet this measure had no discernible impact on the military and the PSD, and it was not a major issue, as some have claimed, in the downfall of Vargas only seventeen days later.[66] The more important issues were that in October Gomes increased his standing in the military, while Dutra began to suspect that Goés Monteiro, the new minister of war, was himself scheming for the succession.[67]

But the proximate cause of the fall of Vargas was the issue of growing popular mobilization. On 26 October the police in both Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo canceled demonstrations planned by the supporters of Vargas and Prestes. The following day Vargas ordered his brother, Benjamin Vargas, to take over as chief of police in Rio, but the appointment was rejected in an emergency meeting of the generals. When Vargas refused to rescind the appointment, the military summarily deposed him. Dutra stood out among the leaders of the coup, but fearing Goés Monteiro he finally agreed to the proposal from Gomes that power be turned over to the chief justice of the Supreme Court, José Linhares. Immediately after the "coup that restored democracy," as it was called, the regime struck at the new popular forces, arresting leaders of the PTB and PCB throughout the country.

Twenty-nine October marked a moment of triumph for Gen. Eduardo Gomes, who had finally achieved his year-long goal of overthrowing Vargas and passing the government over to the judiciary. Linhares appointed members of the UDN to the cabinet, to senior military positions, as state interventors, and as local prefeitos (prefects). For Dutra the coup was less welcome but survivable. Although he soon came to regard the Linhares government as "totally hostile," one of his own followers, Macedo Soares, became the interventor in São Paulo, the nation's most populous state.[68]

"Getúlio Says": The Newfound Power of the People

Vargas appeared the great loser on 29 October. Despite his strong popular support—with talk of strikes, demonstrations, and armed resistance—and


some backing still in the military, he had chosen not to resist the coup.[69] Yet Vargas knew that he had created a new political force that in the future would enable him to create a massive new constituency. Refusing to endorse Dutra, his betrayer, Vargas retired quietly to his ranch in Rio Grande do Sul, urging the PTB to "fight and survive." The leaders of the PTB debated whether to run a third candidate in the elections, but it was finally agreed that the party's "enormous numerical force" was matched by its equally "enormous weakness as an electoral organization." As a result an alliance with the PSD in the December election, many argued, would facilitate the future consolidation of the PTB.[70]

The Communist party gained legal recognition only two days before the coup and quickly reemerged afterward following a brief outbreak of repression under the new government. On 3 November the leaders of the Communist party declared that the coup had only "apparently" been directed against Vargas; its real targets were "the people and democracy, ... the proletariat and its organizations."[71] The followers of Prestes nonetheless pledged their support for the democratic elements in the government while criticizing Vargas for "betraying the people" by refusing to resist the "fascists." But these were far more the sentiments of the party leadership than those of the working class itself, which condemned the coup.

The Communists then attempted to tap this popular mood and decided to support a non-Communist candidate for the presidency. On 18 November they announced the nomination of Yedo Fiuza, a former prefeito in Petrópolis who had been close to Vargas.[72] In a two-week whirlwind campaign the Communists brought thousands out into the streets to support their candidate.[73]

Although the coup had dealt the PSD's campaign a blow, the party's local machines were too deeply rooted to be successfully dislodged by a few appointed officials in the month remaining before the election. Yet Dutra's backers had lost certain advantages and faced the hostility of Vargas's supporters because of their candidate's participation in the coup. João Neves, one of the PSD's most perceptive leaders, recognized that Vargas had unleashed "unknown forces," whose full strength was "not yet revealed," and that those forces could make the difference between victory and defeat for his own party. He appealed to Vargas to support Dutra to "impede a return to the old, ingrained conservatism" represented by the UDN and to the "oligarchical system of the politics of the governors" against which they had both fought in 1930.[74]


On 21 November Dutra's PSD concluded a formal alliance. Pledging to support Vargas's and the PTB's existing social and labor legislation, Dutra undertook to appoint a labor minister agreeable to the PTB, and to appoint its members to the administration in accordance with their share of the vote. Exploiting the furor that followed Gomes's speech at Sorocaba on 22 November, Dutra went so far as to pledge action against employers who defrauded workers of their rights.[75] On 27 November Vargas finally issued the message the PSD so badly needed. In a short text distributed in millions of copies under the title "Getúlio Says," Vargas called for an end to recriminations and blamed the coup on "errors and confusions." "One cannot win without a struggle," he declared and he urged the poor, the workers, and the people to vote for Dutra.[76]

The election of 2 December 1945 vindicated Vargas's vision that something radically new had appeared in Brazilian politics. During the 1930s only 10 per cent of literate adults voted; in 1945 the proportion grew to 33 per cent in a total population that was 50 per cent literate.[77] In the country's urban and industrial heartland, voting increased by between four and five times, and for the first time São Paulo replaced Minas Gerais as the state with the largest vote. Newly registered voters in the major cities of Rio and São Paulo also had a major role; although it represented only 23 percent of the population of the state, the city of São Paulo provided 44 per cent of the total vote.[78]

The final election tally was Dutra with 56 percent; Gomes, 35 percent; and Fiuza, 10 percent. It was therefore Gomes, and the liberal variant of old-fashioned oligarchical politics he represented, who ultimately became the great loser of 1945. Backed by the local machines of the PSD, Dutra assembled the winning combination by forging an alliance with the new urban forces represented by the PTB and by gaining the last-minute endorsement from Vargas. Dutra's victory was therefore unequivocal proof of the strength of Vargas's personal appeal.[79] The surprisingly strong vote for the Communists in 1945 also served to dissuade the military conservatives in Dutra's administration from carrying out their plan to strip Vargas of his political rights. If they did so, they realized, they risked driving the workers into the hands of an even more dangerous enemy: the Communists of Luis Prestes.[80]

Getúlio Vargas was aptly described as "the great elector" of 1945. Elected a senator by both São Paulo and Rio Grande do Sul, another nine states elected him a federal deputy. The PTB made a strong showing in its first-ever


election, becoming the nation's third largest party. When Vargas declined the senatorship in São Paulo, the position fell to his former minister of labor, Marcondes Filho, the chief architect of the PTB.[81]

For Prestes too these elections marked a moment of personal triumph. Fiuza, the candidate he backed, had gathered 10 percent of the national vote, and the PCB emerged as the fourth largest party, a major accomplishment for an organization without financial resources, with fewer than a thousand members, and with no previous history of electoral successes. In a tribute to his own personal popularity Prestes received the second-highest number of votes in the country; he was elected senator by the Federal District (Rio de Janeiro), a federal deputy by three states, and an alternate deputy (suplente ) in another three.[82]

In the highly industrialized state of São Paulo Dutra gained 58 percent of the vote, followed by Gomes with 28 percent and Fiuza with 14 percent; but in the industrial city of São Paulo Fiuza gained 26 percent of the vote against Gomes's 24 percent; and in the port city of Santos Fiuza won first place with 42 percent against Dutra with 32 percent and Gomes with 26 percent. In Santos a Communist dockworker, Osvaldo Pacheco, was elected a federal deputy.[83] In most major urban centers the PTB and the PCB received an absolute majority of the votes cast for federal deputy.

Thus working-class voters, who were participating in elections for the first time, signaled the coming of a new day in Brazilian politics. In a book published in 1945 the distinguished antigetulista jurist and socialist politician, Hermes Lima, recognized the full extent of the transition. Throughout Brazilian history, he observed, politics had been the exclusive preserve of the "educated classes," which viewed their dominance as a reflection of their cultural superiority. Until now there had always been a "fear of the people in public life," because the upper classes believed that the people lacked the education to exercise their rights and would quickly fall "into the camp of demagogy... or anarchy." Better the people remain, as he put it, "a species of sleeping volcano."[84]

In mid-1945, with the mass enfranchisement and mobilization of working-class people, new forces were unleashed that, despite a conservative counterattack in the late 1940s, could no longer be controlled in the manner of the past. Whether they were supporters of Vargas, Dutra, Gomes, or Prestes, contemporary observers correctly saw 1945 as proof of the forceful and irreversible entrance of urban working people into national political life.[85]


6 The Populist Gamble of Getúlio Vargas in 1945 Political and Ideological Transitions in Brazil

Preferred Citation: Rock, David, editor. Latin America in the 1940s: War and Postwar Transitions. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1994 1994.