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date: 20 March 2019

The 1964 Military-Civilian Coup in Brazil

This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Latin American History. Please check back later for the full article.

The coup that took place in Brazil on March 31, 1964, can be understood as a typical cold war event. Supported by civilian forces, the action was carried out by the armed forces. Its origins hark back to the failed military revolt, headed by the Brazilian Communist Party (PCB), in November of 1935, stirring up strong anti-communist sentiments. The Estado Novo coup, which occurred two years later, was supported by the Army (War) and Navy ministers. It marked the beginnings of the dictatorial phase of Vargas, who had been in power since 1930.

At the end of the Second World War, officials who had taken part in the struggle against Nazism in Italy returned to Brazil and overthrew the dictatorial Vargas, who nonetheless returned to power through the 1950 presidential elections. In 1954, under pressure from right-wing military forces, he committed suicide, thereby frustrating existing plans for another coup d'état. The Higher War School (ESG), created in 1949, had become both the birthplace of the ideology of National Security and stage where the French doctrine of guerre révolutionnaire was welcomed. During the 1950s, the military field came to be divided into pro-American and nationalist factions.

The alliance between the Brazilian Labor Party (PTB) and the centrist Social Democratic Party (PSD), which had elected Vargas earlier, now allowed for Juscelino Kubitschek's victory in the 1955 elections, disappointing the conservatives of the National Democratic Union (UDN) and its military allies. The latter encountered brief encouragement when the 1960 presidential election put Jânio Quadros at the head of the executive. In August of 1961, when Quadros resigned, his military ministers tried to use force to keep vice president Goulart from taking office. The coup was frustrated by the resistance of the governor of the state of Rio Grande do Sul. Yet the Goulart administration was marked by instability, in the midst of intense social struggles and by sharp economic crisis. The outcome of this drama began to take shape as of March 1963, when the government took a leftwards turn. The March 13 popular demonstration served as an alert and the March 25 sailors’ revolt, as the match in the powder barrel. On March 31, military forces carried out the infamous coup. The Goulart administration collapsed. Social movements were left waiting for orders to resist, which never came.