Brazilian military leaders fought alongside American forces in World War II, enjoying warm ties with the United States. So when the US responded with alarm to the Cuban Revolution, the Brazilian military saw danger everywhere. In a very real sense, they went on “red alert.”
The military was especially distressed by their government’s civilian leadership and a confrontational political climate soon developed.
In 1964, with the knowledge and collaboration of American officials, and with US naval support standing by offshore, Brazilian generals seized control of the country.
The military ruled Brazil undemocratically for the next twenty years.
Brazil had no tradition of military rule, so military leaders carefully maintained the outward appearance of constitutional government. If laws got in their way, they decreed a change in the laws. For example, dissolving congress was an unconstitutional act, so before they took action, the generals decreed amendments that let them dissolve the legislative body legally.
Still, the Brazilian military wasn’t a unified organization. Moderate constitutionalists were in control of Brazil’s government from 1964 to 1967. More dictatorial hardliners took over in 1968, dominating the government until 1974. Then the regime relaxed somewhat.
Along with the group of generals who took their cues from the US, there were right wing nationalists who wanted to make Brazil into a world power. This group was afraid of losing the vast territory that made up the Amazon River basin, so they paid special attention to road building and development projects in the surrounding region.
The Brazilian military also pushed heavy industrialization, focusing on the manufacture of durable consumer goods. Additional resources were channeled into mining, transportation, steel production, and oil refining.
By the early 1970s, the economy was growing explosively. The government bragged of a Brazilian economic “miracle.” In actuality, the military government had purposely created conditions in which new industries would thrive at the expense of Brazil’s impoverished majority. The military was able to hold down wages, suppress strikes, and even “disappear” anyone who complained.
Most ordinary Brazilian citizens didn’t benefit from the “miracle.” Heavy industry used only a small portion of Brazil’s pool of unskilled labor, and production was aimed at a middle-class market. Military policies put more money and credit in the hands of those who were “better off” and likely to buy cars, electronics, and domestic appliances. In fact, the bulk of Brazil’s income gains went to the richest tenth of Brazilian society.
After constructing some of the world’s largest — and most environmentally destructive hydroelectric dams — along with highways, bridges, and airports, the economic bubble burst. The miracle was over. And Brazil was impacted in a big way!
Oil prices had been rising steeply since the early 1970s and Brazil imported a lot of oil. The military had borrowed billions of petrodollars to sustain its developmental drive. They had also borrowed petrodollars to import the petroleum they needed. When international interest rates rose dramatically in the late 1970s, Brazil’s foreign debt mushroomed. By the early 1980s, the country had the world’s largest foreign debt.
Beginning in 1978, worker strikes in Sao Paulo, Brazil’s industrial heart, broadcast the revival of popular opposition to the military’s regressive social policies. The military had used economic growth to justify its continued authoritarian rule. Now, in the early 1980s, with an economic meltdown and increasing opposition, the military was finally ready to bow out.
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