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Getúlio Dornelles Vargas ( ; April 19, 1882–August 24, 1954) served as president of Brazilmarker from 1930 to 1945 and from 1951 until his suicide in 1954.


Vargas was born in São Borja, Rio Grande do Sul, on April 19, 1882, to Manuel do Nascimento Vargas and Cândida Dornelles Vargas. The son of a traditional family of "gaúchos", he embarked on a military career at first, then turned to the study of law. Entering Republican politics, he was elected to the Rio Grande do Sul state legislature and later to the federal Chamber of Deputies, where he became the floor leader for his state's delegation in Congress. He served briefly as Secretary of the Treasury under President Washington Luís from which post he resigned to enter the gubernatorial race in his home state. Once elected Governor of Rio Grande do Sul, he became a leading figure in the opposition, urging the end of electoral corruption through the adoption of the universal and secret ballot.

He and his wife Darcy Lima Sarmanho, whom he married in March 1911, had five children.

Vargas and the Revolution of 1930

Between the two World Wars, Brazil was a rapidly industrializing nation popularly regarded as "the sleeping giant of the Americas" and a potential world power. However, the oligarchic and decentralized confederation of the Old Republic, dominated by landed interests, in effect, showed little concern for promoting industrialization, urbanization, and other broad interests of the new middle class.

Bourgeois and military discontent, heightened by the Great Depression's impact on the Brazilian economy, led to a bloodless coup d'état on October 24, 1930 that ousted President Washington Luís and his heir-apparent Júlio Prestes. Júlio Prestes at this point was the newly elected president. However, the whole process was questioned and denounced as fraudulent. Revolutionary activity began before the new president took office. Regional leaderships in several states dissatisfied with the state of São Paulo's political dominance joined together in opposition. Anticlimactic as it was, this was a watershed in Brazilian history — a liberal, bourgeois revolution that ushered out the political preeminence of the paulista coffee oligarchs. The military, traditionally active in Brazilian politics, installed Vargas as "provisional president." A populist governor of Rio Grande do Sul and the former presidential candidate of the Liberal Alliance, Vargas had been "defeated" by Prestes in the disputed election earlier that year.

Vargas was a wealthy pro-industrial nationalist and anti-communist who favored capitalist development and liberal reforms, but actually posed a serious threat to the elite Paulista gentry. This opposition would later be radicalized in the 1932 movement that was initially aimed at the establishment of a new constitution. Vargas's Liberal Alliance drew support from wide ranges of Brazil's burgeoning urban middle class and a group of tenentes, who had grown frustrated to some extent with the politics of coronelismo and café com leite.

Vargas from within the partisan elite ran on a populist and protectionist platform during his unsuccessful 1930 campaign. The coup d'état laid the foundations of a modern Brazil that is highly industrialized, but still considered a part of the Third World.

However moderate these aims were, opposition arose among the powerful Paulista coffee oligarchs who had grown accustomed to their domination of Brazilian politics. This opposition ignited the military movement of 1932 when the Paulista elite was defeated, a situation that marked the definitive transition from the Brazilian "old republic" and its entry into a new economic cycle no longer focused on coffee and other commodity production, but on stimulating industrial development. His tenuous coalition also lacked a coherent program, being committed to a broad vision of modernization, but little more specific. Vargas' long career (including his eventual dictatorship, modelled, surprisingly considering the liberal roots of his regime, almost along the lines of European Fascism), may be explained by his balancing the conflicting ideological constituencies, regionalism and economic interests within the vast, diverse and socio-economically varied nation.

Vargas, in effect, sought to forge a corporatist, centralized state along almost-Fascist lines to mitigate disparate class interests and to quell disorder.

Interim Presidency

Vargas would develop in response a sort of legal hybrid between the regimes of Benito Mussolini's Italymarker and Salazar's Portuguese Estado Novo, copied and developed some repressive fascist tactics, and conveyed their same rejection of liberal capitalism, but attained power bearing few indications of his future quasi-fascist policies. As a candidate in 1930 Vargas utilized populist rhetoric to promote bourgeois concerns, thus opposing the primacy — but not the legitimacy — of the Paulistamarker coffee oligarchy and the landed elites, who had little interest in protecting and promoting industry. Vargas during this period sought to bring Brazil out of the Great Depression through orthodox policies.

Like Franklin Roosevelt in the U.S., his first steps focused on economic stimulus. A state interventionist policy utilizing tax breaks, lowered duties, and import quotas allowed Vargas to expand the domestic industrial base. Vargas linked his pro-industrial policies to nationalism, advocating heavy tariffs to "perfect our manufacturers to the point where it will become unpatriotic to feed or clothe ourselves with imported goods." In his early years, Vargas also relied on the support of the tenentes, junior military officers, who had long been active against the ruling coffee oligarchy, staging their own failed revolt in 1922. Vargas also quelled a Paulista female workers' strike by co-opting much of their platform and requiring their "factory commissions" to use government mediation in the future. Vargas, reflecting the influence of the tenentes, even advocated a program of social welfare and reform similar to the New Deal.

Constitution of 1934

The parallels between Vargas and the European police states began to appear by 1934, when a new constitution was enacted with some direct almost-fascist influences.

Brazil's 1934 constitution, passed on July 16, contained provisions that resembled Italian corporatism, which had the enthusiastic support of the pro-fascist wing of the disparate tenente movement and industrialists, who were attracted to Mussolini's co-optation of unions through state-run, sham syndicates. As in Italy, and later Spainmarker and Germanymarker, Fascist-style programs would serve two important aims, stimulating industrial growth (under the guise of nationalism) and suppressing the left. Its stated purpose, however, as in Italy, was uniting all classes in mutual interests. The constitution established a new Chamber of Deputies that placed government authority over the private economy, which established a system of state-guided capitalism aimed at industrialization and reducing foreign dependency.

After 1934, the regime designated corporate representatives according to class and profession, but maintained private ownership of Brazilian-owned business. Based on a façade of increased labor rights and social investment, Brazilian corporatism, like that in Italy, was actually a strategy to increase industrial output utilizing a strong nationalist appeal. Vargas, and later Juan Perón in neighboring Argentinamarker, another quasi-fascist, kind of emulated some Mussolini's strategy of mediating class disputes and co-opting workers' demands under the banner of nationalism. Under the guise of workers' rights also, he greatly expanded labor regulations with the consent of industry, pacified by strong industrial growth. While simultaneously expanding the mandated rights of workers, Vargas, like Mussolini, decimated unions independent of his state syndicates. The new constitution, drafted by Vargas allies, expanded social programs and set a minimum wage but also denied illiterates (largely the underclass) the right to vote and placed stringent limits on union organizing and "unauthorized" strikes.

Beyond corporatism, the 1934 constitution also heightened efforts to reduce provincial autonomy in the traditionally devolved, sprawling nation. Centralization allowed Vargas to curb the oligarchic power of the landed paulista elites, who obstructed modernization through the regionalism, machine politics, and façade democracy of the Old Republic.

Vargas, the Integralists and the suppression of the Left

Threatened by pro-Communist elements in labor critical of the rural latifundios, Vargas reined in his shaky alliance with labor and began formally co-opting the less intimidating fascist movement.

As he moved to the right after 1934, his ideological character and association with a global ideological orbit, however, remained ambiguous — reminiscent of the early phases of leftist leaders Fidel Castro and Daniel Ortega. To fill this ideological void and promote his new rightist policies, Vargas began moving against the tenentes while encouraging the growth of fascist paramilitaries. "Integralism", founded and led by Plínio Salgado, who adopted Fascist and Nazi symbolism and salutes, offered Vargas a new political base. A green-shirted paramilitary organization directly financed by Mussolini and Hitler, Integralism's propaganda campaigns were borrowed directly from Nazi models — excoriations of Marxism, liberalism and Jews, that espoused fanatical nationalism and "Christian virtues".

Vargas tolerated this rise of anti-Semitism, even not being anti-semitic at all, and may have acted upon the Integralists’ popularization of anti-Semitism. One example of his alleged and false "anti-Semitism" was the deportation of the pregnant, German-born Jewish wife of Luís Carlos Prestes, Olga Benário Prestes, convicted of being a spy working for the USSR and an illegal immigrant, to Nazi Germany, where she would die in a concentration camp. Today is known that Vargas did not give that order himself, nor knew the fate of those who were sent to Nazi Germany. Vargas's "anti-Communism" and increasing conservatism also encouraged an alliance between the government and the Catholic Church, similar to Mussolini's arrangement following the Lateran Pacts.

Vargas forced Congress to respond to the growth of the Aliança Nacional Libertadora (ANL), a leftist coalition led by the Communist Party and Luís Carlos Prestes. A revolutionary forerunner of Che Guevara, Prestes led the legendary but futile "Long March" through the rural Brazilian interior following his participation in the failed 1922 tenente rebellion against the coffee oligarchs. This experience, however, left Prestes and some of his followers sceptical of armed conflict. Nonetheless, Congress branded all leftist opposition as "subversive" under a March 1935 National Security Act that allowed the President to ban the ANL, which was forced — reluctantly — to begin another armed insurrection in November. The authoritarian regime responded by imprisoning and torturing Prestes and violently crushing the Communist movement through state terror like that of the European police states.

Although "the father of the poor" expanded the electorate, granted women's suffrage, enacted social security reforms, legalized labor unions as a populist, Vargas also whittled down the autonomy of labor and crushed a series of guerilla violence (among peasants) revolts known as the cangaço.

The New State

Like some of the European Fascists, Vargas utilized fears over communism to justify personal dictatorship. The fascist "Estado Novo" dictatorship, modeled similarly after Salazar's regime of the same namemarker in Brazil's mother country, finally materialized in 1937, when Vargas was forced to step down as president by January 1938 because his own 1934 constitution prohibited the president from succeeding himself. On 29 September 1937, Gen. Dutra, his rightist collaborator, presented "the Cohen Plan" that established a detailed plan for a Communist revolution. The Cohen Plan was a mere forgery concocted by the Integralists, but Vargas exploited it to have Dutra publicly demand a state of siege in a chain of events redolent of the Reichstag fire, which Hitler presented as a Communist conspiracy to justify a dictatorship. On November 10, Vargas, ruling by decree, then made a broadcast in which he stated his plans to assume dictatorial powers under a new constitution derived from European fascist models, thereby curtailing presidential elections (his ultimate objective) and dissolving congress.

Vargas, like Hitler in the Weimar Republicmarker and Mussolini in the postwar Kingdom of Italy, consolidated dictatorial powers by acting within the established political system, not in a single coup d'état or revolution.

Under the Estado Novo, Vargas abolished opposition political parties, imposed rigid censorship, established a centralized police force, and filled prisons with political dissidents, while evoking a sense of nationalism that transcended class and bound the masses to the state. He ended up repressing the "Integralism" as well, once the communists were already defeated.

Vargas and the Axis Powers

The resemblance between the Estado Novo and the European police states suggested to some interwar observers that Vargas' regime was simply a "variant of the European Fascist" model. Brazil appeared to be entering the Axis orbit — even before the 1937 declaration of the overtly fascist Estado Novo. Between 1933 and 1938 Germany became the principal market for Brazilian cotton, and its second largest importer of Brazilian coffee and cacao. The German Bank for South America even established three hundred branches in Vargas' Brazil. In May 1941, after the invasions of Polandmarker, Francemarker, Czechoslovakiamarker and Norwaymarker, Vargas sent a birthday telegram to Hitler, using it as opportunity to convey Brazilian ambiguity, playing both sides against each other. It said, "best wishes for your personal happiness and the prosperity of the German nation". Of course, it did not mean anything, since even in the USmarker there were many people who had sympathy for Hitler.Such periodic overtures to the Axis Powers, along with rapid increase in civilian and military trade between Brazil and Nazi Germany gave USmarker officials reason to wonder about Vargas' international alignment.

Then the USmarker started to reach out to Brazilians, with the "Good Neighbor Policy". Carmen Miranda became a Hollywoodmarker star and even Donald Duck "visited" Brazilmarker, to bring Brazilmarker into the war.

Vargas eventually sided with the Allies, declared war on the Axis and liberalized his regime. The shrewd, low-key, and reasoned pragmatist sided with the antifascist Allies after a period of ambiguity for economic reasons, since the Allies were more viable trading partners and helped with money, and liberalized his regime because of complications arising from this alliance. In siding with the Allies, one agreement that Vargas made was to help the Allies with rubber production in order to receive loans and credit from the US.

This siding with the antifascist Allies created a paradox at home not unnoticed by Brazil's middle class (of a fascist-like regime joining the antifascist Allies) that Salazar and Franco avoided by maintaining nominal neutrality, allowing them to avoid both antifascist sentiment at home arising from siding with the Allies or annihilation by the Allies.

Vargas thus astutely responded to the newly liberal sentiments of a middle class that was no longer fearful of disorder and proletarian discontent by moving away from fascist repression — promising "a new postwar era of liberty" that included amnesty for political prisoners, presidential elections, and the legalization of opposition parties — including the moderated and irreparably weakened Communist Party. Historian Benjamin Keen believes that such political liberalization contributed to the downfall of the Estado Novo, being substantial enough to provoke a 1945 military coup d'état led by Dutra and Monteiro, who were alarmed with Vargas' growing ties with labor and the working classes.

The Shortcomings of Labor Legislation

Despite the passage of many labor laws that significantly improved the lives of laborers (such as paid vacation, minimum wage, and maternity leave), there were still many shortcomings in the enforcement and implementation of labor legislation. While it was impossible for the minimum wage laws to be evaded by large businesses or in large towns, the minimum rural salary of 1943 was, in many cases, simply not abided by employers. In fact, many social policies never extended to rural areas. While each state varied, social legislation was enforced less by the government and more by the good will of employers and officials in the remote regions of Brazil. Furthermore, Vargas' legislation did more for the industrial workers than the more numerous agricultural workers, despite the fact that few industrial workers joined the unions that the government encouraged. Additionally, while Vargas labor laws had positive effects and were met with praise, social institutions Vargas created were much less successful. The state-run social security system was inefficient and the Institute for Retirement and Social Welfare produced few results. The popular backlash due to these shortcomings was evidenced by the rising popularity of the National Liberation Alliance.

Second Presidency

Vargas returned to politics in 1951 and through a free and secret ballot was re-elected President of the Republic. Hampered by an economic crisis, Vargas pursued a nationalist policy; turning to the country's natural resources and away from foreign dependency. As part of this policy, he founded Petrobrás (Brazilian oil).

His political adversaries initiated a crisis which culminated in the "Rua Tonelero", where Major Rubens Vaz was killed during an attempt on the life of Vargas' main adversary, Carlos Lacerda. Lieutenant Gregório Fortunato, chief of Vargas' personal guard, was accused of masterminding the assassination attempt. This aroused a reaction in the military against Vargas and the generals demanded his resignation. In a last ditch effort Vargas called a special cabinet meeting on the eve of August 24, but rumors spread that the armed forces officers were implacable.

Feeling the situation beyond his control, Vargas shot himself in the chest on August 24, 1954 in the Catete Palacemarker. He wrote a letter to the Brazilian people known as his "carta testamento."

The famous last lines read, "Serenely, I take my first step on the road to eternity and I leave life to enter history."

On exhibit in the Palace is his nightshirt with a bullet hole in the breast. The popular commotion that his suicide caused was so huge, that it destroyed the ambitions of his enemies for many years, among them rightists anti-nationalists and pro-USmarker.

Getúlio Dornelles Vargas is interred in his native São Borja, in Rio Grande do Sul.


The trademark chimarrão consumed by Getúlio Vargas was manufactured by Theodoro Manzorli and Company Ltd., of Bento Gonçalves, Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil. Getúlio Vargas bought this matte in bulk. The herb was selected with much care and burnt in a barbacuá. It was packed by thick, fine leaves so as not to block the sucking-tube. From there, it was taken directly to the president in São Borja by a mule of the Theodoro Manzorli Company and unloaded in the his hometown farm. He frequently gave his best friends packets of this herb.

The music "Dr.Getúlio", lyrics by Chico Buarque, describe the life of Getulio Vargas and his fight for poor people and against international interests in Brazilmarker.

See also


  1. Loewenstein, Karl. Brazil Under Vargas. New York: Russell & Russell, 1973. Pg 348
  2. Loewenstein, Karl. Brazil Under Vargas. New York: Russell & Russell, 1973. Pg 347
  3. Bourne, Richard. Getulio Vargas of Brazil, 1883-1954 Sphinx of the Pampas. London: C. Knight, 1974. Pg 155
  4. Levine, Robert M. Brazilian Legacies. Armonk, N.Y: M.E. Sharpe, 1997. Pg 47
  5. Loewenstein, Karl. Brazil Under Vargas. New York: Russell & Russell, 1973. Pg 351
  6. Bourne, Richard. Getulio Vargas of Brazil, 1883-1954 Sphinx of the Pampas. London: C. Knight, 1974. Pg 198
  7. Levine, Robert M. Father of the Poor?: Vargas and His Era. New York: Cambridge UP, 1998. Pg 67
  8. Levine, Robert M. Brazilian Legacies. Armonk, N.Y: M.E. Sharpe, 1997. Pgs 186, 47
  9. Bourne, Richard. Getulio Vargas of Brazil, 1883-1954 Sphinx of the Pampas. London: C. Knight, 1974. Pg 70

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