Brazil Begins Era of Intense Repression Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The suspension of the congress and the promulgation of Institutional Act Number Five signaled a tightening of control over Brazilian citizens by the nation’s military government.

Summary of Event

Industrial growth in Brazil, already significant in the 1930’s and accelerating after World War II, changed the nature of politics in that country. As urban workers became an important voting group, politicians courted their support. The nationalist, populist tone of such politicians became troubling after the Cuban revolution of 1959. The Brazilian military, steeped in anticommunist ideology, watched warily as João Goulart Goulart, João , president of Brazil from 1961 to 1964, appeared to lean ever more dangerously toward the left. Institutional Act Number Five, Brazilian (1968) Human rights;Brazil Brazil, military repression in Civil liberties;Brazil [kw]Brazil Begins Era of Intense Repression (Dec. 13, 1968) [kw]Repression, Brazil Begins Era of Intense (Dec. 13, 1968) Institutional Act Number Five, Brazilian (1968) Human rights;Brazil Brazil, military repression in Civil liberties;Brazil [g]Latin America;Dec. 13, 1968: Brazil Begins Era of Intense Repression[10080] [g]Brazil;Dec. 13, 1968: Brazil Begins Era of Intense Repression[10080] [c]Government and politics;Dec. 13, 1968: Brazil Begins Era of Intense Repression[10080] [c]Civil rights and liberties;Dec. 13, 1968: Brazil Begins Era of Intense Repression[10080] [c]Human rights;Dec. 13, 1968: Brazil Begins Era of Intense Repression[10080] [c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Dec. 13, 1968: Brazil Begins Era of Intense Repression[10080] Costa e Silva, Artur da Médici, Emílio Garrastazu Castelo Branco, Humberto de Alencar Delfim Neto, Antônio

The Brazilian economy suffered under Goulart’s administration. Foreign businesses, fearing nationalization, either invested more cautiously or pulled out completely. Inflation soared, and prices nearly doubled in 1963. Workers organized strikes to protest the erosion of their purchasing power. Peasants in the rural areas of the northeast clamored for land reform. Even the lower ranks of the military talked about forming unions to promote their interests.

Political ferment among the lower classes came to an abrupt end on April 1, 1964, when the military deposed João Goulart. The president fled into exile in Uruguay and was replaced by General Humberto de Alencar Castelo Branco. During Castelo Branco’s administration, a new constitution was written, political parties were abolished and replaced by a government party and an opposition party, and attempts were made to stabilize the economy in order to attract investment and resume growth. Many of the stabilization policies, while bringing inflation under control, also eroded workers’ salaries. At the same time, however, they gave middle- and upper-class Brazilians hope that the uncertainty of progress during the Goulart years was gone. As investments increased, better jobs were indeed created for those with higher levels of education. Meanwhile, the military silenced opposition to its regime, by force when necessary.

When Castelo Branco passed the presidency to General Artur da Costa e Silva in 1967, Brazilians believed that the new president would ease the country back to democracy. Costa e Silva appeared less rigid than his predecessor, giving many Brazilians confidence to voice their opposition to military dictatorship. As vocal opposition grew, a “hard-line” faction within the military became convinced that the country was not yet ready to see the resumption of direct citizen participation in government. Those who argued that the military should take a stronger hold on power pointed to the violence of student demonstrations and the emergence of an urban guerrilla movement in 1968 as evidence that chaos would replace repression. Many believed economic growth would come only in a context of law and order.

By early 1968, more and more Brazilians were protesting visibly against the military government. Workers went on strike for higher pay. Students sponsored large protest rallies in Brazil’s major cities, sometimes with tragic results. On March 28, 1968, police fired into a group of protesters, killing a young secondary school student. The outpouring of support for the students, manifested in the huge turnout for the dead student’s funeral and memorial mass, strengthened the resolve of those hard-liners who believed that such demonstrations should not be allowed.

At the same time, discontent surfaced in the national congress as well. One congressman in particular, Márcio Moreira Alves Moreira Alves, Márcio , made several speeches urging Brazilians to show that they did not support the violence and repression. He even suggested in jest that Brazilian women keep sexual favors from military men until police brutality ended. This enraged many in the military, who called for the suspension of Moreira Alves’s congressional immunity so that he could be expelled from the congress and tried for crimes against the regime. On December 12, 1968, a congress in which the majority of the members belonged to the official government party voted to refuse to suspend their colleague’s immunity. At that point, the president realized that he needed to act.

On the evening of December 13, 1968, Institutional Act Number Five was passed. The congress was dissolved indefinitely, strict censorship was instituted, and habeas corpus was suspended. Instead of returning the country to democracy, the Costa e Silva administration had succumbed to the pressure of the hard-liners. The military was determined to maintain its control of the country as long as necessary to destroy what it perceived as the destabilizing opposition.

Dissent, albeit illegal and pushed underground, grew during the first months of 1969. Clandestine political parties of the left, including the Brazilian communist party, trained guerrillas for urban and rural warfare against the regime. The army and the police diligently sought out these groups, imprisoning and torturing members of those they uncovered. The forces of the right and of the left polarized. Guerrillas robbed banks to fund their training programs while death squads eliminated leftist suspects.

On August 28, 1969, President Costa e Silva suffered a debilitating stroke that left him partially paralyzed. It quickly became apparent that he was not capable of conducting the affairs related to his office. In the debate over how to proceed with the presidential succession, the hard-liners prevailed. The constitutional succession procedure by which the civilian vice president, Pedro Aleixo Aleixo, Pedro , would become chief executive was not acceptable to the hard-line faction because Aleixo had opposed the severe curtailing of civil and political rights in late 1968. Instead, the hard-liners selected a new military president to replace the ailing general. This man, Emílio Garrastazu Médici, had been chief of the intelligence service under Costa e Silva and commander of the Third Army in the south of Brazil. Convinced that it was his military duty to keep the country from falling into chaos, Médici accepted the appointment.

In the days following Costa e Silva’s stroke, but before Médici assumed office, one of the guerrilla factions carried out a startling action as a means of getting attention and as a source of pressure for the release of political prisoners. On September 4, 1969, guerrillas kidnapped Charles Burke Elbrick Elbrick, Charles Burke , United States ambassador to Brazil. Their demands for radio time and for the release of prisoners were met, and Ambassador Elbrick was released on September 7. In the following months, guerrillas would kidnap other important foreign officials. The government usually gave in to most of their demands.

The Médici government combined intense repression with a determination to accelerate the economic growth begun under Costa e Silva. Antônio Delfim Neto, minister of finance in the Costa e Silva administration, was kept on by General Médici. He presided over a period of remarkable economic growth that was dubbed the “Brazilian Economic Miracle.” Between 1968 and 1973, Brazil’s gross national product (GNP) grew at an annual rate of around 10 percent. The miracle came at great cost to the Brazilian poor. Real wages dropped precipitously, while the ban on protests and strikes meant that demonstrating discontent could be very dangerous. While the majority of the workers suffered, managers did rather well. Many in the middle and upper classes strongly supported the military policy. Brazil, during the miracle years, became the eighth industrial power in the Western world.

The economic boom, however, proved ephemeral. With the increase in oil prices after 1973, the bill for Brazilian industry grew astonishingly. Highly reliant on oil imports, the military administrations sought alternative fuel sources at the same time that they increased exploration for oil off their large coast and in the interior of the country. As inflation climbed once again, the large blue-collar workforce felt the pinch. By the late 1970’s, protests and strikes had resurfaced. This time, however, the military met popular criticism with a promise to open up the political system. Saddled with a huge foreign debt that had skyrocketed during the 1970’s, Brazilians faced a difficult economic future. The military was blamed for the financial mess. By 1985, protests culminated in demands for the free election of a civilian president. That year, however, a congress controlled by the government party once again selected Brazil’s president. This time, popular opinion was so strongly against the regime that the congress selected the opposition party’s candidate. Only in 1989 would Brazilian citizens finally elect their president.


The dissolution of the congress in December, 1968, marked the inauguration of the worst period of repression during the military regime that spanned the period from 1964 to 1985. Strict censorship of the media was enforced, and criticism of the government became grounds for arrest. The fear that “subversive” elements would take advantage of an open political system in order to promote Marxist revolution caused the generals to become overly suspicious of their fellow citizens. Those believed to sympathize with the left were arrested and sometimes tortured. Prisoners were often held without being charged. Universities were purged, and many professors lost their jobs. Fear spread among those who had earlier believed that they could pressure the government to demonstrate concern for the Brazilian poor.

The intensification of guerrilla activity following Costa e Silva’s stroke was met by increasingly harsh repression. Many Brazilian students and intellectuals fled into exile rather than risk imprisonment. When guerrillas arranged the release of political prisoners in exchange for their kidnap victims, those prisoners had to agree to perpetual exile from Brazil. Exiled Brazilians, while abroad, published information about the excesses of the military regime, but within Brazil, silence continued to be enforced.

The state coupled its censorship concerning human rights abuses with a program designed to increase the patriotism of Brazilian citizens. Students at all levels, from primary school through the university, were required to take a civics course every semester they attended classes. These courses, taught by individuals who had been certified by the state, denounced the dangers of communism in the region and were meant to inspire support for the regime. During the early 1970’s, in their struggle against “subversion” in the hemisphere, Brazilians provided logistical and financial support to highly repressive military coups in Bolivia, Uruguay, Chile, and Argentina. A massive public relations campaign was also mounted, to convince Brazilians that their country was on the way to international greatness. Grandiose projects such as the construction of the trans-Amazon highway signaled Brazil’s entry into the developed world at the same time that they often destroyed important elements of Brazil’s past, in this case a delicate environmental balance as well as a fragile and rapidly declining Indian population.

The developmental thrust of finance minister Delfim Neto meant continued need for low working-class salaries. Real wages dropped. Strikes were banned, so that discontented workers had no recourse for venting their frustrations and pressuring for salary hikes. Despite impressive economic performance, some members of the Brazilian elite also grumbled. Their complaint was against the state’s use of violence against their sons and daughters who participated in protest movements.

Widespread opposition to the military dictatorship surfaced only after the economic miracle soured. Repression, some believed, might be the necessary price to pay for long-term national benefits. A break in the economic boom, however, removed this justification for violence, and the military began to be called to task even by its supporters. The oil shocks of 1973 and 1979 would mark a new era of widespread discontent with the military and would eventually lead Brazil back to a tenuous rule of law and to future years of greater prosperity. Institutional Act Number Five, Brazilian (1968) Human rights;Brazil Brazil, military repression in Civil liberties;Brazil

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Dassin, Joan, ed. Torture in Brazil. New York: Vintage Books, 1986. Based on records kept by the Brazilian military and clandestinely photocopied by a group of lawyers and clergy, this work documents the routine use of torture against political prisoners during the military years. An excellent introduction to the period is provided by the editor.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Dulles, John W. F. President Castello Branco: Brazilian Reformer. College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1980. The most thorough English-language study of the first presidential administration after the 1964 coup. The author admires Castelo Branco and was given access to his papers to produce this biography. Bibliography and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Fausto, Boris. A Concise History of Brazil. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999. Richly detailed history of the country. Illustrated, indexed, and includes bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hagopian, Frances. Traditional Politics and Regime Change in Brazil. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996. A scholarly account of the political transformations of Brazil. Includes glossary and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Marighella, Carlos. For the Liberation of Brazil. London: Penguin Books, 1971. Written by the most important Brazilian guerrilla fighter of the late 1960’s, this work provides the view of the left. Includes Marighella’s “Handbook of Urban Guerrilla Warfare,” explaining how to participate in the struggle against the dictatorship.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Moreira Alves, Márcio. A Grain of Mustard Seed: The Awakening of the Brazilian Revolution. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday Anchor Press, 1973. Written by the Brazilian congressman whose speeches against the regime brought about the dissolution of the congress, this is a personal view of the 1964 revolution and of the role of Christians in opposition to the state. Provides a firsthand account of the repression along with strong criticism of the military regime.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Pang, Eul-Soo. The International Political Economy of Transformation in Argentina, Brazil, and Chile Since 1960. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002. Places the repressive military government controlling Brazil in 1968 in its historical and regional context. Bibliographic references and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Skidmore, Thomas E. Brazil: Five Centuries of Change. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999. Authoritative volume recounting the history of Brazil.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. The Politics of Military Rule in Brazil, 1964-1985. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988. The best and most comprehensive account of the military years, organized around the individual presidential administrations. Especially good at explaining the transitions among the generals and the importance of the nation’s economic performance. Good footnotes and index, but no separate bibliography.

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Categories: History