1964: Brazilian President João Belchior Marques Goulart Overthrown in a Military Coup

1964: Brazilian President João Belchior Marques Goulart Overthrown in a Military Coup
Photo Credit To Wikipedia Commons / Goulart with US President John F. Kennedy during a visit to the United States in 1962.

Story Highlights

  • Historical event
  • 31 March 1964
  • Brazilian president João Goulart, often depicted as the last twentieth century left-wing president of Brazil, was overthrown in a military coup, after spending only four years in office.

A Prelude

João Belchior Marques Goulart was born on 1 March 1918 in São Borja, Brazil, as the son of a rich farmer and landowner. He studied law at the Porto Alegre University where he graduated in 1939.

After his graduation he practiced law for a short time, after which he decided to return back home, where he devoted himself to his family business. His political carrier started when he met  Getúlio Vargas, a self-deposed president, who had its own fazenda (farm) close to that of João.

It was then that he decided to become a member of the Partido Trabalhista Brasiliero – PTB (Brazilian labor Party). His political activities led to him being elected president of the municipal committee of PTB in 1945. Soon afterward, in 1947, he was elected to the state legislature of Rio Grande do Sul.

From 1947 to 1950 one of his estates, São Vicente, served as the headquarters for Varga’s political activities until 1950. In 1950 Goulart was elected to the federal Chamber of Deputies. However, soon after he was elected he asked for a temporary resignation in order to become Secretary of the Interior and Justice in the administration of Governor Ernesto Dornelles, where he served until 1952.

His political carrier started in 1951, when Getúlio Vargas managed to win the elections thus become the president of Brazil for the second time. In 1953, when Vargas encountered a deadlock in his Ministry of Labor, due to the growing influence of anti-Vargas forces within, Goulart was asked to take over the Ministry. His appointment caused dissatisfaction among the right-wing politicians as well as among the military officers.

Despite constant criticisms and attacks in the press, Goulart decided to take over the Ministry and to introduce new policies. Thus, he organized the First Brazilian Congress on Social Security. In January 1954 he started devising his plan for the increase of the minimal wage. This was no easy task, since workers were demanding a 100% increase, while entrepreneurs were rejecting such proposal.

At the end Goulart decided to go with the workers’ demand and thus, on May Day 1954, he signed a law that increased the minimum wage by 100%. Simultaneously doing so, he also submitted his resignation as Minister of Labor, which was accepted by Vargas. Goulart then returned to the Chamber of Deputies.
When Vargas committed suicide in 1954, Goulart took over his place and became the president of the Partido Trabalhista Brasiliero – PTB. This allowed him to run in the 1955 elections, where he was a candidate for vice-president on the list headed by Juscelino Kubitschek from the Social Democratic Party.


Goulart as Vice-president

Prior to the 1955 elections the Partido Trabalhista Brasiliero – PTB, now headed by Goulart, and Partido Social Democratico – PSD (Social Democratic Party) headed by Juscelino Kubitschek, started talks about their joint electoral coalition for the 1955 presidency.

After some talks and disturbances, they finally reached an agreement in April 1955, by which Goulart was approved to run as vice-president and thus their alliance was sealed. The elections were held on 3 October 1955, and Goulart won.

However, the results were finally confirmed only in January 1956, after the Superior Electoral Tribunal approved the official results. By the end of the month both Kubitschek and Goulart had assumed their offices. Goulart served as vice-president for four years, mostly dealing with matters of social security.

In the 1960 elections, Goulart was again a candidate for vice-presidency. By then a change in election rules occurred, which stipulated that the election for the positions of president and vice-president were now being separated. This thus allowed for Goulart to be elected despite the defeat of his running mate General Henrique Teixeira Lott.

Lott was defeated in presidential elections by Jânio da Silva Quadros, the leader of the center-right União Democrática Nacional – UND (The National Democratic Union). Quadros’s presidency was marked with his intent to impose a more neutral and independent foreign policy.

He also introduced some taxs reforms as well as some measures which did not sit well with certain parts of Brazilian society. His decision to govern independently from all political parties soon proved to be a poor one. After spending less than eight months in his office, Quadros submitted his resignation.

His decision was sudden and unexpected, causing turmoils and political infighting. At the time of his resignation, Goulart was on an official visit to China, thus allowing for the military to strongly oppose his installation as president, based on their accusation that he was far to radical and also a communist sympathizer.

Meanwhile, a Congressional Committee proposed a constitutional change which would diminish the power of the president and allow the parliament to gain more influence. These changes were finally introduced with a Constitutional Amendment, which transferred most of the presidential powers to the newly created position of prime minister.

However, as part of this compromise, all sides agreed that a plebiscite is to take place in 1963, in order to confirm or reverse this decision. This allowed Goulart to take over the presidency in September 1961, serving as the Head of State.


The Presidency of Goulart

His powers diminished, Goulart took an oath on 7 September 1961, which he accepted with reluctance. Goulart dedicated the first several months of his presidency to the restoration of his previous powers. He nominated some four persons to be Prime Minister.

However, most of them resigned either relatively shortly after assuming office, or were simply not approved by  Congress. Goulart took a stand of greater independence in Brazilian foreign policy. Thus, at the Punta del Este meeting in 1962, he stood against the idea of excluding Cuba from the community of Latin American nations, a stance opposite to that of the United States.

Throughout this early period, Goulart appealed to the people directly, thus managing to shift popular opinion about the parliamentary system. Finally, when the plebiscite was set to take place in January 1963, Goulart won more then 80% of the popular vote, thus forcing the Congress to repeal the parliamentary system, which was done on 23 January 1963. Now Goulart had all his powers as president restored.

With his full powers back in place, Goulart set forth on an path of reforms. He expropriated oil refineries and uncultivated land owned by foreigners. He also wished to introduced educational, tax, land, and electoral reforms, known as Reformas de Base. Further on, he asked the Congress to approve his highly controversial land distribution reform, by which the government would confiscate and redistribute the non-used land.

Such ideas were met with strong opposition, and were finally forced to be abandoned. Soon politics in Brazil became increasingly polarized, with  confidence in Goularts ability to hold the system together diminishing. Goulart’s appeal to Congress to grant him even more power would have allowed him to introduce more structural reforms, but was seen as an attempt at establishing a left-wing dictatorship.

Several governors, as well as a certain part of the population, strongly supported the military revolt against Goulart. By the end of March, the military was already in place to depose Goulart and take over.


The Military Coup and Exile

The coup began on 31 March 1964, when general Olimpio Mourão Filho ordered his troops to start moving towards Rio de Janeiro in order to depose Goulart. Goulart was unable to mobilize his loyal generals due to their absence; some of them were on vacation, or simply unable to transfer their forces across the country in time.

With the military closing on Rio, Goulart left the city and decided to flee to Brasilia on 1 April, in order to try and stop the coup. Upon his arrival, he realized that he was lacking any political support which would enable him to stop the coup. With the situation moving away from his control he fled with his family to Porto Alegre.

Only a short time after his departure, the president of the Senate Auro Moura Andrade proclaimed that the office of  President was vacant. On 2 April he and the president of the Supreme Federal Tribune swore in Pascoal Ranieri Mazzilli, the speaker of the house, as the new president.

With such a situation unfolding, Goulart decided to leave the country and went into exile in Uruguay. He bought a farm there and devoted himself to farming cattle. In late 1973 he moved to Argentina upon the request of an Argentinian president Juan Domingo Perón, to whom he was to serve as an adviser on cattle exports.

João Belchior Marques Goulart died on 6 December 1976, at his La Villa farm in Argentina.

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