vargas era

Getúlio Vargas, populist dictator

The Vargas era began in 1930 when members of the newly formed Liberal Alliance party decided to fight back after the defeat of their candidate, Getúlio Vargas, in the presidential elections. The revolution kicked off on October 3 in Rio Grande do Sul and spread rapidly through other states. Twenty-one days later President Júlio Prestes was deposed and on November 3 Vargas became Brazil’s new ‘provisional’ president.

The formation of the Estado Novo (New State) in November 1937 made Vargas the first Brazilian president to wield absolute power. Inspired by the fascist governments of Salazar in Portugal and Mussolini in Italy, Vargas banned political parties, imprisoned political opponents and censored artists and the press.

Despite this, many liked Vargas. The ‘father’ of Brazil’s workers, he created Brazil’s minimum wage in 1938. Each year he introduced new labor laws to coincide with Workers’ Day on May 1, to sweeten the teeth of Brazil’s factory workers.

Like any fascist worth his salt, Vargas began WWII siding with Hitler’s Third Reich. Mysteriously, an offer of US investment to the sum of US$20 million in 1942 led Vargas to switch allegiances. The National War Memorial in Flamengo – a huge concrete monument and museum, which represents a pair of hands begging the skies for peace – today pays testament to the 5000 Brazilians who served in Europe.

Vargas, of course, wasn’t exactly practising what he preached. The glaring contradiction of someone fighting for democracy in Europe and maintaining a quasi-fascist state back home soon became impossible. After WWII, the military forced him to step down.

Yet he remained popular and in 1951 was elected president – this time democratically. But Vargas’ new administration was plagued by the hallmark of Brazilian politics – corruption. For this, a young journalist called Carlos Lacerda attacked him incessantly. In 1954 Vargas’ security chief sent two gunmen to assassinate Lacerda at his home in Copacabana. The troublesome scribe was only slightly wounded but an air force major was killed, precipitating a huge scandal. Amid calls from the military for his resignation, Vargas responded dramatically. He penned a note saying ‘I leave this life to enter into history, ’ and on the following morning, August 24, 1954, fired a single bullet through his own heart.