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Vargas, Getulio: Dictator or President?

By Kay Stacy

Was Getulio Vargas really "Father of the Poor," or did his death produce public sympathy that strengthened this reputation? Regardless, Getulio Vargas affected the history of Brazil more than any other character in the 20th century. Politicians have to offer something for each sector of society. Vargas was better at this than his forerunners. He proudly wore the titles of legislator, congressman, cabinet minister, governor, revolutionary, chief of state, interim president, dictator, senator, and popularly elected president (Father of the Poor, 1). According to R.S. Rose "For the poor, he was the paternalistic benefactor; for the middle class, he was the one who brought stability; and for the wealthy, he supported the status quo," (Rose, 1).

Getulio Vargas lived a regime motivated by both positive and negative features and reforms. Many observers have been puzzled by Vargas?s ability to judge events and retain power. Levine refers to Vargas as, "a small man obsessed with power. Relentless yet good natured, crafty yet bland, Vargas viewed the presidency as a vehicle for authoritative rule but not personal aggrandizement"(Vargas Regime, 35). Only once did Vargas's ability to judge events, retain power, and control others fail. To him, it must have been the ultimate of all failures leading him to abruptly take his own life (Vargas Regime, 36).

Destined for greatness, Getulio Vargas ruled over Brazil for 18 years. From 1930-1934, he was provisional president and dictator. From 1934-1937, he was congressionally elected president. From 1937-1945, he was dictator with the backing of the revolutionary coalition. From 1951 to 1954, he was popularly elected president. He had a dream that Brazilian politics could be used to develop Brazil nationally, internationally, and economically. His vision was to modernize Brazil (Brazil, 2). His many accomplishments speak for themselves.

Getulio Dornelles Vargas was born April 19, 1883, in the frontier town of São Borja in Rio Grande do Sal. He was the third of five sons born to Manuel do Nascimento Vargas and Dona Cândida Dornelles Vargas. Getulio Vargas?s father was a rancher and a political boss who had been an honorary general during the Paraguayan War and had remained loyal to the state chieftain in the 1890?s.

As a young man, Getulio Vargas enlisted in the local Sixth Infantry Battalion, only to help his admission into the military academy at Rio Pardo. Briefly, he studied at Ouro Prêto Preparatory School in Minas Gerais. He quit school along with his older brothers when they became involved in a conflict that resulted in the death of a classmate. Two years after Minas Gerais, Getulio Vargas joined the Twenty-fifth Infantry Battalion in Pôrto Alegre. He also enrolled in the local law faculty and became a member of Castilho's Republican Party. Not wanting to see military action, Vargas abandoned his military career after a quick and unsuspected crisis between Bolivia and Brazil sent him to the Mato Grosso border as sergeant of his unit. He returned to law school and received his degree in 1909, and one year later he was named state attorney general.

Rising quickly through the political ranks, Vargas became known as a protégé of a party chieftain, Borges de Medeiros. Vargas was bright and loyal and quickly progressed to the state assembly, to its presidency, to the federal Chamber of Deputies in 1922, and by 1926 he was finance minister in the Washington Luís' government. He had accomplished all of this by age 30. He was loyal and quick to defend the ideas of his political party. If he objected to bossism and only one political party, he never mentioned it. He became state governor of Pôrto Alegre in 1928. To secure the support of the gaúcho, he used his connections with the administration to obtain help for failing producers of dry meat. Also, he established the Bank of Rio Grande do Sul to provide agricultural loans. By now Vargas had proved a popular governor. In 1930, he received the nomination of the Liberal alliance as its presidential candidate.

However, the March 1930 presidential election saw Julio Prestes, the administration sponsored candidate, win the election by a narrow margin. In the meantime, Vargas had gained the support of many military and political leaders. Vargas played politics during the early months of 1930. He assured the present administration that he had accepted the results of the election, but at the same time made plans to overthrow the government. In early October, Vargas finally committed himself to the movement to topple the government (Young, 3). Three weeks of bitter fighting saw the resignation of Luiz Pereira de Souza. Vargas took absolute power as provisional president (History of Brazil,4).

During the next 15 years Vargas served as president and dictator of Brazil. Most of this time, he ruled without a congress. As provisional president from November 3, 1930, until July 17, 1934, he held sole power. On July 17, he was elected president by constituent assembly. Then on November 10, 1937, Vargas led a coup that destroyed the constitutional government and established the totalitarian New State (Estado Nove). On October 29, 1945, Vargas was overthrown by a coup as the result of a rise of nationalism and democracy sweeping postwar Brazil.

Even though Vargas was overthrown as president in October 1945, he was elected as senator from Rio Grande do Sul in December 1945, showing he still maintained extensive popular support. Once again in 1950, Vargas won the presidency as a candidate of the Brazilian Labour Party. He took office for the last time January 31, 1951.

Physically, Getulio Vargas stood 5 feet 4 inches tall with a round plump figure. He was usually clothed in a baggy white linen suit while working at his desk. However, when he greeted visitors at his Petrópolis summer home, he often emerged in his pajamas, which was an old rural Brazilian custom. He was not a man of pretense. Vargas had a great affection for diminutive jokes and black cigars. As a hobby, Vargas rode horses and played golf. He wasn?t first-rate at either of these, but used the hobbies as a means for private conferences. Vargas played poker into the midnight hours with his political aides, discussing governmental matters. During Vargas?s lifetime, he attended only one opera, leaving after first curtain. While at his desk, Vargas worked unceasingly, shifting volumes of reports on political and economic matters. He wrote extensive correspondence to friends and family. Vargas was a mysterious combination of positivist and caudilho traits. In the largest Catholic country in the world he named one son Luther and another Calvin (Vargas Regime, 36,37). In Father of the Poor, Levine further describes Vargas as a realist and a pragmatist, difficult to decipher, personal earthiness, slow to respond always thinking things out. To different people Vargas represented different things. He understood power and dreamed of thrusting Brazil forward to modernization until it could control itself. In addition, Vargas had a morose side, writing in his diary, "How many times have I longed for death to solve the problems of my life" (Father of the Poor, 1). Vargas hid his emotions from everyone, even himself.

Personally, Getulio Vargas did not establish close relationships with those other than his family. By 1935, thirty-four different men had resided in the nine cabinet posts and 94 men had governed the 20 states and the Federal District as intervenors. This was a high rate of overturn for a four-year regime. As a family man, Vargas married Darcy Lima Sarmanho in March 1911. She remained faithfully by his side until his death, always in the background. She became involved in personal charity causes and supervised all of the family households at the royal palace, the federal capital, and Sao Borja. She was Roman Catholic. Vargas claimed no religion, but he had several friends from the clergy. Together Vargas and Darcy had five children: Lutero (a physician), Jandira, Maneco, Getlinho, and Alzira (dad?s favorite and a law school graduate). As many Brazilian men did, Getulio had a mistress from 1937 until his death. Darcy never complained, but excused this as being the way Brazilian men chose to live (Father of the Poor, 16,17).

Presidentally, Vargas securely managed his administration. He was aided by Luís Vergara (said to be Vargas?s alter ego) who was chief of his personal staff from 1935 to 1945. Vargas dealt with each of his cabinet members discreetly, individually, and paternalistic. Often he would announce new policies for their departments without consulting them first. Isolated from the ever day world, Vargas was protected from the press and the public by his cronies and aides who sheltered him. Through his years in office, Vargas?s daughter, Alzira and Vargas?s three brothers, Benjamin, Protasio, and Virato all served in some manner. Vargas cared for his companions well. There is no evidence that he accumulated personal wealth from his position. Vargas had the "keen ability to maintain political balance and to anticipate developments. As president he proved he was neither liberal nor conservative" (Vargas Regime, 38). He did not create new and innovative trends, but used the ones others had proven. Vargas was not a "sentimentalist"; he sacrificed anyone and even" state autonomy" when they got in the way of his career plans.

During the 18 years that Vargas was President and Dictator of Brazil, he brought political, economic, industrial, and social changes that helped modernize the country. He obtained the title "Father of the Poor" for his battle against big business and large cooperations. While he was in office, Vargas instituted many reforms. He saw the population grow and shift from a rural to an urban base. The economy became diversified. Even though the Center-South changed drastically, the rest of the country seemed to be left behind. Rio Janeiro became a tourist attraction. National institutions thrived, transportation changed, and foreign influence was sought. Most important perhaps, Brazil emerged with a diplomatic voice in hemisphere politics. Some things did not change, including public education and health care. The rich were still not taxed, and land was still a source of power. Constitutions were still written and discarded, and the army and the elite took it for granted they could intervene when necessary (Father of the Poor, 12).

Politically, Vargas believed that many of Brazil?s problems came from its loose confederation of 20 states. One of his first acts as president was to unite Brazil. First, all of the state governors, except for Mina Gerias, were replaced with intervenors, who would report directly to Vargas. They could be replaced as the President wished. Second, Vargas proved a strong central government existed by quickly crushing a revolt of coffee growers in Sao Paulo. Third, in 1934 Vargas wrote and ratified a constitution that placed more restrictions on states? powers. It prohibited the state from taxing interstate goods or raising an army larger than the federal army. However, the constitution did establish a bicameral legislature to be elected directly by the people. The president would also be elected by the people, with the exception of the first President. Vargas was chosen by the Congress (Smith, 1,2).

Economically, stimulation of the economy received Vargas?s immediate attention. He knew that all sectors and factions wanted economic reform. Vargas listened to workers? demands and gave labor a role. He committed the nation to industrialization and greatly expanded labor regulations while creating growth industrially. Robert Byars writes the thoughts of one steel worker, "Getulio was different? he wasn?t too proud to speak with any kind of person even the lowliest"(Mello, 1). The same source continues to comment on Vargas?s motives, "I don?t know if it was just political technique. He was able to prevent middle class dissent by masking his schemes behind nationalism and ignoring the class conflicts in modern Brazil" (Mello, 1). He tried to create unity among the classes by avoiding divergence of interests between classes. This approach allowed Vargas to build a wide political base and a widespread coalition. It was the core ideal in the populist platform (Mello, 1). Vargas was able to expand social programs and set a minimum wage, yet forbid labor strikes, and deny illiterates the right to vote.

Industrialization came to Brazil partially through the WWII Allied effort. Raw materials were necessary to the Allied War effort, and Brazil could supply them. To pay for these raw materials, the United States invested hefty sums of cash in Brazil?s infrastructure. United States funds constructed highways, railroads, ports, and airports (Smith, 1,2). Brazil also gave the United States permission to construct air bases in northeastern Brazil and organize an air service. In addition, Brazil helped with air and naval patrol of the South Atlantic. Finally, Brazil sent troops to Europe. In exchange for these favors, the U.S. gave loans and technical assistance to Brazil for the national steel plant at Volta Redonda. Brazil also received three-fourths of the Lend-Lease aid of the total that went to Latin America, and helped Rio de Janeiro obtain a seat on the Security Council of the U.N. (Hilton, 1). Vargas also helped industrialize Brazil by creating the National Motor Factory, which made engines for trucks and airplanes (Smith, 1,2). Industry grew quickly, while coffee still occupied its place as the leading export.

Ironically, Vargas was overthrown by the same system that he had created. Under Estado Novo, strikes were crimes. The government declared regular wage and benefit increases and expanded the social security system. In order to maintain his paternalism and power, repression of speech and liberty were used. Journalist and writers were censored and jailed. These repressions lead to suspension of political activities and governmental support for modernizing the military. The army became more unified than it had been since 1922. Also, the recognition that the army received from its WWII participation allowed General Pedro Aurelio de Goes Monteiro to help depose Vargas in 1945. This overthrow, the generals believed, was necessary to stop the political mobilization of the masses, which would upset the social order. This would displease the elites (Brazil, 3,4). Of course, Vargas would advocate accelerating industry and expanding social legislation and again win the presidency in 1950. Thus, social change had been brought about. A former dictator had been freely elected as a president. Very few times in history has this happened.

During the waning years of Vargas?s political career and his life, he attempted to base his government firmly on populism. As a result, he alienated the elite, the military, and the United States. Vargas believed that overseas interest had been too slow expanding energy resources. Vargas created the Brazilian Petroleum Corporation in 1953 and began the Brazilian Electric Power Company. Arguments among the military and the nationalist destroyed political life and added to military intervention. Now Vargas and his administration would face charges of corruption. The military demanded that Vargas resign (Brazil, 4). Early morning on August 24, 1954, Vargas did resign and agree to temporarily surrender power to Vice-President João Café Fiho (History of Brazil, 2,3). A few hours later in the silence of his own bedroom in the presidental palace, Getulio Dornelles Vargas took his own life (Vargas Regime, 35). One shot to the heart ended an exceptional career. Vargas left a suicide note to the nation, making reference to sacrificing himself so that Brazil might live. There were actually 3 copies of the suicide note. John Dulles deals with this in-depth, including a copy of the note (Dulles, 331-335).

To summarize, Vargas rebuilt the military, stimulated the economy, sought international trade, and improved foreign relationships. His administration emphasized restoration and preservation of historic buildings and towns. However, he saw only a 4 percent rise in the gross domestic product. Brazils first steel mill at Volta Redonda (1944) was the beginning of the enormous industrial productivity of the later part of the 20th century. "The Vargas years had their greatest impact on national politics and economics and their least impact at the local level" (Brazil, 2). One of Vargas?s main goals was to teach Brazilians to take pride in their nationality, to discipline themselves, to learn proper values of self-reliance, to honor the sanctity of marriage and family, and to realize the value of hard work (Father of the Poor, 10). Vargas had the ability to make former enemies into supporters and to absorb rural and commercial elites into his power base.

In conclusion, was Vargas really "Father of the poor"? Probably, more so than any other Brazilian leader of the 19th or 20th century has been. The people of Brazil trusted him and showed this by referring to him by his first name or "Mr. G" or seu Ge (Father of the Poor, 110). Vargas was the first head of state to allow women to vote or serve on his staff (Father of the Poor, 120). He raised public expectations. The title, "Father of the Poor" seemed to be more in the minds of the masses than their lives. By the mid 1950's, four out of every 10 Brazilians still lived below the poverty level. Vargas's reforms almost never reached the people that he intended to help. Much of his popularity with the masses came from his radio broadcast, where he recognized the common people. This was something no other Brazilian oligarchy had done (Father of the Poor, 129, 130). The people loved Vargas because he remembered them and gave them identity, not because of the bread he put in their mouths (Father of the Poor, 137-138). Was he flawless? Certainly not, he was a dictator with an ego and a president, who lived on a dream that "only" he could transform Brazil. The urban and rural people who made up one-half of Brazil played a very small role in Vargas?s new Brazil (Father of the Poor, 122). He was not a sentimentalist. He repressed free speech and imprisoned those who opposed him. There were thousand of prisoners throughout Brazil, living in horrible conditions. Some of these were journalist charged with antigovernment activities (Father of the Poor, 56). The difference between Vargas and other rulers seemed to be his desire to use the political machine to modernize Brazil politically, economically, industrially, and socially. As the drapes closed on his life, Vargas had turned nationalist. Did he have a change of heart or had he just built on the wrong political foundation? Dictators rarely possess a heart. Presidents and true leaders do. Maybe he was both a dictator and a president.

Getulio Vargas during his last term in the Presidency, 1951-1954.

John W. F. Dulles, Vargas of Brazil, A Political Biography

Photograph by Cruzeiro.

Brazil. (n.d.). The Era of Getulio Vargas, 1930-54. Retrieved July 17, 2002, from

Dulles, John W.F. (1967). Vargas of Brazil. Austin: University of Texas Press.

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Hilton , Stanley E. (1981). The United States, Brazil, and the Cold War, 1945-1960: End of the Special Relationships. The Journal of American History, 68(3), 599-624.

Levine, Robert M. (1970). The Vargas Regime The Critical Years, 1934-1938. New York: Columbia University Press.

Levine, Robert M. (1998). Father of The Poor? Vargis and His Era. New York: Cambridge University Press.

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Young, Jordan M. (1969). The Brazilian Revolution of 1939 and the Aftermath. Political Science Quarterly, 84(3), 538-540.