ON November 10, 1937, Rio de Janeiro awoke to find the Senate and Chamber of Deputies surrounded by pickets of mounted Military Police. A few hours later President Getulio Vargas abolished the existing Constitution and imposed one of his own manufacture. Brazilians as well as foreigners have referred to those events as a coup d'état. But that term implies illegality, violence and surprise, and is not quite accurate as a summary of what happened. The illegality of Dr. Vargas' act was of course flagrant: the Constitution was abolished by the very man who was its chief custodian. But there was no violence, for army chiefs had seen to it that there could be no resistance. As for surprise, those who had followed the course of events in Brazil during recent years scarcely did more than raise an eyebrow.
It is in its implications, however, that Dr. Vargas' act is most liable to misapprehension. A coup d'état introduces a change of government, whereas in this case no real change was effected. What Dr. Vargas did was to give the coup de grâce to a fiction, the fiction that Brazil was a free republic. The truth was that ever since he had first seized power in October 1930 Dr. Vargas had been paramount in Brazil. The new Constitution was imposed merely by a pronunciamento, with a slight variation on that classic South American process: Dr. Vargas has not been an insurrectionist for seven years; he has become an evolutionist, determined to remain in power. The fundamental question in Brazil today is whether he carries the nation with him in imposing a régime designed to give effect to that determination.
It is hardly possible to appreciate the full significance of the new régime without pausing to consider the personality of the man responsible for it. Nothing could be more unlike the popular conception of a dictator than Dr. Getulio Vargas. He hails from Rio Grande do Sul; and it would be natural gaucho -- a long-limbed cattleman, booted and spurred, hard-riding and devil-may-care. Dr. Vargas is the precise opposite of all that and of all that such externals imply. He is below the average height and inclined to be stout. His face is full, and his nose Bourbon. His eyes, jet-black, are close-set, and his mouth is large and mobile. His voice is inclined to be harsh, and the downward droop of the thin lips conveys something uncomfortably grim. On the other hand, Dr. Vargas' wide-mouthed smile is famous all over Brazil. In his mental equipment he is typically Brazilian; but among a people where subtlety is an everyday quality, Dr. Vargas far outdistances any of his contemporaries in political astuteness. He also possesses a gift which few Brazilian politicians have cultivated: he has become a past-master in playing to the gallery. The army elements he keeps almost, but not quite, hidden in the wings. However, histrionics of that sort are a pitfall in politics as well as an art: and it is possible that the facility with which Dr. Vargas has hitherto managed to secure applause from a claque in the gallery may cause him to attach too little importance to those underlying principles which alone make for real achievement.
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