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 to picture him as the typical 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.

The political background must next be considered. If Dr. Vargas has been able to remain a virtual dictator for seven years, it is because in October 1930 he was the darling of the gods; and the gods of the gallery will put up with a good deal from their favorites. At that moment, when he led a revolution, he personified a popular reaction to the misdeeds of a political caste which had come to dominate the country like feudal magnates. Dr. Vargas was himself a member of that caste, but the fact did not weigh against him, for he had been the unsuccessful candidate in the presidential elections of that year. This automatically meant that he had become what is called in Brazil the "popular" candidate (the "official" candidates are those in whose favor the voting returns are successfully manipulated). "Popular" candidates invariably lead a forlorn hope, optimistically trusting that a popular rising might cause the election results to be revised in their favor. But Dr. Vargas was no optimist: he left nothing to chance. Instead of accepting his defeat, he enlisted the support of disgruntled politicians and promised electoral reform if the country would back a revolution. Prominent army leaders then took a hand. Rightly assessing the strength of public feeling against the old political processes, they saw to it that the reigning President should be deposed and the "popular" candidate substituted for the President-"elect."

It was on that wave of popular feeling that Dr. Vargas rode to power in 1930. The result was not quite what the nation had expected. The time-honored republican Constitution of 1891 was abrogated and a dictatorship declared. Public opinion became disturbed when it saw that the dictatorship showed no signs of ending. From the early days of their colonial history and throughout their life as an independent nation Brazilians have been intolerant of anything savoring of dictatorship. It was not long, therefore, before the nation began to grow restive, and in 1932 the State of São Paulo led a revolt with the declared objective of restoring the Constitution. The revolt was crushed, but not before Dr. Vargas had seen that his position would be untenable without a constitution of some sort. By careful selective processes he secured a majority in a Constituent Assembly which he summoned in 1933; and in July 1934, after a constitution had been evolved, he was elected President of the Republic.

A Brazilian publicist, Dr. Mario Pinto Serva, summed up the prevailing feeling about that Constitution when he wrote that "with its Bolshevist, Fascist, Syndicalist and Clerical ideas" it was "an absolutely indigestible fruit salad." But the people were content to let things slide. The new Constitution, though it gave them but a modicum of political liberty, at least ensured that every four years there would be a new president; and Brazilians were confident that in the inevitable reshuffling of political places every four years lay their safeguard against any further attempts at dictatorship.

Sixteen months rolled by, politically uneventful and socially peaceful. And then a curious thing happened. The unsuspecting Brazilian citizen was suddenly startled by a presidential tocsin announcing that the country was in imminent danger of being submerged under a tidal wave of Communism. All that had really happened was that there had been insubordination in one of the army battalions at Rio. But the presidential alarm signal ran otherwise. "The Eye of Moscow," it boomed, was on Brazil and Bolshevism was hammering at the gate! Stunned and mystified, the people saw the Constituent Assembly (which had transformed itself en bloc into the Federal Congress) arm the President with a "state of siege." Meanwhile, Dr. Vargas took soundings and satisfied himself that the peril of Communism was a bogy he could use for a twofold purpose. Brazilians do not view Communism with any sympathy, and to persuade them that their country was threatened by it was to enlist their moral support in suppressing it. As an easy corollary to that, Dr. Vargas proceeded to stigmatize all opposition to himself and his acts as Communist attempts to subvert the State. The Constitution was amended in 48 hours and the "state of siege" converted into a "state of war," with the death penalty for "political crimes," regarding which the Supreme Court was declared incompetent to pass judgment. Prisons were rapidly filled. On the other hand, foreign Fascist and Nazi organizations were allowed a liberty of action hitherto unknown in Brazil, while "Integralism," a home-made version of both, was subsidized and encouraged. Brazilians began to be highly suspicious.

According to the Constitution, presidential elections had to be held in January 1938, and the President, whose term of office expired in May, was not eligible for reëlection. Brazilians were by now well aware of Dr. Vargas' fondness for office, and they had an uneasy feeling that by once more alleging that the country was "in grave danger" he would find means of driving a presidential coach and four through the constitutional prohibition. What nobody foresaw was that he would clothe his personal ambition in a new constitution of Fascist form. That, however, is precisely what happened on November 10, 1937. Brazil is now like a man severely but unexpectedly wounded. Only gradually is it beginning to feel the force of the shock and to take stock of the gravity of the situation. Brazilians are not one whit more inclined to Fascism than they are to Communism, and they feel that their historic traditions of liberalism have been betrayed. The shock is that the betrayer now wields dictatorial power.


Economic difficulties have been alleged by Dr. Vargas in partial justification of his action. But the internal economy of the country is quite sound. Trade turnover and production values have been steadily increasing, and government revenue has been constantly rising. The situation as regards foreign trade and the foreign debt has not been satisfactory, but there is nothing desperate about it and many items of export show steady development. From 1933 to 1936 the annual balance of foreign trade in favor of exports varied between £11,300,000 and £16,-400,000 (sterling values), while for the nine months ending September 1937 it was £6,300,000. The worst patch has been coffee, Brazil's principal export product. Fantastic and expensive schemes for "valorizing" it have ended in bleeding the industry nearly white and in perpetuating production in excess of world market requirements. The financing of the foreign debt service, even on the much-reduced scale of the 1934 "Aranha scheme," also presents difficulties. But neither of these problems is insuperable, and a mere change of régime can hardly be thought to contribute much, if anything, to their solution. Nor is it to be supposed that Dr. Vargas thinks so either. His concern for the past seven years has been to manœuvre himself into a position where, by sabotaging existing political institutions, he could be sure that his own power would remain unchallenged. In order to strengthen his position still further he has made a bid for popular support by instituting a large number of social reforms.

So much for the loaves and fishes. On the psychological side Dr. Vargas adopted tactics altogether new in Brazil. A skillful and unremitting anti-foreign campaign was started, and foreign investors were held up to obloquy as "usurers who had long since received back in interest the capital they had invested in Brazil and to whom therefore nothing more was morally owing." Nationalist sentiment was eventually worked up to a high pitch. Thus when Dr. Vargas ushered in his new régime last November, and simultaneously suspended the service of the foreign debt, the one act bolstered up the other psychologically. The new régime was to shine forth in all the glory of a new nationalist movement, culminating logically in the creation of an authoritarian state in which -- so runs the official benediction -- "the Word of the government shall henceforth be like the divine Creative Word."


It has been said that Brazilians are "supine under the new régime." Appearances are sometimes deceptive, and it would be a mistake to assume that Brazilians have prostrated themselves before the Constitution which Dr. Vargas produced like a rabbit out of a hat. Openly expressed disapproval would be fraught with dire consequences, for though the new Constitution begins hopefully enough by stating that "political power emanates from the people," it ends on a sinister note. "A state of emergency," it says, "is declared throughout the country" -- and that is a state of affairs under which the Supreme Court itself is powerless. The President's power is absolute. He can arrest, imprison and order domiciliary visits and no one can gainsay him. "Written communications and the spoken word" are subject to his unfettered control. No organ of independent public opinion is permitted, and the Directed Economy which he introduced in 1930 has inevitably degenerated into the Directed Thought which enslaves Brazil today.

It is true that Brazilians have never attached overmuch importance to the letter of their republican constitutions; these instruments enabled every President to do pretty much as he liked -- during four years. But they regard personal freedom and political liberty as their birthright, and in that respect their constitutions always gave them the last word. Under the new Constitution of Dr. Vargas they can have no illusions on that score, though it may take them some time to realize all the implications of the conjuring trick. It may also be true in some senses that Brazilians are not yet inclined to take their new fundamental law too seriously. But there is one Brazilian who takes both it and himself very seriously. Dr. Vargas' first care has been to set up a "Committee of Doctrine and Divulgation of the Régime." That committee's activities in the press and over the radio leave little doubt as to what Dr. Vargas intends the Brazilian public to understand by "The New Brazilian Democracy."

Some of the more typical of the committee's pontifical declarations are enlightening: "The authoritarian state is the true realization of democracy." "The new Constitution does not conceive of democracy in any negative form, as did the [Brazilian] political charters inspired by liberalism, for liberalism no longer corresponds to the new sense of life. . . . In the new régime democracy assumes a positive, constructive character, whereby the individual is made one with the state." "In the authoritarian democracy the state is not the enemy of the citizen, as it was always considered in liberal democracy." "In the strong state liberty is not suppressed. It merely receives its just and necessary limitation." "Movements of political thought directed or oriented by private persons cannot be tolerated." "Liberal democracy has gone bankrupt the whole world over and all nations are marching resolutely towards the Right Wing to find stability in authoritarian government. Individualism nowadays is as dead as history. The state has become mysticised."

That is a typical collection of the concepts that are being daily instilled into the eyes and ears of the Brazilian nation. The President himself has given an even more pithy explanation of the new régime. "The new system," he said in an interview he gave to the Lokal-Anzeiger at the end of 1937, "is the consecration of authoritarian government."


The issues thus raised in Brazil converge into the question: Is the new régime likely to be stable? In searching for the answer it is well to insist that all Brazilian political traditions have been liberal. Of all South American countries, Brazil is the one where, in spite of setbacks and disappointments, the attainment of democratic freedom and liberal government has been a constant ideal.

The new Constitution still has to be submitted to a plebiscite, as and when the President of the Republic may think fit. Its terms therefore can hardly be considered a safe guide to current opinion in Brazil. Its most informative clauses are those which provide that Dr. Vargas shall remain in power for six years and that he may nominate his successor. For the rest, it is scarcely more than a hodge-podge of Fascism and Nazism. But the "Committee of Doctrine" is very insistent on what it considers the essential feature of the new régime: that the individual is nothing and the state everything. The régime has been proclaimed as "an autocratic form of democratic government." That is a hard saying, the real significance of which appears to be that Dr. Vargas has gone back three centuries and, like Louis XIV, is convinced that "L'État, c'est moi."

Now it has been an unwritten law in Brazil for nearly a century -- a law so binding that a Brazilian emperor felt constrained to pay homage to it in order to keep his crown -- that the "will of the people is sovereign." All Brazilian rulers, whether under the Monarchy or the Republic, have bowed to that political principle; and however far from it some of them strayed at times, they never failed to recognize that in its ultimate application it was inviolable. It was precisely because, though paying lip service to a liberal constitution, the political caste in Brazil had begun to act like oligarchs that the people stood aside in 1930 and allowed Dr. Vargas to depose the very man to whom he owed his rapid political advancement. He posed as the upholder of the sovereign will of the people, and solemnly promised electoral reform. That he thereupon introduced a dictatorship was a shock to all Brazilians, and when the 1934 Constitution was eventually promulgated they shrugged their shoulders both at the manner and the matter of it. They accepted it for two reasons: it had been passed by a Constituent Assembly, and its mere existence reaffirmed the unwritten law that the people's will was sovereign. It is for that reason that, in now making the nation swallow his second period of dictatorship, Dr. Vargas has been so careful to sugar the pill with a ready-made charter. Thereby he hopes to keep alive the illusion that the people's will is still sovereign. There is, it is doctrinally declared, to be "direct contact" between President and People, and all political parties have therefore been suppressed. Such an act is less violent than it might seem. For the last twenty-five years political parties in Brazil (with the recent exception of Integralism) have had no political program. They have been mere vote-collecting machines geared to satisfy personal ambitions. Their suppression, therefore, while strengthening Dr. Vargas' position as an independent ruler, has caused few heart-burnings among the mass of the people.

Since his accession to power in 1930, too, the President has been unremitting in his policy of degrading political friend and foe alike. Politicians who were opposed to him but could serve his purpose have been lured into the acceptance of public appointments. Friends who have fawned on him have been used and then cast contemptuously aside. It is therefore not surprising that the word "politician" is in such bad odor in Brazil. As for over-popular friends and dangerous opponents, they have been imprisoned or have fled the country to escape arrest. The result is that no public figure is left around whom any constructive opposition could rally or find serious expression. Thus on what may be called the negative side Dr. Vargas has remained sole master of the situation.

For active support he has relied on army chiefs. They form a class apart in the community, but do not constitute what is usually understood by a military caste. Indeed, by historical tradition they regard themselves as the upholders of republican institutions. They therefore had to be convinced that in supporting Dr. Vargas they were performing a patriotic duty. The task was not too difficult. The army has a supreme contempt for the politicos, for it considers that it has too often been called in, ostensibly to maintain law and order, but in reality to serve the ends of political self-seekers. Moreover, the army has been strenuously opposed to foreign Fascism and home-made Integralism. To secure army support, therefore, it sufficed for the President to raise the Communist bogy and to convince responsible army leaders that his political opponents were fomenting Communism for their own purposes. Thus, after pitting Fascism and Integralism against "Communism," Dr. Vargas was able to count on the army to crush all three, for the army is protecting a movement which it hopes is national, but which it is prepared to accept as nationalist. Yet it is in his reliance on army support that the essential weakness of Dr. Getulio Vargas' position lies. Six months ago his flatterers formed a Getulista party. If Dr. Getulio Vargas is to remain in power he must be able to convince "all the army all the time" that he is really a good Nacionalista and not merely a Getulista.


It is unlikely that the new régime will work any very far-reaching change on Brazil's foreign relations, for paradoxically enough German and Italian influences do not stand to gain much by the shift of régime -- a fact of which Berlin and Rome are now well aware. Their usefulness to Dr. Vargas ceased directly the liberal régime had been abolished. He has stolen all their thunder, and nationalized and embodied it in his new Constitution. Moreover, apart from the hostility of his army supporters to Fascism, Dr. Vargas knows full well that his countrymen have in recent months grown alarmed at Germany's colonial claims. Those ambitions are considered to be directed not merely towards Africa, but to the far richer territory of Brazil. How Germany would propose to accomplish such designs is not discussed; but the danger is felt to be real and it has been the subject of frequent comment in the Brazilian press. In the case of Italy it is not "colonization" that is feared but "intervention" as in Spain. England and France have been held up to disfavor in Brazilian eyes in their rôle of creditor nations. In foreign relations, therefore, Dr. Vargas will have the support of the majority of Brazilians in pursuing a policy of mere convenience towards Europe, while cultivating a closer understanding with the United States, "Brazil's best customer and best friend."

What makes Brazil's immediate future obscure, however, is the doctrine that "the individual is integrated in the state." That is quite a new conception for the Brazilian citizen, who has always been a thorough-going individualist. It is true that during his seven years of personal government Dr. Vargas has identified himself with many Brazilian aspirations. Above all he has harped on the chord that Brazil has been exploited by the (European) foreigner and that the old political caste betrayed the country by selling it to foreign moneylenders, domiciled chiefly in London. But neither in internal politics nor in foreign affairs have the motives actuating Dr. Vargas ever crystallized into anything more stable than opportunism. Brazilians may think that the sacrifice of personal freedom is rather a high price to pay for a few social reforms, while the suppression of political liberty does not go very far in settling their financial difficulties with other nations. Finally, ever since 1930 Dr. Vargas has been at pains to weaken the autonomy of the twenty States of the Union. Such rigid concentration of power in his own hands, however well-intentioned, might conceivably create problems for the future. While every Brazilian is proud of his nationality, the public and official burning of all State flags recently was a symbolic act which seared many a heart. Over-centralization of government in a country as large and diversified as Brazil may not make for unification at all, but for disintegration. Local patriotisms are strong; and there is always the risk that by trying to stifle them Dr. Vargas may in some cases have kindled the fires of separatism.

A foreign diplomatist once said that Brazil was a country where water flowed uphill. But the real point is not that the unexpected happens in Brazil. It is that Brazilians have a peculiar faculty of adapting the unexpected to themselves. This time, however, their problem is a very real one. The constitutional mould in which the new régime has been cast is wholly alien to their political tradition and temperament. That is why the political outlook is so obscured and uncertain. Out of the haze, however, one fact stands forth as solidly obvious as the Sugar Loaf in the Bay of Rio. It is the determination of Dr. Getulio Vargas to be Brazil's permanent dictator. That fact looms larger every day to a people whose natural bent is kindliness and tolerance, but whose political instinct has invariably been adamant against tyranny. The new régime may therefore be fruitful of surprises, and not least for its founder.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now
  • ERNEST HAMBLOCH, for many years British Consul General in Brazil and Commercial Secretary of the British Embassy; author of "British Consul" and "His Majesty the President"
  • More By Ernest Hambloch