Rebeca Duran

Rebeca Duran

Staff Writer
The Brazil Business


History of Brazil Republic

Rebeca Duran

Rebeca Duran

Staff Writer
The Brazil Business


Brazil has a recent republic: not even 150 years have passed since this form of government was established in the country. It started when Marshal Deodoro da Fonseca led a military coup which took power away from the monarchy and established the military republic.

As explained here, Monarchical Brazil failed for a number of reasons that ended up in a coup, in 1889, when on November 15, Marshal Deodoro da Fonseca gathered some militaries and led the group that proclaimed the Brazilian republic, taking Dom Pedro II from the power.

The Proclamation of the Republic (1889)

On November 15, 1889, Marshal Deodoro da Fonseca led the group that proclaimed the Brazilian republic, becoming the first president the country ever had. The provinces became states and gained political autonomy to make their own decisions.

The Old Republic (1889 – 1930)

Known as República Velha or Primeira República, respectively the Old Republic and First Republic, it was a time when the two groups took turns governing the country - the oligarchies of São Paulo and Minas Gerais states. When the Republic was proclaimed, Brazilian oligarchies were afraid of movements in favour or the monarchy. Therefore, instead of elections for a president, Brazil was governed by the army.

The Old Republic was divided into two parts:

  • República da Espada/Sword Republic (1889 - 1894): when the governors were military people.
  • República das Oligarquias/Oligarchies Republic (1895 - 1930): when the government was commanded by the states of São Paulo and Minas Gerais. They switched governments in a scheme called Política do Café com Leite, or coffee with milk policy: São Paulo was the largest coffee producer by that time, and Minas was the largest milk producer.

The Coffee and Milk Policy

After the Sword Republic, the elites of São Paulo and Minas Gerais started taking turns every four years in the elections for presidency. They had a treat in which the candidates elected for one state should support, for the next election, the candidate from the other state. Both states held the power for over 30 years, and both have been favored during their mandates, having their development increased while other states and regions didn't receive attention or investments.

Also, in order to maintain this system, there was a policy of favor exchange, in which other states’ governors who supported São Paulo or Minas Gerais candidates in the presidential elections wouldn't suffer any federal interference in their governments.

Coffee with milk policy was viable through the use of other controlling measures as well, such as coronelismo, in which the powerful landowners, known as coronéis, induced the population to vote for them.

The illegal electoral system to get votes was named voto de cabresto, which, in a literal translation, would be the equivalent to “halter vote”. Since there was no secret vote, people were pressured and even threatened to vote for an already determined candidate.

Conflicts in the Old Republic

After some years, however, this political system of favoring states created an atmosphere for popular rebellions, as there were urban and rural conflicts during the First Republic, usually against the government. All of them were defeated.

  • Revolução Federalista/Federalist Revolution (1893 - 1895): a movement that tried to separate the state of Rio Grande do Sul from the rest of Brazil.
  • Guerra de Canudos/War of Canudos (1896 - 1897): a federal war against Canudos, a poor settlement of inlanders, considered monarchist and anti-republican. At least 30,000 people died in the conflict and Canudos was destroyed and rebuilt some years after the war – to be sunk under the waters of Cocorobó dam. Nowadays there is a city of Canudos in Bahia, but it is located 15 km away from the original Canudos.
  • Revolta da Vacina/Vaccine Revolt (1904): violent demonstrations against the obligation to take the smallpox vaccine when there was a breakout of the disease in Rio de Janeiro.
  • Revolta da Chibata/Revolt of the Lash (1910): a threat from sailors to bomb the capital, Rio de Janeiro, in case the physical punishment with a lash wasn’t abolished, the work conditions weren’t improved and the salaries heightened.
  • Guerra do Contestado/Contestado War (1912 - 1916): a separatist movement in the region of Contestado, in the South state of Santa Catarina.

The 1920s were marked for military movements against the federal government, such as the 18 of the Copacabana Fort Revolt (Revolta dos 18 de Copacabana), the 1924 Revolution (Revolução de 1924) and the Tenente Revolts (Tenentismo), which ended up in the Coluna Prestes, a social rebel movement dissatisfied with the Old Republic which gathered people and literally walked throughout Brazil, encouraging people to rebel against the government and the rural elite.

The Revolution of 1930

The coffee with milk policy ended when Washington Luís, a president elected by the São Paulo state, decided not to support a candidate from Minas Gerais but one from São Paulo, Julio Prestes, in the 1930 elections. Betrayed, Minas Gerais allied with the states of Paraíba and Rio Grande do Sul and launched other candidates, who lost that year’s defrauded elections – Getúlio Vargas and his vice, João Pessoa.

Having lost the elections, Minas Gerais, Paraíba and Rio Grande do Sul started an armed movement throughout Brazil which deposed Washington Luis and gave the power to Getúlio Vargas. This episode is known as Revolução de 1930, or the Revolution of 1930.

The Second Republic (1930 – 1964)

This period is extended from 1930 until the military coup of 1964. It's mainly characterized by the nationalist populism consolidation, the political parties of national character straighten and have a great social flourishing. The industry grew faster during this period and the current Brazilian capital was constructed.

Era Vargas (1930 – 1945)

Vargas Era is the name given to the period in which the President Getúlio Vargas ruled uninterrupted in Brazil. It was a watershed moment in the Brazilian history due to the social and economic changes performed in these 15 years of governance. His government was nationally known as Estado Novo, a type of political regime created by himself based on power centralization, stronger nationalism, anticommunism and his authoritarianism.

After seizing the power through a military coup in the Revolution of 1930, Vargas adopted controlling, dictatorial and paternal measures, combined with very modern measures to the country's industrialization. He also performed the innovation of labor law with the creation of the Labor Law Consolidation (CLT) – which is still in force in Brazil nowadays.

Although condemned by many for his dictatorial attitudes, Vargas was revered by his followers as the “Father of the Poor,” for his battle against large landowners and capital concentration. His ability to contain the consequences of the Great Depression and the polarization between communism and fascism are considered his greatest accomplishments. That's why he's considered the most important and influential Brazilian president of the 20th Century.

Redemocratization of Brazil (1945 – 1964)

By the end of the Second Great War in 1945, the army forced Vargas to resign and began the Brazilian re-democratization period, widely known as the Second Republic. Presidential elections were organized and general Eurico Dutra assumed the cargo.

In 1950 Vargas was elected and ruled Brazil again, but this time his government found difficulties due to the problematic inflation and the growing national debt. Once again, the army forced Vargas to resign in 1954, instead he committed suicide.

Juscelino Kubitschek was then elected, creating in 1960 the new capital of the country at Brasília. Janio Quadros was his successor, but his government didn't last more than 7 months and was succeeded by Joao Goulart, who ruled until the 1964 military coup.

Military Dictatorship (1964 – 1985)

The coup of April 1, 1964, is still fresh in Brazilian minds. The period put an end to the Democratic Republic and launched the roots of the Brazilian Military Dictatorship that ruled the country for 20 years, headed by five different generals: Humberto Castello Branco, Artur Costa e Silva, Emílio Médici, Ernesto Geisel, and João Figueiredo.

The economic growth, large international loans, inflation increase, left-wing guerrilla activities, cultural flowering of musicians, composers and intellectuals and the suppression of free expression are just the main characteristics and inheritances of this Brazilian historical period.

First Stage: Consolidation Attempt (1964 –1968)

When the army took power, a series of institutional acts – popularly known as AIs – were approved by the military with the objective of consolidating the new political regime into force. In 1969, 17 AIs were already instituted in Brazil, most of them condemning and restricting any type of citizens freedom.

By 1968, the increasing number of protests inaugurated the government's repression against popular opposition. The 100.000 March, a manifestation that united 100.000 individuals of various societal sectors in the same year, was the last drop. And the dictatorial violence started to make its victims through AI 5, which basically instituted torture in the country.

Second Stage: The Years of Lead (1969 – 1974)

In the 1970s, Brazil found itself in a period of huge economic growth during the so-called “Brazilian Miracle”, marked by great government infrastructure projects. Despite the 10% rate of economic increase, the levels of poverty, social inequalities, indigenous land invasions, and environmental destruction were increasing more and more. Concomitantly, these were the years of stronger repression.

Not a surprise it receive the nickname of “Years of Lead”. The torture were basically deliberated and even international headlines started to highlight Brazilian Dictatorship violence. Human rights were infringed, individuals disappeared, people were hunted and killed and until today what happened during these years are still a dark mystery to Brazilian history.

Third Stage: Transformation and Dissolution (1974 – 1985)

With the protests and national debts getting greater and heavier, the Military Regime came across the political opening urgency. The military government oversaw the first steps for transformations. AI 5 was abolished, the exiled citizens were welcomed back in Brazil and the scenario for political amnesty started to be drawing.

During the 1980s, Brazilians witnessed the slow transition from a military dictatorship to a democratic civilian rule, marked by economic decline and the emergence of six new political parties, such as the Worker's Party. The political opening period ended with the Movimento Diretas já (Elections Now movement), that demanded direct and immediate elections.

Re- Democratization Again and Inflation (1980s)

The movement succeeded in parts. In 1985 presidential elections actually occurred in Brazil, but the popular participation was again excluded. Only the members of the National Congress were able to vote, which displeased the population and political parties.

The indirect elections were boycotted by PT and a president was chosen bringing many Brazilians to the street to celebrate the end of military rule. The chosen president died before taking control of the government, and José Sarney assumed the presidency in his place.

“The Lost Decade”

The José Sarney government consisted of a series of measures that turned the country toward re-democratization, such as the end of the state’s censorship, securing the freedom of expression, the legalization of political parties and the elaboration of the last Brazilian Constitution, the 1988 Constitution, that’s in force today.

But more than that, his government had to deal with the high level of foreign debt and a high and rising rate of inflation, that characterized the decade as “The lost decade”. Both factors enabled the actuation of the public management to recover the country’s economy, making Brazil the country with the highest inflation rates in the world. The hyperinflation not only promoted social problems, but also diminished the purchasing power of the currency.

Economics Stabilization Plans

To control inflation, the government was obliged to create a succession of economic stabilization plans, all based on the freeze of wages and prices and in changes in the Brazilian currency. In less than 20 years, Brazil had its currency changed to five different ones.

In 1989, new elections were organized, and by this time all candidates from all political parties had the chance to participate. Fernando Collor de Mello was elected, following the path of José Sarney, launching Plano Collor that put into force another currency.The plan was based on the idea that if there was no income, the consumption would reduce at the point of slowing down the inflationary pressure.

It worked at first, but with time the recession affected the economy and inflation started to rise again. Besides the plan's failure, the corruption schemes, in which Collor was involved, led to the president's impeachment in 1992.

Plano Real

Collor’s vice president, Itamar Franco, assumed the presidency and a new stabilization plan to control hyperinflation started to be elaborated. The plan was developed by the Minister of Finance Fernando Henrique Cardoso and by a team of economists. First based on the dollarization of the Brazilian economy, the so called Plano Real, was a target of criticism, since the adoption of a U.S. dollar would be an affront to the country’s sovereignty and nationalism.

Being the last economic stabilization plan in Brazil, Plano Real created a new Brazilian currency that would follow the variation of a dollar and was responsible for the economic stability that remains until today. The plan began to be implemented in June 1993, being officially put into practice in 1994.

The Market Opening (1990s)

The 1990 decade established a new economic scenario in Brazil that were marked by significant changes in the Brazilian foreign trade policy. The process of market started in the Collor government and continued, with the success of Plano Real, during the Fernando Henrique Cardoso two mandates from 1995 to 2002.

Cardoso promoted a series of privatizations in many economy sectors: telecommunication, electric power transmission, mining and financial. Being the most known examples: the privatizations of Companhia Vale do Rio Doce (State’s mining company) and Sistema Telebrás (State’s telecommunication company). The measure diminished the State’s participation in the Brazilian economy, being target of criticism by the opposition, mainly by PT.

New Regionalism: The Mercosur Emergence

The progressive trade integration of the 1990s occurred in a new world order, the “new regionalism”, characterized by countries integration through bilateral and multilateral agreements, such as the establishment of free trade zones, custom unions, and common external tariffs.

That’s the period of Mercosur creation in 1991 as a free-trade zone composed by Brasil, Venezuela, Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay. Its members have eliminated all tariff and non-tariff barriers that could affect their economies; being exempted are the tariffs on goods traded between the partners.

Internal Crisis and Financial Problems

By the end of Cardoso’s second mandate, Brazil was immersed in an economic recession. To control inflation, the government stimulated the internal consumption and, as a consequence, elevated the unemployment rates. To make matters worse, an international crisis hit Brazil in early 1999, which made foreign and national investors remove billion of dollars from Brazil.

It became impossible to keep the Dollar/Real parity, and the government was then forced to devalue the currency and also appeal to the IMF (International Monetary Fund). With IMF loans in hand, Brazilian government had to adopt rigid control over public expenditure, reducing public investment and further raising interest rates.

The 21st Century (From 2000s until Nowadays)

Since the beginning of the 2000s Brazil had became an important player from the Southern Cone, being a member of the economic group G20 and a member of BRICS. BRICS was a term created in 2001 using the initials of the four countries considered to be emerging economies in the world, that had economically similar characteristics and potential to overcome the major world powers in a period of at most fifty years.


Brazil, Russia, India and China are part of the BRICs, that was established in 2006 and considered an international mechanism by the United Nations, which enabled the performance of collective economic actions between those countries, as well as, increased communication between them. From the year 2011, South Africa was also officially incorporated into the BRICs, which then became known as BRICS, with the uppercase "S" at the end of the term.

The Rising of Workers Party Government

The political action of Lula started in 2003 with his election after the disastrous end of Cardoso’s mandate. With more than 58 million votes, Lula, being from the left wing and a member of the Workers Party, promised to undertake a development historically claimed by various social sectors that was in fact realized. However, the economic growth in Brazil was unable to become different from those economic practices performed by previous governments.

The maintenance of certain political actions were heavily criticized. In 2005, the government was denounced for conducting the sale of bribes to get the approval of certain measures in a corruption scheme, called Mensalão. Despite the scandal, Lula won his second election in 2007.

The new Lula’s mandate was seen more as a continuation of policies to maintain a stable political framework rather than a victory of the leftist sectors of Brazil. It ended in January 2011, with the election of his successor, the first Brazilian female president, Dilma Rousseff also a member of the workers party.