Brazil: Late Nineteenth Century to WWI

Riachuelo (1883) – Presidential visit to Buenos Aires in 1900

The Empire of Brazil, c. 1889. Cisplatina had been lost since 1828 and two new provinces had been created since then (Amazonas and Paraná)

The Paraguayan War and the ‘Military Question’

Brazilian participation in the Paraguayan War of 1864–70 had dire consequences for the country. It is a war that has become notorious for causing more deaths in proportion to the number of people who fought in it than any other war in history. It also created a new generation of junior officers who differed from those who had gone before. They were educated men – very often having attended universities abroad – who had less regard for the monarchy than their predecessors.

Uruguay had come into existence in 1828 after three years of conflict between Argentina, Brazil and the faction seeking independence for the region. The British, with financial and commercial interests in the River Plate estuary, were very pleased to see the creation of a country that they hoped would bring stability to the region. The nineteenth century brought unrest, however, as Uruguay’s two political parties – the Colorado, linked to business interests and Europe, and the Blanco, made up of rural landowners who opposed European influence – vied for power, often violently. Meanwhile, the inhabitants of the old Spanish province of Paraguay had overthrown their Spanish administration in 1811. In 1842, President Carlos Antonio López (1792–1862) declared himself dictator and in 1862 his son, Francisco Solano López (1827–70), came to power following his father’s death. That year he entered into an alliance with the Blanco Party that ruled Uruguay at the time. Fighting broke out between the Blancos and Colorados and spilled over into Rio Grande do Sul in southern Brazil, spurring the Brazilians to invade Uruguay in order to help the Colorados seize power. The Uruguayans captured a Brazilian ship and then invaded the Mato Grosso region in western Brazil. In 1865, the Paraguayans planned to invade Uruguay but this would involve them in crossing Argentinean territory. Subsequently, on 1 May, Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay entered into a Triple Alliance and declared war on Paraguay. The Paraguayans did not attack Uruguay as planned and all the fighting actually took place in Paraguay itself.

Brazil was not prepared for war although its navy, consisting of a few warships, easily defeated the tiny Paraguayan navy. Its army, consisting of only 18,000 poorly trained fighting men, had long been neglected. The desperate Brazilian government promised slaves their freedom if they enlisted. Finally, in 1866, the Brazilian army invaded Paraguay but was defeated in its first engagement at the Battle of Curupayty. In summer 1867, however, the Duke of Caxias led the siege and capture of the important fortress at Humaitá in southern Paraguay. The capital was taken a short while later. Brazil would occupy Paraguay until 1878.

The war was costly for Brazil. It brought a steep rise in inflation and the empire’s foreign debt increased. The most telling consequence was the effect on the army. Its prestige and influence, as well as its size, were greatly increased by the conflict. The officers, whose number increased from 1,500 to 10,000, were now politicised but were uncomfortable with what appeared to be an anti-military stance emanating from the emperor. Indeed, he had deliberately eschewed the caudilho, military style of leadership that was popular amongst many Spanish-American rulers and was careful not to appoint military men to high-ranking political positions. The officer corps’ disquiet was increased by the enforced resignation of the Liberal Prime Minister, Zacarias de Góis e Vasconcelos (1815–77), whose direction of the war effort had been to their liking. Only the fact that the military commander Caxias remained loyal to Pedro eased their feelings of discontent. His death in 1880, therefore, was a blow not only to the emperor personally, but had grave implications for the future of the monarchy.

The junior officers’ irritation at the failure of the government to improve army pay and conditions developed into a feeling of political disenchantment and the beginnings of a movement to reform Brazil’s political system. Officers were barred from political activity but in 1879 a group of officers publicly criticised a proposal before the General Assembly to cut the size of the army. No action was taken against them but in the coming years when officers again engaged in political debate, they would be disciplined.

The ‘military question’, as it was known, became a source of growing tension between the army and the government. The unrest soon spread to senior officers who demonstrated support for their younger colleagues. The main spokesman was Marshal Manuel Deodoro da Fonseca (1827–92) who, in 1887, was elected first president of Brazil’s Club Militar (Military Club), a society created to uphold soldiers’ rights. Tension rose when, in June 1889, Emperor Pedro appointed a Liberal, the Viscount of Ouro Preto (1836–1912), as prime minister. Ouro Preto wasted no time in antagonising Deodoro by naming an opponent of his as president of Rio Grande do Sul.

The Military Coup of 1889

For some time, Republican politicians had been cultivating friendships with the military, realising that as neither elections nor the General Assembly were likely to bring the empire to an end it would take the support of the army to do so. In 1887, Marshal Deodoro wrote to the emperor, warning him about his attitude towards the Brazilian military and indicating to him that the ongoing support of the army could not be guaranteed. Meanwhile, his fellow officers were eager to replace the empire with a republic, amongst them men such as Benjamin Constant (1836–1891), like Deodoro a veteran of the Paraguayan War. Meanwhile, Pedro II was suffering from diabetes and, although only 64, was becoming increasingly frail. He seemed to have lost interest in the business of government and it has been suggested that he had already accepted that the empire would not survive his death. The fact that he had no male heir suggested that he had good reason to fear for the empire’s survival. His daughter, Princess Isabel (1846–1921), who had already courted controversy with her support for abolitionism, was the legal heir, but it was highly unlikely that a male-dominated society like Brazil would be prepared to accept a woman on the throne. As if it was not bad enough that she was a woman, her husband, Prince Gaston, Count of Eu (1842–1922), was French.

There was a growing feeling in Brazil that too much power was vested in the emperor, the Senate and the Council of State, none of whom, after all, had been elected. As republican clamour grew, Ouro Preto introduced measures to reduce the power of the Council of State, the General Assembly and the provincial presidents, but they were thrown out by the General Assembly. The emperor responded to this setback in the customary manner, by dissolving the General Assembly and calling for new elections to be held in November 1889. It was obvious that nothing was likely to change. The military responded by ordering Benjamin Constant, in concert with Republicans such as Quintino Bocaiúva (1836–1912) and Rui Barbosa (1849–1923), to devise plans for a coup. Early in the morning of 15 November 1889, troops commanded by Deodoro, who had agreed to be the coup’s leader, surrounded government buildings in Rio de Janeiro. It was initially supposed that the action was intended simply to change the cabinet, but that afternoon Deodoro declared that Pedro II had been overthrown and that Brazil would henceforth be a republic.

That day, Pedro was at his summer palace at Petrópolis, outside Rio de Janeiro. After hurrying back to the capital, he was ordered to leave Brazil within twenty-four hours, taking the rest of the royal family with him. On 17 November, he sailed into exile in Portugal and France, choosing this fate rather than subject Brazil to an inevitable civil war. All proceeded peacefully, although many observers were astonished at the lack of support for the monarchy. Robert Adams Jr (1849–1906), United States Minister to Brazil at the time of the coup, wrote that it was ‘the most remarkable ever recorded in history. Entirely unexpected by the Government or people, the overthrow of the Empire has been accomplished without bloodshed, without riotous proceedings or interruptions to the usual avocations of life’.

Estados Unidos do Brazil (United States of Brazil)

The leaders of the coup of 1889 immediately established their regime as a ‘provisional’ government, declaring Brazil a federal republic. They issued proclamations justifying their action, claiming that they had undertaken the coup on behalf of the Brazilian people. Deodoro was in charge as ‘chief of the provisional government’ and a number of prominent politicians quickly rallied to his cause, including Rui Barbosa, Quintino Bocaiúva and Benjamin Constant, who were each rewarded with a position in the new government. Rui accepted the position of Finance Minister, Constant was appointed Minister for War and Quintino took office as Minister of Foreign Relations. The formal name of the country was changed from the Empire of Brazil to the Republic of the United States of Brazil and a new national flag was designed. Work began on a new constitution, the aim being to transform Brazil into a modern, industrial democracy.

The new constitution advocated a federal political system, fulfilling the objectives of a Republican manifesto of 1870 that had demanded the transfer of power from the centre to the regions, a move welcomed by the influential coffee industry, especially in São Paulo. As in the days of the Empire, however, there would still be a central executive administration, with a national legislature based in Rio de Janeiro. The Liberals considered this to be the best way of maintaining national unity and merchants and businessmen hoped it would help create a domestic market. It was decided to follow the political model of the United States, with a president and a federal government made up of executive, legislative and judicial bodies. The president would be elected by the people for a four-year term and would be prohibited from serving consecutive terms. The franchise was limited to literate males over the age of twenty-one, representing about 17 per cent of the population. A large majority of the Brazilian people were still unable to participate in the choice of their ruler. The rest of the world was expanding the franchise, but Brazil, still afraid of the will of the people, was reluctant to follow the trend.

Legislative power was placed in the hands of a National Congress which, like its imperial predecessor, the General Assembly, would consist of a Chamber of Deputies and a Senate. Each state was allocated three senators, each of whom would serve nine years before standing for re-election. The deputies would serve terms of three years and would be elected on the basis of population, the more highly populated states benefiting most from this, of course. Inevitably, elections were rigged. Voters in rural areas were forced to vote for the chosen candidates of the local oligarch – an abuse known as coronelismo. If all else failed, the election results could still be changed by Congress’s Verification of Powers Commission as the election authorities in the República Velha (Old Republic), were not independent from the executive and the legislature and those were, of course, controlled by the ruling elite.

The twenty provinces that had existed under the empire became twenty-one with the creation of the new Federal District of the city of Rio de Janeiro. Each was permitted to create its own constitution and be self-governing, with directly elected governors and their own legislative assemblies and courts. They were given financial autonomy with the power to levy taxes on exports, this being particularly welcomed by São Paulo and Minas Gerais, two states with lucrative export economies. States were permitted to establish their own militias or police forces and São Paulo even had its own army which was every bit as well-equipped as the national army.

Church and state were separated, meaning that Brazil no longer had a state religion. The state assumed many of the responsibilities formerly held by the church – only civil marriages would be officially recognised and cemeteries were taken over by municipalities. These measures were a reflection of the beliefs of the republican leaders but also brought the many Lutheran immigrants in Brazil into the national fold. To further embrace its immigrant population, the government passed a measure decreeing that unless they expressed a wish otherwise, all foreigners who had been in Brazil on 15 November when the Brazilian Republic came into being would automatically be considered Brazilian citizens.

Generally speaking, the power lay not only with the newly politicised professional military class but also in the hands of the planter elite based mainly in the coffee-producing regions of São Paulo and the commercial and banking interests concentrated in the cities of Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo and Minas Gerais. For most people little changed but army officers probably benefited more than most with increased salaries and lucrative appointments to government positions. The elite, along with the military, therefore, still controlled the machinery of government and, although a few liberals, such as Rui Barbosa, tried to persuade the government to introduce reforms in education and working conditions and pay and to consider the issue of land reform, nothing would really change until well into the next century.

In effect, of course, what had occurred was a military coup. The army ruled as a military dictatorship for the first five years following the coup in what was known as the ‘Republic of the Sword’. Inevitably there were clashes between politicians and the newly politicised army officers, especially Deodoro who was authoritarian by nature. Eventually, in January 1891, the cabinet resigned. Meanwhile, the constitution demanded the election of the first president of the Republic who would serve until 1894. Deodoro was the obvious choice, but opponents to the military’s involvement in government put forward a rival candidate, Prudente de Morais (1841–1902), president of the Constituent Assembly and a former governor of São Paulo. As anticipated, Deodoro won, by 129 votes to 97, and was sworn in as the first President of the Republic of Brazil on 26 February 1891. The margin of victory was sufficiently small to suggest that the new president was not the most popular of choices, but, as everyone was well aware, if he had lost, the army would almost certainly have stepped in and declared a dictatorship.

Deodoro took office amidst unrest, much of it caused by the economic crisis, the Encilhamento, a word borrowed from horse racing and suggestive of efforts to get rich quick. His handling of this situation was calamitous and gained him the animosity of Congress as did his lack of control over his ministries. Congress obstructed him at every opportunity. The Republicans from the South eventually withdrew their support from him and the provisional government. When the government was accused of corruption in November 1891, Deodoro dissolved the new National Congress, declaring a ‘state of emergency’ and assuming virtual dictatorial power, something for which he was heavily criticised and which lost him a great deal of support, even within the army. The vice president, Marshal Floriano Peixoto (1839–1895), conspired with other officers, leading to the seizure of warships in Guanabara Bay by Admiral Custódio José de Melo (1840–1902). De Melo threatened to open fire on Rio de Janeiro unless Deodoro recalled Congress. Deodoro responded by resigning on 23 November 1891 and Floriano, as Peixoto was popularly known, assumed the presidency, immediately recalling Congress.

The republic’s second president – known as the ‘Iron Marshal’ – gained a reputation as an upholder of the constitution, but although he is said to have had a better understanding of ordinary people than his predecessor and succeeded in consolidating the republic, he was, in reality, not that different. He increasingly championed centralisation of power and nationalism but he faced stiff challenges. Some claimed that his presidency was unconstitutional because Deodoro had failed to serve the statutory two years in office and Floriano should, therefore, call a presidential election. His solution to this problem was simply to retain the title of ‘Vice President’. He also faced opposition from senior officers of the Brazilian navy who resented the power and prestige of the army. Civil unrest raged in several states from the north to the south of the country and in 1893 revolutionaries occupied Santa Catarina and Paraná in Rio Grande do Sul, capturing the city of Curitiba. Ultimately, though, they were ill-equipped for outright war. In 1893, Admiral de Melo also acted against Floriano, once again threatening to bombard the capital, but the president refused to follow the example of Deodoro by resigning. By 1895, he had quashed the revolt in Rio Grande do Sul and had also succeeded in pacifying the naval rebels.

In March 1894, Floriano called a presidential election, following pressure from the Republicans running São Paulo who were providing vital financial, military and political support to him. They sought to safeguard national stability and unity and protect their state from an influx of foreign investment and immigrants. The paulistas had helped Floriano by founding the Partido Republicano Federal (Federal Republican Party) or PRF in 1893, but he was, of course, excluded by the constitution from standing for election for a second term. Now eager to replace military rule with a civilian leader from their own ranks, this coalition of senators and deputies from several states put forward Prudente de Morais Barros as their presidential candidate. This marked the end of political activity by the army for the time being and Floriano’s subsequent death helped to further distance them from politics. The rival 1894 presidential candidate from Minas Gerais, Afonso Augusto Moreira Pena (1847–1909) lost heavily to Prudente – by 277,000 votes to 38,000 on 1 March 1894. It is worth noting, however, that with turmoil in Rio de Janeiro at the time, civil disorder in three of the country’s southern states and the severely restricted nature of the franchise, only 2.2 per cent of the entire Brazilian population voted in this election.

The Rubber Boom 1879–1912

From the middle of the nineteenth century until the collapse of the market in 1910, rubber was vitally important to the Brazilian economy, bringing enormous profits to those involved in it. Natural rubber comes from a milky white fluid called latex drained from the Hevea brasiliensis tree found in abundance in the Brazilian state of Pará in the Amazon tropical rainforest. Latex, found in sap extracted from the tree trunk through a small hole bored in it, had been exploited by the native peoples for centuries, smoked over a fire and molded into objects. In the late eighteenth century, the colonial government was ordering boots made of latex from them but, until around 1830, no one viewed it as having any real commercial potential. Towards the end of that decade, however, British and North American scientists devised the process of vulcanisation, in which the raw sap could be stabilised by heating. Soon, rubber was being used in a variety of products such as tyres for bicycles and motorcars and electrical insulation devices. Demand went through the roof and before long entrepreneurs and immigrants were flooding into the Amazon region. These rubber tappers extracted the sap before forming it into large balls of rubber that were sold at local trading posts. It was then transported to the coast before shipping to foreign ports.

As a result of the boom in demand for rubber, a number of towns and cities grew astonishingly rapidly, populated by ‘rubber barons’ who had amassed great fortunes. One example was the Amazonian port city of Manaus which grew from just a few settlers to a bustling city of 100,000 by 1910. Its famous opera house was constructed in 1881 by a local politician, Antonio Jose Fernandes Júnior, who envisioned a ‘jewel’ in the heart of the Amazon rainforest. It was the second Brazilian city, after Campos dos Goytacazes in the state of Rio de Janeiro, to have electricity. Foreign capital was invested in the region to create trading houses and companies, amongst which was the one that built the Madeira-Mamoré railway, completed in 1912, which linked Brazil and Bolivia. 6,000 workers are said to have lost their lives during its construction.

By 1910, the Amazon’s pre-eminence in the production of rubber was coming to an end. Several decades earlier, the Royal Botanical Gardens in Kew in England had smuggled some rubber seeds out of Brazil and produced trees in its hothouses in London. Seeds were then sent to the British colonies of Ceylon (modern-day Sri Lanka) and Malaya (modern-day Malaysia) where, unlike the Brazilian variety, they proved resistant to disease. They also produced a more abundant crop. The American Ford Motor Company tried to replicate what the British had done by creating rubber plantations at a place they called Fordlandia near the town of Santarém in Pará but the South American trees’ lack of immunity to disease led to failure and the British, with their efficient and cost-effective Asian plantations, were left in control of the world’s rubber market. The development of a synthetic substitute for natural rubber during World War One caused further damage to the Brazilian rubber industry. Only when the Allies were cut off from their Asian supplies during the Second World War did Amazonian rubber see a brief revival.

The Paulista and Café-Com-Leite Presidents

It could be said that the Brazilian First Republic was little more than a search for the best type of government to take the place of the monarchy, the argument alternating between centralisation and devolution of power to the states. The instability and factional violence of the 1890s was a result of the lack of agreement amongst the various elites about the most appropriate government model. The Constitution of 1891 had given the states considerable autonomy and, until the 1920s, the federal government was therefore dominated by a combination of the most powerful states in the Republic – Minas Gerais, Rio de Janeiro, Rio Grande do Sul and, of course, Sâo Paulo.

Prudente’s first year in office saw the end of the Naval Revolt and the uprising in Rio Grande do Sul, although he was criticised for being too lenient to the Rio Grande do Sul rebels. In some quarters there was still a hankering for the monarchy and defenders of the Republic such as the ultra-national Jacobins, who had formed militia to defend Rio during the Naval Revolt, warned of monarchist conspiracies. Their warnings seemed to have been justified in 1896 as news reached the capital of a charismatic preacher, Antônio Vicente Mendes Maciel (1830–97), nicknamed Conselheiro who, in 1893, had assembled a community on an abandoned ranch at Canudos, a settlement 200 miles to the north of Salvador in Bahia. Conselheiro preached the return of the monarchy, describing the republicans as atheists. In 1896, he was engaged in a dispute with local officials over the cutting of timber that resulted in a force of police officers being sent to Canudos. They were sent packing, leading the Bahia Governor, Luís Viana (1846–1920), to request federal troops. Despite being armed with artillery and machine guns, they, too, were defeated and their commander was killed. The local dispute had quickly escalated into what became known as the Guerra de Canudos (War of Canudos), threatening the fledgling republic. There was protest and an outbreak of violence in Rio de Janeiro before an even larger military force was dispatched to the Northeast, consisting of 10,000 troops personally directed by the Minister of War, Marshal Carlos Machado Bittencourt (1840–97). During the ensuing siege, Conselheiro died, probably of dysentery, and Canudos was razed to the ground, more than half its 30,000 inhabitants being killed in the fighting and its aftermath. This ‘monarchist threat’ had been defeated but at a cost to the reputation and prestige of the army and of Prudente. The president’s unpopularity was made clear when a young soldier, Marcelino Bispo (1875–98), tried to assassinate him on 5 November 1897. Bittencourt, the Minister of War, died after being stabbed protecting the president. When it emerged that Bispo had been encouraged in his assassination attempt by the editor of the Jacobin newspaper, O Jacobino, Prudente used the full force of the powers allocated to the presidency by the 1891 Constitution by coming down hard on Rio de Janeiro, especially the Military Club, a haunt of the Jacobin army officers, which was shut down.

The next president, Dr Manuel Ferraz de Campos Sales (1841–1913), governor of Sâo Paulo, was a paulista, like Prudente, emphasising the stranglehold that the political elite of the major states had on the country. To combat growing unrest in the states as well as factional fighting, Campos Sales devised a strategy known as the ‘policy of the governors’ by which a state’s parliamentary delegates would be connected to the dominant political grouping in that state. As well as ending the factional fighting, he also hoped this would enhance the power of the executive branch of the government. He added to this by making the Chamber of Deputies more submissive to the executive. Unfortunately for him, it was only partially effective.

The ‘policy of the governors’ also proved useful in dealing with the Brazilian economy. Foreign debt inherited from the monarchy remained a huge problem and military expenditure during the 1890s did not help the situation. Between 1890 and 1897, the national debt increased by 30 per cent, resulting in even greater indebtedness to foreign banks. It was not helped by a fall in the price of coffee caused by abundant harvests in 1896 and 1897 that meant less foreign exchange coming into the country. Campos Sales arranged a funding loan that placed a great many difficult conditions on Brazil – all of its customs income from the port of Rio de Janeiro were to go to its creditors and further loans were prohibited until 1901. A programme of deflation also had to be undertaken. In an attempt to balance the books, Campos Sales increased federal taxes and introduced austerity measures, making his government very unpopular. By such desperate means, Brazil was prevented from going bankrupt, but the country would be hampered by these decisions for many years to come. Making all this happen required the support of the legislature and, as congressmen’s loyalties lay with the political leader of their state and their parties, the president went directly to the state governors and the ruling elites. Campos Sales made a promise not to intervene in the states’ internal affairs and the governors made it all work by using the coronelismo system. They provided positions and favours to the local coronéis who, in turn, delivered votes at the municipal and federal elections.

The governors had a vested interest in maintaining this system but that was dependent on the right man occupying the post of president. They met before each election, therefore, to select a suitable candidate and then ensured that he received enough votes. Naturally, the most powerful states, especially São Paulo and Minas Gerais, being the wealthiest and also possessing more citizens who satisfied the literacy requirement, were most influential in this process. Furthermore, their state political parties were far better organised than those of the other states. This way of manipulating the political machine came to be known as café-com-leite (coffee with milk) because of São Paulo’s connection with the coffee industry and Minas Gerais’ with milk. As a result, their candidates often achieved more than 90 per cent of the vote. This was helped by the fact that the ballot was rarely private and opposition was summarily dealt with. In this way, Brazil failed to develop a healthy multi-party political system. But the ‘politics of the governors’ undoubtedly had the desired effect, producing political stability and guaranteeing that the army would stay out of politics. As a system, however, it differed little from the corrupt political system that had prevailed during military rule and the Empire.

During his term of office Campos Sales succeeded in maintaining peace and order and in improving the nation’s economic situation, but the austerity measures he had imposed on the Brazilian people led to a rise in the cost of living and made his government extremely unpopular. Nonetheless, the ‘politics of the governors’ managed to deliver a third paulista president in 1901 when Francisco de Paula Rodrigues Alves (1848–1919), governor of São Paulo, romped home in the presidential election by 592,000 votes to Quintino Bocaiúva’s 43,000. Rodrigues Alves was chosen because it was expected that he would continue with the policies of Campos Sales. He had served as Minister of Finance in the governments of both Floriano and Prudente and had a reputation for financial expertise. He would also distinguish himself as a town planner, launching a major undertaking to modernise Rio de Janeiro.

Towards the end of his term of office, Rodrigues Alves proposed another São Paulo governor, Bernardino de Campos (1841–1915), as his successor but this time there was resistance from the smaller states. At the time, Rio Grande do Sul had been increasing in wealth and political status and one of its senators was the charismatic and powerful José Gomes Pinheiro Machado (1851–1915). For more than a decade, Pinheiro Machado, vice president of the senate, dominated Brazilian politics. He led a group of congressmen known as the Bloco, many of them from the less powerful northern and northeastern states, who gained a voice through his leadership. Machado became something of a ‘kingmaker’, as was proved in 1905 when he swung the votes of his bloc behind Afonso Pena, from Minas Gerais, former vice president to Rodrigues Alves. Afonso Pena won the election by 288,000 votes to a mere 5,000, bringing to an end the run of paulista presidents. When it came time to decide who would succeed him, Pinheiro Machado threw his voting bloc behind Marshal Hermes Rodrigues da Fonseca (1855–1923) – known as ‘Hermes’ – nephew of the Republic’s first president, Deodoro. Incumbent President Pena chose as his nominee his finance minister, Davi Campista, another Minas Gerais politician whom the paulista elite believed would continue with the policies of Pena’s government. Campista’s candidacy came to an abrupt halt, however, with the death of Pena in June 1909. Vice President Nilo Procópio Peçanha (1867–1924) stepped into his shoes and then endorsed Hermes as presidential nominee for the 1910 election, to the dismay of the paulistas.

The election of 1910 was the first presidential election in the history of the República Velha that was not decided from the outset. The reason was the paulistas’ choice of the noted liberal Brazilian statesman, Rui Barbosa, as a candidate to run against Hermes. After many years languishing in the political wilderness, the former Finance Minister had risen to national and international attention with his speeches in support of the rights of the world’s smaller nations at the 1907 Hague Conference on International Peace where he had gained the nickname the ‘Eagle of the Hague’. Barbosa railed against the corrupt oligarchies that had been running Brazil and he was also deeply concerned at Hermes’ candidacy, seeing it as an attempt by the army to regain influence in government. He based his campaign on the simple choice between civilian rule and military rule, claiming that if the marshal won, Brazil would ‘plunge forever into the servitude of the armed forces’. (Quoted in Documentary History of Brazil, E Bradford Burns, New York, Alfred A Knopf, 1967) The election was keenly fought, Rui Barbosa travelling widely to spread his ideas for liberal reform. Hermes’ supporters were confident of victory, with only São Paulo and Bahia lining up in favour of Barbosa. Army officers, concerned at Barbosa’s anti-military stance, campaigned vigorously for Hermes and in the end he won 233,000 votes, while Rui only managed 126,000. The paulistas had been defeated in an election for the first time since 1894, even though the winning margin was the narrowest to date.

It seemed that every military president was blighted by a naval revolt and Hermes’ version occurred in November 1910, just a few days after he had been sworn in as president. The mutiny on board two Brazilian battleships was soon quashed but it was evident that the relative peace of the last decade was at an end, a fact emphasised by a number of civil disturbances around the country. Being a military man, Hermes was more prepared to send in the troops than the civilian presidents before him, bringing rioters quickly under control.

He was determined to avenge himself on the members of the regional elites who had thrown their support behind Rui Barbosa in the 1910 election by replacing them with his own supporters. The army officers that he sent in to overthrow these regimes described their work as política da salvacão (politics of salvation) and there was a degree of irony in the fact that in rooting out Hermes’ opponents, they were often also dealing with the reactionary elements Rui had criticised during his election campaign. There was serious fighting during this process, including the bombardment and invasion of Salvador.

By this time, Pinheiro Machado’s Partido Republicano Conservador (Republican Conservative Party) or PRC, created to take the place of the Bloco in 1910, had begun to fall apart. He had also suffered during the period of the política da salvacão because many of his people were the very ones targeted by the army. Meanwhile, the paulista elite was determined to stop Pinheiro becoming president in 1914. When the oligarchs of Minas Gerais proposed their former governor Venceslau Brás (1868–1966), currently vice president, as a candidate, the paulistas immediately gave him their wholehearted support. Realising all was lost Pinheiro gave Brás his support but ensured that his preferred candidate, the Maranhão senator Urbano Santos, was selected as vice-presidential candidate. Brás was elected with an overwhelming 90 per cent of the vote. Pinheiro’s days as kingmaker were over and his brilliant political career was brought to an abrupt halt by his assassination in September 1915.

Brás‘s presidency was overshadowed by the outbreak of World War One. Brazil was initially reluctant to go to war. After all, there were large numbers of German immigrants in southern Brazil, many of whom were still loyal to their homeland. The Brazilian foreign minister, Lauro Müller, also had German antecedents. However, when Germany declared unrestricted submarine warfare in the Atlantic, Brazil, as an Atlantic trading nation, became involved. On 5 April 1917, the Brazilian ship Parana was sunk off the coast of France and three crew members lost their lives. When news of the sinking arrived in Brazil, riots broke out, an angry mob attacking German businesses in Rio de Janeiro. Brazil eventually declared war on 26 October, after the dismissal of Müller, Brazilian ships patrolling the South Atlantic and engaging in mine-sweeping off the coast of West Africa. An Expeditionary Force was being readied when the armistice was signed.

The 1918 election followed customary café-com-leite guidelines and former paulista president, Rodrigues Alves romped home with 99 per cent of the popular vote. However, illness prevented the newly elected president from taking office and he died the following year. It was decided to hold a special election but the decision as to who would replace Rodrigues Alves was a subject of debate between the elites of Minas Gerais and São Paulo. Eventually, Epitácio Pessôa (1865–1942), a Paraíba senator and Minister of Justice in the Campos Sales administration was selected. Pessôa was a delegate at the Versailles Peace Conference that followed the end of the First World War. In fact, he was still en route back to Brazil from the conference when the election was held. Once again, Rui Barbosa stood and once again, despite receiving almost 30 per cent of the vote, he was soundly beaten by the candidate of the elites, by 286,000 votes to 116,000.

Pessôa made enemies and antagonised the military as soon as he named his cabinet, appointing civilians to the ministries for war and the navy. By this time, Hermes, who had been living in Europe, had returned to Brazil where he was elected president of the Military Club in Rio de Janeiro. He became a major critic of Pessôa, especially when the new president vetoed the military budget. Pessôa faced still more criticism when it appeared that he was giving preferential treatment to his own home region of the Northeast by allocating 15 per cent of the federal budget to help install irrigation projects to deal with the drought there.

But Pessôa was no more than an interim president. For the 1922 election, the elites of São Paulo and Minas Gerais chose the Minas Gerais governor, Artur da Silva Bernardes (1875–1955). Once again, however, café-com-leite caused anger amongst the other states – Pernambuco, Rio de Janeiro and Rio Grande do Sul – who were never given a chance to nominate one of their own. They formed a coalition, the Reação Republicana (Republican Reaction) and threw their support behind Nilo Peçanha who had served briefly as president of Brazil from 1909 to 1910 following the death of President Afonso Pena. His campaign was based on claims that, under the café-com-leite system, the other states of Brazil suffered from neglect. Of course, there was little chance of defeating the ‘official’ candidate but some letters appeared in the Correio da Manhã newspaper that were purported to have been sent by Bernardes to a politician in Minas Gerais. They spoke disparagingly of Peçanha, describing him as a ‘mulatto’ and calling Hermes da Fonseca an ‘overblown sergeant’. Corruption amongst army officers was also mentioned. Although the letters turned out to be forgeries, the army at the time accepted them as genuine and put all their support behind Bernardes’ opponent Peçanha. In the closest election in the history of the republic, Bernardes scraped in with 56 per cent of the popular vote. The elite had won again.

The disgruntled military now acted against the wishes of the presidency. It had been Pessôa’s habit to order the army in where there were problems with state elections, which Hermes believed was an abuse of power, using the army for political ends. He sent a telegram to the commander of the garrison at Recife suggesting that he resist any presidential directive to intervene in situations involving local politics. When he was informed of this, Pessôa was furious, immediately placing Hermes under house arrest and shutting down the Military Club for six months. A couple of days later there was a mutiny at Fort Copacabana in Rio de Janeiro that its participants said was aimed at ‘rescuing the army’s honour’. Government forces besieged the fort and bombarded it by sea and by air. The following day, most of the mutineers surrendered but a group of eighteen had resolved to fight to the death. They made their last stand on the beach where sixteen of them were killed. Afterwards, a state of emergency was declared, hundreds of cadets were expelled from the army school and officers who had participated in the mutiny were posted to remote garrisons.

The 1922 Revolt was the foundation for a movement involving junior officers of the Brazilian army that became known as tenentismo as most of those involved were lieutenants (tenentes). They believed that the Republic would never achieve its full potential as a nation under civilian government and demanded radical reform, both economically and socially to alleviate poverty in Brazil. At the same time, however, the tenentes realised that there was little hope of bringing down the regional oligarchies and party bosses without the use of force and without that their movement never really progressed into a full-blown political entity. Brazilian politics continued as before.

As Bernardes took office, Brazil was in a parlous state, embroiled in both economic and political crises. He added to the problems by intervening in state politics – claiming he was merely trying to maintain law and order – and often installing his own men where he could. He took his revenge on the press by introducing censorship and refused to grant an amnesty to those involved in the 1922 revolt. He courted even greater unpopularity with a strict, conservative fiscal policy, demonstrated most vividly in his withdrawal of financial support for the valorisation – manipulation of the price – of coffee. He also withdrew funding for the irrigation projects that Pessôa had launched during his term of office. So unpopular did Bernardes become that he rarely left the presidential palace.

Finally, he faced a major crisis with what is called the ‘second Fifth of July’. On that date, two years to the day after the revolt of 1922, there was a better prepared uprising of young officers in São Paulo with the aim of bringing down the Bernardes government. The leader was a retired Rio Grande do Sul officer, General Isidoro Dias Lopes (1865–1949) and amongst other prominent military figures involved were Eduardo Gomes (1896–1981), Newton Estillac Leal (1893–1955), João Cabanas (1895–1974) and Miguel Costa (1885–1959), the latter an important officer in the São Paulo Força Pública (State Militia). They demanded the restoration of constitutional liberties and denounced what they described as Bernardes’ excessive use of presidential authority. They succeeded in taking control of the city for twenty-two days until they were forced to withdraw. Other rebellions erupted in Sergipe, Amazonas and Rio Grande do Sul. The São Paulo rebels left the city and headed west, establishing their base in western Paraná and awaiting another force, led by Captain Luís Carlos Prestes (1898–1990), that was marching north from Rio Grande do Sul. The two groups joined up and marched into the interior of the country, hoping to persuade the peasants to join with them in bringing Bernardes down. For two years the Coluna Prestes (Prestes Column), as they had come to be known, marched across the North and Northeast, fighting several battles en route to Bolivia where they arrived and finally disbanded in 1927. The ‘Prestes Column’ failed in its principal aim of bringing down the government but it gained a huge amount of publicity and helped to make people aware of rural poverty. Prestes became a Marxist in 1929, visited the Soviet Union in 1931 and, in 1943, after a number of years in prison, became leader of the Brazilian Communist Party. Tenentismo carried on, seeking economic development as a way to create social and political change in Brazil.

Café-com-leite continued unrelentingly and, in 1926, it was the turn of the paulistas to come up with a candidate. After all, the last paulista president, Rodrigues Alves, although elected in 1918, had fallen sick before taking office which meant the last paulista actually to serve as president had been the same politician during his first stint from 1902 to 1906. Washington Luís (1869–1957), governor of São Paulo, was duly nominated by a meeting of state governors, with Fernando de Melo Viana (1878–1954) of Minas Gerais as his vice-presidential candidate. With Rui Barbosa now dead, there was little opposition and it was an election marked by general apathy. Needless to say, Washington Luís won 98 per cent of the vote.

One of the new president’s cabinet appointments had immense importance for the future of Brazil – that of Getúlio Dornelles Vargas (1882–1954) as Minister of Finance. The forty-three-year-old politician from Rio Grande do Sul would become one of the most significant figures in Brazilian history.


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