Vargas was born in 1883. A small, chubby and discreet man, he grew to become a rich cattle man in Brazil, and in 1928 became the Governor of his state –Rio Grande do Sul. In 1930 he was propelled into the Presidency of his country by the army, which claimed that too much of the country’s wealth was being invested in the coffee trade, in effect propping it up, which it needed due to bad management. The second of many things the army disliked was that too much money was going in the direction of one state of Brazil –Sao Paulo.
Having Vargas in the presidency did not amuse the coffee barons, and they (and the rest of this enormous country) came to dislike even more Vargas’s methods of governing, which he did by decree. He replaced state governors at will, and constructed a patronage network in individual states. Historians agree that he appeared not to recommend any particular political stance, Right or the Left for instance. He was, however, a master of political opportunism, changing policies according to circumstances, and coinciding with the mood in general of the nation.
In 1937, faced with a slumping coffee industry, drastic reduction in coffee prices, a vast balance of payments deficit and galloping inflation, he simply suspended the Constitution (which might have thrown him out of the presidency), and proclaimed a ‘New State’. Watchers of this site will have met this expression, Estado Novo, before. It has been proclaimed in Italy and Portugal among other places of interest. It means no political parties, a closed Parliament, no civil rights, and censorship of the press. It is a Corporate State, as they had in Italy, though the Brazilian version was milder.
Vargas was in effect a dictator, but took few repressive measures, nor did he orchestrate a para-military gang to stamp out dissidence by the use of violence. He did not attempt to regiment or indoctrinate Brazilians. Perhaps he should have followed this, the normal path of dictators who wish to stay dictating. Instead, he tried to make Brazil less dependent on coffee: he encouraged the industrialization of mining, oil, steel-making, electricity and chemicals. He allowed workers an eight-hour day, paid holidays, the right to strike, a minimum wage, and health and safety rules. He was represented internationally as a socialist dictator. But the trade unions found they had lost their independence and the right to free collective bargaining. In fact they had came under government control. All these things happened to urban workers only. In the pampas the rural worker still laboured under old coercive practices.
Vargas permitted the USA to build and man bases in Brazil, and in 1942 the country declared war on Hitler’s Germany. The USAwas delighted and by 1945 Brazilwas the most powerful state in Latin America. But as the Second World War approached its end the Army realised that Vargas would inevitably cling on to power. His resignation was demanded, but nothing came of it. He was freely elected as President in 1950 and took office in 1951, but he was nearly seventy and had lost whatever dynamism he used to have.
Political corruption was even more rife than usual, so the Army interfered again, this time telling Vargas he must resign or be deposed by military force. His reply (in August 1954) was to shoot himself. He was seventy-one years old.