Vargas, Getulio: Dictator or President?
By Kay Stacy
Was Getulio Vargas really "Father of the Poor," or did his
death produce public sympathy that strengthened this reputation? Regardless, Getulio
Vargas affected the history of Brazil more than any other character in the 20th
century. Politicians have to offer something for each sector of society. Vargas was better
at this than his forerunners. He proudly wore the titles of legislator, congressman,
cabinet minister, governor, revolutionary, chief of state, interim president, dictator,
senator, and popularly elected president (Father of the Poor, 1). According to R.S.
Rose "For the poor, he was the paternalistic benefactor; for the middle class, he was
the one who brought stability; and for the wealthy, he supported the status quo,"
Getulio Vargas lived a regime motivated by both positive and negative
features and reforms. Many observers have been puzzled by Vargas?s ability to judge
events and retain power. Levine refers to Vargas as, "a small man obsessed with
power. Relentless yet good natured, crafty yet bland, Vargas viewed the presidency as a
vehicle for authoritative rule but not personal aggrandizement"(Vargas Regime, 35).
Only once did Vargas's ability to judge events, retain power, and control others
fail. To him, it must have been the ultimate of all failures leading him to abruptly take
his own life (Vargas Regime, 36).
Destined for greatness, Getulio Vargas ruled over Brazil for 18 years.
From 1930-1934, he was provisional president and dictator. From 1934-1937, he was
congressionally elected president. From 1937-1945, he was dictator with the backing of the
revolutionary coalition. From 1951 to 1954, he was popularly elected president. He had a
dream that Brazilian politics could be used to develop Brazil nationally, internationally,
and economically. His vision was to modernize Brazil (Brazil, 2). His many accomplishments
speak for themselves.
Getulio Dornelles Vargas was born April 19, 1883, in the frontier town
of São Borja in Rio Grande do Sal. He was the third of
five sons born to Manuel do Nascimento Vargas and Dona Cândida Dornelles Vargas. Getulio
Vargas?s father was a rancher and a political boss who had been an honorary general
during the Paraguayan War and had remained loyal to the state chieftain in the
As a young man, Getulio Vargas enlisted in the local Sixth Infantry
Battalion, only to help his admission into the military academy at Rio Pardo. Briefly, he
studied at Ouro Prêto Preparatory School in Minas Gerais. He quit school along with his
older brothers when they became involved in a conflict that resulted in the death of a
classmate. Two years after Minas Gerais, Getulio Vargas joined the Twenty-fifth Infantry
Battalion in Pôrto Alegre. He also enrolled in the local law faculty and became a member
of Castilho's Republican Party. Not wanting to see military action, Vargas abandoned
his military career after a quick and unsuspected crisis between Bolivia and Brazil sent
him to the Mato Grosso border as sergeant of his unit. He returned to law school and
received his degree in 1909, and one year later he was named state attorney general.
Rising quickly through the political ranks, Vargas became known as a protégé of a party
chieftain, Borges de Medeiros. Vargas was bright and loyal and quickly progressed to the
state assembly, to its presidency, to the federal Chamber of Deputies in 1922, and by 1926
he was finance minister in the Washington Luís' government. He had accomplished all of
this by age 30. He was loyal and quick to defend the ideas of his political party. If he
objected to bossism and only one political party, he never mentioned it. He became state
governor of Pôrto Alegre in 1928. To secure the support of the gaúcho, he used his
connections with the administration to obtain help for failing producers of dry meat.
Also, he established the Bank of Rio Grande do Sul to provide agricultural loans. By now
Vargas had proved a popular governor. In 1930, he received the nomination of the Liberal
alliance as its presidential candidate.
However, the March 1930 presidential election saw Julio Prestes, the
administration sponsored candidate, win the election by a narrow margin. In the meantime,
Vargas had gained the support of many military and political leaders. Vargas played
politics during the early months of 1930. He assured the present administration that he
had accepted the results of the election, but at the same time made plans to overthrow the
government. In early October, Vargas finally committed himself to the movement to topple
the government (Young, 3). Three weeks of bitter fighting saw the resignation of Luiz
Pereira de Souza. Vargas took absolute power as provisional president (History of
During the next 15 years Vargas served as president and dictator of
Brazil. Most of this time, he ruled without a congress. As provisional president from
November 3, 1930, until July 17, 1934, he held sole power. On July 17, he was elected
president by constituent assembly. Then on November 10, 1937, Vargas led a coup that
destroyed the constitutional government and established the totalitarian New State (Estado
Nove). On October 29, 1945, Vargas was overthrown by a coup as the result of a rise of
nationalism and democracy sweeping postwar Brazil.
Even though Vargas was overthrown as president in October 1945, he was
elected as senator from Rio Grande do Sul in December 1945, showing he still maintained
extensive popular support. Once again in 1950, Vargas won the presidency as a candidate of
the Brazilian Labour Party. He took office for the last time January 31, 1951.
Physically, Getulio Vargas stood 5 feet 4 inches tall with a round
plump figure. He was usually clothed in a baggy white linen suit while working at his
desk. However, when he greeted visitors at his Petrópolis summer home, he often emerged
in his pajamas, which was an old rural Brazilian custom. He was not a man of pretense.
Vargas had a great affection for diminutive jokes and black cigars. As a hobby, Vargas
rode horses and played golf. He wasn?t first-rate at either of these, but used the
hobbies as a means for private conferences. Vargas played poker into the midnight hours
with his political aides, discussing governmental matters. During Vargas?s lifetime,
he attended only one opera, leaving after first curtain. While at his desk, Vargas worked
unceasingly, shifting volumes of reports on political and economic matters. He wrote
extensive correspondence to friends and family. Vargas was a mysterious combination of
positivist and caudilho traits. In the largest Catholic country in the world he named one
son Luther and another Calvin (Vargas Regime, 36,37). In Father of the Poor, Levine
further describes Vargas as a realist and a pragmatist, difficult to decipher, personal
earthiness, slow to respond always thinking things out. To different people Vargas
represented different things. He understood power and dreamed of thrusting Brazil forward
to modernization until it could control itself. In addition, Vargas had a morose side,
writing in his diary, "How many times have I longed for death to solve the problems
of my life" (Father of the Poor, 1). Vargas hid his emotions from everyone,
Personally, Getulio Vargas did not establish close relationships with
those other than his family. By 1935, thirty-four different men had resided in the nine
cabinet posts and 94 men had governed the 20 states and the Federal District as
intervenors. This was a high rate of overturn for a four-year regime. As a family man,
Vargas married Darcy Lima Sarmanho in March 1911. She remained faithfully by his side
until his death, always in the background. She became involved in personal charity causes
and supervised all of the family households at the royal palace, the federal capital, and
Sao Borja. She was Roman Catholic. Vargas claimed no religion, but he had several friends
from the clergy. Together Vargas and Darcy had five children: Lutero (a physician),
Jandira, Maneco, Getlinho, and Alzira (dad?s favorite and a law school graduate). As
many Brazilian men did, Getulio had a mistress from 1937 until his death. Darcy never
complained, but excused this as being the way Brazilian men chose to live (Father of
the Poor, 16,17).
Presidentally, Vargas securely managed his administration. He was aided
by Luís Vergara (said to be Vargas?s alter ego) who was chief of his personal staff
from 1935 to 1945. Vargas dealt with each of his cabinet members discreetly, individually,
and paternalistic. Often he would announce new policies for their departments without
consulting them first. Isolated from the ever day world, Vargas was protected from the
press and the public by his cronies and aides who sheltered him. Through his years in
office, Vargas?s daughter, Alzira and Vargas?s three brothers, Benjamin,
Protasio, and Virato all served in some manner. Vargas cared for his companions well.
There is no evidence that he accumulated personal wealth from his position. Vargas had the
"keen ability to maintain political balance and to anticipate developments. As
president he proved he was neither liberal nor conservative" (Vargas Regime, 38). He
did not create new and innovative trends, but used the ones others had proven. Vargas was
not a "sentimentalist"; he sacrificed anyone and even" state autonomy"
when they got in the way of his career plans.
During the 18 years that Vargas was President and Dictator of Brazil,
he brought political, economic, industrial, and social changes that helped modernize the
country. He obtained the title "Father of the Poor" for his battle against big
business and large cooperations. While he was in office, Vargas instituted many reforms.
He saw the population grow and shift from a rural to an urban base. The economy became
diversified. Even though the Center-South changed drastically, the rest of the country
seemed to be left behind. Rio Janeiro became a tourist attraction. National institutions
thrived, transportation changed, and foreign influence was sought. Most important perhaps,
Brazil emerged with a diplomatic voice in hemisphere politics. Some things did not change,
including public education and health care. The rich were still not taxed, and land was
still a source of power. Constitutions were still written and discarded, and the army and
the elite took it for granted they could intervene when necessary (Father of the Poor,
Politically, Vargas believed that many of Brazil?s problems came
from its loose confederation of 20 states. One of his first acts as president was to unite
Brazil. First, all of the state governors, except for Mina Gerias, were replaced with
intervenors, who would report directly to Vargas. They could be replaced as the President
wished. Second, Vargas proved a strong central government existed by quickly crushing a
revolt of coffee growers in Sao Paulo. Third, in 1934 Vargas wrote and ratified a
constitution that placed more restrictions on states? powers. It prohibited the state
from taxing interstate goods or raising an army larger than the federal army. However, the
constitution did establish a bicameral legislature to be elected directly by the people.
The president would also be elected by the people, with the exception of the first
President. Vargas was chosen by the Congress (Smith, 1,2).
Economically, stimulation of the economy received Vargas?s
immediate attention. He knew that all sectors and factions wanted economic reform. Vargas
listened to workers? demands and gave labor a role. He committed the nation to
industrialization and greatly expanded labor regulations while creating growth
industrially. Robert Byars writes the thoughts of one steel worker, "Getulio was
different? he wasn?t too proud to speak with any kind of person even the
lowliest"(Mello, 1). The same source continues to comment on Vargas?s motives,
"I don?t know if it was just political technique. He was able to prevent middle
class dissent by masking his schemes behind nationalism and ignoring the class conflicts
in modern Brazil" (Mello, 1). He tried to create unity among the classes by avoiding
divergence of interests between classes. This approach allowed Vargas to build a wide
political base and a widespread coalition. It was the core ideal in the populist platform
(Mello, 1). Vargas was able to expand social programs and set a minimum wage, yet forbid
labor strikes, and deny illiterates the right to vote.
Industrialization came to Brazil partially through the WWII Allied
effort. Raw materials were necessary to the Allied War effort, and Brazil could supply
them. To pay for these raw materials, the United States invested hefty sums of cash in
Brazil?s infrastructure. United States funds constructed highways, railroads, ports,
and airports (Smith, 1,2). Brazil also gave the United States permission to construct air
bases in northeastern Brazil and organize an air service. In addition, Brazil helped with
air and naval patrol of the South Atlantic. Finally, Brazil sent troops to Europe. In
exchange for these favors, the U.S. gave loans and technical assistance to Brazil for the
national steel plant at Volta Redonda. Brazil also received three-fourths of the
Lend-Lease aid of the total that went to Latin America, and helped Rio de Janeiro obtain a
seat on the Security Council of the U.N. (Hilton, 1). Vargas also helped industrialize
Brazil by creating the National Motor Factory, which made engines for trucks and airplanes
(Smith, 1,2). Industry grew quickly, while coffee still occupied its place as the leading
Ironically, Vargas was overthrown by the same system that he had created. Under Estado
Novo, strikes were crimes. The government declared regular wage and benefit increases and
expanded the social security system. In order to maintain his paternalism and power,
repression of speech and liberty were used. Journalist and writers were censored and
jailed. These repressions lead to suspension of political activities and governmental
support for modernizing the military. The army became more unified than it had been since
1922. Also, the recognition that the army received from its WWII participation allowed
General Pedro Aurelio de Goes Monteiro to help depose Vargas in 1945. This overthrow, the
generals believed, was necessary to stop the political mobilization of the masses, which
would upset the social order. This would displease the elites (Brazil, 3,4). Of course,
Vargas would advocate accelerating industry and expanding social legislation and again win
the presidency in 1950. Thus, social change had been brought about. A former dictator had
been freely elected as a president. Very few times in history has this happened.
During the waning years of Vargas?s political career and his life,
he attempted to base his government firmly on populism. As a result, he alienated the
elite, the military, and the United States. Vargas believed that overseas interest had
been too slow expanding energy resources. Vargas created the Brazilian Petroleum
Corporation in 1953 and began the Brazilian Electric Power Company. Arguments among the
military and the nationalist destroyed political life and added to military intervention.
Now Vargas and his administration would face charges of corruption. The military demanded
that Vargas resign (Brazil, 4). Early morning on August 24, 1954, Vargas did resign and
agree to temporarily surrender power to Vice-President João Café Fiho (History of
Brazil, 2,3). A few hours later in the silence of his own bedroom in the presidental
palace, Getulio Dornelles Vargas took his own life (Vargas Regime, 35). One shot to the
heart ended an exceptional career. Vargas left a suicide note to the nation, making
reference to sacrificing himself so that Brazil might live. There were actually 3 copies
of the suicide note. John Dulles deals with this in-depth, including a copy of the note
To summarize, Vargas rebuilt the military, stimulated the economy,
sought international trade, and improved foreign relationships. His administration
emphasized restoration and preservation of historic buildings and towns. However, he saw
only a 4 percent rise in the gross domestic product. Brazils first steel mill at Volta
Redonda (1944) was the beginning of the enormous industrial productivity of the later part
of the 20th century. "The Vargas years had their greatest impact on national politics
and economics and their least impact at the local level" (Brazil, 2). One of
Vargas?s main goals was to teach Brazilians to take pride in their nationality, to
discipline themselves, to learn proper values of self-reliance, to honor the sanctity of
marriage and family, and to realize the value of hard work (Father of the Poor,
10). Vargas had the ability to make former enemies into supporters and to absorb rural and
commercial elites into his power base.
In conclusion, was Vargas really "Father of the poor"?
Probably, more so than any other Brazilian leader of the 19th or 20th
century has been. The people of Brazil trusted him and showed this by referring to him by
his first name or "Mr. G" or seu Ge (Father of the Poor, 110).
Vargas was the first head of state to allow women to vote or serve on his staff (Father
of the Poor, 120). He raised public expectations. The title, "Father of the
Poor" seemed to be more in the minds of the masses than their lives. By the mid
1950's, four out of every 10 Brazilians still lived below the poverty level.
Vargas's reforms almost never reached the people that he intended to help. Much of
his popularity with the masses came from his radio broadcast, where he recognized the
common people. This was something no other Brazilian oligarchy had done (Father of the
Poor, 129, 130). The people loved Vargas because he remembered them and gave them
identity, not because of the bread he put in their mouths (Father of the Poor,
137-138). Was he flawless? Certainly not, he was a dictator with an ego and a president,
who lived on a dream that "only" he could transform Brazil. The urban and rural
people who made up one-half of Brazil played a very small role in Vargas?s new Brazil
(Father of the Poor, 122). He was not a sentimentalist. He repressed free speech
and imprisoned those who opposed him. There were thousand of prisoners throughout Brazil,
living in horrible conditions. Some of these were journalist charged with antigovernment
activities (Father of the Poor, 56). The difference between Vargas and other rulers
seemed to be his desire to use the political machine to modernize Brazil politically,
economically, industrially, and socially. As the drapes closed on his life, Vargas had
turned nationalist. Did he have a change of heart or had he just built on the wrong
political foundation? Dictators rarely possess a heart. Presidents and true leaders do.
Maybe he was both a dictator and a president.
Getulio Vargas during his last term in the Presidency, 1951-1954.
John W. F. Dulles, Vargas of Brazil, A Political Biography
Photograph by Cruzeiro.
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