Vargas’ rule of Brazil was a mixture of successes and failures. To what extent do you agree with this assertion?
After a century of tumultuous politics and countrywide turmoil, in 1930 Getulio Vargas took control of Brazil. He was appointed as provisional leader after a coup led by the military, and over the next seven years consolidated his control until it culminated in his personal dictatorship and the creation of the Estado Novo. His rule was characterized by social and economic change, and to a great extent he was successful at advancing his country, though at the cost of individual rights.
Vargas’s social policies were of mixed success, though they were generally a step forward. He had inherited a highly stratified social structure with a wide divide between the landed elites and the masses of poor agricultural workers. Recently, with the increasing industrialization of Brazil, there was a new middle class, as well as new urban bourgeoisie class. Vargas sought to balance these powers, leading to his populist politics. For the urban workers, Vargas instituted many policies which benefited them and stabilized their lives: he emphasized industrialization, which created jobs, and he emphasized social welfare, which protected them form the capitalist system. He set minimum wages and maximum hours, and gave women new rights and protections in the workplace. Such policies marked a great improvement form labor’s perspective from the previous leaders who allowed the workers to be exploited. However, these policies came at a cost. In order to maintain his power, Vargas essentially took control of labor unions, only allowing government approved strikes and otherwise limiting their ability to leverage change. According to historian Rex A. Hudson, despite Vargas’s pro-labor policies, reforms were never sufficient to raise workers out of poverty, and as he had also restricted protest rights, labor overall did not benefit. However, his policies were undoubtedly an improvement over the exploitative situation led by the bourgeoisie and foreign investors that existed before him. Indeed, he was effective enough to be hailed as the “FDR of Brazil” because he worked for the everyman.
The second important element is the agricultural sector, because it was by far the largest source of Brazil’s income. Much like in industry, the work force was exploited by the agricultural elites. Vargas, as part of his populist policies, had promised land reform to gain the support of rural workers. Yet once he was in power, the agrarian oligarchy proved too powerful, and he never delivered on his promises. This left the largest segment of the population relatively unprotected and made Vargas more beholden to a tiny group of wealthy elites, which was a failure on his part. Ultimately, though, Vargas was successful at improving the social status of much of the lower class of the country, though he did it at the cost of labor rights and he did not fix agricultural problems.
Vargas’s impact was felt strongly in the economy, as well. When he came to power, he faced the Great Depression, which he chose to address by firstly saving the old standbys (especially coffee) while encouraging new growth in industry. As an immediate fix he continued the program of valorization that his predecessors had employed with mixed success. This stabilized the coffee industry for the moment. His long term policies were more ambitious. In some ways they mirrored those of Mussolini’s Italy, in that he promoted state-directed capitalism, including a persistent focus on the development of Brazilian industry, including hydroelectric power, railways, and heavy industry. World War II aided with his policies, allowing Brazil to increase its food and raw material production and export market, and further increasing its industrialization. After his deposition and reelection in 1950, Vargas tended more on the socialist side of the spectrum, creating state industries including the government monopoly over petroleum, with Petrobras. Overall, Vargas was very successful economically, managing approximately a 4% annual increase in GDP over the latter years of his rule as well as high diversification. He led Brazil to decades of sustained economic growth.
Vargas also achieved substantial political success, as he maintained a powerful dictatorship for over a decade. The first element to his political success was his centralization of Brazil. The states had previously been rather loosely aligned, with Minas Gerais and Sao Paulo semi-autonomous and dominant. When he came to power, he replaced the regionally elected representatives with “interventors” who carried out his policies and tied the states more closely to the federal government. When he created a new constitution in 1934, officially ending his status as interim leader (and conveniently appointing himself as president), he furthered this by reducing states’ autonomy and their ability to tax. As he was head of the federal government, this loose power gathered around him. Furthering his cementation of control was his deliberate elimination of rivals. When he came into power, he was supported by a mixed coalition under his populist banner. This, according to Rose, gave him widespread support and split the opposition. Yet soon two major rival parties emerged, the National Liberal Alliance (ANL) and the Integralists. The ANL was a coalition of socialists, communists, and other radicals, while the Integralists were essentially European-style fascists. After the ANL began staging protests and went so far as to have a small uprising, Vargas managed to get emergency powers given to him, and he immediately quashed the party. The Integralists were temporarily thrilled and thought they were sure to win the upcoming 1938 election, but before it could take place Vargas announced the dissolution of the Congress and the establishment of his dictatorship in the Estado Novo. Throughout his early period of rule Vargas used the techniques of other totalitarian leaders to maintain control, such as propaganda and censorship, but these greatly intensified once he became sole leader. He used terror as a method of repression and to ensure obedience. Of course, in 1945 he was deposed by an unhappy military, a certain failing. His true prowess as a politician came through when he managed to gather together a coalition even stronger than his first one and get himself reelected to a legitimate presidency in 1951. Thus, Vargas maintained strict political power over his opponents, which, though it involved compromise on human-rights issues, allowed him to efficiently execute his other policy goals including economic improvement and social welfare and can therefore be seen as a success.
Vargas’s rule, though repressive and chaotic, was characterized by improved standards of living, steady economic growth, and relative political stability. He laid the groundwork for modern Brazil, one of astounding growth and international power. Despite his questionable tactics, Vargas changed Brazil for the better for decades to come.
Chasteen, John Charles. Born in Blood and Fire: A Concise History of Latin America. New York: Norton, 2001. Print.