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The 50th Anniversary

Rio de Janeiro and the 1964 Military Coup

Rio de Janeiro in 1964 remained the de facto seat of the Brazilian government and home to its corps of international diplomats. Despite the fact that Brasilia, the modernist architectural ghost town erected in the scrublands of the country’s isolated interior was designated Brazil’s new capital in 1960, the foot dragging went on for years before the embassies and the governing bureaucrats accepted the inevitability that they would have to, not just occasionally commute between Rio and the new capital, but actually decamp and live there. Think of the founders and the whole apparatus of State being forced to abandon cosmopolitan Philadelphia in 1800 for swampy, malarial Washington. By 1964 standards, going to Brasilia, today Brazil’s 4th largest city, was worse.

Thus, when the coup unfolded on March 31, 1964 that brought down the democratically elected government of Joao (Jango) Goulart, American diplomats were still pulling strings on behalf of the Putschists from their comfortable embassy board rooms on the Avenida Woodrow Wilson in downtown Rio. And yours truly, a wet behind the ears undergraduate at the local Jesuit university for a year, in a Zelig-like coincidence, witnessed the military takeover from a window facing Copacabana beach in a building where the deposed president himself had an apartment.

Michael Uhl in March 1964 looking out a window onto the Copacabana, pictured at right circa 1960s.Michael Uhl in March 1964 looking out a window onto the Copacabana, pictured at right circa 1960s.

The dictatorship and its afterglow endured a quarter century until the direct election by popular vote of Fernando Collor de Mello in 1989, following the creation a year earlier of a new constitution, by far Brazil’s most democratic. Even then the military hovered in the wings having inserted into the new charter, according to historian Daniel Aarao Reis, the authoritarian wedge “of the military’s right to intervene in the national political life if they are summoned by the head of one of the three branches of government.”

Now, with twenty five years of democratic governments under their belt, and a flow of peaceful transitions from one presidential term to the next – including the resignation of President Collor under investigation for corruption – a Brazilian electorate many times larger than the one that brought Jango to office in 1961, might finally imagine itself immune from any future threat to democratic rule by the military, despite the menacing clause that lies dormant in their constitution.

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