Liberalism versus Nationalism: The Prodevelopment Ideology in Recent Brazilian Political History (1930-1997)

By De Lima, Paulo-Tarso Flecha | Presidential Studies Quarterly, June 1999 | Go to article overview

Liberalism versus Nationalism: The Prodevelopment Ideology in Recent Brazilian Political History (1930-1997)


De Lima, Paulo-Tarso Flecha, Presidential Studies Quarterly


Nationalism and the Vargas Years

With the country facing a major economic and political crisis, Brazil's presidential elections of 1930 were held as usual. Not surprisingly, the government's candidate, Julio Prestes, emerged as the winner. Calling the election a fraud, the members of the defeated "Liberal Alliance"(1) launched a political and military insurrection, led by their presidential candidate, Getulio Vargas. From the states of Rio Grande do Sul, Minas Gerais, Pernambuco, and Paraiba, the rebels marched toward Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. Within twenty-one days, the government was overthrown by a military junta, and end of the "old republic" was proclaimed. Political power was handed to Getulio Vargas, who arrived triumphantly in the national capital of Rio de Janeiro on October 30, 1930. He would rule Brazil until the end of World War II.

Although the so-called 1930 Revolution triumphed as a movement championing classical liberalism and true democracy, the Vargas administration was distinguished by a persistent move toward nationalism and the creation of a powerful and interventionist federal government. During the fifteen years of continuous Vargas rule, the prodevelopment ideology of devenvolvimentismo(2) flourished and gained deep roots in Brazilian society. From 1930 to 1980, regardless of who was in power, whether military or civilian, elected or imposed by force, the history of the Brazilian presidency can be read as the inexorable unfolding of the desenvolvimentista agenda. What mattered was "developing" the country virtually at any cost--pushing an accelerated transition from agriculture toward industry, from the rural areas toward the big urban centers. State intervention in the economy was viewed as necessary to overcome underdevelopment and the "dependent" nature of Brazilian economy. Market forces were discredited and seen as shackles chaining Brazil to its colonial and backward past. According to this view, laissez-faire economic policies, monetary orthodoxy, and trust in the theory of "comparative advantages" would simply maintain the country in its vulnerable state of having an economy based only on exports of primary goods, with prices dictated by the uncertainties of the international commodities market.

That strategy was unquestionably a tremendous success. For fifty years in a row, Brazil's GDP woluld grow at an average annual rate of 7 percent, allowing the country to metamorphose itself from a preindustrial amalgam of isolated and backward economic islands into the world's ninth largest economy, with a thriving urban society and a powerful middle class espousing modern and democratic values.

The change did not happen overnight. Vargas reached the presidency supported by a broad coalition of many different groups. The 1930 movement represented the interests of some displaced backward elites, some more enlightened elites, and even some incipient modern elites, as well as the interests of a rising urban middle class, among which some radical elements could be found. In short, every segment of society that had a reason to believe that the Sao Paulo coffee-based hegemony under the old republic was inimical to its own interests, or beliefs, supported the "revolution." Yet, none of these groups was strong enough to decide on the new path to be followed. Hence, from the start, Vargas decided to place himself above the disputes within his coalition, adopting an imperial role as mediator. He would embody the idea of an independent central state, free from the pressures of any specific social class or interest group. His magic touch was to always search for an identification (whether real or apparent) between his own will and the national will.

The period of the "transitory" presidency (1930-34) was marked by disputes between the groups connected to the tenentista(3) movement and the more traditional politicians, who represented the interests of their local elites. …

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