Dead Presidents

Exhumation of Brazil’s João
Set for Month of John in the U.S.

It’s just a coincidence, but as the U.S. President John Kennedy’s assassination 50 years ago this month spawned the mother of all conspiracies, the exhumation of João Goulart, Brazil’s last democratically elected president before the 1964 military coup, is indeed spooky.
We’re not making light of what’s pretty much one of Brazil’s first attempts at exhuming its own past. Goulart’s death in Mercedes, Argentina, on Dec. 6, 1976, has been the subject of popular suspicions that he was poisoned, not felled by his heart, ever since.

After all, the dictatorship that had deposed him was at the peak of its most ravaging efforts to eradicate from the national memory his leftist legacy of populism. Plus, less than four months earlier, his predecessor, Juscelino Kubitschek, had also died in mysterious circumstances.
Earlier this year, the National Truth Commission, which has a mandate to probe human rights violations during the military rule, said it’d been looking into the car crashed that killed Kubitschek, a centrist whose term saw a boost in Brazil’s urban explosion, and the rise of its World Heritage capital, Brasilia.
The commission was checking allegations that Kubitschek’s driver had been shot before the collision with a bus near São Paulo. But so far, there hasn’t been any new word on the investigation, and the commission has the prerogative of not releasing any of its findings.
Rumors that Jango had been killed by orders of Brazil’s generals got a boost in 2008 when a former agent from Uruguay, Mario Neira Barreiro, told Folha de São Paulo that he’d spied on him for four years. Speaking from a Brazilian jail, where he’s been since 2003 on unrelated charges, he didn’t offer any material proof though.
Since Folha hasn’t managed to confirm his allegations either, mainly because most of those who could vouch for them are already dead, today’s forensics techniques may be the only hope to find out any corroboration of the thesis of poisoning. In the case of Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, however, similar suspicions have just been disproved.

Jango, as he was known, had been the Labor Minister in the second presidency of Getulio Vargas, arguably Brazil’s most popular leader, and the man known for creating state-run oil giant, Petrobrás. Vargas, who had led an autocratic government in the 1930s, managed to come back 20 years later supported by a popular coalition.
His suicide while still in office, in 1954, remains one of Brazil’s most traumatic events and helped to throw the country’s incipient political institutions into a tailspin. He was succeed briefly by his vice-president, and then, in quick succession, the Senate’s president and its vice president all within two intense years.
When Kubitschek, with Jango in the ticket, was elected by a large majority, though, Brazil seemed to have regained its true north, with a vibrant urbanization process and a rush to make its industrial park competitive. The 1960 inauguration of Brasilia marked the nadir of a new era for the country, now known for its youthful culture and a so-called racial democracy.
It was not to last, even if any of the aforementioned landmarks were true or consistent with the underbelly of global politics. Kubitschek became the first Brazilian president to fulfill his mandate, and the last for a long time after. His clownish successor, Janio Quadros, resigned only seven months into his term, but not before irking the right-wing of the military forces with the medal he conferred to Che Guevara.
The same military, now starting to exercise an unhinged sway over the country, only allowed Jango, who was again Brazil’s vice-president, to take over in 1961, after forcing a regime change to Parliamentarism, giving the executive branch a diminished role in governing. Still he almost succeed, in great part due to his personal conciliatory abilities.

Again, it was not to last. Wrapping up our ill-advised and over-simplified foray into Brazilian politics circa 1960s, Jango’s brief three years as head of state were marked by continuous turmoil, with unions and segments of Brazilian society switching sides on him, and, more alarmingly, groups within the military seriously plotting his downfall.
On April 1st, 1964, Brazil’s biggest cities woke up to thousand of tanks in the streets and Jango already on his way to exile in Uruguay. A group of generals had taken upon themselves to rewrite the constitution and dismount the country’s budding democratic institutions. They stayed in power by force for over 20 years.
That dark period, later framed by an overriding wave of military dictatorships in neighboring South and Central American countries, in great part supported by the U.S. and its fears of losing the Cold War to the Soviet Union, has still to be properly examined under the light of Brazil’s civic institutions.
Even if it becomes clear that Jango, and possibly later Kubitschek, really died of natural causes, regardless how hard it’ll be to prove otherwise, the nation will have taken an important step towards the full acknowledgment of what it went through, if not for anything else, at least for the sake of the unknown number of its victims.

Unlike Argentina, Chile, and even Uruguay, there’s a consensus of sorts that not many Brazilians were persecuted and assassinated during the military rule, which is both a callous assessment and yet another attempt to gloss over the misery and anxiety the armed forces subjected and inflicted to millions of citizens.
In fact, the suspicion of assassination plots against its leaders have also plagued the military, since both first two generals who ruled during the period have died in relatively unexplained circumstances. Few believe we’ll get to the bottom of their demises, though, or that Brazilians even should.
Not before finding out what actually happened to democratically elected presidents, political activists, union leaders, dissidents, intellectuals, and even innocent bystanders, all felled by a brutal elite of self-appointed saviors, who in the end only managed to sow hatred and delay the not too young nation’s aspirations to democracy and peace.
Just like Americans may never know exactly what happened that Friday in Dallas (no need to send us yet more ‘proof’ he was assassinated by X, Y or Z), Brazilians may take a while to completely grasp the significance of their own John, had he survived long enough to rejoin the country’s political process in the 1970s.
But history will certainly be rewritten if it turns out that he was, indeed, poisoned to death. Since polonium, which we now know may have killed Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, was not yet part of the picture then, at least as far as we know, it remains to be seen what such an explosive revelation will ignite in Brazil and elsewhere.
Whatever happens today and in the coming weeks or months, it’ll be worth the effort, though. Brazil needs to fully access its past, and often the fate of leaders offers clues to whatever promise nations hold for their citizens. Brazilians certainly deserve to know the truth. And we’ll surely be there to witness that happening.

Read Also:
* Ah, Those Brazilians
* Evolving Mores

One thought on “Dead Presidents

  1. WordsFallFromMyEyes says:

    Wow, none of this was I aware of. This was a fascinating history lesson thanks, Wesley. And great photos.

    It has always fascinated me that lies can be written and come to be believed, and thus a history is recorded. I’ve felt impelled to speak my life, my truth, that it not be otherwise said.


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