Political Classes and Military Dictatorship in Brazil


A review of The Inadvertent Opposition: The São Paulo Political Class and the Demise of Brazil’s Military Regime, 1968-1985, by Bryan Pitts.

Bryan Pitts’ 2013 dissertation, The Inadvertent Opposition, is a sharp and engaging exploration of the role of Brazil’s political class over the two-decade course of its dictatorship. More than just the important history of an under-studied group, Pitts’ work is in many ways the history of politics itself under Brazil’s military regime. Whereas authoritarian regimes in neighboring Southern Cone nations like Chile, Argentina, Uruguay, and Paraguay dismantled existing political structures, the Brazilian dictatorship was committed—even if mostly in rhetoric—to maintaining its claim to a democratic order. This meant that the political class was never fully discarded and civilian politicians throughout the country were left to bolster, challenge, or simply navigate an ever-changing political landscape. As such, Pitts asks and answers the complicated enigma that materialized in military Brazil: “What happens when civilian elites, the so-called ‘political class,’ whose interests are usually understood as coterminous with those of the state, find themselves relegated to the political margins?” (p. 6)

Existing scholarship has already exposed the ripple effects of this veneer of democracy, but Pitt provides the most thorough analysis to date of the people and institutions on which the military’s claim to legitimacy was based. Focusing mainly on civilian politicians from the important state of São Paulo, Pitts traces how the political class inhabited a critical space that was at once an integral part of the authoritarian government, yet because of its century-long experience of elite privilege, was able to simultaneously resist the tutelage of the dictatorship. Seeking to disrupt what he sees as a false binary between state and opposition, Pitts argues that “individual politicians’ relationship with the regime could change with the shifting currents of public opinion, electoral law, intra-military conflicts, state and local politics, and patron-client relationships, as well as personal rivalries and vendettas” (p. 27). By showing how the political class was a highly flexible group that maintained family and social ties to both the military and popular social movements, The Inadvertent Opposition makes new contributions to our understanding of how politics advanced and receded throughout Brazil’s military period.

It must also be noted that Pitts’ work constitutes a creative intervention in the robust scholarship on opposition in Brazil that has recently turned away from the more “structural” approaches to instead concentrate on categories such as armed struggle, trade unions, student and cultural movements, and the Church. The Inadvertent Opposition rehydrates a narrative on politicians and Brazilian elites, the success of which lies in its ability to avoid a narrow, top-down perspective that exceptionalizes Brazil’s political class. Instead, he shows how the political class’ understanding of its own worldview and attendant notions of honor and privilege led it at different moments to oppose, circumvent, or broker agreements with the dictatorship.

The originality of Pitts’ dissertation is made possible by a methodology that is impressive for both its scope and its attention to detail. In terms of sheer numbers, Pitts claims to have consulted over 20,000 documents from nearly twenty archives in Brazil, the United States, Spain, Portugal, and the United Kingdom. These sources include newspapers, legislative speeches, public opinion surveys, electoral court records, and the personal archives of key politicians. Thanks to a recent wave of declassification and attempts at state transparency (responses in part to popular pressures and the 2011 creation of Brazil’s National Truth Commission), Pitts is also able to review police records, Brazilian intelligence reports, and the correspondence from various foreign embassies. Most compelling, however, is the way in which Pitts extends beyond a textual analysis to present a deeper sensorial reading of his sources. By using the audio recordings of legislative proceedings, The Inadvertent Opposition is able to reconstruct the atmosphere and feel of some of the most decisive moments in Brazil’s political history. And in comparing multiple versions of a single speech, for example, Pitts finds discrepancies, hand-written scribbles in the margins, and redacted notes that provide an intimate window into the political process.

The dissertation begins with an overview of the first four years following the 1964 coup that installed Brazil’s military regime. This initial period was defined in part by a shaky truce between the military and the political class, but by 1968 that basis of that agreement collapsed in the aftermath of police repression of student movements. Rather than focus on the 1968 student mobilizations from the perspective of the students themselves (Victoria Langland, Speaking of Flowers: Student Movements and the Making and Remembering of 1968 in Military Brazil. Durham: Duke University Press: 2013), Pitts uses the social and family ties of politicians to show how and why they identified with the rebellious students, above all at the University of Brasilia. The politicians’ defense of the repressed students—many of whom were their own children—constituted the first major standoff between the military regime and the political elite.

Chapter 2 explores the drama that unraveled when a deputy from the state of Guanabara named Márcio Moreira Alves gave a series of impassioned speeches that criticized the military’s bloody repression of the student protests. A political firestorm ensued, as the military and its allies demanded that Moreira Alves have his parliamentary immunity revoked. The details of this saga have become standard fare in Brazilian historiography: despite being comprised mainly of politicians from the pro-regime ARENA party, Congress voted to protect Moreira Alves’ political rights. In response, the dictatorship unleashed a “coup within a coup” and passed into law the draconian Institutional Act No. 5 (AI-5). Pitts contributes to the already impressive body of literature on the Moreira Alves case by asking why the military chose to take action at this particular moment, and why after four years of seeing their power recede did politicians only now decide to confront the dictatorship. The explanation, he argues, is found in an understanding of the meanings of honor that formed the basis of both the military’s sense of self and the political class’ worldview. What most offended the military in Moreira Alves’ speech was that he insinuated that the wives and girlfriends of the armed forces stage a sort of sexual boycott and withhold their “services” as a form of protest. The politicians, on the other hand, were equally offended and disturbed at seeing students “arrested, beaten, and tortured by poor, unlettered soldiers and policemen, [and] it was a fundamental violation of the way the political class believed that the world was supposed to work” (p. 89). The clash of these honor codes helped bring to the surface tensions that had been boiling for four years, and when the politicians took a stand beside Moreira Alves against the military regime, the dictatorship was forced to see that the political class as a whole could not be counted on to fall in line blindly.

Chapter 3 traces the impact and fallout of Institutional Act No. 5. While still clinging to their veneer of democracy, the military regime upended the political system by removing elected politicians from office (an act known as “cassação”), reforming the constitution, and a number of other initiatives designed to force civilian politicians to collaborate with the dictatorship. In the ten months between December 1968 and October 1969, 335 current or former senators, federal and state deputies, mayors, and municipal councilors were removed, representing 57% of the nearly 600 politicians who were “cassado” during the twenty-one years of dictatorship. Beyond the loss of political rights, we are shown how for the dismissed politicians, these changes reverberated throughout their social, personal, professional, and financial life. The trauma experienced during these years would shape the political class’ approach to the military regime and helped lead to the deterioration of previous political alliances, the emergence of innovative electoral strategies, and a desire to oppose the military in new ways.

Chapter 4 focuses on what Pitts calls “the everyday practice of politics under dictatorial rule.” As the immediate fallout from AI-5 began to wane—but while Brazilian politics still remained circumscribed to the tutelage of the dictatorship—new tensions presented themselves to all but the most ardent supporters of the military regime. Was it better to “wait for the storm to pass” or to challenge the dictatorship with targeted campaigns to win back particular political rights and privileges? This was the period when the “opposition” MDB party (Movimento Democrático Brasileiro) saw the emergence of a younger generation of deputies known as autênticos (authentics) who called for steadfast opposition to the military government and demanded that political liberties be restored. These bold stances clashed with those of their more seasoned colleagues (dubbed moderados, or moderates) who, having lived through previous waves of political repression, “were motivated less by a desire to take a stand than by a powerful will to survive” (p. 228). The gradual success of the MDB in expanding its electoral base and influence, however, was not always the product of morally-based challenges to the dictatorship. As evidenced in the rise of ambitious (if not opportunistic) politicians like Orestes Quércia, MDB campaigns began to focus less on the crimes and illegitimacy of the dictatorship and more on the socioeconomic issues that mattered most to working-class voters.

Chapters 5 and 6 continue this assessment by showcase two pivotal elections that stand as important markers of what one historian has called Brazil’s “slow-motion return to democracy” (James Green, We Cannot Remain Silent: Opposition to the Brazilian Military Dictatorship in the United States. Durham: Duke University Press, 2010, p. 321). First, the 1974 election saw the MDB ride its renewed focus on economic issues to a sweeping success at the polls: it won sixteen of the twenty-two open Senate seats (nearly tripling its representation) and came within twenty-five seats of a majority in the federal Chamber. But rather than celebrating its victory as an unabashed sign that the people of Brazil demanded serious political change—and thus potentially incurring the wrath of the military as was the case in 1968—the MDB was careful to frame its electoral success not as a reflection of Brazil’s commitment to democratic values and socioeconomic justice.

In practice, however, the 1974 elections served to greatly widen the spaces of opposition available and by 1978 the political class was willing to take its first real stand in a decade. The most compelling and lively section of the entire dissertation is Pitts’ treatment of the 1978 elections and the gubernatorial campaign of Paulo Maluf. Whereas the 1974 election was important for the success of the MDB opposition, 1978 proved critical for how the ostensibly pro-regime ARENA party was now also willing to confront the dictatorship. With scenes that include fires inside convention halls, the specter of stolen ballot boxes and the theatrics of determined politicians, Pitts shows how ARENA’s eventual election of Maluf was both a sign of the changes swirling throughout Brazil and an indicator of the continuing importance of the political class: “even as leftist sectors of the MDB, priests, students, and workers challenged the regime frontally, self-interested, fractious, and disobedient arenistas were undermining it from within” (p. 388).

The seventh and final chapter links the changes at the political level with those advancing throughout civil society, particularly the emergent union movement and the wave of strikes throughout 1978-1980. For Brazil’s political class, the labor strikes (based primarily out of São Paulo’s industrial “ABC” region) were a sort of testing ground not only for their party platforms, but similarly for what their own place in Brazil’s political future would look like. For most of the first fifteen years of dictatorship, the traditional political elite—despite the constraints placed on it by the military—had enjoyed a monopoly on civil-political influence. Yet the ABC strikes were significant in that they were led by militant unionists like the future president Ignacio “Lula” da Silva, whose Workers Party (Partido dos Trabalhadores, PT) called for autonomy from existing political structures. Coupled with the return of many political exiles, a palpable sense of change took root in Brazil, and the political class was compelled to either redefine its notions of political participation (for pro-regime sectors of ARENA) or make good on its claims to support the return of civil liberties and the will of the people (as was the case with most of the MDB).

The Inadvertent Opposition concludes with a discussion of the last years leading to Brazil’s eventual return to democratic rule in 1985, highlighted by Diretas Já campaign that sought the direct election for all political positions. These popular mobilizations produced the largest demonstrations in the history of Brazil and came to embody popular discontent with the military regime, yet it did not directly yield the return of democracy. Despite the unquestioned importance of popular struggles, Pitts argues that, “it was the behind-the-scenes politicking of the political class in the months after April 1984 that toppled what remained of the military’s project” (p. 475).

The Inadvertent Opposition: The São Paulo Political Class and the Demise of Brazil’s Military Regime, 1968-1985 is a well-written and compelling political history of Brazil’s military period. It skillfully shows how civilian politicians, despite their continued role in a military-led government, were far from passive participants in Brazil’s dictatorship. The military’s exceptionalist project and claims to democracy compelled it to leave a space open for existing political structures, an opportunity that Brazil’s political class was able to exploit in order to advance its own forms of resistance. Whether defending student movements, championing electoral freedoms, refusing to support military-imposed candidates, or simply learning to accept the expansion of popular mobilization, the political class acted as a critical hub of resistance. Pitts’ dissertation suggests new ways for understanding how politics are negotiated and produced under authoritarian regimes. Moreover, it offers a framework for reimagining the role of political classes not as inherent components of the state, but as a group with its own history and ideas of privilege and morality that, ultimately, is capable of navigating all levels of society.

Jacob Blanc
History Department
University of Wisconsin-Madison

Primary Sources

National Archive, Division of Security and Information, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
Public Archive of the State of São Paulo, Department of Order and Social Politics (DOPS), São Paulo, Brazil.
National Archives and Records Administration, Department of State, Record Group 59. College Park, MD.
Folha de S. Paulo (São Paulo, Brazil)
Center of Documentation and Information, Chamber of Deputies. Brasilia, Brazil.

Dissertation Information

Duke University, 2013. 510pp. Primary advisor: John D. French.

Image: Protest in Brazil (Diretas Já), courtesy of Wikipedia.

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