Artur da Costa e Silva (1902-1969) played a prominent role in the Brazilian military, affording him considerable political influence. He subsequently served as Brazil's 22nd president from March 1967 until a stroke ended his career two years later.
Artur da Costa e Silva spoke few lines on the Brazilian political stage, but his influence on the course of history in the second half of the twentieth century casts him among the major players. He was no stranger to political intrigue at any time during his military career. As a young lieutenant in 1922, he was imprisoned for his part in a failed revolt. Forty-two years later, when the leftist civilian government of JoaÃo Goulart fell to a military coup, Costa e Silva emerged as the most prominent leader of the new regime. Though disdaining the office of president in 1964, Costa e Silva played an important role behind the scenes and was only too happy to assume a leading role in 1967.
As the regime's second president, Costa e Silva attempted to win over Brazil's middle class by casting the outgoing president, Humberto Castelo Branco, as responsible for the country's economic problems. Costa e Silva initially proposed rolling back the most odious of the regime's economic policies. However, his actions failed to match his rhetoric. Costa e Silva was able to calm the fears of the populace while continuing the policies of his predecessor-policies which he had been instrumental in planning behind the scenes.
A genial man, Costa e Silva laughed along with the swarm of jokes which gave his early months as president a human touch, but he laughed only as long as it suited his purposes. As pressures mounted on his presidency and the military officers in his power base grew restive, Costa e Silva gradually lost his cultivated sense of humor. Journalists and political critics, who had previously enjoyed considerable freedom, found themselves under attack with a zeal unknown in the previous three decades of Brazilian politics.
Though the president attempted to maintain the appearance of civilian rule, the fate of the government after his debilitating stroke in August 1969, left no doubt that the military remained in charge. A trio of generals ran the country for two months until a suitable successor could be installed, despite constitutional provisions that the vice president would assume control in the event that the president became disabled.
Middle Class Origins
Artur da Costa e Silva was born in Tarquarí in the state of Rio Grande do Sul on October 3, 1902, to Aleìxo Rocha da Silva and Almerinda da Costa. Following common practice in Brazil, his parents blended their two names to form a new surname for their nine children. Costa e Silva's parents were descended from Portuguese colonists who had settled in Brazil's southern farmlands. His father ran a general store owned by his wife's father. Second of the children, Costa e Silva's first teacher was his older sister.
By the age of ten, Costa e Silva's military career passed from child's games to reality at the Military School of Porto Alegre. He quickly rose to the top of his class and was graduated in 1917 as commander of the student body. His sub-commander, by an ironic twist of fate that would persist throughout their lives, was the awkward young Humberto Castelo Branco-later destined to become the 21st president of Brazil.
Costa e Silva ended his late teens at the Brazilian Military Academy at Realengo, graduating third in his class at the country's premier military school. At that time he noticed the ten-year-old daughter of one of his teachers and decided she would be his future wife. "She'll grow up," he explained to a friend.
A Military Career
In 1922, Costa e Silva joined a cadre of junior officers opposed to the controlling influence of wealthy landowners in the national government. A rebellion he helped to initiate was quashed immediately, and Costa e Silva found himself imprisoned on a freighter anchored in Guanabara Bay. With time on his hands to pine, he arranged to have a note smuggled to his former teacher, General Severo Barbosa, asking permission to marry his daughter. The suitor was disappointed with the General's reply-"You have some nerve!" His future father-in-law eventually relented and Costa e Silva was permitted to marry Iolanda Barbosa in 1925. Six months after the failed rebellion, Costa e Silva won his freedom. He served as an instructor in military schools during the rest of the decade.
In 1930, Getúlio Vargas launched a successful coup and created what was described as a mild, semi-Fascist dictatorship in which the influence of landowners was greatly reduced. Costa e Silva rose through the ranks rapidly-first as an aide to a Vargas cabinet minister and later as one of a group of pro-democratic officers who succeeded in removing Vargas from power in 1945. Vargas would be reelected in 1950, only to be confronted four years later by another group of officers who were discontent with his corrupt and dictatorial government. This time Vargas shot himself rather than step down, and his party returned to leadership under Juscelino Kubitschek.
Kubitschek oversaw years of growth and prosperity, culminating in uncontrolled inflation and corruption. When his successor, JaÃnio Quadros, attempted to control spending, the state militia in Sao Paulo rebelled in protest over a pay freeze. Costa e Silva enhanced his prestige when he defied the rebels and halted their action. Quadros moved increasingly toward the political left, however, to the dismay of Brazil's military. He was eventually forced to flee the country under threat of another coup. Quadros's vice president, JoaÃo Goulart, took control of the country but failed to halt the slide into economic chaos. By 1963, corruption was rampant, the annual increase in the cost of living had risen to 81 percent, foreign investment had dropped in response to government nationalization of industries, and Brazilians took to the streets in huge protest marches.
Path to the Presidency
This was too much for the army to bear. Generals deposed Goulart in 1964, to the delight of investors in the United States, and handed control of the military to Costa e Silva. Brazil's state governors asked him to assume the Presidency, but Costa e Silva deferred to Castelo Branco-preferring to let his protégé take the blame for imposing necessary austerity measures such as cutting government spending, increasing income taxes, and placing a cap on wages. As a result of these actions money again poured into the country, the gross national product soared, and inflation dropped to 41 percent.
Meanwhile, Costa e Silva established himself as a buffer between constitutionalists and right-wing, hard line revolutionaries in the military while positioning himself in the public consciousness as the humanist answer to the hardships of Castelo Branco's economic austerity program. He was elected to succeed Castelo Branco by Congress rather than by a popular vote, much to his predecessor's dismay. Castelo Branco and his cabinet, who had lobbied the military for a civilian successor, feared that Costa e Silva would undo much of what they had labored to accomplish. However, their fears proved groundless.
Spouting "social humanism," Costa e Silva was elected president on his 64th birthday, and quickly amused his followers by publicizing his love of bad television, card games, small bets on horses, flirting at dinner parties, short work days, and long naps. The dark glasses he wore to avoid eye irritation were a boon to political cartoonists, who portrayed him as a bumbling simpleton. He chuckled along with his detractors when they suggested a terrorist might destroy his government by hurling an alarm clock into his bedroom.
Laugh he might, for he had manipulated the military into loyal support with pay raises and hardware during his tenure as Castelo Branco's war minister, bought the loyalty of the masses with promises of social and economic relief, and ensured foreign support by pledging his allegiance to the United States business community.
Political Support Wanes
The laughter grew thin by the end of 1967 and stopped in 1968, as Costa e Silva's populist, bumbling image crumbled and he metamorphosed into one of the most repressive dictators in Brazil's recent political memory.
Brazil's great natural and human resources give it great potential, but its social problems challenge even the most adept politician. As the fifth largest nation with the eighth largest population in 1967, more arable land than in all of Europe, and immense reserves of minerals and timber, economic prosperity seemed inevitable. But Costa e Silva inherited a country with the highest child mortality rate, the third highest illiteracy rate, and the third lowest per capita income in South America. Add that to low life expectancy, rampant disease, hyper-inflation, and growing income inequities, and Costa e Silva found himself at the helm of a country impatient for change.
Though much of the impetus needed for social change resided in the military, sectors of that institution also vigorously defended the accumulation of wealth by the upper classes and the well-being of the business community. Costa e Silva had come to the presidency promising to satisfy all sectors of Brazilian society and ended up satisfying none. By late 1968, those who had looked to the new president for salvation had become deeply disillusioned. Students, mollified by some of the president's pro-university decrees, mounted protests. United States diplomats signalled their shift from enthusiasm to displeasure. Brazil's moderate middle class began to clamor for a return to civilian rule.
Slide into Repression
Discontent reached a head in September 1968, when Márcio Moreira Alves, an opposition politician, attacked Costa e Silva's government from the floor of the Chamber of Deputies. The military demanded that Moreira Alves face charges for insulting its institution. Though the Congress served at the pleasure of the military, the lawmakers refused to lift their colleague's immunity from prosecution. Faced with rumors that he would be removed from power by the military if he did not take a firm stand, Costa e Silva dissolved Congress on December 14, suspended the constitution, and assumed dictatorial powers. Many of his outspoken opponents were imprisoned.
Thus began a downward spiral into severe repression. Brazil's newspapers, which had enjoyed relative freedom early in Costa e Silva's government, were now censored. The president assumed the right to intervene in any state or municipality, to withdraw the political rights of any citizen, to suspend habeas corpus for political offenses, and to expel students for anti-government protests. Political murder became a feature of life.
Though United States diplomats voiced their displeasure, foreign businessmen were perversely pleased by developments. Inflation dropped below 20 percent, the gross national product jumped, as did industrial growth, and the balance of payments improved. Though economic aid had been suspended in protest against the crackdown, restrictions were quietly lifted under pressure from the U.S. business community.
Career Ends Abruptly
In late August 1969, the Costa e Silva suffered a debilitating stroke. Witnesses reported that he took up a pen when he found he could not speak, and then hurled the pen across the room in tears when he found he also could no longer write. As he lay in his bedroom in the presidential mansion, three generals who had taken over his government issued decrees from a room directly below. Costa e Silva's vice president, who had the constitutional right to assume the presidency, disappeared from public view and was placed under virtual house arrest.
Costa e Silva died on December 17, 1969. Few mourned his passing. Under temporary leadership, Brazil's government veered to the right and its 23rd president, Emílio Garrastazu Médici was quickly installed as his successor. The economy grew at an unprecedented rate during the following five years, and by the end of the 1970's steps were initiated to restore civilian democracy and lift political repression.
Further Reading on Artur da Costa e Silva
Atlantic Monthly, April, 1969.
Commonweal January 10, 1969.
New Republic, August 2, 1969; September 10, 1966.
Newsweek, September 15, 1969; December 23, 1968; May 8, 1967; January 31, 1966; August 8, 1966; October 10, 1966.
New York Times, December 18, 1969.
Time, December 27, 1968; March 24, 1967; April 21, 1967; April 29, 1966; January 13, 1967; November 12, 1965.
U.S. News and World Report, October 17, 1966.