Ernesto Geisel (1908-1996) was a Brazilian army general, president of Brazil's national oil company (Petrobras), and president of the Republic (1974-1979). As president he began the process of disengaging the military from control of the Brazilian government.
Ernesto Geisel was the fourth general to serve a term as president of Brazil during the so-called Military Republic (1964-1985). He belonged to a group of officers known as Castellistas (after President [General] Humberto de Castello Branco, 1964-1967) who did not favor continued military rule but who had lost out to those who did. Geisel's selection signaled the beginning of a nine-year process aimed at establishing a civilian presidency. He had the distinction of being the first Protestant to preside over the largest Catholic population in the world.
Son of a German Lutheran immigrant, Geisel and his brother, Orlando, used the military as the means of upward social and economic mobility. Both he and his brother achieved generals' stars, the latter serving as minister of the army (1969-1974). Born on August 3, 1908, in Bento Gonçalves, in the heart of Rio Grande do Sul's wine country where his father taught in the Lutheran school, Ernesto Geisel received his secondary education in the military school in Porto Alegre (1921-1924). He acquired his military preparation in the Escola Militar do Realengo, from which he was graduated first in the class of 1928 as an Aspirante in artillery.
Early Military Career
As a lieutenant he participated in the Revolution of 1930 on the side of the victorious forces of Getúlio Vargas. His early career mixed military and civilian assignments: as battery commander, as general secretary of the Rio Grande do Norte state government (1931), and as treasury and public works secretary in Paraiba (1934, 1935). This activity identified him with the military reformers known as tenentes (lieutenants). He helped suppress the revolt of São Paulo (1932) and the Communist uprising of 1935. He taught at the Realengo military school between 1938 and 1941 and completed the general staff course in 1943.
In early 1945 he was one of a large group of Brazilian officers who took a special course at the U.S. Army's Command and General Staff School at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. In October 1945 he was chief of staff of an important armed unit in Rio de Janeiro which played a key role in the deposition of Vargas. In the next decade, as he advanced in rank, he served on the National Security Council staff (1946-1947), as military attache in Uruguay (1948-1950), on the Armed Forces General Staff (1950-1952), on the faculty of the Escola Superior de Guerra (1952-1955), and on President João Cafe Filho's military staff.
As a Military/Political Leader
In 1957, while chief of the Army General Staff's intelligence section, he sat on the National Petroleum Council, beginning a long association with Brazilian oil. Promoted to brigadier general in March 1960, he was in command of the military zone in which Brasília is located when Brazil entered into political crisis with the resignation of President Janio Quadros and the military's subsequent resistance to Vargas' protegé Vice President João Goulart assuming the presidency. Though Goulart became chief of state, the crisis continued until he was deposed by a combination of political, business, and military opponents at the end of March 1964.
Geisel was one of the high-ranking officers linked to the Escola Superior de Guerra in Rio de Janeiro who played an important role in the conspiracy, seizure of power, and planning for the political, economic, and administrative reorganization of Brazil. He successfully worked with several other like-minded generals for the selection of Army Chief of Staff Humberto de Castello Branco to complete Goulart's term of office. As chief of Castello's military staff, Geisel was intimately involved in the administration's decision-making processes.
Under Castello, he worked to stop the use of torture and other extreme methods by hard-line officers who believed that "bad Brazilians" wanted to turn the country toward Communism and so had to be dealt with harshly. Geisel and Castello Branco believed that the military should clean up the government, reform the economy, and then turn power back to civilians at the end of the term in March 1967. The subsequent struggle for control of this conservative revolution saw the Castellistas forced to cede ground to the radical demands of the hard-liners.
In October 1965 when the Congress refused to approve a law that would have given the government greater power to intervene in the states, to judge civilians in military courts, and to suspend political rights of adversaries, Castello Branco decreed Additional Act II to the constitution abolishing political parties and establishing indirect presidential elections. Over Geisel's objections, Castello, seeking to preserve military unity, agreed to hard-liners' demands that instead of a civilian, the next president would be Minister of War Artur Costa e Silva. Geisel argued that "we are selling the future for a precipitous solution to a present [problem]." He was correct; giving in to the right only prolonged military rule and only preserved a superficial military unity.
Years with Petrobras
During the Costa e Silva administration (1967-1969), Geisel, now a four-star general, sat as a judge on the Supreme Military Tribunal. Retiring from the army in 1969, he was appointed president of the national oil company, Petrobras, which he turned toward the production and distribution of derivatives and toward extensive exploration abroad and in Brazilian coastal waters. While a nationalist, he took the reasonable position that Petrobras was a means to supply Brazil with sufficient petroleum and not a barrier against foreign investment.
His years at Petrobras coincided with a period of economic growth during which annual rates rose to 12 percent. Unhappily, the investments in Brazil's productive capacity came out of savings resulting from low wages, while criticism and labor unrest were suppressed with arrests, torture, and censorship. The military hard-liners formed an organizational structure outside the normal command structure. A so-called "intelligence community" comprising the National Intelligence Service (SNI) and the intelligence services of the army, air force, and navy grew up after 1968. Army intelligence set up a network throughout Brazil of Departments of Internal Operations (DOIs). Government agencies and universities all had special agents assigned to them. Spies and informers proliferated. Institutionalized violence became the order of the day, as interrogation in a DOI commonly included torture. Within the armed forces this "outside" parallel activity generated divisions, irritation, and shame, while among civilians it made the military an object of distrust and contempt.
It was in this atmosphere that Geisel came to the presidency. Nomination as the government party's candidate was tantamount to election, and the choice was in the hands of President Emílio Garrastazu Médici, who the military had put in office when Costa e Silva suffered a stroke in 1969. Preceding the official decision there was an intense behind-the-scenes struggle between the hard-liners and the more moderate Castellistas, now led by Geisel. He was helped by the fact that his brother, Orlando, was minister of the army and that a close ally, General João Figueiredo, was chief of Médici's military staff.
Though not immediately understood by civilians or by the United States government analysts, Geisel's rise to power marked a shift away from repression and toward the path to democratic rule. The hard-liners contested his authority over the repressive apparatus in several incidents of torture and/or disappearance. Geisel replied vigorously to such challenges, replacing various commanders with trusted subordinates. He labelled his political program distenção—"the slow, gradual, and secure relaxation" of control measures. It would be "the maximum of development possible with the minimum of indispensible security."
His economic policy sought to maintain high rates of growth while attempting to deal with the effects of the oil price shocks. His national development plan called for massive investments in basic infra-structure such as highways, telecommunications, hydro-electric dams, mineral extraction, factories, and atomic energy. At the risk of bruising nationalist sentiments, the government opened Brazil to prospecting by foreign oil companies for the first time since the early 1950s. The massive Itaipu dam on the Paraná river border with Paraguay symbolizes the era. Brazil borrowed billions of dollars to pour into concrete and steel as investment in future development.
The economic necessities resulted in a markedly different foreign policy. Strict alignment with the United States and a world view based on ideological frontiers and blocs gave way to "responsible pragmatism." Accepting its then 80 percent dependence on imported oil and American inability to assist, Brazil modified its pro-Israeli stance and called for Israel to withdraw from Arab lands occupied in the 1967 war. Closer ties were established with Saudi Arabia and Iraq. Brazil recognized China, Angola, and Mozambique and moved closer to Latin America, Europe, and Japan. Its 1975 agreement to build nuclear reactors with what was then West Germany led to conflict with the Carter administration, which was also, oddly enough, criticizing the Geisel government for the very human rights abuses that it was struggling to stop. In frustration at American high-handedness and lack of understanding, the Geisel administration renounced Brazil's military alliance with the United States.
Politically, Geisel's last two years as president centered on the question of succession, which led to further confrontations with the hard-liners. Admitting that Brazil enjoyed only "relative democracy," Geisel did not hesitate in April 1977 to rewrite the rules of the political game to contain the opposition parties and to dismiss the far-right minister of the army, General Sílvio Frota, in October 1977. Curiously, though distenção presupposed a more open, decentralized political system, Geisel employed a highly centralized decision-making process in his administration.
In 1978 with the Frota crisis behind him, Geisel had to deal with the first labor strikes since 1964 and successive election victories by the opposition Brazilian Democratic Movement party. He eased restrictions on exiles, reestablished habeas corpus, annulled the government's extraordinary powers decrees, and imposed João Figueiredo as his successor.
When he left office in March 1979 Brazil was less dependent on foreign imports and was a major industrial goods exporter, but on the negative side it was suffering a 42 percent inflationary rate and was over $43 billion in debt to foreign lenders. His determination to disengage the military from control of government, while gradually reestablishing democratic practices, marked his administration. The basic economic infrastructure that the Geisel years provided will carry Brazilian development into the 21st century. Geisel died of cancer in September 1996.
Further Reading on Ernesto Geisel
There are no biographies of Geisel in English. There is a good summary of 20th-century Brazilian history in Thomas E. Skidmore and Peter H. Smith, Modern Latin America (1984) and a useful review of recent decades in Robert Wesson and David V. Fleischer, Brazil in Transition (1983); Jerry Dubrowski, "Brazilian ex-military ruler Ernesto Geisel dies" Reuters (September 12, 1996)