Juscelino Kubitschek de Oliveira (1902-1976) was president of Brazil from 1956 to 1961 and became a symbol for Brazil's economic development. However, his later years were marred by severe persecution at the hands of the military men who seized control of Brazil in April of 1964.
Juscelino Kubitschek de Oliveira was born on September 12, 1902 in the poor diamond-mining town of Diamantina in Minas Gerais. After his Brazilian father died when he was a young child, Kubitschek adopted the use of his mother's Czech name. After graduating from a local seminary, he trained as a physician at the University of Minas Gerais, where he graduated in 1927. He worked at the surgery clinic of the Santa Casa de Misericordia in Belo Horizonte and then studied for two years in hospitals in Paris, Vienna, and Berlin. He returned to Brazil and established his own practice in Belo Horizonte, the same year he married Sarah Gomes de Lemos. During an uprising in 1932, he served as a physician with the Minas Gerais state police.
Entry into Politics
In the early 1930s Kubitschek entered politics, becoming secretary of government in the state cabinet of Minas Gerais in 1933. A year later he was elected to the Federal Chamber of Deputies, where he remained until the dissolution of Congress by President Getulio Vargas in November of 1937, with the establishment of the semifascist Estado Nôvo dictatorship. Unsure about the Vargas regime, Kubitschek returned to medicine. However, he accepted Benedito Valadares's appointment of him as mayor of Belo Horizonte, the state capital, in 1940.
Just before the overthrow of the Vargas dictatorship, Kubitschek was one of the founders of the pro-Vargas Social Democratic Party (PSD). In 1945 he was elected to the Federal Chamber of Deputies by that party. In 1950 he was elected governor of Minas Gerais, again on the PSD ticket. As governor, he earned a considerable reputation for his efforts to develop the state's economy and, particularly, to establish a statewide electric grid.
The Presidency and Development Programs
In the first presidential election held after the suicide of President Vargas, Kubitschek became the presidential nominee of the pro-Vargas forces. His vice-presidential candidate in this 1955 campaign was João Goulart, of the Trabalhista party, whom many regarded as Vargas's political heir. After campaigning for a national development plan, they were victorious by a narrow plurality among four candidates. Strong anti-Vargas forces allegedly endeavored prevent Kubitschek from assuming the presidency, and Kubitschek and Goulart were inaugurated after a protective military coup.
During his campaign Kubitschek had promised "50 years of progress in five." To fulfill this, he established a "program of targets." The greatest emphasis in this program was placed on the steel, auto, shipbuilding, and machine tool industries and upon electric power and transport. A great variety of devices was used by the Kubitschek administration to stimulate development. Tariffs were revised upward, foreign exchange was rationed to aid the importation of needed capital goods, and credit facilities of the Banco do Brasil and the National Economic Development Bank were made liberally available. Both domestic and foreign investors were encouraged and sometimes coerced into establishing or expanding industries, and the government itself undertook many projects.
Although Brazil's Gross National Product (GNP) rose to 7.8 percent between 1957 and 1960, the result of extensive foreign investment and declining revenue from exports triggered inflation. In 1959 the International Monetary Fund (IMF) tried to slow Kubitschek's expansion program to stem inflation. However, Kubitschek rejected the IMF's plan, and inflation continued to rise.
The most spectacular part of the Kubitschek program was the establishment of a new national capital, Brasilia, 700 miles in the interior of Brazil. It was constructed in four years, and the capital was officially transferred to Brasìlia several months before the end of Kubitschek's term. A 1,400-mile road was built from Brasìlia to Belém in the delta of the Amazon; another, even longer road was started from the new capital to Pôrto Velho in the upper reaches of the Amazon, and shorter roads were constructed to Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo.
Kubitschek himself was the dynamic director of this program. He became famous for his constant visits to development projects all over the country. His speeches constantly exhorted his fellow countrymen, and his optimism inspired large numbers of Brazilians with a belief in the potentialities of their country. After his administration, all Brazilian regimes have felt it necessary to stress their support of economic development.
The Kubitschek administration was notable for several other things. It was probably the most democratic period that Brazil experienced before the military took over, with few restrictions on individual liberties. It was also characterized by a remarkable cultural development, marked by rapid growth of the publishing industry, the appearance of numerous new novelists, essayists, and poets, as well as composers, painters, and sculptors. For the first time, a vigorous national legitimate theater came into existence, particularly in Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo.
Kubitschek took the lead among the Latin American nations by launching his proposal for Operation Pan America. This suggestion for a cooperative hemispheric program for Latin American development served as a basis for the Alliance for Progress.
Kubitschek left the presidential office in January of 1961. A few months later he was elected senator from the state of Goiás. He announced his candidacy for reelection to the presidency and meanwhile gave cautious support to President Goulart. In 1963 Kubitschek was asked by the Organization of American States to join with former president Alberto Lleras Camargo of Colombia in a study of the functioning of the Alliance for Progress. Their recommendations resulted in the establishment of the Inter-American Committee of the Alliance for Progress, which served as the supervisory body of the Alliance program for the rest of the decade.
When President Goulart was overthrown by the military in April of 1964 and the new regime took unto itself the power to deprive citizens of their civil rights, Kubitschek was one of the earliest victims. He lost his seat in the Senate and was banned from any political activity for 10 years. He went into voluntary exile in the United States for some time, and upon his return to Brazil in October 1965, he was placed under house arrest. He soon afterward returned to exile in the United States but, with the inauguration of the second military president early in 1967, returned home once again. After that he lived under close police surveillance, and his attempt to form a new opposition group, the Frente Ampla, with a former opponent, Carlos Lacerda, was finally forbidden by the government.
Unable to continue his political career, Kubitschek became an investment banker. He was killed in an automobile accident on the Rio-São Paulo Highway, 100 miles from Rio de Janeiro on August 22, 1976. Kubitschek was so popular when he died, that the military government declared three days of official mourning.
Further Reading on Juscelino Kubitschek de Oliveira
For background on Brazilian politics and Kubitschek's years in power see Irving Louis Horowitz, Revolution in Brazil: Politics and Society in a Developing Nation (1964); Vladimir Reisky de Dubnic, Political Trends in Brazil (1968); Thomas E. Skidmore, Politics in Brazil, 1930-1964: An Experiment in Democracy (1968); and John W. F. Dulles, Unrest in Brazil: Political-Military Crises 1955-1964 (1970). A brief and laudatory biography is Francisco Medaglia, Juscelino Kubitschek, President of Brazil: The Life of a Self-made Man (1959). Other biographical sources include: The New York Times (August 23, 1976); Robert J. Alexander (editor), Biographical Dictionary of Latin American and Caribbean Political Leaders, Greenwood Press, Inc. (1988); and Barbara A. Tenenbaum (editor), Latin American History and Culture, Charles Scribner's Sons (1996).