João Batista de Oliveira Figueiredo

João Batista de Oliveira Figueiredo (born 1918) was a Brazilian army general and president. In the latter role, he was noted for restoring political rights and allowing exiles to return to his country. He also brought to an end 21 years of military-dominated government and turned the presidency over to a civilian successor.

João Figueiredo served as president of Brazil (1979-1985) more from a sense of duty than because of pleasure or ambition. In 1981 he told a reporter that "I spend most of my leisure time trying to pretend that I am not President….I wish they had chosen someone else for this job." Indeed, it was his predecessor, Ernesto Geisel (1908-1996), who decided that he would be the last of the five army generals to rule Brazil as president following the overthrow of João Goulart in 1964. He expanded Geisel's policy of distenção—the relaxing of the military's political control— into a gradual abertura, the opening of the political system. He used the presidency's power to marginalize right-wing anti-democrats and to prevent the radicalization of the left as he moved Brazil through a six year transition to civilian government.

His commitment to constitutional democracy was rooted in family tradition. His father, Colonel Euclides de Oliveira Figueiredo, opposed the revolution of 1930. He was one of the principal commanders in the Constitutionalist Revolt of 1932 and was an opponent of the Getúlio Vargas dictatorship (1937-1945). João Batista was born in Rio de Janeiro on January 15, 1918. He received his secondary education in military schools in Porto Alegre and Rio de Janeiro before entering the Escola Militar do Realengo from which he graduated first in his class as an Aspirante in the cavalry in November 1937. An outstanding student, he won the Brazilian military's "triple crown": first in his Realengo class, first in the advanced officers' course, and first in the command and general staff course. After a three-year tour with the Brazilian military training mission in Paraguay, he went through the Escola Superior de Guerra and then joined the faculty at the general staff school in 1961, where he participated in the conspiracy that brought down João Goulart in 1964.

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A Military/Political Career

Promoted to colonel in August 1964, he helped found the Serviço Nacional de Informações (SNI) as the federal government's principal intelligence agency. Before Geisel named him head of the SNI in 1974, he served as chief of the São Paulo state police (1966-1968) and as commander of the prestigious 1st Cavalry Regiment in Brasília (1968-1969). Promoted to brigadier general in 1969, he served as chief of staff of the Third Army headquartered in Porto Alegre and then in a like position at the SNI. When an "electoral college" of generals named his superior, General Emílio Garrastazu Médici, to succeed ailing President (General) Artur da Costa e Silva (October 30, 1969), he made Figueiredo chief of the presidential military staff. This put him in the Planalto Palace during years of increased repression of political dissidents, as dramatic actions by regime opponents—such as the 1969 kidnapping of the U.S. ambassador—were met with widespread arrests, torture, and death-squad activity. As president, he would deny that he had been involved in such abuses and decree "mutual amnesty" for both accused political prisoners and state security agents. Perhaps the experience firmed his convictions regarding the military's proper role.

Figueiredo eventually earned the enmity of Médici by withholding information that would have made him choose someone other than Geisel as his successor. Once in office Geisel appointed General Figueiredo as chief of the SNI. In that position Figueiredo was promoted to general of division. From 1974 to 1977 he was the short, barrelchested general in dark glasses who avoided press contact. Even so, in early 1977 knowledgeable politicians began to see him as the likely candidate for the succession. His eight years of daily contact with the Planalto under two presidents and his extensive security background strengthened his chances.

Geisel maneuvered so as to diminish direct armed forces participation in the government's decision-making processes and to increase the power of the presidency by bending the military to his will. Neutralizing the military's political role gave him the space to select the man he believed would carry his policies to their logical conclusion.

The year of decision was 1977. In April Geisel briefly recessed the Congress to allow him to decree a package of measures that insured a safe electoral college to chose the next president in October 1978. In June Figueiredo's name was floated as a candidate. In October Geisel eliminated the opposition of Minister of Army General Sílvio Frota by firing him in a dramatic confrontation. And then, to avoid pushing through a promotion that would pass over senior generals, Geisel decided to ignore the custom that only four-star generals be considered as candidates. Minus the fourth star, he announced Figueiredo's candidacy.

With the attention of the nation suddenly focused, the press asked "Who is Figueiredo?" and scurried about for information. Figueiredo, seeking to project a more accessible image, began wearing clear lens, shortened his public name to João Figueiredo, and shook hands and kissed babies from one end of Brazil to the other. He allowed photographs while doing exercises and horseback riding. His open, honest, often blunt manner touched the hearts of Brazilians accustomed to his somber predecessors. Elected in October, he took office in March 1979 declaring his intention "to make this country a democracy."

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Problems of the Presidency

Considering the problems, that objective was a gigantic task. He immediately faced strikes as workers reacted to the rapidly rising inflation that reached 110 percent by 1980, declining productivity, and an international debt of some $50 billion that soared with the skyrocketing interest rates in the United States—each new percentage point cost the Brazilians another $100 million. To improve the political atmosphere, he signed into law a general amnesty. A total of 4,650 persons who had lost their political rights or been jailed, exiled, or dismissed from their jobs were affected. In November 1979 party reform eliminated the two recognized parties, which were replaced by an alphabet soup of multiple parties. Figueiredo's advisers argued that multiplication would split the opposition into competing factions.

The hard-line right-wing reacted to the regime's openness with a wave of terrorist bombings. Figueiredo challenged the terrorists to attack him instead of innocent people after a letter bomb killed a secretary at the lawyer's association. On April 30, 1981, a bomb exploded in a car outside a large convention center in Rio de Janeiro where 20,000 people were attending a concert sponsored by opposition groups. The army sergeant holding the device was killed and the captain driving the vehicle was severely injured. The incident confirmed direct military involvement in the bombings. Strong, but as yet unexplained, pressures prevented Figueiredo from punishing the guilty. The subsequent sloppy cover-up was headline material, and the tension on the president was so great that he suffered a heart attack in mid-September 1981. After hospitalization in Rio he was treated in Cleveland, Ohio. He paid a price in health for his position, suffering heart, eye, and back problems during the next several years.

The worsening international economic situation and the process of political liberalization jointly produced economic and social problems. Massive strikes in São Paulo's industrial zone in 1978 and 1980 led to the arrest of union leaders under the national security laws. Workers protested that their wage increases indexed to the inflation rate were far below a livable level. The government in turn was pressured by the International Monetary Fund to hold down wages as an anti-inflationary measure. Increasingly it became clear that debt repayment meant low incomes for Brazil's workers. In the north and northeast rural people began seizing unused lands, causing Figueiredo to create a new ministry to deal with land reform.

Tension with the Catholic Church, which was the major voice for societal change, reached a peak in the early 1980s with the expulsion of an Italian priest and the imprisonment of two French priests involved in political and land reform questions.

To confront the growing debt, the government invested massively in natural resources for export, opened Brazil to foreign petroleum exploration, and completed the huge Itaipú hydroelectric project. At the end of his term Figueiredo left growing inflation but also an extensive infrastructure to support Brazil's continued growth.

In foreign policy he continued the pragmatic position of his predecessors that Brazil should pursue any relations that contribute to its development. The days of automatic alignment with the United States of America were over. Pointedly, he kept a certain distance from Washington, while intensifying relations with Europe, Asia, Africa, and Spanish America. The North-South dialogue was the cornerstone of Brazilian foreign policy. He expressed his view in his 1982 speech to the United Nations when he declared that "the economic policies of the great powers are destroying resources without constructing anything in their place."

In 1984, there were nationwide demonstrations calling for the direct election of a new president. Figueiredo kept his word to allow them. In January 1985, Tancredo de Almeida Neves was chosen president by the electoral college. On the eve of his inauguration, he was rushed to the hospital and died five weeks later. On March 15, 1985, Vice President and civilian José Sarney donned the presidential sash, and the Revolution of 1964's last president eagerly began his retirement.

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Further Reading on João Batista de Oliveira Figueiredo

There are no biographies or other studies of Figueiredo in English. There is good summary of 20th-century Brazilian history in Thomas E. Skidmore and Peter H. Smith, Modern Latin America (1984); a helpful review of recent decades in Robert Wesson and David V. Fleischer, Brazil in Transition (1983); Countries of the World by James D. Rudolf (1991).