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New International, July 1938


Bernard Ross

What Is Happening in Brazil?

From New International, Vol.4 No.7, July 1938, pp.214-216.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


EVENTS OF international importance have taken place in Brazil between November 10, 1937, when President Getulio Vargas perpetuated his tenure in office by means of a well executed coup d’etat and May 10 of this year when an abortive putsch of Integralista extremists came to naught. Indeed, the latter event can only be viewed as a link in the chain of developments consequent to the November 10 political change.

Cooperating with the fascist Integralistas in the preparations for and the actual consummation of the coup, the Vargas ruling clique is now in overt conflict with them and a price is placed on the head of Plinio Salgado, Greenshirt chieftain. At the same time the Brazilian government, contrary to its former attitude, decrees vigorous measures against all Nazi organizations and propaganda. A government which since 1935 has complacently allowed German agents to organize 87 Nazi organizations pledging fidelity to Adolf Hitler, and has permitted German primary schools in the state of Rio Grande do Sul not only to conduct classes in German, but to omit completely Portuguese from the class curricula, suddenly becomes “nationalistic” and against the formation of a “state within a state”. Nazi activities are declared illegal and all German schools must, hereafter, teach Portuguese and Brazilian history.

How explain these evident 180 degree turns upon the part of the national government within a brief period of only six months? What are the dynamic motive forces that have impelled Vargas to alter so radically his former course?

Brazil is a semi-colonial country with its entire economic and social fabric inextricably interwoven with the economy of foreign imperialist nations. British and Yankee imperialism still dominate the basic aspects of that country’s industrial life, the former in the state of São Paulo and Wall Street in the states of Minas Geraes and Rio Grande do Sul. Those three states are the richest and most developed of the union. Political struggles’ between the various sectors of the ruling classes, considering Brazil’s semi-colonial structure, can only be properly analyzed and interpreted in the light of the shady machinations of imperialist powers striving to attain economic hegemony. Foreign imperialism, working behind the scenes has often played the decisive role.

The above does not mean to say that the crucial political and economic issues dividing the ruling classes are determined and motivated by imperialist interests. Such a conception can only give a hollow and abstract, mechanical interpretation to the nation’s internal politics. Brazil, where the law of uneven development has reached the highest and sharpest forms in Latin America, has diversified economic classes and, moreover, the dominant classes are far more heterogeneous in their forms and aspirations than is the case in the advanced capitalist countries. And, it is precisely the irreconcilable economic antagonisms existing between those social forces, primarily the various sectors of the ruling classes, that have been and continue to be the main impelling power behind political differences in the country. The perfidious role of the foreign imperialists consists in the fact that they have astutely utilized those divergences for their own material ends.

Don Getulio came into power in October 1930 as the result of an interplay of profound international and internal contradictions. Within the national framework, Vargas was the spokesman of a new, rising industrial and agrarian bourgeoisie who found themselves in ever sharpening conflicts with the semi-feudal coffee oligarchy represented by the Washington Luis regime. The industrial bourgeoisie, as the very logic of its situation demanded, was principally interested in developing and expanding the internal market. Since the productive apparatus of the country could not simultaneously satisfy the exigencies of the world as well as national markets, the native industrialists wanted the country’s raw materials used for the betterment and expansion of home industry. The Luis government pursued a directly contrary course, preferring to collocate those raw materials in the world market where higher prices were obtained.

American imperialism did not remain aloof during the hectic days preceding Vargas’ successful coup d’etat in October, 1930. Bitterly opposed to the Luis oligarchy because of the latter’s pro-British sympathies, Yankee dollar diplomacy connived for a Vargas victory hoping, thereby, to place Wall Street interests in a privileged economic position.

Vargas assumed control of the nation with the outset of a world-wide economic depression. Paradoxical as it may seem, precisely during the years 1930-1934, when the advanced capitalist countries were in the throes of an unprecedented economic catastrophe, Brazilian national economy took positive steps forward. Treated superficially, that phenomenon may appear to be an anomaly, but its source is not hard to find. With the prices of raw materials reaching new lows in the world market, the powerful class of semi-feudal landlords together with the more reactionary sectors of the agrarian bourgeoisie, both groups formerly interested in having the country serve as a vast supply-house for the world’s highly-developed capitalist nations, started to flood the internal market with their products. Assured of a cheap supply of raw materials, the anaemic national industry received a powerful impetus and industrialization, particularly in the state of São Paulo, proceeded apace.

The combination of factors, temporarily ushered in by the world depression, also had a positive effect upon the relations existing between the dominant classes. An irreconcilable contradiction, the crux around which national political struggles were waged during pre-depression years: should Brazilian economy be geared to serve the internal or external market? – was momentarily mitigated. The ruling classes were for the time being reconciled, and Vargas’ position was relatively secure.

The end of the world economic depression changed the whole complexion of the country’s economic and political relations. The renewal of world-wide economic activity entailed greater and greater demands for Brazilian raw materials in the world market. Prices offered in London or New York were higher than what the native industrialists could safely afford to pay. The former latent contradictions came to the fore again. Two opposite camps started to organize their forces for the coming, inevitable struggle. On the one hand, the new industrial bourgeoisie of São Paulo in political accord with the agrarian bourgeosie of Rio Grande do Sul. The two leaders of that coalition, Armando de Salles Oliviera and Governor Flores da Cunha of Rio Grande do Sul, were political cronies of Vargas in 1930. On the other hand, the country’s semi-feudal Latifundistas in agreement with the reactionary agrarian bourgeoisie of the north. The latter aligned themselves with the landlords because they found it increasingly difficult to compete with the southern agrarian bourgeosie whose productive apparatus is far more advanced. Vargas is the political representative of that obviously more reactionary combination.

The above was the basic, internal relationship of forces in the days preceding the November 10 coup d’etat. The hold of the Vargas clique over the country had been decidedly weakened after the October 1935 leftist rebellion led by the National Liberation Alliance had been quelled. Lacking a substantial mass support, the São Paulo industrial and southern agrarian bourgeosie opposed to governmental policies, Vargas maintained himself in power by military terror expressed by the almost constant “state of siege”. The president realized that a fairly-held election would spell his doom.

Inter-imperialist rivalries expressed themselves within the molds of those internal antagonisms. The main imperialist contradiction in Brazil still is between Great Britain and the United States. British interests, economically supreme in São Paulo, were decidedly opposed to the National government. Their motives were easily discernible. Vargas, lifted to power with the aid of American dollar diplomacy in 1930, heeded favorably the exigencies of Washington imperialism striving to secure economic hegemony over Latin America. The Brazilian government and Washington worked in the closest harmony, as expressed in the collaboration between the Brazilian and American delegations at the Montevideo conference in 1933, and at the Buenos Aires peace conference. Furthermore, Secretary Hull’s reciprocal trade policy, aimed at finding markets for American industrial products, found a stalwart supporter in the Vargas regime.

Two years before the November 10,1937 coup, Vargas started to make friendly overtures to the Integralistas and Nazi organizations. The Greenshirts and Hitlerites were allowed to carry on unrestricted political and social propaganda activities. Beginning with the first “State of War”, General Newton Cavalcante, the real Integralista leader, participated in the councils of the government. During the forty days of the second “State of War”, General Cavalcante was the president of the “National Commission against Communism” which, besides controlling the political life of the country, prepared and organized the movement culminating in the November 10 coup. Moreover, the Vargas government granted economic concessions to German imperialism and by means of a trade agreement, agreed to barter raw materials for industrial commodities.

An apparent contradiction appears to exist. If the Brazilian government was pro-American why did it grant ever larger concessions to the Reich, to the evident detriment of Wall Street interests?

We must not forget that Brazil has the characteristics of a semi-colonial country and is not a colony of any particular imperialist power. This distinction is not purely nominal but has concrete historical significance. It implies that unlike, let us say, the Indian bourgeoisie or semi-feudal classes, the Brazilian ruling classes have a relative degree of independence. While it would be tantamount to sheer political infantilism to consider it possible for any Brazilian economic class, excluding the proletariat, to wage war against all imperialisms, the different factions of the dominant classes struggling for power can, depending upon the concrete situation of the moment, align themselves with one imperialist camp or another. Although preferring to tie himself to the apron strings of American capitalism, Vargas’ primary concern was not to assure the economic domination of the former but, rather, to consolidate the rule of those classes whose political representative he is.

After the November 1935 rebellion had been drowned in a sea of blood, the national government found itself divorced from the overwhelming majority of the Brazilian people and forced to rely upon the precarious support of the nation’s armed forces. Don Getulio, the canniest of all the Latin-American dictators, knew that for the time being the only serious threat to his regime came from the São Paulo-Rio Grande do Sul coalition supported by British imperialism. He conceived the possibility of using the powerful Integralista party which besides having a mass movement of substantial proportions, had strong roots in the army and navy, as a means to stamp out his main opponents. To guarantee for itself the support of Integralismo, German imperialism’s political tool on Brazilian soil, the government granted economic concessions to Germany.

The role of American imperialism prior to the November 10 coup was certainly not one of opposition to the Brazilian chief executive’s flirting with and concessions to Germany and Integralismo. The State Department, indeed, gave passive if not active support to Vargas’ intrigues since Washington fully realized the none too pleasant predicament of the former. Indeed, American imperialism still remained the main prop supporting Vargas.

For Wall Street the principal imperialist antagonist in Brazil was Great Britain and not Germany. The threat of German imperialism was as yet incipient, primarily commercial, and not of basic importance. Its interests coinciding with Vargas’, Yankee imperialism worked for the defeat of the Oliviera-da Cunha combination. In many ways, Washington tried to strengthen the hand of Vargas, which may indicate that the Roosevelt administration had a direct hand in the preparations for the November 10 coup d’etat. In the summer of 1937, the American government set aside a sixty million dollar gold fund to stabilize Brazilian currency and what is more significant, just a few weeks before Vargas perpetuated his rule, the State Department expressed itself in favor of leasing six battleships to Brazil.

The pro-American orientation of Vargas’ “New State” is a fact which cannot be denied. With the São Paulo-Rio Grande do Sul forces defeated, the Vargas government, no doubt prodded on by American imperialism and assured of the latter’s unstinted support, has assumed the offensive against Integralismo and German imperialism, the former’s political mentor. Discontent rife against Vargas, the Integralista movement, granted free latitude, could easily become the center of a powerful movement against the government. After Vargas promulgated a new constitution which illegalized all political parties, the government summarily abrogated the trade agreement concluded with Nazi Germany in 1936. To show that the Brazilian government definitely revolves within the Wall Street orbit, Vargas appointed Oswaldo Aranha, former ambassador to Washington and staunch advocate of Pan-Americanism and an American league of nations, foreign minister.

Startled, befuddled liberals and the high priests of Stalinist hypocrisy, the latter interested in dissimulating the true facts in the interests of the Soviet Foreign Office, at first saw the hand of Hitler behind November 10. Vociferous in their denunciations of Vargas immediately after the coup, these gentlemen today are silent. And why? Anxious to denounce the imperialist crimes and machinations of German, Japanese or Italian imperialism, they treacherously condone the brutal and shameless antics of American imperialism. For it is increasingly clear that as the result of the inter-reactions of intense internal and international contradictions, Vargas is the product of an unholy alliance between the most reactionary classes in Brazil and the sinister forces of “democratic” American imperialism.

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