The Inadvertent Opposition: The São Paulo Political Class and the Demise of Brazil's Military Regime, 1968-1985

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Pitts, Bryan


French, John D

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This dissertation argues that the civilian "political class" played an understudied yet decisive role in toppling Brazil's 1964-1985 military dictatorship. In contrast with existing explanations for the regime's fall, which emphasize either the isolated initiative of the generals or the independent resistance of civil society, this dissertation highlights the inadvertent opposition of civilian politicians, connected by familial and social ties to both the military and social movements. Between 1968 and 1985, the relationship between all three shifted significantly, as politicians first resisted the military's challenge to their presumed right to rule on behalf of the masses and later came to defend a role for those masses in ruling the nation. It offers a deeper understanding of the dispositions, worldview, and behavioral codes that united politicians regardless of ideology or party and turned them against the regime that many of them had helped bring to power.

In contrast to the Southern Cone, where the military sought to abolish political activity, Brazilian officers cast themselves as democracy's saviors. Yet even as they maintained elections, they also imposed authoritarian reforms on politicians. The first four chapters offer the most detailed study to date of this project and politicians' indignant reaction. In 1968, as the regime repressed leftist student activists, politicians, tied to students by blood and social class, took to the streets to defend their children in a nearly forgotten act of defiance. Then, when the military demanded the prosecution of a congressman for insulting them, Congress refused to lift his immunity. In response, the military placed Congress in recess, arrested several politicians, removed many others from office, and decided to turn their reforms into tutelage. Amidst the repression, a few politicians opted for courageous denunciation, but most chose to wait out the storm until the generals believed them sufficiently cowed. Still others adopted the strategy proved most successful - working within the rules to build their careers despite constraints.

The final three chapters show how the military's project collapsed amidst bolder challenges from politicians, especially in the vitally important state of São Paulo. In 1974, after five years of breathtaking economic growth, the powerless opposition party decisively won legislative elections. This study offers fresh insights into the opposition's success by examinging its novel appeal to working class voters. By 1978, restiveness in São Paulo spread to the military's own allied party, as in São Paulo they nominated a dissident gubernatorial candidate against the generals' wishes. As the regime turned toward political opening, in 1979-1980, opposition politicians took to the streets to protect striking workers from repression, demonstrating a greater acceptance of popular mobilization. Politicians changed under military rule, but rather than collaborating with a demobilizing regime, many allied with an emerging civil society to oppose it.

This study draws on transcripts and audio recordings of legislative speeches, electoral court records, public opinion surveys, police records, classified Brazilian intelligence reports, newspapers, and correspondence from the foreign embassies. It cites the personal archives of key politicians, as well as oral histories, biographies, and memoirs. The sources enable a dynamic and culturally informed analysis of the "political class" to explain how, through resistance to tutelage and the acceptance of popular participation, civilian politicians helped topple the military regime and lay the groundwork for an unprecedented expansion of citizenship in the following decades.






Pitts, Bryan (2013). The Inadvertent Opposition: The São Paulo Political Class and the Demise of Brazil's Military Regime, 1968-1985. Dissertation, Duke University. Retrieved from


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