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Hispanic American Historical Review 83.4 (2003) 661-696

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Carlos Lacerda:
The Rise and Fall of a Middle-Class Populist in 1950s Brazil

Bryan McCann

Power, above all, is a marvelous source of happiness.
—Carlos Lacerda 1

President Getúlio Vargas's suicide on August 24, 1954, has long been recognized as the pivotal moment of Brazil's Populist Republic—the tumultuous two decades between the fall of the Estado Novo dictatorship in 1945 and the military coup in 1964. His suicide—clearly as much grand political gesture as personal tragedy—passed almost immediately from current event to popular myth, interpreted in various ways according to fundamentally opposed visions of Brazil and its future. Vargas's supporters saw the suicide as the martyrdom of a prince, and they saw the famous carta-testamento—Vargas's disputed suicide note, typed several days in advance of the act—as a call to arms, urging the vigorous defense of Vargas's legacy. Opponents, on the other hand, saw this as the last, cowardly act of a despicable traitor, a curse guaranteed to further muddy the waters of Brazilian politics for decades to come. The suicide and its fallout have generated extensive academic inquiry, a gripping novel (Rubem Fonseca's Agosto), a Globo television miniseries based on that novel, a theatrical production, and a permanent museum exhibit. The carta-testamento itself has been studied, dissected, and appropriated, serving as the basis for at least two popular sambas. 2 [End Page 661]

In the course of this interpretation and reinterpretation, opposition leader Carlos Lacerda's role in the crisis of August 1954 has become well known. While Vargas himself spent the last year of his life politically immobilized by scandal and corruption, Lacerda spearheaded the ouster campaign that set in motion the events leading to the suicide. Between 1952 and 1954, Lacerda dedicated enormous energy and talent to the masterful orchestration of a campaign to undermine Vargas, drawing on crucial assistance from well-placed allies in the Brazilian elite. The importance of this campaign to Lacerda's political career has received considerable attention. 3 Analysts, however, have not explored the degree to which, in his drive to destroy Vargas, Lacerda employed the same tactics and acquired the characteristics he criticized in his nemesis.

Like Vargas, Lacerda underwent several political transformations in his long career. In the early 1950s, he was a fiery spokesman for middle-class Catholic morality, railing against the corruption and incompetence of the Vargas presidency. He defended a conservative social order, expressed skepticism regarding the political capacities of the poor and the working class, and disdained the politics of patronage. He favored international investment and disparaged state control. These positions corresponded to an increasing hostility on the part of Brazil's upper and middle classes toward many of Vargas's actions: his perceived capitulation to the demands of urban labor, his use of the state as a piggy bank for his friends and family, and his restrictions on foreign capital. This groundswell against the tactics and policies of Vargas and his populist imitators might be termed antipopulist. 4 It is one of the many ironies of his political [End Page 662] career, then, that in his assault on Vargas Lacerda adopted the rhetoric and style of his populist rivals: espousing nationalism to the point of xenophobia, insisting on the enforcement of Estado Novo legislation that benefited his position, and, above all, relentlessly projecting his own charismatic presence as the embodiment of his constituency's political will. Also like his rivals—but far more effectively—he used broadcasting to reach out to his supporters with previously unimaginable immediacy and power, summoning the members of a previously marginalized sector of the population into the public sphere and encouraging them to imagine themselves as the center of the national body politic. In doing so, he became a populist for the urban middle class.

These similarities begin to suggest the pervasive logic of populism and its relationship to broadcasting during the post-Estado Novo Populist Republic. As a result, Lacerda...


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pp. 661-696
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Archived 2004
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