236. Telegram From the Embassy in Brazil to the Department of State 1

14310. Subject: Preliminary Assessment of Brazilian Political Situation in Light of 5th Institutional Act. Ref: Rio de Janeiro 14305.2

Institutional act decreed last night amounts to a self-issued license authorizing executive to govern without trappings or inconveniences of democracy. It signals bankruptcy of an effort by Brazilian military to demonstrate that they better able than civilian elements to move Brazil toward goals of development and political stability through democratic means. Failure of effort is not due to any demonstrated inability of Brazilian people to measure up to their role, but to incapability of military to understand what democracy is and how it works.
Present leaders of Brazilian military are patriotic, sincere, and proud. Historic military role of keeping country on the track by changing its government from time to time has produced an attitude of self-righteousness not easily permeated by opposing views, especially when advocated by persons or groups whose orientation is different from and perhaps suspect to disciplinarian minds.
Current crisis had its precise beginnings in a speech by opposition deputy Moreira Alves on floor of Congress which was insulting to army. This incident, while injurious to pride of army, had no intrinsic significance and would have been ignored most places. When issue was blown out of proportion by military insistence on disciplinary action against Moreira Alves, it headed fatally for a constitutional confrontation which could only be resolved by defeat of Congress or of the military acting through weak and vacillating executive. When Congress won legal battle by refusing to remove Moreira Alves’ immunity, military felt they could only recoup by extra-legal action clothed in pseudo-legality of an institutional act.
This confrontation occurred against a backdrop of problems generated by government’s failure to understand Brazil’s really fundamental needs in this era. GOB failure to take imaginative and convincing steps toward improvement of woeful educational situation and relief of depressed urban and rural laboring classes produced agitation for changing these conditions, especially within the church and among students. To a conservative group which does not accept inevitability of social revolution taking place in world, such activities appear unpatriotic and dangerous, and therefore are further justification for strong measures.
The institutional act and the arbitrary and repressive actions being based on it have produced as much of an about face in the direction the Brazilian Government claimed to be going as would an overthrow of the government. Indeed it is reasonable to believe that if Costa e Silva had held rigidly to the constitution, he would have been overthrown.
Within the United States Government, I believe we should understand the situation in this light. On the other hand, we are not faced with the problem of recognizing a new government nor with the need to announce suspensions of aid, military assistance, and other programs customary on overthrow occasions. As of this moment, it appears that our long-range interests might be better served if we were to avoid such overt actions. We should, however, without any announcement, for the moment quietly withhold any pending actions on disbursements or commitments.
There are going to be plenty of occasions in the future when divergent GOB and USG policies and attitudes will create friction between our governments, so we will do well to avoid now any that can be avoided.

A public statement at a high US Government level deploring the setback in development of Brazilian democracy is called for, and important to encourage friends of democracy in Brazil, but it should not point the finger too accurately at the persons or groups responsible. These people, while nationalistic and narrow, are fundamentally favorable [Page 525]to the US and can be counted on to side with us either sentimentally or overtly in any East-West confrontation. It is highly likely they will continue in control of Brazil for a number of years to come. It is from them we must obtain cooperation in enterprises of mutual interest and through them that we must work to help Brazil emerge from the underdevelopment of which their own attitudes are one manifestation.

  1. Source: National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Central Files 1967–69, POL 23–9 BRAZ. Confidential; Immediate. Repeated to Brasilia, Sao Paulo, Recife, and USCINCSO.
  2. Telegram 14305 from Rio de Janeiro, December 14, forwarded a free translation of the fifth Institutional Act (IA–5). (Ibid.) The act allowed the President to recess the congress, state assemblies, and municipal chambers; to intervene in the states and municipalities without constitutional restraint; to suspend the political rights of any citizen for ten years; to revoke legislative mandates at the federal, state, and municipal level; and to confiscate the property of anyone who may have “enriched themselves illicitly while exercising public office.” Unlike previous acts, IA–5 did not have an automatic expiration date.