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The Military Role in Society and Government

Early History

Throughout the colonial era, the Portuguese used military forces to defend their vast claims in South America. The typical practice was to depend on local fighters and on expeditionary forces sent to deal with particular crises. Such forces usually were led by nobles and large landowners who recruited, often forcibly, unemployed men for the ranks. In addition, the Portuguese long made use of mercenaries from various nationalities, a practice that would continue into the early nineteenth century. Colonial warfare against the French, and especially the Dutch (1624-54), the continuous wars and slave-raiding expeditions against the native peoples, and the famous bandeirante (see Glossary) expeditions produced a vibrant body of military traditions. However, the colonial era did not produce an institutionalized standing military force.

Thanks to the reforms of Marquês de Pombal, Portugal's emperor, in the mid-eighteenth century, more Brazilian-born men were drawn into colonial administration--more so than was the case in either the Spanish or the British colonies--including military affairs. Portugal did not have a navy or a large permanent army, so it had to depend on Brazilians to defend their lands. It was only after 1764 that regular royal troops were posted in Brazil, and even their ranks had to be filled out with local recruits. By the late eighteenth century, the officers of the regiments in Bahia were 60 percent Brazilian-born, but their attitudes, interests, and values were identical with the rest of the colonial elites; they were part of the Portuguese empire, not officers in a budding Brazilian army. Their identification was more with their local region or the greater Portuguese empire than with what is now Brazil.

The colonial units were segregated by color. Militia units called Henriques (see Glossary) were composed of free blacks, while those of mixed African-European ancestry, called pardos , had their own organizations and officers. Local bosses, then called mestres de campo (country masters), and later known as coronéis (colonels--see Glossary), organized the white elite and their hangers-on into urban and rural militia units. In the countryside, such units were really private armies that reinforced the power of the local elites. With royal authority behind them, the mestres and coronéis chased criminals and runaway slaves, kept track of who passed through their territories and how much their neighbors produced, and meted out justice as they saw fit. The viceroy was too far away to interfere with abuses.

Lieutenant Colonel Henrique Oscar Wiederspahn, in his study of Brazil's war with the United Provinces of the Río de la Plata (1825-28) over what is now Uruguay, observed that "the Brazilian Armed Forces have their origins in those [forces] that Dom João VI left us on returning with his Court to Lisbon. . . ." Dom Pedro I (emperor, 1822-31) used the army and navy to expel the Portuguese forces that remained loyal to the government in Lisbon after September 1822. In the campaigns of the 1820s to expel the Portuguese from Rio de Janeiro, Salvador, and Maranhão, the role played by foreign mercenaries, such as British Admiral Thomas Alexander Cochrane (Lord Dundonald) and Frenchman General Pierre Labatut, was pivotal in achieving victory. However, the political disputes of that decade placed the new emperor at odds with the regional elites. Their suspicion of the new imperial army (in 1828 it included a few thousand Irish and Germans recruited abroad) and of the Portuguese-born emperor and his Portuguese generals led to his abdication in 1831 and to the formation of the National Guard as a counterpoise to the army.

The army barely survived the 1830s and had to contend with the National Guard as a potential rival until early in the next century. What institutionalized the army were the fierce campaigns under the leadership of Luís Alves de Lima e Silva (later the famous Duke of Caxias (Duque de Caxias)) that crushed regional revolts (see The Regency Era, 1831-40, ch. 1) in the 1830s and 1840s. Army organization was improved in the campaign against Argentine president Juan Manuel de Rosas in the upper Río de la Plata in 1852 and institutionalized as a result of the War of the Triple Alliance (1864-70) against Paraguay. That war provided the army's principal battle experience and heroes and fixed its main locus of operations on the South (Sul) for decades to come.

Brazil's involvement in the Paraguayan War proved to be a watershed for the army and navy. Brazil joined Argentina and the Uruguayan Colorados (members of the Colorado Party) and successfully resisted the expansionism of Paraguayan dictator Francisco Solano López. In March 1870, Solano López was defeated decisively. Although the number of Paraguayan casualties remains a topic of debate among historians, a majority of the Paraguayan adult male population supposedly was killed. The Paraguayan War rapidly expanded the size of Brazil's army. In 1864, prior to the war, Brazil had 17,000 soldiers in the army; by the end of the war, there were 100,000.

On returning to Brazil, many of the officers were restless with the deficiencies in their economy, such as the lack of an industry to supply the army adequately. Their leader, the Duque de Caxias, was loyal to Pedro II (emperor, 1840-89) and kept anti-imperialist sentiments under control, but after he died in 1880 officers became more active in the political arena. Although they were barred legally from debating government policies publicly, some military officers expressed dissatisfaction openly. For example, they resented their role in capturing runaway slaves. In 1879 officers reacted strongly to a bill that would reduce the size of the military. In 1883 they vehemently opposed compulsory payments to an insurance fund. In 1887 they founded Rio de Janeiro's Military Club (Clube Militar) to express their grievances. The Military Club provided a forum for open debate and criticism of government policies.

Field Marshal Manuel Deodoro da Fonseca, the first president of the Military Club, emerged as a vocal proponent of military interests. On November 9, 1889, Benjamin Constant, a leading advocate of positivism (see Glossary), spoke at the Military Club and called for "full powers to free the military from a state of affairs incompatible with its honor and its dignity." Less than a week later, on November 15, Deodoro led a bloodless coup, which ended the empire of Dom Pedro II, and ushered in the Old Republic (1889-1930). On November 16, he declared Brazil a federal republic.

Deodoro was the provisional leader of Brazil until February 25, 1891, when Congress elected him president. He served as president until November 23, 1891. Under Deodoro the army, which had decreased to 13,000 members in the aftermath of the Paraguayan War, increased its size to 20,000. Army officers governed half of Brazil's twenty states at the time. Cabinet members, however, were primarily civilians (exceptions included Colonel Constant, minister of war; and Vice Admiral Eduardo Wandenkolk, minister of navy).

Deodoro promulgated a new constitution on February 24, 1891, and a day later was elected president by Congress under that charter's provisions. Indicating their displeasure with what they perceived to be a fraudulent and manipulated constitution, Congress elected Deodoro's rival, Floriano Peixoto, to the vice presidency. On November 23, 1891, Deodoro resigned from the presidency because of strong resistance to his policies from Congress, some states, the navy, and a faction of the army led by Peixoto. Peixoto assumed the presidency on the same day, and ruled until November 15, 1894. Because of his strong personality, he was known as the Iron Marshal (Marechal de Ferro).

Peixoto was succeeded by Prudente José de Morais e Barros, also known as Prudente de Morais, the first civilian president of Brazil (1894-98), and the first elected by popular vote. Prudente de Morais was succeeded by Manuel Ferraz de Campos Sales (president, 1898-1902). Prudente de Morais and Campos Sales were the first of various presidents in what has been termed the Republic of the Oligarchies (República das Oligarquias), in which coffee growers in the Southeast (Sudeste) effectively controlled the presidency.

As presidents, Deodoro and Peixoto provided for the transition from empire to republic. In a matter of five years, the Brazilian presidency was turned over to a directly elected civilian. The governments between 1894 and 1930 were inherently conservative, but this was Brazil's first experiment with democracy.

Data as of April 1997

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