Period of Abertura (1979–1985)
Increasingly fed up with censorship, corruption scandals, and a crippled economy, Brazil’s middle classes and workers began to express widespread opposition to the military dictatorship. In São Paulo, a series of workers’ strikes spread like wildfire. A leader for the illegal unions was a young worker from Pernambuco who had lost a finger in a factory accident. Luís Inácio da Silva (who went by the nickname Lula) was a fierce and charismatic leader. When the government sent troops to repress the striking workers, Lula and his colleagues stood their ground. The government was forced not only to back down, but to legalize unions as well.
Fearing mass revolts, President João Figueiredo also began to implement certain reforms, part of a gradual “abertura” (opening) process that would pave the way for Brazil’s return to democratic rule. Censorship rules were relaxed and political dissidents were allowed to return from exile. In 1982, the first democratic municipal and state elections were held.
Federal elections were called for 1985. The military government had allowed several official opposition parties to be formed. Among them was the Partido dos Trabalhadores (PT), or Workers’ Party, one of whose founders was Lula. However, loath to completely relinquish power, the generals also decided that the new president would be elected by an electoral college made up of members with strong military sympathies. The opposition parties’ furor erupted in a campaign for “direitas já” (direct elections now), which propelled millions of outraged citizens to the streets.
Despite the overwhelming support of the public and opposition parties, the military-friendly Senate managed to defeat the direitas já amendment. However, they couldn’t defeat Tancredo Neves, a highly respected Mineiro politician who had been Getúlio Vargas’s minister of justice. As the opposition candidate running against yet another general, Neves not only seduced electoral college voters from all the opposition parties, but swayed many disenchanted military stalwarts as well. As a result, in January of 1985, Neves won a resounding majority. Throughout Brazil, elated citizens took to the streets to celebrate the end of military dictatorship and the beginning of a Nova República (New Republic).
© Michael Sommers from Moon Brazil, 2nd Edition