Deodoro and Bolsonaro: Frenemies of the Republic

. Nov 15, 2019
bolsonaro republic President Bolsonaro. Photo: José Dias/PR

On November 15, 1889, the Brazilian Armed Forces put an end to the reign of Emperor Dom Pedro II—and with that, the monarchical system that had prevailed since the one-time colony broke away from Portugal in 1822. For a country accustomed to having a king long before it was an independent nation, talk not only of new leadership but of an entirely new system of government was jarring to the population.

So, how was the proclamation of the republic <a href="">covered in the press at the time</a>?</p> <p>The day after the military-led coup in the name of republicanism, Rio de Janeiro&#8217;s <em>Gazeta de Notícias</em> noted that &#8220;yesterday&#8217;s developments would simply be a disorder if they produced a situation that could never again guarantee this great country the peace and tranquility it needs to make use of all its resources.&#8221; Despite the lingering uncertainty, the paper emphasized the harmony among the Armed Forces under Field Marshal Manuel Deodoro da Fonseca, asserting that &#8220;each and every link between the army and the monarchy is broken by the unanimity with which the former manifested itself.&#8221;&nbsp;</p> <p>The paper concluded: &#8220;In every society, there are interests that patriotism demands be safeguarded. In young, resource-rich countries such as ours, those . . . interests can only be fulfilled by stable governments. Thus, after yesterday&#8217;s events, the only government that can guarantee stability is a frankly republican one. Anything else will only prolong a struggle in which the nation has everything to lose.&#8221;</p> <p>For its part, <em>O Paiz</em> praised the population of Rio de Janeiro for the relative calm with which they received the news: &#8220;Confident and fueled by heightened hopes, the population of the state, on one hand, eagerly sought news of developments unfolding from the events of [November 15], so memorable for Brazilian history, and on the other hand, going about their usual affairs, convinced that nothing threatened their rights and guarantees.&#8221; </p> <p>According to the newspaper, which proudly proclaimed itself as having the biggest circulation in South America, Brazilians were uniquely capable of absorbing major political developments reasonably and without violent outbursts, celebrating the presence of &#8220;peace and liberty everywhere.&#8221; </p> <p>Together, these reactions from leading national newspapers reveal much about the immediate and long-term perceptions of the birth of the republic. It illustrates genuine anxiety from elites that the end of the empire might foster social dissolution. According to this thinking, a republic presided over by military men was the only way to assure a political transition away from monarchical rule.&nbsp;</p> <p>The absence of the Armed Forces might have dissolved the government—and the infant nation along with it. It was also a reflection of the realization that the end of the empire actually had not brought many changes to the lives of ordinary Brazilians. These different ways of understanding political change in Brazil—a radical break or essentially more of the same—have dominated historical debates over not only 1889 but also every major national turning point that followed.&nbsp;</p> <figure class="wp-block-image"><img src="" alt="republic 130 years" class="wp-image-27661" srcset=" 1021w, 300w, 768w, 610w" sizes="(max-width: 1021px) 100vw, 1021px" /><figcaption>Deodoro da Fonseca (in military gear, holding a notebook) takes the oath of office as the first President of the Brazilian Republic.</figcaption></figure> <h2>Two military men</h2> <p>Any attempt to understand the current political atmosphere in Brazil through the context of 1889 requires a comparison between the current president, Jair Bolsonaro, and the man who would become the nation&#8217;s <a href="">first republican chief executive</a>, Deodoro da Fonseca. Most importantly, both, in their way, were defined by their military careers. </p> <p>While, as Robert Hayes has argued, &#8220;Deodoro&#8217;s rise to national prominence and political power coincided with, and was one product of, the politicization of the Brazilian military class,&#8221; Jair Bolsonaro has benefited from precisely the opposite trend, namely, the depoliticization of the Armed Forces as a whole following the end of military rule in 1985. </p> <p>As Mr. Hayes notes, the politicization of the 1890s &#8220;became apparent following the Paraguayan War, when military officers evinced feelings of dissatisfaction with monarchical political leaders coupled with a related sense of military class destiny&#8221; and, most decisively, a &#8220;conviction that military men were being selected by historical processes to save Brazil from inept and unpatriotic politicians.&#8221;</p> <p>In the 1980s, by contrast, Brazilians were coming to the conclusion that the military would not deliver them from economic, social, and political ruin. As military leaders generally agreed on the need to extricate themselves from the government in the 1980s, the <a href="">most radical servicemen</a> chafed at the idea of handing power back to civilians. Jair Bolsonaro, for example, who served from 1977 to 1988, was a <a href="">lackluster soldier</a> whose outsize political ambitions often rubbed senior military figures up the wrong way. Unlike most military men, he never accepted the army&#8217;s diminished role in Brazilian life. </p> <p>Robert Hayes concludes that a &#8220;prolonged clash with civilian leaders of the Empire&#8221; turned Deodoro da Fonseca into &#8220;the standard-bearer of the military class.&#8221; In Mr. Bolsonaro&#8217;s case, it was the military&#8217;s political retrenchment over the course of the 1990s and early 2000s that allowed him to almost single-handedly claim the mantle of hardline public policy. He commanded no troops during his decades as a bit-part player in Rio de Janeiro politics but he seemed to speak for them on some level.&nbsp;</p> <p>After leading the coup that ousted the aging monarch, Deodoro da Fonseca became head of the Provisional Government and was later elected President of the Republic by the Constituent Assembly that ratified the Constitution of 1891. Throughout his time in office, Deodoro da Fonseca—a military leader accustomed to deference and hierarchy—fumbled in his dealings with civilian politicians. </p> <p>Eventually, frustrated and isolated, he moved to dissolve Congress, a risky move that backfired and culminated in his resignation. Today, Brazilian institutions are once again being tested. While the notion that the very system of government might be cast aside is nowhere on the horizon, as it was 130 years ago, Jair Bolsonaro—who has expressed profound annoyance with aspects of his position—might yet emulate Deodoro da Fonseca in ignominious fashion.

Andre Pagliarini

Andre Pagliarini was a visiting assistant professor of modern Latin American history at Brown University in 2018–19 and is currently a lecturer at Dartmouth College. He is preparing a book manuscript on twentieth-century Brazilian nationalism

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