Brazil 1961-1964

Introducing the marvelous new world of Death Squads

excerpted from the book

Killing Hope

by William Blum


When the leading members of the US diplomatic mission in Brazil held a meeting one-day in March 1964, they arrived at the consensus that President Joao Goulart's support of social and economic reforms was a contrived and thinly veiled vehicle to seize dictatorial power.

The American ambassador, Lincoln Gordon, informed the State Department that ' a desperate lunge [by Goulart] for totalitarian power might be made at any time."'

The Brazilian army chief of staff, General Humberto de Alencar Castelo (or Castello) Branco, provided the American Embassy with a memorandum in which he stated his fear that Goulart was seeking to close down Congress and initiate a dictatorship.

Within a week after the expression of these concerns, the Brazilian military, with Castelo Branco at its head, overthrew the constitutional government of President Goulart, the culmination of a conspiratorial process in which the American Embassy had been intimately involved. The military then proceeded to install and maintain for two decades one of the most brutal dictatorships in all of South America.

What are we to make of all this? The idea that men of rank and power lie to the public is commonplace, not worthy of debate. But do they as readily lie to each other? Is their need to rationalize their misdeeds so great that they provide each other a moral shoulder to lean on; "Men use thoughts only to justify their injustices," wrote Voltaire, "and speech only to conceal their thoughts."

The actual American motivation in supporting the coup was something rather less than preserving democracy, even mundane as such matters go. American opposition to Goulart, who became president in 1961, rested upon a familiar catalogue of complaints:
US Defense Secretary Robert McNamara questioned Brazil's neutral stand in foreign policy. The Brazilian ambassador in Washington, Roberto Campos, responded that "neutralism" was an inadequate term and explained that "what was involved was really a deep urge of the Brazilian people to assert their personality in world affairs."

American officials did not approve of some of the members of Goulart's cabinet, and said so. Ambassador Campos pointed out to them that it was "quite inappropriate" for the United States "to try to influence the composition of the cabinet."

Attorney-General Robert Kennedy met with Goulart and expressed his uneasiness about the Brazilian president allowing "communists" to hold positions in government agencies. Bobby was presumably acting on the old and very deep-seated American belief that once you welcome one or two communists into your parlor, they take over the whole house and sign the deed over to Moscow. Goulart did not see this as a danger. He replied that he was in full control of the situation, later remarking to Campos that it was as if he had been told that he had no capacity for judging the men around him.

The American Defense Attache in Brazil, Col. Vernon Walters, reported that Goulart showed favoritism towards "ultra-nationalist" military officers over "pro-U.S." officers. Goulart saw it as promoting those officers who appeared to be most loyal to his government. He was, as it happens, very concerned about American-encouraged military coups and said so explicitly to President Kennedy.

Goulart considered purchasing helicopters from Poland because Washington was delaying on his request to purchase them from the United States. Ambassador Gordon told him that he "could not expect the United States to like it".

The Goulart administration, moreover, passed a law limiting the amount of profits multinationals could transmit out of the country, and a subsidiary of ITT was nationalized. Compensation for the takeover was slow in coming because of Brazil's precarious financial position, but these were the only significant actions taken against US corporate interests.

Inextricably woven into all these complaints, yet at the same time standing apart, was Washington's dismay with Brazil's "drift to the left" ... the communist / leftist influence in the labor movement ... leftist "infiltration" wherever one looked ..."anti-Americanism" among students and others (the American Consul General in Sao Paulo suggested to the State Department that the United States "found competing student organizations") ... the general erosion of "U.S. influence and the power of people and groups friendly to the United States"... one might go so far as to suggest that Washington officials felt unloved, were it not for the fact that the coup, as they well knew from much past experience, could result only in intensified anti-Americanism all over Latin America.

Goulart's predecessor, Janio da Silva Quadros, had also irritated Washington. "Why should the United States trade with Russia and her satellites but insist that Brazil trade only with the United States?" he asked, and proceeded to negotiate with the Soviet Union and other Communist countries to (re)establish diplomatic and commercial relations. He was, in a word, independent.

Quadros was also more-or-less a conservative who clamped down hard on unions, sent federal troops to the northeast hunger dens to squash protest, and jailed disobedient students. But the American ambassador at the time, John Moors Cabot, saw fit to question Brazil's taking part in a meeting of "uncommitted" (non-aligned) nations. "Brazil has signed various obligations with the United States and American nations," he said. "I am sure Brazil is not going to forget her obligations ... It is committed. It is a fact. Brazil can uncommit itself if it wants.''

In early 1961, shortly after Quadros took office, he was visited by Adolf Berle, Jr., President Kennedy's adviser on Latin American affairs and formerly ambassador to Brazil. Berle had come as Kennedy's special envoy to solicit Quadros's backing for the impending Bay of Pigs invasion. Ambassador Cabot was present and some years later described the meeting to author Peter Bell. Bell has written:

Ambassador Cabot remembers a "stormy conversation" in which Berle stated the United States had $300 million in reserve for Brazil and in effect "offered it as a bribe" for Brazilian cooperation ... Quadros became "visibly irritated" after Berle refused to heed his third "no". No Brazilian official was at the airport the next day to see the envoy off.

Quadros, who had been elected by a record margin, was, like Goulart, accused of seeking to set up a dictatorship because he sought to put teeth into measures unpopular with the oligarchy, the military, and/or the United States, as well as pursuing a "pro-communist" foreign policy. After but seven months in office he suddenly resigned, reportedly under military pressure, if not outright threat. In his letter of resignation, he blamed his predicament on "reactionaries" and "the ambitions of groups of individuals, some of whom are foreigners ... the terrible forces that arose against me."

A few months later, Quadros reappeared, to deliver a speech in which he named Berle, Cabot, and US Treasury Secretary Douglas Dillon as being among those who had contributed to his downfall. Dillon, he said, sought to mix foreign policy with Brazil's needs for foreign credits. (Both Berle and Cabot had been advocates of the 1954 overthrow of Guatemalan President Arbenz, whose sins, in Washington's eyes, were much the same as those Goulart was now guilty of.) At the same time, Quadros announced his intention to lead a "people's crusade" against the "reactionaries, the corrupt and the Communists''.

As Quadros's vice president, Goulart succeeded to the presidency in August 1961...


Goulart tried to continue Quadros's independent foreign policy. His government went ahead with resumption of relations with socialist countries, and at a meeting of the organization of American States in December 1961 Brazil abstained on a vote to hold a special session aimed at discussing "the Cuban problem", and stood strongly opposed to sanctions against the Castro government. A few months later, speaking before the US Congress, Goulart affirmed Brazil's right to take its own stand on some of the cold-war issues. He declared that Brazil identified itself "with the democratic principles which unite the peoples of the West", but was "not part of any politico-military bloc".


Goulart, a millionaire land-owner and a Catholic who wore a medal of the Virgin around his neck, was no more a communist than was Quadros, and he strongly supported the United States during the "Cuban Missile Crisis" of October 1962. He offered Ambassador Gordon a toast "To the Yankee Victory!", perhaps unaware that only three weeks earlier, during federal and state elections in Brazil, CIA money had been liberally expended in support of anti-Goulart candidates. Former CIA officer Philip Agee has stated that the Agency spent between 12 and 20 million dollars on behalf of hundreds of candidates. Lincoln Gordon says the funding came to no more than 5 million.

In addition to the direct campaign contributions, the CIA dipped into its bag of dirty tricks to torment the campaigns of leftist candidates. At the same time, the Agency for International Development (AID), at the express request of President Kennedy, was allocating monies to projects aimed at benefiting chosen gubernatorial candidates. (While Goulart was president, no new US economic assistance was given to the central government, while regional assistance was provided on a markedly ideological basis. When the military took power, this pattern was sharply altered.

Agee adds that the CIA carried out a consistent propaganda campaign against Goulart which dated from at least the 1962 election operation and which included the financing of mass urban demonstrations, "proving the old themes of God, country, family and liberty to be as effective as ever" in undermining a government.

CIA money also found its way to a chain of right-wing newspapers, Diarias Associades, to promote anti-communism; for the distribution of 50 thousand books of similar politics to high school and college students; and for the formation of women's groups with their special Latin mother's emphasis on the godlessness of the communist enemy. The women and other CIA operatives also went into the rumor-mongering business, spreading stories about outrages Goulart and his cronies were supposed to be planning, such as altering the constitution so as to extend his term, and gossip about Goulart being a cuckold and a wife beater.

All this to overthrow a man who, in April 1962, had received a ticker-tape parade in New York City, was warmly welcomed at the White House by President Kennedy, and had addressed a joint session of Congress.


Depending on the setting, either "saving Brazil from dictatorship" or "saving Brazil from communism" was advanced as the rationale for what took place in 1964. (General Andrew O'Meara, head of the US Southern [Latin America] Command, had it both ways. He told a House committee that "The coming to power of the Castelo Branco government in Brazil last April saved that country from an immediate dictatorship which could only have been followed by Communist domination."

The rescue-from-communism position was especially difficult to support, the problem being that the communists in Brazil did not, after all, do anything which the United States could point to. Moreover, the Soviet Union was scarcely in the picture. Early in 1964, reported a Brazilian newspaper, Russian leader Khrushchev told the Brazilian Communist Party that the Soviet government did not wish either to give financial aid to the Goulart regime or to tangle with the United States over the country. In his reminiscences-albeit, as mentioned earlier, not meant to be a serious work of history-Khrushchev does not give an index reference to Brazil.

A year after the coup, trade between Brazil and the USSR was running at $120 million per year and a Brazilian mission was planning to go to Moscow to explore Soviet willingness to provide a major industrial plant. The following year, the Russians invited the new Brazilian president-to-be, General Costa e Silva, to visit the Soviet Union.

During the entire life of the military dictatorship, extending into the 1980s, Brazil and the Soviet bloc engaged in extensive trade and economic cooperation, reaching billions of dollars per year and including the building of several large hydroelectric plants in Brazil. A similar economic relationship existed between the Soviet bloc and the Argentine military dictatorship of 1976-83, so much so that in 1982, when Soviet leader Brezhnev died, the Argentine government declared a national day of mourning.

It was only by ignoring facts like these during the cold war that the anti-communist propaganda machine of the United States could preach about the International Communist Conspiracy and claim that the coup in Brazil had saved the country from communism. For a typical example of this propaganda, one must read "The Country That Saved Itself," which appeared in Reader's Digest several months after the coup. The innumerable lies about what occurred in Brazil, fed by the magazine to its millions of readers, undoubtedly played a role in preparing the American public for the great anti-communist crusade in Vietnam just picking up steam at the time. The article began:

Seldom has a major nation come closer to the brink of disaster and yet recovered than did Brazil in its recent triumph over Red subversion. The communist drive for domination-marked by propaganda, infiltration, terror-was moving in high gear. Total surrender seemed imminent- and then the people said No!

The type of independence shown by the Brazilian military government in its economic relations with the Soviet Union was something Washington could accept from a conservative government, even the occasional nationalization of American property, when it knew that the government could be relied upon to keep the left suppressed at home and to help in the vital cold war, anti-communist campaigns abroad. In 1965, Brazil sent 1,100 troops to the Dominican Republic in support of the US invasion, the only country in Latin America to send more than a token force. And in 1971 and 1973, the Brazilian military and intelligence apparatuses contributed to the American efforts in overthrowing the governments of Bolivia and Chile.

The United States did not rest on its laurels. CIA headquarters immediately began to generate hemisphere-wide propaganda, as only the Agency's far-flung press-asset network could, in support of the new Brazilian government and to discredit Goulart. Dean Rusk concerned that Goulart might be received in Uruguay as if he were still Brazil's president on the grounds that he had not resigned, cabled the American Embassy in Montevideo that "it would be useful if you could quietly bring to the attention of appropriate officials the fact that despite his allegations to the contrary Goulart has abandoned his office."

At the same time, the CIA station in Uruguay undertook a program of surveillance of Brazilian exiles who had fled from the military takeover, to prevent them from instigating any kind of insurgency movement in their homeland. It was a simple matter for the Agency to ask their (paid) friend, the head of Uruguayan intelligence, to place his officers at the residences of Goulart and other key Brazilians. The officers kept logs of visitors while posing as personal security men for the exiles, although it is unlikely that the exiles swallowed the story.

In the first few days following the coup, "several thousand" Brazilians were arrested, "communist and suspected communist" all. AIFLD graduates were promptly appointed by the new government to purge the unions. Though Ambassador Gordon had assured the State Department before the coup that the armed forces "would be quick to restore constitutional institutions and return power to civilian hands," this was not to be. Within days, General Castelo Branco assumed the presidency and over the next few years his regime instituted all the features of military dictatorship which Latin America has come to know and love:

Congress was shut down political opposition was reduced to virtual extinction, habeas corpus for "political crimes" was suspended, criticism of the president was forbidden by law, labor unions were taken over by government interveners, mounting protests were met by police and military firing into crowds, the use of systematic "disappearance" as a form of repression came upon the stage of Latin America, peasants' homes were burned down, priests were brutalized ... the government had a name for its program: the "moral rehabilitation" of Brazil ... then there was the torture and the death squads, both largely undertakings of the police and the military, both underwritten by the United States.


... the US Office of Public Safety (OPS), the CIA and AID combined to provide ... technical training, ... equipment, and ... indoctrination ... in Brazil. Dan Mitrione of the OPS, ... began his career in Brazil in the 1960s. By 1969, OPS had established a national police force for Brazil and had trained over 100,000 policemen in the country, in addition to 523 receiving more advanced instruction in the United States. About one-third of the students' time at the police academies was devoted to lectures on the "communist menace" and the need to battle against it. The "bomb school" and techniques of riot control were other important aspects of their education.


"Tortures range from simple but brutal blows from a truncheon to electric shocks. Often the torture is more refined: the end of a reed is placed in the anus of a naked man hanging suspended downwards on the pau de arara [parrot's perch] and a piece of cotton soaked in petrol is lit at the other end of the reed. Pregnant women have been forced to watch their husbands being tortured. Other wives have been hung naked beside their husbands and given electric shocks on the sexual parts of their body, while subjected to the worst kind of obscenities. Children have been tortured before their parents and vice versa. At least one child, the three month old baby of Virgilio Gomes da Silva was reported to have died under police torture. The length of sessions depends upon the resistance capacity of the victims and have sometimes continued for days at a time."

Amnesty International


"Judge Agamemnon Duarte indicated that the CCC [Commandos to Hunt Communists, a death squad armed and aided by the police] and the CIA are implicated in the murder of Father Henrique Neto. He admitted that .. the American Secret Service (CIA) was behind the CCC."

Jornal do Brazil


Chief of Staff of the Brazilian Army, General Breno Borges Forte, at the Tenth conference of American Armies in 1973:

"The enemy is undefined ... it adapts to any environment and uses every means, both licit and illicit, to achieve its aims. It disguises itself as a priest, a student or a campesino, as a defender of democracy or an advanced intellectual, as a pious soul or as an extremist protester; it goes into the fields and the schools, the factories and the churches, the universities and the magistracy; if necessary, it will wear a uniform or civil garb; in sum, it will take on any role that it considers appropriate to deceive, to lie, and to take in the good faith of Western peoples."

In 1970, a US Congress study group visited Brazil. It gave this summary of statements by American military advisers there:

" Rather than dwell on the authoritarian aspects of the regime, they emphasize assertions by the Brazilian armed forces that they believe in, and support, representative democracy as an ideal and would return government to civilian control if this could be done without sacrifice to security and development. This withdrawal from the political arena is not seen as occurring in the near future. For that reason they emphasize the continued importance of the military assistance training program as a means of exerting U.S. influence and retaining the current pro-U.S. attitude of the Brazilian armed forces. Possible disadvantages to U.S. interests in being so closely identified with an authoritarian regime are not seen as particularly important. "


Killing Hope