Juscelino Kubitschek

(1902–1976) Brazilian president

A canny political centrist best remembered for the construction of the new capital city of Brasília during his term as president of Brazil (1956–61), Juscelino Kubitschek bequeathed a complex political and economic legacy. Coming on the heels of the populist military dictatorship of Getúlio Vargas (president 1930–45, 1951–54), Kubitschek dispensed with Vargas’s sympathies toward fascism and dictatorial style of governance, distanced himself from the military while endeavoring to placate it, and retained many of his predecessor’s populist policies—including state-supported industrialization and aggressive promotion of foreign investment and economic development. His term saw rapid economic growth and major advances in all major industries. It also left behind record government debt, a highly-mobilized and polarized civil society, and a disgruntled military. Three years after he left office, Brazil descended into military dictatorship that lasted until the mid-1980s (1964–85).

Kubitschek de Oliviera was born in the small backcountry town of Diamantina in the state of Minas Gerais on September 12, 1902. His father, a salesman, died when he was two; his mother, a schoolteacher of Slovak ancestry, raised him. Educated as a medical doctor, in 1934 he was elected to the Minas Gerais State Assembly, a position he resigned in 1937 upon Vargas’s announcement of his quasi-fascist Estado Novo (New State). Serving as mayor of Belo Horizonte from 1940 and the Minas Gerais State Assembly from 1945, he won the presidency in 1955 on the ticket of the Progressive Social Party (Partido Social Progresista) under the slogan “fifty years of progress in five.” His critics later lambasted his administration for causing “fifty years of inflation in five.” On taking office, he and his technocrats drew up a Program of Goals, identifying specific growth targets for each economic sector. The basic idea was to bring private capital under state direction to achieve rapid economic growth by focusing on key industries and infrastructure. When he left office, Brazil had a sustainable automobile industry, for instance, built virtually from scratch. Similar growth targets were met in electrification, road construction, and related sectors.

This rapid growth carried a high price, however. As state expenditures grew, Brazil’s foreign debt grew, inflation soared, and economic inequality—already among the world’s starkest—increased. Working to placate a resurgent left, a recalcitrant right, and an increasingly disenchanted military, Kubitschek ended up with far more adversaries than allies. His administration met many of its targets for growth, investment, and industrialization, while leaving to his successor a macroeconomic mess and sharpened political divisions that culminated in a prolonged military takeover. After the 1964 coup he went into exile, living in Europe and North America, before returning to Brazil in 1967. Nine years later, on October 22, 1976, he died in a car crash.

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