Following a recurring pattern in Brazilian history (1889, 1930, 1937, 1945), in 1964 a group of military officers overthrew the civilian government of João Goulart (1961–64), installing a military dictatorship that ruled for the next 21 years. The roots of the crisis prompting the coup have been traced to a confluence of events from the mid-1950s. These included a dramatic upsurge in leftist political movements, parties, and unions among urban and rural dwellers, encouraged by civilian leaders and intensifying after the 1959 Cuban revolution, combined with a growing economic crisis marked by high inflation (nearly 90 percent in 1964) and foreign debt ($3 billion), huge budget deficits ($1.1 billion in 1964); declining foreign investment, and eroding middle-class support.
With U.S. backing, on March 31, 1964, a group of officers headed by General Humberto Castello Branco seized power. Castello Branco ruled as president until 1967, his principal goal economic stabilization. Reforms introduced by his planning minister, the neo-orthodox technocrat Roberto Campos, partly achieved this aim. The regime also reformed the nation’s banking system and reduced unions’ bargaining power. From 1968 to 1974 years of the so-called Brazilian miracle, foreign investment soared, industry boomed, and the economy grew at an average annual rate of 11 percent, though inflation still averaged around 23 percent. Relatively moderate, Castello Branco and his successor, General Artur Costa e Silva (1967–69), tolerated a degree of organized dissent, though when opposition leaders launched a series of protests and strikes in 1967–68, Costa e Silva cracked down, arresting and jailing hundreds. In September 1969 he suffered a stroke and was replaced by hard-liner General Emilio Garrastazu Médici (1969–74).
By 1969 there emerged in the country’s major cities more than a dozen guerrilla groups, composed of perhaps 500 members altogether and akin to the Montoneros in Argentina, that for the next four years waged a losing battle against the dictatorship. Robbing banks and kidnapping foreign diplomats, the guerrillas found inspiration in the writings of Carlos Marighela, especially his Mini-manual of the Urban Guerrilla. The years of Brazil’s Dirty War (1969–73) were marked by mass jailings, institutionalized torture, and upwards of 333 disappearances, far fewer than in neighboring Argentina and Uruguay. By 1973 the urban guerrilla groups had been eradicated. In 1974 the more moderate General Ernesto Geisel (1974–79) assumed the presidency.
Inclined toward a return to civilian rule, in October he allowed opposition parties to run in congressional elections, resulting in their landslide victory, thus stalling further democratization. In the economic sphere, the steep OPEC oil price hikes in 1973 and 1979 returned Brazil to high deficits, ballooning debt, and climbing inflation, which reached 110 percent in 1980. The abundance of cheap petrodollars on world markets delayed the day of economic reckoning, but in 1981 a global recession and credit squeeze compelled Brazil to default on its commercial bank loans, decisively ending the economic boom.
The fifth and last of the general-presidents was João Figueiredo (1979–85), who, facing mounting popular opposition and a ravaged economy, pledged a return to civilian rule. Local, state, and federal congressional elections in 1982 were followed by presidential elections in 1985, won by Tancredo Neves, governor of the state of Minas Gerais. Since 1985 Brazil has been governed by a succession of democratically elected governments.