The alliance for progress: economic warfare in Brazil (1962-1964).

Author:DeWitt, John


The Alliance for Progress was the crown jewel of President John F. Kennedy's Latin American policy. Press releases and speeches trumpeted that the Alliance would promote economic development and democratic government. But fear of communism conquered programs for democracy. The conviction that Americans knew better than Brazilians what was best for Brazil persuaded American policy makers to collaborate with civilian and military conspirators to destroy the democratic, constitutional government of President Joao "Jango" Goulart. A program designed to further development and democracy was used as an economic warfare tool in the development of a coup climate that led to a twenty-year military dictatorship.


John Kennedy set up a working group to develop what became known as the Alliance for Progress before he was inaugurated. Adolf A. Berle, Ambassador to Brazil under President Getulio Vargas and an old New Dealer converted to Cold War warrior, was head of the Latin American Task Force. Lincoln Gordon wrote the economic section of the report. Appointed Ambassador to Brazil while Janio Quadros was still in office, Gordon arrived in Brazil in October 1961 after Quadros had resigned and Joao Goulart became president. His overseas postings with the Marshall Plan were in Paris and London. He did not speak Portuguese or Spanish.

The drafting officer of the final document was Richard Goodwin. He did not speak Portuguese or Spanish and had never been in Latin America before March 1961. Goodwin became the White House expert on Latin America. During a trip to Brazil in April 1961 in preparation for an Alliance for Progress conference he described the air of Rio de Janeiro as an aphrodisiac, "its warm, odored moisture at once calming the mind and arousing the flesh with promise of sexual pleasure." In Rio he had meetings with Latin American economists, drank with journalists until after midnight "and enjoyed, in the time remaining, the girls of Ipanema." (1)

Like the Truman Doctrine, containment policy and the Marshall Plan, the Alliance for Progress was a program to combat the expansion of international communism. The report sent to the president in early 1961 declared that the problem was to prevent capture of the "inevitable and necessary Latin American transformation" by "Communist power politics." The objective of the Communists was "to convert the Latin American social revolution into a Marxist attack on the United States." The analysis warned that the communist threat "is far more dangerous than the Nazi-Fascist threat of the Franklin Roosevelt period and demands an even bolder and more imaginative response." (2)

Kennedy announced the Alliance for Progress in a 13 March 1961 speech to the Latin American Diplomatic Corps. He said "our aspiration for economic progress can best be achieved by free men working within a framework of democratic institutions" and asserted that "political freedom must accompany material progress ... we call for social change by free men." (3) The Charter of the Alliance signed at Punta del Este, Uruguay in August 1961 declared "The Alliance is established on the basic principle that free men working through the institution of representative democracy can best satisfy man's aspirations." (4)

JFK had a Janus-faced policy for the Western Hemisphere. A grandiose plan to promote economic development and democracy was announced with great enthusiasm. Hidden from public view was the counterinsurgency program designed to prevent at all costs the expansion of communist influence in Latin America. For example, Kennedy established AID's (Agency for International Development) Office of Public Safety (OPS) in 1962. The CIA (Central Intelligence Agency) worked through OPS and in six years it was a global anticommunist operation with an annual budget of $35 million and four hundred advisors assigned abroad. By 1971 the program had trained over one million police officers in forty-seven countries, including 100,000 in Brazil. (5)

Kennedy aide Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. wrote, "The Alliance for Progress represented the affirmative side of Kennedy's policy. The other side was absolute determination to prevent any new state from going down the Castro road and so giving the Soviet Union a second bridgehead in the hemisphere." (6) When he became president, Lyndon Johnson vowed to prevent another communist state in Latin America. The Cuban missile crisis convinced LBJ that "any man who permitted a second communist state to spring up in this hemisphere would be impeached and ought to be." (7)

Senator J. William Fulbright, Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, wrote in 1966 that the United States followed two incompatible policies in Latin America: discriminating support for social reform and undiscriminating anticommunism. The latter always received priority, "often making us the friend of military dictatorships and reactionary oligarchies." Suspicion of communist support was enough to discredit reform movements and "to drive United States policy into the stifling embrace of the generals and the oligarchs." (8) Charges of communism killed debate. John Kenneth Galbraith said it was not as though policies were discussed and the wrong choices made; the problem was that there was no debate at all because of the prevailing anticommunist mood. (9)


The huge Brazilian Northeast seemed an ideal place to accomplish Alliance for Progress objectives. It was a region making up about 20 percent of Brazil with an area of 970,000 square miles. In the early 1960s the population was about 22,000,000, the great majority living in misery and economic deprivation. The estimated annual per capita income was less than $100, less than one-third the national average. (10)

Three agricultural zones comprise the Northeast. The zona de mata, forest zone, along the coast is about eighty kilometers wide and extends from southern Bahia to Natal in Rio Grande do Norte. The fertile alluvial soil in the many river valleys along the coast proved ideal for sugar cane cultivation. (11) During the colonial era these valleys were staked out in huge plantations worked by African slaves. Sugar production totally dominated land use. The sertao, semiarid backlands, developed as a region of immense ranches that supplied beef and draft animals to the coastal plantations. The agreste, the transition zone between the humid coast and semiarid interior, was devoted to subsistence farming, producing foodstuffs for the urban centers and plantations along the coast. (12)

During the colonial period the Northeast was the most prosperous and productive area of the Portuguese empire. The region was the world's leading sugar producing region for more than one hundred years. By the 1950s the Northeast was the most backward, underdeveloped, impoverished area in Brazil. Colonial legacies plagued the Northeast including an archaic land ownership system, one of the most inequitable income distribution patterns in the world, and a social system that excluded most of the population from political participation.


Brazilians know the Northeast as a region where droughts in the sertao cause enormous hardships for poor agriculturists. Two of the worst droughts occurred in 1877-79 and 1958. In the former about one-half of Ceara's one million population died of starvation. In 1958 about 540,000 impoverished Northeasterners were put on the public payroll to prevent famine. There was much out-migration to coastal cities and to the new capital, Brasilia, where construction projects offered employment. Brasilia could not have been completed rapidly without the work of the hardy candangos, destitute Northeasterners who went to the new capital to escape the drought. (13)

Brazilian government programs to alleviate suffering caused by the droughts provided some emergency welfare assistance to the poor and a boon to large landowners who benefited from the construction of reservoirs, roads and irrigation systems. President Juscelino Kubitschek took the first steps to provide long range solutions to Northeast problems.


In May 1958 President Kubitschek asked Celso Furtado, a widely respected economist of the National Bank for Economic Development (BNDE), to develop legislation and a program for the Northeast. Born in a small town in the Northeast sertao, Furtado had a doctorate in economics from the Sorbonne and did post graduate work at Cambridge. He had worked for several years as an economist with the United Nations Commission for Economic Development (ECLA) in Santiago, Chile. (14) The bill creating SUDENE (Superintendency for the Development of the Northeast) was signed into law in December 1959. President Janio Quadros gave Furtado cabinet rank, an appointment reconfirmed by President Joao Goulart following Quadros' resignation. Getting congressional approval of a new development agency proved much easier than obtaining finances for SUDENE's master plan.

The Northeast's congressmen and public officials opposed an autonomous agency directly subordinate to the president. Previous schemes to assist the Northeast had established agencies that could be influenced by the region's power brokers to use federal financial assistance for pet projects, profit, patronage and pork. Those opposed to the SUDENE program "engaged in character assassination of Furtado, whom they accused of a number of crimes, such as being an economic theorist and a Communist." SUDENE's enemies claimed the agency was infiltrated by communists who advocated communist-inspired development projects. (15) The law providing SUDENE funding was finally approved in December 1961.


In the Northeast in the middle of the twentieth century a few large landowners lived lavishly while millions of poor farmers barely survived as...

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