Getúlio Vargas served as president of Brazil for almost 20 years. Between 1930 and 1945 he filled the role of provisional president, elected leader, and dictator. Between 1951 and 1954 he held the presidential office by means of a democratic election. During his tenure he worked to modernize Brazil, advancing social reform programs, extended suffrage, and organized labor.
However, Vargas's government also gained a reputation as a repressive state as he disbanded congress, cancelled elections, gained state control over newspapers and labor unions, and even overthrew his own government to install himself as dictator.
Vargas was born in 1883 in rural Rio Grande do Sul to a wealthy cattle ranching family. As a young man he served briefly in the army before entering law school, where he distinguished himself as a student politician. He entered politics in 1909 and was elected to the state legislature.
By 1922 he was a state representative in the Brazilian congress in Rio de Janeiro. By 1926 he found himself appointed finance minister of Brazil, and just two years later he became state governor of Rio Grande do Sul. Vargas became president of Brazil in 1930 as a result of a revolution that ousted President Washington Luís Pereira de Sousa in hopes of a new government devoted to national progress and social reform.
Vargas took office just one month after the revolution began. He set about a program of national reconstruction based upon a centralized government. He dissolved the national congress and state and city legislatures and suspended the federalist constitution of 1891. He replaced state governors with his own officials, called interventores, who reported directly to him.
The centralized power of the Vargas government did not go unchallenged. In 1932 a constitutionalist revolt erupted in the coffee growing state of São Paulo. The rebellion ended after three months as São Paulo found itself isolated in its attempts to overthrow Vargas.
Despite a new constitution, the Vargas administration steadily moved toward authoritarianism. As the presidential elections of 1938 grew closer, Vargas was not ready to give up power. He consequently overthrew his own government on November 10, 1937, initiating the Estado Novo, or New State, dictatorship.
This new period of Vargas's tenure as leader of Brazil did not translate into radical change, but rather denoted a culmination of the centralizing tendencies Vargas had demonstrated since 1930. The Estado Novo was a repressive dictatorship, and politicians, intellectuals, and leftists who challenged Vargas's power were harassed, detained, tortured, and exiled.
Vargas centralized not only the government but also education, labor, and the Brazilian economy. He felt that national progress could only be accomplished through the industrial modernization of Brazil. To achieve this goal, his administration implemented new education programs aimed at reforming secondary education and establishing vocational schools to train an industrial workforce.
Vargas launched new labor policies that consolidated unions under state control, allowing only one union per category of workers. Vargas instituted minimum wage laws, pension plans, safety regulations, maternity leave, childcare, paid vacations, training programs, and job security. Vargas's labor initiatives resulted in enormous popular support for his presidency.
During World War II Vargas linked his country to the Allies, allowing Brazil to profit from exports to the United States. Vargas also suspended the country's payments on foreign debts in order to carry out public investments.
With the defeat of authoritarian governments in Europe after World War II, growing pressure against the Vargas dictatorship emerged among citizens ranging from high-ranking army generals to student protesters. Vargas eventually bent to this pressure, and elections were held on May 6, 1946. He did not run as a candidate.
But Vargas would once again be president of Brazil, elected democratically in 1950 due to his broad base of popular support. However, inflation, labor strikes, dissent in the military, and other problems made it difficult for Vargas to fulfill his campaign promises, especially in regard to labor programs.
As political opposition grew and the threat of a military overthrow loomed, Vargas committed suicide in the presidential palace on August 24, 1954, by shooting himself in the heart. In a suicide letter left to the Brazilian people, he identified himself as a servant of the masses and lashed out at those who drove him to despair.