Juscelino Kubitschek de Oliveira (September 12, 1902 – August 22, 1976) was a Brazilian doctor and politician. He was President of Brazil from 1956 to 1961. The most famous achievement of his administration was the planning and construction of the modern Brazilian capital, Brasilia. The country prospered during his time in office and today he is considered one of modern Brazil’s better Presidents by most Brazilians.
Kubitschek was born in the Brazilian state of Minas Gerais into a modest middle-class family: his father was a traveling salesman who died of tuberculosis while Kubitschek was very young. His mother, a teacher of Czech Gypsy descent, taught him to read. His great-uncle Joao Nepomuceno Kubitschek was a senator from Minas Gerais in the 1890’s. An intelligent, hardworking young man, he diligently trained as a telegraph operator, which helped pay his way through medical school. He earned his medical degree in 1927. Kubitschek easily found work as a doctor in Belo Horizonte, establishing a partnership in a private medical office. In 1930 he began to become active politically: he supported Getúlio Vargas in the 1930 election. After Vargas lost, Kubitschek went to Europe. He became a specialist in urology in France but also visited other countries including Germany and Austria.
Entry into Politics:
When he returned to Brazil, he found that Vargas had seized power. In 1931 he began working at the military hospital. As head of the urology department, he was also awarded the rank of Captain-Physician. In 1931, Kubitschek married Sara Gomes de Lemos. Sara's family included her father, a congressman from 1912 to 1922 and two cousins who would hold high posts in Kubitschek's administration. A small civil war broke out in Brazil in 1932, as the oligarchy of São Paulo
fought to defend its power against the Vargas administration. As a military doctor, Kubitschek marched with the troops and aided the injured. Vargas came out on top and appointed loyalists to positions in Minas Gerais. Kubitschek was eventually nominated to run for congress as the candidate for the Progressive Party of Minas Gerais. He won in 1934 and abandoned medicine for politics.
Early Political Career:
Kubitschek left politics for a while when Vargas became dictator, returning to medicine in the Military Hospital, where he was promoted to Head of Surgery and given the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. He was a dedicated worker and soon became wealthy. In 1945 he was once again elected to Congress, and was given a seat on the Transportation and Communication Commission. In 1949 he was elected Governor of Minas Gerais. His administration was marked by co-operation with President Vargas and the construction of thousands of kilometers of new roads. He also oversaw the construction of new airports. Subsidies to farmers gave agriculture a huge boost. During his tenure, Minas Gerais added hundreds of new schools and clinics and new colleges including two medical schools, a pharmacy school and a fine arts academy.
Ascent to the Presidency:
Vargas committed suicide in office in 1954, leaving a huge power vacuum in Brazil. Kubitschek was one of several candidates for President in the elections the following year. The 1955 elections were among the most chaotic and bitterly contested in the history of Brazil, but when the dust settled, Kubitschek and Vice-President João Goulart (who would become President himself from 1961 to 1964) had won by a convincing margin. He was sworn in on January 31, 1956 and immediately took steps to calm the political turbulence his country had suffered since Vargas’ death.
For years, there had been talk of building a new national capital somewhere near the center of the nation: Kubitschek finally made it happen. Not long into his administration, he announced plans to build Brasilia
. Urban planner Lucio Costa and Architect Oscar Niemeyer were charged with designing and building the city and the new government buildings. He gave them four years to complete it, and in fact, Kubitschek himself officially inaugurated the city on April 21, 1960. Brasilia is a marvel of engineering and city planning and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The Economy Booms:
Kubitschek was an able president. He dedicated his energy and resources of the development of industry in the country, opening car and airplane plants, improving the infrastructure, creating energy sources, encouraging improved agriculture and many other projects. He sought and received help from international banks, other nations (including the USA) and corporate investments. His economic policies kept inflation in check. Coffee was selling well, helping the economy even further. His borrowing was excessive, however, and he left much debt for his successors.
Problems with the USA:
Kubitschek had an often tense relationship with Washington. In 1957, the Brazilian government began considering renewing broken relations with the Soviet Union, mostly for the purpose of opening a new, lucrative coffee market. The USA did not approve, and threatened economic punishments. Later, Brazil welcomed Fidel Castro
on a state visit, further straining relations with the USA. Brazil briefly broke relations with the International Monetary Fund
over a disagreement over financing policies. Eventually, American President Dwight Eisenhower
himself came to Brazil to help patch things up, a sure sign of Brazil's growing importance and influence.
Later Political Life:
After his presidency, Kubitschek was elected Senator from Goiás. He remained a popular figure and tireless worker, and was involved in the chaotic politics that followed his term in office. His successor, Jânio Quadros, resigned in 1961 after only a few months in office, and was succeeded by Vice-President João Goulart (who had also been Kubitschek’s vice-president). Quadros and Goulart had been friendly with communist nations like China and Cuba, and Goulart was removed by the military in 1964, beginning an era of military dictatorship. Kubitschek found himself blacklisted and left the country. Kubitschek returned from exile in 1967 and abandoned politics. The military government would rule in Brazil until 1985.
Death and Legacy of Juscelino Kubitschek:
By the early 1970's, Kubitschek was living a quiet life, having retired from his position as director of a development bank. On August 22, 1976, he died in a car accident. In spite of the fact that the military government had forbidden any sort of public manifestations, thousands took to the streets to remember Kubitschek. In Brasilia, an estimated 100,000 people went to the airport to receive his body when it was flown there for burial. President Ernesto Geisel declared three days of mourning. In 1980, a memorial was built for him in Brasilia and his remains were moved there. There is a museum and library at the memorial.
Kubitschek is today remembered by Brazilians as one of their better presidents. He helped set Brazil on the path to modernity, encouraging important industries and supporting education, agriculture and other basic national needs. Although some of his political enemies accused him of corruption, there was in fact never much evidence to support these claims.
Many things in Brazil are named after him, including a bridge, an airport and countless schools, streets, etc.
Sabsay, Fernando. Protagonistas de América Latina, Vol. 2. Buenos Aires: Editorial El Ateneo, 2006.