Although he was no democrat himself, and hated politicians, Figueiredo was shrewd enough to realise that, after more than 20 years of uninterrupted military government, Brazil needed to move towards institutional stability. So this notoriously short-tempered and imperious man made it his business to speed up the gradual political "opening" initiated by his predecessor, General Ernesto Geisel. The process culminated in presidential elections in 1985, when a civilian once again occupied the Planalto palace in Brasilia. Figueiredo's main contribution was an amnesty that allowed hundreds of exiled opposition leaders to return from abroad and resume their political activities.
Like Geisel, Figueiredo had made his career in military intelligence. He had enjoyed a brilliant career. He was head of the national security service, SNI, in Rio during the early years of military rule, under Marshal Humberto Castello Branco, and later became the senior military aide to President Emilio Garrastazu Medici. He was appointed chief of the SNI by President Geisel in 1974, and remained there until he succeeded him as President of the Republic in 1979, chosen by a hand-picked electoral college. In his inaugural speech Figueiredo promised to make Brazil a democracy once again.
He was as good as his word, though he did not always appear to be in control of events, or to relish very much the reality of democratic politics. The vigorous man of action selected by Geisel to complete his work changed dramatically after he suffered a severe heart attack in 1981 and underwent bypass surgery two years later. He began to lose his grip, and his strategy of ensuring that pro-government politicians always won carefully controlled elections came apart. In 1982, opposition figures won several state governorships in the first direct elections, and a national campaign for direct presidential elections became unstoppable.
The economy, which had grown rapidly during his military predecessors' terms, also began to unravel, with spiralling inflation (223 per cent by the end of 1984) and a permanent balance of payments crisis.
Figueiredo tried his hand at becoming a man of the people, going on walkabouts and urging people to call him Joao, but things invariably went wrong. On one occasion, he had to be physically restrained from attacking students demonstrating against him during a visit to the town of Florianopolis. He confided, in an unguarded moment, that he preferred the smell of horses to that of "the people".
His jaundiced view of politicians was confirmed by the behaviour of the man who succeeded him in 1985: Jose Sarney had been a leading member of the pro-government party, but had gone over to the opposition in 1984. Figueiredo was so incensed by this opportunism that he refused to hand the presidential sash to Sarney during his inauguration ceremony.
When he finally stepped down in 1985, Figueiredo said that the best thing Brazilians could do was to forget about him. They did so, and he died an isolated and embittered figure, short of money (the last of his beloved horses was sold in 1993) and his eyesight failing, in his seafront apartment in the elegant Rio suburb of Sao Conrado.
Joao Baptista Figueiredo, soldier and politician: born Rio de Janeiro 15 January 1918; President of Brazil 1979-85; married 1942 Dulce Maria Guimaraes de Castro (two sons); died Rio de Janeiro 24 December 1999.