Welcome to the new Independent website. We hope you enjoy it and we value your feedback. Please contact us here.


Leonel Brizola

Brazil's 'champion of the poorest of the poor' who was twice Governor of Rio de Janeiro

Leonel Brizola spent a political career spanning more than half a century trying to push Brazilian politics towards the left. The effort brought him some success, but cost him 15 years in exile, and he never achieved his ultimate ambition.

Leonel de Moura Brizola, politician: born Carazinho, Brazil 22 January 1922; Governor, Rio Grande do Sul 1958-61; Governor, Rio de Janeiro 1982-86, 1990-94; married 1961 Neuza Goulart (died 1993; three sons); died Rio de Janeiro 21 June 2004.

Leonel Brizola spent a political career spanning more than half a century trying to push Brazilian politics towards the left. The effort brought him some success, but cost him 15 years in exile, and he never achieved his ultimate ambition.

When a left-winger finally made it to the presidential palace, in 2002, it was not Brizola, but a younger man, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, a former trade unionist and leader of the Workers' Party (PT), whose running-mate Brizola had been in 1998. Brizola stood twice for the top job himself, and he had announced, just a few weeks before his death, that he intended to have another go in 2006 - by which time he would have been 84.

Brizola was a gaúcho, a native of the state of Rio Grande do Sul, in the far south of Brazil. He came from a poor family, but managed to secure a place to study engineering at the state university in Porto Alegre, where he graduated in 1949. By that time he had already been elected state deputy for the newly founded Brazilian Labour Party (PTB), made up of the left-wing followers of the former dictator Getúlio Vargas.

Brizola proclaimed himself the champion of the poorest of the poor, and his career prospered. In 1955 he was elected mayor of Porto Alegre, and three years later he was governor of his home state. He made his reputation as a fierce nationalist by cancelling contracts with multinational electricity and telephone companies, and his fame spread far beyond Rio Grande do Sul. In 1960 he was elected federal deputy for Rio, with a record majority.

When the PTB's João Goulart (Brizola's brother-in-law) unexpectedly became President in 1961, following the sudden resignation of Jânio Quadros, Brizola became his government's left-wing conscience, through a pressure group known as the Popular Mobilisation Front. He made many enemies, and was forced to go into exile in Uruguay when Goulart was overthrown by the military three years later. Brizola was briefly involved in Cuban-backed guerrilla insurgencies in Brazil, but the death of Che Guevara in Bolivia in 1967 put paid to those adventures.

Brizola then underwent something of a political transformation. He spent some time in the US and Europe, where he made contact with leading figures in the Socialist International, including Mário Soares and Olof Palme, and became a believer in moderate nationalism, multi-party democracy and a mixed economy. He did not return to Brazil until 1979, by which time the generals were experimenting with a political "opening" that involved an amnesty, limited party activity and elections.

Brizola tried unsuccessfully to resurrect the old PTB, but finally founded a new organisation, the Democratic Labour Party (PDT), for which he was elected Governor of Rio de Janeiro in 1982. He was at the height of his powers during the final years of the military regime, a figure of remarkable charisma and rhetorical gifts. Brizola liked to say at this time, "Just give me a microphone and I'll get the better of anybody." He had managed to turn the PDT into an effective political machine by sheer force of personality.

The main feature of Brizola's first term as Governor of Rio were the hundreds of primary schools that he and his deputy, Darcy Ribeiro, built throughout the state. In the city of Rio, his most striking monument was the Sambódromo, which became the focal point of the spectacular annual carnival. This period marked the high point of Brizola's political career. He subsequently stood twice for President, in 1989 and 1994, but without much success. In 1989 he finished behind Lula, who went on to lose the run-off to a right-wing populist, Fernando Collor de Melo.

In 1990, Brizola won a second term as Governor of Rio, but by that time his popularity was waning, and he was widely criticised for failing to get a grip on the rise in organised crime in the state. His second attempt at the presidency, in 1994, was not a success, and he finished fourth in elections won by the internationally renowned sociologist Fernando Henrique Cardoso. In 1998, he was vice-presidential candidate on Lula's ticket, but Cardoso was again the winner.

Brizola's political decline was confirmed in 2000, when he finished fourth in the Rio gubernatorial elections. But he never gave up.

Colin Harding