Obituary: General Ernesto Geisel

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General Ernesto Geisel was the military ruler who showed courage and common sense in putting Brazil back on the path to civilian rule during his term as President - from 1974 to 1979 - in a period of significant political and economic development in Latin America's largest country. He was the fourth in a line of five generals who ruled for 21 years from 1964 to 1985. Geisel had been a conspirator in the 1964 coup, backed by the United States, which overthrew President Joao Goulart at a time of increasing government instability and corruption.

Military rule brought a ban on political and trade-union activity. Urban guerrilla groups were eliminated, and many people were imprisoned and tortured. To his credit, President Geisel detected the need for change and began the slow, gradual process of returning his country to civilian rule, despite hard-line opposition from sections of the armed forces. He acted decisively in response to the notorious torture and killing of the journalist Vladimir Herzog, and a worker named Manuel Fiel Filho, sacking the Sao Paulo commander held responsible, and also, later, the army minister, General Sylvio Frota, for undermining his efforts to steer Brazil back to civilian rule.

It was not an easy road. Geisel kept firm control of power as pressure grew from politicians and once-dormant student and labour movements to strengthen the legislative and judicial branches of government. He briefly suspended Congress in 1977 and introduced measures aimed at weakening Congress and guaranteeing future electoral victories for the government- controlled Arena party.

Geisel presided over a burgeoning economy and manufacturing industry, boosted by a policy of encouraging an unprecedented degree of foreign investment while keeping state control over major industries. Brazil's cities expanded rapidly, and Sao Paulo became South America's biggest city.

Towards the end of Geisel's tenure, the so-called economic miracle was beginning to fade. Fast growth complicated Brazil's enormous problems, burdening it with the world's largest foreign debt. Geisel was able to do little to lessen the plight of homeless child workers and beggars, and the swelling ranks of the poor in drought-ridden states in the north- east or concentrated in vast city slum settlements called favelas. Rich mineral deposits and an expanding agricultural industry aggravated clashes with peasants and indigenous Indians driven out by gun-slingers brought in by developers. Geisel's presidency coincided with continuing destruction of vast areas of virgin rain forest in Amazonia, gouged out by roads and agricultural intrusion.

Brazil's failure to find home-produced oil, unlike nearly all its neighbours, was exacerbated by the 1973 world oil crisis, exposing its vulnerability and dependence on imported oil from the Middle East and Nigeria. In response it built up its agricultural and manufactured exports, especially of military equipment such as tracked armoured vehicles and aircraft, becoming one of the world's biggest arms exporters to Arab countries and elsewhere.

Lack of oil encouraged Brazil to develop alternative sources of energy, embarking upon a huge nuclear-energy industry and some of the world's biggest hydroelectric schemes on its massive river systems - the Amazon and the Parana. Geisel had built up considerable expertise as an oil refinery superintendent, a member of the Petroleum Council, and as head of Brazil's state-owned oil monopoly, Petrobras. He introduced the innovative "proaclool" programme to produce alcohol from cane sugar, to propel cars, making Brazil a world leader in this new technology and mass producer of the alcohol engine which drives more than a million of Brazilian-built cars. Brazil has since discovered offshore oil and Petrobas has become a world expert in deep-sea oil extraction.

Geisel was born in Bento Goncalves in the southern state of Rio Grande do Sul. He attended army staff colleges in Brazil and the United States and held a variety of military and industrial posts, including Secretary- General for National Security and Secretary of Public Works. As President, Geisel came on a state visit to the United Kingdom, in return for a highly successful state visit by the Queen to Brazil.

Ernesto Geisel, army officer, businessman and politician; born Bento Goncalves, Brazil 3 August 1907; President of Brazil 1974-79; married (one daughter); died Rio de Janeiro 10 September 1996.