(b. Bento Gonçalves, Rio Grande do Sul, 3 Aug. 1907; d. Rio de Janeiro, 12 Sept. 1996)
Brazilian; President of Brazil 1974–9 Ernesto Geisel, like Getúlio Vargas and Luís Carlos Prestes, was a gaúcho, born in Brazil's southernmost state of Rio Grande do Sul, the son of German Lutheran immigrants. Like many gáuchos, and many sons of families from the north-east, Geisel and his brothers saw the officer corps of the army as a source of education and a means of social advancement. His brother Orlando eventually became Minister of War, under the military president Garrastazú Médici (1969–74), who, like his predecessor, Artur Costa e Silva (1967–9) was also a gaúcho.
Ernesto Geisel's career was typical of many able officers in the Brazilian army, a mixture of military and civilian appointments. In the 1950s, he served on the staff of the National Security Council, but, from 1955 to 1956, was Superintendent of the President Bernardles oil refinery. In 1957, he represented the War Ministry on the National Petroleum Council, then headed the intelligence section of the Army General Staff. Later, he became President of Petrobras, Brazil's state-owned oil industry, the country's biggest company.
Geisel early joined the movement against President João Goulart, which culminated in the coup of 1964, but he belonged to the ‘Sorbonne’ group of officers, those associated with the ESG, Escola Superior de Guerra, who always wanted a return to civilian government. In this, he was associated with General Golbery do Couto e Silva, yet another gaúcho, the éminence grise of President Castello Branco and, in time, of Geisel himself, as President.
1974 was a political watershed, with election victories for the opposition. President Geisel spoke of a ‘slow, gradual and secure’ distensão, or political relaxation. Many commentators, then and since, gave insufficient weight to the qualifying adjective, ‘secure’, showing that he sought a political opening within the priorities of ‘national security’.
Geisel also wanted ‘relative democracy’, within a controlled process of redemocratization; but, he worked steadily for that process, even in his much criticized ‘April Package’ of 1977, which, while apparently reactionary, was designed to safeguard distensão against its right-wing opponents, especially in the intelligence services. Geisel tried ‘slowly’ and ‘securely’ to guide Brazil back to democracy, a process which sometimes eluded his control, but which, eventually, led to restored democratic government, in 1985.
Geisel's economic policies were criticized for pursuing massively expensive projects, which were accused of feeding inflation and pushing up Brazil's foreign debt, but he was, above all, pragmatic, in, for example, promoting the use of alcohol as a substitute for petrol after the 1973 oil crisis and allowing foreign companies access to oil exploration.
After leaving office, Geisel, as a prominent business leader, continued to influence both military and national politics. He was an austere figure, remote and authoritarian, but always pragmatic, not least in steering Brazil back towards more open forms of government.