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The New World’s Only Czech President

When we think of emigration from the Czech Lands to the New World, we usually bring to mind the Czechs and Germans who left their towns and villages in Bohemia, Moravia and Silesia to come to the United States.  However, other countries in the Western Hemisphere also opened their arms to immigrants from the Czech Lands.  Among them was Portuguese-speaking Brazil.  In fact, Brazil even had a Czech president, and he was one of the country’s greatest political leaders.

Juscelino Kubitschek de Oliveira, or JK as he is known among Brazilians, was born in Diamantina, in the state of Minas Gerais, on September 12, 1902.  Interestingly enough, it was his mother’s name that Kubitschek chose to use.  She was a school teacher who had a great influence on his life.

By profession Juscelino Kubitschek was a doctor.  He earned his medical degree at the University of Minas Gerais in 1927, and continued his medical training in Vienna, Berlin and Paris.  Politically Kubitschek was a progressive and a democrat.  He worked for Brazil’s economic progress and not infrequently came head to head with the country’s military regime.

In 1934 Kubitschek was elected to the Brazilian Chamber of Deputies.  Unfortunately he was not able to serve out his term.  In 1937 President Getulio Vargas, who had come to power some years earlier in a military coup, dissolved the legislature and set up a dictatorship.

Kubitschek was appointed mayor of Belo Horizonte, the capital of his native state, in 1940.  In 1945 he helped found the Social Democratic Party and once more was elected to the Chamber of Deputies.

In 1950 Juscelino Kubitschek was elected governor of Minas Gerais.  As governor he was very successful in promoting the state’s economic development.  This brought him national fame and the support of his party in his bid for president.

In his presidential election campaign Kubitschek called for a higher standard of living through rapid economic development.  “Fifty years of Progress in Five” was both his campaign slogan and the engine that ran his presidency.  Kubitschek also proposed to move the national capital from Rio de Janeiro inland.  This was an old dream, but it was Juscelino Kubitschek who brought it to fruition.

Kubitschek was elected President of Brazil with a plurality of thirty-six percent.  He was almost prevented from taking office by a military coup, but a cleverly orchestrated counter-coup stymied the military.  Kubitschek took office and managed to give his country five years (1951-1956) of economic development and political stability.

Under President Kubitschek’s leadership Brazil enjoyed the most democratic period it had ever experienced.  Brazilian culture flourished.  Writers, composers and artists thrived in the relaxed political climate.

Perhaps Kubitschek’s greatest contribution to Brazilian history was moving the capital from Rio de Janeiro to Brasilia.  In this way he helped turn his country’s face from the Atlantic coast to its vast interior.  In this way he stimulated the settlement of previously empty expanses of land.  In this way the Czech president of Brazil changed the course of South American history.

Juscelino Kubitschek also came up with the idea of Operation Pan America.  This program was to be a means for Latin American nations to cooperate to promote their mutual economic development.  In fact, Kubitschek’s proposal came to be realized as John Kennedy’s Alliance for Progress.

Unfortunately there was a price for all of this progress, for all of this economic development.  Deficit spending and borrowing abroad put the country tremendously in debt.

In 1964 the military regime that had come to power suspended the political rights of a number of Brazil’s leading politicians.  Juscelino Kubitschek was among them.  He spent the next few years in voluntary exile in the United States and in Europe.  He eventually returned to Brazil, but in August 22, 1976, he was tragically killed in an automobile accident.

Brazilians sometimes see Juscelino Kubitschek (JK) as their John Kennedy (JFK).  But Kubitschek also can be compared to another great twentieth-century leader, Tomas Masaryk.  Both men served as presidents of their countries.  Both men were liberals, who gave their nations what was up to then the most democratic period in their history.  Both men changed the course of their countries’ history. Masaryk worked for independence of his people and the establishment of a joint Czech and Slovak state.  Kubitschek turned Brazil’s face from the Atlantic coast to the jungled interior.  Both men were Western oriented, Kubitschek with his call for Operation Pan America and Masaryk with his close ties to France, England and the United States.  Both men were university-trained intellectuals.  One was a medical doctor and the other a professor of philosophy.  And both men had unusual stories about their names.  Kubitschek used his Czech mother’s last name throughout his career.  Masaryk adopted his wife’s last name as his middle name, thus Tomas Garrigue Masaryk.

Like his countryman and presidential predecessor in the Old Country, Juscelino Kubitschek de Oliveira personified the historic traditions of his Czech heritage, albeit in the context of his own native country.

– Robert Janak

“The New World’s Only Czech President,” printed in the series Czech Connections, Cesky Hlas (Newsletter of the Czech Heritage Society of Texas), May 1999, pages 10-11.

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