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A política é a arte de engolir sapos”
[Politics is the art of swallowing frogs]
On 5 November 1894, in the former town of Vila Bela in the Pernambuco hinterland, today Serra Talhada, Agamenon Sérgio de Godoy Magalhães was born. He came from a family of ten children – four boys and six girls. He was the son of Antônia de Godoy Magalhães and Sérgio Nunes de Magalhães, a judge in the County of Jatobá de Tacaratu, the future city of Petrolândia.
After the proclamation of the Abolition of Slavery, but still under the impact of the Industrial Revolution, this was the time of the great urban and rural oligarchies, the culture of law degrees, when Brazil resembled a large fiefdom where power was concentrated in the hands of a rather privileged trinity: the judge, the rural colonel and the priest.
Such power, it must be noted, was responsible for an injustice committed against the Magalhães family. Dr Sérgio had signed an application for habeas corpus in favour of Delmiro Gouveia, an industrialist who advocated the industrialisation of the Northeast and had clashed with local oligarchies. Governor Sigismundo Gonçalves, upset by the request, placed the judge on leave and cut his salary by two-thirds.
Because of this, the family moved to Recife. Agamenon was 11 years old at the time. As a teen, he would study at the Olinda Seminary, trying to follow an ecclesiastical career, although he could not remain there for more than two years. He entered the Pernambuco Gymnasium (situated on the edge of the Capibaribe River in Rua da Aurora), and then the Recife Faculty of Law, being granted a Bachelor’s in Legal and Social Sciences in 1916.
After his graduation in Law, he was appointed public prosecutor in the county of São Lourenço da Mata. Agamenon joined the Democratic Republican Party (PRD) and was elected state representative in 1918. At 29 years old (in 1922), the young bachelor passed a public contest for the chair of Geography and Chorography at the Colégio Estadual, presenting the thesis O Nordeste brasileiro (o habitat e a gens) [The Brazilian Northeast (habitat and gens)]. So in addition to being a lawyer, he became a Geography Professor, imposing a more human aspect on the course and also overhauling it.
At the beginning of the 20th century, the Brazilian government built the railroads and the Great Western company, the largest symbol of foreign capital throughout the Northeast, was in charge of operating the transportation of cargo and passengers. At that time, no one dared to question the sovereignty of this English trust.
In 1928, however, representative Agamenon Magalhães denounced the increase in tariffs for the states of Pernambuco, Rio Grande do Norte, Paraíba and Alagoas as extortionate, defending the right of Recife consumers. This increase in the price of transport, which the Brazilian Government had approved, contributed to raising the prices of some fundamental products in the population household groceries: cod, beef jerky, beans and flour.
Agamenon enrolled in another public contest, this time in International Law, did the exams and qualified, becoming professor at the same place he had been a student: the Recife Faculty of Law. With a career on the rise, he married on 16 June 1929 and had three children.
On 3 November 1930, Getúlio Vargas took power, replacing a military junta formed by Generals Mena Barreto and Tasso Fragoso, as well as Admiral Isaías Noronha. Defending the parliamentary system, Agamenon participated in the 1933 Constitution. When the Constitution of 1934 was promulgated, Vargas invited him to take over as Minister of Labour.
It should be noted that at that time, the political situation was quite tumultuous, and rural oligarchies steered the country’s direction with an iron fist.
Contrary to one of the ideologies of the time – that social issues were under the police’s jurisdiction – Agamenon defended social rights and improving the living conditions of the working class. Within the Ministry of Labour, he worked towards the creation of a Labour Court, and that this would be responsible for the labour demands of the population.
He defended a thesis and was awarded a chair in Constitutional Law at the Recife Faculty of Law in 1934. While he may not have been the Chair Professor, because of the burdens of his role as Minister of Labour, this was one of the titles that Agamenon was proud to have received.
In 1937, in the name of national security, Getúlio Vargas decreed the ‘Estado Novo’ [New State]: he dissolved the National Congress, state and local legislatures, suspended elections and political parties, and established a six-year mandate for the Presidency.
In Pernambuco, Governor Carlos de Lima Cavalcanti was deposed, and a state of emergency was declared. Getúlio appointed Agamenon Magalhães as the State’s Federal Intervenor.
From then on, the politician began a series of systematic actions to dismantle the administrative structures inherited from the previous governor, as he had consolidated local leadership and imposed himself on the national scene. On the other hand, he became an exponent of and the main indoctrinator of the New State in Pernambuco. In his government, which lasted eight years, he built thousands of homes for the poor, created the anti-slum movement, founded working centres, schools, a publishing cooperative and established educational seminars.
On one occasion, Agamenon asked the mayor of Olinda, elected by ballot in 1934, to resign his office so that he could appoint a replacement. The mayor, despite being little satisfied with the request, conceded to the intervenor’s request. Out of curiosity, it is worth asking: who was the deposed mayor? He was, no less, Luís Sérgio Magalhães, the brother of Agamenon himself!
In the 1930s, cangaço [banditry] – a scourge that led many families to leave their home towns – was vehemently opposed by Agamenon. According to him, farmers who welcomed and took care of the bandits – the so-called “coiteiros” – were as much or even more criminal than Lampião, Antônio Silvino and their gangs.
When he became Governor of Pernambuco, Agamenon created the League Against Slums. Thus, he fought strongly for urbanisation and basic sanitation, building public housing made of brick, strengthening education, health and small-scale agriculture. This League becomes a government agency in 1945: The Social Service Against Slums.
Wanting to soften the regime to save the Estado Novo, Vargas gave an amnesty to political prisoners in 1945, and invited Agamenon to take over the Ministry of Justice. He drew up electoral and party legislation, and enacted anti-trust decree no. 7.666, nicknamed the “Malaysian Law”, which was signed by Getúlio. This law served to repress the abuse of economic power on the part of trusts, functioning as a block to major international monopolies.
The Electoral Code, also called the “Agamenon Law”, opened the way for the Supreme Electoral Court to grant the registration or abolishment of political parties through constitutional principles. In this way, it was possible for the registration of any party that threatened the democratic order to be denied.
Based on these assumptions, in 1947, the Brazilian Communist Party – led by Luis Carlos Prestes – had its registration revoked. The principle of proportional representation for parliamentary houses also came from the Electoral Code proposed by Agamenon Magalhães.
Against the New State, however, there was conspiracy everywhere. Students, intellectuals and community leaders protested against Getúlio Vargas in favour of the candidacy of Brigadier Eduardo Gomes for president. There was a demonstration supporting this at Independence Square on 3 March 1945.
Many agents for the regime, however, infiltrated the crowd. And while journalist Aníbal Fernandes was speaking on the balcony of the Diário de Pernambuco, some shots were heard: law student Demócrito de Souza Filho, who was close to the speaker, was hit by gunfire and died. Coal merchant Manoel Elias, who was in the middle of the large group, also lost his life. This bloody episode became a symbol against the regime and the repressive forces of the new state, and one in support of an urgent democratisation.
At this point, the new state was stagnant and everyone wanted the return of the rule of law and legality. Thus, the political elites began the transition to a more democratic regime.
In 1946, back to the polls, the population elected Agamenon as a federal representative. To serve his mandate, the former minister moved with his family to the Copacabana district of Rio de Janeiro. When the Constituent Assembly was transformed into the House of Representatives, he was elected chairman of the Constitution, Law and Justice Commission.
During the preparation of the 1946 Constitution, Agamenon’s work was highly influential regarding the economic order, the guarantee of civil liberties and the organisation of labour and the protection of workers and families. In terms of the political scenario of the time, some even believed he would succeed Getúlio Vargas in the presidency.
Paradoxically or not, in coalition with the national PTB, Vargas decided to give his support to the candidacy of João Cleofas for Governor of Pernambuco in 1950, to the detriment of Agamenon. At a rally held in 13 de Maio Park, Vargas asked for votes for Cleofas.
In this dispute, however, Agamenon emerged victorious. Polls throughout the state gave the following results: Agamenon (PSD) – 196,880 votes and João Cleofas (UDN) – 186,757 votes. To the wish of Pernambuco, the politician came back to reside once again in the Palace of the Princesses. This time he returned constitutionally to the same position he had served while intervenor for eight years.
At this time, the former governor resided at house number 141 in Rua da Amizade [Friendship St], next to Entroncamento Square. And his political enemies began to call this street “Hate Street”.
Agamenon was stocky and had slightly oriental features (some even called him “Fat China”), only he was dark-skinned, like a legitimate mestizo. He was also a strong-willed man and possessed great inner strength. “I'm going to reach 80,” he said.
However, on the morning of 24 August 1952, aged 58, a massive heart attack claimed the life of Agamenon. He had spent the night before at Guararapes Airport to greet Darci Vargas, wife of Getúlio, and her daughter Alzira, who had made a stopover in Recife on their way to Europe.
Agamenon’s death had a great impact on Recife: no one could believe that a simple heart had brought him down. The city streets witnessed the largest funeral procession of all time when his body was taken to Santo Amaro Cemetery.
Many politicians and important personalities delivered speeches in his farewell: Andrade Lima Filho, Nilo Pereira, Mário Melo, Carlos Rios, Olívio Montenegro, Orlando Parahim, Gomes Maranhão, among others.
Teacher, administrator and politician Agamenon Magalhães, who was not afraid of either war or ghosts, always used to say:
“O homem é mortal, eis tudo. Eis o limite do seu poder.”
[“Man is mortal, that's all. This is the limit of his power.”]
Recife, 14 November 2003.
(Updated on 29 August 2007)
Translated by Peter Leamy, July 2016.
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Source: VAINSENCHER, Semira Adler. Agamenon Magalhães. Pesquisa Escolar Online, Fundação Joaquim Nabuco, Recife. Disponível em: <http://basilio.fundaj.gov.br/pesquisaescolar>. Acesso em: dia mês ano. Ex: 6 ago. 2009.