11.08.2016 - LETTER

The Brazilian people´s most loved and popular president was a gypsy

He was the creator of the new capital of the nation: Brasilia 


President Juscelino Kubitschek

We would like to take this opportunity, on the occasion of the Olympic Games, to share the knowledge that Brazil, that beautiful and cherished land of the Americas, has had a President of the Government who was a gypsy by birth, and who still occupies avery special place in the memory and heart of his fellow citizens. We are referring to Juscelino Kubitschek de Oliveira, who was born in Diamantina on the 12th of September 1902, and who died in a road accident in Resende on 22nd August 1976.

This information would be of no greater importance if it were not such an extraordinary occurrence that a member of a marginalised minority should achieve the highest level of power in his own country. We know that Obama is the President of the United States, as were Bush, a Republican, and Clinton, a Democrat , who preceded him. But Obama will go down in history, regardless of his greater or lesser success as his country’s leader, because he is black. The same is true of Juscelino Kubitschek, one of 800,000 Brazilian gypsies living in a country with a total of over 205 million inhabitants.

It is common for nationalities to proclaim that they count among their number figures who have been, or are, famous on account of their activity in different fields of  the arts, the sciences, or in public life. We like to boast that Charles Chaplin was a gypsy, as was Yul Brynner. Or that the exalted world of football includes such outstanding gypsy players as Sbrahimoviv, Quaresma (who starred in Portugal’s victory in the European Championships), Güiza, “Perla” Reyes or Hristo Stoichkov, to name just a few.  And in the world of science, our own August Steenberg Krogh, a Nobel Prizewinner for Physiology and Medicine, stands out.  . And there are others, including in the complex world of politics.

Therefore, today, on the occasion of the Olympic Games, we wish to highlight the great work carried out by the gypsy president of Brazil. What follows are some of the key features of his life and work.


A life of sacrifice, endeavour and poverty

Our president came from a very poor background. His father died when he was only two years old, and his mother, Julia Kubitschek, a gypsy with Czech roots, took charge of his education. At eight years old, Juscelino was selling grocieries in his neighbourhood to  contribute towards the upkeep of his mother and two sisters- Eufrosina, who died in childhood, and María da Conceicao. But his mother approached the Paulist Fathers, and he studied with them until the age of fifteen.

In December 1921, he attained his secondary education diploma, and the following year he entered the Federal University of Minas Gerais, graduating with a degree in medicine in 1927. The young Juscelino had no money, and used money lent to him by family and friends, as well as proceeds from the sale of family jewellery, to help finance his studies. His biographers tell how, in 1921, in order to support himself, he began to work as a telegraph operator, which made life very stressful for him. He was only nineteen, and yet he was studying all day. He worked until 8.00 a.m. at the telegraph office with little sleep or food. But even this was not enough, and he had to go into debt in order to complete his studies.

He then joined the medical corps of the Minas Gerais Army, at a time when the state was involved in armed conflict, and was soon awarded a golden scalpel in recognition of his service during the fighting. His biographers tell how, in a hospital set up in the carriages of a train, he operated on a bullet wound in the skull of a soldier, who survived with no further effects.


Political career

Side view of the Juscelino Kubitschek Bridge, Brasilia.

Juscelino, Parliamentary Representative

Juscelino Kubitschek, our gypsy president, quickly became extremely popular with the people of Brazil. He came across as a simple man, who had not denied his humble origins, and who gained a reputation for great efficiency in his professional life. It came as no surprise, therefore, that the Progressive Party nominated him as a parliamentary candidate in the 1934 elections. And he won, making Juscelino the first gypsy Representative in the Legislative Chamber of Brazil.


Juscelino, Mayor

In 1940 he was nominated as a candidate for the office of mayor in Belo Horizonte. He won the election, and proved himself to be an exceptionally successful mayor. During his term of office, he put forward a project to create the Pampulha artifical lake to supply water to the city, built the Museum of Belo Horizonte and the Institute of Fine Arts, and pioneered the creation of the Municipal Theatre. Under our gypsy mayor, many public works projects were brought to fruition. To improve the city’s health and sanitation, a drinking water supply was installed and the Municipal Hospital was built. A telephone system was installed, as was an underground system to supply electricity. And for the poorest people, indeed for all the lower classes, he had housing built, in addition to setting up organisations to provide assistance to workers, free health care and low-cost foodstuffs. During his time as mayor of Belo Horizonte, the substantial and rapid changes he introduced led the people of the city to give him the nickname prefeito furacão (hurricane mayor).

In 1950, he won further elections to become Governor of the region of Minas Gerais, which covers an area slightly larger than the whole of France.


Juscelino, Governor

Juscelino Kubitschek with his wife, Sarah Gomes de Lemos

On 31st January 1951, he took up the governorship of the state. In order to meet these demands Juscelino, now the gypsy governor, succeeded in increasing the available electrical power from 205,000 kW to 600,000 kW. At the same time he initiated the construction of 3,087 km of roads and 251 bridges. Our Governor can  take credit  for the creation of CEMIG (Minas Gerais Electricity Plants), which considerably increased the electricity supply and, in turn,   provided a boost for industry.

But Juscelino Kubitschek could not forget the difficult conditions of his early life, his hungry and impoverished childhood, and the efforts made by his widowed mother to provide him with an education. The result was an amazing achievement. When he began his term as Governor, there were 680,000 pupils attending primary school. At the end of his term of office, the figure stood at over 1,100,000. He had built over 140 schools, two of which were medical schools.


Juscelino, President of Brazil

Our much-admired hero had a turbulent beginning to his term as President. The elections were held on 3rdOctober 1955, and Juscelino Kubitschek was elected with 36% of the vote (3,077,411 votes). In second place was the military leader Juarez Távora (National Democratic Union) with 30%. However, as is often the case in countries without a well-established democratic system, the losers could not accept defeat. So the opposition party and a faction of the army conspired to bring down the Government. Luckily, the rest of the army came down in favour of the new president, removing any possibility of a coup d’état.

Juscelino won the election with the slogan: “50 years of progress in 5 years of rule”. And he achieved it. Immediately, hydro-electric plants and roads began to be built. Strong foreign investment was secured to set up industries for the production of cars, spare parts and electrical appliances, resulting in a rise in  employment opportunities. Consequently, wages increased, providing a considerable boost for the Brazilian middle class.
But the gypsy head-of-state’s crowning achievement was the creation of a new capital for Brazil. This was achieved on the 21st of April 1960, when the title of capital city was transferred from Rio de Janeiro to an inland city. A new city, soon to be called Brasilia.

Juscelino Kubitschek brought about  important social and cultural changes and, of course, encouraged the hosting of music festivals and promoted the worldwide popularity of the “bossa nova”. And, under the leadership of the gypsy President, Brazil won the football World Cup in 1958.


Juscelino Kubitschek with the presidential sash

Political stability and democracy

Juscelino’s government was defined by a period of political stability and a commitment to the rule of democracy. In spite of all this, the gypsy President of Brazil had to face two military uprisings during his period in office. The first, on 19th February 1956, was led by officers of the Brazilian Air Force, and the second occurred on 3rd December 1959. Both uprisings were quickly brought under control, and Juscelino Kubitschek, who was a generous upholder of democracy, granted an amnesty soon afterwards to the leaders of the attempted coups.


His final years as leader

The Brazilian Constitution sets a defined limit on the term of office that may be held by a President of the Government. Juscelino Kubitschek served a full term, and on the 31st of January 1961, a handover ceremony took place, during which he passed the presidential sash to his successor.

Juscelino Kubitschek died in a road accident but, still today, the exact circumstances of his death remain a mystery. The fatal accident occurred on 22ndAugust 1976. He was 74 years old. His car collided with a lorry transporting gypsum, and he died instantly.

Around 300,000 people attended his funeral in Brasilia, where the crowd sang the song with which he is associated, “Peixe Vivo” (Fish Alive). His remains were laid to rest at the JK memorial, built in 1981 in the federal capital of Brazil  which he  founded.


A group of soldiers present arms before the Gypsy President of Brazil

The “most beautiful bridge in the world” bears the name of the gypsy President of Brazil

In any case, it made a deep impression on me, seeing and crossing the Juscelino Kubitschek Bridge, which spans the Paranoa Lake in the Federal District of Brasilia, connecting the Plano Piloto (central area of Brasilia) with the Lago Sur residential zone. The Juscelino Kubitschek Bridge was opened on 15th December 2002, and quickly earned a place among Brasilia’s architectural icons. A few years ago my friend and colleague Jorge Bernal, an Argentinian gypsy, a great champion of our cause and a highly cultured man, speaking at the headquarters of the United Nations in Geneva in November 2004, claimed that “When Juscelino Kubitschek was president, he would invite gypsies to lunch or dinner at the presidential palace.”

Today we wish to proclaim, at the Rio de Janeiro Olympic Games, that the most beloved, most fondly remembered and most highly respected President of the Government of Brazil was a gypsy.


Juan de Dios Ramírez-Heredia

Lawyer and journalist

President of Union Romani, Spain



This English translation has been possible thanks to the PerMondo project: Free translation of website and documents for non-profit organisations. A project managed by Mondo Agit. Translator: Ann Southwick; Proofreader: Matt Hattam.