Brazilian Capital Celebrates 50 Years

By Dialogo
April 20, 2010

Affonso Heliodoro witnessed Brasília being born in the mind of friend and former President Juscelino Kubitschek (JK) in 1952 and materialize in the heart of Brazil starting in 1957. The life of Heliodoro, born in Diamantina, Minas Gerais, in the southeast region, is intertwined with the capital’s history. At age 94, with three children, 10 grandchildren and six great-grandchildren — all living in Minas Gerais — Heliodoro considers himself the only living Brasílian pioneer who had such a close relationship with JK. “I was the first and last person he saw,” says Heliodoro. “I turned off the light in his room and the next day woke him up. I spent more time with Márcia and Maristela (JK and his wife Sarah’s daughters) than with my own children.” In Diamantina, Heliodoro had been taught by Julia, JK’s mother. In 1933, he became an inseparable friend of the former president. The friendship led to his becoming the leader of the military bureau of Minas Gerais from1951 to 1955 and deputy leader of the civil cabinet of the presidency of the republic from 1956 to 1961, when Brazil was under JK’s command. The inauguration of Brasília, in 1960, brought life to an old dream of JK. “He was already thinking about it in 1952,” Heliodoro says. Heliodoro says during a five-day trip through the interior of Goiás in 1952 that JK’s plan began to take shape while “visiting farms and looking at palm and banana trees.” “Those trips to political meetings were never longer than two days, but that particular one took longer, so his desire to create a pole to induce development in the mid-west, away from the Rio–São Paulo axis, became clear,” he says. Heliodoro also remembers precisely when the goal of the visionary JK – then a presidential candidate – was announced: April 4, 1955, in Jataí, Goiás. JK was asked after one of his rallies by insurance vendor Antônio Soares Neto if he would fulfill the 1946 Constitution, which stipulated changing the capital to the country’s geographical center. JK’s reply? “Yes, I can’t ignore this constitutional mandate.” In February 1957, urban planner Lúcio Costa and architect Oscar Niemeyer began building the capital, with an expected opening date of April 21, 1960. The date was chosen in honor of the Minas conspiracy – the movement lead by Minas Gerais – in the fight for the independence of Brazil, then a Portuguese colony. On April 21, 1792, the leader of the movement, Joaquim José da Silva Xavier, known as Tiradentes (“toothpuller”), was hanged. “It was incredible,” Heliodoro says. “Nowadays it takes two, three years to build a building. And that is with skilled labor and material available. At that time, there was neither skilled labor nor material here. Everything had to come from Rio and São Paulo by air, as there was no highway. But the city was ready in three years. Juscelino did not sleep, and neither did the workers.” As the ambitious JK dreamed, today the federal capital is considered a World Heritage site by United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), thanks to its innovative and imaginative style. Brasília has emerged as the third largest consumer market in the country, has the largest per-capita gross domestic product (GDP) of the Brazilian metropolitan areas, and is fourth nationally in hosting international events, according to the department of culture of the federal district. After JK’s death in 1976, Heliodoro moved to Rio de Janeiro but returned to Brasília in 1979, when he took command of the Brazilian news agency until 1981. From 1981 to 1997, Heliodoro was director of the JK Memorial, and the former president’s widow, Sarah Kubitschek, was its president. Thirteen years ago, Heliodoro held the presidency of the institute of history and geography of the federal district when the JK memorial was inaugurated. “My life is all about preserving the memory of JK,” says Heliodoro, who has authored seven books about the former president. “Everything I write is to tell about the life of this genius, in whose path fate placed me.” The celebration of Brasília’s 50th anniversary, which has been in the planning stages for more than a year, has been overshadowed by allegations of corruption involving former governor José Roberto Arruda and several other local politicians this past December. The initial program, full of international attractions and costing more than R$24 million (US$13.71 million), was revised. Budgeted at R$8 million (US$4.57 million), the party will just have local and national attractions on stage. For Heliodoro, however, the party seems to be missing an integral element: JK. “Strangely, the festivities have forgotten him.”