José Sarney

His Excellency
José Sarney
31st President of Brazil
In office
15 March 1985  15 March 1990[lower-alpha 1]
Vice President None
Preceded by João Figueiredo
Succeeded by Fernando Collor de Mello
20th Vice President of Brazil
In office
15 March 1985  21 April 1985
President Tancredo Neves
Preceded by Aureliano Chaves
Succeeded by Itamar Franco
President of the Federal Senate
In office
2 February 2009  1 February 2013
Preceded by Garibaldi Alves Filho
Succeeded by Renan Calheiros
In office
1 February 2003  14 February 2005
Preceded by Ramez Tebet
Succeeded by Renan Calheiros
In office
2 February 1995  4 February 1997
Preceded by Humberto Lucena
Succeeded by Antônio Carlos Magalhães
Senator for Amapá
In office
1 February 1991  1 February 2015
Preceded by Position established
Succeeded by Davi Alcomlumbre
Senator for Maranhão
In office
1 February 1971  15 March 1985
Preceded by Vitorino de Brito Freire
Succeeded by Américo de Souza
Governor of Maranhão
In office
31 January 1966  14 May 1970
Lieutenant Antônio Jorge Dino
Preceded by Newton de Barros Belo
Succeeded by Antônio Jorge Dino
Member of the Chamber of Deputies
In office
1 February 1955  17 December 1965
Constituency Maranhão
6th Academic of the 38th chair of the Brazilian Academy of Letters
Assumed office
6 November 1980
Preceded by José Américo de Almeida
Personal details
Born José Ribamar Elias Nascimento Ferreira de Araújo Costa
(1930-04-24) April 24, 1930
Pinheiro, Maranhão, Brazil
Political party National Democratic Union
National Renewal Alliance
Democratic Social Party
Liberal Front Party
Brazilian Democratic Movement Party
Spouse(s) Marly Macieira (1952–present)
Children Roseana Sarney
Fernando Sarney
José Sarney Filho
Alma mater Federal University of Maranhão
Profession Lawyer
Religion Roman Catholic

José Sarney de Araújo Costa (Portuguese pronunciation: [ʒuˈzɛ saʁˈnej dʒi aɾaˈuʒu ˈkɔstɐ]; born 24 April 1930 as José Ribamar Ferreira de Araújo Costa) is a Brazilian politician, lawyer, and writer who served as 31st President of Brazil from 15 March 1985 to 15 March 1990.[1] He is the oldest living former President, and, as of the death of João Figueiredo in 1999, the only living former President not to have been elected by direct vote.

Sarney ascended in the politics of his home state of Maranhão as part of the "Bossa Nova Generation" of UDN politicians in the 1950s, young idealists seeking to reorganize public administration and rid the government of corruption and old deleterious practices. During the Brazilian military dictatorship, which imposed a two-party system, Sarney affiliated himself with the government party, ARENA, becoming the president of the party in 1979. As the regime fell, however, ARENA split over the appointment of Paulo Maluf as Presidential candidate. Sarney joined the dissenters, being instrumental in the creation of the Liberal Front Party. He agreed to run for Vice-President on the ticket of Tancredo Neves, of PMDB, formerly the opposition party to the military government. Neves won the Presidential elections, but fell ill and died before taking office, and Sarney became President. He started out his term with great popularity, but public opinion shifted with the Brazilian debt crisis and the failure of Plano Cruzado to abate chronic inflation.

Over time, Sarney and his family acquired enormous clout over Maranhão's public life, and he is today regarded as the foremost of Brazil's oligarchs. Sarney owns the most important newspapers and TV stations in Maranhão, and remains influential there. Sarney has also faced multiple allegations of nepotism and corruption in his career. In 2009, the British weekly The Economist called his election as President of the Senate "a victory for semi-feudalism" and "a throwback to an era of semi-feudal politics that still prevails in corners of Brazil and holds the rest of it back."[2] Veja columnist Roberto Pompeu de Toledo deemed him "the perfect oligarch".[3]

Sarney is also an accomplished writer, and a member of the Brazilian Academy of Letters.

Early life

Born in Pinheiro, Maranhão, as José Ribamar Ferreira de Araújo Costa, he was the son of Sarney de Araújo Costa, a wealthy land-owner and sugarcane producer, and Kiola Ferreira de Araújo Costa. In 1965 he legally adopted the name José Sarney de Araújo Costa, usually shortened to José Sarney ([ʒʊˈzɛ saɦˈnej]), for electoral purposes, since he was known as "Zé do Sarney", as in "José, son of Sarney".

Personal life

Married to Marly Sarney, his children are Congressman José Sarney Filho, Governor Roseana Sarney, and the businessman Fernando Sarney.

Political career

Sarney started his political career as a federal deputy in 1955. He was a member of the centre-right National Democratic Union (União Democrática Nacional—UDN), being aligned with the progressive wing of the party. He strongly supported so-called "Revolution of 1964", a military coup that overthrew President leftist João Goulart in 1964.[4]

After the military coup, Sarney followed most of the UDN into the National Renewal Alliance (ARENA), the political party of the military government. He was elected governor of the state of Maranhão in 1966, serving until 1971. He was then elected to the Brazilian Senate and became ARENA's president.

Despite his support for the government's heavy-handed measures against dissent, Sarney had never been quite accepted by the military establishment, which tried to block his career. In 1979 ARENA reorganized as the Democratic Social Party (PDS), and Sarney remained the party's president. In 1984, the junta was under pressure due to popular protests to reinstate direct elections for president (Diretas Já movement). PDS was divided but launched Paulo Maluf as its candidate for the presidency in indirect elections. Sarney disagreed with this decision and left PDS to form the Liberal Front, which then allied with the PMDB.

As part of the deal, Sarney became Tancredo Neves' running mate on the opposition ticket. Neves won the election of 15 January 1985, but became gravely ill on the night before his inauguration. Sarney assumed office as acting president until Neves died on 21 April, and he formally became the first civilian president in 21 years.

Sarney takes the oath of office of the President of Brazil on March 15, 1985
President Sarney with U.S. President Ronald Reagan and Pelé during a state dinner at the White House, 1986

His succession raised some question because as Neves could not attend the inauguration ceremony on 15 March, several politicians contended at the time that Sarney should not have been inaugurated as Vice-President and allowed to assume the role of Acting President. Those politicians believed that since Sarney had been elected Vice-President only by virtue of the election of his running mate as President (each member of the Electoral College cast one vote, for President, and the choice of President carried with it the automatic selection of the ticket's running mate as Vice-President), Sarney could take office only as Vice-President together with Neves. They argued that in the event of the head of the presidential ticket not being able to assume office, the presidency should pass to the speaker of the Chamber of Deputies, Ulysses Guimarães.[4] There was some partisanship in this line of thought since both Neves and Guimarães were members of the same party, and Sarney was not; he had been a supporter of the military, and only recently had joined the coalition to defeat the military's candidate in the electoral college. The challenge to Sarney's inauguration was short-lived, however, because in the early hours of inauguration day, Guimarães himself stated that he believed that Sarney had the right to be inaugurated even without Neves.

Sarney and the president of Argentina, Raúl Alfonsín, started the process of the creation of a common market between the two nations in 1985. As first steps, they agreed to subsidize regional trade with a special currency for the purpose (the Gaucho). The agreement led to the formation of the Mercosul in 1991.

He had to face many problems: an enormous foreign debt, rampant inflation and corruption as well as completion of the transition to democracy. Sarney launched an economic plan to stabilize the economy, called "Plano Cruzado", successful at first, but the inflation became stronger than ever after a year. A new and democratic constitution was promulgated in 1988, and in the following year, the first direct elections since 1960 were held.

Sarney left the presidency at the end of his term. He supported Fernando Henrique Cardoso as presidential candidate in 1994 and 1998 and Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in 2002. He returned to the Senate after his presidency, this time representing Amapá, and served as President of the Senate from 1995 to 1997, 2003 to 2005, 2009 to 2011, and 2011 to 2013.[5] He retired in 2015, having served in elected office for all but a few months since 1955. At the time of his retirement, he was the longest-serving member of the Brazilian Congress.

Sérgio Machado, the former president of Transpetro, said in his plea agreement within the Operation Car Wash that José Sarney received R$18.5 million of the bribe money from a Petrobras subsidiary, within the PMDB account during the period in which he directed the company (2003-2015).[6]


As a writer, his best known work is the regionalist novel Os Marimbondos de Fogo ("The Fire Wasps"). Sarney was elected to a chair in the Brazilian Academy of Letters in 1980.


  1. Served in an interim capacity between 15 March and 21 April 1985 during the agony of president–elect Tancredo Neves.
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See also

Political offices
Preceded by
Aureliano Chaves
Vice President of Brazil
Succeeded by
Itamar Franco
Preceded by
João Figueiredo
President of Brazil
Succeeded by
Fernando Collor de Mello
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