Nilo Coelho

Maria do Carmo Andrade
Joaquim Nabuco Foundation Librarian
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Nilo Coelho de Souza was a doctor, industrialist and politician, and was the first governor elected by indirect elections in Pernambuco after the military coup of 1964. He was born on 2 November 1920, in Petrolina, a Pernambuco city bathed by São Francisco river, which forms alongside the neighbouring city of Juazeiro, in Bahia, the largest human settlement of the semiarid region, 734 km from the state capital, Recife.
He was the son of Clementino de Souza Coelho, known as Colonel Quelé, the patriarch of an important and powerful family Pernambuco interior, and Josepha de Souza Coelho. Besides Nilo, the couple had other children: Dulcinéia, Maria Diva, Gercino, Darcy, Caio, José, Geraldo, Paulo, Oswaldo, Augusto and Adalberto.
After his initial studies in Petrolina, Nilo Coelho went to the College of Bahia in Salvador. Being a good student and orator, he soon became a student leader and gradually became involved with politics. At the time, Brazil was at the height of the Estado Novo (New State) and Europe was at war. Brazil’s Congress was closed, political parties terminated, free elections suspended and means of expression were under strict censorship.
Nilo was always at the head of the protests that crossed the centre of Salvador, urging the public to react against the Nazi-fascist threat. When he was in the fifth year of medical school, he was drafted for the war, but did not embark for Italy. However, he fulfilled his commitment to military service shortly after graduating, and in fact when he finished a BA in 1944, he joined the Air Force to finish Brazilian Air Force training in Campo Grande, Mato Grosso.
Given the political moment, Nilo Coelho’s father persuaded him to leave his medical career and return to Petrolina to enter politics. Even without fully identifying with the ideology of the party, he joined the Social Democratic Party (PSD) and began his campaign in the Semi-arid Region, where he could count on the support of political leaders from the inner cities. He was the most-voted candidate in that region, and was elected State Representative for the 1947-1950 term.
In the Legislative Assembly, he was First Secretary of the Board of Directors and member of the Drafting Committee for the State Constitutional Charter of 1947, Secretary of Finance of the State of Pernambuco from 1952 to 1955, Federal Representative for Pernambuco in four legislatures, from 1950 to 1954, 1954 to 1958, 1958 to 1962 and 1962 to 1966; at the House of Representatives, he was a member of the Committee on Budget and Fiscal Control from 1955 to 1966, and served as First Secretary from 1965 to 1966.
He married Maria Teresa Coimbra de Almeida Brennand in 1954, at the São João da Várzea sugarcane plantation, the residence of the bride’s uncle, Ricardo Brennand. Nilo and Maria Theresa had six children: Eduardo, Maria Dulce, Maria Tereza, Maria Carolina, Maria Luciana and Maria Alice.
In May 1966, during the state convention of the National Renewal Alliance Party (ARENA) in Pernambuco, Nilo Coelho was appointed by then Governor Paulo Guerra for the indirect elections of the state government. He competed against two other candidates, the lawyer Eraldo Gueiros Leite  and General Antonio Carlos Murici, Commander of the 7th Military Region. Nilo was elected by the State Legislative Assembly on 3 September of that year and took office on 31 January 1967, with State Representative Salviano Machado as vice-governor.
In his government, he established the Pernambuco Municipal Development Foundation (FIAM), an agency linked to the Department of Interior and Justice in charge of the integration of state and local programs. He also created the Society of Agricultural Mechanisation and Industrial Districts of Pernambuco Ltd, the Pernambuco Pharmaceutical Laboratory (LAFEPE), the Office of Weights and Measures, the State Commission for Control of Water Pollution, the Pernambuco Traffic Department and replaced the state press with a semi-private company, the Pernambuco Publishing Company (CEPE).
Project Massangano was created during the government of Nilo Coelho, later renamed to Senator Nilo Coelho Project, formed by the Development Company of the São Francisco (CODEVASF) with over 20,000 hectares, considered the largest public irrigation project in the country. Permanent crops of banana, mango, acerola (a local cherry), grape, coconut, guava, citrus and grass were implemented, and temporary crops of beans, watermelon, tomatoes, squash and corn.
The commitment that Nilo Coelho had to the construction of roads gave him the nickname of Governador Estradeiro (‘Roadster’ Governor). He implemented the Pernambuco Higher Education Foundation (FESP), now University of Pernambuco (UPE), electrified more than 200 districts, towns and localities in the Forest, ‘Agreste’ and Semi-arid Zones, completed the construction of the Tabocas dam and many other accomplishments. After his term, Nilo Coelho withdrew from public life and was taking care of family business.
In 1978, he competed in a direct election to the Senate for Pernambuco, with ARENA. The core government had another candidate, former Governor and industrialist Cid Sampaio. He then became the candidate for ARENA 1and Cid Sampaio was candidate for ARENA 2. In opposition to the ARENA candidates was Jarbas Vasconcelos, for the Brazilian Democratic Movement (PMDB). Nilo Coelho won the election thanks to the total of the votes for the two ARENA candidates.
He was elected to the Senate, taking office in February 1979, became Vice President of the Senate from 1979 to 1980, Leader of Government from 1981 to 1982 and President of the Senate for the 1983-1985 biennium.
Shortly after making a fiery speech in the Senate, he began to show symptoms of a heart attack and was taken to hospital where he underwent surgery, but didn’t resist and died on 9 November 1983.
President Figueiredo decreed three days of official national mourning for the death of Senator Nilo Coelho, whose body was taken to Recife. His body was kept in state at the Palácio do Campo das Princesas (Governor’s Palace) and the funeral took place in his hometown of Petrolina. The arrival of the former senator’s body in his hometown was greeted by his countrymen, and the funeral procession went through the main streets until reaching the Coelho family home.
Nilo Coelho received many awards, which among others include: the Pernambuco Medal of Merit, Gold Class; Medal of Naval Merit, Commander; Brazilian Geographic Service Medal; Guararapes Medal of Merit; Medal of Conspiracy; Grand Cross of the Brasilia Order of Merit; Grand Cross of the Order of Judiciary Labour Merit; Grand Collar of the Order of the National Congress.

Recife, 31 March 2008.
(Updated on 14 September 2009)

Translated by Peter Leamy, February 2012.


BRASIL. Senado Federal. Biografia dos Senadores. Disponível em: . Acesso em: 14 mar. 2008.

BRASIL. Senado Federal. Galeria de Presidentes do Período Pós-1964 (1964-1985). Disponível em: . Acesso em: 31 mar. 2008.

MARANHÃO, Jarbas ; ROCHA, Honório. Dois depoimentos sobre Nilo Coelho. Recife: Companhia Editora Nacional, [1983].

PERNAMBUCO de A/Z. Biografia. Disponível em: . Acesso em: 14 mar. 2008.

RIVAS, Leda. Nilo Coelho: breve roteiro de um visionário. Recife: A Assembléia, 2001. (Perfil parlamentar. Século XX, v.14).         


Source: ANDRADE, Maria do Carmo. Nilo Coelho. Pesquisa Escolar Online, Joaquim Nabuco Foudation, Recife. Available at:  <http://basilio.fundaj.gov.br/pesquisaescolar/>. Accessed: day month year. Exemple: 6 Aug. 2009



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