Brazil's history revolves around economic development fused with a struggle to broaden its political base in order to provide social stability and progress. Slavery posed an obstacle until the late nineteenth century, and in the twenty-first century a large poverty-stricken lower class must be dealt with if the transition to modernity is to be accomplished. From the colonial era to the present, politics and society are molded by this reality.
Portugal introduced crops (sugar, tobacco, coffee) and slaves to create its most valuable colony and the prototype of a slave-based plantation economy. By the 1750s Brazil's relationship with its mother country became dysfunctional. Gold discovered in the late seventeenth century unbalanced the commercial system. As a consequence Portugal ran a large trade surplus with Britain and a huge deficit with its colony. What formerly had been an acceptable economic relationship became parasitic. Moreover, the ideas of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment suggested that the state's legitimacy rested in part on economic utility. Ideas and economic reality led to conspiracies and anti-Portuguese proto-nationalism. The Tiradentes Conspiracy in 1788–1789, led by a junior officer in the dragoons, envisioned a broad revolt and drew in disgruntled merchants, miners, and others. Harsh measures against major conspirators and concessions to the oligarchy dampened the unrest, but the problem remained.
The French Revolution in 1789, followed by the Haitian slave rebellion, caused concern that a similar event could occur in Brazil, with disastrous consequence for a slave economy. The Revolt of the Tailors in 1798 in Salvador, involving mulattoes and blacks, confirmed such fears. In Europe the Napoleonic invasion of Portugal in 1807 resulted in the transfer of the crown to Brazil, and in Brazil's subsequent elevation to a kingdom in 1815. The return of King João to Portugal in 1821, leaving Crown Prince Pedro as his regent, offered the opportunity to achieve independence with minimal social disruption. A slaveholding agricultural oligarchy wanted a smooth transition. Independence, declared by Pedro on 7 September 1822, severed colonial ties. Pedro accepted the crown as emperor.
Disagreement over power led to the disbandment of the constituent congress and to a constitution to the emperor's liking. The constitution of 1824 placed power in the monarch's hands but allowed for elite participation, while property restrictions excluded the majority. Pedro's personality, his fiscal mismanagement, a disgruntled elite, his perceived favoring of Portuguese advisors, and the
Stability after 1840 encouraged territorial ambitions and war. The War of the Triple Alliance in 1865–1870 against Paraguay accelerated the growth of a military middle class able to provide an alternative to rule by an agricultural oligarchy. The slow liquidation of slavery and its replacement by immigrant labor made it possible to abolish slavery in 1888 without ending the coffee prosperity that underpinned the economy. Railways in the 1850s, along with nascent factories, increased urbanization and created new classes of professionals and workers. Modernizing army officers under the sway of positivism and republican ideas ended the monarchy, establishing a republic in 1889. The elimination of property qualifications in the 1891 constitution, while retaining literacy, expanded male middle-class political participation. Nevertheless, the failure to sufficiently broaden the electorate opened the way for the oligarchy's return in 1894, but one no longer completely agricultural.
Old Republic to the Vargas Era.
The two states of São Paulo and Minas Gerais shared control of the national government, an arrangement referred to as café com leite (coffee, São Paulo, with milk, Minas Gerais). They absorbed resources, while ignoring other states and middle-class aspirations. The centennial of independence in 1922 occasioned a national assessment, and along with Modern Art Week, the Copacabana military revolt of the same year weakened the regime's legitimacy. Continuing discontent led to the revolt of 5 July 1924 in São Paulo. Captain Luís Carlos Prestes joined the revolt, leading a three-year, 14,000-mile march. Six years later the Revolution of 1930, led by junior army officers, installed Getúlio Vargas (1883–1954) as president.
Still a rural coastal nation in the 1920s, by the 1930s, with 35 million people in urban centers, much of Brazil remained isolated, accessible only by airplane or coastal shipping. Some 76,000 miles of unpaved road served the economy, along with 21,000 miles of railway track. The economic shock of World War I and the Great Depression of 1929 made the importance of a diversified economy obvious to the revolutionaries of 1930.
Nationalist army officers intent on modernization and economic development constituted the most important pillar of the new regime; Vargas avoided political and economic disaster and social turmoil, in spite of the collapse of coffee prices after 1929. Brazil recovered its economic balance by 1933. A reactionary counterrevolution by the São Paulo oligarchy, the Revolution of 9 July 1932, fizzled out.
A new electoral code in 1932 lowered the voting age to eighteen and extended the vote to employed women. Literacy remained a requirement. The constitution of 1934 increased executive power and included sections on labor, family, and culture, indicating new government social responsibilities. Fifty delegates representing corporate interests—labor, industry, the professions, and the civil service—joined 250 traditional deputies.
Vargas faced pressure from the left and the right. The Brazilian Communist Party, established in 1922 and directed by Luís Carlos Prestes, concentrated on the cities. A fascist party, the Integralists (Ação Integralista Brasileira), emerged in the early 1930s: these so-called Green Shirts attracted individuals who believed that the Depression had ended the era of liberal capitalism.
Prestes assumed control of the leftist front organization, the Aliança Nacional Libertadora (ANL), and issued a manifesto in preparation for a coup. Prestes proposed a revolutionary regime along the Soviet model. In response, President Vargas imposed the National Security Law (1935), which outlawed the ANL. The next step, the November Uprising, failed. A state of siege suspended civil rights and augmented police powers. Suspension of the constitution of 1934, the arrest of ANL supporters, and the capture of Prestes ended the threat.
Meanwhile, the Paulista elite hoped to win the upcoming election of 1938, but in a surprise move Vargas announced in 1937 the formation of the Estado Novo (New State) and another constitution. He promised to hold a plebiscite but subsequently decided that it would not be necessary. He banned Green Shirt demonstrations and squeezed them out of politics. Desperate Green Shirts mounted an unsuccessful attack on the presidential palace in March 1938.
As world war became inevitable, the government allowed the modernization of airports, creating ready-to-use airbases able to control the South Atlantic and reach into North Africa. With the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Vargas broke diplomatic relations with the Axis powers in January 1942. U-boat attacks forced Vargas's hand, and Brazil entered the war. Vargas insisted on a combat role. A force of 25,000 soldiers, the Brazilian expeditionary force (Força Expeditionára Brasileira, or FEB) fought with the U.S. Army in Italy.
FEB officers, impressed with American industrial might and the virtues and prospect for democracy in the postwar era, worried that Brazil's dictatorial government might be isolated economically and politically from the postwar community. The government prepared for popular election of the president and encouraged the foundation of political parties—the Partido Social Democratico and the Partido Trabalhista Brasileira (the Brazilian Worker Party). The opposition formed the União Democratico Nacional. Vargas's support rested on uncertainties. Labor feared that a new president might dismantle the pro-labor legislation put in place in the 1930s. Urban workers and the middle class worried that the oligarchy might regain power. Out of a mixture of fears and emotions, a weak “we want Vargas” movement emerged. The army forced him to resign. In the postwar era FEB veterans directed the nation.
The 1945 election, the first since 1930, made the former war minister, General Eurico Dutra (1885–1974),
Civic responsibility could not develop overnight. The old themes used in the 1930s could not be used to provide political cohesion. Developing new democratic themes appeared beyond the ability of postwar politicians. Issues long unattended had to be addressed. Unplanned urbanization, an influx of the rural poor, strained city services. Favela (slum) settlers, without skills or education, often in poor health and suffering from malnutrition, survived by picking through trash or working menial jobs. City life made poverty and the social gap obvious.
Massive strikes in São Paulo in 1947 unnerved industrialists and rattled the regime. As Dutra's term staggered to a close, Vargas once again stepped forward. Vargas still enjoyed support from political bosses and São Paulo's industrialists and coffee producers, who remembered that Vargas's economic policy in the 1930s had saved them. The military, wedded to democratic forms, if not the actual spirit of democracy, agreed that they would not oppose an elected ex-dictator. Vargas received 49 percent of the vote.
President Getúlio Vargas took office on 31 January 1951, governing under a constitution written to make sure that the abuses of the Estado Novo did not repeat themselves. Congress assumed budget power and promptly acted irresponsibly. Printing more money erased deficits, but at the expense of the currency. Wages, unable to keep up with the cost of living, impoverished the lower and middle classes. The president appointed João Goulart (1918–1976) minister of labor and raised the minimum wage, unchanged since 1943. The military forced Vargas to dismiss his minister of labor to stop the attempt to build a political base among the workers. Without a constituency behind him, Vargas could not move congress or control sufficient patronage.
A bungled unauthorized assassination attempt on the president's harshest critic led to demands that Vargas resign. Three weeks later the military ousted him from office. Shortly after his removal, Vargas committed suicide, in 1954. His suicide note, read incessantly over the radio, shocked the nation in advance of the 1955 election. Post-mortem popularity for Vargas spilled over to embrace the “Vargas gang.” Two political parties joined to nominate Juscelino Kubitschek (1902–1976) for president along with João Goulart, the former labor minister, for vice president. They swept to victory. The army grumbled about Kubitschek but made its dislike of Goulart even more obvious.
Aware that his tenure might well be short, President Kubitschek wasted little time. On his second day in office he created the National Development Council and the Program of Targets to set objectives for the government and private capital. Kubitschek linked it with the building of a new capital, called Brasília, in the interior state of Goiás. Work began in 1957 twenty-four hours a day as the president hurried to keep his promise of “fifty years of progress in five.” Road building spread the wealth beyond the new capital. Over 11,000 miles of new roads and an international airport tied Brasília with the world: 1,400 miles of road reached to the north, 1,060 to the northeast, and 400 to the south, along with a web of feeder roads and links. Settlements soon dotted the new roads, stimulating the creation of feeder settlements and economic activity. Paper currency in circulation jumped more than 300 percent before Kubitschek left office, and the country's foreign debt reached staggering levels. Corruption inevitably accompanied development.
The Furnas hydroelectric project and the Tres Marias dam on the São Francisco River increased hydroelectric power from three to five million kilowatts, and improved transmission lines delivered power efficiently to industrial consumers. The road system brought new regions into the national economy, and the new capital turned all eyes to development of the interior. The number of industrial plants grew by 33 percent, with close to two million industrial workers. The military, pleased with the various national projects and the great leap forward in industrialization, nevertheless worried that Kubitschek had bankrupted the country.
The dysfunctional democratic period, with the army standing off to one side evaluating each president's performance, became progressively unworkable. President Jânio da Silva Quadros (1917–1992; president, 1961) set up the inevitable collapse. The president publicly spoke about the country's unworkable system. In a move calculated to force the country to give him increased powers, he resigned the presidency. Nothing went according to plan. Disappointed, Quadros left for Europe. According to the constitution, Vice President João Goulart should have automatically become president, but top military cabinet officers made it clear that they would not permit Goulart to do so. Nevertheless, a split within the military assured his political survival, but the compromise required establishing a parliamentary system. A symbolic president with power vested in a prime minister made Goulart a figurehead. A constitutional amendment made it legal, while damaging democratic procedures. Tancredo Nevese (1910–1985) served as prime minister. A plebiscite set for January 1963 allowed a vote on whether to keep the parliamentary model or revert to the old system.
By the time a plebiscite returned full presidential power to Goulart, it was too late. By early 1964 inflation exceeded 100 percent. Both the left and the right began planning for a collapse of the state and an opportunity to seize control. Goulart lost legitimacy as inflation accelerated. He found himself transformed from the heir of Vargas into an ineffectual, pathetic figure. A desperate Goulart moved to the left, lured by the hope of finding a political base and holding off the military. He began to talk of reforms, including land reform, expropriation of oil refineries, and broadening out the electorate to include illiterates. Rural violence in the northeast revolving around peasant leagues organized by Francisco Julião alarmed landholders. Many feared revolutionary action. Talk of Goulart becoming a Communist added further hysteria. Mothers, priests, and the faithful marched in protest over actions that threatened the foundation of the Catholic family. The president's plan to unionize military enlisted personnel indicated the level of desperation. Lyndon B. Johnson, fearful that Brazil hovered on the verge of collapse, civil war, and a Communist takeover, did not object to the military coup.
The Revolution of 1964.
The army moved on 31 March–1 April 1964. Troops occupied government buildings and radio and TV stations. Military and civilian police arrested union leaders, peasant league organizers, radical students, and any politicians who could rally the resistance. Within forty-eight hours the military had established control. A relieved Lyndon Johnson recognized the new regime. João Goulart fled to Uruguay.
The military coup of 1964 represented an abrupt escalation of military political involvement. Military activism focused on internal development—effective occupation of the national territory, including opening the Amazon rain forest to organized settlement, and accelerating industrialization. Middle-class professionals staffed and executed development schemes. The National Intelligence Service (SNI), a police agency, directed social purges. Military intelligence monitored suspects, and agents reported allegedly questionable views. Subsequently, a purge of university professors removed individuals considered left wing. In 1968 student protests drew in other elements opposed to the regime. A massive demonstration, known as the March of the 100,000, alarmed the army. In response the government prohibited demonstrations. At the end of the year police arrested 1,000 members of the National Student Union (UNE).
Inevitably, the opposition moved underground. Guerrilla groups made up of urban middle-class students employed violence against the state. Guerrillas financed operations by robbing banks and took cover in the favelas. In 1969 these groups kidnapped the American ambassador, Charles Burke Elbrick. In return for radio, television, and newspaper access and the freeing of fifteen political prisoners, they released the ambassador and then went on to kidnap other foreign diplomats. Military and police authorities, unleashed to break the guerrillas, resorted to torture, assassination, and disappearance without a trace. Accountability became so diffuse that no one appeared to be in charge. When civilians returned to direct the government in 1985, they inherited an almost totally changed nation. They also confronted an unsustainable debt burden and the lingering impact of the dirty war.
The constitution of 1988 set the stage for political and social change, eliminating previous voting qualifications and lowering the voting age to sixteen. Politicians became responsive to a socioeconomically and racially diverse constituency. The growth of organizations able to contend with those of the elite and middle class emerged as urbanization intensified. Organizations from Afro-Brazilian groups, Christian communities, Pentecostals, labor unions, and those pressing for land reform, among innumerable other organizations, articulated their needs.
The first three civilian presidents, José Sarney (b. 1930), Fernando Collor de Mello (b. 1949), and Itamar Franco (b. 1930), reflected the difficulty of adjusting to the new political reality. Sarney and Franco, as vice presidents, assumed the presidency without a direct mandate: Sarney because of the death of president-elect Tancredo Neves before he could take office, and Franco because of the impeachment of Collor de Mello. Nevertheless, they laid the foundations for changes achieved under successor presidents.
The impact of the 1988 constitution became clear with the presidencies of Fernando Henrique Cardoso (b. 1931; president, 1995–2003) and Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (b. 1945; elected 2002). Cardoso's popularity rested on his Plan Real of 1994, introduced when he served under President Franco, which brought inflation under control and resulted in significant income gains for the lower classes.
The Cardoso administration set the long-term agenda for change. President Cardoso announced on 13 May 2002, Abolition Day, a comprehensive human rights package of some 518 proposals for affirmative action quotas in government service and in universities for Afro-Brazilians, women, and the disabled; nutrition rights; and councils for older citizens. He proposed legalization of same-sex unions, child welfare, and other social reforms. Cardoso acknowledged racism as a national problem.
Lula da Silva (Lula), of the Partido dos Trabalhadores (PT; the Workers Party, established in 1980), won the presidency as the first working-class individual elected to that office. He adopted a moderate left-wing approach that offered hope to the poor, but he encouraged economic development. His agenda included reducing corruption and ending hunger. Avoiding engrained corruption proved difficult. In 2005, the PT became mired in scandals. In spite of everything, Lula remained popular with those who viewed him as the best hope for change. Nevertheless, many worried that he would be pushed to the extreme left by the revelation of corruption within his own circle. The other choice, the moderate left-center, seems more likely.
From the Revolution of 1964 to the present Brazil has gone from a developing country to an emerging modern nation and a mass democracy. Nevertheless, Brazil's distribution of wealth is among the world's worst. Two nations exist—one modern, the other caught in poverty.
[See also Amazon River and Basin; Brasília; Brazilian Empire; Empire and Imperialism, subentry The Portuguese Colonial Empire; Mercosur; Portugal; Rio de Janeiro; São Paulo; and War of the Triple Alliance.]
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