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History of Brazil

This article is part of
the Brazilian History
Indigenous peoples
Colonial Brazil
Empire of Brazil

The history of Brazil begins with the arrival of the first Native Americans, over 8,000 years ago, into the present territory of that nation. By 1500, when the Portuguese explorer Pedro Álvares Cabral reached the Brazilian coast, all parts of those lands were inhabited by semi-nomadic tribes, who subsisted on a combination of fishing, hunting, gathering, and agriculture.

The first permanent Portuguese settlement — São Vicente, a coastal town just south of the Tropic of Capricorn — was founded in 1532. From the 16th to the 18th centuries, Brazil was a colony of Portugal, exploited mainly for brazilwood at first, and later for sugarcane agriculture. During this period most Indians were exterminated, pushed out of the way or assimilated, and large numbers of African slaves were brought in. On September 7, 1822, the country declared its independence of Portugal and became a constitututional monarchy, the Empire of Brazil. A military coup in 1889 established a republican government. The country has been nominally a democratic republic ever since, except for three periods of overt dictatorship (19301934, 19371945, and 19641985).

Through most of its independent history, the country's politics was dominated by agrarian oligarchies, at all levels of government. Their influence was lessened (but by no means abolished) after the revolution of 1930, when the state began to assert itself as a power on its own, drawing support from the emerging industrial sector and through control of industrial worker unions. Nevertheless, in spite of all changes of regime, Brazilian politics has continued to be dominated by the same relatively small elite, and founded on the same conservative principles, which have resulted in one of the most unequal income distributions of the Western world.

Thanks to vast natural resources and cheap labor, Brazil is today South America's leading economic power, the world's ninth largest economy, and fifth most populous nation. The policies of Fernando Henrique Cardoso (19952002), directed at curbing inflation, led to a decline in industrial capacity and an increase the public debt (over 55% of the yearly GNP). Fallout from the Asian economic crisis led to a devaluation of the currency in 1999, even after the receipt of a $41.5 billion IMF bailout. Growth in real GDP remained at near-stagnation levels (2% p.a, for a demographic growth of 1,5%). The later Cardoso government was once again challenged by rising consumer inflation and interest rates, and taxation rose to a record of 40% of GDP.

These socio-economic problems helped in 2003 to elect former union leader Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, Brazil's first left-wing president, on the promise that he would put the country back on a path of economic development, while also adhering to an orthodox economic policy --and especially avoid default either on foreign or on public debt. Lula had some success in forging an assertive Brazilian foreign policy while grappling with the issues of inequality, public debt, comparatively high taxes, and the attraction of foreign investment at home. After one year and half of office, there was a marked improvement in Brazil's current account, foreign reserves , and balance of trade, but economic growth has so far failed to take off for good.


The first Brazilians

Main article: Indigenous peoples of Brazil

The territory of Brazil has been inhabited for at least 8,000 years. The origins of the first Brazilians, which were called "Indians" (índios) by the Portuguese, are still a matter of dispute among archaeologists. The traditional view is that they were part of the first wave of migrant hunters who came into the Americas from Siberia, across the Bering Strait. However some archeologists see signs of a much older human population, morphologically distinct from the Asian hunters and more similar to African and Australian natives, who were displaced or absorbed by the Siberian hunters.

The Andes and the mountain ranges of northern South America created a rather sharp cultural boundary between the settled agrarian civilizations of the West Coast (which gave rise to urbanized city-states and the immense Inca Empire) and the semi-nomadic tribes of the East, who never developed written records or permanent monumental architecture. For this reason, very little is known about the history of Brazil before 1500. Archaeological remains (chielfy pottery) barely reveals a complex pattern of regional cultural developments, internal migrations, and occasional large state-like federations.

By the time the first European explorers arrived, all parts of the territory were inhabited by semi-nomadic Indian tribes, who subsisted on a combination of hunting, fishing, gathering, and agriculture. The population density was rather low, however; total numbers have been estimated at 1 million people (but recent archaeological discoveries, such as those mentioned above, seem to indicate a much higher number.) Although many Brazilian Indians succumbed to massacres, diseases, and the hardships of slavery and displacement, many were absorbed into the Brazilian population. A few tribes still susbsist in their pre-discovery lifestyle in remote corners of the Amazon rainforest.

Present Brazilian culture owes much to those peoples, including the development of crops like the cassava (still a major staple food in the rural regions) and the complex knowledge needed for survival in the tropical jungle.

Colonial Brazil

Main article: Colonial Brazil

Pedro Alvares Cabral, a Portuguese navigator, is generally credited as the first European to reach Brazil, on April 22, 1500. The country was then gradually settled by Portuguese who sought to escape poverty, and by nobles who were granted colonial privileges by the Crown. Colonial administration in the next two centuries was based upon a feudal system in which favored individuals received title to huge blocks of land called capitanias; many of these dominions eventually became present-day Brazilian states.

In the first century after its European discovery, the country's major export was "brazil wood", a large tree whose trunk contained a prized red dye, and which was nearly wiped out as a result of overexploitation. Starting in the 17th century, sugarcane, grown in plantations along the northeast coast, became the base of Brazilian economy, because of the high demand for sugar in Europe. At first, settlers tried to use the Indians as labor to work the fields. (The initial exploration of Brazil's interior was largely due to para-military adventurers, the Bandeirantes, who entered the jungle in search of gold and Indian slaves.) However the Indians were found to be unsuitable as slaves for several reasons, and so the Portuguese land owners turned to Africa, from which they imported millions of slaves.

Some slaves escaped from the plantations and tried to establish independent settlements (quilombos) in remote areas. However these settlements were eventually all destroyed by government and private troops, which in some cases required long sieges and the use of artillery. Still the Africans became a substantial section of Brazilian population; and even before the end of slavery (1850) they began to merge with the Portuguese settlers, like the Indians previously.

During the first two centuries of the colonial period, attracted by the enormity of natural resources and land, other European powers tried to establish colonies in several parts of Brazilian territory, in defiance of the papal bull and the Treaty of Tordesillas, which had divided the New World into two parts, to Portugal and to Spain. French colonists tried to settle in present-day Rio de Janeiro, from 1555 to 1567 (the so-called France Antarctique episode), and in present-day São Luís, from 1612 to 1614 (the so called France Équinoxiale). From 1630 to 1654, the Dutch also invaded present-day state of Pernambuco, and set their capital in Recife (the so-called Nieuw Holland episode).

Eventually all three invasions were repelled by military force and territory and population was gained to Portugal again. Little French or Dutch cultural and ethnic influences remained of these failed attempts.

The Empire of Brazil

Main article: Brazilian War of Independence and Empire of Brazil

In 1808, King John VI of Portugal (at the time still Prince Regent), fleeing Napoleon's army, moved the seat of government to Brazil. Although the royal family returned to Portugal in 1821, the interlude led to a growing desire for independence amongst Brazilians. On September 7, 1822, then prince-regent Pedro proclaimed the independence of Brazil, and was crowned emperor.

Pedro I abdicated in 1834, and, after interim governments by appointed regents, his son Pedro II was crowned Emperor at the age of 14. He was liked by the common people, but displeased both the landed elites, who thought him too liberal, and the intellectuals, who felt he was not liberal enough. The main event of his reign was the abolition of slavery in 1888.

The Old Republic (1889-1930)

Main article: History of Brazil (1889-1930)

Pedro II was deposed on November 15 1889 by a Republican military coup led by general Deodoro da Fonseca, who became the country's first president. The country's name became The United States of Brazil (which in 1967 was changed to Federative Republic of Brazil.) From 1889 to 1930, the government was a constitutional democracy, with the presidency alternating between the dominant states of São Paulo and Minas Gerais.

In the late 19th century coffee started to replace sugar as the country's main export crop. The coffee trade caused Brazil to thrive economically, attracting many European immigrants--particularly from Italy and Germany. This influx of labour also allowed the country to develop an industrial economy and expand away from the coast.

This period, known as the "Old Republic," ended in 1930 with a military coup that placed Getúlio Vargas, a civilian, in the presidency.

Populism and development (1930-1964)

Main articles: History of Brazil (1930-1945) and History of Brazil (1945-1964)

A military junta took control in 1930; dictatorial power was assumed by Getulio Vargas, until finally forced out by the military in 1945. Since 1930, successive governments continued industrial and agriculture growth and development of the vast interior.

Just as the 1889 regime change led to a decade of unrest and painful adjustment, so too did the revolts of 1930. Provisional President Getúlio Dorneles Vargas ruled as dictator (1930-34), congressionally elected president (1934-37), and again dictator (1937-45), with the backing of his revolutionary coalition. He also served as a senator (1946-51) and the popularly elected president (1951-54). Vargas was a member of the gaucho-landed oligarchy and had risen through the system of patronage and clientelism, but he had a fresh vision of how Brazilian politics could be shaped to support national development. He understood that with the breakdown of direct relations between workers and owners in the expanding factories of Brazil, workers could become the basis for a new form of political power — populism. Using such insights, he would gradually establish such mastery over the Brazilian political world that he would stay in power for fifteen years. During those years, the preeminence of the agricultural elites ended, new urban industrial leaders acquired more influence nationally, and the middle class began to show some strength.

Vargas, one of the first in an era of Latin American populist leaders, is also associated with inward-directed growth. Under this direction, Brazil began to reject the classical model of export-led growth and emphasized programs loosely associated with Import Substitution Industrialization (ISI). Some have seen this internalization as a reaction to calamitous world events such as the World Wars, which incited heavy protectionism by Brazil's western trading partners (U.S., Britain, Germany). Also, Vargas began his regime on the cusp of a global depression as well as in a century of declining terms of trade through depressed primary product prices. Unfortunately, the determination of Brazil and other Latin American states to promote insulating development programs came to isolate them from the international competition and trade, which led to vastly inefficient state industries.

A democratic regime prevailed 1945-1964, during which the capital was moved from Rio de Janeiro to Brasília. If corporatism was the hallmark of the 1930s and 1940s, populism, nationalism, and developmentalism characterized the 1950s and early 1960s. Each of these contributed to the crisis that gripped Brazil and resulted in the authoritarian regime after 1964.

Contemporary Brazil (1964-present)

Main article: History of Brazil (1964-present)
São Paulo, Brazil's largest city and fifth largest in the world, epitomizes Brazil income distribution problems. A rich industrial and financial center, it is nonetheless surrounded by extensive high-poverty, high-crime shantytowns (favelas).
São Paulo, Brazil's largest city and fifth largest in the world, epitomizes Brazil income distribution problems. A rich industrial and financial center, it is nonetheless surrounded by extensive high-poverty, high-crime shantytowns (favelas).

Military rule

From 1961 to 1964, Brazilian President João Goulart had been initiating economic and social reforms; policies which aggravated Brazil's elites and threatened U.S. and Western interests in the country. Philip Agee, a former CIA officer, has noted that the Agency had spent between 12-20 million dollars in support of anti-Goulart candidates, and in February of 1962, former U.S. President John F. Kennedy expressed his own support for the anti-Goulart candidates in a memo written to the United States Agency for International Development. In 1964, Goulart was overthrown by a military coup backed by the CIA, and a military regime lasted from 1964 to 1985. During this time, there was intense economic growth at the cost of a soaring national debt, and thousands of Brazilians were deported, imprisoned, or tortured. Politically motivated deaths are numbered in the hundreds, mostly related to the guerrilla-antiguerrilla warfare in the 1968-1973 period; official censorship, though not stringent, also led many artists into exile.


Democratic presidential elections were held in 1985 as the nation returned to civilian rule. Fernando Collor de Mello was elected president in December 1989. In September 1992 Collor was impeached for corruption; he later resigned. Acting president Itamar Franco was sworn in as president. In elections held on October 3, 1994, Fernando Henrique Cardoso was elected president. Reelected in 1998, he guided Brazil through a wave of financial crises.


Brazil's most severe problem is arguably its highly unequal distribution of wealth and income, one of the most extreme in the world. By the 1990s, more than one out of four Brazilians continued to survive on less than one dollar a day. These socio-economic contradictions helped elect Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, Brazil's first left-wing president (and the first working-class one) in2002.

In the few months before the election, investors were scared by Lula's campaign platform for social change, and his past identification with labor unions and leftist ideology. As his victory became more certain, the Brazilian currency weakened, and Brazil's investment risk rating plummeted. After taking office, however, he embraced the same sternly conservative economic policies of his predecessor, warning that social reforms would take years and that Brazil had no alternative but to extend fiscal austerity policies. In the wake of this deveolpment, the Real and the nation's risk rating soon recovered.

As part of these austerity measures, Lula (like Cardoso before him) weighted upon Congress to prevent any substantial increases in the minimum wage (currently 260 Reais per month, about US$ 90), and raised the prime interest rate to over 30% a year (which was then gradually reduced to about 16% over the following year). All social and investment programs were severely cut, their revenue being diverted to service the public debt — which nonethelss has continued to increase. Lula also spear-headed legislation to drastically cut retirement benefits for public service workers and to overhaul the tax system, though follow-on legislation still needs to be passed in 2004. His only significant social initiative was the "Zero Hunger" program, designed to give each Brazilian three meals a day.

See also

External link

  • U.S. State Department Background Note: Brazil

History of Brazil: Timeline & Topics

Indians | Colonial | Empire | 1889–1930 | 1930–1945 | 1945–1964 | 1964–present
Military | Diplomatic | Religious

Last updated: 02-07-2005 18:09:56
Last updated: 03-18-2005 11:16:12