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History and Politics

According to some historians, the first men and women to arrive to present-day Brazil did so over 8,000 years ago. They were fishermen, hunters, farmers and gatherers. They stayed in the region, but their habits changed little in the centuries before the arrival of Europeans. Some estimate that there may have been about one million people in modern-day Brazil before contact. The Inca civilization of the Andes never reached into the tropical lowlands of eastern South America, and the native peoples of Brazil never reached the heights of the Incas in building or trade. In fact, parts of Brazil are so remote that some tribes in far-off areas still live the same way they have for centuries.





Brazil was discovered on January 26, 1500, by Vicente Yañez Pinzóñ, a Spaniard who had once sailed with Columbus. Interestingly, by that date, Brazil was already considered a Portuguese possession. When Spain discovered the New World in 1492, a bizarre legal argument took place. According to the ruling of a previous pope, all lands in the Atlantic west of a certain point belonged to Portugal. At the time, the ruling only applied to a few islands. Therefore, when Spain discovered the New World, Portugal promptly claimed it. The current pope was forced to negotiate the Treaty of Tordesillas in 1494, which declared that Portugal’s ownership of Atlantic lands could only extend so far, and that all else belonged to Spain. Brazil, being the easternmost part of South America, became part of Portugal.





The first Portuguese to arrive in Brazil was Pedro Alvares Cabral, who scouted the coast in 1500. The first Portuguese settlement was at São Vicente in 1532. The first Portuguese settlers were members of the lower class who went to escape poverty and upper-class minor nobility who were granted privileges and lands by the crown. The new land was divided into capitancias, which were similar to the encomiendas granted in Spanish parts of the New World.





The first industry was the Brazilwood tree, from which the nation takes its name. It is a large tree that produces a reddish dye that was in great demand in Europe at the time. The Brazilwood tree was soon depleted, however, and by the 17th century the base of the economy had switched to sugarcane.





Sugarcane is a labor-intensive industry and the Portuguese needed labor to cut and process the cane. At first, they tried enslaving the native population, but had little success. The natives were unused to such physical labor, preferring to hunt or fish. Often, they ran away, and European diseases took their toll. Black Africans were brought in to work the cane fields, and the industry became more successful. The slave trade would persist until 1850, when most of the nations of the world outlawed it. Brazil would be one of the last countries to abolish slavery in the western hemisphere, on May 13, 1888, a date that is still celebrated in Brazil.





On occasion, the blacks would also run off, as their treatment and living conditions were inhuman. When they did, they would establish communities of escaped slaves, or quilombos, in the wilderness. Some of Brazil’s most interesting traditions come from the slavery era. The distinctive dancing/martial art known as capoeira comes from slaves who were teaching each other hand-to-hand combat under the guise of dancing. The berimbau, a Brazilian musical instrument that consists of a curved stick and a metal string tapped with a stick to produce music, looks a lot like a bow and arrow, and some historians theorize that the berimbau did, in fact, have both purposes.





In the colonial period, other European powers tried to steal hunks of Brazil, which was enormous, close to Europe, rich in materials, and sparsely populated by the Portuguese. The French made two attempts, occupying present-day Rio de Janeiro from 1555 to 1567 and São Liz from 1612 to1614. On both occasions, they were driven off by the Portuguese. The Dutch had a little bit more success. Dutch pirates terrorized the coast throughout the colonial period, sacking Bahia in1604. They occupied part of the Brazilian northeast from 1630 until they formally withdrew in 1661.





In 1808, Portugal was invaded by Napoleon’s French army. King John VI of Portugal fled the country with his entire court, and they set up in Rio de Janeiro For the next few years, Rio was the seat of the Portuguese Empire. In 1821, Napoleon was defeated and the royal court was able to return to Portugal. King John left his son, Prince Regent Pedro, in charge of Brazil. On September 7, 1822, the Prince declared independence from Portugal and made himself king of Brazil. It was not a bloodless revolution: although they were able to avoid any massive battles, the two countries skirmished several times. Portugal did not recognize Brazilian independence until 1825, and the years in between were very tense ones for Brazil. Pedro I abdicated in 1834 in favor of his son, Pedro II, who was very young at the time: regents ruled in his stead until 1841, when the fifteen-year-old prince was sworn in as Emperor.





Pedro II was popular with the people of Brazil. He was fairly liberal, and abolished slavery in 1888. It is an interesting side note that Pedro II was the first Brazilian to use a telephone. He went to the United States for a visit in the 1870s and was in Philadelphia in 1876 for the World Exposition. While there, he met an extraordinary man named Alexander Graham Bell who proudly showed the Emperor of Brazil his new invention.





Pedro II was deposed by a military coup in 1889 led by general Deodara da Fonseca, who became the country’s first president. The nation was re-named the United States of Brasil, although later (1967) they changed the name again, to the Federal Republic of Brasil. From 1889 to 1930, Brazil was a constitutional democracy, but ruled by a small, wealthy elite, mostly from the industrial city of São Paulo and the rich mining interests of Minas Gerais. Coffee became an important industry. The country was booming, and in this period, it attracted many immigrants from parts of Europe that were suffering economically, such as Germany and Italy. These immigrants generally settled in the south, where their influence is still felt today. It was during this period that Brazilians began truly exploring the interior of their vast land.





In the period between 1915 and 1930, an artistic and cultural revolution of sorts swept Brazil. Artists and writers began the modernist movement, which was marked by an increased interest in the non-Portuguese – that is to say, primarily native and African – cultures of Brazil. Painters began seeing beauty in native art and themes and writers began exploring different cultures. The Modern Art Week (Semana de Arte Moderna), an art festival held in São Paulo, was a watershed in Brazilian culture. One good example of the literature produced during this period is the novel Macunaíma, by Mário de Andrade and published in 1928. In the novel, the hero, Macunaíma, is, at times white, black and Indian. The novel caused quite a stir in Brazil,where European culture was still quite privileged. The movement caused people to think about Brazilian identity as a sum of its parts, and no longer as simply Europeans in America.





A 1930 coup replaced president Washington Luís, friendly to the São Paulo coffee barons, with Getúlio Vargas, a populist. Vargas would dominate Brazilian politics for the next two and a half decades until his death by suicide in 1954. At first, Vargas was fairly liberal, introducing reforms and supporting arts in addition to industry and commerce. Eventually, however, he became a fascist-style dictator, openly modeling his regime on those of Mussolini and Hitler in the mid to late 1930's. He adopted their repressive political tactics and Antisemitism as well. He re-wrote the constitution in1934 to give himself more powers. As in Europe, fears of communism helped his transition to fascism. In the mid 1930s, Brazil did a booming trade with Germany. Vargas would eventually turn his back on fascism and the Axis powers, deciding to side with the allies in World War two. He nominally left office in 1945, to allow one of his handpicked deputies to rule, but returned in 1950. He was unable to solve Brazil’s economic difficulties, however, and committed suicide in 1954 to avoid a coup.





In the 1960s, the capital of the nation was moved to Brasilia. It was somewhat of a quixotic move, because Brasilia is very remote and Rio de Janeiro has suffered as a result. From 1961 to 1964, the president of Brazil was João Goulart, whose liberal reforms threatened U.S.interests. President Kennedy openly criticized him, and in 1964, the CIA supported a coup that removed him from power. He was replaced with a military regime that ruled until the mid 1980s. The period saw significant economic growth but also increasing repression by the government of its citizens. By the late 1960s, a guerrilla movement had begun in the Amazon region and many artists and dissidents had gone into exile.





In 1985, Brazil saw a return to civilian rule, but it was not an easy transition: Fernando Collar de Mello was elected in 1989 but by 1992 he had been impeached for corruption. In 1994, Fernando Henrique Cardoso became president. He took immediate action to work on Brazil’s struggling economy, with mixed results. He introduced a new currency, the real, to combat rampant inflation, and the move is considered to have been a great success. In spite of this and other successes, the economy continued to struggle and by 1999 the economy needed a 41.5 billion dollar bailout by the International Monetary Fund, who feared that if Brazil defaulted on its massive debt, all of South America might fall into an economic depression.





Although Brazil’s economy is huge – it is the largest economy in Latin America and the ninth largest in the world – poverty and the troubles that accompany it, like ignorance, violence, and crime, continue to be its greatest social problems. The largest cities, such as Rio and São Paulo, have huge favelas, or slums, where the crime and murder rates are among the highest in the world. Most people in the favelas live on less than one dollar per day. In the early 1990s, Brazil caught the world’s attention when it was revealed that store owners and merchants in some of Brazil’s large cities were paying off-duty policemen to round up and murder homeless street kids. These kids had been stealing from the stores and scaring off customers with their begging and petty theft. Today, drug problems and gang violence are rampant in the favelas.





One aspect of modern Brazilian culture that is impossible to ignore is the nation’s obsession with futebol, or soccer. Even other soccer-mad countries like Argentina or Italy cannot compare with Brazil. Soccer stars become national heroes, and any Brazilian can rattle off the years and scores of Brazil’s five World Cup victories – two more than any other country. Brazil has also finished in the top four on five other occasions. Brazil won the most recent World Cup in 2002.





In 2003, Luiz Ignacio Lula de Silva, a leftist reformer, was elected president. He is the first leftist president to be elected in Brazil in some time, and he has many plans for change and economic development. Lula was re-elected in 2006.

Here are some related tips to help plan your trip to Brazil: History of Carnival,








By Christopher Minster
I am a writer and editor at V!VA Travel guides here in Quito, where I specialize in adding quality content to the site and also in spooky things like...
20 Jul 2011




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