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8: The Political Development of the Modern Brazilian State

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    The Political Development of the Modern Brazilian State


    The Country of the Future?


    Brazil is by far the largest country in South America in size and population, bordering all other South American countries except Ecuador and Chile. Its geography is as diverse as its population. Brazil’s borders contain the Amazon rainforest, a huge ecological resource. Like India and Nigeria, its borders are the product of colonialism but, as in the United States, independence created a nation ruled by the descendants of the colonial power rather than the original inhabitants. Yet, while Brazil became independent earlier and under different circumstances, its political and economic development share much in common with other “developing” nations including the rest of Latin America. Among the world’s nations Brazil has long been viewed as a “sleeping giant”. It is the world’s 5th largest country and has the 6th largest population. (211 million in 2019). At several points in the 20th century, as well as the past decade, it has appeared that Brazil was primed to finally realize its potential. At each point, however, economic and political crises have led to reversals of fortune. A popular joke in Brazil used to say that “Brazil was the country of the future, and always will be.” This expressed the sense that the country is like that star athlete with all the skills and natural ability who never quite reached his or her potential but still hopes to. In order to understand why that has been the case and what possibilities the future may offer, we need to examine the roots of the Brazilian state in its history as a Portuguese colony and the evolution of its political institutions since it became independent in 1823.


    Legacies of Colonialism


    Prior to conquest by Portuguese explorers, the region that became Brazil was home to a wide array of indigenous communities. The Americas was the last continent to be inhabited by humans when migrants from Asia crossed into the hemisphere during the last ice age. Evidence of human inhabitants in modern day Brazil has been traced back to 9000 BCE. Unlike the larger states that Spanish conquerors confronted in the Andes region and Mexico, these communities were much less centralized with between 2 and 6 million people living in the region when the Portuguese arrived.

    The first Portuguese colonizers arrived on the Northeast coast near the present-day state of Bahia in 1500 and the first permanent settlement was established near present day Sao Paulo in 1532. The absence of metals, especially gold, led to little organized effort to establish control for the first few decades though the trade in a reddish wood that came to be called Brazil wood (from a Latin word) gave the colony its name. In 1533, a system of internal colonies called capitanias granted control to Portuguese nobleman. The system did not work well and the Portuguese monarch John III established stronger administrative control over the region, including a colonial capital of Salvador in Bahia. He also promoted the arrival of Jesuit missionaries.

    By far the most important development during this first century was the emergence of sugar as the dominant export from the colony. The relatively small and fragmented indigenous population was decimated by exposure to European diseases like smallpox for which they had no immunity. An estimated 80-90 % of the pre-colonial indigenous population died in this manner. Sugar is a very labor-intensive crop and its cultivation and harvest is a grueling task. Brazil turned to the Atlantic trade in African slaves for the bulk of its labor. Until sugar cultivation diminished and slavery was abolished in Brazil in 1889, an estimated 4-5 million African slaves (roughly half the total number overall) were brought to Brazil, leaving a permanent mark on the countries culture, demography, and socio-economic conditions.

    While some historians have argued that slavery in Brazil was more humane than in the US, it is more accurate to say that it operated differently and left different legacies for each society. Sugar cane cultivation was, as noted, brutal work and from early on slave owners did not emphasize maintaining slaves and their descendants as a self-reproducing work force. Many slaves were simply worked to death; until the abolition of the slave trade in the early 19th century, it was easier to import more slaves. Unlike in the United States, slavery was not a condition for life; slaves who survived the brutal labor conditions could purchase their freedom and by the time slavery was abolished there were three times as many freed Blacks as slaves.  Since Brazil was colonized largely by men, relationships with African and indigenous women were common and led to a complex caste system based on ancestry and skin color. While this meant a less rigid color line than that which emerged in the United States, it was a more stratified and hierarchical society as well.  The modern-day impact of these characteristics of Brazilian slavery will be examined more fully in future readings.

    While sugar was dominant, the pursuit of other sources of wealth gradually led to settlement in more interior regions in the south and west of the colony. Gold was discovered in 1695 while cotton and coffee production emerged in the 18th century. At the same time, the colony experienced little internal trade and a tradition of effective rule being in the hands of local elites developed and would continue after independence. In the context of 17th and 18th century Europe Portugal was, like Spain, a diminishing power that was falling behind other nations in its economic and military power. Nonetheless, it was able to maintain a monopoly over trade and commerce in Brazil and the colony was an essential source of wealth. An important long-term result of this was that while British policies in its American colonies enabled the emergence of a merchant class which eventually provided part of the foundation for the independence movement, Brazil’s economy remained firmly under the control of the Portuguese crown. This inhibited the internal development of Brazil’s economy and established a pattern of dependence on the export of agricultural and mineral commodities which continues to the present and has often been a source of economic and political instability.


    Independence, Constitutional Monarchy and Economic Change


    The American and French Revolutions had a huge impact on the rest of the Americas. Efforts by both the Spanish and Portuguese monarchs to assert more control over their colonies generated resentments among regional elites. The vastness of their colonial possessions made the relative unity which emerged among the British colonies that became the United States much more difficult and colonial rule did not foster a strong sense of shared identity. Most residents of the colonies identified with their local region and its social and political hierarchies. Ideas related to representation, popular sovereignty, and republicanism (as opposed to monarchical) were popular among some of the region’s elites though colonial rule had given them little direct experience of them.

    It was the Napoleonic Wars which proved decisive in the independence of Brazil and the rest of Latin America.  In 1808, Napoleon invaded Portugal and Spain, forcing King Dom João VI to flee to Brazil with his son, Dom Pedro. After Napoleon was defeated,  Dom João returned to Portugal in 1821 and left his son to rule over Brazil. Dom Pedro saw this as his opportunity to become a ruler in his own right, and declared Brazil independent from the Portuguese crown in 1823, making himself emperor of a constitutional monarchy. While the nations of Spanish Latin America fought bloody battles first against Spanish control and then among regional elites, Brazil’s independence came about peacefully. While the emperor remained the dominant power, the rudiments of representation and popular sovereignty were planted as well.  A constituent assembly was established but when Dom Pedro did not like the result he imposed his own constitution. It established a two-house legislative branch and limited property-based voting rights but enabled the monarch to remain the poder moderador or “moderating power” through the right to disband the legislatures.

    An important behind the scenes actor in this process, not surprisingly, was Britain. It was British military assistance that enabled the monarchy to move to Brazil and that process began a series of economic concessions that gradually made Britain the dominant source of imports as well as the leading source of investment capital in the 19th century. The Brazilian economy became more integrated into an expanding global economy in which Britain was the dominant power. Like the rest of Latin America, the legacy of colonization by a declining power meant Brazil became independent in a condition of economic weakness and dependence.  While Dom Pedro made some efforts to establish more central control, regional elites continued to be important powers on the ground.  In 1832, Pedro left the throne to his 5-year-old son who took full power in 1840 and remained Emperor until 1889. He retained the powers of his father; Liberal and Conservative political parties emerged though legislative bodies remained subordinate to the emperor. Brazil also became embroiled in regional conflicts with Argentina and Uruguay which had the important long-term consequence of strengthening the power of the military as a political force.

    While the political system fostered stability and  continuity, economic change gradually generated new elites and new challenges. Coffee and rubber gradually replaced sugar as the dominant exports. Britain, as elsewhere, became the dominant international economic force providing the bulk of Brazil’s imported goods while buying most of its exports. The British supported local elites who pushed for the end of slavery. In 1871, the Law of the Free Womb freed children born of slaves. Several states within Brazil banned slavery in the early 1880s and in 1885 the daughter of Pedro II, in authority while her father was in Europe, banned slavery. The next year, the Brazilian military overthrew the monarchy and a new constitution, influenced by the US, established a  republican system with a president and congress with the right to vote extended to franchise all literate males. After slavery ended, Brazil did not develop a system of legal segregation like that which emerged in the United States. Nonetheless, black Brazilians still faced significant every day forms of de facto discrimination. Brazil’s leaders pursued a policy of enblancamiento through encouragement of European immigration that, it was hoped, would improve the overall genetic stock of the county. No effort was made to address the systematic economic inequalities that four centuries of slavery produced.


    The First Republic (1890-1930)


    This period is sometimes known as the Old Republic. It is also described as “rule by the governors” because state level elites remained dominant and a system that political scientists refer to as clientelism and patrimonialism emerged. The latter designation referred to the role of local leaders whose power was built around personal loyalty and personal and public interest often blurred. Using the power of the state in ways that directly benefited leaders and their supporters became the norm. This in turn fostered political parties  that were electoral machines through which votes were exchanged for services and favors, often in quite obvious and explicit ways. These could include jobs, educational opportunities, new infrastructure and service in neighborhood, etc. These practices resemble the “political machines” that long operated in many US cities.  

    One particular version of this which emerged in Brazil was called Coronelismo by which rural populations were induced to support landed elites for fear of violent retribution.  In Brazil, it led to the growth of new political parties to integrate rural peasant and urban working-class populations as the right to vote gradually expanded. This tradition of clientelism has remained an important characteristic of Brazilian politics. It is also described sometimes as “patronage” politics.

    At the national level, clientelism and patronage politics produced a system which Brazilians called Café com leite, or coffee with milk. The office of President was effectively alternated between Brazil’s two most important states, Sao Paulo (where coffee was the dominant product), and Minas Gerais, (cattle and dairy). During this time Brazil’s economy boomed along with the global demand for its exports. Urbanization, the mass migration of peasants from the impoverished northeast to the big cities in the south, and the emergence of a growing middle class generated demands for political reform that challenged the clientelism and elitism of the political system.  New political parties, including a communist party emerged. The Brazilian military was also growing in its power and political ambition and some of its young and especially ambitious officers were drawn to the fascist ideology of Mussolini in Italy, with its emphasis on order and nationalism and hostility to liberal democracy.

    The challenges facing Brazil in these years mirror those we have examined elsewhere. Brazil's growing integration in the global economy through its exports industries generated internal economic growth and some industrialization. While this did not occur on the scale of Britain or Germany or bring the instability that befell China or Iran, Brazil experienced all the same challenges. With the development of the electoral system, new social groups sought their own mechanisms of representation to challenge political elites.  The peaceful political inclusion of these groups into the electoral system became the principal institutional challenge. While the economy was strong the system of Café com Leite could generally manage this process, but Brazil’s deep economic and social divides led some to conclude that fascism or communism provided better paths forward for Brazil. 


    The Estado Novo: Fascism with a Samba Beat


    The Great Depression took an enormous toll on the Brazilian economy. As the entire world plunged into an economic depression, the demand for coffee and cattle dried up. Economic unrest caused social and political unrest. In 1930, a defeated presidential candidate, Getulio Vargas, collaborated with military officers to overthrow the government in power. Vargas became the dominant force in Brazilian politics until his death in 1954. Working in an environment in which fascist and communist ideas were in conflict, Vargas was ideologically flexible. His priority was the establishment of a stronger central state. He replaced the governors of the states with his own appointments, and sought to build a base of support among the country’s growing urban working class. He was elected President under a constitution written in 1934 that only permitted one term; in 1937 he declared himself the leader of the Estado Novo, a semi fascist state in which he abolished political parties and sought to foster a stronger state and more unified sense of nationalism among Brazilians.

    The system that Vargas established is one that political scientists refer to as corporatism. As the Latin roots of the term (corpus) suggest, this is a conception of the state as needing to serve as the equivalent of the brain in human bodies. Whereas liberal democracy is based on the idea of a state that is an umpire limited to protecting individual rights, a corporatist state plays a far more active role in trying to foster a harmonious social order. Liberal democracy is viewed as fostering conflict and competing interest groups while a corporatist state seeks to promote unity. Rather than wait for interest groups to organize, the corporatist state organizes society and tries to manage competition and conflict from the top down.

    One clear example of corporatism in action is a series of labor laws Vargas instituted that were designed to increase worker rights but also prevent the establishment of independent labor unions. Strikes were prevented and the state became the mediator of labor disputes. The goal here was similar to what Bismarck sought when establishing welfare state programs in Germany: to present the state as the protector of the people and thus prevent the emergence of more radical political demands and movements. Vargas also established a minimum wage and rudimentary health and social security systems as well as a pension system for public employees. Vargas also sought to diversify the Brazilian economy and expand its industrial base through the promotion of import substitution policies similar to those carried out in India after independence. Economic and political goals were directly interrelated: building national industries would provide more employment and foster greater loyalty to the state. While providing protection to private domestic producers, these policies also created new-owned enterprises including steel and oil.

    Vargas promoted cultural policies to foster a stronger sense of national identity as well. In contrast to earlier efforts to promote enblancamiento or “whitening” by encouraging European immigrants and interracial marriage that would “dilute” the effect of African genes, Vargas promoted the idea of Brazil as a “racial democracy.” Samba schools and clubs received state support in these efforts and Brazil’s music and dance were promoted as global tourist attractions. An “Afro-Brazilian” identity was embraced, though racism continued to exist.

    Vargas’ Estado Novo was also an example of a form of political leadership which political scientists have identified as populist or populism. There is not a consistent political ideology and populist politicians can run across the political spectrum. Populist politicians generally express a strong, charismatic personality who is able to articulate and mobilize a sense of himself--populists are almost always men--as especially in touch with the feelings, aspirations, and experiences of the masses. The populist presents himself as the person who can save the nation from the corruption of self interested elites and professional politicians. Many populists adopt an authoritarian approach and are not particularly tolerant of dissent. They can be quick to label critics as “enemies of the people.” 


    Democratic Populism and the Limits of Clientelism


    Vargas is a particularly interesting example of populist leadership because most evolve in a more authoritarian direction, whereas the Brazilian president moved in the other direction towards democratic populism. During World War II, some Latin American leaders openly admired Hitler and Mussolini and remained neutral, but Vargas allied with the United States. This position encouraged many Brazilians to push Vargas for a return to democracy. In response he developed two political parties: the Social Democratic Party (PSD) and the Brazilian labor party (PTB).  While officially separate parties, the two parties were both pro-Vargas and a coalition candidate, Eurico Dutra, was elected in 1945. Vargas ran and was elected as the candidate of the PSD-PTB in 1950. Their opposition third party was the National Democratic Union (UDN). Vargas deepened his earlier promotion of economic nationalism but downturns in the global economy and corruption scandals led to pressure from the military for Vargas to resign. Instead, Vargas committed suicide on August 24, 1954, leaving behind a suicide note claiming that a wide array of enemies had attacked him to weaken Brazil.

    In the wake of Vargas’ death, another PSD-PTD candidate, Juscelino Kubitschek, was elected in 1955, promising “50 years progress in 5”. Import substitution was deepened as new industries were developed including automobiles. Kubitschek also promoted the development of a new capital away from Rio de Janeiro to a new planned city called Brasilia. During his term, employment increased but so did inflation and budget deficits and corruption. By the end of his term, many Brazilians were tired of the PSD-PTD and in 1961, the opposition UDC candidate Jãnio Quadro was elected. After 7 months, he resigned and Vice President João Goulart became president.

    During Goulart’s term, democratic populism in Brazil faced growing challenges. Throughout this time, the patterns of clientelism and patronage politics that developed during the years of Café con Leite continued. This kind of system is dependent on the capacity of the state to provide benefits to the population that keep it content. That capacity requires the state to have consistent levels of financial resources. But in the years after World War II Brazil’s economy encountered boom and bust cycles. While the economy had been diversified by import substitution policies, it was still dependent on the global market for its exports. When prices were high, the state was flush and could provide the services it promised to voters. However, prices for Brazil’s exports tended to fluctuate, generating periodic trade imbalances and debt.

    Brazil’s political challenges were also affected by regional and global developments. The Cold War led the United States to fear the spread of communism and the Cuban Revolution in 1959, which brought Fidel Castro to power, sent shock waves through the entire continent. When President Goulart pursued land reform policies to address rural poverty, fear of “another Cuba” in Brazil grew among Brazil’s elite as well as the Johnson Administration. With the support of the US Ambassador to Brazil and conservatives in the Brazilian senate and courts, the military forced Goulart from power on April 1, 1964.


    The Military in Power: Bureaucratic Authoritarian Rule and the Brazilian “Miracle”


    While there were significant voices calling on the military to act, the Brazilian military was by no means acting simply on behalf of others. It had a sense of its own centrality in protecting the sovereignty of Brazil that dated back to the days of the monarchy. The training officers received in the Superior War College of Brazil went beyond courses on military issues. Classes in economics, organizational theory, social science, and public policy gave officers a strong sense of their own capacity to govern more effectively than politicians they viewed as self-interested. When the military took power in 1964, it had the support of conservative political elites, but it had very much its own agenda. After the overthrow of Goulart Army Chief of Staff General Humberto Castelo Branco became president. The military sought to maintain a veneer of democratic legitimacy by abolishing the preexisting parties and establishing its own party, the National Renovating Alliance, and an official opposition party, the Brazilian Democratic movement.  The executive was strengthened and Congress greatly weakened. Direct election of the president was replaced by an electoral college.

    The government which emerged from military rule was described by Argentine political scientist Guillermo O’Donnell as “bureaucratic-authoritarian” and the term captured the goals of the military well. The problem facing Brazil, in this view, was politics. There had been too much of it. Politicians used clientelist policies to mobilize voters, promising them more and more and moving Brazil’s politics more and more to the left. The result was economic and political instability. The solution was to limit the impact of popular political pressures on state officials so they could carry out the policies necessary for Brazil to deepen its industrial base and strengthen the economic capacity of the state. The “bureaucratic” aspect involved a still stronger role for the state in promoting Brazilian industries and attracting foreign investment.  In order to accomplish this, the state would have to become more “authoritarian” in its capacity to silence protest and limit citizens' demands on the state.

    In practice this meant promotion of state-owned companies in areas such as computers, aircraft, as well as mining and agriculture. The economic results were impressive statistically, with growth rates over 10% per year from 1968-1974. At the same time, repression against political dissent as well as a small Cuban style guerrilla movement reached levels never seen before in Brazil. Imprisonment or the outright disappearance of those labeled “radical” for the participation in left-wing political activities was widespread and torture of prisoners was common, as documented in a report issued in 1985 called Nunca Mais (Never Again).


    Abertura and the Transition to Democracy


    As the economy improved and the threat of radicalism diminished, the military faced growing pressure to return to democratic rule. While they hoped to maintain dominance with a system of limited democracy, such a system had limited appeal or legitimacy even among Brazilian elites. By 1974, the Catholic Church and many civilian political leaders were calling for opening the system back up. Equally important was the rise of Brazilian social movements including labor, student, indigenous, and Afro-Brazilian organizations. In its effort to end the clientelist patterns of state-citizen relations, the military inadvertently created the conditions for the emergence of the most independent social movements in Brazil’s history. Military leaders responded with a program of abertura or opening, which they hoped would satisfy popular pressures while keeping them, or their close allies in power. The military intended that the system provide its party, ARENA, with significant advantages, but by playing by the rules of what was supposed to be a somewhat rigged game, opposition parties made continued advances in elections to national and state legislatures. Popular pressure demanded and won the reestablishment of direct elections for state governors in 1982 and opposition candidates won several of those elections.

    The final showdown in the battle between military and civilian control came in response to the military effort to use the electoral college to maintain control of the next presidential election in 1985. This sparked a movement called “directas Ja” or “direct elections now.” All the forces of the newly emergent Brazilian civil society came together—social movements, opposition parties, and new labor unions. This movement held huge rallies which increased pressure on the military government. While the military did not bend on this issue, the electoral college plan backfired as the military candidate was defeated by an opposition coalition called the Democratic Alliance. Tancredo Neves of the PMDB was elected president but died just before taking office;  Vice President Jose Sarney became the first civilian president since 1964.


    The Consolidation of Brazilian Democracy: Still the Country of the Future?


    However, the legacy of the authoritarian military regime and party hung heavy over the political system. A constituent assembly met to draft a new constitution which took effect in 1988. There was much debate about the relative merits of a parliamentary versus a presidential system. Initially, a presidential system was adopted but with the promise that the question would be put to a vote within 5 years. In 1993, that system was approved. The constitution also restored power to state governments and gave the newly independent labor movement more rights.

    The issue that challenged the new democratic system the most was the economy. Military governments had financed state development by taking on huge loans from private banks. In the 1970s, these banks were awash in “petrodollars” deposited by oil producing countries after price hikes in the mid-1970s. In the wake of the Brazilian “miracle,” these seemed like good bets for borrower and lender, but further price hikes at the end of the decade, global recession, and inflation left Brazil, and other Latin American countries, facing a massive debt crisis in 1982. At this point, with the markets for its exports depressed, Brazil could barely pay the interest on its debt. They were then required to seek the help of the International Monetary Fund. To avoid defaulting on its debts, Brazil signed Structural Adjustment Agreements with the IMF which forced it to liberalize its economy and cut back its huge state sector, devalue its currency, and end state subsidies. The results were positive for the banks and Brazil was able to continue to pay the interest on its debt. But at the macroeconomic level, the result was “the lost decade”: a period of negative economic growth and a steep decline in the standard of living. We will explore the economic policy responses to these conditions further in later readings. They placed clear limits on the capacity of the state to address the poverty, inequality, and lack of opportunity which the majority of Brazilians faced. At the same time, the fact that the roots of these conditions were in military rule gave President Sarney and his successors a bit more room to develop policies without fear of a return to military rule.

    In 1989, Brazil held its first presidential election since 1960. A little known former governor from the small, poor state of Alagoas in Northwest Brazil, Fernando Collor de Mello, was elected president. He defeated Luis Inacio da Silva of the left-wing Workers Party (PT) by making bold promises to fix inflation and corruption and challenge the IMF. In power, he reversed his campaign promises by further opening up the economy. In 1992, Collor was caught in a bribery scandal that led to demands for his impeachment. This was an important test of the strength of democracy in Brazil. In the past, this level of protest would have generated calls for the military to intervene and it may well have chosen to do sp. But in 1992, with the Soviet Union disbanded, Cuba facing economic crisis, the US no longer concerned about the spread of communism, and the military still smarting from its own failures in power, the situation was resolved peacefully when Collor resigned and his Vice President, Itamar Franco became president.  Minister of Finance Fernando Henrique Cardoso established the “Real Plan” which created a new currency, the real. Cardoso’s plan helped bring inflation down to its lowest levels in decades and as a result he was the president of Brazil in 1994 and reelected in 1998.

    Another important marker of the consolidation of democracy in Brazil was the election of Lula da Silva in 2002. The leader of the PT, Lula had been a perennial front runner in early election polls in the previous election. However, fear of the party’s left-wing ideology and platform had kept Lula from gaining enough support to win the election in Brazil’s two tier election system in which the two top candidates in the first round face off in a second round and one must get more than 50%. Lula made a concerted effort to calm the fear of the global economic community and was elected in 2002 and reelected in 2006. His protegee, Dilma Rousseff won the election in 2010 and again in 2014. The success of the PT was made possible in part by robust economic growth that was fueled by demand for Brazilian exports. Even after economic crisis of 2008 and 2009, Chinese growth kept Brazil’s economy growing. For the first time, Brazil recovered more quickly from a global recession than the US.

    But this condition did not hold and with slowed growth in China and India, Brazil’s growth came to an abrupt halt in 2014. Brazil’s new middle class was especially hard hit and this quickly brought attention anew to the old Brazilian problem of corruption. President Rousseff was impeached in 2017 and in 2018, a new, largely unknown populist, Jair Bolsonaro, emerged. Speaking crudely about women, LGBT peoples, and racial minorities, he promised to deal forcefully with crime, expand gun rights, and end corruption. In power, however, he was quickly accused of corruption within his family and his mishandling of the coronavirus pandemic has led Brazil to have the second highest number of cases in the world.

    Thus, Brazil’s quest to make good on its extraordinary potential continues. Amidst the economic decline, pervasive corruption, high levels of crime and police violence, Brazilian democratic institutions have managed to survive challenges that might have undone it in the past. We will look at these issues more closely in future readings, but for now most Brazilians appear to believe that the solution for the problems of democracy is more rather than less democracy.

    Authors: Mary Coleman and Marc Belanger

    8: The Political Development of the Modern Brazilian State is shared under a not declared license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by LibreTexts.

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