Brazil - language, government, economy, cities, history, tourism, people, education, religion, agriculture, climate

Read about Brazil: language, government, economy, cities, history, tourism, people, education, religion, agriculture, climate ...



Brazil, one of the world’s largest and most populous countries. It is the largest country in South America, occupying almost half of the continent and extending from north of the equator to south of the Tropic of Capricorn. Its largest city is São Paulo, and its capital is Brasília. Brazil’s large size and diverse population provide great variety in the natural environment, culture, and economy.

The nation’s natural beauty is reflected in a wide variety of geographic locations, from the distinctive dome shape of Sugar Loaf Mountain in the city of Rio de Janeiro, to the magnificent Iguaçu Falls in the far south, to the strange limestone formations in the state of Minas Gerais in the Southeast region. A broad contrast exists between the nation’s two main physical features: the densely forested lowlands of the Amazon Basin in the north and the generally open uplands of the Brazilian Highlands to the south. The climate is generally tropical, but areas located at higher elevations or farther from the equator tend to be more temperate. Vegetation varies from rain forests to pine forests to savannas and semiarid scrub. The forests are a rich source of timber. Brazil sustains a diverse agriculture, producing tropical crops such as sugar, coffee, and newly developed tropical varieties of soybeans. In recent years environmentalists have become increasingly concerned over the future of the Amazon region, where human encroachment has threatened the world’s largest intact rain forest.

Brazil’s population is very diverse. This diversity is the result of intermingling between Native Americans, Portuguese settlers, and African slaves, which produced a society of racial and ethnic complexity. Brazil is the only Latin American country settled by the Portuguese. Before the Portuguese arrived in 1500, many Native American tribes sparsely populated the country. In the mid-16th century the Portuguese began to import African slaves to work on agricultural production. The ethnic mix between these three groups, along with other European peoples who immigrated to Brazil after 1850, has contributed to some distinctly Brazilian cultural forms, especially in music and architecture. Distinct cultures also continue to survive among Afro-Brazilians, non-Portuguese immigrants from Europe and Asia, and isolated pockets of Native Americans. However, Portuguese cultural influences remain strong, with Portuguese as the primary language and Roman Catholicism as the principal religion.

The economic development of Brazil has been strongly influenced by a series of economic cycles in which different resources were exploited in different parts of the country. The first commodity to be exploited was the dyewood pau brasil (brazilwood), from which the country takes its name. In the mid-16th century colonists introduced sugar cultivation, taking advantage of the good soil and tropical climate along the Northeast coast. Gold was discovered in the 1690s in what became the state of Minas Gerais. This provoked a gold rush that brought the first significant settlement of the interior and shifted the country’s economic focus and population center from the Northeast to the Southeast.

The gold began to be exhausted in the late 18th century, and there was a gap before the next, but most important, economic cycle. Coffee production dominated the economy from about the mid-1800s to the 1930s. It was particularly important in São Paulo, and was closely linked to the building of railways into the interior. Since the 1940s Brazilian society has undergone dramatic changes due to efforts—largely encouraged by government policy—to boost industrialization and to diversify the economy. Brazil is now one of the most industrialized nations in South America, with a rapidly modernizing economy and a largely urban population. Tropical crops and minerals remain significant exports, but manufactured goods are increasingly important. Brazil has by far the largest economy in South America.

Although Brazil holds the potential to become an economic powerhouse, social conditions stemming from Brazil’s early years as a plantation society have continued to cause inequalities in the distribution of wealth and power. A small and wealthy elite still controls most of the land and resources, and much of the population continues to live in poverty, especially in rural areas. Extensive slums have sprouted up on the outskirts of the larger cities as rural workers move to these areas seeking employment.

Until the 1960s the majority of the people lived in rural areas rather than in cities or towns, but that situation is now reversed. Some 84 percent of the population is now classed as urban, and in 2005 Brazil had an urban population of 154 million.

Brazil was a Portuguese colony from 1500 to 1822, when it achieved independence. Unlike many Latin American countries, Brazil’s transition from colony to independent nation was a relatively peaceful process that spared the country bloodshed and economic devastation. After becoming independent, Brazil was ruled by an emperor. The abolition of slavery took place in 1888. The following year a bloodless revolution led by army officers overthrew the emperor and established a federal republic.

Wealthy landowners in the economically powerful states of Southeastern Brazil dominated the republic until 1930, when another revolution established a provisional government and led to a military-backed dictatorship; this dictatorship lasted from 1937 to 1945, when democracy was restored. Economic problems and political tension led to another military coup in 1964. The military regime remained in power until 1985, ruling with particularly repressive methods from 1968 to 1974. The regime began to relax its controls in the early 1980s and moved to restore democracy. Since then Brazil has worked to reestablish democratic institutions.


Brazil occupies an immense area along the eastern coast of South America and includes much of the continent’s interior region. The factors of size, relief, climate, and natural resources make Brazil geographically diverse. Planners divide the country into five macro-regions: (1) North, (2) Northeast, (3) Southeast, (4) South, and (5) Center-West.

The North includes most of the Amazon Basin and covers 45 percent of the national territory, but only 7 percent of the population lives there. The Northeast is the eastward bulge of the country. It was the first area to be settled by Europeans. Its semiarid interior, the sertão, is largely given over to low-density livestock ranching. Much of the population of the Northeast lives in poverty. The mainly upland area of the Southeast is the demographic and economic core of the nation. Brazil’s two largest cities, São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, are located here. The Southeast contains only 11 percent of Brazil’s land, but 43 percent of the population lives there. The South is the smallest region. It is distinct not only because of its temperate climate, but also because it was primarily settled by European immigrants in the late 19th century, giving the region a culture that is more European than other areas of the nation. The Center-West is a landlocked, thinly populated region that includes Brasília, the national capital.

Two geographic features dominate the landscape of Brazil: the vast Amazon Basin, which spans the width of northern Brazil, and an extensive highland plateau, known as the Brazilian Highlands, which covers most of the South and Southeast. The Amazon Basin consists of a huge drainage area that contains the world’s largest river and the world’s largest tropical rain forest. The population remains sparse in this region due to thick vegetation and an oppressively hot and humid climate. The Brazilian Highlands is an eroded plateau dotted with irregular mountains and crossed by river valleys. The highlands separate Brazil’s inland regions from a narrow coastal plain that stretches from Ceará in the Northeast to the Uruguayan border in the South.

In spite of Brazil’s size, the broad pattern of climate is less varied than might be expected. The equator passes through northern Brazil, running adjacent to the Amazon River. Because of its equatorial location and low elevation, the extensive Amazon region has a climate with high temperatures and substantial rainfall. Farther to the south, temperatures become slightly more moderate. The state of Rio Grande do Sul in the extreme south exhibits a more temperate climate, with seasonal weather patterns resembling those of the southern United States. Rainfall is plentiful in Brazil, except in the sertão, a semiarid region of the Northeast that is subject to occasional droughts.

Brazil contains a wealth of mineral and plant resources that have not yet been fully explored. It possesses some of the world’s largest deposits of iron ore and contains rich deposits of many other minerals, including gold and copper. Brazil’s fossil fuel resources are modest, but this limitation is offset by the considerable hydroelectric potential of the nation’s many rivers. Although Brazil is an important producer of tropical crops, areas of highly fertile land are limited, and only a small proportion of the land is actually under cultivation. There is substantial livestock ranching, and the forests are important sources of timber, rubber, and palm oil.

Natural Regions in Brazil

Much of Brazil lies between 200 and 800 m (700 and 2,600 ft) in elevation. The main upland area occupies most of the southern half of the country. It is an enormous block of geologically ancient rocks that rises from the northwestern region towards the southeast. As a consequence it has a steep edge near the Atlantic coast and in places drops in a single escarpment of up to 800 m (2,600 ft). The northwestern parts of the plateau consist of broad, rolling terrain broken by low, rounded hills. The southeastern section is more rugged, with a complex mass of ridges and mountain ranges reaching elevations of up to 1,200 m (3,900 ft). These ranges include the Serra da Mantiqueira, the Serra do Espinhaço, the Chapada Diamantina, and the Serra do Mar. The Serra do Mar forms a sharp edge along the coast from Rio de Janeiro south for about 1,000 km (about 600 mi) into Santa Catarina. Behind the Serra do Mar, an extensive plateau reaches through the state of São Paulo and into the southern states. The highest points in southern Brazil are the Pico da Bandeira (2,890 m/9,482 ft) and Pico do Cristal (2,798 m/9,180 ft), both in the Serra da Mantiqueira.

In the far north the Guiana Highlands cover only 2 percent of the country. These highlands form a major drainage divide, separating rivers that flow south into the Amazon Basin from rivers that empty into the Orinoco river system of Venezuela to the north. The highest point in Brazil—the Pico da Neblina (2,994 m/9,823 ft)—is in the mountains of the Guiana Highlands.

The most extensive lowland is the Amazon Basin. Most of its terrain is gently undulating, rarely rising more than 150 m (490 ft) above sea level. Seasonal flooding occurs along the Amazon River and its tributaries in stretches of flat, swampy land called varzeas. A second major lowland is the Pantanal in western Mato Grosso near the border with Bolivia and Paraguay. Seasonal flooding occurs in this region along the headwaters of the Paraná and Paraguay river system. It is a significant area for ranching, but has recently come to be recognized as an important wetland environment that needs to be conserved.

The third lowland area is the coastal plain. In the Northeast it may be up to 60 km (40 mi) wide, but in some places it is very narrow, and between Rio de Janeiro and Santos it disappears entirely. This coastal plain has been a major area of settlement and economic activity since colonial times, and 12 of the country’s state capitals are located along it. The plain widens in southern Rio Grande do Sul and extends into Argentina.

Rivers and Lakes in Brazil

Brazil has a dense and complex system of rivers. The most impressive river system is that of the Amazon and its tributaries, ranked the largest in the world based on the volume of water it drains. The Amazon is the world’s second longest river, after the Nile in Egypt. Its major tributary, the Tocantins, joins the Amazon near its mouth. The second largest river basin in Brazil is that of the Paraná, which flows south between Argentina and Uruguay to empty into the Río de la Plata estuary. It drains much of the Southeast, South, and Center-West. The principal river of the eastern plateau region, the São Francisco, flows north through the highlands in the states of Minas Gerais and Bahia before turning east and entering the Atlantic. The remainder of the country is drained by a series of smaller and shorter rivers along the Atlantic seaboard.

The Amazon is navigable to oceangoing ships as far as Iquitos, in Peru, and its major tributaries are suitable for inland navigation. Parts of the São Francisco and Paraná are also navigable. However, except in the case of the Amazon, river transport is relatively unimportant in Brazil. The rivers are more important as sources of hydroelectricity, which Brazil depends on for economic development because the country is short of solid fuel.

Most of Brazil’s large lakes are created by dams constructed to produce hydroelectric power or to provide water for irrigation. The largest lakes are Sobradinho, on the São Francisco; Tucuruí, on the Tocantins; Balbina, on the Amazon; and Furnas, on the Paraná. The São Francisco is also used for irrigation, and there are a number of reservoirs in the Northeast that provide irrigation and drinking water during the dry season and drought years.

Coastline of Brazil

The nature of the Brazilian coastline varies considerably. In the North the mouth of the Amazon is the dominant feature, with major river channels, lowlands subject to seasonal flooding, swamps of mangrove trees, and numerous islands, of which Marajó is the largest. The coast of the Northeast is smoother, with substantial areas of beaches and dunes along the northern strip, and more varied forms—dunes, mangroves, lagoons, and hills—south of Cape São Roque. Major features of this area are the mouth of the São Francisco River and Todos os Santos Bay.

The Southeastern coast is also varied, with lagoons, marshlands, sand spits, and sandy beaches. Particularly in the states of Espirito Santo, Rio de Janeiro, and São Paulo, and in much of the South, the mountains are very close to the coast, leaving a coastal plain that is narrow or nonexistent. Only in Rio Grande do Sul does the plain widen again. The major natural harbors are those of Salvador, Vitória, Rio de Janeiro, Santos, Paranaguá, and Rio Grande. Portuguese settlers established their first communities along the coast, and most Brazilians still live within about 300 km (about 200 mi) of the coast.

Climate in Brazil

The climatic pattern is largely shaped by Brazil’s tropical location and by topographic features. Most of Brazil has high annual average temperatures, above 22°C (72°F). Only in the South and in the highest elevations does the average fall below this. In the higher elevations, the seasonal variation in temperature is more marked.

A tropical wet climate characterizes much of northern Brazil, with abundant rainfall and little or no dry season. Temperatures average 25°C (77°F), with more significant temperature variations between night and day than between seasons. Rainfall averages about 2,200 mm (about 90 in) a year. Over central Brazil rainfall is more seasonal, characteristic of a savanna climate. Eighty percent of the rain falls in summer (October through March), and there are more seasonal variations in temperature. Here rainfall averages about 1,600 mm (about 60 in) a year. In the interior Northeast, seasonal rainfall is even more extreme. The semiarid region receives less than 800 mm (30 in) of rain, which falls in a period of two or three months. In addition to its scarcity and seasonal nature, the rain occasionally fails completely, causing serious drought conditions.

In the Southeast the tropical climate is modified by elevation, with a winter average temperature below 18°C (64°F) and an average rainfall of about 1,400 mm (about 55 in) concentrated in summer. The South has subtropical conditions, with average temperatures below 20°C (68°F) and cool winters. Rainfall averages about 1,500 mm (about 60 in), with no differences between seasons. The region is also subject to frost, which occurs on average ten days a year and may damage crops. There are occasional snowfalls in the higher areas.

Plant and Animal Life in Brazil

The plant life of Brazil depends on climate, elevation, and soil conditions. A broad distinction can be made between the forests and grasslands, but considerable variety exists within these areas. The Amazon rain forest is the largest tropical rain forest in the world. It has luxuriant vegetation, with tall trees and several lower layers of vegetation that include woody vines and unusual varieties of plants that do not root in the soil, but grow by attaching themselves to other plants. The east coast and the uplands in the Southeast also had a tropical forest cover, although less dense and diverse than the Amazon region; however, much of this has been cleared since 1500. In the South, the Araucária pine forest grows under subtropical conditions.

In central Brazil the rain forest gradually gives way in the south to the cerrado, an area of more open vegetation that trends from woodland to a mix of trees, shrubs and grass, and open grassland. In the semiarid Northeast vegetation is adapted to the low rainfall. It consists of low scrub, called caatinga. The trees lose their leaves in the dry season, and cacti and other plants that can survive very dry conditions are common.

The South contains open grassland known as the campos. Other small grassland areas occur in the northern Amazon region and in the mountains. The Pantanal near the border of Bolivia and Paraguay has distinct vegetation of trees, shrubs, and grasses that have adapted to the conditions of seasonal flooding. Along the coast several vegetation types exist, including salt marshes, mangrove swamps, and sand dunes.

The rich wildlife of Brazil reflects the variety of natural habitats. Of an estimated 750 species of mammals in South America, 417 are found in Brazil. Larger mammals include pumas, jaguars, ocelots, rare bush dogs, and foxes. Peccaries, tapirs, anteaters, sloths, opossums, and armadillos are abundant. Deer are plentiful in the south, and monkeys of many species abound in the rain forests. The country has one of the world’s most diverse populations of birds and amphibians, with 1,500 species of birds and 581 species of amphibians. There is a great variety of reptiles, including lizards, snakes, turtles, and caimans. There are estimated to be more than 1,500 species of freshwater fish in Brazil, of which more than 1,000 are found in the Amazon Basin. The number of invertebrates is enormous, calculated at more than 100,000 species, of which 70,000 are insects. However, Brazil’s wildlife remains largely unknown, and new species are found on nearly a daily basis. Scientists estimate that the total number of plant and animal species in Brazil could approach 2 million.

Despite its abundance, Brazil’s animal and plant life are threatened by human activity. Removal of the vegetation cover has been a continual process since the Europeans arrived; people have cut and burned the land to clear it for farming and settlement. Concern about this process intensified as people, settlements, and industry moved into the Amazon rain forest in the 1970s. Clearing land for agriculture and felling trees for timber have reduced the habitats of wildlife. Some species are also threatened with extinction by sport and subsistence hunting and by industrial and agricultural pollution. At the beginning of the 21st century, hundreds of species were considered at risk, including the jaguar, several species of monkey, and Pantanal deer. Numerous birds, reptiles, amphibians, and insects are also threatened.

Natural Resources of Brazil

In 2005, 56.1 percent of Brazil was covered in forests, including a large area of tropical rain forests. These rain forests yield not only timber, but also a range of products such as rubber, palm oil, charcoal, and Brazil nuts.

The country also produces many different types of crops and livestock although fertile soil is limited. Despite its importance as an agricultural producer, just 8 (2003) percent of Brazil’s total land area actually produces crops; the remainder is either grassland, woodland, or uncultivated fields.

Mineral resources are particularly important for export and as raw material for industrial use. The most important, in terms of value of output, are iron ore and gold. Copper, zinc, bauxite, manganese, and tin are also significant. Limestone, sea salt, diamonds, and phosphates are leading nonmetallic minerals.

Environmental Issues in Brazil

Concern for the environment in Brazil has grown in response to global interest in environmental issues. The clearing of rain forests in the Amazon Basin to make room for agriculture and new settlements has drawn national and international attention over possible damage to the rain forest. Environmentalists are concerned that the extensive loss of rain forest vegetation, which produces large amounts of oxygen, could have a wider impact on the global environment. During the 1990s, forests in Brazil disappeared at a rate of 0.4 percent per year.

In many areas of the country, the natural environment is threatened by development. Highway construction has opened up previously remote areas for agriculture and settlement; dams have flooded valleys and inundated wildlife habitats; and mines have scarred and polluted the landscape. Rapid growth of urban areas has also contributed to pollution. There have been some efforts to deal with the problems of urban pollution, including cleaning up Guanabara Bay in Rio de Janeiro, the Tietê River in São Paulo, and the heavily polluted industrial town of Cubatão, near São Paulo.

Brazil has many different types of environmental conservation units throughout the country, including national and state parks, reserves, forests, and natural monuments. The first national parks were created in 1937 in an effort to provide environmental protection. The largest national park in Brazil is Jaú in the state of Amazonas, with 2.3 million hectares (5.6 million acres). In 1973 a government department for the environment was established. There is now a wide range of protected areas in addition to the national parks; they include forest parks, ecological parks, natural monuments, biological reserves, and areas of ecological protection. Many state governments have designated protected areas, and land set aside for indigenous peoples also serves as nature reserves.

In 2006 the governor of the state of Pará designated an undeveloped area the size of England as a protected area. Under the governor’s decree the area, located in the Amazon rain forest and totaling 150,000 sq km (58,000 sq mi), was protected from unsustainable logging and slash-and-burn agriculture. Nearly a third of the area—about 57,600 sq km (22,200 sq mi)—was placed off limits to any development and even excludes the general public, being accessible only to indigenous people and scientific researchers. The remaining area was designated only for sustainable development, permitting limited logging under strict management and allowing local communities to harvest some natural resources. The area links to existing nature reserves in French Guiana, Guyana, and Suriname, forming a vast corridor known as the Guiana Shield that contains about 25 percent of Earth’s tropical rain forests and harbors many endangered species.

Designating sites as protected does not necessarily mean that they can be securely preserved, however. The government often lacks the resources or the will to stop ranchers and farmers who move into these protected areas. The country also faces conflicts in reconciling economic development and environmental conservation, and in allocating scarce investment funds to preserving the environment. The decision to create a vast reserve in Pará, however, was thought to have broken the power of large ranchers, some of whom owned plots of land the size of small countries.


Brazil’s population is a mixture of Native American, European, and African peoples. These groups have intermingled over the years to create a society with considerable ethnic complexity. The Native American population has been in Brazil the longest, but is now the smallest group. The Portuguese began arriving in 1500, and other European groups came after 1850. The ancestors of African Brazilians arrived as slaves, beginning about the mid-1500s and ending in 1850 when the slave trade was abolished.

Brazil’s population growth was generally high during the 20th century, but it began to slow in the 1980s. Until recently the population was predominantly rural and agricultural. The last half of the 20th century brought rapid urbanization due to population growth and the migration of people from rural areas seeking employment in the expanding industries of the cities.

Population of Brazil

Brazil was first settled by Native American peoples, many of them members of the Tupí-Guaraní cultures. It is difficult to estimate the size of the Native American population at the time the Europeans arrived. There are no written records, and because of the scattered distribution of the tribes there is little substantive evidence remaining about their history. Recent calculations suggest that between 1 and 6 million Native Americans lived in Brazil prior to the arrival of the Portuguese in 1500. However, as a consequence of war, enslavement, and the introduction of European diseases, the indigenous population decreased rapidly. Estimates for 1819 suggest that the Native American population had fallen by two-thirds. In 2000 Native Americans made up less than 1 percent of the population, living in isolated groups in remote regions of the rain forest.

Portuguese settlement was slow and small-scale. When they arrived in 1500, they established settlements along the coast and exported agricultural products to Europe. By 1600 there were no more than 30,000 European settlers in the country. The population increased during the 18th century as a result of natural increase and immigration to Brazil’s gold fields, which were discovered in the late 17th century. Population also increased when the Portuguese brought slaves from Africa to Brazil to provide labor for the sugar plantations and gold mines. More than 2 million slaves arrived during the colonial period. By 1800 Brazil’s total population was estimated at around 3.25 million, of which about 1 million were Europeans, 2 million were free or enslaved Africans or of mixed race, and about 250,000 were Native Americans.

During the early part of the 19th century more than 1 million more slaves were imported. After the slave trade was abolished in 1850, the country’s population continued to grow by natural increase and immigration. Immigrants from Italy, Portugal, Germany, and Spain started coming to Brazil after 1850. Brazil’s first census, in 1872, recorded a population of 9,930,478; by 1900 the population was just over 17 million. Immigration continued to be substantial until the 1930s, with many Japanese arriving after 1908. Since then, population growth has been primarily due to natural increase.

In 1950 Brazil had 51,944,000 inhabitants, and by 1980 the population had more than doubled, rising to 119,002,700. The most recent census, in 2000, recorded a population of 169,799,170. A 2009 estimate placed the population at 198,739,269. Contributory factors to these high growth rates were immigration, a high birth rate, and a death rate that has declined steadily since 1870.

In Brazil, there are considerable regional variations in population density. The most densely peopled states are Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo in the Southeast and the Federal District in the Center-West. The least populous states are Roraima and Amazonas, both in the North. About 80 percent of the population lives within 350 km (220 mi) of the coast. Until the mid-1960s there were more rural dwellers than people living in towns; since then the urban population has increased as industrialization lures workers to the larger cities. About 84 percent of the population is now classed as urban, and a significant proportion lives in big cities.

Principal Cities of Brazil

The largest city in Brazil is São Paulo, the main industrial center of the nation. São Paulo is also the largest city in South America, with an estimated population in 2007 of 10.9 million. The former capital, Rio de Janeiro, ranks second. It is an important port and commercial center. Other important cities include Salvador, the regional capital of the Northeast; Belo Horizonte, a major industrial and commercial city in Minas Gerais; and Brasília, the capital of Brazil. Each of these cities forms the core of a larger urban area. In 2000 there were eight other cities in Brazil with more than 1 million inhabitants: Manaus, a port on the Río Negro near its confluence with the Amazon; Belém, a northern port on the mouth of the Amazon; Fortaleza and Recife, along the northeast coast; Curitiba and Porto Alegre in the south; Goiânia, in the south central; and Guarulhos, a suburb of São Paulo.

Ethnic Groups in Brazil

Brazil’s population is derived from three main ethnic sources. The earliest secure date for the arrival of Native Americans in Brazil is about 10,000 years ago. Europeans arrived in 1500, and for the next three centuries European immigration was restricted to only the Portuguese. African slaves came from West Africa, the Congo, Angola, and Mozambique. Relations between these groups created a complex population pattern of mixed races, described by an often subtle terminology based on color—for example, preto (black), escuro (dark), mulato escuro (dark brown), or mulato claro (light brown).

Racial classifications in Brazil are not as sharply defined as in other nations. The Portuguese colonists who settled Brazil had a more relaxed attitude toward interracial relationships than other Europeans and often intermarried with Africans and Native Americans. In addition, racial classification often reflects an individual’s economic or social standing. For example, a Brazilian of mixed racial heritage who has done well economically may be classified as white.

The white population tends to be slightly more prevalent in urban areas while the black and mulatto population is slightly more populous in rural areas. There are also some strong regional variations. In the Northeast, where large numbers of slaves were imported during colonial times to work the sugar plantations, more than 70 percent of the people were recorded as black or mulatto in 1999. In the Southeast the population was classified as 64 percent white and 35 percent black or mulatto; in the South, which was settled mainly by European immigrants, more than 84 percent of the people were recorded as white. Brazil is widely regarded as a racially open society, with few ethnic tensions, and there is no recent history of legal discrimination. However, whites tend to occupy positions at the top of Brazil’s social structure, while blacks often occupy the lower economic levels of society. Considerable room for social mobility exists among individuals with a mixed racial heritage.

Languages in Brazil

Portuguese is the official and prevailing language of Brazil, although there are some regional variations in pronunciation and slang words. Since 1938 Portuguese has been the compulsory language for teaching in schools, but German and Italian are still spoken in homes in the South by some descendants of immigrants. English and French are the main second languages of educated Brazilians.

There are also more than 100 indigenous languages, of which the most important are Tupí, Gê, Arawak, and Carib. The Portuguese borrowed some Indian words, particularly from Tupí, which was the common language used in interactions among the Native Americans of the coastal regions, Jesuit missionaries, and early settlers. Many settlements and physical features still have Indian place names. The settlers also borrowed some words from the vocabulary of African slaves.

Religion in Brazil

Roman Catholicism is the dominant religion, with 90 percent of the population claiming at least nominal affiliation. About 6 percent are defined as members of non-Catholic Christian churches. In recent years Pentecostal groups, which believe in the experience of holiness, or Christian perfection, have grown rapidly. The Spiritist movement, which believes in multiple incarnations and communication with spirits of the dead, has a small following, mainly among the urban middle classes. Traditional African beliefs, brought by slaves, have blended with Catholicism to create Afro-Brazilian religions such as Macumba, Candomblé, and Umbanda. These incorporate possession by spirits, the use of African music and dance, and the identification of West African deities with Catholic saints. Such religions are strongest in former slave areas, such as Bahia in the Northeast. Native Americans practice a wide variety of indigenous religions that vary from group to group.

The formal link between the state and the Catholic Church was severed in the late 19th century. However, the Catholic Church has continued to exert an influence on national affairs. It has traditionally been a conservative force, but in recent years a movement known as liberation theology has emerged among members of the Roman Catholic clergy. This movement teaches that Christians must work for social and economic justice for all people; it has encouraged greater church involvement in social issues, particularly those that affect the urban poor and the landless rural population.

Education in Brazil

Primary education is compulsory from age 7 to 14; high school education lasts for four years. Education is free in official primary and high schools. There was a major reform of education in 1971 that provided a basic education of eight years, with a common core of studies. Students may then continue on to pursue training for employment or higher education. Despite provisions in the 1988 Constitution decreeing federal expenditures for education, schooling remains underfunded and considerable variations exist in opportunity between urban and rural children, among the nation’s regions, and among social class.

Nearly all children complete both primary and high school. The level of adult literacy is similar for both sexes. In 1950 only half of the population over 15 years of age was literate. Despite a literacy campaign begun in 1971, the current level is just 91 percent. Literacy levels vary regionally and between rural and urban areas. Illiteracy is highest—around 27 percent—in the Northeast, which has a high proportion of rural poor.

The University of Rio de Janeiro was Brazil’s first university, created out of separate faculties in 1920. The University of São Paulo followed in 1934. In 2003 there were 125 universities. Each state (except the newest, Tocantins) has a federal university, and there are several in the states of Minas Gerais, Rio de Janeiro, and Rio Grande do Sul. There are state universities in most of the states of the Northeast, Southeast, and South. The Roman Catholic Church also has some universities, and there are dozens of private universities, many of them in São Paulo state.

Way of Life in Brazil

Historically Brazilian society has been patriarchal, with a strong tradition of male social dominance. This has weakened with immigration, urbanization, and the decline of the rural sector. Also, independence for women has grown under the influence of feminism and the expansion of urban employment opportunities for women. The family is still a crucial social unit, and there is some survival, even in the cities, of parentela, a kind of kinship system. This extended network involves close family and distant relatives, godparents and godchildren, and even family servants. Such linkages are generally stronger among the middle and upper classes.

There are significant differences in housing standards between social classes in Brazil. Striking contrasts exist in the cities between the luxurious mansions and apartments of the affluent and the favelas (shantytowns) of the poor. In the countryside the casa grande (big house) of the rancher or plantation owner and the simple shacks of rural laborers also illustrate the disparities. In the cities there is a social spectrum of rich, middle class, working class, and poor, but in the countryside distinctions tend to be more polarized between the rich and the poor, with few working-class or middle-class individuals.

Clothing in Brazil is not very distinctive, and formality has diminished over the past 30 years. Although high society is very fashion-conscious, only senior managers and public servants wear suits and ties to work in the cities; office workers wear casual clothes. In the countryside, jeans, shirts, and dresses of inexpensive cotton are typical. The cowboys of Rio Grande do Sul, known as gauchos, still wear distinctive clothing consisting of ponchos and baggy trousers, while the cowboys of the Northeast, known as vaqueiros, wear hats, coats, and chaps made of leather. In Bahia some women maintain traditional African clothing consisting of long, full skirts, colored shawls, and turbanlike headscarves. Native Americans may wear few clothes and make use of beads and other decorations for personal adornment. They may also use body paint and have distinctive hairstyles. However, except on ceremonial occasions, many Native Americans who are in contact with mainstream Brazilian society have exchanged traditional dress for more contemporary clothing.

Important staples in the Brazilian diet include beans, rice, wheat, and manioc, a plant grown in tropical areas and also known as cassava. These are consumed throughout the country, although manioc is an especially important element in the diet of the poor in the Northeast. Meat, particularly beef, is also widely consumed, although only occasionally by the poor. Despite the extensive coastline and river system, levels of fish consumption are low, except along the Northeast coast and in the Amazon region. Traditional dishes include feijoada completa, a combination of pork, black beans, and rice, and churrasco, barbecued meat that is common in the South. In the Northeast there is an important African legacy in spicy dishes such as vatapá, a fish stew made with onion, tomato, coconut, and spices. Coffee is the most popular beverage, often drunk as cafezinho, a small cup of strong and very sweet black coffee. A potent alcoholic beverage, known as cachaça, is distilled from sugarcane, and light beer is widely consumed. More affluent Brazilians may drink wine produced in Rio Grande do Sul. International brand soft drinks are also popular.

Soccer is the most popular sport, played in the massive stadiums of the big cities and as recreation. The game was introduced in the 19th century and was established as a professional sport in 1933. Although there is great rivalry between local teams, there is strong popular support for the national team, which has won the World Cup, soccer’s major international competition, four times. Pelé, one of the world’s legendary soccer players, led the Brazilian team to three of those victories, in 1958, 1962, and 1970. Motor racing is also very popular, and Brazil has produced a number of championship winners, including Emerson Fittipaldi and Ayrton Senna. Major participant sports include swimming, tennis, sailing, and golf.

The festival of Carnival, with its spectacular street parades and vibrant music, has become one of the most potent images of Brazil. Its roots lie in the European Mardi Gras, a lively festival, which precedes the fasting and prayers of the Roman Catholic holy season of Lent. Carnival begins on the Friday before Ash Wednesday and lasts for five days. In Brazil it seems to have first occurred in Bahia in the mid-17th century and in Rio de Janeiro in the 1850s, where it was associated with street parades and elegant private balls.

Carnival did not take on its present spectacular form in Rio until the 1930s, when the dance known as the samba emerged in the favelas (shantytowns) of the city. Samba “schools” based in the favelas compete to create the most spectacular groups of extravagantly costumed dancers and original samba songs. In Rio they now parade through the sambadrome (a street stadium) before vast crowds of Brazilians and foreign tourists. The more traditional street parties and balls also continue. Carnival is celebrated throughout Brazil, but the most spectacular celebrations outside Rio take place in Salvador, Recife, and Olinda, although the nature of the events varies.

Social Issues in Brazil

Brazilian society displays marked inequity between the city and the country, between regions, and between social classes. The gap between rich and poor is among the most substantial in the world. In 1998 the richest 20 percent of the population received 64 percent of the nation’s income, while the poorest 20 percent earned only 2 percent. Besides access to wealth, this inequality is also reflected in access to education, medical care, and services such as water supply, sewerage, and electricity.

Despite the rich resources, rapid economic development, and the overall size of Brazil’s economy, the nation has major problems with poverty, hunger, disease, and inadequate services. In the cities, overcrowding compounds these problems. Rapid urbanization has brought people to the cities at a rate that has outpaced the growth of the job market and the urban services that they need to survive comfortably. Many of the larger cities have extensive slums. Homelessness—particularly among children and young teens whose families cannot support them—constitutes another major problem.

Despite these urban problems, poverty and lack of access to clean water, electricity, health care, and schooling may be more acute in the countryside. For example, 97 percent of urban dwellers have access to safe drinking water as opposed to just 58 percent in the countryside. Such distinctions are also evident between regions. The average head of a household in the Northeast is likely to earn only half as much as a counterpart in the Southeast, twice as likely to be illiterate, and have a life expectancy five years lower. A key challenge for the government remains the inequality of opportunity among citizens.

Among other social issues, overt racism is rare, although there is some evidence of a social segregation in which the poor are more likely to be black or of mixed race. Organized crime has links to gambling and drugs, and the favelas often serve as bases for drug dealers. Street crime remains a problem in cities such as Rio de Janeiro and Salvador.


Cultural development in the colonial period (1500-1822) was primarily a transfer of Portuguese traditions to Brazil, particularly under the influence of the Roman Catholic Church. Architecture was the earliest art form to develop a distinctly Brazilian tradition through the blending of European and African influences. During the 18th century, wealth generated by sugar plantations and gold mines went into the building of flamboyant churches and public buildings in the regions of Bahia, Pernambuco, and Minas Gerais.

After independence in 1822, intellectuals rejected their Portuguese inheritance and sought models elsewhere. Artistic movements from throughout Europe had a significant influence on Brazilian art during the 19th century. A major milestone for Brazilian culture was the Week of Modern Art in São Paulo in 1922, an international arts festival that introduced modernist ideas in Brazil. Brazilian modernism emerged in response to artistic movements in Europe and to the social, political, and economic changes that Brazil was experiencing. After its introduction, modernism exercised a powerful influence on Brazilian literature, art, music, and painting. From 1968 to the 1980s the military regime that ruled Brazil repressed artistic expression by censoring the press, popular music and theater, and by establishing state control over radio and television. After the end of military rule in the 1980s, the government lifted restrictions on artists and journalists.

Literature in Brazil

Brazilian colonial literature followed classical traditions, drawing from Portuguese and Catholic influences. After Brazil attained independence in 1822, artists looked for inspiration from other sources in an effort to create a uniquely Brazilian literary style. Ideas were drawn from French, English, and German literature, which introduced romanticism, a movement in the arts that emphasized a highly imaginative and subjective approach to artistic expression. There was a strong nationalistic element in these writings. A leading figure was José de Alencar, who wrote about Brazil and its history. His Iracema (1865; translated as Iracema the Honey-lips, a Legend of Brazil, 1886) portrayed a romance between an indigenous Brazilian princess and a Portuguese colonist.

The major literary figure in the late 19th century was Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis, whose works include Quincas borba (1891; Philosopher or Dog?, 1954) and Dom Casmurro (1899; translated 1953). Many of his works provide searching comments on the human condition. Another major novel of this period is Euclides da Cunha’s Os sertões (1902; Rebellion in the Backlands, 1944), a powerful portrait of rebellion and massacre in the Northeast.

The modernist influence has encouraged an exploration of national character and of distinctive regional cultures, and an interest in social issues. The regional novel has been particularly strong in the Northeast, where an important group of writers have portrayed the nature of the region and the experiences of its people in the cane fields, the dry interior, and in the cities. One of Brazil’s most popular novelists, Jorge Amado, wrote about his native state of Bahia in such works as Gabriela, cravo e canela (1958; Gabriela, Clove and Cinnamon, 1962), which portrays the experience of migrants from the interior of the Northeast to the cocoa port of Ilheus. Other important regional novels from the Northeast include Graciliano Ramos’s Vidas secas (1938; Barren Lives, 1965) and José Lins do Rego’s Menino de engenho (1932; Plantation Boy, 1966). The country’s first important female novelist, Rachel de Queiroz, wrote about the challenges that women faced in Brazilian society in O quinze (1930; The Year 1915).

Among the best post-1945 writers are João Guimarães Rosa, whose Grande sertao: veradas (1956; Devil to Pay in the Backlands, 1963) provides a powerful portrait of rural life in the interior of Minas Gerais, and Clarice Lispector, best known for her short stories such as Laços de família (1960; Family Ties, 1972). Important contemporary writers include Autran Dourado, author of Ópera dos Mortos (1967; The Voice of the Dead, 1980); Darcy Ribeiro, author of Maíra (1978; translated 1985); João Ubaldo Ribeiro, author of Sergeant Getúlio (1977; translated 1980); and Paulo Coelho, author of O alquimista (1988; The Alchemist, 1993) and Veronika decide morrer (1998; Veronika Decides to Die, 1999).

In poetry, major figures in the 19th century were Antonio Gonçalves Dias and Antonio de Castro Alves, who wrote on native Brazilian themes in their works. Important poets of the modernist movement have been Manuel Bandeira, Carlos Drummond de Andrade, and Jorge de Lima. See Brazilian Literature.

Art and Architecture of Brazil

Portuguese religious influences dominated colonial art. In the 19th and 20th centuries, artistic movements in Europe provided inspiration for Brazilian artists. For example, the Week of Modern Art, an international arts festival in São Paulo in 1922, introduced cubist ideas, which focused on abstract forms rather than lifelike representation of objects. Important modern artists Anita Malfatti and Tarsila do Amaral were both early pioneers in Brazilian modern art. Cándido Portinari depicted people and landscapes of his homeland in a patriotic manner, and Lasar Segall helped introduce expressionist paintings to Brazil with an exhibit in Rio de Janeiro in 1913.

Colonial architecture was strongly influenced by the Jesuit priests and the Roman Catholic Church. In the 20th century, modern artistic movements provided inspiration for architecture as they had for art, particularly after the 1936 visit of Swiss French architect Le Corbusier, who collaborated with Oscar Niemeyer and Lúcio Costa on the Ministry of Education building in Rio de Janeiro. Niemeyer and Costa have been key figures in the high reputation of Brazil’s modern architecture. Their masterpiece is the capital city of Brasília (constructed in the 1950s), which Costa planned and for which Niemeyer designed many of the public buildings. Other important figures include Jorge Moreira Machado and Afonso Reidy. Buildings designed by these architects tend to be light, graceful, and airy, incorporating features appropriate to tropical heat and strong sunlight. They also frequently combine the skills of the architect with those of sculptors, painters, and landscape gardeners such as Roberto Burle Marx, who designed many parks and gardens in Brazil and overseas.

One of Brazil’s most famous sculptors and architects is the colonial artist known as Aleijadinho, who worked in a baroque style on the churches of colonial Minas Gerais. In the modern period, more abstract styles have dominated. Important figures such as sculptors Bruno Giorgi and Maria Martins contributed works to the design of Brasília.

Photography was introduced in Brazil in 1840, and early photographs provide an important record of society and landscape. In recent years photographer Sebastião Salgado has created powerful images of Brazilian poverty.

There is a strong folk-art tradition in Brazil, deriving from and often blending together the legacies of the Native Americans, Africans, and Portuguese. Indigenous art traditionally focused on three forms: pottery, weaving, and body art, which involved painting designs on the skin. Goods that have utilitarian functions have come to be appreciated for their aesthetic qualities. Such items include pottery, leatherwork, basketry, lace, and embroidery.

Music and Dance in Brazil

The National Conservatory was established in 1841, and classical music drew upon European and ethnic traditions. There is a strong nationalist element in the work of composer Antônio Carlos Gomes. Brazil’s leading classical composer, Heitor Villa-Lobos, blended European traditions and melodies with those of Brazil’s African and Native American populations. This blend is perhaps best heard in his Bachianas Brasileiras (1930-1945), a series of nine suites.

The best-known form of popular music is samba, which grew from the rhythm and vocal styles of the Native Americans, Portuguese, and Africans. Samba has come to be particularly associated with the spectacular dance and music competitions that take place each year in Rio de Janeiro during Brazil’s Carnival celebration. Although samba, as a dance form, is best seen during Carnival, there are other dances of African origin, such as the ritualized fighting of capoeira, which originated among African slaves. Bumba-meu-boi is a dance that uses drama, dance, instrumental music, and song to recount the mythical tale of the death and resurrection of an ox.

In the 1950s and 1960s bossa nova emerged from a blending of Brazilian popular music with American jazz. Key composers of bossa nova were João Gilberto, Antonio Carlos Jobim, and Vinicius de Morães. In the mid-1960s the addition of electric guitars and elements of rock music resulted in the creation of música popular brasileira (MPB), associated with musician Chico Buarque and others. MPB focused on urban protest against the military regime that ruled Brazil from 1964 to 1985. In the late 1960s tropicalismo drew upon a range of musical traditions, with Maria Bethânia and Caetano Veloso as leading performers. It combined Brazilian folk traditions with rock and roll and popular music styles. Lambada, originating in the Amazon region in the 1970s, is a sensual dance based on Afro-Brazilian rhythms. There are also elements of regional popular music, such as sertanejo in the South and Center-West, which resembles American country music, with simple tunes and themes of love, nostalgia, and hardship.

Theater and Film in Brazil

Theater was not an important art form in Brazil until the 1940s, when playwrights such as Nelson Rodrigues and Alfredo Dias Gomes began to contribute more original works. In the 1950s the theater became more experimental and socially concerned, and the Teatro de Arena in São Paulo became an important place of innovation and a center of social protest against the military regime in the 1960s.

Interest in cinema has a long history, but motion-picture production was constrained by the limited market for films in Portuguese. However, the cinema nôvo (new cinema) movement of the mid-1950s began to attract international attention through films such as Vidas Secas (Barren Lives, 1963), a dramatization of the novel by Graciliano Ramos. A major figure was Glauber Rocha, who made several striking films on Brazilian themes, most notably Deus e o diabo na terra do sol (Black God, White Devil, 1964). More recently, Bruno Barreto has produced films based on several novels by Brazilian writer Jorge Amado, and a novel by Paulo Lins about two boys growing up in the slums of Rio de Janeiro was turned into a film, Cidade de Deus (2002, also released as City of God).


Before 1930 the Brazilian economy was dominated by a number of agricultural and mineral products for export. The world economic depression of the 1930s encouraged the government to diversify the economy, particularly through industrialization. The state led much of this development, through economic plans and government participation in key sectors of public services, such as electricity, telephones, and postal services. The government was also directly involved in some of the country’s largest firms, particularly in the mining, steel, oil, and chemical industries. At the same time, it encouraged foreign investment in areas such as automobile manufacturing, engineering, and the production of electrical goods. As a result, the importance of agriculture and mining in output and trade fell significantly.

Despite success in growing its industrial sector, Brazil encountered economic difficulties. Periodic world recessions, the oil crises of 1973 and 1979, the accumulation of high foreign debt, and periods of rapid inflation all contributed to slow the progress of development in Brazil. In response to these difficulties, the government reduced its role in planning the economy and in financing the development of new industries. The government also opened up a number of state-owned companies to private investors in areas such as steel, petroleum, electricity, and telecommunications. In 2001 services accounted for 57 percent of Brazil’s gross domestic product (GDP); industry, 34 percent; and agriculture, forestry, and fishing, 9 percent.

Labor in Brazil

In 2007 the labor force in Brazil was 97.7 million people, of whom 43 percent were women. Unemployment was estimated at 9.7 percent in 2003, but that figure may be imprecise, due to the number of people holding part-time jobs or working in unreported employment, particularly in the cities. Urban-based employment surpasses agricultural-based employment, with much of its growth in service jobs rather than manufacturing. In 2007 the service sector employed 66 percent of the workforce.

The government first granted legal recognition to labor organizations in 1907. In 1931 President Getúlio Vargas created a government-supervised trade union structure. Strikes were forbidden, but labor courts assessed workers’ grievances. The Vargas government also instituted social legislation that was advanced for its time, regulating hours of work and establishing a minimum wage, worker training, and health care. By 1944 there were 800 unions, with over 500,000 members. During the 1950s labor became more militant, and there was pressure for a central labor organization and moves to unionize rural labor.

Following the 1964 military coup, the government purged the leadership of unions and placed many unions under direct government control. However, continued union activism at the factory level and strikes organized by workers were factors in ending the military regime. Unions reemerged following the return of civilian rule in 1985, and central labor organizations were legalized. During the 1990s the number of unions grew into the thousands and included factory and rural workers, employers, and professionals. In addition to umbrella organizations such as the Central Union of Workers and the General Confederation of Workers, both formed in 1983, there are unions for specific industries, such as metal workers, and for sectors of the economy, such as commerce, transport, and education.

Agriculture of Brazil

After the 1930s agriculture declined in importance in the economy and employment. However, today agriculture generates about one-third of export earnings. Brazil’s development of its savannas by improving the quality of its soil with phosphorus and lime fertilizers has made it an agricultural superpower. Brazil is the world’s largest exporter of soybeans and the largest producer of sugarcane and coffee. Soybeans became an important crop after Brazil experimented with developing tropical varieties. Soybeans and coffee are now Brazil’s leading agricultural exports. Sugar output has more than doubled since 1975, partly to meet the demand for cane alcohol as a substitute for gasoline.

Brazil is also one of the world’s largest producers of oranges, bananas, and papaws, a small tropical fruit. In addition to coffee, sugar, and soybeans, the leading crops are maize, various beans, rice, and manioc, or cassava. Cotton, grown mainly in the savannas, is also becoming a fast-rising export. Pastoral farming is also important. There are 207 million head of cattle in Brazil; pigs, sheep, and goats are also important.

There has been considerable modernization in agriculture, through mechanization, the use of fertilizers and irrigation, and improvements in storage and transport. Settlements have advanced into the lands in the Center-West and the Amazon region, via planned settlement schemes and spontaneous colonization. This advance is partly a result of the displacement of farm workers by modernization. Brazil has a large number of landless rural dwellers, and the pattern of land ownership is very unequal.

Forestry and Fishing in Brazil

The forests are an important source of a range of products for domestic use and export. Timber products such as paper and cellulose are important export commodities. Other valuable forest products include açaí fruit; babaçu nut; yerba maté, whose leaves are made into a tealike beverage; piaçava fiber, which is used to make brooms and cords; and charcoal, used largely in the iron industry.

Fish provide a modest contribution to the Brazilian diet. Two-thirds of the catch comes from sea fishing and the remaining one-third comes from inland waters. However, there is a marked contrast between the two systems. Commercial companies take in a majority of the saltwater fish catch, whereas private individuals catch most of the fish in the inland region. Fishing is particularly important in the states of Rio de Janeiro and Santa Catarina.

Mining in Brazil

Minerals are a vital source of industrial raw materials and provide 11.5 percent of export earnings. In 2001 Brazil was the world’s leading producer of iron ore and one of the world’s largest exporters of the mineral. The country is also an important source of gold, tin, and manganese. Iron ore comes from Minas Gerais and more recently from the Serra da Carajás in Pará. Minas Gerais is also a major producer of manganese, bauxite, nickel, zinc, gold, diamonds, and semiprecious gemstones. Carajás has gold, nickel, copper, and the metallic element molybdenum. Other significant minerals are tin in Amazonas, manganese in Amapá, and bauxite, an important ore of aluminum, in Pará. A wide range of nonmetallic minerals are mined, including limestone, dolomite, phosphates, and quartz. Low-grade coal is produced in Paraná, Santa Catarina, and Rio Grande do Sul, but output has fallen by more than half since 1988.

Oil was first discovered in the Northeast in 1939, and in 1953 the government established a state company, Petrobrás, to control production, refining, and distribution of petroleum. The country remained heavily dependent on oil imports until large oil fields were discovered off the shore of Rio de Janeiro in 1974. In 1997 the government ended the Petrobrás oil monopoly and opened the oil industry to competition. New oil fields were discovered near Rio de Janeiro—the nation’s largest oil producer—and off the shore of Sergipe in 1996. In 2001 Brazil was one of the top 20 producers of crude petroleum in the world. Significant oil and natural gas fields have also been found in the Amazon region.

Brazil is also home to Companhia Vale do Rio Doce, a company that ranks as one of the world’s largest iron ore producers and exporters. The Brazilian government had controlled the company but in 1997 it privatized Companhia Vale do Rio Doce as part of an economic plan to raise revenue. Companhia Vale do Rio Doce runs large iron mines in Minas Gerais and a mineral complex in Carajás.

Manufacturing in Brazil

The manufacturing sector has been a key to Brazil’s economic development, with periods of rapid growth, especially in the late 1950s and the 1970s. A major objective of Brazil’s industrialization policy was to replace imported manufactures with Brazilian-made ones. As a result, industry has become highly diversified, including a range of high-technology and heavy industries. This diversification includes such manufactured items as food, drink, textiles, clothing, vehicles, and chemicals. Industrialization involved a mixed pattern of investment by domestic capital; by the government in areas such as steel, petrochemicals, and aircraft; and by foreign capital in the manufacture of automobiles, chemicals, and electrical goods. As a result, Brazil is one of the world’s major steel producers and car manufacturers. The vehicle industry has developed since 1956, with Fiat, Ford, General Motors, and Volkswagen as the largest firms.

The leading industries are machinery and transportation equipment, food and metal processing, automobiles, steel, chemicals, and textiles and clothing. Industry is highly concentrated geographically, with the leading concentrations in metropolitan São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, Campinas, Porto Alegre, and Belo Horizonte. Technologically advanced industries are also highly concentrated in these locations.

Energy in Brazil

Most of Brazil’s energy comes from renewable sources, particularly hydroelectricity, which generated 84 percent of the country’s energy in 2006. Oil and natural gas are the main nonrenewable sources, followed by coal. Renewable resources are domestically produced, but Brazil also imports about 10 percent of its total energy needs, principally oil and coal.

Almost half of the hydroelectric capacity is located on major rivers in the Southeast, close to the highest concentrations of population and industry. Improved transmission technology and the construction of industries, such as metal smelting, that use large amounts of electricity have begun to tap into the considerable hydroelectric resources of the Amazon region. The biggest hydroelectric station is Itaipú, in Paraná, which Brazil shares with Paraguay. Other large stations are Tucuruí in the Amazon region, Paulo Afonso in Bahia, Itumbiara in Minas Gerais, and Ilha Solteira in São Paulo. In the South, burning coal supplies thermal power, and there are oil-fired power stations elsewhere. Brazil has taken some tentative steps in the production of nuclear power; in 2006 nuclear power provided 3 percent of Brazil’s energy.

Wood and charcoal are still widely used in rural areas for cooking. They are also important commercial sources of energy, particularly in iron smelting and lime making. Sugarcane is also significant, both as a source of commercially distilled fuel known as ethanol for motor vehicles and as bagasse, the remains of crushed sugarcane stalks, which is used as fuel in sugar mills. From 2003 to 2006, more than 77 percent of the automobiles sold in Brazil, about 2 million vehicles, were flex-fuel cars, which operate on either ethanol or gasoline.

Foreign Trade in Brazil

Before 1980 there were persistent deficits in Brazil’s balance of trade, with imports costing more than exports. In the 1980s this moved into a surplus as a result of a policy of export promotion, increased self-sufficiency in manufactured goods, and a reduced need for petroleum imports. Trade deficits returned in the 1990s partly due to a global economic stagnation. By the beginning of the 21st century, Brazil had reestablished a trade surplus. Although Brazil traditionally has been an exporter of primary agricultural and mineral products, manufactured goods made up 50 percent of Brazil’s exports in 2006.

Brazil is a member of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), an international body that seeks to coordinate monetary funds in order to expand trade, and the Inter-American Development Bank, an organization headquartered in Washington, D.C., that promotes economic development in Latin American nations. It was a pioneer in the International Coffee Agreement of 1957, seeking to protect its interests in one of its major export crops. By establishing export quotas, the agreement between coffee-producing and coffee-consuming countries tried to stabilize prices and overcome the problems caused by fluctuations in supply and demand. In 1960 Brazil joined the Latin American Free Trade Area (which became the Latin American Integration Association in 1980), to foster trade within the continent, and since 1995 has been a member of Mercosur, a customs union with Argentina, Paraguay, and Uruguay.

Currency and Banking of Brazil

The country’s economic difficulties in the early 1990s resulted in frequent devaluations of the currency along with frequent name changes to the unit of currency, including cruzeiro, cruzeiro novo, and cruzado. The present currency is the real, which replaced the cruzeiro real in 1994, and has approximate parity with the U.S. dollar (1.90 real equal U.S.$1; 2007 average).

The Banco de Brazil is the largest commercial bank, established in 1808. In 1965 the Central Bank of Brazil became responsible for the supply of currency and the control of circulation. In addition to the federal bank and private banks, there are a number of state banks.

The largest stock exchange is that of São Paulo, followed by the exchange in Rio de Janeiro. There are a number of smaller exchanges.

Transportation in Brazil

Sheer size, mountains, and river rapids have all been obstacles to transportation in Brazil, but the country has an expanding transport network. Roads are a key element, encouraged in the late 1950s by the implementation of a national highway plan and the creation of an automobile industry. A national highway system with Brasília at the center links all the state capitals. There are other major interurban and interregional highways, including the Trans-Amazon Highway, an east-west artery linking isolated regions of Brazil and Peru. Dependence on motor vehicles has created serious traffic congestion in some of the major cities, especially those on sites with limited geographic access, such as Rio de Janeiro. It has also resulted in increased air pollution.

Two-thirds of the tracks on Brazil’s railway system are located in the Southeast and South. Railways have suffered because of their high costs compared to the highways and because they were built as separate lines, rather than as an integrated system. Many of these systems have variations in track gauges (the distance between the two sides of the track); this makes it impossible to run trains designed for one system on the tracks of a system built for a different gauge. In 1962 a federal agency was created to oversee the state-controlled railways. These and the railways of São Paulo are the largest systems. The remaining rail operations are suburban commuter systems connecting in the major cities or specialized railways carrying minerals, timber, or tourists.

Coastal shipping has also declined in the face of highway competition, but there was some modernization in shipping and ports in the late 1970s through the creation of export corridors to the ports of Rio Grande, Paranaguá, and Santos, and through the construction of specialized oil and ore ports. Major ports include Santos, Rio de Janeiro, and Angra dos Reis; the specialized ports of Tubarão, Sepitiba, and São Sebastião in the Southeast; Paranaguá and Rio Grande in the South; and Aratu and São Luis in the Northeast.

Brazil’s large size makes air transport important. Sixty-seven airports, controlled by the state company Infraero, handle most of the air traffic. There are also many small airstrips that serve remote areas in the Amazon region. The airports of São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro are the two largest in South America in terms of traffic handled. Varig is the principal international and domestic airline, with Vasp and Transbrasil as the leading domestic carriers. Several sectors of the transport system—including railways, metro systems, highways, ports, and airports—were opened to private investment in the 1990s as part of the government’s privatization program.

Communications in Brazil

Major newspapers are based in Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo. There are six major television networks, with Globo Organisations, one of the biggest media organizations in Latin America, controlling a major television, radio, publishing, and newspaper business. Brazilian telenovelas (soap operas) have become an important export to other South American countries and to Europe. Telecommunications is a growing sector, with rapid expansion of cellular phones and cable subscriptions.

Tourism of Brazil

Tourism brings in substantial foreign exchange. Brazil’s increased affluence and improved transportation facilities have greatly increased tourist activity. In 2007, 5 million tourists entered Brazil. South America is the major source, followed by Europe and North America. The leading individual countries are Argentina, the United States, Uruguay, Paraguay, and Germany. Major tourist attractions are the beaches of Rio de Janeiro, the historic cities of Bahia and Minas Gerais, and natural formations such as the waterfall at Iguaçu. The yearly Carnival festival in Rio de Janeiro also attracts large numbers of tourists. In recent years the beaches of the Northeast have become important attractions, and the rain forest has begun to attract ecological tourism.

In the early 1990s the volume of visitors fell because of press reports of crime in cities such as Rio de Janeiro and Salvador. However, foreign tour operators recognized Brazil’s potential, and the government began to stimulate the industry. In 1992 the government tourist agency, Embratur, began to improve the infrastructure for tourism, particularly hotels and transport, and sought to increase the marketing of Brazil overseas. In addition to overseas tourism, rising prosperity within Brazil has also stimulated domestic tourism.


Brazil has been a republic since 1889, but democratic government was suspended during the dictatorship of Getúlio Vargas from 1937 to 1945 and during military rule under a series of presidents from 1964 until 1985. Since its founding the republic has functioned under five constitutions; the current constitution became effective in 1988. It created a republic with 26 federated states and one federal district. This constitution gave considerable powers to the legislative branch, the National Congress, to counter those of the president. It also shifted substantial responsibility and funding from the national government to the states and municipalities, which now have considerable autonomy over their internal affairs. It also provides for equality for all citizens under the law and universal suffrage.

Brazil’s government has three distinct elements. A president exercises executive power; a congress, consisting of the Senate and the Chamber of Deputies, controls legislative power; and the Supreme Federal Tribunal heads the judicial branch of government. In the federal capital of Brasília these powers are expressed symbolically by the placement of the President’s Executive Office, the Congress, and the Supreme Court on three sides of the Square of Three Powers.

All citizens 16 years of age or older are eligible to vote by secret ballot in elections for president, congress, state governors, and state legislatures. Voting is compulsory for literate persons from 18 to 70 years of age, and optional for those who are illiterate, over 70 years of age, or aged 16 or 17.

Executive of Brazil

A candidate for the presidency must be a native-born Brazilian over 35 years of age. The president must be elected by an absolute majority of votes cast. If no candidate receives a majority in the first round of voting, votes proceed to a second round. The president holds office for four years. A constitutional amendment passed in 1997 allows the president to run for a second term. The president appoints his own cabinet ministers, directs foreign policy, can initiate legislation, and serves as commander in chief of the armed forces.

Members of the Council serve as advisers to the president. The Council consists of 14 members: the vice president, the minister of justice, the presidents of the two houses of Congress, the majority and minority leaders from both houses of Congress, two members elected by the Senate, two elected by the Chamber of Deputies, and two appointed by the president. A National Defense Council advises the president on matters of national sovereignty and defense.

Legislature of Brazil

Elections for both houses of Congress take place simultaneously. Congressional candidates must be Brazilian by birth. Deputies must be over 21 years of age, and senators must be over 35. Senators are elected by majority rule to serve for eight years, with each of Brazil’s 26 states and the Federal District of Brasília electing three members. Deputies are elected for four years by a system of proportional representation. There are 513 members in the Chamber of Deputies. Although the number of deputies for each state is theoretically related to its population, this relationship is not strictly observed in practice. Congress is responsible for all matters within the states, the federal district, and the municipalities. These include fiscal and budgetary matters; international treaties; national, regional, and local planning; and matters dealing with the armed forces and territorial limits.

Judiciary in Brazil

The principal judicial power, the Supreme Federal Tribunal, meets in Brasília and consists of 11 judges who are appointed for life. When openings occur, the president appoints new judges with the approval of the Senate. The president also appoints a Regional Federal Tribunal for each state and the Federal District. These courts consist of at least seven judges who are usually drawn from the area in which they serve. Specialized tribunals deal with labor, military, and electoral matters. The states administer their own judicial systems. Municipal judges and justices of the peace deal with minor criminal and civil matters.

Local Government of Brazil

Brazil is divided into 26 states and the Federal District of Brasília. Each state has a governor and legislature. The basic unit of local government is the municipio (municipality). This is similar to an American county, with an urban seat and a rural region, although the larger cities may be entirely urban municipalities. Population growth and the advance of populations into unsettled areas have resulted in the creation of new municipios. Municipios are administered by a mayor and council, who deal with matters of local taxation, planning, and basic services.

Political Parties of Brazil

During the 20th century few political parties developed clear ideological positions in Brazil. Parties either represented regional or sectional interests or served as vehicles for individual political leaders. The military regime dissolved the existing parties in 1965 and created a two-party structure consisting of the government-sponsored party, the National Renovating Alliance, and an opposition, the Brazilian Democratic Movement. As the military moved to restore democracy, new parties were approved in 1979. The major parties to emerge were the Brazilian Social Democratic Party and the Democratic Workers’ Party on the center-left; the centrist Brazilian Democratic Movement Party; the Liberal Front Party and the Brazilian Labor Party on the center-right; and the right-wing Progressive Party. Most of these had roots in the parties that were dissolved in 1964. The only significant new group was the socialist Workers’ Party, which emerged from militant labor opposition to the military dictatorship, particularly in São Paulo.

Social Services in Brazil

The Brazilian government first established a social security provision in 1911. During the 1930s dictator Getúlio Vargas implemented a welfare system that was advanced for its time, providing workers with minimum wages, unemployment insurance, and retirement benefits. During the 1960s a range of benefits covering medical assistance, sickness benefit, workmen’s compensation, and pensions were brought together under the National Institute for Social Provision (INPS), which was financed by contributions from workers and employers. In 1988 the framers of the new constitution sought to provide equality of access to welfare, health care, and social assistance. They extended equal benefits for pensions and maternity rights to rural and urban workers.

Financial constraints have led to a decline in the quality of the public health service, and many of the more affluent people belong to private health programs. The federal government finances the majority of the public health services, the balance coming from the states and municipalities. Considerable inequity also exists in access to medical services, favoring cities and the more populated Southeast.

Despite these difficulties, life expectancy at birth rose from 57 years in 1960 to an average of 72 years—68 years for men and 75.7 years for women—in 2009. The infant mortality rate fell from 95 deaths per 1,000 live births in 1970 to 23 deaths per 1,000 live births in 2009. As a reflection of increasing prosperity, the principal causes of death match those found in developed countries. However, parasitic diseases, gastric ailments, and malnutrition are still threats to the impoverished and the young. Tropical diseases, which are endemic to some areas, include malaria, yellow fever, Chagas’ disease, hookworm, and schistosomiasis.

Defense of Brazil

The army is the largest military force, and almost 60 percent of its members are drafted. Men between the ages of 18 and 45 must serve a compulsory tour of duty ranging from 12 to 18 months. The navy and the air force have lower proportions of draftees. There is also a paramilitary public security force and a large military reserve. With the end of military rule in 1985, good relations with neighboring countries, and little internal political violence, the role of the armed forces has been diminishing. A new ministry of defense was created in 1999, replacing separate ministries for the army, air force, and navy; this ministry was headed by a civilian, ending the long tradition of military control of the armed forces. Defense currently absorbs 3.5 percent of government expenditure, falling from 4 percent under the military government.

International Organizations in Brazil

Brazil became an original member of the United Nations (UN) in 1945. It joined the UN’s Economic Commission for Latin America and the Organization of American States in 1948.


Brazil’s history can be divided into two major parts: the colonial period from the arrival of the first Portuguese explorers in 1500 until independence in 1822, and the national period since independence from Portugal. During the colonial period Brazil became the first great plantation slave society in the Americas, producing sugar and later coffee on large agricultural estates worked by slaves. During the 1700s Brazil experienced the first major gold rush in the Americas after explorers discovered gold on frontier territory inland from the coast. After Brazil broke away from Portuguese rule in the 1820s, members of the Portuguese royal family ruled as emperors until 1889, in the only sustained monarchy in the western hemisphere. Since 1889 Brazil has been a republic, experiencing two periods of dictatorship: from 1937 to 1945 and from 1964 to 1985. The interaction of Europeans, Native Americans, and Africans in Brazil has produced one of the most racially mixed societies in the world, and one with enormous economic and social inequalities.


Most of the hundreds of indigenous peoples who inhabited eastern South America prior to the arrival of the Europeans were members of the Tupí-Guaraní cultures. These Native American groups spoke variations of the Tupian language and inhabited an area along the eastern coast of South America south of the Amazon River and inland to the foothills of the Andes. They generally lived by hunting and gathering. Those who did farm used simple slash-and-burn techniques to clear the land. Their main crop was manioc, also known as cassava. After a few years the soil would be exhausted and the farming groups would move on. These people had no metal tools, no written language, no beasts of burden, and no knowledge of the wheel. They worshiped spirits and relied on religious figures known as shamans for healing, divination of future events, and connection to the world of spirits. Accurate numbers for the size of the indigenous population are difficult to determine, but best estimates place the native population of eastern South America in 1500 at somewhere between 1 and 6 million.

The Portuguese claim to Brazil stemmed in part from the Treaty of Tordesillas, which Portugal and Spain had signed in 1494 with the pope’s blessing. Both nations had undertaken voyages in search of a sea route to the spice-rich regions of the Indian Ocean and claimed land based on these voyages. In 1492 Italian Spanish explorer Christopher Columbus made his historic voyage and claimed land in the West Indies for Spain. Spain sought international recognition of its right to the newly discovered western lands, and the Treaty of Tordesillas was the result. The treaty drew an imaginary line far out into the western Atlantic. With a few exceptions, the Portuguese laid claim to conquered territories to the east of the line, along the African coast; Spain laid claim to territories to the west of the line. Much of Brazil lies to the east of the Tordesillas line and thus fell under Portugal’s jurisdiction.

The Portuguese, however, did not arrive in Brazil until 1500. They landed on the coast of South America by mistake while seeking a route to the Indian Ocean. In 1498 Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama had made the first successful voyage around the southern tip of Africa to India and back. The Portuguese quickly outfitted a second expedition, led by Pedro Álvares Cabral, a young nobleman. Cabral’s fleet strayed too far west in the South Atlantic as it moved around Africa. They spotted land on April 22, 1500. Unaware that he had stumbled on a huge continent, Cabral named his discovery Terra da Vera Cruz (Portuguese for “Island of the True Cross”).

Early Settlements

As they had done along the African coast, the Portuguese established trading posts, which they called feitorias (factories), along more than 1,600 km (more than 1,000 mi) of the South American coastline. Portuguese traders visited the factories with some frequency, primarily to load cargoes of a hard wood that produced a red dye known by its Latin name, brasile. Eventually, the land became identified on maps with the brazilwood it produced, and the Portuguese began to call their small colony Brazil.

At the same time, France was attempting to establish trading relationships along the coast. In 1530, to counter this French threat, the Portuguese crown sent an expedition to Brazil led by the nobleman Martim Afonso de Sousa. He founded the settlement of São Vicente (near present-day Santos) and introduced sugarcane cultivation, cattle raising, and an administrative presence in the colony. The king attempted to divide up 4,000 km (2,500 mi) of coastline into a dozen captaincies, giving control of these new territories to nobles. In exchange for developing and protecting their captaincies, these nobles, known as donatários, received control over lands that were sometimes larger than Portugal itself. Many of the donatários never even saw their land grants. Four of the captaincies were not settled, and just two—São Vicente in the south and Pernambuco in the north—experienced any initial success. The captaincies also failed to discourage the French, who continued raids against Portuguese shipping in the area.

In 1549 the king again attempted to establish centralized authority in the colony and sent out a larger and more ambitious expedition of some 1,200 colonists, soldiers, priests, and royal officials led by Tomé de Sousa. He founded a permanent colonial capital on the coast of the captaincy of Bahia, calling the city Salvador (Portuguese for “the Savior”). Within two decades the sugarcane that the colonists had brought from the Portuguese islands off the coast of West Africa spread in the rich soils of the countryside around Salvador. As the demand for agricultural labor increased, conflict between Native Americans and colonists intensified. Plantation owners tried a number of methods to coerce the indigenous people to work in the sugar fields: forcing them into slavery, attempting to turn them into peasants who were obligated to work on the agricultural estates, and offering wages in exchange for labor. None of these attempts succeeded on a large scale.

The Native Americans found a staunch ally against the pressure from the colonists in the Roman Catholic Church, or more precisely, in the Society of Jesus (Jesuits). Jesuit priests had arrived with Tomé de Sousa in 1549, and they founded the Roman Catholic Church in Brazil. A new and very effective religious order, the Jesuits created the first schools in Brazil and sought to convert the Native Americans to Christianity. A group of priests, led by Manoel da Nóbrega and José de Anchieta, eventually created a system of aldeias (villages) to Christianize the Native Americans. By the 1560s and 1570s the Jesuits had gathered thousands of indigenous people in dozens of aldeias.

In the 1560s disease, most likely smallpox, swept through the Native American villages, and large numbers of the indigenous people died. Given the Native Americans’ resistance to plantation work and their susceptibility to epidemics introduced by European settlers, the Portuguese colonists began to use African slave labor to satisfy their rapidly increasing labor needs.

Colonial Brazil

With the establishment of early settlements along the coast and the successful introduction of sugar cultivation, Brazil began developing an economy based on plantation agriculture and powered by slave labor. The introduction of large numbers of African slaves transformed areas of Brazil into multiracial societies where Native American, European, and African peoples mingled. Following the discovery of gold in the captaincy of Minas Gerais (General Mines) in the late 1600s, Brazil expanded its borders into the interior of the continent. Gold made Brazil the most economically important region of the Portuguese Empire and caused a major shift in the concentration of Brazil’s population. Settlements in southeastern Brazil, nearer the gold regions, grew at a rapid pace. Eventually the wealth and influence of the southeastern region eclipsed that of the older settlements of northeastern Brazil.

Plantation Society

The Portuguese initiated the Atlantic slave trade in the 1440s, bringing black Africans back to Lisbon, the capital of Portugal. Slavery dated from ancient times in both Europe and Africa, but the enslavement of black Africans by Europeans was new. For three centuries (roughly 1550 to 1850) Europeans transported their human cargo from Africa to the Americas. More than 10 million Africans survived this forced passage, with about 3 to 4 million going to Brazil alone.

Along the coastal zones of the Northeast, especially in the captaincies of Bahia and Pernambuco, the slave trade created a black majority. (Some 80 percent of the people of the northeastern coast today are descendants of Africans.) As the decades passed, the mulatto population of mixed European and African ancestry grew increasingly larger. The mixing of Native Americans and Portuguese produced the racially mixed mamelucos. The mulattoes and mamelucos formed racial, social, and cultural groups midway between the dominant white elite and the African slaves and indigenous population at the bottom of the social structure.

Probably three-fourths of the 50,000 Portuguese colonists lived near Salvador and Olinda, the capital of Pernambuco. For every white colonist in the early 17th century, there may have been as many as three African slaves. There was probably a total of several hundred thousand Native Americans in the interior. By the early 17th century, the sugar boom had created one of the fundamental patterns that would long plague Brazil: A small white elite controlled vast landholdings and dominated an economic and political system with a nonwhite majority.

In 1580, after the death of King Sebastian of Portugal, who left no heir, King Philip II of Spain placed himself on the Portuguese throne through bribery and the threat of war. The merging of the Spanish and Portuguese monarchies lasted until 1640 when the Portuguese regained their independence. The union created the second largest empire in world history, to be eclipsed later only by the British Empire. It included control of most of the Americas, the Philippines, the Portuguese trading empire in Asia and Africa, and Spanish possessions across Europe—The Netherlands, Sicily, and southern Italy.

Unfortunately for the Portuguese, the forced coalition with Spain drew them into bitter European power struggles between the Spanish and the Dutch. Involvement in this struggle was very costly for the Portuguese. By 1650 the Dutch had taken the Asian spice trade from the Portuguese and had gained control of the Indian Ocean. In Africa, Dutch attackers captured Portuguese territory in Angola as well as Portugal’s West African slave ports and held them for decades. In the 1620s the Dutch attacked Rio de Janeiro, Salvador, and Recife. After a bloody struggle they were driven back. A second incursion in 1630 left the Dutch in control of Recife and Olinda, which the Dutch occupied until the 1650s. After their expulsion, the Dutch (followed by the English, French, and Spanish) set up their own sugar plantations in the islands of the Caribbean. Although sugarcane remained Brazil’s major crop, the new competition sent the colony’s economy into decades of decline.

Discovery of Gold and Diamonds

In the late 17th century, Brazilian explorers known as bandeirantes began to find gold in the mountain streams to the north of Rio de Janeiro. Word of the discovery of gold filtered back slowly to the coast and to Lisbon. By 1700 the western world’s first great gold rush had begun. Thousands of colonists and slaves poured into the rugged mountains north of Rio de Janeiro. The rush eventually spread on a smaller scale to the west, to present-day Goiás and Mato Grosso. It received new stimulus in the 1720s with the discovery of diamonds in the region north of the gold fields. Gold and diamond production rose dramatically until 1760. Probably 80 percent of the gold circulating in 18th-century Europe came from Brazil. The discovery of gold revitalized Brazil’s economy, which had been stagnating since the decline of the sugar plantations, although the increase in available cash also caused prices to rise in the colony. In Lisbon, the Portuguese monarchy grew rich from collecting its one-fifth share of the gold that was mined in Brazil. Sugar, gold, and diamonds established Brazil as the economic heartland of the battered and reduced Portuguese Empire.

For the first time, the Portuguese established effective colonization in the interior. The area of Minas Gerais became the most populous in Brazil. The bandeirantes and prospectors had extended the reach of Portugal far into the interior, creating a Brazil of continental dimensions. The Treaty of Madrid signed by Spain and Portugal in 1750 moved the old Tordesillas line westward to reflect the lands effectively occupied by the two major colonial powers in South America. The present boundaries of Brazil roughly follow that line.

The flow of goods and people into the southeast also drained an already weak northeastern plantation economy. In 1763 the king moved the colonial capital from Salvador to the booming city of Rio de Janeiro, which served as the main entry and exit point for colonists, slaves, and goods to and from Minas Gerais. The result of the gold rush in Brazil is evident in the dozens of beautiful baroque churches and hundreds of statues and paintings, principally in Minas Gerais.

In Portugal the wealth from Brazil made the monarchy very powerful. The dictatorial Marquis of Pombal, the chief minister of King Joseph Emanuel of Portugal, used this power to modernize the imperial system. In 1755 he abolished slavery in Portugal and prohibited the enslavement of Native Americans by declaring them free citizens of Brazil. Pombal wanted to outlaw African slavery in Brazil as well, but he realized that slavery formed a central part of Brazil’s plantation-based economy. Recognizing the importance of Brazil to the economic well-being of Portugal, Pombal tried to improve the efficiency of the Brazilian economy and administration and to lessen tensions between colonists and their Portuguese rulers. He involved Brazilian-born individuals in the colonial government, promoted new crops, and expelled the Jesuits, who had opposed his economic programs.


In 1789 elites in the captaincy of Minas Gerais revolted, protesting the reassertion of imperial control and the imposition of new taxes. An early sign of Brazilian nationalism, the Minas Conspiracy involved prominent figures as well as military officers. The revolt failed and royal courts sentenced most of the conspirators to prison or exile. The only nonaristocratic member of the conspiracy, a military officer by the name of Joaquim José da Silva Xavier, became the scapegoat. Best known by his nickname, Tiradentes (Toothpuller)—one of his many professions was dentistry—he was hanged in 1793 and became a martyr for the cause of Brazilian independence.

The connection between Portugal and Brazil was severed when Napoleon I and his armies invaded Portugal and Spain in 1807 and 1808. Napoleon, who had become emperor of France following the French Revolution (1789-1799), deposed and imprisoned the Spanish king Ferdinand VII in 1808. This left the Spanish American colonies isolated from royal control and set off a chain reaction that led to a series of long and bloody wars for independence (see Latin American Independence). Brazil avoided a similar fate when the monarchy fled Lisbon shortly before French troops entered the city in 1807. With the help of their British allies, who were fighting Napoleon’s forces, the royal family and 10,000 Portuguese followers made an unprecedented voyage across the Atlantic to Brazil, transferring the center of the empire to Rio de Janeiro. For the first and last time in Western history, a European monarchy would rule its empire from the colonies.

Portugal’s prince regent, the future King John VI, arrived in Brazil in early 1808 and for the next 13 years ruled Portugal’s Asian, African, and American colonies from Rio de Janeiro. In 1815 John VI elevated Brazil to the status of a kingdom, placing it on an equal footing with Portugal. The presence of the monarchy and court in Rio brought Brazilian and Portuguese elites together and paved the way for a gradual transition to independence.

By 1815 Napoleon had been defeated in Europe, opening the way for the monarchy to return to Lisbon. John VI, however, decided to remain in Brazil, but in 1820 the Portuguese army headed a revolution designed to bring about a constitutional government. The revolutionaries agreed that John VI would serve as constitutional monarch of the empire, but only on the condition that he return to Portugal. Threatened with the loss of his crown, John reluctantly left for Portugal in 1821. His 23-year-old son Pedro remained in the colony as prince regent of Brazil.

Pedro and his advisers realized that revolutions in other Latin American countries were encouraging a movement for national independence in Brazil. A new and aggressive Cortes (parliament) in Portugal contributed to the demand for independence through a series of inept actions that offended many influential Brazilians. Portuguese members of the Cortes showed open hostility toward the Brazilian representatives, whom they regarded as unsophisticated residents of a backward province. Then the Cortes further alienated Brazilians by attempting to restore Brazil to colonial status. Rather than trying to resist the growing momentum for independence, Pedro and his advisers decided to take control of this movement. On September 7, 1822, after receiving orders from the Portuguese Cortes curtailing his authority in Brazil, Pedro declared Brazil’s independence. Thus Brazil became one of the few Latin American colonies to make a peaceful transition to independence.

Pedro became Brazil’s first emperor as Pedro I. His greatest challenge was to keep this new nation of continental dimensions from fragmenting into several countries, as had happened in Spanish America. He hired Lord Thomas Cochrane, an admiral who had been thrown out of the British navy, to enforce his authority in Brazil. Cochrane defeated the small Portuguese fleet and crushed separatist revolts in the major regional centers along the coast. With a small, hired navy and very few battles, Brazil retained its unity after gaining its independence. Portugal recognized Brazil’s independence in 1825.

Despite his role in leading Brazil to independence, Pedro soon lost much of his support. He had been a resident of Brazil since the age of ten, but he was still Portuguese. Although Pedro abdicated the Portuguese throne, which he inherited in 1826, many Brazilians remained suspicious of his continued involvement in the affairs of his native Portugal. Members of the Brazilian elite were dissatisfied with Pedro for a number of reasons. Many of them opposed the new constitution written under his supervision and enacted in 1824. They were also displeased when he overrode the decision of the newly created Brazilian parliament and surrounded himself with Portuguese-born cabinet ministers. In the 1820s Pedro chose to renew a longstanding struggle with Argentina over the southern border of Brazil. The struggle erupted into the Cisplatine War (1825-1828). The war was unpopular with many Brazilians, especially after Brazil suffered a major military defeat at the hands of the Argentines in 1827. Faced with widespread opposition to his rule, Pedro abdicated his Brazilian throne in 1831 and returned to Portugal.

Pedro II and the Brazilian Empire

Like his father, Pedro I left behind his eldest son, the future Pedro II, to take his place in Brazil. Barely four years old when his father and family returned to Portugal in 1831, the young Pedro grew up a virtual orphan and received an extraordinary education. Carefully chosen tutors taught the future emperor Latin, Greek, French, German, Spanish, and English and gave him a broad education in the arts and sciences.

While the young emperor-to-be grew up, a council of regents appointed by Parliament ruled the country. For the first time, Brazilians governed Brazil. As in most of 19th-century Latin America, two political parties contended for power. Conservatives looked back to Portuguese values and traditions for their inspiration. They sought to maintain a strong centralized monarchy, a slave economy, and the influence of the Catholic Church. Liberals sought to mold their country in the image of England, France, and the United States. They wanted to diminish the influence of the church, restrain centralization and monarchy, and move toward a free labor economy. These were the ideals. When in power, each faction tended to be practical, sometimes implementing programs fought for by their opponents.

Throughout the 1830s the absence of a strong executive, disputes between liberals and conservatives, and powerful regional revolts threatened to shatter the fragile unity of the new nation. The constitution did not allow for the coronation of young Pedro until his 18th birthday, in December 1844. However, several factors combined to result in his coronation in 1840. Pedro was exceptionally mature, and both parties hoped that a monarch would provide the stability to prevent rebellions. In addition, both parties hoped that they might dominate the teenage emperor. In 1840 the Parliament offered the 13-year-old Pedro the crown. He accepted, beginning an era known as the Second Reign that lasted from 1840 to 1889.

A Changing Economy

The 1840s also mark the emergence of coffee cultivation, which became the engine of economic growth that transformed Brazil during the next century. Like sugar, coffee was not native to the Americas, but had been transported there from its place of origin in Africa. Cultivation spread through the fertile valleys near Rio de Janeiro in the 1820s and 1830s. During the next century, coffee cultivation also spread rapidly in the area north and west of Rio, in southern Minas Gerais and, most prominently, in the province of São Paulo. The rapid expansion of coffee fields quickly made Brazil the world’s leading exporter, a position it continues to hold today. Revenue generated by coffee drove the Brazilian economy until the Great Depression of the 1930s caused the collapse of national economies around the world. Coffee established southeastern Brazil—principally the states of Rio de Janeiro, Minas Gerais, and São Paulo—as the economic and political core of the nation.

In 1839 the discovery of vulcanization—a process that stabilizes products manufactured from rubber—caused rapid financial growth in the frontier towns of the Brazilian forests, where rubber was harvested from the sap of trees native to the area. Brazil produced the vast majority of the world’s rubber until early in the 1900s, when the British used smuggled seeds to establish more efficient plantations in East Asia.


The coffee economy remained the backbone of the Brazilian economy long after rubber production collapsed, and it ran on slave labor. Brazil had imported half a million slaves in the 17th century to work on the sugar plantations of the Northeast. In the 18th century the gold fields of Minas Gerais had absorbed another 1.5 million Africans. In the first half of the 19th century alone, Brazil imported another 1.5 million slaves to fill the demand for labor on the coffee plantations of the southeast. As the abolitionist movement gained strength in England and the United States in the 19th century, British pressure forced Brazil to halt its 300-year-old Atlantic slave trade in 1850.

The 3 to 4 million Africans who entered Brazil as slaves up until 1850 fundamentally shaped the composition of Brazilian society. In 1800 Brazil had the largest slave population in the world (half of its population of 3 million), and this forced migration created a truly African American culture in Brazil. African music, religions, foods, and language patterns blended with the culture of the Portuguese and the Native Americans to produce a cultural mosaic that was a mixture of African, European, and Native American influences. European colonists adopted Native American customs and borrowed words from the indigenous languages, while African slaves blended their own religious rituals with those of Christianity to form such new Afro-Brazilian religions as Umbanda, Macumba, and Candomblé.

Although the slave trade was abolished in 1850, slavery remained legal in Brazil. Slavery had been central to the fabric of life in Brazil for so long that dismantling slavery took much longer than in any other society in the Americas. The slave system began to disintegrate in the 1880s with the rise of a vocal abolitionist movement, largely in the cities, and the growing tendency for slaves to flee from their masters. Legislation by conservatives attempted to stretch the process over decades by gradually freeing the children of slaves beginning in 1871 and by emancipating elderly slaves after 1885. By 1888 unrest on plantations, and the refusal of the army to step in and halt the flight of slaves from their masters, brought the system to the brink of chaos. Ruling in place of her father, who was in Europe for medical treatment, Princess Isabel decreed the end of slavery in the “Golden Law” of May 13, 1888. Rather than face the anarchy and upheaval of massive slave unrest and flight, slave owners grudgingly accepted abolition.

With the supply of new slave labor cut off after 1850 and the slave system in a state of disintegration, coffee planters turned to European immigration to meet their labor needs. Some 2.7 million immigrants—mainly from Italy, Spain, and Portugal—arrived in southeastern and southern Brazil between 1887 and 1914. These immigrants gradually replaced slaves as the labor force in the coffee fields. They turned southern Brazil into an area with a more urban and European culture, strikingly different from the older mining and plantation regions of Minas Gerais and the Northeast, where a more relaxed, rural atmosphere prevailed and where African cultural influences remained strong among the Afro-Brazilian population.

End of the Empire

In stark contrast to the upheaval and instability of some Latin American countries, Brazil’s government was stable during the middle part of the 19th century. The Liberal and Conservative parties shared power, with the emperor acting as a moderating power between the two. The emperor called for new elections when it appeared that the ruling party faced a political crisis; invariably the opposition party would win the new elections.

There were elements of Brazilian society that did not support this power-sharing arrangement, however. In the 1870s and 1880s a republican movement emerged that called for the end of the monarchy and the creation of a republic modeled after the United States. Republicanism was especially strong among members of the army.

Over the last century, the military has played a central role in Brazilian society and politics, but this was not the case in the early years of independence. Brazil avoided most of the bloodshed and huge military buildup that plagued the early years of the Spanish American nations. The Brazilian army remained relatively small and did not play a significant role in the nation’s affairs until the War of the Triple Alliance (1864-1870). For complex reasons, Brazil joined Argentina and Uruguay in this long and costly war against Paraguay in the 1860s. Despite the enormous disparity in resources, Paraguay tenaciously resisted the invading armies for years, losing the majority of its adult male population and large chunks of territory. Brazil’s inability to defeat tiny Paraguay highlighted the weaknesses of the Brazilian military. Disgruntled officers began to envision a future without the monarchy.

By 1889 abolition, republicanism, and dissatisfaction in the armed forces had all eroded Pedro’s traditional support from landowners, the clergy, and the military. A small group of conspirators with key support from high-level army officers initiated a coup d’etat on November 15, 1889. The ailing, 62-year-old Pedro found himself with little support and, like his father, chose exile over resistance. The day after the coup the royal family sailed to exile in Portugal and France.

The First Republic

Brazil’s first republic was established in 1889. A Constituent Assembly convened to draw up a new constitution and swiftly decreed the separation of church and state as well as other republican reforms. In June 1890 it completed the drafting of a constitution, which was adopted in February 1891. Similar to the Constitution of the United States, Brazil’s constitution eliminated the monarchy and established a federal republic, officially called the United States of Brazil. It replaced a parliament of senators appointed for life with an elected congress consisting of a house and senate. It also provided for an independent judiciary, and an executive branch headed by an elected president. The balance of power shifted significantly from a strong, centralized federalist system (see Federal Government) to a federalist system that granted substantial powers to the states.

Initially the military dominated the new government under the leadership of General Manuel Deodoro da Fonseca, a conservative general who had joined the revolt at the last minute. The assembly elected Deodoro president of a provisional government and chose a more decidedly republican general, Floriano Peixoto, as his vice president. An inflexible military leader, Deodoro proved incapable of working with the new congress, which took office in late 1890. They fought angrily over financial policy and over the extent of federal influence in the Brazilian states. Unwilling to deal with opposition, Deodoro dissolved Congress several months after it was elected and attempted to rule by decree. Faced with the possibility of civil war, he resigned the presidency in 1891. The tough Floriano assumed control and guided the republic through difficult times. He suppressed rebellions in the state of Rio Grande do Sul and in Rio de Janerio. Floriano supervised the republic’s first elections in 1894 and handed power over to a civilian president, Prudente de Morais Barros, who had served as the first republican governor of São Paulo state.

With the election of Prudente, a politician from one of the leading coffee-producing states, the powerful coffee interests again dominated national politics. Under the constitution, voting was restricted to literate adult males. Because of a high illiteracy rate, this provision severely restricted the number of voters. Prior to 1930 no more than 4 percent of the total population voted in presidential contests. Landowners maintained a monopoly on power through political machines—tightly controlled political organizations that they set up in each of Brazil’s states. These machines controlled enough votes to guarantee that landowners dominated local and national politics. Governors in the more populous states used their political machines to ensure that the presidency of Brazil went to an “official” candidate of their choosing. Over the four decades following Prudente’s election, the coffee states of São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, and Minas Gerais shared political power. Nine of the 12 presidents from 1894 to 1930 came from these three states, which produced most of Brazil’s wealth and accounted for most of its population.

Social Change

Up until the early 20th century, Brazil’s economy and social structure reflected a pattern established in the early days of colonial development. A small class of wealthy landowners controlled most of the country’s wealth and power, while the majority of Brazilians—mostly slaves, their descendents, and the mulatto population—lived in relative poverty as agricultural workers. This situation began to change gradually toward the end of the 19th century when large numbers of immigrants arrived in Brazil. After the slave trade was abolished in 1850, the coffee planters could not find enough workers and the government began actively recruiting Europeans to immigrate to Brazil. In the last decade of the 19th century about 100,000 European immigrants arrived each year. The numbers increased during the early years of the 20th century, reaching a peak of about 600,000 for the period from 1911 to 1915. Many of these immigrants settled in the cities and urban centers.

Although Brazil’s economy continued to be based on agricultural production, industry had begun to develop by the 1920s, especially around the cities of Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo. Industrialization was accompanied by the growth of a small working class and middle class. Both groups found themselves excluded from the power structure developed by landowners to dominate rural workers. The immigrants, particularly Italians who made up about a third of the immigrant population, introduced new political ideologies from Europe, where workers and middle-class citizens were becoming increasingly active in politics. Many of these workers were frustrated with their lack of access to Brazil’s political system. As their numbers grew, their demands for a place in the nation’s political system also increased. Socialists and anarchists organized unions and strikes, but they encountered intense repression from the government.

The Revolution of 1930

A more powerful challenge to the regime came from disgruntled young military officers. Many of these officers supported social reform, but they were also concerned about their professional status. They believed that the civilian government had neglected the army, which struggled with poor equipment, outdated training, and slim prospects for promotion of officers. On July 5, 1922, a group of young officers known as tenentes (lieutenants) staged a revolt in Rio de Janeiro against the government. The revolt was unsuccessful, but two years later a more serious uprising by tenentes in São Paulo shook the foundations of the regime for several weeks before government forces suppressed it. By the late 1920s the challenges of army officers, middle-class groups, and urban workers threatened the stability of the regime.

A worldwide economic crisis and a serious split within the landowning elites over the presidential succession finally brought down the government. In 1929 economies throughout the world collapsed as the Great Depression began. In Brazil the depression caused a dramatic decline in coffee exports and a corresponding increase in the nation’s foreign debts. President Washington Luís refused to change his economic policy in order to deal with the crisis, and he did little to improve economic conditions. Amid growing public discontent about the economy, the political elite split over the 1930 presidential election. The official government candidate, Júlio Prestes, was supported by the political machines in the larger states. He was opposed by Getúlio Vargas, governor of Rio Grande do Sul, who had organized a coalition of smaller states, opposition parties, and discontented elements in the military and in urban centers. The March election went smoothly for the government, with Prestes winning easily, but in October, before the new government was inaugurated, a revolt erupted following the assassination of Vargas’s running mate, João Pêssoa. After a month of fighting, President Luís stepped down, and rebel troops marched into Rio de Janeiro. The Revolution of 1930 had triumphed.

Getúlio Vargas and the New Brazil

Getúlio Vargas played a central role in the 1930 revolt, and he emerged as the most important political figure in 20th-century Brazil. Vargas was the son of an elite ranching family near the Argentine border. In less than a decade, from 1922 to 1930, he rose from federal deputy to governor of his home state of Rio Grande do Sul, and then to presidential candidate and leader of the revolutionary coalition. From 1930 to 1934 he ruled Brazil as the head of a provisional revolutionary government. The Constituent Assembly elected him president in 1934.

In 1937, as elections approached, Vargas led a coup with the help of the army, and for the next eight years he ruled the nation as a dictator. He eliminated Congress, ruled by decree, and established federal control over Brazil’s states by replacing almost all the governors with his own appointees. With the state political machines neutralized, Vargas ruled without the support of the landowning elite. He maintained power with the backing of the military, the urban working and middle classes, and politicians in smaller states, who had been excluded from power under the republic.

Estado Novo

During this period Vargas turned Brazil into an Estado Novo (New State). The Estado Novo was based on corporatism, which advocates close economic collaboration between employers and workers under the centralized direction of the government. Vargas appointed government planners to organize industrialization programs and foreign trade policies, and he placed labor unions under the direct control of the government.

To satisfy his urban supporters, Vargas worked to create new Brazilian industries in the 1930s and 1940s. The most important new industry was iron and steel, which received a major boost in 1941 when construction began on the first integrated iron and steel mill at Volta Redonda, in Rio de Janeiro state. Vargas also established policies to protect domestic production from competition from foreign imports. These protectionist policies pleased an emerging new class of entrepreneurs and industrialists and created more jobs for blue-collar and white-collar workers.

Vargas initiated a social welfare revolution as well. Much like the New Deal policies of U.S. president Franklin Roosevelt, Vargas’s legislation provided workers with basic social welfare protections: minimum wage, maximum working hours, pensions, unemployment compensation, health and safety regulations, and unionization.

World War II

During World War II (1939-1945) Brazil fought with the Allies. The Vargas regime, aided by the United States, embarked on a vast program of industrial expansion, emphasizing increased production of rubber and other vital war materials. Naval bases and airfields, constructed at strategic coastal points, became important centers of Allied antisubmarine warfare. The Brazilian navy eventually assumed all patrol activities in the South Atlantic Ocean. In 1944 and 1945 a Brazilian expeditionary force participated in the Allied campaign in Italy. Brazil was the only Latin American country to contribute troops to the war effort.

In the early 1940s, Brazilians were fighting a war against dictators in Europe while living under a dictatorship at home. More and more Brazilians began demanding a return to democratic elections, especially after Vargas postponed the elections he had scheduled for 1943. Vargas responded to these demands by promising presidential elections for 1945 in which he would be ineligible to run for the presidency. Vargas realized that he would eventually have to build a base of support among voters if he hoped to remain active in Brazilian politics. He began to shift his policy to the left in order to establish solid support among urban workers, poor rural laborers, and leftists. He moved toward economic nationalism, challenging the economic and business interests of Britain, the United States, and other foreign powers. He also created social legislation to protect workers. These new laws established pensions and social security benefits, and set a minimum wage and maximum work hours.

Many Brazilians feared Vargas might stage another coup before the elections, as he had done in 1937. To prevent this from happening, members of the army—many of whom were alarmed at his turn to the left—staged a coup of their own in October 1945 and forced Vargas to resign. Vargas quietly left for his ranch in southern Brazil, and the electoral campaign proceeded under a caretaker government.

The Age of Mass Politics

The fall of Vargas ushered in a new era of mass politics in Brazil. A new constitution was approved in 1946 that dismantled the highly centralized government organization of the Estado Novo, returned a great deal of power to the individual states, and provided for regular elections. With the return of elections, politicians had to campaign for the votes of the people through such modern methods as political rallies, radio broadcasts, and newspapers. Although political machines returned to power in many areas, particularly in the rural regions, a style of politics known as populism emerged. Populist politicians challenged the traditional power of the coffee-growing landowners by forging a political following among the masses, especially among the growing number of urban workers and sectors of the middle class. Vargas had used support from these groups to maintain power as dictator. Now elected politicians competed to win the votes of workers and middle-class Brazilians.

Another new feature on the political landscape was the formation of truly national political parties. Three major parties took shape in the 1940s. The National Democratic Union (UDN) attracted the more conservative elements in national politics, while the Social Democratic Party (PSD) appealed to more moderate and liberal voters. Labor leaders and their political allies formed the Brazilian Workers Party (PTB) to represent the interests of the Brazilian working class. The Brazilian Communist Party (PCB), which was founded in 1922 and had survived severe repression for more than two decades, competed with the Brazilian Workers Party for the support of the urban working class.

In the elections of 1945, the Social Democratic Party candidate, Eurico Dutra, triumphed with 55 percent of the vote. Dutra was a former minister of war and one of the most influential officers in the Brazilian military when he became a presidential candidate. In January 1946 he began a five-year presidential term. A hesitant and cautious president, Dutra did not make any major changes in the political system. When he withdrew government support for industrialization, Brazil’s economy again became heavily dependent on coffee exports.

J.1. Vargas’s Second Presidency

Meanwhile, Vargas won election to the Senate and began planning his return to power. With the support of the Brazilian Workers Party, Vargas defeated the candidates of the Social Democratic Party and National Democratic Union in 1950. Five years after a military coup ended his dictatorship, Getúlio Vargas returned to the presidency with an electoral victory.

Despite his electoral victory, opposition parties, which controlled the Senate and House, fought Vargas at every turn. Vargas saw his election as a mandate to complete the unfinished work begun during his dictatorship. The state role in economic and social development was further expanded. Vargas created federally financed banks, corporations, and agencies, including the national bank of social and economic development (BNDES), the Brazilian petroleum corporation (Petrobrás), and the Brazilian electric corporation (Eletrobrás). At the same time, Vargas turned to the support of urban workers as a base for his political power. Business interests, multinational corporations, and foreign governments viewed Vargas’s alliance with the lower classes with suspicion and came together to oppose him. Opponents of Vargas controlled almost all the major newspapers, magazines, and radio stations, and they attacked the president constantly.

By late 1954 the country had come to a political impasse, with Vargas and his opposition in a deadlock. A dramatic attempt to assassinate one of Vargas’s bitter enemies broke the deadlock after investigations tied Vargas’s personal bodyguard to the attempt. The army high command gave Vargas an ultimatum: resign or be overthrown. Facing the end of a long and brilliant political career, Vargas chose his most dramatic maneuver as his last: On the morning of August 24, 1954, he committed suicide in his bedroom at the presidential palace.

J.2. Economic Expansion

Vice President João Café Filho completed the remaining 17 months of Vargas’s term. In the 1955 presidential elections, the Social Democratic Party and the Brazilian Workers Party formed a coalition. This coalition elected the governor of Minas Gerais, Juscelino Kubitschek as president with João Goulart, Vargas’s controversial labor minister, as vice president. Kubitschek campaigned on the slogan “fifty years in five,” promising to achieve fifty years of progress during his five-year term. Arguably, he succeeded. During the late 1950s the Brazilian economy surged forward as heavy industries—iron, steel, and automobiles—and basic infrastructure—roads, communications, and construction—expanded. The Kubitschek government helped finance many of these modernization projects by printing currency that had no financial backing. The government printed enough unsupported currency to accelerate the cycle of inflation, which eventually led to major economic problems for Brazil.

Kubitschek’s most vivid and enduring legacy is Brasília, a new capital city built on the plains of central Brazil. Many Brazilians thought that a new capital in the interior of Brazil would stimulate development in the region. Although the idea of moving the capital into the interior dated from the 18th century, it was Kubitschek who convinced the legislature to accept the idea and to fund it. Between 1956 and 1960, Kubitschek personally supervised the construction of this modern, futuristic city, located 1,300 km (800 mi) north of Rio de Janeiro. Inaugurated in April 1960, Brasília now has more than 2 million inhabitants.

J.3. Descent into Chaos

By the 1960 presidential election, a new figure had emerged on the national political scene. Jânio Quadros, the governor of São Paulo, was the National Democratic Union candidate for the presidency. Quadros vowed to sweep government clean of corruption and even brandished a broom as his symbol while campaigning. He won the presidential election. However, because the presidential and vice presidential candidates were elected separately in Brazil, the Brazilian Workers Party candidate, João Goulart, was elected vice president.

Just seven months after his inauguration in January 1961, Jânio Quadros suddenly and unexpectedly resigned the presidency. No one, including Quadros, has ever offered a satisfactory explanation for the resignation. Whatever the reasons behind Quadros’s resignation, it provoked a crisis. The constitution called for Vice President João Goulart to succeed Quadros, but powerful figures in the military high command quickly declared him unacceptable. Many Brazilians saw Goulart as a Communist or Communist sympathizer, whose political ideas were too far to the left of center. The Congress, and many political leaders, rejected the military’s position and called for respect for the constitutional process.

For nearly two weeks, the military and Congress negotiated a solution to the impasse. Goulart was sworn in, but his presidential powers were curtailed. New legislation created a prime minister, who would be responsible to the legislature and who would share many of the political powers held by the president. This legislation was reversed in 1962, when Goulart held a national referendum in which voters restored the presidential system of government.

The military’s hatred of Goulart must be seen in the context of the Cold War, an intense economic and diplomatic struggle between the United States and its allies and the group of nations led by the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). By the 1960s many Brazilian military officers had come to see Brazil as a front-line nation in the Cold War struggle between Communism and capitalism. This vision was fostered by Brazil’s alliance with the United States and by ideas circulated in courses and specialized schools for the officer corps. Many officers feared a revolution in Brazil, and they viewed Goulart, with his support for leftist causes, as the leader of Communist forces in Brazil.

Goulart was also confronted with problems that sprang from the gradual disintegration of the economy. Inflation continued to increase, and the government faced large debt payments on foreign loans taken out to finance economic development during the Kubitschek administration. Goulart’s economic advisers devised a plan to stabilize the economy by controlling wages and reducing government spending. Goulart followed this policy for several months, but then abandoned it. He feared that the imposition of wage controls would cost him the support of workers, who were his strongest political supporters, and that concessions to foreign bankers would alienate Brazilian nationalists. By early 1964 inflation approached 100 percent a year, foreign loans came to a halt, and the economy neared collapse.

Following the advice of his most radical advisers, Goulart attempted to strengthen his support among the masses. In the first months of 1964 he staged huge rallies in several of Brazil’s major cities. He also signed decrees setting low-rent controls, nationalizing petroleum refineries, seizing unused lands, and limiting profits that could be taken out of Brazil by foreign investors. In a final, desperate move to check the power of his enemies in the military high command, Goulart made a televised speech to a group of sergeants. He told them to disobey their superiors if they believed their orders were not in the best interest of the nation. Conspirators in the military had been contemplating the overthrow of Goulart for months; on March 31, after Goulart’s speech to the sergeants, the army took control of the government. Goulart fled the country, never to return.

Military Rule

Moderate Leadership

The military intervened with two primary objectives: to eradicate the left and to rebuild the collapsing economy. Military leaders split between political hardliners and moderates over how to achieve these goals. Led by General Humberto Castello Branco, who was named president, the moderates dominated the early years of the regime. Rather than shutting down civilian politics completely, the military attempted to purge the system of “undesirable” elements. They arrested and imprisoned people they perceived as opponents of the regime. Many fled the country. The military dismissed thousands of civil servants, military personnel, and politicians from their jobs and prohibited suspected political opponents from voting or holding office.

The military hoped that these actions would be enough to silence their opponents. This was not the case. By 1968 growing political opposition—even from former supporters of the military government—increasingly called for a return to civilian rule. Even the Supreme Court and the Congress, whose membership had been approved by the military leaders, began to exhibit signs of independence. The Supreme Court ordered the release of three students who had been detained by the government, and the Congress refused to allow the trial of one of its members who had criticized the military. University students in Brazil mounted huge demonstrations against the generals in 1967 and 1968. In addition, a small guerrilla movement developed, based largely in the cities. Its members kidnapped U.S. ambassador Charles Burke Elbrick and demanded a ransom and the release of political prisoners held by Brazil’s military government. Over the next four years guerrillas continued their campaign against the government by kidnapping foreign diplomats, bombing government buildings, and robbing banks to finance their activities.

Hardliners Take Control

The growing opposition provoked a sharp response from the hardliners, who launched a coup within the regime and took the upper hand in the military high command. The coup was triggered when General Artur Costa e Silva, who had been voted president by the legislature in 1967, suffered a series of incapacitating strokes in 1968. The three military cabinet ministers (army, navy, and air force) then took charge.

The generals saw chaos and Communists all around them, and they cracked down, initiating intense repression to crush the opposition. In December 1968 they shut down Congress. The military leaders issued a new constitution that concentrated power in the executive and they named a new president, General Emílio Médici. Between 1968 and 1974, Médici and the hardliners unleashed the systematic and widespread use of torture and repression to silence their opponents. Thousands suffered at the hands of the torturers, and hundreds died.

The regime took control of labor unions and silenced anyone who criticized the regime. Within a few years the guerrillas had been entirely wiped out. The government eventually shut down the national student union, and universities purged their faculties of those suspected of supporting leftist ideas. Large numbers of prominent Brazilian academics and artists went into exile in other Latin American countries, the United States, and Europe.

The years of repression coincided with the years of the so-called Brazilian miracle when the economy grew faster than any other economy in the world. During this period manufactured goods replaced coffee as Brazil’s leading export. The staunchly nationalistic military wanted to make Brazil a world power and understood that a strong industrial economy held the key to their goal. They welcomed foreign investment, attracting billions of dollars. The regime channeled that investment into sectors of the economy considered critical for development. Among other things, these included the Trans-Amazon Highway, a large hydroelectric dam at Itaipú in southeastern Brazil, and a nuclear power program.

Return to Civilian Government


By 1973 the economy was expanding at an extraordinary pace, and the military appeared to have control over the political system. Moderate forces within the military brought General Ernesto Geisel to the presidency in 1974. The son of German immigrants, Geisel initiated abertura (opening), a series of reforms that gradually allowed limited political organization and elections. The legal opposition party, the Brazilian Democratic Movement (MDB), began to win important elections.

Geisel handpicked his successor, General João Baptista Figueiredo. Figueiredo’s presidency began in 1979 by furthering abertura with the declaration of a general amnesty for all political crimes since 1964. The government also allowed exiles to return home. Figueiredo released the last few political prisoners, and official censors finally left the pressrooms and television studios. The Figueiredo government also issued guidelines for the formation of new political parties and for open election of governors in 1982.

Economic Problems

Abertura was complicated by growing economic problems with roots going back to the enormous industrial and economic expansion of the late 1960s and early 1970s. This expansion had made the country heavily dependent on petroleum, much of which was imported. When Arab nations began limiting oil exports in October 1973, the price of oil skyrocketed, seriously crippling the Brazilian economy. The regime had already borrowed heavily to finance the so-called Brazilian miracle. To keep the economy going, and to avoid a recession, the Brazilian government borrowed billions from international agencies and banks to finance continued growth. The Brazilian foreign debt went from about $25 billion in 1974 to more than $100 billion in the early 1980s—at that time the largest foreign debt in the world. Inflation continued its upward trend, reaching levels far higher than during the crisis of 1963 and 1964. In 1982 Brazil halted all payments on the principal of its huge foreign debt, and the economy entered a severe recession.

Transition to Democracy

The battered economy severely discredited the military regime in the eyes of most Brazilians. Furthermore, few saw much need for a military regime, given that the threat of leftist revolution had long since been crushed. In 1984 millions of Brazilians took to the streets demanding immediate direct elections for president.

The government managed to fend off the calls for direct elections by instituting an electoral college, in which congressional delegates and state assembly members voted for the president. However, the massive public demonstrations helped split the government party. Many of the government’s supporters in the electoral college defected and voted with the opposition, defeating the official government candidate for president in 1984. The electoral college instead chose Tancredo Neves, the governor of Minas Gerais, to become Brazil’s first civilian president since 1964. They chose José Sarney as vice president. Sarney, a long time leader of the government party in the Senate, had played a key role in leading government supporters to join the opposition.

Neves, who was 74, fell desperately ill on the eve of his scheduled inauguration in March 1985. When Neves died in late April, before he could assume office, José Sarney was sworn in as president. Sarney immediately faced two momentous problems: the economic crisis and the need to continue the transition to a fully democratic regime by instituting a new constitution that would reestablish democratic institutions.

Inflation in 1985 approached 300 percent, the foreign debt continued to mount, and strikes broke out across the country as workers demanded higher wages. In a drastic effort to stabilize the economy, Sarney introduced the Cruzado Plan in February 1986. The plan froze prices and wages and it brought Sarney to the peak of his popularity when inflation ground to a standstill for a few months. Unfortunately, when the government unfroze prices and wages at the end of 1986, inflation exploded again. Interest payments on the foreign debt gobbled up nearly all of the country’s huge trade surplus, draining the economy of badly needed capital. The government incurred large deficits in public spending, and foreign banks refused to extend new loans until the government implemented an economic austerity program.

The Congress elected in November 1986 drafted a new constitution that went into effect in October 1988. The constitution’s provisions gave wider power to the legislature and decreased the influence of the executive branch, granted more tax revenues to the states and municipalities, and extended the vote to 16-year-olds. It eliminated the electoral college established by the military regime and allowed Brazilians to vote directly for president.

The Collor Administration

The election of Fernando Collor de Mello in late 1989, and his inauguration in March 1990, marked the completion of the long and difficult process of abertura. Finally, Brazilians had the opportunity to elect their president directly through the ballot box rather than having one imposed by a small clique of generals. More than 80 million Brazilians voted in the presidential election, the vast majority for the first time. In his first two years in office Collor implemented an economic program that brought inflation down, but failed to contain it. More important, he began to drastically curtail the state’s role in the Brazilian economy and to dismantle protectionist trade policies.

The great hopes millions of Brazilians had for the Collor presidency soon disappeared as the economic program failed to halt extremely high inflation rates, which reached a peak of more than 1,500 percent in 1991. A corruption scandal also badly damaged the government. In 1992 legislative investigations uncovered an influence-peddling scheme that involved hundreds of millions of dollars, much of it going to Collor. In December 1992 the Congress impeached Collor and swore in his vice president, Itamar Franco, to serve out the last two years of Collor’s term.

The Cardoso Presidency

President Franco paved the way for the election of his successor, Fernando Henrique Cardoso. One of Latin America’s most prominent intellectual figures, Cardoso was trained as a political sociologist at the University of São Paulo in the late 1950s and early 1960s. A former member of the Communist Party, Cardoso spent part of the 1960s and 1970s in exile. During the late 1970s he entered politics, eventually becoming a senator from the state of São Paulo and an unsuccessful mayoral candidate for the city.

Franco chose Cardoso as his finance minister in 1993 in yet another effort to combat runaway inflation and the debt crisis. Cardoso and a team of advisers put together the Real Plan. This plan created a new currency, the real, in 1994 and put into place a series of measures to reduce inflation without wage or price freezes. Inflation dropped from a rate of 45 to 50 percent per month in early 1994 to a rate of about 1 to 2 percent per month over the next two years, giving Brazilians their lowest inflation rates in decades.

The success of the plan made Cardoso a national hero and the leading contender for the presidency. Cardoso forged a coalition of his Brazilian Social Democratic Party (PSDB), the conservative Liberal Front Party (PFL), and several other parties. The former Communist convinced the business community and conservatives that his views had evolved, and were close enough to theirs to gain their support. With nearly 55 percent of the total vote in the 1994 elections, Cardoso scored the most impressive electoral victory in 40 years.

Inaugurated on January 1, 1995, President Cardoso forged a majority coalition in Congress that passed fundamental legislative reforms during his first two years in office. This legislation on federal expenditures dramatically reduced government involvement in the economy. The government privatized major state enterprises, broke up the government-controlled telecommunications monopoly, and eliminated restrictions limiting the amount of money foreign corporations could invest in Brazil. The government also reduced expenditures in a number of social security programs and eliminated job security among civil servants in an attempt to reduce government expenditures.

Cardoso also worked to reduce tensions between landowners and the homeless squatters, who occupied large unproductive estates in the countryside. With 1 percent of the population owning 45 percent of the land in 1995, Brazil had the most unequal land distribution pattern in Latin America. Conflicts over land use and ownership led to a number of violent confrontations in 1995 and 1996 in which more than 40 people were shot and killed by Brazilian police. In 1995 Cardoso signed a presidential decree that took possession of just over 100,000 hectares (250,000 acres) of land from large, private estates and reallocated it to more than 3,600 poor families.

In 1996 Cardoso signed a decree that allowed non-Native Americans to appeal land allocation decisions made by Brazil’s Indian Affairs Bureau. Cardoso’s decree allowed regional governments, private companies, and individuals to challenge indigenous land claims in certain areas of the country, primarily in the Amazon region of northern Brazil. The law was widely condemned by human rights, Native American, and religious organizations.

Economic Crisis and Reelection

Largely because of Cardoso’s popularity and his success in revitalizing the economy, Brazil’s legislature passed a constitutional amendment in 1997 allowing the president to run for a second term in office. Later in the year, however, Brazil’s economy was shaken following a collapse in Asian stock markets. The resulting financial crisis affected stock markets in many developing economies. Reacting to the crisis, Brazil’s government introduced an austerity program that reduced federal spending and temporarily restored foreign confidence in the economy. The economy received a second jolt in 1998 after the government of Russia defaulted on its foreign debts. Fearing that the economic crisis might spread through Latin America, investors began withdrawing their money from Brazil. Cardoso began negotiating an economic bailout with foreign lenders through the International Monetary Fund (IMF), an international agency designed to stabilize the world economy.

Even though the economy had taken a turn for the worse, Cardoso won election to a second four-year term in 1998. The following month, the IMF and Brazil announced a $41.5-billion loan package to protect Brazil’s economy. In return, Cardoso agreed to introduce legislation designed to cut back on government spending and to restructure Brazil’s taxation and social security systems. In 1999 the government devalued the national currency, the real, by 8 percent against the U.S. dollar. (Devaluation involves lowering the value of a nation’s currency in relation to foreign currencies.) Financial experts hoped the devaluation would put the economy on a more secure footing by lowering the cost of Brazilian products in overseas markets, making exports more attractive and increasing the flow of cash into Brazil.

The Da Silva Presidency

In the 2002 presidential election, Cardoso could not run for reelection because of term limits. The Workers’ Party candidate Luis Inacio Lula da Silva, widely known as Lula, won the election. He was the first working-class president to be elected in Brazil; the nation’s presidents have traditionally come from the military or a small, wealthy elite. Da Silva was also the first leftist candidate to be elected president in Brazil. (The last time a leftist leader became president was in 1961 but that leader, João Goulart, had been elected vice president. He succeeded to the presidency on the resignation of the president, Jânio Quadros.) During his campaign, da Silva promised to institute social reforms for the poor and working class, to create more jobs, and to raise salaries.

In his first term da Silva followed through on many of his campaign promises. He succeeded in improving the economy, raising living standards and reducing inflation. His party, however, was plagued with corruption scandals, including charges of illegal campaign financing. In the 2006 presidential election da Silva failed to win a majority in the first round of balloting. In the October runoff, however, he was easily elected to a second term with more than 60 percent of the vote.

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