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Brazil History

Europeans Arrival

After Columbus reached America in 1492, the Portuguese and the Spanish agreed to divide the new world into two halves by an imaginary longitudinal line at 370 leagues west of the Cape Verde Islands. According to this agreement, every land found east of the imaginary line belonged to Portugal and west to Spain. The Portuguese navigator Pedro

A. Cabral landed in Brazil on April 22nd, 1500. At that time there were numerous native populations all over South America. The Indians living in Brazil, however, were not socially organized as, for example, the Incas in Peru.

In the beginning, the European colonizers were only interested in quick profits. But as they didn’t find anything, they began to exploit a red-colored wood from which dye was obtained. They called this wood ‘pau-brazil (Brazil-wood or literally blazing wood) and named the country after it. The extractive exploitation of this wood was Brazil’s first economical cycle.

Systematic Occupation

Only when the profits of the commercialization of spices from India and the Western coast of Asia began to decrease, the Portuguese turned their eyes to the new territory. A systematic occupation and exploration of it were set about, and pieces of land were donated to friends of the court. Later, a centralized government was nominated and the second economical cycle was initiated with the cultivation of sugar cane. Attempts were made to use the native Indians as slaves in the plantations, but it wasn’t too hard for them to run away, given that they knew the land better than the Europeans. Also, the catholic church was against the use of native Indians as slaves, for they thought they could convert them. So African slaves were brought over to work in Brazil.

Gold Era

In the first half of the 17th century, gold and precious stones were found in Brazil as a result of many expeditions led by frightful men who were also Indian hunters. This caused the enlargement of the territory, not unlike what happened in the USA. The country borders, however, were only to be defined in the 19th century when Uruguay became independent (it had been a Brazilian province until that time), and what today is the state of Acre was bought from Bolivia. During many years the present state of Minas Gerais alone provided the Portuguese crown with big amounts of gold and precious stones (‘minas’ means mines). This period would be called later the gold cycle. It was also in Minas Gerais that the first independence movement took place, at the end of the 17th century, inspired in the American liberation movement, and whetted by abusive tax raises promoted by the Portuguese crown. The movement was unsuccessful and one of its leaders, the dentist Joaquim J. S. Xavier, known as Tiradentes, was executed on April 21st, 1789. This date became later an important national holiday (Tiradentes’ day).

Portuguese Royal Family in Brazil

In 1807 the Portuguese royal family moved to Rio de Janeiro escaping from Napoleon’s troops. The presence of such honorable guests brought prosperity to the second capital of the colony (the first had been Salvador), culture flourished, and new economical liberties were allowed. But the glorious days came to an end in 1821 when the King decided to return to Portugal where things were back to normality; in Brazil, on the other hand, there was too much political instability and strong sentiments for independence. The King knew about that so he told his son Pedro who was to remain in the country and become the ruler there that, if the situation reached the point where independence seemed inevitable, he should be the one to declare it and should establish himself as emperor of Brazil. And so that’s what Pedro did on September 7th, 1822, but the Portuguese resisted for almost a year at Salvador, they were defeated on July 2, 1823, But the new country would have to put up with a series of problems: a war against Paraguay (the longest in the Brazilian history), great economical dependence on England, and the embarrassing permanence of slavery. Brazil was the last country in the western hemisphere to abolish slavery, which only happened in 1888. A little over one year later, on November 11th, 1889, the empire would come to an end with the proclamation of the republic.

The Republic

The end of the monarchy occurred mainly on behalf of the interests of coffee producers from the southeast of the country, especially from the state of Sao Paulo. It was the beginning of the coffee cycle during which labor force had to be imported from empoverished countries such as Germany, Italy and Japan. Since coffee was responsible for 70% of the country’s export the immigrants were very attracted by promises of prosperity in the new world (as a matter of fact, this idea was advertised by the Brazilian government in some poor countries). At first, however, they were highly exploited, and a great part of the plantations owners’ increasing profits was due to their hard work. But the world depression that started in the late 20′s would hit everyone. Coffee reached then its lowest price in history. The economical and political conditions favored a military coup used by Getulio Vargas to take over the government.

The Coffee Era

The era of the “Republica do Cafe’ com Leite” (Coffee and Milk Republic), dominated by Minas Gerais and Sao Paulo farmers (the former, great milk producers, and the latter, great coffee producers) was over. In 1937, Getulio Vargas eventually installs a dictatorship that lasts until 1945.

The industrialization period, which began in the late 10′s, booms during World War II with the construction of steel mills, automobiles, and chemical plants, etc. Brazil was neutral in the war until 1943 then it fought on the allies’ side, in spite of the government being sympathetic to the fascist regimes. Culminating with the modernization process the new capital of the country -Brasilia- was inaugurated in 1960: within only 3 years a new town, worldwide famous for its unique and impressive architecture, had been raised in the geographical center of the nation, a place where up to that point wilderness had prevailed. But the great material progress during the 1950′s was achieved at a high cost in terms of inflation and repeated foreign loans. These problems and an alleged communist influence on the government paved the way for a right-winged military coup.


The new government installed another dictatorship and granted himself the authority to cancel the mandates of elected officials, to dismiss public servants, and to revoke for 10 years the political rights of those found guilty of subversion. Governmental repression reached its peak at the beginning of the seventies when there was also a great enthusiasm among the people because of the so-called “economical miracle” (economical growth made possible by foreign loans), and because Brazil had become world soccer champion for the 3rd time in 1970.

But abuse of power and administrative incompetence (including uncountable cases of corruption and the ruination of the public educational system) would weaken the authoritarian government and expose the social and economical wounds of the country. So in the early 80′s, the same middle class that had been a beneficiary from economical growth under the military regime began to demonstrate against it. However, only in 1984, Brazil would have a civilian president again. Tancredo Neves was elected by congress but was never able to take office because he became very ill and died shortly after the elections. The vice-president, Jose Sarney, a man who had worked closely with the military during about 20 years of dictatorship, took the presidency. Inflation rate was already high in the last years of the military regime and would never decrease; undisputable sign of longlasting crisis it’s still a major concern for most Brazilians.


Around 30 years after the last direct elections for president took place in the country, Brazilians could choose their president again in 1989. Fernando Collor was elected but didn’t even stay half of the presidential term in office; he resigned for being suspected of corruption. To a large extent, Collor represents the major Brazilian problem: a country controlled by a greatly corrupted political elite not sincerely determined to improve the living standards of the population.