Wherever you go in Brazil , you’ll hear Brazilians refer to their country as a ‘new’ one. With just over 500 years of life and 20 of democracy, Brazil is a relative infant. But the description is a touch unfair. By the time the Portuguese rolled up in AD 1500, what is now Brazil had al­ready been populated – albeit under a different name – for as many as 50,000 years.


Little remains of Brazil’s prehistoric inhabitants. Unlike the Incas, Brazil­ian Indians never developed a highly advanced civilization and left few clues for archaeologists to follow. Searching for signs of prehistoric life in the 8.5 million sq km of Brazilian territory is like searching for the tiniest of needles in a very, very large haystack.

The official scientific line is that the region’s first inhabitants hailed from Siberia , from where they made the not-so-quick hop to South America over the Bering Strait , long submerged by the ocean. But whether they did this 50,000, 30,000 or just a mere 12,000 years ago remains something of a mystery.

Remnants of these early civilizations are scattered across Brazil ; in Piaui’s Parque Nacional da Serra da Capivara , on the Ilha de Marajo , in the northern state of Para and at the Gruta da Lapinha in Minas Gerais.

A not-so-brief detour on a cruise down the Amazon from Manaus to Belem takes you to the oldest trace of human life in the Amazon region: a series of rock paintings near the town of Monte Alegre.

Prehistoric Brazil is a jungle of uncertainties, conflicting theories, figures that don’t add up and dates that don’t match. The only certainty is this: it wasn’t the Portuguese who discovered terra brasilis.


The opening pages of Brazilian history were effectively rewritten in 1500, when a fleet of 13 Portuguese ships carrying 1200 men rolled up near what is today Porto Seguro.

After passing the Cape Verde Islands , off Africa’s northeast coast, the fleet headed west. Increasingly it is thought that, far from having been blown off course by strong winds, the Portuguese already had such a giant detour in mind. Whatever the motive, on April 22, 1500 Pedro Alvares Cabral and his gang stepped for the first time onto Brazilian soil. Their indigenous reception committee was ready and waiting.

‘There were 18 or 20 men,’ marveled scribe Pero Vaz de Caminha in a letter back to the Portuguese king. ‘They were brown-skinned, all of them naked, without anything at all to cover their private parts. In their hands they carried bows and arrows.’

The festivities didn’t last for long. Having erected a cross and held mass in the land they baptized Terra da Vera Cruz, the Portuguese took to the waves once again. With lucrative spice and diamond markets in Africa to exploit, Cabral and chums evidently had bigger fish to fry elsewhere. Over the following decades they neglected their new discovery and only in 1531 did king Joao III send the first settlers to Brazil.

Brazil’s Indians

I here were between two and six million indigenous people in the region when Brazil was officially discovered in 1500. But for Brazil’s Indians there was little reason for cheer. April 22, 1500 marked the first chapter of their gradual extermination.

Over the following decades a four-front war was waged on the Indian way of life. It was a cultural war, as well as a physical, territorial and biological one. Many indios fell victim to the bandeirantes – a group of roaming adventurers who spent the 17th and 18th centuries exploring Brazil’s interior, pillaging Indian settlements as they went. Those who escaped such a fate were struck down by the illnesses shipped in from Europe , to which they had no natural resistance. Others were worked to Lath on the sugar plantations.

If the flag-bearing bandeirantes were responsible for the physical de­struction of the Indians, it was the Jesuits who began their cultural destruction, outlawing their traditions and customs, and replacing them with another culture.

When the Portuguese colonizers arrived in 1500, there were well over 1000 Indian tribes in what is now Brazilian territory. At the start of the 21st century Brazil’s indigenous population had been slashed to a mere 300,000 (split into about 200 tribes) – not much larger than Rio’s Copa­cabana neighborhood. Several tribes are now on the verge of extinction, including the Xeta in Parana , of which just three members remain.


Thirty one years after Brazil’s discovery, King Joao III decided it might actually be worth settling there after all. The first settlement sprung up in Sao Vicente , when a fleet of five ships carrying some 400 men docked near.

In an attempt to ward off the ambitions of other European countries, the king divided the Brazilian coast into 15 captaincies, each with about 250km of coastline stretching inland to the west. These territories were awarded to donatbrios, minor gentry favored by the king. It was hoped that through settlement, the long coastline could be secured at minimal cost.

The settlers’ lives were made difficult by the climate, hostility from the Indians and competition from the Dutch and French. Four captaincies were never settled and another four destroyed by Indians. Only Pernam­buco and Sao Vicente were profitable.

In 1549 the king sent Tome de Sousa to be the first governor of Brazil , to centralize authority and save the few remaining captaincies. Sousa was joined by some 1000 settlers; among them Portuguese officials, soldiers, exiled prisoners, new Christians (converted Jews) and the first six Jesuit priests. What is now the state of Bahia was chosen as Sousa’s base. The city of Salvador, which remained Brazil’s capital until 1763 when Rio de Janeiro took over, was founded.


The colonists soon worked out that although Brazil didn’t boast the spices and ivory of Africa it was a place where sugarcane grew well.

Having lost their grip on the pan Brazil market (made a state monopoly in 1531), Brazil’s early entrepreneurs turned to sugar. Sugar came to Brazil in 1532 and hasn’t left since. It was coveted by a hungry European market, which used it for medicinal purposes, to flavor foods and even in wine.

These days sugar is no less popular. You can sip it on the beach in the form of a caldo de cana (sugarcane juice). You can neck it in one of Brazil’s many pe-sujo (dirty-foot) bars as a shot of cachafa (white spirit made from sugarcane). You can pour copious amounts of it into your coffee, as do most Brazilians, and you can even run your car on it.

Perhaps envisaging Brazil’s sugarcoated future, the colonists turned to this new industry. They lacked just one thing: a workforce.


Initially the Portuguese seemed to hit it off with Brazil’s natives. There was even an exchange of presents between Cabral’s men and the Indians on the beach, in which the Portuguese parted company with a sombrero and the Indians, feather headdresses. Relations quickly cooled when the Portuguese started enslaving their neighbors. Yet, for a variety of reasons the Portuguese felt the Indians didn’t make great slaves and instead turned to Africa’s already existing slave trade.

African slaves started to pour into Brazil’s slave markets from about 1550. They were torn from a variety of tribes from Angola , Mozambique and Guine, as well as the Sudan and Congo.

Though from different regions and cultures, their destinations were identical: slave markets such as Salvador’s Pelourinho or Belem’s Mercado Ver-o-Peso. By the time slavery was abolished in 1888, around 3.6 million Africans had been shipped in to Brazil – nearly 40% of the total that came to the New World.

Africans were seen as better workers and less susceptible to the Eu­ropean diseases that had proved the undoing of so many Indians. In short, they were a better investment. Yet the Portuguese didn’t go out i their- way to protect this investment. Slaves were brought to Brazil in 11hhuman conditions; taken from their families and packed into squalid hip, for the month-long journey to Brazil.

Visitors to the beaches of Porto de Galinhas, near Recife , might, not pick up on the area’s grim past. Even after abolition, slave traders continued to smuggle in slaves often packed into a ship’s hull under rates full of galinhas (chickens). The area’s name is one of the few rem­nants of its ties to a past of exploitation and cruelty.

The Masters & the Slaves

For those who survived such ordeals, arrival in Brazil meant only con­tinued suffering. A slave’s existence was one of brutality and humiliation, though not all saw it this way.

‘Slavery in Brazil is very benign,’ opined German writer Joseph Hormeyer in his 1863 book What Jorge Has to Say About Brazil.

‘I wouldn’t like to say that there aren’t cruel owners,’ he suggested. ‘But, in general, the character of the Brazilian people is far too gentle and indulgent for the slaves to overly suffer.’

Hormeyer obviously hadn’t been put to work in the fields himself. Labor on the plantations was relentless. In temperatures that often ex­ceeded 30°C (86°F), slaves were required to work as many as 17 hours each day, before retiring to the squalid conditions of the senzala (slave quarters).

Trapped in such dwellings, into which as many as 200 slaves were packed, the word hygiene was a concept as remote as the distant coasts of Africa . Dysentery, typhus, yellow fever, malaria, tuberculosis and scurvy were rife; malnutrition a fact of life. Syphilis also plagued a slave population often sexually exploited by its masters.

Kind masters were the exception, not the rule. To this day, stomach­-churning accounts of their cruel practices remain.

Aside from the senzala, the other main institution of the sugar plantation was the casa grande (‘big house’) – the mansion from which the masters would control their slaves. It was here in the luxurious casa grande that the overlap between European and African cultures came, something de­scribed in microscopic detail by anthropologist Gilberto Freyre in his book Casa Grande e Senzala (The Masters and the Slaves).

Freyre’s work, often criticized as outdated and even racist, nevertheless underlines the huge African influence on Brazilian society, visible far out­side Brazil’s Northeast where slavery initially took root. As the Catholic priest Antonio Vieira pointed out at the time: `Without the blacks, there wouldn’t be a Pernambuco.’ Nor, indeed, would Brazil be as it is today.

Resistance & the Quilombos

Resistance to slavery took many forms. Documents of the period refer to the desperation of the slaves who starved themselves to death, killed their babies or fled. Sabotage and theft were frequent, as were work slowdowns, stoppages and revolts.

Other slaves sought solace in African religion and culture. The mix of Catholicism (made compulsory by slave masters) and African traditions spawned a syncretic religion in the sugar plantations, known today as Candomble. The slaves masked their activities with a facade of Catholic saints and rituals – hardly surprising considering that such customs were illegal in Brazil until the 1940s. The martial art capoeira also grew out of the slave communities.

Many slaves escaped from their masters forming quilombos, commu­nities of runaway slaves that quickly spread across the countryside. The most famous, the Republic of Palmares , which survived through much of the 17th century, was home to some 20,000 people. Palmares covered a broad tract of lush tropical forest straddling the border of Alagoas and Pernambuco states. Led by Zumbi, who had been a king in Africa , its citizens became pioneers of guerrilla warfare, repeatedly fending off Portuguese attacks between 1670 and 1695. Eventually Palmares fell to a force of bandeirantes from Sao Paulo.

As abolitionist sentiment grew in the 19th century, the quilombos received more support and ever-greater numbers of slaves fled the plan­tations. Only abolition itself, in 1888, stopped the growth of quilombos. Over 700 villages that began life as quilombos remain today. Some were so isolated that they remained completely out of contact with White Brazilians until the last couple of decades.


It’s hard to picture what Brazil would have been like under French or Dutch rule. Tom Jobim might have composed a track about the Meisje from Ipanema; Brazilians might be tucking into frogs legs and not fei­joada (bean-and-meat stew) every Sunday. For a time, such an outcome was a distinct possibility.

Technically, the 1494 Treaty of Tordesillas was to have divided the New World between Spain and Portugal . An imaginary line, running from north to south between the mouth of the Amazon and what is now Santa Catarina, was drawn onto the map. Land to the east became Portuguese property; land to the west fell under Spanish control.

But the line was to prove very imaginary indeed. As any traveler brave enough to venture into the further reaches of Mato Grosso will discover, enforcing such a vast border running through thick jungle and swamp was never a particularly viable idea. Brazil’s borders remained in a state of constant flux until as late as 1930.

Over the years, Portugal repeatedly ignored the frontier in an attempt to squeeze more land out of its rivals. France and Holland also had their eyes on Brazil’s yellow, green and pleasant land.

The French

In 1555 three boatloads of French settlers landed on a small island in Rio ‘s Baia de Guanabara. Obviously liking what they found, the French decided to try to incorporate parts of southern Brazil into their ever­-growing empire. Antarctic France would be its name.

Things didn’t go to plan – a few years later the franceses were expelled by the Portuguese, who landed near Morro da Urca’s Praia Vermelha, at the foot of the Sugarloaf Mountain . It was here that Estacio de Sa founded the city of Sao Sebastiao do Rio de Janeiro on March 1, 1565.

Further north, the French made another attempt to claw Brazilian soil from the Portuguese, founding the city of Sao Luis in 1612. The city – which took its name from France’s then king, Louis XIII – didn’t last long in French hands either. Three years later, the Portuguese arrived and sent the French packing once again.

The Dutch

The challenge from Holland didn’t prove so easy to shake off. Although (lie Dutch West India Company (DWIC), set up in 1621, sounded a harmless enough venture, it was much more than a simple business. Its business, in fact, was war; its goal was to conquer Brazil’s Northeast from the Portuguese.

The Dutch bombardment of Salvador began on the morning of May `l, 1624. Twenty six ships, filled with over 3000 men, sprung into action and by the following day, after the customary Calvinist ransacking, they had captured the city.

Salvador ‘s return to Portuguese hands was almost as quick as the inva­sion; it was just a year before a combined force of 12,000 Spanish and Portuguese troops evicted the Dutch. But the threat didn’t end there. Five years later the Dutch were back, storming the city of Recife and setting up the capital of New Holland there – Mauritzstaadt. For the next twenty years the Dutch presided over Pernambuco, while simultaneously extend­ing their lands northwards to the mouth of the Amazon.

Having conquered Pernambuco, the Dutch shipped in their leader, Maurice of Nassau, in 1637. Educated at the University of Basil in, among other things, good manners, Nassau was a definite hit with the locals. His policy of freedom of worship, which left Brazil’s Catholics to their own devices despite the Protestant invasion, brought a definite stability to the region.

By 1640 the Dutch controlled much of Brazil’s nordeste (northeast), from Maranhao in the north to the Sao Francisco river in Bahia . That Brazilians didn’t go on to become Dutch speakers is largely down to the exit of Nassau , who returned to Holland in 1644 after a series of disagree­ments with the boys from the DWIC. Brazil’s settlers had hardly wished their ruler a boa viagem (good trip) when violent uprisings broke out, designed to uproot the Dutch invaders. The following decade saw bloody clashes across the Brazilian sertao (backlands of the Northeast). Two crucial battles, in which the Portuguese came out victorious even though outnumbered, took place in 1648 and 1649. The Dutch were driven back into Recife and eventually surrendered on January 26, 1654 , drawing a line under Holland ‘s role in Brazilian history.

The Bandeirantes

The bandeirantes, too, were keen to make inroads into Brazil . Bands of explorers that roamed Brazil’s interior in search of Indian slaves, they mapped out undiscovered territory, bumping off the odd indigenous community along the way.

Brazil’s bandeirantes took their name from the trademark flag-bearer who would front their expeditions. During the 17th and 18th centuries, group after group of bandeirantes set out from Sao Paulo . The majority were bilingual in Portuguese and Tupi-Guarani, born of Portuguese fathers and Indian mothers. They benefited from Indian survival tech­niques and European weaponry.

By the mid-1600s they had journeyed as far as the peaks of the Peru­vian Andes and the Amazon lowlands. Though Brazil’s borders had been defined on paper in 1494, it was the exploits of these discoverers that swelled the country’s borders to their current size. In 1750, after four years negotiating with the Spanish, their conquests were secured. The Treaty of Madrid was signed, handing over some six million sq km to the Portuguese and putting Brazil’s western borders more or less where they are today.

The bandeirantes were known for more than just their colorful flags. Protected from Indian arrows by heavily padded cotton jackets, they waged an all-out war on Brazil’s natives, despite the fact that many of them had Indian mothers. Huge numbers of Indians fled inland, searching for shelter in the Jesuit missions. But there was no hiding – it is thought the bandeirantes killed or enslaved well in excess of 500,000 Indians.


‘As yet we have no way of knowing whether there might be gold, or silver or any kind of metal or iron [here],’ reported Pero Vaz de Caminha to his king in 1500.

Though it wasn’t discovered until nearly two centuries later, there certainly was gold in Brazil . Unsurprisingly it was the bandeirantes who, in between decapitating Indians, discovered it.

For part of the 18th century Brazil became the world’s greatest gold ‘producer’, creating a wealth that helped build many of Minas Gerais’ historic cities. The full title of Ouro Preto, one of the principal benefi­ciaries of the gold boom, is actually Vila Rica de Ouro Preto (Rich Town of Black Gold).

Other wild boomtowns such as Sabara, Mariana and Sao Joao del Rei sprung up in the mountain valleys. Wealthy merchants built opulent mansions and bankrolled the construction of some stunning baroque churches, many of which remain to this day.

When gold was first discovered, there were no White settlers in the territory of Minas Gerais. By 1710 the population was 30,000, and by the end of the 18th century it was 500,000. An estimated one-third of the two million slaves brought to Brazil in the 18th century were sent to the goldfields, where their lives were often worse than in the sugar fields.

The gold boom didn’t last. By 1750 the mining regions were in decline, the migration to the interior was ending and coastal Brazil was returning to center stage.


As if the French and Dutch hadn’t been enough to deal with, the Por­tuguese also faced a threat from within. During the 18th century calls for independence grew ever stronger and in 1789 the first organized movement came to life.

In charge was Joaquim Jose da Silva Xavier – a dentist known as Tiradentes (Tooth Puller), who lived in Ouro Preto. Joined by 11 other onspirators – all outraged by attempts to collect taxes – Tiradentes began talks about how best to uproot the Portuguese.

Though the plotters earned themselves a grand name – the Inconfidencia Mineira – their plans were quickly foiled. All 12 were arrested and sen­tenced to death and, although a royal pardon was eventually issued exiling the rebels to Angola and Mozambique , it came too late for Tiradentes.

On April 21, 1792 – 292 years after Brazil’s discovery, almost to the day – Tiradentes was publicly hanged in Rio de Janeiro . As a warning to other would-be rebels the authorities sliced up his body and displayed the parts across Minas Gerais. His head was put on show in Ouro Preto, his house destroyed and, curiously, salt scattered on the ground outside, apparently so that nothing would grow there. According to one version 4 events, soldiers formally recorded the event on a manuscript – using Tiradentes blood as ink.

Tiradentes became a national martyr – a symbol of resistance – and during the Vargas era, a museum in his honor was mounted in Ouro Preto’s Pa4o Municipal. Tiradentes’ house is now a museum.


Brazil became a temporary sanctuary to the Portuguese royal family in 1807. Running scared from Napoleon – whose army was at that moment advancing on Lisbon – some 15,000 court members fled to Rio de Janeiro , led by the prince regent, Dom Joao.

Like so many estrangeiros (foreigners) arriving in Brazil , the regent fell in love with the place and granted himself the privilege of becoming the country’s ruler. He opened Rio ‘s Jardim Botanico to the public in 1822, and they remain there to this day in the upmarket Jardim Botanico neighborhood.

Even after Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo in 1815, Dom Joao showed no sign of abandoning Brazil . When his mother Dona Maria I died the following year, he became king and declared Rio the capital of the United Kingdom of Portugal. Brazil became the only New World colony ever to have a European monarch ruling on its soil.


Independence eventually came in 1822, 30 years after the Inconfidencia Mineira. Legend has it that, on the banks of Sao Paulo ‘s Ipiranga river, Brazil’s then regent, Pedro, pulled out his sword, bellowing, `Independ­encia ou morte!’ ( Independence or death!). With the same breath he declared himself Emperor Dom Pedro I.

The Portuguese quickly gave in to the idea of a Brazilian empire. With­out a single shot being fired, Dom Pedro I became the first emperor of an independent Brazil . The povo brasileiro (Brazilian people), however, were not as keen on Pedro as he was about their newly born nation. From all accounts he was a blundering incompetent, whose sexual exploits (and resulting string of love children) horrified even the most permissive of Brazilians. After nine years of womanizing he was forced to abdicate, leaving his five-year-old son, Dom Pedro II, to take over.

A period of crisis followed: the heir to the throne was, after all, just a child. Between 1831 and 1840 Brazil was governed by so-called regencias (regen­cies). The period was characterized by political turmoil and widespread rebellion across Brazil. The only solution was the return of the monarchy and a law was passed, declaring Dom Pedro II an adult, well before his 18th birthday.

Aged just 15, Dom Pedro II received the title of Emperor and Perpetual Defender of Brazil, precipitating one of the most prosperous spells in the country’s history, barring the war with Paraguay in 1865. Invaded by its neighbor, Brazil teamed up with Argentina and Uruguay and thrashed the Paraguayans back across the border.

Paraguay was left crippled – its population slashed to just 200,000, of whom around 180,000 were women. Brazil, too, suffered heavily: around 100,000 men died, many of them slaves sent to war in the place of wealthier Brazilians.


Since the 16th century, slavery had formed the backbone of a brutally unequal society in Brazil . `Every dimension of our social existence is contaminated,’ lamented abolitionist Joaquim Nabuco in 1880.

To undo something so deeply ingrained into the Brazilian way of life was never likely to be easy. Brazil prevaricated for nearly 60 years before any sort of resolution was reached. The 19th century was punctuated by a series of halfhearted legislative attempts to lay the slave industry to rest. Repeatedly such laws failed.

One law, passed in 1885, freed all slaves over the age of 65. The law­makers had obviously forgotten that the average life expectancy for a slave at this time was 45. Not until May 13, 1888 – 80 years after Britain had freed its slaves – was slavery in Brazil officially banned.

Not far out of the door behind slavery was the Imperio Brasileiro. In 1889 a military coup, supported by Brazil’s wealthy coffee farmers, decapitated the old Brazilian empire and the republic was born. The emperor went into exile where he died a couple of years later.

A military clique ruled Brazil for the next four years until elections were held, but because of ignorance, corruption and land and literacy re­quirements, only about 2% of the adult population voted. Little changed, except that the power of the military and the now-influential coffee grow­ers increased, while it diminished for the sugar barons.


The first coffee bean found its way into Brazil in the early 1800s. The responsible party was, they say, an army officer called Francisco de Mello Palheta who had journeyed to French Guiana in order to settle a border dispute and came back brandishing a handful of coffee beans – a gift from a lover he had left behind. On arrival back in Brazil , the beans were swiftly planted, thus beginning another Brazilian love affair – with cafe.

Whatever the truth, the coffee industry was a huge success. By 1889 coffee accounted for two-thirds of Brazil’s exports.

Coffee growers filled the gap left in Brazil’s export market by the decline of its sugar industry. Unable to compete with the newly mech­anized sugar mills in the West Indies, sugar exports plummeted. Coffee meanwhile, flourished, and coffee plantations soon took up vast tracts of land in Sao Paulo and Minas Gerais.

Although coffee was the making of many millionaires in the south­1 n states, it was also the cause of great suffering. The coffee fazendas (ranches) in many ways replicated the northeastern sugar plantations; slaves worked inhuman hours in cramped and fetid conditions. In Rio many such estates have now opened their doors to the public, and provide a chilling insight into Brazilian escravidao (slavery). After abolition in 1888, the workforce changed, but the conditions did not.


In the final decade of the 19th century, Brazil opened its borders. Some 80,000 European immigrants – mostly Italians – streamed into Brazil to work on the coffee fazendas.

Not long after, millions more immigrants began arriving at the ports in Rio and Sao Paulo. They hailed from Japan, Germany, Spain and Portugal and added further racial textures to an increasingly mixed Brazil . When you tuck into a pizza in Sao Paulo’s Bela Vista district or sample a pastel chines (Chinese pastry) at one of Rio de Janeiro’s many street-corner snack bars, it is more than likely to be this generation of border hoppers you have to thank.

Over the next century, immigrants continued to flood into Brazil. The country became a haven for Jews fleeing persecution at the hands of the Nazis, as well as Nazis looking to avoid being put on trial for war crimes. Arabs, universally known as turcos by the Brazilians, also joined the influx of newcomers. Many of the traders you’ll meet at Rio de Janeiro ‘s Rua Uruguaiana flea market hail from the Middle East.


Toward the end of the 19th century the Amazon region was the scene of another Brazilian economic boom: that of the hevea brasiliensis (rub­ber tree).

Demand for rubber rocketed in 1890 and its price shot up, bringing huge wealth to the main Amazonian cities of Belem and Manaus. Manaus’ spectacular opera house, the Teatro Amazonas, opened in 1896, was one fruit of the rubber boom. Rubber production reached its peak in 1912, when latex exports made up nearly 40% of Brazil’s export revenue.

As with all booms, the bust had to come. In football the English might have given Brazil one of its greatest gifts, but the British stole too one of Brazil’s greatest assets. In 1876 rubber-tree seeds had been smuggled out of Amazonia to Kew Gardens in London . The seeds quickly found their way to the British colonies in Southeast Asia, where large rubber planta­tions were established. When the plantations started to yield in 1910, the price of latex plummeted on the world market. The bottom fell out of the Brazilian rubber boom in spectacular fashion.


On November 15, 1894 Prudente de Morais became Brazil’s first di­rectly elected civil president. At this time Brazil was dominated by land­owning families from two states: Minas Gerais and Sao Paulo . These groups controlled national politics and Brazil’s presidents came almost without exception from these states of milk and coffee respectively. Each state was dominated by a series of coronels (rural landowners who typically controlled the local political, judicial and police systems), and the public cargos were divided between his friends and family.

Such political bias was reflected in the electoral system. The ballot was not secret and those who voted against the ruling powers suffered repris­als. Fraud was common: many people would vote more than once and, from time to time, even the dead found the power to vote.

Disillusioned with the dominance of this wealthy few, a new movement made up of members of the military, known as tenentismo, began to form in opposition to the small oligarchies of Minas and Sao Paulo.

The world-famous Copacabana beach was host for the first rebellion. On July 5, 1922 18 tenants set out from the fort of Copacabana and clashed with government troops. Just two of the tenants – Eduardo Gomes and Siqueira Campos – survived, the latter giving his name to the intro station a few blocks from the beach.

For another eight years Brazil’s coffee farmers enjoyed the status of political untouchables. The Wall St bust of 1929 was to change all this. The coffee market all but dried up, prices plummeted and many of Brazil’s powerful coffee farmers were left ruined. Such economic and political upheaval would translate into revolution the following year.


On the morning of August 24, 1954 Getulio Vargas woke up in the bedroom of the Palacio do Catete for the last time. `I leave this life to enter into history,’ he had written the previous night amid calls from the military for his resignation. Shortly after 4:30am Vargas’ body was found with a single bullet wound to the heart.

The Vargas era began in 1930 when members of the newly formed Liberal Alliance party decided to contest Vargas’ defeat in the presidential elections. The revolution kicked off on October 3 in Rio Grande do Sul and spread rapidly throughout other states. Twenty one days later the president Julio Prestes was deposed and on November 3 Getulio Dorneles Vargas became the new `provisional’ president of the Republic.

With the formation of the Estado Novo ( New State ) in November 1937, Vargas became the first Brazilian president to wield absolute power. Using the notorious Departamento de Imprensa e Propaganda (Depart­ment of Press and Publicity, or DIP as it was known), his regime censored artists, imprisoned dissidents and even destroyed the newsroom of one unlucky Sao Paulo broadsheet.

Despite this, many liked Vargas. The `father’ of Brazil’s workers, he created Brazil’s minimum wage in 1938. Each year he introduced new labor laws to coincide with Workers’ Day on May 1, to sweeten the teeth of Brazil’s operarios (factory workers).

But Vargas didn’t earn the title of dictator for nothing. His regime was inspired by the fascist governments of Salazar in Portugal and Mussolini in Italy . He banned political parties, imprisoned political opponents and heavily censored the press.

Like any fascist worth his salt, Vargas began WW II sided with Hitler’s Third Reich. Mysteriously, an offer of US investment to the sum of US$20 million in 1942 led Vargas to switch allegiances. The National War Memorial in Flamengo – a huge concrete monument and museum, which represents a pair of hands begging the skies for peace – today pays testament to the 5000 Brazilians who served in Italy.

Vargas, of course, wasn’t exactly practicing what he preached. The glaring contradiction of someone fighting for democracy in Europe and maintaining a quasi-fascist state back home soon became impossible. The military forced him to step down.

Yet he remained popular and in 1951 was elected president – this time democratically. Vargas’ new administration was plagued by the hallmark of Brazilian politics – corruption. For this, a young journalist called Carlos Lacerda attacked him incessantly. In 1954 Vargas’ security chief organized an attempt to assassinate Lacerda. At the crack of dawn on August 5, two gunmen greeted Lacerda at his home on Rua Toneleros in Copacabana. The troublesome hack was only slightly wounded but an air force major was killed, precipitating a huge scandal. The president responded dramatically, as author Rubem Fonseca recalled in his novel Agosto (August; Companhia das Letras, 1990).

[Vargas] would do what had to be done… A euphoric sense of pride and dignity filled him… He picked up the revolver from the chest of drawers and lay down on the bed. He placed the barrel of the revolver against the left side of his chest and pulled the trigger.

The Vargas era was now very much part of Brazilian history.


Juscelino Kubitschek de Oliveira, whose tongue twister of a name swiftly earned him the apelido (nickname) JK, was elected president in 1956. ‘Fifty years in five,’ had been his election promise. His critics responded with, ‘Forty years, inflation in four.’ Sadly for JK, the second assessment came closer to the mark, despite an 80% increase in industrial produc­tion during his term.

Kubitschek’s lasting legacy was Brasilia , Brazil’s love-it-or-hate-it capi­tal, located slap bang in the center of the country as a symbol of national unity. Though the construction of such a city was written into the 1891 constitution, it was Kubitschek who, quite literally, made the idea con­crete. The windswept, shadeless streets of Brasilia were inaugurated with much fanfare on April 21, 1960.

As if Kubitschek hadn’t made enough enemies by taking the honor of capital city from the ` Marvelous City ‘ of Rio de Janeiro , his successor, Janio Quadros, went one step further. He tried to outlaw bikinis on the Brazilian beaches, a serious affront to Brazilian popular culture, as a quick visit to any of the country’s beaches will tell you.

Quadros then made the fatal mistake of irritating the military. After six months in office he decorated Che Guevara in a public ceremony in Brasilia , triggering plots among the right-wing military. A few days later he resigned, claiming `occult forces’ were at work.

The vice president, a lefty by the name of Joao Goulart, took power. Though Goulart didn’t demonstrate an overt aversion to fio dental (den­tal floss bikinis), the military wasn’t keen on him either. In 1964 he was overthrown in a so-called revolufdo (revolution) – really a military coup, believed to have received backing from the US government. Certainly, then-president Lyndon Johnson did nothing to dampen such theories when he cabled the new Brazilian administration, offering it the best of luck.


Brazil’s military regime was not as brutal as those of Chile or Argentina – a reality that led to the somewhat unkind saying, ‘Brazil couldn’t even organize a dictatorship properly.’

Yet for the best part of 20 years, freedom of speech became an un­known concept and political parties were banned. The Lei de Seguranca Nacionai (national security law) of 1967 tightened the noose on political dissidents, who were often tortured, murdered or – perhaps worse – thrown into Brazilian jail.

The dictatorship coincided with one of the most culturally rich periods in Brazilian history. A generation of composers and academics were ex­iled for their opposition to the regime – among them musician Gilberto Gil (who later became Lula’s culture minister) and Fernando Henrique Cardoso (who would go on to become president).

A draconian censorship law known as the Ato Institutional 5 (AI-5) marked the height of repression in 1968. In response, Brazil’s middle­class student movement came to life. In June 1968 the streets of Rio de Janeiro hosted a mass demonstration, known as the Passeata dos cem mil (March of the 100,000), against the dictatorship.

Perversely during a time of such repression, the Brazilian economy flour­ished. Year after year in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the economy grew by over 10%, as Brazil’s rulers borrowed heavily from international banks.

Brazil’s obsession with ‘mega-projects’ was born. Under the quick­-spending regime, construction began on numerous colossal (and mostly ill-fated) plans, including the Transamazonica highway, the Rio-Niteroi Bridge and the Ilha do Fundao, which was to house Rio’s Federal University.


By the late 1970s, opposition to the regime began to spread from the educated middle classes to the working class.

A series of strikes in the Sao Paulo car industry signaled the intent of the militant new workers’ movement. At the helm was one Luiz Inacio ‘Lula’ da Silva, who would become Brazil’s first working-class president. Lula, who famously lost one dedo (finger) in a factory accident, made up in charisma what he lacked in the finger department.

Brazil’s Partido dos Trabalhadores (PT; Workers’ Party) grew out of these strikes. Its membership was very inclusive; alongside the grass-roots metal workers who formed the petista (PT) base were some of Brazil’s lead­ing left-wing academics, among them literary critic Antonio Candido and historian Sdrgio Buarque de Hollanda, whose book Raizes do Brasil (The Roots of Brasil) remains a defining work in Brazilian scholarship.

In January 1980 the party’s first manifesto declared the need to `build an egalitarian society, where there are neither exploited nor exploiters.’ Twenty two years on, with a PT president and 10 other senators installed in Brasilia , they discovered how difficult it was to put such ideals into practice.

First came the abertura (opening), a period of slow and cautious return to civilian rule that took place between 1979 and 1985. With the economic miracle petering out and popular opposition gathering force, the military announced gradual moves back toward a democratic Brazil. Political prisoners and exiles were granted amnesty. Six new political parties – of which the PT was one – emerged.

The tail end of this abertura was marked by the direitas jd (elections now) movement, which called for immediate and direct presidential elections. The aptly named thinker of Brazilian football, Socrates, showed that even Brazil’s footballers – known more for their quick feet than pol­itical engagement – had something to say. Removing his shirt at the end of a game, it was not one of the usual evangelical elegies printed on his back but a message urging Brazilians to vote in the coming elections.


In 1985 direct presidential elections were duly held for the first time in over 20 years. When the less-favored Tancredo Neves, opposing the military candidate, came out on top, millions of Brazilians took to the streets to celebrate the end of military rule.

Immediately a spanner was thrown in the works: Neves died from heart failure before he could assume the presidency. His vice-presidential candidate – the whiskered Jose Sarney, a figure in Brazilian politics to this day – took over.

Sarney – a supporter of the military until 1984 – held office until 1989, a period in which runaway inflation helped Brazil rack up a gargantuan foreign debt. His catchphrase, `tem que dar certo’ (it has to work out), proved a tragic foresight into his doomed stint as president. Virtually nothing did.

By 1990 the external debt stood at a crippling US$115 billion, a reality that blights Brazil to this day. Though Sarney was unable to harness Bra­zil ‘s economy, he did implement one crucial law: Brazil’s illiterate, previ­ously excluded from the political system, were at last permitted to vote.

Yet economic crisis overshadowed anything else Sarney might have achieved. During his four years in power, Brazil switched currency twice – from the cruzado, to the originally named replacement novo cruzado. Inflation only continued to rise.

In the 1989 elections it was a martial arts champion by the name of Color who was victorious, beating current president Lula by the small­cst of margins.

Lula had looked set to take power, before the Globo media empire – owned by the now-late Roberto Marinho – intervened. It would he another 13 years before Lula was elected.


I he charismatic Fernando Collor de Mello, a former Brazilian karate champion with a penchant for expensive jet-skis, was different from his predecessor in every way. Hailing from the small northern state of Alagoas, where he had been governor, he ended the political dominance of Sao Paulo and Minas Gerais.

Collor revolutionized consumer laws – when you see a `best before’ date on a tub of Brazilian margarine, it’s him you have to thank. `Sell by’ dates, however, couldn’t save him from disgrace. Three years into his term, he was accused of heading a gang that had siphoned a reputed US$2 billion from Brazilian savings accounts.

The response was one of outrage. Brazil’s student movement, almost invisible since the 1970s, angrily took to the streets. Rapper Gabriel O Pensador – by coincidence the son of one of Collor’s media advisors – was among the most vocal critics. His controversial track, `I’m happy, I killed the President),’ went further than most, but in many ways cap­tured the public mood. `He won the election and forgot the people/and use thing I don’t allow is betrayal,’ rapped Gabriel, before describing a kick-about at the president’s funeral – in which Collor’s head is used as the ball.

The kung fu king was eventually impeached. But – as is all too often the case with Brazil’s white-collar criminals -`Fernandinho’ managed to wriggle out of a prison sentence, receiving little more than an eight­year ban from politics. Found not guilty of `passive corruption’ by the Supreme Court in 1994, he skedaddled to Miami. Ten years on he is at­tempting – somewhat improbably – a return to Brazilian politics.


Following Collor’s impeachment, Vice President Itamar Franco found himself in the hot seat. Despite his reputation as an eccentric, his ad­ministration was at least credited with competency and integrity, rare commodities in Brazilian politics.

His greatest achievement was to stabilize Brazil’s notoriously erratic economy, introducing yet another new currency, the real. The Plano Real produced a brief economic boom, during which the real was momentarily pegged to the US dollar. The honeymoon didn’t last long: a decade on, tourists visiting Brazil enjoy an exchange rate of around three reais to the dollar or five to the pound sterling.

Lula was again a favorite for the 1994 election (the second in which the ex-shoe shine boy had run). Yet the Workers’ Party bubble was burst at the last minute as Franco’s finance minister – buoyed by the success of his Plano Real – rode in on a landslide victory.

Fernando Henrique Cardoso, known to the media as FHC and the people as Fernando Henrique, was a former left-wing sociologist from the University of Sao Paulo . His 1969 book Dependency and Development m Latin America remains one of the most important works of South American sociology. Although Cardoso spent time in exile during the 1964 dictatorship, as president he was far less radical. `Forget everything I have said and written,’ he said on taking power.

Brazil’s economy enjoyed a period of growth during the mid-1990s; the currency remained stable, inflation low and foreign investment hit new heights. Frequent trips abroad to rub shoulders with the likes of Cony Blair and Bill Clinton earned him a third nickname – Viajando (Traveling) Henrique Cardoso.

Cardoso served two terms as president, in which poverty levels began to fall but the day-to-day life of the average favelado (slum dweller) im­proved very little. Attendance levels in Brazil’s schools rose – standards did not. When Cardoso left office to enter into a lucrative career as an international statesman, he left behind a critically ill Brazil.


This was all supposed to change. At the fourth time of asking, Luiz Inacio Lula’ da Silva was elected by a wave of public support in 2002 – this time with the backing of media giant Globo.

But Brazil’s enormous problems were never going to be solved in a ~ ear – not even by Lula. ‘Even Pele’s Santos team got beaten sometimes,’ commented one politician in 2004 after an embarrassing defeat for the president in congress over the minimum wage.

The PT’s first manifesto talked of bringing a `new form of democracy’ to Brazil , which favored the `majority of society.’ Twenty five years on, Brazilian society – in which the richest 1% earns more than the poorest, 50% put together – is still run very much by and for the minority.