In the Beginning

No one is quite sure when or how Brazil's first inhabitants arrived. The long-favored theory -- that Native Americans arrived about 10,000 years ago, most likely from Asia via a land bridge over the Bering Sea -- is now under serious attack. Some archaeologists claim canoe-based cultures might have paddled their way down the coasts; others suggest seafaring peoples could have made the journey from Africa. The date of first arrival now varies from 10,000 to as far back as 30,000 years ago.

However and whenever they first arrived, by the year A.D. 1500 between one and eight million aboriginals lived in Brazil, speaking nearly 170 different languages. Unlike in the Inca territory across the Andes, Brazil's indigenous civilization was largely tribal: small groups living in villages making a subsistence living from the local environment.

The Portuguese Arrive

In 1500, the first Europeans arrived: 13 ships under the command of Pedro Alvares Cabral, a Portuguese explorer sent to find a Western trade route to India. Cabral tarried only briefly on the coast, but the reports he sent back were encouraging enough for other captains to set out. In particular, what the Europeans were after was pau-brasil, a type of wood that could be processed to yield a rich red dye. Coastal Indians were induced to cut and sell timber in return for metal implements such as axes. It was an efficient system, so much so that within a little over a generation the trees -- which by then had given their name to the country -- were all but nonexistent.

What worried Portuguese King João III, however, was the number of French and Spanish ships taking part in the trade. In an attempt to establish Portuguese authority (while saving the cost of a formal colony) the king divided the Brazilian coast into 15 parcels or "captaincies," each of which was given to a Portuguese noble as his hereditary property, on the understanding he'd show the flag, build up a colony at his own expense, and maybe generate some tax revenue for the royal treasury.

A few of the newly arriving captains managed to establish themselves by forging alliances with local Indian tribes. Mostly, however, the Portuguese arrivals generated hostility. Many of the new settlements were burned out and destroyed, the would-be settlers killed. Perhaps the captaincies only lasting effect was on the political map -- the borders of many Brazilian states still reflect the boundaries laid down for those first 15 captaincies. Establishing viable colonies in Brazil, however, was going to require the sort of armed force only a king could provide.

In 1549 King João revoked the captaincies and sent out a force of 1,500 men -- soldiers, priests, artisans, and administrators -- under the command of Brazil's first governor-general, Tomé de Sousa. Landing at Salvador in what is now the state of Bahia, de Sousa's force was large enough to turn the tide. Warfare with Brazil's native inhabitants would continue for another 200 years or so, but for the most part the Portuguese would have the upper hand.

Sugar Cane & Slavery

What made the expense worthwhile -- in the eyes of the crown -- was sugar. The cash crop of the 16th century, it grew well in the tropical climate of northeast Brazil. Salvador, the new capital, was soon surrounded by rapidly expanding plantations of sugar cane.

Turning that cane into sugar, however, was backbreaking work, and the Portuguese were critically devoid of labor. Short of enslavement (also frequently attempted), local Indians were uninterested in the repetitive drudgery of cutting cane. In any case, disease had ripped through indigenous peoples, sending their population on a downward spiral. (One that didn't end, in fact, until the 1960s, at which time Brazilian Indians numbered just a few hundred thousand.)

So the Portuguese began to import slaves, captured or bought in West Africa. Brazil was soon one leg on a lucrative maritime trade triangle: guns and supplies from Portugal to Africa, slaves from Africa to Brazil, sugar from Brazil back to Europe. Within a few decades, colonial cities such as Salvador and Olinda were fabulously rich.

A Dutch Threat & the Rise of Rio

Other European powers took note. In 1624 a Dutch expedition conquered and briefly occupied the Brazilian capital of Salvador, leaving a year later after a combined Portuguese-Spanish fleet counterattacked. The next year the Dutch were back, burning Olinda to the ground, taking control of Pernambuco and establishing their own capital city of Recife. Under the leadership of Maurits van Nassau, Dutch Brazil was soon a thriving colony, exporting ever-larger quantities of sugar. When internal politicking forced Nassau out of the colony in 1644, however, Dutch fortunes began to wane. A rebellion of the local Portuguese planters, followed by renewed attacks from Portugal, finally forced the surrender of Dutch forces in 1654. Never again would another European power successfully challenge Portuguese control of the country.

Free of external threat, the settlers turned their attention inland. Small expeditions of Brazilian adventures -- called bandeirantes because they often carried the royal flag -- began exploring westward seeking gold, minerals, or other treasure. Gold and diamonds were soon uncovered in what would later be the state of Minas Gerais, followed by further gold strikes farther west in Mato Grosso. The resulting flood of miners and other settlers gave effective control of the interior to Portugal -- a fact recognized by the 1750 Treaty of Madrid, which gave the entire Amazon basin and those lands east of the Rio Prata to Brazil.

In addition to the miners, the other main beneficiary of the Minas gold rush was Rio de Janeiro, the major transshipment point for gold and supplies. In recognition of this, in 1762 the colonial capital was officially transferred to Rio.

Stunning as its physical setting was, Rio was hardly then the cidade maravilhosa it would become. Indeed, it would likely have remained little more than a backwater colonial capital had it not been for Napoleon. In 1807, having overrun most of western Europe, the little French emperor set his sights on Portugal. Faced with the imminent conquest of Lisbon, Portuguese Prince Regent João (later King João VI) fled to his ships, opting to relocate himself and his entire court to Brazil. And so it was that in March 1808 the king and 15,000 of his nobles, knights, and courtiers arrived in the rather raw town of Rio.

Independence Arrives

The changes wrought by the royal presence were enormous: palaces, parks, and gardens were built all over the city. A new administrative class was formed. Indeed, the denizens of Rio got so used to being at the center of things that the king's return to Portugal in 1821 created no small outrage. Used to being at the heart of the empire, Brazilians -- among them the king's 23-year-old son Pedro -- were outraged at the prospect of being returned to the status of mere colony. In January 1822 Pedro announced he was remaining in Brazil. Initially, he planned on ruling as prince regent, but as the year wore on it became clear that Lisbon was not interested in compromise, so on September 7, 1822, Pedro declared Brazil independent, and himself Emperor Pedro I.

His reign lasted only 9 years. In acceding to the throne Dom Pedro had agreed to rule as a constitutional monarch, but in practice sharing power with a parliament of meddling politicians went against his aristocratic nature. A costly war with Argentina -- which led to the creation of Uruguay in 1828 -- only lessened his popularity. Finally in April 1832, Dom Pedro was presented with an ultimatum demanding he appoint a reformist cabinet. He chose instead to abdicate. His 5-year-old son became Emperor Pedro II.

Brazil in this period was a deeply conservative country, with a few very wealthy plantation owners, a tiny professional class, and a great mass of slaves indentured into cultivating either sugar or Brazil's new cash crop, coffee. Though the antislavery movement was growing powerful across the globe, Brazil's conservative landowning class was determined to hold on to slavery at all costs.

Taking power in 1840 at the tender age of 14, Dom Pedro II found himself in a political bind. Though he personally favored abolishing slavery, the conservative slave owners were also the chief supporters of the monarchy. The liberal abolitionists in the parliament were republicans to a man. Faced with this intractable situation, Dom Pedro opted to ally himself with the conservatives. He would move forward on the slavery issue, but at a glacial pace.

In the 1850s, under heavy pressure from Britain, Brazil finally moved to halt the importation of slaves from Africa. Slavery was still legal within the country, but its days were clearly numbered. Seeking a new source of labor, in 1857 Brazil opened itself up to immigration. Thousands poured in, mostly Germans and Italians, settling themselves in the hilly, temperate lands in the south of Brazil. Not only did they provide alternate labor on coffee plantations, but these newcomers also established their own small farms and vineyards, or else moved into Brazil's growing cities, giving the southern part of Brazil a very European flavor.

Through the 1860s and 1870s, the government showed little interest in confronting the slavery issue. A law passed in 1871 envisioned the legal end of slavery -- but not until 1896. Another passed in 1885 promised to free only those slaves over the age of 65. As immigration continued, the plantation class became an increasingly tiny fraction of the populace, albeit one that maintained a stranglehold on Brazilian politics. Dom Pedro himself seemed to have lost interest in governing, spending much of his time on extended trips abroad. Finally in 1888, his daughter the Princess Regent Isabel passed the Lei Aurea, which set Brazil's slaves free. There were celebrations in the streets, but by this time the monarchy was so thoroughly associated with the plantation owners, it had little popular support. When reformist army officers and other liberals staged a coup in 1889, Pedro II's 57-year rule came to an end.

The republic that took its place had many of the same ills of the old regime. In a country with an increasingly large working class, the government remained in the hands of the coffee-growing elite. Corruption was endemic, rebellions a regular occurrence. Finally, in 1930, reformist army officers staged a bloody coup. After several days' fighting, a military-backed regime took charge, putting an end to the Old Republic and ushering in the 15-year reign of the fascinating, maddening figure of Getulio Vargas.

The Age of Vargas & a New Capital is Born

A pol to his fingertips, Vargas managed to ride each new political wave as it swept in. He began his time in office as a populist, legalizing unions and investing in hundreds of projects designed to foster Brazil's industrial development. When the workers nevertheless looked set to reject him in renewed elections (and in the aftermath of a failed Communist revolt), Vargas tore up the constitution and instituted a quasi-fascist dictatorship, complete with a propaganda ministry that celebrated every action of the glorious leader Getulio. In the early 1940s when the United States made it clear Brazil had better cease its flirtation with Germany, Vargas dumped his fascist posturing, declared war on the Axis powers, and sent 20,000 Brazilian troops to take part in the invasion of Italy. When the troops came home at war's end, the contradiction between the fight for freedom abroad and the dictatorship at home proved too much even for Vargas's political skills. In 1945 in a very quiet coup, the army removed Getulio from power.

In 1950 Vargas returned, this time as the democratically elected president. His reign was a disaster. By 1954 there were riots in the streets, the army was on the verge of mutiny, and even his own vice president was calling for his resignation. Vargas, instead, retired to his office in the Catete Palace in Rio, and on the night of August 4, 1954, put a bullet through his heart.

In 1956, Juscelino Kubitschek (known as JK) took office, largely on the strength of a single bold promise: Within 4 years, he would transfer the capital from Rio de Janeiro to an entirely new city located somewhere in Brazil's vast interior. Few thought he could do it.

The site chosen in Brazil's high interior plateau -- the sertão -- was hundreds of miles from the nearest paved road, not to mention the nearest airport. Undaunted, JK assembled a team of Brazil's top modernist architects -- among the best in the world at the time -- and an astounding 4 years later, the new capital of Brasilia was complete.

Dictatorship & Again, Democracy

Democracy, unfortunately, did not fare well in the arid soil of the sertão. In 1964, the army took power in a coup, ushering in an ever more repressive military dictatorship that would last for another 20 years.

For a time, no one much complained. Thanks to massive government investment, the economy boomed. São Paulo, which had been little more than a market town in the 1920s, exploded in size and population, surpassing Rio to become the heart of Brazil's new manufacturing economy. These were the days of the Brazilian "economic miracle."

On the soccer field Brazil ruled. True, in the 1950 World Cup -- held in the specially built Maracanã stadium in Rio -- Brazil lost in a 2-to-1 final to underdog Uruguay. (The shame of that defeat haunts Brazil to this day.) Brazil came back strong, however, taking the World Cup championships in 1958, 1962, and 1970, making Brazil the first three-time champion in World Cup history. (They won a fourth championship in 1994 and a fifth in 2002.)

In the early '70s, however, it became clear that much of the economic "miracle" had been financed on easy international loans, much of that invested in dubious development projects (roads that disappeared back into the forest, nuclear power plants that never functioned) or channeled directly into the pockets of various well-connected generals. The international banks now wanted their money back, with interest. As discontent with the regime spread, the military reacted with ever-stronger repression.

The 1980s were perhaps Brazil's worst decade. Inflation ran rampant, while growth was next to nonexistent. Austerity measures imposed by the International Monetary Fund left governments with little money for basic infrastructure -- much less social services -- and in big cities such as Rio and São Paulo, favelas (shantytowns) spread while crime spiraled out of control.

In the midst of this mess, the army began a transition to democracy. In 1988, in the first direct presidential election in over 2 decades, Brazilians elected a good-looking millionaire named Fernando Collor de Mello. It proved to be a bad move. Not only did Collor seize the bank savings of private citizens via government fiat, he was also soon found lining his own pockets with government cash. The civilian government did prove capable of legally forcing him from office, however, paving the way in 1992 for the election of Fernando Henrique Cardoso.

Though an academic Marxist for much of his career, once in office FHC proved to be a cautious centrist. In his 8 years in office he managed to reign in inflation, bring some stability to the Brazilian currency, and begin a modest extension of social services to Brazil's many poor.

The main opposition throughout this period was the Workers Party (PT), lead by Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, a charismatic trade unionist with a personal rags-to-riches story. Born into poverty in the Northeast, Lula, as he is usually known, left school to work as a shoeshine boy, got a job in a São Paulo factory, joined the metalworkers' union, and began to get involved in politics. During the waning days of Brazil's dictatorship he and others formed the Workers Party, and only just lost Brazil's first democratic election in 1988, thanks in large part to some blatant scare-mongering by the Globo print and television conglomerate. Lula persevered, however, contesting the following two elections against FHC, while refining and moderating policies to bring them into a form more acceptable to the Brazilian electorate. Finally in 2002, in his fourth attempt, Lula was elected Brazilian president, the first democratically elected leftist ever to hold power in Brazil.

Hopes for Lula's first term in office were enormous. Confounding expectations of financial markets and right-wing critics, Lula in office proved to be an economic moderate, continuing the tight-money policy of his predecessor. But to the disappointment of his supporters on the left, Lula also proved to be a poor and often absent administrator. Many of the hoped-for reforms -- from the distribution of land, to access to education and healthcare, to environmental policy -- were never enacted. Worse, his government, which had pledged to clean up Brazilian politics, has been plagued by corruption scandals as bad as or worse than any of his predecessors.

On the positive side, Lula's government broadened Brazil's welfare system, extending a guaranteed basic income to the poorest families for the first time. Lula's government also eased credit terms on housing and durable consumer goods, sparking a consumer boom, particularly in the lower middle class. These measures, combined with gradually diminishing unemployment and steady but not spectacular growth, were enough, in 2006, to win Lula reelection to a second 4-year term in office.

In the cities, things have certainly improved since the 1980s. The 1992 Environment Conference in Rio was a watershed for Brazil. Politicians woke up to the fact that the country was developing a reputation for crime and lawlessness. Governments, having paid off the worst of the '80s debts, now had funds available, which they proceeded to spend on increased policing, better street lighting, and on extending services such as sewers, water, and schooling to urban slum dwellers. In the shantytowns of Rio and São Paulo, gangs remain stubbornly entrenched, but the major cities of Brazil are nonetheless cleaner and safer than they've been in a generation. Though they're a few years yet from matching the new improved Manhattan for safety, Brazil's cities are far and away superior when it comes to sheer joie de vivre.

Brazil's steady growth, responsible public finances, and vast potential lead the gnomes of international finance to christen the country as one of the breakthrough nations of the 21st century, lumping Brazil together with Russia, India, and China to form the BRIC nations.

Brazil's own growing confidence in its future has lead it to reach out to the rest of the world, ramping up a campaign for a UN Security Council seat, at the same time bidding to host a variety of international sporting events. The first of these, the Pan American Games, was held in Rio in 2007. That proved to be just an audition. As a follow-up, Brazil bid successfully to host first the Soccer World Cup in 2014. Then in 2009, Rio de Janeiro was selected to host the 2016 Olympic Summer Games.

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