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Brazzil - People - March 2004

Modernity in Brazil: a Privilege of Few

In Brazil, processes of development and modernization were
almost entirely implemented within the nation's urban centres.
The central government either forgot or ignored rural Brazil,
in particular the vast backlands. Modernization has generated
more discrepancies and barriers within the nation.

Henry Andreae

Firstly, the obvious must be stated. Brazil is still very much a Third World, or `developing' country, where social problems such as poverty and illiteracy are widespread. One only has to think of Rio de Janeiro and its sadly ironic nickname: `the marvellous city'.

"How can Brazil still be a developing country?" you ask yourself on visiting the stunning Copacabana beach and admiring the luxurious apartments that look out over the Atlantic—evidence of the benefits of modernization.

The answer becomes clear, however, as your eyes pan across towards Sugar Loaf Mountain and you see the harrowing sight of the hillside slums (favelas). Modernity does not include the residents of neighbourhoods such as these. There is never room for everybody in plans for modernization, and nowhere is this more apparent than in Brazil.

During the late 1950s and 60s Brazil entered a period of great optimism. The process of modernization had already begun during the `New State' of Getúlio Vargas (1937-1945), but it was his successor, Juscelino Kubitschek (1956-61), who succeeded in creating amongst his people a strong feeling of confidence and faith in the nation's future.

The famous motto of his electoral campaign was "50 years' progress in 5", emphasizing his desire to modernize the nation, so that one day Brazil could fulfil its undoubted potential. The icon of his presidency is the city of Brasília, the nation's actual capital and a symbol of high modern architecture, inaugurated by Kubitschek in April of 1960. The construction of Brasília represented a brighter future. It expressed the hope of the Brazilian people. It demonstrated that Brazil could become a truly modern nation.

Thousands of impoverished Brazilians migrated towards the new capital to take part in its construction and in the hope of a better life. Unfortunately, what awaited them was simply more poverty. The majority of those who helped construct Brasília ended up living in the city's suburbs, in makeshift wooden shacks, and not in the new apartment blocks that they had built.

The cost of undertaking such a bold project was huge, and it seems that Kubitschek was more concerned with its symbolic significance than with its inevitable economic repercussions. Inflation subsequently rose fast, as did the number of residents in Brazil's urban slums. These people were denied the opportunity to partake in the new, modern Brazil.


In Brazil, processes of development and modernization were almost entirely implemented within the nation's urban centres. In his desire to see Brazil become a developed country, Kubitschek strengthened the nation's infrastructure, stimulating national industries (especially in the areas of energy and transport) and offering incentives for national and foreign investment. However, he either forgot or ignored rural Brazil, in particular the vast, northeastern sertão (backlands).

This period saw the publication of a number of novels, poems and plays that highlighted the poverty and misery of the inhabitants of such areas. João Cabral de Melo Neto, for example, published Morte e Vida Severina (The Death and Life of Severino) during the Kubitschek administration.

This hard-hitting play served to remind the nation of the `real' Brazil and of the many Brazilians who had been forgotten and alienated by successive governments during the process of modernization. The play powerfully depicts the cruel conditions of the arid sertão where death reigns supreme. This world was quite a contrast to the popular image of Brazil that was beginning to be exported around the world.

This was the tropical and tranquil image evoked by the protagonists of bossa nova. They highlighted `the good life', the sun, the beach and the dark-skinned beauties of Rio de Janeiro's Zona Sul (Southern Zone)—an area where modernization had arrived—in songs such as "A Garota de Ipanema" (The Girl from Ipanema) by Vinicius de Moraes and Antônio Carlos Jobim.

The music of bossa nova highlighted one consequence of modernity: the elimination of barriers. For the very first time a Brazilian musical genre began to be exported on a large scale to the United States and across the world. Nevertheless, this international image of Brazil, highlighting the life of privileged cariocas (citizens of Rio de Janeiro), did not represent the reality of the overwhelming majority of Brazilians. Bossa nova and the works of writers such as João Cabral de Melo Neto reveal the discrepancy between the developed Brazil and the forgotten Brazil.

New Cinema

The Kubitschek administration also saw the emergence of a new cinematographic movement. One of the concerns of this New Wave cinema, or Cinema Novo, was to put to the fore the nations marginalized, just as João Cabral de Melo Neto had done.

The influence of this movement has been long-lasting, and is nowhere more evident than in Carlos Diegues's film Bye Bye Brasil (1979). Diegues acutely contrasts areas of modernization and spaces of alienation within Brazil. The film's protagonists travel through the arid sertão, through small hamlets that don't even have electricity, whilst in other places charter flights gracefully take to the skies, linking Brazil to the outside world.

Both Morte e Vida Severina and Bye Bye Brasil highlight another consequence of urban modernization and rural alienation: migration. However, almost always, those migrating simply swap rural poverty for urban poverty.

Modernization does not extend to the thousands of people who leave their land in the hope of work and a better life in the nation's modern, urban centres. The brutal reality that awaits them, more often than not, is a life in the city's slums, once more marginalized by society.

Life in the Brazilian ghettoes is now most forcefully being represented by musicians and artists from these neighbourhoods, particularly through hip-hop. One of Brazil's most famous rappers is the carioca MV Bill. With his initials MV standing for Mensageiro da Verdade (Messenger of the Truth), he wants to inform the rest of the country about what constitutes his reality, and the reality of millions of other Brazilians.

His reality is marginalization, drugs, violence and death. He comes from one of Rio's largest slums, Cidade de Deus (City of God), recently made famous by Fernando Meirelles's critically acclaimed film of the same name. The dichotomy between the life of the privileged and that of the marginalized is most clearly emphasized in his song "Contraste Social" (Social Contrast), in which he declares:

Eu quero denunciar o contraste social.
Enquanto rico vive bem, o povo pobre vive mal.
Cidade maravilhosa é uma grande ilusão.
Desemprego, pobreza, miséria, corpos no chão.

I want to denounce the social disparity.
The rich are living well, while the poor are living badly.
The `marvellous city' is just a fantasy.
Unemployment, poverty, misery, dead bodies.

The problem is that only a small section of Brazilian society really benefited from the processes of modernization initiated by Vargas and Kubitschek, while the majority found themselves alienated and marginalized. Despite breaking down a number of international frontiers, modernization in Brazil has only ever been partial and has thus generated more discrepancies and barriers within the nation itself.

There is one aspect of modernization, however, that has arrived and spread in the country's underdeveloped areas: television. Yet whilst marginalized Brazilians can see and touch this small token of modernity, they are denied the chance to partake in the real thing.

Henry Andreae is currently completing an MA in Portuguese at Bristol University (U.K.), looking specifically at aspects of Brazilian literature, film, and music. He spent 8 months of 2002 living and working in Salvador da Bahia. He can be contacted at riqueandreae@hotmail.com

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