Modernity in Brazil: a Privilege of Few

 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.
by: Henry

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

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

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


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