500 Years of Inquietude

500 Years of

Francisco Julião used to defend agrarian reform forcefully
arguing that it had to be done "by law or by force." He went into exile to
Mexico City and stayed there until 1979. Disappointed after being abandoned by old friends
he once again headed to Mexico in 1987.
By Bondo Wyszpolski

Brazil: Five Centuries of Change, by Thomas E. Skidmore (Oxford
University Press, 254 pp., $30)

Next April, Brazil will be commemorating the 500th anniversary of its
discovery by Pedro Álvares Cabral. When the captain and his crew sailed from Lisbon
earlier that year, Portugal had a total population of just one million. If only a single
person could have peered half a millenium into the future, what would he or she have made
of this vast land, first claimed in the name of King Manuel of Portugal, with its massive
territory and its 165 million people?

A lot has happened since 1500! Thomas E. Skidmore, who heads up the Center for Latin
American Studies at Brown University, has written the most up-to-date and thoroughly
considered one-volume study on Brazil now available. What makes the work particularly
engaging is that Skidmore is able to relate his information clearly, in as straightforward
a manner as possible, without succumbing to the urge to dazzle his readers with a
flamboyant or idiosyncratic style. If there were lapses of comprehension on this
reviewer’s part, they had more to do with the graphs (called exhibits) than with the text

The opening chapters read like an adventure story, as well they should, with the
seafaring Portuguese depicted as brave and confident, a fact evident enough from the many
trading posts they established throughout the world. Not surprisingly, in Brazil there
were skirmishes over borders with the Spanish and the French. Later, the Dutch muscled
their way into Recife, and it was thirty years before they could be ousted.

Skidmore explains how the colonizers and the native Indians impacted upon one another.
To a large extent, and this is true even today, Brazilians clung to the coast like crabs,
and did not have the inclination (or the self-righteousness) to make a clean sweep of the
natives as pretty much happened in the U.S. On the other hand, the development of Brazil
as an agrarian nation depended upon raw manpower, the cheaper the better, and so (to a
larger degree than transpired in North America) slaves from Africa were brought in to work
the fields. If this is a dark episode in the United States, it’s a dark episode in Brazil
as well, and Skidmore treats it at some length.

By the latter 1700s, Brazil started to realize that, economically, it was already more
important than Portugal. Spurred in part by our own declaration of independence from
England, resentment and sporadic rebellion ensued. However, if the path to Brazilian
independence was not entirely smooth, neither was it anywhere as violent as in Spanish
America or the United States. This was due to one of those interesting turns of history,
set into motion by Napoleon’s invasion of the Iberian Peninsula in 1807. At the time,
Portugal was an important client of England, the real superpower of the day, and to
safeguard the royal crown of Portugal the English suggested to Lisbon that it temporarily
remove its court to Brazil. There’s a bit of humor in this, with Brazil’s first monarch,
Emperor Pedro I, being a member of the ruling family of Portugal against which Brazil was

Perhaps the move of the entire court from Lisbon to Rio eased the eventual transition
of the country and prevented it, unlike what happened elsewhere in Spanish America, from
splintering into smaller countries. Brazil, as you know, occupies nearly half of all South
America, and there are twenty-something different nations there. Which isn’t to say that
Brazil doesn’t have its own history of violence: the War of Cabanagem (1835-40) left about
30,000 dead in Belém, out of a population of maybe 150,000.

Pedro I returned to Lisbon in 1831, leaving behind his five-year-old son. Coronated in
1840, Don Pedro II was to become the New World’s Queen Victoria: he reigned for most of
the latter 19th century.

Although no one thinks of Brazil as a belligerent country, the Paraguayan War (which
lasted from 1865 to the death in 1870 of Paraguay’s dictator, Francisco Solano López, was
a sobering experience. Sometimes the little guys fight the hardest, but, bearing in mind
NATO’s campaign against Serbia, that’s often because there’s one strongman at the top who
brings ruin upon his entire nation.

Brazil became a Republic in 1889, but in the 1920s, with so much of Europe flirting
dangerously with all kinds of alternative governments, the ongoing feasibility of a
Republic was often questioned—a progression of events that led up to the Getúlio
Vargas dictatorship in 1930. By the end of the decade, the United States was worried that
the German influence over Brazil might prevail. When the Vargas regime eventually sided
with the Allies in 1942, they were actually siding with the democracies against
authoritarian governments. This was a curious irony that did not go unnoticed.

Vargas stepped down after the war, but stepped back up a few years later, this time
being democratically elected. His suicide in 1954 stunned the nation. His successor,
Juscelino Kubitschek, is remembered for pushing to completion the new capital, Brasília,
but his government spent money like it was going out of style. President Jânio Quadros
resigned a little less than seven months in office, and was followed by João Goulart, who
lasted less than three years. In Skidmore’s overview, we see the unraveling. Then the
military stepped in for 21 years.

In all, there would be five general-presidents, beginning with General Castelo Branco.
He was succeeded by Costa e Silva in 1967. Although the military was now firmly in power,
it took about four years—until 1968—for them to establish a complete
dictatorship. Armed resistance began in the late 1960s, and this included the kidnapping
of Burke Elbrick, the U.S. Ambassador, which was depicted in Bruno Barreto’s film, Que
É Isso Companheiro? (Four Days in September).

Possibly for good reason, the one president-general that Skidmore does not mention by
name is Emílio Médici, who ruled, says Lawrence Weschler in his book, A Miracle, A
Universe, "between 1969 and 1974, the period when torture was at its worst."
General Ernesto Geisel assumed the presidency in 1974 (holding it until 1979), and seems
to have paved the way for a gradual transition back to democracy from military rule. But
it didn’t happen overnight, and Brazil had to put up with a fifth general-president, João
Batista Figueiredo.

When democracy returned in 1985, it didn’t get off to a very good start. The first
civilian to be elected president, Tancredo Neves, died on the eve of taking office.

José Sarney, who’d been Neves’ running mate, was unable to curb the runaway inflation
that was continuing to plague Brazil. The country’s economic boom of the late ’60s and
early ’70s had collapsed, and the pieces kept on scattering. By the time Sarney left
office, inflation had gone through the roof (in 1988 it was 1038%!).

As he brings his story closer to the present, Skidmore also surveys the changes in
sociological, economic, and health-related concerns. He writes about race relations, and
on the improved conditions for women.

After the lifting of military rule, high culture did not quickly regain the momentum
and flair it had shown in the 1950s and ’60s. Skidmore quotes novelist Ignácio de Loyola
de Brandão, who proclaimed in 1988 that "There is a crisis of creativity affecting
the older writers, who are producing nothing, and which is blocking the young."
Brazilians, it seemed, were more attracted to pop-psychology and self-help books than to
literature, the culmination of which—at least through the best seller lists of this
country—is Paulo Coelho.

Skidmore does not devote much more than a passing glance to the arts (neither writer
Jorge Amado nor composer Heitor Villa-Lobos merit an appearance), but he does mention a
few recent authors and the novels they wrote which made a difference. There’s João Ubaldo
Ribeiro’s Viva o Povo Brasileiro, for instance, an epic historical novel set in and
around Bahia; Moacyr Scliar’s Sonhos Tropicais (1992), "a fictional portrait
of turn-of-the-century public health hero Oswaldo Cruz;" and Rubem Fonseca’s Agosto
(1990), "based on the last days and suicide of Getúlio Vargas in 1954." Of
these three works, only Ubaldo Ribeiro’s has been translated into English, as An
Invincible Memory. Back when Robert Wyatt headed up Ballantine’s Available Press,
several of Scliar’s novels and short story collections were easy to find, and these
included such delicious tales as The Centaur in the Garden. Today, one of the few
people really pushing for Brazilian literature to be better known in this country is
translator Clifford E. Landers.

Back to our history of Brazil. When Fernando Collor de Melo was elected president in
1990, he was seen as a political messiah, much as Jânio Quadros had been thirty years
earlier. But if Collor went in looking like JFK, he came out more like Richard Nixon.
After his resignation, Itamar Franco took over but with limited success, his most notable
deed being that he appointed Fernando Henrique Cardoso to head up the Finance Ministry.

To curb inflation, there’d been many stabilization plans, but Cardoso’s (which involved
the introduction of the real to replace the cruzado, which had replaced the cruzeiro
only a few years before) seemed to work. Its success helped him win the presidency in
1994, and, because the good times were still rolling, to win re-election in 1998.

Brazil: Five Centuries of Change stretches up to the middle of last year.
Although Skidmore eyes the financial crisis in East Asia, his book went to press before
Brazil suffered its own crisis in the third quarter of ’98. Recent reports indicate that
Brazil’s recession has come to an end, but it would sure be nice to have an
up-to-the-minute appraisal from the author. Although he writes that "Events since
1985 are less easy to put into historical perspective," one finishes Skidmore’s
concise, clear-eyed portrait of Brazil with the knowledge of where the country has been
and with an understanding of the potentially splendid road that lies ahead.

You can reach Bondo wyszpolski at bwyszpolski@eathlink.net

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