According to former Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, being a
neighbor of the United States is like sleeping with an elephant. Other
countries in the Western Hemisphere — Brazil included — would almost certainly
agree that the U.S. has had an overwhelming influence, both negative and
positive, on their politics, economy and culture. While Brazilians await
the first state visit of a U.S. President in almost 20 years, Brazzil
sends this overview of relations between two countries that are so much
alike, yet quite different.
Political scientist and Brazilianist Ronald M. Schneider has commented
that Brazil-U.S. relations were usually “conflict-free and even harmonious”
until the 1950s. The roots of this relationship began in the 1780s, when
Mineiro (from Minas Gerais state) intellectuals who objected to
Portuguese colonial rule wrote to Thomas Jefferson for advice on starting
The U.S.-Brazil connection became more significant at the beginning
of the 20th century. The Barão do Rio Branco (1845-1912),
Brazil’s foreign minister, saw that the U.S. influence and interest in
Latin America had grown in the wake of the Spanish-American war. Rio Branco
decided that it was preferable to have the Yankees as allies than as rivals.
Brazil then became a loyal colleague of the U.S. in Pan-American relations
while other Latin American countries (such as Mexico) decried Yankee imperialism.
In the years before World War II, Brazilian President Getúlio
Vargas (1883-1954) was amenable to Italy and Germany as well as to the
U.S.. While the U.S. reduced its purchases of Brazilian exports, Germany
increased them. According to historian E. Bradford Burns, Germany had become
by 1938 the biggest custom for Brazilian cotton, and a plurality of goods
imported to Brazil were German-made.
The U.S., apprehensive about Vargas’s political and economic flirtation
with fascism, decided to insure that Brazil would remain an ally of the
U.S.. The persistence of the State Department and Brazilian Foreign Minister
Oswaldo Aranha (a longtime Vargas associate who disapproved of his friend’s
authoritarian streak) paid off in 1942. Brazil declared war on Germany
Unlike other Latin American nations, Brazil sent army troops to Europe.
This expeditionary force of 25,000 men participated in the liberation of
Italy. Perhaps the greatest effect of Brazil’s role in the World War II
was the friendship that developed between the officers of the expeditionary
force and their U.S. counterparts. The Brazilian officers frequently became
enthusiastic about the U.S. and Yankee technological advances. This Americanophilia
would contribute to events in Brazil some 20 years later.
After the end of World War II, however, cracks began to develop in the
“unwritten alliance” between Brazil and the U.S.. The creation of Petrobrás—the
state oil monopoly—in 1953 did not please the U.S. government, which distrusted
the prospect of a nationalized oil industry. Furthermore, President Juscelino
Kubitschek’s 1958 proposal to establish Operation Pan-America (a cooperative
attack against underdevelopment, run by and for Latin Americans) was received
coldly by the U.S.. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles even ridiculed
Kubitschek’s pretensions and called Brazil “the world’s largest banana
Kubitschek’s 1959 decision to break off negotiations with the IMF (International
Monetary Fund) was mostly due to domestic political considerations—Kubitschek
had been elected president on a pro-development platform, and cutting back
on development in order to reduce inflation would hurt Kubitschek’s political
future—but he apparently resented the condescension that the U.S. government
had displayed to Brazil and to its president.
Conditions worsened in the early 1960s, during the presidency of João
Goulart (1961-1964). While Brazilian government funds went to left-wing
candidates in the 1962 congressional and gubernatorial elections, the U.S.
poured money into the coffers of more conservative candidates. After the
military coup of 1964, many Brazilians who remembered how the U.S. government
had financially supported Goulart’s opponents assumed that the U.S. had
a direct role in his downfall. It is true that the U.S. government wanted
Goulart out and even planned to give the anti-Goulart forces military support
if the coup did not automatically succeed. However, the coup—whose leaders
included former expeditionary force officers such as Marshal Humberto Castello
Branco and General Golbery do Couto e Silva—prevailed without direct U.S.
During the first dozen years of Brazil’s military regime, U.S.-Brazilian
relations were good, but not a high policy priority for the U.S. government.
By the time that Jimmy Carter became president of the U.S. in 1977 the
“special relationship” was dead. Carter and the U.S. Congress criticized
the poor state of human rights in Brazil (which included censorship, stripping
public officials of their positions and civil rights, as well as imprisoning
and torturing suspected conspirators against the military regime).
Perhaps even worse in the eyes of the U.S. government was Brazil’s desire
for nuclear technology. In 1975, the Brazilian government decided to buy
atomic generators from West Germany. The technology that the West Germans
would supply included not just the requirements to run nuclear power plants,
but also the ability to produce enriched uranium. Enriched uranium is necessary
to maintain a supply of reactor fuel and for producing explosive devices.
Since Brazil had not signed the 1970 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty,
the U.S. government feared that Brazil would eventually make its own bomb.
The Carter administration attempted to persuade the Brazilian and the West
German governments to repeal the agreement, but Brazilian President General
Ernesto Geisel and his government only stiffened their resolve. This defiance
was well-received in many Brazilian circles. Even though Carter was fairly
conciliatory during his 1978 state visit to Brazil, the U.S. was no longer
a parent whose requests must be obeyed at the risk of reprimands or punishment.
Both Brazil and the U.S. are large, multiethnic federal republics, and
might eventually establish a more equal and constructive relationship.
As Schneider wrote in his 1996 book Brazil: Culture and Politics in
a New Industrial Powerhouse, “the faster Brazil develops and comes
to grips with its social problems, the sooner this will be; the less acrimonious
the discord until that time, the more easily it will come about.”
A BRAZILIANIST VIEW
Historian Thomas Skidmore has been one of the leading Brazilianists
in the U.S. over 35 years. His books— such as Politics in Brazil, 1930-1964,
The Politics of Military Rule in Brazil, 1964-1985, and Race
and Nationality in Brazilian Thought—have become modern classics indispensable
for understanding 20th century Brazil. In a March 1997 interview
with Cláudia Trevisan of daily newspaper Folha de São
Paulo, Skidmore, who teaches at Brown University in Providence, Rhode
Island, was delighted that U.S. interest in Brazil is on the upswing.
“There are definitely more people interested in Brazil nowadays than
there were in 1961,” Skidmore said, referring to the year he began specializing
in Brazil. “There are at least 30 books published each year in the U.S.
that are exclusively about Brazil.”
This popularity has not risen consistently. During the 1970s, Brazil’s
apparent “economic miracle” attracted students interested in developing
the Brazilian economy even more. The number of students taking Portuguese
language and Brazilian history courses in U.S. colleges and universities
Unfortunately for the budding field of Brazilian studies, the next decade
destroyed those small advances. “Throughout the ’80s and up to 1995, nobody
looked at Brazil because it was chaotic,” Skidmore said. The Center for
Brazilian Studies at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, closed
for lack of funds in 1987. By 1990, only 6,211 students in U.S. universities
and colleges were enrolled in Portuguese language courses. Brazil had lost
its position as “flavor of the month” in Latin American studies to Central
America, especially El Salvador, Guatemala, and Nicaragua.
The troubles of Brazilianism in the U.S. were not solely due to events
within Brazil’s borders. Many American colleges and universities have had
difficulty in fundraising and the relatively recondite field of Brazilian
studies became a low priority.
PORTUGUESE SPOKEN HERE
Brazil is geographically distant from the U.S., and Brazilian society
is also quite complex. Its official language, Portuguese, is not widely
spoken elsewhere in the Americas. Professors who are fluent in Spanish,
however, can easily change their field of specialization within Latin American
studies. This is especially true during Latin American political crises
which attract attention in the U.S.. Students and the general public become
more interested in the country in the headlines. This usually assures the
availability of funds to study the talked-about nation. Also, most Latin
Americanists specialize in societies that are less diverse than Brazil’s
(therefore easier to understand and explain). These countries are often
much geographically closer to the U.S. as well.
In addition, as Carlos Eduardo Lins da Silva of Folha de São
Paulo observed last March, the Brazilianists who made their reputations
in the 1960s and ’70s—Thomas Skidmore, Riordan Roett, Albert Fishlow, John
W. F. Dulles and Timothy Harding, among others—are either approaching or
have passed retirement age. During the past 20 years, these scholars have
not found many students who are willing to risk specializing in the poorly-funded
field of Brazilian studies.
The growth in size and significance of the Spanish-speaking Latino community
in the U.S. has also lessened interest in Brazil. At the high school level,
the interest in Portuguese, which was never very high, has decreased even
more. The descendants of early 20th century Portuguese immigrants
to the U.S. and Canada have largely assimilated into Anglophone North American
society, while more recent immigrants from Brazil are a drop in the oceanic
These difficulties have left a curious impression of Brazil in the minds
of the U.S. public, Skidmore asserts. “They think the capital is Buenos
Aires and that Spanish is spoken in Brazil. I don’t believe that there
is much knowledge of the country.”
But ignorance does not mean apathy. “One area in which there is a lot
of curiosity but little understanding, is race relations,” Skidmore continued.
“After Brazilian music, perhaps this is the characteristic that fascinates
Once Americans begin studying how race and class is judged in Brazil,
they quickly realize that the “racial democracy” image that sociologist
Gilberto Freyre (1900-1987) popularized is a myth. “But they also discover
that relations are different than they are in the U.S.,” Skidmore said.
“What happens with my students, several of my friends, and even myself
is that we spend a lot of time trying to understand what makes Brazilian
culture tick. And race relations is just one aspect of that.”
Attempting to help Americans understand what makes Brazil tick are new
Brazil-focused centers, chairs, and departments in U.S. universities. In
1992, Brown University created the Department of Portuguese and Brazilian
Studies, the first autonomous and interdisciplinary institution in the
U.S. since Johns Hopkins’ Center for Brazilian studies shut its doors.
The University of Texas in Austin opened the Brazil Center in 1995, and
President Fernando Henrique Cardoso came to Stanford University in March
1996 to establish the Joaquim Nabuco Chair in Brazilian Studies. This is
the first chair in any U.S. university dedicated to just one country in
the Southern Hemisphere. First Lady Ruth Cardoso likewise opened the Brazilian
program within the Center for Latin American Studies at the University
of Pittsburgh in October 1996.
The University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, the University of California
in Berkeley and Los Angeles, the University of Florida in Gainesville,
and Columbia University in New York City are also prominent in the development
of Brazilian studies in the U.S.. Harvard, Princeton, and Yale Universities
are planning to catch up by raising funds for their own chairs in Brazilian
studies. Meanwhile, the Woodrow Wilson Center and Inter-American Dialogue
in Washington, D.C. have invited Riordan Roett, the former director of
Johns Hopkins’ Brazilian program, to help establish a similar center in
the nation’s capital.
The creation of the Brazilian Studies Association (Brasa) in 1994 is
another sign of the growing interest in things Brazilian. Some 500 Brazilianists
throughout the U.S. are expected to attend Brasa’s convention in Washington,
D.C.. this November. During the convention—which hopes to be the largest
in Brasa’s brief history—a WEB site and a guidebook describing all the
Brazilian studies programs in the U.S. are expected to be introduced.
Despite this growing interest, the Brazilian government has done little
to publicize Brazil’s image in the U.S., “especially in the cultural area,”
Skidmore noted. “They are doing a little more now, with Itamaraty (Brazil’s
Foreign Ministry) promoting the arrival of Brazilian academics in America.
But in general Brazil is doing very poor work, especially when compared
to Mexico or Chile.”
Why study Brazil? Skidmore replied, “It’s a fascinating society. Understanding
Brazil’s culture and history is a wonderful window to understand our own
culture. (…) I think that Brazil is an important building block, because
it’s so similar to the U.S. as to seem recognizable, but different enough
to force students to think.”
A 1994 survey mentioned in an article from newspaper Folha de São
Paulo reported that Brazilians—and Latin Americans in general—have
different values in the business world than North Americans.
The survey of 200,000 business executives from 80 countries showed that
Latin American executives usually are more comfortable with rigid hierarchies
and working in groups than their North Americans counterparts. Latin American
executives are also more anxious when faced with unfamiliar situations,
tend to view conflict as a threat, and prefer referring to rules. However,
Latin American executives are more inclined to consider their personal
lives more important than professional success.
As for Brazilians in particular, they are said to be less individualistic
and more tolerant of inequality in the workplace than even their Argentine
neighbors. According to the survey, Brazilian executives believe that lack
of access to superiors is to be expected. Brazilians and Argentines both
value dedication, professional ambition and decision-making ability more
than other Latin American executives, the survey stated. Brazilians are
also more disposed than other Latin Americans to accept competition and
In its search for partners in the economic integration of the Western
Hemisphere, Canada has made Brazil into the linchpin of its economic policy
in South America. During a state visit that President Fernando Henrique
Cardoso made to Canada last April, Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chrétien
proposed that Brazil enter into a commercial agreement separate from the
U.S. (although Canada is a partner in NAFTA, the North American Free Trade
Agreement). Cardoso then announced that he would ask Argentina, Paraguay
and Uruguay, Brazil’s partners in Mercosul, to determine whether Canadian-made
products could receive lower tariffs.
Receiving 38 percent of Canadian exports to South America, Brazil is
currently Canada’s largest commercial partner in the region. This is by
no means a new enterprise: Canada was Brazil’s greatest foreign investor
during most of the 20th century. More recently, however, Canadian
investments in Brazil have decreased. In 1996, Canadian businesses in Brazil
invested $3.2 billion. This is insignificant compared to what Canadian
businesses spent in Chile during the same year. Although Chile’s gross
national product is ten times smaller than that of Brazil, Canadian businesses
invested a grand total of $8 billion in Chile. In the wake of privatization
in Brazil (especially of the Vale do Rio Doce, a mining company and in
the telecommunications field), Canada hopes to increase its investments
there. Thus Canada plans to strengthen the century-old bond between the
economies of the two nations.
Canadian foreign policy currently seeks to diversify its exports and
reduce its extreme dependency on its powerful neighbor just south of the
border. To get an impression of that dependency, one need only note the
fact that the U.S. absorbs 81 percent of all Canadian exports. According
to Kathryn McCallion, undersecretary for commerce and investments in Canada’s
Ministry of External Relations, the planned increase of Canadian investments
in Brazil is happening just when the U.S. is having difficulty in managing
the economic opening in the Americas. The main reason is because the U.S.
Congress is resisting President Bill Clinton’s “fast track” plan. This
proposal would allow the president to bypass Congress and sign commercial
treaties between the U.S. and other countries. The Yankee impasse spurred
Canada’s decision to seek commercial accords independent of NAFTA, such
as the treaty with Chile.
However, occasional disagreements with the U.S. have not transformed
Canada into a defender of Brazilian economic positions. “The rate of integration
is the most visible difference between Brazil and Canada,” McCallion told
Cláudio Camargo of Brazilian weekly newsmagazine Isto É
last April. “We understand that Brazil opened its economy, first with Mercosul,
and now it’s being invited to expand this opening to a much larger market
that includes the USA. The objection we’re making is because of Brazil’s
attitude of saying that everyone has to wait until the country’s ready.”
The economic links between Canada and Brazil began in 1896. In that
year, Captain F. A. Gualco, a resident of Toronto, and Augusto de Souza,
the brother-in-law of the governor of São Paulo state, established
São Paulo’s first electric tramway system. Frederick S. Pearson,
an American engineer, raised most of the capital needed in Canada, principally
from stockholders in the Canadian Pacific Railway. The São Paulo
Tramway, Light and Power Company Ltd. was incorporated in the Canadian
province of Ontario in 1899. Alexander Mackenzie of Toronto then went to
Brazil as the company’s first manager. By 1904, all of São Paulo’s
trams were electrically powered, and the company then built a much bigger
system in Rio de Janeiro. The company also took control of Brazil’s telephone
system and gas company.
The Brazilian Traction, Light and Power Co. Ltd., as the overall operation
became known, was quite successful until the Great Depression of the 1930s.
After that, it had an increasingly difficult time. During the administration
of President Getúlio Vargas, the Brazilian government had officially
fixed tramway fares. Since Brazil had a high inflation rate, costs for
maintenance and replacement equipment cut into the company’s profits.
After World War II, Brazilians became increasingly critical of the company’s
foreign ownership. In response, the company moved its headquarters to Brazil
and named a Brazilian as its chief executive officer. In 1962, the government
of President João Goulart expropriated the telephone holdings in
Rio. The following year, it took over the last of the tramway systems.
In 1969, the company changed its name to Brascan and began diversifying
its holdings. Ten years later, it sold its Light Serviços de Electricidade
S.A. to the Brazilian government. Brascan is now a huge holding company
with the bulk of its investments in Canada. Nevertheless, Brascan still
has extensive holdings in Brazil — including real estate, tin mining and
Area: 3,286,170 square miles (8,511,965 square kilometers)
Gross National Product (1995): $696 billion
Per capita income (1995): $4300
Area: 3,621,616 square miles (9,970,610 square kilometers)
Gross National Product (1995): $566 billion
Per capita income (1995): $19,120
Brazilian-Canadian relations (1996)
Bilateral commerce: $2.5 billion
Brazilian exports to Canada: $1.1 billion (iron and steel, coffee, machines
Canadian exports to Brazil: $1.4 billion (wheat, mineral fuel, newsprint
Canadian investments in Brazil: $3.2 billion
Canadian firms in Brazil: 30 (Main investors: Alcan, Brascan, Inco,
Canada International, Moore Business Forms and Seagram. Areas of interest:
mining, telecommunications and computing)