A Crash Course on Brazil and Its Endless Efforts to Save the Northeast

Mucuripe beach in Fortaleza, Ceará state, BrazilThe twenty-five-watt bulbs in the hotel didn’t emit light enough to read so I decided to take a walk. Nor were its Swiss owners more generous with their continental breakfasts. The streets of Fortaleza were dimmer than the Lord Hotel, where I was staying that October evening.

Things seem to have changed little since Pedro Álvares Cabral landed in 1500. I thought: This is what I signed up as my job in Brazil with the U.S. International Cooperation Administration?

I had already been spoiled by months of high living in our ninth floor apartment in Posto 6 Copacabana, immediately beneath the apartment of Lutero Vargas, brother to Getúlio, no less. The United States dollar was king.


Before I went to Brazil’s Northeast I had read Gilberto Freyre’s “Casa Grande e Senzala,” and Graciliano Ramos’ “Vidas Secas.” Both reminded me of my Mississippi childhood encounter with poverty, and its cultural and psychological stress.

I learned quickly the difference between interior Brazil and the Nordeste; the difference between Os Sertões (badlands), made famous by Euclides da Cunha, and the Polígono das Secas, the official name for 11 Million sq. km. circumscribed by nine states in Brasil’s dry Northeast.

It was 1955, and my first major assignment in a foreign setting. In a short course of six weeks I was brought face-to-face with some unusual regional issues. I also had an opportunity to begin using Portuguese to communicate because few Nordestinos spoke English.

Many Brazilians thought of the Nordeste as hopeless, others as the land of the future. Dr. Diogo Gaspar, a Brazilian with a Harvard Ph.D., and Dr. Stefan Robock, an American, were employees of the United Nations and colleagues in the project that was sponsored by the Banco do Nordeste do Brasil.

In fact, this work helped form the basis for the larger development scheme of Celso Furtado, who in an Oval Office visit to President Kennedy in Washington sold the President on his own dream for the salvation of the Northeast through the development of the São Francisco River Basin.

Soon after this first trip to Fortaleza, I was asked to address the economics faculty of the University of São Paulo. I wrote the speech and my wife, Helen; a certified translator of Portuguese helped me to perfect it.

She studiously listened as I practiced. The professors sat rapt as I embroidered conditions in the Polígono, for I was sure that few had ever been north of Rio de Janeiro.

Increasingly nervous by the serious expressions on their faces, my mouth dry, and speech struggling, I paused for a drink and smiled, “Os senhores me perdoem, só voltei do Nordeste ontem.” (Please, do forgive me. I just came back from the Northeast yesterday.) That brought an uncharacteristic laughter from the dark-suited ones.

Not a female in the audience! My first major test was met, Dr. Hillman’s palestra a success. Soon I was asked to speak at a chosen audience in the auditorium of the US Embassy in Rio.

The word about the Northeast and my drought expertise had made the rounds. In fact, William Warne USAID Director in Rio planned a trip to the area and asked that Helen and I join the party.

My two-year assignment in Brazil was successful. I was asked to consider a job in USAID; even a possible career in the diplomatic service, but Arizona was where our hearts belonged.


Brazilians had other reasons besides Western movies to be excited about Arizona. During the next several years Érico Veríssimo, famous novelist and friend of Helen’s family in Porto Alegre came by for a visit; and Roberto Campos, a future Brazilian superstar-diplomat I got to know while in Brazil, was asked to give a major lecture by University President Harvill.

Meanwhile, we became friends with Dr. Orlando Fontes a medical doctor from Recife who came to Tucson for training. Affably, he referred to himself as cabeça chata (flathead) and further whetted my interest in the Northeast.

Also, Mr. Eduardo Bezerra from Banco do Nordeste in Fortaleza entered a master’s program in my Department of Agricultural Economics at the University. The Bezerra family I discovered, had been in the Northeast and in Brasil since the 1600s, and came I believe from the Azores.

In the early 1960s I was contacted by the Agency for International Development (USAID) and asked if the University of Arizona would be interested in a contract in Brazil. The University Board of Regents, after a long period of consideration, approved an exploratory mission of three professors to Brazil.

Being one of those chosen, I had the pleasure of being “interpreter.” An official mission of Brazilians to Tucson followed ours, including Professor Prisco Bezerra. A memorable moment of that mission was when Dr. Harvill, at a private dinner, gleefully announced to us that the Regents had that day awarded the contested Medical School to the University of Arizona over the competition at Tempe.

Dr. Antonio Martins Filho, Reitor da Universidade do Ceará looked solemly at Harvill and pronounced “Será o seu cemitério!” (It will be your cemetery!) Harvill looked at the interpreter, and appeared shocked, but then took it as the joke it was supposed to be.

We proceeded to enter a contractual relationship with AID, an academic and research undertaking with Ceará in 1964, which lasted more than a decade. More than a hundred advanced degrees were awarded Brazilians as a result.

During my long involvement with the Nordeste I wondered why this vast country was not more conducive to the Confederados, that contingent of Southerners who emigrated to Brazil after the Civil War. Between the settlements on the Rio Doce, in Espírito Santo, and that at Santarém on the Amazon there was little concentration of rebels in the Polígono from the Old South.

Protestant missionaries had a positive relationship in Ceará. My wife Helen and I had some lovely days and evenings with Dr. Burton Davis and family. He was Director of the Colégio Batista; a very successful school near Praia do Futuro, Fortaleza. Topping off one of our visits was a party in our honor at the famous Clube Náutico, a cozy establishment for the wealthy and powerful.


My images of the Nordeste will always be augmented by those evenings when I wandered down to the beach to watch the jangadeiros come in from the Atlantic – some having sailed for days and hundreds of kilometers at sea, alone – and to ponder as they dumped their catch on the beach sand.

All manner of fish, different sizes, strange shapes and colors were meted out among those gaunt and tanned bodies standing in a circle. A fish thrown here, one there, tossed at the feet of the lookers-on. I never discovered the rationale for their allocation, but I’m sure it must have been some formula dating back to ancient Phoenicia, whence their DNA flows.

My last trip to the Nordeste was in 1998 to receive an honorary doctorate from the University of Ceará, Doutor Honoris Causa. As an aging Ex-Reitor Antonio Martins raised the hood over my shoulders with the blue-green-gold colors of Brazil and the flag’s motto Ordem e Progresso in plain view, I thought how fortunate I had been to experience two such magnificent cultures.

Jimmye Hillman was born in 1923 and grew up on a subsistence farm in southern Mississippi. He received his Ph.D. at the University of California Berkeley, and has been associated with the University of Arizona in Tucson, where he served as Head of Department of Agricultural Economics for thirty years while doing ground-breaking work in agricultural and trade policy.  He is now Professor Emeritus.

He has also served as the Executive Director for the National Advisory Commission on Food and Fiber under President Lyndon Johnson and as Consultant on U.S.-Japanese agricultural trade policies during the Reagan Administration.  Hillman’s other honors include: Research Fellow at Jesus College, Oxford University; Fulbright Fellow, Lincoln College, New Zealand; and an honorary doctorate from the University of Ceará, Brazil.


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