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Brazil’s population, the fifth biggest in the world, reached its lands from Africa, Asia, Europe and other parts of the Americas – diverse origins that have created one of the planet’s most racially mixed societies. How they came, intermingled and developed the unique Brazilian identity that charms visitors today is a rough-and-tumble story of courage, greed, endurance and cruelty, eventually yielding a fitful progress towards the democracy the country now enjoys.

Before the Portuguese

By the time the Portuguese rolled up in AD 1500, what is now Brazil had already been populated for as many as 50,000 years. But unlike the Incas, Brazil’s early inhabitants never developed a highly advanced civilization and they left few clues for archaeologists to follow. One of the few certainties is that it wasn’t the Portuguese who discovered terra brasilis.

It’s generally believed that the early inhabitants of the Americas arrived from Siberia in waves between about 60,000 and 8000 BC, crossing land now submerged beneath the Bering Strait, then gradually spreading southward over many millennia. Researchers in the remote Serra da Capivara in the Northeastern state of Piauí have found evidence of human presence there 50,000 years ago, predating other finds in the Americas by about 30,000 years. The oldest traces of human life in the Amazon region can be seen on a detour from a river trip between Santarém and Belém: a series of rock paintings estimated to be 12,000 years old near Monte Alegre. Other remnants of early civilizations can be found on the Ilha de Marajó at the mouth of the Amazon, and at the Gruta da Lapinha in Minas Gerais.

By the time the Portuguese arrived in AD 1500, there were probably between two and four million people in what’s now Brazil, in over 1000 tribes.

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Cabral & chums

The course of Brazilian history was changed forever in 1500, when a fleet of 12 Portuguese ships carrying nearly 1200 men rolled up near what is today Porto Seguro.

The fleet, ostensibly bound for East Africa and Asia to set up trading posts, had headed west after passing the Cape Verde Islands, off the coast of West Africa. Increasingly it is thought that, far from having been simply blown off course, the Portuguese already had reason to suspect there was a large land mass across the southern Atlantic that would make such a giant detour worthwhile. Whatever the motive, on April 22, 1500, Pedro Álvares Cabral and his gang stepped for the first time onto Brazilian soil. Their indigenous reception committee was ready and waiting.

‘There were 18 or 20 men, ’ marveled scribe Pero Vaz de Caminha in a letter back to the Portuguese king. ‘They were brown-skinned, all of them naked, without anything at all to cover their private parts. In their hands they carried bows and arrows.’

The festivities didn’t last long. Having erected a cross and held Mass in the land they baptized Terra da Vera Cruz (Land of the True Cross), the Portuguese took to the waves once again. With lucrative spice, ivory and diamond markets in Asia and Africa to exploit, Portugal had bigger fish to fry elsewhere. It wasn’t till 1531 that the first Portuguese settlers arrived in Brazil.

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Brazil’s Indians

For Brazil’s Indians, April 22, 1500 marked the first chapter in their gradual extermination. Sixteenth-century European explorers along the Amazon encountered large, widespread populations; some were practising agriculture while others were still nomadic hunter-gatherers. Coastal peoples fell into three main groups: the Guarani (south of São Paulo and in the Paraguai and Paraná basins inland), the Tupi or Tupinambá (along most of the rest of the coast) and the Tapuia (other peoples inhabiting shorter stretches of coast in among the Tupi and Guarani). The Tupi and Guarani had much in common in language and culture. A European adaptation of the Tupi-Guarani language later spread throughout colonial Brazil and is still spoken by some people in Amazonia today.

Over the following centuries a four-front war was waged on the Indian way of life. It was a cultural war, as well as a physical, territorial and biological one. Many índios fell victim to the bandeirantes – groups of roaming adventurers who spent the 17th and 18th centuries exploring Brazil’s interior, pillaging Indian settlements as they went. Those who escaped such a fate were struck down by the illnesses shipped in from Europe, to which they had no natural resistance. Others were worked to death on sugar plantations.

If the bandeirantes were responsible for the physical destruction of the Indians, it was the Jesuits who began their cultural destruction, outlawing their traditions and customs and settling them in aldeias (missions), though at the same time they did oppose Indian slavery and attempted to protect the Indians from the bandeirantes.

By the start of the 21st century Brazil’s indigenous population had dwindled to somewhere between 350,000 and 600,000, the majority of them in the relatively isolated Amazonian forests.

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Dividing the land

Thirty years after Brazil’s ‘discovery’, Portugal’s King João III decided it might actually be worth settling there after all. The first settlement sprang up at São Vicente, when a fleet of five ships carrying some 400 men docked near what is now the port of Santos.

In an attempt to ward off the ambitions of other European countries, the king divided the Brazilian coast into 15 captaincies, each with about 250km of coastline and lands stretching inland to the west. These territories were awarded to donatários, minor gentry favored by the king. It was hoped that, through settlement, the long coastline could be secured at minimal cost.

The settlers’ lives were made difficult by the climate, hostility from the Indians and competition from the Dutch and French. Four captaincies were never settled and four destroyed by Indians. Only Pernambuco and São Vicente were profitable.

In 1549 the king sent Tomé de Sousa to be the first governor of Brazil, to centralize authority and save the few remaining captaincies. Sousa was joined by some 1000 settlers; among them Portuguese officials, soldiers, exiled prisoners, New Christians (converted Jews) and the first six Jesuit priests. The city of Salvador was founded as Sousa’s base, and remained Brazil’s capital until 1763, when Rio de Janeiro took over.

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Sugar & slavery

Brazil didn’t boast the ivory and spices of Africa and the East Indies, and the only thing that had interested the Portuguese in the early years after they had found it was a rock-hard tree known as pau brazil (brazilwood), which yielded a valuable red dye. Merchants began sending a few ships each year to harvest brazilwood and take it back to Europe, and the colony changed its name to Brazil in tribute to the tree. Alas, the most accessible trees were rapidly depleted, and the Indians soon stopped volunteering their labor. But after colonization in 1531, the settlers soon worked out that Brazil was a place where sugarcane grew well. Sugar came to Brazil in 1532 and hasn’t left since. It was coveted by a hungry European market, which used it for medicinal purposes, to flavor foods and even in wine.

These days sugar is as popular as ever in Brazil. You can sip it on the beach in the form of a caldo de cana (sugarcane juice). You can neck it in one of Brazil’s many pé-sujo (dirty-foot) bars as a shot of cachaça (white spirit made from sugarcane). You can pour copious amounts into your coffee, as do most Brazilians, and you can even run your car on it.

Perhaps envisaging Brazil’s sugarcoated future, the colonists turned to this new industry. They lacked just one thing: a work force.

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The slave trade

Initially the Portuguese seemed to hit it off with Brazil’s natives. There was even an exchange of presents between Cabral’s men and the Indians on the beach, with a Portuguese sombrero swapped for feather headdresses. Relations cooled when the Portuguese started enslaving their neighbors for work on the sugarcane plantations. Yet, for a variety of reasons the Portuguese felt the Indians didn’t make great slaves and turned instead to Africa’s already existing slave trade.

African slaves started to pour into Brazil’s slave markets from about 1550. They were torn from a variety of tribes in Angola, Mozambique and Guiné, as well as the Sudan and Congo. Whatever their origins and cultures, their destinations were identical: slave markets such as Salvador’s Pelourinho or Belém’s Mercado Ver-o-Peso. By the time slavery was abolished in Brazil in 1888, around 3.6 million Africans had been shipped to Brazil – nearly 40% of the total that came to the New World.

Africans were seen as better workers and less susceptible to the European diseases that had proved the undoing of so many Indians. In short, they were a better investment. Yet the Portuguese didn’t go out of their way to protect this investment. Slaves were brought to Brazil in subhuman conditions: taken from their families and packed into squalid ships for the month-long journey to Brazil.

Visitors to the beaches of Porto de Galinhas, near Recife, might not pick up on the area’s grim past. Even after abolition, slave traders continued to smuggle in slaves often packed into a ship’s hull under crates full of galinhas (chickens).

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Masters & slaves

For those who survived such ordeals, arrival in Brazil meant only continued suffering. A slave’s existence was one of brutality and humiliation. Kind masters were the exception, not the rule, and labor on the plantations was relentless. In temperatures that often exceeded 30°C (86°F), slaves were required to work as many as 17 hours each day, before retiring to the squalid senzala (slave quarters), and with as many as 200 slaves packed into each dwelling, hygiene was a concept as remote as the distant coasts of Africa. Dysentery, typhus, yellow fever, malaria, tuberculosis and scurvy were rife; malnutrition a fact of life. Syphilis also plagued a slave population sexually exploited by its masters.

Sexual relations between masters and slaves were so common that a large mixed-race population soon emerged. Off the plantations there was a shortage of white women, so many poorer white settlers lived with black or Indian women. Brazil was already famous for its sexual permissiveness by the beginning of the 18th century.

Aside from the senzala, the other main institution of the sugar plantation was the casa grande (‘big house’) – the luxurious mansion from which the masters would control their slaves.

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Resistance & the Quilombos

Resistance to slavery took many forms. Documents of the period refer to the desperation of the slaves who starved themselves to death, killed their babies or fled. Sabotage and theft were frequent, as were work slowdowns, stoppages and revolts.

Other slaves sought solace in African religion and culture. The mix of Catholicism (made compulsory by slave masters) and African traditions spawned a syncretic religion on the sugar plantations, known today as Candomblé. The slaves masked illegal customs with a facade of Catholic saints and rituals. The martial art capoeira also grew out of the slave communities.

Many slaves escaped from their masters to form quilombos, communities of runaway slaves that quickly spread across the countryside. The most famous, the Republic of Palmares, which survived through much of the 17th century, was home to some 20, 000 people. Palmares was a network of quilombos covering a broad tract of lush tropical forest straddling the border of Alagoas and Pernambuco states. Under their leaders Ganga Zumba and his son-in-law Zumbi, its citizens became pioneers of guerrilla warfare, repeatedly fending off Portuguese attacks between 1654 and 1695. Eventually Palmares fell to a force of bandeirantes from São Paulo.

As abolitionist sentiment grew in the 19th century, many (unsuccessful) slave rebellions were staged, the quilombos received more support and ever-greater numbers of slaves fled the plantations. Only abolition itself, in 1888, stopped the growth of quilombos. Over 700 villages that started as quilombos remain today. Some were so isolated that they remained completely out of contact with white Brazilians until the last couple of decades.

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Colonial rivals

It’s hard to picture what Brazil would have been like under French or Dutch rule. Tom Jobim might have composed a track about the Meisje from Ipanema; Brazilians might be tucking into frogs’ legs and not feijoada (bean-and-meat stew) every Sunday. For a time, such outcomes were a distinct possibility.

Technically, the 1494 Treaty of Tordesillas divided the New World between Spain and Portugal. An imaginary line, running north–south from roughly the mouth of the Amazon to what is now Santa Catarina, was drawn on the map. Land to the east became Portuguese territory; land to the west fell under Spanish control.

But the line proved very imaginary indeed. As any traveler brave enough to venture into the further reaches of Mato Grosso will discover, enforcing such a vast border running through thick jungles and swamps was never a particularly viable idea. Brazil’s borders remained in flux until as late as 1930.

Over the years, Portugal repeatedly ignored the frontier in an attempt to squeeze more land out of its rivals. France and Holland also had their eyes on Brazil’s green and lucrative land.

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The French

In 1555 three boatloads of French settlers landed on a small island in Rio’s Baía de Guanabara. Obviously liking what they found, the French decided to try to incorporate parts of southern Brazil into their ever-growing empire. Antarctic France would be its name.

Things didn’t go to plan – a few years later the franceses were expelled by the Portuguese, who landed near Praia Vermelha, at the foot of the Sugarloaf Mountain. It was here that Estácio de Sá founded the city of São Sebastião do Rio de Janeiro on March 1, 1565.

The French made another brief attempt to claw Brazilian soil from the Portuguese, further north, in 1612, when they founded the city of São Luís, which took its name from France’s then king, Louis XIII. Three years later, the Portuguese sent the French packing once again.

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The Dutch

The challenge from Holland proved harder to shake off. The Dutch West India Company (DWIC), set up in 1621, was much more than a simple trading business. Its business, in fact, was war, and its goal was to take Brazil’s Northeast from the Portuguese.

The Dutch bombardment of Salvador began on the morning of May 9, 1624. By the following day, the invading force of 3000 men from 26 ships had captured and ransacked the city. Salvador’s return to Portuguese hands was almost as quick; it was just a year before a combined force of 12, 000 Spanish and Portuguese troops evicted the Dutch. But five years later the Dutch were back, storming the cities of Olinda and Recife and making Recife the capital of New Holland. In 1637 a Dutch prince, Maurice of Nassau, was brought in to govern the colony. Educated at university back home in, among other things, good manners, Nassau was a definite hit with the locals. His policy of freedom of worship, which left Brazil’s Catholics to their own devices despite the Protestant invasion, brought a definite stability to the region.

The Dutch extended their control over much of northeastern Brazil, from the São Francisco river in Bahia to Maranhão. That Brazilians didn’t go on to become Dutch speakers is largely down to the exit of Nassau, who returned to Holland in 1644 after a series of disagreements with the boys from the DWIC. New Holland had hardly waved its ruler goodbye when violent uprisings broke out, designed to uproot the Dutch. The following decade saw a series of bloody clashes in the Northeast: two crucial battles, in which the Portuguese came out victorious even though outnumbered, took place in 1648 and 1649. The Dutch were driven back into Recife and eventually surrendered in 1654, drawing a line under Holland’s part in Brazilian history.

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The Bandeirantes & the Gold Rush

The bandeirantes, too, were keen to make inroads into Brazil. These bands of explorers roamed Brazil’s interior in search of Indian slaves, mapping out undiscovered territory and bumping off the odd indigenous community along the way.

The bandeirantes took their name from the trademark flag-bearer who would front their expeditions. During the 17th and 18th centuries, group after group of bandeirantes set out from São Paulo. The majority were bilingual in Portuguese and Tupi-Guarani, born of Portuguese fathers and Indian mothers. They benefited from both Indian survival techniques and European weaponry.

By the mid-17th century they had journeyed as far as the peaks of the Peruvian Andes and the Amazon lowlands. It was the exploits of these discoverers that stretched Brazil’s borders to their current extent. In 1750, after four years of negotiations with the Spanish, their conquests were secured. The Treaty of Madrid handed over 6 million sq km to the Portuguese and put Brazil’s western borders more or less where they are today.

The bandeirantes were known for more than just their colorful flags. Protected from Indian arrows by heavily padded cotton jackets, they waged an all-out war on Brazil’s natives, despite the fact that many of them had Indian mothers. Huge numbers of Indians fled inland, searching for shelter in the Jesuit missions. But there were few hiding places – it is thought the bandeirantes killed or enslaved well in excess of 500, 000 Indians.

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‘As yet we have no way of knowing whether there might be gold, or silver or any kind of metal or iron [here], ’ reported Pero Vaz de Caminha to his king in 1500.

Though it wasn’t discovered until nearly two centuries later, there certainly was gold in Brazil. Unsurprisingly, it was the bandeirantes who, in between decapitating Indians, discovered it in the Serra do Espinhaço in Minas Gerais.

For part of the 18th century Brazil became the world’s greatest gold ‘producer’, unearthing wealth that helped build many of Minas Gerais’ historic cities. The full title of Ouro Prêto, one of the principal beneficiaries of the gold boom, is actually Vila Rica de Ouro Prêto (Rich Town of Black Gold).

Other wild boomtowns such as Sabará, Mariana and São João del Rei sprang up in the mountain valleys. Wealthy merchants built opulent mansions and bankrolled stunning baroque churches, many of which remain to this day.

Gold produced a major shift in Brazil’s population from the Northeast to the Southeast. When gold was first discovered, there were no white settlers in the territory of Minas Gerais. By 1710 the population had reached 30, 000, and by the end of the 18th century it was 500, 000. An estimated one-third of the two million slaves brought to Brazil in the 18th century were sent to the goldfields, where their lives were often worse than in the sugar fields.

But the gold boom didn’t last. By 1750 the mining regions were in decline and coastal Brazil was returning to center stage. Many of the gold-hunters ended up in Rio de Janeiro, which grew rapidly.

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As if the French and Dutch hadn’t been enough to deal with, Brazil’s Portuguese rulers also faced threats from within. During the 18th century calls for independence grew ever stronger and in 1789 the first organized movement came to life.

In charge was Joaquim José da Silva Xavier – a dentist from Ouro Prêto known as Tiradentes (Tooth Puller). With 11 other conspirators – all outraged by attempts to collect taxes – Tiradentes began talks about how best to uproot the Portuguese.

Though the plotters earned themselves a grand name – the Inconfidência Mineira – their plans were quickly foiled. All 12 were arrested and sentenced to death and, although a royal pardon was eventually issued exiling the rebels to Angola and Mozambique, it came too late for Tiradentes, who was hanged in Rio de Janeiro in 1792. As a warning to other would-be rebels the authorities sliced up his body and displayed the parts across Minas Gerais. His head was put on show in Ouro Prêto, his house destroyed and salt scattered on the ground outside so that nothing would grow there. According to one version of events, soldiers formally recorded the event on a manuscript – using Tiradentes’ blood as ink.

Tiradentes became a national martyr – a symbol of resistance – and during the later Vargas era, a museum in his honor was opened in Ouro Prêto’s old town hall.

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Dom João VI

Brazil became a temporary sanctuary to the Portuguese royal family in 1807. Running scared from Napoleon, whose army was at that moment advancing on Lisbon, some 15,000 court members fled to Rio de Janeiro, led by the prince regent, Dom João.

Like so many estrangeiros (foreigners) arriving in Brazil, the regent fell in love with the place and granted himself the privilege of becoming the country’s ruler. He opened Rio’s Jardim Botânico (Botanical Gardens) to the public in 1822, and they remain there to this day in the upmarket Jardim Botânico neighborhood.

Even after Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo in 1815, Dom João showed no sign of abandoning Brazil. When his mother, Dona Maria I, died the following year, he became king and declared Rio the capital of the United Kingdom of Portugal and Brazil. Brazil became the only New World colony ever to have a European monarch ruling on its soil.

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Independence eventually came in 1822, 30 years after the Inconfidência Mineira. Legend has it that, on the banks of São Paulo’s Ipiranga river, Brazil’s then regent, Dom João’s son Pedro, pulled out his sword, bellowing, ‘Independência ou morte!’ (Independence or death!). With the same breath he declared himself Emperor Dom Pedro I.

The Portuguese quickly gave in to the idea of a Brazilian empire. Without a single shot being fired, Dom Pedro I became the first emperor of an independent Brazil. The povo brasileiro (Brazilian people), however, were not as keen on Pedro as he was about their newly born nation. From all accounts he was a blundering incompetent, whose sexual exploits (and resulting string of love children) horrified even the most permissive of Brazilians. After nine years of womanizing he was forced to abdicate, leaving his five-year-old son, Dom Pedro II, to take over.

A period of crisis followed: the heir to the throne was, after all, just a child. Between 1831 and 1840 Brazil was governed by so-called regências (regencies), a time of political turmoil and widespread rebellions. The only solution was the return of the monarchy and a law was passed to declare Dom Pedro II an adult, well before his 18th birthday.

Aged just 15, Dom Pedro II received the title of Emperor and Perpetual Defender of Brazil, precipitating one of the most prosperous spells in the country’s history, barring the war with Paraguay in 1865. Invaded by its neighbor, Brazil teamed up with Argentina and Uruguay and thrashed the Paraguayans back across the border.

Paraguay was left crippled – its population slashed to just 200, 000, of whom around 180, 000 were women. Brazil, too, suffered heavily: around 100, 000 men died, many of them slaves sent to war in the place of wealthier Brazilians.

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Abolition & the republic

Since the 16th century, slavery had formed the backbone of a brutally unequal society in Brazil. ‘Every dimension of our social existence is contaminated, ’ lamented abolitionist Joaquim Nabuco in 1880.

To undo something so deeply ingrained into the Brazilian way of life was never likely to be easy. Brazil prevaricated for nearly 60 years before any sort of resolution was reached. The 19th century was punctuated by a series of halfhearted legislative attempts to lay the slave industry to rest. Repeatedly such laws failed.

Slave trafficking to Brazil was banned in 1850, but continued clandestinely. Another law, in 1885, freed all slaves over the age of 65. The lawmakers had obviously forgotten that the average life expectancy for a slave at this time was 45. Not until May 13, 1888 – 80 years after Britain had freed its slaves – was slavery itself officially banned in Brazil. Unsurprisingly, this didn’t make a huge immediate difference to the welfare of the 800, 000 freed slaves, who were largely illiterate and unskilled. Thousands were cast onto the streets without any kind of infrastructure to support them. Many died, while others flooded to Brazil’s urban centers, adding to the cities’ first slums. Still today, blacks overall remain among the poorest and worst-educated groups in the country.

Not far out of the door behind slavery was the Império Brasileiro. In 1889 a military coup, supported by Brazil’s wealthy coffee farmers, decapitated the old Brazilian empire and the republic was born. The emperor went into exile, where he died a couple of years later.

A military clique ruled Brazil for the next four years until elections were held, but because of ignorance, corruption, and land and literacy requirements, only about 2% of the adult population voted. Little changed, except that the power of the military and the now-influential coffee growers ­increased, while it diminished for the sugar barons.

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Full of beans

The first coffee bean found its way into Brazil in the 18th century. The responsible party was, they say, an army officer called Francisco de Mello Palheta, who had journeyed to French Guiana and came back brandishing a handful of coffee beans – a gift from a lover he had left behind. On arrival back in Brazil, the beans were swiftly planted, thus beginning another Brazilian love-hate affair – with café.

Whatever the truth, the coffee industry eventually grew into a huge success. By 1889 coffee accounted for two-thirds of Brazil’s exports.

Coffee growers filled the gap left in Brazil’s export market by the decline of its sugar industry since the 1820s. Unable to compete with the newly mechanized sugar mills in the West Indies, sugar exports plummeted. Coffee, meanwhile, flourished, and coffee plantations soon took up vast tracts of land in São Paulo and Minas Gerais states.

Although coffee was the making of many millionaires in the southern states, it was also the cause of great suffering. The coffee fazendas (ranches) in many ways replicated the Northeastern sugar plantations: slaves worked inhuman hours in cramped and fetid conditions. In Rio many such estates have now opened their doors to the public, and provide a chilling insight into Brazilian escravidão (slavery). After abolition in 1888, the work force changed, but the conditions did not.

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Open borders

In the final decade of the 19th century, Brazil opened its borders. Millions of immigrants – from Italy, Japan, Spain, Germany, Portugal and elsewhere – streamed into Brazil to work on the coffee fazendas, and to make new lives in the rapidly growing cities, especially Rio and São Paulo, adding further textures to Brazil’s ethnic mixture and confirming the shift of Brazil’s economic center of gravity from the Northeast to the Southeast. When you tuck into a pizza in São Paulo’s Bela Vista district or sample a pastel chinês (Chinese pastry) at one of Rio’s many street-corner snack bars, it is more than likely to be this generation of border hoppers you have to thank.

Over the next century, immigrants continued to flood into Brazil. The country became a haven for Jews fleeing persecution at the hands of the Nazis, as well as Nazis looking to avoid being put on trial for war crimes. Arabs, universally known as turcos by the Brazilians, also joined the influx of newcomers. Many of the traders you’ll meet at Rio de Janeiro’s Rua Uruguaiana flea market hail from the Middle East.

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Toward the end of the 19th century the Amazon region was the scene of another Brazilian economic boom: that of the Hevea brasiliensis, the rubber tree.

Demand for rubber rocketed in 1890 with the invention of the pneumatic tire and the start of the automobile industry in the US. The rubber price shot up, bringing huge wealth to the main Amazonian cities of Belém and Manaus. Manaus’ spectacular opera house, the Teatro Amazonas, opened in 1896, was one fruit of the rubber boom. Rubber production reached its peak in 1912, when latex exports made up nearly 40% of Brazil’s export revenue.

As with all booms, the bust had to come. The British may have given Brazil one of its greatest gifts in football, but they also stole one of Brazil’s greatest assets. In 1876 Englishman Henry Wickham had smuggled 70, 000 rubber-tree seeds out of Amazonia on a chartered freighter to Kew Gardens in London. Seedlings quickly found their way to the British colonies in Southeast Asia, where large rubber plantations were established. When the plantations started to yield in 1910, the price of latex plummeted on the world market. The Brazilian rubber boom blew out in spectacular fashion.

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Milk & coffee politics

On November 15, 1894, Prudente de Morais became Brazil’s first directly elected civil president. At this time Brazil was dominated by land-owningfamilies from two states: Minas Gerais and São Paulo. These groups controlled national politics, and Brazil’s presidents came almost without exception from these states of milk and coffee respectively. Each state was dominated by a series of rural landowners known as coronéis (colonels), who controlled the local political, judicial and police systems through friends and family in all the important public posts.

Such political bias was reflected in the electoral system. Ballots were not secret and those who voted against the ruling powers suffered reprisals. Fraud was common: many people would vote more than once and, from time to time, even the dead found the power to vote.

Disillusioned with the dominance of this wealthy few, a new movement among the military, known as tenentismo, began to form in opposition to the small oligarchies of Minas and São Paulo.

The world-famous Copacabana beach was the scene of the first rebellion. On July 5, 1922, 18 tenants set out from the fort of Copacabana and clashed with government troops. Just two of the tenentes – Eduardo Gomes and Siqueira Campos – survived, the latter giving his name to the metro station a few blocks from the beach.

For another eight years Brazil’s coffee farmers continued to enjoy the status of political untouchables, but the Wall St bust of 1929 changed every­thing. The coffee market all but dried up, prices plummeted and many of Brazil’s powerful coffee farmers were left ruined. The economic and political upheaval soon translated into revolution.

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Getúlio Vargas, populist dictator

The Vargas era began in 1930 when members of the newly formed Liberal Alliance party decided to fight back after the defeat of their candidate, Getúlio Vargas, in the presidential elections. The revolution kicked off on October 3 in Rio Grande do Sul and spread rapidly through other states. Twenty-one days later President Júlio Prestes was deposed and on November 3 Vargas became Brazil’s new ‘provisional’ president.

The formation of the Estado Novo (New State) in November 1937 made Vargas the first Brazilian president to wield absolute power. Inspired by the fascist governments of Salazar in Portugal and Mussolini in Italy, Vargas banned political parties, imprisoned political opponents and censored artists and the press.

Despite this, many liked Vargas. The ‘father’ of Brazil’s workers, he created Brazil’s minimum wage in 1938. Each year he introduced new labor laws to coincide with Workers’ Day on May 1, to sweeten the teeth of Brazil’s factory workers.

Like any fascist worth his salt, Vargas began WWII siding with Hitler’s Third Reich. Mysteriously, an offer of US investment to the sum of US$20 million in 1942 led Vargas to switch allegiances. The National War Memorial in Flamengo – a huge concrete monument and museum, which represents a pair of hands begging the skies for peace – today pays testament to the 5000 Brazilians who served in Europe.

Vargas, of course, wasn’t exactly practising what he preached. The glaring contradiction of someone fighting for democracy in Europe and maintaining a quasi-fascist state back home soon became impossible. After WWII, the military forced him to step down.

Yet he remained popular and in 1951 was elected president – this time democratically. But Vargas’ new administration was plagued by the hallmark of Brazilian politics – corruption. For this, a young journalist called Carlos Lacerda attacked him incessantly. In 1954 Vargas’ security chief sent two gunmen to assassinate Lacerda at his home in Copacabana. The troublesome scribe was only slightly wounded but an air force major was killed, precipitating a huge scandal. Amid calls from the military for his resignation, Vargas responded dramatically. He penned a note saying ‘I leave this life to enter into history, ’ and on the following morning, August 24, 1954, fired a single bullet through his own heart.

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Hey big spender!

Juscelino Kubitschek de Oliveira, whose tongue twister of a name swiftly earned him the apelido (nickname) JK, was elected president in 1956. ‘Fifty years’ progress in five, ’ had been his election promise. His critics responded with, ‘Forty years’ inflation in four.’ Sadly for JK, the second assessment came closer to the mark, despite an 80% increase in industrial production during his term.

Kubitschek’s lasting legacy was Brasília, Brazil’s love-it-or-hate-it capital, located slap bang in the center of the country as a symbol of national unity and a catalyst for development of the interior. Though the construction of such a city was written into the 1891 constitution, it was Kubitschek who, quite literally, made the idea concrete. The windswept, shadeless streets of Brasília were inaugurated with much fanfare on April 21, 1960.

As if Kubitschek hadn’t made enough enemies by taking the honor of capital city from the ‘Marvelous City’ of Rio de Janeiro, his successor, Jânio Quadros, went one step further. He tried to outlaw bikinis on Brazil’s beaches, a serious affront to Brazilian popular culture. Quadros also made the even worse mistake of irritating the military by decorating Che Guevara in a public ceremony in Brasília. This triggered plots among the right-wing military and after seven months in office Quadros resigned, claiming ‘occult forces’ were at work.

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The generals take over

Quadros’ vice-president, a leftist by the name of João Goulart, took power. Though Goulart didn’t demonstrate an overt aversion to fio dental (dental-floss bikinis), the military wasn’t keen on him either. In 1964 he was overthrown in a so-called revolução (revolution) – really a military coup, believed to have received backing from the US government. President Lyndon Johnson did nothing to dampen such theories when he immediately cabled his warmest wishes to the new Brazilian administration.

Brazil’s military regime was not as brutal as those of Chile or Argentina – a reality that led to the somewhat unkind saying, ‘Brazil couldn’t even organize a dictatorship properly.’ Yet for the best part of 20 years, freedom of speech was an unknown concept and political parties were banned. The Lei de Segurança Nacional (National Security Law) of 1967 tightened the noose on political dissidents, who were often tortured, murdered or – perhaps worse – thrown into Brazilian jails.

The dictatorship coincided with one of the most culturally rich periods in Brazilian history, but a generation of composers and academics were exiled for their opposition to the regime – among them sociologist Fernando Henrique Cardoso (who would go on to become president) and musician Gilberto Gil (who decades later would become culture minister in the Lula government).

A draconian censorship law known as the Ato Institutional 5 (AI-5) marked the height of repression in 1968. In response, Brazil’s middle-class student movement came to life. In June 1968 the streets of Rio de Janeiro hosted a mass demonstration, known as the Passeata dos cem mil (March of the 100, 000), against the dictatorship. Many in the Catholic Church, which had broadly supported the coup, also turned against the government, inspired by Liberation Theology.

Perversely during a time of such repression, the Brazilian economy flourished. Year after year in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the economy grew by over 10%, as Brazil’s rulers borrowed heavily from international banks. But in the absence of rural land reform, millions moved to the cities, where favelas (slums) filled up the open spaces.

Brazil’s obsession with ‘mega-projects’ was born. Under the quick-spendingregime, construction began on numerous colossal (and mostly ill-fated) plans, including the Transamazônica highway, the Rio–Niterói Bridge and the Ilha do Fundão, which was to house Rio’s Federal University.

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The workers organize

By the late 1970s, the economic boom was dying and opposition to the regime began to spread from the educated middle class to the working class. A series of strikes in the São Paulo car industry signaled the intent of the militant new workers’ movement. At the helm was Luíz Inácio ‘Lula’ da Silva, who famously lost one dedo (finger) in a factory accident but made up in charisma for what he lacked in the finger department.

The Partido dos Trabalhadores (PT; Workers’ Party), Brazil’s first-ever mass political party to speak for the poor, grew out of these strikes. Though grass-roots metalworkers formed the PT’s base, the party’s broad membership extended to some of Brazil’s leading left-wing academics, among them literary critic Antonio Candido and historian Sérgio Buarque de Holanda, whose book Raízes do Brasil (The Roots of Brazil) remains a defining work in Brazilian scholarship. In January 1980 the PT’s first manifesto declared the need to ‘build an egalitarian society, where there are neither exploited nor exploiters.’

First came the abertura (opening), a slow, cautious return to civilian rule between 1979 and 1985. With popular opposition gathering force, the military announced gradual moves toward a democratic Brazil. Political prisoners and exiles were granted amnesty. Six new political parties – of which the PT was one – emerged. The tail end of this abertura was marked by the direitas já (elections now) movement, which called for immediate and direct presidential elections.

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Democracy & debt

In 1985 a presidential election took place, but the only voters were the members of the national Congress, which caused the PT to boycott such an indirect vote. Unexpectedly, Tancredo Neves, opposing the military candidate, came out on top, and millions of Brazilians took to the streets to celebrate the end of military rule.

Immediately a spanner was thrown in the works: Neves died from heart failure before he could assume the presidency. His vice-presidential candidate, the whiskered José Sarney, took over.

Sarney – who had supported the military until 1984 – held office until 1989, a period in which runaway inflation helped Brazil rack up a gargantuan foreign debt. By 1990 the external debt stood at a crippling US$115 billion. Sarney’s stint as president proved a sad rebuttal of his catchphrase, ‘tem que dar certo’ (it has to work out). Virtually nothing did – though he can claim to have implemented one crucial law: Brazil’s illiterate, previously excluded from the political system, were at last permitted to vote.

In the 1989 direct presidential election, the first ever that could be called democratic, it was a Northeastern political climber by the name of Collor who was victorious, beating Lula, the PT’s candidate, by the smallest of margins – and only after the powerful Globo TV network had sabotaged Lula by screening his ex-lover claiming he had tried to force her to have an abortion 16 years before.

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The climber falls

Fernando Collor de Mello, former governor of the small state of Alagoas, had a certain superficial charisma and a talent for manipulating TV, and came from a background of established influence – his father was a media boss, his grandfather had been a minister under Getúlio Vargas and his wife hailed from a landowning clan enmeshed in political violence in the Northeastern backlands.

Collor revolutionized consumer laws – when you see a ‘best before’ date on a tub of Brazilian margarine, it’s him you have to thank. ‘Sell by’ dates, however, couldn’t save him from disgrace. An ever-lengthening list of scandals involving Collor and his intimate associate PC Farias – corruption on a vast scale, drug deals, family feuds – led to a congressional inquiry, huge student protests and eventually the president’s impeachment.

Though out of office, ‘Fernandinho’ managed – as is all too often the case with Brazil’s white-collar criminals – to wriggle out of a prison sentence, receiving little more than an eight-year ban from politics. Found not guilty of ‘passive corruption’ by the Supreme Court in 1994, he skedaddled to Miami – and in 2006 re-entered Brazil’s Congress as a senator for Alagoas.

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Traveling Henrique Cardoso

Following Collor’s impeachment, Vice-President Itamar Franco found himself in the hot seat. Despite his reputation as an eccentric, his administration was at least credited with competence and integrity, rare commodities in Brazilian politics.

His greatest achievement was to stabilize Brazil’s violently erratic economy, introducing a new currency, the real. The Plano Real produced a brief economic boom in Brazil, during which the real was momentarily pegged to the US dollar. Inflation plummeted from a rate of over 5000% in late 1993 to under 10%.

Lula was an early favorite for the 1994 election (the second in which the ex-shoeshine boy had run), but in the end Fernando Henrique Cardoso, who as Franco’s finance minister had devised the Plano Real, rode the real’s success to a landslide victory.

Cardoso was a former left-wing sociologist from the University of São Paulo, who had spent time in exile during the military dictatorship. But as president he was far less radical. ‘Forget everything I have said and written, ’ he said on taking power.

Brazil’s economy grew steadily during the mid-1990s: the currency remained stable, inflation stayed low, foreign investment hit new heights, and the number of Brazilians without enough income to eat properly fell from 20% to 15%. Cardoso was re-elected in 1998, again defeating Lula. Frequent trips abroad to rub shoulders with the likes of Tony Blair and Bill Clinton earned the president the nickname Viajando (Traveling) Henrique Cardoso.

By the end of his second term (after which he was not allowed to stand again), Cardoso could claim solid progress on several fronts: Brazilians were healthier (infant mortality had fallen from 40 per 1000 to under 30), more of them went to school (up from 87% to 97% of seven- to 14-year-olds), many more of them had houses, and more of those houses had water, drainage and telephones. The government bought tracts of underused land and helped the rural landless set up cooperative farms, settling over 600,000 landless families, three times the total for the previous 30 years.

But with slower economic growth in Cardoso’s second term, the official unemployment rate rose from 4% to 8% between 1994 and 2002. Life for the average favelado (slum dweller) improved very little. Violent crime, especially in the cities, got worse, and Cardoso could claim little progress against the cancer of corruption.

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Lula, the workers’ president

Come the 2002 election, Lula, at the fourth time of asking, toned down his socialist rhetoric, campaigned with the slogan ‘Lulinha, Peace and Love, ’ swapped his jeans for suits, and promised to repay Brazil’s international debts. This, and the PT’s corruption-free reputation, won over enough of the electorate’s middle ground – and the media giant Globo – to give Lula a convincing victory over the center-right candidate Jose Serra. For the first time ever, Brazil had a government on the left of the political spectrum and a president who really knew what poverty was like. One of 22 children born to a dirt-poor illiterate farm-worker from Brazil’s stricken Northeast, Lula had worked as a shoeshine boy, then a mechanic, then a trade-union leader.

But there were no quick, easy solutions to Brazilian poverty. Forced into alliances with other parties in Congress, Lula’s government had to be pragmatic. He managed Brazil’s budget prudently enough to repay the country’s entire US$15 billion debt to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) ahead of schedule in 2005. Inflation fell, the minimum wage was raised, and – what Lula’s first term will probably be most remembered for – the Bolsa Família (Family Fund) program paid up to R$95 (about US$45) a month to 11 million of Brazil’s poorest families – about a quarter of the population. Families received these payments in exchange for keeping their kids in school and making sure they received prescribed vaccinations. Half the recipients were in the Northeast.

But the rural landless remained unsatisfied, and land invasions and violent rural conflicts continued. Around 700, 000 landless families were settled in four years, but this was chiefly on public land or in existing settlements. The large-scale land expropriations the landless had hoped for did not happen. The 1.5-million-member Movimento Sem Terra (MST; Landless Workers’ Movement), which occupies unused land and establishes cooperative farming settlements there, claimed that Lula had failed to live up to his promises.

Nor did Lula’s government do much to improve Brazil’s low education standards, a big reason why so many of the poor are trapped in poverty. The richest 10% of Brazilians garner nearly half the income in the country, while the poorest 10% get less than 1%.

Meanwhile, big business complained that Brazilian economic growth was being held back by high taxes and the large size of the public sector.

As Lula’s first term neared its end, scandals showed that even the PT could not avoid the taint of corruption. A cash-for-votes rumpus in Congress in 2005 was followed in 2006 by the exposure of an attempt by the PT to buy damaging information about the opposition. Lula’s re-election hopes were further jeopardized by the continuing drug-gang violence in the main cities.

Nevertheless Lula’s popularity and commitment to the poor carried him to a second resounding presidential victory in October 2006, over center-right challenger Geraldo Alckmin. Lula’s first significant act after re-election was to raise the minimum wage by 8.5%, well above the rate of inflation. Brazil’s poor were a little less desperate than four years previously, but land reform and education now had to join welfare programs as real priorities if the country’s first workers’ president was to narrow the wealth gap in a lasting way.

Brazil looks set to take an even higher profile place on the world stage in coming years, as it hosts the 2014 FIFA World Cup (one of only five countries to have hosted the tournament twice) and the Olympic Games (in Rio de Janeiro) in 2016.

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