There have been people living in Brazil for more than 8,000 years but it gets most interesting with the arrival of the Portuguese in the 16th century.
Brazil is a big country so it is little wonder that the arguments rage about who was the first to enter and colonise the region. The perceived wisdom is that it was Pedro Álvares Cabral who landed on 22nd April 1500, explored the northeast coast and claimed the region for Portugal.
There were many more to follow and they explored along the coastline and navigated up the Amazon and the other big rivers cutting into the continent. The Portuguese tried to civilise the natives but instead brought disease which nearly wiped out the indigenous tribes. Inter-racial marriage between the Portuguese and the natives along with the introduction of African slaves has produced a vibrant modern community with many backgrounds. Although Portuguese is the official language there are 180 native languages also spoken in the country.
The Portuguese were to rule over Brazil until in February 1822 the Brazilian War of Independence was sparked by a series of skirmishes. The war ended in November 1823 with the surrender of the last Portuguese garrison. Independence Day in Brazil is celebrated on 7th September, the anniversary of 7th September 1822 when the Regent, Prince Dom Pedro declared Brazil’s independence from Portugal. However the formal date of independence came with a treaty signed between the two countries in late 1825.
It was Dom Pedro who announced that there was to be a constitutional monarchy and assumed the role of head of state or Emperor Pedro I of Brazil. He didn’t last long, abdicating in 1831 in favour of his five year old son, Emperor Pedro II. Inevitably the country was ruled by regents and advisers during a period of instability until 1841 with the coronation of Pedro II; he would go on to rule the country for 58 years until 1889.
During his reign Pedro II found himself fighting a series of war, the most bloody of which was the Paraguayan War (1864 – 1870) which took 300,000 Paraguayan lives and around 100,000 allied lives (includes Argentinians and Uruguayan’s fighting with Brazil).
Pedro II grew old early, was in ill health and showed less and less enthusiasm for his role whilst a new breed of young politicians came along. The inevitable happened on 15th November 1889 when the army carried out a coup d’état, arrested Prime Minister Afonso Celso and announced a republic. The old Emperor was sent into exile with his family two days later and he died in France in 1891.
Coup leader General Deodoro da Fonseca became the President of the new Republic of the United States of Brazil. Fonseca was the first elected (indirectly by Congress) president of Brazil but he only lasted until November 1891 when he was replaced by Floriano Peixoto. Peixoto in turn was replaced by Prudente de Morais in 1894 who was the first civilian president of the country and the first to be directly elected.
The country was set with a new constitution, new Presidents every four years directly elected by the people but not including women or the illiterate. The stage was set for the peaceful evolution of democracy in Brazil, albeit with the usual revolutionaries causing trouble from time to time.
Then in 1930 the peace was shattered by a coup d’état instigated by the states of Minas Gerais, Paraíba and Rio Grande do Sul which ended the First Brazilian Republic (Old republic). Getúlio Vargas came to power as the new President and in 1934 was able to get himself indirectly elected. His main aim was to move the economy from a plantation based one to an industrialised economy. It was he who created many of the state monopolies including Petrobras in the oil industry, Vale in mining as well as the National Siderurgy Company in steelmaking.
Following the Second World War and the rise of democracy elsewhere, Vargas agreed to stand aside and allow free elections in 1945. He did come back for one more term between 1951 and 1954 but at a time of crisis and confrontation with the army he committed suicide with a shot to the heart on 24th August 1954.
Ten more years were to pass, still turbulent but relatively peaceful. It was on 21st April 1960 that Brasilia the new capital of Brazil was founded, prior to that, from 1763 until 1960, it had been Rio de Janeiro.
President João Goulart, a left wing President elected in 1961, had tried to move the country away from its relationship with America during the height of the Cold War and to build new relationships with socialist countries worldwide. This was not viewed positively in Washington nor the church, businesses and the middle classes and eventually it led to the destabilisation of his government and a coup d’état on 31st March 1964. The new Brazilian Military government was much more aligned to the position of the United States and was to rule until March 1985.
The new government was quick to stifle freedom of speech, democracy and any opposition, but in the 1970s was popular because of the rapid economic growth. This was followed by the 1980s when chronic inflation took over and the pro-democracy movement grew in strength. In the later years of the dictatorship the military were known to be involved in deportation, imprisonment and torture of political prisoners. There were also politically motivated deaths in their hundreds. It was not an auspicious period for Brazil.
Twenty-one years on and the military dictatorship eventually allowed an indirect Presidential election in 1984 which was won by Tancredo Neves of the Brazilian Democratic Movement Party (PMDB). Almost immediately Neves was taken ill and he died a month later leaving his Vice-Presidential running-mate José Sarney to become the new President.
Sarney started well but chronic inflation and the Brazilian debt crisis continued to hurt the economy and his popularity plummeted. Fernando Collor de Mello was the next President and the first to be elected by popular vote in 1990 after the return to civilian rule. His rule was dominated by hyper-inflation, running as high as 25% per month at times.
Two more elections saw two more Presidents elected, but it was the election of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva of the Workers’ Party (PT) in 2002 which saw a change come once more to Brazil. The country has always suffered from a huge gap between the rich and the poor and it was this that allowed Lula da Silva to win the election.
The new President introduced social programmes such as the Bolsa Família and Fome Zero which provided financial aid to the poor and which led to a fall in poverty of 27.7% in his first term in office. More than a quarter of the people are on these programmes. In 2006 Lula da Silva was re-elected with 60.83% of the vote.
Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva remains hugely popular to this day but having served his two consecutive terms he handed over to his PT successor and former Chief of Staff, Dilma Rousseff. The new Worker’s Party candidate had her work cut out and it took two rounds but she was elected as the 36th President of Brazil with 56.05% of the vote on 31st October 2010 and took office on 1st January 2011.
The President is elected for a four year term and can do one consecutive term.
The bicameral congress consists of 513 members of the Chamber of Deputies elected from party lists for four year terms. The upper chamber or Senate has 81 Senators elected to serve eight year terms. Two thirds of the Senate is renewed at one time and then the remaining third is renewed four years later.
The Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) 2016 places Brazil at joint 79th out of 176 countries with a CPI 2016 score of 40 (where 100 is least corrupt).