Brazil on the Rise: The Story of a Country Transformed

Brazil on the Rise: The Story of a Country Transformed

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by Larry Rohter

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In this hugely praised narrative, New York Times reporter Larry Rohter takes the reader on a lively trip through Brazil's history, culture, and booming economy. Going beyond the popular stereotypes of samba, supermodels, and soccer, he shows us a stunning and varied landscape--from breathtaking tropical beaches to the lush and dangerous Amazon rainforest--and how a…  See more details below


In this hugely praised narrative, New York Times reporter Larry Rohter takes the reader on a lively trip through Brazil's history, culture, and booming economy. Going beyond the popular stereotypes of samba, supermodels, and soccer, he shows us a stunning and varied landscape--from breathtaking tropical beaches to the lush and dangerous Amazon rainforest--and how a complex and vibrant people defy definition. He charts Brazil's amazing jump from a debtor nation to one of the world's fastest growing economies, unravels the myth of Brazil's sexually charged culture, and portrays in vivid color the underbelly of impoverished favelas. With Brazil leading the charge of the Latin American decade, this critically acclaimed history is the authoritative guide to understanding its meteoric rise.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
In his first book, Rohter, a former New York Times bureau chief for Rio de Janeiro, breezes through Brazil's colonial history and then organizes an examination of contemporary events around themes like race, arts, industry, and the Amazon. Brazil, we learn, is a wildly enthralling country with a vast racial background, an enormous amount of agricultural opportunity, and a generally laissez-faire attitude; its influence on the rest of the world is substantial. While Brazil's economy and governance seem to be stabilizing, its people, Rohter argues, are stuck in a pattern of long-held race and class prejudice. Having spent 14 years in Brazil, Rohter is able to share many personal anecdotes, lending his concise effort tremendous color. Obviously an expert on the region, Rohter excels at bringing order to a mass of information about a historically disorderly country. (Sept.)
author of Distant Neighbors: A Portrait of the Alan Riding

No one is better equipped than Larry Rohter to weigh and measure Brazil's remarkable transformation of recent years. Rohter knew the country in less happy times - of military dictatorship and failed economy. Then, by good fortune, as The New York Times's long-time bureau chief in Rio de Janeiro, he was again in place to record, explain and analyze Brazil's much-awaited emergence as an economic power and a self-confident democracy. This book is essential reading both for those interested in Brazil and Latin America as such and those seeking to understand the fast-changing international landscape of the early 21st century in which Brazil is now an important new player.
Jagdish Bhagwati

It is not surprising that Larry Rohter, who has written with great insight on Brazil and South America for many years for The New York Times, has written a splendid and timely, indeed unrivaled, book on Brazil's meteoric economic success. It is a tour de force.
The Christian Science Monitor

Lively and hard-hitting…Rohter's very contemporary narrative of the past four decades of Brazilian history is peppered with supporting tales and interviews from his reporting…accessible to a first-time tourist but also balanced and analytical enough for any Brazilian…Critical and probing, Brazil on the Rise will largely leave the reader with an affectionate portrait of Brazilians.
The Economist

For some time there has been a gap in the market for a good English book on Brazil. [Rohter] dusts off his old notebooks and finds stories that bring Brazil alive.
The Associated Press

A powerful and well-informed argument about the state of Brazil's economy and why the country with its vast array of natural resources now seems poised to achieve the world power status that has long eluded it…the long-awaited future has arrived.

Offers fascinating journalistic engagement with the personalities and stories of modern Brazil...Recommended.
author of The Alchemist Paulo Coelho

No one delivers a more insightful and thoughtful look at Brazil than Larry Rohter. His grasp and deep knowledge of my country gives you a sense of its dynamic and vibrant culture as well as the rapid ascent of its economy and its transformation from dictatorship to democracy. Anyone wanting to understand Brazil's place in the world today must first read this book.
co-author of Getting China and India Right Anil K. Gupta

Brazil is well on its way to becoming a great economic power, but it also is a country with a long and complex history. Larry Rohter knows the country inside out, loves it, and yet is able to bring an objective lens to help us understand where Brazil is coming from, the opportunities and challenges that it faces today, and its manifest destiny. A must-read.
Library Journal
"Brazil is not for beginners" is a quote attributed to famed Brazilian composer Antonio Carlos Jobim. With Brazil's rise as a global player, Rohter (culture reporter, New York Times), who has lived in Brazil for over 14 years, recognizes that more and more people worldwide are becoming interested in what it means to be Brazilian. In this book, he successfully illuminates some of the more convoluted issues within Brazilian society. He not only addresses the stereotypical Brazilian topics of soccer, beaches, and the Amazon, but he also tackles such complex subjects as oil, race, and politics, concentrating on the last 25 years, during which, owing to continuity within its own political system and stability in its national currency and overall economy, Brazil has become a major contributor to global politics and economics for arguably the first time in its history. Rohter's conclusions show Brazil to be a country that on the surface may seem straightforward but upon careful examination reveals itself to be much more intricate. VERDICT Recommended for a general audience interested in South American/Latin American social science and international affairs, particularly as related to Brazil.—Jeremy Spencer, Univ. of California, Davis, Law Lib.

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Brazil on the Rise

The Story of a Country Transformed

By Larry Rohter

Palgrave Macmillan

Copyright © 2012 Larry Rohter
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-230-61887-9



LONG BEFORE THERE WAS A country called Brazil, a tree with that name grew in abundance all along the northeastern coast of South America. When Portuguese explorers, blown off course on their way to Asia, landed there on April 22, 1500, they immediately saw value in trees they called brazilwood. Natives who came to meet them at the shoreline were daubed in bright red dye extracted from the timber. The Portuguese were entrepreneurial and quickly saw the potential for profit. They turned brazilwood into a crimson powder that back in Europe was used to manufacture luxury fabrics such as velvet for an emerging middle class.

To the Portuguese, Brazil's natural resources seemed limitless. A Jesuit priest who visited in the early 1500s wrote, "If there is a paradise here on earth, I would say it is in Brazil." As waves of Europeans arrived to this verdant corner of the new world, what they had in common was a voracious appetite for its bounty, and they each figured out different ways to exploit the resources. The substances driving exploration and development have varied over the centuries, from timber, precious metals, and gemstones to foodstuffs such as sugar, coffee, and soybeans. Today, with its newly discovered reserves of oil and gas, Brazil stands to achieve extraordinary wealth by mining its fossil fuels. The often well-founded belief that another bonanza is just around the corner has made Brazilians a people who are both optimistic and sometimes heedless: "God repairs at night the damage that man does by day," an old Brazilian proverb assures.

This notion would prove to be a constant in Brazilian history and is evident in Brazil's self-image even today. But that bounty of endless wealth waiting to be uncovered has also led to dark moments. Through the centuries, Brazil's powerful elite have enriched themselves on the backs of workers. On many occasions, the hunt for instant and boundless riches has encouraged Brazil's elite to value their country's natural resources above its own people and to pour their energy into developing the first even at the expense of the second. And it all began with that simple discovery of brazilwood flourishing in the rich red soil of the Bahia coastlands more than five hundred years ago.

The Portuguese would probably have preferred to have stumbled upon gold or silver, and it is clearly a sign of their ingenuity and open mindedness that they saw potential in a substance other than shiny metal. The Spanish, their rivals, had already begun their own explorations of lands farther north, in the Caribbean basin, and quickly filled their coffers with precious stones. But as a small, underpopulated nation on the edge of Europe noted for its maritime skills, Portugal had learned to make the most of whatever opportunities came its way.

The Portuguese tried trading with the native peoples they encountered. But their initial admiration for the apparent harmony and simplicity of the natives' way of life soon soured: Once those Tupi- and Ge-speaking tribes acquired the metal pots and other tools they wanted, they lost interest in further commerce, and so the Portuguese then turned to enslavement. Demographers estimate the native population of Brazil in 1500 at somewhere between three million and eight million people. Whatever the figure, it was larger than the population of Portugal, which was about one million at the time. But the Tupi and Ge groups were constantly at war among themselves, allowing the Portuguese to adopt a classic divide-and-conquer strategy, which compensated for their smaller numbers. Each people sold the enemies it had captured to the Portuguese, who encouraged and instigated conflicts to keep the tribes from uniting against the European intruder.

The Spanish were just as quick to subjugate the native peoples of the Americas and to exploit their labor, but Brazil offered Portugal different challenges. The Spanish conquistadors brutally destroyed three indigenous civilizations: the Aztecs in Mexico, the Incas in Peru, and the Mayas in Central America. In all of those civilizations the emperor was considered divine, and once he was eliminated, resistance crumbled. That was not the case in Brazil. Not only were the native tribes there less centralized and organized, but resistance was more diffuse. That made it harder to both overcome the armed opposition and govern the tribes once they were subdued.

Portugal was small and less wealthy than its European rivals, and the crown had to turn to private capital to harvest brazilwood and otherwise develop the new dominion. The king retained title to lands that had been claimed in Portugal's name but granted monopoly licenses to favored investors or nobles who then formed partnerships with those financiers. Brazil became "one vast commercial enterprise," in the words of the Brazilian historian Caio Prado Jr., which the Portuguese operated from fortified trading posts along the humid coast, venturing only hesitantly into a trackless interior of dry scrub and stunted cactus that came to be called the sertão.

The new country evolved rapidly into a system of hereditary capitanias. These were essentially fiefdoms or private estates in which a single grantee was responsible for colonizing, at his own expense, the entirety of the territory. To attract settlers who would cultivate the new realms, the landowners had the authority to carve up their territory into huge estates, some of which were larger than entire provinces back in the motherland.

Nearly five hundred years later, the origins of two of the country's enormous problems—glaring social imbalance and reckless exploitation of natural resources—are still visible. The owners of the fiefs were in essence sovereigns of their own domains, above the law and responsible only to a crown that was far away and had little capacity to enforce its will or even monitor what was going on. The mentality that this situation created has persisted into modern times. Especially in the northeast of Brazil, local political bosses and landowners defy the state's authority with impunity in areas that they regard as their personal kingdoms. In addition, the captaincy system created a preference for large estates that has made land distribution in Brazil extremely inequitable. Even today, a relatively small landed gentry controls the bulk of the country's most productive terrain, while millions of peasants have no plots of their own and are forced to eke out a miserable living as sharecroppers or to migrate to the Amazon in search of a plot of land they can call their own.

Since the colonists arriving from Portugal could not exploit their oversized estates by themselves, they had to find a way to obtain additional labor. Indigenous slaves, the initial choice, were not only recalcitrant, and thus an unsatisfactory solution to that problem, but were also viewed by the Roman Catholic Church as souls to be Christianized rather than enslaved. So by the mid-sixteenth century, landowners were already turning to Africa as their preferred source of slave labor. The first recorded instance of a cargo of slaves arriving from Africa dates to 1538, and by 1552, a Jesuit priest in Pernambuco, a center of the brazilwood trade soon also to become a hub of sugar cultivation because of its abundance of fertile land hugging the coast and balmy breezes, noted that "there are in this captaincy a great number of slaves, both Indian and African."

African chattel slavery would prove over the centuries to be the worst kind of curse for Brazil. It endured until 1888, a quarter of a century after it was abolished in the United States, and left a legacy of racism, poverty, and social discrimination and marginalization that continues to afflict the country in the twenty-first century. At the time, though, it seemed the only way the elite could find enough bodies to work the land.

The colonists didn't own the land and sought to extract as much from their holdings as they could, and as rapidly as possible, in hopes of returning to Europe as rich men; and since the crown retained title to the land, they had little incentive to treat it with care. The get-rich-quick mentality encouraged destructive practices and distorted economic development, another set of problems that continues to plague Brazil in our own time. While some settlers focused on cultivating crops such as cotton, tobacco, beans, and manioc (a native tuber that rapidly became a staple of the European diet), the biggest profits came from brazilwood, which was therefore exploited ruthlessly. Rather than replant what they cut, the Portuguese stripped the coastal forests teeming with exotic birds and beasts that seemed like fugitives from Noah's ark and moved on. The Atlantic rainforest was quickly destroyed, and today the tree for which Brazil is named can scarcely be found outside of botanical gardens. In this attitude we can also see the origins of many of the destructive practices that afflict Brazil in the Amazon today.

This boom-and-bust pattern, in reality, has been a constant throughout Brazilian history. Time and time again, landowners, government officials, and private investors have succumbed to the desire for quick riches and poured all of their money and energy into exploiting a single product or crop. At first, the returns are enormous. But such profits, combined with the illusion of limitless abundance, attract many others also in pursuit of immediate wealth, and inevitably one of two things happens: The resource is either completely consumed, or so much of it is produced that international markets are flooded and prices collapse.

After brazilwood stocks were exhausted, there was a rush, later in the sixteenth century, to produce sugar to satisfy Europe's growing sweet tooth. That carried the economy for almost a century, until competition from the New World colonies of other European powers caused prices to crash. But in the eighteenth century, gold was discovered in a rugged region of winding valleys, rushing rivers, and roaring waterfalls in the interior, farther to the south, and for a while Brazil was the largest single producer of gold in the world. In the nineteenth century, after independence was achieved, coffee emerged as the backbone of the economy, to be succeeded after 1880 by rubber, which was grown in the Amazon and flourished until 1920. This pattern of "cycles," as Brazilians call them, really only came to an end in the closing decades of the twentieth century as the result of an effort to diversify the economy that continues today.

Many of the hereditary fiefs floundered. But two, Pernambuco in the north and São Vicente, site of the present-day state of São Paulo, much farther south, flourished. In large part this was because leaders of those settlements, where women colonists from Portugal were scarce and the sexual appeal of unabashedly naked native maidens was obvious, were canny enough to marry daughters of local chiefs. That helped seal the tribal alliances that guaranteed supplies, labor, and protection to the Portuguese newcomers. Racial mixing became a defining trait of Brazilian culture as we know it today. At first limited to indigenous South Americans, racial mixing was eventually extended to Africans as the slave trade back and forth across the South Atlantic expanded dramatically in the seventeenth through nineteenth centuries.

In contemporary times, Brazilians have come to embrace miscegenation as a defining national trait. "We have all the colors of the rainbow" was the phrase trumpeted in a government radio campaign during the military dictatorship of the 1970s. But that sense of pride in racial mixing certainly was not the case either in colonial times, when it was seen as shameful, or into the early decades of the twentieth century. Even now, Brazilians are reluctant to admit the sordid origins of the phenomenon and the elements of sexual and class exploitation it involved.

By the mid-sixteenth century, the shortcomings of the system of private fiefs were apparent, and in 1549, the crown ordered direct royal rule everywhere except Pernambuco and São Vicente. Tomé de Sousa was designated the first governor general of Brazil and ordered to build a capital in the northeast, at the Bahia de Todos os Santos, which led to the founding of Salvador, today Brazil's third-largest city and a leading center of black culture. Warfare against native tribes intensified as Portugal sought to solidify its control of the region, but the new governor general's longest-lasting contribution to the construction of Brazil lay elsewhere. He arrived with a retinue of clerks, scribes, inspectors, registrars, and other functionaries, who immediately made themselves busy erecting a bureaucracy, extracting bribes, playing favorites, and indulging in the practice of nepotism. Brazilian historians often point to this moment as the beginning of their country's historic problems with corruption and official inefficiency, which worsened as the colony's territory and population increased and still plague Brazil today.

But profits from the brazilwood trade and the promise of even more wealth from sugar aroused the envy and greed of other European states, who, sensing Portugal's weakness, sought to create their own beachheads along the coast. Though the Dutch were to provide the biggest and most sustained threat, in the seventeenth century, the first challenge came from France. In 1555, an expedition consisting of two ships, six hundred soldiers, and Huguenot colonists established an entrepot in Guanabara Bay, the extraordinary natural harbor in front of present-day Rio de Janeiro. It took the Portuguese a dozen years to drive out the French, and largely in response to fear of other encroachments, the throne in Lisbon decided to step up its colonization efforts farther down the coast. This led directly to the founding of both Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, today the country's two most important cities.

That didn't deter others, however, from trying to grab a piece of Brazil. In 1494, Spain and Portugal had, with the Vatican's blessing, signed a treaty that established a dividing line about thirteen hundred miles west of the Cape Verde Islands. All newly discovered lands east of that line were to go to Portugal, while those to the west belonged to Spain. Portuguese explorers had consistently ignored that demarcation, venturing deep into the interior of the South American continent. But in 1580, the King of Spain also became King of Portugal, an arrangement that continued through 1640. That threatened the identity of Portugal as an independent nation and brought Brazil under nominal Spanish control.

As an enemy of Spain, Holland now felt free to advance into Brazil, first in Salvador and then Pernambuco, which soon became a prosperous Dutch colony. And with the 1494 dividing line no longer an impediment, explorers and slave raiders based in São Paulo and known as bandeirantes, or "flag-bearers," took advantage of unification with Spain to penetrate the unexplored trackless interior of the South American continent and incorporate vast new domains into Brazil, ranging from sweeping plains and marshy lowlands to the immense area that came to be known as the "Mato Grosso" or "thick forest." Only after Portugal managed to reestablish its independence did Brazilian forces then focus their attention on reclaiming Pernambuco. That process took another 14 years but helped instill a sense of identity and pride among colonists. Until then, colonists in Brazil had had little contact with each other and often considered the colonies inferior to the mother country.

Once the Spanish interregnum was over, the Dutch threat eliminated, and Portuguese authority restored, Brazil fell into a period of stagnation, especially in its northeast heartland. The Dutch and the English established sugar plantations in Suriname and the Caribbean, permanently undermining Brazil's market position. But around 1700, word began leaking out of huge gold finds in the interior, near the headwaters of the São Francisco River. This set off an enormous migration, mainly of slave owners from the north-east and freebooters from Portugal, and reawakened the crown's interest in asserting stricter control over its Brazilian domains. The discovery around 1730 of diamonds in the same area, which came to be known as Minas Gerais, or General Mines, only accelerated all of those processes.

One almost immediate result was a permanent shift of Brazil's center of gravity from the northeast to the south-central coast, a thousand miles away. In 1763, the capital was transferred from Salvador da Bahia to Rio de Janeiro, formally ratifying the northeast's political and economic decline, a problem that persists in our own era. At the same time, Minas Gerais was emerging as a new powerhouse, at its peak producing nearly half the world's supply of gold. In 1710, only thirty thousand people lived there, contemporary accounts estimate. By the 1780s, though, the population of Minas Gerais had increased more than tenfold, giving it more inhabitants than any province in Brazil.

Minas Gerais, a vast landlocked plateau ringed by mountain ranges, was initially a fractious and violent place where rival claimants to gold and diamond strikes fought violently for control of the region's riches. Over time, though, it evolved into a showcase for the wealth accumulating there. By law, much of that treasure had to be sent via overland trail back to the coast and on to Portugal to finance the motherland's taste for English linens and other fineries. But what remained was still enough to pay for the construction of lavishly rococo churches and palace-like private homes for mine owners and merchants, who also commissioned religious paintings and statuary to fill those buildings as well as elaborate outdoor fountains and bridges. Even today, the baroque splendor of towns such as Ouro Preto, São João del Rei, and Diamantina attracts tourists from the world over.


Excerpted from Brazil on the Rise by Larry Rohter. Copyright © 2012 Larry Rohter. Excerpted by permission of Palgrave Macmillan.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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