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Brazil: Government and History

Brazil is a federal republic, consisting of 26 states and the Federal District of Brasília. Each state has its own elected legislature and governor.

Brazil's legislative body is the National Congress, which is composed of the Chamber of Deputies and the Federal Senate. Deputies are elected, on the basis of population, for a term of four years. Senators serve 8-year terms, with three senators elected from each of the states.

From 1964 to 1985, the military controlled the government under a succession of generals, who suspended constitutional guarantees of rights. Civilian government was restored in 1985, and a new democratic constitution took effect in 1988. It provided for direct elections of a president and vice president to 6-year terms. The president is the head of both state and government.


History

Brazil's earliest inhabitants were the Indians. More than one hundred native tribal groups inhabited the land. They did not plant crops, but hunted and gathered fruits and berries.

The Portuguese navigator Pedro Álvares Cabral claimed Brazil for Portugal in 1500. However, for some thirty years after Cabral's historic voyage, the Portuguese paid little attention to their new colony, and only a few trading posts grew up along the coast. Portugal's main interest still lay in trade with the Far East. But Portugal's attitude changed after 1530 for two reasons. A new source of wealth was needed, and other European powers were threatening to take Brazil.

Portuguese Settlement. The Portuguese king started the settlement of Brazil by giving favored nobles grants that stretched far inland from the coast. The early settlers had difficulties with the Indians. The settlers also had to face a new and strange tropical environment and unfamiliar soil conditions. The large landowners soon discovered that if they were to run successful settlements, they needed more farm laborers. Black slaves were brought from Africa to work on plantations in the Northeast.

Meanwhile, in the East and the South, groups of people called bandeirantes roamed the interior in search of gold. They also sought Indians to sell as slaves to the plantation owners of the north. The bandeirantes found both gold and slaves. In doing so, they opened large regions for more exploration and settlement in the present states of Minas Gerais, Mato Grosso, Goiás, and Mato Grosso do Sul.

By the early 1800's, Brazil's first gold mines had been nearly exhausted, but a large part of the country was permanently settled. Farming was the major occupation. The descendants of the Portuguese settlers now thought of themselves as Brazilians rather than subjects of the king of Portugal.

Just as the first movements for Brazilian independence were developing, troops sent by French emperor Napoleon invaded Portugal. In 1808 the Portuguese royal family and more than a thousand members of the court fled to Brazil. For the next 14 years Rio de Janeiro was the capital of the Portuguese empire. At last, in 1821, the king returned to his native land and left his son, Dom Pedro, to rule Brazil. The next year Dom Pedro, following the advice of José Bonifácio de Andrada, his minister of the interior, declared Brazil independent of Portugal. Peaceful change became the pattern of Brazil's political life.

Independence. Brazil remained an empire from 1822 until 1889. Dom Pedro reigned for nine years, then turned over the throne to his 5-year-old son, Dom Pedro II, who became emperor in 1840 at age 14. Dom Pedro II ruled Brazil for 49 years, during which the nation became larger and richer. Wars with Argentina (1851-52) and Paraguay (1865-70) were settled peacefully. Railroads were built. Rubber from the Amazon jungle doubled foreign trade. And thousands of immigrants swelled the population.

But much of the nation's wealth depended on slavery, and economic growth ended when slavery was abolished in 1888. Many large landowners and slaveholders demanded an overthrow of the government. Others, who favored a republican form of government, also wanted change. The old emperor left Brazil, and by 1891, the Republic of Brazil had its first constitution.

The Republic. In the early years, the army ruled the republic, leading to further political upheaval and civil war. But by 1895 order had been restored and Brazil had a civilian government.

Brazil became increasingly important in world politics and fought on the side of the Allies during World War I (1914-18). But the fall of world coffee prices during the Great Depression of the 1930's brought new difficulties. In 1930 the president was overthrown, and Getúlio Vargas became dictator. He patterned his government after the fascist regimes in Italy and Portugal. Vargas encouraged a spirit of nationalism and worked to boost the economy. Under his rule, living conditions improved and trade grew. During World War II (1939-45), Brazil fought on the side of the Allies and sent troops to Italy.

The Second Republic. In 1945, the army forced Vargas to resign, and General Eurico Gaspar Dutra was elected to succeed him. But in 1950, Vargas was elected. In 1954, following a serious political crisis, Vargas took his own life. Juscelino Kubitschek de Oliveira then became president.

Kubitschek told the Brazilians that they would "enjoy in five years the progress of 50 years." He worked hard to live up to his promise. The government built a new capital in Brasília and helped develop hydroelectric plants and some industries. But inflation and falling world coffee prices brought new economic and social problems. In 1960, Jânio Quadros was elected president, but his attempts to improve conditions were blocked. He resigned within a year, and his vice president, João Goulart, took his place.

By 1964, Goulart's leftist policies had created an economic crisis. Discontent with his government led to a revolution, supported by the United States, that brought the military to power. Until 1985, Brazil's presidents all came from the armed forces. In 1985, Tancredo de Almeida Neves, a civilian, was elected president. Neves died before his inauguration, and the vice president, José Sarney, became president.

The 1989 elections were the first since 1960 in which Brazilians voted directly for the president. Fernando Collor de Mello won the presidency after a runoff election but was impeached in 1992 on charges of corruption. He resigned and was succeeded by his vice president, Itamar Franco. In 1994, Fernando Henrique Cardoso became president. He was re-elected in 1998, becoming the first president in Brazil's history to win a second term. As president he favored policies that made Brazil attractive for foreign investment while at the same time addressing some of Brazil's most pressing social needs.

Cardoso's primary challenge was to stabilize the country's failing economy. In order to avert a disaster, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) stepped in and gave $41.5 billion in emergency funds; in 1999 the government reduced the value of its currency. In 2001, Cardoso announced the launch of a $6 billion anti-poverty program that included health and education programs for the poor. But the economy worsened, and the IMF had to grant further loans. In 2002, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva of the Worker's Party was elected president. Da Silva, popularly known as Lula, was a former factory worker and labor leader. He won the election by the largest margin in Brazil's history.

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