Arriving at crossroads

A History of Brazil. First edition
February 28, 2003

The landslide victory of Lula (Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva) in the Brazilian presidential election of October 2002 brought into harsh focus the challenges facing the new government.

For the first time in Latin America, a working man had been elected president, at the head of the PT, the workers' party, an avowedly socialist movement linked to trade unionism, liberation theology and groups such as the landless movement. How could Lula deliver the changes promised in his campaign while maintaining fiscal discipline and commitments to bodies such as the International Monetary Fund?

This timely history of Brazil provides a useful background for those seeking to understand the political, economic and social forces with which Lula must contend. Five chapters of broadly equal weight have, in turn, four sub-sections, covering politics, economy, society and diplomacy. The authors deal with the colonial period and the empire, the first republic, the era of Getúlio Vargas (which, rightly, runs to 1964), with a final chapter on "Military to civilian rule, 1964-2000".

Despite its density, the book makes easy reading. It has judicious footnotes, a chronology of main events, lists of acronyms, a glossary of Brazilian terms and clear maps. There is a well-chosen "Selective guide to works in English".

Joseph Smith's judgements on those who have shaped Brazil are well balanced. He is, for example, more sympathetic to Vargas, João Goulart and the Vargista tradition than some of the authors he quotes.

He seizes the central point of Vargas as a politician of consensus, conciliation and political manipulation, within the long Brazilian tradition of conciliação . This is important for later understanding of Tancredo Neves, deprived of the presidency by death in 1985, and of Fernando Henrique Cardoso in his eight years of office. Lula, now, seeks similar consensus, looking for a new "social pact", even at the cost of outraging his more radical supporters.

Smith reports tensions that may reappear - between Juscelino Kubitschek and the IMF, or between Goulart and the US and foreign bankers. He duly records achievements and weaknesses in contemporary Brazil, especially massive poverty, inequality of income distribution and the heavy social debt inherited from years of military-backed government.

He could have said more about the indigenous people, about Amazonia and regional cultural differences. Sources in Portuguese would have enriched the book but, even without them, this is a valuable contribution to our understanding of Brazil and its people.

Peter Flynn is emeritus professor of Latin American Studies, University of Glasgow.

A History of Brazil. First edition

Author - Joseph Smith with Francisco Vinhosa
ISBN - 0 582 25771 9
Publisher - Longman
Price - £19.99
Pages - 287

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