Guide to Brazil

Operation Car Wash: from gas stations to the heart of the Republic

Brazil protests operation car wash
Demonstrations in favor of Operation Car Wash. Photo: Milleo

Early in the morning on March 17, 2014, federal marshals launched the so-called Operation Car Wash. A group of detectives had been investigating a gang that had used a gas station just three kilometers away from Congress as a front for money laundering schemes. But what began as a small, unpublicized operation would later evolve into Brazil’s biggest-ever corruption scandal – which has so far implicated 1,203 people, including every single major political party, the country’s most popular politician, and the sitting President of the Republic.

Operation Car Wash has put the Federal Prosecution Office at odds with the presidency and Congress. And as with anything connected to politics in our current climate, it has also divided Brazilian society. Between hits and misses, the operation has served to expose how deeply corruption runs in Brazilian public administrations. And the picture is by no means a pretty one.

Everything about Operation Car Wash is superlative. [restricted]The schemes investigated were carried out in Brazil’s largest company, the state-owned oil & gas firm Petrobras. The amount of data compiled through 45 stages (so far) has forced the Federal Police to create a new system to store everything. The money siphoned by politicians and former Petrobras executives amounts to a staggering 8 trillion BRL – and that’s just the number so far. For the sake of comparison, Brazil’s 2015 GDP was only 5.9 trillion BRL.

The corruption scheme within Petrobras was so massive that it led The Guardian to question if it might be the biggest scandal in history.

operation car wash investigations
The gas station used as front for money laundering operations.

From gas stations to the presidency

Police first focused their efforts on investigating the doleiros, people responsible for laundering money from corruption schemes. The operation’s first target was Alberto Youssef – a known criminal who operated shady schemes for corrupt businessmen and politicians. He was known to authorities, as he had been arrested seven times prior to the Car Wash scandal.

The Feds soon realized that he operated an illegal financing scheme for the right-wing Progressive Party, a member of the presidential coalition. Soon, however, the investigators would hit jackpot. They found receipts linking the purchase of a $110,000 Range Rover to Paulo Roberto Costa, a former director at Petrobras. It was the thread that led to a far wider – and seemingly endless – anti-corruption investigation.

In 2014, Youssef signed a plea deal with federal prosecutors, promising to assist with the investigation. He detailed the path of the money from Petrobras to the pockets of politicians. On numerous occasions, Youssef delivered the money personally. He provided evidence that led to the prosecution of politicians, executives of construction companies, and more doleiros. Youssef was also the first to connect former House Speaker Eduardo Cunha to corruption and money laundering activities.

Youssef was sentenced to 102 years in prison, but was released after serving just three of them because of his collaboration with the investigation.

Taking down the government

While former President Dilma Rousseff has not been personally involved in any wrongdoing, the popularity of her administration took an enormous hit with the Petrobras scandal. The 2014 election was supposed to be a one-horse race leading her to a second term. Instead, it became the closest election in Brazilian history, with Rousseff winning the runoff stage by a margin of less than 3 percent of votes.

Rousseff’s second term was tumultuous, to say the very least. The corruption scandal added fuel to a fire of public revolt caused by the biggest recession in the country’s history. The President’s relationship with the political establishment had also soured. Without popular support and loathed by Congress, she was left vulnerable to groups that wanted her out of the presidency.

These groups, led by former House Speaker Eduardo Cunha and then-Vice-President Michel Temer, used an accusation of doctoring the budget to push for Rousseff’s impeachment. In an ironic turn of events however, her replacement, Michel Temer, now sees himself at odds with Operation Car Wash.

In May 2017, Temer was secretly taped by a business mogul discussing payments of hush money to Eduardo Cunha – who has been under police custody since 2016. Temer was also accused of taking bribes in exchange for passing pieces of legislation that favored private companies. But Temer has not (yet) lost the support of Congress in the way that Rousseff did, and seems to be headed safely towards carrying out his term through December 2017.

A new paradigm

Brazil’s problematic relationship between what’s private and what’s public has always been an issue. The political scene is particularly vulnerable to corruption. With a system that leads to fragmentation, governments often see themselves as needing to buy political support in order to pass legislation. That’s why allies are always fighting for the right to nominate directors to state-owned firms: through kickbacks and bribery schemes, they will be the source of profit.

Many investigations in the past have tried to unveil corruption schemes, but were annulled due to procedural mishaps. That wasn’t the case with Operation Car Wash. In more than a few ways, this investigation has been groundbreaking. For the first time in Brazilian history, we’re seeing the elite sectors of society being sent to prison – and staying there. The operation has arrested dozens of billionaire businessmen who had paid bribes to public figures for decades. So far, 107 people have been convicted of crimes with sentences that amount to a combined 1,634 years in prison.

The investigation has also led to the first arrest of a Senator during democratic times. In November 2015, former Senator Delcídio do Amaral (who has since been impeached) attempted to pay $75,500 for the silence of Nestor Cerveró, the former director of Petrobras’s international operations. He signed a plea deal with the Federal Prosecutor’s Office, and insisted that he had always acted on the behalf of Lula.

Further investigations, however, cleared Lula, stating that there wasn’t any evidence to corroborate Amaral’s words.

Janot’s lists

Between 2015 and 2017, former Prosecutor General Rodrigo Janot published two lists of corrupt politicians. The first list came about in March 2015, just as Dilma Rousseff was entering her second presidential term. In the second document, Janot asked the Supreme Court to investigate 83 high-profile politicians.

“Janot’s List” is a result of the plea deal signed by 77 former Odebrecht executives last year. Now that Janot approved the investigations, the next step is for the Supreme Federal Court (STF) to approve them. If the justices approve the investigations, the accused politicians will become criminal defendants. The STF approved all 28 investigations against 48 authorities on Janot’s first list.

Here are the most important names on “Janot’s List”:

  • Former Presidents Lula da Silva and Dilma Rousseff;
  • House Speaker Rodrigo Maia;
  • Senate President Eunício Oliveira;
  • Cabinet Members: Aloysio Nunes (Foreign Affairs), Eliseu Padilha (Chief of Staff), Moreira Franco (Secretary General), Bruno Araujo (Cities), Gilberto Kassab (Communications).

Moro v. Lula

Operation Car Wash has also pitted two very popular – and polarizing – figures against one another: Federal Judge Sérgio Moro and former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.

The former President has been prosecuted in four different cases connected to Operation Car Wash. On July 12, 2017, Moro convicted Lula for corruption and money laundering, sentencing him to 9 years and 6 months in prison. In addition to the jail time, Lula will need to pay a fine of 669,700 BRL.

The conviction didn’t come as a surprise to Lula and his allies, though. The former President’s defense team declared that the decision was “political, and embarrassed the entire country.”

Moro convicted the 71-year-old former President of receiving a total of 2.2M BRL in bribes from construction company OAS. Lula can no longer occupy any public office. OAS, the Judge says, gave Lula a beachfront triplex apartment and revamped it to his taste. In exchange, Lula helped the company win contracts with the federal government during his administration.

lula car wash
Operation Car Wash has hit Lula, Brazil’s most popular politician. Photo: Ricardo Stuckert/IL

The evidence includes: plea deals from those involved in the scheme; real estate documents; photos and videos of Lula in the apartment; message exchanges; and internal OAS documents.

But it’s important to stress that there was no irrefutable evidence against Lula. Judge Moro, however, said that corruption was the “only possible explanation” for the gifts received from OAS. Verdicts that privilege interpretation over irrefutable evidence have become common in big corruption cases, since powerful politicians can cover their tracks well. However, it leads to the questioning of an investigation’s motives and validity.

Moro has always been a polarizing figure. For some judges and prosecutors, he epitomizes the archetype of an organized, honest and intelligent judge. He was even voted by his fellow Federal Judges as a potential option for a Supreme Court vacancy. Of course, with no strong political connections, he had nearly no chance of actually obtaining the position.

For defense teams, however, Moro is a scary vigilante.

Operation Car Wash has contributed to both of those perceptions. For his peers and for the public, Moro is a tough-but-fair judge who uses the law to fight an endemic problem in Brazil. But defense lawyers have incessantly criticized his performance. They claim Moro has routinely used precautionary arrests (an exceptional move) as leverage to make defendants collaborate with investigations. He is also accused of behaving more like an extra prosecutor, rather than as the referee of the investigation.

Defense teams say he is tougher on them than he is on the prosecutors, and have even claimed that his approach to handling witnesses serves to fill in gaps that are left by the prosecution’s case.[/restricted]

Guide to Brazil

How does Brazil’s justice system actually work?

Brazil Supreme Court Justice system
Brazil’s Supreme Court. Photo: Valter Campanato/Abr

Public trust in the U.S. legal system might hover at around 50 percent, but it’s even lower in Brazil. According to a recent study from think-tank Fundação Getulio Vargas, just 29 percent of Brazilians trust their country’s legal system. A quick glance at some of the adjectives most frequently ascribed to Brazil’s justice system might shine a light on why confidence is lacking: slow, uber-bureaucratic, and unpredictable.

While this might seem pretty grim, the legal system still enjoys more trust than the police (25 percent), workers’ unions (24 percent), and political parties (7 percent).

In Brazil, there is only one judge for every 29,000 people. In more developed nations, the ratio is rarely over 1 to every 10,000. Furthermore, judges complain about the lack of resources and the staggering number of cases that show up on their desks every year. The result is a lumbering, grossly inefficient system. According to the National Justice Council, which monitors the Judicial System’s activity, only 27 percent of cases in lower courts have been closed. For the higher courts, that number reaches 52 percent.

We’re going to describe the main branches of Brazil’s legal framework to help you gain a better idea as to how our system actually works. [restricted]First, take a look at this organogram of Brazil’s hierarchy of courts, and then read on for our explanations.

brazil justice

Federal Supreme Court (STF)

The Federal Supreme Court is the final judge in all cases involving laws for Congress and the Constitution. It is formed by 11 justices, who are all appointed by the President. They can serve until the age of 75, when they’re forced into retirement.

Unlike the U.S., the role of chief justice is not for life. Instead, the Court gets a new chief justice every two years, who is chosen by members. The unofficial rule goes something like this: the incumbent is replaced by the associate justice who has been in the Court for the longest amount of time, without ever having served as the head. Incumbent Chief Justice Cármen Lúcia will lead the STF until September 2018, when she will be replaced by Justice Dias Toffoli.

The STF, however, is not only a Constitutional court. It is also the last court of appeal for all types of cases. A recent study published by the Supreme Court shows that each of the 11 justices is responsible for more than 10,000 individual decisions per year. Moreover, the STF is the only venue where politicians at the federal level can be prosecuted and tried.

Click here to read more about the Supreme Court.

Superior Justice Tribunal (STJ)

While the STF is the final judge for constitutional matters, the STJ is the final stage for other cases. Its purpose is to standardize the interpretation of federal law. For instance, if a federal court in São Paulo and another in Minas Gerais interpret the same law differently, then the STJ can be called upon to decide on the correct interpretation.

The court is formed by 33 justices, and all are appointed by the President.

State and Federal Courts

The Federal Justice System arbitrates in cases involving the federal administration, or cases that are of “federal interest” – such as jurisprudence-making matters. They also deal with federal crimes like tax evasion. All other cases (that are not labor, electoral, or military) are heard before State Courts, which account for 65 percent of all cases in the Brazilian justice system.

Special Lower Courts

To compensate for the slow pace of regular courts, Brazil has created a series of “Special Lower Courts,” which serve the purpose of mediating on cases that could be solved through agreements without the need for trial. They act on misdemeanors and disputes that don’t involve large sums of money.

Electoral Justice

This branch is responsible for the organization of elections in Brazil, as well as referendums and plebiscites. The electoral justice also rules on electoral issues and establishes the norms of Brazil’s electoral system.

The Superior Electoral Court is formed by three Supreme Court justices, two justices from the Superior Justice Tribunal, and two lawyers who are nominated by the President. It can impeach both parties and elected officials.

The court, however, is notable for its slow pace and bizarre interpretations. In 2017, for instance, the Electoral Court came to a judgment on the 2014 Dilma Rousseff-Michel Temer presidential campaign – three years after the election. And despite the abundant evidence of corruption during the campaign, the court decided to exclude most of the evidence in order to favor current President Michel Temer.

Labor Justice

This branch is responsible for disputes between employees and employers. It is also responsible for approving or barring new labor legislation. Brazil’s Labor Justice is supposed to help to balance labor relations. It is divided across 24 regions, each having two levels: the Courts of First Instance, and appeals courts. Presiding over those is the Superior Labor Court in Brasília, which has the final say on labor issues.

Military Justice

This is Brazil’s oldest judicial branch, and it can be traced back to 1808. It was at first just a part of the executive branch, and joined the judicial branch only in 1934. It rules exclusively on matters involving the norms, estate, and administration of the Armed Forces.

The Superior Military Court is perhaps the least effective court in Brazil. In 2016, it cost taxpayers a staggering total of 419 million BRL – 85 percent of which was used to pay for the salaries of 15 justices and its staff. The court analyzes, on average, just 1,200 cases per year. For the sake of comparison, you should know that the Supreme Court’s budget is 554 million per year, but the 11 Supreme Court justices look at 8,000 cases per month.[/restricted]

Guide to Brazil

Brazil’s Supreme Court: a trial machine

Brazil's Supreme Court. Photo: Nelson Jr/STF
Brazil’s Supreme Court. Photo: Nelson Jr/STF

In April 2005, Carlos Velloso ruled on one of the strangest cases he can remember. In his decades-long career, Velloso had served on some of Brazil’s most important courts before arriving to the Supreme Court in 1990. And yet, despite his weighty title of Supreme Court Justice, he had to rule on the man standing before him, known as case HC 85066. The defendant was accused of killing a pregnant dog and shooting a parrot.

“The parrot-killer case was the weirdest I’ve had to rule on, but it wasn’t the only one of such nature,” says Velloso, who served in the Supreme Court from 1990 to 2006 and as chief justice from 1999 to 2001. “It’s a shame to see the country’s most brilliant jurists wasting their time with cases like domestic disputes. They should be writing our legal history instead,” he says.

A parrot. A dog. In the Supreme Court. If it all sounds a bit strange, it’s because it is. [restricted]But in Brazil, our Supreme Court justices have to review cases like HC 85066 all the time. The Brazilian Supreme Court is not simply a Constitutional one, ruling on jurisprudence-creating cases – it’s also the last appeal stance for all cases in the judicial system. Literally any case could be analyzed by the justices: a recent study published by the Supreme Court shows that each of the 11 justices falls responsible for over 10,000 individual decisions each year. This is in addition to the most complex cases, which are reviewed collectively by all 11 justices.

In contrast, the United States Supreme Court chooses which cases are worth being analyzed by the country’s highest legal system. Four of the nine justices must say ‘yes’ to a case for it to be reviewed, which happens between 70 and 80 times per term. By the so-called “Rule of Four”, the country’s highest court will only work on relevant, even historic cases – not your everyday ones. In Brazil, reality is very different.

Never-ending delays

Justices must juggle jurisprudence-creating cases with small ones like HC 85066. But while the latter ones may lack complexity, they more than make up for it in volume. Our Supreme Court has reviewed over 1.5 million cases since 1988, which perhaps makes it the world’s most overburdened judiciary system.

Never-ending possibilities for an appeal allow talented lawyers to drag cases on for decades before receiving any final ruling. And after a certain period, the statute of limitations can come into effect, meaning that perpetrators can no longer be prosecuted.

Some of Brazil’s most established political figures have taken advantage of these problems, using skilled lawyers to find loopholes and manipulate the system. Paulo Maluf, the ex-mayor of São Paulo, is one such example. Accused of so many counts of corruption both within Brazil and abroad, Maluf and his son have been included on Interpol’s most-wanted list. Yet they have managed to duck any prison time, adding to the stereotype that only the poor wind up in jail.

How Mensalão changed the courts

In 2012, the court practically ceased its activities for a year and a half so that it would be able to judge its most important and complex case to date, the Mensalão case. In Portuguese, Mensalão means roughly “big monthly stipend”. It was a scheme orchestrated by the federal government to bribe congressmen in exchange for supporting its legislative agenda. Forty people were prosecuted – including some of Brazil’s highest-profile politicians.

It was a historic trial. For the first time in Brazilian history, a group of rich, powerful men was convicted and arrested. It included José Dirceu, who served as chief of staff to President Lula, and João Paulo Cunha, a former house speaker. But the trial was also groundbreaking because it took “only” 7 years for the entire process to be concluded – from the investigation, to prosecution, to trial. Oh, and another year for the convicted men to finally be put behind bars.

System stagnation

One solution would involve taking the burden off of the Supreme Court and transforming it in a Constitutional Court – but it’s difficult to turn this into reality. The only way to change the current system would be for Congress to pass new amendments to the Constitution. However, when Brazilian congressmen profit from the status quo, it’s pretty difficult to imagine they’d want to change the rules.

The Supreme Court is the only system allowed to investigate and prosecute politicians at a national level. But while they’re busy judging parrot-killers or settling neighborhood disputes, 22 percent of cases involving corruption schemes led by political big shots were closed thanks to the statute of limitations. Since 1988, the Supreme Court has investigated 500 members of the Parliament. Only 16 cases resulted in actual convictions, the first one being in 2010. The slow-paced Brazilian judicial system is therefore helping to create some of our most endemic problems: impunity and corruption.[/restricted]

Guide to Brazil

So, just how does the Brazilian political system work?

Foreigners sometimes seem dazzled by the high voter turnouts in our elections –  it’s above nearly all developed nations – without understanding that voting in Brazil isn’t just a right, it’s also a legal obligation.

Citizens between 18 and 70 years old, regardless if they’re living abroad, are required by law to vote (or else present a justification to the Electoral Justice System for absence). Failing to do so has serious consequences, as we can be prevented from obtaining passports, taking out loans from public banks, or even enrolling in a public educational institution.

Every two years we must go to the polls, but it’s not a straightforward process even for most Brazilians. Here’s a rundown of how our political system works:

Federal system

Like the U.S., Brazil is a federation of 26 fairly independent states and the Federal District, where its capital Brasília is located. Each state can create their own laws, as long as they don’t conflict with federal legislation. There are three levels of government: federal, state, and municipal. Each level is divided into three independent branches: executive, legislative, and judiciary.

Citizens elect their representatives for the executive and legislative branches, while judges are chosen through open competitive examinations (or political nominations, for higher courts).

Free airtime for political parties

In Brazil, political campaigns are strictly regulated – of course, that doesn’t prevent parties from stepping out of the lines. They last for 35 days, during which candidates have free airtime to spread their message. On every campaigning day, parties split 70 minutes among them, based on how many seats each party holds in Parliament (for states and municipalities, it’s about the seats in local legislatures).

Free, of course, is a figure of speech. Parties don’t pay for the airtime – taxpayers do. In exchange for the time slots, TV and radio broadcasters get hefty tax cuts. In 2018 alone, this airtime should cost taxpayers over 1 billion BRL ($319 million).

According to Contas Abertas, a non-profit organization that monitors public spending, Brazilians have already paid 7.4 billion BRL ($2.3 billion) worth of “electoral time,” or horário eleitoral, between 2002 and 2016. The money amounts to 80 percent of what broadcasters would make if they had sold that time to regular announcers.


As elections at the federal and state levels are split from elections at the city level, Brazilians end up obliged to vote every two years. For instance, municipal elections were held in 2016, while federal and state races will happen in 2018.

There’s no room for independent candidates in Brazil. To run for office, one must belong to a political party. Candidates with multiple criminal convictions also lose their right to be a part of the public administration.

Here’s how Brazilian politicians get elected – remember, the rules are pretty much the same for all levels:

1. Executive Branch

Mayors, governors, and the President are elected in an absolute majority with a run-off system. It means that if no candidate gets more than 50% of votes during the first round, the two best-voted candidates will face off to decide who gets elected. The system allows multiple parties to contend with a real shot at winning.

In mayoral races, the run-off stage can only take place in cities with more than 200,000 voters (92 of the country’s 5,570 municipalities). In smaller cities, the system is “first-past-the-post.” The head of state will serve a four-year term, and can hold office for up to two consecutive terms. After this, he or she must step down for four years before running for the same office again.

That’s why Lula, who was the head of state between 2003 and 2010, intends to run for a third term in 2018.

2. Legislative Branch

Brazil’s lawmakers are elected through a proportional system. In theory, if a party gets 20 percent of votes for city council or state or National Congress, it should get 20 percent of the seats. But Brazil’s system allows legislative coalitions. It means that multiple parties can join forces to form a “super party.”

It creates a myriad of small, unexpressive candidates with no political skills who merely parrot clichés, valued only because they could be “vote magnets.” As a result, you could vote for candidate X, and end up electing candidate Y.

This is how the political arena has launched alternate careers for decadent celebrities, former football players, and the flat-out bizarre, such as a former clown named Tiririca who won over 2 million votes in 2010, and is currently serving his second term in office. For political parties, these candidates are meant to grab the public’s attention, and even provoke a chuckle or two.

3. National Congress

The Brazilian Congress is formed by two chambers: the House and the Senate. The former is supposed to be the people’s direct representation in the government. Meanwhile, the Senate is the representation of each federative unit. That’s why each state has a number of representatives based on its population, while they all have the same number of senators: three each.

Brazil’s House of Representatives has 513 members. The number of seats per federative unit varies according to the state’s population – with a minimum of 8 and a maximum of 70 each. That creates an overrepresentation of small states, like Roraima and Amapá, with less than 1 million inhabitants each, and an underrepresentation of São Paulo – which concentrates almost a quarter of the Brazilian population.

The Senate, on the other hand, formed by 81 members (three per state). Unlike representatives, senators are voted in through a first-past-the-post system. While all other positions are occupied over four-year terms, senators are elected to serve for 8 years, due to some of their extra obligations.

Since senators are responsible for approving (or blocking) Supreme Court nominations, and trying the President in the case of an impeachment process, they are granted a longer term, in order to give more stability to the institution.

Every four years, part of the Senate is renewed. In 2018, Brazilians will vote to fill two-thirds of the Senate, with each state electing two.

Find out how Brazilian parties spread across the political spectrum

Guide to Brazil

‘Jeitinho brasileiro’, or the Brazilian way

Brazilian way jeitinho brasileiro
Photo: MGov

If you’re at all familiar with Brazil, then you’ve probably heard about the “jeitinho brasileiro” – or the Brazilian way. This expression refers to our informal way of handling problems. And though this motto is by no means exclusive to Brazil, it has indeed become a defining aspect of the quintessential Brazilian life.

In essence, the Brazilian way refers to how Brazilians – of any origin – make all relationships personal ones, in order to create a particular set of rules for themselves, breaking with the social (or even legal) conventions that should apply to everyone.

However, this isn’t always negative. Sometimes, the Brazilian way simply amounts to being flexible, or providing a quick fix to a problem. It’s an acknowledgment that real-life issues often require solutions that the written rules might not account for, although it creates a thin line between adaptability and corruption.[restricted]

But if you want to go deeper and find out what drives our jeitinho approach to life, you’ve got to do a little historical digging.

Historical background of the ‘jeitinho’

Since the early years of Portuguese colonization, the border between public and private has been systematically trespassed. We inherited the system of patronage common in the Portuguese administration. The finances of the Kingdom of Portugal and those of its king were not actually separated; the State’s property was combined with the King’s personal property, and this way of handling finances was not much different in the colonies.

When Portugal decided to occupy and explore Brazil, then-king Dom João III created a feudal system that lasted until 1821: the hereditary captaincies. The King divided the territory into 14 regions, each dominated by one family that had carte blanche to act as they pleased.

We also inherited our excessive bureaucracy from the Portuguese. Our government is so centralized that it’s nearly impossible to undertake anything without some sort of interference from the state. Have you ever signed a contract in Brazil? Then you likely had to have your signature validated in a state-licensed notary’s office to prove your identity.

Finally, massive levels of inequality have always been present in Brazil. This is true from the early years of our country, when a third of the population was enslaved, until today, when over 10 million people live on under $40 per month. In a culture where the concept of equality is non-existent, it seems inevitable that a bubble of privilege was created. To the select few, the state offers conditions including fiscal immunities, subsidized interest rates, and a different set of laws.

Social reasons for the Brazilian way

The sociologist Sérgio Buarque de Holanda defines Brazilians as being cordial, which he characterizes as not particularly gracious, but rather someone ruled by emotion. Bryan McCann, of the Georgetown University, elaborated on the concept: “Brazil’s cordial man seeks true liberation within social life, where he frees himself from both the constraints of ritual and the burdens of individualism.” The cordial man puts his personal interests – and those of his close ones – above the general public’s interest.

Moreover, there is a latent tension between Brazilians and an ever-present fear of being taken advantage of. “In colonial times, social relations were brutal. If someone was not submissive to you, he or she was your enemy. That has remained, a feeling of mistrust between people – of all social classes,” says philosopher Roberto Romano from the University of Campinas.

When you have a lack of public trust, a state that is accessible just to some, and a fluid line separating the public from the private, you have the perfect recipe for a society where bending the rules is simply business as usual. For many people, especially those who are more vulnerable, straying outside the lines is the only way to get something done. The reasoning? While the government might be corrupt, it’s the smart ones will get things done.

However, this kind of thinking also contributes to our social, economic, and political dysfunction. It creates a culture where you can’t help but occasionally think, “If everyone is corrupt, why should I follow the rules?” While Brazilians should certainly continue their out-of-the-box thinking, we should only use that skill when it doesn’t clash with the law.[/restricted]

Guide to Brazil

Do you need a visa to visit Brazil?

Brazil has a visa policy that’s based on a principle of reciprocity: if we Brazilians need a visa to enter your country, then you’ll also need one to visit us.

If you do require a visa to enter Brazil, you’ll need to apply for one in your country of origin. Our authorities do not issue visas in airports, ports of entry, or any other part of the Brazilian border. If you don’t have all of the necessary documents, the Federal Police will block your entry.

Take a look at the map below to see how your country fares.[restricted]

Though the map shows the general visa policy for each country, there are a few specificities. Spanish nationals, for instance, must prove that they have enough money to spend at least BRL 170 per day; proof of accommodation (paid or guaranteed by credit card); or a notary-certified invitation letter from a resident. Spanish tourists must also provide documents proving when, and how, they will leave Brazil’s territory.

South American citizens, though, can enter Brazil with only their ID – no passport required.

Economic gain v. Diplomatic dignity

The question of Brazilian tourist visas is highly debated within the federal government. While the Ministry of Tourism sees loosening visa regulations as a convenient way to boost the economy, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs stands by the reciprocity principle.

UPDATE (March 18, 2019): The Jair Bolsonaro administration has decided to unilaterally lift visa requirements from citizens of the U.S., Japan, Canada, and Australia. Currently, Brazilians need tourist visas to travel to all four of these countries. This idea obviously received praise from the countries mentioned. However, none of them discussed eliminating the visa requirements for their Brazilian visitors.

The move further loosens up visa requirements in Brazil, one year after the country created the so-called “electronic visa,” an online platform that makes applications simpler and faster. The measure reportedly increased applications by 42 percent—generating USD 1 billion in revenue.[/restricted]

Guide to Brazil

Violence in Brazil

Brazil is home to 19 of the world’s 50 most violent cities, according to Mexico City think tank the Citizen Council on Public Security, Justice and Peace. Brazil has steadily earned a reputation for violence, with citing repression of protestors, prison conditions, LGBTQ rights, criminalization of abortion and police violence as contributing factors. Brazil also has high rates of domestic violence, with courts currently processing more than 1 million cases. However, it’s homicides that grab the headlines: among its population of approximately 208 million, Brazil sees a total of 60,000 annually. One in every three Brazilians personally know someone who has been a victim of homicide or theft.

While statistically the country’s most populous states mostly have the highest concrete numbers of murders, homicide rates per 100,000 inhabitants remain far higher in the North and Northeast. [restricted]Research from the Inter-American Development Bank shows that in 2014, Brazil spent 3.78 percent of its GDP on crime-related costs. The same study also notes that these costs are “uneven” – for example, crime costs in the state of Alagoas are similar to Northern Triangle countries, while areas like Belo Horizonte have crime costs closer to Argentina or Uruguay.

Violence in the Northeast and in rural Brazil tends to be linked to several important factors. Inequality and poverty, combined with a lack of local economic stimulation and job opportunities, all play a part organized crime – although they aren’t by any means the whole story. Perceived state failures to deliver justice see private justice carried out, individually or through criminal groups. But the bigger picture, away from Brazil’s affluent Southeast region and the cities of Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, involves larger industries and larger stakes.

More indigenous peoples and environmental activists have been killed in 2017 than in the previous year. In the first six months of 2017 alone, 37 people were killed in rural land conflicts according to NGO Comissão Pastoral da Terra (CPT) – eight more than over the same period in 2016. Horror stories continue to spring up: 13 members of the Gamela community in Maranhão killed by farmers armed with knives; members of an uncontacted indigenous tribe murdered by gold miners in the Amazon. These crimes are not isolated incidents. They are linked to the economic interests of Brazil’s gargantuan agribusiness industry – which in turn has been linked to organized crime, money laundering, and the drug trafficking trade.

One particular group is more at risk of falling victim to violence than any other: young, black men are disproportionately victims of violence in Brazil, particularly if they are from a low-income background or a lower social class. Almost half of all homicide victims in Brazil are between 15 and 29 years old, and 77 percent of these young men are black, according to Amnesty International Brazil. The war on drugs is one of the central causes of Brazil’s hyper-incarceration problem, and is a leading factor in prison overcrowding and the death toll of young, black men from underprivileged areas.


Brazil’s tenacious drug trafficking gangs have their roots in the prisons themselves, where they banded together for self-protection in the 1970s. These networks lasted long after inmates’ releases, bound by a feeling of strength in numbers and an inherently unfair system. Alongside this, a drive for power, money, and visibility saw these networks metamorphose into drug trafficking gangs, beginning with Rio de Janeiro’s Red Command (Comando Vermelho – CV).

Researchers at the Brazilian Forum for Public Security assert that there is no direct link between drug trafficking and violence. Instead, urban violence stems from the CV’s rivalry with São Paulo-born gang the Primeiro Commando Capital (PCC), and disputes for control of territories between factions linked to one of these two main gangs. These rivalries periodically spill beyond the confines of Brazil’s penitentiary facilities, with the prison massacres in early 2017 and the violence that followed in the streets of nearby towns serving as a reminder of the presence and power of these groups.

But Brazil’s war on drugs contributes to the cycle of violence: young Brazilians are imprisoned – 40 percent purely because they cannot afford bail while awaiting trial – and are coerced to joining factions in jail for their survival. As with the original CV, these links remain outside prison.

Bandido bom é bandido morte’ – a good criminal is a dead criminal – is a common catchphrase in Brazil. People often use it to voice their distaste for crime, or to defend overzealous policing tactics. But violence often spills beyond the confines of invisible spheres of criminality, leaving behind a trail of civilian deaths as collateral damage. Police operations targeting drug traffickers have become a significant factor in the numbers of urban deaths occurring in Brazilian cities: in 2016, 920 people were killed during police raids in Rio de Janeiro, more than double the number than three years before.

Civilian death tolls are one factor driving the high public mistrust of law enforcement among Brazilians. But there are also notable cases of police brutality and cover-ups, plus endemic corruption tying police officers themselves to trafficking gangs and militia. Nor are police the sole perpetrators of this violence – more than 100 military police in Rio de Janeiro, often deployed in anti-trafficking operations, have died so far this year.

gun trafficking brazil

Arms trafficking in Brazil is even more lethal than drug trafficking. A study from the Institute for Applied Economics (Ipea) found that higher numbers of weapons in circulation linked directly to higher levels of violent crime and homicide. As with drug trafficking, rivalries between different smuggling factions contribute heavily to levels of violence. However, studies based on weapons seizures in Brazil show that the majority of these arms are legally manufactured in Brazil.

As with the US, ideas of self-protection through firearm possession are prevalent in society – although laws around gun ownership are far stricter than the US. It’s a lucrative industry: Brazil is the fourth largest exporter of small arms worldwide, and tripled its exports from $109.6 million’s worth in 2005 to $321.6 million in 2010. Weapons are frequently sold to countries with dodgy human rights records, and recently Brazilian weapons have wound up in the hands of Saudi forces in Yemen and government forces in Venezuela.

Weapons manufacturing and trade isn’t about to disappear anytime soon in Brazil. In another similarity to the US, the industry has its own congressional lobby. Allied with uber-conservative agribusiness and evangelical lobbies, the three industries form what many term the ‘bullets, beef and Bible caucus’. The caucus means that weapons manufacturers remain a part of the mainstay Brazilian economy, making shadowy producers like Taurus eligible for loans from Brazil’s social development bank BNDES.[/restricted]

Guide to Brazil

Gender issues in Brazil

Gender equality Brazil
Photo: Michael Prewett

Of Brazil’s 207.7 million inhabitants, just over half are women. Women are gaining ground in important areas, occupying 43 percent of the workplace and becoming the primary breadwinners in 37.3 percent of households. The country elected its first-ever female president, Dilma Rousseff, in 2010. Brazil is home to some of the world’s largest and most famous gay pride parades, and same-sex marriages have been legal since 2012. But despite these strides, cultural attitudes and public policies alike leave significant room for progress when it comes to gender and equality.

In concrete terms, Brazilian women earn 74.5 centavos to every 1 real earned by men. Women remain disproportionately responsible for household chores. Female representation remains low in politics as well as in business leadership positions, and gender-based violence and sexual harassment remain commonplace in almost all contexts. In the wake of Rousseff’s 2016 impeachment, human rights advocates were given cause to worry in the form of then-interim President Michel Temer’s instalment of an all-white, all-male cabinet, and scrapping of the Ministry for Women’s Rights. [restricted]But what turned Temer’s cabinet into boteco chat for Brazilians was what one magazine did as he was inaugurated as President.

Running a satirical piece on Temer’s wife, Marcela, Veja magazine called her bela, recatada e do lar – beautiful, maiden-like and a housewife. But Brazilians didn’t see the piece as satirical, perhaps because this sort of commentary is not a one-off in Brazil; the gender-based discrimination saturating political cabinets and boardrooms is perpetuated in the street. Brazilian women made their feelings about the magazine article pretty clear on social media, but Brazil’s upper echelons took little notice: less than a year later, on International Women’s Day 2017, Temer considered discerning fluctuating supermarket prices an inherently feminine accomplishment.

These attitudes translate easily into everyday harassment for many Brazilian women. In 2017, 51 percent of the population told researchers from Datafolha and the Brazilian Forum for Public Security that they had witnessed sexual harassment in the street. In the same study, 20.4 million women said they had received disrespectful comments while walking in the street, and 5.2 million said they had been sexually harassed on public transport.

Initiatives to combat this are popping up sporadically. Chega de Fui Fui, from women’s rights NGO Think Olga, crowdsources denunciations from members of the public as “an attempt to map the most uncomfortable and dangerous places to be a woman in Brazil”. This September, proper law enforcement resulted in one man’s arrest after he ejaculated on a woman on a public bus in São Paulo. However, with few women in leadership positions, cultural attitudes are shifting slowly and public policies have yet to follow suit.

Gender parity in politics affects gender equality in real life

In 1982, an unlikely contender found her way into Brazil’s politics. Black, female, and from one of Rio de Janeiro’s favelas, Benedita da Silva – known affectionately as ‘Bene’ in her community – won a seat as a city councillor with the Workers’ Party (PT). In 1994, less than ten years later, Silva made history: she became the first Black woman elected to the Brazilian Senate.

Although women account for 51.4 percent of the general population, political representation remains low among women in Brazil, and this is especially the case among women of color like Bene. Dilma Rousseff may have been elected twice to the presidency, but the Inter-Parliamentary Union found that representation in Brazil has fallen drastically in recent years: from 25.6 percent in 2014 to just 4 percent in 2017. LGBTQI representation remains even lower, with Jean Wylls as the only representative in the Lower House and no representative in the Senate.

Those in seats of representation often find themselves fighting battles that their male counterparts simply don’t face, like representative Maria do Rosário. In 2003, fellow politician Jair Bolsonaro told Rosário that she wasn’t “worth raping” because she was “too ugly”. Although this was an exceptionally explicit case, it reflects a broader culture that stalls progress for women’s and LGBTQI rights.

Sexism politics Brazil
Bolsonaro to Rosário: she wasn’t “worth raping.” Photo: Marcelo Camargo/ABr

Nor is Bolsonaro’s attitude as uncommon as it may seem: a 2013 survey found that 58.8 percent of Brazilians believed that rape would be less common if women behaved ‘properly’. Those attitudes are sufficiently engrained. In 2017, 52 percent of women who were victims of violence didn’t report the incidents to law enforcement.

Gender-based violence is endemic – and structural

Like other forms of violence in Brazil, acts of gender-based violence are just the tip of the iceberg. Progress is slow, in part because low representation means that gender rights end up registering low on political agendas. It took a full two decades of ceaseless persistence from Maria da Penha, who was left paraplegic after her husband attempted to kill her twice, before Brazil finally passed a law to protect women from domestic violence and femicide in 2006.

Gender-based violence and femicide remain serious issues in Brazil, with the Maria da Penha law proving insufficient alone. The World Health Organization shows that Brazil has the fifth highest rate of femicide in the world, while Brazil’s public healthcare system registers an average of 405 women who are physically abused to the extent that they seek medical assistance every day.

Ministry of Health data also showed that the number of gang rapes doubled between 2011 and 2016, registering an average of ten per day in 2016. Black women are also more at risk than any other group: killings of Afrobrazilian women grew by 54.6 percent between 2003 and 2013, despite the Maria da Penha law.

Complications from clandestine abortions also kill an average of four women per day, according to official government data, with abortion regulation left at the mercy of conservative beliefs in Congress.

Some believe that organized crime in Latin America, through gendered and oppressive power structures, contributes to the high rates of gender-based violence. But even in mainstream culture, gender-based violence and domestic abuse continue to be pervasive in Brazil. In part, this is because conversations about emotional and psychological abuse are only just beginning. However, it is also related to stubborn power structures that make reporting gender-based crime and discrimination more difficult.

Meanwhile, despite its reputation as one of the most gay-friendly countries in the world, anti-LGBTQI violence in Brazil is scarily – and increasingly – frequent. With the exception of same-sex marriage, few concrete political changes have been made to LGBTQI rights and little protection is offered. There is no government office or body which tracks violence against LGBTQI individuals in Brazil; instead, non-profit Grupo Gay da Bahia tracks and publishes information daily, in addition to an annual report.

LGBTQI protest in Brasília, 2016. Photo: Commons

In 2016, Grupo Gay da Bahia found that one LGBTQI Brazilian is murdered every 25 hours, with trans murders making up almost half of these numbers. The NGO includes suicides in its numbers, because LGBTQI suicide is twice as common as hetero suicides and is directly linked to discrimination and bullying. Activists believe the increase in anti-LGBTQI violence correlates with cuts to government funding for anti-homophobia campaigns.[/restricted]

Guide to Brazil

Race in Brazil

When Brazil’s national statistics institute IGBE carried out its most recent national census in 2010, the results were unexpected. For the first time ever, more than half of the population – 54 percent, to be exact – identified as either black or brown/mixed.

Labels used in the census to describe race haven’t evolved much over time. In 2010, Brazilians could choose only between black, white, brown/mixed, indigenous, or, for its inhabitants with East Asian heritage, yellow (yikes). In fact, this isn’t so different from the first census conducted by IGBE in 1872, offering the options of ‘black’, ‘white’, brown/mixed (‘pardo’) or indigenous (‘caboclo’).

Unlike elsewhere in the world, the “race” segment of the Brazilian census is based on self-assigned skin color instead of ethnicity. Thanks to Brazil’s complicated history of miscegenation with indigenous people, Europeans, and Africans, it’s pretty difficult for many Brazilians to trace their heritage.[restricted]

But in 1976, when IGBE’s researchers asked the country’s citizens to describe their skin color for themselves, they ended up with more than they bargained for. Between them, the thousands of Brazilians surveyed gave the researchers a list of 136 different colors, ranging from “coffee,” “cinnamon” and “honey” to “toasted,” “singed” and even “wheat.”

For all of our diversity, the 2010 census’s results still came as a surprise for many Brazilians. Modern inequality correlates strongly with race in Brazil, so for more than half of the population to identify as black – and therefore more likely to face disadvantage – was nothing short of a revelation for many Brazilians. Experts believe that what actually changed was not the number of Black Brazilians, but the number of those self-identifying as Black due to recent surges in Afro-Brazilian educational and cultural movements.

Race and social class are political

Rio de Janeiro was the largest slave port in the Americas, and 40 percent of all slaves forcibly shipped from Africa were moved through Brazilian ports. An estimated 4 million African slaves passed through Brazil – that’s ten times higher than the number reaching the U.S., according to the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database.

Under international pressure, in 1888 Brazil became the last country in the Western world to abolish slavery. But the country’s political class, manipulated by coffee oligarchs who benefitted from the system, merely outlawed the practice of slavery rather than establishing policies that would guarantee civil rights for emancipated slaves. Yet even then, Afro-Brazilians weren’t granted civil rights, which made it nearly impossible to find employment or housing.

Modesto Brocos

Consequently, race and social class have become closely linked. An 1895 oil painting by artist Modesto Brocos reveals contemporary attitudes, showing a mixed-race mother cradling a white baby. Next to her, a black grandmother lifts her hands in praise to the heavens for a grandson who will not be a slave. Titled A Redenção de Cam (‘The Redemption of Canaan’), Brocos’ work references a story from the Book of Genesis in which Canaan and his descendants are cursed to be ‘servants of servants’.

Meanwhile, as with many other countries in the early 20th century, Brazil’s leaders also experimented with eugenics. Believing that whites were superior, officials set about building policies that would “whiten” the country. Policies encouraged miscegenation, hoping to produce results like those depicted in Brocos’ work. Brazil also actively courted immigrants from countries like Germany, Switzerland, and Poland, allowing them to build isolated communities that replicated their own culture, all while forbidding African immigration.

The remnants of these societies exist today, for example with the former German settlement Pomerode where residents still speak both Portuguese and German. Brazil’s unabashed white nationalism also saw the founding of Americana in the 1860s, where white U.S. Southerners fled to found their own Confederate town after losing the Civil War. This town still exists today, and residents continue to celebrate their Confederate heritage.

Deliberate political ignorance fuels modern inequality

Pervasive inequality has survived over time, perpetuated by a consistent lack of representation at the top of Brazil’s central power structures. White Brazilians continue to occupy an overwhelming majority of positions of power, accounting for approximately three-quarters of our political figures and 82 percent of the country’s richest 1 percent. Meanwhile, although 54 percent of the population now identify as Black, they make up only a handful of politicians, judges and academics. The number of Black and mixed Brazilians occupying high-paying jobs in fields such as medicine and dentistry also remains shockingly low.

Brazil’s relationship to slavery is the root cause of this inequality. Wilful political ignorance of civil rights meant that policies were not adopted to help Afro-Brazilians find employment. When the government failed to provide Afro-Brazilians with the homes it promised in return for their participation in the War of Independence, many just built their own. These became favelas, low-income housing communities on the outskirts of urban centers across Brazil, named after a desert plant that can grow in difficult terrain.

Black racism Brazil
Black women’s march. 2016. Photo: Flickr

This lack of provisions meant that social mobility was far more difficult for Afro-Brazilians, and the effects of this trickle remain to the present day. Currently, just 12.8 percent of black Brazilians have received higher education. Brazilians of African descent are also more likely to have precarious living situations, for example, a lack of basic sanitation.

Although the percentage of Afro-Brazilian with basic sanitation did increase by 11 percentage points to 55.3 percent between 2005 and 2015, that number is still far below the percentage of whites who have access to sanitation (71.9 percent). Today, Black Brazilians remain with less access to quality education and healthcare than their white counterparts.

Some policies have been put into place in an attempt to loosen the links between race, class and inequality and create more social mobility. Affirmative action-style quotas exist at the country’s top universities, as well as for some public job sectors. These haven’t been without controversy or difficulty, however – for example, many white Brazilians claim African heritage, either in the form of Black grandparents or a shared colonial past. But Brazilians whose color is more visible claim that the white-passing Brazilians don’t actually experience the same routine forms of discrimination. Quotas are yielding some progress, but still need some technicalities ironed out. In the meantime, Brazilian society still needs to have an important conversation about privilege, social mobility, and race.[/restricted]

Guide to Brazil

Religion in Brazil

Religion in Brazil
Círio de Nazaré, 2016. Photo: Antonio Silva/Ag. Pará

Between exposés on the rise of Evangelical Churches and photos of exorcisms, Brazil’s rise in Evangelical Christianity has in recent years become the subject of much media spectacle. But it would be a mistake to believe that this is Brazil’s only religion aside from Catholicism, which was brought to our shores with Portuguese colonizers in the 16th century. For several centuries, religious beliefs across Brazil have been anything but homogenous. As freedoms grow, Brazil’s cultural melting pot has gradually found itself with a greater diversity of religions.

In 1940, 95 percent of Brazilians declared themselves Catholic – something that has changed radically in recent years. Neither of these facts are surprising; colonial settlers brought across Jesuit missionaries when they first arrived in Brazil, and although the 1891 Constitution separated ties between the Church and the State, it also established Catholicism as Brazil’s official religion. [restricted]But according to the 2010 Census, Catholics now make up 64.6 percent of the Brazilian population, including Brazil’s wealthiest ten percent and its poorest ten percent.

Brazil is far from homogenous when it comes to religion

Brazil’s colonizers were quick to bring across enslaved Africans, who also brought their own beliefs. Although the Brazilian census groups Candomblé and Umbanda together, forming 0.3 percent of the population, they are different religions with different roots. Candomblé is the result of African slaves being forcibly implanted in Brazil from diverse parts of their own continent, bringing with them a mixture of African religious beliefs and worshipping practices. While the Constitution officially enshrined Catholicism as Brazil’s official religion and didn’t outlaw other religions, Candomblé practices were designated as witchcraft.

The marks of this tradition endure to this day. Practitioners faced violent persecution for their beliefs and practices, including torture and being burnt alive. To hide their beliefs, Candomblé practitioners worshipped on secret terreiros, and celebrated their orixás (deities) on the same day as Catholic saints. This tradition, known as religious syncretism, still continues; for example, believers still celebrate Ogum on St George’s Day and Iemanjá on February 2nd, when the Catholic Church celebrates the Virgin Mary’s purification. Although Candomblé is now recognized as a religion, believers are still the biggest targets of religious intolerance crimes in Brazil.

Umbanda, meanwhile, emerged at the beginning of the 20th century. Incorporating Afro-Brazilian, indigenous and Catholic elements, Umbanda is actually an offshoot of Spiritism. Umbandistas, consequently, have never faced the same popularity nor persecution as Candomblé.

Spiritism, or Kardecism, is newer to Brazil than Candomblé, but currently accounts for some 3.8 million Brazilians, or two percent of the population. Founded in 1854 by French educator and translator Hippolyte Léon Denizard Rivail, using a pen name of Allan Kardec, Spiritism was well established in Brazil by the mid-1880s. It proposes the study of “the nature, origin, and destiny of spirits, and their relationship with the corporeal world”, and has also grown slowly in recent years – between 2000 and 2010, more than 1 million Brazilians declared themselves Spiritists.

Religion in Brazil

There are more traditional religions than you might think

More mainstream religions, too, make up some of Brazil’s main religious minorities. Recife, in Brazil’s Northeast, is home to the first Jewish Synagogue in the Americas. Built when Dutch colonizers controlled the Northeast between 1630 and 1657, the Sinagoga Kahal Zur Israel was built by Portuguese Jews fleeing Catholic persecution. Currently, Brazil is home to the second largest Jewish population in Latin America, behind Argentina – although this is still just 0.056 percent of the population.

Buddhists make up 1.2 percent of the Brazilian population, with 243,966 followers in 2010. There was a drop between the 1990 census and the 2000 census, but Pontifical Catholic University of São Paulo (PUC-SP) researcher Frank Usarski believes that this is due to earlier generations of Japanese immigrants dying and their descendants choosing other practices and beliefs. Yet the number of Brazilian Buddhists grew again between 2000 and 2010, due to a growing number of Brazilians switching to Buddhism.

Brazil’s Muslim population might be small, at 0.015 percent, but it’s growing fast: the population has grown by 29 percent in the last 10 years, with Muslims arriving from Ghana, Nigeria, Tanzania, Morocco, Bangladesh, and Syria. The civil war in Syria certainly plays a factor: according to Conare, the National Committee for Refugees, Brazil granted refugee status to some 2,077 Syrians between 2011 and 2015.

Conversions and births are also growing, particularly in larger urban centers – the number of mosques and centers for practicing Islam grew by 20 percent in Sao Paulo in 2015. However, it’s still marginal in comparison to Catholicism and Evangelicalism: there were only 102 centers to practice Islam in 2015, compared to the hundreds of thousands of churches scattered throughout the country.

Atheism, too, is on the rise. In 2000, approximately 7.3 percent of Brazilians said they did not hold any religious beliefs. By 2010, this had increased to 8 percent. But Brazil’s fastest growing religious group is the Evangelical Christians.

In the 2010 Census, just over 22 percent declared themselves Evangelicals, with Pentecostal Evangelicals forming the majority. Evangelicals began preaching more discretely in Brazil in the early 20th century, and grew slowly at first – by the 1970s, they accounted for just 5 percent of the population. But as Pentecostalism increased during the 1980s, the numbers of followers did, too.

The Evangelical ladder to power

Brazil’s major religions have always had links with the media; the Catholic Church, for example, used radio programs to promote popular literacy in the early 1920s. And although there were connections between the Catholic Church’s program and localized rural or urban agendas throughout the country, they didn’t harness power in the same way as the Evangelical Church does through the media.

Evangelicals in Brazil

Television, according to UFRJ doctoral researcher Janaine Aires, is where the Evangelicals began to make their mark on the population. Although they had been using broadcast for mass communication since the 1940s, the changes really took place after the inauguration of the first Evangelical television station in 1982. Taking advantage of the clash between the tone of the media in the early 80s and the Catholic Church, Evangelical television was able to find its niche. “Especially in the country’s re-democratization period, evangelicals became stronger on radio and television,” said Aires.

In 1989, the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God had grown wealthy enough to become the first Evangelical Church with a nation-wide television station, Record. Although Record remains one of the biggest, Aires says that today more than half of the national networks are linked to religious entities. And as the Evangelicals’ presence grew in Brazil’s broadcast media, so did their political representation. This began in 1987, when the Universal Church elected its first congressman; today, it has 24.

Aires points again to Record, owned by Bishop Edir Macedo and his wife Ester Bezerra, as an example of how Evangelical Christians have used popular media to launch their political careers. Two thirds of the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God’s elected political representatives began their careers by working with Record in some capacity.

“These congressmen are presenters, commentators, and reporters of the television and radio stations linked to religious entities,” she said. Aires says that this plays into the Church’s strategy of creating celebrity politicians. “Currently, 66 percent of the current political representation of this Church in the national congress exercises functions in the media. Thus, Record constitutes a privileged platform for political ascent.”

The evangelical vote has become such a force that Silas Malafaia, the country’s most famous televangelist, participated in the campaign of more than 500 candidates for Congress in 2014, and helped to elect 24 mayors in 2012.

In today’s Congress, 75 representatives declare themselves to be evangelical. They gravitate around the Evangelical Parliamentary Front, a group that transcends party ideology. There is space for both the left- and right-wing, as long as they respect “Christian values above all.”

It is a mistake, though, to perceive evangelicals as a monolithic group. Different churches actually dispute among one another quite a bit, as they are also competing for followers. But traditional family values are the one thing capable of bringing them all together. “They tend to feel threatened by what they see as a ‘dictatorship of the gay agenda.’

Evangelical congressmen are not permeable to other points of view partially because they feel as they are demonized by human rights activists, feminists, intellectuals – which, indeed, they are,” says Ricardo Mariano, a sociologist from the University of São Paulo.[/restricted]

Guide to Brazil

Breaking down Brazil’s population

Brazil currently has a population of 207,995,710, with one new Brazilian born about every 21 seconds. By the time the next census is released in 2020, Brazil is expected to be home to some 209 million people.

The country is also home to Latin America’s most populous city, São Paulo, which has over 12 million inner-city inhabitants. São Paulo is also the 12th largest city in the world by population, and the São Paulo state, with 45,149,486 inhabitants, is also our country’s most populated. Rio de Janeiro is our second-biggest metropolis with nearly 6.5 million residents, making it Latin America’s fourth most populous city. And Rio de Janeiro is also our country’s third-largest state, with 16,703,981 people.

But the spread of Brazil’s population is, of course, far more complex. [restricted]The state of Minas Gerais has the second highest population per state, with 21,091,170 inhabitants. Yet mineiros are not concentrated in sprawling urban centers to the same extent as São Paulo or Rio – its biggest city is Belo Horizonte, with 2.5 million residents. Only two other cities in the state have a population of more than half a million, and Minas Gerais is also home to the country’s smallest city, Serra da Saudade, which has just over 800 inhabitants.

Brazil’s population: distribution

Brazil’s population is largely concentrated along its coastal fringes, with its most populous states and cities dotting its coastline. This dates back to colonization: settlers built homes in the country’s Southeast, where the climate was more palatable to Europeans and where the terrain was both more accessible, as well as amenable to agricultural activity.

The tropical, drought-prone climes of the North and Northeast, plus its wild terrain and the untameable Amazon region, meant that its original inhabitants were far more adventurous in attempting to set up shop than their more southern counterparts. The forested interior was also home to Brazil’s indigenous tribes, though explorers brought diseases and weaponry that devastated the population.


Despite developments that turned further-flung settlements into cities and imposed transport infrastructure on the Brazilian wilderness, this coastal concentration still remains today. After all, Brazil’s South and Southeast region were recipients of large-scale investment, as well as both international immigration and internal migration. Some of Brazil’s most celebrated literary classics, like Mario de Andrade’s Macunaíma, examine journeys made by individuals from the poorer North and Northeastern regions to lucrative southern cities in hopes of prosperity.

Today, Brazil’s smallest populations are in states that border on the vast expanses of the Amazon rainforest. Roraima is the smallest, with just 521,337 inhabitants. But the states of Acre and Amapá also have populations of under a million.


Brazil hasn’t changed much since 1974 when, in an attempt to summarize the country’s income inequality, Brazilian economist Edmar Bacha coined the term “Belíndia” to describe the manifestation of wealth disparities in the country: large swathes of impoverished India, surrounding small pockets of Belgium.

By 2014, these extremes were modified only slightly: Brazil’s richest region, the capital Brasília resembled Italy rather than Belgium when it came to GDP. Its poorest states, meanwhile – Maranhão (MA) and Piauí (PI) – now have an average GDP closer to Jordan than to India. Nevertheless, these figures still represent a huge disparity: 37,651 BRL per capita in the capital, compared to 4,681 BRL in MA and PI.

Lula’s government still receives much of the credit for pulling approximately 36 million Brazilians out of extreme poverty. This happened through a conditional cash-transfer program for low-income households across Brazil called Bolsa Família (Family Wallet). Households receive stipends based on per-head income, under the condition that children go to school and receive their vaccines.

In reality, Bolsa Família was a formalized accumulation of several of the previous administration’s most successful social policies – but together, it did the trick. However, American journalist Alex Cuadros notes that at the same time that Lula introduced the program, “he spoke the language of consumerism” and “expanded credit to people who had never had it before,” encouraging people to buy cars, televisions, fridges and washing machines.

Disparities today

Between 2003 and 2011, 9 million Brazilians entered the country’s upper and upper-middle classes, while approximately 40 million – equal to the entire population of Algeria – joined the so-called middle class. By 2012, Brazilians from every class were busy buying.

Families doubled the amount they spent on food. Households invested in appliances, entertainment, vehicles, clothing, and healthcare. Middle classes increased cigarette consumption by 0.5 percent; upper-middle classes sent their children to private schools; the financial elites bought CDs, DVDs, and financial products.

By 2012, the number of households with televisions overtook the number of households with fridges. Brazilians became the fifth most optimistic consumers in the world – but perhaps most striking is how this was distributed across Brazil. While the Southeast had the country’s most affluent consumers during Brazil’s boom, consumerism in the North grew four times faster than in the Southeast.

The legacy of this exists today. Wealth discrepancy shows itself not just in the vastly unequal GDP distribution per state, but by what each household owns. Moreover, this same variation between poorer, rural locales and richer metropolitan areas remains. States in Brazil’s interior, North, and Northeast, in addition to lower GDP, are emblematic of this contrast. In Amapá state, for example, 89.2 percent of households have a mobile phone – but just 2.4 percent have access to sanitation at home.

Though it is true only for the states of Amapá and Piauí that under ten percent of the population has access to sanitation, most Brazilian states still have similarly sizeable gaps. 74 percent of Maranhão households have mobile phones, but only 19.4 percent have sanitation. And in Rio Grande do Norte, the number of houses with access to mobile phones is three times higher than the number with access to sanitation.[/restricted]

Guide to Brazil

Is Brazilian Portuguese a language of its own?

Brazil, as with Portugal and seven other countries spread through Africa and Asia, has Portuguese as its official tongue. However, our language is by no means the same as that of our colonizers. Although differences are mainly observed in pronunciation, the structure of the Portuguese language evolved differently in Brazil than it did in Portugal.

These differences are marked enough that many linguists defend Brazilian Portuguese as a language of its own. “The struggle for the recognition of our linguistic autonomy is, above all, a political issue,” says Marcos Bagno, a linguist of the University of Brasília. “The Brazilian way of speaking and writing remains to be seen as a ‘deviation’ or a ‘misuse’ of proper Portuguese. While they are similar, they are by no means the same.”[restricted]

When contemplating the discrepancies between language use in Brazil and Portugal, it might be more accurate to compare it to the relationship between the French of France and French of Quebec, rather than U.S. and UK English.

African influences

Indigenous and African languages had an enormous influence on the development of Brazilian Portuguese. When Brazil gained its independence from Portugal in 1822, 1.5 million of Brazil’s 3.5 million people were slaves of African descent. Today, roughly 3,000 Brazilian Portuguese words have African roots.

While there’s no doubt that African languages impacted our lexicon, their influence on grammar is heavily debated. Many linguists have downplayed these languages’ impact over the years, despite contradictory research.

In a 2014 article, scholars Juanito Avelar and Charlotte Galves, from the University of Campinas, have analyzed such influences. They identified present-day traces of indigenous African languages in Brazil – something that also occurs in African Portuguese-speaking countries, such as Angola or Mozambique, but not in Portugal.

Languages spoken by native Brazilian tribes have also made their mark. Several words and expressions have been incorporated into Brazilian Portuguese, although colonization decimated most native languages. Brazilian linguists estimate that around 1,200 Brazilian native languages have disappeared since the arrival of the Portuguese in 1500.

Moreover, 87 percent of indigenous languages in Brazil risk disappearing in upcoming decades due to their lack of speakers. These languages are spoken by groups of fewer than 10,000 people each.

The Amazonian General Language

Though Portuguese is Brazil’s official language and is widely spoken by nearly the entire population, this was by no means always the case. The language of the Portuguese colonizers was only established as the colony’s official tongue in 1758 – over 250 years after the first settlers had arrived on our shores.

Until the 18th century, the most-widely spoken language in our country was actually indigenous. The “general language,” or Nheengatu, was a supra-ethnic language of the Tupi-Guarani family and spoken by both whites and blacks.

There were two variations of this “general language” during Colonial Brazil: one from the Amazon, and one from São Paulo. The latter disappeared during the 18th century – but not without leaving a profound mark on the Portuguese language spoken throughout the colony. Meanwhile, the Amazonian general language remained the most-widely spoken language in Northern Brazil until the rubber boom in the late 19th century.

Two factors contributed to the spread of the general language: the miscegenation between colonizers and indigenous populations, and the enslavement of many tribes. In São Paulo, tribes used to accept foreigners into their families by marrying them to a young woman of the tribe.

Between the 16th and the 18th century, Jesuit missionaries and Portuguese settlers staged a dispute over the control of indigenous populations. At first, the Jesuits fared better as they spoke the general language. Over time, though, the Portuguese realized that learning the local supra-ethnic language would give them the upper hand.

The Portuguese Crown itself began encouraging the spread of the general language. In 1689, it decided that the Jesuits would teach Nheengatu not only to indigenous peoples, but also to the sons of the settlers.

With time, however, the predominance of the Nheengatu came to be seen as a nuisance. Representatives of the crown in the colony were forced to rely on translators, which created hurdles for managing their territories. To make matters worse, the general language was linked to the Jesuits, and their relationship with the Crown began to sour. In 1759, the missionaries were expelled from the colonies, and the use of any branch of the Tupi-Guarani language family was strictly forbidden.

The general language is still spoken in parts of the Amazon by roughly 30,000 people of indigenous descent. A handful of cities have declared the Nheengatu an official language, and scholars at the University of São Paulo still teach it – and are fighting to help spread it among tribes, reaffirming their native origins.[/restricted]

Guide to Brazil

Brazil during the World Wars

While the rest of the planet teetered on the brink of one of history’s most expansive wars, we were busy looking inwards. The Contestado War had been raging in Santa Catarina and Paraná since 1912, as settlers fought with landowners, who were backed by the military and police forces, for land rights. Meanwhile, European settlers arriving in recent years had brought with them ideas of anarchy and communism – something that was causing a significant headache for a political class made up of oligarchs and rural aristocracies.

So when the rest of the world entered into a state of war in 1914, we weren’t exactly in a hurry to join in.

The economic interests of the ruling classes, who controlled the politics of the era, were to remain neutral. Brazil’s main economy rested on exporting specialty agricultural products to North America and Europe. The economy was particularly dependent on coffee: at the time, three quarters of all coffee drunk worldwide came from Brazil. And so in the hopes of protecting its trading interests, our country declared neutrality as World War I kicked off.

Unfortunately, this plan proved more complex than Brazil’s elites had hoped. [restricted]As the war snowballed, more countries were dragged into conflict and the spending power of its protagonist countries was reduced. For Brazil, this meant that not only did European governments see more pressing uses for space on cargo ships crossing the Atlantic, but also that lower levels of purchase power among consumers resulted in the decline of luxury goods imports – like coffee. Brazil’s economy also suffered collateral damage as the British introduced a naval blockade designed to stifle the Central Powers countries; it included a ban on all coffee imports.

On May 3, 1916, the Brazilian merchant ship Rio Branco was struck down by a German submarine. Though the Rio Branco had been sailing under a British flag in restricted waters and was manned by Norwegians, it was still enough to cause a public outcry among Brazilians. And under a year later, Germans struck down Brazil’s steamer Paraná on April 5, 1917. This time three Brazilians on board died, and groups in Brazil’s main cities held pro-war demonstrations.

Brazil’s political class suddenly had an excuse to enter the conflict – and just fifteen days later, we declared the end of our diplomatic relations with Germany.

Brazil during World War I

By October of 1917, Brazil officially declared war on the Central Powers. Not only could our politicians take advantage of demonstrations in the cities, but it was also a chance for the country to conveniently align itself with the economic superpowers on the Allied side, who already looked set to win.

Brazil’s contribution was always more symbolic than real. Despite being the world’s 13th most populous nation by 1900 with more than 17 million citizens, Brazil sent only several hundred men to join the Allied war efforts. This was partially due to the lack of manpower on Brazil’s part; the army had to undergo an extensive hiring process to reach this number in the first place. Brazilian soldiers were also poorly trained in comparison to their fellow combatants, and their equipment didn’t meet the same standards.

President Venceslau Bras signs declaration of war against germany
Pres. Venceslau Brás (left) declares war on Germany

In fact, Brazil’s biggest enemy during World War I was not a foreign army but a virus. Sailors were hit badly by the Spanish influenza epidemic, with a far higher mortality rate from the disease than elsewhere in the world. Sailors were exposed to the disease as soon as they landed in Dakar, and almost 90 percent of them went on to catch the fever.

Roughly 10 percent of the crew died, thanks to a combination of dehydration, the lack of exposure to the virus’s first wave, and lungs damaged by pollution from ships. The final result was that Brazil’s troops didn’t make it to Gibraltar until November 2018, just days before the armistice was signed.

We only engaged in one battle during the war. The cruiser “Bahia” searched for German U-Boats next to Gibraltar, and launched a powerful attack against what the crew believed to be an enemy submarine. Turns out that it was … a group of porpoises.

World War I nonetheless greatly altered our economy, as it destabilized the central rule of coffee and luxury commodities. Meanwhile, waves of European immigrants, hoping to start anew or fleeing persecution, arrived on our shores. With the new influx of white collar and professional workers, and growing urbanization, Brazil’s economy – and politics – became increasingly layered, and ever more complicated. By the time World War II came around, Brazil was under the authoritarian leadership of Getúlio Vargas.

World War II

As the war broke in 1939, Brazil’s economy was still highly dependent on exports. Germany had become an important partner for Brazil, trading manufactured goods and war materials in return for basic supplies, like cotton, and luxury goods, like coffee. Additionally, Vargas admired the fascist governments in Italy and Portugal at the time. But exports to the U.S. were also important; knowing this, Vargas opted for neutrality in the hopes of trading with both Allied and Axis forces.

But the U.S. was pushing for its own diplomatic and economic alliance with Brazil, hoping to strengthen military ties during World War II. This became the Joint Brazil-U.S. Defense Commission, which aimed to reduce the likelihood of Axis attacks on U.S. ships as soldiers travelled to Africa and Europe, and minimized Axis powers in South America. Thanks to the commission, by 1941 Brazil had allowed the U.S. to patrol the South Atlantic using its bases. Tensions between Brazil and Germany then heightened, as German torpedoes once again started to sink Brazilian ships.

The Pearl Harbor attacks in late 1941 acted as a catalyst for the participation of the Americas in World War II and once again gave Brazil the excuse it needed to join the side that looked likely to win. Although Vargas was not keen to enter combat, pro-war protests in Brazil’s principal cities and harassment of German communities gave him leverage to do so.

Vargas was also looking to position Brazil favorably with countries that might invest in its industries, both established and nascent. As a result, a 1942 agreement led to US airbases in Brazil, with promises that the US would help Brazil form a national iron industry.

Consequently, when Rio de Janeiro hosted the 9th Pan-American conference in early January 1942, there were enough economic and popular grounds for Brazil to announce that it would cut ties with Axis powers, and encouraged its Latin American neighbors to do the same. But the German forces retaliated, sinking 13 Brazilian merchant vessels between January and July of 1942, plus five more over just two days in August. Over 1,200 Brazilians were killed in 1942 alone.

As with the First World War, a lack of up-to-date weaponry and insufficient training meant that Brazil’s involvement was more of a symbolic gesture of support. Naval efforts were concentrated on protecting shipping routes between Central and South America and Gibraltar, but Brazil’s largest contribution was the Brazilian Expeditionary Force (FEB). Made up of a group of approximately 25,700 men from the army and air force, the FEB’s activities would eventually take place in Europe.

But disagreements among Allied countries over where to deploy Brazil’s forces, plus updates to training and equipment, meant that it took FEB over two years to finally join the war. FEB’s symbol became a smoking snake, sewn onto their uniforms as an identifying patch in homage to cynicism that they would ever actually leave Brazil. In the years of waiting, a phrase became popular among soldiers: “Mais fácil à uma cobra um cachimbo fumar, do que à FEB embarcar” (“It’s easier for a snake to smoke a pipe than for the FEB to embark”).

By the time World War II wrapped up, Brazil’s efforts had resulted in heavy losses. The defeat of the Axis powers saw a growing global trend towards democracy – and the idea was making waves in Brazil, too. Despite his carefully crafted public image, Getúlio Vargas was forced to hold free elections shortly after the war, thus bringing us a fleeting taste of democracy.

Brazilian soldiers World War II
Brazilian soldiers hold sign: “Hitler, here we are.”


Guide to Brazil

Brazil’s New Republic

Although our 1985 elections were indirect, they are widely hailed as the beginning of modern Brazil – also known as the New Republic. Tancredo Neves was officially elected, but severe health problems meant that his VP, José Sarney, had to step in on the eve of his inauguration. Unfortunately, Sarney didn’t quite get off to the promising start many had hoped for.

We Brazilians don’t typically reflect on the 1980s with nostalgia or fondness. International interest rates caused our already enormous levels of debt to grow even larger, and prices were readjusted daily – some even several times a day. Those who remember the period well sometimes recall that supermarket products were more expensive later in the afternoon than they had been on that very same morning.[restricted]

Inflation rates reached 80 percent a month – yes, a month. That’s one of the reasons why we Brazilians are in the habit of shopping for our groceries monthly – a behavior that’s only now starting to change – and why we care so little for coins. Cents were worthless. Between 1986 and 1993, Brazil changed its currency five times.

Democratic elections, at last

In 1989, Brazilians voted for our president for the first time since 1960. The election was decided in a runoff stage between Fernando Collor de Melo, a son of a Northeastern oligarch family, and Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, a bearded, former union leader who flaunted his socialist beliefs. During the campaign, Collor fueled rumors that Lula would confiscate whatever money Brazilians had in their bank accounts. His tactic was effective, and Collor won the presidency in a close race. Ironically enough, though, his administration confiscated all savings on his very first day in office.

Collor’s agenda included opening up the public sector to privatization, opening markets to free trade, and about industrial modernization. His reforms were unpopular among the public and before long proved inefficient. As he lost public support, corruption accusations began to rise. Congress took the opportunity to oust him from office in 1992, when he was formally charged by the Supreme Court with corruption and the forming of a criminal association (he was later found not guilty on all counts).

Fernando Collor corruption Brazil
Cornered by corruption allegations, Collor leaves the presidency

In 1992, Collor’s vice-president Itamar Franco stepped in to fulfill the rest of his predecessor’s term. He introduced a new currency, the Brazilian Real, and managed to bring about enough economic stability for the Real to endure.

In 1994, his Finance Minister Fernando Henrique Cardoso, a.k.a FHC, was elected and continued to steer Brazil towards a steady recovery. Under FHC’s two terms of guidance, Brazil introduced constitutional amendments to open the economy to further foreign investment, and also implemented reforms to reduce public sector spending and improve government efficiency. Some industries, like energy, oil and aviation, were the target of more extensive regulation, while other state-owned ventures were privatized.

Yet as Brazil’s focus on center-right privatization endured throughout the 1990s, a sweeping ideological change was breaking through the political rankings: the increasingly popular, left-leaning Workers’ Party, headed by Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.

The 2000s

With little formal education, Lula had quit school and worked as a shoe-shiner and street vendor from the age of 12 to help his family. And while working in an automobile factory at 19, he lost part of his finger. From this point, he began collaborating with workers’ unions, pushing for workers’ rights in Brazil and becoming one of the most prominent voices of resistance against the military dictatorship. The 2002 elections were his fourth time running for office; he won the runoff stage by a landslide, with 60 percent of the votes.

The Workers’ Party brought efficiency to poverty reduction programs, unifying them all as the now famous Bolsa Família. With time, Brazil was no longer featured on the UN’s World Hunger Map. But he also turned Brazil into a more significant international power, pushing for greater involvement in international relations. A skilled orator, Lula took Brazilian soft power to a level never before seen.

Brazil President Lula
Lula in 2006. Photo: Ricardo Stuckert/PR

He was also the lucky beneficiary of good timing: the discovery of vast oil reserves in Brazilian territory propelled the economy upwards, helping us to win bids to host the Pan-American Games, the FIFA World Cup and the 2016 Olympics.

Lula and the Workers’ Party proved so popular that his successor, Dilma Rousseff, was elected for a further two terms after Lula himself – even without any prior electoral experience.

Rousseff, too, had played a role in left-wing resistance movements to the dictatorship, and had worked her way up the rankings within the party. By the time she assumed the role of Brazil’s President in 2010, the Lula government’s socioeconomic initiatives had seen the middle class swell. But this was accompanied by a growing dissatisfaction among the population when it came to basic rights, high taxes, and Brazil’s persistent ghost – inflation.

The trouble really began after the global commodities crash slashed the value of Brazil’s oil wealth, triggering a financial crisis. By 2013, dissatisfaction was so high that a proposed 0.20 BRL increase to bus fares sparked nationwide protests. However, these protests quickly became a sign of an ever-increasing popular discontent.

In 2014, months after the first news broke regarding ongoing political corruption saga, Operation Car Wash, Rousseff was elected for a second term. But with the economic and political crises forming a two-pronged attack on Brazil, Rousseff grew steadily more unpopular among both the population and her peers in Congress.

In August 2016, she was impeached for doctoring the federal budget and replaced by her vice president, Michel Temer – who then legalized the very methods she was impeached for just two days later. Temer’s government has recorded the lowest political approval ratings of all time – as low as 2 percent in some polls – while pushing through a series of harsh, vastly unpopular austerity reforms.

Temer, who promised to conduct a peaceful transition towards the 2018 presidential election, has done anything but. Upon taking office, he named an all-white, all-male cabinet, filled with men facing corruption accusations. Temer himself had to deflect an indictment request by Brazil’s Prosecutor General, after he was caught in an audio recording discussing the bribery of public officials. But as Temer conducts an administration focused on pleasing the political class, little room is left for his opposition to take him down.[/restricted]

Guide to Brazil

Brazil’s military dictatorship

Simmering tensions under the surface, an increasingly authoritarian leadership, and swelling military power cast a shadow over Brazil starting from the mid-1960s. Over the course of the country’s 21-year dictatorship, at least 191 civilian deaths and 234 “disappearances” occurred by the hands of those in power. But the Inter-American Court for Human Rights believes the real number of deaths, many of which went unreported, is actually closer to 1,000 – in addition to the estimated 10,000 Brazilians forced into exile and the more than 50,000 detainees.

Brazil had a high turnover when it came to presidents in the years directly following Vargas’s death. Juscelino Kubitschek oversaw the creation of Brazil’s new political heart, Brasília, and amped the country’s production capacity. But the military’s growing influence on the country’s leadership became evident when his successor, Jânio Quadros, stepped down after a mere seven months in office.

Fears over Brazil’s apparent communist leanings meant that Quadros’ vice-president, João Goulart, held on to the presidency for less than three years. [restricted]By April 1st, 1964, with the support of U.S. President Lyndon Johnson and several sectors of Brazil’s economic elites, the Armed Forces overthrew Goulart and installed a military dictatorship.

The military presidents

Just ten days later, Brazil had a new President to see out what remained of Goulart’s term: Field Marshal Humberto de Alencar Castelo Branco. Congress was shut down, strikes were made illegal, and salaries were frozen. Castelo Branco initially planned to hand power back to civilians by the end of his term, but the radical sectors of the military had other ideas. They imposed Field Marshal Artur da Costa e Silva as the new President, who governed between 1967 and 1969.

By that time, left-wing sectors had organized themselves into armed groups, using urban guerrilla tactics to fight against the military regime. In response, the government radicalized its repressive actions, suspending the constitution and imposing censorship. In 1969, Costa e Silva died of a heart attack and was succeeded by a military junta. One year later, General Emílio Garrastazú Médici became Brazil’s President.

Protests Brazil government
Prisons and tortures became a state policy

Although Brazil’s dictatorship doesn’t compare to Chile or Argentina in terms of the number of deaths, the most violent human rights abuses took place under Médici. Rather than committing mass murders, Brazil’s dictatorship became renowned for its widespread use of torture techniques, learned at the U.S. Army School of the Americas in Panama. By the end of his term in 1974, left-wing armed organizations had been wiped out of the political landscape.

The “Years of Lead” coincided with a period of intense artistic revolution and creativity in Brazil, spawning movements like the pop genre tropicália, one of the most original cultural movements in our country. In an original, even anarchic way, musicians blended rock and roll with elements of Brazilian culture – which, at the time, was thought to be “uncool.”

Musicians Gilberto Gil and Caetano Veloso were imprisoned, while others like Chico Buarque undertook a self-imposed exile to European countries. It was also during this era that Brazil’s powerful drug trafficking gangs formed in prisons and established power in the country’s vulnerable, low-income favela communities.

The “Brazilian Miracle”

Between 1968 and 1973, Brazil experienced extraordinary growth rates, hovering at 10 percent every year. Official slogans were along the lines of, “No one can hold this country back.” But those positive numbers are deceptive upon closer inspection. That period also marked an increase of inequality in Brazil, and there was no solid growth-to-growth. When the oil crisis of 1974 shpook the world, Brazil’s economy plummeted. Trade deficits hit $4 billion per year.

To finance the earlier growth, the Brazilian government borrowed hefty sums of money from abroad. The external debt skyrocketed to $90 billion, and inflation annually hit the 100 percent mark. The poor became poorer, unemployment rose, and the internal market shrank abruptly.

The decline of the regime

In June 1973, Médici announced Ernesto Geisel would be his successor, taking control during the following March. Geisel’s leadership was the beginning of the regime’s softening, permitting a return of exiled citizens, allowing the Brazilian Democratic Movement (MDB) to run an election campaign in 1974 and relaxing authoritarian rule. In 1978, Brazilian workers gained an 11 percent wage rise after Geisel was forced to deal with the country’s first workers’ strike since before the dictatorship, led by none other than the future president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.

The dictatorship’s intentional softening continued under President João Figueiredo until 1984, when mass protests erupted throughout the country. With the cry of “Diretas Já” (direct elections now), protestors demanded direct elections for the population. Although they were unsuccessful, Brazil’s indirect elections in 1985 signaled an official end to the dictatorship.[/restricted]

Guide to Brazil

The Getulio Vargas Era in Brazil

During the first few decades of the Brazilian Republic, oligarchs from São Paulo and Minas Gerais dominated the national political scene. They had a simple but effective deal: one state would work to elect their own President, and in the following election, it would be the other state’s turn to choose the President-to-be.

In 1930, São Paulo ignored the deal and launched its own successful presidential bid – and succeeded. Elites from Minas Gerais challenged the election and refused to accept the results. Meanwhile, groups from other states seized the opportunity to break the São Paulo-Minas Gerais monopoly over the presidential elections. Leaders from the South and the Northeast joined forces, creating the “Liberal Alliance” with landowner Getulio Vargas at its helm. The liberals were successful in their power-grab, deposing sitting President Washington Luís and inaugurating Vargas as Brazil’s “provisional” President.[restricted]

During his “temporary” government, Vargas began to modernize our country’s industrial sectors. He also carried out a plan to centralize power, gradually weakening regional oligarchs. In 1932, São Paulo rebelled against the overbearing federal government and demanded a new constitution. The uprising was quickly crushed, nevertheless, Vargas decided to promote a new Constitution.

Among its new features, the 1934 Constitution implemented secret ballot voting, votes for women and compulsory primary school education for all. However, it was short-lived. Political alliances motivated by communist ideologies grew in popularity, but their ideologies were unpopular with the elite. The communist uprisings were squashed by the government in 1937, whose conquest against these agitators had the support of both the country’s military and São Paulo’s middle class. With their backing, by November 1937 Vargas was once again governing Brazil by force. And this time, his dictatorship was uncontested.

The Estado Novo

The regime known as Estado Novo, or New State, drew clear inspiration from the fascist governments in Portugal and Italy. Vargas put pressure on the independence of Brazil’s three executive powers, as he closed down Congress, banned political parties, and imprisoned opponents. His own appointed governors were charged with appointing mayors, and the Estado Novo created its own court for national security. He also heavily censored the press, and, thanks to the newly formed Department of Press and Propaganda (DIP), began to craft his “Father of the Poor” image.

Despite Vargas’ fondness of Germany and Italy, Brazil joined the Allies once the U.S. entered the conflict, tipping the scales in favor of the Allies.

By 1941, heavy losses for Brazil had already damaged the Estado Novo regime – and Vargas’s reputation along with it. In 1943, 76 politicians, intellectuals, and businessmen from Minas Gerais signed the Manifesto dos Mineiros, criticizing the dictatorial regime and demanding a return to democracy. Threatened with a military coup, Vargas finally stepped down in 1945.

But the free elections of 1945 were not the end of Getulio Vargas, who was elected Senator and recorded the highest number of votes of any candidate. By 1951, he was elected President of Brazil by popular vote.

Unfortunately for Vargas, his new government quickly became regarded as one of the most corrupt entities in our country’s entire history. His closest government appointments provoked a series of accusations, and the President himself became the focus a negative campaign by journalist Carlos Lacerda. During that period, Lacerda was the victim of an assassination attempt. The journalist attributed the hit job to Vargas’ security chief, generating a political crisis that led to the President’s loss of support among many sectors of the elite – including the military.

With his reputation in shreds and pressure from both the military and the press to step down, Vargas vowed he would never resign. At dawn on August 24, 1954, he shot himself in the heart. In his suicide note he left the infamous line, “I leave this life to enter into history.”[/restricted]

Guide to Brazil

Brazil’s First Republic

On November 15, 1889, a group of military personnel seized the Imperial Government of Pedro II and ended the monarchy, 67 years after our independence from the Portuguese colonial powers. Several factors caused the imperial family to lose popularity among Brazil’s rural elite: there were conflicts with the Catholic Church, which was subordinate to the crown; a deep economic crisis; the end of slavery in 1888; and the request for more autonomy from provinces like São Paulo and Minas Gerais. But the political-military coup that turned our country into a republic nearly didn’t occur.[restricted]

Pressured by sectors of the army and the republican movement to lead a deposition of the monarchy, Field Marshal Deodoro da Fonseca was initially hesitant. A monarchist throughout his life, Deodoro highly respected the “old man,” as he called the Emperor. When military forces overtook the government’s palace, Deodoro defended an overhaul of the cabinet rather than a complete dissolution of the crown. Yet as the day wore on, he gave into pressure and, as a result, became Brazil’s first President.

The dethroning of Pedro II was a movement orchestrated by the Brazilian elites of the time, and was undertaken without popular endorsement. In fact, to avoid protests, the imperial family was exiled from Brazil in the middle of the night. According to historical accounts, Pedro II, when placed on a ship to Europe, exclaimed: “I’m not a runaway slave, I’m not getting on board!”

The first republican period in Brazil’s history was strikingly similar to a monarchy. Values such as popular voting, universal education, citizenship, and inclusion were never part of the agenda. The first few years after the Proclamation of the Republic have indeed become known as the Sword Republic because of the prominence of military leaders. Deodoro da Fonseca, an ailing elderly man, resigned before the end of his term and was replaced by yet another field marshal, Floriano Peixoto, a despotic man who would become known as “the Iron Marshal.”

When more power was handed over to civilian populations in 1894, the power balance was just as it had been since the Empire. The president had little power to run the country, and obeyed instead the rural aristocracy from which all Brazilian presidents of the time were issued. Power often oscillated between oligarchies in São Paulo and Minas Gerais. The period is colloquially referred to as café com leite – that is, the ‘coffee with milk’ period, named after the two main products from the ruling states.

Brazil Coffee and Milk politics
Newspaper cartoon about the end of the São Paulo-Minas Gerais dominance.

Until this point, many Brazilians lived in communities under a system resembling a feudal aristocracy. Latifúndios, large portions of privately owned land, concentrated most of Brazil’s land and wealth into the hands of a few hundred oligarchs. The first decades of Brazil’s Old Republic were marred by conflicts related to land and civil rights.

The increase of European settlers coming over in the early years of the 20th century also caused problems for Brazil. With a very conservative leadership and concentration of power, the new arrivals caused friction by bringing ideas of communism and anarchy to the working classes. By 1917, Brazil had its first General Strike. Laborers, led by Ruy Barbosa, demanded better rights; Barbosa was a main opposition leader who advocated for a copycat approach to the USA. The Strike was brutally repressed, with Brazil’s government acting in the hopes of repressing any similar social movements.

But developments in manufacturing and Brazil’s influx of migrants had generated an inevitable change: the emergence of a new class of urban workers in professions including banking and government. With them, power structures had changed, leaving coronelismo and café com leite politics dwindling behind. The middle class and popular dissatisfaction grew in tandem. At the same time, friction between political groups from São Paulo and Minas Gerais weakened the rulers of the Old Republic.

From this picture emerged Getúlio Vargas, a Rio Grande do Sul-born lawyer and politician. He climbed the political ladder during Brazil’s restless first period as a Republic until 1930, when he took control of the country by force. According to several historical accounts, an ally of his coined the phrase ‘Façamos a revolução antes que o povo a faça’. The saying, which translates to “Let’s make a revolution before the people do”, is pretty indicative of Vargas’s style of governance.

Journalist Laurentino Gomes, who has written about the Proclamation of the Brazilian Republic, likes to say that the republic was actually proclaimed in 1984 when the Brazilian people – for the first time in their history – led a political movement asking for the end of the military dictatorship and the creation of a direct elections system.

The Brazilian Flag

In school, Brazilian children learn that the colors of our flag represent the riches of the country: green for the forests, yellow for the gold, blue for the skies, and white for peace. And yet everything about this explanation is incorrect. The Brazilian republican flag is actually modeled after the monarchy’s flag. The green rectangle represents the House of Bragança, the Portuguese Royal Family, while the yellow represented Austria’s Habsburg family, the house of Empress Maria Leopoldina.

After the proclamation of the Republic in 1889, the imperial coat of arms at the flag’s center was replaced by a blue disc, with stars representing each state, and the national motto: Ordem e Progresso (“Order and Progress”) – something we borrowed from Auguste Comte’s motto for positivism: “Love as a principle and order as the basis; progress as the goal.”

Brazilian flag meaning
The Republican flag (left) v. the Imperial flag


Guide to Brazil

Slavery in Brazil

On May 13, 1888, Brazilian Princess Isabel of Bragança signed Imperial Law number 3,353, a text containing just 18 words and two paragraphs. Still, it’s one of the most important pieces of legislation ever approved in Brazil. Called the “Golden Law,” it abolished all forms of slavery in our country.

For 350 long years, slavery was the heart of the Brazilian economy. According to historian Emilia Viotti da Costa, 40 percent of the 10 million African slaves brought to the New World came to Brazil. Slaves were so pivotal to our economy that Ina von Binzer, a German educator who lived here during the late 1800s, wrote: “In this country, the Blacks occupy the main role. They are responsible for all the labor and produce all the wealth in this land. The white Brazilian just doesn’t work.”

By 1888, abolitionism was a consensual cause, which had the support of most Brazilians – including several conservative sectors. The reason? Slavery had actually decreased due to the modernization of agriculture and increasing migration towards Brazil’s cities from rural locales.

The process that culminated in the “Golden Law” began nearly 70 years prior to 1888. From the moment of Brazilian independence, the country was pressured by England into abolishing its slave trade. However, in 1822, 1.5 million of our 3.5 million people were slaves. And slavery was not simply tolerated – it was strongly supported by all segments of society, including the Catholic Church.

Slave housing Jean-Baptiste Debret
Slave housing. Illustration by Jean-Baptiste Debret

Over time, though, England began seizing slave ships in the Atlantic Ocean, and even attacked a few ports in Brazil with the goal of forbidding slave trade. As a result, the Brazilian government passed a law declaring that all slaves were free upon reaching Brazilian soil. That being said, the government never did much to enforce the law.

As British ships made life harder for traders, the supply of slave labor declined and slaves became more expensive. During Brazil’s early years, slave mortality was extremely high due to appalling housing and work conditions. As time went by, however, owners were forced to improve those conditions in order to preserve their slaves.

Landowners became increasingly aware that slave labor was making less and less economic sense. Paying low salaries to free men was in fact cheaper than maintaining slaves, for whom the owners were responsible. It was around this point that the Brazilian government decided to start to implementing policies with the aim of gradually reducing slavery, treading carefully to avoid disturbing the owners’ economic interests.

The gradual abolition

In 1871, the Brazilian Parliament passed the so-called “Free Womb Law,” declaring that all children born to slave women would be free. However, children had to work for their parents’ owners until they were adults in order to “compensate” the owners. At the time, many notaries – with the knowledge of local parishes – falsified birth certificates to prove that child slaves were born before the law passed. By the estimations of Joaquim Nabuco, a lawyer and abolitionist leader, thanks to this piece of legislation alone, slavery would be in effect in Brazil until the 1930s.

In 1884, a new law came into effect that freed slaves of 60 years old or more. This one was even more perverse than the latter, as it gave owners the power to abandon slaves on their own when they were less productive and more susceptible to diseases. Moreover, it was rare that a slave even made it to his or her 60th birthday.

The Church ended its support of slavery by 1887, and it was not long after that the Crown also started to position itself against it. On May 13, 1888, the remaining 700,000 slaves in Brazil were freed – and left on their own.

photo Minas Gerais - 1880 - Marc Ferrez - Instituto Moreira Salles
Slaves in Minas Gerais, 1880. Photo: Marc Ferrez, Instituto Moreira Salles

Abolitionist movement

Brazil’s abolitionist movement was timid and removed. First, this was because it was an urban movement at a time when most slaves worked on rural properties. But it was also because abolitionist leaders weren’t preoccupied with the aftermath of the abolition. There were no policies of integration, nor were there plans to help transition former slaves into true citizens. Indeed, the abolitionist movement was more concerned with freeing the white population from what had come to be viewed as the burden of slavery.

After slavery was finally abolished as an institution, however, the Brazilian government implemented a policy to whitewash the population. Black immigration was made illegal, and Brazil was to accept only white Europeans or Asian immigrants. Meanwhile, with nowhere to go and no other way to earn a living, many freed slaves entered into informal agreements with their former owners. Those amounted to food and shelter in exchange for free labor, thereby maintaining the status quo.

Still today, vestiges of the slave system can be witnessed in Brazilian society. It is not merely coincidence that while blacks and mixed-race people account for 53 percent of the population, they amount to two-thirds of our prison population and 76 percent of the poorest segment of our population.

Guide to Brazil

The Brazilian Empire (1822-1889)

Brazilian Emperor Dom Pedro II History Brazil
Emperor Dom Pedro II (center) with his family

Unlike the rest of Latin America, our country’s independence was not the result of a bloody series of wars – yet it was anything but a peaceful transition. As the romanticized version of the Brazilian declaration of Independence goes, Pedro bellowed: “Independence or death!” Well, some people took it literally.

Armed groups in several regions – notably the North and Northeast – still supported the Crown. For over 21 months, a series of local conflicts erupted across urban centers. In 1825, the newly formed Brazilian government seized assets from the Portuguese who didn’t recognize Brazil’s separation from the European colonizers, and expelled the Portuguese from the country. These conflicts compromised the country’s already depleted finances.

Even as we transitioned into an autonomous country, Brazil was haunted early on by stagnation and external debt. When Prince Pedro declared independence on September 7, 1822, we suffered from the falling prices of sugar, then our primary export product. It didn’t help that Brazil agreed to pay 1.4 million sterling pounds in indemnities to our former colonizers after fierce negotiations with Portugal and England.

The First Reign

Instead of becoming a Republic and abolishing slavery, as all other Latin American countries did, Brazil instead became an Empire – and its economy was based on slave labor.

Dom Pedro I, as the prince became known after independence, presided over Brazil during nine years of intense political instability. The monarch would become known for his authoritarian actions; he dissolved the National Assembly once it became clear that his powers would be restricted by the adoption of a constitutional monarchy. Instead, Pedro I imposed his own Constitution, creating a rigidly centralized administration, and established the Emperor as a figure above all branches of government.

That ignited a series of rebellions in different regions – and nearly all were brutally decimated. Nevertheless, Brazil lost control of the Cisplatine Province, a territory that is now known as Uruguay.

Pedro’s proximity to the Portuguese King, his father, also displeased certain members of the local elite. Between 1822, when Portugal was stripped from its most valuable colony, and 1825, when the Portuguese finally recognized our independence, Pedro and Dom João VI exchanged several letters in which they swore loyalty to one another. This explains why Pedro never tried to claim other Portuguese domains, like Angola (the Brazilian economic elites craved the annexation of Angola to make slave trade easier and cheaper). In exchange, João named Pedro as his successor to the Portuguese throne.

When João died in 1826, things soured between Pedro and his younger brother, Miguel, who wanted the crown for himself. To promote peace, Pedro came up with an incestuous plan reminiscent of a prime-time drama: he tried to marry his 7-year-old daughter to Miguel. Ultimately, though, Miguel broke up the plan and tried to forcefully declare himself King. As a result, Pedro abdicated the Brazilian crown and went back to Portugal to lead a winning rebellion against his brother. Portugal became a constitutional monarchy as a result, crowing the former Brazilian Emperor as Pedro IV of Portugal. While Pedro I of Brazil became known for his authoritarian style, he is known in Portugal instead as “the Liberal King.”

Second Reign

Pedro I left Brazil on April 7, 1831 to abdicate to Portugal, leaving the throne to his five-year-old son. Brazilian courts didn’t see fit to install an infant emperor, so the country was instead ruled by a series of regents between 1831 and 1840. But the lack of stable leadership left the country in a semi-permanent state of uncertainty: over those nine years, Brazil was struck by wave after wave of rebellions and saddled with pervasive political chaos. The crisis was severe enough that in 1840, at just 15 years old, the teenager was declared an adult and consequently crowned Dom Pedro II, Emperor of Brazil.

Brazil’s new leader provided far more stability than his father, overcoming diplomatic crises and steering the country towards prosperity. In 1865, after more than two decades of peace, Brazil – along with Argentine and Uruguay – launched an attack on Paraguay. Paraguay’s ruler had seized a civilian steamship from Brazil, but the event triggered a full-scale war that nearly wiped out the country’s entire population.

By the time the Paraguayan War ended in 1870, only 200,000 Paraguayans were left alive – nearly 80 percent of all males had been killed. But Brazil’s victory over Paraguay only furthered a golden age for the country: its economy grew quickly, immigration soared, and modernization projects like shipping and railroads gained momentum.

Despite economic prosperity and diplomatic victories, Dom Pedro II’s progressive (for the time) politics – including pushing for women’s rights and legislation to free children born by female slaves – resulted in the loss of his ultra-conservative support base. His lack of support became more apparent after 1888, when his heir to the throne, Princess Isabel, signed the abolition of slavery.

And so the monarchy lost its support from Brazil’s conservative court members, who were backed by powerful coffee farmers and favored a republican model. On November 15, 1889, military officers launched a coup against the Emperor and his daughter, who readily stood aside. A provisional government was put into place on the same day, led by Field Marshal Deodoro da Fonseca as interim president.