On 27 October 2002 a huge mass of Brazilians, waving red flags and shouting slogans, took over the heart of the banking centre in São Paulo, the country’s largest city. They were celebrating the victory in the presidential elections of Luis Inácio Lula da Silva, the candidate of the left-of-centre Partido dos Trabalhadores (Workers Party, PT). When Lula appeared on a giant screen to make his acceptance speech, people wept and hugged each other. They were confident that, after three decades of economic stagnation and worsening living conditions, Brazil was finally beginning a new era of prosperity and social reform.
Many Brazilians today are perplexed by the repeated failure of their country, the fifth largest in the world, to live up to its promise. They know that the country has achieved much, for it has become the tenth largest economy in the world and is a leading exporter of both sophisticated industrial goods, including cars and airplanes, and a wide range of agricultural products, including soybeans, sugar, coffee, orange juice and tobacco. Yet little of this wealth has trickled down to the poor. A relatively small group of Brazilians live extremely well. Along the coastal road that runs south from Rio de Janeiro to the port of Santos, there are hundreds of luxury holiday homes, equipped with state-of-the-art yachts, ski-jets and beach buggies. But this conspicuous wealth coexists with abject poverty. This is most visible in the spectacularly beautiful city of Rio de Janeiro, where from the expensive hotels along Copacabana beach you can see thousands of flimsy shacks built by the poor on the sides of the mountains that rise up sharply from the coastline. Some 25 million Brazilians, out of a population of 175 million, have such a low income that they go hungry.
Brazil’s social inequalities, which are more marked than in almost any other developing country, are largely the result of its history. The Portuguese, who colonized Brazil in the 16th century, set up huge estates, known as capitanias, through which they organized the economic exploitation of the country. Only one president – João Goulart – ever seriously talked about reforming this highly concentrated system of land distribution, which led to the creation of an underclass of disenfranchised poor Brazilians, and he was overthrown by a military coup in 1964. The generals who ruled Brazil for the next 25 years achieved high rates of economic growth but did nothing to reduce the inequalities.
The return to civilian government in 1985, though warmly welcomed by the population at the time, has had disappointing results. Governments have enacted market reforms, as recommended by the IMF. The economy has stagnated and millions of Brazilians remain excluded from consumer society. Unable to find a job in the formal economy, they are forced to scratch out a living in the vast shantytowns that encircle all the country’s large cities. Drug trafficking has penetrated many poor areas and crime rates are rocketing.
Opinion polls have repeatedly shown that people voted for Lula because they want change in government policies, with a much greater emphasis on economic growth and an end to social exclusion. So far, President Lula’s achievements have been modest, largely because he has had to water down his reforms to get them approved by Congress. He is also respecting an earlier promise not to default on a huge public debt, inherited from the previous administration, even though debt servicing currently absorbs a colossal 10 per cent of national income.
|Leader||President Luis Inácio Lula da Silva.|
|Economy||Gross national income (GNI) per capita $3,060 (Argentina $6,960, Canada $21,340).|
|Main exports||soya products, iron ore, coffee, fruit juices, car parts.
External debt: $211 billion.
Brazil’s diverse economy is the world’s tenth largest. The broad industrial base includes production of aircraft, motor vehicles, armaments and oil refining.
|People||174.7 million. People per square kilometre 21 (Britain 248).|
|Health||Infant mortality 31 per 1,000 live births (Argentina 16, Canada 5). Maternal mortality 160 per 100,000 births.|
|Environment||A quarter of the Amazon forest has been destroyed. About 25,500 square kilometres, an area about the size of Belgium, was cut down in 2002, one of the highest totals ever recorded. Much of the cleared area will be planted with soybeans for export.|
|Culture||Brazil is a mixed-race country, with the majority of the population descended from a mixture of European, African and indigenous ancestors. Afro-Brazilians, long discriminated against, are gaining a new confidence.|
|Religion||Although nominally a Catholic country, a large minority belong to evangelical Protestant churches. A smaller group belong to Candomblé or Umbanda religious sects of African origin.|
|Language||Portuguese is spoken by all non-indigenous Brazilians; there are 180 indigenous tribes, totalling about 250,000 people, who speak 120 languages or dialects.|
Country ratings in detail
|Income distribution||Brazil is a highly unequal society: the richest 1% get 13.3% of national income, while the poorest 50% make do with 12.6% of national income.|
|Literacy||85%. Net primary enrolment/attendance 1995-2001 stood at 97%.|
|Life expectancy||68 years (Argentina 74, Canada 79).|
|Freedom||Widespread freedom of expression, but rural activists are still murdered by landowners and the police routinely commit human-rights abuses.|
|Position of women||Women have made real advances in recent years but there is still prejudice, particularly in the rural areas.|
|Self-reliance||Brazil is self-sufficient in food. People do not go hungry because of a food shortage but because they do not have the money to buy food.|
|New Internationalist assessment||So far, President Lula has been very cautious in his reforms. To find the funds to service the public debt, he has slashed public spending in many areas, including education and health. This has disappointed many of his supporters, who had expected much more daring action to tackle the serious social crisis. Some 200,000 landless families are squatting in camps beside federal roadways and the landless movement is pressing President Lula to deliver the agrarian reform he has long promised.|
Help us produce more like this
Patreon is a platform that enables us to offer more to our readership. With a new podcast, eBooks, tote bags and magazine subscriptions on offer, as well as early access to video and articles, we’re very excited about our Patreon! If you’re not on board yet then check it out here.