New Internationalist


August 1992

new internationalist
issue 234 - August 1992

Country profile: Brazil

photo by PETER STALKER 'This is not a serious country.' Thus spoke General de Gaulle, and it is a sign of the times that his scathing judgement of Brazil, the world's fifth-largest country, is now being invoked in a press which had accustomed itself to more affectionate clichés, such as 'sleeping giant' and 'country of the future'.

Brazilians had grown used to reacting to economic and social ills with a mixture of optimism and fatalism. Optimism was always strongest among the urban middle class, spawned by the boom years of military government (1964-85) during which Brazil accumulated the developing world's largest foreign debt (estimated at $121 billion). Fatalism, along with football and Carnival, has always been the refuge of Brazil's underclass; an estimated 58 million people (almost 40 per cent of the population) live below the poverty line.

But today defeatism seems to be sweeping the country as the economy, the world's tenth largest, sinks deeper into stagflation. During 1990, when President Fernando Collor de Mello took office as the first directly-elected president since 1960, his mostly unsuccessful efforts to control galloping inflation caused the economy to shrink by four per cent.

Collor won power by selling himself as a paladin who would bring morality to a corrupt system, and 'modernity' (in the shape of privatization and the removal of tariff barriers and subsidies) to the flagging economy. This image, which was largely fabricated by powerful media giants such as TV Globo (the world's fourth-largest television network) is now in shreds. Corruption is still rife, the Government is powerless to stop the violence which strikes down street children and rural union leaders alike, and multinationals and creditors are expressing their impatience at the slow pace at which the economy is being 'opened up'.

The President's discredit is one aspect of the loss of faith in politicians. The collapse of old political certainties has coincided with stirrings of a true sense of citizenship, manifest in energetic attacks on government corruption by a once-docile press and in invasions of the futuristic capital, Brasilia, by war-painted native people demanding recognition of their land rights.

Though the economic crisis has both intensified capital flight and driven middle-class emigration to unprecedented levels, those who have no option but to stay are finding their own responses to official inertia. Like the residents' associations of the favelas (shanty towns) of São Paulo, who run their own crèches and housing improvement programmes. Like the rubber-tappers of Amazonia, who are resisting deforestation and seeking environmentally sustainable community development for their Extractive Reserves. People are starting to take their destiny into their own hands.

Alex Shankland


LEADER: President Fernando Collor de Mello

ECONOMY: GNP per capita $2,540 (US $20,910)
Main Exports: Coffee, soymeal, sugar, orange juice, iron ore, steel products, motor vehicles, aircraft.

PEOPLE: 150.4 million (74 per cent urban)

HEALTH: Infant mortality 60 per 1,000 live births (US 9 per 1,000)

CULTURE: Of population estimated at five million in 1550, some 250,000 indigenous Amerindians remain. The 54.77 per cent classified as white are descended from European (mainly Portuguese) and Middle Eastern immigrants; 5.89 per cent are descendants of African slaves; intermixing has produced those classified as mulattos'. There are also Japanese; immigration occurred during the coffee boom of the beginning of this century.
Languages Portuguese and many local languages.
Religion Largely Roman Catholic, but some Protestants and others.

Sources The State of World Population 1992; The State of the Worlds Children 1992; World Bank World Development Report 1991; Almanaque April 1990; Gazeta Mercantil Information Centre.

Last profiled in February 1981



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INCOME DISTRIBUTION [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
Richest 10% get 51.6% of total income; poorest 50% just 3.7%.

1981: [image, unknown] [image, unknown]

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LITERACY [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
Officially 82.4% but masks semi-literacy and patchy educational system.

1981: [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]

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SELF-RELIANCE [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
Debt crisis and liberal economic agenda give exports priority over basic necessities.

1981: [image, unknown] [image, unknown]

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FREEDOM [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
Flourishing under 1988 post-military Constitution.

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POSITION OF WOMEN [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
Some advances in 1988 Constitution but culture still emphasises machismo.

1981: [image, unknown] [image, unknown]

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LIFE EXPECTANCY [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
66 years (US 76 years); but in north-east and Amazon as low as 45.

1981: [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]



Politics now
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Elected president but same
powers behind scenes.


NI star rating

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previous page choose a different magazine go to the contents page go to the NI home page [image, unknown]

This feature was published in the August 1992 issue of New Internationalist. To read more, buy this issue or subscribe.

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