Brazil: How It Looks and How It Is Edgard Leite, PhD, Rio de Janeiro State University

JU IS-361 Latin America Studies

Edgard Leite

In colonial times, the first accounts of Brazil mention the beauty of the land, its climate and people. The first colonizers were impressed by the abundance of water and food resources.

The oldest written account of Brazil was made by Pero Vaz de Caminha in 1500. He says: "as far as the sight can reach, there extend very healthy and pretty beaches … everything thrives in it because of the water it contains". "This land is very fertile, all covered by very tall and lush trees", writes Pero de Magalhães Gandavo in 1576.

Such wonder at Brazil's shoreline and its inner landscape soon gave rise to a culture of sensual hedonism.  This feeling was often linked to a certain languor brought about by the land's climate and which the distance from the Kingdom helped transform into a social experience of moral flexibility. 

The scattered populations, the indefinite character of the Inquisition visits (three visits between the XVI and the XVIII centuries), and poor administrative structures were some of the contributing factors for such phenomenon.

Brazil was a haven for new Christians (Jews forced to​ convert to Christianity in Portugal), and the low demographic density also stimulated a mix between Europeans, blacks and Indians, which favored population growth.

However, from the onset, Brazilian colonial society faced certain problems that the first observers could not help noting.

Friar Vicente de Salvador wrote in 1627 about a Bishop from Tucumán (currently Argentina), who was passing through Brazil towards the Kingdom. In need of supplies, he "sent for chicken, four eggs and some fish, but nothing was brought to him because they could not find any market place or butchers".

The solution found was to ask "for the so-called things, among many others, from people's homes". The bishop then concluded that  "in this land things are misplaced, for it is not a republic, but what one gets in each house".

Thus, Friar Vicente concluded, the main problem in Brazil was the disdain for public space and an excessive privatization of interests, aimed at giving priority to private space.

Many years later, in 1936, the Brazilian historian Sergio Buarque de Holanda made a comparative analysis of Portuguese and Spanish colonies in the Americas in his book "Raízes do Brasil" (Roots of Brazil). The author refers to the Spanish colonizers as builders and the Portuguese as sowers. He characterizes Hispanic colonization as orderly, defined by laws and regulations, which counted on a disciplined and clear policy of settlement and of political and institutional stability, mainly in public areas.

On the other hand, the author views Portuguese colonization as usually lenient towards settlement processes. There were no rules or policies, and the Portuguese cities in America, unlike the Spanish ones, did not count on a previously established planning, and were characterized by a chaotic urban morphology full of improvisations.

Sergio Buarque, as well as Caio Prado Jr., later suggests that Portuguese presence aimed at exploitation, pillage, and extraction of resources, without any other explicit concern for fixation or settlement.

Thus, the exploitive individualism typical of Portuguese colonization is said to be a tragic and permanent scar that runs deep in the roots of Brazilian identity. This spirit influences the way Brazilians deal with the borders between private and public spheres, which leads people to disregard the collective dimension and assign an exaggerated weight to the private aspects of life when in pursuit of their interests. 

According to Sergio Buarque, some cordiality is a hallmark of Brazilians. Far from being an act of altruism, it is a strategy for resolving conflicts through private means.

All that is intended to getting on with private, personal and family projects in face of juridical and political conflicts, which necessarily submit private causes to bigger ones, and whose outcomes can be disastrous. 

The fact that Brazil has never gone through a large-scale civil war, but rather small regional or ethnic conflicts, is evidence of the extreme difficulty in dealing with the consequences of the interventions made by interest groups in public life.

At two moments in the twentieth century history, during the so-called "1930 revolution" and the one that followed President Janio Quadros' renunciation, in 1961, great national conflagrations threatened to occur.

Instead of instilling a warlike enthusiasm in the souls of private actors, imminent conflicts became a motivation for conciliation and preservation of their identities, with detriment to greater public goals.

The retreats that ended up avoiding civil wars led interest groups to give up their greater strategic goals. This means that all dominant political projects in Brazil are usually the result of a renunciation, which did not aim at securing the public sphere, but rather preserve the private one.

Thus, the thorough exploitation of the beauty and wealth of the territory seems to be enough to justify every political or economic action. However, society, along with its ordering and perspectives, must submit itself to the private nature of such use.

Brazil has one of the highest firearms mortality rates in the world. The "2015 Violence Map", designed by the Brazilian government, reveals that, between 1980 and 2012, 880,386 deaths were caused by firearms in Brazil. In 2012 alone, there were 42.416 deaths, an average of 116 per day.

The aforementioned statistical evidence suggests that these impasses do not involve the public sphere,​ but rather "cordiality" traits. These preserve the private sphere and, in reality, concoct some underlying violence, by means of which all serious impasses tend to be solved privately.

Such paradoxical situation, which continually disrupts social bonds by simultaneously reinforcing private interests, seems to be so old and structural that it demands a solution in the context of a deeper and far-reaching transformation in terms of collective behaviors.

This often idealized future would allow Brazil to escape this collective drama, which makes society gravitate between the paradise-like description of its nature, always ready to be experienced in an agreeable manner, and the absolutely selfish and simultaneously "cordial" and infernal nature of such experience. 

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