Brazil, Past and Present Edgard Leite, PhD, Rio de Janeiro State University

JU IS-361 Latin America Studies

Edgard Leite

The first peculiarity involving the history of Brazil, which distinguishes it from the histories of other Latin American countries, could be summarized in the following terms: a lack of a clear institutional or revolutionary rupture from the juridical situation that is typical of the colonial system, or the Ancient Regime.

In Brazil, the social sectors that brought about the country’s independence, as well as the building up of a new and more or less liberal civil order, essentially originated from the structures of the colonial system of the metropolitan court, imbued by the spirit of the Portuguese Absolutist State. These sectors deliberately acted to preserve the interests that had been previously established by the land-owning sectors during the colonial period. This single fact lent to the first Brazilian Constitution, elaborated in 1824, the hybrid characteristic of being, at one time, a constitutional charter that aimed at emerging from some sort of popular representation and, paradoxically, one that was said to be derived from “Divine Grace”. It should be stressed that the aforementioned Charter was actually imposed by our first Emperor, rather than promulgated. The judicial oscillations between old and new forms of Portuguese absolute law, mainly inquisitorial law, and the juridical forms of the independent country have been studied.

The figure of Emperor D. Pedro, born in Portugal and son of D. João VI, who concentrated land-owners prospect for independence, prevented any emergence of civil society, which implied, among other things, the absence of an authentic national or revolutionary popular movement, as occurred in European and Latin-American countries - or in America. Furthermore, in the beginning of the Nineteenth Century there was not in Brazil any sort of identity more encompassing than the regional one. Moreover, “being Brazilian”, as pointed out by many authors, ended up being an identity that merely meant “being free”, in the context of a slavery society. The “Free men” organization granted a reactionary profile to the political system, in which the repression against slaves and poor men cemented excluding representative institutions. As a matter of fact, Brazil was the last Latin American country to abolish slavery in 1888.

The archaic nature of institutions in the onset of the Twentieth Century may well be perceived by the lack of an authentic University structure. Unlike regions of Spanish colonization, which already counted on Universities since the Sixteenth Century, in areas of Portuguese colonization the Lisbon government went on restricting local elites to have access only to the University of Coimbra, in Portugal. This avoided the emergence of an independent thinking and highly restricted the prospects of a professional or administrative structure in the colony.

Such a state of affairs partially explains the existence of obsolete productive structures in Brazil in the late Nineteenth Century, as well as the great difficulties involving the building of consistent political projects by intellectuals linked to the system. Such a conjuncture took place both during the process of independence and afterwards. Besides, the basis of a consistent anti-intellectual culture was established, from whose perspective the exercise of politics or administration, in its various dimensions, was seen as something that did not demand complex hypotheses, projects or theories.  The scarce population of 9 million inhabitants, combined with a great abundance of natural resources gave rise to a culture marked by waste, according to which optimization of gains was not indispensable.

Since colonial times, the country’s economy had been focused on agricultural and mineral commodities exports. Such policy, in the late Nineteenth Century and beginning of the Twentieth Century, generated a significant accumulation of seasonal capital and industrialization. However, it did not allow the building up of an investment project for the other sectors of the economy, such as the industrial and the banking sectors. This was mainly due to the dominant thinking at the time, according to which the traditional agricultural export model was well known and easy to manage in a slavery or post-slavery autocratic society. The second model, i.e., the financial industrial one, was thought to be unknown and dangerous, for it had the potential to cause unpredictable social changes. Manolo Florentino and João Fragoso referred to such a colonial period way of thinking as “archaism as a project”.

Apparently, such view was perpetuated into the republican period. As from 1889, Brazil secures its position as an agricultural and mineral commodities exporter, the most important of which was coffee, though other agricultural and mineral commodities continued to be the main components of the national economic agenda. Such state of affairs associated the general idea of social development with the dynamics that were peculiar to the agrarian and extrativist sectors. In other words, low-wage, poorly qualified workers.

The taking of power by Getúlio Vargas through a Coup d’État, the so-called “1930 Revolution”, marks the emergence of a modern Brazil. Vargas initiated a process of deep reforms in the administrative, social and economic spheres, whose aim was to raise salaries, give dynamism to the industrialization process and create a capitalist economy to make the country sustainable in those years of crisis, when gains optimization was an indispensable target. Vargas was conservative and committed to the keeping of order. As such, he faced and brutally repressed the 1935 communist upheaval. The political difficulties that followed led to the installation of Vargas dictatorship in 1937, by means of which a program of basic structural reforms was implemented in the country in an authoritarian way, mainly in urban centers. Such reforms encompassed a wide range of areas in the country, and were also focused on universities. As a matter of fact, although there had been attempts to create Universities between 1910 and 1920, it was only in the 30’s that authentic universities were founded: the University of São Paulo, in 1934, the short-lived University of the Federal District in 1935 and, in 1937,  the University of Brazil.

The country’s administrative and intellectual work force have always been limited in qualitative terms. As we have seen, this is mainly due to the general shortcomings involving Brazilian society in the academic education field as well as the dominant anti-intellectualism. This was, from the perspective of the country’s development, an issue that had also been tackled by the Vargas’ sympathizers.

Brazilian economist Antonio Delfim Neto has recently defended that the acceptance of this “international division of labour (industry for China, services for India and food and minerals for Brazil) jeopardizes the future of Brazilian economy”, in terms of the several attempts made since Vargas’ times towards stimulating and consolidating the industrialization process. However, the issue is that, apparently, there is a chronic incapacity to build original alternative projects. This has also led to the acceptance of an agricultural-export model which has conservative effects on society. As a consequence, the country remains submitted to the fluctuations of international policies and economy.

The prevalence of this model, as well as the lack of a clear industrial policy, obviously leads to an ambiguous university policy. Although Brazil’s research and development indicators have been showing a steady increase since 1997, the recent Unesco report on the matter warns on the restricting nature of policies for scientific funding in the country. In Brazil “researches motivated by curiosity are penalized, in spite of being of crucial importance for a solid academic system, in favor of researches that have so-called clear ‘goals’”, or, in other words, not so complex or sophisticated ones. One cannot fail to consider the excellence – for obvious reasons – of Brazilian researches in the fields of agricultural development and geological prospect technology. However, in order to meet OECD goals for research and development public funding, Brazil will need to invest additional 2.3 billion dollars, as compared to what is spent on an annual basis, “which is three times as big as the budget” that CNPQ (The National Council for Scientific and Technological Development) counts on. Such a context has evidently had negative effects on the educational system as a whole, for it is generally detrimental for teachers’ qualification.

Brazil’s historic peculiarities are evident in many respects. Firstly, in what concerns the difficulties met by society in bringing about ruptures – which are crucial for the modernization process –  in an efficient way. In other words, there is a need to break away from idiosyncrasies inherited from colonial times, and effectively open up new perspectives for development – in the context of the dominant pattern in democratic societies. This manifests itself in the juridical structure, as well as in the great difficulties found to create mechanisms for the recognition, creation and preservation of rights.

Another peculiarity has to do with the problems concerning the building and consolidation of a solid university structure, i.e., one that can improve the country’s potential for research and development, deriving benefits for both the educational system in general and the process of qualification of the work force. This is a hard challenge if we consider the cultural atmosphere of anti-intellectualism, which influences both dominant agrarian sectors (who rule the political scene) and left-wing groups. Another peculiarity resides in the several historic barriers to development of complementary sectors related to commodities export, which involve both the political-juridical and the economic-financial spheres, as well as the deficiencies in the field of process management.

The different social and political actors’ capacities to balance all these peculiarities will be decisive for the consolidation, in Brazil, of modern juridical structures, as well as a self-sustained financial-economic social order and, last but not least, a university capable of generating ideas and solutions for the dilemmas that afflict the country. Such capacity is crucial for the emergence of Brazil as a relevant player in the world scenario.

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