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Encyclopedia ArticlefromEncarta
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Brazil: Flag and AnthemBrazil: Flag and Anthem
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Introduction; Land and Resources; People and Society; Culture; Economy; Government; History
DLocal Government

Brazil is divided into 26 states and the Federal District of Brasília. Each state has a governor and legislature. The basic unit of local government is the municipio (municipality). This is similar to an American county, with an urban seat and a rural region, although the larger cities may be entirely urban municipalities. Population growth and the advance of populations into unsettled areas have resulted in the creation of new municipios. Municipios are administered by a mayor and council, who deal with matters of local taxation, planning, and basic services.

EPolitical Parties

During the 20th century few political parties developed clear ideological positions in Brazil. Parties either represented regional or sectional interests or served as vehicles for individual political leaders. The military regime dissolved the existing parties in 1965 and created a two-party structure consisting of the government-sponsored party, the National Renovating Alliance, and an opposition, the Brazilian Democratic Movement. As the military moved to restore democracy, new parties were approved in 1979. The major parties to emerge were the Brazilian Social Democratic Party and the Democratic Workers’ Party on the center-left; the centrist Brazilian Democratic Movement Party; the Liberal Front Party and the Brazilian Labor Party on the center-right; and the right-wing Progressive Party. Most of these had roots in the parties that were dissolved in 1964. The only significant new group was the socialist Workers’ Party, which emerged from militant labor opposition to the military dictatorship, particularly in São Paulo.

FSocial Services

The Brazilian government first established a social security provision in 1911. During the 1930s dictator Getúlio Vargas implemented a welfare system that was advanced for its time, providing workers with minimum wages, unemployment insurance, and retirement benefits. During the 1960s a range of benefits covering medical assistance, sickness benefit, workmen’s compensation, and pensions were brought together under the National Institute for Social Provision (INPS), which was financed by contributions from workers and employers. In 1988 the framers of the new constitution sought to provide equality of access to welfare, health care, and social assistance. They extended equal benefits for pensions and maternity rights to rural and urban workers.

Financial constraints have led to a decline in the quality of the public health service, and many of the more affluent people belong to private health programs. The federal government finances the majority of the public health services, the balance coming from the states and municipalities. Considerable inequity also exists in access to medical services, favoring cities and the more populated Southeast.

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Despite these difficulties, life expectancy at birth rose from 57 years in 1960 to an average of 71 years—67 years for men and 75.3 years for women—in 2003. The infant mortality rate fell from 95 deaths per 1,000 live births in 1970 to 32 deaths per 1,000 live births in 2003. As a reflection of increasing prosperity, the principal causes of death match those found in developed countries. However, parasitic diseases, gastric ailments, and malnutrition are still threats to the impoverished and the young. Tropical diseases, which are endemic to some areas, include malaria, yellow fever, Chagas’ disease, hookworm, and schistosomiasis.


The army is the largest military force, and almost 60 percent of its members are drafted. Men between the ages of 18 and 45 must serve a compulsory tour of duty ranging from 12 to 18 months. The navy and the air force have lower proportions of draftees. There is also a paramilitary public security force and a large military reserve. With the end of military rule in 1985, good relations with neighboring countries, and little internal political violence, the role of the armed forces has been diminishing. A new ministry of defense was created in 1999, replacing separate ministries for the army, air force, and navy; this ministry was headed by a civilian, ending the long tradition of military control of the armed forces. Defense currently absorbs 3.5 percent of government expenditure, falling from 4 percent under the military government.

HInternational Organizations

Brazil became an original member of the United Nations (UN) in 1945. It joined the UN’s Economic Commission for Latin America and the Organization of American States in 1948.

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Brazil’s history can be divided into two major parts: the colonial period from the arrival of the first Portuguese explorers in 1500 until independence in 1822, and the national period since independence from Portugal. During the colonial period Brazil became the first great plantation slave society in the Americas, producing sugar and later coffee on large agricultural estates worked by slaves. During the 1700s Brazil experienced the first major gold rush in the Americas after explorers discovered gold on frontier territory inland from the coast. After Brazil broke away from Portuguese rule in the 1820s, members of the Portuguese royal family ruled as emperors until 1889, in the only sustained monarchy in the western hemisphere. Since 1889 Brazil has been a republic, experiencing two periods of dictatorship: from 1937 to 1945 and from 1964 to 1985. The interaction of Europeans, Native Americans, and Africans in Brazil has produced one of the most racially mixed societies in the world, and one with enormous economic and social inequalities.


Most of the hundreds of indigenous peoples who inhabited eastern South America prior to the arrival of the Europeans were members of the Tupí-Guaraní cultures. These Native American groups spoke variations of the Tupian language and inhabited an area along the eastern coast of South America south of the Amazon River and inland to the foothills of the Andes. They generally lived by hunting and gathering. Those who did farm used simple slash-and-burn techniques to clear the land. Their main crop was manioc, also known as cassava. After a few years the soil would be exhausted and the farming groups would move on. These people had no metal tools, no written language, no beasts of burden, and no knowledge of the wheel. They worshiped spirits and relied on religious figures known as shamans for healing, divination of future events, and connection to the world of spirits. Accurate numbers for the size of the indigenous population are difficult to determine, but best estimates place the native population of eastern South America in 1500 at somewhere between 1 and 6 million.

The Portuguese claim to Brazil stemmed in part from the Treaty of Tordesillas, which Portugal and Spain had signed in 1494 with the pope’s blessing. Both nations had undertaken voyages in search of a sea route to the spice-rich regions of the Indian Ocean and claimed land based on these voyages. In 1492 Italian Spanish explorer Christopher Columbus made his historic voyage and claimed land in the West Indies for Spain. Spain sought international recognition of its right to the newly discovered western lands, and the Treaty of Tordesillas was the result. The treaty drew an imaginary line far out into the western Atlantic. With a few exceptions, the Portuguese laid claim to conquered territories to the east of the line, along the African coast; Spain laid claim to territories to the west of the line. Much of Brazil lies to the east of the Tordesillas line and thus fell under Portugal’s jurisdiction.

The Portuguese, however, did not arrive in Brazil until 1500. They landed on the coast of South America by mistake while seeking a route to the Indian Ocean. In 1498 Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama had made the first successful voyage around the southern tip of Africa to India and back. The Portuguese quickly outfitted a second expedition, led by Pedro Álvares Cabral, a young nobleman. Cabral’s fleet strayed too far west in the South Atlantic as it moved around Africa. They spotted land on April 22, 1500. Unaware that he had stumbled on a huge continent, Cabral named his discovery Terra da Vera Cruz (Portuguese for “Island of the True Cross”).

BEarly Settlements

As they had done along the African coast, the Portuguese established trading posts, which they called feitorias (factories), along more than 1,600 km (more than 1,000 mi) of the South American coastline. Portuguese traders visited the factories with some frequency, primarily to load cargoes of a hard wood that produced a red dye known by its Latin name, brasile. Eventually, the land became identified on maps with the brazilwood it produced, and the Portuguese began to call their small colony Brazil.

At the same time, France was attempting to establish trading relationships along the coast. In 1530, to counter this French threat, the Portuguese crown sent an expedition to Brazil led by the nobleman Martim Afonso de Sousa. He founded the settlement of São Vicente (near present-day Santos) and introduced sugarcane cultivation, cattle raising, and an administrative presence in the colony. The king attempted to divide up 4,000 km (2,500 mi) of coastline into a dozen captaincies, giving control of these new territories to nobles. In exchange for developing and protecting their captaincies, these nobles, known as donatários, received control over lands that were sometimes larger than Portugal itself. Many of the donatários never even saw their land grants. Four of the captaincies were not settled, and just two—São Vicente in the south and Pernambuco in the north—experienced any initial success. The captaincies also failed to discourage the French, who continued raids against Portuguese shipping in the area.

In 1549 the king again attempted to establish centralized authority in the colony and sent out a larger and more ambitious expedition of some 1,200 colonists, soldiers, priests, and royal officials led by Tomé de Sousa. He founded a permanent colonial capital on the coast of the captaincy of Bahia, calling the city Salvador (Portuguese for “the Savior”). Within two decades the sugarcane that the colonists had brought from the Portuguese islands off the coast of West Africa spread in the rich soils of the countryside around Salvador. As the demand for agricultural labor increased, conflict between Native Americans and colonists intensified. Plantation owners tried a number of methods to coerce the indigenous people to work in the sugar fields: forcing them into slavery, attempting to turn them into peasants who were obligated to work on the agricultural estates, and offering wages in exchange for labor. None of these attempts succeeded on a large scale.

The Native Americans found a staunch ally against the pressure from the colonists in the Roman Catholic Church, or more precisely, in the Society of Jesus (Jesuits). Jesuit priests had arrived with Tomé de Sousa in 1549, and they founded the Roman Catholic Church in Brazil. A new and very effective religious order, the Jesuits created the first schools in Brazil and sought to convert the Native Americans to Christianity. A group of priests, led by Manoel da Nóbrega and José de Anchieta, eventually created a system of aldeias (villages) to Christianize the Native Americans. By the 1560s and 1570s the Jesuits had gathered thousands of indigenous people in dozens of aldeias.

In the 1560s disease, most likely smallpox, swept through the Native American villages, and large numbers of the indigenous people died. Given the Native Americans’ resistance to plantation work and their susceptibility to epidemics introduced by European settlers, the Portuguese colonists began to use African slave labor to satisfy their rapidly increasing labor needs.

CColonial Brazil

With the establishment of early settlements along the coast and the successful introduction of sugar cultivation, Brazil began developing an economy based on plantation agriculture and powered by slave labor. The introduction of large numbers of African slaves transformed areas of Brazil into multiracial societies where Native American, European, and African peoples mingled. Following the discovery of gold in the captaincy of Minas Gerais (General Mines) in the late 1600s, Brazil expanded its borders into the interior of the continent. Gold made Brazil the most economically important region of the Portuguese Empire and caused a major shift in the concentration of Brazil’s population. Settlements in southeastern Brazil, nearer the gold regions, grew at a rapid pace. Eventually the wealth and influence of the southeastern region eclipsed that of the older settlements of northeastern Brazil.

C1Plantation Society

The Portuguese initiated the Atlantic slave trade in the 1440s, bringing black Africans back to Lisbon, the capital of Portugal. Slavery dated from ancient times in both Europe and Africa, but the enslavement of black Africans by Europeans was new. For three centuries (roughly 1550 to 1850) Europeans transported their human cargo from Africa to the Americas. More than 10 million Africans survived this forced passage, with about 3 to 4 million going to Brazil alone.

Along the coastal zones of the Northeast, especially in the captaincies of Bahia and Pernambuco, the slave trade created a black majority. (Some 80 percent of the people of the northeastern coast today are descendants of Africans.) As the decades passed, the mulatto population of mixed European and African ancestry grew increasingly larger. The mixing of Native Americans and Portuguese produced the racially mixed mamelucos. The mulattoes and mamelucos formed racial, social, and cultural groups midway between the dominant white elite and the African slaves and indigenous population at the bottom of the social structure.

Probably three-fourths of the 50,000 Portuguese colonists lived near Salvador and Olinda, the capital of Pernambuco. For every white colonist in the early 17th century, there may have been as many as three African slaves. There was probably a total of several hundred thousand Native Americans in the interior. By the early 17th century, the sugar boom had created one of the fundamental patterns that would long plague Brazil: A small white elite controlled vast landholdings and dominated an economic and political system with a nonwhite majority.


In 1580, after the death of King Sebastian of Portugal, who left no heir, King Philip II of Spain placed himself on the Portuguese throne through bribery and the threat of war. The merging of the Spanish and Portuguese monarchies lasted until 1640 when the Portuguese regained their independence. The union created the second largest empire in world history, to be eclipsed later only by the British Empire. It included control of most of the Americas, the Philippines, the Portuguese trading empire in Asia and Africa, and Spanish possessions across Europe—The Netherlands, Sicily, and southern Italy.

Unfortunately for the Portuguese, the forced coalition with Spain drew them into bitter European power struggles between the Spanish and the Dutch. Involvement in this struggle was very costly for the Portuguese. By 1650 the Dutch had taken the Asian spice trade from the Portuguese and had gained control of the Indian Ocean. In Africa, Dutch attackers captured Portuguese territory in Angola as well as Portugal’s West African slave ports and held them for decades. In the 1620s the Dutch attacked Rio de Janeiro, Salvador, and Recife. After a bloody struggle they were driven back. A second incursion in 1630 left the Dutch in control of Recife and Olinda, which the Dutch occupied until the 1650s. After their expulsion, the Dutch (followed by the English, French, and Spanish) set up their own sugar plantations in the islands of the Caribbean. Although sugarcane remained Brazil’s major crop, the new competition sent the colony’s economy into decades of decline.

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