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A brief history of Brazil

Estimates of the indigenous population of Brazil at the time of the Portuguese arrival (1500) vary from 2 to 5 million. The failure to find precious metals made the Portuguese quickly lose interest in Brazil, and they made no effort to organize a colony there until 1533. Brazil was divided into 15 captaincies (fiefs) and these given to the king’s courtiers. The captaincy of Pernambuco, in the Northeast, became a great sugar-producing region, the first example of a profitable agricultural export from the New World to Europe. Between 3 and 4 million African slaves were brought to work the sugar plantations, the basis of Brazil’s economy for over 200 years.

The enormous national territory of Brazil was unified during the 17th century by raiding parties of Portuguese colonists known as “bandeirantes,” who drove far into the interior of the country in search of aboriginal peoples to enslave.

Unlike most of the Spanish colonies, Brazil received its independence without making war. Portugal’s prince Pedro — who lived in Brazil at the time — declared independence in 1822 and was immediately crowned emperor. His son, Pedro II, ruled for 50 years during the period known as “the empire,” which collapsed in 1889, the year after slavery was abolished.

Although industrialization began only in the 1930s with an import substitution strategy devised to counter the effects of worldwide depression, Brazil now has one of the largest and most sophisticated industrial plants in the world. Populist dictator Getulio Vargas ruled Brazil most of the period from 1930 to 1954. In 1964 a coup deposed the mildly leftist president João Goulart and began 29 years of military dictatorship. Thousands of perceived enemies were “disappeared” by security forces until the “abertura,” or opening, of the early 1980s. In the face of ever bolder opposition, led by the Catholic Church, and the military’s inability to cope with the economic problems such as the Third World’s largest debt, government was returned to civilians in 1985.

After decades of yearly inflation rates more than 1,000 percent, it is a victory of sorts that today the monthly inflation is down to single digits. But the world’s worst concentration of income and the lack of agrarian reform are serious obstacles to further economic development.

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