29 December 2008

In Country: Context is Everything, or a Brief History Lesson

Over the past 200 years, Brasil has experienced significant shocks to its political system. As the country turned the century into the year 1800 it was still a colony of Portugal, which held power across the Atlantic in Lisbon. But before the decade was over, the King of Portugal --João VI--was forced to move his family and throne to Brasil to escape the advances of Napoleon's forces across Europe. It's worth noting that this transmigration by a king from Europe to a colony in the New World was historic. Never before and never again would a king move the seat of power away from European shores. The year was 1808 and Portugal was permanently weakened.

By 1822, Brasil had declared its independence from the Portuguese crown. The newly designated emperor was Dom Pedro I, son of João VI. The father did not support the son however and João VI refused to recognize Dom Pedro's (and Brasil's) independence until 1825. Regardless of the family squabble, most historians refer to this time in Brasilian history as the Era of Empire: 1822-1888.

Eighteen eighty nine represents a turning point for Brasil. First, slavery was abolished. Second, it marks the end of Empire and the beginning of Republic. In many ways the new government fashioned itself after the United States, beginning with the its formal name as "The United States of Brazil." Although there was a dark side to its beginnings -- mainly in the power and influence of the military -- as a republic it sought to live up to the ideas embedded in the term res publica, which is Latin for "community." Eventually people received the right to vote and there was a separation of church and state. Historians refer to this era as The First Republic: 1889-1930.

Yet 1930 represents another important transition in Brasilian politics. Like many other countries, Brasil was impacted by the global economic collapse brought on by the 1929 crash on Wall Street. In Brasil this was known as the "Crisis." Perhaps even more importantly however was the military coup d'état which installed Getúlio Vargas as dictator for the next 15 years, an era known as Estado Novo (New State): 1930-1945.

The next segment of the Brasilian political roller coaster spans the complicated years from 1946-1964, when elections were reinstated and many freedoms, including freedom of the press, returned to the populace. Ironically, Vargas was elected president during these years but was hounded by that same free press and ended up committing suicide in 1954.

Freedom was short-lived however and another right wing coup d'état, accompanied by a new dictator -- Marshal Humberto Castelo Branco -- came to power in 1964. This dictatorship lasted from 1964-1985.

Since 1986 Brasil has once again enjoyed democracy. Currently Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (usually referred to as Lula) is president, after having been elected for a second term in 2006. Lula is fairly popular, hence his re-election, and comes from a modest family. His background is comprised of union organizing, and he was a founding member of the party who eventually overturned the last military dictatorship.

Much of this information, except the most recent material, can be found in Robert M. Levine's The History of Brazil. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 1999.


huevofilosofo said...

What I find interesting is that many Latin American countries have modeled their constitution and government to that of the US, but the constitutions of these Latin American countries are, for the most part, legally meaningless (and as to the question of government, they are [have been] highly corrupt and dictatorial, for the most part). For example, the Mexican Constitution seems to be a plagiarized version of the US Constitution, but when it comes time for the branches of government, especially the judiciary, to uphold the legality of the constitution, they fail miserably. Although there have been advances in freedom of speech, this is still a work in progress; Mexicans aren’t free from unwarranted searches and seizures; individuals lack a right to not incriminate oneself if accused of a crime, etc. All of these protections are in the constitution, but they are meaningless. And by having a legally meaningless constitution, democracy is in constant peril.

And I know that it’s not correct to generalize, but it seems that the above is true for most of Latin American countries. Now, why is it that in the US the idea of rule of law and respect for the constitution (with exceptions--e.g., current administration) has taken root while in Latin American countries, like Mexico, it has taken them so long and are still, at this moment, working toward a transition toward democracy? According to the recently deceased Samuel Huntington it has to do with the founding principles and values of the Anglo-Protestant colonizers of the land that what would come to be the US. But this thesis is not new, in fact it was Alexis de Tocqueville who first wrote about these "unique" values that lead to democracy in the US. But it seems that there is an underlining assumption in this idea, being that Latin Americans don't value democracy or rule of law, which is of course ridiculous. And history has shown that Latin Americans have fought and died for a more democratic, just, and equitable society--and those that where at the brink of succeeding were branded as communists and were squashed, namely by those with unique values for democracy.


Great stuff! I’ll come back to learn more about Brasil.

Maureen Moore said...

Thanks for the comment. I too have thought a lot about the differences between the U.S. and other democracies. Recently I read a really good book that seems to dance around with this issue. It's titled _The Penguin History of Latin America_ by Edwin Williamson. Although sometimes his analysis comes across as pretty Euro-centric, it is also often very insightful. Bottom line: corruption as a process seems to be a really big factor in determining a society's adherence to its constitution. Williamson even goes so far as to suggest that how various countries in Latin America (Brasil too) were colonized has played a role in the level of corruption.