130 years later, Brazil’s Republic remains a “draft”

. Nov 15, 2019
republic 130 years brazil

Exactly 130 years ago, the Brazilian Republic began in the most peculiar of circumstances. 

The new regime was installed after a coup d’état led by a monarchist who had little appreciation for the values of liberal democracy. Until the very day he proclaimed the republic, Field Marshal Deodoro da Fonseca gloated about being a friend—and humble servant—of Emperor Pedro II. It was only after finding out the crown wanted to reduce the powers of the military that he flipped to side with the republican movement.

</p> <p>True to his political nature, Mr. Fonseca tried to rule Brazil not as a president—but as another emperor. He couldn&#8217;t stand the press, he didn&#8217;t know how to negotiate with Congress, and, when the opportunity presented itself, he tried to stage his own coup. Eventually, however, with Brazil threatening a civil war, he would end up resigning.</p> <p>If the U.S. had George Washington, credited with giving gravitas to the newly-created office of President, Brazil had a man who tried to continue the worst habits of the monarchy.</p> <p>One hundred and thirty years later, many of these vices remain in place. Rulers still have trouble with accountability, and municipalities and states still have little to no independence, with Brazil being a federation only in name. &#8220;The centralization of revenue in the hands of the federal government has prevented many Brazilian regions from developing autonomously,&#8221; says Senate President Davi Alcolumbre.</p> <p>Inequality remains obscene, as Brazil&#8217;s financial elites continue to stockpile influence and use the state to their own advantage—with little regard for the common good.</p> <p>&#8220;Our ethos as a republic remains quite similar to what it was during the times of absolutism,&#8221; laments Roberto Romano, a philosopher and professor at the University of Campinas. &#8220;Even in times when we made strides, it was always with the guidance of the central government. That&#8217;s an abnormality when we compare Brazil to democracies such as the U.S.&#8221;</p> <h2>Inequality: the enduring challenge in Brazil</h2> <p>One word has defined social relations in Brazil since the arrival of Portuguese explorers in 1500: <a href="">inequality</a>. The country has become a blueprint when it comes to concentration of income and opportunities.</p> <p>Race remains a determining factor of life in Brazil. Two-thirds of Brazil’s unemployed population is non-white, and even between people with the same level of education, wages are 74 percent higher among white Brazilians, who earn an average income of BRL 17 per hour, against BRL 10 per hour among non-whites.</p> <p>But there are some silver linings. While inequality remains high—thanks in large part to the economic crisis earlier in the decade—some social gaps are narrowing. On the eve of the republic&#8217;s anniversary, the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics announced that, for the first time in the country&#8217;s history, non-white people made up the majority of the college population. In 1992, whites used to study 52 percent more longer than non-whites. Now, the difference is down to 25 percent.</p> <h2>The transformation of Brazil</h2> <p>Since the republic was proclaimed, the Brazilian became more urbanized and better educated. Not to mention that its population grew 15 times over. In 1889, there were only 14.3 million Brazilians, who were mostly men and children. Now, of Brazil&#8217;s current 210 million population, women make up the majority of the population, which is also aging at a fast pace.</p> <p>The 1890 census divided the population into white, black, multiracial, and <em>caboclo</em>, which is the denomination used for the descendants of whites and indigenous people. The <a href="">official count</a> had 6.3 million whites, 2 million blacks, 1.3 million <em>caboclos</em>, and 4.8 multiracial people. Now, statistics agencies categorize Brazilians as white, black, indigenous, <em>pardo</em>—a catch-all multiracial denomination—and Asians. Race is self-declared in Brazil, and we have 91 million whites, 14.5 million blacks, 82.2 million pardos, 2 million Asians, and 818,000 indigenous people.</p> <p>The Brazilian map was also different. The state of Acre was still part of Bolivia and would only be annexed in 1903. Many state lines also didn&#8217;t exist at the time. One thing remains unaltered: the sheer concentration of people in few, specific locations. If back in 1889 Rio de Janeiro, Salvador, and Recife were the main centers, one-third of the Brazilian population is now <a href="">living in just 48 municipalities</a>—mainly located along the coast.</p> <h2>Democratic hiccups</h2> <p>If there&#8217;s one thing the Brazilian republic lacks, it is political stability of any sort. The history of the Republic is also a history of dozens of coups.</p> <p>In an <a href="">August 2018 piece</a>, we published a chart showing the evolution of Brazil’s GDP over time, alongside significant ruptures of the political order. One thing stood out: political shifts, whether democratic or not, come after dire recessions.</p> <figure class="wp-block-image"><img src="" alt="recessions ruptures brazil" class="wp-image-7294" srcset=" 1024w, 300w, 768w, 610w, 1280w" sizes="(max-width: 1024px) 100vw, 1024px" /></figure> <p>&#8220;That has a lot to do with how Brazilian financial elites work. They rely terribly on the state for getting financial perks, tax breaks, and such. And when this crony capitalism fails, these same elites sponsor breaks with the established order,&#8221; ponders Mr. Romano.</p> <p>But despite all its problems, the Brazilian republic has managed, since the democratization process of the 1980s, to develop some sort of institutional normality. In 2010, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva became the only democratically elected head of state to have succeeded another democratically elected president, and to have passed on the office to a third consecutive democratically elected president.</p> <p>&#8220;The risk of our democracy falling to a classic coup—like <a href="">the one that happened in Bolivia</a> this week—seems outlandish,&#8221; says Mr. Romano. &#8220;The problem, however, is to see our democracy being eroded from within. And we have seen daily attacks on our still-to-be-solid institutions.&#8221;

Gustavo Ribeiro

An award-winning journalist, Gustavo has extensive experience covering Brazilian politics and international affairs. He has been featured across Brazilian and French media outlets and founded The Brazilian Report in 2017. He holds a master’s degree in Political Science and Latin American studies from Panthéon-Sorbonne University in Paris.

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