Latin American Civilization: History and Society, 1492 to the Present

By Benjamin Keen | Go to book overview

19
REPUBLICAN BRAZIL: THE AWAKENING GIANT

THE BRAZILIAN REVOLUTION of 1889 moved the center of political gravity from the north to the south. The new republican Constitution of 1891 granted the states a larger measure of autonomy, but in practice the coffee planters and cattle raisers of São Paulo and Minas Gerais held the levers of power. A new economic and mental climate arose in the cities, where banks, stock exchanges, and corporations enjoyed a rapid growth, but the life of the countryside remained largely unchanged. The single-crop plantation system, under altered forms, continued to dominate economic activity, preventing balanced development and keeping the great majority of the people in poverty and ignorance.

Coffee was king under the Republic, while sugar, which had been seriously affected by the abolition of slavery, declined in importance. Cotton, cacao, and rubber were other leading export products in the twentieth century. The problem of overproduction and falling prices for coffee inspired schemes of "valorization" -- official efforts to maintain prices at a high level by artificial means. After 1920 the chronic coffee crisis diverted some workers and capital to the manufacturing industry, which had a considerable growth in São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, and other centers. But at the end of the 1960s Brazil remained a predominantly agrarian country.

The collapse of the coffee industry in 1929, combined with bitter interprovincial rivalries, enabled Getúlio Vargas, a shrewd caudilho from Rio Grande do Sul, to seize power through a coup d'état. The years of the Vargas dictatorship ( 1930-1945) saw sweeping centralization of power in the federal government, assistance to the new industrialists as well as to agriculture, and drastic curbs on labor and all opposition elements. Friendly to the United States -- the largest market for Brazil's coffee -- Vargas took his country into the war against the Axis in 1942. Although ousted by an army revolt in

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