Tanks in Rio de Janeiro, the day after the 1964 coup.

These distinct notions of politics are nevertheless fragments of a broader history. The period 1929 to the present is characterized by a number of major transitions, from dictatorship to democracy and back again, periods of economic despair, and equally periods in which to some – such as Stefan Zweig – Brazil appeared to be on the point of becoming a world power. The crucial ideas are, first, Brazil as a country with a colonial history. The Portuguese lost control of the country in a military coup in 1889, but this came after decades of weakness: for example, a bizarre period from 1808 to 1821 found Rio temporarily as the centre of the Portuguese empire after Portugal itself was lost to Napoleon. All attempts at political and cultural modernization in the twentieth century were in one way or another attempts to establish a post-colonial identity, the chief example of this being Brasília, whose inland location was a figuration of this desire, a turning away from the cities of the coast, founded by Europeans and looking towards Europe, towards the uninhabited interior.

The second context is dictatorship, of one kind or another. During the twentieth century Brazil passed through two periods of dictatorship. The first was the relatively benign, technocratic, modernizing Estado Novo (New State) under Getúlio Vargas (1930–45). Adapting imagery and ideas from Italian fascism, this was a period of nationalism and modernization, but not especially of political repression. The second period was military rule from 1964 to 1985, which had an entirely different character. This was first of all a state of emergency brought about by a coup, which itself occurred because of an unstable economy and a Political Contexts weak democracy. Initially relatively benign, the regime hardened in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the so-called anos de chumbo (years of lead).

During 1969–74, under Emilio Medici, Brazil’s government had much of the same character as the military regimes in Argentina and Chile: political dissent was not tolerated; opposition figures were ‘disappeared’ by the authorities; torture was institutionalized; and Brazil cooperated with other South American military regimes in Operação Condor (Operation Condor), a coordinated attempt to rid the continent of left-wing opposition. The repression in Brazil never reached the same levels as seen in other countries – its ‘disappeared’ numbered in the hundreds rather than the thousands, as in Argentina and Chile – but the methods and principles were the same. Architects had particular reasons to fear the military.

After 1964 a number of prominent architects were banned from teaching, while the eminent and successful Vilanova Artigas was imprisoned for his political views in 1967, and his architect pupils Sérgio Ferro and Rodrigo Lefèvre were jailed in 1969 for political activities.

The third political context, vital for the development of Modernist architecture, is the experiment in democracy after the Estado Novo, especially during the presidency of the populist Juscelino Kubitschek. ‘jk’ was an immensely popular and charismatic figure who promised ‘fifty years’ progress in five. The use of the acronym jk is contemporaneous with his period in office, although to an Anglophone readership in retrospect it recalls the convention of referring to the American president John F. Kennedy by (almost identical) initials. And it has to be said that jk’s status in Brazil has something of jfk’s in the us – a youngish, highly attractive figure who spoke a modernizing language, and who was anxious to advance his country’s reputation abroad. There is also in both cases the sense of a career cut short by circumstances – jfk’s by assassination, jk’s by the Brazilian constitution’s then rule that no president serve more than one term. jk’s project was more importantly cut short by the coup of 1964 and his subsequent exile. His influence on Brazilian public life was finally cut short in 1976 by a fatal car crash in the state of Rio de Janeiro, which – like jfk’s assassination – has never been definitively explained.

The fourth context would be the economic liberalization after the abertura (opening) in 1985. Since then, Brazil’s economy has become increasingly open to foreign investment, and as a consequence increasingly resembles the economies of the developed world. After appalling economic instability during the 1970s, with long periods of hyperin - flation, Brazil has achieved over a decade of low inflation, stability and growth, sluggish at first, but increasingly rapid at the time of writing, averaging 5 per cent per year.

The two main political figures of this period have been Fernando Henrique Cardoso (1994–2002) and Luís Inácio da Silva, better known as Lula (2002–). The country has been as stable as it has ever been as a democracy, with no likelihood, at the time of writing, of any return to authoritarian government.
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