Brazil Modern History

By | January 31, 2023

Brazil is a country located in South America. With the capital city of Brasilia, Brazil has a population of 212,559,428 based on a recent census from COUNTRYAAH. In the decades after World War II, Brazil was characterized by instability and economic problems. Strikes and riots contributed to the military taking power in a coup in 1964. Exceptional laws were introduced and opposition was pursued. At the same time, a “Brazilian wonder” was achieved in the economy. Democracy was reintroduced from 1985. Corruption scandals have characterized most governments since then. Under the left-wing president Lula da Silva 2003-2010, the economy grew strongly and many Brazilians got better. Subsequently, a deep decline coincided with corruption revelations and political instability.

After President Getúlio Varga’s resignation in 1945 (see Older History), Brazil was characterized by instability and economic problems. Under the impression of the Cold War between the US and the Soviet Union, the Communist Union was banned and the country’s relations with the Soviet Union were broken. Vargas returned as elected president in 1951, but his reign failed. A scandal surrounding an assassination attempt on his political arch enemy ended with Vargas taking his life in 1954.

  • ABBREVIATIONFINDER: List of most commonly used acronyms containing Brazil. Also includes historical, economical and political aspects of the country.

The successor Juscelino Kubitschek focused on industrialization and economic growth under the slogan “50 years of development in 5 years”. He fulfilled the more than 100-year vision of creating a new capital, Brazil, inland. Brazil was inaugurated in 1960, after only four years of construction work that caused huge budget deficits and high foreign loans. Check best-medical-schools for more information about Brazil.

The next president, Jânio Quadros, was forced into unpopular economic austerity and created enemies in the military through a US-critical foreign policy. He resigned shortly afterwards and his successor João Goulart sought in vain to deal with an economic crisis, which propelled the country’s first independent trade union movement. The sugar workers in the Northeast were barren, they lacked food for the day and organized themselves with demands for radical land reform. Looting, riots and strikes followed. The military feared a communist development and in secret cooperation with the United States, Goulart was overthrown in a coup in 1964.

The new military regime, with General Humberto Castello Branco as president, introduced exceptional laws. The union was again put under state control and political parties were banned. Instead, an official government party, the National Renewal Alliance (Arena) was created, and an official opposition party. The state’s involvement in the economy increased sharply and the exploitation of the country’s natural resources accelerated. The military encouraged foreign business start-ups.


The measures taken to curb inflation led to economic stagnation and political dissatisfaction. All real opposition was banned and in 1968 an armed guerrilla was formed. The military regime responded with mass arrests, torture and murders of oppositionists. At the same time, the regime eased the economic tightening and the economy grew by ten percent a year. The period has subsequently been called “the Brazilian wonder”. But the positive effects of the “wonder” came only to a small proportion of Brazilians and the economic gaps increased.

In 1974, the new president, General Ernesto Geisel, initiated a cautious political liberalization, abertura (opening), and in the election that year the official opposition party had great success. Trade union opposition to military rule and economic injustices grew, and workers went on strike for hundreds of thousands. The car workers in São Paulo took the lead, led by metal worker Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who was arrested when the strikes were declared illegal.

In 1979, Geisel was succeeded by General João Baptista Figueiredos, who repealed the exceptions, released political prisoners, allowed refugees to return, mitigated censorship and prepared democratic elections. The two-party system was dissolved and the ruling party Arena was replaced by the Democratic Social Party (PDS), while the opposition formed several different parties, the largest being the Brazilian Democratic Movement Party (PMDB). The parliamentary elections in 1982 were very even, but PDS favored the electoral system and won the most seats.

The government’s most important goal was economic growth. Dams and power plants were constructed, the Amazon was exploited and construction started on the Transamazonian route from the Atlantic coast to the Peru border. However, the expansion was largely paid for with a growing foreign debt.

Democracy is reintroduced

When it was time to elect president in 1985, liberal PDS politicians allied with the PMDB, and opposition candidate Tancredo Neves was named new president, with former PDS leader José Sarney as vice president. Neves victory sparked enthusiasm, but Neves fell ill and died before he could take office. Instead, Sarney became Brazil’s first civilian president in 21 years.

During Sarney, land reform was carried out and landless peasants were allocated land in the Amazon. However, it only happened after severe clashes between farmers and landowners, who did not want to let go of land, and at least 125 people lost their lives. It was also only after political struggles that a new constitution could be approved in 1988. The new constitution diminished the president’s power and guaranteed civil liberties and rights.

However, Sarney’s economic policies failed and union demonstrations, riots and looting followed. A number of leading PMDB politicians were also dissatisfied with Sarney. They left the party and formed the Brazilian Social Democratic Party (PSDB). Among them was the sociologist Fernando Henrique Cardoso, who lived in exile during the military regime.

In the 1989 presidential election, populist and former governor Fernando Collor de Mello, who started the National Reconstruction Party (PRN), won only to win the election. He defeated by radical margin the radical union leader Lula da Silva, who was a candidate for the Labor Party (PT). Collor, who ran a lavish campaign in the family-run TV Globo, promised to end hyperinflation and corruption, cut bureaucracy and privatize business.

Suspended payments

However, the economic crisis deepened, repayments on foreign debt were suspended and the state cut its spending, which aroused strong protests. Corruption charges against Collor grew into a scandal that ended in national law against him. Before the case was settled, Collor resigned in 1992 and his deputy during the judicial process, Itamar Franco, was installed as a new president.

Franco’s government had greater success with the economy but was weakened by corruption charges, government transformations and layoffs. Among those who resigned were Finance Minister Fernando Henrique Cardoso. As a minister, he had managed to drastically reduce inflation, which helped to give him a grand victory in the 1994 presidential election over Lula da Silva, who was again the Labor Party candidate.

President Cardoso’s deregulation of the economy was overshadowed by his controversial fight for a constitutional change, implemented in 1997, which allowed the president to be re-elected for a second term. Cardoso then won the 1998 presidential election, again over Lula da Silva.

A write-down of the value of the country’s currency in 1999 was followed by economic crisis, austerity policy and protests from, among others, workers and the landless. Several corruption scandals shook the government. Leading politicians, government officials, judges and police officers were involved in organized crime with drug trafficking and money laundering. The increasingly sunny image of the center-right coalition favored the opposition ahead of the 2002 elections, at the same time as the government was pressured by a severe energy crisis.

Lula da Silva becomes president

The October 2002 presidential election was won by a clear margin by Lula da Silva, who lost three previous presidential elections. This time he adapted his message to the middle voters, while continuing to promise improvements for the poor. Even in the parliamentary elections, the Labor Party went ahead strongly and became the largest party in the Chamber of Deputies. The former government parties declined sharply. Lula da Silva formed an unstable coalition with several central and left parties.

When Lula da Silva took office as President on New Year’s Day 2003, it was the first time that a former worker became Brazil’s highest political leader. The business community expressed concern, but the previously so radical strike leader Lula da Silva had over the years been transformed into a social democratic politician. He promised investments in economic growth at the same time as measures against poverty, starvation and unemployment. An ambitious program was launched to make slum dwellings without building permits legal and give the poorest advice to buy supplies.

However, in order to get the central government debt under control, Lula da Silva undertook to meet the International Monetary Fund’s (IMF) requirements for hard budget savings. Interest rates were raised to stop inflation. This policy won support in Parliament but sparked protests among the trade unions and leftist groups that brought Lula da Silva to power. Gradually, several parties left the government in whole or in part, which had difficulty getting support for its policy.

corruption Scandals

The illusion of the Labor Party as a reliable force in the fight against corruption got a thorn a year after the change of power, when a presidential adviser was revealed in trying to get bribes and campaign contributions from illegal gambling activities. In 2005, the party was shaken by a major corruption scandal, mensalão (“the big monthly payment”), in which the government was accused of taking money from the state power company to buy the votes of congressmen. The president’s chief of staff, as well as the party’s chairman, general secretary and chief financial officer, were allowed to leave their missions. One of the other government parties was also revealed with illegal campaign financing. After parliamentary investigations, 18 members of Congress were allowed to resign.

However, Lula da Silva was cleared of suspicion and despite the scandals, he was able to enter a second term after winning superior in the second round of the presidential election in 2006. One reason for the president’s popularity was social initiatives in support of poor families (see Social Conditions). In contrast, the Labor Party reversed the election to the Chamber of Deputies that year and became only the second largest party. The largest was the bourgeois PMDB, albeit by a small margin, and to support its policy, Lula da Silva formed a coalition government with the PMDB. But the PMDB was divided before the government cooperation and several of the party’s senators belonged to the opponents, which jeopardized the government’s support in the senate.

The term of office was bordered by adversity for Lula da Silva. Several of his confidants were accused of corruption, including the Senate Speaker who was forced to resign at the end of 2007. The president’s problems were diluted in 2009 when the new President, former President José Sarney of PMDB, one of his most important allies, was accused of corruption.

In 2008, the environment minister Marina Silva had also resigned in protest against the government’s environmental policy. The Minister of Defense later also threatened to resign after Lula da Silva implemented a comprehensive human rights program. The Minister criticized, with the military’s support, the part of the program which stipulated that a Truth Commission should be appointed to investigate crimes under the military dictatorship 1964-1985.

Despite the setbacks, Lula da Silva remained popular. During his time in power, Brazil grew stronger economically and many Brazilians got better.

Dilma Rousseff takes over after Lula

Lula, who was hampered by the constitution to run for yet another re-election in 2010, presented Chief of Staff Dilma Rousseff as his hand-picked candidate. She won in the second round and in the congressional elections the eleven parties in the government coalition received a satisfactory majority in both chambers (see further Calendar).

Dilma Rousseff took office on January 1, 2011 as Brazil’s first female president. Initially, she managed to get through budget cuts, while at the same time promising continued social efforts, especially against the worst poverty. Contrary to the predecessor’s political dealings behind closed doors, the new president preferred an open leadership style that teased many of the power’s experienced men. She exploited crises in the ministries to remove corruption-accused politicians and officials (see Calendar) and promoted a more open political culture.

Dilma Rousseff had strong support from the people during her first presidential years, despite the fact that the Labor Party remained the focus of the mensalão scandal. In 2012, the investigation resulted in trial and long prison sentences for several high-ranking politicians from Lula’s reign.

Worse times

Gradually, economic reality became harsher for many Brazilians, as the previously high growth rate slowed as the currency eroded. This contributed to increased dissatisfaction with the government. In the summer of 2013, demonstrations grew at elevated prices in public transport in São Paulo to nationwide protest actions against corruption, lack of community service and what was perceived as a waste of taxpayers for the 2014 Soccer World Cup and the Summer Olympics 2016. The protests were the largest in the country in over 20 years. Later, among others, teachers and oil workers strikes, and demonstrations against the government degenerated several times in violent situations.

In response to the protests, President Rousseff launched a comprehensive reform package, including investments in public transport, measures to combat inflation and improve health care, and a promise that the education system would benefit from the country’s oil revenues.

During the 2014 election year, support for Dilma Rousseff shrank. The economy was in a recession and in addition, the first revelations came about a corruption havoc within the state-owned oil company Petrobras. The scandal cast a shadow on the president, who previously served on the company’s board, even though she was not accused of being directly involved.

Rousseff reelected

After all, Rousseff managed to win the presidential election in October 2014, but it was with the smallest margin of victory in a presidential election in Brazil since 1894. The government alliance also retained its majority in both chambers of Congress (see Calendar).

Petrobras heredity continued to grow and a large number of highly regarded people within the oil company, among its suppliers and in politics, were identified as suspicious. After increasingly loud demands from the public, the heads first rolled at the highest level in Petrobras: in February 2015, the entire oil company resigned.

Critics claimed that Dilma Rousseff must have known about the bribes. Just six months after the election, over one million people demonstrated demanding her departure. The opposition demanded national law, that is, a legal process to dismiss the president. In line with the allegations, Rousseff had manipulated figures in the budget during the 2014 election year, making the Brazilian economy appear stronger than it was. This was done through temporary loans to the state finances – something that Rousseff and her allies claimed is common and not illegal, though possibly inappropriate.

In May 2016, the Senate voted to begin the judicial process, which resulted in Rousseff being suspended from office, and on August 31, she was permanently dismissed (see also Calendar). Rousseff and her supporters claimed that she was subjected to a political coup.

Environmental and health disasters

Alongside the economic crisis and growing political unrest, Brazil was hit by environmental and health disasters during Rousseff’s last year in power. In November 2015, two power plant dams collapsed and huge amounts of toxic sludge leaked into the state of Minas Gerais in the southeast (see Calendar and Natural Resources, Energy and Environment).

At the beginning of 2016, it was clear that the country was facing a public health crisis as an outbreak of the mosquito-borne zika virus infected over half a million people and was feared to have caused nearly 3,700 cases of birth defects. The infection, which was first discovered in Brazil, soon spread to much of Latin America. On 1 February, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the outbreak an international emergency. In Brazil, the government decided to mobilize over 200,000 soldiers to help look for stagnant water in and around homes, where mosquitoes multiply. Only in May 2017 was the danger over, as the number of new cases had fallen by 95 percent during the first four months of the year, compared with the same period the year before.

Brazil Modern History