[Lilia M. Schwarcz and Heloisa M. Starling, Brazil: a biography (discussion: Madrid, 2016), 896 pp.]
review / Emili J. Blasco
Presenting the history of a vast country such as Brazil in a single volume, albeit an extensive one, is no easy task, if one wants to go into sufficient depth. "Brazil. A Biography" (for this review we have used Penguin's English edition, from 2019, somewhat later than the publication of the work in Spain; the original in Portuguese is from 2015) is an account with the appropriate lens. "Brazil is not for beginners", say the two authors in the introduction, expressing with that quotation of a Brazilian musician the way they conceived the book: knowing that they were addressing an audience with generally little knowledge about the country, they had to be able to convey the complexity of national life (of what constitutes a continent in itself) but without making the reading agonising.
The book follows a chronological order; however, the fact of starting with some general considerations and building the first chapters around certain social and political systems generated successively by the sugar cane plantations, the enslavement of the African population and the search for gold means that Brazilian life advances before our eyes without having the sensation of a mere shifting of dates. Later comes the 19th century, which for Hispanics is of interest to see the negative side of the history we know about the Spanish American colonies (in contrast to the Spanish case, during the Napoleonic wars the entire Portuguese Court moved to Rio de Janeiro and independence did not result in various republics, but in a centralised monarchy of its own). And then a 20th century that in Brazil was a good compendium of the political vicissitudes of the contemporary world: from the Estado Novo of Getúlio Vargas, to the military dictatorship and the restoration of democracy.
The work by Schwarcz and Starling, professors at the University of São Paulo and the Federal University of Minas Gerais, respectively, focuses on political processes, but always with the parallel social and cultural processes that occur together in any country. The volume provides a wealth of information and bibliographical references for all of Brazil's historical periods, without disregarding some in favour of others, and the reader can focus on those moments that are of greatest interest to him or her.
Personally, I have been more interested in reading about four periods, relatively distant from each other. On the one hand, the attempts by France and Holland in the 16th and 17th centuries to set foot in Brazil (they were not permanently successful, and both powers had to settle for the Guianas). Then the emergence and consolidation in the 18th century of Minas Gerais as the third vertex of the Brazilian heartland triangle (Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo and Belo Horizonte). Then the description of the life of a European-style court in the circumstances of the tropical climate (the monarchy lasted until 1889). And finally the experiences of mid-20th century developmentalism, with Juscelino Kubitschek and João Goulart in a tour de force between democratic compromise, presidential personalism and the undercurrents of the Cold War.
Reading this book provides numerous keys to a better understanding of certain aspects of Brazil's behaviour as a country. On the one hand, how the immensity of the territory and the existence of areas that are difficult for the state to reach - the Amazon is a clear example - gives the army an important role as guarantor of the continuity of the nation (the success, perhaps momentary, of Bolsonaro and his appeal to the Armed Forces has to do with this, although this last presidency is no longer included in the book). On the other, how the division of territorial power between mayors and governors generates a multitude of political parties and forces each presidential candidate to articulate multiple alliances and coalitions, sometimes incurring in a "buying and selling" of favours that generally ends up having a cost for the country's institutionality.
The book's essay was completed before the collapse of the Workers' Party government era. That is why the consideration of the governments of Lula da Silva and Dilma Rousseff is, perhaps, somewhat complacent, as a sort of "end of history": since the end of the military dictatorship in 1985, the country would have evolved in the improvement of its democratic and social life until the time crowned by the PT. The "Lava Jato case" has shown that "history continues".