Who Owns, Runs and Rules? Power in Brazil

 “Quantas vezes me disse o Conde que era este o segredo das democracias constitucionais: eu que sou o governo, fraco mas hábil, dou aparentemente a soberania ao povo, que é forte e simples; mas como a falta de educação o mantém na imbecilidade, e o amolecimento da consciência o amolece na indiferença, eu faço-o exercer essa soberania em seu proveito e no meu proveito, ó compadre!” Eca de Queiroz em O Conde d’Abranhos.

Since 1500, when Cabral claimed Brazil for the Portuguese, the questions of ownership, administration and power have been evolving and always convoluted.  The native tribes, while suspicious and fearful of the smelly new arrivals, did not resist the invaders by claiming a legal right to the land, nor were they willing to cede control based on any form of purchase and/or concession.  In essence, the Portuguese pushed aside the Indians with arms and illness to gradually establish immense land holdings (sesmarias) given by the King to his acolytes.

So, although the Indigenous population occupied Brazil long before discovery, the notion of organized, authenticated and deeded ownership only came after 1500.  Brazil’s native population did not have a notion of private ownership of land nor did they seek to appropriate land and labor for mercantile purposes.  The Portuguese, however, had to develop a system of possession with the intent of rewarding the King and his household.  Initially based on feudal notions, the system gradually transformed to private holdings, mercantile concessions and then market exchanges.

From the colonial period, control, domination and ownership was held by a relatively small group that had ties and favor through family and patronage with the Portuguese crown.  Extractive activities such as Brazil wood (pau Brasil) could be managed at a distance but as the sugar cycle and the slave trade took over grandees came to rely increasingly on native born who still had ties to the metropolitan or imperial administration.  Central authority always is countered by centrifugal pulls and this was especially so given the continental size of Brazil.

Slavery, sugar production and the associated logistics of trade and commerce enhanced complexity and required new systems of ownership and legality that went beyond the constraints of personal loyalty and patronage.  With the Napoleonic Wars in Europe and the transfer of the Portuguese Empire to Brazil, there was further consolidation, with royal protection, of legal structures guaranteeing ownership, slave holding and mercantile extraction of product from the land.

Clearly, up to Independence (1822) and beyond, power resided with the landowners sanctioned by Dom Pedro I and subsequently Dom Pedro II.  Rio de Janeiro became the capital of the empire and also the seat for the imperial bureaucracy in charge of managing the affairs of state including revenue collection, defense and the promotion of public services including roads and ports for the transportation of initially sugar, subsequently gold, silver, precious stones and later on a variety of products in demand in Portugal and Europe more broadly.

At Independence, there were less than 5 million inhabitants in a land area much larger the United States at the same time.  In this vast and sparsely populated territory, Rio de Janeiro and Salvador were the main urban centers of note.  Even in Brazil’s first urban centers, the division of labor, economic differentiation and productivity was subsistence based.  These centers hosted with precarious comfort the emperor, some minor nobility, an administrative class and the clergy.  These grandees, in turn, consumed products imported from Europe and sustained themselves with the wealth of gold from Minas Gerais, wood and sugar.  Slaves produced the exports but had no income to sustain any consumption.  It is true that the Church and to a lesser extent the “nobility” required art and architecture so the heritage that remains is found in buildings dedicated to higher purposes next to the whipping posts (pelourinho) that managed to keep 1/3 or more of the African and Afro-Brazilian population in submission.

All in all, running, ruling and owning Brazil and its wealth was a much simpler proposition up to the end of the 19th century.  Emperor Dom Pedro II reigned effectively for nearly 60 years.  Only after almost every country had abolished slavery did Brazil do the same in 1888 and move to a Republican form of government in 1889 after a minor military insurrection.

An exotic backwater, a destination for recalcitrant slave owners from the US, a land of vast unexplored potential, and always an object of frustrated desires and endeavors, Brazil finally began to cultivate an image of an awakening giant in the beginning of the 20th century.

One hundred plus years ago, Brazilian modernity involved republican notions, constitutionalism, private property, democracy, universal suffrage and the market.  But overall these concepts remained interesting yet exotic as Brazil transitioned from a slave-based economy.  In the first Republic (1889-1930), regional elites ruled and the presidency alternated between Sao Paulo and Minas Gerais in the informal café com leite agreement.  New formal legal structures masked the continued dominance of a small land holding elite that began to absorb and accommodate urban and some industrial activities.  Getulio Vargas led the Revolution of 1930 and guided the creation of the Estado Novo dictatorship (1937-1945).  Vargas’ political genius was in his anticipation of social and economic needs of the emerging urban working class while giving operational autonomy to Brazil’s landed barons and colonels.  The top down concessions through the Italian fascist model of social and economic cooptation of unions and the use of the state apparatus to create enterprises and employment strongly tinge Brazil’s power structure and administration 90 years later.  Things changed but remained the same.

Since Brazil’s redemocratization in 1985, there has been a growing recognition of the need for change, but Owners of Power using the title of Raymundo Faoro’s classic book (Os Donos do Poder), steadfastly resist.  Today, Brazil is highly urbanized with more than 80% of the population in large cities and at the same time, land and ownership is more and more concentrated.  Farmers and ranchers today account for Brazil’s main exports of meats and grains.  Their lobby in Congress is one of the most powerful and resists environmental regulations or changes to land management and ownership.  The military led the political change in 1930 and grew stronger under Vargas during the Estado Novo and guaranteed their prominence by supporting Allies is World War II.  Today, the Armed Forces are isolated from any changes in the reform of the State and their generous pensions and benefits remain untouchable.  Although retired Army Captain Bolsonaro was elected as a civilian, his administration has provided more positions and resources to the military than even the dictatorship presided by Generals.  Important ministries are headed by active or retired military who are in charge of allocating voluminous public resources.   The bureaucracy including the state-owned enterprises and especially the judiciary are another elite reserve of power.  This group too has protected itself from change and, indeed, at the top levels continues to enhance its privileges.  Of all the groups, that emerged from Brazil’s colonial past, only the Church has perhaps lost power or maybe we should say that the material sway of moral organizations has become more “democratic”.  Today, Brazil’s evangelical Protestant churches are holding onto numerous tax benefits and even seeking, and probably achieving, forgiveness of past tax obligations.

So, addressing the question of who owns, runs and rules, we note that Brazil has grown tremendously in complexity but that those who have held power for long periods of time remain in charge and jealously guard their status and benefits.  However, Brazil aspires to democracy partially because complex social and economic structures need an institutionalized and legitimate system to contain and guide competing interests so that they do not destroy each other and bring down a system that allows for increasing production and wealth.  In the end, there is no one elite or center of power that has its way.  Over time, Brazil’s “owners” have been able to accommodate and manage ongoing crises without total breakdown.  There has been to date some sort of jeitinho to promise change without actually having to deliver on a substantial scale.  However, the emergence of new players and the different and ever increasingly obvious forms of inequality reflect the rigidity and protective nature of the entrenched.  Without change, pressure will build and eventually there will be minor or major ruptures.  Democracy without education and openness to mobility will lead to populism and even despotism.  If Brazil does not get the question of ownership, management, and leadership right, it will wind up as another case of frustrated development.

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