The original inhabitants of Brazil were hunter-gatherers, except in the lower Amazon, where sedentary agriculture developed. There are no reliable population estimates from pre-European times, but probably there were no more than one million.
After the European discovery of the New World, Spain and Portugal became immediate rivals for the vast new lands. Portugal's claim was established by a papal bull of Pope Alexander VI (1493) and by the Treaty of Tordesillas (1494), which awarded to Portugal all territory 370 leagues west of the Cape Verde Islands. On Easter Sunday in 1500, the Portuguese admiral Pedro Álvares Cabral formally claimed the land for the Portuguese crown. Cabral's ship returned to Portugal with a cargo of red dyewood, which had been gathered along the shore, and from the name of the wood, pau-brasil, the new land acquired the name Brazil.
In 1532, the first Portuguese colonists arrived, bringing cattle, seed, and the first slaves from Africa. In 1549, the Portuguese governor-general, Tomé da Souza, founded the city of São Salvador, and established the first Portuguese government in the New World. The same year marked the arrival of the missionary Society of Jesus (the Jesuits) to begin their work among the Indians.
Other Europeans began to move in on the Portuguese colony. In 1555, the French established a settlement in the Bay of Rio de Janeiro. In 1624, the Dutch attacked Bahia and began to extend throughout northeastern Brazil. Under the Dutch, who remained until ousted in 1654, the area flourished economically. Colonists planted sugarcane, and during the 17th century, the large sugar plantations of northeastern Brazil were the world's major source of sugar.
Brazil's first attempt at independence came in 1789 in the mining state of Minas Gerais. A plot, known as the Miners' Conspiracy (Conjuração Mineira) was led by Joaquim José da Silva Xavier, a healer known as Tiradentes ("tooth-puller"). The plot was betrayed and crushed, and Tiradentes was captured and eventually executed, but Tiradentes remains a national hero. In 1807, the invading armies of Napoleon forced the Portuguese royal family and 15,000 Portuguese subjects to flee to Brazil. Rio de Janeiro became the seat of the Portuguese royal family until 1821, when King John (João) VI returned home, leaving his son Pedro to rule Brazil as regent. Meanwhile, Portugal's monopolistic trade practices, the suppression of domestic
industry, and oppressive taxation had brought about a strong movement for independence, which Pedro supported. In 1640, Portugal appointed a viceroy for Brazil, with his seat first in Bahia and after 1763 in Rio de Janeiro. The discovery of gold in 1693 and of diamonds about 1720 opened up new lands for colonization in what are now the states of São Paulo, Minas Gerais, Paraná, Goiás, and Mato Grosso. From their base in São Paulo, Brazilian pioneers (Bandeirantes) pushed inland, along with their herds of cattle and pigs, in search of Indian slaves and mineral riches. By the 1790s, when the primitive surface gold and diamond mines were largely exhausted, the Brazilian plateau became thinly populated.
Pedro proclaimed Brazil's independence on 7 September 1822, and later that year was crowned Emperor Pedro I. In 1831, a military revolt forced him to abdicate. The throne passed to his 5-year-old son, Pedro. In 1840, Pedro was crowned Emperor. Under Pedro II, Brazil enjoyed half a century of peaceful progress. New frontiers were opened, many immigrants arrived from Europe, railroads were built, and the gathering of rubber in the Amazon Basin stimulated the growth of cities, such as Belém and Manaus. The abolition of slavery in 1888 brought about an economic crisis that disrupted the Brazilian Empire. In 1889, a bloodless revolution deposed Pedro II and established the Republic of the United States of Brazil. A new constitution modeled after the US federal constitution, was promulgated by the Brazilian government in 1891. At first, the republic was ruled by military regimes, but by 1894 constitutional stability was achieved.
Meanwhile, empty areas of good soil were settled in the southern plateau by over 2.5 million Italian, Portuguese, German, Polish, and Levantine immigrants. The rapid spread of coffee cultivation in the state of São Paulo transformed Brazil into the world's largest coffee-producing country. By the end of the 19th century, coffee had become the nation's principal source of wealth. Brazil soon entered a period of economic and political turmoil. Malayan and Indonesian rubber plantations had overwhelmed the Brazilian rubber market, while coffee revenues were reduced by falling world prices of coffee. Regionalism and military rivalries contributed to instability, and by 1930, the nation was in a state of unrest. In that year, a military coup with widespread civilian support placed into power Getúlio Vargas, the governor of Rio Grande do Sul.
Vargas' ideology was a blend of populism and corporatism. He sought reforms for Brazil's middle and lower classes, but discouraged dissent and was often repressive. Between 1930 and 1937 Vargas brought a minimum wage and social security to Brazil, but also crushed a leftist uprising in 1935. Vargas formalized his system in 1937, calling it the New State ("Estado Novo"). For eight years, Vargas attempted to industrialize Brazil, while organizing both workers and their employers into state-run syndicates. Vargas was nationalist in foreign policy, although he encouraged foreign investment. He exploited the US-German rivalry over Latin America to get large amounts of aid until joining the allies in 1942.
Conservative elements of the military, convinced that Vargas was a dangerous force, removed him from office, and promulgated a new constitution in 1946. The "Second Republic" was initiated with the presidency of Eurico Dutra. Vargas was returned to the presidency in the election of 1950 and did not attempt to rejuvenate the New State. He did continue to press for industrialization under state control, establishing a National Development Bank and a state petroleum company. Eventually he ran afoul of the military, which demanded his resignation. He committed suicide in August 1954; a few months before his term of office was due to expire.
He was succeeded from 1955 to 1961 by Juscelino Kubitschek de Oliveira. Kubitschek embarked on an ambitious program of development, spending huge amounts of money and attracting large foreign investments in Brazil. Kubitschek's most ambitious program was the building of a new federal capital, Brasília, in the highlands of central Brazil. Inflation and a burdensome national debt proved to be his undoing, and in January 1961 Jânio da Silva Quadros was inaugurated after a campaign promising an end to corruption and economic stability. The situation proved too difficult for Quadros, and he resigned after only seven months. João Goulart, who had been vice president under both Kubitschek and Quadros, became president only after the conservative Congress combined with the military to reduce his powers and institute an unwieldy form of parliamentary government. In January 1963, in a national plebiscite, Brazil chose to restore presidential powers. But Goulart was caught between pressures from the left, demanding the acceleration of social programs, and the right, increasingly alarmed by trends toward populism.
On 1 April 1964 the military deposed Goulart and arrested 40,000 people, including 80 members of Congress. In the same month, Congress appointed Humberto de Alencar Castelo Branco to the presidency, and in July it approved a constitutional amendment extending Castelo Branco's term of office to March 1967. National elections were postponed, and Brazil entered an era of military supremacy.
In March 1967 Arthur da Costa e Silva, a former army marshal, took office under a new constitution. That constitution was suspended in December 1968, and military hard-liners took the upper hand. Costa e Silva suffered a stroke in September 1969 and died in December. Gen. Emilio Garrastazú Médici, former head of the secret police was chosen to replace him. In March 1974, Gen. Ernesto Geisel, a high official in the Castelo Branco government, became president.
The military governments of the previous 10 years had brought Brazil rapid economic expansion, but there was a dramatic reversal during the oil crisis of 1973–74. Opposition began to mount, encouraged by religious and trade union leaders. President Geisel gradually instituted some degree of political liberalization (abertura), but the military split on the wisdom of this policy.
During the late 1970s, continuing economic difficulties led to labor unrest and numerous strikes, including a strike of 300,000 metalworkers in metropolitan São Paulo in April and May of 1980 that ended only after troops in tanks and trucks occupied the region. Meanwhile, Gen. João Baptista de Oliveira Figueiredo became president in March 1979. That August, Figueiredo continued Geisel's policy of liberalization by signing a political amnesty law that allowed many political exiles to return home. Also in 1979, censorship of the press and the controlled two-party system were abolished. In November 1982, Brazil had its first democratic elections since 1964. Opposition parties won the governorships of 10 populous states and a majority in the lower house of Congress, but the ruling party remained in control of the upper house and the electoral college, which was to choose the next president. Moreover, the military retained broad powers to intervene in political affairs under national security laws.
The 1985 election was indirect, yet the opposition managed to turn the campaign in 1984 into a reflection of popular choice and capture the presidency. The ruling party chose São Paulo governor Paulo Maluf, who proved unable to distance himself from the unpopularity of the military-controlled regime. The opposition capitalized on the groundswell of hostility and coalesced behind the paternal figure of Tancredo Neves, a senator from Minas Gerais who had held office under Vargas and who campaigned as if the ballot were direct. The election went against the government, and in January 1985, the electoral college duly chose Neves as Brazil's first civilian president in a generation. In March, however, just before his inauguration, Neves fell gravely ill, and he died in April without having been formally sworn in. Brazilians feared another military strike, but Vice President José Sarney was allowed to take office as president. Sarney, who represented a small center-right party allied with Neves's party, consolidated his position after an impressive showing in regional and legislative elections in November 1986.
A new constitution, passed in 1988, was followed by elections a year later. Brazil's first direct presidential elections in 29 years resulted in the victory of Fernando Collor de Mello. Collor received 53% of the vote in the runoff elections. Collor took office in March 1990 and launched an ambitious liberalization program that attempted to stabilize prices and deregulate the economy. Collor was in the process of renegotiating Brazil's huge debt with foreign creditors and the IMF when massive corruption was revealed inside the Collor administration. Allegations implicated Collor himself, who was forced to resign in December 1992. Itamar Franco took over, promising to continue Collor's programs, but long-standing structural problems continued. The nation's chronic inflation was finally brought under control through the Real Plan launched in 1994 by finance minister Fernando Enrique Cardoso (and named for the new currency, linked to the US dollar, that was introduced under the plan).
On the strength of the plan's success, Cardoso, a leading social scientist, was elected to the presidency in October 1994. His policies, which continued to keep inflation under control, reduced tariffs, and included major privatization measures, earned him sufficient support for the passage in January 1997 of a constitutional amendment by the lower house of Congress overturning the nation's ban on consecutive presidential terms and making it possible for Cardoso to seek reelection in 1998. He won reelection in October of 1998 with 53% of the vote in the first round. Worker's Party candidate "Lula" da Silva came second with 31.7%. Cardoso also commanded the support of a loose center-right coalition of parties. One of the major challenges tackled by the Cardoso administration was the privatization of the state-owned mining company, Vale de Rio Doce, which drew strong opposition from nationalist, leftist, and religious forces. In May 1997 a $3.2 billion controlling stake in the mining and transport conglomerate was sold to private investors. Cardoso's parties also won a majority of the state governor races. Shortly after the election, as a result of the economic crisis, Brazil was forced to devalue its real currency. Previously pegged to the US dollar, the real lost more than 60% of its value within days, sending the country into a deeper crisis. Some recovery was observed starting in 1999, but social discontent resulting from high unemployment and growing poverty also flourished. Cardoso was constitutionally prevented from seeking a third consecutive presidential term in 2002.
In the 2002 election, Lula da Silva, the runner-up in the previous two elections and the founder of the Worker's Party, finally succeeded in winning the presidency. After placing first in the first-round election, Lula went on to win more than 61% of the vote to defeat José Serra, Cardoso's candidate, and become the first factory worker ever to be elected president of Brazil. Although many observers feared that Lula would adopt policies detrimental to sound fiscal management and would favor redistribution of wealth over fiscal discipline, during his first months in office Lula demonstrated his ability to be a clever, reliable, trustworthy leader who seeks to balance sound macroeconomic policies with an active but responsible commitment to reduce poverty and use government resources to help those in most need. The economy recovered after the 1998 crisis, but poverty and inequality remained widespread and fighting them was Lula's first priority as president. Lula's Zero Hunger plan, aimed at devoting state resources to help the most impoverished Brazilians, received enthusiastic support from political actors and international observers.