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A Turbulent Past, An Uncertain Future

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"All that is solid melts into air, all that is sacred is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life and his relations with his kind."  -Karl Marx, The Communist Manifesto

Studying the history of a nation can be a very dry business.  While looking for information on Brazil's background, I found many Web pages that contained only boring accounts of the nation's political past.  What I was looking for, however, was a glimpse into Brazil's rich cultural heritage.  However, as I pieced together what I could from various sources, I realized that no reports I read could impress me as Salgado's photographs had.   

Politics and the People

Since Brazil's second emperor, Pedro II, was overthrown and the first republic was established in 1889, the nation's political history has been a turbulent one.  Through dictatorships, social reforms, revolts, and coups, Brazil has stumbled along a string of unstable governments.  Repression and unrest characterized the 1960s, and the Roman Catholic clergy stepped in to intervene on behalf of the disadvantaged.  They criticized the government for failing to relieve the plight of the poor.  I believe that the Church should support its people; after all, religion is much more than just the "opium of the masses," as Marx referred to it.

From 1964 to 1985, Military governments ruled Brazil.  During that period, the economy prospered, but constitutional rights were suspended, and the press was censored.  In 1985, civilian government was restored with the election of Tancredo de Almeida Neves.  From the 1980s well into the 1990s, Brazil was plunged into a drought that brought hunger to millions of its citizens, while the government refused to ask for help from other nations.  Meanwhile, little help was being offered from the rest of the world: a cruel testament to the anonymity of world affairs.  Starvation has no face? Look at the photos from An Uncertain Grace.  Salgado puts a face to the words that we hear but do not truly understand.  

Land distribution in Brazil has been a persistent problem.  In 1995, one percent of the population owned 45 percent of Brazil's land.  That year, President Fernando Henrique Cardoso, whose administration had struggled with issues of land ownership since his election in 1994,  signed a decree that redistributed the land from large private estates to poor families.  His economic plan, named the Real Plan after the new currency, controlled inflation and generated growth.  However, in 1996, another presidential decree allowed non-Native Americans to appeal the land allocations made by Brazil's Indian Affairs Bureau.  Again, the Church voiced its opinion, this time by joining the Native American and human rights groups in condemning the law, which threatened the Indians' claims to land. (www.brazilbrazil.com/historia.html

The existence of a large gap between the rich and poor fosters discontentment among the people.  And, as history has taught us, the "unwashed masses" cannot be kept down forever.  Eventually, the situation will reach a breaking point, when the downtrodden have had enough.  It is part of human nature to want more than what we have and to be more than what we are.  Unfortunately, not everyone has the opportunity or the power to change his conditions.  Many people do not understand this fundamental deficiency.  I believe that hierarchies will always exist in society, and that some people will always have more wealth than others, but I also believe that every person has the right to fulfill his basic needs and pursue his own happiness.

A Word on Culture

As far as culture is concerned, Brazilians consider themselves to be distinct from other Latin American societies.  And, as the largest nation on the continent, they are.  When one thinks of Latin or South America, he may automatically think of the Spanish language, the conquistadors, etc.  But because their language, ethnic composition, and history are different from other Latin American countries, Brazilians see themselves as only distantly related to the history and development of the rest of Latin America.  

The official language of Brazil is Portuguese, and population is mostly Portuguese, Spanish, Native American, African, Italian, and German.  The country is known for its music, which fuses African and Portuguese elements; both the samba and the bossa nova originated there. (www.brazilbrazil.com/elements.html)  This demonstrates how cultures can blend beautifully to produce something wonderful and new.  I often wonder what global culture will be like in another 50 years.

Family relationships are imperative to Brazilian culture.  Most young adults live with their parents until they are married, unlike in the U.S., where many men and women move out by age 18.  However, I do not think that it is fair to compare cultures, because it is nearly impossible to do so without confronting biases on either side.  It is not possible to say that one nation is better than another, in terms of cultural traditions and tendencies.  Priorities are different in the U.S., but they are not necessarily worse.  Independence and ambition characterize Americans' nature, while Brazilians are often described as compassionate and loyal.  Only getting to know people from other cultures on a personal basis can dispel stereotypes and replace preconceived notions.    

Religion is an important influence in Brazil; 70 to 88 percent of Brazilians are Roman Catholic, although it is often supplemented with the worship of African deities.  Traditionally, the Native Americans practice their indigenous religions.  picture:  The First Mass, 1500.   

  www.brazilbrazil.com/historia.