Modernity in Brazil: a Privilege of Few

     Modernity in Brazil: a 
Privilege of Few

    In Brazil, processes
    of development and modernization were
    almost entirely implemented within the nation’s urban centres.
    The central government either forgot or ignored rural Brazil,
    in particular the vast backlands. Modernization has generated
    more discrepancies and barriers within the nation.
    by: Henry

    Firstly, the obvious must be stated. Brazil is still very much a Third World,
    or `developing’ country, where social problems such as poverty and illiteracy
    are widespread. One only has to think of Rio de Janeiro and its sadly ironic
    nickname: `the marvellous city’.

    "How can Brazil still
    be a developing country?" you ask yourself on visiting the stunning Copacabana
    beach and admiring the luxurious apartments that look out over the Atlantic—evidence
    of the benefits of modernization.

    The answer becomes clear,
    however, as your eyes pan across towards Sugar Loaf Mountain and you see the
    harrowing sight of the hillside slums (favelas). Modernity does not
    include the residents of neighbourhoods such as these. There is never room
    for everybody in plans for modernization, and nowhere is this more apparent
    than in Brazil.

    During the late 1950s
    and 60s Brazil entered a period of great optimism. The process of modernization
    had already begun during the `New State’ of Getúlio Vargas (1937-1945),
    but it was his successor, Juscelino Kubitschek (1956-61), who succeeded in
    creating amongst his people a strong feeling of confidence and faith in the
    nation’s future.

    The famous motto of his
    electoral campaign was "50 years’ progress in 5", emphasizing his
    desire to modernize the nation, so that one day Brazil could fulfil its undoubted
    potential. The icon of his presidency is the city of Brasília, the
    nation’s actual capital and a symbol of high modern architecture, inaugurated
    by Kubitschek in April of 1960. The construction of Brasília represented
    a brighter future. It expressed the hope of the Brazilian people. It demonstrated
    that Brazil could become a truly modern nation.

    Thousands of impoverished
    Brazilians migrated towards the new capital to take part in its construction
    and in the hope of a better life. Unfortunately, what awaited them was simply
    more poverty. The majority of those who helped construct Brasília ended
    up living in the city’s suburbs, in makeshift wooden shacks, and not in the
    new apartment blocks that they had built.

    The cost of undertaking
    such a bold project was huge, and it seems that Kubitschek was more concerned
    with its symbolic significance than with its inevitable economic repercussions.
    Inflation subsequently rose fast, as did the number of residents in Brazil’s
    urban slums. These people were denied the opportunity to partake in the new,
    modern Brazil.


    In Brazil, processes of
    development and modernization were almost entirely implemented within the
    nation’s urban centres. In his desire to see Brazil become a developed country,
    Kubitschek strengthened the nation’s infrastructure, stimulating national
    industries (especially in the areas of energy and transport) and offering
    incentives for national and foreign investment. However, he either forgot
    or ignored rural Brazil, in particular the vast, northeastern sertão

    This period saw the publication
    of a number of novels, poems and plays that highlighted the poverty and misery
    of the inhabitants of such areas. João Cabral de Melo Neto, for example,
    published Morte e Vida Severina (The Death and Life of Severino) during
    the Kubitschek administration.

    This hard-hitting play
    served to remind the nation of the `real’ Brazil and of the many Brazilians
    who had been forgotten and alienated by successive governments during the
    process of modernization. The play powerfully depicts the cruel conditions
    of the arid sertão where death reigns supreme. This world was
    quite a contrast to the popular image of Brazil that was beginning to be exported
    around the world.

    This was the tropical
    and tranquil image evoked by the protagonists of bossa nova. They highlighted
    `the good life’, the sun, the beach and the dark-skinned beauties of Rio de
    Janeiro’s Zona Sul (Southern Zone)—an area where modernization had arrived—in
    songs such as "A Garota de Ipanema" (The Girl from Ipanema) by Vinicius
    de Moraes and Antônio Carlos Jobim.

    The music of bossa
    nova highlighted one consequence of modernity: the elimination of barriers.
    For the very first time a Brazilian musical genre began to be exported on
    a large scale to the United States and across the world. Nevertheless, this
    international image of Brazil, highlighting the life of privileged cariocas
    (citizens of Rio de Janeiro), did not represent the reality of the overwhelming
    majority of Brazilians. Bossa nova and the works of writers such as
    João Cabral de Melo Neto reveal the discrepancy between the developed
    Brazil and the forgotten Brazil.

    New Cinema

    The Kubitschek administration
    also saw the emergence of a new cinematographic movement. One of the concerns
    of this New Wave cinema, or Cinema Novo, was to put to the fore the nations
    marginalized, just as João Cabral de Melo Neto had done.

    The influence of this
    movement has been long-lasting, and is nowhere more evident than in Carlos
    Diegues’s film Bye Bye Brasil (1979). Diegues acutely contrasts areas
    of modernization and spaces of alienation within Brazil. The film’s protagonists
    travel through the arid sertão, through small hamlets that don’t
    even have electricity, whilst in other places charter flights gracefully take
    to the skies, linking Brazil to the outside world.

    Both Morte e Vida Severina
    and Bye Bye Brasil highlight another consequence of urban modernization
    and rural alienation: migration. However, almost always, those migrating simply
    swap rural poverty for urban poverty.

    Modernization does not
    extend to the thousands of people who leave their land in the hope of work
    and a better life in the nation’s modern, urban centres. The brutal reality
    that awaits them, more often than not, is a life in the city’s slums, once
    more marginalized by society.

    Life in the Brazilian
    ghettoes is now most forcefully being represented by musicians and artists
    from these neighbourhoods, particularly through hip-hop. One of Brazil’s most
    famous rappers is the carioca MV Bill. With his initials MV standing for Mensageiro
    da Verdade (Messenger of the Truth), he wants to inform the rest of the country
    about what constitutes his reality, and the reality of millions of other Brazilians.

    His reality is marginalization,
    drugs, violence and death. He comes from one of Rio’s largest slums, Cidade
    de Deus (City of God), recently made famous by Fernando Meirelles’s critically
    acclaimed film of the same name. The dichotomy between the life of the privileged
    and that of the marginalized is most clearly emphasized in his song "Contraste
    Social" (Social Contrast), in which he declares:

    Eu quero denunciar
    o contraste social.

    Enquanto rico vive bem, o povo pobre vive mal.

    Cidade maravilhosa é uma grande ilusão.

    Desemprego, pobreza, miséria, corpos no chão.

    I want to denounce the
    social disparity.

    The rich are living well, while the poor are living badly.

    The `marvellous city’ is just a fantasy.

    Unemployment, poverty, misery, dead bodies.

    The problem is that only
    a small section of Brazilian society really benefited from the processes of
    modernization initiated by Vargas and Kubitschek, while the majority found
    themselves alienated and marginalized. Despite breaking down a number of international
    frontiers, modernization in Brazil has only ever been partial and has thus
    generated more discrepancies and barriers within the nation itself.

    There is one aspect of
    modernization, however, that has arrived and spread in the country’s underdeveloped
    areas: television. Yet whilst marginalized Brazilians can see and touch this
    small token of modernity, they are denied the chance to partake in the real

    Henry Andreae is currently completing an MA in Portuguese at Bristol University
    (U.K.), looking specifically at aspects of Brazilian literature, film, and
    music. He spent 8 months of 2002 living and working in Salvador da Bahia.
    He can be contacted at

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