The Americas 57.2 (2000) 285-286
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In this fine monograph, Judy Bieber revises our understanding of state building in nineteenth-century Brazil by decentering the traditional Rio-centric historical narrative of nineteenth-century Brazilian history and placing the periphery at the center of the narrative. She provides us with a rich empirical analysis of the São Francisco region in the north of Minas Gerais that also revises our understanding coronelismo. Bieber makes a strong case (for this region at least) that coronelismo was not a creation of the decentralization of the First Republic (1889-1930), but rather has its roots deep in the centralizing forces of the Empire (1822-89). This system of powerful local leaders tied to national and state political networks, she argues, emerges out of the consolidation of the nation-state by 1850.
Although Minas Gerais was one of the three key provinces at the heart of national politics during the Empire, the north of Minas was isolated, had limited internal markets, and had virtually no connection with the booming export economy of the Atlantic coast. It was truly a frontier. Bieber looks at three towns located near the headwaters of the mighty São Francisco River in the northern Minas Gerais: São Romão, Januária, and Montes Claros. This sample allows her to see a range of responses to the growth of central state power. In the end, Montes Claros emerges as the most successful town in the region through the ability of its local leaders to adapt the language of liberalism to their own needs and to connect to the more distant networks of power at the provincial and national levels.
Bieber documents endemic political violence in the region after mid-century. In contrast to much of the previous literature and accounts from the period, this violence increased because of greater political centralization, not in spite of it. "Local corruption and violence were not products of rural isolationism but stemmed from regional integration into a system of national electoral politics that encouraged and even institutionalized such abuses" (p. 2). Local political leaders eventually derived their power from their ties to provincial and national leaders, and in exchange [End Page 285] received the spoils of political patronage. "Social structure defined by kinship and community gave way to party patronage in the mid-nineteenth century. . . . The Brazilian state managed to graft party politics onto a preexisting system based on kinship ties and personal loyalty" (p. 153). The national government sought to manage local politics through the control of political appointments. Local leaders then controlled the ballot box by limiting suffrage. In exchange for securing votes, loyal local leaders received government subsidies. Yet, the "price of political patronage was an increase in election-related corruption, violence, and partisan impunity" (p. 90). The more successful the empire was at centralizing power, the greater the corruption and violence at the local level.
Bieber goes beyond social and political history to analyze the language and discourse of the political elite. She argues that the "municipal elite played out their private conflicts on the public field of the local courts" (p. 119). Rather than simply being co-opted or being duped, as voters in the interior are often portrayed, Bieber argues that "they might have resorted to a culturally acceptable response to destabilize electoral rituals that they saw as hollow representations of liberalism by a corrupt, hypocritical, and intrusive government" (p. 106). Arguing along the lines of other recent studies, such as Florencia Mallon's work on Mexico and Peru, Bieber seeks to show how the subalterns and the often forgotten peoples of the interior participated in and shaped the larger process of nation-building and nationalism.
While she has excellent sources (especially official correspondence) to provide a window into elite ideology, as always, popular notions about politics remain...