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  • Hotel Trópico: Brazil and the Challenge of African Decolonization, 1950-1980
  • Hendrik Kraay
Hotel Trópico: Brazil and the Challenge of African Decolonization, 1950-1980. By Jerry Dávila (Durham, Duke University Press, 2010) 312 pp. $84.95 cloth $23.95 paper

The source of much of Brazil's population until the slave trade's end in the 1850s, Africa long served as the antithesis to the Brazilian elite's Europhile civilizing project. In the 1930s and 1940s, this elite reversed course and came to celebrate African contributions to national culture. Gilberto Freyre described his country as a racial democracy, the product [End Page 325] of "lusotropicalism," the alleged Portuguese proclivity for harmonious race relations through miscegenation.1

How overwhelmingly white diplomats and intellectuals wrestled with these aspects of Brazilian national identity during their country's engagement with newly independent African countries is Dávila's principal concern in this fine monograph. In the early 1960s, white diplomats clumsily presented their country as a kindred nation to baffled Africans annoyed at Brazil's continued support for Portugal's colonization, which Freyre and his ilk considered an exemplary case of progressive lusotropicalism. Brazilians extolled their country's racial democracy, but only one token black man served as ambassador, to Ghana (in his memoirs, he describes humiliating treatment at the hands of fellow diplomats and alienation from Africa, where he did not feel at home). White diplomats, too, struggled with their country's contradictory racial ideology.

This outreach ended with the 1964 military coup, but in the early 1970s, the military regime (then at its most oppressive) charted a new policy of engagement with Africa. Portugal's revolution (1974) and rapid decolonization overtook this demarche, and while Brazil fumbled diplomatic relations with most of Portugal's ex-colonies, the country's recognition of Angola's Movimento Popular de Libertação de Angola (MPLA) regime (Brazil was the first and, for some time, only Western country to do so) restored its credibility. Brazilian manufactures briefly found markets in oil-rich Nigeria, where Brazil's black soccer star Pelé advertised household appliances. A rhetoric of racial democracy permeated these initiatives, and Brazilian diplomats worked to silence such critics as Abdias do Nascimento, an exiled black activist who denounced Brazilian racism at the 1977 Lagos Festival of African Arts and Culture. Ties with Africa languished during the economic crises of the 1980s, but even today, Africa remains "a canvas on which Brazilian national aspirations and racial values [are] rendered" (255).

Not only does Dávila thus show how domestic racial ideology shaped Brazil's foreign policy, but he also effectively demonstrates the many levels on which international relations take place. The 1961 goodwill visit of an Angolan ice hockey (!) team to São Paulo was disrupted by decolonization activists, some of whom were in Brazil thanks to Senegal's policy of issuing passports to students from Portuguese colonies who thereby benefited from Brazil's scholarship program for Senegalese students. António de Oliveira Salazar's Portugal was no less active (and much more successful until the early 1970s) in influencing Brazilian policy through goodwill visits, cultivation of Brazilian congressmen and intellectuals (like Freyre), and sentimental appeals to the politically influential Portuguese expatriate community.

Impressive research in Brazilian and Portuguese archives (especially [End Page 326] those of the foreign ministries and the secret police), newspapers on three continents, memoirs, and interviews with retired Brazilian diplomats and intellectuals make this book a model diplomatic history and a sophisticated meditation on race and national identity.

Hendrik Kraay
University of Calgary


1. Although the concept of "racial democracy" is widely attributed to Freyre, he used the term only later in his life. Dávila effectively summarizes the evolution of Freyre's thinking and its appropriation by others in Hotel Trópico, 11-26.



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pp. 325-327
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