- Brazil: The Troubled Rise of a Global Power by Michael Reid
Writing a comprehensive and easily readable narrative that covers 500 years of Brazilian history, while at the same time offering a sophisticated analysis of the country’s contemporary social, political, and economic problems, is no easy task. Yet Michael Reid, a former editor of The Economist who lived in Brazil in the late 1990s, has done a superb job of accomplishing just that. Although at times he uses more space unpacking the nation’s complex economic twists and turns than the average reader might enjoy or understand, the author has drawn on a wide array of scholarly and journalistic sources to craft a narrative that charts Brazil’s rise to international eminence even as it remains burdened with obstacles to its much-cited aspiration to become a country of the future.
After providing a contemporary tease about its promise and potential, the book proceeds in three parts. The first hundred or so pages offer a synthetic rendering of the [End Page 688] encounters of the Portuguese with native peoples in the early 1500s. The author then guides the reader through the familiar accounts of colonial history, from indigenous slavery to the importation of Africans as the privileged labor source for a increasingly profitable agro-export economy. Relying on the most familiar recent works of Brazilian, US, and British historians and social scientists, Reid provides a first-rate synthesis. The accounts of the gold boom, late colonial conspiracies, the fabled move of the Portuguese crown to Rio de Janeiro, and independence are treated succinctly and precisely, as are the economic underpinnings of the colonial and national endeavors. Such is also the case with the Empire, early Republic, the Vargas era, and the post-World War II return to democracy. A concise interpretation of the military regime sets the stage for the core of the book, which interprets the last three decades of Brazilian history and is followed by a brief outline of the country’s future prospects.
With both even-handedness and journalistic flare, the author recounts the rocky road to re-democratization and the pursuit of economic stability, at times revealing his predilection for the trend toward privatizations under Presidents Collor and Cardoso. He notes, however, the irony that Presidents Lula and Rousseff in power have offered more continuity than rupture with their predecessors’ economic policies. Published immediately prior to the 2014 World Cup, no doubt to reach an international audience wishing to pick up more than a superficial tourist’s understanding of Brazil, Reid’s book ends up offering a more pessimistic assessment of the left’s last 12 years in power, implying that victory at the ballot box is heavily determined by the success of social programs.
Reid’s descriptions of violence, drug-trafficking, and lingering social inequality emphasize the ongoing issues that tarnish Brazil’s sparkling international image as a rising world power and one of a small bloc of emerging nations on the brink of becoming like Europe and the United States. Indeed, the social welfare project modestly initiated by Vargas in the 1930s has grown exponentially over the last century, and it now poses the same kind of budgetary challenges that Western social democracies currently face. As in Europe, the political costs of dismantling such benefits will not be an easy task for defenders of economic liberalization and lesser government. In fact, the June 2013 mobilizations that marked the beginning of popular discontent with the Rousseff government largely rested on demands for more government and more efficient and broader social programs, rather than a call to undo such social protections.
Less useful in the classroom than as a dense read for someone wanting a comprehensive overview of Brazil, the author has managed to produce a volume that offers a broad and engaging overview of the story of nation as it taunts the world with its promises of greatness. [End Page 689]
Providence, Rhode Island