Monday, December 20, 2010

Saudações do Brasil

Greetings from Rio de Janeiro!

Aptly nicknamed the cidade maravilhosa, this former capital* of Brazil is today the second-largest metropolis in the country and the most visited city in the southern hemisphere.

*The evolution of Rio's status as the former capital of Brazil (for nearly 200 years) provides an instructive overview of Brazilian history: Rio de Janeiro was the capital of the Portugal's colony in South America from 1763 to 1808. In 1808, Dom João VI, fleeing from Napoleon's invasion of Lisbon, arrived in Rio with the entire Portuguese royal court of 15,000, making Rio the seat of the government of the entire Portuguese empire and launching a golden age of culture and commerce in the city. Even after Napoleon's defeat at Waterloo in 1815, Dom João VI, who had fallen in love with his adopted hometown, refused demands to return to Portugal to rule and instead elevated Rio to the status of capital of the United Kingdom of Portugal, Brazil and the Algarves. Due to increased turmoil in Lisbon, João VI finally relented to political pressure and returned to Portugal in 1821, leaving his eldest son Pedro in Rio de Janeiro as prince regent of the empire. Subsequent measures by Lisbon to restore Brazil to its previous status as a subservient colony was met with vocal opposition in Rio, and Brazilian leadership convinced Pedro to secede from his father's empire. In a bloodless revolution, Dom Pedro I declared independence and instituted a constitutional monarchy in the newly created Empire of Brazil. Under the rule of his son Dom Pedro II, Brazil underwent significant modernization, welcoming the influence of fashions in European art and technology. By 1860, fueled by an influx of immigrants, Rio de Janeiro boasted a population of more than 250,000, making it the largest and most international city in South America. Brazil's remarkable growth—Rio's population grew to 800,000 by 1900—continued during the República Velha (1889-1930), Brazil's first constitutional democracy. The republic was succeeded in 1930 by the Estado Novo, an authoritarian state headed by Getúlio Vargas, who guided the country through a period of rapid industrialization (and, despite his fascist policies, won the nickname "pai dos pobres (father of the poor)" and remained largely popular until his suicide in 1954). Rio subsequently lost its status as Brazil's long-standing capital in 1960 under the military dictatorship that overturned Vargas' Estado Novo. President Juscelino Kubitschek, fulfilling an article of Brazil's constitution dating back to 1891 stating that the capital should be moved to a site close to the center of the country, ordered the construction of Brasília, an architecturally grandiose master-planned city that replaced Rio as the seat of the national government. (Incidentally, Brazil's democracy was restored in 1985).

I hope the brief history lesson (drawn from the history unit of my Portuguese class and a Brazilian travel guidebook) wasn't too boring for you, dear reader. But I think that Brazil is a widely misunderstood country that, for many Americans (myself included until last year), is often linked to historical generalizations that lump Brazilian history with its Latin American neighbors, a tendency that neglects unique elements of Brazil's nationhood such as its former imperial status. In addition, the crude outline above should help clarify some of the historical references in my blog posts about traveling around Rio this week.

At any rate, here's the view from my hotel room:

Maravilhosa, não é?