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The Making of a Novel

Brazil: Paradise, Purgatory, and Hell

Rio de Janiero,  September 1 - September 21

Some thoughts on meeting with historian, Professor José Hónorio Rodrigues:

  • In comparing Brazil and the United States it is essential to note that to date only five million immigrants have arrived in Brazil, one and a half million returned to their own countries, leaving 3.5 million. “In Brazil we have no ethnic minority. We have twenty million people who live very well, 'a dominant minority,' and a hundred million people who live miserably, the only division that exists in Brazil.” In the eighteen years since the 1964 coup, an important new fact has entered the Brazilian scene: immigrant sons of the first generation have begun to conquer the social scene, not through economic productivity but their political position.
  • Indian migration in 16th century was extensive. Anchieta spoke, for example, of disappearance of tens of thousands of Indians, not by disease alone. But treatment of Indians was savage. In Ilheus, Indians revolted against the Portuguese, again and again. To pacify them, Tomé de Sousa subdued them and selected one who was tied to the mouth of a cannon and killed. Franciscans and other priests who arrived before the Jesuits did very little or nothing for the Indians.
  • Not all degregados sent to Brazil were criminals. Some were more like English remittance men or exiled as a form of punishment. Francisco de Mello was one of these. - Phrase attributed to Antonil - “Brazil is the paradise of the mulatto, purgatory of the white man and hell of the Negro” - was actually De Mello's.
  • Slave revolts far more extensive than previously realized. Governor-General reports of 17th and 18th century abound with references to uprisings. Palmares was the first major revolt and exceptional in that it endured for decades. Troop after troop was sent against it.
  • At Canudos, the generals said the people were monarchists, which gave them justification for upholding the republican cause. Banditos, a more important element: Even during the Empire, there was order in the cities but lawlessness in the interior. Banditry was endemic and jagunços exploited situation.
Canudos, Brazil, rebellion survivors
Canudos, Brazil, rebellion survivors

Masters and Slaves in Modern Brazil

Some pointers from meeting with naval historian, Max Justo Guedes:

  •  National guard was founded during Regency period. You bought a title and had obligation to raise a body of men. The richest man in the district was colonel. A method, too, of raising a force in opposition to central army. Most important was status afforded an individual. Colonel's unit very often comprised of his slaves, held parades, etc. Colonels had patrons at Court.
  •  On outbreak of Paraguayan War, possible that Coronel and unit would volunteer for Volunatários do Patria. Not common though, for such volunteers to come from ranks of rich people. Pedro Calmon recalls that one of his ancestors was teaching a class when a military band passed by; he led all lads out to volunteer and did so himself. Voluntários included many slaves.
  •  Entrance to navy was prerogative of rich and those with noble ancestors during Empire days. Tradition from Portugal where it was a way of enlisting the nobles to go to India. They were allotted space on board to bring back their personal acquisitions. Usually not first son to navy, a position for second son (navy + army + church.)
  •  Monitors: Brazilians studied Merrimac and Monitor. Two French engineers designed Brazilian monitors constructed at Rio. They had English and Irish engineers contracted to work for Navy. In the attack on the two monitors, 400 Paraguayans died, eight Brazilians.
  •  López was a “man of his time.” He dreamed of a big and powerful Paraguay. He understood clearly that if he was to achieve this he needed a port. He was a clever man but reflected the education of his country. Before the war, Brazil sent many instructors to Paraguay, even assisted in constructing Humaitá fortress. “Brazil was worried about Argentina who had eyes on the Plata.” One of Lopez's sons was a midshipman at the Naval Academy.
  •  López ordered two ships from Europe. His biggest mistake was to start the war before the ships arrived. (Excerpt - The Paraguayan War.)

“Brazil's big problem is that we were once a slave country, our people were in the main slaves. Difficult to pass from slave to free-thinking people. Influence, too, of moral ideas of the degregados who wanted to become as rich as possible and return to Portugal. Indians had a different outlook on property, sex etc., status not important. Rich today act much the same way as they did in colonial times. They don't pay attention to laws because they think and often know they can buy their way out. The poor simply don't take any notice of laws.”

“Goulart was a man of mean intelligence surrounded by people whose main objective was to enrich themselves, to acquire more property, cars etc. Same problem today. Generals not used to anything find themselves in Brasilia with fine cars, houses and a lifestyle never possible nor accustomed to in army. One of the main preoccupations during the time they are in Brasília is how they're going to maintain this afterwards. So they get involved in all sorts of business deals, many shady. In 1964, there was more corruption than communism.”

“Disagree with people who see all priests as communists. It is not so - At Santa Barbara (country town near Max's family property), there are kids who go for a week eating nothing but mangos. Mayor does nothing to help the poor. Only person who does a thing to help them is the priest.”

Execution of Joaquim José da Silva Xavier,
Execution of Joaquim José da Silva Xavier, "Tiradentes," April 21, 1792  | Wikipedia Commons

What is the "Brazilian Solution?"

The argument and consensus reached with Antonietta last night, a glorious two hour debate, brought me closer to clarity of my ideas about Brazil and cleared any doubts that may have arisen about her feelings of true Brazilian nationalism. What she doesn't realize is that the hours of dialogue forced me toward a truly independent understanding of Brazil and its problems, one divorced from cliches of my own and from hers, e.g. “dominant ideology” (or my misreading of this.) At last I feel for Brazil in same way I feel for South Africa, although I accept the caution that no matter how deep or perceptive that feeling, I am not a Brazilian.

*When she speaks of dominant ideology, she doesn't differentiate between East or West; she speaks of any outside ideology that attempts directly or indirectly to impose itself on Brazil (or any other country for that matter.) She is concerned about Brazil's lack of independence in sense of falling prey to the East-West conflict and, more important, in the imposition of outside ideology be it political, folkloric, lifestyle on Brazil.

It's the much spoken of “Brazilian solution” but expounded with brilliance and depth and sincerity. It is also, one sadly realizes, the approach of a true idealist for that world is such that nations cannot exist in vacuo, but her ideas are, of all I've heard about Brazil, the best. Some of her points and my thoughts on them:


  • Wittingly or unwittingly with covert imperialistic notions or otherwise, the United States is imposing its “dominant ideology” upon Brazil. There is an assumption, a “created climate,” that U.S.-style democracy with a capitalist base is the only answer, that Brazil must move closer to this to become “respectable” in the eyes of the world. To be respectable by inference can only be achieved by adopting the ways of the successful North Americans as depicted in their life-style, their politics and administration, they apparent success.
  • However, to take this path can damage the hope, and it is fragile, of developing a truly Brazilian identity that would see it as a “great nation within itself,” not as a “superpower.” The tragedy of such an imported ideology is that it prolongs Brazil's colonial agony. First, and of course, necessary since there had to be a beginning, there were the Portuguese colonizers. By 1776, when the North Americans won their independence, the colonial hold on Brazil which had existed since 1500 was reinforced following the abortive Inconfidência Mineira uprising and execution of Tiradentes, hero of Brazil's fight for freedom. (Image: Tiradentes, oil by Washington Rodrigues, Museu Historico Nacional, Rio de Janeiro.)
  • With colonialism entrenched, Brazil witnessed the incredible transplant of the colonizer to the colony - the migration of the royal household to Brazil. Until 1889, Brazil was an “Empire” and, indirectly, a financial outpost of England, which had long sought a foothold in South America. Through its support of the Brazilian emperors, England was able to obtain the most unrealistic (to the Brazilians) trade terms.
  • The Republic came in 1889 but for all outward appearance of an independent republic, Brazil was still a nation essentially dominated from beyond, through the light and power companies that lay in foreign hands, the vast coffee estates held by foreign firms, the non-acceptance of the feasibility of a Brazilian solution. A nation of ex-slaves, ex-colonels, of “sons of the Empire” still unable to direct it own destiny.
  • Then came 1930/32 and Vargas, who for all his faults must stand as the first Brazilian nationalist on a world platform. (There was, of course, Rui Barbosa at the Hague and Washington but his image was tainted by the legacy of Empire and Colony. A fine, intelligent man but compromised.) Vargas attempted to promote a true Brazilian base i.e. independence but as events were to prove, he failed. Let's assume his suicide note was genuine: He says clearly that outside interests frustrated his attempts to create a truly independent nation.
  • By this time there had emerged the giant of the 20th century, the U.S., and it continued the usurpation of Brazilian independence by drawing the South American nation into its orbit. Vide Ambassador Lincoln Gordon's comments after the 1964 coup: “The greatest blow for freedom.” Or was he saying, the greatest blow for continued American domination of this vast country?
  • Today, the great fazendeiros in the “sky” atop the skyscrapers of Rio and São Paulo are getting richer by the day, the gap between them and the poor is growing. There is an emergent middle class who move toward perceived ideas of comfort and progress, two cars, holiday home, happy materialism etc - The great majority of Brazil stays exactly as it is or gets worse off. As the top races to get into the “American orbit” it tries to close the technological gap to improve its output, make its factories more productive etc. The result - Capital and technological intensive industries actually reduce the labor opportunity.
  • Of course, you can counter this argument by saying that benefits for this technological-industrial push filter down to those who don't share directly in it. You might say that, but traveling through the North-east, I sure as hell didn't see it.
  • On a slow erosion of a truly Brazilian way of life through absorption of important values: As a reference point take Gilberto Freyre's 1930s publication of Master and Slaves which led him to his conception of Luso-Tropicalism, of Brazilian man and woman “emergent,” of this dynamic fusion of races that, he said, promised to produce the first of a “new man,” a triumphant blending of nature and culture. Ignore the recent and often frivolous criticism of Freyre, (for example, the nonsense about his overemphasizing the kitchen,) ignore the critique of the intelligentsia — often, jealous, frustrated intelligentsia — take what he said in a 1930s context and accept that this was the promise of Brazil as Freyre saw it in the 1930s and beyond.
  • Now, instead of expanding all those wonderful attributes, the legacy of the Indians, the tremendous spirit of the mameluco pioneers, the mysterious, exotic appeal and contribution of the African, the wisdom, daringness, potency of the Portuguese, the steadfastness of St. Peter's creed; instead of expanding these marvelous gifts, the nation is once again - for they have been similar times in the past - seeking to mold itself in the image of the outlander. It may be through soft means, the proliferation of American music, literary styles, movies, junk food etc, or through more direct influences such as over strategic collaboration with a specific power block, be it the U.S. or other - it undermines the possibility of developing Brazilian “answers,” a true Brazilian nationalism, no matter how agonizing the process of reaching that independence of mind, action and spirit may be.
  • I pause here, for I would not want to make such a statement without perspective: I don't flinch at a “ U.S.ARMY” T-Shirt or Big Mac, I do not deny the inter-dependence of nations. I see nothing wrong with the free exchange of “lifestyle,” but I do fear the easy slide toward total absorption of an outlander culture and domination of a nascent local culture. Despite Gilberto Freyre's somewhat premature optimism, the Brazilian nation is still in the womb, still awakening, still striving for self-definition. At this critical period, it needs desperately to be left alone to find its way to the life it has sought for centuries. Interfere with this process and the result may be tragic. There is a danger, for example, of driving a major element of the nation toward a desperate point where violence — as evidenced in Nicaragua, San Salvador — can be seen as the only solution. A point where Brazilians struggling for freedom find themselves chained to yet another dominant ideology, as far from a natural, self-directed Brazilian solution as ever.
  • On 1964 coup and current situation: If you read the speeches of those who toppled Goulart dispassionately, there emerges a picture of a military group “genuinely” concerned about a drift away from essential Brazilian values. Depending on who you look at you can place a broad interpretation on the meaning of those values! Let's hypothesize: so serious a business as a coup d'etat does not arise from simplistic causes, nor is there any simple consensus on the part of those involved, whatever side they may be on. In 1964, you have reformers and revolutionaries, reactionaries and opportunists, and a ferment that circumstances make necessary. I find aspects of both sides repugnant: the military taking up weapons against their civilian brothers, and equally I am saddened by the image of students crying for “Civil War!,” “Civil War!” in the streets of Rio and raising their voices for the destruction of fellow Brazilians. But crisis + ferment often = progress.
Soldiers guarding the Guanabara Palace in Rio de Janeiro during the 1964 Brazilian coup d'état.
Soldiers guarding the Guanabara Palace in Rio de Janeiro during the 1964 Brazilian coup d'état. | Wikipedia Commons

"Cry, the Beloved Brazil"

  • Try as I might to look for positive outcomes of 1964, I can't find them: A few years after the military regime became accustomed to the pleasant taste of power, (no doubt backed by the age-old civilian power structure,) they held onto it by whatever means possible. They entered the self-deceiving position of seeing an enemy behind every coffee bush, enforcing their rule and eradicating perceived opposition under guise of combating “enemies of the state,” “those seeking to undermine the Brazilian way of life,” “liberalists, humanists etc, who are all Communist revolutionaries.” - Equal to the distorted view of the “enemy” so effectively presented to the establishment in sunny South Africa. Equal, too, to the terrible consequences of repression, human indignity - What was worse was that once again, the mass of people who needed “change” stayed exactly as they were and in many respects were worse off.
  • Temporary guardians of national security is one thing; long term controllers of national interest is another. As the years passed, the military began to prove that their place was in the barracks, not standing behind the ballot box or in the boardrooms. Those watching them, even many who had first supported them, grew exceedingly disenchanted until today the intellectual and political opposition is stronger than ever. (Remember, today's leaders are from the 60s student generation.) The Trade Unions are mobilized as at no time before in Brazilian history. It's also a fact that a significant element of the military itself is tired of its role and wants to get back to barracks so the stage is set for change. So, there is this promise (dream) of democracy ahead, but how many really have a valid concept of Brazilian and only “Brazilian” democracy?


One wonders, with the military marching the nation deeper into the U.S. orbit, with its chronic dependencies as evidenced by the world's biggest foreign debt - whether Brazil is perhaps further away than ever from “independence?” As noted last night, I see nothing wrong with multinational development but everything wrong with multinational exploitation. As base, take classic sugar plantation: the great landlords controlling vast estates: project the same image on a world basis and the country becomes a “latifundia” with the coronels and fazendeiros be they in São Paulo, New York, Germany continuing the same process: vast multinational latifundia built on the tradition of centuries of intensive “farming” of Brazil. Their activities, of course, may have nothing to do with farming, only in figurative sense.

Lincoln Gordon's “fateful blow” may have been just that for in postponing the inevitable “reform” it added fuel to the disenchantment of the masses. It made their situation “16 years” worse and when the time comes for them or their sons to flex their muscles they could be that much more intractable, that much more against North America which they may come to see, with justification, as the “block” to their advance. 

Oh, the parallels with South Africa! The blacks striving for freedom and wanting desperately not be to aligned with anyone but driven to the East-bloc through the West's preoccupation with the establishment. The building up, decade by decade, of frustrations. The slow, agonizing struggle to free themselves. Small wonder Antonietta sees Brazil as the “South Africa of South America," not simply on a racial basis which though bearing some comparison is weak but on its overall positioning, its people's striving for independence and their being so often frustrated by outside interests.

To speak of education as a key is correct, but it must include broad, adult-oriented education, not in the Three R's which is too late for many but in developing a sense of existence freed from a “slave mentality,” from the paternalistic hold on millions. — This is essentially Antonietta's program, with which I still find fault believing there has to be grass roots tutelage or, ultimately, the product will wither and die. 

Again, you have to ask yourself whether as happened in South Africa, there's a deliberate attempt to hold back the education of masses, a fear of giving them knowledge (and the power that will threaten the establishment). One has only to consider the Verwoerdian speeches and polices, Verwoerd's talk of blacks being hewers of wood and drawers of water etc, and a similar possibility arises. It would be very difficult to get a Brazilian to admit this directly and there are probably no written statements but there is a tradition of “keeping the peasants in their place;” of accepting the souls of the sertão as lost and hopeless. Were you to develop this line of thought, you'd come to see why there is a real need to keep the “illiterate” 45 per cent away from the ballot box, why there is a fear of priests who go about informing the backlanders... 

On '64 to '81: Today's opposition is older, wiser, more cautions, and by experience more prepared. Again, consider the phases of the liberation struggle in South Africa, the late 50s belief in a hasty revolution that would overthrow the regime, the total failure of this, the two and half decades of regrouping and the split (in sense of some genuinely working with regime for reform,) the preparation for the final assault with knowledge that it's going to take a long time but that ultimately, the vast gap is going to be closed.

And, all, as always returns to Cry, the Beloved Brazil.

BRAZIL by Errol Lincoln Uys