Jair Bolsonaro
Jair Bolsonaro; drawing by Siegfried Woldhek

If we were to think of Brazil as a person rather than a country, as Lilia Schwarcz and Heloisa Starling encourage us to do in their sweeping new history Brazil: A Biography, it would be someone who, at the moment, seems schizophrenic. Consider, for example, the October 28 run-off election to choose the country’s next president. One candidate was a neofascist former army captain with a penchant for insulting Afro-Brazilians, women, indigenous peoples, and sexual minorities; a declared affinity for the military dictatorship that ruled the country brutally from 1964 to 1985; and a desire to fight crime by allowing citizens to arm themselves and letting trigger-happy cops take the law into their own hands. The other candidate was the last-minute stand-in for a two-term former president and still-popular left-wing labor leader currently serving a twelve-year prison sentence for corruption, money-laundering, and bribe-taking. Millions of poor Brazilians were lifted precariously into the middle class during his presidency, but at the same time billions of dollars were siphoned from the public treasury into his party’s campaign coffers and the pockets of its leaders.

Faced with that unpalatable choice, all other options having been eliminated in first-round balloting on October 7, Brazilians elected, by a decisive ten-point margin, the extreme right-wing authoritarian Jair Bolsonaro to a four-year term that begins January 1, thereby also inaugurating what is certain to be a period of enormous political and social stress, uncertainty, and tumult. Bolsonaro, a truculent sixty-three-year-old congressional deputy from a small fringe party whom some have already taken to calling “the Trump of the Tropics,” owed his ascent to a coalition that included the São Paulo financial elite, the rural landed interests that have devastated the Amazon over the past fifty years, and a growing population of evangelicals. But what put him over the top was the support of urban middle-class voters disgusted by rampant corruption, rising crime rates, and what at least some of them view as the coddling of the darker-skinned poor in recent years.

Schwarcz and Starling obviously could not address the election in Brazil: A Biography, and Bolsonaro’s rise has been so unexpected and so swift that his name never appears in their book. But their detailed and deeply reasoned examination of Brazilian history—starting with the arrival on April 22, 1500, of the Portuguese nobleman and explorer Pedro Álvares Cabral on the shores of what is today Bahia—goes a long way toward explaining how the world’s fourth-largest democracy and eighth-largest economy has come to this unfortunate and, until just a few months ago, unthinkable situation. In the process, they offer some grounds for hope that Brazil may yet emerge from its latest crisis with its battered democratic institutions still functioning, but they also sound cautionary notes based on their close reading of its conflict-ridden past.

Throughout the country’s history, the authors write early in the book, “certain stubbornly insistent traits can be observed,” perhaps the principal one being “the challenging and tortuous process of building citizenship” so as to include all Brazilians, not just those with access to power and money. No matter what the political or social order, “authoritarianism and personal interest have always been deeply rooted,” they continue, “undermining the free exercise of civic power, weakening public institutions and consequently the struggle for people’s rights.”

Like the United States, Brazil is a nation of immigrants and a country of continental dimensions. It also shares the stain of the same original sin, slavery, except that in Brazil “the peculiar institution” was far more extensive and pervasive. Slavery there began a full century earlier than in the US, endured until 1888 (Brazil was the last country in the Western Hemisphere to abolish it), was found throughout the country rather than being largely confined to a single region, and blighted many more lives: of the estimated 12 million Africans transported to the New World as slaves, about one third ended up in Brazil, compared to fewer than 500,000 in the United States. In addition, entire Indian tribes were subjugated and shackled or, if they resisted too vigorously, simply exterminated as part of what Schwarcz and Starling call “a story of genocide and conquest.”

These disparities help explain some of the fundamental divergences in the experience and consequences of slavery in the two countries. By the early nineteenth century, the authors note, Rio de Janeiro, then the capital, had “the largest concentration of slaves since ancient Rome, with the difference that, in Rio de Janeiro, their number equalled the number of inhabitants of European descent.” As a result, Brazil claims more people of African descent than any country in Africa except Nigeria. Today, Brazil’s census has five “color” categories, but the majority of the country’s 211 million people describe themselves as either “brown” (a catchall designation for mixed-race people of every hue and combination) or “black.”*


Yet this numerical superiority has never translated into political or economic power for blacks and mestizos, or anything even remotely resembling social equality. Writing about the early twentieth century, Schwarcz and Starling quote another scholar’s mordant remark that “freedom was black, but equality was white.” What that means, they explain, is that “while white elites enjoyed equality and citizenship and were allowed to vote, former slaves were supposed to be content with the mere right to come and go.”

A century later, that struggle continues. The first two Afro-Brazilians to be appointed cabinet ministers were both mega-celebrities—the soccer great Pelé as minister for sport in 1995 and the brilliant singer-songwriter Gilberto Gil as minister of culture in 2003—and the first black Supreme Court chief justice, Joaquim Barbosa, was named in 2003. “The playing field is still uneven and racial prejudice is ubiquitous in public venues such as restaurants, clubs, theaters and football stadiums, not to mention in private ones,” the authors conclude. “Brazil’s history of slavery and its twentieth-century dictatorships seem to have left an indelible mark.”

This has never been an especially popular—or even widely acknowledged—view in Brazil, as any foreigner who dares to question the prevailing orthodoxy will quickly discover. In works ranging from Gilberto Freyre’s The Masters and the Slaves: A Study in the Development of Brazilian Civilization, first published in 1933, to a thinly argued 2006 best seller by Ali Kamel, a Brazilian of Syrian descent, called We Are Not Racists, Brazilians have been encouraged to think of relations between the races as benign, especially in comparison to other countries, the United States in particular. But Schwarcz and Starling don’t flinch in the face of the unassailable historical evidence to the contrary; their index includes two pages of references to slavery and the way it dominated and continues to permeate Brazilian life, including subheadings for “branding of slaves,” “Brazilian attempts to eliminate history of” slavery, “brutal treatment,” “child slaves,” “death from diseases of the New World” and “enforced prostitution.”

“Although slavery is no longer practised in Brazil, its legacy casts a long shadow,” they write.

The experience of violence and pain is repeated, dispersed, and persists in modern Brazilian society, affecting so many aspects of people’s lives…. The indelible mark of slavery conditions Brazilian culture; the country defines itself on the basis of gradations of skin colour.

Brazilians have elected a white woman as president (Dilma Rousseff, who was impeached and removed from office in 2016, is the daughter of a Bulgarian immigrant). But they have never had a self-identified Afro-Brazilian occupy the office (although one early-twentieth-century president was widely believed to be “passing” as white and was ridiculed as such in cartoons and song). Bolsonaro is of Italian and German descent, while his vanquished opponent, former São Paulo mayor and education minister Fernando Haddad, is the son of a Lebanese immigrant, as is the country’s extremely unpopular current president, Michel Temer.

Yet in a contradiction that outsiders find hard to fathom, Brazil is also “a country that does not obey the established correlations between the dominator, on the one hand, and the dominated on the other,” the book cautions. African influences are present in almost all aspects of daily life and are mostly embraced even by the whitest of Brazilians as a point of pride. The mixture of races in Brazil is “unequalled in any other country,” they add, and has “generated a society that was defined by mixed marriages, rhythms, arts, sports, aromas, cuisine and literary expression,” producing “new cultures born from its hybrid nature and variety of experiences.” Hence the spectacle of whites who claim “a foot in the kitchen” (a clearly racist slang expression indicating some small portion of African ancestry) as a badge of authenticity.

Both Schwarcz and Starling are distinguished scholars with important works to their credit. Schwarcz, a professor of anthropology at the University of São Paulo and a visiting professor at Princeton, has written biographies of Emperor Pedro II, the émigré French painter Nicolas-Antoine Taunay, and the mulatto writer Lima Barreto, as well as pioneering studies of race such as Not Black, Not White, Just the Opposite: Color and Race in Brazilian Sociability (2013) and The Spectacle of the Races: Scientists, Institutions, and the Race Question in Brazil, 1870–1930 (1993). Starling, a historian and political scientist who teaches at the Federal University of Minas Gerais, is the author of Memories of Brazil (1999) and The Lords of Gerais (2018) and has edited journals and organized conferences that explore the juncture of politics and culture in Brazil.

Intertwined with the long history of racial and social inequality and exploitation they describe is a deep-rooted pattern of corruption. If members of the elite were allowed to regard other human beings as their personal property, then why not also the nation’s resources or even the state itself? Brazil was originally organized as a set of hereditary “captaincies,” which the authors define as a system that “delegated the task of colonizing and exploiting vast areas of territory to private citizens” with “supreme powers” over the domains they controlled. From there, it is not at all difficult to draw a line to the greed and malfeasance of more recent kleptocratic governors, mayors, and legislators at all levels of government, culminating in the wholesale looting of the public treasury during the rule of the Workers’ Party from 2003 to 2016, when Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and Rousseff were in office.


Tellingly, the authors note that while slave rebellions were frequent during colonial times, the first major, though ultimately unsuccessful, uprising against Portuguese rule—which took place in Starling’s home state of Minas Gerais (Portugese for “General Mines”) in 1789 and was inspired by the example of America’s founding fathers—had leaders who were as much opportunists as patriots. “Most of the conspirators were involved in some way or other with the smuggling of gold and diamonds.” One, a priest, is described as having “spent much of his life defrauding the Crown” by producing counterfeit currency, bribing civil and ecclesiastical authorities, and ingeniously diverting diamonds “from the official route to Lisbon to a clandestine one that ended in Amsterdam.”

When independence was finally achieved in 1822, it came in a form that distinguished Brazil from the rest of the Western Hemisphere. Fleeing an invasion by Napoleon’s troops in 1807, the Portuguese royal family and court sailed to Rio de Janeiro, instantly changing Brazil’s status from colony to seat of a global empire in which “Portugal had been relegated to a secondary position within its own imperial system.” King João VI returned to Lisbon after the Liberal Revolution of 1820 broke out, while his son and heir, Pedro, remained in Brazil as regent. Two years later he declared Brazil’s independence and became its first emperor. Revolutionary upheaval and the political fragmentation that soon afflicted Spanish America were thus avoided, with the monarchy providing a symbol of national unity for nearly seventy years. But that stability came with a high price: the same tiny elite remained in control, largely hostile to new ideas and eager to guard its privileges.

After the monarchy was overthrown in a military coup in November 1889 and a republic dominated by coffee and sugar barons replaced it, newly freed slaves were mostly left to fend for themselves, since the new regime preferred to devote its money and attention to attracting immigrants from Europe, the Middle East, and Japan, both to “lighten” the population’s skin color and to provide labor in fields and factories. After abolition was decreed by Princess Isabel while her father was abroad and she was acting as the imperial regent, the authors note, “black people were treated with a kind of silent and perverse prejudice.”

Two parallel processes were at work: “An emphasis on the so-called inferiority of blacks and mestizos, and an attempt to eliminate the country’s history of slavery and its legacy.” Treated as “sub-citizens,” “non-whites were thought to be lazy, immoral and socially disorganized.” Echoes of such attitudes persist today, lurking at the back of the Brazilian psyche. In August, for example, Bolsonaro’s running mate, the retired general Hamilton Mourão—Brazilians are fond of naming their children after historical figures like Washington, Emerson, Lafayette, Wellington, or even Demosthenes, Pericles, and Cicero—said that the country’s main problem was that it had been bequeathed not just “an Iberian culture of privilege,” a statement with which few would disagree, but also “a certain heritage of indolence, which comes from the Indians” as well as a tradition of “shiftlessness and dishonesty, which originates with the African. That is our melting pot.”

The racially loaded word Mourão used to describe the behavior of Brazilian blacks, malandragem, appears in the title of one of Schwarcz and Starling’s chapters: “Samba, Malandragem, Authoritarianism: The Birth of Modern Brazil.” They define malandragem both as the conduct of “a person who lived on the borderline between legality and illegality,” surviving on his wits, and also as “a political choice, characterized by a disdain for the world of work.” It is a strategy, in other words, adopted by those at the bottom of the social and economic ladder in the absence of legitimate opportunities for advancement, and it’s not all that different from the get-rich-quick mentality of the grandees who controlled the country for five hundred years. That helps explain an old Brazilian proverb translated in the book as “steal a little, you’re a thief, steal a lot and you’re a chief.”

In general, Schwarcz and Starling maintain, Brazil is “a country on the lookout for the daily miracle, or some unexpected saviour.” Coincidentally, Bolsonaro’s middle name is Messias, the Portuguese word for “messiah,” and he embodies a familiar “I alone can fix it” type that Brazilians sarcastically refer to as “the savior of the Fatherland.” “People cross their fingers in the hope that some magical intervention will fall from the skies,” the authors write, thereby “alleviating malaise and solving all problems.” As a result, “immediatism takes the place of planning substantive, long-term changes.”

This is not the first time the country has shown a fondness for a strongman. Brazil: A Biography devotes two substantial chapters to Getúlio Vargas, the most important political figure in modern Brazilian history, who ruled as a dictator from 1930 to 1945 and then returned triumphantly to power after being elected president in 1950, only to commit suicide in office four years later. “Vargas was a highly skilled politician, but he was authoritarian,” Schwarcz and Starling write. “Accustomed to dictatorial solutions, confident in his own charisma, widely experienced in uprisings and coups d’état, he simply was not cut out for working in a democratic environment.” They also single out two more recent presidents, Fernando Collor and Jânio Quadros, as being grain from the same sack, to use a Brazilian expression: “They both had an inclination for histrionics, contempt for politicians, disdain for Congress, a moral vision for the country, and an authoritarian style.”

Though Brazil: A Biography is comprehensive, it is not all-inclusive, and contains some puzzling omissions. Schwarcz and Starling wisely do not limit their focus to politics and economics, offering highly readable summaries of important literary, musical, architectural, and even culinary figures and movements. They discuss cultural achievements ranging from the Brazilian Baroque of the eighteenth century and the romantic Indianist novels and operas of the mid-nineteenth century to the Modernist painters and writers of the 1920s and the Tropicalistas of the 1960s and 1970s. (Curiously, though, neither the novelist Clarice Lispector nor the multimedia artist Hélio Oiticica, both now seen abroad as major figures, makes an appearance in the book.)

Brazilians have always wanted their country to be taken seriously, to be seen not just as a stronghold of soccer and samba. But given the centrality of soccer in Brazilian daily life, especially as a symbol of pride and mastery, it is surprising that nowhere in the book’s six hundred pages of text is Pelé mentioned; in general the sport itself, which along with the entertainment industry was traditionally one of the only avenues for Afro-Brazilians to rise socially and economically, receives short shrift. The authors acknowledge that soccer is “an iconic metaphor for Brazilian nationality,” but the only soccer stars they reference are Sócrates and Reinaldo, and then only for their political activities. I would also like to have seen some discussion of the importance of the semi-official death squads that operated with impunity during the military dictatorship and over the decades evolved into private “militias,” which strongly supported Bolsonaro. More attention could have been paid to Brazil’s homegrown environmental movement. And whatever happened to the very useful chronology, setting developments in Brazil alongside others around the world, that appears at the back of the Brazilian edition?

Brazil: A Biography reads as if it were translated by committee (no individual translator is credited on the title page). Terms with established meanings in Portuguese are translated one way in one chapter, only to be rendered as something different in another, and sometimes the choices seem questionable or awkward. “The Brazilian imaginary,” for instance, appears repeatedly throughout the book, as a literal equivalent of the common phrase o imaginário brasileiro. But a more colloquial, less jargonistic version would be something like the “national memory” or “collective imagination.” In some later chapters, the phrase “collective memory” does appear. So why not be consistent?

The original Portuguese-language edition of Brazil: A Biography, published in 2015, ended in 1994, the year that Fernando Henrique Cardoso was elected president and a new currency, the real, was introduced. That year was chosen, the authors explain, because it “marked the final phase of democratization after the dictatorship” that had collapsed a decade earlier. Developments since then, they argue, more properly belong to the realm of current affairs because they are “yet to be fully felt and…mark the beginning of a new phase in the country’s history.” They wrote in 2015 that “history is the only resource Brazil can rely on to lend a future to the country’s past, and, for that reason, our history draws to a close here.”

But the American edition of Brazil: A Biography includes a welcome fifteen-page afterword, dated August 2017, that serves as a helpful guide to recent developments and takes the authors’ analysis past the point by which three consecutive popularly elected civilian presidents had each won two terms. This was a first in Brazilian history and a promising sign that democratic values were taking root. Other positive signs abounded during this twenty-year period: economic inequality began to lessen under Cardoso, a sociologist turned politician, and continued under the now-jailed Lula and Rousseff, his hand-picked successor. That brought the authors and their country to 2014, when everything began to fall apart and the scandal involving the theft of billions of dollars from Petrobras, the state oil company, and other government agencies came to light. Shortly before this, “a pervasive hatred directed towards politicians surfaced, and exploded,” they write, and the national mood over the past four years has shifted from perpetual optimism to unrelenting bitterness and unbridled anger.

“Operation Car Wash,” the investigation that uncovered the corruption, could be considered a triumph of accountability and the rule of law, though Schwarcz and Starling are skeptical, and complain that “routine procedures in adherence to the rule of law were used to serve interests contrary to the democratic values preserved in our institutions,” since such maneuvers were “justified by a congress whose members were in large part accused of corruption.” For the first time in Brazil’s history, a former head of state was convicted of crimes committed while in office, as were a recent president of the lower house of congress and numerous powerful and wealthy businessmen, who have been forced to return the financial rewards of their crimes. Prosecutors also seem to be closing in on other alleged offenders, including President Temer and the legion of elected officials implicated in the scandal who were decisively defeated in October’s election and will now lose their congressional immunity.

And yet, as the authors note, “although democracy has moved forward, the Republic has stayed on the drawing board. A republic is not only a political regime—it is the res publica: that which belongs to the public, that which is in the public domain, that which is in the common interest, as opposed to the interests of private parties.” The republic’s “greatest enemy is corruption,” they observed in 2015, before issuing a warning that now seems prophetic: “There is, however, a risk if the indignation over corruption becomes the raison d’être of political engagement. People could turn away from politics and participation in public life, which would lead to a loss in credibility of the democratic institutions.” With the victory of Jair Bolsonaro and the motley band of authoritarians, cranks, and grifters who surround him and are likely to compose his cabinet, that is exactly where Brazil finds itself late in 2018: profoundly disenchanted and once again expecting a messiah to put things right.

Whenever I am in Rio de Janeiro, I make it a point to stop by the Museum of Modern Art to look at my favorite work there: a 1972 collage by Wesley Duke Lee, a descendant of the Confederate sympathizers who fled to São Paulo after the American Civil War, many of whom brought their slaves with them. On the top half of a scratched and rusted metal plate is engraved the green and yellow Brazilian flag, with a faded group portrait at the center replacing the national motto “Order and Progress,” while the bottom half consists of a single phrase printed in large black letters: “TODAY IS ALWAYS YESTERDAY.” That sentiment may well be true of just about any country—it was an American, William Faulkner, who wrote that “the past is never dead. It’s not even past”—but it seems especially applicable to Brazil, as Schwarcz and Starling make clear in their illuminating, engrossing, and consistently thoughtful book.