Daily Archives: 1 April 2022

Brazil’s Economic Miracle

From The Penguin History Of Latin America, by Edwin Williamson (Penguin, 2003), Kindle pp. 428-429, 435:

The reasons for the failure of the guerrillas are complex. With their predominantly middle-class, university-educated cadres they were unable to break out of their political isolation – the clandestine Communist Party disapproved of the guerrillas’ strategy and blocked their access to working-class organizations. The terrorist attacks on military targets precluded the emergence of any sympathetic groups within the armed forces who might have staged a coup d’état, this being the usual short cut to power for progressive movements in Latin America. But, decisively, the guerrilla campaign coincided with the long-awaited upturn in the economy. From 1968, while the guerrillas were robbing banks and bombing barracks, life was getting better for the middle classes and the skilled workers in the cities, which is where, in a rapidly urbanizing country, the political fate of the nation would be decided. In short, what finally put paid to the prospects of the urban guerrillas was the arrival of the Brazilian ‘economic miracle’.

As far as the generals were concerned, the ‘miracle’ obviated the need for an explicit political ideology to run the state. The tremendous popular enthusiasm generated by the idea of an economic miracle was manipulated by the junta to rationalize their continued suspension of full democratic rights. The economic upswing was ‘miraculous’ in that it seemed to be a sudden take-off into self-sustaining industrial growth, the hallmark of a modern economy. Brazil was at last on its way to world-power status from the doldrums in which it had found itself for the best part of the 1960s.

The Brazilian rate of economic growth was indeed amazingly good: in 1968–74 the economy grew at an average yearly rate of between 10 per cent and 11 per cent. Even after the sudden rise in the world price of oil in 1973, which seriously damaged all the industrial economies, the Brazilian rate of growth averaged between 4 per cent and 7 per cent a year. By the mid-1970s the volume of exports had quadrupled since 1967. Far more significant was the fact that manufactured goods had replaced coffee as the major component of exports: the stubborn Latin American problem of monoculture – the dependence on the export of a single primary commodity – had been solved.

Without doubt, a substantial industrial revolution had occurred in Brazil; and it had largely been engineered by technocrats sponsored by the armed forces. But this success was built on the programme of industrialization achieved over many years since the foundation of the Estado Nôvo by Getúlio Vargas in 1937. Underlying the intervening conflicts of parliamentary politics, there had been a remarkable continuity in the course of Brazilian development from the Getúlio Vargas era to the military governments of the 1960s and 1970s. Development continued to be based on a sustained drive for industrial growth largely financed by foreign loans and investment, but directed by the state. The military governments of the 1960s and 1970s kept all basic industries and utilities under state control; they largely retained the nationalist policy of import-substitution industrialization by selective tariffs; and they also preserved the core of the social welfare and labour legislation of the Estado Nôvo.

Brazil’s extraordinary drive to modernize in the twentieth century produced a powerful industrial economy in the space of little over three decades. The costs were enormous: acute dislocations of regional economies, the destruction of virgin lands, an imbalance between the countryside and the cities, and deep cleavages between the working class, industrial capitalists and the middle classes. And yet, industry did not become productive enough to absorb the potential labour force, while the countryside remained under-productive and socially divided. Successive governments tried to force the pace of industrial development, as well as increasing spending on welfare programmes to alleviate the social misery. The results were vicious circles of inflation and budget deficits, which spiralled uncontrollably, robbing governments of authority. In 1964 the armed forces intervened to try to restore order, but by the late 1970s they too had been drawn into the spiral of inflation and debt; their historic pursuit of ordem e progresso had led, paradoxically, to a situation where economic progress had become the enemy of social order.

The Brazilian crisis of the 1980s was as much a crisis of the state as of the economy. In the medium term economic improvement might come through an upturn in the world economy combined with a successful anti-inflation programme and international assistance with debt relief. But a lasting settlement of the crisis would require the emergence of a legitimate democratic state, whose representative institutions could command the confidence of the nation as a whole.

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