MSSU Brazil Semester

Why Brazil?Brazil Theme logo

Dr. Eugene C. Berger
Associate Professor
Latin American History
Missouri Southern State University

A common frustration for Latin Americanists working in the United States is that our students know far more about Europe or Asia than they do Latin America. In other words, they know little about the countries in their own hemisphere. Part of this can be attributed to the fact that we call ourselves “America” when for most Mexicans, Argentines, or Brazilians, “America” refers only to the continent in which they live.

If our challenge then is to know more about our hemisphere and in turn about ourselves, Brazil is the perfect place to begin. As a fellow former colony, Brazil’s historical trajectory is remarkably similar to ours. Like us, at the moment of European arrival, Brazil was populated by a rich and varied series of indigenous groups. The Amazon basin supported (and in many areas continues to support) sophisticated societies of traders and craftsmen, while along the Atlantic seaboard groups ranged from small pastoral societies to more larger, more aggressive and sometimes cannibalistic peoples.

Brazil, of course, also struggles with how to address their own ignoble legacy as a major importer of African slaves. While slave owners in the 17th and 18th century tried to eradicate African cultural traditions, much of Brazil’s African heritage remains in the form of Afro-Brazilian religions, dance, music, and of course carnaval.

Finally, Brazil also shares our history as a nation of frontiers. While most of the country’s population clings to the Atlantic coast, Brazil’s vast and resource rich interior seems destined to play an important role in its future.

Like it was for us, Brazil’s 20th century was a story of a nation coming to terms with its cultural legacy. This cultural legacy has produced a rich tradition of literature, film, and music. Samba and bossa nova are of course internationally known and “The Girl from Ipenema” remains one of the five most recorded songs in history.

Brazil is of course best known for another more widely practiced pastime, futebol (soccer). Brazil is the only five-time World Cup champion and has produced (with apologies to Diego Armando Maradonna) the world’s best player and most famous Brazilian in Pelé. Soccer brings Brazilians from all social strati together, and can serve as a path to financial stability for at least a handful of young Afro-Brazilians born into poverty. (Pelé had only a fourth grade education, and there are thousands of Brazilians playing professionally in virtually all of the world’s soccer leagues.)

Having said this, part of our challenge in studying Brazil involves taking it seriously. Brazil is much more than dance and sport, as evidenced by its strong economy and important political position in the hemisphere. Brazil’s GDP is the eighth highest in the world driven by important mining, manufacturing and agricultural sectors. Not to mention its booming tourist sector.

Brazil is the leading economy in the South American common market of MERCOSUR and has made important advances in energy supply and policy. Brazil makes extensive use of ethanol from sugar cane in its vehicles, so much so that the country declared itself “energy independent” in 2006. In other words, its oil exports now match or overtake its imports. This does not mean that it has been easy to provide power to Brazil’s almost 200 million residents, a fact made especially clear by the recent controversy over the proposed Belo Monte Darn in the Amazon. Belo Monte would be the largest dam in the world, would produce clean energy, but would also displace indigenous groups and flood acres of forest. Brazil’s position as a hemispheric power has brought international attention and protest over this project and has caused tension with the hemisphere’s other economic power over tariffs. The U.S. and Brazil have been involved in rifts over citrus fruits, soybeans, and cotton to name a few.

For the next decades Brazil will be engaged in a friendly rivalry with the United States for the hemisphere’s leadership, and will have much to say about the interplay between the environment and energy on a worldwide scale. It will also have an important role in determining the future of this hemisphere’s indigenous peoples. We at Missouri Southern are privileged and advantaged to be able to study this important nation in such depth.