Federative Republic of Brazil

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Federative Republic of Brazil

Type of Government

Brazil’s official name, República Federativa do Brasil, (Federative Republic of Brazil), was adopted in 1967 and indicates the country’s status as a federal republic. At that time and until the mid-1980s, however, the popular representation essential to a republican form of government was restricted by the military junta that ruled Brazil. Since the restoration of civilian rule, Brazil’s federal government has consisted of executive, legislative, and judicial branches, defined by the country’s 1988 constitution as “independent and harmonious among themselves.” Brazil’s president and vice-president run for office together and are popularly elected. The Brazilian legislature, called the National Congress, is bicameral, consisting of an upper chamber the Federal Senate, and a lower body, the Chamber of Deputies. A complex system of state and federal courts have two high courts that review decisions by lower bodies, the Superior Justice Tribunal and the Supreme Federal Tribunal.


Occupying a large section on the eastern part of the South American continent, Brazil ranks as the fifth-largest country in the world in terms of both land area and population. This vast land was occupied by millions of Native Americans in the centuries preceding the European conquest, representing a large variety of cultural and linguistic groups. Although Portuguese colonization was at first oriented more toward trade than settlement, Native American communities were nevertheless decimated by the introduction of smallpox and other European diseases to which they had no immunity.

Following the reports of Christopher Columbus’s (1451–1506) first voyage to the New World in 1492, the Spanish Crown, which had funded the voyage and realized the potential riches located within the New World, asked the Vatican to support its future claims. In 1493 Pope Alexander VI (1431–1503) issued a bull (papal decree) that fixed a north-south line—called the line of demarcation—about 350 miles west of the Cape Verde Islands (located about 300 miles west of modern-day Mauritania and Senegal in West Africa). Land to the west of this line would belong to Spain, and land to the east would belong to Portugal. Portugal raised a number of issues regarding the positioning of the line, so in 1494 Spain and Portugal met in Tordesillas, Spain, where they signed the Treaty of Tordesillas, which moved the line 1,000 miles further to the west of Cape Verde. This moved the territory of present-day Brazil into Portugal’s sphere, while leaving the rest of South America to Spain. As a result, Brazil is the only Portuguese-speaking country in the Western Hemisphere.

The Spanish mariner Vicente Yáñez Pinzón (c. 1460?–c. 1523?) visited the Brazilian coast before 1500. However, because Brazil fell within the Portuguese sphere per the Treaty of Tordesillas, the first to claim the land was the Portuguese navigator Pedro Cabral (c.1467–1520) in 1500. The first permanent settlement, São Vicente, was founded in 1532. Thereafter, settlers spread throughout the northeast and established sugar plantations, whose cultivation led to the enslavement of native peoples and later to the mass importation of African slaves. Farther to the south, gold was discovered in about 1693, which led to the development of the Minas Gerais (General Mines); other mines were built further in the interior, thereby lessening the dependence on a one-crop economy.

The movement toward Brazilian independence began with the rebel leader Joaquim José da Silva Xavier (1748–1792), who admired the American Revolution (1775–1783) and the U.S. Constitution. Silva Xavier was executed in 1792, but resistance to European rule flared once again after the Portuguese monarchy, which had been displaced by the conquests of the French military leader Napoléon Bonaparte (1769–1821), relocated to Rio de Janeiro in 1808. King John VI (1767–1826) of Portugal returned to Lisbon in 1821, leaving his son Dom Pedro I (1798–1834) in charge as regent. However, Dom Pedro was an advocate of separation, and with the Grito do Ipiranga (Cry of Iparanga) he proclaimed Brazil’s independence to a cheering crowd in September 1822.

Democracy was slow to take root in Brazil, for Pedro installed himself as emperor and passed the throne on to his son, Dom Pedro II (1825–1891), in 1831. Slavery was abolished in 1888, and the following year, after a bloodless revolution, the monarchy was replaced with a republican government. A growing middle class fueled by massive immigration undergirded democratic rule for the next several decades, even though laws restricted suffrage to a small percentage of the population. In 1930 Getúlio Vargas (1883–1954) seized power in a coup d’état and combined near-totalitarian control over the Brazilian state apparatus with policies designed to favor industrial expansion; Vargas, like the Argentine Juan Perón (1895–1974), was popular among urban working-class Brazilians.

Civilian rule returned in 1945 but was interrupted once again in 1964, when the Brazilian military overthrew the progressive government of President João Goulart (1918–1976). Human rights abuses followed, but military rule in Brazil was not accompanied by the widespread violence against political opponents that occurred in other Latin American countries between the 1960s and 1980s, and, beginning in 1978 with the repeal of the emergency decrees that made way for military rule, Brazil’s ruling generals took steps toward the restoration of democratic rule. A new constitution in 1988 paved the way for general elections the following year and remains the basis for Brazil’s governmental structure.

Government Structure

The Brazilian president is both the head of government and head of state. The president and vice president are elected to four-year terms, and the president may run for reelection once. The president and vice president must be Brazilian nationals at least thirty-five years old and must be members of a political party. If no candidate achieves an absolute majority in the first round of presidential voting, a runoff between the leading candidates is held within twenty days. The president appoints the executive cabinet.

The bicameral (two-chambered) Congresso Nacional (National Congress) consists of the Senado Federal (Federal Senate) and the Cámara dos Diputados (Chamber of Deputies). The Senado has eighty-one members: three from each of Brazil’s twenty-six states and three from Brasilia, which is a federal district. Senators are elected to eight-year terms, whose terms are staggered so that one-third are elected and then four years later the other two-thirds are elected. Senators must be Brazilian citizens at least thirty-five years old. The Cámara dos Diputados has 513 members, who must be at least twenty-five years old and are elected to four-year terms.

The federal judiciary is divided between the Supremo Tribunal Federal (Supreme Federal Tribunal) and the Superior Tribunal de Justiça (Superior Tribunal of Justice). The Supremo Tribunal Federal has the power to judge the constitutionality of laws implemented by the legislative and executive branches. Its eleven justices are appointed by the president, subject to Senado confirmation. They serve until age seventy, when they are obligated to retire. The Superior Tribunal de Justiça stands at the apex of Brazil’s system of civil and criminal courts; the court currently has thirty-three members, which are appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senado.

Registration and voting in Brazilian elections are theoretically compulsory for all literate Brazilians between the ages of eighteen and seventy. Voting is optional for the illiterate and for those between sixteen and eighteen years of age or older than seventy. Even though the goal of universal voting has not been achieved, turnout in Brazilian elections is high: in the 2006 presidential election over 83 percent of eligible voters went to the polls. The Brazilian constitution reserves many powers for the central federal government but also specifies mandatory funding allocations for government and municipal leaders, who in practice wield considerable power.

Political Parties and Factions

Because political party affiliation is relatively weak in Brazil, candidates switch parties fairly frequently according to prevailing electoral conditions. There are many parties, ranging from a communist party to a far-right nationalist conservative party, and fifteen of them are represented in the Congresso Nacional. Four parties have emerged as dominant, but some twenty parties compete for election to the legislature, and even the large parties must often form coalitions with smaller groups to pass legislation; presidential candidates also run as representatives of coalitions consisting of several parties.

The Partido de Trabalhadores (Workers’ Party) was founded in 1980 by Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (1945–). It began as a party explicitly oriented toward the goals of Brazilian workers, but it evolved into pursuing a centrist course that avoided confrontation with international investors and financial institutions. The party grew slowly, but its steady increase in electoral success culminated with Lula da Silva’s being elected president in 2002 and reelected in 2006.

The Partido do Movimento Democrático Brasileiro (PMDB; Brazilian Democratic Movement Party) was founded in 1965, a year after the Brazilian government was toppled by a military dictatorship. The dictatorship promoted the PMDB as an opposition party even though it had no real power. However, as political restrictions were lifted, the PMDB espoused democratic goals and developed into a dominant political party. The PMDB candidate Tancredo Neves (1910–1985) was elected in 1985 as Brazil’s first civilian president since the 1960s; he was sidelined by illness and was succeeded by Vice President José Sarney (1930–), also a PMDB member. The PMDB, as the successor to the Brazilian opposition movement during the dictatorship, includes individuals with a range of political views but is generally placed near the center of the political spectrum.

Founded in 1988, the Partido da Social-Democracia Brasileira (Brazilian Social Democracy Party) is a center-left party generally oriented toward social democracy. The Democratas (Democrats) is a conservative party and is affiliated with conservative parties in other countries that have adopted the label of Christian Democrat. Even though it did not field a presidential candidate in 2006 it is a major presence in the Congresso Nacional.

Major Events

Brazil’s young democracy faced its first major test in 1992, when President Fernando Collor de Mello (1949–) became enmeshed in a corruption scandal. Street demonstrators called for his removal after allegations surfaced that he and members of his administration had diverted government monies into a massive slush fund intended for payment of bribes. Collor de Mello was impeached by the Cámara dos Diputados, and as the Senado prepared to put him on trial he abruptly resigned. The succession to Vice President Itamar Franco (1930–) was orderly, and a new round of elections followed in 1994.

Twenty-First Century

Brazil contains a number of natural resources, and its economy is the largest in South America. Nevertheless, it has historically suffered from major inequities in income distribution: the shantytowns that surround its cities are international symbols of urban poverty, and some of the workers in the country’s large agricultural sector live at near-subsistence levels. Like other developing countries, Brazil suffers from high levels of foreign debt; the country’s financial situation was precarious for several years after an international financial crisis in 1998, but the administration of President Lula da Silva has been credited with stabilizing government spending levels.

Another major set of challenges facing Brazil relates to the environment and has international implications. The tropical rainforest of the Amazon River basin is both one of the richest ecological regions on Earth and one of the most fragile; Brazilian environmental regulations have been ineffective in halting illegal logging activities, and by 2006 about 17 percent of the original rainforest area had been lost, mostly to be used as pasture land. The potential loss to humanity in terms of biodiversity is immense, and it is feared that the release of carbon stored in the Amazon’s thick concentration of plant matter will worsen the problem of global climate change. Brazil is noted, however, for its success in ridding itself of dependence on petroleum imports; through investments in a hydroelectric infrastructure and promotion of ethanol as an automotive fuel, the country had achieved near-total energy independence by 2006.

Hudson, Rex A., ed. Brazil: A Country Study. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1998.

Skidmore, Thomas E. Brazil: Five Centuries of Change. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

U.S. Department of State. “Background Note: Brazil.” (accessed July 9, 2007).

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Federative Republic of Brazil