MICHELIN Travel Discover the world
Home > > > > > > History Rio de Janeiro

Leaving for Brazil

Where to sleep?

View 206 hotels for Rio de Janeiro


Enlarge map


Rio de Janeiro is the jewel in the Bay of Guanabara, which has featured strongly in Brazil’s exploration long before the establishment of the city itself. It has witnessed battles between the Portuguese, the French and the local Amerindians; lived through the exploitation cycles of brazilwood, gold and coffee; and has ended up as the cultural capital of Brazil and South America in a long and eventful history spanning over 500 years.


Scientists broadly agree that South America was the last great continental mass to be populated by wandering tribes from Asia through the Bering Strait, around 13–15,000 years ago, although some artifacts have been found in Brazil’s Serra da Capivara and controversially carbon-dated to a much earlier time. Unlike in the cooler Andes, the climate and the environment did not lend itself to the viable development of a complex civilization, with the jungle relentless in covering up any possible tracks of cultural complexity. To this day, nothing has been unearthed around Rio de Janeiro that points to the existence of any ancient sophisticated civilization; the earliest pottery fragments date from AD 1000.

When, during the course of the 16C, the Europeans started colonizing Brazil and South America, they called the inhabitants “Indians” without regard. Yet, at the time, more than 400 ethnic groups existed in Brazil alone who differentiated themselves from each other through language, traditions, and institutions. Each tribe congregated in villages that, in turn, formed independent polities. In general, the Amerindians engaged in hunting, fishing (without metal hooks), agriculture, and fruit collecting. They were also in a state of perpetual war, with raids against neighboring tribes aimed at catching prisoners who were, in some tribes, consumed in acts of ritual cannibalism. There were no distinct social classes and, although individual ownership of huts and tools was customary, the land, the rivers, and all natural resources belonged collectively to the polity. Interestingly, some tribal groups, most notably the Guarani, believed in the existence of a Supreme Being, a Creator of all things.

More frequent, however, was the worship of mythical heroes who had taught a particular group the rites and rules of survival. Any artistic manifestations were confined to dances, chants, rock paintings, body paintings, and the production of utensils for transport, storage, and warfare, such as dugouts, baskets and pots, as well as clubs and arrows. The standard and the preferred medium—stone, clay, wood, or straw—varied widely from tribe to tribe.

Currently about 200 tribal ethnic groups exist in Brazil, conscious of their kinship, their traditions, and their past history, although most have lost many of their original characteristics and have been assimilated.

Altogether their population amounts to about 300,000, of whom 155,000 are speakers of Amerindian languages. An estimated two dozen tribes are still uncontacted.

Discovery and Conflict (1500–1568)

The “discovery” of Brazil is attributed to Pedro Álvares Cabral, who led an expedition to the Indies but was blown-off course and ended up landing near present Porto Seguro in Bahia.

There are maps, however, that suggest that the Spanish had already landed upon the South American continent, and there are some who believe that Cabral’s discovery was not accidental, but that he was on a secret mission. Cabral named the country Ilha de Vera Cruz, because he falsely believed that he had come ashore on an island rather than an entire continent.

The first expedition to explore and exploit the recently discovered lands was dispatched under the command of Caspar de Lemos. His most illustrious passenger was the Italian navigator Amérigo Vespucci, whose letters back to Lorenzo de’ Medici gave an account of his trip that identified the whole continent with his name. As was the custom at the time, the places were baptized according to the religious calendar. Such examples include the Cabo de São Tomé (Cape St Thomas) which he reached on December 21 1501, and the Angra dos Reis (“Cove of the Kings,” in this case, the Magi) which he reached on January 6 1502. Rio de Janeiro itself (River of January), where the expedition passed on New Year’s Day 1502, was a misnomer, because the narrowness of Guanabara Bay (approx 1km/0.6mi) fooled the Portuguese into thinking they had encountered the mouth of a wide river. Unlike the Island of Vera Cruz, though, the erroneous name stuck. As late as 1570, at a festival in Coimbra, three river figures representing the Ganges, the Nile, and the “River of January” paid their respects to Portuguese King Sebastião.

The expedition reported back that the shores of the new country were full of brazilwood trees (Caesalpinia echinata) from which a precious red dye could be extracted and which eventually gave its name to the colony. The exploitation of brazilwood was immediately declared a monopoly of the Portuguese crown, but it was impossible to police and it attracted adventurers of other nationalities, mainly French corsairs. In fact, it was the French, not the Portuguese, who first colonized the coast of Rio de Janeiro, where great forests of this tree species existed.

The history of the next 70-odd years is one of a struggle between the Portuguese and the French for possession of the land and control of the brazilwood trade. The Portuguese eventually emerged victorious, predominantly because Portugal’s interest in the new country was far greater than France’s.

April 22 1500 —”Discovery” of Brazil by Pedro Álvares Cabral.

1501–1502—First Brazil expedition and accidental discovery of Guanabara Bay, named Rio de Janeiro.

1503— The Portuguese crown sends a second expedition to explore the territory of Brazil, under the command of Gonçalo Coelho. One division reaches Rio de Janeiro and another division, under the command of Amérigo Vespucci, anchors near Cabo Frío for five months where he builds a fortified storehouse.

1503–1504—Arrival in Rio de Janeiro of Binot Paulmier de Gonneville, the first French explorer in Brazil, who succeeds in breaking the Portuguese brazilwood monopoly. When he returns to France, he alleges to have discovered a new “Austral Land.” Centuries later this declaration was used by the French to lay claim to the continent of Australia.

1516–1519 and 1525–1528— Because of the continuous harvesting of brazilwood by the French, the Portuguese crown organizes two military expeditions under the command of Cristóvão Jacques. In July 1527 he succeeds in fighting off the French in the first of many naval battles between the two powers over the control of the brazilwood trade.

December 1519—During their circumnavigation of the globe, Magellan and his sailors spend two weeks replenishing their strength in Guanabara Bay, which they describe as “paradise.”

1532— The Portuguese King João III organizes the first colonizing expedition, commanded by Martim Alfonso de Souza. He introduces the cultivation of the sugar cane with an engenho (sugar plantation) in São Vicente close to the present port of Santos, on the coast of São Paulo. On the beach of today’s Flamengo in Rio de Janeiro, he constructs what some authors describe as an engenho but others as a simple warehouse.

1534–1536—King João III tries to promote the Brazil trade and stimulate settlement by dividing the coast of Brazil into 14 hereditary captaincies (strips of land from coast to interior that are guarded and exploited by the captain and their heirs) in return for a ten percent tax levied on the colony’s products. Rio de Janeiro falls partly under the captaincy of São Vicente donated to Martim Afonso de Souza, and partly under the captaincy of São Tomé, given to Pero de Góis.

1547— Six hundred colonists and six sugar factories are already working in the captaincy of São Vicente.

1548— Although the hereditary captaincies will survive into the 18C, only two prosper: those of São Vicente and Pernambuco in the northeast. The inability to police the colonists and the general lack of success of the captaincy system leads to the creation of the state of Brazil under the jurisdiction of the Kingdom of Portugal and the Algarve.

1549— The first governor, Tomé de Sousa, arrives in Bahia and founds Salvador, the first capital of Brazil.

1555— Following the lead of the Portuguese crown, Huguenot leader Admiral Gaspar de Coligny sends the French adventurer Nicolas Durand de Villegaignon to Brazil with the objective of establishing the colony of Antarctic France. Villegaignon arrives with two ships and 600 settlers and founds Fort Coligny, the first Protestant outpost in the New World, on a small fortified island in the Bay of Guanabara. Today the island bears Villegaignon’s name and houses the Brazilian Naval Academy of Rio de Janeiro.

1559— Villegaignon departs for France, sickened by the religious discord among his compatriots. He never returns.

March 1560—A fleet commanded by the third Governor of Brazil, Mém de Sá, drives the French out of Fort Coligny, but they remain on the mainland, aided and abetted by the Tamoio Indians, who are hostile to the Portuguese.

September 14 1563—The Jesuit priests Manuel da Nóbrega and José de Anchieta succeed in pacifying a branch of the Tamoio near today’s Paraty, through the signing of the Peace Treaty of Iperoig with their leader Cunhambebé. This first ever treaty between native Americans and Europeans splits the anti-Portuguese resistance and makes possible an attack on the French.

January 20 1565—The Portuguese finally set up a settlement in the Bay of Guanabara: Captain Estácio de Sá, a nephew of Mém de Sá, establishes the military fort of São Sebastião do Rio de Janeiro in today’s Urca district. Estácio’s memory lingers on in the Rio suburb that bears his name.

January 1567—After two years of bloody fighting, the French and the Tupinambá in Rio de Janeiro are comprehensively defeated by the Portuguese and their Temiminó allies in two major battles. On January 20, Captain Estácio de Sá is killed by a poisoned arrow in the battle of Uruçu-mirim (around today’s suburbs of Glória and Flamengo), while in the north his uncle attacks their positions in Paranapecu (present Ilha do Governador).

March 1567—Mém de Sá moves his nephew’s settlement further north, by the Morro do Descanso (Hill of Rest, at the present center of Rio de Janeiro) which becomes the nucleus of the future metropolis. A citadel is built on top of the hill, along with other religious and administrative buildings, which accounts for its later name, Morro do Castelo (Castle Hill), which was destroyed in 1922.

Colonization (1568–1808)

The Sugar Cycle (1568–1693)

Between 1600 and 1650, more than 90 percent of Brazil’s earnings were based on sugar exports while the brazilwood trade, much less profitable, declined. Rio de Janeiro remained, however, the most strategic port between Salvador and the Rio de la Plata and it kept growing, eventually eclipsing São Vicente: by 1583 there were only three engenhos in Rio de Janeiro compared with over 100 in Bahia and Pernambuco; by 1629 sixty such plantations were operating.

Yet, while the engenhos were flourishing in the New World, it was events in the Old World that determined the fate of the Portuguese colonies. The young King Dom Sebastião was lost in battle in an expedition against the Moors in Morocco. He left no direct heirs and for the following 60 years Brazil was ruled by a union of the Iberian crowns of Portugal and Spain, under the Spanish sovereign Philip II.

As a consequence, the borders between the Spanish and Portuguese colonies in South America were temporarily suspended and European power struggles spread to the continent. There were no more incursions by the French, who were allied to the Spanish, but these were replaced by invasions by the Dutch, the mortal enemies of the Spanish Crown. More successful than the French, the Dutch obtained a firm foothold in Brazil and governed the northeast for 30-odd years. Despite such success, they also eventually withdrew when their attention was diverted as they engaged in a protracted war against Britain.

The 1640 restoration of the Portuguese monarchy under the Braganças eventually brought Brazil back under Portuguese control, but the focus remained in the northeast where the cultivation of sugar was still highly lucrative, until the discovery of gold in the south. Although the first and second governors of Brazil under the Braganças (Jorge and then Vasco Mascarehnas) received the title of Viceroy, it was not until 1714 that the vice-royalty of Brazil was officially established.

1568— Mém de Sá donates the lands on the opposite side of Guanabara Bay to Chief Araribóia of the Temiminó to thank him for his help against the French. Christianized, he adopts the name of his godfather Martim Afonso, the lord of São Vicente, and founds the settlement of São Lourenço dos Índios (the present city of Niterói).

1572— King Sebastião, in whose honor the original settlement in Rio de Janeiro was named, divides Brazil into two administrative regions: North and South. The government of the North is headquartered in Salvador, and the government of the South in Rio de Janeiro.

1575— The governor of Rio de Janeiro, Antonio Salema, organizes an expedition to combat the remaining French who are still clinging on to Cabo Frío with the help of the Tamoios. He expels the French and massacres their Indian allies. He also constructs an engenho for the king himself close to the lagoon of Rodrigo de Freitas with money from the royal coffers.

1578— The government of the colony is again reunified, with Salvador as its capital, to reflect its increasing importance in the sugar trade.

1578— Disappearance of King Sebastião at the Alcácer-Kibir battle.

1580— Union of the Iberian Crowns under Philip II.

1584— Philip II closes all Spanish and Portuguese ports to the Dutch, who are in revolt against his rule.

March 1599—Dutch navigator and buccaneer Olivier Van Noort lands surreptitiously under Sugar Loaf Mountain and makes an attempt to sack Rio de Janeiro, but he is driven back. He goes on to become the first Dutchman to circumnavigate the globe.

1624–1627—The Dutch invade Salvador, Bahia.

1630–1654—The Dutch invade and occupy Recife and Olinda, in Pernambuco. Between 1637 and 1644 the Dutch count and prince João Maurício de Nassau-Siegen manages Companhia das Índias Ocidentais no Brasil in Brazil.

1640— Proclamation of the Duke of Bragança as King João IV of Portugal and of the Union of the Iberian Crowns.

The Gold Cycle (1693–1808)

There are many claims as to who the first man to discover gold in Brazil was, but the current consensus favors Antônio Rodrigues de Arzão. In 1693, he mined an ounce of the precious metal in the Itaverava hills, in the present state of Minas Gerais. This was a momentous event not just for the history of Brazil, but also for the city of Rio de Janeiro which became the main shipping port for the extracted gold. At its peak (1735–1754) exports averaged 14–15 tons per year.

Rio’s new-found wealth once again attracted the interests of the French. In 1710, a squadron comprising six ships and 1,200 men under admiral Jean François Duclerc tried to take Rio de Janeiro by force, but was comprehensively defeated.

Duclerc was taken prisoner and mysteriously assassinated. Louis XIV was furious and vowed revenge: the next year French Admiral René Duguay-Trouin, sailing with 17 ships, 600 cannons, and 6,000 men, succeeded in capturing a heavily fortified and well-defended Rio de Janeiro after an 11-day battle. He freed the French prisoners from Duclerc’s expedition, held the Portuguese governor Castro Morais to ransom, and extracted a heavy penalty in gold. It was the biggest naval victory of the French in Brazil, but was of no lasting consequence: this was a plundering expedition; the dream of Antarctic France had faded.

Inevitably, in 1763, the government of Brazil was unified and transferred to Rio de Janeiro, which became the new capital of Brazil. This represented a fundamental shift of the economic center of gravity from the north to the south of the country which has not been reversed since.

Stirred by the US revolution and by French illuminist ideas, several notables from Minas Gerais organized a conspiracy, known in Brazil as the Inconfidência Mineira, with the aim of declaring the independence of Brazil. In 1789, they are betrayed, apprehended, and exiled, apart from their leader, a dentist called Joaquim José da Silva Xavier. In 1792, he is hanged publicly in Rio de Janeiro from a gallows erected in what today is Praça Tiradentes, a square named after his nickname: Toothpuller.

Much of the gold went to finance the arts: this was the time of Brazilian Baroque, as rich lay fraternities competed with each other by commissioning lavishly decorated churches, mainly in Minais Gerais, Bahia, and Rio de Janeiro. Viceroy Dom Luís de Vasconcelos e Souza commissioned the first public works in Rio, including the Passeio Público, the first public park in the Americas, which resulted from the draining of a fetid lagoon. Yet, although the town continued to expand, it still remained a colonial backwater until the Napoleonic wars caused the Portuguese court to take refuge in the city.

1693— Antonio Rodrigues de Arzão discovers gold in Minas Gerais.

1704–1705—Opening of the Caminho Novo, by Garcia Rodrigues Paes, a route that snakes Serra do Mar from the gold mines of Minas Gerais down to the ports of Paraty, Angra dos Reis, and Rio de Janeiro.

1710— Admiral Jean François Duclerc tries to capture Rio de Janeiro, but fails.

September 21 1711—French Admiral René Duguay-Trouin captures Rio de Janeiro and leaves after extracting ransom money.

1714— Establishment of the Vice Royalty of Brazil.

1727— Coffee seeds are smuggled from French Guyana into Brazil by Francisco de Melo Palheta.

1763— Rio de Janeiro becomes the capital of Brazil.

1770— João Alberto de Castelo Branco, a former appeals court judge, starts the cultivation of coffee in Rio de Janeiro. The first seedlings sprout in a garden in the current Rua Evaristo da Veiga beside the Teatro Municipal.

1785— Prohibition by Portuguese Queen Maria I of the establishment of any manufacturing industry in Brazil. This decree, occurring during a point when the mines were being depleted, leads to widespread discontent in the colony.

1789— The Inconfidência Mineira (Minas Conspiracy) is discovered and its leaders imprisoned.

1792— Tiradentes is hanged in Rio de Janeiro.

Independence and Monarchy (1808–1889)

Once again, events in Europe decisively influenced the history of Brazil. Napoleon’s Iberian invasion and subsequent peninsular wars forced the Portuguese royal family and court to flee to their transatlantic colony and to transfer the seat of government to Rio de Janeiro. In all, 15,000 courtesans, aristocrats, and administrators fled to Rio at a time when the city numbered around 45,000 locals, mostly slaves. This was the first and only time in history when a colonial town become the capital of a European state; as such, Rio de Janeiro was elevated in status and its nouveau-riche elites gained much prestige with the dishing out of titles such as Count, Viscount, or Duke. The Regent—and after Maria the Mad’s death in 1816, King—João VI inaugurated many of today’s city landmarks, such as the Botanical Gardens and instituted such public institutions as a central bank and a royal press. The prohibition on manufacturing industry was revoked and trade with Brazil was opened to all friendly nations with Portugal’s prime ally, Great Britain, receiving particularly favorable customs terms.

In 1816, João VI invited a group of French artists to Brazil in order to establish an Academy of Fine Arts. Its most famous members were the painter Jean- Baptiste Debret (1768–1848), who depicted the city, its costumes, and characters from 1816 to 1831, when he left Brazil, and architect Grandgean de Montigny, who introduced Neo-classical architecture and whose main work is Casa França-Brasil.

Although the Napoleonic Wars ended in 1815, João VI only reluctantly left Brazil for Portugal six years later. He left behind as Regent his elder son Pedro who had come of age in the colony. When the Portuguese deputies in Lisbon tried to restore the previous state of affairs, he declared Brazil’s independence at Ipiranga on September 7, 1822. He ruled in Rio de Janeiro as Pedro I, but faced resistance from his government assembly when he tried to propose an absolutist constitution. However, he also departed in 1831 to claim the throne of Portugal when it became vacant. He, in turn, left power to his five-year old son, Pedro II. After a period of Regency Pedro II was coronated at the age of 15. His 50-year reign defined 19C imperial Brazil. After brazilwood and gold it was now coffee cultivation in and around the capital, especially in the Valley of Paraíba, that enriched the elites and underlined the city’s importance.

1808— The Portuguese royal family and Court flee Lisbon for Brazil.

1809— Establishment of the Botanical Gardens in Rio de Janeiro.

1810— Creation of the Royal Library (now National Library).

1815— Elevation of the status of Brazil to that of an equal partner with Portugal under the United Kingdom of Brazil, Portugal, and the Algarve—with the capital in Rio de Janeiro.

1816— Death of Maria the Mad, and elevation of her son to King João VI.

1821— João VI returns to Portugal to assume the throne, leaving his son Dom Pedro in Brazil.

September 7 1822—Dom Pedro proclaims the independence of Brazil, declaring “Independência ou Morte”! (Independence or death!). He becomes Dom Pedro I of Impêrio do Brasil.

April 7 1831—Dom Pedro I abdicates in favor of his son Dom Pedro de Alcântara, still only five years old.

1840— After a decade’s regency, Dom Pedro II ascends to the throne, at the age of only 15.

1840–1870—The golden age of coffee cultivation in the Valley of Paraíba around Rio de Janeiro.

1844— Protectionist customs tariffs, favorable to industrialization in Brazil, are established by minister Alves Branco.

1854— Inauguration of the first Brazilian railroad, connecting Guanabara Bay to the auriferous mountain ranges of the interior.

1861–1868—Establishment and reforestation of the Tijuca massif, establishing what would later become the Tijuca National Park.

1888— Abolition of slavery.

The Old Republic (1889–1930)

Discontent started when Pedro II led Brazil to the war against Paraguay (1864–1870), which had disastrous results from a political and economic perspective. The emancipation of the slaves in 1888 was deeply unpopular amongst the land-owning aristocracy. As a result, the economic elite, along with the army, felt empowered enough to depose the king and declare a republic.

The first president was Marshal Deodoro da Fonseca, followed by the much-feared Marshal Floriano Vieira Peixoto, who consolidated the republic by repressing dissent.

The Old Republic, as it was called, was nicknamed a democracy of café com leite (coffee with milk) because, with few exceptions, the presidency and the government posts were bound together with the coffee-producing oligarchies of São Paulo and the cattle-owning landocracy of Minas Gerais, while Rio de Janeiro’s upper classes provided the bulk of the bureaucracy in the capital.

The republic was not universally loved. In the south, the states of Santa Catarina and Rio Grande do Sul tried unsuccessfuly to rebel. The navy mutinied in Rio de Janeiro itself and bombed the capital from the sea, but its defiance was doomed as the army controlled the land. In 1896–97, there was an uprising of a semi-religious mass cult of landless peasants and recently emancipated slaves in Canudos in the interior of the state of Bahia. It required five campaigns and a large force to put it down, and its consequences were long-lasting and unexpected.

Culturally, the uprising provided Brazilian literature with one of its biggest and best known epics, Os Sertões by Euclides da Cunha. Linguistically, it created one of Brazil’s internationally known expressions: the poor soldiers who fought in the Canudos revolt were granted a hill in Rio de Janeiro to settle on; they named it “favela”—after “Morro da Favela” a hill covered in favela plants where they had decamped by Canudos—a word that eventually became a byword for the ramshackle Rio shantytowns.

November 15 1889—Proclamation of the republic under the presidency of Manoel Deodoro da Fonseca

1891— First republican constitution of Brazil.

1893–94—Mutiny of the Navy in Rio.

1896–1897—Canudos revolt.

1914— World War I interrupts European imports and encourages the expansion of local industrial activities. Brazil enters the war on the side of the Allies on October 27 1917 and captures 46 German ships that were anchored in Brazilian ports.

1929— Crisis in the New York stock exchange and crash of coffee prices destabilizes the Brazilian economy and the café com leite politics.

From Dictatorship to Democracy to Dictatorship again

Concerned by the post-1929 crash collapse in coffee prices, a military coup put an end to the Old Republic and its domination by the coffee and cattle-breeding oligarchies. Concerned by the post-1929 crash collapse in coffee prices, a military coup put an end to the Old Republic and its domination by the coffee and cattle-raising oligarchies. In 1930 Getúlio Vargas (1883–1954), with the support of several states and the army, took over the command of the provisional government, dispersed Congress, suspended the Constitution of 1891, appointed interveners to replace elected governors in the states and decreed that no act from the provisional government could be contested by the Judiciary, until order was reinstated.

The Constitutionalist Revolution (sometimes known as the Paulista War) erupted in São Paulo in 1932 with the aim of pressuring Vargas into creating a new Constitution. The uprising was quelled, but a constituent assembly was convened and a new Constitution promulgated in 1934. However, under threat of political revolution, Vargas revoked that Constitution and enacted another, establishing the authoritarian Estado Novo (New State), that lasted from 1937 to 1945, with strong government intervention in the economy.

After sustained US pressure, Brazil entered World War II on the side of the Allies, and fought alongside them, most notably in Italy, but when the war was over the prevailing anti-dictatorship mood brought the Estado Novo to an end and elections were called. Vargas created a party and put himself to the vote, but lost. Still, he kept his contacts and made a remarkable comeback in 1951 when he won comprehensively with a populist, left-wing program.

When in power though, things turned sour, a hostile press, a collapse in coffee prices, and a balance of payments crisis tipped Vargas over the edge. One of his close associates tried to assassinate Carlos Lacerda, one of the governments most vituperative newspaper critics. Lacerda was only wounded, but his bodyguard was killed. Vargas was implicated, though he denied the accusations, and his dramatic reaction still divides Brazilians. On 24 August 1954 he shot himself in Rio de Janeiro’s Catete Palace leaving behind a dramatic suicide note that touched a chord with an emotional nation.

This dénouement absolved him of every fault and turned him into a labor legend in the eyes of many of his compatriots.

Vargas’ Vice President, João Café Filho, continued to govern until 1956, when Juscelino Kubitschek, a centrist politician, won the elections with a positive vision of the future. His strategy of rapid industrialization and the building of a new capital, Brasília, in an arid region of the center-west caused a balance of payments crisis. He financed it by printing money against the advice of orthodox economists and took a stand by refusing the help of the IMF. This strategy was popular at home, but it created an “institutional” inflation in the economy: in 1955 inflation stood at 11.7 percent; by 1964 it had risen to 89.9 percent. Still, within four years, the new capital was ready to accept the legislative chambers and on 21 April 1960, the anniversary of Tiradentes’ death, the capital was officially transferred from Rio de Janeiro to Brasília.

Matters came to a head with the presidency of João Goulart, who came to power after Kubitschek’s successor Jânio Quadros resigned within nine months. Goulart was a Vargas protégé and was responsible for raising the minimum wage by 100 percent, thus infuriating the elites. His alleged ties with the banned Communist Party were unacceptable to the army, and they deposed him on April 1, 1964, plunging Brazil into the longest and harshest dictatorship in its existence. Indeed, after 1968, the strict censorship caused many politicians, journalists, filmmakers, musicians, and intellectuals to leave for Europe. The military dictatorship lasted 21 long years.

This was a time of a crisis of confidence for Rio de Janeiro, which had lost its capital status and in 1976 its state status when the city was merged with the surrounding state of Rio de Janeiro: of the 21 daily newspapers circulating in 1960, only seven still remained in 1980, while all 15 weekly magazines closed. Businesses left the city center and despite a short economic boom—between 1968 and 1973 Brazil’s economy recorded a 14 percent annual growth—Rio de Janeiro was a city under great economic strain.

1930— Revolution of 1930 and rise of Getúlio Vargas.

1931— The Christ the Redeemer statue on Corcovado is inaugurated.

1943— Brazil enters World War II and fights in Italy alongside the Allies.

1946–1951—Eurico Gaspar Dutra wins the first democratic elections for 20 years.

1951–1954—Ex-dictator Getúlio Vargas returns to power constitutionally.

1954— Getúlio Vargas commits suicide.

1956–1961—President Juscelino Kubitschek de Oliveira wins the elections, promising to build Brasília.

April 21 1960—(Tiradentes Day) Transfer of the capital from Rio de Janeiro to Brasília. Rio de Janeiro becomes the city-state of Guanabara.

1961— The left-wing president Jânio Quadros is elected, but soon resigns.

1961–1964—João Belchior Marques Goulart inherits the presidency, but is deposed by a military coup because of his left-wing credentials.

1960s–1970s—Opening of the tunnels to Zona Sul (South Zone) and middle-class flight to Copacabana, Ipanema and, later, Barra, shifting the population to the south of Rio de Janeiro.

1974— Oil discovery in the Bacia de Campos, 50mi/80km from the coast of Rio de Janeiro, re-energizes the state.

1975— Fusion of the States of Guanabara and of Rio de Janeiro, with a common capital in Rio de Janeiro.

The New Republic

Brazil’s rising external debt, a rampant inflation that reached 235 percent in 1985, a balance of payments crisis, plus international pressure forced the military to step down, call elections, and transfer power to an indirectly elected president. He was Tancredo Neves, who on his day of inauguration was stricken with stomach pains and had to be admitted to hospital. He died there after seven operations and the mantle passed to his vice-president, José Sarney. Like many before him, Sarney tried to stabilize the currency and reign in the galloping inflation (1,783 percent by 1989), but failed.

Fernando Collor de Melo, a Carioca politician with a power-base in the northeast, became the first directly elected president of Brazil in the New Republic, inheriting an inflation of nearly 100 percent a month. Despite several dramatic measures such as reducing the federal budget, freezing savings and prices, sacking public employees, and privatizing industries, inflation continued its upward rise. His critics accused him of bypassing Congress and shunning public debate and he made many political enemies. Accused of corruption, he became the target of a congressional investigation and was successfully impeached at the end of 1992.

His vice-president, Itamar Franco, came to power and he appointed Fernando Henrique Cardoso as finance minister. Cardoso tackled inflation head-on, and produced a complex plan, the focus of which was the introduction in 1994 of a new currency, the Real.

Amazingly, Cardoso succeeded: he reigned in inflation. When Itamar Franco resigned, he put himself forward as candidate and was elected president for two terms, the maximum under Brazil’s 1988 constitution. His reform program brought much-needed stability and foreign investment.

The 2002 election brought to power an ex-union leader, Luiz Inácio (Lula) da Silva , who became Brazil’s first president from the Worker’s Party. Despite some concerns in the international community, Lula has been successful in pushing forward Brazil’s industry and commerce along with a domestic social program to eliminate hunger. In 2006, he too, gained a second term.

1985— Indirect election of president Tancredo Neves who dies before resuming his office.

1985–1990—Presidency of José Sarney.

1988— The latest Brazilian constitution institutes universal suffrage: this is the first time that voting is extended to the illiterate masses.

1990–1992—Fernando Collor de Mello is the first directly elected President. Corruption scandals result in his impeachment.

1992–1995—Vice-president Itamar Augusto Franco inherits the presidency.

1994— Fernando Henrique Cardoso, an economist and technocrat by nature, succeeds in capping inflation by introducing a new currency, the Real.

1995–2002—Presidency of Fernando Henrique Cardoso over two terms.

2002— Luiz Inácio (Lula) da Silva from the Worker’s Party wins the October election in the second round with 60 percent of the vote.

2006— President Lula wins a second term.

Top of page