With an estimated 156 million inhabitants, Brazil has the largest population in Latin America and ranks sixth in the world. The majority live in the south-central area, which includes the industrial cities of Sao Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, and Belo Horizonte. Urban growth has been rapid: by 1991, 75% of the total population were living in urban areas. Rapid growth has aided economic development but has also created serious social, environmental, and political problems for major cities.
Four major groups make up the Brazilian population: the Portuguese, who colonized in the 16th century; Africans brought to Brazil as slaves; various other European, Middle Eastern, and Asian immigrant groups who have settled in Brazil since the mid-19th century; and indigenous people of Tupi and Guarani language stock. Intermarriage between the Portuguese and indigenous people or slaves was common. Although the major European ethnic stock of Brazil was once Portuguese, subsequent waves of immigration have contributed to a diverse ethnic and cultural heritage.
From 1875 until 1960, about 5 million Europeans emigrated to Brazil, settling mainly in the four southern states of Sao Paulo, Parana, Santa Catarina, and Rio Grande do Sul. Immigrants have come mainly from Italy, Germany, Spain, Japan, Poland, and the Middle East. The largest Japanese community outside Japan is in Sao Paulo. Despite class distinctions, national identity is strong, and racial friction is a relatively new phenomenon.
Indigenous full-blooded Indians, located mainly in the northern and western border regions and in the upper Amazon Basin, constitute less than 1% of the population. Their numbers are declining as contact with the outside world and commercial expansion into the interior increase. Brazilian Government programs to establish reservations and to provide other forms of assistance have existed for years, but are controversial and often ineffective.
Brazil is the only Portuguese-speaking nation in the Americas. Approximately 80% of all Brazilians belong to the Roman Catholic Church; most others are Protestant or follow practices derived from African religions.
Brazil was claimed for Portugal in 1500 by Pedro Alvares Cabral. It was ruled from Lisbon as a colony until 1808, when the royal family, having fled from Napoleon's army, established the seat of Portuguese Government in Rio de Janeiro. Brazil became a kingdom under Dom Joao VI, who returned to Portugal in 1821. His son declared Brazil's independence on September 7, 1822, and became emperor with the title of Dom Pedro I. His son, Dom Pedro II, ruled from 1831 to 1889, when a federal republic was established in a coup by Deodoro da Fonseca, marshal of the army. Slavery had been abolished a year earlier by the Regent Princess Isabel while Dom Pedro II was in Europe.
From 1889 to 1930, the government was a constitutional democracy, with the presidency alternating between the dominant states of Sao Paulo and Minas Gerais. This period ended with a military coup that placed Getulio Vargas, a civilian, in the presidency; Vargas remained as dictator until 1945. From 1945 to 1961, Eurico Dutra, Vargas, Juscelino Kubitschek, and Janio Quadros were elected presidents. When Quadros resigned in 1961, he was succeeded by Vice President Joao Goulart.
Goulart's years in office were marked by high inflation, economic stagnation, and the increasing influence of radical political elements. The armed forces, alarmed by these developments, staged a coup on March 31, 1964. The coup leaders chose as president Humberto Castello Branco, followed by Arthur da Costa e Silva (1967-69), Emilio Garrastazu Medici (1968-74), and Ernesto Geisel (1974-79) all of whom were senior army officers. Geisel began a liberalization which was carried further by his successor, Gen. Joao Baptista de Oliveira Figueiredo (1979-85). Figueiredo not only permitted the return of politicians exiled or banned from political activity during the 1960s and 1970s, but also allowed them to run for state and federal offices in 1982.
At the same time, an electoral college consisting of all members of congress and six delegates chosen from each state, continued to choose the president. In January 1985, the electoral college voted Tancredo Neves from the opposition Brazilian Democratic Movement Party (PMDB) into office as President. However, Tancredo Neves became ill in March and died a month later. His Vice President, former Senator Jose Sarney, became President upon Neves' death.
Brazil completed its transition to a popularly elected government in 1989, when Fernando Collor de Mello won 53% of the vote in the first direct presidential election in 29 years. In 1992, a major corruption scandal led to the impeachment and ultimate resignation of President Collor. Vice President Itamar Franco took his place and governed for the remainder of Collor's term culminating in the October 3, 1994 presidential elections, when Fernando Henrique Cardoso was elected President with 54% of the vote. He took office January 1, 1995.
President Cardoso has sought to establish the basis for long-term stability and growth and to reduce Brazil's extreme socioeconomic imbalances. His proposals to Congress include constitutional amendments to open the Brazilian economy to greater foreign participation and to implement sweeping reforms--including social security, government administration, and taxation--to reduce excessive public sector spending and improve government efficiency.