“Autos and Progress: The Brazilian Search for Modernity” by Joel Wolfe

Juscelino Kubitschek (also known as JK and is what I’ll call him) ran for president in Brazil, 1955. As a presidential Candidate he had hopes for the country; He had a vision of a modern Brazil.  His campaign slogan was “Fifty years of progress in five”.  JK fueled Brazil’s desire to become a modern nation.  Modernity would help change the way class, race, and gender were viewed. In their eyes it would help make responsible citizens of the poor. He knew the key to this progress was automobility.

JK attempted to radically, but peacefully transform Brazilian society. He pushed foreign automobile industries to move production to Brazil. The companies that moved production, prospered. Ford was reluctant to expand to Brazil at first, which ended up hurting the company. Some of the industries that expanded were, Mercedes, VW, Willy-Overland, Jeep, GM, and Ford. First they focused on meeting local demand  and eventually exported to other nearby countries in South America. This separated Brazil from the rest of Latin America. It helped Brazil’s Economy and elevated the nation’s status in the world.

These foreign industries grew rapidly. They developed credit facilities so now middle class could afford vehicles. These industries also created a new working class. Other industrial workers were going on strike for increased wages and improved working conditions. Because of this Brazil started losing home for it’s modernity, but since so many new auto industries were being developed it created a large job market. These companies didn’t require any experience and offered exceptional training. They also had the highest working class wages and best benefits available in Brazil. Wolfe quotes “No job in metropolitan San Paulo was more desirable than one in the foreign auto factories. Second in value was a position with a nationally owned auto parts company.” These high wages and great benefits brought peace to the work force and kept attracting job seekers from all over Brazil.

Ford Industry is a great example of this. The company had amazing benefits for all of their employees. The offered a discount and special financing on their vehicles, company transportation to work, medical and dental benefits, sporting club membership and many others.

People migrated from the suburbs, which grew and prospered with the auto plants. In 1959 most Brazilians believed the auto industry was the most important factor of the nation’s strengthened nation and it’s economy. Things were looking so well for Brazil and JK still had more plans to carry out. He and many other politicians wanted to move Brazil’s capital inland. Now that there were ways of traveling far in shorter amounts of time, this made it possible. They knew this new Capital would draw Brazil’s diverse regions together… “integration through interiorization”. The coastal regions were years ahead of the inner regions and this would help unite the vast areas. People were skeptical at first, but soon favored the idea and recognized how much the new capital would help Brazil.

This new City, Brasilia, contained modern architecture and was specifically designed to discourage pedestrian traffic. This was the kink to integrating Brazil. JK had successfully accelerated progress and the people agreed.

After WWII Brazil focused in building key highways. The country still had far less highway distance than most Latin American Countries, which are much smaller than Brazil.  The masses needed a national transportation network, so JK set a goal of 5,800 km of highway distance to be built in 5 years.  This system helped spread development throughout the country and united regions that previously relied on river systems. JK had made Brazil Latin America’s leading industrial power.

The auto Industry now had higher sights. The now directed their focus on exporting. They sent cars to Mexico, Spain, Chile, Paraguay, and sent part to the United States. They hoped they could make cars that would pass United States Standards so they could be exported there as well. After 5 years in office, 1960 CE, it was clear JK had delivered 50 years of progress. His plans had allowed Brazil to rapidly merge into modernity, but the government and economy wasn’t as stable as they had hoped.  In 1962 Quadros was elected president. He was not well prepared for the position and made poor choices. He altered the exchange rate, which affected wheat and oil prices. They rose dramatically. He also tried to renew relations with the Soviet Union and establish a relationship with Cuba and China. This alienated Brazilian conservatives.  After only 8 months, Quadros resigned due to increased unpopularity. This left the government controlled by the vice president Jaoa Goulart.

At this time Fidel Castro seized control of Cuba and established a communist government. Brazil had a history of insurgency so the event felt too close and uncomfortable to Brazilian middle-class and elites. This influenced military leaders to overthrow Goulart , and the United States government backed them up. This military dictatorship instilled doubt of JK’s efforts to modernize the nation. The new government was only interesting in boosting the economy. They did not make an effort to continue building roads or to improve them, they cut budgets which slowed the countries progress.

During the Castello Branco administration in 1965, they government officials embraced development and re-implemented plans to pave highways and roads. In the late 1960’s the Medici government developed a program to integrate the North, South, East, and West regions of Brazil. They built more roads and highways to facilitate internal migration; an Amazonian highway. This created some conflicts between old and new residents, but the migration path was successful. There was a steady increase of poor populations in Sao Paulo and Rio de Jeneiro. This frightened the elites and Carlos Lacerda, Rio’s governor, declared war on the Favelas (extremely poor community). He removed inhabitants and would destroy their homes.  Still populations increased.

The rise in population also created higher demand for public transportation, especially buses. Some cities developed bus routes to help reduce congestion and continued to update other means of public transportation. This aided the populations growth even more.

Now with automobility in such high demand, oil prices sky rocketed which threatened to compromise the economy. The government encouraged alternate fuel programs and they found a solution.  An entirely new industry was emerging, ethanol fuel, and this boosted auto sales in the 1980’s. This also helped Brazil’s agriculture since this new fuel was made primarily from sugarcane. This new industry allowed Brazil’s economy to somewhat stabilize, and the nation could maintain its independence.

With the help of JK and other officials Brazil was able to find the Modernity they were searching for. Though the country did not achieve everything they has hoped for they certainly made a lot of Progress.

Article written by Amanda Treadwell

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1 Response to “Autos and Progress: The Brazilian Search for Modernity” by Joel Wolfe

  1. Younghwa says:

    It was interesting to read about Brazilian modernity through the automobile industry. Never knew/thought about Latin American factory and industrialization, especially regarding automobile industry. Also could be noted was how American Ford Industry affected Brazilian industry. Some questions I have after reading your review are: Does the book mention the legacy of the “JK” to the modern Brazilians? Is he still regarded as the father of Brazilian Industry? Or is his name and times forgotten? What kind of auto industry does Brazil have these days? Do have stronger connections with America or that of European? Perhaps by now they have their own automobile brand? Overall, your review gave me some questions to ponder which I’ve never really thought of/or was interested in. A job well done. 🙂

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