A power in summary

Brazil Since 1980 by Luna and Klein provides a neat overview of Latin America’s emerging powerhouse


Brazil since 1980
Francisco Vidal Luna and Herbert S. Klein
2006, Cambridge University Press
267 pages

Reviewed by Gavin O’Toole

THIS NO-FRILLS introduction to contemporary Brazil is a useful workaday survey of the politics, economy and society of a country gaining in global stature with each passing day that will be of great value to students both of Brazil itself but also of Latin America more broadly.

Its strength lies in its academic honesty: it is what it says on the packet (or the cover, as it may be, although this particular cover, sadly, is far from alluring and tells us little about Brazil itself). Brazil Since 1980 makes no claims to be anything other than a solid introduction that summarises and brings together in a straightforward way the separate strands of study that many a contemporary focus fails to unify.

Francisco Vidal Luna and Herbert S. Klein inaugurate the Cambridge “The World Since 1980” series – in which it is assumed a reader has no prior knowledge of a country – with a work of reference that examines the political and economic evolution of Brazil since the beginning of the end of the military era during which its transformation from predominantly rural economy into an urban, industrial society – and Latin America’s industrial powerhouse – began.

In the last quarter of a century Brazil has undergone profound change, evolving into a vibrant and innovative democratic system in which representation of all groups, no matter how flawed, is now possible. The authors note the tectonic demographic shifts that have accompanied Brazil’s impressive journey into the ranks of the more advanced developing societies, and the genuine progress it has made in confronting, systematically, some of its most pressing and persistent social problems. They are able to steal a march on their admirable predecessor, Brazil Since 1985: Economy, Polity and Society (Institute of Latin American Studies, 2003) – although only just – by providing a more up-to-date overview of Brazilian politics, society and economics.

Unstoppable development

Their approach is driven, in particular, by the surging, unstoppable undercurrent of Brazilian economic development and they make ample use of quantitative data. Luna and Klein examine in detail the financial and extractive sectors of the economy upon which much of the recent growth – and also many of Brazil’s distinctive foreign policy positions – are based. Brazil’s export of commodities to insatiable peers such as China has been the theme of choice for many financial journalists for several years now. These journalists’ unwillingness to explore the risks inherent in this realignment in world trade is another matter, however.

The chapter exploring why inequality in Brazil appears to be much more severe than countries comparable in size, type of organisation and historical evolution is illuminating, although it comes – as is, unfortunately, so often the case – at the end of the book when it could, and perhaps should, have been the theme upon which the entire discussion of the country’s development was built. The authors could also have devoted much more space to the question of race, which is becoming a defining issue in Brazilian politics and is something that will only grow in academic importance.

A number of books constructing a manageable historical narrative of the blisteringly complex events that have occurred in Latin America since the 1980s, often premised on the successes or failures of development, have been popping up here and there (see, for example, First World Dreams by Alexander S. Dawson). This might suggest – or worse, assume – that we are entering an entirely new phase of development in the region founded on the stable, consolidated economies and politics that have emerged from the turbulent 80s and 90s. Not all scholars would agree. Alternatively, it might suggest that it is time to take stock of how much, or in fact how little, has been achieved in this period.

To this extent, the Cambridge “The World Since 1980” series can serve as an invaluable addition to libraries and reading lists, although the geographical focus seems dispersed and a more concentrated approach recognising the regional dimension of change and how this has then affected individual nation states would have been of more value to Latin Americanists.

Nonetheless, Brazil Since 1980 is a worthy title to debut with, and students, teachers, researchers and anyone interested in this country will be well rewarded for investing in Luna and Klein’s well informed book.

Gavin O’Toole is Editor of the Latin American Review of Books