Although the idea had been to install a liberal republic, Deodoro preferred to become the nation’s first of many military dictators. Within weeks, however, he proved so incompetent that not even the military would back him, and he was forced to step down. His deputy, Marechal Floriano Peixoto, was even worse. After he too was forced to resign, Brazil finally received its first democratically elected president in the person of Prudente de Morais.
The first Brazilian republic (1890–1930) coincided with a period of economic boom spurred on by two major cash crops: coffee and rubber. By 1890, coffee represented two-thirds of Brazil’s exports and was responsible for propelling the small town of São Paulo into a thriving city that gradually became the economic hub of Brazil. Coffee barons built lavish mansions along the country lane that would gradually morph into Avenida Paulista. They also wisely invested in industry (initially textiles), foreseeing the day that Brazil’s coffee boom might go bust.
The rubber barons of the Amazon were not nearly so shrewd. In the mid-19th century, Charles Goodyear’s invention of vulcanization coincided with the (re)discovery of the latex produced by an Amazonian tree known as hevea brasiliensis (the region’s Indians had been making rubber for centuries). Floods of fortune seekers from all over the world descended upon the primitive rainforest to tap for this rare commodity coveted by budding First World industries. The fabulous fortunes made were spent on transforming the cities of Belém and Manaus into tropical versions of Paris, with grand boulevards, theaters, and pretensions (such as wearing fur coats to go to the opera).
But when rubber seeds were secretly smuggled out of the forest by an Englishman to British colonies in Asia whose plantations were much more efficient, the rubber boom went bust, and the barons went bankrupt. The Amazon returned to its former slumber, from which it would only awaken in the late 20th century.
Like São Paulo, Minas Gerais boasted a large population and thriving economy. Although coffee grew in Minas’s lush hills, the richest and most powerful interests were the landowners who raised dairy cows. Together with São Paulo’s coffee barons, they formed a powerful elite and became so influential in national government that Brazilian politics came to be defined as the system of café com leite (coffee with milk), an allusion to the fact that not only did these local interests dominate all policies, but that all presidencies during this period alternated between cronies from São Paulo and Minas.
Thanks to the privileges enjoyed and the corruption that ensued, it wasn’t long before popular revolts began to take place, particularly among the growing number of working-class Brazilians.
© Michael Sommers from Moon Brazil, 2nd Edition