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National Planning in Brazil: An Historical Perspective

David J. Edelman

University of Cincinnati, USA

David J. Allor

University of Cincinnati, USA


This paper explores the evolution of national planning in Brazil over the last ninety years. Whereas the initial import-substitution industrialization in the country focused too narrowly upon specific sites, later export-led industrialization has attended only to the global market. The former was more attentive to the immediate environment, while the latter is becoming more attentive to the world. However, the conceptualization of national planning processes must simultaneously recognize the dynamics of the economy at community, regional, national, continental, and global scales. After nearly nine full decades of promoting the positivistic search for political order and the dream of economic progress, the institutionalized national planning process of Brazil has evolved. That evolution is summarized here.


For Brazil, the notion of national development has a long tradition, one stretching back into the last decades of the colony, then forward through constitutional empire, constitutional republic, dictatorial regime, unstable democracy, military hegemony and restoration of civilian rule. In the third decade of the republic, economic and political forces at both national and international levels promoted the institutionalization of planning as an essential function of the central bureaucracy. Over the next six decades, the goals, processes, and structure of national planning were altered, but the notion that centralized planning assured both the security and well-being of the nation remained intact. State-directed national development held a dual focus: national security and economic progress, which justified intervention into the national economy (Machado 1972, 143-4).


The New Brazil is the title given to that exuberant period stretching from the Golden Law (1888) and the overthrow of the monarchy (1889 to 1922). Thereafter the Old Republic endured rebellion and collapsed in 1930. With the departure of the emperor, Brazil installed the aging but popular Marechal Deodoro da Fonseca as its first president and then adopted the Constitution of 1891. Under that constitution, there were three branches of government: administrative, legislative and judicial. A qualified dedication to republicanism projected an uneasy tranquility while masking the underlying political divisions.

At one extreme end, there was a small group of Positivists who favored a “scientific dictatorship” with the trappings of a republic. However, a much larger body of less doctrinaire Republicans supported a democratic, federal republic. Diverse elements composed that larger group: the historic republicans who had faithfully pursued their goal since 1870, the ardent radicals, the young quasi-Positivist army officers inspired by Benjamin Constant, and the senior officers who, for reasons of their own, adopted republicanism at the last minute. Such diversity inhibited the effectiveness of the Republicans and strengthened the hand of the more cohesive military (Burns 1980, 287).

Thereafter, the fourth power of the antecedent constitution, the poder moderator, was co-opted by the military in one of three manners: as a true moderating force among the divergent republicans, as an intervening force over the central administration or as military hegemony absorbing administrative, legislative and judicial powers.

For the senior military, the national economy was still seen as a derivative of agriculture: coffee, cattle and rubber. The creation of the New Republic did not displace the fazenda as the pivotal economic institution. The early decades of twentieth century Brazil revealed a political order of café com leite, where the presidency of the nation rotated between the coffee-based oligopoly of São Paulo and the cattle-based oligopoly of Minas Gerais (Correia de Andrade 1982, 140-1). Coffee was the dominant but unstable export. Rubber production increased, first, because of the invention of the automobile, then, as consequence of the mechanization of warfare in World War I. The Great War exposed the Brazilian economy to the power of industrialization and, conversely, to the vulnerability of non-industrialization. Although in the trappings of republicanism, the rural oligopolies clung to their traditional policy of agricultural export. Their underlying conservatism cost them their claim to a New Brazil; they were passing into history as part of the Old Republic. The claim to newness was slowly but painfully seized by the junior military, urban mercantilists and the small but growing urban working class. These groups saw the republic as the instrument of order, industrialization as the instrument of progress. The mentality of a younger generation struggled for recognition.


Whatever the hopes for the settlement of World War I, the decades which followed were marked by both global political turmoil and global economic depression (Ianni 1971, 43). Brazil was witness to, and later setting for, the emergent ideological struggles between communism and fascism. Communism was seen as the more serious threat as it attacked the four pillars of Brazilian society. The first was private property, whether as rural fazenda, or as modern industrial enterprise. The second was faith. While a Roman Catholic nation, it had a long tradition of religious tolerance, but that tolerance did not extend to atheism. Third was family. Collectivization was abhorrent to a kinship-based culture. Fourth, and finally, communism was seen as an international conspiracy, undermining national sovereignty. The fascists seized upon the emotive power of these same concepts. Brazilian adherents of fascism adopted the motto, “God, Country, and Family”, to impel authoritarian governance (Burns 1980, 406). While many Brazilians favored the preservation of regimented order, as opposed to revolution and chaos, they saw fascism as reactionary. Brazil had to find a way to preserve political order but still secure economic progress.

The Great Depression required that Brazil find its way. Although the collapse of the world economy aggravated internal political divisions, Brazil was made more aware of the vulnerability of its economy in an international context. A national economy based upon the export of natural products was no longer viable. The junior military, the urban middle class and the growing urban working class gained a partial victory. The nation would industrialize, but that industrialization came with increasingly centralized governmental control.

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