Manaus as a Pole of Development: Amazonian Urbanization during Brazil’s Military Dictatorship

Monday, January 6, 2020: 11:20 AM
Bowery (Sheraton New York)
Adrián Lerner, Yale University
Manaus, the capital of the state of Amazonas, experienced explosive demographic, spatial, and demographic growth under Brazil’s military dictatorship (1964-1985). Its expansion was largely the result of the regime’s deliberate effort, often presented in explicitly colonial terms, to “people” its vast rainforest expanses. The guiding motivation was geopolitical. Feeding on a long history of anxieties about the territorial integrity of the Amazon, as well as on old and new insurgent traditions, the generals who ruled Brazil repeatedly argued that dense, dynamic centers, leading among which was Manaus, would irradiate modernity, economic development, and “civilization” to Amazonia, ultimately securing Brazil’s sovereignty. In order to transform Manaus into a "development pole", the military regime intervened local politics with a heavy hand, modernized its urban infrastructure with expensive public works, and granted it crucial fiscal incentives for commerce and industrialization.

Whereas this was a nationalistic project, it also had important international and transnational elements. The most obvious among them were in the realm of traditional international relations: the Brazilian government feared foreign intervention from the United States, economic competition from rival Amazonian nations, and even the expansion of revolution across national boundaries. There were transnational components too. It was inspired by the entrenched hemispheric developmental paradigm of industrialization through import substitution and by the urban models and know-how of the Alliance for Progress. It attracted investors from all over Brazil, but also an impressive range of foreign companies, which created an impressive industrial and technological complex that catered to South American markets from the middle of the rainforest and helped consolidate Brazil as the region's foremost industrial center. It also allowed the military regime to foster its image at home and abroad: in official propaganda, fast-growing Manaus was persistently presented as one of the centers of the so-called “Brazilian Miracle”.