Modernization Dreams, Lusotropical Promises: A Global Studies Perspective on Brazil-Mozambique Development Discourse

by Ana Beatriz Ribeiro

Across disciplines, scholars writing on Brazil used to take for granted the state actor’s image as a particularly open-minded “emerging power.” This dominant discourse has long prevented a fuller, critical interrogation of Brazilian development projects abroad, many of them taking place in the African Countries of Official Portuguese Language (PALOPs), billed as Brazil’s preferred recipients in the early 21st century. But since scandals and unrest ejected the Workers’ Party from power and installed a far-right populist in 2019, Brazil’s role in South-South cooperation has declined. As populism begins to debunk previously established nation brands, manifesting itself in various ways according to states’ particular contexts, it is no longer a given that Brazil is a beacon of tolerance, a “rainbow nation.” As follows in the international realm, it is no longer a given, either, that it is a liberal democratic yet pragmatic donor, respectful of its recipients’ culture and sovereignty due to its own openness to diversity. In fact, it is no longer a certainty that Brazil is or can remain a significant donor, much like the once-iconic BRICS group that now sounds like a distant whisper amid the COVID-19 pandemic and domestic crises.[i] The story, however, starts decades before Jair Bolsonaro rose to power on a platform riding on shooting first and asking questions later, especially if the target is Black and poor. My book Modernization Dreams, Lusoptropical Promises (Brill, 2020)  tells how some of this came to be.

My personal experiences growing up in Brazil and moving abroad shape the core of my academic work. This book’s underlying narrative involves a shared desire for assimilation in the so-called “developing world” against the backdrop of gaps between political discourse and societal behavior, as illustrated by the case of Brazil-Mozambique development cooperation. The introduction of the book ponders whether Mozambican liberation leaders might have sought assimilation themselves, a feeling I am also familiar with but could not put my finger on until later in life.

As a child and young teenager in Brazil, I did not notice the racism staring me right in the face, because my social class was in collective denial. My family and I were counted as members of the White upper middle class, and most of the Black people I remember knowing were housekeepers. Those who became famous generally either acted as housekeepers in soap operas or played soccer or musical instruments. I had no Black classmates and very few Black politicians ever rose to prominence. I do not remember ever hearing the term “racial democracy” spoken out loud, but this was the construct we seemed to lean on to stomach the inequality we were both born into and helping to perpetuate. The heads of households liked to say the cooks and nannies, some of them living in the house and raising generations of their children, were “part of the family.” Yet the housekeepers ate separately, in the kitchen rather than the dining room, and slept in a small back room. Floating around the dining table were plenty of mean jokes about the Black and poor, with nary an admonition. Meanwhile, everyone wanted to visit Disney World and own imported products as a status symbol. I sensed something was terribly wrong with this scenario but did not quite understand it. I only felt the weight of discriminatory jokes after I moved to the United States at age 13: suddenly, they were directed at me. In the US, I was not considered “White”; I was a “Latina” immigrant. But it took moving to a third, fourth and fifth country for me to wholly deconstruct my own history.

My goal in the US had been to try to become “one of them” – to assimilate –, a hope I pretty much abandoned when I moved to Europe at age 26. Living in Denmark and Poland for my Erasmus Mundus Master’s in Global Studies, and in Germany (Leipzig) for my PhD, I quickly realized that I would always be considered a foreigner in Europe. Accepting this fact freed up space in my life to engage in travel and learning that would eventually help me understand the colonial roots of my desire for assimilation, the depths of racism in Brazil, and also Brazil’s changing positioning in the international system as a longtime colony, a short-lived subaltern empire, an independent state, and finally an “emerging aid donor.” This uprooted and more global outlook resulted in almost a decade of research, which culminated in my PhD thesis and was reworked for this monograph. One of the questions I set out with had been why Brazilians like me did not grow up knowing more about Africa, since – as my book’s preface indicates – I learned from interning at the World Health Organization (WHO) in Geneva in 2011 that African states, and particularly Mozambique at the time, were important recipients of Brazilian development cooperation.

Slums in Maputo, Mozambique | Picture: Ana Beatriz Ribeiro

To productively channel my curiosity into this book-length manuscript, I did field work in Mozambique and Brazil, and in their former metropole, Portugal, starting in 2012, when Brazil still appeared to be a solid BRIC. In each of those countries, I interviewed former and current Brazilian and Mozambican government representatives – agency officials, diplomats and ministers – who brought in diverse perspectives from different levels of engagement in the states’ development cooperation, at different points in history. The most in-depth interviews are chronicled in chapter 3 of the book, while others are woven in at various points in the book’s narrative. I also interviewed a few Portuguese-speaking scholars or analyzed their academic contributions. The discourse that most frequently emerged involved commonalities between Brazil and African countries based on a shared colonial history and tropical traits. I traced the discourse’s roots back in history, following the pathways around the lusotropical social theory by the iconic Brazilian sociologist, Gilberto Freyre (1900-1987).

Zeroing in on present ambitious development projects between the Brazilian and Mozambican states, especially in chapters 4 and 5, my book links them to the legitimization of “lusotropicalism” as a “common sense” way to describe Brazil-Africa relations. Chapter 2 traces the history of the adoption of lusotropicalism by different Brazilian regimes, first to build national identity and then to make their national brand attractive abroad – to capitalist and socialist customers alike.[ii] This nation brand promised to deliver modernization to recipients of Brazilian investments and development cooperation, albeit in a tolerant way transcending Cold War rivalries and later the division of the world between “liberal” and “illiberal” regimes.

The colonial-built Hotel Polana in Maputo, Mozambique | Picture: Ana Beatriz Ribeiro

The research for my book evolved along with my own knowledge about global relations and transnational Lusofonia, the constructed linguistic and cultural space of Portugal and its former colonies. I started my field work during my MA by asking locals in Maputo streets about their thoughts on Brazilian popular culture, following my internship at the WHO where I had observed cooperation among members of the Community of Portuguese Language Countries (CPLP). The book’s preface makes the link between that phase of my research and what eventually became my doctoral dissertation: following popular discourse to arrive at the best-known Brazil-Mozambique development projects and how these projects and their cooperation in general are framed by decision- and opinion-makers in both countries. The well-known projects – Mozambique Pharmaceuticals Ltd (public health), Moatize (mining), and ProSavana (agribusiness with Brazilian and Japanese support) – are framed by discourses that bridge lusotropicalism and the modernization paradigm. They are also connected by funding and a transnational development corridor in southern Africa. 

Among all the literature and archives I investigated to complement my field work, it was reading from and about Freyre that made it all click for me. As chapter 1 shows through its historically informed, Bourdieu-inspired relational and discursive analysis, Freyre’s lusotropicalism might be one of the missing pieces in solving the puzzle of Brazilian contradictions between discourse and practice, domestic sentiments and foreign policy. It is a key piece in explaining the discrepancy between claims by the Workers’ Party that Africa was a Brazilian foreign policy priority and the endemic racism in Brazil, coupled with the lack of knowledge about Africa among ordinary Brazilians. If one looks at Brazil as an actor through the prism of pragmatism, then the contradictions become part of a strategy of engagement with all sorts of different international partners or customers. Constructing bonds extracted from Portuguese colonization, the slave trade and transnational tropical geography alike, lusotropicalism itself proved malleable and adaptable to colonial and post-colonial times, and thus highly convenient for Brazilian geopolitics. At certain moments in its contemporary history, Brazil has used select aspects of the discourse to broker deals with Portugal, the PALOPs, and even African countries that were not colonized by the Portuguese. The discourse even underlies the South American state’s tolerant profile in South-South cooperation in general, as a bridge between the “developed” and “developing” worlds in international development – presenting itself as Europeanized but also Africanized.   

Considered subversive by lusophone political circles in the 1930s and ’40s for suggesting that African slaves had made an important contribution to Brazilian society, Freyre became close to both the Brazilian and Portuguese regimes after World War II. As the fog of war lifted, they realized that Freyre’s social theories were not incompatible with lusophone colonialism: He only acknowledged Africans’ role in forming Brazilians in a subaltern context vis-à-vis their White masters – a “part of the family” relegated to the kitchen, the sidelines, and secretive copulation.[iii] President Getúlio Vargas (1882-1954) adopted Freyre’s portrayal of Brazil as a “racial democracy” in building a national identity, diffusing tensions, and uniting feuding regions as he centralized executive power in the country. Freyre brought Vargas presents from a Portuguese-sponsored tour of its colonies and wrote in defense of the government of António Salazar (1889-1970), as it tried to hang on to Mozambique, Angola, Cabo Verde, Guiné-Bissau, and São Tomé and Príncipe in Africa amid the swelling of decolonization.[iv] The Portuguese dictatorship adopted Freyre’s lusotropical claims that Brazil had inherited its tolerance from its Portuguese colonizers, painted as the great miscegenators of the Atlantic. It changed colonial edicts accordingly and launched development projects in Mozambique and Angola to convince the international community that the African lands were “not colonies” but “part of the family.”[v] Upon decolonization, Brazilian politicians repurposed the malleable discourse to claim that tropical and colonial-rooted commonalities, coupled with Brazil’s tolerance and miscegenation both as a society and as a state actor, made it a better fit than other aspiring donors and investors to help modernize, and hence assimilate, a liberated Africa.[vi]

Blue Trunk Library of health-related books delivered by the World Health Organization in Maputo, Mozambique | Picture: Ana Beatriz Ribeiro

To some lusophone scholars, this simply seems to be a “common sense” narrative that does not require further analysis. Others, however, diligently work to spread it, as mentioned by chapter 1 of the book. They adopt it as they co-author articles and books with government officials. They build it up as they write for or serve as editors in prominent journals while holding senior positions at think-tanks whose purpose is to advance Brazilian geopolitics. As a result, there is still no substantial body of critical literature on the Brazilian state as an actor in African development. Although there had been criticism of the potential for corporate-sponsored land grabs, especially in the agriculture and mining sectors, the myth of Brazil as a “racial democracy” at home and abroad was not widely questioned. This critical gap in academia and public discourse was a key factor that motivated me to write this book. Chapter 6 explores precisely the perpetuation of the related discourse of lusophone kinship and its professed distinction from other colonial-rooted relationships, transitioning to the realm of relations among independent states via the Commonwealth-like CPLP, founded as its members liberalized economically in the 1990s.  

With the international media buying into the “racial democracy” discourse, it is no wonder that the election of President Bolsonaro in Brazil – openly intolerant towards women, the downtrodden, and different ethnicities and sexual orientations – took the world by surprise. It served as a partial wake-up call that decades of denying racism in the country that received the most slaves during the Atlantic slave trade, only abolished slavery in 1888, and never had a Civil Rights Movement may have somehow facilitated Bolsonaro’s election. As people of mixed race are the majority in Brazil, he could not have been elected if only White supremacists had voted for him.[vii] The truth is that despite attempts at greater inclusiveness in education under the Workers’ Party, most notably by the Lula da Silva presidency in the 2000s, and the institution of a national “Black Consciousness Day,” darker-skinned Brazilians are yet to receive proper reparations or explanations as to why they have been mostly excluded from decision-making while predominately making up prison populations. It is much easier for people to see their predicament as a transient issue that can be solved by a “messianic” president than to realize that this would be a process requiring income redistribution and systemic reform of laws, public narratives, and mentality over time – including among the victims themselves.

Those trying to change the status quo in Brazil face tremendous obstacles, to say the least. One example is the yet-to-be-solved case of Marielle Franco, a young Black female activist who rose from the slums to earn a Master’s degree and a seat in the Rio de Janeiro City Council, only to be assassinated in 2018 by suspects said to be involved in a local paramilitary group and to know Bolsonaro and his family.[viii] Protests took place across Brazil then, but they were obfuscated by Bolsonaro’s divisive political campaign. In recent weeks, the US’s Black Lives Matter movement has inspired a new wave of protests, with hundreds of Brazilians in big cities decrying the killing of João Alberto Freitas, a Black man, by White supermarket security guards in the southern metropolis of Porto Alegre.[ix] It remains to be seen whether this is the moment which, coupled with the havoc COVID-19 has been wreaking and the inequalities it has been more starkly exposing, will finally lead to a societal reckoning in South America’s largest and arguably most diverse country.

Ana Beatriz Ribeiro. Modernization Dreams, Lusotropical Promises: A Global Studies Perspective on Brazil-Mozambique Development Discourse. Leiden: Brill, 2020.


[i] The acronym and grouping, first inspired by a 2001 Golden Sachs paper on rising countries that would be highly attractive for investments, stands for Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa. South Africa was added years later to round out the grouping. See Jim O’Neill, “Building Better Global Economic BRICs.” Goldman Sachs, Global Economics Paper No: 66, November 2001.

[ii] Marina Renault, Die Identität als Strategie: wie sich Staaten durch die Werbung global profilieren und gleichzeitig differenzieren. PhD thesis, Leipzig University, 2015.

[iii] Gilberto Freyre, Casa-grande & senzala. Edited by Jefferson L. Alves. 48th ed. Recife: Fundação Gilberto Freyre, Global Editora (2003 edition), originally published in 1933.

[iv] Gilberto Freyre, O Luso e o Trópico: Sugestões em Torno dos Métodos Portugueses de Integração de Povos Autóctones e de Culturas Diferentes sa Europeia num Complexo Novo de Civilização: O Luso-Tropical. Lisbon: Comissão Executiva das Comemorações do V Centenário da Morte do Infante D. Henrique, 1961.

[v] Cláudia Castelo, “O Modo Português de Estar No Mundo”: O Luso-Tropicalismo e a Ideologia Colonial Portuguesa (1933-1961). Porto: Edições Afrontamento, 1998; Cláudia Castelo, “‘Novos Brasis’ em África: Desenvolvimento e Colonialismo Português Tardio.” Varia Historia 30, no. 53 (August 2014): 507–32.

[vi] Jerry Dávila, Hotel Trópico: Brazil and the Challenge of African Decolonization, 1950-1980. Durham: Duke University Press, 2010.

[vii] Anthony Faiola and Marina Lopes. “How Jair Bolsonaro entranced Brazil’s minorities — while also insulting them,” The Washington Post, 24 October 2018,–while-also-insulting-them/2018/10/23/a44485a4-d3b6-11e8-a4db-184311d27129_story.html

[viii] Sam Cowie, “Jair Bolsonaro pictured with second accused in Marielle Franco murder case.” The Guardian, 3 October 2019.

[ix] “Protests erupt in Brazil after Black man dies after being beaten outside supermarket.” The Guardian/Associated Press, 21 November 2020.

Ana Beatriz Ribeiro | Picture: Sarah Alai.

Ana Beatriz Ribeiro obtained a PhD in Global Studies from Leipzig University in 2018. She is currently working on a post-doc project involving how global development prescriptions and local particularities interact in the realm of participatory budgeting in Mozambican cities. She also runs the web magazine The Leipzig Glocal.



Citation: Ana Beatriz Ribeiro, Modernization Dreams, Lusotropical Promises: A Global Studies Perspective on Brazil-Mozambique Development Discourse, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 09.12.2020,


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Editorial Board (2020, 9. Dezember). Modernization Dreams, Lusotropical Promises: A Global Studies Perspective on Brazil-Mozambique Development Discourse. TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research. Abgerufen am 20. April 2024, von

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