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Brazil's 'new' capital set to celebrate 50 years

By Gary Duffy
BBC News, Brasilia

Congress in Brasilia designed by Oscar Niemeyer
Brasilia's distinctive National Congress building - still futuristic

Brasilia was a city built at high speed in the late 1950s, fulfilling a long held Brazilian dream to have a new capital in the heart of the country.

The president at the time, Juscelino Kubitschek, had promised his people 50 years of progress in five, and work proceeded at a frenetic pace.

While Brasilia was under construction, it is said the president used to travel at night to inspect the project, before returning to the then capital in Rio de Janeiro to fulfil a normal round of engagements the next day.

BUILDING OF BRASILIA
Inauguration of the city

The new capital, located in the state of Goias, was inaugurated on 21 April 1960 after barely three and a half years of rapid development.

Many of the city's most striking buildings were designed by architect Oscar Niemeyer, with his trademark use of concrete and curves.

Among them were the National Congress, with its concave and convex domes symbolising the two houses of the legislature, and the city's cathedral with 16 columns coming together to represent hands outstretched to heaven.

'Accidental' capital

It was a bold and dramatic statement that was meant to represent a new vision for the future.

Undated general view of the Esplanade of Ministeries leading down to the National Congress in Brasilia
The wide Esplanade of Ministeries exemplifies Braslia's design

"The idea of the new buildings and the plan of Brasilia itself was to create an image of a modern Brazil," says Professor Jose Galbinski, at the Centre University of Brasilia.

"It was a contrast with the old tradition, the old Brazil."

However, he says this dramatic change finally came about by accident, even though the proposal had been around for a long time.

"The idea of a new capital in the interior had stayed liked a dead item in the constitution for decades. Nobody cared about this issue, until the time of Juscelino Kubitschek," says Professor Galbinski.

"When he was campaigning for president he was asked by a young man at a public meeting if he would obey the constitution, to which he replied, 'of course I will, I am running for president'.

"The young guy pointed out there was an article in the constitution which said the capital should be changed from Rio de Janeiro to the interior of Brazil.

Brasilia's cathedral
The city's distinctive cathedral is among the buildings being refurbished

"Kubitschek was astonished with this, as he had never thought about it. And he replied, 'ok, I will answer you, I will obey all the articles of the constitution, and I will make the move'."

This year the people of Brazil are celebrating the 50th anniversary of their capital, and even at the annual carnival in Rio de Janeiro one of the samba schools made Brasilia its theme for the event.

It was a remarkably generous gesture, as Rio lost so much as a result of the change in 1960.

But one important guest was notable by his absence as the floats celebrating the country's capital passed by in front of tens of thousands of people, live on national TV.

The governor of Brasilia, Jose Roberto Arruda, was under arrest at the time accused of trying to obstruct a corruption inquiry.

He had been the focus of a video broadcast on national TV which caused widespread shock.

The secretly taped film allegedly shows both the governor and other political figures accepting bribes - which he denies.

In some of the images officials could be seen stuffing wads of money into their underwear and socks.

Distrust

Worn down by scandals over the years Brazilians visiting their capital appear proud of the city but much less so of their politicians.

Makisonia Novais da Silva
Brasilia resident Makisonia da Silva has little trust in the political class

"This corruption is because of impunity: because they know they are not going to be punished later on - they can do what they want today, it is simply that," said Makisonia Novais da Silva.

"The Brazilian political class is not very well viewed by the public," agreed Otavio Sempionato.

"But we are going to sort this out soon. The country is developing and we are also going to deal with the problems in our political life to make it more normal and less corrupt."

But while recent scandals have further undermined the faith of Brazilians in their politicians, it is also something which is not unique to South America's largest country, says David Fleischer, political science professor at the University of Brasilia.

"The national population is always complaining about what the politicians do in Washington and London, and the same is true here," he says.

"There is a general negative evaluation of the Congress, and that politicians are not to be trusted. The president has a very high approval rating of between 70% and 80%, the judicial branch also has a fairly good approval rating, but the Congress has a very low rating.

"So Brasilia is associated with politicians, the political class, wheeling and dealing, or what we would call horse trading, so there is a negative evaluation of Brasilia.

"But generally most Brazilians are proud to have a modern capital like Brasilia."

Over the last five decades, this capital city has been at the heart of some of the key developments in recent Brazilian history

It witnessed 21 years of military dictatorship, the subsequent restoration of democracy, the impeachment of a president and numerous other scandals.

The Brazilian people could be forgiven for hoping that the next 50 years will be a little less controversial.



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