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Brasília: Getting There

Mar 1, 2006
2006 / March 2006

Brasília represents the fulfillment of a bold promise by former President Juscelino Kubitschek, who was elected in 1955 on his campaign pledge to build a new capital city in the central highlands of Brazil, 500 miles from the coast. Kubitschek’s campaign slogan, “Fifty Years of Progress in Five,” epitomized his obsession to complete the city by the end of his term. Replacing Rio de Janeiro as capital, Brasília would be at the center of a newly established Federal District carved out of the state of Goiás.

Kubitschek intended to construct an urban utopia that would lure a huge influx of settlers from all across Brazil to jump-start the economy of this vast underdeveloped region. He commissioned three of Brazil’s “best and brightest” — architect Oscar Niemeyer, city planner/architect Oscar Costa and landscape designer Roberto Burle Marx — to draw up a master plan. The resulting document laid out the city so that it resembled a giant aircraft. Situated inside the “fuselage” was the complex of government buildings, including the ministries, Senate and Chamber of Deputies; the “wings” held residential units as well as the banking and hotel sectors.

Thousands of migrant workers arriving here from states throughout Brazil’s northeast labored round the clock to meet Kubitschek’s deadline. No expense was spared; for instance, rather than use trucks for transport, the builders had cement and tons of other materials flown directly to the site. Construction proceeded at a phenomenal pace over a period of 41 months — and as a new decade dawned, Kubitschek’s goal was accomplished: Brasília officially opened on April 21, 1960.

While government officials moved into the new city, the migrants who had spearheaded the construction settled well outside the city limits in shantytowns that eventually expanded into what became known as satellite cities. Today, six of these cities have populations of 100,000 or more — the largest, Ceilândia, is home to 350,000 — and the total population of Brasília is around 2.2 million.

In Brasília’s early years, the nation took great pride in its new capital, but today many Brazilians view Brasília as a sterile, dehumanized boondoggle that leaves much to be desired as a place to live and work. The city was designed primarily to accommodate the automobile, with cars racing along its six-lane highways. Unfortunately, city planner Costa did not take into account the needs of pedestrians, so a lack of sidewalks means there’s virtually no one on the streets.

In addition, residential units known as superblocks are isolated and widely separated from one another, and have few multiuse areas. Public transportation also was left out of the original urban plan, which means that those in the satellite cities rarely come into the capital.

Although many still question Brasília’s ability to live up to its original promise, there is a positive side: Wages and the standard of living here are the highest of any city in Brazil. In fact, the Federal District has the highest per capita income in the country as well as the lowest rate of illiteracy and highest school attendance among young people. Brasília has also garnered praise from UNESCO, which designated the city a World Heritage Site in 1987.

Like Washington, D.C., and other major capitals, Brasília is largely devoted to the business of government, as it is the seat of the National Congress and is populated by a plethora of politicians, public servants and bureaucrats. “While business deals are made here, investments are typically elsewhere,” said Carlos Muzzio, director of sales and marketing for Varig Airlines. “Brasília is often referred to as a ‘three-day city,’ as many legislators are gone over the weekend. They typically stay here from Tuesday through Thursday, and then return to their home states or go to Rio or São Paolo.”

Lobbying is a major activity in a city that serves as Brazil’s administrative center, with all the government ministries and embassies located here. Many national companies and associations also have headquarters in the capital. The development of high tech has taken off in recent years, as Brasília aims to become the “Silicon Valley of Brazil.” Currently, more than 1,000 information technology and communications companies are based here — most with 20 or fewer workers — and the city aims to eventually attract 3,000 companies employing up to 35,000 workers.

Cattle-raising is another business that has flourished here — there are more cattle than people in the countryside surrounding Brasília. There has also been a push to further develop agriculture, and the secretary of agriculture has made machinery and equipment available to workers in agricultural areas at a reasonable cost. Brasília has also implemented programs and incentives to bring in entrepreneurs to generate additional jobs and taxes. From 1999 to 2003, more than 2,500 entrepreneurs set up business here, taking advantage of low-interest loans and a 15-year grace period in which to start payments. Also, a dry port has been established to ease the flow of goods through the country as well as to reduce the costs of warehousing and to help decentralize the customs clearance in the main ports.

For those who want to combine a business trip with some sightseeing, one day is usually enough time to check out major sites. Of primary interest are the government buildings designed by Oscar Niemeyer, who also is responsible for several other notable structures in São Paolo and Rio. While opinions of these otherworldly structures run the gamut from architectural wonderland to architectural horror show, there is no denying their visual impact. The most celebrated single building attributed to Niemeyer is the glass-enclosed Foreign Ministry, which appears to float on the large pool of water surrounding it.

The imposing National Congress complex features twin towers — one occupied by the Senate and the other by the House of Deputies — rising dramatically above the horizon. Two huge dishes, one inverted and one open, are adjacent to the towers. The Supreme Court also stands out, with columns bathed in artificial waterfalls and a blindfolded sculpture of Lady Justice.

Entry Requirements

U.S. citizens need a passport and a business visa; the charge for the visa is $60 plus a $100 processing fee, which must be paid by U.S. Postal Service money order only. Business visa holders must bring a copy of their round-trip ticket or booked itinerary, and a letter on company letterhead stating their name and title, contact in Brazil and description of the work they will conduct in Brazil, among other required information.

More Information

Brazilian Consulate General
1185 Avenue of the Americas
New York, NY 10036
tel 917 777 7777, fax 212 827 0225

Trade Promotion Section
8484 Wilshire Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 90211
tel 323 651 2664, fax 323 651 1274

Brazilian Embassy
Trade Promotion Section
3006 Massachusetts Ave. N.W.
Washington, DC 20008
tel 202 238 2769, fax 202 238 2827


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FX Excursions offers the chance for once-in-a-lifetime experiences in destinations around the world.


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