New Yorker, Feb 10, 1986
A FRIEND in Rio de Janeiro Writes: The evolution of the Brazilian cruzeiro is a numismatic saga of incredible complexity. My personal familiarity with the saga covers only ten years, but in that time the changes that the cruzeiro has gone through have been wild, to say the least. When I first came to Brazil, in September of 1976, the cruzeiro was a perfectly sane, comprehensible currency. It fetched 11.3 to the dollar. The largest denomination it came in was the five-hundred-cruzeiro note, but I didn’t see such a note until my third visit, in 1979. By then, the cruzeiro had dropped below the twenty-to-the-dollar mark, and the Banco Central had come out with a thousand-cruzeiro note, which was soon nicknamed 0 barao (the baron); it bore the effigy of the Baron of Rio Branco, a bald man with white handlebars. When I returned in the summer of 1984, the rate of exchange was eighteen hundred cruzeiros to the dollar, and the barao was only good for a beer. I was going off into the Amazon for a couple of months, and was obliged to travel with an unwieldy brick of crisp, mint castelos, as the newly issued purple fivethousand-cruzeiro notes-which portrayed Humberto Castelo Branco, Brazil’s President after the military revolution of 1964-were already being called. The year 1984 was also the year that the centavo, the hundredth part of the cruzeiro-having become worth a lot less than a thousandth of a cent-quietly went into extinction. Now I am down in Brazil again, spending the holidays with my wife’s family. The country is in better shape politically than it has been in at any other time since the fifties, and its economy is looking uppulling out of the recession it has been in for most of this decade. The people have put 1985 behind themthe year ended with the traditional blizzard of scrap paper, computer printouts, receipts, bulletins, memos, and other superannuated documents and communications sifting down gaily from office windows into the streets of the Centro, and, as the clock struck midnight on the thirty-first, with millions walking together into the surf at Copacabana, Ipanema, and the other beaches-and now they are gearing up for Carnival. The onlyproblem is the cruzeiro. Since my arrival, a few days ago, it has plummeted below ten thousand to the dollar at the official rate and fifteen thousand on the black market; the annual inflation rate is a record two hundred and thirty-five per cent. There are three handsome new bills to contend with on this visit. The sepia ten-thousand cruzeiro note, nicknamed the cabei(tlo (big head), bears the effigy of the noted turn-of-the-century jurist, writer, orator, and politician Rui Barbosa. The violet fifty-thousandcruzeiro note, or galo (rooster), portrays the turn-of-the-century hygienic pio~eer Oswaldo Cruz. The turquoise hundred-thousand-cruzeiro note, or kubitschek, honors the late President Juscelino Kubitschek, who built Brasilia. It is the largest bill in circulation but is worth only about six dollars and fifty cents. Soon the Banco Central will have to issue a five-hundred-thousand-cruzeiro note, then a million-cruzeiro note. And then it will have to strike off the zeros, rename the currency, and start all over again.
The only person who is having trouble with the new megabills is me. I take a taxi across the city and the meter reads seventy-four hundred cruzeiros. The cabby takes down a table of adjusted rates tucked under the sun visor and announces that the fare is actually nineteen thousand cruzeiros. I take a castelo instead of a galo out of my wallet-a forgivable error, since the two bills are similar in color and the difference between them is the difference between five thousand and fifty thousand cruzeiros. The significance of the galo’s additional zero, which translates to about three dollars, hasn’t yet sunk in. At a pharmacy that preys on disoriented gringos, I am sold for two hundred and thirty-nine thousand cruzeiros medication that I later discover is worth only twenty-three thousand nine hundred. In other words, I am ripped off of about fourteen bucks. After a couple of days, my wallet is bulging with one-hundred-, two-hundred-, and five-hundred-cruzeiro notes-worthless roughage whose removal from circulation is imminent. I wonder how anybody can take this money seriously, how semi-literate street venders can perform six-figure calculations in their heads, how the people can appear so unfazed by the almost daily rise in prices. Soon their salaries will be readjusted; across-theboard “monetary correction,” or “indexation,” every six months by most employers is a unique feature of the Brazilian inflation, born of an attempt to neutralize its effects. The heady impermanence of the cruzeiro is virtually an institutionalized part of Brazilian life-a custom. I ask a carioca friend-a native of Rio-what Brazilians think about inflation, and he says, “No problem,” dismissing the matter with an insouciant wave of the hand. One of my wife’s uncles, who works at the Bank of Brazil, tells me that the bank has a museum that traces the history of Brazilian money from the beginning. My carioca friend thinks this is delicious. “Our money is in a museumr” he says, chuckling. “This is an important step. Maybe we will be the first country to do without money altogether.”
One morning, I pay the museum a visit. It’s on the fourth floor of the Bank of Brazil’s former headquarters, a majestic marble-columned, woodpanelled edifice on the Rua Primeiro de Marc;o. Like most museums in Brazil, it is empty; Brazilians are not great museum-goers. I am warmly received by the museum’s curator emeritus, Rafael Chaves. A self-effacingly polite and patient man, he takes the rest of the morning to reconstruct for me, with the help of books and the material on display, the basic lines of the nation’s numismatic saga. Brazil’s first money, he explains, was the Portuguese real, which circulated from 1495 until 1942. But there were all kinds of other issues, legal and illegal, that served as tender over the years. The Dutch who colonized Recife minted florins. Cowries from Bahia, called zimbos, were taken to Angola and traded for slaves. In 1867, a shortage of copper coins made monetary transactions temporarily impossible, and shopkeepers, tavernkeepers, feed suppliers, and even prostitutes printed up vouchers redeemable in goods or services until money came back into circulation. The first paper money, circa 1778, was a handwritten receipt payable in diamonds. An extravagant cornucopia of sepia, violet, pink, green, carmine, and magenta banknotes, emblazoned with lions, cherubs, cupids, St. Sebastian riddled with arrows, raging batdes, riotous vegetation, allegorical Greek females, and successive Ministers of Finance proceeded to spill down, erratically, through the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth. The iconography of the paper money, Chaves explains, was determined by the tastes of the Finance Minister of the moment. The woman on the twothousand-real note of 1903, for instance, was the mistress of the previous Minister, J oaquim M urtinho. “History has not recorded her name,” Chaves tells me. He adds that Rui Barbosa (the politico-literary giant whose face graces the present ten-thousandcruzeiro cabet;ao) “thought it absurd that a woman of the demimonde of Rio should be portrayed on our national currency,” and lobbied vigorously, but in vain, to have the note recalled.
By 1883, a hundred-thousand-real note had come into existence, suggesting that inflation was already a problem. Chaves attributes the early inflation to several factors: all of Brazil’s gold was shipped to Portugal; the money didn’t have much to back it up; and it was further adulterated by counterfeiting. (The causes of twentieth-century Brazilian inflation are very complex. According to one theory, they boil down to a social conflict between the entrepreneurial sector, the wage earners, and the federal government, each of which wants to increase or, at least, to retain its share of the economic pie.) By the time Brazil became a republic, in 1889, the money was counted not in reis but in milreis-units of a thousand reis. By 1942, there were million-real notes, known as contos de reis, or contos for short. That year, on November 1st, a new monetary unit, the cruzeiro, was created. One cruzeiro was worth a thousand reis. The new banknotes, emblazoned with Presidents, generals, admirals, Indians, Amazonian water lilies, and other subjects from the country’s national and natural life, lost value steadily but not alarmingly until the early sixties, when a spectacular spate of inflation, caused largely by the construction of Brasilia, necessitated the creation of a new monetary unit, the new cruzeiro. For several years, the old notes were simply surcharged; the ten-thousand-cruzeiro note, for instance, honoring the father of Brazilian aviation, Alberto Santos Dumont, was stamped ten new cruzeiros. Then, in ‘1967, the Banco Central came out with the first family of new cruzeiros. They were a lot less busy, more starkly modern, than the florid real and oldcruzeiro notes had been. “Now we are using the fourth family of new cruzeiros,” Chaves explains. He emphasizes, as we take leave of each other, that he has given me only the bare oudine of a saga to which careers have been devoted and of which important chapters remain untold. He recommends as the best study of the period before 1900 Julius Meili’s monumental and minutiose three-volume “The Currency of Brazil.”