Hélio Oiticica's 1967 installation Tropicália at the Museum of Modern Art in Rio de Janeiro gave a name to a Brazilian cultural movement whose influence is still being felt today. Tropicália, or Tropicalismo, encompassed music, art, writing, theatre and film, but it was driven by music, and in particular the music of Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil. Their 1967 album Tropicália, ou Panis et Circensis (Tropicalia, or Bread and Circuses), written and recorded with a collective that included vocalist Gal Costa and experimental rock band Os Mutantes, among others, was something like Bob Dylan going electric, the Last Poets and Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967) all at once, but with samba. Mixing a virtuoso understanding of Brazilian tradition with Modernist poetry, Psychedelia and Improv freedom, it was the musical and lyrical expression of a highly developed cultural-political philosophy. Oswaldo de Andrade's Manifesto Antropofágico (Cannibalist Manifesto, 1928) claimed that Brazil was born when the Aimorés tribe ate the missionary Bishop Sardinha. Tropicalismo took up Andrade's ideas, celebrating a uniquely Brazilian culture that had relatively recently defined itself out of a colonial past, and at the same time devouring, with attitude, what the West had to offer.
In parallel with other radical movements of the late 1960s in Europe and the US, Tropicalismo was all about freedom, but its circumstances were tougher and more complex. After the military coup of 1964, the solution to Brazil's problems was presented, and would be for decades, in the form of industrialization and what was euphemistically known as the free market: capitalism cut loose from the basic democratic and human rights that are, in Western political rhetoric, assumed automatically to follow. The tropicalistas balanced their love of Jimi Hendrix and the Beatles with a deep antipathy to consumer society and the corporate exploitation and censorship that came with it, expressed in songs such as Tom Zé's 'Parque Industrial' (Industrial Park, 1968), Gil's 'Baby' (1968) or Veloso's 'É proibido proibir' (It's Forbidden to Forbid, 1968). When the junta effectively suspended all civil and political rights in December 1968, Veloso appeared on TV singing blandly sentimental Christmas nonsense while holding a gun to his own head. He and Gil were arrested two days later, jailed and then quickly exiled.
Significant change was a long time coming. In 1984 massive popular support for democratic reform, aided by the political manoeuvring of Tancredo Neves, finally saw off the military. But Neves died before he could take office and Brazil fell into a different kind of political and economic chaos, with hyper-inflation only tamed by fiscal severity and massive foreign borrowing, and social reform more or less out of the picture.
Then, in Brazil's 2002 elections, something unprecedented happened. Gil is now Minister for Culture in the new government of President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, a former metalworker and union leader who led strikes in the late 1970s, when union activity was still illegal. The closest UK analogy would be a reanimated John Lennon serving in a 'modernized' cabinet under Arthur Scargill, though that somewhat misses the nuances. Historically there is a certain antagonism between Tropicalismo and the Brazilian left. A pre-Tropicalismo Gil apparently once took part in a street demonstration against electric guitars, because the left were against them. 'É proibido proibir' was booed at a 1960s music festival, leading Veloso to shout back, 'Is this the youth that says it will change the world? You don't understand a thing.'
Still, Gil's appointment is not, or not only, a populist move by the new government. Although Lula only won power at his third attempt, after toning down his left-wing rhetoric and taking Liberal Party leader Jose Alencar as his running mate, there is a sense of real and sweeping change in Brazilian politics. The new environment minister, Marina Silva, has been a lifelong campaigner for the rights of local people in the Amazon. The newly created Institute for the Protection of the Amazon Environment (IPAAM) is staffed by the very ecologists and campaigners who have spent years - in some cases decades - opposing the aggressive privatization and exploitation of the region's land and natural resources. Lula has committed himself to a programme called Fomé Zero (Zero Hunger), a combination of structural reform and basic welfare that aims to help the very poor. The 'Free Zone' policies of previous governments that opened up areas of the Amazon to multinational corporations on favourable terms have been replaced with the aim of the 'Green Free Zone' and a commitment to sustainable development. The party that Lula founded, the PT (the Workers' Party), has also for several years been involved in a successful, radical experiment in local democracy, the participatory budget in the Porto Alegre region. Under this system decisions about local spending and taxation are taken directly by the citizens through public meetings and debates.
There is a sense of expectation and a revitalization of the very language of politics, an expression of clear and humane ideas of what a better society might be, that has entirely disappeared from the European public debate. But the reality of Brazil's economic situation - a $250 billion dollar foreign debt that the country cannot even pay the interest on, $6 billion 'capital flight' following Lula's victory and an inherited relationship with the IMF that is little short of serfdom - has meant that the new government has nothing to spend on the social programmes it promised, and has had to stick, New Labour-style, to the previous administration's public spending plans and the terms of a new IMF loan.
New Labour maestro Peter Mandelson actually hit the campaign trail with Lula's predecessor Fernando Henrique Cardoso - a populist neo-conservative, somewhat in the mould of Tony Blair, who presided over two spectacular economic crashes - and Blair himself avoided meeting Lula during a visit to Brazil last year. Still, Lula has lately found himself cast as poster boy for the Third Way, fêted by chief ideologue Anthony Giddens of the London School of Economics and speaking at the recent progressive governance conference of Third Way leaders. He is the closest thing to a real socialist the movement can deal with, a symbolic leftist at home and abroad. But he remains a reluctant convert, mindful of the international leverage the association might offer but still taking the opportunity of his speech to comment that the US government 'think of themselves first, second and third, and then, if they have any time left over, they think of themselves some more'.
A more telling remark came from the currency speculator George Soros, in the run-up to Lula's victory: 'In the Roman empire, only the Romans voted. In modern global capitalism, only the Americans vote. Not the Brazilians.' Strikes and protests by some of the very groups whose interests Lula championed - public sector workers, the landless, the homeless, the indigenous population - are becoming more frequent, underlining the gap between the government's radical credentials and its ability to deliver. Budgets for social programmes are in fact at a historical low, owing, in great part, to the deal with the IMF. A classic monetarist welfare reform has just been approved. The interest rate is astronomical. The apparent alternative is calculated debt default and a face-off with the forces of international finance that Brazil - in raw economic terms at least - is bound to lose.
Brazil's latest underground musical movement is a world away from the literate, politicized, sunlit stylings of Tropicalismo. Like the rave scene in Britain after a decade of Thatcherism, Funk Carioca has given up on the possibility of meaningful change in favour of pleasure right here and now, pure hedonism, escapism. It is fantastic dirty, hard, hi-energy electro-rap, constantly innovating in the search for new ways to celebrate popozuda, cerveja and cachaça (booty, beer and rum). Meanwhile, the generation of Tropicalismo has grown up and finds itself, at least ostensibly, in power.
The tropicalistas always had a sophisticated take on what was happening to their country, but the Brazilian critic Roberto Schwarz makes the point that their artistic vision was passive - it offered no concrete answer to the problems it posed. You could, of course, argue that it is not art's responsibility to provide solutions. The problem right now is that, even with political power, with Lula's articulate and internationally connected democratic socialism and the country's natural and cultural riches, the solution remains out of reach.
Currently, 'Utopia' seems to be a popular artworld buzzword, and certainly the impulse to rethink and revitalize art's social and political role is a vital one, but it's a very long way from these speculations to meaningful change. The situation in Brazil deserves the attention of anyone with an interest in the messy and compromised process through which such dreams become debased in the reality of political and economic power-broking.