EXCLUSIVE: Brazil, the World’s Second-Largest Black Nation, Has Been Taken Over by an All White Male Cabinet — Here’s What’s at Stake for Its Afro-Descendants
Brazil has the fifth-largest population and the sixth-largest economy in the world. And if the nation’s new government of all white men has its way, Black power will be erased. Brazil’s majority African-descended population will be shut out of the process, losing the socioeconomic and political gains they have made in recent years.
Aside from Nigeria, no other country has as many Black people as Brazil. And yet, one would not know this solely by looking at the recently installed cabinet. Although this is a story unto itself, it is only the beginning of the story.
When Brazil’s Senate voted to impeach leftist President Dilma Rousseff of the Worker’s Party — who was imprisoned and tortured in 1970 under the nation’s former military regime — it used charges of corruption as a pretext, a smokescreen for what has been called a coup d’etat, observers say. Rousseff is accused of manipulating the government’s financial accounts and hiding a budget deficit for political gain, as the BBC reported.
Meanwhile, Vice President Michel Temer — who is of Lebanese descent and served as a U.S. diplomatic informant, according to Wikileaks — has replaced Rousseff and appointed a cabinet of 22 white men. Temer and six of his new ministers also face corruption charges in connection with a scandal at Petrobas, the state-owned oil company, according to The Guardian.
“There is a deep economic, political and institutional crisis,” said Marcelo J. P. Paixão, Associate Professor, Department of African and African Diaspora Studies at the University of Texas. “The situation in Brazil is very confusing,” Paixão told Atlanta Black Star, noting that “strong social conflict could be produced” as a result of recent changes in the Brazilian government. He emphasizes that the new Temer alliance represents interests that are opposed to affirmative action, and want to reverse the gains made in the areas of racial and economic justice by Brazilians of African descent. As the new president, Temer needed a new coalition in order to seize power, Paixão said.
The priorities of the new administration are clear, and Black people and the poor are not among them. Michel has eliminated the Ministry of Culture and the Ministry of Human Rights, Women’s Rights and Racial Equality.
“Yes, it is telling that this new right-wing cabinet has no Afro-Brazilian or female members. It marks a step backward in a country that has only very recently started to pay some public attention to the issues of inclusion and the disproportionately low representation of Afro-Brazilians in universities, in government positions, and in the middle and upper classes,” Hendrik Kraay, professor and head of the Department of History at the University of Calgary, told Atlanta Black Star.
“Of more concern than the perhaps symbolic matter of the cabinet’s composition is the incorporation of the former Ministry of Women, Racial Equality, Youth and Human Rights into the Ministry of Justice and Citizenship, which signaled President Dilma Rousseff’s concern about these issues,” Kraay added.
Further, as teleSur reported, Jose Serra, the new foreign minister, seeks to close 17 embassies opened since 2003 in the Caribbean and Africa, purportedly as a cost-saving measure.
Meanwhile, Black power and the gains made by Afro-Brazilians are at stake.
“African descendants are at risk in terms of affirmative action and the quilombo land,” said Paixão.
The 1988 Constitution states that the quilombos — the settlements founded by escaped formerly enslaved people — are entitled to collective ownership and the title to the land they have occupied for generations. A reparations movement to force the government to make good on its constitutional promise has grown. Further, in 2012, President Rousseff enacted a most sweeping affirmative action program known as the Law of Social Quotas, or “Lei de Cotas Sociais,” which mandates that public universities reserve half of their admissions spots to poor public school students. The goal of the quota system is to increase the number of Brazilian students of African descent from 8,700 to 56,000 in a decade.
In addition, at a time of a severe economic recession, Temer intends to cut government spending. Rousseff and others accuse the neo-liberal government of targeting two social welfare programs for budget cuts. These include Family Allowance — which gives money to poor families — and the social housing scheme My House, My Life, according to Time. The programs are credited with lifting one-fifth of Brazil’s population — 40 million — out of poverty, as Barron’s reported.
For Luka Franca, a Brazilian journalist and activist living in São Paulo, the new government represents a “worrying setback” — a backlash against Black people, women, LGBT people, workers and indigenous people.
“The first thing they did was [appoint] to the Ministry of Justice the former Secretary Public Safety of São Paulo, Alexandre Moraes,” she told Atlanta Black Star. Until two weeks ago, Franca noted, Moraes, a supporter of police repression, was part of the military police that kill Brazilian civilians and “has acted with ferocity against the high school students, who are [waging] an important fight in São Paulo in defense of public education.”
In addition, Temer’s new minister of education is Mendonça Filho, whose far-right-wing DEM party is, Franca said, “known to wage the fight against the demands of the Black population, and one of the organizations that made up our military dictatorship.”
#BlackLivesMatter in Brazil, and the Black-led movement that began in the U.S., is resonating and taking hold in Brazil, a nation of rampant, race-based police violence. According to Amnesty International, between 2010 and 2013, more than one of every six homicides in Rio de Janeiro was committed by the police. Black anti-violence activists in Brazil have responded to this reality through protest.
“The consequences for the struggle of the Brazilian Black movement are many,” Franca said, as the element “who now rules the country is against racial quotas, police demilitarization and demarcation of quilombo land. They also believe in the need for mass incarceration as the main outlet for public safety.”
The policy changes underway in Brazil — which underlie the optics of an all-white cabinet — come as people had been encouraged to embrace their Black racial identity.
“The Black and brown population is about 53 percent of the total population, and whites are about 47 percent. It is a very interesting movement because 10 or 15 years ago, the ratios were the opposite,” Paixão noted.
“This was an orchestrated effort to turn the clock back,” said Bill Fletcher Jr., former president of TransAfrica Forum, and Senior Scholar with the Institute for Policy Studies. “The coup is a coup against the workers the poor and Black folks. This is what this is against. And it is illustrated in what the cabinet looks like, who is in the cabinet, and the elimination of programs that targeted the poor and the Black,” Fletcher told Atlanta Black Star.
He argued that what is taking place in Brazil today is a continuation of what occurred decades earlier.
“In the 1960s, Brazil embarked on a progressive direction, and the progressive direction was undermined by a coup in 1964. Very reactionary forces took over, and there was a high level at repression,” Fletcher said. “And the U.S., in collaboration with reactionary forces in Brazil, moved the coup. So the fight since then has been to expand and restore democracy, which led to the Worker’s Rights Party. The victory of Lula as president was the result of a coalition — that coalition which also extended with Rousseff. What we’ve been seeing ever since democracy has been restored is reactionary forces chomping at the bit,” he added.
Brazilian social justice movements agree with Fletcher. In a statement, the Landless Workers Movement condemned the impeachment of Rousseff and installment of Temer as a “social backlash” that “intends to apply a recessive and neo-liberal program” that was rejected by most voters at the polls.
“This is an institutional and anti-democratic coup that disrespected the will of 54 million voters and was orchestrated by the most conservative sectors of society, particularly the neo-liberal business, subservient to the interests of U.S. companies. A coup supported by a permanent campaign of mass media…and by a selective action of the sectors of the judiciary,” the group said. “Unable to live with democracy and submit to the popular will, the elites withdrawn the President without any evidence of crime, just so their project of social cuts, unemployment and privatization is taken into place.”
“You have a country in denial about race. They have paraded themselves as a democracy, which is bulls**t,” Fletcher offered. “What developed is an Afro-Brazilian movement received legitimacy. There was a recognition that the Afro-Brazilian question and issues of race had to be addressed. The reactionaries in Brazil want to deny the issue of race and pretend it is fine, and the leftists are trouble makers.”
“In the Lula-Rousseff era was an effort to openly talk about race and acknowledge African descendants were speaking out and were present,” Fletcher said. “The thing about it is there is not a lick of evidence of corruption on her part. The thing that can’t be debated is that past presidents did it and weren’t brought to trial.”
What does the future behold for Brazil?
“There are a number of potential outcomes, some more unnerving than others,” Fletcher believes. “There could be a military coup because the extent of the actual corruption in Brazil is significant. The right wing is democratically more corrupt, and you have this issue of corruption that is pissing people off. There could be a military coup ostensibly to clean things up and return things to civilian rule,” he posited. “There could be a breakdown that leads to one form or another of civil war. It could be something like we see in Egypt, with military operations and repression.”
Meanwhile, even in the midst of Brazil’s political turmoil and the moves against racial inclusion, professor Kraay sees signs of progress.
“However, the public questioning of interim president Michel Temer’s choice of cabinet members, the fact that many Brazilians have noticed these absences, indicates that Brazil has changed in the last 15 or 20 years. It wasn’t too long ago that such absences would have gone mostly unremarked,” he said.