Afro-Brazilians are in a precarious political position falling between a support of Dilma Rousseff’s social inclusion policies and backing the impeachment of her government against alleged misuse of public funds
Brazil’s first female president, Dilma Rousseff, was suspended on 12th May for 180 days in the country’s first impeachment in 24 years. Interim President Michel Temer’s all-white, all-male cabinet fails to represent the 52 per cent of the population who are female or the 51 per cent who are of African descent. Where do women and Afro-Brazilians stand with President Rousseff’s impeachment?
Why did Brazil impeach its first female president?
In 2011, Dilma Rousseff became Brazil’s first female president, as leader of the left-wing PT (The Workers’ Party). The party grew out of Brazil’s labour movement and helped pull millions out of poverty, particularly Afro-Brazilians, with affirmative action laws. In 2003, racial quotas were enacted by PT for universities to reserve places for black, mixed race and indigenous students according to the racial make-up of each Brazilian state. Another law was also approved by congress and sanctioned by PT, which made it obligatory to include Afro-Brazilian history and culture in the national curriculum.
Initially, Rousseff enjoyed some of the highest ratings of any leader in the world when she first assumed office. However, her popularity quickly plummeted along with the economy, now in its deepest recession for decades. Rousseff’s approval ratings were at an all-time high of 79 per cent in March 2013, then fell considerably to 10 per cent by March 2016. The timing of the corruption investigation of her government couldn’t have been worse, coinciding with the upcoming Rio Olympics and the economic recession. High inflation and high unemployment have hit Brazil’s Afro-Brazilian community hard in particular, who make up the majority of Brazil’s lower social-economic group.
The daughter of a Bulgarian immigrant, Rousseff became a socialist during her youth and joined a number of left-wing groups against the military dictatorship which ruled Brazil from 1964 to 1985. In her speech to the media after her suspension, she compared the pain of being impeached to the torture she suffered under the country’s past military dictatorship. Many of Rousseff’s critics celebrated wildly at the news of her impeachment as a return to the era of the military dictatorship. All eyes are now on Brazil as this political scandal unravels in front of the world’s media.
Last year, investigators revealed a bribery scandal involving the state oil company Petrobras before Rousseff’s re-election in 2014, but it later snowballed with accusations against top business leaders and politicians in PT that meant that while Rousseff herself wasn’t implicated, millions of Brazilians protested in the streets. As public opinion was in their favour, opposition lawmakers decided to forge ahead with an impeachment movement in congress. The lawmakers accused Rousseff of manipulating government accounts and juggling public funds to make her government’s economic performance appear better than reality to increase her chances of a second term. As a result, her opponents believe that Rousseff should be stripped of her office.
After losing a preliminary impeachment vote by 55-22 in the senate earlier this month, Rousseff had to step down in order to defend herself in the forthcoming trial, which is expected to last up to 180 days. Rousseff’s judges will be senators, many of whom are accused of far more serious wrongdoing. In her parting address, Rousseff said she was the victim of treachery and misogyny. During the rowdy lower house impeachment vote, many conservative congressmen and their wives and girlfriends posed with patronising placards reading “Tchau querida” (“Bye-bye darling”).
The lower house speaker Eduardo Cunha, a right-wing evangelical conservative who is leading the impeachment drive, is being investigated for more serious forms of corruption than Rousseff. Investigators have accused Cunha of perjury, money laundering and taking bribes of at least $5 million in relation to Petrobras contracts through his church. Swiss authorities revealed Cunha had secret accounts, which he denied.
On a nine-day family holiday in Miami at the end of 2013, the speaker and his family are said to have spent more than $40,000. There were similar shopping splurges in Paris, New York and Zurich. Prosecutors claimed this was completely incompatible with his declared annual income of about $120,000. Investigators also allege that Cunha and his wife own a fleet of luxury cars, properties and designer goods worth millions of dollars.
Despite Brazil’s supreme court finding Cunha guilty of the corruption charges, a date has yet to be set for a trial as he continues to maintain his position as a moral and political judge in Brazil.
Whitewash: The new all-white, all-male Brazilian senate
Newly elected Interim President Michel Temer is replacing Rousseff for the duration of her trial. At the unveiling of the new senate, the law professor Temer showed his conservative instincts with an all-white, all-male cabinet, including ministers implicated in corruption. It is the first all-male cabinet since 1979 when Brazil was under a military dictatorship.
Despite being the son of Lebanese immigrants, the heavily-tanned Temer is considered to be ‘white’ in Brazil, treated in the same vein as Brazilians of European descent. This stems from the national racial whitening policy of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, in which many Latin American countries encouraged European and then Asian (Arab and Japanese) immigration as a means to whiten the population.
The interim president has also been embroiled in corruption allegations. Temer currently faces an impeachment challenge himself and has been barred from standing for office for eight years due to election violations. In addition, he has been named in two plea bargains in the ongoing Lava Jato investigation into the Petrobras bribery scandal, along with other members of the new all-male cabinet.
In contrast to Rousseff’s departing cabinet which was more diverse in gender and race, Temer has already faced criticism from many quarters for his senate’s lack of diversity. Shortly after she was suspended, Rousseff herself criticised the new interim government for not representing one the world’s most ethnically diverse nations. “Black people and women are fundamental if you truly want to construct an inclusive country,” Rousseff said to journalists. “I think the government is clearly showing that it is going to be neoliberal in the economy and extremely conservative on the social and cultural side.”
Afro-Brazilians and Rousseff’s impeachment
According to Brazil’s latest census, the proportion of people self-identifying as black or mixed raced increased from 44.7 per cent in the year 2000 to 50.7 per cent in 2010, making Afro-Brazilians the official majority for the first time since the early 20th century. Prior to this, the Brazilian government’s afore-mentioned racial ‘whitening’ policy meant that European and later ‘white’ Asian immigrants were subsidised by the Brazilian government to help build the country for the industrial age, and to inter-marry to help eradicate Brazil’s African and indigenous population who were seen as primitive by Brazil’s white elite.
Despite the presently large make-up of Brazilians of African descent, in Brazil, “every black person is going to be a victim of racism, prejudice [and] discrimination, whatever your position,” said Ivone Caetano, a prominent Afro-Brazilian judge in Rio de Janeiro. “Our prejudice is disguised and hypocritical.” Even though Brazil’s population is 50 per cent smaller than that of the United States, their police forces have killed the same number of people in the last five years as American police have in the last 30 years. Seventy-seven per cent of young people killed in Brazil are black according to Amnesty International, and young black men dominate Brazil’s crowded prisons, in which there are one and a half times more black prisoners than whites.
Over the past several years, there has been a rising conservative element in the country that resents the social programme implemented under Rousseff’s PT party. There has also been a rise in anti-black racism towards Afro-Brazilian celebrities on social media and violent attacks directed at black immigrants from Africa and Central America. Last week, news broke out of a black Haitian student who was racially and physically assaulted by a group of Brazilians in southern Brazil. The assailants blamed Rousseff for the growing presence of black immigrants in Brazil, saying, “Macaco (monkey), you’re only here because of Dilma, but now you’ll have to go back.” The attack which took place in Foz do Iguacu in the state of Paraná, is majority white with many holding conservative views.
The much-publicised mass political protests which took place in various Brazilian cities in 2015 and 2016 prior to the impeachment vote reflected the country’s political and racial divide. Although protesters drew thousands from across Brazil’s social classes and races, many of them were white conservatives who spoke out against Rousseff’s alleged government corruption, but have historically remained silent about the country’s racial discrimination and colour prejudice towards impoverished Afro-Brazilians. Photos from those protests showed a vast invisibility of Afro-Brazilians in support of a change in government, and later pro-Rousseff protests explain why: Afro-Brazilians as a whole have made great strides under the 14 years of the PT government and are largely standing in solidarity with Rousseff against what they see as a coup d’etat attempt.
Many of Rousseff’s supporters argue that impeachment will strengthen the racism and sexism which pervades Brazilian society. The image of Brazil being a socially liberal, multi-ethnic racial democracy is, therefore, more myth than reality. Additionally, the “fiscal peddling” which Rousseff is being impeached for is the alleged misuse of budget funds to account for social programmes. However, advocates for Rousseff’s impeachment have strong support from wealthy white middle-class and upper-class conservatives who called for the end of affirmative action and social welfare policies such as Bolsa Família that have made a university education attainable for thousands of Afro-Brazilians and helped lift millions out of abject poverty. The fact that 73 per cent of the beneficiaries from these social and welfare programmes are black “seems to bother” Rousseff’s opponents who feel uncomfortable with the in-roads black Brazilians have made in universities and society, Afro-Brazilian activists argue.
Afro-Brazilians now find themselves in a precarious political situation; whether to support Rousseff and her government who have implemented social inclusion policies to help combat institutional racism in Brazil, or support the impeachment against the alleged misuse of public funds. Though many Afro-Brazilians have argued that the affirmative action policies which PT introduced are timid and insufficient, they undoubtedly have helped black and mixed-raced Brazilians climb up the social ladder. That being said, instead of tackling Brazil’s structural racism and entrenched white supremacist beliefs, the affirmative action policies which PT have introduced since being in government in 2003 appear to be nothing more than token gestures to celebrate Brazil’s African culture and heritage.
Others have pointed out that PT are exploiting the large Afro-Brazilian community to continue its reign without promising anything in return for the community’s support. Rousseff’s own cabinet consisted of only one Brazilian of African descent. Ultimately, the powerful dictate change – and real power lies in economics and resources which are still overwhelmingly dominated by a few white families.
In spite of Interim President Temer’s call to “trust in the values of our people and in our ability to rebuild the economy”, time will tell as to whether the socio-economic condition of blacks and rooted misogynistic views will improve with the return of the old boys’ club to the helm of Brazil’s political elite.
Featured image: www.telesurtv.net (1)Getty Images (2)www.daily-sun.com (3)blackwomenofbrazil.co
Reclaim Your Stage:
The Platform is a groundbreaking blog that provides current affairs and cultural commentary. Our pieces offer challenging opinions from a range of spectrums; that’s why we love hosting a platform for them.