Slavery Is Alive in Brazil While People Keep Living in Favelas and Streets

Favela in Rio, BrazilOvershadowed by the Pope’s visit to Brazil, the 119th anniversary of the Abolition of Slavery passed without much pomp. At first it may seem strange that a date so important to Brazilian history would have passed unobserved. But there is an explanation. For these 119 years, we have been incapable of completing the act made by a princess on May 13, 1888.

The truth is that this magnificent law, consisting of a single article, abolished the sale of human beings, as well as the use of forced labor. But it did not put an end to slavery. We prohibited unremunerated labor done against one’s will, but we have permitted unemployment.

We authorized the slaves to leave their slave quarters but freed them to go live in the favelas, in the open air under viaducts, in the tents of the Landless Workers Movement (MST). We stopped sending the leftovers from the manor house to the slave quarters but created a hunger not experienced by the slave.

And worst of all, although we abolished the prohibition against the slave’s child attending school, we did not place them in the schools. Abandoned, they were left "free" to wander around the streets.

In that epoch, the Abolition Law – the Lei Áurea – was approved but the senators opposed to abolition greatly contested it. They affirmed that, yes, Brazil should eliminate the shame of the servile element but that the time was not yet right to do so. The agricultural sector, they argued, would fall apart. It was necessary to await the arrival of white immigrants in Brazil, they claimed.

Today we are hearing similar congressional arguments. We are not opposed to the abolition of illiteracy, but we are not finding the sufficient resources. A revolution in education is premature, we affirm, and should be gradual. Or, yes, we do need to improve education, but this is a task best left to the municipalities.

Let us imagine that Princess Isabel had given the mayors the task of abolishing slavery in their cities. Had this happened, even today we would probably still find slaves in all the Brazilian municipalities.

Why then do we refuse to make federal decisions so that all children will have a quality school? Why do we refuse to adopt a federal salary policy for the teachers? Why do we avoid a federal law that would set minimum standards of quality for a building to be considered a school, thus avoiding the utilization of buildings that have no water, no electricity, no bathrooms, no desks, no roof?

We must be frank and admit that, in these 119 years, we have been incapable of completing Princess Isabel’s gesture. Human beings can no longer be sold but they remain abandoned. And the key to everything, I insist, is guaranteeing an equal school to the child of the rich and to the child of the poor.

A country does not have the right to promote an unequal education for children and young people, impeding them from freely developing their talent, their persistency, and their vocation.

Abolition will be complete only when the 164 thousand public schools in our country all have the same quality and each child has the same chances to build a future of dignity and freedom.

It is national – and not municipal – will that is lacking. Will like the Crown had in 1888, when a princess signed a law reading, "Slavery is extinct in Brazil." Now, a single law is not enough. We need a set of laws. And it will not be possible to promote a revolution in education in a single day. It will take ten or fifteen years to complete the Abolition. But it is possible. All we need do is put education in first place.

Cristovam Buarque has a Ph.D. in economics. He is a PDT senator for the Federal District and was Governor of the Federal District (1995-98) and Minister of Education (2003-04). He is the current president of the Senate Education Commission. Last year he was a presidential candidate. You can visit his homepage – www.cristovam.com.br – and write to him at mensagem-cristovam@senado.gov.br

Translated from the Portuguese by Linda Jerome – LinJerome@cs.com.

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