In these weeks leading up to the 120th anniversary of the Abolition of Slavery in Brazil, I have spent some time reading the Chamber of Deputies’ and the Federal Senate’s records from the sessions in which the Congress was debating and approving the Lei Áurea, the law that banned slavery.
I read, among other things, the speeches of Joaquim Nabuco in favor of passage and those of the Baron of Cotegipe in opposition. Those were the years of the great debates about consolidating Abolition and the Republic.
The Congress geared itself towards national construction and the future course of the country. The Congressmen were the builders of a nation and their speeches presented different visions; they argued in opposition to each other and they united. These were the speeches and accords of statesmen.
Upon reading these session records, I recalled the debates occurring in the National Congress just as I began to be old enough to read the newspapers. I followed the speeches made during the so-called “Golden Years.”
At that time Brazil was passing from an agricultural economy to an industrial one, moving the capital from Rio de Janeiro to Brasília, building the highway and hydroelectric infrastructures, setting up the Sudene program to develop the Northeast and the subsidies program for the industrial sector.
Each one of those decisions inspired vigorous debates. President Juscelino Kubitschek had to debate, mobilize allies, and argue against the opposition’s ideas and proposals.
Alongside these great themes, there were accusations of corruption, of diversion of funds, of overbilling. But these were made with no reduction in time for the debates over the great themes that were discussed and disseminated through the newspapers and the radio at a time when there was no television, much less TV Câmara and TV Senado broadcasting the Congressional sessions.
They were debates about ideas and interests; they demonstrated different visions; and the speeches had consequences for the times. They did not exhaust themselves in either denunciations or dismissals and imprisonments, much less disappear into the void.
I followed the “Time of the Reforms,” when the discussions were in favor of or opposed to the agrarian, labor, and tax reforms, and over international policy. There were heated debates between the left and the right over concepts, ideologies, new proposals and old ideas that had persisted. There were also denunciations of corruption but without a loss of direction for the great causes.
After that, although not yet in the Congress, I began to participate more intensely, by following the debates during the “Leaden Years,” which were also considered the “Years of the Brazilian Miracle.” The Congress demonstrated courage, boldness, risks, many countercharges and a belief in the future.
Here a country free or controlled was being constructed, one that was sovereign or independent, just or unjust, rich or poor. And for each of these roads, there were alternatives and debates. And these debates flourished, had repercussions, created supporters and opposition.
I participated even more in the “Years of Redemocratization,” when the debates reflected what was happening in the streets and also had repercussions on them. The debates were over “what to do,” “if it should be done,” “how to do it,” “when to do it.” The Congress aligned itself with the streets and we achieved Amnesty, Direct Elections of the President, a Constitutional Assembly.
Today as a senator, I follow the debates from inside the Congress. Although I am part of them, I must recognize that we either have to deify History, showing the past as something grandiose in a way that it was not. Or we have to demonize the present and ignore the great accomplishments currently underway. Or we must admit that, compared to those of the past, our present-day debates have deteriorated greatly.
First, because we are not present in the Congress. We dedicate ourselves more to the important work of spending time with the population in each state than to the work of debating ideas, conferencing, approving laws, building a country.
Second, because we concentrate our speeches upon denunciations of corruption, reading of reports, subservience to the provisory measures. Instead of paving the soil of History, we apparently take pleasure in stepping in the mud without moving forward.
We correctly denounce corrupt actions but we do not debate measures to eliminate the corruption. We exchange denunciations about a government minister who used a corporate credit card to buy tapiocas, only to soon discover that an employee of the previous administration also paid for tapiocas with public resources.
Perhaps these will come to be known as the “Tapioca Years.” Or will they be the “Forgotten Years” because, unlike those of Nabuco and Cotegipe, none of our speeches will be remembered in the future?
Cristovam Buarque is a professor at the University of Brasília and a PDT senator for the Federal District. You can visit his new website – www.cristovam.org.br – and write to him at email@example.com.
Translated from the Portuguese by Linda Jerome – LinJerome@cs.com.