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Where is Brazil’s Barack Obama?

Barack ObamaThe US presidential candidate, Barack Obama, has just made a triumphal tour of Europe during which he was feted by the region’s political leaders and cheered on by crowds in Germany. Whether Obama becomes president will depend on American voters and not foreign fans and his race will undoubtedly play a part. It has taken a long time for a black presidential candidate to appear in the US. 

In Brazil, which is said to have the largest number of people of African descent outside Nigeria, there are no black or mixed-race political leaders with any chance of standing as presidential candidates in the foreseeable future.

While the US has never had any president with black blood that we know of (although George Washington and Thomas Jefferson are believed to have fathered mulatto children) this may not be the case in Brazil. President Fernando Henrique Cardoso once said that he had a “foot in the kitchen”, a way of saying that he had some slave blood and his features confirm this.

There have been almost 40 presidents since the Republic was established in 1889 and some are bound to have had African (and/or) Indian) blood. Artur da Costa e Silva, who was military dictator between 1967 and 1969, is one example of someone with non-white blood. It is unlikely that any of them would have seen this heritage as an advantage or boasted about it in public. (It may have been different in private as Brazilians are often proud to claim Indian ancestry.)

Since Americans have an oversimplified view of race, Obama is regarded as a black man who happens to have a white mother rather than a white man who happens to have a black father. To state the plain truth and call him a mulatto would be to commit a politically correct sin in today’s America.

There are currently no black or mixed-race political leaders in Brazil, unless you count Cardoso or the culture minister, Gilberto Gil. Gil may be a great entertainer but is a political lightweight.

The most prominent hands-on black politician in recent years was probably Benedita da Silva who was deputy governor of Rio de Janeiro state and assumed the governorship in 2002 when Anthony Garotinho stood down to stand as a presidential candidate. Although she was hailed by the liberal media outside Brazil because she came from a favela, she turned out to be as unimpressive as most Brazilian politicians.

She and Garotinho became involved in a slanging match over the chaotic state of Rio’s finances. Garotinho, a populist who has been accused of involvement in corruption, treated her with disdain and even said he would disinfect the presidential palace after she and her family left and his own wife, Rosana, became governor.

He denied this was a racist statement although it certainly sounded like one to most people. Benedita da Silva became a minister in President Lula’s first administration but was forced to resign after being accused of using public funds during a private visit to Argentina.

Another prominent black politician was Celso Pitta, the son of a white father and black mother, who became mayor of São Paulo in 1997 after Paulo Maluf stood down to be a presidential candidate. Pitta was the second black person to hold this position. He quickly became bogged down in corruption scandals and his administration was marked by incompetence and inefficiency.

He was suspended from office on one occasion and even briefly jailed. Instead of trying to accuse his opponents of racism (as any American politician would) Pitta tried to portray himself as a pathetic loser. He once put a placard on his car windscreen which said something like: “Poor hard working black man.”

Earlier this year, a scandal involving credit cards issued to public employees who used them to go on spending sprees led to the downfall of Matilde Robeiro, minister for racial equality and one of the few black members of Lula’s government. Unlike Pitta, she wasted no time in adopting American tactics and claimed (perhaps truthfully) that she had been victimized for being black and a woman.

There are also no influential black church leaders as is the case in the US. The Catholic Church and the various evangelical churches are firmly in white hands although much of their work is carried out in areas where most people have black blood. Likewise, the trade unions and social movements like the MST have virtually no black leaders and there is only one black judge on the Supreme Court.

He is only there because Lula insisted on having a black presence. There are no black millionaires outside sport and show business and black faces do not feature on television in anywhere near the proportion of black or mixed race people in the country. It is rare to see a black face on the cover of a magazine, presumably because the publishers and advertisers believe they will not attract sufficiently well-off readers.

The idea that black and mixed race people are uneducated and fit only for menial or manual jobs is rife. I have a black friend who is an engineer and has an MBA. She said that when she started her first job, her boss presented her to the rest of the team and stressed that she was a professional so they would realize that she was not a cleaner.

When she goes into designer stores for clothes or beauty items, the staff never approach and ask if they can help her since they assume she cannot afford the prices. She worked for an American multinational that gave her opportunities for advancement that she believes no Brazilian company would have. This is the daily reality for millions of  Brazilians.  

There are some signs that black people are pushing a political agenda to improve their lot. The introduction of racial quotas in some universities is a start although this has caused resentment among whites.

A national black consciousness day has been introduced and is a public holiday. It is common to see young people wearing tee-shirts stating “100% Negro” (even though the wearer is generally more likely to be 60% Negro) or bearing images of Zumbi, the leader of the Palmares revolt, who was killed in 1695.

Going back three centuries for a hero shows that there are few modern role models for young black people and certainly none like Obama in the US.  There are also few signs that black people are organizing themselves or trying to put up black candidates in places like Bahia, Rio de Janeiro or São Paulo where there are large black communities.

This attitude probably reflects the more easy-going Brazilian attitude to race, which does not classify anyone with a mere drop of African blood as being black. However, the longer it continues, the longer we will have to wait for a black Brazilian presidential candidate.

John Fitzpatrick is a Scottish writer and consultant with long experience of Brazil. He is based in São Paulo and runs his own company Celtic Comunicações. This article originally appeared on his site www.brazilpoliticalcomment.com.br. He can be contacted at jf@celt.com.br.

© John Fitzpatrick 2008

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