Role Reversal: David (Goldman) versus Goliath (Brazil)

Sean and David Goldman, son and father, finally together I doubt there is anyone, American or Brazilian, who isn’t relieved to see the Goldman saga come to a conclusion. No matter where your sympathies lie, five years is long enough for any child custody case to linger in limbo.

I suspect that it was in fact the five-year battle that rocketed this matter to the media’s attention, as family custody fights are not typical headline grabbers in the US media, except perhaps with Hollywood celebrities. The extensive Goldman vs. Bianchi battle eventually grew to involve such luminaries as US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and only reached a resolution through Brazil’s highest court of law.

An additional media-soaked factor was the bizarre twist of fate that developed in the middle of the custody dispute, when Sean Goldman’s Brazilian mother died while giving birth to Sean’s half sister. Sean’s mother, Bruna Bianchi, created this case by running off to Brazil on a supposed vacation with Sean and once she’d arrived, calling her American husband, David, who was back in New Jersey where they had been living, and informing him that she was divorcing him and maintaining custody of 4-year-old Sean simply by not returning to the US.

I think most observers, with the exception of Bruna’s family, see Bruna as the villain in this case. What kind of woman divorces her husband over the telephone, especially when there’s a child involved? Her radical behavior led the American media and David Goldman to label her actions as child abduction.

Today, both the American and Brazilian courts are in agreement with this label. Certainly, Bruna’s behavior must have played a major role in the decision of the Brazil Supreme Court to return Sean five years later to his father.

If ever there was an example of what John Lennon once called “instant karma” it would have to be the sad fate of this desperate woman.

Two elements of this case strike me as worthy of further consideration: First, the five years of litigation over Sean’s fate; and second, the media attention that erupted at the US Consulate in Rio when Sean was handed over to his biological father by Bruna’s mother, Silvana, and Sean’s stepfather, João Paulo Lins e Silva.

As far as the five-year court case is concerned, I’m not a lawyer nor am I Brazilian so I can offer no insights into the labyrinths of justice in Brazil. However, as an outside observer, I’m aghast that any case of child custody could last this long.

Okay, when the indigenous peoples of the Amazon jungle in Ecuador are organized by a charismatic local leader into filing a lawsuit against one of the world’s largest oil companies, I’m prepared for litigation to lavish in the courts for years.

Perhaps I’m legally naïve, but it seems that in a child custody case, it’s a flip of a coin, a 50/50 call. Either Sean was going to end up with his stepfather or his biological father.

The fact that the decision took five years and came finally with pressure from Hillary Clinton and other American politicians should be an embarrassment to the court system in Brazil and to Brazilians in general.

I have yet to meet anyone in Brazil who says they are proud of their legal system. (Disclosure: I have never personally brought a case before a Brazilian court, nor do I know any Brazilians who have spent a lot of time in the courts, either as litigants or practicing court attorneys.)

Therefore, as a mere observer, I’m forced to conclude the court system in Brazil is ineffective, at best. I recall reading that Brazil’s Supreme Court receives 100,000 petitions for review each year. By contrast, the US Supreme Court receives about 10,000 petitions a year. However, the US Court, recognizing it has the ability to hear at most 100 cases, rejects the other 9,900 cases, thus hearing arguments in only 1 percent of the petitions. The other 99 percent of the cases are returned to the lower courts and those decisions stand.

I’m sure there are further circuitous avenues to be pursued in some of these cases, particularly with charged issues like abortion, but few of those avenues are ever pursued. Generally speaking, in the US, when the Supreme Court reaches either a decision or chooses not to hear the case, the lawyers advise their clients to go home and resume their lives.

How the Supreme Court in Brazil expects to hear 100,000 cases is a mystery to me. It seems to me the American common-sense approach to timely justice is not pursued in Brazil.

Besides the tremendous overload of cases, the Brazilian legal system appears to encourage appeals that extend beyond the Supreme Court. When the historic transfer took place on December 24 of Sean Goldman at the US Consulate, the Bianchi family lawyer, Sergio Tostes, made a point of saying the family was now dropping its legal challenges to Sean’s custody. What legal challenges were still available to them? Shouldn’t a decision by the Supreme Court be the end? From what I can gather, the appeals process in Brazil has no limits, allowing simple cases to stretch on for years and even decades.

Another recent example of the confusing Supreme Court system in Brazil occurred during a battle last month between the Court and President Lula over the protection of an Italian former guerrilla, Cesare Battisti, whose government had demanded his extradition. For reasons unknown to me, Lula opposed the extradition and granted Battisti asylum in Brazil.

The Italian government petitioned the Supreme Court in Brazil for Battisti’s extradition on murder convictions from the 1970s in Italy. The Court ruled in Italy’s favor. However, when the ruling was issued, it came with a caveat that since this was a case with international political elements, Lula was free to disregard the Court’s decision, as the President would be in a better position to make judgments regarding international politics than the Court, which is exactly what Lula did. He disregarded the Supreme Court’s grant for extradition, which was certainly no surprise. As far as I know, Battisti remains in Brazil.

Besides the endless appeals opportunities of the legal system, not to mention its ability to disregard itself, another complaint made by Brazilians about their courts is that there are political elements that allow for judges to be influenced or even bribed. For example, there was a scandal in 2008 reported by the Brazilian news magazine Veja that wiretaps had been found on the phones of some members of Congress as well as the head of the Supreme Court in Brazil.

I wonder if the political connections of Sean’s stepfather played a role in the extended timeframe of this child custody case. As Mr. Lins e Silva is a powerful lawyer and a wealthy man, even if he or his lawyer wielded no political influence over the judges, the extensive duration of the custody battle seems more than coincidental.

I can’t help but mention the “David vs. Goliath” nature of this case. Could the familiar theme of this weak vs. strong myth have attracted such luminaries as Hillary Clinton to the battle? Did she enter the fray, seeing herself as the protector of the little man, while remembering her own uphill battle for the US presidency against Barack Obama?

Perhaps her background as an Ivy League-trained lawyer drew her attention?

(On a cultural note, this Biblical tale is currently being played out all over the US and Brazil in movie theaters showing the Hollywood blockbuster, Avatar.)

Sean Goldman had been living in Brazil for several years, and the economic upper hand of Mr. Lins e Silva was there to protect him. However, as in the Biblical tale, the underdog David was victorious, as David Goldman, fighting from outside the country, as well as with less financial resources, triumphed.

What’s even more interesting to me in this case is that for once Brazil was playing with the stacked deck and the US was the underdog. Could this role reversal be a sign of the changing world climate that is unfolding for Brazil’s future in the 21st century? Is this reversal a coincidence, or a symbol of America’s waning power and Brazil’s rise from Third World status to what one writer, Parag Khanna, calls “The Second World” in the new global order?


The other striking aspect of this case, from an American perspective, was the release of Sean Goldman in Rio. David Goldman and his lawyer had requested the long-awaited transfer be done quietly, and apparently their request could have been accommodated by the US Consulate. However, the Bianchi family chose instead to release Sean at the front door of the Consulate in full view of the media. The transfer was thus described by the American media as a “parade through the streets of Rio.” American viewers were appalled by the needless display of Sean’s terrified image all over the TV news.

I would like to interject here that the US media was equally as guilty as the Brazilian media for creating this circus. For example, when the Goldmans flew back to the US from Rio, their private plane was chartered by NBC. (This is not an expense typically afforded by a TV station. I’m thinking exclusive Goldman TV interview followed by a book deal.)

What could not be understood by Americans was the cultural chasm that lies between the two views of publicity. Here’s how I see it: No one objects when people celebrate publicly. For example, Americans hold parades for the NY Yankees when they win the World Series. Brazilians love to celebrate their joys, but they also celebrate their suffering.

In other words, Americans consider it rude to exhibit or project their heartache onto others. Grief for Americans is private and personal. Brazilians, on the other hand, express all their emotions publicly to anyone who will listen. Brazilians want to share their grief, and this explains the decision by the Bianchi family to welcome the Rio Consulate media circus.


In conclusion, it is worth remembering that court testimony in the Goldman case is confidential, as it is in all divorce and family custody cases in Brazil. Therefore, we presume the Supreme Court knows more than we do about the fitness of the two families and has acted to resolve this case in the only way that anyone could possibly hope, i.e. what is in the best interest of Sean Goldman.

Not having read the testimony and therefore knowing nothing about the home life that awaits Sean in New Jersey or the home he left behind in Brazil, it’s impossible for me (or anyone reading this) to make an accurate assessment of the situation. How are Sean’s best interests served?

To play devil’s advocate for a moment with the Court, there are plenty of biological parents who aren’t the world’s best parents. (We might pass that judgment on Bruna Bianchi.)

Additionally, having lived for several years in Brazil, I’m personally not convinced that under all circumstances, the US is a better place to raise children than Brazil. There is certainly more crime in Brazil, particularly in Rio, but Sean wasn’t being raised in a favela. Social life, organized religion, and the extended family structure are stronger in Brazil than the US, as an example.

The common argument that the First World (US) is a better place to raise children than the Third World (Brazil) reminds me of another David vs. Goliath case of child custody that occurred while Hillary Clinton was serving the White House, this time as First Lady.

Elián González washed ashore in a boatload of Cubans seeking refuge on the shores of Florida in November 1999. During their flight to the US, Elián’s mother died. When Elián arrived, he was turned over to his Cuban-American relatives in Florida who petitioned the courts to have him stay in the US, despite the protests of Elián’s father who remained in Cuba, claiming he had no idea his son was leaving until after Elián had left.

The Florida relatives offered the father a house and a car if he too would come to live in the US and save Elián’s lost Cuban soul. The father refused the offer, and instead sent Elián’s two grandmothers to the US from Cuba in 2000 to meet with congressmen in Washington and petition for Elián’s return.

Subsequently, conservative Republicans tried to pass a bill giving Elián instant US citizenship. As with the Goldman case, in the end, David defeated Goliath, and Elián was returned to his biological father in Cuba.

By the way, the final decision in the González case was handed down by the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta. The US Supreme Court refused to hear the case, and the Atlanta decision stood.

Finally, in the Goldman case, the court system in Brazil has spoken, and the wealthier party has lost, proving that the stepfather’s power, the Bianchi family’s tenacity, and Bruna’s biological ties were not enough to warrant separating the boy from his father.

The one person who is most intimately involved with this case but has never spoken is Sean Goldman. Perhaps in ten years he will be able to offer some 20/20 hindsight into his plight.

For me, as in all circumstances requiring predictions of the future, there is no way to tell if the courts were right.

Michael Rubin is an American living in Curitiba, Brazil. He can be contacted at


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