Interview with Darcy Ribeiro
“We are, in fact, the new Rome, but a better one — renewed by the blood of
the Negro and purified by the blood of the Indian.”
“The economy is doing very badly. The consequences to the formula
used by Fernando Henrique to fight inflation are rampant unemployment and high
cost of living.”
“Brazilians are wonderful! What is bad is the dominant class. They are
ferocious, and play the role of consuls in defense of foreign interests.”
For 30 years Darcy Ribeiro wrote and rewrote O Povo Brasileiro — A Formação e o Sentido do Brasil (The Brazilian People — The Makeup and the Meaning of Brazil). In the end, it took him only 40 days to put the book together,
pressed as he was by the urgency of a dying man. Having been diagnosed with prostate cancer, Darcy (at the time being treated at Hospital Samaritano in Rio) convinced his doctor to let him go home briefly in order to get some papers. He promised to return to the hospital, instead, with the help of an assistant, he headed for the seaside town of Maricá, where he keeps a house for weekend retreats.
A year and a half later, this 73 year old Mineiro (from the state of Minas Gerais) is not only very much alive, but
O Povo Brasileiro has become a classical of Brazilian anthropological and social historiography.
Not that everybody agrees with his theories. His critics dismiss his nationalistic rhetoric as being old and out of
touch with today’s economic and cultural reality that has to be considered within a global context. They also accuse him of being an authoritarian legislator, therefore a member of the same elite he so much criticizes.
What is certain, however, is that Darcy Ribeiro can’t be ignored and has a profound impact on anyone who has
read his writing. Unlike other social scientists who stick to methodological analyses, Darcy’s work is filled with
passion: His unconditional love for Brazil (“The most beautiful province on Earth”) and the Indians (“superior beings”) and
his furor over the evils of the dominant classes.
In his private life he brags about being a womanizer (“One should always have three girlfriends at the same time”)
and exudes self satisfaction, while keeping a frantic pace as far as his intellectual production is concerned.
In his latest book, Diários Índios
(Indian Diaries) — to be released this month — he gives an account of his
experience with the Urubu-Kaapor Indians (“The most violent tribe in Brazil”) with whom he lived for almost two years. In
the United States, the University of Florida will be publishing
O Povo Brasileiro together with his Estudos
de Antropologia da Civilização, consisting of six books and considered the most comprehensive study about
First of all, Senator, how is your health?
Beautiful, just beautiful!
It seems you take to heart your title as an
immortal… (Darcy Ribeiro has a seat at the Brazilian Academy
of Letters, whose members are called
imortais, i.e., immortals.)
Well… Cancer is manageable, something I have to live with. Worse than that is the diabetes I didn’t know I had,
and that could’ve killed me. Being on a diet for diabetes seems to have improved the cancer. My general health is
good, and I am smiling.
Since you went back to work, is there any new project you have been working on?
Yes, I’ve been working really hard on the ‘Lei de Diretrizes e Bases,’ which deals with Brazilian education in
general. It has been passed by Congress, and will now be debated at the Chamber of Deputies (Brazil’s Lower House).
I’m doing my best to have this law passed as soon as possible, because it will open a new horizon for education in Brazil.
What is the core of the project?
It’s a very complex project that will organize and establish rules for the educational system, encompassing all
levels: primary, secondary and superior. Its purpose is to make sure that Brazil fulfills its obligation to its children and
provides schools that can teach the poor how to read and write. The child who comes from an uneducated family needs
full-time schooling as found in countries such as the United States, Japan and Germany. Years ago, this crazy system
was created in Brazil, which consists of school shifts — one, two, three shifts… That’s fine for the middle class child,
who can succeed because there is someone to teach him at home. However, when the family is uneducated, the child
fails. Basically, Brazilian schools are very hostile to the poor population, and that’s what I am trying to change.
What is your opinion about the present economic and political situation in Brazil?
Look, politically, Brazil has a very likable and handsome President; we all like him. He is a respected intellectual
and he doesn’t steal, which is all very nice. The economy is doing very badly, though. Fernando Henrique was
very successful when he created a new national currency and put a stop to inflation, but the consequences to the
formula used by him to fight these problems are rampant unemployment and high cost of living. That is forcing
small businesses into bankruptcy and the unemployment rate is one of the worst ever. Consequently, hunger,
delinquency and juvenile prostitution are getting worse in Brazil. Even the President acknowledges that the medicine is killing
What would be the cure to the problem?
Damned if I know. I am not the President, it’s his problem.
How would you describe your political militancy?
I’m a man with a labor tradition, which is the best Brazilian tradition, politically speaking. It dates from 1930,
when Getúlio Vargas seized power and changed the face of Brazil. Until then, there had been 12 presidents, of which 10
were graduated from the Escola de Direito (Law School) in São Paulo. I mean, they were an oligarchical group of
coffee growers who had total control over the Republic. Getúlio came along and changed all that. He created an ample
labor legislation that established the 8-hour day, the right to vacation and to strikes, and guaranteed the minimum
salary. Furthermore, the defended the national interests against foreigners. I belong to this working and nationalistic
tradition, which, incidentally, was also Jango’s (João Goulart, President of Brazil from 1962 to 1964, when he was deposed
by the military coup). During Jango’s administration, I was both Minister of Education and Culture (in 1962) and
Chief of the Civil Cabinet (in 1963/64), which is the equivalent of being Prime-Minister.
You were also a member of the Communist Party. Why did you leave the Party?
Oh, that was when I was a student. Once you leave school, your thoughts change a bit, but what really changed
me and scared the hell out of me was Getúlio’s suicide. Just imagine, the most beloved man in Brasil blows his heart
out with a gun shot at the age of 72. Why did he kill himself? It was the pressure from the media, who were raising
false accusations against him. They, along with the military and foreign interests, were leading to a situation where
Getúlio would’ve ended up being ousted by a coup. Instead of accepting that situation, he did the unexpected and shot
himself in the heart.
How do you see the fall of communism all over the world?
I think that it was bound to happen. Everything was so hierarchic, so bureaucratic… Bureaucracy is worse
than communism, and when you put bureaucracy and communism together, it’s
uma merda (a shitty thing)!
How about Fidel Castro? Will he survive?
You can’t compare Fidel with the others. His revolution was more for the Cuban people than for ideology. Cuba is
the only country in Latin America where everybody has something to eat every day. Even with the current crisis,
every child is in school and every sick person gets medical care. Basically, he did wonderful things for Cuba. Before,
the country was a mere brothel of the United States. Fidel changed Cuba’s image, and the people are proud of him.
Of course, he has to come down some day — he has been in power for too many years. What he can’t do is to open
the game to any opportunist and allow Cuba to regress to its original situation. What the United States has been trying
to do to Cuba for 35 years is a sacanagem (an immoral act; dirty trick)! One may even agree that Fidel is a despot,
but he is a minuscule despot against the giant.
You have innumerable facets: anthropologist, ethnologist, educator, novelist, poet, ‘immortal’… Which
area fulfilled you the most?
I liked everything I did. For 10 years I lived with the Indians in the jungle, and those were the best years of my
life. Later, I spent 10 years working with education and that was good, too. I was dean of Universidade de Brasília,
which, incidentally was created by me. I also had many years of political militancy, which led to my expulsion from
Brazil by the reactionaries. Back from exile I was elected vice-governor of Rio de Janeiro and, later on, senator — which I
also enjoy doing. My life has been very nice, and it’s good that it’s been so diverse. I’m also glad I had so much fun
and so many girlfriends.
Of course, being exiled from your own country is a horrible thing. On the other hand, it gives you the chance to
see your country in a way only possible if you are away from it. So, my horizons were expanded by this experience.
Also, during my years in exile I had the chance to reform several universities, and I befriended many nice people. Upon
my return to Brazil I was arrested, and that was bad, but I try to overcome the bad things. The most important thing in
life is to keep one’s heart light. For example, this is my second bout with cancer — the first time was 20 years ago.
Then, I had one of my lungs pulled out; I threw it out and stepped on it. I survived. Now, I’m facing another type of
cancer, but with a good chance to beat it. Life is great, as long as one doesn’t lose the joy and the will to live, the
tesão (sexual desire, literally; enthusiasm) for life…
Tell us about O Povo Brasileiro…
It took me 30 years to write this book. I had first written a huge book about the Brazilian people while in exile
in Uruguay. When I finished it, I realized that wasn’t anything new in it, that it was impossible to write about Brazil
when I didn’t have a theory to explain Brazil. But, I had a theory about the Americas, so I wrote
O Processo Civilizatório, which is a reexamination of civilization in the past 10 thousand years. Later, I wrote
As Américas e a
Civilização, where I explored the 500 years of the Americas’ existence, and tried to explain what has happened to the Indians.
Finally, there was O Dilema da América
Latina, an explanation of my theories about the Americas. Only then did I return
to my original book, which I rewrote three times. Eventually, when I was in the hospital — sick and schedule to die —
I fled the Intensive Care Unit in order to finally write
O Povo Brasileiro. I couldn’t bear the thought of dying
without finishing a book to which I had dedicated my entire life.
What made the book so successful?
I think that it was the fact that for the first time there was an explanation of how Brazilians came to be what they
are; how throughout 500 years Indians and Blacks mixed with the Portuguese and other Europeans, and made this
proud mestiça (racially mixed) nation — in its face and in its soul. We are a nation that is emerging with a new
civilization — tropical and mestiça — and is recapturing the role of Rome. About two thousand years ago, some Roman
soldiers left Latium and Etruria in order to Latinize the entire European continent, including the Iberian Peninsula. In
Portugal and Spain they created two new languages — Portuguese and Spanish — that resisted a century of Arab
domination. Fifteen hundred years later they crossed the ocean and came over here, and Latinized Blacks and Indians, as well
as the Brazilian mestiço, which today represents the largest Neo-Latin population. We are, in fact, the new Rome, but
a better one — renewed by the blood of the Negro and purified by the blood of the Indian.
You ask yourself in the book: “Why is it that Brazil hasn’t succeeded yet?” Why not, Senator?
Brazilians are a very good people, they are wonderful! What is bad is the dominant class. They are ferocious, and
play the role of consuls in defense of foreign interests. With the exception of Getúlio Vargas, there has never been
anyone politically influential who was able to defend the interests of the Brazilian people. The United States, for example,
came up with the Homesteader Act in 1860, which created millions of small land owners and was the basis of that
nation’s prosperity. Our laws date back to 1850, but unlike the North American Act, it doesn’t give any rights to the
settlers. In Brazil, he who has a piece of paper claiming title to the land has all the rights. Recently, 19 peasants, who were
just looking for a place to settle in the Amazon, where slaughtered by someone who had such a piece of paper. That’s
why the sem-terra (no-land) movement is the most important in Brazil. We have millions of people expelled from land
that is otherwise unoccupied, who end up in the cities and are, now, starving in the
favelas (shanty towns). The cheapest way to fight unemployment
is by giving a man a small piece of land where he can produce enough to
eat and live on. The small proprietorship is what guarantees peoples’
prosperity and gives millions of families a humane foundation.