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Date: Thu, 16 Mar 1995 22:23:33 -0500 (EST)
From: PNEWS <odin@shadow.net>
Subject: PNEWS:[Brazil]-Apartheid in Americas
Message-ID: <Pine.SUN.3.91.950316222053.20891D-100000@anshar.shadow.net>

/* Written by crossroads in igc:crossroads */
/* ---------- "Brazil:Apartheid in Americas" ---------- */
The following article appeared in the December/January issue of CrossRoads magazine.
For more information about subscribing to CrossRoads, email crossroad-info@igc.apc.org

Apartheid in Americas

Carlos Verrisimo discusses the interweaving of race, class and poverty in Brazil with Teresa Sanchez, CrossRoads, December/January 1994/95

Brazil is one of the Latin American countries that has most enthusiastically taken up neo-liberal economic reform. A nation of great natural wealth and human resources, Brazil shares the dubious honor -- with Mexico -- of having the greatest disparity between rich and poor in the Western Hemisphere. After two decades under a brutal military regime, Brazil has begun to re-establish civilian government and civic participation in national life. But whether this process is considered democratization largely depends on one's relative position within the country's socioeconomic and racial matrix.

Every two minutes, a child dies in Brazil; 53 percent of children under 15 live 50 percent below the official poverty line in families earning less than $70 per month.

Children currently make up 18 percent of the country's work force. Child labor has risen 11 percent since 1970. Youths between 14 and 18 years of age make up 45 percent of the work force, up from 31.4 percent in 1970.

For those children entering first grade, only 10 percent will complete primary school. Inadequate nutrition and poor conditions make it difficult to study. Most students cannot afford books and supplies and are forced out of the public school system forming a body of eight million marginalized street children.

The murder of street children in cities such as Rio de Janeiro has become epidemic. Business owners hire armed thugs, in some cases off-duty police officers, to assassinate children as they sleep. Eighty percent of the victims are Afro-Brazilian. The death toll over the last 10 years is double the number of U.S. troops killed in the war in Indochina.

Recently, under the guise of the war on crime, the governor of Rio de Janeiro turned over control of state and local law enforcement agencies to the Brazilian Army. The federal army will coordinate the roundup of suspected bandits and drug traffickers in Brazil's most famous city. Plans to crack down on drugs and weapons include the potential military occupation of 400 working class neighborhoods.

The timing of this extraordinary law enforcement initiative coincides with the mid-November special elections for state offices. New elections had to be called because the October election results had to be thrown out due to massive fraud.


For Brazilian activist Carlos Verr!simo, these facts demonstrate the racist nature of the Brazilian state and the inequitable impact of neo-liberal economic policies. The unofficial-but-officially-tolerated policy of extermination of marginalized members of society exposes the underside of Brazil's transition to civilian government since 1984. While the military is no longer formally in government, the political and economic elites in power are, for the most part, the same ones who prospered under the military regime.

Increasing concentration of wealth -- and especially agricultural land -- continually forces migration to urban areas. More than 70 percent of Brazil's population live in the cities, swelling the working class shanty towns known as favelas. Favela residents often lack basic services such as water and electricity. Even workers with full-time jobs often earn sub-minimum wages and cannot afford daily transportation from home to work. Thousands of these workers live as homeless people on the streets of Rio Monday through Friday, only to return to their families on the weekends.

For activists such as Verr!simo, the issue of race and class are indivisible in Brazilian. Out of a total population of 150 million, 90 million are of African decent. This gives the largest country in Latin America the third largest Black population in the world, Verr!simo says. But when one looks at the government bureaucracy, the military hierarchy and the directors of corporations, one never sees a Black person.

Since the mid-seventies, the Brazilian Black consciousness movement has been organizing regionally and nationally in a variety of forms to change the conditions of all oppressed people in the country. The Instituto de Pesquias das Culturas Negras (Institute for Research of Black Culture) -- in which Verr!simo works -- was founded in 1975 by Afro-Brazilians with the goal of fighting racism and ending racial discrimination. IPCN seeks to empower marginalized peoples to demand a genuine transition to democracy.

Historically, the Brazilian left has been hesitant to deal with racial inequality. Verr!simo attributes this to the official ideology of racial democracy in Brazil and the Brazilian left's Eurocentrism. We've put these questions on the table, and they don't understand what we are talking about. They have no theoretical basis to understand the link between race and class. I think this is one of the big challenges for the left in Latin America, particularly in Brazil. We have this strong racial component in society, and we can't explain exploitation as just a class problem.

Yes we have this class problem, but I believe that the way capitalism works to stay in power is to exploit the differences within the working class itself. They will exploit you because you are a woman, they will exploit youth because they have no protection, they exploit Black people because they are Black and have less power in society, they use these differences maintain control. This is their strategy. We believe that we must understand this strategy, and create a new strategy to fight against this system.

Traditionally, marginalized sectors of society have not been satisfied within the structure of left organizations and trade union structures: It's not enough to say we need to unify all these people because we need unity for the class struggle. The working class is diverse and has many different issues, many different realities. For women, Blacks, the youth, when they bring their issues to the unions and the parties, they are told `this is not the main issue, it's not a class issue.' So this frustrates people. I know many people that left unions and parties out of frustration, because they had no representation there.

The process of transition from a military to civilian government, known as democratization, culminated this past October 10, 1994 with the election of former socialist and currently neo-liberal Fernando Enrique Cardoso. For Carlos Verr!simo, the recent electoral process proves the strength and impunity of the Brazilian elite. This democratization process was created by the military. Of course we needed to do this. This was a tremendous struggle in the society to push for this democratic process. I was part of this process. But all this happened with the permission of the military. When you create a process like you have in Brazil, they maintain the control of it. We don't have a military regime any more in Brazil, but of course we don't have a real democracy. The people really need change. Some kind of new things need to happen in the country.

Approximately 30 million people are living in misery, not poverty, misery. These people have no participation in this democratization process. They have no time to think and decide who is a better candidate. They can't buy a newspaper, they don't have radios. They can't go to meetings to talk about the situation in the country, they are completely marginalized. So what kind of a democracy is that, when you put millions and millions of people outside the process?

This kind of democracy is very helpful to the elite. It helps them continue exploitation and maintain control.


IPCN, as a non-partisan group, works in the electoral arena in different ways. We support candidates that are representative of the people. There are many candidates who are in the left parties, especially the Workers Party (PT) and the Democratic Workers Party (PDT), there are people who are very dedicated to the working people and marginalized, and we support such candidates.

But the October 1994 election was really terrible for the left, especially the left parties. The elite proved that they no longer need to conduct a coup, like in Haiti. They proved they can maintain control via manipulation, and with impunity.

The majority of people in the congress are mainly representatives of the business community. There are few Black members of congress: just four out of 500. The elite showed the people they are still in control of the country and they have no intention of sharing power with the majority.

Still, I think something will happen very soon in Brazil. You can't continue to oppress the people for so long. If the people don't believe they can make change through the electoral process they will find another way.

The IPCN is planning it's Third International Conference in 1995. We are trying to bring people from different countries together, because we realize that the elites in Brazil work together with the elites in other countries. So we believe it's time for the people to come together, to talk about our diversity but also to talk about what we have in common. It is also time for us to talk about strategy. We need to have strong participation on the national level, but also on the international level, so that we can begin to coordinate our work at the international level.

We want to open the door for people to share their experiences. You have many organizers here in the U.S. who are doing good things in different areas. We have a lot of organizers in Brazil who are eager to hear about your experiences, and who want to share our experience with you. I think the IPCN conference is one way to give a new energy to the organizers.

We are trying to invite more people from Latin American countries. This conference is for all oppressed people. We need to come together; we have a very similar reality. The same arm of oppression afflicts people in the U.S., in Haiti, in Africa, in Europe, in Asia -- it is the same arm that oppresses people in Latin America. We have to understand this process. This conference will bring a new hope for our organizations in Brazil, particularly in Rio de Janeiro.