By Dave Zirin
A while ago I asked several of my co-workers a basic question: What language do most Black people speak in the Western Hemisphere? Only one person knew that the correct answer is Portuguese, the national language of Brazil.
The answer to this question raises many other questions about the reality of Brazil. Brazil is both the fifth most populous nation in the world as well as the fifth largest nation in the world. More Black people live in Brazil than in any other nation except Nigeria. Brazil has it’s own martial arts style, Capoeira, it’s own dance and music styles, Samba, as well as it’s own way of playing the game of soccer known to the world as football.
Dave Zirin’s recent book Brazil’s Dance with the Devil gives us a unique view of the nation much of the world learned about through the World Cup, and the Olympics. This book gives us a view of Brazil that was completely ignored by the mainstream press during the recent Olympic games.
One of the reasons why Brazil has such a large Black population stems from the fact that Brazil and the Caribbean were the two places that received the most kidnapped slaves from Africa. Slavery in Brazil was especially horrendous. Life expectancy for a Brazilian slave was eighteen years.
Before the Civil War in the United States, slave owners were the dominant power in this country. The Civil War was, in effect, the second revolution in the United States. The defeat of the confederacy removed slave owners from their position of power. When the U.S. government abolished slavery, the slave owners lost their most valuable so-called possession. Slaves valued at literally billions of dollars became workers who received a salary for their labor.
Brazil has a different history with respect to the abolition of slavery. For a time, the Portuguese King needed to escape the French conquest, and he sailed to Brazil. While living in Brazil, the King opposed slavery.
Brazil has a vast interior that was not developed during the time of slavery. Brazilian slaves routinely escaped to the interior, and it became increasingly difficult to apprehend them.
Nearly 200 years before the slave revolution on the island of Haiti, a settlement of escaped slaves was established in Brazil. This settlement, known as Palmares, was home to more than 10,000 escaped slaves from the years 1605-1694. While the settlement of Palmares was overturned by the Portuguese military, slaves continued to escape into Brazil’s interior. As in all nations where slavery existed, slave insurrections were a routine fact of life.
An article written in the Brazilian periodical O Rebate in 1889 gave the following reason for the abolition of slavery:
“Had slaves not fled in masse from the plantations, they would today still be slaves. Slavery ended because slaves rebelled against it and against the law that enslaved them.” The abolition “was nothing more than the legal recognition–so that public authority wasn’t discredited–of an act that had already been accomplished by mass revolt.”
The other reason for the abolition of slavery had to do with the poor health of the slaves. Because slave owners were indifferent to the health care of slaves, they suffered from diseases that spread to the rest of the population. For all these reasons, Brazil became the last nation in the Western Hemisphere to abolish slavery in 1888.
São Paulo became the most important commercial city in Brazil, and today it is the most populous city in South America. Historically São Paulo has been the center of coffee production in Brazil, and Brazil is the world’s leading coffee producer. Next to oil, coffee produces more revenue than any other natural resource.
Like in many nations of Latin America, working people and small farmers had few resources to support themselves. In Brazil, working people used available materials to build their homes. In the areas surrounding the cities, these working class areas became known as the favelas.
Brazil had a history of repressive governments that organized some development of the nation. Then, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva was elected to be President of Brazil. He is known around the world as Lula.
Lula and the Workers Party
Reading the life story of Lula, I thought of Bernie Sanders, who ran for President in this country. Sanders promised all kinds of reforms if he were elected. Then, after his defeat, he endorsed Hillary Clinton who clearly isn’t interested in making any basic changes.
Lula was born into a working class family and became a factory worker. Because of the dangerous conditions workers are exposed to, Lula lost one of his fingers. He attempted to get treatment for the injury in one of the hospitals in that area. None of those hospitals would treat him because he didn’t have sufficient financial resources.
Lula then became president of the steelworkers union. The government arrested him for his union activities. He was tortured while in police custody.
Then, Lula helped organize the Workers Party and ran for president six times. He finally won the election.
During Lula’s presidency, Brazil had a significant increase in revenue. This was primarily due to the discovery of oil and the increase of exports to China. Because of this new revenue, Brazil was able to pay off it’s exorbitant debt to the International Monetary Fund. We should keep in mind that paying off this debt meant that Brazilian working people helped to enrich some of the most affluent people in the world.
Lula did make some initiatives to improve the standard of living for the poorest Brazilians. However, the lion’s share of this new revenue went to the Brazilian billionaires. Some of the money collected by these billionaires went to purchasing the U.S. corporation of Anheuser Busch the makers of Budweiser Beer. They also purchased the Kraft corporation Heinz that produces the ketchup many of us use.
Lula also had a different foreign policy from his predecessors. He was critical of U.S. foreign policy and had friendly relations with the Cuban government. The governments of Bolivia and Venezuela have similar foreign policies. Throughout Latin America there was a resentment of the fact that the U.S. government had supported many of the repressive military dictatorships that ruled the continent.
Then, Lula resigned from office and supported his Workers Party successor Dilma Rousseff. The former military regime held Dilma in prison for two years and tortured her during that time. At the time of his resignation Lula was one of the most popular Presidents in the world with an eighty percent approval rating.
However, in the capitalist system financial upturns eventually develop into downturns. This is what happened in Dilma Rousseff’s presidency. By the year 2013 demonstrations rocked Brazil because of an economic downturn. Apparently the demonstrators would have preferred that the wealth of Brazil be used for education and health care, rather than for beer and ketchup. At the time of her impeachment Dilma had an approval rating of about ten percent.
Lula and Dilma both worked against the Landless Workers’ Movement, MST who have about 1.5 million members. Trade union membership has declined under while the Workers Party ran the government from 30% to 17%.
David Zirin had this to say about the Workers Party initiatives that caused increasing inequality:
“The oligarchs’ land ownership has not only increased but has become more concentrated than it was fifty years ago, a result of Brazil’s transforming into one of the leading agribusiness and beef-producing countries on earth. As a part of this land grab, Lula and his successor Dilma have been far tougher on the landless peasant movement than his right-wing predecessors.”
A direct consequence of the Olympics has been an increase in police murders of civilians. Another consequence has been a drive to force residents of the favelas out of their homes to make room for the construction of new and more expensive housing.
Zirin quoted a teacher from Rio de Janeiro who said:
“I used to be a fan of Dilma, but I lost respect for her when she sided with the mayor’s plan for Olympic development. There are some huge contradictions between her federal policy and the local impact of the Olympic development, which she supports. . . Dilma is just a capitalist. And this is just capitalism, its all about making money. The poor are the ones who built this city. You couldn’t be here without the poor of Rio. But now, the people who built the city are being pushed out. You can’t have a positive legacy of the Games when the poor who created this city aren’t part of that legacy.”
So the struggle to liberate Brazil continues. A crucial lesson we can learn from all this is that the capitalist system needs to be abolished. Union officials are incapable of making the capitalist system favorable to workers. Only when workers take power and make human needs more important than profits will working people be treated with the dignity we all deserve.
The Cuban Revolution
When we look at the recent history of Brazil, we can also take a look at how the Cuban Revolution transformed the reality of that nation. Shortly after the revolution, the Cuban government organized a literacy drive to make sure everyone on the island knew how to read. Within a year this drive was an overwhelming success.
We might consider that literacy drives in other parts of the world have failed to reduce the percentages of people who are illiterate. The difference is that in Cuba the government has created an atmosphere where people want to continue their education. Today all Cubans have a lifetime right to pursue their education.
One result of these policies is that today Cuba has more doctors per capita than any other nation in the world. The infant mortality rate in any part of Cuba is significantly lower than that rate in the urban centers of the United States.
While Cuba continues to have many significant problems, those problems are clearly not the same as the problems of Brazil. We can also imagine what would happen if a government that had the same priorities as the Cuban government, and also had the resources of the developed world. A nation that had that combination would clearly have the potential to have the highest standard of living in the world.