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AFRICA-BRAZIL: Lula Includes Blacks on Foreign and Domestic Agendas

Mario Osava

RIO DE JANEIRO, Feb 13 2006 (IPS) - Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva returned to Brasilia Monday after his fifth tour of Africa, while the controversy over quotas for black and indigenous students in Brazil’s public universities continues to rage.

The closer ties that are being forged between Brazil and the African continent is a positive development, in terms of both foreign policy and the effects on the fight against discrimination suffered by black Brazilians, Geraldo Rocha, director of the Centre for the Mobilisation of Marginalised Populations (CEAP), told IPS.

President Lula “has opened up a new era in Brazil’s relations with Africa,” thus contributing to strengthening the Brazilian identity, which is heavily influenced by the country’s black population, said Rocha. “It was more than necessary to reestablish these relations, which were previously scorned by Brazilian governments,” he argued.

Lula visited Algeria, Benin and Botswana, from Wednesday to Saturday, before taking part in the Progressive Governance Summit in Pretoria, the capital of South Africa, over the weekend. He had already been to 17 countries in Africa on four different trips since taking office in January 2003.

Brazil will no longer overlook Africa, Lula said in Gaborone, the capital of Botswana, where he offered Brazilian aid to combat the HIV/AIDS epidemic which affects 30 percent of the population of 1.8 million.

In that southern African nation, the president spoke of Brazil’s “debt” to the Africans who helped give rise to “one of the most joyous and beautiful people on earth.”


Brazil’s historical and cultural ties with Africa had already been highlighted in Benin. In that West African nation, Lula visited the “Gate of No Return”, where slaves were shipped off, but through which some came back after Brazil – Latin America’s giant – abolished slavery in 1888. The president met with the descendants of one of the families that returned, whose last name is also Silva. In addition, he took part in a local voodoo ceremony.

His tour began in Algeria, the only country on his route where Brazil has economic interests. The visit was of great importance because of the need to reduce Brazil’s nearly 2.5 billion dollar trade deficit with that North African country, Lula said in a summary of his trip during his weekly radio programme Monday.

Algeria is Brazil’s biggest foreign supplier of oil. To achieve more balanced trade with that country, the Lula administration is seeking to expand exports of food products, especially beef, and industrial goods.

Among his offers of aid, Lula pledged to unilaterally phase out tariffs on all imports from Africa’s poorest nations, and to provide Brazilian agricultural technology and health assistance, especially in the fight against HIV, the AIDS virus.

Lula’s foreign policy is “one of the interesting aspects of his government, where he has remained true to his leftist roots,” unlike in economic policy, said Joel Rufino dos Santos, a black historian and writer.

His repeated visits to Africa are in keeping with his government’s affirmative action in favour of the black population, he commented to IPS.

These initiatives include the creation of a Secretariat for the Promotion of Racial Equality, which has the status of a government ministry, and the incorporation of Afro-Brazilian history and culture in the educational curriculums as of 2003.

However, the implementation of that provision has run into difficulties, said Rocha, due to the lack of teachers with training in those areas. CEAP’s aims include the promotion of teacher training courses and the publication of books and teaching material on African and Afro-Brazilian culture and history, he noted.

Another measure pushed by the Lula administration, the adoption of quotas for black students, is the focus of heated debate. Committees in the lower house of Congress have approved a bill that would reserve half of all spots in public universities for students who completed their last three years of secondary school in the public education system.

The bill is designed to favour low-income students whose families cannot afford to send them to the private schools that put middle-class and wealthy children at an advantage when it comes to being accepted in the best universities, which are public.

The quota reserved for public school graduates would include a share exclusively aimed at black and indigenous students, proportional to their presence in each of Brazil’s 26 states, according to the bill.

The Lula administration “is on the right path,” despite difficulties and shortcomings, in its attempts to overcome the discrimination that blacks have always suffered in Brazil, a country marked by extreme social and economic inequality, said Rocha.

The president’s tours of Africa have contributed to “giving visibility to these issues,” he underlined.

 
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