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Human Rights

Winds of Racial Change in Brazil

Joaquim Barbosa. Credit: Supreme Federal Court of Brazil.

RIO DE JANEIRO, Nov 5 2012 (IPS) - The appointment of Judge Joaquim Barbosa, seen as a popular hero because of his performance in one of Brazil’s highest-profile corruption cases, as the first black president of the country’s Supreme Court on Nov. 22 will be a landmark in national history.

Barbosa has been handling a trial of an alleged misappropriation of public funds to buy votes in Congress, involving leaders of the ruling left-wing Workers’ Party (PT) and former ministers of the government of former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (2003-2011).

In Brazil, where 50.6 percent of the population of 194 million identify themselves as Afro-descendants in the census, there has never been a black Supreme Court president before.

“It’s doubly important, because he is black, and because he is the black person he is,” Carlos Alberto Medeiros, an analyst on race relations and Brazil’s laws, said in an interview with IPS.

Medeiros, who in the Brazilian racial scheme is considered mixed-race or “mulatto”, knows how difficult it is to aspire to high office in any institution in this country where, as Barbosa says, “black people have been historically excluded.”

That is why the achievement of Barbosa – who like a majority of blacks in this country grew up poor, facing serious hurdles to attain a higher education – “is a symbolic event at a time when Brazilian society is experiencing changes in social relations, and other blacks and mulattos are taking up important positions,” Medeiros said.

These social changes also carried Lula, a metalworker and trade union leader, twice to the presidency, and a woman, his successor Dilma Rousseff, to the same office.

Barbosa, appointed to the Supreme Court by Lula shortly after he took office, is fluent in several languages, graduated in law from the University of Brasilia, and holds postgraduate degrees from Brazil, France and the United States. He is also recognised as a virtuoso piano and violin player.

The 58-year-old future president of the Supreme Court is the son of a bricklayer. He was born into a large, poor family in a rural village in the state of Minas Gerais, and overcame innumerable obstacles to get where he is today.

Barbosa put himself through school with his job cleaning floors in the courts which he later trod as a lawyer and judge. Even when he became a well-known figure in the world of law, he was often still confused, because of the colour of his skin, with the parking valet at the restaurant where he often had lunch.

As the judge overseeing the corruption case known as “mensalao” (large monthly payment), Barbosa will take over the presidency of the Supreme Court, an office held in rotation in order of the ages of its members, at a time regarded as historical in a country where impunity used to be the rule.

The judge is regarded as rigorous and impartial for rulings that may condemn key figures in the PT to lengthy prison sentences, including some close to former president Lula.

Ivanir dos Santos, head of the Centro de Articulação de Populações Marginalizadas (CEAP – Centre for Marginalised Populations), said the main thing was not just Barbosa’s professional career, but his commitment to affirmative action.

Barbosa has written prolifically about racial quotas, and has also taken decisive action in historic votes in favour of this type of legislation to compensate centuries of injustice in a country that did not abolish slavery until 1888.

“It’s not just that there is now a black person on the Supreme Court, but the fact that he is aware of what ails those who share a common origin with him, and that although he has not made his career in the Afro-descendants’ movement, he is sensitive and committed to it,” dos Santos told IPS.

Dos Santos, an activist for black rights, claims his organisation has to some extent contributed to Barbosa’s career, by granting him a scholarship to study in the United States, among other things.

Andrei Koerner, a professor in the political science department at the University of Campinas and an expert on the Brazilian justice system, said Lula’s decision to appoint a black person to the Supreme Court was “outstanding” and “conferred prestige on a professional with a personal history different from those hitherto chosen for the top jobs in the country.”

In an interview with IPS, Koerner said Rousseff has followed the direction taken by Lula, not only in personal appointments, as represented by the large number of women in her cabinet, but also in affirmative action quotas for public employees and in the expansion of social programmes.

In August, Rousseff promulgated a law reserving half the places in public universities for black, indigenous and poor students who had attended public primary and secondary schools.

She backed the law, she said, in order to pay the historical debt owed to the poorest young people in the country, including blacks and people of mixed race, who have the worst socioeconomic indicators.

But in Koerner’s view, Barbosa’s rise to high office was not a decisive event in the “democratisation of power” in the country.

“The judicial branch is very isolated, and appointments and promotions are subject to internal political dynamics that we know very little about,” he said.

“Democratisation would imply changes in effective participation by citizens’ representatives on the deliberative organs of the judicial branch, which is a long way from happening,” he added.

In law degree courses at public universities, the proportion of black students is small, and the percentage is even smaller in important posts in the justice system, like court judges.

“Black people are a minority in the justice system. Barbosa’s appointment to the presidency of the Supreme Court, as a symbolic figure and because of his intellectual stature and education, will encourage other black people to make it to important positions in society,” said dos Santos.

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