Archive for Politics

Race: US & Brazil

“Despite Brazil’s social ease around race, many argue that its blacks simply moved from the slave quarters to the slums.”

This is an incredibly well-written article on many of the issues of race in Brazil, ones which, in the wake of Obama’s election, I have encountered more frequently during my conversations with Brazilian friends, taxi drivers, work colleagues, etc.  The article offers a good look at racial dynamics in Brazil as compared to the United States… from a common history of slavery and social exclusion to the non/evolution of a civil rights movements and the vast differences that our countries face as a result of post-slavery legislation.  Brazilian’s hope for Obama remains extremenly high; “Barack Obama represents what every black person in the world has been hoping for: that the fight of the dream for racial equality in North America can spread to the entire world.”

despedida-recife-2008-033Brazilian kids enjoying a sunday afternoon treat at the beach

Obama win forces Brazil to take a tolerance check Dec 5, 2008  11:44 AM EST
RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil – What struck the Brazilian woman most forcibly as she watched U.S. election returns on television was seeing Barack Obama’s two young daughters.

“I can’t believe those two little girls with hair like mine will be in the White House,” said 31-year-old Carolina Iootty Dias, putting her hand to her head, tears in her eyes as she watched the screen.

Black Brazilians such as Dias, a human rights worker, celebrated Obama’s election as giving hope worldwide. But the country that prides itself on racial mixing and tolerance is also being forced to take a reality check.

Though half of Brazil’s 190 million people are black – the world’s largest black population outside Nigeria – power remains firmly in the hands of whites. The country has few blacks in top political positions, and government studies consistently show blacks in Brazil earn half as much as whites.

“This Brazilian hypocrisy that says racism does not exist is one of the things that keeps the nation from advancing,” said Stepan Nercessian, an actor and Rio de Janeiro city councilman, who is white.

Latin America’s largest country has long looked down its nose at the racial discord in the U.S. – segregation laws, civil rights battles and a strained social dialogue that continues today.

But Obama’s election is making Brazilians look inward, with some arguing that an American-style struggle is exactly what Brazil is missing.

“I think it is important for young black Brazilians to know how the civil rights movement progressed in the U.S. and how it produced not just Obama, but blacks at the highest levels of American businesses,” said Edson Santos, Brazil’s minister of racial equality, who is black. “It is important that they have contact with this reality.”

Glaucia Carvalho Oliveira is one of those young people.

“All of a sudden, Obama has arrived and taken us to the next level,” she said, sweat glistening on her face as she assembled her snack stand on Rio’s Copacabana beach. “We black Brazilians need him as much as the Americans do.”

Brazil and the U.S. were two of the largest slave-owning societies in the Americas – some 4 million shipped to Brazil and 500,000 to the U.S. – and the two countries that benefited most from the slave trade.

Brazil freed its blacks in 1888, the last country in the Americas to do so. In that year it abolished all its race laws, while American blacks had to fight for more than 100 years after they were freed to gain full rights as citizens.

Black and white Brazilians mix easily in both marriage and social venues, from soccer matches to samba clubs. Beyond the half of the population that is black, most Brazilians are of mixed ancestry and have a census category, “parda.”

No such category exists in the U.S. census. Obama, who is half white and identifies as black, could call himself parda if he were Brazilian.

Despite Brazil’s social ease around race, many argue that its blacks simply moved from the slave quarters to the slums.

They are only 3 percent of Brazil’s college graduates. Only one senator among 81 is black, which mirrors the U.S. breakdown, except that blacks are only 13 percent of the U.S. population. Twelve of Brazil’s lower house’s 513 members are black, compared with 46 out of 435 U.S. house members.

With Brazil’s history of authoritarian governments and extreme poverty, blacks only started organizing in the last 40 years, said Reginaldo Lima, who is black and directs AfroReggae, which works on race and violence issues in Rio’s slums.

Six years ago the country elected its first blue-collar president, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, a white man who enjoys huge support among blacks. But only two of his 28 government ministers are black.

In 2003 Brazil appointed its first black Supreme Court justice, Joaquim Barbosa, whom some consider a future presidential candidate. Barbosa traveled to Washington to watch the U.S. elections.

Many whites play down the level of prejudice in Brazil, saying the inequalities are economic, not racial.

“We see people not as black or white. We don’t look at a black person and think they are not as capable as whites,” said medical secretary Liliane Lyra, 43. “It is more a social problem that separates the races here, a lack of opportunity for the poor.”

But Alannah Xavier, 26, says her black skin, not her economic status, keeps her from getting work as a model in Brazil.

“You know where I work the most? In Germany … a nation that is supposedly so racist with its Nazi past,” said Xavier. “Here in Brazil they only have work for blondes. Crazy, no?”

Since Silva took office, there have been positive changes, notably affirmative action in the university system, said Jose Vicente, director of Ciudadana Zumbi dos Palmares University, who is black.

Lima says Obama’s election will help that struggle.

“Barack Obama represents what every black person in the world has been hoping for: that the fight of the dream for racial equality in North America can spread to the entire world,” he said.

Others doubt there will be an “Obama effect.”

“This is a very racially mixed country, but all the elites are white. Things have been so bad for so long, I think people just accept it,” said Carlos Eduardo Antones, 21, a waiter and part-time student who is black.

Either way, Emmanuel Miranda is happy to savor the moment.

The 53-year-old Rio de Janeiro policeman, who is black, sipped an espresso in a cafe off Copacabana beach, lit his first cigarette of the day, and declared a new era.

“The U.S. is a country to dream about, and for us black Brazilians it is even easier to do so now,” he said. “God bless you and your beautiful country.”

Associated Press writer Marco Sibaja in Brasilia and APTN producer Flora Charner in Rio de Janeiro contributed to this report.

By BRADLEY BROOKS     Associated Press Writers


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As a campaigns organizer by profession and by passion, this has been a really frustrating time for me to be abroad.  Brazilians who I meet overwhelmingly support Obama (I actually haven’t met one McCain supporter yet!), which, in turn, gives me an overwhelmingly optimistic feeling.  But then I remember that these folks aren’t registered to vote in the US, even though poor & positive decisions alike made far away in Washington DC effect them every day… most recently in weakening of the Brazilian currency, the Real (for more on the US financial crisis’ effects on Latin America, see this NY Times article).  Yes, the polls seem to be in Obama’s favor, but from a distance it’s hard to feel the sentiment across the US.

After watching the debates from the Brazilian-American Association the other night in Recife, it was difficult not to jump out of my seat and head back to the US for a quite last minute get-out-the-vote stint.  The Brazilians in the room were surprisingly chill as they watched the debates… and I say surprisingly because the recent October elections here in Brazil were extremely decadent, and the legal six month campaigning period leading up to them were full of  campaign announcements blasting from truck & bike alike, huge campaign offices complete with food & drink areas built just for the elections, and one-too-many human size cut outs of the candidates on every corner of the city.  My roommate Nadir even reported three ‘trio-eletricos’ in her small, 400,000 person city of Campina Grande for the winning candidate; trio-eletricos are more well known as the huge parade & music floats that are hauled out at Brazilian Carnaval.

In this debate watching crowd there were three rowdy American (U.S.) Obama supporters (myself included), and around 30 quiet, polite Brazilians.  In the preface to the debates, two Brazilian political scientists talked to us about the paradox of  US power… the obvious impact for Brazil of our ‘hard’ military & political power, but  less obviously, our soft cultural power that seems to have seeped into every seam and nook in this country.  According to these guys, the US exports this cultural power to Brazil via film & fashion, and, as they asserted, indirectly influence Brazilian culture. Ie what Brazilians think are ‘theirs,’ they are actually importing from the US.

I am not 100% clear on why they prefaced the debates with this argument, but this leads into my perspective on the Brazilian take on the US elections… they are not passively absorbing US views on the elections, but rather CRITICALLY thinking about the candidates, something that many US-ers have long lost the ability (or weren’t taught in school) to do.  Brazilians, unlike many in the US, do not eat up the popular lies being spread around regarding the candidates.  They don’t accuse Obama of being a terrorist, and they are excited to see someone who represents the diversity of the Americas as a front-runner candidate in such an influential country.  The week after Palin was nominated VP, the Diario de Pernambuco headlined with stories about questionable embezzlement issues related to her family & her gubernatorial gig in Alaska.  In fact, my colleagues asked me about it before I had even read the news and learned about the accusations!

I won’t get into my perspectives on the outcome of the 3rd debate (nor Joe the Plumber) because that’s clear to you the reader.  Our local Brazilian analysts concluded that if there is one clear consensus in this process, it’s this… even a lifetime Republican like McCain needs to distance himself from the destructive policies of George W. Bush to be elected, and it’s clear that the U.S. – and the world – desperately needs a new direction.  So whatever your new direction, learn about the candidates’ positions, think critically and then VOICE IT by VOTING IT!  If Brazilians can think critically about the issues, then there’s no excuse for those of you registered voters in the US not to do so.  And it’s the least that a disgruntled-ly distant campaigns organizer such as I can do here from Brazil.

Get out and vote on November 4th!

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Blog entry on borrow- “Por favor, Meeester Bush!”

I haven’t posted new content in a few weeks, and now, what’s worse, I’m ‘blog borrowing.’  I’m not too hip on blog etiquette, so here’s hoping it’s kosher (and promising some fresh content in the near future).

I’ve so thoroughly enjoyed browsing other people’s blogs these days, as opposed to pinning down my own recent thoughts & experiences, perhaps becaue I have too much time to think and in my over-analyses I’m tending to be quite moody, ie. not fun blog content for you readers.

But this entry is fun!  While browsing through the blog archives of a fellow traveler that I met in Paraguay, I landed on “Por favor, Meeester Bush.”  I’m not the laugh-out-loud-while-staring-at-a-screen-type (Seinfeld being the sole exception), but this one definitely brought out a chuckle and the post is worth a read; particularly because in one iteration or another I’ve had this exact experience while traveling over the past eight years (Morocco, Mexico, Japan, Brazil all have their Bush anecdotes).  And sometimes, you just get tired of defending your personal integrity as an American despite the current administration (“but who actually elected him, then, comes the frequent response to my I sure as hell didn’t!“), and in response, have to simply smile and laugh.

Por favor, Meeester Bush!

I don’t want to politicize this blog, I just wanted to relate this little tale briefly, because it was a major event in the course of my travels.

My roommate and I went down to a field near our house to play some pickup soccer. We got there to find a bunch of guys in their late 20s and early 30s playing a very impressive match. They let us join in with the usual jeers and everybody had a good time.

We were taking a (much needed) break between 10 minute halves, sitting around on the sidelines just chatting, when they asked us where we were from. “Estadounidenses, somos.” I responded – we’re Americans.

“Estados Unidos?” they repeated, reasonably shocked (they don’t get many American visitors…the entry visa process is a real pain). There was a microsecond pause as they coordinated telepathically, launching into the same joke simultaneously.

“OOoohhh Meeester Bush! No me tires. Boom! No me mates! jajajaja cuidado las bombas! jajaja no me golpes! BOOM! jajaja”

As if you need a translation:

“Oh Mister Bush! Don’t shoot me (some put hands in the air, others mime holding a machine gun)! Boom! Don’t kill me! hahah lol! watch out for the bombs, guys! haha don’t blow me up! BOOM! (mime being blown apart from the chest) hahaha! lolz!”

It was no big deal to them. It really was just a joke to them. They still let us play, they treated us the same as they had before, and invited us to play again with them next time.
But to be honest, the whole exchange made me sick to my stomach. It wasn’t their fault – they were just purveyors of the cultural humor with which everybody else has been too polite to entertain.

This needs to end.

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Democratic transitions ~ Photos from Paraguay

Some street scenes from today’s peaceful, democratic transition of power in Paraguay’s capital, Asunción.

Entering downtown, streets are lined with military personnel and police, waiting to honor President Lugo with a parade. However, the initial atmosphere felt much more like a police-state than a historic inauguration.

Closer to the center of activities and surrounded by every day Paraguayans, tereré and all. The thermos that this Paraguayan is carrying is full of ice cold water, probably infused with lemongrass or mint or some other summer herb, and will be poured through a small glass filled with the herb yerba maté for a nice, refreshing drink. Paraguayans rarely leave home without the hot or cold tea thermos.

Paraguayan flags out en masse, and in creative form.

Waiting for the new President to ride by.

The crowd gathered in front of the barricades to get a closer glimpse of President Lugo and his approaching caravan; we were about 10 feet away as he passed.

There’s Lugo, waving from the truck, dressed down in a casual white shirt and the blue, red, and white sash.

A young supporter.

Diplomats wisk past us. The man in white in the background is the Sudanese ambassador.


For a critical perspective on today’s transition, see fellow Fulbrighter Ben Gedan’s blog here.

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Democratic transitions ~Paraguayan style

Writing from the southern cone of South America – Asunción, Paraguay – where I witnessed Paraguay’s first democratic transition to power in this small, landlocked country’s history. Stepping into downtown Asuncion and walking about a mile to the festivities, the blue and green sea of well-groomed military, army, and police awaiting their symbolic parade were both intimidating and impressive, though lent more to a police-state ambiance at first sight than to the ecstatic energy of expectation and hope that I had expected to fill the air.

… and there were seemingly more of this military crowd then there were spectators. We waded past hundreds and hundreds of men (and a few women) in uniform, waiting for their mandatory chance to march in unison past the new President, and arrived downtown just after the inauguration speech and in time to see Lugo, the country’s new President, wave his way through minimum security crowds towards morning mass.

I’m told that in typical Paraguayan style none of the crowds obeyed the safety barricades but rather gathered in front of them, rendering them useless, and so we landed top-notch spots as President Lugo passed within ten feet of where we stood. With Latin American journalist Eduardo Galeano and the former chief of World Bank turned progressive economist Joseph Stiglitz (Globalization and its Discontents) invited as guest speakers to the capital city this week, as well as dozens of heads of state from around the world welcoming in this change (ironically we walked past the Sudanese ambassador in the open air and scorching sun earlier today in the central plaza), the excitement has been building and the implications not yet real.

Pictures to come… for now check out this story from

Aug. 15 (Bloomberg) — Paraguay’s President Fernando Lugo, a former Roman Catholic bishop, took office today in Asuncion, bringing to a close more than six decades of single-party rule and pledging to attack economic inequality.

Wearing a crisp white shirt and no tie, the bespectacled Lugo took the oath in an outdoor ceremony before an audience that included Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and Chile’s Michelle Bachelet. The national anthem was sung twice, once in Spanish and again in Guarani, an indigenous language most Paraguayans speak.

Lugo, 57, promised to fight corruption, reduce poverty and promote a “competitive” economy that will lure Paraguayans working abroad back home. Almost 36 percent of Paraguay’s 6.1 million people live in poverty, according to the International Monetary Fund.

“Today we put an end to a Paraguay for the few, a segregated Paraguay, a Paraguay infamous for corruption,” Lugo said. “Today we’re creating a Paraguay whose leaders and whose people will be relentless against those who steal from the people.”

Read the full article here.

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“Brazil Grows as Larger Economies Struggle”

Tonight’s NY Times homepage article “Brazil Grows as Larger Economies Struggle,” leaves me sadly skeptical.  My experience is that all is not so rosy for Brazil’s poor, and critics of the government’s strategy for it’s Bolsa Famila, or inscentive program to get kids enrolled in school, abound… mainly questioning the lack of strategy behind the program.  Yes, enrolled mothers get a small sum of money each month to send their kids to school, but who’s looking at the flipside- the government’s spending of the billions in taxes that these poorest Brazilians pay per year – the persistence of miles of unpaved, dangerous, pot-holed roads in the northeast, run-down schools, lack of health clinics nonetheless hospitals with advanced care… these contradictions are rampant, and hard to ignore.  I’ll be collecting reactions to this story in the coming days.  In the meantime, you can read a rosy excerpt below, and see the full article here.

People here are using that new wealth to buy items like televisions and refrigerators at a faster rate than the rest of the country. The northeast, in fact, passed the country’s south in electricity use this year for the first time in Brazil’s history, the energy agency said.

Many families have bridged the gap to the middle class by using Bolsa Family to meet basic needs, and then applying for small loans to start their own businesses and escape the informal economy. That is what Maria Auxiliadora Sampaio and her husband did here in Fortaleza, a coastal city of 2.4 million people. They were receiving Bolsa Familia payments of about $30 a month, which they used to support their three children. Then, two years ago, Mrs. Sampaio used a microloan of about $190 to buy nail polish and kick-start her manicure business, which she runs out of her house.

Today she is making around $70 a day doing manicures — about four minimum salaries per month, she said. With her next loan she plans to put about $140 toward buying a stove to sterilize the nail clippers, which today she does with hot water.

The fruits of her new business have allowed the couple to retile their house and buy a television and a cellphone. This month her husband, who works at a Cachaça factory, was able to realize a dream: to buy a drum set.

He plans to use it to start a band that plays forró, a traditional music in the northeast. “We always ate and paid bills, but he waited and waited,” and finally bought the set for about $780 in cash, she said.

“I feel like we are part of this group of people that are coming up in the world,” said Ms. Sampaio, 28. “When you don’t have anything, when you don’t have a profession, don’t have the means to live, you are no one, you are a mosquito. I was nothing. Today, I am in heaven.”

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Obama Claims Nomination; First Black to Lead a Major Party Ticket

You know, just in case you haven’t yet seen the AMAZING news.

The New York Times

Senator Barack Obama secured the Democratic presidential nomination on Tuesday night, prevailing through an epic battle with Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton in a primary campaign that inspired millions of voters from every corner of America to demand change in Washington.

A last-minute rush of Democratic superdelegates, as well as the results from the final primaries in Montana and South Dakota, pushed Mr. Obama over the threshold of winning the 2,118 delegates needed to be nominated at the party’s convention in Denver in August. It was an improbable triumph for Mr. Obama, the son of a black Kenyan father and white Kansan mother, who served as an Illinois state senator just four years ago. In giving Mr. Obama the victory, his party broke a racial barrier.

“You chose to listen not to your doubts or your fears, but to your greatest hopes and highest aspirations,” Mr. Obama said at a rally in St. Paul. “Tonight, we mark the end of one historic journey with the beginning of another — a journey that will bring a new and better day to America. Because of you, tonight, I can stand before you and say that I will be the Democratic nominee for president of the United States.”

Mrs. Clinton acknowledged that her path to the nomination had closed, but she did not leave the race. “This has been a long campaign and I will be making no decisions tonight,” Mrs. Clinton told supporters in New York. She said she would be speaking with party officials about her next move.

In a combative speech, she again presented her case that she was the stronger candidate and argued that she had won the popular vote, a notion disputed by the Obama campaign.

“I want the 18 million Americans who voted for me to be respected,” she said in New York to loud cheers.

But she paid homage to Mr. Obama’s accomplishments, saying, “It has been an honor to contest the primaries with him, just as it has been an honor to call him my friend.”

Mr. Obama returned the compliment, saying, “I am a better candidate for having had the honor to compete with Hillary Rodham Clinton.”

Mr. Obama’s victory moved the presidential campaign to a new phase as he tangled with Senator John McCain of Arizona in televised addresses Tuesday night over Mr. Obama’s assertion that Mr. McCain would continue President Bush’s policies. Mr. McCain vigorously rebuffed that criticism in a speech in Kenner, La., in which he distanced himself from the outgoing president while contrasting his own breadth of experience with Mr. Obama’s record.

“The American people didn’t get to know me yesterday, as they are just getting to know Senator Obama,” Mr. McCain told supporters in New Orleans. Mr. Obama’s victory capped a marathon nominating contest that broke records on several fronts: the number of voters who participated, the amount of money raised and spent, and the sheer length of a grueling battle. The campaign, infused by tensions over race and sex, provided unexpected twists to the bitter end as Mr. Obama ultimately prevailed over Mrs. Clinton, who just a year ago appeared headed toward becoming the first woman presidential candidate of a major party. The last two contests reflected the party’s continuing divisions, as Mrs. Clinton won the South Dakota primary.

The race drew to its final hours with a burst of announcements — delegate-by-delegate — of Democrats stepping forward to declare their support for Mr. Obama. The Democratic establishment, from former President Jimmy Carter to rank-and-file local officials who make up the ranks of the party’s superdelegates, rallied behind Mr. Obama as the day wore on.

When the day began, Mr. Obama needed 41 delegates to effectively claim the nomination. Just as the polls began to close in Montana and South Dakota, Mr. Obama secured the delegates he needed to end his duel with Mrs. Clinton, which wound through every state and territory in an unprecedented 57 contests over five months.

Mrs. Clinton did win the primary in South Dakota by a double-digit margin, although the television networks are projecting that Mr. Obama won Montana.

Every time a new endorsement was announced at the Obama headquarters in Chicago, campaign workers interrupted with a booming round of applause. They are members of Mr. Obama’s team — a political start up — that is responsible for defeating one of the most tried and tested teams in Democratic politics.

While the Democratic race may have ended, a new chapter began in the complicated tensions that have defined the relationship with Mr. Obama and Mrs. Clinton.

On a conference call with members of the New York Congressional delegation on Tuesday, Mrs. Clinton was asked whether she would be open to joining a ticket with Mr. Obama. She replied that she would do whatever she could — including a vice presidential bid — to help Democrats win the White House.

In his speech on Tuesday evening, Mr. Obama paid respect to his rival.

“Our party and our country are better off because of her,” Mr. Obama said, “and I am a better candidate for having had the honor to compete with Hillary Rodham Clinton.”

Before she arrived at her rally on Tuesday in New York City, Mrs. Clinton and a few close advisers huddled at her home in Chappaqua to discuss the timing of her departure from the race. In the afternoon conference call she conducted with fellow New York lawmakers, she asked their patience as she decides upon her next move.

Representative Nydia M. Velásquez, Democrat of New York, asked Mrs. Clinton whether she would consider teaming up with Mr. Obama. “She said that if it’s offered, she would take it,” Ms. Velásquez said.

Mrs. Clinton said she would do “anything to make sure a Democrat would win,” according to several participants on the call. While her advisers played down the remark’s significance, the Democrats on the call said that by not demurring or saying she would simply think about it, they said they were left with the impression that it was an offer that she wanted to at least consider.

“If Senator Obama asked her to be the V.P., she certainly would accept that,” said Representative Carolyn McCarthy, Democrat of New York. “She has obviously given some thought to this.”

Neither Mr. Obama nor his associates commented on the speculation, and he made no reference to it in his speech on Tuesday evening in Minnesota, which was delivered at the same arena in which Mr. McCain is expected to formally accept the Republican nomination at the party’s convention in September.

“You can rest assured that when we finally win the battle for universal health care in this country, she will be central to that victory,” Mr. Obama said in remarks prepared to be delivered to his supporters. “When we transform our energy policy and lift our children out of poverty, it will be because she worked to help make it happen.”

The competition between Mr. McCain and Mr. Obama has been sharpening for weeks, but the close of the Democratic primary formally raised the curtain to a five-month general election contest. The race, as their respective speeches foreshadowed on Tuesday evening, will unfold against a backdrop of an electorate that is restless about soaring gas prices, mortgage foreclosures and the Iraq war.

It is also a generational battle of personalities and contrasting styles. Mr. McCain staged an evening event in Louisiana, so he would be included in the evening’s television narrative that otherwise belonged to Democrats.

About two hours later, Mr. Obama responded in a speech before a thousands of supporters.

“There are many words to describe John McCain’s attempt to pass off his embrace of George Bush’s policies as bipartisan and new,” Mr. Obama said. “But change is not one of them.”

Michael M. Grynbaum contributed reporting.

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