Category Archives: Brazil’s Relations with Africa

Brazil’s growing relations with Africa through the lens of its African heritage

As I mentioned on my About Me page, I studied abroad in Salvador da Bahia, Brazil in college and researched the evolution of Afro-Brazilian identity and politics for my senior thesis. So, since issues related to Brazil’s African heritage and its growing relations with Africa have recently been in the news, I’ve decided to merge my old research interests with my more recent ones for this post.

Domestically, Brazil’s Supreme Court upheld the legality of university admissions based on affirmative action for students of African descent (Afro-descendentes). Internationally, the country’s Minister of Development, Industry, and External Trade (Fernando Pimentel) was tasked by President Dilma Rousseff to lead an “Africa Group” to expand upon Brazil’s economic ties with African countries. Pimentel stated that Brazil’s economic and political ties with African countries had become “strategic.” This statement isn’t the first Brazilian governments have made about the country’s growing engagement with Africa; such statements echo former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s efforts to expand commercial and cultural ties across the continent. Brazil’s recent efforts to expand its relationship with African countries can be understood in terms of:

  • Brazil as an example of an emerging global power that was once a developing country;
  • Brazil’s desire to increase South-South cooperation; and
  • Brazil’s ethnic and cultural affinities as a result of the transatlantic slave trade, historical affinities due to colonialism, and linguistic ties with Lusophone Africa (Angola, Mozambique, Guinea-Bissau, São Tomé and Príncipe, and Cape Verde).

Because of the research I conducted several years ago, I also tend to understand Brazil’s growing relations with Africa in the context of the evolving role of the country’s African heritage as a distinct element of its broader national identity. Let me elaborate.

In the years leading up to Lula’s push for stronger political and economic ties with African countries, the dialogue on race and African identity underwent substantial changes. In the 1990s, President Fernando Henrique Cardoso was not only the first president to publicly acknowledge that racism existed in Brazil, but he was also the first president to acknowledge that he had a “foot in the kitchen” – a reference to his own African heritage. Such statements flew in the face of decades of the marginalization of African identity.

In the aftermath of the abolition of slavery in 1888, Republican-era (1889-1930) Brazilian elites believed that the newly freed Afro-Brazilian population, which was assumed to have retained its “backward” culture, would impede Brazil from taking its place among the developed industrial nations of the world. At the same time, theories of scientific racism were infiltrating Brazil, and Brazilian elites sought to “whiten” the country’s population – an ideology best captured in Modesto Brocos y Gómes’ 1895 painting A Redenção de Cam (The Redemption of Ham – from the Bible’s Book of Genesis). This painting depicted embranqueamento (whitening) – the ideal that through European immigration and miscegenation, every Brazilian generation would become whiter.

A Redenção de Cam by Modesto Brocos y Gómes

Cardoso’s statements also flew in the face of the subsequent promotion of the myth of racial democracy, which originated with the 1933 publication of Gilberto Freyre’s The Masters and the Slaves. This book asserted that the institution of slavery encouraged racial tolerance and intermingling so that Brazilians inherently had no racial prejudice, contrary to what the author had observed in Europe, the United States and Africa. Freyre emphasized how Brazil’s three races contributed to formation of the nation, giving them a reason to feel proud of their unique, ethnically mixed tropical civilization. Brazil’s embrace of this ideology promoted the notion that all Brazilians lived in racial harmony, and that any discrimination Afro-Brazilians suffered was a function of social class, not of race. This has historically deprived several Afro-Brazilian civil rights movements of their solitary target for mobilization.

By the time Lula became president in 2003, Brazil had a wider aperture for discussions of racial discrimination and the role of African heritage within Brazil’s broader national identity. Due to its initial electoral failures, Lula’s Partido dos Trabalhadores was compelled to broaden its appeal to include a wide variety of social movements that emerged during the country’s return to democracy in the 1980s. The PT’s promotion of internal democratic debate encouraged the contribution of smaller social movements to the construction of the party’s electoral platform. Within the PT’s quest for social justice for all marginalized Brazilians, Afro-Brazilians became the focus of government programs and special initiatives as the party gained power in the legislature, and eventually won the presidency in 2003.

During Lula’s tenure as president, the government created the Special Secretary for the Promotion of Policies to Promote Racial Equality (SEPPIR) and the National Council for the Promotion of Racial Equality, founded the Parliamentary Front in Defense of Racial Discrimination and the Intergovernmental Forum for the Promotion of Racial Equality, and designated 2005 as the Year to Combat Racism. Internationally, Lula presided over an unprecedented political and economic engagement with Africa. He doubled the number of Brazilian embassies in Africa, and visited the continent 11 times, hitting 25 countries. In 2010, 52.7% of Brazilian investments in international development went to Africa – more than the amount devoted to Brazil’s fellow Latin American countries. Trade between African countries and Brazil was $4.3 billion in 2002, and by 2011 it had jumped to $27.6 billion – with main areas of Brazilian investment in Africa being agribusiness, mining, infrastructure, gas and deep-sea oil drilling.

When we see reports of Brazil’s investments and development initiatives in various African countries, one element to consider is that these expanding ties are also a manifestation of a long evolution of the country’s dialogue regarding its own African identity. Without the acceptance of the country’s African heritage as a distinct element of its broader national identity, there might have been less of an impetus to expand upon its ethnic, cultural, and historical ties to the African continent.

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