POLITICS

Brazil, facing calls for reparations, wrangles with its painful legacy of slavery

Jan 29, 2024, 9:01 PM

FILE - Models wear outfits designed by students from Afro-Brazilian communities at a subway station...

FILE - Models wear outfits designed by students from Afro-Brazilian communities at a subway station as part of Black Consciousness Awareness Month, in Sao Paulo, Brazil, Nov. 19, 2021. In Brazil, more than half the population self-identifies as Black or biracial. (AP Photo/Andre Penner, File)
Credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS

(AP Photo/Andre Penner, File)

RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — The executive manager for institutional relations at a Brazilian state bank took the microphone before roughly 150 people at a forum on slavery’s legacy in his country, which kidnapped more Africans for forced labor than any other nation.

“Today’s Bank of Brazil asks Black people for forgiveness,” André Machado said to the mostly Black audience at the Portela samba school in Rio de Janeiro.

“Directly or indirectly, all of Brazilian society should apologize to Black people for that sad moment in our history,” he said, reading a statement to audience members who sat watching from plastic chairs, their eyes fixed upon him.

Brazil — where more than half the population self-identifies as Black or biracial — has long resisted reckoning with its past. That reluctance has started loosening.

Public prosecutors have begun probing Bank of Brazil, Latin America’s second-largest financial institution by assets, with $380 billion, for its historical links to the slave trade. Their investigation could yield a recommendation, an agreement or filing of legal action, and they invited Bank of Brazil to start a dialogue with Black people at the Portela school in the working-class Madureira neighborhood.

Ghyslaine Almeida e Cunha, a spiritual leader of the Afro-Brazilian religion Umbanda, traveled from the Amazonian city of Belem for what she called “an historic moment.” She welcomed the apology and announcement of measures, though the bank stopped short of pledging compensation.

“I came to say – on Portela’s sacred soil – that, yes, we do want reparations,” said Cunha.

Brazil enslaved more people from Africa than any other country; nearly 5 million kidnapped Africans disembarked in Brazil, more than 12 times the number taken to mainland North America, according to estimates from the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade database. Brazil was the last country in the Western Hemisphere to abolish slavery, in 1888.

Valongo Wharf in Rio, which UNESCO calls “the most important physical trace of the arrival of African slaves on the American continent,” was only excavated in 2011.

Discrimination remains, and Black and biracial Brazilians are more likely to be poor, imprisoned and die violently. Fewer than a third of managerial positions are held by those groups, and they comprise one quarter of representatives in Brazil’s Lower House of Congress.

On Dec. 7, a Senate committee heard experts arguing that Brazil needs to prioritize compensation. And when Carnival kicks off next week, a samba school parading before tens of thousands of spectators and millions more TV viewers will present the story of a Black man whose family is seeking reparations.

Brazil’s nascent clamor for reparations joins existing movements abroad. In the U.S., New York, California and Illinois have established task forces on the issue. In November, the African Union partnered with Caribbean countries to form a “united front” to persuade European nations to pay for “historical mass crimes”. Institutions such as Harvard University and the Bank of England have been confronting their historical ties to the slave trade, although neither has endorsed direct financial reparations.

And in 2021, President Joe Biden expressed support for a federal commission to study a national plan for reparations for Black Americans, but he has not supported any of the efforts at the state level.

Such discussions in the U.S. inspired Brazilian nonprofit Educafro to sue the federal government in May 2022, Irapuã Santana, the lawyer who filed the suit, told The Associated Press. The organization, which fights for better access to education for Black and biracial Brazilians, is demanding an apology and a fund to combat racism, among other measures.

Brazil long projected itself as a inclusive democracy that had left racism behind. Only in recent decades has there been a concerted effort to publicly debunk that myth. The country has so far mostly dealt with slavery’s legacy through affirmative action, particularly its 2012 law obliging public universities to reserve a certain number of spaces for Black people.

But many on the right argue the past is irrelevant, and deny that any compensation is due. They are likely to fight any widespread push for reparations.

“What debt? I have never enslaved anyone in my life,” Jair Bolsonaro said in a TV interview in 2018, months before he won the presidency. The former leader and current standard-bearer for the right has questioned the basis for quotas, saying Black and white people should be treated equally. In October, his son proposed ending race-based quotas, and almost one-third of senators supported the measure.

Advocates for further atonement disagree.

“Faced with the horror of 350 years of slavery, quotas are insufficient. We need to expand the discussion on reparations,” said lawyer Humberto Adami, president of the Racial Equality Commission of the Brazilian Lawyers Institute.

That demands for reparations are for the first time being heard in public, prominent places is partly a reflection of the political climate ushered in by leftist President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who took office in January 2023. Last year, prosecutors started investigating Bank of Brazil, which is cooperating.

Its largest shareholder at one point was José Bernardino de Sá, a slave trader responsible for transporting around 19,000 Africans to Brazil, according to historical research that sparked prosecutors’ investigation. João Henrique Ulrich, who in 1842 was caught running a slave barracks in Angola’s capital, was a bank director for almost a decade.

Beyond individual ties, the institution allowed clients to declare enslaved Black people as financial assets to guarantee loans that built the economy — one example of how “slavery is central to Brazil’s formation,” said Thiago Campos Pessoa, one of the historians.

In addition to apologizing, Bank of Brazil announced measures to facilitate jobs for Black people and said it “works intensely to confront structural racism.”

Bank of Brazil declined a request for an interview, instead referring AP to its Nov. 18 statement read at Portela and its recent initiative to finance projects benefiting Black women.

Lula appointed Tarciana Medeiros to lead the bank, and she is its first-ever Black president. He has pledged to further racial equality, and created the country’s first ministry dedicated to the issue.

The family of João Cândido, who served in the navy two decades after Brazil abolished slavery, hope a more receptive executive branch will finally hear their pleas.

After witnessing a sailor’s flogging, Cândido led a revolt against regular whipping by officers in 1910. He and fellow mutineers were tortured, and only two survived — including Cândido. Kicked out of the navy, he and his family missed out on pension benefits and promotions, then he fell into poverty, according to prosecutor Julio Araujo, who also leads the Bank of Brazil probe.

Cândido’s family is demanding compensation from the federal government. They also want him inducted into the nation’s official pantheon of heroes, Adalberto Cândido, 85, the sailor’s only living son, said in an interview in Sao Joao de Meriti, on Rio’s outskirts.

Reparations “would make a difference because we are a modest family. We’ve always earned the minimum wage, which in this country is a joke,” said Cândido, who started working at 14. He spoke in front of Cândido’s last home, where a colorful mural depicts his story.

That story will take center stage in one of the top Carnival parades. In the warehouse where samba school Paraiso do Tuiuti is constructing its giant floats and fashioning gold-sequined sailor costumes, references to slavery abound — such as a print of French painter Jean-Baptiste Debret’s depiction of a slave being whipped.

Jack Vasconcelos, who created the school’s parade theme, said he decided to honor Cândido because violence reminiscent of slavery continues to occur. He cited a Black delivery man’s whipping with a dog leash by a white woman in Rio last year.

That delivery man will perform as Cândido during the parade, which aims to help society remember slavery – one form of reparation, Vasconcelos said.

“But we also need to fight for tangible reparations, not just contributing to memory,” Vasconcelos added. ___

AP writer Terry Tang contributed from Phoenix.

Politics

Associated Press

Illinois sheriff’s deputy charged with murder in fatal shooting of woman who called 911

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (AP) — An Illinois sheriff’s deputy has been charged with murder in the fatal shooting of a woman insider her home. Sonya Massey was killed after Sangamon County deputies responded to her 911 call early on July 6, State’s Attorney John Milhiser said. A statement from Milhiser doesn’t describe the circumstances that preceded […]

2 hours ago

Republican presidential candidate former President Donald Trump talks to Sen. Marco Rubio during th...

Associated Press

2024 Election Latest: Trump to speak at RNC as convention enters fourth day, Biden has COVID-19

The Republican National Convention culminates Thursday with former President Donald Trump expected to accept the party’s presidential nomination, achieving a comeback four years in the making and anticipated even more in the past week in light of Saturday’s assassination attempt. He is expected to accept his third consecutive party nod in prime time before thousands […]

3 hours ago

Residents walk through the Petare neighborhood of Caracas, Venezuela, Tuesday, July 16, 2024. (AP P...

Associated Press

The uncertainty that plagues life in crisis-ridden Venezuela is also wreaking havoc on relationships

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Victoria Estevez finally met someone who saw past her shyness. They spent two months learning about their likes and dislikes, texting about their families and friends, and walking around their hometowns on Venezuela’s Caribbean coast. On a trip to the capital in December, they held each other for the first time. […]

8 hours ago

Yoko Sakato, left, and Valerie Matsunaga, right, relatives of soldiers who fought in the 442nd Infa...

Associated Press

US Army honors Nisei combat unit that helped liberate Tuscany from Nazi-Fascist forces in WWII

ROME (AP) — The U.S. military is celebrating a little-known part of World War II history, honoring the Japanese-American U.S. Army unit that was key to liberating parts of Italy and France even while the troops’ relatives were interned at home as enemies of the state following Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor. Descendants of the […]

9 hours ago

FILE - A pedestrian traverses the rotunda inside the New Mexico Capitol, March 16, 2023, in Santa F...

Associated Press

New Mexico governor cites ‘dangerous intersection’ of crime and homelessness, wants lawmakers to act

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — Citing what she calls the “dangerous intersection” of crime and homelessness, New Mexico’s governor is calling on lawmakers to address stubbornly high crime rates as they convene Thursday for a special legislative session. In issuing her proclamation, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham talked about a vulnerable segment of society that falls […]

9 hours ago

FILE - A view of Blenheim Palace in Woodstock, Oxfordshire, England, March 24, 2009. Leaders from a...

Associated Press

European leaders will discuss migration and Ukraine at a UK summit amid worry about Trump

LONDON (AP) — Leaders from across Europe gather at an English country mansion on Thursday for a summit clouded by worries about whether the United States would remain a reliable ally if Donald Trump secures a second presidency. Newly elected U.K. Prime Minister Keir Starmer is welcoming some 45 heads of government to discuss migration, […]

10 hours ago

Brazil, facing calls for reparations, wrangles with its painful legacy of slavery