Brasil lost in the mists of the Ivory Towers

by Mariana T Noviello.

For the past three years, Brazilian post-graduate students at UK universities have organised an event inviting the ‘powerful’ of Brazil, politicians, academics, public administrators, members of the judiciary and others, to discuss the country in what is called Forum Brazil UK.

Addicted to Brazilian politics, as I am, this event has become an annual tradition, as it gives me first-hand access to the people who run the country and those who have influence over shaping the status quo.

The first thing to say about the Forum is that it’s elitist. It is the ‘good and the great’ talking to the future saviours of Brazil. The students at LSE and Oxford are praised as the crème de la crème and are entitled as no others to think the solutions to the country’s problems.

This year’s Forum was obsessed with ensuring there was no polarisation and panellists certainly behaved themselves.

The vice-governor of Mato Grosso do Sul, Otaviano Pivetta focused on percentages of agricultural and forest land, indigenous reserves, etc. A subtle way of saying that indigenous people and the environment are attributed too much land and that the people in agribusiness were really very nice, because they did not need more territory to increase their productivity.

The murderous conflicts between the Guarani-Kaiowá indigenous peoples and local farmers were never mentioned. Neither by him, the audience, nor even Sonia Guajajara, leader of APIB, the Network of Indigenous People of Brazil. Indeed, in the environmental panel, each of the three speakers had different briefs, so there was no ‘conversation or dialogue’ possible.

There was also no conversation in the public security debate, where the brief was broad and speakers focused on what they wanted. The need for evidence-based drugs and prison policies was discussed and formed some consensus – even with Senator Major Olímpio, former policeman and Bolsonaro’s ally, at the table. However, at no point were issues such as the pressing social security situation in Rio and the astounding numbers of people killed by the police even mentioned. The word militia was not pronounced. Flávio Dino, the Communist Party’s governor of Maranhão, alone referred to Moro’s anti-crime bill and raised concerns of living in abnormal times.

Thus, the ‘dialogues’ flowed either as monologues, or through generalist, unconnected expositions. The panel on corruption had the Public Prosecutor General, Raquel Dodge, describing the history of the Public Prosecutors Office fight against corruption, followed by Wagner Rosário, Minister of the General Comptrollers’ Office talking about his office’s attempt at the same issue.

All relevant themes: the environment, corruption, public security and so on. But there was no debate, no controversy, or even the coming together of different visions on the same topic. Where were the questions on the limits of fighting corruption, both in theoretical and practical terms? How do we reconcile human rights with the rigorous fight against corruption, when even Dodge conceded that, often, there were no proofs to go by?

We are living through seriously critical times in Brazil and even if there were consensus in theory, the current practices in all the areas discussed in the Forum required more vigorous debate. Especially given the apparent calibre of the speakers and organisers.

Striking was the panel on education, elucidating the urgent need for improvement, better training, teachers’ pay, etc., followed by the Deputy Minister of Economics’ arguments for cuts, contingencies and measurements before releasing funds. Totally ignoring the previous panels’ cry for help. By the way, both panels finished to great applause from the same audience.

In two days of debate, the name of the President – Bolsonaro – was hardly mentioned.

Supreme Judge Barroso’s closing remarks reiterated his opening speech, claiming the Forum had reached consensus on a number of issues.

In between, there were a few highlights.  Barroso himself stated he had not been happy with the impeachment. However, he would not expand on this topic because he did not want to talk about politics. Apparently, advocating ‘less government’, something he did do, is not a political act, just a scientific necessity.

On a positive note, Folha’s journalist, Mônica Bergamo, admitted that the Brazilian press failed to criticise and investigate Lava Jato once it overstepped its limits. There was a whole panel on fake news, an important topic to understand the rise of the far right across the globe.

Lindbergh Farias and Benedita da Silva, both from the Workers’ Party, together with Sonia Guajajara and Flávio Dino were the only dissenting voices of the Forum.

Each in their own way were there to provide diversity and dissent from what otherwise constituted Justice Barroso’s ‘consensus’. Whether at LSE, or the more exclusive Oxford, where at least three quarters of the audience were made up of the organising students, journalists or the speakers themselves, they looked as out of place as the absent people they claimed to represent.

Nevertheless, they were there to remind us that corruption is not confined just to the executive or the legislative, but that it is also present in the judiciary. That life outside the capitalist individual system is possible and that it should be respected and preserved. That whilst we have Brazil’s foremost leader in jail, our democracy is a farce.

But perhaps the most incisive contribution came from Benedita da Silva. In non-academic language she reminded us who the real people behind the statistics were. She talked about the poor, black working women of Brazil. She reminded us that maids and single mothers had the same dreams for their children as middle-class women. She told us that the private sector would not be interested in serving a good part of Brazil’s population as there were no profits to be made from them once the golden pot of less government was achieved. She warned that the government’s plans would turn social security into nothing more than a flimsy, rotten safety net, providing no dignity for people who had worked hard all their lives and had no one else to rely on. She reminded us of our slavery past and how its repercussions are still felt today. She denounced fake meritocracy that forgets that people do not start with the same life chances. She reminded us that poverty and social class are permeated by gender and colour and that identity cannot be erased out of social policy.

And I wish I could believe that she made organisers, guest speakers and the audience think again and convinced them that politics cannot be a place just populated by those who have forged their identities among condominiums and ivory towers and that we have less to learn from British democracy than from the current state of our own. I wish.