Brazil is immersed in a deep crisis. Until recently, the country’s newspapers used to spread daily news about the situation and numbers of the dead in Italy. Beyond the obvious tragedy that the country has gone through, and is still going through, the aim of the message that was being spread in Brazil was to talk about isolation measures—a point on which, despite the recommendation of the health authorities, no calm understanding has been reached.
Among the various reasons for this, the position of the head of government, Jair Bolsonaro, must be highlighted. With a military background and elected in a highly controversial vote—both due to the scandal of the mass dissemination of fake news on WhatsApp and due to the rhetoric of hatred which was part of the exaltation of the colonial sentiments of his electoral base of white people—Bolsonaro was directly advantaged by then-Judge Sergio Moro. The latter invalidated the candidature of the favorite in the polls, former president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, and later assumed the post of a minister in Bolsonaro’s government, who had been elected as a result of that judicial fraud.
One year and five months since taking office, the president and his entourage are responsible for having led the country into a deep administrative, political and public health crisis. Today in Brazil, there is little mention of Italy in the national newspapers, while online we often hear that the country is not only under the threat of COVID-19, but also of Bolsonaro himself.
His mandate has reinforced the historical forms of oppression. After 13 years of rule by a progressive coalition that had taken into account the historical demands of the Black movement and developed important policies on education (the creation of public universities, the adoption of racial affirmative action quotas and tax exemption for private universities adhering to the government program on free tuition for poor students), the change had produced an uncomfortable situation for the “narcissistic pact of whiteness”—a brilliant expression that was coined by the Brazilian Black researcher Cida Bento, in reference to the underlying mutual pact between white people, who are praising, hiring, rewarding and protecting each other.
Impelled by the white anger at the rise of the popular classes and supported by the obscurantist religious discourse of the neo-Pentecostal and Catholic churches, the Bolsonaro government has promoted the cutting of thousands of grants to researchers—for many of them the only source of livelihood—and the freezing of payments to universities, their primary source of funding.
The understanding that inequalities do not come from divine Providence, but are the consequence of historical forms of oppression, offers us an important vantage point for analysis. The hierarchy of identities infused with race-, class- and gender-based oppression places Black women at the lowest level of the social pyramid, where they disproportionately suffer the impact of these and other setbacks.
For instance, the increase in the already-high rate of domestic violence is a cause for concern. The numbers have always been shocking, in a country where the Ministry of Health has calculated that a woman is assaulted every 4 minutes, and in recent years the femicides of black women in their homes have increased by 54%, while those of white women have decreased by 10%. This figure shows how fundamental it is to think in terms of race when formulating public policies. Instead, in addition to being ill-prepared in this respect, the government has cut investments in all policies aimed at women.
We are talking about a reduction from 119 million Reais (about €20 million, in the absurd official 6-to-1 exchange rate for the Brazilian currency) in 2015 to only 5.3 million Reais in 2019.
Just as this attack on women reached full intensity, the pandemic came, with an increase of 35% in cases of reports of domestic violence, a number that has a strong likelihood of undercounting real cases. In addition, there are many other forms of violence, difficult to summarize in a single article, including the attack on the indigenous population, prison overcrowding with the imminent threat of tragedy and the total lack of reforms to undo austerity.
In terms of social assistance, more than 1.5 million families have been suspended from receiving monthly economic aid, whose maximum amount is around €45. The “Bolsa Família” program, which won international awards and which has shown an ability to create social transformation in the country’s centuries-old structures of inequality, is now being starved of funding. With the arrival of the pandemic, the government—reluctantly and after many protests—has approved emergency aid to needy families in the form of a monthly payment of about €100, while many are still not granted this right at all.
The sabotage of various social programs is accompanied by the neoliberal policy of dismantling the state in order to hand over shares of ownership to the process of privatization.
The spectacle of the reaction of the European institutions offers a strange sight: they are shocked by the brutality of Bolsonaro, but only to a certain extent. This limit is very evident when it comes to Brazilian state properties and natural wealth, privatized at colonial prices for the benefit of US, Chinese, or—hardly surprisingly—European financial groups. Under a military commander, a puppet who serves as lightning rod for the denunciation of the humanitarian horrors that his allies are promoting and who is servile to the interests of the exploitative economic agendas of the Northern hemisphere, we see that the colonial cycle is reinventing itself as a mechanism. Understanding the colonial roots is an important step for understanding the present. What are the governments that are gaining so much from Brazil’s misery giving back to the country in terms of humanitarian policies and agendas?
If it were not for the pandemic, I would be in Italy these days (for the launch of her book Il luogo della parola, translated by the publisher Capovolte – n. ed.). I hope to get there soon, to discuss this and other matters. Until then, we will continue the work of denouncing this government and the international agendas responsible for keeping it in power while it is battering the social groups that have historically resisted against the colonial system still in force in Brazil.