“Brazil is not ready for a black president”: Brazil’s Chief Justice of the Supreme Court speaks frankly about racism and other problems facing the country

In interview, Joaquim Barbosa, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court discusses his persecution by the press, the possibility of a black president and other issues facing Brazil
In interview, Joaquim Barbosa, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court discusses his persecution by the press, the possibility of a black president and other issues facing Brazil

Note from BW of Brazil: Back in the period between late 2008 and early 2009, when then Senator Barack Obama was elected and then assumed the post of the president of the United States, many black Brazilians began to ask the question of when Brazil, a country with a larger black population than that of the US, would elect a black president*. In a recent interview, the first black President (or Chief Justice) of Brazil’s Supreme Court expressed his opinion on this and other topics including a recent controversy in which he was accused of snubbing the Brazilian president, Dilma Rouseff, during a recent visit of the Pope. In this discussion, Barbosa speaks frankly on the topic of race and how black Brazilians are viewed in the society covering a range of topic that have been featured on this blog. Check out the interview below. 

Barbosa says Brazil not ready for a black president

In an interview with O Globo, the minister said he was persecuted by the press

The President of the STF (Supremo Tribunal Federal or Chief Justice of the Supreme Court), Joaquim Barbosa, said that Brazil is not ready to have a black president and again denied that he would  become a candidate for the presidency. The statements were made in an interview with O Globo, published Sunday (28).

For the minister, the country still has very strong pockets of undeclared intolerance that can appear violently when a black candidate is present. As an example, Barbosa cited recent issues of the newspaper Folha de S. Paulo that he said violated his privacy.

One of the critical issues was his purchase of an apartment in Miami, Florida (US) by means of a listed company so that the minister could secure “tax benefits in the future.” According to the paper, the value of the property is estimated at between R$546,000 and R$1 million (about US$241,580 to US$442,445). In an interview released yesterday (28), Barbosa countered the report.

Barbosa said he feels targeted by the press, which would be overstepping its bounds for fear that he would eventually become a candidate. The latest polls on voting intentions for the 2014 elections show the minister as a name that would have force in the race. The minister also recalled when he was eliminated in an interview at the Itamaraty (Foreign Ministry) and said that it is one of the “most discriminatory institutions of Brazil.”

Below is the interview with journalist Miriam Leitão

Presidente do Supremo Tribunal Federal (STF) - Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Joaquim Barbosa
Presidente do Supremo Tribunal Federal (STF) – Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Joaquim Barbosa

Are you a candidate for president?

No. I’m very realistic. I never thought I’d get involved in politics. I have no ties to any political party. There are spontaneous manifestations of the population that I run. People who ask for me to become a candidate and this has translated into a percentage of some relevance in research.

People were under the impression that you did not greet the president.

I not only greeted her as I had a long conversation with the president. I was with her all the time (1).

Is Brazil ready for a black president?

No. Because I think there are still pockets of undeclared, very strong intolerance in Brazil. The moment when a black candidate is present, pockets will violently appear against that candidate. There are already signs of this in the media. The Folha de S.Paulo (newspaper) attacks against me are already a signal. Folha de S.Paulo exposed my son in a job interview. Last Sunday, there was a gross violation of my privacy. The newspaper found itself in the right to expose the purchase of a modest property in the United States (2). I took money from my bank account, I sent the money by legal means under the law and declared the purchase in Income Taxes. I do not see the same exposure of the privacy of persons highly suspected of the practice of a crime.

As a public person, are you not exposed to all sorts of questions and doubts of journalists?

There are thousands of public persons in Brazil. However the papers don’t go around exposing the private lives of these public figures. Take the last ten presidents of the Supreme Court and compare. It’s a mistake to think that a newspaper can do everything. Newspapers and journalists have limits. These are limits that have been exceeded by virtue of this fear that I eventually become a candidate.

Which party most represents your thinking?

I am a man securely inclined to the social democracy of Europe.

How do you amplify the State to ensure the rights of those who have been marginalized, but at the same time, control the control of public spending to keep inflation low?

The first step is to spend well; to know how to spend well. Brazil spends very badly. Whoever knows the Brazilian public machine knows that there are many areas that can be streamlined, that can be reduced.

You said that Brazil is in a crisis of political representation. What did you mean by that?

It translates itself into this widespread dissatisfaction we watched these last two months. Honesty is lacking in people with responsibility to come out and say that things are not working.

When will the resources of the defendants of the “mensalão” (scandal) (3) be analyzed?

August 1st I will announce the exact date.

Will they be arrested?

I am unable to say. In recent months, I’ve also been the object of attacks by an underground media, including anonymous blogs. I will only give a warning: the Brazilian Constitution prohibits anonymity, I would have means, in due course, through the judiciary, to identify who these people are and who funds them. I allow myself the right to wait for the opportune time to unmask these bandits.

Why do you have a strained relationship with the press? Have you spoken to a journalist that you told to go wallow in the trash (4).

He’s a minor character, it’s not worth it, but when I said that I had in mind several things that I find unacceptable. Why would I take seriously the work of a journalist who finds himself in a conflict of interest there in court. We are all holders of rights, none has absolute rights, including journalists. Aside from that I have fraternal relations with numerous journalists.

The first time we spoke was about affirmative action. There were still no quotas (at the time). Today, what we have is that quotas were approved unanimously by the Supreme Court. Has Brazil advanced?

It has advanced. Even among the many progressive decisions that the Supreme Court made this was the one that surprised me. I never thought we had a unanimous decision.

In the vote, several ministers acknowledged the existence of racism.

What was said in that meeting was a unique moment in the history of Brazil. There was the State recognizing what a lot of people in Brazil still refuse to recognize and seeing racism in many aspects of Brazilian life.

Blacks are an emerging force. Before, they were only successful in the arts and in soccer, but now they are preparing to come to command posts and success in all areas. How will Brazilian society react?

I still don’t see this rise of blacks as something very significant. There’s a long road ahead. There are still areas in which blacks are completely excluded.

How can Brazil overcome this?

Openly discuss the problem. I do not see in the Brazilian media consistent and regular discussion on these issues.

How can we overcome racial inequality, (but) maintain the best of what we have?

The best of what we have is a friendly, superficial coexistence, but the moment the black aspires to a position of command, intolerance appears.

How did you feel at Carnival with so many people wearing masks of your face?

It was nice, but in the Brazilian social structures, this doesn’t bring changes. It reinforces certain clichés.

Barbosa masks were very popular during Brazil's 2013 Carnaval
Barbosa masks were very popular during Brazil’s 2013 Carnaval

Reinforces? Why?

Carnival, samba, soccer. Brazilians feel comfortable associating blacks with these activities, but there is a parcel, I hope a small parcel in society, who do not feel comfortable with blacks elsewhere.

Have you been discriminated against in the Itamaraty (Foreign Ministry)?

I have always been discriminated against in all the jobs, from the moment I started to climb the ladder. I never paid it any mind. I learned to live with it and overcome it. The Foreign Ministry is one of the most discriminating institutions of Brazil.

Did you fail in the selection process (for the Foreign Ministry)?

I passed the written tests (but) I was eliminated in an interview, something that existed to eliminate undesirables. Yes, I was discriminated against, but they did me a favor. All diplomats would like to be in the position I am. All of them.


* – In a typically Brazilian twist in how race is perceived, accepted or denied, Brazil could claim that it has actually already had a black president. In 1909, Vice-President Nilo Peçanha assumed the presidency after the death of President Afonso Pena. But reports show that throughout his life, Peçanha never identified himself as negro or black even though he faced disparaging comments about his racial background. Thus, for some Peçanha was an afrodescendente president, meaning a president of African ancestry, for others, he was black and for still others, he was a mulatto (as he is defined on the Wikipedia page, for example).

1. In a story featured on this blog a few days ago, during a televised ceremony to welcome Pope Francisco in Rio de Janeiro, Barbosa was accused by many of ignoring President Dilma Rouseff after having shaken hands with the Pope. Some of the attacks on Barbosa’s apparent lack of etiquette focused on his race. Below is the response to that criticism that was released a few days later.

Barbosa denies being discourteous with Rousseff in the reception for the Pope

The president of the STF issued a statement after news broke that he had ignored the President. He said he maintains a ‘high level institutional relationship’ with Dilma.

by Mariana Oliveira

In a statement released on Wednesday (24) the Supreme Court (STF) denied that the court’s president, Joaquim Barbosa, was “discourteous” with the president, Dilma Rousseff, at the welcoming ceremony for Pope Francisco last Monday (22), in Rio de Janeiro.

The note, signed by the Secretary of Social Communication of the STF, rebated the news that Barbosa had greeted the Pope and ignored Dilma.

The Supreme also said that news caused “great surprise” for Joaquim Barbosa, since he maintains a “high-level institutional relationship” with President Dilma.

“Based on TV footage shot from a certain angle, versions were created on the behavior of the minister who found that it doesn’t support reality. The minister rejects the interpretation that he was discourteous to the president and ratifies his respect for the powers that be,” the statement said.

The note also reports that Barbosa met with Rousseff at the Palácio do Planalto (presidential headquarters) on two occasions in the last two months, the first to address political reform and the second to discuss the situation of the prison system.

The Supreme Court explained that Joaquim Barbosa didn’t greeted Dilma because he had already talked to her in a private room of authorities, and quoted the president of the Supreme Court exchanged “a discreet smile” with the president.

“On the occasion of greetings, the minister respectfully shook hands with the Holy Father, and exchanged a discreet smile with the president. This was because he evaluated that another greeting was not necessary since it had already occurred on the occasion of his arrival at the Palácio.”

2. The issue of Barbosa’s purchase of a property in Miami, Florida in the US was also the subject of one of the attacks made on Barbosa by a Dilma supporter after the incident with the Pope. See the piece written by Rodrigo Penna here.

3.  Criminal court proceedings which sentenced 25 high ranking officials in the so called ‘trial of the century’ for their involvement in corruption practices back in 2005 and which at the time almost toppled the administration of then president Lula da Silva. See story here.

4. This is a reference to Barbosa’s comments to a journalist back in March. After being asked a question by a journalist, Barbosa was heard saying, “Leave me alone, man. Leave me alone. Go wallow in the trash like you always do.” Barbosa later apologized for the comments saying he was tired and experiencing strong pains at the time.

About Marques Travae 3747 Articles
Marques Travae. For more on the creator and editor of BLACK WOMEN OF BRAZIL, see the interview here.

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