The controversial debate over reparations for slavery in Brazil
Note from BW of Brazil: The issue of reparations for descendants of enslaved Africans in the Americas is not new, but has gained steam in recent years in the Caribbean, Brazil and in the United States. As of February of 2016, National Reparations Committees had been set up in several nations of the Caribbean, including Antigua and Barbuda, The Bahamas, Barbados, Belize, Dominica, Guyana, Jamaica, St. Kitts and Nevis, St. Lucia, St. Vincent and Grenadines, Suriname and Trinidad and Tobago. There is also a CARICOM Reparations Commission has also been established made up of chairpersons of national committees.
In the United States, official discussions of reparations go back to at least 1989 when Congressman John Conyers, from my home state of Michigan, presented H.R. 3745, a Commission to Study Reparation Proposals for African Americans Act. Conyers vowed to continue proposing the bill until it is eventually approved and passed. The bill would later become known as H.R 40 and has become a popular a movement recently with the development of the term ADOS, meaning American Descendants of Slaves.
As should have been expected, the conversation has also been going in Brazil some time and has gained momentum with the creation of the Comissão Estadual da Verdade da Escravidão Negra no Brasil (State Commission for the Truth of Black Slavery in Brazil) (Cevenb). Although the commission composed of a group of black lawyers is avoiding discussions of an payment amount at this time and it is not a pressing issue.
Needless to say, it is absolutely clear that there is a historic debt that black Brazilians are owed by the State, and as Brazil is the country that was the recipient of the most enslaved Africans dating back to the 1530s, a number estimated to be somewhere between 4-5 million people, or more than 40% of all Africans shipped to the Americas, this figure could be beyond the imagination. The total of enslaved Africans represents anywhere from 8-10 times more Africans in Brazil than those that ended up in the United States.
Given this fact, any estimate of monetary conpensation would be astronomical, but also, as in any area that has to do with race in Brazil, there are a number factors that would need to be taken into consideration to even contemplate such as idea. And that is not the objective of today’s post, which simply presents a snapshot of how the discussion of reparations is happening in Brazil. The piece below is from November of 2015.
I present today’s post as a recent hearing on the subject just took place in Rio just a few days ago. As I’ve said, the discussion has been on the table for at least a few decades in Brazil, but it may be new to my English-speaking audience even as I have already posted a few pieces on the topic in past material. With that said, for those of you new to the discussion of reparations in Brazil let the analysis, comparisons and debates begin!
The controversial debate over reparations for slavery in Brazil
By Fernando Duarte
Historical research movement defends study of increase of affirmative actions against racism; historians accuse country of crime of the state
“Declare free all the slaves coming from outside the Empire and impose penalties on the importers of the same slaves.”
Promulgated on November 7, 1831, the Lei Feijó proposed exactly what the opening line of its text, above, suggested: Brazil finally adhere to the fight against the slave trade, after almost three centuries of the import of forced labor.
Unfortunately, the commitment was only on paper – a way to save time in the face of pressure from the British Crown, which 24 years earlier had opened a diplomatic battlefront against trafficking. Historians estimate that by 1850, when the Second Kingdom passed the Eusébio de Queiroz Act, the first to have a significant impact on slavery in Brazil, more than 500,000 blacks had been brought illegally from Africa to the country. With the connivance of the authorities. (The controversial debate over reparations for slavery in Brazil)
The possible crime of State is one of the points guiding the activities of a special commission of the Ordem dos Advogados do Brasil (Brazilian Bar Association), inaugurated at the beginning of the year to make a detailed survey of escravidão negra (black slavery) in Brazil and openly discuss ways of redressing and compensating the descendants of imprisoned blacks.
“Crime of the State”
“It’s a Truth Commission on Black Slavery. We will carry out an investigation along the lines of the group that investigated the crimes of the dictatorship. Brazil has not yet done something of the sort when it comes to one of the greatest crimes against humanity ever committed. This becomes even more important when a portion of the Brazilian population still does not understand the need for affirmative action against racism in our society, which is an obvious legacy of slavery,” says the committee’s president, lawyer Humberto Adami.
The subject is not new. At the time of Brazilian abolition, in 1988, abolitionists defended the payment of reparations to the freed slaves, including presenting models of calculation. In 2013, the Federal Senate reviewed and overturned a proposal for individual payments, which established a minimum of R$200,000 for slave descendants.
Overall, the issue came to an end in October when British Prime Minister David Cameron’s visit to Jamaica was overshadowed by a request by the Caribbean island’s prime minister, Portia Simpson Miller, for the UK government to agree to discuss both damages as well as a formal apology for British involvement in the scourge of slavery.
Jamaica, by the way, is part of a commission of nations of the Caribbean that two years ago prepared a lawsuit against the British, Dutch and French governments in search of reparations for slavery in colonial times.
“The case of these nations is different from what is happening in Brazil, because the great crime in the country was the moment in which the State allowed a clear violation of the legislation by not repressing the illegal traffic that continued between 1831 and 1850. Connivance can be drawn from public officials to Emperor Dom Pedro II”, says Brazilian historian Sidney Chalhoub, a professor at Harvard University whose research focuses on analyzing illegal slavery in the country.
“The Brazilian state needs to recognize even more a debt it has with the descendants of illegally trafficked slaves. What is necessary is from an apology to an intensification of affirmative action public policies. Even more so because the relative position of the black population in Brazilian society remains the same.”
Errors assumed Luiz Felipe de Alencastro, one of the historians who testified before the Federal Supreme Court (STF) during the judgment of the constitutionality of the system of university quotas in 2010, is also in favor of reparation through affirmative action, arguing that the preto e pardo (black and brown) population is the majority in Brazil.
“Indemnities and reparations are for minorities. An example is the demarcation of indigenous lands, for example. For the black population, there is a crucial need for affirmative policies, as a matter of interest to the Brazilian democratic spirit. No country on the American continent practiced slavery on such a scale as Brazil, and all slaves brought in after 1831 were illegally trafficked. The case is scandalous and needs to be discussed publicly more and more, because there was a general collusion of the Brazilian state, an implicit pact in favor of violation of the law,” says Alencastro. (The controversial debate over reparations for slavery in Brazil)
Adami of the OAB agrees that the path of affirmative action is more feasible for reparations to slavery. “The moment you start talking about money, things get complicated, but I don’t think anyone who defends the payment of damages is wrong. My biggest concern, though, is the lack of a stronger government policy to promote more education about what slavery was. Law 10.639, which makes teaching about Afro-Brazilian history and culture compulsory, for example, has not been fulfilled as it should be,” says the lawyer.
Proponents of financial reparations point to the example of payments made by Germany to the descendants of Jews – for six decades, Germany paid the equivalent of $89 billion in compensation for the assets of Jews confiscated by the Nazi regime.
But in addition to the technical difficulties involved in tracing human rights violations over the centuries, the costs of individual reparations can become gigantic. If the proposal rejected by the Senate had gone ahead, for example, payments would quickly reach astronomical figures – an estimate by economist Mário Lisboa Theodoro spoke of R$16 quadrillion, more than 600 times the annual GDP of the United States, for example.
“We would need a very serious legal investigation to begin discussing individual reparation issues, especially to discuss the merits of compensation actions. No one here is denying that slavery is a scourge in Brazilian history, but at the same time Brazil should also be praised for the way it avoided, as in the United States, a civil war over abolition,” says Ibsen Noronha, a professor at the University of Coimbra in Portugal and a specialist in the history of Brazilian law.
The discourse of reparation made through public policies is repeated by Ronaldo Barros, Secretary of Policies for the Promotion of Racial Equality. He mentions the fact that Brazil is a signatory to the Durban Declaration at the end of the UN World Conference against Racism in 2001 in South Africa as evidence that the country has not turned a blind eye to the past.
“We are signatories to a statement in which we assume Brazil’s responsibility for the history of slavery and our commitment to diminish its effects on Brazilian society. The State has admitted the crimes committed. And the Brazilian government has done just that in the last 12 years with the creation of legal systems ranging from quotas for access to higher education to laws such as 10.639. Brazil is one of the most advanced countries in the implementation of the Durban recommendations,” says the secretary.
Barros also argues that the famous apology made by then-President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva to African countries during a visit to Senegal in 2005 deepened Brazil’s relationship with the continent, which was already very different from that maintained by countries like France and the UK. And that, in his opinion, prevented movements similar to that of the Caribbean commission from questioning more harshly the responsibility of the Brazilian government in slavery.
“The demands of the Caricom countries (Caribbean Community) are legitimate and it is not up to Brazil to judge them. We have also been victims of slavery, but we have a different philosophy of dealing with this historical debt also with the African countries, in a South-South partnership. Our reparation is through the development of cooperation with these nations.”
Source: Último Segundo