Slavery and the Coronavirus: a reflection on Brazil's historical injustices, part I

Joaquim Nabuco is the author of the phrase least taken seriously by our elites in the last 130 years: “Slavery will remain for a long time the national feature of Brazil.” I was born less than 100 years after the end of slavery in Brazil, which only happened in 1888. Having been born white and in the middle class, it took quite a while for me to understand the profound marks left by centuries of human trafficking and slavery based on race. As a reaction to reparations and affirmative actions for black and native Brazilians I've heard many times—from white people—statements like: “we can't be held accountable for crimes that occurred way back.” This kind of assertion is completely false. To begin with, reparative politics and affirmative actions for blacks and indigenous peoples do not blame whites at any time, they only seek to alter a terrible temporal trajectory inherited by millions of human beings—and they do so in a very timid way.

The slave trade, by Auguste François Biard

What do I mean when I write that black and native Brazilians inherited a terrible temporal trajectory? I've explained this in a 2018 post, written before the presidential elections, but I'll repeat it whenever I feel it's necessary.

Think of any European monarchy in the 21st century, and think of its subjects. It can be the British monarchy, although that isn't necessary because I'm making a simplified history of how monarchies and noble classes arose in that continent. How did they start? Well, we can simplify a lot without losing the essence of what happened: they started because the ancestors of today's monarchs and nobles conquered some territory by force many centuries ago. Even the agreements that were made almost always were signed because of the implicit possibility of being invaded by stronger rival groups. Therefore, in a simplified way, today's queens and kings of Europe descend from people who conquered power through force and imposed themselves many centuries ago. Such conquest didn't need to come from the outside, even though that also happened. A small but strong group could rise to power within their own territory. Today's subjects, on the other hand, inherited their place because they are the descendants of those who submitted to being ruled by others centuries ago. Today's European monarchs are the heirs of a temporal trajectory that allows them to live in luxury and opulence, even if their power is now moderated by parliaments and liberal constitutions.

Let's now think of the blacks in the American continent. Let's focus on the descendants of Brazilian slaves. What temporal trajectory did they inherit? After more than three centuries of slavery, with generation after generation suffering Hell on Earth, this grotesque institution came to an end (in legal terms) with the Golden Law (Lei Áurea in Portuguese). However, the slaves who were freed did not have any kind of support, nor did they have any kind of incentive or help from the Brazilian State and society. They were set free, yes, but had no possessions, no opportunities, nothing. Even worse: they were resented and despised by white people. A similar process of macabre inheritance occurred with native Brazilians, but in their case there was a tremendous genocide that took place throughout centuries of colonization. The very few natives who survived suffered from complete dehumanization and even today their descendants are mistreated.

It is quite normal to hear criticism targeting native Brazilians like the following: “Indians who wear shorts, sneakers and drive cars are not real Indians.” Those who spill this sort of racist nonsense forget that cultures and ethnicities are not defined only by a totally faithful adherence to the ways of their ancestors. If that were the case, North American Indians wouldn't be considered Indians by white people in the United States, since they drive cars, go to college, and so on. Also, if that were the case, a Jew could only be considered a “truly Jewish” if he lived exactly like ancient Jews lived at the time of the Second Temple, or even before. Cultures change, they adapt, and in many cases, they die. What many try to do in Brazil is to exterminate the little that is left from native and African cultures. We offend cultural manifestations that come from natives and blacks by saying they are irrelevant, we tell them to “adapt” to the dominant culture we inherited from Christian Europeans, but at the same time we love Oktober Fest, an annual event that occurs at Blumenau, a city in Southern Brazil where there is a high concentration of German descendants. Why do we hate when Indians and blacks embrace their roots and love when Germans do the same?

To make matters worse, by the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th century, new waves of migrants came to Brazil. Europeans started coming from places other than Portugal, seeking a better life. The majority of them came from Italy, but there were also German, Polish, etc. These new migrants became the preferential work force for capitalists who owned the means of production in rural and urban areas. They were extremely exploited, to the point that some of them were called white slaves. But they did not identify themselves with the recently freed blacks. On the contrary, they identify themselves with their tormentors, with their bosses, with the rich and white capitalists—and these rich and white capitalists favored them. Besides this, a smaller portion of new migrants came with money, and they preferred employing whites, leaving blacks and natives unemployed. So, instead of joining forces with those who were mistreated, the blacks, the natives, the mestizos and the poor whites that were already in Brazil, the new European migrants preferred to adulate the powerful.

We can see the result of this type of behavior today. The descendants of these European migrants compose the hard base of president Bolsonaro's supporters. It is an understatement to say that this portion of the population wants a Christian Ayatollah, what they really want is for Bolsonaro to become their Führer. They are like the former secretary of cultural affairs, Roberto Alvim, who was fired because of the horrible repercussion following one of his speeches where he imitated Joseph Goebbels, Hitler's propaganda minister. Afterwards the newspapers found out that Bolsonaro didn't want to fire him, and only did so because of internal pressure coming from allies.

Brazil is a country that never made smart investments in education, be it in preschool, high school or university level. Even in times when money was abound, investment was pathetic in comparison with other countries. I'm mainly talking about public investment, but I could also address private money. The majority of our economic elite is dumb and inherited immense privilege. They only speak Portuguese, and they can barely make themselves understood. They never donate money to research or museums. They don't promote anything, unlike the elites in other capitalist countries. When our wealthy travel to Europe, most of them don't know how to appreciate the museums and culture that exists over there. Also, they never cared about fomenting our own culture. They despise the culture that comes from African Brazilians and natives, as if European culture was the only worthy one—but they know nothing of the European culture they pretend to love so much. They don't read books. When they pretend to read, it's some self-help bullshit like The Servant or worse, one of Olavo de Carvalho's scrappy “philosophy” books. They laugh at the European welfare State and believe that the Brazilian State does a lot for the poor. They pretend not to understand that our people can't leave poverty behind with a mean salary of R$ 2,300 (about 433 US dollars). They think workers already have too much rights, and that the minimum wage is too high—meanwhile, an enormous part of Brazil's population, millions of human beings, work for less than the minimum wage (which is less than 190 dollars a month). About a third of our population, probably more, work during the day so they can eat at night.

The first world that most rich Brazilians adulate—except when it comes to the good things, of course, because our elites will never install the generous welfare State many European countries have and they will never leave most of their wealth to universities or museums after they die like sophisticated rich Americans do—watch in horror what we do over here, especially now with Jair Bolsonaro as president. I can even imagine a typical member of our ridiculous elite travelling to Europe with his European passport—many of them have dual citizenship through blood—and shout: “Embrace me, European brothers!” only to hear the answer: “There comes one of the deplorables.” He will not understand and leave Europe with a broken heart, only to go back to his gated neighborhood in Southern Brazil and tell other rich Brazilians that Europeans have changed since the times of their grandparents (ignoring that their grandparents left Europe back in the day because it was a horrible place to live at the time). He will probably propagate grotesque ideas that 21st century Europe has become “infected by non-Europeans” in a move “orchestrated by the globalist Jewish cabal of George Soros.” In the end, the typical member of the Brazilian elite will not change. He will not understand that he is the asshole, the dumb ass, the person that hasn't read a single book in ten years—and the few exceptions read only right-wing conspiracy crap. No, instead of recognizing they were wrong and change their ways, the Brazilian rich will double down on their proto-Nazi beliefs, they'll continue saying barbaric things like “slavery was actually good for the blacks” and other racist stupidities typical of an ignorant mentality that, unfortunately, has started to be embraced by some of its victims, as in the case of Sérgio Camargo, the current president of the Palmares Foundation—a government foundation that preserves the historical struggle of black people and promote black culture; Camargo is a black conservative extremist linked to president Bolsonaro.

About a month ago we had the first official death by coronavirus in Brazil. Despite the fact that many cases and deaths are not being reported, as of April, we have about two thousand official deaths already. Today, Bolsonaro finally fired the minister of health that was trying to do the bare minimum, Henrique Mandetta. Let me be clear: Mandetta is not a hero. He isn't a saint. He chose to play with in the mud with the pigs when he accepted the invitation to be a part of this criminal government. However, it is undeniable that he was supporting  scientific and medical backed measures such as social isolation. But Bolsonaro—who is a completely ignorant man that lives by magical thinking, a man that has at his side incompetent people such as Paulo Guedes, the finance minister—believed social distancing to be a conspiracy created by the communists to destabilize his government. Bolsonaro and Guedes forget—actually, they pretend to forget—that the economy wasn't taking off before the Covid-19 pandemic. The neoliberal reforms made in the last few years—such as labor law reform made in 2016 under presindent Michel Temer and now the pension system reform made in 2019 under Bolsonaro—did not give our economy the jolt expected by free-market fundamentalists.

They blindly follow a dogma that tells them that the great economic powers of the world became what they are today without an active State presence, something any serious historian of economic development knows to be false. Now, with the crisis generated by the Covid-19 pandemic, even the institutions created to stabilize and impose neoliberal agendas in countries under the influence of the United States after World War II, institutions like IMF and the World Bank, even they are proposing huge increases in public spending. They are encouraging public spending regardless of whether or not this contributes to an increase in public debt. But our government is run by genocidal lunatics, and they say the Brazilian State can't do that, even though our public debt is lower than American, British, Swedish and Japanese debt.

So here's where we're at: the Bolsonaro government, with Guede's support, tries to maintain fiscal conservatism at a time when even other right-wing governments and international institutions that defend the neoliberal order say we should be spending money in order to help people and businesses. The economic inequalities in Brazil already are absurd during normal times. It is not question of absolute poverty versus relative inequality, like some many fools love to promote. Brazil's problem is inequality, it is the fact that the majority of the population is poor and forced to work for subsistence wages, without any hope that life will get better for them or their children, since education is poorly managed. With the pandemic, things will get worse. Our public healthcare system will help, even though it has been badly managed throughout the years—it will help, sure, but it can't perform miracles. Even the middle class will end up arriving in private hospitals only to be turned away for lack of beds. Now imagine the tens of millions who can't afford private healthcare and depend on the public system. In the United States, the only developed country in the world that doesn't have public healthcare, the Covid-19 pandemic is already killing way more poor and black people than wealthy and white.  

We can expect a similar situation in Brazil. In the state of Rio de Janeiro, one of the first victims of Covid-19 was an elderly maid. She worked for another elderly woman who had traveled to Europe and came home carrying the virus. Both got sick, but only the maid died. This doesn't mean that the woman who employed the maid is evil, but we need to know that this is the image that will come out of this tragedy. Most employers, who have money, will have bigger chances of surviving, even with private hospitals working at full capacity. Those who are in the middle or rich classes will be able to spend more time in isolation, without working or working from home. They will be able to tolerate wage cuts or diminishing profit, while millions of poor people will be forced to work in order to eat the next day. It is time for the Brazilian State to step in and help. However, we'll most likely maintain a tradition that was inaugurated in 1888 and our State won't help those who need the most. At most, it will give a one time emergency help of about 110 dollars to those who are desperate—I'm not kidding, that's the amount. Our pathetic economic elite will say that any help given by the federal government is enough, that poor people drain resources instead of working. Meanwhile, the Brazilian Central Bank gave over R$ 1.2 trillion (about 226 billion US dollars) to the banks so they can face the coronavirus crisis—the total amount given to the poor by the federal government adds up to only R$ 98 billion (about 18 billion US dollars).

By Fernando Olszewski

(This post was first published April 17th, 2020 @ Exilado Metafísico)

. Artigo: ‘A escravidão permanecerá por muito tempo como a característica nacional do Brasil’ (O Globo)
. Resumo: As consequências da imigração europeia para os negros paulistas, de Karl Monsma (Scielo)
. Italianos chegados ao Brasil sofreram preconceito, mas também o reproduziram contra os negros (GaúchaZH)
. Racismo contra imigrantes no Brasil é constante, diz pesquisador
. Como os paulistas excluíram os negros do mercado de trabalho (Rede Brasil Atual)
. FGV: coronavírus não pode ser desculpa; economia não ia acelerar como imaginado (UOL Economia)
. Coronavírus: por que a população negra é desproporcionalmente afetada nos EUA?
. Coronavírus é mais letal entre negros no Brasil, apontam dados do Ministério da Saúde
. Bolsonaro sanciona auxílio emergencial de R$ 600 para trabalhadores informais (Valor Econômico)
. Pacote anunciado pelo governo deve liberar R$ 1,2 trilhão aos bancos (Correio Braziliense)