Well-known activist in Afro-Brazilian social movements, Douglas Belchior, sought a run for state congressman until discovering his party’s predilection for white candidates
By Marques Travae; Belchior photos courtesy of Laura Flanders Show
Douglas Belchior is a figure that is well-known within Afro-Brazilian activist circles. The 39-year old history teacher is a leader with UNEAfro, União de Núcleos de Educação Popular para Negras/os e Classe Trabalhadora (Union of Popular Education Centers for Blacks and Working Class) and had recently announced his candidacy for congressman of the state of São Paulo with the PSOL (Partido Socialismo e Liberdade or Socialism and Liberty Party) party. For those who remember, the PSOL is the party of the Rio de Janeiro councilwoman Marielle Franco who made international news when she was gunned down in a professional assassination back in March.
The PSOL is considered a party that oscillates between the left and the extreme left of the popular PT, the Partido dos Trabalhadores, or Workers’ Party, the party that ruled Brazil from 2003 to 2016, through the presidencies of Lula da Silva and his successor Dilma Rousseff, who was removed from office in 2016 in a controversial impeachment that many on the political left consider to be a political coup d’etat. Founded in 2004. the PSOL has deep roots in social movements, are adherents of socialist politics and was founded by dissenters of the PT that disagreed with the direction of the party under the Lula administration.
In the 2014 elections, the PSOL did quite well in the elections, particularly in the state of Rio de Janeiro, making the party the most successful party of the extreme left, at least according to the polls and the candidates it has been able to get elected, including 2 mayors, 6 federal congressman/women, 13 state congressman/women and 53 city councilman and women across the country.
Given its leftist politics and recent successful elections, one would naturally conclude that the party would be a natural match for the black agenda and leaders within the Movimento Negro (black movement). But as Belchior recently discovered, that may not necessarily be the case.
On a recent trip to the United States, Belchior, was interviewed on the Laura Flanders Show, where he spoke of the vast similarities in the experiences of African descendants in Brazil and the United States and the necessity of building bridges between blacks of both countries, a vision that this writer shares. He also spoke of the need to stop the genocide of black Brazilians, supporting the movement to free imprisoned former president Lula, and how the brutal assassination of Marielle Franco has affected the Brazilian people. The mention of the last two figures provide a perfect lead in to a discussion on Belchior’s recent decision not to run in the upcoming elections.
Traditionally, parties associated with liberal, leftist policies attract the support of oppressed black masses, victims of racism/white supremacy and social exclusion. And like the PT, the PSOL also has an image of favoring agendas that one would think would benefit the disenfranchised black masses, but upon closer inspection, one need ask if the image is actually in step with reality.
A previous article pointed out how center-left parties such as the PT and center-right parties, such as the PSDB, either blatantly ignore the black population or support policies that in fact are simply crumbs falling off of the table that don’t improve the overall lives of poor black people. It is also true of both parties that neither invests much in the support of black candidates and lack black Brazilians in positions of leadership within the party ranks. But without the massive support of poor, black voters, particularly in the northeast region of the country, there is no way the PT could have ruled Brazil for 14 straight years. In both the Lula and Dilma administrations, both supported by the black vote, we saw very few black faces and thus very little influence from the Afro-Brazilian perspective. And what about the PSOL, a leftist party that is considered left of the PT?
For Belchior, coming to recognize the shortcomings of the PSOL places the party in a position in which they are neither better or worse than other parties. Even being affiliated with social and labor movements, which includes a significant participation of black Brazilians, according to Belchior, who has been affiliated with the party since its beginnings, the party has been disrespectful to the construction of black movements, particularly in the city of São Paulo.
Recent reports have exposed the fact that Brazilian political parties overwhelmingly support political candidates that are white and male. In the 2016 elections, for example, 58% of mayoral candidates for cities across Brazil were white males, while only 4% were represented by non-white women. In the last elections, Belchior’s party wasn’t even the leader in placing self-declared black candidates into municipal races. That honor went to the PSTU party, in which 37% of its candidates were black, with the PCB (Brazilian Communist party) coming in second at 19% with the PSOL coming in third at 17%.
Campaign funding is another manner of measuring how much a candidate has and how far he or she may go in their political aspirations and, unsurprisingly, the campaigns of black candidates fare far worse than their white counterparts. According to the most recent numbers, 701 preto (black) candidates received R$55 million in their campaigns, about R$78,000 per candidate, while 2,229 pardo (brown) candidates received R$209 million, or $93,000 per candidate. Coming in far ahead of the pack in all three categories was the branco (white) candidate, of which there were 4,144, dividing up $1.2 billion in resources, equaling $285,000 per candidate.
Given these figures, it is understandable why Belchior sent a July 12th letter to party leadership requesting information that shows how the party’s campaign resources were being divided among its candidates for this year’s elections. But even a week after soliciting this information, the party still hadn’t responded Douglas’s request.
I wonder why.
Having been tipped off by behind the scenes sources, Belchior came into information that suggested that the party was focusing its funding of campaigns on its white candidates that had already received resources and had already begun making use of these resources to take advantage of the political machine’s structure. Becoming aware of the goings on, Belchior naturally felt that he was not receiving the same structural support as his white colleagues.
To address Belchior’s concerns, an internal meeting was held in which the topic was discussed. State PSOL president, Joselicio Junior, known as Juninho, 32, and also black, acknowledged the contradictions within the party but remains because he believes it is possible challenge directions and create alternatives.
Other signs made themselves apparent that signaled to Belchior that his aspirations were not necessarily high on the PSOL’s list of priorities. On July 21st, for example, at the PSOL national convention, activist/writer Guilherme Boulos was officially announced as the party’s candidate for the presidency. Belchior watched as candidate after candidate remained in the close vicinity of the presidency hopeful, from the beginning of the convention to the press conference at the end. These same candidates were also seen in close proximity to the party’s top names and leaders, while he wasn’t given this same opportunity for visibility.
For Douglas, these signals can perhaps be interpreted as the party’s unwillingness to commit itself to the support of black candidates nor a black agenda, regardless of the party’s outward appearance of support for traditionally excluded groups. In his estimation, if the party was more welcoming of black people and a black agenda, it would automatically have a positive affect for Brazil as a whole as pretos and pardos make up more than half (54%) of the country’s population but are also the groups that most suffer the vast social inequalities inherent in Brazilian society.
In his view, rather than challenging the structural racism embedded in Brazilian political parties, the PSOL itself is also guilty of racism as it doesn’t utilize its platform to promote and give visibility to the campaigns of black candidates. In this case, there is a clear difference between the discourse of equality and putting the ideology of egalitarian politics into practice. The Movimento Negro has produced a number of prominent activists over the years and parties such as the PSOL could help advance a pauta negra (black agenda) by strengthening the campaigns of candidates with origins in these movements by setting aside funds that support them.
And according to Belchior, contributing to such campaigns and agendas isn’t simply a temporary fix but rather a long-term commitment as racial exclusion has been a long-term practice that has sown its roots in all areas of society including government, media, the business world, schools, etc. And as racism lies in the very structure of Brazilian society, there is no way that parties such as the PSOL are somehow an exception to the rule.
As Belchior explained it, his intention with bringing out these concerns and criticisms of the party is not to create a wedge within the party membership but rather to make the party live up to it’s full potential as, based on its foundation, it was created to be better than other parties. In his own words, being affiliated with the party since its inception, he “wishes for it to be the party that most and best responds to the demands of the black Brazilian people.”
Rationalizing the situation, the UNEafro teacher understands that his simply being black and being a part of the PSOL doesn’t and won’t automatically make the party not racist, nor would the presence of other influential black people as institutional racism isn’t simply about any one person or another. When any organization seeks to move forward and improve on its shortcomings, this can only occur when there is collective change. And to be clear, Belchior isn’t the only person to come to these conclusions about the party. And for any back activist that is conscious of the various tentacles of racism, I would hope he isn’t the only one to pick up on this.
My question after learning of Belchior’s realization that his party could be just as racist as any other political party in Brazil is: What you thought?
Realistically, I’ve believed for some time that black people cannot continue to be duped by the rhetoric of major or even smaller political parties that claim to stand for equality, inclusion, diversity, representation, etc. If the party was not created by black people that are united by nationalistic ideologies, I can’t see how anyone could allow themselves to believe that the interests of a population that has been exploited and disregarded for centuries by the white power structure will be represented by that same structure. The leadership of the PSOL is composed of former members of the Workers’ Party that, even managing to maintain an image of looking out for the interest of the black population, make sure that its black support remains in the backseat while its white leadership occupy the driver’s and front passenger’s seat.
But this doesn’t necessarily even have to be the case. It would be just as easy to promote black people into positions of leadership within a white power structure and maintain the ship’s direction as long as those hand-picked, Eurocentric-minded blacks take an oath to maintain the planned course and don’t attempt to “rock the boat”. Perhaps the best example of this would be in the United States that saw two terms of a black president at the head of the Democratic Party without any major improvements to the state of black America. History isn’t short on placing puppet black leaders in place to deceive the masses…see Mobuti, Papa Doc, Baby Doc and yes, MLK and Mandela. These examples serve to support my point that every leader that has a black face doesn’t mean they represent the best interest interests of the black masses.
Political parties don’t list the racial question as a priority
Hélio Santos is a well-respected scholar with experience in academia, non-profits and the political world. For Santos, who has a firm grasp on the political situation in Brazil, it doesn’t matter whether the political party is considered conservative or liberal, the treatment of the racial issue is always the same, with neither side placing it high on their list of priorities.
According to Santos, Brazil’s parties function in a sort of cruise control with homens brancos (white men) always being in the pilot’s seat. As such, when it is time to allocate resources, the results are always the same.
In Santos’s view, neither side of the political aisle have any real interest in carrying out the principles of democracy when the issue is race and also gender. And this is the general MO of ALL of the parties, bar none. Realistically, if any of these parties had interest in changing the racial dynamic in politics, they would have already approached the issue in a different manner and things would have already been changed. So, what does this mean? If there’s been no change in the treatment of the black political candidates in it’s because there is no interest in change.
The former economics professor at PUC (Pontifical Catholic University) points out that inequality in Brazil can be measured by both race and gender, but when we hear the rhetoric of parties such as the PSOL, PCB (Brazilian Communist Party), or PT speaking about inequality, the reply should be: Which inequality, cara pálida (pale face)? How are you out front talking about all of this inequality when your own house isn’t even in order?