A global audience watched Brazil unveil the 2016 Olympics earlier this month with a flashy, jubilant opening ceremony that celebrated its racial diversity and belied its ongoing political and economic strife. But acting President Michel Temer’s maneuvering in the months before the Games revealed a racial reality in South America’s most populous country that is anything but golden, Fordham Law School Professor Tanya Hernández said.
“It looked like a racial utopia during the opening ceremonies, but if you look at the cabinet this president has put into place there’s nary a dark-skinned person in the crowd,” said Hernández, associate director and head of global and comparative law programs and initiatives for the Center on Race, Law & Justice at Fordham Law. “You would think you were looking at Sweden, as opposed to Brazil, when you look at the cabinet.”
Temer’s rapid assembly of lighter-skinned cabinet members in the wake of President Dilma Rousseff’s suspension of powers in May highlights the implicit racial bias that exists in Brazil and other Latin American countries with large mixed-race populations. The so-called “pigmentocracy” considers “lighter as brighter” and more capable of excelling in government and other high paying jobs, said Hernández, author of Racial Subordination in Latin America. Lighter-skinned people, of European heritage, are also less likely to suffer the rampant violence and housing displacement as poor black citizens of African descent.
To Brazil’s north, Venezuela is a nation struggling with food and money shortages as grim as its neighbor’s opening ceremonies were glitzy. Generally, in Latin America, the roots of economic disequilibrium are found in race, Hernández noted. Venezuela is no exception. To speak of poor Venezuelans is to speak of Venezuelans of African ancestry, the professor added.
In the past decade, presidents for of both Venezuela and Brazil have championed racially inclusive programs, breaking a long-held taboo in Latin American politics. They introduced wealth redistribution policies and incorporated more African descendents into positions of governmental power than ever before. The leaders responsible for these changes, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva of Brazil and the late Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, no longer hold power.
Corruption charges have sidelined Rousseff, Lula’s successor and Brazil’s first woman president. Afro-Brazilian social justice groups were quick to raise concerns that elites charged Rousseff with corruption as retaliation for continuing Lula’s wealth redistribution policies, Hernández explained.
In addition to the chaos surrounding Rousseff, a dramatic rise in police killings of Rio de Janeiro’s poor, the displacement of thousands of poor Brazilians for Olympics-related building projects, polluted water sources, and concerns over the Zika virus marred the months leading up to the Olympics.
Meanwhile, Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro, the man that sought to continue Chavez’s race-based reforms, could face a recall vote in 2017.
Mass protests have packed major cities across both countries. However, who is protesting and why is not always as it appears from a distance. Observed up close, protests in both countries revolve around lighter-skinned elites’ desire to retake control and squelch reform efforts, Hernández said.
Ultimately, ascertaining who stands to suffer the most in both countries remains sadly predictable. The economic hardships present in Venezuela belie the fact that the food shortage does not exist in equal opportunity for the elites, the professor explained. Nor is corruption, a political virus in both countries, a dynamic that cuts across class.
“Corruption hits hardest for those viewed as most expendable,” Hernández said. “Unfortunately social expendability in Latin America and these two countries aligns on a race spectrum, a pigment spectrum.”