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Justice and Politics of Inequality Dominate Brazil Forum UK 2018

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On May 5, the London School of Economics hosted Brazil Forum UK 2018, entitled Break[ing] Down the Constitution. The event is organized annually by Brazilian students in the United Kingdom and this year’s edition promoted reflection on the 1988 constitution by some of Brazil’s main leaders and thinkers. The aim was to explore the economic and political advances and setbacks of the last 30 years while considering the social implications of the constitution beyond its legalities.

Against the backdrop of the upcoming elections and increasing social and political polarization in Brazil, the day’s debate was passionate and controversial, and the reaction from the audience equally lively and divided.

Luis Roberto Barroso, Brazilian Federal Supreme Court Justice and Honorary President of Brazil Forum UK, opened the day’s proceedings by highlighting the “achievements” of the last three decades and the problems facing Brazil today. His praise for monetary stability, social inclusion, and lack of “legal-institutional breakdowns” combined with criticism of “patrimonialism, formalism, and the culture of inequality” was met with both applause and disruptive jeering.

Barroso further suggested that “the Brazilian State does not have enough money to run public universities to the quality Brazil needs” and that the universities should look for alternative funding sources. This was met with resounding discontent from the crowd, even though the speaker was adamant he is not in favor of privatizing these public universities. The judge continued to criticize “a society addicted to the State” with a “physiological culture of institutionalised dishonesty” that has resulted in “a systemic and endemic corruption.” He noted “corruption in Brazil is not the product of a set of individual failures” nor a “phenomenon of a party or government” but an act that “involves the State, private and public agents, and executive and legislative members.”

Barroso set the tone for a day of contention and focus on social and economic inequality. In the panel discussion on economic policy that followed, Laura Carvalho and Samuel Pessoa, both economics professors, engaged in a debate characterized by polite but firm disagreement. Pessoa blamed poor fiscal policy under former president Luiz Inácio ‘Lula’ da Silva’s Worker’s Party government for generating “a pattern of public spending that is incompatible with our gains” while Carvalho praised the administration’s “three pillars of growth”: “access to credit,” “significant expansion of social investment programs,” and “policy that understood that the distribution of income can function as a motor for growth.”

This paved the way for the panel discussion on inequality and redistribution with former Minister of Social Development under Lula, Tereza Campello, Director General of the Food and Agriculture Organization at the United Nations, José Graziano da Silva, and Marc Morgan, an Economics PhD student who investigated income concentration in Brazil. Campello argued “it is easier to reduce poverty than inequality” and avidly defended graphs demonstrating poor and black families’ increased access to education, water, sewage systems, and fridges. While amicable towards the former minister, Graziano pointed to “the historical inheritance of inequality” that had survived despite the Workers’ Party’s tenure in power and added “the way to change this is with public policies.”

Marc Morgan set out his research findings and concluded “inequality in Brazil was a political choice” as “there is a strong correlation between how you regulate the transmission of wealth and the performance of indicators of income inequality.” He attributes this socio-economic gap predominantly to “low inheritance tax,” stating: “If you earn a fortune from your parents and that fortune is little taxed, as in Brazil, you already start with more advantages in society. How to speak of meritocracy? What there is, is the persistence of inequality through generations… When societies become more unequal, the economic process to sustain more growth becomes more difficult, since there are few people at the top… [so] if you concentrate income in the hands of few people, what is the meaning of democracy?”

Before Jurema Werneck, Executive Director of Amnesty International Brazil took to the stage, a short vigil to Marielle Franco was held as some of her famous speeches blared through the auditorium. Her energy as alive as ever, her voice was greeted with a standing ovation and chants of “Marielle is here! Now and forever!”

This was a vivid reminder of the subject of Werneck’s speech: the violence spreading through Brazil. She said “violence is a complex phenomenon and represents part of the nation’s DNA,” citing how Brazil has the “third highest incarcerated population in the world” and “11% are in for homicide.” She positioned the State as accountable and criticized the recent military intervention in Rio as “the figures show this measure does not solve the problem of violence.” She did not hesitate to assert that the victims were predominantly young black men from favelas, battlegrounds that have seen an intensification of violence during the intervention.

Professor of Urban and Environmental Law Edesio Fernandes displayed evidence that both violence and socio-spatial segregation have stemmed from the “exclusionary pattern of urban development.” Architect and parliamentary advisor Joice Berth built on this argument, describing favelas as “places of resistance” and saying “the concept of inequality must be destabilized. This involves reflecting on core issue such as racism. It is through this debate that one understands the emergence of the peripheries and favelas in the country.”

The final panel on the role of business in reducing inequality was partially overshadowed by the anticipation of former president Dilma Rousseff’s arrival to deliver the closing keynote of the day. But while protestors and supporters gathered outside the auditorium, inside a unified set of panelists from a variety of Brazilian industries discussed what Marcel Fukuyama described as “a great culture shift in the company’s role in society.” While lawyer Flavia Oliveira queried “how much the shareholder [is] willing to give up profit to expand impact-related activities,” the most progressive speech came from Daniela Barone, who offered a significant reminder to “include the people who suffer from the problem in solving the problem itself.”

Then, Rousseff appeared on stage. Some welcomed her with rapturous applause and chants of “Dilma! Warrior!” and “the legitimate president of Brazil,” while others sat, unmoved, in silence. In the following ninety minutes she defiantly refuted her impeachment and Lula’s conviction, defended social development policy, unleashed accusations of an organized coup, and even delivered a taste of ironic comedy on the likelihood of corruption within the Worker’s Party. She concluded by saying “Lula is a political prisoner” and therefore the Worker’s Party will not consider any “plan B” and “will not withdraw Lula, nor offer another candidate” in the upcoming elections.

Brazil Forum UK 2018 delivered, as expected, a day of controversy, emotion, and division. However, it was the former president herself, the most emotive and divisive speaker of the day, who offered its single most unifying idea: that the three components of Marielle Franco’s assassination were politics (“for being a councillor”), race (“for being black”), and gender (“for being a woman”). It was a poignant statement that brought reflective agreement and summarized not only the day but the situation Brazil is currently facing: that social development and inclusion in Brazil, despite some recent advances, has a very long way to go, and until it can address these elements, violence and exclusion will continue to taint a country full of positivity, beauty, energy, and potential.

Patrick Gibbs is the Chair of Trustees of The Favela Foundation, an organization that seeks to contribute to the development and growth of sustainable social and educational projects in the favelas of Brazil.