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Brazil confronts calls for reparations as it grapples with slavery's legacy

RIO DE JANEIRO — The executive manager for institutional relations at a Brazilian state bank took the microphone before roughly 150 people at a forum on slavery’s legacy in his country, which kidnapped more Africans for forced labor than any other nation.

“Today’s Bank of Brazil asks Black people for forgiveness,” André Machado said to the mostly Black audience at the Portela samba school in Rio de Janeiro.

“Directly or indirectly, all of Brazilian society should apologize to Black people for that sad moment in our history,” he said, reading a statement to audience members who sat watching from plastic chairs, their eyes fixed upon him.

Brazil — where more than half the population self-identifies as Black or biracial — has long resisted reckoning with its past. That reluctance has started loosening.

Public prosecutors have begun probing Bank of Brazil, Latin America’s second-largest financial institution by assets, with $380 billion, for its historical links to the slave trade. Their investigation could yield a recommendation, an agreement or filing of legal action, and they invited Bank of Brazil to start a dialogue with Black people at the Portela school in the working-class Madureira neighborhood.

Ghyslaine Almeida e Cunha, a spiritual leader of the Afro-Brazilian religion Umbanda, traveled from the Amazonian city of Belem for what she called “an historic moment.” She welcomed the apology and announcement of measures, though the bank stopped short of pledging compensation.

“I came to say — on Portela’s sacred soil — that, yes, we do want reparations,” said Cunha.

Brazil enslaved more people from Africa than any other country; nearly 5 million kidnapped Africans disembarked in Brazil, more than 12 times the number taken to mainland North America, according to estimates from the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade database. Brazil was the last country in the Western Hemisphere to abolish slavery, in 1888.

Valongo Wharf in Rio, which UNESCO calls “the most important physical trace of the arrival of African slaves on the American continent,” was only excavated in 2011.

Visitors tour the archeological site Valongo Wharf, the main port of entry for enslaved Africans to Brazil and the Americas, in Rio de Janeiro, in 2021.
Visitors tour the archeological site Valongo Wharf, the main port of entry for enslaved Africans to Brazil and the Americas, in Rio de Janeiro, in 2021. Bruna Prado / AP file

Discrimination remains, and Black and biracial Brazilians are more likely to be poor, imprisoned and die violently. Fewer than a third of managerial positions are held by those groups, and they comprise one quarter of representatives in Brazil’s Lower House of Congress.

On Dec. 7, a Senate committee heard experts arguing that Brazil needs to prioritize compensation. And when Carnival kicks off next week, a samba school parading before tens of thousands of spectators and millions more TV viewers will present the story of a Black man whose family is seeking reparations.

Brazil’s nascent clamor for reparations joins existing movements abroad. In the U.S., New York, California and Illinois have established task forces on the issue. In November, the African Union partnered with Caribbean countries to form a “united front” to persuade European nations to pay for “historical mass crimes”. Institutions such as Harvard University and the Bank of England have been confronting their historical ties to the slave trade, although neither has endorsed direct financial reparations.

And in 2021, President Joe Biden expressed support for a federal commission to study a national plan for reparations for Black Americans, but he has not supported any of the efforts at the state level.

Such discussions in the U.S. inspired Brazilian nonprofit Educafro to sue the federal government in May 2022, Irapuã Santana, the lawyer who filed the suit, told The Associated Press. The organization, which fights for better access to education for Black and biracial Brazilians, is demanding an apology and a fund to combat racism, among other measures.

Brazil long projected itself as a inclusive democracy that had left racism behind. Only in recent decades has there been a concerted effort to publicly debunk that myth. The country has so far mostly dealt with slavery’s legacy through affirmative action, particularly its 2012 law obliging public universities to reserve a certain number of spaces for Black people.

But many on the right argue the past is irrelevant, and deny that any compensation is due. They are likely to fight any widespread push for reparations.

“What debt? I have never enslaved anyone in my life,” Jair Bolsonaro said in a TV interview in 2018, months before he won the presidency. The former leader and current standard-bearer for the right has questioned the basis for quotas, saying Black and white people should be treated equally. In October, his son proposed ending race-based quotas, and almost one-third of senators supported the measure.

Advocates for further atonement disagree.

“Faced with the horror of 350 years of slavery, quotas are insufficient. We need to expand the discussion on reparations,” said lawyer Humberto Adami, president of the Racial Equality Commission of the Brazilian Lawyers Institute.

That demands for reparations are for the first time being heard in public, prominent places is partly a reflection of the political climate ushered in by leftist President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who took office in January 2023. Last year, prosecutors started investigating Bank of Brazil, which is cooperating.

Its largest shareholder at one point was José Bernardino de Sá, a slave trader responsible for transporting around 19,000 Africans to Brazil, according to historical research that sparked prosecutors’ investigation. João Henrique Ulrich, who in 1842 was caught running a slave barracks in Angola’s capital, was a bank director for almost a decade.

In addition to apologizing, Bank of Brazil announced measures to facilitate jobs for Black people and said it “works intensely to confront structural racism.”

Bank of Brazil declined a request for an interview, instead referring AP to its Nov. 18 statement read at Portela and its recent initiative to finance projects benefiting Black women.

Lula appointed Tarciana Medeiros to lead the bank, and she is its first-ever Black president. He has pledged to further racial equality, and created the country’s first ministry dedicated to the issue.

The family of João Cândido, who served in the navy two decades after Brazil abolished slavery, hope a more receptive executive branch will finally hear their pleas.

After witnessing a sailor’s flogging, Cândido led a revolt against regular whipping by officers in 1910. He and fellow mutineers were tortured, and only two survived — including Cândido. Kicked out of the navy, he and his family missed out on pension benefits and promotions, then he fell into poverty, according to prosecutor Julio Araujo, who also leads the Bank of Brazil probe.

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