Benedita da Silva: Community activist and senator, Brazil

August 25, 1997

This piece was published in the July/August 1997 issue of the NACLA Report.

At a young age, Benedita da Silva became a community activist in the favelas, or shantytowns, of Rio de Janeiro. In 1980, she became a founding member of the Workers Party (PT) and was elected in 1994 to the Brazilian Senate. Da Silva is the first woman from the favelas to become a major political figure in Brazil. She was interviewed in Rio in January, 1997 by Medea Benjamin and Maria Luisa Mendonça as part of her biography, An Afro-Brazilian Woman's Story of Politics and Love: The Life of Benedita da Silva (forthcoming October 1997, Food First Books).

How did you become involved in the PT?

From its very beginnings, the PT understood the need to be as broad based as possible. Its strongest base of support was the unions and the workers' movement in general, but it also received the backing of the progressive wing of the Catholic church. I first heard about the PT through the religious workers in the favelas, who brought us materials and informa- tion about the new party. The PT's ideas resonated with my own beliefs, and I became a strong supporter. We would go door to door in the favelas, explaining what the party was about and recruiting new members.

I was always religious, and even though I believed in socialism, I couldn't identify with other left-wing par- ties because they were atheist. But the PT was different. It welcomed both atheists and believers. It reached out to intellectuals and grassroots organizers.

In the beginning, it was often difficult for people like me who came from the grassroots to find a voice within the party. The intellectuals in the party used a language that was very different from ours, and they tended to dominate the debates. But we forced the party to have critical discussions of issues around class, race and gen- der, and this has strengthened the party.

You have been a pioneer in terms of women in politics in Brazil. What do you consider your biggest successes?

One of our biggest achievements is the changes we have brought about within the PT itself. Though the PT talked about promoting women's issues, and women were always behind the scenes doing the work, very few women were chosen by the party to run for office. So we began to push the party to have an affirmative- action policy that would guarantee that at least 30% of leadership positions be occupied by women.

It wasn't easy to establish this quota. Some men insisted that there was no gender discrimination in the party and that women could become leaders once we proved we were competent. We said: "What are you talking about? We've already proven our competency by doing all kinds of work in the PT. We're just not get- ting the recognition." We had to convince them that the quota was necessary because discrimination was the real reason we were not in those positions.

We make other demands on the men in the party. For example, we insist that PT leaders pay child support. We've already vetoed the candidacy of some men who want to defend the rights of working people but won't give financial support to their children. They get furious and say we're interfering in their personal affairs, but it forces them to confront their own contradictions. How can a person be trusted to defend the rights of children if he won't even take care of his own children?

When I was first elected as a deputy, there were only 26 women deputies out of a total of 599. It was such a man's world that there still wasn't even a restroom for female deputies. And the congressmen treated us with such paternalism! They expected women to talk only about women's issues. As a representative of the Workers Party, I was always interested in issues like agrarian reform and workers' rights, but they tried to keep me out of these discussions. So to get around their prejudices, I would talk about "women and agrarian reform," "women and workers' rights," women and everything else, until they finally took me seriously on these other issues.

Because of this male domination, we women in Congress from all parties got together and launched an amazing national campaign to demand that as of 1996, at least 20% of all candidates from all political parties be women. It was a beautiful example of how women of different political persuasions, together with the sup- port of the women's movement around the country, could come together and force all parties to increase the representation of women.

We've talked about gender inequality but what about race? Brazil has the veneer of a racially harmonious soci- ety. To what extent is this myth or reality?

It's total myth. Blacks in Brazil make up over half the population, yet we are virtually absent from senior lev- els of government. There is one Cabinet minister of mixed descent, and none of the country's 23 state gov- ernors are black. Of the 559 members of Congress, only 7 consider themselves black. In the armed forces, you'll find few or no blacks among the generals, admirals and colonels. In the business world, 82% of businessmen and high-level administrators are white. Blacks get less education, earn less, eat more poorly and die earlier than whites. Life expectancy for blacks is eight years shorter than for whites. Illiteracy for blacks is 37%, compared to 15% for whites. During the days of apartheid in South Africa, there were more blacks in South African universities than in Brazilian ones.

Some people on the left think that we shouldn't focus on the issue of race because the major issue is one of class. They say that if we built a society with a fair dis- tribution of wealth, the position of blacks would auto- matically improve. But I disagree. Blacks suffer because they are poor, but they are poor precisely because they are black.

And when blacks do manage to move up the social and economic ladder, they still can't escape racism. Successful blacks are considered arrogant and uppity. The idea persists that blacks should know their place- that they should stick to thefavelas and the poorest pay- ing jobs.

The racist nature of our society became really clear during my campaign for mayor of Rio. Once the elites of Rio understood that there was a real possibility that a black woman could be elected mayor, they panicked. I started to get nasty letters and threatening phone calls. White men on the street would yell at me and make obscene gestures. They'd shout things like, "Your place is in the favela"; "Get back to the kitchen"; or "Hey monkey, go back to your tree." People joked that if I were elected, I'd change the big statue of Christ that overlooks the city for a statue of King Kong.

Have you been able to build the same kind of strength in the black movement that exists in the women's move- ment?

Unfortunately no, due to the complexities of race issues in Brazil and the reluctance of many blacks to embrace their own identity. There are hundreds of black organizations in Brazil today that focus on issues like cultural identity-music groups, dance ensembles, reli- gious organizations. But we have failed to build a strong, cohesive national movement that can really influence policy.

One of the issues the black movement has success- fully organized around was ensuring that the 1988 Constitution protect our rights. We managed to pass an amendment that made racial prejudice a crime without bail and with no statute of limitation. This law hasn't modified people's behavior, but at least it gives us legal support. For the first time, we have the possibility of punishing those who commit racist acts.

Do you consider yourself a socialist?

I certainly believe we need something radically dif- ferent. We need to transform our society into one in which human relations take precedence over material things. Socialism, in theory, could do that. Unfortunately, it has been distorted in almost all the places it has been tried. But I think we must keep on trying, since the poorer countries of the world are in desperate need of new social experiments. I think we need to try a version of socialism that is not imported or top-down, but a kind of socialism that respects our cul- ture and works from the bottom up.

For me, ideology is not the key issue. Whether you believe in capitalism or socialism as the best social sys- tem is really irrelevant. The most important thing is what you do in your everyday life to make the world bet- ter. The most important thing is your actions. You may believe that in theory people shouldn't go hungry, but if you don't do anything to stop hunger then your thoughts are meaningless. I've already been hungry and I've seen my children go hungry, so it's not just an intellectual exercise for me. It's a question of doing something so that oth- ers don't have to suffer like we did.

What do you think is the proper role of government in shaping the economy?

The state has to play a major role in trying to harmonize different social social forces. On one side are the business people who are out to defend their own interests and profits, regardless of the needs of the rest of society. On the other side are the impoverished masses, the ones who create the wealth but don't share in the profits. And in the middle is the state, which is supposed to curb capitalism's worst excesses and steer the economy in a direction that meets fro the needs of the majority of its citizens. The state is supposed to represent public, not private, interests.

The state also has a role to play in developing national industries that are vital to our economy. The rich countries tell us that if we want to grow and prosper, we have to sell off state industries to the private sector, and drop protectionist policies that favor national industries. But if you look back at the history of countries like Japan and the United States, you see that they created strong economies by protecting their own markets. So when the rich countries tell us to open our markets, they are saying: "Do as I say, not as I do." From my point of view, what they really want is open access to our inter- nal markets and resources so they can continue to profit at our expense.

What we've witnessed in the past decades is that the rich nations have developed sophisticated mechanisms to control our countries without appearing as coloniz- ing forces. Today, their arms of oppression and domi- nation are not guns, but calculators. If we analyze our present circumstances and look back at history, we'll understand that what the people in the Southern Hemisphere are experiencing today is merely a more advanced and refined form of colonialism.

How are Brazilian workers confronting the global econ- omy?

Brazil is perhaps the country in Latin America that has most resisted the neoliberal model, and our unions are on the forefront of resistance. They are becoming less focused on narrowly defined workplace issues and are getting involved in larger economic and political issues-from agrarian reform to the foreign debtthat have an impact on wage policies and affect broad sectors of society.

A strong union movement is critical to implementing policies that favor workers. Even if only a relatively small portion of the work force is unionized, many non-union employees benefit from the gains of the unionized workers. Sometimes employers offer the same wagesor even more-as a way to keep the unions out. But the non-union workers often don't get other critical benefits, such as guaranteed employment, health insurance or pensions.

What other measures are you advo- cating to improve the economy?

We still need to renegotiate the foreign debt. We shouldn't have to bear the total responsibility for bad loans made to the corrupt military regime under onerous conditions. We also have to stop capital flight made in Brazil is used to build up the country, and not used to buy condominiums in Florida. And we have to make the rich in Brazil pay their fair share of taxes. Enforcement of the law is very weak in Brazil, and the rich find all sorts of ways to evade pay- ments.

We need a development model that sees the genera- tion of employment as an objective in and of itself. That's why I call for a strategy that focuses on micro, small and medium enterprises, because it's the small businesses that generate the most jobs, especially for workers who are not highly skilled.

Another way to generate employment is through land reform that would give the landless their own plots so they wouldn't have to migrate to the cities. A better dis- tribution of land would also increase food production for domestic consumption, stimulating the internal market. Right now, we're one of the major agricultural exporters in the world but we don't produce enough food for our own people. In a country with 150 million people, we have to put more emphasis on our own inter- nal market, a market that could generate so much pro- duction and so many jobs!

You've talked about the need for unions, a strong work- ers' party, and for state intervention to tame market forces. But what about on the international level? How about issues that go beyond national boundaries?

We certainly need international institutions to regulate global issues, but not institutions that are controlled by big capital, like the World Trade Organization or the World Bank. There are UN agencies, like UNICEF, the World Health Organization, UNESCO and the International Labor Organization, that help improve social conditions in poor nations. But the UN is under- going a serious financial crisis, mostly because the big countries like the United States refuse to pay their allot- ted portion. Moreover, the major UN decisions are made by the five permanent members of the Security Council-the United States, Russia, China, England and France-which have the power to veto any resolution.

Another way for southern countries to gain a better negotiating position vis-a-vis the north is to create more south-south links. The negotiations for the creation of a free market among Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay, known as Mercosur, make sense since these countries have similar economic conditions. However, there are still many issues to work out. The strong agri- cultural sector in Argentina can hurt farmers in the other countries; Brazil's more advanced industrial sec- tor can make it hard for the other countries to compete. But at least we don't have the tremendous imbalances like those that exist between Mexico and the United States, imbalances that put Mexico in a subordinate position within NAFTA.

I also think Mercosur could serve as a model of coop- eration between Third World countries if we can make sure that it doesn't benefit just the multinational corpo- rations, becoming an instrument for companies to jump from one country to another in search of cheap labor. The inclusion of the so-called social clause proposed by the unions would guarantee workers the freedom to organize, prohibit child labor, ensure health and safety regulations, and protect against discrimination in the workplace. If we can get this clause passed, then I would be more optimistic about having free-trade agreements with our Latin American neighbors.

What do you think you and your colleagues in the PT can accomplish in the coming years?

I have no illusions that my presence here in the Senate is going to change the minds of the people who have power or that it's going to change the world. I know that in this political work, the victories are few and far between. Our society is sharply divided between rich and poor, black and white. But the fact that I'm a black woman from a poor background allows me to break a lot of stereotypes. I want to give people hope, to inspire them to seize whatever opportunities they can.

Tags: Benedita da Silva, Brazil, interview, women, PT

Like this article? Support our work. Donate now.