President Obama? The Likely Reception From Brazil

While it’s still unclear what kinds of policies Obama might pursue towards South America if he's elected president, his mere presence in the White House would have enormous emotional and symbolic value, particularly in Brazil, a country whose African roots are strong but where many blacks still struggle against racism and discrimination.

June 11, 2008

Having sewn up the Democratic nomination, Barack Obama could very well go on to the win the general election in November. If he manages to capture the White House, such a development would not only inspire many within the U.S. African-American community, it would also do much to reverse the United States’ tarnished image abroad.

Barack Obama's multiracial background is common throughout Latin America, especially in Brazil. (By Elizabeth Cromwell, CC)

Obama, whose roots go back to Kenya, has become a sensation in the African nation. Following the Illinois Senator’s securing of the Democratic nomination, Obama’s Kenyan family exulted in jubilation. The Kenya Times devoted its front page to the story "Obama makes history,” and many Kenyans celebrated by hoisting plastic cups of "Obama" beer. In this impoverished African nation, people believe that were Obama elected President he would not pursue aggressive wars like Bush and that the world would become a safer place as a result.

An Obama victory in November would appeal to Kenyans but also blacks of the wider African Diaspora, for example in Brazil. As I point out in my current book Revolution! South America and the Rise of the New Left (Palgrave-Macmillan, 2008), in Brazil blacks comprise nearly half the population but are disproportionately represented among the poor and fall behind whites in income, education, and living standards. It wasn’t until recently that Brazilian authorities publicly acknowledged the existence of racism in the country.

Within the South American nation, President Bush is enormously unpopular as a result of the Iraq war and his pursuit of a hawkish foreign policy. Nevertheless, one does not find nearly as much anti-American sentiment in Brazil as one might encounter in, say, Central American nations or Mexico. Indeed, the U.S. and Brazil share many traits in common. Both nations are geographically huge, have ethnically diverse populations, and harness tremendous economic strength. It is probably fair to say that Brazilians are more individualistic than many other South Americans, which makes them somewhat culturally akin to people in the United States.

As a result, when Bush vanishes from the scene in 2009, Brazilians might look differently on the U.S. In particular, an Obama presidency would elicit a lot of curiosity from Afro-Brazilians. Right now, the large South American nation is in the midst of enormous cultural ferment. Afro-Brazilian culture has increasingly become a source of national pride. To his credit, President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva has created a state secretariat to promote racial equality and has made the study of Afro-Brazilian history compulsory in public schools. More controversially, Brazil has been experimenting with quotas that reserve a sizable number of places at some public universities for students who are black or poor.

In an effort to reclaim popular culture, Lula tapped renowned Afro-Brazilian musician Gilberto Gil as his Minister of Culture. Gil is one of the founders of the local musical movement called tropicália. In the 1970s, musicians of the tropicália movement mixed African cultural elements—like the Yoruba language and African high-life and juju music—with Brazilian rhythms and culture along with a strong dose of U.S. pop culture.

As culture minister, Gil has promoted a host of cultural and intellectual causes, such as Creative Commons and music programs. (By smith_pat83, CC)

Black cultural forms such as candomblé—a syncretic religion combining African and Christian beliefs similar to Haitian Vodou—and capoeira are still disparaged in some sectors. But Gil maintains the rise of Lula on the national stage ushered in a cultural revival. The President, he declares, “personifies this national spirit of solidarity, a people committed to pluralism, a mixture of races and customs, with a pacifist outlook on the world.”

“Brazil’s image abroad,” says Gil, “is associated with popular culture: samba, the way we play football. But what we need to do is break the prejudice that popular culture is a lesser product. Blacks and Afro-Indians are the soul of the country. Brazil needs to come to terms with itself.” In an interview with the Daily Telegraph, Gil remarked that it was a good time for Brazilian culture, like the optimistic cultural revival preceding the military dictatorship in 1964. “There's a new energy in Brazil,” he says.

While it’s still unclear what kinds of policies Obama might pursue towards South America as president, his mere presence in the White House would have enormous PR value. Already, Brazilians are monitoring the U.S. election closely and some like what they see in Obama.

When the Illinois Senator gave his famous speech in the wake of the Jeremiah Wright affair Brazilians were impressed by Obama's willingness to confront underlying racism in U.S. society and the news story received attention in the Portuguese-speaking blogosphere. In Brazil and throughout South America, it seems fair to say that the psychological attitude towards the United States would shift dramatically overnight if Obama were elected.

If he is shrewd, Obama could take advantage of the renewed goodwill by promoting reconciliation with left-leaning regimes throughout the region, putting an end to Bush’s foreign policy characterized by unending confrontation and antagonism.

Nikolas Kozloff is the author of Revolution! South America and the Rise of the New Left (Palgrave-Macmillan, 2008).

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