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Brazil elections: Erosion of rights under Bolsonaro drives activism among marginalised communities

‘We are fighting for things that have already been fought for. This is why we cannot win this fight alone.’

Vulnerable communities seeking global recognition: community leaders Gilmara Cunha and Anielle Franco (fourth and fifth from left) in ahead of a Human Right Council session in Geneva. Paula Dupraz-Dobias/TNH
Vulnerable Brazilian communities are seeking global recognition for their struggles: community leaders Gilmara Cunha and Anielle Franco (fourth and fifth from left) in Geneva ahead of a UN Human Right Council session on Brazil.

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Elections in Brazil have seen belated gains in representation for marginalised and vulnerable communities that have suffered a rise in hate crimes and violence under Jair Bolsonaro. But with the presidential runoff coming on 30 October, the fight is far from over. 

Nearly four years of government led by Bolsonaro, a right-wing populist, has eroded the rights of many Black, trans, and Indigenous communities, leading activists to seek greater international attention for the urgent issues affecting them.

One of the most shocking cases involved the March 2018 killing of Marielle Franco, a Black, bisexual Brazilian human rights defender who was a rising socialist politician from a popular poor neighbourhood, or favela, in Rio de Janeiro. But despite the outrage at the time, violence against vulnerable communities in Brazil has continued rising throughout the country.

“We spend time always having to prove ourselves,” Anielle Franco, sister of Marielle and director of the Marielle Franco Institute, told journalists at a press conference ahead of the 51st Session of the Human Rights Council in Geneva. She and representatives from mostly Black organisations in Brazil came to Geneva in late August to advocate for recognition and equality and to seek justice against violence. 

“We are fighting for things that have already been fought for. This is why we cannot win this fight alone,” she said regarding Black women’s activists.

The surge in hate crimes and violence has added to a drive for better political representation at home this election season.

Record numbers of Indigenous, Black, and trans candidates had sought office, including many running under collective candidacies. They strived to rectify their low representation in Congress and to combat some of the marginalisation and attacks their communities faced since Bolsonaro took power in 2019. 

Results from 2 October show that a number of seats were won for the first time by Indigenous and trans candidates, but white conservative men continue to dominate Congress. In addition to the election of two Indigenous women, Célia Xakriabá and Sônia Guajajara, two trans candidates, Erika Hilton and Duda Salabert, will also soon join the Chamber of Deputies.

Underrepresented and disproportionately hit

Indigenous communities and Black Brazilians together represent roughly 56 percent – the majority – of the country’s population. They have been badly affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, both directly in terms of health outcomes, and indirectly in terms of their earnings. Many were left jobless and hungry as a result of lockdowns and business slowdowns. 

An increased militarisation of favelas during the distribution of food baskets reportedly led to a rise in deaths among young residents. In addition, government policies in the Amazon encouraged illegal invasions and encroachment of Indigenous reserves by illegal miners and ranchers, while a jumbled response to the pandemic facilitated the spread of the virus in vulnerable communities.

As one of the countries with the highest numbers of COVID-19 deaths globally, Brazil’s mortality rates revealed sharp racial disparities, particularly affecting Indigenous communities.

Bolsonaro long dismissed the virus as a “little flu”, while rampant misinformation about COVID-19 was used as a political tool during his administration. A troubled vaccine strategy meant that deaths were substantially higher among the Black and Indigenous populations, setting Brazil back after major reforms undertaken during the presidency of his rival, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who Bolsonaro now faces in the runoff. 

Hate speech against brown and Black communities has also flourished under Bolsonaro and turbo-powered violence in favelas, where security forces have been dispatched to fight drug gangs – with many, mostly Black, residents caught in the crossfire.

Global help sought

In spite of widening awareness of violence against Black people globally following the resurgence of the Black Lives Matters movement in the United States in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, such communities in Brazil have arguably been less vocal on the global stage than the country’s Indigenous populations.

Together with neighbouring countries’ Amazon communities, Brazil’s Indigenous populations were recognised for their role in mitigating climate change during last year’s Glasgow COP26 climate talks even while they were being shunned by political leadership at home. Nonetheless, mobilisation by tribal peoples into some of the biggest protests ever seen in Brazil came as a congressional panel recommended that Bolsonaro be charged with crimes against humanity for his COVID policies in the Amazon.

In spite of recent legislation against transphobia, Brazil continues to experience the world’s highest rates of killings of trans and queer people. The National Association of Travestis and Transsexuals reported 175 murders during the first half of 2021 – a number that increased to 185 over the same time period this year, according to Gilmara Cunha, general director of Grupo Conexão 8, an LGBTQI+ group from Maré, the same favela where Franco was born and raised.

In the runup to the 2 October elections, 80 percent of trans candidates received threats and intimidation, a researcher recently told Reuters.

“Being here is an act of resistance, because our population in Brazil has a lifespan of 35 years,” Cunha told journalists here in Geneva ahead of a UN Human Rights Council session on Brazil. “I am 38 years old, and past that data. I am here to mark the fight against racism and the denial of spaces of power for our favela population.”

Cunha, the first trans leader from a favela to represent her community in Geneva, told delegations, NGOs, and organisations here of the violence and discrimination depriving LGBTQI+ residents in favelas of access to health, water, housing, and education. 

During the pandemic, favela community organisations often filled an important role in providing essential services and food to residents. Now, such groups are hoping to garner backing for their operations in Brazil from the UN and the international community.

“Being here is an act of resistance, because our population in Brazil has a lifespan of 35 years.”

“We think it’s important to gain the support of international groups and human rights defenders across the world,” Cunha said. “It’s very important to have representatives from the favelas, but for that we would also need financial support.”

Cunha explained how language barriers and a lack of knowledge of how the system works meant the favelas haven’t received more involvement from international aid organisations working in Brazil. 

She was enraged about setbacks after nearly four years of Bolsonaro’s administration, leaving marginalised communities even further behind. Recently, Bolsonaro used his trip to London for the funeral of Queen Elizabeth II as a campaign stop during which he condemned “gender ideology”.

“We need to rebuild everything once again,” Cunha said. “We need to create a new methodology that takes into account the specificities of different groups in society.”

Rights activists hope to see the Workers’ Party presidential candidate, Lula, as he is commonly known, emerge victorious at the end of the month. 

During his previous presidency, Lula introduced the Bolsa Familia programme, supporting low-income families on the condition they sent their children to school and ensured they were vaccinated. It slashed poverty in half. The hope is that he will continue to fight poverty and hunger.

“It will be a challenge,” Cunha said. “But we have to work very hard once again to rebuild everything from the start, because Lula will not have enough time to change and rebuild everything.”

Edited by Pradnya Joshi.

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