Modern Political Rule

With the end of slavery in 1888 and racism widely pervasive, business owners imported labor from Germany, Poland, Italy, and Japan instead of hiring Afro‐Brazilians.[1] However, European migrants were strongly influenced by radical leftist movements at home and refused to accept the harsh conditions that slaves had been subjected to, giving rise to the Brazilian labor movement. Labor activism accelerated following World War I but was brutally suppressed by an alliance of politicians, military officers, and the Catholic hierarchy, justified by the need to preserve economic growth and “social harmony.” Employers won out, largely due to the endless supply of impoverished Brazilians seeking work.[2]

The Catholic Church radically reoriented its position in the years after World War II. Priests, nuns, and many bishops were witness to the expanding poverty in the economically robust post‐war years and became vocal critics of the political and capitalist economic status quo, strongly influenced by an emerging doctrine that emphasized social change known as liberation theology. The Brazilian Conference of Bishops, founded in 1952, became the representative voice of the church and shaped its identity as the most radical of the Latin American Catholic churches, supporting causes such as the labor movement, agrarian reform, and indigenous peoples’ rights. Though this radical streak was moderated by a return of conservatism in the 1980s, it remains an important legacy that is alive among many contemporary Catholics, where progressive priests are increasingly sympathetic on issues such as gay rights and access to birth control.[3]

Anti‐racism movements and organizations have their roots in the 1930s and blossomed in the 1960s. Like other forms of political activism, anti‐racist black activists were brutally suppressed by the military regime, during which period public discourse on racism was officially censored. Inspired by the American Civil Rights Movement, activism was revived in 1970s with the spread of the Marxist Movimento Negro Unificado. Though encompassing a broad spectrum of political orientations, these movements were and continue to be expressed through religious practice. In particular, having played an important role in the formation of a cohesive Afro‐Brazilian identity, Candomblé and Umbanda were embraced within the anti‐racism community.[4] Some of its members have actually worked to purge Candomblé of its references to Catholicism, instead emphasizing its African roots. Additionally, many activists are critical of what they perceive as Pentecostalism’s failure to denounce the racial status quo and occasional conflict breaks out between anti‐racists and Pentecostals.[5]

Brazil’s history of leftist and religious social justice activism is marked in the political sphere. Decades of economic liberalization, privatization, and free trade, and the immense disparities that they have generated, are at the root of Brazil’s socioeconomic problems, and the dominant focus of the Workers’ Party since 2002. The Presidency of Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva, a lifelong labor organizer and Catholic, was made possible not only by the widespread discontent over Brazil’s economy, but specifically by the support he garnered from progressive Catholics and Pentecostal communities.[6]

President Lula da Silva was succeeded in 2010 by Workers’ Party candidate Dilma Rousseff, a Catholic and a former Marxist activist who, like Lula da Silva, is known today for a more centrist stance. During the elections, Rousseff was strongly criticized by both Catholics and Pentecostals, forcing her to take conservative positions on abortion, gay marriage, and other social issues. This suggests that, while political progressivism still carries weight in Brazil, conservative voices also play an important role in shaping political discourse.[7] One of Rousseff’s greatest legacies includes the passing of a radical affirmative action law, which necessitates that public universities enroll students who represent the racial makeup of each of Brazil’s 26 states and Brasília, the capital.[8] In 2014 Rousseff entered her second term and, given the rising numbers of Evangelicals in the Brazil, her backing by Evangelical churches was instrumental in her success.

In 2016, Rousseff’s predecessor Lula da Silva was investigated for his participation in a corruption scandal, whereby the government allegedly used a company called Petrobas to hide its misuse of government funds. Since Lula da Silva is widely credited with Brazil’s economic growth his arrest, along with the entirety of the Petrobas scandal, is a blow to the already-fragile government image.  Thousands of people have been protesting the scandal since its exposure in 2015. As of 2016, current President Rousseff awaits impeachment charges for exploiting billions of government funds during her 2014 election.


[1] Fausto, A Concise History of Brazil, p. 118–119.

[2] Levine, The History of Brazil, p. 85.

[3] Paulo Prada, “Catholic church excommunicates Brazil priest for liberal views,” Reuters, April 30, 2013, http://www.reuters.com/article/us-brazil-church-excommunication-idUSBRE93T12920130430, accessed May 9, 2014.

[4] Selka, Religion and the Politics of Ethnic Identity in Bahia, Brazil, p. 21, 43.

[5] Sansone, Blackness Without Ethnicity: Constructing Race in Brazil, p. 65; Robin E. Sheriff, Dreaming Equality: Color, Race, and Racism in Urban Brazil (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2001), p. 191.

[6] Kenneth P. Serbin, “The Catholic Church, Religious Pluralism, and Democracy in Brazil,” Democratic Brazil: Actors, Institutions, and Processes, eds. Peter R. Kingstone and Timothy Joseph Power (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2000), pp. 144–166.

[7] “The Reciprocal Instrumentalization of Religion and Politics in Brazil,” Annual Review of the Sociology of Religion, eds. Patrick Michel and Enzo Pace (Leiden: Brill, 2011), pp. 245–266.

[8] Simon Romero, “Brazil Enacts Affirmative Action Law for Universities,” The New York Times, August 30, 2012, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/08/31/world/americas/brazil-enacts-affirmative-action-law-for-universities.html, accessed March 5, 2016.

Image Credits:

Protestors in Natal (2013), Isaac Ribeiro, Flickr Creative Commons