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Brazil and Africa: a double-standard relationship?


“When Brazilians come to Africa, they have the opportunity to find their own ‘history’ […] We [Brazilians and Africans] are united by a feeling for justice and by the effort to overcome ‘inequalities’ within and without our national borders. Having said this, we are also united by this extraordinary ‘cheerfulness’ of our people, on both shores of the Atlantic Ocean.”

These words pronounced by Dilma Rousseff, former president of Brazil during a mission to Angola are meaningful. In fact, in  the 2010 national census Brazil was the second country in the world (the first being Nigeria) with the largest population of African descendents. Although Brazil had a population of 97 million people of African descent, the president only  recognized the huge impact of Africa on its country and the filial bond that links Brazil to Africa and Brazilians to Africans in 2003. Some can be tempted to call Brazil an “African nation”. In fact, no one can deny the strong existing bonds between these two areas, especially in Western Africa ( departure place of most Brasilian slaves) and in former Portuguese colonies such as Angola, Mozambique and Cabo Verde. Through their historical links with Africa and the underexploited economic potentials of this continent, it seems logical for Brazil to seize the opportunity to develop economically and find itself historically and politically. I will, through, through this article underline the growing Brazilian influence in Africa and how one should not be naive and should differentiate cultural closeness to economic friendliness. 

According to the 1816 census, 1.9 out of 2.2 Brazilians were slaves from African descents. At this time, the Portuguese crown was  settled in Rio de Janeiro, having fled the Napoleonic offensives in the Iberian Peninsula in 1808. Brazil was the capital city of a large colonial empire, on this occasion gained the right to trade with the whole world and not only Portugal. Thus, Brazil began to have a special status, between a slave colony, a growing tradeplace and the hometown of a government in exile. In 1822, Brazil obtained its independence. As a sign of its prominent place in the global market and of its commercial link and special bonds with some African countries, Brazil was formally constrained to stop any kind of relationships with Angola for decades. 

Under colonization and even  after, Brazil’s influence was based on an agrarian export economy. Coffee represented for example 51 % of exports  between 1901 and 1910 .However, after getting rid of the Old Republic in 1930 and building a federation of semi-autonomous states, and pushed by the global economic crisis and the domestic political shift, the federal government implemented import substitution economy industrialization. This led to less dependence on Western products. Through these policies, Brazil expressed their envy to become less vulnerable to Western market’s variation and will to become a strong industrialized nation with a stable economic health based on more sophisticated goods. Nevertheless, the country has so far kept an agrarian economy turned overseas. In fact, raw materials such as soja and wheat are often the products with a high price volatility.  Even though the agricultural sector represents today only 5.6% of the GDP, raw materials still constitute the majority of exportation goods. In fact, along with intensive agriculture( in agricultural economics, a system of cultivation using large amounts of labour and capital relative to land area), subsistence farming (form of farming in which nearly all of the crops or livestock raised are used to maintain the farmer and the farmer’s family, leaving little, if any, surplus for sale or trade)is still very present in the country. The current existence of two agricultural related ministries proves it and shows the heterogeneity of a country between gigantic companies’ fields and smaller farmlands .  Nowadays, Brazil has the MAPA (Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock, and Supply) but also the Ministry of Agrarian Development, more focused on land reform and sustainable practices. 

 Nevertheless, the country is not dependent anymore. It now tends to focus less on its domestic market and expand its influences overseas. Brazil is now the first economic power in Latin America and act, in this sense, as a leader of the Mercosur (Latin American common market made up of several countries such as Argentina, Paraguay, Uruguay, Venezuela). Created in 1991, the Mercosur is considered the third  economic group in the world and the first not composed of at least one Western country.   In terms of diplomatic power, Brazil has been a member of the BRICS since its birth in 2009, along with other emerging or reconstructing powers such as Russia, India, China and South Africa. Brazil is also the ninth economic power with an approximate GDP of 1960 billion dollars, and has slowly emerged out of Western powers’ shadows. Taking advantage of their spectacular growth these last decades, these giants want to create a new world order by calling into question the old-established Western hegemony and claiming for a fairer international system. 

However, Brazil’s  intentions are not selfless. Promoting their growing influences by using their “former colonies” status to get closer to developing countries, this conscious turnaround comes in an opportune moment. BRICS members’ cumulated GDP are projected to represent 40% of world production in 2025.  Regardless of the leaders’ positions, , who the spokesperson of the Third World is has  not always been clear in modern history. In Brazil’s case, this interest in a southern alliance is very recent. In 1955, during the conference of Bandung, Brazil did  not give clear support to the Third-World emancipation. Later, it also did not give any political support to the Portuguese colonies in Africa fighting for their independence. It was only in the mid 60s, while its growth was booming that Brazil magically showed support to their lusophone peers in Africa. Thus, Brazil gained in confidence and in independence and was the first country to recognize the independence of Angola. Helped by the transfer of their capital city from Rio to Brasilia, Brazilian’s policies became less influenced, less pressured by Portuguese lobbies and implemented more africanist policies. In fact, Brasilia construction at the end of the 1960s voluntarily broke out the historical influence of Portuguese institutions present in Rio, vestige of colonial times.  Following the economic theories developed by John Dumming, they were able to massively invest abroad because of their matured domestic economy. In this matter, trade between these two actors has grown from US$4 billion in 2000 to US$20 billion in 2010. In 2006 they organized the first Latin American- African summit in Abuja, Nigeria. During the  first decade of the 21st century, the number of countries hosting a Brazilian diplomatic delegation has also drastically increased (from 17 to 37 countries). The investment in Africa is therefore real, visible. Adding to the growing FDI, Brazilian economic actors such as Odebrecht or Petrobras are major employers in some African countries. For instance, Odebrecht is the first private employer in Angola.

These new investments take roots in a resource seeking economic model, where Brazilian multinational companies exploit African primary resources. For example, Vale company’s practices have been pointed out in Mozambique and Malawi, where they achieved to sign an agreement for the construction of a gigantic railroad connecting Malawi and Mozambique, in order to connect their in-land mining sites to the sea. The company paid 4,5 billion dollars in 2017 to make it happen. This has totally transformed thousands of acres in both countries for private interests and chased away hundreds of farmers off their lands to bring their extracted coal and minerals overseas. Even though this has been done legally, one could question itself on the fairness of this agreement and methods employed of predation, of extraction close to colonial ones. In fact, Brazil is far from being the only emerging country to act like that in Africa, taking advantage of abundant and underexploited African resources. China in Kenya and in other Eastern Africa countries act the same way but are a bit more in a “market seeking” logic, enjoying the upsurge of a large African middle-class who craves to consume and crawls under Chinese production surplus. 

The difference is in the rhetoric used. Brazilians gave two discourses to justify their will to develop their relationships with Africa. The first one being the common legacy between Black people from both continents, the second emphasizes the ethnic and historical affinities with Lusophone communities and members of PALOP (Países Africanos de Língua Oficial Portuguesa) in Africa such as Angola, Cabo Verde or Mozambique. By claiming this, Brazil diplomacy tends to build up a seemingly equal relation with Africa. Yes, Brazilians who think that they have to give back or at least share with their transatlantic race brothers and we have seen humanitarian aids and scholarship programs for African students come into being, but taking a macro perspective, it remains a way to strengthen Brazil’s “soft power” hence Brazil’s position of domination on a regional and global level.  By shadowing its willingness to use African economical potential as a tool for its own growth, Brazil is able to have more aggressive behaviors, in particular its multinational companies, because acting undercover. 

Brazil’s enthusiasm for Africa is not a coincidence. The African countries receiving the most investment from Brazil are from the same family: the former Portuguese colonies. Indeed, the linguistic and cultural links between these areas are well established. The rapprochement with Africa should therefore be beneficial for Brazil, both economically and in terms of identity. Brazil may from time to time proclaim itself an African nation on the international and domestic scene. In 2007, Lula, in the opening speech of his second administration,  called Africa ‘one of the cradles of Brazilian”. civilisation the reality is quite different. Brazil, in spite of its obvious racial mixity, is still a segregated country where racial differences are often correlated with social inequalities. Yes, Brazil is a country with a mixed population, but its elite has remained of European origin since a particular independence that was less brutal and deconstructing than those in Africa.

It is interesting to see the discourse of Brazilian politicians, who, in a particularly corrupt country, serve the affairs of these global multinationals. Far away from the Brazilian people, they do not care about the common cultural heritage as long as there is profit. The arrival of Jair Bolsonaro to power in early 2019, a president who regularly challenges racial inequalities in Brazil under the banner of racial democracy, has not changed the development of African-Brazilian relations. This is proof that it is necessary to dissociate economic interests from Brazilian identity claims. Can we blame Brazil for reproducing a predatory capitalist model of exploitation in Africa? All nations, if they could, would do so. Proof in its peers of the BRICS and their actions. Should we deplore the hypocrisy of Brazilian leaders who put forward on the international scene a population of African origin only to claim to be their equals while avoiding dealing with racial problems in their country?  Yes, we must.



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