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Wednesday, 26 April, 2000, 09:21 GMT 10:21 UK
Brazil at 500

As Brazil marked 500 years since the arrival of Portuguese explorers, specialist Jan Rocha answered your questions.

The anniversary was marked by celebration and protest. Hundreds of indians, descendants of indigenous tribes who were already living in Brazil, gathered for counter celebrations.

Jan Rocha has lived in Brazil for 30 years. She has worked as a correspondent for the Guardian newspaper and has freelanced for the BBC since 1974. She has written several books on Brazil, including one on indigenous peoples.

Pat van der Veer, Canada: To what extent has the fact that Portuguese is the language of Brazil hampered Brazil's relations with its Spanish-speaking neighbours? Is the multicultural society of Brazil and advantage or a disadvantage, economically?

Jan Rocha: I do not think that language has been an obstacle - when necessary Portuguese and Spanish speakers understand each others' "portunhol" well enough.

I believe historical and geographical factors have been more important. Brazil at various times was at war with its neighbours, notably Paraguay and Bolivia, and has always had a very strong rivalry with the other large country of South America, Argentina. It has tended to look overseas, first to Europe, then to the USA, rather than to other Latin American countries for cultural and commercial exchanges. Brazil's size and self sufficiency also meant it has never needed its neighbours as much as they need it.

Economically a multicultural society is an advantage: Brazil's large population of European and Asian origin (Japanese, German, Italian) give it cultural and business links to those countries). The disadvantage to society as a whole comes from having a multicultural society that treats its different ethnic groups unequally and does not invest enough in education, health, land reform and job creation. As most Afro-Brazilians and indigenous people are amongst the poorer sectors, they are the ones who suffer from this lack of social priority.

Jenner J Cruz, Brazil: We feel in Brazil that globalisation is making Brazil a colony again. Brazil will not be a developed nation, unless we find out a Brazilian solution to our problems, not trying to import foreign models. Could you discuss this idea?

Jan Rocha: Brazil is probably one of the few countries in the developing world which is in a position to find its own economic model. It is the ninth largest economy in the world, it could be entirely self sufficient in food and energy, it has a large industrial base and because of its population of 165 million, a potentially huge internal market.

Many analysts believe recent governments have taken the wrong road by signing up hook, line and sinker to the orthodoxy of globalisation, abdicating the right to decide their own economic policies.

Michael Modeste, UK: I don't know much of the plight of the Black and indigenous people of Brazil, but as a black man of 40 years, born and living in the UK, and having gone through certain systems which prejudged me on no more than my colour, I share an empathy and understanding of some of these peoples' frustrations.

What do you see the future as and how do you see the Brazilian Black and indigenous people being judged differently and helped onto the road of progression? What needs to be done for Black people to take control of a meaningful part of their economical development? Do radical steps need to be taken to address the unfairness that is prevalent in places like Brazil, and if so what type of action?

Jan Rocha: The brutal police repression of an indigenous protest march on the occasion of the official celebrations to mark Brazil's 500 years was an indication of the racist attitudes that still exist. However the march itself, involving several thousand people, was also an example of how Brazil's black and indigenous peoples are becoming more vocal in their demands, and more organised.

Maybe only radical measures, including positive discrimination to get more educational opportunities, will shake up Brazilian society enough to make it face up to the racism that exists, but is often more subtle than in other countries. Racism is often hidden behind the theory that discrimination is social, not racial.

More information about the situation in other multicultural countries would be useful - Brazilians as a whole know very little about black and indigenous movements in other countries.

Paulo Rocha, Portugal (resident in Norway): Taking into account that Brazil has been independent for the last 200 years, why do you think the Brazilians still blame the Portuguese for their continuous problems?

Jan Rocha: Far from blaming the Portuguese I would say that for today's Brazilians Portugal is irrelevant, except as a member of the European Union, one of the country's major trading partners.

In the past, like other European colonial powers, the Portuguese could be blamed for their cruelty to the indigenous population, for the slave trade, for banning industry and universities from their colonies, from trying to keep their colonies backward.

After independence in 1822, Brazil took on the weakened Portugal's debt to England, and became economically much more linked to England and culturally much more linked to France. In the 20th century European influence was largely substituted by US influence.

Kees Marges, UK: Could you explain the role of the trade union movement in the issue of the indigenous people? Do they support them in fighting against discrimination?

Jan Rocha: As a whole, Brazil's trade union movement is urban-based and has very little contact with indigenous peoples who tend to live hundreds of miles away. Generically they tend to support the struggle for land and against discrimination, as they do that of other minorities.

Bernard Triomphe, France/Mexico: How much of the unwillingness of the Brazilian government to give back land to the Indian tribes in the Amazon is caused by the pressure from a series of multi-national companies (and behind them, Western governments) keen to exploit the riches of the Amazon?

Jan Rocha The general economic policy of successive Brazilian governments towards the Amazon region has been to see it as a region of immense potential whose resources must be exploited, whether minerals, energy, timber or land for raising cattle.

Both Brazilian and multinational companies are eager to grab what they can. The result is that while indigenous groups are assured land rights under the constitution, in practice government policy involves driving roads and building dams in reserves, and allowing ranchers, farmers and loggers to invade them.

The G7 group of rich countries has financed a Tropical Forests Pilot Plan which includes funding for the demarcation of indian reserves by the federal government, but progress has been slow.

Sureshkumar Johnpillai, Sri Lanka: I am a Sri Lankan who lives in Norway. When I see or listen to the media especially the western media, there are always some hard stories about the interracial Brazilian society. But the countries who criticise Brazil are often mono-cultural societies.

In those countries (like Norway) the minorities treated as they are not existing and these countries refuse to be part of the interracial world. Is there any moral right for a mono-cultural country to criticise the multicultural and interracial countries when they even refuse to be more integrated?

Jan Rocha: I believe that freedom to comment and criticise is important, but obviously it smacks of hypocrisy if the same critical approach is not applied to their own situation by the critics.

Costantin, Cyprus: Does the Brazilian left have a chance of winning any elections?

Jan Rocha: The Brazilian left has a good chance of winning several important mayoral contests later this year, including that of Brazil's largest city, Sao Paulo. It already holds a number of state governorships.

The next presidential elections are due in 2002 but the left's problems include the lack of a strong candidate to replace the Workers' Party's Luis Inacio Lula da Silva, who has now lost the last three, the alleged pro-government bias of the media, and the lack of funds for fighting a campaign in such a huge country against opponents who do not lack for funds.

Patrick Buckingham, UK: The destruction of the rainforests of the Amazonian region of Brazil concerns me greatly. What is the attitude of ordinary Brazilians to the systemic exploitation and destruction of one of the world's greatest natural resources? Is there a will to halt the destruction and preserve what remains of the rainforest?

Jan Rocha: Many Brazilians are as concerned as you are about what is happening to the Amazon rainforest. In the region there are scores of non-governmental organisations, rubbertappers organisations and indigenous communities who fight to save the rainforest because it is also their source of economic survival.

Most officials of the government's own environment agency, Ibama, fight hard to protect national ecological reserves from loggers, goldminers and other invaders, but their efforts are hampered by undermanning and underfunding. The problem is that those who want development are much more politically and economically powerful.

Katarina, USA: What is the status of women in Brazil?

Jan Rocha: Women have made huge advances in recent years, but there are still parts of Brazil where inequality between the sexes is great. Especially in the larger cities, you now find women in all the professions.

The two leading candidates in the race to be the next mayor of Sao Paulo, a city of 17 million people, are both women. But women still tend to earn less than men for the same work, and there are still very few women in the top levels of government.

Violence against women is still widespread, but now it is rare for a court to decide that a man is justified in killing his wife or girlfriend for reasons of "honour" as frequently happened until recently. There are over 100 all-women police stations set up to investigate violence against women.

The women's movement is very active in the big cities and the treatment of women's issues by popular TV soap operas, which are watched by the majority of the population, including many millions in rural areas, has helped to raise awareness.

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