Affirmative Action Divides Brazil as Election Nears

09/03/2010 05:49 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Respected polling now indicates that cancer survivor Dilma Rousseff of the Worker's Party will likely be voted Brazil's first woman president next month. But election season debate over American-style affirmative action quotas is stretching the nation's social fabric and could spell trouble down the road for Dilma, who until resigning to run for high office, served as president Lula's chief of staff.

With the BBC tagging Brazil as the world's second largest black population after Nigeria, educators and jurists from the mostly non-black political class are questioning programs for people who claim to be descendants of African slaves but fail to create enough equal opportunity private sector jobs to employ them.

It's another reminder of how efforts to globalize the U.S. model of social organization by race can cause the fragmentation of national identity in a regional power like Brazil, where futebol is the national sport, samba is the national music and "order and progress" and "one nation for everybody" are the national mottos. The american concept of "black" is not used in Brazilian Portuguese in connection with race, as in black America, black power, black enterprise; the operative word is negro.

Considering economy minister Guido Mantega's prediction that a new government stimulus plan, which Dilma helped craft, will churn out an annual five percent rate of growth through 2014 one would think that Afro-Brazilians would have little difficulty landing high wage jobs. But many global companies in Brazil work around affirmative action by doing the bare minimum to avoid government penalties and then engage workers willing to opt in as units of human capital much like the contract labor from Europe and Japan that replaced slavery in the late 19th century.

Use of human capital, like cloud computing, enables firms to avoid investing in costly manpower and infrastructure by drawing on service providers only as needed. This is hardly the affirmative action opportunity Brazil's university educated Yanomami Indians living in the Amazon high tech zone or Afro-Brazilians seeking careers in intellectual property, business incubation, venture capital and project management at the government's new Bahia Techno Center can raise their families on.

While Latin governments and organizations sponsored by the Roman Catholic church are still sorting out human rights issues associated with repressive military regimes, they are quick to forget that the concept of human capital, which treats people as a means of production rather than human beings with equal rights, was a component of the free market "Chicago school" of economics during the US-backed military juntas in Brazil, Argentina, Chile and Uruguay.

Ironically presidential candidate Jose Serra of the neoconservative Social Democrats learned Chicago economics in dictator Pinochet's Chile, where he thought exile was a more favorable alternative to the military regime in power back home across the Andes in Brazil. On the campaign trail Serra has said little on matters relating to affirmative action preferring to go negative on Dilma, recycling old allegations linking her to drug dealers and the FARC. Even though Serra is Latin America's top technocrat, the lack of charisma that caused him to lose to Lula in the 2002 presidential race is again a factor this go-round and he has already gone public blaming his party and advisers for crafting a bad campaign strategy.

Marina Silva, the Green Party presidential candidate who identifies herself as an Afro-Brazilian has distanced herself from the affirmative action conversation as well. Marina, who defected from the Worker's Party after resigning as president Lula's environment minister, was tagged by pundits early on in the campaign as a spoiler candidate who could take away enough female votes from Dilma to send presidential voting into a second round. But Marina's platform has more to do with cutting back social programs and restricting a woman's right to abortion than providing clean drinking water and stopping the flooding and forest fires that are relocating hundreds of thousands of economically disadvantaged Brazilians and has drawn support away from herself and Serra.

Dilma is banking on the political capital generated by the 20 visits Lula made to African nations she took part in as a basis for growing of the government's south-south economic cooperation plan.

It took nearly two centuries of American democracy to produce LBJ's "Great Society." But affirmative action spawned half a century ago doesn't play in Peoria anymore because economic changes brought on by globalism have rendered it obsolete.

And it doesn't play in Brazil- where the Brazilian Institute for Geography and Economics lists over 40 categories of people based on skin color -- either. In his book Brazil Second Way, Roberto Mangabeira Unger, who served president Lula as minister for planning and development, characterized this type of national project for strengthening Brazil's young democracy as being "too expensive, too restrictive and too unfair." One reason perhaps that he has returned to academic life; his former student at Harvard, Barack Obama, meanwhile, currently serves as president of the United States.

Unger has called for Brazil to think outside the box and find new ways to empower favela and rain forest kids so that they don't lose human dignity and default to becoming just human capital. If that doesn't happen, high wage jobs that can help break the psychopathology of underdevelopment will remain the realm of the white and pardo (mixed) elites and the idea of one nation for everybody will just be another public service ad on the Rio Metro.