In 2003, President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva appointed Joaquim Barbosa to Brazil’s Supreme Court, making him the first black Brazilian to serve on the court. Last week, Barbosa accepted the position of president of the court, or chief justice. In Brazil, where Supreme Court sessions are televised, Barbosa has become a national celebrity and a symbol of Brazil’s progress toward racial equality.
In the past year, he has presided over one of the biggest and most closely watched corruption trials in Brazilian history, known as Mensalao, a Portuguese term for “big monthly payment.” The trial has 38 defendants, most of whom now stand convicted of crimes relating to a scheme that paid monthly bribes to politicians who voted for measures favored by the ruling Workers Party. Last month, the day after his inauguration, Barbosa was interviewed by journalist Ellis Cose. Below are excerpts of that interview:
Cose: There are lots of people who say your appointment is a terribly important event because it’s very symbolic, that Brazilians of color don’t rise to very high positions very often. In some places you are being compared to President Barack Obama, in terms of the significance that this has for the country. How do you put that in context? Barbosa: I understand what most people feel, because Brazil has not achieved what other countries like the U.S. have done in terms of racial politics. Black Brazilians make up about 50 percent of the population, and they are absent in positions of prestige, of power, of economic decisions, so the situation is not only very important but also symbolic because of this lack of representation that we have.
Cose: One of the other things that has drawn a lot of attention to you recently has been Mensalao. It’s being called one of the most important trials in the history of the country. Do you see it that way? Barbosa: The case is indeed the most important for Brazil because it involves high-ranking officials of the party in power. It’s the party of the most popular political man (Lula) in the country. The case is also important because it involves bankers, highly placed people in politics, in the economy and the administration. And add the fact that the trial is broadcast daily on TV. It’s about the law, but it’s also about politics.
Cose: It has been called in some places an affirmation of democracy in Brazil and also of judicial independence. Do you see it as that? Barbosa: This is the first time we have such a number of important people being tried in front of society. And society has been watching the case every day. The case has kind of addicted people to the legal system, which is a very good thing. Even people who have nothing to do with the legal community are very preoccupied with the case.
Cose: One thing that’s important to you are issues of equality in society. How do you think about Brazil and how it goes about achieving more equality? Brazil is also a country, not unlike the United States, that has increasing and pretty large economic disparities among different groups. How does Brazil go about changing that, if possible? Barbosa: First of all, I think we ought to have a political system that is race-conscious, because everybody knows that Brazil is very unequal. Nobody denies it. As for the kinds of solutions that we need, here is where the dissent comes. I wrote a book about affirmative action in the U.S. 11 years ago. At the time, I never thought that something like affirmative action would be accepted in Brazil. But the contrary has happened.
Cose: And that’s somewhat different from the United States. Do you find it ironic that at the time Brazil is embracing affirmative action, the United States seems to be turning away from it? Barbosa: No, I don’t think it’s ironic because the United States has done a lot. Brazil is in the beginning of doing something.
Cose: It’s way too early for you to think about the future in terms of what your next post is. But you have obviously heard that people already are talking about maybe a future with you as president. Is that stuff you just put in the back of your mind and try to tune out? How do you deal with that? Barbosa: Actually, I never thought of me being president of Brazil. First of all, I’m not a politician. I never have been and I think I’m a very unlikely person for this kind of job because of my frankness. I’ve never dealt with political parties. I have no connections with political parties. So, I don’t think so.
Cose: When you think of your own heroes, who are people you admire? Barbosa: I have some role models. In Brazil, they are mostly writers. A writer named Afonso Henriques de Lima Barreto is my favorite. Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis is also a very important figure for me. Abdias do Nascimento was the first writer who gave me racial consciousness. It was through his books and writings that I first took in the real weight of race in our society. He was the main influence on me, because in my family race was never an issue. I have different colors in my families. My nephews, nieces, some are white, most are black. The family is very colorful. Most families in Brazil are. In politics, my role model would be a very weird one -- our second emperor, Pedro the Second. He was a person with no vanity. He cared a lot about the public interest. He cared a lot about Brazil evolving as an important country. And he didn’t ask much for himself. He was ousted from power and he lived with the help of friends in Paris. In the U.S., I like Abraham Lincoln, Supreme Court Justices Thurgood Marshall and William Brennan.
Cose: Why Brennan? Barbosa: Because of his very tough positions.
Cose: When people look back, what do you hope they will take from your legacy? Barbosa: I think my legacy will be in what most people don’t like about me: My style -- the separation between judge and lawyers, judge and politics, the real independence of the judiciary from the executive, from the legislative, from money.
Cose: The whole issue of money and influence in politics? Barbosa: Yes. I’m criticized in Brazil because of that. In the end, I hope to prevail.
(Ellis Cose is a journalist and the author of several books, including his most recently published, “The End of Anger.” The opinions expressed are his own.)
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