Jair Bolsonaro, the far right president of Brazil, has presided over 130,000 COVID deaths, and increasing attacks on Indigenous, Black and poor communities. Spring Magazine interviewed Alessandra Devulsky, a solidarity activist from Brazil living in Montreal, about the situation in Brazil and a fundraising campaign to support frontline communities.
What led you to start a solidarity campaign with people in Brazil during the pandemic?
We are a group of Brazilians, a collective—in Canada, the US, Switzerland, the Netherlands, England, Belgium, among other countries—that joined together to start this campaign. We are all very sad at the number of deaths and criminal responsibility of Bolsonaro. It’s a far right government that clearly wants to use the pandemic to clean the country of poor people, and for them they are disposable. We could not watch silently the many tragedies rocking our country and we wanted to express our solidarity towards the NGOs fighting on the frontlines against COVID-19, and with the perspective of the political window that it’s opening.
With the pandemic it’s clear to the world that we are under a fascist government that doesn’t give any value to life. It’s very difficult right now for working people, for Indigenous people, for Quilombola—that is, the rural Black communities in Brazil. To survive through a government like this, which just abandoned them, you need to self organize in communities.
Where public healthcare has been denied or defunded around the world, COVID-19 has followed. What healthcare policies in Brazil have contributed to this crisis?
Our health system, the SUS, is the world’s largest public health system, serving over 200 million people. Most Brazilians would have no healthcare access without the SUS. It includes public health prevention, provides healthcare to rural areas where the market doesn’t care because it’s not profitable. And it includes remove communities reached only by river. So without SUS, we wouldn’t have healthcare for Indigenous people. With the healthcare system there are over a thousand medicines which are free.
So imagine if the market can take that, and make profit on that. The market wants the SUS to end, and pharmaceutical industries as well. We were already for many years in the process of defunding—not the police unfortunately, but defunding the health system. Because to them it’s a market thing, to be given to the private sector. It’s a neoliberal ideological principle that for them when the health system is public it’s bad and we need to give it to the market to be good. But they didn’t say that the public health is bad because they’ve been defunding for the past 20 years.
Our national health service is under attack by the neoliberal government since Cardoso in the 1990s. With Lula we had more investments in these kinds of services in public healthcare. But then with Bolsonaro we have the constitutional amendment number 95, which was a way they amended the constitution to limit public spending in health and education for 20 years. This was one of the things Bolsolnaro made that we are paying the price for. One of the stars of his campaign is that he was going to make the amendment in the constitution to reduce investments in our national health system. It’s the main line in his campaign, and it’s because of this that the market liked his election.
We have more than a thousand daily deaths from the pandemic since late May, but Bolsonaro is still calling it just a little flu. He went even against most members of his own government, including the health minister. State governors have taken matters into their own hands, and they even went to the press condemning Bolsonaro, and ordered lockdowns in their own states. And these governors are not just from the centre or left, but included previous supporters of the President. Bolsonaro was against lockdowns since the beginning, saying “no, the economy needs to function, the economy cannot be shut down, and if people are going to die what can I say.”
Indigenous communities across the Americas have resisted genocide for over 500 years. How has the Bolsonaro government escalated attacks on Indigenous communities, how is this related to COVID, and how are communities continuing to resist?
The pandemic poses a grave health threat to Indigenous peoples around the world, and specifically in Brazil. Indigenous communities already experience poor access to health care, significantly higher rates of communicable and non-communicable diseases, and lack of access to essential services, sanitation and other key preventive measures. When you talk about COVID-19, there’s lack of access to clean water and sanitizer. Most nearby local medical facilities are often underequipped and under staffed, so they will be sent to a hospital that is very far from where they are. Normally they need to take the river, and then a bus, a trip that can take 18 hours—which is very big for someone who is already sick. They speak their own language and can face stigma and discrimination in the healthcare system. So it’s very important to keep Indigenous communities protected from COVID.
But Bolsonaro, for all his career—from a deputy and now as a president—he’s was always speaking against Indigenous people, he was always speaking against Black people, he’s openly racist. The agribusiness around the territories of Indigenous communities are very interested in the government stopping to recognize the rights of Indigenous peoples to stay on the land. Since he was elected, the number of invasions of land of Indigenous peoples has growing immensely. He’s saying Indigenous people are doing nothing on the land, so let people who want to produce something do their work. It’s that kind of narrative that puts Indigenous people as lazy, disposable people that we need to get rid of. And mining companies as well, it’s the same thing: they invade the land. The federal organization that’s responsible to take care that we’re not going to have any more invasions, they don’t have money. If you don’t have people to see and report invasions, for sure there will be contact and for sure you’re going to have even more Indigenous people infected with COVID-19.
One of the most important organizations that have some victories against Bolsonaro was Indigenous people because they entered a constitutional revision in the Supreme Court of Brazil to demand Bolsonaro to protect the land of Indigenous peoples from the invasions of the land of mining companies and agribusiness. The judiciary obligated Bolsonaro to transfer some of the public money to the organization that takes care of the land. It was a less money than was demanded, but it was still a victory.
Across the US and Canada, a resurgence of Black Lives Matter is challenging the legacy of slavery and demanding to defund the police. How are Black communities in Brazil organizing?
Brazil was the last country in the Western hemisphere to abolish slavery, in 1888. In Brazil the majority of poor people are Black people and they live in the favelas, and the health system is not good. The mayor and the governor don’t send money because they don’t care about the community. We don’t talk about defunding the police, we talk about demilitarizing the police because the police in Brazil is not civilian. They treat the citizens as an interior enemy. They are trained to see Black people as the enemy, they train them to torture, they train them to be very violent.
We were already denouncing the genocide of Black youth in Brazil for 10 years, and we have a Black movement in Brazil that is very strong and they are very organized. When we speak about rural communities we’re talking about CONAQ, the National Coordination of the Network of Black Quilombola Rural Communities. They are the main organization that is trying to articulate a fight against systemic racism. In the favelas, the urban areas, it’s very diverse, we have a lot of organizations. Uneafro is one of the beneficiaries of our fundraising.
COVID-19 is going to infect the more vulnerable people, and the most vulnerable in Brazil are the Indigenous and Black communities. It’s very clear the line between poor Black people and white rich middle class people. It’s already knowledge of the community that the state doesn’t see them as normal citizens, they are sub-citizens. Because of that, the level of self-organization is very big. At the start of the crisis, because the government stopped making a count of the infected and deaths, the favelas in Sao Paolo started counting the number of infected and deaths themselves. They had elections, so in the street there’s one person responsible to report the how many infected.
How has the pandemic affected precarious work and how are workers organizing?
There is a very high rate of informal work in Brazil, they don’t have any attachment to the government and it’s difficult to prove to the government that they were living by this kind of commerce. Because of this they found themselves without money. The countries of the North were paying financial help for people who were not able to work, but in Brazil it took at least three months.
Because of this, solidarity among the communities was the principal reason that these people were surviving—not because of the state but because of their own organization. The example of the Landless Workers Movement: when it was clear that people were experiencing hunger, they started to redistribute food, vegetables, in the villages that were nearby. Also they were trying to promote social distancing, hand washing, they were going to the city to distribute food and information on how you can protect yourself. They were trying to do what the government should be doing.
What are the political alternatives to Bolsonaro?
PT (the Workers Party) and PSOL (the Party of Socialism and Liberty) are the main left political parties, and they have a very important role because they are doing the daily job of showing the contradictions of Bolsonaro. The left is gaining a better ability to show society the low point we’ve reached. Before we were more concentrated on our differences between PSOL and PT, but now because we’re facing a much bigger threat with Bolsonaro we have some union that we didn’t experience before. Our health system was expanded during the PT government of Lula and Rousseff, and this has made Brazil better equipped to tackle the coronavirus. Because without the government of Lula and Rousseff, after the right government of Cardoso of the 90s, the pandemic would be even bigger. Healthcare as a constitutional right is a demand of all left parties. We need to reinforce our health system, and with the pandemic it’s clearly a priority for our society. When we were under the government of Rousseff, we didn’t have as much recognition of Indigenous land, but under Lula we had a lot. We have criticism from Quilombola, Indigenous communities and landless workers of PT government. But because of the election of Bolsonaro, these groups understand that in a situation like this we need to have allies, and these allies are the left parties.
To be sure, we were going to be reached by COVID, but not in the violent and extreme way we experienced. When you talk about 130,000 deaths it’s a tragedy that was not supposed to happen. After this we need to think about the danger of electing a far right government, because in a time like this when you need a political government with a vision that you need to sacrifice the economy or business to save lives, we need a government that can make this choice. We need a government that can be pro-human and not pro-market.
Brazil may seem far away from Canada, but a lot of Canadian investments go to Brazil and a lot of Canadian corporations are profiting off of the invasions that Bolsonaro is supporting. Can you elaborate?
There are many Canadian mining companies exploiting Brazilian resources. For example, Vancouver is the headquarters of Altamira Gold, Cabral Gold, El Dorado Gold, Equinox Gold, Ero Copper, GoldMining, Kincora Copper, Lara Exploration, Leogold Mining, and South Star mining. Calgary is the headquarters of Infinito Gold. Toronto is the headquarters of Amarillo Gold, Belo Sun Mining, Emerita Resources, Iamgold, Jaguar Mining, Karmin Exploration, Kinross Gold, Largo Resources, and Yamana Gold. Halifax is the headquarters of Brigus Gold.
In addition, pensions in Canada are using financial market that is buying land in Brazil—specifically land you are not supposed to buy, because it is near Indigenous territory. We need as Canadians to demand to stop trying to find profit with our money with this kind of investment in Brazil. Because this will create invasions, this will create death in Indigenous territories and Quilombolo territory as well. It’s very important that these concerns start to reach Canadian people, because there’s so many interesting investments you can do with this money, this public money, workers money: clean water, clean energy.
What is your campaign and how can people support movements at the frontline of COVID-19 in Brazil?
We launched this campaign to raise $50,000 to be redistributed to aid groups representing the social movements: APIB, the Network of Indigenous Peoples of Brazil; CONAQ, which represents Quilombola; and urban inner city movements including MTST, Movement of Homeless Workers. The objective is to strengthen frontline communities, and all the chosen recipient organizations are grassroots founded and managed by community leaders. The way we are sending money is by the Committee for Human Rights in Latin America that exists in Montreal, which is a Canadian international solidarity organization. We are a small group, and any help is welcome. We are trying to speak with people across Canada to start a movement for those concerned about what is happening in Brazil.
Visit Solidarity with Brazil: support movements on the COVID-19 frontlines for more information and to donate
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