Decolonize the Bicentennial

Image: Jonny Lew


Colonialism is not a condition of the past, it is a condition of the present

Fifty-two years ago – one hundred and forty-eight years after Independence – I arrived in Brazil as a doctoral student at Yale University to carry out fieldwork in a favela in Rio de Janeiro, where I lived for several months. At that time, I had two pictures of Brazil. One was the one that had been passed on to me by my grandparents, both immigrants in Brazil, a country about which they spoke of wonders: the country of beauty, wealth and limitless opportunities. It is true that the two returned to Portugal in penury, but that was not the country's fault.

The other image was the one transmitted to me by social scientists, mainly North American ones, and which I had read to prepare my thesis. The Brazil of inequalities, of contrasts between abject poverty and obscene wealth, of underdevelopment or dependence, political instability, illiterate people, lack of conditions for democracy. Between the two images there was very little in common. Portugal had lived under a civil dictatorship for forty-four years and Brazil had been under a military dictatorship for the last six years which, in 1970, tightened its grip on the democrats and became increasingly repressive and violent.

It was from the two images, mostly false or very partial, that I built my experience and my experience of Brazil. I was lucky. I began by interacting closely with Brazilian populations that were absent from any of the initial images. I thus saved the time of unlearning prejudices. They were dignified people forced to live in undignified conditions, fully human despite being treated as sub-human, living on the edge of survival or a little above, socially vulnerable and impoverished despite working from sunrise to sunset.

Suffering people, but capable of laughter, joy and celebration. A good part of it illiterate or with only the first letters, but wise about life and human dignity. And above all, she was reserved about anything that could jeopardize the meager security she was building day by day, in the midst of abysmal insecurities, such as being alive today without knowing if she was alive tomorrow, or having food to feed her children today. , but not knowing if you will have it tomorrow. Of course, there were delinquents and “bad guys”, but they were the exception and not the totality of the inhabitants, contrary to what I had heard from Brazilian colleagues who studied with me in the US and were alarmed by my decision to go and live in a favela. , in the “middle of marginals”.

It was these populations that gave me the frame of reference from which I was able to get to know Brazil. More than that, they were the ones who taught me that the wisdom of life is gained with experience and solidarity and not with academic degrees; that human beings, even in the most adverse conditions, do not lose hope, the desire for transcendence and the aspiration for justice; that there is much knowledge, in addition to academic and scientific knowledge, often born in the struggle against oppression and injustice; that solidarity is not giving what is left but what is needed; that an unjust society is not a fatality; and that tomorrow is not an abstract future – it is tomorrow itself.

All of this was a lesson from Brazil and with Brazil, perhaps a Brazil among many other Brazils. After all, each country (and each concrete experience) is a specific instance of the infinite diversity of the world, a diversity that, paradoxically, can also be conceived as unity – the unity of diversity.

Many years and many more experiences have passed in Brazil in very different contexts and times. Brazil has changed a lot, but intriguingly it has remained the same in the sense of producing populations that are absent from the official images of the country, and above all from the images projected by the recent celebrations of the bicentennial of independence. Celebrations of this type are moments in which two excesses are combined: the excess of the past and the excess of the future. Depending on the promoters and their political orientations, one of the excesses outweighs the other, but both are always present.

The exaltation of the past always contains the exaltation of the future, and vice versa. In both cases, the celebration reproduces the story of the winners told by the winners. The demiurgic image of these excesses is a mixture of the two abstract images with which I began this text. There is, therefore, an absent Brazil, a Brazil that is celebrated but does not celebrate, that is remembered but does not remember the memories attributed to it, that is forgotten but does not forget, that cannot be mobilized by the excess of the past nor by the excess of the future because, purely and simply, he is too absorbed by an excess of the present, a present so excessive that he fears he will not survive it. The absent Brazil is, in fact, multiple.


Brazil for whom Portugal is not a sister country.

because it makes sense topos rhetoric “Portugal and Brazil: two sister countries” and does it not make sense when applied to any of the African countries that gained independence from Portuguese colonialism? For the simple reason that, while Brazil's independence was conquered by the descendants of Portuguese settlers, the independence of African countries was conquered by the original populations.

There is, in fact, a brotherhood or kinship between the protagonists of the two colonialisms that Brazil has experienced since its foundation until today: the historical colonialism of the Portuguese who occupied the colony to appropriate its riches and the internal colonialism that the descendants of the Portuguese and other (sometimes bi-racial) Europeans maintained a different colonialism after independence, but with some characteristics very similar to those of the original colonialism, such as racism, expropriation (theft) of land, unregulated extraction of natural resources, violence unpunished against indigenous and afro-descendant populations and even slavery, which continued for sixty-six years after independence.

The similarities are so many that some populations continue today to fight for the independence that is to come. And don't think that we are talking about a small absent country. If we bring together indigenous and quilombola peoples, landless peasants and rural workers, workers without rights or in conditions similar to those of slave labor, populations of urban slums, homeless populations, populations that are victims of multiple discriminations (because they are poor, because they are black or indigenous people, because they are women, in short, because they are racialized and sexualized bodies) we are talking about the majority of the Brazilian people.

For these populations, supposed brotherhoods with external or internal colonizers is a cruel metaphor for the unjust oppression they continue to suffer. It is as if the descendants of Cain and the imagined descendants of Abel (who, in fact, did not have them) happily fraternize as if nothing tragic and violent had happened between the two biblical brothers.


Conditions for future Luso-Brazilian brotherhoods

The story that binds us is also the story that sets us free. The past is only closed to those who benefit from the injustice it produced and to those who have given up fighting injustice or consider that there is no injustice in history, there is fate and luck. The past is a mission or a task for the nonconformist losers of history and for the descendants of the winners willing to repair the injustices and atrocities on which history is based and hidden. The meeting of these two wills constitutes what I call the decolonization of the bicentennial.

Decolonizing the bicentennial is based on two assumptions. The first is that colonialism is not a condition of the past, it is a condition of the present. With the independence of Brazil, colonialism did not end; only one specific type of colonialism ended – historical, foreign-occupied colonialism. With independence, colonialism metamorphosed and continued in other forms, either in the form of internal colonialism or in the form of neocolonialism on the part of the former historical colonizer.

At the deepest and most resistant level, colonialism is all the ontological degradation of one human group by another: a given human group arrogates to itself the power to impunity consider another human group as naturally inferior, almost always due to skin pigmentation. (racialized group). For this reason, the colonial wound, far from being healed, bleeds and hurts in the daily lives of many bodies and souls.

The second assumption is that colonialism is a co-creation of colonizers and colonized. Made of conflicts and complicity, of violence and coexistence, of reciprocal learning and unlearning, however unequal the relationships may have been. And since creators are also creatures, colonialism has shaped both colonizers and colonized. This means that it is not possible to decolonize without simultaneously decolonizing the colonizer and the colonized, two reciprocal decolonizations that, however, involve very different tasks, both in the symbolic-cultural plane, as well as in the plane of sociability of ways of being and of knowing and in the political economy plan.

In settlement colonies, such as Brazil, decolonizing implies three types of tasks to be undertaken by three social groups: Brazilians descended from the Portuguese and other Europeans (internal colonialism); the Portuguese descendants of historical colonizers; and colonized Brazilians (indigenous and descendants of slaves). This is not the place to analyze the different tasks in detail.

An example is enough. Among tasks of the first type: the fight against racism and the privilege of whiteness; end of expropriation of indigenous lands; agrarian reform and work with rights; struggle against sexism as the twin ontological degradation of racism; decolonization of education; respect and promotion of cultural diversity and interculturality. Among the tasks of the second type: fight against racism and sexism of which Brazilian immigrants are victims; end of neocolonialism by Portuguese rulers and intellectuals under the pretext of the farce of sister countries for whom colonialism never existed; decolonization of colonialism and education history; fight against the neocolonialism of the European Union.

Among the tasks of the third type: passing from the condition of victim to that of resistance, and from the condition of resistance to the condition of protagonist of its history, of social and cultural diversity and intercultural relations, freed from colonialist prejudice; development of self-esteem through the decolonization of education. It is an immense set of tasks, but the decolonization of the bicentennial is a project as urgent as it is infinite.

*Boaventura de Sousa Santos is full professor at the Faculty of Economics at the University of Coimbra. Author, among other books, of The end of the cognitive empire (authentic).


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