Slavery Nags Brazil as It Moves Ahead

Some 100,000 may be trapped in forced-labor system

WITH a stroke of her pen, Brazil's Princess Isabel formally abolished slavery in 1888 - 13 years after the United States did the same.

But from southern plantations to the northern Amazon forests, forced labor has survived here into the eve of the 21st century, drawing foreign criticism that has made Brazil's leaders scramble to find solutions.

"Unfortunately, there are still Brazilians who work without freedom," said President Fernando Henrique Cardoso in a recent dramatic radio speech. "This must end!"

According to the Pastoral Land Commission (CPT), an organization sponsored by the Roman Catholic church, documented cases of forced labor in Brazil have risen from 4,883 in 1991 to 25,193 in 1994. Since many laborers are afraid to denounce their employers, the CPT estimates that some 100,000 in all may be working under slave-like conditions.

Most forced labor takes place on large estates, called fazendas. In its present-day version, slavery begins with labor contractors called gatos, or cats. They lure uneducated workers, largely from the impoverished northeast, with the promise of decent wages. Once the laborers arrive, however, they find they have already run up unpayable debts to their employers for food, medicine, primitive lodging, and even the use of tools. In many cases, they toil long hours in the hot sun in exchange for food or wages as low as 10 cents an hour. Armed guards patrol work areas to ensure nobody escapes until debts are paid.

Mr. Cardoso, who is slowly reforming Brazil's economy to allow major foreign investment, became the nation's first executive to recognize the problem publicly.

"Punishment by the law isn't enough for those people who transform Brazilians into slaves," he said. "It's necessary to grab them by the pocketbook."

Cardoso warned that his government would deny loans and subsidies to unscrupulous bosses and announced the creation of a federal commission to end slavery. He may have been pushed to act by recent popular outrage on the issue. Slavery has garnered prominent headlines in the press recently, and months before, church groups and labor organizations launched their own campaigns.

As part of that effort, in late June Vicente Paulo da Silva, the president of Brazil's largest trade union, announced the inauguration of DIAL SLAVERY, a toll-free service in which citizens can telephone his Sao Paulo office to denounce employers who profit from slave labor. "I found it embarrassing that most criticism ... came from foreigners, while Brazilians remained silent," Mr. da Silva says.

Da Silva says he also was inspired by the 300th death anniversary of Zumbi, Brazil's most-revered martyr in the fight against slavery. Zumbi was an African who led the nation's first slave revolt in the 17th century before his violent death at the hands of Portuguese soldiers.

To date, DIAL SLAVERY has received an average of five calls a day, and the union has alerted authorities to cases they believe to be genuine incidents of forced labor.

Ricardo Rezende, the nation's most prominent crusader against forced labor and a priest based in the western city of Rio Maria, says he is happy to see society's sudden enthusiasm to end slavery. But he notes that it is a difficult task in a nation where there "exists no political will to resolve the problem. So many members of congress are either large landowners or were elected with monies from the strong rural lobby," he says.

According to him, even the current agriculture minister, Jose Eduardo de Andrade Vieira, has been denounced in the past by the Catholic church for employing forced labor on his fazenda.

Even more than in the US, slavery here created a vast lower class and extreme inequalities. According to the World Bank, 40.9 percent of Brazil's 155 million inhabitants live below the poverty line and the richest 10 percent control more than half the nation's wealth.

Moreover, psychologist Contardo Calligaris says the slavery era left an indelible psychological mark on the rich, who still view the poor as a subservient class. In 1993, he angered many Brazilians when he wrote that "fantasy of possessing someone as a slave has completely invaded the social relations in this country." While that may be debatable, it is obvious that a flawed judicial system allows forced labor to continue.

Not one slave owner has been successfully prosecuted for violating Article 149 of the penal code, which prohibits enslavement. In fact, human rights workers say that local police and judges have colluded with slave owners. Yet a church worker who condemned a federal congressman for owning slaves in 1992 was convicted of slander and sentenced to a year in jail, a punishment that was later suspended.

Humberto Espinola, director of the Ministry of Justice's human rights division, says fazendas employing slave labor have been fined for labor violations but concedes such fines are usually light and levied only against estate managers. Owners typically live in major cities and escape responsibility by feigning ignorance of how their fazendas are operated.

Political leaders, on the other hand, have typically acknowledged the existence of forced labor, while complaining of a lack of resources to send investigators to isolated areas in a nation as large as Brazil.

But human rights workers disagree. "It rings hollow whenever they say that," says James Cavallaro, director of the Brazil office for the US human rights group Americas Watch. "How come the CPT and me, a kid from Brooklyn, can get to these places? Brazil is no Haiti," he says referring to Brazil's economic capabilities.

Mr. Cavallaro suggests that Cardoso order the federal government to take over all investigations and prosecutions since "local governments have no political will whatsoever to end slavery." The Reverend Rezende, currently writing a book on Brazilian slavery, wants the president to do much more.

"If Fernando Henrique had the political courage, he would expropriate the land of those who employ such labor practices," he says. "If he did that with just one large landowner, it would send a powerful message and have an immediate effect in reducing slave labor."

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