RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil — The tide of public opinion may be shifting in Brazil, which remains as riveted as ever by the drawn-out custody battle over 9-year-old Sean Goldman, a Brazilian-American boy born in New Jersey.
As reporters and others waited outside the Marriott Hotel across from Copacabana beach for Sean's father, David Goldman, to come out and discuss new developments in the case, a man named Nilton Silva came out of nowhere and introduced himself to U.S. Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.), who has been helping Goldman with his legal battle.
“Sir,” said Silva, a silver-haired 55-year-old man, “I’m Brazilian and I’m totally in favor that he take his son back to America.”
Silva stuck around as Goldman, of Tinton Falls, N.J., came out and joined the press scrum, pushing in like a veteran to reiterate for Goldman what he had told Smith. Silva is one of the more passionate of an increasing number of Brazilians who seem to be taking the father’s side in the five-year battle over who Sean will live with.
The details are by now familiar: In 2004, Goldman’s ex-wife Bruna Bianchi took Sean on vacation to her native Brazil, did not return, remarried into a wealthy, powerful family of lawyers and eventually died shortly after giving birth to Sean’s half-sister last year.
That’s when the story started grabbing headlines both here and in the United States. Americans seemed united behind Goldman, but Brazilians were split over whether Sean should stay with his stepfather, Joao Paulo Lins e Silva, his half-sister Chiara and maternal grandparents in Rio de Janeiro, or be returned to his father in New Jersey. Some felt that that the paternal blood ties should be supreme; others that the child was better off with the family he knew in Brazil. Few took the American view that Brazil was harboring kidnappers.
But when the case made news again this week — first, a 3-0 decision by a federal appeals court to send Sean to New Jersey, then a controversial stay of the order by a Supreme Court justice — things seemed to have shifted.
The shift in public opinion in Brazil is perhaps most noticeable in the online comments people are leaving in Portuguese on sites like that of Rio’s principal newspaper, O Globo. Of thousands of comments, a large majority seem in favor of Goldman, but the odd thing is that they are not so anti-Lins e Silva as they are anti-Brazil.
“What the Federal Supreme Court is doing to that child and his father is an embarrassment … Brazil is sponsoring international kidnapping and should be ashamed.!!” – silviakersh
“Mr. Goldman, we ask forgiveness for our justice system, our government, our country. Here is Brazil, it doesn’t matter who is right, what matters is whom you know.” — Bebeto23
“This decision means just one thing = dictatorship and corruption … that’s it, Brazil is showing its face for the world to see.” — Vida Bela.
When the case has hit the news before, comments were more split, with arguments on the Brazilian side often taking an anti-American tone, especially against politicans like Smith and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton who were involved in the case. But as Brazilian courts continuously came down on the side of the father, only to have their decisions overturned or delayed by legal maneuvering, people here seem to be recognizing an all-too-familiar pattern: the wealthy and well-connected getting their way.
Some real Brazilians with identities beyond online handles felt the same way.
“Unfortunately, justice in Brazil is biased,” said Jose Vicente, a 69-year-old lawyer who was devouring corn porridge in the Cinelandia area of Rio de Janeiro. “The system is represented by someone with a blindfold on, who sometimes doesn’t even try to see.”
The porridge salesman, Joison Silva Paulo, agreed. “Justice favors the rich,” he said.
Not everyone, of course, has taken Goldman’s side. At a nearby outdoor table at the Amarelinho Bar, four service workers and a Franciscan priest relaxed with beers after work. They had a more diverse set of opinions on the issue.
“He’s got a father,” said Juliana Feitosa, 32.
“So he should go with the father,” said Rayane Miranda, 26.
“The child should decide,” said Rodrigo Vale Silva, 21.
The priest, Father James Girardi, stayed on the fence, feeling there must be a way to work out joint custody. Only 54-year-old Ruth Ferreira de Matos wasn’t sure. But her decision-making process spoke volumes about Brazilian society.
“I think he should stay with the father,” she said. “The father will be able to give him everything. The family here is poor, right? No? They’re rich? Well, then I need to give it some more thought.”
As he spoke to the mostly Brazilian reporters outside his hotel, Goldman himself acknowledged the growing number of Brazilians on his side. “I thank all of the Brazilian citizens who see the right of a parent and a child,” he said. “It’s not a difficult thing to imagine. Sean is my family, Sean is my son. I’m his dad. Not ‘he’s Brazilian,’ not ‘he’s American,’ not ‘he’s from anywhere.’ He’s my son.”
Sergio Tostes, the Brazilian family’s lawyer, did not return calls to his cell phone and office.
Plenty of Brazilians still want Sean to stay put. But Goldman’s uphill battle against an intimidating legal system and an opponent that knows it inside and out has struck a chord. Or, as an O Globo website commenter called AndreThomazFilho put it:
“It’s impressive how the Lins e Silva family achieved an almost unheard of feat in this country: it united the great majority of the Brazilian population in favor of an American! Who would have thought?”