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Obama: In Brazil, an idol still

Afro-Brazilians still care more about Obama's symbolism than about particular policies.

A worker puts finishing touches to masks made in the likeness of U.S. President Barack Obama at a costume factory assembly line in a suburb of Rio de Janeiro, Feb. 10, 2009. (Bruno Domingo/Reuters)

SAO PAULO, Brazil — It was to be a moment of racial awakening for Brazil. The United States, about one-eighth black and with a history of legal segregation, had elected a black president. Brazil, half-black by some counts, with no post-slavery history of race-based laws and a popular image of racial harmony, was nowhere close to such a feat.

(Read about Brazilians anticipation of Obama's inauguration one year ago.)

Afro-Brazilian leaders hoped for a reaction something like: “Geez, they say that we are more than 50 percent, and there, they’re 13 or 14 percent. How could they achieve what we haven’t?” according to Jose Candido, a 68-year-old black politician who serves in the Sao Paulo legislature.

GlobalPost spoke to four black leaders about how Obama is viewed one year later, and if anything has changed: Candido, businessman Joao Carlos Borges Martins, educator Jose Vicente and journalist Mauricio Pestana.

There was an overall agreement that the American president’s domestic travails were only of passing interest, and that he was still regarded in Brazil as a hero, a role model, even a game-changer.

“We were happy when he made it, and we’re praying for him to succeed,” said Borges Martins, president of CEABRA, an organization of black entrepreneurs in Sao Paulo. “We’re still pulling for him, as if he were our brother.”

“Obama was one of those great events whose mere occurrence was already a great thing, independently of whether he governed well or not,” said Vicente, the rector of Zumbi dos Palmares, Brazil’s first black university. “But it seems that in this first year he has at least minimally managed to realize some important things for Americans, principally what is going on in the area of health care. I also think he’s changed the United States’ stance a bit. Instead of talking softly and carrying a big stick, he’s still talking softly, but has put the stick down next to his chair.”

Pestana, who heads the editorial board for Raca Brasil, Brazil’s biggest magazine aimed at blacks, thinks the Obama presidency has directly affected potential black politicians here. “His impact is so great that blacks here, who before were very skeptical about politics, have started to realize that that is our only way out,” he said. “We’re going to see we have more black candidates in this year’s elections.”

Candido, who says he is one of just two black elected deputies in his state’s 94-seat chamber, is not quite as sure. He said it can be damaging when black leaders split along religious lines, among black evangelicals, black Catholics and blacks who practice syncretic Afro-Brazilian religions. “It’s very difficult to make all three religions think of the same objective,” he said, “We are all black, and we all need to improve our self-esteem. As blacks we need to insist on uniting.”