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Brazil swears in nation's first black Supreme Court president

November 22, 2012|By Vincent Bevins
  • Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, left, with Joaquim Barbosa during his inauguration as Brazil's first black head of the Supreme Court.
Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, left, with Joaquim Barbosa during… (Evaristo Sa / AFP/Getty…)

SAO PAULO, Brazil -- Joaquim Barbosa, a judge famous for his tough stand against political corruption, has been sworn in as the first black president of Brazil’s Supreme Court.

At the ceremony Thursday in Brasília, the capital, his work was widely praised by politicians, artists and public figures. He spoke of the challenges ahead for Brazil’s justice system.

“I must be intellectually honest and say there is a great justice deficit among us,” Barbosa said, according to local media. “Not all Brazilians are treated equally.”

What one often sees is “special treatment and privileges that have no basis in reason,” he said.

Barbosa became one of the country’s most well-known public figures this year as he oversaw the prosecution of high-level politicians for a vote-buying scandal dating to 2003 and 2004. The country was shocked and anti-corruption forces were delighted as 25 convictions were handed down, including to Jose Dirceu, who was chief of staff in popular former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva’s administration.

Dirceu may face prison time, and many believe that Barbosa may have changed a culture of impunity in which corrupt politicians rarely used to face any punishment. Barbosa has also been praised for his judicial independence because he  was appointed by Lula in 2003.

Barbosa has received rare attention as a judge. This year, the influential weekly magazine Veja put a photo of him as a child on the cover with the caption: “The poor boy who changed Brazil.”

“This is effectively a new Brazil, which is open to diversity and to the possibility that those from every race and every social class can use their talents to achieve,” Minister of Racial Equality Luiza Bairros was quoted as saying by local media.

Brazil has one of the largest African-heritage populations outside of Africa, but African Brazilians are rare at the highest levels of business or politics.

Barbosa, as well as the celebrities and well-wishers in attendance at the swearing-in,  emphasized that the most significant achievement of the day was not related to race.

“He has to be remembered for his skills, his reason, for everything that he did throughout his life,” actor Milton Goncalves said, according to local media. “Of course, as a black man, I feel like an ally, but he’s there because of merit, and merit alone.”

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