Beyond the Brazilian Vote: Three Decades of Activism and Counting
Special for the Armenian Weekly
On May 29, many Armenian news outlets reported with enthusiasm that Brazil had joined the list of nations that recognize the Armenian Genocide. Although the basis for the announcement in the Armenian press was information provided by Armenia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs —which in turn was based on information disseminated by Armenia’s Embassy in Brazil—no Brazilian press agency had confirmed the recognition; neither had Brazil’s Embassy in Yerevan. A few hours later, the Brazilian Senator from São Paulo, Aloysio Nunes Ferreira, from the Brazilian Social Democracy Party (PSDB) posted on his Facebook page that the “vote of solidarity” (request no. 550/2015), which was co-sponsored by himself and José Serra (also from São Paulo’s PSDB), had been adopted by the Federal Senate. Yet, the request was only submitted to and approved by the Committee of Foreign Relations and National Defense of the Senate, chaired by Aloysio Nunes himself.
While both the Republic of Armenia and the diaspora were trying to understand what this approval meant, the Senate put the matter to a vote during its Plenary Meeting of June 2, presented by Nunes and Serra and signed by 52 other Senators (out of a total of 81). During this critical meeting, all of the political parties represented in the Senate recommended voting in favor of the resolution. The ensuing unanimous approval by the Senate reflected the strength of the Armenian community in Brazil, with its many institutions that are able to articulate political goals and engage in effective advocacy ahead of the vote.
It is clear that the atmosphere created by the Centennial of the Armenian Genocide in April helped this process. Never before had Brazilian society been exposed to this much information about Armenia and the genocide. The Centennial was visible in the mainstream media, driven by news of various governments that were supporting recognition and, most significantly, Pope Francis’ speech urging recognition. It is important to note here that Brazil has the largest Roman Catholic community in the world.
However, we cannot claim that the Centennial was the only driving force behind this victory by the Armenian community in Brazil. We have to take into account the work that the community has been doing since the re-democratization of the country in 1985, especially in São Paulo. In the first half of the 1980’s, still under the military regime’s rule, the Armenians of São Paulo began a campaign to change a subway station’s name to “Armenia Station.” This initiative started a political discussion that continues today, particularly with then-governor of São Paulo Franco Montoro, from the Brazilian Democratic Movement (currently PMDB), and some of his allies, such as Fernando Gasparian. These men would found the PSDB, the main political ally of the Armenians in Brazil. The PMDB/Social Democrats ruled the country between 1994 and 2002 under Fernando Henrique Cardoso (FHC), Gasparian’s close friend. In the FHC government, the banker Varujan Burmaian was appointed as the ambassador of Brazil to Armenia.
In May 1989, the Legislative Assembly of the State of São Paulo passed law no. 6,468, creating the “Day of solidarity with the Armenian People,” which was sponsored by deputy Abdo Haddad. This law represents the recognition by the state of São Paulo of the Armenian massacres. But it was only on April 23 of this year that the same Assembly passed a new law (no. 15,813) that defines the events of 1915 as genocide and uses the term, which was absent in the 1989 law. The law designates April 24 as the “day of recognition and remembrance to the victims of the Genocide of the Armenian People.” This law was sponsored by deputy Pedro Tobias, from PSDB.
Interestingly, despite having the sympathy of FHC and his party, PSDB, the Armenian Cause hit a dormant period in Brazil in the 1990’s. The years of neoliberalism and the country’s deep economic crisis affected the Armenian community in São Paulo, where institutions were (and still are) supported by businessmen. Since 2003, during the Lula da Silva government, the Workers Party (PT) of Brazil underwent a period of large economic growth, which led to the establishment of a large and emerging middle class. The spread of technology and internet in the country provided an opportunity for those with Armenian ancestry to connect with their roots through the use of social media networks; this generated the revival of some Armenian institutions in Brazil, which had been facing collapse since the early 1990’s. This new wave of mobilization, combined with a political-economic tailwind, led Armenians to resume their activism in the country’s political arena. In 2007, the Brazilian chapter of the Armenian National Committee of South America (also known as CNA) received the support of the Federal Deputy Arnaldo Faria de Sá (Brazilian Labor Party, PTB, from São Paulo) to present draft bill no. 899/07, which would create the “day of tolerance and respect among peoples, in recognition to the Genocide perpetrated against the Armenians.” The following year, however, strong opposition from Federal Deputy Arnon Bezerra (PTB from Ceará) led Faria de Sá, in accordance with the CNA, to withdraw the draft bill, fearing a political defeat.
However, in 2011, the nationally acclaimed actor and Federal Deputy Stepan Nercessian (Popular Socialist Party, PPS, from Rio de Janeiro) publicly urged the Brazilian government to recognize the Armenian Genocide. A year later, Federal Deputy Walter Feldman (PSDB from São Paulo) presented draft bill no. 3,190/2012 that would penalize the denial of the Armenian Genocide in Brazil, following the introduction of a similar draft bill that was being debated in France. For various reasons, none of these drafts passed.
While these draft resolutions were being discussed in Congress, the Brazilian government and the Ministry of External Relations were nurturing close ties with Turkey. In 2010, President da Silva met with then-Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to mediate the Iranian nuclear program. Turkey had become a strategic partner of Brazil during the PT government, which worked to create alliances with countries from the so-called “Global South.” When confronted about the Armenian Genocide issue, the official response from the government was that relations between Armenians and Turks were not a Brazilian issue.
Beginning in 2010, the Armenian community received new impetus when the Embassy of the Republic of Armenia in Brazil was created and then-Consul General Ashot Yeghiazaryan was promoted to ambassador. Meanwhile, the General Consulate in São Paulo was headed by Hilda Diruhi Burmaian, the widow of Varujan Burmaian, the former ambassador of Brazil to Armenia. The nomination of Hilda Burmaian, who is well known and respected in the Armenian community, brought the community closer to the Republic of Armenia, and led both sides to work together in seeking common objectives. In addition, the reorganization of the local chapters of the Armenian National Committee and the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF), and the infusion of their boards with young members, brought about a new approach towards the Armenian Cause, especially in the use of social media. It is important to underscore here the creation of the website Estação Armênia, one of the most important media services of Armenians in Latin America, among other efforts by other institutions, such as the Armenian General Benevolent Union (AGBU).
On April 24, 2009, then-Governor of São Paulo José Serra published an article in the main Brazilian newspaper entitled, “No genocide may be forgotten,” which was well received by the Armenian community. Serra would become the opposition candidate in the 2010 presidential elections, losing the run to Dilma Rousseff, from the PT. The little enthusiasm shown by the ruling party toward issues important to Armenians led the community to instead give its support to Serra and the PSDB, the main opposition party. PSDB, keeping an eye on the votes from the Armenian community in Brazil (which party leaders estimated to be around 100,000, though the real numbers are closer to 40,000), accepted the mission of taking the Armenian Cause to the National Congress.
The turning point for the Armenian Cause in Brazil came in 2014. First, because the imminence of the Centennial led the community to work towards a common agenda for the first time in decades. The “Brazilian Committee for the Recognition of the Armenian Genocide” unified all institutions in different working groups to propose activities that would raise awareness of the Armenian Cause in Brazilian society. The various institutions nevertheless held parallel activities, such as a demonstration organized by the ANC and ARF in front of the Turkish Consulate in São Paulo, where hundreds gathered. Similarly, during the presidential and parliamentary elections in 2014, representatives of the Armenian community sought candidates and asked for support towards recognition. Serra, then Senate candidate, was one of the politicians who met with these representatives. Once elected, in 2015, Serra had the support of his fellow Aloysio Nunes Ferreira, who proposed the resolution that was approved by the Senate in June 2015.
It remains to be seen what this approval means. It is necessary to highlight, as we are reminded by Flávio de Leão Bastos Pereira, a lecturer of constitutional law at Mackenzie University, that Brazil is a presidential federal republic with a bicameral congress, in which the Chamber of Deputies stands for the Brazilian people and the Federal Senate represents the states of the federation. Technically, this unanimous approval during the Senate’s plenary meeting constitutes recognition of the Armenian Genocide by all Brazilian states, but not recognition by the Brazilian people (represented by the Chamber) nor the Brazilian state. In accordance with the Brazilian constitutional political system, to say that Brazil effectively recognizes the Armenian Genocide, we would need a legislative decree edited and approved by the Chamber of Deputies, which would be ratified by a presidential decree, since the president of the republic is both the head of government and the head of state before the international community. Another possibility, according to Article 84, item VIII, of the Constitution of the Federative Republic of Brazil of 1988, would be the recognition of the genocide by the executive power, followed by ratification by the National Congress. It is worth noting that request no. 550, approved by the Senate, does not have the force of national law, unlike what happened in Argentina and Uruguay, which have similar political systems and recognize the Armenian Genocide.
The approval of this vote of solidarity doubtless reflects the hard work by the Armenian community in Brazil over the last 30 years, and especially over the last 12 months. However, it is still too early to celebrate and consider the mission accomplished. It is essential to resume attempts to get the Armenian Genocide recognized by the executive power in order to impact Brazilian foreign policy regarding the Armenian Cause. The victory in the Senate has implications, predominately in domestic affairs, as it showed the ability of the Armenian community in Brazil to lead the political class to support their interests. While this discussion is only among the politicians who are “friends of the Armenian Cause,” Brazil remains vulnerable to the Turkish-Azeri lobby, whose influence has increased over the past few years.
One day after the voting, the Brazilian ambassador in Ankara was recalled for clarifications. Five days later, Ankara recalled its ambassador in Brazil for consultations. The Brazilian Ministry of External Relations states the Senate passed the resolution in observance of the constitutional prerogative on the principle of the separation of powers. The Brazilian government also states that relations with Turkey are defined by both parties as “strategic” and that it hopes for the normalization of bilateral relations as soon as possible. In the year that marks the Centennial, it seems the Armenian Genocide is on the Brazilian political agenda to stay.
Heitor Loureiro is a Ph.D. candidate in history at the São Paulo State University in Brazil, as well as a CAPES Foundation visiting scholar at the “Matenadaran” Scientific Research Institute in Yerevan.
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