Cooperation and Conflict in Capoeira

March 12, 2020

On February 14th, the Brazil LAB hosted Ernesto Batista Mané Júnior, Visiting Research Scholar at the Science and Global Security Program of the Woodrow Wilson School, for a lecture on cooperation and conflict in capoeira and diplomacy. Mauricio Acuña, Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese at Princeton University, was the discussant.

Ernesto Mané is part of the Brazilian Diplomatic Corps, also known as Itamaraty, and a specialist in the field of disarmament and nonproliferation. As part of his preparation for his final stage to diplomacy, Ernesto Mané investigated the history and performance of capoeira as a cultural device. 

Capoeira is a Brazilian Martial Art developed during the colonial period by Africans and African descendants as a reaction to the violence of slavery. After decades of repression in the beginning of the twentieth century, the practice evolved as an ambiguous mixture of dance, game, and fight.  Throughout his powerful presentation, Mané elaborated on several connections between capoeira and diplomacy.  

For Mané, the metaphors and rituals of capoeira work as “a mirror of the international strategic environment.” In this sense, the bodies playing capoeira in a circle are comparable to the nation-state divisions in the space of international relations. In diplomacy, for example, there is a risk of excessive cooperation disintegrating the differences between nations and, on the other hand, an extreme individuality leading to war and mutual destruction, Mané said. But, as suggested by the configuration of a capoeira circle as well as by the circular tables at the United Nations, negotiations are possible and needed, and they are “consistent to a century-old pacifist tradition of the Brazilian people.”

In dialogue with Ernesto Mané, Mauricio Acuña proposed to think about the past and the present of the relation between capoeira and diplomacy. “There is a continuing cooptation of subaltern cultures in Brazil by the State,” Acuña said, “particularly from Afro-Brazilian cultures, in order to represent a non-violent nation and a ‘pacifist tradition’ in diplomacy.” For Acuña, the unprecedented political shift in Brazilian politics towards a more conservative and aggressive government, supported by large segments of the population, invites to a new round of investigation.

The lively discussion that followed explored the relations between diplomacy and capoeira in terms of gender and race dynamics, as well as the challenges faced by capoeira practitioners around the world. In his closing remarks, Mané mentioned that the resilience and dynamism of capoeira, now dispersed by more than three hundred groups worldwide, can also be a useful “mirror” for Brazil to see itself and creative ways of going out difficult times.