Marta Arretche and Federico Neiburg on Democracy and Inequalities in Brazil

Tuesday, Mar 23, 2021
by Daniel Persia

On Thursday, March 18, 2021, the Brazil LAB hosted “Democracy and Inequalities in Brazil,” a conversation with political science professor Marta Arretche (University of São Paulo) and professor of anthropology Federico Neiburg (Museu Nacional, Federal University of Rio de Janeiro). The discussion, moderated by Marcelo Medeiros (Brazilian Institute for Applied Economic Research and Visiting Professor at Princeton), sought to interrogate the complex relationship between democracy and inequality in Brazil, engaging with elements of political theory and public policy, as well as economics and contemporary social change. 

Arretche opened the dialogue by identifying two contradictory but valid interpretations of the relationship between democracy and inequality in Brazil. Those suggesting that democracy has been beneficial to Brazil’s poorest populations often point to diminishing income inequality since the early 1990s and greater access to public services, such as healthcare and education. Those making the counterargument tend to highlight the extreme concentration of wealth among Brazil’s elite, which remained relatively stable. Arretche drew attention to a “long period of social inclusion brought on by democracy,” analyzing what she referred to as “layering”—incremental change over time, where new layers of policy have been added to (without dismantling) preexisting forms. This inclusion, she argued—examining changes in income distribution, the impact of the economic crisis on the job market, and current governmental response—has ultimately faded over time. 

Neiburg framed his comments in light of the social, political and economic dimensions of “the tragic Brazilian present.”  He identified the need for stronger qualification of the present moment (and the processes that have produced it), a more detailed interrogation of the relations between public policy and the flow of ordinary life, and critical discussion of the place of posterity policies in crisis contexts. Neiburg’s questions, along with several others from the audience and moderator Marcelo Medeiros, addressed additional factors such as credit policy, voting, and the troubled relationship between Brazil’s past military dictatorship and current trends in democracy and inequality. 

The event was co-sponsored by the Program in Latin American Studies, the Department of Spanish and Portuguese, and the Department of Anthropology.