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Kennedy School Review

Topic / Gender, Race and Identity

The Hidden Crisis Happening in Brazil Right Now


The world is currently watching Brazil fight the “longest recession in a century, the biggest bribery scandal in history, [and] the most unpopular leader in living memory,” and that’s not even counting the Zika virus epidemic.

An equally severe but less visible crisis is also facing the country right now:  discrimination against indigenous people is escalating to barbarian acts of violence fast in the southern, most developed parts of Brazil.

On Dec. 31, 2015, 2-year-old Vitor Pinto, from the Kaingang indigenous group, was being breastfed by his mom when a stranger fatally stabbed him in Imbituba, a tourist city in the southern state of Santa Catarina. Police officials investigating Vitor’s murder believe the assassin acted out of hate for indigenous populations in the area. However, no hate crime charge is being pursued at this point by public prosecutors, according to Santa Catarina State’s Public Security Secretariat.

On the morning of March 19, 2016, Nerlei Fidelis, a veterinary medicine student and also member of the Kaingang people, was brutally assaulted by a group of people in front of the Students’ House at the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul (UFRGS). The attackers repeated the phrase “what are these Indians doing here?” to Nerlei as they beat him, according to the victim. In this instance, the act was recorded by a security camera.

Both cases illustrate that the ongoing discrimination against indigenous people is escalating to acts of physical violence. It is a real and urgent threat to indigenous peoples’ lives. Why did the Nerlei’s aggressors do what they did despite being taped? They likely did not believe they would be punished. After all, those who have perpetrated racially motivated hate crimes in Brazil have gotten off the hook without punishment before.

One key factor to understand the cases is the rise of racism and hate in the speech of politicians in the country. In 2014, a Congressman in Rio Grande do Sul State was recorded on video saying indigenous people, quilombolas (descendant of slaves), gays, and lesbians “all have no value.” The video also includes speeches from another Congressman encouraging farmers to use armed guards to evict indigenous groups from areas they consider to be their land. In another instance, Senate candidate Lasier Martins told the press that indigenous people needed to become “respected professionals.

While violence and discrimination have long been present in Brazilian society, it has generally always been publicly condemned and thus restricted to inner circles. But as hate speech has spread in politics, it has also spread on the streets. Vitor’s death and the attack on Nerlei Kaygang are not only products of random violence, but can be linked to explicit stimulus present in the media and in the politics.

Students of the University of Santa Catarina issued an open letter of solidarity to Nerlei Kaygang and linked his case to that of Vitor Pinto’s murder in March 2016. In early April, students of the University of Rio Grande do Sul and Catholic University of Rio Grande do Sul demonstrated against the escalated violence against indigenous peoples and in solidarity to Nerlei.

We believe indigenous students deserve more and more allies – they should not have to raise their voices alone. We at Harvard share their goals for equality, dignity, and empowerment for all Brazilians.

More than 80 Harvard students have signed a letter of solidarity to Nerlei and to the family of Vitor Pinto. In preparation for the joint MIT-Harvard Brazil Conference to be held on April 22 and 23, we will huddle in the steps of the iconic Harvard Widener Library on April 21 (check here for updates), as a plea for a massive campaign for equality and against racism.

We will urge the governors Raimundo Colombo (Santa Catarina State) and José Ivo Sartori (Rio Grande do Sul State) to declare their commitment to work for the rights of all their citizens’ – indigenous and otherwise –  to live with dignity, equality, and a voice in society. We are going to push as hard as possible to hold them and other politicians accountable for hate speech and hate crime.


Natalie Unterstell is a Mid-Career Master in Public Policy student at the Harvard Kennedy School.  She got to Cambridge, Mass., by sailboat, having sailed 80 days from Saint Lucia in the Caribbean to New England. She currently lives aboard the sailing vessel Rogue in Charlestown but keeps connected to her home region in the south of Brazil.