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Candomblé Bahia Omolú Daughter - Ritual Dance. 1962. Brazil: Organization of American States Collection, Library of Congress.

Reflections on Brazil-Africa Relations: Higher Education, Diplomacy and Development

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This is a guest post written jointly by Tiffany Brown-Louis and Crispin Beyogle, graduate students from the Center of Latin American Studies at Georgetown University’s Walsh School of Foreign Service, who completed capstone research in consultation with staff in the Hispanic Reading Room. 


In the Fall of 2022, we were preparing for our capstone course for our Master’s in Latin American Studies at Georgetown University, which required us to complete a meaningful project for a partner organization. As an African-American woman preparing for a career in international relations, I had long been interested in Afrodescendant issues in Latin America and wanted to find a way to make my interests in public diplomacy and international education intersect.


This capstone project presented an opportunity for me to explore my interests in international relations, specifically the relations between Africa and Latin America. My study abroad experience in Cuba exposed me to the large influence of African culture on Cuban society which piqued my curiosity to delve into the political and diplomatic relations between Africa and Latin America. Given our unique personal and professional backgrounds as well as converging research interests, Tiffany and I decided to collaborate on this project to explore the role of public diplomacy, international education, and development as part of Brazil’s foreign policy strategy to promote its relations with Africa.

The Search for a New Narrative

As students of the region, we often encountered a singular narrative about the area’s Afrodescendant issues which focused on the legacy of the experience of slavery and its effect on the ongoing struggles against racism. We agreed that we were tired of this narrative and wanted to find a new, more empowering one on which to focus our project. Furthermore, until recently global attention to international cooperation focused on North-South cooperation. While there has been a rising interest in relations among members of the Global South, some gaps remain to be filled in the field of South-South cooperation, specifically Latin America’s diplomatic engagements with Africa.

Motivated by our personal, academic and professional backgrounds, we sought to explore the role of international education as a public diplomacy tool in furthering South-South cooperation between Brazil and other Lusophone countries, particularly in Africa. To explore this question, we used Brazil’s University of International Integration of Afro-Brazilian Lusophony (UNILAB). Founded in 2010, UNILAB represented a monumental step on the part of the Lula government’s efforts to integrate itself internationally by advancing cooperation with Lusophone Africa through public diplomacy, higher education, and development. UNILAB provided us a lens through which to view contemporary relations between Latin America and Africa, reclaiming the narrative from the Transatlantic Slave Trade, and instead focusing on a new, more empowering narrative of cooperation, partnership, and solidarity.

A group of Afro-Brazilian women in traditional dress of African origin performing a ritual dance.
A group of Afro-Brazilian women in traditional dress of African origin performing a ritual dance associated with Candomblé, a religion based on African traditions, with elements borrowed from Christianity, that is practiced chiefly in Brazil, Candomblé in Bahía Brazil Ritual Dance. Brazil: Organization of American States, 1962. Prints & Photographs Division

While there is extensive research and literature on historical connections between Brazil and Africa in the context of the Transatlantic Slave Trade, not much attention has been given to how relations between the two have developed over the last twenty years. Under President Lula da Silva, Brazil sought to increase its visibility in the arena of global governance in order to portray itself as a global leader, focusing particularly on intensifying diplomatic engagements and increasing trade relations and investment in Latin America, the Caribbean, and Africa. Beyond the great strides made in advancing relations in these areas, Brazil has shown leadership in public diplomacy through international higher education.

The Library of Congress took an interest in this project and provided us the opportunity to contribute to two main challenges they hoped to address: 1) finding ways to better communicate the transatlantic relationship between Latin America and Africa and; 2) tackling the challenge of collecting on contemporary interactions between foreign governments, whose documentation is often hard to access in systematic ways.

Through a close reading and analysis of expert interviews, President Lula’s speeches on foreign policy between 2003 and 2010, and UNILAB’S curricula and mission statement, we concluded that Brazil’s relations with Africa were guided by three main themes: partnership, solidarity, and reparation. Partnership with its Lusophone counterparts in Africa meant that Brazil recognized Africa’s potential to be changemakers and problem-solvers and for that matter deserved a part in the decision-making process of UNILAB’s formation. Solidarity is central in promoting regional and international integration, which is what UNILAB aims to achieve. For Lula, African countries and Brazil are developing nations in a common struggle, seeking to build a better, more equal world. Finally, President Lula repeated on numerous occasions that Brazil owes a historical debt to Africa. UNILAB is therefore a response to paying this debt by empowering African youth through international education.

Finally, in addition to being a public diplomacy project, we learned that UNILAB is also a development project. This development is two-fold, working on both the international and domestic spheres. Through our research, we learned about Brazil’s views on international development in Africa, which the Brazilian Embassy described as a “true partnership” in comparison to other countries who seek to only exploit the region for its natural resources. Recognizing the need to address inequality both within Brazil and outside of it, the founders of UNILAB sought “to build a public university that would transfer state resources directly to historically disadvantaged populations in Brazil and African countries.” Through our pedagogical analysis of major disciplines like international relations and anthropology we uncovered the emancipatory nature of UNILAB’s curriculum. Through these courses, the institution seeks to create change agents from both regions that decenter the current Eurocentric ideals.

James R. Rudin, photographer. Shangó Ceremony. 1971. Library of Congress Columbus Memorial Library (OAS) Photograph Collection.

Not only did UNILAB serve to strengthen Brazil’s relations with its Lusophone counterparts but also to advance development projects in Redenção, Ceará, a small but mighty town in Brazil’s Northeast where slavery was ended five years before the entire country finally abolished it in 1888. Choosing Redenção as the location for the construction of UNILAB was not only strategic, but it was also symbolic. While enslaved people in this town were the first to taste freedom, they have, for a long time, remained marginalized in the larger Brazilian society. Placing UNILAB in the poorest region of the country presented an opportunity to expand infrastructural development in the area while providing access to a university in the town and its environs. Symbolically, Redenção serves as the best site for constructing a university whose mission is to enhance international integration between Brazil and its Lusophone counterparts in Africa. This site reflects the strength of historically marginalized people who continue to fight for freedom and to seek empowerment through education. It is also a site to promote diversity and inclusion amongst Brazilians of European descent, Afro-Brazilians, and African immigrants.

André Cypriano, photographer. Religião Afro-Brasileira quilombola. 2005. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Our greatest asset in the Library of Congress was our partner consultant, Portuguese Reference Librarian Henry Widener, who guided us on how to use the library’s resources and explore our topic. As a Brazilianist familiar with the region of study, his insights and constant dedication to the project were invaluable. The experience of researching alongside Henry was such a fascinating and collaborative process. Through monthly meetings either in person or via Zoom, we developed an interpretation of the historical context of Brazil-Africa relations, gathered together important bibliographical sources and talked through analyses of the main concepts in our research. Henry also helped connect us with diplomats at the Brazilian and Portuguese embassies to truly add color and depth to our research. This was such an ambitious, multidisciplinary project and even when we felt overwhelmed, he was always there to help us navigate through the challenges.

Lastly, our work benefited Henry by expanding his knowledge of the Library’s collections, their potential uses and the occasional gaps therein. Through our research, he discovered resources such as the Routledge handbook of public diplomacy (2020) and gained new perspective on research guides such as Latin America and the Caribbean in Photographs at the Library of Congress. While the Library collects extensively on Brazilian materials published in Brazil, there is also scholarship published outside of Brazil that does not always make it into the Library’s collections. Thanks to our conversations, Henry recommended the Library acquire Susanne Ress’s Internationalization of higher education for development : blackness and postcolonial solidarity in Africa-Brazil relations (2019).

Through this experience, we developed greater insight into how international education and development might inform justice and reparation. Usually, discussions on successful models of good policy and programs focus on the Global North. However, we were happy to point our readers to the Global South to learn about some best practices in solidarity and partnership. Moving forward, we are pursuing paths that are directly informed by the work that we did at the Library of Congress this year. Crispin is pursuing his Ph.D. in Political Science at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign while Tiffany has begun her career as a Public Diplomacy Officer with the U.S. Department of State.

Discover more

Brazilian Elections Web Archive. This collection of websites documents the Brazilian elections and covers three presidential elections for the years 2010, 2014 and 2018. The archive for the 2022 elections is forthcoming.

From the Library’s catalogRess, Susanne. Internationalization of higher education for development: blackness and postcolonial solidarity in Africa-Brazil relations, (2019).

Handbook of Latin American Studies (HLAS): A Resource Guide The Handbook of Latin American Studies is a bibliography on Latin America consisting of works selected and annotated by scholars. 

The PALABRA Archive at the Library of Congress The PALABRA Archive is a collection of original audio recordings of 20th and 21st century Luso-Hispanic poets and writers reading from their works. 

Library of Congress Research Guides Library’s guides organized by research topic and collections – these include both online materials, and materials only available on site. The guides related to the Caribbean, Iberian, and Latin American Studies can be found here.

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