The face on the most popular Carnival mask in Brazil this year isn’t of a soccer player or pop star. It’s Joaquim Benedito Barbosa Gomes, a jurist who last year presided over the country’s largest political-corruption trial and then became the first black president of Brazil’s Supreme Court. Brazilians choose masks as a sign of honor. They honor Barbosa because in a country that imported more slaves than any other in the Americas and where nearly half the 195 million people identify as black or mixed race, he symbolizes the promise of a new Brazil committed to multiculturalism and equality.
One of eight children born to a bricklayer, Barbosa saw education as his ticket out of poverty and worked as a cleaner and a typesetter in the Senate to support himself in law school. He ultimately obtained a doctorate from the Sorbonne, learned four foreign languages and served as a visiting scholar at Columbia Law School’s Human Rights Institute.
Barbosa does not shy away from controversy. In a Catholic country with entrenched racial inequalities, he is a champion of affirmative action and abortion. Once during televised proceedings, he accused the court’s then president of destroying justice with notorious delays.
Barbosa was appointed to the Supreme Court in 2003 by President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who had pledged to help the underprivileged and improve racial equality. The fiercely independent jurist apparently did not feel indebted. In the face of a long tradition of judicially tolerated corruption, he oversaw a landmark trial involving a $35 million vote-buying scheme that last fall convicted many of Lula’s closest associates. Hailed by one Brazilian newsweekly as “the poor boy who changed Brazil,” Barbosa was sworn in as president of the court a month later.
Cleveland is a Columbia Law School professor
Next Vrinda Grover