It was not in Caxias do Sul or Brasília, but on the streets of Johannesburg that Paulo Paim (PT-RS), then a federal deputy, saw for the first time a toy that he wanted to give as a gift to his two daughters.
The year was 1990 and, on a walk through the city in South Africa, Paim stopped in front of a toy store where black dolls were for sale.
“It was my daughters’ dream, because [no Brasil] there were only white dolls. In Brazil at that time it was not found. There could have been, but I never saw it. Then I bought the black dolls and brought them to the [minhas] daughters in Brazil,” he recalls. “They kept the dolls for life.”
The trip to South Africa marked the now 73-year-old senator. He was part of a delegation of Brazilian parliamentarians who went to the country to celebrate the release of Nelson Mandela and invite him to visit Brazil.
Paim was able to witness up close the final years of apartheid and how South Africa prepared for the transition to democracy. Comparisons between the rigid institutionalized racial segregation regime and what he had experienced in Brazil until then were inevitable. “Here in Brazil it has always been camouflaged, disguised racism,” he says.
The senator remembers episodes of racism even in his pre-adolescence, but says that his parents came up with stories to preserve it. His mother said that he was a descendant of an African royal family, and that any racial offense suffered by him was motivated by jealousy.
Paim became involved in the student movement and, shortly afterwards, in trade unionism in Rio Grande do Sul. Two environments in which, he recalls, there were very few black people.
The anti-racist cause gained a new dimension in 1986, when he was elected constituent federal deputy for the PT. Before moving to Brasília, he was approached by deputy Benedita da Silva, also elected to the Constituent Assembly by the party.
“I told him: ‘Paim, I know you’re a trade unionist, but you’re also a black man’. He personally got involved in this fight. If the trade union movement today fights the issue of racism, there is a lot of contribution from Senator Paim “, Benedita tells Sheet.
The initial conversation between Benedita and Paim was an important step towards the creation of the Black Bench in the Constituent Assembly. Four deputies — Paim, Benedita, Carlos Alberto Caó Oliveira dos Santos and Edmilson Valentim — began to work together to ensure that the racial issue entered the debate agenda.
Valentim also came from trade unionism. He states that the group acted to show that the fight against racism was also an agenda for workers. “Our role was to combine the fight against racism with the fight for workers’ rights. There was synergy in many of these battles”, he tells Sheet.
For him, the great victory of the Black Caucus was the classification, in the Constitution, of racism as a non-bailable crime.
In addition to the racial issue, Paim consolidated parliamentary action focused on trade unionism and the agenda of workers and retirees.
Between the Chamber and the Senate, the House to which he was elected for the first time in 2002, he played a leading role in discussions on the Statute of the Elderly, the policy of increasing the minimum wage of the Lula (PT) government, the Statute of Racial Equality and the Statute of the Person with Disabilities, among others.
This year, he was the rapporteur of the bill that reformulated the quota system in federal education and extended the policy until 2033.
There were times when PT government projects placed it in a line of collision with its union base.
In 2003, he voted in favor of Lula’s pension reform. “I was never booed anywhere after I entered public life. Then [no dia da votação da reforma] I saw the galleries [do Senado] boo me”, says Paim.
PT members who rebelled and voted against changes to pensions were expelled from the party. In the purge, there was Heloísa Helena, then a colleague of Paim in the Senate.
The senator states that he followed the government’s guidance after negotiating a proposal that mitigated the effects of the reform.
Paim experienced another crisis more than ten years later and even threatened to leave the PT — a legend he chose in the 1980s due to his links with the union movement.
In 2015, amid the discussion of proposals from the Dilma Rousseff (PT) government that would tighten the rules on unemployment insurance and salary bonuses, Paim gave interviews in which he said he could abandon the acronym. He stated to the newspaper O Globo that Dilma did the opposite of what she had said “day and night in the campaign”. That time, he voted against Planalto’s guidance.
Paim states that the reason he decided to stay in the PT was an appeal from Olívio Dutra, a historical figure of PTism in Rio Grande do Sul. The two coincided as constituent deputies and even shared a functional apartment in Brasília for a few months with Lula, at the time another PT parliamentarian.
“Olívio called me at a meeting of the [comissão] PT executive in Porto Alegre and said to me: ‘Paim, why are you leaving PT? You are a working class cadre, it is a mistake for you to leave. So I’m going to ask you not to leave'”, says the senator.
He remained. In 2018, when the ultraconservative wave led by Jair Bolsonaro swept the country, Paim secured his third term in the Senate. The hard-earned result — he came in second place, behind Bolsonaro’s Luiz Carlos Heinze (PP) — helped the PT avoid even bigger losses in its bench.
The senator still has just over three years left in office. He does not intend to run for reelection again.
More than 30 years after bringing black dolls to Brazil for his daughters, the senator is still involved in the issue of representation. “I would like to see more black mayors, more black governors. I would like to see even more black generals too.”
In this sense, it swells the ranks of those who yearn to see a black woman on the Federal Supreme Court, something still unprecedented.
“Of course I would like to. But it’s the president’s decision, it’s his. As the other says: ‘Do you want to decide in my place? You run for office and gain space’. But I would like to see a black woman on the Supreme Court — and not just on the Supreme, in all instances of power—, I would like.”
X-RAY | Paulo Paim, 73
Born in Caixas do Sul (RS), Paulo Paim is a metalworker and became a union leader in the early 1980s. He joined the PT and was elected constituent federal deputy. He remained in the House until 2002, when he was elected to the Senate. Serves third term in the House