Thoughts on Letting Brazil’s Military Investigate Itself for Past Abuses during the Dictatorship

April 4, 2014 Comments off

This week, Brazil’s Truth Commission finally managed to get the Ministry of Defense to accede to requests to investigate the military and sites of torture during Brazil’s military dictatorship of 1964-1985.

I’m of two minds on this. On the one hand, this absolutely is a major victory in terms of efforts to confront the military’s repressive past. Military archives and records have often long been off-limits for historians and human rights activists, with the military alternately denying such archives and records exist or insisting they were already destroyed (and even sometimes contradictorily making both claims at the same time). Opening up centers where torture took place will not only allow for the forced recognition of the past; it will also help improve our mapping and understandings of the mechanisms of torture and repression in Brazil.

On the other hand, the military itself will be responsible for conducting these investigations, with internal “inquiry units” rather than external agents probing the past. Letting the military be in charge of its own policing on the past is troubling for a few reasons, and not just because it was the military that originally gave itself an amnesty in 1979, an amnesty it has stood behind and that seems unlikely to go away anytime soon. The fact that there remain both within the military and outside of it many people who continue to defend the military and its actions during the dictatorship, and there is certainly the potential that internal pressure from above within a system predicated on strict hierarchies could limit the findings. And it is not like there is a strong history of the military being fully transparent even in times of democracy. A culture of impunity (itself a major legacy of the dictatorship) continues to reign in much of Brazil both in its armed forces and in police forces, and rarely do military or police officials face punishment or even inquiries into their roles in human rights violations in Brazil’s cities or countryside. It is not unfair to wonder whether or how an investigation into past crimes will be any different.

To be clear, this is not to say that the investigations are doomed to failure, or that the military cannot directly and transparently confront its past, and the fact that it has finally agreed to participate in investigations, even internally led ones, is encouraging. At the same time, it will be worth watching to see how these investigations occur and what their findings are. Hopefully they provide full, frank, and honest accounts of the regime that further add to our understandings of repression under military rule, but given the recent trends in the armed forces and the contentious nature over Brazil’s military dictatorship today, questions will remain until the investigations can be (and hopefully are) brought to completion and published.

Dictatorship Apologists, 50 Years On

April 2, 2014 Comments off

Yesterday, Brazil’s Congress marked the 50th anniversary of the military coup that overthrew constitutional president João Goulart and ushered in a 21-year military dictatorship that killed hundreds of its own citizens and tortured thousands others.  In 1964, Congress was directly implicit in the coup and the subsequent military dictatorship: Congress proclaimed the presidency vacant even while Goulart remained in Brazil and declared Chamber of Deputies leader Ranieri Mazzilli as the acting President of Brazil for the second time in his life (he’d also assumed the role in the wake of Jânio Quadros’s abrupt resignation in 1961). Mazzilli was president in name only, as a military junta, led by Artur Costa e Silva, established control before Congress selected Humberto Castelo Branco as the country’s new president. By contrast, yesterday’s commemoration was to be a more solemn affair, recognizing the setbacks that human rights and democracy both suffered under Brazil’s military regime.

Of course, that did not mean all were willing to cooperate with such a dignified approach. Ultra-right wing congressman Jair Bolsonaro, a dictatorship apologist, decided to use the event to celebrate the military in his speech, with various other representatives turning their backs on him. Meanwhile, his supporters unfurled a banner thanking the military, through whose efforts “Brazil is not Cuba,” according to Bolsonaro, while another Bolsonaro supporter shouted to others, “I do not want communism in my Country.” Ultimately, the ceremony ended up being delayed for over an hour. Yet the event reminds us of the degree to which Brazil’s dictatorship continues to appear in politics even while torturers are publicly named but remain unpunished, something that seems unlikely to change anytime soon, given the reluctance of President Rousseff (herself a political prisoner and torture victim during the dictatorship) to review the 1979 amnesty that pardoned all those in the military regime who committed torture and murder.

The Anniversary of Brazil’s Military Coup

April 1, 2014 Comments off

Carnaval in Rio de Janeiro, 2014 – Photos from the Second Night

March 4, 2014 Comments off

Last night marked the second and final night of the major parade of samba schools for Carnaval in Rio de Janeiro. While Portela and União da Ilha stood out for their performances on the second night, it was Salgueiro samba school, which paraded on the first night with the theme of indigenous origin stories from around the world, that took the Gold Standard for best samba overall school this year (which collectively considers the theme, song, costumes, dancing, floats, and execution of the parade overall). However, União da Ilha won the award for best storyline/theme this year, and Viradouro won the A Series on Sunday, meaning next year it can parade in the grande spectacle that takes place on Monday and Tuesday. Photos from the first night, including Salgueiro’s parade, can be found here.

And for those who think this is some random bacchanalian festival (a belief that the photos alone should demonstrate is otherwise), it’s worth noting that Portela had a change in its directory last year when it was revealed that the samba school was about US$7 million in debt. Such a figure reveals both the cost of participating on the grandest scale of Carnaval in Rio de Janeiro, and why winning is important not only for cultural pride (though that’s certainly the case), but also for economic reasons (via sponsorships, greater donations, etc.).

G.R.E.S. Mocidade – Celebrating the state of Pernambuco and its contributions to Carnaval

G.R.E.S. União da Ilha – A focus on the symbols and cultural products of childhood

G.R.E.S. Vila Isabel – A look at the cultural “DNA” of Brazil

G.R.E.S. Imperatriz Leopoldinense – A celebration and commemoration of Zico, one of Brazil’s best and most famous soccer players

G.R.E.S. Portela – The history and culture of the city of Rio de Janeiro

G.R.E.S. Unidos da Tijuca – Ayrton Senna, the renowned Brazilian racecar driver who died in a crash 20 years ago

Carnaval in Rio de Janeiro, 2014 – Photos from the First Night

March 3, 2014 Comments off

It’s that time of year again in Brazil – Carnaval. Last night marked the first night of the major parades in Rio de Janeiro, where, beyond the stereotyped vision of women, there were remarkable floats, songs, dance, and pageantry. As in the past, below are some photos from the first night of the festivities (with the samba schools listed in the order they processed), along with the themes for each school. The photos demonstrate the richness and complexity of the design, floats, and costumes that mark Carnaval each year. [And for those who read Portuguese, you can learn more about all of the schools and here samples of their songs here.]

G.R.E.S. Império da Tijuca - The influence of African instruments in Brazil]

G.R.E.S. Grande Rio - Maricá, a coastal region in the state of Rio de Janeiro

G.R.E.S. São Clemente - Favelas and their cultural influence and creativeness

G.R.E.S. Mangueira - Popular festivals in Brazil

G.R.E.S. Salgueiro - Origin stories from a variety of cultures from around the world

G.R.E.S. Beija-Flor - José Bonifácio de Oliveira Sobrinho, a director of TV programs in Brazil

Tomochic Uprising, 1892

February 28, 2014 Comments off

Originally posted at The Mexican Revolution: Myth (Memory), Gender, and Culture

I wrote this little blurb on the Tomochic uprising for my Modern Latin American History class, and I thought I’d also post it here. My thoughts are based on Paul Vanderwood’s excellent The Power of God Against the Guns of Government and Ana María Alonso’s Thread of Bloodas well as archival and Spanish-language texts that I read in the course of researching and writing my dissertation. As a class, we read Robert M. Levine’s “Mud Hut Jerusalem,” so my references to Canudos are based on my re-reading of that article over the past week or so. I wrote these comments both to introduce students to the Tomochic uprising and as a conclusion to our discussion of neocolonialism and Progress in Latin America during the late nineteenth-century.


By command of Porfirio Díaz and Chihuahua governors loyal to him, an uprising that originated in the sierra town of Tomochic was brutally suppressed in mid-1892. As in Canudos, the Tomochic movement was millenarian in nature, meaning that its focus was on the Second Coming of Christ (or in Canudos the return of King Sebastian) to restore justice and true order to the world. Tomochitecos were suspicious of the idea of Progress because, from where they stood, all of its impacts seemed negative. The requirement of cash payments for goods and services rather than barter or reliance on a patrón to whom they felt kinship meant that most of them could not afford the services of doctors or other professionals that periodically visited the area. Neither could many of them afford basic necessities of life. Due to land and resource concessions granted to foreign railroad companies and large ranches or haciendas, they also found that they no longer had access to water, timber, and agricultural lands that they needed for subsistence. In general, for most rural folk the benefits of Progress were not forthcoming.

In the case of Tomochic and other Chihuahua serrano communities, a culture based on masculinity and violence further complicated matters. Many of the communities in northern Chihuahua had been settled by “military colonists”—generally mestizos/as from other areas in Mexico or the Southwestern U.S. (after 1848)—who received land grants in exchange for their willingness to campaign against nomadic Apache peoples. Until the capture of Geronimo in 1886 by a combined U.S. and Mexican force, Apache people continued to possess their traditional homelands in the U.S.-Mexico border region. In the context of Apache Wars, the military colonists were touted as “agents of civilization” who would bring an end to the “savagery” of the nomadic people.

Once the Apache Wars had ended, however, the outmoded economic and social systems of the military colonists themselves were considered backward. In a very short period of time former “agents of civilization” were recast as “savages” themselves. Mexican officials and journalists often referred to them as “Indios” to conjure up support for the idea that their lifeways were out of touch with the modernizing program of the Mexican state.

A man named Cruz Chávez was one such person. He was one of the more prominent mestizo citizens of Tomochic, who had a reputation for defending his honor with gun in hand. His family owned some meager lots of land in the valley surrounding the town and made a small living from them. He had fought in a few campaigns against Apaches. Like many other mestizos in northern Chihuahua, he considered himself to be above the indigenous Tarahumara peoples that had inhabited the Sierra Madres since long before the Spanish conquest. He and members of his family unabashedly exploited Tarahumara people through a system known as “amo-sirviente” (master-servant). It was much like the patronage system, except that in this case peasants were in turn exploiting the labor of indigenous people.

In the 1880s, Cruz Chávez held various local political positions in Tomochic. By 1889, he was tasked with defense of the local village chapel; in June of that year, burglars robbed the Church of its precious ornaments and vessels. According to prevailing folk Catholic beliefs in the region, the ornaments, vessels, and paintings of the virgin, Christ, and/or the saints held spiritual power in and of themselves—they weren’t simply representations of spiritual figures. For that reason, the robbery of such items was a horrible affront to the community. Additionally, in late 1890, the parish priest and head of the town council offered the community’s painting of the Virgen de Guadalupe to Governor Lauro Carillo when he visited Tomochic for the first time. To Chávez and others of like mind, Carillo’s promises of modern Progress rang hollow because he was a person that had deprived them of one of their most sacred connections to the spiritual. Chávez and others asked themselves: are these the types of things that governors do? By what authority?

Over the next couple of years, people in the Guerrero district (to which Tomochic belonged) became more and more suspicious of the ways that modernity and Progress were manifested in their everyday lives. Even priests appointed from outside of the community caught their ire because they attempted to stamp out regional folk Catholic beliefs and practices. As these people attempted to come to terms with governors who seemed only to take from them, the use of hard currency, loss of resources and land, as well as priests who considered them to be “unorthodox Catholics,” they turned to folk-religion for answers.

By late 1891, Cruz Chávez became increasingly belligerent toward local and regional political authority. Scholars have debated whether his actions were the result of material or spiritual matters, but it is clear that both were at play. In December of 1891 Chávez and many other Tomochitecos took up arms and declared that they would recognize no authority except that of God. In other words, they refused to recognize the authority of the Mexican state any longer. After a brief firefight in Tomochic, the rebels fled deep into the surrounding sierra where it was virtually impossible for federal or state troops to pursue them. They made their way to Cabora in Sonora to seek the council of Teresa Urrea, a young woman who had gained a reputation for healing and spiritual power. When they found that Santa Teresita (as she was then called) was not at Cabora, they made their way back toward Tomochic. Along the way, they engaged federal forces in several small skirmishes.

By September 1892, Chávez’s group had returned to Tomochic where they began to stockpile weapons. Known bandits from the surrounding areas also threw their support behind the movement. Although not invested in the spiritual side of the uprising, they shared the Tomochitecos’ resentment of Mexican Progress. Some, such as a man named Santana Pérez, had lost local political power due to the rise of Porfirio Díaz at the national level.

Porfirio Díaz’s government worked with Chihuahua state officials, as well as political leaders in the Guerrero district, to quash the Tomochitecos. First and foremost, Díaz was concerned that foreign investors would lose confidence in Mexico as a result of the uprising. Despite his wishes to quietly and quickly quell the revolt, however, Mexican forces were consistently unable to defeat Chávez and his supporters. Part of the problem was that the regional forces were comprised of men who had been forcibly impressed into service. Such was also true of Díaz’s fearsome Rurales. Many of the regional fighters knew of the Tomochitecos’ reputation and feared a direct engagement with them in battle. As one soldier reported, “they are a terrible lot . . . they know their Winchesters inside out; since they were children they have kept up a constant struggle against Apaches and bandits; they can run like a deer through the sierras without putting a foot wrong; but they are excessively ignorant and proud” (quoted in Alan Knight, The Mexican Revolution, vol. 2, p. 127).

In the end, an excessive show of force—as in Canudos—was necessary to repress the revolt. Federal forces laid siege to Tomochic and many of the rebels died of starvation and sickness. By the end of the siege, Cruz Chávez viewed himself as having a special calling from God to maintain the revolt, even at the cost of his life. The final holdouts (many had surrendered during the siege) were massacred as they tried to maintain their stand against the federales in the town chapel. Six survivors, including Cruz Chávez and his brother, were lined up and summarily executed on the morning of October 29, 1892. The rebellion had finally been suppressed, but a show of national supremacy came at great cost.


As we consider Canudos and Tomochic, it is important to count that cost. Both movements were disparaged as the work of backward, superstitious “Indians” in order to create a narrative in which the powerful state (as harbinger of Progress) should have been able to easily put down each revolt. When such was not the case, horrible losses of life were required to maintain the legitimacy of the idea that “Progress” would prevail over “backwardness” and “savagery.” In both Mexico and Brazil, each respective government massacred thousands of its own people to prove this point.

Although the massacres at Canudos and Tomochic were extreme examples of the struggle between peasants and modernizing elites, the stresses faced by their inhabitants were not. Neocolonialism brought modernization (Order and Progress) to Latin American nations at a tremendous price. By the early 1900s, revolts against the Porfirian regime intensified and nationalism grew by leaps and bounds throughout Latin America in opposition to foreign control of local economies.



Categories: Uncategorized

Regulating Hip-Hop in Brazil?

February 17, 2014 Comments off

In an unusual story, rappers and hip-hop artists in Brazil are rallying in response to a law that seeks to regulate their art. Politician (and former soccer star) Romário proposed a bill that would regulate hip-hop professionals, including MCs, DJs, graffiti artists, and others, requiring them to take professional training courses in government-recognized technical schools. In response, hip-hop artists in both Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo (two of the main hubs of Brazilian hip-hop culture) have begun to meet to discuss ways to combat the law, and a group on Facebook has also formed in protest of the law.

The problems with the law are numerous. Brazilian hip-hop is inherently a cultural form of the favelas, the poorest areas of urban centers like Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo. Its lyrical content and production values reflect and relate the experiences of life in the favelas, where state violence, racism, and socioeconomic inequalities are tragic facts of life.  By targeting just hip-hop, and not other Brazilian music forms (such as bossa nova, samba, or other styles), Romário’s law is inherently replicating prejudicial laws that disadvantage the favelas, in this case targeting both those from the favelas who produce art and the art that expresses life in the favelas itself. While Romário’s defense is that he just wants to let the “true artists” of hip-hop benefit, rather than just anybody claiming to be a hip-hop artist, there’s still the question of who gets to define authenticity among hip-hop artists; by requiring “legitimate” artists to receive governmental training, the law would attempt make the government the main legitimizing force in determining what constitutes “art” – a highly problematic proposition by any metric of artistic production or for cultural autonomy. Fortunately, Romário has accepted a group of hip-hop artists’ invitation to meet with them to discuss the law.

Hopefully, for the reasons outlined above, it will not pass, and right now at least, it’s hard to see why it would pass. Still, the fact that it exists reveals ongoing ways that favelas continued to be negatively targeted and persecuted in ways that other sectors of Brazilian society are not.


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