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

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

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.

Anti-Indigenous Violence in Paraguay and Brazil

February 14, 2014 Comments off

Anybody even remotely familiar with Latin America history is aware that indigenous peoples were subject to horrific processes of dispossession, repression, racism, and extermination throughout both the colonial and the national periods. Sadly, destroying native lands and communities in the name of greed remains a major issue in the twenty-first century:

In a rare encounter between the Ayoreo tribe, Paraguay’s Environment Minister, and a Brazilian rancher responsible for the large-scale destruction of the tribe’s ancestral land, the rancher has rebuffed the Ayoreo’s plea to stop destroying their forest, the last refuge of their uncontacted relatives. [...]

Ranching company Yaguarete Pora S.A., owned by Ferraz, has been illegally clearing the Ayoreo’s forest to make way for beef destined for the European, Russian and African markets, and was recently granted an environmental license to cut down more forest, causing global outrage.

Obviously, this is horrible on any number of levels. The blatant disregard for indigenous rights and the obviously anti-indigenous attitudes of the rancher and his company deny treating indigenous peoples as equals under the law, thus dehumanizing them and reinforcing structures of anti-indigenous racism that have operated in Latin America for centuries. And this is not just a South American problem, or an indigenous problem; that the land is being cleared to provide European markets with food really does make this a global issue, providing yet another reminder of the tragic roots that can and do rest behind much of industrial food production. And while our focus regularly (and not unfairly) falls on deforestation in the Amazon, a recent study found that the highest rate of deforestation in the world is in Paraguay’s Chaco, where the Ayoreo (and others) live. What’s happening in Paraguay is in many ways an old story – outside economic powers disregarding indigenous rights and threatening indigenous peoples while also destroying the environment, all in the name of global trade. That it is an old story, yet one we still see today, is yet another sad reminder of the ways that power structures dating back to colonial times insidiously persist well into the 21st century under new guises.

Today in Awful Environmental News

February 13, 2014 Comments off

Well, this is both unsurprising and awful:

New research published in Nature adds further evidence to the argument that drought and fire are reducing the Amazon’s ability to store carbon, raising concerns that Earth’s largest rainforest could tip from a carbon sink to a carbon source.

While the government’s recent efforts to reduce the rate of deforestation have met with some mixed and relative successes in recent years, it has not stopped the process, and massive swaths of the forest continue to be destroyed with an all-too-familiar human disregard for the long-term consequences on the global scale.

Chile-Peru Maritime Dispute Settled(?)

January 27, 2014 Comments off

 

Today, the World Court settled the issue of the maritime border of Chile and Peru, an issue going all the way back to the War of the Pacific in the late-19th century. Peru wanted the border extended, while Chile refused to recognize Peru’s claims. The issue was particularly relevant in terms of economics, as where the border rested could determine who had access to fishing grounds in the Pacific. As for “who won,” the answer appears to be….it depends who you are. The Court did extend the border for Peru, which could seem like a victory, but it didn’t extend it as far as Peru had claimed it should go, leaving the fisheries in Chilean territory and not providing any real material gains for the Peruvian economy and those tied to the fishing industry. It will be interesting to see how the two countries respond to the new borders in the longer-run, and how they go about patrolling/securing their own borders (and how lax or strict that patrolling will be). That said, the decision does have the potential to bring at least some resolution to an issue that’s well over 125 years old.

On the level of minutiae, my favorite part was this:

Outside the presidential palace, scores of people who had watched the verdict being read on two giant TV screens shouted “Long Live Peru” afterward, though there was some confusion as to whether their country had won or lost.

Who says nationalism is dead?

On Brazil’s Air Force

January 27, 2014 Comments off

David Axe recently published a really interesting long-form piece on the Brazilian Air Force (FAB). The basic focus is on how the FAB operates on a relatively low-budget, even while maintaining sustained campaigns relevant to defined national security interests (namely, combating smuggling in the country’s interior and regional defense). Frum’s contextualization and discussion of the FAB is thorough, but I’d like to make a few additional points.

Regarding the use of the FAB to try to monitor and maintain control over the Amazonian basin, this is part of a number of historical trends. First, there’s the issue of integrating the Amazon into the nation more generally, and efforts to address this issue go back much further than 1990 (which Axe points to). Until the 1930s, much of the Amazon remained “outside” the nation of the federalist First Republic (1889-1930). From the government of Getúlio Vargas onward, Brazilian governments of any number of political stripes have attempted to incorporate the Amazon into the country, be it just through discourse (usually as the Amazon as “our” national treasure, in Brazilian rhetoric) or through practice (as with the military regime’s ultimately-limited efforts to build the Transamazonian highway). That these efforts continue under the government of Dilma Rousseff, herself once subjected to torture under the military rule and now president of the country, reveals the ways in which “securing” the Amazon and making sure it falls under the more direct aegis of the federal government’s power continues to be a major part of political and military agendas of governments from across the ideological spectrum.

Secondly, and somewhat related to this, is the issue of the Amazon as an area needing “securing.” Given the historically weak presence of the state in the region, fears of foreign involvement/infiltration into the region have long existed. These fears aren’t necessarily unfounded – after all, the majority of the Amazonian basin is only Brazilian because in the colonial period, the Spanish presence was so weak in the area that the Portuguese could disregard the Treaty of Tordesillas and effectively make the Amazon “Portuguese,” papal bulls notwithstanding.  Even today, there is very much a strong nationalistic tendency even among leftists that the Amazon is “theirs,” and those who are not from Brazil but are interested in the Amazon are viewed with skepticism if not outright suspicion. Certainly, cases like Raytheon’s alleged corruption do not help this image, but it’s not just limited to corporations trying to abuse the system to their economic favor (certainly nothing new in the world of transnational resource exploitation). Rather, these attitudes even extend to foreign environmentalists who are often seen as either taking what belongs to Brazil (a more nationalist stance) or extracting wealth from the Amazon for foreign corporations while pretending to be conservationists (a charge I heard not-irregularly during my time in Brazil). This isn’t to say the air force’s presence in the Amazon is equivalent to these concerns; however, it is fair to say it makes up part of a broader intellectual and political discourse that views the Amazon as particularly “Brazilian” but susceptible to intervention/invasion from (often poorly-defined) “outsiders.” Sort of the inverse of the need to make the Amazon part of the Brazilian nation-state, this rhetorical fear of invasion, like its nationalist counterpart, is not limited to a particular political ideology. Put another way: the use of the air force to make sure the Amazon remains under the power of “acceptable” (read: nation-state) actors is part of a longer history of fear over the region’s weakness.

The result of these two factors has been that a long-term context of efforts to bring a difficult environmental region under the control of the nation-state, combined with (sometimes not-so) latent fears of the region’s historical weakness have led to the militarization of combating deforestation, as well as how efforts to fight deforestation and illegal crime are not mutually-exclusive terms. Indeed, while there is much handwringing among some in the US over that country’s use of drones (an issue not really under the scope of this blog), in Latin America, drones are being used for purposes like this, so that, rather than targeting “enemies” overseas, drones are put to use to try to strengthen the nation-state’s power domestically.

As thorough as Axe’s piece is, however, he rather superficially glides over another major function of the Brazilian air force: regional power. As the US’s gaze turned elsewhere in the first decade of the 2000, Latin American countries operated with an unprecedented degree of (relative) non-interference (though the US remained active in the region in often-pernicious ways, as the failed Venezuelan coup against Chávez demonstrated). In that new-ish context, regional politics shifted, as countries (often under new left-ish leaders) demonstrated a greater autonomy and role in international politics. Far from a unified bloc, there were competitions, both explicit and implicit, between the countries; even while professing to be friends and allies, countries like Brazil and Venezuela still jostled to be the leader of the region. That Brazil is the continent’s largest country, and has one of its largest militaries, is thus not an accident; rather, it’s an example of how it could take the lead for the region should a military need ever arise, with the not-so-subtle implication that it could probably overwhelm neighboring militaries as well, should that particular “need” ever arise. Indeed, it’s made no secret of its effort to train others, which always brings the implied message of one country’s particular military strength. To be clear, this isn’t to say that the air force is so strong because of some militaristic plans on Brazil’s part; however, having a strong and modern military that is effective still carries a veiled threat, even if that is not the intent. Axe seems to give this sense of (still-friendly) regional competition in the twenty-first century short shrift. Admittedly, there is not much in terms of the public record to suggest any sense of militarized competition, but that does not mean such messages aren’t still tacitly present when one country or another conducts military exercises, as Brazil itself recently did.

Finally a point regarding the implications of Brazil’s ability to maintain what are by most global standards a strong air force without a massive budget. The implications are not meaningless for the US. It’s no secret that the US has a massive (and even bloated) defense budget that far outstrips social programs; meanwhile, Brazil manages to launch massive social programs like Bolsa Familia that have played no small role in addressing (though far from resolving) the socioeconomic inequalities that have historically defined the country. Put another way: Brazil suggests that a country can simultaneously adequately address “safety” even while maintaining social programs designed to help its citizens; it’s not the either/or proposition that all too often defines budgetary discussions in the US.

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