-Though the higher-profile case, the conviction of Guatemala’s Efraín Ríos Montt was not the only triumph for human rights and justice last week. In Uruguay, General Miguel Dalmao was sentenced to 28 years in prison for his role in the murder of a professor during Uruguay’s military dictatorship (1973-1985).
-Brazilian indigenous peoples have once again occupied the site of the Belo Monte Dam to protest the impact it would have on their lands and on the environment, even while government officials accused the indigenous people of being tied to illegal gold-mining. Though failing to provide any actual evidence of mining among indigenous peoples, the government’s charge is discursively not-insignificant; illegal gold mining takes a significant toll on the environment, while arguments against the dam are often predicated upon the negative impact it will have on the environment. By leveling such accusations, the government seems to be trying to delegitimize indigenous claims by portraying them (again, without offering any actual evidence) as hypocrites who protest environmental damage even while enriching themselves through other forms of environmental degradation.
-In another reminder of the detrimental impacts of liberalization of markets and free trade agreements on local economies, over one hundred thousand Colombian farmers have gone on strike in protest over the weakening of the Colombian agricultural sector, as cheaper products from North America and elsewhere flood the Colombian market, destroying the livelihoods and jobs of Colombian farmers.
-In a powerful reminder that in military dictatorships, members of the military can and do also suffer repression, sixteen Brazilian soldiers spoke before the Brazilian Truth Commission, testifying about the persecution and torture they suffered when they remained loyal to the government of João Goulart, whom the military overthrew in a coup in 1964.
-Pope Francis proclaimed sainthood status for hundreds this past weekend. Included on the list were Mexican María Guadalupe García Zavala and Colombian Laura Montoya, the first saint from Colombia. However, not all popular saints (those whom people praise as saints but who lack official canonization from the Church) received the Pope’s endorsement, as the Vatican recently declared Mexico’s Santa Muerte, or “Holy Death,” to be “blasphemous.”
-Hundreds of Cubans, led by Mariela Castro, marched against homophobia in Cuba, seeking to further equal rights and treatment for members of the LGBT who have faced cultural, social, and political repression over the years.
-Speaking of homophobia and hatred, homophobic Brazilian congressman Marco Feliciano (who is currently the head of Congress’s human rights commission, offering a sad commentary on the nature of Brazilian congressional politics), cancelled a hearing on a homophobic project to find a “cure” for homosexuality after having earlier taken to Twitter to defend his project.
-After months of relative silence, former Haitian leader Jean-Bertrand Aristide has recently begun speaking out about the challenges facing Haiti and offering some criticisms of the current government of Michel Martelly.
-Finally, Brazil has announced a plan to bring thousands of Cuban doctors to Brazil to help in Brazil’s underserved areas. Greg Weeks does a great job unpacking the various aspects of the story, including how the plan reflects ongoing inequalities in Brazil (a sample take-away point: “When asked if any doctor was better than no doctor, CFM President Carlos Vital responded in the negative. “Pseudo treatment is worse than no treatment,” he said. “If you don’t have a doctor in your city, you can go to the next city and have a quality doctor.” Sure, just go 100 miles to the next city if you don’t have a doctor. Nothing to see here!”)
This ongoing series has recently looked at the political activism of women who mobilized against the military dictatorship and fought for democracy. However, it did not take military repression for women to mobilize, and women’s struggles significantly predated the dictatorship. This week, we look at a feminist and key figure in the history of Brazil, a woman who played a vital role in fighting for women’s equality for nearly fifty years: Bertha Lutz.
Bertha Lutz was born in 1894 in São Paulo in 1894 to Amy Fowler, a nurse from England, and Adolpho Lutz, a Swiss-Brazilian who specialized in tropical medicines. Given her parents’ international backgrounds and professions, Bertha had opportunities both in travel and in education that only wealthier Brazilians could enjoy. Indeed, she first attended college at the Sorbonne in Paris, finishing with a degree in biology in 1918. She returned to Brazil, and in the 1930s, she enrolled in the National Law School in Rio de Janeiro (today a part of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro), earning her law degree.
In both of these professions, Lutz was an anomaly. In the first decades of the twentieth century, Brazilian politics and the professions connected to politics were overwhelmingly male-dominated. When Mirthes de Campos served as a defense lawyer in 1899, she became the first woman ever to work in a courtroom in Brazil. Though it was an important symbolic movement, it did not exactly destroy the barriers of women in white-collar professions, and there were only fourteen women lawyers total in Rio de Janeiro (9 women) and São Paulo (5 women) combined. Such gender-inequalities spread to other white-collar professions, like medicine and accounting.
It was in this context that Lutz began to push for feminist causes. While studying in Europe, she had been exposed to feminist movements and writings from European women, especially from the suffrage movement in England. She brought these concerns back to Brazil with her, writing feminist tracts in Portuguese by 1918. She had a vision of feminism that maintained that women should have equal access to educational opportunities and to professions beyond the home. Indeed, she insisted that women had important contributions they could make to society, and that they should not be bound to the home, “taking advantage of animal instincts of man.”* In 1919, Bertha became the head of the National Museum in Rio de Janeiro, the first woman appointed to that position. That same year, she also formed the Liga para a Emancipação Intelectual da Mulher (League for the Intellectual Emancipation of Woman). Her position at the National Museum allowed Bertha to have contacts with a variety of politicians and elites, to whom she could express her ideas on women’s equality. In 1922, Bertha officially formed the Federação Brasileira pelo Progresso Femenino (Brazilian Federation for Feminine Progress), which affiliated with the International Women’s Suffrage Alliance, a clear marker on the impact of Bertha’s experiences and time in Europe. As for her own organization, the name change alone signified how Bertha and the Liga’s members were broadening their struggles beyond mere “intellectual” pursuits to the broader pursuit of “progress.”
The Federação met with some successes early on. Pressure and lobbying led the government to allow women to enroll in the Colégio Pedro II. The federally-run public school was one of the best institutions of primary and secondary education in Brazil, and had often trained those who would attend the few public or private universities in Rio de Janeiro (then the national capital) or elsewhere in the country. Previously male-dominated, the Colégio had played no small role in perpetuating the domination of men in politics and white-collar professions; in that regard, the opening of the school to women marked a subtle but important shift.
Lutz continued to work both nationally and internationally in women’s movements. She attended a number of international conferences and meetings regarding women’s suffrage and feminism, representing Brazil in organizations such as the League of Women Voters in the US and the International Conference of Women in Berlin in 1929, and even being elected Vice President in the Pan-American Society of the League.
However, as was often the case with the “first-wave” feminism that was erupting in much of the Western world at this time, Lutz’s vision of feminism was not inclusive of all women, nor did it demand full equality everywhere. Lutz’s views on women’s labor were still gendered; she believed women were best-suited to work in fields like social welfare, which was an appropriate arena for their feminine morality and their natural caring abilities. Additionally, the appeal her demands and her tactics were limited to middle- and upper-middle class women living in urban centers. There was little applicability or attention to women in rural areas, or to women from lower social classes in the cities. With its emphasis on issues like access to higher education and white-collar professions, Lutz’s Federação and the issues it adopted often had little relevance to the majority of working women who were usually illiterate (after all, when the Federação formed, slavery had only been abolished 34 years earlier). Even Lutz’s ideas on “appropriate” contributions and jobs for women and their status as moral beacons drew on middle-class ideals that had few parallels with the lives of the poor in the cities and the countryside alike. Though fighting for women’s equality, Lutz’s vision was still an inherently class-based feminism that drew from and built upon her own upper-middle class background.
That is not to take away from Lutz’s accomplishments and her sheer force of personality in pushing for women’s rights. Indeed, the 1930s saw rapid transformations taking place. Shortly after the Constitutionalist Revolt in São Paulo that challenged the presidency of Getúlio Vargas, Brazil’s government began work on a new constitution. Though Lutz was not elected to the assembly, she drew on her years of activism and her connections that she’d made with Brazilian politicians to push the issue of suffrage. Her efforts won out, and the 1934 constitution granted women the right to vote, making Brazil only the third Latin American country to grant women’s suffrage.
With these new rights, Lutz herself ran for office, but was unable to win election. However, in 1936, she became one of several women to serve in Congress. Though this was an important step, politics nonetheless continued to be a male-dominated world. Indeed, as a congresswoman, she was elected president of the congressional Special Commission on the Status of Women, but she was the only woman on the committee, reflecting the ongoing inequalities and struggles women faced. Adding to the challenges, in 1937, Vargas closed Congress, indefinitely banned elections, and ushered in the Estado Novo; now, Brazilian women had the right to vote, but no significant national elections in which they could exercise the franchise.
Although shut out of electoral politics in 1937, Lutz continued to work both in women’s rights and in the sciences. She became the head of the Botanical Sector of the National Museum, and continued to make a name for herself as an accomplished botanist and herpetologist in the academic community. She also remained politically engaged, resigning her post at the National Museum in 1964, just as the military came into power. Although she continued to fight for women’s rights, she was also often isolated from her constituents, due both to her professional life and to her own personality and background. Nonetheless, Lutz remained an important figure, both politically and symbolically, coming to be seen as one of the “founders” of Brazilian feminism. Indeed, when the United Nations declared 1975 to be the “International Year of the Woman,” Brazil’s government invited Lutz to be the Brazilian representative to the International Conference on Women in Mexico City. It ended up being her last major public act in her nearly fifty-year struggle for feminism; in 1976, she passed away at the age of 84.
Though Lutz’s feminist visions had limits for women in other classes, her central role in Brazil’s feminist movement cannot be denied. Certainly, she was far from the only feminist, and hundreds and thousands of other women were involved in fighting for equality for women in Brazil throughout the twentieth century. Still, Lutz’s importance absolutely cannot be overstated, and her status as one of the “founders” of Brazilian feminism and the equal rights movement is well-deserved.
A recent report on abortion in Brazil has revealed the impact on women’s lives and health when their reproductive freedoms are restricted. Unlike El Salvador and Nicaragua, Brazil allows abortion in the rare cases of rape, anencephaly, or when the mother’s life is at risk. However, in what is an all-too-common pattern throughout much of Latin America, criminalization of abortion has failed to eliminate the practice, instead forcing it underground, reducing women’s reproductive freedom even while greatly increasing the risk to their health.
Despite its illegality, Brazil’s Ministry of Health estimates that about 1 million abortions are performed in the country annually, and that about 200,000 women die every year from infections, vaginal bleeding, and other complications from illegal abortions. Other estimates put those numbers even higher.
A 2010 University of Brasilia study found that 1 in 5 Brazilian women under 40 — more than 5 million women overall, or about 22% of Brazil’s population — had had at least one abortion. According to the report, at least 50% of those women were hospitalized for complications. Abortion is the fifth-highest cause of maternal mortality. [...]
A disproportionate number of women who seek illegal abortions in Brazil are poor, young, and uneducated. According to the 2010 study, about 42% of women have their first abortion between the ages of 12 and 19, and about about 23% of women with less than a fourth-grade education have had an abortion.
“If you are older and you have money, there are private clinics that are reasonably good,” Barroso said. ”But if you are young and poor, you are really at the mercy of this terrible situation.” [...]
In addition to the health threats, women who seek an illegal abortion in Brazil are under the constant threat of criminal action.
While prosecutions are rare, women who are hospitalized for abortion complications frequently face criminal and civil action, and even run the risk of spending up to three years in jail. Police raids on abortion clinics have also become increasingly routine, and authorities often take thousands of medical files of women, exposing their private medical histories to the community.
Of course, these risks are problematic in a number of ways. Although anecdotal, I spoke with an upper middle-class woman who openly admitted to having two abortions, and the ease, safety, and relative security she had in the process. Thus, she had a far greater sense of health and safety in her procedures than poorer women would, a fact she herself was cognizant of. And by her own admission, she was not proud of the fact, yet was also aware that, given where she was in life and the issues she confronted when she had both abortions, they were probably the best choice for her and for her family (she later had children, once her personal and professional life had settled down and she was older). Yet even she, like poorer women, faced the very real risk of serving up to three years in prison, merely for trying to control some sense of autonomy with regards to her own body. And though the wealthy women could face prison as well, the likelihood that personal connections, wealth, and a skewed legal system treats them better than the poor reveals that even that risk is unequal along class lines. All the while, the illegality of abortion fails to curb the practice, even while hundreds of thousands have died from it due to their inability to secure safe, healthy options in exercising control over their bodies, their lives, their futures, and, oftentimes, the futures of their eventual families.
And again, this is in a country that is not as restrictive on abortion as other countries in Latin America. When those who support reproductive freedom in the US comment that criminalization does not eliminate a practice, they aren’t just speaking philosophically. There are far too many examples throughout the hemisphere that reveal what happens when governments impinge upon women’s freedoms. What happens to women in Brazil is, sadly, just another reminder of that reality.
While the issue of abortion continues to be a hot-button topic in the US, in Central American countries, there are plenty of tragic examples of what happens when women are denied reproductive freedoms. El Salvador, which also has a total abortion ban, even in the case of saving a mother’s life, provides another painful reminder of the fallout from denying women the right to determine their own body’s fate:
Doctors recommend that Beatriz, a 22-year-old Salvadoran woman with Lupus, terminate her 19-week pregnancy due to the associated risks of morbidity or mortality. Her doctors are worried that because Lupus has damaged her kidneys and caused other health issues, she is at high risk of preeclampsia, pregnancy related hypertension, and other life-threatening complications. Also, her fetus has a lethal anomaly that, aside from any of Beatriz’s health issues, will result in its eventual demise, either in utero or immediately after its delivery. [...]
In 1998, El Salvador completed a series of reforms, which included changing the constitution, resulting in an absolute ban against abortion. As reported by the New York Times Magazine in 2006, the ban is so restrictive that doctors cannot remove ectopic pregnancies (when a fertilized egg stays is implanted in the fallopian tube instead of the uterus), which have no chance of survival and put the mother’s health at risk.
Of course, Salvadoran politicians have not covered themselves with glory in the matter, as both the Ministry of Health and the Supreme Court have refused to address Beatriz’s case. And of course, the “total ban” is anything but. As is the case elsewhere, abolishing abortion does not eliminate the practice, but instead merely makes it safer for some women over others.
To be clear – this is an issue that affects poor women. Salvadorans who need to terminate a pregnancy and have money can go to private doctors and have an abortion without the risk of being arrested. They also have access to information and contraception that is not readily available in public schools or health clinics.
Poor women who can’t pay for a private doctor and have to rely on state facilities do not have any options available to them, other than trying to terminate their pregnancy at home.
This is not just the case in El Salvador. In countries throughout Latin America where access to abortion is legally restricted, the wealthier still manage to get safe, healthy, under-the-table access to abortion through personal connections, while the poor are denied safe treatment. El Salvador’s laws are some of the most restrictive in the hemisphere, but even banning reproductive freedoms for women on a more limited basis doesn’t get rid of the practice; it simply further denies some sense of equality to those who are already socioeconomically disadvantaged.
-Still dealing with the loss to Chile of its only route to the Pacific 140 years ago, Bolivia is set to take its case to the International Court of Justice, a move that Chilean President Sebastián Piñera has said would open a “Pandora’s Box” of territorial issues in the Americas (including the territory the US took from Mexico in the wake of the Mexican-American War).
-US President Barack Obama is set this week to make his first trip to Latin America since winning re-election last November, with stops in Mexico and Costa Rica planned. Prior to the trip, he met with Latino leaders in the US, with whom he discussed socioeconomic issues.
-Peruvian President Ollanata Humala may be preparing to pardon former president Alberto Fujimori, who is serving jail time after his conviction for human rights violations that Fujimori oversaw during his 1990-2000 presidency.
-Evo Morales is set to run for a third term as president after Bolivia’s constitutional court ruled in favor of presidents serving three consecutive terms.
-Chilean Laurence Golborne, seen as the frontrunner among conservative candidates to challenge former president Michelle Bachelet in next year’s election, has removed himself from the race amidst allegations of shady business practices.
-Cuban gay rights activist Mariela Castro will travel to the US to receive an award in Philadelphia next week. Castro had initially been denied a visa to the US, due primarily to the fact that she is the daughter of Raul Castro.
-Colombia is set to resume peace talks with the FARC after a month-long break in the peace process.
-The Catholic Church has excommunicated Brazilian priest Roberto Francisco Daniel (known colloquially as Padre Beto) for his defense of open marriages and his defense of same-sex love. More than a symbolic move, the excommunication marks a split between official church hierarchy and a growing strain of moderate and even progressive Catholicism among some parishioners in Brazil.
-A new scientific study suggests that Latin America is facing a “cancer epidemic” due to challenges in diagnosing and treating cancer, as well as to increasingly unhealthy diets, higher levels of tobacco-smoking and alcohol consumption, and an increasingly inactive lifestyle.
-In what is an important step in addressing impunity (albeit a significant issue in its own right), sixty officers in Rio de Janeiro have been arrested on charges of corruption, even while another five officers were arrested for the murders of a journalist and a photographer who were working on a story on militias in Brazil’s interior state of Minas Gerais.
-The next president of the World Trade Organization will be from Latin America, as the remaining to candidates for the position are Mexico’s Herminio Blanco and Brazil’s Roberto Azevedo.
-Finally, when I studied in Costa Rica about a decade ago, the “best” beer one could find was Heineken, so this is excellent news for Costa Rica.
While women like Vera Sílvia Magalhães and Maria Augusta Carneiro Ribeiro played key roles in the radicalism and student activism that challenged Brazil’s dictatorship, theirs was not the only way in which women could and did mobilize to challenge the military regime. Even as the dictatorship entered its most repressive phase under presidents Artur Costa e Silva and Emílio Médici, students found new ways to organize and mobilize, and new issues to confront, throughout the 1970s. Comba Marques Porto is an example not only of the role women students continued to play in challenging the dictatorship in the 1970s, but also of the struggle for women’s rights during military rule and in the post-dictatorship context, both in student movements and in society more generally.
Comba Marques Porto was born in 1945 in Rio de Janeiro. Her father was a journalist, and her mother a housewife, as was common in many urban middle class families at the time. Comba Porto seemed destined to be an elementary schoolteacher, another profession that women, especially single women, dominated (or were limited to, depending on one’s perspective). In Brazil at the time, teachers at the elementary level could be certified based on their performance and training in high school. And like many young women from her background, she remained relatively apolitical, in spite of the political context of the dictatorship and of some of her own family members participating in the student movements. However, after finishing her secondary schooling and getting her teaching certification, in 1966 Comba Porto decided to take the entrance exams for university. She passed, and began to attend Guanabara State University (UEG, now called Rio de Janeiro State University) in the city of Rio.
By the time she had enrolled and begun studying in UEG, the political and social atmosphere was intense, as the semi-illegal National Students Union (UNE) was gaining strength and becoming a key voice in challenging the military regime and its increasing use of repression. Thus, the already-strong history and tradition of student mobilization was only intensifying when she began attending classes.
However, things had changed significantly by the end of her second year of studies. In the face of growing protest not only from students but from parents, white-collar professionals, artists, and others, the hardliners were getting increasingly uneasy. In October 1968, the arrested around 900 students at the semi-clandestine UNE Congress in the interior of São Paulo state; Comba Porto, one of the delegates, was among them, and briefly served time in jail. Perhaps more importantly at the national level, in September 1968, Congressman Marcio Moreira Alves gave a speech on the floor of Congress a few days before Brazil’s Independence Day celebrations. Known retrospectively as the “Lysistrata speech,” Moreira Alves called on women to protest the regime by refusing to dance with, kiss, or date soldiers. Though the public paid the speech little attention, the generals were outraged (or feigned outrage). They demanded Congres strip Moreira Alves of his congressional immunity so that the military could prosecute him for offenses to the nation. On December 11, Congress not only voted to allow Moreira Alves to retain his immunity; they sang the national anthem, openly defying the military’s attempted monopolization on nationalism. The military acted swiftly. On Friday, December 13, Costa e Silva, with the support of other hardliners in the military, issued the Ato Institucional No. 5 (Institutional Act Number 5; AI-5), indefinitely closing Congress, intensifying censorship, escalating the use of torture, and ushering in the most repressive phase of Brazil’s dictatorship.
Given its central and vital role in challenging the dictatorship for its first four years, the student movement was an obvious target of this new political silencing. Indeed, as if AI-5 had not made the situation clear, in February 1969, the government also issued Decree-Law 477, which specifically focused on students by prohibiting political expressions or organization on campuses, with the threat of stripping students of funding, expulsion, and even arrest. The fact that many of the prohibitions and punishments outlined in Decree-Law 477 were also in AI-5 made clear just how determined to abolish all student mobilization the military was.
However, the regime’s power was not absolute, and already in 1969, students were finding new ways to organize at the local level as the regime went after UNE. Comba Porto was one of these figures, joining her campuses University Committee in the hopes that she could convince students to join the causes of the Leninist Brazilian Communist Party (PCB). She continued to work in new organizations and agitated to challenge the regime, including its educational policies. In one instance she attended a conference at the Ministry of Education where she challenged the regime’s educational policies and their failings to the Minister of Education. Speaking before high-ranking officials, she pointed to the failings in the educational system and talking about the opportunities and future she hoped awaited her daughter.
While Comba Porto and other students found ways to mobilize, the fact remained that the political and social atmosphere was greatly limited to all students, as the regime placed plainclothes police officers in classrooms and had them regularly report on student activities and pamphlets distributed on campuses. Further compounding the problem was the fact that, by this time, Brazil’s student movement itself had increasingly fragmented, as some activists from the late-1960s joined guerrilla movements in the cities or countryside, others went into exile, and still others split over what type of revolution should remove the dictatorship.
Yet even this fragmentation did not lead to an end of mobilization. By the mid-1970s, students shifted from party-based alliances that drew on shared ideologies, and instead moved to professionally-based alliances. Comba Porto’s experiences were again instructive of these new forms of mobilization. Upon finishing her degree at UEG, she enrolled in the National Law School at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ). While there, she participated in an official Week of Juridical Debates; though ostensibly about legal issues in Brazil, the conference doubled as a means for students from other law schools from throughout the country to gather, discuss the issues each faced on their campuses, and work together to reconstitute a new, more national student voice. The regime’s officials were aware of this threat, but they could not stop it; although the rector (whom the military dictatorship had directly appointed) called her to his office and condemned the conference, even threatening her, she continued to organize and mobilize at similar types of events, and she never was expelled.
Comba Porto’s activism was part of a broader nascent trend in student mobilizations. Whereas student leadership had by and large been dominated by men in the 1960s, both in Brazil and in much of the rest of the world, by the 1970s, women were not only taking a more prominent role in mobilizing, but also beginning to fight for the issues that affected women directly. Challenging the male-dominated hierarchy was a part of those issues. And it was not an imaginary struggle; though she had been a regular participant and activist in a number of student organizations on campuses, she had never reached a position of leadership in any of these organizations, reflecting the ongoing trouble women activists had in gaining the respect and support for official leadership positions.
As she finished her schooling, Comba Porto took her experiences as an activist and as a woman to her professional life. By the mid-1970s, she was working on cases of political prisoners. Even while working to defend prisoners (including many who were her former colleagues in the PCB), she also began to work in feminist causes, participating in the Seminar on the Brazilian Woman, where she met other politically engaged women and feminists. Coming into contact with a community that was limited in the student movement but with which she strongly identified, she herself became increasingly tied to fighting for women’s juridical and social rights in Brazil as well.
Although the dictatorship ended in 1985, Comba Porto, like many activists of the 1960s and 1970s, remained active in politics in the new democratic regime. In spite of this new context, however, she continued to run into obstacles as a woman politician, losing in her campaign to be mayor of Rio de Janeiro in 1982 and in her run for a seat in the Federal Chamber of Deputies in 1986, revealing in part the ways women still had trouble gaining access to positions of political leadership. Yet Comba Porto was not without her own triumphs, as she found other ways to shape Brazilian politics. As Brazil prepared to write a new constitution (to replace the military constitution of 1967), Comba Porto was a key figure in the constitutional hearings, adding an important voice to the debates and playing a key role in shaping the language and laws of the 1988 constitution as they pertained to women, including the fact that “men and women have equal rights,” that the government ensure equal protection for women in employment, and that the rights and opportunities of mothers and pregnant women be upheld. In the 1990s, Comba Porto became a judge, working in the Regional Labor Court in Rio de Janeiro. And though no longer involved heavily in party politics, she continues to provide a strong voice for women’s causes, even periodically writing on feminist issues facing Brazil in the 21st century (as well as writing on opera). Comba Porto’s path provides not only another way in which women were involved in student activism during the dictatorship, but insight into the ways in which politics and feminism merged for many students shut out of leadership in the 1970s, feminist struggles that Comba Porto, like many other women, continued to fight for in the post-dictatorship era and indeed continue to fight for even today.
After the institutional coup against Fernando Lugo last June, politico-economic trade bloc Mercosur suspended Paraguay’s membership. The response was swift, and Horacio Cartes, who at the time was a potential candidate for president, called on Paraguay to maintain faith in Mercosur and to work towards having the suspension lifted. Now that Cartes has won the election, it appears that he was sincere in his comments and that he is now taking steps towards restoring Paraguay’s full participation in Mercosur. Perhaps more importantly, Mercosur members seem willing to restore relations with Paraguay. Both Jose Mujica of Uruguay and Cristina Kirchner of Argentina congratulated Cartes on his victory, with Kirchner tweeting “We wait for you in Mercosur” and that Paraguay’s “place is with us in Mercosur always,” while Mujica invited Paraguay to Mercosur’s June summit in Uruguay. Of course, Brazil also has a say in the matter; Dilma Rousseff’s foreign ministry proclaimed that it would be glad to welcome back Paraguay, but only on the condition that Paraguay’s Congress approve Venezuela’s admission to Mercosur (the Paraguayan Senate’s holdup had been what initially kept Venezuela from gaining full membership). Cartes seems willing to take this step, having already spoken with legislators to try to pressure them into accepting Venezuela’s admission. And in another good sign for Paraguay, none other than Nicolás Maduro himself, Venezuela’s recently elected president, called Cartes to congratulate him and to express a desire to improve bilateral relations between Venezuela and Paraguay. Thus, it seems that, as Greg Weeks suggested, South America is willing to allow the resumption of democracy in Paraguay to heal the relations that were strained with Lugo’s removal last summer, and it appears that, barring any sudden rupture, Paraguay is well on the path to returning to normalized political and economic relations with its neighbors.
In other Cartes news, he has also finally apologized for blatantly homophobic and hateful remarks he made regarding homosexuality. While that does not mean he is any more open-minded regarding diversity, at least he had the wherewithal to acknowledge what he publicly said was offensive, hateful, and contributing to a climate of sexual discrimination and fear.
Yesterday, Paraguay held its first presidential elections since the ouster of democratically elected Fernando Lugo last year, and as expected, Horacio Cartes won with over a million votes (45.8%), defeating runner-up Liberal Party candidate Efrain Alegre, who finished with over 800,000 votes for 37% percent of the vote. Mario Ferreiro of the Avanza Pais coalition finished with just 5.9% of the vote (around 140,000 votes), while Anibal Enrique Carrillo of the Frente Guasú, the party formed out of Fernando Lugo’s old coalition, received 3.3% of the vote (nearly 80,000 votes). Nearly 3% of the ballots were turned in blank, while another 2.5% were null ballots, be it through mistaken voting or as a sign of protest against the options. That Ferreiro finished a distant third is unsurprising, but it should be remembered that he and Carrillo both still had support; indeed, the New York Times‘ Simon Romero tweeted a photo of a campaign poster yesterday that called both Cartes and Alegre “golpistas,” or coup-mongers, a reminder of the ongoing anger at the removal of Lugo last June. Such resentment over his removal, and the support Ferreiro and Carrillo received, reveals that some Paraguayans have not given up on the message of social reform and a more equal society.
Though Cartes was expected to win, the election is not without its own allegations of corruption; although over 300 international observers monitored the elections, some reports said people were selling their votes for as little as 12.50 dollars (though in other areas it was apparently going for 25 dollars), a reminder not just of political chicanery but of the very real economic inequalities and troubles that lead people to sell votes just to find some extra income. To what degree such practices took place is unclear; what is clear is that, barring any massive scandals, institutional coups, or medical emergencies, Cartes is set to be President for the next five years.
However, the prospects for Paraguayan citizens going forward are bleak. As an individual, Cartes, who had not even voted in an election prior to 2009, represents the wealthy, landed elite of Paraguay, and as a member of the Colorado Party, he represents a return to the conservative and corrupt practices that defined Paraguayan politics for the latter half of the twentieth century during the dictatorship of Alfredo Stroessner (with whom the Colorado Party was a willing accomplice) and into the twenty-first century. Though Cartes insists he will change Paraguay’s path, such a claim seems unlikely, as he has been repeatedly connected to smuggling and fraud as well as having ties to organized crime. (And it’s not like the Liberal Party that ultimately abandoned Lugo last year would have marked a significant alternative in this regard, given its recent scandal involving land and the use of government money for political alliances). Given Cartes’ victory and his background and the Liberal Party’s status as runner-up, it seems unlikely that Paraguay will see a sudden shift towards transparency or more egalitarian politics in the executive or the legislative branches.
The problems are not limited to political corruption, either. The victory of Cartes, a landed and wealthy oligarch, means Paraguay is unlikely to see any substantial socioeconomic reforms. Indeed, the outcome of yesterday’s election suggests that inequalities and unequal development will most likely continue to plague a country where, according to a CEPAL study, 56% of the population lived below the poverty line as late as 2009 and where less than two percent of the population controls over 77% of the land. And it is not as though Cartes is exactly open-minded on other social and cultural issues; the now current president-elect publicly compared homosexuals to monkeys and said he would “shoot [himself] in the testicles” if he had a gay son who wanted to marry another man.
There are other very real issues also confronting Paraguay, beyond economic inequalities and social bigotry. Perhaps most visibly, there’s the issue of Paraguay’s poorly-monitored border with Brazil, where the drug trade is highly active; indeed, in addition to being the world’s second-largest marijuana producer, Paraguay’s border is also a key region for the transportation of cocaine and other drugs to Brazil and on to Europe. And regardless of what one thinks regarding the debate of the legality/illegality of marijuana, the production and transportation in Paraguay’s border region is a major social and environmental issue. The production of marijuana transforms and shapes the environment of the Paraguayan forests and lands. And the power of organized crime shapes society at the local level in this borderland, complicating the state’s role in the region even while providing a means to rapid (if illegal) acquisition of wealth for those impoverished Paraguayans looking to improve their standards of living. Thus, the drug trade and drug production constitute their own very real social issues, and what, if anything, Cartes does about these issues will be worth watching.
Beyond the domestic outcome, the completion of an election may help Paraguay diplomatically. Greg Weeks argues that Honduras may be a model for reacceptance that could apply to Paraguay. Of course, Honduras was a regional pariah after the 2009 coup of Manuel Zelaya; yet once the country held elections to elect a new president, other countries in the region eventually renewed diplomatic and economic relations with it. That could be good news for Paraguay, a pariah as well since last year, most notably through its suspension from Mercosur. However, the issue of Cartes’ alleged ties to possible drug lords could complicate matters as Paraguay seeks re-integration into regional trade networks. Certainly, neighboring countries have yet to directly indicate whether they are willing to once again accept Paraguay, and Cartes’ social stances and dubious background could be a hindrance. Nonetheless, based on recent historical events in Honduras (and at least one cryptic tweet from Argentine president Cristina Kirchner), it seems more likely that the region will eventually move on and Paraguay will become reincorporated more directly. And even if South America is slow to respond, Paraguay can count on one country for aid: the US. Paraguay is the only country in Latin America to see an increase in bilateral aid from the US even while the US slashes aid to other countries in the region.
That said, what happens to Paraguay internationally is a geopolitical question with no clear answer yet. From a domestic standpoint, however, it is hard to see how the election of Cartes will lead to a marked improvement in the daily lived experiences of most Paraguayans socially, economically, or politically.
While the past two weeks have looked at student activists who challenged Brazil’s dictatorship, this week we turn to a more unlikely activist and opponent to the military regime: fashion designer Zuzu Angel.
Zuleika “Zuzu” Angel was born in the large interior state of Minas Gerais in the early 1920s (some source list her birth date as 1921, others as 1923). As a child, her family moved to the state capital of Belo Horizonte, where she attended school. Already as a young woman, she began making clothes for family members. In 1947, she relocated to Rio de Janeiro, where by the 1950s she was working as a seamstress. She married US citizen Norman Jones and had two children, Stuart, born in 1945, and Hildegard, born in 1949.
By the 1960s, Zuzu Angel was gaining an international audience in a fashion world dominated by European men like Yves Saint Laurent. Her style was unique, as she incorporated Brazilian materials, colors, and themes like tropical birds and flowers into her outfits. Her individual angel trademark signified something was a Zuzu Angel design. The bright colors and Brazilian-influenced patterns caught the eye of many in the international community; she even had a show featuring her work in the US. By 1970, she had opened her own store in the upscale Ipanema neighborhood, reflecting both her local success and international renown.
Even while her professional career was reaching new heights, her personal life suffered catastrophic loss. Stuart, her first-born child, had become an activist against Brazil’s military dictatorship, and by the end of the 1960s, he’d joined the MR-8 (the group responsible for the kidnapping of US Ambassador Charles Elbrick in 1969). However, by 1969, the military regime had escalated its use of repression, relying on torture, state-sponsored murders, and “disappearing” bodies in the hopes of stamping out all forms of resistance to military rule. Stuart Angel became a victim of such repression. The air force’s security apparatus arrested him in June of 1971, and shortly after his arrest, he was “missing.” A few days later, Zuzu Angel received a letter from Alex Polari de Alvegra, a political prisoner at the prison where Stuart had been taken. In the letter, he described Stuart’s fate, which he witnessed from his cell. Stuart had been brutally tortured, but had not provided the information the military was seeking; in the face of his silence, Polari reported, they bound Stuart and tied him to the back of a military jeep, attaching his mouth to the exhaust pipe. The jeep then proceeded to drive around the grounds of the prison, dragging Stuart behind the jeep while he was forced to inhale the exhaust coming from the jeep, which killed him. After that, the military disposed of his body; its whereabouts are still unknown, making Stuart one of the “disappeared” of the military regime. (Stuart’s wife, Sonia Maria de Moraes Angel Jones, would be arrested and killed after torture two years later, in 1973. Like her husband, her body was also “disappeared,” though her remains were ultimately found and identified decades later.) In a pattern typical of bureaucratic authoritarian regimes, the military denied they had even arrested Stuart. Ironically, by 1973, a secret session of the Military Supreme Court absolved Stuart of the alleged charge of violating the National Security Act, the original “cause” of his arrest.
With the horrific death of her son, Zuzu Angel became an activist and critic of the military regime. Using her international contacts, she denounced the torture, murder, and disappearance of her son both in Brazil and in the international community. At fashion shows in Europe and the US, Zuzu Angel, now dressed in all black to reflect her mourning, took every chance to tell the media what had happened to her son, in the hopes of drawing attention to the military regime’s brutal practices. Since Stuart’s father was a US citizen, Stuart was a dual-citizen of Brazil and the US, and Zuzu used this fact to try to pressure the US to act, lobbying politicians like Frank Church and Ted Kennedy. When Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who had supported such regimes throughout South America, traveled to Rio in 1976, Zuzu Angel managed to give the dossier on her son to one of Kissinger’s aides. Nor did she rely simply on politicians to try to publicize her cause; her status as an internationally-renowned fashion designer gave her plenty of Hollywood contacts, and celebrities like Joan Crawford, Kim Novak, and Liza Minelli all came to Zuzu Angel’s and Stuart Angel’s defense. She even took her message to her medium, putting on “the first collection of political fashion in history,” replacing her traditional tropical images with military silhouettes, caged birds, and guns shooting at angels. Such efforts led the military to monitor her actions overseas, always aware of and bristling at her criticisms of torture and brutality under the dictatorship.
Zuzu Angel never learned the whereabouts of her son’s remains. While driving in Rio de Janeiro in March of 1976 (less than a month after passing her documents to Kissinger’s aides), she died in a car crash while exiting a tunnel. However, the crash appeared to perhaps be more than an accident. Eyewitnesses to the crash described a military jeep present briefly before and after the crash. The mystery surrounding the crash retroactively became more suspicious when in August of 1976, former president Juscelino Kubitschek, another outspoken critic of the regime, also died in a similar car crash under similarly mysterious circumstances, prompting some to argue that the military had found new ways to silence its critics (and leading to the Truth Commission re-investigating his death this year). However, even before the car crash, Angel knew she was a target of the military, prophetically declaring that, “If I appear dead, by accident or by other means, it will have been the work of the assassins of my beloved son.”
Zuzu Angel’s struggles serve as a powerful reminder that it was not just women students who fought against the military regime and who suffered at its hands. Her remarkable professional triumphs were met only with personal loss, and yet she persevered, and in 2006, her story was re-told and her message and suffering re-broadcast in the 2006 film Zuzu Angel. With the death of her son, she, like hundreds of other mothers, suffered the anguish of the loss of a child and of not knowing of the fate of his remains. She remained a tireless defender of human rights and critic of the regime, even while insisting that “I do not have courage, my son had courage. I have legitimacy.” In spite of her claims otherwise, Zuzu Angel was courageous, speaking out against the regime and becoming one of the more important voices in bringing international awareness to the brutality of its repression, even while suffering a mother’s loss.
If you cannot see the connection between a photograph of bikini-clad women and Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff’s hope to double Brazil’s per capita income, then you are not alone.
But that didn’t stop one website from accompanying the economic story with exactly such a picture.