Archive for the ‘Women’s Movements & Issues’ Category

Around Latin America

August 25, 2013 Comments off

-In spite of a recent attack that left 13 Colombian soldiers dead, peace talks between the Colombian government and the FARC continue, in an attempt to end civil war and conflict that has lasted nearly 50 years and left tens (if not hundreds) of thousands dead and millions displaced.

-Although Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto managed to remove powerful union leader Elba Ester Gordillo earlier this year, her absence has not prevented broader teacher mobilization against unpopular education reforms that Peña NIeto has pushed through. Thousands of teachers and their supporters have taken to the streets in Mexico City, protesting against an evaluation system they say is designed to fire teachers.

-Speaking of protests, in Colombia, thousands of farmers have mobilized, protesting against the government’s economic policies and issuing a wide number of demands, including access to potable water and lower taxes on agricultural goods.

-In Brazil, plans for a highway through the Iguaçu Falls National Park have prompted protests and intensified struggles between environmentalists and government officials.

-And in yet one more example of popular demonstrations in Latin America in the last few weeks, in Ecuador, protesters expressed anger at President Rafael Correa’s decision to open parts of the Yasuni National Park to oil exploration. Anger is understandable, given the ongoing effects of decades of toxic spills, pollution, environmental degradation, and health crises that resulted from oil production in Ecuador’s Amazonian basin.

-Chilean General Juan Emilio Cheyre has stepped down from his post as the head of Chile’s national electoral service after revelations that he was involved in the Chilean military regime’s practice of taking children of arrested and murdered activists.

-Meanwhile, in other episodes involving the legacies of the PInochet regime and the ongoing quest for justice, a judge has ruled that there is not sufficient evidence to try former dictator Augusto Pinochet’s family members for embezzlement and corruption, while another judge rejected a legal request to try former General Fernando Matthei for the murder of General Alberto Bachelet, an officer who opposed the 1973 coup. Bachelet was the father of former president (and current candidate) Michelle Bachelet.

-Twenty-two soccer players in El Salvador have been suspended amidst allegations of match-fixing.

-I previously commented on the non-military ways in which drones could be deployed in Latin America. Peru is adding to that list, now using drones to protect and further learn about archaeological ruins, simultaneously combating the effects of illegal mining, squatting, and scavenging at sites even while learning more about what these sites hold.

-A battle between rival gangs at a Bolivian prison has left at least 31 people dead, including an 18-month old child who was living with a parent in the prison, a practice allowed in Bolivia if children six years old or younger have no other living relative with whom they can live.

-Finally, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff signed into law new provisions designed to protect and aid rape victims, including guaranteeing medical treatment and providing emergency contraception to those who have been raped. The new provisions are part of a broader effort to combat rape in Brazil, where recent data suggest it is a broad and, for far too long, unaddressed problem.

Around Latin America

June 12, 2013 Comments off

-Nicaragua and China have entered into an agreement through which China could help build a canal through Nicaragua that would rival the Panama canal. Of course, Nicaragua has long been seen as a potential site for a canal; even in the 1800s, the US and European powers considered the possibility of building one. As it stands right now, the canal would take eleven years to construct and would cost $40 billion, but there is nothing to yet indicate that the construction would start soon or that it would be brought to completion.

-An audit of the April elections in Venezuela has confirmed that Nicolas Maduro defeated opposition candidate Henrique Capriles in a very close election. Meanwhile, the economic and political instability that has been a significant problem in Maduro’s still-young administration (a problem that Maduro’s own policies and rhetoric have not helped) is hitting society hard: in addition to reports of shortages in basic goods like toilet paper, it appears beer prices have gone up 92% in Venezuela as well.

-An oil-spill in Ecuador now threatens both the Peruvian and Brazilian environment as it flows into the Amazonian basin, threatening river communities and riparian ecosystems. The spill began after a landslide damaged an oil pipeline, providing another reminder of the predictably-unpredictable nature of environmental processes and the risks of pipelines in dynamic ecosystems.

-Peace talks between Colombia’s government and the FARC have resumed after a brief break. The ongoing talks are the first significant talks between the two sides since the 1990s, as the two sides try to bring an end to a civil war that has lasted nearly 50 years. Prior to the talks, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos traveled to Israel, where he signed a free trade agreement between Colombia and Israel.

-In a tragic example of the ways in which women in Nicaragua continue to be treated as second class citizens, conservative activists and politicians are seeking to create a law that would require abused women to negotiate with their abusers.

-In the wake of an AP report that found that Brazilian car designs facilitate deaths from crashes, Brazil has begun plans to create its first-ever crash test facility.

-In dual cases of justice in Peru, President Ollanta Humala (who is currently on his first official state visit to the US) denied a pardon to former president Alberto Fujimori, who had been convicted for his role in state repression and human rights violations during his 1990-2000 administration. And on the other end of the spectrum, a court sentenced former guerrilla leader and Shining Path leader Comrade Artemio (Florinda Flores) to a life sentence for his role in guerrilla violence, drug trafficking, and money laundering.

-Speaking of the Shining Path, though a tiny number continue to fight for revolution ostensibly in the name of the movement, a new political arm of the movement, the Movimiento Por Amnistia y Derechos Fundamentales (Movement for Amnesty and Fundamental Rights; MOVADEF) is increasingly gaining support among some in Peru and beyond, prompting further reevaluations and considerations of the legacies of the Shining Path, state violence, and social divisions in Peruvian memory.

-Even while stories of government surveillance have occupied headlines in the US, it appears that secrecy at Guantanamo has only intensified, where a government ruling has gone into effect, and “those who’ve read it can’t say what it’s about, and those who haven’t don’t have a clue. Not even the accused, who, unless the judge rules for the defense, is not allowed to get an unclassified explanation of it – and cannot sit in on the court session when it’s argued in secret.”

-In another reminder of the gross socioeconomic inequalities in Brazil’s legal system, Thor Batista, the son of Brazilian billionaire who hit and killed a bicyclist while driving his car avoided jail time for the death. Instead, a judge ordered Batista to pay a R$1 million fine and serve two years of community service. In spite of the relatively lenient sentence for killing another person, Batista still plans on appealing the sentence.

-Finally, more than ten years after Brazil enacted affirmative action laws that created quotas for university admission, it appears the law has gone a long way in addressing inequalities, if a report on the University of Brasilia is representative. The study finds that there would be 71.5% fewer Afro-Brazilians in the school without the law, and that students admitted under quotas have outperformed non-quota students. [English version available here.]

El Salvador Refuses Basic Rights and Freedoms for Women’s Health

May 30, 2013 1 comment

In recent weeks, the case of Beatriz has gained international attention. Beatriz is a pregnant Salvadoran woman who suffers from lupus whose baby has a lethal condition. Though the baby, which only has a brain stem, will not survive, carrying the pregnancy to completion also puts Beatriz’s life at extreme risk. However, thanks to El Salvador’s total ban on abortion, Beatriz cannot save her own life.

In an attempt to protect her own life, the case had reached El Salvador’s highest court. Sadly, the news was not good for women’s health and the basic right to survive, as the court ruled that the complete ban on abortion stands, even in Beatriz’s case, and that “the rights of the mother cannot be privileged over newborn’s,” even when that fetus will not survive birth. The five court members said that, while lupus would probably kill Beatriz eventually, they said there was no imminent threat to her health. The court thus ordered Beatriz to go through with the pregnancy in spite of the physical toll it will take on her (to say nothing of the mental and psychological toll of giving birth just to have the baby die). Perhaps not coincidentally, all five judges are men (with only one of them dissenting) who ultimately determined the trauma and fate of Beatriz without according her any control over her own life, even in the face of the risks to her life and the certainty of the inviability of life in the fetus. Suffice to say, it’s a terrible ruling for equal rights, reproductive freedom, and women’s health, and it offers yet another devastating reminder of the cost of total bans on abortion.

Get to Know a Brazilian – Bertha Lutz

May 12, 2013 Comments off

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 (1894-1976), a key figure in Brazilian feminism and the fight for equality in the 20th century.

Bertha Lutz (1894-1976), a key figure in Brazilian feminism and the fight for equality in the 20th century.

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.

Bertha Lutz

Bertha Lutz in her later years.

 *Quote found in Susan K. Besse’s Restructuring Patriarchy: The Modernization of Gender Inequality in Brazil, 1914-1940, p. 166. 

The Consequences of Criminalizing Abortion – The Brazilian Case

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.

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.

Abortion Bans in Latin America (II) – Another Tragic Tale

May 3, 2013 Comments off

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.

Get to Know a Brazilian – Comba Marques Porto

April 28, 2013 Comments off

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.

Get to Know a Brazilian – Zuzu Angel

April 21, 2013 1 comment

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 Jones, a fashion designer who became a high-profile critic of Brazil's military regime.

Zuleika “Zuzu” Angel Jones, a fashion designer who became a high-profile critic of Brazil’s military regime.

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.

Examples of Zuzu Angel's aesthetic, drawing on the Bahiana tradition of the Northeast and incorporating the bright colors and

Examples of Zuzu Angel’s aesthetic, drawing on the Bahiana tradition of the Northeast and incorporating the bright colors and tropical flora and fauna that defined her work and distinguished her from her European and North American counterparts.

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.

Stuart Angel Jones, 1945-1971.

Stuart Angel Jones, 1945-1971.

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 (left) in all black after her son's death. To her right, a model wearing a dress from Zuzu's "Helpless Angel" collection, a collection whose very name bore political connotations about her son's death and her inability to find out about the fate of his remains.

Zuzu Angel (left) in all black after her son’s death. To her right, a model wearing a dress from Zuzu’s “Helpless Angel” collection, a collection whose very name bore political connotations about her son’s death and her inability to find out about the fate of his remains.

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.

This is part of a series. Other entries have looked at political and human rights activist Maria Augusta Carneiro Ribeiro and musician/tropicalista Rogerio Duprat.

Get to Know a Brazilian – Vera Sílvia Magalhães

April 7, 2013 Comments off

While recent posts in this series focused on the presidents of Brazil’s military dictatorship, no country’s history, society, or politics is defined merely by its (male) political leaders. During the dictatorship, millions of Brazilians resisted the military’s authority (even while millions more supported it), and support and/or opposition from various social groups ebbed and flowed throughout twenty-one years of military rule. While there is no shortage of materials on resistance to the dictatorship, especially in the 1960s, such work tends to focus on the men (often university students) who challenged the regime (and who later went on to play roles in the post-dictatorship state), even while women played key roles in the student movements that challenged military rule in a number of ways. Thus, this week we begin looking at the lives of these women, often ignored in the narrative of resistance to the dictatorship , by focusing on one of the most important yet most overlooked figures of student politics and resistance in the 1960s: Vera Sílvia Magalhães.

Vera Sílvia Magalhães in 2001. Photo available at Folha de São Paulo.

Vera Sílvia Magalhães in 2001. [Photo available at Folha de São Paulo.]

Vera Sílvia Magalhães was born to a middle-class family in Rio de Janeiro in 1948. Although her family was from the carioca upper middle class, they did not shy away from communism; she allegedly first read Marx and Engels after a family member gave her the Communist Manifesto. Although apocryphal, what is certain is that, from an early age, she was exposed to the ideas of the left, and by the age of 15, she was a member of the Associação Municipal dos Estudantes Secundaristas (Municipal Association of Secondary Students; AMES). One year after she joined AMES, the military overthrew constitutional president João Goulart in a coup, ushering in a right-wing military regime.

Although president Humberto Castelo Branco’s government had made early attempts to crack down on the student movements in Brazil, they were not as thorough or persistent as efforts to persecute labor activists, high-ranking politicians, or members of Brazil’s Leninist Partido Comunista Brasileiro (Brazilian Communist Party; PCB). Thus, less than two years after the coup, university students had become one of the main groups still openly challenging the military dictatorship, criticizing it both along ideological lines while also making more quotidian demands that reflected their experiences as middle-class university students. While some students participated in protests through the “semi-clandestine” National Students Union (UNE), by 1967, other students were becoming more radical. Discontent with the failures of the PCB to adequately address the “Brazilian reality” and frustrated by the fact that, far from ending the dictatorship, street protests only seemed to lead to intensifying police violence under president Artur Costa e Silva, some leftist students looked for more radical solutions to transform Brazilian politics and society. Yet the older members of the PCB, Brazil’s first communist party, refused to endorse the armed struggle as a path towards social change and the end of the dictatorship. As a result, university students turned to alternate offshoot groups. Drawing on the model of the Cuban revolution and abandoning the “Old left” of Leninism for Maoist and/or “Dissident” versions of communism, a small number of urban youth began to see the luta armada, or armed struggle, as the only path to bring down the dictatorship.

Vera Magalhães was one such student. Amidst the regime’s increasing repression and its efforts to silence critics (even moderate ones), in 1968 Magalhães, now 20 and enrolled in university, joined the clandestine Movimento Revolucionário 8 de Outubro (Revolutionary Movement of October 8), or MR-8, named after the day CIA-supported Bolivian troops captured Ché Guevara in 1967 [they executed him one day later]. Another group had been operating with the name MR-8, but the regime had captured almost all of its members, trumpeting the regime’s triumph to the public. In an attempt to discredit the regime, Magalhães and other members of the MR-8 began launching increasingly high-profile actions under the MR-8 moniker to indicate that opposition did not end with the arrest of a handful of individuals. Throughout 1968 and 1969,these armed groups mobilized in high-profile actions, even while the student movement faced increasing repression. They attacked banks, where they “expropriated” money from foreign capital and from the bourgeoisie, abandoning the student movement for armed struggle and bank robberies that helped fund the organization and marked an ideological attack on capital both foreign and domestic. In these expropriations, Magalhães, with her blonde wig and her two .45-caliber pistols, captured the attention of the media, which named her “Blonde ’90.”

In this context, Magalhães came to play a vital role in one of the boldest moves against the dictatorship. As the military  used the new repressive Institutional Act Number 5 and Decree-Law 477  increase arrests and the use of torture against prisoners even while censoring the media, Magalhães and the MR-8 decided to act more boldly. She and a few of her colleagues came up with a plot to kidnap Charles Burke Elbrick, the US Ambassador to Brazil. No ambassador had ever been kidnapped before, and so the move was as innovative as it was daring. Magalhães spent time watching Elbrick’s route from his home to the US embassy in Botafogo, and even flirted with the chief of security in order to get him to reveal information about Elbrick’s routine. With the information she had gathered and the plans she had helped create, the MR-8 moved, and on September 4, 1969, they kidnapped Elbrick, the first time in world history that an ambassador had been kidnapped. MR-8 pledged Elbrick’s safe release in return for the release of 15 political prisoners and the reading on television of a declaration that expressed the MR-8’s visions and would break through the censorship the military had imposed; if the military refused to meet their conditions, they promised to kill the ambassador. The conditions put thus put Elbrick’s fate as much in the hands of the military as in the hands of his captors.

Charles Burke Elbrick, the US Ambassador to Brazil from July 1969 to May 1970.

Charles Burke Elbrick, the US Ambassador to Brazil from July 1969 to May 1970.

Although they did not realize it, Magalhães and her colleagues had perfectly, albeit accidentally, timed the kidnapping. At the end of August, president Costa e Silva had a massive stroke that had left the president incapacitated; not wanting to make clear that the country was presently effectively leaderless, the military had not announced his condition to the country. The regime thought it could safely pretend everything was fine until it found a way to replace the now-semi-paralyzed president. Unfortunately for military brass, the kidnapping of Elbrick had left them both unprepared and unable to quickly respond. Adding to the complications was the fact that the US, a major economic and political supporter of the dictatorship, was more than a little interested in seeing its ambassador safely released no matter the cost. In this context, the military split; some insisted that the government had to meet their demands so as to not lose the US’s support; others insisted meeting the demands would be a sign of military weakness, and that it was better to let Elbrick die.

A headline from the Jornal do Brasil during the kidnapping of US Ambassador Charles Elbrick. The headline reads, "The Government today settles its position regarding the kidnapping," thus revealing the uncertainty about the military's path. Courtesy the Jornal do Brasil Blog.

A headline from the Jornal do Brasil during the kidnapping of US Ambassador Charles Elbrick. The headline reads, “The Government today settles its position regarding the kidnapping,” thus revealing the uncertainty about the military’s path. Courtesy the Jornal do Brasil Blog.

Ultimately, those in favor of meeting the demands prevailed, but barely. The government read the MR-8’s statement, which proclaimed that Brazil was living in a military dictatorship and that the fight of the people would continue, on television. The regime also released fifteen political prisoners that the MR-8 had provided them; the list included student leaders like José Dirceu and Vladimir Palmeira; members of urban guerrilla groups like Maria Augusta Carneiro Ribeiro and Ricardo Vilas; journalist Flávio Tavares; labor activists Agonalto Pacheco and José Ibrahim; and older leftists Rolando Frati and Gregório Bezerra (who had been arrested immediately after the 1964 coup and who had also spent 10 years in prison for his communist activism during the government of Getúlio Vargas). It loaded them on an airplane and sent them to Mexico. Immediately after the plane, named “Hercules 56″ (the title of an excellent documentary on the kidnapping), took off, paratroopers arrived at Rio de Janeiro’s Galeão airport to try to stop them. Nonetheless, they were late, and the prisoners safely arrived in Mexico before heading to Cuba, where they met with Fidel Castro. After receiving training in Cuba, some clandestinely returned to Brazil, while others went into exile.  [Of those who returned to Brazil, the military captured and killed two, gunning down both ex-sergeant Onofre Pinto and militant João Leonardo da Silva Rocha in 1974.] As for Elbrick, MR-8 stayed true to their word; with the release of the 15 political prisoners and the reading of the declaration, on September 8 Elbrick’s captors dropped him off at Maracanã stadium just as a soccer game was ending, and MR-8’s members disappearing into the crowd.

Thirteen of the Political Prisoners released after the kidnapping of Elbrick. You can see the "56" of the plane's name (Hercules 56) at the top-left.

Thirteen of the Political Prisoners released after the kidnapping of Elbrick. Front row (L-R): João Leonardo da Silva Rocha; Agonalto Pacheco; Vladimir Palmeira; Ivens Marchetti; and Flávio Tavares. Back row (L-R): Luís Travassos; José Dirceu; José Ibrahim; Onofre Pinto; Ricardo Vilas; Maria Augusta Carneiro Ribeiro; Ricardo Zarattini; and Rolando Frati.

Magalhães and the others who had planned the kidnapping managed to disappear into the crowd in 1969, but they could not escape the regime’s security apparatus. In March 1970, the military arrested Magalhães while she was handing out political pamphlets; in the arrest, she was hit in the head by gunfire. Although wounded, the regime showed her little tolerance; angry at the MR-8’s ability to challenge the regime and in a period of intense repression, the security forces tortured the wounded Magalhães. She sustained three months of beatings, electrical shocks, and psychological torture; the physical abuse was so severe that she was unable to stand on her own without the support of somebody else.

A recently-uncovered photo showing the effects of torture in Brazil. Vera Sílvia Magalhães standing only with the aid of two people after multiple torture sessions in 1970.

A recently-uncovered photo showing the effects of torture in Brazil. Vera Sílvia Magalhães standing only with the aid of two people after multiple torture sessions in 1970.

In spite of the physical and psychological abuse, she never revealed names. Nor could her legacy be undone; that July, members of the Ação Libertadora Nacional (National Liberating Action; ALN) and Vanguarda Popular Revolucionária (Popular Revolutionary Vanguard; VPR) followed MR-8’s model, kidnapping German ambassador Ehrenfried von Holleben and demanded the release of more political prisoners. Ultimately, in July of 1970, the regime released forty more prisoners, including Magalhães; however, the physical effects of torture on her were clear. In a photo of the prisoners, she was seated in a chair, still unable to stand on her own.

The forty political prisoners released in 1970. Vera Magalhães is seated on the far right.

The forty political prisoners released in 1970. Vera Magalhães is seated on the far right. Fernando Gabeira (in glasses), a member of the group who kidnapped Elbrick, is squatting next to her in the photo.

After her release, Magalhães went into exile, first in Algeria and then in Chile, where many Brazilian exiles remained until the military coup of 1973 ushered in a right-wing dictatorship there as well. From there, she went to Europe with her husband (and comrade in MR-8), Fernando Gabeira (they eventually divorced). She ultimately settled in Paris, studying sociology at the Sorbonne under Brazilian professor Fernando Henrique Cardoso, who had also gone into self-imposed exile. When João Figueiredo issued a general amnesty in 1979, Magalhães joined thousands of other exiles in returning to Brazil.

Although she returned to Brazil safely, Vera Magalhães was never able to shake the long-term effects of the horrible abuses and torture she suffered at the hands of the military regime. She worked as an urban planner in the state government of Rio de Janeiro for years, but ultimately retired early at the age of 54, unable to work any longer due to her health. Throughout the rest of her life, she suffered from periodic psychotic episodes, kidney problems (from the beatings), and troubles with her legs, even while the medicine she had to take caused dental problems. Though hesitant to use her long-term suffering for financial gain, in 2002, she became the first woman to receive financial reparations from the state for her suffering at the hands of the military (previously, such reparations had usually only gone to families of those who had died at the hands of the military during the dictatorship). While the financial aid helped her with her medical problems, it could not cure her of them, and in December 2007, she died of a heart attack at the age of 59.

Although often overlooked in general narratives of student mobilization and opposition to the military regime, there is no doubt that Vera Magalhães played a key role in challenging the dictatorship. Although her politics and her fight for social justice led her to suffer severely at the hands of the military, she was proud of her ability to maintain her “human sense, ethical and political.”

Vera Sílvia Magalhães during her time in prison in 1970.

Vera Sílvia Magalhães during her time in prison in 1970.

Other posts in this series have looked at author Clarice Lispectortropicalista Torquato Neto, and architect Oscar Niemeyer.

Around Latin America

April 1, 2013 Comments off

-Brazil’s Federal Council of Medicine recently came out in favor of legalizing first-trimester abortions in Brazil, adding to the arguments and debate over the issue in a country where abortion is currently only legal in the case of rape, severe mental disability in the fetus, or if the pregnancy is a threat to the mother’s life.

-A hunger strike at Guantanamo continues to expand and to last, adding to questions of indefinite detention at the US bas in Cuba.

-Students in Chile continue to demand educational reforms, and, after police attempted to force students onto a route other than the already-approved one, the march turned violent, a turn of events that could perhaps have been avoided had police not forced the last-minute change.

-In an attempt to reduce violence against women, Ecuador may categorize femicide as a separate crime within the country’s penal code.

-The Brazilian Senate passed a law this week that gives domestic workers the same rights as other workers, including overtime pay, finally extending workers’ rights to the millions of domestic workers (almost all women) who work for Brazil’s middle- and upper-classes. Unsurprisingly, those who employ domestic servants have pushed back against the idea of their workers actually enjoying basic rights (an attitude the Washington Post itself reinforces by declaring the law will “impinge” upon the economy).

-Police violence in Honduras continues to be a major issue, as police act excessively and with impunity in ways reminiscent of the 1980s, even as the US allegedly continues to funnel money to forces that operate as death squads (a charge US officials of course deny).

-In tales of opposite results, the Peruvian government is working on setting aside lands for indigenous peoples who voluntarily remain isolated from most of Peruvian society, even while one of the few Bolivian indigenous groups that is growing faces opposition from ranchers who continue in their attempts to relocate native groups and seize their lands.

-A Brazilian doctor and her medical staff are under investigation for the murder of seven patients at a hospital; however, reports suggest that at least another 20 deaths could be tied to her team, with 300 more cases under investigation. According to one recording of the doctor, she allegedly committed the murders in order to open up beds in the hospital.

-As Paraguay’s elections approach, conservative candidate Horacio Cartes appears to be in the lead.

-Speaking of elections, Michelle Bachelet has officially announced she will run for president for a second time (she previously served from 2006-2010) as Chile prepares for elections next year. However, in spite of her incredible popularity when she left office in 2010, the path to a second term is far from assured. She is already facing harsh criticisms from other politicians and has significant work to do among social groups (including students and those who support the indigenous Mapuche, whom Bachelet targeted) who have grown critical not just of the right-wing Pinera government, but of the post-Pinochet governments in general.

-Finally, in a bit of potentially good environmental news, Brazil’s supermarkets have agreed not to sell beef from cattle raised in the Amazonian forest. It is not clear how they will monitor this or prevent all Amazonian beef from reaching the shelves, but given that ranches are responsible for much of the deforestation in the Amazon, this is a not-insignificant step.


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