I’ve written before of police violence against students in Mexico on a much grander scale. And now, in 2014, it tragically appears we have a twenty-first century version, no less horrific even if on a smaller scale:
Authorities were investigating whether several bodies found in clandestine graves in southern Mexico are those of 43 students who disappeared after a deadly police shooting last week.
The pits were found Saturday on a hill in a community outside Iguala, the town where the students were last seen and where witnesses say municipal police officers whisked several of them away. [...]
But two police officers at the scene in the community of Pueblo Viejo told AFP that at least 15 bodies were exhumed from the site, which was cordoned off and guarded by scores of troops and police.
Juan Lopez Villanueva, an official from the National Human Rights Commission, said that six pits were found up a steep hill probably inaccessible by car.
Why were the students missing? Because students in the state had gathered in Guerrero. According to early reports, “depending on the account, they either collected donations for school or sought to hijack buses, as they have commonly done for transportation. The result was police opened fire, killing six people and leaving 43 students “missing.”
It is worth noting that, no matter what they had gathered for, opening fire and killing some, and then apparently killing and attempting to “disappear” others is indefensible and among the grossest of human rights violations. And if protests in Latin America have taught us anything, it’s that the reasons for students gathering is not an either/or proposition; it seems quite possible that many had gathered for donations in one of the poorest states in Mexico, and a small number escalated the activities (as happened with the “black bloc” in Brazil during the 2013 protests). Yet even if that is the case, it does not justify the use of lethal force against unarmed protesters, and it certainly does not justify the methodical kidnapping and killing of citizens, and attempted destruction of their bodies. And in the off-chance that it turns out that the graves aren’t even the students’ remains, then not only are students still missing, but apparently other people have been murdered and dumped unceremoniously in hidden graves in an attempt to “erase” evidence of them, which is even worse.
The national government has gotten involved in the investigation, and perhaps the particularly extreme nature of this particular event will remain a question of public memory for some time. Sadly, one of the early lessons of this massacre is that police violence against students is not a remnant of a lost age. Even more sadly, while this incident is particularly extreme, it is all too emblematic of the degree of force that local police forces can and do use in Mexico (and elsewhere); people may recoil at the particularly extreme version of such violence and corruption in this case, but this is a recurring theme on a daily basis for all too many individuals whose stories and lives go unheard and unremembered.
We’ve covered the effects and lessons of criminalizing abortion before, be it in or Brazil, Nicaragua, El Salvador, or Chile. Sadly, Brazil,has another tragic example of the horrors that can occur when abortion is criminalized:
Jandira dos Santos Cruz was terrified. In her last text messages, she pleaded with a friend to pray for her. It seems she had good reason to be afraid: The 27-year-old Rio secretary got into a car with strangers on Aug. 26, bound for an illegal abortion clinic, and never came home.
Now police say a burned and dismembered torso, missing its teeth and found in the trunk of a car matching the description of the one Ms. Cruz took to the clinic, may be hers. Nursing assistant Rosemere Aparecida Ferreira, who is believed to be the clinic employee who arranged Ms. Cruz’s abortion, and her husband, police officer Edilson dos Santos, were arrested Thursday night in a city three hours away from Rio.
If Jandira’s case is exceptional for its horrific outcome, it is not exceptional for its existence. While Brazil allows abortion in the case of rape, incest, or if the mother’s health is at risk, even for these cases, it is incredibly difficult to find a doctor willing to safely and openly conduct such medical practices. The result is of the limited accessibility and social stigma of abortion is that, of the roughly one million women who seek an abortion in Brazil, “An estimated 250,000 women a year seek medical help in public clinics for the complications of an illegal abortion” (and that says nothing about those who are privileged enough to seek help from private doctors willing to quietly aid them and keep the issue under wraps). In the worst case scenario, as Jandira dos Santos Cruz reminds us, women die (sometimes in horrific ways) merely for attempting to exercise control not only over their own bodies, but their own futures. Once again we have a tragic reminder that criminalizing abortion does not make it go away; it simply further endangers women.
Given the recent discussion of memory and military dictatorships, it seems worthwhile to recall one of the many horrific events of Argentina’s military dictatorship: La Noche de los Lápices, or “Night of the Pencils.”
The Night of the Pencils had its roots in the military junta that had taken power six months earlier. Citing political instability, the new regime launched the “Process for National Reorganization,” commonly referred to simply as El Processo. Asserting a centralization of power in the hands of the (military-led) executive branch, through El Proceso the junta (led by Gen. Jorge Videla) gave the military executive, judicial, and legislative powers, launching widespread censorship, undermining habeas corpus, and setting up the mechanisms through which the regime would use torture and “disappear” anybody who it deemed a “subversive.” However, such a term was intentionally loose, and the result ended up being the military arbitrarily arresting, torturing, and usually murdering anybody who deviated in the slightest from the military’s own political, economic, social, cultural, or ideological vision of the nation. In the subsequent months, the military forces arrested and disappeared anybody who was associated with diverse movements ranging from labor unions to student groups, from liberation theologians to peasant activists, to those who professed even mild sympathies with leftist (or left-ish) worldviews.
It was in this context that the Night of the Pencils happened. Dissatisfied with mounting educational and living expenses, a number of high school students began to mobilize for lower bus fares, part of the quotidian struggles that were part of broader social issues for the Unión de Estudiantes Secundarios (Union of High School Students; UES). On September 16, 1976, military forces moved, committing the first of what would ultimately be sixteen kidnappings of high school students between the ages of 16 and 18, as the first salvo in trying to dismantle the UES. However, some of those kidnapped had had no affiliation with the UES; yet the mere suspicion, on the part of the military, led to their arrest and Across the next several nights, the military brutally tortured and disappeared many of those kidnapped; only a few would survive to confirm the fate of their colleagues.
The military did not act alone in the Night of the Pencils (named because the targets were high school students), however. Military authorities acted after receiving a tip from Catholic priest Christian von Wernich. The students had admitted to their involvement with UES to the priest in Confession; Wernich, violating the secrecy of the confessional, revealed to the military the students’ political activism. His participation was not surprising; many in the Catholic hierarchy agreed with the military over the perceived “threat” of “subversion” to the Argentine nation, and were more than happy to collaborate with the regime. Wernich also was present in the prison where the students were tortured to death, according to the few survivors.
Though some of those survivors remained imprisoned until 1978, ultimately it was through them, and their memories of torture, that the fate of their colleagues became known. Likewise, their accounts played a vital role in the eventual arrest, indictment, and conviction in 2007 of Wernich, who was found guilty of complicity in the kidnapping, torture, and murder of the students from the Night of the Pencils, along with dozens of other cases of torture and disappearance; a court sentenced Wernich to life imprisonment. Meanwhile, the tortured and murdered students stand out as one of the early cases of state repression under the military’s (problematically-named) “Dirty War,” and their names have become a part of the broader historical record of torture and repression that is remembered annually on March 24, Argentina’s Day of Remembrance for Truth and Justice.
The Night of the Pencils was not exceptional, but that fact alone makes it worth remembering. From the targeting of unarmed citizens, to the use of torture, to the disappearance of the regime’s victims in order to “silence” the historical record, to members of the Church actively collaborating with the repressive regime, the Night of the Pencils is all too representative of the actions and legacies of Argentina’s authoritarian regime. But it is this representativeness that makes the Night of the Pencils all the more important to remember: not only does it undo the regime’s efforts to silence and erase from the historical record those who disagreed with or merely challenged it by bringing those victims and their stories back into the broader historical narrative of life under military rule in Argentina; it also reminds us that, far from unique, thousands upon thousands of Argentines suffered similar experiences, and that those experiences, and the memories of them, are vital to understanding broader historical narratives and processes not just of Argentine history, but of Latin American history more generally.
I’ve long been a critic of favela tours, for any number of reasons, few of which are likely unique: it objectifies the poor; it is voyeuristic; it reinforces a so-called “First World”/“Third World” dichotomy that objectifies both the poor and those in “developing countries” (a term as loaded and barely better than “Third World”); it fails to connect local poverty to broader national and global issues and economics; it rarely provides tourists an opportunity to hear the voices of those who live in the favelas, instead relying on tour guides to “interpret”; and they fail to connect local poverty to broader national and global systems that allow for such poverty to exist and that often implicate and involve the tourists themselves, be it directly or indirectly.
In an attempt to perhaps placate and alleviate some of the guilt the (relatively wealthier) tourist may feel, some favela tours insist that the money made from the tours goes back into the community. However, they rarely provide any concrete data or evidence of such reinvestment, any long-term programs designed to address the fundamental socioeconomic inequalities that lead to favelas in the first place. The end result is you have a number of tourists who have likely spent thousands of dollars to travel to places like Rio de Janeiro, Cape Town, or Mumbai in order to gaze upon people who likely don’t make that much in a year. The analogy to people going to the zoo to see animals is as obvious as it is uncomfortably fair.
It was for these reasons I had always insisted on never going on a favela tour, or on any other form of poverty tourism. So how did I end up on a favela tour?
In spite of my promises, I in fact reluctantly found myself on a favela tour last week as part of a school trip. It had been planned as part of the trip, and while my objections remained, I also thought it unfair to preemptively make that decision for the 22 students who were going on the trip. If push came to shove, I’d rather the students go see the tour themselves, and come to their own conclusions. Additionally, since the trip had already been paid for, I figured I’d go; I’d been critical enough of favela tours for theoretical reasons, but perhaps going would allow me to offer a more thorough understanding of the ways such tours operate.
The short version: my general critiques still stand, but with a more detailed understanding of both the more beguiling and subtle problems of favela tours, as well as some rather grotesque examples of the overt objectification and dehumanization of the poor that makes up poverty tourism.
It was rather problematic from the very beginning. Our group was split into two vans with sometimes-differing messages (more on that later). In my van, we were accompanied by a woman who did not live in the favelas, while a favela-resident drove us around. She talked, but not once did we get to hear his voice, his account of life in the favelas. Already, others were speaking on behalf of the favela residents, and it was clear that, no matter how closely her own interpretations and narration might hew to those who live in favelas, we would never have a way of knowing it.
As we drove to the first favela (Vilas Canoas), she insisted that favela residents “are poor, but they are happy people,” that “they work hard,” that “poverty isn’t misery,” and so on. Yet within five minutes, she also said that, as the younger generations begin to get a better education and gain access to better jobs, they are leaving the favelas. It seemed rather clear in the guide’s own narrative that, however “happy” and “hard-working” they may be, the broader social stigmas, the living conditions, and the ongoing lack of basic political rights in favelas (what Brodwyn Fischer has referred to as a “poverty of rights”) was leading many to leave. Some might see in this a sign of social mobility in Brazil, but the fact remains that favelas continue to grow, reflecting ongoing and wide socioeconomic disparities in Brazil.
Additionally, the narrative in the van of favela residents’ happiness and ability to work hard struck me. I’m not sure how many tourists would think they weren’t hard-working or happy. There is probably some tendency to associate poverty with misery and lack of agency, but in general, her narrative seemed in some way not to be designed so much to address our own concerns (we had very few opportunities for questions, something I think, perhaps cynically, was not an accident). Rather than directly addressing anything I’d heard students say, she seemed to be addressing views and attitudes that I had heard Brazilians say far too frequently in my year and a half of living in Rio de Janeiro. Put another way: she wasn’t necessarily addressing our concerns, but what she thought our concerns were, based on how other Brazilians often view and talk about favelas.
As for the tour, upon arriving at Vilas Canoas, we walked through winding little pathways, no wider than 3 feet, between people’s homes. This was the first moment of direct discomfort, as we were walking past people just living their lives, able to see into many people’s homes, effectively ogling the impoverished “Other” without any chance to communicate with favela residents as people. For all of the negatives of favela tours, this was also perhaps the most “educational” element for me; it is one thing to read about the spontaneous, improvised, and close-knit space in favelas, but it is another thing to witness it. Being there, at least I was finally able to better understand favelas spatially.
In spite of a veneer of education, however, our presence did seem highly disruptive, whether we wanted it to be or not. Based on at least some residents’ faces, we were not entirely welcome there, and our tour guide confirmed this, pointing out that, while some thought the tours were good, others “do not like it,” a point that she seemed to brush off and never returned to. (In the other van, they were given a similar line, albeit delivered more aggressively, with the guide basically saying that some favela residents don’t like the tour, but too bad.) We then went to a “school,” which, while educational in function, was little more than two “classrooms,” one a small, poorly-lit room and the other, a covered alcove. This was particularly distressing, as we’d been told that the money from the favela tour went specifically to this “school”; again, there was no quantitative evidence to illustrate that, and it was hard to tell looking at the classrooms and the teaching materials exactly where the money went. Additionally, it was quite clear that we had interrupted the classroom, and one of the teachers seemed particularly annoyed as the students suddenly diverted their attention to us, performing for the tourists. We didn’t stay long, but I did not envy the teacher, who was trying unsuccessfully to restart the lesson that we had interrupted; as we left, it was clear he was going to have to further divert his lesson to try to settle down a room of about 5 now-very-energetic children.
From there, we went to Rocinha, the largest favela in Rio de Janeiro. As we drove from Vilas Canoas to Rocinha, the tour guide talked more about conditions in the favelas, why they were there, and why the problems persisted. In finding causes for the problems, she always came back to the same problem that Brazilians regularly turn to: politicians. Citing corruption and disinterest, according to her, the problems in the favelas could be traced back to politicians. Yet this again only frustrated me, for it failed to place poverty in its broader national context; with politicians the sole factors for favelas’ problems, it exculpated all other Brazilians. Politicians certainly have contributed to problems in some ways, but the ongoing social prejudice against favelas, the systemic forms of racism in Brazil, the widening gap between rich and poor during the military dictatorship, the dispossession of land and unemployment of peasants, and the effects of the “Green Revolution” all contributed to both the migration that led to favelas’ growth, and to the ongoing marginalization and “poverty of rights” that in no small part define favelas. Far too often I heard middle-class Brazilians speak in overtly racist and classist terms about the favelas; yet blaming “the politicians” for everything seemed to ignore society’s broader implicit involvement in the marginalization of the poor in urban Brazil.
In Rocinha, students got to see the hustle and bustle of the city’s largest favela – markets, people in the streets, construction workers. In other words: things that mark any part of any major city. Though my tour guide was not quite so crass, the tour guide for the other group apparently asked why students weren’t stopping and just taking pictures on a regular street in Rocinha, and this seemed to cut to the core of the problem with poverty tourism. Here we were, on a street that looked no different than any other part of the city in terms of its activity; and yet students were expected to take photos here, because it was a favela, and thus, “different.” The very nature of the tour was designed to highlight differences and to treat people living in one part of the city as something to be photographed, observed, remarked upon, over people in other parts of the city. In short: it was reifying differences and objectifying the poor without making any sincere effort to either undermine narratives of favelas as “other” or point to broader processes that may create socioeconomic inequalities.
As we drove through Rocinha, the tour guide talked about the UPPs, or Pacifying Police Units. This led to another highly problematic narrative. In discussing the rise of the drug trade in the favelas, the tour guide said that it was because “there was no government” in the favelas, that the Brazilian state had failed to consolidate its presence in favelas. This is a narrative that has a particularly limited vision of “government.” Since the late 1960s, police operated as “death squads” in the favelas, going after alleged “criminals.” By the 1980s, the violence between drug gangs and police officers grew dramatically, and even when I lived in Rio in 2006-2008, headlines regularly told of “raids” in which police went into the favelas and killed 13 “traficantes” (“traffickers”), only to later learn that the victims were elderly women at the grocery store, children going to school, or other favela residents who often had nothing to do with the drug trade. Certainly, the police, both military and civil, are arms of the government; yet according to her narrative, it was only now, with the UPPs, that the government was trying to establish itself in the favelas. In short, the “government” had been in the favelas for over 40 years, but in a militaristic sense; yet this did not register in her narrative as “government” presence. She did not make the police pure heroes, pointing out that a few had been arrested recently for working on the side for drug gangs. However, when a student in my group asked if corrupt police were prosecuted in Brazil, she simply ignored his question, remaining silent until we got off the bus. Rather than get into the unequal justice system in Brazil, the ongoing culture of impunity among police forces that dates back to the military regime’s 1979 general amnesty and before, or society’s quiet willingness to tolerate police abuses against the poor, she simply stopped talking.
After that, it was a relatively mild denouement. We went to the top of Rocinha, where we were able to enjoy two rather spectacular views of the city from a top of a mountain. The tour guide pointed out how even those in the favelas had incredible views (though I couldn’t help but wonder if they’d trade it for greater incomes or greater rights as citizens). After a little time to take in the view, our favela tour ended.
I had gone on the tour in part because I wanted to better understand the mechanisms and particulars of how favela tours operated and what metanarratives they provided, but I also wanted to see what the students saw. Afterwards, we met with students, and to their credit, even going in “blind” about the broader questions of poverty tourism, many of them clearly felt uncomfortable with it. They offered their own cogent analyses, and if anything, came away with a better understanding of the issues of poverty tourism than with the issues behind poverty in Brazil itself.
I’m aware of the question of whether there can be an “ethical” form of poverty tourism. I’m still not certain, but one thing I kept thinking throughout the favela tour was how much I wanted to hear their voices, how, rather than having an interlocutor from a middle-class neighborhood, I wanted to hear what favela residents had to say about their own experiences, their own views, their own role in society. I’m still not certain there could be an “ethical” favela tour, but having one that was begun by those who live in favelas, letting them speak, and ensuring that the money does actually go back to the favela seems like it would at least be a better alternative than the way tours such as ours operate now.
Ultimately, there is probably little here that is new to overall critiques of favelas. There may be something to be said for personally experiencing one and understanding just how those critiques play out in practice, but if anybody is wondering if they should also go, I can’t help but think: there are far better and more productive ways to address inequality in the world.
Brazil’s immunization program is one of the most impressive in the world. The government makes most of its own vaccines in the country and distributes them cheaply and universally, which led to a steep decline in infant mortality and deaths from infectious diseases after the national vaccination program started in the 1970s – one chart illustrating polio infection rates shows a complete drop-off a few years after national immunization campaigns. Now, though, Brazil is seeing small outbreaks of diseases like measles. But they aren’t homegrown – they’re reportedlycoming in from Europe and the United States, thanks to anti-vaxxers.
In many ways, Brazil is a model for how national vaccination programs can work, and how vaccines can accelerate a country’s development, health and growth. The country’s implementation of widespread affordable vaccinations, coupled with an expanding public health system, caused infant mortality to plummet and contributed to a higher standard of living, a healthier populace and a more robust economy. But today, Brazilian pubic health officials are newly concerned that some of the richest, most developed nations on the planet threaten their success
The idea that this movement (and its entirely-unnecessary and damaging fallout) is limited to the US is clearly nonsense. Given the nature of global travel, refusal to prevent awful diseases is not just some fringe issue in the US, but a matter of global health. That a small subset of ill-informed individuals in the US can have (and are having) a dramatic effect on populations even where vaccination programs are strong and successful reveals just how dangerous the anti-vaccine crowd is.
This week, Brazil’s Truth Commission finally managed to get the Ministry of Defense to accede to requests to investigate the military and sites of torture during Brazil’s military dictatorship of 1964-1985.
I’m of two minds on this. On the one hand, this absolutely is a major victory in terms of efforts to confront the military’s repressive past. Military archives and records have often long been off-limits for historians and human rights activists, with the military alternately denying such archives and records exist or insisting they were already destroyed (and even sometimes contradictorily making both claims at the same time). Opening up centers where torture took place will not only allow for the forced recognition of the past; it will also help improve our mapping and understandings of the mechanisms of torture and repression in Brazil.
On the other hand, the military itself will be responsible for conducting these investigations, with internal “inquiry units” rather than external agents probing the past. Letting the military be in charge of its own policing on the past is troubling for a few reasons, and not just because it was the military that originally gave itself an amnesty in 1979, an amnesty it has stood behind and that seems unlikely to go away anytime soon. The fact that there remain both within the military and outside of it many people who continue to defend the military and its actions during the dictatorship, and there is certainly the potential that internal pressure from above within a system predicated on strict hierarchies could limit the findings. And it is not like there is a strong history of the military being fully transparent even in times of democracy. A culture of impunity (itself a major legacy of the dictatorship) continues to reign in much of Brazil both in its armed forces and in police forces, and rarely do military or police officials face punishment or even inquiries into their roles in human rights violations in Brazil’s cities or countryside. It is not unfair to wonder whether or how an investigation into past crimes will be any different.
To be clear, this is not to say that the investigations are doomed to failure, or that the military cannot directly and transparently confront its past, and the fact that it has finally agreed to participate in investigations, even internally led ones, is encouraging. At the same time, it will be worth watching to see how these investigations occur and what their findings are. Hopefully they provide full, frank, and honest accounts of the regime that further add to our understandings of repression under military rule, but given the recent trends in the armed forces and the contentious nature over Brazil’s military dictatorship today, questions will remain until the investigations can be (and hopefully are) brought to completion and published.
Yesterday, Brazil’s Congress marked the 50th anniversary of the military coup that overthrew constitutional president João Goulart and ushered in a 21-year military dictatorship that killed hundreds of its own citizens and tortured thousands others. In 1964, Congress was directly implicit in the coup and the subsequent military dictatorship: Congress proclaimed the presidency vacant even while Goulart remained in Brazil and declared Chamber of Deputies leader Ranieri Mazzilli as the acting President of Brazil for the second time in his life (he’d also assumed the role in the wake of Jânio Quadros’s abrupt resignation in 1961). Mazzilli was president in name only, as a military junta, led by Artur Costa e Silva, established control before Congress selected Humberto Castelo Branco as the country’s new president. By contrast, yesterday’s commemoration was to be a more solemn affair, recognizing the setbacks that human rights and democracy both suffered under Brazil’s military regime.
Of course, that did not mean all were willing to cooperate with such a dignified approach. Ultra-right wing congressman Jair Bolsonaro, a dictatorship apologist, decided to use the event to celebrate the military in his speech, with various other representatives turning their backs on him. Meanwhile, his supporters unfurled a banner thanking the military, through whose efforts “Brazil is not Cuba,” according to Bolsonaro, while another Bolsonaro supporter shouted to others, “I do not want communism in my Country.” Ultimately, the ceremony ended up being delayed for over an hour. Yet the event reminds us of the degree to which Brazil’s dictatorship continues to appear in politics even while torturers are publicly named but remain unpunished, something that seems unlikely to change anytime soon, given the reluctance of President Rousseff (herself a political prisoner and torture victim during the dictatorship) to review the 1979 amnesty that pardoned all those in the military regime who committed torture and murder.