To understand the grotesque response of police to citizen protests in Brazil, there’s hard to find a more horrific, yet succinct, picture than the one below making the rounds on Twitter.
Clearly, this is an extreme response to a non-threat. And though the image may be grotesque, this type of response is not uncommon among police forces in Brazil, which in turn helps to explain why so many people turned out to demonstrate throughout Brazil last night.
Of all the images from last week’s protests in Brazil, this one is particularly remarkable.
The speed at which that tear gas canister comes in is alarming, and is an important reminder of just what it means when police show up to fire tear gas at protesters. That the person was able to kick it away is no small feat; if they did so without seriously hurting their foot, that would be even more remarkable. Either way, it is scenes like this one that have certainly helped spur popular demonstrations and anger in Brazil in the last few days.
(H/t to @RioGringa.)
Following the protests in São Paulo (and supporting demonstrations in Rio de Janeiro) last Thursday, the weekend saw protests spread throughout the country. On Saturday, as the Confederations Cup kicked off in Brasilia, protesters demonstrated against the costs of preparing for the Confederations Cup and World Cup. Those expenses were also subject to protests in Rio de Janeiro yesterday, protests that turned violent when police launched tear gas and attacked protesters who voluntarily chose not to provoke the cops (to little avail). And though a Facebook RSVP is far from a rock-solid statistical analysis, over 200,000 people on Facebook said they would attend protests in São Paulo today. As the unrest continues at least in the short term and begins to become something more than an isolated protest gone awry, the question remains: what exactly is going on?
First thing’s first: it’s not a “Brazilian Spring.” The “Arab Spring” was a wave of popular movements demanding an end to decades of repressive and undemocratic regimes; despite the flaws in Brazilian democracy [or democracy more broadly], such conditions do not apply to Brazil, nor is it the subject of protest for Brazilians in the streets. Though police violence was common both in the countries of the Arab Spring two years ago and in Brazil now, the broader political systems are fundamentally different, as are the issues confronting the people. And it’s far from some widespread movement; thousands have taken to the streets, and that’s not insignificant, but in metro areas of 20+ million (São Paulo) and 11+ million (Rio de Janeiro), thousands or even hundreds of thousands is far from a mass movement. That’s not to say people don’t quietly support the demands and issues without taking to the streets, or to say it can’t grow further. But calling it a “Brazilian Spring” (or any popular expression of discontent) is as lazy as slapping a “-Gate” on the end of every political scandal in the US.
So what is it? Well, simply put – it’s complicated. While a quick glimpse seems to suggest a broad movement, the causes of protest in Brazil over the last few days have varied, from bus fares in São Paulo and then to police violence and even to soccer. Throughout it all, on the surface there has not been a unified message that offers a coherent set of political demands. That said, these seemingly disparate issues actually tap into some of the broader, and more historically rooted, processes that are fueling the protests. Indeed, when looking at the actual structural issues at play in bus fare increases, government spending on athletics, or police violence, one sees the long-term historical processes of governance that helps the few at the cost of the many as a common thread throughout.
On the one hand, the bus fares are about a basic issue – increasing the cost of travel for the majority of an urban population, even while the wealthy, with their cars (or helicopters), who can most afford increases in daily expenses, remain exempt from such increases. This issue is not a new one in Brazil; in the 1950s and 1960s, student movements regularly protested against bus fares and demanded exemption for students who had to travel to school. Nor was such activity limited to students; as JF String reminds us, Sao Paulo witnessed protests over an overnight bus fare hike in 1958. Such protests were not just minor incidents of public anger, either; the 1958 protests left four dead after the police and protesters came into conflict.
Which leads us into a second process that has deep historical roots. The brutal and grotesque use of tear gas and rubber bullets against unarmed civilians last week was but another incident of police violence in what is a decades-old phenomenon (and one that arguably has its roots in slavery in Brazil). Throughout the twentieth century, police violence was a feature of arrests and crowd control, especially in poor areas. Even in the 1960s, police death squads operated in favelas during the military regime, prompting the press to distinguish between death squads against “criminals” and torture against political prisoners. The end of the dictatorship did not bring an end to such violence, in no small part because such violence well predated the military regime of 1964-1985, and such violence has continued to define police tactics and methods throughout much of urban Brazil well into the 21st century.
Likewise, government largesse going to those who need it the least also has deep historical roots. The First Republic (1889-1930) was an oligarchy in which regional elites were able to look out for their own interests; the creation of Brasilia in the 1950s gave Brazil a flashy capital to show the world even while it failed to provide for the rural poor who helped build the high modernist capital; the “Brazilian miracle” of 1967-1974 dramatically expanded the gap between Brazil’s rich and poor even while it laid the groundwork for the economic “lost decade” of the 1980s; and the neoliberalism of the 1990s, whose zealous quest for privatization affected everyday expenses in Brazil in a dramatic fashion even while multinational corporations got richer. The government spending on the World Cup itself is vulgar; the costs of preparing for the World Cup have been astronomical, with $13.3 billion originally scheduled for preparations, money that went to new fancy stadiums far more than it did to infrastructural improvements that would benefit all Brazilians. That so little of that money went to infrastructural improvements that would genuinely affect the lives of most Brazilians is unsurprising, just as it is unsurprising that some are now bristling at it.
But these are historical processes that go back decades. Why are Brazilians protesting now?
In part, the answer is because the political space and will are there. There is no openly repressive dictatorship that will support the immediate, disproportionate use of police violence to silence dissent, and that’s not nothing – though it seems a long time ago, it’s only 49 years since Brazil’s 21-year military regime began, and only 28 years since the country returned to democracy (and 24 years since the first direct presidential elections since 1960). Certainly, in many ways, socially, economically, and in terms of police power, Brazil remains undemocratic, but it is still a functioning electoral democracy that cannot support police repression openly the way the military regime did. That’s not to say the police won’t try to use such repression – indeed, that’s exactly what they are trying to do – but in an electorally democratic system, the federal government cannot support such violence without losing much of its legitimacy.
But it’s not just a change in political systems that help explain why these protests are taking place. After all, Brazil was under an electoral democracy throughout the 1990s, when stories of police-led massacres were common, be it the Candelaria Massacre of eight unarmed street children in 1993 or the murder of 102 prisoners (another nine apparently died at the hands of their fellow inmates) in the 1992 Carandiru Massacre. And even in the 2000s, as many condemned the ongoing violence, it did not bring people to the streets. So what has changed?
I think in part, it comes back to what has happened in the past ten years. At the macro-economic level, the gap between the rich and poor overall shrank somewhat, but it’s still grossly unequal. On top of that, the economic message, both within Brazil and projected to the rest of the world, has I think played no small part in helping to explain the protests. By the second Lula term, both the government and outside economic analysts were pointing to Brazil as a new emerging global powerhouse. They pointed to its ability to weather the global recession of 2008-2009 and the efforts to eliminate extreme poverty as example of Brazil as a new economic haven, one that had finally found the path of widespread growth and stability after decades (or centuries) of exploitation, inequalities, and uneven growth. Even its inclusion in the fictional BRIC [Brazil-Russia-India-China] made it seem like a new economic age had arrived, one that disregarded the lack of unity between the four countries and smacked more of analytical laziness than any genuine explanation of global economics. Many commentators viewed Brazil winning the right to host the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics as the final example that the country was set to show the world how far it has come.
And at first, many people in the mid-2000s began to feel this change. The purchasing power of the working class expanded, even while analysts trumpeted the apparent growth of the middle class. For decades, many Brazilians had been told that the economy was about to give them more, only to find such promises to be hollow. The last ten years seemed to suggest to many people that finally, the time had arrived where they, too, could finally have “more” – more stuff, more purchasing power, a more improved standard of living, a more just and equal society. Yet such promises may have been premature, as recent macroeconomic policies and trends have once again shaken Brazil in the global economy. Yet this time, things are different than previous times when economic success was promised, only to not arrive to a majority of the population. This time, it seemed the change could be real, that perhaps such promises of sustained and more-equally distributed stability could happen. Though it is “only” about ten years of relative economic stability for many (though certainly not for all), ten years is a long time in a country where dramatic economic troubles hit in the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s. Indeed, for many Brazilians, recent years have marked the first time government optimism and reality seemed even close to corresponding for nearly a decade.
And then the bus fare hikes happened amidst growing inflation and economic uncertainty, affecting most those who could least afford it. And then the police turned to the same transparently repressive, brutal, and excessive tactics that they’ve used for decades. And then, on Saturday, Brazil kicked off a sporting event displaying opulence and excess to the world, even while it in reality benefited very few Brazilians in substantive ways (and indeed denied many the right to live in their own homes). And as these superficially disparate inequalities erupted at the same time, a general discontent that old structures of inequality have persisted became the discourse that draws these protests together. That helps to explain why some protesters are now (in many ways erroneously) equating the government of center-left president Dilma Rousseff with the conservative political elites; even though she has very real differences from conservatives in Brazilian politics, her government (and Lula’s before her) have apparently not done enough to erode those structures.
And in some ways, things have visibly changed for the better for many in the last decade. Programs like Bolsa Familia and Fome Zero have had real impacts for millions of Brazilians, and affirmative action has helped address racial inequalities in higher education. But, as the bus fares, the spending on athletic boondoggles, and the police violence all made clear in the last few days, many other things remain the same. The problems that brought Brazilians to the streets aren’t strictly economic, but economics is involved; they aren’t strictly social, but social struggles are involved; they aren’t strictly political, but the history of political hierarchies is involved. In short: the conditions for protest are perhaps new, but the problems fueling those protests are old.
This is part of an ongoing series. Previous entries can be found here.
Continuing the sub-series on the fifteen political prisoners released when young leftists kidnapped US ambassador Charles Elbrick in 1969, this week we look at the oldest prisoner released: Gregório Bezerra, who witnessed and played a key part in the rise and spread of leftist ideas throughout Brazil in the twentieth century.
Gregório Lourenço Bezerra was born 13 March 1900 in Pernambuco to poor parents in Brazil’s rural northeast, one of the last of twelve children in a family that did not own any land or even its own home. He was aware of the challenges facing workers from an extremely early age – when he was only four, he began to work in sugar fields alongside his parents in order to help them make enough money to survive. By the age of nine, both of Bezerra’s parents had died. By 10, he’d fled from a house where he worked in slave-like conditions. As a result, he was well aware of the inequalities and challenges that faced workers, and though he remained unable to read until 25, he was heavily interested in politics, and often asked people to read the newspaper to him. When the Russian Revolution broke out in February 1917, Bezerra joined other workers in marching in the streets in support of the revolution and in demanding better rights for Brazilian workers. His actions led to his arrest for “disrupting public order.” Only seventeen, he was sentenced to five years in prison for his actions; it would not be the last time he would receive such a sentence for his beliefs.
Upon his release in 1922, Bezerra decided to join the army, hoping to use the opportunity to learn to read. Though already well aware of workers’ struggles and having a genuine curiosity to learn more about socialism, it was only in 1927 that he finally was directly exposed to the ideas of communism. Drawing on the Russian Revolution and Lenin, in 1922 the Partido Comunista Brasileiro [Brazilian Communist Party; PCB] formed in secret, and began publishing a newspaper, A Nação ["The Nation," an ironic title, given Marx's original stance on nationalism and nations]. When Bezerra ran into an old military colleague in downtown Rio, his friend gave him a copy of the paper, and Bezerra found the ideas he’d felt and experienced since his childhood. Another chance encounter led to this same friend giving him a copy of “The Working Class,” another leftist paper. Bezerra described this experience as his own personal “catechism.”
In 1930, he returned to Pernambuco and became an official member of the PCB. Still in the military, he fought for the national government of Getúlio Vargas against rebels in São Paulo in the 1932 Constitutionalist Revolt. However, as the 1930s progressed, the radical right-wing, embodied by the pseudo-fascist Integralista Movement, was ascendant in Vargas’s government, and the left found itself increasingly persecuted. In an attempt to combat fascism, some leftists formed the Aliança Nacional Libertadora [National Liberating Alliance; ANL], which had ties to the PCB but was not officially a part of the Party. Bezerra joined the ANL, and in July 1935, the ANL, speaking out against fascism and defending the working class, rose up and called for an end to Vargas’s government. The movement failed, however, and the government quickly suppressed it; Bezerra himself was arrested and sentenced to 28 years in prison for his role in the ANL. The uprising was significant for other reasons, as well; though it would not be until November 1937 that Vargas’s Estado Novo dictatorship began, the repressive tactics and increasing censorship of that regime had its roots in the ANL’s failed revolt. While in prison in Rio de Janeiro, Bezerra shared a cell with PCB secretary general Luís Carlos Prestes, also in prison for his communist beliefs.
Under pressure, Vargas left power in 1945, and with the end of the Estado Novo, the government released its political prisoners, including Bezerra. The PCB was made legal again and ran candidates in elections. Ultimately, Prestes was elected the PCB’s sole representative in the Senate, but fourteen men were elected to the Chamber of Deputies; Bezerra was among them, getting more votes than any other candidate in the Chamber. As a Deputy, he used his power to speak out on behalf of workers, defending agrarian reform, the right to independent unions, the right to strike, the right of children not to work [a subject that was particularly personal to Bezerra], child care for single and working mothers, and the right to vote for those who could not read, among other issues. However, the institutional success of the PCB was short-lived; in 1947, he was stripped of his political rights (as were the other members of the PCB serving in Congress) and then arrested on trumped-up charges of arson, serving two more years before being absolved of any crime. Having already spent more than a third of his life in prison and fearing further persecution, he went into clandestinity for several years, remaining on the move but working with unions and organizing workers all the while. In 1957, he was finally caught and arrested once again, this time for his role in helping form Ligas Camponesas [Peasants' Leagues] in the Northeast, though he was released through habeas corpus. Bezerra remained active, though, and was elected to the General Committee of the PCB in 1960.
Like so many others from socially progressive and leftist parties and movements, Bezerra’s life changed with the military coup that overthrow constitutional president João Goulart on 1 April 1964. Given his high profile and his ties to the oldest communist party in Brazil, the military promptly arrested and tortured Bezerra. Indeed, he seemed to be the perfect example of what the military claimed was the reason for its coup (which it defined as a “revolution”): in the early 1960s, there was a growing fear among right-wing forces in both military and civilian camps that there was an “International Communist Movement” that had targeted Brazil. Given the PCB’s sympathies with and open support for the Soviet Communist Party and for Marxist-Leninism, it was the best example of the perceived threat that these right-wing forces feared and used to legitimize their rule. In arresting Bezerra, they were making a stand against the so-called “International” movement while hoping to drum up support by providing examples. However, the arrest of Bezerra backfired somewhat. Images of Bezerra, half-naked and clearly unarmed yet surrounded by soldiers in the middle of public in Pernambuco, circulated throughout the country, and many found the regime’s treatment of the now-64-year-old to be excessive. That did not prevent the military from sentencing Bezerra to nineteen years in prison for “subversion”; under the sentence, he would have remained in prison until he was 83.
While Bezerra was in prison, a major shift in radical politics was taking place in Brazil. Even before the military regime, some were beginning to question the PCB’s tactics; they felt that ties to the Soviet Union, discredited among the left when the horrors of Stalinism were made public in the latter half of the 1950s, undermined the party’s legitimacy. Additionally, they were increasingly critical of the PCB’s insistence on fomenting revolution through institutional means like elections and Congress. When the 1964 coup happened, many grew further discontented, saying that not only had the PCB’s tactics failed to create revolution, they’d failed to prevent a right-wing coup. Thus, a new generation of leftists, especially among university-age students and workers, began to turn to alternative models, be it the example of Ché Guevara’s foquismo as expressed by Régis Debray, or be it by the Maoist model. By 1968, a number of small guerrilla groups had formed, drawing on and adapting these newer models of leftism and swearing off the older Russian-influenced theories and models that the PCB had employed since 1922.
One of these new guerrilla groups was the Movimento Revolucionário 8 de Outubro [October 8 Revolutionary Movement; MR-8], named after the day Ché Guevara had been captured in 1967. In 1969, as Brazil was entering its most repressive phase of the dictatorship, the MR-8 hatched a plan: they would kidnap US Ambassador Charles Elbrick, and offer his release in exchange for fifteen political prisoners. The plan went off nearly perfectly – such an attack had never happened before, and Elbrick and his security were unprepared. The MR-8, with help from the Ação Libertadora Nacional [National Liberating Action], captured Elbrick, and put together their list of prisoners to be released. Near the top of the list was none other than Gregório Bezerra, who insisted on the means and instruments of revolution that groups like the MR-8 had disavowed. In spite of these differences, though, the students appreciated Bezerra’s contributions to leftism in Brazil historically and his efforts on behalf of workers, and the image of the older man under arrest in 1964 had made him a symbol of repression under the dictatorship.
Thus it was that, only five years into his nineteen-year sentence, Bezerra was released, joining fourteen other political prisoners who were sent to exile in Mexico in exchange for Elbrick. However, Bezerra did not appear in the famous photo of the prisoners; they departed from Rio de Janeiro, and stopped in Recife to pick up Bezerra, where he had been imprisoned. The other prisoners fondly recalled that, upon boarding, he began whistling “The Internationale,” and the young soldiers guarding the prisoners did nothing, unaware of what the song signified.
Though grateful for his freedom, Bezerra did not fully agree with how it had come about. Given the differences in ideology and party affiliation between Bezerra and leftist university students in the 1960s, even with his release he was critical of the students’ tactics to try to spur revolution. He openly admitted that he disapproved of isolated actions on the part of small guerrilla groups, believing them to contribute nothing to developing broader processes of revolution; nor did he approve of proactive violence. Like the Marxist-Leninist he was, he spoke out against individual acts of violence, saying he fought against power systems and not against individual people (like Elbrick). As he himself put it, “I only believe in violence of the masses against the violence of reaction.” With statements like these, it is not hard to see why students of the 1960s who looked to Che and Mao found little in Bezerra’s stance that they could agree with. Nonetheless, his status as one of the key figures of both Brazilian Communism and of repression under the dictatorship made him a sympathetic figure for youth, even if they did not agree with his ideologies. And considering the inability for later movements like the guerrilla movement in Araguaia to create peasant revolution, or the urban guerrilla movements in São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, and elsewhere to really undermine the power of the state, it is clear that Bezerra’s arguments and views were not necessarily unrealistic.
These generational and ideological differences manifested themselves in exile, as well. All fifteen prisoners went to Mexico and then to Cuba, where many of the younger exiles hoped to receive training before returning to Brazil to continue to fight. Bezerra, however, was uninterested in their models of revolution, and instead continued on to the Soviet Union, where he received medical treatment for the injuries and poor health he suffered under torture and in prison. He continued to serve as an activist, fighting for workers’ rights through international organizations. In 1979, the last military president, João Figueiredo, declared a general amnesty that pardoned political prisoners and exiles (as well as those within the state who were guilty of torture, kidnapping, and murder). With the amnesty, Bezerra returned to Brazil, welcomed as a hero by many who admitted that, even if they did not agree with his ideas or beliefs, they respected his adherence to them; additionally, in spite of all he had been through in life, Bezerra never seemed to bear any anger or ill will towards the regimes or people who had mistreated him in the past, making him a more admirable figure in the eyes of many in Brazil.
Upon his return, Bezerra broke with the PCB, though he continued to proclaim himself a Marxist-Leninist. He instead supported the broader, coalition-like opposition party, the Partido Movimento Democrático Brasileiro [Brazilian Democratic Movement Party], even running once more for the Chamber of Deputies under the PMDB umbrella in 1982. Though he did not win outright election, he did win a position as a surrogate to the Congress, a sign of the respect he had gained over the years.
However, he never did serve in Congress directly again. In October 1983, Bezerra had a heart attack and passed away at the age of 83 – ironically, the very age he would have been had he been forced to complete his prison sentence from 1964. His body lay in state in the Legislative Assembly of Pernambuco, and thousands turned out to offer their final respects. Overall, he’d spent more than twenty-two years of his life in prison for his beliefs. Nonetheless, he remained famous for his generosity, his story-telling abilities, and his willingness to fight for the oppressed. Throughout his life, he spoke out on behalf of the poor, the exploited, and the young. Indeed, toward the end of his life, he said he wanted to be remembered as someone who “was a friend to children, to the poor and the excluded; loved and respected by the people, by the exploited and suffering masses; hated and feared by the capitalists, considered enemy number 1 by Fascist Dictatorships.” Given the time he spent in prison during right-wing regimes, and the support he received upon his return to Brazil and the respect he was afforded in death, it seems fair to say that, in those terms, his life was a success. And even if the revolution and equality Bezerra fought for never materialized in ways he hoped, his success in improving the lives of workers in cities and countryside alike and his impact on Brazilian politics in the twentieth century are undeniable.
With the recent announcement of a hike in bus fares in São Paulo, residents took to the streets last night to peacefully express their opposition to and anger with the hike. However, the protests turned very ugly when the police responded with overwhelming force against peaceful and unarmed protesters. And this wasn’t some “warning shot” situation – photographs reveal the extent of damage from police violence, police were caught repeatedly approaching protesters and firing rubber bullets at protestors’ upper bodies from close range, even hitting two journalists in the faces with rubber bullets. Such violence led to more people gathering to protest police violence, which led to more violence. As one woman tweeted last night, “It’s not about the fares anymore. Fuck the fares. This has become much greater than the question of fares.”
That statement is true, but indeed, it’s possible to argue it wasn’t ever about the fares in the first place – at least, not strictly about the fares. Twenty cents may not seem like a lot, but it’s important to contextualize. São Paulo has a subway system, but like its counterpart in Rio de Janeiro, the metro is far more expensive than the bus lines are, reinforcing broader social hierarchies in transportation – the middle classes can more easily afford the faster metros than the working classes can. Yet many more are affected by the hikes based on simple geography. Though São Paulo’s metro system is not insignificant, the metro area is enormous (around 20 million people), and the subway simply does not reach many parts of the city; for an anecdotal example, when I visited São Paulo several years ago, I stayed with a friend who lived in a middle-class neighborhood far from the city center. I spent an hour on a city bus just to get to the beginning of the metro line that would take me into the city. So though the working classes rely more heavily on buses than on the metro, many outside the working class also rely on the bus system simply due to urban geography.
Still, what’s twenty cents? Well, for starters, it’s a not-insignificant amount of money for a working class that is often underpaid even while living in one of the most expensive cities of Brazil – in 2012, it ranked as the 12th most expensive city in the world, ahead of New York City, Los Angeles, or any other city in the US. And in recent years, unemployment in São Paulo has been above the national average for Brazil, compounding the problem for many paulistanos [those from São Paulo city]. And then there’s the national economy. Growing inflation, growth rates that have slowed down, and currency devaluation have all further worsened matters, making well-paying jobs harder to come by and lessened the overall value of incomes among both the working and the middle classes in Brazil. In that setting, outrage over twenty cents is far from the total issue; while the move directly impacts millions of people, the protests over bus fares tap into broader discontent over the economic situation in São Paulo.
And that only adds to the horrific repression and violence on the part of the police last night. Just as in the case of Turkey, UC-Davis, and New York City in recent history, police have responded to peaceful protests with an overwhelming and disproportionate use of force. This is the face of repression of protest, free assembly, and free speech in the 21st century, drawing on the same police tactics that resemble those of the 1960s throughout the world, but with new technologies like pepper spray and rubber bullets. And police insisting they could no longer be held responsible for their actions last night only further reeks of police abuse and impunity for state violence. The state’s Secretary of Security can insist that the government will look into the use of police force, but given the long history police violence and impunity for police and neglecting the socioeconomic inequalities in São Paulo, it’s difficult to imagine there will be any real efforts to prevent such repression of protests or change police tactics anytime soon.
-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 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.]
One of the key moments in diplomatic history and in Brazilian history was the 1969 kidnapping of US ambassador Charles Elbrick. Living in the midst of a repressive dictatorship, a handful of students involved in the Revolutionary Movement October 8 (MR-8), with aid from the National Liberation Action (ANL), two leftist organizations who resisted military rule, decided to launch a daring plan: they would kidnap the US ambassador, a symbol of what they perceived as US imperialism in Latin America, and demand that the military regime release fifteen political prisoners and publicly release a manifesto the MR-8 had written. If their demands were not met, they said, they would kill Elbrick. The MR-8 provided a list of its 15 prisoners, including student activists, labor leaders, and lifelong members of the pro-Moscow Brazilian Communist Party (PCB). After much internal disagreement within the armed forces, the military agreed to accede to the demands; the regime released fifteen political prisoners, who were sent to Mexico and then on to Cuba. For its part, the MR-8, true to its word, released Elbrick.
The entire episode was transformative. It had been the first time any ambassador had been taken hostage in the modern world, and other groups both in Brazil and elsewhere in the world began to use similar tactics to make demands in what were often repressive regimes. Several of the members of MR-8 behind the action themselves were eventually caught and tortured (and at least two from the ANL died under torture); they, too were ultimately released when other leftists kidnapped West German ambassador Ehrenfried von Holleben in 1970. As for Elbrick, he returned to the US and, in his later years, forgave and spoke kindly of the youth who held him captive for 78 hours.
But what of the original fifteen political prisoners released in 1969? What happened to them after the events of early September, 1969? We will spend the coming weeks tracing their lives. A few weeks ago, we focused on one of those individuals, Maria Augusta Carneiro Ribeiro, the only woman among the 15 political prisoners released. Across the rest of the summer, we’ll look at the other fourteen people who were brought together on that fateful flight, the events that led them there, and the divergent paths they took after their exile in 1969. Today we begin with José Ibrahim.
José Ibrahim was born in the industrial city of Osasco, São Paulo, in 1946. His father, of Arabic ancestry, worked as a traveling salesman, and as a child, José often accompanied his father on trips. Like many working-class children, José received some education but did not end up attending university; indeed, by the early 1960s, Brazil had just over 100,000 university students in a country of over 70 million people. Thus, like many of his socioeconomic background, José’s education hinged on vocational training to prepare him for his own career as a blue-collar worker. Already at 14, José began working for COBRASMA, a privately owned company that manufactured materials for Brazil’s rail network. he also became active politically, joining the Juventude Operária Católica (Catholic Workers Youth; JOC) and later the Leninist Partido Comunista Brasileiro (Brazilian Communist Party), as well as in UBES, the secondary students’ movement. Although barely 21, in 1967 he already had several years’ experience of factory work, and, in spite of his youth, his colleagues elected him the president of the Metalworkers’ Union of Osasco.
The following year, José would become a national figure in the struggle against the military dictatorship. Though there had been voices of dissent and protest that challenged the military regime since 1964, by 1968, such criticisms were rapidly intensifying as hundreds of thousands of students were taking to the streets to demand democracy, often joined by parents, opposition politicians, musicians, artists, and others. However, the students were not alone. Workers themselves had increasingly been making their voices heard, joining in protests and marching in the streets. In July, well over 3000 industrial workers occupied a factory in Osasco and went on strike; it was only the second time since 1964 that the working class had mobilized on such a scale and in such a politicized fashion, and it was the biggest workers’ strike yet (the first, at Contagem in May of 1968, had fewer workers). As the president of the Union, José Ibrahim was at the forefront of the action, which, far from being spontaneous, was thought out and planned down to the slightest detail. The military regime, already losing control over the middle-class university students who were supposed to be the engine of national development, cracked down on the workers, invading the factory and arresting hundreds. Though José was not among those arrested, he had to go into clandestinity, constantly on the move throughout the rest of 1968. In spite of the military breaking the strike, however, José felt it to be a victory both politically and morally, as it showed that workers could still unify and mobilize even under conditions of repression, and it marked the first time that Brazilian workers had occupied their factories, and factory production continued to be paralyzed throughout much of 1968.
Though José went underground, by the end of 1968, Brazil had entered a new phase of repression, and the state security apparatuses were out to arrest anybody suspected of any form of “subversion”; given his role in Osasco, that included José , and in February 1969, the police caught him where he was staying. Even before they could get him to prison, they began torturing him, trying to find out anybody else he knew and exacting “revenge” on him for his actions the previous year. He was then taken to prison, where he continued to suffer torture at the hands of state agents. He remained imprisoned for seven months, until the kidnapping of Charles Elbrick. Given his role as a labor leader and his status in the wake of the Osasco strike, José was included on the list of the fifteen political prisoners to be released, a fact he heard on the radio that he had smuggled into his prison cell and hidden from officials. The plane, Hercules 56 (named for the model of plane, and the number), landed in Mexico, where the exiles arrived to much fanfare and international attention; after all, the kidnapping of an ambassador had never been attempted before, and that it was the US ambassador made the story resonate throughout much of the world.
After a brief time in Mexico, most of the exiles continued on to Cuba to receive training. However, José’s time in Cuba was a mixed experience. While many of the student leaders who had been freed were eager to continue studying and receive training to fight against the dictatorship, José with his blue-collar background, felt estranged from their goals. He ultimately opted to build on his experience as a labor leader, opting to work in a variety of factories, sugar mills, and elsewhere in Cuba. Feeling he’d done all he could in Cuba, he decided to go to Chile.
Chile was a common destination for exiles and for leftist activists from Brazil. In 1970, socialist Salvador Allende had won election as president at the head of the Popular Unity, a leftist coalition. Many Brazilian leftists saw Chile as a place where they could participate in the social and political revolution they’d sought in Brazil. Thus, like many other Brazilians, José headed to Chile. However, he and many other Brazilians ultimately saw their hopes dashed; on September 11, 1973, Chile’s military launched a coup that overthrew Allende. Suddenly, thousands of Brazilians who had fled from one right-wing dictatorship found themselves living in another one. They flooded embassies, seeking refuge and exile yet again. José was among them. Twenty-one days after Augusto Pinochet’s September 11 coup, he went to the Panamanian embassy, not so much out of any desire to travel to Panama, but because most of the other embassies were already overflowing, monitored by the right-wing dictatorship, and/or closed off. José managed to gain asylum in the Panamanian embassy, heading off to Panama before continuing on to Belgium.
While in Belgium, he worked with other labor leaders as well as other exiles and human rights organizations, ultimately helping create the Casa Latino-Americana, which, with support from the UN, helped exiles from Latin American dictatorships. José served as president of the Casa for five years. In spite of his activism, however, he continued to seek a way back to Brazil. Indeed, his experiences provided a reminder of how devastating even exile could be for those fleeing repressive dictatorships; although he’d escaped the repression and torture in Brazil, he still felt what he called a “civil death,” cut off entirely from his own home and a citizen of nowhere. This rupture even filtered into his family life; his son was born overseas and, given José’s status as a pariah in his own country, he had difficulties getting his son’s status as a Brazilian citizen (with all the rights citizenship entailed) established. As José’s experiences remind us, though exiles often avoided the torture, persecution, and even murder that activists in right-wing dictatorships like Brazil, Chile, or Argentina suffered, the trials of life in exile brought its own forms of suffering and difficulty.
As the political climate continued to slowly reopen in Brazil in the late-1970s, José plotted his return to Brazil, ultimately coming back in May 1979, just a few months before President João Figueiredo announced a general amnesty that pardoned political prisoners, exiles, and torturers alike. Upon returning, he drew again upon his labor activism; he came into contact with Luíz Inácio “Lula” da Silva, a metalworker and union leader who had been at the forefront of labor activism in the latter half of the 1970s. With Lula and seven others, José became one of the nine labor leaders who helped create the Partido dos Trabalhadores (Workers Party; PT).
Throughout the first half of the 1980s, José worked within the PT, becoming a member of the National Executive of the party. He ran as a PT candidate for the Chamber of Deputies in 1982. However, the PT itself was going through an identity crisis: some, like José, wanted to push for greater workers’ rights and a path towards socialism; others sought a more centrist approach that could perhaps lead to a broader appeal among the Brazilian electorate and greater strength within the government. This latter faction, known as the “Articulation,” gained a majority, and José (and others who shared his sentiments) left the PT. He worked for several years with leftist Leonel Brizola’s Partido Democrático Trabalhista (Brazilian Labor Party; PDT), but after Brizola failed to make it out of the first round of the 1989 presidential election, José left the PDT, choosing to focus on labor rights and organization rather than become further involved with the turbulent and fractured nature of partisan politics in Brazil. He helped form three different union groups and served as the Secretary-General of the Centro de Atendimento ao Trabalhador (Workers’ Service Center; CEAT), an organization designed to defend workers’ interests and provide them with education, representation, professional training, and other services. He also made a return to politics, running once more as a candidate for the Chamber of Deputies, this time for the Partido Verde (Green Party; PV) in 2006. Though he did not win, he continued to speak out for and work for the organization of Brazil’s blue-collar employees up until a little over a month ago, when he passed away at the age of 66.
José Ibrahim left behind a legacy that went far beyond his role in 1968; indeed, for over 40 years, he worked tirelessly for Brazilian workers. Though his release in 1969 made him part of an iconic moment in Brazilian political history, it is in his labor activism that his legacy was made, and it will continue to be felt for years to come.
This is part of an ongoing series. Previous entries can be found here.