-Still dealing with the loss to Chile of its only route to the Pacific 140 years ago, Bolivia is set to take its case to the International Court of Justice, a move that Chilean President Sebastián Piñera has said would open a “Pandora’s Box” of territorial issues in the Americas (including the territory the US took from Mexico in the wake of the Mexican-American War).
-US President Barack Obama is set this week to make his first trip to Latin America since winning re-election last November, with stops in Mexico and Costa Rica planned. Prior to the trip, he met with Latino leaders in the US, with whom he discussed socioeconomic issues.
-Peruvian President Ollanata Humala may be preparing to pardon former president Alberto Fujimori, who is serving jail time after his conviction for human rights violations that Fujimori oversaw during his 1990-2000 presidency.
-Evo Morales is set to run for a third term as president after Bolivia’s constitutional court ruled in favor of presidents serving three consecutive terms.
-Chilean Laurence Golborne, seen as the frontrunner among conservative candidates to challenge former president Michelle Bachelet in next year’s election, has removed himself from the race amidst allegations of shady business practices.
-Cuban gay rights activist Mariela Castro will travel to the US to receive an award in Philadelphia next week. Castro had initially been denied a visa to the US, due primarily to the fact that she is the daughter of Raul Castro.
-Colombia is set to resume peace talks with the FARC after a month-long break in the peace process.
-The Catholic Church has excommunicated Brazilian priest Roberto Francisco Daniel (known colloquially as Padre Beto) for his defense of open marriages and his defense of same-sex love. More than a symbolic move, the excommunication marks a split between official church hierarchy and a growing strain of moderate and even progressive Catholicism among some parishioners in Brazil.
-A new scientific study suggests that Latin America is facing a “cancer epidemic” due to challenges in diagnosing and treating cancer, as well as to increasingly unhealthy diets, higher levels of tobacco-smoking and alcohol consumption, and an increasingly inactive lifestyle.
-In what is an important step in addressing impunity (albeit a significant issue in its own right), sixty officers in Rio de Janeiro have been arrested on charges of corruption, even while another five officers were arrested for the murders of a journalist and a photographer who were working on a story on militias in Brazil’s interior state of Minas Gerais.
-The next president of the World Trade Organization will be from Latin America, as the remaining to candidates for the position are Mexico’s Herminio Blanco and Brazil’s Roberto Azevedo.
-Finally, when I studied in Costa Rica about a decade ago, the “best” beer one could find was Heineken, so this is excellent news for Costa Rica.
While women like Vera Sílvia Magalhães and Maria Augusta Carneiro Ribeiro played key roles in the radicalism and student activism that challenged Brazil’s dictatorship, theirs was not the only way in which women could and did mobilize to challenge the military regime. Even as the dictatorship entered its most repressive phase under presidents Artur Costa e Silva and Emílio Médici, students found new ways to organize and mobilize, and new issues to confront, throughout the 1970s. Comba Marques Porto is an example not only of the role women students continued to play in challenging the dictatorship in the 1970s, but also of the struggle for women’s rights during military rule and in the post-dictatorship context, both in student movements and in society more generally.
Comba Marques Porto was born in 1945 in Rio de Janeiro. Her father was a journalist, and her mother a housewife, as was common in many urban middle class families at the time. Comba Porto seemed destined to be an elementary schoolteacher, another profession that women, especially single women, dominated (or were limited to, depending on one’s perspective). In Brazil at the time, teachers at the elementary level could be certified based on their performance and training in high school. And like many young women from her background, she remained relatively apolitical, in spite of the political context of the dictatorship and of some of her own family members participating in the student movements. However, after finishing her secondary schooling and getting her teaching certification, in 1966 Comba Porto decided to take the entrance exams for university. She passed, and began to attend Guanabara State University (UEG, now called Rio de Janeiro State University) in the city of Rio.
By the time she had enrolled and begun studying in UEG, the political and social atmosphere was intense, as the semi-illegal National Students Union (UNE) was gaining strength and becoming a key voice in challenging the military regime and its increasing use of repression. Thus, the already-strong history and tradition of student mobilization was only intensifying when she began attending classes.
However, things had changed significantly by the end of her second year of studies. In the face of growing protest not only from students but from parents, white-collar professionals, artists, and others, the hardliners were getting increasingly uneasy. In October 1968, the arrested around 900 students at the semi-clandestine UNE Congress in the interior of São Paulo state; Comba Porto, one of the delegates, was among them, and briefly served time in jail. Perhaps more importantly at the national level, in September 1968, Congressman Marcio Moreira Alves gave a speech on the floor of Congress a few days before Brazil’s Independence Day celebrations. Known retrospectively as the “Lysistrata speech,” Moreira Alves called on women to protest the regime by refusing to dance with, kiss, or date soldiers. Though the public paid the speech little attention, the generals were outraged (or feigned outrage). They demanded Congres strip Moreira Alves of his congressional immunity so that the military could prosecute him for offenses to the nation. On December 11, Congress not only voted to allow Moreira Alves to retain his immunity; they sang the national anthem, openly defying the military’s attempted monopolization on nationalism. The military acted swiftly. On Friday, December 13, Costa e Silva, with the support of other hardliners in the military, issued the Ato Institucional No. 5 (Institutional Act Number 5; AI-5), indefinitely closing Congress, intensifying censorship, escalating the use of torture, and ushering in the most repressive phase of Brazil’s dictatorship.
Given its central and vital role in challenging the dictatorship for its first four years, the student movement was an obvious target of this new political silencing. Indeed, as if AI-5 had not made the situation clear, in February 1969, the government also issued Decree-Law 477, which specifically focused on students by prohibiting political expressions or organization on campuses, with the threat of stripping students of funding, expulsion, and even arrest. The fact that many of the prohibitions and punishments outlined in Decree-Law 477 were also in AI-5 made clear just how determined to abolish all student mobilization the military was.
However, the regime’s power was not absolute, and already in 1969, students were finding new ways to organize at the local level as the regime went after UNE. Comba Porto was one of these figures, joining her campuses University Committee in the hopes that she could convince students to join the causes of the Leninist Brazilian Communist Party (PCB). She continued to work in new organizations and agitated to challenge the regime, including its educational policies. In one instance she attended a conference at the Ministry of Education where she challenged the regime’s educational policies and their failings to the Minister of Education. Speaking before high-ranking officials, she pointed to the failings in the educational system and talking about the opportunities and future she hoped awaited her daughter.
While Comba Porto and other students found ways to mobilize, the fact remained that the political and social atmosphere was greatly limited to all students, as the regime placed plainclothes police officers in classrooms and had them regularly report on student activities and pamphlets distributed on campuses. Further compounding the problem was the fact that, by this time, Brazil’s student movement itself had increasingly fragmented, as some activists from the late-1960s joined guerrilla movements in the cities or countryside, others went into exile, and still others split over what type of revolution should remove the dictatorship.
Yet even this fragmentation did not lead to an end of mobilization. By the mid-1970s, students shifted from party-based alliances that drew on shared ideologies, and instead moved to professionally-based alliances. Comba Porto’s experiences were again instructive of these new forms of mobilization. Upon finishing her degree at UEG, she enrolled in the National Law School at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ). While there, she participated in an official Week of Juridical Debates; though ostensibly about legal issues in Brazil, the conference doubled as a means for students from other law schools from throughout the country to gather, discuss the issues each faced on their campuses, and work together to reconstitute a new, more national student voice. The regime’s officials were aware of this threat, but they could not stop it; although the rector (whom the military dictatorship had directly appointed) called her to his office and condemned the conference, even threatening her, she continued to organize and mobilize at similar types of events, and she never was expelled.
Comba Porto’s activism was part of a broader nascent trend in student mobilizations. Whereas student leadership had by and large been dominated by men in the 1960s, both in Brazil and in much of the rest of the world, by the 1970s, women were not only taking a more prominent role in mobilizing, but also beginning to fight for the issues that affected women directly. Challenging the male-dominated hierarchy was a part of those issues. And it was not an imaginary struggle; though she had been a regular participant and activist in a number of student organizations on campuses, she had never reached a position of leadership in any of these organizations, reflecting the ongoing trouble women activists had in gaining the respect and support for official leadership positions.
As she finished her schooling, Comba Porto took her experiences as an activist and as a woman to her professional life. By the mid-1970s, she was working on cases of political prisoners. Even while working to defend prisoners (including many who were her former colleagues in the PCB), she also began to work in feminist causes, participating in the Seminar on the Brazilian Woman, where she met other politically engaged women and feminists. Coming into contact with a community that was limited in the student movement but with which she strongly identified, she herself became increasingly tied to fighting for women’s juridical and social rights in Brazil as well.
Although the dictatorship ended in 1985, Comba Porto, like many activists of the 1960s and 1970s, remained active in politics in the new democratic regime. In spite of this new context, however, she continued to run into obstacles as a woman politician, losing in her campaign to be mayor of Rio de Janeiro in 1982 and in her run for a seat in the Federal Chamber of Deputies in 1986, revealing in part the ways women still had trouble gaining access to positions of political leadership. Yet Comba Porto was not without her own triumphs, as she found other ways to shape Brazilian politics. As Brazil prepared to write a new constitution (to replace the military constitution of 1967), Comba Porto was a key figure in the constitutional hearings, adding an important voice to the debates and playing a key role in shaping the language and laws of the 1988 constitution as they pertained to women, including the fact that “men and women have equal rights,” that the government ensure equal protection for women in employment, and that the rights and opportunities of mothers and pregnant women be upheld. In the 1990s, Comba Porto became a judge, working in the Regional Labor Court in Rio de Janeiro. And though no longer involved heavily in party politics, she continues to provide a strong voice for women’s causes, even periodically writing on feminist issues facing Brazil in the 21st century (as well as writing on opera). Comba Porto’s path provides not only another way in which women were involved in student activism during the dictatorship, but insight into the ways in which politics and feminism merged for many students shut out of leadership in the 1970s, feminist struggles that Comba Porto, like many other women, continued to fight for in the post-dictatorship era and indeed continue to fight for even today.
Former Brazilian President Luis Inacio Lula da Silva has long been a polarizing character. His working-class background and his political successes bring out an often-irrational hatred and vituperative declarations from the urban middle- and upper-classes, who see the former-union-leader-made-successful-president as nothing but a lazy drunk, an illiterate, and a man completely uncouth and uncultured (in contrast to how many in the middle class perceive themselves). In spite of the fact that Lula ultimately became president, serving from 2003-2011 and overseeing Brazil’s economic improvement even while socioeconomic inequality dropped during Lula’s two terms (though it still remains an issue), that has not been enough to stop many middle- and upper-class Brazilians for continuing to insult his intelligence through classist stereotypes.
Case in point? Veja, one of the journalistic bastions of middle-class snobbery, addressed the recent announcement that the New York Times will publish a monthly column by Lula (English version here) with the headline, “The first columnist in the history of the press incapable of writing in any language.” That’s right – Nunes is suggesting that Lula, a man who served as president for two terms while leading a country into remarkable economic growth and stability, is illiterate (something that the commenters on the piece also regularly regurgitate – after all, stupidity and bigotry in comments threads is not limited to just one part of the world). And it’s not a subtle suggestion – Nunes even offers a ridiculous (and not even funny) parody of what he thinks Lula’s first piece will look like. [Sample: "In Brazil, o people me see as hero because I remove every miserables da shit," pidgin for "In Brazil, the people see me as a hero because I remove the miserable ones from the shit." And it goes downhill from there.]
Of course, this horribly classist portrayal of Lula is not new language – such characterizations have dogged him since the former union leader emerged on the national political scene in the early 1980s. In his earlier presidential campaigns in 1989, 1994, and 1998, his language was rougher and more clearly reflected his working-class background. Yet even after winning two democratic elections and eight years of policies and leadership that saw Lula leave office with an unprecedented 87% approval rating, some in the middle- and upper-classes (and their media outlets) continue to portray Lula as completely unable to write or communicate his ideas.
Of course, that such attitudes are out of touch with the lives and opinions of most Brazilians shouldn’t be surprising. Indeed, to get a sense of the anger and disconnect between Brazil’s elites and the majority of the population, one only need to look to the legal system, where the Rio de Janeiro Justice Tribunal recently approved a living allowance of around 6,000 reais (about US$3,000) per month on top of their usual salaries (which are on average around R$26,000/month, or US$13,000/month). But that’s not all – the court also made the allowance retroactive to ten years ago. That’s right – the court system just approved a US$36,000 living allowance (give or take a few thousand, depending on one’s rank) for judges, and made it applicable to the last 10 years. And in some cases, the judges aren’t even the best-paid individuals in the courtroom – court clerks can and do make more than US$200,000 a year, and some judges’ salaries are well over $350,000 per month. This, even while the the average per capita income in Brazil is only R$11,000 and where 21% of the total population was living below the poverty line in 2009.
Lula’s administration may have begun to address the socioeconomic inequalities that have plagued Brazil, but he could not eradicate them. That salaries can be so uneven, and that members of the middle- and upper-classes can and do still insult Lula on such severely classist lines, are just two reminders of the ways in which class snobbery, bigotry, and class-antagonism still operate among many of Brazil’s better-off citizens.
This week, FIFA is hosting a conference on the World Cup in history. Scholars from throughout the world are gathering to look at how the World Cup has been more than just a sporting event, filtering into the politics, society, and economics. At the conference, however, two scholars have made some rather bold claims about the connections between the World Cup and politics:
Soccer’s biggest prize may have twice been won with the help of dictators fixing matches for the host team.
Argentina’s triumph in 1978 and Italy’s in 1934 were said to be influenced by military leaders seeking propaganda coups, delegates were told Thursday at a symposium titled ”The Relevance and Impact of FIFA World Cups.”
”It’s the same old story: Sport and politics are brothers and sometimes sport is under the other brother,” Italian writer Marco Impiglia told The Associated Press.
Impiglia presented a paper suggesting Benito Mussolini ensured favorable refereeing decisions, helping the Italian team win.
Raanan Rein, an Israeli professor of Latin American history, said he was ”100 percent persuaded” that Argentina’s military junta influenced a 6-0 win against Peru. The match is a notorious chapter of World Cup lore and ensured Argentina advanced to the final instead of great rival Brazil.
Certainly, there is little doubt that dictatorships benefited from World Cup victories, and it is not even limited to Argentina and Italy. Though Brazil was not the host country in 1970 (Mexico was), its victory there and its status as the first ever tri-champion allowed dictator Emilio Garrastazu Medici to lead the country into the worst excesses of nationalistic pride, even while the military dictatorship was at the height of its most repressive phase. Certainly, dictatorships and repressive governments have benefited from World Cup victories in the past. Nonetheless, as tantalizing and fascinating as the idea is, the key sentence from the article is really this:
Still, Rein and Impiglia said their claims lack documentary proof.
Suffice to say, that’s a pretty big problem. That’s not to say the allegations are totally baseless – for years, there have been allegations and oral accounts from participants or politicians suggesting that Argentina’s 6-0 defeat of Peru in particular was suspect and may have counted on support from any number of officials, be they Peruvian coaches or players, or the referees themselves. Nonetheless, these allegations have generally been whispers, with a lot of contradictions between stories and not a lot of corroborating evidence. Documentary evidence could go far in helping clarify the issue, but that is something Rein and Impiglia lack. One can be “totally convinced” that match-fixing took place, but that does not address the actual issue of whether there is enough evidence to empirically say it did indeed occur. Indeed, although the allegation of manipulating the 1978 or 1934 World Cups is a sexy argument, it distracts from perhaps the more important (and demonstrable) fact that, regardless of whether or not regimes fixed matches, the World Cup played a key role in drumming up popular support for brutal regimes not just in Argentina and Italy, but in Brazil as well. Indeed, the World Cup was and continues to be one of the most visible forms of ultranationalism and sport in the world today, regardless of regime types or match-fixing.
After the institutional coup against Fernando Lugo last June, politico-economic trade bloc Mercosur suspended Paraguay’s membership. The response was swift, and Horacio Cartes, who at the time was a potential candidate for president, called on Paraguay to maintain faith in Mercosur and to work towards having the suspension lifted. Now that Cartes has won the election, it appears that he was sincere in his comments and that he is now taking steps towards restoring Paraguay’s full participation in Mercosur. Perhaps more importantly, Mercosur members seem willing to restore relations with Paraguay. Both Jose Mujica of Uruguay and Cristina Kirchner of Argentina congratulated Cartes on his victory, with Kirchner tweeting “We wait for you in Mercosur” and that Paraguay’s “place is with us in Mercosur always,” while Mujica invited Paraguay to Mercosur’s June summit in Uruguay. Of course, Brazil also has a say in the matter; Dilma Rousseff’s foreign ministry proclaimed that it would be glad to welcome back Paraguay, but only on the condition that Paraguay’s Congress approve Venezuela’s admission to Mercosur (the Paraguayan Senate’s holdup had been what initially kept Venezuela from gaining full membership). Cartes seems willing to take this step, having already spoken with legislators to try to pressure them into accepting Venezuela’s admission. And in another good sign for Paraguay, none other than Nicolás Maduro himself, Venezuela’s recently elected president, called Cartes to congratulate him and to express a desire to improve bilateral relations between Venezuela and Paraguay. Thus, it seems that, as Greg Weeks suggested, South America is willing to allow the resumption of democracy in Paraguay to heal the relations that were strained with Lugo’s removal last summer, and it appears that, barring any sudden rupture, Paraguay is well on the path to returning to normalized political and economic relations with its neighbors.
In other Cartes news, he has also finally apologized for blatantly homophobic and hateful remarks he made regarding homosexuality. While that does not mean he is any more open-minded regarding diversity, at least he had the wherewithal to acknowledge what he publicly said was offensive, hateful, and contributing to a climate of sexual discrimination and fear.
While the past two weeks have looked at student activists who challenged Brazil’s dictatorship, this week we turn to a more unlikely activist and opponent to the military regime: fashion designer Zuzu Angel.
Zuleika “Zuzu” Angel was born in the large interior state of Minas Gerais in the early 1920s (some source list her birth date as 1921, others as 1923). As a child, her family moved to the state capital of Belo Horizonte, where she attended school. Already as a young woman, she began making clothes for family members. In 1947, she relocated to Rio de Janeiro, where by the 1950s she was working as a seamstress. She married US citizen Norman Jones and had two children, Stuart, born in 1945, and Hildegard, born in 1949.
By the 1960s, Zuzu Angel was gaining an international audience in a fashion world dominated by European men like Yves Saint Laurent. Her style was unique, as she incorporated Brazilian materials, colors, and themes like tropical birds and flowers into her outfits. Her individual angel trademark signified something was a Zuzu Angel design. The bright colors and Brazilian-influenced patterns caught the eye of many in the international community; she even had a show featuring her work in the US. By 1970, she had opened her own store in the upscale Ipanema neighborhood, reflecting both her local success and international renown.
Even while her professional career was reaching new heights, her personal life suffered catastrophic loss. Stuart, her first-born child, had become an activist against Brazil’s military dictatorship, and by the end of the 1960s, he’d joined the MR-8 (the group responsible for the kidnapping of US Ambassador Charles Elbrick in 1969). However, by 1969, the military regime had escalated its use of repression, relying on torture, state-sponsored murders, and “disappearing” bodies in the hopes of stamping out all forms of resistance to military rule. Stuart Angel became a victim of such repression. The air force’s security apparatus arrested him in June of 1971, and shortly after his arrest, he was “missing.” A few days later, Zuzu Angel received a letter from Alex Polari de Alvegra, a political prisoner at the prison where Stuart had been taken. In the letter, he described Stuart’s fate, which he witnessed from his cell. Stuart had been brutally tortured, but had not provided the information the military was seeking; in the face of his silence, Polari reported, they bound Stuart and tied him to the back of a military jeep, attaching his mouth to the exhaust pipe. The jeep then proceeded to drive around the grounds of the prison, dragging Stuart behind the jeep while he was forced to inhale the exhaust coming from the jeep, which killed him. After that, the military disposed of his body; its whereabouts are still unknown, making Stuart one of the “disappeared” of the military regime. (Stuart’s wife, Sonia Maria de Moraes Angel Jones, would be arrested and killed after torture two years later, in 1973. Like her husband, her body was also “disappeared,” though her remains were ultimately found and identified decades later.) In a pattern typical of bureaucratic authoritarian regimes, the military denied they had even arrested Stuart. Ironically, by 1973, a secret session of the Military Supreme Court absolved Stuart of the alleged charge of violating the National Security Act, the original “cause” of his arrest.
With the horrific death of her son, Zuzu Angel became an activist and critic of the military regime. Using her international contacts, she denounced the torture, murder, and disappearance of her son both in Brazil and in the international community. At fashion shows in Europe and the US, Zuzu Angel, now dressed in all black to reflect her mourning, took every chance to tell the media what had happened to her son, in the hopes of drawing attention to the military regime’s brutal practices. Since Stuart’s father was a US citizen, Stuart was a dual-citizen of Brazil and the US, and Zuzu used this fact to try to pressure the US to act, lobbying politicians like Frank Church and Ted Kennedy. When Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who had supported such regimes throughout South America, traveled to Rio in 1976, Zuzu Angel managed to give the dossier on her son to one of Kissinger’s aides. Nor did she rely simply on politicians to try to publicize her cause; her status as an internationally-renowned fashion designer gave her plenty of Hollywood contacts, and celebrities like Joan Crawford, Kim Novak, and Liza Minelli all came to Zuzu Angel’s and Stuart Angel’s defense. She even took her message to her medium, putting on “the first collection of political fashion in history,” replacing her traditional tropical images with military silhouettes, caged birds, and guns shooting at angels. Such efforts led the military to monitor her actions overseas, always aware of and bristling at her criticisms of torture and brutality under the dictatorship.
Zuzu Angel never learned the whereabouts of her son’s remains. While driving in Rio de Janeiro in March of 1976 (less than a month after passing her documents to Kissinger’s aides), she died in a car crash while exiting a tunnel. However, the crash appeared to perhaps be more than an accident. Eyewitnesses to the crash described a military jeep present briefly before and after the crash. The mystery surrounding the crash retroactively became more suspicious when in August of 1976, former president Juscelino Kubitschek, another outspoken critic of the regime, also died in a similar car crash under similarly mysterious circumstances, prompting some to argue that the military had found new ways to silence its critics (and leading to the Truth Commission re-investigating his death this year). However, even before the car crash, Angel knew she was a target of the military, prophetically declaring that, “If I appear dead, by accident or by other means, it will have been the work of the assassins of my beloved son.”
Zuzu Angel’s struggles serve as a powerful reminder that it was not just women students who fought against the military regime and who suffered at its hands. Her remarkable professional triumphs were met only with personal loss, and yet she persevered, and in 2006, her story was re-told and her message and suffering re-broadcast in the 2006 film Zuzu Angel. With the death of her son, she, like hundreds of other mothers, suffered the anguish of the loss of a child and of not knowing of the fate of his remains. She remained a tireless defender of human rights and critic of the regime, even while insisting that “I do not have courage, my son had courage. I have legitimacy.” In spite of her claims otherwise, Zuzu Angel was courageous, speaking out against the regime and becoming one of the more important voices in bringing international awareness to the brutality of its repression, even while suffering a mother’s loss.
Recent data on Brazil’s indigenous people have revealed a disturbing trend. According to a new report from the Ministry of Justice, suicide rates among indigenous peoples are an astonishing 32.2 per suicides 100,000 people (compared to an overall rate of 4.9 suicides per 100,000 people nationally). And that is only for Brazil’s entire indigenous population; in the state of Mato Grosso do Sul, the rate is 166 suicides per 100,000. And while the numbers are extremely high, they reflect a broader trend in other parts of the hemisphere, including the US, where suicide rates among indigenous youth between the ages of 15 and 34 is 31 suicides per 100,000 people, more than double the national average of 12.2 per 100,000. These rates among indigenous peoples are tragic and constitute a very real emergency among indigenous peoples. Tragically, the findings, while horrifying, are in some regards unsurprising; among other issues, the lack of jobs, the poverty, the racism, and the failure to protect or respect indigenous cultures and rights in Brazil all factor into the elevated rates of suicide among indigenous youth.
Of course, indigenous peoples have regularly faced discrimination, repression, and disregard, be it in their expulsion from their homes near World Cup sites, with the Belo Monte dam, or even industry using racist stereotypes to defend taking indigenous lands. In this context, Brazil’s indigenous peoples are increasingly pushing back. The Belo Monte dam is not the only one that’s threatening indigenous lands and livelihoods. Indeed, in an attempt to address future energy needs for its growing population, Brazil’s government has made hydroelectric energy a centerpiece of energy policy for the country while focusing less on alternate forms of renewable energy like wind power. Unfortunately, in addition to taking a heavy toll on the environment, these dams also directly affect the lives of the communities who live near them, many of whom are indigenous peoples living on protected lands. The Munduruku peoples on the Tapajós River are one such people. Although their lands are legally recognized and protected, and although they have not entered into an agreement with the government regarding constructing a dam on their lands, that has not stopped preliminary research into and work on a dam from taking place. In response, the Munduruku have threatened to declare war on the government for what they are calling a military invasion of their lands. While an actual war is unlikely, the intense rhetoric has not only made clear that the Munduruku will not quietly step aside for the government to destroy their lands; it has also drawn attention to their cause among activists, environmentalists, and others. Thus, while war would not help anybody, heightened attention to the Munduruku’s cause may help deny the government from acting unilaterally at the expense of indigenous peoples and rights.
Nor are the Munduruku alone in standing up for their rights. This week, a group of indigenous protesters occupied the floor of Brazil’s Chamber of Deputies in protest against a proposed bill that would allow congressional oversight in the mapping of indigenous lands. Ranchers support the bill, which is as unsurprising as is a clear reminder of the ongoing inequalities in Brazilian congressional politics, where the landholding elites are closely tied to politicians through business ties or familial relations, especially in the North and Northeast. These connections have led to centuries of inequality and encroachment upon indigenous lands and rights. That indigenous peoples are pushing back against the bill (and the cronyism it signifies) and the dam (and the disregard for their lands and rights) are important reminders of both the ongoing racial and structural discrimination indigenous peoples face, and their agency in pushing against a system that has for too long attempted to marginalize them and deny them their livelihoods and their basic rights as citizens.
If you cannot see the connection between a photograph of bikini-clad women and Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff’s hope to double Brazil’s per capita income, then you are not alone.
But that didn’t stop one website from accompanying the economic story with exactly such a picture.
While Vera Sílvia Magalhães gained distinction for her role in planning one of the boldest acts against Brazil’s military dictatorship, Maria Augusta Carneiro Ribeiro was not only attached to that event in her own way; she was an important figure in the fight against Brazil’s military dictatorship in the 1960s and a woman who fought for human rights and social justice long after the regime left power in 1985.
Although technically born in Minas Gerais to a middle-class family in 1947, Maria Augusta Carneiro Ribeiro (often referred to publicly by her nickname, “Guta”) spent most of her youth in the northeastern state of Bahia. From a young age, she followed in her parents’ and grandparents’ footsteps by taking an interest in questions of social justice. At the same time, she also enjoyed the material benefits that came with a middle-class upbringing, attending a private Catholic school in Rio de Janeiro after her parents relocated there in the 1950s. Thus, as she herself put it, her political activism and her Catholic upbringing were closely tied, and she joined the Juventude Estudantil Católica (Catholic Student Youth; JEC) when she was 15. Given her political activism, when the military took power in a coup in 1964, her parents opted to send her to spend a year studying abroad in the United States as an exchange student. While in the US, she witnessed firsthand the growing student protests against the Vietnam War in Berkeley, a political activism that made a strong impression upon her. However, her time away from Brazil also led her to detach from her Catholicism, and upon her return to Brazil, she looked for more radical options to fight for social causes and against the military dictatorship. At that moment, there was a generational divide among leftists: the Leninist Partido Comunista Brasileiro (Brazilian Communist Party; PCB) had rejected the armed path to revolution, much to the consternation of younger generations who looked to individuals like Che Guevara as role models for revolution. As a result, a series of small cells advocating a more violent path to communism, referred to collectively as the Dissidencias (Dissidences; DI), emerged, and Guta joined the Dissidencia in Rio de Janeiro (DI-GB).
Throughout 1967, Guta began to distinguish herself as a speaker at rallies and protests, and became an important part of the student movement as a leader, albeit in a “secondary” position, a status reserved for all too many women. Indeed, as was the case in places like Mexico, Chile, and elsewhere, men typically occupied the highest positions in student organizations, with women intentionally or unintentionally denied access to the highest positions in the student movements in spite of their key contributions and participation. Nonetheless, Guta was a figure important enough to attend the clandestine meeting of the National Students Union in Ibiúna, São Paulo, in October 1968. The meeting was poorly planned, with around 900 students gathering on a rural ranch. With so many students gathering in such a small place, the police acted, arresting all those present at the Congress, including top-ranking leaders like José Dirceu, Vladimir Palmeira, and Luís Travassos; though they would remain in prison until September 1969, hundreds of others were released. Guta was one of them.
Upon her release, she continued to organize resistance to the dictatorship. Indeed, her passion for resistance and her abilities made her one of the first women of the DI to work in the armed struggle. Although she’d been released in late-1968, the military ultimately ended up issuing a preventive-arrest order with her name on it, and in order to defend herself, she received arms training. She also entered into clandestinity, moving about regularly in an attempt to avoid arrest. Unfortunately for her, her luck ran out on May 1, 1969, when police spotted her with two other women handing out pamphlets against the dictatorship on International Workers’ Day. With the police closing in, a brief firefight broke out, and while a few escaped, Guta was not one of them.
Security forces ultimately relocated her from Rio to a prison in São Paulo, where she was the only woman in the entire prison. As a result, she was kept in isolation near the common criminals, separated from other male political prisoners. In the increasingly repressive context of 1969, she suffered torture regularly, including one instance that left two of her teeth broken. The treatment she received as a woman angered the common prisoners who witnessed police taking her to and from torture sessions, and they often berated the military, calling them cowards for regularly beating and torturing an unarmed woman. In spite of these protestations, the rough treatment continued, and she remained imprisoned for over three months.
In early September of 1969, her fate changed. When Vera Sílvia Magalhães and several other members of the DI-GB, now renamed the MR-8, kidnapped US Ambassador Charles Elbrick, they put together a list of 15 political prisoners whom they demanded the dictatorship release. The list included a variety of figures from different backgrounds: in addition to student leaders like Dirceu, Palmeira, and Travassos, who’d been imprisoned since October 1968; labor activist José Ibrahim; journalist and activist Flávio Tavares; and PCB member Gregório Bezerra, who had been imprisoned since the beginning of the coup in 1964. Guta was also on the list, due to her involvement in DI-GB; indeed, her inclusion gave her the distinction of being the only woman on the list of political prisoners to be released.
Although she was included on the list, Guta herself was unaware of what was going on; due to her isolation in prison, she, unlike her male colleagues, did not have access to a radio, television, or newspaper. All she knew was that the activity and police presence in the prison had suddenly increased, and one officer told her it was because of something involving her. The officers ordered her to take a shower, and they then gave her the only woman’s clothing they had available – a mini-skirt and a blouse. According to Guta, several officers took advantage of the outfit, slipping their hands up her skirt while she was being transported. Nonetheless, uncertain of her fate, there was little she could say or do at the moment. The military ultimately put her on a flight from São Paulo to Rio de Janeiro, along with some of the other 15 who were also detained in São Paulo. Upon arriving at the Galeão airport in Rio de Janeiro, the thirteen prisoners (two others, Bezerra and Mario Zanconato, were in prisons in the Northeast) were lined up for a photo. Some of the prisoners thought it was for “posterity,” while others, looking around at all the activists who were present, were certain the regime was documenting their impending murders.
The photo was indeed taken for posterity; the thirteen were among the fifteen who were to be exchanged in return for the release of Elbrick. They boarded the plane in handcuffs and sat with a soldier between each of them on the type of long benches designed for parachutists [the plane "Hercules 56," belonged to the military]. After stopping in Bahia and Belém to pick up Bezerra and Zanconato, the plane headed off to Mexico, sending the 15 into exile.
Even on the plane, however, the prisoners were uncertain of their fate, and the repressive tone of military rule even extended to the skies. The prisoners were forbidden from communicating; even the most basic conversations were prohibited. When one of the other prisoners noticed that Guta was particularly cold, given the altitude and her short skirt, he offered her his jacket to cover her legs, but the soldiers refused to even allow this innocuous gesture of kindness. In spite of no means to escape and no access to any sort of weaponry, the prisoners were kept in handcuffs for the entire flight. This caused problems when the prisoners were given bathroom breaks; while the men could urinate with their hands still cuffed, the logistics were different for Guta. Ushered to the toilet, she raised her handcuffed hands and commented that “I am different, I can’t just go like this!”, leading to a bit of confusion and embarrassment among the soldiers before one removed her handcuffs briefly, allowing her to urinate before again having to put on the cuffs. In one last, if increasingly-futile, reminder of the regime’s power, as the prisoners were nearing Mexico, a voice suddenly boomed over the PA, alarming all; it was September 7th, Brazil’s independence day, and the pilot used the opportunity to provide one last ultra-nationalist, pro-military message to the political prisoners.
The arrival in Mexico was an emotional one. On the one hand, the prisoners had arrived safely, but they were now in exile, shut off from their families and many of their colleagues, far from the fight they wanted to fight. Additionally, they’d arrived in a country that, only 11 months earlier, had committed its own massacre of students. Nonetheless, given that most had been in prison only 48 hours earlier and were even considering their possible impending deaths as the military lined them up for a photograph, there was definitely a sense of relief as well. And the arrival was not without its comedic moments, thanks to a linguistic misunderstanding. A Mexican official boarded the plane and ordered the military to remove the “esposas,” which in Spanish means both “handcuffs” and “wives,” but only means “wives” in Portuguese (“algemas” is “handcuffs” in Portuguese). Upon hearing that the esposas were to be taken, the Brazilian prisoners looked around in confusion, commenting that nobody had brought their wife with them. The misunderstanding provided a moment of levity after what had been a stressful journey indeed.
In Mexico, the exiles stayed together in a hotel, debating their future. They were uncertain about staying in Mexico. Ultimately, they ended up accepting an invitation from none other than Fidel Castro, and went to Cuba to continue to receive military training so that they might return to fight in Brazil. However, in the training, Guta severely injured her back. While some of her colleagues went back to Brazil clandestinely, she ended up relocating to Chile, where the military overthrew democratically-elected president Salvador Allende and ushered in its own military dictatorship under the leadership of Augusto Pinochet in 1973. Ultimately, Guta ended up in Sweden, where she earned a degree in Pedagogy.
With the 1979 amnesty for political prisoners (and for those who committed torture or state-sponsored murder), Guta returned to Brazil. Continuing her political activity, she became part of the group that founded the Partido dos Trabalhadores (Workers Party; PT), with labor leader Luís Inácio Lula da Silva and other politically-progressive individuals from both the labor movement and from the middle class. As a human rights activist during her time in exile (and as a victim of torture herself), Guta also worked with the Grupo Tortura Nunca Mais (Torture Never Again Group). She also worked in the government, working in a variety of posts in the government, including for Petrobrás. She participated in the documentary Hercules 56 (and its accompanying book), providing her own recollections of and reflections on her life and her role in one of the more dramatic moments of Brazil’s military dictatorship.
Sadly, Guta died from injuries she sustained in a car accident in 2009, passing away at the age of 62. In spite of her untimely death, she left a powerful historical record behind, both through her activism and through interviews and recorded memories that reveal some of the ways that women were at the heart of political and social change in Brazil in the latter half of the 20th century, even while traditional narratives often overlook their contributions. Though she rarely emphasized her status as a woman radical in a world all too regularly dominated by men, it was an important part both of who she was and of her significance to the student movement. She was more than just the only woman among those first 15 political prisoners released; she was somebody who fought against the military regime even in the context of repression and torture, and at risk to her own health and the lives of her loved ones. Through her life and her actions, Guta showed that, in spite of the gendered politics of the time, women were at the heart of the struggle against Brazil’s military dictatorship and made important contributions to social justice and political change in Brazil.
-Marking the first major protest of the year, over 100,000 Chilean students took to the streets to continue to push for educational reform, an issue that has garnered much support and been a consistent problem for conservative president Sebastian Pinera. (And for those wondering, this is what (part of) over 100,000 people in the streets looks like.)
-With the recent conviction of some of his former top aides for corruption, Brazilian federal prosecutors have opened an investigation into former president Luis Inacio Lula da Silva to examine what, if any, role in or knowledge of payoffs Lula might have had during his first term.
-Uruguay became the third country in the Americas to legalize gay marriage nationwide (joining Canada and Argentina) after the Chamber of Deputies approved the Senate’s changes to the bill (the Chamber of Deputies originally passed an earlier draft of the bill last December). Meanwhile, in Chile, Congress has begun debating the legal recognition of same-sex couples; though the recognition would fall short of allowing gay marriage, it would grant gay couples the same rights as married couples.
-Although the frontrunner in Paraguay’s upcoming elections, conservative candidate Horacio Cartes apparently has quite the history of shady dealings and possible corrupt practices, including international smuggling, practices that, if true, could further strain Paraguay’s relations with its neighbors, relations that were already damaged when Congress rapidly removed former president Fernando Lugo through a dubious “impeachment.”
-A study finds that an overwhelming amount of the money donated to aid Haiti after the devastating 2010 earthquake ultimately ended up in the hands of US companies, with only one percent aiding Haitian companies themselves.
-Speaking of Haitians, they are among the thousands of immigrants who have recently entered into Brazil, leaving the small state of Acre to ask for federal aid in supporting the influx. I don’t quite agree with Boz that their desire to move Brazil automatically means that the economy there is doing well, but it at least suggests that people in other countries perceive the Brazilian economy to be preferable to their own.
-In spite of his family’s claims late last year, Alberto Fujimori does not actually have cancer, which was the reason his family initially called for his release from prison, where he is currently serving a 25-year sentence for human rights violations during his 1990-2000 presidency. Although the former president is not actually ailing, that has not stopped Cardinal Juan Luis Cipriani from calling for a pardon for Fujimori.
-As a hunger strike among prisoners at US facilities in Guantanamo continues, the US has begun force-feeding some of the striking prisoners.
-In the wake of the rape of a tourist from the US, Rio de Janeiro has banned the use of vans for public transit (rather than the larger buses) in the southern part of the city. Of course, that the ban is in effect only in the wealthier southern zone where tourism dominates provides yet another reminder of the social stratification evident throughout Rio, including in public transportation options.
-Hundreds of thousands of Colombians, including President Juan Manuel Santos, marched in support of ongoing peace negotiations between the Colombian government and the FARC.
-Are Brazil and Russia close to a missile deal?
-Although scholarship and human rights activism have already torn much “the veil” off Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet’s regime, the recent exhumation of Nobel-laureate Pablo Neruda could further shed light on the poet’s death and end years of speculation over whether he really died of cancer, as had long been maintained, or if the regime had him killed, a theory that has been bandied about as well.
-Outrage continues over the appointment of evangelical politician Marco Feliciano as the head of the Brazilian Congress’s Human Rights Committee in spite of a history of public homophobic and racist statements. As a result, in a blow against transparency or accountability in government, the Committee recently decided to close all hearings to outsiders in hopes of preventing protests from erupting in committee hearings.
-Speaking of human rights in Brazil, police are finally facing trial for their role in the executions of prisoners during the Carandiru massacre of 1992. The massacre, which occurred 21 years ago this October, left 102 prisoners dead from gunshots after police entered the prison to break up gang fighting between prisoners.
-A Guatemalan court upheld the not-guilty verdict of former president Alfonso Portillo on charges of theft of state funds. However, his legal problems are far from over, as the ruling now opens the path for his extradition to the United States, where he faces indictment for embezzlement and money laundering.
-A Chilean court has suspended development on the Pascua Lama mine, originally set to be one of the world’s largest gold mines, ruling that the pollution and environmental destruction already caused by the Canadian mining company Barrick violates the original terms of the agreement. The shutdown marks a victory for indigenous groups, who had argued that the mine threatened their daily lives and resources, and is part of broader challenges to Barrick’s environmental toll and presence throughout Latin America.
-Finally, scientists have recently encountered a new species of porcupine in Brazil, but the future of the species is already uncertain, as the tree-dwelling Coendou speratus lives in an endangered forest.