Erik Loomis points to this fascinating map allegedly marking “every protest on the planet since 1979.” The piece explaining the map itself, however, acknowledges the limits of taking such data too far:
The map also shows some of the limits of Big Data — and trying to reduce major global events to coded variables. Take, for example, the protests across the United States in late 2011: Some are Occupy protests, others are Tea Party protests, but the difference in the political identity of those demonstrations isn’t reflected in the map. There are some strange things that happen when the data are mapped, as well. A cursory glance at the map would suggest that Kansas is the most restive state in the union, but really the frequent protests popping up somewhere near Wichita are every media mention of a protest in the United States that doesn’t specify a city (the same goes for that flickering dot north of Mongolia in Middle-of-Nowhere, Russia).
Another issue is that the results are only as good as the data. While the scale of GDELT’s database is impressive, it’s influenced by its source: international news reporting. Kalev Leetaru, the Yahoo! fellow at Georgetown University working on the GDELT project, told FP by email that the apparent uptick in protests around the world starting in the mid-1990s may be misleading. “In some other work we are doing right now, preliminary results suggest that as a percentage of all events captured in GDELT, protests have not become more common overall,” he explained. “So, the majority of that increase in protest events over time stems from the increase in available digital media,” especially news.
However, there seem to be some other very real issues, perhaps most notably in exactly what constitutes a “protest.” In looking at this map, one might think that South America has historically been remarkably “inactive,” especially through much of the 1980s and 1990s. Certainly, the presence of repressive dictatorships in Chile (until 1990) or Argentina (until 1983) helps explain some of this “inactivity.” However, no state is so strong as to completely quell or silence protest; notably, in the case of Argentina, the Madres de la Plaza de Mayo gathered regularly to protest the disappearance of their children as early as 1977, and with increasing frequency (and increasing participation from other sectors of Argentine society) throughout the early-1980s. Yet the map seems to ignore all of these protests, with just the occasional “blip” in Argentina in the 1980s; thus, while the map marks an occasional protest in Argentina, it appears to disregard and exclude the Madres de la Plaza de Mayo regularly. This cannot be attributed just to press silence – international news sources were increasingly covering the Madres as the dictatorship wound down. It is not clear what a “protest” is in the map-data, but apparently, the Madres de la Plaza and their supporters are not included.
Nor are they alone. Brazil is inexplicably “invisible” both in 1984 and in 1991-1992, yet these two moments marked two of the most massive and profound series of protests and rallies in Brazilian history. In 1984, as the Brazilian dictatorship was winding down, millions of people throughout Brazil took to the streets in the Diretas Já movement, demanding direct elections and protesting the regime’s exit through the indirect selection of a president. Ultimately, the movement culminated in over one million people gathering in São Paulo alone. Yet on the map, there is not a single “blip” in Brazil in all of 1984, in spite of the numbers of rallies and protests. It is possible that the Diretas Já movement was excluded, given that it was as much in favor of legislation that would create direct elections (a bill that Congress ultimately rejected); such exclusion seems a bit silly, given that those who rallied in favor of the bill were from opposition parties and organizations that opposed the dictatorship, but perhaps the definitions of “protest” used excluded Diretas Já.
That does note explain the absence of regular and significant “blips” in Brazil in 1991-1992, however. In those two years, the issue of rampant corruption in President Fernando Collor’s administration (ironically, the first directly-elected president after the military dictatorship of 1964-1985) led to growing outrage in Brazil. Led by university students who painted their faces (thus leading to their being labeled the Caras Pintadas, or “Painted Faces”), Brazilians took to the streets, demanding Collor’s impeachment and frequently protesting in front of Congress in Brasília, as well as in major urban centers throughout the country. These were unquestionably protests by any definition, and they were not small-scale; as the depth and sheer scale of corruption in the Collor administration became increasingly apparent, tens (if not hundreds) of thousands of people were in the streets, demanding Collor’s removal. He ultimately resigned in 1992, due in no small part to the visible moments of anger and public protest against his administration. Yet on the map, Brazil is completely inactive, lacking even one single “blip” to mark any of these protest in this period. And it’s not like press censorship or a lack of awareness can explain away this gap – this was the top story in Brazilian media for months, and international media outlets also likewise paid it significant attention, especially as the protests continued and Collor’s corruption was further revealed. There is simply no explanation as to why the map completely fails to register these protests other than the fact that, in spite of its claims otherwise, it does not cover “every protest on the planet since 1979.” And if the gaps are that obvious in Argentina and Brazil, what other parts of Latin America, or of the world, are completely and erroneously neglected in the data-gathering that led to the map in the first place?
To be clear, this is not to toss out the map altogether – it does indeed provide a fascinating glimpse into mobilization on a global scale. But the absence of any marker of protests in Latin America at times where protests were common and massive indicates that the map has some very real limits as well, not only in terms of quantitative limits, but in the very qualitative nature of what constitutes a “protest” and why some groups that were clearly leading large protest movements are not included in the data.
In the early hours of the morning on this day twenty years ago, police in Rio de Janeiro murdered eight street children on the steps of Rio’s Candelária Cathedral in what came to be known as the Candelária Massacre.
Official violence in Brazil is nothing new – indeed, the use of brutal forms of both direct and indirect violence against the racially and socio-economically marginalized in Brazil can be traced back to slavery itself. Although Brazil abolished slavery in 1888, like the United States, it did little to address the greater political, social, and economic inequalities that left free blacks at a greater disadvantage within society more broadly, and the poor (and often racially “darker” within Brazil’s own complex matrix of race and ethnicity) faced ongoing challenges. For example, when authorities decided to renovate Rio’s downtown in the 1910s in preparation for a visit from the Belgian royal family, they forcefully displaced the poor who lived along the mountainsides in downtown, relocating them to the city’s periphery, a pattern that has continued into the twenty-first century, as hundreds of favelas now dot the city’s surroundings and mountains where upper-class high-rises cannot be built.
Even while Brazil’s poor continued to be marginalized within the cities, their numbers also grew considerably, and not just through basic population growth; between 1930 and 1980, the rural-urban populations saw a complete inversion, as Brazil shifted from a 70% rural population and only 30% urban population in 1930 to only 30% rural and 70% urban populations by 1980 (even while the total population in the country grew from around 35 million in 1930 to nearly 120 million in 1980). This growth in cities like Rio only added to the strain on the poor, as the growing numbers of rural migrants to cities were unable to find adequate-paying jobs in a glutted market and the favelas only grew. By the 1960s, as the growing urban poor faced dim prospects, neglect, and poverty, they tried to survival any way they could. Many, especially children and mothers, would beg in the streets, even while the drug trade took root in the favelas, providing means to wealth to many who otherwise were completely shut out from economic improvement in Rio de Janeiro.
Unfortunately, the inequalities facing Rio’s urban poor were not limited to economics. Police also regularly targeted poor neighborhoods, employing increasingly brutal tactics to stamp out “crime”. Already by the late-1960s, police death squads were openly operating in the favelas, killing “criminals,” often extrajudicially. Though reports of the death squads appeared in some of Brazil’s more popular magazines, the fact that the victims were poor led many in the middle- and upper-classes to turn a blind eye, blithely accepting the police’s accounts of events and disregarding conflicting reports from the favelas themselves. Indeed, in the context of the military dictatorship (which had begun in 1964), the repression in the favelas increased, and while middle-class students and parents mobilized to defend human rights for university students and “political prisoners”, they were notably silent when it came to favela residents who were labeled “criminals.” The distinction was notable – the political prisoner/criminal dichotomy created a sense that those university students and activists were unfairly persecuted, while those in the favelas legally “deserved” their fates.
By 1985, the military dictatorship had left power, and with it, political and police persecution of middle-class activists had faded away. Sadly, the same could not be said for the urban poor, as police activities and the operation of death squads and paramilitary groups continued to operate, often killing dozens of “traficantes” (dead favela residents who in death were labeled traffickers, regardless of whether or not they were tied to the drug trade or criminal activity) and arresting numerous others, creating a massive strain on Brazil’s already-overcrowded prison system. As had been the case in the 1960s, the middle- and upper-classes, along with the media, continued to accept police accounts of violence at face value, never considering the ways in which the police repression and violence that they had associated with the dictatorship had continued in the favelas. Additionally, Brazil’s 1979 amnesty, which pardoned political prisoners and state agents guilty of torture or murder alike, had further reinforced a culture of impunity, giving the police a greater sense that their actions against the poor would go unpunished (a belief that has sadly persisted well into the 2000s, in spite of some judicial attempts to rein in extrajudicial violence, attempts that have been met with more murders of officials investigating such crimes).
All of that set the stage for the events of the wee hours of the morning on July 24, 1993. Facing these socioeconomic inequalities, neglect, and even abandoned by their own families, thousands of homeless children tried to eke out an existence any way they could, begging in the streets in popular tourist districts or in the business districts where foot traffic was heavy, and finding shelter where they could. One such place was Candelária Church, in the heart of downtown Rio. The church became a popular place for street children to gather, providing some space for rest as well as a place for socializing among those who shared similar plights. Of course, being at the church did not mean that they did not face persecution; police regularly harassed them. Then, on the evening of July 23, the police arrested one youth who had taken shelter there for sniffing glue; indignant, some of the other children threw stones at the car. The police left, saying they would get them sooner or later, a threat they regularly made to the children. Around midnight, cars pulled up to the church where around 72 children were resting. The cars opened fire on the unarmed children, wounding several suddenly opening fire on the unarmed kids, leaving eight dead. The youngest was 11; the oldest was only 20.
At first, authorities did little, even while the news spread worldwide and led to international pressure for an investigation. Yvonne Bezerra de Mello, a social worker who worked with the children and the person who first arrived to help the children on the night of the 23rd/24th, tried to bring attention not just to the murders, but to the broader challenges and violence street children faced. Brazil’s slow legal system began to move, charging several police officers with the murders. Some of the survivors served as witnesses, but still faced violence for their willingness to speak out and identify their attackers; indeed, in 1995, police kidnapped 1993 survivor Wagner dos Santos, shooting him four times; though dos Santos survived this second attack, nobody was arrested for it.
Ultimately, the trial led to conviction of three police officers. In 1996, courts sentenced Nelson Oliveira dos Santos Cunha to 261 years in prison for his role in the attack; in 1998, Marucos Aurélio Dias Alcantara received a 204 year sentence; and Marcos Vinícius Borges Emanuel ultimately received a 300 year prison sentence in 2003. Yet in 2013, not a single one of them is in jail; Cunha and Alcantara have been released, and Emanuel was pardoned. Though his pardon has since been overturned and he is once again wanted, he remains free.
The survivors of the attack were nowhere near as fortunate. By 2003, just 10 years after the massacre, only around twenty of the 64 survivors was still alive; many had died violently, be it at the hands of the police, gang wars, or other ways. In perhaps one of the most tragic and highest-profile cases, in 2000, survivor Sandro do Nascimento took passengers on the Bus 174 line hostage after a robbery gone awry (events recaptured in the powerful 2002 documentary Bus 174). As Brazilian media and bystanders flooded to the scene, worsening the situation. As the scene was broadcast nationwide, Nascimento said he did not want to kill anyone, and that he was a survivor of the Candelária massacre. Around 7:00 that evening, he descended the bus with Geisa Firmo Gonçalves as a hostage. A police officer approached to apprehend Nascimento, opening fire and hitting not Nascimento, but Gonçalves; the shot immediately killed her. In the pandemonium, the crowd that had gathered, thinking Nascimento had fired, moved to lynch him. Police prevented a public lynching and took Nascimento to the back of the police car, where, before millions watching across the country, they suffocated him to death, finishing what they had failed to do to him in 1993. The officer who killed Gonçalves was acquitted; not a single officer was even charged with Nascimento’s murder, reinforcing the social inequalities in which the murder of Brazil’s poor could go unpunished.
Though Brazilians today recall the deaths of the eight killed on the night of July 23/24 1993, the broader issue of violence against the urban poor remains ignored. Indeed, Mello, the social worker who first worked with the children who were victims in 1993, estimates that there have been over 170,000 street children killed in Brazilian cities in the last thirty years, and their deaths go unpunished. And so, while we remember the eight children who died that night and the survivors who have since died in poverty (and often violently), the socioeconomic inequalities, legal weakness, and culture of impunity that defined the events of July 24, 1993, continue in Brazil even today.
With all of the recent events coming out of the Brazilian demonstrations recently, other important stories have fallen to the wayside. One of those stories, which took place before the demonstrations, was Brazil forgiving US$900 million of debt to a number of African nations. I had some comments included in the linked story, but I’d like to add a few more thoughts.
Regarding the actual historical context, as I allude to in the piece, the forgiveness figures into a broader effort on the part of Brazilian governments to strengthen ties to the African continent. Such efforts have not been limited to regime types, and have included a variety of ideologies within government, ranging from Brazil’s right-wing military dictatorship of 1964-1985 up through the center-left administration of former union-leader Luis Inacio Lula da Silva and now into the present administration of Dilma Rousseff. The magnitude of these efforts has varied (ranging from jointly-sponsored cultural conferences to hearings before the World Trade Organization), but the forgiveness of debt totaling nearly $1 billion has to be considered one of the biggest steps yet in strengthening these ties. Certainly, the move is symbolic, making clear to African nations that they have a friend in Brazil, but the very real impact of that debt forgiveness could theoretically have a clear impact on many Africans’ daily lived experiences. Should the governments use the monies that would have gone to debt payments to instead pay for infrastructural improvements and growth, then the move will definitely be more than symbolic (though that is contingent as much upon the African countries enjoying forgiveness as it is upon Brazil itself.
Secondly, I think the explanations for the move vary, and bring together a complex matrix of economic matters, international relations, and an effort to project Brazil’s role on the global stage. Certainly, economically speaking, debt forgiveness is a bit of a gamble that will be based upon future outcomes – it is unclear whether it will lead to any real economic deals for Brazil, in the same way that it is unclear whether the debt forgiveness will improve the lived experiences of the majority of the population in countries whose debt has been forgiven. But it also seems quite possible that, in addition to perhaps actually trying to help African populations, the move is designed both with future economic relations and Brazil’s role in the international arena in mind. And I think in this regard, with African in particular, Brazil is trying to offer up an example of how it provides a counterpoint to both the exploitative history of European and North American powers in the continent, and more recently, the growing Chinese presence, based in no small part on resource-extraction, in Africa. I think this could be a case of Brazil countering both historical European/North American and more recent Chinese roles in the continent, serving as a reminder to African nations that they can have friends like Brazil in the international arena without having to replicate relations based on resource-extraction that defined neocolonialism and, more recently, Chinese relations.
Finally, to return to more recent historical precedent, while debt forgiveness is a new component of these relations and thus in some ways a rupture with Brazil’s past ties to Africa, in other ways, Dilma is building on what Lula began. Back in 2007, Brazil brought a case against the US regarding cotton subsidies before the World Trade Organization. It basically argued that the US was refusing to transform subsidies and overproducing cotton in hopes of driving down world prices and hurting other cotton-producing countries. However, though Brazil brought the case before the WTO (which ultimately found the US in violation of international trade agreements), it represented not just itself, but Mali, Burkina Faso, and other cotton-producing countries in Africa – countries that may not have had the resources to challenge the US before the WTO. That marked part of a broader shift from policies that focused on the US and Europe under Fernando Henrique Cardoso to economic policies and diplomatic relations under Lula, policies that turned increasingly to regions like Africa, the Middle East, and Asia.
Taken in light of earlier policies, Brazil’s forgiveness of a not-insignificant amount of debt seems not to be some sudden appeal to Africa, but part of what is at least a 10-year effort to appeal to African nations and to take a greater role in global politics and economics. The debt forgiveness is not the first move in this process, but it definitely is one of the biggest moves; only time will tell, however, its actual importance, symbolic or real.
While ongoing protests in Brazil have (understandably) occupied a growing amount of space in recent days, Brazilians are not the only ones making their voices heard.
In Chile, as the fight for educational reform approaches its third year, over 100,000 people took to the streets, continuing to demand educational reform. And while the linked article focuses on the tiny number of vandals in the article, what is worth taking away is that around 100,000 people gathered peacefully, continuing to insist that education in Chile (like in Brazil) receive better investment and infrastructure.
Meanwhile, in Costa Rica, Ticos throughout the country have taken to the streets to express their dissatisfaction with the government over a variety of issues, ranging from the temporary cancellation of an agreement with China to develop an oil refinery, to a recent presidential scandal regarding Laura Chinchilla’s traveling on a private jet apparently owned by a drug lord (to say nothing of the organ-trafficking ring recently uncovered and mentioned in the first link).
And in Paraguay, following up on a protest of 3,000 late last week, citizens took to the streets throughout the country last night, drawing inspiration from the demonstrations in neighboring Brazil to demand better infrastructure and public services and an end to corruption.
To be clear, these demonstrations are not mere imitations of what is going on in Brazil - the Costa Rican protests are born of the individual issues facing the Costa Rican nation, and the struggle for educational reform in Chile goes back to 2011. And even the Paraguayan protests, which demonstrators admit have been inspired in part by Brazil’s demonstrations, are based on their own internal issues and struggles particular to lived experiences in Paraguay. Nonetheless, when considered alongside Brazil, it is clear not only that people throughout the region believe demonstrations to be an appropriate and effective means of shaping politics and politicians, but that these democracies are open enough that large groups can gather to make their voices heard. Even when there is police violence (and there still is), it is not repressive enough to stifle public dissent altogether, and that is a not-insignificant thing in countries like Brazil, Paraguay, and Chile that have seen far more repressive crackdowns on smaller rallies under dictatorships in the last 50 years.
As for Brazil, the demonstrations that are now entering their third week continue to affect politics and local economies. Yesterday, the Senate passed a bill that made corruption a “serious” crime – effectively elevating it from a misdimeanor to a felony – increasing the penalties for political corruption. At the same time, the Supreme Court issued an arrest warrant for former Federal Deputy Natan Donadon, who in 2010 was convicted of embezzlement. By upholding the conviction, the Court made Donadon the first politician to be actually sentenced to prison for corruption since Brazil’s constitution went into effect in 1988.
Fernando Henrique Cardoso [again]. To wit, three moments in history:
- In 1994, while running for president, he defended the need for a constitutional assembly to provide reforms to Brazil’s constitution.
- In 1998, as his first term wound up and he was running for president for a second time, he defended a constitutional assembly to provide political, tax, and judicial reforms to Brazil’s constitution.
- In 2013, when President Dilma Rousseff (from the Workers Party, the main opposition to Cardoso’s PSDB), proposes a constitutional assembly in order to address political reforms that people in the streets are calling for, he calls Rousseff’s administration an “authoritarian regime.”
Although Cardoso remains the symbolic “head” of the PSDB, he stopped being a serious political figure years ago, thanks in no small part to his irrational hatred and hypocritical attitudes towards the PT. To be clear, there are plenty of legitimate criticisms of Rousseff and of the PT more generally that one can lobby, but you don’t hear them come from Cardoso. This latest ad hominem and unrealistic criticism of the PT is just another reminder of how far he’s fallen from his status as a progressive sociologist during the military dictatorship.
[H/t to Aline for links to the archived articles.]
President Dilma Rousseff backed down from the proposal to have a plebiscite to convoke a constitutional assembly, the president of the Organization of Brazilian Lawyers [OAB], Marcus Vinicius Coelho, said this Tuesday (25th), after participating in a meeting with the president, the vice president, Michel Temer, and minister José Eduardo Cardozo (Justice) in the Planalto Palace.
The change of the Planalto’s stance with regards to the issue – which was the principal and most polemical proposal the president presented in response to the demonstrations that have taken the streets in recent weeks – will be publicly presented by the minister of Justice, according to what Coelho reported.
According to the president of the OAB, an organization that since yesterday is one of those most opposed to Rousseff’s proposal, the model that should be publicly proposed now is that the very political reform itself be included in plebiscite. Translation: specific questions, yet to be determined, but that will involve basic reforms to the electoral process, and not to the present system of representation, will be offered to the population, which will be able to vote yes or no to each of the points. The OAB president said that the idea is to hold the plebiscite in October, in a way that would be valid for the 2014 elections.
This is not exactly bad news, but it’s not necessarily clear it is great news, either. Clearly, the presidential will to address the people’s political concerns and demands is there, and, depending on those “specific questions, yet to be determined,” perhaps a plebiscite on political reform will have a broad and long-lasting effect. That said, the plebiscite could offer toothless reforms, too, and implementation of policies without constitutional revision [if that is the case] could be difficult. At the risk of being vague, it is too early to say exactly what will happen, but one thing is certain: the broader political issues are going to take awhile to resolve, and there is no guarantee that they will address the structural, systematic, or practical issues that demonstrators in Brazil have raised. Rousseff’s meeting with leaders and governors are good early steps, but they are far from clear indicators of the unqualified success of demonstrators to transform Brazilian politics. While the popular will for political reforms is currently broad, the ways, effects, and extent of those reforms is far from certain right now. Simply (and perhaps obviously, but worth stating anyways), this is going to take awhile, and will be worth following in the coming months.