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Dictatorship Apologists, 50 Years On

April 2, 2014 Comments off

Yesterday, Brazil’s Congress marked the 50th anniversary of the military coup that overthrew constitutional president João Goulart and ushered in a 21-year military dictatorship that killed hundreds of its own citizens and tortured thousands others.  In 1964, Congress was directly implicit in the coup and the subsequent military dictatorship: Congress proclaimed the presidency vacant even while Goulart remained in Brazil and declared Chamber of Deputies leader Ranieri Mazzilli as the acting President of Brazil for the second time in his life (he’d also assumed the role in the wake of Jânio Quadros’s abrupt resignation in 1961). Mazzilli was president in name only, as a military junta, led by Artur Costa e Silva, established control before Congress selected Humberto Castelo Branco as the country’s new president. By contrast, yesterday’s commemoration was to be a more solemn affair, recognizing the setbacks that human rights and democracy both suffered under Brazil’s military regime.

Of course, that did not mean all were willing to cooperate with such a dignified approach. Ultra-right wing congressman Jair Bolsonaro, a dictatorship apologist, decided to use the event to celebrate the military in his speech, with various other representatives turning their backs on him. Meanwhile, his supporters unfurled a banner thanking the military, through whose efforts “Brazil is not Cuba,” according to Bolsonaro, while another Bolsonaro supporter shouted to others, “I do not want communism in my Country.” Ultimately, the ceremony ended up being delayed for over an hour. Yet the event reminds us of the degree to which Brazil’s dictatorship continues to appear in politics even while torturers are publicly named but remain unpunished, something that seems unlikely to change anytime soon, given the reluctance of President Rousseff (herself a political prisoner and torture victim during the dictatorship) to review the 1979 amnesty that pardoned all those in the military regime who committed torture and murder.

Around Latin America

December 4, 2013 Comments off

-Peru has launched its biggest exhumation ever, as it tries to find victims from the violence between the Shining Path and the Peruvian state between 1980 and 2000.

-Peru is not the only country exhuming victims of violence. In an attempt to find two missing police officers, forensic scientists in Mexico got more than they expected when their search led to the discovery of 64 bodies buried in mass graves in Jalisco and Michoacán, with the bodies showing signs of torture and indicating they are the victims of ongoing violence between cartels. In spite of the discovery, the two police officers remain missing.

-In the wake of a close election and allegations of electoral fraud, Honduras will hold a recount after thousands took to the streets in support of Xiomara Castro, who allegedly lost the election to conservative candidate Juan Orlando Hernandez (who got 37% of the total vote)  and whose husband, former president Manuel Zelaya, was removed from office in a coup d’etat in 2009. The recount comes amidst outsiders’ observations allegations of chicanery and after Honduras’s electoral council was very slow to issue the data from the November 24 election, adding to suspicions of fraud.

-Rio de Janeiro governor Sérgio Cabral announced that he will leave office 9 months early after seeing his popularity plummet in the midst and wake of protests last June, when millions of Brazilians took to the streets to protest a number of causes, including political elites’ disconnect and corruption. Cabral himself became a particular target of that anger in Rio de Janeiro.

-The bad news for governors is not limited to Brazil. In Mexico, former governor of Tamaulipas Tomás Yarrington faces charges in the US of having ties to the drug cartels while he was in office during his 1999-2004 governorship.

-Costa Rica closed a probe into the 1984 bombing that killed 7 journalists and Nicaraguan Contras and wounded 20 more people, after forensics revealed that the attacker died in the late-1980s.

-Mexico’s Senate has approved electoral reform that would allow reelection and would strengthen Congressional power in the face of executive power even while approving President Enrique Peña’s efforts to increasingly privatize the state-run PEMEX oil company in Mexico.

-Francisco Flores, the former president of El Salvador for the conservative ARENA party, is under investigation for the misuse of upwards of $10 million that Taiwan donated to El Salvador during his presidency, money that apparently never made it to its intended institutional destinations.

-Finally, in Brazil, Guaraní indigenous leader Ambrosio Vilhava, whose struggle to help protect Guaraní land was documented in the 2008 film Birdwatchers, was found stabbed to death after his father-in-law allegedly killed him. While the circumstances around his death remain unclear, the fact remains that his death marks the loss of an important activist and leader in Brazilian indigenous mobilization.

Today in Dubious Interpretations of History

July 15, 2013 Comments off

Former President of Mexico Vicente Fox (2000-2006) has said he is the best president of Mexico. Ever. As in, in all of Mexican history.

Suffice to say, this is a rather self-serving interpretation of history, and one that grossly diminishes the achievements of some of Mexico’s past presidents while inflating Fox’s own achievements. Not to dive into all of Mexican history, but if nothing else, Benito Juárez’s own accomplishments in state-building alone are incredible, as he in many ways finally built a strong, stable state apparatus after dealing with the impact of over 30 years of domestic political and military turmoil (including the US’s seizure of well over 1/3 of Mexico in 1848) and economic instability, an occupation by French forces, and constant conflicts both with local oligarchical elites and the Church. Then there is Álvaro Obregón, whose presidency (1920-1924) helped Mexico take the steps to recover from a ten-year revolution that had left well over one million people dead, again providing strong leadership and policy-making in a period and context that saw far greater challenges and uncertainties than anything Fox confronted. And Lázaro Cárdenas’ (1934-1940) status as a reformer who tried to address the social inequalities that had their roots in hierarchical power structures that dated back to the 1800s (and earlier), while perhaps incomplete, still helped improve the lives of millions of Mexicans, leading many to see him as the country’s last “great” president. And that’s just three presidents whose accomplishments at their best far outweigh what modest accomplishments and even failures Fox managed (pledging 7% annual growth for Mexico but only managing to achieve 1% growth; economic policies that led to more unequally distributed wealth in Mexico). Fox pales in comparison to previous presidents even in the limited areas where we can concretely evaluate what his administration actually accomplished.

Which leads to a second problem – that of temporal perspective. Though he’s been out of office seven years, many of the social, economic, political, and cultural processes that began or transformed under his PAN government have yet to play out in a way where we can fully understand his legacy, whereas the legacies of Juárez, Obregón, Cárdenas, and other past presidents (both good and bad) are clearer. Indeed, while we can perhaps say that Fox wasn’t as personally corrupt or repressive as some of the PRI presidents of the latter part of the 20th century (though new documents and information can always change the historical record on Fox’s own qualities), it’s simply far too soon to be able to fully and definitively evaluate his overall successes.

For both of these differing reasons, Fox’s statements really are absurd. Even if we take what he did accomplish and toss out his shortcomings, his positive impact on Mexican society, state-building, diplomacy, economics, and culture pale to the records of some of his predecessors, even with their own warts (after all, though it shouldn’t be necessary, it helps to remind ourselves that nobody’s perfect – not even presidents). Indeed, given his attempt to make such claims and shape the narrative positively so early on, it seems Fox either is really out of touch with the historical record, or so self-absorbed and arrogant as to see himself as Mexico’s greatest political hero. Either way, making such comments strongly undermines the actual argument of those comments themselves.

On Chilean Presidential Politics and Ongoing Ties to the Pinochet Era

July 2, 2013 Comments off

As Brandi mentioned yesterday, the dust has settled in the Chilean presidential primaries. On the one hand, the Concertación elected Socialist Party candidate and former president (2006-2010) Michelle Bachelet to run for re-election for the coalition. On the other hand, the right-wing Alianza coalition selected the Independent Democratic Union’s (UDI) Pablo Longueira to represent it in the election. In addition to Longueira, Bachelet will face challenges from two candiates to the left, Marcel Claude and Miguel Enríquez-Ominami. With well over two years of student protests that call for educational reform and that enjoy a substantial amount of support among many Chileans, a right-wing coalition confronting the need to overcome unpopularity of current president Sebastián Piñera, and two challenges from the left to an ex-president who left office with very high approval ratings, the elections set for November will be interesting for any number of reasons.

What is perhaps most interesting, though, is the way ties to the Pinochet era continue to shape presidential electoral politics. When Piñera was elected in 2010, some saw it as the right finally breaking with the right-wing Pinochet dictatorship. Indeed, some analysts suggested Frei’s loss was in part because the center-left Concertación coalition that had governed since Pinochet’s exit in 1990 continued to campaign against the Pinochet era, while Piñera insisted on looking forward – a politically tactful move, given the right’s long-standing ties to the regime. It seemed at the time that Piñera’s victory was going to finally force the Concertación to broaden its appeal beyond anti-Pinochet rhetoric (though such rhetoric was understandably and justifiably not going to completely disappear).

And yet, here we are in 2013, with two major candidates still tied directly to the Pinochet dictatorship: on the one hand, the Concertación re-nominates Michelle Bachelet, who as a youth resisted the military regime and whose father the Pinochet dictatorship murdered. Meanwhile, the Alianza, left in the lurch after heavy favorite Laurence Golborne had to remove himself from the race, nominates Longueira, who worked as an assessor in the Pinochet government and who, according to Pinochet’s daughter Lucía Pinochet Hiriart, received support from Pinochet when Longueira first began his political career. And so, in spite of some analysts’ conclusions about the significance of the 2010 election in marking a new phase of post-Pinochet politics, both major candidates have direct, albeit very different, ties to the regime.

Nor is it just the personal connections that demonstrate how Pinochet-era politics continue to resonate nearly a quarter-century after he left office. While educational reforms will be a major topic for presidents to contend with as students continue to take to the streets, reforming the educational system is just part of the broader institutional challenge. Educational reforms have been slow in coming in no small part because the Constitution of 1980 that Pinochet issued is designed in such a way as to make reform very difficult, allowing governmental inertia to dominate (as well as including a Pinochet-era anti-terrorist law that the Chilean government has used against indigenous groups, both under Piñera and, before him, under Bachelet.) The ongoing rule of a dictatorial constitution has increasingly become a sticking point, and figures to be a key issue in the campaign: Bachelet herself has said that Chile needs a new Constitution. Though it has been 23 years since the Concertación first won election as Pinochet was forced to leave office, and though this September will mark 40 years since the coup that overthrew democratically-elected socialist Salvador Allende and ushered in Pinochet’s 17-year dictatorship, and even nearly 7 years since Pinochet died, the influence, legacies, and outcomes of his regime on both the left and the right continue to shape politics well after he has left the political stage.

No doubt, there will come a time where the regime, although important to history and national memory, will not be so present in national presidential campaigns in such a direct and obvious way, be it through the candidates’ own backgrounds or through the reforms and visions they have for Chile. But what is clear is that, in spite of those who thought 2010 might force a re-calibration of politics that tried to appeal to a generation that did not live under Pinochet’s repression, the dictatorship still casts a long shadow over Chilean politics. There will be a time where that is the case, but in both the major coalition candidates and the issue of constitutional reform, it is clear that 2013 is not yet that time.

Thoughts On Comparing Brazil’s Demonstrations to Egypt and Turkey

June 30, 2013 1 comment

Thomas Friedman has a piece in the New York Times today that tries to explain why people have taken to the streets in a number of countries (including the US, visible in Tea Party rallies; why he disregards the recent Occupy movement is unclear). In the editorial, he looks at a number of countries to try to find some broad explanations, with his focus falling mostly on Turkey, Egypt, Russia, and…Brazil. The only problem is, most of what Friedman says about these movements  macropolitically does not apply to Brazil, making his inclusion of it at best feel forced, and at worst, revealing a superficial and incomplete understanding of the actual events in Brazil.

The inapplicability of Brazil to his model is evident right off the bat. In the opening paragraph, he implies that Brazil and Turkey are comparable due to the fact people are in the streets in both. Yes, that much is true; both Brazil and Turkey have seen popular demonstrations lately. But, Friedman extends this comparison, implying that there are similarities in democracy in Turkey in Brazil. The only problem is that Turkey is effectively being governed via majoritarian democracy – in which Erdogan’s government has basically taken the position of, “you voted for us, you have to deal with us for the next 4 years without a peep.” Suffice to say, this has certainly not been the case in Brazil, where, in the wake of demonstrations, President Rousseff has met with leaders of marches, congress has passed laws increasing education spending while (at least temporarily) rejecting impunity, and mayors and governors have announced public transportation fare reductions. All of these actions are in response to some of the demands of the people in these demonstrations and demonstrate that democracy in Brazil has been anything but majoritarian.

This majoritarian model of democracy is one of the three factors that Friedman sees a “convergence” of in the countries that have witnessed popular demonstrations recently. Alongside the arrogance of majoritarian democracy, the two other factors are the middle class being “squeezed” and the proliferation of smart phones. The only problem is, most of Friedman’s examples and analyses, including and extending beyond his consideration of majoritarian democracy, don’t apply to Brazil.

Yes, people are tired of a sense of corruption among politicians who seem disconnected from their electorate, voting on issues that are irrelevant (or even offensive) to a majority of Brazilians while failing to address some of the issues that confront millions of Brazilians, including grossly unequal wage gaps, economic policy, or education. Again, Friedman points to majoritarianism to explain this, but it’s not an accident that he fails to really mention Brazil, where parliamentary presidentialism has not led either to “ignoring the opposition” or to the government “choking the news media” (even though the media has been vociferously and oftentimes unfairly critical of the government, especially under the PT administrations of Lula and Dilma).

Likewise, the criticism that the middle class is “squeezed” isn’t really applicable to Brazil. Indeed, Brazil has been enjoying near-record low unemployment rates, and with programs like Bolsa Familia and Fome Zero, as well as social policies like affirmative action for university education, the social safety net has actually expanded in the last ten years or so. In Brazil, it’s not that the middle class are being “squeezed,” but that, if anything, the middle class has grown and believed the rhetoric, both from politicians and from domestic and foreign economic analysts alike, that Brazil was finally “making it” internationally. With the recent vulgar opulence of the World Cup on display, the resentment over how much more the middle class could have has erupted. In short, the recent boom in the middle class in Brazil has led to people to take to the streets to demand more from a system that pays hundreds of thousands of dollars per month to legal officials and spent billions on soccer stadiums instead of health care or education. This isn’t have-nots demanding from the haves, but rather, the increasingly-haves from those who have had even more for a longer time. In that regard, Brazil isn’t akin to Turkey or Russia or Egypt now, but to societies (including the US) who witness an increasingly mobilized middle class whose size has grown, and whose material expectations thus have also grown.

Even on his third “converging” factor, Friedman manages to be wrong while being right. Yes, the “proliferation” of smartphones has helped, but not in ways he implies. There have been smartphones in Brazil among middle class for at least 3 years, and that proliferation has filtered into the working classes as well. That proliferation does not explain why the demonstrations are only happening now. Additionally, most of the protests have not been “flash” protests in Brazil, but have been announced at least a day or two in advance (and even when not, spreading the message out through texting, which is not limited to smartphones, has been a means to mobilize the masses). The reason smartphones matter is that they allow people to repeatedly document multiple instances of police brutality, and as those images spread across the internet, more people angry at such vulgar displays of power take to the streets to speak out against the violence. Thus, smart phones are probably as useful, if not moreso, for actually making clear the brutal response to protests as they are to actually coordinating protests.

Additionally, these cases of police violence point to an issue that actually has been common throughout these countries, and one that Friedman actually overlooks: the overwhelming and disproportionate use of police force and security apparatuses against unarmed civilians. Indeed, if Friedman wanted to find a factor that could actually come close to bringing together the rapid growth in demonstrations in Turkey, Brazil, Egypt, and elsewhere, the presence of a powerful and often repressive police force seems to be an obvious shared quality. Yet he opts instead for other factors that don’t relate to Brazil nearly as strongly.

I am not an expert in Turkey, Egypt, or Russia (though I imagine Friedman isn’t either), but it may be that his “three phenomena” hold for those particular cases. But again, including Brazil here doesn’t really work. Beyond the issue of public discontent over corruption (a discontent that knows no partisan lines), the case of demonstrations in Brazil recently are unique. Friedman’s efforts to pigeonhole Brazil via flawed comparisons with Turkey,Egypt, and elsewhere only reinforces the fact that, when it comes to contexts for mobilization, Brazil differs significantly from what has taken place in the Mediterranean.

Beyond Brazil – Protests and Demonstrations Throughout Latin America

June 27, 2013 Comments off

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.

Popular Demonstrations Continue to Resonate through Brazilian Politics

June 26, 2013 1 comment

In the wake of lower bus fares and discussions of a national plebiscite, the recent and ongoing protests in Brazil continue to ripple throughout Brazilian politics and the people’s voices continue to resonate. One of the majuor targets of public outrage was a legislative bill, PEC 37, that would remove the authority of state and federal prosecutors to investigate politicians for corruption and effectively intensifying a culture of impunity in Congress. Last night, Congress voted on the bill. The outcome?

430 against, 9 in favor, and 2 abstentions.

Nor was Congress finished. It then passed a bill that agreed to spend 75% of oil royalties revenues on Education, with the other 25% going to health. Two other major issues that people have been demanding in their demonstrations? Greater government investment on education and health. And even Renan Calheiros, who himself has been the subject of angry chants in the streets, called on the government to dedicate 20% of the entire federal budget to education and to reduce the number of ministries in the executive. While there may be some cynical politicking here on the part of Calheiros, it nonetheless shows that politicians are aware of and still need to address the demands of the people.

Before the protests erupted, I saw nothing that indicated Congress was going to vote PEC 37, and certainly not by such an overwhelming vote. Likewise, neither education nor health spending were at the top of the docket for most Congress members. Thus, yet again, the people taking to the streets to make their voices heard (and the overwhelming percentage of the population who support them) in an electoral democracy has directly shaped how politicians vote – in other words, how a representative democracy is theoretically supposed to work. [And some estimates are saying 3.5 million people have mobilized...in Rio de Janeiro alone, a sign of broader support and mobilization.]

Meanwhile, the protests continue to take place and evolve in sometimes new fashions. Last night, over one thousand people from the favelas marched down from their neighborhoods to gather outside the home of Rio de Janeiro governor Sérgio Cabral to make their voices heard. Though that does not sound like much, Cabral lives in one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in Rio; the sight of one thousand people from one of Rio’s poorest neighborhoods marching to make their voices heard before such an economically and politically elite institution is a significant move itself, demonstrating once more the degree to which Brazilians are beginning to feel they can shape politics and transform society through action, and that politicians are not immune to challenges once they are elected. The protest even prompted the creation of a samba song – “The Day the Morro [mountains where favelas are] Came Down and It Wasn’t Carnaval”.

If gathering outside of the expensive home of a governor is one example of using urban spaces to make powerful messages, so is protesting in a church, which is exactly what happened in Minas Gerais last Saturday, when 30 protesters to peacefully demonstrate in mass. But this wasn’t some statement against the Church – the priest himself invited them in, saying that, given their focus on social equalities and justice, “I tried to do as Jesus would do. If the faithful were against it, they would be neither citizens nor Catholics. I can’t be in a [political] party, but I can always support [them].” It’s another remarkable episode in what has been two weeks of remarkable episodes. The protests and the people’s voices are rippling throughout not just politics, but every corner of society and culture, and now, no matter the outcome (and there have already been several significant outcomes), 2013 is going to be a moment in Brazilian history that people – citizens, scholars, and politicians alike – are going to come back to regularly in the coming months and years.

 

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