Foreign Policy has published a piece I wrote on how South American dictatorships can provide important lessons for Egyptians clamoring for military rule:
As Egypt struggles to cope with economic turmoil and political divisions, citizens are increasingly seeking alternatives to the current Muslim Brotherhood government. Discontent with the religious tenor of Islamist rule and rhetoric under Mohammed Morsy, some opponents of the current Egyptian government are now looking to the military for help, viewing the military as a legitimate political actor that could intervene and save the country before the Muslim Brotherhood’s government becomes entrenched.
These pleas sound remarkably similar to those used by Brazilians, Chileans, Argentines, Paraguayans, and Uruguayans who were discontent with their own governments in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. Their tortured histories provide powerful reminders of what can happen when people turn to the military as a country’s savior. During the second half of the 20th century, military regimes in Brazil, Chile, Argentina, Paraguay, and Uruguay, all came to power in ways that many Egyptians now seem keen to emulate. However, far from “saving” their societies, these military regimes relied on political repression, torture, and state-sponsored terrorism, even while reaffirming the economic policies that created instability and led to a “lost decade” for the region in the 1980s.
You can read the whole thing here [it requires registration, but it is free].
This is part of an ongoing series. Previous entries can be found here.
Continuing the sub-series on the fifteen political prisoners released when young leftists kidnapped US ambassador Charles Elbrick in 1969, this week we look at the oldest prisoner released: Gregório Bezerra, who witnessed and played a key part in the rise and spread of leftist ideas throughout Brazil in the twentieth century.
Gregório Lourenço Bezerra was born 13 March 1900 in Pernambuco to poor parents in Brazil’s rural northeast, one of the last of twelve children in a family that did not own any land or even its own home. He was aware of the challenges facing workers from an extremely early age – when he was only four, he began to work in sugar fields alongside his parents in order to help them make enough money to survive. By the age of nine, both of Bezerra’s parents had died. By 10, he’d fled from a house where he worked in slave-like conditions. As a result, he was well aware of the inequalities and challenges that faced workers, and though he remained unable to read until 25, he was heavily interested in politics, and often asked people to read the newspaper to him. When the Russian Revolution broke out in February 1917, Bezerra joined other workers in marching in the streets in support of the revolution and in demanding better rights for Brazilian workers. His actions led to his arrest for “disrupting public order.” Only seventeen, he was sentenced to five years in prison for his actions; it would not be the last time he would receive such a sentence for his beliefs.
Upon his release in 1922, Bezerra decided to join the army, hoping to use the opportunity to learn to read. Though already well aware of workers’ struggles and having a genuine curiosity to learn more about socialism, it was only in 1927 that he finally was directly exposed to the ideas of communism. Drawing on the Russian Revolution and Lenin, in 1922 the Partido Comunista Brasileiro [Brazilian Communist Party; PCB] formed in secret, and began publishing a newspaper, A Nação ["The Nation," an ironic title, given Marx's original stance on nationalism and nations]. When Bezerra ran into an old military colleague in downtown Rio, his friend gave him a copy of the paper, and Bezerra found the ideas he’d felt and experienced since his childhood. Another chance encounter led to this same friend giving him a copy of “The Working Class,” another leftist paper. Bezerra described this experience as his own personal “catechism.”
In 1930, he returned to Pernambuco and became an official member of the PCB. Still in the military, he fought for the national government of Getúlio Vargas against rebels in São Paulo in the 1932 Constitutionalist Revolt. However, as the 1930s progressed, the radical right-wing, embodied by the pseudo-fascist Integralista Movement, was ascendant in Vargas’s government, and the left found itself increasingly persecuted. In an attempt to combat fascism, some leftists formed the Aliança Nacional Libertadora [National Liberating Alliance; ANL], which had ties to the PCB but was not officially a part of the Party. Bezerra joined the ANL, and in July 1935, the ANL, speaking out against fascism and defending the working class, rose up and called for an end to Vargas’s government. The movement failed, however, and the government quickly suppressed it; Bezerra himself was arrested and sentenced to 28 years in prison for his role in the ANL. The uprising was significant for other reasons, as well; though it would not be until November 1937 that Vargas’s Estado Novo dictatorship began, the repressive tactics and increasing censorship of that regime had its roots in the ANL’s failed revolt. While in prison in Rio de Janeiro, Bezerra shared a cell with PCB secretary general Luís Carlos Prestes, also in prison for his communist beliefs.
Under pressure, Vargas left power in 1945, and with the end of the Estado Novo, the government released its political prisoners, including Bezerra. The PCB was made legal again and ran candidates in elections. Ultimately, Prestes was elected the PCB’s sole representative in the Senate, but fourteen men were elected to the Chamber of Deputies; Bezerra was among them, getting more votes than any other candidate in the Chamber. As a Deputy, he used his power to speak out on behalf of workers, defending agrarian reform, the right to independent unions, the right to strike, the right of children not to work [a subject that was particularly personal to Bezerra], child care for single and working mothers, and the right to vote for those who could not read, among other issues. However, the institutional success of the PCB was short-lived; in 1947, he was stripped of his political rights (as were the other members of the PCB serving in Congress) and then arrested on trumped-up charges of arson, serving two more years before being absolved of any crime. Having already spent more than a third of his life in prison and fearing further persecution, he went into clandestinity for several years, remaining on the move but working with unions and organizing workers all the while. In 1957, he was finally caught and arrested once again, this time for his role in helping form Ligas Camponesas [Peasants' Leagues] in the Northeast, though he was released through habeas corpus. Bezerra remained active, though, and was elected to the General Committee of the PCB in 1960.
Like so many others from socially progressive and leftist parties and movements, Bezerra’s life changed with the military coup that overthrow constitutional president João Goulart on 1 April 1964. Given his high profile and his ties to the oldest communist party in Brazil, the military promptly arrested and tortured Bezerra. Indeed, he seemed to be the perfect example of what the military claimed was the reason for its coup (which it defined as a “revolution”): in the early 1960s, there was a growing fear among right-wing forces in both military and civilian camps that there was an “International Communist Movement” that had targeted Brazil. Given the PCB’s sympathies with and open support for the Soviet Communist Party and for Marxist-Leninism, it was the best example of the perceived threat that these right-wing forces feared and used to legitimize their rule. In arresting Bezerra, they were making a stand against the so-called “International” movement while hoping to drum up support by providing examples. However, the arrest of Bezerra backfired somewhat. Images of Bezerra, half-naked and clearly unarmed yet surrounded by soldiers in the middle of public in Pernambuco, circulated throughout the country, and many found the regime’s treatment of the now-64-year-old to be excessive. That did not prevent the military from sentencing Bezerra to nineteen years in prison for “subversion”; under the sentence, he would have remained in prison until he was 83.
While Bezerra was in prison, a major shift in radical politics was taking place in Brazil. Even before the military regime, some were beginning to question the PCB’s tactics; they felt that ties to the Soviet Union, discredited among the left when the horrors of Stalinism were made public in the latter half of the 1950s, undermined the party’s legitimacy. Additionally, they were increasingly critical of the PCB’s insistence on fomenting revolution through institutional means like elections and Congress. When the 1964 coup happened, many grew further discontented, saying that not only had the PCB’s tactics failed to create revolution, they’d failed to prevent a right-wing coup. Thus, a new generation of leftists, especially among university-age students and workers, began to turn to alternative models, be it the example of Ché Guevara’s foquismo as expressed by Régis Debray, or be it by the Maoist model. By 1968, a number of small guerrilla groups had formed, drawing on and adapting these newer models of leftism and swearing off the older Russian-influenced theories and models that the PCB had employed since 1922.
One of these new guerrilla groups was the Movimento Revolucionário 8 de Outubro [October 8 Revolutionary Movement; MR-8], named after the day Ché Guevara had been captured in 1967. In 1969, as Brazil was entering its most repressive phase of the dictatorship, the MR-8 hatched a plan: they would kidnap US Ambassador Charles Elbrick, and offer his release in exchange for fifteen political prisoners. The plan went off nearly perfectly – such an attack had never happened before, and Elbrick and his security were unprepared. The MR-8, with help from the Ação Libertadora Nacional [National Liberating Action], captured Elbrick, and put together their list of prisoners to be released. Near the top of the list was none other than Gregório Bezerra, who insisted on the means and instruments of revolution that groups like the MR-8 had disavowed. In spite of these differences, though, the students appreciated Bezerra’s contributions to leftism in Brazil historically and his efforts on behalf of workers, and the image of the older man under arrest in 1964 had made him a symbol of repression under the dictatorship.
Thus it was that, only five years into his nineteen-year sentence, Bezerra was released, joining fourteen other political prisoners who were sent to exile in Mexico in exchange for Elbrick. However, Bezerra did not appear in the famous photo of the prisoners; they departed from Rio de Janeiro, and stopped in Recife to pick up Bezerra, where he had been imprisoned. The other prisoners fondly recalled that, upon boarding, he began whistling “The Internationale,” and the young soldiers guarding the prisoners did nothing, unaware of what the song signified.
Though grateful for his freedom, Bezerra did not fully agree with how it had come about. Given the differences in ideology and party affiliation between Bezerra and leftist university students in the 1960s, even with his release he was critical of the students’ tactics to try to spur revolution. He openly admitted that he disapproved of isolated actions on the part of small guerrilla groups, believing them to contribute nothing to developing broader processes of revolution; nor did he approve of proactive violence. Like the Marxist-Leninist he was, he spoke out against individual acts of violence, saying he fought against power systems and not against individual people (like Elbrick). As he himself put it, “I only believe in violence of the masses against the violence of reaction.” With statements like these, it is not hard to see why students of the 1960s who looked to Che and Mao found little in Bezerra’s stance that they could agree with. Nonetheless, his status as one of the key figures of both Brazilian Communism and of repression under the dictatorship made him a sympathetic figure for youth, even if they did not agree with his ideologies. And considering the inability for later movements like the guerrilla movement in Araguaia to create peasant revolution, or the urban guerrilla movements in São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, and elsewhere to really undermine the power of the state, it is clear that Bezerra’s arguments and views were not necessarily unrealistic.
These generational and ideological differences manifested themselves in exile, as well. All fifteen prisoners went to Mexico and then to Cuba, where many of the younger exiles hoped to receive training before returning to Brazil to continue to fight. Bezerra, however, was uninterested in their models of revolution, and instead continued on to the Soviet Union, where he received medical treatment for the injuries and poor health he suffered under torture and in prison. He continued to serve as an activist, fighting for workers’ rights through international organizations. In 1979, the last military president, João Figueiredo, declared a general amnesty that pardoned political prisoners and exiles (as well as those within the state who were guilty of torture, kidnapping, and murder). With the amnesty, Bezerra returned to Brazil, welcomed as a hero by many who admitted that, even if they did not agree with his ideas or beliefs, they respected his adherence to them; additionally, in spite of all he had been through in life, Bezerra never seemed to bear any anger or ill will towards the regimes or people who had mistreated him in the past, making him a more admirable figure in the eyes of many in Brazil.
Upon his return, Bezerra broke with the PCB, though he continued to proclaim himself a Marxist-Leninist. He instead supported the broader, coalition-like opposition party, the Partido Movimento Democrático Brasileiro [Brazilian Democratic Movement Party], even running once more for the Chamber of Deputies under the PMDB umbrella in 1982. Though he did not win outright election, he did win a position as a surrogate to the Congress, a sign of the respect he had gained over the years.
However, he never did serve in Congress directly again. In October 1983, Bezerra had a heart attack and passed away at the age of 83 – ironically, the very age he would have been had he been forced to complete his prison sentence from 1964. His body lay in state in the Legislative Assembly of Pernambuco, and thousands turned out to offer their final respects. Overall, he’d spent more than twenty-two years of his life in prison for his beliefs. Nonetheless, he remained famous for his generosity, his story-telling abilities, and his willingness to fight for the oppressed. Throughout his life, he spoke out on behalf of the poor, the exploited, and the young. Indeed, toward the end of his life, he said he wanted to be remembered as someone who “was a friend to children, to the poor and the excluded; loved and respected by the people, by the exploited and suffering masses; hated and feared by the capitalists, considered enemy number 1 by Fascist Dictatorships.” Given the time he spent in prison during right-wing regimes, and the support he received upon his return to Brazil and the respect he was afforded in death, it seems fair to say that, in those terms, his life was a success. And even if the revolution and equality Bezerra fought for never materialized in ways he hoped, his success in improving the lives of workers in cities and countryside alike and his impact on Brazilian politics in the twentieth century are undeniable.
-Nicaragua and China have entered into an agreement through which China could help build a canal through Nicaragua that would rival the Panama canal. Of course, Nicaragua has long been seen as a potential site for a canal; even in the 1800s, the US and European powers considered the possibility of building one. As it stands right now, the canal would take eleven years to construct and would cost $40 billion, but there is nothing to yet indicate that the construction would start soon or that it would be brought to completion.
-An audit of the April elections in Venezuela has confirmed that Nicolas Maduro defeated opposition candidate Henrique Capriles in a very close election. Meanwhile, the economic and political instability that has been a significant problem in Maduro’s still-young administration (a problem that Maduro’s own policies and rhetoric have not helped) is hitting society hard: in addition to reports of shortages in basic goods like toilet paper, it appears beer prices have gone up 92% in Venezuela as well.
-An oil-spill in Ecuador now threatens both the Peruvian and Brazilian environment as it flows into the Amazonian basin, threatening river communities and riparian ecosystems. The spill began after a landslide damaged an oil pipeline, providing another reminder of the predictably-unpredictable nature of environmental processes and the risks of pipelines in dynamic ecosystems.
-Peace talks between Colombia’s government and the FARC have resumed after a brief break. The ongoing talks are the first significant talks between the two sides since the 1990s, as the two sides try to bring an end to a civil war that has lasted nearly 50 years. Prior to the talks, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos traveled to Israel, where he signed a free trade agreement between Colombia and Israel.
-In a tragic example of the ways in which women in Nicaragua continue to be treated as second class citizens, conservative activists and politicians are seeking to create a law that would require abused women to negotiate with their abusers.
-In dual cases of justice in Peru, President Ollanta Humala (who is currently on his first official state visit to the US) denied a pardon to former president Alberto Fujimori, who had been convicted for his role in state repression and human rights violations during his 1990-2000 administration. And on the other end of the spectrum, a court sentenced former guerrilla leader and Shining Path leader Comrade Artemio (Florinda Flores) to a life sentence for his role in guerrilla violence, drug trafficking, and money laundering.
-Speaking of the Shining Path, though a tiny number continue to fight for revolution ostensibly in the name of the movement, a new political arm of the movement, the Movimiento Por Amnistia y Derechos Fundamentales (Movement for Amnesty and Fundamental Rights; MOVADEF) is increasingly gaining support among some in Peru and beyond, prompting further reevaluations and considerations of the legacies of the Shining Path, state violence, and social divisions in Peruvian memory.
-Even while stories of government surveillance have occupied headlines in the US, it appears that secrecy at Guantanamo has only intensified, where a government ruling has gone into effect, and “those who’ve read it can’t say what it’s about, and those who haven’t don’t have a clue. Not even the accused, who, unless the judge rules for the defense, is not allowed to get an unclassified explanation of it – and cannot sit in on the court session when it’s argued in secret.”
-In another reminder of the gross socioeconomic inequalities in Brazil’s legal system, Thor Batista, the son of Brazilian billionaire who hit and killed a bicyclist while driving his car avoided jail time for the death. Instead, a judge ordered Batista to pay a R$1 million fine and serve two years of community service. In spite of the relatively lenient sentence for killing another person, Batista still plans on appealing the sentence.
-Finally, more than ten years after Brazil enacted affirmative action laws that created quotas for university admission, it appears the law has gone a long way in addressing inequalities, if a report on the University of Brasilia is representative. The study finds that there would be 71.5% fewer Afro-Brazilians in the school without the law, and that students admitted under quotas have outperformed non-quota students. [English version available here.]
One of the key moments in diplomatic history and in Brazilian history was the 1969 kidnapping of US ambassador Charles Elbrick. Living in the midst of a repressive dictatorship, a handful of students involved in the Revolutionary Movement October 8 (MR-8), with aid from the National Liberation Action (ANL), two leftist organizations who resisted military rule, decided to launch a daring plan: they would kidnap the US ambassador, a symbol of what they perceived as US imperialism in Latin America, and demand that the military regime release fifteen political prisoners and publicly release a manifesto the MR-8 had written. If their demands were not met, they said, they would kill Elbrick. The MR-8 provided a list of its 15 prisoners, including student activists, labor leaders, and lifelong members of the pro-Moscow Brazilian Communist Party (PCB). After much internal disagreement within the armed forces, the military agreed to accede to the demands; the regime released fifteen political prisoners, who were sent to Mexico and then on to Cuba. For its part, the MR-8, true to its word, released Elbrick.
The entire episode was transformative. It had been the first time any ambassador had been taken hostage in the modern world, and other groups both in Brazil and elsewhere in the world began to use similar tactics to make demands in what were often repressive regimes. Several of the members of MR-8 behind the action themselves were eventually caught and tortured (and at least two from the ANL died under torture); they, too were ultimately released when other leftists kidnapped West German ambassador Ehrenfried von Holleben in 1970. As for Elbrick, he returned to the US and, in his later years, forgave and spoke kindly of the youth who held him captive for 78 hours.
But what of the original fifteen political prisoners released in 1969? What happened to them after the events of early September, 1969? We will spend the coming weeks tracing their lives. A few weeks ago, we focused on one of those individuals, Maria Augusta Carneiro Ribeiro, the only woman among the 15 political prisoners released. Across the rest of the summer, we’ll look at the other fourteen people who were brought together on that fateful flight, the events that led them there, and the divergent paths they took after their exile in 1969. Today we begin with José Ibrahim.
José Ibrahim was born in the industrial city of Osasco, São Paulo, in 1946. His father, of Arabic ancestry, worked as a traveling salesman, and as a child, José often accompanied his father on trips. Like many working-class children, José received some education but did not end up attending university; indeed, by the early 1960s, Brazil had just over 100,000 university students in a country of over 70 million people. Thus, like many of his socioeconomic background, José’s education hinged on vocational training to prepare him for his own career as a blue-collar worker. Already at 14, José began working for COBRASMA, a privately owned company that manufactured materials for Brazil’s rail network. he also became active politically, joining the Juventude Operária Católica (Catholic Workers Youth; JOC) and later the Leninist Partido Comunista Brasileiro (Brazilian Communist Party), as well as in UBES, the secondary students’ movement. Although barely 21, in 1967 he already had several years’ experience of factory work, and, in spite of his youth, his colleagues elected him the president of the Metalworkers’ Union of Osasco.
The following year, José would become a national figure in the struggle against the military dictatorship. Though there had been voices of dissent and protest that challenged the military regime since 1964, by 1968, such criticisms were rapidly intensifying as hundreds of thousands of students were taking to the streets to demand democracy, often joined by parents, opposition politicians, musicians, artists, and others. However, the students were not alone. Workers themselves had increasingly been making their voices heard, joining in protests and marching in the streets. In July, well over 3000 industrial workers occupied a factory in Osasco and went on strike; it was only the second time since 1964 that the working class had mobilized on such a scale and in such a politicized fashion, and it was the biggest workers’ strike yet (the first, at Contagem in May of 1968, had fewer workers). As the president of the Union, José Ibrahim was at the forefront of the action, which, far from being spontaneous, was thought out and planned down to the slightest detail. The military regime, already losing control over the middle-class university students who were supposed to be the engine of national development, cracked down on the workers, invading the factory and arresting hundreds. Though José was not among those arrested, he had to go into clandestinity, constantly on the move throughout the rest of 1968. In spite of the military breaking the strike, however, José felt it to be a victory both politically and morally, as it showed that workers could still unify and mobilize even under conditions of repression, and it marked the first time that Brazilian workers had occupied their factories, and factory production continued to be paralyzed throughout much of 1968.
Though José went underground, by the end of 1968, Brazil had entered a new phase of repression, and the state security apparatuses were out to arrest anybody suspected of any form of “subversion”; given his role in Osasco, that included José , and in February 1969, the police caught him where he was staying. Even before they could get him to prison, they began torturing him, trying to find out anybody else he knew and exacting “revenge” on him for his actions the previous year. He was then taken to prison, where he continued to suffer torture at the hands of state agents. He remained imprisoned for seven months, until the kidnapping of Charles Elbrick. Given his role as a labor leader and his status in the wake of the Osasco strike, José was included on the list of the fifteen political prisoners to be released, a fact he heard on the radio that he had smuggled into his prison cell and hidden from officials. The plane, Hercules 56 (named for the model of plane, and the number), landed in Mexico, where the exiles arrived to much fanfare and international attention; after all, the kidnapping of an ambassador had never been attempted before, and that it was the US ambassador made the story resonate throughout much of the world.
After a brief time in Mexico, most of the exiles continued on to Cuba to receive training. However, José’s time in Cuba was a mixed experience. While many of the student leaders who had been freed were eager to continue studying and receive training to fight against the dictatorship, José with his blue-collar background, felt estranged from their goals. He ultimately opted to build on his experience as a labor leader, opting to work in a variety of factories, sugar mills, and elsewhere in Cuba. Feeling he’d done all he could in Cuba, he decided to go to Chile.
Chile was a common destination for exiles and for leftist activists from Brazil. In 1970, socialist Salvador Allende had won election as president at the head of the Popular Unity, a leftist coalition. Many Brazilian leftists saw Chile as a place where they could participate in the social and political revolution they’d sought in Brazil. Thus, like many other Brazilians, José headed to Chile. However, he and many other Brazilians ultimately saw their hopes dashed; on September 11, 1973, Chile’s military launched a coup that overthrew Allende. Suddenly, thousands of Brazilians who had fled from one right-wing dictatorship found themselves living in another one. They flooded embassies, seeking refuge and exile yet again. José was among them. Twenty-one days after Augusto Pinochet’s September 11 coup, he went to the Panamanian embassy, not so much out of any desire to travel to Panama, but because most of the other embassies were already overflowing, monitored by the right-wing dictatorship, and/or closed off. José managed to gain asylum in the Panamanian embassy, heading off to Panama before continuing on to Belgium.
While in Belgium, he worked with other labor leaders as well as other exiles and human rights organizations, ultimately helping create the Casa Latino-Americana, which, with support from the UN, helped exiles from Latin American dictatorships. José served as president of the Casa for five years. In spite of his activism, however, he continued to seek a way back to Brazil. Indeed, his experiences provided a reminder of how devastating even exile could be for those fleeing repressive dictatorships; although he’d escaped the repression and torture in Brazil, he still felt what he called a “civil death,” cut off entirely from his own home and a citizen of nowhere. This rupture even filtered into his family life; his son was born overseas and, given José’s status as a pariah in his own country, he had difficulties getting his son’s status as a Brazilian citizen (with all the rights citizenship entailed) established. As José’s experiences remind us, though exiles often avoided the torture, persecution, and even murder that activists in right-wing dictatorships like Brazil, Chile, or Argentina suffered, the trials of life in exile brought its own forms of suffering and difficulty.
As the political climate continued to slowly reopen in Brazil in the late-1970s, José plotted his return to Brazil, ultimately coming back in May 1979, just a few months before President João Figueiredo announced a general amnesty that pardoned political prisoners, exiles, and torturers alike. Upon returning, he drew again upon his labor activism; he came into contact with Luíz Inácio “Lula” da Silva, a metalworker and union leader who had been at the forefront of labor activism in the latter half of the 1970s. With Lula and seven others, José became one of the nine labor leaders who helped create the Partido dos Trabalhadores (Workers Party; PT).
Throughout the first half of the 1980s, José worked within the PT, becoming a member of the National Executive of the party. He ran as a PT candidate for the Chamber of Deputies in 1982. However, the PT itself was going through an identity crisis: some, like José, wanted to push for greater workers’ rights and a path towards socialism; others sought a more centrist approach that could perhaps lead to a broader appeal among the Brazilian electorate and greater strength within the government. This latter faction, known as the “Articulation,” gained a majority, and José (and others who shared his sentiments) left the PT. He worked for several years with leftist Leonel Brizola’s Partido Democrático Trabalhista (Brazilian Labor Party; PDT), but after Brizola failed to make it out of the first round of the 1989 presidential election, José left the PDT, choosing to focus on labor rights and organization rather than become further involved with the turbulent and fractured nature of partisan politics in Brazil. He helped form three different union groups and served as the Secretary-General of the Centro de Atendimento ao Trabalhador (Workers’ Service Center; CEAT), an organization designed to defend workers’ interests and provide them with education, representation, professional training, and other services. He also made a return to politics, running once more as a candidate for the Chamber of Deputies, this time for the Partido Verde (Green Party; PV) in 2006. Though he did not win, he continued to speak out for and work for the organization of Brazil’s blue-collar employees up until a little over a month ago, when he passed away at the age of 66.
José Ibrahim left behind a legacy that went far beyond his role in 1968; indeed, for over 40 years, he worked tirelessly for Brazilian workers. Though his release in 1969 made him part of an iconic moment in Brazilian political history, it is in his labor activism that his legacy was made, and it will continue to be felt for years to come.
This is part of an ongoing series. Previous entries can be found here.
-Two former executives from Ford in Argentina have been charged (among other things) with having ties to the abduction of 24 workers for Ford during the military regime of 1976-1983.
-El Salvador’s presidential election is shaping up to be a close three-way race, according to new polls.
-Mexico’s government says it will release a report that finds the number of disappeared in Mexico is “much lower” than an initial report that claimed that tens of thousands have been disappeared as part of the violence that has defined part of the drug trade in Mexico. Nonetheless, Mexico’s government has created a special unit to investigate and try to track down the fates of the tens of thousands of “disappeared” caught up in the drug trade and violence in Mexico.
-In what is perhaps curious timing, even while Efraín Ríos Montt’s conviction for genocide has been annulled, former Guatemalan president Alfonso Portillo was extradited to the US, where he will face charges of corruption and money laundering. As Mike Allison points out, the trial in the US provides another reminder that, although Guatemala’s courts are not as corrupt as they once were, they still have a long way to go, a fact that the recent decision on Ríos Montt all too tragically demonstrated.
-Speaking of institutional failures and undoing justice, a Brazilian court has overturned the 2010 conviction of landowner Vitalmiro Bastos de Moura for his role in the murder of land activist Dorothy Stang in 2005. It is the second time a conviction of Bastos de Moura has been overturned, though he will remain in jail while a third trial takes place. Meanwhile, three other, poorer men hired to murder Stang remain in prison without having access to multiple trials and a court system favorable to their cause the way it is to the wealthier and more powerful Bastos de Moura.
-Chile has fined Canadian mining company Barrick Gold and suspended all operations at the Pascua-Lama mine after environmental degradation, water contamination, and other environmental issues. Though seemingly large, the fine represents only %0.1 of the cost of operating the mine.
-Rio de Janeiro mayor Eduardo Paes is facing criticism for his inability to deal with criticisms after he punched a man in the face while out to dinner last Saturday.
-Ten years since the rise of “Kirchnerism” in Argentina, poverty has declined, though to what degree and by what metrics are apparently up for debate.
-Efforts to reforest and aid the environment in Latin America have slowed to a crawl, caught in bureaucratic red tape, political fear of social movements, and a slowness (or unwillingness) of governments to help environmental causes in the region.
-Digital currency business owner Arthur Budovsky, whose company, Liberty Reserve, operates in Costa Rica, was arrested in Spain this week on charges of money laundering.
I was on the Burt Cohen Show yesterday, discussing the nature of the Cold War in Central America, the annulment of the Rios Montt trial, human rights and justice for ex-dictators, and the complex roles of the US in Latin America in the 1980s. You can hear the whole thing here.
Greg Weeks points to this incredible, if harrowing, collection of photos from Operation Condor. The photos were found in Paraguay’s “Archives of Terror,” which documented the deaths of tens of thousands of South Americans at the hands of military regimes and the collaboration between dictatorships in Chile, Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, Uruguay, Bolivia, and Peru. We can and do talk about the horrors of human rights violations, the injustices of regimes that extrajudicially murdered their own citizens, and the sheer numbers of those who died under such regimes, but there is something about the photographs like those from Operation Condor that convey in a unique way exactly what that violence looked like on a daily basis for many.
-Though the higher-profile case, the conviction of Guatemala’s Efraín Ríos Montt was not the only triumph for human rights and justice last week. In Uruguay, General Miguel Dalmao was sentenced to 28 years in prison for his role in the murder of a professor during Uruguay’s military dictatorship (1973-1985).
-Brazilian indigenous peoples have once again occupied the site of the Belo Monte Dam to protest the impact it would have on their lands and on the environment, even while government officials accused the indigenous people of being tied to illegal gold-mining. Though failing to provide any actual evidence of mining among indigenous peoples, the government’s charge is discursively not-insignificant; illegal gold mining takes a significant toll on the environment, while arguments against the dam are often predicated upon the negative impact it will have on the environment. By leveling such accusations, the government seems to be trying to delegitimize indigenous claims by portraying them (again, without offering any actual evidence) as hypocrites who protest environmental damage even while enriching themselves through other forms of environmental degradation.
-In another reminder of the detrimental impacts of liberalization of markets and free trade agreements on local economies, over one hundred thousand Colombian farmers have gone on strike in protest over the weakening of the Colombian agricultural sector, as cheaper products from North America and elsewhere flood the Colombian market, destroying the livelihoods and jobs of Colombian farmers.
-In a powerful reminder that in military dictatorships, members of the military can and do also suffer repression, sixteen Brazilian soldiers spoke before the Brazilian Truth Commission, testifying about the persecution and torture they suffered when they remained loyal to the government of João Goulart, whom the military overthrew in a coup in 1964.
-Pope Francis proclaimed sainthood status for hundreds this past weekend. Included on the list were Mexican María Guadalupe García Zavala and Colombian Laura Montoya, the first saint from Colombia. However, not all popular saints (those whom people praise as saints but who lack official canonization from the Church) received the Pope’s endorsement, as the Vatican recently declared Mexico’s Santa Muerte, or “Holy Death,” to be “blasphemous.”
-Hundreds of Cubans, led by Mariela Castro, marched against homophobia in Cuba, seeking to further equal rights and treatment for members of the LGBT who have faced cultural, social, and political repression over the years.
-Speaking of homophobia and hatred, homophobic Brazilian congressman Marco Feliciano (who is currently the head of Congress’s human rights commission, offering a sad commentary on the nature of Brazilian congressional politics), cancelled a hearing on a homophobic project to find a “cure” for homosexuality after having earlier taken to Twitter to defend his project.
-After months of relative silence, former Haitian leader Jean-Bertrand Aristide has recently begun speaking out about the challenges facing Haiti and offering some criticisms of the current government of Michel Martelly.
-Finally, Brazil has announced a plan to bring thousands of Cuban doctors to Brazil to help in Brazil’s underserved areas. Greg Weeks does a great job unpacking the various aspects of the story, including how the plan reflects ongoing inequalities in Brazil (a sample take-away point: “When asked if any doctor was better than no doctor, CFM President Carlos Vital responded in the negative. “Pseudo treatment is worse than no treatment,” he said. “If you don’t have a doctor in your city, you can go to the next city and have a quality doctor.” Sure, just go 100 miles to the next city if you don’t have a doctor. Nothing to see here!”)
For those who missed it yesterday, after a long and curious trial that saw plenty of twists and turns, a Guatemalan court found former general and military ruler Efraín Ríos Montt guilty of genocide and human rights violations. Ríos Montt, who governed Guatemala from 1982-1983, oversaw some of the worst human rights abuses in a thirty-six year civil war full of them. Indeed, in 1982, alone, violence and scorched earth tactics that the Guatemalan military employed killed around 75,000 people, with an overwhelming number of them Guatemala’s indigenous peoples. In its ruling, the court found Ríos Montt guilty of ordering the murders of 1771 Ixil Mayans during his time in office. Given the targeting of a particular ethnic group for extermination, Ríos Montt faced charges not only of human rights violations, but also of genocide, a first in Latin American history. With his conviction, the court sentenced Ríos Montt to a total of 80 years in prison – 50 for genocide, and 30 for human rights violations.
Of course, while the conviction marks the end of the trial, it is only the beginning of the legal processes. Ríos Montt’s defense has already begun to mount its challenges to the ruling, appealing to the Constitutional Court. Expect future appeals to refer to Ríos Montt’s age or his health (an appeal Peru’s Alberto Fujimori also recently made, albeit unsuccessfully and based on false evidence). And of course, Judge Carol Patricia Flores’s efforts to annul the trial and return it to where it stood in November 2011 (efforts that Judge Yasmín Barrios overruled) provides a legal opening for the prosecution to demand Ríos Montt be released. And even if neither Barrios or Flores ever have anything to do with the case again, there are still legal openings for Ríos Montt. Other judges can still get involved in the case, and unfortunately, as important as this conviction is, the fact remains that the elite and powerful still often benefit from their connections to judges, be it through personal connections, financial connections, or even intimidation. And there certainly was evidence of the potential for intimidation in the courtroom yesterday. Such intimidation could be used not just against the Ixil who were there commemorating the triumph of justice, but also against judges in the country. And even if intimidation is unnecessary, it’s entirely reasonable to believe the appeals process could drag on for some time. All of this is to say that the conviction is not the end of the matter, and Ríos Montt can quite possibly die outside of a prison cell.
And then there’s the question of prosecuting others involved in the human rights violations and genocide that took place in Guatemala. Though Ríos Montt is ultimately responsible for the murders of tens of thousands of people during his rule, there were still those officers and soldiers who carried out the extermination of the Ixil and others. Among those linked to what the courts have now ruled was genocide is none other than current president Otto Perez Molina, who was an officer in the “Ixil Triangle” where many of the murders took place. Though currently enjoying presidential immunity, will prosecutors eventually investigate Perez Molina himself? Or other officers who enforced Ríos Montt’s orders on the ground? This remains to be seen. Ríos Montt’s conviction should not be the last, but the first of many convictions for human rights violations and genocide; yet it is far from certain that that will end up being the case.
Yet even all of these complications cannot erase what happened yesterday. The appeals process is not limited to Ríos Montt; should any ruling come that favors him, prosecutors, victims, rights groups, and others can likewise appeal, meaning the legal proceedings can continue. Like Augusto Pincohet, who faced indictment and house arrest but died before he could be convicted, Ríos Montt, who is 86, will spend the rest of his life in legal battles. His name, his reputation, and his legal standing have fallen beyond repair; in simple (but not-unfair) terms, he’s become a “villain” in history, something that the narrative history of Guatemala has long demonstrated but that the court system itself has now upheld. Any potential legal technicalities going forward cannot undo the legal and symbolic fact that Ríos Montt became the first Latin American military leader convicted for genocide, and the first leader in the world to be found guilty of genocide in his home country’s own court system. From now on, histories of Guatemala can refer to Ríos Montt as a man convicted of genocide. The conviction provides some small (if still incomplete) sense of closure to his victims and their families. And that in and of itself is a profoundly important thing.