The Zika Virus and Militarizing Medicine

As you may have read, Brazil is currently dealing with a baffling medical situation that is threatening to become an epidemic, as the Zika virus (spread by mosquitos that also can carry dengue and other diseases) is affecting the country. One unexpected outcome has been that the number of cases of microcephaly among babies has skyrocketed. Though the connection is unclear, it appears that, while the virus by itself is basically the effect of having the flu, pregnant women who contract it are giving birth to babies with microcephaly. Meanwhile, the virus has spread through most of northern South America, through much of Central America, and even into Mexico, and is likely to continue spreading throughout the Americas. In addition to spurring greater interest in the virus and an effort to treat it, it has also led to more unusual routes, including El Salvador cautioning women to simply not get pregnant for the next two years – quite a stunning move, considering the implications of birth control in a country that is still highly Catholic in cultural practices if not automatically in religious observance.

Of course, the current “epidemic” has begun in Brazil, and it’s taken its own unusual tactic by calling in the military:

Brazil’s government says it will deploy 220,000 soldiers in its fight against mosquitoes spreading the Zika virus.

The soldiers will go from home to home handing out leaflets on how to avoid the spread of Zika, which has been linked to thousands of babies being born with underdeveloped brains.

The announcement came after Health Minister Marcelo Castro said Brazil was “losing badly” in its fight against the virus.

There are a few things of interest here. First, it is interesting that the Health Minister has posed this as a military struggle that anthropomorphizes insects and pathogens to the point that one “side” can “lose badly” to the other “side” of mosquitoes/the virus in a “battle.”

Also, the use of the military here offers a useful insight into how other countries with large militaries who aren’t often deployed overseas (or at least not at the rate as militaries in countries like the US and Russia) still use their armed forces. Imagine if there was a health crisis in the US, and Obama had the National Guard deploy internally on a public information campaign. His opponents would likely lose their minds, and he would likely take a fierce hit in public opinion.

Yet in Brazil, the military provides a capable and prepared workforce that can mobilize quickly to inform as much of the population as possible in a short time span. While the Brazilian military obviously has a troubled past in Brazil, it is equally obvious that the armed forces are not always an overt threat to society, either. Even as the government militarizes its language around the Zika outbreak the country is facing, its decision to use the armed forces peaceably to try to spread the disease is an interesting example of how military forces can be used in (non-traditional military) roles in societies beyond the traditional deployment of troops overseas, even as the government itself has militarized the language about dealing with the Zika outbreak.

Posted in Brazil, El Salvador, Health Issues in the Americas, Latin America, Latin American Militaries | Leave a comment

It’s Always Health and Education…

In an effort to stabilize and improve education in Brazil, in 2008 Lula signed a law that created a salary floor for teachers nationwide, one that was to be adjusted annually in an attempt to keep up with macroeconomic shifts and to ensure that the coast of teaching per student was met. A side effect of the law would also be a theoretically more consistent national level of education, as teachers would be less compelled to better funded, better-paying (and typically already better-educated) states. According to the law, every January, a raise in teachers’ salary floor that attempts to reflect the cost of living would be announced, and the states and municipalities would have to then implement the changes.

The government made its announcement a few weeks ago, calling for a readjustment of 11.36% for teachers’ salaries. However, amidst the economic difficulties Brazil has faced across the last year, 10 states, the Federal District, and the National Confederation of Municipalities are contesting the law, saying that amidst the growing inflation and shrinking economy in Brazil, they can only afford a readjustment of 7.41%, and saying that the 87% increase in funding education based on the cost of education per student has led to an already-unsustainable 37% increase in pay for teachers.

This is perhaps not surprising, and given that Brazil’s economic issues are considerable right now, this may not seem like an unfair complaint, especially as the governors’ and municipalities’ request is not to eliminate the increase in salaries, but just to temper it.

However, the governors’ collective letter gives away the game, saying that “The effects of the [economic] crisis are already making themselves felt in health and education,” and thus they shouldn’t be forced to fulfil the federal government’s annual calculation this year.

Again, the economic issue is real, but as is all too often the case, the first fields to suffer (by the governors’ own admission) are those that help the most people: health and education. Rather than curtail spending in other areas or tightening the state and municipal budgets in other areas, the first to go are the ones that help the disadvantaged the most. And it’s not like this isn’t an issue for people – a recent poll in Rio de Janeiro found that 54% of people interviewed believed public health was the “gravest” problem facing Brazil’s second-largest city, with corruption a distant third at 19.1% of respondents (23.7% said “security”). Meanwhile, after widespread protests led to São Paulo governor Geraldo Alckmin temporarily postponing his plans for restructuring education in the state and closing hundreds of schools, Alckmin is now moving forward with a plan that will lead to a 10% increase in students in classrooms that are already overcrowded, even while governors push to reduce spending on education for teachers whose classrooms will become even more crowded.

Whether or not this request is just a one-off, as the governors insist, is beside the point (though if granted, it wouldn’t be shocking if it would appear again in coming years, regardless of the economic situation in Brazil). What’s telling is that yet again, in a context in which high-ranking political corruption, the failures of massive corporations, and the lack of willingness for global capitalists to invest in Brazil amidst uncertainties – in other words, the failures (justifiable or not) of the elites – is leading to political elites to request that society pay (and suffer) for it in cuts to basic social services that had no direct bearing on the current economic crisis.

Posted in Brazil, Education in the Americas, Governance in Latin America, Health Issues in the Americas

On Lynchings and the Weakness of the State

Well, this is horrible:

The lynching began around 7:20 p.m., not long after the brothers had finished conducting their final interviews on tortilla consumption.

Residents confronted them, mistaking the pair for kidnappers. The police confirmed that the men were, in fact, pollsters for a marketing company and whisked them to safety. Irate residents rang the church bells in the town square anyway, summoning hundreds.

The mob then stormed the arched doorways of the government center, set fire to its library and snatched the brothers from the police. Finally, a man in a motorcycle helmet calmly walked into the center of the frenzied crowd, doused the semiconscious brothers with gasoline and lit a match.

A grisly cellphone video of the episode played for days on local news media last fall, eliciting condemnation and hand-wringing. Officials blamed the crowd and rumors that kidnappers were taking children off the streets. One local official suggested that it was the opposition party making trouble.

As appalling and awful as that particular act of public violence is, so too is the suggestion that lynchings are at a 25-year high in Mexico.

And the explanations are equally, if not more disturbing: it’s due to the absence of the state in many areas of Mexico and its inability to provide equal justice. And in some areas, where there is a state presence, the lack of justice persists, primarily because of corrupt police and politicians often looking the other way or even directly involved in violent acts that go unpunished, creating a sense of impunity (Ayotzinapa being the most visible, but far from the only, example in the last several years). And it’s not like Mexican citizens are alone; in numerous areas, from the favelas in Rio de Janeiro to the porous Amazonian border of nine South American countries, too many citizens’ encounters with the state are either through its absence (and the chaos that ensues), or through its violence and impunity (through contraband trade or through the unprosecuted murders of the poor). While the New York Times piece highlights Mexico, it is not alone, as lynchings are not infrequent or even on the rise in Argentina, Brazil, Guatemala, and elsewhere, revealing the failures of the state on multiple levels.

Collectively, these images paint a bleak picture that reveals the effects of a weak state – an inability, or unwillingness, to ensure equal rights and justice to all of society. That is not to say that the solution is automatically a stronger state presence (especially in light of the state’s complicity or impunity in much of the violence), but rather, a better presence. Whether that is possible is uncertain, but for those who say a smaller state and less government is necessary, the recent bouts of popular violence that have arisen suggest that in many ways, the public is no better at issuing justice than the state.

Posted in Argentina, Brazil, Corruption, Governance in Latin America, Guatemala, Impunity, Mexico, Violence in the Americas

Catching Up on Impeachment, Corruption, and Brazilian Politics

Across this past semester, I got away from blogging less by choice than by circumstance, due to the vagaries of course preps, writing, researching, etc. My timing was not good, as political life in Brazil got….interesting. Even while corruption scandals continued to unfold implicating numerous members of Congress, bankers, and past politicians unfolded, in the last couple of weeks, Congress has decided to move to impeach President Dilma Rousseff. It seems like a good time to catch up on what’s going on in Brazil with some preliminary thoughts on what’s admittedly a complicated and constantly-shifting political situation.

Perhaps the biggest issue is the man leading the charge – leader of the Chamber of Deputies, Eduardo Cunha, of the Brazilian Democratic Movement Party (PMDB), who broke with Dilma’s government this past summer. Cunha is a highly divisive figure, in no small part because he is facing his own corruption scandal. While there has been nothing concrete to suggest Dilma has committed any impeachable acts, Cunha himself was discovered to have secret Swiss bank accounts, with millions included in them from unverified sources. Given the massive corruption scandal revolving around Petrobras, construction companies, and politicians, Cunha’s name has been closely tied to what may end up being the biggest corruption scandal in Brazilian history. And this is not just allegations – even as Cunha’s push for impeachment reached the Supreme Court last week (more on that in a minute), police searched his and his allies’ homes as part of the ongoing corruption scandal around Cunha (including the home of the President of the Senate, Renan Calheiros – also of the PMDB), even as the Chamber’s Ethics Committee finally voted to proceed with investigations into Cunha that could lead to his own ouster. In short, the man leading the charge to impeach the president over vague allegations of corruption could be forced out of his office over more immediately-substantive allegations of corruption himself.

To be clear, this is not just a case of Cunha-vs.-Rousseff, mano a mano. There are plenty in the opposition parties to the government supporting the impeachment of Dilma. Fernando Henrique Cardoso, ex-president and leader of the PSDB, defended impeachment as opening a “new path” for Brazil. [This even as an investigation into the massive Petrobras scandal is increasingly suggesting that the roots of the corruption practices date back to his own presidency in the late 1990s.] But such an endorsement from a man who’s long positioned himself as an (often borderline irrational) opponent of the governing PT (to which his party has lost the last 4 presidential elections) does not necessarily lend a strong juridical/legal legitimacy to calls for impeachment. And a number of men (and it’s all men) in Congress are important allies with Cunha, and they could play a key role in pushing through the impeachment of Brazil’s first woman president.

Despite the efforts of Dilma’s opponents, however, the path to impeachment remains uncertain, in no small part because of the nakedly partisan efforts to remove a president who seems to be lacking in impeachable offenses. Indeed, members of the Chamber of Deputies themselves seem confused over what impeachable actions they are charging Dilma with. After the Chamber of Deputies created an impeachment committee that was stacked with her critics (after a secret vote, seen as a violation of democratic practices – a vote that led to a fight on the floor of the Chamber), the Supreme Court annulled the commission’s existence, forcing the Chamber to restart the process even as Brazil is about to enter its extended holiday period, even while it also acknowledged that the Senate can refuse to continue the hearings even if the Chamber moves to impeach (based, ironically, on the 1992 corruption scandal hearings that brought down President Fernando Collor – who is currently in the Senate, even while facing his own corruption scandal [again]). Although Congress can meet in January, culturally, from Christmas through Carnival is often treated as a long summer holiday, much in the way it June-August are in the United States, and so it’s not clear that even the Chamber will move on impeachment before March; nor is it clear Cunha will be able to last that long – it’s possible, but not obvious.

The move towards impeachment has also led to criticisms from within and outside of Brazil. No less an authority on impeachment than Sydney Sanches, who was the chief justice of Brazil’s Supreme Court during the Fernando Collor impeachment hearings in 1990-1992, said that the current impeachment push risks “vulgarizing impeachment” and throwing the country into turmoil. Scholars outside of Brazil see the current events as less about political crimes and more about Dilma’s opposition exacting “revenge” even while undermining Brazil’s strength in the world.

Meanwhile, the public has taken to the streets to voice diverse opinions. Last Sunday, around 5000-6000 pro-impeachment demonstrators took to the streets in Brasília in an anti-corruption rally that, not coincidentally, focused primarily on Dilma, with similar rallies in São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. In response, on Wednesday, anti-impeachment and/or pro-Dilma forces took to the streets, with over 55,000 gathering in São Paulo, 15,000 more than had gathered Sunday, despite the anti-impeachment rally falling on a  workday.

The protest against impeachment (which, it should be stressed, is not necessarily or uniformly a pro-Dilma demonstration) taps into the broader contestation going on here. Along with public demonstrations in favor of constitutionalism, the hashtag #NaoVaiTerGolpe (“There Will Not Be a Coup”) has become an important measure for people to speak out against impeachment/for Dilma.

This latter phrase raises another question – is this a coup attempt? For a country where a military coup happened just 51 years ago, and the transition to democracy is just over 30 years old, it’s understandable why this is a sensitive subject. That the current president also suffered torture at the hands of that military regime also adds to the poignancy of the narrative of democracy/coups in Brazil. Certainly, there is precedent in living memory of a coup overthrowing a constitutional president in Brazil.

However, the best analogue as to why many fear a coup in 2015 may not be Brazil in 1964, but rather a neighbor’s more recent experience: Paraguay in 2012. In that year, a Congress ideologically opposed to president Fernando Lugo’s program turned to partisan, vague/trumped-up charges to impeach Lugo, leaving him with virtually no time to mount a defense before removing him from office. At the time, I suggested that, while constitutional, Paraguay’s Congress had effectively launched an institutional coup that disrupted the constitutional balance of power between the legislative and executive. By impeaching a president who had won a popular, democratic election for what ultimately was simply a distaste for how democracy had actually worked out in practice, Paraguay’s Congress effectively removed Lugo via an institutional coup, dealing a not-inconsiderable blow to democracy in Paraguay (which itself only emerged from the thirty-five year dictatorship of Alfredo Stroessner in 1989, with democratic elections only finally occurring in 1992).

What happened in Paraguay is reminiscent of what has happened in Brazil up to this point: a president wins an election, and the opposition (in this case mired in layers upon layers of corruption itself) seeks to remove her from office, using the mask of vague charges and allegations to (poorly) conceal the open partisan removal of somebody who won a popular, democratic election. Whether or not Dilma’s popularity has slipped has no bearing on the constitutional reality that, without committing some open crime, she is to serve her full presidential term. Important leaders in Congress, based on nakedly partisan rivalries and ideology, is seeking to undo that constitutional obligation. While many in public, both against and for impeachment, speak out against corruption across party lines, the fact that Cunha is leading the charge for impeachment with the support of PSDB and PMDB politicians also more directly tied to corruption make clear that, institutionally, this is not about corruption and governance, but about partisanship, regardless of the electorate’s desires.

And as if this weren’t complicated enough, what would happen in the eventuality of Dilma’s impeachment is also dependent on internal party dynamics, for while the PMDB’s Cunha is leading the impeachment charge, Vice-President Michel Temer, who would become temporary president, is also from the PMDB. Some say this makes him likely to work behind the scenes for her impeachment, doing so could leave him marginalized in the event she is not convicted. While Temer has publicly denied working toward impeachment, the denial came after a private letter he wrote critiquing Dilma became public. Some suggest that Temer has strengthened his ties to Cunha, but even if this is the case, given how perilous and unclear Cunha’s own future is, Temer may be stepping away quickly. And many in the PMDB are also opposed to impeachment, meaning that the impeachment hearings themselves are inextricably entwined with an internal struggle over the path of the PMDB, Brazil’s largest and least ideologically-defined political party.

Where things go remain unclear.  Dilma’s disapproval ratings fell slightly this week, as the public perhaps is growing tired of talks of impeachment where there is no obvious impeachable crime. The fact remains that Cunha is playing a dangerous game of chicken, and he may not be able to get impeachment hearings brought forth before he’s perhaps forced to step down amidst his own corruption (again, for which there is much more evidence). Even if the Chamber of Deputies moves to impeach, currently, the numbers in the Senate do not favor a conviction, though impeachment would mean Dilma would have to step down from office while on trial, which would certainly disrupt Brazilian politics, economics, and society at a time where the country is already struggling.

And of course, while it has been months and still there has been no evidence of any crime or wrongdoing on Dilma’s part, that does not mean there may not be something in the future. Two things in this instant are certain: corruption is a massive problem facing Brazilian politics, and one that is not limited to a particular political party; and, with impeachment increasingly appearing like a partisan tool rather than a legal protection, Brazil’s democracy is perhaps at its most uncertain moment since the early 1990s. And those leading to undermine that democracy are Cunha, leaders in the PSDB, and other members of the opposition party who lost a fair and open election. It speaks poorly of those theoretically leading a democratic nation when their faith in democracy is so easily shaken and selective.

Posted in Brazil, Corruption, Impeachment, Latin American Politics, Legal Issues in Latin America | 2 Comments

Today in Dubious (But Deserved) Awards

Given the history of racism in Brazil, and ongoing structural and social racism, I imagine the competition was stiff. Still, Maranhão politician Fernando Furtado seems to have justly earned the title of “Racist of the Year”:

A Brazilian lawmaker who said Amazon tribal peoples should be left to starve to death and are “a bunch of little gays” has been named Racist of the Year by the indigenous rights group Survival International.

Fernando Furtado, a lawmaker in Maranhão state, was given the award for a speech he gave in July close to the border of territory of the Awá people, a tribe which has been pushed to the brink of extinction by deforestation and clashes with ranchers.

Addressing an audience of loggers and ranchers, Furtado said: “They don’t know how to plant rice, so let them die of hunger in poverty. That’s the best thing, because they don’t know how to work.”

He also called indigenous people “a bunch of little gays”, the NGO said.

For all the commentary on racism towards afro-descendants in Brazil, it’s important to remember how much racism there is towards indigenous peoples in Brazil, not just in comments like Furtado’s, but in popular perceptions that Brazil’s indigenous peoples have “disappeared” or in environmental policies that target and destroy indigenous lands first. And while Furtado’s homophobic addenda is also appalling, given the vociferous homophobia of evangelical politicians in Brazil, it likely wouldn’t land him in the top 10 of hate-mongering homophobes in Brazil.

Posted in Brazil, Indigenous Peoples, Racism

The Ongoing Struggle Against Inequalities & Prejudices in Brazil

One of the major issues facing Brazil by now is a major short-term economic decline.Currently, the Real at an unheralded R$4.10 to the dollar. To put that in perspective, when I was living in Brazil in 2006-2008, the Real at its strongest point was R$1.57 to the dollar, in 2007, and even at the beginning of 2015, it was roughly R$2.65/dollar. This has a dramatic impact on commodities markets, threatening the Brazilian economy with contraction. Meanwhile, Dilma Rousseff has opted for an austerity program that all but ensures much of the social spending that helps Brazil’s population (helping Brazilians move upward) will be cut, a remarkable shift for a party that was founded in 1980 as a democratic socialist party and even in the 2000s created spending programs that helped many poor and working-class Brazilians improve their lives.

A new report by the UN argues that the effects of these cumulative events – depressed growth, inflation, rising unemployment, austerity measures – will affect the country’s Afro-Brazilian population particularly disproportionately. The report acknowledges that Brazil has made strides in protecting the rights of minority groups through laws. However, the racial and socioeconomic divisions between the rural and urban poor, who tend to be Afro-descendants, and the wealthy, who tend to be white, continue, and as Brazil’s economy goes through instability, uncertainty, and recession, those at the bottom of that socioeconomic scale are most threatened. The result is that socioeconomic inequalities continue even as laws attempt to juridically address inequality in Brazil, and thus, while there are legal protections for Afro-descendants, the reality remains that “poverty is colored in Brazil,” as the report says.

Of course, progress does not prevent efforts to re-establish structural inequalities for the marginalized, and that is exactly what Brazil’s Congress is trying to do, with the congressional Special Commission of the Family Statute approving the legal definition of a family solely as the union between a man and a woman. In a country with marriage equality but vocal, if growing-but-still-minority, evangelical voices, the effect of the law would be to deny gay and lesbian couples who have children the right to be considered a family for legal purposes. The vote was not even close, passing the Commission 17-5.  The law attempts to legislate against the Federal Supreme Court’s recent ruling that gay and lesbian couples have equal marriage rights and protections that heterosexual couples have. The project heads now to a full Chamber of Deputies vote, where it very well could pass, before heading to the Senate. While its future there is less certain, the fact remains that, even in the slow steady push toward progress and with substantial economic and political issues (such as corruption) to contend with, there are members of Congress that are devoting some of their time to rewind and undo the rights gained by people historically marginalized based on their sexuality in an attempt to re-establish that marginalization of rights institutionally and juridically.

Posted in Brazil, Economics in the Americas, Gender and Sexuality, Inequalities in the Americas, LGBT Rights & Issues, Poverty, Race in the Americas

Links Around Latin America

Several stories of note from around the region lately:

Posted in Argentina, Argentina's Military Dictatorship (1976-1983), Around Latin America, Brazil, Brazil's Military Dictatorship, Civil Conflict in the Americas, Colombia, Corruption, Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionárias de Colombia (FARC), Guatemala, Human Rights Issues, Human Rights Violations, Latin America, Latin American Art, The Malvinas War, Torture