The Complex Web of Environmental Devastation in the Amazon

The New York Times recently ran a story on the issue of piracy on the Amazon River. It offers glimpses into a lot of issues pertinent to the region and to Brazil more generally – ongoing poverty and inequality, and its role in the expansion of violence; the international nature of the drug trade within South America; the shifting (and not always clearly-defined) role of the police – but this passage in particular stood out:

Galdino Alencar, the president of the Union of River Navigation Companies of Amazonas State, said that pirates were increasingly targeting ships carrying large cargoes for the growing population of the Amazon, including cooking gas, electronic devices, cement and dried beef. But the most coveted cargo for pirates, he said, is fuel.

“It’s a product they can steal and go on to sell to gold miners operating illegally in the forest,” Mr. Alencar said. He added that pirates were also stepping up attacks on ships docked in large cities like Manaus, spurring calls by his organization to create a federal river police force.

When we think of environmental devastation, we tend to think only of deforestation, typically for ranching. Certainly, ranching is a major and highly-visible threat to and cause of Amazonian destruction, but it is far from the sole issue – illegal mining and the drug trade also have direct and indirect effects on the degradation of the environment int he Amazon. And these are not merely environmental issues; they are social issues as well, for the rapid demographic growth in the Amazonian basin and the ongoing inequalities within the region, and the national inequalities between the poorer North and Northeast (vs. the wealthier Southeast and South) of Brazil contribute to the causes of this deforestation.:

Huederson Paulino, a pirate who used the nom de guerre Mohican, confessed to killing and dismembering two men on a boat selling ice and salt. He led a gang that stole cash and fuel from the victims, and said his aim was to get spending money for Christmas.

“I needed the money, so I did what was best for me,” Mr. Paulino, 24, told reporters.

Those who cannot find well-paying jobs resort to piracy, stealing goods that they then sell to those like the illegal miners who need fuel for transport into the forest, where their open-pit mining furthers environmental destruction in the Amazon. Without greater infrastructure, socioeconomic equality, and opportunity for the majority in the Amazon, the incentives for such extralegal means to wealth will persist (much as they do in the urban centers of the Southeast, with very different causes and effects), and so too will the environmental destruction. Ranching is a problem, yes, but at the end of the day, without addressing the socioeconomic issues facing the region and Brazil as a whole, the probability of halting and reversing environmental degradation in the Amazon seems unlikely.

Posted in Brazil, Environmental Issues in the Americas, Inequalities in the Americas

Very Quick Thoughts on Castro

Fidel Castro has died at 90 years of age. Obviously, a lot will be said in the coming days. Some will make him out to be one of the greatest monsters of history (with inevitable claims that he was “Cuba’s Hitler”). Others will make him out to be one of history’s greatest heroes. Many more people will claim to be experts on Castro when they aren’t.

I’ll make no such claims, but studying Latin America makes Castro an unavoidable subject, and one encounters numerous historical attitudes towards him. Suffice to say, when you read the “monster”/”hero” narratives in the coming days, both are simplistic and overwrought. LIke virtually everybody who holds power on the global stage, Castro’s record is far too complex, his effects on people far too heterogeneous, to fit into simple “good”/”evil” narratives. What cannot be denied, however, is that he had a major impact on World History, not just in terms of his relationship with the US or his place in our understanding of the Cold War, but in broader struggles in places like Africa, South America, and elsewhere. It will only be with the gradual settling of the historical dust that we’ll be able to fully appreciate his legacies, for better and for worse.

Posted in Cuba, Deaths

What Presidents Do Post-Coup

Greg has an interesting post up on the path of Latin American presidents who’ve been removed from office in recent times – Manuel Zelaya in Honduras in 2009 through a coup; Paraguay’s Fernando Lugo through a highly dubious application of impeachment in 2012; and most recently, Dilma Rousseff. As Greg points out, where presidents removed from office were once sent into exile (though Zelaya did spend some time in exile), now, they enter the legislative branch electorally. His tentative conclusions:

On the one hand, we might consider it a good thing. Political competition is taking place within institutions and not, for example, by calling on the military or forming a rebel group.

But on the other, this may just perpetuate the corrupt and largely unchanging political system. Perhaps you can work at the margins, but the same anti-democratic structural forces are in place. Along these lines, we could argue that at least to some degree contentious politics allows the possibility for greater change (though AMLO [Mexican politician Andrés Manuel López Obrador] certainly seems like a possible counterexample).

I think this is right, and maybe I’m uncharacteristically optimistic in regard, but I think the latter point about combating corruption from within a corrupt system is the best path available to each of these three candidates. Each was elected to, and removed from, office because of their willingness to help the historically and socially marginalized sectors of society, which the political and economic elites of each respective country saw as a threat to their own ability to govern in elites’ interests with impunity and without challenge. Such a historical precedent has reinforced a historical exclusion of the masses [further reinforced by the removal, forced or legislatively, of all three presidents] and undermined modern democratic practices in each country, even while allowing institutional corruption and impunity to remain unchecked. I think that each of the three presidents running and being elected to serve in the legislature after having been prematurely and even illegally removed from the executive is likely the best path available to them to continue to try to reform the system from within.*

Their presence in the legislature doesn’t suddenly abolish corruption within national politics, of course -were Dilma to run and be elected Senator, she’d still be serving in a body where over half of her colleagues are facing actual criminal accusations and charges. But the corruption within Brazilian, Paraguayan, or Honduran politics, and the impunity with which politicians act, is not on  Dilma, Lugo, or Zelaya, each of whom represented real threats to oligarchic political elites and their economic allies. If they couldn’t effect change in the executive, then serving in the legislature and keeping the issues they worked toward as president in the public and political eye is one of the better options available to them.

Indeed, Greg cites the case of López Obrador, and I think that offers a compelling counter-example. Though López Obrador never occupied the presidency, the path he took can still be instructive. After being declared the loser of the election in the incredibly-close 2006 election, and then losing in the 2012 election, his efforts to operate outside of the system and to try to rally people extra-institutionally have been minimally effective in transforming Mexican politics in the ways he’d envisioned (and enacted as the Head of the Government of Mexico City from 2000-2005). While Zelaya and Lugo (and possibly Dilma) might have less influence as legislators than they did as presidents, they would still have a greater direct influence on national policy than AMLO did with his decision to politically operate extra-institutionally.

And yes, those are often-corrupt institutions, and there’s nothing to guarantee that Lugo, Zelaya, or (possibly) Dilma would not end up being “bought” in the same system. That said, I’m not sure how working from without would be an option for them, given their dubious (or even forced) removal in each case, and the legislative option seems to be one of the better options for them to continue promoting their political visions and programs, even if it ends up being in a watered down or less immediate form.

*Opinions vary on whether those systems themselves are worth saving, but whether or not one agrees with that stance, each of the three clearly believes as much, given their efforts to reform from within, first from the executive and then from the legislative branches.


Posted in Brazil, Honduras, Latin American Politics, Mexico, Paraguay | 1 Comment

Today in “Terrible Historical Analogies” (or, Brazil in 2016 is not Iraq in 2005)

The impeachment of Dilma Roussef in Brazil has led to no small amount of writing over where Brazil heads next. Some of those pieces are thought-provoking as they shed light on the current situation in Brazil as well as outlining quite reasonable (if not guaranteed) possible outcomes.

Then there are pieces like this one.

A sense of uncertainty, and even fear, in Brazil right now is not irrational. The democratic process has suffered a massive setback, one that will take years to recover from (and there’s no guarantee there, either). But to say that Brazil “might become a new Iraq, but much worse” demonstrates overreaction of the worst kind.

It starts off benignly enough, highlighting the reality that a majority of the senators who removed Dilma over allegations of corruption are themselves corrupt. However, things quickly turn from a reasoned assessment to the comparison of Dilma and….Saddam Hussein. And not even in the vilifying way you might first think.

Amidst such scenario, Dilma Rousseff became the scapegoat of Brazil, in the same fashion perhaps that the Bush administration initiated an intentional and widespread fear mongering and deception campaign as to gain support to invade Iraq after the 9/11 attack.

In that case, however, the scapegoat was Saddam Hussein who was also perceived as a hindrance by the American oligarchy. So, history repeats itself but on opposite sides of the hemisphere. Truth is that both Hussein and Rousseff became guilty by association.

This is just a bizarre analogy on so many levels that it’s hard to tell where to begin. Yes, the removal of Dilma is  politically traumatic and institutionally concerning, but thousands of people didn’t die in a single day died because of Dilma’s removal from office. [And I’m not fetishizing 9/11 here, but at some point, context matters, and this seems to be well beyond that point]. Additionally, Saddam fell because a foreign power decided that he was public enemy #1; the impeachment of Dilma has been a strictly internal issue from the start, a question of the struggle between the traditional political oligarchy that served the interests of private capital and the economic elite vs. a political party that worked to improve inequalities in society more generally (while still operating within a market-friendly policy, for better or worse). Nobody was invading Brazil if Dilma remained in office (or if she’s removed), and nobody’s blaming their own domestic security issues on Dilma and Brazil. And even if the “American oligarcy” is satisfied with the outcome of impeachment, they weren’t the main engine behind it, nor were they the catalyst for it. This is, first and foremost, domestic politics in Brazil, not some Cold War US-led coup a la Guatemala in 1954.

And its not just the international context that seems so skewed here – even the domestic context seems….exaggerated. Is the rivalry between the PT and the PMDB real? Yes. Is it a rivalry of over 1000 years, with a long history of warfare and territorial acquisitions based upon a vision of what the supreme divine being intends for Earth, with centuries of religious doctrine blended modern political ideology, all with a contested history at play, as the Sunni-Shia split in Iraq is? In a word – No.

This isn’t to diminish what are very real problems like political corruption and violence that the piece mentions (and even issues that the piece does not mention, like ongoing inequalities, police brutality and impunity, environmental issues, etc.). But to say that these issues, and the uncertain impact they will have, is akin to what happened in Iraq between 2003 and the present, is to demonstrate a complete failure to understand either the situation outside of Brazil or any decent concept of useful historical analogies.

Posted in Brazil

A Final, Farcical Footnote to Impeachment in Brazil

As many already know, Brazil’s Senate formally removed president Dilma Rousseff from office this week, voting 61-20 in favor of removal (59 votes were needed). The process had been a farce since the moment Eduardo Cunha, leader of the PMDB in the Chamber of Deputies, broke with Dilma’s coalition last summer, and the farcical nature seemed to reach its peak with the painfully demagogic performances when the Chamber moved to impeach in  April.

While the Senate’s vote was pretty much a foregone conclusion, there still remained a surprise. While the Senate voted to remove Dilma from office, they did not vote to strip her of her political rights for ten years (a decision that accompanies removal from office for politicians). This may not seem like a big deal, but the insanity becomes clear when one realizes that this is now the reality in Brazil: Dilma Rousseff, who was removed from the presidency over poorly-defined and unsubstantiated allegations of “corruption,” can run for office in 2018, but Michel Temer, who is now actually serving as president in the wake of Dilma’s removal, cannot run for office in 2018 because he actually has had his political rights stripped due to his own corruption.

[And of course, let’s not forget that, in the first month of his then-temporary administration, no fewer than three of his cabinet members had to step down over corruption.]

Dilma’s removal from office may have seemed to mark the end of the farce that was the use of impeachment this year. Yet with every day, it becomes even more painfully clear how naked this undemocratic power grab was. One can never underestimate the kleptocratic elite in Brazil’s Congress, and so yesterday, they offered one final, farcical footnote to the whole process. Less than 48 hours after Dilma’s removal, Congress voted for a rules change that allows presidents to use supplementary credit when establishing the federal budget without needing Congressional approval. That may sound uninteresting and technical, but there’s another more commonplace term for this practice: pedaladas fiscais, or fiscal maneuvers.

In other words: Congress just legalized the very practice that they removed Dilma Rousseff over.

More specifically, Dilma’s impeachment was never about “corruption” (claims without evidence notwithstanding). The impeachment process centered on allegations that her use of pedaladas fiscais in 2014 was unconstitutional. Nevermind that the practice was only declared illegal (by Dilma’s government itself) in 2015; nevermind that pedaladas fiscais had been common practice not only among presidents dating back to the mid-1990s and among governors even in the present. [And one can say it’s an unsavory practice, and that’s fine, but it wasn’t illegal, which is what impeachment is about – removal from office for illegal activity.]

So the Senate removed the president from the PT from office over an act, and less than 48 hours after she was out of office, Congress legalized that very same act once again for the Michel Temer, the vice president who replaced her and who worked against the very president whom he served as he collaborated with the PMDB and PSDB throughout the entire impeachment process.

It was already quite visible that the impeachment was never about corruption – again, a majority of the senators are facing actual charges and documented allegations of criminal activity. Yesterday’s new law made clear that it wasn’t even about the allegedly “unsavory” (when Dilma used it) practice of pedaladas fiscais. It was about two parties (the PSDB and PMDB) seizing power after being unable to electorally win the presidency in 13 years. In the process, they removed from office a president whom a majority of Brazilians elected, vetoing the social, economic, and political projects of the PSDB in the process. This is a cynical and undemocratic politics, and one that becomes impossibly more naked and evident every day. It is a massive, unquantifiable step backwards for Brazilian democracy, and it will take many, many years – likely well past the next election in 2018 – to recover.

Posted in Brazil, Corruption, Impeachment, Latin American Politics

Some Quick Thoughts on the Latest Polls in Brazil

Three months out from the impeachment of president Dilma Rousseff and the imposition of Michel Temer as acting President, Datafolha recently published new polling data that gives some interesting insights into how the impeachment and the Temer administration are resonating in the interregnum between Dilma’s removal and her upcoming trial in the Senate. The snapshot finds that half of those polled were in favor of Temer’s continuity, with 32% preferring the return of Dilma, and only 3% wanting new elections (with another 4% wanting neither Dilma nor Temer, but not wanting new elections). Given the lack of support for new elections, it seems unlikely that they would happen, barring some unprecedented and unforeseeable event (though to be fair, 2016 has already been full of unprecedented and unforeseeable events in Brazilian politics already).

Of course, that half the country says Temer should stay in office does not mean he enjoys support. Indeed, he currently is only at a 14% approval rating. The discrepancy between his approval rating and those who say he should stay in office makes some small sense, however, if the latter is understood not as pro-Temer (nor anti-Dilma) sentiment, but as people likely just wanting no more political instability. That 32% also want the return of Dilma is likely only partly support for her, with the possibility that, while also unpopular, her removal was dubious at best – a possibility backed up by the fact that, while 58% want her permanently removed (down from nearly 70% in April), 35% want her reinstated. Thus, Temer is unpopular, but they’d rather not deal with anymore of the political insanity that Brazil has endured across the last several months. On the one hand, this is not necessarily a good thing, as it means that the highly-problematic tactics to impeach Dilma under spurious charges have become normalized; on the other hand, it also points to a desire for institutional stability, which is important as well – especially given the institutional instability behind a Congress impeaching a president without any evidence of illegal activity even while that self-same Congress is rife with corruption.

The data that has raised more eyebrows is the fact that one-third of those polled didn’t know the acting president’s name. While this led to no small amount of guffawing on Twitter and in Facebook comments, this actually taps into the more pernicious isolation of Brazilian politics. Politics in Brazil have long functioned as an arena for the elites cut off from the masses in any number of guises and historical moments, from the Empire to the 2013 protests; that 33% of those polled did not know which was the acting president only reinforces the perception of national politics not registering in or appealing to not-insignificant portions of the population.

Finally, in a separate poll, Datafolha found that, in a list of possible candidates for president in 2018, former president Luis Inacio Lula da Silva leads other named candidates like ex-senator Marina Silva and José Serra of the PSDB (who has lost the presidential elections twice before, is currently in Michel Temer’s cabinet, and whose name has come up periodically in the Lava Jato investigation). Interestingly, while Lula leads, he would lose a second-round runoff against either Silva or Serra, based on the poll. In some regards, this is just an entertaining game of “what if” for elections that are over 2 years away (and, based on what has happened just in the last 9 months, a lot can happen in 2 years). That said, it does show that Lula reveals some strong degree of support amongst a considerable number of Brazilians, suggesting that either the PT remains somewhat popular or that his charisma and nostalgia for the accomplishments of his presidency – which saw remarkable economic growth and social reform -transcends disgust with party politics (I suspect it’s the latter).

Posted in Brazil, Democracy in the Americas, Latin American Politics

The Lived Effects of the Rio Olympics

Recently, The Guardian has been running an excellent series on the lived experiences of the Olympics from a usually-ignored perspective: that of those living in favelas. Much of the concern over the upcoming Rio Olympics has fallen on Zika (despite August being low season for mosquitos in Rio, and a majority of the documented Zika cases occurring thousands of miles in Northeast), which isn’t surprising – the world tends to focus on the on-the-ground issues that they think will directly affect themselves. However, those more familiar with Brazil know the bigger issue around the Olympics is not Zika, but the longer-term inequalities in Rio and the burden for the Olympics that unduly falls on the poor, not just economically but socially, be it through forced relocation, allocation of funding to expensive construction projects instead of social care, further improvements in parts of the city that are already well off while ignoring the areas that need investment, or other issues. This ongoing inequality surrounding the Olymipcs is admittedly just another entry in a more than century-long history of “improvements” to Rio that dislocate and disenfranchise the urban (typically nonwhite) poor.

That is why the pieces in The Guardian are so important, so illuminating, and so necessary. Be it in discussing the ways in which the deaths (and thus, lives) of the poor are ignored while those of the wealthy are top stories, the sense of brutal violence as a daily reality, or  the ways the favelas are physical and symbolic examples of the ongoing racial, social, and economic segregation that Brazilians often ignore or even deny, the journals cover a wide array of topics: the way the lives of the urban poor are devalued, the ways police continue to operate with impunity when perpetuating violence against marginalized populations, the multifarious negative effects the Olympics have had on the residents of Rio, the ongoing social and economic inequalities in Brazil, the effects of the economic crisis on everyday Brazilians, the popular reaction to the impeachment of Dilma Rousseff, the role of technologies (like What’s App) to communicate danger, and even the mundane (such as video games) alongside the extreme violence. In total, the pieces simultaneously demonstrate the complexities of favela life even while tapping into the ongoing and very real struggles of Brazil’s marginalized, offering invaluable insights into a wide variety of processes, experiences, and events from voices too often overlooked and disregarded.

Posted in Brazil, Favelas, Inequalities in the Americas, Rio de Janeiro, Urban Landscapes | 1 Comment