The following is a guest-post from John Garrison Marks. John is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of History at Rice University, studying race and freedom in the urban black Atlantic World. He is currently living in Bogotá, Colombia, conducting dissertation research. You can access more of his writing at his blog, and you can also find him on Twitter.
Over the past three weeks, the signs of the protest have been unmistakable in Colombia. What began as a strike among agricultural workers (campesinos) has expanded in recent weeks to include a number of other sectors, particularly teachers, health workers, miners, and students, in what is now being termed the Paro Nacional or Paro Popular. I’ve been living in Bogotá since June, so I’ve seen some of these demonstrations first hand.
The Paro Agrario Nacional began on August 19th, as farm workers in various industries expressed complaints about the government’s economic policies. Among other grievances, Colombia’s farmers allege that the government’s importation of cheap foodstuffs—milk, rice, onions, potatoes—is driving them into bankruptcy, among other complaints. To express their displeasure, the campesinos went on strike, staging protests on major highways throughout the country, often blocking the roads. In some areas of Colombia, like Boyacá, these demonstrations were accompanied by violence, as the protestors punctured tires and smashed windows of vehicles trying to pass the roadblocks. I was in the town of Villa de Leyva when the demonstrations began, and ended up stuck there for an extra night as busses were unable or unwilling to make the trip from Bogotá. It was estimated that as many as one million people took part in broad anti-government protests on the 19th.
The following week, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos exacerbated the situation in his response to the protests, by claiming that “The national agrarian strike does not exist,” denying that the claims of the striking sectors were legitimate. This response seemingly set off a new wave of anti-government protests in Bogotá, as the strikes and demonstrations continued in other parts of the country.
On August 29th, a few days after President Santos’s statement, major protests took place throughout the city, with as many as 30,000 people—many of them students—taking part to show their support for the campesinos and to express a host of other grievances against the government. Marches took place throughout Bogotá, with a major crowd ultimately descending on the Plaza Bolívar, the city’s main square. Some of these marches went right past my window on La Septima, one of the city’s main thoroughfares (though they also prevented me from going to the archive near most of the government buildings.) As you can see below, the protesters were followed closely by no small number of riot police.
That night, according to some reports, the protests turned violent as protestors allegedly hurled rocks at riot police. Two people were killed by gunfire. The following day, against the backdrop of a host of new graffiti (“A cerrar las vías para abrir el debate” being my personal favorite), President Santos ordered troops to patrol the city’s streets. Even in my neighborhood, far from the site of the alleged violence though home to a number of banks and media outlets, upwards of fifteen well-armed soldiers stood guard on my corner alone. Walking past twenty soldiers with machine guns to get to the National Archives was also quite an experience.
Since the major demonstrations of the 29th, the government has entered into discussions with many of the striking sectors, though no broad agreements have yet been reached. President Santos’s entire cabinet also resigned, allowing him to appoint a new “peace and unity” cabinet. Even while the Santos government negotiates with the campesinos, new strikes are yet emerging throughout Colombia. On September 10th, Colombia’s teachers went on strike over an alleged $40 billion in unpaid wages.
It is an extremely challenging time for the Santos government, as a whole host of sectors feel increasingly empowered to express their displeasure with a wide variety of policies. To date, Santos has yet to announce any major policy changes, meaning the demonstrations will likely continue in one form or another.
-Yesterday, Chile marked the fortieth anniversary of the coup that overthrew democratically-elected president Salvador Allende and ushered in the 17-year military dictatorship that killed over 3000 people and tortured tens of thousands. Even while the date was commemorated, the search for justice for some continues. Family members of murdered folk singer Victor Jara, whose hands the military cut off before killing him in 1973, have sued an officer tied to the murder who now lives in Florida, while former friends and colleagues of US journalist Charles Horman demand an investigation into his own death in Chile shortly after the coup (a story that was portrayed in Costa Gavras’s 1982 film Missing).
-Of course, Chile is not the only country continuing to pursue justice decades after the rise of right-wing military regimes. It recently extradited judge Otilio Romano to Argentina, where Romano is wanted for his role in cases of torture, disappearances, and other crimes.
-In the wake of wire-tapping scandals that revealed the US spied on Mexico and Brazil, the Obama administration has begun trying to patch up its relationship with Brazil in the wake of the revelations (and as President Dilma Rousseff weighs whether or not to cancel a planned state visit to the US in October).
-Thousands of teachers in Mexico continue to take to the streets in protest of a new educational law that would create mandatory evaluations, reforms they say erode labor rights.
-As Cuban doctors continue to travel to Brazil to help with medical care in the country (one of the many issues raised in massive protests throughout Brazil in June this year) and even enjoy the support of a majority of Brazilians, that has not stopped them from facing racism from some Brazilians, including Brazilian doctors who oppose the Cuban doctors’ presence, a powerful reminder of the ways racism operates within and in between Latin American countries.
-Another former Guatemalan guerrilla is set to face trial for his role in killings during the civil war that left 250,000 Guatemalans dead or missing, providing another reminder that the court system in Guatemala has gone after more than just military human rights violators.
-Brazilian prosecutors have launched an effort to prevent Canadian mining company Belo Sun mining from creating an open-pit mine in the Amazonian basin, arguing such a project will devastate indigenous communities and the environment.
Though reports on the story have been relatively slight in comparison to far more trivial matters that gobble up more TV time, for at least the past four months, detainees at Guantanamo have been on a hunger strike, protesting the conditions in which they are kept, the lack of charges or trials, and regulations that are outraging even the defense attorneys that the Pentagon itself appointed. In response to the strike, US forces at Guantanamo have begun force-feeding the detainees. Though earlier reports already indicated the violence and horrors of forced feeding, Yasiin Bey (formerly Mos Def) volunteered to go through force-feeding to illustrate what it is like. The results are difficult to watch (and that is putting it mildly), and the video is graphic, so be forewarned. That said, it is quite effective at conveying just what forced-feeding looks like, and it’s hard to see how it could not be considered torture by many definitions of human rights, not just in Guantanamo, but wherever force-feeding prisoners is used.
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.
-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!”)
Nearly two months ago, Enrique Peña Nieto signed into law an educational reform bill that reduced the power of teachers’ unions, and then promptly arrested union leader Elba Ester Gordillo on charges of corruption. At the time, I commented that “it wouldn’t be terribly surprising to see some pushback from teachers.” It would appear that that pushback has happened.
Easter vacation was over, but there wasn’t a teacher in sight at the boarding school for indigenous children on the edge of this sunbaked southern Mexico hill town. […]
Pena Nieto’s first major legislative victory after taking office in December was a constitutional amendment eliminating Mexico’s decades-old practice of buying and selling teaching jobs, and replacing it with a standardized national teaching test. That’s heresy to a radical splinter union of elementary and high-school teachers in Guerrero, one of the country’s poorest and worst-educated states. The teachers claim the test is a plot to fire them in mass as a step toward privatizing education, although there is little evidence the government plans that.
Reform advocates say the dissidents simply fear losing control over the state education system and the income it provides, despite the need to reform a system that eats up more of the budget and produces worse results than virtually any other in the world’s largest economies.
The 20,000-member group walked out more than a month ago, turning hundreds of thousands of children out of class. Then it launched an increasingly disruptive string of protests.
The overtly anti-labor tone of the article aside, this taps into several main issues. On the one hand, just because there is “little evidence” that the government is using the reform to move towards privatization, that does not mean such a move is rendered impossible down the road; that the teachers are mobilizing to try to ensure that doesn’t take place at some future moment is understandable. On the other hand, the system for hiring teachers as it currently operates is also open to plenty of cases of corruption and abuse. And of course, the issue of teachers’ pensions in Mexico’s poorer areas taps into broader socio-economic problems: that the benefits and pay for teachers in rural areas is much higher than other employment opportunities is a harsh reminder of the impoverished conditions and exploitation of workers that continues in Mexico’s countryside; and that that pay is used to keep a lot of families fed and supplied with goods makes the pensions issue not just a teachers’ issue, but a social issue for non-teachers as well in these areas.
Ultimately, it wouldn’t be surprising if Peña Nieto uses the strength of the federal government to crack down on the teachers. The arrest of Gordillo is already increasingly looking like an early warning shot across the bow of the teachers’ unions, making clear Peña Nieto’s efforts to curb their power. And in the face of the state police apparatus, teachers are relatively outmatched in power. And that is not automatically a good thing for, if there are real problems with education in Mexico today, eliminating the power of unions and allowing the government to unilaterally control and dictate the terms of education is equally problematic. Things could work out, but quite honestly, right now, there does not seem to be a real encouraging exit one way or the other to the political struggle between the President and the teachers.
-With Hugo Chávez in Cuba convalescing from further cancer treatment even while his inauguration looms, there is growing tension over whether Chávez will assume power constitutionally or not. Proponents say he does not have to be in the country to assume, while opponents say if he cannot be inaugurated on Thursday, then a new leader must be appointed. A new plan that could be implemented would delay the inauguration until Chávez is able to take office. Now, the Catholic Church in Venezuela has weighed in, proclaiming it to be “morally unacceptable” should Chávez remain in power without officially being present for his inauguration. While the Church’s stance is unlikely to turn the tide one way or another, it adds a powerful voice to a situation that’s already uncertain, and could add to the political tensions in the country.
-Students in Guatemala continue to take to the streets to protest the government’s planned educational reforms. The reforms include a plan to make teachers’ certification take five years instead of three (as it currently requires), a move that students say will cost them more, an issue that was at the heart of similar protests last year.
-Chilean authorities arrested eight military officials for the murder of folk singer Victor Jara in 1973. Jara, one of the best and most popular of the Nueva Canción movement that highlighted social inequalities and was often associated with leftist politics, was arrested, tortured, had his hands cut off, and was ultimately shot shortly after the military coup that overthrew democratically-elected president Salvador Allende and led to Augusto Pinochet’s regime. And while Chile has finally arrested eight officials tied to the murder, his widow, Joan, has asked the US to extradite Pedro Barrientos Nuñez, another official tied to the murder who currently lives in Florida.
-Haiti renewed ex-dictator Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier’s passport after a judge ordered Duvalier not face charges for human rights violations during his regime.
-In another example of the deep social impacts that migration and xenophobia filter into everyday life, rights activists in northern Mexico are increasingly facing threats from unnamed groups over their role in helping migrants.
-Argentina sentenced another sixteen former military officials and seven police officers and civilians for their roles in human rights violations during the military regime of 1976-1983, capping off a relatively successful year that saw a number of successes as human rights violators faced justice (and victims and their families saw some sense of closure) for their actions during the dictatorship.
-Speaking of human rights in Argentina, the use of torture, while widespread under the military rule, has never gone away. Fortunately, officials and rights activists are set to start using surprise visits to prisons, juvenile detention centers, and psychiatric hospitals in an attempt to discourage and prevent the torture of inmates.
-Honduras has fired its ambassador to Colombia after two computers were stolen during a party in which at least two suspected prostitutes were in attendance. Of course, this is not the first time that Colombian prostitutes have been connected to high-level security controversies for foreign powers.
-In an attempt to reduce the number of real crimes committed with fake weapons, Mexico City destroyed thousands of toy guns this week. While the effort to reduce crimes like robberies through the measure, one can only hope the move leads to a reduction in crime and not criminals using real guns that actually kill people in order to commit robberies.
-Last week, Salvadoran bus drivers and microbus operators launched a work stoppage to protest an end to government fuel subsidies. As Tim points out, although the work stoppage came to an end over the weekend, there’s the chance it could resume, as the issue of the subsidy has not yet been resolved.
-Finally, though it’s a few weeks old, Chilean Justice Minister and former rector of the Autonomous University of Chile, Teodoro Ribera, resigned his position as minister after he was tied to allegations of bribery and corruption, as well as to questionable accreditation practices, allegations that further hurt the already-unpopular president, Sebastián Piñera, who has faced mounting criticism and protests over the issue of the cost of higher education and demands for reforms.