Former Brazilian President Luis Inacio Lula da Silva has long been a polarizing character. His working-class background and his political successes bring out an often-irrational hatred and vituperative declarations from the urban middle- and upper-classes, who see the former-union-leader-made-successful-president as nothing but a lazy drunk, an illiterate, and a man completely uncouth and uncultured (in contrast to how many in the middle class perceive themselves). In spite of the fact that Lula ultimately became president, serving from 2003-2011 and overseeing Brazil’s economic improvement even while socioeconomic inequality dropped during Lula’s two terms (though it still remains an issue), that has not been enough to stop many middle- and upper-class Brazilians for continuing to insult his intelligence through classist stereotypes.
Case in point? Veja, one of the journalistic bastions of middle-class snobbery, addressed the recent announcement that the New York Times will publish a monthly column by Lula (English version here) with the headline, “The first columnist in the history of the press incapable of writing in any language.” That’s right – Nunes is suggesting that Lula, a man who served as president for two terms while leading a country into remarkable economic growth and stability, is illiterate (something that the commenters on the piece also regularly regurgitate – after all, stupidity and bigotry in comments threads is not limited to just one part of the world). And it’s not a subtle suggestion – Nunes even offers a ridiculous (and not even funny) parody of what he thinks Lula’s first piece will look like. [Sample: “In Brazil, o people me see as hero because I remove every miserables da shit,” pidgin for “In Brazil, the people see me as a hero because I remove the miserable ones from the shit.” And it goes downhill from there.]
Of course, this horribly classist portrayal of Lula is not new language – such characterizations have dogged him since the former union leader emerged on the national political scene in the early 1980s. In his earlier presidential campaigns in 1989, 1994, and 1998, his language was rougher and more clearly reflected his working-class background. Yet even after winning two democratic elections and eight years of policies and leadership that saw Lula leave office with an unprecedented 87% approval rating, some in the middle- and upper-classes (and their media outlets) continue to portray Lula as completely unable to write or communicate his ideas.
Of course, that such attitudes are out of touch with the lives and opinions of most Brazilians shouldn’t be surprising. Indeed, to get a sense of the anger and disconnect between Brazil’s elites and the majority of the population, one only need to look to the legal system, where the Rio de Janeiro Justice Tribunal recently approved a living allowance of around 6,000 reais (about US$3,000) per month on top of their usual salaries (which are on average around R$26,000/month, or US$13,000/month). But that’s not all – the court also made the allowance retroactive to ten years ago. That’s right – the court system just approved a US$36,000 living allowance (give or take a few thousand, depending on one’s rank) for judges, and made it applicable to the last 10 years. And in some cases, the judges aren’t even the best-paid individuals in the courtroom – court clerks can and do make more than US$200,000 a year, and some judges’ salaries are well over $350,000 per month. This, even while the the average per capita income in Brazil is only R$11,000 and where 21% of the total population was living below the poverty line in 2009.
Lula’s administration may have begun to address the socioeconomic inequalities that have plagued Brazil, but he could not eradicate them. That salaries can be so uneven, and that members of the middle- and upper-classes can and do still insult Lula on such severely classist lines, are just two reminders of the ways in which class snobbery, bigotry, and class-antagonism still operate among many of Brazil’s better-off citizens.
If you cannot see the connection between a photograph of bikini-clad women and Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff’s hope to double Brazil’s per capita income, then you are not alone.
But that didn’t stop one website from accompanying the economic story with exactly such a picture.
-Early reports are saying
245 232 people died in a nightclub fire last night in Santa Maria, a city in Brazil’s southernmost state of Rio Grande do Sul. Somewhere between 300 and 400 people were reportedly at the event, a party for university students. Apparently, the fire’s source was a live band’s pyrotechnics. [UPDATE: The Guardian has photos from the scene last night, some of which are fairly graphic.]
-In Venezuela, prison violence between prisoners and the Venezuelan National Guard at a prison in Barquisimeto left sixty-one dead and around 120 wounded.
-El Salvador will be holding presidential elections next year, and Salvador Sánchez Cerén, the candidate for the incumbent-party FSLN, has said he will seek a repeal of the 1993 amnesty law that has protected war criminals and human rights violators, mostly in the military and governments between 1980 and 1992, from prosecution for their crimes.
-Cícero Guedes, an important figure in Brazil’s Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra (Landless Workers’ Movement; MST), was shot dead as he returned home from an area near a sugar plantation MST members had recently occupied.
-Guatemala’s recent efforts to militarize public institutions, including those not directly connected to security forces, have created concerns over the potential stability of democratic institutions.
-In Bolivia, activists and feminists are demanding prosecution of provincial representative Domingo Alcibia, who was caught on security video apparently raping a drunk woman while she was unconscious.
-Brazil is set to launch a massive four-year study of the Amazonian rainforest that will detail the tree-count, biodiversity, and animal life in the region. The study is the first of its kind conducted since the late-1970s, when the military dictatorship conducted a similar study.
-In both Peru and Argentina, recent struggles over mining continue to shape social and political struggles, as people in Peru continue to protest the environmental consequences of mining, while in Argentina, powerful mining companies are using their economic influence and political ties to try to silence local journalists who seek to report on the environmental consequences of the mining activity in the northwestern parts of the country.
-While forty companies, including the massive Grupo Clarín (which has recently butted heads with President Cristina Kirchner) tend to dominate the market, a recent study found that alternative press in Argentina is also thriving.
-In a boon to historians of the Southern Cone (or Great Britain), last week Uruguay declassified archives on the Malvinas War, providing access to new diplomatic and previously-unknown materials on the war and its regional impact.
-Finally, in a unique mixture of 21st technology and urban history, Rio de Janeiro has begun incorporating QR codes into the city’s sidewalks to aid tourists, melding the codes into the city’s traditional mosaic sidewalks.
Fifty-eight years ago today, populist Brazilian president Getúlio Vargas, facing growing military opposition amidst political scandal, put a gun to his chest and pulled the trigger, ending his presidency but cementing his legacy on Brazilian politics, society, and culture for the remainder of the twentieth century.
Vargas had been a polemical figure for over two decades by the time of his suicide. Ushered into office via a military coup after losing the 1930 presidential election, Vargas governed Brazil “provisionally” and then constitutionally until 1937, when he ushered in his Estado Novo (“New State”) dictatorship. Under Vargas, Brazil sent troops to fight with the Allies in Italy during World War II; in joining the Allied forces in the presumed fight for “democracy,” however, Vargas opened himself up to growing criticisms at home, and although he began to reach out to a Brazilian working class that politicians had generally ignored, it was not enough to save his government, and he stepped down in 1945, though not before sowing the seeds for his eventual return as a populist with working-class appeal.
Vargas made his return to the presidency in 1951 after winning the 1950 elections by more than 1.5 million votes . Recast as a nationalist and as the “Father of the Poor” who fought for improved workers’ conditions, albeit in a highly-statist and top-down fashion, Vargas continued the national industrializing policies he had begun during the Estado Novo years. He also supported the creation of the state-run national oil company Petrobras. However, he was not opposed to working with the United States as he had during World War II, signing military agreements with the U.S. He also passed laws creating national organizations like the National Bank of Develpment (Banco Nacional de Desenvolvimento; BNDES) restricting the amount of profits foreign companies could extract from Brazil, and generally promoting policies that would improve economic independence and growth in Brazil.
However, these policies were not universally supported; the conservative National Democratic Union (União Democrático Nacional; UDN) fiercely opposed Vargas, his statism, and his popularity among the poor. One of the most vocal critics of the Vargas government was journalist and politician Carlos Lacerda, who used his newspapers to hurl invectives and calumnies against Vargas. On August 5th, two men from one of Vargas’s bodyguard corps attempted to assassinate Lacerda in front of his apartment building in Copacabana. Lacerda was allegedly wounded in the foot, but the gunman managed to kill officer Rubens Vaz of the Brazilian Air Force, leaving Vargas to allegedly say “Carlos Lacerda took a shot to the foot. I took two shots to the back!”
Although there is no evidence to suggest Vargas had ever ordered the attempt, the chief of his guard was implicated in the assassination. The UDN, which Vargas defeated in the 1950 elections, saw an opening, and pushed for Vargas’s ouster, insisting the president was involved and that he had to go; Lacerda in particular used his newspapers to continue the attacks on Vargas. Facing mounting pressure from both the UDN and the military to resign, Vargas met with his cabinet on the night of August 23. After the meeting, he retired to his room in the presidential Palácio do Catete where, in the wee hours of the morning of August 24, he put a gun to his heart and pulled the trigger, committing suicide at the age of 72.
By committing suicide rather than resigning, Vargas managed in death to gain the control over the narrative and his legacy that he had lost in life. Overnight, he went from a man implicated in a political scandal to the martyred “Father of the Poor.” Vargas himself played no small part in this transformation; in a suicide note he left behind, he condemned “the forces and the interests against the people” that had tried to hurt the nation by targeting Vargas, declaring
They do not accuse me, they insult me; they do not fight me, they slander me and do not give me the right to defend myself. They need to suffocate my voice and impede my actions, so that I do not continue to defend, as I have always defended, the people and especially the humble. I follow the fate that is imposed on me. […] Serenely, I take the first step on the path to eternity and I leave life to enter into history.
With these words, Vargas had outmaneuvered his opponents; Lacerda himself had to go into hiding, and nearly all sympathy he’d gained in the wake of the assassination attempt disappeared. Thousands of mourning Brazilians lined the streets of Rio de Janeiro to bid farewell to the “Father of the Poor” who they felt had fought for them and listened to their voices and needs more than other politicians. In the wake of his suicide, Vargas’s ghost hovered over Brazilian politics for years to come. Indeed, President João Goulart, whom the military ultimately overthrew in 1964 as it began its 21-year dictatorship, had briefly served as Vargas’s Minister of Labor before being elected Vice President in 1955 and again in 1960; and in 1985, Tancredo Neves, who had been Vargas’s Minister of Justice from 1953 until his suicide, became the first civilian elected to the presidency after 21 years of military rule (though Neves would die before he could take office). Even in the twenty-first century, politicians still refer to Vargas in order to indicate that they, like he, are populists who will fight for the people as he did.
Vargas may not have been able to control the scandal that erupted around him in August of 1954, but with that self-inflicted gunshot on August 24, he managed in no small part to shape his legacy, one that still resonates in Brazilian politics and society today.
-The latest polls suggest that on Sunday, barring some extreme occurrence, Enrique Peña Nieto will indeed become the next president of Mexico, marking the return of the PRI to power 12 years after Vicente Fox broke the party’s 70+ year hold on the government.
-China Premier Wen Jibao wrapped up his trip to South America with a bang, pledging $15 billion in investments and loans in order to boost development and infrastructure in the region.
-Questions on the US’s presence in Honduras again boiled to the surface after a DEA agent killed a Honduran man this week. While the US said the victim was tied to the drug trade and that the agent acted in “self-defense,” the fact that it was a US agent has again raised questions over sovereignty and the US’s role in Honduras specifically and in combating the drug trade in the region more generally.
-Bolivia’s police force ended their strike, agreeing to a pay raise of 20%. The strike had led to the government deploying the military to patrol the streets and raised the specter of a possible violent clash between police and military similar to that in 2003 that left 19 people dead. However, the end of the strike did not bring an end to social unrest, as the first action the police had to do was to contain another indigenous protest against the planned road through the Amazon that President Evo Morales supports but that has met indigenous opposition since last year.
-A series of attacks on buses and on police in São Paulo has left authorities suggesting that the criminal group Primeiro Comando da Capital (First Command of the Capital), a group originally formed in the early1990s and made up of prison inmates and associates, has made a return.
-Based on rates up through the first six months of this year, 2012 is heading towards being one of the worst years for the murder of journalists worldwide, with Latin America tragically contributing plenty to the attacks on journalists.
-Ecuador has announced that it will no longer send military officers to the former School of the Americas in Georgia. As I wrote at my old haunt, the School of the Americas is one of the more infamous examples of US policies during the Cold War, providing training to such infamous figures as Efraín Ríos Montt, Manuel Noriega, and numerous other officials involved with military coups, dictatorships, and human rights violations throughout the region in latter half of the twentieth century.
-Tens of thousands of Chilean high school and college students again took to the streets, continuing to demand broad reforms to the education system. Students have periodically demonstrated since last year, gaining broad support, challenging the neoliberal policies of President Sebastián Piñera and leading to declining popularity for Chile’s right-wing president.
-Speaking of Piñera, he walked out of an interview after a journalist brought up the controversial pro-Pinochet documentary that has recently aired in Chile.
-Former Argentine dictator Jorge Videla denied that the military regime of 1976-1983 ever kidnapped any children, in spite of at least 500 documented cases that continue to galvanize and unearth traumas and pain (past and present) in Argentina.
-And speaking of military regimes, in Brazil, a court has ordered former colonel Carlos Alberto Brilhante Ustra to pay $25,000 to both the wife and the sister of late journalist Luiz Eduardo da Rocha Merlino, who died after being tortured in a prison run by Ustra in 1971.
-Although it has been nearly two and a half years since an earthquake devastated Haiti, there are still more than 300,000 people who remain displaced from the disaster.
-An Argentine bishop has resigned after it became clear he had “amorous ties” with a woman. I genuinely feel bad for the man, and his case serves as yet another reminder of how absurd and archaic the Catholic Church’s ongoing insistence on celibacy in the 21st century is.
-Amnesty International has issued a report criticizing Colombia for failing to investigate human rights violations and allowing an atmosphere of impunity to persist, including failure to investigate and prosecute right-wing paramilitary groups and individuals who historically have been tied to Colombian governments. However, in at least one isolated instance of progress, a Colombian court sentenced six soldiers to serve 30-50 years in prison for murdering a developmentally disabled man and then falsely reporting his death as a guerrilla combatant.
-As many had hoped she would, Dilma Rousseff has used her line-item veto power to reject 12 clauses and amend 32 others in a highly controversial rainforest bill that had the support of powerful landowners and the business elite but the opposition of the Brazilian Academy of Science, the Catholic Church, and environmental groups (and which saw several Facebook campaigns to promote awareness of and speak out against the law).
-In Argentina, authorities have identified the body of Roque Orlando Montenegro, one of the tens of thousands of “disappeared” in Argentina whose remains washed up in Uruguay in 1976 but were never identified. Both Montenegro and his wife were “disappeared” in the months leading up to and during the Argentine military dictatorship, and their daughter, Victoria, became one of the many cases of children who were adopted and falsely raised by military officials and their supporters as if they were their own children after the infants’ biological parents were arrested, murdered, and “disappeared.”
-Following their protest against PRI candidate Enrique Peña Nieto, thousands of Mexican university students again took to the streets this week to protest against what they argue is the media’s clear bias in favor of Peña Nieto.
-Further south, Hondurans also took to the streets yesterday to protest the increasing violence against and murder of journalists in Honduras specifically and in the region more generally.
-While three Uruguayan ex-presidents came out to declare that Mercosur has “failed,” their words should be taken with more than a slight grain of salt, as the three men represent parties not included in the current leftist ruling coalition of President José Mujica.
-Five hours after going on strike, São Paulo’s subway workers returned to work after agreeing to a 6% increase in wages and increases in their meal and household foodstuffs vouchers (among other things, Brazilian labor laws require many employers to provide workers with payment for their meals while on the job).
-All of that talk that Argentina’s nationalization of oil producer YPF would lead to European countries reducing trade with Argentina clearly does not apply to one product, at least: the United Kingdom’s importation of wine from Argentina jumped 15%, making the UK the third-largest consumer of Argentine wine (just behind the US and Canada and ahead of Brazil).
-Speaking of alcohol, a new report says that Latin America consumes “considerably less” alcohol than the United States or Europe, though regional metrics vary widely, with El Salvador at the bottom end with only 30% of its population having consumed alcohol in the past year, while 83% of Venezuelans had consumed alcohol in the same time period. Given the deliciousness of Brazilian cachaça, Peruvian chicha, Chilean pisco, and Argentine wine, I can’t help but admire and question (in equal parts) the 15% of the population that are teetotalers.
-Finally, for all of the criticism that NBA owners received for their business practices prior to last year’s lockout, it appears they may not be the worst offenders in the hemisphere; in Brazil, the twenty football (soccer) teams in the first division have a collective debt of $1.85 billion dollars, with four of the top five indebted teams from Rio de Janeiro (sadly, my Botafogo is in the first slot).
As I was absent from blogging the past several days, a lot of worthwhile news came out of Latin America, so today will have two posts on news from around the region (the second will come later today).
-Former Guatemalan dictator Efraín Ríos Montt, who governed the country from 1981-1982 and who was already on trial for genocide for the murder of over 1700 indigenous people during his rule, is now facing a second genocide charge after a judge ruled he could be tried for his role in the Dos Erres massacre.
-In what is an ongoing crisis, journalists suffered another difficult week last week, as a Mexican journalist was kidnapped and killed.
-Although Enrique Peña Nieto, the presidential candidate from the Partido Revolucionário Institucional (Institutional Revolutionary Party; PRI), has extended his lead in the polls heading into July’s election, not all Mexicans are thrilled with his rhetoric, policies, and party. Thousands of Mexican students took to the streets to protest against the return of the PRI, which governed the country under one moniker or another from 1928 until 2000 in what has come to be known as the “institutional dictatorship.”
-Amnesty International has called on Jamaica to investigate the possible violations of human rights for the armed forces’ actions during May 2010, when the Jamaican government declared a state of emergency to arrest Christopher “Dudus” Coke.
-Last week, Argentine President Cristina Kirchner and Vice President Amado Boudou were out of the country, leaving the country with its first ever Jewish president for two days. Provisional president of the Senate Beatriz Rojkes assumed the office of president from Wednesday to Thursday.
-Activists in Guyana are mobilizing in order to pressure the government to repeal anti-sodomy and anti-cross-dressing laws in the Caribbean country.
-Back in 1997, while Alberto Fujimori was president, leftist guerrillas occupied the Japanese embassy and held hostages before Peruvian forces attacked and ended the situation. While the forces were lauded for their efforts at the time, new evidence suggests that the troops summarily executed some of the leftists, including a 17-year-old girl, after they had surrendered.
-As I’ve discussed before, current Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, who was a member of a leftist group that opposed the military dictatorship of 1964-1985, suffered torture under the regime. Now Rousseff, along with other victims of torture, has received an apology and will be provided with compensation for her suffering at the hands of the Brazilian military government in the 1970s, even while the recently-appointed Truth Commission begins its work on investigating the crimes of the past and the fates of victims.
-Former members of Haiti’s army and their supporters took to the streets last week to protest against the Haitian government’s orders that they disband. Forty-six people were arrested, including two US citizens who aided the military members.
-Is Argentina’s strengthening currency fueling the growth of the black market?
-The Brazilian Congress has passed a freedom of information act that may become an important step in governmental and bureaucratic transparency in a state that has often been opaque to legal activists, citizens, and scholars alike.
-Finally, Guatemala’s Volcán del Fuego began spewing ash and lava, leading to an increased alert level for those living near the 12,000+ foot tall volcano.