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Around Latin America

June 12, 2013 Comments off

-Nicaragua and China have entered into an agreement through which China could help build a canal through Nicaragua that would rival the Panama canal. Of course, Nicaragua has long been seen as a potential site for a canal; even in the 1800s, the US and European powers considered the possibility of building one. As it stands right now, the canal would take eleven years to construct and would cost $40 billion, but there is nothing to yet indicate that the construction would start soon or that it would be brought to completion.

-An audit of the April elections in Venezuela has confirmed that Nicolas Maduro defeated opposition candidate Henrique Capriles in a very close election. Meanwhile, the economic and political instability that has been a significant problem in Maduro’s still-young administration (a problem that Maduro’s own policies and rhetoric have not helped) is hitting society hard: in addition to reports of shortages in basic goods like toilet paper, it appears beer prices have gone up 92% in Venezuela as well.

-An oil-spill in Ecuador now threatens both the Peruvian and Brazilian environment as it flows into the Amazonian basin, threatening river communities and riparian ecosystems. The spill began after a landslide damaged an oil pipeline, providing another reminder of the predictably-unpredictable nature of environmental processes and the risks of pipelines in dynamic ecosystems.

-Peace talks between Colombia’s government and the FARC have resumed after a brief break. The ongoing talks are the first significant talks between the two sides since the 1990s, as the two sides try to bring an end to a civil war that has lasted nearly 50 years. Prior to the talks, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos traveled to Israel, where he signed a free trade agreement between Colombia and Israel.

-In a tragic example of the ways in which women in Nicaragua continue to be treated as second class citizens, conservative activists and politicians are seeking to create a law that would require abused women to negotiate with their abusers.

-In the wake of an AP report that found that Brazilian car designs facilitate deaths from crashes, Brazil has begun plans to create its first-ever crash test facility.

-In dual cases of justice in Peru, President Ollanta Humala (who is currently on his first official state visit to the US) denied a pardon to former president Alberto Fujimori, who had been convicted for his role in state repression and human rights violations during his 1990-2000 administration. And on the other end of the spectrum, a court sentenced former guerrilla leader and Shining Path leader Comrade Artemio (Florinda Flores) to a life sentence for his role in guerrilla violence, drug trafficking, and money laundering.

-Speaking of the Shining Path, though a tiny number continue to fight for revolution ostensibly in the name of the movement, a new political arm of the movement, the Movimiento Por Amnistia y Derechos Fundamentales (Movement for Amnesty and Fundamental Rights; MOVADEF) is increasingly gaining support among some in Peru and beyond, prompting further reevaluations and considerations of the legacies of the Shining Path, state violence, and social divisions in Peruvian memory.

-Even while stories of government surveillance have occupied headlines in the US, it appears that secrecy at Guantanamo has only intensified, where a government ruling has gone into effect, and “those who’ve read it can’t say what it’s about, and those who haven’t don’t have a clue. Not even the accused, who, unless the judge rules for the defense, is not allowed to get an unclassified explanation of it – and cannot sit in on the court session when it’s argued in secret.”

-In another reminder of the gross socioeconomic inequalities in Brazil’s legal system, Thor Batista, the son of Brazilian billionaire who hit and killed a bicyclist while driving his car avoided jail time for the death. Instead, a judge ordered Batista to pay a R$1 million fine and serve two years of community service. In spite of the relatively lenient sentence for killing another person, Batista still plans on appealing the sentence.

-Finally, more than ten years after Brazil enacted affirmative action laws that created quotas for university admission, it appears the law has gone a long way in addressing inequalities, if a report on the University of Brasilia is representative. The study finds that there would be 71.5% fewer Afro-Brazilians in the school without the law, and that students admitted under quotas have outperformed non-quota students. [English version available here.]

On Images and the Danger of Drawing Stereotypical Conclusions

May 16, 2013 Comments off

Recently, an image had been making its way around on social media. The image showed Chief Raoni, an indigenous leader in traditional dress, crying, purportedly weeping at the Brazilian government’s decision to proceed with the Belo Monte dam. However, that simplistic narrative, while employed for the causes of indigenous rights and environmentalism does a disservice to the actual culture, life, and story of the indigenous man and his people, as Angela Kristin Vandenbroek reported:

The picture is not of Chief Raoni crying and grieving about the Belo Monte Dam. The picture is not a picture of grief at all. His tears were tears of joy after being reunited with a family member, behavior which is customary among the Kayapó. Chief Raoni is not a powerless man fighting an impossible battle. In the fight to protect the Amazon and its people, he is a leader who has been working with local, national and international communities since 1978, when he appeared in a documentary named Raoni on the deforestation of the Amazon. Since then, he has befriended Sting and the President of France, has written a memoir, has traveled around the world, has facebooktwitterand a website, and although he has not yet stopped the building of the dam he and those he has collaborated with have managed to delay, hold up and tie up the project with court battles, controversy and petitions for thirty-eight years. He has also managed to rally the support of 438,707 (and counting) people worldwide using an online petition.

As Vendenbroek points out, the image alone suggests a powerless indigenous man overcome by an all-powerful state; as his actual biography reveals, he is anything but powerless.

Nor is that the only problem. Though Vandenbroek does not extend the analysis this far, the image also reinforces stereotypes that are ensconced in Latin American history dating back to the first colonial contacts with Europeans. The early decades of contact spurred a whole series of narratives and portrayals of indigenous peoples as backwards, uncivilized, and uncouth. Sometimes, these narratives were “positive,” viewing indigenous peoples as living in virtually Edenic existence; more often, they were derogatory, used to cast an “uncivilized” other that stood in contrast to the “civilized” European (a status not all Europeans were convinced applied to Europe). In these narratives, the indigenous peoples were destined (or doomed) to surrender to European notions of civilization and “progress,” be it through extermination or through conversion. Certainly, such tasks were easier said than done, but early in the colonial era, at least, Europeans imagined a world in which the “noble” or “uncivilized” native gave way to European domination of the Americas.

Though the contexts and centuries have changed, the image of Chief Raoni accomplishes a similar task; instead of colonialism or Europeanness, however, “modernity” and technology are the new unstoppable forces, but the indigenous culture defeated and forced to surrender to these new understandings of “progress” is still present. Yes, the tale is now cast as tragic, but the portrayal still draws on stereotypical notions of indigenous cultures as less technological or more “traditional,” and thus, noble, but doomed to fail in the face of “progress” (now defined in terms of “modernity” and technology, but once upon a time defined in terms of “civilization” and Europeanness). Indeed, it is fair to ask:  would the image have resonated quite as strongly with people on social media had Raoni dressed in blue jeans and a t-shirt, or even a business suit? Perhaps it’s cynical, but it doesn’t seem unfair to suggest the answer very well could be “no.”

To be clear, the impacts of the Belo Monte dam will be devastating to indigenous groups and environment alike, and it seems likely that tears have already been shed over its impact on indigenous communities and others who are already being direclty affected by its construction. But that is not what this meme is ultimately about – it’s about a mis-representation of indigenous cultures in order to advance a cause. One can agree with the cause, but it would be better if it did not rely on such stereotypical memes and narratives to bring home its point.

Reminders of Racism in Modern Brazil

March 23, 2013 2 comments

When I was in Brazil, I’d occasionally encounter people who repeated the Freyrean idea that Brazil isn’t racist in the ways the US was due to the greater variation in skin-color in Brazil and the absence of Jim Crow-style laws. Of course, this is a red herring that presumes racism only takes one form, and throughout the twentieth century, something against which people like Abdias do Nascimento actively fought. And of course, then, this week provided three ugly and disgusting reminders of how far the myth of a racial democracy is from the reality of modern forms of racism in Brazil.

First, at a São Paulo fashion show, Brazilian models “celebrated” black women by wearing brillo pads on their heads in an attempt (misguided at best, intentionally racist at worst) to “emulate” Afro-Brazilian hair. And the “homage” is even worse than it sounds, given that the Portuguese word for brillo, bombril, is also a negative term for kinky hair. Of course, this “fashion” show isn’t an isolated case; the Brazilian fashion industry is notoriously racist, regularly seeking white woman models with blonde hair, blue eyes, and European features to serve as the paradigm of true “beauty.”

Sadly, racism can and take on even more violent tones than the discursive violence of bigotry on the catwalk, and we got another reminder of that fact this week in Brasília, where four girls murdered a 12-year-old girl simply because she was black.

And to be clear, racism isn’t limited to those of African descent. Indigenous peoples who had tried to protect their home in a buiding near Maracanã stadium, where the 2014 World Cup final will be held, were forcibly and violently removed yesterday, with over 200 police officers using tear gas and pepper spray against urban indigenous peoples and protestors [some images NSFW] who had made the building their homes. Of course, the removal was part of broader efforts to forcibly relocate Brazil’s marginalized populations, including the poor, as it attempts to “renovate” the city for the upcoming World Cup and 2016 Olympics. Nonetheless, yesterday’s eviction of native peoples was particularly ugly; as one comment on Twitter put it, “It’s been 500 years that white men have been exploiting the indigenous people of this continent (Brazil).”

To be clear, it’s not like Brazil is the only country with its own problems of race – such bigotry, hatred, and racism exist throughout the world. Nonetheless, the past week has provided a very brutal reminder of just how wide the gap between the rhetoric of a “racial democracy” and actual social relations in Brazil still are.

Around Latin America

December 18, 2012 Comments off

-While Hugo Chávez’s health is increasingly in question as he underwent surgery for cancer yet again, his political vision appears to remain alive. In gubernatorial elections yesterday in Venezuela, his political coalition won 20 of the 23 elections for state offices. Henrique Capriles, who lost the presidential election to Chávez in October, was also re-elected governor of the state of Miranda.

-Human rights appear to have taken a step backwards in Colombia, where Congress passed a bill that allows military members who commit crimes to face trial in military courts rather than in civil courts. The move further strengthens the potential for impunity for Colombia’s military, already closely tied to numerous human rights violations, and represents a significant step backwards in the quest for preventing human rights violations in Colombia.

-In a case of an unbalanced counter-offer, Chevron countered two civil lawsuits for $20 billion for its role in oil spills in Brazil by offering to instead pay $150 million to resolve the suits.

-In a step towards equal marriage rights, Uruguay’s Chamber of Deputies overwhelmingly passed a bill that would allow gay marriage and would permit couples to decide whose surname goes to their children in what order (thus helping equalize what has culturally been a patriarchal practice). The bill next heads to the Senate, where it is also expected to pass.

-On the other end of the spectrum of equal rights, two teenagers in Brazil were arrested in the murder of a gay college student. One of the two teens confessed to killing Lawrence Corrêa Biancão out of homophobia in what appears to have been a calculated and cold-blooded murder that, in its homophobic extremity, is not so dissimilar from the murder of Chilean Daniel Zamudio earlier this year.

-Honduras is in the midst of a brewing institutional crisis as Congress and the Supreme Court are locked in a battle over power and legislation even as President Porfirio Lobo bandies about allegations of a planned coup against him.

-Brazilian rapper Mano Brown has begun pushing for the impeachment of São Paulo governor Geraldo Alckmin (who unsuccessfully ran for president of Brazil in 2006) for allowing police to allegedly target Afro-Brazilian youths in South America’s largest city.

-Speaking of police violence in Brazil, police were caught assautling a journalist covering a protest in one of Rio de Janeiro’s favelas.

-Authorities in Paraguay have charged 14 farmers for killing 17 people in land disputes that ultimately led to the removal of President Fernando Lugo from office in June. The charges come even as the causes and events of the actual showdown remain unclear.

-While the image of indigenous peoples as inherently better stewards of the environment is a highly-charged and problematic image, that does not take away from the fact that indigenous groups have become important actors in environmental conservation in the 21st century, as Peru’s Achuar people remind us.

-Finally, it was an excellent weekend for Brazilian sports, as Brazil officially opened the first finished stadium a year and a half in advance of hosting the 2014 World Cup, even while São Paulo’s Corintians football team defeated Chelsea 1-0 to become the first Brazilian club to win the World Club Cup since Internacional did it in 2006.

Around Latin America

November 24, 2012 Comments off

-In a potential step towards addressing human rights, Mexico has announced it will move to prosecute military officials accused of human rights violations in civil courts, rather than in secretive military tribunals. Traditionally, military officials who are involved in the drug violence and repression have faced a state of virtual impunity through military courts; while it’s too soon to say this is indeed transformative, it could mark a turning point in prosecuting state agents’ human rights violations in Mexico.

-A Venezuelan judge who spent three years in prison in a case that garnered international criticism has published a new book in which she claims she was raped and had to have an abortion while in prison. Her case echoes other allegations of sexual abuse and increasing violence in Venezuela’s prison system.

-While the US and much of Europe continue to struggle with employment, Brazil announced its unemployment levels have dropped to 5.3%, its lowest level in ten years.

-For one day, all of Bolivia completely shut down as the country conducted its census this week. In addition to being the first census for Bolivia in eleven years, with the expected redrawing of municipal boundaries, it also marks the first time “mestizo” (of Spanish and indigenous descent) is not included as a racial category in the census. Instead, Bolivians will be able to pick from 40 categories, including a variety of indigenous groups, as well as “Afro-Bolivian” or simply “Bolivian.”

-In the wake of this year’s presidential election, in which Venezuela’s opposition had its strongest showing in years (albeit in a losing effort), opposition politicians have begun efforts to seek an amnesty for over 100 exiles and political prisoners in a request that could be seen as a test of Chávez’s and opponents’ willingness to engage in more direct dialogue.

-In another example of the ongoing persecution and assault on land rights that Brazil’s indigenous peoples regularly face, a community of Guarani-Kaiowa people say a massive ranch has poisoned their water supply in an attempt to drive them out, and Brazilian police have begun investigating the case. The ranch occupies land of cultural importance to the peoples, and the government has begun mapping out their territory, with growing opposition from ranch-owner Firmino Escobar.

-In another reminder of the Jewish population in Latin America and the challenges it continues to face, Venezuela has posted police at a synagogue in the wake of an anti-Israeli protest that led to demonstrators hurling anti-Semitic remarks and fireworks at the building

-Murder rates in São Paulo have skyrocketed this year, as the Primeiro Comando Capital (First Capital Command; PCC) gang has ordered attacks on police, including many who have been murdered while off duty. The violence marks a return to antagonisms between one of São Paulo’s largest gangs and police in a conflict that had been relatively quiet in recent months after a truce was declared.

-In the wake of Venezuela’s admission to (and Paraguay’s suspension from) Mercosur, Bolivia appears to be the next country set to join the South American trading bloc as a full member. Currently, Bolivia is associate member of the organization, but full membership will give it a more direct voice in negotiations in the bloc.

-As peace talks continue, Columbia’s FARC released three Chinese hostages and their translator after 17 months of captivity in what the organization called a “goodwill gesture.”

Indigenous Peoples, Companies, “Modernity,” and Racial Discourse in Brazil

November 12, 2012 Comments off

Recently, the image below made the rounds on Brazilian Facebook pages. The four billboards have stirred a lot of controversy; their messages are a direct attempt to inflame anti-indigenous sentiment in Brazil. They do so by trying to frame indigenous peoples as opposed to the class-based interests of workers by claiming that indigenous groups in Brazil and the governmental Fundação Nacional do Índio (National Foundation of the Indian; FUNAI) are standing in the way of workers’ rights, national development, and “progress” for the country.

Billboards that have recently gone viral on Facebook in Brazil. They read (clockwise, from top left): “Aracruz brought progress. FUNAI, the Indians”; “Enough of Indians threatening workers”; “This aggression against Aracruz Celulose affects our companies also”; and “FUNAI defends the Indians. Who will defend the workers?”

As the caption makes clear, these aren’t exactly subtle messages. One billboard directly frames indigenous people opposite “progress,” thereby recreating ideas of modernity in which indigenous peoples are not only “backwards,” but obstacles to development. Two billboards also directly and explicitly try to stoke tensions between the class-based identities of workers on the one hand, and the ethnic and cultural identities of indigenous peoples on the other. And of course, one cannot help but make clear the company’s real concerns, as it proclaims that indigenous efforts to protect their lands “affects our companies also,” thus implicitly staking capitalism (as represented by the companies) as being impeded by indigenous peoples.  Additionally, the implication that indigenous peoples have success thanks only to government protection denies any autonomy or power among indigenous activists themselves independent of the government, even while disregarding and ignoring the very long struggles indigenous peoples have had against government inaction and disregard for their rights in Brazil.

In making the rounds on Facebook recently, I’ve seen some individuals who have commented on this believing it to refer to the conflict over the construction of the controversial Belo Monte dam, which will flood indigenous lands and which indigenous people and environmentalists have been protesting. However, the actual billboards date back to 2006-2007, when indigenous peoples protested against the Aracruz-Celulose company, one of Brazil’s larger paper producers (since having merged with VCP to form Fibria, a company listed on the New York Stock Exchange).

While not directly tied to Belo Monte itself, the image does tap into some of the broader issues regarding indigenous peoples’ struggles in Brazil then and now. Although the billboards claim to speak for the workers’ interests, such claims gloss over the fact that the struggle was more an issue of industry versus indigenous people. Historically, efforts towards “progress,” as one of the billboards puts it, have often harmed workers as well, leading to labor mobilizations throughout the 20th century in an attempt to improve the working and living conditions of workers through safety measures, wages, better representation, and other labor matters. These struggles continue up to the present, demonstrating that, while companies may try to represent workers in their efforts to counter indigenous claims to land and resources, workers themselves are not always treated well within those companies. Indeed, this past spring, workers on the Belo Monte construction site shut operations down themselves when they went on strike to demand better pay.

The ads also reveal the ongoing discursive forms of racism against Brazil’s indigenous peoples that exist into the present. As I said above, these billboards tap into a centuries-old discourse on race that views indigenous peoples and modernity as antithetical and oppositional. Yet the billboards also reveal a particularly neo-liberal mindset. Aracruz was not only critical of indigenous peoples, but of the government, represented by FUNAI. As one of the billboards says, the government, through FUNAI, protects natives, but who will protect the companies? The suggestion seems to be that the free market has been eroded, and that market systems are victims of government intervention. And it’s not like the government has been a historical defender of indigenous peoples. Yes, FUNAI has attempted to represent their interests in recent decades in many regards, but this is in the face of centuries of both colonial and national governments’ forced removal, relocation, enslavement, cultural assimilation, marginalization, and disregard for Brazil’s indigenous peoples. It’s not like there’s some long history of indigenous peoples in Brazil (or anywhere else in North or South America) having undue influence in national government and politics.

Again, the dissonance between the actual context of the billboards (the invasion of indigenous lands and the struggle for production of pulp and paper in 2006-2007) and what people assumed the billboards referred to (the current construction on the Belo Monte dam, which indigenous people continue to oppose due to the loss of lands) is striking, not so much because of the erroneous ties, but because of the actual ongoing issues regarding indigenous peoples, race, and citizenship in Brazil. Indeed, if Belo Monte and Aracruz were different instances, the ongoing uphill struggle indigenous peoples face to protect their lands and have their rights respected is telling. It continues to be clear that, in framing national development and infrastructure versus indigenous rights, the latter definitely continue to fall to the wayside in favor of the former.

Racial Stereotyping in Brazil

October 31, 2012 1 comment

With the story of a blonde girl begging in Mexico (and the attention it raised) this past weekend, I commented that the story tapped into some of the broader forms of racial prejudice that exist throughout much of both North and South America:

Racial stereotypes of poverty and street children exist throughout North and South America, and too often, the plights of children in the street are ignored, thanks in no small part to these stereotypes. A blonde child goes missing or is begging for food, and it’s a national crisis, even while, on a daily basis, many more children suffer from poverty, homelessness, and neglect.

This racial stereotyping in which blonde-haired and blue-eyed beggars gain attention for their “uniqueness” even while countries overlook the broader problems of urban poverty of thousands of citizens is rearing its (fair-haired) head in Brazil as well:

Tall, blue-eyed and wrapped in a blanket while roaming the streets of Curitiba in the south of Brazil, Rafael Nunes, a former Brazilian model (now known as the photogenic beggar of Curitiba) has gained international attention after his picture and story went viral on Facebook and Twitter.

Rafael, aged 30, ended up on the streets because of crack cocaine addiction and his story was only revealed after Indy Zanardo, a tourist, was approached by Rafael and asked if his picture could be taken. [...]

Besides the general reaction to his good looks and his sad drug addiction story, the debate on Rafael’s case has grown into a racism-oriented discussion about how Brazilian society only reacts with indignation to situations of social exclusion when those affected are white and ‘European-looking’.

Although Brazilians are one of the most racially diversesocieties in the world, the top of the country’s social economic pyramid is still widely occupied by white Brazilians and most social indicators connected to education, access to health-care and employment overwhelmingly privilege this group.

As with the case of the young girl in Mexico, the discussion around this young man’s plight is providing some powerful insights into the subtle ways in which racial stereotyping in Brazil (and much of the Americas) works. People wonder why his plight is so horrible, how he is not involved in modeling anymore, etc., without considering the broader social and structural issues of urban poverty and homelessness in Brazil. Again, this isn’t the place to judge his own position, or the tragic impact of addiction on this individual, or social customs that blame the victims of addiction rather than attempting to address the issue. Rather, it is to serve as yet another example, alongside of that from Mexico, of the ways in which racial stereotypes and poverty continue to operate in the Americas. The fact that his story became a national (and now international) headline due to his looks, while the plight of Brazil’s millions of homeless citizens who do not look like him goes unreported (in spite of the efforts of groups like the Homeless Workers’ Movement tries to bring attention to the issue) is a powerful reminder that homelessness and urban poverty continue to be all-too-easily overlooked in much of the hemisphere and the world.

Racial Stereotyping in Mexico

October 28, 2012 1 comment

The US certainly isn’t the only country in the continent combating ongoing racism. In Mexico, the sight of a blonde girl begging for money in the street revealed one of the ways racial prejudice operates there:

The flurry of internet attention to the photo, and the quick way officials reacted, has renewed a debate about racism in Mexico, a nation that is proud of its mestizo heritage but where millions of indigenous people live in poverty and passers-by often barely notice the dark-skinned children begging in the street.

It started last week when a Facebook user posted a photo of the girl standing next to a rearview mirror on a Guadalajara street. He apparently suspected she might have been stolen because “her parents are brown,” and said he had already contacted a welfare agency and state prosecutors.

The girl ended up being put in an orphanage, with her mother detained in prison for two days, before the girl’s grandmother (apparently also with green eyes, like the girl) provided a birth certificate, leading to the release of the mother (though authorities are awaiting a DNA exam, apparently, before completely absolving the mother). The presumption that she cannot possibly be the mother’s daughter because “her parents are brown” is problematic enough,” implying that her parents are suspects because they are “brown” (does anybody suspect a “white” family with a “brown” kid of having done anything less than adopt?). However, as in the US, the “blonde-girl outrage” also reveals the problems with race and class in Mexico:

“We need to see a white girl to worry about kidnapping, trafficking of children and child exploitation. I’ve never seen photos of Indian children or simply dark-skinned kids circulating on the Internet with people asking others to help them,” wrote human rights activist Yali Noriega in her blog.

Some think the mother could sue the government. Xochitl Galvez, a former federal Cabinet minister who is an advocate for Indian rights, said authorities tend to rely too much on public opinion when chasing delicate cases.

“It is not right that just because of the color of her skin, they can say it’s not her daughter,” she said. “There is no such thing as a pure race. We are a mix … that tells you a lot about the authorities’ lack of knowledge.”

Galvez said authorities should instead work to reduce the high rate of child labor in Mexico and create more programs to support poor single mothers.

“The solution is not to arrest the mother or take the girl from her,” she said. “We should be asking what do we do to help these children?”

This is absolutely right, and not a problem limited to Mexico. Certainly, this may be a case where the mother may or may not be the best of parents and can be evaluated independently, but that has little impact on the broader racism that fueled the outrage to begin with. Racial stereotypes of poverty and street children exist throughout North and South America, and too often, the plights of children in the street are ignored, thanks in no small part to these stereotypes. A blonde child goes missing or is begging for food, and it’s a national crisis, even while, on a daily basis, many more children suffer from poverty, homelessness, and neglect. Though this particular event took place in Mexico, this is a hemispheric problem, and it would serve governments and societies a lot better if they considered the structural and long-term problems caused by economic systems and social welfare nets that too often disregard classism and racism even while letting tens of thousands fall through the cracks.

On Affirmative Action in Brazil

August 10, 2012 Comments off

This week, Brazil passed a new version of affirmative action for higher education. The Senate authorized a bill that, for the next ten years, half of all university admissions go to students from public high schools. Additionally, the bill establishes a new quota system that requires each state reserve openings for students of Afro-descendant, indigenous, and mixed-race students, based on the percentage of each group’s overall population in a given state. For example: if Rio de Janeiro state is 40% “white,” 40% Afro-descendants, and 20% indigenous [and, to be clear, these are just made-up numbers to illustrate the point], then public universities in Rio de Janeiro must have 40% of their admissions be white, 40% Afro-descendants, and 20% indigenous. If another state has different percentages, then public universities in that state must reflect its own demographic makeup. After that ten-year period, the quotas will be discontinued, presumably in the hopes that ten years will be enough time to create a social, cultural, and institutional shift in education in Brazil that undoes centuries of inequalities in Brazilian education.

Overall, I think this law is a really important step and a good law. The focus is falling on the racial quotas component, but just as important I think is the requirement that at least half of all entrants to universities come from public high schools. This matters because in no small measure it is through the secondary schools that racial and socioeconomic inequalities in Brazil have persisted. In Brazil, public universities are free; however, in order to enter them, you have to pass a rigorous set of exams in all areas. These exams are difficult enough that they often take extra training in high school, training that one can either receive in a private (i.e., paid-for, and usually expensive) high school, or through special night classes that also cost money. In this way, Brazil’s poorer populations, who historically are often “darker” than the elites for any number of reasons dating back to Brazil’s colonial era and the establishment of slavery, are shut out from these private schools and classes, because of the financial cost of such an education, because they also have to work to make ends meet, or any number of reasons. These poorer sectors often end up in the public schooling system in high school, which is free but which does not have the time or resources for intensive preparations that focus solely on the entrance exams to universities. Thus, students, usually whiter, whose families can afford private high schools are given the resources and means to enter into a free public university, while students, often from a poorer and “darker” background (given the ways in which class and race in Brazil coincide) who have to rely on free  public schooling end up having to enroll in expensive and less-discriminatory private universities, where they are often unable to finish their degrees due to the costs of education. Without a college degree, they return to less-prestigious jobs that do not pay as well, ensuring the obstacles to an education that will help them improve their socio-economic status will continue on to their children and onward. For this reason, I think making it so that at least half of the students entering a public university in the next 10 years came from a public high school is an important step in opening up Brazil’s universities and addressing the social, economic, and racial inequalities in Brazil.

Although perhaps complex, these explanations and the new law also reveal just how complicated the racial question in Brazil is. Of course, this isn’t Brazil’s first instance of affirmative action laws. Toward the end of his administration (1994-2002), neoliberal president Fernando Henrique Cardoso passed a law that created a system of quotas in universities in Brazil, in an attempt to address the structural racism that all too often shut out Afro-descendants based on socioeconomic factors, thereby perpetuating racial inequalities in Brazil. The law came after decades of struggles, led by figures such as Abdias do Nascimento, who argued that Brazil’s myth of racial democracy and constant comparisons to racism in the US covered up very real forms of racism in Brazil, and that only through reforms and policies like affirmative action could the country begin to confront and address its own racist past. The early-2000s law implemented a racial quota system that a variety of studies in both the US and Brazil from well-known and respected historians, political scientists, sociologists, economists, and others all suggested that Brazil’s policies were effective, even if they should not be the endpoint in addressing racial inequality. Indeed, in comparing Brazil and the US, I’m inclined to agree with Micol Siegel that, rather than Brazil learning from the US’s past, it is now the US who could and should learn from the Brazilian model of affirmative action.

Of course, the law was not without opposition. Some scholars in Brazil, including generally respected antropologists like Yvonne Maggie and Peter Fry, lobbied heavily against affirmative action. Their basic reasoning, with its roots in Gilberto Freyre’s work, was that there was no racism in Brazil; by creating quotas based along racial categories, the government would create racism. Though their arguments have become more nuanced in recent years, they still hinge on comparisons of racism in the US and Brazil, arguing that the US’s racism was “different” (and implicitly “worse” than Brazil’s), pointing to Jim Crow laws and legal segregation in the US to argue that affirmative action is a good model for the US, but irrelevant to Brazil. Of course, this is a highly-problematic argument, starting from a fair point (racial relations in Brazil and the US historically are different in important ways) and taking that to an absurd conclusion (therefore Brazil doesn’t have its own structural forms of racism that affirmative action policies could help overcome). Maggie in particular is a fierce proponent of this viewpoint, as one can read in a debate on race in Brazil among respected scholars this past March. Peter Fry’s Freyrean argument that race in Brazil is “Too Hard to Identify” is a slightly different variation on this theme: because the history of racial categorization in Brazil is different than in the US, affirmative action hurts more than it helps.

Nor are Fry and Maggie lone voices in the wilderness. I certainly heard these arguments, both for and against affirmative action, in my time in Brazil, and was often asked what I thought as a US citizen; indeed, it was not infrequent that I even heard why my country needed affirmative action but Brazil most certainly did not. Nor was my experience unique; these debates take place regularly in classrooms in universities in Brazil, as seen in Henry Louis Gates’ documentary on race in Brazil. Politicians were not exempt from this opposition.  The Democrats Party (Democratas, previously known as the Liberal Front Party until 2007), were particularly opposed to policies of affirmative action, arguing that policies of addressing past injustices based on racial categories was the equivalent of “reviving Nazi ideas.” Ultimately, the Democratas took their case before the Supreme Court, which this past April, unanimously ruled that the quota system was indeed legal, allowing the government to try to address centuries of social, cultural, and economic inequalities in Brazil.

That said, I think it is unquestionably a good thing that the Supreme Court has ruled the way it has, and that Brazil’s Congress has acted to further strengthen the affirmative action laws that came before. While these new policies may not solve all of the problems of inequality in Brazil, they are an important step. There are reasons to be cautious, particularly regarding the 10-year limit; what will happen after the quotas expire? That said, at least for the next ten years, Brazil will attempt to address centuries of inequalities via access to education, and that is  nothing but a good thing.

Neo-Nazi Training and Destruction of Jewish Tombs Denounced in Chile

July 19, 2012 Comments off

Yesterday, Movilh (the Chilean Movement for Homosexual Integration and Liberation) denounced before the National Intelligence Agency (ANI) that a group of “neo-Nazi sympathizers” in Chile are receiving paramilitary training and attempted to damage some Jewish tombs. Photos of the activities, as well as a video of the paramilitary training, were provided to Movilh anonymously.

Although Movilh has traditionally promoted the rights of those marginalized for their sexuality, the organization had denounced neo-Nazi groups to National Intelligence in December 2011 for spreading homophobic, anti-Semitic, and xenophobic propaganda. When one also considers that Daniel Zamudio was murdered by a group of men that included at least one neo-Nazi and that neo-Nazism has since become almost synonymous with homophobia in Chile, as well as the fact that the Anti-Discrimination Law was finally passed after Zamudio’s death (and due to Movilh’s persistence over many years), it seems logical that an anonymous source seeking a powerful voice to denounce neo-Nazi activities would choose Chile’s most influential LGBT rights organization rather than a Jewish organization or collaboration of synagogues.

The photos, which you can view here, leave quite an impact. So does the video, which you can view here.  In the video, you can hear them chanting,

Sácales los brazos para que no se pueda arrastrar, sácale los ojos para que no pueda ver. (Take away their arms so they can’t crawl; take away their eyes so they can’t see.)

The anonymous source told Movilh that they had a list of first and last names of the people in the photos and video, and that they knew that this particular group, which sympathizes with the neo-Nazis, operates in Chile. Yet since they have not been able to tie this particular group of people to a larger collective, they declined to provide Movilh with the list of names.

Movilh has fought against neo-Nazism in Chile in the past, and its presence in Chile has been studied, if scarcely. One would assume that a highly credible and visible organization like Movilh would not make a denouncement based on what could likely be bogus information.  Assuming it is all true, then, let’s hope Movilh’s actions convince National Intelligence to take action.

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