week 12

Week 12 – Speaking Truth to Power

This week, Dawson delves into some of the ways Latin Americans have resisted oppression and violence, particularly in the way they have worked to garner attention from the international community (especially the U.S.) as a tool for making a change in their reality.

One of the examples the author discusses is the Madres de la Plaza de Mayo, who occupied a central square in Buenos Aires as a form of protest for their missing children during the dictatorship, from 1976 to 1983. At first they were left alone, but as soon as the government realized the women were undermining its claims that “family values” were the foundation of their regime (as a justification for their actions), they started being persecuted. The Madres, however, did not back down. They testified in a report for the Organization of the American States, which mobilized NGOs such as Amnesty International and built pressure on the U.S. government. After it failed to support Argentina in its play for the Falklands against the British, the governing junta became unpopular and civil government was reinstated.

Another example explored by Dawson is the Caravan for Peace, which crossed the United States during the summer of 2012 to bring attention to the repercussions of the war on drugs. The Caravan pushed for the end of the militarization of drug control and called for a new approach to drug control, placing importance on the treatment of addiction and not punishment of users.

The author discusses how drug trafficking is a huge business in Latin America and how this started when the countries in the region were in bad shape economically. Since the people, especially the rural and urban poor, didn’t have many economic opportunities, and the state didn’t provide social welfare policies to keep these people from the informal sector, drug trafficking ended up being a way to relieve the burden of economic distress.

This is a very common reality in Brazil. One recent example that helps to illustrate this reality is the story of Nem (told in this article), who was in charge of the entire drug dealing operation in Rio de Janeiro’s Rocinha, the biggest favela in Latin America, from around 2000 until his arrest in 2011.

Antônio (his real name) lived with his wife and baby daughter at Rocinha, and his daughter got very sick as a nine-month baby. He had a job that didn’t pay enough to cover her medical bills, and as a slum-dwelling family, there was nowhere he could go to get a loan except to the then kingpin of drug dealing at the favela. He offered to work for him as a way to pay back the loan and, after a couple years and conflicts involving other favelas, he ends up being the head of the operation. Under his command, the street sellers were ordered to not extort or threat any of the residents, minors were prohibited from working for them, and he offered economic assistance to the residents, paying for medical treatments and for trips for them to go see family in other parts of Brazil.

In 2011, Nem was arrested at a police checkpoint, while trying to leave Rocinha in the trunk of a car with suitcases full of money. His story helps us understand the context in which the urban poor, in particular, live in, and prompts to try to think about ways to address this problem. In Brazil, the one thing the vast majority population agrees would make a difference is providing quality education and opportunity to disadvantaged kids. My discussion question: what do you think it’s the first thing the government should invest in in order to revert this scenario?

week 10

Week 10 – Power to the People

This week, Dawson discusses populist leaders in 20th century Latin America, and the role of social and technological change in the way these leaders connected with the citizens of the countries they commanded.

The book defines populists as “charismatic, nationalist and good at mobilizing industrial workers” (207), and as having come of age in an era of change, both in the social makeup of the population and the means through which ideas and policies could be disseminated across their constituency. The main change was the introduction of the radio in Latin American society, which acted as a channel to the urban crowd.

Dawson points out that, as countries modernized and industries were growing, more and more people moved from the countryside to the cities, chasing the opportunity of economic and social improvement that could come from factory jobs and the surrounding businesses in a booming urban centre. Radios acted as a force that constituted the national community, creating a common repertory of songs and radionovelas that connected the population as a whole and blurred social and geographical boundaries.

Populist leaders looked to capitalize on this new way of connecting to the population, one that, with enough charisma and social intelligence, could propagate ideas further and easier than ever thought possible. However, it wasn’t effective for all the leaders all the time.

The text discusses on a few different fascinating stories of Latin American leaders and how the radio affected their governance and their politics. On of them is that of Getúlio Vargas in Brazil and his state-mandated Hora do Brazil, a daily hour-long period in which didactic programming and public announcements would be played. The audience however promptly rejected it, and Vargas, even though he tried through multiple different avenues (including co-opting samba from the poorer urban class) never quite connected with the populace – differently from his rival Carlos Lacerda, who became popular as a talk show host criticizing the government. Lacerda was then targeted because of his comments, and after some political turmoil, Vargas killed himself. His suicide note was read on radio, and it riled up crowds as they realized they had been better than ever before, even though Vargas didn’t follow through on all of his promises and the changes he made (minimum wage and labour laws, for example) weren’t consistently enforced throughout Brazil.

His story illustrates the power of radio as a tool for spreading ideas and influencing individuals in the continually changing social and economic environment of 20th century Latin America. It also highlights the then-newly found power of citizens as consumers of entertainment and information – they were able to readily reject anything that didn’t feel authentic, and mobilize en masse for politicians and policies that spoke to and for them.

week 6

Week 6 – Citizenship and Rights in the New Republics

This week, we are looking into who was considered a citizen and enjoyed the privileges of that status in post-independence Latin America. In the beginning of the chapter, we’re asked to look back on the Casta paintings of Week 3 and to think about how the social and racial hierarchy portrayed in those paintings are still reflected in the social and civil structure of the Latin American societies.

After getting their independence, the countries had to write their own Constitution. The sector of the population that had the authority to do it was the liberal elites, whose liberal worldview didn’t extend beyond those like them: well-off men with European descent. The poor, the black and Native Americans and mestizos, and the women were all seen as less than, and not deserving to enjoy the rights those who belong to higher castes were to enjoy.

As Dawson points out in this chapter, the foundation for the discrimination had changed at this point, from the religious and spiritual reasoning of the past to the scientific racism of the present. Works of “scientists” such as Blumenbach and Gaulton that highlighted the supposed biological differences between races served as the basis for the active exclusion of those that didn’t fit the mold of white and rich, as Dawson puts it. The principles of universal freedom and equality so championed by the liberal elite weren’t so universal after all.

The chapter also goes into the struggle for the emancipation of women and slaves. It points out how the role those sectors of the population played in their own battle for equal rights is often not a part of the narrative, which usually glorifies the few liberals who fought for emancipation.

The textbook looks into the details of the process in a few countries, including Brazil. It discusses how the black population was never isolated within a social system, and how a part of that population owned land, were free labourers and even owned slaves before the official emancipation laws signed in 1888. It also mentions how blackness is defined differently when compared to a place like the US, for example, and its “one-drop rule” – in Brazilian society, there were gradations between being black and white, which the author points out as allowing for the acceptance of a more mixed society.

However, being from Brazil, it’s not difficult to notice how Afro-Brazilians are still undoubtedly affected by a racist society. After emancipation, there was no effort to integrate the recently freed slaves into society through formal jobs or education, and racist sentiment didn’t disappear into thin air. The effects are still seen to this day – 70% of the population in extreme poverty in Brazil is black, and the number of black people with 12 of more years of education is less than half that of white people (data from the UN website). While some measures taken by the federal government (such as quotas in public universities for self-declared black Brazilians) have been considered successful, there’s still a long way to go. For the discussion question, it could be interesting to consider what has been done around the world in terms of reparation and which of those initiatives were successful in addressing racism and making systemic and long-lasting change.