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Brazil on the brink: land, debt and democracy.

As the civilian government of President Jose Sarney stumbles from one crisis to the next, state repression in Brazil is taking increasingly violent forms, with soldiers and military police being used to break strikes and put down nonviolent demonstrations. Troops ended the recent strike of railroad employees in Rio de Janeiro at gunpoint, reportedly killing sixteen people.

Last December 29, in what may have been Brazil's worst massacre of the twentieth century, military police opened fire on about 3,000 unarmed demonstrators who were occupying a bridge over the Tocantins River at Maraba, in the northern state of Par&. Scores of gold miners, their families and bystanders were shot to death, wounded or drowned after jumping off the bridge into the river seventy meters below. According to local press reports and church publications, the state troopers acted on direct orders from Park's Governor, Helio Gueiros, with the approval of the federal Justice Minister, Paulo Brossard. The massacre occurred while representatives of the miners were negotiating with federal officials for safer working conditions at Serra Pelada, the giant open-pit gold mine near Maraba.

More than 40,000 miners work at Serra Pelada, often digging with their bare hands and living in nearby camps under the most primitive conditions. The federal government has repeatedly announced plans to automate mining there and relocate the workers to "agricultural zones"; the miners threatened civil war if the plan went ahead.

Estimates of the casualties in the December massacre vary widely. The military police claim only two people were kitted, "by accident," while church sources give a total of 133 dead or missing. Local journalists reported that the military police combed the tributaries and backwaters of the Tocantins, spiriting away victims' bodies and threatening to kill witnesses if they talked. President Sarney, who is a political ally of Governor Gueiros, has kept silent about the incident, while Justice Minister Brossard has refused to initiate a government inquiry. Gueiros says he is proud of his order to open fire; in one interview, rejecting criticisms, he compared himself to a crucified Christ. Meanwhile, federal deputies from the Workers' Party have conducted their own inquiry, and trade union leaders, left-wing politicians and human rights advocates have launched an independent investigation.

The massacre took place in the Parrot's Beak region, on the edge of Amazonia, where rural labor and land conflicts are acute. Besides miners, hundreds of landless peasants, homesteaders and their advocates (priests, nuns, lawyers, union organizers and pastoral agents) have been killed in the past two years. The assailant is usually a gunman hired by land grabbers, and in many cases local and military police have backed the violence or even taken part in it. In only one case have the killers been brought to justice.

Rural violence in that part of northern Brazil made national headlines in 1986, when a popular priest was gunned down at high noon in the church square of the town of Imperatriz. Justice Minister Brossard responded with a much publicized "disarmament campaign," but the only ones disarmed by the federal police were peasants, whose machetes and old-fashioned hunting rifles were confiscated. The hired guns and private militias continue to operate without hindrance, and some areas of the north are in a virtual state of war.

Although it constitutes almost half of Brazil, Amazonia is far from the population and economic centers of the southeast. To city dwellers, preoccupied with the everyday violence around them, the rural killings seem remote. Millions have fled the land during the past generation and are more concerned with their daily urban survival than with the faraway, abstract problems of the landless peasants, who make up only 10 percent of the population. Seventy percent of Brazilians now live in cities.

Exploitation of Amazonia's wealth, both above and below the surface, has only just begun. Every day, 2 million trees go down; thousands of miners strip the earth of gold, iron and other minerals. Domestic and international mining companies are gearing up to follow the military into remote areas under the Calha Norte ("Northern Headwaters") program, which will open up the far north to garrisons and developers. The roots of the violence, according to Fr. Ricardo Rezende, a church activist in the extremely tense area of Conceicao do Araguaia, lie in the government's economic plans for the Amazon, which encourage the concentration of wealth and land ownership. Officially sanctioned repression of rural people, he maintains, "has an instructive intention. To kill isn't enough; they also want to terrorize those who survive. It isn't indiscriminate."

The Catholic Church's vocal opposition to Calha Norte and other policies that affect indigenous peoples has earned it many enemies in official circles. Last August, O Estado de Sao Paulo, one of Brazil's largest and most important newspapers, launched a campaign against the Indigenous Missionary Council (CIMI), the Pastoral Land Commission and international church groups, accusing them of conspiring with the international tin cartel to stop Brazilian companies from mining cassiterite in indigenous areas. The paper claimed that this conspiracy aims at nothing less than the establishment of independent indigenous states and the breakup of Brazil as a sovereign nation. In an angry response to letters about rural violence from members of Amnesty International, the Justice Minister repeated charges from the Estado articles and accused 47,000 Austrian schoolchildren, who had petitioned the Constituent Assembly to protect indigenous lands, of "proposing to reduce national sovereignty . . . over the riches of the subsoil."

The church declared that CIMI documents cited in the articles were forgeries and threatened to sue the paper. But the Estado campaign allowed various sectors of the business, political and intelligence communities to mobilize and unite. According to the National Intelligence Service (the S.N.I.), church activities in defense of Indians and homesteaders threaten social peace, national security and democracy. An S.N.I. report proposes expelling some foreign priests and bishops and barring foreign organizations from financing Brazilian religious institutions.

Soon after the Estado campaign began, the national Constituent Assembly put provisions in a draft Constitution that would downgrade the legal status of indigenes"relatively" to "absolutely" incapable, grant the government the power to take land from native groups it defines as "acculturated," and open up indigenous areas to private mining companies. Indians who have been forced to nee white encroachment could lose their lands if they have not occupied them "since time immemorial" or at least since 1934. Displacement of indigenous groups has been so extensive, in fact, that hardly any would qualify.

The Constituent Assembly is composed predominantly of wealthy landowners. Justice Minister Brossard owns thousands of acres in his home state; so does President Sarney. Small wonder, then, that Indians living on exploitable acreage are so vulnerable or that the government's agrarian reform law, announced in 1985, should have expropriated and redistributed only about 5 percent of targeted land. In two and a half years, three agrarian reform ministers have come and gone, two resigning because they could not fulfill their mandate, the third dyingin a plane crash. The law makes expropriation so complex and easily litigable that it was virtually doomed from the start.

According to political scientists Frances Hagopian and Scott Mainwaring, it was pressure from Sao Paulo land speculators (whose holdings extend throughout Brazil) that led the government to water down the reform law. And powerful landowner interests, represented by the Rural Democratic Union, a rapidly growing far-right group with a reputation for violence, have fought hard to insure that the new Constitution will not promote agrarian reform either. Without it, less than 5 percent of the landholders will continue to control more than two-thirds of Brazil's cultivable land.

Although Brazilians can now vote in "free" elections, meaningful democracy remains a utopian dream, and the outlook for the country's much-heralded transition is bleak. The military kept control of the country's political apparatus until the very last moment before the civilian president took office and still wields considerable influence over the civilian regime. Six of the twenty-six Cabinet ministers are military men, and they are the main prop behind the weak and ineffectual Sarney. The government has also kept many of the armed forces' authoritarian laws and procedures on the books. It continues to enact decree laws over the heads of the Congress (which also functions as the country's Constituent Assembly). The budget, too, is not subject to Congressional oversight. The emergency economic measures of the past two years have been framed in secret by ministers and their advisers and reviewed only by the country's economic and political elite.

Former supporters of the military dictatorship (including Sarney) continue in power. An amnesty law guarantees that no member of the armed forces will be punished for torture or other human rights violations that occurred during the dictatorship, and torture remains a common weapon against criminals. Retired military officers still control vital state-owned companies and federal agencies, such as the Special Informatics Secretariat, whose refulas to allow Microsoft computer software into Brazil triggered U.S. trade sanctions last November.

For the past six years, Brazil has been paying the price for the economic transformations brought about by the country's military rulers. After they took power in 1964, they implemented huge development projects with stacks of borrowed money obligingly supplied by foreign banks and multilateral lending institutions. These Pharaonic undertakings-dams, power plants, highways, weapons factories helped transform Brazil from an agrarian society into the world's eighth-largest capitalist economy. The consequence for today's civilian politicians is a crippling debt that has left Brazil a slave of the banks and the International Monetary Fund. A monumental (and desperate) export drive helped pay the interest, to the tune of about $11 billion a year, while domestic consumption fell by about 25 percent between 1982 and 1987. One result is that two-thirds of Brazilians are now said to be malnourished.

When the government tried economic shock therapy in 1986, exports fell and domestic consumption zoomed-thus, the interest moratorium announced in February 1987. But the attempt to rebel against debt servitude was futile. In February, Brazil agreed to return to the I.M.F. and ended the moratorium with a $350 million payment. The new Finance Minister, Mailson Nobrega, is quietly negotiating with the creditor banks for bailouts.

The national debt casts its shadow on all aspects of Brazilian life. Why do the government's economic policies encourage concentration of wealth and land ownership (and consequently incite land conflicts) in the Amazon and other areas? Because agro-industrialists can produce for export, and the money they earn pays interest on the debt. Big government subsidies and tax write-offs encourage land speculation and turn even unproductive projects into sure moneymakers.

Landowners and other elite groups wieldconsiderable power in the Constituent Assembly, and political parties are so weak institutionally that they can do little to resist. Organized around charismatic leaders who perpetuate their control through clientage, most of the parties have no ideological position except the continuation of what Brazilians call "the political game." With grass-roots groups and the poor majority mostly shut out, there is little genuine participatory democracy, either in the assembly or in local government. Socialist and social-democratic parties are weak and small. The only hope for change seems to lie in the burgeoning grass-roots groups, from Christian base communities to mothers' clubs and neighborhood residents' associations, which operate mostly outside the formal political arena. These groups work on local problems, organizing self-help projects and pressuring authorities to provide for services such as sewers, electricity, trash collection and clinics. Some have participated in urban and rural land occupations or demonstrated in support of land reform.

Since the civilian regime came to office in 1985, Brazilians have gone from euphoria to depression to disillusionment, in an eerily familiar cycle. Brazilian political, social and economic patterns are very old and not easily dislodged. This is, after all, a 500-year-old country that ended slavery only a century ago this May, that has wiped out millions of indigenes and despoiled region after region to export one natural resource after another. The speed of exploitation, deforestation and oppression seems to have accelerated, but the dilemmas remain constant.

Brazil's destiny is still not its own to determine. Whether the outsiders be Portuguese grandees or New York bankers, English merchants or I.M.F. officials, they cast the same long shadows. Even if the Brazilian elites were solidly committed to improving the lot of the vast majority of their compatriots (or at least to expanding domestic markets), the sword of debt would still hang over them. How to get out from under it and still preserve their privileges and control? That is their problem now, as always. It has nothing to do with extending democracy and everything to do with trying to vitiate it. Given their interests, it would be naive to expect the elites to act otherwise.

The elites' politicians will soon decide, in the Constituent Assembly, whether to give Jose Sarney another year's lease on political power. If they should vote no, Brazilians will vote in a direct presidential election this November, for the first time in twenty-eight years. But from week to week, the factions keep shifting. As one Brazilian put it"Anything can happen." Anything, that is, except instant democracy.
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Author:Rabben, Linda
Publication:The Nation
Date:Apr 30, 1988
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