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20 April 2000 Edition

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Brazil: 500 years of oppression

Some of the best known Brazilian faces are those of Brazil's national soccer team. Ronaldo, Rivaldo, and Romario are part of 80 million black or mixed race Brazil's population. But if travelling to this South American country, do not expect to see many other ethnic minority people on TV or in positions of power. This is one of the many realities of Brazil, a country still trying to come to terms with a colonial inheritance of discrimination and social and economic inequality.

On 22 April 2000, Brazil will commemorate the 500th anniversary of the arrival of Pedro Alvares Cabral and the Portuguese in Porto Seguro, Bahia. What Western Europe is still calling the ``Discovery'', opened an era of slavery and exploitation that continues to this day. The Brazilian and Portuguese governments have planned enormous and costly commemorations to celebrate.

In opposition, people's organisations throughout Brazil have united under the banner ``Brazilian Movement: 500 Years of Indigenous, Black and Popular Resistance'' to show their indignity at such insensitive celebrations ``from those who still suffer and struggle against the plunder of the old colonial mentality''.

The ``Brazilian Movement'' initiative aims to ``demystify that official lie and reveal the historic truth lived by the plundered indigenous people, by the enslaved black people, by the exploited and excluded sections of the population''. This truth reveals the hidden historic realities of genocide, discrimination and racism.

The situation of blatant Apartheid suffered by indigenous, black and destitute people in Brazil is also the responsibility of global financial institutions the International Monetary Fund (IFM) and the World Bank. These two organisations have maintained social inequality with their ``development'' policies for the South American nation.

Brazil is the 10th largest industrial economy in the world. In terms of development, it ranks 120th. A recent United Nation's Report found that 32 million people in Brazil are living in absolute poverty. Brazil's richness was strongly based on slavery, a concept that provided the basis for economic inequality, influencing the way society and institutions developed after abolition.

Under military dictatorship until 1985, the country's parliament remains unrepresentative of marginalised social groups, while hundreds of senators and deputies defend the interests of the wealthy. Brazil has never had a left-wing government.

The legacy of slavery is still alive in the treatment of the Afro-Brazilian community. Half of the 160 million Brazilians are black or mixed race, but officialdom in Brazil is white, and TV is positively Scandinavian. Legislation against racism exists, but cases of racial discrimination rarely ever get to court and if they do, are invariably held up. Discrimination is commonplace. Most black people driving are taxi-drivers, chauffeurs or bus drivers. Few are car owners. The majority of street children, prostitutes, prisoners, unemployed and victims of police violence are black. Only 1%-2% of black people study in universities.

Although officially abolished in 1888, bonded labour continues in many parts of Brazil today. On the 1999 Report, Human Rights Watch found that there are still 614 people involved in forced labour, though indicating an important reduction from the mid-'90s, when ``tens of thousands of labourers were found to have been forced into labour''.

Another consequence of the so-called ``civilisation process'' that the Portuguese and Brazilian government's are proudly celebrating today was the genocide of Brazil's indigenous people. At the time of the Portuguese arrival, there were approximately 6 million indigenous people, in 1,400 different groups, living in Brazil. Today, there are only 300,000 indigenous people left, in 200 different groups, speaking 170 languages.

In the 1970s, economic moves to ``conquer'' the Amazon saw the Indians as a barrier to `progress' (eg. road-building, gold digging and mahogany exporting). Roads were driven directly through Indian reserves, spreading disease and introducing prostitution and alcohol.

Indigenous groups are fighting to get their communal territories officially marked, but the encroachment and invasion continues. Loggers and gold prospectors have murdered Ticuna and Yanomami Indians. River pollution leads to further deaths, through food poisoning, and malnutrition. Cases of violence against Indians have increased in recent years. Members of the indigenous community are marching in force towards Porto Seguro, the centrepiece of the celebrations, where the Portuguese landed 500 years ago. In Porto Seguro, which is part of the indigenous Pataxo land, the Brazilian government has placed a 12-metre steel cross, a museum, shopping complex and landscaped pathways. This month, the military police invaded the Pataxo reservation to destroy an alternative monument created by the Indians.

Although Brazil, which is the size of Europe, is underpopulated, there are 20 million landless peasants. Less than 3% of the population owns two-thirds of Brazil's arable land. The Landless Workers Movement (Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sen Terra, MST), made up of landless and peasant families, campaigns for agrarian reform and for an end to rural violence. While 60% of Brazil's farmland is idle, 25 million peasants struggle to survive by working in temporary agricultural jobs.

In 1985, hundreds of landless rural Brazilians took over an unused plantation in the south of the country and successfully established a co-operative there. They gained title to the land in 1987. Today, more than 250,000 families have won land titles to over 15 million acres after MST land takeovers. In 1999 alone, 25,009 families occupied unproductive land. There are currently 71,472 families in encampments throughout Brazil awaiting government recognition.

MST has created 60 food co-operatives as well as small agricultural industries. Its literacy program involves 600 educators working with adults and adolescents. The movement also monitors 1,000 primary schools in their settlements, in which 2,000 teachers work with about 50,000 kids.

But MST activists have been targeted by the government and land-owners. In the last ten years, more than 1,000 people have been killed as a result of land conflicts in Brazil. Prior to August 1999, only 53 of the suspected murders have been brought to trial.

All the cities in Brazil have shantytown areas, homeless families and growing numbers of street children. Many people lack adequate employment, health services and education. Only 50% of school children are in school. Over 1,000 children per day die from malnutrition related diseases. Thousands of children survive on the streets, with approximately one child a day being murdered by death squads. The Campaign Against Hunger was formed in 1993, while the National Street Children's Movement fights for children's rights and an end to police violence.

CUT, the national trade union movement, was the strongest in Latin America in the 1980s, with over 150 million members, but millions of workers in informal employment continue to have no support. Working conditions are dreadful and accidents are commonplace.

Five hundred years after its first contact with Europeans, Brazil is a country still struggling to come to terms with the consequences of that invasion.

IMF ignores police brutality


Over 10,000 protesters gathered in Washington last week to protest at the policies of the IMF and World Bank. They found the world's global financial institutions unmoved by their protests and at the same time they were confronted with a police force who attacked protesters without provocation, firing rubber bullets, battening peaceful protesters while spraying them with pepper gas. In fact, over 600 protesters were arrested before the weekend's day of action had actually begun.

April 16 was the day of action for the Mobilisation for Global Justice campaign. On Saturday, 15 April, Washington police arrived at the group's headquarters, called the Convergence Centre, and closed the building, claiming it was overcrowded and that fire regulations were being breached. This was the day they arrested 600 people.

On the Sunday, protesters attempted to block the streets leading to buildings where the IMF and World Bank meetings were being held. The reaction of the Washington police was to forcibly remove and push back protesters, using the most brutal methods possible.

Tear gas and pepper sprays were used, rubber bullets were fired and then waves of baton wielding police moved in on the protesters, beating them indiscriminately.

An example of the nature of the police action is found in the experience of Leon Galindo, who describes himself as ``a consultant to the World Bank and a citizen of a developing state''. Galindo was on 15 April, he says, ``illegally arrested and imprisoned for 23 hours, together with hundreds of peaceful protesters and at least a dozen innocent bystanders of which I was one.

``As a consultant to the World Bank, a citizen of a developing country, and a person who has committed his life to the work of development, I was appalled by the conduct of the police and by the way the system works. As a consequence, I am now more sympathetic with the demands of the protesters and just a tad more cynical about the establishment.

``I was arrested with no explanation, no prior warning, and for no legitimate reason. I was standing close to the protesters because I disagreed with much of what I had heard them say in the media prior to coming to Washington DC. I wanted to hear in person what they had to say in order to decide for myself whether their arguments were reasonable or not and to summarise conclusions in a note for the World Bank's daily internal newsletter. I was not the only one; Magali Laguerre, a Haitian colleague at the World Bank, had the same purpose and was also arrested. So were several tourists and locals who were literally just passing by.

``I had been there for less than five minutes when the police closed both sides of the street and did not allow anyone to pass, even though nothing except a peaceful march was taking place. No warning was given. No explanation was made. When I asked to pass or for an explanation on what was happening, no response was given.

``I was roughly handcuffed for over 17 hours (my arms and shoulders are still sore), repeatedly lied to, and denied an explanation of any kind or to a telephone.''

Another on the spot report of the police brutality was given by two Undercurrents journalists. ``Fresh from capturing exclusive footage of Gordon Brown being turned away from the World bank meeting by protesters, we made our way to the events this morning,'' they recorded.

``We stumbled onto a scene which resembled a war zone. The aftermath of a small group of activists having being gassed, batoned, and shot at by rubber bullets. Blood covered the streets and sidewalk, gas masked police stood by menacingly with large sticks, causing a very heavy atmosphere. We interviewed bloodied women with eyes streaming from being gassed by chemicals. Blood pouring from their faces, reporters were also singled out for gas treatment and we escaped as police started picking off fellow journalists for arrest.''

While mayhem and bloodshed was happening on Washington's streets the bureaucrats and politicians of the IMF were congratulating themselves on actually getting to their meetings early.

Inside the IMF/World Bank, the focus was not on reform of the IMF or solving the debt repayment crisis. Instead, the focus was on calming the crisis in international financial markets. This week, the market share price spiral has ended and relative calm has returned to the markets. The IMF and World Bank are probably congratulating themselves on another short term fix.

They must, though, recognise that on the streets of Washington and in the economies of heavily indebted states the costs of their inaction is growing.

More information about the events at Washington can be found at and

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