Bolsonaro’s Response to Covid-19: The Political Tools of Inaction, Obstruction, and Blame

An informal fish market  in Manaus, on September 19, 2020. There is a municipal law that requires citizens to wear protective masks, but many people ignore the rules.  (Photo by Raphael Alves/ IMF.)
An informal fish market in Manaus, on September 19, 2020. There is a municipal law that requires citizens to wear protective masks, but many people ignore the rules. (Photo by Raphael Alves/ IMF.)

By Elize Massard da Fonseca and Andreza Davidian

Brazil has been one of the countries most affected by Covid-19. Since the beginning of the pandemic, President Jair Bolsonaro has taken controversial measures to obstruct a coordinated response, adopted a denialist and anti-science discourse, and personally interfered in health policymaking.

His government’s position has been surprising, given Brazil’s previous successful responses to epidemics such as HIV/Aids, its large public health system, and an expert health-sector bureaucracy. It is therefore natural to look at explanations for Brazil’s response in the content of the president’s politics: populism, nationalism, and authoritarianism.

However, together with colleagues from the University of Michigan, the University of Illinois, and Harvard University, we propose a different question to explain the controversial reactions of Brazil, the U.S. and India to Covid: Who can decide these policies and what they can do? We focus on the institutional politics of agency, who acted instead of the content or health effects of their decisions.* In this blog post, we will explore the case of Brazil.

Brazilian presidents loom large in their country’s politics. Jair Bolsonaro, the current chief executive, holds far-reaching constitutional and para-constitutional powers to push forward his controversial, inept response to the Covid-19 pandemic.

President Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil at a March 2020 press conference. (Photo by Isac Nóbrega/PR.)
President Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil at a March 2020 press conference. (Photo by Isac Nóbrega/PR.)

Brazilian presidents are endowed with strong constitutional powers, including the allocation of positions in the vast federal administrative empire, which are usually filled in alignment with the share of Congressional seats of their party coalition members. Presidents also have the prerogative of issuing decrees, as well as exclusive initiative over budgetary matters. They also hold reactive power, such as the ability to partially or totally veto bills passed by the Congress. As in other countries, the chief executive also holds non-legislative prerogatives that give them great visibility in speaking directly to Brazilians through speeches on the radio and television. These are powerful instruments that allow the president to push forward his agenda, whether for the public good or for more particular interests.

Subnational governments in Brazil — the federal states and municipalities — are a prominent check on presidential power. Coordination among these levels of government is a major challenge in policy and administration. For instance, the Ministry of Health has the constitutional mandate of coordinating Brazil’s extensive public health system, which includes 27 states and more than 5,000 municipalities, with both levels having elected leaders with responsibilities for healthcare provision.

Luiz Henrique Mandetta, then Brazil's Minister of Health, March 2020. (Photo by Isac Nóbrega/PR.)
Luiz Henrique Mandetta, then Brazil’s Minister of Health, March 2020. (Photo by Isac Nóbrega/PR.)

Bolsonaro’s interference with the Minister of Health has no precedent in Brazil. In April, with the number of Brazilian Covid-19 cases second only to the count in the U.S., Minister of Health Henrique Mandetta was fired for threatening the President’s political dominance and undercutting his pseudo-scientific rhetoric. Mandetta, a physician, was a member of the Democrats party, part of the president’s coalition. The president then appointed another respected physician, Nelson Teich. However, due to his vehement disagreement with President Bolsonaro’s plans to adjust clinical protocols for Covid-19 treatment, Teich resigned less than a month after taking the position. Teich was replaced by General Eduardo Pazuello, an active-duty army officer who publicly expressed his lack of previous knowledge about the Brazilian public health system when already in office. Pazuello yielded to the adjustment of the clinical protocols; reformulated the disclosure of epidemiological data, to announce only information about death and confirmed cases in the previous 24 hours; and ruled out vaccines that could be included in Brazil’s immunization program because they were produced by China and distributed by the state of Sao Paulo, both seen as enemies by the president.

Eduardo Pazuello speaks as Minister of Health, September 2020. (Photo by Isac Nóbrega/PR.)

It was thanks to the authority of state governments over health policy that Brazil was able to secure some level of social distancing and other non-pharmaceutical interventions (NPI), and to coordinate with WHO measures. For almost three decades, state governments have had limited influence on Brazilian national politics, given the institutional powers of the executive and the way that tax resources are distributed. But in the vacuum of federal NPI leadership, they began to enact measures and communicate public health information. The President tried to challenge the authority of subnational governments over pandemic management, but the Supreme Court ruled in favor of governors.

A drive-through testing facility for Covid-19 in Águas Claras, April 2020. (Photo by Leopoldo Silva/Agência Senado.)
A drive-through testing facility for Covid-19 in Águas Claras, April 2020. (Photo by Leopoldo Silva/Agência Senado.)

Bolsonaro then used his decree power to list essential business that should remain open (including gyms and beauty salons), arguing that subnational governments went too far in social distancing measures, damaging the economy. Most state governments remained firm in their support of social distancing, business closures, and warnings against therapies that had yet to be tested. That is why we observe a large disparity between the severity of social distancing measures supported by the federal government and those enacted by subnational authorities, with the latter contributing more to Brazil’s scores on country-level stringency measures.

Taking advantage of the uncertain division of authority over Covid-19, the president adopted a blame-avoidance strategy. Bolsonaro used his power to address the nation on national TV seven times between March and September 2020, attacking subnational governments, sowing doubt about the seriousness of the pandemic, and fostering public demonstrations against social distancing. He also vetoed several parts of Covid-19 related legislation passed by Congress (e.g. mandatory use of masks in religious sites, and compensation for health professionals permanently harmed by the pandemic).

We argue here that centralization of agency in the president does not explain necessarily the policy outcomes, but his action — and inaction — were in the power of that role. Bolsonaro and Trump are controversial leaders, incapable of managing the pandemic or of coordinating effectively. We call attention to the importance of observing political institutions that enable agency, and that federalism, as a check on federal power and in interaction with other variables, can safeguard public health and political order.

A sign warns residents of Brasília, “Stay at home.” (Photo by Leonardo Sá/Agência Senado.)

*This essay was adapted from a manuscript co-authored with Scott Greer (University of Michigan), Mina Raj (University of Illinois), and Charles Willison (Harvard University) about the politics of agency in COVID-19 responses, which is submitted to a health politics journal. EMF is funded by the Sao Paulo State Foundation (2020/05230-8).

Elize Massard da Fonseca.

Elize Massard da Fonseca is Assistant Professor of Public Administration at the Getulio Vargas Foundation and a non-resident Visiting Scholar at the Latin America and Caribbean Center at the London School of Economics. She was a Visiting Scholar at CLAS in 2019. Together with Scott Greer, Elizabeth King, and Andre Peralta, she is the co-editor of The Comparative Politics of COVID-19: The Need to Understand Government Responses, forthcoming from the University of Michigan Press in Spring 2021.

Andreza Davidian is a doctoral candidate in Public Administration at the Getulio Vargas Foundation. She is a Visiting Research Student at the Université de Versailles Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines in France.

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An unexpected landslide in Chile: 78.27% versus 21.73%

By Enzo Nervi

The two parts of the ballot for the Chilean constitutional plebiscite: first, whether there should be a new constitution and, if so, what form the process should take. (Photo courtesy of Janet Waggaman.)

Despite the expected triumph of approving replacing Chile’s constitution, everyone was surprised by the overwhelming margin of victory: 78.27% voted “approve,” to proceed with the process, against 21.73% who voted to “reject” an attempt. It was to be expected that many would jump on the victory bandwagon to align themselves with the majority and not lose their political capital. Such was the case with President Sebastián Piñera, who, despite not revealing if he voted to approve or reject — referring to his vote as “a bedroom secret” — mentioned that “this is a triumph for all Chileans who love democracy, unity, and peace.”

Simultaneously with the approve option’s victory, the last survey by Plaza Pública Cadem, released a day after the plebiscite, revealed that Piñera’s disapproval rate reached 78 percent. Immediately after the results, in a speech from Palacio de la Moneda, Piñera not only denied being part of the problem that led to the plebiscite and to the start of the protests last October, but also proclaimed, “Today is the time to heal the wounds of the past, to unite hearts and wills, and to look forward to the future.” Between the lines, the president was dismissing his responsibility for the human rights violations perpetrated by the state against the protesters, even when the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, concluded that “there are well-founded reasons to believe” that a high number of human rights violations have been committed by the police and the military in Chile since October 18.

Despite the president’s positive words, his disconnect from the majority of citizens is evident. Discussions of a deep polarization in Chilean society for and against the old system no longer have a place, and Piñera’s well-remembered phrase, “We are at war against a powerful enemy,” uttered during the protests exactly one year ago, seems increasingly remote from reality. The overwhelming result of the plebiscite showed that Chileans are not divided or polarized, but that they had not had a real opportunity to achieve change since the return of democracy. The fact that only 21.73% of the population voted to reject writing a new constitution shows that those who want to maintain the model inherited from the dictatorship are a minority. The disconnect between the president and the citizens was also reflected in the attitude of the elites, giving rise to the hypothesis that their stance was more than simple disconnection; it was a desire to cling to power for their personal interests. As a surprise to some, but revealingly for others, three of the four districts in Chile where “reject” prevailed are the richest in the country. “The street,” as we popularly refer to the people who go out to protest, has interpreted the localized results of the rejection in the wealthiest districts almost metaphorically. The elites seek to maintain power while the people demand change. In this way, these results became evidence of who benefited for years from the current constitution: those who voted for the rejection option.

For the first time since the return of democracy, Chileans felt that their vote would have a significant effect on their lives and went to the polls en masse; the plebiscite had the highest electoral turnout since voluntary voting was established in 2012. Gone are the times in which the traditional left, the Concertación de Partidos por la Democracia, had to reach consensus with the right without being able to carry out major reforms due to the constraints set by the legacy of the dictatorship and its constitution. This time, the elections were not between choices that would lead to similar outcomes, in which even with victory for the left and a majority in Congress, the neoliberal model would continue to prevail.

The overwhelming triumph of the approval shows that Chileans understand the economic model. The threats that the right used in its campaign of rejection — an alleged increase in unemployment, the much-announced end to economic growth, or the most popular of all, that we would become another Venezuela and be another failed attempt at socialism in Latin America — did not prevail over the evidence that the current subsidiary state system benefited only a few who have been overrepresented in Chilean politics. Perhaps Chile did wake up, as the slogan of the protests says. Or maybe the common citizen had never felt the opportunity to make real changes to the country with his or her vote, and therefore had not gone to the polls.

Chileans not only seem to be leaving behind the last legacies of the dictatorship, but are also convinced that they can forge a new identity, away from the limiting stigmas of the past. The Mapuche flag was noted among the apruebo (approve) celebrations, almost outnumbering the Chilean flag. The racist stigma created in colonial times against the Mapuche as a lazy people, as not conforming to Western values — in the words of the renowned historian Gabriel Salazar — seems to have no place in the new Chile that at least 5,886,421 Chileans expect to build.

The Chilean people celebrate the overwhelming triumph of working toward a new constitution for their country. (Photo courtesy of Janet Waggaman.)
Enzo Nervi.

Enzo Nervi is a student in UC Berkeley’s Master of Development Practices Program and is originally from Valparaíso, Chile. After receiving a Bachelor’s Degree in Economics and Administration and a Master’s Degree in Economics and Public Policy from the Adolfo Ibáñez University, he did an internship at the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean. He was also a teaching assistant for the UC Berkeley course “The impact of globalization in Latin America.”

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No había tal polarización: 78.27% versus 21.73%

Las dos partes de la boleta para el plebiscito constitucional chileno: primero, si debiera haber una nueva constitución y, de ser así, qué forma debería tomar el proceso. (Foto por cortesía de Janet Waggaman.)

Por Enzo Nervi

A pesar del esperado triunfo de la opción apruebo por una nueva constitución, a todos sorprendió el aplastante porcentaje de victoria: 78.27% contra un 21.73% de la opción rechazo. Lo que sí era esperable era que muchos se subirían al carro de la victoria para alinearse con la mayoría y no perder su capital político. Tal fue el caso del presidente Sebastián Piñera, donde a pesar de no revelar si votó apruebo o rechazo y referirse a que su voto “es un secreto de alcoba”, mencionó que “este es un triunfo de todos los chilenos y chilenas que amamos la democracia, la unidad y la paz”.

Coincidentemente con el resultado de la opción apruebo, la última encuesta de Plaza Pública Cadem, difundida un día después del plebiscito, reveló que la desaprobación del presidente Sebastián Piñera alcanzó un 78 por ciento. Inmediatamente después de los resultados, en un discurso desde el Palacio de la Moneda, Piñera no sólo negaba ser parte del problema que llevó a la realización del plebiscito y al inicio de las protestas de octubre pasado, sino que proclamaba “hoy es tiempo de sanar las heridas del pasado, de unir corazones y voluntades, y de alzar la vista hacia el futuro “. Entre líneas, el presidente estaba desestimando su responsabilidad sobre las violaciones a los derechos humanos perpetradas por el Estado a los manifestantes, aún cuando la Oficina de la Alta Comisionada de las Naciones Unidas para los Derechos humanos, Michelle Bachelet, concluyó que “existen razones fundadas para creer” que desde el 18 de octubre se han cometido un elevado número de violaciones de derechos humanos a manos de Carabineros y militares en Chile.

Más allá de las actuales palabras del presidente, su desconexión con la ciudadanía se hizo evidente. El discurso de polarización en la sociedad chilena ya no tiene cabida, y su recordada frase, “estamos en guerra contra un enemigo poderoso”, por las protestas de hace exactamente un año, parece cada día más alejada de la realidad. El aplastante resultado del plebiscito demostró que los chilenos no están divididos ni polarizados, sino que desde el retorno a la democracia no habían tenido una oportunidad real de lograr cambios. Por otro lado,  el hecho de que solo un 21,73% de la población votó rechazo, demuestra que aquellos que quieren mantener el modelo heredado de la dictadura son una minoría. La desconexión del presidente con la ciudadanía también se vio reflejada en las élites, dando paso a la hipótesis de que más que desconexión era querer aferrarse al poder y a sus intereses personales. Sorprendentemente para algunos, pero de manera reveladora para otros, tres de las cuatro comunas de Chile en que ganó la opción rechazo son las comunas más ricas del país. “La calle” como se refiere popularmente a la gente que sale a protestar, ha interpretado los localizados resultados del rechazo en las comunas más adineradas casi de forma metafórica. Las élites buscan mantener el poder mientras el pueblo pide lo contrario. De esta forma, a quiénes benefició por años la actual constitución se hizo evidente según quienes votaron por la opción rechazo.

Por primera vez desde el retorno a la democracia, los chilenos sintieron que su voto tendría un efecto significativo en sus vidas y salieron en masa a las urnas, registrando la mayor participación electoral desde que se instauró el voto voluntario en 2012. Atrás quedaron los tiempos en que la izquierda tradicional, la Concertación de Partidos por la Democracia, tenía que llegar a consensos con la derecha sin poder realizar grandes reformas debido a las ataduras dejadas por la dictadura y su Constitución. Esta vez, las elecciones no eran entre opciones similares, donde incluso si salía la izquierda o ésta tenía mayoría en el Congreso, el modelo neoliberal seguiría primando.

El avasallador triunfo del apruebo demuestra que los chilenos entendieron el modelo económico. Todas aquellas amenazas que utilizó la derecha en su campaña del rechazo, como por ejemplo, un supuesto aumento del desempleo, el tan anunciado fin al crecimiento económico, o el más popular de todos, convertirnos en otra Venezuela y ser otro intento fallido de socialismo en América Latina, no primaron sobre la evidencia de que el actual sistema de Estado subsidiario beneficiaba únicamente a unos pocos, sobrerrepresentados en la política chilena. Quizás “Chile despertó”, como lo dice el lema de las protestas. O quizás el ciudadano común nunca había sentido la oportunidad de cambiar el país con su voto ni de ejercer cambios reales, razón por la cual no acudía a las urnas.

Los chilenos parecen no sólo estar dejando atrás los últimos legados de la dictadura, sino que están convencidos de que pueden forjar una nueva identidad, alejados de los estigmas limitantes del pasado. La bandera mapuche se hizo notar entre las celebraciones del “apruebo”, casi superando en número a la bandera chilena. En esta nueva etapa, el estigma racista creado en la época de la colonia hacia los mapuches como un pueblo vago, al no ajustarse éstos a los valores occidentales, según palabras del connotado historiador Gabriel Salazar, pareciera no tener cabida en el nuevo Chile que al menos 5.886.421 chilenos esperan construir.

El pueblo chileno celebra el abrumador triunfo del apruebo de una nueva constitución para su país. (Foto por cortesía de Janet Waggaman.)
Enzo Nervi.

Enzo Nervi es estudiante del Programa de Maestría en Prácticas de Desarrollo de UC Berkeley y es de Valparaíso, Chile. Después de recibir una licenciatura en Economía y Administración y una Maestría en Economía y Políticas Públicas de la Universidad Adolfo Ibáñez, realizó una pasantía en la Comisión Económica para América Latina y el Caribe de las Naciones Unidas. También fue asistente de enseñanza para el curso “El impacto de la globalización en América Latina”.

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A Pioneer on Climate Change and Renewable Energy

A magnificent solar flare, or coronal mass ejection, erupts from the sun. (Photo

A magnificent solar flare, or coronal mass ejection. (Photo by NASA/GSFC/SDO.)

It is hard to fully describe the feeling of stepping into the world of Stan Ovshinsky. I have driven that hydrogen-powered Prius described by Avery Cohn in his 2008 article and marveled at the compact hydrogen storage system that Stan had designed. I sat across the desk from Stan in his office as he showed me the simplified diagram that seemed to sum up the opportunity that the universe has laid out before us – a hydrogen-driven, solar fire radiating energy that makes its way to earth and can easily be converted to electricity, which can then separate hydrogen from water molecules for our clean energy use – a virtuous hydrogen cycle.

What was immediately evident was his passion, his deep and profound knowledge, and his intellectual generosity. It was impossible to talk to Stan and not want all of his dreams to come true – because his dreams should be our dreams.

Ben Chao presents a prototype hydrogen-powered car to (from left): Christopher Edley, Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas and Roberto Dobles. (Photo by Cristel Heinrich Bettoni)

Stan Ovshinsky’s hydrogen-powered Prius is demonstrated during a visit to Detroit organized by CLAS in 2008. (Photo by Cristel Heinrich Bettoni.)

We are a funny species, we humans. So much potential. So many astounding accomplishments. And yet, it is so very hard to come together to support solutions that would make life better for all of us. Call it a challenge of vantage points – there are so many perches from which to observe the world. Call it an outgrowth of dramatically different life experiences. If failing health, oppression, bigotry or economic circumstances make us unable to dwell on the forest beyond the trees, chosen priorities can be very short-term and the focus, by necessity, may be insular. Whether it is a common agreement to wear cloth masks to curb a pandemic, or a clear dedication to ending our use of fossil fuels, it does not seem to be in our nature to place our trust in those who have worked through these problems and offer us sound solutions.

In his play An Enemy of the People, Henrik Ibsen observed that it will take anywhere up to fifty years for any new truth to take hold and guide societal action. The characters in his play did not have the luxury of waiting that long in order to preserve public health. And neither do we.

Ibsen wrote in a different time when information-dispensing media were far less pervasive. The challenge now, of course, is there is little filter on the streams that bring information to us within seconds that might help us to identify what is true or that might help us, as a society, to continue to value the truth.

Stan Ovshinsky at UC Berkeley. (Photo by Matty Nematollahi.)

Stan Ovshinsky at UC Berkeley in 2008. (Photo by Matty Nematollahi.)

What has been missing is empowered leadership on climate issues – the kind that California has experienced for many years, but on the national level, where state borderlines don’t get in the way. How tragic that “trust in science” has become a political identifier and that denial of clear fact is allowed to pass unchallenged. It does not have to be that way. A strong leader can change the conversation, embrace the gifts of knowledge and invention provided by experts present and past, acknowledge the outsized obligation of the United States to act decisively, and set a clear path forward. In my mind, a clear path does not involve keeping the door open to “all of the above,” or hoping that market forces alone with take us in the right direction at the needed rate of change. There is more than one acceptable way to get to a decarbonized world – with effective leadership, we need to choose one path, and get started.

The feeling that one had after talking to Stan Ovshinsky?  It was the sense that he and others have handed us the keys to a better future, and that we are obliged to get in and drive.

Steve Weissman.STEVE WEISSMAN is a lecturer at UC Berkeley’s Goldman School of Public Policy, as well as the co-creater and former Director of the Energy Law program at UC Berkeley School of Law, where he also taught numerous energy law and policy courses. He came to UC Berkeley from the California Public Utilities Commission, where he was an administrative law judge as well as policy and legal advisor to three different commissioners.

Stan Ovshinsky spoke at Berkeley in 2008. CLAS published several articles about his visit:
· “A Revolution Fueled by the Sun
· Physicist Arthur Bienenstock on Ovshinsky
· “The Einstein of Alternative Energy?”
· Video of Ovshinsky’s talk, “Alternative Energy and the Americas”

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The Abyss of Normality: Social Crises, Environmental Injustices, and Resistance in Contemporary Brazil

By Leonildes Nazar Chaves

Cars travel through subterranean roads in São Paulo in more normal times. (Photo by Fabio Barbato.)

Critical times guide us to feelings of rupture and reinvention. The horizon that we were unable to envision as the possibility of a more just and equitable future, today dwells inside of us with apathy and distrust.

Everything passes by at high speed. The disillusionment with liberal political and economic models; the inadequacy of public social protection policies; the lack of response from public bodies and the global system’s institutions; the ruin of the social pact of democracy; the high degree of insecurity due to socio-environmental impacts; the continuity of threats to the lives of people across borders and territories.

In Brazil, the emerging Covid-19 pandemic unveiled this critical reality even more clearly. As Carlos Milani points out, the virus alone does not single out individuals, “but pre-existing and enduring cultural, social and economic inequalities ensure that the virus discriminates. Because the world is shaped by economic power, nationalism, gender, racism, xenophobia and ecological injustices, the virus does not spread along virgin territories. It empirically validates the reality of preceding and continuous social and economic systems.”

These social inequalities are deep inside the Brazilian sense of normality. For many people in Brazil, the 120,000+ Covid-19 deaths as of September 1, 2020 are just numbers to be updated. It is also expected that those numbers are even bigger than those publicized by the authorities.

But it is difficult to assimilate to what is normal. That difficulty is mainly due to two themes, which I will try to address below: one more structural in nature; the other, more junctural; and both critically highlighted by the current pandemic as challenges.

Dressed in white, with masks and red balloons, artists pay homage to the people killed by Covid-19 in Brazil, May 2020. (Photo by Leopoldo Silva/Agência Senado.)

Brazil owes itself many debts. They are the expression of the invented national idea of Brazil as a democratic country, that respects diversity, and whose structural problems, caused by historical inequalities, have been repaired. According to this view, the Brazilian system of exploitation and subordination of non-white people no longer exists.

The abyss of Brazilian normality is the perpetuation of this mistaken and dangerous nationally hegemonic thought. The invention of this idea began to take shape as soon as the colonization project of the Americas and its peoples succeeded. The project of civilizing logic, expropriating resources, and social war gave the country a basic configuration that even today reproduces violence to non-white bodies and dreams. As anarcotransfeminist artist Bruna Kury and afrotransfeminist intellectual Walla Capelobo emphasize, this is a process observed from slavery to the new faces of racism in contemporary Brazil.

Many actors intertwine and fight for power to maintain hierarchies and racist and anti-democratic narratives in the country. Among them are political groups of significant influence and public mobilization, such as the “5B” interests represented in the Parliament: Bullet (pro-guns), Bible (religious), Boi (ruralists, from the Portuguese for cattle),1 Banks, and Bula (the health industry, from the Portuguese for “leaflet”).

Public flogging of an enslaved person in 19th-century Brazil, from a painting by Johann Moritz Rugendas. (Photo by wilfredo.)

Contemporary Brazilian problems have very old roots that are still perpetuated by the force of highly active and continuously reinvented political agendas. Fabiano Santos and José Szwako argue that, in recent years — which include ex-president Dilma Rousseff’s impeachment in 2016 — Brazil has experienced: the worsening of a political, fiscal, and economic collapse; a crisis of representativeness of the democratic system and its institutions; and the emergence of sinister forces supported by elites, conservative, and reactionary groups.

Some contextual factors must be taken into consideration when analyzing the deepening social-political conflicts we face today: the further aggravation of conflicts by the murder of city councilor and political activist Marielle Franco, the electoral climate of 2018 and the profound crisis in the political dimension — that is, in a system that breaks down in its democratic essence.

In other words, in addition to social disruption and the last economic crises contributing to the current chaotic scenario, the politics and the political regime add to Brazil’s critical situation. There is a political system that calls its policy a reform because it is colonialist, oligarchic, elitist, and corrupt. And the challenge is real: even the fields of information and knowledge are in dispute because these political actors organize their truths (in general fake news) in association with reactionary, medieval minds.

The intensification of economic activities, such as agribusiness, infrastructure and mining, in addition to the spread of associated illegal practices, are another challenge of the present time. The escalation in violence against and persecution of marginalized populations in the countryside and cities, reinforced by the historical genocide of black and indigenous people, are observed in parallel with the current criminalization of social movements, activists, and civil society.

Brazilian politics and society are also being challenged by the reformulation of Brazilian foreign policy, as well as education, science, and technology policy guidelines. These are part of the bureaucratic institutional reform efforts recently implemented.

Brazil President Jair Bolsonaro at a March 2020 press conference. (Photo by Isac Nóbrega/PR.)

In 2019, the newly-elected President of Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro, began a series of changes that disrupted the administrative and institutional body of the Brazilian state, initiating his political project to dismantle the bureaucratic functioning and organization of previous governments.

In the new structure proposed by President Bolsonaro, political and democratic institutions are divided between the three main groupings of his power base: the military, (neo)liberals, and dogmatic (reactionary/religious) groups. This new framework for public bodies also reflects certain Brazilian social groups — such as non-progressive sectors, political and institutional elites, and ideological radicals and reactionaries — and the historical inequality at the core of Brazilian society, mainly mobilizing the middle classes.

The bureaucratic reforms have profound impacts, due to the elimination of national councils, committees, secretariats, and ministry programs. The Ministry of Environment, for example, dismantled the Secretariat for Climate Change and Environment Quality, and several of its responsibilities were incorporated into the Ministry of Agriculture, the bureaucratic home of ruralists.

Today, even while Brazilian society has more than 1 million people infected by Covid-19, the inability of the Brazilian government to move beyond its electoral campaign and its intolerance of critiques has made the dream of a more democratic country more distant. This scenario, however, does reflect what the current government seems to represent: Brazil is trapped by the political, economic, cultural, environmental, and symbolic aspects of racism and anti-democracy.

On the environmental and climatic faces of racism, we can point out that the Brazilian government sets out guidelines that seem to have encouraged illegality, impacting the lives of several peoples. The flexibilization of policies for environmental protection and conservation is one of the government’s strategies that have been contributing to the escalating number and severity of violations.

According to a report presented in May 2020 by MapBiomas – an initiative of several scientific entities, companies, and civil society – 99% of 2019 deforestation in Brazil was illegal. More recently, in a meeting with Bolsonaro, the Minister of Environment Ricardo Salles defended the government’s taking advantage of the media’s attention on the Covid-19 pandemic to approve a “simplification” of environmental legislation that would benefit the agribusiness sector.

Fires in Rondônia, São Miguel do Guaporé county. Recent wildfires burn scars in reddish brown. On the bottom left is Guaporé Biological Reserve, to the right Rio Branco Indigenous Land. (Photo by Oton Barros, DSR/OBT/INPE.)

The government of Jair Bolsonaro has succeeded in deepening the threats to national biomes such as the Amazon and the Cerrado, as well as to several populations: Indigenous and forest peoples, quilombolas,2 peasants, and the inhabitants of favelas and urban peripheries. Increases in wildfires, deforestation, and conflicts between traditional communities and criminals (such as land grabbers) have become further examples of what we can no longer consider “normal.”

The fire that threatens the existence of Brazilian forests is a danger on many fronts: for the people who live there, experiencing constant tension and changes in habits; for the expansion of greenhouse gas emissions; and for the rise of climate impacts on a global scale, which are potentially more threatening to populations already vulnerable to structural racism, economic interventions, and a disregard of their knowledge and traditions.

Data from the National Institute for Space Research (Inpe) indicate that the rate of deforestation in the Amazon grew 171% compared to April 2019. In May 2020, the non-governmental organization SOS Mata Atlântica presented updated data from its atlas for the most devastated biome in the country; the numbers were not favorable. Between 2018 and 2019, deforestation in the Mata Atlântica Forest, which is already down to 12% of its native cover, grew by 27%. It is worth remembering that Minister Salles gave an amnesty to Mata Atlântica’s deforesters amid the pandemic at the end of April 2020.

The deforestation process occurring in Brazilian biomes during the current Covid-19 health crisis has been identified as a criminal campaign. Different community leaders have claimed it is a potential agent of the genocide against Indigenous, quilombola, and other vulnerable communities.

According to the Articulation of Indigenous Peoples of Brazil (Apib), 29,609 Indigenous people have already gotten the novel coronavirus, with 156 Indigenous ethnic groups affected and 779 deaths (as of August 3, 2020.)3 In data from the National Coordination of Articulation of Black Rural Quilombola Communities (Conaq), there were 4,504 registered cases of infection and 155 deaths in Brazilian quilombos by September 1, 2020.4

In times of environmental and climatic emergencies intersecting with a pandemic, vulnerabilities intensify, and it appears that political and economic forces have continued to reproduce their project of subordination and subjugation of natural resources, cultures, and peoples. Under the new atmosphere brought about by Covid-19, we are witnessing a chaotic state of political instability, increasing inequalities, institutional fragility, and human insecurity.

Water scarcity and severe droughts endanger the right to wash our hands and food. Intensified by emissions from deforestation, climate change has also increased severe rains and floods, leaving whole families homeless and often in spaces which lack basic sanitation, further exposing them to disease and other traumas. Furthermore, worsening air pollution makes normal breathing impossible, and almost a privilege these days.

A dry lake bed in Parana, Brazil in 2015. Climate change has intensified both rain events and drought in recent years. (Photo by Otávio Nogueira.)

In urban agglomerations, cities with neither sufficient infrastructure nor appropriate housing, environmental impacts cause displacement and forced migrations, which inevitably lead to human exposure to inhospitable contexts. The effects of climate change also intensify food insecurity, a state detrimental to healthy living and commensality, the better cooperative relations and interaction between individuals arising from eating together, as political scientist Tassia Carvalho explains.

Nonetheless, these impacts challenge us to prioritize both the creation of effective policies for social justice and the defense of collective health. Doing so could help to prevent more uncertainties in our social system and minimize vulnerabilities to conditions of a better life: safe domiciles and resilient infrastructures; labor, education, and ecosystem protections to guarantee communities the ability to survive and remain on their historical territories; energy distribution; water access; food sovereignty, and so on.

Among all this, community mobilization and collective action remain acts of survival and care. Initiatives have come from popular forces, such as the mobilization of the Brazilian Network of Environmental Justice in partnership with the National Campaign in Defense of the Cerrado, the National Committee for the Defense of Territories Against Mining, and the National Articulation of Agroecology. They have mobilized with local collective health committees in regions across the country, involving more than 80 leaders and actors to create and exchange actions throughout the territories.

These experiences move us to think of another way forward, not only through state institutions but also socially: the anti-racist and pro-democratic pact that Brazilian society needs to create to translate the reinvention of the country into responses and policies. The maintenance of social inequalities and the public permanence of authoritarianism and denialism are the two dimensions that anti-racism and democracy can face together to guarantee social rights and defend diversity and freedoms.

This perspective, resisting reactionary logic, operationalization, culture, and ideas, involves not only not being racist but also being actively anti-racist, as Angela Davis teaches us. The restructuring of the political system, for example, is a turning point and opportunity for reinvention. However, the project for silencing and excluding Black and Indigenous peoples, for creating policies that do not include the poorest, for not emancipating workers into a more dignified life, and for eradicating a country’s arts and cultures is continuous and systematic.

In Brazil, the forest struggles to stay alive, as do the most peripheral peoples in cities and communities. Lives have been interrupted and trivialized. But there are young people who want to stay alive and experience other horizons, not abysses. They deserve a real normality.

A participant in the Indigenous Women’s March in Brasilia, September 2019. (Photo by Katie Maehler.)


  1. Ruralists represent agribusiness actors and have a prominent political power derived from their economic position. Ruralists are an influential group in democratic institutions in Brazilian society, and their influence is found not only in local but also national politics.
  2. “The word quilombo comes from the African language Quimbunco, which means: society formed by young warriors who belonged to uprooted ethnic groups in their communities. Quilombo remnants are defined as ethnic-racial groups that also have their own historical trajectory, endowed with specific territorial relations, with a presumption of black ancestry related to the resistance to the suffered historical oppression, and their characterization must be given according to criteria of self- attribution attested by the communities themselves, as also adopted by the ILO Convention on Indigenous and Tribal Peoples.” (CONAQ, 2020, Available in:

Leonildes Nazar, a political scientist and internationalist, is currently a Ph.D. candidate in Political Science at the Institute of Social and Political Studies at the State University of Rio de Janeiro (IESP-UERJ). Her work is focused on: foreign policy actors and agendas; international cooperation; and climate change, environmental justice, and human rights, especially as related to race and gender issues. Leonildes has a degree in International Relations from the Universidade Federal Rural do Rio de Janeiro and a master’s degree in Political Science from IESP-UERJ. A member of the World Political Analysis Laboratory (Labmundo) and the research platform Latitude Sul, she is also a collaborator researcher at the Interdisciplinary Observatory on Climate Change, and a member of the Brazilian Association of Black Researchers (ABPN.)

Leonildes was a Visiting Scholar at CLAS in 2019–20.

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Guatemala’s Murderous Leap Backward Is Enabled by Trump

By Elizabeth Oglesby

On August 10, a French development worker was shot to death execution-style in rural Guatemala, one of the highest-profile murders in the Central American country in recent years.

The 60-year-old Benoit Pierre Amedee María, known as “Benito,” was an agronomist with Agronomists and Veterinarians Without Borders. He worked to alleviate poverty and support land rights in Guatemala’s Mayan highlands for more than two decades.

The murder is a warning to community activists and environmental defenders across the country. It also signals that Guatemala’s efforts to combat impunity are being unraveled by diehard forces of its bloody past.

What makes this moment so dangerous is that after years of bipartisan US support for Guatemala’s anti-impunity efforts, Trump officials and Republicans along with them have turned a blind eye as criminal networks systematically reverse human rights and rule of law gains made so laboriously after Guatemala’s 36-year civil war ended in 1996.

Guatemala's violent history: Paratroopers in a Catholic Church building, Nebaj, Guatemala, March 1983. (Photo courtesy of Beatriz Manz.)

Guatemala’s violent history: Paratroopers in a Catholic Church building, Nebaj, Ixil Region in the highlands of Guatemala, March 1983. (Photo courtesy of Beatriz Manz.) See more in the Berkeley Review of Latin American Studies: “GUATEMALA: Remembering the Past, Looking to the Future.”

Guatemala’s Memories of a Violent Past

In the Ixil-Mayan region of northern Guatemala, where villagers are still uncovering mass graves from the war, Benito María helped found the Ixil University to preserve local Indigenous knowledge.

He taught organic farming to students interested in sustainable alternatives to migration. He helped set up local farmers’ markets and supported Ixil communities in their struggle to regain lands stolen by the army.

For Ixil-Mayans and many others, Benito’s murder recalls past violence.

In the 1970s in this region, Guatemalan state forces assassinated or “disappeared” scores of local leaders, including a Spanish Catholic priest.

In the early 1980s, in a brutal counterinsurgency campaign, the Guatemalan army killed thousands of Ixils and leveled rural villages, in what a UN-backed truth commission and two Guatemalan courts later called genocide.

Portrait of Myrna Mack at the site of her murder on 12 Calle in Guatemala City, renamed Calle Myrna Mack. People gather to commemorate the anniversary of her death each September 11. (Photo by Fabricio Alonso.)

Portrait of Myrna Mack at the site of her murder on 12 Calle in Guatemala City, renamed Calle Myrna Mack. People gather to commemorate the anniversary of her death each September 11. (Photo by Fabricio Alonso.) Read about her sister, Helen Mack, and her ongoing fight for justice in Guatemala in the Berkeley Review: “HUMAN RIGHTS: Helen Mack and a New Generation.”

In 1990, Guatemalan anthropologist Myrna Mack was murdered after she published a study detailing army massacres and forced displacement in the Ixil region.

After the 1996 peace accords, Guatemala made key strides to reckon with war crimes and the so-called “hidden powers” — shadowy criminal networks of active and retired military officers who used their government connections to expand illicit activities, such as moving contraband and illegal drugs and skimming hundreds of millions of dollars from public coffers.

Special high-risk courts were created in Guatemala to prosecute corruption and grave human rights cases. Ixil-Mayans brought the former military head of state, General Efraín Ríos Montt, to trial for genocide in 2013.

UC Berkeley Professor Emerita and former Chair of the Center for Latin American Studies Beatriz Manz being sworn in before her testimony. (Photo by Mary Jo McConahay.)

UC Berkeley Professor Emerita and former Chair of the Center for Latin American Studies Beatriz Manz being sworn in before her testimony. (Photo by Mary Jo McConahay.) Read about her testimony and the trial in the Berkeley Review: “GUATEMALA: Bending the Arc of History.”

In 2015, Guatemala’s sitting president, former army general Otto Pérez Molina, was brought down on corruption charges by prosecutors in the country’s Public Ministry working in tandem with a UN-backed International Commission Against Impunity (CICIG).

Mayan communities across Guatemala began to press land claims, countering mining and oil interests, hydroelectric dams, and dispossession by large-scale sugar and African Palm plantations.

Just two weeks before Benito María’s murder, Ixils won a large settlement from Guatemala’s Constitutional Court mandating return of communal lands the military had expropriated in the early 1980s.

Guatemala and the US

Archconservative groups in Guatemala, including retired military officers and elites facing human rights or corruption charges, fought Guatemala’s peacetime reforms at every turn. But until recently they were held at bay, in part, by the United States.

The United States supported Guatemala’s far-right during the Cold War, yet after the peace accords US administrations — Democrat and Republican — backed Guatemala’s human rights progress, and the United States helped fund CICIG.

Shortly before Guatemalan President Pérez Molina was deposed and arrested in 2015, for example, he sought to end CICIG’s investigatory mandate. This prompted then-Vice President Joe Biden to travel to Central America to make clear that the US government supported CICIG’s work because it saw a connection between governability, crime, and migration. Republican leaders agreed.

Until Donald Trump, that is.

Iván Velásquez Gómez, who led CICIG from 2013 until its abolition in 2019, shown here in 2017. (Photo courtesy of US Embassy Guatemala.)

Iván Velásquez Gómez, who led CICIG from 2013 until its termination in 2019, shown here in 2017. (Photo courtesy of US Embassy Guatemala.) Velásquez Gómez spoke for CLAS in February 2020. Video and photos of his talk: “Desafiando la corrupción y la impunidad en Guatemala

In 2019, when outgoing Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales — who was under investigation by CICIG for illicit campaign financing — expelled CICIG’s investigators and ended the commission’s mandate, the Trump administration said nothing.

Morales surmised correctly that what Trump wants is Guatemala’s cooperation with draconian anti-immigrant measures.

In July 2019, Morales signed a ludicrously named “safe third country” agreement with the United States, enabling the Trump administration to send Central American asylum seekers from the US southern border to Guatemala.

Trump and Morales got their quid pro quo: in exchange for Guatemala’s cooperation on the migration deal, the mafias in Guatemala got rid of CICIG.

Organized Criminal Actors in Guatemala

Organized criminal actors in Guatemala have a three-step strategy to restore their influence over the state and reverse gains made since the peace accords.

The first step was to expel CICIG.

The second step was to undermine Guatemala’s Public Ministry and Attorney General Thelma Aldana, who since 2014 had led numerous high-profile human rights and anti-corruption cases. Aldana was forced to leave Guatemala in 2019 because of physical threats and trumped-up charges, and she was granted asylum in the United States. Her successor, María Consuelo Porras, has been much more pliant.

The third step is to establish mafia control over the courts. Organized criminal networks are using their many powers to influence the selection of magistrates by the Guatemalan Congress, in direct violation of an order by the Constitutional Court, Guatemala’s highest court.

Moreover, a group of congressional deputies is trying to rescind judicial immunity for members of the Constitutional Court, bringing spurious charges to remove them — and, thus, eliminating the last obstacle to mafia rule.

Public prosecutors, human rights officials, and activists also face a torrent of malicious lawsuits that civil society groups view as retaliation for their efforts to investigate and prosecute high-level human rights and corruption cases.

High Stakes

On July 22, a group of 23 former Guatemalan public officials — including many Cabinet-level figures — and civic leaders sent an urgent appeal to US Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA). They asked her to intervene with the US State Department and other US agencies to rebuild a strong bipartisan policy toward Guatemala and Central America focused on supporting judicial integrity and the rule of law.

The stakes are high. Benito María’s murder is disturbing and tragic not because he was a French citizen (although that is an alarming escalation of violence), and not only for the echoes of the past, but because his life’s work was accompanying impoverished rural Guatemalans toward a sustainable future as an alternative to migration.

His death isn’t the only one; since 2018, the murder of land defenders in Guatemala has surged.

The author, Elizabeth Oglesby (third from right), participated in a panel discussion on migration for CLAS in September 2019, along with The panel (from left): Rosemary Joyce, Paula Worby, Beatriz Manz, the author, Karen Musalo, and Denise Dresser. (Photo by Jim Block.)

The author, Elizabeth Oglesby (third from right), participated in a panel discussion on migration for CLAS in September 2019, along with (from left): Rosemary Joyce, Paula Worby, Beatriz Manz, the author, Karen Musalo, and Denise Dresser. (Photo by Jim Block.) Videos and photos from the panel: “Central American Migrations and the U.S. Border: A Moral and Political Issue of Our Time.”

Trump believes he solved the Central American migration dilemma by ending asylum on the US southern border. But until Central Americans can organize freely around alternative visions of the future without fear of violent reprisals, the exodus will continue.

Supporting the rule of law in Guatemala and Central America deserves a strong bipartisan commitment from the United States, not the cynicism, apathy, and silence that Trump has shown.

Originally published in The Globe Post, August 14, 2020. Reposted by permission of the author.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial positions of CLAS or the original publisher, The Globe Post.

Elizabeth Oglesby. (Photo from the University of Arizona.)

Elizabeth Oglesby is an Associate Professor in the School of Geography and Development and Latin American Studies at the University of Arizona, Tucson, specializing in globalization, labor issues, human rights, and Central America. She received her Ph.D. in Geography from UC Berkeley.

Professor Oglesby most recently spoke with CLAS as part of our panel on “Migration, the U.S. – Mexico Border, and Covid-19.” (video)

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Colombia in its Labyrinth

A maze in the Jardín Botánico del Quindío, in Calarcá, Quindío, Colombia. (Photo by Sergio D. Botero.)

A maze in the Jardín Botánico del Quindío, in Calarcá, Quindío, Colombia.
(Photo by Sergio D. Botero.)

By Daniel Payares-Montoya

Colombia was on the verge of collapse at the beginning of this century. Violence by Marxist and Maoist guerrillas, paramilitary groups, drug cartels, and renegade state forces was present in every corner of its territory. The country was also hit by the worst economic crisis in its history, and the political equilibrium was precarious.

Businessmen, politicians, military strategists. and normal citizens thought that the country was becoming a failed state, if it was not one already.

Over the next two decades, what happened was something just short of a miracle. Improvements in national security allowed for narco-paramilitary groups to be demobilized in 2006. Ten years later, the FARC Marxist guerrillas, the oldest insurgent group in the hemisphere, signed a peace agreement with the government. Narcotics traffickers and cartels were systematically weakened. Although violence persisted, the homicide rate in 2017 was the lowest recorded since 1975.


Violent forces like the Marxist Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC, left, in 2008) and the right-wing paramilitary Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (AUC, right, in 2006), were a constant threat in the early part of this century. (Photos from Wikimedia.)

The commodity boom between 2005 and 2014 fostered economic growth and attracted investment into the country. Thanks to that increased investment and the revenues generated by oil, the government was able to increase social spending, improve access to education and health services, and invest in infrastructure.

More importantly, programs to alleviate poverty were created and strengthened. In 2014, for the first time in Colombia’s history, the number of households categorized as middle-class surpassed those labeled as poor. Between 2002 and 2018, the portion of the population in poverty decreased by 23 percentage points, from 50% to 27%.

Those improvements were widely celebrated by Colombians and the broader international community. For a brief moment, it seemed possible that the country might finally achieve long-lasting peace and sustained prosperity.


Construction in Bogotá amidst the economic boom in 2015. (Photo by Peter Angritt.)

Recent years have shown that peace and prosperity are not so easily attained, however.

During the “miracle” period, political fragmentation and polarization began to reach critical levels. The country’s leadership was unable to unite Colombians around a national project, a common idea of a shared future, that could at least protect what had been already achieved.

Necessary actions were dismissed because of a lack of consensus and political will to push them forward. Those parties and political coalitions in power were almost exclusively concerned with keeping a patronage system in place and pork barrel spending, both structural deficiencies of the Colombian democracy. Special interests fiercely resisted any attempt at reform, instead pouring money into political campaigns and the pockets of elected officials to assure favorable results. The reform of the justice system, the implementation of progressive tax reform, a more decisive fight against corruption, the diversification and sophistication of the economy, expanding formal employment, increasing the quality of education and health services, and the reduction of development gaps between regions were some of the actions that were abandoned.1

After those projects were put aside, security and socioeconomic improvements began to stall in 2018 and 2019.

Criminal gangs evolved and became powerful actors in some regions, financing their private armies through extortion, illegal mining, land grabs, modern slavery, and drug trafficking. Former paramilitary leaders regrouped after serving their time in jail, and the implementation of the peace agreement with FARC was systematically hindered by the current government.

On the socioeconomic front, the end of the commodity boom and uncertainty in the global economy reduced investment, creating fiscal pressures and curtailing the government’s capacity to continue expanding social spending and investment. Economic growth diminished, and unemployment surpassed 10%. High levels of inequality, informality, and self-employment made almost 4 out of 10 households vulnerable to economic shocks.

It was under these already grim circumstances that the Covid-19 pandemic hit, compounding the multifaceted challenges Colombia already faced.

Since March, at least 28 human rights defenders and social leaders who have denounced the atrocities of illegal armed groups and the military have been assassinated. More than 150 such defenders and leaders have been killed this year. Criminal gangs are the de facto authority in many municipalities and neighborhoods; in some cases, they even enforce the curfews and shelter in place measures mandated by the government.

Banner of killed social leaders in Colombia

A banner bearing the names of social leaders killed in Colombia in recent years hangs from a library and crosses the campus of Universidad del Valle in Cali, Colombia. (Photo by tefita228.)

In 2020, Colombia could have its worst economic performance in the last 100 years. One study predicts that poverty could also increase by 15 percentage points, creating 7.3 million more poor people than in 2019. By the end of June, the unemployment rate reached 20.1%, the highest among OECD countries.

Paradoxically, the current crisis and a future recovery may present an opportunity for the government and the political class to progress towards a national pact for the future of Colombia.  But if political factions continue to place their interests above those of Colombians and engage in petty in-fighting, the chance for the country to consolidate liberal democracy and create sustainable development for this and future generations will be squandered.

Countries like South Korea and Israel faced similar challenges not long ago. Their societies were able to come together to overcome complex historical, political, social, and economic challenges, actively reshaping their futures. Today, even if they are far from perfect, both nations are regarded as international examples of how to produce structural transformations and improve the well-being of their citizens.

If Colombia does not want to return to the worst years of the previous century, the country needs to be united around a common goal: creating the opportunity for every Colombian to achieve well-being. To make that happen, political leadership must guide the society into a new national program to consolidate and expand the progress made in the last 20 years. Even if they are fiercely resisted by special interests, the reforms mentioned above must be implemented to advance toward that goal. The social movement that began to consolidate from the end of 2019 until the beginning of the pandemic, resembling in some ways what was happening in Chile, could be an important ally in those efforts. Dismissing that movement could prove a fatal error and might bring the country a populist leader eager to capitalize on the existing discontent among important parts of the population. And a populist government is the last thing Colombia needs right now.

The questions that remain to be answered are: is there someone willing to take the lead in trying to unite the country? And if they do come forward, will it be too late?

Daniel Payares-Montoya.Daniel Payares-Montoya, from Medellín, Colombia, works as a Research Assistant at UC Berkeley’s Center for Latin American Studies on issues related to public policy and international development in Latin America. He has a master’s degree in public policy from Universidad de Chile and a master’s degree in development practice from UC Berkeley.


(1) Every year, Colombia’s Consejo Privado de Competitividad (Private Council on Competitiveness) publishes a national report presenting policy proposals to address the country’s bottlenecks in different areas.


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Epidemics and Containment: Cuba and the HIV/AIDS epidemic

By Nancy Scheper-Hughes

The principle upon which the fight against disease should be based is the creation of a robust body; but not the creation of a robust body by the artistic work of a doctor upon a weak organism; rather, the creation of a robust body with the work of the whole collectivity, upon the entire social collectivity [my emphasis].
(Che Guevara. On revolutionary medicine, 1960.)

One of my earliest memories was being pulled into a New York public health documentary on urban poverty, complete with scenes of open rubbish bins, scrawny looking cats, East River rats the size of armadillos, rabid dogs, and equal sickness for all. It was filmed on South Third Street in Williamsburg, Brooklyn when the neighbourhood was still a post-WW2 immigrant slum. As proud children of tough immigrants, we laughed at the visiting public health nurses, singing our anthem “Marguerite, go wash your feet, the Board of Health is across the street,” as they barged into our homes to check our heads for nits and our bodies for malnutrition, or worse. We chased the nurses away as we showed off our strength, picking up dirt from the pavement and putting it in our mouths. Our mothers had told us that it would take a peck of dirt to make any of us die.

Since then, however, I have been in the field as a medical anthropologist during several epidemics, from schistosomiasis, malaria, cholera, Chagas, bubonic plague, tuberculosis, HIV/AIDS, to Zika and Chikungunya. The latter two arrived in Brazil in February 2015, just in time for a collapse of Brazil’s national health-care system, the Sistema Unico de Saude.

In 1990, I began to study the HIV/AIDS epidemics in the U.S., Brazil and Cuba, each led by different public policies (Scheper-Hughes 1994). In 1981, at roughly the same time that AIDS first appeared in San Francisco and New York City, Cuba faced its own crisis, when its military forces returned from Angola and Mozambique with a sickness that even the best tropical medicine scholars could not identify. In 1983, Fidel Castro made a visit to Cuba’s Institute of Tropical Medicine ‘Pedro Kourí’ (IPK) accompanied by the president of Kenya. Fidel surprised the scientists who were then working on infant mortality when he asked the director of the institute what he and his colleagues were doing to stop an unknown, new syndrome from taking hold in the nation. Professor Gustavo Kourí Flores, virologist and director of the institute, did not pay much attention to Fidel, but one of the doctors at the IPK, Jorge Pérez Ávila, listened carefully to what President Castro had to say. He took it to heart.

Jorge told me: “Fidel said that nobody in the world knew much about this new virus. At that time, there were only a small number of cases in Africa and the U.S. I had just returned from Africa where I treated a Cuban international worker who was ill with an unknown virus.” After Fidel’s speech at the institute, the director boldly told Fidel that the new virus was too small a problem for the IPK. Fidel looked at him and pulled at his beard before he replied bluntly: “You are wrong. AIDS is going to be the disease of the century, with many populations ravaged. It’s your responsibility to see that this does not happen in Cuba.” Although no one yet had an inkling of how the new virus was transmitted, Dr. Pérez said he was ready to put aside his research on malaria to explore the new epidemic threat. He was later assigned to serve as medical director of the first Cuban AIDS sanatorium.

Dr. Jorge Pérez. (Photo courtesy of Nancy-Scheper Hughes.)

Dr. Jorge Pérez Ávila. (Photo by Sheri Fink.)

The first Cuban response to this new epidemic was a ban on imported blood derivatives in countries where blood banks were commercially owned (‘capitalist blood’). Next, the government tested for HIV antibodies beginning with all Cubans who had been out of the country since 1981. Then, as Cuba had done in earlier epidemics, the Ministry of Public Health (MINSAP) organized mass testing of young and older age adults and social groups who were sexually active or especially vulnerable. Both Dr. Jorge Pérez and the Vice Minister of Epidemiology for Public Health, Dr. Héctor Terry Molinet, worked together to make sure that tracing the sexual partners of infected individuals followed the testing. My interviews with Dr. Héctor Terry in 1990 were edgy. He asked why HIV tests were not obligatory in the epicentres of the US HIV/AIDS epidemic, especially New York City, Miami and San Francisco. Based on my interviews with public health officials I replied that American citizens would never accept it.

Comfortable residences at 'Los Cocos.' (Photo by Nancy Scheper-Hughes.)

Most housing at ‘Los Cocos’ was in duplex apartments with gardens. (Photo by Nancy Scheper-Hughes.)

Cuba opened its first HIV/AIDS sanatorium in 1986, in a rural suburb of Havana officially named Santiago de Las Vegas, but locally referred to as ‘Los Cocos’. It was built on the large but abandoned estate of a colonial finca (farm). At that time, the infection was seen as a military medical issue, and Castro put the medical project in the hands of the Cuban military. The AIDS ‘sanatorium’ was thus run according to military structures, which led to savage critiques from AIDS activists in San Francisco and Miami, who described it as a military prison for gays in Cuba. Indeed, from the old photos, it did look like a military barracks. However, it was more inviting when the old colonial villa was refurbished and opened to house the HIV/AIDS military heroes who had returned from Africa. Gradually, new buildings were built, and a wall surrounded the military AIDS estate. In the beginning, most of the staff were military doctors, until 1986, when a new group of people with the same infection, who had never been in the military or lived in Africa, began to show symptoms of HIV. Most of these second-generation HIV+ patients were gay or bisexual. 

Juan Carlos, a doctor and a patient in his home at the AIDS Sanatorium. (Photo by Nancy Scheper-Hughes.)

Dr. Juan Carlos, a patient and medical doctor at the sanatorium. (Photo by Nancy Scheper-Hughes.)

While there was no cure, the government put their energy into containing the AIDS virus. All those whose tests proved positive were sent to the sanatorium, where they were asked to identify the names – promised to be confidential – of those with whom they had sexual relations. The names were tracked and brought to Los Cocos for testing. The ‘positives’ would have to reside at the sanatorium until a cure or a vaccine could be developed. Dr. Jorge insisted that the sanatorium was not based on quarantine — an absurd idea, as the virus was spread by contact with infected blood and by sexual relations. I visited the sanatorium in 1990, 1991, 1994, and 2000, where I was free to walk anywhere and to talk with anyone. I took notes, visited the apartments and homes of the residents, and observed their daily routines and their relations with each other and with the doctors and nurses. Los Cocos was neither a hospital nor a prison. Nor was it anything like we might call a sanatorium — a closed and isolated place where sick people suffering from tuberculosis or other respiratory and highly contagious diseases are kept in medical quarantine.

A staff member, Dr. Jorge Pérez, and a patient at Cuba's AIDS sanatorium in 1991. (Photo by Nancy Scheper-Hughes.)

A staff member, Dr. Jorge Pérez, and a patient at Cuba’s AIDS sanatorium in 1991. (Photo by Nancy Scheper-Hughes.)

The sanatorium at Los Cocos was a blend of scientific data gathering of epidemiological statistics, AIDS research, and intensive medical and psychological care and treatment for all the patients. It was the best of Cuban social and socialist medicine. I may chase my readers away by arguing that the Cuban AIDS project was democratic insofar as its goal was to diagnose, treat, and to support all those who had a positive test. Dr. Pérez wanted to know all the patients as individuals, and he spent most of his days walking and talking with the clients and asking them what changes were needed to enrich their lives. There were some problems between the two different classes of people: the Cuban soldiers who had worked in Africa, and the men (and some women) who had never gone abroad but had sexual relations with men who were carriers of the virus. The so-called sanatorium was then somewhat divided between the military and civilian patients. However, all were treated the same, and all were given the only drug then at hand, AZT (100-300 mg per day), with marginal results.

Over time, the patients began to trust Dr. Pérez and together they made new accommodations to fit people’s basic needs: more freedom, paid work, music, sports, and the right to safe sex. After the first three months of open-ended educational seminars, the patients were grilled about their knowledge of the sexual transmission of the virus and the risks of transferring it to healthy partners. A committee, which included patients, made the decision as to when a patient would be deemed ‘guaranteed’ — that is, trustworthy regarding HIV/AIDS transmission and the dangers of drugs and alcohol. Trusted patients were allowed to return to their families or friends on weekends and to take days off to do errands outside the complex. Some of the patients I met held jobs in the sanatorium, while others taught sex education classes at local schools. Some returned to the day jobs they once had.

A volleyball match at the sanatorium. (Photo courtesy of Nancy Scheper-Hughes.)

Volleyball was the favourite sport at the sanatorium. Cuba’s national volleyball team dominated the sport in the last decade of the 20th century. (Photo by Nancy Scheper-Hughes.)

Many contradictions played out in the so-called sanatorium. I met with the official epidemiologist at Los Cocos, who kept all the records and statistics bearing on the growth of the epidemic. He was delighted to learn that I knew University of California, Berkeley professor, Peter Duesberg, who was an infamous AIDS heretic. Duesberg did not believe that all the deaths were the result of a virus alone. Other factors, he said, such as recreational and pharmaceutical drug use, made people sick. The epidemiologist was a fan of Duesberg. Hearing this, one of the patients replied: ‘If you really think that AIDS is caused by multiple factors, then why am I here at all? If you are correct, I will kill you’, he said.

The bottom line, however, is that the containment of sexually active HIV/AIDS patients stopped an epidemic which neighbouring Caribbean countries, such as Haiti, could not (Farmer 1999). The numbers of cases and of deaths in the sanatorium were far fewer per capita than AIDS deaths in New York City and San Francisco. Global AIDS experts and the World Health Organization (WHO) praised the Cuban response to the epidemic. The New York Times described Dr. Pérez as ‘Cuba’s Anthony Fauci’ who was then the leading figure responding to the AIDS epidemic in the US. However, the US outcomes were dire as AIDS was politicized in the US as a human rights issue rather than as a catastrophic epidemic. Mandatory testing of partners of AIDS patients and of adult men living in areas with high rates of HIV was not seen as feasible. At the end of 2008, an estimated 1,178,350 persons in the United States were living with HIV infection, while in Cuba there were only 10,454 who were AIDS positive. In 1993, New York, which had roughly the same population as Cuba, had 43,000 cases of AIDS, while Cuba had only 900 validated by the WHO.

Residents of the sanatorium. (Photo by Nancy Scheper-Hughes.)

Patients in the hospital inside the sanatorium. (Photo by Nancy Scheper-Hughes.)

The sanatorium complex made sense within Cuban structures of social medicine and values of solidarity. Cuba was the only country that stopped the virulent spread of the epidemic before the discovery of retroviral drugs. As soon as these ‘miracle’ drugs became available in Cuba, the sanatorium became an ‘open door’ and voluntary community in 1994. Many patients chose to continue living there, and in some cases, to bring their partners and children to live with them. One story not yet told is how the patients at Los Cocos, over time, created the first official, open, gay community, which was recognized by the staff led by Dr. Jorge Pérez and his assistants. As the sanatorium changed, so did Dr. Pérez, who once told me that he had changed from a typical macho man to a softer person, one who now supports what he calls ‘love without boundaries’.

In 1993, I travelled to Cuba with CBS’s 60 minutes, for a segment on the AIDS sanatorium at Los Cocos. Dr. Pérez agreed to their visit as long as they would be open to a quite different point of view. The segment was played on US CBS Television on 3 October 1993. It was the first US media TV report that was critical but respectful and truthful about the positive results of the Cuban containment of HIV/AIDS. The brief documentary received an Emmy Award. Following my field trips to the sanatorium, I invited Dr. Jorge and two of his patients to give a public lecture at the University of California, Berkeley, to explain the logic of the Cuban AIDS project. During that time, California Americans saw the idea of an AIDS sanatorium as a human rights violation.

Residents on the grounds. (Photo courtesy of Nancy Scheper-Hughes.)

Residents on the grounds. (Photo courtesy of Nancy Scheper-Hughes.)

To bring Dr. Jorge Pérez and two of his patients to speak at the University of California, I needed an official letter from our chancellor to obtain visas for visitors from an ‘enemy’ country. Chancellor Chang-Lin Tien was enthusiastic about the invitation. I warned Tien that the university regents might be critical. The chancellor shrugged his shoulders and said: ‘Do you think we could bring Fidel Castro here as well?’ He really meant it.

When Chang-Lin Tien was an undergraduate at Princeton University in 1959, Fidel Castro made a visit to the university and to New York City. Tien was impressed with Castro and said that in his opinion, the US made a bad mistake in refusing to support Fidel at that time. So, with the support of our chancellor, Dr. Jorge Pérez and two of his patients arrived at our university. One of the Cuban patients had been infected while working as a Cuban doctor in Angola; the second was a civilian who contracted the virus in Havana and who worked inside the sanatorium as an IT manager.

The "AIDs Venus" on the grounds of Los Cocos. (Photo by Nancy Scheper-Hughes.)

The “AIDs Venus” on the grounds of Los Cocos. (Photo by Nancy Scheper-Hughes.)

As the Cuban doctors and researchers learned more about the virus, and after the arrival of antiviral drugs, the sanatorium at Los Cocos became voluntary. What an ‘open door’ sanatorium means is difficult to translate. After my third visit to the Cuban ‘complex’, I told Dr. Pérez that should I ever become seriously ill, I would ask permission to come to the sanatorium. To me, it was one of those practical utopian communities that can emerge from what Goffman called a ‘total institution’. Perhaps only a woman who once hoped to be a Carmelite nun and later to be a revolutionary Marxist health agent in Brazil during the dictatorship would feel this way. I suppose I was a bit of each.

The worst mistake about the AIDS epidemic in the U.S. was the decision to make HIV testing optional and voluntary, both for those who were ill and those who had lost a sexual partner to the virus. U.S. epidemiologists, public health leaders, and bioethicists argued that mandatory mass AIDS testing would result in AIDS-positive individuals going underground. But without the mandatory tests, America was flying blind into and throughout the AIDS epidemic, one that cost the deaths of thousands of people. Cuba managed to head off a potential disaster, especially given the 25,000 Cuban troops returning from Angola, many of whom arrived home with HIV and full-blown AIDS. The Cuban sanatorium at Los Cocos was an authoritarian institution which fermented anger and criticism in the United States, but praise in countries in Europe, Latin America, Asia, and Africa that were struggling with the epidemic.

From left: Dr. Jorge Pérez, Dr. Robert Herricks, and Nancy Scheper-Hughes at the sanatorium in 1990. (Photo courtesy of Nancy Scheper-Hughes.)

From left: Dr. Jorge Pérez, Dr. Robert Herricks, and Nancy Scheper-Hughes at the sanatorium in 1990. (Photo courtesy of Nancy Scheper-Hughes.)

When the sanatorium became a voluntary community in 1994, many patients chose to remain living in the community in which they had been well treated and where they had created friendships and solidarity. This reminds me of how the radical Italian psychiatrist, Franco Basaglia, deinstitutionalized mental health patients by first turning the traditional ‘mad house’ (manicomio) into an experiment in democratic psychiatry that resulted in Psychiatry inside out and a ‘revolution within the revolution’ (Scheper-Hughes & Lovell 1987).

It is no surprise that hundreds of Cuban doctors have been sent around the world to assist nations grappling with the Covid-19 pandemic. They have flown to at least 14 countries, where they have worked side by side with traumatized doctors like those in Bergamo, Italy, who had to make decisions that no doctor would want to make: deciding who would be most likely to live and those who had to be left to die. The Trump administration has ridiculed the Cuban doctors as medical diplomats for Cuba, while Cuba is also battling its Covid-19 epidemic.

Meanwhile, the U.S. president cannot recall from day to day whether Covid-19 is over or not, or who is next to be blamed for the miserable failings of his administration. As of this writing, the Covid-19 epidemic has taken 81,779 American lives. We first learned that the victims were elderly. Then we learned that most of the dead came from poor communities. Lastly, we learned that a disproportionate number of the deaths happened to be black.

Originally printed in Anthropology Today on June 4, 2020. Used by permission. Nancy Scheper-Hughes. (Photo by Mike Hughes.)

Nancy Scheper-Hughes is an activist and engaged anthropologist who has worked around the world, including Brazil. She is a professor emerita of Medical Anthropology at UC Berkeley.

REFERENCESFarmer, P. 1999. Infections and inequalities: The modern plagues. University of California Press: Berkeley.
Scheper-Hughes, N. 1994. AIDS and the social body. Social Science & Medicine 39(7): 991-1003.
— & A.M. Lovell 1987. Psychiatry inside out: Selected writings of Franco Basaglia. New York: Columbia University Press.

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Covid-19, Farmworkers and Research

By Johanna K. Schenner

Strawberry plants in Ventura County. (Photo by Amadeo Sumano.)

Strawberry plants in Ventura County. (Photo by Amadeo Sumano.)

The Covid-19 pandemic has demonstrated who the “essential workers” are that keep societies from collapsing. These include nurses, doctors, janitors, food processors, and farmworkers, among others. Another issue to which the pandemic has drawn increased attention is the high level of inequality that pervades employment in the United States.

My research focuses on how the health and safety concerns of farmworkers in the California strawberry industry are being addressed, including in relation to Covid-19. Many farmworkers are foreign-born, and either lack valid documents or are required to work under the particular rules set out by agricultural guest worker programs, making them ineligible for unemployment benefits, adequate (and paid) sick leave, and stimulus payments. This topic has become even more salient as farmworkers are labeled “essential workers.”

It is true that farmworkers’ employment conditions do not necessarily make them vulnerable to contracting Covid-19. They work outside, and implementing social distancing may be more easily accomplished than in other workplaces, although the successful implementation of these guidelines does depend on the crop. For instance, crews can be reduced in size and split across the field in the strawberry industry, while harvesting celery or lettuce comes with challenges, because workers for those crops follow the rhythm of a packing machine. At the same time, issues remain about accessing restrooms during breaktimes; the number of restrooms is limited in the fields, as is the amount of time allowed for breaks. Thus, farmworkers may risk exposing themselves to the virus from a co-worker.

Field workers during a break. (Photo by Amadeo Sumano.)

Field workers during a break. (Photo by Amadeo Sumano.)

However, the risk of contracting the virus is high when one looks beyond the field to consider other work-related factors that impact employees’ lives: transportation to and from work, as well as living situations. In order to arrive at work, farmworkers often share rides in cars or buses. Maintaining six feet of separation in such settings is difficult, although it can be done if enough vehicles are available, or if employers arrange for multiple trips to pick up workers in smaller numbers. A survey by the California Institute for Rural Studies has shown that farmworkers tend to live in overcrowded spaces. Both the lack of choice in mode of transportation and overcrowded housing are directly linked to their employment, as farmworkers are not necessarily able to make different choices due to their comparatively low wages.

While the Quarterly Census of Employment and Wages claimed in 2016 that farmworkers could earn up to US$30,300 per year, Martin and Costa have demonstrated that, realistically, the average farmworker’s annual wage is just below US$20,000. Considering that California is experiencing an affordable housing crisis, it goes without saying that farmworkers are unlikely to make ends meet by themselves, and therefore many of necessity have to share rides [1] and live in overcrowded residences.

Kicking off work in the morning. (Photo by Amadeo Sumano.)

Kicking off work in the morning. (Photo by Amadeo Sumano.)

These observations take place against the backdrop of California’s acute agricultural labor shortage. The labor shortage in this sector is not new, as shown by the ten-fold expansion in the use of the H-2A agricultural guest worker program. With a lack of workers to fill open positions, one would assume that the employment conditions in any industry would improve, because workers have a greater pool of employment opportunities than normal from which to choose, and therefore greater leverage/power in deciding which jobs to accept and under what conditions.

Unfortunately, this is not the situation for farmworkers. Employment may be comparatively “better” in California and on the West Coast of the United States in terms of pay — US$12-13/hour, depending on the size of the company — at least in comparison with the South, where wages do not necessarily exceed the federal minimum wage of US$7.25/hour. But even with such “good” wages, and in spite of the growing awareness of their essential role, farmworkers are at higher risk of poverty than other groups of laborers due to the high cost of living. Without farmworkers, there would be very little produce available on supermarket shelves, in farmers markets, and for food banks, as automation has not yet replaced manual labor in agriculture.

Covid-19 has plunged the world into the worst economic, political, and social crisis of the 21st century. However, moments of crisis are also opportunities to think about the bigger picture, and how to address issues that have persisted for too long, such as homelessness, lack of health care, and the plight of the working poor.

The author working in the field among workers in the fields. (Photo courtesy of Johanna K. Schenner.)

The author on the road. (Photo courtesy of Johanna K. Schenner.)

So where does the pandemic leave my research on employment conditions in the California strawberry industry? As a qualitative researcher who mostly conducts face-to-face interviews, I am currently “stranded,” as this method of data collection has been suspended by the Office for the Protection of Human Subjects (although interviews can be conducted over the phone and through teleconference services). It remains unclear when this suspension of fieldwork will be lifted. Though I may eventually be able to get into the field again, new precautions will have to be implemented, which will in turn change my mode of fieldwork: no more conducting interviews inside laundromats, but perhaps in parking lots and at a distance of six feet. Even with these changes, I am looking forward to getting out into the field as soon as possible and catching up in person with people to learn how they are coping with the pandemic.

[1] Sharing rides is not a ‘bad’ option per se, implying as it does less traffic congestion, CO2 emissions, and providing workers without cars the opportunity to labor in the fields. Indeed, some workers may actively choose to share rides for a variety of reasons. However, other workers have no other option if they want to get to and from work. In any event, sharing a car during the crisis — particularly if several workers are in the same vehicle — means they may be at a greater risk of exposure to Covid-19.



Johanna K. Schenner is a visiting researcher at the Institute for Research on Labor and Employment (IRLE) at UC Berkeley. Her research focuses on how multistakeholder initiatives attempt to alter employment conditions.

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Brazilian Youth Mobilize in the Streets and through the Digital, during Coronavirus and Beyond

By Alice Taylor

Brazil is now a coronavirus epicenter; it recently became the country with the second highest number of cases in the world, after the United States. At the time of writing, the number of confirmed cases surpassed 411,000 with over 25,000 deaths. Like Donald Trump, Brazil’s far-right President Bolsonaro’s pandemic-denying response has endangered citizens and led to the firing and resignation of two consecutive health ministers. The Lancet referred to Bolsonaro as perhaps the country’s biggest threat.

The first reported coronavirus death in Rio de Janeiro state was of a Black woman and domestic worker, an early and emblematic warning of the classed and racialized dimensions that the pandemic would take. In urban favelas of Rio de Janeiro and other cities, volunteers have been met with recent, though hardly new, police raids. Recent invasions have killed dozens of residents, including João Pedro, a 14-year-old boy. Coronavirus has not brought an end to violence against poor and Black Brazilians; it has compounded it.

When faced with injustices committed by the state, taking to the streets is among the most powerful tools citizens have. Yet the pandemic raises the question: what can be done when going to the street comes to a halt?

Building upon a long history of mobilizing, Brazilian social movements have confronted Bolsonaro’s anti-poor, violent, racist, and misogynistic rhetoric and policies at every turn. But with social and economic conditions worsening as the pandemic progresses, a range of social movements, urban favela organizers, and other citizens have stepped up even further. They not only speak out against Bolsonaro, but distribute food and supplies (which his administration does not provide), disseminate accurate information, and raise funds for their own communities. Youth movements, typically led by those aged 18 to 24, join forces to provide this kind of frontline aid in communities. But they have also held fast to a vital, long-term struggle: the fight for equitable access to public education.

Through ethnographic research in Brazil, my dissertation examines these youth movements and the practices and politics of their navigating classroom, street, and social media spaces to defend public education alongside struggles against capitalism, racism, and gender inequity. And since the start of the pandemic, I have observed how youth collectives have swiftly amplified their digital strategies.

A flag from the popular education movement Emancipa states, “Education is our weapon!” It depicts the face of Marielle Franco, a city councilwoman and former popular educator in Rio de Janeiro assassinated in 2018. (Photo by Alice Taylor.)

A flag from the popular education movement Emancipa states, “Education is our weapon!” It depicts the face of Marielle Franco, a city councilwoman and former popular educator in Rio de Janeiro assassinated in 2018. (Photo by Alice Taylor.)

The so-called Tsunami da Educação (Education Tsunami) protests of May 2019 and May 2020 are a case in point. Not long after entering office in January 2019, Bolsonaro attacked public education, severely cutting scholarships and budgets. On May 15, 2019 — and in several more protests in the following weeks and months — tens of thousands of youth and student activists took to the streets in every Brazilian state and the capital, Brasilia, chanting and raising banners to insist, “education is not a commodity” and “our weapon is education!” Inspired by popular education approaches, young activists and politicians in Rio de Janeiro spoke in public classes before marching down central streets.


“Classes will be in the street!” Protests from May 30 and June 14, 2019: during the pandemic youth activists are providing dozens of popular education classes and engaging in other forms of activism online. (Image left from estudantesninja social media, photo right by Alice Taylor.)

Digital poster from RUA Anti-capitalist Youth Movement, calling to postpone the ENEM and “No ENEM without us.”

Digital poster from RUA Anti-capitalist Youth Movement, calling to postpone the ENEM and “No ENEM without us.”

Fast forward to May 2020: As coronavirus swept their nation, youth looked back to the mobilizations on May 15, 2019 (there were subsequent education protests last year on May 30 and in the months that followed.) This time, the task at hand was to postpone the ENEM, Brazil’s primary university entrance exam. For 50 days, youth and student activists posted messages through campaign videos and organized a signature campaign which gathered over 350,000 supporters. A central site rallied over 4,000 campaigns and schools across the country to protest “no classes, no ENEM,” and provided statistics on how administering the exam as scheduled would more deeply divide the already unequal access to universities and education: 80% of state high schools have not held classes, and 42% of Brazilian youth lack computer access (with numbers up to 70% in the poorest communities.) By late May, the Senate voted to delay the exam.

Youth movements were digitally savvy long before the coronavirus, but the ways in which they are transforming activism is shifting the very nature and meanings of collective organizing in surprising ways. Since the first days of the pandemic, they have organized dozens of popular education courses, debates, events, and workshops that include scholars, activists, and politicians. Their approaches to addressing multiple grievances offer important lessons for other quarantined activists seeking social change across the world.

The puzzle of how to mobilize from a distance against the injustices that coronavirus exposes is one that Brazilian youth activists face together with organizers across the world. Some reporters have described protests as quieted, on hold, or “forcing activists to innovate.” Latin Americans in several countries revived traditions of pot-banging from their windows (panelaços or cacerolazos). Activists in Poland and Israel held socially distant protests. In Hong Kong, activists inserted pro-democracy messages in video games. In the U.S., health and other essential workers held strikes. Anti-government protests that began in Chile in October continued as activists projected images of protests onto buildings. Similarly, in Brazil empty night streets glowed with projections of Bolsonaro’s pandemic-denying rhetoric on tall buildings.

From the distribution of aid and fight to end police violence to providing and insisting upon access to education, from social media to new digital platforms, Brazilian youth activists have hardly remained quiet. The pandemic has heightened the need to defend lives already at risk. The ingenuity of youth activists is impressive, but the full burden cannot be left once again in the hands of the poor, youth, and unemployed who are often at the forefront of Brazil’s popular movements. As youth re-imagine a more equal society, they emphasize organize collectively; this organizing is shifting the very nature of activism, education, and everyday life in both transnational and local spaces.

NOTE: This blog post was written prior to the series of street protests that began in late May in nearly 150 cities across the U.S. after the police murder of George Floyd and others, and against ongoing racialized violence. Protesters now must weigh pandemic risks with outrage at police violence. Even as protesters return to the streets, digital activism continues to shift and be shaped by these events and the pandemic. In Brazil, young activists are protesting in solidarity and making parallels with the multiple killings in both countries. They simultaneously insist #vidasnegrasimportam in Portuguese, and #blacklivesmatter. Latin America matters for Black Lives Matter.


Alice Taylor
is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Graduate School of Education. Her work examines education, social movements, and critical studies of race, class and gender. She is affiliated with the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro’s Núcleo de Estudos de Trabalho. She lived and worked in Brazil from 2010-2016, and received the CLAS Summer Field Research Grant (2017, 2018).

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