Reflections on the Collectivity of Violence in Honduras

By Franklin Moreno

Military police trucks returning from patrols in Chamelecón. (Photo by Franklin Moreno.)

I returned not too long ago from Honduras after the catrachos went to the polling stations for the national elections on November 26 and the firestorm of allegations of fraud and voting irregularities made by the political opposition and by the Organization of American States. While I was away in Nicaragua, my family, friends, and colleagues in Tegucigalpa –the political capital– and in San Pedro Sula – the industrial capital – were keeping me informed of the protests and violence. I heard of the unrest resulting in street and highway roadblocks, the inability to go to work, missed salary, bank closures and an overarching sense of frustration and political uncertainty. After consulting them, I decided to return to San Pedro Sula from Managua by plane and to stay in the sector of Chamelecón with friends and their family to continue my research given the political instability unfolding in the country. My plane landed as nation-wide curfews were being announced.

The current social and political conflict and uncertainty put in sharp relief the collective nature of mara-related violence that I have focused on in my developmental psychology research in Honduras these past two years. By collectivity I do not refer to groups of people cooperating in unified efforts towards a singular goal or outcome. Rather, I am evoking what Geoffrey Saxe refers to as collective practices that are the joint activities among multiple participants with shared and divergent goals, interpretations and evaluations, which influence the sustainment and changes of representations and practices across time (Saxe, 2012; Saxe & Esmonde, 2005). Although Saxe’s research has focused on the development of mathematical concepts in Papua New Guinea and elsewhere, his framework offers ways of conceptualizing the social complexity and contradictory nature of maras and their perceived and actual violence in which children and adolescents live.

A home in the affluent neighborhood of Juan Lindo. (Photo by Franklin Moreno.)

On the one hand, in times of major social-political unrest, concerns for homicides, gang borders, and extortions remained consistent, as did certain aspects of violence prevention efforts. On the other, certain violent and non-violent features became more pronounced while others were co-opted, leading to shifting perceptions and sense of security. Notably, the flux of the psychological and actual parameters of the mara-violence is due to its relation to actions by the federal government, community members, police agencies, news media, political protestors, violent looters, and foreign governments.

I went to stay in the sector of Chamelecón so as to complete the research with children and adolescents given the stronghold of the mara borders. Although residents live with a sense of insecurity in their neighborhood due to the maras, under the conditions of political unrest, I learned of the limited sense of security they did feel from outside protestors entering their sector because of the gang-enforced borders. Friends living in various parts of the sector mentioned relative tranquility during the major protests and looting, even as a tollbooth at the entrance of the sector was burned and looted. However, as I continued my interviews in the days that followed, I spoke with children and adolescents whose families pay monthly extortions and whose personal movements remain constrained by the same gang-borders.

A house and baleada (typical food) home-business with Christmas decorations in Chamelecón. (Photo by Franklin Moreno.)

As social and political pressure against the incumbent president and electoral body increased regarding allegations of election fraud and irregularities, news media outlets began to publish claims that the oppositional candidate was hiring maras to incite violence and rioting—despite no evidence being provided. Friends and their families living in Chamelecón made sense of these news reports in a variety of ways. A few family members with whom I was staying believed the reports, causing more outrage towards the looting shown on the news feeds and the videos circulating on WhatsApp; while other members of the same family dismissed the claims as attempts to slander the oppositional candidate so as to discredit the concerns over electoral irregularities and fraud.

The collective practice regarding maras also includes the non-violent efforts in a sector considered to be one of the most dangerous. To contextualize the psychological and actual nuances of the violence, consider that taxi drivers refused to take me to the sector due to extortions. The taxi driver from the airport dropped me off at a gas station at the entrance of the sector from which I had to take a communal taxi that was allowed to operate in the neighborhood. Yet a number of residents felt that it was rare for them to hear the notion of ‘non-violence’ in the public discourse in relation to where they live. For example, the national headlines often leave out the efforts by a pastor and her husband who have led a community outreach center named after their neighborhood, 10 de Septiembre, in partnership with Project Genesis of FUNADEH, U.S.A.I.D, and some in the private sector to address gang violence and community needs. With staff and volunteers, they provide educational and computer courses, job training, youth development workshops, recreational games, monthly cinema shows for children with free popcorn and drinks, have a gym, host weddings, as well as organize festivals. Also absent in the news are the youth and families who socialize and create support networks to help one another in addressing individual and community concerns, and the children who play outside on the streets. This is a glaring contrast I experienced in the more affluent neighborhood of Juan Lindo where I was previously staying. Families there live in fortified homes with armed guards out on the streets; I rarely saw people walk outside the walls and socialize in the open. The only person I conversed with was a hired security guard on the street.

Pastor Francis de Cortes (far right) with staff and youth volunteers preparing for an event at the 10 de Septiembre Outreach Center in Chamelecón. (Photo by Franklin Moreno.)

Recognizing the non-violent forms of social interactions and organization amid ongoing, collective violence gets to a central frustration and concern repeatedly stated: who dominates the narrative and representation of the violence and its public perception, and who can challenge such narratives? Friends and residents expressed their dismay over the single-sided classification they are branded with: living in one of the most dangerous sectors. The tension lies with recognizing that integral to the life of the neighborhood is how the non-violent and caring forms of community functioning and organization shift and change in reciprocal processes with existing forms of violence; as well as being attuned to how their boundaries and participants shift as well. For instance, what happens when efforts by community members to improve the quality of life for children, adolescents, and adults, especially around maras, are dismissed by peacekeeping authorities themselves? A friend recounted an incident he had a few weeks prior to me returning to San Pedro Sula. He, a well-known community volunteer in his early twenties, who has also been a liaison to the community police for years, attempted to de-escalate a situation involving a friend of his who was about to get his motorcycle impounded for not carrying his vehicle registration.  The volunteer’s attempts to explain his community involvement and to mediate a solution were met with accusations of being a ‘delinquent’ (i.e., a slander of being associated with maras); he was peppered sprayed and arrested by the National Police. After showing me vivid photos of his eyes and face, he lamented that for him, the most harmful part of the experience by far was that his trust in the police had been shattered.

Group projects during a youth development program on stress at the 10 de Septiembre Outreach Center in Chamelecón. (Photo by Franklin Moreno.)

Examining the violence associated with maras has great implications for understanding how processes of violence and non-violence are integral to social functioning at many levels of social organization: national politics, local interactions with police or at community centers. I have not included in these reflections additional national and foreign participants in this collective practice due to space constraints; nor the dynamics of the three agencies that simultaneously patrol the sector of Chamelecón: the military, national and community police. In previous postings I have discussed the discriminations youth face by employers due to marginalization processes related to maras. Overall, children, adolescents, and adults experience the violence associated with maras in a multitude of ways. Certain forms remain consistent yet may shift in particular functions, such as with gang borders in times of political unrest. But understanding the dimensions of collectivity must also include the dedicated efforts by so many community members, staff of organizations and governmental agencies who address the actual and representational forms of the violence in peaceful ways, efforts that remain just as steadfast and defiant.

An occupied guard’s tower at a home in the affluent neighborhood of Juan Lindo. (Photo by Franklin Moreno.)

Franklin Moreno is a Ph.D. candidate in Human Development and Education at UC Berkeley. His current research in Honduras and Nicaragua focuses on children and adolescent moral evaluations and psychological explanations about violence in the contexts of gang conflict.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Javier Couso on President Dilma Rousseff at UC Berkeley

Dilma Rousseff (President of Brazil, 2011-16) gave a talk at UC Berkeley on April 16, 2018 titled “Challenges for Democracy in Brazil”. The event was organized by the Center for Latin American Studies (CLAS) and cosponsored by the Department of Sociology and the Charles and Louise Travers Department of Political Science. In this series, various scholars from diverse disciplines respond to the talk.

President Dilma Rousseff speaks at UC Berkeley. (Photo by Tom Levy.)

In her passionate discourse delivered at UC Berkeley, former President of Brazil Dilma Rousseff made a strong defense of the socio-economic policies advanced by her government before repudiating the “parliamentary coup d’état” that abruptly ended her second term in office.

After highlighting the remarkable achievements accomplished by the administrations of President Lula and herself —especially in terms of reducing poverty and diminishing inequality— Rousseff asserted that the impeachment procedure that ended her presidency, as well as Lula’s current imprisonment on corruption charges, were part of a conspiracy perpetrated by Brazil’s elites in order to reverse the egalitarian policies that the Workers’ Party (Partido dos Trabalhadores, or PT) had been enacting for over a decade.

Rousseff is understandably upset, since she was unfairly expelled from government through a bogus impeachment procedure. Indeed, although there is little doubt that her administration did engage in irregularities regarding some government accounts and the taking of loans without the required congressional approval, those were relatively minor offences that, furthermore, had been commonplace in the past. That’s why, although perhaps constitutional, her impeachment was profoundly unjust and disproportionate.

What’s puzzling is why Rousseff —who is widely regarded as an honest politician— was so adamant in her defense of Lula. Of course, one can sympathize with her loyalty towards a comrade that fought alongside her: first, against a brutal military regime, and then for social justice. But it is distressing to hear a seasoned politician suggest that the entire Brazilian judicial system is conspiring with business groups and mainstream media to not only impeach her, but also to unjustly imprison Lula on baseless corruption charges. Indeed, given that the Judicial Independence Ranking of the World Economic Forum —as well of other entities— regards Brazil’s judiciary as reasonably independent, and considering that a large majority of the justices of its highest courts were actually nominated when either Lula or Rousseff were in power, it is hard to believe that the courts are part of a larger conspiracy against the PT.

President Dilma Rousseff answers a question from the audience during her talk at UC Berkeley. (Photo by Tom Levy.)

In a telling passage of her presentation, Rousseff asserted that “it was naive” to focus on the cases of corruption currently being investigated in Brazil, instead of focusing on the corruption behind the subprime crisis of the late 2000s. She is right in that there was lots of corruption behind the latter, but wrong in dismissing the scandals that have shaken Brazil in recent  years. These corruption cases have been serious enough to erode the confidence of many Brazilians in the entire political party system, something which —in other latitudes— has favored the rise of right wing populists who promise to ‘clean’ the country of corruption, while destroying the basis of democracy and the rule of law. So, although humanly understandable, Dilma Rousseff’s suggestion that Lula is effectively a ‘political prisoner’ who has been sent to jail by a judicial system that is part of an elite conspiracy represents a serious mistake. One that could undermine the very entities that in the future may defend democrats from the sort of elected authoritarians that now rule countries such as Hungary, Poland and The Philippines.

JAVIER COUSO was a visiting scholar at the Center for Latin American Studies at UC Berkeley, where he also earned his Ph.D. in Jurisprudence and Social Policy. He is Professor of Constitutional Law at Universidad Diego Portales, Associate Researcher at the Center for Social Conflict and Cohesion Studies (COES) in Chile, and was holder of the Prince Claus Chair in Development and Equity at Utrecht University (2014-2016).  Couso was as a constitutional adviser to Michelle Bachelet, President of Chile, from 2014-2018.​ An Associate Member of the International Academy of Comparative Law, his work focuses on comparative law and courts, with an emphasis on the interplay between constitutionalism, the rule of law, and legal cultures in new democracies.

 

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Maria Hermínia Tavares de Almeida on Dilma Rousseff at UC Berkeley

Dilma Rousseff (President of Brazil, 2011-16) gave a talk at UC Berkeley on April 16, 2018 titled “Challenges for Democracy in Brazil”. The event was organized by the Center for Latin American Studies (CLAS) and cosponsored by the Department of Sociology and the Charles and Louise Travers Department of Political Science. In this series, various scholars from diverse disciplines respond to the talk.

President Dilma Rousseff addresses the crowd at UC Berkeley. (Photo by Tom Levy.)

Dilma Rousseff is an honorable woman. The alleged motives for removing her from office in 2016 are at the least controversial and fragile. She has been impeached not due to a fiscal misdemeanor but for political reasons after losing popular support and majority in Congress. Nevertheless, her lecture at UC Berkeley last Monday does not help us to understand the challenges for democratic progressive politics in Brazil.

We are living nowadays nothing less than a political tragedy: The government of conservative right wing political forces. There is a rule of thumb saying that when the left fails the right takes the lead. And in Brazil the left has conspicuously failed, in spite of all the incredibly good things it has achieved, most notably with the progressive social transformation under Lula’s administration and leadership.

Let me point out some plain facts. First, Michel Temer and the Brazilian Democratic Movement (MDB) did not fall from the sky or come out of the deep layers of hell. Temer was Dilma’s Vice President and his party was the most important among those of Dilma’s governmental coalition. Have they betrayed her? Absolutely, but only after she lost popular support and failed to coordinate her parliamentary support.

Second, Operação Lava Jato is not a conspiracy of the powerful and the media against the Workers’ Party (Partido dos Trabalhadores, or PT), Lula’s leadership, and Dilma’s presidency. It all began as an operation against illegal money dealers (doleiros) that ended up uncovering the hidden spurious relations between the PT leadership and the most powerful Brazilian contractors. In three years and seven months, Judge Moro has convicted 110 people, only 14 of which are politicians from the PT and other allied parties. On the other hand, owners and CEOs of the hugest contractor firms went to jail with almost 50 illegal money dealers. In 2005, The Mensalão scandal had sent a warning that attitudes of society and some groups in the judicial system regarding corruption were changing. Most unfortunately, the PT and Lula did not hear it. The inconvenient truth is that the PT leaders and Lula were not indicted — and most of them convicted — for fighting poverty and reducing inequalities, for being assertive in the international arena and for promoting affirmative action and all the good, progressive things they have done, but for receiving bribes and favoring huge contractors against the best interests of Petrobras and the Brazilian people.

President Dilma Rousseff greets the audience at UC Berkeley. (Photo by Tom Levy.)

I do not think that Lula should have been sent to jail. The Supreme Court decision was based on a controversial interpretation of the constitution clause regarding the rights of convicted individuals (in Portuguese the “trânsito em julgado” clause). Nevertheless, this is the interpretation that has been guiding the Supreme Court decisions since 2011. It has not been put in place to send Lula to prison but to make it easier to send the powerful and the beautiful to jail who had enough resources to legally procrastinate incarceration.

Third, the present economic crisis is not due to Temer but to the end of the commodities boom and to the PT policies since 2010 to cope with increasing difficulties. Temer’s policy initiatives are very perverse and regressive, but are not responsible for one of the worst economic crisis in recent times. The economic collapse predated Dilma’s removal from office and seems to have made it easier. Actually, the anti-crisis policies proposed in early 2015 by Dilma’s finance minister, Joaquim Levy, were quite similar to those implemented by Temer’s finance minister, Henrique Meirelles, who, by the way, was Lula’s favorite to join Dilma’s cabinet.

I did not expect Dilma to acknowledge all this. Hers is a political discourse, but an infelicitous political discourse, one of complete denial of the responsibilities of PT leadership and of her administration. For this reason, it is harmful to the future of the Brazilian leftist and progressive forces. And more than ever, Brazil needs a strong left capable of learning from its own mistakes.

MARIA HERMÍNIA TAVARES DE ALMEIDA is a senior researcher at Centro Brasileiro de Análise e Planejamento (CEBRAP), a Professor of Political Science and International Relations at the University of São Paulo (retired), and President of Latin American Studies Association (LASA) from 2010-2012. She holds a B.A. in Social Sciences (1969) and a Ph.D. in Political Science (1979) from the University of São Paulo and completed post-doctoral studies at the University of California, Berkeley (1984). 

 

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Carlos R. S. Milani on President Dilma Rousseff at UC Berkeley

Dilma Rousseff (President of Brazil, 2011-16) gave a talk at UC Berkeley on April 16, 2018 titled “Challenges for Democracy in Brazil”. The event was organized by the Center for Latin American Studies (CLAS) and cosponsored by the Department of Sociology and the Charles and Louise Travers Department of Political Science. In this series, various scholars from diverse disciplines respond to the talk.

President Dilma Rousseff greets the audience before her talk at UC Berkeley. (Photo by Tom Levy.)

During her talk on Challenges for Democracy in Brazil, Dilma Rousseff gave a detailed explanation of the economic, political, and institutional dilemmas that Brazil has confronted with since her re-election in November 2014, emphasizing the different steps between her ousting in April 2016 and Lula’s imprisonment two years later. She meticulously reminded the audience of several moments of this long-standing crisis undermining Brazil’s democratic development, and three of them have particularly captured my attention.

First, she recalled the crucial role of the Workers’ Party (Partido dos Trabalhadores, or PT), and the coalition in power between 2003 and 2016, in fighting against poverty, promoting more inclusive social policies, and upholding an autonomous foreign policy both in hemispheric and international settings.

As a party in government, the PT was able to lead a center-left coalition that executed a series of important public policies attempting to deal with deep-rooted inequalities related both to redistribution and recognition in the country. Nevertheless, as a party in society, after some years in power PT was not able to play the critical role of monitoring governmental policies and their results from the non-governmental perspective. Neither was it able to maintain a continuous political dialogue with grassroots organizations. If we consider the state as both an object and instrument, we could say that PT was able to use the state as an instrument to provide better welfare policies to traditionally neglected segments of Brazil’s society and to guarantee impartial and free elections. In a nutshell, for a long time PT was able to govern according to progressive banners, even if governability meant building broad -perhaps too broad- coalitions that also implied some sacrifice in cultural, communication, land-reform and fiscal policies. However, PT lacked the political intelligence to use the state as an object, and in the long-run it was not able to balance the way political power and access to office were distributed based on criteria of social and environmental justice.

Second, Dilma Rousseff notably reaffirmed that the crisis that started immediately after her re-election must be understood as a series of different steps. What was at the beginning an economic crisis, according to her, evolved to a political crisis, then to an institutional crisis. Congress, the justice system, media outlets, and segments of the middle class (among other actors) played a significant role in this escalation, and contributed to legitimate, on behalf of a national and international crusade against corruption, the current upsurge of violent extreme-right movements and leaders in Brazil. Her attempt to fight against high-level interest rates, her reaction to the June 2013 demonstrations (focused in the health sector), the symbolically violent electoral campaign in 2014, the reaction of the main opposition party to her re-election, the coup of her impeachment, the military intervention in Rio de Janeiro, Marielle Franco’s execution in March 2018 and Lula’s incarceration the following month are all part of the same process aiming to denationalize the economy, increase gains for the financial sector in detriment of social policies, reduce access to rights, and change the country’s foreign policy and development model.

President Dilma Rousseff answers questions from the audience during her talk at UC Berkeley. (Photo by Tom Levy.)

Finally, Dilma Rousseff presented a clear picture of macro and structural interests and domestic factors restraining Brazil’s capabilities in continuing its recent relatively successful trajectory in promoting inclusion and development. However, she avoided developing her analysis and presenting her perceptions on decision-making, and her key role as president, in promoting an open political dialogue on unavoidable and somehow contradictory policy issues such as social communication rights, economic development and socioenvironmental protection in the Amazonia, fiscal exemption policies to businesses, her support of austerity in 2015 as well as her previous selection and the appointment of key ministers. As a progressive scholar committed to democratic values and social justice I would have liked to hear Dilma Rousseff on those issues, too.

 

carlos-3

CARLOS R. S. MILANI was a visiting scholar at the Center for Latin American Studies at UC Berkeley and is an Associate Professor at the Rio de Janeiro State University’s Institute for Social and Political Studies (IESP-UERJ). He is also a Senior Research Fellow with Brazil’s National Research Council (CNPq) and the Rio de Janeiro State Research Foundation (FAPERJ), and the Associate Editor of the Brazilian Political Science Review. His research agenda focuses on Brazilian foreign policy, international development politics, and comparative foreign policy.  More information on his research, teaching and publications can be found at www.carlosmilani.com.br.

 

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Programming a Better World

CLASBlog-HADAD-Mentoring-1000p

Mentoring young women in STEM disciplines. (Photo courtesy of Carolina Hadad.)

By Carolina Hadad

A wide gender gap has persisted over the years at all levels of STEM disciplines throughout the world. Although the participation of women in higher education has increased, they are still underrepresented. Latin America is no exception.

A workforce skilled in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) is crucial to Latin America innovative capacity and global competitiveness. Shortages in the supply of trained professionals in STEM disciplines weaken the innovation potential of a society. This leaves an untapped opportunity to expand STEM employment.

In Argentina, women represent only 18% of the graduates in tech careers.1 This creates inequalities in income distribution and intellectual capital, and deprives the tech sector away from the vision of half of the population.

There are many possible factors contributing to the discrepancy of women and men in STEM jobs, including: gender stereotyping, a lack of female role models, and less family-friendly flexibility in the STEM fields. Regardless of the causes, we have a need to encourage and support women in STEM. We also have to transform the way technology and engineers are seen, engaging more girls into tech careers at an early age.

CLASBlog-HADAD-GirlsSTEMProject-1000p

Young women work on a technology project. (Photo courtesy of Carolina Hadad.)

Chicas en Tecnología2 is an Argentinian non-governmental organization working to do this. We have a two-pronged approach that simultaneously builds programs and a support networks that motivate, educate and inspire girls aged 13 to 16 to become involved in STEM, while at the same time we work to develop the pipeline that will bring gender parity to tech fields. With a focus on gender equity and diversity, our curriculum is focused on education, technology, entrepreneurship and innovation.

Programando Un Mundo Mejor (PUMM)3 is one of the projects of Chicas en Tecnología. PUMM is an intensive project-based program, pairing instruction in app development with social impact education, mentorship and exposure to real-world technology companies. With the help of Chicas en Tecnologia, the students identify, design, develop and pitch a mobile app to solve a social problem.

The results speak for themselves. The participants have developed apps for to stop bullying,4 set up book share school books,5 and map incidences of sexual harassment,6 and many more. More than 100 girls have finished Programando un Mundo Mejor (#PUMM) and created 35 prototypes of apps with social impact. All the projects can be found at this link.7

Chicas en Tecnologia is committed to giving voice to marginalized groups. We want to inspire others to continue working together as a country, as a region, and as a world to ensure that everyone has the same opportunities – not only to use technology, but to create it.

Carolina Hadad is the co-founder of Chicas en Tecnología. She graduated from the Universidad de Buenos Aires with a degree in Computer Science. She is currently a fellow with Innovation for Equality, a program created by Prospera and supported by CLAS.8

CLASBlog-HADAD-ChicasenTecnologia-1000p

Members of Chicas en Tecnología. Author Carolina Hadad is on the right. (Photos courtesy of Carolina Hadad.)


References

1. https://www.cronista.com/columnistas/NiUnaMenos-tambien–en-tecnologia-20170804-0020.html
2. http://www.chicasentecnologia.org/
3. http://www.chicasentecnologia.org/programando-un-mundo-mejor
4. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oPbw-rz5A0I
5. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DGHArKKzMp0
6. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=luLbsSzUDYE
7. http://www.chicasentecnologia.org/programando-un-mundo-mejor#8
8. http://innovationforequality.org/en/home/

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Brazil’s Electoral Reform: The More Things Change, The More They Stay The Same

By Liz McKenna
November 4, 2017

This article was originally published in Portuguese by Nexo.

In the stream of sensationalist stories coming out of Brazil, electoral reform seems among the least newsworthy. The updated rules of the political game, however, reveal exactly how the deck gets stacked against democracy—and how incumbent elites tinker with institutions to consolidate power over the long term.

Late in the afternoon on Friday, October 6, Brazil’s senate ratified Projeto de Lei da Câmara nº 110. PL 110 was a ticking time bomb: to take effect before voters next go to the polls, both chambers of Congress and the president had to sanction the reforms at least a year in advance of next October’s presidential election.

Among the many changes to existing electoral rules are: the time window in which candidates who are victims of online hate speech or fake news must be allowed to post their rebuttal on the offending outlet (48 hours), the date at which fundraising can begin (May 15), the exact volume permitted for campaign sound cars (80 decibels), the number of minutes TV stations must reserve for daily campaign commercials in the event of a runoff election (30 minutes), and the maximum size of campaign stickers (half a meter squared).

Far more revealing of Brazil’s underlying political power structures are Articles 16 and 23, which regulate campaign finance. In contrast to the United States—whose Supreme Court authorized corporate political giving in their infamous “money is speech” ruling—Brazil’s Supreme Court outlawed business donations in a 2015 decision. Given the taken-for-granted nature of the aptly named second cash register (caixa dois), Brazilians have no reason to believe this de jure ruling will be respected de facto. Nevertheless, at a time of heightened scrutiny toward corruption, Congress needed an above-board alternative to corporate giving. As a result, PL 110 established a nearly BRL$ 2 billion public fund, the Fundo Especial de Financiamento de Campanha (FEFC), known colloquially as the Fundão.

The law specifies that monies from this public fund will be allocated as follows:

  • 2 percent will be divided equally among each of Brazil’s 35 formally registered political parties;
  • 37 percent will be distributed in proportion of the number of votes each elected congressman earned in the last election;
  • 48 percent in accordance with the size of the party caucuses (as declared at the close of the last parliamentary session); and
  • The remaining 15 percent apportioned by party representation in the senate.

The house (almost) always wins 

Simple math shows who benefits from this arrangement (Figure 1).[i] Color coding in the graph indicates how each party voted in two recent, pivotal votes. Blue indicates that the majority of party members voted in favor of the impeachment of Workers Party president Dilma Rousseff and last April’s labor reform—unpopular among the working masses and favored by business elite and international investors. Purple shows the opposite, and grey denotes internal inconsistency on these votes. The preponderance of grey on the long tail of the graph accentuates how Brazil’s party system encourages opportunism (fisiologismo), whereby elected officials offer votes in quid pro quo exchanges rather than as a result of a coherent political ideology.

Figure 1: Estimated Distribution of the FEFC

2017-McKennaFigure1withLegend.-750pjpg

As political scientist André Singer observed, the fund distribution is ironic, given that it was intended to correct the distortions of corporate giving. In effect, the law privileges exactly those candidates and parties who benefited from such giving in the previous election. Moreover, as the number and size of blue bars indicate, all but two of the ten parties who will receive the greatest windfall from the Fundão in the next election voted in favor of Rousseff’s impeachment and the labor reforms, further indication of the once-and-future ideological composition of the most important deliberative body in the country.

The devil is in the details

Publicly funded elections are an attempt to mitigate undue private influence on politicians, replacing individual campaign contributions with government money. Further clauses in the law that open the door for self-financing mean that the law fails spectacularly in this regard. Michel Temer’s last-minute veto on a cap intended to limit the amount of money candidates can spend from their own pocket undermines the very purpose of establishing the FEFC. Independently wealthy candidates will rely on their own privately amassed fortunes, public fund be damned.

Although Temer abolished self-financing limits, the law retained language on campaign spending caps. The limit of BRL$70 million in spending for each presidential candidate (and an additional BRL$35 million in the event of a run-off) is a surprisingly austere figure for an electoral terrain that is continental in size. According to Brazil’s elections court, in 2014, Dilma Rousseff’s campaign spent BRL$ 350.5 million reais on both rounds, and Aécio Neves BRL$ 223.4 million. Adjusting for inflation, the new decree means that presidential hopefuls will have to officially declare that they spent, at most, 25 percent of what was spent by the winning campaign in the last election. Will this regulation be enforced or will it only apply selectively?

A new way of doing politics?

If the campaign spending cap has teeth, candidates may need to look for alternate way of persuading voters. As Adam Sheingate documents in his book on the business of politics, the only way to rein in the pernicious effects of money-in-politics is to impose supply-side restrictions: that is, limit the amount of money that campaigns can spend. As a result of the restrictions imposed by PL 110, Brazilian presidential hopefuls may be forced to look to other approaches to campaigning, as for example, Barack Obama and Bernie Sanders did in the US and Emmanuel Macron did in France. In contrast to Brazil’s traditional model of relying solely on marketeiros, who treat voters as passive recipients of electoral propaganda, an ancillary benefit to the volunteer-centric method of campaigning is that newly built grassroots capacity can outlast a 45-day election cycle.

The invisible machinations of power

Volumes of research demonstrates that those who control procedures—what Bachrach and Bartz call the rules of the game—are able to systematically benefit certain groups at the expense of others. Therefore, opponents of PMDB-style politics would do well to take this less obvious view of political power to examine just how the kingmaker party achieved so much capillarity. For example, PMDB boasts 817,657 more party affiliates than its nearest competitor, PT. A simple univariate regression shows the relationship between the number of party affiliates and the size of the party’s congressional caucus (Figure 2). In other words, it is not only money that makes the political machine whir—base-building work also matters.

Figure 2: Number of party affiliates in relation to party representation in Brazil’s congress, 2014

2017-McKennaFigure2withLegend-750p

Power operates in subterranean ways, frequently through unobservable decisions and non-decisions.  In other words, it is often in the quieter, behind-the-scenes fights like those that led to PL 110 that reveal how the party of Eduardo Cunha and Michel Temer—a president with one of the lowest approval ratings in Brazil’s history—will likely continue to wield power for many years to come.

 

2017-McKennaHeadshot-200p

Liz McKenna is a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at UC Berkeley. She is currently on a Fulbright fellowship conducting a comparative study of left and right-wing political movements in Brazil.

 

 

 


[i] Technical notes: Although the math is simple, disentangling the denominators—the units of Brazil’s party system—is not. Figure 1 makes five assumptions:

  • The value of the FEFC is 1.7 billion reais, as discussed in senate proceedings and as reported by most news outlets. The variable costs written into the law may well mean that the value of the fund will be greater;
  • As one long-time political reporter remarked in a personal interview, “Brazilian politicians change parties like they change underpants.” Indeed, in the past six weeks alone, five congressmen have switched parties. To calculate the third allocation clause (48 percent distributed to the party caucuses as of August 28, 2017), I used the Internet Wayback machine, which captures webpages no longer online for certain dates, for July 18, 2017. Politicians who switched parties in this window are therefore not reflected in this calculation;
  • In the time since the 2014 election on which the second allocation clause is based, several parties have changed names (PTdoB, for example, rebranded to become AVANTE, and PODE became PTN). Because each of these parties were formerly part of a parliamentary bloc and their membership has morphed, the estimated amount they are to receive from the fund are also subject to change;
  • PL 110 specifies that the fund calculations only take into account elected members of congress. This estimate does not discount for suplentes and other sitting representatives who are unelected;
  • Two senators do not have a party affiliation and one (Aécio Neves) was suspended at the time I collected this data. As a result, the fourth allocation clause only takes into account 78, rather than 81, senators.
Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The Topography of Violence

by Franklin Moreno

In approximately two months there will be general elections in Honduras—a country where much of the population live in difficult living conditions. I’ve spoken to youth and adults in the city of San Pedro Sula about the elections and have been told the same thing numerous times: the elections are rigged and nothing will change. The running joke seems to be, “even dead people vote here.” More important is what people think about their living conditions. In a survey conducted by the Instituto Universitario en Democracia, Paz y Seguridad (IUDPAS) of the Universidad Autonóma de Honduras (UNAH) in 2016, 61% of the participants identified insecurity to be the primary concern they face in the country. Although the percentage had dropped 9% from a 2014 survey, this fear of insecurity remains evident in various ways, impacting many facets of life for the younger and older generations.

2017BLOG-Moreno-1-750p

Playing Mortal Combat with friends. (Photo courtesy of Franklin Moreno.)

These past few years, I’ve conversed with children, adolescents and adults about violence in a city whose general public image is synonymous with homicide rates and gang conflict. My research focuses on children’s and adolescents’ moral evaluations and understanding about gang-related violence. What I’ve learned thus far is that the dimensions of violence extend beyond any particular gang border, extortion or neighborhood. The youth I’ve spoken to carry a burden of being branded as violent delinquent offenders by an anxious society. They are conscious that their existential being has been stigmatized as the source of society’s ills and potential hostility. And that comes with a high price. Time and time again I have listened to adolescents and young adults express their frustration about the discrimination they face at job interviews because of where they live. At a recent Día de los Niños celebration in the sector of Chamelecón in San Pedro Sula, a young man said he struggled with making a decision about whether to migrate north or stay in his neighborhood. His dream is to establish an organization to work with kids who live on the streets but he doesn’t know how to even begin. The staff at Fundación Nacional para el Desarrollo de Honduras (FUNADEH), the foundation I am collaborating with, has confirmed this widespread practice of employer discrimination and has been working to change such beliefs, fears, and practices. According to certain foundation staff, there has been slight progress, but it is far from any adequate change for social amelioration.

2017BLOG-Moreno-4-750p

Día de los Niños in Chamelecón. (Photo courtesy of Franklin Moreno.)

All this is to say that the sense of political apathy, outrage, or defeat regarding the upcoming elections reflects the daily burdens and constraints people live in. As one social psychologist expressed it to me the other day, I have come to study violence in the place where all the ingredients are combined into a perfect soup. There are overt forms of violence rendered invisible while other criminal forms involving adolescents and young adults are consistently etched into the public’s mind. There is much attention focusing on changing the attitudes and behavior of youth through prevention and de-escalation programs, but the inverse is less discussed: how to modify the attitudes and behaviors of a discriminating and marginalizing broader society. While FUNADEH and other organizations have been conducting workshops to teach children and adolescents certain social-moral values on conflict resolution, virtues and forgiveness, there are fewer public examinations on the values promoted, contradicted, and embodied by social institutions that wield great power.

2017BLOG-Moreno-3-750p

Hanging out with friends in Chamelecón. (Photo courtesy of Franklin Moreno.)

For instance, which values or constitutional rights did congress protect from or subordinate to state violence when recently modifying the Honduran Penal Code with article 590, giving the judicial branch the ability to classify public protests as ‘acts of terror’ against the State? No clear measures of interpretation are provided in the bill nor were they stated in a September 19th congressional debate about how the constitutional right to public protests would be safeguarded from being classified as acts terror. Instead only vague phrases or references to acts of grave violence such as the 9/11 attacks in New York City were used to evoke the notion of terrorism. This legal, strategic maneuver anticipates the potential public unrest directed at the current President’s pursuit of a second-term given the contested nature of the Constitution that makes illegal any president from being reelected. The danger of such a general anti-terror law is compounded by the fact that people have expressed a low level of confidence in institutions of justice. In the same IUDPAS 2016 survey, 44% of respondents didn’t have confidence in the Military Police, 59% in the National Police, 56% Supreme Court/Judges, and 69% in Congress. The percentages in public belief about police and military corruption in the survey were even greater.

 

2017BLOG-Moreno-2-750p

A house abandoned by a family due to violence and lack of opportunity in Chamelecón. (Photo courtesy of Franklin Moreno.)

The veil is temporarily lifted with every conversation I have with staff members of organizations and foundations, youth, and acquaintances. These invisible forms of violence begin to reveal themselves. But these visible and recondite forms of violence are not inherent to Honduras ‘culture’. Valuing and obscuring such violence is reflected in foreign and domestic policies of other countries to the point that conceptions of ‘Western/non-Western’ or ‘modern/traditional’ dichotomies evoked in certain social science research circles are rendered into platitudes. For instance, we can see plenty of examples of this segmentation in public and research discussions on violence in society that focus on particular forms of criminal violence or violent video games in the United States. Yet such discussions exclude the fact that celebrating military power and dominance is demanded of the public as much in politics as it is in Hollywood films. We lose sight of the accepted institutional forms of violence when there is fierce debate in congress and in major news media channels about funding the U.S. health care or education system while remaining almost silent on military spending or gagged on the topic of gun regulations. Consider that the 2016 proposal for providing free public college education at a cost of $47 billion per year was publicly castigated in the U.S. by both major political parties and the media as an absurd idea likely to bankrupt the country, or that Congress allowed the $14 billion Children’s Health Insurance Program to expire. Meanwhile there was near political unanimity for increasing the U.S. military budget by $80 billion without any public or political scrutiny of its costs or merit. The annual public military budget is now close to $700 billion.

In both Honduras and the United States, examination of factors related to health, employment or educational opportunities is critical in understanding why certain individuals feel whether or not they have a choice to participate in dangerous and violent activities. In deepening our understanding of the root causes of unrest and violence however, other factors such as discrimination, impunity, corruption, structural poverty, or celebrating legal forms of mass violence must also be examined. And one way to gain a better understanding is to ask those who are typically spoken to or spoken for (i.e., children and adolescents) on what they think about these contradictory societal practices and values impacting their lives.

Franklin Moreno is a Ph.D. candidate in Human Development and Education at U.C. Berkeley. His current research in Honduras and Nicaragua focuses on children and adolescent moral evaluations and psychological explanations about violence in the contexts of gang conflict.

2017BLOG-Moreno-authorphoto-750p

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Legal Representation for Refugees in Argentina

By Sabrina Vecchioni

Granting protection for refugees is a historical and current issue that concerns individual states and the broader international community. In the last two decades, the global displaced population has grown from 33.9 million in 1997 to 65.6 million in 2016, due to armed conflicts in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Burundi, Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of Congo, South Sudan, and Sudan. Natural disasters and extreme poverty also contribute to the forced displacement of people in what the United Nations Commissioner for Refugees calls ‘mixed migratory flows.’

In some countries, these massive population movements are seen as matters of internal security.  However, in Argentina, they are understood as an obligation to provide legal and social assistance to every person who seeks the international protection of the State, following the provisions of the General Law of Recognition and Protection to Refugees.

In Europe and Australia, these services are provided by non-governmental organizations, are supported through State resources, and are narrowly focused on assisting asylum seekers who enter the country with a visa. However, the Argentinean government has prioritized international obligations based on of the International Convention of Refugees Status of 1951, the Additional Protocol of 1967 and theCartagena Declaration of 1984. In 2007, the Argentinean Ministry of Public Defense created a Commission that specializes in providing legal and social assistance to unaccompanied minors who enter the country.

HJDXbOGeZ_930x525

The Touma family (Taufic, 40, Ani Habad, 29, Kristel, 12, and Mari, 10) left Syria and settled in Cordoba, Argentina. (Photo courtesy of Noticias Perfil.)

Furthermore, in 2011 with a Cooperation Agreement between the Argentina National Commission for Refugees, the Argentinean Ministry of Public Defense and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees took a step forward in granting the right to legal defense by creating a special program that ensures free access to representation and social aid to every person who seeks asylum in Argentina. This program has been implemented throughout the provinces with the full cooperation of the regional offices of the Ministry.

Through this law, Argentina became the first country in the region to give full comprehensive access to defense for refugees and asylum seekers. More importantly, this service has no limitations: legal representation is granted starting the moment the foreigner communicates a request for international protection to any public authority figure, and continues through every stage of the administrative and judicial proceedings. Furthermore, the program authorizes lawyers to provide advice on migration and citizenship, regardless of the legal or criminal status of the individual.

It is also important to mention that the lawyers involved in the program work as public servants in a public institution and are selected after passing technical exams in English and French on International Refugee Law. This demonstrates Argentina’s commitment to providing a strong defense in accordance with the international and internal standards applicable to every proceeding – administrative or judicial. In recognition of this effort, the UNHCR gave a special mention to the work of the Program.

Argentina.pagina.pais

Nowadays, protection should be seen as a given asylum seekers and refugees. The State should welcome them and is obliged to grant legal representation. This should not be seen as a secondary concern – rather, it is necessary to ensure that refugees can integrate successfully into society.

sabrina-headshot-e1507658104653.png

 

Sabrina P. Vecchioni is an Attorney at the Assistance and Legal Representation Program for Refugees and Asylum Seekers of the Argentinean Ministry of Public Defense. Professor of International Public Law and International Humanitarian Law at the University of Buenos Aires.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

History, Education, and “Mapuche Terrorist Conflict” in Chile

by Cristobal Madero and Daniel Cano

In August 2015, a telephone rings in the history department of an elite high school in Santiago, Chile. After several unanswered calls, Marcela, one of the history teachers, finally picks up the phone. It only takes us a few minutes to convince her to participate in a program on conflict resolution that the authors of this article designed to educate the misinformed Chilean upper class about the so-called “Mapuche terrorist conflict” in the Araucanía Region of southern Chile.

We named the program Kuykuitin, which means “building bridges” in Mapudungun, the language of the Mapuche people. Kuykuitin is a pilot project to provide history teachers from the wealthiest 5 percent of the country with a cross-cultural learning experience at a school inside the conflict zone. “An intercultural experience with the Mapuche for history teachers?” Marcela asked from the other side of the phone. “Where do I sign up?”

The Conflict

Today, the Mapuche people are fighting to recover their territorial rights in the Araucanía Region. In these efforts, they confront forestry companies as well as the military. The consequences of the conflict are dramatic. Levels of poverty, unemployment, domestic violence, and illiteracy in this region are the highest in the country.

picture 3

The Quebrada de Cura coastline in Southern Chile. (Photo by Cristobal Madero.)

Moreover, the mass media labels Mapuche protests as “terrorist,” misleading the general public and encouraging the spread of violence. The economic consortiums that control the forestry industry in the region also own the national mass media. This relationship fuels the conflict, protects specific economic interests, and validates military intervention against the Mapuche.

The roots of this problem run much deeper, however. Experts in the social sciences agree that the current conflict in the Araucanía Region is an expression of ongoing colonialism that favors national development over indigenous rights, thereby increasing violence in Mapuche territory.

picture 2

Mapuche ritual tools. (Photo by Sebastian Tuma.)

 The Project

Against this backdrop, we considered how Chilean history is taught and the role the Mapuche people play as “invisible actors.” We questioned history teachers’ relevance in the public debate as vectors of national narratives that fail to explain the historic roots of the current Mapuche conflict. We also reflected on the fact that young students from the Chilean elite have the limited exposure to the conflict in their day-to-day lives.

Based on these questions, we designed Kuykuitin to bring history teachers from elite high schools together with their teaching peers in areas of the Araucanía Region affected by the violence. The teachers from Santiago also lived with Mapuche families who hosted them during the seven-day program.

Thanks to support from the Center for Latin American Studies at UC Berkeley and a grant from the Tinker Foundation, as well as the enthusiastic participation of families from the Mapuche communities of Ranquilhue, Ponotro, and Primer Agua, the schools in the Municipality of Tirúa, and Jesuit missionaries working in the region, we invited more than 10 elite high schools from Santiago to participate in the Kuykuitin program. In the end, we selected six teachers from four different schools.

The participating teachers shared “as equals” with the Mapuche families who hosted them. The families’ composition varied: some families were entirely Mapuche, while others were not. They also held diverse opinions about the political situation of their people: some maintained close connections with more radical groups, and others were critical about these groups. Likewise, some of the Mapuche families sought to preserve and honor indigenous values and ways of life, while others rejected tradition. The participating teachers reflected on these differences in our daily debrief meetings, but they agreed unanimously that these encounters had made them truly mindful of the complexity of the so-called “Mapuche conflict” that exists today in our country.

DSC03688

The town of Tirua, in the Bío Bío Region of Chile. (Photo by Sebastian Tuma.)

The experience of sharing every school day with peers and students for an entire week expanded the visiting teachers’ vision of the conflict. Like the host families, the school settings also varied: some of the schools were large, others were small; a few of the schools were in rural environments and others were in the heart of the village. Some of the staff and students welcomed the teachers from Santiago with open arms, while others were more reluctant. At the end of the week, the teachers in the program agreed that the experience had helped them to better understand the importance of their role as educators. They viewed themselves as potential channels to transmit a more nuanced understanding of the Chilean–Mapuche conflict to their students, from the perspective of history as well as their personal experiences as participants in the Kuykuitin program.

Outside the classrooms, we held meetings with different parties who have some relation to the conflict in the local territory. They included Mapuche staff working in the municipal government of Tirúa, beginning with the indigenous mayor, Adolfo Millabur. We also introduced the teachers to Mapuche intellectuals, like Juanita Paillalef, a Mapuche activist and director of the Mapuche Museum in the town of Cañete, the historian Fernando Pairican, and the poet Leonel Lienlaf. We also met with Relmu Witral, the Mapuche Association of Artisan Weavers, and with Jesuit priests who have worked in Tirúa for 20 years. These encounters took the form of intensive conversations — nutram in Mapudungun — that encouraged the teachers to collaborate with those communities, thereby offering various perspectives on the ongoing conflict. As Marcela (our original contact who became a Kuykuitin participant) explained, the nutram gave the teachers an opportunity to engage with the Mapuche communities in a “less paternalistic and more horizontal fashion.”

The participating teachers all taught students belonging to a specific population, both in terms of their age and socioeconomic status: 10th-grade students attending elite high schools whose families belong to the country’s top 5-percent income group. In Chile, 10th-grade history curriculum includes the most material on Mapuche culture and society, yet their proximity to economic and cultural power is likely to expose these young people to a one-dimensional view of the conflict. In addition, students of this social class tend to have more negative perceptions about the Mapuche people. A 2014 study from the Instituto Nacional de la Juventud (INJUV, National Youth Institute) entitled “Percepciones de un Conflicto” (Perceptions of a Conflict) shows that young people from the highest socioeconomic level consider the conflict as less relevant compared to those from lower socioeconomic levels. Our own data reveals that upper-class students associate the Mapuche people first with the concept of “conflict” (37 percent), followed by “our origins” (35 percent), and “discrimination” (15 percent). Twenty percent say that they have discriminated against Mapuche people, but 29 percent disagree or strongly disagree with the assertion that the Mapuche are violent people.

DSC03759

The school Escuela Pichi Lafquenche. (Photo by Sebastian Tuma.)

 The Impact

The impact of the program can be measured in many ways. Here, we present an impact assessment that looks at the perception of the conflict held by elite high school students of the participating teachers. Under the supervision of a teacher, 601 students answered a self-administered survey that was given twice: first in March 2016 (Sample 1) and then in November 2016 (Sample 2), immediately before and after we implemented Kuykuitin in April 2016. We divided the group in two sub-groups: a test group made up of students of the teachers participating in Kuykuitin (54 percent of the total sample) and a control group of students from the same high schools whose teachers did not participate in Kuykuitin (46 percent of the sample).

We asked all the students about their opinions and perceptions concerning different elements of the conflict. The evidence of our study revealed statistically significant changes in the opinions and perceptions of the students in three areas before and after Kuykuitin: 1) the relationship between the Mapuche people and the Chilean government; 2) the Mapuche people; and 3) history classes and their importance for reflecting on the conflict.

Regarding the relationship between the Mapuche people and the Chilean government, 43 percent of the test group agreed or strongly agreed with the statement “The Mapuche people deserve to be acknowledged in a special way by the Chilean government” in Sample 1 (see Figure 1). This percentage increased to 50 percent in Sample 2. More interestingly, when we compared the test group with the control group, the significance of the change was greater. In other words, when we compared the group with itself and with the control group, the results showed that Kuykuitin could have been the key element producing the change in the students’ opinions and perceptions. This trend applies for all the findings that follow.

Screen Shot 2017-09-28 at 11.32.09 AM

Three statements were related to opinions about the Mapuche people (see Figure 2). One reads “The Mapuche people are responsible for the conflict.” Students in the treatment group who agreed or strongly agreed with the statement decreased from 32 percent to 24 percent between the intervals. With regards to the statement “The Mapuche people take advantage of the Chilean government,” students showed an almost 50-percent decrease in agreement before and after Kuykuitin (from 22 percent to 12 percent). Finally, 50-percent fewer students in the treatment group agreed or strongly agreed with the statement “The Mapuche people are, generally speaking, a violent people,” (from 29 percent to 15 percent) from Sample 1 to Sample 2.

Screen Shot 2017-09-28 at 11.32.16 AM

We stated earlier that history classes, curriculum, and teachers are all essential for transferring knowledge of history from one generation to another. For this reason, we included a question in the survey about how much students valued their history classes as a means of reflecting on the conflict in the south of Chile. Students in the test group showed an increase of 150 percent (24 percent to 67 percent) from Sample 1 to Sample 2, with regards to their opinion about how much their history classes helped them reflect on the conflict (see Figure 3).

Screen Shot 2017-09-28 at 11.33.17 AM

The Future

Chile can certainly develop first-rate plans in favor of intercultural education. It can even design the best public policies for teaching history at the high school level or a curriculum that addresses the Chilean–Mapuche conflict in detail. These are all worthwhile, and indeed urgent, goals. Yet nothing can replace what a history teacher can gain through an immersion experience like Kuykuitin, which allows teachers to understand firsthand the complexity of the Chilean­–Mapuche conflict.

picture 4

Marcela Salazar, a teacher from Santiago (center), with a student group in Tirua. (Photo by Sebastian Tuma.)

When the classroom door closes and instruction begins, only the students and their teachers remain inside. In the hands of these teachers lies the future of the next generations of students. If these students become wise, empowered citizens, it will be thanks, in part, to the encouragement of wise, empowered teachers. Kuykuitin seeks to promote opportunities of empowerment for those teachers and through them, their students. Therefore, we believe that Kuykuitin might be a way to change the course of the Chilean–Mapuche conflict.

 
my photo

Cristobal Madero is a Ph.D. candidate in Education Policy and Organizations at UC Berkeley. He researches the changing meaning and possibilities of the teaching profession at the secondary level. Cristobal received a 2016 Tinker Summer Research Grant, awarded by the Center for Latin American Studies. 

 

Daniel Cano photo

Daniel Cano is a Ph.D. candidate in History at Georgetown University. His research has focused in the history of Latin America and indigenous communities.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Doctor Atl’s Olinka

By Alfonso Fierro

The story of Doctor Atl’s Olinka is the story of a failure. Olinka was meant to be a city for artists, intellectuals, and scientists – a place where they could work independently and collectively, in a space detached from the modern world. Dr. Atl was a disenchanted revolutionary and a landscape painter. He became well-known for his “aeropaisajes” (landscapes from the perspective of the sky) that express the telluric force he found in nature, as well as for his harsh criticism of Mexico’s transition to capitalist modernization after the Revolution. Olinka is a direct product of these times. It is also the project that occupied Atl during the last decade of his life (1952-1962). He worked relentlessly, perhaps in vain, trying to find a place for his utopian city. From Chiapas to Jalisco, from the Santa Catarina range to Tepoztlán and finally to the “Cerro de la Estrella” close to Mexico City, Atl was never able to muster the support necessary for his project.

I received a Tinker Grant from CLAS to travel to Mexico to research Dr. Atl’s Olinka. During the last few days, I have visited his personal archive in the incredible brutalist building of the Biblioteca Nacional at UNAM (National Autonomous University of Mexico), submerging myself in the notes, memos, schemes, diagrams, letters, and every other document related to this project. In this process, it is impossible not to ask oneself what exactly leads a man of eighty-something years of age to devote such energy to building of a utopian city. Was it an urge to leave a legacy? Was it part of the post-revolutionary impulse to construct and erect? Was it a tantrum, an obsession? Or perhaps it was an unmovable conviction, like those that no longer seem to really exist anymore.

Archive.png

The entry to the archive collections in the Biblioteca Nacional at UNAM. (Photo by Alfonso Fierro.)

According to Atl’s own words, the idea of Olinka first came to him in Paris during the 1910s, when he belonged to the avant-garde movement behind the publication Action d’Art. However, it did not crystallize fully until the 1950s in Mexico. Crear la fuerza (Create the force), a 1952 publication written by Atl and signed by the people he united under the Consejo Nacional de la Cultura, is the utopian manifesto and key to understanding Olinka. Both in this and in later texts, Atl described a city that would have buildings dedicated to the arts and sciences, housing facilities, an open-air theatre, an archaeological pre-hispanic museum, a “Temple for Men,” and a “Temple for Women”. The idea behind the project was to create a “movement” of such force that the utilitarian modernity he despised could finally be overcome.

Image2 (1)

“Crear la Fuerza”, the program/manifesto for the utopian city of Olinka. (Photo by Alfonso Fierro.)

Ironically enough, over the years, after failure upon failure, Doctor Atl became increasingly more pragmatic. In some later texts, the temples begin to disappear, followed by the arts buildings, and even the open-air theatre. By the time Atl attempted to build Olinka in the Cerro de la Estrella during the early sixties, he speaks only of the archaeological museum and the institute for “outer space” investigations.

But perhaps even this idea was a failure. It seems that every time Doctor Atl attempted to do science he ended up doing science fiction. That was the case of his understanding of Atlantis (he was certain it had been a pre-hispanic city on a sunken island). And indeed, Olinka resembles his own 1935 science fiction novel Un hombre más allá del universo (A man beyond the universe), an epistemological journey to outer space that is depicted as the reencounter of men with the cosmic forces that moved the universe. Once more, the idea was to overcome a fallen, alienated modernity, albeit through scientific knowledge and material progress, that is, through modernity itself. This explains why in Olinka Atl put such high hopes behind the possibility of space traveling, considering it the first step toward the evolution of mankind, as well as the utopian resolution of the modern alienation that asphyxiated him.

Image3 (2)

A sketch of Olinka by Doctor Atl. Possibly the so called “Temple for Men”. (Photo by Alfonso Fierro.)

Several people expressed support for Atl’s utopian city, including ex-president Lázaro Cárdenas, but Atl never received the official support that was necessary for success. The archives I have been exploring are full of letters, memos, telegrams, and legal papers that testify to Atl’s relentless insistence, but also to the silence with which he was met. In a country that during those same years was very busy building a huge “Ciudad Universitaria” as the central campus for UNAM and a monumental archaeological museum in Chapultepec, it is no wonder that Olinka was sidelined. Today, one can visit the Museo Nacional de Antropología and the Ciudad Universitaria of UNAM, both key sites of postrevolutionary modernity in Mexico. But Olinka, which Atl envisioned built on the crater of one of those Mexican volcanoes he loved to paint, is now only accessible through the documents kept in two plastic boxes of his personal archive.

IMG_1071Alfonso Fierro is a PhD student at the University of California Berkeley, in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese. He studies modern literature, architecture, and culture in Latin America. His research currently focuses on urban utopias in post-revolutionary Mexico. The project on Doctor Atl’s Olinka was possible thanks to a 2017 Tinker Summer Research Grant. 

 

 

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment