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Marina Silva and the Uncertain Legacy of Chico Mendes

October 3, 2014

by Stephen Kurczy

This article is part of "Connecting the Americas," a collaborative project of Americas Quarterly and Zócalo Public Square.

XAPURI, BRAZIL

Entry into the Casa Chico Mendes Museum is free, but it’ll cost you $20,000 to visit the environmental activist’s assassin. He lives down the street—if you’re interested.

I was. I recently visited Brazil’s dusty Wild West town of Xapuri to look into the legacy of Francisco “Chico” Mendes, most famous defender of the Amazon rainforest and an inspiration to a generation of environmentalists—most notably Marina Silva, who may be the next president. How Brazil treated the memory Mendes—and his assassins, who have brazenly returned to their nearby ranch like characters from an old cowboy film—might provide a glimpse into the nation’s concern for environmentalism and activism, and maybe also into the candidacy of Silva.

In the 1980s, Mendes had rallied rubber tappers and Indigenous people in the Amazon to forcefully resist the encroachment of farmers and cattle ranchers, who were clearing a football field-sized swath of forest every second and spewing carbon dioxide pollution into the atmosphere. Mendes is an official national hero and a world-recognized activist, so I thought it was reasonable to also expect him to be revered in Xapuri.

“Chico Mendes has been a symbolic force for people all over the world,” the international environmental advocate Casey Box told me. “Other nations see him as a major force against industries and pushing back against aggression. He’s had a global reach.”

But in Xapuri itself, I couldn’t even find a postcard of Mendes for sale. While Box said he recalled seeing an Indigenous activist in Indonesia wearing a Chico Mendes t-shirt, the only Brazilian I’ve ever seen wearing a Mendes t-shirt was a staff worker at the Casa Chico Mendes Museum, which is where the activist was blasted by a twenty-gauge shotgun in front of his wife and children days before Christmas in 1988.

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Tags: Chico Mendes, Marina Silva, Brazilian elections

Rumble in the Jungle: Manaus Tackles World Cup Logistics

May 30, 2014

by Stephen Kurczy

This article is part of "Connecting the Americas," a collaborative project of Americas Quarterly and Zócalo Public Square.

In a competition for most improbable place to host the World Cup, the city of Manaus would surely make the finals.  Its Arena da Amazônia sits in the middle of the Amazon Rainforest, 900 miles up the Amazon River in Brazil’s isolated Amazonas state bordering Venezuela, Colombia, and Peru. “The Amazon Arena”  will host four matches next month– including one featuring the English team, whose coach got into a spat with the mayor of Manaus after complaining about the prospect of having to play “in the middle of the Amazonian jungle.”

So perhaps more than any other of Brazil’s 12 World Cup host cities, Manaus faces a Sisyphean task during next month’s influx of futebol superstars and their rabid fans: prove that it was worthwhile to build a $300 million, 42,000-seat stadium in an isolated port city lacking a serious futebol culture, or experience hosting major events. 

"I didn’t have any idea how difficult this would be,” said Eraldo Boechat Leal, executive coordinator of the Unidade Gestora do Projeto Copa (“UGP Copa”), the project management unit overseeing all World Cup preparations for the state of Amazonas. "It was a huge, huge, huge challenge."

Leal and I had lunch recently at a restaurant on the banks of the Rio Negro, an Amazon tributary that had supplied our spread of baked tambaqui fish and bolinhos de bacalhão (fried codfish). Outside the windows, an afternoon monsoon obscured the view onto an inlet littered with refuse, filled with fishing boats, and surrounded by colorful pink and orange shanty homes. The previous evening, Arena da Amazônia had hosted the top-flight Brazilian team Santos, giving Leal and his team a final chance to iron out the wrinkles before Manaus hands the stadium keys to FIFA at the end of May.

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Tags: Manaus, Brazil World Cup

My Panic Room in Caracas

March 4, 2014

by Rafael Osío Cabrices

This article is part of "Connecting the Americas," a collaborative project of Americas Quarterly and Zócalo Public Square.

What’s the best way to protect a seven-month-old girl from the effects of tear gas? Is it dangerous for her to breathe the smoke from a pile of burning garbage in front of this building? Can a 9-millimeter bullet pass through the walls of our apartment? Will I find food for my family next week in our densely populated middle-class neighborhood, or should we stock an emergency reserve of groceries?

These are some of the questions that my wife and I have been asking ourselves since February 12, when members of Venezuela's political opposition marched on downtown Caracas and were attacked by supporters of the recently deceased president, Hugo Chávez. Two students were shot in the head and killed, and the subsequent rage pushed the opposition to continue the most recent series of protests against the régime that inherited Chávez’s idea of power.

We live in an apartment half a block away from Plaza Altamira in Caracas, one of the main sites of the upheaval. Several times, the tide of the struggle has penetrated the borders of our private life.

The origins of all this mayhem date back to Venezuela’s surreal chavista experiment, but the immediate trigger was a protest following an attempted rape at a college campus in San Cristóbal, the capital of the state of Táchira, on the Colombian border. The National Guard responded with extreme force, the demonstrators multiplied, and two opposition politicians—the youthful and charismatic former Caracas mayor Leopoldo López and congresswoman María Corina Machado—claimed that the only way to save the country was to occupy the streets and to build up the pressure against Chávez’s chosen heir, President Nicolás Maduro, who took office after winning by less than 2 percent of the vote in contested elections last year. In Maduro’s first year, Venezuela has continued to experience the levels of urban violence, inflation and scarcity of basic goods usually associated with wartime.

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Tags: Venezuela, Venezuela protests, Altamira Square

Walking Home Alone at Night in Buenos Aires

February 24, 2014

by Jordana Timerman

This is the first installment of "Connecting the Americas," a collaborative project of Americas Quarterly and Zócalo Public Square.

A debate dominates the end of my dinners at my parents’ house: how to get home? I live a mere seven blocks away, a brief walk across a park. Though I’m an independent urban type, in the labyrinth of subjective insecurity that is Buenos Aires these days, the answer is not as obvious as it seems.

When I walk to my bus stop in Buenos Aires, I zip my purse shut and clutch it tight to my body, like a football player running toward the end zone. When I play Candy Crush on the subway, I hold my phone in a two-handed death grip, lest it be snatched away. After a girls’ night out, I ask my friend to text me when she’s safely home. On warm spring days, my car windows remain shut because robberies have been known to happen at red lights.

And those deeper down the rabbit hole consider me foolhardily naïve in my lack of precaution. I know people who drive from their guarded apartment building garage to their office parking lot, and who avoid setting foot on the street even in broad daylight. Iron bars cover many ground floor windows on Buenos Aires streets, and increasingly the next floor up, too. Barbed wire wraps around some houses’ entrances like ivy. And then there are those who move to gated communities, where they can finally leave these quotidian safety measures behind—but instead end up living in a sort of custom-designed Truman Show of safety from “others.”

But the higher the walls, the more upper-middle-class porteños seem to be afraid. How necessary are these measures, and the correlated paranoia that seems to seep into every step we take?

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Tags: Argentina, Crime and Security



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