Dictatorship and Democracy in the Brazilian Countryside: Rural Perspectives and New Periodisations

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By Lewis Twiby

On 14 November, as part of a series of lectures for the Centre for the Study of Modern and Contemporary History (CSMCH) the University of Edinburgh’s own Dr. Jacob Blanc gave a lecture on his recent research. Dr. Blanc’s research focused on the construction of the Itaipu Hydroelectric dam along the Brazilian-Paraguayan border by the Brazilian military junta during a period named abertura (‘opening’ in Portuguese). Dr. Blanc, throughout the lecture, spoke of how traditionally studies of abertura have focused mainly on the urban populaces in Rio de Janiero and Brasilia, but less have focused on the rural areas. Using interviews, public archives (like the Memórias Revelados project), and exclusive access to the Itaipu Binational, Dr. Blanc has detailed the double-reality of abertura where even the groups who campaigned against the dam were heavily divided. The main group – the MJT – the European-descended landed farmers, landless peasants, and the Avá-Guarani indigenous population all had different views and aims in regards to the dam.

    Dr. Blanc began the main body of his lecture by discussing the first major standoff between the MJT and the military junta. Forty thousand people lived in the area where the Itaipu Dam would flood and all were eager to either prevent the dam’s construction, or demand compensation for lost land. Starting on 18 March 1981 the MJT marched onto the Itaipu construction site and began a two month long protest camp. The Euro-descended farmers wanted money for their lost land, the landless peasants wanted land for land, while the Avá-Guarani did not want the dam at all. Dr. Blanc emphasised the importance of this protest in influencing the protesters and Brazilians across the country. Thirty-one unions across the country went on sympathy strikes, journalists questioned the junta’s commitment to abertura, and opposition politicians connected the suffering of the farmers to the suffering of all Brazilians. For many of the farmers the camp protest was their first contact with the state – many used government and Itaipu interchangeably – and would help influence their actions in organising later grassroots movements. The MJT successfully won some demands, like a 62 per cent increase in the money the junta gave the landed farmers for their land, but Dr. Blanc reiterated how this protest highlighted the division in Brazilian society.

    Most of the media only reported on the landed farmers of European descent and homogenised the leaders of the movement. Instead of portraying the movement as being a large swathe of rural Brazilian society it was instead portrayed as a ‘respectful protest’ led by the landed farmers. Although landless peasants felt they won when the landed farmers got more money from the state, they themselves never got a tangible victory. Many of these landless peasants would become radicalised by the Itaipu protests. Furthermore, Dr. Blanc spoke of the ignoring or the removal of the agency of the Avá-Guarani. After interviewing several current leaders of the Avá-Guarani he found that they were ‘never seen by the farmers.’ When they were acknowledged they were portrayed in a demeaning manner, even by sympathetic media like the paper Folla de São Paulo. They were portrayed as apolitical actors who would ‘call upon their Gods’ instead of showing how they took part in the same protests as the farmers. The junta used this to their advantage as well having only legally defined Avá-Guarani receive rights based on an arbitrary ‘Criteria of Indianness’, but activists did manage to have this criteria overturned.

    Dr. Blanc went on to discuss what happened after the creation of the Itaipu Dam, focusing particularly on the peasants and Avá-Guarani who did not receive the tangible victories which the landed farmers did. Inspired by their role in the protests in September 1981 the landless peasants founded MASTRO which, in turn, went on to create the Movimento dos Trabalhadores Sem Terra (MST). The MST would occupy lands in order to push for land reform which caused clashes with the junta – across Brazil in 1983/4 two peasants were killed and many more beaten during the junta’s heavy-handed response. Meanwhile, the Avá-Guarani were relocated in June 1982 to a reservation, and were then moved to new reservations a further two times. Dr. Blanc showed how Brazil’s indigenous population were largely forgotten figures during the years of the junta. In 2014’s Truth Commission, the only mention of Brazil’s indigenous population was a short reference in an appendix despite 8,000 being murdered by the junta.

    Concluding his lecture, Dr. Blanc argued that the urban abertura was not representative of the experience of rural Brazilians. Instead there were two aberturas – one for the rural population and one for the urban population. However, he emphasised that neither abertura was the ‘real’ abertura. Both were felt and experienced on their own terms. While the urban abertura showed students and workers how to organise grassroots movements, the Itaipu protests did the same for landless peasants and indigenous Brazilians. Finally, the University of Edinburgh’s Dr. Cassia Roth spoke about Dr. Blanc’s findings comparing it to her own research. She praised Dr. Blanc’s research saying that traditional accounts of the abertura largely focused on the urban elite instead of women and the poor of the favelas. She further argued that more people experienced the abertura found in Dr. Blanc’s research than the traditional accounts.

    Dr. Blanc’s research is a useful insight into the experience of marginalised groups in Brazil’s military government. By arguing that there were two aberturas felt differently but both equally valid, he has shown that there is no correct way to experience the past. Dr. Blanc’s lecture is an interesting addition to this semester’s CSMCH lectures, giving further insight to a neglected part of Brazil’s history.


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