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Brazil Conflict and Nonviolence

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Brazil Conflict and Nonviolence

Conflict and Nonviolence
While avoiding open conflict, Brazilian society has gone through transitions that in general have moved in the direction of modernization and democracy. Considering the decimation of Indian populations and the maintenance of African slavery long after it had been abolished elsewhere in the Americas, Brazil's colonial and imperial history was characterized by violence. At the same time, however, there is a strong Brazilian tradition of nonviolent resolution of conflicts. There was no war of independence against Portugal, but only local or regional conflicts, such as the Cabanagem (1835) in the Amazon, the War of the Farrapos (1845) in Rio Grande do Sul, and the São Paulo Civil War (1932) (see The Empire, 1822-89; The Republican Era, 1889-1985, ch. 1). Although Brazil participated in the Paraguayan War, also known as the War of the Triple Alliance (1864-70), most conflicts with neighboring countries were solved peacefully. The transition from empire to republic in 1889 was also relatively smooth. There was no generalized civil war, but there were isolated events, such as the resistance of a millenarian group at Canudos in the Northeast, described in Euclydes da Cunha's classic Os sertões , translated as Rebellion in the Backlands . In contrast to Spanish America, which fought protracted revolutionary wars and split into many separate countries, Portuguese America held together in one huge country. Although there were many violent episodes, Brazilian history, on the whole, has been remarkably peaceful.

Despite its nonbelligerent heritage at the national level, Brazilian life is marked by considerable violence on a day-to-day basis. Indians and slaves, or their descendants, have always been victimized. The rural bandits (cangaceiros ) of the Northeast, of whom Lampião is the most famous, battled rival groups and backlands colonels in the early 1900s. In the post-World War II period, the struggle for land pitted rural workers and their leaders against the landowners and their hired gunmen, resulting in the murder of leaders and even priests, most notably in frontier areas. Chico Mendes, a rubber-tapper leader killed in Acre in 1988, was the most widely known among hundreds of victims. In 1995 and 1996, there were massacres of landless workers in Rondônia and Pará. In urban areas, especially the largest, violence has become commonplace, with frequent thefts, robberies, break-ins, assaults, and kidnappings. The police themselves are sometimes involved in criminal activities. In Rio de Janeiro, the government has little control over the favelas, which are dominated by gangs that control informal gambling (a numbers game called jogo do bicho ) and drug trafficking as well as influence local politics.

For the most part, contemporary violence cannot easily be construed as a class struggle, at least as a struggle that involves collective consciousness and action. It is essentially particularistic and opportunistic at the individual level, although it often reflects perceptions of social injustice. Avoidance of more organized conflict between the privileged and the poor in Brazil can be attributed in part to the corporatist (see Glossary) system set up during the regime of Getúlio Dorneles Vargas (president, 1930-45, 1951-54) in the 1930s and 1940s. This system was designed to preempt direct class confrontation through well-controlled concessions to workers. The system of government-regulated labor unions and clientelism (see Glossary) reached its limits in the 1960s. In 1964 a bloodless military coup prevented it from going farther in the direction of the dispossessed.

The authoritarian military regime, which lasted from 1964 until 1985, used torture and killing to repress opposition, including cases of armed struggle between 1966 and 1975, but was gradually worn down by democratic pressures and sheer fatigue. From 1976 until 1994, political efforts on the right and the left focused on redemocratization, with greater popular participation. Revolution and repression were set aside. Once again, a major transition occurred with relatively little violence, at least as compared with Chile and Argentina, for example.

Data as of April 1997




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