Brazil: teachers, indigenous hold mass protests

Despite a heavy rain, tens of thousands of Brazilians marched in Rio de Janeiro on Oct. 7 to support local teachers on the 60th day of a strike over pay and benefits. Organizers said 50,000 people participated in what media reports called one of the largest demonstrations since an unprecedented wave of mass protests in June. The immediate issue of the strike was what the teachers considered an inadequate pay and benefit package offered by Rio mayor Eduardo Paes, but the demonstration attracted broad support because of widespread anger over police brutality at earlier protests and over the failure of local and national governments to provide services in health and education. "We have support from the people," schoolteacher Aline de Luca told the British daily The Guardian at the march. "Many of those who are here are not education professionals. I am hopeful things will improve, because we have never seen society as mobilized as it is now."

Much of the media attention was focused on confrontations between police agents and Brazil's relatively new Black Bloc, along with other anarchist groups. Youths vandalized banks and burned a bus, while police agents fired tear gas and rubber bullets. Union leaders blame agents provocateurs for the violence. Marta Moraes, general director of the State Union of Rio de Janeiro Education Profesionals (SEPE-RJ), charged that "the conflicts took place because of an obvious presence of infiltrated police agents, the so-called 'P2,' who go around in civilian clothes to initiate or encourage confrontation, making it appear that the appalling action comes from the demonstrators." (Adital,  Brazil, Oct. 8, Oct. 9The Guardian, Oct. 8, from correspondent)

The Rio de Janeiro protest followed a week of demonstrations in different parts of the country by indigenous Brazilians and members of quilombos, communities founded in colonial times by fugitive slaves of African origin. The Sept. 30-Oct. 5 National Week of Indigenous Mobilization, organized by the Coordination of the Indigenous Peoples of Brazil (APIB), marked the 25th anniversary of the 1988 Constitution, which extended a number of rights to the indigenous communities. A series of proposed constitutional amendments (PECs) threatens to restrict these rights and open up indigenous territories to exploitation by miners and large landowners, according to the protesters. A special focus of the protests was PEC 215, which would give Congress control over the demarcation of indigenous territories, a function now held by the president.

The week of protests included a march to the federal ministries in Brasilia on Oct. 1 by some 1,300 indigenous people, quilombolas (quilombo residents) and agricultural workers. More than 100 indigenous Xavante blocked a highway for two and a half hours that day near Primavera do Leste in the central state of Mato Grosso. On Oct. 2 about 1,000 indigenous Pataxó and Tupinambá used rocks and tree branches to block a highway near Itamaraju in the eastern state of Bahía, although the protesters let ambulances pass, along with official vehicles and trucks carrying perishable goods. Indigenous groups and their supporters held protests and educational forums throughout the country during the week, and even organized a protest in front of the Brazilian embassy in London. (Adital, Sept. 30, Oct. 1Oct. 2AFP, Oct. 1; Los Angeles Times, Oct. 2, from correspondent)

In other news, on Oct. 2 Rio de Janeiro police investigators said they were charging 10 agents in the torture and murder of construction worker Amarildo de Souza Lima the night of July 14. The state's Pacifying Police Unit (UPP) had picked him up in an anti-drug operation in Rocinha, the large favela (improvised urban settlement) where he lived in the south of the city; the police claimed to have released him. De Souza's family persisted in demanding an investigation, and "Where's Amarildo?" became a major slogan in demonstrations protesting police brutality. (Adital, Oct. 2, Adital, Oct. 3; New York Times, Oct. 3 from correspondent)

Favela residents say De Souza's disappearance wasn't an isolated case. They charge that agents have been regularly disappearing residents as the police carry out a campaign to fight crime in Rio neighborhoods. Reporters from the Associated Press wire service found that "since 2007, a year before the security push into the city's slums, the number of missing person cases in the city and its impoverished outskirts has shot up 33%, to 4,090 reports last year." In 2008 Human Rights Watch estimated that agents killed some 11,000 people in Rio and São Paulo from 2003 to 2009. (AP, Oct. 7)

From Weekly News Update on the Americas, October 13.