Like many other countries in Latin America in the early 1990s, El Salvador had a ban on abortion with a few exceptions including cases of rape, serious fetal malformation, and great risk to the mother’s life. In 1995, Pope John Paul II appointed Fernando Sáenz Lacalle as the new archbishop to San Salvador. He was a member of the conservative Catholic Group Opus Dei, who like the right-wing conservative party–Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA)–and the Catholic Church, opposed abortion. As explained by writer Jack Hitt, “What he brought to the country’s anti-abortion movement was a new determination to turn that opposition into state legislation and a belief that the church should play a public role in the process.”
Brazil’s new president, Jair Bolsonaro, made no effort to hide what he would implement as president while on the election trail. His campaign promises included ending the practice of marking off protected indigenous lands, cutting down on the power of environmental agencies, and making it easier to proceed with commercial farming and mining on indigenous reserves. The Brazilian politician has had a contentious record regarding the environment and indigenous populations, which led many people–both in his constituency and around the world–to worry about the fate of the Amazon and the indigenous people in Brazil.
During his campaign for president, Bolsonaro said he would loosen protections on the Amazon that reserved land for indigenous people and nature reserves, as he believes they are an economic barrier. His words worry the indigenous people and their allies because of Bolsonaro’s previous statements, where he has said that their respective territories should be used for business purposes. Aligned with his anti-environmental views, he has pledged to kick out international organizations such as Greenpeace and World Wide Fund for Nature in addition to amending Brazil’s anti-terrorism laws to include social movements. Bolsonaro’s beliefs and policies echo that of the military dictatorship that ruled Brazil from 1964 to 1985, where indigenous people were killed and driven away from their lands in order to make way for business projects.
In 1967, Brazil established FUNAI, the Fundação Nacional do Índio, a department designed to protect the indigenous population. On the first day of his presidency, Bolsonaro took away power from FUNAI, handing it over to the Ministry of Agriculture which is subject to the wishes of agricultural lobbying groups. The ministry will now oversee which lands get protected status and the division of lands of the quilombolas, descendents of slaves in Brazil. Indigenous leaders criticized this move since it affects their land, which makes up for 13% of Brazilian territory. Bolsonaro defended his actions, stating in a tweet that 15% of the national territory is currently marked for the indigenous people and quilombos, where less than five hundred thousand people reside and live in isolation from the real Brazil– adding in that they are being exploited and manipulated by NGOs and encouraging citizens to integrate the groups into central Brazil.
Land grabbers, known as “grileiros,” have been on the rise after Bolsonaro’s election, attacking indigenous communities and largely invigorated by his statements. The grileiros destroy the local environment by cutting down trees or burning undergrowth. Not even two weeks after Bolsonaro’s inauguration, a group of men trespassed and invaded on indigenous land belonging to the Uru-eu-wau-wau tribe. The two groups were at a standoff until the invaders eventually retreated when the tribe nocked their poison-dipped arrows in their bows. Since Bolsonaro was elected president in October, land invasions have risen by 150%.
The Bolsonaro administration wasted no time in getting to work on instituting his ideas. By the end of January, his government had already announced new infrastructure projects that will take place in or around the Amazon. One of the regions, where a dam will be built, is on the Trombetas River where four indigenous reserves are located and where eight quilombos communities live. The Chief of Strategic Affairs—-retired military general Maynard Santa Rosa—- justified the Trombetas dam by saying that the people of the Amazons need to integrate so they can have jobs and an income. Santa Rosa’s announcement is only the latest in a line of projects meant to develop and utilize the Amazon under a general claim of economic benefits for all.
Bolsonaro is a worrisome political figure, whose proposed policies could push the deforestation rate in the Amazon up 268% according toaccording to aa 2017 statistic. The Amazon is the world’s largest rainforest and about 60% of the Amazon is in Brazil. Between 2004 and 2014, Brazil was able to roll back deforestation rates through strict enforcement of laws, using satellite imagery and land protections to monitor forest expanse. However, enforcement decreased in 2016 after the impeachment of then-president Dilma Rousseff when farmers and ranchers started using Amazon land for their own uses.
Bolsonaro’s actions will have detrimental effects on indigenous people and local ecosystems. The Amazon rainforest helps regulate the Earth’s climate by acting as a major carbon sink and serves as a key component in the fight against global warming. There are large amounts of carbon stored in the forest biomass and the soil in the Amazonian forest. As trees are cut, they release carbon into the atmosphere and fewer trees remain to absorb this carbon. Deforestation allows for water to run into the rivers directly rather than be stored in soil and vegetation, in which the water would be released slowly throughout the year. As a result, the Amazon can be vulnerable to drought. Furthermore, climate scientists believe that part of the battle against anthropogenic climate change is empowering indigenous people, which is hindered by Bolsonaro’s prioritization of economic interests over indigenous rights.
The question arises of what to do next. The international community must put pressure or impose sanctions upon Brazil, and have faith that he will respond to their actions. Activists and the indigenous people of Brazil need support so that they continue their work in preserving the environment and their homeland. What bodes ill for the Amazon bodes ill for all.
Oftentimes, discussions regarding the root of the modern Venezuelan crisis begin with the rise of Hugo Chávez. However, the seeds of this conflict were sown in the sixteenth century when a group of Spanish colonizers first settled that fateful patch of northern South America. There they established the encomienda system wherein European masters put indigenous laborers – and later, African slaves – to work on large plantations specializing in the production of cacao.
This extractive institution enriched the landed aristocracy on the backs of the enslaved and laboring class, splitting their society into two distinct, racially-affiliated camps: white landowners and black or indigenous laborers. Understanding the nature of this division can provide key insights into the current crisis. Cacao production proved a lucrative enterprise, though little of the proceeds trickled past the upper echelons of society. Plantation profits were reinvested in expanding the encomienda system and protecting the status quo, while the country’s developmental institutions (e.g. public education) and lower classes were disregarded. This abusive cycle cemented an ethnopolitical dichotomy of interests in the population that still echoes into the present.
Venezuela as we know it was born in 1830, yet even after achieving independence, its people remained divided. The ethnopolitical class system outlived its colonial roots and while social dynamics shifted, the social hierarchy did not. Owing to a massive socioeconomic head start and governing institutions rigged in their favor, white Venezuelans dominated the country’s upper and middle classes while Mestizos (people of mixed African and indigenous descent) were relegated to the bottommost tiers of society.
In the 1920s, Venezuela discovered large reserves of oil which thereafter became the country’s economic cornerstone. Its profits were channeled into urban development and further enriched the upper classes while rural Mestizos were left behind yet again. This precedent of lower class exclusivism during periods of social prosperity continued through the 1970s, fomenting inter-class tensions. Public frustrations came to a head in 1989, when the neglected poor took to the streets of Caracas in a popular uprising dubbed “the Caracazo”.
While the uprising proved unsuccessful, it inspired a military officer by the name of Hugo Chávez to attempt a coup. Though Chávez failed, he became a national symbol of the marginalized masses in the process – a symbol so powerful that years later, after being released from prison, Chávez ran for president in 1998 and won. For the first time in Venezuela’s history, its leader was a Mestizo.
Chávez rode into power on a platform of anti-corruption and populism, drawing his support base from the lower classes. He aimed to dilute the residual colonial hierarchy and to economically converge the population. Thus, he became a natural enemy of the white upper classes, who largely possessed the excesses of wealth he sought to redistribute. His plan was simple: centralize control of the oil industry and redirect its revenues into social welfare programs for the poor. He hoped to leave behind the neoliberal, laissez-faire economic policies of his predecessors, which he and his constituents insisted served the upper classes by exacerbating wealth disparities. With every speech and policy, the white upper classes grew more and more disaffected, while his Mestizo base clung tighter to his leadership.
In 2002, a coup was orchestrated by several parties representing upper-class interests. But after crowds of Mestizo supporters came out in droves to protest the U.S.-approved deposition, Chávez quickly reclaimed his power and continued his campaign of social reforms. During his presidency, poverty levels were halved, income inequality was minimized, and the Mestizo majority saw their standards of living skyrocket.
The problem was, as Chávez continued to nationalize various industries in Venezuela, the country became dangerously reliant on oil revenues. It was a textbook case of what economists call “the Dutch disease.” As the oil sector had flourished and the value of the Venezuelan bolivar appreciated, it became progressively harder for domestic industries to compete internationally, leaving them weak and stagnant. The private sector had essentially been gutted, so when oil prices did drop, as happens regularly in the oil market, there was no one left to save the economy. Nevertheless, Chávez passed away just before the aftermath of his policies fully began to unfurl.
Prior to his passing, Chávez chose Nicolás Maduro, a former bus driver and unionist, to be his successor, bequeathing to him his Mestizo support base. Owing to Chávez’s economic shortsightedness and trends of large-scale capital flight, primarily carried out by the upper classes, Maduro also inherited an economy on the verge of implosion. Maduro’s vain attempts to curb the economic crisis only served to accelerate inflation. This, alongside crippling U.S.-imposed sanctions, made for especially bleak circumstances in Venezuela. As crowds demanded Maduro’s resignation, it became clear which demographic was leading the protests against Chávez’s heir.
One need only look at images of the demonstrators to see proof of this racial divide. Opposition leader Juan Guaidó is often seen walking alongside Venezuelans of a lighter complexion, whose free-market and privatization interests he champions. Meanwhile, many Mestizos continue to rally behind Maduro, despite his many missteps, for the simple fact that he acknowledges the exploitation and neglect they suffered for so long.
The truth is, the situation in Venezuela cannot merely be boiled down to the resource curse, or failed socialism, or the shortcomings of Maduro and Chávez. History has polarized the country into two groups whose interests are fundamentally unaligned; while one side begs for governmental support, the other demands nonintervention.
The only way Venezuelans can induce lasting change is by narrowing the social and economic gap between the two classes. So long as there is inequity, the Mestizo majority will not acquiesce, as Chávez showed they don’t have to. White Venezuelans must also acknowledge the historical ill-treatment of their Mestizo counterparts and work towards cultivating an atmosphere of trust, or both sides will continue to see each other as an ‘other’ to be overcome, as opposed to fellow Venezuelans.
But above all, healing will take time, and it should be noted that foreign intervention in support of one side will only serve to prolong and inflame this corrective process. Only after all of this is achieved can the country begin to bridge that gap and march forward as one people. Until that day, the long-standing class conflict in Venezuela will persist, as will the cycle of revolution.