The Mothers’ last march

The news made headlines across Argentina in February this year – the ‘Mothers’ were holding their last march. These were the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo: a fearless and determined bunch of women who – after their sons, daughters and husbands were ‘disappeared’ by the military dictatorship – decided to confront the kidnappers by standing every Thursday in the grand plaza that fronts the nation’s Congress. These Thursday protests – the first one held on 30 April 1977 – continued throughout the dictatorship, which gave way to democracy in 1983. Through their far more sizeable annual marches, they have continued to pressure governments into discovering more about the fates of their children and spouses.

A Government inquiry established that 11,000 people were murdered during the ‘Dirty War’ between 1976 and 1983. NGOs and human rights experts say the figure is closer to 30,000 – many of them leftist sympathizers and intellectuals who were quietly removed from their houses by undercover agents and tortured in the armed forces’ schools. The recovery of bodies is still under way although some can never be found – such as the victims of ‘death flights’, who were pushed out of aircrafts into rivers or the Atlantic Ocean.

Several of the first women brave enough to challenge the dictatorship paid a similar price. Just last year the remains of Azucena Villaflor, the founder of the Mothers association, Esther Careaga and María Eugenia Bianco, two of the earliest Mothers, and French nun Leonie Duquet, a supporter, were discovered and identified.

Recognized by the white handkerchiefs worn over their heads – a symbolic reminder of their children’s nappies – the Association of the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo announced to the press that the 25th annual March of Resistance on 26 January this year would be their last. The Association’s President, Hebe de Bonafini, went on to explain that the Mothers were satisfied with the intentions of the Kirchner Government to assist them in the recovery of the missing. Kirchner ‘signalled that we were his Mothers... he is a friend of the house,’ said de Bonafini. ‘We are making the last March of Resistance because there is no longer an enemy in the Casa Rosada [the Argentine White House].’

Not everyone agrees. The association split in 1986 and a second group – the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo Foundation Line – emerged. It focuses on reparations, the recovery of remains and the prosecution of their children’s murderers. It has also protested the lack of internal democracy and the brusque leadership of de Bonafini, a seamstress who has been president since 1979 and who has radicalized the organization’s political ambitions. The Foundation Line will continue to hold their annual march and both factions will still hold their weekly Thursday protests. A related third group called the Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo will also continue its fight to discover the whereabouts of the desaparecidos – children who were forcibly adopted, sometimes into the families of the military who ran the dictatorship.

Interview with Aram Aharonian, Director General of teleSUR

When South Americans turned on their TVs in November last year, they suddenly found one more channel. Televisora del Sur – more commonly known as teleSUR – is one of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez’s latest projects. With the aim of providing a Latin news perspective on events in South America, it’s a pioneering media experiment that is already causing consternation in the US Congress.

TeleSUR is jointly owned by the governments of Venezuela (51 per cent), Argentina (20 per cent), Cuba (19 per cent) and Uruguay (10 per cent). Another 35 countries around the world are contributing content.

‘It is the first time that we have public television that produces a Latin American view of Latin American affairs,’ says Aram Aharonian, the 54-year-old veteran Uruguayan journalist who heads the board. ‘It is the first time we can look at ourselves with our own eyes and say: “We are this kind of people”; we are not like how the people of the North see us.’

Apart from the international news services such as CNN en Español and the Fox network, local cable services across Latin America are still dominated by dubbed or subtitled programmes from the US, with a handful from Spain and France. Now teleSUR presents a wholly Latin American alternative. Programming covers ‘all themes that have something to do with life in Latin America. Economics, politics, social affairs, culture, history, sports – it is much broader than just news.’ So as the Latin American continent ambles towards a rosier democratic future, the channel should unearth questions of identity alongside those of history, political representation and financial security.

And while Brazil has also recently launched its own news channel that aims to reinforce that country’s standing as regional leader, Aharonian denies that the two stations are in competition: ‘Absolutely not! We exchange content, programming and we are totally in agreement that there should be many Latin American TV stations. We have some kinship to the public television in the US, and we have some similarities with the BBC, but we are not a copy of any other television station.’

Several Republican politicians in the United States – unnerved by President Chávez’s independence and forthrightness – have already labelled teleSUR a mouthpiece for government propaganda no different to those of totalitarian regimes in the 20th century. To prove their point, they draw attention to the installment of Chávez’s minister of information, Andres Izarra, as President of the Board of Directors.

However, the five directors of the station are all seasoned journalists from member countries, claiming a commitment to editorial independence. The advisory board includes Nobel Peace Prize winner Adolfo Pérez Esquivel, writer Tariq Ali, Free Software Foundation founder Richard Stallman and actor Danny Glover. Aharonian predicts that the channel’s multinational backing will be reflected in its direction, which will make it impossible for one interest to dominate. This, he adds, is not the other news network US politicians love to hate – Al Jazeera: ‘We are very different. Al Jazeera is a private business, and we are a state entity of Latin America – a television channel that presents news from several points of view rather than one single perspective, so people can really be informed as to what is happening.’

Although made for local consumption, Aharonian is keen to export teleSUR’s news perspective to the rest of the world. Through satellite coverage the channel can now be seen in North and Central America, the Caribbean, Western Europe and the western tip of North Africa. Indeed, with slogans like ‘Our North is the South’, teleSUR is beaming directly into the White House.

‘There are in reality few opportunities for people in the US to see what is actually happening here [in Latin America],’ says Aharonian. ‘We are transmitting now by internet, but there are many parts of the world that we want to transmit to directly. This is a long way off – we are moving along little by little.’

Despite a late start the station received positive feedback after its first month of broadcasting. At the time Aharonian and I are talking, no audience figures for teleSUR are yet available. Nevertheless, he describes the response from viewers in Latin America, the United States and Europe as very good.

‘We are on the way to making very good television [that is] very different to the only message that comes from the North.’

The US Congress isn’t taking this news lying down. Before teleSUR even made it to air, a Republican-sponsored amendment was passed to initiate broadcasts that will provide ‘accurate, objective and comprehensive’ news to Venezuela. Chávez hit right back with the promise of electronic warfare to block what he labelled a preposterous imperialistic idea. ‘It should not surprise us because we know what the US Government is capable of,’ said Chávez. ‘There is nothing more dangerous than a desperate giant.’

Watch TeleSur streaming live through the website .

Aram Aharonian talked with Sholto Macpherson

Present arms!

With the colour of a carnival attraction, the destruction of the largest number of guns in a single day took place in Brazil on 24 June 2001. More than 100,000 rifles, pistols, revolvers and machine guns were laid out on metal plates stretching 100 metres down the pretty Parque do Flamengo, a square in the seaside city of Rio de Janeiro. Tens of thousands of spectators – some of them previous gun owners – waited behind barricades to watch an excavator drive up and down the plates, crushing the weapons beneath its metal tracks. It marked the first step towards the disarmament of the civilian population in Rio and, four years later, the whole of the country.

Separating a man from his gun is difficult in a Latin country like Brazil. It is even harder in a city like Rio de Janeiro, where small arms have often been seen as the best protection against the violence and crime that plagues it. Guns are the number-one cause of death for men in Rio, and Brazil recorded the second highest rate of deaths by firearms in a 54-country survey conducted by UNESCO released this May.

Nevertheless, the State of Rio de Janeiro is in the middle of a government-sponsored buy-back campaign that has astonished officials with its success. When it began last July, authorities estimated that 80,000 arms would be handed in by December at a price of $20 to $100 each. Instead 250,000 weapons were collected by the end of 2004, prompting the Government to extend the amnesty by another six months. Now the tally is up to 330,000, with more guns being destroyed by the military every day. On 21 May this year, gun collection centres opened nationally. And a ban on civilian sales of small arms will be decided by referendum later this year.

The campaign’s principal engineer is Viva Rio, an NGO established in 1993. As a result of the group’s lobbying, research and education programmes, the Government and public are realizing that a safer Rio is one with fewer guns, not more.

Brazil’s arms dealers exposed

When Viva Rio analyzed military and police gun records stretching back to 1950, the results were surprising, even to the police. While assault rifles like the AK-47 were making the headlines, more than 80 per cent of guns seized by police were pistols and revolvers. Three quarters of the handguns had been locally manufactured – half of those by the country’s largest gun-maker. The data ran counter to the popular belief – pushed strongly by the local arms industry – that the weapons most responsible for the violence in Rio were foreign-made, large-calibre rifles from the US, China, Russia and Israel. That line of argument meant that arms smuggled into the country could only be stopped by better state control of Brazil’s borders.

Not surprisingly, Brazil’s local arms industry has loudly opposed a ban on gun sales and is lobbying to delay the referendum until next year. There is also resistance from the rural upper class, particularly in the south, where large landowners have traditionally organized their own private security by distributing guns to farm workers.

An advertising campaign to strip guns of their sex appeal associated gun ownership with premature ejaculation and small penises

But the greatest obstacle has been psychological. Many Cariocas (as the inhabitants of Rio are known) bought guns to protect their families from gang- and drug-related warfare in the city’s favelas. To counter this rationale Viva Rio argues for better police training, more communication with the community and fewer weapons in the favelas as the only way to guarantee the rights of individuals. While middle-class residents buy guns for protection, in the favelas they are carried as symbols of prestige. Rio’s drug dealers display military-grade rifles like they do their money and women. Challenging this macho image means breaking the link between guns and status.

So Viva Rio ran an advertising campaign that enlisted the help of beautiful actresses from the wildly popular soap operas to strip guns of their sex appeal. The ads, which contained sexual puns associating gun ownership with premature ejaculation and small penises, ran with the slogan ‘Arma não. Ela ou eu’: ‘Say no to small arms. Choose your gun or me.’ Most gun owners are male, but it has been wives and girlfriends that have pushed them to turn in their weapons.

The tragic story behind each gun

The advertising campaign was an instant success, but Viva Rio quickly realized that it needed to be expanded. Soon after the amnesty began, a well-known entrepreneur visited a collection post three times in one week, turning in a total of 12 guns. But it was not enough. The following week the man shot his nine-year-old son and seven-year-old daughter before turning his 13th gun on himself.

‘When we saw that on the news we thought we have to call in the churches,’ said Viva Rio’s André Porto. ‘That man needed to talk. NGOs are secular places. We don’t have this kind of sensitivity.’

By May this year 53 churches in the State of Rio de Janeiro were collecting guns every Saturday, some on Sunday too. On the national day of disarmament on 21 May cathedrals and churches in 102 cities across Brazil collected 1,000 guns in a single day. In a religious country like Brazil, the act of disarmament takes on other dimensions. ‘We believe that when one person disarms it is a spiritual act as well – it is an affirmation of peace,’ says Porto. ‘Every gun has a story to tell and usually it is a tragedy,’ adds Porto’s colleague, Josephine Bourgois. ‘People ask to hammer it themselves, crying and remembering who it had killed.’

Churches, NGOs and the federal police disable weapons on the spot by smashing them with a four-kilogram hammer in three places – the barrel, magazine or chamber and trigger. Maiming the weapons is also a guarantee that they will not be used again. In the past, weapons that were surrendered were often re-sold to criminals by corrupt police officers. One slippery handgun in São Paulo was seized by police seven times.

The range of weapons handed in has been staggering. The largest to date has been a 30-mm machine gun that is capable of shooting down an aircraft. The bomb squad is called in to deal with the hand grenades and explosives.

But despite the thousands of weapons collected, small arms-related violence remains common. Last April in Baixada – the heavily populated lowlands north of Rio – drunken police acting as vigilantes entered a favela and randomly shot dead 29 people.

In addition, there are an estimated 8.7 million illegal firearms still in circulation. But Rubem César Fernandes, Executive Director of Viva Rio, believes that the disarmament of Brazil will take a leap forward if the referendum banning civilian sales wins a simple majority later this year: ‘It will be a very radical restriction of supply.’

And then there are the Cariocas themselves. Each time one decides that a gun doesn’t belong in the hands of a civilian, the country moves one step closer to a lasting peace.

Sholto Macpherson is an Australian-based freelance journalist presently reporting from South America.

Brazil throws Microsoft out of the windows

Brazil has pledged to invest heavily in its own software industry in a bid to keep pace with the technological advance of the developed nations. And to Microsoft’s chagrin, there won’t be a Start button in sight. The Government has thrown its weight behind the open-source software movement and plans to rid all its federal departments of the Microsoft Windows operating system. A driving force behind this initiative is the president of the Government’s National Institute for Information Technology (ITI), Sérgio Amadeu de Silveira. In his book Digital Exclusion: Misery in the Information Era, he argues that access to computing is essential to stop the growing gap between rich and poor. In a country where 46 million live below the poverty line, Amadeu is against proprietary software such as Windows chiefly because of the exorbitant licensing costs. Free software, he believes, will ‘democratize access to knowledge’. He has already built a network of 86 free computing centres in São Paulo. Now he plans to expand this base by setting up the Federal Government as an example for states and business to follow. ‘We have some islands in the Federal Government using open-source, but we want to create a continent,’ said Amadeu in a recent interview.

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