In December 2001 workers took over the Brukman clothing factory in central Buenos Aires in an effort to preserve their livelihoods. Having survived two eviction orders, fended off countless police menaces and amassed an order book of around 4,000 new suits and garments, this year they were eventually ousted by overwhelming brute force.
In the early hours one night last April 300 police officers stormed the factory and enclosed the block around it with a high metal barrier. Three days later, buoyed by previous victories over the law with thousands of supporters fervently backing them, some of the factory's seamstresses breached the fence with the vague aim of seizing the factory back. Absolute mayhem ensued. 'Four of us went in, then the fences collapsed and the police went crazy,' says Brukman seamstress Mathilde Adorno, who recalls walking in a daze through the panic of teargas, water cannon and bullets that followed.
Over 100 people were arrested and dozens injured that day, as street fighting fanned out across nearby streets and even into a children's hospital; the first such battles in the capital for close to a year. From being a symbol of the struggle to retain dignity and employment in Argentina's calamitous depression, the fate of Brukman had instantly become a touchstone for the entire country's future. The first round of Presidential elections was to take place within a week of the fighting - suggesting that political interests were involved in the timing of the police raid.
Neither a conservative judiciary nor the city council, however, appears keen to restore the factory to its blue-collar staff. Instead, they have aired alternatives such as providing another site for a co-operative enterprise, or doling out severance pay, but to no avail. The workers want the factory back, and are convinced that the Brukman family's debts of at least three million pesos (over one million dollars) justify expropriation by the state. The lawyers representing the Brukman family, meanwhile, characterize the workers as troublesome revolutionaries. For the moment, there seems little prospect that the tent will be taken down.
Yet even as they watch their workplace from afar and seethe at the authorities, the workers know that their struggle has contributed to fundamental changes in Argentina. Néstor Kirchner, the newly elected President, has thus far honoured his pledge to clean up the country's institutions, and television images of the Brukman skirmishes seem to have impressed him: the police chief in charge of the April raid has been removed, many departmental chiefs in the Federal Police sacked, and the judge in charge of the case replaced. The country's new Secretary of Human Rights has visited the tent, while the police guards have been ordered not to use any violence against the workers or their fellow protesters.
And Mathilde Adorno has become something of a national celebrity after joining the advance on the armed police ranks in April. 'All our colleagues were putting lemons around their eyes to counter any teargas, but I said "no thank you, my make-up will run",' she chuckles. 'Once the police started, I realized my make-up didn't matter any more.'
Iran on screen
BRAZIL isn't at war and hasn't been since 1945. But recent research shows that deaths from firearms in Rio de Janeiro are higher than in some of the worst conflicts of recent years, including those in Sierra Leone, ex- Yugoslavia and Uganda.
And the cost of this violence? Brazil is estimated to spend 10 per cent of its national income on security. That is 5 times more than its education budget and a staggering 56 times more than the funds for the acclaimed 'Zero Hunger' campaign launched by the progressive President Lula. Violence is clearly blocking development.
Crime has changed the way Brazilians live too. One recent report estimates that in houses across the country there are now 40,000 'panic rooms' (reinforced safe rooms), gated communities have become the norm for the middle classes and some 60 firms currently compete in the bullet-proof vehicle business. The private-security business is also thriving: its employees far outnumber police.
Many choose to arm themselves. If the state cannot provide security, they reason, then they must protect their homes and families themselves. The result is a spiral of fear, a heavily armed populace and cities like Rio de Janeiro plagued by gun-crime.
But there are positive signs of a turning tide. Presenting violence as a disease, an organization called Viva Rio focuses on the gun as the carrier of that disease, and campaigns both to reduce supply and demand of firearms.
Working with the police, Viva Rio has established an innovative community policing project in one of Rio's sprawling favelas (shantytowns). Grassroots conflict mediation centres have been set up so that local disagreements between neighbours or domestic situations can be settled amicably and not with the law of the gun.
Internet centres and computer courses as well as sporting activities and micro-credit schemes all aim to provide greater opportunities for Rio's poor and vulnerable, reducing the risk that they fall into crime. Viva Rio also pressures the Brazilian Government to change the country's gun laws and produces research into gun trafficking and the powerful arms lobbies. In response, the Rio State Government has already passed tough new laws regulating gun ownership.
To help foster a culture of peace Viva Rio also organizes acts of arms destruction. The first ever public burning of weapons in South America took place this year on 12 July. Watched by thousands, almost 5,000 weapons were flattened by a steamroller or burnt in a pyre.
As well as reducing police stockpiles of confiscated weapons and putting thousands of guns permanently out of action, these acts serve as dramatic symbols of the fight for disarmament and peace and help change attitudes towards guns. During the destruction event of 12 July, members of the public were spontaneously moved to hand in firearms. These first small steps at the grassroots level may yet catalyse the Government into doing something about the scourge of violence in Brazil.
No excuses for wife-beating
Pacific Women’s Network Against Violence Against Women, issue 3
Herbal hope for malaria
New Scientist, August 2003
NUMBERS matter. Figures tell a story. And the figure 69,280 holds especially potent meaning for Peruvians these days. The country's Truth and Reconciliation Commission has concluded its inquiries and found that this is the number of people killed or disappeared between 1980 and 2000. It is almost three times the figure previously circulated.
The report holds the Maoist guerrillas of Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) responsible for 54 per cent of the deaths, and the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement responsible for 1.5 per cent. The remainder fell victim to the State's armed forces, presided over by three presidents: Fernando Belaúnde (1980- 85), Alan García (1985-90) and Alberto Fujimori (1990-2000).
Or not so strangely. Let's look at those statistics. Three out of every four victims in Peru were Quechua speakers, members of the country's biggest indigenous community. Some 69 per cent only had primary education; most of the victims, 79 per cent, lived in rural areas. And 40 per cent came from just one department, Ayacucho - one of the three most impoverished in the country. Unlike many of their Argentinean or Chilean counterparts most were not urban, not educated, not Spanish-speaking nor white.
For 22 months the Commission collected evidence from more than 16,000 people in 530 remote parts of Peru and undertook exhumations of mass graves and burial sites. Delivering the report to current President Alejandro Toledo at the end of August, Commission Chair Salomón Lerner did not mince his words: 'The story that is told here talks about us, about what we were and what we must stop being.'
What happens now is uncertain: the Peruvian judiciary must now determine if the officials involved are criminally responsible. The names of 120 people - both military and civilian - are to be presented in a sealed document to the Attorney General's office.
Of the former three presidents implicated, Belaúnde is dead and Fujimori in hiding in Japan. But Alan García, despite having left office under a cloud of criminal corruption charges in 1995, currently heads the main APRA opposition party.
Critics have said that the Commission - which had international observers and monitors - has been too harsh on the State. But the Commission had nothing but condemnation for Sendero Luminoso, who it said 'scorned the value of life, and denied human rights'. The report says the movement 'used extreme violence and unusual maliciousness that included torture and excessive cruelty as forms of punishing or setting examples to intimidate the population that it sought to control'.
Sendero Luminoso has been decapitated, its leader Abimael Guzmán is behind bars. But that should not be cause for complacency. It is widely accepted that Ayacucho, with its poverty, deprivation and neglect was a breeding ground for insurgency. And as the Peruvian weekly Caretas points out: 'The sad - and dangerous - thing is that this situation has not changed substantially since 1980, and shows no sign of changing.'
The report leaves Peruvians with much to dwell on. The Truth Commission's website puts it this way: 'A country that forgets its history is condemned to repeat it. If you lived it, you must not forget it. If you did not live it, you must know what happened.'
© Copyright 2003 New Internationalist
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