Amazon fires and Brazilian history

Some things we need to know (including a US-orchestrated military coup)

by Ken Sehested
10 October 2019

“The Amazon is not burning—it is being burned.”

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        Years ago, on a speaking assignment in Brazil, I flew to Rio de Janeiro, where I was met by several new acquaintances. After introductions and handshakes, we drove into the city to where I would be staying for the week.

        On our way, we drove along a highway below Corcovado Mountain, on whose perch sits the famous “Christ the Redeemer” statue, for many years the tallest in the world.

        I craned my neck to get a view; and then quietly mumbled, “Don’t jump! Don’t jump!” It was just loud enough to be overheard. At which point the car erupted in laughter.

        I knew then that my new friends shared my streak of irreverence, particularly over frivolous escapades of public piety, with which the powerful almost always disguise their intrigues.

        Brazil (spelled Brasil by its citizens) is getting more attention in recent months, primarily because of the massive fires raging in the Amazon rainforest, most of which is within Brazil’s boundary, but also stretches into eight neighboring countries. This year nearly over 72,00 fires have broken out, an increase of 80% over the same period in 2018.

        Sometimes referred to as the earth’s lungs, the forest supplies some 20% of the world’s oxygen and sequesters a quarter of the carbon dioxide absorbed by the world’s forests. But the forest is also home to an estimated 300,000 indigenous people belonging to hundreds of distinct tribes. Brazil’s 1988 Constitution explicitly stipulates that population’s claim to the land.

        Here in North America we’ve come to learn that wildfires are part of our forests’ ecosystem. But not so with rainforests. The Amazon, as has been said, is not burning—it is being burned. And this is bad news, not just for those living in the region, but for the entire planet.

        The reasons for the forest’s scorching, along with the displacement of its indigenous residents, are as old as its geologic formation: the seemingly inexhaustible demands for “development.” Meaning, more stuff. Growth as a measure of girth. The extractive impulse, where calculations of progress are left in the hands of corporations and financiers and those doing their bidding.

        Cattle farmers and plantations want to squeeze more “productivity” from the land. Loggers want its timber. Miners want its metals, minerals, and gemstones. The quickest way to gain access is to torch it.

        Adding to these damages are droughts compounded by climate change. Normally “fire-proof” rainforests are more susceptible to burning.

        Environmental activists and advocates for the health of local communities face growing peril. In 2018, in Brazil alone, 70 were murdered. Few assailants are brought to justice.

        Brazil’s new president, Jair Bolsonaro—referred to as the “Trump of the Tropics” for his right-wing proclivities—made accelerated economic development of the rainforest a key pledge in his 2018 presidential campaign, and existing environmental laws are routinely ignored.

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Life in Amazonia has perhaps never before been so threatened “by environmental destruction and
exploitation and by the systematic violation of the basic human rights of the Amazon population. . . .”
—Brazilian Roman Catholic Cardinal Claudio Hummes, in his opening remarks to the
“Synod of Bishops on the Amazon,” currently (6-27 October 2019) meeting in Rome

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        Prior to the Western media’s coverage of the Amazon fires, North Americans knew little of Brazil. Some recall coverage of the 2016 Olympic games there. Some know about the extravagant Carnival parades, overshadowing the Mardi Gras festivities in New Orleans just prior to Lent; or the famed soccer player Pelé; or the country’s renowned Ipanema and Copacabana beaches. I didn’t know prior to my trip that more African slaves disembarked in Brazil than in any other country during the 16th-18th century Atlantic slave trade.

Right: Tanks on the streets of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, on 31 May 1964, start of the US-backed military coup

        I would venture that even fewer of my fellow citizens know that the US encouraged, organized, and supplied a 1964 coup d’état creating a military dictatorship that ruled Brazil for 21 years.

        Declassified documents released in 1974 revealed that the US government actively plotted to overthrow the democratically elected government of President João Goulart, including orchestration with key Brazilian military leaders and the resources of a US naval carrier group, which transported ammunition, oil, gasoline and other war materiel.

        “I think one of our important jobs is to strengthen the spine of the [Brazilian] military," US Ambassador Lincoln Gordon told the President [Kennedy] and his advisor, Richard Goodwin, according to a secretly taped meeting in the Oval Office with Kennedy on 30 July 1962. Kennedy would be assassinated before the coup commenced on 31 March 1964; President Lyndon B. Johnson gave the actual go-ahead.

        Paramount among US fears of the Goulart government was its relative independence, a risky stance in the geopolitics of the Cold War; Goulart’s promise to remove Western companies’ control of Brazilian oil production, along with other social and economic reforms; and the ever-present US fear of communism.

        Latin America “has always understood that governments which we recognize and support stay in power,” said Under-Secretary of State Robert Olds in 1927 testimony to Congress, “while those we do not recognize and support fail.”

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“When I give people food, they call me a saint. When I ask why there is no food, they call me a communist.”
—Brazilian Archbishop (1964-1985) Hélder Câmara

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        Of special note is the way religious piety is manipulated during this history. In the months leading up to the coup, a coalition of right-wing sectors in Brazil organized a march to protest Goulart’s rule, under the banner of “Marches of the Family with God for Freedom.” Then, during Bolsonaro’s campaign, his party’s popular motto was “Brasil above everything, God above everyone” (eerily parallel to Trump’s “America First” slogan).

        During a 2016 trip to Israel, Bolsonaro, a professed Catholic, asked prominent Pentecostal pastor (and head of Brazil’s Christian Social Party) Everaldo Pereira to baptize him in the Jordan River in a flagrant attempt to cement his political ties to Brazil’s sizeable, deeply conservative evangelical Christian community.

        In his book, “The Future Church,” journalist John L. Allen Jr. noted that in 1969, then-New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller predicted that “The Catholic Church has stopped being a trusted ally of the US, and on the contrary is transforming itself into a danger because it raises the consciousness of the people.” The governor went on to recommend that the US support fundamentalist Protestant groups in Latin America.

        A few years later, in 1982, a group of President Ronald Reagan’s advisors, meeting in Santa Fe shortly before Reagan’s trip to Rome for a meeting with the Pope, openly discussed how to deal with theological trends in Latin America. In their “Santa Fe Document” they wrote that “American foreign policy must begin to counterattack liberation theology.” It accused liberation theologians of using the church “as a political weapons against private property and productive capitalism by infiltrating the religious community with ideas that are less Christian than Communist.”

        Clearly, the mantle of authority granted to “Christ the Redeemer” is contested by conflicting loyalties and incompatible claims. The stakes are high, and the spirits must be tested (cf. 1 John 4:1).

        The desolation caused by the fires could be a mirror into which not just Brazilians but all of us, particularly those of us in the US, can peer to get a more accurate picture of who we have become. And, maybe, of whom, for whom, and by Whom we wish to be.

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