Opinion, by Michael Royster
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – In Brazil’s rural interior, the people who run politics and business and almost all aspects of people’s lives are called “coronéis” or colonels, even though they almost never have any military rank nor even military experience.
The term arose in Brazil’s colonial past, when the emperor sold National Guard commissions to the highest bidders. These, needless to say, were the wealthy owners of large swathes of land, called latifundiários.
During Brazil’s First Republic, the latifundiários completely controlled Brazilian politics, particularly in Brazil’s Northeast (sugarcane), the São Paulo/Minas Gerais axis (coffee and dairy) and Brazil’s “gaucho” South (cattle and grain).
The colonels maintain local power by electing and intimidating mayors and city councilmembers, as well as governors and state legislators. They typically transport their workers to the polling stations, accompanied by enforcers (“capangas”) who ensure the votes go to the colonel’s favored candidates. Colonels have controlled rural life during democratic, authoritarian and military regimes, leftwing or rightwing are meaningless terms in these rural fiefdoms.
The colonels have, in recent decades, begun to expand their control to the national level. President Lula publicly praised the sugarcane industrial magnates, even though their abuses of human and civil rights have been notorious for centuries. He also suppressed the “Sem Terra” movement that had invaded latifúndios in search of land they could farm.
The current “farm lobby” now control over two hundred seats in Brazil’s Chamber of Deputies, all of whom are colonels and all of whom have supported the Temer government. The government, in turn, has repeatedly bowed to their every wish.
The enforcement of deforestation regulations has been effectively discontinued, through under-funding and the appointment of bureaucrats who support agribusiness. The rights of indigenous people have been seriously curtailed, as their traditional territories lose their protected status so that farmers and ranchers can move in.
Last week, the Temer Minister of Labor, in yet another blatant attempt to buy the votes of the farm lobby in order to avoid Temer’s criminal prosecution, issued an order (“Portaria”) that effectively emasculates the efforts to reduce “conditions analogous to slavery”.
In Brazil, slavery is broadly defined as forced labor, debt bondage, degrading conditions that violate human rights or overwork that threatens life or health. This definition, supported by the Human Rights Council of the UN and the International Labor Organization, is anathema to the colonels.
The Portaria does the colonels’ bidding, by creating bureaucratic and substantive obstacles before anyone can be charged with violating the federal statute. Moreover, even though the law calls for the publication of a list of those who have violated the statute, the Temer administration has long refused to do so.
When the Curmudgeon first came to Brazil almost fifty years ago, as a Peace Corps Volunteer, colonels ruled Pernambuco and its neighboring states. Sadly, actively aided and abetted by the Temer administration, they now rule all of Brazil.
That is shameful.