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RIGHTS-BRAZIL: 500th Anniversary Fiesta Already a Flop

Commentary Mario Osava

RIO DE JANEIRO, Apr 21 2000 (IPS) - The commemoration of the 500th anniversary of the arrival of the Portuguese has turned into a headache for the Brazilian government, which fears for the success of Saturday’s celebration in Porto Seguro in the northeastern state of Bahia, where the colonisers first landed on Apr 22, 1500.

Protests by indigenous groups and landless activists, who have flocked to the area from across the country, led authorities to post troops throughout Bahia and to sharply limit the programmed visits to the area by presidents Fernando Henrique Cardoso of Brazil and Jorge Sampaio of Portugal.

More than 6,000 military police and soldiers will be mobilised to protect the presidents and provide security at the official ceremonies, with participation by the public tightly restricted in order to avoid the physical barriers that irritate Cardoso when he makes public appearances.

But there will be no way of preventing an adverse international reaction, given the expected presence of at least 350 journalists, many of them foreign correspondents, drawn by recent clashes between protesters and security forces and the possibility of further incidents.

The government has blamed the high level of tension and violent incidents in the area on the Landless Movement (MST). Cardoso, who vowed that the powerful national movement would not derail the government’s celebrations, described the activists as “agitators” who have “deviated from democratic legality.”

The main protest, however, is being staged by the more than 2,000 participants at the Conference of Indigenous Peoples and Organisations of Brazil, which began Tuesday in Playa Coroa Vermelha, 15 kms from Porto Seguro.

On Saturday, the indigenous delegates will join MST activists, representatives of the Black movement, trade unionists and students in the “Other 500” protest, which organisers hope will draw 40,000 demonstrators.

As the participants arrive, mainly by bus, they will face police roadblocks, and observers warn of the risk of further violent clashes.

The Bahia military police announced that they would crack down on activity opposed to the official celebrations – demonstrating their intent by blocking access to the region by MST members, and by destroying, on Apr 4, a monument being built by a local indigenous community in homage to ancestors who fell victim to Portuguese colonisation.

The backlash against the police brutality forced the government to back off and allow the monument to be rebuilt. But the incident heightened the tension, and gave the indigenous conference – which several pragmatic leaders intended as a forum to seek solutions for the future – an even more markedly oppositional overtone.

This came on top of errors committed by the government in the preparations for the celebration, which led many to warn that it would be a fiasco.

The commemoration of the so-called “discovery” of what is today Brazil is “a disgrace, a bunch of nonsense, like making copies of the caravels,” the ships in which the Portuguese arrived in 1500, said Black historian Joel Rufino dos Santos, who has held important cultural positions in the government.

The historian criticised the government’s failure to include indigenous people and Blacks, who were essential to the formation of Brazil, in the events surrounding the 500th anniversary.

According to Rufino dos Santos, the errors began with the make- up of the inter-ministerial commission created to organise the “Brazil 500 Years” events, which was dominated by conservative authorities, including senior military officers.

The “colonialist” character of what was basically organised as a “frivolous” party even drew the criticism of the Portuguese delegates sitting on the organising commission, he added.

For example, the fiesta is being organised in southern Bahia, where the Pataxo Indians live in appalling conditions and are struggling to recuperate land appropriated by local landowners, in a fight that has involved violent incidents and has even cost lives. The tension has been particularly high since late last year.

The date itself is seen as a provocation. Apr 19 was Brazil’s National Day of Indigenous Peoples, and Friday was the third anniversary of the death of Pataxo leader Galdino Jesus dos Santos, who was burnt alive in Brasilia by youths who took him for a homeless person as he dozed at a bus stop with nowhere to stay, on a visit to the capital to discuss the problems plaguing his people.

This is also a time of protest for the MST, because on Apr 17, 1996, 19 landless activists were killed in the northern state of Para, and the military police who committed the massacre have gone unpunished.

The movement – which is fighting for faster, more effective land reform – has announced that it will occupy 500 plots of land left idle, and claimed to have carried out over 100 occupations by midday Wednesday.

Minister of Agrarian Development Raul Jungmann refused to dialogue with the MST because a group of landless activists has occupied the headquarters of the ministry’s Institute of Agrarian Colonisation and Reform, in Salvador, the capital of Bahia, since Monday.

The minister announced this week that rural settlements comprised of peasant farmers awarded plots of land would be put under the responsibility of landowners and agribusiness companies – a measure opposed by the MST, which complains that it would mean the privatisation and essential derailing of the agrarian reform process.

Another problem is the supposed “privatisation” of the 500th anniversary celebrations. Publicity for the celebrations was monopolised by the Globo TV network, which built clocks in the main cities of Brazil to tick off the countdown to Apr 22.

A week ago, indigenous protesters shot arrows at the clock in Brasilia, seen as a symbol of appropriation of the national date by the private economic group that dominates TV broadcasting in Brazil.

Later, students and trade unionists tried to destroy the clocks set up in Rio de Janeiro and Fortaleza, the capital of the northeastern state of Ceara, triggering a harsh police crackdown which left a number of people injured or arrested.

Against that backdrop, there is little chance of salvaging the government’s big bash Saturday.

Cardoso’s advisers even considered cancelling his visit to Porto Seguro, according to the daily ‘O Estado de Sao Paulo’. But the government cannot simply telephone the guest of honour, Portuguese President Sampaio, and tell him the whole thing is off.

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