WikiLeaks: Feudal Social Relations in the Brazilian Countryside

This past fall, I had the opportunity to observe the first round of Brazil's presidential election. In a logistical feat, the government managed to draw correspondents from all over the world for the occasion while taking care of all travel amenities. Politically and economically, Brazil has been on a roll over the past ten years or so, and the country has spared no expense when it comes to showing off its many accomplishments. Yet peer beneath the surface, and the South American powerhouse is still pre-modern in many ways. That, at least, was the impression I got from reading recently disclosed U.S. diplomatic cables from the whistle-blowing outfit WikiLeaks.

Even as Brazil seeks to hype its PR image to the outside world, the countryside remains violent, anarchic and backward. In 2004, for example, scores of diamond prospectors were killed by members of a local indigenous tribe in the Brazilian jungle. The circumstances surrounding the massacre were unclear, however, with the Indians claiming they were simply defending their lands against illegal miners. The police on the other hand countered that indigenous leaders were involved in diamond trafficking and wanted to display a show of force "against those who failed to give them their share."

The anarchic situation in the countryside was compounded by the Luiz Inácio "Lula" da Silva government, which had "been slow to take the initiative on indigenous issues." On the campaign trail in 2002, Lula had spoken about the need to demarcate and register Indian lands promptly. However, Indian leaders later soured on the president, expressing disappointment to U.S. officials that Lula had not paid enough attention to their issues. Fundamentally, they reported, Lula was too beholden to powerful provincial politicians tied to major landowners.

When I visited Brazil this past year, officials were quick to tout the country's stable and efficient political institutions. Yet, WikiLeaks documents paint a different picture and suggest that the Brazilian government has a long way to go. Take, for example, Brazil's National Indian Foundation or FUNAI which is hardly up to the task of bringing order to the countryside. Publicly, FUNAI has admitted that there are problems with the land demarcation process but claims that underfunding, understaffing, corruption and internal conflicts make it difficult to carry out claims.

WikiLeaks documents furthermore suggest that FUNAI is hardly a model of upright ethical conduct, with some even charging that FUNAI officials themselves were involved in diamond trafficking. When U.S. officials visited FUNAI offices, they observed the agency's "budgetary malaise" first hand and remarked upon the poor upkeep of institutional headquarters. The Americans played "guess the floor" as they rode up in the elevator as half of the buttons were unmarked. Moreover, U.S. officials remarked, "although cosmetically peppered with works of art, the drab walls of FUNAI also spoke of years of institutional neglect."

With FUNAI failing to live up to its duties or severely compromised, powerful interests have stepped into the power vacuum in the countryside. One provincial governor opposed creating large indigenous reservations in his area, calling instead for the creation of a so-called "archipelago" of lands. The governor was allied in turn to farmers as well as the state's federal Senators and even the Brazilian Minister of Defense Jose Viegas who feared that creating indigenous reservations would imperil the military's ability to project its power in remote border regions.

According to WikiLeaks documents, the Brazilian military held socially retrograde views of indigenous people in the countryside. As recently as 2009, U.S. Chargé d'Affaires Lisa Kubiske noted that officers held the general opinion "that the Indians don't produce anything but the farmers do, so the farmers should be the ones using the land." In a sign of the times, Augusto Heleno, a four-star army general, received rousing applause after speaking out against indigenous demarcation at Rio de Janeiro's Military Club. Following his broadside, Heleno ominously declared "the Army High Command is an organization that serves the Brazilian state, not the government."

As I point out in my recent book, the Brazilian countryside can seem downright feudal in its social relations, and WikiLeaks cables reinforce this view. According to U.S. diplomats, state and local political leaders in Mato Grosso do Sul "scoff at the legitimacy of Indian demands, saying this would break the back of the region's prosperity." Within the central Brazilian state, thriving sugarcane, cattle, wood and soy production had thrown the Indians off their ancestral lands. Speaking with state and local leaders, American officials found politicians to be "adamant in their rejection of Indian land demands. They also had strong criticisms of Indian attitudes and culture."

For insight into the backward and downright narrow-minded perspective of the Brazilian rural elite, WikiLeaks cables can make for illuminating reading. Take, for example, Mato Grosso do Sul governor Andre Puccinelli, who "scoffed at the idea that land, in an agricultural state like Mato Grosso to Sul, could be taken away from productive farmers." Local officials, meanwhile, "asked how the local Indians claim to be indigenous, when these same Indians 'use cars, sneakers, drugs?'" Speaking to the Americans, these same officials "complained about state subsidies to the Indians, stating that the latter 'would have to learn to work like everyone else.'"

In its PR efforts, Brazil has sought to project an image of political and economic stability. Head out into the rural hinterland, however, and it becomes clear that the country has a long way to go. Far from displaying a sense of modernity, the Brazilian countryside is a lawless area with downright feudal relations, a sclerotic and ineffectual state bureaucracy and racist and elitist landowners allied to powerful politicians.