Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Upheaval in São Paulo as students protest a plan to close down public schools (Dec. 2, 2015)

A proposal to reorganize São Paulo's public schools -- which would close 92 establishments and move courses in another 754 -- has had the Brazilian state in upheaval for a few weeks. The protests this week have been particularly heated, at students across the state have occupied approximately 200 schools in protest of Governor Geraldo Alckmin's plan. 

Yesterday the State Public Ministry announced it would request an injunction against the proposed "reorganization," reports El País Brazil. Prosecutors believe that the proposed changes are not intended to improve the quality of education, but rather in order to save funds, reports Folha de S. Paulo

Students took to the streets in different locations around the Sao Paulo yesterday, temporarily closing down avenues. O Globo reports that one group of about 70 students occupied stretch of Avenida Nove, in downtown São Paulo -- with the slogan of "Now the class is on the street." 

In one case parents and military policy stormed an occupied school using pepper spray to contain students, who later reoccupied. Folha de S. Paulo has video. The São Paulo police ombudsman has already requested that the State Prosecutor and the Internal Affairs Division of the Military Police investigate the conduct of the police in two of the schools occupied by students, reports Folha de S. Paulo.

This morning police used force to clear an avenue some 30 students were blocking in the west of the city, reports Folha de S. Paulo.

Nonetheless, despite escalating tensions, Alckmin is advancing with the reform. Yesterday he published a decree authorizing the transfer of employees in order to implement the reordering of teaching establishments, reports Folha de S. Paulo.

The plan would create schools exclusively teaching one "cycle" of education -- primary, intermediate or secondary. Authorities say the approach will lead to improved teaching quality and better use of resources. The school closure policy is purportedly intended to make the school system more efficient, but students are concerned that classes in the remaining schools will be too full, reports Al Jazeera. Opponents say that the reorganization will disrupt students' lives and that the involved parties were not consulted.

O Globo reports that the reorganization would force 311,000 students (out of a total of 3.8 million enrolled) and 74,000 teachers to move.
Protesting students are seeking a commitment from the government of Sao Paulo to keep all schools open, halt any teacher dismissals, and for students participating in the occupations to be absolved of any wrong-doing, reports TeleSur.

The occupations have becoming increasingly organized, with volunteers at some schools offering a wide range of classes and workshops in place of the regular curriculum, reports TeleSur. The longest occupied schools have been run by students for nearly a month already, and they have been cleaning, cooking and even installed showers in some, reports Folha de S. Paulo.

In a statement of support for the students, the Campanha Nacional pelo Direito à Educaçao notes that respect for the right to education would require opening schools not closing them. "Due to the lack of technical criteria or a public document justifying the measure, everything indicates that it's an action oriented towards reducing costs and to disclaim state responsibility for enrollment, pressuring the transference of responsibility to the municipalities." The problem is hardly limited to Sao Paulo state however, the organization notes that more than 40,700 schools in the country were shut down between 2002 and 2014. Calling for legislation to address the issue, it says "the country must avoid and problematize the closing of schools."

El País Brazil compares the leaderless occupations to the Movimento Passe Livre, which in 2013 forced the government to back down from a proposed transportation fare increase after protests broke out across the country.
Like that movement, the protesters have developed a wider agenda. They are now also protesting the state of the public education system -- noting classrooms filled beyond capacity, lack of basic supplies such as tables, chairs and computers, absent teachers and inadequate security, reports Al Jazeera.

"The conditions at our schools are precarious enough and with these closures, they will only get more precarious," 18-year-old Eudes Cassio da Silva Oliveira at the Fernao Dias school told Al Jazeera.

News Briefs
  • Four military police officers in Rio de Janeiro were arrested following allegations that they killed five black and mixed-race youths from a favela and then falsified evidence at the crime scene to make it appear like self-defense, reports The Guardian. Three have been charged with homicide while the fourth is charged with falsifying evidence. It's only the latest in a long list of horrifying killings by Rio's police. (See Nov. 4th's and Nov. 11th's posts.) The families of the  five victims from the Morro da Lagartixa community – all aged 16 to 25 years old -- say they were executed in their car without a chance to surrender. The five childhood friends were buried on Monday. Protesters held a demonstration the same day. Some carried a Brazilian flag riddled with 50 bullet holes – the same number fired at the car – and the name of the victims. The arrested officers are from the 41º military police battalion, in Irajá, the most violent in the city, reports Folha de S. Paulo.

  • On a national scale, the economic and political storm Brazil is braving continues. Congress again delayed a vote on to change the budget's fiscal target  in order to permit government to end the year with a deficit of 120 billion reais, reports Folha de S. Paulo. (See yesterday's briefs.) A New York Times piece reviews the many elements besieging the country: the worst economic performance in twenty years, the economy shrunk by 1.7 in the third quarter; an ever growing corruption scandal that is jailing powerful figures adding to the political gridlock that is tripping up President Dilma Rousseff's attempts to pass austerity measures; and uncertainty over her political survival which is deepening the "crisis of confidence in the nation." As if all of that weren't enough, economists are arguing whether the few austerity measures the government has been able to enact are worsening the downturn. Unemployment rose to nearly 9 percent in the third quarter, up from 6.8 percent in the same period last year.
  • The political gridlock has only been worsened by the arrest last week of Senator Delcídio do Amaral on charges of obstructing justice. A member of the ruling leftist Workers' Party, he is a Senate whip and  was Rousseff's point man in the upper house of congress, seen as key to winning enough support to pass her unpopular budget cuts, reports the Wall Street Journal. (See yesterday's and Monday's briefs.)
  • Yesterday members of the Brazilian House Ethics Committee spent several hours debating whether to strip House Speaker Eduardo Cunha of his position after being charged with money laundering and corruption, reports the Wall Street Journal. See yesterday's briefs.) They did not reach a decision yesterday, and adjourned in order to attend the joint session for the budget. (See above.) The delay is a victory for Cunha, who has denied any wrongdoing and said the charges were politically motivated.
  • Former Argentine president Carlos Saul Menem was convicted and sentenced to more than four years of prison yesterday for overseeing the embezzlement of public funds to pay bonuses to government officials during his presidency in the 1990s, reports the New York Times. The court found that Menem had devised a scheme in which money set aside for an intelligence agency was periodically funneled away to pay a total of $466 million to government workers in addition to their regular salaries. Menem's lawyers say they will appeal. In anycase, the 85-year-old Senator has congressional immunity until the end of his term in Dec. 2017, so he will not serve a prison sentence or house arrest until then.
  • For the first time, the Colombian government has declined to extradite to the United States a leftist rebel accused of drug trafficking. The move is significant as the country is attempting to conclude peace negotiations with the rebel FARC, reports Reuters. A key demand of the former rebels is protection against extradition to the U.S. In the past Colombia has extradited FARC members for crimes, including drug trafficking and kidnapping. Last week, President Juan Manuel Santos ordered the release of 30 rebels being held in Colombian jails, which is interpreted as a gesture meant to show confidence in the peace talks, reports Reuters.
  • U.S. officials announced they will be holding expert-level meetings with their Cuban counterparts to see how both governments can fight people smuggling networks that have taken advantage of Cuban migrants attempting to reach the U.S., reports the Miami Herald. (See Nov. 25th's post.)
  • Cuban officials are stonewalling U.S. attempts to do business with the island, as an attempt to push for Congress to lift the half-century-old trade embargo. On a visit to Cuba's new Mariel port and free trade zone yesterday, Texas Governor Greg Abbott was told by Cuban officials that the embargo means there is no opportunity for U.S. businesses to invest there, reports the Associated Press. He told officials that Texas has an abundance of rice and other products that can be easily exported to Cuba, but was told that Cuba would buy rice from other sources, primarily Vietnam, until the U.S. allowed the communist-run island to buy on credit, a measure currently prohibited by the embargo.
  • Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro's popularity has jumped by more than 11 points to 32 percent in late November, according to a new Datanalisis poll. The ruling Socialist party is reaping the rewards of going on the offensive against foes, distributing resources in key districts and playing up the memory of deceased former president Hugo Chávez, reportsReuters. Nonetheless, the opposition is still leading in the polls for this weekend's National Assembly elections. According to the survey 55.6 percent of voters are planning to back the Democratic Unity coalition, which groups all main opposition parties, while 36.8 percent plan to vote for the government's candidates.
  • Economic malaise is a key issue for voters. The Miami Herald reports on the various desperate strategies employed by citizens to obtain diapers, baby formula and soap and shampoo. "In a sense, the economy has turned everybody into a hoarder. On a recent weekday, when a shipment of tampons came into a local pharmacy in an upscale neighborhood of Caracas, business men on their lunch break were scooping them up by the handful. While some said they were taking them to their spouses, others said they hoped they might be able to trade them with friends for other toiletries."
  • Yesterday, Maduro threatened to jail local managers of Kraft Heinz for economic sabotage. He said the U.S.-based company was purposefully trying to sow discontent by paralyzing production lines, reports the Associated Press. During a four-hour television program he said that workers had denounced the food and beverage company for "unjustifiably" paralyzing production lines, reports Reuters.
  • An independent police complaints commission -- Indecom -- is battling rampant police violence in Jamaica. Founded five years ago after pressure from the United States over the scale of human rights abuses by security forces in Jamaica, in the past two years Indecom has charged 98 officers with serious offenses – including 58 with murder. Several cases involve allegations that police planted firearms on victims at the scene. So far this year 93 civilians have been killed by Jamaican police, who have a reputation for being one the deadliest security forces in the world, according to The Guardian.
  • The Argentine Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo announced that they have found the son of a woman who was held captive by the military junta in the 1970s and 80s. The man, Mario Bravo, was taken from his mother as an infant while she was in jail and given to military government supporters to bring up. Unusually, his mother was not executed but was released and is still alive. He is the 119th child stolen by repressors in that period to be found by the Grandmothers, reports the BBC
  • In Mexico, a coalition of health and consumer rights groups are calling on the National Council to Prevent Discrimination to pull a Coke ad it says is offensive to indigenous people and could contribute to a deterioration in their health. The ad has been criticised for its depiction of light-skinned, model-like young people joyously constructing a Coca-Cola tree in town and hauling in coolers of Coke, reports The Guardian. Mexico has been battling consumption of sugary soft drinks for a few years, as they contribute to a growing obesity epidemic. See Oct. 28th's briefson the results of 10 percent national tax on sugary drinks implemented two years ago. The tax on sugary drinks has been held up as an example for other countries to follow, especially as diseases like diabetes and obesity boom in the developed and developing world alike, reports The Guardian.
  • The future of U.S. relations with the rest of the Americas and in particular Mexico will be defined by the country's growing Hispanic population, according to a Center for American Progress report.

  • This weekend attackers with guns and machetes killed at least six people -- three of them children -- in what appears to be the third massacre in a week in Honduras, reports AFP.

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