Meet the Santander Scholars

This post was contributed by Andrew Youngson, media and communications officer

“Why are you the ideal candidate to receive the £5,000 Santander scholarship?”

This is the question posed to all Latin American students hoping to be selected for a special scholarship opportunity at Birkbeck. It’s a straightforward question, but one that needs a certain amount of objectivity and a keen insight into your skills and plans for the future to answer effectively.

Each year – providing they have an unconditional offer from the college – applicants are invited to answer the question in an essay of no more than 500 words. If successful, they receive £5000 to be applied towards their course tuition fees at Birkbeck – a significant sum of money that is provided by the college’s longstanding corporate partners, Santander.

Lauren Prone, Head of International Marketing and Recruitment at Birkbeck said: “We are very grateful for Santander’s donation, which has allowed Birkbeck to support the studies of promising scholars from across Latin America.

“This has proved highly attractive opportunity for students to pursue their passions, and in the past two years since launching the scholarship, it has been granted to students pursuing a range of courses, including the Arts, Social Sciences and Business Studies.”

Michael Wilson, University Regional Manager-London and East for Santander Universities UK, said: “We signed our agreement with Birkbeck in 2013 and we are delighted to see how the students have benefitted from this agreement.

“Talented young people have been able to study in the UK thanks to our funding and UK students have been able to have study abroad experiences. We are extremely pleased with the university’s approach to internationalisation and the transfer of knowledge between universities and we are proud to be part of this long-term partnership.”

So, who are the latest lucky recipients of the Santander scholarship? We caught up with the three successful applicants from the 2015-16 intake, to find out how they are getting on in their studies.

Camila_Villegas-0623

 

Camila Villegas

  • MA Arts Policy and Management
  • From Bogota, Colombia

 

 

 

 

How are you finding Birkbeck’s learning environment?

“My teachers here have been really supportive, and have always been available to help me. It has been a major shift for me educationally, because British education is very theoretical and I hadn’t experienced that much before. So it’s been challenging. For example, I didn’t do a dissertation at my last university; it was just projects and portfolios. I had never done research before, and it’s been a while since I have done essays, so it’s been a challenge, but I feel there’s a lot of support here.”

Read Camila’s full interview here and watch her video interview in English here and below, and in Spanish here.

 

Fernanda_Costa-0654

 

Fernanda Costa

  • BA History and Archaeology
  • From Curitiba, Brazil

 

 

How are you finding the Birkbeck experience?

“I’m really enjoying my lectures. At first I wasn’t keen on the seminars because I don’t like speaking up, but now I enjoy the discussions. I’m talking much more in class than I used to. At first I didn’t think I was clever enough but I feel like I understand the readings a lot better now so that has helped my confidence.”

What is the makeup of your classes?

“There’s a real mix. There are people of all sorts of ages – from my age, some are a bit younger, and some who are much older which is really nice because they have so much more life experience. I find that listening to what other people have to say is really mind-opening because hearing different points of view helps you rethink your own.”

Read Fernanda’s full interview here and watch her video interview in English here, and in Portuguese here and below.

 

Diana_Navia-0727

 

Diana Navia

  • MSc International Management
  • From Bogota, Colombia

 

 

 

 

How did it feel to be selected for the Santander scholarship?

“I was very happy, very very happy. I think you feel it’s like you are pursuing your dreams, you’ve found the right path and finally you’re going to achieve your goals. I was so happy to hear I got it, I think I must have called everyone to tell them!”

Read Diana’s full interview here and watch her video interview in Spanish here and below.

Applications for the 2016-17 cohort of Santander scholarships are now open, and must be made before 1 June 2016. Scholarship recipients will be chosen based on academic promise, the essay, the personal statement submitted with the course application, and need. The £5,000 scholarship will be applied towards course tuition fees.

Apply here

scholarship_students-0699

The Santander Scholars (left to right): Camila Villegas, Fernanda Costa and Diana Navia

Find out more

. Reply . Category: Uncategorized . Tags: , , , ,

Languages….what for?

Renata ArchanjoThis post was contributed by Dr Renata Archanjo, an Associate Research Fellow in Birkbeck’s Department of Applied Linguistics and Communication and the Centre for Multilingual and Multicultural ResearchIn her research, she has worked on questions about multilingual education and language policies for the improvement of languages teaching and learning strategies. Dr Archanjo is also an Associate Professor of Foreign Language and Applied Linguistics at the Federal University of Rio Grande do Norte (UFRN), Brazil.

If Brazil hopes to ensure the success of international educational exchange programmes and boost the internationalisation of economic, political, social, educational, and cultural initiatives, it needs to develop comprehensive programmes to promote multilingualism.

In Europe, the acquisition of one or more foreign languages makes a lot of sense, especially if one considers all of the countries in the European Union (EU), and others in the process of integration. According to EU policy, the promotion of language learning is an objective to be fulfilled. The inclusion of regional, minority and sign languages into society, the promotion of early language learning and bilingual education are some more specific linguistic policies. The aim is to ensure that European citizens will be empowered by those linguistic tools to move, learn, and work freely within the EU, contributing to the region’s development and the improvement of living standards. I regard this as a good strategy.

Interestingly enough, a similar policy to what happens in the EU has recently been adopted in my home country, Brazil. It is just a beginning, but more is expected to happen in the near future. In Brazil, having “one country, one language” is believed to be a mark of national identity. This is a Portuguese-speaking country, surrounded by Spanish-speaking neighbouring countries. The setting is that of a poor, third-world country. Perhaps for this reason, for several decades, public policy priorities were centred more on social and economic issues and, with less diversity, mobility and intercultural interactions than in the European context, little attention was given to language policies.

All of this has changed. Today, Brazil is the 7th major economy in the World, one of the BRICS countries, an emergent force in the G20, the leading political and economic group of world nations. The country tries to boost its development in and outwards with economic, political, social, educational, and cultural initiatives in several domains. In the education domain, particularly in the higher education sector, internationalisation is at the forefront. In line with successful initiatives in Europe such as the international mobility programmes like Erasmus, Brazil launched the Science without Borders Programme (SwB), in 2011, targeting the consolidation and expansion of science, technology and innovation. Brazilian students and researchers are awarded grants in order to go to centres of excellence all over the world for a year of exchange study. Accordingly, the programme also grants substantial resources to allow students and researchers from abroad to go to Brazil.

As expected, language competence is here of major importance. Just as European language policies promote multilingualism, Brazil needs to implement policies to ensure a multilingual education. In my current research about the linguistic competencies of Brazilian undergraduate students attending the SwB Program, the first results indicate that a high percentage of students are sent abroad with a low level of proficiency in foreign language. The results also show the improvement in language skills for the majority of students at the end of the mobility programme – which is something to be expected when one is immersed in a foreign language environment. However, language is a means – not the objective – in the SwB programme, and it should be expected that students have a good foundation and language skills beforehand. So far, Brazil is rated very low regarding linguistic capability as perceived and recognized by specialised rankings such as the EF English Proficiency Index. The country appears here in the 38th position, in the range of countries with low proficiency in English. This is something that policy-makers should worry about.

Reacting to that, a good governmental initiative has been recently announced: the Languages without Borders Programme. Developed under the auspices of the Brazilian Ministry of Education, its main goal is to encourage the learning of foreign languages by ensuring an extensive and structural change in the national foreign language teaching system in universities. Like other nations in the world, Brazil appears to understand that the teaching and learning of foreign languages are of major importance, not only for personal achievements, but for the national economic and scientific development. In a country championing social and economic equality, any initiative to improve education, especially in the public system, is to be welcomed. Much more has yet to be done and not only in higher education, as the gap in the domain of languages (both first and foreign languages) starts at an early age.

The answer to the question ‘Languages… What for?’ is not a simple one. A language helps to shape an identity. Through language we give sense to the world. Linguistic knowledge might bring development. At least, it is a condition that must be fulfilled for development to occur. In this case, a multilingual education should be provided. More importantly, extra linguistic knowledge will boost general discernment, the lenses to see the world in a more comprehensive way. Here, again, a multilingual education is critical.

. Read all 3 comments . Category: Social Sciences History and Philosophy . Tags: , , , , ,

Latin America is being transformed by a vision of post-human rights

This post was contributed by Dr Oscar Guardiola-Rivera of Birkbeck’s School of Law. It originally appeared on The Guardian.

In Latin America, as elsewhere, progressive governments of the centre and left struggle with a seemingly intractable dilemma: should the country exploit its natural resources to the fullest, no matter what the consequences – or consider ethical questions such as the wellbeing of the natural environment and future generations?

Countries such as Colombia, Ecuador, Bolivia, Argentina and Brazil hope to benefit from the commodity boom in global markets, fuelled by demand in China and elsewhere. At the same time their constitutions, as well as the manifestos of progressive political parties, pledge allegiance to a whole new variety of non- and post-human rights – rights of nature, declarations of inter-generational justice, and the recognition of Amerindian cultures.

These cultures are being celebrated in Beyond El Dorado, an exhibition at the British Museum in London. It includes hundreds of gold objects excavated in the early 20th century; and ceramics and stone necklaces from the Museo del Oro in Bogotá – which has one of the best collections of pre-Hispanic gold in the world – and the British Museum’s unique collections.

The British public has responded en masse to the profound spiritual and aesthetic message expressed by the gold objects displayed in the museum. But now it is time to consider the ethical and political implications of that message: not as a relic of the distant past, but because it may contain some of the answers we desperately seek to the most relevant questions of our time. A discussion organised by the Guardian and the British Museum next month aims to do just that with the help of a distinguished panel.

These big questions – climate change, food security, equality – are already being discussed in Latin America thanks to the social movements that are helping to remould politics and political discourse. In these countries both the electoral survival of progressive parties and the continuity of crucial processes of reconciliation and democratisation depend on the support of increasingly active social movements. These often include rural as well as urban campaigners, concerned about the social and environmental devastation caused by global market forces.

In this respect, social movements in the Americas display an attitude that cannot be dismissed simply as backwards or anti-business. They demonstrate a legitimate critical attitude towards the contradictions inherent in processes of globalisation. And rather than withdrawing into some fantasy zone, these movements seek to engage actively with the state and transform the relationship between the state and the people from within.

The concept that explains this interdependence between social movements and progressive parties in government goes by the name of “dual power“: the underpinning of vertical state-citizen relations by horizontal social movements, ready to criticise the decisions of the parties they elect on the basis of a commitment to a progressive agenda. This is how the protests that rocked the politics of countries such as Colombia, Brazil, Chile and Bolivia last year must be understood: as manifestations of dual power, and expressions of the terms of a new social contract – one that includes nature not only as a reservoir of resources but as an agent of politics and of the wellbeing of society.

As far as these movements are concerned, democracy and ethical politics go hand in hand. They discuss the big questions of our time – climate change, food security, the role of commons, the rights of nature, equality – in a political arena that until recently appeared to offer no alternative to the “one size fits all” view of globalisation and the market.

Crucially, in most Latin American countries such dogmatic views were imposed by sheer force, either military – as in Chile, Brazil, Argentina or Bolivia –or paramilitary, as in Colombia. To most Colombians it is now clear – a matter of indisputable record – that the paramilitary violence that engulfed the country with peculiar intensity during the last decade and a half, with the leading intervention of the United States, was part and parcel of an economic project rather than solely a counter-insurgency exercise.

The model still in place depends on the unbridled extraction of natural resources from parts of the country that have traditionally sustained peasant, indigenous and Afro-Colombian ways of life, and is the result of such violence. Because of this, as far as the social movements are concerned, any peace process worthy of the name must also consider the serious ethical questions posited by climate change science, food security and so on.

According to the information provided by climate science, as well as from anthropology and the humanities, it is no longer possible to keep human history separate from the history of the planet. We have become geological agents, capable of affecting and even destroying nature as a whole. We do this through the very processes that we considered to be at the heart of freedom in the 20th century – chief among them free trade. What we need now is a new politics, not only a politics of freedom, but one of post-human rights and cosmopolitics.

. Reply . Category: Law . Tags: , , , , , , ,

Chile election: young Chileans have voted for a radical change of direction

This post was contributed by Dr Oscar Guardiola-Rivera of Birkbeck’s School of Law. It originally appeared on The Guardian.

Sunday’s elections in Chile will prove significant, regionally and globally. The centre-left candidate, Michelle Bachelet won nearly twice as many votes as her closest rival, Evelyn Matthei, of the governing rightwing Alliance for Chile. Bachelet, Chile’s president from 2006 to 2010, will have to go through a second-round runoff in December but is expected to win. Meanwhile, a new generation of student leaders – most notably, 25-year-old Camila Vallejo, who helped lead Chile’s student uprising in 2011 – has been elected to Congress as part of Bachelet’s coalition. It is this younger generation that is set to radically transform the direction of the country. In doing so, they’re breaking apart the dominant myths concerning the relation between politics and economics in the region – and in the world at large.

At the national level, the rightwing government of Sebastián Piñera is struggling to understand how, after four years of high growth, fiscal discipline and low inflation – which many would argue are the very measures of success – Chileans failed to award his party another term in office. Some commentators are already beating their chests at the apparent scandal of “irresponsible” Chileans voting the wrong way. Others argue that the conservatives “couldn’t transform a successful government into political success”.

The right’s resounding defeat, however, isn’t simply a case of its inability to tap into middle-class frustration. For some time now, many Chileans have been rejecting the very economic model that Piñera, Matthei and their supporters around the world continue to praise: that there may be change – a transition to democracy, the implementation of human rights, and so on – but only insofar as the “model” stays as it was before.

The “model” is what Chileans call both the economic and paternalistic establishment that emerged under Pinochet’s dictatorship and the myth that underpins it – that nothing can change. The myth is based on the terror and violence following the violent overthrow of Salvador Allende in 1973, and the attempt to erase history and hope from minds and hearts.

Chileans, especially the young, have realised this. They have blown apart the message of good cheer, that if the economy is well, all is well. Their reasoning is clear: the economic model produces wealth for the benefit of the few and widespread unhappiness. In Chile, the wealthiest 5% earn 257 times more than the poorest 5%. Higher education is private and expensive. Parents are left with huge debts, and their children face impossible odds to start a family or envisage a hopeful future.

The Chilean youth have an agenda: free higher education and replacing the Pinochet-era constitution through a self-appointed popular assembly. Some also want renationalisation. However, the rebellion that exploded in Santiago in 2011 is not simply against this or that policy. This is a rebellion against historical compulsion – the idea that no matter what you do, nothing changes.

Vallejo has warned that this will not be a repeat of the same compromise-prone Concertación government, which won every election from the end of military rule in 1990 until Piñera came to power in 2010. A considerable percentage of voters responded to the students’ call for a constitutional assembly. As the new generation of politicians is swept to power, the next step towards reform is given radical legitimacy.

For the region this means that just as the first wave of leftism may be reaching an impasse in Argentina and Venezuela, a second, more profound one is beginning in unexpected parts of Latin America: conservative Chile, ultra-conservative Colombia and moderate Brazil. For the world, this spells the end of the dogma that the economy determines people’s consent rather than the other way around. It is the time of the people once again.

. Reply . Category: Law . Tags: , , , , , ,

Colombia’s lawyers under attack

This post was contributed by Professor Bill Bowring, of Birkbeck’s School of Law.

Lawyers in Colombia face daily threats of a severity that lawyers in Britain can hardly imagine, including murder.

On 13 June 2013 I was one of the signatories to a letter in The Times on Colombia’s lawyers. The letter was initiated by the Solicitors International Human Rights Group, and signatories included the President of the Law Society, former Court of Appeal judges and other supporters of Peace Brigades International, whose volunteers risk their lives “shadowing” lawyers at risk. We commented on the fact that while Colombia’s President Santos was in London the previous week, lawyers in his country continued to face great dangers. Six lawyers were killed between 24 January and 21 March 2013. Between 2002 and 2012, 4,400 lawyers were threatened, attacked and killed.

The letter referred to the Report of the Third International Caravana of Jurists to Colombia, dated 21 May 2003, entitled “Colombia: Protecting Access to Justice”. The Caravana consisted of 42 lawyers, mostly from the UK, barristers and solicitors, including the Chair of the Bar Human Rights Committee of England and Wales (BHRC), Kirsty Brimelow QC. I was a founder of BHRC in 1992, and am a member of its Executive Committee.

The Report observed that “The most serious concern for the Caravana is that threats, attacks, persecution and the killing of lawyers continue. Lawyers are hampered in their work by having to defend spurious proceedings against themselves and by burglaries of their offices, and cyber-attacks on websites and vandalism of their office equipment. The legacy of the surveillance by the state intelligence agency…  has interfered with the protective measures which some lawyers should receive. In addition to the problems of state interference in their work are the risks that many lawyers face of physical violence and possible assassination. The lawyers most at risk work with clients such as political prisoners, those with problems related to the use of or rights to land, those accused of collaborating with the guerrillas, and representatives of minority or repressed communities.”

I signed the letter as Professor of Law at Birkbeck, and also as President of the European Lawyers for Democracy and Human Rights (ELDH), which was founded in Paris in 1993 and is now celebrating its 20th birthday.

As well as teaching and researching at Birkbeck, I am a practising barrister, taking cases to the European Court of Human Rights, and a human rights activist. In 2003 I founded the European Human Rights Advocacy Centre (EHRAC) which represents hundreds of  applicants against Russia and other countries at Strasbourg.

ELDH has grown over the years, and now has member organisations in 10 European countries and the Basque Country, and individual members in a further 8 countries. In England I am the International Secretary of the ELDH member association, the Haldane Society of Socialist Lawyers, founded in 1930, with some 500 members, barristers, solicitors and people interested in law.

Birkbeck Law School and the Haldane Society have very close links. Several Haldane members teach in the Law programmes, and in each of the three years of its operation the Law School’s “Law on Trial” week in June has included a Haldane Society evening. This year Stephen Knight and Natalie Csengeri, young barristers in their 20s, gave brillian presentations and led a lively discussion on “legal Education – Socialist Survivors”. I am organising this year’s Cumberland Lodge weekend in September for Birkbeck law students on the theme of “Radical Lawyering – Theory and Practice”, with Mike Mansfield QC, Haldane’s president, and Liz Davies, its Chair, and other speakers.

Finally, back to Colombia.

On 24 January each year for the past two years ELDH and its partner organisation the European Democratic Lawyers (AED-EDL) have organised a “Day of the Endangered Lawyer”. Two years ago the focus was on lawyers in Turkey, especially ELDH member the Progressive Lawyers of Association of Turkey (ÇHD), still very much under attack. We picketed the Turkish Embassy. On 24 January this year Haldane members gathered outside the Spanish Embassy in protest against the treatment of Basque lawyers in Spain, and Mike Mansfield QC handed in a petition.

And on 24 January 2014 the Day of the Endangered Lawyer will focus on the situation in Colombia. Join us outside the Embassy of Colombia!

. Reply . Category: Law . Tags: , , ,

Slow-thinking the Revolution: Sound Diary from Brazil

This post was contributed by Raluca Soreanu, a Marie Curie Research Fellow in the Department of Psychosocial Studies, currently researching peace activism in Brazil.

[Homepage image of Brazilian protests: Agência Brasil.]

To move from Tahrir Square, to Syntagma Square, to Puerta del Sol, to Zucotti Park, to Gezi Park, to Brazil’s recent “20 centavos” movement, to capture their common rhythms as well as their distinctiveness, we might need a new vocabulary. To meet radical changes in the political imaginary, a new semiotics is called for. In Bracha L. Ettinger’s words, I wish we could slow-think, slow-feel and slow-paint these movements, in ways which overlay one form of understanding with another and with yet another. We could thus move beyond the hastiness of boxing one of the indeed unsettling semiotisations which the Brazilian movement has produced – “o gigante acordou” (“the giant has awoken”) as simply an instance of fascism. In the womb of the giant in the past week, I have encountered forms of social creativity and forms of sociability that invite me to slow-think. In the womb of the giant, people took care of one another, intervening to protect one another from being trampled. They met with strangers across their strangeness and across the colour codes of political parties. Surely, we will need to look closely at this alternative urban traffic of large manifestations, and see how it fits within the movement for the right to the city. There were also important forms of defence of patrimony, where the multiplicity of people surrounding a monument decided on the spot that the locus of memory that it carries is more important than the grievance of one individual who wishes to stand on its pedestal. Surely, this is not a movement toward the indiscriminate and confusion, but a collective spiral toward clarification on what matters and what needs to be preserved. And so, the chant “Vem vem vem pra rua vem!” (“Come come come to the street come!”) emanating from thousands of people on the same beat with one another is something quite localised when we shift to a new semiotics (perhaps a Deleuzian-Guattarian semiotics) where meaning is facialised and corporealised. What is the facialised consciousness and the rhythmic embodiment of the protester who does not aggress but protects, who does not provoke but contains, who does not destroy but creates political artefacts?

A multitude of voices

While many voices decry the lack of political organisation, I saw compelling organisation. How many times in our lifespan did we set a political rendezvous with 300.000 people and everyone showed up? With this new phenomenon of mobilisation we have temporarily lost our ability to count: there might have been 300.000 people out on the streets of Rio de Janeiro, or less, or more, nobody knows. This loss of the ability to count does not solely mark the scale of the protest, but its transcendence of the very context for counting and screening which the urban texture sustains. We couldn’t count the protesters because they circulated in a new way, constituting new flows of large gatherings: they were circular, oblique, spiralling, rather than just merely passing though obligatory points or grids. Zooming in, observations on robust forms of organisation continue. A community I follow closely, that of Horto Florestal, planned its presence thoroughly, walked for hours to the centre of the city, in defence of their right of dwelling, which is threatened by the redefinition of the boundaries of the Botanical Garden. There was an impressive anti-homophobia mobilisation nested within the protest. These are just instances of the plurivocality – for there were also the “negros” and the “sem-terra” embodying their long histories of struggle. There were militants of conventional party politics. And, surely, the extreme right performing its usual abuses and aggressions, but not in a position to engulf the whole vitality of the movement in its morbidities.

A temporary museum of grievances

There is plentiful organisation that we do not see for we might need a new semiotics; but there is also organisation that we do not see for there is a constant motion for opacity by an order that wishes to preserve itself unaltered. We here might need to think in terms of the lifespan of political artefacts surrounding the protest. The immense gathering in Rio de Janeiro produced thousands of banners carrying the messages of people and groups (in registers from tragic to ironic, to robustly humorous). These many hundreds of square metres of political expression were displayed on the fences of the Praça da República. People literally weaved their banners onto the fences, organising a museum of grievances. These compelling materialities, which would have helped us in the process of looking at ourselves and at one another, were no longer there ten hours later. They had been removed, cleaned away with the rubbish. I went back in the morning, anticipating the loss of this political object, and all that was preserved were the remains of broken glass panels of some bank headquarters, aiming to create an alternative museum of vandalism, underarticulation and indiscrimination. If anything, the fence of political grievances was discriminate, in its contents and weaved constitution. This too short and unaccomplished life of political artefacts speaks about capitalism’s capacity to consistently efface all traces of an emergent alternative political rationality.

The sound of war

On the scene, there is another force that disorganises. The simulation of the sound of war. On the day and night of the immense gathering, the streets sounded like war because of the constant background noise of explosions. What was exploding were the “bombas do efeito moral” (“bombs with moral effect”), as they are called here, in a perplexingly self-disclosing way. These bombs are used by the Military Police to intimidate and contain by sound a potentially or actually violent adversary. This is an ill-contained tool for containing violence, however: it does not act locally, it acts on the entire protest, even miles away; it does not clarify where actual violence might be taking place, so that protesters have a chance to synchronise away from it, or against it, but it multiplies it. But it is a fake bomb. It does not belong. Sly-bomb. Part-bomb. These tools of war institute a dangerous (and immense!) scene of constant re-traumatisation, where we indeed might lose all control we might want to be holding on to, and things might indeed drift anywhere. There are very recent traumas related to the Unidades de Polícia Pacificadora (UPPs) entering the Rio de Janeiro favelas, starting in December 2008. Memories of violence here are overlaid on one another, and none of them are respected or creatively put to work by sinking 300.000 people in the sound of war. Why should we feel, because of sound, as if we were in war? What happens to the memories of the true deadliness and death-fulness of the bomb, within this simulated bombardment? Part of the right to the city is precisely that of not feeling as though we were in war times, if we are not.

“Solidarity with the wretched of the earth”

And finally, a question I constantly return to these days: how do academics live the morning after? How does the university organise itself in relation to the polity, despite all the structural constraints, the novelty of the phenomenon to be dealt with, and the uncertainties that come with it? It is perhaps the time to return to Adorno’s thought on “solidarity with the wretched of the earth” and work humbly from there on. The matter of organisation is for me first and foremost a matter of self-organisation and of organising the proximities of our lived life. This movement will not call for leaders. It will and does call for co-inhabitors within a historical transformation. Some of the lawyers of Rio de Janeiro, for instance, responded beautifully to the local challenges, by offering their expertise to those who were subject to police abuse. I think of it as lawyer kairós. I believe the university can fast-organise frames of utterance where we can slow-think what is happening on the streets of Brazil. The intervention that I see myself a part of is one that will struggle to ensure that the fabric of the collective process we are experiencing is not being constantly ruptured and traumatised by the simulation of the sound of war. Thus, people and groups that are already thoroughly organised can sit together and organise themselves further, instead of having more recent or more distant violent past times enforced upon them.

. Read all 2 comments . Category: Social Sciences History and Philosophy . Tags: , , , ,

Notes from Brazil, June 2013

This post was contributed by Belinda Mandelbaum, Associate Professor in the Department of Social Psychology of the University of São Paulo. The Department has a partnership arrangement with Birkbeck’s Department of Psychosocial Studies, involving exchanges of staff and students.

Brazil is undergoing something unheard of in its history. A series of protests that began in São Paulo, due to the increase in public transportation fees, spread to various cities in the country, taking hundreds of thousands of people into the streets at the most unthinkable moment:  the beginning of the Confederations Cup, a sort of general rehearsal for the most eagerly awaited event ever – the World Cup – that will be held this coming year in this country. This popular uprising had not been foreseen by anyone here, and certainly not at this specific moment. The truth is that nobody can explain the phenomenon we are undergoing. And, given the heterogeneity of demands that characterize this movement, what we see now is a sort of a war of interpretations, in attempts to take “ownership” of the phenomenon and offer a specific political determinant to characterize it.

One reading of the situation is that there is a type of generic indignation, with no clear goal decisively defined.  Understood as a whole, we might comprehend it as a sort of collapse in the state of things as they have been up to present. In this sense, what we are living through in Brazil comes very close to what happened in Spain in May of 2011 (movement 15M), in the United States also in 2011 (Occupy Wall Street) and even with the protests in London in the wake of Mark Duggan´s death, between the 6th and 10th of August of that same year. There is also perhaps something that resonates with the so-called Arab Spring. The form the protests take emerges from electronic media as this is the tool used most broadly to mobilize participants; it reflects the breaking out into public spaces of people used to electronic virtual reality. The content of the protests tends to be as fragmented as the electronic media and takes on the characteristic of a rebellion which generates perplexity and unrest.  Media analysts are struggling to separate the wheat from the chaff, trying to legitimate what in truth is characteristic of a peaceful and just protest for enhancements in health, education and the way the public apparatus is managed, whilst separating this from the acts of violence that have been present, such as looting in stores, attacks on public buildings, bank branches, churches and cultural institutions, calling these acts of vandalism. What the media still does not seem to want to comprehend is that this violence is inherent to the phenomenon, that this vandalism is also political, that violence is part of these so called horizontal movements.

Freud has a text that has a title that is deeply appropriate nowadays in Brazil: Civilization and its Discontents. It is precisely this we are witnessing: a sort of discontent,  an outbreak of what has been repressed, not due to one thing or another, but looking at the situation at large. Looking at the way things unravel in a globalized routine that sets forth mega events – such as the World Cup, which in the case of Brazil represents the wastefulness of enormous resources in the construction of opulent stadiums – the bureaucratized administration of life, its forms of entertainment and means of communication. The phenomenon seems to be inherent to the way we live nowadays, globally.  What nobody expected is that it would burst out as it did in Brazil. The fact is it did, and at a moment in which the economic model which had been highly successful for an entire decade now seems to be collapsing. And all of this poses something profoundly unknown for the Brazilian reality.

. Reply . Category: Social Sciences History and Philosophy . Tags: , , , ,

Hugo Chávez kept his promise to the people of Venezuela

This post was contributed by Dr Oscar Guardiola-Rivera, Senior Lecturer in Birkbeck’s School of Law. The post was originally published on the Guardian’s Comment is Free section.

He wrote, he read, and mostly he spoke. Hugo Chávez, whose death has been announced, was devoted to the word. He spoke publicly an average of 40 hours per week. As president, he didn’t hold regular cabinet meetings; he’d bring the many to a weekly meeting, broadcast live on radio and television. Aló, Presidente, the programme in which policies were outlined and discussed, had no time limits, no script and no teleprompter. One session included an open discussion of healthcare in the slums of Caracas, rap, a self-critical examination of Venezuelans being accustomed to the politics of oil money and expecting the president to be a magician, a friendly exchange with a delegation from Nicaragua and a less friendly one with a foreign journalist.

Nicaragua is one of Venezuela’s allies in Alba, the organisation constituted at Chávez’s initiative to counter neoliberalism in the region, alongside Cuba, Ecuador and Bolivia. It has now acquired a life of its own having invited a number of Caribbean countries and Mexico to join, with Vietnam as an observer. It will be a most enduring legacy, a concrete embodiment of Chávez’s words and historical vision. The Bolívarian revolution has been crucial to the wider philosophy shared and applied by many Latin American governments. Its aim is to overcome global problems through local and regional interventions by engaging with democracy and the state in order to transform the relation between these and the people, rather than withdrawing from the state or trying to destroy it.

Because of this shared view Brazilians, Uruguayans and Argentinians perceived Chávez as an ally, not an anomaly, and supported the inclusion of Venezuela in their Mercosur alliance. Chávez’s Social Missions, providing healthcare and literacy to formerly excluded people while changing their life and political outlook, have proven the extent of such a transformative view. It could be compared to the levelling spirit of a kind of new New Deal combined with a model of social change based on popular and communal organisation.

The facts speak for themselves: the percentage of households in poverty fell from 55% in 1995 to 26.4% in 2009. When Chávez was sworn into office unemployment was 15%, in June 2009 it was 7.8%. Compare that to current unemployment figures in Europe. In that period Chávez won 56% of the vote in 1998, 60% in 2000, survived a coup d’état in 2002, got over 7m votes in 2006 and secured 54.4% of the vote last October. He was a rare thing, almost incomprehensible to those in the US and Europe who continue to see the world through the Manichean prism of the cold war: an avowed Marxist who was also an avowed democrat. To those who think the expression of the masses should have limited or no place in the serious business of politics all the talking and goings on in Chávez’s meetings were anathema, proof that he was both fake and a populist. But to the people who tuned in and participated en masse, it was politics and true democracy not only for the sophisticated, the propertied or the lettered.

All this talking and direct contact meant the constant reaffirmation of a promise between Chávez and the people of Venezuela. Chávez had discovered himself not by looking within, but by looking outside into the shameful conditions of Latin Americans and their past. He discovered himself in the promise of liberation made by Bolívar. “On August 1805,” wrote Chávez, Bolívar “climbed the Monte Sacro near Rome and made a solemn oath.” Like Bolívar, Chávez swore to break the chains binding Latin Americans to the will of the mighty. Within his lifetime, the ties of dependency and indirect empire have loosened. From the river Plate to the mouths of the Orinoco river, Latin America is no longer somebody else’s backyard. That project of liberation has involved thousands of men and women pitched into one dramatic battle after another, like the coup d’état in 2002 or the confrontation with the US-proposed Free Trade Zone of the Americas. These were won, others were lost.

The project remains incomplete. It may be eternal and thus the struggle will continue after Chávez is gone. But whatever the future may hold, the peoples of the Americas will fight to salvage the present in which they have regained a voice. In Venezuela, they put Chávez back into the presidency after the coup. This was the key event in Chávez’s political life, not the military rebellion or the first electoral victory. Something changed within him at that point: his discipline became ironclad, his patience invincible and his politics clearer. For all the attention paid to the relation between Chávez and Castro, the lesser known fact is that Chávez’s political education owes more to another Marxist president who was also an avowed democrat: Chile’s Salvador Allende. “Like Allende, we’re pacifists and democrats,” he once said. “Unlike Allende, we’re armed.”

The lesson drawn by Chávez from the defeat of Allende in 1973 is crucial. Some, like the far right and the state-linked paramilitary of Colombia would love to see Chavismo implode, and wouldn’t hesitate to sow chaos across borders. The support of the army and the masses of Venezuela will decide the fate of the Bolívarian revolution, and the solidarity of powerful and sympathetic neighbours like Brazil. Nobody wants instability now that Latin America is finally standing up for itself. In his final days Chávez emphasised the need to build communal power and promoted some of his former critics associated with the journal Comuna. The revolution will not be rolled back. Unlike his admired Bolívar, Chávez did not plough the seas.

Dr Guardiola-Rivera is the author of What if Latin America ruled the world? How the South will take the North into the 22nd century, published by Bloomsbury.

. Read all 3 comments . Category: Law . Tags: , , , ,