The Latin American Diaries |


Rio and the Surreal: The 2016 Olympic Games in a ‘Glocal’ Context


by Giselle Datz, Associate Professor of Government & International Affairs, Virginia Tech

Paradoxically ritualistic and idiosyncratic, the Rio Olympics were set against a background of perplexing global and local dynamics which converge around the challenge of resilience.

Rio Olympics

Olympic Games reveal an inherent paradox.  They are part of a recurrent and ritualistic tradition, not only in terms of their peace and brotherhood ideals, but also in some of their bureaucratic procedures. Locations are selected in advance through competitive bid processes, mascots designed, competitions are rigidly scheduled and many of the operations before and after the opening ceremony are tightly run by the International Olympics Committee.

However, much in the Games is also markedly contextual to the locations where they take place and the discrete moments in history to which they belong.  Every four years, a different city attempts to woo the world with its own grandiose opening and closing shows, where pride and personality are employed to sell a version of the national that aspires to become unforgettable (arguably a high standard set by the tears shed by the first commercially successful Olympic mascot, Russia’s Misha, in 1980).

Beyond their ‘glocal’ dynamics, each Olympic Games nearly always reveal their own version of the predictable messiness that hosting such a large scale event – with all its infrastructure demands – entails. Delays in preparations are legendary. The Rio Games are likely to have won a position on the podium for providing one of the ‘most disorderly preparation[s] yet’ along with Sochi and Athens[1]. In the week preceding the opening of the Games, the international media featured no shortage of reports on how much had gone wrong – from the haphazardly finalised Olympic Village apartments to the unjust evictions of families in areas targeted for new infrastructure projects.

No amount of global glamour could shield the Olympics from the widespread corruption and incompetence that have become sad hallmarks of Brazil’s federal and local governments in the 21st century. In fact, nowhere is this more evident than in the bankrupt state of Rio Janeiro, far beyond the glossy Olympic infrastructure improvements.

Rio2016 Opening Ceremony

Part of the Rio2016 Opening Ceremony

Momentary exuberance was well displayed in the magnificent opening ceremony at the legendary Maracanã stadium. As Charles McNulty, put it ‘never has an opening ceremony been so green’. It was a celebration of the country’s rainforests, biodiversity, and a timely cautionary note on global warming. Perhaps most importantly, the opening ceremony also ‘provided an opportunity to reframe a sporting event that was in danger of becoming the embodiment of the world’s brooding mood’.

Indeed, the XXXI Olympiad took place amidst a seemingly surreal historical moment. It was marked by events that have captured most of the media’s attention of late: the Brexit vote, ‘lone wolf’ terrorist attacks, the confirmation of Donald Trump as the Republican presidential candidate, and widespread repression in Turkey in the aftermath of a(nother) failed coup.

At home too, the Games revealed their share of surreal dynamics, marked by a reversal of fortune of grand proportions.

In 2009, Rio beat Tokyo, Madrid, and Chicago in a ‘bid’ to become the first South American city ever to host the Olympic Games. The victory was reportedly emblematic of ‘Brazil’s remarkable rise (…) from a near basket case to an economic and diplomatic heavyweight’.. It was expected that having weathered the 2008 global financial crisis, the ‘BRIC’ nations of Brazil, Russia, India and China, supposedly the fastest growing economies in the world, would drive global economic recovery.

Temer, Dilma, and Lula in happier times...

Temer, Dilma, and Lula in happier times…

Fast forward seven years and the contrast is stark. Lula da Silva, the president whose winning bids for hosting both the 2014 World Cup and the Olympics brought renewed attention to Brazil, did not even attend the opening ceremony. Also conspicuously absent was his ally and successor as president, Dilma Rousseff; impeached by Brazil’s lower House, she is now being judged in the Senate. Instead, it was interim president Michel Temer who – whilst being booed by some of the attendees – declared the Games officially open.

While in 2009 Lula’s party, the PT, seemed set to perpetuate its grip on power, as the Rio Games got underway, some of its leaders and three of its former treasurers were jailed as part of the mensalão and ‘car wash’ corruption investigations[2]. Lula is being investigated for ‘influence peddling’ during Dilma’s presidency, trading personal favours from construction companies for contracts with Petrobras (Brazil’s state oil company). This may just be the tip of an iceberg of accusations against Lula (and eventually Rousseff) now coming up as part of jailed construction magnate Marcelo Odebrecht’s plea bargain.

The Brazil of the Rio Olympics is far from the successful BRIC economy, surfing on the wave of record high commodity prices, awash in corrupt deals profoundly rooted in the country’s political establishment. Yet much as the current crisis in Brazil may seem surreal relative to the smokescreen set in 2009, one should appreciate the vast and ongoing anti-corruption efforts that some relentless members of the Judiciary have been championing. Shaking the core of dominant parties, they are setting a wide and welcome precedent for accountability in Brazilian politics.

It is also worth noting that this is a country where the steep currency devaluations of late have finally receded, a new central banker has reinstalled a credible commitment toward inflationary control, and dilapidated Petrobras may finally see the light of sane corporate management.

The Olympic Games too, beyond the surreal quality of their global context, and partly because of it, have already displayed notable initiatives. The world’s refugees were represented by 10 athletes from South Sudan, Syria, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Ethiopia. Having overcome unimaginable odds, they, along with many of their fellow athletes from across the globe, inspire hope in human resilience. It is this very ability to bounce back that underpins the kind of ‘Olympic’ effort Brazil must attempt — once again.






Originally published by SPERI Comment.

The Ethiopic Ocean and Luiz Felipe de Alencastro’s New Perspectives on the South Atlantic


by Marília Arantes Moreira, Research Student, Institute of Latin American Studies

I recently met up with Brazilian historian Luiz Felipe de Alencastro in Paris to discuss his latest article, “The Ethiopic Ocean – History and Historiography 1600−1975”, published in 2015. In a café, with Oscar Niemeyer’s French Communist Party headquarters standing behind him, he also had much to say about ongoing projects on South Atlantic Studies as a new cultural area of knowledge. [1]

The Ethiopic Ocean

Alencastro is known for his influential and prodigious output, especially the books “História da Vida Privada” (1997) and “O Trato dos Viventes” (2000), in which he explained Brazil’s formation outside of its territory in light of its crucial role in the bilateral slave-trade network with Africa. Embedding Brazil in a global context, he revealed how economic geography imposed political conditions on colonisation.[2]

Recently, The Transatlantic Database has enabled a revision of his books with new quantitative approaches: “as those were commercial relations, everything was taken into account”, he notes. From 1550 to 1850, 95% of all slave ships docked in Brazil: “This oceanic continuum is stronger than the continental idea of South America”. [3]

In “The Ethiopic Ocean”, Alencastro explores the core of traditional interpretations of Atlantic History, introducing a Brazilian point of view. He utilises the term “Ethiopic Ocean” as a geohistorical aggregate for comprehending the subequatorial seas of western and eastern Africa, considered as “an ocean in it’s own right” in the Sailing Age, and as a means of reasserting a complexity that modern cartography was unable to offer. Since 1850, with geopolitical transformations, another ocean has been shaped. As underlined in his article, “significantly, the American Cyclopaedia (in 1873) designates North Atlantic as the ‘Atlantic Proper’.” [4]

Alencastro relates his immersion in the study of whalers while a Visiting Professor at the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth, in 2012. Averse to driving, he sometimes waited at New Bedford Whaling Museum rather than the bus stop on his way back home. After coming across their accurate maps and charts, including one showing whale concentrations (above), he re-read the “wonderful work” Moby Dick (1851) and realised that those sailors also knew what the slave traders had realised: the North Atlantic is shorter than the South: “It is all about the thermic equator, located 10 degrees above Senegal.”

The Anticyclone of Capricorn that governs Southern currents and naval routes was key to exploration of Africa. Like Jesuit Padre Antonio Vieira’s sermons, it seemed to justify transmigration as “singularly favoured and assisted by God”, morally validating slave trafficking as a stage in the evangelisation of African bodies and souls that would be converted in Portuguese colonies.[5]

Alencastro's representation of the maritime dynamics of the Ethiopic, with cyclons and anti-cyclones, hand-drawn during our interview

Maritime dynamics of the Ethiopic, with cyclones and anti-cyclones (drawn by Alencastro during interview)

Yet, the purpose of Alencastro’s article is not to explain the South Atlantic (as previous essays did), but rather to compare traditional historiographies, demonstrating how this phenomenon was interpreted differently. His deep historical analysis of Portuguese, Brazilian, Belgian, British and North-American literatures, as well as the Annales School, shows how this geographic zone was only dimly perceived – and underestimated. Yet “Brazil and Africa cannot be merely footnoted”, he argues.[6]

The idea of writing a genealogy of South Atlantic history came after Harvard’s International Atlantic World Seminar, 2004, in a talk with the Director Bernard Baylin, concerning the “The Idea of Atlantic History” (2005).[7]  However, “the debates on Atlantic History started in the 50’s, in France; they weren’t invented by Baylin”, Alencastro underlines.[8] “When Braudel said the Atlantic is ‘a space which borrowed its past and was hastily constructed’ as I show in the article’s epigraph, he was denying that Pierre Chaunu did the same in ‘The Mediterranean’, because he couldn’t give an idea of the whole in his essay.” [9]

But Braudel didn’t even recognise the significance of the bilateral trade in Pierre Verger’s “monumental” thesis, Flux et reflux de la traite de nègres entre le golfe de Bénin et Bahia de Todos os Santos, du XVIIe au XIXe siècle (1968), even though he supervised it.  Alencastro points out that even Verger had also neglected Angola’s significance to Brazil, which went far beyond Bahia: “now numbers are proven by the Database.” [10]

While in charge of the Sorbonne’s Brazil and South Atlantic Studies Centre (2000-2104), he organised conferences gathering specialists on Namibia, Angola, South Africa, alongside other Southern Atlanticists. A book is on the way, as well as a denser version of “The Ethiopic Ocean”. Encounters are giving rise to new projects, such as a Centre of South Atlantic Studies at Fundação Getúlio Vargas in São Paulo, to expand the concept’s use to contemporary South-South relations.

Alencastro redefined the South Atlantic as a network instead of system after realising that, differently from the Indian Ocean or the Caribbean, it depended on the Eurocentric system. As the slave trade was interrupted, the network collapsed. So did communication between Africa and South America, for more than 120 years. Relations were only revived after 1975, with the independence of Angola and Mozambique.

Another point is that “The Ethiopic Ocean” isn’t purely maritime. For example, it includes Minas Gerais leather for rolled packs of exported tobacco. Silver from Potosi, via Buenos Aires and Rio de Janeiro, was the currency used in exchanges with China. Nevertheless, São Paulo, Pará, Maranhão and the Amazon belong to another geographical pattern.

The chronology (1550-1850) delineates a continuum of the same colonial matrix, the slave trade period. It suits the long durée definition, but “not in a Braudelian way”. Considering historic ruptures, Alencastro thinks independence in 1822 “didn’t change things much. It is true that the first export destination for Brazilian goods became Liverpool instead of Lisbon, but Luanda remained the second most important port of Brazilian traders because of the slave trade.” Moreover, “what held the provinces together after independence was these relations with Angola, managed by the Braganza dynasty of Brazil – the only ones with the diplomatic ability to comply with both the British and the slave owner’s demands.”

The “Opening of Brazilian Ports” (1808), part of the Royal Navy’s offensive across the whole South Atlantic, is another deceptive symbol of Europeanisation, argues Alencastro. “In fact, that’s when Africanisation occurs.” After 1815, Brazilians and Cubans appropriated abandoned British and North American schemes all over Africa, constituting a significant episode of displacement. Would that make any sense with Marx’s idea of the “dark side of Capitalism”? “Yes. The British abolished the slave trade, but kept buying commodities made by slave hands.”

To Alencastro, Brazil didn’t become a nation until the five million Africans got there, victims of the Atlantic slave trade. “If the majority of the population is black and there were none, then Brazil was not yet born.” Brasileiro wasn’t a demonym until 1850. When legal union was complete, there were 6.5 Africans for every Portuguese or white descendent in the country.

Clearly, intellectual debates on Atlantic History remain unresolved, not least concerning Eurocentric bias and openness to new perspectives. And though Baylin once declared “he knows nobody poetically enraptured by the Atlantic World” (referring to Chaunu and the Mediterranean), when I came across “The Ethiopic Ocean”, I for one couldn’t help falling in love with it.



[1] Luiz Felipe de Alencastro, Emeritus Professor at Université de Paris-Sorbonne, and Professor at the School of Economics of São Paulo — FGV.

[2] Alencastro, Luiz Felipe de, “O Trato dos Viventes: Formação do Brasil no Atlântico Sul, Séculos XVI e XVII”: Companhia das Letras; São Paulo, 2000. And História da vida privada no Brasil, Volume 2. Império : A corte e a modernidade nacional . São Paulo: Companhia das Letras, 1997.

[3] The Transatlantic Database (completed and organized by D. Eltis, D. Richardson, and others);

[4] Alencastro, Luiz Felipe de, “The Ethiopic Ocean: History and Historiography – 1600-1975” (In Portuguese Literary & Cultural Studies, n. 27, 2015, p. 1-79), p. 46.

[5] Alencastro, Luiz Felipe de, Op.Cit. p. 7.

[6] Bailyn, Bernard, “The Idea of Atlantic History”, Itinerario 20 (1996): 19-44.

[7] As Professor Leslie Bethell observed, from 260 papers produced in six years of Harvard’s seminars, only nine referred to Brazil.

[8] Bailyn, Bernard, The New England merchants in the seventeenth century. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1955. See also, Massachusetts shipping, 1697-1714; a statistical study, Cambridge; Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1959.

[9] Braudel, Fernand. Pour une histoire sérielle: Séville et l’Atlantique (1504-1650) [Pierre Chaunu, Séville et l’Atlantique (1350-1650)]. In: Annales. Économies, Sociétés, Civilisations. 18ᵉ année, N. 3, 1963. pp. 541-553.

[10] Verger, Pierre. Flux et reflux de la traite de nègres entre le golfe de Bénin et Bahia de Todos os Santos, du XVIIe au XIXe siècle: Paris, 1968.

Thinking Inside the Boxes: The Latin American Political Pamphlets Collection at Senate House Library


by Christine Anderson (Latin America Research Librarian) and Julio Cazzasa (Special Collections Cataloguer), Senate House Library

arg_polpamOn 23 February 2016, Senate House Library will be hosting “Thinking Inside the Boxes“, a series of talks about its extensive Latin American Political Pamphlets Collection, which documents some of the most troubled years of twentieth-century Latin America.   The event, featuring Anthony Pereira (KCL), Guillermo Mira (Salamanca), Vinicius Mariano de Carvalho (KCL), Thomas Rath (UCL), Anna Grimaldi (KCL), Thomas Rath (UCL) and Aquiles Alencar (British Library), hopes to demonstrate the relevance of these documents across a number of research topics and contexts.  But we invite all researchers and postgraduate students to consider consulting the archive in their own research.

The majority of the collection consists of the former holdings of the Contemporary Archive on Latin America (CALA), which from its inception in 1976 sought to build up a combination of academic and ‘alternative’ sources of information for the use of students, teachers, researchers, solidarity and human rights committees, journalist, development and volunteer agencies, television programme producers, trade unionists and the like.  It maintained contact with documentation and educational centres in Latin America and beyond, housing of rare materials jeopardised by political developments in the region.  This ensured that its collections were uniquely rich in their depth of coverage.

guate_polpamBy 1981 however, the archive faced an irretrievable funding situation and was forced to close.  Originally its collections had been destined to be divided between Latin America Bureau, the Institute for Race Relations, the CARILA Latin America Resource Centre, and the Nicaraguan Ministry of Planning, but these organisations were unable to organise the retrieval of the material before CALA’s closure.  The Institute of Latin American Studies stepped in as “the only institution involved which had the will and the means to save this material in time and to house it.”

Since then the original collections have been augmented by fresh donations and the re-classifying of political ephemera within the main library stock, but with the amalgamation of new material the Institute has sought to maintain the onus of the original CALA collection.

In 2003 the University of London Vice Chancellor’s fund agreed to provide the money for a joint project between ILAS and the Institute of Commonwealth Studies (ICOMM) aiming to improve access to and use of their collections of political ephemera.  This has involved the creation of item-level catalogue records on the School of Advanced Study Library Catalogue (SASCAT) and the uploading of collection-level archival descriptions to both the Archives Hub and AIM25 databases.

chile_polpamAlthough the collection (which consists mainly of items in Spanish, Portuguese and English) covers every country in Latin America, it is particularly strong in certain areas.  There are currently around 140 boxes of materials. The Chilean boxes, for example, are mostly concerned with the build-up to and the aftermath of the 1973 coup, including election posters for Salvador Allende and pamphlets written by apologists for the Pinochet regime.  In addition, there are many contemporary and obscure items produced by leftist opposition groups in the 1970s.

Another strength of the collection is its coverage of human rights bodies in Central America in the late 1970s and 1980s.  Much of this material came as a result of the links between the Latin American organisations and solidarity and support groups in this country. A similar situation pertains for countries like Argentina and Brazil.

The Latin American political ephemera collections have an impressive variety and depth, and they hold a great deal of material that is either difficult or impossible to obtain elsewhere.  They are open for reference purposes to all researchers and postgraduate students, and anyone wishing to consult them or just to get further information should feel free to contact us here at Senate House Library.

Christine Anderson (Latin America Research Librarian):
Julio Cazzasa (Special Collections Cataloguer):

The British in Brazil


by Mr Alan Charlton

I was struck during my period as British Ambassador to Brazil (2008-2013) by the powerful contribution the UK had made to Brazil’s development. I was also struck by how little was known about this nowadays in both countries. These connections are not just a matter of historical record. They affect how the two countries see each other as potential partners for the future.

Brazil Railway Company

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