The long shadow of the United States
America set up military bases in the north of Brazil without
waiting for authorisation
By Robert Fisk
-- -- Strange things happen when a
reporter strays off his beat. Vast regions of the earth turn out
to have different priorities. The latest conspiracy theory for
the murder of ex-Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri--that
criminals involved in a bankrupt Beirut bank may have been
involved--doesn't make it into the New Zealand Dominion Post.
And last week, arriving in the vast, messy, unplanned city of
Sao Paulo, it was a Brazilian MP corruption scandal, the
bankruptcy of the country's awful airline Varig--worse, let me
warn you, than any East European airline under the Soviet
Union--and Brazil's newly nationalised oil concessions in
Bolivia that made up the front pages.
Sure, there was Iranian President Ahmadinejad's long letter to
President Bush--"rambling", the local International Herald
Tribune edition called it, a description the paper's headline
writers would never apply to Mr Bush himself--and a whole page
of Middle East reports in the Folha de Sao Paulo daily about the
EU's outrageous sanctions against the democratically elected
government of "Palestine"--all, alas, written from wire
But then in steps Brazil with its geographical immensity, its
extraordinary story of colonialism and democracy, the mixture of
races in Sao Paulo's streets--which outdoes the ethnic origins
of the occupants of any Toronto tram--and its weird version of
Portuguese; and then suddenly the Middle East seems, a very long
Brazil? Sure, the Amazon, tropical forests, coffee and the
beaches of Rio. And then there's Brasilia, the make-believe
capital designed--like the equally fake Canberra in Australia
and fraudulent Islamabad in Pakistan--so that the country's
politicians can hide themselves away from their people.
One thing the country shares with the Arab world, it turned out,
is the ever constant presence and influence and pressure of the
US--never more so than when Brazil's right-wing rulers were
searching for commies in the 1940s and 50s. They weren't hard to
In 1941, a newly belligerent America--plunged into a world war
by an attack every bit as ruthless as that of 11 September
2001--had become so worried about the big bit of Brazil that
juts far out into the Atlantic, that it set up military bases in
the north of the country without waiting for the authorisation
of the Brazilian government. Now what, I wonder, does that
remind me of?
Well, Washington needn't have worried. The sinking of five
Brazilian merchant ships by German U-boats provoked huge public
demonstrations that forced the right-wing and undemocratic
Getulio Vargas government to declare war on the Nazis. Hands up
those readers who know that more than 20,000 Brazilian troops
fought on our side in the Italian campaign right up to the end
of the Second World War. Even fewer hands will be raised, I
suspect, if I ask how many Brazilian troops were killed.
According to Boris Fausto's excellent history of Brazil, 454
died in combat against the Wehrmacht.
The return of the Brazilian Expeditionary Force helped to bring
democracy to Brazil. Vargas shot himself nine years later,
leaving a dramatic suicide note which suggested that "foreign
forces" had caused his country's latest economic crisis. Crowds
attacked the US embassy in Rio.
Well, it all looks very different today when a left-wing
Brazilian leader, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva--who also found
himself threatened by "foreign forces" after his popular
election--is trying to make sense of the Bolivian
nationalisation of Brazil's oil conglomerates, an act carried
out by Lula's equally left-wing chum up in La Paz, Evo Morales.
I have to say that the explosion inside Latin America's
fashionable leftist governments does have something in common
with meetings of the Arab League--where Arab promises of unity
are always undermined by hateful arguments. No wonder one of
Folha's writers this week headlined his story "The Arabias".
But can I let that place leave me? Or does the Middle East have
a grasp over its victims, a way of jerking their heads around
just when you think it might be safe to immerse yourself in a
city a world away from Arabia? After two days in Brazil, my
office mail arrives from the foreign desk in London and I curl
up on my bed to go through the letters. First out of the bag
comes Peter Metcalfe of Stevenage with a photocopied page from
Lawrence of Arabia's "Seven Pillars of Wisdom". Lawrence is
writing about Iraq in the 1920s, and about oil and colonialism.
"We pay for these things too much in honour and innocent lives,"
he says. "I went up the Tigris with one hundred Devon
Territorials ... delightful fellows, full of the power of
happiness and of making women and children glad. By them one saw
vividly how great it was to be their kin, and English. And we
were casting them by thousands into the fire to the worst of
deaths, not to win the war but that the corn and rice and oil of
Mesopotamia might be ours."
My next day's Brazilian newspaper shows an American soldier
lying on his back in a Baghdad street, blasted to death by a
roadside bomb. Thrown into the fire to the worst of deaths,
Then in my mail bag comes an enclosure from Antony Loewenstein,
an old journalistic mate of mine in Sydney. It's an editorial
from The Australian, not my favourite paper since it's still
beating the drum for George W on Iraq. But listen to this:
"Three years ago ... elite Australian troops were fighting in
Iraq's western desert to neutralise Scud missile sites. Now,
three years later, we know that at the same moment members of
our SAS were risking their lives and engaging with Saddam
Hussein's troops, boatloads of Australian wheat were steaming
towards ports in the Persian Gulf, where their cargo was to be
offloaded and driven to Iraq by a Jordanian shipping company
paying kickbacks to--Saddam Hussein."
And I remember that one of the reasons Australia's Prime
Minister John Howard gave for going to war against Iraq--he's
never once told Australians that we didn't find any weapons of
mass destruction--was that Saddam Hussein's regime was
"corrupt". So who was doing the corrupting? Ho hum.
So I prepare to check out of the Sao Paulo Maksoud Plaza hotel.
Maksoud? In Arabic, this means "the place you come back to". And
of course, the owner turns out to be a Brazilian-Lebanese. I
check my flying times. "Sao Paulo / Frankfurt/ Beirut," it says
on my ticket.
Back on the inescapable beat.
Robert Fisk is
a reporter for The Independent and author of
Pity the Nation
. Fisk's new book is
The Great War for Civilisation : The Conquest of the Middle East
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