[Marxism] Rubber Soldiers
lnp3 at panix.com
Thu Nov 23 10:52:00 MST 2006
NY Times, November 23, 2006
Of Rubber and Blood in Brazilian Amazon
By LARRY ROHTER
RIO BRANCO, Brazil Alcidino dos Santos was on
his way to the market to buy vegetables for his
mother one morning in 1942 when an army officer
stopped him and told him he was being drafted as
a rubber soldier. Men were needed in the
Amazon, 3,000 miles away, to harvest rubber for
the Allied war effort, he was told, and it was his patriotic duty to serve.
Mr. dos Santos, then a 19-year-old masons
assistant, protested that his mother was a widow
who depended on him for support, but to no avail.
He would be paid a wage of 50 cents a day, he
recalls being told, and receive free
transportation home once the conflict was over, but he had to go, that day.
More than 60 years after the end of World War II,
Mr. dos Santos and hundreds of other poor
Brazilians who were dragooned into service as
rubber soldiers are still in the Amazon, waiting
for those promises to be fulfilled. Elderly and
frail, they are fighting against time and
indifference to gain the recognition and
compensation they believe should be theirs.
We were duped, and then abandoned and
forgotten, Mr. dos Santos, who never saw his
mother again, said in an interview at his simple
wood house here in Acre, a state in the far west
of the Brazilian Amazon that has the largest
concentration of former rubber soldiers.
We were brought here against our will, he said,
and thrown into the jungle, where we suffered
terribly. Im near the end of my life, but my country should do right by me.
The program originated in an agreement between
the United States and Brazil. The Japanese attack
on Pearl Harbor had cut the United States off
from its main source of rubber, in Malaya, and
President Roosevelt persuaded Brazils dictator,
Getúlio Vargas, to fill that strategic gap in
return for millions of dollars in loans, credits and equipment.
According to Brazilian government records, more
than 55,000 people, almost all of them from the
drought-ridden and poverty-stricken northeast,
were sent to the Amazon to harvest rubber for the
war effort. There are no official figures on how
many of them succumbed to disease or animal
attacks, but historians estimate that nearly half
perished before Japan surrendered in September 1945.
Some of the guys died of malaria, yellow fever,
beriberi and hepatitis, but others were killed by
snakes, stingrays or even panthers, recalled
Lupércio Freire Maia, 86. They didnt have the
proper medicines for diseases or snakebites there
in the camps, so when someone died you buried him
right there next to the hut and kept right on working.
The work was exhausting, dangerous and unhealthy:
rubber soldiers rose just after midnight, tramped
through the jungle in the dark to cut grooves in
the trees and returned later in the day to
collect the latex that dripped into cups.
They would then toast the white liquid into solid
balls weighing up to 130 pounds, a process that
generated so much smoke that many were left blind or sight-impaired.
Though many of the rubber soldiers were forced
into service, a few enlisted, hoping for
adventure and riches. José Araújo Braga, 82,
described himself as a rebellious kid who wanted
to see the world and thus was easily swayed by
government propaganda that spoke of the Amazon as
an El Dorado where the Rubber for Victory
effort could earn a hard worker a fortune.
I could have joined the army and gone to
Europe, where Brazilian troops fought alongside
American forces in Italy and are now honored as
heroes, he said. But I chose the Amazon because,
foolish me, I thought that I could make a lot of money.
Once the men reached the Amazon, though, their
wages ceased and they were herded into cantonments, with no visitors allowed.
When the war and American interest ended, the
people profiting from the arrangement were not
about to let their free labor go. The rubber camp
bosses feared an exodus if the news got out, and
so many rubber soldiers were still there in the
jungle years later, unawares, said Marcos
Vinícius Neves, a historian who is director of a
government historical preservation foundation here.
Mr. Maia said: It wasnt until 1946 that I
learned that the war was over. We didnt have any
radios, and we were completely cut off from the outside world.
But those who heard the news right away also
encountered problems in leaving and collecting
their wages. Many were told that they owed money
to the rubber camp bosses for food, clothing or
equipment, and would have to remain until their debts were paid off.
Oh, I was so happy the day the war ended,
because I thought, Now I can finally go home,
Mr. dos Santos recalled. But when I went to talk
to the boss about leaving, he said, Who are you
kidding? and told me to get back to work.
With no money and no transportation, most of the
rubber soldiers resigned themselves to remaining
in the Amazon. They married, had families and
continued to work in the rubber camps or became
rural homesteaders, ignored and anonymous.
How do you suppose Brasília was built? said
José Paulino da Costa, director of the Retirees
and Rubber Soldiers Union of Acre. The United
States paid money to Brazil, but it went to other
projects instead of the rubber soldiers, which was a terrible injustice.
In 1988, though, Brazil ratified a new
Constitution with an article that called for the
rubber soldiers to receive a pension valued at
twice the minimum wage, or $350 a month
currently. But many who served here found
themselves ineligible because they could not
supply the required documents. Their original
contracts had been lost, destroyed by rain or
handed over to rubber plantation bosses and never returned.
Those who have qualified receive a pension that
is barely one-tenth of the amount paid to
Brazilian soldiers who fought in Europe during
World War II. In 2002 a member of Congress from
the state of Amazonas introduced a bill to pay
rubber soldiers who are living in misery the
same amount, but the bill remains stalled in committee.
When I watch the Independence Day ceremonies on
television and see the soldiers who fought in
Europe parading in their uniforms I feel sadness
and dismay, Mr. Maia said. We were combatants
too. Everyone owes us a big favor, including the
Americans, because that war couldnt have been
won without rubber and us rubber soldiers.
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