[Marxism] Rubber Soldiers

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Thu Nov 23 10:52:00 MST 2006

NY Times, November 23, 2006
Of Rubber and Blood in Brazilian Amazon

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 mason’s 
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. I’m 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 Brazil’s 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 didn’t 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 wasn’t until 1946 that I 
learned that the war was over. We didn’t 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 couldn’t have been 
won without rubber and us rubber soldiers.”

More information about the Marxism mailing list