The Smoking Snakes: Brazil in World War II

One of my latest Wikipedia projects concerns the Brazilian Expeditionary Force (FEB in Portuguese), a military division of 25,000 men and women that fought with the Allies in World War II.

That’s right: Brazil was active and often decisive participant in humanity’s largest conflict. As early as 1941, the United States and Great Britain actively sought Brazil’s allegiance, owing to its vast resources and strategically location (the Battle of the Atlantic had already been raging for nearly two years, and the country’s coastline was the longest in the Western Hemisphere).

After agreeing to cut diplomatic ties with the Axis, host several major American bases—including the largest overseas airbase—and provide precious natural resources to the Allied cause, Hitler called for a “submarine blitz” against Brazil’s merchant vessels. The loss of three dozen ships and close to 2,000 lives led to Brazil’s formal declaration of war in August 1942.

Brazil thus became the only independent country outside the Western powers to fight in the Atlantic and European theaters. The FEB was deployed to the Italian Campaign, among the most grueling and difficult in the war. They were nicknamed the “Smoking Cobras”—and even had shoulder patches featuring a snake smoking a pipe—based on commenters skeptically noting that the world would more likely see snakes smoking than see Brazilian troops on the battlefield (akin the saying “when pigs fly”).

So, in characteristically Brazilian humor, those “unlikely” troops took that as their mantra. Lacking the resources of the major Allied powers, Brazilian troops were placed under U.S. command and equipped with American weapons and supplies. They mostly saw combat at the platoon level, providing a reprieve for the exhausted Allied soldiers that had already been fighting for months.

The FEB performed with distinction across Italy: they scored victories in over a dozen decisive battles, managing to capture over 20,500 enemy troops, including two generals and almost 900 officers. What the Brazilians lacked in training and experience they more than made up for in tenacity and enthusiasm—allegedly retreated only when they ran out of ammunition. Both allies and adversaries alike commented on their bravery and fighting prowess, with one German captain telling his Brazilian captors:

Frankly, you Brazilians are either crazy or very brave. I never saw anyone advance against machine-guns and well-defended positions with such disregard for life … You are devils.

Meanwhile, Brazil’s fledging air force punched well above its weight, successfully completed 445 missions and 2,550 individual sorties. Despite making up only 5% of the war’s air sorties, they managed to destroy 85% of Axis ammo dumps, 36% of Axis fuel depots, and 28% of Axis transportation infrastructure.

The Brazilian Navy actively participated in the Battle of the Atlantic, defending thousands of merchant marine convoys, engaging Axis naval forces at least 66 times, and taking out over a dozen subs. Aside from its military contribution, Brazil’s abundance of natural resources, from rubber to agricultural products, proved crucial to the Allied war machine. Brazilian forces were considered threatening enough for the Axis to target them with Portuguese propaganda leaflets and radio broadcasts urging them not to fight someone else’s war. It certainly did not help the Axis cause to fight troops that were racially integrated, which even the Allies did not do. (Notice the ethnic composition of the Brazilian units.) The U.S. also produced propaganda informing Americans of Brazil’s contributions. By the end of the war, Brazil had lost around 1,900 men, dozens of merchant vessels, three warships, and 22 fighter aircraft.

While Brazil’s involvement was hardly decisive, it served as an understandable point of pride for its people, who were proud to represent their country on the world stage. It also indicated the country’s growing global prominence, with many seeing Brazil as an up-and-coming power. The U.S. even wanted Brazil to maintain an occupation force in Europe, though its government became reluctant to get too involved overseas.

The Golden Law

On this day in 1888, Princess Isabel of the Empire of Brazil enacted the Lei Áurea (Golden Law), formally abolishing slavery in Brazil, which had the largest number of slaves and was the last Western country to abolish slavery. Both Isabel and her father, Emperor Dom Pedro II, were opponents to slavery (she signed as his regent because he was in Europe).

The law was very short, stating only that “From this date, slavery is declared abolished in Brazil. All dispositions to the contrary are revoked.” This was intended to make clear that there were no conditions or qualifications to abolition — slaves were to be totally freed, full stop. (Previous laws had freed the children of slaves, or freed slaves when they turned sixty; this time, slavery was stamped out for good, at least formally.)

Continue reading

Brazil’s Forgotten WWII Contribution

Fun history fact: Brazil actively participated in the Second World War, and in some respects played a relatively significant role. Joining the Allied cause in 1943 — one of the few independent states outside of Europe or the European sphere of influence to do so — Brazil assembled a force of over 25,000 men and women to fight in the Mediterranean Theater under U.S. command: the Brazilian Expeditionary Force (BEF). Continue reading

Brazil’s Difficult Gamble With the Amazon

With most of the world’s largest rainforest located within its borders, Brazil is center stage in global debates and efforts regarding environmental preservation. As an in-depth and visually stimulating NPR photo essay shows Continue reading

When Brazil Briefly Became a Leading Naval Power

Wikipedia’s latest Featured Article highlights an unusual episode of the early 20th century: Brazil’s acquisition of two of the largest and most cutting-edge battleships in the world: the Minas Geraes and São Paulo (former pictured).

Brazil was only the third country, after the U.K. and the U.S., to have the revolutionary “dreadnought” class (called the Minas Geraes class in Brazil) — ahead of major powers like France, Germany, Japan, and Russia. Its high profile purchase not only reflected the country’s growing wealth and prestige, but its aspirations of becoming a respected world power.

The ships were an international media sensation, not only for their power and sophistication, but out of surprise that Brazil, of all places, should come to possess them. (In fact, it was initially widely speculated that Brazil was only purchasing the ships on behalf of another power, with each major power pointing fingers at one another as the true buyer.) Upon their completion and delivery in 1910, the U.S. and other powers began courting Brazil as a potential ally, no doubt giving the country the sort of national pride that had partly motivated this move.

This event sparked another lesser known event in the 20th century: the great South American dreadnought race, wherein rivals Argentina and Chile — among the richest and most powerful countries in Latin America — worked to acquire powerful battleships of their own (other participants included Peru, Uruguay, and Venezuela). Like Brazil, each country acquired two powerful dreadnoughts of their own, but ultimately these behemoths would remain as white elephants: symbolically impressive, by strategically unnecessary. After seeing little action, all the ships built in the race would end up being sold or scrapped by the mid-20th century — but not without giving their respective countries a significant, though costly, boost in global prestige and status.

The Confederates of Brazil

Nostalgia for the “Old South” is alive and well not just in the southern United States but, in of all place, Brazil (and to a lesser degree other parts of Latin America). That is because thousands of Confederates opted to leave the country to continue keeping their culture and practices alive in places where slave-based agriculture persisted.

As an interesting piece at Vice reports, the legacy of these southern transplants persists to this day:

For miles around the graveyard, unfiltered sun beat down on sugarcane fields planted by the thousands of Confederates who had rejected Reconstruction and fled the United States in the wake of the Civil War—a voluntary exile that American history has more or less erased. Their scattered diaspora has gathered annually for the past 25 years. The party they throw, which receives funding from the local government, is the family reunion of the Confederados, one of the last remaining enclaves of the children of the unreconstructed South.

Almost everyone had come to the festa dressed as an American—in jeans and boots, Johnny Cash T-shirts and camouflage. Visitors haggled at a booth stocked with Southern paraphernalia: aprons, quilts, commemorative glasses, a used copy of The Autobiography of Malcolm X. An amplified voice called the crowds to pull their chairs up to the main stage—an enormous concrete slab with a flag painted across it and the words XXVI FESTA CONFEDERADA emblazoned at its top. The mayor of the nearby town Santa Bárbara d’Oeste surveyed his assembled constituents and welcomed the state representatives in attendance. “It’s the first time I have the honor being here as mayor,” he beamed, leaning over the microphone as descendants in homemade hoop skirts and sewn Confederate grays standing behind him hoisted flags up long, thin wooden poles. “But I’ve been here many times as a spectator, a fan.” The banners of São Paulo, Brazil, Texas, the United States, and the Confederacy flapped languidly in the breeze. “North American immigration has helped build our region, has helped build Santa Bárbara d’Oeste, has helped build the city of Americana,” he proclaimed. “That’s what we celebrate today.”

By and large, the thousands of Texans and Alabamans and Georgians who sailed to Cuba and Mexico and Brazil failed. They folded into cities and set up doomed plantations on rain-forest plots. But not the town of Americana. Led by an Alabaman colonel, its settlers introduced cotton and turned the town into an industrial textile powerhouse. For generations their children spoke English with a drawl. Today the city of 200,000 boasts Latin America’s largest cowboy-rodeo arena. The festa brings it great pride

It is a long and intriguing read, which also touches upon Brazil’s struggle to come to terms with its own history of slavery (which was outlawed only in 1888) and its continued fight against the practice of de facto slavery, which mostly involves the invisible migrant workers from neighboring Bolivia, Peru, and Paraguay (a familiar problem in America).

An Amazing and Heartwarming Way to Learn a Language

ADWEEK recently featured a simple but innovative way to address two seemingly unrelated issues at once: teaching young people English while giving lonely elderly people someone to talk to.

FCB Brazil did just that with its “Speaking Exchange” project for CNA language schools. As seen in the touching case study below, the young Brazilians and older Americans connect via Web chats, and they not only begin to share a language—they develop relationships that enrich both sides culturally and emotionally.

The differences in age and background combine to make the interactions remarkable to watch. And the participants clearly grow close to one another, to the point where they end up speaking from the heart in a more universal language than English.

The pilot project was implemented at a CNA school in Liberdade, Brazil, and the Windsor Park Retirement Community in Chicago. The conversations are recorded and uploaded as private YouTube videos for the teachers to evaluate the students’ development.

“The idea is simple and it’s a win-win proposition for both the students and the American senior citizens. It’s exciting to see their reactions and contentment. It truly benefits both sides,” says Joanna Monteiro, executive creative director at FCB Brazil.

Says Max Geraldo, FCB Brazil’s executive director: “The beauty of this project is in CNA’s belief that we develop better students when we develop better people.”

Needless to say, this is pretty touching and inspiring stuff. I’d love to see more programs like this take off between other countries. Come to think of it, I wouldn’t mind participating in one myself.

Check out the heartwarming introductory video below. What do you think?

Photo Essays From Foreign Policy

Repairs on my laptop are taking longer than expected, so I’m afraid I can’t delve into some of the deeper subjects I had in mind to discuss.

As some of you may have noticed, however, this blog is devoted to more than just voluminous rants and philosophical reflections. As the entire right-side of this page attests to, I’m aiming to create a hub of information, and spend much of my time bringing attention to all sorts of events, issues, causes, and personal interests. There’s a lot of stuff out there, and I owe a lot to my friends, peers, and colleagues who have introduced me to sources and subjects I had no idea existed. I think it’s only fair that I reciprocate.

As the title makes clear, my topics today will be a series of photo essays from Foreign Policy Magazine (also known simply as FP), one of my favorite and most regularly cited sources. Each of the three I’ll be sharing are pretty diverse in their subjects, which suits me just fine (and hopefully you too). As per my usual habit, I’ll be following them up with some musings and missives that have come to my mind, and that I think should bear consideration.

The first is Barriers to Entry, which consists mostly of photos of prominent landmarks and monuments from Washington, DC, following the 9/11 attacks. Though as iconic and majestic as ever, the sight of these prominent symbols being subject to tighter security makes for an interesting, and some would say tragic, message. It reveals how much the US is still effected by security concerns even a decade on, and the deep-seated and long-lasting impact acts of violence can have on a society. How many generations until we’ll feel safer? Will this be the permanent state of affairs, a new normal for Americans from now on?

I also found it fascinating how a lot of these security measures – mostly barriers of various designs and functions – were made to be subtle and even aesthetically pleasing. We want to be safe and unharmed, but we also want to be free; we don’t want our public spaces and national landmarks to be closed-off and suffocated, but we certainly don’t want to risk their destruction. We’ve been traumatized enough by the 9/11 attacks and the figurative and literal emptiness they left behind – we couldn’t stand to lose any more lives or national sources of pride.

Following that, we have Road to Prosperity, a collection of images showcasing China’s massive construction boom. Skyscrapers, bridges, high-speed rail, highways – every infrastructure project imaginable is being undertaken with unprecedented speed by one of the world’s fastest growing nations. In stark contrast to the ailing rich world, the People’s Republic seems to be embarking on an energetic and enthusiastic journey to development; the ambitious projects, lavish investments, and high job growth that have long defined the Western world are in full force in China. It’s even left many to wonder if China’s state-heavy and authoritative means of getting things done is truly the better approach.

But is it? Corruption is rife in China, and billions of dollars worth of money is siphoned off by government officials or their business elite partners. Some of these flashy looking achievements may be of shoddy construction, and if not that, then they’re often out of reach from many of China’s poor (and there are still hundreds of millions of them). And what about the environmental costs of all this building and resource extraction; could the Chinese, or the rest of the world for that matter, take any more pollution? Dissatisfaction and aloofness with the ruling elites is growing, as is visible discontent –  even in an oppressive state like China, protests are at an all time high, and some state media sources are starting to get critical too. It’ll take more than public works to satiate the Chinese people’s growing demands for accountability and greater freedom.

Finally, we end with Cocacabana, a lighthearted-sounding name for a gritty series of images depicting a tour through Rio’s blighted favelas, or slums. Crime, drugs, and murder are rampant in these communities, which make up a large chuck of the aptly named City of God. Criminal syndicates and gangs rule almost unopposed (except by one another), creating a virtually autonomous community within a community that allows them to function with impunity. Despite this, most of the people here are savvy and hardworking, eking out a living almost from scratch, and managing to live almost self-sufficiently, as few outsiders – cops, politicians, or non-residents – ever venture in, let alone help.

But that may be changing. Brazil is growing rapidly, and becoming increasingly wealthy and more developed. Public spending is at an all time high, and previously neglected regions are receiving unprecedented amounts of aid, including clinics, schools, and regular police patrols. As a result, crime and poverty are falling, even if they remain terribly high. More and more Brazilians feel confident that they, and their nation, is going on the right path. Rio will even be set to host no less than two major international sporting events (the World Cup and the Summer Olympics). Whether Brazil’s most famous city will be ready for the spotlight, and it’s people delivered from their wretched conditions, is still a very open question.

So much to think about, so little time and brain matter. The world is full of events and paradigms to ponder, their implications big and small. It’s overwhelming to consider all the stories and issues that are transpiring around us constantly, millions of them overlapping and emerging simultaneously across diverse parts of the world.

So much for sleeping any time soon.