This is the first of three Letters from the Amazon, written in recent weeks by LAB collaborator Dan Baron Cohen. Further letters will be published in the next few months. You can see them all here.
Cabelo Seco, Marabá. 7 September 2018
Our descent into Belém airport is announced. I close my Mac and look past the man beside me at the distant cityscape. The sky is black with imminent storm. My neighbour turns off his mobile. He has been listening to the unmistakable tones of angry accusation by the presidential frontrunner, Jair Bolsonaro, the full three hours of the flight. ‘How do you think the elections will go?’, I ask.
‘Bolsonaro will win. We need the shock. Today, the water is up to here’. He lifts his open palm to beneath his nose. ‘He’s aggressive. Loses control at times. But he knows the situation is critical. Discipline in school is the key. You American?’
‘Born in London’, I reply. ‘Been living here 20 years. And you?’ I look at my companion, humble, mixed-race, self-reflexive. ‘Barão de Cocais, a small city in Minas Gerais. Worked in the Valley of Iron. But I’m more than steel. I’ve travelled outside Brazil. You speak well.’ I smile. He continues. ‘I lived through the dictatorship. The generals have been corrupted. This Bolsonaro has never taken bribes. In seven mandates. He doesn’t need his 8 seconds TV. He makes news. He will create the shock we need.’ He extends his open hand. ‘André’.
At the boarding gate in Brasilia, I’d been stunned to see four professionals in dark suits salute one another, then chant in unison, ‘Bolsonaro’. His moral outrage clearly voices the repressed anger felt by many Brazilians. ‘Dan’. I smile, shaking André’s hand. ‘Distrust vanquished hope’, I propose, recalling the iconic phrase of the then President Lula. Today the ex-president leads the election polls from jail, condemned for still unproven corruption. The shoeshine boy turned metalworker, trade union leader turned president, proved that hope could overcome fear. But it didn’t overcome the bible, bullet and bull of the elite, nor the seduction of recognition and corrupting ache for life-long immunity from hunger.
‘I’m 70 next month, from a big family’. André leans towards me, confidentially. ‘I don’t understand it. Only my sister studied. A university professor of pedagogy. And she turned red. Her sons and daughters too. Now we can’t even sit in the same room.’ He looks out at the dark clouds, then turns back, eyes brimming with tears. ‘I don’t want to be governed by generals. But who else is qualified? We were deceived by terrorists who hid their lust for power behind promises of democracy’.
André looks back at Belém. ‘Do you know the Amazon?’, I ask. ‘My first time’, André replies. ‘We’re going fishing, to the Xingu River. We fly on to Altamira.’ I smile. ‘I know it well. We visited the hydroelectric dam. All we saw were dead fish’. André shakes his head. ‘Same with the Mariana disaster. Near me. Terrible. 500 years of toxic pollution. Both under the Workers’ Party government’. We fly deep into the clouds. No visibility. I wonder if the plane will be able to land.
‘Altamira became the most violent city in Brazil’, André adds, ‘Mining security is my beach. 30,000 workers bussed in with no infrastructure. The military police shouldered the social tragedy. And the multinational mining companies were acquitted. Not one cent in compensation to the families. It’s government by the elite for the elite. Libraries burn, and the people who suffer, party’.
The plane touches down and we stand. André lifts his hand to beneath his nose. ‘Up to here. And if all the corrupt and rich block Bolsonaro, the generals will step in. Everything that no-one wants.’ We shake hands. ‘Good fishing’, I smile, and turn on my mobile.
Jair Bolsonaro has just been stabbed, during a rally in Juiz de Fora, Minas Gerais. I walk through the airport to pick up my case, reading in disbelief. A single action has transformed the aggressive, homophobic and racist admirer of Trump into victim, hero and saviour. A living symbol of his own discourse. The storm explodes dramatically above the airport. At the carousel, I scroll photos and clips of the stabbing. A revengeful crowd, the surgery and bland statements of his opponents.
Impeached President Dilma Rousseff provokes a polemic: ‘When you plant hate, you harvest thunderstorms’. Torrential rain muffles announcements of cancelled flights.
Dan Baron Cohen is a performance educator, living in the Amazonian afro-indigenous community of Cabelo Seco, Pará. After doctoral research into ‘theatre as education’ at Oxford University, Dan began his ‘transformance’ project in Manchester, moving to Derry in 1988, to the Rhondda in 1994. and, in 1998, to Brazil. Collaborations with at-risk landless, indigenous, trade union and school communities, generated collective performances, murals, sculptures, and in 2008, the Amazonian Rivers of Meeting project. In 2012, Dan co-founded its Community University of the Rivers with the AfroRaiz Collective. As Chair of the World Alliance for Arts Education (2006-10), and member of the World Social Forum international council, Dan advocated arts education for sustainable futures. Dan’s publications include ‘Theatre of Self-Determination’ (Derry, 2001), ‘Cultural Literacy’ (São Paulo, 2004), ‘Harvest in Times of Drought’ (Marabá, 2011), and numerous essays.
 Brazil’s most serious mining disaster when an iron ore tailings dam burst in Minas Gerais in 2015.