The Brazilian Congress has announced the award of $11,300 in compensation to WWII plantation workers, forced to survive inhospitable conditions in the tropical north-east of the country to provide the US military with rubber. The US had lost its major rubber supplier when Malaya was overrun by Japanese forces in early 1942.
Brazil had begun WWII as a neutral country, trading with both Allied and Axis powers. However, American influence finally took its toll, the culmination of half-a-century of carefully-fostered pressure from Washington.
By the mid-1930s, American infiltration in the Brazilian economy had led to accusations of neo-imperialism and growing anti-US sentiment, particularly after the onset of the Depression. Many Brazilians felt that America was exploiting Brazil’s natural resources without providing fair compensation.
Furthermore, as the Americans had proved in Central America, Washington was willing to use military force to support its economic desires. Sugar-rich Cuba had been ‘liberated’ from Spain in 1898; US gunboats provoked the breakaway of Panama from Colombia in 1903, a crucial step in the move towards the Panama Canal; US marines intervened in Nicaragua on several occasions between 1912 and 1933 to ensure a favourable government. (Williamson, 2009, pp. 322-4)
With Axis trade to Brazil stifled by Allied efforts, the US used its history of economic engagement and threat of military intervention to draw important concessions from Brazil. In exchange for helping foster a nascent Brazilian iron industry, the US could build air bases on the Brazilian mainland.
The promise of economic advancement and the uncertainty caused by the war enabled the Americans to put further pressure on Brazil. With the crucial commodity of rubber – essential for the manufacture of military tires and weapons components – seemingly lost, the Brazilian government hit upon a recruitment scheme to encourage poor labourers to relocate to the north-eastern plantations.
This was no slave-grab; it was a genuine employment opportunity, albeit one that the Brazilian government misleadingly portrayed. Harsh conditions fostered by the climate, including the spread of disease and animal attacks saw some 7,000 of the 55,000 labourers die. Those that returned did not receive the housing or remuneration promised them.
Yet it is questionable whether compensation today is necessary, particularly when many of the former labourers are now in their 80s and 90s. By late 1943, Brazil had renounced its neutrality and had sided with the Allies. The Brazilian Expeditionary Force would fight fiercely in the Mediterranean and Italy between 1944 and 1945. For a country at war, sacrifices are a necessity, whether that be on the battle front or the home front.
Brazil’s contribution to the Allied victory was not forgotten, and the US has retained strong economic ties with South America’s biggest country ever since, helping it become one of the world’s largest economies.
It is that legacy that should be the compensation for Brazil’s ‘rubber soldiers’. How much difference can $11,300 make at the denouement of life?
Williamson, E, The Penguin History of Latin America (2009)