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  • Last week was International Workers Day, sometimes called May Day in the US, where in all but the most steadfast labor circles, it tends not to be well-observed. I’ve always associated May Day with the Wobblies and the union movements of the early twentieth century, along with the (I’m guessing, unrelated) pastime of ding-dong-ditching spring bouquets on neighbors’ front doorsteps. In the States, the Occupy Wall Street movement evidently used the occasion to call for a general strike, a cross-profession walkout of the sort that brought Seattle to a standstill in 1919.

    Even compared to the post-WWI heyday of grassroots labor in the US, the concept of the strike has always been more powerful in Latin America. Last Tuesday, I showed up at the Brazilian National Library to dig through an archive of the Brazil Herald, an old English-language newspaper to which Thompson contributed when he first arrived in Rio. They'd closed the place for International Workers Day. When I came back the next morning, I paged through six months of daily papers from late 1962 to mid-1963, and I found that strikes garnered a lot of local ink. There were pieces on police strikes, transit strikes, and rice-growers’ strikes. One issue began with an apology for a three-day lull in publication — caused, not surprisingly, by a printers’ strike.

    At the time, Brazil had a leftist government, led by former labor minister Joao Goulart and less critical of the still-recent Cuban Revolution than many US officials would have liked. It was also, as I mentioned in a previous post, tanking financially, and the Brazil Herald articles about demands for wage increases are a testament to the country’s out-of-control inflation. When Thompson left Brazil in mid-1963, he predicted one of two scenarios: either Goulart would limp through his term to be crushed by a conservative challenger, or he’d first be driven out by a military coup.

    The latter scenario played out about a year after Thompson returned to the States. With tacit support from the US, Brazil was ruled for the next twenty-one years by a military government — staunchly anti-communist, but increasingly oppressive, violent, and indifferent to human rights. The country had a burst of economic growth in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, but inflation came back with a vengeance. Brazil limped through another decade of military rule, then struggled well into the ‘90s with corruption, inflation, and debt. Not until the country pivoted back to the left did it start becoming the global powerhouse it is today. Under labor stalwart Luiz Inácio da Silva, Brazil made huge strides against poverty and became the world’s eighth-largest economy. "Lula" is a former head of the steelworker’s union once jailed for leading strikes in the 1970s. His handpicked replacement, current president Dilma Rousseff, is a former Marxist guerilla likewise jailed and tortured by the military regime.

    I left South America this week to come home and start focusing on the book. As my first few flights rose over Rio and Sao Paulo, I stared out the windows at the receding landscapes, resisting the urge (often inspired by aerial views) to draw any dramatic, grand conclusions. But one thought kept occurring to me — that so much of today’s South America seems to represent exactly those scenarios that the US policies of Thompson’s day had been drawn up to prevent. The populist left now has a firm foothold on the continent. The poorest haven’t much improved their lot. And a not-small percentage of the populace still views the United States with a kind of weary, conflicted resentment.

    All the same, you won’t find in South America the resulting nightmare scenario that many in Thompson’s era might have predicted. Had you described to the Kennedy administration a Brazil led for twelve years by a popular unionist and a former left-wing militant, it would have likely sent officials into spasms. But far from being a socialst dystopia, Brazil has one of the continent’s strongest democracies — and one of the world’s strongest (and most decidedly capitalist) economies.

    On the whole, the South America I’ve seen very rarely resembles the bleak and beaten-down battleground that Thompson often describes. What I’ve found instead is a vibrant and endlessly striving continent, proud of its accomplishments and quickly learning to help itself. Is it chaotic? Yes. Drastically unequal? Sure. Is it sometimes economically unstable, other times plagued by ideological conflict? Yes and yes again. But I can think of at least one other sprawling society that fits each of these descriptions. In many ways, the US has probably become more like South America in the last fifty years than South America has become like the US.

    What might Thompson have made of this? Thompson who once wrote, “After a year of roaming around down here, the main thing I’ve learned is that I now understand the United States, and why it will never be what it could have been, or at least tried to be.” I considered the question as I took one last look at the totalizing Sao Paulo horizon. Then I pulled down the plastic shade and rang the stewardess for more beer.

    To keep up with new stories from the Hunter S. Thompson Trail in South America, follow me on Twitter.
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