Before the Flood: The Itaipu Dam and the Visibility of Rural Brazil

Before the Flood: The Itaipu Dam and the Visibility of Rural Brazil

by Jacob Blanc

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In Before the Flood Jacob Blanc traces the protest movements of rural Brazilians living in the shadow of the Itaipu dam-the largest producer of hydroelectric power in the world. In the 1970s and 1980s, local communities facing displacement took a stand against the military officials overseeing the dam's construction, and in the context of an emerging national fight for democracy, they elevated their struggle for land into a referendum on the dictatorship itself. Unlike the broader campaign against military rule, however, the conflict at Itaipu was premised on issues that long predated the official start of dictatorship: access to land, the defense of rural and indigenous livelihoods, and political rights in the countryside. In their efforts against Itaipu and through conflicts among themselves, title-owning farmers, landless peasants, and the Avá-Guarani Indians articulated a rural-based vision for democracy. Through interviews and archival research-including declassified military documents and the first-ever access to the Itaipu Binational Corporation-Before the Flood challenges the primacy of urban-focused narratives and unearths the rural experiences of dictatorship and democracy in Brazil.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781478004899
Publisher: Duke University Press Books
Publication date: 11/15/2019
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 320
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.67(d)

About the Author

Jacob Blanc is Lecturer in Latin American History at the University of Edinburgh and coeditor of Big Water: The Making of the Borderlands between Brazil, Argentina, and Paraguay.

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Borders, Geopolitics, and the Forgotten Roots of Itaipu

In 1972 the Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano traveled through the Paraná frontier zone between Paraguay and Brazil. As he prepared to cross the Paraná River and make his way toward Brazil, he saw a message carved into a rock: "Paraguayans have lost their water — but water is not everything." Galeano gazed out on the majestic Guaíra waterfalls, a series of cascades with the highest volume of water on the planet — over twice the flow of Niagara Falls. Amid the deafening buzz of the Guaíra Falls, Galeano reflected on what, if anything, could possibly be more important than the roaring waters in front of him: "Well then, the riverbank?"

Galeano's observation highlights a paradox of how the Itaipu dam came into being. The waters of the Paraná River that eventually powered Itaipu's turbines were initially far less significant than the lands that surrounded them. Disputes over this border date back to the War of the Triple Alliance (1864–1870), a victory for Brazil and its allies that killed well over half of Paraguay's male population. By the middle of the twentieth century, an emerging desire to develop the region pushed Brazil and Paraguay into a fifteen-year standoff for control of the river's hydroelectric potential. This conflict centered on territorial sovereignty in the Guaíra region: what were the limits of the international border, how did it divide the waters of the Paraná River and its famous waterfalls, and who had the right to redraw its boundaries? These issues had existed since the nineteenth century, but only in the late 1950s did questions of topography and geographic demarcation result in a prolonged geopolitical crisis. As Galeano noted, the riverbank very much mattered, and with their sights set on building the largest dam in the world, the governments of both nations jockeyed for control of the border.

This chapter traces the geopolitical relationship between Brazil and Paraguay from the late 1950s through the 1973 Treaty of Itaipu. Among a litany of engineering and bureaucratic details, the binational agreement included stipulations that allowed Brazil to appropriate the overwhelming majority of the dam's future production. The treaty also determined that 1,300 square kilometers of land on both sides of the Paraná River would be flooded to create the dam's reservoir basin. This area included the entire controversial frontier region in Guaíra. After a century of geopolitical problems, Brazil and Paraguay found a way to make their border conflict literally disappear. As Brazil's Foreign Ministry described in a confidential report, the dam "should flood the entire disputed zone, and as such, would finally resolve this problem."

For nearly fifty years, Itaipu's supporters have championed a narrative that the dam helped overcome the historical enmity between Brazil and Paraguay to trigger unprecedented development in each country — a claim that in many ways holds true. But this triumphalist retelling often overlooks how Itaipu also solidified the uneven power relations on display throughout the preceding border crisis.

Although scholars agree that Brazil emerged in this period as the region's major power, they have yet to fully acknowledge the central role of the Guaíra conflict in Brazil's ascent. Given this oversight, we must ask how a border dispute served to fundamentally change the geopolitical landscape of the Southern Cone. Along with exploring the historical roots of the Itaipu dam, this chapter argues that the Guaíra border conflict helped catalyze Brazil's rise to power. With the backing of the United States, Brazil's military regime refused to recognize Paraguay's claim to the frontier zone. Although the Paraguayan government did benefit from entering Brazil's sphere of influence through its participation in a binational dam project, it did so only on the terms dictated by Brazil, one of its greatest historical rivals.

The dictatorship of General Alfredo Stroessner had ruled Paraguay since 1954, and by the mid-1960s the government began to move the country away from its traditional alliance with Argentina (its neighbor to the west) in favor of Brazil (its neighbor to the east). Brazil, meanwhile, saw the overthrow of its democratically elected president João Goulart in April 1964. Determined to transform the country into a global power, Brazil's new military regime maneuvered to surpass its Latin American neighbors in regional and hemispheric dominance. The Argentine government, whose borders lay downstream on the same Paraná River, worried that a Brazil-Paraguay dam upstream would limit its own energy and commercial interests. This chapter will chronicle how Brazil's successful control of the waters and shorelines of the Paraná borderlands helped it become the region's most powerful country.

Brazil's successful use of frontier statecraft in the 1960s had its roots in earlier efforts to bring new territories and resources under national control. At the turn of the twentieth century, for example, Brazil staged similar geopolitical, cartographic, and diplomatic standoffs along its Amazonian frontiers with Peru and Bolivia. Under the direction of José Paranhos, better known as the Baron of Rio Branco, Brazil incorporated an area roughly the size of France. This gave the young Brazilian Republic — established only two decades earlier — a taste of imperial ambitions and set the precedent for subsequent border disputes. And whereas the frontier conflicts in the Amazon had largely been about access to rubber, one of the world's most valuable commodities at the time, the border standoff with Paraguay in the 1960s concerned a different natural resource: the hydroelectric potential of the Paraná River.

The context of the Cold War also shaped the Guaíra border crisis. Especially after the Cuban Revolution of 1959, Latin America served as an important battleground for the global Cold War, and the United States initiated a number of programs intended to stem the tide of communism in the Western Hemisphere. These included public initiatives like the Alliance for Progress that incentivized moderate reforms, and also covert plans to support leaders who would defend US interests. The dictatorships of Brazil and Paraguay saw themselves as important Cold War allies of the United States: each government framed its political legitimacy around a rigid brand of anticommunism, and both sent troops to support the US invasion of the Dominican Republic in 1965 — an action that Argentina never took. Although the US government had a positive relationship with Paraguay, Brazil remained its most important partner in Latin America. As such, Brazil's growth was vital to the United States' geopolitical vision. At both an ideological and a material level, the Cold War discourse resonated strongly with Latin American dictatorships. In Brazil the military's Doctrine of National Security (DSN, Doutrina de Segurança Nacional) focused heavily on industrial development, and Paraguay's General Stroessner sought to build a modern nation that could earn the approval of the United States and its global allies.

To fulfill these goals, both military regimes looked to the disputed borderlands and the untapped power of the Paraná River. In an exercise of geopolitical posturing, the Brazilian regime foresaw that despite its overwhelming political and economic strength, it would have to allow its smaller neighbor to participate in a binational project. Yet the Brazilian government concealed its willingness to collaborate and instead strong-armed Paraguay. This set the groundwork for a controversial 1973 treaty requiring Paraguay to sell its unused energy from Itaipu exclusively to Brazil at a below-market price that was fixed for fifty years. In the decade before this treaty, however, the Stroessner regime aimed to consolidate its political legitimacy and become a stronger ally of the United States — even if this meant a rapprochement with Brazil. Paraguayan efforts to deflect internal opposition toward an outside force only partially succeeded; popular dissent formed not only against the Brazilian "invasion" of the border but also against Stroessner's complicity in "selling out" the Guaíra waterfalls. Even with this domestic tension, the government's nationalist rhetoric allowed Stroessner to claim the construction of a Paraná dam as a victory for the Paraguayan people.

The desire to make the Itaipu dam a reality embroiled Brazil and Paraguay in a geopolitical standoff that vacillated between conflict and collaboration. Although punctuated by celebrations of binational agreements in 1966 and 1973, the fifteen-year standoff was defined by the mobilization of troops on opposite sides of the border, the arrest of government leaders, popular unrest in the streets, and a nonstop stream of diplomatic posturing. Despite the claims of international unity that Itaipu's proponents have trumpeted for over half a century, the dam emerged from a partnership built not on trust or mutual respect but on conflict. This chapter will use previously unexamined archival sources and interviews with surviving participants to reveal the depths of Itaipu's prehistory.

Revisiting the forgotten roots of Itaipu casts new light on the legacy of the dam itself. More than just a colossal feat of engineering genius, the dam must be understood as the apex of a geopolitical conflict through which Latin American governments jockeyed for regional and global power. Despite Itaipu's importance — both during its early years and in the decades since — its bellicose beginnings remain largely unknown. This oversight should not be surprising as Itaipu was and continues to be held up as a model of Latin American cooperation. This makes it all the more necessary to explore the tense and at times violent history that paved the way for the so-called Project of the Century.

One Border, Two Interpretations

To properly contextualize the actions and rhetoric that both governments would deploy in the lead-up to the Itaipu dam, one must first understand why Brazil and Paraguay had diverging perceptions of their shared border. This difference of interpretation originated in the 1872 Treaty of Loizaga-Cotegipe that followed the War of the Triple Alliance. Signed by the government of Paraguay and the empire of Brazil — and against the desires of both Argentina and Uruguay — the treaty designated the Guaíra waterfalls as the dividing line between the nations. Paraguay referred to the cascades collectively as the Salto de Guairá, an understanding that all seven of the falls belonged to one singular body of water. Brazilians called these the Sete Quedas (seven falls), implying that each existed independently from the others. This distinction is critical because the treaty of 1872 stipulated that the border between Brazil and Paraguay stretched from the Mbaracajú Mountain range toward "the waterway or canal of the Paraná River ... to the Great Fall of the Seven Falls." Paraguay thus interpreted the treaty to mean that the border extended to the northern end of the waterfalls and encompassed all of them, while Brazil considered the frontier to bisect them at the fifth cascade — the tallest of the seven falls.

In the context of Cold War ambitions to harness the energy of the Paraná River, Paraguay's understanding that the waterfall (singular) belonged to both countries protected its claim to participate in any development project that included any portion of the falls. For Brazil, however, the belief that the border bisected the waterfalls (plural) justified building a hydroelectric dam on its section of the river that would completely circumvent Paraguayan waters. In the hundred years after the War of the Triple Alliance, Paraguay had consistently emphasized that the 1872 treaty had left twenty kilometers of uncontested land west of the Guaíra waterfalls. Brazil, in contrast, acknowledged no such ambiguity and refused to recognize Paraguay's claims. From 1872 through the early 1960s, dozens of binational meetings discussed unresolved border issues, many of which made reference to the twenty kilometers of undemarcated Mbaracajú Mountains west of the Paraná River.

A parallel controversy imbricated Argentina, a country with an equally important claim to the Paraná. Although the river originates in Brazilian territory, its downstream flow forms the border between Paraguay and Argentina before finally flowing into the basin of the River Plate and the Atlantic Ocean. Throughout the twentieth century, Argentina encouraged river-use regulations based on the principle of prior consultation (consulta prévia) in order to protect itself against any damages from upstream development — specifically targeting Brazil. In the first half of the century, when Argentina's regional superiority was more evident, Brazilian governments respected Argentine proposals for river regulation. As Brazil's influence grew, however, it rejected Argentina's attachment to prior consultation and claimed that it had no obligation to share water with any downstream nation. Argentina's major backlash against what would become the Itaipu dam did not take place until the 1970s — when it denounced Brazil in front of the United Nations — but the origins of this river rivalry took shape in the preceding decades. Propelled by these competing visions for the Paraná River, the Guaíra border conflict helped Brazil supplant Argentina as the region's major power.

A deeper legacy of the War of the Triple Alliance also motivated the perceptions of these boundaries. Popular lore, especially in Paraguay, depicts Brazil as the aggressor of the war that nearly wiped out Paraguay's population. Yet the conflict also resulted from the policies of the Argentine Republic and the interests of foreign capital, most notably British merchants. F. J. McLynn has argued that Brazil "fought a bloody war and expended enormous amounts of manpower and treasure for aims which in no sense worked toward its real national interest." Seen from this perspective, the war not only produced a feeling of perpetual victimhood in Paraguay but also greatly frustrated Brazil's leaders, who felt unduly blamed for a costly and violent war. While Paraguayans saw the 1872 treaty as the codification of their country's defeat, Brazilians viewed the treaty as one of the few tangible benefits from their wartime efforts and the stigma of being a victorious invader. As a result, the 1872 treaty became a site of conflict to which all parties attached meaning for the next hundred years.

Given the contentious history of these borderlands, the War of the Triple Alliance stands as an ominous and steady presence in the geopolitical antecedents of the Itaipu dam. In the renewed border standoff, Paraguayan nationalists consistently invoked the specter of the nineteenth-century war, yet Brazilian officials rejected any notion that their country acted as an invader — either in the 1860s or again a century later. By the time that military dictatorships ruled both nations in the 1960s, these diverging interpretations had become firmly ossified in the political imaginary of each country. A Brazilian surveillance report in 1969 described Paraguay's opinion of the border as "entirely absurd, a perversion of legal-historical fact ... by a pseudo-geographic worldview." Paraguayan leaders, in contrast, considered their stance to be "completely solid" and ridiculed Brazil's assertions that the border had been "definitively and fully demarcated since 1872." In the context of these long-standing differences of interpretation, both nations began exploring the possibility of developing the Paraná's hydroelectric potential.

Turning a Vision into Reality

Interest in the hydroelectric potential of the Guaíra waterfalls existed for most of the twentieth century. The first major discussion occurred at the Seventh International Conference of American States, held in Montevideo in 1933, where the nations of the River Plate basin (Uruguay, Argentina, Paraguay, Bolivia, and Brazil) signed an agreement concerning navigation, irrigation, and the potential development of the various tributary waters of the basin. This declaration, though nonbinding, stipulated that in order to pursue any development project, a country would have to obtain prior consultation from its neighbors. In Brazil the 1933 agreement did not result in new policies until the 1951 creation of the Interstate Commission of the Paraná-Uruguay basin (CIBPU, Comissão Interestadual da Bacia Paraná-Uruguai), a collaboration between the governments of the seven southern and central-southern states.


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Table of Contents

Abbreviations ix
Note on Terminology and Orthography  xi
Acknowledgments  xiii
Introduction. History as Seen from the Countryside  1
1. Borders, Geopolitics, and the Forgotten Roots of Itaipu  20
2. The Project of the Century and the Battle for Public Opinion  53
3. The Double Reality of Abertura: Rural Experiences of Dictatorship and Democracy  82
4. Sem Tekoha não há Tekó: Avá Guarani Lands and the Construction of Indigeneity  125
5. The Last Political Prisoner: Borderland Elites and the Twilight of Military Rule  154
6. "Men without a Country": Agrarian Resettlement and the Strategies of Frontier Colonization  170
7. Land for Those Who Work It: Mastro and a New Era of Agrarian Reform in Brazil  197
Conclusion. After the Flood  228
Notes  235
Bibliography  277
Index  291

What People are Saying About This

The Color of Modernity: Sao Paulo and the Making of Race and Nation in Brazil - Barbara Weinstein

"The colossal Itaipu Dam at the Brazil-Paraguay border may well be the most enduring monument to the ambitions of Brazil's twenty-one-year military dictatorship. And, as Jacob Blanc incisively argues in Before the Flood, its construction also formed part of a longer history of predation, with the spectacular visibility of Itaipu being premised on the invisibility of the region's agrarian population. This remarkable study not only rescues the displaced rural people from oblivion but reveals how their political struggles contributed to the ongoing efforts for a more equitable and dignified way of life in the Brazilian countryside.”

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