Staying Afloat: Urban Poverty and the Politics of History in Cold War Amazonia

Saturday, January 5, 2019: 3:30 PM
Salon 12 (Palmer House Hilton)
Adrián Lerner, Yale University
This paper compares the histories of the two most notorious popular neighborhoods of the largest cities of the Amazon Rainforest: the Cidade Flutuante, in Manaus, Brazil, and Belén, in Iquitos, Perú. It outlines the common features shared by these idiosyncratic amphibian spaces located on the banks and waters of the rivers that dominate the geographic, economic, and cultural cityscapes of Manaus and Iquitos, but it also stresses important differences in their trajectories. In particular, despite their remarkable similarities, Belén’s lower floodable section, called Lower Belén, and the Cidade Flutuante faced strikingly different fates of at the hands of the Peruvian (1968-1980) and Brazilian (1964-1985) military dictatorships. The Cidade Flutuante was razed, while Lower Belén was reformed and stayed in place. Their dissimilar developments were part of a critical juncture in the long history of efforts to modernize Amazonia in both nations.

In Iquitos, attempts to reform Belén signaled an authoritarian but negotiated path whereby the organization of urban life maintained many of its customary characteristics, and the built environment remained precariously entangled with its rainforest surroundings. In Manaus, the Brazilian military regime’s treatment of the Cidade Flutuante was part of an aggressive political agenda and of a developmental hubris that imposed the material and cultural structures of the modern city over the jungle. In both cases, Cold War political alignments (such as the urban policies endorsed by the Alliance for Progress), geopolitical ideas, and economic interests helped shape decisions about how to deal with each jungle city, but interpretations of historical social inequality in Amazonia and the political momentum they acquired were eventually decisive. Similarly, popular classes, local elites, national state actors, and environmental dynamics were part of the process, but the politicization of local history was ultimately crucial in reconfiguring the relationships between all these elements.

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