Bahrain hitting close to home in Brazil

The politics of the business of war reaches Brazil after cartoonist highlights tear gas devices used for repressing some Bahrainis are manufactured in his country.

On Sunday the New York Times ran a column by Nicholas Kristof titled: “Repressing Democracy, with American Arms.

The column examines the United States’ millions of dollars in arms sales to Bahrain, a country in the midst of a 10-month government crackdown against pro-democracy protestors that has reportedly left at least 35 dead.

Down south, here in Brazil, a similar discussion – albeit on a much smaller scale – is taking place after photos surfaced on the internet allegedly showing tear gas manufactured in Brazil used against the activists.

The photos – some of which were published in Brazil this weekend by Epoca magazine’s website  – show the tear gas canisters from Rio de Janeiro based company called Condor Technologies.

According to the company web site, they sell well over two dozen non-lethal arms, everything from ‘rubber projectiles,’ ‘ammunition launcher’ to ‘tear gas spray.’

The tear gas canisters allegedly used in Bahrain say “Made in Brazil” and seem to clearly show the Condor Technologies company logo. It’s impossible to independently verify when or where the photos were taken.

Smoke screen

After an inquiry from Al Jazeera, a representative from Condor in Rio de Janeiro forwarded an email statement that said the company sells non-lethal weapons to over 35 countries, including in the Middle East, but follows all relevant Brazilian and international laws.

They did not dispute the photos show tear gas made by the company, but could not get too specific.

“Because of contract obligations of confidentiality,” according to the company statement, Condor said they could not reveal their clients, but stressed they have never exported their products to Bahrain.

The statement went on to say: “However, as is well known, troops of at least five countries are operating in Bahrain at the request of the Government.”

Let’s be clear: Brazil, as a country, is generally not in the business of exporting weapons of war as policy. Period. 

Brazil’s foreign policy ethos, for decades now, has been one of peace-maker, not peace-breaker.

President Dilma Rousseff, who on January 1 will mark one year in office, has steered her country far clear of poking Brazil’s nose in the Arab Spring.

Brazil’s risk-averse foreign policy under Rousseff has chosen to remain firmly seated in the bleachers as a passive spectator to events in the Arab world in 2011.  

The problem for Condor, and by extension perhaps Brazil, is once the protestors in Bahrain were able to stop choking and clear the water from their eyes after being tear-gassed, the words they read on the canisters were “Made in Brazil” and the flag painted on the canister was that of Brazil.

The news has only made a few headlines in Brazil after all, there are no suggestions that Condor has broken any international law. And it was non-lethal arms they are exporting, much different than the many lethal arms exported around the world by countries that are of much greater concern.   

But beyond the tear gas canisters, this controversy has sucked Brazil into two new realities:


First, once a tear gas canister rolls to a stop on a street in Manama, or anywhere else for that matter, within seconds a Twitpic can appear on Twitter timelines in Brazil, bringing events far away very close to home. This is not entirely new – but when it comes to Brazil and the Arab Spring, it sure is.

Second, it doesn’t take the mainstream media to bring events far away close to home, either.

Brazilian cartoonist, Carlos Latuff – who has published countless cartoons poking fun at the Arab leaders who are facing pro-democracy uprisings – aggressively pursued the story (also via his Twitter account), and was able to obtain the photos and instantly publish them, raising the issue within Brazil.

This is reality now.  

A Brazilian diplomat once told me they had an easy job, because ‘everyone around the world loves Brazil.’ There is a lot of truth to that. Reputations, even in international politics, mean everything.

And that is what brings me to the last line in Kristof’s column, where he quotes a Bahrain activist as saying, in part:  “When Obama sells arms to dictators repressing people seeking democracy, he ruins the reputation of America…”

For Brazil, that quote might as well read like this:

“When a company from Rio de Janeiro sells arms, even those that are non-lethal, that allegedly end up being used to repress people seeking democracy, it ruins the reputation of Brazil.”

Follow Gabriel Elizondo on Twitter @elizondogabriel.

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