Connecting Communities Through Technology: Carlos Afonso

May 24, 2022
Black and White Headshot of Carlos Afonso

At age 13, Carlos Afonso, growing up near the banks of the Parana River in Brazil, discovered a knack for fixing radios. It was an inherited skill he attributes to his Italian grandfather, who he remembers could fix just about any machine.

It wasn't long before Carlos and some friends leveraged these skills to launch a clandestine radio station. "We broadcast music and talk programs and were able to reach neighboring cities." It was a brief endeavor, but one that started Afonso on a life-long path supporting a belief that everyone deserves equal access to the tools of communication. 

In 1964 Afonso began attending the University of São Paulo. His parents were of modest means, but he notes, "my mother managed to gather enough resources so I could study naval engineering.” While there, he had his first encounter with computers – the early punch-card variety.  

In Afonso’s first years at the university, the Brazilian military took power in Brazil and established a dictatorship hostile to new ideas and democracy itself. Unlike many of his peers, Afonso, whose studies were supported by the Navy, was allowed to continue attending. He remembers a Navy official telling him, “It is impossible that a good student like you has a passion for resisting the government!” That official, it seems, wasn’t aware of Afonso’s passion for democratic values and his commitment to the progressive student movement. As restrictions for students grew, his last year of study became peppered with subtle acts of resistance. He recalls instances of slipping onto campus while avoiding the detection of military fractions. 

As the military government became increasingly radical, even the protection of the Navy was not enough. In 1970, Afonso left Brazil and arrived in Chile as a refugee, landing just months before Salvador Allende was elected president. There Afonso met Cleyde, another Brazilian political refugee, who became his wife. The Allende government was forward-thinking in its use of computing, and Afonso was recruited to work in the national planning office for several years before a right-wing military coup led by General Augusto Pinochet toppled the government. 

Again, Afonso and his now pregnant wife were forced to find a new home, and they took refuge in the Panamanian embassy in Santiago. With the help of the Swedish ambassador, the embassy refugees managed to travel to Panama, where their son Rodrigo was born.

The country could have remained their home but during negotiations over the status of the Panama Canal, U. S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger demanded Chilean refugees be expelled from the country. The young family finally found a home in Canada. Cleyde helped create and co-ordinated an immigrant women’s support center in Toronto but Afonso’s work remained focused on the importance of connection, especially throughout Latin America and the Caribbean.

Once in Toronto, Afonso’s fascination with educational access truly bloomed. He remembers the first time he was able to check out books as a graduate student in Toronto through academic networks connected to the United States. Reflecting on the new level of access he felt, he remembers thinking, “This is the future, one I hope to someday help bring back to Brazil.” While in Toronto, he worked as a social projects analyst for the United Church of Canada and co-founded, with other Brazilian refugees, a research and information project called “Brazilian Studies.” After a few years, the family received Canadian citizenship.

With the stringency of the Brazilian military dictatorship diminishing as a result of a political amnesty, Afonso returned to Brazil in 1980 and settled in Rio de Janeiro with his family. “We returned to Brazil and brought an Apple II computer, a restricted import at the time,” he says. “We started to use that little computer to develop information services for civil society organizations.”

As a result of his experience and work in Canada, Afonso proposed and co-founded with other returning refugees the Brazilian Institute of Social and Economic Analyses, known as Ibase. Launched in 1981, Ibase was to be an active citizenship organization focused on transformative democratic actions, under the motto “democratize information to democratize society”. Through Ibase, Afonso conceived of and led what would become the first Internet service provider in Brazil. 

In 1984, Afonso and colleagues started connecting non-governmental organizations in Latin America and other nations, partly with support from the International Development Research Center (IDRC), a Canadian governmental organization that funds development projects around the world. “They were very interested in helping with connectivity of NGOs through email or messaging using the packet-switching networks that several countries had at the time,” he says.

Inspired by the idea of using packet-switching networks to make broad connections and armed with the support of organizations like IDRC, in 1989, Afonso and others launched Alternex, Brazil’s first free networking service for civil society organizations and private individuals. In May 1990, networks in Sweden (NordNet), Canada (Web), Brazil (Ibase), Nicaragua (Nicarao), Australia (Pegasus), IGC (US) and GreenNet (UK) founded the Association for Progressive Communications (APC) to coordinate the operation and development of this emerging global network of networks.

Alternex caught the rest of the world’s attention in 1992, when Afonso, with support from the APC network and the nascent National Education and Research Network (RNP), proposed and successfully deployed Internet-connected centers at a global United Nations conference in Brazil, the first use of the Internet at a UN event. Equipment was donated through support from the Canadian government and Sun Microsystems, with logistical support from the United Nations Development Program (UNDP). This required overcoming a number of legal hurdles, since the state controlled all telecommunications and considered TCP/IP networks illegal. “The national telecommunications monopoly didn’t want anything to do with having Internet in the conference,” remarks Afonso. Having navigated restrictions and regulations throughout his career, Afonso cleverly inserted a clause in the conference’s host-country agreement that the hosting government was required to supply Internet links, thus overcoming a major regulatory hurdle. Since then, the links which were supposed to be temporary have become permanent.

Afonso went on to play a quiet, steady, and ultimately major role in the dissemination of the Internet and its services throughout Brazil. From his experience working with NGOs and through Ibase, he collaborated with other global Internet groups to form the APC, which focuses on making new communications techniques available to movements working for social change. He and his RNP colleagues were instrumental in bringing together academic and governmental sectors to form a multi-stakeholder board for the Brazilian Internet, dissociating the Internet layers from telecommunication regulations. He helped establish hundreds of Brazilian Internet telecenters, locations throughout the country where anyone could have free Internet access. He helped bring Internet services powered by solar panels to riverbank villages along the Amazon, and he co-founded Instituto Nupef, which works on deploying community networks in the Amazon and is a player in the Internet governance arena.  

“Everything I’m telling you, I did not do alone,” says Afonso. But through his collaborative approach and ongoing leadership in the field, Brazil has a thriving Internet culture, one that connects even its most remote and under-resourced residents to each other and the rest of the world. He notes, “There is still a lot to be done for the country to achieve full digital inclusion.” 

Reflecting back he laughs as he notes, “To think, this all started by fixing radios when I was 13 years old.”