Archive for the ‘Americas’ Category

(photo: AFP/Getty Images)

(photo: AFP/Getty Images)

[update below]

Yesterday was the 41st anniversary of the coup d’état in Chile, that other 9/11. I want to use the occasion to post a fascinating article that appeared in the July-August 2014 issue of Foreign Affairs on “what really happened in Chile” in 1973 and, specifically, what was the precise nature of the US role in the coup that overthrew Salvador Allende. The article is authored by Jack Devine, a now retired CIA career officer who was in the agency’s Santiago station at the time. In short, Devine makes clear that, contrary to popular belief, the CIA did not foment the coup; not only was the Chilean military 100% sovereign in its decision that fateful September but it did not even inform the Americans of the plot it was hatching. The CIA station only got wind that the coup was imminent two days beforehand and from its local assets. Devine’s account is detailed and totally persuasive. I have no reason to doubt it—and, dear reader, nor do you. It makes total sense that General Pinochet & Co would not bring the Americans into the loop, as there was no reason to. The Chilean military, like the Egyptian military—or the Turkish military, or the Thai military, or any old, proud military establishment out there—, cannot be manipulated or told what to do by great power patrons, and certainly not when it comes to its country’s internal affairs. Do read the read the article. All of it. For those too lazy to click on the link, here’s the text (with passages I found noteworthy highlighted in bold).

By Jack Devine

On September 9, 1973, I was eating lunch at Da Carla, an Italian restaurant in Santiago, Chile, when a colleague joined my table and whispered in my ear: “Call home immediately; it’s urgent.” At the time, I was serving as a clandestine CIA officer. Chile was my first overseas assignment, and for an eager young spymaster, it was a plum job. Rumors of a military coup against the socialist Chilean president, Salvador Allende, had been swirling for months. There had already been one attempt. Allende’s opponents were taking to the streets. Labor strikes and economic disarray made basic necessities difficult to find. Occasionally, bombs rocked the capital. The whole country seemed exhausted and tense. In other words, it was exactly the kind of place that every newly minted CIA operative wants to be.

I ducked out of the restaurant as discreetly as I could and headed to the CIA station to place a secure call to my wife. She was caring for our five young children, and it was our first time living abroad as a family, so she could have been calling about any number of things. But I had a hunch that her call was very important and related to my work, and it was.

“Your friend called from the airport,” my wife said. “He’s leaving the country. He told me to tell you, ‘The military has decided to move. It’s going to happen on September 11. The navy will lead it off.’”

This call from my “friend”—a businessman and former officer in the Chilean navy who was also a source for the CIA—was the first indication the agency’s station in Santiago had received that the Chilean military had set a coup in motion. Not long after, a second source of mine, another prominent businessman (more…)

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The World Cup – IX


[update below]

I watched with slack-jawed incredulity the unbelievable Brazilian collapse against Germany on Tuesday, my sentiment no doubt being shared by all the several hundred million people tuned into the game across the globe. I felt so badly for Brazil, team and people. The best analysis I’ve read so far on the game is an article in Slate by Irish Times journalist Ken Early, “Why Brazil lost.” The lede: Rather than make a real plan, [the Brazilians] abandoned themselves to romantic notions of passion and desire.

Early’s piece is well worth the read. He suggests, among other things, that some soul-searching will have to be done in Brazil. The reception the Seleção receives from the hometown crowd at Saturday’s consolation game in Brasilia will be instructive. If it’s even somewhat akin to that received by the German Mannschaft at their third place match in Stuttgart in 2006, as Early describes it, that will be good and salutary. But if Brazilian fans greet their team with negativity—e.g. pelting them with garbage and hurling insults, as happened in 1986 at Rio de Janeiro airport upon the Seleção’s return following its quarterfinal elimination from the tournament that year (I remember the TV news image of this)—and pile on the humiliation, I will lose a lot of sympathy for them.

On Brazil, here’s a piece dated June 17th in the Afro-American-oriented webzine The Root, by journalist Dion Rabouin, on how “Black identity and racism collide in Brazil.” The lede: The country’s complex history with race gains the spotlight as the World Cup attempts to address the recent wave of racist attacks against black players.

And here’s something from the NYT (July 7th) on “Neymar’s injury sidelin[ing] effort to end World Cup racism.”

I was hoping for a Brazil-Netherlands final but Germany put paid to that. Then I thought a Germany-Netherlands final would be pretty cool but now that won’t be happening either. The Argentina-Netherlands game yesterday was not nearly as “exciting” as the one on Tuesday, though I didn’t think it was as dull as did various media and FB commentators. Both teams played very well defensively, particularly the Dutch, though the latter were admittedly insipid and uninspired on offense—no shots on goal in regulation time and too many free kicks that went nowhere—, so Argentina’s victory in the shootout was merited. But La Albiceleste hasn’t been overly impressive in the tournament, depends too heavily on a single player (L.Messi), and has had such an odious reputation over the decades—of playing dirty and bad sportsmanship—that I’ll be all for Germany on Sunday.

UPDATE: Cambridge University political theorist David Runciman, who’s been posting on the World Cup on the LRB blog, has a good commentary on the Brazilian debacle. See also his successive post, on Argentina’s inglorious 1978 World Cup victory.


greetings from brazil

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That was the code name for the US invasion of Grenada, which happened 30 years ago this past Friday, an anniversary I was reminded of by engagé political scientist Stephen Zunes, who has a retrospective on the event. The episode was so pathetic, less on account of the invasion itself—though rightly criticized as a violation of international law by even America’s closest allies (including Margaret Thatcher’s UK), it could have perhaps been defended as a low cost R2P-type operation against a bunch of thugs who had just seized power in a bloody coup (and the Grenadian people did seem grateful for the US action)—than the reaction of the American public. I remember well the upsurge of patriotic chest-thumping and flag-waving—of America kicking butt in a tiny speck of a country that practically no one had heard of—, commentaries by pundits on how the “Vietnam syndrome” had been vanquished, etc, etc. The best reaction to all this came from Clark Clifford, who sniffed that the invasion was akin to the Washington Redskins playing Little Sisters of the Holy Cross, beating them 451-0, and then chanting after the game “We’re Number One! We’re Number One!” Clifford, who had been Defense Secretary at the height of the Vietnam War, was not impressed. The pride Americans take in the US military kicking butt in small countries requires explanation, but which I don’t have. Cf. France, which has militarily intervened in small countries on numerous occasions (Central African Republic, Chad, Ivory Coast, Mali, etc) but that has never aroused any kind of patriotic or nationalist sentiment among the French public. So why are Americans different on this score? Ideas, anyone?

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Multicultural wordle

I want to give some publicity to this fine new blog on the public square, the tagline of which is ‘Working site on citizenship and multiculturalism issues’. The blog’s animateur is Andrew Griffith, who, in addition to being a personal friend, is a former Canadian civil servant and diplomat, and, most recently in his career, the Director General of the Citizenship and Multiculturalism Branch, Citizenship and Immigration Canada. Andrew has worked on these issues for many years and has a book coming out this fall on the subject, and that I will certainly write about.

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Moving On


This is the title of an interesting 25 minute documentary—posted by my blogging consœur Victoria Ferauge on her very fine blog—, on the Anglophone exodus from Quebec (some 100,000) after the victory of the separatist Parti Québécois in the 1976 provincial elections. Anglophones constituted 20% of the Quebec population at the time but ran the place economically and, in their large majority, didn’t bother to learn French. English was the language of the economy and if educated French Canadians wanted to advance they had to function in English on the job, though Montreal was the world’s second largest French-speaking city at the time. This factor, among others, gave rise to the PQ and the Loi 101 that was enacted shortly after its victory, that imposed French as the official language of public life.

Totally normal. I have a visceral lack of sympathy for the linguistic plight of once-dominant national minorities who showed no interest in learning the language of the majority population in their midst, e.g. Walloons in Belgium, Europeans in pre-1962 Algeria, and Russians in the Baltic states (Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania) during the Soviet era, in addition to the Anglophones in Quebec. There can be and are excesses on the part of the linguistic majority once it gains power and juridically imposes the majority language in draconian fashion—as has been the case in Quebec, by the Flemish in Flanders, and in the Baltic states—but one comprehends the reasons for its gripe. E.g. Flemings in Belgium have expressed exasperation at the refusal of Francophones in suburbs of Brussels over the linguistic line in Flanders to make an effort to learn Dutch. One of the persons interviewed in the documentary recounts her shock of going into downtown Montreal after the 1976 PQ victory and of people refusing to speak English to her. She must have lived in an Anglophone bubble, as when I visited Montreal in 1973 as a teenager I experienced people turning away from me when I addressed them in English (asking for directions, that sort of thing, and which I had read and been told to expect).

In the documentary one of the erstwhile Montreal Anglophones who emigrated to Alberta says

What mattered to a lot of people who went [to western Canada] was that they didn’t have to bother learn to speak a language that they really didn’t see any point in speaking.

See any point in speaking? But what better point is there to learn to speak a language if it’s the native language of the majority population in your midst, and if speaking it will clearly help you get ahead in life? Or, moreover, if it is essential in order to get ahead? One’s ability to learn a foreign language does not diminish with age; the notion that languages, for cognitive reasons, need to be learned when one is young is a groundless myth. It’s all a matter of how much time and effort one is willing to put into it. Multilingualism is, in fact, the norm for much of the world’s population, with people moving with ease between two or more languages (throughout Africa, in South Asia, among Arabs with fusha and darija, Chinese with Mandarin and regional vernaculars, etc etc). And then there are the hundreds of millions of people in the world who have learned English, or mastered some other language that they had an incentive to learn.

If Quebec Anglophones fled to English Canada on account of the imposition of French, it was because they refused to learn it, perhaps because feelings of superiority toward the heretofore subaltern majority were too deeply ingrained in their collective subconscious. After all, French is not a hard language to learn for native English speakers. As far as languages go, it’s pretty easy. It’s not Turkish or Tamil. Moreover, the Anglophones emigrants in documentary loved Montreal. It was their home and, for them, there was no city like it (and, except for the weather, it is a great city). They remained very attached it to it. Too bad for them that they couldn’t make that little linguistic effort to adapt to the new political and social realities.

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[updates below]

Saw this terrific film from Chile the other day, about the 1988 plebiscite to allow General Pinochet to serve a second eight-year term—Pinochet’s own constitution, proclaimed eight years earlier, allowing the president only a single term in office. Normally the outcome of a plebiscite in an authoritarian regime is a foregone conclusion but the Chilean junta, succumbing to international pressure—including from the Reagan administration—to conduct the plebiscite freely and fairly, decided to allow the forces for a “No” vote 15 minutes of free, in principle uncensored TV time a night in the month preceding the vote. The opposition to Pinochet—most of which was banned, repressed, and/or in exile—was disorganized and at an obvious disadvantage vis-à-vis the junta in terms of resources (institutional, financial, and otherwise). When the campaign began it looked like the “Sí” would coast to an easy victory, all the more so as the opposition was divided over strategy—over whether to even participate in the plebiscite (which many on the left saw as a farce that could only legitimize the junta)—and didn’t have a good idea as to how to effectively use the free TV time. The latter is the story the film recounts, of a hotshot young executive (René Saavedra, played by Gael García Bernal), at what looked to be Santiago’s leading advertising agency, who essentially takes over the No’s ad campaign and imposes on the campaign’s skeptical leftist militants modern marketing techniques to win over floating and soft Sí voters to the No—and which of course won a big victory (and laid waste to the Sí’s ad campaign, which was headed by René’s reactionary boss at the agency).

That’s as much as I’ll say about the film, which is one of the best cinematic treatments I’ve seen of the role of communications and advertising in political campaigns—and is quite simply one of the best political films I’ve seen in a long time, period. It is also a fascinating depiction of the slow motion collapse of an authoritarian regime once political space was willy nilly opened up for the opposition to organize (and under international pressure, which was of central importance). The film was an Oscar nominee for best foreign pic, won an award at Cannes, plus several others, all well-deserved. Reviews in the US have been tops (Metacritic’s score was pulled down a bit by the nitwit critic from the New York Post), as they’ve been in France (in addition to the reviews one may read the article in Salon “When Don Draper toppled a dictator“). The reaction to the film in Chile has apparently been mixed. I’ll let those more expert on that country than I explain why (I used to be more or less knowledgeable about South America but it’s been a long time since I’ve read extensively about any country on that continent).

The director, Pablo Larraín, did one other film I’ve seen, ‘Tony Manero‘ (2008), which is set in Santiago in the late 1970s, during the junta’s années de plomb. The film was so relentlessly bleak that I didn’t how I felt about it.

Another political film from that corner of the world I’ve seen in the past week is the Argentinean ‘El Estudiante’, by first-time director Santiago Mitre, about a student at the University of Buenos Aires (Roque, played by Esteban Lamothe) who hails from the provinces and is more interested in hanging out and racking up sexual conquests than focusing on his studies. But thanks to a young leftist professor—and one of his conquests, but whom he falls for—he gets involved in student politics at the university and becomes a political operative, and which he is clearly a natural. The pic is all about the world of university politics in Argentina, which is pretty intense—public universities are autonomous and university officials (rectors, etc) are elected—and where the student parties (which go by fictive names in the film) are linked to national political parties and movements (here, left-wing Peronists, the extreme left, and Radicals). Reviews of the pic in the Hollywood press are very good (here, here, and here), as are most in France (though the spectator reviews on Allociné are somewhat less enthusiastic). I found the film interesting enough, though also less interesting at points. As one of the reviews I link to mentioned, “it’s easy to get the feeling of becoming lost in the details,” and which is what happened to me (and I wasn’t helped here by nodding off a couple of times, on account of fatigue, not the film). Though the politicking, infighting, and backstabbing one sees in the film are universal, the political context is specific to Argentina; student politics and the organization of universities in the US are completely different, of course, as they are in France (though there are some similarities in the French case, notably with activism in student politics paving the way to a later career in politics, and which is no doubt the case in Argentina). The theme of ‘No’, on the other hand—of political communication in electoral campaigns—, can be understood everywhere. I’ll see ‘El Estudiante’ again at some point but ‘No’ is definitely the more interesting film for those not expert on Chilean or Argentinean politics.

UPDATE: In a private communication Robert Barros, who knows Chilean politics better than anyone one is likely to meet, informs me that

there are a couple of factual errors [in the post].  The important ones have to do with the 1980 constitution contemplating the possibility of a second presidential term for a candidate selected by the military junta (didn’t have to be Pinochet, though he probably always saw himself in that role) and that the franja (the provision for free air time) had more to do with the internal development and implementation of the constitution than with international pressure.  These variables in turn had to do with the internal dynamics within the military junta and with Pinochet.

Bob is probably the leading political science specialist in the world—and certainly in the non-Spanish speaking world—on Chilean constitutionalism. His book on the 1980 constitution is the one to read on that subject.

2nd UPDATE: An AWAV admirer outre-Atlantique informs me that he asked a Chilean-born and educated higher-up of a major international NGO what he thought of ‘No’. The response

He liked it both as an entertainment and as a depiction of history.  He was not concerned by critics who complained it was historically inaccurate or that the director comes from a right-wing family.  Like Argo, he said, it’s a good movie.  As for the history, he said it captured the confusion and contradictions within the anti-Pinochet intelligentsia at the time and their realization that they had to move from a negative message to a positive one in order to win the vote.

Couldn’t have said it better myself.

el estudiante de santiago mitre - afiche

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Hugo Chávez R.I.P.

Hugo Chávez, Caracas, Sep. 29, 2011 (Photo: Juan Barreto/AFP/Getty Image)

Hugo Chávez, Caracas, Sep. 29, 2011 (Photo: Juan Barreto/AFP/Getty Image)

[update below] [2nd update below] [3rd update below] [4th update below]

Just about everyone with strong political convictions is posting tributes to or critiques of Hugo Chávez today, so I will too, even though I have nothing interesting to say about him. I was not a fan of Chávez, c’est le moins que l’on puisse dire, as I am not a fan of caudillos or demagogic military tough guys, even if they happen to enjoy mass support among the poor. And I can hardly sympathize with someone who palled around with the likes of Muammar Qadhafi, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, or Jean-Luc Mélenchon. Chávez did do some good things for the lower classes—which is only normal given Venezuela’s hydrocarbon wealth—but he also did many not good things for his country’s economy. When a strongman takes control of a rentier state and makes it even more rentier, that’s not a sign of good governance. It does not merit admiration.

Instead of blathering on, particularly as I have nothing interesting to say, I will link to a few worthy pieces I’ve read on Chávez today. Guardian correspondent Rory Carroll’s NYT op-ed, “In the end, an awful manager,” was quite good. Also Andres Oppenheimer’s analysis in The Miami Herald, “Chávez’s ‘revolution’ will lose steam abroad, but not at home.” Venezuelan political scientist and blogger Francisco Toro’s piece in The Atlantic, “Chavez wasn’t just a zany buffoon, he was an oppressive autocrat,” may also be read. And there’s Human Rights Watch on “Chávez’s authoritarian legacy.” Et en français, on peut lire la tribune par le journalist Michel Faure dans Rue89, “Hugo Chavez : un mirage calamiteux créé par les pétrodollars.” I was reading in the past hour—in The Guardian, I think—a paean to Chávez by Tariq Ali but started to gag halfway through, so no link to that.

UPDATE: Voilà more links to articles on Chávez and his legacy. Alma Guillermoprieto in the NYR Blog writes on “The Last Caudillo.” On the LRB Blog, Geoffrey Hawthorn reports that Venezuelans have been tweeting “Chávez hasta siempre.” In TNR, Stanford Ph.D. candidate Dorothy Kronick discusses “Two well-timed books on Chavez’s legacy.” Also in TNR, Francisco Toro—who also has a book coming out on Chávez—has a piece on “What Fidel taught Hugo: Cuba defined Chávez’s career as much as Venezuela did.”

2nd UPDATE: Amherst political scientist Javier Corrales has an excellent analysis in FP of the political economy of chavismo, “The house that Chávez built.” Entre autres, he describes an economy so badly afflicted with the Dutch Disease that it gave rise to an even more virulent strain of this, which he coins the Venezuelan Disease. Also focusing on the economy, The New Yorker’s John Cassidy explains why “Venezuela’s ‘resource curse’ will outlive Hugo Chávez.” In his article Cassidy refers to a critical assessment of Chávez by the well-known Venezuelan political economy pundit Moisés Naím—a Washington Consensus type—in Business Week, but his link to the piece doesn’t work. It does here.

3rd UPDATE: Danny Postel of the University of Denver’s Center for Middle East Studies, writing on Critical Inquiry’s blog, asks about “Hugo Chávez and the Middle East: Which Side Was He On?” And Mother Jones interviews journalist Rory Carroll (see above) on “Covering Hugo Chávez: ‘If Only He Ruled As Well As He Campaigned’.”

4th UPDATE: Matthew Yglesias has a short but pertinent commentary from last Thursday, in which he points out that “Hugo Chavez is controversial because of American aspirations to global military hegemony. People who vocally oppose those aspirations find themselves subjected to a massive amount of scrutiny of their human rights record that leaders who support it manage to completely avoid.”

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