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Cuban doctors in Venezuela (credit: Caracas Chronicles)

Returning to serious subjects (see previous post), the headline article on The New York Times website yesterday, datelined Maracaibo, should be mandatory reading for anyone who has defended or apologized for Nicolás Maduro and his Ubuesque regime: “Venezuela’s collapse is the worst outside of war in decades, economists say.” The lede: “Butchers have stopped selling meat cuts in favor of offal, fat shavings and cow hooves, the only animal protein many of their customers can afford.”

The roots of the economic disaster in Venezuela are well-understood: see, e.g., the numerous links in my February 2nd post on Venezuela and the left. And those who have 25 minutes to spare may watch the lecture by Amherst College political scientist Javier Corrales last November 1st on “What explains Venezuela’s economic catastrophe?” In this respect, one needs to be clear about at least one thing, which is that the Venezuelan economic collapse is not the consequence of the Trump regime’s sanctions, which have surely aggravated the situation but in no way brought it about. But it’s the knee-jerk reaction of gauchistes, and on all continents, to reflexively blame US imperialism for the economic ruin in Latin American and other dictatorships they uncritically defend. To be sure, economic sanctions that punish a population are indefensible, and in any and all circumstances, as not only do they not bring a regime to heel but, in fact, reinforce it. On this, see Peter Beinart’s piece (June 5, 2018) in The Atlantic, “How sanctions feed authoritarianism.” And if they do end up crippling the targeted economy, it is only after many years, certainly not a few months, which is how long Trump’s sanctions have been in place.

À propos, on the US sanctions regime and Cuba, I wrote back in December 2014:

…Cuba’s economic problems have nothing to do with the idiotic, pointless US embargo—an embargo which, in fact, strengthened the Communist regime and its administered economy, with the Soviet Union paying above world market prices for Cuban sugar and offering all sorts of subsidies… With the end of the Soviet Union and its subsidies, the Cuban economy went into a tailspin, the country was pauperized, and with it producing, as in 1959, little for export apart from agricultural commodities and raw materials.

On Cuba and Venezuela, Cuban-born, Brazil-based journalist Jorge Carrasco has an informative article in Foreign Policy (May 14th), “Venezuelan democracy was strangled by Cuba: Decades of infiltration helped ruin a once-prosperous nation.”

Cuba’s relationship with Venezuela over the past two decades is well known. What is less well known is the subject of a complaint issued on May 8th before the International Criminal Court in The Hague, accusing the Cuban state of practicing outright “slavery,” which one learns about in a page 4 article in Le Monde dated May 15th, “Plainte devant la Cour pénale internationale pour ‘esclavagisme’ contre Cuba.” The lede: “Des associations dénoncent les conditions de travail des médecins envoyés en mission internationale.” The associations filing the complaint are the Patriotic Union of Cuba (UNPACU)—a dissident organization inside Cuba, which is naturally illegal and whose members are subject to repression—and the Madrid-based Cuban Prisoner Defenders, and the subject of which is the working conditions of the hundreds of thousands of medical doctors Cuba has sent to numerous countries, which has become an instrument of Cuban foreign policy and an important source of revenue for state coffers. The salaries of the Cuban doctors are paid by international organizations or the foreign governments themselves, but the Cuban state confiscates up to 90% of those salaries. The doctors are given a meager stipend, kept under constant surveillance by Cuban security agents—with their movements and activities restricted, and no informal contact with the local population permitted—and with severe consequences for them and their families—who are not allowed to accompany them abroad—if they opt not to return to Cuba when ordered. The Cuban state, in defense of the garnishing of the salaries, argues that the cost of the doctors’ training was entirely paid by the state. The problem with this retort is that the amount of the debt is arbitrarily determined by the state—there’s no contract involved—and lasts a lifetime, i.e. it’s never paid off.

By any juridical definition of slavery or indentured servitude, this is most surely it. I will not hold my breath waiting for defenders of the Cuban regime to admit it. The subject of the ICC complaint seems not to have received a lot of coverage in English-language media: the BBC website had a piece, “The hidden world of the doctors Cuba sends overseas,” and there was a matter-of-fact dispatch in a website I would rather not mention. The story merits more.

The Le Monde article concludes with Cuban doctors abroad who were interviewed by the two dissident associations speaking of the systematic falsification of medical statistics inside Cuba and on “a massive scale.” I’ve long suspected this to be the case, that the statistics provided by the Cuban state on its fabulous health care system were too good to be true. If the statistics provided by the Soviet Union and its Eastern bloc satellites turned out to be bogus, why would such not also be the case for the communist regime in Cuba—and which is no less repressive than the worst of the Warsaw Pact states? Seriously?

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The border

Tijuana, Baja California

[update below]

The article at the top of The New York Times website late yesterday was headlined “Border at ‘breaking point’ as more than 76,000 migrants cross in a month.” Trump’s histrionics over his famous wall have clearly not deterred migrants and asylum-seekers south of the US-Mexico border from reaching and trying to enter the United States. Asylum-seekers need to be emphasized here, as, according to the NYT article, more than 90% of the new arrivals are from Guatemala. Some of these are no doubt “economic migrants” fleeing poverty and seeking a better life tout court, but one may be reasonably certain that a larger number are quite literally fleeing for their lives.

On this, the March 7th issue of The New York Review of Books has an absolute must-read article by the Italian journalist and writer Roberto Saviano, entitled “The Migrant Caravan: Made in USA,” though on the NYRB cover it is simply headlined “The nightmare they’re fleeing.” The nightmare is in the Northern Triangle of Central America—Guatemala, El Salvador, and, above all, Honduras—where the levels of violence and death are comparable to countries in the midst of full-fledged civil wars. The organized crime and gang phenomenon—the maras—in the three countries are well-understood, with Saviano, who has gained fame for his work on the Neapolitan Camorra—and at some risk to his life—well-qualified to inquire into the situation there—and Honduras in particular—and further our understanding. In becoming a narco state, Honduras is, in effect, witnessing state collapse, where ordinary people are left to fend for themselves in the face of daily danger to their and their families’ lives. Thus the flight to the United States. And the United States, Saviano emphasizes, bears huge responsibility for the catastrophic situation, in view of its insatiable domestic demand for cocaine and other narcotics, the militarized War on Drugs, flooding the region with weapons during the US-sponsored counterinsurgencies of the 1980s, deporting back to the region young men who had fled to the US during the 1980s and were initiated into the Los Angeles gang culture, et j’en passe. Insofar as the nightmarish situation in the Northern Triangle is largely of American making, the US has a moral obligation in addition to a legal one—if international conventions on refugees and asylum-seekers mean anything—to be generous with Hondurans, Salvadorans, and Guatemalans arriving at US ports of entry.

Saviano’s article should be obligatory reading for any American who has the slightest interest in what’s happening on the southern border. Or even if s/he has no interest but votes. If you, dear reader, haven’t read it, do so. Now.

In a similar vein is an enquête in Le Monde (Feb. 2nd) by correspondent Angeline Montoy reporting from San Pedro Sula, “Au Honduras, l’exode pour seul horizon.” The lede: “Les caravanes de migrants en route pour les Etats-Unis fuient la misère, la violence et la répression politique de l’Etat d’Amérique centrale.”

And there’s this piece in the NYT yesterday, “Border patrol facilities put detainees with medical conditions at risk.” The lede: “The deaths of two children in Border Patrol custody point to shortfalls in health care provided to migrants, who sometimes arrive with serious illness and injury.”

And this from the NYT (Mar. 3rd): “‘You have to pay with your body’: the hidden nightmare of sexual violence on the border.” The sexual violence is, of course, not only at the border but at every point along the way. And back home.

Seriously, anyone with the slightest sympathy for Trump’s position, or who otherwise favors an ungenerous policy toward Central American asylum-seekers, is a moral midget who should be ashamed of him or herself.

À propos, I recently read a lengthy article in the March 2016 issue of the American Journal of Sociology, “Why border enforcement backfired,” by Douglas S. Massey (who is the leading social science specialist of Mexican migration to the US), Karen A. Pren—both of Princeton University—and Jorge Durand, of the Centro de Investigación y Docencia Económicas in Mexico City. The abstract:

In this article the authors undertake a systematic analysis of why border enforcement backfired as a strategy of immigration control in the United States. They argue theoretically that border enforcement emerged as a policy response to a moral panic about the perceived threat of Latino immigration to the United States propounded by self-interested bureaucrats, politicians, and pundits who sought to mobilize political and material resources for their own benefit. The end result was a self-perpetuating cycle of rising enforcement and increased apprehensions that resulted in the militarization of the border in a way that was disconnected from the actual size of the undocumented flow. Using an instrumental variable approach, the authors show how border militarization affected the behavior of unauthorized migrants and border outcomes to transform undocumented Mexican migration from a circular flow of male workers going to three states into an 11 million person population of settled families living in 50 states.

What Massey et al definitively demonstrate in their study has been known for some time, which is that restrictionist immigration policies do not only not significantly reduce migrant or refugee flows—their effect is minimal—but have perverse, unintended consequences, which include dramatically increasing the size of the undocumented migrant population by effectively shutting down longstanding circular migratory practices, increasing the costs to the migrants (and thus considerably lowering their standard of living), and fostering criminal networks (of gangs who lend the migrants the substantial sums of money for their voyage, cross-border smugglers, and the like).

As the article is behind a paywall (accessible for free for those with university accounts), here are a few passages:

By any standard, the surge in border enforcement after 1986 constituted a massive policy intervention into the workings of a vast and complex social and economic system that had evolved since the 1940s in response to changing social and economic circumstances on both sides of the border (Massey et al. 2002). Critically, this massive intervention was undertaken for domestic political purposes and not based on a rational assessment of the forces actually driving undocumented migration or a reasoned consideration of how one might manage it. Whenever a policy is derived in a climate of fear without any real understanding of the actual workings of the social or economic system it aspires to influence, the stage is set for unintended consequences. (p.1563)

And this

Although U.S. policies may have decreased expected net earnings gain from undocumented migration by lowering wages and increasing crossing costs, the net differential in expected earnings between Mexico and the United States never came close to being eliminated. Under these circumstances, the changes induced by U.S. policies functioned less to deter undocumented migration than to compel migrants to work longer to earn back the costs of crossing and make the trip profitable. Moreover, having experienced the risks of a desert border crossing migrants would logically be loath to relive the experience. Finally, given longer stays north of the border and more attachments formed to people and places in the United States, permanent settlement is expected to become more likely. Given these changed circumstances at the border and within U.S. labor markets, we hypothesize little effect on the decision to depart for the United States without documents but strong effects on the decision of undocumented migrants to return to Mexico. (p. 1582)

And the conclusion begins

The principal substantive finding of our analysis is that border enforcement was not an efficacious strategy for controlling Mexican immigration to the United States, to say the least. Indeed, it backfired by cutting off a long-standing tradition of migratory circulation and promoting the large scale settlement of undocumented migrants who otherwise would have continued moving back and forth across the border. This outcome occurred because the strategy of border enforcement was not grounded in any realistic appraisal of undocumented migration itself but in the social construction of a border crisis for purposes of resource acquisition and political mobilization. Although these arguments have been made previously, never before have instrumental variable methods been applied to such a wide range of border outcomes and migrant behaviors to assess the causal effect of U.S. border enforcement.

How Border Enforcement Failed

Our estimates reveal that the rapid escalation of border enforcement beginning in 1986 had no effect on the likelihood of initiating undocumented migration to the United States but did have powerful unintended consequences, pushing migrants away from relatively benign crossing locations in El Paso and San Diego into hostile territory in the Sonoran Desert and through Arizona, increasing the need to rely on paid smugglers, and substantially increasing the costs and risks of undocumented migration. The increase in border enforcement, meanwhile, had only a modest effect on the likelihood that an undocumented migrant would be apprehended during a crossing attempt, one substantially mitigated by the greater use of coyotes and higher quality of services they offered, and no effect at all on the likelihood of gaining entry over a series of attempts.

The combination of increasingly costly and risky trips and the near certainty of getting into the United States created a decision-making context in which it still made economic sense to migrate but not to return home to face the high costs and risks of subsequent entry attempts. (…) (p. 1590)

And some policy options

Aside from doing nothing, however, there were other policy options available to officials beyond attempting to suppress migration through police actions at the border. One such option would be to accept Mexican migration as a natural component of ongoing economic integration under the North American Free Trade Agreement. Between the agreement’s implementation in 1994 and 2010, for example, total trade between Mexico and the United States rose 5.3 times, while according to data from the U.S. Office of Immigration Statistics (2014) entries by business visitors increased 3.6 times, exchange visitors 6.2 times, tourists 12.1 times, intracompany transferees 17.4 times, and treaty investors more than a thousand times. Within an integrated economy, people inevitably will be moving.

As the experience of recent decades has shown, however, in practical terms it appears to be difficult if not impossible to integrate markets for goods, commodities, capital, services, and information while keeping labor markets separate (Massey et al. 2002). A more realistic option would have been to manage migration in ways that benefit both nations while protecting to the degree possible the rights and interests of both migrants and natives, much as the European Union did with the creation of its internal labor market (Fernandez-Kelly and Massey 2007; Massey 2008, 2009). Ironically, a more open border would likely have produced less permanent immigration and slower Mexican population growth in the United States by facilitating cross-border circulation. Indeed, the recent analysis of Massey, Durand, and Pren (2015) shows that documented migrants are now the ones circulating back and forth between the two nations, even as undocumented migrants remain trapped or “caged in” north of the border.

Rather than blocking the revealed preference of the typical Mexican to move back and forth temporarily for work in the United States, policies could have been implemented to encourage return migration, such as lowering the cost and risk of remitting U.S. earnings, paying tax refunds to returned migrants, making legal immigrants eligible for U.S. entitlements even if they return to Mexico, and cooperating with Mexican authorities to create attractive options for savings and investment south of the border. The billions of dollars wasted on counterproductive border enforcement would have been better spent on structural adjustment funds channeled to Mexico to improve its infrastructure for public health, education, transportation, communication, banking, and insurance to build a stronger, more productive, and more prosperous North America and eliminate the motivations for migration currently lying in ineffective markets for insurance, capital, and credit (Massey 2008). (…) (p. 1595)

The Washington Post has a report (Feb. 7th) from Nogales, Arizona & Sonora: twin cities divided by a border but that have always existed in symbiosis, with families on both sides, people crossing back and forth freely… Until the militarization of the border, with a wall and concertina wire separating the two cities as in a war zone. According to the Post, the city of Nogales AZ—which has had no say in the matter—has had enough. Borrowing from Ronald Reagan, “Mr. Trump, tear down this wall!”

UPDATE: On circular migration, see the paper by Patrick Weil, “All or nothing? What the United States can learn from Europe as it contemplates circular migration and legalization for undocumented immigrants,” published in 2010 by the German Marshall Fund of the United States in its Immigration Papers Series.

Nogales, AZ (credit: Jonathan Clark/Nogales International/AP)

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Venezuela and the left

[update below] [2nd update below] [3rd update below] [4th update below] [5th update below]

I’ve been off AWAV for the past month, which a few friends have noted and asked me about. Pour l’info, I spent two weeks in the US in January (NC & DC), where I inevitably drowned in news about Trump (and the shutdown, Mueller probe, etc)—MSNBC being on every evening chez ma mère, preceded by NPR during the day—though I did try to keep up with the Gilets Jaunes in France, the Brexit psychodrama, and other stories. I have plenty to say about these and will do so in due course, but need to weigh in right now on Venezuela, which is provoking polemics on my social media accounts among progressives and other lefties, a certain number of whom are mouthing rubbish on what’s happening there. Now I do not claim to possess specialized knowledge of that country, loin s’en faut—I have had but two posts on the place in the life of AWAV (here and here)—but that’s okay, as no one else I know or see on Facebook does either. But as a social scientist who has been formatted to think in certain ways, I have a certain respect for specialized knowledge and know how to identify it, and, moreover, to know what is good or valid and what is not. On Venezuela, I will further acknowledge the indirect assistance of the excellent University of Washington political scientist Jamie Mayerfeld, who has been posting tons of good stuff on his Facebook page and with incisive commentary of his own.

One must-read piece Jamie linked to a couple of days ago is a “Letter to a friend on my left,” by Tulane University sociologist David Smilde, who curates the excellent Venezuelan Politics and Human Rights blog, hosted by the Washington Office on Latin America, where the letter appears. It’s dated March 12, 2018, but is entirely relevant today. Money quote:

[T]he idea that the US is the main or even a main cause of Venezuela’s crisis does not withstand even cursory examination. US financial sanctions came into effect at the end of August [2017]. By chance, the recently released ENCOVI survey carried-out its fieldwork in August 2017 just before US sanctions and shows the extent of the devastation. Poverty, in the way the survey measures it, has increased from 48.4% 2014 to 87% 2017, which is astonishing. 80% of respondents said they had eaten less in the previous three months because can’t get enough food. 60% said they had gone to bed hungry at some point in the previous three months because they did not have enough food. 64% say they have lost weight in the past year, on average over 11 kilos.

This is not hard to understand. If you have a fixed exchange rate, emit enormous quantities of inorganic money and have price controls, the combination of inflation, scarcities and contraband is the only possible outcome. You do not need a conspiracy theory to explain something that is fully understandable by just looking at the Maduro government’s destructive policies.

The Maduro government is not the only government to preside over an economic disaster. What makes it different is that it has violated the people’s rights to choose their leadership. In the past two years the Maduro government has: for all practical purposes annulled the democratically elected National Assembly, suspended the presidential recall referendum, unconstitutionally called a Constituent Assembly, stacked the voting bases to ensure a government win, committed fraud in the ANC election (as denounced by Smartmatic, a company with everything to lose by taking the stand they did), changed the voting centers within 48 hours of the October governor’s elections causing mass confusion, committed old fashioned vote-count fraud in Bolivar State.

Now the unconstitutional ANC has moved up the elections, violating Venezuela’s electoral law (which says elections have to be declared 6 months in advance). On top of that all of the most popular opposition figures—Leopoldo López, Henrique Capriles, Freddy Guevara, David Smolanksy, Ramon Muchacho, and more—have been disqualified, jailed or fled the country because of judicial pursuit. The most popular opposition party, Primero Justicia, has as well. I defended Chavismo for many years not because I thought their model of governance was particularly convincing, but because they had the support of the people and an electoral system that allowed people to express that support. But now Chavismo is transparently doing everything possible to undermine electoral institutions so that the people cannot throw them out of power…

Another must-read piece in this vein, dated January 28th, is by Indiana University political scientist Jeffrey C. Isaac, “To hell with Maduro and with Trump: Thoughts on socialism, Venezuela, and freedom,” posted on the Public Seminar website, in which, among others, he skewers the très gauchiste NYU historian Greg Grandin, who has long been a reference for Chavismo supporters on the North American left (Isaac also salutarily lays waste to NYT columnist Bret Stephens and his recent column on Venezuela, which Isaac properly concludes is “a despicable piece of red-baiting [and] also idiotic.”).

Note the Amnesty International report from last September, “Venezuela: This is no way to live,” that Isaac links to.

The reports on Venezuela of Human Rights Watch may also be profitably consulted.

The article (January 28th) by English journalist James Bloodworth in Foreign Policy magazine, “The left keeps getting Venezuela wrong,” is well worth the read. The lede: “Anti-imperialists prefer a Russian-backed dictator to a public revolt.” True that.

And there’s the recent tweet storm by University of Warwick Latin Americanist Tom Long, in which he critiques the “open letter to the United States” on Venezuela signed by some seventy academic gauchistes and other sundry anti-imperialists, among them Noam Chomsky and the inevitable Greg Grandin, for giving Nicolás Maduro “a near total pass” on the current crisis and “saying almost nothing about the Venezuelan government’s role.”

In their open letter, Chomsky and Grandin et al assert that “[i]f the Trump administration and its allies continue to pursue their reckless course in Venezuela, the most likely result will be bloodshed, chaos, and instability.” Yes, indeed. An outright US military intervention would be the height of folly, as The American Conservative’s senior editor Daniel Larison rightly insisted the other day. Not only would it be disastrous, ça va de soi, but would be opposed by the majority of Venezuelans, so David Smilde, citing polling data plus his own research, asserted in a piece in The Conservation dated January 9th.

Retired US Navy Admiral James Stavridis, who was the 16th Supreme Allied Commander at NATO and Commander of the US Southern Command, has penned a pertinent ‘ideas’ piece (January 31st) in Time magazine, “I commanded the U.S. military in South America. Deploying soldiers to Venezuela would only make things worse.” Dont acte.

It is, in any case, most unlikely that the US will take military action, so says Washington Post editorialist Jackson Diehl in a column (January 31st) that, par ailleurs, grossly distorts Bernie Sanders’s recent statement on Venezuela. Despite the Trump regime’s bombastic agitations of the past two weeks and reinforced sanctions regime, which constitutes “cruel collective punishment” on the Venezuelan people, dixit Daniel Larison, the US has not been the principal international actor in the Venezuelan crisis. The notion that what’s happening in that country is being manipulated by the Yanquis is, in the words of Frédérique Langue of the CNRS-Institut d’Histoire du Temps Présent in Paris—and one of France’s leading Venezuela specialists—the product of a “faulty interpretation or ideological parti pris.” The front line international actors are Latin American states in the Lima Group, particularly those that are bearing the brunt of the mass exodus of Venezuelans fleeing the economic collapse of the country (e.g. here, here, and here), which is attaining Syria-like proportions—and is all the more incredible given that Venezuela is not at war.

À propos of all this, see the opinion piece on the NPR website (January 30th) by Amherst College political scientist Javier Corrales, “Foreign forces did not start Venezuela’s transition. Venezuela did.”

Also this one in Mother Jones (January 24th): “Two presidents. Huge protests. Trump saber-rattling. An expert explains what’s happening in Venezuela.” The expert in question is Georgia State University political scientist Jennifer McCoy.

Political scientist Fabiana Sofia Perera, who is presently Assistant Research Fellow at the William J. Perry Center for Hemispheric Defense Studies in Washington, has an opinion piece (January 26th) on the CNN website on “What’s really going on in Venezuela.”

I’m pleased to see that my friend Eva Bellin, who teaches political science at Brandeis University, has a co-authored post (with David Pion-Berlin of UC-Riverside) in WaPo’s Monkey Cage blog (February 1st), “Will Venezuela’s military back—or abandon—Maduro? Here are the 4 things it will consider.”

If one has 25 minutes to spare, Al Jazeera English’s Inside Story of January 29th on the Venezuela crisis is worth the watch (on YouTube). The interviewees are Jairo Lugo-Ocando of Northwestern University in Qatar, and formerly of Andres Bello Catholic University in Caracas; Diego Moya-Ocampos, a country risk analyst at IHS Markit in London and a former chief secretary of the Venezuelan Attorney General’s office; and Charles S. Shapiro, a former US ambassador to Venezuela.

Here are a few articles published last year, before the present bras de fer between Nicolás Maduro and Juan Guaidó, that are good for background:

Venezuela’s suicide: Lessons from a failed state,” by Moisés Naím—of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, among others—and Francisco Toro—founder of the indispensable Caracas Chronicles website—in the November-December 2018 issue of Foreign Affairs.

A New York Times op-ed by Javier Corrales from last September 25th, “The Venezuelan crisis is part of Maduro’s plan: The president has done very little to solve his country’s collapse. There’s a reason. Economic deprivation helps him stay in power.”

The NYT op-ed, dated last November 7th, by University of Pennsylvania political scientist Dorothy Kronick, is also worthwhile: “The last statesman of the Venezuelan democracy: A restless defender of democratic values, Teodoro Petkoff never stopped criticizing Hugo Chávez’s autocratic tendencies and never gave up on his country.”

One interesting piece is by writer-filmmaker-translator Clifton Ross, “The Bolivarian God that failed,” published February 1st in Quillette. Ross was a longtime leftist activist with a Latin America focus, who reported extensively from the region—particularly Nicaragua and Chávez’s Venezuela, regimes he naturally supported—for lefty publications (notably the ultra-gauchiste Counterpunch), until he woke up and smelled the coffee, became disillusioned with leftist dictatorships—which have turned out to be as bad, when not worse, than the political orders that preceded them—and abandoned his gauchiste politics. His essay is long but worth the read.

The FT’s Brazil correspondent, Andres Schipani, has a useful review (January 29th) of “Seven books that help explain Venezuela’s current crisis.”

Finally, there’s the tweet storm below by The Wall Street Journal’s Latin America editor David Luhnow (click on the icon for the thread).

UPDATE: The well-known economists Francisco Rodríguez and Jeffrey D. Sachs have a sensible op-ed (February 2nd) in the NYT, “An urgent call for compromise in Venezuela: The risk of a winner-takes-all approach in the country’s political crisis is extraordinary. It’s time to seek a negotiated transition.”

See also the very sensible NYT op-ed (January 31st) by University of Wisconsin historian Patrick Iber, “The U.S. needs to stay out of Venezuela: Yes, the country’s people deserve a better government. But Elliott Abrams and John Bolton shouldn’t have a say in what it looks like.”

2nd UPDATE: Stanford Law School professor Diego A. Zambrano settles the matter in regard to the Venezuelan constitution in a must-read post (February 1st) on the Lawfare blog, “Guaidó, not Maduro, is the de jure president of Venezuela.”

3rd UPDATE: James Bloodworth had a fun piece on international leftists and Venezuela, “Six types of ‘useful idiot’,” last June 13th on the UnHerd blog.

4th UPDATE: University of Albany-SUNY sociologist and Latin Americanist Gabriel Hetland has a piece (February 5th) in the très gauchiste Jacobin with exactly the same title as this post, and with which I almost entirely agree.

5th UPDATE: Voici quelques contributions de l’auteur et traducteur Marc Saint-Upéry, qui vit à l’Équateur et a écris un livre sur la gauche sud-américaine: “Venezuela: complots, exode et décomposition,” dans le numéro d’octobre 2018 de CQFD; “Lire le Venezuela: entre «négationnistes» et «euphémisateurs»,” dans Mediapart (7 janvier 2019); et “La gauche et les faux semblants de la crise vénézuélienne,” dans Mediapart (18 mars 2019).

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Ele não: Not him. But barring a miracle, it will indeed be him after the second round of the Brazilian presidential election on Sunday. Jair Bolsonaro has been called the “Trump of the tropics” but he is far worse. Quoting Glenn Greenwald—who has lived in Brazil for the past dozen or so years—Bolsonaro is, in temperament, ideology, and personal history, closer to the Philippines’s Rodrigo Duterte or Egypt’s Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi (or Saudi Arabia’s MBS, one may add) than to the unspeakable occupant of the White House. Trump may be a neo-fascist, dixit the very conservative Daniel Pipes, but there’s no neo for Bolsonaro. He’s the genuine article. As for possibly being an outright Nazi, “he is not there yet,” so advances historian Federico Finchelstein of the New School for Social Research, in Foreign Policy magazine, but “things could change quickly if he gains power.” In this vein, Bolsonaro is, as journalist Vincent Bevins writes in the NYR Daily, not merely nostalgic for the fascistic military dictatorship of the 1964-85 era—and who celebrates its torturers—but will, once he has the opportunity, “reintroduce the dictatorship’s political ethos, preserved and intact, into modern Brazil”—if Brazil’s institutions, particularly the judiciary, and a hypothetically united democratic opposition don’t succeed in constraining him, as The Economist magazine hopes they will (cf. The Economist editorializing that Bolsonaro’s election would be a “tragedy” with The Wall Street Journal’s editorial endorsing him; the American right does indeed love strongmen, so long as they lean toward fascism).

Brazil is not the United States, of course—the latter’s democratic institutions and culture, for all their defects, are more robust than the former’s—though one is struck by some similarities between the two when comparing the rise of Bolsonaro and Trump. There are, e.g., the sharp economic inequalities in the two countries—Brazil has the 19th highest Gini index in the world in one ranking, with the US in 39th place, of 157 countries; so both in the top quartile—and with race and the legacy of slavery being a significant variable. Related to this is the virulent hatred on the Brazilian right—upper and middle class, mainly white—of Lula and his Workers’ Party (PT), recalling the race-fueled detestation of Obama by US Republican voters. A sizable portion of the Republican Party electorate could not abide the image of a mixed-race president and with an exotic, foreign-sounding name. Likewise in Brazil with the lower class trade unionist Lula, the hatred of whom went well beyond the corruption scandals in which he and his successor, Dilma Rousseff, were implicated, and the grave economic crisis that marked the PT’s final years in power (which, it should be said, does explain a part of Bolsonaro’s surge). Say what one will about Lula but his Bolsa Família program had a significant impact in reducing poverty and raising living standards among Brazil’s (mostly black) poor—and which many bourgeois Brazilians found intolerable.

Another notable similarity is voting. The United States’s disreputable history in this regard needs no reminder, nor does the present effort at voter suppression by the Republicans—and who seek, à terme, to entirely gut the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Present-day Republicans, in their majority, do not believe, au fond d’eux-mêmes, in universal suffrage, not for American citizens of color in any case (for the latest on the subject, see Michael Tomasky’s review essay in the November 8th NYRB). In Brazil, the right to vote, as Thomas Piketty reminded us in an incisive, informative column, was subjected to a literacy test until the 1988 constitution, thus disenfranchising the majority of the potential electorate. Poor, illiterate Brazilians only voted for the first time in the 1989 presidential election—barely thirty years ago—in which Lula received 47% of the vote in the second round (and attaining 61% when he won for the first time, in 2002).

And then there are the “3 Bs” (BBB)boiBibliabala (beef-Bible-bullet)—i.e. the coalition of large land owners, evangelicals, and the gun lobby, which has a powerful bloc of deputies in Brazil’s National Congress—and whose size and power will only increase with this election. As for the boi part, the latifundia class, in addition to being inherently reactionary, is waging a violent campaign against the movement of landless laborers—and with the land owners rather obviously enjoying the total support of Bolsonaro—and, in cahoots with criminal gangs of loggers and miners, is spearheading the destruction of the Amazon rain forest and threatening the physical integrity of its indigenous peoples (on this very real danger, see this piece in Climate Home News). Bolsonaro just promised that he won’t take Brazil out of the Paris Agreement, with the proviso that Brazil’s “sovereignty” be respected—which is another way of saying that he won’t formally withdraw from the accord but will ignore it all the same.

The Biblia: evangelical churches have grown spectacularly in Brazil over the past four decades—the neo-Pentecostal Universal Church of the Kingdom of God is the largest—sweeping up some 25% of the population—and with evangelicals projected to overtake Catholics in number by 2040. They are present in all social classes and parts of the country, particularly in the south and on the periphery of the cities, notably Rio de Janeiro. The evangelicals are, needless to say, no different in their world-view and politics from their US counterparts—and are naturally strong supporters of Bolsonaro. US evangelicals will be celebrating Bolsonaro’s victory.

And the bala: Brazil has long been one of the more violent countries in the world, as one knows, a product of extreme economic inequalities and a racially stratified society, and where the legacy of slavery—which was far more consequential in number and mortality than in the American South—has never been confronted by the dominant classes. Crime has been a major preoccupation of all Brazilians—and rightly so—but it’s not as if it hasn’t always been. And one reason the place is so violent is that it’s awash with firearms. When there are lots of guns floating around in private hands, people will get killed. In 2005, during Lula’s first term, a referendum was held to ban the sale of firearms and ammunition, which lost by a wide margin. Polls two months prior to the vote, however, showed it succeeding, but then the American NRA intervened with money and propaganda, decisively contributing to the referendum’s failure. And now the Brazilian gun lobby is stronger than ever, and with Bolsonaro pledging to remove all restrictions on civilians arming themselves.

BBB: for a US Republican, what’s not to like?

As I am not a Latin Americanist, let alone a specialist of Brazil, this is as much as I’ll say about the place. For analyses by persons with specialized knowledge, here are a few informative articles I’ve read lately:

In the Spring 2018 issue of Dissent magazine, by Bryan McCann, president of the Brazilian Studies Association and Professor of Latin American History at Georgetown University, “Brazil’s New Right.” The lede: “Since Dilma Rousseff’s impeachment, Brazil has been in political turmoil. With ex-president Lula’s recent surrender, a new right threatens to become the decisive force in the 2018 elections.”

In Mediapart (October 24th), “Au Brésil, l’élection de Bolsonaro serait ‘pire qu’un retour aux années de plomb’.” The lede: “Pour l’historienne Maud Chirio, l’élection probable de Jair Bolsonaro à la tête du Brésil constitue un péril fasciste sans précédent, et qui ne tombe pas du ciel dans une démocratie fragilisée depuis plusieurs années. Entretien.”

On the Intercept website, a 38-minute interview/discussion (October 24th), led by Glenn Greenwald, with two journalists from The Intercept Brasil, Bruna de Lara and Victor Pougy.

I’m thinking about liberal and progressive Brazilians—including friends and acquaintances—who are surely in a state of despair, if not terror.

As to what awaits them, see the video in the tweet below.

À suivre, malheureusement,

UPDATE: Some links from the Fondation Jean-Jaurès:

Brésil: élections présidentielle à haut risque démocratique (October 25th). The lede: “Suite au premier tour de l’élection présidentielle, qui s’est tenu le 7 octobre 2018, et du très inquiétant résultat obtenu par le candidat d’extrême droite, Jair Bolsonaro, Jean-Jacques Kourliandsky [Directeur de l’Observatoire de l’Amérique latine de la Fondation Jean-Jaurès, chercheur à l’IRIS] revient sur la dérive anti-démocratique que connaît le Brésil depuis quelques années et décrypte le programme du candidat extrémiste.”

Brésil: la ménace de l’extrême droite (October 24th; 18 minute video interview). The lede: “Après le premier tour de l’élection présidentielle au Brésil, le 7 octobre 2018, la position de favori du candidat d’extrême droite Jair Bolsonaro fait peser une très grande menace sur la démocratie. Quelles seraient les conséquences de sa victoire? Carol Proner, avocate et professeure de droit international à l’Université fédérale de Rio de Janeiro, livre son analyse à Jean-Jacques Kourliandsky, directeur de l’Observatoire de l’Amérique latine de la Fondation.”

Brésil: défendre une démocratie menacée (October 12th). The lede: “Le 7 octobre 2018, un candidat d’extrême droite, nostalgique des années noires de la dictature militaire, est arrivé en tête au soir du premier tour de l’élection présidentielle brésilienne. Ce résultat a créé une onde de choc au Brésil comme chez tous les démocrates. Le sociologue espagnol Manuel Castells, professeur à l’Université de Californie à Berkeley, a réagi en adressant une lettre ouverte aux intellectuels du monde, leur demandant de faire savoir leur indignation et d’appeler au refus de l’abjection. Jean-Jacques Kourliandsky, directeur de l’Observatoire de l’Amérique latine de la Fondation Jean-Jaurès, a traduit cette lettre.”

Jésus t’aime: le Brésil pris au piège des évangélistes (March 28th; 1 hour 37 minute video). The lede: “L’Observatoire de l’Amérique latine de la Fondation Jean-Jaurès a reçu Lamia Oualalou, spécialiste de l’Amérique Latine, auteure de Jésus t’aime! La déferlante évangélique (Éditions du Cerf, 2018).”

2nd UPDATE: Le Monde has a must-read two-page enquête (October 27th issue), by Nicolas Bourcier, “Rio de Janiero, la ville colère.” The lede: “A quelques heures du second tour de la présidentielle, dimanche 28 octobre, la cité carioca, qui a voté à 60 % pour le candidat d’extrême droite Jair Bolsonaro au premier tour, n’en finit plus de soigner sa gueule de bois après l’euphorie des années Lula.” When 60% of the voters in a city like Rio vote for a fascist, one knows that the crisis—economic, insecurity, etc—is grave. The article dwells on the heartbreaking fire that destroyed Brazil’s National Museum on the night of September 2nd-3rd, a “cultural suicide” that was entirely preventable and which, in itself, symbolized the shipwreck of contemporary Brazil.

3rd UPDATE: Matias Spektor, who teaches international relations at the Fundação Getulio Vargas in São Paulo, has an informative article in Foreign Policy (October 26th), “It’s not just the right that’s voting for Bolsonaro. It’s everyone.” The lede: “Brazil’s populist firebrand is relying on conservative values, fear of crime, anger about corruption, and rampant fake news to gain support from across the political spectrum.”

4th UPDATE: For the apologists and doubters, of which there are more than a few, here is Jair Bolsonaro in his own words.

5th UPDATE: Vox has a useful 9-minute video explaining Brazil’s corruption scandal and Operation Car Wash.

6th UPDATE: Of the many instant analyses of Bolsonaro’s victory, I thought this one by Le Monde’s Nicolas Bourcier, “La victoire d’un illusionniste sans scrupule,” was good.

See also the Le Monde tribune, “Bolsonaro a été élu avec une forte proportion de votes des fidèles évangéliques,” by Sao Paulo-FGV professor Luiz Felipe de Alencastro.

And for a portrait in Le Monde of Paulo Guedes, the “Chicago Boy” who has inspired Bolsonaro on the economy, go here.

7th UPDATE: Slate has two pieces (October 30th and 31st) on fake news and the popularity of WhatsApp in Brazil (which I first heard about last month at a talk here in Paris by the well-known Brazilian political scientist Leonardo Avritzer).

8th UPDATE: A friend in Brazil recommends the English version of the daily newspaper Folha de S.Paulo as a good source of information on the country.

9th UPDATE: Bard College professor of political studies, Omar G. Encarnación, explains (November 1st) in Foreign Policy magazine why “Bolsonaro can’t destroy Brazilian democracy.” The lede: “Brazil’s new president is a throwback to its authoritarian past—but the country is more resilient than it used to be.” I’m already feeling a little bit better…

10th UPDATE: NYU historian and Latin Americanist Greg Grandin has an informative piece in The Nation (October 29th)—where he has had a number on Brazil over the years–”Brazil’s Bolsonaro has supercharged right-wing cultural politics.” The lede: “The new president-elect is an agent of the world’s most reactionary tendencies, many of them exported from the United States.”

11th UPDATE: Brian Mier, editor of the left-leaning Brasil Wire website, has a commentary (October 31st), “Why Bolsonaro won: beyond the cliches.” I’m not sure about some of what he says—and he could use an editor himself—but his analysis is interesting.

12th UPDATE: New York magazine’s David Wallace-Wells, who specializes in climate change and environmental issues, poses the urgent question (October 31st), “Could one man [i.e. Jair Bolsonaro] single-handedly ruin the planet?”

13th UPDATE:  Roberto Simon—senior director of policy at Americas Society/Council of the Americas—and Brian Winter—editor-in-chief of Americas Quarterly—have a must-read piece (October 28th) on the Foreign Affairs website, “Trumpism comes to Brazil: Bolsonaro salutes the U.S. flag—and breaks with a tradition of independence.” It begins:

It was early fall in southern Florida, and a standing-room-only crowd of about 300 gathered at a steakhouse to see a right-wing presidential candidate whom most experts were dismissing as too radical, divisive, and inexperienced to win office.

The candidate was not Donald Trump but Jair Bolsonaro (…) Many in the crowd had themselves fled Brazil’s spiraling violence and the worst recession in its modern history, which had caused the economy to shrink nearly ten percent on a per capita basis from 2014 to 2017. The 300,000-strong diaspora in Florida, like many of their relatives back home, were hungry for the most anti-establishment figure they could find.

Bolsonaro took the stage 40 minutes late and delivered a speech unlike that of any significant Brazilian presidential candidate in recent memory. He defended the legacy of Brazil’s dictatorship, vowed to protect the country from communists and “thieves,” and slammed “fake news” back home. “What I’m saying there [in Brazil] is very similar to Trump here,” Bolsonaro concluded. “If I’m elected, you can be sure Trump will have a great ally in the Southern Hemisphere.” And then, as the crowd chanted “U.S.A.! U.S.A.!,” Bolsonaro turned around and saluted a TV image of a waving American flag.

No comment.

14th UPDATE: Léa Salamé’s November 5th “Invité de 7h50” on France Inter was the well-known Franco-Brazilian photographer Sebastião Salgado, who had interesting things to say about what he thinks will and will not happen with Jair Bolonaro in power, e.g.

Sebastião Salgado ne conçoit pas la politique de Jair Bolsonaro comme celle d’une dictature. L’armée n’est plus une armée politique, mais une armée de techniciens, affirme-t-il. Et étonnamment, elle peut aussi constituer le meilleur rempart écologique pour préserver l’Amazonie.

Listen to the interview here.

15th UPDATE: WaPo’s Monkey Cage blog has a post (November 7th) by University of São Paulo political science postdoctoral fellow Ryan Lloyd, “Brazil is unpredictable right now. Here are 3 possible scenarios for incoming president Jair Bolsonaro.”

16th UPDATE: Paul Krugman explains (November 9th) in a “wonkish” column, “What the hell happened to Brazil?: How did an up-and-coming economy suffer such a severe slump?”

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The Venezuelan implosion

[update below] [2nd update below]

I am not an expert on Venezuela, loin s’en faut. I have written but one post on the country in the life of AWAV, when Hugo Chávez died some 4½ years back. That’s it. I have, however, been reading daily about the dramatic present situation there, as have lots of people who otherwise don’t pay a lot of attention to what happens down that way. My social media news feeds have been full of commentary and links to articles and analyses of the Venezuelan implosion, and with people trying to figure out what’s going on. E.g. the other day a friend—with left-wing political views—said that he was trying to understand what was happening in Venezuela, that his reflex was to sympathize more with the government than the opposition, but that he wasn’t sure, as Nicolás Maduro is not an inherently sympathetic person and that the situation all seems very complicated. So I offered my borderline café de commerce explanation, striving to synthesize some of what I’ve read of late.

As for what I’ve read—and as a service to AWAV readers—here are some of the more interesting pieces. Beginning with academic specialists, which is where I look first, Slate’s Isaac Chotiner had the excellent idea to interview Stanford University emeritus professor Terry Lynn Karl, who is a leading political science specialist of petro-states—and Venezuela in particular—and whose work I have profited from over the years. The interview (August 2nd), “Venezuela is collapsing: could a civil war be next?,” is definitely worth the read.

Political scientists Dorothy Kronick (University of Pennsylvania) and Jennifer McCoy (Georgia State), both Venezuela specialists, have a podcast discussion (August 3rd), “How Venezuela could find a way out of chaos,” on Penn’s Wharton school website and that is worth 25 minutes of one’s time.

If one has 25 more minutes to spare, the podcast discussion (May 11th) with Kronick and Penn law professor William Burke-White, “Has Venezuela’s crisis reached a tipping point?,” may also be profitably listened to.

Francisco Toro, who runs the excellent Caracas Chronicles website, has a must-read op-ed (July 29th) in The Washington Post, “Translating Venezuela’s political crisis into American terms.”

Also see Toro’s piece in the New Republic (August 1st), “The last hope for Venezuela is also a frightening one.” The lede: “As the country descends into dictatorship, who will stop Nicolás Maduro?”

En français, CNRS directrice de recherche Frédérique Langue has a tribune in Le Monde (July 27th), “Les raisons de l’impasse au Venezuela.”

Également en français, see the analysis (May 11th) by Le Monde’s excellent Latin America reporter, Paulo A. Paranagua, “Imposture populiste au Venezuela.”

See as well the analysis (August 2nd) by Tamara Taraciuk Broner—a senior Americas researcher at Human Rights Watch—in The Washington Post, “Venezuela is imploding: these citizens were desperate to escape.” The lede: “A new diaspora is spreading around South America, propelled by hunger and persecution.”

The très gauchiste Mike Gonzalez—formerly a professor of Latin American Studies at the University of Glasgow—has an interesting outside-the-box analysis in the cent pour cent gauchiste Jacobin magazine, “Being honest about Venezuela.” The lede: “As Nicolás Maduro’s increasingly antidemocratic government battles violent right-wing forces, ordinary Venezuelans are watching the gains of Chavismo slip away.”

Nice that Jacobin published this piece, as it has largely been defending the Venezuelan pouvoir. On the matter of leftist/tiersmondiste reaction to the Venezuela crisis, the very smart University of Washington political science professor Jamie Mayerfeld—with whom I am in political agreement 99% of the time—let loose on his Facebook page last week:

This will be one of those posts in which I feel like I am shouting into the wind. Among my politically engaged Facebook friends, there is virtually no discussion of President Maduro’s consolidation of dictatorship in Venezuela over the weekend. The larger problem is that a significant portion of the left is lodged in a disinformation bubble carefully tended by TeleSur, Venezuela Analysis, The Nation, Jacobin, CounterPunch, RT en Español, and writers such as Greg Grandin and George Ciccariello-Maher. These sources have gone to great lengths to obscure the truth, namely that Maduro has worked systematically and tirelessly to destroy his country’s democratic institutions. To review: He has thrown political opponents in jail, stacked the supreme court, blocked opposition figures from taking seats in the national assembly, stripped the national assembly of legislative powers, blocked a presidential recall vote, postponed gubernatorial elections, and now in the coup de grace created a rubber-stamp constituent assembly with unlimited lawmaking powers. All this because his regime, responsible for an economic collapse causing widespread hunger and the collapse of health care, is opposed by the overwhelming majority of Venezuelan citizens. The left-wing disinformation machine uses various distortions, omissions, and Marxist dogmas to cover up what is happening. I am particularly upset by political theorist George Ciccariello-Maher’s piece in the Jacobin last Friday – a veritable torrent of lies that brings shame on my field of political science and subfield of political theory.

Tell it like it is, Jamie!

In this general vein, Asa Cusack—managing editor of the LSE Latin America and Caribbean blog—has a salutary opinion piece (August 2nd) in The Guardian, “What the left must learn from Maduro’s failures in Venezuela.” The lede: “I, like other progressives, was so inspired by the Bolivarian revolution that I overlooked Chavismo’s abuses. But willful blindness is no longer an option.”

Also in this vein, journalist James Kirchick, who is definitely not a gauchiste, has a fun op-ed (August 2nd) in the L.A. Times, “Remember all those left-wing pundits who drooled over Venezuela?” Hello, Naomi Klein…

Eric Emptaz has a really fun page one commentary in the current issue of Le Canard Enchaîné, “Caracas de conscience,” dans lequel il se fout de la gueule du PCF et d’autres gauchistes français (pour le lire, ouvrez l’image dans un nouvel onglet et l’agrandir).

And last but not least, don’t miss the must-read column (August 2nd) by Slate.fr’s Eric Le Boucher, “Le Venezuela, la vitrine de l’échec du mélenchonisme.” The lede: “Après les élections, la vérité sur le Venezuela éclate aujourd’hui. Elle est révélatrice…des failles de Jean-Luc Mélenchon.” Aïe!

Voilà, c’est tout ce que j’ai à dire, pour le moment au moins.

UPDATE: Jamie Mayerfeld has another commentary on his Facebook page (August 9th) taking to task the reaction of a part of the left to Venezuela

In The Nation, Gabriel Hetland asks how the international left can help Venezuela. Here’s a suggestion: start telling the truth. I had thought the left agreed with the general consensus that free and fair elections are necessary for the peaceful channeling of political conflict. Like several of his left-wing colleagues, Hetland does double back-flips to avoid mentioning that the Maduro government has blocked free and fair elections and that it is this fact more than any other that has motivated the street protests.

Hetland arrogantly writes, “It is far from clear that Venezuela’s popular sectors would fare any better under an opposition-led government.” I say “arrogantly,” because it is not the role of the international left to choose Venezuela’s government; that presumably is a task for the Venezuelan people themselves. Hetland closes the paragraph by saying that the danger represented by the opposition “is why millions continue to support the Maduro government, despite significant misgivings.” He chooses not to mention that popular support for Maduro reaches no higher than 22%. As The Economist writes, Venezuela “is a textbook example of why democracy matters: people with bad governments should be able to throw the bums out.” It’s not clear that the international left agrees with this principle.

I’m glad that in his final paragraph Hetland writes that the solution to the Venezuelan crisis must include “a credible electoral calendar that provides the opposition with a peaceful path to office.” It would have helped if Hetland acknowledged that the government’s assault on the democratic electoral process is the cause of the current crisis.

I give Hetland credit for acknowledging evidence of fraud in the constituent assembly election held on July 30. But he fails to mention that the constituent assembly is itself a strategy for bypassing the will of the Venezuelan people. It was designed to over-represent Maduro supporters, and polls show that 85% of the public opposed it. As it turned out, Maduro supporters were the only candidates voters could choose from. The constituent assembly is empowered to overrule the national assembly, whose members were chosen in a free election, although the opposition was prevented from obtaining a two-thirds super-majority when the supreme court (stacked with Maduro supporters) prevented three opposition legislators from taking their seats. (And then the supreme court proceeded, on clearly partisan grounds, to block several laws passed by the national assembly.)

One leftist who has been issuing mealy-mouthed statements on Venezuela is Jeremy Corbyn. As Lib Dem member Chris Key put it in politics.co.uk (August 8th), “Corbyn is too cowardly to condemn Venezuela’s slide into dictatorship.”

2nd UPDATE: Frédérique Langue of the CNRS has another analysis (August 8th), this in the French HuffPost, “Voici pourquoi on ne peut pas encore parler de guerre civile au Venezuela.” The lede: “Les mésusages du concept de ‘guerre civile’ ne reposent que sur une instrumentalisation idéologique de l’histoire et un discours anti-impérialiste.”

Thomas Posado, a research scholar at the Centre de Recherches Sociologiques et Politiques de Paris – Cultures et sociétés urbaines, at the Université Paris 8, has a piece (August 8th) in Contretemps: Revue de Critique Communiste, “Les classes populaires vénézuéliennes prises au piège.” The lede: “Depuis plus de quatre mois, une crise politique aigüe agite le Venezuela. Celle-ci s’inscrit dans le contexte d’un effondrement économique qui frappe le pays depuis 2014 et dont les classes populaires vénézuéliennes paient un lourd tribut, sans compter les violences qu’elles subissent sous toutes les formes.”

See also the analysis in Mediapart (August 8th) by Pablo Stefanoni, former director of the Bolivian edition of Le Monde Diplomatique, “La tentation du ‘national-stalinisme’ au Venezuela.” The lede: “La gauche latino-américaine et européenne devrait préférer le débat sur le sens de la démocratie plutôt que de se barricader dans une défense aveugle du chavisme qui ouvre la porte à la droite.”

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Visiting Cuba: an account

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Today is Fidel Castro’s funeral. In my post a week ago, after his death, I described the evolution of my own views on the Cuban Revolution in an earlier phase of my life. I’ve never been to Cuba, though would love to visit the place. Un de ces jours, inshallah. Not too many Americans or Europeans saw Cuba before the 1990s, though plenty have since then, one being my cousin Sanjeen Payne-Kumar, who traveled there several times in the ’90s, not as a holiday-maker or revolutionary tourist on a package tour, but on business, as a young accounts manager with a large British company in the petroleum sector, which had a joint-venture operation in the country. Last weekend I asked Sanjeen—who, pour l’info, is British and lives in bucolic southwestern England, with his lovely wife and teenage children—if he could write about his impressions of Cuba, which he had told me about at the time. And so he did:

Mid 1990s. Landing in Havana I was rather pensive. The flight from Madrid had been an odd one with two fellow passengers, middle-aged Spanish men, having spent much of the journey poring over a book of photos of beautiful Cuban girls. It had transpired that they were selecting their company for a week’s vacation and, as the wine flowed, had become increasingly vocal on their options. I was not a virgin traveler, having been to over 50 countries—I was in my late 20s at the time—but their description of how a struggling economy was leading to rationing, desperation and increasing prostitution options was both despicable and, alas, realpolitik.

The following morning, having observed an angry Austrian businessman unsuccessfully try to get the hotel reception to remove the fact he had had temporary company in his room (an extra room charge was levied), I found myself at our company’s Cuban HQ. The first thing that struck me as I studied my itinerary was how every meal was to be spent at my hotel with pretty much all the staff and their families. My protest that I didn’t actually eat that much was met with a stoic smile and an explanation that with food rationing, many Cubans were struggling with hunger. The one place where there was plentiful food was at the international hotels, but unless accompanied by a US$-paying foreign guest, Cubans were banned from entering these hotels. Thus, over the following days, I would occasionally sit back at the dining table outside in the glorious sunshine, smoking a cigarette, while watching families eat as much as they could and secret away food from overflowing buffets for later. Seeing the smile on a 5-year-old face biting into an apple is an image I can’t forget.

My trip required a visit to Santiago de Cuba not far from Guantánamo. Visiting an oil company, I was struck mute by a huge photo in the GM’s office. The black and white image showed a young Fidel and Che in combat fatigues grinning unbelievingly as they stood in the entrance of the refinery following the revolution. My regret is that I didn’t buy this piece of history, but then again, such an offer would have been gauche. Even so…

In a bar one afternoon while in Santiago, I saw an incongruous sight; a beautiful young family – handsome husband, stunning wife and young toddler, accompanied by a middle-aged man from England. I knew he was English from his lack of sartorial elegance and his unmistakable Birmingham accent. A few days later, at the same bar, I saw the man, somewhat worse for wear, with just the wife this time. My curiosity was too much and I wandered over and began to chat to him. It turned out that he had an ordinary job and family back in Britain, but had some years before bought a house in this area. On a rotating basis, he would select couples to move in rent free and would take all of his vacations here, when the rent would be paid, in the form of conjugal rights with the wife. You couldn’t make this up.

The following weekend, I turned down the opportunity to visit Cuba’s tourist hub in Varadero, instead accepting a generous offer to queue for several hours for rice and to meet a colleague’s charming grandma. Grandma was stoic despite her undoubted suffering, saying things were hard, but they would improve. Her greatest fear was what would happen once Fidel died and those “cowards from Miami returned and life returned to pre-revolution days of Cuba as a plaything for the damned Yankees.”

The irony of Cuba was typified in my host’s meeting Fidel and Raúl at a business reception during my stay. I worked for a company called Castrol. Seeing his name badge with company name, Fidel said that when he died, Castrol would need to pay the state a large “tax”. Grinning at my host’s shocked expression, Fidel added “well, my name is everywhere in Cuba – just go paint an “L” at the end – very cheap and effective advertising for you!”

My final night in the country and I could not sleep. I wandered at midnight along the Malecón and eventually leaned on the wall watching the moon reflect on a serene sea. The previous night, I had been to dinner with a colleague and his wife and he had made the most unusual request. He had asked that when Fidel died, would my wife and I fly in to Havana? He would arrange for a quick pair of marriage ceremonies, my wife to him and me to his wife. Armed with marriage certificates, we would then quickly depart the country before the insanity ensued.

As I gazed at the sea, lost in my thoughts I was startled as a voice right by my side asked “what do you see?” I turned and saw a beautiful mulatta observing me. I took a deep breath and began to describe the myriad of my observations; the suffering, yet a pride in who Cubans knew they were. The ingenuity to make ends meet. The incomparable sense of humour – all exemplified by the serene sea and its unseen turbulence before us. Finally I asked what she saw. She smiled and after a minute pointed out to sea. “Miami is 90 miles that way. I see freedom.”

One interesting report from Cuba is by the freelance American journalist, Michael J. Totten, “The last communist city: A visit to the dystopian Havana that tourists never see,” in the spring 2014 issue of City Journal.

As long as I’m writing about Cuba, I should mention a Cuban film I saw last spring, whose title in Spanish is Conducta (in English: Behavior; in France: Chala, une enfance cubaine), by director Ernesto Daranas, and which was Cuba’s official submission to the Academy Awards in 2014. The story is about a 12-year-old boy named Chala, who lives in a Havana tenement with his drug addict, occasional prostitute mother. As she barely provides for him, he raises pigeons on the roof for sale, plus feeds fighting dogs owned by the man who may be his father, to get by. Chala is difficult at school and on the verge of being expelled and packed off to a re-education facility, but is saved by his heroic, elderly teacher, Carmela, as well by the girl, Yeni, whom he has a crush on. The film has a subtle critique of the system, with the dedicated Carmela, who has only the interest of the children at heart, going up against the hard-ass principal—incarnating the bureaucracy—who wants to push her into retirement. The theme is not totally original but it’s a good film nonetheless. I liked it. And French audiences downright loved it. Writer-blogger Eve Tushnet has a thumbs up review of the film in, of all places, The American Conservative. Trailer is here.

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Fidel Castro, R.I.P.

Addressing the U.N. General Assembly, 13 October 1979 (UN Photo/Yutaka Nagata)

Addressing the U.N. General Assembly, 13 October 1979 (UN Photo/Yutaka Nagata)

I suppose he should R.I.P., despite having been a dictator who ruined countless lives and impoverished his country in the process. He was, politically speaking, certainly one of the more significant personalities of my life, at least in its early decades. Before becoming an anti-communist and anti-castriste—a personal evolution that was complete by my early 30s—I was a supporter to varying degrees of Third World communist regimes, and particularly the one in Cuba. I was a big fan of Fidel Castro during the 1970s and into the early ’80s, with the roots of this in my formative years in the 1960s, partly thanks to my father, who was born and raised in India—he came to America at age 20, in the early ’50s—and though a good liberal in US domestic politics, had visceral tiersmondiste reflexes—owing to his origins, as he came of age in the climactic years of the anti-colonial struggle in India—and sympathized with the Cuban Revolution. He never uttered a negative word about the Castro regime (or of the Vietnamese one in Hanoi)—at least not when I was around—and despite his otherwise dim view of communism and, in particular, of the Soviet Union. And I couldn’t argue with him about it after my viewpoint changed. My interactions with my father on this, at least in my youth, were certainly different from those of John Judis with his, as he relates here.

During my youthful gauchiste years, I, along with friends and kindred spirits on the far left, held Cuba up as a model. In my tiny gauchiste bubble of the era, only Trotskyists and Maoists—of the RCP and October League variety, micro-sects we considered ultra-leftist and generally insane—critiqued Cuban-style communism, though from their own particular doctrinal standpoint. One couldn’t say anything negative about Cuba. E.g. at a small meeting at my gauchiste-friendly college, in precisely 1977, a student—Latino, with that Latin American revolutionary look of the era—who had just returned from a stint with the Venceremos Brigade in Cuba, spoke of his experiences and offered information for those interested in participating in the Revolution by cutting sugar cane in the tropical sun. He mentioned in passing that gays were not allowed. One woman present had an astonished WTF?! look on her face upon hearing this—she likely hadn’t gotten the news that homosexuality was illegal in Cuba and with gays imprisoned in work camps—but didn’t say a thing, and no one else did either. The Latino revolutionary student moved right along in his presentation.

What I particularly liked about Cuba at the time was its internationalism, of militarily assisting Third World liberation movements in Africa, notably the MPLA in Angola, which was under military attack by the apartheid regime in South Africa. This was one of my personal pet causes of the era. In 1978 I took a course, at the American University in Washington, on the politics of Cuba, taught by Cuba specialist William LeoGrande (who’s spent his entire career at AU). It was a great class and LeoGrande a great teacher. He did not reveal his political views during the course, though as I learned in discussions with him outside class time, he was an ideological Marxist—an Althusserian, to be precise—and not unsympathetic to the Cuban revolution. My research paper was on Cuban policy in Africa—and specifically Angola—in which I relied unduly on an account by Gabriel García Márquez, published in New Left Review, of Castro’s decision to send troops to Luanda in 1975 and how the operation was carried out, apparently without the Soviet Union having any idea about it. Professor LeoGrande gave my paper an A, though he told me that it was because he was grading on a curve, and that for me personally it was only worth a B. I guess he wasn’t blown away by the quality of my research. We were politically on the same page on Angola, though, and also agreed that Cuba’s military assistance to Ethiopia in the 1977 Ogaden war with Somalia was problematic, as was its support of the ubuesque Macías Nguema dictatorship in Equatorial Guinea. A couple of years later, I mentioned the García Márquez article to Cuba specialist Pamela Falk, then at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, with her responding that it was “naïve.”

Malgré my present-day anti-Castroism, I will not go back on my attitude toward the Cuban intervention in Angola, the immediate effect of which was to repulse the South African invasion of that country. And as one learns in the fascinating 2013 documentary Plot for Peace, it was precisely Cuba’s material support of the MPLA regime that ultimately led South Africa, in 1988, to negotiate with SWAPO and grant Namibia independence, which led to the freeing of Nelson Mandela and finally the end of apartheid and advent of majority rule. It is not for nothing that today “South Africa loves Cuba,” as Piero Gleijeses of Johns Hopkins-SAIS put it in a 2014 article in The National Interest.

BTW, Cuba really did send troops to Angola in 1975 without receiving the green light from the Soviet Union, let alone acting as the latter’s proxy, as one may read in Jeremy Harding’s recent review essay in the LRB, “Apartheid’s last stand.”

And then there was Castro’s visit to New York City in October 1979, to give his first address to the United Nations General Assembly since 1960. I was living in NYC at the time (on the Upper West Side). It was a circus in Midtown, with Fidel staying at the Cuban mission to the UN, on Lexington & 38th, protected by dozens of policemen, who kept the thousands of anti-Castro Cuban demonstrators at bay. My father was in town and we went over to mission just to get a look. There was no approaching the UN HQ itself the day of the speech. It was broadcast live on television—on one of the major networks, as this was the pre-cable era—and I watched the whole thing—with, for the anecdote, my GF and her good friend Melissa Benn, daughter of the British Labour Party politician Tony, both of whom were (separately) visiting town (for the further anecdote, the Right Honourable MP Benn took us to dinner one evening, which was most interesting—it was at the Waldorf-Astoria, if my memory is correct, though he was staying himself at a chain hotel on 10th Avenue in the 40s). When Castro finished his speech—which went longer than the UNGA’s normal allotted time for heads of state—he sat down in a chair next to the podium, pulled out a cigar, lit it, and, manifestly content with himself—the applause was sustained and thunderous (the US delegation was not present)—puffed away. I thought that was so cool.

After the speech, Castro decided to stick around for a few more days at the Cuban mission, just to emmerder the US government and make Mayor Ed Koch spend more money to protect him from the enraged Cuban exile demonstrators. During his visit, he gave extraordinary access to documentary filmmaker Jon Alpert, whose informal interviews with the laid-back, almost playful Fidel were broadcast on NBC. Alpert accompanied Fidel on the plane from Havana—one saw in the report how thrilled Fidel and his entourage were on landing at JFK—and, in the days after the speech, went to the mission to find out how El Comandante was spending his time. He didn’t seem to be doing much of anything, mainly lounging around and watching television, specifically the World Series. Baltimore Orioles & Pittsburgh Pirates. He didn’t want to leave town until it was over (he was for the Pirates, so he said, who won it in seven after being down 3-1). How could one not like him?

One thing about the support of American leftists for Castro and the Cuban regime, including by those who had no interest in the Soviet Union or its Eastern European satellite states: A lot of it was visceral, driven by opposition to US foreign policy and America’s support of right-wing Latin American dictatorships. There was also the romanticizing of Latin American revolutionaries, who were culturally not distant for North Americans (and Europeans) and spoke a language many had studied in high school, when they didn’t speak it themselves (American leftists of the time naturally had a stronger affinity with Latin America than any other part of the world outside Europe). Radical chic played a role as well, with the cult of Che Guevara and all. Latin American revolutionaries were cool in a way that, e.g., Palestinians were not back then.

And then there were the Miami Cubans, who were right-wing and voted Republican. American lefties, mouthing the Cuban communist insult, called them “gusanos.” I will admit to my own visceral, not-at-all-thought-through sentiments of negativity toward the Cuban exiles, that were only quashed in the ’90s after reading David Rieff’s The Exile: Cuba in the Heart of Miami.

As mentioned above, my views of Castro and the Cuban regime underwent a sea change in the ’80s. No need to detail them here, not that I imagine anyone would have any interest. But in the event one does, see my blog posts on the general subject here and here.

There have been countless articles and dossiers on Castro’s death since yesterday—all no doubt written years ago and ready to be posted—of which I’ve looked at a small number. The lengthy obituary in the Miami Herald is absolutely worth the read. Here are three particularly noteworthy passages, the first on Fidel’s relationship with his children. One can tell a lot about a man’s character by how he is with his children and how, as adults, they feel about him:

In all, Castro is known to have fathered as many as 11 children by four different women. There were rumors of others by his many mistresses.

His relations with his children were distant and sometimes strained. His only daughter, Alina Fernández, aligned herself with Cuba’s dissident movement and tried for years to leave the island before she escaped in 1993 with a false passport.

Now living in Miami, Fernández is a harsh critic of her father. “When people tell me he’s a dictator, I tell them that’s not the right word,” she said. “Strictly speaking, Fidel is a tyrant. I have looked up the two words in the dictionary. A dictator is ‘a person who is granted absolute powers to face a national emergency on a temporary basis.’ A tyrant is an ‘absolute ruler unrestrained by law, who usurps people’s rights.’”

On prostitution, a scourge supposedly eradicated by the Revolution:

In a mark of just how close to the brink the Cuban economy really was, Castro even welcomed the large-scale return of prostitution, which he had called a “social illness” in the early days of the revolution. But in a 1992 speech to the National Assembly, he bragged that the army of freelance hookers who swarmed through Havana’s streets every night in search of tourists were the most cultured in the world.

“There are no women forced to sell themselves to a man, to a foreigner, to a tourist,” Castro said of the women, known as jineteras in local slang. “Those who do so do it on their own, voluntarily, and without any need for it. We can say that they are highly educated and quite healthy.”

And on the disastrous outcome of the socio-economic order willed by Castro:

The dream of a Marxist society without social or economic distinctions was gone. In its place was a rigid class system: those with dollars and those without. Doctors, lawyers and even nuclear engineers were abandoning their professions in droves to drive taxis or work as tour guides, anything to get their hands on dollars instead of nearly worthless Cuban pesos.

Tenants in Havana’s low-cost colonial tenements watched fearfully as their neighbors were evicted and their buildings torn down to make room for quaint new tourist hotels and restaurants. And the Internet bristled with endorsements of Havana as one of the world’s top sex-tourism spots, with thousands of pretty women available for the price of a cheap dinner.

A few links:

William LeoGrande, “Will history absolve Fidel Castro? The legacy of Cuba’s socialist revolution is still very much in doubt,” in Foreign Policy.

Amherst College political science professor Javier Corrales, “Fidel was hell: The longest-ruling dictator of the 20th century was a radical bent on transformational, alternative global development. Ironically, he left his country conservative, impoverished, and isolated,” also in Foreign Policy.

Yale University history professor Carlos Eire, “Farewell to Cuba’s brutal big brother,” in The Washington Post.

Kings College London visiting history and war studies professor Antony Roberts, “Fidel Castro was a cruel dictator. Ignore the revisionists,” in The Spectator.

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