Archive for the ‘Americas’ Category

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


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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Mexico/Central America-USA edition. Continuing from the previous post, this Mexican film, ‘La juala de oro’ (English title: The Golden Dream; French: Rêves d’or), directed by Diego Quemada-Díez, is one of the more powerful I’ve seen on Mexican/Central American migration to the US—and I’ve seen several over the decades, beginning with the 1983 ‘El Norte’ (perhaps there was one or more before that one but which does not immediately come to mind). It begins in Guatemala, with three mid teenagers—Juan (Brandon López), Sara (Karen Noemí Martínez Pineda), and Samuel (Carlos Chajon)—who set out for the US (the reasons look to be economic, not flight from gang or political violence). Once across the Mexican border, they meet Chauk (Rodolfo Domínguez), a teen from Chiapas who doesn’t know Spanish—speaking only the Maya language Tzotzil—but attaches himself to them, and particularly to Sara, to whom he takes a liking. Samuel dropping out and returning home, the three head north on the dangerous trek, where they are prey to both police and criminal gangs, the latter who demand their addresses in the US—and they necessarily have them written down—to extort ransom from their families there (gangs these days being transnational). And for girls like Sara—who tries to disguise herself as a boy—the probability of being sexually violated is in the high 90% range. If the reasons for migrating may be economically motivated—at least for the characters in the film—the youthful migrants would have clearly had a strong case for receiving asylum in the US.

The film—which came out in France in late ’13 and the US last year—is certainly topical, in view of the tens of thousands of unaccompanied, mostly Central American minors who sought admission into the US in 2014. Most were fleeing violence—indeed terror—in their countries, and should have consequently been considered refugees. And it’s not just Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, but also Mexico, where the violence and cruelty of the drug gangs puts the Islamic State to shame, and with the Mexican state often being in league with the narcos. One bit in the film that I was initially dubious about was the Chauk character not speaking Spanish. I am aware that such is the case for a certain number of indigenous persons in Mexico but couldn’t imagine that they would be able to navigate the journey to the US. Shows how much I know, as it turns out that there are indeed quite a few Mexican migrants in the US who do not speak Spanish (see here and here). One can imagine the challenges of living in the US and speaking only Tzotzil or Nahuatl. Sort of like being an Algerian in France and only speaking Taqbaylit. Bonne chance.

The film received top reviews in France and good ones in the US. Mexican reviews must have been stellar, as it is apparently the most awarded Mexican film in that country’s cinematographic history. See the interviews with director Quemada-Díez in the gauchiste webzine Counterpunch, the progressive Democracy Now!, and in IndieWire. Trailer is here.

Another Mexican film on the migration theme that received a slew of awards is ‘Aquí y Allá’ (English title: Here and There; French: Ici et là-bas), directed by Antonio Méndez Esparza. This one is rather different from the above, focusing on migrant return after many years away. Here, the middle-aged Pedro (Pedro De los Santos) returns home to his family—wife and two now teenage daughters—in his mountain village in Guerrero, after years of living and working in New York. His family is happy that he’s home but things have changed, particularly as he now hardly knows his daughters. As Variety’s Jonathan Holland’s review begins

A migrant worker returns to his native Mexico from the U.S. in “Here and There,” a quietly devastating exploration of the cruel paradox that, in order to feed their loved ones, emigrants have to leave them behind. Combining moments of lyricism with a documentary-like feel for truth, Antonio Mendez Esparza’s debut feature is far from hard-hitting, aestheticizing its tale with artful ellipses and juxtapositions. But its delicate portrayal of the emotional effects of immigration nonetheless amounts to a punchy social critique. Pic’s canny blend of artistry and politics should win it fest admirers.

I certainly admired the film, which is touching and, dare I say, poignant. IndieWire’s Ryan Lattanzio called it

the best film yet to screen at [the 2012] Cannes’ Critics’ Week, confidently made without a single wasted scene. The quotidian reality of Guerrero village life is realized with lyricism and lack of sentimentality. (…) Peaceful, almost biblical and completely absorbing, this film is a masterpiece.

French reviews were good to very good. Trailer is here.


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North of the Mexico-Arizona border, 2007 (Photo credit: Don Bartletti/Los Angeles Times)

North of the Mexico-Arizona border, 2007 (Photo credit: Don Bartletti/Los Angeles Times)

[update below]

In case one missed it, Vox had a must-read piece by Dara Lind dated April 28th on America’s “disastrous, forgotten 1996 law that created today’s immigration problem.” The law in question, the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA), was forced on the Clinton administration by the Republican Congress of the time, though was not bereft of Democratic support and with President Clinton not exactly signing the bill under duress. Au contraire.

IIRIRA has indeed been a disastrous law, as it has dramatically increased the number of undocumented migrants in the US who could be—and have been—deported and without judicial recourse, curtailed the possibilities for undocumented migrants to regularize their status, and placed even legal resident aliens in more precarious situations. And Vox is correct to say that the law has been “forgotten,” as the only persons who know anything about it are professionals in the immigration field plus, obviously, undocumented migrants or legal immigrants who are directly concerned by its provisions.

This is one of those lois scélérates enacted in the 1990s—along with the crime and welfare bills—that will need to be repealed—that must be repealed—if the US is to reform its calamitous immigration system—and which is certainly worse than France’s. For that, there will, at minimum, need to be a Democrat in the White House and a Democratic majority in Congress. Inshallah.

On Donald Trump’s proposal to build a wall on the Mexican border, Princeton University sociologist Douglas S. Massey—who is one of the top academic specialists on the subjects of immigration and international migration, notably between Mexico and the US—has a tribune dated April 21st on the Market Watch website saying that it “would be a waste of money.” The reason: undocumented immigration from Mexico essentially ended in 2008, with more Mexicans returning home in the intervening years than heading north to the US. And the reason for this: there are fewer jobs for them in the US and more in Mexico. It has nothing to do with more restrictionist laws or border fences.

I somehow doubt Trump will read Massey on this—or change his mind if he does.

UPDATE: Vox’s Dara Lind explains (October 17, 2017) that “Democrats are taking a hard line on immigration—from the left: How they stopped chasing the center and started embracing the activists.” Alhamdulillah. Hopefully whenever the Dems regain control of the White House and Congress, they’ll abrogate IIRAIRA. Inshallah.

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The Canadian election

Justin Trudeau and Sophie Grégoire-Trudeau, Montreal, October 19th (photo: Kevin Van Paassen/Bloomberg)

Justin Trudeau and Sophie Grégoire-Trudeau, Montreal, October 19th
(photo: Kevin Van Paassen/Bloomberg)

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

I have been aware, like any geopolitically informed person, that Canada was going to have a national election this fall, though didn’t realize it was happening this Monday until it was already underway. And like any person with left-of-center views, I was pleased by the smashing victory of Justin Trudeau’s Liberals (though would have been equally pleased if the New Democrats had won it). Normally those of us south of the border or outre-Altantique ou Pacifique don’t care much which party wins a Canadian election, regardless of our political parti pris. But this one was different, in view of Canada’s PM, Stephen Harper, who pulled the Conservative party there to the right during his nine years in office. When US Republicans start praising Canada and its prime minister, then you know something’s not right. And nine years is long enough for a head of government anyway.

Not being familiar with Canadian websites or knowing which political commentators and pundits there are good, I asked my friend Andrew Griffith in Ottawa, who is a retired Canadian civil servant and diplomat—and has an excellent blog in his area of expertise, and on which he posts daily, Multicultural Meanderings: Working site on citizenship and multiculturalism issues—if he could send me links on the election result. And he did. Here are the ones not behind a paywall:

Ping pongs and unforced errors: How Trudeau won,” by L. Ian MacDonald, who is editor of Policy, a bi-monthly magazine of Canadian politics and public policy.

The re-engineering of Canada is finally over,” by Lawrence Martin, a public affairs columnist at The Globe and Mail.

Justin Trudeau’s first day as future prime minister,” by Aaron Wherry, who covers the House of Commons in Ottawa for McLean’s.

And here’s the YouTube of Trudeau’s victory speech on Monday night. First time I’ve seen him. Always nice to watch Canadian prime ministers go back and forth between English and French.

Also see Andrew’s blog for posts on visible minorities, Muslims, and the election.

Muslim veiling (hijab, niqab) was a significant issue during the election campaign and that Vox’s Matthew Yglesias says contributed to Harper’s defeat, as his “Islamophobic gambit backfired,” causing many voters in Quebec to defect from the NDP to the Liberals, thereby giving the latter its majority (one has to read Yglesias’s explanation on this, which makes sense).

One analysis I came across is by the Canadian-American conservative pundit David Frum, “Canada lurches to the left,” in which he informs the reader that

scripted and unscripted, Justin Trudeau has conveyed a consistent message: The government he leads will repudiate the legacy not only of the incumbent Conservative prime minister, Stephen Harper, but the neoliberal Liberals of the 1990s.

Très bien. Frum concludes

Even before 2014-15, however, the populist anger expressed by [Bernie] Sanders and [Jeremy] Corbyn could be heard in Canada, too. Canada has done a better job than the United States of sharing the proceeds of economic growth. Yet even in comparatively egalitarian Canada, rewards have tended to concentrate at the top of the income distribution. Earlier in the decade, resentment among middle-income Canadians toward the more affluent was offset by relief when Canadians compared themselves to Americans. As time has passed, however, the relief has waned and the resentment has intensified. It was those feelings that Trudeau harnessed, by condemning many small-business owners as tax cheats and telling Canadian business leaders that if they didn’t accept higher taxation now, they’d face even more radical claims in the future.

Trudeau’s strategy succeeded brilliantly, at least in electoral terms. His Liberals have won at least 40 percent of the popular vote, in their best performance since 1997. Leaders of other center-left parties around the world will note the success. Imitation and emulation will follow—across the Atlantic and across the 49th parallel.

Check out the election numbers. The combined vote of the center-left (Liberals-NDP-Greens) is almost 63%, with the Tories a paltry 32%. If only we could have such results south of that 49th parallel…

UPDATE: Andrew forwarded me two commentaries today (October 22nd): one by longtime NDP operative Robin V. Sears, “Ottawa returns to normal after Stephen Harper’s dark decade,” that Andrew says is “a bit over the top [but] captures the atmosphere well;” the other by Chantal Hébert, whom Andrew informs me is one of Canada’s best political journalists, “Liberal comeback headed for history books.”

Heather Mallick, a columnist for The Toronto Star, has a good op-ed in the NYT, “Justin Trudeau: Low expectations, high relief.”

And watch this video of Justin Trudeau dressed in a shudh desi kurta-pyjama and dancing to Punjabi bhangra beats at an India-Canada Association of Montreal event during the campaign. Cool dude he is, no doubt about it.

2nd UPDATE: Roger Cohen has good column in today’s NYT (October 23rd), “Camelot comes to Canada.” Money quote

In short, a positive campaign won. Killer politics lost. Trudeau likes to talk about finding “common ground,” where Harper was all about winner take all. At a time when American politics are dismally polarized, this other North American political story is interesting, perhaps even instructive. [AWAV: Obama did try to find common ground with the opposition during his first term but they weren’t interested].

Republicans still seem to believe the unlikely proposition that elections are won on the angry margins. The two leading Republican candidates, Donald Trump and Ben Carson, try to outgun each other in attacking, respectively, Mexican immigration and the idea of a Muslim president in the White House (don’t hold your breath). The Trudeau story suggests limits to the bullying politics of anger and fear.

Further down, Cohen opines that Trudeau and his wife, Sophie Grégoire, have “razzmatazz.” On this, he’s not the only one who has taken note. Justin & Sophie are definitely the best-looking couple at the summit of the state, in any country anywhere.

Paul Krugman, for his part, says in his column today that “Keynes comes to Canada.” If only he could come to Berlin and Brussels too…

3rd UPDATE: The Nation’s John Nichols had a good day-after analysis, in which he argues that “Justin Trudeau just showed American Democrats how to win the next election.” See Trudeau’s great campaign TV ad that Nichols links to and discusses.

La Tribune’s Romaric Godin—whose columns on the Greek crisis I linked to in my posts in July—also had a very good day-after commentary on the election, “Les leçons du Canada à l’Europe,” in which he says much the same thing as Paul Krugman (though before Krugman did).

TNR’s Jeet Heer weighed in on the election with a fine piece (October 22nd), “Why is Canada’s Liberal Party so dominant?” The lede: “Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper made it his goal to kill the party. The opposite happened.”

The National Post’s Andrew Coyne has a worthwhile column (October 23rd), “Liberals aren’t the only winners in this election.” The other winner: Democracy itself. Coyne demonstrates, entre autres, that—unlike in the US—a first-past-the-post electoral system can still generate competitive races in most constituencies and involve more than two national parties.

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Return to Ithaca & Una Noche

Retour à Ithaque affiche espagnol

[update below]

Continuing from the previous post, on Obama’s Cuba announcement…

As it happens, I’ve seen two films from or about Cuba over the past year that are directly relevant to all this (see previous post). The first, which opened in Paris earlier this month, is ‘Return to Ithaca’, by the highbrow French director Laurent Cantet (en français: Retour à Ithaque)—who has an illustrious filmography to his name—was shot in Cuba, is entirely in Spanish, and with Cuban actors (apparently locally well-known, who live in Cuba). The entire pic—the screenplay of which was co-authored by Cantet and the well-known Cuban writer Leonardo Padura—takes place over a day and a night on a rooftop in downtown Havana—overlooking the oceanfront esplanade, the Malecón—with five old friends, 50ish in age—four guys and a gal—in a Big Chill-like reunion, where they drink, eat, and talk, talk, and talk. The 95-minute film is one long talk fest. Nothing else happens. The friends are all cultivated and educated—an engineer, artist, two playwrights, and an ophthalmologist—met in their late teens-early 20s in what looked to be (from their description and photos they showed one another) the Communist party youth league or some CP-led youth brigade, believed in the Revolution, and were part of the system into their adult lives. The occasion for the reunion is the return to Cuba of one of the gang, a playwright named Amadeo, who had been living in Spain for the previous 16 years.

The pic begins with the friends recounting stories from their shared past and all the funny things they did, with lots of laughing, joking, and singing, and how they all loved each other so much. I was somewhat dubious about the film going into it—it didn’t look too promising from the trailer—and the way it started out did not reassure me, but then the dialogue became more serious, and then very serious indeed, as the friends took stock of their lives—and engaging in personal recriminations along the way—and how their lives and dreams were frustrated, when not shattered, by the system. Only one of the friends, a onetime artist, was doing well for himself, as a manager in an enterprise or organism—obviously state-owned—that offered him access to foreign goods (electronics, high-end whisky, etc) and frequent foreign travel in style. As for the others who were getting by okay, they had family members in Miami who sent care packages. Castro or the Communist party are never mentioned, or even alluded to, but the film, in its final quarter, evolves into a biting, even devastating, critique of the political and economic order Fidel & Co have imposed on the country. The friends all believed in the Revolution when they were young but all but one have lost their illusions—and the one who is still a believer, but is not doing too well for himself—and is unable to make use of his training as an engineer—says he remains so because “I have to believe in something.” The clincher comes when Amadeo finally reveals—no spoilers—the veritable circumstances of how he ended up in Spain, why he opted for exile, and had decided now to return and for good (which his friends could not comprehend). It’s an awesome moment in the film.

When I left the salle—at an art house-y cinema pas loin de chez moi—one of the audience members (few in number and all older) who exited next to me asked what I thought of it. My response: “C’est un très bon film” (with stress on the très). I will go so far as to say it’s one of the best I’ve seen this year. It’s not a film grand public but may (and should) be seen by anyone with art house-y tastes and/or a strong interest in politics. Reviews are here and here. Trailer is here.

The other film is ‘Una Noche’, which I saw exactly one year ago (it opened in the US in August 2013). It’s the directorial debut of Lucy Mulloy, who’s British, a graduate of Oxford and the NYU film school, and a protégé of Spike Lee. In an interview prior to the release, Mulloy thus described her film

Una Noche is heart-wrenching movie that takes us to Havana, Cuba, this unique country that in this day and age of globalization is still a mystery to so many. It follows the lives of three teenagers: Raul (Dariel Arrechaga), Lila (Anailín De La Rúa De La Torre), Elio (Javier Núñez Florián) through their daily lives in Havana until an assault involving a tourist leaves Raul little choice but to flee to the United States [on a makeshift raft]. Elio will help and Lila will follow, for reasons that only young hearts can justify. They lead us to the water of what is and what was, and that inexplicable way of loving.

And this from Stephen Holden’s NYT review

“Una Noche” surges with vitality so palpable that, for its duration, you feel as if you were living in the skins of characters often photographed in such extreme close-up that they seem to be breathing in your face. You feel the sun on their bodies and get goose bumps when they shiver from the cold.

Contemporary Havana, as depicted in the film, is an impoverished, crumbling fleshpot, whose residents eke out a living the best they can, often by prostituting themselves to tourists. It’s also a barter culture; Elio exchanges his bike for the motor. You can have anything you want if you know whom to go to, observes a character. The authorities are constantly on the alert for trouble. We overhear a security guard warning a supervisor, “There’s a citizen talking to a blonde.”

The movie’s first two-thirds are a portrait of the city as experienced by these teenagers, as they frantically (and surreptitiously) prepare to leave. A narrator (Aris Mejias), assuming Lila’s point of view, muses out loud about a city where, in the words of Raúl, the only things to do are sweat and have sex.

“[A]n impoverished, crumbling fleshpot, whose residents eke out a living the best they can…”: Holden gets it exactly right. And the sex: Cuba may well be the most libertine society in the world (possibly an unintended consequence of the five-plus decades Communist rule in the tropics, where there is nothing else for young people to do). The material privations and general poverty of the place are well-depicted in the film. One of the teens works in the restaurant kitchen of a big tourist hotel, handling food that ordinary Cubans can only dream about. Each day quitting work he is body searched by security guards, looking for lobster and other delicacies that he may be smuggling out of the kitchen. As it happens, not long after seeing the film I read a reportage by a freelance American journalist, Michael Totten, who had just visited Cuba, and in which he wrote

Taking a bus [in Cuba] came with another advantage I hadn’t foreseen. I didn’t have to stop at the checkpoints.

I’m used to seeing military and police checkpoints when I travel abroad. Every country in the Middle East has them, including Israel if you count the one outside the airport. The authorities in that part of the world are looking for guns and bombs mostly. The Cuban authorities aren’t worried about weapons. No one but the regime has anything deadlier than a baseball bat.

Castro’s checkpoints are there to ensure nobody has too much or the wrong kind of food.

Police officers pull over cars and search the trunk for meat, lobsters, and shrimp. They also search passenger bags on city busses in Havana. Dissident blogger Yoani Sanchez wrote about it sarcastically in her book, Havana Real. “Buses are stopped in the middle of the street and bags inspected to see if we are carrying some cheese, a lobster, or some dangerous shrimp hidden among our personal belongings.”

If they find a side of beef in the trunk, so I’m told, you’ll go to prison for five years if you tell the police where you got it and ten years if you don’t.

No one is allowed to have lobsters in Cuba. You can’t buy them in stores, and they sure as hell aren’t available on anyone’s ration card. They’re strictly reserved for tourist restaurants owned by the state. Kids will sometimes pull them out of the ocean and sell them on the black market, but I was warned in no uncertain terms not to buy one. I stayed in hotels and couldn’t cook my own food anyway. And what was I supposed to do, stash a live lobster in my backpack?

Does one wonder why so many Cubans have fled to Florida over the decades, and why so many more would if they could?

As for the film, it’s good. Lucy Mulloy spent several years making it and, for a debut film, the result is impressive (she only got into trouble with the authorities once, when armed soldiers on the beach thought the flight-on-the-raft scene the crew was shooting was the real thing). One sees Havana like never before on the big screen (or small), at least not that I’ve seen. Likewise contemporary Cuban youth and their No Future lives. The actors—all amateurs—are very good. Reviews were positive in both the US and France, and with the pic winning a slew of awards at film fests and Mulloy receiving a rapturous reception at its premiere screening in Havana. Trailer is here.

BTW, the brother and sister in the film—who became a real couple during its shooting—used the occasion of the film’s screening at New York’s Tribeca Film Festival last year to seek asylum in the United States. They currently live in Miami.

UPDATE: The April 2nd 2015 issue of the NYRB has a review essay (dated March 3rd) by the well-known Mexican intellectual and writer Enrique Krauze of two new books on Cuba, one of them entitled Visions of Power in Cuba: Revolution, Redemption, and Resistance, 1959-1971, by University of Florida prof Lillian Guerra. This looks to be one of the more detailed studies to date of how Fidel Castro went about creating a totalitarian order during the first twelve years of his regime. For those who can’t access Krauze’s essay (which is behind the paywall), his discussion of the book may be found in the comments section below.


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