I am always on the lookout for good Latin American mysteries/crime novels in translation. Rolo Diez's Tequila Blue is one of the few I have disliked. The main character, a cop in Mexico City, is amoral and unlikeable, and I ended up not caring what happened to anyone, whether the crime was solved, or anything else. It was short, so I sped through rather than just set it down.
I suppose the intent was to immerse you in the corruption, the mordidas, the utter hopelessness of the police bureaucracy in Mexico. At least in this case, that could've been achieved just as well in a short story. Stick with Paco Ignacio Taibo II instead. ...more
Roberto Ampuero's The Neruda Case was billed as a mystery, and in fact is about the main character's first foray into private detection, but is enjoyable for reasons other than genre.
Cayetano Brulé--himself a Cuban--lives in Valparaíso, in September 1973 was contacted by Pablo Neruda to find information of a woman from his past with whom he had an affair and determine whether the child she had was his. From there the poet gives him money to make quick trips to Mexico, Bolivia, East Germany, and Cuba to find the woman's trail.
In general, I was much less interested in what he found out than the questions that arise as he investigates. One that comes up frequently is the balance between personal issues and political crises. How much should we care about ourselves when the world seems to be falling apart around us? People keep wondering that about Neruda as Brulé asks them questions.
He also meditates on detective fiction from reality. Neruda gives him Maigret novels to read as inspiration, but Brulé keeps thinking that the ordered world of France does not apply to the messiness of Latin America.
Another centers on the Chilean coup and its context in the Cold War. In many different ways Ampuero comments on the difference between the highly polarized Allende years and how so many ideologically driven people at the time lost all that by the 21st century. The descriptions of Valparaíso and Santiago in the days following up to the coup and then immediately afterward are engrossing....more
Joseph B. Frazier's El Salvador Could Be Like That is a memoir by a former Associated Press reporter who covered the country during the civil war. Its value lay in Frazier's descriptions of the people and how both everyday life and politics functioned "on the ground," with what I think is a balanced voice, pointing out inconsistencies or outright lies on both sides (though of course the lion's share of the violence was perpetrated by the right). Some of it gruesome, and all of it is sad. It was no easy job for reporters, who were attacked and, of course, lied to.
We gnawed through mountains of spin and did the best we could. There remained for a short time a 1950s-style naivete that told us if the U.S. government was telling us something, it must be true. The facts on the ground quickly educated us otherwise (p. 14).
It is mostly chronological but tends to bounce around a bit (with funny additions like Surfer Bob, a guy from Florida who came to El Salvador for the surfing and then stayed). I noticed that Tim, who writes at Tim's El Salvador Blog, had recently reviewed it and thought the structure made it more important to have some background. I think that's true, but if you're interested in El Salvador and/or the era it's worth a look....more
I went to a book sale of the Friends of the Mecklenburg County Library and came across a children's book on the Panama Canal, by Bob Considine. I bought it without hesitation because I find it fascinating to read about how Latin America was portrayed in the past in the U.S. Normally it is a lot of superior tone and chest thumping.
So I was surprised when the book actually rejected chest thumping. Could America just go in there and do the job easily? Well, no.
The Americans who believed that the hacking out of a canal across Panama would be a simple task, easily solved by American cleverness and drive, had many disappointments in store for them (p. 95).
It talks about labor conditions:
Deaths were greatest among the Chinese (about 400). Many of the Chinese either bought or were supplied with opium, to make them forget the hardships of jungle and mountain grade. The Chinese produced the greatest number of suicides (pp. 35-36).
It talks about race, with even a baseball reference:
Because of Jim Crow laws, Panamanians were unable to get proper schooling, housing, wages and equal opportunities. These unjust laws also applied to people who were grouped into the "Panamanian" class by Zone officials--notably the large number of Jamaicans who did so much of the manual labor attending the digging of the canal.
The color line was extended even to the American Negro who found work in the Canal Zone or visited there. When the Brooklyn National League baseball team appeared in the Canal Zone in the late 1940s during a Spring training tour, their Negro star "Jackie" Robinson was not permitted to eat with his teammates." (pp.157-158).
Finally, it even has extended quotes from primary documents. I had not heard of Bob Considine before, but my hat is off to him. We need a kid's book like this for the Middle East....more
I read Francisco Toro and Juan Cristobal Nagel's Blogging the Revolution, a book comprised of posts from their very well-known opposition Caracas Chronicles blog*. They started the blog in 2002 so there was plenty of material to choose from.
It's an odd exercise to review a book that is a collection of posts (jumping around chronologically), though certain patterns do show themselves in place of the kind of central argument you'd find in a conventional book. It's a good read, rich with detail (their interpretation of the coup events is an especially interesting read) and sometimes also with snark. Here are some themes I found in this not-exactly-book-blog-book:
First, Hugo Chávez's political use of oil revenue represents strong continuity with the past, even if the recipients are different. One of the nice things about the blog is the keen sense of history. Toro and Nagel really dislike Chávez, but they don't sugarcoat the past. You read about historians, novels, and all sorts of people the authors interview, both formally and informally. Even if you disagree with the posts, they are generally very thoughtful. The authors also don't tend to offer much hope that the opposition would do any better if it took power. They periodically come back to the question of how Venezuela can break out of it.
Second, past leaders were corrupt, but Chávez takes it to a new level. The corruption is supported by many anecdotes, though with less of the historical comparison (how much did the dominant parties shake people down for political support or money in the past?). From the neighborhood level to the top echelons of government, corruption abounds. Demonstrating that it is worse, however, doesn't always come out. Could it be that corruption also represents continuity?
Third, the country is moving toward authoritarianism. This tends to veer around, and the lack of chronological order of the posts exacerbates it. There are discussions about how totalitarianism is a totally inappropriate term, then later "we really do have all the characteristics of leftist totalitarian communications here" (electronic page 142). But there is a lot of interesting discussion about the disjuncture between the precise wording of the Venezuelan constitution and the way politics actually works.
I like the idea of taking a blog and trying to contextualize it. If a few people write for years, they do develop certain ideas and themes that persist, and they help orient unfamiliar readers. If the blog is, and this one is, then it's worth the read.
* FWIW, I was given an ebook version for free....more
It is very hard to say something new or original about U.S.-Mexican relations (as is the case with U.S.-Cuban relations). Books and articles are churned out at a rapid pace, all with variations on a "we're partners and need each other whether we like it or not" theme, with a laundry list of things to do. What Shannon O'Neil does in Two Nations Indivisible: Mexico, the United States, and the Road Ahead (2013) is to carve a niche she had been showing on her blog and elsewhere. Her take looks primarily at the way in which Mexico is perceived in the United States.
Basically, she argues that Mexico is ascending, but that too few in the United States recognize this. Instead, they are stuck on the idea of a backwards country on the road to nowhere. Instead, there is a strong economy and growing middle class, a persistent expansion of democracy, and a highly cosmopolitan population. She makes this argument through a narrative that takes care not to exaggerate claims (and places drug-related violence in perspective). It takes the reader through economic reforms, the fall of the PRI, and the cracking of soft authoritarianism, all of which make Mexico a very different place than it was just a short time ago.
The policy prescriptions that flow from the narrative aren't really new, but those aren't really the point of the book. Instead, the idea is that the relationship can't move forward productively until false images are dispelled. Ultimately, the vast majority of Americans don't know Mexico much at all. And I would wager that many think they understand Mexico when in fact they don't.
Toward the end she mentions a trip she took with House and Senate staffers to Mexico City, and how they expressed surprise at how nice the city was, even more impressive than the places they came from. Getting over that hurdle, she argues, will help policy a lot. This makes sense, as the pervasive popular image is a Mexico of dirt streets and ragged children. They do exist, but more and more Mexicans are equally educated and prosperous as their northern counterparts.
I've cautioned before about overly optimistic views of the middle class in Latin America. Aside from measurement questions, aggregate figures can obscure the number of people who are on the brink of falling back. But O'Neil provides plenty of evidence for her glass-half-full perspective perspective. In the end, the book plus a trip to Mexico would be a good thing for most members of Congress and their staffers. ...more
Tim Wendel's Castro's Curveball is a light, pleasant novel that brings together pre-revolutionary--late 1940s--Havana, Fidel Castro, and baseball. You need to suspend disbelief, but it plays on Castro's love of baseball and the rumor that he'd been signed by the Washington Senators. In this book, Havana Lions catcher Billy Bryan is the one who is trying to sign him. After many years, Billy returns to Cuba during the Special Period with his daughter to come to peace with his past.
Castro and his early political activism is woven into the book, along with a fictional female photographer he falls in love with, and who is part of Castro's political circle. Wendel does a nice job of bringing that era to life.
Also noteworthy, for me at least, is that this book was an impulse buy at my local used bookstore, The Last Word. Leisurely browsing still a really fun way of finding books....more
I read Joel Hirst's The Lieutenant of San Porfirio. It depicts a dystopic Venezuela in the near future, and reflects all the fears of the right. It is interesting primarily for that reason.
This is a Venezuela where "all contact with America is forbidden," (how that works is left unexplained) classical music is mocked, Chavistas see Augusto Pinochet as their model, there are buses full of bearded Iranians, Chavez says he is God and should replace Catholicism, tollbooth attendants are in their underwear, Chavez is copying Nazi Germany, the Chinese are trying to take over the west through drug trafficking, the Venezuelan government sponsors African coups with drug money (while smoking Cuban cigars, natch!), there is a minute of hard core porno on state TV every night, state employees mess with women's bras and thongs, poor people sleeping packed together are portrayed a good model for the US, Chavistas say the opposition eats human beings, a box of breakfast cereal costs $25, Russians fly military helicopters around, bearded people are flying around in helicopters, old ladies in wheelchairs are toppled over, and everyone who supports Chávez is drunk all the time.
The novel is pitched as magical realism, and so I guess these politicized exaggerations are supposed to qualify. But the novel is too angrily realist to be considered anything close to magical, and I don't tend to think the exaggerations are supposed to be viewed as anything but very concrete visions of a potential Venezuela. There's not really a plot per se, but rather just people's reactions to the revolution, and for a vision of the indignant right, it's a good example....more
Tuesday, November 12, having difficulties in Latin America or the Alliance for Progress. The Argentines threatening to expropriate our oil. The Brazilians, the Brazilian [João] Goulart, ignoring the Alliance for Progress. Obviously, both playing a very nationalist game. And then the rumor that the Dominican Republic may break relations with us. They're irritated with the United States for not recognizing and making their lot more difficult. All this is, indicates a rising tide of nationalism and a lessening of their dependence upon the United States. In addition, they have a radical left who [unclear] at home, so that our lot becomes more difficult.
John F. Kennedy dictated that privately on November 12, 1963, only ten days before he was assassinated. It's part of a series of recordings he made, including conversations, that are in the new book Listening In: The Secret White House Recordings of John F. Kennedy. Very cool book, which includes quite a lot on the Cuban Missile Crisis.
That particular quote is interesting for a number of reasons.
Latin America was weighing on his mind. He did personal dictations on issues that he was really concerned about. We tend to view the Cuban Missile Crisis as a US-Soviet problem, and he had a lot of other global problems on his plate, but clearly he saw serious problems on the horizon in Latin America that required his attention.
The concerns are so similar to today, though fortunately we don't have the Cold War framing it. But the "lessening of dependence" and fear of "a radical left" are echoed all the time now.
LBJ rightly is criticized for his aggressive stance toward Latin America, but JFK was thinking about the same problems. JFK was unhappy about Goulart and had a wary eye on the DR. He almost certainly would've followed the same path in Brazil (strong support for the coup). Would he have invaded the DR? Given how shaken he was by Cuba, it's entirely possible.
The book comes with CDs, and for the excerpt above he sounds incredibly tired, talking slowly and without enthusiasm....more
David Mares' Latin America and the Illusion of Peace (2012) makes the case that although Latin America is often touted as more free of interstate war than any other region, there are a host of militarized disputes that are serious but fall short of war. He details a number of them, such as Venezuela-Colombia, Ecuador-Colombia, Nicaragua-Costa Rica, Bolivia-Chile, and UK-Argentina.
What would be great is a model to go along with the narrative. He discusses the likelihood of militarization in a number of interesting cases, what works as deterrence, and how they might likely be resolved, but doesn't quite put together a model to explain all of them. I would love to see all the variables assembled together outside the cases.
Nonetheless, the book serves as a good reminder about how conflict short of war is quite prevalent. He counts 21 unresolved interstate disputes in Latin America, any of which could escalate. Militaries are not commonly used for territorial acquisition, but they are used as threats to enhance bargaining positions....more
I read Brian Latell's Castro's Secrets: The CIA and Cuba's Intelligence Machine (2012). Based on interviews with high-level defectors, especially "Tiny" Aspillaga, it tells the story of the cloak-and-dagger struggle between the United States and Cuba in the 1960s.
The book's main attention has come from the claim that Fidel Castro had prior knowledge of the Kennedy assassination. I actually found this the least interesting part of the book, as there is no firsthand knowledge so dots are connected with speculation. And, admittedly, because I am uninterested in Kennedy conspiracy theories.
Of much greater interest is the clear professional--though obviously not ideological--admiration Latell (himself former CIA) has for how quickly Fidel and Raúl put together one of the most effective intelligence services in the entire world. It's quite remarkable. Time and time again, and even now, the U.S. government has underestimated Cuba and has guessed wrong. In the 1960s, moreover, Cuba's DGI routinely fooled the U.S. with double agents.
Today, what the U.S. knows about the inner workings of the Cuban government largely comes not from intelligence operations but from the Cubans who decide--for whatever reason--to leave on their own. Latell quotes multiple CIA sources as admitting they had lost the espionage war.
As with any account of U.S.-Cuban relations, there are a number of references to crazy ideas. My favorite quote from the book is about Desmond FitzGerald:
His most notorious idea, quickly discarded, seemed to his staff like a three-martini idea, except that it occurred to him one morning while shaving. He wanted the Agency's "dirty tricks department"--the technical services staff--to devise a waterproof explosive seashell (p. 159).
Maybe U.S. intelligence just needs some more martinis. In all, it's a fun glimpse at a particularly twisted relationship....more
Luis Sepúlveda's The Shadow of What We Were (translated 2010) is a quick and funny (including a quick rant about café con piernas, which I had never thought of in political terms) novel about former militants in Chile trying to figure out their lives long after the Allende and Pinochet governments--which defined their very existence--are long gone. Sepúlveda himself was imprisoned for two years and then fled to Europe, where he still lives. He knows of what he speaks.
They've lost their revolutionary fervor, but they still want to fight against the postauthoritarian protection enjoyed by those who ruled during the dictatorship, especially those--like Pinochet himself--who looted the treasury with impunity. So they remember the past and plot one last mission.
Although they remain dedicated to their cause, there is also the sense that much of what they liked was the camaraderie, since in retrospect so many of their actions appear self-indulgent. As one character remembers:
There in the middle of the assembly, Coco Aravena felt euphoric. The commission for agitation and propaganda of the Marxist-Leninist Communist Revolutionary Party Mao Tse-Tung Thought, Enver Hoxha Tendency, which was very different than the liquidationist clique that called itself the Marxist-Leninist Communist Revolutionary Party, Mao Tse-Tung Thought, Red Flag Tendency, had commissioned him to read a resolution from the central committee, a resolution destined to change history (p. 98).
It's odd, but for some reason I thought of a movie as I got to the end of the book, a movie I have not seen in some 25 years. This image clinched it:
The four men looked at each other. Fatter, older, bald or with graying beards, they still cast the shadows of what they were. "Well, are we in?" Garmendia asked, and the four men clinked their glasses in the rainy Santiago night (p. 110).
The movie is Going in Style, a 1979 film with George Burns, Art Carney, and Lee Strasberg as old men who plan a bank robbery to "go in style." Even if Sepúlveda doesn't know the movie, I get the feeling he would appreciate it. Same type of dark humor, with the common theme of bank robbery to boot....more
For a well-written and judicious history of Mexican immigration to the US, then go read Timothy J. Henderson's Beyond Borders: A History of Mexican Migration to the United States (2011). It would be great for a history course on immigration--I would consider using it in a political science course, but it does not get to IRCA until about two-thirds through.
There are two things I like in particular. First, he is very careful to describe specific causes and effects--both intended and unintended--of immigration policy choices. What policy makers believe will happen very often doesn't. Policies intended to stem immigration, for example, often increase illegal immigration instead. In a short paragraph, for example, he does a great job of taking the logic of NAFTA apart. Mexican President Carlos Salinas wanted immigration on the table, but U.S. officials said that was unnecessary because NAFTA would generate so many jobs in Mexico that the immigration problem would take care of itself. Yet we know NAFTA's very uneven effects prompted more illegal immigration.
Second, and related, the historical emphasis demonstrates how much continuity there is in immigration policy, and how little we learn. Domestic political pressures, economic pull factors, xenophobia, racism, security concerns, you name it: we've seen it before, and lurch along pretending that we are truly getting a grip on the issue. Sheriff Joe Arpaio sounds exactly the same as Los Angeles police chief Roy Steckel, who blamed Mexican immigrants for the crime rate and so in 1931 got federal help to launch raids. Ultimately these had no effect on either crime or unemployment. And too few seem to learn this....more
Imre Kertész is a Hungarian novelist who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2002, for his fiction on the Holocaust. However, he also wrote a book about Latin America, Detective Story, that was originally published in 1977 but translated into English in 2008. It is narrated by Antonio Martens, a police detective who became involved in torture in an unnamed Latin American dictatorship and now in the postauthoritarian period is on trial for murder. He was on the trail of Enrique Salinas, the son of a department store magnate, who the police believe has joined the opposition.
The essence of the novel is Martens' totally clinical and hard boiled tone. He narrates like a Raymond Chandler character, uninterested in others' pain (while complaining about his own headaches).
It's nasty work, I can tell you, but it's part of the job. We take away the offender's mind, shred his nerves, paralyze his brain, rifle through pocket and even his innards. We slam him into a chair, draw the curtains, light a lamp--in short, we go by the book. We didn't make any effort to surprise the offender with some original twist. Everything happened the way those ham-handed films would have prepared him for; everything happened the way he would expect (p. 83).
Martens never wants to mention the violence itself. Torture simply occurs, because that's the way it is, but he doesn't want to talk about blood or pain very much.
I won't spoil the ending, which has a twist, but suffice it to say the novel also examines what makes people seem guilty to paranoid and dictatorial authorities even when they have done nothing. The police start going after people, while torture and death pile up almost of their own accord.
I grasped that we had now cast away everything that bound us to the laws of man; I grasped that we could no longer place our trust in anyone except ourselves. Oh, and in destiny, in that insatiable, greedy, and eternally hungry mechanism (p. 103)....more
I read Malcolm Beith's The Last Narco: Inside the Hunt for El Chapo, the World's Most Wanted Drug Lord and enjoyed it. The title, however, is not entirely accurate since most of the book is about the drug organizations in Mexico and the government fight against them rather an inside account of the search for Chapo. The military and police won't talk, so it is virtually impossible to get inside the hunt.
It is both chilling and discouraging. The details of how deep the TCOs reach into every corner of Mexico are morbidly fascinating. They aren't really new to anyone who reads the news regularly, but Beith's book brings it to gory life.
One of the serious challenges for the Mexican government is the fact that the army is not welcomed in many parts of Mexico, either because people like what Chapo (and other similar leaders) give them and/or because they see all state institutions as fundamentally corrupt and violent. There is far too little trust, and even less trust between the military and the police.
Finally, the book shows how many years drug kingpins like Chapo were setting up their operations. It is convenient to blame Felipe Calderón with his strong militarized policies beginning in 2006, but there are many other contributing factors. The cartel infighting had already been growing, which brought with it new levels of brutality as they moved into each other's territories. The balloon effect from Colombia and the end of the PRI's reign in the presidency also helped set the stage. The complex confluence of all those factors would be a great research project.
As a coincidental P.S., Beith recent wrote a post on his blog about how Chapo seems to be losing influence in Mexico, even as his global reach has expanded....more
Juan Gabriel Vásquez's The Informers annoyed me at times. It sagged in the middle, but is beautifully written and engaging enough to continue on. The plot centers on Colombia during and just after World War II, as Germans (both Jews and Nazis) arrived and sought refuge. The main character Gabriel Santoro published a book on the topic, based on the story of a family friend. His father, a famous professor of rhetoric, trashed the book publicly, and the novel is about Gabriel gradually understanding why.
Colombia had U.S.-provided blacklists for Nazi sympathizers, which is critical to the story. One family in particular was informed on, and the father's career--and life--destroyed. The overarching theme is that we choose to say some things and keep other things hidden, and that words (or the absence of them) have tremendous and sometimes terrible consequences--imprisonment, murder, suicide. That sounds banal, but Vásquez is very good at avoiding cliches, and weaving it into the extreme violence of Colombian political history (Jorge Eliécer Gaitán is a recurring reference). Gabriel constantly has to face a question from many different people: "You oblige people to know what they might not want to know. Why?" (p. 275). He has no good answer.
The last part of the book is worth getting to, as the characters try to make sense of why some people choose to say some things and refuse to say others....more
There are really two parts to Tom Gjelten's Bacardi and the Long Fight for Cuba (2008). The first is a history of Cuba from the 1860s to the 1960s, centered on Bacardi and the city of Santiago. The second is a narrative of how Bacardi became global and also obsessed with fighting Fidel Castro. The Bacardi company went from being an icon of Cuba to a conglomerate struggling to maintain a Cuban identity.
The first part is excellent. Bacardi was in the middle of fighting against Spain and then later against Fulgencio Batista (who did everything he could to either entice or compel the company to support his government). Gjelten's describes a company that took tremendous pride in Cuba, and was even grudgingly admired by Marxist union leaders for its positive relations with labor (p. 125). Pepín Bosch, the president at the time of the revolution, even supported Fidel Castro until it became clear that there would be no autonomous political and economic space in the country. Bacardi was so enmeshed in Cuba that Raúl Castro married the daughter of a Bacardi executive (Velma Espín).
Bacardi was a living example of how a homegrown Cuba industry could become global to the point that the word "Bacardi" immediately brings up the image of rum. Ironically, it took the revolution to really launch that global brand. Bacardi already had plants in Puerto Rico and Mexico, in large part as a result of concern about unstable political conditions before Fidel even became prominent, but it grew exponentially only after leaving Cuba entirely.
The second part of the book is interesting, but not as convincing. Gjelten gives the company a pass when it comes to its association with terrorists like Luis Posada Carriles. Despite Bosch's support for the Bay of Pigs and other endeavors, and even helping to launch Jorge Mas Canosa's political career, Gjelten somehow comes to the conclusion that "Bacardi as a corporate entity had largely steered clear of Washington politics around the Cuba cause" (p. 331) until the 1990s. That is a stretch.
At times Gjelten acknowledges a dilemma of focusing on the Bacardis as a way to understand Cuban political development: "The Bacardis were white, upper-class Cubans, and it is impossible to generalize from their lives to the experiences of the whole Cuban people, a great many of whom were poor (p. 350). But "they did love their country and were generous citizens." Yet over time Bacardi shifted from a nationalism independent of (and even skeptical of) the United States toward one that depends largely on U.S. legislation and legal decisions to defend its claims. Since 1959 both Cuba and Bacardi have changed a lot....more
I read and really enjoyed Helen Marrow’s New Destination Dreaming. An anthropologist, Marrow conducted comparative research with a “context of reception” approach. To that end she examines the specific characteristics of two counties in eastern North Carolina, selected for variation. One exhibits characteristics of the new rural South (with rapidly growing immigrant populations) while the other is the old rural South (with relatively little migration and a majority of African Americans). She labels them pseudonymously as Bedford and Wilcox.
Her conclusions are more optimistic than most of the literature, and focus on assimilation, race relations, and the political and institutional responsiveness to immigrants. Her argument about rural assimilation is particularly interesting. Unlike their urban counterparts, rural areas are more working class, and so recent migrants find it easier to achieve some measure of satisfaction about upward mobility. In other words, their low wage employment is stable and not too far beneath the rest of the population. Plus, jobs like poultry processing are stigmatized by many, so there are more opportunities for internal upward mobility. Still, she tempers this relatively rosy picture with a nuanced analysis of the cross-cutting differences between different Hispanic populations, which include citizenship status, country of origin, affluence, and even gender. All of these strongly affect who can move up more easily and rapidly. Further, there is more upward mobility in poultry processing than in textiles (an industry that has been shrinking for well over a decade) so the structure of the receiving community can lead to significant variation.
She also does a nice job of contextualizing the rural experience of migrants, which vary not only by the receiving context, but also by the background of the migrants themselves. In particular, migrant perceptions are colored by their own urban or rural origins. More specifically, people from Latin American cities tend not to like rural North Carolina, while those from rural Latin America have a much more positive view. For me, it raised a question about whether such a response would be common for much of the urban South as well. Some interviewees compared rural North Carolina unfavorably to Chicago or Miami, but most southern cities (such as Charlotte or Raleigh) are smaller and more sprawling than those larger counterparts.
Her conclusions about race relations are more sobering, but reveal less hostility than is commonly assumed. Marrow notes a larger gap between Hispanics and Blacks than between Hispanics and Whites, with a growing sense of a black-nonblack color line. This is particularly pronounced in the minority African American county she studied versus the majority counterpart. When in the minority, African Americans perceived a political and economic threat more acutely.
With regard to political representation, newly arrived migrants—especially those who do not speak English well—face daunting challenges. Marrow argues that elected officials have shown relatively little interest in reaching out to the Hispanic population or addressing it needs, but that public bureaucracies have done so. Since relatively few Latinos are eligible to vote, they are of less interest to politicians, but many individuals in bureaucracies view their own role as service-giving, and so often reach out to the immigrant population, even to the point of bending rules (it should come as no surprise to anyone that DMV officials were the least likely to be helpful!). This contradicts political science literature, which would expect bureaucracies to follow political dictates. That highlights the usefulness of a multi-disciplinary approach for understanding Latino immigration to the United States. Nonetheless, as more restrictive laws were passed, state and local employees found it increasingly risky to do so, thus negating some of the more positive effects.
Notwithstanding the shrill media attention to restrictionist legislation being pursued at the state level in the South (as well as elsewhere, most famously Arizona) research like Marrow’s is pointing to more positive outcomes. There is more work to be done to better understand why, but also to determine whether it is something that changes much—for better or worse—over time. In sum, the book provides much food for thought as we try to understand the “Nuevo New South.” As such, this and other works can provide a foundation for more comparative research on the political, economic, geographic, racial, and cultural impacts of Latino immigration to the South....more
If you like Paco Ignacio Taibo II, then you may well like Luis Sepúlveda's The Name of a Bullfighter. In fact, Sepúlveda thanks his friend Taibo. The book is so similar in style: hardboiled crime fiction that is much more intent on evoking images, even very political ones, than on creating intricate plots. What makes Sepúlveda intriguing is that his theme is Chile as it moved from dictatorship to democracy, and that makes the book darker than Taibo's. The author was exiled in 1975 and still lives in Germany.
The story centers on World War II-era treasure that is hidden in Tierra del Fuego, and how various unscrupulous people are after it. The disillusionment of radical leftists permeates the entire novel--they see the disaster of Marxism (as well as the violent battles between different Marxist models) and in Chile also see a democracy without justice. The only soft spot of the main character is his former girlfriend, now mute and vacant due to brutal torture by the Chilean military. Everything else is, as he puts it, "the bitterness I camouflage as toughness" (p. 197).
The guy was right. It was a democracy. He didn't even bother to say that they had restored democracy, or that democracy had been restored. No. Chile "was" a democracy, which was the equivalent of saying the country was on the right track and anyone asking awkward questions could dislodge it from the correct.
Maybe this same guy had made his career, in part, in prisons that never existed, with addresses no one can remember, interrogating women, old people, adults, and children who were never arrested, with faces no one can remember, because when democracy spread her legs to let Chile inside, she named her price beforehand, and demanded payment in a currency called forgetting (p. 148).
I like Thomas Walker and Christine Wade's Nicaragua: Living in the Shadow of the Eagle, 5th Edition (2011). It is clearly sympathetic to the revolution, but takes pains to remain even handed. That means having no illusions, for example, about the political direction Daniel Ortega has been taking while also praising successful policies he implemented in the 1980s. I highly recommend it as an excellent political history. I would be tempted to use it in a class, but I don't tend to go that far in depth in a country study to merit an entire book.
The first half of the book is historical chronology, and the second half is separated by different issues: economic, cultural, political, and international. Nicaragua has a fascinating history, and the writing is very good. Who can resist sentences like the following?
On September 20, a young poet named Rigoberto López Pérez infiltrated a reception honoring the dictator and pumped five bullets point-blank into Somoza's corpulent hulk (p. 28).
My only complaint, and a relatively minor one, is that the facts can really stand for themselves in Nicaragua so there were far too many uses of the words "alleged" and "apparently," usually referring to some nefarious connection to the United States. But there were so many such nefarious connections that including rumors weakens the overall argument.
I agree with their assessment of Ortega: "The Ortega government was both openly defiant and curiously submissive to the demands of its old enemy" (p. 213). The more things change, the more they stay the same. ...more
Santiago Roncagliolo's Red April: A Novel is a creepy yet engrossing mystery set in Peru in March-April 2000. It focuses on the fight against Sendero Luminoso in Ayacucho.
Félix Chacaltana Saldívar is a prosecutor put in charge of investigating a particularly grisly murder he thinks should be attributed to Sendero, and he starts to unravel a series of killings for which he ultimately starts to feel responsible, because all the people he talks to end up dead. Chacaltana himself is really odd, a combination of Norman Bates and Inspector Clouseau, fastidious but often clueless and with skeletons in his own closet.
The narrative takes place just before and during Holy Week, obviously a time of death and resurrection (and there are interesting points made about the intersection of Catholicism and indigenous beliefs). Within that, Sendero and the military's fight against it engulfed everyone in death, even while the presence of violence is denied:
"You think too much Chacaltana. Get one thing into your head: in this country there is no terrorism, by orders from the top. Is that clear?
Everyone is focused on trying to make sure that as few people as possible know that any violence is occurring at all, or that Sendero still exists. That gets more difficult--though not impossible--as the number of dead increases. From the perspective of plot, the book keeps you guessing until the end....more
I read Victoria Bruce, Karin Hayes, and Jorge Enrique Botero's Hostage Nation: Colombia's Guerilla Army and the Failed War on Drugs. Given how much it focuses on the three American hostages and Ingrid Betancourt, all freed in 2008, I would say the best way to characterize the book is as a companion to Out of Captivity (here is my review of that book from a year ago). Hostage Nation provides the Colombian context that Out of Captivity mostly ignored. Reading both gives you insight into how the FARC operates and all the many different voices involved in hostage negotiations.
Some of the most interesting parts of the book come from interviews with FARC guerrillas. The details--both historical and contemporary--about Simón Trinidad and his capture stand out in that regard. The authors provide a sense of why people become fanatically attached to the FARC, and the nature of their ideological rigidity. I kept thinking of Néstor Kirchner's perfect recent quote: the FARC "are so back in time, that they are even far behind the Cold War."
Ultimately, though, despite the subtitle it really is not a book about the "failed war on drugs." The brief epilogue with statistics about coca cultivation, etc. is the only time the authors center on that. I do think the drug war is failing, but this book doesn't really expand on the argument. The fight against the FARC is intertwined with the drug war, but they are not synonymous. Winning or losing battles against the FARC tell us very little about the flow of narcotics.
It does serve as a well-written reminder, though, that all the contract work that U.S. citizens find in Colombia creates problems. In particular, the contractors feel like they are protected by the U.S. government, whereas the U.S. sees them as much more expendable precisely because they are contractors....more
I really enjoyed Gabriel Thompson's new book Working in the Shadows: A Year of Doing the Jobs [Most:] American Won't Do. Back in 2007 I reviewed his book There's No José Here. To highlight the plight of low wage immigrant workers, he gets a job picking lettuce in Yuma, Arizona, then in a chicken factory in Russelville, Alabama, and finally a restaurant in New York City.
It is a very well written book, and he captures how incredibly hard the work is. For example, the lettuce:
I feel like someone must have crept into my bedroom overnight and beaten me on the back with a two-by-four, then continued pounding on the soles of my feet. I swallow several painkillers and put in my contact lenses, noticing that my eyes are bright red. My neck is also crimson; I'm lathering myself with sunscreen twice a day, but it doesn't stand a chance against my overactive sweat glands. There's a also a tennis-ball-size bruise on my right thigh, where the gancho jabs each time I bend (p. 29).
For all three jobs, he wanted to quit early and was relieved when it was done, acknowledging the privilege he had in doing so, when in fact others were doing two such jobs at the same time to make ends meet. It should surprise no one that there are also all sorts of abuses (interestingly, the lettuce picking had the least) as well.
He actually finds the poultry plant more taxing because it is so fast paced and low skill (not to mention a night shift), whereas picking lettuce required being taught how to do things correctly:
I spend the following week tearing breasts. I figure a conservative estimate has me going through a breast every four seconds, or 7,200 breasts a shift. I arrive home each morning with throbbing hands, sleep fitfully throughout the day (I never manage to sleep more than five hours at a time), eat some food, take my ibuprofen, and wait for Kyle to pick me up to start all over again (p. 145).
In New York City he gets a job for a company that delivers decorative trees, but is quickly fired because, as they put it, he was a "happy chicken." He figured his efforts at banter with other workers made them nervous. As in Yuma, simply being white makes everyone suspicious. Then he gets a job as a bicycle delivery man for a Mexican restaurant. Especially after talking to others who do delivery, he notes "It quickly became obvious that I don't need to 'investigate' the prevalence of illegal wages in the food delivery business. That's all there is" (p. 270).
He ends with a list of possible policy solutions, though I felt that was rushed and not well developed. At any rate, the suggestions have been out there a long time--immigration reform, enforcement of minimum wage laws, right to organize unions, etc. Sadly, it just doesn't happen. But the next time you have a salad, think of the person who might have been the last to touch the lettuce, only 2-3 days before. Could you handle that job?...more
Ironically, despite the fact that Mexico City is the reference for Paco Ignacio Taibo II's Return to the Same City, there is less description of it than in many of his other novels, and more action takes place outside it. The story revolves around a woman who hires Belascoarán Shayne to investigate her sister's murder (with the implication that he should kill the murderer). Because of a recent attack on him, however, Shayne lives in a sometimes surreal state of paranoia that leaves him, among other things, suddenly finding himself on airplanes when he doesn't remember buying the ticket or boarding.
Then into this compact book we find crammed weapons sales to the Nicaraguan Contras, the guy who cut off Che Guevara's hands, a large band of mariachis, a CIA agent and some baby ducks. He just manages to pull it back from the brink of unbelievability. It is an entertaining story, and takes you all over Mexico.
Taibo makes a point at the beginning of the book to explain that the historical setting includes the rise of Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas's presidential campaign, though subsequently there were only scattered reference to him. That is unfortunate, because he has such a keen sense of politics....more
Timothy Henderson's A Glorious Defeat: Mexico and its War with the United States (2007) is a thoroughly enjoyable account of the events leading up to, and through, the 1846-1848 war. It is written for a general audience, and he does a great job of explaining complex situations in a really engaging manner.
The complexity lies in bringing together the different strands of Mexican political turmoil (and the ever-present Antonio López de Santa Anna), the politics of Texas, and the politics of the United States. The U.S. was moving westward and believed Mexico both incapable and not chosen by God to have what became the western United States. Texas was looking for autonomy from Mexico, became independent, and then annexed to the U.S. Mexicans watched in disgust, but were too crippled by corruption, factions, and a ragged conscript army to resist. Finally, the U.S. fabricated a provocation in order to declare war.
I found the analysis of Mexican politics to be very compelling, as it acknowledges how Mexican politicians failed to create the sort of political institutions that would keep the country together, even as they faced Americans who disdained them and had no compunction about lying and stealing land. The most fascinating individual has to be Santa Anna:
Politics, for Santa Anna, seems to have been primarily the art of finding the right despot, and for him that search usually ended satisfactorily only with himself (p. 80).
He would rule, be exiled, and yet time and time again, Mexican political elites called him back. Along those lines, my favorite passage from the book may be the following:
Moderate politician José Fernando Ramírez, who was normally of a very skeptical turn of mind, wrote to a friend, "There is no doubt whatsoever that [Santa Anna:] is returning as a real democrat, and I can conceive of his being one." Ramírez, perhaps realizing how absurd that sounded, added laconically, "I cannot tell you on what I base my conviction." (pp. 159-160).
Santa Anna left in disgrace after Chapultepec Castle was taken and U.S. troops marched into Mexico City (though he would return yet again later!). For anyone who has not been to Chapultepec Park, there is a massive monument to six teenage cadets who died rather than surrender. Here is a photo I took of it when I was in Mexico City last month:
Mexico finally agreed to terms, in large part because the vacuum caused by the war led to indigenous uprisings, including 200,000 dead in the Yucatán Peninsula in 1848 alone. Many elites wanted to bring in European monarchy to rule, though they would not be successful in that endeavor for more than a decade.
Indeed, one critical conclusion that tends to get less attention is the following:
The territorial transfer unleashed toxic political passions that a little over a decade later would plunge both the United States and Mexico into bloody civil wars. The U.S.-Mexican War exacerbated the imbalance of power and wealth that had, in large measure, caused it in the first place, and that imbalance has yet to be corrected (pp. 179-180)....more