I read Julie Shayne's edited volume Taking Risks: Feminist Activism and Research in the Americas (2014). The title is intended to convey both the risks that activists take and the professional risks scholars make when they engage in this type of research. The book centers on story-telling as part of transnational feminist methodologies and is organized in three parts: Texts, stories, and activism; performed stories of social justice; and activist stories from the grassroots. The authors come from all over the hemisphere and the line between activist and academic is blurred.
As someone with little background on the topic, I was particularly interested in the diversity of views. All the authors are committed to social justice, but how they approach it varies considerably. Goals include giving voice to the voiceless, simply helping others, creating an archive by which these stories become permanent, and understanding yourself better and becoming more self-aware, even methodologically. The authors also discuss ways in which their own thinking is challenged and how they deal with that. As a result, the stories of activism and activists are compelling but the self-reflection is perhaps more so.
Interestingly, no author is a political scientist. That's unfortunate because there are scholars doing work in this area (e.g. Christina Ewig, who I went to graduate school with) who seek to bridge the activist/positivist divide that Shayne outlines. Nonetheless, the chapters offer a lot of food for methodological thought....more
Swedish journalist Erik Jennische's book Hay que quitarse la policía de la cabeza (roughly, You Have to Get the Police Out of Your Head) provides a detailed and sometimes personal view of Cuba's opposition and the challenges it faces. As the title suggests, his interviews with members of the opposition show how years of repression end up guiding people's behavior. Gradually activists have been more successful (though of course only within limits) in expressing discontent, but only once they can break free of that mental restraint.
Jennische interviews a wide range of people, from those who write political articles online to punk rockers. In at least one case this included someone who later turned out to be a government spy (which itself looks like a fascinating story). That example is indicative of how the state manages on a daily basis to make people suspicious of each other--you never know who might be listening. Organizing in any effective fashion and getting your message out is thus even harder. Meanwhile, the state keeps shifting to deal with potential "counter-revolutionaries" by shutting down avenues of communication or even music festivals.
Later, Jennische himself feels the effect when he is detained (and even accused of being part of the School of the Americas) and then deported. He didn't return to Cuba for over a decade afterward. This new edition of the book includes an epilogue that includes his return, which is sobering since he refers to a dissident who was imprisoned (for trying to let loose two pigs in the Parque Central with the names Fidel and Raul painted on them). Even though some in the opposite have been working to the get the police out of their heads, as he argues the state still treats them like children, incapable of their own independence.
This is a reminder that even as U.S.-Cuban relations evolve, we shouldn't expect quick results. The repression is still there and even if it eases there is a hangover effect. You can't get the police out of your head quite that fast.
On a side note, I don't think this book has ever been reviewed in English. Hopefully I can convince some others to check it out. Even nicer would be a translation....more
I read Carlos Gamerro's novel An Open Secret. It is the story of a man who returns to the small Argentine town where he spent summers a child, and now as an adult he investigates the Dirty War murder of a man. Using a cover story of writing about the case, he starts talking to people. Gradually he unravels the ways in which the town was really collectively responsible and how personal vendettas came together with the Dirty War. There is also a major plot twist that I won't spoil.
I found it a slow read and the long, bouncing, slangy paragraphs of dialogue can be tough to follow, as are the many characters (this must've been a really difficult book to translate). The novel has a powerful message, but I found it a bit blunted by the style. Reading over reviews after I finished the book, I am left with the impression that plenty of others didn't get the same impression so it may well just be a matter of taste.
Part of that message is how even now people harbor countless secrets about what happened during dictatorships, in Argentina and elsewhere. For many reasons, including self-preservation, they're careful about what they say and to whom. There are a lot of answers out there about the disappeared but they're hard to find....more
I read Juan Reinaldo Sanchez's The Double Life of Fidel Castro: My 17 Years As Personal Bodyguard to El Líder Máximo (2015), which has been translated from the original Spanish (it was published in France). Coming from someone who was very close to Fidel, it provides a look into his personal life. As such, it's an entertaining and informative glimpse into Fidel's inner circle.
I kept thinking "L'état, c'est moi," in the sense that there is no line between his resources and the state treasury. He found a nice island, then ordered a massive amount of work to be done so he could travel there by helicopter, have people direct him to the fish, then help him catch them. He created a cow pasture in a building so he could do experiments to breed the best milk-producer. Is it crazy or extravagant? Either way, he did whatever he wanted, no matter the cost.
It can veer toward the gossipy. I'm not particularly interested in how Fidel juggled various women, for example. At the same time, it is interested to think about why his numerous children were not groomed for politics. Some of the gossip is funny, as when Sánchez walked around a North Korean hotel with a drunken Fidel trying to find him a softer mattress.
Sánchez seems to contradict the idea that the KGB built the Cuban intelligence apparatus. Sánchez talks about all the new exercises and plans he personally made, but did Cuba's security become famous through Cuban efforts alone? He suggests this on p. 104, scoffing at the KGB as low quality and saying Cuba took its model from the U.S., Israel, France, and Great Britain. None of those countries, of course, would've done any training.
Sánchez says he started to feel disillusioned after overhearing a conversation in 1988 confirming that Fidel Castro was directing a cocaine operation in the United States. Not long after, Castro executed several top lieutenants (especially Arnaldo Ochoa) for participation in an operation he claimed to know nothing about. All that has been reported before many times before, but Sánchez provides an insider's view. He also claims that Ochoa's death pushed Raúl Castro to drink so heavily that his wife feared he might be suicidal, and that Sánchez overheard Fidel reassure his brother that he wouldn't suffer Ochoa's fate. Sánchez was imprisoned for two years and tortured when members of his family emigrated, which put him under suspicion. He finally managed to leave Cuba in 2008.
One final point, from a research perspective. According to Sánchez, Fidel Castro saved voluminous files, from his daily calendar to recordings he made in meetings and phone calls. Given how extensive they are, is it likely they will all be destroyed? If not, once there is a transition we'll be reading some more very interesting books. ...more
Juan Pablo Villalobos' Quesadillas is a sometimes surreal dark comedy about Mexico the 1980s. The original Spanish title was "Si viviéramos en un lugar normal" (If We Lived Somewhere Normal). I'm not sure why they changed it so drastically--in the novel quesadillas are constantly mentioned as something like an economic indicator of the protagonists' family (i.e. how many you get, how thick they are, etc.) but the theme of the book is bigger.
That theme is basically that Mexico will do what it can to crush you (which along with the dark humor also made me think of the novels of Paco Ignacio Taibo II). The family lives in El Cerro de la Chingada, which the author himself translates as "the hill in the middle of fucking nowhere." And as the teenaged protagonist noted:
But all this about being middle class was like the normal quesadillas, something that could only exist in a normal country, in a country where people weren't constantly trying to screw you over" (p. 28).
And the novel takes you on a bizarre journey, often really funny, that centers on getting screwed over. This includes a Mexican family where all the children have Greek names, as well as class conflict, cow insemination and alien abduction. There's no way to understand how those come together without just going ahead and reading it....more
Despite its hyperbolic subtitle, Malcolm Byrne's Iran-Contra: Reagan's Scandal and the Unchecked Abuse of Presidential Power (2014) is a carefully constructed and highly detailed account of the Iran-Contra scandal, using both newly declassified documents (the author is Deputy Director at the National Security Archive) and interviews. It's not a fast read, but it's a very good one. The core contribution is to cement the answer to the classic Watergate question, "What did the president know, and when did he know it?" The answer for Ronald Reagan was "A lot, and early on, then he lied about it."
The overriding factor was Reagan's fervent desire to free the hostages held by Hezbollah in Lebanon and his utter disinterest in whether the actions--selling arms to the Iranians for their help, then using proceeds to fund the Contras in Nicaragua--aimed at doing so were legal. It becomes clear that he never expressed doubt about legality. He pushed for action and wanted results, so everyone took that as permission, even though they even would write that it was all illegal. Byrne notes concerns about Reagan's mental state, but also shows how Reagan kept up with key details and kept pushing. Basically, if policy was intended to free hostages, then for Reagan by definition it was legal.
Others knew better, but didn't stop anything because the president wanted this done. Once it became clear the illegal activities would become public, they started lying and destroying documents like crazy. As John Poindexter described this destruction, "I decided that it would be politically embarrassing to the President at this point because it would substantiate what was being alleged...and so I decided to destroy it" (p. 269). When asked about his lying under oath to Congress, Oliver North said, "I knew it wasn't right not to tell the truth on those things but I didn't think it was unlawful" (pp. 314-315).
North took Reagan's desires and ran with them, usually amateurishly. Sadly, he was well liked and respected (at the hearings later, one staffer testified and even entered a poem into the record about how he was thankful Ollie North walked the earth!) so had wide latitude. North, meanwhile, was a born liar. As soon as he helped get the entire project off the ground, he lied to anyone and everyone about anything, large and small. He literally lied constantly.
George H.W. Bush (who as VP was present at many of the same meetings as Reagan) lied as well, and initially pretended he didn't have a diary, which had a lot of damaging information. Ironically, in his diary he criticized Secretary of State George Shultz for keeping a diary. Then on Christmas Eve 1992, very soon before he left office, he pardoned six key participants, which also had the convenient effect of preventing any more testimony from emerging that would incriminate him.
A notable point of the book is how little anyone knew about Nicaragua, or Central America generally. And they didn't care. When Costa Rican President Oscar Arias started blocking Contra activity in his country, North wrote that "Boy needs to be straightened out by heavyweights" (p. 232). Iran-Contra is fundamentally about illegal actions in the executive branch, but it's also about U.S.-Latin American relations. The only reason North focused so much on Nicaragua was that Reagan (and all his aides) had a distorted, paternalistic, and simplistic view of what was happening there.
Byrne makes clear that only a small fraction of relevant documents have seen the light of day. This is a topic that will deservedly keep producing new analyses, and don't be surprised if they show even more how deeply President Reagan and many of his officials were aware and supportive of illegal activity. ...more
I read Leogrande and Kornbluh's fantastic book Back Channel to Cuba: The Hidden History of Negotiations Between Washington and Havana (2014). It is really well researched and just fascinating to read.
My 10 year old daughter has a hamster, which gets into her little wheel and runs like crazy. Sometimes she even gets on top of the wheel and runs like she's on a treadmill. The poor thing never gets anywhere, but keeps trying, or at least there is the illusion of trying. So goes U.S.-Cuban relations.
Thus, one remarkable point of this book is that many different go-betweens--reporters, business leaders, exiles, diplomats, you name it--have spent countless hours traveling and talking, with very little to show for it. Sure, there are periodic breakthroughs, but the core sticking points remain equally sticky after 50+ years. As Robert Gates once remarked after a meeting, "The initiative had been worthwhile, but had failed utterly" (p. 184). But they keep trying. Each chapter starts to sound amazingly similar even though the names change (for obvious reasons they do so much more frequently on the U.S. side).
Talks have floundered in large part because both sides consider the preconditions too steep. In the 1970s, Cuba would not abandon Africa. Meanwhile, the U.S. would not abandon the embargo. More recently, Cuba would not hold elections while the U.S. still would not abandon the embargo. The U.S. wanted compensation for nationalized property, but Cuba would only discuss that if there was compensation for damages wrought by the embargo and exile attacks.
One great feature of the book is its judicious tone. Leogrande and Kornbluh don't often take sides--they just dig deep into the historical record. The book cries out, though, for a framework. For example, I am not convinced about Fidel Castro's commitment to negotiations. Sometimes, as in 1975, he happily blew off months of talks. We need a better grip on his own goals to know when he wanted advancement, when he didn't, and how far he really wanted them to go. The U.S. was committed to negotiations only to the extent that they required concessions solely from Cuba. So at what times was a positive outcome even possible or likely? Conceptually, what should we realistically expect?
And just now, we have a U.S. official saying maybe we can negotiate, but Cuba needs to take more steps first. The more things change......more
I read Rory Carroll's Comandante: Hugo Chávez's Venezuela (2013) and enjoyed it. Carroll is a well-known journalist who reported from Venezuela for the Guardian from 2006-2012, and disliked by the left. Basically, if you think Venezuela is a thriving laboratory of revolution, you will hate the book. If you feel that Venezuela has tremendous promise that Hugo Chávez failed to harness, you will find it well-written and interesting, particularly because of his interviews. If you follow Venezuelan politics, it won't be new but you get a little deeper.
The book consists of vignettes with his interviews, which then serve to frame his larger point of a well-meaning revolution ripped apart by personalization of power, palace intrigue, and old fashioned cronyism. Carroll shows why Chávez was (and is) so beloved, the problems of personalization, and how utterly incompetent the opposition has been. Even the coup mongers screwed up. As one person who supported the 2002 coup put it, describing Pedro Carmona: "We won, or thought we had won. But then we made a terrible mistake. We picked that fucking dwarf" (p. 79). That encapsulates the basic sentiments of the radical opposition--failure to understand why Chávez was popular, or how even to attract support. Angry but clueless.
Carroll denies that Chávez was a dictator, and comes up with a counter-argument, namely that Chávez was so concerned about elections that he neglected details. Aló Presidente gave him a platform for votes but he didn't follow up. Lots of talking, no walking. He needed to win so badly that substance faded out while crime, insecurity, shortages, etc. soared. Those issues become the backdrop to judging the long-term success of the revolution....more
Rob Ruck's Raceball is an entertaining look at the development of black and Latino participation in baseball. He traces this from the Negro Leagues to Cuba to Mexican leagues the academies in the Dominican Republic. For baseball history, it's a great read--lots of interesting tidbits and interviews. Analytically, it falls a bit short.
The subtitle of the book is "How the Major Leagues Colonized the Black and Latin Game." This is obviously provocative and ends up more complicated than that. The essence of his argument about the Negro Leagues was that MLB integration destroyed them, which over time decreased African American interest in baseball. This stands in clear tension to the fact that African Americans were trying very hard to integrate. In other words, this isn't simply one agent acting upon another. As Ruck notes, Jackie Robinson is now considered a national hero--hardly an accomplice in colonization.
The part on Mexico was my favorite, not only for the stories but for the outcome, which unfortunately is less unanalyzed. A fight to attract American players in the 1940s eventually led to MLB agreeing to pay for Mexican players they wanted. That led to strong Mexican leagues, but Ruck jumps straight to Fernando Valenzuela without examining how Mexico succeeded so well.
The book ends with the suggestion that somehow MLB will destroy Latin American baseball: "And if it's lost, the last, best piece of baseball's soul may go with it" (p. 235). Sounds dire, but it comes soon after an interview with Juan Marichal--an icon of both MLB and the DR--says he thinks the Dominican academies are great. So how do we square that?
For a book that emphasizes three Latin American countries, one drawback is that there are virtually no Spanish-language sources at all--books, newspapers, documents, etc. (so that a chapter called "Viva Mexico!" relies on the NYT and WaPo) That is a major drawback for the thesis because it removes the Latin American voice from the equation--to what degree did they believe they were being colonized, or that the experience was negative in some form?...more
I read Heidi Tinsman's Buying into the Regime: Grapes and Consumption in Cold War Chile and the United States (2014) to review for Journal of Interdisciplinary History. I don't know when that will come out, but here is a small taste. It analyzes what became a strong connection between the two countries based on grape exports and what I like in particular is that Tinsman consciously avoids easy answers and simplifications, which makes it a worthy contribution to the already large literature on Cold War Chile. There are a lot of contradictions and contrasts:
Academics from the United States are part of the contrasts. The Chilean grape industry grew substantially under the market-driven economy of the military government, but existed in the first place because of the state-driven policies of the Eduardo Frei and Salvador Allende administrations. Universities in the United States played important roles in both, as researchers from the University of California at Davis gave extensive agricultural assistance in the 1960s and Chilean economists from the University of Chicago created the policy architecture for the grapes to be exported in the 1970s and beyond.
As Tinsman points out, consumption was central to the historical development of the grape export industry and the long-term responses to it. Depending on your vantage point, eating (or choosing not to eat) grapes could denote support for a government, opposition to a government, general nationalism, protest over a repressive global economic system, support for labor and/or recognition of the human costs of feeding the United States. Those perspectives shift if you are a Chilean or if you are a U.S. citizen, and if you are eating fruit from Chile or from the United States....more
Jay Sexton's The Monroe Doctrine: Empire and Nation in Nineteenth Century America (2011) is a good synthesis of the history of the most famous doctrine in U.S.-Latin American relations. It's not exactly new, though I can't think how you would manage to say something genuinely new about it (I wonder, have any hitherto unknown archives yielded any new insights in years?). It's more about what angle to take.
One thing he does that I found interesting was to discuss how policy makers in the U.S. changed their views of the doctrine over time. The nineteenth century version was different from the twentieth because of shifting circumstances. At the time of its formulation, there was fear not only of geopolitical threat but also of the country breaking apart. By Roosevelt's time imperialism was in full force and the United States was well past the civil war.
He emphasizes the contradictory nature of the doctrine, since it was both anti-colonial and fundamentally imperialist. This didn't bother anyone in the United States, because based on our exceptionalism our tutelage was a positive force while the Old World offered outdated and unwanted models.
Reading the book might help understand why it's hard to believe John Kerry when in November 2013 he said the Monroe Doctrine was over.
I'll be including it as a recommended reading for the historical chapter of my U.S.-Latin America textbook. ...more
Stephen Kinzer is no fan of Allen Dulles and John Foster Dulles. We already knew that from his previous books, which examine overthrow of one kind or another. His new book The Brothers: John Foster Dulles, Allen Dulles, and the Their Secret Cold War looks at the men more specifically to show how they were architects of a style of foreign policy that, though in many ways unsuccessful, became a model for the Cold War and even the post Cold War.
It's a very good read, though I must say I enjoyed the first half much more than the second. The first explores the Duller brothers in depth, whereas the second goes into more detail in specific operations, such as Iran, Cuba, Guatemala, Indonesia, and the Congo. In those the brothers fade a bit from the narrative, though of course they are hovering around. Kinzer relies on secondary sources but the stories themselves are already very well known. The second half also touches quickly on psychological assessment, JFK assassination conspiracies, and other sorts of speculation that detract from the book.
The sad thing is that, though Kinzer explain clearly how so many of the Dulles brothers' interventions were in long run detrimental to the United States, there is little recognition of that now. I wish very much that there was public discussion of how overthrowing Mossadegh, for example, led us to where we are today, and how they thought only in the very short term. But there isn't. Instead, we talk about intervening in Iran again!
The point, then, is that consciously or not, U.S. policy makers have drunk deeply of the Dulles Kool Aid. The U.S. is exceptional (and Christian) and therefore needs to act as policeman; there is no need to understand the country you're attacking/undermining; short-term victory over your "enemy" (however defined) is all that matters. The Dulles brothers have never really gone away....more
I happened to pick up John Dinges' Our Man in Panama, a 1990 book about Manuel Noriega's rise to power. The invasion itself is mentioned only briefly at the end, which was fine with me. What's more interesting is how the situation developed.
It is a reminder of how weird that invasion was. The U.S. government was split any number of ways about Noriega and only toward the very end did anyone consider him an "enemy." Even then, many still didn't. For the most part, he was the friendly leader who helped the DEA (including, ironically, the arrest and extradition of someone who later testified against him) and helped the Contras. He was a team player. That he was corrupt was no big deal--everyone was corrupt. Omar Torrijos had established the system that Noriega inherited. Noriega's own addition was drug trafficking, which the U.S. had first officially noticed in the early 1970s.
Dinges goes through all the evidence with care, showing how deeply involved Noriega was in the drug trade and how brutal he could be. As he notes, and it's still true now, no one feels sorry for him as he had almost no redeeming qualities. But going straight to invasion essentially for personal reasons is still amazingly disproportionate. Using similar criteria elsewhere, we'd be involved in even more wars than we are now....more
Last month I read Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza's The Silence of the Rain and wrote that it was nicely written but with a terrible ending. I decided to give the second book in the series, Blackout, a shot. And there was a similar problem (though the ending was just very mediocre rather than terrible). It is the story of a homeless man murdered in a wealthy and steep Rio cul-de-sac.
You've got this great writing and wonderfully clear images of Rio de Janeiro. Chief Inspector Espinosa is something like Columbo--not flashy, a bit rumpled, dogged, and always with one more question. Garcia-Roza's Espinosa mysteries are also like the Columbo show because he reveals things about the crime(s). The problem is that you end up pretty much knowing who is the murderer. Audiences accept that with Columbo because they like watching how cleverly he figures things out. But that doesn't really happen with Espinosa. There's good tension but then it falls flat with events that just aren't likely and unsatisfying logic....more
I read Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza's The Silence of the Rain. It is a crime/mystery novel set in Rio, with Inspector Espinosa the protagonist. I had an unusual reaction to it--I thought the plot was cool, with plenty of turns and smooth changes of narrator voice. You get into all different parts of Rio, from the working class to the very rich. And Espinosa is an interesting character.
But. The ending sucks. The plot moves moves you right along to...what the hell was that? Are you serious? Also, in mysteries I don't generally expend much brainpower trying to figure out the killer--I just let the story take me there. In this one, I felt like the answer was really obvious, and I was actually going to be surprised if I was wrong. I wasn't.
Nonetheless, I will read more of these novels (this was the first of a trilogy) because that first 99% of it was really good. There is so much commentary as well. Espinosa is always lamenting the fact that forensic tools so common in the United States are simply absent in Brazil or just too expensive, so it is much harder for police to do their work. I also kept thinking that the entire plot would be different if Espinosa just had a cell phone, which I suppose he could not afford. Meanwhile, police corruption hangs over everything. Espinosa is careful about what information he gives fellow officers, who may well not be on his side....more
I read Kristina Mani's Democratization and Military Transformation in Argentina and Chile (2011) to review for Perspectives on Politics. That review will be much longer than this one. The journal requests (orders?) that submitting my review confirms that it "has not appeared nor will appear elsewhere in published form." I hit "publish" when I blog but I don't tend to think of this as really publishing. I also don't think that readers of the journal will glaze over when it comes to them because they've already read this review on my blog. That is especially the case because I am about to send it to the editor but it will not appear in print for some time.
But I digress.
It's a worthwhile book that succeeds quite well in creating a framework to understand the rivalry between Argentina and Chile by connecting domestic and foreign policies. And although I have some quibbles about how it can apply more broadly in the region, it is thought provoking in that regard, which I appreciate (and I tried to make sure they were quibbles rather than complaints that she hadn't written the book I would want, which is painfully common in reviews). Two key paragraphs from my review:
Mani’s tracing of the intricate process of confidence building is excellent. Given how harmonious relations are now, it is perhaps too easy to forget that 35 years ago Argentina and Chile came very close to war, after decades of distrust and disagreement over South Atlantic boundaries. Armed conflict was averted only after international mediation, most notably from the Vatican. After the end of military rule, civilian leaders saw international military cooperation as an integral component of an overall strategy of democratizing civil-military relations. Democratically elected presidents therefore pushed hard to make internationalism a reality. Mani carefully traces the decision-making process in each country as newly elected leaders dealt simultaneously with potential international conflict and domestic resistance.
And on broader applicability:
Mani very briefly contrasts the Chile-Argentina success with the continued controversies Chile has with Bolivia and Peru. In Bolivia and Peru, we might reasonably argue there are empowered veto players (a high level of nationalism) and low regime costs (the authoritarian era is far in the past) yet both governments are increasingly resorting to the International Court of Justice for disputes with Chile, which implies “impulsive internationalism” rather than a “impulsive statist-nationalist” strategy. What this might suggest is that the “regime cost” variable may not be as relevant as time goes on. The Bolivian military left power in 1982 and although the era of dictatorship was traumatic, by now there is no real fear of regression. However, Mani’s model argues that low regime costs should correlate with a statist-nationalist response.
If you study civil-military relations or international security in Latin America, you should check it out. I hope First Forum Press (part of Lynne Rienner) publishes a paperback version to make it more accessible. Otherwise you will have to go to a university library or shell out $55. Such is academic publishing at times. ...more
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