Donald Trump named General Rick Waddell as the Western Hemisphere Director on the National Security Council (after his predecessor, Craig Deare, was fDonald Trump named General Rick Waddell as the Western Hemisphere Director on the National Security Council (after his predecessor, Craig Deare, was fired for criticizing Trump). Early in his early military career in the mid-1980s, he served in Honduras and write a book about that experience. The title, In War’s Shadow: Waging Peace in Central America, immediately gives you a feel for Waddell’s proclivities.
Waddell’s intelligence comes through. He’s a really smart individual. But he reveals a rigid vision of the political world that seems untouched by counter-evidence and is accompanied by quite open contempt for those who disagree. This might make him an excellent Trump official.
Early on, Waddell sounds positively Trumpist. Our “wavering allies” are “leeches” (p.36) and as he looks at rich Latin Americans at the Miami airport, he notes that as an “ardent nationalist” (p. 37) he is comforted by the fact that they seem to “have respect for America” (p. 37). Even the education system in the U.S. “declared war on teaching” by not providing enough curriculum on the glories of past battles like Inchon (p. 5). Thankfully, the election of Ronald Reagan brought back flag waving (p. 13). Yes, he specifically mentions flag waving. If you stray from rigid patriotism too far, you produce “drivel” (p. 35) and are beneath his contempt. If you don’t show enough religious fervor, you’re part of “the decline in the spiritual nature of young Americans today” (p. 70). As the book progresses, you hear loud and clear his disdain for the press, which overstates scandal (the “nasty ol’ military [p.81)]) and never gives proper credit for the peace and democracy we were spreading to Central America. Throughout the book he veers off into bitterness about the media. He even attacks CNN for “bald, bold-faced lies” (p. 122). Trump could not have said—or tweeted—it better.
In short, all the way back in 1992, Waddell already dreamed of Making America Great Again.
He takes pains to lambaste the “radicals” who espouse dependency theory, which he says believes the Honduran economy is controlled by the U.S. “for the benefit of overweight housewives who wanted cheap bananas” (p. 49). That is a novel description of dependency theorists, somehow simultaneously inaccurate and sexist. Instead, for Waddell underdevelopment is due in part to “ignorance” (p. 49) A much simpler explanation, to be sure. He was also “depressed” at Congress’ refusal to fund the Contras, which was due to the “typically misinformed, vote-grabbing Democratic congressman” (pp. 117-118). Liberals don’t like protecting the U.S. of A.
For Waddell, the idea that U.S. actions could be considered imperialist is ridiculous. The U.S. government was just protecting its national security, which made it perfectly acceptable to station troops in the country and pour enormous amounts of money into projects the U.S. deemed necessary. He consciously tries to be culturally sensitive, such as condemning the pejorative term “Hondos” for Hondurans, but he is utterly unquestioning of the U.S. presence there in the first place. He expressed bitterness that President Reagan would not get “accolades” for it (p. 67). As an independent entity, Honduras seemed barely to exist. That the U.S. was doing Honduras a big favor by being there goes without saying.
Waddell believed that if U.S. troops were to be stationed in a country, they should work with locals on infrastructure. That collaboration was necessary, he believed, because “[i]t would be no good to create a welfare mentality” (p. 58) by having American soldiers do all the work. And in general he’s dismissive. Noting that the Hondurans wondered why there was so much money for GI entertainment but less for working on projects within Honduras, Waddell just notes that they “refused to understand the legalities of congressional authorizations” (p. 95).
Vietnam seeps into every page. The war was poisonous because it weakened discipline, undermined patriotism, and made the Army soft. At least back in the 1980s, he believed it had not recovered. This is the fault of the 1960s protestors, the liberal media, and the loss of traditional values. This galls him.
Low intensity conflict had a major impact on Waddell, who kept writing about how the Army needed to adapt to new realities of conflict. As he concludes with satisfaction, “all too often freedom still proceeds from the barrel of a gun” (p. 205). And he’s now advising the president on Latin America.
I read Thomas Wright's Impunity, Human Rights, and Democracy: Chile and Argentina, 1990-2005 (2014) for review in an academic journal. Here's a sampleI read Thomas Wright's Impunity, Human Rights, and Democracy: Chile and Argentina, 1990-2005 (2014) for review in an academic journal. Here's a sample:
Thomas Wright has written a well-researched and succinct account of the efforts in Argentina and Chile to bring human rights abusers to justice after the transition from military to civilian rule. His goal is to understand how impunity eroded and justice advanced, even if slowly and imperfectly, in the face of stiff resistance from the military, its political allies, and even cautious policy makers.
He combines a synthesis of the existing literature with over forty of his own interviews and a variety of primary documents. The essential argument of the book is that human rights activists laid the initial groundwork in each country even when conditions were decidedly negatively due not only to the military’s political power but also to lack of funding. Yet at the same time, buoyed by increased attention from the United States, international human rights NGOs increased the scope of their work. Then a confluence of precipitating events gave new life to domestic activists and judges.
I read Juan Pablo Villalobos' I'll Sell You a Dog, the madcap style of which is very similar to his previous novel Quesadillas, which I read last yearI read Juan Pablo Villalobos' I'll Sell You a Dog, the madcap style of which is very similar to his previous novel Quesadillas, which I read last year. It's less dark, though, as it chronicles an old man named Teo who lives in a building in Mexico City with other older people, all of whom incorrectly think he is a novelist when in fact he is retired from running a street taco stand. This is what structures the narrative, as he drinks and tries to figure out how to disabuse them of this idea.
The dog narrative is almost incidental (and kinda gross) to a funny group of characters, including a young American Mormon who lamely tries to convert Teo and cockroaches that move when you play Cuban music. The story gets sewn up at the end in a manner that gets rather close to a cliche but is an enjoyable read nonetheless.
I read Alan McPherson's A Short History of U.S. Interventions in Latin America and the Caribbean (2016) and will have a review come out later this yeaI read Alan McPherson's A Short History of U.S. Interventions in Latin America and the Caribbean (2016) and will have a review come out later this year in The Latin Americanist. A sample:
Alan McPherson has written a clear, succinct, and engaging account of the history of U.S. intervention in Latin America and the Caribbean, which of course is a topic with no shortage of case studies. It is a synthesis aimed at classroom use, and will work admirably in that regard.
McPherson lays out what he calls the “Five C’s” as a way to orient the reader. These are 1) causes; 2) consequences; 3) contestation; 4) collaboration; and 5) context. They’re more usefully viewed as guideposts rather than a framework, intended as categories for the reader to better grasp the narrative. For instructors, they will provide a useful way to help students understand causation and make comparisons across cases.
If you are teaching U.S.-Latin American Relations (or if you're an interested student reading this) then give it a look.
I read Fernando López's The Feathers of the Condor: Transnational State Terrorism, Exiles, and Civilian Anticommunism in South America (2016) for reviI read Fernando López's The Feathers of the Condor: Transnational State Terrorism, Exiles, and Civilian Anticommunism in South America (2016) for review in Journal of Cold War Studies. Here's how I start the review:
As previously classified or hidden documents slowly reach the light of day, we’re starting to understand more about Operation Condor, which was a coordinated effort by South American dictatorships to exterminate their political opponents during the mid-1970s. Fernando López has written an exhaustively researched book that aims to provide a fresh perspective on the existing literature (especially the work of J. Patrice McSherry, who wrote the preface).
The book has three intertwined arguments. First, it was much more difficult for these countries to join forces than typically realized. Second, the role of civilians needs more attention. Third, the militaries intentionally overstated the threat posed by the Junta de Coordinación Revolucionaria, a regional effort to unite guerrilla forces. Instead, the primary goal of the endeavor was to attack their political opposite and disrupt their connections to transnational human rights organizations.
It can be a bit of a dense book at times, but it successfully broadens the discussion beyond just the dictatorships that formed Operation Condor and the assumption that naturally they should get along. It was not just a military operation but rather was deeply connected to the radical civilian right as well.
It was published by Cambridge Scholars Publishing (which I had not heard of) and at least right now doesn't seem available on Amazon US. That's unfortunate, because I think a lot of people could find it interesting but it's not so easy to find.
Patrick Iber's Neither Peace Nor Freedom: The Cultural Cold War in Latin America (2015) examines the intellectual struggle the U.S. and the Soviet UniPatrick Iber's Neither Peace Nor Freedom: The Cultural Cold War in Latin America (2015) examines the intellectual struggle the U.S. and the Soviet Union waged in Cold War Latin America. More importantly, it examines how the results were unpredictable. Many people associated with the organizations did not share the views of the funders, which found them difficult to control--local interests sometimes trumped the funders. It's a very good read.
The two big players were the Soviet-funded World Peace Council (WPC) and the CIA-funded Congress for Cultural Freedom (CCF). These were, as Iber, points out, imperial projects. The people in the front organizations, however, did not feel that way. They felt, only occasionally correctly, that they were struggling on behalf of peace and liberty.
Yet all this did not mean they were "working for" the U.S. and the USSR. They were publishing and talking in ways they believed, which happened in some manner to overlap with these powerful countries. Yet sometimes they didn't overlap. This is the point that I think needs to be remembered the most. People are not necessarily just puppets, and during the Cold War many Latin Americans were trying to figure out how to get the money necessary to reach a wider audience. At the same time, if someone exposes your funding to be CIA or the Kremlin, then your credibility gets hit. That started to happen at the end of the 1960s for the CCF.
Oddly enough, the adamantly anti-Communist CCF helped encourage the Cuban revolution (with money from the CIA!) because it was anti-Batista, then of course grew disenchanted with it. Especially after the revolution, the CCF and WPC touched directly or indirectly a seemingly endless spiderweb of political and cultural organizations. In the midst of all this, the Cuban government launched its own cultural war (through the Casa de las Américas).
The cultural war in Cold War Latin America was a messy business, indeed so complicated ideologically that it led to the decline of intellectuals' influence in Latin America. Iber's book is a reminder not to assume that anyone ultimately gets what they want.
I read Tom Long's Latin America Confronts the United States: Asymmetry and Influence (2015) which is worth your time (and which I hope gets a paperbacI read Tom Long's Latin America Confronts the United States: Asymmetry and Influence (2015) which is worth your time (and which I hope gets a paperback edition). His argument is that Latin American foreign policy initiatives have received too little attention, and that they've been strikingly successful in setting the political agenda and achieving policy goals. He uses detailed case studies Operation Pan American, the Panama Canal treaties, NAFTA, and Plan Colombia.
There are several things that set the book apart.
First, it is based on some excellent fieldwork, with extensive archival research and interviews with key participants. So beyond the analysis itself, it's an interesting read.
Second, it is a book about policy makers. In the case of Panama, for example, it's even about an individual (Omar Torrijos) overcoming concerns about Cold War security, which is typically seen as an almost overwhelming structural constraint.
Third, coordinated Latin American lobbying matters. This is a variable that Michael Grow uses in his book U.S. Presidents and Latin American Interventions and which deserves much more attention than it gets. Knowing how to deal with U.S. political institutions (especially Congress) and the public is so important.
Fourth, it takes on a lot of existing literature (including my own). Long argues that he is part of an "internationalist" school of thought, versus "establishment" or "revisionist" schools. Both of the latter tend to downplay Latin American agency, albeit for different reasons. That's true, but I think there's actually a lot more potential than Long even gives himself credit for, especially in theoretical terms.
More specifically, one point I would've liked to read more about was the critical obstacle Latin American policy makers found in each case. For each, I found the following, in an obviously simplified manner:
1. OPA: overcoming US resistance to providing large amounts of aid 2. Panama Canal: overcoming US concerns about security 3. NAFTA: overcoming US caution about an FTA with a developing country 4. Plan Colombia: overcoming US suspicions of Colombia
These are all different, so what strategies mattered most? Some of these are economic, and some are political. This stuff could get modeled on some way that could provide a new strand of literature but also potentially contribute to theories of foreign policy more specifically.
I read Russell Crandall's The Salvador Option: The United States and El Salvador, 1977-1992 (2016) and it is worth your time. The book is an exhaustivI read Russell Crandall's The Salvador Option: The United States and El Salvador, 1977-1992 (2016) and it is worth your time. The book is an exhaustive (500 pages plus 100+ more of endnotes) analysis of U.S. policy toward El Salvador, using declassified documents in addition to the massive literature on the topic. The guiding question--contained in the title--centers on how El Salvador is held up (especially by the U.S. military) as a counterinsurgency and state-building model (not unlike Plan Colombia).
This is "thick description," like a number of other very good books in the past few years on U.S. policy (like Morley and McGillion's book on U.S. policy toward Chile, but also books by Brian Loveman, Lars Schoultz, Bill LeoGrande, and others). One important point is that the Reagan administration was not monolithic at any time and evolved, especially when George Shultz replaced Alexander Haig, and when Jeane Kirkpatrick left the administration, not to mention when different ambassadors were in San Salvador.
Crandall dives into the context in detail. So we simultaneously have to come to terms with the fact that the U.S. wanted a moderate (José Napoleón Duarte) in office rather than Roberto D'Aubuisson, and used money to make it happen undemocratically; that it held fast to Duarte even as the army's extrajudicial killings went on; that the army and oligarchy were violent and inflexible; that the FMLN used vicious tactics of its own and did everything it could to disrupt elections; that the Salvadoran army was inept in the field no matter what kind of training it received; that the Cold War dominated the motivations of virtually everyone; that Cuba and Nicaragua were major players as well; that Washington had no serious plan for changing the conditions that generated armed conflict in the first place (despite knowing quite well what those conditions were and paying lip service to land reform); that for years no one could even agree on what "negotiations" should mean; that U.S. policy in El Salvador was often ad hoc; and that the money flowing in made the U.S. Ambassador into a proconsul.
The result was carnage that went on and on until both sides were worn out, and the Cold War was over so Washington didn't care so much anymore. Everyone sought to take credit for the peace agreement (though no one wants to take credit for the bloody aftermath we see now).
Crandall's goal is to lay it all out, sparing no one and trying simply to understand motivations, causes, and effects, which is not easy. The civil war has hardened into caricature for many people depending on their ideological orientation. He does not try to show how his analysis might fit into existing IR theory, which I think would be a fascinating exercise. For example, Kathryn Sikkink's work on "green lights" would be interesting, where the actions of the Salvadoran army and civilian elites might be guided by their belief of what Ronald Reagan wanted to happen in the country.
And what of that original guiding question? The main answer as I see it from Crandall is that the "Salvador Option" makes little sense when taken out of its own specific context, besides the conclusion that inserting yourself into civil war carries heavy ethical and practical implications that are rarely taken into consideration. Sadly, that is a point that gets forgotten by too many policy makers.
I greatly enjoyed Héctor Abad's Oblivion: A Memoir. It is a story that takes place in Medellín from the 1960s until Abad's father is assassinated by paramilitaries in 1987. It is a love letter to his father, who he believed was perfect, and it is also a tragic portrait of dysfunctional Colombian politics and society, where there was no room for the center-left position his father was trying to carve out.
It's touching how much he loves his father, and the story is always emotional, especially because you know how it's going to end. His father was a doctor who believed in going out to see the poor, which alone made him Marxist in the eyes of many. Later he protested paramilitary murders, which sealed that impression. Marxists criticized him for rejecting violence, so he was always stuck in the middle.
The title refers to a poem by Borges, which centers on how eventually even memories of us disappear and we are truly nothing. This was Abad's way of pushing back against that a bit, to make sure his father was memorialized. I certainly won't forget him....more
I read Edward Dallam Melillo's book Strangers on Familiar Soil: Rediscovering the Chile-California Connection (2015) to review for Journal of Interdisciplinary History. It's a history of bilateral relations, and he paints a really interesting picture of how much California and Chile have influenced each other, but also how much of that influence doesn't get acknowledged. So, for example, the building of San Francisco during the Gold Rush had a lot to do with Chilean labor and agriculture, but few are aware of that.
That relationship is not always positive. A snippet from the review:
Chileans (like other foreigners, especially Mexicans) were also harassed, attacked, hanged, and lynched, all in the name of civilization. Indeed, the tone of the book tends toward the negative, where Chile gets the short end of the transnational stick. Californians brought wine knowledge and Monterey pines to Chile, for example, but that had all sorts of negative social and environmental repercussions. Californian academics in the 1960s celebrated scientific exchanges that took more than they gave (though, to be fair, they called for their termination after the 1973 coup). As Melillo notes, “Chile’s landscapes underwent profound transformations to supply the ingredients for California’s increasingly ravenous metabolic cycles” (200).
It would be interested to do an analysis of the post-dictatorship era. How much is that ravenous appetite still going?...more
I started reading Arturo Pérez-Reverte's The Queen of the South, a novel about a Mexican woman who had been a narcotrafficker's girlfriend in Mexico and then escaped to Spain (Melilla, specifically, on the northern tip of Africa) when he was killed. I really like Pérez-Reverte, who has a beautiful style and originality, but this book bored the living daylights out of me. I decided to stop if I got to page 100 and it hadn't changed. And it didn't. I found it to be a pedestrian and uninteresting drug story, of which there are a million to choose from. The main character Teresa is flat and boring, and there is no plot to make up for that fact. Major disappointment from a fine author....more
I read Joseph Tulchin's The Aftermath of War: World War I and U.S. Policy Toward Latin America, written way back in 1971. His main argument was that the U.S. was concerned about European influence in three main policy areas--banking, oil, and cables--and that after the first few years after the war that influence waned to the point that the U.S. felt it need not intervene as much anymore. He ends on an almost idyllic note, about how all helped "provide the basis for mutual understanding and the hope for meaningful cooperation in the hemisphere" (253).
Given where U.S.-Latin American relations stood at the time the book was being written--intervention everywhere--this is a very curious conclusion. Tulchin notes repeatedly how the State Department worked to push U.S. companies onto Latin American governments, and how armed intervention continued in Central America and the Caribbean. For the most part, though, these are considered exceptions rather than the rule.
So it was an interesting read about a topic I enjoy--I just had to focus on the extensive archival work he did, which is thorough, and more or less ignore the broader theme of U.S. policy goodness....more
I read Morris Morley and Chris McGillion's Reagan and Pinochet: The Struggle Over U.S. Policy Toward Chile (2015). I'm finishing up a review for Latin American Politics & Society. The upshot is that I enjoyed the book.
The book makes two main contributions. First, it explains why U.S. policy toward Chile evolved in ways that were not obvious when Reagan first took office, and how that was shaped by internal administration schisms. Second, it explores the difficulties and frustrations U.S. policy makers had influencing events in Chile.
It is based on extensive archival work and interviews, so it's a very nice insider view of the bureaucratic machinations going on. I actually found it more useful than the authors themselves give it (or seem to give it) credit for.
I don’t believe I’ve ever had reason to criticize academic authors for being too modest, yet that’s what I felt as I read. Morley and McGillion don’t situate themselves in any particular scholarly context. It is a bit frustrating that the introduction begins immediately with a chronological account of U.S. policy toward Latin America but does not first lay out the book’s key arguments, contribution and structure. In fact their foreign policy analysis is more useful than they even try to claim.
Stephen Dando-Collins' book Tycoon's War chronicles William Walker's infamous effort to become president of Nicaragua and to colonize the country in the mid-1850s. What a miserable affair: I mean that effort, not the book, which flows well. We see 19th men in all their vainglory and extreme prejudices. Walker wanted glory over "uncivilized" people, Cornelius Vanderbilt (who helped defeat him) wanted unfettered access for his transit company across Nicaragua, soldiers of fortune wanted violent adventure and spoils, the American public wanted accounts of how superior they were to Central Americans, while Central Americans themselves mostly wanted to be left alone.
There's not much good to be said of anyone in the book. The Central American (and I refer to the region because it united briefly to drive Walker out) leaders themselves stabbed each other in the back constantly. It's telling that the end of the book describes all the executions that took place, including Walker's. It seems most of the protagonists soon ended up against a wall. Meanwhile, the bulk of Walker's soldiers ended up joining the Confederacy. Indeed, Walker had ended the ban on slavery in Nicaragua precisely to gain southern support.
Page after page shows the lives lost, sometimes in horrific ways (such as burning) for no real purpose at all. Filbusters came with bloodlust, taking enormous risks and dying (often of disease) for nothing. There was no way Walker would maintain any sort of government long-term. Even though he was self-proclaimed president, he had no government, no policies, no popular support, and no knowledge of governing. He was emphatically uninterested in Nicaraguans themselves.
In the U.S. we've forgotten the sordid story entirely. In Nicaragua, September 14 is San Jacinto Day and a national holiday because it remembers a key Nicaraguan victory against Walker's forces in 1856. The assault on sovereignty Walker represented means nothing to us, which is unfortunate. And all too common. ...more
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