Moises Hassan is a ex-Sandinista politician of some note. A U.S.-educated physicist, he was a member of the five-person junta who assumed control of t...moreMoises Hassan is a ex-Sandinista politician of some note. A U.S.-educated physicist, he was a member of the five-person junta who assumed control of the government in 1979 after Somoza fled, and was later mayor of Managua. However in 1988 he became the first high-level Sandinista to publicly break with the FSLN, accusing them of corruption and a general betrayal of the revolution. His exit from the party was a precursor to the schism that happened after their loss in the 1990 elections, when many former comrades broke with Daniel Ortega. Hassan's prescience bolstered his reputation as an independent and principled voice in Nica politics. He has played a Ralph Nader-like role in the decades since: honorable, but marginal, with a couple of doomed presidential runs under his belt.
He's an interesting guy, so it's too bad that he's not very good at writing books. Actually, it's not too surprising - most people aren't very good at writing books. His memoir reads a lot like what you would expect from the un-edited musings of an amateur writer. For starters, the book is almost comically disorganized. The chapters have no discernible themes and meander through recent Nicaraguan history, sometimes bouncing back and forth by decades. He belabors minor points for pages on end, but neglects to add in the necessary context that would make the book more readable. In other words, this is a book in desperate need of an editor.
More problematic is the book's tone and its framing device. Hassan takes the colonial-era folk-theater of El Güegüense as a metaphor for all that is wrong with Nicaraguan political culture: the acceptance of lies and deceit as a way to personal gain. Hence the "curse" of the book's title. With this metaphor in hand, Hassan indicts every major Nicaraguan politician, not just Somoza, not just Ortega and Alemán, but Violeta Chamorro, Enrique Bolaños and so on down the line. In the end, he concludes that the fault is not in the leaders but in the quality of the citizenry that lifts those leaders up. Although corruption is indeed a serious problem, this strikes me as bad sociology that seriously undersells the strengths of the Nicaraguan people. He is raising serious questions, although he admits he doesn't know the answers.
At times he writes as if he were the only honest man in the country, which lends his writing an unpleasant bitter aftertaste. His version of the revolution is a series of endless meetings between government functionaries in sterile offices where someone says something corrupt, or mendacious, or cowardly. In short the book is too disorganized to be read as history, too impersonal for a memoir, and too defeatist to serve as a manifesto. A better organized and edited volume would certainly be worth the effort.(less)
Kinzer's book on Nicaragua in the 1980s, Blood of Brothers, is one of the best and most engaging histories I've read in recent years. (Seriously, if you're at all interested in Latin America or US foreign policy, you should pick it up). But where that book was a panoramic look at revolutionary Nicaragua seen through the lens of a reporter's experiences, Bitter Fruit is much narrower in scope, an intensely detailed analysis of a brief period of time in a small country, much of it based on diplomatic cables and internal documents obtained via the Freedom of Information Act.
The precipitating event for the coup was the agrarian and land reform undertaken by the Arévalo and Arbenz governments, attempting to address the vast social inequalities that had existed in Guatemala since the time of the conquista. In particular, Arbenz sought to take the vast tracts of unused land owned by the Boston-based United Fruit Company and redistribute it to poor farmers. (In an ironic twist, Arbenz offered to pay the greatly undervalued price that UFCo had submitted as its tax evaluation.) The fruit company had enjoyed decades of monopoly, virtually un-taxed profits, unenforced labor laws, compliant governments and full ownership of the country's only Atlantic port and railway. It was practicing capitalism at its most primal, and it had earned an unsavory reputation in most of Central America. Pablo Neruda even wrote a poem about the company's influence.
The authors make the case that Arévalo and Arbenz were not Communists, but rather liberal reformers who admired FDR and wanted to bring the New Deal to Guatemala. Naturally, their reforms were portrayed as a "Soviet beachhead" in the Americas by McCarthy-era Washington, DC. UFCo's lobbying and public relations efforts soon attracted the attention of the incoming Eisenhower administration. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles and his brother, CIA chief Allen Dulles, quickly put together a small-scale but effective operation to isolate, weaken and ultimately knock Arbenz out of power. It's a pretty intriguing story, replete with phony radio broadcasts, disguised arms shipments, chartered Cessnas dropping leaflets and other 1950s-tech spy stuff.
In a way, it is grimly amusing to see how easy it was to show Arbenz the door. The CIA was even (mostly) able to keep their name out of the press accounts, which presented the coup as the work of anti-Communist Guatemalan patriots. Future CIA operations would not be quite so clean. However, the mendacity of this sort of work does take your breath away when you see it spelled out in all its cynical glory. I recall in particular a US attempt to fake a bombing just over the border in Honduras to better portray Guatemala as an aggressive nation who was a danger to its neighbors. Blame your enemies for your own worst sins, I guess.
As the book's final chapter shows, the 40 years following the coup offered neither stability nor democracy. The authoritarian Castillo Armas lasted three years before being assassinated. He was succeeded by a series of military leaders who oversaw the descent of Guatemala into a lawless right-wing state stalked by death squads. Unable to enact even mild reforms, the left and the indigenous groups retreated to the jungle to wage guerrilla warfare, while the generals hunted them down, along with trade unionists, student leaders, dissident priests and anyone who might pose a challenge to their authority. By the time the peace accords were signed in 1996, over 200,000 Guatemalans were dead or disappeared.
All too often US foreign policy has mistaken the legitimate grievances and nationalist ambitions of other nations for communist subversion, and has acted to place US business interests above respect for democracy or human rights. Guatemala is an unusually clear and uncomplicated example of this. In addition to the tragic consequences for those affected, it's not even clear that this strategy succeeds on its own terms. The 1954 coup only looks like a US victory in the very short term. After that it's a bit of a disaster.(less)
The idea that profit-maximizing behavior by food companies might harm your health and your waistline is a more mainstream idea now than it was back in...moreThe idea that profit-maximizing behavior by food companies might harm your health and your waistline is a more mainstream idea now than it was back in 2002 when Food Politics was first published. Skyrocketing obesity rates seem to have focused a lot of peoples' attention, and while there's no real consensus on what (if anything) we should do about it, corporate behavior is definitely on the radar screen. In one level it should be obvious that corporations exist to maximize profits and there's no law of physics that says what's good for the corporate bottom line is good for public health. Quite the contrary. However, as Marion Nestle makes clear, food companies are not quite the equivalent of tobacco companies, even if their tactics are similar. We still do need to eat, the challenge is to eat better, which is a subtler message than "Don't smoke, dummy."
Nestle touches on a wide-range of topics here: the Food Pyramid wars, lobbying, soda in schools, food supplement, techno-foods, etc. (See also her follow-up Safe Food.) The book can be a pretty dry in places and she resists the urge to demonize food corporations or simplify the issues at stake. She doesn't bring the writing style or conceptual gimmicks of a Michael Pollan. But she makes up for her lack of poetry in sheer overwhelming academic firepower. By all indications this is a researcher who has read every USDA Federal Register notice for the past several decades. She knows her stuff.(less)
A fairly dry academic treatise on U.S. intervention in Central America and the Caribbean. Published in 1982, it's necessarily an incomplete history th...moreA fairly dry academic treatise on U.S. intervention in Central America and the Caribbean. Published in 1982, it's necessarily an incomplete history that misses out on Iran-Contra, the Panama invasion and other notable variations on the theme. Still, it is a valuable piece of historical research, stuffed with information. The explanation and analysis of U.S. economic dominance in the region is especially valuable, since that often takes a backseat to the political and military interventions that normally grab headlines, but is in many ways more important to understand.(less)
This book contains the transcripts of 5 lectures given at the Universidad Centroamerica (UCA) in Managua, Nicaragua in early 1986. The lectures outlin...moreThis book contains the transcripts of 5 lectures given at the Universidad Centroamerica (UCA) in Managua, Nicaragua in early 1986. The lectures outline Chomsky's views on U.S. foreign policy with a specific focus on Latin America and the then-ongoing contra war that the U.S. was waging against the Sandinista government.
In Chomsky's view, U.S. foreign policy is guided by the need to secure U.S. interests (primarily corporate business interests) rather than by the ideals of human rights and democracy that are typically the stated goals. This leads to consistent U.S. support for right-wing factions in other countries, even murderous ones, and to oppose left-wing movements, even peaceful democratically elected ones. Paraphrasing JFK, the U.S. prefers to support democracies, but will support "a Trujillo" (right-wing dictator) if that is what is needed to prevent "a Castro."
Chomsky marshalls an impressive level of evidence for his hypothesis -- skillfully deploying internal U.S. documents and letting the sordid history of U.S. 20th century involvement in Latin America speak for itself. It's hard to disagree with this thesis after learning the history of the Contra War in Nicaragua, or the civil war in El Salvador, or the Pinochet dictatorship in Chile, or numerous other examples.
Having read a lot of Chomsky in my time (I took a fantastic class on him in college), my main gripe with him is his rhetorical style. One could quibble with his analysis and the way he bulldozes over wrinkles and complications, but his role as a counter-narrator is important and vital. More problematic is how he revels in making statements that are shockingly counter to mainstream U.S. political discourse, but then characterizing those statements as "obvious" and not deserving much in the way of supporting argumentation. More often than not this comes off as anti-pedagogical, and I can only imagine fuels his marginalization. If you're not already on board with his analysis he doesn't exactly lead you by the hand. Probably since he's been railing against the mainstream consensus for so many decades now it might be hard to muster the effort anymore. Over time he tends to repeat himself as well, such that one can almost predict what phrase he is going to use in advance.
Still, Chomsky is essential reading for understanding U.S. foreign policy, even if you don't necessarily buy into every facet of his analysis. At this point in my life I'm more interested in writers and thinkers who can communicate outside the choir, so I am always wishing that Chomsky would engage more with the mainstream and rather than simply dismissing that position. Still this volume of lectures is actually a pretty good, and brief, introduction to his thinking.
(In one of the Q&As included here there is an interesting moment as Chomsky smacks down the suggestion from a questioner that the USSR -- at that moment a Nicaraguan ally -- is better than the US. As hard as he is on the US, he brooks no suggestion that the Soviet Union was anything other than a brutal and repressive dictatorship.)
[First read this for a class in college, back in early 1997. Re-reading it now because... Managua!](less)
The Inheritance is a snapshot of the major (non-Iraq) foreign policy hot spots as they looked in early 2009, just as the Obama administration was figu...moreThe Inheritance is a snapshot of the major (non-Iraq) foreign policy hot spots as they looked in early 2009, just as the Obama administration was figuring out how to work the coffee machine in the Oval Office. New York Times correspondent David Sanger runs us through the ins-and-outs of Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, North Korea and China with an eye toward the challenges the new president would face.
I started reading this just after it was first published, but then dropped it and only took it up against last month. It's clear that the book's sell-by date has passed and that the intervening years have re-worked the global landscape significantly. In the meantime we've seen the end of operations in Iraq and a surge in Afghanistan, the death of Bin Laden and Kim Jong Il, the Arab Spring, Tunisia, Tahrir Square, Libya, the Green uprising in Iran, and more. Still, the book works as a summation of the Bush years. One of Sanger's unifying themes is the very high opportunity cost of Bush's Iraq blunder, the way it prevented decisions on several more important policy questions.
The book is well-worth reading for the details of the nuclear arms trade. In Sanger's narrative, it's fairly hair-raising how fast and how easily nuclear weapons have spread over the last decade -- from A.Q. Khan's network in Pakistan to Iran, Libya and North Korea, and then on to Syria and God knows where else. At times it seems like Iraq was the only country who wasn't producing WMDs.
The two chapters on China are broader and less focused. Obviously China is an enormous and enormously important topic, so they're an interesting read but the Tom Friedman-level speculating seems a little inessential. He closes the book with three quick chapters on how we are (or aren't) dealing with emerging threats such as bioweapons or a cyber attack.(less)
Despite the obligatory, tripartite subtitle, this book is really two long essays stapled together (bio-terrorism merits only a few paragraphs in the c...moreDespite the obligatory, tripartite subtitle, this book is really two long essays stapled together (bio-terrorism merits only a few paragraphs in the conclusion). Nestle describes them as outtakes from her earlier book, Food Politics which I haven't read, but they're both sharp and well-argued. I picked up the book for work to read her history and analysis of America's fractured food-safety inspection system, but her take on GMO foods is also a must-read.
Her basic take on the GMO controversies is that the somewhat speculative debate about "safety" is occurring because bio-tech corporations have closed off other debates about legitimacy and democracy. She makes a strong case that the lack of mandatory labeling of GMO foods in the marketplace is both a democratic outrage and a strategic blunder on the part of the bio-tech industry. Interesting stuff.(less)
I know next to nothing about economics, so I grabbed this from my father-in-law's bookshelf (he's a professional economist) because I like Krugman's N...moreI know next to nothing about economics, so I grabbed this from my father-in-law's bookshelf (he's a professional economist) because I like Krugman's NYT columns. Krugman is excellent at sketching out the major trends in economic thought from Keynes onward, but because the book was written in 1994 he's pretty dated on a lot of current economic issues.
1994 is barely post-Clinton, but it's pre-NAFTA, pre-internet, pre-Gingrich, pre-globalization-protests, pre-Wal-Mart, pre-dot-com-bust, pre-Bush. Oddly, he spends the last section of the book very concerned that Bill Clinton (the guy who signed NAFTA) might not be as staunchly free-trade as most economists would like. He also says some inadvertently hilarious things about computers, the internet and corporate power.
Still, I was looking for a good, conversational overview of economic thought, and on that front Krugman delivers. He starts off with Keynes and the theory of the business cycle, and then goes in some detail on Friedman, Lucas, Feldstein, monetarism, rational choice and the conservative challenge to Keynesianism in the 1970s. The main thrust of the book is how those academic ideas were twisted by non-academic 'policy entrepreneurs' into Reagan's supply-side policies (which Krugman labels sheer quackery).
He closes the book with the rise of the neo-Keynesians in the 80s and 90s and explores their ideas about the fallibility of markets and quasi-rational behavior. Again he laments how academic economic ideas about free trade have been twisted by non-academics to support specific policies and politicians. (It would be interesting to see how he feels about policy entrepreneurs now that he's become NYT columnist and pundit extraordinaire.)
So anyway, now I feel like I know slightly more than nothing about economics. Hooray!(less)
I confess, that I probably would have loved this book as a teenager because it perfectly captures the unstoppable, we-can-do-it idealism that so many young people have. As an adult, I liked it, but I found myself hoping for a little less narrative convenience and a little more ideological murkiness. It's fairly preachy with lots of explanations of tech gadgets and concepts (a la Neal Stephenson), which makes it read, at times, like a manifesto from the Electronic Frontier Foundation with optional plot and characters.
For all that, its a pretty entertaining book. The story involves a handful of high-school students in day-after-tomorrow San Francisco who are picked up by Homeland Security after a terrorist attack. One of the students decides to fight back against the subsequent government crackdown on civil liberties. So yeah, it's fairly topical.(less)
Someone (I think it was Christopher Hitchens?) once said that Orwell was one of the people who got everything right during the first half of the 20th...moreSomeone (I think it was Christopher Hitchens?) once said that Orwell was one of the people who got everything right during the first half of the 20th century. Namely, he opposed both fascism and communism and advocated for a humanist, democratic socialism. In other words, capitalism is the disease, socialism is the cure ... but communism will kill the patient.
Anyway, I thought this book was pretty damn insightful and way more entertaining (i.e. less preachy) than I expected. In a weird way, it reminded me of Monty Python at their sharpest (the Judean People's Front!), which is maybe the highest praise I can give. (less)
A decent intro to why loads of people have a problem with the current trend of corporate globalization. As a book of ideas, it is somewhat rudimentary...moreA decent intro to why loads of people have a problem with the current trend of corporate globalization. As a book of ideas, it is somewhat rudimentary, but it makes up for it with some reasonably titillating insider details from the author's years working for an international energy firm. In particular, I didn't know much about the rise of modern Saudi Arabia, and Perkins has some interesting insights into the deals struck with the U.S. after the OPEC crisis in the '70s. There are better books about corporate globalization (pro and con), but this isn't a bad read.(less)
The first book you should read if you feel like getting angry at the public relations industry and the way they sell disaster. This book has some pret...moreThe first book you should read if you feel like getting angry at the public relations industry and the way they sell disaster. This book has some pretty crazy examples. The ones that stick in my mind are the people who infiltrate activist groups and try to push them towards extreme and/or criminal actions.
I could gripe a little that some of the examples aren't as firmly argued as I would prefer, but that's not really the point.
The point is this. Large corporations spend billions of dollars each year to manipulate the public opinion for their own private gain, and often the loss of common good. And, like advertising, it works -- if it didn't they wouldn't do it. (less)