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Developments in Cuba

February 25, 2008

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Cuban Students Speak Out?

February 14, 2008

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Forgotten Continent?

February 11, 2008

I agree with Current History magazine’s assessment of Michael Reid’s new book, Forgotten Continent: The Battle of Latin America’s Soul (see William Finan’s review). The sensationalist title borders on ridiculous. Forgotten continent? Hardly. Africa, or even Antarctica, clearly claim that title. “Remembered in the wrong way” would be more accurate. With the immigration debate in the U.S. reaching new lows, distorted visions of the region and its impoverished migrant invaders have never been more at the forefront of the American pysche.

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Title aside, this book is a useful primer for those interested in getting an efficient but thorough summary of the major dynamics influencing the region during the past 50 years.

Like most books meant for the “current affairs” table at Barnes and Noble, there is a certain inevitable bias and tendency toward generalization here – and in this case, the bias is unsurprising. Editor of the Americas section of The Economist, Reid upholds many of the values that that magazine promotes – free trade, free markets, and an open favoritism for socialy-minded democrats commited to sound fiscal policy rather than populism. As a result, he perhaps tends to skirt too quickly over the social havoc caused by some Washington-consensus era reforms and is dismissive of Hugo Chavez in particular, overlooking the importance of his international appeal and the (dare I say it)positive short-term impact of some of his social reforms on the country’s most impoverished. To be fair, despite these limitations, the conclusions Reid draws are nearly always sound and persuasively argued. In Venezuela’s case, there is no doubt that Chavez’s fiscal profilgacy cannot continue unabated without serious consequences. Inflation is already on the rise, and as we know, this phenomenon taxes the income of the poor more than the rich.

To Reid’s credit, the book does not fully mirror Jorge Castañeda’s rather simplistic division between Latin America’s “radical populist left” and its more-enlighted “social-democratic left.” Indeed, the author seems to understand quite clearly that Venezuela and Bolivia, to mention one example, are in fact quite different countries, and Hugo Chavez and Evo Morales are leaders acting in far different domestic political contexts. Still, Reid’s narrative does tend to highlight a more generalized difference between those countries in which democratic institutions have become consolidated, and those in which governance remains threatened by continued violence, autocratic sensibilities, and the pressures for social change brought by extreme poverty.

Yet here one must be careful. Brazil, toted as an example of a country in which democracy has in fact deepened its reach, is still home to 50% of Latin America’s poor. And just because Brazil’s domestic political scene is not dominated by movements pressing radical demands for social change (Lula’s Worker’s Party has come to the center in recent years) does not necessarily mean that the country’s poor are any better off or less deserving of swift action than impoverished citizens in Peru, Ecuador, or Bolivia.

Reid is an optimist. Where other commentators would bemoan the region’s “turn to the left,” he highlights signs of progress toward stable democracies in which the social agenda has properly become an important priority. Unfortunately, in the case of U.S. relations with the region, Reid’s penchant for optimism overlooks the real damage that has been done by the Bush administration to U.S. credibility, as well as the limited ability of the United States to encourage many of the trends he hopes will continue within the Western Hemisphere.

With our resources and attention consumed by crises elsewhere in the world for the forseeable future, and in an international economic environment that has bred domestic insecurity, decreased support for free trade, and cast suspicion (often tinged with racism) on many of the region’s emigrees within our borders, Latin America may become even more misunderstood than it was in previous eras.

(Check out these additional reviews: NY Times, SF Chronicle)

Barack, Hillary, and the Latino Vote

February 6, 2008

A bit of a depature from the obstensible subject matter of this blog, but of interest I imagine to potential readers as well.

I’ve just turned off tonight’s primary coverage. If I have to hear Wolf Blitzer’s awkward rambling or trite references to “The Best Election Team on Television” one more time, I may turn off from this primary season all together. Yet one aspect of this race that continues to capture my attention is the supposed black/latino split between Obama and Clinton supporters.

One commentator on Charlie Rose has just claimed that Barack Obama earned 80% of the African-American vote. And much has been made of the Clinton camp’s success among latinos. In New York for example, Hillary carried 75% of the Latino vote. Perhaps this isn’t the best indicator, given that Hillary had an “incumbent” advantage among New York voters. Nonetheless, it is clear, despite chants of “Si Se Puede” periodically heard at Obama rallies, Clinton has received majority support from the voto hispano.

I find this result surprising in many ways. Above all, in the most recent debate between the two remaining Democratic candidates, Barack Obama articulated positions on a number of issues that one would think would be more latino-friendly.

At one point, both candidates were asked the following question: “There’s been no acknowledgement by any of the presidential candidates of the negative economic impact of immigration on the African-American community. How do you propose to address the high unemployment rates and the declining wages in the African-American community that are related to the flood of immigrant labor?”

In typical “uniter-not-a-divider” fashion, Obama shifted the focus of the question to the greater economic insecurities that have faced all American workers – immigrant, African-American, white, latino – in recent years. He continued, “Before the latest round of immigrants showed up, you had huge unemployment rates among African-American youth. And so I think to suggest somehow that the problem that we’re seeing, in inner city unemployment for example, is attributable to immigrants, I think, is a case of scapegoating that I do not believe in, I do not subscribe to.”

Hillary, on the other hand, played to more populist politics, arguing that it is important to acknowledge that the low wages afforded to latino immigrants have in fact displaced some African-Americans from jobs in communities across the country.

Is not Barack’s open stance against scapegoating a more likeable position for latino voters? Is it not Obama that has come out steadfastly in favor of allowing undocumented migrants to receive drivers licenses? (Clinton opposes this position.)

Why is it then that Clinton did so well with latinos tonight? Skeptics are quick to point to the issue of race. Latinos, it is widely assumed, are suspicious of African-Americans and are thus much more reluctant to support an Obama candidacy, regardless of his policy proposals.

It’s not that I don’t think there may be some substance to these suggestions. But to leave our answer simply at a question of race 1) relies far too heavily on stereotype and vague insinuations for my liking and 2) grossly underestimates the capacity of Latinos to think critically about their choices above and beyond whatever stereotypes or prejudices they may hold. I think it’s safe to say that Barack Obama – Harvard grad, distinguished lawyer and politician, eminent orator, and (let’s be frank) lighter-skinned – does not conform to Latino stereotypes of African-Americans as prone to crime, gangs, violence, and drugs.

Others offer more mundane suggestions for Hillary’s apparent Hispanic success – everything from the legacy of Bill Clinton’s popularity among latinos to extensive outreach in latino communities (via Spanish-language media and other means) to endorsements by notable latino leaders like Antonio Villaraigosa (mayor of Los Angeles) and Senator Robert Menendez.

But neither do these explanations satisfy my curiosity. Hopefully as this campaign season continues to unfold, we’ll continue to gain insight into this fascinating – and evolving – dynamic.

Finally, the aspiring academic in me compels me to say that the idea of a black/Latino divide is a myth – or at least a misnomer – for yet another reason. Plenty of Latinos – from countries such as Puerto Rico, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Brazil, and Colombia – are of African heritage as well!

Reclaiming Cambio for Cuba

January 23, 2008

Lance Armstrong probably never anticipated that his Livestrong campaign would inspire so many imitators, let alone in Cuba. But on October 29th, 70 young Cuban citizens wearing rubber bracelets imprinted with the word cambio (change) were arrested while protesting recent elections for Cuba’s National Assembly. In the following months, and as recently as January 21, handfuls of others sporting the white armbands have been harassed as well.

Cuban-American political figures have been quick to don the bracelets themselves, in solidarity, they stress, with those on the island who want democracy. Yet for students and teens in Havana, the significance of this piece of casual jewelry may not be so straightforward.

Cambio has certainly been on many Cuban officials’ minds since Fidel Castro transferred powers to his brother fifteen months ago, and even more so as Cuba’s “legislature” prepares to decide whether el comandante will formally reassume Cuba’s presidency. Whatever Fidel’s position, Raul has made it no secret that he will pursue selective, but nonetheless important economic reforms. In a series of neighborhood meetings and other public forums, Cubans have been encouraged to voice their concerns about everything from food shortages to the inadequacy of government salaries.

Ninety miles across the Florida straits, talk of change reflects other concerns. For some, the “embargo” remains a figment of the imagination, riddled with “loop holes” permitting extensive agricultural trade and remittance transfers. Maintaining or even tightening current restrictions, they insist, is the only way to bring the Castro dictatorship to its knees. For anti-embargo activists, on the other hand, the consolidation of Raul’s successor government presents an opportunity to correct a failed U.S. policy that has alienated world opinion and left Washington with little or no leverage in Havana.

Others have pinned their hopes for change to the island’s established opposition movements. If Cuba is ever to be democratic, they argue, greater attention and external support must be provided to those actively and peacefully struggling against the regime.

Sadly, in each of these scenarios, the parameters and agents of “change” have already been defined. Raul Castro has opened limited space for public dialogue on Cuba’s economic policies, but topics such as human rights and broader political reforms remain taboo (although it remains to be seen whether Cuba’s announcement that it will sign the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights will translate to more open discussion of these issues; I doubt it). Meanwhile, supporters of the embargo ignore the fact that current sanctions are broadly unpopular among the Cuban people, not just because of their economic effects, but because they hand the Cuban government a convenient excuse for its failures. Many pro-embargo activists also advocate a rapid transition to free-market capitalism that would be welcomed by few on the island, especially if it were to threaten the provision of key social services.

The most credible proponents of ending the embargo approach Cuba through a strategic lens and are willing to work with the island’s leaders in the hopes that greater contact will bring democratic dividends in the long run. Such reasoning may have its merits, but it too, pushes the majority of Cuba’s citizens to the sidelines for the foreseeable future.

As for the island’s fragmented opposition groups, not only are they routinely infiltrated by state security, but many Cubans remain sensitive to the possibility that dissidents are beholden to interests in Miami or Washington. Accusations along these lines are broadcast daily across Cuba’s state-controlled media.

Skeptical of government forums, wary of the organized opposition, and overlooked in the U.S. policy debate, most Cubans under 30 are left without sufficient space to define what change – cambio – might really mean for them. Apathy reigns supreme on Havana’s streets as a result.

This is why the cambio bracelet fad is so potentially refreshing. While the harassed students clearly want more of a voice in their government, they are unlikely to share a concrete political platform. Instead, the simple act of wearing the bracelets each day may represent something more transcendent: the desire of Cuban youth to wipe the slate clean, assert ownership over what has become an empty and stale debate, and begin defining for themselves a new vision of the future.

Is this a naïve hope? Probably. But in a country often described as a surreal destination – where doublethink is a national pastime, and where a Revolution has long ceased to be revolutionary – stranger things have been known to happen.