Forgotten Continent?

February 11, 2008 by

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 by

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!

Should Politicians Boast About Supporting the Peru FTA?

January 31, 2008 by

In the South Carolina Democratic primary debate held in late January, former Senator John Edwards tried to take his competitor, Senator Barack Obama, to task for voting in favor of a recently-approved free trade agreement with Peru; Edwards condemned the Peru FTA as part of his condemnation of free trade agreements in general, dismissing both the Peruvian agreement and NAFTA(the North American Free Trade Agreement, signed in 1994 under President Bill Clinton, which created a free trade zone from the North Pole to the Mexican border with Guatemala). Obama fought back, arguing that NAFTA and the Peru FTA were distinct agreements and that while he agreed with Edwards that NAFTA was a failure, he was proud to support the Peru agreement. Should he be? Peruvian agricultural workers

The Peru FTA, originally envisioned by the Bush administration as an extension of the NAFTA model into continental Latin America, was first proposed in 2003 as part of a whole slate of agreements with the region – Colombia, Panama, Ecuador, and Bolivia, along with Central American nations, were to be brought to the negotiating table as well. In the summer of 2005, the Bush administration secured the approval of a Central American Free Trade Agreement, which also included the Dominican Republic. But after failing to garner sufficient support for a hemispheric-wide Free Trade Agreement of the Americas – demonstrated most clearly at the Mar del Plata Summit in November 2005 – a country-to-country trade approach was adopted as a last hope for expanding the trade agenda in the Americas. Although deals with Colombia and Panama have been negotiated, they have been stalled in the American Congress. Ecuador and Bolivia, having elected populist presidents in recent years, have expressed little interest in negotiating. Thus far, since the passage of CAFTA-DR, only an agreement with Peru has been brought to a vote in the Congress, which accounts for Edwards’ particular (if somewhat odd, given the breathtaking range of issues facing the American public, and thus the next American president, in 2008) focus on this particular agreement.

The Peru agreement initially faced the same Congressional obstacles that the Panamanian and Colombian deals have failed to overcome; in December 2007, however, Congressional leaders reached a compromise with the White House, and the bill was passed. Barack Obama supported the compromise and voted for the agreement, as Edwards repeatedly pointed out. Specifically, Democratic congressional negotiators demanded changes to the labor and environmental standards included in the agreement, provisions which were initially nearly identical to NAFTA labor and environmental standards (despite being nearly 14 years old). It was to these changes that Obama pointed in justifying his support for the trade agreement.

Frankly, these changes do not seem particularly substantial or innovative. One should assume that environmental standards would be improved since the early 1990s, what with the technological innovation, corporate support, and consumer concern that has become increasingly central in the American political arena. One would similarly hope that labor standards would have been tailored to and strengthened on behalf of Peruvian workers.

Furthermore, while there is absolutely no argument to be made against protecting workers’ rights anywhere in the world, the provisions that Obama mentioned do not address the larger labor-related issues inherent in deals like these – namely, that there may be a net loss in American jobs, particularly in industries that are already struggling, such as heavy manufacturing and small agriculture, and that American wages are driven down (and wages in the other country stay down) as this outsourcing takes place.

In fairness, it should be mentioned that Senator Hillary Clinton also supports the Peru FTA, for many of the same reasons that Senator Obama does, and that she was not similarly pressed to explain her views for political reasons, not because they were substantively different. John Edwards was conveniently not a member of the United States Senate to cast a vote on NAFTA or the Peru FTA.

Should Obama have been so proud of this vote, on balance? It is certainly a start that the troubling parts of NAFTA were not allowed to be replicted unchanged, but this cannot be enough. For the United States, as well as for her trading partners in Latin America, a new model for free – and fair – trade must be constructed.

Reclaiming Cambio for Cuba

January 23, 2008 by

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.

Arming the Colombia-Venezuela Border

January 22, 2008 by

We’ve moved. See this post by clicking here.From BBC

First post coming soon…

January 6, 2008 by

This blog is a space for young professionals researching and analyzing current events in Latin America to share news and their own analysis about the region. It is a venue for thoughtful exchange and innovative ideas. First post coming soon…