Random Thought

Just like the US had the Indian Wars, Argentina had at that same time something that became known as the “Conquest of the Desert”, which involved the seizure of the Patagonia and the pacification (through overwhelming military force, of course) of the native peoples that inhabited it.

In 1971, Argentine comedy troupe Les Luthiers performed a parody entitled “Los noticiarios cinematográficos” (I roughly translate it to “The Newsreel Suite”), which ended with this “sequence” (here, my translation):


Under a radiant, sunny day, the citizenry celebrated a new anniversary of the Conquest of the Desert. A parade of airmen, sailors, and soldiers marks the high point of the celebration with the gallant march of our youth in uniform for the defense of our sovereignty.

Closing the parade is a group of descendants of those brave indians that populated the Patagonian lands by the time of the advent of civilization and progress. They are escorted by a troop of mounted police, four assault vehicles, and border guards with dogs and tear gas guns.

Posted in Other Subjects | Leave a comment

Götterdämerung to the Tune of a Bossa Nova (part 2): “Lula” Returns to the Slammer

Luis Inacio “Lula” Da Silva attending the inauguration of the new leadership of the Brazilian Workers’ Party on July 5, 2017. Dilma Rousseff sits next to him. Photo credit: Associated Press. Source: MSN

The Lava Jato (“Car Wash”) anti-corruption probe might have fried its biggest fish yet: Luiz Inácio “Lula” Da Silva. In a judicial bombshell, the former Brazilian president has been found guilty of accepting $1.2 million in kickbacks and sentenced to almost 10 years in prison. An appeals court must now either uphold or reverse the verdict, a process that can take months; in the meantime, “Lula” is still a free man. If he does end up in the slammer after the appeals process concludes, it would not be the first time: in 1980, “Lula” was jailed for leading a metalworkers’ strike that the Brazilian government, led back then by the military, declared illegal.

“Lula”‘s side sees the ruling in question as the result of a political persecution. The chair of the Workers’ Party (Partido dos Trabalhadores, PT), which “Lula” founded and in which he currently serves as honorary president, said that it was all to sideline him from next year’s presidential election (indeed, if the ruling is upheld by the appeals court, he will be barred from running). One of the defense lawyers declared shortly after the verdict was announced that “Lula” was a victim of “lawfare”, or the cherry-picked use and deliberate abuse of judicial procedures against political opponents, adding that there was no evidence to sustain the conviction besides speculation and a probably fraudulent testimony by a co-defendant. Impeached president Dilma Rousseff called the ruling “a judicial absurd” and the leader of the PT caucus in the Brazilian Senate called for massive street demonstrations in defense of “Lula”.

Back in March of last year, I uploaded two posts on my Facebook account about this trial. I stated on the first post that there may be reasonable doubts on the motivations of the prosecutors; in this occasion, “Lula”‘s defense team gave a very credible case along those lines. The defendant himself, though, accepted (although briefly) an appointment as Rousseff’s chief of staff, and in my other post I thought that it was an act of cowardice that gave the impression that there was something to hide, very conveniently, behind the cloak of ministerial immunity. But fortunately enough, and according to Reuters, “Lula” eventually gave a defiant, fierce, and long defense (five hours worth of testimony) at this trial, indicating that he did something I also said on that FB post he had to do: confronting his accusers head on. On my first post, I stated that a guilty verdict would be the downfall of a “human success story”, provided that the accusation held water. The case presented by “Lula”‘s defense team in regard to a conviction without hard evidence to sustain it is disturbing enough to entertain the possibility that the prosecution did not play by the rules (see also this post), although the case for that being a political hit job is, at this point, just as speculative. Simply put, who would benefit from “Lula” being barred from the presidential race? The presiding judge, Sergio Moro, who denies being driven by political motivations? Acting President Michel Temer, fearing that the PT is out for his head after pushing Rousseff out of the president’s seat? The Globo media group, which is accused of mudslinging “Lula” to no end? The US, which to this date still has as Acting Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs a holdover from the Obama administration that Donald Trump may possibly substitute for someone else? To whom or what is the smoking gun pointing to?

That brings us to another point. In an op-ed for the daily Folha de São Paulo published the following October (translated here), “Lula” gave his explanation for what is behind all this legal brew-ha-ha:

 I try to understand this (witch)hunt as part of the political dispute, although it is a repugnant method of struggle. It’s not Lula they wish to condemn: it’s the political project that I represent, along with millions of Brazilians.

I talked already about the political project he represents, but a few parts of that blog post will be restated and expanded upon because of their direct relevance to this turn of events in the Twilight of the Brazilian Gods. In the op-ed, he calls his political project “a fairer Brazil, with opportunities for all.” Deep down, it is a social-democratic project. There is nothing wrong with social democracy in principle, but its ancillary social expenditures are so significant that they can become unaffordable on the long term without a humming economy. Fortunately for him, “Lula” was able to deliver millions out of poverty by taking advantage of the deluge of profits coming from Brazil’s share of the Latin American commodity boom of the early 2000s, itself a case study in a mainstay of classic liberal economic theory: Ricardian comparative advantage. In that sense, “Lula”‘s political project could not have come at a better time. Moreover, unlike Hugo Chávez, “Lula” did not deliver any diatribes against “the rancid oligarchy”, as he may have done in his younger years as labor leader and founding father of the PT. As a matter of fact, in the same way that it happened to some of Latin America’s new left parties, the trauma of military rule served to moderate the PT – and “Lula” himself – very significantly in regard to their views on the political system and economics – briefly put, social and economic welfare would be espoused through liberal-democratic procedures and would not entail the end of market economics. The epitome of this transformation was “Lula”‘s very own “Letter to the Brazilian People”, which he made public after winning his first presidential election to calm down markets by promising that the new government would continue to honor its foreign debt obligations and all existing agreements with that pillar of neoliberalism, the IMF. In all, because “Lula” never meant to take Brazil far from the economic orthodoxy that creates the inequality of opportunity he always begrudged, his political project is seen by some as insufficiently transformative. Nevertheless, this project is what “Lula” and his supporters believe is being shunned from the upcoming presidential election by the guilty verdict he was served. How this harmlessly reformist project became in the eyes of its followers (and perhaps its detractors) as revolutionary as chavismo is not clear.

Assuming that “Lula” is correct and the political hit job in question consists in suppressing progressivism for the sake of oligarchic interests, it stands to reason that he is no Chávez (and certainly no Maduro), so the Brazilian oligarchy may well be overreacting. Besides, whatever gains were made at the Brazilian stock market the moment “Lula” was found guilty (reportedly, session highs) can be easily wiped out by what a political scientist with the Getulio Vargas Foundation – a top Brazilian university and think-tank – described to Reuters as “a situation of extreme political tension” the country just entered into, which includes a presidential race so widely open that a real political outsider may win it all, given that other contenders from Brazil’s fragmented partisan mainstream are implicated in corruption scandals. Instability and unpredictability are never good for business, so someone or something may have shot himself, herself, or itself in the foot by hauling “Lula” to jail.

To be continued, no doubt.

Posted in Brazil | Leave a comment

“La moral empieza en casa”

(Translation: “Morality starts at home”)

Delcy Rodríguez, Venezuelan foreign minister. Photo Credit: Israel Leal/AP. Source: Miami Herald

As the 47th General Assembly of the Organization of American States (OAS) met in the Mexican resort town of Cancún and discussed and discussed (and eventually did not agree on) how to deal with Venezuela’s current political crisis, a verbal shoving match occurred at the lobby of a hotel close to where the OAS met. In one corner was Samuel Moncada, the Venezuelan ambassador to the OAS (like Brexit, what we can now call “Venexit” will take a while to complete, so Venezuela is still technically an OAS member). In the other was Gustavo Tovar, a Venezuelan human rights activist. The climactic moment of the exchange was when Moncada shouted to Tovar that he sold out to the US and Tovar riposted by throwing a Venezuelan bill to Moncada, telling him to accept his alms and calling him “killer”. Needless to say, it all went viral.

Fireworks also went off inside the meeting room, when Venezuelan foreign minister Delcy Rodríguez had this to say before collecting her stuff and storming out:

I call upon those who remain in this organization to remember that they have to take care of the durability of their own institutions if they don’t want the same thing that happened to Venezuela to happen to them.

Coming from the top diplomat of chavismo, the statement is basically a sarcastic snipe at countries who (rightfully) criticize Venezuela. As I said before, immunity from international criticism has always been a foreign policy objective for Venezuela. But looked at closely, Rodríguez’s statement has a kernel of truth, because the current regional effort to chastise Venezuela is led by none other than Mexico. And there is indeed a problem with that.

When Mexican foreign minister Luis Videgaray declared last month that Venezuela no longer had a “functional democracy”, Rodríguez reacted with a move that otherwise would make Donald Trump proud: she tweeted.

(Translation: It is unfortunate that the government of Mexico attacks Latin American peoples and violates the human rights of its own people gravely and massively.)

The charge of aggression is debatable and perhaps laughable, but one can legitimately ask why Mexico, of all countries, should have led the effort to hold Venezuela accountable while having so many skeletons in its closet. Such behavior is not really new: Back in 1975, when the Spanish dictatorship led by Francisco Franco executed five radicals found guilty of terrorism, Mexican ambassador to the United Nations (and former president) Luis Echeverría called for the expulsion of Spain from that body without him actually saying anything about the October 1968 student massacre in the Tlatelolco section of Mexico City, in which the national government he was part of (as Interior Secretary) was implicated. Foreign Minister Rodríguez herself has focused on the (still unsolved) disappearance of the 43 students from Ayotzinapa, but a case against Mexico’s human rights record can also be made from hard facts collected by NGOs that are currently well out of favor with the Venezuelan government for being too judgmental on it, like Human Rights Watch, Freedom House, or Amnesty International. The rap sheet is long: corruption, electoral irregularities, collusion with drug cartels, tortures, extrajudicial killings, and even spyware attacks that would get two thumbs up from Vladimir Putin. Consequently, as far as functional democracies go, Mexican democracy is not that functional (and no, this is not the first time I talk about that).

Yet Rodríguez’s statement was not the proverbial mike-dropping moment, as domestic and global rooters of chavismo would like us to believe. Not when that statement has the implicit assertion that Venezuela has the sovereign right to tank the economy and force millions of people to queues longer than Maduro’s radio show, as if no one in this era of globalized news would care. Not while pretending to be constantly let off the hook for questionable human rights practices at the same time it wags fingers to other countries for the same reason, as in this tweet:

(It should be obvious at this point that Venezuela considers this kind of talk an act of “aggression” when it is directed against it.)

Also, it is very hilarious to read about Rodríguez accusing Mexico of being a lackey of the US or Moncada saying that human rights activists sold out to the US since, interestingly, the US is Venezuela’s top trading partner. In 2015, the US made up for 24.5% of all Venezuelan exports and 24% of all its imports, while China came in a relatively distant second on both areas (14.1% and 18.3% respectively), bad neighbor Colombia is the third-largest export market (10.8%), and Cuba represented less than 5% of all exports; and in 2016, Venezuela had a goods trade surplus and a service trade deficit with the US. Relying so much on US services (ex. travel and IT) and making a profit out of American demand for goods like oil ($10 billion worth in US imports in 2016) does not fit with the anti-American rhetoric of chavismo, but that is evidently beside the point for Maduro and company (remember that anti-Americanism in Latin America is not as straightforward as anyone might think). Mexico trades more with the US by a country mile (more than 80% of its exports went to the US in 2015), but Venezuela’s nagging of other countries for their links with the US while not being honest about its own is as dumb a move as Mexico’s rather disingenuous criticism of Venezuela. And given that the Trump “administration” has no lost love for Mexico because of NAFTA and immigration (still remember the border wall?), I wonder if Rodríguez and Moncada really knew what they were saying. (Besides, Venezuela might have had, ironically, an unlikely and unacknowledged ally in the US this time around.)

The bottom line is that a much stronger case can be made by either side from a position of walking the walk and not just talking the talk, and walking the walk will take a process of sincere soul-searching that neither government is currently willing to do out of pride. Mexico is no paradise, but neither is Venezuela.

Two wrongs never make a right.

Note: At the time of posting, Samuel Moncada took over for Delcy Rodríguez as Venezuela’s foreign minister.

Posted in Mexico, Venezuela | Leave a comment

Electo Silva: An Eulogy

Electo Silva Gaínza (1928-2017). Source: EcuRed

I once talked about something I like quite a lot: the Cuban cartoon Elpidio Valdés. I basically presented it as a way to say that not everything coming out of Cuba is bad. It can actually be really cool. Last Thursday, checking my social media, I ran into a post from a former choral colleague of mine from way back when about the passing last month of Electo Silva, a Cuban choir director, composer, and arranger. It is certainly sad news, to say the least.

Latin America is not merely the land of Hugo Chávez, the Mexican drug cartels, and flawed democracies. It is also the land of world-renowned culture workers that include poets like Rubén Darío and Nobel-laureate Gabriela Mistral, graphic artists like Frida Kahlo and Fernando Botero, and writers like Jorge Luis Borges and Julio Cortázar – just to mention a mere few. It is also the land of great musical talent of the magnitude of Alberto Ginastera, Ariel Ramírez, and Leo Brouwer. Electo Silva happens to have acquired the same greatness as the aforementioned individuals, as well as being one of the towering figures of Cuban music.

Back in 1994, when I was a much younger lad and a tenor in my college choir, I had the chance to represent my country at an international choir festival in Guayaquil, Ecuador. We spent most of that summer rehearsing not only what we were going to sing on the evening of our concert, but a few other songs we would sing around the city and its surrounding area. One of those had Silva’s name on it, En días así. I cannot remember if he composed it or if he arranged it. It is also hard for me to describe the lyrics; I guess you could say that it is about someone – maybe a man, maybe a woman – lovingly opening himself (or herself) to somebody else. All I know is that what I remember the most about that song, and what I love the most, are its suave and meandering vocal harmonies. I think it is pure musicality.

None of the many obituaries published inside Cuba, including that from the official mouthpiece Granma, mentions anything about Silva having any revolutionary credentials. Yet there are indications that he was game. When both sides of the Florida Straits played tug of war between 1999 and 2000 over who had custody of Elián González, the 6-year-old found drifting at sea and sheltered by his Miami ex-pat relatives, Silva was one out of several leading Cuban artists and intellectuals who signed an open letter to President Bill Clinton urging him to send the child back to Cuba, as the Cuban government demanded. (Now aged 22 and studying to become an engineer, Elián made a public appearance two days after Fidel Castro’s passing to eulogize him.) Silva was also member emeritus of the Cuban Artists and Writers Guild, one of the objectives of which is “to reject and combat all activity contrary to the principles of the Revolution”. (Ironically, another of its objectives is “to recognize the most ample creative freedom”.) And in 2015, when Silva received a letter from Raúl Castro congratulating him on the 55th anniversary of his Orfeón Santiago and describing his commitment with the Cuban Revolution as exemplary, he was reportedly overcome with emotion (happy emotion, we can assume).

It is certainly disappointing that Silva, like many other talented Cubans living on the island, seems to have had taken sides with a regime that, despite all the book fairs, art biennales, and film festivals it organizes through its Ministry of Culture and affiliated institutes, contradicts in reality what the arts stand for: unfettered self-expression. (As far as that goes, if you oppose any plan from the Trump administration to reduce federal funding for or altogether eliminate the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Endowment for the Arts because they are tantamount to GOP censorship on artistic expression, you should also raise your voice against the Cuban government as well.) But the ideological Silva is not the person I bid farewell to. The Silva I wish to evoke is the musician, the choir director, the man who made one song a part of my fondest college memories. To that Silva I wish bon voyage on his way to the infinite, where I am sure he will encounter other departed music icons from his country – Miguel Matamoros (who composed songs Silva made choral arrangements to), Celia Cruz, Ernesto Lecuona, Beny Moré, and many others.

Meanwhile, the Minnesota Youth Symphonies are gearing up for their tour of Cuba later this month, in which they will offer concerts and participate in a series of workshops and exchanges. Just because I have my disagreements with revolutionary Cuba does not mean I should oppose something like this as well, especially if it involves the young. It serves to show us the way for the US and Cuba to go about their lives once their differences are settled for good: in the words of Abraham Lincoln, charity for all and malice toward none.

PS: Speaking of great Cuban musical talent, here is a piece I also love: Leo Brouwer’s Danza caracteristica.

Posted in Cuba, The Arts | Leave a comment

The [Organization of American States] has won a more relevant space in the hemispheric community. The Inter-American Democratic Charter reflects several shared democratic values; establishes a clear symbiosis between democracy and human rights. […]

Venezuela requests responsibly that the Inter-American Democratic Charter be implemented immediately. […]

Foreign Minister Luis Alfonso Dávila during the plenary session of the OAS in 2001 where the Inter-American Democratic Charter – the same document now being derided by current president Nicolás Maduro – was approved by acclamation.


Postscript (May 5, 2017): This was the last post before taking almost a year off for two different academic jobs, the second of which has just wound down. In all these months, Venezuela went from just plain dysfunctional to descending into a situation akin to Syria, North Korea, or South Sudan (that is, if we are to believe Nikki Haley, the learning-while-doing US Ambassador to the UN)

The OAS has had Venezuela on its crosshairs for quite a while, but it has redoubled the criticism since Maduro all but invalidated the National Assembly, now under opposition majority, as a branch of government (he is reportedly set to deliver what some say is the knockout blow). Of course, one thing is clamoring to impose the Charter onto countries like Mexico for doing nothing (and remaining in cahoots with the drug cartels) while journalists are being gunned down, but another is to be put under that same standard for behaving like a sore loser and kick the table after losing an election. The difference is that now, because immunity from international criticism while leveling it against others has always been an explicitly stated chavista foreign policy objective, Venezuela wants to leave the OAS.

And there are still people in the US who take Venezuela’s side. (No, there is no logic to withdrawing, as this HuffPost entry argues, other than Maduro not owining up to the consequences of his decisions and, instead, blaming something or someone else for the hot mess he is in [the similarities with the attitude of the current occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue are nothing short of remarkable]. Besides, if that logic was indeed predicated on the terms of being treated “unfairly” by some world body for actions justified by the notion of inviolable state sovereignty, Israel would have grown sick and tired of so many “hostile” UN Security Council resolutions on the Palestinan issue and left a long time ago.)

Quote | Posted on by | 1 Comment

Götterdämmerung to the Tune of a Bossa Nova

Demonstration demanding Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff’s impeachment, March 2016. Photo credit: Miguel Schincariol/AFP. Source: noticias.uol.com.br

Dilma Rousseff got kicked out of office and will be impeached. Her best efforts at denouncing the move as “a coup” against her were all for naught. Her party cries foul and says it is all a right-wing conspiracy. International progressivism screams to the top of its lungs that a head of state elected by 54 million citizens has been forced out and that it is all part of Washington’s plan to undermine Latin American unity and the conquests of its people. (Yeah, sure.)

Conspiracies are not very likely to pass muster with Occam’s razor, so I will pass on talking about claims of a right-wing cabal. On the other hand, it is curious to listen to the accusations that the US is behind Rousseff’s ouster, even if she has not said anything like that in public. It may be even more funny to listen in, because the accusations fly in the face of prior skepticism toward reformist policies. In a chapter written for a book about the new Latin American left (and in the same breath as a vindication of chavismo), Greg Wilpert argues that the policies of Latin American social-democratic governments like those of Rousseff and her mentor “Lula” da Silva, notwithstanding that they benefit millions of people, are not sufficiently transformative because they do not aim at abolishing the abusive neoliberal status quo. In his view, Latin American social-democrats belong to the izquierda permitida, the “good left” – a term denoting suspicion, if not all-out scorn, from more involved progressives and always uttered in opposition to what they believe to be the most optimal option: radical democracy. In addition, a commentary written in 2015 by James Petras for Latin American Perspectives (a progressive and peer-reviewed Latin American studies journal) concluded that Rousseff did a 180 toward neoliberalism the moment the Brazilian economy started to take on water. Now, as if by magic, Rousseff is a leader of the cause of the proverbial wretched of the earth, placed in the same pedestal as the equally beleaguered Hugo Chávez. In other words, Rousseff is a victim of neoliberalism, which casually happens to be the same system left mostly intact by Latin American social-democracy during the famous “pink tide” of the late 1990s and beyond. It was also the political wave surfed on by “Lula”, the same guy who made a very public promise to not rock the neoliberal boat when he was first elected in 2002; now, his reputation is being tarnished by them neoliberal bastards, who have unleashed a meritless and politically-motivated anti-corruption investigation against him with the purpose of impeding his (possible) second re-election bid in 2018. So these social-democrats are not wash-outs or sell-outs anymore. What changed?

I am of the opinion that misrepresenting fiscal data to hide a budget deficit, as Rousseff is accused of doing, deserves a legislative censure at best. Maybe a vote of no confidence at the most extreme. To me, impeachment is a punishment that just does not seem appropriate to the crime. It is better suited to more egregious felonies, like covering up a burglary (as Richard Nixon did) or lying under oath (as Bill Clinton did). But the fact is that there is a law in Brazil against misrepresenting fiscal information, and it appears that it does merit an impeachment. If the accusation holds water, it would prove that the Workers Party deviated from his leftist origins and got “intoxicated with power,” as the New York Times says. (The offense in question was supposedly made for electioneering purposes.) As far as that goes, the Workers’ Party is no different from any other Brazilian political party full of wily people, and not exactly in a Downsian fashion (that is, a party that competes for power simply to enjoy the status, perks, and rent that come with public office and not for the sake of ideology or carrying out a political agenda). The Workers’ Party tasted political power after spending years out of it, and it was so delicious it looks like it could not get enough of it. Was it gluttony?

Meanwhile, a whole slew of the opposition pols who clamored for impeachment have been accused of corruption – a sad fact. Rousseff, to her credit, has not been targeted by any anti-corruption investigation. Not even by “Operation Car Wash (Lava Jato)”, which uncovered a kickbacks scheme that went on for years at the state-owned oil company, Petrobras (much of which occurring while Rousseff was part of its board of directors, though). Still, she has no right to cast the first stone. There was the mensalão bribery scandal of the early 2000s, for which a number of Workers’ Party notables (as well as pols from other parties) were indicted and found guilty, including Rousseff’s predecessor as the chief of staff of the “Lula” administration, José Dirceu. To be sure, Rousseff had nothing to do with that scandal, but unfortunately she is guilty by association because it was instigated within her party. Dirceu himself, as well as the Workers’ Party treasurer, were also identified as having a role in the kickbacks scheme uncovered by Lava Jato, adding to the embarrassment. Progressives, to my knowledge, did not react to those two scandals with the same indignation they have shown in the case of Rousseff’s ouster. Instead, they have made statements – all reminiscent of the claim that human rights are an ideological weapon being used to destroy the Cuban Revolution – casting dispersions at anti-corruption probes. In short, if they target “Lula” or Rousseff, they are baseless and necessarily have to be politically motivated. If they target Eduardo Cunha (the Speaker of the House of Deputies, separated from the post by the Brazilian Supreme Court on corruption charges) or acting president Michel Temer, their heads must roll immediately. (As if the Brazilian judiciary did not have enough issues of its own.)

Speaking of Temer, he will have to hope he does not fall too quickly from the rodeo horse and get pummeled by its hoofs. Lee Alston, of Indiana University, has this take: Temer should aim to set Brazil back to the type of disciplined fiscal policy that will provide a strong foundation for policies of socioeconomic inclusion like Bolsa Família and the like – the same type of macroeconomic policy implemented by Fernando Henrique Cardoso, the predecessor of “Lula”. The devil, says Alston, is in the detail of whether Temer is imaginative, adaptive, and resourceful enough to do that. At least, he retained the head of the central bank, a popular figure from the Rousseff administration, and appointed him finance minister. But Rousseff’s supporters in and out of Brazil will not give him the benefit of the doubt because he is a coup-monger who was an informant to the US embassy (according to Wikileaks) and will sell out Brazil on a free trade agreement with the US. Already, two of Brazil’s largest labor unions have announced that they will not cooperate with him, a few South American heads of state stated their refusal to recognize him as president, and feminists excoriated his decision to appoint only white males for ministerial posts (he has since appointed a woman as the head of Brazil’s development bank). But curiously, Temer has also drawn fire from the same people he is supposedly in cahoots with, because business leaders are not happy with the finance minister’s idea of imposing new taxes. And then there are the anti-corruption probes: if he orders to stop them, Brazilians of all stripes will give him an even harder time. It is obviously too early at this point to make a sound value judgment on Temer, but he could end up being an ineffectual and hapless head of state rather than the hired gun for neoliberalism his detractors portray him as. He arouses neither my contempt nor my support, but my pity.

None of this means that Rousseff is guilty as charged. What it does mean is that all this ideological chest-beating from her side is similar to the tantrums of a teenage drama queen. Where were Cindy Sheehan, Tom Hayden and all the other people who signed an online petition demanding Rousseff’s reinstatement (see the full list here and here) when her fellow partisan Dirceu was engaging in bribery and graft? How is it that a social-democrat who never aimed at abolishing Brazilian neoliberalism is now a martyr of the global movement against it? And assuming that Rousseff did violate the law and there is hard evidence of it, why should she not be held accountable?

In the end, anyway, Brazil is in serious trouble. First it was the Olympics of Superfluousness, then Zika, and now this, on top of the issues it already has. Rather than being the Country of Tomorrow, Brazil is merely the Country of Always Been, or maybe of Never Will Be.

Posted in Brazil | 1 Comment

Kiss and Make Up? (III): Obama’s Cuban Vacay

Cubans observe Air Force One approaching Havana Airport on March 20th. Source: centralmaine.com

Hell froze over. A sitting President of the United States has visited Cuba for the first time since the 1920s. It is the biggest step yet toward the normalization of relations that Cuba and the US began late in 2014. With this visit, Cuba has been officially elevated to the rank of countries the US has fundamental disagreements with but is still willing to talk to face-to-face and even seek cooperative agreements with, just like with China and Russia. Obama’s first-ever presser in Cuba, next to Cuban president Raúl Castro, proclaimed the new state of affairs.

Politico came up with a rather interesting play-by-play account of that presser, hailing it as “how Obama set a trap for Raul Castro”. Maybe, because according to that account Castro was visibly uncomfortable when a CNN reporter asked him about Cuba’s political prisoners, to the point that Castro ended the presser by saying that it was “not right” for him to be asked about the issue. And Obama was all too happy to join in on the fun and push Castro into the limelight. El Nuevo Herald, the Spanish-speaking, Castro Brothers-criticizing official organ of Miami’s Cuban diaspora, passed judgment on that awkward day: Raúl Castro is not ready to field questions from anyone who is not on his government’s pocket. But what is more interesting to me is that both presidents have declared to the whole universe that they agree to disagree on stuff like human rights and political freedoms. In a retort to Obama, Castro said that it was inconceivable in Cuba for the government to not guarantee health care, education, food security, and social security; and that civil, political, economic, social, and cultural rights were interdependent and indivisible.

So we now arrive at a conundrum reminiscent of The Odd Couple: can two countries with different and deeply held views on democracy make normalization work without driving each other crazy?

On the Cuba side, there is nothing wrong with demanding that socioeconomic equality be a foundation of the political system because it does have an effect on whether citizens feel that they are truly equal under the law, are wholly included in the political process, and receive the same opportunities to reach the peak of human promise. That is the spirit of the Cuban Revolution, and no one can blame it for that given the sordid state of Cuba before 1959. On the other hand, Raúl Castro did not explain what exactly did he mean by “political freedoms”, but it is obvious that dissent is not one of them. The reasons are not difficult to find if we put a little intellect into it. Insofar as socioeconomic equality is advertised to Cubans as both the ultimate source of all legislation, Cuban socialism can be considered to be similar in logic to the Rousseauian general will. And because the general will is always right, since it represents the very best interest of every single member of a political society, it is always better to obey a law that has its source on the general will, even if you disagree with it. If necessary (actually, as a matter of course in Cuba), citizens must be forced to obey such laws, as Tania Bruguera, “El Sexto”, the Ladies in White, Heberto Padilla, and Oswaldo Payá can tell. In short, speaking in Rousseauian terms, Cubans must be forced to be free. The problem, of course, is the same one that affects traditional religion: when ideas become an omnipresent and infallible dogma that does not countenance disagreement with it. In those conditions of forced groupthink, the economic, social, and cultural rights that the Cuban Revolution claims to have achieved, for all their validity, are pointless. That realization, by the way, is nowhere to be found in the minds of the people who support the Cuban political system under a “different strokes for different folks” take on democracy, which Laurence Whitehead describes in his chapter from the third edition of Constructing Democratic Governance in Latin America as being infamously susceptible to use as a way to tolerate retreats from (liberal-)democratic values. One point for the US.

On the US side, neither is there anything wrong with asserting that no government, not even the most progressively-minded, should assume that individuality is superfluous, especially when it comes to the impact of government decisions on ordinary lives. This why the right to disagree with the government – the same right Cuban supporters in the US take advantage of when making their case against the embargo but seemingly cannot conceive Cubans on the island to have – matters. But we also know, unless we are actually living under a rock, that the US has ghastly flaws: rising income inequality, African-Americans killed by (usually White) police officers or overpopulating prisons, health care being a good on the market and not a right, politicians being sold to the highest bidder thanks to easily circumvented campaign finance rules, etc. In such conditions, the political freedoms for which the US is globally famous are equally pointless. Moreover, it is also a historical fact that despite rhetorical artillery barrages like Ted Cruz’s, the US does have a negative historical record in Cuba, among other counts, by virtue of negating its full independence after the Spanish-American War and enlisting the help of people like Fulgencio Batista, the dictator whose henchmen beat and tortured Cruz’s father. And when scandals like Abu Ghraib and the Guantánamo detainees show up, or when Obama does not appear to hold all Latin American countries to the same human rights standard he holds Cuba to, Obama’s human rights “trap” is, in reality, a flimsy one. One point for Cuba.

Assuming that normalization will survive the upcoming change in administration and a new Congress, the fact that the US is treating Cuba now in the same way it treats Russia and China is more promising than 50 more years of the same old policy of antagonism so cherished by the GOP, the hard line of the Cuban diaspora, and even Democrats like Bob Menéndez. (Donald Trump would not follow along. He would probably bomb Havana and have Fidel Castro waterboarded.) But that promise means that both sides have high expectations to meet. The US must recognize that it did not play fair with Cuba in the past and, accordingly, still not take normalization as a Trojan horse for the kind of arm-twisting regime change it has tried to carry out in Cuba for a long time. It also has to recognize that there is nothing wrong with socioeconomic equality in and of itself and concede that the Cuban Revolution has a good point there. But in turn, Cuba must recognize that the totalitarian model, with its penchant for repressing society, now belongs in the dustbin of history and that there is nothing wrong with recognizing political individuality, because it is impossible to expect all citizens to agree to what the government will do to them. Cuba does not need to continue emulating the atmosphere of Donald Trump’s rallies (“get him out of here!”) by ostracizing an artist who utilizes art as a vehicle for political self-expression, a mother that wants her son released from jail or someone like this guy. The bushes that survive the high winds are the flexible ones, not the stiff ones. Besides, the generation of the Sierra Maestra is withering away, including Raúl Castro, who announced upon his re-appointment as head of state in 2013 that he will retire in 2018. It is time to rethink the Cuban Revolution, especially when so many Cubans simply want a better life for themselves without having to vote with their feet.

But however you slice it, hell did freeze over. I guess that means the Curse of the Billy Goat will finally be broken and Cubs will win the World Series this year.

“The art of fiction is dead. Reality has strangled invention.” (Red Smith, New York Herald Tribune, October 4, 1951)


Postscript (May 24, 2017): To be sure, by the time normalization was announced, Raúl Castro was already presiding over notable economic and institutional changes. Perhaps the most notable of them is allowing for more self-employment and relaxing existing regulations on the establishment of small businesses – something unthinkable when Fidel Castro ran the show. For all his propensity to get irritated when the foreign press grills him on human rights issues, Raúl is (and always has been) a pragmatist, unlike his ideologically-driven big brother. But he is also under pressure: lacking Fidel’s ability to keep the Revolution afloat by sheer charisma, Raúl has to demonstrate that good governance is not tied to any one man, but a standardized feature of the political system. In the light of increasing skepticism, the hopes aroused by normalization in ordinary Cubans (which are not reducible to simply changing the regime, though), and his impending retirement, Raúl’s mission is a critical one.

Also, the Cubs did win the World Series in 2016.

Posted in Cuba, Foreign Relations | Leave a comment