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.

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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.)

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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.

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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.

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A sympathizer of chavismo holds a flag and a Hugo Chávez doll while participating on the march commemorating the 24th anniversary of the February 4, 1992 coup. Photo credit: Oswaldo González. Source: Ministry of the Popular Power for Communes and Social Movements, Bolivarian Government of Venezuela

As I was doing some online research for a manuscript that will be sent to a peer-reviewed journal, I came across with the news that Venezuela observed the 24th anniversary of the event that made Hugo Chávez a household name: the military coup that he led in February 1992. The Bolivarian spin machine made sure that the significance of that event as they understand it was not lost on anyone (my translation):

With joy and patriotic sentiment, the revolutionary people commemorated this Thursday, February 4th, the 24th anniversary of the civic-military rebellion [..].

This commemoration began on February 4th, 1992, when Chávez, along with a group of military patriots and sectors of the people, initiated the struggles against the policies that favored oligarchic sectors and harmed the Venezuelan people.

In that context, the date represents the popular insurrection against neoliberalism and the capitalist system that devoured the resources of the nation.


It is important to highlight that this act of patriotism and gallantry was declared Day of National Dignity because it is considered one of the most transcendental events in Venezuelan history.

Every country can establish as many of these big days as it wants and justify them as it wants. But only so long as the justification makes sense. At a moment when the Venezuelan economy is in unquestionable shambles and the opponents of chavismo have made it all the way into becoming the majority in the National Assembly (the Venezuelan legislature), this particular commemoration has all the trappings and feel of a rally-around-the-flag ploy, conveniently set up to prop up the strained morale of chavistas and make everybody forget that things are just not good. Chavismo continues to be under siege even if it also continues to have the lion’s share of political power and a military that is unabashed about being ideologically pliant. Every time President Maduro insults those who do not agree with him, he gives Donald Trump a run for his billions.

I have always thought that the Venezuelan people (or rather, that 59% of valid votes for president in 1998) cannot be blamed for bringing Hugo Chávez to power. He was a product of the circumstances. In general terms, Venezuelans in February 1992 lived under a political system dominated by Acción Democrática (AD) and Comité de Organización Política Electoral Independiente (COPEI) — two political parties that were practically indistinguishable ideologically, increasingly unrepresentative, and too willing to turn the other way rather than to crack down on corruption. The system, known by scholars as puntofijismo (named after its constitutive 1958 agreement, known as Punto Fijo Pact), was also fueled by oil revenues that were heavily spent on patronage and what was essentially a large welfare state. But by the early 1980s, when the global price of oil plummeted and Latin America entered its “lost decade” after the onset of the foreign debt crisis of 1982, the economic panic button was pressed. AD and COPEI governments tried to remedy the situation with neoliberal measures such as a sharp currency devaluation and spending cuts, but their unpopularity contributed to discredit the parties further and led to the 1989 street riots known as “caracazo,” as well as 5,000 more demonstrations in the following three years. Meanwhile, Hugo Chávez found time from his duties as an army lieutenant colonel to become a full-time conspirator and organize, along with other like-minded military officers, the February 1992 putsch.

What is interesting is that Chávez took his time in embracing socialism, so one can only wonder how much of a “popular insurrection against neoliberalism” his coup really was. Scholarly literature does cast a shadow of doubt: In “Venezuela: An Electoral Road to Twenty-First Century Socialism?”, Gregory Wilpert suggests that Chávez did not decisively declare himself a socialist until 2005 and his leftist inclinations were vague before that time (including his 1998 presidential bid); in “Crisis and Regression: Ecuador, Paraguay, Peru, and Venezuela”, Heinz Sonntag argues that the circle of military conspirators who orchestrated the coup were less interested in socioeconomic revolution than in a purely political revolution (as in radically changing state institutions); and in “Explaining Democratic Deterioration in Venezuela through Nested Inference”, Michael Coppedge points out that the main goals of the February coup were to remove the elected but detested government, end impunity, and rekindle prosperity — goals widely shared among Venezuelans at that time. None of them, however, indicates the type of socioeconomic change advanced by 21st century socialism (as a matter of fact, two of Chávez’s co-conspirators, Yoel Acosta and Jesús Urdaneta, eventually distanced themselves from him once he embraced socialism). Coppedge also presents an interesting argument: ordinary Venezuelans got morally outraged because they were paying the consequences of corrupt adecopeyanos plundering oil profits and running the economy to the ground. Venezuelans did oppose neoliberalism violently, but Coppedge suggests it was because the economic crisis was not deep enough to adopt a “wait-and-see” stance. After 1992, says Coppedge, when a non-adecopeyano government implemented more neoliberal policies to reverse a more prolonged crisis, there was no second “caracazo.” In any case, it seems reasonable to think that neoliberalism was opposed in 1989 because it deepened an economic crisis that should not have happened in the first place, not because of anything reprehensible about neoliberalism itself. In this sense, the motivation for Chávez’s sabre-waving has more in common with the rationale behind the traditional Latin American coup (i.e. the military stepping in to save the country from its inept elected rulers) than with a crusade against neoliberalism. Forgotten by the current powers-that-be in Venezuela in the midst of that splendid display of ideology is the fact that a second military coup was carried out nine months later, the following November.

These statements do not intend to rehabilitate puntofijismo. If anything, they echo Jennifer McCoy’s thoughts in her article “Chávez and the End of ‘Partyarchy’ in Venezuela” on the dangers of over-institutionalization: the old parties grew so attached to their traditional ways that they could not — or perhaps did not want to — see the writing on the wall and adapt to new demands and new political actors. But by the same token, these statements do not justify anything that Chávez, Maduro, and their respective governments have done until now.

Rather than being the political equivalent of the Book of Genesis (or the Higgs boson, if you prefer), the 4F story is more like a fish tale.

PS: As a way to show that history repeats itself, especially to those who do not learn from the past, President Maduro has decreed the same currency devaluation implemented by adecopeyano governments. Most astoundingly, on a televised 5-hour speech, he expressed his hope that the people would understand his decision, alluding to the “caracazo” – and perhaps hoping that something similar will not happen on his watch.

Cited sources

Coppedge, Michael. 2005. “Explaining Democratic Deterioration in Venezuela through Nested Inference.” In The Third Wave of Democratization in Latin America: Advances and Setbacks, ed. Frances Hagopian and Scott Mainwaring, 289-318. New York: Cambridge University Press.

McCoy, Jennifer. 1999. “Chávez and the End of ‘Partyarchy’ in Venezuela.” Journal of Democracy 10(3): 64-77.

Sonntag, Heinz R. 2001. “Crisis and Regression: Ecuador, Paraguay, Perú and Venezuela.” In Democracy in Latin America: (Re)Constructing Political Society, edited by Manuel Antonio Garretón M. and Edward Newman, 126-158. Tokyo: United Nations University Press.

Wilpert, Gregory. 2013. “Venezuela: An Electoral Road To Twenty-First Century Socialism?” In The New Latin American Left: Cracks in the Empire, ed. Jeffrey R. Webber and Barry Carr, 191-212. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, Inc.


Postscript (May 30, 2017): The Wall Street Journal reports that Goldman Sachs (yes, that Goldman Sachs) recently bought $2.8 billion worth of bonds issued in 2014 by the state-owned oil company, PDVSA, and initially sold to still unknown private investors. It was declared that the transaction was made with a London-based broker and not with the Venezuelan government itself, but GS is said to believe that a change in that government can increase the value of Venezuela’s debt if the new powers-that-be make changes in economic policy (ka-ching!). The Venezuelan government justified the deal, which is said to have boosted the country’s hard currency reserves, on the grounds that it needed more of them.

Of course some will argue that this gives GS every excuse to coax the US government into carrying a a forcible regime change in Venezuela and install a puppet government, in pure imperialistic fashion. That kind of narrative never seems to go out of style. And the Venezuelan opposition has already scolded GS for allegedly profiteering out of the suffering of citizens, to the point of announcing that the National Assembly will investigate what happened (all but completely disabled under Maduro’s orders, I wonder how). But for all we know about the private investors who bought those bonds, they may even be people within the “boliburguesía” (those who profiteer out of their connections with the Venezuelan government) — a deal that reeks of corruption. And if they were sold to anti-chavista investors, after so much vitriol from Maduro against what Chávez used to call “the rancid oligarchy”, it reeks of hypocrisy. Additionally, the WSJ piece points out another interesting thing: rather than making sure Venezuelans do not have to wait hours in line any longer to get toilet paper and other daily bare necessities, the government has made paying off its debt (including what it owes to Russia and China) a priority so as to avoid having to deal with the very negative consequences of a default. They could include the seizure of oil shipments — the ultimate chokehold for an economy that runs on oil, both literally and figuratively.

In other words, Maduro is doing what he and other radical democrats have accused neoliberal governments of doing — pleasing creditors to keep their heads above water while throwing ordinary people under the bus. It is just like what the Puerto Rican government is now doing under orders from the federally-appointed Fiscal Oversight Board.

So much for Venezuelan National Dignity.

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A Latin American “Asterix”

A 1984 Cuban postage stamp commemorating the 25th anniversary of Cuban cinema with cartoon character Elpidio Valdés on the forefront. Source: Radio Rebelde (Cuba)

This post contains links to video clips in Spanish.

I love Asterix. I have always been fond of the little Gaul who constantly outwits Julius Caesar’s legions while his superhumanly strong friend Obelix gives them a thrashing. More than the historical setting, what attracts me from that comic is the quality of the drawings and, especially, the humor. I have a handful of volumes at home; my favorite is one in which Asterix and Obelix join the legions, but obviously not out of treason. And one fine day, wandering around YouTube, I found out about a Cuban cartoon that may be Asterix’s kindred soul from this side of the Atlantic.

Created in 1970 by Cuban cartoonist and filmmaker Juan Padrón, himself a towering figure of Cuban animation, Elpidio Valdés tells the adventures of a brave cavalry officer in the National Army of Liberation (the mambises) during the 1895 Cuban War of Independence. Riding his loyal steed Palmiche and accompanied by his courageous companions Marcial and María Silvia, Elpidio constantly fights battles against and routs the Spanish troops led by General Resóplez and his colonels Andaluz and Cetáceo. Sometimes, Elpidio faces off against and invariably defeats the Cuban peasants fighting on Spain’s side (the rayadillos), especially the cigar-chomping Media Cara and his perpetually drunk stooge Cortico. Between 1970 and 2003, Elpidio appeared in 25 shorts and four feature films, and had his own comic strip for a time. Four decades after its creation, Elpidio Valdés is so beloved in Cuba that its main character is considered a pop culture icon.

It is important to point out that Asterix upends history because what happened in reality was that Caesar’s legions conquered the Gauls in 52 BC. In turn, Elpidio Valdés does not upend history; it depicts something that happened very repeatedly in the 1895 war: the mambí army trouncing the Spanish army in battle. But there is a reason why Asterix and Elpidio Valdés are kindred spirits even if their adventures have different degrees of adherence to historical facts: both characters represent people who appear at first to be no match to a superior opposing force but nevertheless find a way to defeat it. Spain had the weaponry and the numbers, but it was worn out by the mambises. It is, basically a David-versus-Goliath theme that can be found in other real life conflicts like the Vietnam War or the Soviet-Afghan War. And who does not like an underdog story?

Although the Elpidio Valdés cartoons are produced by the Cuban Institute of Cinematographic Arts and Industry (Instituto Cubano del Arte e Industria Cinematográficos, ICAIC), itself a branch of the Ministry of Culture, they do not carry the openly propagandistic message of other animated works (this one in particular is considered by ICAIC itself to be the film that officially inaugurated its animation department), although Elpidio himself has made a few animated cameos in the (openly propagandistic) Noticiero ICAIC Latinoamericano. But the cartoon series does not fall far from the tree of the official zeitgeist: by tapping into a key conjuncture in Cuban history, Elpidio Valdés connects to an undercurrent of national liberation that lies at the foundation of the Cuban Revolution. To use history instrumentally is not new (in Mexico, PRI hegemony relied significantly on exploiting the imagery and pantheon of the Mexican Revolution), but to describe Elpidio Valdés in that fashion – as an instrumental use of history – makes sense. Given that conclusion, it also makes sense to place these cartoons within the basic guideline of Cuba’s cultural policy, as spelled out by Fidel Castro himself in the 1960s: “Within the Revolution, everything; against the Revolution, nothing.” (In all fairness, however, ICAIC produces animation that is not propagandistic or politically instrumental in nature, like the famous Filminutos shorts.)

And yet Elpidio Valdés cartoons are really cool. The shorts produced since 1978 have better looking drawings than those produced previously (production began in 1974, according to ICAIC) and, therefore, are my personal favorites. Throughout the whole series, though, there are generous sprinkles of humor and many adaptations of classic cartoon gags, like palm trees that double as daggers and sentry posts that become rockets (both seen in the second produced short). Every now and then, the bad guys even get kicked in the family jewels. Also, in Elpidio Valdés se casa (“Elpidio Valdés Gets Married”), Elpidio is so nervous on the day he weds María Silvia that at one point he leaves his hut all primped up, but with no trousers on (he is shown wearing skivvies, though). But these cartoons also have an educational element; one short is based on some of the firearms used by the mambí army and another one is centered on the weapon for which it became well-known, the machete (the latter has original music from Cuba’s leading nueva trova singer-songwriters, Silvio Rodríguez and Pablo Milanés).

In all, for all my criticisms of the Cuban government, its ideology, and its unjustifiable short leash on artistic expression, Elpidio Valdés is something I really enjoy watching. Like reading an Asterix comic book.

Bonus feature (in Spanish): Elpidio Valdés outsmarts the NYPD.

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About the Right to Rave

Cuban migrants in the Costa Rica-Nicaragua border. Photo credit: Reuters. Source: Telesur

I have the impression that progressives have found a sneaky way to catch my eye: by obtaining my e-mail address without my knowledge and consent. For some time now, I have been receiving messages from the International Committee for Peace, Justice, and Dignity for the Peoples, a California-based activist network that initially demanded the liberation (which happened last year) of five Cuban intelligence agents indicted and jailed in the US for espionage and is currently campaigning to “support the just struggles of the peoples of the world, from Latin America and the Caribbean to the Middle East.” The messages they send make it automatically to my spam folder and, for that reason, they are ignored, but every now and then they send something that does catch my eye.

Hours before the end of 2015, I received from them a message wishing me a happy new year with a poem by Eduardo Galeano, entitled “The Right to Rave.” It is the next-to-last part of his book Upside Down: A Primer for the Looking Glass World and invites readers to “set our sights beyond infamy to imagine another possible world” – that is, a more humane and less consumption-crazed world where los jodidos (roughly translated to “The Screwed Ones”) can finally exercise their right to a dignified life. Galeano offers a long list of “raves” that certainly deserve the support of the whole human race, so there is nothing wrong with imagining that other possible world. Neither is there anything wrong – theoretically – with the Committee doing so.

Meanwhile, several thousands of Cuban migrants on their way to the US were stuck in Costa Rica since the preceding month, floating in a legal limbo after Nicaragua closed its border and sent soldiers and police officers to forcibly clear the area. Official Cuba was silent for days, only to declare later that those migrants left their country for economic reasons and therefore did not deserve to be treated like political refugees by the US, to which it blames for the crisis by keeping the Cuban Adjustment Act in the books. Costa Rica welcomed the migrants, but Nicaragua’s decision forced it to stop granting temporary visas and declare that neither will it admit more migrants nor shelter those it already has. In response, Central American countries have prepared a plan to solve the situation that includes flights scheduled for later this month to El Salvador, from which the migrants will be transported by road to the Mexico-Guatemala border.

Very likely, the dreamers of that other possible world that wished me a happy 2016 with that Galeano poem have not paid attention to these events. Their silence regarding the odyssey of these migrants is now longer than the Cuban government’s, but it is equally eloquent. Neither has there been any condemnation against the Nicaraguan government for beating and shooting (rubber bullets, though) a group of migrants that, under international law, are supposed to be treated with respect and dignity and not as common criminals. But in turn the Committee has plenty of condemnatory statements against the US because of the embargo and the Cuban Adjustment Act. In all, it seems that these supporters of utopia have determined that the Cubans stuck in Central America do not meet the necessary requisites to become part of los jodidos. For that reason, there will not be even a tuitazo on their behalf.

Those who emigrate rave about a dignified life that will allow them to realize themselves as human beings but cannot be obtained in their countries of origin. Cuba-based blog Havana Times explains the very plausible reasons for the rave among the Cubans that leave or want to leave: “[i]t’s not hatred towards the revolution [sic], its disillusionment. Too many economic failures; poor leadership; a bad system; far too many obstacles everywhere; too many prohibitions still standing; and scant, next to no power granted to the people to have a say in improvements. We rely 99.9% on a tiny and exclusive group of people who earned their right to govern the country more than 56 years ago in a guerrilla war and hold absolute power, propped up by laws and made legitimate by international recognition.” That is the self-critique that neither the Cuban government nor the International Committee for Peace, Justice, and Dignity for the Peoples will engage in because it is not convenient to notice that the emperor has been wearing no clothes for a very long time. (As of 2017, there has been a self-critique of sorts from the Cuban government.) On the contrary, it is better to continue waving the flag of the other possible world to prop up the crumbling revolutionary edifice, for the sake of utopia. In any case, that the Cuban government has said that the émigrés in question are mere economic émigrés is an admission (accidental, but still an admission) that the Cuban Revolution has nothing to offer, except maybe speeches bloviating against neoliberalism and defending the right of Bolivarian Venezuela to exist.

One of Galeano’s raves is that politicians will stop believing that the poor like to eat promises. That problem is not exclusive to neoliberal countries. The Cuban government and its fans at the Committee believe that the Cubans screwed by economic failures, obstacles, powerlessness, and lack of opportunities (not to mention political repression) like to eat the speeches delivered every July 26. Nothing can be further away from the truth. That is why it is embarrassing to assume that Cubans living in Cuba do not have the same right to rave the other Latin American jodidos have. Or that they do not have justified motives to emigrate, economic or not.

As far as I am concerned, my disappointment with the Committee is so great that from now on every e-mail I receive from them will be blocked without remission. Maybe I should have done that a long time ago.

Note: This post was updated in May 2017. An earlier version, written in Spanish, was published in Spain-based online newspaper Mundiario.

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