A Response to Roberto Lovato (Updated)

Background note: Roberto Lovato is a Latino activist and blogger, and a research fellow at UC Berkeley’s Center for Latino Policy Research. This is a response to an October 9 post Lovato wrote for Latino Rebels, which he forwarded to the listserv maintained by the Latino Caucus of the American Political Science Association.

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I have very mixed feelings about this post.

On the one hand, I can understand why Roberto Lovato is reminded of El Salvador whenever he reads about the Ayotzinapa 43. My impression is that he is reminded of the civil war of the 1980s; if so, I do not think it is just about the visceral sensations, the gruesomeness, and the suffering, but about something Lovato does not mention explicitly in his post: The 43 are student-teachers of a rural college well-known for leftist activism. Assuming that their deaths (if confirmed) are indeed politically motivated, because the real motive is still a mystery, this is nothing too different from the fate of an FMLN sympathizer that took part in revolutionary struggle or, for that matter, a liberation theologian helping the most victimized from a small, makeshift chapel in the middle of nowhere. All of them drew the ire of the powers-that-be and were taken care of with extreme prejudice. Whether it is El Salvador in the 1980s or Mexico in 2014, the beat does seem to go on. As if Latin America did not have enough issues with rule of law already.

Another legitimate point raised by Lovato, closely related to the first, may be directed to John Q. Taxpayer:

In Mexico, our failure to recognize the real dimensions [of] the Mexican crisis means we’re blind to an equally disturbing fact: our government’s continued use of our tax dollars in the Drug War pay for the training, guns and bullets that slaughtered those students.

Lovato does not really say it out loud, but John Ackerman, writing for HuffPost’s The World Post, does: This is naked political repression against those who are unhappy with Enrique Peña Nieto, certified by recent opinion polls as the most unpopular Mexican president of the last 20 years. As far as that goes, El Salvador 1980 and Mexico 2014 are still not that different. Most importantly, the alleged relationship between the Drug War and the possible murder of the Ayotzinapa 43 is more clearly stated by Ackerman than by Lovato: The Drug War is being utilized “as a cover for political repression” and the massacre in question confirms that suspicion. Nevertheless, this insistence on the political repression argument (which is not confirmed by the Los Angeles Times story Ackerman quotes to sustain his statement) overlooks the fact that drug cartels do exist and can be as devious as they are ruthless and violent. In point of fact, a critical piece of empirical evidence Lovato mentions just barely – but should devote more space for – is how the sinister influence of drug cartels penetrated into the government of the locality where The 43 vanished, as The Guardian, Telesur, Russia Times, and Mexican daily El Universal have mentioned with considerable detail (the latter three in Spanish).

But then Lovato says,

Earlier this year, I traveled to Venezuela several times to cover the widely-reported conflicts there. I did so because I sensed something was not quite kosher about U.S. media reporting on students in Venezuela, who, instead of following the tradition of fighting U.S.-funded projects like those in Mexico, are actually the recipients of U.S. funding. After reading this week’s violence in Mexico, the journalist in me couldn’t help but ask, “What would happen if police or other security forces of the Venezuelan government killed 43 students and buried them in a mass grave?

The journalist’s answer I came up with is informed by what we saw during last summer’s upheavals: high profile denunciations by global human rights organizations, interviews with Venezuelans in Miami and front page headlines with the word “Killings” as the operative verbs next to sentence subjects and objects like “Students” and “Maduro Government.”

That may be a journalist’s answer, but it sounds more like a political statement, one that can be countered on at least three grounds. First, that The 43 were the targets of a political hit job is a guess at this point – educated, but still a guess. Second, semantics matter. The 43 were allegedly killed by local law enforcement, which does not count as the Mexican government (Lovato says that “[o]n one September day […], an estimated 43 students are alleged to have been disappeared and killed by Mexican police [my emphasis] linked to drug cartels”). Otherwise, Michael Brown was not killed by an agent of the Ferguson Police Department, but by the US government. Perhaps Lovato had this critical distinction in mind but, if he did, he was unclear about it. In contrast, many of the atrocities committed in the Salvadoran civil war that Lovato seems to reminisce were committed by agents of the Salvadoran state (i.e. the army) and at least one organ of the Venezuelan state (the Bolivarian Intelligence Service) were involved in the unrest that Lovato covered for his blog. (By the way, if at least half of the 43 who died in the Venezuelan protests were “allegedly killed by paramilitaries and students opposed to the Venezuelan government”, what happened to the other half?) And finally, paraphrasing Peter Beinart in an essay he wrote for The Atlantic, Lovato is so carried away by the alleged superiority of chavismo that he turns a blind eye to its own abuses. For instance, if you do buy the story of the Drug War being used as a convenient disguise for repression, you should also read this. And then there is this case, quoted in its entirety from the annals of Venezuelan human rights NGO Provea (my translation):

With a medical report issued by the Venezuelan Institute of Social Security, Mrs. Marina Guerrero, mother of National Experimental University of Táchira student Carlos Villamizar, informed that the youth arrived unconscious on October 12 to that health center and was diagnosed with fracture in the base of the skull, contusion and cerebral edema, a swollen right eye, facial auricular and retroauricular trauma, multiple contusions in arms and torso, and haematomas in lower limbs, a situation for which she blamed state governor José Gregorio Vielma Mora [chavista sympathizer].

Marina Guerrero, accompanied by some university authorities and tenths of students, narrated how she suffered since her son was detained and jailed on Monday, October 6, at the headquarters of the Bolivarian National Police, on Marginal del Torbes Avenue; and said that it was not until Saturday, October 11 that she was allowed to see him. When she did, she noted that the youth presented many bruises and injuries in his body, as well as vomiting and an intense headache, for which she demands an investigation, justice, and the placement of responsibilities.

‘My son was not obstructing any public thoroughfare. He was ran over. The police officers ran over him with their bikes and there are many witnesses of it. At that momento, he was detained arbitrarily and before facing the judge governor Vielma Mora, who is not a judge, already sentenced him through Twitter. They are violating my son’s due process, fundamental rights, and human rights. He is not a criminal’, said Mrs. Guerrero.

Asked about the possibility of a fight between inmates, Mrs. Guerrero pointed out, ‘I tell the Governor not to wash his hands. My son should have not been with common criminals, much less detained, because he does not have a criminal record. His physical integrity is the Governor’s responsibility. Mr. Vielma Mora, I do not know who attacked my son because he is scared of talking, but [Táchira] state must explain to me why Carlos was beaten after his detention’.

She said that Carlos Villamizar was going to be charged for making explosives, instigation, and obstruction of a public thoroughfare, but he was finally detained for the latter charge. According to Guerrero, all accusations are false.

She announced that she will go to any authority necessary for denouncing the violation of her son’s rights and affirmed that Governor Vielma Mora has taken charge of stigmatizing Táchira residents, ‘who are hard-working and cordial people, to call them guarimberos, paramilitaries, and smugglers, paying no respect the right to protest and criminalizing students’.

NEUT Academic Vice-Provost Alexander Contreras and student María Gabriela Rojas talked on behalf of the university community; showed the academic records of Carlos Villamizar, an agronomy major, to demonstrate that he has no disciplinary actions against him; and demanded that his rights be respected and an end to the persecution against youths.

To be fair, horror stories like these are not exclusive to localities governed by chavismo, and this particular case is different from that of the Ayotzinapa 43. But if we fall into the rhetoric of “you guys did worse than us” we will be missing the forest for the trees: Any instance of human rights violations is one too many and Bolivarian Venezuela cannot claim to be so free of sin to cast stones.

In closing, and to paraphrase Lovato’s own admonishment, a biased understanding of the real Venezuela on Lovato’s part or any other supporter of chavismo enables the powers-that-be there to continue doing what they have been doing, exactly as much as ignorance in the US about the real Mexico is a blank check for more disappearances and massacres there. We cannot treat Mexico differently than Venezuela. And vice-versa.

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Postscript (October 23, 2014)

It turns out that the post you just read stirred a controversy, although only Roberto Lovato and I took part in the ensuing skirmish of words.

The day after my posting, Lovato responded:

I generally enjoy engaging serious scholars and non-scholars on issues of substance. But, from the moment your “response” starts quoting — and even translating! — U.S.government–funded “human rights” groups, groups that  I’ve interviewed and know, groups that support and defend Venezuelan  youth “activists”  caught openly and unapologetically planning to shoot 20 grassroots activists (see 4:30 mark), bomb public buildings, kill innocents and generally terrorize people in Venezuela (youth activists linked by Colombia’s prestigious–as in Gabo worked there– El Espectador to Neo-Nazis, btw) I knew we’d entered that questionable realm where the unserious, the clueless about Venezuela, the hiding-my-politics-behind-academic-sounding-talk live.

Whichever part of that realm this “response” comes from, I knew immediately that there’d be no serious engagement here. Add to this what I found the callous (“All of them drew the ire of the powers-that be and were taken care of with extreme prejudice”) way you describe and relate to these dead and desaparecido “leftists” of Mexico and El Salvador and you have the formula for the kind of stuff I have zero interest in engaging. So, I’ll leave you and the other very troubling parts of this “response”– your red baiting (“Lovato is so carried away by the alleged superiority of chavismo“), your lack of knowledge of Mexican policing and security forces and practices and other equally small matters — and get back to serious, real-life issues that some of us have actually  had to face and continue facing in the U.S. and across the hemisphere. 

Good luck with finishing your scholarly work.

Yup, this reply came from the People’s Republic of Berkeley, the Land of Free Speech.

To be clear, I included information from one human rights organization, Provea, which Lovato turned into a straw man. The document on link #1 mentions it four times – as the recipient of an award by a Canadian organization. That proves absolutely nothing about funding from the US government (although Provea does receive funds from the Ford, Merck, and Open Societies foundations). The document on link #2 does not demonstrate that Lovato knows the straw man inside an out; it only shows that he attended a Provea press conference and took note of a statement of theirs, although the apparent intention is to demonstrate that they do not have the full picture about the violence associated with the Venezuela protests. The document on link #3 (in Spanish) does not demonstrate that Provea supported the youths it reports on; it only mentions that they were busted by Colombian authorities. Finally, despite my categorical rejection of neo-Nazism and disappointment with what I read on the document on link #5 (also in Spanish), the video on link #4 (again, in Spanish) shows after the 4:30 mark that the youth who planned the shootings also hung out in Costa Rica with a woman closely associated with the Venezuelan National Assembly. With God and The Devil, it seems.

To make a long story short, I ended my association with the Latino Caucus as of today and received a very negative impression of Latino studies scholars. As I told the president of the National Institute for Latino Policy, Angelo Falcón, after he disseminated the original LR post, my post, and Roberto Lovato’s response, the only thing Lovato has done is to prove that Latino activists can be petulant when it comes to being confronted with a dissenting opinion — just like Bill O’Reilly when having his views on immigration being challenged on his show. As far as I’m concerned, the reason Lovato does not want to argue with me is not that I am clueless or unserious about Venezuela, but because I disagree with him and had the guts to go public about it. As far as he is concerned, I’m a stooge of fascism.

I did not find my PhD in political science inside a Cracker Jack box, and neither did I spent 5 years teaching Latin American politics for nothing.

I will not take back anything I said.

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