The Latin American Diaries |

Creating the Atlantic’s Orphan: British Interpretations of Haiti Over Two Hundred Years


by Jack Webb, ILAS Stipendiary Fellow

Since defeating the imperial armies of Britain, France, and Spain during the Haitian Revolution (1791–1804), Haiti has been struggling to achieve recognition of its right to sovereignty. In Britain, Haiti has been perceived as lacking an appropriate and capable government ever since Jacques Dessalines declared independence in 1804, a view that persisted throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries as racism proliferated in step with expanding empire. Recent media reports concerning Hurricane Matthew and the country’s presidential elections show that even today Haiti continues to face a geopolitical system in which its rights as a sovereign nation are routinely ignored.

Haiti in Imperial Britain

Throughout the nineteenth century, Haitian leaders made every effort to assert their independence, and the Album Impériale d’Haïti (1852) commissioned by Emperor Faustin Soulouque provides one key example. This set of pictures presents an image of a Haitian government that is equal to any European counterpart, with characters depicted proudly facing the viewer. The Haitian Emperor is dressed in identical clothing to that of Napoleon I during the latter’s coronation in 1805, making a clear statement of the right to rule. The Album did not, though, have the desired effect: it was received in Britain not as evidence that Haitian sovereignty was to be respected, but rather that Haiti acted mainly in relation to the French sphere of influence and parodied its political institutions.


Figure 1: ‘Faustin Soulouque’, Imperial Album d’Haïti. By permission of the British Library.


Figure 2: ‘Adelina’, Imperial Album d’Haïti. By permission of the British Library.

As one writer opined in the Morning Chronicle:

When Napoleon made himself absolute master of France, his example was followed by Dessalines, the dictator of Hayti. But in our time the barbarous nation set the example — Soulouque declared himself Emperor of Domingo [Haiti]; and it was not until that vigorous step had been taken by the coal black Sovereign of Hayti, that Louis Napoleon ventured to make his attempt.[1]

In this instance, statements of Haitian independence were reinterpreted to critique Britain’s old imperial rival, France. Remonstrations from Haitians, meanwhile, went unheard.

Haiti’s perceived position outside of empire became increasingly problematic for people in Britain as imperial culture became more entrenched. As Jan Pieterse argues in the case of images of Africans in this period, Haitians were increasingly represented as the ‘enemy’.

In Haiti, the centenary of Haitian independence (1904) was celebrated in the country with horse races, public speeches, and fireworks, while the capital was adorned with national flags. The President, Nord Alexis, was keen to use the event to unite the country behind his political party. For British onlookers, including the Consul General, A. G Vansittart, the reminder of events in Haiti leading up to the Declaration of Independence (which decimated European armies) was terrifying.

Throughout 1904, Vansittart relayed his anxieties about the Haitian threat to the lives and prospects of British people. In May, Vansittart requested that a warship be put on standby, complaining that ‘a massacre of white residents is now quite within the bounds of possibility… at the first sign of such a catastrophe, if the telegraph wires are not cut, I shall telegraph to Your Lordship for protection.’[2] Along with his messages, the Consul sent examples of placards found in the street, as evidence of the threat to the lives of foreigners.


Figure 3: Placard sent from Vansittart to the Foreign Office.  Reads “Death to the whites [foreigners]! Long live Deassalines, long live Nord!” Vansittart to Lansdwone, 19 December 1903, FO 35/179, p. 238.

No massacre ensued but Haitian independence was reported as a crisis that could require foreign intervention, clearly contradicting Haiti’s efforts to achieve a sincere recognition of sovereignty.

Over the course of the nineteenth century such struggles over the definition of the significance of Haitian independence continued. For Haitian leaders it was of the utmost importance that imperial powers across the Atlantic World should recognise the Haitian state as sovereign. But the various strategies of denigration employed by people in ‘the West’ suggest that the Haitian government was rarely, if ever, considered legitimate in Europe and North America. This view of Haiti came with constant military threats, initially in the form of gunboat diplomacy, and then with the invasion of Haiti by the United States in 1915. The view that Haiti was like an orphan, lacking a paternal influence, converged with the notion that Haitians were inherently unable to enact statehood both to undermine claims for sovereignty and to justify US intervention.

Representing Haiti in 2016: Disaster and Intervention

The idea of Haiti as a natural target for foreign intervention has been repeated in recent media reports concerning both Hurricane Matthew (October 2016) and recent elections (November 2016). In the wake of the hurricane, The Times interviewed a member of Unicef on the spread of cholera, detailing how floodwater mingled with sewage ‘and human and animal corpses, turning streets into breeding grounds for the disease’.[3] Rather than emphasising the role of international forces in introducing cholera to Haiti – a fact only admitted to by the UN after six years of denial – the epidemic was cast as a problem accentuated by the Haitian population: ‘Amid the devastation, desperate residents in one community tried to ambush the trucks carrying food, water and sanitation supplies that have begun to roll into some of the areas worst hit… “Misery, misery… Hunger is killing us”, they chanted.’[4]In subsequent reports, The Times consistently neglected to interview Haitians on their experiences during the hurricane. Instead, it maintained a narrative in which international forces such as the UN and Unicef were attempting to resolve the crisis, while Haitians were described either as passive aid recipients or as feckless amplifiers of the crisis. Once again Haiti became a place incapable of ‘proper’ statehood and in need of Western supervision.

The Times was joined in its representation of Haiti by the Guardian in its reporting on presidential elections at the end of November. It focused on the violence following the elections and emphasised claims of corruption: ‘Violent protests have erupted in Haiti… Police used teargas on protesters in the La Saline neighbourhood… [They] called the results an “electoral coup”.[5] The Guardian’s chosen sources were the US Embassy and a Reuters journalist who could say little more than that they had ‘overheard gunshots’. Considered within a history of Western ideas about Haiti, these media reports reinforce a narrative of Haiti as incapable of proper government, lacking as they do protection from natural disasters and from themselves. Such ideas have been central to aggressive acts of intervention by imperial powers in Haiti. Critically, this image of Haitians has relied on a refusal to incorporate Haitian voices into narratives about their own country. This happened throughout the nineteenth century, when Haiti was depicted as a pariah state and a warning against decolonisation, and it continues today. To deepen understanding of Haiti and to provide more appropriate assistance in the wake of natural disasters Western organisations and Western media need to enter into dialogue with Haitian people and seek the opinions of Haitians themselves.


The significance of Haiti in Britain, however, has not only been defined by imperial and neo-imperial powers. Haiti’s radical act of decolonisation, as perceived through its revolution and the maintenance of a tenuous independence until 1915, and then from 1934 onwards, has served as a multifaceted example of liberation from colonialism. As Colin Clarke found during his research in Jamaica as the country moved towards independence, for advocates of radical decolonisation Haiti could variously mean the ‘butchering of whites’, the promise of an independent state under the control of a black population, or indeed a warning against extreme isolationism. These alternative ideas about Haiti and radical decolonisation rested on a staunch recognition of the right to Haitian sovereignty, and as Caribbean peoples moved around the Atlantic and entered Britain, they began to render British ideas about Haiti multiple and contradictory. But what is clear is that the Dessalines’ declaration of independence in 1804 was only the start of Haiti’s struggle for self-determination in the Atlantic World.



[1] [Anonymous], ‘The Imperial Precedents’, Morning Chronicle, 29 November 1852, p. 4.

[2] A. G.Vansittart to Marquis of Lansdowne, 11 May 1904, FO 35/180, p. 110.

[3] ‘Cholera Hits in Haiti in Hurricane’s Wake’, The Times, 10 October 2016, p. 23.

[4] ‘Choler Hits’.

[5] ‘Haiti: Violent Protests Erupt Over Presidential Election Result’, Guardian, 29 November, 2016, online edition.

The Return of the Right in Latin America


by Christopher Wylde, Associate Professor of International Relations at Richmond University and Visiting Fellow at ILAS

The so-called ‘Pink Tide’ that swept Latin America from 1998 onwards has recently experienced a number of electoral challenges, which complement previous mobilisational and extra-constitutional challenges. In the hubris of the mid-2000s, the Left looked unassailable across large swathes of Latin America. Hugo Chávez was re-elected for a third time in 2006; Chile was under the administrations of Ricardo Lagos and Michelle Bachelet, who had run proceedings throughout the long decade, with only a brief interregnum from the centre-right in the form of Sebastiá Piñera. Brazil had elected Lula for a second time in 2007; Argentina was dominated by the Kirchners; Evo Morales and the MAS were triumphant in Bolivia; Correa in Ecuador, Vásquez in Uruguay, Colom in Guatemala, Funes in El Salvador, even Paraguay under Lugo (albeit briefly) – the list is long.

Mauricio Macri y Evo Morales, by Gastón Cuello, CC BY 2.5 AR

Mauricio Macri y Evo Morales, by Gastón Cuello, CC BY 2.5 AR

Fast-forward to 2016 and the situation is not so rosy for the Latin American Left. The election (by a wafer-thin margin) of the right-wing, market-friendly Mauricio Macri in Argentina has heralded an end to Kirchnerismo and its neo-developmentalism and the attendant rise of a distinctly more neoliberal flavour to Argentine governance. Significant changes have already occurred in Argentina’s political economy of development, manifested in policy changes ranging from a sharp depreciation of the peso, capitulation to global capital markets in the form of paying the fondos buitres (vulture funds), an immediate reduction of retenciones (export taxes) for large agricultural Trans-National Corporations (TNCs), and a ‘sudden-stop’ to domestic energy subsidies.

Meanwhile, in Latin America’s largest and most populous economy, the hydra-headed Petrobras scandal has engulfed even Lula himself, with former President Dilma Rouseff being removed from office through impeachment proceedings in Congress – what Barry Cannon of NUI Maynooth has termed a ‘smart coup’. Nicolás Maduro – Chávez’s successor in Venezuela – has undoubtedly been hurt by a slump in oil prices, with an alliance of centre-left, centrist, and right-wing opposition parties scoring a resounding victory in parliamentary elections in December 2015.

Understanding the Right (in Latin America)

In order to get to grips with what these shifts mean for Latin America and its contemporary development trajectory we first need to understand and map the contours of the left/right divide (in Latin America). Impressive and detailed primary research on this topic by Dr. Barry Cannon from NUI Maynooth provides valuable insight. In his newly published book The Right in Latin America (Routledge, 2016) he proposes that an analysis of inequality generates a powerful ontology of Right/Left politics in Latin America. Policy solutions may change, but this central concern is constant. For the Left, this translates into greater state involvement in the market in order to ensure more substantive equality through welfarism; for the Right this means greater state involvement in the market to enforce pro-market regulations designed to enhance equality of opportunity.

These public-policy profiles have implicit and explicit outcomes favouring some class fractions over others, meaning that class and the role of elites should be central to any discussion of the Right. Historically, political parties of the Right in Twentieth Century Latin America were not prominent in its political expressions. Domination of the state through personal, bureaucratic, and clientelistic ties obviated the need for direct control of the main organs of government (executive, legislature, federal governors where relevant). Betrayal of these elite interests in the form of Import Substituting Industrialisation (ISI) led them to turn to the military in the 1970s and early 1980s – ushering in what Guillermo O’Donnell termed Latin America’s ‘bureaucratic-authoritarian’ period. The lack of economic success of these regimes, combined with the decline of the militant left across the region, ushered in democratic transitions, so as the 1980s progressed the Right embraced democratic politics and a renewed emphasis on parties, legislatures, and elections.

Short-lived Venezuelan president Pedro Carmona with backers, 2002

Coup leader Pedro Carmona and various supporters, Palacio Miraflores, Caracas, 2002

This analysis reveals that the Latin American Right goes far beyond political parties. Institutions like the Church and the Media, as well as socio-economic elites in large firms or think-tanks, must all be considered as part of the nexus of Right power. In summary, all those class fractions, institutions, and actors of society that support the free market and a lessening of state power over market relations (in order to fulfil its desire for equality of opportunity – read: equality to engage in market based relations) come under the aegis of the Right.

This means that an understanding of the contemporary Right in Latin America must incorporate analysis of not only political parties, but also the way in which power is exercised beyond this arena. With this in mind, the rise of the Right and the ways in which they have resisted the Pink Tide must be understood not only in terms of electoral politics, but also mobilisational and extra-constitutional tactics as well. Therefore, the election of right-wing government (in particular Argentina) must be understood alongside mass demonstrations in Brazil, for example, as well as extra-constitutional practices such as the attempted coup d’état in Venezuela in 2002.

The influence of the Right in Contemporary Latin America

With this in mind, the return of the Right to Latin American politics is a somewhat misleading starting point as the Right never really went away. This is especially true in the broader context of Latin America’s insertion into the global division of labour. Given that the structures of international political economy distinctly favour pro-market regulation and its associated suite of policy prescriptions (privatisation, liberalisation, and de-regulation), the contours of the Pink Tide itself were fundamentally shaped by this dynamic. As a result of what José Santiso termed the ‘limits of the possible’ the post-neoliberal modality of governance emphasised by Pink Tide states had a strong neoliberal flavour: private property was not systematically attacked – there was no significant land redistribution; free trade was largely maintained – albeit with certain protections for strategic sectors; macroeconomic frameworks remained largely in line with servicing international debt obligations; and poverty-reduction programmes were firmly embedded in a neoliberal discourse of Conditional Cash Transfer (CCT) principles (Bolsa Familia, AUH, Bono Solidario etc.). This was tempered with a more active industrial policy, a refreshed neo-corporatism, a moratorium on privatisations (with some re-nationalisations), and the construction of counter-hegemonic regionalism (ALBA, UNASUR, and CELAC), combined with an attempt to forge a new social contract between the state and the people through a reconceptualization of citizenship.

In its totality this post-neoliberal governance represented a crystallisation of previous forms of political economy – including the neoliberalism of the 1990s and the ISI period of the mid-twentieth century. As a result, the ‘return of the right’ – to electoral politics at least – should not be overemphasised, as the Right’s power in Latin American political economy beyond the state has always shaped political discourse, even at the apex of Pink Tide power.

Yet, the case of Mauricio Macri in Argentina clearly demonstrates that the return of the Right to electoral politics has had an important impact on Argentina’s development trajectory. His early policies represent an attempt to re-orientate Argentine political economy towards a full-blooded neoliberalism, thus conforming to a pro-market ideology that emphasises equality of opportunity. However, equally interesting are those aspects of the post-neoliberal Argentine state that Macri is not changing: the state oil company YPF remains nationalised and the core poverty alleviation programme (AUH) remains in place. This acceptance of the need to provide for the poor goes beyond the elites of Argentina and represents an important shift in the thinking of the Right in Latin America in general.

In an interview before her death Margaret Thatcher said that her greatest legacy to UK politics was Tony Blair, the implication being that her administrations had shifted British politics fundamentally to the right, so that even a left wing Labour Prime Minister now pursues essentially Right-wing policies (understood in terms of equality of opportunity). In this vein, and given Argentina’s current commitment to the anti-poverty rhetoric and policies of the post-neoliberal regime of the Kirchner’s, perhaps Cristina’s (and Néstor’s) greatest legacy will be Mauricio Macri.

The Devastating Environmental and Social Impact of Gold Mining in Chocó, Colombia


by Louise Winstanley, Programme and Advocacy Manager, ABColombia

Rio Quito

Chocó is situated between the Darién Gap on the border with Panama and the departments of Antioquia and Valle de Cauca. It is one of the planet’s hidden tropical treasures, classified as a Forest Reserve [i] and home to approximately 56 per cent of Colombian bird species and 11 per cent of all known bird species in the world [ii]. Chocó is also rich in mineral resources, particularly gold and platinum. It is therefore no coincidence that Chocó, a region rich in natural resources, has become one of the focal points of the Colombian conflict, with thousands of people killed or forcibly displaced.

Uncontrolled exploitation of small-scale mechanised gold mining in Chocó has proved to be a lucrative business for illegal armed groups. These groups operate in territories belonging to indigenous and Afro-descendant communities, spreading violence and fear, with opponents to mining threatened, attacked and killed. As well as generating violence, these mining operations have serious health and environmental impacts, threatening the lives and livelihoods of the population and damaging large areas of one of the world’s most biodiverse regions.

Chocó is an unusual department in that 96 per cent of the land in Chocó is collectively owned by indigenous or Afro-descendant peoples. For these ethnic groups, their territory embodies the essence of life and development. Therefore, Colombian law considers territory a fundamental right for these groups. Their livelihoods revolve around hunting, fishing, farming and small-scale artisanal mining. This way of life has preserved the rich biodiversity of this exceptional corner of Colombia, allowing it to meet the communities’ basic needs for centuries.

diggerHowever, in the 1980s a gold rush in the south of the department saw miners arrive with mechanical diggers and dredgers. Using mercury to separate out gold, they washed the residue into the rivers, along with other chemicals. Mercury pollution built up in the rivers of Chocó as a result of the rapid growth of small-scale mining operations. In 2009 a government commission revealed that four tons of mercury had been washed into Río Quito (above), just one of the tributaries of the Atrato River (the main river running through Choco) [iii]. In 2010 Colombia was named as the world’s worst per-capita mercury polluter from small-scale mechanised gold mining, and Chocó was one of the worst-affected areas in Colombia [iv].  Small-scale mechanised gold mining also became a lucrative business for illegal armed groups, increasingly important to them as a means of funding the conflict. Paramilitary and guerrilla groups not only extort ‘rents’ in exchange for ‘protection’, they also loan out machinery to these small-scale operations and sometimes even become owners of mining operations themselves.

As well as intensifying the conflict, small-scale mechanised mining has damaged the social fabric of many communities.  First, the presence of these illegal armed actors severely limits the possibility of communities engaging in traditional artisanal mining, which only intensifies the threat to livelihoods already jeopardised by environmental damage to local rivers. This has forced some women to seek work as cooks and cleaners in mining camps, where they can face immense violence and poverty.


Community leaders in Chocó report a number of interrelated issues stemming from this form of mining:

‘…many women have been sexually affected by these guys who come here to mine, they offer them jobs and end up raping them and then other men [at the camp] continue raping them … there are women who are psychologically traumatised by what has happened to them… in order to work they have gone to these mining camps and because the mine owners are mixing together with the armed actors, the women are seen as collaborators and this affects them considerably because they are stigmatised as collaborating with armed groups… the lives of women are controlled by those who dominate their territory… they control their sexual life, the way in which they dress, everything… They start looking at them as women when they are only 10 years old’.

‘… [T]he chemicals used in mining affect the women’s bodies… you see women with skin blemishes on their bodies as a result of exposure to chemicals used in mining. Sometimes they have babies with deformities…’

‘The impacts of the mining activities have been disastrous for us; we are not the same communities as 10 years ago. We have experienced many crop failures; mercury causes disastrous problems in our community. In particular as farmers we experience the full impact… We do not use the waters from the river … the fish are no longer edible due to the mercury. People who eat the fish get stomach pain and diarrhoea’.

Fishing ABC

These communities also face a newer challenge as they discover that during their forced displacement much of their territory has been conceded to multinational companies (MNCs). Investment by MNCs in Chocó is actively promoted by the Colombian Government despite being associated with militarisation and social conflict. The majority of concessions granted to MNCs are in the early exploratory stage but they are already generating legal disputes and social protest. The communities have been working with lawyers and the Dioceses of Quibdó to mount legal challenges to mining operations, environmental destruction and human rights abuses.

While international norms and Colombian Constitutional Court judgements have strengthened the guarantees for Indigenous and Afro-descendant Peoples to “free, prior, and informed consent” processes, recent Colombian Government legislation appears to seek to circumvent these rights.

Communities are trying to find ways forward to address these issues, including through legal and environmental strategies. Some have been successful in preserving their territory and way of life, but the challenges they face remain significant.  These challenges and their possible solutions will be explored at a conference hosted by ILAS at Senate House at the University of London on 11 November 2016. Places at this conference are limited so please reserve your place at:


For more information on our organisation visit:



[i]   Ministerio de Ambiente, Vivienda y Desarrollo Territorial. Dirección de Licencias, Permisos y Trámites Ambientales. Oficio No 2400-E2-95921 de 02/09/2010. Suscrito por Magda Constanza Contreras Morales – Coordinadora Grupo de Relación con Usuarios.

[ii] Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund, Ecosystem profile: Chocó-Manabí Conservation Corridor, Colombia and Ecuador, 2005.

[iii] Fiscalía General de Nación, Comunicado del 21 de abril de 2009, Bogotá cited by UPME (Unidad de Planeación Minera Energética) in Panorama del Sector Minero, August 2014.

[iv] NIDO, Antioquia, Colombia: the world’s most polluted place by mercury: impressions from two field trips, 2010.

An “Agonized Siege Over a Roomful of Dynamite”: Histories of Violence Between Miners and the Bolivian State


by Elena McGrath, ILAS Stipendiary Fellow and PhD Candidate at University of Wisconsin-Madison

On August 26, 2016, Bolivian deputy minister of the interior Rodolfo Illanes was found beaten to death in Panduro, Bolivia, approximately 160 kilometres southeast of La Paz. The official had been taken hostage the day before by cooperative miners as he travelled to negotiate a settlement on behalf of the government of Evo Morales. As late as Thursday afternoon, the Bolivian press were reporting that Illanes was alive and well — he had told radio network ERBOL that he was safe in the custody of the miners.[1] Just hours later, however, police exchanged fire with striking workers, killing four. A fifth died as a result of a botched dynamite explosion. Illanes did not survive the night, and his body — showing signs of blows to the head and ribs — was deposited by the side of the highway in the morning. The death of the minister made international headlines as the MAS moved to condemn the kidnapping and “cowardly” assassination.[2] Evo Morales even told the media his government had survived a “coup” attempt.[3] Less public has been the response to the deaths of four miners at the hands of Bolivian security forces.


Police confront cooperative miners, August 2016. Source: La Razón

These kinds of deaths in places like Bolivia are reported globally as routine signs of disorder, but they are not. The deaths of these miners highlight a change in the terms of the MAS coalition, currently under significant pressure to live up to its populist promises and articulate two very different forms of social justice: economic prosperity and social redistribution. Many observers have been wondering why cooperative miners, some of the staunchest allies of the MAS government since 2005, would attack a MAS official.[4] Others have noted the relative privilege the miners enjoy within the current political moment, especially in contrast to activists in areas such as the Amazon, who have been clashing with MAS since 2011. Certainly, the government wants to dismiss the demands of the striking cooperativistas as excessive. And indeed, many of the demands of the striking cooperativistas seem designed to exclude others from protection: cooperatives are resisting, among other things, increased environmental regulation and the recognition of unions among the employees of cooperative members.[5]

But this hostage crisis is far from unprecedented, as Bolivia has a long history of miners negotiating with the government in the language of violence. In 1942 and again in 1967, the Bolivian state sent the army to quell miner’s strikes, resulting in dozens of casualties.[6] Workers sometimes tried to hold off the army with dynamite, as happened during the military coups of General Natusch Busch in 1979 and General García Meza in 1980.[7] Bolivia’s more populist governments have tended to avoid full scale confrontations between the army and the miners, but even then negotiations have sometimes taken the form of violent clashes. The government of the Revolutionary Nationalist Movement (MNR, 1952-1964) was initially friendly to miners but as it shifted from a policy of labour conciliation to one of labour repression, there were several serious clashes, many of which took the form of hostage crises.

Miners carry MNR President Victor Paz Estenssoro after the Nationalization of the mines, 1952. Source: La Razón Digital, Bolivia.

Miners carry MNR President Victor Paz Estenssoro after the Nationalization of the mines, 1952. Source: La Razón Digital, Bolivia.

In December 1963, during a strike over salaries and layoffs, members of the Siglo XX miners’ union took several American engineers and Peace Corps volunteers hostage in order to protest abuses by the state. In this case, the intervention of minister (and union leader) Juan Lechín successfully secured the release of the prisoners. The miners had not intended to kill the men, and in fact they allowed a reporter and photographer from Life Magazine to interview them and document the impromptu games they played to stave off boredom and fear.[8] However, activist Domitila Barrios de Chungara recalled that the union rank and file, terrified and angry after hearing reports that they would face an invasion by the army and peasant militias from Ucureña, had burst into the building housing the Americans and nearly killed them before the negotiations concluded. It was only the firm resolve of the women of the Miners’ Housewives Committee — who were guarding the hostages — that prevented these untimely and politically inexpedient killings.[9] Had the military fired on miners, the situation may well have ended up more like last month’s conflict.

In both of the historical cases cited above, these protests occurred against a “friendly” MNR government. While the MNR had been moving to the right since the 1950s, even as late as 1963, the government claimed to represent the miners in a multi-class coalition. The miners went on strike and took hostages in order to demonstrate that this alliance had limits. The same Life reporter also spoke to a miner about why he was protesting against the government and was told only that “I am too poor to fear death.” In the modern-day case, minister Illanes himself originally reported to Radio Pio XII that his kidnapping was in part a protective measure given the level of popular anger towards him. Cooperative leaders hoped to keep negotiating lines open with the kidnapping, not to shut them down.

In the days after Illanes’ death, a recording emerged of a phone conversation allegedly involving Agustín Choque, vicepresident of the Federation of Cooperative Miners (FENCOMIN), and an unidentified government functionary. In the profanity-laden conversation, the government official calls Choque “brother,” but warns the leader that the kidnapping has taken the mining crisis to “another level,” and that Choque is “playing with his life.” Choque, for his part, confessed that he did not know exactly what had triggered the kidnapping but demanded that the official refrain from threatening him. Around the time when this conversation took place, FENCOMIN issued a furious statement condemning the deaths of several protesters, calling out the “dictatorial” response of the MAS government to the miners’ strike, and reminding the public that the police had killed miners two years before. Here is clear evidence that this kidnapping was part of a negotiation with the state that was spiralling out of control. When the miners took Illanes hostage, they wanted to ensure the safe treatment of their own strike representatives. But as clashes with police escalated, the leaders of FENCOMIN lost control over the situation.

Table from Elena McGrath, “Drinking and Dynamite: Revolution and Social Struggle in Bolivia, 1900-1992” (University of Wisconsin, 2016). Data from: Ministerio de Minería y Metalurgia, and Corporación Minera de Bolivia (COMIBOL). Dossier: Estadísticas Del Sector Minero Metalúrgico 1980-2013. La Paz, Bolivia: Estado Plurinacional de Bolivia, 2014, pg 31.

Table from Elena McGrath, “Drinking and Dynamite: Revolution and Social Struggle in Bolivia, 1900-1992” (University of Wisconsin, 2016). Data from: Ministerio de Minería y Metalurgia, and Corporación Minera de Bolivia (COMIBOL). Dossier: Estadísticas Del Sector Minero Metalúrgico 1980-2013. La Paz, Bolivia: Estado Plurinacional de Bolivia, 2014, pg 31.

There is a material difference in the conditions of the workers these days. The striking miners in this case are not salaried employees, but members of cooperatives. In 1985, the democratically elected government shut down state mines all across Bolivia under the auspices of IMF-backed austerity. Closed alongside these mines were the welfare structures and policies that had aimed to guarantee some kind of economic security and physical safety for the dangerous work of the mines. In the neoliberal climate of the 1980s, cooperatives seemed to offer a new kind of mining economy that could be encouraged without state investment, providing a solution to the crisis in employment and spiralling poverty without involving the state in provision of costly social security and workplace protections.[10] Most importantly, in the political moment of the 1980s, cooperatives were seen as a way to replace the powerful worker’s unions. In cooperatives, members take on the entirety of the risk, but they also reap all of the profits of any ores they can sell to state banks at preferential prices. In practice, there is a vast difference between poor cooperatives, where members scrape by with very little equipment, protection, or remuneration and wealthy cooperatives whose members own chains of hotels, bus fleets, and who employ paid workers to enter the mines on their behalf.[11]

The MAS government has attempted to strike a balance between social redistribution and national capital by encouraging groups like the cooperative miners with preferential treatment, but as with the MNR in 1964, the limits of this political coalition are showing. Morales responded to the latest conflict by reforming the mining code yet again, restricting some privileges and especially by outlawing the use of dynamite at protest — a measure designed to tar the miners’ very methods of protest as inherently violent.[12] The similarity in both cases is that as the political coalition unravelled, the state miners of the 1960s and likewise the cooperative miners of the 2010s are being accused of greed, entitlement, and unrealistic expectations of political favour. For the miners, this fight is about levelling the playing field: no matter how privileged, miners risk their lives on a daily basis in order to earn their living. The threat of death is a feature of their daily lives. The Morales government achieved power at least in part by promoting the idea that the government should not be killing its poor.[13] When his government stopped talking about the miners as though their lives were as worthy as those of the police, Morales put the very foundations of his government at risk.



[1] “Illanes Dice Que Su Liberación Está Condicionada a Que Se Instale El Diálogo,” La Razón, August 25, 2016, Digital edition, sec. Seguridad Nacional,

[2] Reuters, “Bolivian Deputy Interior Minister Beaten to Death by Miners,” The Guardian, August 25, 2016, World edition,

[3] “Evo Denunció Un Intento de ‘Golpe de Estado,’” La Nación, August 28, 2016, El Mundo edition,

[4] “Bolivia: Por Qué Los Mineros ‘Consentidos’ de Evo Morales Llegaron Al Extremo de Matar a Uno de Sus Viceministros,” BBC Mundo, August 26, 2016, sec. América Latina,

[5] Manuel Filomeno, “Una a Una, Las Demandas de Los Cooperativistas Mineros,” Diario Pagina Siete, August 27, 2016,

[6] Soria Galvarro T et al., 1967: San Juan a sangre y fuego (La Paz: Punto de Encuentro, 2008).

[7] “BOLIVIA’S ‘POPULAR FRONT’ GOVERNMENT; From Tin Mines to Coca Fields,” Guardian Weekly, February 20, 1983; “Around the World: Bolivian Miners Say Strike Continues Despite Siege,” New York Times, July 28, 1980, Late City Final Edition edition, sec. A.

[8] Miguel Acoca, “Hostages of a Mob of Miners: The Exclusive Story of Four Americans and 10 Days of Terror in Bolivia,” Life, January 3, 1964. Magazine coverage is available in full at:

[9] Domitila Barrios de Chungara, Let Me Speak! Testimony Of Domitila, A Woman of the Bolivian Mines, ed. Moema Viezzer, First Edition (Monthly Review Press, 1978), 88. The hostages did not appreciate the favor. The Life reporter who visited the hostages during this time called them “an unsmiling bunch of Lady Macbeths,” Acoca, “Hostages of a Mob of Miners: The Exclusive Story of Four Americans and 10 Days of Terror in Bolivia,” 66.

[10] The first mining cooperatives date back to the 1930s, nevertheless, state support for this group dates to 1958. Hernan Siles Zuazo, “Ley General de Sociedades Cooperativas,” DL Nº 5035, 13 de Septiembre de 1958; Evo Morales updated this law in 2013, in an attempt to cast cooperative mining as a part of the revolutionary democratic process of 21st century Bolivia. [BO-L-N356] Bolivia: Ley general de cooperativas, 11 de abril de 2013

[11] Jocelyn Michard, Cooperativistas Mineras En Bolivia: Formas de Organización, Producción, Y Comercialización (Cochabamba, Bolivia: Centro de Documentación e Información, 2008).

[12] jame.E681459d, “‘Paquetazo legal’ revierte concesiones de cooperativas asociadas a privados,” Text, Erbol Digital, (September 1, 2016),

[13] “Quintana Se Estrella Contra Página Siete Y Lo Tilda de ‘polilla Sin Sangre’ – Diario Pagina Siete,” Diario Pagina Siete, September 6, 2016,

Rio and the Surreal: The 2016 Olympic Games in a ‘Glocal’ Context


by Giselle Datz, Associate Professor of Government & International Affairs, Virginia Tech

Paradoxically ritualistic and idiosyncratic, the Rio Olympics were set against a background of perplexing global and local dynamics which converge around the challenge of resilience.

Rio Olympics

Olympic Games reveal an inherent paradox.  They are part of a recurrent and ritualistic tradition, not only in terms of their peace and brotherhood ideals, but also in some of their bureaucratic procedures. Locations are selected in advance through competitive bid processes, mascots designed, competitions are rigidly scheduled and many of the operations before and after the opening ceremony are tightly run by the International Olympics Committee.

However, much in the Games is also markedly contextual to the locations where they take place and the discrete moments in history to which they belong.  Every four years, a different city attempts to woo the world with its own grandiose opening and closing shows, where pride and personality are employed to sell a version of the national that aspires to become unforgettable (arguably a high standard set by the tears shed by the first commercially successful Olympic mascot, Russia’s Misha, in 1980).

Beyond their ‘glocal’ dynamics, each Olympic Games nearly always reveal their own version of the predictable messiness that hosting such a large scale event – with all its infrastructure demands – entails. Delays in preparations are legendary. The Rio Games are likely to have won a position on the podium for providing one of the ‘most disorderly preparation[s] yet’ along with Sochi and Athens[1]. In the week preceding the opening of the Games, the international media featured no shortage of reports on how much had gone wrong – from the haphazardly finalised Olympic Village apartments to the unjust evictions of families in areas targeted for new infrastructure projects.

No amount of global glamour could shield the Olympics from the widespread corruption and incompetence that have become sad hallmarks of Brazil’s federal and local governments in the 21st century. In fact, nowhere is this more evident than in the bankrupt state of Rio Janeiro, far beyond the glossy Olympic infrastructure improvements.

Rio2016 Opening Ceremony

Part of the Rio2016 Opening Ceremony

Momentary exuberance was well displayed in the magnificent opening ceremony at the legendary Maracanã stadium. As Charles McNulty, put it ‘never has an opening ceremony been so green’. It was a celebration of the country’s rainforests, biodiversity, and a timely cautionary note on global warming. Perhaps most importantly, the opening ceremony also ‘provided an opportunity to reframe a sporting event that was in danger of becoming the embodiment of the world’s brooding mood’.

Indeed, the XXXI Olympiad took place amidst a seemingly surreal historical moment. It was marked by events that have captured most of the media’s attention of late: the Brexit vote, ‘lone wolf’ terrorist attacks, the confirmation of Donald Trump as the Republican presidential candidate, and widespread repression in Turkey in the aftermath of a(nother) failed coup.

At home too, the Games revealed their share of surreal dynamics, marked by a reversal of fortune of grand proportions.

In 2009, Rio beat Tokyo, Madrid, and Chicago in a ‘bid’ to become the first South American city ever to host the Olympic Games. The victory was reportedly emblematic of ‘Brazil’s remarkable rise (…) from a near basket case to an economic and diplomatic heavyweight’.. It was expected that having weathered the 2008 global financial crisis, the ‘BRIC’ nations of Brazil, Russia, India and China, supposedly the fastest growing economies in the world, would drive global economic recovery.

Temer, Dilma, and Lula in happier times...

Temer, Dilma, and Lula in happier times…

Fast forward seven years and the contrast is stark. Lula da Silva, the president whose winning bids for hosting both the 2014 World Cup and the Olympics brought renewed attention to Brazil, did not even attend the opening ceremony. Also conspicuously absent was his ally and successor as president, Dilma Rousseff; impeached by Brazil’s lower House, she is now being judged in the Senate. Instead, it was interim president Michel Temer who – whilst being booed by some of the attendees – declared the Games officially open.

While in 2009 Lula’s party, the PT, seemed set to perpetuate its grip on power, as the Rio Games got underway, some of its leaders and three of its former treasurers were jailed as part of the mensalão and ‘car wash’ corruption investigations[2]. Lula is being investigated for ‘influence peddling’ during Dilma’s presidency, trading personal favours from construction companies for contracts with Petrobras (Brazil’s state oil company). This may just be the tip of an iceberg of accusations against Lula (and eventually Rousseff) now coming up as part of jailed construction magnate Marcelo Odebrecht’s plea bargain.

The Brazil of the Rio Olympics is far from the successful BRIC economy, surfing on the wave of record high commodity prices, awash in corrupt deals profoundly rooted in the country’s political establishment. Yet much as the current crisis in Brazil may seem surreal relative to the smokescreen set in 2009, one should appreciate the vast and ongoing anti-corruption efforts that some relentless members of the Judiciary have been championing. Shaking the core of dominant parties, they are setting a wide and welcome precedent for accountability in Brazilian politics.

It is also worth noting that this is a country where the steep currency devaluations of late have finally receded, a new central banker has reinstalled a credible commitment toward inflationary control, and dilapidated Petrobras may finally see the light of sane corporate management.

The Olympic Games too, beyond the surreal quality of their global context, and partly because of it, have already displayed notable initiatives. The world’s refugees were represented by 10 athletes from South Sudan, Syria, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Ethiopia. Having overcome unimaginable odds, they, along with many of their fellow athletes from across the globe, inspire hope in human resilience. It is this very ability to bounce back that underpins the kind of ‘Olympic’ effort Brazil must attempt — once again.






Originally published by SPERI Comment.

What is the cost of a basic universal social pension for Latin America and the Caribbean?


by Dr. Gibrán Cruz-Martínez, Visiting Fellow at the Institute of Latin American Studies

The world’s population is ageing, and Latin America and the Caribbean is no exception. By 2030, the number of older people – those over 60 – is expected to grow by 56 per cent (United Nations, 2015), and will outnumber children below 10 (HelpAge International, 2015a). Latin America and the Caribbean is expected to be the region with the fastest growth of this group (71 per cent increase), followed by Asia (66 per cent), Africa (64 per cent), Oceania (47 per cent), North America (41 per cent) and Europe (23 per cent) (United Nations, 2015).

Figure 1: Estimating the ratio of older-age population (60+) in 2015, 2030 and 2045, source: UNPD, 2015

Figure 1: Estimating the ratio of older-age population (60+) in 2015, 2030 and 2045, source: UNPD, 2015

Ageing may bring wisdom and experience, but it also creates new social risks that need to be anticipated. According to the latest data from the Socioeconomic database on Latin America and the Caribbean,  57.7 per cent of salaried workers have the right to pensions when retired (CEDLAS and World Bank, 2016).[1] Therefore, almost half of the current workforce will not benefit from a contributory pension during retirement. If data is segmented by age, gender, level of education and area of residence we can examine the gaps in contributory-pension coverage.

As Figure 2 shows, there is a considerable gap in all categories, with gender the only possible exception. Workers aged 15-24, adults with a low level of education and residents in rural areas are the groups whose retirement is worst provided for. One possible explanation is that these groups work in more flexible and informal jobs, with less social security benefits than older generations, urban populations, and workers with over 13 years of formal education.

Figure 2: Share of salaried workers with right to pensions when retired by age, gender, education, and area

Figure 2: Share of salaried workers with right to pensions when retired by age, gender, education, and area, source: CEDLAS and World Bank, 2016, notes: SEDLAC (CEDLAS categorize level of education as low (0 to 8 years of formal education), intermediate (9 to 13 years), and high (more than 13). Author’s own calculations using the latest data for Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Jamaica, Mexico, Nicaragua, Paraguay, Peru, Suriname, Uruguay, Venezuela.

Increasing the proportion of salaried workers contributing to a social security pension scheme is imperative. But is there any other alternative? What can governments do to guarantee the wellbeing of older people who are not set to benefit from a pension scheme? Universal non-contributory pensions – also known as social pensions – represent a viable option worthy of consideration.

Social pensions are non-contributory programmes that use benefits to bring the incomes of older people up to a societal minimum standard. Social pensions can be universal or targeted. Universal social pensions are available unconditionally to those who meet eligibility criteria of age and typically some form of residency. Targeted social pensions use additional targeting measures (e.g. assessment of means or assets) to identify the ‘truly deserving’. The main difference between social pensions and contributory pensions is that the latter are based in social-insurance schemes, with benefits derived from work or taxes and centred on redistribution throughout the life cycle. In Latin America and the Caribbean, workers in the formal sector are the main beneficiaries of contributory pensions, but the large segment of the population working in the informal sector is not covered.

In countries with a low level of contributory pension coverage, a basic universal pension could guarantee income security and a basic social-protection floor for every older person. But how much would it cost to implement a basic universal social pension in the region? This will naturally vary according to the pension level – the value of the benefit – and coverage – the age of eligibility.  Here I use four eligibility ages (60, 65, 70, 75) and one pension level (20 per cent of gross domestic product per capita)[2] to examine different scenarios. Data comes from the United Nations Population Division (UNPD, 2015) and is available for 38 countries. A modified model of Willmore’s (2007) formula is used, adding 5% of the total cost of transfers as administrative cost, previously proposed by Knox-Vydmanov (2011: 3).

As the results shown below reveal, all Central American countries would be able to finance a basic universal social pension with less than 0.7 per cent of their national GDP (age of eligibility 75). South American and Caribbean countries would need on average 0.6 and 0.8 per cent of their national GDP to fund a basic universal person for everyone over 75 years. The cost of a universal social pension in the total region varies from 0.3 to 2% GDP at 75+ coverage, from 0.5 to 2.8% GDP at 70+, from 0.8 to 4% GDP at 65+, and from 1.2 to 5.5% GDP at 60+. Unsurprisingly, the cost of a social pension rises as eligibility age decreases and pension level increases.

Figure 3: Cost of a basic universal pension equivalent to 20% of the GDP per capita in 38 Latin American and Caribbean countries, author’s calculations; source: UNPD, 2015

Figure 3: Cost of a basic universal pension equivalent to 20% of the GDP per capita in 38 Latin American and Caribbean countries, author’s calculations; source: UNPD, 2015

In Latin America and the Caribbean only four countries have implemented a basic universal social pension: Antigua, Bolivia, Guyana and Suriname (HelpAge International, 2015b; Shen & Williamson, 2006). For example, Bolivia introduced Renta Dignidad in 2008 to replace a cash transfer program created in 1997 (Bonosol). The eligibility age for Renta Dignidad is 60, and it currently has 869,808 beneficiaries, meaning around 88 per cent of those eligible (APS, 2016). The monthly income transfer is 270.83 bolivianos (US$ 39.83) for those who are not beneficiaries of the contributory pension scheme, and 216.67 bolivianos (US$ 31.86) for pensioners of the contributory scheme.[3] Most beneficiaries are women (53.4 per cent) and recipients of the contributory pension (83.3%).

The total value of transfers under Renta Dignidad in 2015 was equivalent to 1.2 per cent GDP.[4] The simple model used in this article estimates that a potential basic universal pension in Bolivia of 354.08 bolivianos (US$ 52.07)[5] for everyone over 60 would cost approximately 1.9 per cent GDP (including an estimated administrative cost). In Bolivia’s case the model appears to be presenting an accurate picture of costs.

There are many ways to finance basic universal social pensions. Bolivia, for example, funds Renta Dignidad mainly from taxes on fossil fuels (Mendizábal & Escobar, 2013), whereas Guyana uses budgetary allocations from central government  (IMF, 2006). Among the possible alternatives for other regional governments are (1) increasing tax revenues by non-regressive methods (e.g. taxes on financial transactions, targeting the top 1%), (2) relocating public expenditure to social protection, and (3) improving the efficiency of expenditure (see Harris, 2013; Ortiz et al., 2015). There is no magic solution that fits all cases. Each country will have to examine its own reality and implement a unique mix of policies.

But overall this post has revealed that there are multiple options for financing and implementing social pensions throughout the region.  The real question is whether there is the political will to make the necessary fiscal and monetary arrangements. The clock is ticking and the population is ageing rapidly. The time to act is now.


*Previous versions and analyses related to this article were prepared while the author was a Research Fellow in Social Protection at HelpAge International.


References and Notes

APS (2016). Estadísticas De La Renta Dignidad. Version of 30 April 2016: Dignidad/Estad%C3%ADsticas de la Renta Dignidad (Al 30 de Abril de 2016).pdf [accessed 11 June 2016].

CEDLAS, and World Bank (2016). Socio-Economic Database for Latin America and the Caribbean. [accessed 11 June 2016].

Harris, Elliott (2013). Financing Social Protection Floors: Considerations of Fiscal Space. International Sociel Security Review, 66(3-4), 111-143.

HelpAge International (2015a). Pension Watch. Social Protection in Older Age. [accessed 11 June 2016].

HelpAge International (2015b). Pension-Watch Database. [accessed 11 June 2016].

IMF (2006). Guyana: Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper Progress Report 2005. IMF Country Report, 06(364)

[accessed 11 June 2016].

Knox-Vydmanov, Charles (2011). The Price of Income Security in Older Age: Cost of a Universal Pension in 50 Low and Middle-Income Countries. Pension watch briefing series, 2, HelpAge International.

Mendizábal, Joel, & Federico Escobar (2013). Redistribution of Wealth and Old Age Social Protection in Bolivia. Pension watch briefing series, 12 , HelpAge International.

Ortiz, Isabel, Matthew Cummins, & Kalaivani Karunanethy (2015). Fiscal Space for Social Protection. Options to Expand Social Investments in 187 Countries. Extension of Social Security Working Paper, 48, International Labour Organization.

Shen, Ce, & John B Williamson (2006). Does a Universal Non-Contributory Pension Scheme Make Sense for Rural China? Journal of Comparative Social Welfare, 22(2), 143-153.

United Nations (2015). World Population Ageing. New York: United Nations: [accessed 11 June 2016].

UNPD (2015). World Population Prospects: The 2015 Revision. [accessed 11 June 2016].

Willmore, Larry (2007). Universal Pensions for Developing Countries. World Development, 35(1), 24-51.

World Bank (2016). World Data Bank.


[1] Author’s own calculations using the latest data for Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Jamaica, Mexico, Nicaragua, Paraguay, Peru, Suriname, Uruguay, Venezuela.

[2] These pension levels are ‘lab tests’ – arbitrarily assigned – and do not necessarily represent an adequate basic income for all countries. Median/average income, median/average salaries and median/average income poverty line could be examined as alternative options for pension levels.

[3] Author’s calculation using Renta Dignidad data from APS (2016). Conversion rates are accurate as of 11 June 2016.

[4] Author’s calculation using GDP data from the World Bank (2016), and Renta Dignidad data from APS (2016).

[5] Author’s calculation using GDP per capita data from the World Bank (2016). Conversion rates are accurate as of 11 June 2016.

The Massacre of El Mozote, El Salvador: Between Journalism and Ethnography


by Leigh Binford, Professor of Sociology and Anthropology at the College of Staten Island and the Graduate Center, CUNY

To coincide with publication of a revised and expanded edition of his “The El Mozote Massacre: Human Rights and Global Implications“, Leigh Binford challenges conventional wisdom on the most notorious event of the civil war that ravaged El Salvador throughout and beyond the 1980s.

Between 11 and 13 December 1981, the Salvadoran Altlacatl Battalion massacred more than a thousand men, women and children in and around the hamlet of El Mozote, located in the northeastern department (similar to a state or province) of Morazán, El Salvador. It was the second year of a brutal civil war between the government and rebel FMLN (Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front) forces that would not end until 1992. The war resulted in at least 75,000 dead and 7,000 disappeared, 95 percent at the hands of the government military (85 percent) or paramilitary and death squads linked to them (10%) according to a 1993 United Nations Truth Commission. Government forces committed dozens of massacres, but the El Mozote is the one that most people recall, perhaps because journalists visited the site several weeks after the events and published articles in major U.S. newspapers that forced the newly-installed Reagan administration to undertake a cursory investigation.

El Mozote shortly after the massacre (from Museo de la Palabra y la Imagen, San Salvador)

El Mozote shortly after the massacre (from Museo de la Palabra y la Imagen, San Salvador)

Following the administration’s denial that a massacre had occurred, El Mozote dropped off the media radar until the Truth Commission report and the subsequent appearance of a lengthy article and then book by journalist Mark Danner. Danner provides an excellent description and analysis of the embassy’s (non)investigation, but apparently he spent little time in northern Morazán, was unfamiliar with the area’s pre-war history, and as a result erred in his representation of the population and its response to the army invasion. Three claims about El Mozote and the massacre have become part of common sense: (1) that all or almost all of the population died; (2) that the town avoided political violence before the Atlacatl invaded in December of 1981; and (3) that the political neutrality of the inhabitants could be attributed to their embrace of evangelical Christianity.

Many people in northern Morazán would agree with the second and especially the third of these formulations, but not one of the three is supported by evidence. Many people had left El Mozote and the surrounding hamlets before the massacre for regional cities or workplaces in the mountains or coffee and cotton agro-export zones to the north and west. Based on the collection of 14 genealogies in the early 1990s, I estimate that about a third of the pre-war population was killed in the massacre. However, the losses differed greatly among different extended family units. Three of the 14 families lost less than 10 percent of their members, and three others lost more than 60 percent. Thus while all survivors have been deeply affected by the deaths and everyone lost relatives of some degree in this highly endogamous area, some households lost more members than others.  Moreover, many people who remained in the area and were caught in the army’s pincer operation left home just ahead of the Atlacatl’s arrival and hid nearby, where they heard the sounds of and in some cases observed the slaughter of friends and relatives. Fear kept most of them silent for decades, until the organization of a local human rights organization during the first decade of the new millennium. Eventually dozens of people testified to what they had seen and heard during the Atlacatl incursion, contributing to the extensive archive of information presented to judges in Guayaquil, Ecuador, when the case was argued before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights in April of 2012.

The main memorial in El Mozote’s central plaza

Second, El Mozote was certainly less conflictive than many other communities in northern Morazán, but it was far from the placid island in a sea of armed confrontation that Danner maintains in his 1994 book, The Massacre at El Mozote. Based on ten field trips to northern Morazán between 1991 and 2012, as well as an exhaustive study of the available documentation, I conclude that there occurred a minimum of twenty politically-motivated murders and assassinations in and around El Mozote between January 1980 and early December 1981. The majority took place not in El Mozote proper but in nearby hamlets and rural areas. This dispersal of violence complicated people’s efforts to make sense of the repression. It is important that we keep in mind that the Atlacatl operation embraced a zone encompassing as much a hundred square kilometers and at least six rural hamlets.

Third, many people erroneously attribute the political attitudes of the population in and around El Mozote to widespread adoption of evangelical Protestantism. Even former FMLN guerrillas make this argument, which simplistically links pre-war Catholicism with support for the rebels and Protestantism with support for the government. However, the correlation of evangelical Protestantism and political conservatism is far from one-to-one. The larger problem with this formulation is the lack of evidence for a substantial pre-war evangelical presence in northern Morazán. While some materials indicate that small evangelical groups had organized in areas around El Mozote, the hamlet itself was staunchly Catholic. Indeed, it was one of the only hamlets in northern Morazán to contain a free-standing Catholic church, which was constructed by the inhabitants in the late 1950s with local labor and donated funds. However, the church contained no resident priest, and José Carmen Romero, the local lay catechist, remained faithful to Fr. Andrés Argueta, the conservative priest who presided over the parish of Jocoaitique in which El Mozote was located. Catholics, too, could be politically conservative, and in fact most of them were. A radical priest was appointed to head up a new parish created in 1972, but before the war he never visited El Mozote, which was ensconced in the heart of Argueta’s territory. Christian Base Communities did not develop in or around El Mozote, and without the local organization associated with them and the progressive message of God’s preferential option for the poor they disseminated, Catholicism in El Mozote remained wedded to a conservative theology that promised those enduring poverty on earth rewards in the afterlife.

Finally, it is important to mention that the hamlet of El Mozote was inhabited by a number of merchants and tradespeople whose energy, intelligence and organizational capability had resulted in a level of local development that must have been the envy of rural hamlets throughout northern Morazán. The hamlet contained a church, brick schoolhouse, cemetery and was home to an agricultural cooperative. On the eve of the civil war El Mozote had even been selected as the site for the construction of a technical school, to be financed by the Venezuelan government, that would train peasants in agriculture, carpentry, bricklaying and other skills. Although land shortage and landlessness were growing problems in the area, it seems likely that the material benefits that many people received by working within the system and Argueta’s conservative Catholic message worked together to inoculate them against FMLN calls to overthrow the government.

Until recently the people in and around El Mozote have been one of the “people without history” discussed by anthropologist Eric Wolf. Of course the people in El Mozote always had a history, but for much of the world that history only began (and ended) when the Atlacatl carried out its scorched earth operation. With little understanding or apparent interest in social and economic relations in the area before and on the eve of the civil war, journalist Mark Danner and many other commentators were quick to center their analyses around bits of information that reinforced pre-existing beliefs about poor, rural people. But the reality of the massacre and those who lived it was much more complex, as I argue here and in a great deal more detail in The El Mozote Massacre: Human Rights and Global Implications (University of Arizona Press).

Abriendo el diafragma de análisis: una panorámica del sistema político ecuatoriano post 2006–pre 2017


por Manuela Celi, Doctoranda en la Universidad Complutense-Instituto Universitario Investigación Ortega y Gasset, y Associate Fellow en ILAS

Previo a la llegada de Alianza País (AP) al escenario político ecuatoriano, la crisis de representación fue un tema de análisis recurrente. En los últimos diez años, el país había presenciado las posesiones y auto designaciones de al menos 7 presidentes. Solo tres fueron electos por votación popular; los mismos cuyo mandato fue abruptamente interrumpido, con una creciente presión social en las calles como telón de fondo y la élite política orquestando maniobras de distribución y ordenamiento del poder.

En el año 2006, cuando Rafael Correa gana las elecciones presidenciales, el contexto cambia significativamente. No se trata únicamente de la emergencia de un nuevo liderazgo en formato outsider, propio de un sistema roto que, a palos de ciego, busca renovar la representación en el gobierno. AP construye una alternativa con un discurso refundador, respaldado en la promesa de una Asamblea Constituyente que rediseñe los lineamientos de un nuevo pacto social y de una reforma del Estado desde la perspectiva de recuperación del sentido del servicio público, devolviendo al ciudadano su rol soberano.


Hoy, trascurrida una década después este giro en la historia nacional reciente y, a menos de un año de las siguientes elecciones generales, es necesario plantear algunas interrogantes fundamentales para situar al sistema político vigente. Si se habló extensamente de su desgaste, resulta pertinente un seguimiento para dilucidar, más allá de las veleidades propias del debate electoral actual, qué ha pasado con todas aquellas condiciones que empujaron el colapso del sistema hacia una crisis de representación.

Para contestar esta pregunta conviene un repaso previo por los principales elementos que caracterizaron dicha crisis, cristalizada entre 1996 y 2005, partiendo por la dimensión institucional del sistema -las funciones del Estado- debido al impacto que tuvieron sus deficiencias en el afianzamiento de una opinión pública crítica. Así, cabe destacar que el Ecuador está organizado a partir de un modelo de fuerte presidencialismo, con una alta concentración funcional del Estado en el Ejecutivo y sin contrapoderes administrativos contundentes; por lo cual, la gestión pública global es tanto responsabilidad como prerrogativa del mismo.

Esta condición incidió directamente en una conflictiva relación entre el Ejecutivo y el Legislativo, incapaces de entablar un vínculo de colaboración, más allá de alianzas coyunturales con objetivos específicos. En un contexto de voto altamente volátil, pocas veces la fuerza que llegó a la Presidencia tuvo, por sí sola, la mayoría en el Congreso. Ambas gestionaron en un ambiente de frecuente polarización y bloqueo, provocando severas crisis de gobernabilidad que las fueron desgastando progresivamente.

Respecto del Legislativo, cabe señalar sus altos niveles de fraccionamiento, tanto por la gran cantidad de partidos que hay en el sistema[1], como por la presencia regular de fuerzas electorales coyunturales y candidaturas independientes, comodines en la disputa entre los partidos tradicionales. Del mismo modo, su histórica composición provincial, producto de un regionalismo[2] inherente al país, coadyuvó a una concepción de la política como un quehacer para el posicionamiento de demandas e intereses exclusivamente locales, en desmedro de un proyecto nacional.

Las negociaciones al interior del Legislativo, estuvieron marcadas por transfuguismos y expresiones constantes de indisciplina partidista. Además, la posibilidad de re-elección de diputados, se tradujo en clientelismos y redes de corrupción, generando poca movilidad y escasa representación. Todas estas condiciones, explican que el porcentaje de ciudadanos que tenían poca o ninguna confianza en el Congreso durante estos nueve años,  promediara un 85%[3].

Algo similar se observaba en cuanto a la Función Judicial, para la cual poca o ninguna confianza alcanzaba un 79%. El principal problema radica en que, mientras funge como canal de resolución de asuntos políticos a través de su relación con el Legislativo[4] o como mediador en la compleja relación Ejecutivo-Congreso, su rol de contrapeso/control ha sido históricamente deficiente y carece de credibilidad. Su gestión, altamente politizada, contribuyó a la percepción ciudadana que vincula política y corrupción. Asociación profundamente nociva si consideramos que, entre 1996 y 2006, el promedio del Índice de Percepción de Corrupción (IPC) para Ecuador es de 25, en una escala de 0 a 100 en la que 0 corresponde a altamente corrupto[5].

ecu_corteAhora, en cuanto a la dimensión representativa del sistema, que remite a la situación de los partidos y de la ciudadanía, dos cifras del periodo pre AP llaman la atención. Por un lado, un 88% de ciudadanos manifiestó tener poca o ninguna confianza en los partidos entre 1996 y 2005; mientras, por otro lado, un 56%, consideraba que la democracia podía funcionar sin éstos[6].

El sistema de partidos, caracterizado como pluralismo extremo y polarizado (Pachano, 2008; Freidenberg, 2004)  o “multipartidismo” (Chasquetti, 2001)[7], se conformó históricamente a través de clivajes regionales, provocando una ausencia de fuerzas nacionales. Además, los partidos ecuatorianos presentaron siempre importantes limitaciones en la construcción de una estructura organizativa y más aún, de una propuesta programática. Han sido estructuras jerárquizadas, con escasa democracia interna y poca actividad partidista. Estas condiciones de carencia estructural fueron asimismo terreno fértil para otro fenómeno propio de la política nacional: el personalismo. La figura del líder es fundamental en el imaginario social y suele presentarse bajo un formato mesiánico redentor.

En este contexto de inorganicidad, no sorprenden tampoco las carencias ideológicas. Determinadas por una concepción utilitarista de la polítca,  las élites diseñaron sus propuestas coyunturalmente y con contenidos vagos. Tendieron hacia una suerte de formato catch all cuyo interés primordial era alcanzar la mayor cantidad de votos, evidenciando importantes vacíos en cuanto a la construcción de bases y una reveladora distancia con movimientos sociales o grupos sectoriales. Bajo estas codiciones, el voto fue altamente volátil y disperso. Los electorados así constituídos conciben lealtades frágiles y dependen del alcance de un vínculo que frecuentemente deviene temporal.

Esta etapa previa a AP evidencia una creciente movilización social, producto de la pérdida de confianza respecto de la política y el hastío frente a la relación vertical que establecen las élites con la ciudadanía. Las calles fueron el espacio de expresión del agotamiento de una democracia de electores en la que la sociedad civil, además de no sentirse representada, vio limitados sus espacios tanto de participación como de accountability.

Ese malestar social, en alguna medida, fue también canalizado y/o conducido por los medios de comunicación que, convertidos en actores políticos, difundieron selectivamente información y sus lecturas reduccionistas de la realidad. Así, se cierra casi una década de profunda crisis, con una democracia secuestrada por las élites, un sistema excluyente y con muy baja legitimidad. Tiene sentido entonces que un 37% de ciudadanos entrevistados por Latinobarómetro afirme que le interesa poco la política y un 41%, nada[8].

Más allá de las elecciones, ¿qué pasa con el sistema político hoy?

El triunfo electoral de AP en el 2006 es una expresión del hastío social y la apuesta por una alternativa que plantea una ruptura con las élites tradicionales y con la institucionalidad vigente. Desde entonces, son ya diez años de estabilidad presidencial con Correa, reelecto democráticamente en tres ocasiones. Asimismo, el oficialismo ha sido la bancada mayoritaria en la Asamblea Nacional (Congreso) contando con un escenario privilegiado para gobernar.

ecu_Constitución_del_EcuadorLa Constitución del 2008, cambia significativamente las reglas del juego. En términos institucionales, se fortalece al Ejecutivo generando las condiciones para el afianzamiento del presidencialismo. En ese sentido, resultan sugerentes ciertas disposiciones constitucionales que otorgan al Ejecutivo facultades exclusivas en ciertos temas, contribuyendo a la persistente concentración de poder. Tal es el caso de la formulación de política monetaria, crediticia, cambiaria y financiera, así como la posibilidad de presentar proyectos de ley que creen, modifiquen o supriman impuestos; aumenten el gasto público o modifiquen la división política. En el mismo sentido incide la figura de la “muerte cruzada”, que permite al Ejecutivo disolver la Asamblea, convocando a elecciones para ambas Funciones. Si bien se argumentaba que esto podría resolver el persistente bloqueo y amenaza política del Congreso, lo que en realidad hace es invertir la relación de poder.

Bajo las condiciones descritas, durante la última década el Legislativo ha desempeñado un papel de acompañamiento de una gestión general del Estado que está, principalmente, en manos del Ejecutivo[9]. Esto explicaría, sumado a cierta legitimidad de gestión, una disminución de casi 20 puntos en el promedio que incluye a quienes tienen poca o ninguna confianza en el Congreso en 2015 (64%). La inédita popularidad de Rafael Correa, se ha transferido a otras instancias y actores, que el imaginario social relaciona con él.

En cuanto a la Función Judicial, no hay avances singnificativos en relación a su condición fundamental que es la independencia. La justicia continúa siendo politizada[10]. No obstante, los valores registrados para poca o ninguna confianza en dicha Función han disminuido, sumando un 58%. Además, el Ecuador, a pesar de encontrarse todavía entre los países peor situados en el IPC de Transparencia Internacional, ha presentado  una mejora en su puntaje, alcanzando un 32.

En términos generales la institucionalidad del sistema cuenta con mayor confianza y, por lo tanto, legitimidad. Sin embargo, existen todavía asuntos pendientes e incluso incongruencias. Quizá lo más significativo es la ausencia de contrapesos. El gobierno enfrenta severas críticas respecto de la falta de autonomía e independencia de las Funciones del Estado. Además, el proceso de reforma estatal, sumado al estilo de liderazgo de AP,  ha constituído una estructura vertical que gestiona de manera jerarquizada. Allí se desdibujan peligrosamente las diferencias entre Estado y gobierno, Ejecutivo y Presidente, Presidente y partido.

En el ámbito de la dimensión representativa el panorama no resulta alentador. A nivel nacional, se ha caracterizado al sistema vigente como de partido único[11] o partidario con organización hegemónica[12]. No obstante, más allá de la gestión protagónica y, a veces excluyente, de AP, existen elementos que generan incertidumbre frente a las próximas elecciones y que actúan como un espejo en el que se refleja el sistema político instaurado en esta última década.

Entre 2006 y 2013, las condiciones políticas y sociales vigentes le dieron el empujón final a un sistema de partidos en franca descomposición. Posteriormente, ciertos sectores han sido capaces de ir posicionándose nuevamente. Las válvulas de fuga para las élites son las alianzas temporales, la consolidación circunstancial de organizaciones electorales y la emergencia de nuevos -y viejos- actores políticos en formato movimiento, como mecanismo para distanciarse de la figura de partido, desprestigiada desde el discurso oficial anti-partidocracia.

A puertas de las elecciones programadas para febrero de 2017, el país se encuentra nuevamente frente a un panorama electoral de fragmentación. Actualmente existen 13 organizaciones con registro electoral y al menos 4 precandidatos presidenciales anunciados. Asimismo,  3 fuerzas más se encuentran discutiendo sobre sus opciones presidenciables y otras están en proceso de constitución o “remozamiento”, con la premisa de que diversos actores han denunciado durante estos años una Función Electoral no autónoma[13].

Posibles candidatos para las presedenciales de 2017

Posibles candidatos para las presidenciales de 2017

Este fútil sistema de partidos que va configurándose electoralmente se encuentra altamente polarizado en formato AP vs. oposición. Se advierte un desdibujamiento de los posicionamientos ideológicos, incluso en actores como el oficialismo que ha pasado por auto nominaciones que van desde Socialismo del Siglo XXI hasta Postneoliberalismo, sin precisiones singnificativas respecto de lo que esto significa[14]. La oposición, por su parte, se muestra dispuesta a una variopinta posibilidad de coaliciones.

Bajo esas condiciones, el debate político se encuentra burdamente reducido a un oficialismo autoafirmado que construye enemigos mas no adversarios, es decir, oponentes legitimados y reconocidos que cuenten con canales efectivos para expresar el disenso y los antagonismos[15]. Mientras, sus rivales reproducen el formato de algunas oposiciones de la región, haciendo un llamado a un escenario de pacífica unidad acrítica y posicionados hacia un centro “desideologizado” que, en contextos de estéril polarización, resulta seductor. Se trata de una voluntad de despolitización  social que  desconoce el conflicto como inherente y necesario.

A su vez, no se evidencian avances relevantes en el desarrollo de estructuras organizativas partidistas. Los mecanismos de democracia interna, de existir, se muestran extremadamente débiles, mientras el personalismo  es uno de los elementos que se ha enrraizado aun más. Tampoco se puede hablar de una real renovación de élites considerando que detrás de las nuevas figuras, se encuentran las fuerzas tradicionales del país.

Por otro lado, AP ha tenido una conflictiva relación con la sociedad civil. Durante estos 10 años se han producido múltiples rupturas con distintos sectores como el indígena, el ambientalista, las organizaciones de mujeres, algunas fracciones del sindicalismo, entre otros. La imposibilidad de generar canales de diálogo y negociación con el gobierno, mantiene al margen a actores importantes, debilitando sus propuestas y demandas dentro de la agenda pública, desincentivando también la participación. La sociedad civil se ha visto desgastada bajo una dinámica de marchas vs. contramarchas; expuesta además, a la confrontación con vocerías sectoriales paralelas, avaladas por el gobierno.

Protesta indígena contra Correa, Quito, 2015

Protesta indígena contra Correa, Quito, 2015

En definitiva, no se vislumbra una democratización real del sistema político. Los avances en cuanto al fortalecimiento institucional del Estado conviven con una modalidad de toma de decisiones vertical-autoritaria y con las inercias de una dimensión representativa débil. Si bien una evaluación respecto de la crisis, debe reconocer el mérito de AP en su capacidad inicial de reconstrucción de un vínculo con la ciudadanía, esto tiene sentido cuando existen otros proyectos en disputa. La representación debe ser plural, caso contrario, termina siendo secuestrada nuevamente.

El Ecuador se encuentra frente a un nuevo ciclo de acumulación de demandas, está por verse si AP puede canalizarlas. Por su parte, los actores políticos se enfrentan una vez más a la desafortunada tarea de pensarse en función de los comicios, lejos de la posibilidad de estructuración de un sistema de partidos. Esto requeriría, incialmente, de una revisión de los contenidos diferenciadores que constituyen las ideologías.

Hoy, mientras nuevos y viejos sectores de las derechas han logrado reinstalarse en la palestra, a las izquierdas les queda la larga tarea de resignficarse, de darle un sentido a un discurso peligrosamente vacíado y construir una opción en términos organizativos. Resultará necesario también recuperar la confianza, el sentido y el rol de las fuerzas políticas, sean partidos, movimientos o cualquier otra forma de articulación que pretenda establecer vínculos estables y fructíferos con la sociedad civil organizada y no organizada, superando las profundas brechas actuales.

Por su parte, la ciudadanía también tiene tareas pendientes. Más allá de la coyuntura, todo proceso pico debe funcionar como una suerte de recurso de pedagogía cívica social, alimentado por diversos sectores que asuman su responsabilidad histórica en la construcción de país. El debate político requiere de un esfuerzo urgente por salir de su condición anodina, de un diálogo reduccionista de sordos. Los medios de comunicación -hoy públicos y privados- continúan jugando un papel siniestro en la distorsión de los debates. La recuperación de las libertades y espacios expresivos, así como el reconocimiento de otros actores como interlocutores válidos, es primordial.

La crisis de representación sólo podrá ser superada cuando la política nacional salga de su burbuja cortoplacista, proyectándose hacia la consolidación de un escenario más amplio y plural. Resulta imprescindible asumir como un ejercicio constante la observación y evaluación del  sistema político a modo de escenario sintomático del proceso de construcción democrática del país. La coyuntura actual demanda más esfuerzos en ese sentido en la medida en que el debate electoral nuevamente resulta no solo banal sino, sobre todo,  distorsionador.



[1] En 1996,  11 partidos componían el Congreso. Para 1998 esta cifra bajó a 9. Empero, 4 años después, el Legislativo contaba con 20 listas.

[2] Característica transversal del sistema originada en la contraposición entre las especificidades productivas de la Sierra y la Costa, permeó también las dinámicas políticas y sociales del país, generando relaciones de competencias y obstáculos a la conformación de indentidades nacionales.

[3] Todas las cifras de percepción utilizadas para este artículo han sido tomadas de Latinobarómetro, los años se especificarán según cada caso, de ser necesario.

[4] La Constitución de 1998 dispone que los miembros de la Corte Suprema de Justicia sean elegidos, en última instancia, por el Congreso. Mientras, al Consejo de la Judicatura, lo componía y presidía la CSJ. Así, bajo el formato juez y parte, se fue tejiendo la relación Legislativo-Función Judicial.

[5] Trasparencia Internacional

[6] Pregunta incluida en 1997, 2000, 2001, 2002 y 2005.

[7] Entre 1996 y 2006, el promedio de binomios que se presentan para las elecciones presidenciales era de 8,6 por proceso.

[8]   Pregunta incluida entre 1996 y 2005, con excepción de 1999 y 2002.

[9] Un estudio reciente sobre la actividad legislativa entre 2009 y 2012 evidencia el alto nivel de iniciativas legislativas impulsadas desde el Ejecutivo (27) frente a las del Legislativo (21). Además, de 53 leyes aprobadas, dicha Función vetó 29 (Ramírez, 2013).

[10] Algunos ejemplos se pueden encontrar si se contrasta la celeridad y resolución de procesos judiciales impulsados por el gobierno y la oposición. A su vez, el referéndum realizado en 2011, según varios actores políticos y sociales, generó las condiciones para que Ejecutivo y Legislativo incidan en la selección y designación de autoridades de control público y de la Función Judicial.

[11] Dávalos, P. (2014). Alianza País o la reinvención del poder. Bogotá: Ediciones desde Abajo.

[12] Muñoz, F (Ed.). (2014). Balance crítico del gobierno de Rafael Correa. Quito: UCE.

[13] Dos casos significativos cuestionaron, en su momento, dicha independencia: la descalificación de algunas organizaciones durante la última reinscripción de partidos y el controvertido proceso de descalificación de firmas para la iniciativa ciudadana de consulta popular sobre el proyecto Yasuní ITT.

[14] AP, auto posicionado como izquierda, evidencia tanto en gestión como en discurso, algunas inconsistencias. Tal es el caso de su visión extractivista que no concuerda con un cambio de matriz productiva ni menos con su proclamación de la naturaleza como sujeto de derechos. Lo mismo pasa con algunos retrocesos en materia de derechos laborales expresados en una Ley recientemente aprobada el primer semestres del 2016 .

[15] Mouffe, Ch. (2007). En torno a lo político. México: FCE

Finding My History in the Literary ‘Archive’ of Indenture


by Dr Maria del Pilar Kaladeen, Associate Fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies

In partnership with Gitanjali Pyndiah (PhD candidate, Goldsmiths) and Institute of Commonwealth Studies colleagues Dr Catherine Gilbert and Dr Kavyta Raghunandan, from 3 to 5 May, 2016, Maria will be live streaming “‘We Mark Your Memory in Songs’: Literary Remembrances of the System of Indenture“, a series of three short talks on literary representations of the system of indenture and its legacies.

Group of Indian Immigrants in Guyana

A group of Indian immigrants in then British Guiana

Over the years I have had the opportunity to meet scholars who have done academic work on overseas Indian communities from a variety of disciplines, from geographers to musicologists, historians to sociologists. The vast majority have had roots in the indenture system, often being motivated to study their chosen topic out of curiosity about their own history. One thing that has united me with these academics, regardless of where our indentured roots lie, is a love of literature and an opportunity to share our joy in the discovery of texts in which we are spoken to, for and about by people who share our heritage. This, in large part, is the motivation behind the Periscope live-streaming event ‘We Mark Your Memory in Songs’.

To my mind, every novel, poem or short story about the system of indenture and its legacies in overseas Indian communities is an act of resistance against the erasure that surrounds the transportation of East Indians across three continents between 1838 and 1917. Whilst people may have a general awareness of the Indian presence in places like Guyana, Fiji, Mauritius, South Africa and Trinidad, it is rare outside of these communities to encounter someone who knows how they first arrived there. The Indian-Guyanese diaspora often tackle the additional frustrating problem of having to explain where Guyana is. Being born and brought up in London this is something I have found myself doing on a weekly basis since I was a child.  Once, a contact at the Guyana High Commission in the UK advised me to write ‘South America’ clearly at the bottom of an important letter I was sending to an official in Georgetown, ‘Or it will get sent to Ghana,’ he explained without irony.

It was by reading works of literature rather than history that I developed an interest in the system of indenture. Many years ago, before I had an idea of what I would do after completing my undergraduate degree, I read a copy of David Dabydeen’s novel The Intended. This was the first novel I read by an Indian-Caribbean writer and its depiction of how racism shaped the lives of a group of teenagers growing up in London resonated tremendously with me. Its proximity to my own experiences make it apt to me now that I discovered this book before the beautiful but canonical A House for Mr Biswas by V.S Naipaul or the powerhouse poetry of Mahadai Das or Rajkumari Singh. What affected me particularly in The Intended was the chief protagonist’s reflections on his childhood in Guyana and the stories that surrounded his ancestors. Around the same time I became aware, through speaking to my father’s family, of the epic personal stories that surrounded the indenture system: I heard tales of bold and brave women who boarded boats alone to travel unthinkable distances. In the vast majority of cases they were leaving a homeland they would never see again.


I may have had inkling after reading The Intended that my future lay somewhere in the past; this was confirmed when I stumbled across a copy of Moses Nagamootoo’s Hendree’s Cure in a bookshop near Piccadilly Circus. It was through a conversation with my father about this novel that I learnt that his maternal grandfather, my great-grandfather, was a first generation Indian-Guyanese of South Indian descent, a minority group beside the massive majority of North Indian labourers who were favoured — and stereotyped — by the British as less rebellious and thus more suitable for plantation work. My decision to do postgraduate study in the field of indenture was sealed at this point and I went on to write my MA thesis on the South Indian community of Guyana. I looked at the colonial representations of this group in archival documents and analysed how Indian-Caribbean writers have both played with and perpetuated the colonial stereotypes constructed about South Indians.

The study of indenture is still an emerging field and this is what makes works like Nagamootoo’s first novel so important. To the best of my knowledge, Hendree’s Cure and Peter Kempadoo’s Guyana Boy are the only literary works written by Guyanese writers of South Indian descent. They give us valuable insight into the lives of Indian-Guyanese minority communities. It is of course not just Nagamootoo and Kempadoo who have presented us with literature that represents minority communities. To name but two others, Jan Lowe Shinebourne’s The Last Ship and Ryhaan Shah’s A Secret Life are equally important works that have contributed achingly poignant portrayals of the Chinese-Guyanese (Shinebourne) and Muslim Indian-Guyanese (Shah).

When I read works about those who existed as minorities within minorities under the indenture system I return to the archive more resolute and determined. While writing my PhD thesis I had an opportunity to recover short texts written during the period of indenture by Muslim and South Indian authors. Being a tiny part of the movement to redeem the history of indenture from the seemingly bottomless well of  ‘hidden histories of Empire’ is rewarding, but my journey would have been impossible without the inspiration provided to me by the Caribbean writers who have determined my academic choices.

The Ethiopic Ocean and Luiz Felipe de Alencastro’s New Perspectives on the South Atlantic


by Marília Arantes Moreira, Research Student, Institute of Latin American Studies

I recently met up with Brazilian historian Luiz Felipe de Alencastro in Paris to discuss his latest article, “The Ethiopic Ocean – History and Historiography 1600−1975”, published in 2015. In a café, with Oscar Niemeyer’s French Communist Party headquarters standing behind him, he also had much to say about ongoing projects on South Atlantic Studies as a new cultural area of knowledge. [1]

The Ethiopic Ocean

Alencastro is known for his influential and prodigious output, especially the books “História da Vida Privada” (1997) and “O Trato dos Viventes” (2000), in which he explained Brazil’s formation outside of its territory in light of its crucial role in the bilateral slave-trade network with Africa. Embedding Brazil in a global context, he revealed how economic geography imposed political conditions on colonisation.[2]

Recently, The Transatlantic Database has enabled a revision of his books with new quantitative approaches: “as those were commercial relations, everything was taken into account”, he notes. From 1550 to 1850, 95% of all slave ships docked in Brazil: “This oceanic continuum is stronger than the continental idea of South America”. [3]

In “The Ethiopic Ocean”, Alencastro explores the core of traditional interpretations of Atlantic History, introducing a Brazilian point of view. He utilises the term “Ethiopic Ocean” as a geohistorical aggregate for comprehending the subequatorial seas of western and eastern Africa, considered as “an ocean in it’s own right” in the Sailing Age, and as a means of reasserting a complexity that modern cartography was unable to offer. Since 1850, with geopolitical transformations, another ocean has been shaped. As underlined in his article, “significantly, the American Cyclopaedia (in 1873) designates North Atlantic as the ‘Atlantic Proper’.” [4]

Alencastro relates his immersion in the study of whalers while a Visiting Professor at the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth, in 2012. Averse to driving, he sometimes waited at New Bedford Whaling Museum rather than the bus stop on his way back home. After coming across their accurate maps and charts, including one showing whale concentrations (above), he re-read the “wonderful work” Moby Dick (1851) and realised that those sailors also knew what the slave traders had realised: the North Atlantic is shorter than the South: “It is all about the thermic equator, located 10 degrees above Senegal.”

The Anticyclone of Capricorn that governs Southern currents and naval routes was key to exploration of Africa. Like Jesuit Padre Antonio Vieira’s sermons, it seemed to justify transmigration as “singularly favoured and assisted by God”, morally validating slave trafficking as a stage in the evangelisation of African bodies and souls that would be converted in Portuguese colonies.[5]

Alencastro's representation of the maritime dynamics of the Ethiopic, with cyclons and anti-cyclones, hand-drawn during our interview

Maritime dynamics of the Ethiopic, with cyclones and anti-cyclones (drawn by Alencastro during interview)

Yet, the purpose of Alencastro’s article is not to explain the South Atlantic (as previous essays did), but rather to compare traditional historiographies, demonstrating how this phenomenon was interpreted differently. His deep historical analysis of Portuguese, Brazilian, Belgian, British and North-American literatures, as well as the Annales School, shows how this geographic zone was only dimly perceived – and underestimated. Yet “Brazil and Africa cannot be merely footnoted”, he argues.[6]

The idea of writing a genealogy of South Atlantic history came after Harvard’s International Atlantic World Seminar, 2004, in a talk with the Director Bernard Baylin, concerning the “The Idea of Atlantic History” (2005).[7]  However, “the debates on Atlantic History started in the 50’s, in France; they weren’t invented by Baylin”, Alencastro underlines.[8] “When Braudel said the Atlantic is ‘a space which borrowed its past and was hastily constructed’ as I show in the article’s epigraph, he was denying that Pierre Chaunu did the same in ‘The Mediterranean’, because he couldn’t give an idea of the whole in his essay.” [9]

But Braudel didn’t even recognise the significance of the bilateral trade in Pierre Verger’s “monumental” thesis, Flux et reflux de la traite de nègres entre le golfe de Bénin et Bahia de Todos os Santos, du XVIIe au XIXe siècle (1968), even though he supervised it.  Alencastro points out that even Verger had also neglected Angola’s significance to Brazil, which went far beyond Bahia: “now numbers are proven by the Database.” [10]

While in charge of the Sorbonne’s Brazil and South Atlantic Studies Centre (2000-2104), he organised conferences gathering specialists on Namibia, Angola, South Africa, alongside other Southern Atlanticists. A book is on the way, as well as a denser version of “The Ethiopic Ocean”. Encounters are giving rise to new projects, such as a Centre of South Atlantic Studies at Fundação Getúlio Vargas in São Paulo, to expand the concept’s use to contemporary South-South relations.

Alencastro redefined the South Atlantic as a network instead of system after realising that, differently from the Indian Ocean or the Caribbean, it depended on the Eurocentric system. As the slave trade was interrupted, the network collapsed. So did communication between Africa and South America, for more than 120 years. Relations were only revived after 1975, with the independence of Angola and Mozambique.

Another point is that “The Ethiopic Ocean” isn’t purely maritime. For example, it includes Minas Gerais leather for rolled packs of exported tobacco. Silver from Potosi, via Buenos Aires and Rio de Janeiro, was the currency used in exchanges with China. Nevertheless, São Paulo, Pará, Maranhão and the Amazon belong to another geographical pattern.

The chronology (1550-1850) delineates a continuum of the same colonial matrix, the slave trade period. It suits the long durée definition, but “not in a Braudelian way”. Considering historic ruptures, Alencastro thinks independence in 1822 “didn’t change things much. It is true that the first export destination for Brazilian goods became Liverpool instead of Lisbon, but Luanda remained the second most important port of Brazilian traders because of the slave trade.” Moreover, “what held the provinces together after independence was these relations with Angola, managed by the Braganza dynasty of Brazil – the only ones with the diplomatic ability to comply with both the British and the slave owner’s demands.”

The “Opening of Brazilian Ports” (1808), part of the Royal Navy’s offensive across the whole South Atlantic, is another deceptive symbol of Europeanisation, argues Alencastro. “In fact, that’s when Africanisation occurs.” After 1815, Brazilians and Cubans appropriated abandoned British and North American schemes all over Africa, constituting a significant episode of displacement. Would that make any sense with Marx’s idea of the “dark side of Capitalism”? “Yes. The British abolished the slave trade, but kept buying commodities made by slave hands.”

To Alencastro, Brazil didn’t become a nation until the five million Africans got there, victims of the Atlantic slave trade. “If the majority of the population is black and there were none, then Brazil was not yet born.” Brasileiro wasn’t a demonym until 1850. When legal union was complete, there were 6.5 Africans for every Portuguese or white descendent in the country.

Clearly, intellectual debates on Atlantic History remain unresolved, not least concerning Eurocentric bias and openness to new perspectives. And though Baylin once declared “he knows nobody poetically enraptured by the Atlantic World” (referring to Chaunu and the Mediterranean), when I came across “The Ethiopic Ocean”, I for one couldn’t help falling in love with it.



[1] Luiz Felipe de Alencastro, Emeritus Professor at Université de Paris-Sorbonne, and Professor at the School of Economics of São Paulo — FGV.

[2] Alencastro, Luiz Felipe de, “O Trato dos Viventes: Formação do Brasil no Atlântico Sul, Séculos XVI e XVII”: Companhia das Letras; São Paulo, 2000. And História da vida privada no Brasil, Volume 2. Império : A corte e a modernidade nacional . São Paulo: Companhia das Letras, 1997.

[3] The Transatlantic Database (completed and organized by D. Eltis, D. Richardson, and others);

[4] Alencastro, Luiz Felipe de, “The Ethiopic Ocean: History and Historiography – 1600-1975” (In Portuguese Literary & Cultural Studies, n. 27, 2015, p. 1-79), p. 46.

[5] Alencastro, Luiz Felipe de, Op.Cit. p. 7.

[6] Bailyn, Bernard, “The Idea of Atlantic History”, Itinerario 20 (1996): 19-44.

[7] As Professor Leslie Bethell observed, from 260 papers produced in six years of Harvard’s seminars, only nine referred to Brazil.

[8] Bailyn, Bernard, The New England merchants in the seventeenth century. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1955. See also, Massachusetts shipping, 1697-1714; a statistical study, Cambridge; Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1959.

[9] Braudel, Fernand. Pour une histoire sérielle: Séville et l’Atlantique (1504-1650) [Pierre Chaunu, Séville et l’Atlantique (1350-1650)]. In: Annales. Économies, Sociétés, Civilisations. 18ᵉ année, N. 3, 1963. pp. 541-553.

[10] Verger, Pierre. Flux et reflux de la traite de nègres entre le golfe de Bénin et Bahia de Todos os Santos, du XVIIe au XIXe siècle: Paris, 1968.

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