The Latin American Diaries |

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

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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.

 

Notes:

[1] https://www.theguardian.com/sport/blog/2016/jul/26/buildup-rio-2016-olympic-games-chaotic-hosts

[2] http://www.bbc.com/news/world-latin-america-35810578

 

Originally published by SPERI Comment.

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

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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: https://www.aps.gob.bo/estadisticas/Renta 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. http://sedlac.econo.unlp.edu.ar/eng/ [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. http://www.pension-watch.net/ [accessed 11 June 2016].

HelpAge International (2015b). Pension-Watch Database. http://www.pension-watch.net/download/55129fc5749ec [accessed 11 June 2016].

IMF (2006). Guyana: Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper Progress Report 2005. IMF Country Report, 06(364) https://www.imf.org/external/pubs/ft/scr/2006/cr06364.pdf

[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: http://www.un.org/en/development/desa/population/publications/pdf/ageing/WPA2015_Highlights.pdf [accessed 11 June 2016].

UNPD (2015). World Population Prospects: The 2015 Revision. http://esa.un.org/unpd/wpp/Download/Standard/Population/ [accessed 11 June 2016].

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

World Bank (2016). World Data Bank. http://databank.worldbank.org/data/home.aspx.

 

[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

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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

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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.

correa_06_narrow

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

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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.

intended

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

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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.

 

Notes:

[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); http://www.slavevoyages.org/

[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.

Travelling to do a PhD: The role of international postgraduate students in networks of information circulation

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by Jose Luis Guevara Salamanca, Research Student, Institute of Latin American Studies

I am writing this post one year after arriving in London. Having finished my undergraduate studies in 2005 in Colombia I began looking for a place abroad where I could develop my scholarly career. Eventually, in 2011, after six years in academic publishing, I took a Master’s in History in Colombia, and then in 2015 I began my PhD here at ILAS.

From the beginning I have been interested in the history of books, and during my PhD I have been able to relate this topic to questions about the legitimacy of knowledge, the roots of public policies on science and technology in Latin America, and how my personal experience fits into global networks of knowledge production and information circulation that have driven particular projects by scholars new and old.

For many British scholars the idea of coming to the UK to study the history of the book in Peru and Colombia seems strange. But the biggest surprise to me was not their posture, but rather how I took for granted that I would go abroad to do my PhD. Why did this seem the next logical step in my career? Clearly the main reason is that accumulation of capital and knowledge had created an imbalance in scientific and academic development between Colombia and the UK. Consider alone the concentration of books that Bloomsbury provides for the students of UCL, the School of Advanced Study, SOAS, and other institutes and members of the University of London.

Senate_House_Library,_University_of_London

A reading room at Senate House library, Bloomsbury

However, this vision only reproduces the traditional scale of centre-periphery explanations, which basically rely on an economic perspective to study the relations (and perhaps hierarchies) between different places[1]. In my research there is an ongoing battle to separate myself from perspectives that reduce cultural and social variables to the flows of capital, thereby hiding the networks that allow us to identify global organisations that challenge the metropole-colony understanding.

In this struggle for intellectual independence a question emerges: is it possible that after more than 200 years of independent history Latin America has not created its own, original corpus of knowledge? I have heard many explanations of why Latin America has not produced a school of thought distanced from European roots, with an underlying frustration about never becoming a place where knowledge is produced instead of reproduced. Could it be a lack of PhD programs in universities? The absence of a strong conversation among our scholars? A public policy that cannot free production of knowledge from “dependency” on Europe?

Two trains of thought split off from this issue. The first one relates to the common binary explanation in which “first world academia” is opposed to “third world academia” because of the obvious resource imbalances and the dependency of the latter on the former. The second, meanwhile, sees the circulation of information and knowledge as a global network that connects different geographies beyond the developed economies.

In the first case, voices from different parts of the world have gradually achieved global recognition[2] since the midpoint of the twentieth century, emerging from former colonies of the Imperial European enterprises. As such, oppositions like “developed world” and “emerging economies”, or “first world” and “third world”, can be understood as euphemisms for colonizer and colonized.[3] This is especially true where mechanisms of legitimacy of knowledge – rankings, databases, avenues to scholarly publication – work more in terms of the market than of scientific progress. However, this dichotomy only creates a dual vision that disempowers knowledge producers outside of the major centres. These producers, of course, already suffer from a lack visibility within a largely Anglophone system which reinforces the idea that “discoveries” happen in specific places[4].

The second case tells a different story, albeit one that provides as many questions as answers. An understanding of how information circulates outside of the bipolar world demands a broader view encompassing materials, channels, translations, deviations, influences, interests, global contributions to knowledge production, and meanings achieved by readers as active participants in the reproduction of information. Instead of telling a story of isolated creators blessed by “genetically unique cleverness”, this view underlines the connections, borrowings, influences and multiple ways in which the world of scholarship is linked. One of the ways in which geographically separate academic arenas encounter each other is through PhD students themselves. Although we come here to learn, in many cases we have an ongoing research career in our countries.  And because of the nature of our economies and our growing academic sectors, many students already have some experience of publishing, teaching and researching. We carry our own methods, questions, interests, and passions along with us on our research voyages.

For Colombian scholars the PhD is sometimes considered the summit of an academic career. It comes, especially in the social sciences and humanities, after lengthy research projects at undergraduate and Master’s level.[5] Reaching the required language proficiency for a PhD in a non-Spanish speaking country can also represent a significant and time-consuming challenge. Some scholars spend years looking for funding, studying languages and completing relevant exams and applications. This idea of the PhD as the pinnacle of one’s career is also shaped by the fact that once in post at a Colombian university, academics have to split their time between research itself, administrative tasks and teaching courses, many of which do not fit their area of expertise. Thus, later research lacks the luxury of time afforded by the PhD.

In the UK, meanwhile, the PhD dissertation is considered the beginning of a scholar’s academic life. The publication of the thesis as a monograph helps to position the researcher in a given field and that process turns the young scholar into an author: he or she knows how to respond to the publisher’s expectations, how to rewrite a text for a more general audience, and how to sell the idea of the project within a particular collection or series. This training in the communication of science and knowledge is part of the PhD process, allowing for insertion of the scholar into particular networks of information dissemination.

To come to the UK is to take part in a process of dissemination that flows in many directions – not only from Europe or North America to the rest of the world. Perhaps we have been too focused on showing how the “centre” spreads around the globe rather than how different geographies nourish each other. Gone are the days when audiences, readers, students and consumers were understood as passive agents in the processes of circulation of goods and texts, for new advances in the study of consumption, readership and education have shown how meaning changes in the process of circulation and how the practice of reception has come to define the production of knowledge itself.

 

Notes:

[1] Peter Burke works on this perspective on his book, A Social History of Knowledge: From Gutenberg to Diderot, Kindle edition (Cambridge, UK : Malden, Mass: Polity, 2000). Effectively, this author locates the center-periphery approach into the geographical explanation of circulation of knowledge, this strengthens the idea that behind those geopolitical explanations exist an specific way of understand the space, also position geography in the middle of this debate.

[2] Authors like Samir Amin, Edward Said, Dipesh Chakravarti, Sanjay Subrahmanyan, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Walter Mignolo and Jorge Canizares Esguerra have become widely known.

[3] Many of those voices have been gathered in academic trends that have searched for rewritte the colonial history like the postcolonial studies, decolonial studies and subaltern studies. However, many of this alternatives have been born in Southeast Asia, for that reason they tell the story of colonialism from the experience of the British Empire. A few steps ahead have been done for Hispanic American colonies in the work edited by Mark Thurner and Andrés Guerrero, After Spanish Rule. Postcolonial Predicaments of the Americas (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2003).

[4] Examples could be found in the difficult access to works in Chinese and Japanese history because of the lack of use of English. Sanjay Subrahmanyan, Writing History ‘Backwards’: Southeastern Asian History (and the Annales) at the Crossroads. Studies in History, 10(1994), 131-145. Even many of the works in Latin American history written in Spanish are absent from certain networks of circulation because of the language barrier.

[5] Although this is changing because the years to get an undergraduate diploma have been reduced considerably in recent times.

Thinking Inside the Boxes: The Latin American Political Pamphlets Collection at Senate House Library

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by Christine Anderson (Latin America Research Librarian) and Julio Cazzasa (Special Collections Cataloguer), Senate House Library

arg_polpamOn 23 February 2016, Senate House Library will be hosting “Thinking Inside the Boxes“, a series of talks about its extensive Latin American Political Pamphlets Collection, which documents some of the most troubled years of twentieth-century Latin America.   The event, featuring Anthony Pereira (KCL), Guillermo Mira (Salamanca), Vinicius Mariano de Carvalho (KCL), Thomas Rath (UCL), Anna Grimaldi (KCL), Thomas Rath (UCL) and Aquiles Alencar (British Library), hopes to demonstrate the relevance of these documents across a number of research topics and contexts.  But we invite all researchers and postgraduate students to consider consulting the archive in their own research.

The majority of the collection consists of the former holdings of the Contemporary Archive on Latin America (CALA), which from its inception in 1976 sought to build up a combination of academic and ‘alternative’ sources of information for the use of students, teachers, researchers, solidarity and human rights committees, journalist, development and volunteer agencies, television programme producers, trade unionists and the like.  It maintained contact with documentation and educational centres in Latin America and beyond, housing of rare materials jeopardised by political developments in the region.  This ensured that its collections were uniquely rich in their depth of coverage.

guate_polpamBy 1981 however, the archive faced an irretrievable funding situation and was forced to close.  Originally its collections had been destined to be divided between Latin America Bureau, the Institute for Race Relations, the CARILA Latin America Resource Centre, and the Nicaraguan Ministry of Planning, but these organisations were unable to organise the retrieval of the material before CALA’s closure.  The Institute of Latin American Studies stepped in as “the only institution involved which had the will and the means to save this material in time and to house it.”

Since then the original collections have been augmented by fresh donations and the re-classifying of political ephemera within the main library stock, but with the amalgamation of new material the Institute has sought to maintain the onus of the original CALA collection.

In 2003 the University of London Vice Chancellor’s fund agreed to provide the money for a joint project between ILAS and the Institute of Commonwealth Studies (ICOMM) aiming to improve access to and use of their collections of political ephemera.  This has involved the creation of item-level catalogue records on the School of Advanced Study Library Catalogue (SASCAT) and the uploading of collection-level archival descriptions to both the Archives Hub and AIM25 databases.

chile_polpamAlthough the collection (which consists mainly of items in Spanish, Portuguese and English) covers every country in Latin America, it is particularly strong in certain areas.  There are currently around 140 boxes of materials. The Chilean boxes, for example, are mostly concerned with the build-up to and the aftermath of the 1973 coup, including election posters for Salvador Allende and pamphlets written by apologists for the Pinochet regime.  In addition, there are many contemporary and obscure items produced by leftist opposition groups in the 1970s.

Another strength of the collection is its coverage of human rights bodies in Central America in the late 1970s and 1980s.  Much of this material came as a result of the links between the Latin American organisations and solidarity and support groups in this country. A similar situation pertains for countries like Argentina and Brazil.

The Latin American political ephemera collections have an impressive variety and depth, and they hold a great deal of material that is either difficult or impossible to obtain elsewhere.  They are open for reference purposes to all researchers and postgraduate students, and anyone wishing to consult them or just to get further information should feel free to contact us here at Senate House Library.

Christine Anderson (Latin America Research Librarian): Christine.Anderson@london.ac.uk
Julio Cazzasa (Special Collections Cataloguer): Julio.Cazzasa@london.ac.uk

The Venezuelan Elections and Gasoline-Fuelled Citizenship

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by Dr Amy Penfield, ILAS Stipendiary Fellow 2015-16

On the morning of Monday 7th December, I was greeted with news reports of the Venezuelan ruling socialist party’s (PSUV) landslide defeat in the previous day’s parliamentary elections, accompanied by images of jubilant crowds celebrating on the streets of Caracas. Hailed as the long-awaited end to Chavismo and of the divisive Bolivarian Revolution, one would be forgiven for taking the results to signify a change in government. Indeed, with the opposition alliance Democratic Unity Roundtable (Mesa de la Unidad – MUD) now holding a two-thirds ‘supermajority’ in the National Congress, they possess the power to make significant changes to government spending and legislation, as well as to potentially re-write the constitution and initiate a recall referendum against the current president, Nicolás Maduro. The election results were broadly reported as a response to widespread discontent with President Maduro’s administration and the severely debilitated economy.

Figure 1: MUD supporters celebrating the election results. Reuters/guardian.com

Figure 1: MUD supporters celebrating the election results. Reuters/guardian.com

Petro-citizenship and the lurking devil

Despite the outward appearance of a dramatic shake-up of parliamentary powers, as Tinker Salas and Silverman have noted in their analysis for The Nation (December 8th 2015), grievances over dubious democratic processes, food shortages, poor currency management, and rising crime rates often mask the true origins of Venezuela’s on-going and inherent instability: a dependency on oil. Tinker Salas and Silverman argue — as did Coronil in his classic study of the Venezuelan oil industry, The Magical State (1997) — that the Venezuelan economy has been ‘addicted to oil’ since the birth of its petroleum industry in 1908. All ensuing regimes, regardless of political ideology, are buttressed by the petro-dollars that make up the bulk of state revenues (currently accounting for 97% of export revenues), and are entirely at the mercy of its characteristically volatile price. Alongside illusions of ‘dazzling development projects that engender collective fantasies of progress’ (Coronil 1997: 5), the famously branded ‘devil’s excrement’ (el excremento del diablo) was found to be the shrouded begetter of political corruption, criminality and greed, a phenomenon more commonly known as the ‘resource curse’. These observations are as relevant today as in 1997, when Coronil’s book was first published, and reveal why a number of observers aren’t so optimistic about the opposition’s capacity to offer up remarkable remedies to widespread discontent amidst a backdrop of plummeting oil prices.

Aside from assisting in the illusions of state leaders, oil is also woven into processes of subject formation among citizens who harbour a sustained sense of entitlement to the benefits of oil wealth, a dynamic described by Coronil as an intimate relationship between the social body and the natural body of the nation. The late Hugo Chavez’s Bolivarian Revolution was exemplary in bolstering this imaginary of the social-natural dyad through its endeavour to channel the nation’s oil wealth into endogenous development projects, free education and healthcare, and subsidised food for the entire population (i.e. not just the country’s elite).

Figure 2: A local ‘Mercal’ in a Venezuelan frontier town. This state-run chain of shops was set up under Chavez’s government, and provides subsidised food and household essentials for poor neighbourhoods. Photo by the author.

Figure 2: A local ‘Mercal’ in a Venezuelan frontier town. This state-run chain of shops was set up under Chavez’s government, and provides subsidised food and household essentials for poor neighbourhoods. Photo by the author.

Oil is political, gasoline is personal

So, what does the future hold for these erstwhile beneficiaries of Venezuela’s prolific oil wealth? And what do the election results signify for those who might not have been celebrating the outcome so joyously? My own fieldwork in Venezuela between 2009 and 2011 explored indigenous people’s experiences of Bolivarian socialism and political inclusion, as one of the disenfranchised populations targeted for the petroleum-funded socialist initiatives. During this time, it became clear that abstractions of oil wealth for certain poor communities did not feature centrally in burgeoning notions of citizenship, nor to local-level comprehensions of rights to the ‘natural body’ of the nation. What became paramount in daily performances of citizenship was rather the ubiquitous derivative of oil — gasoline — which the entire population encounters daily as the tangible manifestation of oil and its omnipotence.

The political potency of gasoline in Venezuela is due in part to its extremely low price, the result of a subsidy introduced in the 1940s when Venezuela was emerging as one of the world’s main suppliers of oil (currently, for example, 120 litres of gasoline can be bought for only US$0.01). Since the subsidy was introduced, Venezuelans have viewed cheap gasoline as a birth-right, perhaps even more so than the dispensation of petro-wealth in the form of national development and social provisioning. This is so much the case that it is difficult to imagine a successful attempt to raise the price of gasoline, even amidst regular threats to do so (see Miroff 2014; Baverstock and Strange 2014). Indeed, price hikes might very well be applied if it weren’t for the shadow of El Caracazo looming over any who dare take this fateful step.[1]

Figure 3: News article following the Caracazo riots.

Figure 3: News article following the Caracazo riots.

In a situation strikingly similar to the current hardships experienced in Venezuela today, falling oil prices in the 1980s led to an economic crisis and the subsequent decision to remedy this through increased gasoline prices under neoliberal reforms. The price adjustments brought about a wave of protests, riots, and a violent military crack-down on the 27th February 1989, known as El Caracazo, that left hundreds dead. It is clear to see, then, that whatever happens to the price of petroleum, and to the management of the somewhat abstract wealth accumulated from the sale of oil, subsidised gasoline is treated with great caution in recognition of its fundamental role in well-being and livelihood. It is, in this sense, a tangible manifestation of the nation’s oil wealth, and of Venezuelans’ rights to that wealth.

Gasoline-fuelled citizenship

Meanwhile, for the indigenous population of the country, daily encounters with gasoline are even more intimate and central to well-being, not least so for the Sanema, with whom I conducted anthropological fieldwork. For my hosts, the dual nature (the natural and social body) of the petro-state is experienced first and foremost in their direct and intimate interaction with huge quantities of subsidised gasoline, which is woven into every aspect of their practical and moral lives. This process of becoming ‘permeated with gasoline’, as it were, is related in no small part to the recent co-option of indigenous peoples into state building objectives.

Figure 4: Indigenous boys siphoning gasoline from one barrel to another. Photo by the author.

Figure 4: Indigenous boys siphoning gasoline from one barrel to another. Photo by the author.

The Venezuelan State’s interest in Amazonian territories began in the early 1970s with a plan to utilise the rich resources of southern regions — named the ‘Conquest of the South’ (la conquista del sur) — predominantly with the aim of building infrastructure that linked the Amazon regions to the rest of the country. This development of the south was a process that was later taken on by Chavez’s regime after his election in 1998, through an accelerated inclusion of indigenous peoples into the Bolivarian Revolution. For the first time in Venezuelan history, the indigenous population gained considerable recognition, most notably in changes to the 1999 Venezuelan Constitution which introduced a section devoted to native peoples, and which included clauses that espouse rights to collective land ownership, native education and health practices, and prior consultation for natural resource extraction in their territory. Notwithstanding this multi-ethnic vision, however, Chavez simultaneously directed attention to indigenous people’s history of exclusion and consequently promoted their equal incorporation into criollo-standardised [2] initiatives such as the hallmark communal councils, neighbourhood-run development projects that formed the backbone of Bolivarianism.

Figure 5: The outboard motor, one of the most common political gifts bestowed in Venezuelan Amazonia. Photo by the author.

Figure 5: The outboard motor, one of the most common political gifts bestowed in Venezuelan Amazonia. Photo by the author.

From the perspective of my indigenous interlocutors, gifts and the direct supply of funds for these communal council projects figure prominently in descriptions of their motivations for migrating northwards, embarking on regular trips to the cities, and participating in political activities. The Bolivarian Revolution played a central role in accelerating regular and extended movements in Amazonia due to gifts of outboard motors and other machinery, profuse political events in the cities, and frequent paperwork errands. This process of political inclusion thus resulted in a new rapid and regular mobility that was facilitated by their newly obtained gasoline-guzzling outboard motors, which in turn required large and regular supplies of evanescent gasoline. Exacerbating this process was the government mandated monthly cupo (quota) of gasoline supplied to each indigenous community, an endowment that sustained their dependence on gasoline-run machinery, which again impelled them to regularly travel to the cities in order to procure the quota. We can see how such circular movements to the cities are self-perpetuating since one literally needs gasoline to get gasoline. Indigenous peoples, then, were swiftly embedded in a circulatory system of citizenship and dependency through gasoline.

Holding steady amidst change

It is easy to see that even amidst rhetorical powers of oil and the ever-looming threat that its volatile price ultimately determines (or indeed homogenises) the fate of political regimes; the price of gasoline, on the other hand, remains far more constant, and much more reliable. Cheap petrol has endured both neoliberal and socialist regimes. For the time being, then, many Venezuelans’ sense of citizenship remains sufficiently stable despite the ostensible overhaul in political power within the National Assembly.

So, while Venezuelan elites might view themselves as ‘stewards of oil wealth’ (see Tinker Salas and Silverman 2015), the country’s poor and indigenous populations channel their rights and citizenship through a more prosaic materialisation of the petro-state: gasoline. Hence, we might do best to look for a solution to Venezuela’s ‘addiction to oil’ in the more mundane daily encounters with this valuable energy source.

Figure 6: Indigenous community travelling to the city in their gasoline-powered canoe. One man wears a jackets proclaiming "Indigenous socialist warrior at your service!” Photo by the author.

Figure 6: Indigenous community travelling to the city in their gasoline-powered canoe. One man wears a jackets proclaiming “Indigenous socialist warrior at your service!” Photo by the author.

Notes:

[1] Others have suggested that Maduro fears raising the price of gasoline, as it would have knock on effect for many other products (see Hetland 2015).

[2] Criollo is the local term used for non-indigenous Venezuelans or people of mixed heritage.

 

References cited:

Baverstock, A. and Strange, H. (2014). “Venezuelans fume as Government signals end to ‘free’ petrol” http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/10617632/Venezuelans-fume-as-government-signals-end-to-free-petrol.html

Coronil, F. (1997). The Magical State: Nature, Money, and Modernity in Venezuela. Chicago, University of Chicago Press.

Hetland, G (2015). “The End of Chavismo? Why Venezuela’s Ruling Party Lost Big, and What Comes Next.” http://www.thenation.com/article/the-end-of-chavismo-why-venezuelas-ruling-party-lost-big-and-what-comes-next/

Miroff, N. (2014). “Venezuela nears end of the road for gasoline subsidy.” http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/jan/27/venezuela-petrol-subsidies-cheap-gas.

Tinker Salas, M and Silverman, V (2015) “’Democracy, as usual,’ in Venezuela.” http://www.thenation.com/article/democracy-as-usual-in-venezuela/

Reconsidering Tristán Bauer’s “Iluminados por el fuego” (2005)

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by Dr Niall Geraghty, ILAS Stipendiary Fellow 2015

Iluminados_por_el_fuego-314900268-largeOn the 4th of November 2015, the Argentine Embassy in London organised a screening of Tristán Bauer’s semi-fictional film of the Falklands-Malvinas conflict, Iluminados por el fuego [Enlightened by Fire] (2005). Present was Edgardo Esteban, author of the memoir on which the film is based, who introduced the film and took part in a discussion panel following the screening.[1] Also in attendance were several ex-servicemen from the UK who had served during the Falklands-Malvinas conflict and who participated throughout the discussion. Having had the opportunity to listen to the unique responses of those who participated in the conflict itself, I felt that perhaps now was an appropriate time to reconsider the film’s significance for those who, like myself, have no direct experience or memory of the conflict whatsoever.

Iluminados por el fuego follows the character Esteban Leguizamón in the days following his friend Alberto Vargas’s attempted (and ultimately successful) suicide attempt. Both men had served together during the Falklands-Malvinas war and the re-emergence of Alberto in Esteban’s life brings back powerful memories of the conflict. Indeed, the film’s narrative is largely composed of flashbacks which recount Esteban and Alberto’s experiences during the war, interspersed with scenes from the present where Esteban and Alberto’s partner, Marta, accompany Alberto until his eventual death. The film concludes with Esteban’s return to the islands.

The film features the popular actor Gastón Pauls in the starring role and proved particularly successful, garnering many awards on the international festival circuit. However, in its narrative and its style, the film can seem a little too familiar. The problem is perhaps that, for an audience with no direct experience of the Falklands-Malvinas conflict, Iluminados por el fuego exists in a rather saturated field and consistently draws upon the familiar motifs of the war film genre. It would appear that, as Bernard McGuirk laments in his analysis, the film demonstrates that the ‘tropes of the war film are, in the end, but few. As are the modes of depicting the plight of returned veterans on the street’ (2007: 271).

Indeed, even the film’s inclusion of the ‘notorious practice of the estaqueo, a horrific brand of punishment in which soldiers were staked to the wet ground for hours at a time, very often in sub-zero temperatures’ (Maguire, Forthcoming), all too readily creates a link to José Hernández’s El gaucho Martín Fierro (1872). The central character in Hernández’s poem is, like the characters in Bauer’s film, a conscript abused by his military superiors and estaquiado while fighting for the patria on a contested frontier. The danger that emerges from this type of overfamiliarity is twofold: first, it may appear that the portrayal of the conflict relies on cliché; and second, that the ‘deployment of cliché […] widespread in war writing’ frequently obscures ‘its subject, concealing it from view rather than illuminating it’ (2011: 140), as Catherine McLoughlin argues in her comprehensive study of the literature of war.

It is inescapable, however, that the veterans present at the screening in the Argentine Embassy praised the verisimilitude of both the film’s battle scenes and its depiction of the suffering of those ex-combatants returned to civilian life. It would appear that for this audience, Iluminados por el fuego was all too familiar for a rather different reason. With this in mind, one is perhaps reminded of the words of Keith Douglas who, considering the poetry of the First World War as he participated in the fighting of the Second and sought to record his experiences in verse, would contend that:

“there is nothing new, from a soldier’s point of view, […] hell cannot be let loose twice: it was let loose once in the Great War and it is the same old hell now. The hardships, the pain and boredom; the behaviour of the living and the appearance of the dead, were so accurately described by the poets of the Great War that every day on the battlefields of the western desert – and no doubt on the Russian battlefields as well – their poems are illustrated.” (Cit. Piette 2007: 122)

Watching Iluminados por el fuego with this particular audience certainly led me to reconsider one important sequence of shots contained in the film as an attempt to reconcile these two interpretations of the film’s overly familiar feel: that the film runs the risk of becoming generic and clichéd, and that the film is genuinely reminiscent of a soldier’s lived experience.

Early in the film, following Esteban’s initial flashbacks to his departure from continental Argentina on his way to fight in the Falklands-Malvinas, the film’s linear narrative is interrupted by a sequence of shots drawn from contemporary news bulletins.

The sequence opens with General Galtieri addressing a vast crowd in the Plaza de Mayo at the outbreak of hostilities with his famous words ‘Si quieren venir, ¡que vengan!’ [‘If they want to come, let them come!’]. The sequence then moves through an unsurprising and very familiar series of rather stock images: an aircraft carrier with a Harrier jet taking off, artillery firing, images of the Argentine junta, of Margaret Thatcher, and other instantly recognisable scenes.

The sequence is, in and of itself, another instance of a rather overused technique to situate an audience in a particular time period. Moreover, in a film that seeks to avoid all ambiguity in its exegesis, it is rather unsurprising that the sequence is immediately absorbed into the film’s narrative: the archival footage is interspersed with three close-ups of Esteban’s face which reveal that he too is watching the same footage.

t1

In the first of these shots (above) the camera faces Esteban directly and is backlit so that only the silhouette of his profile is visible. The camera pans round so that Esteban’s profile appears to move across the screen from right to left.

t2

The second shot (above) is a perfect inversion of the first: Esteban’s profile moves from left to right across the screen, and this time the camera shoots from behind his head, so that the audience is watching the archival footage through Esteban’s glasses. In the final image (below), the camera returns to its original position and directly faces Esteban, signalling the end of this interruption in the narrative.

t3

This sequence of shots represents the only moment in the film when the distance between audience and character is eliminated and they occupy the same subject position. Yet, if the sequence constitutes a moment of closeness between the audience and Esteban, it equally pushes them apart. For the audience with no direct experience of the war, these images essentially constitute the visual memory of the conflict. For Esteban, however, they may well be familiar, but they cannot constitute a visual representation of the war as he remembers it. Therefore, this sequence of shots actually marks the point at which the audience and Esteban essentially interchange subject positions: Esteban reviews the very matter from which collective memory of the conflict is constructed (but of which he is less familiar because when they were first transmitted he was fighting on the islands); just as the audience will subsequently view the images from his personal memory which are alien to them (as they have been excluded from that same collective memory). And the visualisation and incorporation of this alien memory into the collective memory was, of course, Bauer’s original intention while making the film.

As is now well established, following the defeat in the Falklands-Malvinas war, the Argentine combatants were subject to a strict pacto de silencio [pact of silence] which prevented them from ever speaking of their experiences on the island. It is in response to this omission from the historical record that Bauer made his film. As he has stated:

“I had to film the hidden defeat of the Malvinas: the failure of the military and the human tragedy that has been kept quiet. We Argentines have been converted into accomplices in covering up and hiding a reality about which we wanted to know nothing.” (Cit. McGuirk 2007: 269)

It is for this reason that McGuirk comments that ‘Iluminados por el fuego was to seek some balance in revisiting substantially the 1982 conflict and in coming to terms with a complex, conflict-torn and unresolved present’ (2007: 268). That this situation still continues today, and the important contribution made by the film, is emphasised when one recalls that it was only this year that the abuse of Argentine conscripts at the hands of their superiors was confirmed following the release of some 700 military documents related to the war (BBC 24/09/2015, BBC 14/09/2015).

In discussing cliché, Anne Carson argues that ‘[w]e resort to cliché because it’s easier than trying to make up something new. Implicit in it is the question: Don’t we already know what we think about this? Don’t we have a formula we use for this?’ (2008: 178). In the case of Iluminados por el fuego, however, it would appear that cliché is employed to a rather different end. Where the incorporation of archive footage certainly serves to remind the viewer of what we already think we know of the conflict, Bauer, in fact, mobilizes a series of clichéd tropes and images to expose to the audience that the formula they use to interpret the conflict is incorrect. Cliché becomes the very means through which the historical record is corrected. The over familiar and clichéd narrative ultimately encourages the viewer to reassess the war and consider it with others where the human cost and tragedy of armed conflict are at the forefront of collective memory. And revealing the human side of the conflict was precisely the task which Edgardo Esteban stated was an important motivation for writing his memoir from the outset. In this regard, the film is undoubtedly a faithful adaptation of the original text.

 

[1]. The panel was organised and chaired by Professor Bernard McGuirk (University of  Nottingham) and featured Stuart Urban (Director and writer of the movie, An Ungentlemanly Act, 1992), Jeremy McTeague (Communications Executive, Falklands-Malvinas veteran, and author of ‘Who Cares About the Enemy?’ 2009), Tessa Morrison (Institute of Modern Languages Research), and myself, in dialogue with Edgardo Esteban. The present article is a revised version of the comments I made during the discussion.

 

Bibliography:

BBC News, ‘Argentine Conscript Speaks of Falklands Abuse by Superiors’,  (24/09/2015) <http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-latin-america-34335103> [Accessed 11/11/2015]

———, ‘Argentine Falklands War Troops Tortured by their Own Side’,  (14/09/2015) <http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-latin-america-34252025> [Accessed 11/11/2015]

Carson, Anne, ‘Variations on the Right to Remain Silent’, A Public Space, 7 (2008), 179-87

Maguire, Geoffrey, ‘Between Victims and Veterans: Remembering the Malvinas and Framing Nationalism in Julio Cardoso’s Locos de la bandera (2004) and Tristán Bauer’s Iluminados por el fuego (2005)’, in La Guerre de Malouines: Trente Ans Après ed. by Michael Parsons and Diana Quattrocchi-Woisson. (Forthcoming)

McGuirk, Bernard, Falklands-Malvinas: An Unfinished Business (Seattle: New Ventures, 2007)

McLoughlin, Catherine Mary, Authoring War: The Literary Representation of War from the Iliad to Iraq (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011)

McTeague, Jeremy, ‘Who Cares About the Enemy?’, in Hors de Combat: The Falklands-Malvinas Conflict in Retrospect, ed. by Diego F. Garcia Quiroga and Mike Seear. (Nottingham: Critical, Cultural and Communications Press, 2009), pp. 53-61

Piette, Adam, ‘Keith Douglas and the Poetry of the Second World War’, in The Cambridge Companion to Twentieth-Century English Poetry, ed. by Neil Corcoran. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), pp. 117-30

 

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