The Latin American Diaries |

Archive: Mar 2015


América Latina en tiempo real

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by His Excellency Manuel J. Benítez de Castro, ILAS Associate Fellow

ILAS Associate Fellow Manuel J. Benítez de Castro of the Argentine Ministry of Foreign Affairs gives an introduction to his recent reflections on the cultural, social, political, and economic factors that have shaped contemporary Latin America (full article available here in PDF in Spanish).

En noviembre de 2014, el Real Instituto Elcano me invitó a dar una charla en Madrid, sobre un tema que definió como “América Latina en la actualidad”. Puesto a la tarea de preparar esa charla, recordé las innúmeras charlas que, durante mis últimos catorce años en la Dirección de Europa occidental del Ministerio, había mantenido con diplomáticos y empresarios europeos, en mayor número con españoles, intentando explicarles en qué consistía el “peronismo”, los “movimientos populistas” y cómo y por qué funciona como funciona la política en nuestros países… a menudo con un magro resultado de comprensión. Mis  interlocutores, que partían de sus matrices cognitivas europeas, veían que la realidad cotidiana de la Argentina les resultaba absolutamente familiar, “a la europea” y sin embargo constataban que los desarrollos políticos les sorprendían invariablemente, y generalmente no para bien! Entonces pensé que esa era una buena ocasión para traducir en términos académicos, me animo a decir científicos, un paradigma de los fenómenos sociales y políticos latinoamericanos que ayude a explicar lo que ocurre actualmente en América Latina, y qué puede esperarse que produzca la globalización en el ámbito regional.

SSamuel Huntington (derecha), en su libro “Choque de Civilizaciones”, define a América Latina como “un brote inmediato de otra civilización de larga vida” (que es la occidental), y “puede ser concebida tanto una subcivilización dentro de la civilización occidental, como una civilización separada con una cercana filiación con Occidente y dividida sobre su pertenencia a Occidente.” Y concluye: “Para un análisis centrado en las implicancias políticas de las civilizaciones, incluyendo las relaciones entre América Latina por una parte y Norteamérica y Europa por la otra parte, la última designación es más apropiada y útil.”

Dado que el concepto de “subcivilización” no tiene una connotación muy precisa, prefiero recurrir a la noción de “estructura emergente”, que nos permite enfocar a la cultura latinoamericana como una “cultura emergente” de la civilización occidental, o sea una cultura originada por una determinada configuración estructural – ergo, históricamente condicionada por la misma -, que se desarrolla y genera sus propios atributos y capacidades e interactúa autónomamente con la estructura de la cual se desprende.

Esa perspectiva teórica se ve favorecida por la adopción de una “lente de corrección”, que nos ayuda a “enfocar” con mayor precisión la entidad de América Latina: el concepto de “pliegue”, desarrollado por Deleuze. Así como un pliegue mantiene la textura y el color de una superficie, desarrollándola en un nivel diferente, a partir de esa disrupción que constituye el mismo pliegue, América Latina, como estructura emergente del momento expansivo de esa otra estructura que fue la civilización europea en los siglos XV al XVIII  inclusive, es, en realidad, un “pliegue” de la cultura occidental. Así como el pliegue marca una discontinuidad en la continuidad, América se “despliega” de la cultura occidental con un resorte propio, marcando una continuidad cultural que emerge de la discontinuidad histórica, y que lleva a lo largo de su desarrollo ese doble signo de continuación discontinuada.

Cuatro factores claves

Ese pliegue, en mi enfoque, se produce por la combinación de cuatro factores principales: 1) el multiculturalismo constitutivo de la sociedad latinoamericana, presente desde su mismo origen; 2) la importación de las representaciones colectivas  españolas y portuguesas en los siglos XVI a XVIII, entendiendo como tales los valores, ideas, instituciones, normas, organizaciones, procedimientos y mecanismos que se implantaron en tiempos de la colonia, y posteriormente el conjunto de instituciones europeas y norteamericanas con las que se forjaron los órdenes políticos en el siglo XIX; 3) la influencia de la dimensiones espacial de América en la realidad cotidiana de esos siglos y en el desarrollo histórico de sus sociedades; 4) la aceleración de los tiempos americanos.

Esos cuatro factores no actuaron homogéneamente en todo el espacio de América Latina. La conquista española se expandió sobre el territorio de tres grandes culturas aborígenes: la azteca y la maya, en la zona de América del Norte, Central y el Caribe, y la inca, en la zona de América del Sud. Desde México hasta Bolivia tenemos este espacio que se ha denominado “indoamérica”. En cambio, la conformación de las sociedades del Cono Sur (Chile, Argentina, Uruguay y sur de Brasil) tuvo más que ver con la inmigración europea, que se mezcló con comunidades indígenas de menor desarrollo cultural, dando lo que podríamos llamar “euroamérica”. Y el  área caribeña, bajando hasta el norte de Brasil, tuvo luego una poderosa interacción con las culturas afroamericanas que se fueron desarrollando a partir de la liberación de la esclavitud en esos países. Tenemos así tres manifestaciones culturales de ese pliegue, que se caracteriza por una matriz común y tres variantes sociales, según la conformación demográfica predominante en el lugar.

Ahora bien, la cuestión del pliegue plantea la de su “despliegue”, cómo se despliega América Latina actualmente, cuál es el alcance del cambio que se produce al acceder a la fase última de la globalización capitalista, con la decadencia de la modernidad y el tránsito hacia una nueva era cultural que está “transversalizando” el mundo y sus normas. Esto que presenciamos como “actualidad” en América Latina no es otra cosa que un proceso de transformación de una “cultura emergente” a una “nueva cultura global”, en el sentido de una cultura en sí, diferente y homologable a las demás en el contexto de la globalización.

Gianni VattimoGianni Vattimo (derecha), en el ensayo que cito en el trabajo, se pregunta si la experiencia de Europa puede influir o considerarse un parámetro en América Latina. Y dice: “Un problema filosófico sería la reflexión sobre la transformación de la experiencia del tiempo, el cuestionamiento a la certeza de la noción lineal de la historia. Hay países donde la modernidad no se realizó del todo, entonces el contra-argumento puede ser que no existe tal cosa como una ley evolutiva que funciona igual para todos, y por ende no tendríamos por qué esperar que tal o cual situación nos pase a nosotros. Yo creo –dice Vattimo- que otro aspecto del posmodernismo que concierne a países como Argentina – o más en general a América Latina – puede ser la liberación de las culturas locales, lo que en mi opinión no significa la búsqueda de una identidad fuerte como si el problema fuera el de reconstruir una identidad perdida, sino fortalecer las comunidades locales, como las que representan los dialectos.” Pero, continua “…garantizar la supervivencia de culturas locales, no me parece que esto sea posmoderno, más bien es una idea muy premoderna. Por supuesto que quiero que las culturas se expresen, pero tal vez aquí sería más relevante el fortalecimiento de un pensamiento autóctono, es decir, no depender políticamente del extranjero, eso me parece más significativo políticamente, aunque actualmente no hay más culturas que puedan seguir pensándose como rigurosamente nacionales, sino culturas mezcladas, contaminadas, en el sentido latino de la palabra.”

La “latinidad” de Latinoamérica

Qué tiene de “latina” América Latina, y por qué sería ésta su denominación distintiva? Una primera mirada, más intuitiva que analítica, al universo latinoamericano advierte que esa designación responde a una “ exclusión”: América Latina es aquélla parte de América que no es anglosajona, que fue europea y ya no lo es, una Iberoamérica que ha roto el molde hispánico.

La “latinidad” de Latinoamérica emerge más de la analogía que de la semejanza. Como la Roma del Imperio, lo que resalta en una primera aproximación a América Latina es ese rizoma de culturas heterogéneas que conviven sin amalgamarse enteramente, un universo multicultural y colorido, más o menos hibrido, que a su vez va evolucionando con una dinámica acelerada y una gran plasticidad a los cambios del contexto global. Como aquélla latinidad, ésta se define por oposición a sus fronteras y se caracteriza más por una afinidad de convivencia que genética.

Por otra parte, la praxis latinoamericana muestra una sólida vocación de unidad, cooperación y convergencia política entre las naciones que la integran. En este sentido, América Latina se construye al mancomunarse por oposición al Norte anglosajón, al mundo “gringo” y frente a Europa. América Latina no se presenta en la realidad, pero se hace real en nuestras mentes y, a través de nuestras acciones, en sus efectos.

A partir de este paradigma del pliegue latinoamericano, el trabajo señala los rasgos centrales de la cultura latinoamericana actual: el “despertar indígena” en el espacio indoamericano; la evolución de las creencias religiosas; el fenómeno de la concentración urbana en megalópolis globalizadas; las democracias de mayorías y la crisis de la representación; el problema de la educación; la cuestión de la desigualdad, entre otras.

[El artículo completo se puede leer aquí en formato PDF]

Spain’s Podemos Just Latest Victim of Toxic Venezuela Monster

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by Dr Asa Cusack, ILAS Stipendiary Fellow 2014-15

Spain’s traditional parties aim to halt the remarkable rise of Podemos by painting links to Venezuela as foreign intervention. Like many Podemos policies this is an import from Latin America. The good news is that it makes no sense. The bad news is nobody cares.

Chavzilla, (C) 2015 Asa Cusack
The rise of Spain’s Podemos (We Can) from zeroes a year ago to potential heroes of this year’s general election has shocked the rest of Europe. But their lead in the polls has brought a new level of scrutiny and hostility from the ruling People’s Party and the centre-left PSOE.

The latest charge is that Podemos “has its origins and roots in Venezuelan money”, namely illegal donations channelled via the party’s founders, many of whom worked as consultants to the Latin American left. That attacks on Podemos have increased with their popularity is no surprise, but this one is especially dangerous. As novelist Isaac Rosa notes, “few places have reached Spain’s level of ferocious anti-Chávez feeling … present in most of the media, in politicians, but also in society, including parts of the left”.

First things first: is it true?

2015-03-24-1427215159-8313558-monedero_head.jpgIf you know Venezuelan politics, the most striking thing is that this is news at all. The central figure, Podemos number three Juan Carlos Monedero (right), has been a fixture of Venezuelan politics for as long as I can remember, ubiquitous in academic forums and the media (sometimes chatting with Chávez), identifying openly as a government consultant. My own article on these links appeared in August 2014, with many others before and since. So why the sudden uproar?

Basically, because someone realised long-public accounts of the thinktank from which Podemos emerged (CEPS) show receipt of £2.7 million from Venezuela since 2002. Again, if you know Venezuelan politics, this is nothing outlandish. Monedero was but one of numerous CEPS advisers, including Podemos figureheads Pablo Iglesias and Iñigo Errejón, working closely with the Venezuelan government. Neither is it surprising that the Venezuelan government, flush with oil money and facing an implacable opposition, would pay such advisers well. To a state that in a single year lost $20 billion dollars to fake import transactions for currency arbitrage, £2.7 million on real consultants is a very small potato. Others question why Monedero received payment in 2013 for work done in 2010. They might ask the hundreds of regional exporters waiting months and years for Venezuelan debts to clear. Sadly, to find things running smoothly would be more surprising.

All of which is actually immaterial to the charge of foreign intervention, since it would only matter if leaders’ money had gone into Podemos, which it hasn’t. An independent audit of party accounts found that no executive member had donated more than €100. The vast majority – more worryingly for political rivals – came in small amounts from crowdfunding.

So, at a time when Podemos was but a twinkle in its founding fathers’ eyes, they did receive money from Latin America for work they undertook openly, but this money did not fund the party. Am I missing something? Or was Tony Blair’s gap year working at a bar in Paris a devious French plot to fund promote the nouvelle gauche?

2015-03-24-1427215834-6266515-Gramsci.jpgThe dreary answer to “who influenced who?!” is that Podemos and Chávez each turned independently to the intellectual left when the neoliberal model fell over. Much has been made of Podemos’ debt to the Argentine neo-Marxist Ernesto Laclau, no doubt familiar to them from their academic careers; Chávez favoured Hungarian neo-Marxist István Mészáros, PhD supervisor of his closest economic adviser Jorge Giordani. Both theorists were channelling Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci (right) anyway, so the most significant influence in either direction was probably Podemos’ first-hand experience of what can and can’t be achieved through a mass movement towards participatory democracy.

“Terror in the Andes!”: Birth of the Toxic Venezuela Monster

So if this is not heinous Venezuelan intervention in Europe’s fifth largest economy, what is it? Again, the answer lies in Latin America.

Peru’s Alan García was the first to realise that Venezuela could be used to discredit political opponents. Up against former soldier Ollanta Humala in 2006, García’s principal line of attack was that Humala was a Chávez lackey, his campaign paid for by diplomatic bags full of filthy lucre. Despite producing no evidence, García overturned a first-round deficit of six percentage points and won the presidency.

Later that year Mexico’s right-wing candidate Felipe Calderón, under challenge from leftist Andrés López Obrador, ran negative campaign ads (above) that showed Chávez warning Mexican president Vicente Fox “not to mess with him” followed by clips of López Obrador telling Fox to “shut up, big mouth!” at a rally. Another had Chávez announcing imports of AK-47s against a backdrop of weapons, guerrilla fighters, and dissonant music. The impact was massive, with an immediate twelve-point spike in Calderón’s ratings. López Obrador lost by 0.58%, depriving Mexico of its first left-wing government since the end of one-party rule and bringing in the president who oversaw the country’s downward spiral into astonishingly brutal drug violence.

What they had realised – and what Latin American politicians have known ever since – is that Venezuela is a toxic brand. Whole digital forests have fallen to articles on media bias against Venezuela, and to any disinterested observer who knows the country the phenomenon remains mind-boggling, but let’s not rake over old coals. Suffice it to say that the latest BBC Mundo headlines on Mexico and Colombia concern a decapitated politician and a series of bombings in Bogotá. These events barely registered in the English-language media, yet when things a hundred times less serious happen in Venezuela, the howls can be heard on Venus. But there is sometimes a lack of toilet paper, granted.

Toxic Because It Contaminates, Monster Because It’s Beyond Rationality

2015-03-24-1427218069-7056400-schama_head.jpgThe unfortunate fact is that the “media war” is lost. To say “Venezuela” in the same breath as “North Korea” is entirely acceptable to most people, including much of the left. How a renowned historian like Simon Schama (right) – not an idiot by any means – felt qualified to claim on Question Time in 2010 that Venezuelans “would give their eyes for a real democratic verdict” is still beyond me (Chávez had already won six fair elections on his presidency). But even more revealing is that it went unchallenged, with the BBC’s later apology for this frankly ludicrous statement reaching a tiny fraction of the three million socially influential viewers who saw the original broadcast.

Spain’s traditional parties are just the latest to realise that what you say about Venezuela nowadays doesn’t even have to be true. So they claim to “reveal” payments that were never hidden, whereas “supposed” donations “have to be confirmed”. The wall of media sound behind standard tropes of Venezuelan wickedness means you need only say “Venezuela” and “Podemos” before standing back to watch the fun.

The First Rule of Toxic-Monster Club Is Don’t Talk about the Toxic Monster

Worse, Venezuela is now beyond discussion, with the pathological polarization of its domestic politics reproduced in miniature around the world. Isaac Rosa’s conclusion for Podemos is sombre, but I can’t improve on it:

“[Detractors] have found an inexhaustible seam for wearing down [Podemos], a leak through which they hope support will drain away. They’re going to make some of Podemos’ founders pay for their recent relationship with the Venezuelan government, and we’ll soon see how much. The worse things get in Venezuela – and they will get worse, though we can’t even discuss why – the more damaging for Podemos.”

Podemos is just the latest victim of the toxic Venezuela monster: Syriza beware!

 

n.b. originally published in The Huffington Post

Image attributions:

1] “Chavzilla”, copyright Asa Cusack 2015, based on public domain 1954 Japanese movie poster, with elements of other CC licensed images “Hugo Chavez Homage” by David Shankbone and “Presentación de PODEMOS (16-01-2014 Madrid) 19” by Discasto.
2] Cropped from CC image “Presentación de PODEMOS (16-01-2014 Madrid) 34” by Discasto.
3] Antonio Gramsci, 1922, public domain.
4] Simon Schama, cropped from CC image “Simon Schama FT Business Book of the Year 2013” by Magnus Manske.

Adaptive Economies in Latin America: How Mexico’s Holbox Became “Whale Shark Island”

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by Professor Michael Redclift, ILAS Associate Fellow

Professor Michael Redclift, Emeritus Professor of International Environmental Policy in the Department of Geography at King’s College London, presents a snapshot of adaptive change on Holbox, just off Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula, which has ‘rebranded’ itself as “Whale Shark Island”
(n.b. Cambridge University is hosting a conference on “Branding Latin America” on April 8, 2015).

OThe history of Holbox is wrapped in myth. Explorers Stephens and Catherwood stayed nearby, at Yalahau (Chiquila) on April 4, 1842, and mentioned the surrounding coast . At the time the pirate Molas was operating in the area with some success, and seems to have had the confidence of local fishing communities. However, it was not until 1883 that (old) Holbox was officially founded. In 1889 a serious hurricane destroyed the village and a new settlement was formed around a 100 metre square grid system. The village was complete by 1893 and it is still referred to as the ‘new town’ or ‘new Holbox’.

The early days of the Holbox economy

In the 1920s and 1930s Holbox featured at the margins of what was still viewed as a geographical periphery, even in Merida. Its founders, unlike those of Cozumel and Isla Mujeres (with whom Holboxenos have intermarried and whom they hold in high regard), were not Mayan refugees from the rebel Maya forces during the Caste War but descendents of sailors and non-Mayan Mexicans. (Today there are only three Maya speakers on the Island and they are all from outside). Most of the trade was in dyewood and some hardwoods. Some chicleros came and rested on the island after spending three or four hard months of work in the forests. Later the fishing activities developed for sale, especially shark fishing, which produced shark skin and shark fins, which were sold profitably. There was also some copra [husk of coconuts used for matting] production, mainly on the mainland, with which people from Holbox were associated.

mexican_fishermenAdaptation on Holbox: from fishing…

Fishing has always been the principal activity of households on Holbox. Before the 1970s the commercialisation of the catch was poorly developed and most boats caught a ‘random’ collection of species. Indeed, before 1960 the most important item was probably turtles (about sixty per cent by value) and shark, but after 1970s the number of turtles caught declined slowly. During the 1960s lobster fishing increased in importance: in 1969 it represented about three quarters of the value of the catch in Quintana Roo as a whole. Most of the lobster was exported to the United States, but with the growth of Cancun in the late 1970s and 1980s a local market came into play. Lobster fishing had some clear advantages for artisan fishers: lobster were easily available and had high commercial value; they could be caught using relatively simple technology and in shallow water; and lobster fishing could absorb a large number of fishers and enable the reproduction of the household economy without access to much outside investment.

whale_shark_cafe

The whale shark brand is everywhere on Holbox

…to developing the ‘brand’: Welcome to ‘Whale Shark Island’!

Nobody seems entirely sure who it was that first drew the attention of Holbox islanders to the tourist potential of the whale sharks. It is generally agreed that about ten years ago the fishing families began taking visitors out to see the whale sharks – initially this was a small scale venture. The waters where the whale-sharks congregate is far from the shore but the water is relatively shallow – just twenty metres or so. In most other parts of the world where whale-sharks congregate, such as off the Honduran coast and in India, the waters are much deeper. Consequently, it is easier to see, and to swim with, the whale-sharks off Holbox.  It is a measure of the adaptive speed of the Holboxenos that they quickly developed a ‘logo’ for their island that incorporated the whale-shark. The shark has come to inhabit the island, as it were, and the island to inhabit the shark. This logo is now used everywhere, on houses that have been refurbished, on the front of shops and cafes and in hotels. It is a piece of design genius which has enabled the locals who benefit from the whale-shark season, and the hotel entrepreneurs, to become a global brand – and be advertised on the World Wide Web. Local people also insist that their interest is in conserving the whale-sharks rather than hunting them so, in this at least, they are displaying conservation objectives. The brand is also used widely in web advertising for Holbox’s whale-shark season, which boosts local tourism.

 

Image attributions:
1.) Sarunas Burdulis (CC via Wikimedia)
2.) Tomas Castelazo (CC via Wikimedia)
3.) copyright Michael Redclift.