Saturday, July 04, 2020

Ibram X. Kendi's How to Be an Antiracist

Ibram X. Kendi's How to Be an Antiracist is part manifesto, part memoir, and part national history. His discussion is interspersed with personal reflections that repudiate not only his own past words and actions, but also his parents and others. He is unsparing when it comes to becoming antiracist ("I arrived at Temple as a racist, sexist homophobe").


He argues that you can either be racist or antiracist. If you claim neutrality, you are leaving racist structures in place, which is therefore racist. And you can move in and out of the two--it's not a permanent state, but rather a continuous aspiration. For example, if you claim to hire based only on merit, you are failing to understand that you cannot avoid seeing race in ways that society has taught you. Pretending not to see race when you clearly do is a problem--your biases will affect you while you pretend they don't exist. It is such a simple yet powerful argument (and, in fact, so perfectly applicable to academia).

He contrasts antiracists with assimilationists and segregationists. Both of the latter are racist because they both assume a hierarchy of racial value. In one, you try to be like the "best" group and in the other you remain forever separate. And both ignore the fact that what are commonly believed to be inherent characteristics of different racial groups is in fact just the product of policies. Antiracists focus on the policies. Violence comes from poverty, not skin color, and policies can lift people out of poverty.

Each chapter is a theme: body, space, sexuality, and many others. What emerges is the tremendous complexity behind antiracism, which requires constant rethinking of long-held assumptions and beliefs. Further, it is a mistake to think of antiracist progress without considering the accompanying progress of racists, who find ever new ways to subvert antiracist efforts, like ubiquitous use of the term "reverse discrimination" or "all lives matter."

He ends on a positive note, amazingly enough with a comparison to his own battle with cancer. Racism is a cancer, which is nasty and strong but still can be defeated. But it's hard even for the most determined, because it involves pushing back against centuries of racist power structures.

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Thursday, July 02, 2020

Review of George Orwell's Animal Farm

After many years, I reread George Orwell's Animal Farm (I think it was assigned to me in high school at some point). It is, of course, an allegory of the Soviet Union, with Stalin (Napoleon the pig) gradually subverting a revolution for his own power, eventually becoming indistinguishable from those who ran things in the past.


As we listen to an administration that lies in precisely the same ways as the ruling pigs in the novel, who changed the revolutionary commandments while pretending they remained the same, Orwell reminds us that this isn't about communism, or even necessarily the Soviet Union. It's about power-hungry leaders. For Orwell, the communal farm run by the animals together remained a desired goal. He was all for socialism. He disliked both capitalism and communism--in the end, both result in a small elite that lies and uses force to keep itself in power at the expense of everyone else.

I can't think of this novel without also thinking of Pink Floyd's Animals album. The song "Sheep" is great, though different from the novel, where the sheep don't overthrow anything. I doubt Orwell could imagine the sheep killing the dogs. Actually, Orwell never presents any answers--he just warns.


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Wednesday, July 01, 2020

End the Cold War Already

When do we get to end the Cold War? This year has been horrible in so many ways, and some icing on the cake is that I am pretty certain I haven't heard "socialist" and "communist" as epithets this much since, well, the actual Cold War. I had been thinking about this, then read this interview between Tim Padgett and Frank Mora, who is stepping down as director of FIU's Latin America & Caribbean Center:

So it's no secret you're a Democrat – but you're a Cuban-American Democrat in Miami. You support engagement with communist Cuba. Twenty years ago, more conservative Cubans might have called you a comunista. Do you still feel like a rare bird here in that sense?

Now you see a majority of Cuban-Americans agreeing with President Trump's view, which is a dramatic change in only a couple of years. But to be frank with you, Tim, that language, that rhetoric is coming back. The use of “socialism” and “communism” to try to discredit those who don't agree with the mainstream Cuban Americans is rearing its head again. And I think it's unfortunate.
This is exactly it. You get Black Lives Matter labeled as communist. AMLO gets criticized for talking to "communist regimes." Florida Governor Rick Scott says "The Communist Party of China is in for world domination…And so it’ll be a pretty dark world." Like we live in the Marvel Universe. And we'd be here all day if I started really listing all the inaccurate, simplistic, and even laughable ways the word "socialism" gets thrown around. Did you know that taking down statues of the Confederacy leads to socialism, because that's what happened in Venezuela? I bet you didn't, but you do now!

And so what does this mean in practice? As former Cuba Chargé d'affaires Jeffrey DeLaurentis put it in a recent op-ed:

It's as if we had regressed to the 1980s, when we looked the other way at the abuses of right-wing dictators and excoriated only those on the left.

That sort of thing in fact has happened since the 1980s (see George W. Bush and John Bolton) and I complained then too. Throw around words like "communist" and "regime," and you get ideological cover to go after your political enemies, wherever you might find them.

When will we finally be free of the Cold War? The example of the Confederacy tells us it could a long time, perhaps even long after you and I are long gone. The symbols of the Confederacy are a great cover for racism--hey, it's just heritage! "Communism" is also a convenient and tidy cover, and ideologues don't give those up easily.

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Wednesday, June 24, 2020

Colombia Ambassador Talk

I watched a talk by Colombia Ambassador Francisco Santos Calderón, organized by Global Atlanta. Yes, that Santos family--he was Vice President under Alvaro Uribe and related to past presidents. You can, then, guess what kinds of things he would emphasize. The discussion was aimed at investment, but a few things caught my attention. I actually had tuned in because I was interested in hearing about the response to Covid-19, but that didn't get discussed a lot.


He was asked about the peace deal, and said that the "short-term issues are being done very, very well" even though some long-term issues might be delayed. He specifically referenced the Kroc Institute, which recently released a report on it. So I went to check out the report. It is, in fact, very carefully worded by clearly negative.
The report presents a quantitative analysis that shows that at the end of the third year of implementation, according to the methodology used by the Barometer Initiative, 25% of stipulations have been fully implemented. Another 15% of stipulations are at an intermediate level of progress, meaning that they are on their way to being fully implemented in their corresponding timelines. A further 34% of commitments are at a minimal state of implementation, having started but made marginal progress. The remaining 26% of  commitments have yet to be initiated. 
This is definitely not "very, very well." Or even "well." His observation was that "you need accountability from the other side." 

Another of his arguments was more accurate, but I don't often hear it mentioned in such a positive manner: there is a lot of investment opportunity in Colombia because it is so highly integrated with the U.S. military, second only to Israel. I am not sure exactly what he had in mind, but it likely does not dovetail well with success implementation of the peace agreement.

As for investment, "let's make the Americas great again!" 

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Monday, June 22, 2020

Biden and Trump on Venezuela

Donald Trump has been hard to sort out with regard to Venezuela. You really cannot start with any of the typical core assumptions. One of those is that Florida is critical for him in the presidential election, so he'll do whatever he can to get the hardline Cuban-American and Venezuelan-American vote. It ostensibly makes even more sense because during 2016, he actually courted the Bay of Pigs vote, which is way out there in terms of pure pandering.


But this assumption just does not seem to hold. Those hardliners want Maduro out, preferably by force. They abhor dialogue, which they see as a farce intended to allow Maduro to stall. And yet here is Trump in an interview, a mere five months before the election:
In an Oval Office interview with Axios on Friday, President Trump suggested he's had second thoughts about his decision to recognize Juan Guaidó as the legitimate leader of Venezuela and said he is open to meeting with dictator Nicolás Maduro.
Current policy is based entirely on the notion that Guaidó is in fact the president. This statement upends that. The idea of high-level dialogue is anathema to Trump's base. They truly hate the idea, even though it's actually more rational than their suggestions.

And yet even Joe Biden disapproves. 


This is not a good response. The "thug" comment strongly suggests a "get tough" line that has been failing in Venezuela and Cuba. Biden knows full well that dialogue--even handshakes!--was good policy. He can rightly criticize Trump for screwing up the potential for dialogue, but trying to be tougher than him will not lead to good policy. And I don't think it will suddenly convince Floridians of anything much.

Back to Trump: what's he doing? He's following his feeling of the moment, which might already have changed by now. He's angering the Florida base and his own advisors, yet I doubt this will lead to any substantive change in policy either.

In conclusion: neither candidate has a coherent policy toward Venezuela.

Update: I had missed this from today. Incoherent as always.


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Saturday, June 20, 2020

Colombia in the OECD

Colombia joined the OECD, which was news I hadn't even noticed. Sara Danish and Norberto Martinez write about it at Global Americans.

Membership carries real weight and gaining entry requires more than currying favor with a few key “sponsors.” Beginning in 2013, Colombia underwent technical reviews by 23 OECD committees spanning topics from trade to environment to public governance and justice, a process that prompted various reform measures, including the 2014 Transparency and Access to Information Law and 2011 Anti-Corruption statutes to prevent, investigate, and punish corruption. 
I won't argue with the notion that it's positive, but I do wonder how much. Perhaps it is possible (though not measurable) to say a country would be worse off without it, but Mexico became a member in 1994 and the rule of law has suffered terribly since then (the 2019 OECD report on Mexico discussed failure a lot). Chile joined in 2010, and the past decade has seen protests, corruption charges, and other problems. Having a big USAID presence doesn't necessarily make anything better, either.

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Friday, June 19, 2020

Review of Carol Anderson's White Rage

Carol Anderson's White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide is a clear, concise history of the never-ending anti-Black structures erected after the Civil War.  White elites built a system specifically designed to harm African Americans. It was obviously anti-democratic, but it was anti-capitalist as well, not to mention pro-terrorist. Capitalism entails workers moving freely and finding the jobs/wages they deem optimal, which African Americans were not allowed to do. White landowners wanted laborers, but refused to allow those laborers to work their own land. The important point, though, is that the system wasn't just discriminatory. Discrimination was the conscious design, with the prison system as the ultimate slavery replacement.

The white establishment spoke asked constantly why African Americans couldn't become self-reliant while ensuring that the effort was impossible. Further, the very second that slavery ended, that same establishment decided that African Americans were getting "special treatment" as they simply tried to receive equal treatment under the law, a message that remains very loud today, including on college campuses. Meanwhile, African Americans were systematically excluded from education in the South for decades, to the great delight of segregationists, which set back generations of people and caused damage to the entire country.

Even worse, they were (and are) blamed for the poverty that inevitably flowed from systematic exclusion. Built-in disparities were suddenly indicative of poor character. Wanting equality was suddenly wanting more than everyone else. And when overt racism and segregation became a PR problem, Ronald Reagan came in and blocked desegregation through busing while cutting financial aid, student nutrition, and other services that were essential for helping Blacks receive a good education (the administration has a lot to answer for with drugs, though the argument that Reagan is solely responsible for the cocaine trade as a way to help the Contras is not convincing).

Mass incarceration specifically targeted the Black community, and not long afterward so did voter-ID laws. You may remember that all the many accusations of voter fraud never actually yield evidence or lead to convictions. It is entirely a mirage intended to limit Black voting, especially after Barack Obama won the presidency. It is now common to hear "voter fraud" as an excuse to limit voting by mail, early voting, or anything else intended to make voting more accessible to African Americans while purging voters as much as possible. "Election integrity" is a dog whistle.

The book is an historical avalanche. There is, of course, a lot on the South but institutional anti-Blackness was entrenched everywhere, and often emanated from the White House and/or Supreme Court. Again, it was systematic and specifically aimed at African Americans, to prevent them from living, working, traveling, going to school, etc. As Anderson points out, George Wallace drew crowds all over the country with his message of resentment.

My wife and I both grew up in California, and when we moved to Charlotte as newlyweds, we got all kinds of snide comments about the South based on an assumption of moral superiority. But you don't have to dig much to find deeply rooted racism all over the United States, and California has a history of discrimination through laws against African Americans. From historian Shirley Ann Wilson Moore:
Although lawmakers had failed in their attempts to ban black entry to the state, California's legislators at­tempted to deter people of color by erecting a bulwark of laws that deprived them of civil rights and left them vulnerable to exploitation. Denied citizenship, they could not legally homestead public land; they were forbidden from voting, holding public office, giving court testimony against whites, serving on juries, sending their children to public schools, and using public transportation.
This is a national history, not just a southern history. As Anderson points out, the Voting Rights Act has been applied all over because of discrimination, and without its protection, many previous gains are lost.

Millions of Americans fear the Black vote, and fear Black success. Anderson ends with more discussion of voter suppression, because it's so critical. Fair voting practices would have a significant political impact at all levels of government. White rage will do anything to stop it.

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Thursday, June 18, 2020

Bolton, Trump, and Venezuela: Just As Crazy As You Think

I am not going to read John Bolton's memoir. Maybe when we're back on campus and the library has it, I'll look at the Latin America parts, but I am not sure it will tell us much beyond what we already know. The Washington Post has some juicy parts about Venezuela, for example.

In one May 2019 phone call, for example, Russian President Vladimir Putin compared Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó to 2016 Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, part of what Bolton terms a “brilliant display of Soviet style proganda” to shore up support for Venezuelan leader Nicolás Maduro. Putin’s claims, Bolton writes, “largely persuaded Trump.”

...

Bolton attributes a litany of shocking statements to the president. Trump said invading Venezuela would be “cool” and that the South American nation was “really part of the United States.” 
...

For instance, driven by a desire to please Florida Republicans, Trump talked tough about his desire to oust Maduro throughout much of 2018. But Bolton portrays Trump as inconsistent and worry-worn when presented with the opportunity to support Guaidó, who declared himself Venezuela’s president in January 2019. Though Trump approved of a proposal from Bolton to publicly declare the United States recognized Guaidó rather than Maduro, within 30 hours Trump was already worrying that Guaidó appeared weak — a “kid” compared to “tough” Maduro — and considering changing course. “You couldn’t make this up,” Bolton writes. 
Bolton, in my opinion, is full of crap. I was one of the people who really feared a U.S. invasion of Venezuela, but it took a while for me to understand that Trump doesn't actually want to use military force abroad*. He just wants to pretend that he wants to. And this is actually good. Pretend all you want. But I don't think this is Putin's influence. This is just Trump ignoring Bolton's insane desire to use military force in Venezuela. And Bolton, don't forget, thinks invasions solve everything.

The rest of the quotes are basically just writing that Trump says stupid and untrue things all the time, which is of course accurate and well-known. But the bottom line is that Bolton wanted to invade and Trump didn't. In this particular case, Bolton was far more dangerous than Trump.

Bolton has nothing new to say beyond what we already know. If he had something new, he would've testified to the House and gloried in the impeachment spotlight. But since he had nothing much, he just hinted about his book to boost sales, hid, and waited until he could get some headlines when the book came out. 

A charlatan got together with a narcissist, then wrote a book. Don't bother to buy it, you've been watching the movie already anyway.

* At home is another matter entirely.


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Wednesday, June 17, 2020

Luis Almagro Sounds Just Like Donald Trump

Under Luis Almagro's direction, the OAS issued a remarkable statement about the ongoing public debate about the statistical soundness of the OAS analysis of the Bolivian presidential election. It is whiny, paranoid, blustery, defensive, hyperbolic, unprofessional, unconvincing, and does considerable damage to an already damaged institution. It is a PR disaster, unless you went to the Trump School of Public Relations.


Almagro sounds exactly like Donald Trump: "Obviously, we recognize the NYT’s right to lie, distort, and twist information, data, and facts, and to mix truth and lies as often as it wishes." For him, all critics are biased liars and they're out to get him. And, in a another Trump-like twist, where you attack others for what you do, he blames others for interfering in Bolivian affairs. Beyond the NYT, he targets the Center for Economic and Political Research, though not by name. I've disagreed with CEPR analyses, but it's not reasonable to call it a "“propaganda tank” that "goes into the realm of tragicomedy." It's just pissy. He continues with several paragraphs of insults. It even gets weird, accusing the NYT of propaganda because of Herbert Matthews.

The statement is self-defeating. It's an embarrassment. The OAS has always suffered from accusations of pro-US bias. Having a Trumpish figure as its head only cements that image. It's time for new OAS leadership. Sadly, he was literally just re-elected to a second five-year term.

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Tuesday, June 16, 2020

Chile and the U.S. Deal With Covid-19 Similarly

Bloomberg takes a really interesting look at Covid-19 in Chile, which has been hit hard. The bottom line is that the "stay at home" message is an inherently privileged one. 

What went wrong in Chile goes to the heart of the debate over lockdowns, which health experts now acknowledge work well for the haves but not for the have-nots. In the end, Chile’s virus fight seems to have fallen victim to the same factors that sparked crises in other emerging markets -- poverty, overcrowding and a massive off-the-books workforce. Staying home for long periods, the world has learned rather painfully, isn’t a real option for many.
I see so many parallels to the United States, where Latinos are disproportionately affected by Covid-19.  The affluent can stay home and still get paid, but that is a privilege that relatively few enjoy. Virtue-signalling messages and hashtags about staying home mask the true magnitude of the problem. 

Nonetheless, the common U.S. response of simply reopening doesn't address the problem either. People feel they can't stay home even if they're sick; too few people have access to affordable healthcare; people who go to work while schools are online have no childcare. The list goes on.

The Charlotte Spanish-language newspaper La Noticia recently ran a story about how Latinos are the hardest hit, yet the state has no strategy at all. Same problem in Chile:
“If the government is going to make decisions about a world it doesn’t know, then it should include people from that world in the decision-making process,” said Diego Pardow, executive president of the Espacio Público think tank. “The problem with this government is that it just surrounds itself with its own people.”
Governors in the U.S. get a lot of attention, but it's been on "re"opening and not on helping those who were always open. Those of us who work from our laptops tend to think the supermarkets should have all the same products as usual. But people are still picking, packing, shipping, etc. We hear news stories about, say, a meatpacking plant closing, and maybe we're pleased. We don't think about what the laid off workers--both sick and well--do afterward.

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Thursday, June 11, 2020

Podcast Episode 75: Restrictive Immigration Policies in the Southeast

In Episode 75 of Understanding Latin American Politics: The Podcast, I talk with Maggie Commins, who is Shelton Professor of Political Science at Queens University of Charlotte, about her forthcoming article on restrictive immigration policy tone in the southeast, which is coming out in the next issue of The Latin Americanist. It's some really interesting research based on coding data from the National Conference of State Legislatures. 



You can find this podcast at iTunes, Google Play, Spotify, and anywhere else podcasts can be found. If there is anyplace I've missed, please contact me. Subscribe, rate, and keep 6 feet from it.

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Wednesday, June 10, 2020

Covid-19 Hits Latinos Hardest in Charlotte and NC

Every day, I check the Covid-19 data for North Carolina, and every few days Mecklenburg County (where Charlotte is) releases its own data. Last month local news pointed out that the Latino population was being hit disproportionately hard, and that trend has accelerated.


At the state level, as of June 9, 42% of all cases were Latinos (which currently translates into 10,634 cases) but only 7% of deaths. They are 9.6% of the total state population.

In Mecklenburg County as of June 7, Latinos accounted for 37% of all cases and 6.2% of deaths. They are 13.6% of the population. In short, they are less affluent so more likely to get it, but younger so less likely to die from it. For a while, the county has included this observation in their data summary:
More than a third of reported cases are Hispanic – most of whom are younger adults. The high number of reported cases among young Hispanics over the last several weeks remains a significant concern. As previously noted, some factors influencing this trend include: Targeted testing occurring in neighborhoods with lower access to care, some of which have larger Hispanic populations; 
Higher proportions of Hispanics working in essential jobs that make social distancing difficult; 
Significant household spread among large families; and 
Pre-existing disparities in other social and economic determinants of health, like poverty.

MCPH continues to expand outreach to Hispanic members of our community, including increased dissemination of the outreach toolkit in Spanish for community partners, setting up targeted outreach to Hispanic owned- and serving-businesses, and partnering with local organizations and media outlets to spread key prevention messages.
There is a real class divide here that I haven't seen play out with the flu or any other past contagious outbreak. I think there is a push from middle-class whites to reopen in no small because they don't know anyone who has contracted the virus. They only detect it indirectly when, for example, there is an outbreak at a meatpacking plant and then there is a brief shortage of meat at the store.

There are no easy answers here. Outreach is certainly critical, but to really address the issue we would need state recognition of undocumented immigrants as deserving of unemployment insurance and other kinds of benefits. We would also need generous sick leave for everyone. People who live payheck-to-paycheck will inevitably work even with symptoms because they have no alternative. 

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Saturday, June 06, 2020

Review of The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes

Back in 2011, I actually started a book review that started with "If you're not familiar with The Hunger Games, it is a trilogy by Suzanne Collins about a totalitarian dictatorship." Perhaps you are familiar with it now. I loved the series, which I binge read over a Christmas break, then the movies as well. Now Suzanne Collins released a prequel, The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, which is about future President Coriolanus Snow as a teenager.


Of course, we know where he ended up (and I see him always as Donald Sutherland, just perfect). So this is a story about how a political regime we know, and Snow himself, move from some postwar uncertainty to a fascist dictatorship. The Hunger Games are part of that, and Snow (prodded by the malevolent Dr. Gaul) spends the book thinking about what order and control are. He is from the Capitol, cash-poor but with an elite name, and his own political philosophy stems from his own sense of being at the top of the pyramid. Those in the districts not only caused the war in his mind, but they are backward socially and culturally. He is in the elite high school academy, and with some classmates gets integrated in the games, which at that point are not yet slickly produced.

For him, loyalty to Panem is not artificial or imposed. Panem was unfairly attacked, chaos ensued, and then it won the war and made everyone's lives better by re-establishing control of the country. If inferior people couldn't see that, then it just made sense to force it on them. Fascism came naturally to him--nationalism, control, and order all flowed together.

A romance (with all kinds of challenges) is central to the novel, and Snow navigates it--and his friendships--as his worldview develops. To say much else would be a spoiler. The book is great entertainment, but is not exactly escapist because fascism is on all of our minds these days in a way that is distressingly close.

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Friday, June 05, 2020

Iran Has Failed in Latin America

Stephen Johnson has an article in Foreign Policy arguing that Iran is trying to revive its presence in Latin America, with gas tanker arrivals being a prominent example. Fair enough as a starting point. Then the article goes in an interesting direction, serving as a solid narrative about how much Iran has failed completely in the region. Indeed, there is mostly evidence that Iran is no position to do much at all--it has financial problems and few allies.


I've written a lot of posts over many years about Iran in Latin America. To some degree, every one was about how the threat Iran allegedly posed was extremely overestimated. Here is my assessment over 13 years ago:
In short, I don’t think Iran will be much involved with Latin America. Unfortunately, however, the U.S. government has yet to demonstrate that it can offer any real alternatives to the rhetorical bluster. Instead, it usually just offers up its own bluster.
Lots and lots of talk. Now back to Johnson:
By some accounts, there was growing disappointment among Iran’s senior leaders over years of costly investments that never paid off.
And the rest of his article sustains that. After all these years, a lot of headlines, a lot of articles written, and a lot of high-profile visits, there is very little there there, so to speak. Any revived influence at all requires a highly unlikely scenario of Iran-friendly governments, strong economic growth, and consensus within Iran that this is worth the trouble. Even then, there is not much to revive because there wasn't much there to begin with.

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