Sunday, July 31, 2011

Change of wardrobe in Venezuela

This is funny. Way back in 2007 I wrote a post about political fashions in general and Hugo Chavez's red shirts in particular, which generated a spirited discussion.

Now he says everyone should stop wearing red all the time.

The president, whose signature red shirts have long been a symbol of his socialist movement, also suggested his allies ought to be more moderate in their wardrobes.

"Why do we have to go around all the time wearing a red shirt?" he asked.
So what's the new color?


Why we should be critical of Huntington

Patrick Porter at The Duck of Minerva argues that academic jealousy is the only reason Samuel Huntington gets criticized. We just wish we were more famous!

No, academics like to dismiss these works because the authors have appealed to a mass market, made meta-scale interpretations and predictions, and come as close to intellectual celebrity as possible for anyone who isn't Stephen Hawking or Albert Einstein. In an academic world that cherishes specialism and hair-splitting, that largely devotes its energy to internalised dialogues in exclusionary language, and which looks on fame and glory with envious suspicion, its no wonder that the mention of all three causes respectable scholars to roll their eyes.

He goes on to defend Huntington specifically. Maybe I am just showing my own jealousy, but I have read Clash of Civilizations and Who Are We? and the reason I don't like them is because you cannot read them in tandem and come to any conclusion but that Huntington ignores a lot of empirical evidence and is convinced that people of Latin American descent are inferior and ruining the United States. It is pure xenophobia.


Saturday, July 30, 2011

Latinos and Southern Redistricting

The latest issue of PS has an article on Latinos in the South and redistricting.

J. Salvador Peralta and George R. Larkin, "Counting Those Who Count: The Impact of Latino Population Growth on Redistricting in Southern States." PS: Political Science and Politics 44, 3 (2011): 552-561.

The purpose of this article is to examine the potential impact of Hispanics on the electoral geography of the southern United States after the 2010 decennial census. Hispanics are the largest and fastest-growing minority group in the United States today. In addition to traditional Hispanic destinations such as Florida and Texas, many of the areas experiencing the most rapid growth in Hispanic population are southern states such as Georgia, North Carolina, and Virginia. Geographic information systems are used to determine where majority-minority and influential districts are likely to emerge in southern states. We argue that although the Latino population has increased significantly over the past decade, the proportion of Latinos living in southern states remains relatively low in comparison to the general population. Therefore, no new majority-minority or influence districts will emerge in Louisiana, Mississippi, or Tennessee. Majority-minority and influence districts are likely to emerge in Arkansas, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Virginia at the state and local levels, but not at the U.S. congressional level. Texas and Florida are the only southern states where new majority-minority and influence districts are likely to emerge at the U.S., state, and local levels after the 2010 decennial census

This goes along with other evidence that the Latino vote in new gateways (such as here in NC) will not be a decisive factor in the short term, though certainly will be in the long term. For 2012 we will hear a lot about that vote for both the presidential and congressional levels, but it is not likely to be critical in most states. Not only is the population currently too small, but too few Latinos are eligible to vote.


Friday, July 29, 2011

Toothpaste and Latin America

This story about Colgate caught my eye. Basically, prices for toothpaste will rise in Latin America to make up for the fact that people in the United States would not be willing to accept price increases. Several points come to mind:

First, there has been a lot of talk of overheating and inflation in Latin America, and this is an example (albeit very small) of how the U.S. recession is contributing.

Second, it is quite amazing, and rare, for the Latin American market to be seen as stronger than the U.S. market.

Third, watch out for the person next to you, because in the U.S. we seem to be hesitant about buying toothpaste.


Thursday, July 28, 2011

Britain and Bolivia

A new twist in the fight against drug trafficking: as more Latin American cocaine ends up in Britain, the British start becoming involved. From the BBC, the example of Bolivia.

The British government has announced a new co-operation deal with Bolivia in the fight against drug trafficking.

During a two-day visit to Bolivia, Britain's Minister for Latin America, Jeremy Browne, said the Serious Organised Crime Agency in London will join forces with the counter-narcotics police in La Paz.

Along with assistance from Brazil, I see this as entirely positive. The U.S. has long been criticized for the "drug war" for many different reasons, not the least of which was a very condescending attitude that failed to take Latin American reactions into account. This is a global problem and deserves global solutions, so this development will hopefully inject fresh perspectives and produce a better outcome than what we've seen thus far.


Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Understanding Alan García

It is nice to see the MSM in the U.S. start to explain why Alan García was so unpopular when he left office despite economic growth, and therefore also why Ollanta Humala won the election. More of these articles would break through all the clueless puzzlement about Peru. From the AP:

While the guerrilla war was largely over when Garcia returned to office, social conflicts in which authorities had to intervene nearly tripled on his watch. Critics claimed his pro-business policies often ignored Peru's native peoples and damaged the environment.
The resulting unrest has claimed 104 deaths and 1,398 injuries since 2008, according to Peru's national human rights ombudsman's office. And few of the underlying conflicts have been resolved.
Garcia leaves President-elect Ollanta Humala, an apparently moderate leftist who assumes office Thursday, with a ticking time bomb of disputes stemming in large part from objections by indigenous groups to the damage to water supplies, crops and hunting grounds wrought by mining, logging and oil and gas extraction.
"On the positive side, (Garcia) leaves a basically healthy economy," said historian and political analyst Nelson Manrique. "On the negative side, he has been authoritarian, hasn't been open to political dialogue and put off dealing with a series of demands that have generated a climate of social volatility."

We hear constantly that we have to wait and see whether Humala will govern responsibly. A better question is whether he can clean up Garcia's huge mess.


Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Local elections and violence in Colombia

Any triumphalism about security in Colombia should take the following from Colombia Reports into account:

Twenty candidates in the local elections held in Colombia in October have been assassinated so far, the Electoral Observation Mission (MOE) announced Sunday.

According to the NGO, another 32 candidates have received threats, four have been kidnapped and seven survived assassination attempts.

It sounds sadly like Guatemala, and the violence is occurring for very similar reasons. It is also the same type of situation staring Mexico in the face.


Sunday, July 24, 2011

Asylum for Mexicans

More and more Mexicans are seeking asylum in the US because of TCO violence. However, the "well-founded fear of persecution" argument is very difficult for people who are being threatened by gangs. I know from experience that such arguments are very difficult even for people who have minor children who are US citizens. Given the current climate, it is very hard to see that changing.


Saturday, July 23, 2011

Malcolm Beith's The Last Narco

I read Malcolm Beith's The Last Narco: Inside the Hunt for El Chapo, the World's Most Wanted Drug Lord and enjoyed it. The title, however, is not entirely accurate since most of the book is about the drug organizations in Mexico and the government fight against them rather an inside account of the search for Chapo.  The military and police won't talk, so it is virtually impossible to get inside the hunt.

It is both chilling and discouraging. The details of how deep the TCOs reach into every corner of Mexico are morbidly fascinating. They aren't really new to anyone who reads the news regularly, but Beith's book brings it to gory life.

One of the serious challenges for the Mexican government is the fact that the army is not welcomed in many parts of Mexico, either because people like what Chapo (and other similar leaders) give them and/or because they see all state institutions as fundamentally corrupt and violent. There is far too little trust, and even less trust between the military and the police.

Finally, the book shows how many years drug kingpins like Chapo were setting up their operations. It is convenient to blame Felipe Calderón with his strong militarized policies beginning in 2006, but there are many other contributing factors. The cartel infighting had already been growing, which brought with it new levels of brutality as they moved into each other's territories.  The balloon effect from Colombia and the end of the PRI's reign in the presidency also helped set the stage. The complex confluence of all those factors would be a great research project.

As a coincidental P.S., Beith recent wrote a post on his blog about how Chapo seems to be losing influence in Mexico, even as his global reach has expanded.


Thursday, July 21, 2011

Whatcha gonna do when they come for you?

The Georgia immigration law originally had a provision allowing for anyone to sue if they felt it was not being enforced. That was a terrible idea, and has been replaced by something that is both terrible and creepy.

Called the Immigration Enforcement Review Board, the seven-member panel will have the power to investigate complaints filed against city, county and state officials, hold hearings, subpoena documents, adopt regulations and hand out punishment. That punishment could include loss of state funding for government agencies and fines up to $5,000 for officials who "knowingly" violate the laws.

So the solution to immigration is an unaccountable and costly bureaucracy that can cripple anyone it wants.


Wednesday, July 20, 2011

US Defense and Mexico

Richard Downie, Director of the Center for Hemispheric Defense Studies, published a working paper entitled "Critical Strategic Decisions in Mexico: The Future of US-Mexican Defense Relations." After looking at various options, he comes to the unsurprising conclusion that the military-oriented strategy is the best one (he is, after all, a retired military officer in a Defense Department think tank).

Even if you disagree with the argument, it is an articulate vision of the basic military view of TCOs in Mexico. However, the issue of US politics is a confounding factor. He acknowledges that many Mexican officials believe the US needs to do more to reduce drug demand, but essentially says that is impossible because of domestic politics. Yet he does not explain how that fact affects his preferred policy option.

Those in Mexico who oppose a strategy to confront the TCOs assert that the US is not taking the actions  necessary to assist Mexico solve its problems. In many ways these critics are right. Achieving a US strategy that would truly support Mexico is difficult because it demands consensus from influential domestic interest groups. To accomplish their political agendas, these groups do not necessarily intend to scapegoat Mexico. But the collective result can be a US policy or program that does not demonstrate the appropriate urgency or solidarity with Mexico on challenges that affect the US. Such a plurality of views results in a lackluster effort in providing effective assistance. More importantly, it emphasizes to our Mexican neighbors that too few in the US recognize or even care that the stakes are high in Mexico. The US/Mexican defense relationship is a demonstrable, unifying element toward confronting our shared security challenges.

We want a better relationship even as we refuse to enact policies that would improve it. Unfortunately, that means the policies outlined in the paper won't work as planned.


Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Allende's suicide

Salvador Allende's death has officially been ruled a suicide.  I think it is fair to say that very few people believed otherwise.  Nonetheless, there is evidence that the military (under the orders of Augusto Pinochet) would have murdered him if they found him alive.

I recently published a book chapter about the efforts by Concertación presidents, the Chilean military and others to proclaim the transition complete, which would then allow everyone to "move on."  This is yet another example of how traumatic the coup and military regime were, which makes "moving on" a difficult proposition (see Steve Stern's trilogy on memory in Chile for a great analysis).


Monday, July 18, 2011

Deportation and immigration views

Gabriel Sanchez, a political scientist at the University of New Mexico and one of the bloggers at Latino Decisions, has an interesting hypothesis.  Individuals who know someone who has been deported are more likely to be critical of current immigration policy.  Since the Obama administration has deported more people than any administration in U.S. history, more Latinos now know someone who has been deported, and therefore have become more critical.

I am not entirely convinced that Latinos consider immigration the most important problem facing the country, because the poll asks them what is the most important issue "facing the Latino community" when in fact people vote based on what is most important period, and not what is most important for a more vague community identification.  Nonetheless, this is a new and intriguing argument about the effects of Obama's policies.


Sunday, July 17, 2011

Mexican public defenders

I've been critical of the Mérida Initiative, but the following is a more positive component.  There is actually a grant competition to bolster the Mexican public defender system, which was extensively reformed in 2008.  The idea is to get public defenders used to an accusatory system.

The goal of this project is to assist the IFDP make the administrative changes necessary for its altered responsibilities under an accusatory system, and to assist the IFDPs attorneys become effective in their roles in the reformed system. INLs support for IFDP and its responsibilities as an integral aspect of an accusatory criminal justice system will bolster accountability and public confidence in Mexico's federal criminal justice institutions. This program is intended as a three-year project with a funding ceiling of up to $6,000,000 (six million dollars) during the three-year period, pending funding availability. Up to $2,000,000 will be available for the first year, with the possibility of funding at similar levels on an annual basis for two more years. There is the possibility of continued funding beyond three years based upon performance and availability of funds.

This type of effort will likely pay greater benefits--and certainly more bang for the buck--than guns and helicopters.


Friday, July 15, 2011

Underemployment in Chile

Gonzalo Durán at CIPER Chile has a great post on underemployment in Chile.  The upshot is that there are 42.3% more people underemployed now than in 2009, and 20.5% more than when Sebastiá Piñera took office. A major problem is that the Chilean government does not bother to publish anything on underemployment, preferring instead to make grand statements about creating a million new jobs.

The spread of underemployment provides more insight into the discontent currently evident in Chile at a time when its economic model is held up as a model for the region and the rest of the world.

For more on the tenuous nature of employment in Chile, check out Kirsten Sehnbruch's book The Chilean Labor Market.


Thursday, July 14, 2011

Hispanic births

The Wall Street Journal has an article on how the majority of the growth of the Hispanic population is due to births in the United States rather than new immigrants.  My esteemed colleague has a quote in the article that neatly sums it up:

"We just have to get through this transition time," says John R. Weeks, a demographer at San Diego State University. Ultimately, he says, "the children of immigrants are going to buoy up the economy. They are going to pay for Medicare and Social Security for the aging white population."


Latin American growth

The Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean says the region will grow by 4.7% this year.  The interesting part of the estimate is that it is based in large part on access to credit for consumption.  I had just written about concerns that consumerism could create the same type of economic crisis that hit the United States.  I don't consider myself a pessimist by nature, but I keep finding warning signs in all the rosy growth pictures.  To be fair, ECLAC does mention it:

The region could become more vulnerable to speculative capital movements that may create bubbles in financial and real estate markets.

As always, let's hope that economic growth is more equitable in the past.  The Peruvian presidential election is a stark reminder that it is dangerous to focus on GDP growth alone.


Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Latin America links to read

I haven't had a linkfest in a while.
  • Setty on the anniversary of Chile nationalizing copper


Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Adrian Gonzalez is a coward

I had been writing about the hubbub over whether Adrian Gonzalez might boycott the All Star Game because of Arizona immigration law.  Turns out he did a 180 and not only will he play but he claims he didn't even say what everyone knows he said.

"What I said was misinterpreted," Gonzalez told USA Today. "Especially the way the question was asked. At the time, I didn't know much about the law. I still don't. It's not something I'm even going to get into."

Sad and cowardly.


Future glass half empty or full

Mauricio Cárdenas at the Brookings Institution has a short opinion piece on how Latin America has a "once in a lifetime opportunity" to achieve prosperity.  When it comes to Latin America, someone always seems to be saying there is a once in a lifetime opportunity, which reminds me of the joke about Brazil always being the country of the future.

What he is really arguing, however, is that Latin America is on the brink of a very difficult period.  Within about a decade, there will be a larger old population with a smaller working-age population to support it, the commodity boom will end, and foreign investment will fall from current high levels.

Ultimately, the argument is nothing new.  When commodity prices are high, then tackle tax reform, judicial reform, and education.  If you don't, then we will just a new iteration of the same old boom and bust cycles.


Monday, July 11, 2011

Recall in Arizona

Russell Pearce, the Arizona state senator who authored S.B. 1070, will face a recall election, the first of a state legislator in Arizona's history.

Here are the 2010 results:

Russell Pearce (R) 17,552 (56.6%)
Andrew Sherwood (D) 10,663 (34.4%)
Andrew Garcia (L) 2,808 (9%)

Obviously, a relatively small number of votes can mean a lot, but Pearce has never lost an election and won handily in 2010.  It will be very difficult to find a candidate who is sufficiently conservative for the district yet also opposed to Pearce's position on immigration.  In addition, more than one person can run against him if they get a small handful of signatures, and multiple candidates will almost guarantee a Pearce victory.

Therefore, it will likely be a symbolic measure, and one that cannot be copied everywhere.  Only nine states have broad recall provisions, while 29 others have some type of more restrictive laws for different state-level officials (more info here specifically on state legislators).


Sunday, July 10, 2011

Politics of free trade

Kezia McKeague at Americas Quarterly takes a good look at the politics of passing FTAs with Colombia and Panama.  It is sausage making at its worst.  Further, after reading about this issue for several years, I have to wonder whether many legislators care much whether an FTA passes.  Democrats want to make a point about human rights, while Republicans want to make a point about Obama's failures in Latin America.  The economics of the agreement often seem tangential to the debate.

In fact, there is obvious concern that an FTA with Colombia would actually mean a net loss for the United States.  We are even contemplating punishing Mexicans and Canadians as a result!

Canadian exporters warned Friday of a possible deterioration in North American trade relations due to a push in Congress to slap U.S.-bound Canadian and Mexican travelers with a surcharge.
The surcharge, estimated at $5.50 per passenger and proposed by the House Ways and Means Committee, is designed to offset lost revenue resulting from a free-trade pact with Colombia.

Not exactly a good neighbor policy.


Friday, July 08, 2011

Now I'm free, free fallin'

The latest Adimark poll for Sebastián Piñera is abysmal, with 31% approval and 60% disapproval.  Only 39% consider him credible.  In my last post I compared him to Alan García, but a look at the detailed numbers brought Richard Nixon to mind because Chileans only think he is doing a good job with foreign affairs.

This is embarrassing for a president who came to office proclaiming that as a businessman he was well positioned to achieve growth and prosperity, and that the Concertación had squandered economic opportunities.  Approval of his handling of the economy has also been plummeting (it was 64% in October 2010).

Finally, the percentage of people who identify neither with the government nor with the opposition has increased to 30%.  These ni-nis are not a new phenomenon, and have yet to coalesce into a viable third party, but show how disconnected many Chileans feel from government.


Thursday, July 07, 2011

Dynamics of illegal immigration

Damien Cave (@damiencave) at the New York Times has an article very much worth reading about the decrease of illegal immigration from Mexico to the United States.  He comes up with many different possibilities, including Mexican demography, economic growth, consular help, broader access to education, and enforcement in the United States.  There are, however, two points that need mentioning.

First, this covers only Mexico, which is not the only source of undocumented immigration.  It is just over half, but that leaves many people out of this equation.

Second, even leaving aside my first point, the article does not mention demography in the United States, which must be viewed in conjunction with Mexican demographic change.  As my esteemed co-author and I argue in our book, we are slowly leaving the "demographic fit" that served both as a push and a pull for migration.  Demographic change in Mexico alone is insufficient.  There are many more young people in the United States today compared to five or ten years ago, in large part because of the migration that has already occurred, both legal and illegal.


Wednesday, July 06, 2011

Piñera's freefall

Sebastián Piñera got hammered in the latest CERC poll (their site seems to be under construction so I can't find the original report).  His approval is down to an Alan García-ish 35 percent, with 53 percent disapproval.  That is consistent with the 36 percent that Adimark reported in June.  Mirroring the Concertación years, however, this does not mean a boon for the opposition, which is also viewed with distaste.

So despite all the vaunted Chilean political and economic successes, Chileans are not all that happy with their elected leaders.  If you want to understand the big picture of why, then read my co-edited book on the Bachelet government.  As for the more immediate causes, read Robert Funk's post on the topic (you can also read his chapter in that book):

So with thousands participating in street demonstrations in favour of better public education, the president responded tonight with a televised announcement: The plan includes a new education fund, improving access and accreditation of universities (he didn't say how), creating a new bureaucracy for universities (he didn't say what) which would, amongst other things, seek greater transparency in order to determine which universities are for-profit, something which is currently illegal in Chile.


Tuesday, July 05, 2011

Helen Marrow's New Destination Dreaming

I read and really enjoyed Helen Marrow’s New Destination Dreaming. An anthropologist, Marrow conducted comparative research with a “context of reception” approach.  To that end she examines the specific characteristics of two counties in eastern North Carolina, selected for variation.  One exhibits characteristics of the new rural South (with rapidly growing immigrant populations) while the other is the old rural South (with relatively little migration and a majority of African Americans).  She labels them pseudonymously as Bedford and Wilcox.

Her conclusions are more optimistic than most of the literature, and focus on assimilation, race relations, and the political and institutional responsiveness to immigrants.  Her argument about rural assimilation is particularly interesting.  Unlike their urban counterparts, rural areas are more working class, and so recent migrants find it easier to achieve some measure of satisfaction about upward mobility.  In other words, their low wage employment is stable and not too far beneath the rest of the population.  Plus, jobs like poultry processing are stigmatized by many, so there are more opportunities for internal upward mobility.  Still, she tempers this relatively rosy picture with a nuanced analysis of the cross-cutting differences between different Hispanic populations, which include citizenship status, country of origin, affluence, and even gender.  All of these strongly affect who can move up more easily and rapidly.  Further, there is more upward mobility in poultry processing than in textiles (an industry that has been shrinking for well over a decade) so the structure of the receiving community can lead to significant variation.

She also does a nice job of contextualizing the rural experience of migrants, which vary not only by the receiving context, but also by the background of the migrants themselves.  In particular, migrant perceptions are colored by their own urban or rural origins.  More specifically, people from Latin American cities tend not to like rural North Carolina, while those from rural Latin America have a much more positive view.  For me, it raised a question about whether such a response would be common for much of the urban South as well.  Some interviewees compared rural North Carolina unfavorably to Chicago or Miami, but most southern cities (such as Charlotte or Raleigh) are smaller and more sprawling than those larger counterparts.

Her conclusions about race relations are more sobering, but reveal less hostility than is commonly assumed.  Marrow notes a larger gap between Hispanics and Blacks than between Hispanics and Whites, with a growing sense of a black-nonblack color line.  This is particularly pronounced in the minority African American county she studied versus the majority counterpart.  When in the minority, African Americans perceived a political and economic threat more acutely.

With regard to political representation, newly arrived migrants—especially those who do not speak English well—face daunting challenges.  Marrow argues that elected officials have shown relatively little interest in reaching out to the Hispanic population or addressing it needs, but that public bureaucracies have done so.  Since relatively few Latinos are eligible to vote, they are of less interest to politicians, but many individuals in bureaucracies view their own role as service-giving, and so often reach out to the immigrant population, even to the point of bending rules (it should come as no surprise to anyone that DMV officials were the least likely to be helpful!).  This contradicts political science literature, which would expect bureaucracies to follow political dictates.  That highlights the usefulness of a multi-disciplinary approach for understanding Latino immigration to the United States.  Nonetheless, as more restrictive laws were passed, state and local employees found it increasingly risky to do so, thus negating some of the more positive effects.

Notwithstanding the shrill media attention to restrictionist legislation being pursued at the state level in the South (as well as elsewhere, most famously Arizona) research like Marrow’s is pointing to more positive outcomes.  There is more work to be done to better understand why, but also to determine whether it is something that changes much—for better or worse—over time.  In sum, the book provides much food for thought as we try to understand the “Nuevo New South.”  As such, this and other works can provide a foundation for more comparative research on the political, economic, geographic, racial, and cultural impacts of Latino immigration to the South.


Monday, July 04, 2011

Chomsky on Venezuela

Interesting transcript of an interview with Noam Chomsky about Venezuela and Latin American democracy in general. The upshot: he hates to criticize Chavez but is concerned about concentration of executive power. Even Chomsky thinks it undermines democracy.

RC: Finally professor, the concerns about the concentration of executive power in Venezuela: to what extent might that be undermining democracy in Venezuela?

NC: Concentration of executive power, unless it's very temporary and for specific circumstances, let's say fighting world war two, it's an assault on democracy.

RC: And so in the case of Venezuela is that what's happening or at risk of happening?

NC: As I said you can debate whether circumstances require it – both internal circumstances and the external threat of attack and so on, so that's a legitimate debate – but my own judgment in that debate is that it does not.


Sunday, July 03, 2011

Where's the love for consumerism?

We constantly hear about what the U.S. needs to do to regain a stronger leadership role in Latin America. A quote from Brazil is a reminder that the U.S. is losing ground when it comes to economic policy. Has there ever been a time when U.S. style consumerism has been mocked by governments that are not so far away ideologically?

That concern was repeated by former central bank President Arminio Fraga, who said on the Charlie Rose television program that Brazil is focusing too much on consumption and not enough on saving and investing. That "American" style of consumerism could lead to a credit crisis within the decade, Fraga said.

Of course, this comes on the heels of the U.S. employing bailout strategies that it pressured Latin American governments not to employ in the 1980s.


Saturday, July 02, 2011

Barbara Demick's Nothing to Envy

I've long had a fascination with North Korea, dating back to when I first taught an Intro to Comparative Politics course and used the country as an example of an ongoing totalitarian dictatorship.  There are a lot of great books about it, most notably Bradley Martin's Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader, which I heartily recommend.  I also recommend the blog North Korean Economy Watch.  I just read Barbara Demick's Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea and it is excellent. Demick uses interviews with six North Koreans who left the country, and really effectively shows their gradual disillusionment.

At times the book made me angry, even though I am well aware of the political history--the personal histories pack a punch.  The regime's callous attitude toward famine in the mid-late 1990s is maddening, such as the rousing slogan "Let's Eat Two Meals a Day."  One of the defectors was a doctor, and she recalls the many people she saw die, the telltale signs of protruding stomachs and lethargy.  When she snuck into China it was a revelation: "But now she couldn't deny what was staring her plainly in the face: dogs in China ate better than doctors in North Korea" (p. 220).  Another defector soon realized after reaching South Korea that his head and body were out of proportion because of severe malnutrition during his growing years.

The "ordinary lives" of the title is true. These people had no political positions and were not opposing the regime as such. They just didn't want to die of starvation and in different ways had caught a glimpse of the outside world.  And only a glimpse was necessary to let them know that virtually everything they heard from the government was a lie.

For one of the North Koreans, Kim Il-Sung's death was the turning point, and her response as it became clear that no change would occur really sums the situation up nicely:

As she sat alone in the apartment, the enormity of it all started to sink in. Any hope that the North Korean regime might change with the death of Kim Il-sung was quickly dashed. The power had passed to his son. Things weren't going to get any better. She heard her father's words replaying in her ears. "The son is even worse than the father."
"Now we're really fucked," she said to herself.

Unfortunately, yes.  And yet defecting didn't solve things either, because they found they had few skills, jobs were not easy to find, people took advantage of them, and some had siblings back in North Korea who were sent to prison camps as punishment for their defection. With North Korea, it is hard to find happy endings.


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