Week 13 – Towards an Uncertain Future

Max Cameron is so positive this week! I feel like he was delivering his interview responses with a small smile and a twinkle in his eye. Though we definitely have to be cautious that we don’t paint the future with an overly optimistic brush (think Creelman), there are some encouraging developments since the 1980s. What I thought was most significant was that the indigenous seem to be gaining a measure of agency, or at least are able to speak more freely than ever before. Though violence and inequality is still there, the inequality gap is shrinking in Latin America, even as it widens in the United States. More and more states are attempting to help the poorest (often indigenous) and are addressing some of the humanitarian violations that have gone unchecked for centuries. Indigenous communities are able to voice their wishes for self-determination and basic rights. There is a long way to go before these wrongs are righted (if they ever truly can be), but the ability to speak without violent repercussions is a positive milestone.

One of the most encouraging aspects of this week’s material was the concept of “buen vivir,” a concept brought by the indigenous meaning that we should strive to live well in harmony with nature, as opposed to the Western model of progress, which emphasizes “getting ahead” and economic growth. This concept has even been written into the constitutions in Ecuador and Bolivia! After reading so many accounts of abuse, violence, and silencing of the indigenous, this development felt like finally taking a full breath. We’re getting somewhere.

Of course, we can’t let ourselves believe that the struggle is over. There is still massive corruption, violence, and power imbalance. But maybe we can allow ourselves to hope that things may be turning around in Latin America. With the example set by Hugo Chavez (that social programs can be effectively implemented) and in Brazil (redistributive policies can function in Latin America), the hope is that the Latin American narrative will change from one of corruption and hopelessness to one of strength and fairness. Gradually. These things take time (and are never fully realized).

My question this week is: If neither a drug economy nor an extraction-based economy are sustainable options, how can Latin America participate on even footing in the global market?

1 Comment

Filed under Week 13

Week 12 – Speaking Truth to Power

When reading about the perils of Latin America, I sometimes sit back and think to myself, “how do we end this?” There are so many layers of trauma, corruption, and power imbalance that it seems an impossible struggle to fix. The interventions from more powerful countries (the United States, predominantly) seems to be only in the interest of those more powerful countries, although sometimes that backfires, as in the case of the US militarizing anti-drug efforts. Often, because of a weak state, poverty, intimidation, or the promise of wealth, anti-drug actors end up joining the drug trade, and so both sides are now heavily militarized to devastating ends. And because of a weak economy, drug money brings power and stability. So cartels and kingpins are the most powerful and have the most devastating weapons. Those who lose the most in this situation are the poor, without a strong state to protect them, and always fighting against the lure of drug money to feed their families. Cartels will resist any efforts to strengthen the state, and anyone who attempts to contain their corruption often walks straight into death. With these stats, the future seems bleak.

So how do you fight something so powerful? The cartels rule by intimidation, and even the media almost uniformly refuses to publish anything about the drug war. Perhaps personal testimonies broadcast through social media would bring attention, similar to the Madres de la Plaza do Mayo, in Argentina in the 1970s. In 1976, the junta ended all political opposition and began abducting youth. The mothers of these youths gathered peacefully in the Plaza, eventually drawing enough media attention that the events that would lead to a return to civilian rule were set in place. Without the wide circulation of these testimonials, the Argentinian juntas would not have been pressured to release control. But this is risky. Especially when dealing with heavily armed cartels. Even a peaceful act of protest could end in death.

From here in Canada, we can help in the unraveling of this corruption by being mindful of where we put our money, what are we funding? And we can have discussions, in person and online, drawing attention to these injustices so that hopefully awareness will spread, putting pressure on those responsible.


Filed under Argentina, war on drugs, Week 12

Week 11 – The Terror

I was unfamiliar with the term “dirty war” before this week’s readings. But it does make sense that if there are vague terms, a lack of cohesion, and if the enemy is within your own nation, that the only way to describe this type of war is with a word like “dirty.” Sure, there were reasons for war thrown around, the threat of communism, that democracy was just another way for elites to control the masses, but ultimately there were no clear, defined, reasons for the brutal killings of this time. Personal agendas played into these wars, and whole groups were targeted because they were thought to be against whatever agenda was in play at the moment. In fact, in many cases, if you weren’t actively supporting the regime, or the players with power, you were seen as a threat to be removed. Economic crises in Latin America further strengthened these tensions, as well as a sort of spillover of the Cold War: the United States and the Soviet Union offered military support to parts of Latin America attempting to establish dominance in the area.

What I thought was most interesting about this week’s readings is the role that students and youth played in the unrest. Young people had been without a voice up until the mid twentieth century, and now that they were discovering their power, they used it aggressively. Che Guevara was a prominent rallying figure for youth during this time. Protesting the authoritarianism that was ubiquitous both in the political sphere and in the home, Latin American youths often used violence and fear to get their message across. While this unified them as a powerful group, it often alienated them from those who were older and more conservative. Not only that but even those who desired change were afraid of these young idealists and the terror they left in their wake. In response, governments tightened their own security measures in an attempt to subdue these left-wing idealists. The outcome was horrible violence, distrust, and fear.

Oh yeah, and then there’s the cocaine thing. Dawson mentioned that some people consider the violence of Latin America to be uninterrupted since colonization. It’s hard sometimes to disagree.


Filed under Week 11

Week 10 – Power to the People

I thought that Dawson’s emphasis on the advent of radio being pivotal in Peronism to be on point. Without being able to broadcast her voice, Evita Peron would not have achieved the level of support she enjoyed. Interesting that she was so aware of this, and so comfortable with the new media, that she perfected a melodramatic tone to suit the form. This approach may have been over-the-top if broadcast today in HD, but in the early years of radio, this type of performance-style discourse was extremely well received. The qualities of a successful politician were forever changed. From radio to Twitter, a charismatic personality will always overshadow the quieter brand of political speaker.

Not only was Peron well suited for radio, but now her message, which was directed to the non-elite population, could reach its target audience without interference. Anyone could hear her speak, even from a great distance. Large crowds could gather and listen, together building a sense of community. No longer was political discussion reserved for the literate upper classes, everyone could participate. Those in charge could do nothing to contain this new power, and the face of politics was forever changed.

Another aspect of this week’s readings that I found fascinating is the emergence of different music styles as political rally flags. The popularity of Samba, and the fact that anyone could listen no matter where they found themselves on the economic totem pole, made Samba an effective tool for unifying the people. Dawson points out that it was the poor who shaped the sound of Samba, and it eventually became the defining sound of Brazil. Those in power made attempts to control it, but the people wouldn’t have it. The same happened with Tango in Argentina. Tango had its own language, often vulgar, and decidedly anti-state. The popularity of the music was a political act, the people versus the state. The community building power of radio is apparent in the popularity of Samba and Tango, just as in Peronism.

Maybe students of politics should have drama and music classes as part of their required credits.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Argentina, Week 10

Week 9 – Commerce, Coercion, and America’s Empire

My favourite quote in this week’s readings is from “From the Noble Savage to the Third World.” Dorfmann and Mattelart write: “There are two forms of killing: by machine guns and saccharine.” The United States was not only a military overlord, but a cultural influencer on the largest scale. The US infiltrated Latin America, and much of the world, without using guns or even sending soldiers to these places. The US created media that was so appealing, so glamourous, that the whole world desired to be a part of the club. It didn’t matter that other cultures were ruthlessly stereotyped. The world devoured American media. Local celebrities could be lured to America when it suited America, leaving behind their own communities for the lights of Hollywood. Then the US could mold them into whatever image they wished, while the transplanted celebrity remained overjoyed at his or her good luck.

Disney capitalised on this idea by selling stereotypes. Cultures from the Third World were portrayed almost as children, dazzled by American ingenuity, innocent, and easily influenced. This accomplished a cultural victory that was far more profound than a simple military takeover. In the mind of Americans and the larger world, these cultures were reinforced as primitive and non-threatening. This form of conquest is a powerful way to ensure that everyone is aware of their place in the world order, and that no one group attempts to dominate America. Killing by saccharine. Evoking sentimentality in the depictions of Third World cultures ensures that these non-threatening stereotypes continue in America and the world.

America became a master at marketing, not only stereotyping other cultures to sell imported goods to Americans, but rebranding American goods to suit local communities elsewhere. The example Dawson gives is the selling of Belmond cigarettes in Mexico. By incorporating local elements into an American advertisement, the US could appeal to Mexicans by maintaining the allure of the American product but appealing to local sensibilities, a plan that was resoundingly successful. In America, the image of Carmen Miranda on bananas appeals to the American desire for the exotic romanticism of Central America. Though Miranda’s image is a way of flattening the real cultures of Central America, to many American’s this image is the only association they have with Central America. The reduction of a culture to one sexualized image was an effective way to sell bananas a century ago, and it remains the case today.

1 Comment

Filed under Week 9

Week 8 – Signs of Crisis

Diaz’s proclamation, in 1908, that he would not run for the presidency opened the floodgates for countless marginalized groups to speak out against modernization. Groups that had for decades been silenced, displaced, repressed, and forced to work for the capitalist system, could take advantage of this political opening and launch their own version of revolution against the oligarchy. Though motives of the revolting groups throughout the Mexican revolution are ambiguous and diverse, the lengthy revolution seems to be a push against the idea of modernity itself. Or at least that is how the revolution is remembered, particularly when we consider the images that have come to represent the Mexican Revolution: Zapata and Villa sitting on the thrones, and the “unruly” villagers drinking expensive chocolate in elite spaces. This week’s readings are very different from Creelman’s article. We hear from those who benefitted the least from the export boom, and the “capitalist penetration” that occurred throughout rural areas in Latin America.

The United States is recognized more broadly as a threat to Latin America during this time. Dario’s “To Roosevelt” is inspired by the United States’ interference in Panama’s economy for its own political gains. Increasingly, the United States, rather than Europe, was bullying its way into economic and political domination over Latin America, and the country could profoundly affect any Latin American state’s prosperity and independence by using its superior global status, or the ideals of “progress.”

The article I found most puzzling is Vasconcelos’s “The Cosmic Race.” He seems to be promoting an idealized vision of humanity growing into an enlightened race naturally, and as a result of racial mixing, but at times he uses extremely exclusionary language. At one point he suggests that a person who is only mediocre will willingly choose to not marry or have children for the good of the race, or that only beautiful people will feel that they can produce offspring on a moral basis. While Vasconcelos is presenting his ideas as hopeful suggestions that humanity will grow spiritually, he simultaneously suggests that there is an “in group” that will carry us forward into this ideal future, while the rest of us can quietly eliminate our  inferior genes from the bloodline. I picture Vasconcelos as a person suffering from undiagnosed mental illness, but I’m not a psychologist and have no legitimacy in making that claim. I feel that if Vasconcelos’s ideas gained momentum, the result could be a version of ethnic cleansing similar to earlier claims that there are scientifically supported bases for superior intelligence in certain races. Though Vasconcelos is less scientific and more spiritual in his views, the ideas are equally dangerous.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Week 8

Research Assignment – The Language of Jose Marti’s “Our America”

The stylistic language of José Martí’s “Our America”, one of the most famous texts written by a Latin American, is as important as the text’s content. Martí’s plea to Cuba, his home, and more generally to the people of Latin America, to beware the seemingly unchecked imperialism of North America, and unite as a unique American culture separate from the northern continent, relies heavily on vivid imagery and metaphor. Understanding that “barricades of ideas are worth more than barricades of stones” (para. 1), Martí needed to encourage his readers to generate ideas through the guidance of his text. When urging the people of Latin America to embrace those aspects of culture that set them apart from the northern British colonies, he writes, “Make wine from plantains; it may be sour, but it is our wine” (para. 10). Martí compares the nurturing of the Latin American culture to a community of bakers “rolling up their sleeves and plunging their hands into the dough, and making it rise with the leavening of their sweat” (para. 10). This animated prose is meant to appeal to the people on a level beyond academic contemplation or political discourse; Martí’s primary motive is to “awaken the inhabitants of Our America to the fact that the United States—the country that Martí allegorizes as ‘the giant with seven-leagued boots’—stood poised and ready to expand” (Belnap and Fernandez 5). Since the publication of “Our America,” generations of scholars have explored the rhetorical dimensions of Martí’s text.

The term rhetoric has been reduced in modernity to mean simply “inflated words.” The historic meaning of the term, however, is broader: it is the art of persuasive communication. Moreover, classical rhetorical principles acknowledged that discourse is transactional, meaning that the reader’s interpretation is as important to the message as the author’s words (Deer 4). Martí’s use of metaphor and imagery, particularly imagery that is distinct to the nations of Latin America, comprised heavily of the indigenous, is designed to encourage active interpretation in his readership. In reference to American-born mestizos, Martí claims that they are “ashamed of the mother that raised them because she wears an Indian apron”, and he uses similar but contrasting imagery to describe North America, who “drowns its own Indians” (para. 3). This imagery is intended to engage the Latin American people in individual and collective reflection so that they come to the desired conclusion: Our America is neither Spain nor the United States, but something distinct. Martí calls for the celebration of the diversity of Latin America, the embracing of the blend of colonial and indigenous roots, and a rejection of the idea that the United States is the sole, defining example of progress. “Our America” is a call to the people of Latin America to unite, recognize the diversity of their rich culture on its own merits, and guard against the imperialism of the United States. The rhetoric of the text accomplishes this goal by engaging the reader’s active interpretation of metaphor and imagery.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Week 7 – Modernity

What was most impressive to me this week was the power that was given to the one article by the journalist, James Creelman, after his interview with Porfirio Diaz. Written in 1908, just two years before the Mexican Revolution, Creelman portrays Diaz in a reverent light, painting him as a saint-like figure who has single-handedly steered Mexico toward modernity. Diaz’s words, themselves, aid in cementing this heroic version of himself, and he speaks as though he is merely doing what the people have asked, sometimes unwillingly, and always with the advancement of the nation at the forefront of his thoughts. He speaks of the trust Mexico has in his leadership, and the points to an economic dip while he was ill to justify the benefit of his rule. He talks about this with modesty, stating that he must overcome his “personal inclination to retire to private life.” Like the nation will crumble if he if off work for a few days.

After the publication of the article, the political sphere went crazy. Diaz would retire! Those who had been given no way to enter office because of Diaz’s changes to laws against extended presidency finally saw an opening. Oppositions that had been percolating suddenly spoke out with hopes that finally Mexico would host a free and fair election. The glowing praise that Creelman showered upon Diaz, in hindsight, seems almost mocked by the legions of people whose hopes were kindled with the promise of an end to Diaz’s presidency, one that some described as a dictatorship. It is clear that Diaz believed he was leading his country toward modernity, order, and progress. It is clear, too, that Creelman believed him. It’s fascinating to read this article knowing what we know about Mexican history. And as Dawson points out, accounts like Creelman’s interview with Diaz teach us that no one can predict the future of a nation. No belief, no matter how strongly held or eloquently communicated, stands against the uncertainty of change.

Perhaps we can also consider how detrimental aesthetic modernity can be without simultaneously modernizing other aspects of a nation. Liberal democratic ideals must be explored if a nation wishes to enter into modernity. Simply building elegant structures and cobblestone boardwalks is meaningless if most of the people are suffering under such progress. The revolution of 1910 in Mexico seemed to burst out of decades of pressure. Diaz and Creelman seemed unable to feel that pressure from “the heights of Chapultepec Castle.”


Filed under Week 7

Week 6 – Citizenships and Rights

Propaganda, especially when presented by “respected” figures such as scholars and scientists, can effectively work against any gains that would have been made by recently emancipated groups. Individuals like the Cuban criminologist Fernando Ortiz attempted to block or even reverse the acquisition of rights for Afro-Cubans by spreading fear. Ortiz’s publications depicted Afro-Cubans and dangerous and incapable of being absorbed into Cuban society as free people. Coming from his place of prestige as a scholar, writer, and public official, he was able to sew the seeds of fear and doubt widely enough in the collective Cuban mindset, that he did not need to make an attempt to restrict Afro-Cuban’s rights in any way–his propaganda created enough distrust in the Cuban population that the resistance to Afro-Cuban rights was widespread. As Dawson points out, when Afro-Cubans were in a position to discuss their rights, their appeals only acted to accentuate their difference, to “highlight their blackness, and foment further white hysteria over the black threat.” Ortiz’s propaganda had done its work.

Similarly, European scientists such as Francis Galton worked to further entrench racist sentiments by presenting “scientific” evidence that certain races were superior. Again, this claim is advanced by a trusted individual and the effects of this propaganda presented as science are impossible to overcome. Rights-seeking groups are reduced to, at best, inferior, and at worst, dangerous. Though marginalized groups have made some progress since emancipation and a global shift toward basic human rights, propaganda is ubiquitous, and the voices of the marginalized remain whispers next to the powerful propaganda of privileged white men.

After reading the works on women’s rights, I am left wondering if the same attempts had been made to scientifically reduce women to being intellectually inferior, or was the propaganda at the time mostly religious and aesthetic in tone?


Filed under Week 6

Week 5 – Caudillos

Echeverria’s The Slaughterhouse was very hard to read. Not only was it told from the perspective of an elite with deeply rooted racist opinions, but the tone of the story is one of dejected acceptance of the inevitable loss of culture to “barbarism.” The depictions of, as Dawson puts it, the “dark skinned people of the countryside” are vile and unfair. They are presented as individuals capable of torture and murder, as completely lacking in social decency, and they repeatedly make a mockery of the revered Catholic church. In contrast, the light skinned European is pained as an innocent victim, destroyed by the barbarians. The text may offer us deeper insight into the mind of an elite in Latin America during this period, but at the same time, it is disturbing to read the embedded racism of the time in such stark language.

The emergence of the caudillos post-independence seems a natural progression. After decades of continued repression peasants, the indigenous, and the lowest classes, would certainly pounce on the opportunity to gain from the ineffectiveness of a weak state. Who wouldn’t rally behind a champion of the poor, after generations of oppression? If you happened to be a charismatic and militarily-minded man after independence, you were in a unique position to gain power and allegiance by forming relationships with the right people. And with an army of underprivileged, angry, non-elite people demanding an interlocutor to defend their interests, you could bolster your own might by appealing to them. It is difficult to ascertain the motives of these caudillos. Were they really championing human rights? Or were their actions driven by personal ambition? Either way, the political landscape of the region shifted away from the state and toward these, in a way, military powerhouses.

Of course, the rise of the state once again drove out these opportunists, or more appropriately, created infertile soil for the sort of domination caudillos practiced. With a move toward liberalism, as in the example of Mexico, the state gained stability and institutions appeared, but so did capitalism. And as Dawson points out, in the span of 50 years, 90% of Mexican land was owned by 1% of the population. Though I certainly support state intervention in the name of equality and aid for the poorest, I admit that I can understand the allure of a charismatic champion, fighting for the rights of the poor, despite that champion’s own motives.

How did the end of the caudillo era affect other states in Latin America?


Filed under Week 5