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.
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.
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.
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.
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.