Monthly Archives: October 2019

Week Ten: Power to the People

This week, I was able to see the effect that technology had to move the people into the forefront of the political game. As it has been noted multiple times thus far in this course, one of the things that made Latin American so hard to govern, even back to the earliest colonial days, was the difficulty in maintaining communication across its vastness. It was because of this that there became centres of concentrated powers in the form of caudillos, which ultimately led to the significant fragmentation of society.

However, with the advancement of technology came increased channels of communication, allowing leaders like Vargas, Cárdenas, and the Peróns into the homes (and often the hearts) of the people. The ability of radio to create a national consciousness was unprecedented. It is interesting to see how opportunistic leaders learned to use and dominate the medium in order to have their voice heard the loudest – and how in alienating their opponents from airspace, they were able to create a one-sided narrative that the people could follow and rally behind. In my mind, this parallels the Nazi’s use of the Volksempfänger to spread their propaganda outside the borders of the Reich – contributing to the personality cult of Hitler.

This brings me to my next point about populism and its dangers. I was surprised that Dawson skirted around any definitive way to identify a populist leader (or even define populism) as to me, this term is almost synonymous with Latin American politics. Its roots run deep in Latin American political traditions, and its various historical and current rises indicate that, for some reason or another, populist leaders have a vast and intense appeal to the people. Populism can be a great danger to liberal democracies as, among other things, the highly personalistic leadership styles of ‘true’ populists such as Perón and Chavez allow for a personality cult to grip the nation, further distancing people from democracy and leaving them vulnerable to imagined/curated narratives. Populists also tend to be anti-establishment, and in a lot of cases (e.g. Chavez) this has led to a rejection or weakening of democratic institutions such as the judiciary. Further, populism can be characterised as a type of groupthink, which is never a good thing (à la Bay of Pigs). I could sit here for hours and list out all the dangers of populism, however, I will save the effort and instead conclude that just as caudillismo can be seen as a long-standing legacy that has razed the democratic foundations of Latin America, I would argue that so too can populism.

Populism is not limited to Latin America, however. The world seems to have taken a populist turn, with the election of populist leaders such as Trump in the US, Bolsonaro in Brazil, Modi in India, Duterte in the Philippines, Netanyahu in Israel, Ergodan in Turkey, and many more. It is intriguing and a little daunting to think about the implications of these populist leaders in status quo nations for the current of international politics.





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Week Eight: Signs of Crisis in a Guilded Age

The resonating theme for this week’s reading to me was ‘conflict’ – and it seems this has been the case for a great deal of the last few weeks’ readings. Conflict between Latin America and the encroaching imperialism of the United States, between followers of Zapata, Villa, Madero, and Diaz, and ultimately between different socio-economic classes of Latin America as a whole. This all paints an image of a deeply divided society at war with itself, whose power dynamics have been further distorted and complicated by the process of modernisation. In the West, it is easy for us to think of modernisation as beneficial. As we discussed in last week’s class, it brings about increased efficiency, technological advances, and (ideally) democratic changes in the current. However, I had never considered how high the human cost of such a progression often ends up being – industrialisation and the struggle for worker’s rights (Dawson makes note of the unremarkable nature of violent conflict erupting between workers and bosses in this period) and the “loss of rights, land, and autonomy.”

Dawson suggests that “it would be misleading to represent this as a period of perpetually looming crisis”, but it is hard to see it as anything but given the constant narrative of conflict, revolution, and instability. But perhaps it is because of this that I found Darío’s poem so refreshing – to talk of such a society by referencing its rich history and in such patriotic and emotive language was a nice break from the aforementioned narrative; “… our America lives. And dreams. And loves. / And it is the daughter of the Sun.”

Another thing I found particularly interesting in the reading was the distinction drawn between rural and city-dwelling rebels. Dawson argues that rural rebels did not belong in the cities, and that their concerns lay mostly with things local in nature such as regaining land that had been acquisitioned in the modernisation pushed by Diaz. And because of this, once they had occupied the cities and shown that they were a force to be reckoned with, they had no great reason to stay and occupy Mexico City. It got me thinking that perhaps this is another legacy of caudillismo. It is interesting to compare this to other agrarian revolts in history that had entirely different outcomes (for example in the Soviet Union).

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Week Seven: The Export Boom as Modernity

What I found particularly interesting this week was this concept of ‘modernity’, and how it is defined and used not only in the context of Latin America, but also in general. ‘Modernity’ evokes images of progress. However, what is progress exactly? The very idea that there exists a heightened form of society to which we can attach the term ‘modern’ is, to me, contestable. I think it is very important to note that modernity is a posited concept with a constructed meaning, and further to decouple the concepts of ‘modernity’ and ‘progress’. Are such things as progress even quantifiable? And what value is attached to having ‘progressed’? If progress is conceptualised as moving towards something on a linear timeline,  then when can a society be said to ‘regress’?

Modernisation theory tends towards Western economic ideals and policies, and as raised by critical economists such as Prebisch, this can therefore leave such factors as colonialism and exploitation out of the picture. But there also exists a normative element to modernisation that Dawson touched upon. In a western conception, modernisation is a process that is often accompanied by democratisation – a dual transition. However, it is interesting to see that Latin America exists as an outlier to this process (obviously due to its vastly differing social, historical, economic, and political foundations) yet difficult to explain why this remains the case.

Aside from this observation, I was interested to engage with Díaz’s discourse about limits on Presidential terms. My fixation on this part of the interview is most likely due to the fact that I am also currently undertaking a course on the politics of Latin America (POLI 332 – I highly recommend it!), and Latin America has a long and persistent authoritarian legacy. This legacy has led to a decay of a number of democratic processes, especially with regard to the reworking of constitutions in order to expand powers of the President. Therefore, I found Díaz’s insistence that a third term of presidency for Roosevelt was not something to be feared as a sort of confirmation of the authoritarian tendency (at least in Latin America) to pervert such democratic rules. Of course, it was only after the 22nd Amendment of the US Constitution that a limit on the number of terms that a President may hold office was of any constitutional significance, but it was still very interesting to contrast the attitudes towards breaking democratic traditions – which Latin American Presidents seem to do with much gusto and very radically.







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Week Six: Citizenship and Rights

I thoroughly enjoyed this week’s content as I am personally very interested in the nitty-gritty of rights discourse! Where do they come from? Do they even really exist? Are they simply western constructions? What about the tension between culture and rights? Is the international human rights agenda simply a form of neo-imperialism?

Whilst I don’t necessarily agree with all Hobbesian philosophy, I think that the social contract is a great way to conceptualise rights discourse. According to Hobbes, the creation of the social contract demands for a transfer of rights between the sovereign and the subject; in return for protection against the state of nature, the subject relinquishes a significant level of autonomy  to the sovereign. However, who is to be considered a subject is also the prerogative of the sovereign – citizenship (and the rights that come with it) may only be afforded to those selected by the sovereign. In this way, it is very often that the elite comprising a majority of governments exclude non-status quo groups such as slaves, ethnic minorities, and women from various rights such as freedom and franchise.

What really struck me as interesting in the readings was the role of religion in dictating which rights were afforded to who, how they could exercise these rights, and how far these rights extended. Christianity (Catholicism in particular) had a significant hand in the way that women were seen in society, and was used to justify their place – Pelliza de Sagasta references the words of Maria del Pilar Sinués de Marco; “No, no, God made man the natural head of the family. Work! He said to Adam. Love, He said to women in general through Eve. Console man!… Follow him wherever he goes!” Women were to be on a pedestal, “the absolute queens of the hearts of men“, and this is where their ‘strength’ lay; their true ‘natural’ place.

Similarly, colonialism and Christianity have long come hand-in-hand. Latin America is only one instance of the paternalistic tradition of Catholic missionaries, sent by their sovereigns or driven by their own convictions to ‘save’ the souls of the natives from their own ignorance and sin – such was ‘the white man’s burden.’ In this way, religion again dictated the way in which people in a certain society were to be seen – again, ‘other-ed’ by the status quo and as a result, alienated from the rights and freedoms enjoyed by those seen as legal subjects.

A missing piece in my understanding this week is the intersection between religion and slavery. How did Catholic slave-owners and contributors to the slave trade/ those that complied with it justify the practice? I myself am not too knowledgeable about this intersection, and whilst I feel that Nina Rodrigues’ document ‘The Fetishist Animism of the Bahian Blacks‘ may hold some answers, I found that document ridiculously hard to decipher.

Religion is and always has been a large part of Latin American society and culture, and whilst I am by no means suggesting that religion is the root cause of a lot of divisions in this society, I am interested to see how such things may be used to justify the distinctions between different groups. Where is the place of religion and culture in rights discourse? Returning to my earlier question, how can we navigate the occasional tensions that arise between culture and rights?






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Week Five: Caudillos Versus the Nation State

What I found particularly interesting this week was Jon’s discussion of the social contract, and how, in the face of such a fragmented and almost lawless society (especially in the countryside and remote outposts), such a concept that we take for granted in the Western world may be rendered obsolete and unfavourable in comparison to other modes of protection, such as caudillos.

According to Hobbes in Leviathan, the state of man nature is so fearsome and undesirable, that man will accept significant burdens on his freedom in the form of a sovereign in order to escape this state of nature; nature is a “warre… of every man against every man.” It is the very existence of a higher authority that keeps this war at bay. The perversion of this social contract by Rosas and his Mazorcas had ultimately led to a recreation of and reversion to this state of nature. After reading Echeverría’s short story, I could not help but draw similarities between The Slaughterhouse and William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, both works drawing upon the central idea in Hobbes’ Leviathan that, in the absence of authority (i.e. in anarchy), savagery, cruelty, and chaos underpin social behaviour. Both authors also use vivid and visceral imagery to depict the depths of mankind in the state of nature, as well as the dangers of mob mentality (through Echeverría’s use of disembodied voices to create cacophony and chaos) and the almost irreversible impacts it can have on order and the rule of law.

These ideas echo a documentary that I watched a few years ago when undertaking a class called The Sociology of Third World Development. The documentary primarily dealt with the issue of ongoing and inextinguishable gang violence in Brazil, and when asked for the rationale for joining such violent organisations, many incarcerated gang members cited disenfranchisement and the feeling of living outside the protection of the law as the most attractive pull-factor of these gangs. (I cannot recall the name at this point in time, but when I do I will post it in the comments! It is a very interesting watch!) Additionally, disenfranchisement has always been (and still is) a significant concern for much of Latin America, and serves as potent kindling for populist movements and the election of populist candidates to positions of power. Perhaps it can be argued that these patterns of political mobilisation are well-established in Latin American consciousness – and just as the population have been conditioned by tradition to push back against feelings of disenfranchisement, so too have leaders learnt to read such trends and exploit them for political power.

But more than this tradition, what is it about Latin America that makes it so hard to govern? Surely it cannot simply be the result of a patchwork of identities. Why is it so that this cycle of disenfranchisement leading to momentum for populist movements seems to persist so vehemently in the region? And why on such a widespread scale?



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