Monthly Archives: November 2019

Week Thirteen: Towards an Uncertain Future

This week, I would like to focus on the topic of populism in Latin America. I choose this topic because I genuinely believe that populism is a very real threat to the democratic development of the region, and it shows no signs of subsiding. Indeed, Latin America remains consistent in its tendency towards populism, and whilst many elements of the region pertain to both continuity and change, populism is most definitely a continuity that Latin American politics is likely to see for a long time to come. More so than other regions, Latin America’s fixation on populist political leaders tends to come in widespread waves – at many instances in the 20th Century, it was suggested that populism had fallen out of favour and that it was unlikely the trend would ever return to Latin America. These projections all proved to be inaccurate.

“The Return of Populism, Latin American Style” – Javier Corrales, New York Times

This article discusses the ebbs and flows of populism in Latin America throughout the 20th Century, and notes that it is a political tool of mobilisation that may be utilised by either the right or left wing; the steadfast elements are (1) populist leaders mobilise excluded and disenfranchised groups and (2) they pose a threat to democratic institutions as populist leaders tend to invoke anti-establishment rhetoric. Many of the current populist leaders or contenders in Latin America today have honed in on a particular, pressing, and recurrent issue in their country that needs to be addressed. In the case of Iván Duque in Colombia, he has chosen security against guerrillas. In Mexico, Obrador has pinpointed on corruption and wealth distribution. Why is it that populism is so hard to shake in Latin America in particular? I personally would chalk it up to the region’s political tradition of caudillismo and the seemingly unfaltering social, political, and economic inequality, which creates a constantly disenfranchised peoples. However, Corrales also attributes populism’s continuity to external forces, particularly that of the United States. Given Trump’s inflammatory right-wing rhetoric towards Mexico, it is feared that left wing populism may take hold in the country.

“The 40 Year Itch: Populism and Polarisation Threaten Latin America – The Economist 

Whereas the previous article focuses on the conditions in which populism arises in Latin America, this article takes a very bleak approach to explore the autocratic tendencies of Latin American populist leaders in particular. According to Maxwell Cameron, Latin America is seeing the rise of ‘competitive authoritarianism’, wherein, despite using competitive, democratic means to come to power, populist leaders are expanding their presidential powers in a manner characteristic of authoritarian regime. This tends to be done by expanding their powers under constitution, and many populist presidents such as Maduro and Chavez have, upon being democratically elected, embarked on projects of constitutional rewriting. Whilst there is indeed a focus on such principles as the rule of law, security, ending corruption, and more equal wealth distribution, it remains that such a development of these democratic principles without the establishment of strong, liberal democratic institutions to protect them may be putting the cart before the horse.

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Week Twelve: Speaking Truth to Power

Hello! I am so ashamed I literally forgot all about this blog post on Monday because of the research assessment, but here it is!

I think this week’s topic is one of the most important for our present day understanding of Latin America and the way that we may reconcile the past with the present. I thought it was really useful that Dawson utilised other forms of media such as videos, because it added a real human dimension to the loss felt by survivors and those left behind that had lost loved ones to the regime. It is one thing to read about their experiences, but another to listen to and witness the real and visceral grief. Whilst it may be in the past, these events still continue to have a huge impact on the consciousness of the people of Latin America today, and society is still attempting to reconcile the deep wounds of this time. This week is also relevant to our video project topic (The Terror), as our group has decided to focus on the stories of survivors rather than the acts and intentions of the perpetrators. (Unfortunately, I was not able to access a large amount of these videos due to copyright on YouTube.)

A large part of many of these mobilisations is the demand for accountability and justice. There is no greater betrayal on behalf of the sovereign than the arbitrary detention, disappearing, and murder of innocents. The state-sanctioned enforced disappearances and extrajudicial killings reflect a perversion of sovereign power, and this has almost completely razed the premise of trust between the government and its people. Even today, it is clear that Latin America is still attempting to repair this trust in these institutions.

What I also found interesting is the different dimensions of mobilisation in Dawson’s chapter. We have previously looked at military and political mobilisations of people as a whole, but the mobilisation of women is another element to resistance that we have not yet discussed in depth. These mobilisations definitely have an emotive appeal to them, which is significant in appealing to the sympathies of outsiders to gain traction and leverage over those accountable.

Whilst this was a very depressing chapter (as most of the course’s themes have been), I also found it very empowering. I think there is nothing more important than allowing survivors a platform to recount their stories so that we may seek justice for past wrongdoings, as well as learn from the past to ensure that such atrocities never occur again.

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Research Assignment: The Terror

For the video project, our group has discussed adding a ‘human’ element to what occurred in Latin America between the 1960s-1980s, rather than simply relate what happened on a macro level and risk losing a real sense of grief over what happened and what still continues to affect Latin American countries today as a result of the scars of this period. In order to do this, we will be focussing on the case studies of Guatemala and El Salvador, lest we take on a task too large and over-generalise the waves of terror experienced in Latin America. I will be discussing the case of Guatemala in particular. The two texts detailed below were chosen specifically for the personal accounts used in order to construct a holistic image of what happened on the ground.


The Guatemalan Civil War was extremely long and bloody in nature, spanning 36 years from 1960 to 1996. The main parties to the conflict were the Guatemalan Government and various leftist guerrilla groups mainly consisting of the rural peasantry of both indigenous and mestizo peoples. According to Nelson, the most horrific period in popular memory is that of 1978 to 1983, wherein the Government adopted a scorched earth policy and significantly escalated extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances, and the massacre of tens of thousands of people.

According to the Guatemalan Supreme Court, it is estimated that more than 100,000 civilians were killed, 35,000 widows and 200,000 orphans were created, and more than 440 villages were completely razed to the ground. According to Afflito and Jesilow, these are conservative estimations.

As Nelson and Afflito and Jesilow discuss in their respective books, this reign of terror had vast human impacts that continue to plague the country even today, more than 20 years after the conflict was ‘ended’ – indeed, Nelson describes the difficulty of defining ‘post-war’ in the Guatemalan context specifically; the war experienced multiple escalations and de-escalations, however, as mentioned above, the period of the 80s was referred to as La Volencia, a period of extreme violence that could, at any time, erupt again.

Diane M. Nelson. 2009. Reckoning: The Ends Of War In Guatemala. 1st ed. Durham: Duke University Press.

“Do you know how to make moronga [blood sausage], Diana? Well, you take a mess of blood and boil it and boil it and boil it until it hardens into sausage. That’s what’s happened to Guatemalans. All the suffering, the blood spilled in the violence and then the boiling and boiling of the decades of war, the counterinsurgency, we have a hard time thinking new thoughts because our brains have become hard like moronga.” – Guatemalan Ladino

I will be focusing on a particular chapter in Nelson’s book titled Horror’s Special Effects. In this chapter, Nelson details how we may preserve the experiences and memories of survivors in a way that is ethical and respectful, yet also does justice to the true horror of what really occurred. It is of significant interest as Nelson discusses the way in which the experiences of the Guatemalan people throughout the Civil War has affected their present psyches, responses to violence, and identity

In an anecdote, Nelson relays the disgust of a particular anthropologist whilst watching a horror movie in a hostel with various young Guatemalans from the mountains. “How can you watch this?!”, she blurted out, to which one of the young Guatemalan men replied, “This is what happened in our country. We have to watch this so we don’t forget.”

Trauma and recollections of horror survive in Guatemala in the banality of everyday. It reflects the perseverance of the human spirit in such awful times, and the difficulties of learning to live with and come to terms with civil instability, wherein the very foundations of human society are shaken and human bonds broken. In Guatemala, children were forcibly conscripted into the army and made to experience the horrors of war, neighbours were coerced to turn on neighbours, women were made to feed those who violated them and murdered their kinfolk. Nelson makes the assertion that the popularity of horror films in this country may stem from their “unexpected metaphors and shared experiences.”

I think that this book is significant due to its attempt to contextualise the trauma of the Civil War in modern day Guatemala. It is one thing to listen to the recounts of survivors, but another to truly understand how these experiences have been incorporated into the social fabric of the country today. From an outsider’s perspective, especially for those of us that cannot even begin to grasp the terrors of civil war, this book is an invaluable first step in empathising with the Guatemalan people and understanding the true human costs of the war.

Frank M. Afflito and Paul Jesilow. 2019. The Quiet Revolutionaries: Seeking Justice In Guatemala. 1st ed. Austin: University of Texas Press.

This book by Afflito and Jesilow also examines Guatemalan experiences in the Civil Wars, however, it deals more with the attitudes that the people have towards democracy and its institutions, including the judiciary which was largely complacent, if not an accessory, to the enforced disappearances and extrajudicial killings that characterised the reign of terror in Guatemala. Throughout the Civil War, the rule of law was crippled, and the country is still experiencing mistrust in these institutions today. However, even more significant than the construction of the legal system is the way that the Civil War altered individual perceptions of the term ‘justice’, which Afflito and Jesilow argue is a subjective concept shaped by an individual’s world view. Indeed, how may one perceive justice in a society where there exists widespread state-sanctioned terrorism? Many who fell victim to these atrocities were innocent – how does one reconcile with a system that widely operates to persecute the innocent?

Rather than focus on those that committed these atrocities and the practices of the regime, Afflito and Jesilow hope to preserve the stories and legacies of those who were murdered or disappeared, as well as those left behind; the survivors of these traumas who lost loved ones to regime, and how these people came to terms with the realities of systemic violence. They refer to these individuals as “the quiet revolutionaries.” It is argued that, in losing loved ones to the system, these quiet revolutionaries turned from believing in the justice of God to radical workers who sought justice on their own accord. This transformative process was both a necessary response to the turbulence of the time, but also a demonstration of the human will to resist and revolt in the face of what one deems ‘injustice’.

I think that this book will be particularly useful not just in framing and contextualising the experiences of survivors, but also in demonstrating the ways in which the Civil War has left its mark even today in Guatemala. The rule of law and other democratic institutions are heralded as central to the operation of a healthy liberal democracy, and the lack of faith in these institutions is also definitely a barrier to the consolidation of democracy in Guatemala, as well as all over Latin America where many genocides were state-sanctioned.



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Week Eleven: The Terror

A concept that Dawson discussed in the reading this week that stuck me was the “voyeuristic quality” of the testimonio, and the way in which third party readers on the outside looking in may assign Manichean dialogues in an attempt to understand the events that transpired in Latin America throughout the 1960s-1980s. Indeed, in retrospectively attempting to explain such violence and bloodshed, it is easier for the human mind to assign labels of ‘good’ and ‘evil’; how else are we to come to terms with such cruelty and the breaking of human bonds? These retellings run the risk of being revisionist in nature, as was the case of Llosa’s essay, but they also reveal the deep complexities of the divisions in Latin America. Earlier in this course, we discussed the myriad of voices that create a ‘holistic’ history (or rather, account of what happened) – and this is really exemplified in these documents. Where there exist acts of violence and oppression, there exists guilt, blame, and attempts of justification, which really just leads to an even more complicated and distorted narrative. Civil wars even further complicate things, as these atrocities must be brought home and justified to the people as necessary for ‘the greater good’.

Whilst I found this chapter particularly confusing as Dawson often jumped contexts to illustrate a wider idea, I did appreciate the sustained discussion on Peru, which was also greatly aided by Maxwell Cameron’s video. In Peru, there has definitely been an attempt at hiding the injustices that parties were complicit in. Whilst Fujimori may have been perceived as a sort of messiah in his quelling of the Shining Path, it is comforting to know that the country would not be complacent regarding the atrocities he had a hand in – but this also presents as the duality of governance in Latin America. In many contexts, such as Fujimori in Peru and Pinochet in Chile (and so, so many more), stability often came at the expense of the rule of law and sound judicial practices. This of course only acts to further erode democratic processes and institutions within a country – therefore, on top of coming to terms with these conflicts and attempting to ensure that justice is delivered, the country faces the daunting process of restoring faith in the democratic institutions necessary for the operation of a healthy liberal democracy. I am particularly interested in is how these conflicts are reconciled on a case by case basis. Indeed, in at least the Peruvian context, the Civil War has left a deep stain on the country’s ability to function as a democracy; a fear of dissent due to the perception that such dissent could lead to political instability and renewed violence is another legacy left behind that must be reconciled.



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Week Ten (A): A Decade of Revolution in Cuba

For this week’s blog post, I am choosing to focus on Che Guevara’s letter to the magazine Marcha – I think that it is very important (and interesting) to closely analyse the works of enduring figures that have had far-reaching and deeply profound impacts on the course of history.

An essential foundation of any revolution is a collective consciousness – Guevara discusses the construction of a revolutionary national consciousness, and where the individual stands in this new system. Upon my first read of the letter, I thought to myself that Guevara has a dangerous way of speaking – he talks of ‘original sin’ and emphatically suggests that the current generation, tainted as they are from their upbringing and socialisation in a system past, must ensure that their own generation and future generations are not perverted by these old institutions.

Retrospectively, the idea of propaganda is seen as negative, and perhaps this is why I read this argument of his with such caution. In a modern world that champions democracy and freedom, history tends to look unfavourably upon instances of indoctrination, as it seriously inhibits the individual’s ability to think independently and voice their own opinions and interests. However, that is why it is so useful to have primary sources such as these, where Guevara discusses indoctrination unabashedly in such detail. At the moment of writing, propaganda and indoctrination are not manipulative tools to steer a populace towards an agenda, they are a necessity to purge a populace of the exact underpinnings of a system that was overturned because it was undesirable. Guevara’s letter almost reads as a ‘how-to’ guide for other revolutionaries to utilise in understanding the necessary coordination process of revolution and conversion to communism.

The letter also contemplates the delicate balance between socialist and capitalist, and authoritarian and democratic. In his mind, socialism is good because of the collective goods and freedom from inequality that it offers (debatable whether this is a fact). However, he seems to understand that authoritarianism may be characterised as an evil due to the restriction on personal and economic freedoms. He seems to attempt to reconcile this by suggesting that “we socialists are more free because we are more fulfilled; we are more fulfilled because we are more free,” and that “the individual … has greater inner wealth and many more responsibilities.” However, I think that here there exists a fundamental error, especially when Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is considered. It is not possible to skip lower levels of needs and supplant esteem and self-actualisation in their place – it would render the whole process unsustainable. If lower, more basic needs are not met, it is not possible for the individual to remain complacent.

The final thought I had when completing this week’s readings was the state of revolution, and how this is retrospectively analysed by historians and political scientists. Guevara notes that “what is hard to understand for anyone who has not lived the revolutionary experience is that close dialectical unity which exists between the individual and the mass, in which both are interrelated, and the mass, as a whole composed of individuals, is in turn interrelated with the leaders”. I do believe that attempting to understand the masses was a way in which communist governments attempt to remain legitimate (whether genuinely or not is another question), however, in a revolutionary movement there does exist a connection between a leader and the masses that is unlike any relation that we in the Western world would ever have been privy to, especially where there is “the struggle for liberation against an external oppressor.” This kind of legitimacy, as Dawson notes, is perhaps why the people may be so forgiving towards the blunders of their leaders, even when these blunders cause great suffering for the people.

Guevara has an intense fixation on revolution in this letter, and in particular, the essence of a revolutionary spirit. Perhaps one of the reasons that some insist that the revolution in Cuba is still ongoing is because they understand that inspiring revolutionary spirit in a populace becomes dangerous once the government grows complacent and is no longer ‘revolutionary’.  In class, we discussed what was entailed by the term ‘revolution’ – and a resounding idea was that revolution indicates something novel – whether this be a process or a quick turn.

“Socialism is young and makes mistakes.” This is such a foreign concept to someone from and socialised in a Western country – we have established institutions, standard operating procedures, stability. It is easy to retrospectively look upon periods of revolution with disdain for the decisions made in them, but can we, in a ‘stable’ society, even fathom the social, political, and economic turbulence of such biblical proportions? Retrospectively studying revolution suddenly becomes an incredibly complicated task.


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