Monthly Archives: October 2017

Week 9 Reflections

This week’s reading and videos were quite interesting in considering the impact of American Empire, and the waves with which we still feel today. One particularly aspect I wanted to look at was the position of figures like Augusto Sandino and Jacobo Arbenz. Arbenz is, in many ways, a typical image of the tragic revolutionary. His ideas were respected and held popular approval, he stood up against an excessively powerful organization, and he was conspired against, and ultimately defeated. Arbenz’s story is one that would be repeated many times in Latin America, and around the world. What’s most interesting is the notion that American intervention is so often justified in the name of spreading democracy or freedom. Yet, when things become too democratic for the liking of American interests, they’re inevitably deposed. Democracy, in this context, becomes a word that loses all meaning. The same way ‘peace-keeping mission’ describes invasion, or ‘collateral damage’ describes the killing of civilians, ‘democracy’ is yet another word that has been abstracted to the point of meaninglessness. We can see this in American foreign policy going on, the Vietnam War being a significant example. Stephen Wright in Meditations in Green describes the way in which Ho Chi Minh was depicted as analogous to Adolf Hitler in a film he watched during basic training. This brand of hyperbole is synonymous with American foreign policy, exaggeration creates fear creates public support. As recently as the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the US government invented a threat of nuclear weapons in order to galvanize the public.

What’s particularly jarring about this is the manner in which corporate interests, in this case United Fruit, are projected onto the public sphere; that which will negatively affect profits are an affront to the citizens of the US themselves! The US citizen sees the price of the banana rising, and United Fruit is able to point the blame at an individual in Guatemala. It is a tactic that is unscrupulous and effective, simultaneously appearing as sympathetic to its customers (the communists are making life hell for United Fruit!), and effectively deposing its political enemies. Most bananas I buy seem to come from the Chiquita Brand, the modern successor to the United Fruit Company, what are the implications of this? How can such a long legacy of oppression be ignored? As recently as 2007, the company has been accused of knowingly violating its workers basic rights, as well as funding various terrorist groups. How far removed is this from what Sandino was experiencing in the liberal vs. conservative violence of his day?

Week 8 Reflections

One thing I found particularly interesting that came up in Dawson, as well as Emilio Zapata’s “Plan de Ayala”, was the association of peasant revolutionaries as being ‘bandits and rebels’.  Dawson points out that the writing was essentially on the wall after Zapata and Villa occupied Mexico City; that they had irreversibly upset the liberal middle classes, and would from then on be associated with criminality. I suppose what was interesting was the role that class plays in revolution here. Quite often, as described by Professor Dawson, members of revolutionary movements who, unlike Zapata or Villa, survive, they are sometimes able to socially elevate themselves as a result, often leaving behind their respective movements in all but name.

I suppose what this labeling made me consider, is what is the role of the middle classes in a revolutionary struggle? Dawson points out that in Argentina, the middle classes interests were largely in line with those of the oligarchs; they both profited from the same exploitation, and they both feared similar types of retaliation (the former, of course, to radically different extents). Furthermore, you have the same type of denigration applied to the working class revolutionaries, instead of ‘bandits and rebels’, now the boogieman takes on a more red-scare-esque appearance, with unionists, socialists, and egalitarians being conveyed (perhaps rightly so) as the paramount threat to the status quo.

There’s this tricky impasse that seems to come up here. If working class people fail to agitate, they are more likely than not going to fail to secure better conditions. If they agitate too much, by say, occupying the symbolic center of a state, they alienate a class of people who might otherwise have been sympathetic to their movement. I’m kind of reminded of our current moment here, in Minneapolis (where I grew up), blocking highways has become a popular tactic of protest, largely in response to police brutality and other forms of systemic oppression. I feel like I constantly hear about how protesters could be doing something more effective, how they’re ruining people’s days, and not garnering any sympathy via their tactics. Yet, these are people who otherwise wouldn’t be talking about something like this, who certainly wouldn’t be paying attention to the role that police brutality plays within our society. I suppose this might just boil down to a case where it’s impossible to please everyone. In Martin Luther King Jr’s speech “The Other America,” he claims that a riot is the language of the unheard, and as we can see from the reaction to the Argentinian unionists, the Mexican revolutionaries, and those poised against the status quo today, there are many who simply don’t want to hear anything.

Week 7 Reflections

This week’s video/reading struck me as being particularly interesting due to the enduring legacy of the quest for ‘order’. Even today, Donald Trump, like Ronald Reagan before him, and Eisenhower before him, uses rhetoric about the US military as if it’s in dire disrepair and needs to be rebuilt, needs more money. As absurd as this line is, and has always been, it strikes a key with people due to the implication that more guns, bombs, soldiers, and technology, means more ‘order’. One specific aspect that I liked was the connection between the autocratic rule of somewhere like Mexico, and the fact that in many part of America, working class people lived in a similar state of racial dictatorship. Democracy in the US has always been tenuous, with the vote of a wealthy, enfranchised, white man, historically carrying much more weight than any other vote. As J. Edgar Hoover once said, “Justice is merely incidental to law and order.” We can even see this today, in the US you cannot vote if you’re a felon/on parole. This is a situation disproportionately faced by Black Americans, the large scale incarceration of whom has historically been tied to the ever-present specter of ‘law and order’.

I felt that this section carried a pretty profound sense of hopelessness. It seemed to suggest that as we advance within our societies, we can never seem to advance horizontally, or democratically. The way something like the telegraph could so quickly become a tool of repression, and how extreme the repression of some of these new technologies could be, was quite stark. The most significant question I was left with, is how do you deal with this problem of power? As Jenny Holzer once described; “The abuse of power comes as no surprise”. There are many recent historical examples of despotism and autocracy being used to rapidly industrialize, or modernize a country. Arguably, the three greatest superpowers today (USA, China, & Russia), are built on effectively free labor, and the blood of their detractors.

A final connection I made was in response to the conclusion of the first paragraph in Dawson; where he’s describing how impressive the modernized Mexico looked on the eyes, in comparison to the chaos that was growing every which way. What popped into my head when I heard this was, for whatever reason, the Olympics. The Olympics (as well as other major, global sporting events) have a long history of making appearances in order to cover up political turmoil or shortcomings. Even here in Vancouver, the reason every bus bench now has those little rails to separate the seats was a direct response to the upcoming Olympics; it wasn’t good for business for people to see that there is a significant homeless population in Vancouver, and of course, instead of say, freezing rents, or working towards more public housing, the city decided to further criminalize homelessness, and to make our bus benches inhospitable. Far more jarring, we could look at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, where the government massacred students and labor demonstrators ten days before the Olympics; a bloody bandaid of a solution.

Week 6 Reflections

One important thing to considering when thinking about the legacy of slavery today is the fact that it was primarily an economic system; a system of free labor. Shifting too far away from this would have been severely damaging to the status quo, as such numerous ways of continuing to exact free or cheap labor have been employed in the meantime. One of the most glaring ways this is achieved, most notably in the United States, is through the prison system. The 13th amendment states that slavery is illegal except in the case of an incarcerated person. As such, we see a significant prison boom during the early Jim Crow era, with similar occurrences happening under Nixon, Reagan, through to today, where the US has the largest prison population on the planet. Furthermore, even after being released, many people are felons, or are on probation, meaning they are unable to vote, to leave the country, to collect food stamps, etc. This has an extremely disproportionate effect on black communities. Although the means have changed, this system echoes much of the state of affairs under slavery.

Another post-slavery legacy we see in the Americas is a significant resistance to the labor movement in its many forms. This manifests itself in numerous ways. For some background: many workers in an industry like mining will find themselves living in a company town, buying from a company store, going to a company doctor, etc. Often they receive wages that barely cover these expenses, and either fall into debt with the company, or are unable to save (as one would try to do in an ideal system of social mobility). Some would consider this to be ‘wage-slavery’, meaning that, while a worker is getting paid, their agency largely amounts to being able to decide whether or not they/their family would like to starve to death, which one could argue is not much of a choice. Furthermore, when workers movements have gained momentum, we frequently see the entire apparatus of the state being employed in order to crush these movements, often violently.

Perhaps we could say that the legacy of slavery in the Americas today manifests itself by continuing to deny the worker, and thereby society, the fruits of its labor. Instead this labor disproportionately benefits the individuals and organizations that enjoy a monopoly over the means of production.

Week 5 Reflections

The rise of the caudillos can be understood in the powerlessness of the average worker during the post-independence era. Pre-Independence, the interests of the ruling Creole elites were kept in check by the Spanish Colonial establishment. However, once these protections were stripped away, indigenous peoples, poor, working, or otherwise disenfranchised people had to look elsewhere for protection against increased exploitation and displacement. Within this context, many groups opt for different solutions, which ultimately means aligning with larger political entities that can provide protection.  It is these decentralized conditions which led to the rise of the caudillos. It’s worth noting, there was a substantial degree of anxiety among all walks of life during this period. War and national tragedies were commonplace aspects of life in 19th Century Latin America. These are the conditions in which political/military strongmen thrive; a status quo that builds upon itself the less checks and balances exist.

The appeal to the poor and powerless in particular can, in part, be understood by looking at the colonial system which had previously subjugated such people. As previously mentioned, many disenfranchised people enjoyed certain protections under the overarching colonial leadership of the Spanish system. This sort of detached god-king role similarly meshed with the role of Catholicism in the region, and the worship of idols or symbols that were thought to represent some sort of otherworldly power. The sum of these factors was such that caudillos fit quite nicely into the power vacuum left by the Spanish; offering similar protections and fitting into a similar authoritarian role. It’s worth noting that many of those who supported caudillos likely lacked any real agency of their own, and one of the primary ways of attaining land or other sorts of wealth, was fighting for one of these warlords, who would sometimes split up the spoils of war with their soldiers. I suppose I’m trying to say that it seems as if the caudillos were often the best option around in terms of attaining prosperity, or even simply survival.

It’s difficult to say whether Echeverria held any degree of respect for the caudillos themselves. However, in “The Slaughter Yard,” he demonstrates a small degree of flexibility within their system that allows for recognizing human needs rather than focusing on structural ideals. For example, instead of letting the bull go to the dogs, the judge looks the other way as its meat is used to feed a starving populace. While this is certainly not high praise, it’s a small slice of ‘benevolence’ within an otherwise depraved moment. Should we look at this as Echeverria displaying a small silver lining of the caudillos? Or is it simply a image of humanity in a moment when it’s hard to come by?