Week 13: On “Towards an Uncertain Future”

I find it very interesting when Dawson implies in the “voice” section that the dichotomy between the left the right is becoming vague. Neither side can remain ideological, and both have to fulfill the basic obligations as a state, including “providing basic services, making godsend services broadly available at relatively low cost, and fostering economic growth”. The ideological attribute of the specific measures they adopt, whether socialist or capitalist, doesn’t matter as much as the actual benefits they bring to the people. Consider how even Cuba has embraced limited private sector openings.

I think it’s important for leaders to realize that they should not be fighting for their own victory of power and wealth, but for the welfare of their country. They should be allies of the people, not enemies or betrayers, especially when it comes to international affairs. The people’s pressure on the state is significant in domestic politics. It’s the long-lasting unresolved grievances and the futility of moderate means to voice their needs that force them to turn to insurrection. Actions like roadblocks are undoubtedly influential in reshaping the political landscape and compelling the state to address the need of a group, but it’s hard to say that they are the desirable solutions. Overall, social instability undermines a country’s ability to develop economy and raising living standard.  Few people would rather risk their lives in rebellion if the state could be effective.

However, underlying the people’s “power” to influence the politicians by insurrection is their despair. After all they don’t have as much power as the authorities, and have to count on the conscience of the state. Indigenous people can claim all the rights, and when it comes to a mining project that would benefit the country, it’s often their rights that are sacrificed. Also, in the Lago Agrio case, as the battle shifts venue and lasts into its twentieth year, it’s the powerless residents of the province of Sucumbíos that have to bear the consequences of the Texaco’s years and live in the land, while the plaintiffs and the defendants play dirty hands. As Dawson points out, perhaps the only truth we can see in this cloudy case is power, shift of power and utilization and abuse of power.

Cases like this Lago Agrio one drains my optimism and confidence in humanity. If Latin America is heading “towards an uncertain future”, in light of the existent states, the conflicts, the international relations, the very recent case of 43 missing students in Mexico, how much faith do you have in that Latin America is heading for the better, not the worse?

Week 12: On “Speaking Truth to Power”

It’s tempting to draw a generalization from this chapter about recent Latin American societies: the states are authoritarian, corrupted, irresponsible, and incapable of fulfilling their duties; the criminals are unscrupulous, ruthless, and powerful; the masses, consequently, suffer from great human rights violations and are struggling persistently. Indignation and sympathy are easily aroused. However, one has to keep a clear mind to identify the intricacy and difficulties in the struggles to understand why the delinquency we saw decades ago would persist till today. I think one subtitle in the book summarizes the struggles in Latin America (if not the world) very well — “Wars Without End”.

While the development in communication technology and media made it possible for the victims to make themselves heard by international audience and attract foreign forces to their aid, the method has limited power and several drawbacks. International attention do not always transform into timely and effective help. Foreign leaders have more concerns than just the pleas of the human rights groups and their attitudes can be wobbling. Reagan is an example provided in the book. The means of the mass media can also be unreliable when the government and the criminals try to intervene with the circulation of information. Censorship on media and endangerment to journalists can both impede the free flow of truth.

Another huge difficulty is the corruptive power of the crimes especially drug trafficking on the state. The sheer lucrativeness of the trade degrades many officers into accomplices of the criminals. The danger of fighting against narcos intimidate the police. The extrajudicial violence involved in the state’s actions arouses fear in the people. The evil has an assimilating power to the state, and this is probably the most despairing for the people.

It’s hard to predict what will be the solution to the human rights violations in Latin America, but one thing is for sure: there will be great sacrifice. The state needs to face the ugly truth, resist the profits from the crimes, and work hard to reclaim the “dignity as a nation”. The people needs to continue to voice their loss and demand their rights even in the face of repression and retaliation. It’s a tough battle and may be never won, but human civilization has recognized what are essential rights for human beings and support will always be there for Latin America.

Which do you think is more worth counting on: domestic efforts (state reform, people fight), or international support (political intervention, NGO support)?


Week 11: On “The Terror”

I really like this chapter’s selection of documents as they capture important aspects of the Peruvian dirty war, which is an exemplar of the phenomena throughout Latin American of the time.

The first document is ironic to me in that the author had the very problem he saw in the country. He was well aware of the barrier of “disinformation, prejudice and ideology” between different groups–the peasants, the Senderistas, and the state’s armed forces. However, while he highlights how the villagers were ignorant and therefore fearful of the outsiders, he himself makes wrong assumptions and accusations about the villagers. For example he describes the village as completely isolated from the modern world, but in fact many peasants had experience in and knowledge of the other part of Peru. Even his assertion that the dancing woman was “undoubtedly one of the mob who threw rocks and swung sticks” seems offensive to me.

The document also reflects the pandemic paranoia  in Latin America. Every one had something to fear, and from the fear sprouted hatred and violence, which led to so many incidents of dehumanization in the period. Between the Senderistas and the state, the peasant masses were the most pathetic because they were so susceptible to the other two forces and could trust neither to be their real friends and alliance.

The second document first impressed me with its recurrent mention of Chinese Chairman Mao Tsetung, and how much inspiration Gonzalo got from him. It’s quite pathetic that he believed that the military theory and practice Mao provided and with which he succeeded in leading the struggle in China were universal and would guarantee the same result in Peru. Mao’s adaption of Marxism was essentially based on Chinese situation. Given Peru’s situation, the adversary Gonzalo faced, and the measures he took, one wouldn’t be optimistic about his success. By the way, it’s also interesting for me to know that slogan like “Death to the Traitor Deng Xiaopeng” (actually there’s a typo; it should be Deng Xiaoping 邓小平) was painted on the walls in Andean communities. (Deng was actually the one who corrected the terrible mistakes Mao made in his old ages and saved China from great socioeconomic misery with his reform. He was strongly attacked by opponents at first.)

Yet let’s remember that China is certainly not the only international influence on Latin America at the time. The US, as always, played an important thought not necessarily overt role in the wars.

The third document reinforces the idea of “destruction for construction/reconstruction”, which seems to be a shared motto among the opposite forces. There could be no negotiation, no mild reforms, but only annihilation. This idealistic attitude is not only troubled by the great difficulty to actually construct, but also undermined by the leader’s egocentrism and pursuit of power. Fujimori, despite all his patriotic claims and desires in the Declaration of the Autogolpe, was not people’s servant. He was not so different from the many authoritarian figures we see in Latin America.

The last document reminds us of the real sorrow this period inflicted on ordinary people. The narrator touched me by a composed expression of sorrow and condemnation. The text captures something that is not exclusive to Fujimori, or Peru, or Latin America. It’s mankind that will forever suffer from its own malevolence and meanwhile pursue justice, and that will see endless figures who outweigh humanity by themselves. Personal favorite quote: “Real power is internal; is able to create, to convert ideals into reality, and permits us to leave our Utopia because we are reality.”


Question for discussion: what do you think of the idea that something needs to be destroyed to construct something better? e.g. Gonzalo’s wish to destroy the reactionaries to construct a communist country, or Fujimori’s autogolpe to destroy the current, failed democracy to build a new one.

Week 10: On “Power to the People”

As an electronic engineering student who has learned some relevant technology of the radio, like the amplifier circuits or the modulation process, I find it very fascinating to see radio’s role in social-historical stage. Its power to transform the mass is unprecedented. “…it (the act of listening to the leader) made the crowd into the people”, Dawson says. This summarizes how radio influenced the political behavior of the crowd. Radio created a sense of belonging to a greater community–the nation–that to some extent transcended the hierarchy. Both the elites and the poor could listen to a speech at the same time or hum with a popular song played on the radio, be it samba or tango. The people could also defy the authority by rejecting the official radio programs with didactic propaganda or music with ulterior intention, which would be much harder had the defiance been face-to-face. More importantly, with shared information and sentiments, the crowd could be united over a large region to become a power that shook the decision of the authority. We see convincing incidents in all three countries mentioned in this chapter, the release of Perón from jail being one of the most impressive.

Hence it’s plain to see that for political leaders wielding radio well meant turning the power of the people in them. However it’s not so easy to accomplish. The reason is that people are not always fools. They may be fooled once but not all times. No matter how rhetoric and moving you are on the radio, the people will ultimately look for the actual changes in their lives. Wage increase, healthcare, suffrage, etc., people’s support lasted with the realization of those promises. Therefore the principle of a beloved leader was not so much changed with the use of radio; you still need to cater to people’s needs. Cárdenas couldn’t force villagers to listen to XFX by gluing the dials, but could receive thousands of telegrams expressing support when he nationalized the oil industry. Similarly, I believe that Evita’s long-lived esteem was not determined by how humble and magnanimous she portrayed herself in the speech, but what she actually did especially with FEP.

Week 9: On “Commerce, Coercion, and America’s Empire”

It has been hard for me to read the first half of this chapter calmly and unemotionally. As if China’s misery in the 19th and 20th centuries inflicted by European and American imperialism had not stung me enough, the similar experience that Latin America undertook reminded me of the interest-driven nature and ruthless measures of some if not all states. The claim that the US was at its core an anti-imperialist nation faced stark contradiction when the US annexed lands and veritably colonized parts of Latin America. It is even more ironic that domestic propaganda always justified the nation’s military and economic deeds. That US made considerable amount of interventions to the relatively small countries of the Caribbean but faced frustration when it came to stronger states like Mexico demonstrates the “law of the jungle”. Further proving this law, UFCO extended economic domination to political influence; CIA supported the overthrow of Jacobo Arbenz Guzmán in protection of UFCO’s interest. It’s all about strength. You got the strength and you do whatever you want; humanitarianism and morality are diversions in good mood.

It’s arguable and naive to say that US presence in Latin America is all abominable. For one thing, life became better for a group of people, like the landed owners, the middle class, and the dictators supported by US. While some benefited more, however, the marginalized peasants and oppressed working class also suffered more. This is consistent with the idea from last chapter that “one person’s boom was always another’s crisis”. But American imperialism couldn’t care less about the welfare of the weak, could it? Let alone the sheer enervation (if not deprivation) of another nation’s sovereignty in Guatemala’s case. For another, US intervention was also a boost to regional economy. It might not have been the best route of development for those regions, but there was no other choice. From last week’s discussion we know that not all countries can follow the same route of development and with the presence of a superpower like the US the routes are more or less distorted.

The second half of the chapter, the culture part, is more complicated than a simple predator-prey scenario. In Latin America, we see rejection towards Americans, but more often we see desire for and dependence on America’s modernization and wealth, embodied in those industrial products. We see ambivalence in Brazilians’ mixture of pride and resentment about Miranda’s success, and further complication when the culture was monetized and benefited those “selling” the culture. We see Latin America being stereotyped but this stereotyping can be lucrative, and those being stereotyped held ambiguous feelings toward it. Such phenomenon, characterized in the book by “mutual consumption”, is something beyond right or wrong.

Week 8: On “Signs of Crisis in a Gilded Age”

In this chapter, the crises of Latin America during a period of remarkable economic development were social unrests invoked by two underprivileged groups: the peasants, as in the Mexican rebellion, and the working class, as in the Argentine strike. However, it is the other group that became my center of interest: the elites, the statesmen, the constitutionalists, the liberals, the intellectuals, the modernizers…you know who I’m talking about. Generally speaking they are people who have a say in national decisions or who can exert direct influence upon the path the nation takes, and to simply I’ll just call them elites. They are of great interest also because they stand in the middle: on one side there are the underprivileged, to whom they pose as superior; and on the other side there are the Americans, to whom they feel inferior.

The peasants and the working class, by their nature, did not have so much interest in national movements as in their personal welfares. They shaped history with consequential events. The peasants fought for land, wealth, and freedom in the sense of regional autonomy, but they did not intend to rule even they had taken over the capital. The working class made strikes for better working condition and higher wages. These were all reasonable requests that the social elites should have dealt with properly, but what was proper is hard to judge. What actually happened involved much violence, where the elites eventually got the upper hand with military technologies. They would take the lesson, though, that enlarging hierarchical distance or maltreating and oppressing the lower class for their interest is not the wise way to govern a nation. They make mistakes, but the nation’s future still depends on them. Among them are the most patriotic nationalists who care the most about their nation’s future, or even the future of human kind. José Vasconcelos, for instance, engaged himself in the progression of the whole mankind. Despite his philosophical and quasi-scientific approach to the biological problem of heredity and sociological problem of civil unions, his interest and passion for a better race is admirable.

Latin American elites’ attitudes towards the United States are very interesting. Mostly it’s a mixture of admiration and despise, of acceptance and rejection. In Rubén Darío’s poem we see acknowledgement and praise of North American power, but also self-assertion about Latin America’s love and faith, which North America reportedly lacked. In José Vasconcelos’s essay we can taste some bitterness towards Americans that probably rooted in jealousy and sense of inferiority. The elites struggled with the inescapable gravity of American power, and also the inevitable responsibility to build a stronger state. That kind of struggle, I dare say, continues today, and not only in Latin America but also in many countries all over the world.

Week 7: On “The Export Boom as Modernity”

This chapter deals mainly with two topics–politics and economy–during the time when the majority of Latin America was progressing in modernity. Although having very poor understanding of economics and not so much better understanding of politics, I’m highly interested in the political part of this chapter. Although I’m aware that the document is a highly romantic eulogy of Diaz and brimming with ideological bullshit to some of you, my views upon democracy and governing agree to some extent with those of Diaz’s. Indeed, liberty and democracy are wonderful political and humanitarian ideals, but they are not just one step away for a nation debilitated by centuries of colonization and fratricidal wars and conflicts. Order needs to be established before progress can be made and the political theories turned into reality. The order implies not only social stability for economic prosperity but also a foundation for education that enlighten and prepare the mass for true democracy. No country can import a political idea and implement it disregarding the country’s reality. For Mexico, an exemplary in terms of modernization, Diaz’s rule proved beneficent in a way. The measures taken at the initial stage was harsh and even cruel, which Diaz himself also acknowledged. According to him, the bad blood was shed for the sake of saving much more good blood. I do not agree wholly with his executions, but I do think that certain price has to be paid because civilization and prosperity don’t come easily.

I think it’s very valuable lesson to take for some countries and regions nowadays that are struggling in their paths to liberty and democracy. Each country has its own course of development and each is at a distinct stage from others. Very often the influence of other countries can blind the state leaders’ insight to their own country. Without advocating authoritarianism, I think state leaders should be assertive on what they think suitable for their country after careful consideration.

As for the economy part, I can understand both of the opposing views mentioned by Dawson. Although one can argue for the latent problem of the export boom that proved correct, like economic dependency, the export boom was indeed the current optimization for Latin America countries at that time. There is never an all-advantageous method to take, and wise countries will find solutions for problems that ensue.

Week 6: On Citizenship and Rights

Unlike previous readings, Dawson’s Chapter 3 invoked very entangled emotions. I don’t want to be sentimental about the past , yet the history of Latin America, as well as many others, saddens and upsets me. In retrospect, it’s somewhat peculiar to me that people should have thought in a certain way in history. For instance, how could science be used to justify injustice and hatred? How could people think slavery was natural and moral? However I then start to ask, what is justice? What is natural? And moral? Their definitions are forever changing, and there is always a different perspective to what is right or wrong. While slavery was later deemed immoral, its contribution to economic development and even civilization was undeniable. What’s equality? Haven’t Animal Farm taught us the invariable truth that “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.”? What’s freedom and what’s its boundary, if any?

It’s also sad to see how people fought for their interest yet not obtaining it. Sometimes their effort was counteractive. For instance, “the more Afro-Cubans demanded rights, the more Cubans were subjected to stories of strange rituals and the kidnapping of white children.” There seemed no better way though. Would their demands be met more easily if they had not fought so undauntedly or perseveringly? Probably not either. Besides, sometimes the group is divided within on what they should pursue, as was the case of Argentine women. How could one female convince another with totally different standpoint?

Speaking of the feminism issue represented in documents 3.4 and 3.5, I would not argue, although it would be easy for us modern people to affirm that a woman can be both a professional and a loving wife and mother. The key idea, I think, is still “freedom”. Women, just as men, should be FREE to choose their path. They could opt to work if they were qualified, and of course they could opt not to and be a housewife.

From my perspective, it’s much more useful to debate and negotiate over “what is the right” than “what is right”. Ok sorry for the wordplay. I mean, it’s better to talk about what rights one can claim, than what is right for him/her to do. Such a problem exists in every period of time. The question should have been “should women have the right to work” rather than “should you, a woman, work”. And most questions asked in the first way should be answered yes, because greater freedom is always worth fighting for and the limitation is always necessary to discuss. But the second question is totally subjective. We human beings are so fond of imposing our opinions on others and trying to convince and convert others. But how on earth does it harm you that a woman works in the industry or a black serves the government? Or, considering today’s hot topic, a person loves the same sex?

We can find so many things in history that still resonate nowadays. Latin American history really inspires me to reconsider the current world we live in.

Week 5: On “The Slaughterhouse”

The first thing I noticed about this fiction is the use of sarcasm and irony. Echeverría used this powerful literary weapon to fire his condemnation and disdain towards the Federalists. First of all, the federalists surrendered their freedom to the church and the government, and the readiness to bow to commands. Mocking their beliefs, the author wrote that “since the Church…holds material power over the consciences and stomachs that do not … belong to the individual, then nothing more is fair or rational than for it to forbid what is evil.” He believes that this kind of submission degrades a human being to a machine that has to ask for permission before every action.
To me, it is one thing to be religious and have faith, and it is another to renounce your own judgement and will. The story reminds me of the miserable life of people in Geneva under Calvin’s rule. It is amazing how malleable people’s mind can be, and I understand how difficult it was for the lower class people in Buenos Aires to be liberal beings, because they didn’t have the material basis or education and enlightenment to physically or spiritually stand against the Restorer. Life of submission might be the easiest.
Another prominent feature of the fiction is recurrent similes comparing the barbarian mob with animals. Not only did the scene of grotesque bedlam in the slaughterhouse lack any trace of civilization, but the particular actions of people resembled those of beasts. Boys surrounded and harassed a woman “the way dos will badger a bull”. Followers of Matasiete rushed at the young Unitarian “like rapacious caranchos alighting on the bones of a tiger-ravaged ox.” And in the following comment Echeverría used both sarcasm and simile: “What noble souls, what courage, that of the Federalists! Always in gangs and swooping down on their defenseless victims like vultures!”
What also appalls me is how unsympathetic and even lighthearted the people were about violence and savagery. When the escaped animal was proved to indeed be a bull instead of a steer, all it invoked was “uproarious laughter and loud chatter”—the tragedy of the decapitated boy was trivial. Also, realizing that the young Unitarian was bleeding to death, the judge said “all we wanted was to have a bit of fun with him”. Yes that’s his word—“fun”.
It is a significant and thorny issue for a country to deal with people of different ideologies and beliefs. Brutality is the most frequent resort but is undoubtedly the worst one. However I cannot think of another solution for the conflict between barbarianism and civilization; perhaps blood has to be the price for progress and revolutionary success. But the problem is further complicated and worsened when people begin to associate a certain ideology with race, forming a stereotype which in some cases might hold true but others not. Since then hatred can be easily aroused and indiscriminate. You can see someone as enemy just by their color, their look, or their clothes. Such an association overshadows the attempt to build a liberal, egalitarian republic.

Week 4: On Dawson’s Introduction & Chapter 1


In the introduction, Dawson is justifying his approach to Latin American histories he adopted in this book by pointing out several problems in historical studies. Through these insightful discussions one can understand why a collection of fragmentary stories is probably the best way for readers to understand Latin America.

In short, the aim is to avoid simplification and generalization, which is a common tendency and sometimes an unavoidable nature of history studies. One has to realize the complexity of history. For one thing, geographic area does not necessarily put the habitants in the same category, as is shown in the opening example of two distinct communities in Mexico city, Polanco and Ecatepec. In a same place people from different past coexist, resulting in different customs, beliefs, occupations, etc. For another, people’s attitudes and opinions differ from class to class, or race to race, or religion to religion. In an epoch of freedom there are people unfree, and in a time of development and prosperity there are people suffering from impoverishment and exploitation. Moreover, within a mass force or influence there are always agencies that can be critical and determinant.

Two more things to beware of: the writing and interpretation of history. Since no history can be exhaustive, it’s inevitable that some facts, some people, and some voices are silenced. In this sense one can say that no history is truly objective. It’s always influenced by the people writing it. The interpretation is even more personal. Although there is always a mainstream or even authoritative interpretation, one is free to choose their own way. Therefore it would be wrong if the writer attempted to force form a certain understanding.

While Dawson’s analysis is focused on Latin America, what he points out is ale true for history everywhere in the world, and is also useful for us to comprehend the present.



In the first chapter Dawson’s ideas in the introduction are manifest. Just look at the discrepancy on the idea of freedom and independence, which is essentially a demonstration of discrepant demands. The criollo elites, the merchants, the slaves, the slave owners, the church, the indigenous people. They all demanded different freedom, rights, and privileges. Furthermore more the demands differed from region to region. Such a discrepancy is also why it’s hard to fulfill Bolívar’s dream even to this day.

This also leads me to wonder: had Napoleon not appeared, would the independence have come so soon? How the societies in Latin American would evolve without the Spanish crown being replaced by Napoleon’s brother on Iberian Peninsula? I would assume a long-lasting of conflicts and rebells, but nothing as drastic as independence in a short term.