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.