Book Review: Looking at politically incorrect history of Latin America

Historia Políticamente Incorrecta de América LatinaHistoria Políticamente Incorrecta de América Latina by Leandro Narloch
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a tough book to review. Narloch is absolutely brutal in his dissection of the idols of the Latin American left. I don’t disagree with his conclusions and that these idols do not deserve to be idolized as they are and that the left has chosen to be willfully ignorant in continuing to raise them up onto a pedestal. However, I can’t shake the feeling that it feels a bit like a hatchet job. I am not suggesting that the research was poorly done, and I realize that the objective of the book was to confront the left with its own hypocrisy, something I greatly appreciate, as the left has often ignored deplorable actions done by those on their side while shrilly attacking (and rightfully so) the deplorable acts done by the right. However, the lack of any positive message makes it at times hard reading, and I suspect will make its impact less as it probably won’t be read much by leftists who may become immediately defensive. I wonder if Narloch would have offered alternative leftist leaders who demonstrated some of the more humane characteristics it would have made the whole story more impactful. Narloch also does not focus his criticism much on the right. This is understandable as the Latin American right has gotten a fair amount of criticism in the recent past, but by not including much of this in the book it might not feel completely fair. Nevertheless, if you can get past these limitations, I think the book is definitely worth reading. I especially would like social liberals to read this to reconsider some of the absurd hero worship that has been done on some very deplorable historical figures, and at least try to be just as critical and demanding of those on our side of the ideological spectrum as we are of those on the opposite side.

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Presenting in Bogota Colombia


Last week I presented work I’ve been involved with at IFPRI with the IMPACT model. I explained how the model works and how this tool can be used in conjunction with other tools developed at IFPRI can be applied to the Colombian context to analyze complex issues like the effects of climate change on agricultural prices, land-use, and GHG emmissions.

Take a look at the blogpost I posted about the event at the Global Futures website:


Esquina Latina – April 8

Lots of interesting things have been going on in Latin America the past couple of weeks, and here are a few of the articles that caught my eye.

  • Brazil supermarkets ‘to avoid Amazon meat’ (BBC) – This is an exciting turn of events for people concerned about deforestation in the Amazon rain forest. While conversion of land from rain forest to pasture for livestock is not the only cause of deforestation it is a major factor. Providing incentives to discourage the expansion of livestock production in the Amazon would definitely help reduce deforestation. The challenge will be on policing this promise. It is easy to say you won’t accept meat from the Amazon, it is a lot harder to track cows from birth to slaughter to ensure they are not coming from the Amazon. Nevertheless, it looks like a promising private sector action that could reduce deforestation in Brazil, and if effective done may serve as a model to other countries.
  • Peru declares oil contamination emergency in Amazon jungle region (Washington Post) – Peru’s indigenous population in the amazon region have been protesting the deplorable treatment of the environment by the oil industry. It is a sadly common example of what can happen when there are extreme power asymmetries in an economy with poor accountability and government oversight. The government needs to done a better job of regulating the industry to encourage the protection of the environment.  This hasn’t happened in the past, and now Peru is in the more difficult position of trying to clean up the mess then preventing the mess from happening.
  • Peru’s new military draft (Washington Post) – This policy isn’t very fair. It is, however,  fairly common in Latin America, where individuals with money are often able to avoid or greatly reduce their military service. In many countries the military does serve a valuable role in providing economic ladders to economically disadvantaged members of society. However, I think Peru is treating the symptom (low enlistment) instead of the cause of the the problem. They should try to understand why people are enlisting less, and correct the cause of the low enlistment. I suspect enlistment is low because people do not find the military experience valuable. Perhaps what they should do is try increasing the payoffs of joining the military. Increasing the criminally low wage, and providing opportunities to gain high quality education would be a good place to start. Increasing the payoffs from the military experience would certainly be fairer than forcing the poorest members of society to partake in an institution, which richer members happily pay to avoid.
  • Argentina May Defy NY Courts With Payment Offer (NY Times) and Argentina Defends Payment Plan (NY Times) – A couple of recent articles looking at the litigation surrounding bond holders who refused to accept Argentina’s greatly reduced bond settlement from the early 2000s. Not sure how things are going to turn out, but it looks like Argentina, may be heading toward another disastrous default.
  • Why is less cocaine coming from Colombia (the economist) – An interesting look at the changing dynamics in the cocaine trade in South America’s Andes, and how Colombia has been displaced by Peru and Bolivia as the world largest producers of cocaine. The article does a good job of describing the historical transition of cocaine production between Colombia, Bolivia, and Peru. While the article doesn’t make a specific point about the futility of attacking drug production at the point of supply, it does point to the significant effects that changes in demand have on production. Yes, Colombia has clamped down hard on production, and this has undoubtedly contributed to decreased production. However, long term, continuing to decrease cocaine production will require a global decline in cocaine consumption, or some other dramatic change in the drug trade (legalization, new synthetics that replace cocaine, etc.). Else as we learned from prohibition, if there is a demand someone will figure a way of getting the product to the market, and this short term decline may just be a temporary blip.
  • Colombian Prosecutor’s Court Challenge Threatens Peace Talks (NY Times) – This court challenge could make the ongoing peace talks in Cuba even more complicated. While I sincerely hope that it doesn’t derail the peace talks, I think there are some very valid points that have been made, and it is important for a pluralistic and democratic society like Colombia to discuss publicly the framework of this peace negotiation. Only by doing this will the end result have long standing legitimacy. The question being raised is definitely a tough one to answer. By giving amnesty to human rights violators there may be many injustices that are never heard in court and victims may be unable to have their moment to say their piece and get valuable closure. However, without the amnesty it may be difficult to get the FARC to the negotiating table, which could lead to the violence lasting longer. With news that Catatumbo, one of the high ranking members of the FARC recently joining the negotiations in Havana, it will be very interesting to see if this challenge is successful, and if it is, what effect it will have on the willingness of the FARC to continue negotiating.
  • Port strikes halt shipments of copper, fruit in export dependent Chile (Washington Post) and Most Chile Ports to End Strike (NY Times) – This is big news for global copper markets. Chile is one of the world’s largest exporters of copper and over 50% of all copper shipments pass through Chile. Chile’s government also rakes in a substantial portion of its revenue from royalties on this vital metal, and if the tentative settlement falls apart it could threaten vital government services. The strike also wreaks havoc on the overall economy which is heavily dependent on exports not only of minerals but also of horticultural goods like grapes, apples, and wine. On the one hand it is a bit scary that one sector can hold the whole economy hostage, but on the other it seems utterly ridiculous that it got to this point, as the initial strikes appear to have started because the dock workers wanted a 30 minute lunch break. Here is to hoping that a settlement is reached allowing the free flow of trade, and that gives the Chilean dock workers a more hospitable working environment.
  • Chavez Protégé Invokes Venezuelan Curse on Opposition Voters (NY Times) – Only a week left before Venezuelans will go to the polls and choose their first post-Chavez leader. Maduro continues to make outrageous claims. This last week before the elections ought to be fairly interesting.
  • Pablo Neruda Exhumed (NY Times) – I didn’t realize there was a possibility Neruda had been poisoned. Poisoning Neruda would have been a petty and detestable act by the Pinochet regime. Neruda was already suffering from terminal stomach cancer, and could not have been much of a threat to him. I’ll be very curious to see what the results of the study of Neruda’s body show,

Esquina Latina – March 25

I was born in Colombia, and have spent more than 5 years living, working, and traveling in Latin America. I find the many cultures, traditions, and histories of this region fascinating. Even though I am currently living in DC, I try to keep myself informed on what is going on in the region, and in the spirit of my weekly development links, I am going to start summarizing the articles and papers I read about the region. Not sure if I’ll do this every week, or make it a bi-weekly thing, guess I’ll play it by ear.

With no further ado, the links:

  • Mayor of Lima Survives Recall Vote (NY Times) – I am not very knowledgeable about Limeño politics. However, on first glance it seems like a good thing Susana Villaran won her recall vote. She clearly has riled up a lot of animosity from Lima’s traditional powers. Nevertheless, it doesn’t seem she has committed any illegal or corrupt actions. While this is not exactly a ringing endorsement, the recall appears to be a part of a strategy to prevent Villaran from exercising the powers of her office. Considering this, it is probably for the best she will get to finish her term,  if only for stability sake or the fact she is Lima’s first female mayor.
  • Proceso de Paz en Colombia (El Tiempo) – Cool flash application providing a chronology of the peace process and a description of the participants in the peace negotiations ongoing between Colombia and FARC, Colombia’s largest guerrilla group. The application was designed by El Tiempo, Bogota’s main newspaper, and is in Spanish.
  • In Effort to Try Dictator, Guatemala Shows New Judicial Might (NY Times) – In a major ruling, Guatemala’s supreme court ruled in favor of the prosecution, which will ensure that Efraín Ríos, Guatemala’s former dictator, will be tried for human rights violations committed during his rule in the 1980s. I think this is excellent news. While there are certainly concerns about whether or not Efraín Ríos will get a fair trial, this concern is outweighed by the message it sends: dictators are responsible for the actions done under their rule. The fact it took 30 years to get here does weakens the deterrence capacity of the judgement, it is nevertheless, a positive step. I look forward to seeing how this trial unfolds, and hope the victims in Guatemala get an opportunity to voice their outrage and see some form of justice.
  • Argentina’s Fernandez Asks Pope to Intervene Over Falklands (Reuters) – Glad to see that Venezuela doesn’t have a monopoly on absurd political theatre in Latin America.  Argentina’s use of the Falklands is fairly similar to Chavez’s anti-U.S. rhetoric. It is used as a call to arms for supporters and a smoke-screen to distract from domestic problems. Much like the anti-imperialist claims from Venezuela, the Falklands are rooted in historical events and stories. Just as in Venezuela, the truth of the matter has little to do with the effectiveness of using this political tool. Therefore, it isn’t really worth going through point by point the tenuousness of the Argentine claim to the islands, or the fact a recent referendum had the islanders voting nearly unanimously to remain British. Trying to draw the Pope in on the issue should be interpreted as a cynical attempt to rally nationalist sentiment and boost morale in the face of local economic problems.
  • Earth to Evo (Project Syndicate) – This article struck me as a bit too negative on Evo Morales.  Is there a certain amount of hypocrisy and political  self-serving behind the environmental and pro-indigenous mantle that Evo Morales has clothed himself? Sure. However, Evo like national leaders everywhere has to make trade offs, where economic, social, political, and environmental objectives have to be weighed and prioritized. The road represents potential economic development for a country in need of it. Does it threaten the rights of the indigenous people living in the TIPNIS, and potentially the environment? Yes. However, it would potentially open markets for other indigenous groups (cocaleros, quechua, aymara) that are a more powerful voting block. With this in mind is it really a surprise Evo is pushing forward with the project? Disappointing perhaps, but not all that surprising.
  • Chavez backers clash with protesters in Venezuela (ABCnews) – The situation in Venezuela continues to be volatile, as this article shows, with pro- and anti- Chavistas clashing in the streets of Caracas. I am sympathetic to the student protesters, who are trying to get the supreme court to prevent Maduro from using the full force of the state during the elections. Hopefully, they can get their message across without too many people getting hurt. Representative democracy is best served when the electorate can make decisions based on free and honest information about the candidates.
  • Autumn of the Patriarchs (Project Syndicate) – An interesting look at the final days of many modern autocrats, and their similarities with what is currently happening in Venezuela. I agree with Ben-Ami that Chavismo is not sustainable over the long run unless major reforms are enacted  However, in the short-term I expect that Maduro will win and continue in the same vein as Chavez. What happens from there will depend on Maduro, his desire to maintain a veneer of democratic legitimacy, his ability to control the Chavistas, and how long he can maintain handouts through oil-money.

Le Théâtre de l’Absurde – An update on Venezuela

I erroneously thought things couldn’t get any more ridiculous in Venezuela, but every passing week continues to prove me wrong. Shortly after Maduro double downed on anti-imperialist rhetoric, accusing the U.S. of giving Chavez cancer, Maduro accused the U.S. of plotting to assassinate Henrique Capriles, the Venezuelan opposition leader, in the hopes of destabilizing Venezuela and leading to a military coup d’etat. Baffling, right? There is so much about this accusation to inspire incredulity, but these are the first that came to mind:

  1. The officials (Roger Noriega and Otto Reich) Maduro is accusing of leading this conspiracy are not currently serving in the U.S. government. They were members of George W. Bush’s administration and have not been in office for more than 5 years. I’m not sure what to make of this. Are people supposed to believe these guys are working secretly for the Obama administration, or somehow have gone rogue and are free-lancing? In the end, I think the Chavistas haven’t bothered to update their Rolodex of U.S. government officials and keep recycling the same names in their random conspiracy generator
  2. If the ultimate goal of the U.S. is to cause the downfall of those currently in power, why would they want to assassinate Capriles, the first opposition leader since Chavez came to power to have demonstrated any ability to be competitive in a national election?
  3. With many pro-chavistas in the Venezuelan military, after years of Chavez purging the military of all opposition, a military coup d’etat doesn’t seem to be a good venue of ensuring a pro-american government

Let us dispense with the obviously baseless conspiracy theory, why would Maduro even make the accusation? I guess going to the bread and butter of anti-imperialist rhetoric might help him rally his base in preparation for elections. However, it seems to be in contrast with Maduro’s other actions of trying to discredit Capriles by tying him to the bourgeois elite and painting him as pro-american. It also seems to shine a spotlight of sorts on the person he will be running against shortly. Frankly, I have trouble coming up with a reasonable explanation. Ironically, I am forced to come up with my own conspiracy to make sense of Maduro’s accusation, and this is the first I imagined:

  • Maduro can now use this conspiracy as an excuse to put Capriles under government watch to protect him. Such an act would fit the overall style of systematically consolidating power and limiting opposition under Chavez, described well in this NY Times article. Maduro could then play the role of patriot, while limiting Capriles’s ability to run a campaign.

Hopefully, this is not what actually happens, and Venezuela has a relatively free and fair election where Capriles is allowed to run without harassment. However, this possibility seems less and less likely. The deck was already going to be stacked against Capriles. Trying to win an election during a short campaign (a month or so), against Chavez’s ghost, and Maduro was  always going to be difficult. However, if the Maduro uses the full force of the government to stymie and suppress Capriles, it seems all but certain he will get his desired electoral victory. 

Venezuela: Panel Will Investigate Roots of Cancer That Killed Chávez

Venezuela: Panel Will Investigate Roots of Cancer That Killed Chávez

Completely absurd. If the U.S. had the capacity to take out people by inducing cancer in them since the 50s, I am pretty sure that there would be evidence of this spectacular assassination technique. I mean how many problematic leaders would have been targeted before Chavez (Fidel Castro, Manuel Noriega, Sudan Hussein, Ali Khamenei, or Muammar Gaddafi)?

It would be nice if Maduro would move past this ridiculous anti-imperialism, and start to move towards treating Venezuela’s real economic, social, and political problems. I hope that this is indeed what happens, but I am a lot more skeptical this is the direction things will be going under Maduro.

Hugo Chavez dies

Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez dies

So it is official, Hugo Chavez has died. While it is still not clear what exactly happened over the past couple of months, the strangeness of the government’s actions can now be partially explained by the fact Chavez was in his final days.

With Chavez’s death there is now a  feeling reminiscent of Louis XV supposed final words: “après moi le déluge” (after me the deluge). Chavez leaves behind him a polarized country with many major economic and social problems, an untested opposition, and a fractious pro-Chavista party that may not fall in line with Maduro (Chavez’s chosen succesor). Elections will certainly follow, how fair they are will be interesting to see. Nevertheless, whoever wins will have a full plate trying to pick up the pieces and clean up the mess.

Italy’s Election Results Are Bad News for All of Us

Italy’s Election Results Are Bad News for All of Us

An interesting look at the results of this week’s elections in Italy. It seems that political theatre and the failure of politicians to make important decisions while facing economic crises (US continued budget brinkmanship, Chavez and Economics in Venezuela, etc.) is becoming a pandemic. Not sure what will happen in Italy, but after reading this blog post none of the most likely outcomes outlines by Douglas Elliot sounds all that great.

Chavez is back…or is he?

Chavez’s Return Spurs Doubts, New Speculation

I didn’t think this situation could get any shadier than Chavez being sequestered away in a hospital in Cuba, but I guess I was wrong. Chavez supposedly is back as reported by the Venezuelan government, and there isn’t any specific reason to believe otherwise, but the strange way that the government has handled his “disappearance” from public life is odd to say the least. The government’s actions basically beg people to ask what is being hidden, and lead to some spectacular rumor mongering and speculation, which can only erode society’s trust in the government. Assuming Chavez is alive and in Venezuela, which again there is no reason to believe otherwise at this time, it is hard to imagine a worse way of handling this situation.

Venezuela and the Politics of the Absurd

So it sounds like Hugo Chavez has finally returned to Venezuela (New York Times), which will hopefully mean that the last couple of months of political chaos and absurdity that the country has been living through has finally come to an end. For almost 2 months, and shortly after wining reelection to the presidency, Chavez had been under secretive treatment for unspecified cancer in Cuba. What was amazing is that for more than 2 months Chavez was sequestered in Cuba with absolutely no information available to anyone in the country to the status of his health, or proof that he was still alive. After  more than a month of total silence a few pictures were released by the government, but this caused almost more confusion and skepticism to Chavez’s true status (First Pictures of Chavez). He was physically incapable of being sworn in, and this created a near constitutional emergency. Political ally tried to rally people and accused the opposition of disloyally using the circumstances for  political gains and did all sorts of ridiculous stunts to try to rally political opinion to the pro-government cause (Who cares about real problems when there are baseball caps). All of this of course has been taking place while the country has been in dire economic straits, with major shortages being reported in super markets, massive inflation, high levels of crime and violence in Caracas (the capital), diminishing oil exports due to poor management of the state oil company, and mounting state debt. The problems are so serious the government has had to act before Chavez’s return with Venezuela devaluing the Bolivar. There is so much about this story that just boggles my mind.

  1. First, how on earth did the acting president of a country spend 2 months in a foreign country for treatment of cancer (potentially terminal) without anyone in the country knowing what was going.
  2. How is it that no leader in Latin America has anything to say about this? When presidents in Honduras and Paraguay were overthrown in less than normal circumstances, outcries were heard about how democracy was being trampled. And yet while Chavez laid in a bed in Cuba, not a single word was uttered about how democracy was being threatened. I find this very disturbing. Leaders in Latin America’s left leaning parties are far too ready to attack neo-conservatives and Yankee threats to democracy, but are far too often willing to ignore the same actions that would drive them crazy if they were being done at the behest of the U.S. or of the right. Can you imagine what would happen if a president of a Latin American country spent 2 months in total media silence in a secret government hospital in the U.S.? I am pretty certain it wouldn’t be silence.

I just hope that in the not too distance future, that leaders in Latin America will be able to move forward and call out any threat to peace, prosperity, and democracy and not just those convenient times when the threats are being perpetuated by members on the other side of the political spectrum.