“The difference remains that when banana republics tried to make their own politics more effective and democratic, outside intervention from the United States generally stopped them. Americans have no foreign power to blame for our current condition: the fault lies within.”
The jokes on twitter have been pointed:
A Kenyan newspaper emphasized the irony with this headline:
However, leave it to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to remove all humor and irony by reconstruing history and either purposefully or ignorantly forgetting to include the US's role in producing those places where “mob violence determines the exercise of power”.
Back in 2016 Patrick Blanchfield and Patrick Iber wrote a great explainer about the history and evolution of the term “banana republic”. Even if this is a subject that you know something about it, it is worth reading their whole piece. Here are the closing sentences which were prophetic then and seem to explain now:
If you’re anything like me, the last few days have been agitated. With that in mind, I’d prefer to end the week with some music. The Cafeteras published their version of “Georgia on My Mind” on December 18th. Now that it looks like that state and Stacey Abrams have done more than their part to flip the presidency and the senate, it feels only appropriate to share this Chicano-desert-version of the song. Afterall, more than confined to a single state, that election’s impact on the country’s political landscape feels borderless.
Food connects us to culture and the people who know best how to prepare it are the older generations. The pandemic has disrupted these notions on the Mexican/US border in regard to tamales and how they are prepared and consumed during the holidays. Here NPR gives us a slice of border life:
In Catalunya excavations have found what are believed to be 61 graves from the Spanish Civil War, some of them containing the remains of multiple people. They appear to be related to a Republican hospital that was used during the Batalla del Ebro in 1938. Here is the story.
The controversy surrounding Jeanine Cummins’s novel American Dirt is something that I tried to describe a year ago. Vulture recently updated the story with a lot of insider information from the publishing house that promoted the book. Lila Shapiro’s article does a great job detailing their missteps before the controversy and as it was unfolding. Will publishing houses become more open to Latino authors in the wake of this controversy? The article provides reasons for hope, but also shows the entrenched systems and market forces that are resistant to change. Extra note: Supposedly even bad press is good for sales and the fact that America Dirt sold so well seems to invite conversation around the subject. How many of those readers who purchased the book were aware of the controversy?
Mexico has a long tradition of welcoming political exiles. This understood, serving as a place of protection for the persecuted foreigner could, at times, feel ironic considering that it is also a country that has examples of internal political repression. As the Spanish Civil War went badly for the Republic, as many as 25,000 Spaniards and the government-in-exile made their way to Mexico. Trotsky famously fled Stalin, was protected by the Mexican government, and was eventually murdered there. The plotting for the Cuban revolution can find its roots in the country and people fleeing various twentieth-century dictatorships around Latin America not only enjoyed safe harbor, but made homes in Mexico. The fact that last year Evo Morales, exiled after a soft coup removed him from power in Bolivia, found refuge in Mexico is unsurprising in this context. In the 1960s, 70s, and 80s presidents like Luis Echeverría opened Mexico’s doors and arms to people who had fled their homelands and been rejected by other countries. However, it is important to remember that -sometimes simultaneously- these same governments also practiced internal repression. A famous example is 1968’s Tlatelolco Massacre and the following dirty war, where the same Echeverría had an important role. Here is a Washington Post article that summarizes this contradictory history.
Yesterday Mexico’s president celebrated the UK’s decision not to extradite Julian Assange to the US. Beyond words of praise, López Obrador also announced this his country would offer political asylum “porque Assange es un periodista y merece una oportunidad”. This offer of protection for the pursued foreigner seemed to keep with the tradition described above. However, perhaps also continuing the practices depicted before, the idea of safeguarding someone because he is a journalist rang ironic for some considering that last month Mexico was declared the world’s deadliest country for journalists and still others pointed to a multi-year history of the government using the Pegasus spyware to track and spy on journalists and their families.
Indeed, like so many who came before him, Assange might feel thankful for the offer to live in Mexico, particularly at a moment when other countries have rejected him. It could be argued that the offer is a new chapter in a generous history of Mexican asylum. Nevertheless, it is also important to avoid letting this headline-grabbing move by López Obrador distract from the fact that there are Mexican journalists who live in fear.
For the last few days, I have been reading Vincent Bevins’s book The Jakarta Method. Among other things, it does a great job outlining the US’s role in subverting democracy around the world in the second half of the twentieth century. There are many ways to summarize this work, but I cannot help but focus on how it shows that historically the US is happy to support democracy in the “third world” when it means maintaining the status quo of a wealthy few in charge and a large -usually not white- population in poverty. However, when democracy means empowerment of the impoverished, the book outlines a long list of examples where our country covertly and overtly supported anti-democratic forces, coups, massacres, and genocide.
These subversions of democracy rang with an anti-Communist and anti-socialist soundtrack, one that recently seems to have made a comeback in southern Florida where it was used to encourage Cubans and Venezuelans to vote for Trump.
Bevins’s book has proved to have a timely publication for US readers. Since the 2010 census, it has been reported that the US is headed towards a situation where the collective minority population will outnumber the white population before 2050. Supporters of white supremacy fear this statistic and as each successive election suggests increased minority voting power, we are also witnessing growing attacks on our democratic process. These come in many shapes -gerrymandering, voter suppression- but recently seem to have taken more overt forms with attempts to exclude already-cast and already-counted votes in areas with large minority populations.
Today is two days before the Senate runoff elections in Georgia and three days before a congressional joint session that will formally “count” the Electoral College’s presidential votes. Today is also the day that the Washington Post published a recorded phone call of President Trump pressuring Georgia’s Secretary of State to “find” him more votes. Trump has encouraged protests in DC on January 6th and instead of focusing on the pandemic, continues to falsely claim that he won the election.
Are we seeing a homeland version of the external politics the US practiced for many years? Does democracy stop being the best system when it means the empowerment of the excluded?
Happy new year!
Before we go forward, however, it is time to think about 2020. One of the great things about a year’s end is that the press spends a good amount of time reflecting on books that were written during the last year. It is easy to find articles that list the best this or that of the year that is coming to an end. This is particularly true about books. Here are a few that caught my eye:
Yesterday Argentina added itself to a short list of Latin American countries that provide access to abortion. This development came thanks to years of activism. This work did not cease as the pandemic appeared and worsened in the Southern Cone. In September, NACLA published a report that examined how during the health crisis “[f]eminism may have become more visible in the streets, but inequality has intensified in the home”. Yesterday’s victory was important, but the struggle for a woman’s voice in laws about her body continues. Below you’ll find Claudia Rivera Amarillo’s article from September about Latin American feminism in the age of covid.
One of many motivations to vote against Donald Trump was immigration policy. From the first day of his initial campaign, when he demonized people coming to the US from Mexico, Trump’s rhetoric and policies have been delineated by racism and xenophobia. Lowlights have included the Muslim ban, the wall, and the separations of families resulting in caged children. However, while electing Joe Biden does mean a change, is that change enough? Biden was Barack Obama’s Vice President and therefore an important part of his administration. As much as people have focused on Trump and his policies, with an incoming Biden administration, it is important to remember that the infrastructure for private prisons caging people at the border and speedy deportations was well-established by the Obama administration. Kristan M. Campbell summarized Obama’s record on immigration with the following:
“At the close of his presidency, Barack Obama -who won a Noble Peace Prize at the beginning of his presidency in 2009- failed to live up to his 2008 and 2012 campaign promises to achieve comprehensive immigration reform. In fact, during the eight years of Obama’s presidency, his administration affected the removal of more noncitizens from the United States than any other president in history. It is clear, in retrospect, that despite the many lofty promises made by Obama, his immigration policy was a near-total failure.”
As we move towards the beginning of a Biden presidency, it is time to think about immigration policy. Campbell’s article is a great place to start as we reflect on how Trump’s crimes were built upon Obama’s failures.
While fiction and writing have little to contribute to the immediate cure for our pandemic, in this conversation Ken Liu affirms storytelling’s place in developing the ethical contours of vaccine distribution. Indeed, you cannot put a good story in a syringe, but the humanities have a lot to offer regarding who, how, and when we get those needles in our arms. Liu developed the idea of stories being the transmitters of our values much more in this essay.
Argentina took a historic step last night when its senate voted to legalize abortion. Here is Buenos Aires’s daily Clarín giving the news. The Catholic church resisted the measure, with the Argentine-born Pope even tweeting his opposition. The final debate lasted many hours, and the vote was not taken until 4:00am. Despite the hour, there was a large, green-colored crowd that celebrated outside.
Written by Kaya Genç, here is a nice profile of Turkish novelist Ahmet Altan. He has been in prison since 2018, essentially for, and I quote the article here: ‘“sending subliminal messages’ to topple Turkey strongman Recep Tayyip Erdoğan”. This was not Altan’s first encounter with censorship. As far back as the 1980s, a court found a previous novel “obscene” and it was ordered burnt.
Teaching online has meant computers. Keyboards clacking, mice clicking, and screentime are a constant for me, my students, and a lot of other people. People complain about their eyes, their backs, and the awkwardness of ending a zoom call. However, even though these grievances are valid, the truth is that we are fortunate. If the pandemic had happened twenty or thirty years ago, online learning likely would have failed. Even today, when more and more of us are supposedly digitally literate and even digital natives, the learning curve for many students and far more teachers has been precipitous. In those doldrum moments when students feel down about online classes, it feels important to remind them that we are still working towards graduation; that despite the speed bumps, their lives continue to progress. There are many people around the world who are not so blessed.
Before the pandemic I lived a computer life in many ways. However, since March, what was once a lot of time online has become a lot more. Reflecting on this in recent days has brought me to some old subjects that are relevant today. In fact, the present-day relevance shows just how prescient they were years ago. They are subjects that revolve around privacy, our government, and the role of technology.
The first is the story of Aaron Swartz. Below you will find a documentary about his life, his ideals, and his quest to keep the technology for the people. Thinking about Swartz brought me to reading Corey Doctorow’s recent novel Attack Surface. Science fiction -the category booksellers use for this book- is not usually where I spend a lot of time. However, I enjoy Doctorow’s depictions of what technology is capable. I am only a quarter of a way through the book, but his protagonist’s navigation between using her hacker skills to defend protestors one day and to prosecute them the next, is a provocative way to push the ideas and ideals that Swartz defended into our current conversation. Swartz warned us about the internet’s power. It is now more present in our lives than ever and we should be thankful for many reasons. However, this tense trade where we receive a useful tool and sacrifice our privacy deserves reflection.
Crisis has a way of revealing cracks, weaknesses, and tensions. Be it racism, economic inequality, or healthcare, the crisis produced by the pandemic has melted the patina that covered these subjects. Still resilient, they cannot hide as they did before and what once felt unsolvable now feels as if it might get the multigenerational attention that has long been needed. At least this is what I hope.
The new thinking on racism and inequality is partially fueled by infection rates. Across the US, minorities and the impoverished are the people most likely to get sick and also the most likely to die. There are many factors that influence these statistics, but there is one in particular that should horrify us all and needs to inform our thinking about the future: Who processes our food and how are those people treated?
Two podcasts have gone deep on these questions. The first, a summary of a New Yorker article, looks at the larger picture and also shows how one major Trump donor, Ron Cameron, trades his employees' safety for profits. The second, from the new Spanish-language news podcast El hilo humanizes the plight of migrants working in the US food industry. Taken together, they provide a multilingual and more complete idea of the human price that is paid for the food that we eat. These issues have existed for years, but the importance of accessing food during a pandemic has brought them to the forefront. Hopefully this attention means positive change for the men and women who process our food.
In an ideal world, higher education would be a chance to take risks, try new things, and solidify a sense of identity. However, in the US the cost of university study is so prohibitive, that most students and their families feel a need to avoid the unknown that comes with experimentation and search for a safer bet. College is now seen as an investment for the future; a time when money is spent with the understanding that the degree and job that await will have a higher salary, better benefits, and more security. The calculation made by these families is understandable.
It is also one of the reasons that I’m proud to teach in the Department of World Languages and Cultures. The work we do adds value to students’ education. Regardless of a student’s major, studying a language alongside whatever else they are doing makes them a more attractive job candidate, increases their intercultural competence, more creative, and more prepared for the increasingly global world where they will live.
So, if what you’re after is a job when you graduate, take a couple of minutes to see a few ways that language study adds value to your future: