It’s the weekend and the weather is rainy in my part of the world. Music is in order. If you’re looking for something slower and full of emotion:
If something more upbeat, but still classic is what you are after, then how about this unique way to bring together 75 Cubans to play their country's most famous song:
And if you’re feeling a more modern twist, you can dial country code 53 for Cuba and 7 for La Habana:
The minority death toll due to covid remains consistent across the country. Just like in other parts of the US, reports are that in Los Angeles “poor neighborhoods and the region’s Latino and Black communities continue to bear the brunt of illness and death”. At this point, the number of Latinos in LA who are dying is eight times the normal rate (3.5 per 100,000 to 28).
At the same time, Salem State and other universities around the country prepare a new semester. In my mind, it is indispensable to couch the educational experience in the historical context within which we live. This means that we all -students and teachers- must be cognizant of the pandemic and its influence on learning. With that in mind, I created the following video to send to students taking courses with World Languages and Cultures this semester. Many things have changed, especially the way we interact. That understood, while videos like these are more important than ever, I fear my video-making skills have not kept apace with the times. Nevertheless, here is a brief reflection on studying language and culture during a pandemic:
A disingenuous stereotype about white supremacy is that its proponents are ignorant and possess few experiences. This trope places the racism in the context of class, claiming that it is a product of poverty. However, as Ta-Nehisi Coates outlined in a must-read article defining the Trump presidency titled “The First White President,” the reality is that the president’s 2016 white support crossed all economic, educational, and class lines:
“An analysis of exit polls conducted during the presidential primaries estimated the median household income of Trump supporters to be about $72,000. But even this lower number is almost double the median household income of African Americans, and $15,000 above the American median. Trump’s white support was not determined by income. According to Edison Research, Trump won whites making less than $50,000 by 20 points, whites making $50,000 to $99,999 by 28 points, and whites making $100,000 or more by 14 points. This shows that Trump assembled a broad white coalition that ran the gamut from Joe the Dishwasher to Joe the Plumber to Joe the Banker. So when white pundits cast the elevation of Trump as the handiwork of an inscrutable white working class, they are being too modest, declining to claim credit for their own economic class. Trump’s dominance among whites across class lines is of a piece with his larger dominance across nearly every white demographic. Trump won white women (+9) and white men (+31). He won white people with college degrees (+3) and white people without them (+37). He won whites ages 18–29 (+4), 30–44 (+17), 45–64 (+28), and 65 and older (+19). Trump won whites in midwestern Illinois (+11), whites in mid-Atlantic New Jersey (+12), and whites in the Sun Belt’s New Mexico (+5). In no state that Edison polled did Trump’s white support dip below 40 percent. Hillary Clinton’s did, in states as disparate as Florida, Utah, Indiana, and Kentucky. From the beer track to the wine track, from soccer moms to NASCAR dads, Trump’s performance among whites was dominant. According to Mother Jones, based on preelection polling data, if you tallied the popular vote of only white America to derive 2016 electoral votes, Trump would have defeated Clinton 389 to 81, with the remaining 68 votes either a toss-up or unknown.”
In examining the Trump supporters who attacked the US Capitol last week, Adam Serwer argued in an article published yesterday that the people who were present demonstrated that the pan-economic support that Coates described in the 2016 election continues to exist. Indeed, he affirms, the Trump supporters were not motivated by fears for economic prospects, but instead by what they perceived as a violation of their birthright to power in the US:
“The members of the mob that attacked the Capitol and beat a police officer to death last week were not desperate. They were there because they believed they had been unjustly stripped of their inviolable right to rule. They believed that not only because of the third-generation real-estate tycoon who incited them, but also because of the wealthy Ivy Leaguers who encouraged them to think that the election had been stolen.”
It is with the pervasive white supremacy described both by Coates and Serwer in mind that I found the story of Derek Black’s evolution to be valuable. Born into a family situation that could best be described as royalty in the respectable side of the movement, Black’s college experiences drew him away from his years of white nationalism and helped to transform him into a person who now regularly speaks in public about how to confront the same ideas that he once espoused.
Eli Saslow turned Black’s story into the book Rising Out of Hatred: The Awakening of a Former White Nationalist. It was published in 2018 and every day the story seems more urgent. Here is Saslow and Black being interviewed by Trevor Noah in 2018:
Here is a deeper conversation that includes Black and some of the people who challenged and supported his transformation in college:
If a government’s policy is to be measured against progress towards its stated goals, then the US’s posture towards Cuba is a failure. Since 1959 our government has tried to force changes in the Cuban government and once Trump is out of office that same Cuban government will have outlasted twelve US presidential administrations.
The news out of Washington is that the US is newly putting Cuba on the list of state sponsors of terrorism. Reuters mentions that the motive for this is “Cuba’s long-time harboring of US fugitives as well as Colombian rebel leaders”. There is a lot that could be said about both points. However, the list is meant to punish countries that sponsor terrorism, so it seems worthwhile to specifically provide some background to the Colombian portion.
For several years, Cuba has served as a site for peace talks between the Colombian government and the various rebel groups that operate in Colombia. One success was back in 2016 when the FARC demobilized after four years of negotiations where Cuba sometimes hosted the dialog and often served as an active participant. In 2018 the ELN and the Colombian government sought to echo that success by once again holding peace talks in Cuba. However, after the ELN claimed responsibility for a January 2019 car bombing that killed 21 people, the Colombian government ended the talks and issued warrants for the peace delegation that was in Cuba.
While simultaneously condemning the bombing, Cuba refused the extradition request from Colombia. The Cuban government justified this refusal by stating that to extradite the ELN peace negotiators would mean breaching the protocols of their role as the host for the peace negotiations. Or, in the words of Cuba’s Granma newspaper:
“El Gobierno cubano respeta la decisión de Colombia de dar por terminada la negociación. No obstante, reitera que, como parte de estas fue firmado un Protocolo para casos de ruptura, que recoge las condiciones en que debía producirse el regreso si se diera por terminado el proceso y reitera que actuará con estricto respeto a los Protocolos de Diálogo de Paz.”
That same peace delegation from the ELN remains in Cuba. Today it appears that the Trump administration intends to use their presence in the country as a pretext to newly categorize Cuba as a sponsor of terrorism.
Interestingly, at the time of the bombing the ELN delegation in Cuba claimed that it knew nothing about the attack. Specifically, Pablo Beltrán stated that the terms of the negotiations stipulated that their delegation could have nothing to do with violence while in Cuba and that they had kept this promise:
"En eso fue muy preciso el gobierno cubano desde el primer día, y nosotros hemos tratado de cumplir ese requerimiento. Ni nos involucramos, ni conocíamos de esa situación del ataque."
While it is certainly possible that Beltrán is lying, it is also possible that there was a schism in the ELN. The attack could easily have served a two-part goal of mining the peace negotiations and stranding the negotiators in Cuba. This would provide an opportunity for another ELN faction in Colombia not only to take control of the organization, but also its lucrative relationship to drug trafficking.
Whatever really happened with the ELN, the presence of the Colombians appears to be the partial pretext of Trump’s change in posture towards Cuba. While Obama’s changes in policy towards Cuba were controversial, they were something new and seemed to be provoking modifications in Cuba as well. The Trump administration reverted to pre-Obama policies and with this new proclamation pushes the relationship between the US and Cuba even further back into the postures that failed so absolutely throughout the second half of the twentieth century.
Stated cynically, one must wonder if the US’s true goal with Cuba is less to promote a new government, but more to foment division in the US. This seems to be true in the tensely contested state of Florida where decades of anti-Castro activism have produced few changes in the Cuban government, but considerable political fundraising and Republican control.
The name of the company “Oportun Inc.” is a play on the Spanish oportunidad. The company owners likely chose this name because they aimed their business -a supposedly softer version of the payday loan scam- at Latinos. ProPublica conducted a months-long investigation into the company, characterizing it as “depicting itself as a benefactor of the Latino immigrant community” while trapping its clients in high-interest loans. When those loans cannot be paid off, Oportun Inc. sues borrowers. In fact, they have done this more than 47,000 times between 2016 and last summer. ProPublica points out that this is “30 lawsuits per day on average”. Those numbers, while shockingly large, are just for nine Texas counties! The company operates in twelve states. These are just a few of the numbers, but it is worth reading the whole ProPublica report that details this vulture company and its focus on taking advantage of mostly Latino immigrants.
Where will a Biden administration take US policy towards Latin America? Juan S. Gonzalez (he does not seem to accent his surname on any of his official profiles) is a good person to answer this question because he was recently appointed by the President-Elect to be the Senior Director for the Western Hemisphere at the National Security Council. Helpfully, he published an article in July that outlined his vision for the government’s posture towards Latin America. Also, Gonzalez was interviewed by Brian Winter about the same subject here:
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:
“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.”
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: