Friday, 30 May 2008

Fidel Responds to Obama

Naturally it didn’t take long for Fidel Castro to respond to Barack Obama’s recent policy outlines on Cuba (see previous posts: ‘Todos Somos Americanos’ or ‘Barack Obama on Cuba’). Unfortunately, or not, the response didn’t come in the form of his typical 2-hour long diatribes in front of the Cuban masses, but rather a measured critique in the form of his column – “Reflections by Comrade Fidel” – in the Daily Granma, the official newspaper of the Cuban Communist Party.

The title of the article, “The Empires’ Hypocritical Politics” leaves no room for misinterpretation of Fidel’s views on the US. However whilst such views have been on ‘repeat’ the last 50 years or so, it was interesting to read the few words of praise that fell Obama’s way. Here are a few excerpts:

  • I listened to his speech, as I did McCain’s and Bush’s. I feel no resentment towards him, for he is not responsible for the crimes perpetrated against Cuba and humanity. Were I to defend him, I would do his adversaries an enormous favor.

  • This [is a] man who is doubtless, from the social and human points of view, the most progressive candidate to the U.S. presidency.

  • I am not questioning Obama’s great intelligence, his debate skills or his work ethic. He is a talented orator and is ahead of his rivals in the electoral race. I feel sympathy for his wife and little girls, who accompany him and give him encouragement every Tuesday.

But of course they were the numerous responses to the varying criticisms Obama himself made of Cuba. Too many for me to note here, however I did find it interesting how Castro highlights other areas in the Americas where injustice is being carried out – environmental crises, the food crisis - and questions how Obama, despite all his good words and intentions would tackle them. He then goes on to give his own interpretation on the current stand-off and how despite this, Cuba has achieved so much with so little. He finally seems to keep open the idea of cooperation with the US by stating, “We have never subordinated cooperation with other countries to ideological requirements.”

Both Obama’s and Castro’s opinions are interesting, though I doubt it really tells us anything fundamental about what an Obama presidency might mean for US-Cuban relations. So many actors and interest groups have their fingers in the pie that it’s almost impossible to work out now whether all these groups’ interests will all align themselves favourably, come the next few years, to bring to an end this long-standing conflict.

To read his full column click here.

Personally I wish he would syndicate his columns to newspapers here. Whether or not you agree with the things he writes, his eloquent writing and oratory style is still as unique and insightful as you’ll here from any political leader.

Thursday, 29 May 2008

Todos Somos Americanos

“Ich bin ein Berliner”, was how John F. Kennedy in 1963, during the height of the Cold War, sought to reaffirm US support towards democratic West Germany shortly after the construction of the Berlin Wall.

Fast forward to 2008 and Presidential hopeful, Barack Obama, in a keynote speech on his proposed policies towards Latin America evoked a similar notion of solidarity (and use of a foreign language catchphrase…) by declaring: “¡Todos Somos Americanos!” (We are all Americans!)

Thankfully the situation vis-à-vis US-Latin American relations is hardly as problematic as US-USSR relations when Kennedy went to Berlin. However, Latin America has not only been a neglected continent under George Bush’s administration, but one in which a sense of US superiority and arrogance towards the region has left anti-Americanism throughout Latin America at its probably highest levels in a long time. This has facilitated, some would argue, the rise of certain leaders in the region who have gone out of their way to demonize the US, bypass any attempt to construct meaningful bilateral relations with the US, and consequently undermine US leadership in the region.

These were the issues that Barack Obama sought to address in his keynote speech, “Renewing US Leadership in the Americas” which he gave last week to the Cuban American National Foundation in Miami

If you have 30 minutes to kill here’s the speech in its entirety. Here also is a link to the transcript of the speech (Remarks of Senator Barack Obama: Renewing U.S. Leadership in the Americas). Here is a link to the official Barack Obama plan for Latin America (A New Partnership for the Americas)

Naturally the first half of the speech focuses on Cuba - he was giving the speech to an audience of Cuban-Americans. Cuba has been one of the most contentious policy issues in the Americas, and a policy area in which Obama has chosen a distinctively alternative path from that of John McCain. Whereas McCain has vowed to maintain the hard-line stand on Cuba, Obama has vowed to ease travel restriction and money remittances to the island and whilst not stating it explicitly, he has opened the door for future high-level talks with the Cuban government. That said his language was tough, resolute and unyielding in its criticism of the Castro dictatorship. Cuban-American votes are important as any demographic group for his Presidential campaign and thus any evidence of his willingness to engage with Cuba has to be countered by an ability to show that he will forcefully stand-up and demand change from the Castro regime. It’s a hard conundrum to fix, and undoubtedly one that will depend as much on the Castro brothers’ perception of Obama as Cuban-Americans willingness to back down and negotiate with Cuba.

More tough words were aimed at Chavez and those who may choose to take their countries down a similar path (i.e. Morales and Ortega). The rebuilding of relationships with Chavez depends, again, on how Chavez and the likes choose to view Obama. Chavez’s qualms are supposedly solely with George Bush, not with the US, so it remains to be seen how Chavez would respond to a leader who wishes to reassert US leadership in the region.

In general the speech was an obvious hark back to “Good Neighbour” policies of the 1930s and 40s or the Alliance for Progress programme of the early 1960s. Both Democratic Party initiatives that focused the importance on a stable and friendly Latin America, and a cordial relationship based on solidarity and an equal standing amongst all partners. Hence the slogan to underline Obama’s speech: “¡Todos Somos Americanos!”

Latin American politicians may benefit politically from their imbuing anti-American rhetoric, but no Latin American country can gain economically or politically from maintaining such an unwavering anti-American attitude. The realities of the American economic and political might, the historical and cultural ties that continue to link North and South are just too strong to wish away. Most Latin American politicians know this only too well and will undoubtedly be hoping that an Obama presidency will allow them the leverage, amongst their own electorates, to promote healthy relations with the US.

With all this said and done I do still find it hard to believe that US foreign policy toward Latin America is unlikely to be at the top of eitherPresidential candidate’s foreign policy priorities. The issues of Cuba, Haiti, Mexican immigrants, and Colombian narcotics will undoubtedly remain the main areas of engagement with Latin America.

So how willing is the US ready to convert good words into good deeds and help cast off the chains of poverty? These were pledges John F. Kennedy made almost 50 years ago in his Alliance for Progress, but which today still remain elusive in US relations toward Latin America. Will Obama really be able to fulfil the goals which so many US Presidents have promised but failed to live up to?

Wednesday, 28 May 2008

Venezuelan Flags on London Buses

I have always found it slightly curious to see the Venezuelan flag plastered on the back of some of London’s red double-decker buses.

Travelling through Latin America you become accustomed to seeing little EU or Japanese flags dotted here, there and everywhere, announcing their financial support for the next important humanitarian project. But why should an already impoverished nation be making such an effort to help one of the richest cities in the world?

Well by means of subsidised Venezuelan oil some of the poorest people of London have been able to benefit from reduced bus fares. But what does Venezuela, or rather Hugo Chavez, get out of this? Well aside from the little Venezuelan sticker on the back of buses I guess it was no more than a slap in the face against Tony Blair, one of Chavez’s more vocal critics abroad. In the same essence Chavez has been providing cheap heating oil to poor inner-city neighbourhoods in the US.

I shouldn’t be so cynical, should I? This is how the deal was officially meant to look like:

This was a mutually beneficial agreement through which Venezuela had assisted 80,000 of the poorest people in London who receive half price bus and tram fares as a result of a reduction in the price of fuel for London's bus fleet. In return, London provided Venezuela with specialist technical expertise and assistance in areas such as transport, town planning and protection of the environment and other issues related to developing a modern world city. The main beneficiaries of this technical aid would have been the poorest residents of Caracas”(Venezuela Information Centre 27/05/08)

However with the election of a new – conservative - London mayor, Boris Johnson, the deal has been scrapped. Despite how much I would have liked to have believed the official rhetoric, that there was some altruistic motive behind Chavez’s donation to the disadvantaged people of London, and that the world could indeed have benefited from such examples of North-South collaboration, it’s probably makes sense to end this deal. Surely the Venezuelan people are in more need of subsidized oil than us here in London. And Chavez really shouldn’t be playing such cheap political games with the very assets that are needed to develop Venezuela.

Still I have to say I’ll miss seeing those little Venezuelan flags on our buses here. They always bring a wry smile to my face with the realization that ripple effects of change in Latin America have is some strange and peculiar way reached us here in London.

Tuesday, 27 May 2008

The Fighting Cholitas

This isn't really a news article, but here it is nevertheless.

After from the initial comic value of it all, I couldn't help but think that it was slightly disturbing to see cholitas doing battle in the wrestling ring.... Surely there is enough violence going on Bolivia, without the cholitas getting in on the act.

Anyway here's a youtube video of the 'spectacle'. Or for a more informed report, try this BBC MUNDO video -
Cholitas son diosas del ring en Bolivia

Saturday, 24 May 2008

Reflections on a Forgotten Continet

Michael Reid the author of “Reflections on a Forgotten Continent” passed by our Institute the other day to give an informal talk on his book. A book that tries to go beyond the headlines (e.g. Chavez’s fiery rhetoric, the home of the illicit drug trade etc.) and paint a picture of Latin America that is far rosier than would otherwise be imagined.

Latin America is, as his title suggests, the “Forgotten Continent”. Unable to attract the same levels of attention as other region of the world, it persistently slips under our - not as poor as Africa, not as tumultuous and oil-rich as the Middle East nor home to booming economies such as India and China. What Michael Reid wants to point out is that Latin America deserves much greater attention. It’s a crucial laboratory for capitalist democracies, the success of which is important for the consolidation of other capitalist democracies around the world.

Despite all the doom and gloom that seems to come out of Latin America over the last 25 years - debt crises, economic stagnation, growing inequality, the return of the populist demagogue – Latin America is finding its feet. Democracy is becoming increasingly consolidated and many of the major nations of the region (Chile, Brazil and Mexico) are going through periods of substantial economic growth. And this growth is supposedly being used to tackle the immense levels of inequality.

I couldn’t help but feel as if he was unduly optimistic about the region – something he acknowledges. Perhaps he was too comfortable, for my liking, to fall into line with the post-Washington consensus view of the region. i.e. that the initial Washington Consensus reforms were implemented badly, or not at all, and should be supplemented with more institutional reform and token social justice measures. Yes, many Latin American countries are improving, but is this on the basis of the post-Washington consensus reforms, or merely because the world economy is booming. What happens when we reach the top of the current economic business cycle and economies start going slightly pear-shaped? Have the likes of Brazil and Mexico done enough to better social welfare and the likes so that when the tough times come, the tough don’t cut and run and leave the poor to bear the brunt of a crisis (as happened with the debt crisis).

Anyway that’s me just being overly pessimistic. Latin America has been on the up in the recent years, but my structuralist/dependency theory leanings has me worrying that the global economy will always eventually undermine the efforts of Latin American nations to seek out a better lot for themselves in the world economic order.

His book is probably a good read for anyone interested, but not overly familiar with Latin America. For those who already know the ins and outs of present day in Latin America it probably won’t shed too much light on the region. It’s possibly overly broad and simplistic given that it wants to cover so many issues, in so many countries, within the boundaries of a single book.

But who am I to say? Here’s a glowing review of the book from the
New York Times.

Friday, 23 May 2008

Barack Obama on Cuba

It’s quite often the case in US politics that Presidential contenders find themselves having to tone-down attitudes on certain policy areas in the game of capturing specific demographic segments of the electorate.

Such has been the importance of capturing the ‘Cuban vote’ in Florida and appeasing the influential Cuban lobby in Washington that any serious debate of normalizing relations with Cuba has become impossible from the outset.

“Change We Can Believe In” is the slogan Barack Obama’s campaign is forcefully promoting. Well, given the realities of US domestic politics, the importance of special interests and the need to gain favour with specific demographic groups it would be natural to be slightly sceptical as to how much change Obama really can bring about vis-à-vis Cuba. Particularly when policy toward Cuba has remained virtually unchanged and set-in-stone for the last 50 years.

Thankfully, from what I can gather from this CNN interview (see below) Obama really does want to readdress to Cuban debate and more importantly move towards some form of normalisation of relations.

Risky business? Well perhaps not. Obviously the intransigent policy of the 50 years has hardly been a resounding success. Raul Castro, unlike Fidel, has it seems a more pragmatic view on the world and will probably be more inclined to want to court Obama’s proposals. And then there is the make-up of Cuban immigrants in Florida. No longer are they solely 1st generation immigrants who hold Castro and his anti-democratic regime in the highest disdain, but 2nd and 3rd generation Cuban exiles, who perhaps don’t bare the same grudge against Castro. They too may feel inclined to question the irrationality of the long-standing and uncompromisingly strict measures that ban or severely curtail all the connections that bind other Latin American Diasporas with their homeland.

Anyway, here is a snippet of a CNN interview with Obama, so you can see for yourselves how he wishes to frame the Cuba question. If you stick to the end he also goes onto stake out his position on Iran which is also quite interesting…and refreshing.

Thursday, 22 May 2008

Brazilian Democracy under Lula and the Partido dos Trabalhadores (PT)

With exams out of the way it’s great to be able have the time to finally attend some of the seminars that my Institute put on. (Events at the Institute of the Americas)

Yesterday saw David Samuels, a professor from the University of Minnesota, give a talk on the state of Brazilian democracy under President Lula and the ruling Partido dos Trabalhadores (PT).

Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, popularly known as Lula, successfully ran for President in 2002 – this was his 4th attempt - and was re-elected again in 2006. The fact that a boisterous, and a once imprisoned trade union leader from a humble background could rise to become the President of Brazil is nothing short of remarkable given the elitist domain that is Brazilian national politics. The symbolism of this ‘rags to riches’ tale will undoubtedly have a lasting effect on Brazilian democracy and across the region (Evo Morales’ rise to the Presidential palace in Bolivia has followed a somewhat similar route).

So Lula and the PT entered office with 3 basic principles that were meant to reformulate and transform Brazilian democracy:
· Popular Participation
· An inversion of governmental priorities (i.e. an agenda that focuses on social justice)
· Ethical governance (i.e. and end to corruption)

However as David Samuels was at pains to stress, Lula has neither transformed Brazilian democracy, nor undertaken the structural reforms that he and the PT had been promising whilst they were in opposition.

With regards to fighting social injustice, Lula may well have introduced the very successful and innovative Bolsa Familia programme (here’s a link that tells you what it is all about) but there has yet to be any implementation of major universalistic social reform programmes a la Chavismo. Perhaps he hasn’t needed to given the benefits the Brazilian economy is reaping from the expansion of the global economy. As the neo-liberal ethos goes, perhaps wealth really is trickling down in Brazil.

David Samuels spent most of his time however, detailing how the Lula government has been marred by corruption and has put paid to the belief that Lula and the PT was ever serious about ethical governance. I don’t want to bore anyone with the details but there have been loads. But hey this is South America isn’t it? Don’t we come to expect this type of thing? Well it seems as if the Brazilian electorate kind of think that way. Despite all the corruption that marred the PT’s first term in office, Lula remains as popular as ever – the Teflon President per excellence.

Many people viewed Lula and the PT with rose-tinted glasses before they entered power. Much of the romanticism has been lost. However as long as Brazil’s economy surges forward, as long as they can remain branded as part of ‘the Good Left’ internationally, it seems that the Lula and the PT will remain in office for quite some time.

Unfortunately this has come at the cost of the admirably high standards the PT had promised to bring with it into Brazilian Democracy.

The PT didn’t change the political system, the system changed the PT.

Monday, 19 May 2008

Chávez Tightens Grip on Venezuela Economy

Here's another interesting account of what the Venezuelan economy under Chavez and his socialist experiment looks like at the moment (Chavez tighthens grip on Venezuela economy).

The present situation isn't looking to good with food shortages and an ever-present high inflation rate hurting the people Chavez was meant to help in the first place.

Naturally Chavez, not one to back-track, is continuing his socialist experiment with a yet a new wave of takeovers of private companies in whole range of sectors. Some would argue that he is merely reversing some of the privatisation that took place in the 'dark neoliberal ages' of the 1990s, and that the Venezuelan economy is still made up of a healthy mixture of both state- and privately-owned companies.

However desirable nationalisation may be - given your ideological stance - that fact is that foreign investment is running away from Venezuela. What's the point of investing in a country when a few years down the line you might find government officials at your factory gate with a piece of paper (signed by Chavez) that your assets now belong to the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela. And despite the government offering compensation, these are often far less than what would be deemed acceptable.

To bridge this investor gap, Chavez is seeking out joint ventures with the likes of Cuba and Iran. As much as I disagree with US paranoid-driven stance towards these countries, you're honestly not making life much easier for yourself when you specifically go out of your way to befriend Washington's arch enemies. And it's not like Cuba and Iran are the economic power houses of the world either.

Otherwise the article list a whole list of policy measures that signify the increased entrenchment Chavez.

Question remains: is there going to be a peaceful conclusion to all this?

Saturday, 10 May 2008

More Political Shenanigans in Bolivia (where else?)

Economic development is hard enough to achieve in Bolivia without the persistent destabilising forces that constantly undermine the President-of-the-day's attempt to steer the country down some sort of sustainable developmental path.

The recent political shenanigans in Bolivia only serve to underscore the perpetual political instability the country has had to deal with and how it's seriously destabilizing for the country in the long-run.

After last week's autonomy vote in Santa Cruz, Bolivia's President, Evo Morales, is seeking to tackle his opponents head-on in a nationwide referendum on his Presidency. I struggle to see what good this is going to do. Win-or-lose, this referendum is bound to cause yet more division throughout the country. It will further set in stone the gradual partition of the country along the geographic East and West divide, and perhaps more worryingly accentuate the increasing racial divide.

Morales's argument is, "if we politicians can't agree, it's best that the population decide our destiny."

I haven't followed Bolivian politics closely enough to comment objectively on whether Morales, his populist, and at times misguided nationalistic policies, and indigenista appeal are inherently the cause of this widening divide or whether this division is the natural knee-jerk reaction of the Bolivian elites (now increasingly settled in the Eastern provinces) given the inroads made into their long-held privileges.

Either way, the up shoot of all this can hardly be good for the long-term development of Bolivia. At least the country still remains determined to stick to democratic principles to sort out their differences.

Monday, 5 May 2008

Bolivia in the News

It's all kicking off in Bolivia this week...

The Socialist/Nationalist credentials of the Morales government were further enhanced this week when they announced that they were taking over the country's majour telecommunications company along with a bunch of energy companies. Of course this was timed for the May Day celebrations. Given the rise in food prices, continuing inflation worries and the well documented autonomy aspirations of the gas-rich Eastern provinces, Morales must have been feeling quite hot under the collar. Things have definitely not been going to well for him of late.

Today's move towards autonomy in the Santa Cruz has been a long time in the making and will hardly help any move towards reconciliation between the 'poor' Western and 'rich' Eastern provinces. I may be biased - having lived in La Paz and genuinely wanting Evo Morales to succeed in his commitment to readdress centuries of discrimination toward the indigenous people - but as long as the Santa Cruz autonomy movement is founded upon a desire to reap the rewards of the gas fields for themselves I can't see them gaining much ground. Their case is further weakened by the inherent racial undertones that underlie much of the anti-Morales sentiment. The belief that he is merely a puppet of Chavez is also a weak one given how the MAS movement has been in force long before Chavez came to power.

Still it's been almost 3 years since I've been in Bolivia, so who am I to say what is really going on over there.

Sunday, 4 May 2008

Venezuela - An Empty Revolution?

Criticisms of Hugo Chavez, his authoritarian tendencies and mishandling of the economy, are numerous. Unfortunately many seem to be imbued with an inherent anti-Chavismo that blinds such commentators from any sound judgement based from an initial point of neutrality. Perhaps much in the same way Leftist criticisms of George Bush often stem from an unwavering contempt for the man instead of a detailed understanding of his policy failures.

Whilst reading for my ‘Economics of Latin America’ exam I stumbled across this article in Foreign Affairs by Venezuelan economist Francisco Rodríguex, ‘An Empty Revolution’. A nuanced critique of Chavez’s economic record founded upon a clear understanding of the macroeconomics of populism. And all from someone who actually was within the Chavez government from 2000-2004.

Here is a summary of his findings:

“Even critics of Hugo Chávez tend to concede that he has made helping the poor his top priority. But in fact, Chávez's government has not done any more to fight poverty than past Venezuelan governments, and his much-heralded social programs have had little effect. A close look at the evidence reveals just how much Chávez's "revolution" has hurt Venezuela's economy -- and that the poor are hurting most of all.”

I personally find quite enlightening his ability to frame his argument with a full appreciation for all the positive news that has come out of Venezuela with regard to the perceived poverty reductions, and how many (myself included at times) on the Left in the West try to turn a blind eye to some of the less than positive news that comes out of Venezuela.

”But perhaps an even more important reason for this success is the willingness of intellectuals and politicians in developed countries to buy into a story according to which the dilemmas of Latin American development are explained by the exploitation of the poor masses by wealthy privileged elites. The story of Chávez as a social revolutionary finally redressing the injustices created by centuries of oppression fits nicely into traditional stereotypes of the region, reinforcing the view that Latin American underdevelopment is due to the vices of its predatory governing classes. Once one adopts this view, it is easy to forget about fashioning policy initiatives that could actually help Latin America grow, such as ending the agricultural subsidies that depress the prices of the region's exports or significantly increasing the economic aid given to countries undertaking serious efforts to combat poverty.”