Saturday, February 28, 2015

Podemos and Hugo Chávez

David Román at the Wall Street Journal published an interesting--and measured--article on the connections between Hugo Chávez and Spain's leftist Podemos party, which is rapidly gaining popularity.

Some thoughts:

First, it is important to note how this is a connection with Chávez. Podemos is critical, for example, of Antonio Ledezma's arrest. I assume many people will want to compare them to Venezuela today, which won't be terribly accurate.

Second, the article notes the many differences between Spain and Venezuela that make a copy of Chávez impossible. A major one is the EU, of course, but the article does not discuss the massive influx of petrodollars that really deepened the Chavista project. You can talk about "direct democracy" or other experiments, but you need to be very careful about claiming how much Spain has the capacity to even try many of the things Chávez did.

Third, the article only touches on the critical fact that Spain is a parliamentary system and not a presidential one. If Podemos manages to win the prime minister position, it can't govern like Chávez. It certainly can't govern like Nicolás Maduro, who would've lost a no-confidence vote a long time ago.

Fourth, and rather different, is that Chávez died before oil bottomed out and so will always remain a heroic figure for the left. I am certain we'll see parties around the world for years to come inspired by an idealized version of Chávez that ignores what came directly after (or simply blames Maduro for it). The analogy is imperfect but I think of JFK in that regard.


Friday, February 27, 2015

Latin American Left and Venezuela

Jose Mujica says he is concerned about the possibility of a left-wing coup in Venezuela and about how that would blow democracy apart.

This comes on the heels of Chilean Senator Isabel Allende, a socialist who is the daugher of Salvador Allende, demanding the Bachelet government condemn the imprisonment of Antonio Ledezma (which Bachelet has not done).

These are small (but notable) cracks in the Latin American left with regard to Venezuela. To a large extent, and Mujica's own comments reflect this, the Venezuelan opposition itself is an obstacle to condemnations of the Maduro government because so much of it is perceived as anti-democratic and generally objectionable. However, if Maduro keeps tossing its leaders in prison, that may well change.


Thursday, February 26, 2015

Fred Kaplan's John Quincy Adams

I read Fred Kaplan's John Quincy Adams: American Visionary and greatly enjoyed it. It's very well written, and my main minor quibble is that he veers too often toward finding lessons for the present day. At the very end, Kaplan admits what is obvious after reading the book:

The opposition that he met, his successes, and his failures are part of the torn fabric of public discourse in early-twenty-first century America (p. 583).

This goes a bit far, especially since the book clearly sees him as a victim in this torn fabric. If anything, we see that U.S. politics have forever been characterized by nastiness so were torn from birth. What we also see is a man who dished it out as well as he took it. He was highly--even amazingly--moral but also incredibly uptight and prone to being thin-skinned. He was very introspective, writing voluminously in his diary (which constitutes the core source for the book) and he spent a lot of time thinking about how to dish it out (e.g. we learn about how much he detested Thomas Jefferson). Even if we agree with his causes, such as abolition, we should not see him as a victim.

Kaplan wants to show JQA as a writer and as a visionary for what the United States should become, particularly in terms of a unified country without slavery. In this he does an excellent job. JQA was widely read and even wrote poetry that was occasionally published. He was eloquent and loved public speaking, sometimes for several hours at a time.

It's hard to imagine someone with more lifelong dedication to public service. John Adams brought him abroad at a young age and he learned multiple languages that soon would serve him in diplomatic posts. Kaplan shows how these positions were often tedious--early 19th century Russia was not a place you wanted to be during winter. But JQA was there for several years. He later served as Secretary of State, President, and then was elected to the House of Representatives. Perhaps appropriately, he literally died in the House.

I also had not realized there was a photograph of him. He does not look like a guy to be messed with.


Monday, February 23, 2015

Ernesto Samper on Venezuela

UNASUR President Ernesto Samper issued a statement about the Venezuelan crisis.

Considero que la próxima visita de los Cancilleres puede ser muy útil en el propósito de contribuir a una despolarización del ambiente político que se vive en la hoy compleja realidad de Venezuela y ayudar a concitar un acuerdo nacional sobre el manejo de temas como el ajuste social de la economía que parece ser inevitable.

Diplomatic talk is generally vague and hopeful, but this is exceedingly so. I can't think of any way in which the visit of a few foreign ministers will contribute to depolarization, particularly when one of the ministers will be coming from Ecuador. This statement/visit is prompted by the arrest of Antonio Ledezma and at the very least the visit will have no impact on depolarization of the ministers don't question that arrest--but that will no happen.

I found it interesting that Samper suggests there could be some sort of national accord on economic reform, which he calls "inevitable." This is one way in which he deviates from the line about "economic war." If he believed it were such, he wouldn't be talking about reform. In an interview he mentioned it again:

"Para mí es claro que el telón de fondo de esta crisis es la situación económica que puede afectar e, incluso, llegar a comprometer la estabilidad democrática de Venezuela"

This is the point I'll be paying more attention to. Samper appears to be saying that easing the economic crisis will reduce political tension. That may or may not be true, but he seems to believe it enough that he wants UNASUR to be involved in facilitating national discussion about it.


Saturday, February 21, 2015

U.S.-Cuban-Venezuelan Relations

On the same day, the State Department issued new statements on Venezuela and Cuba. The former exhorted the government to stop imprisoning people while the latter discussed continuation of talks to re-estabish diplomatic relations.

It could be entirely coincidence that they came on the same day but in a way they speak to each other. Part of the point of re-establishing relations with Cuba is to have leverage, which includes discussions of human rights. The combination of no relations and the embargo had removed leverage entirely.

Further, in the Venezuela statement the Obama administration called explicitly for other international actors--especially meaning Latin American--to speak up about abuses. Ending the diplomatic freeze with Cuba provides at least a bit more space for Obama/Kerry to coax Latin American leaders to speak up. The Cuba issue had eroded U.S. credibility and posed an obstacle for potentially like-minded governments to stand with U.S. policy.


Migrants and Courts

My Latin Americanist colleague Steven Hyland (who is at Wingate University) has a really nice op-ed with the News & Observer.

In early December, my students and I sat in the federal Immigration Court in Charlotte. Judge Barry Pettinato presided, and an attorney with a massive rolling file cart represented the government. I wanted my students to witness what is normally studied in the abstract: the phenomenon of Latin American immigration. I wanted to humanize a group of people and a contentious issue. 
In roughly 30 minutes, we observed the judge rifle through seven cases, most of which were postponed until this month. Of the seven, five involved men, a sixth a mother and her three sons, and the seventh a 15-year-old unaccompanied child from El Salvador. 
Most of the men stood before the judge because their immigration status had been discovered after being arrested or cited by the police. Most of the criminal complaints were dismissed. Nevertheless, they stood before Judge Pettinato because they were here without authorization. 
I was most fascinated with the Salvadoran teenage girl. She sat before the judge, her mother standing behind her. I can only imagine what she experienced as she traveled from El Salvador through Guatemala and Mexico to the Texas border.

Read more here:

The point about humanizing migrants is a great one. For most people migrants are an amorphous other that they don't feel they have anything in common with.

But something else jumped out at me that I've blogged about a lot, which is caseload. One sign of our broken system is the fact that a judge has to make decisions on lots of people in a terribly short amount of time. Even then, the backlog constantly increases.


Friday, February 20, 2015

Rebutting Coup Accusations

Nicolás Maduro arrested Caracas Mayor Antonio Ledezma while also accusing the United States of plotting to overthrow him. This actually prompted the State Department to issue a rebuttal.

The United States is not promoting unrest in Venezuela nor are we attempting to undermine Venezuela’s economy or its government. We remain Venezuela’s largest trading partner. Venezuela’s economic and political problems are the result of the policies of the Venezuelan government. The Venezuelan government should stop attempting to distract attention from the country’s economic and political problems and focus on finding real solutions through democratic dialogue among Venezuelans. The government should also consider the statements by 36 individuals and entities, including the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, UN Committee Against Torture, Amnesty International, the OAS, and European Parliament, calling for the release of Leopoldo Lopez, who now is entering his second year in prison, and others held for participating in peaceful protests in 2014.

I am not entirely sure what the point of the statement is. If you believe in conspiracies, then you would think this is a lie. If you do not believe in conspiracies, then it seems obvious that the Venezuelan government is trying to distract from its own problems. It may be sparked by the recognition of the full year Leopoldo López has spent in jail.

At this point Maduro seems to be following a basic pattern of claiming coup plots, talking about and then tinkering with the currency, and blaming the opposition for the economy. Now add the next high-profile arrest. As I've argued before, I think U.S. policy at this point is to stand aside and watching.

For the most part, events in Venezuela have been in slow motion--there have been protests, but they did not spark much change. There are severe economic problems but people are not moving en masse against Maduro. Assuming Maduro keeps limping along, the next important moment will be December legislative elections. Francisco Toro speculates about whether Maduro might postpone them. Given the way things look now, the PSUV would get hit pretty hard.


Thursday, February 19, 2015

Jeb Bush and Latin America

Boz notes that Jeb Bush's Latin America advisors are Otto Reich, John Negroponte, Roger Noriega, and Lincoln Diaz-Balart. Put simply, these are voices that will insist the Cold War never really ended. There are still Communists around every corner.

My first take is that he wants to counterbalance his image on immigration, which is far too empathetic for Republican primaries. Deflect questions on Honduran children by emphasizing his commitment to destroying the Nicolás Maduros of the world.

My second take is to realize that there are a number of different potential Republican candidates, and Bush has already taken the main arch-conservative voices. Not that there aren't others, but these are the loudest, and you can't go any further to the right. Conservative Latin America experts will be in demand.

These are also very anti-Castro voices. One interesting question is whether any Republican takes a more pro-business, libertarian view of U.S.-Cuban relations. Rand Paul, maybe, but what about others?

As always, we have to remember that Latin America won't be a major issue in the campaign. On the other hand, Cuba and immigration are hot topics so they will creep in there.


Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Russian Military in Latin America

This article in Pravda on the Russian military presence in Latin America verges on comical. It is so transparently hollow and aimed at U.S. policy in Ukraine.

"The United States is quite vulnerable. One may eventually have to create missile defense from the side of Florida, rather than Alaska. All these issues arise and require huge financial resources. I think it will convince the United States of the short-sightedness of this kind of policy. The Americans thoughts that Cuba would fall into their arms, but the Cubans asked the Americans to withdraw the Guantanamo military base first," the expert told Pravda.Ru.

Oh please. The article explicitly discusses a return to Soviet Cold War policy in Latin America, which just isn't going to happen. There is no ideological affinity and not enough money. All Russia wants is to send signals about "backyards." If you come to Ukraine, we come to Cuba. Bluster a lot and maybe something will happen. At the very least, you appeal to nationalism domestically.

Unfortunately, I expect plenty of people to take this seriously and lap it up. Vladimir Putin wants to be taken seriously, and this will help in that regard. He revels in being the bogeyman.


Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Progress on U.S. and Latin American Relations

Last February we had several snow days, which helped me a lot with staying on track with revising the 2nd edition of U.S. and Latin American Relations. Lo and behold, one year later I receive an email with copyediting questions and within two days I have a snow day to go through them. I will get these back by tomorrow and am told proofs will arrive in mid-March so that I can check them and then make an index. Right now the target publication date is August 2015.

This is yet another reminded how slow the book process can be, though this is going as quickly as I could hope. From now on it's mostly grunt work.


Friday, February 13, 2015

Rafael Correa and Twitter Trolls

I you haven't seen it, check out John Oliver's take down of Rafael Correa's bizarre obsession with Twitter and Facebook trolls, who for some reason he takes very seriously. He spends a lot of time talking about some 18 year old who insulted him on Twitter for reasons that he does not explain, then sings with a clown.

And Correa even responded on Twitter.


Thursday, February 12, 2015

Latin American Outrage at the United States

One thing I've periodically mulled over, especially in the wake of Cuba policy liberalization, is Latin American "outrage." The latest example is this piece on the outrage in Latin America about U.S. sanctions against a group of Venezuelans.

This argument is common and tends to follow pretty standard logic. Representatives from ALBA and/or UNASUR will make statements about some issue related to the U.S. and sometimes draw up some type of document. This will gain currency particularly among left-leaning analysts. Sometimes it will be reported by mainstream media and sometimes ignored.

But then what?

As I see it, there are two contradictory results. First, you read many arguments about how isolated the United States is, how little influence it has, and how Latin America stands strong against it. The evidence is often based on public statements. (I've rebutted that before).

Second, you will see Latin American government work quietly but persistently to improve relations with the United States. Indeed, the historic change with Cuba came precisely as lots of people were making that isolation argument. Meanwhile, people keep claiming Brazil was annoyed at the U.S. even while Rousseff was gearing to make efforts to reach out.

The logical conclusion is that there is sometimes a significant difference between public statements and private actions. This isn't remarkable or new for governments. Over the years, as Back Channel to Cuba mentions more than once, Fidel Castro told U.S. officials many times that he understood how U.S. presidents would need to appease domestic constituencies with certain rhetoric, but he wouldn't take it personally so negotiations could continue.

What's more notable is how analysts and pundits don't see (or perhaps don't want to see) the disjuncture and continue to make arguments based on political rhetoric instead of what governments actually do.

There are real differences between Latin American countries and the United States. For example, Rafael Correa harbors Julian Assange and has been vocal about the Chevron controversy. But he also promotes trade with the U.S., keeps the country dollarized, and invites U.S. tourists. We seem to see too few analyses that show U.S.-Latin American relations go beyond what people say, and that differences aren't always as extreme as they appear.


Wednesday, February 11, 2015

2015 Padres

I am old enough to remember early 1984 when the Padres signed both Goose Gossage and Graig Nettles as free agents. The year before, we had signed Steve Garvey. I remember being amazed that these great Dodgers and Yankees were actually on the Padres. And of course we went to our first World Series in 1984.

Since then, over 31 years, I don't recall being as amazed as I am now. The Padres new GM, AJ Preller, has gone wild in the free agent market. The team is practically brand new and this is fun--not to mention unexpected--to watch. Now Matt Kemp and James Shields are Padres.

Starting rotation:

James Shields
Andrew Cashner
Tyson Ross
Ian Kennedy
Odrisamer Despaigne and others

In the field:

C: Derek Norris
1B: Yonder Alonso
2B: Jedd Gyorko
SS: Alexi Amarista
3B: Will Middlebrooks
LF: Matt Kemp
CF: Wil Myers
RF: Justin Upton

Compared to last year (when a pretty bad team still win 77 games) this is incredible. Only 1B, 2B, and SS remain from 2014. And apparently we're going after Yoan Moncada too!

The main potential problems are injury (Kemp especially, but also people like Cashner and potentially Ross) and bad defense.

The Padres have not been in the playoffs since 2006 and have not been in the World Series since 1998. We came very close to the playoffs in 2007 (I actually can't believe it was that long ago) but lost the 163rd tiebreaking game to the Rockies. This team will be a massive disappointment if it does not at least make the playoffs, and the World Series is not out of reach.


Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Cuba as Terrorist State

It's very rare to hear actual arguments about keeping Cuba on the state sponsor of terrorism list, but my member of Congress has done so. It focuses mostly on old cases of people from the 1970s who committed crimes in the U.S. and fled to Cuba (do we base foreign policy on that?) and also the FARC, which of course is currently negotiating a globally-supported peace deal with Colombia. The North Korea connection is the only part that could legitimately be cited to determine a current threat to the United States, but one example alone is insufficient, especially since North Korea is not on the list.

He concludes with this:

Mr. President, you didn't seem to get the basic training in your youth to understand bad guys and how to pick your friends. The problem is that our national security has floundered, and we face graver and more perilous threats because of your naïve understanding of human nature and your bad judgment.

The idea that Cuba is a graver and more perilous threat in 2015 is beyond laughable. It's a dictatorship, but that is obviously different from posing a threat to the United States given the dictatorships we support.

At any rate, it's useful to see the reasoning. Maybe he can also provide a good rationale for the success of the Cuba embargo, since its own supporters keep neglecting to do so.


Latin America Blog Links to Read

Want Latin America analysis? Check out the following blog posts:

--Mike Allison on Alfonso Portillo and the weird politics of Guatemala

--Steven Hyland on unaccompanied child migrants

--Boz gives the relevant Latin America sections of the recently released National Security Strategy

--David Smilde on the rule of law in Venezuela

--Steve Ellner criticizes the accusations against Diosdado Cabello

--AULA Blog looks at scenarios for the Nisman case


Maduro Wants Talks

Nicolás Maduro wants UNASUR to help coordinate talks between Venezuela and the United States. It's unclear to me what these talks are intended to achieve. Maduro claims that Joe Biden promoted his overthrow, though as yet hasn't provided any evidence to that effect, and just last month they were friendly.

The visa restrictions being placed on Venezuelan officials is largely pointless and rankles Maduro. But it's not much of an escalation and does not amount to coup plotting. I don't see much evidence of "increasing U.S. belligerency." I think the Obama administration is paying very little attention to Venezuela and is mostly waiting to see how things play out.

There is a direct correlation between the drop in oil prices and the increase of accusations flowing from Miraflores. You're starting to scrape the bottom of the rhetorical barrel when you bring in Joe Biden as a coup plotter. At this point, Venezuela blames the U.S. for scarcity, opposition protests, psychological warfare, disenchantment, assassination attempts, etc., etc. According to the Venezuelan government, the United States is focused constantly on Venezuela and is incredibly powerful. I am not sure whether Maduro believes this or not.


Monday, February 09, 2015

Latin America Dollar Pegs

Boz points out the dollar pegs in Latin America, and how self-proclaimed anti-imperialist governments employ them just as much as governments with closer ties to the U.S. You don't hear much about Bolivia, for example, which uses a crawling peg, as does Colombia.

As with so many other things in Latin America, including presidential approval and support for market economies, there is no clear correlation to ideology. Presidents who rail publicly against capitalism work perfectly well with it privately. Boz notes Bolivia, where Evo Morales talks tough but appointed a conservative finance minister.

Yet in the United States we so often insist on viewing Latin America through a simplistic ideological lens. This view makes the incorrect assumption that ALBA countries are necessarily hostile to the United States and even to capitalism more generally. This mistakes rhetoric for reality. Some are, some aren't, and even that changes over time.


Saturday, February 07, 2015

Origins of Latin American Inequality

In an NBER Working Paper, Jeffrey Williamson take an economic historical look at inequality in Latin America and concludes that it stems from the commodity boom of the 1870-1913 period and not because of colonial legacies.

Most analysts of the modern Latin American economy have held the pessimistic belief in historical persistence -- they believe that Latin America has always had very high levels of inequality, and that it’s the Iberian colonists’ fault. Thus, modern analysts see today a more unequal Latin America compared with Asia and most rich post-industrial nations and assume that this must always have been true. Indeed, some have argued that high inequality appeared very early in the post-conquest Americas, and that this fact supported rent-seeking and anti-growth institutions which help explain the disappointing growth performance we observe there even today. The recent leveling of inequality in the region since the 1990s seems to have done little to erode that pessimism. It is important, therefore, to stress that this alleged persistence is based on an historical literature which has made little or no effort to be comparative, and it matters. Compared with the rest of the world, inequality was not high in the century following 1492, and it was not even high in the post-independence decades just prior Latin America’s belle époque
and start with industrialization. It only became high during the commodity boom 1870-1913, by the end of which it had joined the rich country unequal club that included the US and the UK. Latin America only became relatively high between 1913 and the 1970s when it missed the Great Egalitarian Leveling which took place almost everywhere else. That Latin American inequality has its roots in its colonial past is a myth. 

A very interesting and provocative paper written in a rather combative style. He concludes with the question, "why?" I can't speak to the data, so would like to see comments from someone more well versed in it. Some points/questions that occurred to me:

1. As Piketty argues, World War I was an essential part of the "Great Egalitarian Leveling," as Williamson puts it. Latin America was largely unaffected by the war, so had almost no similar experience. Same goes for World War II. A rather sick trade-off: inequality stays high, but you don't suffer millions of deaths.

2. The role of the U.S. would have to be taken into consideration. During the 1913-1970 period in particular, the U.S. government often attacked "leveling" efforts in the region.

3. If a commodity boom increased Latin American inequality in 1870-1913, why did the same phenomenon level inequality in the 2003-2015 period?

h/t Robin Grier


Thursday, February 05, 2015

Kansas Bill to Stifle Professors

Check out this bill in Kansas that seeks to prohibit professors from using their title if they publish anything in a newspaper. The idea is to diminish the author's expertise. With good reason, professors have never been able to give the impression that we speak for the university, but this is different. No one thinks an individual op-ed speaks for the university just because you know where the author works.

From the bill's text:

The state board of regents, the board of trustees of any community college, the board of regents of any municipal university and the governing body of any technical college shall adopt and implement, or require to be implemented, a policy and plan which prohibits an employee from providing or using such employee's official title when authoring or contributing to a newspaper opinion column. Such policy and plan shall prohibit employees from providing or using such employee's official title in a newspaper opinion column only when the opinion of the employee concerns a person who currently holds any elected public office in this state, a person who is a candidate for any elected public office in this state or any matter pending before any legislative or public body in this state. This section shall not prohibit an employee from providing such employee's personal opinion on a person currently holding an elected position, a person who is a candidate for any elected public office or any matter pending before a legislative body as long as such employee does so without providing or using such employee's official title when authoring or contributing to a newspaper opinion column.

What this would do is take away professors' ability to show our employment, which is a signal of our expertise. If I write an op-ed about Latin American politics as Greg Weeks, resident of Charlotte, it will not be taken as seriously as if I write it as a professor who studies Latin American politics.* Readers will pay less--or perhaps no--attention to the former than to the latter, and that is the point of the legislation. In particular, writing that is critical--which of course op-eds so often are--will receive less attention.

It seems silly to make professors pretend they're not professors when they want to demonstrate the expertise they've developed by being professors. Just add this to the problems Kansas has with universities and free speech.

* the same goes for providing expert witness testimony, speaking before community groups, talking to reporters, etc., etc.

h/t Brad DeLong


Fidel Castro Would Approve of Walker and McCrory

With the gubernatorial attacks on higher education, especially by governors in Wisconsin and North Carolina, something has nagged me. I felt like I had heard or read about the same message before. Today it finally clicked--the answer is Fidel Castro. All three distrust intellectuals and ideas, and want universities to focus only on workers.

Let's take two very recent examples.

Governor Scott Walker apparently redrafted the mission of the University of Wisconsin (later claiming that it was a drafting error).

In that draft of the governor's budget, gone from state code was the commandment that the university “search for truth.” Gone was the exhortation to “improve the human condition.” Gone was the charge to “extend knowledge and its application beyond the boundaries of its campuses.” 
Instead, Walker, a Republican, inserted a new benediction: “meet the state’s workforce needs.”

Meanwhile, in the State of the State message yesterday, Governor Pat McCrory had this to say about higher education in North Carolina.

We are leveraging the advantage provided by our public and private research universities through our Innovation to Jobs initiative that we just presented to the UNC Board of Governors. It's designed to convert more of our research dollars into products and services that are patented and introduced into the marketplace. 

Finally, here is Fidel Castro, speaking in 1972:

University studies are spreading throughout the country. The time will come when each one of the principal industries will be an extension of the university. In other words, we are taking the university to the street. We are combining studies and work in the entire educational system," and "we do not want to form intellectuals, simply intellectuals; we want to form revolutionaries with technical ability. We must combine study with work.

Moving universities away from ideas and toward a narrow conception of work is a fundamental part of developing Communism. Universities normally abound in ideas, but you don't see controversy in universities in Cuba, the Soviet Union, etc. Ideas challenge authority and bolster democracy. "Products" and "technical ability" do the opposite.

It's so odd to see this somehow go full circle, as avowed free marketeers and an avowed Marxist come to complete agreement.


Wednesday, February 04, 2015

Academia and Latin America Policy

Russell Crandall takes academia to the woodshed in the latest issue of Americas Quarterly. I mean blistering. It's a great read.

He argues that we're all too stuck in methodology, too mired in ideology, we spend too little time in the field, and are too enamored of our own opinions.

One key to that reassessment is getting more of our political scientists out in the field, either in Latin America to conduct actual on-the-ground research or in government positions inside the Beltway, rather than ineffectively opining and exhorting from the outside about what should be done. While it may be too late to change the approach of many of our current crop of academics, I hope today’s and future generations of students will take this advice to heart. 
We cannot allow our own ideological or methodological rigidities to distort the interpretations (or kill the curiosity) of budding scholars. Only with such a fresh approach can we begin to sharpen our understanding of twenty-first-century Latin America, and the U.S. role. More empiricism, more nuance, more sobriety (and less emotion and ideology) are critical.

The academia-policy divide has been a long-time topic, but I don't remember ever seeing something so angry. I really like the call for greater self-awareness about whether we're just completely full of BS. We make all kinds of claims and assertions--I've written thousands of such blog posts!--but how much is pure hot air? How much should policy makers listen to us if we're completely out to lunch?


Tuesday, February 03, 2015

The History of Drugs in Latin America

The latest issue of Hispanic American Historical Review (the flagship academic journal on Latin American history) is a special issue on the history of the drug trade. The lead article, by Paul Gootenberg and Isaac Campos, says the following:

This introduction brings the issue of Latin American drug trades and cultures into conversation with the region's historiography. Illicit drugs are now notoriously associated with Latin America and represent untold billions in exports, generating over the last three decades tremendous violence, instability, and public controversy. Yet historians are just starting to seriously research the topic. Psychoactive drugs, broadly conceived, have been central in Latin American history from pre-Columbian times to the present; this piece offers a long-term periodization of drugs to uncover and analyze their complex and often-surprising roles. Rather than fetishize drugs, the essay maintains that they can be productively woven into the largest contexts and problems of Latin American history. After analyzing three methodological concerns of drug history — issues of transnationality and scale, the place of drugs in commodity studies, and the social constructivist approach to drug meanings and effects — the special issue editors introduce three exemplary new essays on the history of drugs in Latin America.

What strikes me about this is that it seems almost to confirm how long drug trafficking has been a major challenge. After all, now it's actually history!

I don't really get the fetish mention, which is mentioned several times. Here is how it is presented later in the article:

Modern (and highly contestable) medical discourses of “addiction,” as well as most big conspiracy theories regarding the untold power of “cartels” and other undergrounds (like those about the connection between the Central Intelligence Agency and crack), suffer equally from this misleading magical fetish about the powers of drugs. Drugs are mystified as the lead culprit for many social ills imagined and real. As we think our own work demonstrates, historians can usefully focus on a single drug commodity through time. But we also believe it crucial to avoid the pharmaco-centric fallacy, something made possible by integrating drug histories into larger questions, contexts, and currents of historical practice. 

Is this just a History disciplinary thing? At least in the Latin America context, in Political Science I can't recall any discussion about drugs being somehow "mystified." The focus is typically on trying to understand the violence that results from trafficking, and in the U.S.-Latin America context the focus is often on the disconnect between local realities and foreign policy. Nothing I've ever read suggests that the power of cartels is "untold," and I am not even sure what that means.

Given the current discussions about Mexico in particular, I really welcome historians digging (metaphorically) into Colombia (and presumably Bolivia, though they don't have an article on it) and elsewhere to provide a broader, historical understanding that can help us get a better grip on the patterns and issues we see now.


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