Curtain Raiser

A Taste of Latin America, Colltalers

The historic, but decades behind, raising of the American flag in Havana was not the only Latin American news dominating the week. Thousands in the streets of Brazil ​and a U.S. presidential candidate’s absurd musings about Mexico have also shared the headlines.
Not that the world would take more than a second to savor news in español or português, before going back to its steady diet of carnage, hatred, and dispossession we’re all so numb about. But suddenly the ‘other’ Americas jumped to relevance even if for a day.
Cuba has been a 5-decade mistake that even the most humble act of diplomacy would have fixed, and decoupled from the Cold War’s menu of terrors. Instead, successive administrations have promoted to this impossibly attainable apex of ill-intent against the U.S.
But even before the fall of its dangerous backer, the Soviet Union, Cuba had already come into its own precarious way by managing sparse resources, and according to Miami Cubans, oppressive regime into a workable, and surprising effective, semi-socialism.
Never the utopia 1960s idealists would attribute to it, Cuba under Fidel Castro was nevertheless capable of forging a political identity that, unlike most dictatorships, did not completely brain-washed its citizens. While many expected it to export its brand of authoritarian rule to neighbors, it became instead known for offering first-class, highly-trained doctors and healthcare personnel to nations in crisis.
So much for the ‘exporting the revolution’ credo embraced by Che Guevara, which got him killed in the jungles of Bolivia less than a decade from Castro’s 1050 takeover of El Capitolio, and turned him into a culturally world-known but politically blank pop icon.
In fact, the pragmatism of Cuba radically contrasted with the billions of dollars wasted by the U.S. to depose its leader, which only helped him consolidate power and galvanize support and sympathy to the regime’s ultimate isolation from global affairs.
As a military or ideological threat to the U.S., Cuba has been as irrelevant as the rhetoric used for demonizing it has been riddled with contradiction. How John Kennedy’s arguably biggest blunder as a president became such an inflexibly misguided policy remains to be explained by independent historians. It may be only up to them to make sense of these five lost decades to future generations.
While any effort at a détente with Cuba was quickly steamrolled by self-serving politicians and Pentagon hawks, even Richard Nixon found necessary to warm up towards bigger ‘evils’ such as China. Perhaps something about size and scale was at play here.
In any respect, in contrast with Cuba’s forced stagnation and political quarantine, Brazil’s arch from the 1950s to the present is way more dynamic, complex, and still challenging. From a U.S.-sympathetic (and partially funded) military dictatorship, to the 1980s great mass movements for democracy, to the current rallies seeking to impeach its democratically elected president, much has changed.
In between, while its population swelled from some 70 million to over 200 million, and the country’s GDP grew from slightly over 200 million to close to two trillion, Brazil’s experienced a surge of relevance in the context of Latin America and the world, a fact not lost to those now protesting against its failing economy, nightmarish inflation, and exchange rates not seen in almost 20 years.
But much of the opposition in the past few years to the ruling Workers’ Party and second-term President Dilma Rousseff, ostensibly because of a wave of scandals involving segments of the government and even the country’s biggest state-run company, Petrobras, may be hiding a more ingrained motivation: the middle classes’ feeling of being left out of PT-driven socialist programs for the poor.
Used to being pampered by successive administrations, through incentives and protective measures in exchange for political and financial support, well-educated urban dwellers who have strongly influenced Brazil’s direction into the 21st century have had a sudden attack of mortal jealousy, expressed in traditional center-right media bastions and well-orchestrated social media campaigns.
Helped by a charisma-free president who has staggered and failed to propose a direction of her own, independent from her mentor and predecessor, Luis Inacio Lula da Silva, the crisis of confidence in the Brazilian government, albeit not new, threatens the very stability and freedom of expression fought so hard by those who helped to finally defeat the military and restore democracy in the 1980s.
Again, curiously, the accusations of ineffectiveness against Dilma, as the president’s known in Brazil, and lack of leadership miss badly the mark by not addressing the aspects that she, and her party, have indeed failed Brazilians: among them, a vigorous stance about the environment, a clear path towards sustainable growth, and investments in technology and education to make Brazil minimally competitive.
The gap between what the street crowds identify as the problem with Brazil, and the country’s real social, political, and economic vulnerabilities is so wide that one would be at loss to explain why no one questions the government’s energy policies, preference for an outdated agricultural commodities exports model, and a serious lack of ideas about how democracy should work for and to the people.
While some 300 thousand asked for an unrealistic and baseless impeachment of the president, the political elites have enjoyed a free ride in Congress, with a feast of influence trafficking and favors, along a stunning insensitivity about the country’s needs. For a sample, take the discussion over the approval for hiring contractors without labor law guarantees, and the age reduction to convict teenagers.
Neither discussion is being framed within the proper historical context. Despite a functional union-backed professional system in place, which assures some worker rights and security, the argument pro-‘terceirização’ (the term for hiring contractors) is based on the age old myth that it’ll help the economy. Have them heard of what the so-called ‘new economy’ is causing American workers for instance?
And it’s astonishing the lack of analysis of other countries’ legislations regulating youth criminality. What ignoring education’s role in teenage rehabilitation, while pushing for more severity has caused. But in that case, they’d better not look at the U.S., for comparison.
That’s not in the agenda of the leaders behind today’s manifestations, which certainly will advance the cause for even more rallies against Dilma’s perceived peccadilloes against the middle class, even if at the end of the day, it may only corner the PT and drive it to double down on its segmentation. For if there’s anyone in Brazil expecting it to collapse, they don’t know what’s coming for them.
The last piece of the Latino puzzle that’s making headways into the national debate in the rest of the Americas is the incredibly high-rated rhetoric of ignorance about Mexico and the role of its immigrants in the U.S. economy uttered with fanfarre by billionaire Donald Trump. It wouldn’t deserve a single mention in this space if we didn’t know that it’ll be one of this week’s main headlines.
Bi-partisan hopes that his candidacy would’ve collapsed having been all but faded fast by now, Trump’s offensive non-sense has had more (undisclosed) resonance within the Republican Party than most would have the guts to admit. But the point here is not about him but about Mexico, a country that seems to have itself abandoned its U.S. immigrants to their own short luck long time ago.
While unofficially controlled by big criminal cartels, who feed on the war on drugs and political corruption to remain just a tad away from justice or obsolescence, whichever comes first, Mexico’s President Enrique Peña Nieto, on the other hand, has lost so much of his credibility easily conceding to his party’s bag of tricks, that Mexicans wouldn’t really need another American bully to insult it.
In short shrift, that’s the state of the Latin America we may hear about throughout the week, so we just wanted to warn you and somberly advise you to take it all with a grain of salt. After all, we’ve spared you on purpose from mentioning Argentina.
Neither the opening of diplomatic relations with Cuba, albeit positive and necessary, is what either country most needs at this juncture, even as it marks another milestone on the embattled but ultimately punctual Obama administration, nor much will change onwards.
Brazil is not on turmoil because of the failure of its institutions or profound popular frustration about both PT and the president, as you may read about in the established media. That would have been a way more positive movement we’d be talking about here.
But there is indeed a serious disconnect between what representatives of the will of the people would like to propose, if ever, for the current crisis, and what a huge, influential segment of its population is willing to discuss, or rather, bash for the world to see.
What’s missing too is the fact that so much ado about, well, something, but not exactly what ills the country, is already causing a ripple effect on the always skittish markets, compounding to the country’s shaky economic fundaments. Recent credit downgrades of some of Brazil’s bonds by credit agencies (why are they still relevant? we need to talk about that sometime), is but one sign of this Catch-22.
In a nutshell, Latin America is head-butting the world not by virtue of its human rights, technological achievements, or solutions for the world’s most prominent foes, but as usual, by its sheer, sinuous, disconcerting realities and constant lack of deliverance. We’re used to it. Which does not necessarily mean that we’re fine about it. Just thought you should be warned about. Have a great one. WC

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One thought on “Curtain Raiser

  1. Shame most people don’t know the Americas are far more Latino than Anglo- North European. Just shows the effects Hollywood and Madison Avenue can have on a nation’s psyche. Change that; the psyche of the world.

    Liked by 1 person

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