Tag Archives: South America

Review of PBS’ “Black in Latin America”: Mexico/Peru

An 18th Century Casta Painting from Mexico, showing different racial combinations.

In my mother’s home country of Ecuador, there’s a province that is unlike any other.

Where the majority of the population is of either pure indigenous or mestizo (mixed white-indigenous) extraction, Esmeraldas appears as a stark contrast to the norm. The province, located on the northern coast abutting Colombia, appears better suited to the Caribbean than to an Andean country. Even with large white and native populations, Esmeraldas is dominated by Africans imported during the Spanish conquest of the 16th Century. Its culture and traditions point farther east than the Andes, towards the coasts of West Africa from which their ancestors were taken.

Athletes from Esmeraldas are especially successful. A glance at Ecuador’s soccer team would have one think they were from Cuba, Trinidad or Jamaica—anything but a South American mountain republic.

There are enclaves like Esmeraldas in many countries in Central and South America. In the last chapter of PBS’ Black in Latin America, Henry Louis Gates looks at two such areas: the black peoples of Veracruz and the Costa Chica in Mexico and the enclave outside Lima, Peru.

Unlike the Caribbean, Central and South America’s native population was too vast and too concentrated to be wiped out. The cultures of these areas, thus, carried a more Amerindian hue. The exception is the Southern Cone, where marginal native populations, as well as Africans, were absorbed into large European immigrant communities.

Yet according to Gates, the African influence is much larger than we realize—especially as African influences were absorbed or subsumed into the larger Hispano-Amerindian community.

More Africans were imported into Mexico and Peru than the United States. Almost half of all enslaved Africans imported to Spanish America came to Mexico. Cities such as Lima and Veracruz contained a distinct African hue, in contrast to the Spanish-native hybrid culture that surrounds them. Many Mexicans and Peruvians contain some African blood, even those that look mestizo. Furthermore, cultural aspects such as music, dance, and food contained as much African influence as from Europe and the Americas.

So apart from a few enclaves, where did all the Africans go?

In Mexico, the slave boom was early and brief, through the 17th century, and emancipation came sooner (in 1829). Blacks intermarried earlier and more vigorously, and by the 1920s it was difficult to even tell who was of African descent. Officially, scholars and politicians extolled the multi-racial “brownness” of Mexico’s people—a homogenization of all cultures that pushed black identity into the background.

A similar pattern occurred in Peru and other South American nations. Although emancipation was more gradual in South America, the overwhelming native and mestizo populations mixed just as vigorously into African families, creating a similar “brownness” to the Mexican experience.

The most dramatic—and tragic—example is on the Rio de la Plata in Argentina, where black populations were almost entirely integrated into either mestizo or, more commonly, European immigrant populations. In effect, this did in fact wipe out the African influence on the Southern Cone, with the exception of Uruguay, where blacks and mulattos from neighboring Brazil buttress their own communities.

So in looking at these groups, and the series in a whole, I’m left with one question: Is racial intermingling and color-blindness necessarily a good thing?

A common theme in this chapter, and in the series, is the mistaken benevolence of color-blindness. For many in Latin America, especially places like the Dominican Republic, Cuba and Brazil, it was thought that the mixing of races would create a new pan-racial harmony that transcended labels and heritage. Gates himself points out that this benevolent “openness” is in itself a form of racism, in that it refuses to deal with the realities of culture and especially domestic social problems.

To be honest, Gates has a point. People are not ingredients in a soup, where different flavors and textures get blended together to make one uniform concoction. There will always be shades of color among us, and whenever there is difference, there is usually some form of discrimination be it overt or subtle. Otherwise, the enclaves of Afro-Latin Americans in Esmeraldas, Veracruz, Lima and the Costa Chica would not exist.

Yet I also get a sense—and I think Gates feels it also—that even though it may be merely a pipe dream, “racial democracy” is something worth striving for. There is hope that in the future there can be a time where all people are treated equally and fairly—while at the same time acknowledging and celebrating the different cultures that have shaped the American continent.

That hope was seen in the universities in Brazil, among young people in the Dominican Republic, in the activists striving in the Costa Chica in Mexico, and even the underground rappers and artists in Cuba that fight for their identity even when official policy condemns them as treasonous.

Whatever the future holds, this much is certain: the cultures of Latin America would not be the same if it weren’t for the millions of Africans kidnapped and brought to these shores. They gave far more than they ever got in return.

In acknowledging their contributions, it goes a small way to repaying that debt.

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Review of Part 3 of PBS’ “Black in Latin America” – Brazil

Montage of tourist images of Rio de Janeiro, Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Growing up, I had two images of Brazil: one with godlike athletic ability, the other with a fruit salad on her head.

As different as they were, both soccer legend Pele and entertainer Carmen Miranda projected an image of Brazil that, on the surface, was what everyone wanted—a harmonious mingling of European, African and Native American cultures into a purely American form. It was known as “racial democracy” and became the official established cultural ethos of South America’s largest country.

That combination of athleticism, musical prowess, and outright joy seemed so normal back then. Too bad that they mask severe economic, political and social problems that still weigh heavy with racial overtones.

This, of course, is taking place in a country that, like Cuba, has no “official” racism.

Black in Latin America recently explored Brazil, a country that imported more slaves than any other colony in the New World. It has the second largest African population on the planet, after Nigeria. Slavery was even more brutal here than in North America and the Caribbean, and ended even later.

Like in other places, Brazil’s acceptance of its African heritage was, at least officially, a top-down affair. Being a hotbed of intellectual thought, Brazil also became a center for an academic blossoming of Afro-centric and Afro-Brazilian cultural study and self-identity. From the universities of Bahia, Sao Paolo and Rio de Janeiro came a new amalgamated understanding of what it means to be Brazilian. This intellectual ferment gets some much-needed light through this series.

Unfortunately, the façade of “racial democracy” was just that. Once you scratch the surface of carnival floats and samba music, the racial divide becomes much clearer. The elites, as in so many countries, tend towards the lighter shades. Those at the bottom rung have little, if any, opportunity to rise above their desperate condition.

It’s an old saw, but one that’s sharpened to a razor’s edge when seen against the stark realities of Brazilian life.

Gates does a pretty fair job covering the racial history of Brazil and the intellectual development of “racial democracy.” Yet as in the other episodes, one hour is simply insufficient to adequately cover the realities, and possible solutions, of Brazil’s very real racial divide.

Two areas in particular fall noticeably short: one a simplification, the other an outright omission.

Brazil’s experiment with affirmative action was not explored sufficiently. Towards the end of the episode, Gates sat in on a college discussion about the recent move by universities in Rio to establish affirmative action policies in college enrollment and faculty placement. The debate took a familiar tone: proponents pointed out the large disparity in income and enrollment between black and white, while opponents lamented decreased standards for the sake of racial equality.

Yet there was no indication that Gates would explore if Brazil would work with such quotas any further than the college classroom. Even without official racism, would Brazil’s government, social services, and especially its mushrooming industries tinker with affirmative action as well? Have similar programs been attempted before? What is the official government response to the university’s quota policy?

More importantly, how willing would the Brazilian economy—now a white-hot engine of progress—react to policies that may threaten their levels of production and profitability? Gates’ lack of exploration into how race played a role in Brazil’s economic boom is a gross omission.

Furthermore, Gates omits the growing racial divide in an area that once saw promise for Brazilians of color—sports.

Brazil’s greatest ambassador in history, by far, is its national soccer team, arguably the most successful national team on the planet. 5 World Cups, numerous awards and trophies, players that populate the top leagues in Europe and South America: Brazilian soccer has stood as a model to all the world.

Even more importantly, soccer was a way for Brazilians of color to really shine. Brazil’s national team first integrated in the early 1950s. Ever since, the style, culture and success of Brazilian soccer had the distinct flavor of the favelas, the slum areas around every Brazilian city populated largely by blacks. Pele, Tostao, Jarzinho and others rose from the slum streets to create the uber-successful and exciting Brazilian game.

From 1958 to 1970, the face of Brazilian soccer was black. Edson Arantes do Nascimento, or Pele, was the smiling ebony face of Brazil and its powerhouse squad.

Today, Brazil’s face is markedly different.

Looking at recent Brazilian squads, one notices a distinctly whiter group than those generations ago. The faces of the team, players like Kaka and Pato, are as white as the driven snow. Black players like Ronaldo, Ronaldinho, Adriano, Rivaldo and Emerson are either retiring or on their way out.

Much of this change has to do, clearly, with money. European soccer is big business, and scouting has largely moved away from the tumble-down alleys of the favelas to state-of-the-art football academies. These academies are large, expensive, and difficult for poor applicants to enter. Thus, the talent pool reflects those who can afford to send prospective candidates to these schools.

European soccer, furthermore, has taken many Brazilian players and adapted them to more “European” methods. The flash and dash of the favelas is largely frowned upon, even though most Brazilian players rely on them for their occasional flashes of brilliance. In fact, the street style is today largely confined to the national Brazilian league itself, where local players cut, dash and dribble in the hope that a scout from Arsenal or Real Madrid picks them up.

There’s nothing particularly wrong with this development. Nor is there any shortage of black players to grace Brazil’s squads in the future. Yet it seems odd that the pride and joy of Brazil looks less and less like the country itself, even as the country struggles for more cohesion and equality.

Once again, Gates missed a huge opportunity. To research Brazil’s racial history and not mention the influence of soccer deserves a huge red card.

Three episodes into the series, “Black in Latin America” is getting into a familiar pattern. While it highlights information that may seem illuminating to the average viewer, it doesn’t have the time or concentration to really look at race problems in depth.

With a theme—and a country—as vast as Brazil, this approach offers very little and discovers even less.

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Videos for the Classroom: BBC’s “Conquistadors” – The Conquest of the Inca

Today we continue the BBC Conquistadors series with episode 2, chronicling the Inca Empire of South America and its conquest by the Pizarro brothers, who seemed to fight everybody–the Incas, the neighboring tribes, and each other.

From 1528 to the 1570s, the Spanish would engage in a long, protracted period of conquest over the most vast empire in the Western Hemisphere.  When Francisco Pizarro and his brothers Gonzalo, Juan and Hernando arrive in Peru, the timing was perfect: the last emperor of the Inca, or Sapa Inca,  had died from smallpox, and a civil war raged between his two sons, Atahualpa and Huascar

The Pizarros exploited this division of power, taking sides in the civil war and capturing the victor, Atahualpa.  Their subsequent reign was marked by widespread bloodshed, corruption, massive exploitation of gold and silver reserves in Peru and surrounding areas, and internecine warfare between the Pizarros and the subsequent Spanish officials sent to calm the situation.

As before, Michael Wood uses the lens of modern Peru as his focal point in retelling the Inca tragedy.  Enjoy this episode with your students–and definitely give a loud Bronx cheer to the Pizarro brothers, a few of the truly bad guys in history.

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This Day in History 3/24: The Argentine Military Coup of 1976

What’s good for the goose is good for the gander.  The only real difference between fascists and Communists is that the former have a better wardrobe.

I’ve spent a fair amount of time berating the regimes in Cuba and Venezuela, rampaging about human rights abuses, economic shenanigans and ridiculous rhetoric.  It’s now time for the far-right to bend over and receive its licks.

In 1976, the military forces of Argentina staged a coup against President Isabel Martinez de Peron, widow of controversial Argentine leader Juan Peron, citing ineffectual leadership in a grinding guerrilla war between left and right-wing paramilitary groups.  The subsequent military junta, ruling from 1976 to 1983, was among the most repressive in the history of the continent.

Innocuously dubbed the National Reorganization Process, the junta promptly made Argentina a police state, suppressing all civil rights and suspending any semblance of due process.  The military government continued the “Dirty War” against leftist Montonero guerrillas, a process that began under the previous administration.  Yet despite the often-brutal tactics of the leftist rebels, it paled in comparison to the state-sponsored terror that would follow.

Torture, rape, kidnapping, murder, summary executions–you name it, it was all done in the seven years of the dictatorship.  The most common estimate we now have is close to 30,000 people who “disappeared.”  Not only guerrillas, but journalists, professors, trade unionists, even clergymen succumbed to the brutal tactics of government interrogators.  One of the favorite forms of execution involved throwing victims out of planes into the ocean or the Rio de la Plata to drown; hence the term “death flights.”

One of the most heinous abuses of the regime was the abduction and relocation of the newborn children of imprisoned mothers.  Under the flimsy excuse that “subversive parents will raise subversive children”, as many as 500 newborns were literally ripped from their mothers’ arms and forcily “adopted” by the families of high-ranking military officials.  To this day, groups such as the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo are fighting to identify the whereabouts of these children.

It took a ridiculous war to finally stop the madness.  Unrest and dissatisfaction was growing in 1981, as corruption and economic crisis weakened the regime.   A new junta took over and used national fervor to attack the Falklands islands in the south Atlantic, a British possession with more sheep than people.  The resulting Falklands War, the 1982 debacle that ended in a decisive British victory, accelerated the demise of the military government, and a new democratic constitution was ratified in 1985.

The Argentine juntas, along with the Brazilian military government, the Chilean dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet and Paraguay’s Alfredo Stroessner, form a ring of right-wing dictatorships that terrorized their populations in the 1970s and 1980s.  They worked together in a covert anti-Communist operation called Operation Condor, which received tacit approval from the US government.  The Argentine atrocities spread across the Southern Cone of South America.

These governments still generate controversy.  Many conservatives, including myself at a certain point, argued that these governments, and their actions, were necessary to prevent the spread of Communist governments on the continent.  Many contend that the economic status of these countries, especially Chile’s apparent success, are due in part to policies enacted during military rule.

Sorry, but I don’t buy it anymore.

A dictator is a dictator, no matter how good he/she makes you feel.  No economic success, no ideological victory, no battlefield sacrifice can justify the wanton abuse of constitutional powers, the abridgement of human rights, and the outright slaughter of a country’s people.  It doesn’ t matter that they’re Communist, socialist, conservative, liberal, fascist, Nazi, whatever. 

These guys were murderers, plain and simple. 

Below is a BBC documentary about the Argentine “Dirty War” of 1976-1983.  It’s a rough subject, but a necessary one for students so they can appreciate the enormity–and fragility–of our freedom.

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The Devil and Jeff Spicoli: A Response to Sean Penn and Hugo Chavez

Mr. Hand: Am I hallucinating here? Just what in the hell do you think you’re doing?
Jeff Spicoli: Learning about Cuba, and having some food.    – from Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982)

Sean and Hugo: It's like the blind and dumb leading the blind and dumb, only with guns and petroleum.

Like his stoner counterpart, Sean Penn has been spending time learning about other countries, often with food involved. 

Not only is he learning about Cuba, but also Venezuela, Haiti, Nicaragua, Bolivia…

The problem is that Sean’s been paying a little too much attention to his Marxist hosts, and thus spreading a deciding one-sided view of these socialist “paradises”.  He is actually making some more gullible folks think that these places are actually “better” than us.  Better than the United States that raised him, gave him a film career and allowed him to speak his mind in between his insufferably self-serving film roles. 

Nowhere is Sean more deluded than in the bailiwick of his friend Hugo Chavez, Venezuela.

Unlike most socialist shitholes, I have a visceral connection with Venezuela.  In the 1950s and 1960s, a slew of European immigrants, largely from Spain and Italy, came to Venezuela to work on their burgeoning public works projects.  Many Italians from all over the country left postwar Europe for rosier opportunities in Latin America.

Some of these Italians included my grandparents, my uncles, my aunts, my cousins and my father, who spent six years in Caracas before emigrating to the US.

The best recurring themes from my kin are the days when Venezuela was—gasp—not a shithole.  To Italian immigrants, Venezuela was a promised land with perfect weather and endless job opportunities thanks to a government that welcomed outsiders.  It made sense: the name of the place means “little Venice”, after all—too bad the only things the two places have in common today are a fetid stench and a constant sinking feeling.

So my view of Venezuela’s situation is decidedly cloudy.  I still have family there, and the situation there worries me on a personal level that could obscure my judgment.

 That doesn’t mean, however, that Sean Penn isn’t full of shit.

This week, Sean appeared on Real Time with Bill Maher on HBO and discussed his efforts in Haiti (Very commendable).  Inevitably, the subject turned to Hugo Chavez and media coverage of his regime (not so commendable).  In essence, Sean wants the media to provide more favorable coverage to this balloon head, and to jail any reporter who says otherwise.

How un-democratic. 

It’s time for me to be the Mr. Hand that finally straightens out Jeff Spicoli.  Sean made three points that are particularly irritating considering his subject matter.  Let’s tear them apart one by one.

Lie # 1: Chavez should not be called a “dictator.”

The first, and arguably the most bogus, is the whining about the media continually calling Chavez a “dictator.”  The dictionary defines a dictator as “a person exercising absolute power, especially a ruler who has absolute, unrestricted control in a government without hereditary succession.” 

Chavez, a former coup plotter, was elected president in 1998.  He then ordered a massive revision of the constitution in 1999, granting him sweeping new powers and packing the legislature and courts with his supporters.  He suppresses free expression.  He rigs judicial procedures against political opponents.  His favorites control the armed forces.  His political apparatus resembles a totalitarian surveillance regime that is slowly creating a police state.

Sean, if that’s not a dictator, I don’t know what is.  If you don’t like the term, here are a few that you may like:

Chancellor, First Consul, Princeps, Chairman, Prime Minister, General Secretary, or Generalissimo

These titles were worn proudly by such democratic luminaries as Adolf Hitler, Napoleon Bonaparte, Caesar Augustus, Mao Zedong, Fidel Castro, Josef Stalin and Francisco Franco.  All of them dictators, almost all of them rotting in a dank corner of hell.  Pretty much all of them would re-assess their role as being truly a dictator, if given the opportunity.  Hitler may be reluctant, but Joe Stalin would straighten him out.

Don’t believe me?  Human Rights Watch, not exactly a bastion of conservatism, stated in their country report on Venezuela in January that

“President Hugo Chávez and his supporters have effectively neutralized the independence of Venezuela’s judiciary. In the absence of a judicial check on its actions, the Chávez government has systematically undermined journalists’ freedom of expression, workers’ freedom of association, and the ability of civil society groups to promote human rights.”

He even uses the guise of democracy to exercise his dictatorial control.  Many left-wing pundits laud a certain aspect of the regime as the epitome of participatory democracy—the “Bolivarian circles”, and later the “Bolivarian Missions.”  The regime would have you believe that these circles are community groups coordinated to solve common problems.  The missions, furthermore, are outreach organizations to other areas of Venezuelan life.

Don’t be fooled.  I’ve seen these “circles” and missions before.  They are very effective in identifying and reporting on political opponents, much like the block captains and revolutionary committees in Cuba. 

One mission, the Mission Miranda, is particularly disturbing.  It is a civilian militia trained to defend the country in an emergency.  More likely, he’s arming his poor, deluded supporters into being cannon fodder in case the “inevitable” US-backed right-wing military coup was to take place.

Lie # 2: elections in Venezuela are “free and fair.”

Sean stated on Monday that Chavez was elected in the freest election in the hemisphere.  On the surface, he seems to be right.  In the elections between 2002 and 2009, political opponents were able to field candidates and campaign.  A lively debate ensued.  Outside monitors were in place to make sure everything was on the up-and-up. 

Yet Sean, in his naïveté, refuses to acknowledge that old Hugo would subtly stack the deck in his favor—and often not so subtly.

The 2002 and 2006 presidential elections, the 2005 legislative contests, and the 2009 referenda on constitutional amendments were all deemed “free and fair” by various international groups, including the Carter Center.  Yet each had widespread allegations of vote tampering, harassment of opponents, oppressive and biased media coverage, constitutional arm-twisting, and outright fraud.

The best example of this is the 2005 legislative election, in which seats for Chavez’ rubber stamp national assembly were contested.

After the 2002 elections, an attempted coup briefly deposed Chavez.  He quickly regained power and exerted even harsher pressure on opposition candidates than before.  Due to this more repressive climate, as well as tactics by the national election board to tamper with voting machines and disqualify candidates on trumped-up charges, the majority of the opposition boycotted the 2005 elections in protest.

The result was a “free and fair” election with just 25% turnout.  With the consent of a fraction of the Venezuelan people, with political opponents boycotting the proceedings, Chavez’s cronies gained 116 of the 167 seats in the legislature—enough to change the constitution at will.

Would we allow this in any other setting?  Would Duke automatically win a national championship if Kentucky forfeited in protest because of biased ACC officials?  Would the Red Sox simply be given a World Series ring because other teams refuse to play in a hopelessly biased Fenway Park? 

The election itself may have been conducted correctly—orderly lines, few machine mishaps, a transparent tabulation system.  Yet the circumstances behind that election show that many Venezuelans had no illusions that this system was either free or fair. 

But what about 2007, you may ask?  The 2007 referendum defeat that would have given Chavez unlimited terms of office and even more powers?  Let’s just say Hugo wasn’t going to overreach twice.

What few people realize is that Chavez got those term limits lifted, albeit quietly, in February 2009, in a referendum that many Venezuelans claim violated the very constitution Chavez forced down their throats ten years earlier. 

Yeah, Chavez really loves to play by the rules.  You have to admire a guy that is so hungry for power, he’s willing to break the same rigged rules he put in place before.

Lie # 3: Opponents of Chavez are content with oppression of the poor

Finally, Sean seems to think that Chavez is something of a zero-sum argument.  If you don’t support him, then you don’t support the poor, and you’re some kind of capitalist monster.  I would prefer not to be lumped with Ken Lay and Bernie Madoff, thank you.

Let’s be fair.  Something had to be done about the poverty in Venezuela, and numerous administrations since the 1920s have done little, if anything, to provide even a modicum of hope in their desperate lives.  Chavez, at least on paper, is an advocate for Venezuela’s underclass and counts on them as a base of support—one that has turned out in droves for him at the polls.

Now let’s see what he delivered.  There have been, I’ll admit, modest improvements in the quality of life of some poor Venezuelans: NOT all, but some.  Yet the cost of this “revolution” is disastrous.

Venezuela’s crime rate is at its highest point in its history.  The gap between rich and poor, rather than shrinking, is now wider than ever.  Nationalization measures have wrecked havoc in all major industries—even PDVSA, the state oil monopoly, which dared to defy Chavez a few years back with a threat of a strike.  2010 will be the second year in a row in which the Venezuelan economy has contracted.  Its once-vaunted infrastructure is crumbling to ruins, with rolling blackouts and abandoned roadways.  What little revenue exists is placed in pet projects, corrupt politicians, and ill-advised “relief” programs that the country cannot afford.

He’s been in power since 1998.  That’s twelve years.  We don’t give our presidents 100 days to fix things, and he’s been given three of our presidential terms.  Don’t you think the poor should be fed up with this?

Yet why don’t the poor rise up to throw out Chavez?  It’s probably because the opposition has their thumb up their butts, too.  The official opposition is a loose conglomeration of about a dozen parties, mostly the groups that used to run the show before 1998.  Not only is their opposition fractured, their message is one not even conservatives in the US want to hear: a return to the “good old days” of pre-1998. 

The one thing that Chavez did that should be acknowledged is to bring the plight of Venezuela’s poor into sharp focus.  Whoever succeeds him, whether they are from the left or right, must take their situation as part of the agenda, not shunt it aside as in generations past.

So Sean, you have every right to say what you say.  That’s the beauty of America.  It’s also something you can’t do at your buddy’s country.  Yet I also have the right to respond you your inane nonsence.

Therefore, my response to you is this: you may be right that Chavez is an advocate of the poor, but that does not mean their “liberation” comes at all costs. 

If you were dictator of the good ole’ U S of A, Sean, would you be willing to sacrifice our Constitution, our basic civil rights, our infrastructure, our financial base, our military preparedness, our popular culture, YOUR lavish lifestyle, the lifestyle of your friends, artistic and intellectual freedom, and our standing in the world—simply to make it look like you care for the little guy?

Are you willing to give up your mansions, press junkets, interviews, signing fees, bloated contracts, agents, managers and publicists for the poor and destitute?

I didn’t think so.

Class dismissed, Mr. Spicoli.

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