November 2011


Thanksgiving has been… well… it’s over. It was nice, but once again, the break flew past without pausing long enough for us to really appreciate it. I wanted to take time to talk to my 1st grader about what Thanksgiving is – and what it isn’t. Instead, she opted to watch Big Cat Diary on Netflix, and ultimately I’m just happy that she took the time to read a book or two.

Friday the 18th was her last day before the break. I picked her up and asked how her day was. She was really excited, because they got to watch a movie in class – Pocahontas. Disney. At least it was thematically appropriate, but I am still cringing that her big takeaway about Thanksgiving ended up being Disney’s take on Pocahontas. I’m sure they talked about other things – her spelling words were Thanksgiving related – but she didn’t mention any of that. Just… Pocahontas.

This is a big thing for me. My interest in Latin America started with Free Trade and the Zapatistas, but even before that was my burgeoning understanding that history and myth often tell us different stories. This is true in Latin America, and it informs my studies of the region. It is also true in the US, and Thanksgiving always reminds me of how disparate our myth of the founding of this nation can be from the history.

We all know (I hope?) that the European arrival to the New World brought about cultural tensions, displacement of people, wars, and dramatic changes in the way of life for all groups. We celebrate the positive aspects of that encounter during Thanksgiving, when the best of our nature is represented by our ability to come together and share the fruits of our labors. We gain much from emphasizing those positive tendencies, but we undermine ourselves when we ignore or hide the negative aspects. History proceeds by the accumulation of events, and our interpretation of those events, as we incorporate them into our personal and social narratives. We don’t unmake events by ignoring them when the consequences reverberate through society. Prevailing attitudes and biases do not shift unless and until they are brought into the open and investigated through all levels of society.

Generally, the idea of social or national memory is a bit fuzzy; how can we remember something we didn’t experience? But it is clear that we tell our children stories about our society, and the story of Thanksgiving is both integral and primary in our roster of national stories. We know, perhaps vaguely, that Washington chopped down a cherry tree, that “Honest Abe” didn’t lie, and so forth. But Thanksgiving remains a story of people who came together to sit down to a feast. I learned as a child that the American Indians helped the Pilgrims to have the food they needed, not only to celebrate the harvest, but to survive the coming winter – it was through this generosity that the Plymouth colony succeeded. This story feeds our perception that we are a “melting pot,” a nation in which disparate peoples come together and flourish, a nation that welcomes immigrants and the poor who would improve their lives through honest labor. We build on that narrative with Manifest Destiny, as the US pushed into the west with god-granted favor (all the while quietly continuing slavery and genocide).

Now that her school has opened the narrative with Pocahontas, what story do I tell my daughter? My first step was to caution her that Disney doesn’t teach history, or truth, but rather stories and tales. But what to replace it with, now that seed is planted? So much detail informs the story of the Americas, where does one begin? Even taking Thanksgiving as  a starting point: is this a story of religious persecution versus religious freedom (bearing in mind that my Quaker ancestors might have a unique perspective of the religious freedom in colonial New England); a story of the generosity and bounty that would shape an economic powerhouse; a story of American Indians who paid dearly over generations for their generosity; or perhaps a tie to ancient heritages celebrating the harvest? Knowing my daughter’s predilections, perhaps the story really does begin with Pocahontas – what we do know about the woman who came to be known as Pocahontas, how she became a part of our national identity, and how even that became a simple love story when Disney got a hold of it.

The economic crisis in Greece has been so much at the forefront of the news that I’m not even going to try to provide thorough links to examples. A couple interesting points come up in the conversation about Greece. On BBC’s World Have Your Say, host Ros Atkins asked whether people in the US found the conversation to be relevant to them. Professors Backhouse and Bateman wrote an opinion piece for the New York Times on the absence of the grand narrative analyses of economic systems.

For my own part, I have attempted to maintain an understanding of the grand economic theories as they are applied by governments and institutions. In that sense, my interest is primarily in the implementation and outcomes of these economic systems. To be sure, I do envision global economic relationships in a way that is heavily influenced by world systems theory and dependency theory, among other conceptualizations – the representation of power in economics is necessary to understand the nature of regional geopolitics. Hegemony also is a key concept for me. At the same time, current research in history repeatedly reminds us of the ways that people (and governments) work outside the bounds of the system (dominated by others) to achieve their own ends.

We are talking a lot about Greece, and it is clear that the fate Greece and of the Euro is intimately connected to the US. We saw that when the housing bubble collapsed, which seems to have kicked of the current economic instability in Europe – just saying. But overwhelmingly our focus is on the core / developed / industrialized nations. It is, I think, significant that the most core /developed / industrialized nations have all followed the same course in which finance has been understood as a leading high tech industry. Significantly, there is no tangible product that finance produces, so of course the most funktastic mathematics have prevailed – we have been measuring abstract success, not a tangible outcome. So it’s no surprise that some people cheated  employed creative arithmetic to achieve the appearance of success. Even for those with the most advantage, the development models don’t seem to be working.

This is the other side of the grand narrative coin – if someone develops a narrative that tries to explain the processes that brought us to a certain point, someone else will inevitably apply that explanation as a teleological template for bringing about the same result. This is certainly true of economic development theories, at least. Dialectics became a template for the evolution of capitalism, and at some point that notion conjoined with a methodological nationalism. Keynes laid the groundwork for theories of development that the US would promote throughout Latin America, in the wake of WWII and the Cold War, that were equally intertwined with ideas of western government and ideology. When these proved devastating – if not economically then certainly in light of the social catastrophes of the 1970s and 80s in Latin America – we moved on to a new set of economic ideas hinging on neoliberalism and free trade. Perhaps the biggest difference between these current economic constructs and those of the 20th century is that free trade has arguably hurt the US economy as much as anyone else’s. Free trade certainly perpetuates into the 21st century the resource extraction that has been the basis of the regional economic relationships since the 19th century, but it also incorporated the maquiladoras and mechanized industry into the bargain. Even as the global financial institutions seem to recognize the failings of early versions of their neoliberal mandates, they don’t seem to have identified an alternate trajectory. Perhaps this is the absence of an economic doctrine to which the two professors refer. After all, the IMF is apparently going to be the arbiter of Italy’s recovery – significant if only in that the IMF is not usually heavily involved in the developed economies. Yet it seems unlikely that the development of a new doctrine will profoundly change the way nations and institutions enjoin global economic relationships.

Any real grand narrative would then necessarily be an analysis of how different methods of development and economy merge at a global level, and how those relationships are formed and maintained. The US has many representatives in the global market, from individuals who participate in global institutions, to government representatives who forge trade agreements, to corporations and individuals who compete in the global market. Even as those actors shape the market, they are also shaped by it in a reciprocal relationship. Depending on unique situations within a nation or a locality, the effects of the same events in the global market can vary widely, with different economic and political outcomes. Certainly, political and economic outcomes are linked. In the 20th century, civil wars contested economic ideology and political representation. Today, criminal networks bloom where government is weak – and government is weak where local economies cannot support government infrastructure. In the rising economies, that blend of poor infrastructure and weak government combine with crime and corruption, and those problems – and their solutions – are distinct from those the more developed economies face, like credit and debt bubbles. While grand economic narratives can describe the relationship(s) between nations, it must also convey the way in which unique problems and barriers shape those relationships in a reciprocal relationship between individuals, communities, local governments, through national governments and institutions to the global market and its related institutions, as well as the relationship between the variations in economic and political forms.

When the Arab Spring took hold in the Middle East, some people made comparisons between the events in the Middle East and the situation in Latin America. Some of these comparisons considered whether Latin America is ripe for similar uprisings, while a few sketched out the similarities (and discrepancies) between the revolutions in the Middle East and the historical implosion of authoritarian regimes in Latin America in the 1980s and 1990s.

It’s surprisingly hard to point out a thorough list of dictatorships in Latin America. Part of the problem of pointing out dictators is the way in which they came to power, stayed in power, or retained partial power outside of formal office. The idea of an “authoritarian regime” is a bit more flexible because it is open to those governments who, as an example, may have come to power through fixed elections rather than a military coup, yet followed particular strategies in support of a state agenda, usually at the expense of some portion of the population. Another problem in gauging forms of governance include definitions of governance. What is a democracy, and what does democratic governance entail, exactly? Established democracies vary in their implementation of democratic practices, with parliamentary democracy that maintains a monarchy in Great Britain, representational democracy and pluralism in the US, incorporation of democratic socialism through much of Europe; in reality that most systems are a blend of many elements of liberal democracies. The election of government officials is a key component to democracy, but elections me be unfair, corrupt, rigged, etc. Indices of “freedom” and “democratic governancestruggle to accurately depict the nature of governance around the world, but even the most measured index cannot factor every bit of information into the analysis.

That said, there were numerous dictators and authoritarian regimes in place in Latin America through the second half of the 20th century, building on a long and complicated tradition of caudillismo. The most notorious of these were perhaps Argentina, Chile, Guatemala, and Nicaragua. Only in the last few days has Brazil begun a truth and reconciliation commission and Uruguay removed a military amnesty. This is but one way in which the repercussions of these regimes are still pronounced in Latin America.

The widespread repression in Latin America had distinct roots in different places. Yet there were similar tensions throughout the region, notably the sense that communism was a pressing geopolitical issue that was undermining the core traditions in the Latin American republics. Not only did the national governments and militaries present this rhetoric as a key motivation for their actions, so too did the US articulate that concern as a basis for its actions in the region – from the overthrow of democratically elected leaders in Guatemala and Chile, to support and training for brutally repressive dictators. Similarly, when these regimes yielded to democratic pressures, there was a cogent regional sense that the threat of communism was less pressing – and the regimes collapsed within about a decade of the collapse of the USSR. There are a lot of correlations there that are not causes, but it is clear that regional perceptions and goals shifted, along with US support and demands.

The region has gone through a profound transition, yet it is still an incomplete transition. The implications of caudillismo predated the 20th Century, and they have outlasted the regimes of that era as well. It’s worth noting that as recently as 2009, the Honduras military removed a democratically elected president at the behest of the National Congress. The openness and fairness of elections is still questionable in many countries. Significantly, the institutions like the police and military that carried out authoritarian rule remain intact through much of Latin America, along with some officials, which can make democratic transitions more difficult and tenuous. Generally speaking, much of Latin America today experiences a blend of democratic and authoritarian governance, where elections occur but with glitches or limitations, where civil society is more open but not fully so, where the military tends to stay removed from politics but only because they have no need to intervene, and so forth.

My first response to the role of the military in Egypt’s revolution was of dismay; unfamiliar with the traditional role of the Egyptian military, I did not expect a smooth transition from military governance. Initially, the Egyptian military gave indications that it was committed to a transition to civil governance, yet in recent days there are murmurs that the Egyptian military may be reluctant to yield power after all.

This is where I think the lessons from Latin America are most relevant to the Middle East – as an example of the successes and pitfalls of democratic transitions. The democratic transitions in Latin America tended not to be the result of revolutions as in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya, which may be why the institutions of the authoritarian regimes remained. Especially in the case of Egypt, but also in other cases where key figures defected to the opposition, some portion of the old regime are likely to remain in the new governments. The military is likely the most significant of these, and in Egypt the military is linked with the economy and development. (I heard this during the revolution that removed Mubarak, and a brief search pulled up this article that seems to support that claim, although it’s a bit outdated.)

The question becomes, then, is it possible to restructure a countries institutions so that they do not perpetuate a way of doing business that is rooted in authoritarian practices? Are there people who are able to fill the jobs of government who are both qualified and unaffiliated with the previous regime? What do you do with the members of the old regime, and is there a role for them in the new government? Iraq’s current government tried to restructure with these questions in mind, but the government seems in key ways to be unsuccessful in creating meaningful institutions in a wartime environment. Hopefully the experience of hard-won revolution will overcome some of those barriers, but only if the institutions are rooted in newly empowered civil societies.