Friday, March 22, 2019

US- China games in the Inter American Development Bank

In 2008, US tried to block the entry of China in Inter American Development Bank and blackballed for over a year. But China succeeded in forcing its way by rallying the Latin Americans behind and became member in 2009. This was mainly due to Lula, Cristina, Chavez and other leftist presidents who had swept to power in the region in the first decade of this century and defied US successfully many times.
China has started using the IADB funds for its project contracts in the region over and above its own direct investment and credit.

Last year, when the Chinese requested the Bank to to hold its 2019 annual meeting in Chengdu, US tried again its best to stop this. The Chinese won this round too and the meeting is to be held next week. This was possible because the Latinos realised that China has given 150 billion dollars of credit to Latin America in the last decade. This is more than the combined credit of IADB, World bank and US Eximbank together.
Earlier this month, the US had forced the Bank to recognise the so-called Guaido's presidency. Guaido does not have a government, central bank or finance ministry. Recognition of his presidency is not legal according to the charter of the Bank. But US bullied and broke the rule and got the bank to recognise Guaido.
Now the US is trying to sabotage the meeting in China by insisting that the Guaido presidency should be represented in the meeting and not the Maduro government. Logical..since Guaido has got the Bank recognition.
But China has given over 50 bilion dollars of credit to Maduro's regime and need to protect its interests.
This time there is no Lula or Chavez who could stand upto US and support China.
Will China lose this round? China is trying a smart argument that the Bank meeting should not be politicised. They propose that neither Maduro nor Guaido should be invited. But Bolsonaro is more anti-Maduro than Trump and does not mind even military intervention of US. He even made an unprecedented visit to CIA heaquarters during his visit to US last week.
Finally, the US- China match in InterAmerican development bank has ended in a 1-1 draw. US scored one goal cancelling the China meeting. China scored by rejecting Guaido representation. on.. to the next round...

Venezuela beats Messi's Argentine team by 3-1.. Bravo... something to celebrate ..amidst the Venezulean misery and chaos for my pobrecitos amigos Venezuelanos..

Monday, February 04, 2019

Can the new President be a Salvador (saviour) of El Salvador ?

Nayib Bukele has won the presidential elections held last Sunday in El Salvador. Bukele is the first outsider who does not belong to either of the established ARENA (right wing) or FMLN ( left wing) parties which dominated the politics of the country in the last two decades. He got around 54% of the votes which was more than the combined total percentage of the votes obtained by the candidates of the two main parties.  The ARENA candidate got 32% while the ruling party FMLN’s got only 14%. With his impressive victory of getting more than fifty percent of votes, Bukele has avoided a second round of elections. He was the candidate of an alliance of smaller parties called as GANA. 

The young ( 37 years old) Bukele has earned his reputation as an able and visionary administrator as the mayor of the capital city San Salvador from 2015 to 2018. He is a social media star who used tools such as Twitter and Facebook effectively reaching out to millions of voters directly. He announced his candidature and manifesto through Facebook Live. This  had appealed to the young generation disillusioned with the traditional parties. Supremely confident of the social media strength, he refused to participate in the traditional debate with the other presidential candidates. Nor did he hold any press conferences. 

Bukele has kept away from the ideological polarisation of the country and promises to govern pragmatically. The voters liked his quote, I don’t talk about left or right anymore, this is outdated in the modern era.” Although his alliance includes right wing elements, he had started off his political career as member of the left wing FMLN party, which expelled him when he questioned the party’s leadership. Bukele is of Palestine origin.

El Salvador, the smallest country (in area) in Central America with 6.5 million people, has huge problems. The main issue is the ongoing gang violence and crime. The country has become notorious with one of the highest murder rates in the world. Mara Salvatrucha, popularly known as MS-13 and the Barrio 18 (18thstreet gang) are the two dominant gangs which hold the country to ransom with killings, crimes and drug trafficking. The rivalry between these two became so violent at one stage in 2012, the government intervened and brokered a ceasefire between MS 13 and the Barrio 18. In order to bring the two sides to the negotiating table, the government relaxed conditions in the prisons in which the members of the two gangs were held. Following this peace deal, the murder rate had dropped immediately. But this truce broke down in 2014 and crime has gone up again.

The origin of these two gangs is Los Angeles.  During the civil war in Central America in the eighties, several hundred thousands had fled to US to escape the violence. The US had destabilised El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras during the cold war and Contra War and had subverted democracy by supporting right wing military dictatorship. The Americans had armed and trained right wing militias which killed thousands of people including the famous Archbishop Romero in 1980.  Many of those who wanted to escape the civil war went to Los Angeles. In the nineties, the US authorities cracked down on the gangs and deported thousands of the gang members to El Salvador. But many of the deported, who were born or brought up in US, found it difficult to adjust in Central America and continued with their LA gang culture. They regrouped themselves locally with guns smuggled from US and scaled up their crimes, taking advantage of the weak law enforcement and justice system of El Salvador. The gangs have evolved a culture of tattoos, brutal rites of initiation, extortion and crime. 

The Salvadoreans are again fleeing to escape the violence of the gang wars. This is the reason for the caravans trying to enter US for seeking asylum.The US which is responsible for the violence has a moral duty to accept the victims of their destructive policies and guns. In this context it is worth noting that the remittances of Salvadoreans in US is a major source of foreign exchange for the country.

The second major problem of El Salvador is the rampant corruption. Some of the previous presidents of the country have been accused and convicted of massive corruption. Bukele’s campaign slogan was,“There’s enough money when no one steals.” He has promised to establish an international anti-corruption agency, as it was done in Guatemala.  

Of course, the most fundamental problem is poverty. The country needs poverty alleviation and job creation programmes. 

The Salvadoreans are praying that Bukele turn out to be the saviour of the country which needs rescue from its acute problems and suffering. 

India’s exports to El Salvador were 70 million dollars in 2017-18. There is scope to increase the exports to 200 million if Indian companies explore the opportunities seriously. El Salvador has established an embassy in New Delhi and is seeking Indian investment and development assistance.

While the two biggest democracies of the Americas chose to elect crazy, polarising and right wing extremists Trump and Bolsonaro and that too after so much controversies and hoopla, the little El Salvador has elected a young, sensible, balanced and pragmatic outsider Nayib Bukele as President. The clean election and the decisive victory of an outsider and social media star is a sign of the growing maturity of the young democracy of El Salvador and is an inspiration for the hemisphere.

Saturday, January 19, 2019

Creation of poverty out of prosperity: the magical realism of Venezuela

Nicolas Maduro started his second term for six years as President of Venezuela on 10 January. But the political drama of his rigged re-election, the economic collapse of the country and the traumatisation of the society resemble the story of “one hundred years of solitude” by the Colombian Nobel prize winner Gabriel Garcia Marquez. The Venezuelan reality is even more bizarre than the magical fiction of Marquez in which the people of Macondo are cursed to suffer one disaster after another. Creation of poverty in Venezuela which was the richest Latin American country in the recent past, is pure Magical Realism.

Venezuela has the largest oil reserves in the world, more than that of Saudi Arabia. Besides oil, the country is blessed with minerals, hydroelectric potential, arable land, pleasant climate, beautiful beaches and many Miss World and Universe titles. In the sixties, the per capita GDP of Venezuela was many times bigger than that of Brazil and Colombia. Caracas was only destination for Concorde flights in Latin America. The Venezuelan middle class people used to go to Miami for shopping during weekend. The country had a vibrant democracy while many countries in Latin America went under military dictatorship during the cold war. 

But today, Latin America has progressed and moved on to the twenty first century with a new paradigm of democratic maturity and economic growth. But Venezuela has gone backwards with a toxic combination of authoritarianism, political chaos, economic disaster, hyperinflation, shortage of food and medicine, rampant crime and corruption.  The Chavistas have given a bad name to socialism which had seen resurgence in the region in the last two decades.

The GDP of Venezuela has contracted consecutively for the last five years to over fifty percent. It is forecast to shrink by another ten percent in 2019. The country has the highest inflation in the world running into six digits. The government has stopped publishing inflation and other economic statistics. Since most of the domestic manufacturing industry and agriculture have been destroyed, the country has become desperately dependent on imports. But there is severe shortage of foreign exchange reserves which are inadequate to cover even essential imports. The Venezuelan currency Bolivar has lost 99.9% of its value and has become worthless. The government keeps changing currencies and exchange rates, which has given rise to huge black market for dollars and goods, run by those with Chavista connections. 

Poor people scavenge for food in the rubbish bins. Soviet-Cuban style queues are common in front of super markets and shops which are often empty and running short of medicines,food and essential items such as toilet paper and soap. There are frequent power cuts and shortage of water. Most international airlines have stopped flights to Venezuela due to payment issues.

Crime and violence is rampant in Caracas which has one of the highest murder rates in the region. The city has become unsafe even for diplomats who need to use bullet proof cars. The happy-go-lucky party-loving people of Caracas have stopped going out in the night.   

According to UNHCR, three million Venezuelans (ten percent of the total population) have fled to other countries to escape the poverty, misery and persecution. This has become the biggest migration and humanitarian crisis in the history of Latin America. This is disgraceful, given the fact that over a million South Americans used to work in Venezuela which offered better prospects than their countries. 

The country’s oil production has come down from 3 million barrels per day to 1.5 mbpd due to mismanagement and lack of investment. PDVSA, the state oil company, which had the best oil experts and managers in the region, is run these days by unprofessional Chavistas. Neither the company nor the government  publish figures of oil exports and revenue which are kept as secrets. A significant part of oil is sent to China as barter payment for the 50 billion dollar plus debt.

The people of Venezuela, subjected to the worst suffering, are seething with frustration and outrage. Chavez himself was a product of such a public anger against the two establishment political parties which plundered the country and got the country into a mess in the nineties. Hugo Chavez asked, “ Venezuela is a rich country. Why are you people poor?”. The masses voted for him overwhelmingly in 1998 and the two traditional parties were completely discredited and decimated. Chavez started off as a real revolutionary who wanted to uplift the poor with sincere commitment. But later his agenda got totally lost in hubris and anger against the opposition which overthrew him (for 48 hours) in the 2002 coup. Chavez went on a ruthless revenge against the political and business oligarchs as well as the middle class with a series of destructive measures such as currency, import and price controls and systematic dismantling of checks and balances of democratic instituitions. He squandered the windfall oil profits in wasteful and fancy projects.

Maduro’s re-election in May 2018 has been called as illegitimate and  has not been recognised by the Venezuelan opposition parties. The Maduro government had banned opposition parties and imprisoned or exiled many leaders preventing participation in the elections on trumped up charges. The snap election itself was called prematurely by an illegal Constituent Assembly which usurped the powers of the legitimate Congress in which the opposition has the majority. If a proper election is held, the opposition would come to power undoubtedly as they won in the Congressional elections in 2015.

The Venezuelan opposition, which used to organise vigorous protests in the past has now run out of steam and is divided. They tried dialogue with the government through the mediation of Vatican. This too failed. People fear coming out for protests after violent crackdown in which over one hundred protestors were killed in police shootings in 2017.
Clearly, the country is crying out for liberation from the hopeless mess. There is no possibility of economic recovery or correction of political course under President Maduro who is simply incompetent and impotent. His rivals are waiting to stab him in the back at the first opportunity. He has ensured the support of the military by giving them control of lucrative businesses such as food distribution and the petroleum sector. The Chavistas and their military collaborators plunder the country with impunity and in a hurry since they do not know how long the regime would last.
Chavez, a long time admirer of Fidel Castro sought the “merger of the two revolutions. He nominated Maduro as successor from his deathbed in Havana, on the advice of the Castros. The Cubans have been helping the Chavista regimes with intelligence through their advisors in Venezuela. They guide Maduro how to survive American conspiracies and sanctions, based on their long experience. The thousands of Cuban doctors who work in the slums and rural areas of Venezuela are the eyes and ears of the Chavista government. In return, Cuba gets Venezuelan oil on generous terms. 

Venezuela has become like a Cuba with shortage of essential items, long queues and citizen controls. But there is a big difference. The Cuban people, although denied freedom, do not go hungry. They have the best healthcare and education. They are optimistic that life could become only better in the future. The Cubans have a joke, ‘It is only the first hundred years of the revolution which are difficult, before the socialist paradise’. But the Venezuelans suffering under the Chavista regime for the last twenty years are wondering if they are in for “One Hundred years of Suffering”.  

The twelve Latin American countries of the Lima Group (including Brazil, Argentina and Colombia) as well as the European Union, Canada and USA have  condemned the rigged re-election of Maduro and refused recognition. They have threatened sanctions and restrictions to further isolate Venezuela which has already been suspended from Mercosur. But Venezuela receives some limited support from China, Russia and Turkey as well as from Bolivia, Nicaragua, El Salvador and Mexico in Latin America.

The Maduro regime would collapse if the US imposes oil sanctions against Venezuela, as it did in the case of Iran. US, the largest importer of Venezuelan oil, can afford to forego since it has become much less dependent on imported oil thanks to the shale revolution which has made US as the largest oil producer in the world again. Although the US has imposed some cosmetic sanctions against Venezuelan bonds and leaders, the Administration does not want to cause losses to the few American refineries which use exclusively Venezuelan crude. In any case, the US is not in a hurry to stop the bleeding of Venezuela since it is enjoying the spectacle of the Venezuelan misery as a scarecrow deterring the spread of socialism in the region. Along with Venezuela, Ortega’s authoritarianism in Nicaragua and the traditional bogey of Cuba have given a new agenda to fight against the “ Troika of Tyranny and Triangle of Terror” for the neo-cold war warrior National Security Advisor John Bolton who is eager to repeat interventions in the ‘backyard’ since the days of the Monroe Doctrine.

India is the second largest importer of Venezuelan oil, importing around 350,000 barrels per day annually. In 2017-18 imports were 5.85 billion dollars. In the first six months of 2018-19 (April-October), the imports increased to 4.6 billion dollars due to the rise in oil prices. These imports are part of the strategic energy policy of India to reduce overdependence on the Middle East and to diversify sources of imports. ONGC Videsh Ltd (OVL) has invested over a billion dollars in the Venezuelan oil fields. Although India’s exports are not high, there is potential for growth. With these interests, India does not comment on Venezuelan domestic affairs and maintains relations with the government in power pragmatically.

Saturday, January 12, 2019

Bolsonaro, Bible and Bullet

When the Argentine cardinal Francis was elected as Pope, the Brazilian president Dilma Rouseff was asked for her reaction by an Argentine journalist. She said ” The Pope might be Argentine but the God is Brazilian”. God seems to have sent his messenger in the form of Jair Messias Bolsonaro who has taken over as President of Brazil on 1 January.  The middle name Messias means Messiah. Bolsonaro has promised to take the country to “Jewish-Christian tradition” and place “God above all”. Bolsonaro, the ex-army captain is a firm believer in the power of bullet besides that of bible. 

As part of his victory celebrations, Bolsonaro attended a worship service conducted by the celebrity evangelical pastor Silas Malafia who declared, “ God will change the fortune of Brazilians. Brazil belongs to Lord Jesus”. 

Ernesto Araujo, the new foreign minister, seems to be even more close to God than his boss. In an article published after his nomination, he says, “ My detractors have called me crazy for believing in God and for believing that God acts in history—but I don’t care. God is back and the nation is back: a nation with God; God through the nation”. He has ended the article saying, “Tony Blair’s spokesman Alastair Campbell famously said of Britain: “We don’t do God.” Well, in Brazil, now we do”.In his personal blog “Metapolitica 17 contra globalismo” (újo states his goal is to “help Brazil and the world liberate themselves from globalist ideology”, which he sees as anti-Christianand anti-human beings. He claims that the ultimate aim of globalization is to break the link between God and man. He quotes Biblical texts extensively to support his divine views including about Brazil’s place in the Western world in international affairs. Araujo believes that theophobia is a bigger problem than xenophobia.

These words of Bolsonaro and Araujo from the country which has the world’s largest catholic population, should be music to the ears of Pope. Not exactly. On the contrary, he should be worried. The number of catholics keeps going down in Brazil and is less than 70 % of the population. More and more people are drawn to evangelical sects attracted by the Prosperity Theology. In return for the divine help, the followers are made to contribute (tithe) a part of their income to the Industry of Faith of the pastors some of whom have become multimillionaires. The charismatic and pop-star like evangelical pastors of Brazil have converted more than twenty five percent of the Catholics to various evangelical sects which have become rich and powerful. Edir Macedo is the richest pastor with a wealth of more than a billion dollars and private jet costing 45 million dollars. His Universal Church of the Kingdom of God has over five million members and 13,000 temples across Brazil, as well as presence in several other countries, including the United States. This church owns the second-largest TV station in Brazil, Rede Record, as well as newspapers and radio stations across 27 states.Macedo has been accused of money laundering and other illegal activities for which he spent a few days in jail. The Evangelicals use the entertainment industry to spread their message across Brazil. There are 128 Evangelical record labelsandmore than 600 radio stations dedicated exclusively to gospel programming.

These evangelical churches are politically active and advise their members to vote for evangelical candidates and sympathisers with the slogan “Brother votes for Brother”. The Biblical caucus in the Congress is proactive on issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage. Bolsonaro himself has said that he would prefer a dead son over a gay one.

Bolsonaro calls himself catholic while his wife and son are Baptists. In May2016, Bolsonaro was baptizedin the Jordan River by Pastor Everaldo, a prominent leader of the Assembly of God. Bolsonaro came back from the trip full of praise for Israel’s military prowess andachievements.

Bolsonaro reaffirmed in his inaugural speech, “ Good citizens deserve the means to defend themselves through gun ownership”. His supporters in the Congress greeted him by pointing their fingers in the shape of a gun. 

He has inducted seven ex-military officers in his 22-member cabinet, besides choosing a General as his Vice President. He has plans to strengthen the armed forces. Never mind, the country does not face any external threat. Brazil, which has borders with ten South American countries, has no territorial disputes and has never faced any aggression from neighbours.  The only enemy the Brazilian armed forces has fought and killed in the modern history is its own people during the military dictatorships. The Brazilian armed forces got away with its crimes with impunity under the amnesty law unlike some other South American countries which had brought the killer Colonels to justice. Bolsonaro is proud of the criminal military dictatorship and his only complaint is that not enough were killed. He wants to give extra powers to the police to shoot and kill. His son Carlos, who is his social media manager, circulates video clips praising police shootings. Bolsonaro was part of the Bullet Caucus in the Congress which lobbied for easy access to guns, tough policies against crimes and privatisation of prisons. The members of the Bullet Caucus are mostlyformer police and military officials, many of whom have received major campaign contributions from Brazilian handgun manufacturing giant Taurus and the Brazilian Cartridge Company, the nation’s largest ammunition manufacturer. Not surprisingly, the share price of Taurus has almost doubled after the election of Bolsonaro.The Bullet Caucus successfully prevented a bill in 2006 to ban the civilian purchase of hand guns. The Brazilian lobby benefitted from the support of the National Rifle Association of US.

Araujo believes that climate change is  part of a plot by “cultural Marxists” to stifle western economies and promote the growth of China. He claims that climate science is merely  a dogma which has been used to justify increasing the regulatory power of states over the economy and the power of international institutions on the nation states and their populationsJust like Bolsonaro, Araujo is a fervent admirer of U.S. President Donald Trump, whom he believes can “save the West.”
The God and Gun rule of Bolsonaro is a reminder of how the Portuguese and Spanish conquered and colonised Latin America with “the Sword and the Cross”. The colonisers exterminated millions of indigenous people, destroyed their faiths and converted most of them. Bolsonaro, has launched an assault on environmental and Amazon protections with an executive order transferring the regulation and creation of new indigenous reserves to the agriculture ministry – which is controlled by the powerful Bible, Beef and Bullet caucus (known as Bancada BBB) in the Congress. This caucus consists of evangelicals, rich landlords, cattle and meat industry representativesas well as ex-police and armed forces members.The move sparked outcry from indigenous leaders, who said it threatened their reserves, Previously, demarcation of reserves was controlled by the indigenous agency Funai, which has been moved from the justice ministry to a new ministry of women, family and human rights controlled by an evangelical pastor. The new health minister, Luiz Henrique Mandetta, has called for spending cuts on healthcare for indigenous people.
Bolsonaro, in his inaugural speech, has vowed to liberate Brazil from socialism and political correctness. His anti-affirmative action and racist views are a set back for the large poor and marginalised black population of over 80 million out of the total of 210 million. Under the pro-poor socialistpolicies of President Lula,nearly forty million were pulled out from below poverty line into middle class. Bolsonaro is against giving hand outs and says it make them lazy. 

Bolsonaro has dismantled the Labor Ministry and distributed its functions three other ministries of justice and public security, economy and citizenship. Brazil, which has one of the highest disparities in wealth distribution in the world, is likely to increase the gap between the rich and poor under the neoliberalistic Finance Minister Paulo Guedes and his Chicago Boys who are at the helm of economic and financial policies.

Bolsonaro has been given a clear mandate by the Brazilians who desperately sought a change from the hubris and corruption of the politicians of Workers Party as well as all the other establishment parties.  The economy, which was in recession in the last two years, is already recovering and the business sector is bullish. God has blessed Brazil with plenty of natural and mineral resources, conducive climate, fertile land and beautiful beaches. The country has a large population of which a good proportion is young and vibrant. The happy -go- lucky and football -and -beach loving Brazilians are now looking upwards to the iconic statue of Christ the Redeemer in Rio de Janeiro  and are preparing for the Rule of God and the Gun..

An edited version of the article was published by the magazine The Week on 10 January

Thursday, January 03, 2019

Roma - the Mexican film

Roma, the latest film of the Mexican director Alfonso Cuaron (it can be seen in India in Netflix) has earned rave reviews and is an Oscar contender. It stands out as an unusual film defying the common genres. It is the story of Cleo, the live-in maid from the Mexican indigenous community Mixtec serving a wealthy white family. She toils from early morning till late nightpreparing food, cleaning floors,washing dishes and ironing clothes. She looks after the four kids in the house with motherly affection. She talks very little, contains her emotions and works silently. She does not rebel nor does she protest when the world is unfair to her. The shy and naïve Cleo has no big expectations or ambitions or even dreams. She accepts the life of domestic help as fixed for her in the social hierarchy. During her day off, she goes out with her boyfriend. But he runs away when she becomes pregnant. She loses the child but takes it in stoically and fatalistically. She never wavers from her devotion and loyalty to the family, which treats her with kindness.

Sofia, the lady of the house in which Cleo works, also undergoes suffering caused by her unfaithful husband who runs away with a lover. She confesses to Cleo, “ No matter what they tell you, we the women, are always alone”. 

The story is set in the upscale neighbourhood of Colonia Roma in Mexico city and the Mexico of seventies which had witnessed student protests with fatal consequences.

The film is a plain but intense portrayal of everyday life of the maid. It is like a documentary without big drama, suspense or mystery. No digression with sub plots. No narco trafficking gangster violence. No Latin American magical realism. No Argentine psychological complexity. But the film packs powerful emotions and poignant moments in subtle and discreet ways. It has elaborate and vivid details of physical work of the maid and the mental turmoil in the family.

The film is a masterpiece of Alfonso Cuaron who has based the story on his own childhood memories. He says it is very personal to him and at the same time it is about the family, the city, the country and about humanity. 

Roma is a tribute to the maid Libo Rodriguezwho used to work in Cuaron’s house like Cleo in the film. He has, in fact, dedicated the film to her. He searched for almost a year for the right person to act as Cleo and found YalitzaAparacio, a twenty four year old primary school teacher who lived in a one room flat with her family in rural Mexico. She had no professional acting experience. But she has fit the character perfectly and has left a lasting impression with her spontaneous acting and natural demeanour. Her mother is still working as a domestic workerHer father left home when she was in her teens and her two youngest siblings were still toddlers, leaving her mother to bring up four children.
The movie is in black and white. The actors are non-professionals. The dialogues are in Spanish except when the two maids talk in their indigenous Mixtec language.  

Cuaron is the first Mexican and Latin American to win Oscar award for the best director in 2013 for the Hollywood film “Gravity”. His other Mexican film “ Y tu mama tambien” was a hit commercially and a cultural shocker. He has done a Harry Potter film too.

After Cuaron, two other Mexican film directors Alejandro González Iñárritu ( won twice in 2014 and 2015) and Guillermo del Toro (2017) have won Oscar awards. These “three amigos” have raised the profile of Mexican film industry which is in resurgence these days.

The success of Roma has now made Aparicio famous. She appeared in the cover of the Vogue magazine (December edition) wearinga Gucci dress,next to the title “In tiu’n ntav’i” – “A star is born” – in the indigenous Mixtec language. 

In a video released by Vogue, Aparicio said: “Certain stereotypes are being broken: that only people with a certain profile can be actresses or be on the cover of magazines.Other faces of Mexico are now being recognized. It is something that makes me happy and proud of my roots.”
This is the first time that an indigenous woman has become the heroine of a Mexican hit film and appeared in the cover page of a fashion magazine. Naturally there is jubilation and celebration in the Mexican indigenous community and especially among their women. Although indigenous Mexicanscomprise twenty percentof the population,theyare marginalized from public life and politics, and many live in poverty.This is true of most of the forty million indigenous people in Latin America spread out from Mexico to Chile. For the first time, an indigenous leader Evo Morales was elected as President in Bolivia in 2006. Inspired by his example, Rigoberta Mengchu stood in the presidential elections of Guatemala but did not make it. 
Cuaron’s bold art movie celebrating the indigenous community has found its match in the revolutionary spirit of the new Leftist Mexican president Lopez Obrador who has got the film screened for the public for free in Los Pinos, the presidential palace on 13 december. He got the culture ministry to supply popcorn and soft drinks to the audience. Obrador has refused to move into the luxurious presidential mansion and has converted it into a museum for public to visit. He continues to live in his own modest residence. He has put the presidential plane on sale and travels by economy class in commercial flights. Hehas promised to give priority to emancipation of indigenous people, as part of his grand plan for the transformation of the country. He gained national exposure as an advocate for the rights of indigenous people when in 1996 he appeared on national TV drenched in blood following confrontations with the police for blocking oil wells to defend the rights of local indigenous people impacted by pollution.On 16 December, President Obrador attended an indigenous ceremony seeking the blessing of Mother Earth for the Maya tourist train project.

Roma, the film about the native Indian maid, ends with a message from the real Indiawith the words “Shantih shantih shantih”. 

Saturday, November 17, 2018

Brazil, the “country of the future” is back to its past

Brazil is a country of the future..and always will be so. This used to be the teasing comment of critics who had watched the country which had promised with booms many times but followed with busts. Brazil, the largest country in Latin America and endowed with abundant natural and vibrant human resources, was closest to its Tryst with Destiny during the golden years of Lula’s Presidency in the period 2003-11. 

The election of Lula in 2002 was a historic moment for the young democracy, which had come out of the military dictatorship in the period 1964-85. The voters gave chance to Lula from a poor family and the Workers Party (PT). He had no educational qualifications nor any government or administrative experience. He was a Leftist who put workers and poor people on top of his socialist agenda. The right wing forces scared the voters saying that Lula would be a disaster for business and industry. During his campaign, Lula came across a school boy from a rich neighbourhood of Sao Paulo city who shouted “ vote for Lula”. The surprised Lula asked the boy the reason for the rich boy’s support to the pro-poor Lula. The boy replied,” My father told me that if you were elected, he would leave Brazil and move his business and family to Miami.  That’s why I pray and campaign for you to win so that I can go to Miami”. But Lula turned out to be a darling of business without compromising his pro-poor agenda. He transformed Brazil with his Brasilia Consensus model of a balanced mix of pro-poor and business-friendly policies. The Brasilia Consensus brought people from the Left and Right towards the centre, ending the traditional ideological polarisation of the society. He rescued the country out of the ‘Lost Decade’ caused by the neoliberalistic Washington Consensus and pulled out over forty million out of poverty. At the same time, Lula helped the Brazilian firms to flourish and pay more taxes which contributed to his welfare policies. He encouraged the Brazilian companies such as Petrobras, JBS and Odebrecht to become regional and global leaders with generous credit and proactive diplomatic support for their entry in other countries. Helped by the commodity boom, Brazil was becoming prosperous and optimistic. When Petrobras issued the world’s largest (at that time) IPO of 70 billion dollars in 2010, Lula crowed, “ This largest IPO was not issued in London or Frankfurt or New York. It was issued in our own Sao Paulo exchange”. When the Wall Street bankers unleashed a financial crisis on the world, not a single Brazilian bank or financial instituition collapsed. In fact, Brazil bounced back from the crisis with a 7.5 % GDP growth in 2010. Again, the irrepressible Lula blamed “ the blue eyed and blonde haired boys of the Wall Street” for causing the crisis with their unchecked greed. 

Lula became a role model for Latin America. Leaders like Mujica of Uruguay, Humala of Peru, Correa of Ecuador and Lugo of Paraguay promised to become the Lulas of their countries and the label had helped their election.

Lula gave leadership to Latin America with new initiatives for regional and subregional integration. He challenged the US hegemony of Monroe Doctrine and killed the US sponsored Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) in collaboration with other leftist leaders of Latin America. When the Honduran President Manuel Zelaya was overthrown in a US-supported coup in 2009, the Brazilian embassy gave asylum to Zelaya and tried to restore him to power.  Lula reached out beyond Latin America. He opened embassies in several countries in Africa and started  dialogue between Latin America and Arab countries. He partnered with India and South Africa in IBSA and joined the BRICS story. He got the Olympics and World Cup venues for Brazil. He sought permanent membership of UN Security Council. He tried even to mediate in the issue of US sanctions on Iran. This raised alarm bells in the Deep State which started plotting to stop the rise of Lula, Brazil and the Latin American Left.
It looked as though Brazil had finally put its act together and a New Brazil had arrived in the twenty first century. Lula finished his second term with the highest approval rating. He got his chosen successor Dilma Rouseff elected as President. But she committed a series of omissions and commissions by her lack of political skills and caused the destruction of Lula, PT and the country. The leaders of the Workers Party succumbed to hubris and got caught for corruption. The crooked members of the Congress impeached President Rouseff on a flimsy charge of budget fudging, a minor, harmless and insignificant act, committed my many governments around the world routinely. This Congressional coup was complemented by a Judicial Coup lead by Sergio Mora, a US-trained judge, who put Lula in jail and prevented him from contesting the elections. In the name of anti-corruption crusade, he had systematically used and misused the judicial system to put Lula in jail ( a disproportionate punishment for having accepted the gift of an apartment by a private company) and destroyed the image of PT. The other political leaders and parties became collateral damage of Moro’s crusade.  It should be noted here that the National Security Agency of US had electronically spied in the offices of President Rouseff and Petrobras, among others. When this came out in the papers leaked by Snowden, President Rouseff cancelled her official visit to the US.  Many Brazilians believe that the Deep State had shared their intelligence with their Brazilian counterpart and the two had worked together to bring down Lula and the Left. 

The constituitional and judicial coups had succeeded in instigating anger among the public which lead to protests (some spontaneous and others sponsored) in the streets and social media in the last three years. The voters wanted to punish PT as well as the other traditional political parties and leaders. In any case, PT deserved to be put on the bench and other parties and leaders needed to be given an opportunity to govern. It is at this opportune time that the ultra rightist and anti-democractic Bolsonaro stepped into the void and harvested the voters’ disillusionment and despair.

Bolsonaro, an ex-army captain, has been a long time fringe congressman who glorified the past military dictatorship and celebrated its abductions, torture and killings of civilians. According to him the military dictatorship did not kill enough people. He has favoured dictatorship and praised Pinochet. He has said,” We are going to have a cleansing..and wipe these red thieves (workers party and other socialists and communists).. Either they leave the country or they go to jail”. Hamilton Mourao, his Vice President-elect and a retired General, has also been talking of a coup if circumstances warranted it. One of his politician sons made a statement threatening that the supreme court could be closed just with a soldier and a corporal. Bolsonaro proposes to fill the cabinet and top administrative posts with Generals. Even if he does not become a dictator, the very election of Bolsonaro with his anti-democratic and pro-dictatorship discourse is a stain on the young Brazilian democracy. 

Not surprisingly, Moro has been rewarded with a ministerial post by President Bolsonaro. Moro described Bolsonaro as a “prudent, sensible and moderate person”, while the world  sees Bolsonaro as an extremist bigot. Now Moro will continue his anti-Lula and anti-PT work officially to ensure that Lula does not come out of jail.

Bolonaro will bring back Washington Consensus to replace the indigenous Brasilia Consensus. His nomination of a Paulo Guedes, an economist trained in the Chicago University confirms the direction of neoliberalism. It may be noted here that the Chilean dictator Pinochet was also guided by the Chicago Boys. The Bolsonaro administration will reverse the resource nationalism of Lula and privatise public sector companies. The pro-poor policies initiated by Lula would suffer budget cuts. Bolsonaro’s solution for poverty is ‘birth control of the poor’.

Bolsonaro favours loosening of the gun laws based on his view that every honest citizen should be able to own a gun. He will give the law enforcement more powers to kill drug traffickers and criminals extrajudicially. He proposes to relax environment regulations to open up the Amazon forest for farming and mining. He has talked about pulling out of the Paris Agreement on climate change. Under his administration, the protection for indigenous people and minorities will be reduced. He is likely to implement the agenda of the evangelicals (who gave him solid support) on issues such as abortion and gays. His racist comments has inspired a Sao Paulo student who celebrated Bolsonaro victory with posting of a video (which went viral) saying that he will grab a knife or gun to shoot the reds ( Workers Party) and blacks. It should be noted here that Brazil has the largest black population outside Africa. The blacks while excelling in football and music, have the least representation in politics and business and account for most of the poor in Brazil. 

Bolsonaro’s three sons who are also into politics (with one in the Senate, another in the Lower House and the third as advisor) have already started making Bolsonaro policies like a family business just as Trump’s family does.

With his anachronistic and hate-filled agenda, Bolsonaro is set to turn the New Brazil into the Old Brazil. He will reverse the twenty first century Brazil back to the bad old country of polarisation of the last century. Women, blacks, gays and Leftists will become second class citizens and subject to military style rightist rule.

Lula had moved Brazil towards the centre by his moderate and pragmatic Leftist programmes combined with business friendly policies. But now Bolsonaro will polarise the country with his intolerant policies towards the Left and minorities.

Fortunately, Bolsonaro’s party does not have a congressional majority. His party has just 52 seats out of the total of 513 in the lower house of Congress and just 4 out of the total of 81 in the Senate. This means he needs the support of other parties to carry out any major reforms. The Congress is even more fragmented this time with representatives from 30 political parties. 

Bolsonaro, described as the Tropical Trump, admires and imitates Tumpian methods and abusive and vulgar language. In fact, the Brazilian election is a replica of the US election. The American voters had earlier created history by electing Obama but afterwards gave an anti-climax in the form of Trump. Similiarly, the Brazilian voters who showed maturity in electing Lula earlier have now gone to the other extreme by choosing Bolsonaro.

Bolsonaros’ foreign policy will move to the hard right in stark contrast to PT’s solidarity with the developing world and resistance to US hegemony.  With his Trumpian imitation “ Brazil first” Bolsonaro has ridiculed the UN as a the gathering place of Communists and threatened to pull out from UN. Like Trump, he has called for withdrawal from and minismise multilateral and global commitments and dialogues preferring bilateral deals.

Ernesto Araujo, a career diplomat nominated as the new foreign minister of Brazil, is an admirer of Trump whom he describes as one who is restoring western values. He believes climate change is part of a plot by cultural Marxists to stifle western economies and promote the interests of China. Araujo is of the view that globalism is an anti-christian ideology.

Bolsonaro will align his foreign policy with that of US. He has already promised to shift the Brazilian embassy in Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and close down the Palestine office in Brasilia. He would happily support the US attempts to change the Chavista regime in Venezuela. It may be recalled that it was thanks to the support of Lula and Brazil that Chavez had survived the 2002 coup and continued in power till his death in 2013.

Bolsonaro will pull Brazil out of or undermine the regional alliances such as UNASUR and CELAC. His finance minister designate Paulo Guedes has stated that Mercosur (customs union of Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay) would not be a priority for Brazil.

Bolsonaro will pay the least attention to South-South Cooperation and to Asia, Africa and Middle East.  He has already snubbed Beijing by making a trip to Taiwan during his campaign. The Chinese have invested over sixty billion dollars in Brazilian oil fields, mines and utilities. They have extended credit of more than forty billion dollars. Bolsonaro has criticised the Chinese acquisition of Brazilian assets. China is the largest trading partner and market for exports of Brazil. In 2017, Brazilian exports to China were 47 billion dollars as against 27 billion to US. In 2018 (January-October), exports to china increased by 28% accounting for 26.7% of total Brazilian exports. Brazil has always had trade surplus with China and it was a solid 20 billion dollars in 2017 which has increased to 25 billion in the first ten months of 2018. In contrast, Brazil has trade deficit with USA, which does not need the Brazilian soy beans, corn, iron ore and sugar, the top exports of Brazil. Bolsonaro cannot afford a Trumpian trade war with China which can hurt the Brazil by cutting imports, as it had punished Argentina in 2008 by stopping soy oil imports. Bolsonaro cannot afford Trumpian style China-bashing. 

The election of Bolsonaro should not be read as the end of the Workers Party, whose candidate Haddad made it to the second round of the Presidential elections.  The PT candidate got 45% of the votes which is substantial, despite the corruption scandals and the short campaign time given to Haddad after the court rejection of Lula’s candidature. PT has the largest number of deputies (56) in the lower house of the Congress while the other traditional parties got a worse beating in the elections. If Lula was allowed to contest, he might have won since he was consistently leading in the opinion polls ahead of Bolsonaro.
Nor can the victory of Bolsonaro be construed as the end of the story for the Left which swept Latin America in a Pink Tide in the first decade of this century. Uruguay, Ecuador and Bolivia are doing well under leftist rule. Mexico has joined the ranks of the South American left with the historic election of Lopez Obrador in July. In Chile, the voters have become smart by choosing alternately the Leftist and rightist coalitions in the last four elections. The socialist alliance might be returned to power in the next election. With a large population of poor people and the highest income disparity, the Left will continue to be relevant for Latin America in the years to come.

Some commentators have hinted at the possibility of contagion of the region by Bolsonaro’s rightwing extremism . While US, Europe and Phillipines have radical rightist leaders and parties, there are no comparable movement or leader in Latin America other than Bolsonaro. The Presidents of Chile, Argentina and Colombia who are from the centre-right are cultured, moderate, pragmatic and respectful of opponents. 

India, which had cultivated Brazil as a strategic partner in the last two decades, should not have much expectation from Bolsonaro. This has not come as a sudden shock. Even before Bolsonaro, President Rouseff and President Temer had lowered Brazil’s international profile due to their domestic problems and had reduced proactive collaboration with India on global issues. IBSA and BRICS will not appeal to the “ Brazil First” Bolsonaro. However, India should see Brazil beyond Bolsonaro. Brazil will certainly realise and resume its logical alliance with India sooner or later. India should therefore wait and keep up the contacts.

For the moment, India should focus more on economic diplomacy. Brazil is the biggest economy in Latin America and the largest trade partner of India in the region with a bilateral trade of 8.6 billion dollars in 2017-18. With the pro-business Bolsonaro administration, the economy and the market are set to improve. Since March 2014, Brazil had remained paralysed with the Operation Car Wash corruption scandal, political crisis one after the other and economic recession. The GDP growth rate had gone into negative figures in 2015 and 16. It has started growing marginally in 2017-18 and is now poised to speed up. The stock market has already started climbing up and investors have issued bullish statements. 

Consequent to the indictment of large companies (such as Petrobras, Odebrecht and JBS) and banks (BNDES)  involved in the corruption cases, infrastructure and investment had been halted in the last four years. Now these projects have be revived and the business will start flourishing again. Recently, Indian companies such as Sterlite, Sterling and Wilson have made entry into the infrastructure sector of Brazil with project contracts of over a billion dollars. Aditya Birla Group has announced investment of 175 million dollars in 2019 to expand the capacity of its Aluminium plants in Brazil. There is going to be more business and  greater opportunities for Indian companies in Brazil in the coming years.

When the Argentine Cardinal Bergoglio became Pope Francis, the Brazilians said, “ The Pope might be Argentine but the God is Brazilian”. As part of his victory celebrations, Bolsonaro attended a worship service conducted by the celebrity evangelical pastor Silas Malafia who declared, “ God will change the fortune of Brazilians..Brazil belongs to Lord Jesus”. God save Brazil from Messias (the middle name of Bolsonaro which means Messiah), who is described by Economist magazine “as a menace to Brazil and Latin America”.