Monday, April 27, 2015

No place for héros – novel by Laura Restrepo

The novel 'No place for heroes' (Demasiados heroes) by the Colombian author, Laura Restrepo, resonated more with me since the story is about Argentina, rekindling my nostalgia. Lorenza, a Colombian journalist joins an Argentine resistance group based in Madrid against the dictatorship. She takes an assignment to smuggle passports, microfilms and secret stuff to Buenos Aires. There she falls in love with an Argentine militant Ramon. They start living together but the life is filled with fear and tension under the military regime. Lorenza persuades Ramon to shift to Colombia when they get a baby. She wants Mateo, the son to grow in peace in Colombia. But Ramon gets bored in Bogota and drifts away from Lorenza after some time. He returns  to Argentina and takes his son Mateo also with him after lying to Lorenza that he is just taking him out for a weekend outing in Bogota. Lorenza gets even madder when a narco mafia group threatens her and her family for repayment of a large sum of money Ramon had taken from them with a cheque in which Lorenza's signature was forged. Lorenza goes to Argentina to recover the son and finds him in Bariloche happily enjoying with Ramon horse riding and walking around the scenic Bariloche area. Lorenza manages to take Mateo back and escapes to Bogota. Ramon knows Lorenza's plan but lets her get away. When Mateo grows up, he comes back to Argentina with his mother to look for the father, after the end of the dictatorship. He manages to find and reunite with him in Bariloche.
The novel brings out the dark period of the Dirty War in Argentina when thousands of people 'disappeared', exiled, tortured and killed. The Argentine society had a traumatic experience caught between the cruel and sadistic military and the naïve idealistic militants who fought against the dictatorship.  Thousands of young people from the middle class believed in their noble cause and plunged into the resistance movement with a romantic revolutionary fervor.  Their amateurish acts and provocations were punished with inhuman and terrible suppression by the secret service and the dictatorship.
I have read many Argentine books and novels about the travails of the Argentine society during the dictatorship. Laura  Restrepo has given an outsider's perspective. She did not just imagine Argentina. She had actually lived there for four years as a member of the underground resistance, married an Argentine and had a son from him in Buenos Aires. The novel seems like a fictionalized autobiography.

Restrepo's narration of the resistance is also authentic reflecting her own political activities in Argentina, Colombia and Spain as well as her journalistic experience of covering the Colombian guerillas. She had faced dangers because of her political activites in Colombia itself and was forced into exile for six years in Mexico. She was member of the Trotskyist party of Colombia for some time. 
Restrepo praises the courage of the mothers who marched in Plaza de Mayo demanding the return of their sons and daughters, daring and defying the watching eyes of the murderers. In her words, this was the beginning of the fall of the dictatorship. Restrepo describes the endless agony of those whose dear ones had ' disappeared'. While death of someone closes the emotional door in some sense, the 'disappearance' keeps the door open with eternal hope, waiting and driving oneself to madness. I remember reading the statement of an An Argentine general who said, 'not alive not dead but simply disappeared'. 
Restrepo has depicted the typical Argentine Macho spirit through Ramon's emotional, reckless, moody, mysterious and adventurous character. She gives a vivid account of the good life in Buenos Aires by taking the readers through the lively and elegant cafes, bars and restaurants as well as the discrete but unmissable 'telos' of Buenos Aires.
The best part of the novel is the constant conversations between the mother who narrates the stories of her adventurous life and the adolescent son who questions everything she says in his irreverent way. Lorenza tells him about her revolutionary younger days, her uncertain life in Argentina and her love for Ramon . But he interrupts, challenges and interpretes everything with his sarcastic comments. 
The book is a delicate blend of romance, love and revolutionary spirit of the lovable Latin America.
I have earlier read Restrepo's other books: The dark bride (blog review),  Leopard in the sun (blog review),  and La Isla de Passion blog review and 'The angel of Galileo'.

The real life of Laura Restrepo is also as fascinating as her novels. A glimpse of her life at  http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1G2-3433900063.html
-an interview in which she herself narrates her life http://bombmagazine.org/article/2457/
-another interview to La Nacion of Argentina when the book was launched in Buenos Aires in 2009 http://www.lanacion.com.ar/1134340-laura-restrepo-cuenta-sus-anos-en-la-clandestinidad

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Latin America and Bengal share two passions and a link

Latin America and Bengal share two passions and a link: football, communism and Tagore.
Football
Bengal shares the passion for football with Latin America. The crowds in Kolkatta went crazy when Maradona visited the city in 2008. The rivalry between Mohan Bagan and East Bengal teams and fans reminds me of the super classic rivalry between Boca and River Plate in Argentina and the one between Palmeiras and Corinthians in Brazil. When I was anointed as the fan of Boca Juniors in La Bombanera stadium in Buenos Aires, they told me that I could change my political party, religion, god and spouse but not the loyalty and fidelity to Boca !
Communism
MN Roy was a founder of the Communist Party of Mexico before he came back to found the Communist party of India. He spent over two years in Mexico from 1917 to 1919. He became a communist  during his stay in Mexico. He was very active in the Mexican leftist politics besides writing articles and books. The Mexican government had given him a diplomat passport with the false name of Roberto Vila Garcia to avoid the British and American harassment due to his communist activities. Roy called Mexico as 'the land of his rebirth'. Today, the house where he stayed in Mexico city has been converted into a vibrant bar/night club with the name MN Roy
Majority of the countries in Latin America have leftist governments. But the New Left of the region has become more pragmatic and less dogmatic. It gives ample space for the private sector to flourish so that they also generate wealth for the country, jobs for the people and taxes for the government. 
Tagore
Tagore spent two months in Buenos Aires where he was looked after by Victoria Ocampo. She introduced him to her social and literary circles in the city and got his articles published in Argentine newspapers. He got rejuvenated and she got spiritual awakening and inspiration. Tagore dedicated his Purabi poems to Victoria. In one of the poems, he says,
Exotic blossom
I whispered again in your ear
What is your language dear
You smiled and shook your head
And the leaves murmured instead

They had extensive correspondence after the Buenos Aires encounter which was also romantic and platonic besides cultural and literary meeting. Their exchanges have been collected and put in a book ' In your blossoming garden' by Ketaki Kushari Dyson.

In his letters Tagore addressed Victoria as ' Dear Vijaya..my bhalobhasa'. She in turn started her letters with 'Dear Gurudev' and ended with ' Your Vijaya'.

Tagore to Victoria, " you were the only one who came to know me so closely when I was old and young at the same time"
Victoria to Tagore, " The days have become endless since you went away…I miss you"

Tagore confessed to her about his immense burden of loneliness as a celebrity and talked about the woman's love he deserved. She wrote that Gitanjali fell like a celestial dew on her anguished 24 year old heart".

The personal meeting also turned out to be a continental encounter. Tagore wrote,' For me the spirit of Latin America will ever dwell incarnated in your person'. She wrote, 'you are and will always be India to me'

They met in Paris in 1930 when Victoria organized the first-ever painting exhibition of Tagore's works in a Parisian art gallery. It is believed that it was Victoria who encouraged Tagore to start painting.

In his last years, Tagore used to relax in the reclining chair gifted by Victoria and even wrote a poem about it in April 1941, just before his death in the same year.

Yet again, if I can, will l look for that seat
On the top of which rests, a caress from overseas
I knew not her language
Yet her eyes told me all
Keeping alive forever
A message of pathos


picture above: the chair gifted by Victoria, kept in Udichi House, Shantiniketan

When Tagore died, Victoria sent a telegram which said ' Thinking of him'. 
This is the title of a movie proposed to be made by Pablo Cesar an Argentine director/producer. The script is about the Tagore-Victoria encounter as well as about the contemporary link between India and Argentina. Cesar is looking for an Indian coproducer.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Brazil: protests and Petrobras

The Brazilian protests over the Petrobras bribery scandal has added to the challenges of Brazil whose economy is in a quagmire. But the vigorous anti-corruption fight by the court and the prosecutors is a good sign of their independence and institutional strength. Brazil, which had faced bigger crises in the past has the potential and the resources to recover soon. But the concern for India is that President Rouseff will pay less attention to foreign policy and partnership with India in its global agenda.
  Brazil: protests and Petrobras

On March 14,  several hundred thousand Brazilians took to the streets in major cities around the country in protest against corruption. It was a reminder of the 2013-14 protests that overshadowed the football World Cup.
The provocation for this latest protest is the Operation Car Wash scandal in which bribes of around $800 million were shared between politicians and company executives from Petrobras, the national oil company. Dozens of executives from Petrobras and some private sector firms have already been indicted. A senior Petrobras executive Pedro Barusco, who has turned approver, has agreed to return around $100 million from his Swiss bank accounts.  Of this, $57 million has already been returned.
The Supreme Court released a list of 54 politicians who had reportedly received bribes. This list includes 21 federal deputies, 12 senators–including the speakers of both houses of the Congress, a former president, a former governor of a state and two ex-cabinet ministers. The court has authorised an investigation and removed the Congressional immunity. If found guilty, the sitting Congressmen will lose their Congressional seats, beside other punishment ordered by the court.
The accused politicians are mostly from the ruling alliance. The senate leader and the speaker of the lower house are both from the Brazilian Democratic Movement Party (PMDB), the largest political party. The six members of the ruling Workers Party (PT) on this list include the treasurer of the party, two ex-chiefs of staff to the president and the former energy minister. According to the approver, PT had received about $200 million in bribes.
While President Dilma Rousseff did not personally respond to the Sunday protests, her justice minister went on national television to say that the government would propose a series of anti-corruption measures and political reforms.
Some protesters called for the impeachment of Rousseff herself, which is not likely. She is known to be incorrupt and has claimed ignorance of the corruption in the company. But she cannot escape moral responsibility since she was the chairperson of the Petrobras board from 2003 to 2010, during which the bribery occurred.
The scandal has hurt Rousseff’s image whose popularity ratings have dropped below 30%. She will face severe resistance from the leaders of both houses of Congress, who are putting pressure on her to help them clear their names from the bribery charges. They have openly announced that they will not let pass easily any legislation proposed by the government. This is bad news for Brazil which desperately needs a number of political and economic reforms.
The corruption issue has compounded the economic situation of the country which suffered a recession in 2014 and is projected to have negative growth in 2015. Inflation is at a 10-year high of 7.7% and currency depreciation is at a 12-year- low.
The Petrobras case is a symptom of the endemic disease of corruption and impunity entrenched in Brazilian society. In the past such things were taken for granted as part of life. In fact, there is an old Brazilian saying that states, “rouba mas faz” (robs but gets things done).
Not any longer.
The judiciary and the prosecutors have become more independent and bold in their investigations with professionalism and in a spirit of crusade. This was evident in the Mensalao Scandal during President Lula’s term when a number of top leaders of his ruling party were punished with imprisonment, fines and suspension from holding public office. In 2014, Brazil passed a Clean Companies Act under which tougher punishment is to be given even to bribe-givers along with bribe-takers and it holds the companies responsible for acts of corruption by their executives. The public protests help and encourage the prosecutors and judges to do their work even more vigorously and zealously. This is a hopeful and healthy sign.
The western media’s exaggerated reports on the Brazilian corruption scandal should be put in a global perspective. The amount involved in the Brazilian scandal is insignificant in comparison to the multibillion dollar fines charged recently by regulators on banks from U.S. and Europe for fraud. Brazil ranks better (69th) in Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index of 2014 than India (85th) position and China (100th), among 175 countries. In any case, Brazil has come out of bigger crises in the past and has the potential and resources to bounce back soon, just as India got over the 2G scam.
But the concern for India is that President Rousseff will not be able to pay adequate attention to foreign policy, including the strategic partnership with India in IBSA and BRICS to tackle multilateral and global issues, in which India hopes to work with Brazil, since she will be fully absorbed in tackling the internal political and economic challenges.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Mexican Oscar win: inspiration for Bollywood

Published by Gateway House 
http://www.gatewayhouse.in/mexican-oscar-inspiration-for-bollywood/

Mexican director Alejendra Inarritu’s Oscar for his work on Birdman comes after his compatriot won the same category award in 2014. This is a matter of pride for the Mexican film industry which is undergoing a renaissance in the last fifteen years. Although Indian cinema dwarfs the Mexican film industry, Mexico’s success in Hollywood should hold as inspiration for Bollywood

Mexican Oscar inspiration for Bollywood

At the 87th Academy Awards on February 23, Alejandro Inarritu of Mexico won three Oscars for the Hollywood movie, ‘BirdMan or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance’,— best director, best screen play writer and best picture. His recognition marks the high point of a comeback by Mexican cinema and should be seen as an inspiration by the Indian film industry.
Before starting out his film career, Inarritu had worked in Mexican radio stations and composed music for Mexican films. He then went on to co-found ‘Z Films’ which produced short films and commercials. He became famous in Mexico after his filmAmores Perros was nominated for an Oscar in the foreign language film category in 2000. He also directed two other Hollywood films Babel (nominated for best director and film in Oscar 2007) and 21 grams. His second Mexican film Biutiful was also nominated for an Oscar in the foreign film category in 2011.  He is directing his next Hollywood film ‘The Revenant’ to be released in December 2015.
Another Mexican, Alfonso Cuaron, won an Oscar for the best director for his filmGravity in 2014. He is also a product of  the Mexican film industry. Following his first film Tu mama tambien, he shifted to Hollywood, producing and directing films such asLittle princessHarry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban and Children of Men; all of which have received critical acclaim.
Inarritu and Cuaron are usually associated with a third Mexican film director, screen writer and producer, Guillermo del Toro.  The three consult each other, work closely and are known as the “Three Amigos”. Del Toro has made movies in Mexico as well as in Hollywood and specializes in horror and science fiction themes. His Hollywood films include Hell boy ‘ Blade II and Pacific Rim.
In total eight Mexican films have received Oscar nominations since 1960 in the foreign language film category.
The recent Oscars won by  Mexican talent is exciting news for the Mexican film industry which has had a renaissance in the last fifteen years.  Its golden age was in the 1940s and 50s, when Mexico was the largest centre of Latin American films. Back then, Mexican films, actors and film talents went on to conquer Hollywood too. However, the Mexican film business went into a long decline from the sixties till the end of the 20th century. The political and economic instability in Mexico as well as the dictatorships and crisis in Latin America were important factors in the decline.
Thereafter Hollywood dominated Mexican theaters, accounting for over 90 % of ticket sales. The closed network of film distributors and theatre owners controlled by Hollywood dominated, aggressively squeezed out the Mexican films. The film industry also became one of the victims of NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) signed by US, Canada and Mexico in 1994. As a result, the Mexican government had to abolish the law which required theaters to reserve 50% of its screens for national films. This caused a drastic reduction in the production of Mexican films from about 100 per year in the first half of nineties  to 25 per year by the end of that decade.
The revival of Mexican cinema began with Alejandro Inarritu’s hit movie Amores Perros in 2000. Since then there have been a number of box-office hits. Creative Mexican directors and producers as well as talented actors have managed to win back the Mexican audience. The turning point came in 2013. The film  No se aceptan devoluciones made history by grossing close to $100 million, of which half was generated in Mexico and the other half from the rest of North America. Another 2013 film, Nosotros los Nobles, earned $26 million. The Mexican film director Amat Escalante won the best director award in 2013 in the Cannes Film festival for his filmHeli.
Mexico has the fourth largest number of movie-goers in the world after India, China and the US.  The Mexican multiplex company ‘ Cinepolis’ operates the largest number of screens in the country and has emerged as one of the top four global players with 3,400 screens in 11 countries including the US and India.
Mexico has two filmy connections to India. Cinepolis operates 193 screens in 31 cities in India— and is targeting to have 400 screens by 2017. It is the only foreign company operating in the Indian market and is the fourth largest multiplex company in India. A Mexican actress, Barbara Mori, has acted in a Bollywood film Kites as a lead cast along with Hrithik Roshan.
The Mexican film industry is tiny in comparison to its Indian counterpart which produces nearly a 1,000 films a year and possesses a large and diverse audience and talent. Indian film producers have large budgets while most Mexican films are small-budget films, many of them only survive because of government subsidies.
Yet, Indian films have received just four nominations in the Oscar foreign language category, compared to eight from Mexico so far. No Indian film director has ever won an Oscar.
Mexican films and talent have done better not only at the Oscars but also in box-office earnings. The Mexican film No se acceptant devoluciones grossed $100 million in revenue worldwide,  Indian film PK only reached the same figure ( Rs. 600 crores) in 2014.
While the Indian film industry is a giant compared to the Mexican industry both in terms of size and reach, the Oscar and box-office success of Mexican talents and films should be seen as an inspiration by Indian film industry.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Latin American lessons for AAP, Congress and BJP

The nature of the sweeping victory of AAP and Kejriwal may be unprecedented in India but not in Latin America. In Brazil, Mexico and Colombia, there are lessons for AAP and Arvind Kejriwal as they assume power in New Delhi – and also for the Congress Party as well as the BJP.
Latin American lessons for AAP, Congress and BJP
The Aam Admi Party (AAP) swept to power in this week’s state election in Delhi, with the broom as its symbol, capturing global attention as it comprehensively defeated the BJP.
But Latin America has an interesting history of David-Goliath election battles, and some interesting comparisons are listed below.
Brazil
Long before AAP it was a Brazilian political party, the National Democratic Union (UDN), which used the ‘broom’ as a campaign symbol in 1960, promising to sweep away corruption and immorality.
The centre-right UDN party’s presidential candidate, Janio Quadros, won the 1960 presidential elections with a big margin. One of his unforgettable, and rather unBrazilian, moral cleaning acts, was to prohibit the wear of bikinis on the beach. With no previous national political experience, and without a Congressional majority, he was frustrated by the obstructionism of the Congress and dissident voices from his own party.
Quadros was high-handed and inflexible in negotiations with other political leaders and parties. In August 1961, after just seven months in office, he resigned suddenly, expecting that his histrionic gesture would prompt a wave of popular demand to withdraw his resignation. There was no such public wave. The Brazilian Congress quickly accepted his resignation and elevated the vice president in his place. Quadros went into political wilderness, and it was only after many years that he re-emerged, elected as Mayor of Sao Paulo in 1985.
Mexico
In the 2000 elections, Mexicans voted out Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), ending its 70-year, one-party regime as the longest ruling party in the world. The Mexicans instead elected Vicente Fox from the centre–right National Action Party (PAN) as president. This was a historic change. But in the same year, the voters of Mexico City elected Lopez Obrador, a fire-brand of the extreme-left Revolutionary Democratic Party (PRD) as the head of the government of the Federal District of Mexico—a city with a population even larger than Delhi’s.
The Fox-Obrador contrast is similar to the Modi-Kejriwal combination in New Delhi.
Obrador was considered a rebellious and unconventional but charismatic politician with radical views. He was eccentric and an anarchist, the underdog in the big business-supported PAN and PRI party fight. Obrador portrayed himself as a crusader against corruption and the collusion between corporates, media barons and political parties. He was personally honest, uncorrupt, a self described leader of the social movements who lead a simple, unostentatious life. He connected with the masses using social media.
As head of the government of Mexico City during 2000-2005, Obrador reduced corruption and implemented a number of pro-poor policies as well as improved the transportation and infrastructure in the city. Despite his anti-big business rhetoric, he collaborated with corporate houses on a project to restore and modernize the historic downtown area and actively encouraged private sector investment in housing sector.
His success as chief of the government of Mexico City did not however help him in his attempts to win the national Presidential elections, losing narrowly in 2006 and then in 2012 by a bigger margin.  After losing the Presidential elections in 2006, he paralysed Mexico City for three months with demonstrations against the election results, arguing that they were fraudulent and proclaiming himself the winner. It didn’t work. Obrador left the PRD and formed his own outfit. Alas, his chances of becoming a future president of Mexico have been eroded by his egocentric ways.
Colombia
In the last four national elections, the Colombians elected Alvaro Uribe (for two terms from 2002-10) and Manuel Santos (also twice in 2010 and 2014) from the centre-right parties because of their important national agenda to end guerrilla war and bring peace to the country. However, in 2011 the residents of the capital city Bogota voted for a radical leftist and former member of the M-19 guerrilla group Gustavo Petro as Mayor.  But when Petro contested in the Presidential elections in 2010 the Colombians preferred the experienced centre-right candidate Manuel Santos.
Lessons for AAP, Congress and BJP
The broom politics of Brazil and the experience of the chiefs of the city governments of Mexico City and Bogota, particularly in their failed presidential elections, might have some useful lessons for Kejriwal as the Aam Aadmi Party prepares to go national.
Mexico’s PRI learnt its lesson after being out of power at the national level for twelve years. It reinvented itself and came back to power under the dynamic leadership of Enrique Pena Nieto who won the Presidential elections in 2012 beating the candidates of leftist PRD and conservative PAN parties.  The Congress Party may find it useful to study and learn from the resurrection model of PRI.
Nieto worked with the opposition parties and signed the ‘Mexico Pact’ in which four major national-level parties agreed to a consensus for major urgent reforms. Through the pact, the Nieto administration delivered a dozen important reforms in sectors such as energy, education and  taxation in the last two years. Mexico has achieved more reforms than any other large democracies in the world in the last two years. BJP could work with the opposition parties for a similar ‘Delhi Pact’ based on the successful model of Mexico Pact.

Sunday, January 04, 2015

Review of the book 'Brazil – The Troubled Rise of a Global Power' by Michael Reid


This book was released in June 2014 in the run-up to the Football World Cup which raised Brazil’s global profile. The ignominious defeat of the Brazilian team is two sides of the same coin, and emblematic of the ‘troubled rise’ of the country which has flattered to deceive. Which is why Michael Reid’s assessment is particularly interesting at this moment.
Brazil’s star rose and shone brilliantly under the ambitious and visionary Lula government from 2003 to 2011. His successor Dilma Rousseff’s low prioritisation of foreign policy has lost the gains made in the decade past.
Reid starts his book with a speech by Lula in London in 2009, a speech that captivates the audience with the achievements and vision of his government. When Lula finished his second term in 2010, Brazil looked unstoppable,  with a 7.5% growth despite the global financial crisis and the continuing European crisis. After winning the rights to host the World Cup and Olympics, Lula claimed that Brazil had achieved its rightful pace and was at last considered a ‘first class country’.
Reid rightly says that Brazil has many of the ingredients for becoming a global power—a large land mass, a young population, abundant natural resources, energy and food security, a large and diversified manufacturing base, scientific and technological innovation and global leadership in niche manufacturing sectors.
According to Reid, The last was achieved by Brazil’s industrial policy of ‘guided capitalism’ in which the state-owned Brazilian Development Bank (BNDES) gives huge credits and takes stakes in Brazilian companies such as the world’s largest meat processing company—JBS, promoting them to become global leaders. “Brazil,” Reid says, “…built as a nation by top-down elites, is now moving to its next chapter of bottom-up political and economic reforms by a growing middle class”.
However, Brazil’s rise is encumbered by its internal weaknesses—after three terms in office, the Workers Party(PT) looks tired and bereft of new ideas. Brazil spends far more on its old people than on its children. The industrial sector of Brazil is rendered uncompetitive by the complicated, burdensome tax system and a high cost of production, all of which together are called ‘Custo Brasil (Brazil cost)’. But the most fundamental factor is the Brazilian mindset. Reid quoteS Eduardo Giannetti, a Brazilian liberal as saying, “If Brazil did not become like the United States it was because it did not want to. The Brazilians were not prepared to sacrifice alegria (happiness) and an easy-going approach to life, for capital accumulation and future prosperity.”
Reid’s commentary is on many occasions influenced by his obvious western mindset. He blames Brazil’s low global profile for not showing leadership during times of crisis—especially, the Brazilian refusal of support to the U.S-led unilateral interventions in Iraq, Libya and Syria. But Lula taking the initiative in the iran nuclear deal, is termed by Reid as adventurism. The author also underplays Brazil’s leadership in Latin American regional and sub-regional integration as well as in initiating groupings such as IBSA (India-Brazil-South Africa).
Reid is mostly right on the mark when he says that in Brazil’s world-VIEW, there is a deep-rooted suspicion of Washington and that the U.S. is set on blocking Brazil’s advance. He quotes Peter Hakim of the Inter American Dialogue concluding that “Brazil and the U.S. will remain friends but they are not likely to emerge as partners or allies”.
Reid, who has lived in Brazil as correspondent for The Economist, provides an integrated and analytical overview of Brazilian history, politics, economy and society in a fairly objective manner. As an experienced Latin America columnist, he has made an effort to look at Brazil with a regional perspective, and understands his subject when he concludes that “Brazil is a world of its own and they like the Americans, have a strong sense of Brazilian exceptionalism”.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Left consolidates in Latin America


The reelection of the Left in the Uruguayan election highlights a re-consolidation of the power of the Latin American Left. The pro-poor policies of the Leftist governments in much of South America have lifted millions out of poverty. The result: the creation of a middle class that has strengthened the region’s democratic stability and created more opportunities for business
In the second round of elections held in Uruguay on November 30, the leftist candidate Tabare Vazquez won with 52.8 % of the votes, beating his centre-right rival Lacalle Pou. In the first round held on October 28, Vazquez’s Broad Front ( Frente Amplio) coalition of leftist parties, won a majority in the Congress.
This is the third consecutive Presidential and Congressional election in Uruguay since 2005, when the Broad Front has emerged on top. The coalition includes Communists, Socialists, Trotskyites and ex-guerilla fighters including the outgoing President Jose Mujica, who spent 14 years in jail during the prior military dictatorship. 
Vazquez, a 74-year old oncologist, ended his first term as President (2005-10) with a 70% approval rating, but was barred from contesting for consecutive reelection by the Uruguayan constitution. He established a stable foundation of pragmatic, balanced, pro-poor and business-friendly policies which were continued by his successor Mujica. In the 2014 campaign, Vazquez promised to eradicate poverty by maintaining social spending, which increased by 83% under Broad Front governments over the last decade.
The left’s recurrent win in Uruguay is significant for all of Latin America. Though a small country with just 3.4 million people, Uruguay has been a leader in the region, with innovative and progressive policies, including legalisation of abortion and same-sex marriage. In 2013 it became the first country in the world to legalise consumption, production, distribution and sale of marijuana, and put all these under state control. The rest of the world is closely following this experiment – especially due to the failure of the ‘war on drugs’ waged by the U.S. and Europe, which have focused on eliminating production and ignored the reality of the drug business being driven by the demand from consumers in rich countries.
Previous President Mujica himself set a unique example for the world with his simple and austere life. He has been described by BBC* as the ” world’s poorest President”. He refused to move to the official residence and continued to stay in his ramshackle farmhouse, driving his own 1987 model Volkswagon Beetle, working on his field growing flowers and leading a simple and unostentatious life. He donated 90% of his salary to charity.
The Left’s victory in Uruguay has followed a winning streak of left parties and candidates in Brazil, Bolivia and El Salvador this year, and earlier in Argentina, Chile, Ecuador, Nicaragua and Venezuela. The leftist wave which began a decade ago with the victory of Chavez in 1998, has reconfirmed its staying power in Latin America.  Unlike India’s left, which has not adapted to the changing times, and is stuck in an anachronistic ideological cocoon, the Latin American left has evolved, matured and transformed itself as a New Left. The region has decisively moved away from the disastrous ‘Washington Consensus’ which left the region poorer and more indebted. The New Left has embraced the ‘Brasilia Consensus’ – a balanced mix of pro-poor and business-friendly policies.
Over the years, the Chavista model of ideological polarisation has given way to the Lula model of bridging the gap between the haves and the have-nots with pragmatism and dialogue. President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva of Brazil was feted at meetings like the World Economic Forum by the rich, as well at the anti-rich World Social Forum held simultaneously every year.  President Michelle Bachelet of Chile and President Ollanta Humala of Peru are similarly respected and welcomed in the White House, as much as on the Leftist platforms of Latin America. The best example of pragmatism overriding ideology is the fact that the hardline leftist government of President Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua recognizes Taiwan and not Communist China.  
Today, Left governments are no longer perceived to be business-unfriendly (except now in Venezuela and Argentina). They understand that the state alone cannot find solutions to all the problems and so have been giving more space to the private sector to flourish, and create more wealth and jobs.
While initially feared – the right-wing local and foreign media apprehended that Lula’s victory would ruin business – the left soon disproved its critics. During Lula’s campaign in 2002, a school boy from a rich family wished him success enthusiastically. When a surprised Lula asked the reason for his support, the boy replied, “My father who is in business says if you win, he will shift the family to Miami which I love.” Lula became a darling of Brazilian and foreign investors. Using comprehensive welfare programmes, Lula’s pragmatic policies meant that business flourished and millions of the poor joined the middle class, becoming consumers. According to a UNDP report 56 million people have been lifted out of poverty in Latin America. Poverty reduction has increased from 42% of the population to 25% during the 2002-12 decade.  
The growth of the Latin middle class has become the best insurance for democratic stability and strength in the region in the long term. 

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Rouseff re-election: lower expectations


The reelection of President Dilma Rouseff means continuation of the slow growth of the Brazilian economy and a lower likelihood of much-needed, major political and economic reforms. India should lower its expectations on a global partnership with Brazil in the short term
President Dilma Rouseff won the second round of Brazil’s elections held on 26 October with 51.64 % votes, beating rival Aecio Neves who received 48.36%. Her win was the outcome of the increased vote share from the 15 poor states of North and North East Brazil, as against the affluent 11 states in the South and the Federal District of Brasila which voted for the centre-right Neves. The masses who have benefitted from the pro-poor policies of the Rouseff government, the historic low unemployment rate ( 4.9% in September 2014) and the increase in wages in recent years, were convinced by Rouseff’s  message, “You are better off today than you were a dozen years ago because of what we have done. Count on us to continue working for you. Don’t trust your future to anyone else or you risk losing everything.”
Those who thought wishfully that the Left is fading in Latin America, should think again. In this election, for the first time in the history of Brazil, a Communist (Brazilian Communist Party PCdoB) candidate, Flavio Dino, was elected as state governor in Maranhao, the poor northern state with a population of 6 million. The state was the pocket borough of the oligarchical family of Sarney which ruled the state for the last five decades. Dino won in the first round itself, with an impressive 63.5% as against his rightist rival who got just 33.6 %.
Responding to the polarisation of the voters and to the criticism of the opposition, Rouseff declared in her victory speech that she would be a much better president than she had been up until then. She pledged to open more space for dialogue with all sections of society to deal with the country’s problems – which are enormous.  Brazil’s stagnant economy has been in a technical recession since August this year; plus there is high inflation, low investment, high cost of production, poor infrastructure and inadequate public services.
Despite her promises, Rouseff’s ability to bring about major reforms is severely constrained by her narrow victory. Her party has just 70 Deputies of 513 in the lower house of the Congress, and 12 of the total of 81 senators in the Senate. Coalition-building will be a problem because the major parties including the Workers Party have lost seats, even as the actual number of parties in the lower house has increased from 22 to twenty-eight. Rouseff needs to work harder and offer greater incentives to partners and other parties, to pass the difficult bills and reforms that have already been difficult to legislate, triggering mass protests last year. She must also now face the unfolding corruption scandal in Petrobras, which might decimate some of her own, and other party leaders.
But unlike the Indians who have now elected a majority government led by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and expect him to deliver on reforms, the Brazilians are not optimistic. The country’s low growth is expected to continue over the next few years, much to the dismay of the Brazilian industry which supported the pro-business Aeceio Neves. The poor, however, do expect an improvement in their lives, as the social policies of the government of Rouseff’s Workers Party, continue.
Rouseff’s low key approach to foreign policy will also continue. Mercosur and  South America will be her priority,  along with South-South cooperation. Neves would have prioritised the U.S. and Europe, although Brazil’s combined trade with China and within Latin America is more than its total trade with the U.S. and the EU.
For India, Neves might not have been an enthusiastic partner, and in that sense, Rouseff’s reelection is better for India. Brazil is a strategic partner for India in the pursuit of global aspirations, in multilateral fora as well as in groups such as IBSA, BRICS and G-20. But given the lack of interest of Rouseff in foreign affairs, don’t expect a significant strengthening of the partnership or any new, major joint initiatives in the next four years.
India then, should lower its expectations from Brazil. The country’s economy is already in a slow growth mode, and is relatively closed. This is reflective in the bilateral trade, which has already declined in 2013 to $9.48 billion from $10.62 billion in 2012. According to a ECLAC (Economic Commission for Latin America and Caribbean) report issued in October, Brazil’s global imports will likely drop by 3.2% in 2014. But India should look at the long term picture; Brazil with its large market, rich resources, vibrant democracy and regional leadership will inevitably emerge as a global player. It is just a matter of some more time.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Evo Morales reelected for the third term as President of Bolivia


The reelection of Evo Morales as Bolivia's President in the recent elections is a recognition of his success in emancipating the poor indigenous people of the country and economic management of the country. It is also a an inspiration and matter of pride for the indigenous people of the whole of Latin America as well that of the world.


Evo Morales reelected for the third term as President of Bolivia

President Evo Morales swept the elections with over 60% of the votes, easily defeating his nearest rival  Samuel Doria Medina who got just 25% in the elections held on 12 October. His party Movement for Socialism (MAS) got more than two thirds majority in the Congress. Morales had won with 53.7% votes in 2005 and with 64.2% in 2009. He is the first President who has won in the first round with such a large majority in the last forty years.

There are many explanations for the success of Morales, who has become the longest-serving Bolivian President. But the simplest is the fact that he is from the poor native indigenous community while his main opponent is a rich white businessman. The indigenous people form 60% of the Bolivian population and they are the poorest. The whites form 15% of the population and are well-off. What is surprising is that despite being the majority in the population, the natives were completely marginalized and discriminated politically and economically for the last five centuries by the people of European-origin. It was Evo Morales who ended this historic domination by becoming the first indigenous President. 

After coming to power in 2006, Evo Morales set about correcting the injustice by putting the indigenous people on the top of his agenda and improved their lives. He has changed the constitution which institutionalizes the empowerment of the indigenous people recognising their traditions and culture. 

It was due to Evo Morales that the number of people below poverty line has come down by 32% from 2000 to 2012. A report*of UNDP has put Bolivia as the most successful in reducing poverty in the last decade in Latin America.

Although the west has labelled him as a radical leftist, Morales has managed the economy prudently and pragmatically. He has financed his pro-poor programmes with the increase in revenue from exports, taxes and better financial management. He has ensured fiscal surplus every year since 2006. The GDP of Bolivia has grown an average of five percent from 2006 to 2013**. It grew by 6.8% in 2013 and is projected to grow by 5.5% in 2014 and 5% in 2015. The foreign exchange reserves have increased from about 3 billion dollars in 2006 to 14 billion in May 2014. The inflation of the country which in the eighties had touched five digits has been brought down to 6-7%. The lending rate is a decent 7 % in contrast to the double digit rates in Brazil, Argentina and Chile. External debt has been controlled and kept at 7.7 billion dollars without any significant increase from the 6.2 billion figure of 2006. Financial Times of 15 October*** has said, ' Mr Morales may well be Latin America's most successful socialist presidents ever'.

Bolivia has never had such a long period of political stability and economic growth as it has experienced in the last eight years under President Morales. The country which is the poorest in South America had been notorious for coups and political instability. 36 of the 83 governments in the past had lasted a year or less. Between 2001 and 2005 there were five Presidents.

Understandably, the white politicians and businessmen have not reconciled to the democratic logic of a President elected from the majority of the population. They have been plotting along with obvious outside support to destabilize Morales' government in the last eight years. The rich province of Santa Cruz, along with a few others, even tried separation from La Paz. But Morales has survived due to the solid support of the indigenous people and to the support given by the South American Union UNASUR

The United States is unhappy with the coca leaf worshipping Morales who has stopped the forced eradication of coca farms in the country and calls himself as the 'worst nightmare of US'. One of the US ambassadors had campaigned against Morales in the previous elections and he retaliated by expelling him and closing the offices of the US Drug Enforcement Agency office and US Aid. Morales stood upto even Lula and the mighty Petrobras and managed to get a higher price for the gas exported to Brazil. 

He has been campaigning for the global recognition of the legal rights of people in his country to grow coca which is considered as a sacred plant and consumed by Bolivians like betel leaves and tea in India. The UN Narcotics Control Agency, with the support of the cocaine consuming countries, have been against his move.

Morales comes from a poor family and rose as a  leader of the coca-cultivators union. He continues to live as a simple person with, of course, the Latino passion for football. Even now he plays football as member of a Bolivian team.

Bolivia was in the spotlight in India when Naveen Jindal went there announcing a two billion dollar investment in the El Mutun iron ore project. Unfortunately it was a failure due to faults on both the sides. India's trade with Bolivia is not significant but there is good scope to increase exports.

The victory of Evo Morales is not only cherished by the native Bolivians but it is also an inspiration and matter of pride for the forty million indigenous people of Latin America as well as those in the rest of the world. Last month Morales was the guest of honor at the international conference of the indigenous peoples of the world organized by the United Nations in New York.



 **    http://www.cepal.org/publicaciones/xml/1/53391/EconomicSurvey2014Brief.pdf

Friday, October 10, 2014

Brazilian Presidential elections on 5 October extend to a second round on 26 October


Since none of the candidates got the required fifty percent majority in the Brazilian Presidential elections held on 5 October, there will be a second round on 26 October between the centre-left President Dilma Rouseff and centre-right Aecio Neves. As of now polls predict Dilma win but the Braziian electorate is known for giving surprises.


Brazilian Presidential elections on 5 October extend to a second round on 26 October

President Dilma Rouseff got 41.59 percent of votes while her rivals Aecio Neves got 33.55 % and Marina Silva 21.32%. According to the Brazilian electoral law if the leading candidate does not get 50%, there has to be a second round of elections between the top two candidates. So, Dilma and Neves will fight in the second round to be held on 26 October.

The results are somewhat close to the opinion polls held last week although Neves got more than what was predicted. Till a week back Neves was trailing in the third position and overtook Marina only in the last week. In early September, Marina Silva was predicted to win in the second round with her double digit lead over Dilma. But in the last one month Marina was discredited by the aggressive negative campaign of the Dilma machinery which exposed the contradiction between the pro-big business approach of Marina and her claim to be on the side of the poor people. The personal attacks made especially by Lula had hurt Marina more severely. Marina was seen as having compromised her idealism and environmental activism for getting the votes of business and religious groups. Marina failed to defend or clarify her positions effectively and paid the price. Before the sudden surge of Marina last month, Dilma was comfortably leading ahead of her rivals and was widely expected to get reelected in the second round if not in the first. 

President Dilma is happy to have the centre-right Neves as the opponent rather than Marina who would have encroached on her vote bank of the poor. Now it is a clear fight between the business-friendly Neves and Dilma who will claim to represent the masses. Recognising the fact that about 60% had voted against her, Dilma said, ' My second term will be better than my first. I clearly understand the message from the streets and from the ballot box'. She will scare the poor people with the message that Neves might scrap the pro-poor programmes like Bolsa Familia. Dilma is encouraged by the fact that her Workers Party candidate has become the governor of Minas Gerais, the home state of  Neves beating the candidate of his Social Democratic Party. But Dilma's Workers Party has lost to Neves's party her home state of Rio Grand do Sol as well as Sao Bernardo do Campo, the home of Lula and where he founded the Workers Party. Dilma is also on weaker ground on the poor performance of the economy, her unpopular interventionist policies and the corruption scandals which have tainted the image of her Workers Party.

Neves has got a tremendous confidence boost by the fact that he got just 8% less votes than that of Dilma. He needs to work on the beneficiaries of the poverty alleviation programmes of the government of President Dilma that he would also care for them. Although Marina has not openly announced her endorsement of any candidate, she seemed to be inclined towards Aecio when she said, " Brazil clearly showed it does not agree with what is out there ". The candidature of Neves is quite strong given his background as the two term successful governor of Minas Gerais the second most populous state in Brazil. He left office in 2010 with more than 90 percent approval rating. He is the grand son of Tancredo Neves who was chosen as the first post-dictatorship civilian President in 1985 but died before taking over the office. His Social Democratic Party, which ruled Brazil before Dilma's Workers Party until 2002, has a solid national network and campaign machinery. 

As of now President Dilma is expected to get reelected in the second round on 26 October. But the Brazilian voters might change their mind in the next three weeks. If Dilma is reelected she will continue her low key approach to foreign policy and to partnership with India. Neves is likely to take more interest in foreign affairs. He has never visited  India although his state Minas Gerais has been active in business with India.