Tuesday, October 16, 2018

From Coolies to Patrons and Partners: the Chinese paradigm shift in Latin America


Latin America had imported Chinese as Coolies in the second half of the nineteenth century after the abolition of slavery. About a quarter million Chinese coolies were imported by Peru and Cuba between 1847 and 1874. The Peruvian Congress passed a law about the coolie system. It provided a subsidy of 30 pesos to be paid to the shipping company which brought in the coolies from China. The coolies had to be between the ages of 10 and 40 and were obliged to work generally for eight years, after which they were free to go back or be on their own. The Law had provisions for management of the coolie which included teaching of Bible. It specified the number of lashes to punish the coolies for disobedience or indiscipline. In practice, the employers ill-treated and exploited the coolies almost like slaves, auctioning, buying and selling them. 

The Chinese coolies worked in plantations and mines and  were made to dig up the guano pits in Peru and load them in ships for exports to US and Europe. The strong stench of guano droppings were so nauseating that the ships used for transportation could not be used for any other goods and had to be retired. Thousands of the coolies fell sick and died in the miserable conditions of their work. 

In 1874, the Chinese government signed an Agreement with the Government of Peru to enquire into the conditions of the coolies and improve them. The Commission interviewed many coolies who had related their sufferings and misery.

Mexico had imported Chinese coolies to work in the arid areas of north not only as workers but also as barbers and domestic help. After the end of their bondage, the entrepreneurial Chinese started their own businesses and flourished. But this attracted a backlash from the Mexicans who accused the Chinese of “ stealing Mexican jobs and businesses”. The anti-Chinese movement lead to harassment of the Chinese whose shops and houses were burnt.

Panama had imported Chinese coolies to work in their railway and canal project.

Descending from the coolies, today there are over a million people of Chinese living in Latin America. The Latin Americans look down on them and use the expression Cuento Chino ( Chinese tale) which means exaggeration, unbelievable and might be untrue.

The 19th century coolies have now become the twenty first century patrons and partners for Latin America. 

Today, the Chinese have become the single most important investor, creditor and the second largest trading partner for Latin America. The Chinese companies have become owners of the mines where the coolies used to work earlier. The Latin Americans have now realised that Cuento Chino is not a cuento do China… The story of China is not an exaggeration.

China is creating jobs and wealth for the Latin Americans who work hard to provide food to the Chinese people. The Latin Americans dig up deeper in the mines to supply ores and minerals to China and this helps China to continue as the Global manufacturing power. 

China’s investment in Latin America is estimated to be around 120 billion dollars. Brazil has received the bulk of the investment with 61 billion dollars followed by Peru-18 billion, Mexico-6 bn, Argentina-5 bn and Venezuela only 2 billion. 27 billion has gone into mining, 25 bn into oil and 13 billion into electricity sector. The target of investment is 250 billion dollars by 2025, as announced by the Chinese President in 2015 during his visit to Latin America.

The estimated Chinese credit to Latin America is 150 billion dollars. Of this, Venezuela has received 62 billion, Brazil-42 bn, Argentina-18 bn and Ecuador-17 bn. While the earlier credits had flowed into mining and oil, the recent credits are mostly for infrastructure and services.

The China-Latin America trade in 2017 was 257 billion dollars of which Chinese exports were 130 bn and imports 127 bn. The Chinese target is 500 billion dollars by 2025, according to the 2015 announcement by the Chinese President. China has overtaken European Union as the second largest trading partner of Latin America. China is the #1 trade partner for Brazil, Peru and Chile. 

There is a long term win-win complementarity in trade between China and Latin America. The top global exports of Latin America are crude oil, minerals and agro products. China is the leading importer of these items in the world and will continue to be so in the coming years. Latin America is well endowed with oil and minerals and lot of arable land with abundant water reserves. The region has the potential to increase the production and exports of oil and minerals and can increase its agricultural production which can feed another 500 million people outside the region. In contrast, China is losing millions of acres of agricultural land to urbanisation and industrialisation and faces water and pollution problems. So the Chinese see Latin America as a long term source of imports while the Latin Americans can count on China as a long term market for their exports.

In contrast to China, the market of United States for South America has become less important. The US is the principal market for Latin American crude oil exports. But thanks to the shale revolution, the US has become the largest producer of crude in the world now and has drastically reduced imports. The US has no need for so much minerals since the country has shifted its manufacturing to other less expensive countries including China. In the case of agro products the US is a competitor to soybeans and maize exports of Mercosur countries. 

In the 1980s, the US authorites and IMF had imposed the neoliberalistic “ Washington Consensus” policies on the Latin American countries which were transitioning from military dictatorships into democracies. These policies ruined the economies and pushed millions of people into poverty. The Latin Americans bitterly remember this period as the “ Lost Decade”. In contrast, the Latin Americans celebrated the first ten years of the new century as the “ Growth Decade” thanks to the prosperity resulting from the largescale Chinesedemand for commodities and the consequent high prices. The Latin American governments  had used the windfall profits for pro-poor policies with which they have pulled out 70 million people from below poverty lineinto middle class.

The US had exploited Latin America as its “backyard” since the Monroe Doctrine of 1823.  In the name of its “wars on communism, drugs, corruption and immigration’ the US has destabilised the region and undermined democracies and had created and supported military dictatorships. The drug business is a consumer driven business. Millions of Americans pay top dollars to continue their habit of drug consumption. If this is stopped, no outsider will find any profit in supplies. But the US government wrongly blames the producers of coca and the traffickers from Latin America. The US is destroying agricultural fields in Latin America with chemical sprays in the name of eradication of coca plants. On the other hand, the US is responsible for the killings of thousands of Latin Americans every day by the guns smuggled from US. The Latin Americans are frustrated with this hypocrisy and the destructive and negative agenda of US. In contrast, the Chinese agenda for Latin America is constructive and positive. The Chinese construct railways, roads, ports and power stations in the region. Latin America needs massive investment in infrastructure for its development, which China provides.  

While the Washington DC does the political destabilisation of Latin America, the Wall Street and its vulture funds cause havoc in the Latin American markets regularly and systematically. The Wall Street brings in hot money to take advantage of the high interest rates in Latin America periodically and make a quick buck. The money is pulled out suddenly and massively when the interest rate goes up in US or when other aveneues open up for higher profit margins. Such large scale withdrawals cause devaluation and foreign exchange crisis in the countries of the region which have been forced to remove capital controls by the Washington Consensus. 

The Wall Street firms encourage and advise the Latin American governments to issue dollar bonds and oversell them outside the region. When the bond issuing countries have difficulty in servicing the debt, the Wall Street and Washington DC bring in IMF as rescue. The IMF funds are used primarily to pay the creditors while the governments are forced to cut down budgets for social welfare, education and infrastructure. When Argentina rejected the IMF formula and did a successful restructuring on its own in 2002, the Wall Street and Washington DC had excommunicated Argentina from the international capital market and cut off all Fund-Bank resources. The vulture funds which held out against the debt restructuring kept harassing and blackmailing the Argentine government and even threatened to seize the bank accounts of Argentine embassies. They managed to seize  a prestigious Argentine naval vessel in Ghana through a fraudulent local court order. The naval ship was on a world good will tour and its seizure was a grave embarrassment for the country. President Cristina did not travel to US and Europe in the official Argentine plane since there was the risk of seizure of the aircraft by the vulture companies. She had to hire planes for the travels. 

The Chinese had come to the rescue of Argentina, Venezuela, Ecuador and Venezuela when the Washington-Wall Street Fund mafia blocked out international capital when these countries needed the most. The Chinese came to the rescue and provided emergency short term funds and currency swaps. But for the timely and generous Chinese rescue, these countries might have got into serious economic crisis and Venezuela might have collapsed years back.

Trump has been insulting and humiliating Mexicans and Latin Americans with his abuses. To add insult to this injury, the US has criticised El Salvador, Dominican Republic and Panama for their decision to recognise China in place of Taiwan. The US State Department has recalled its ambassadors to the three countries to show its displeasure, threatened aid cut and has advised the other countries in the region (such as Paraguay and Nicaragua) to keep up diplomatic relations with Taiwan. This has bewildered the Latin Americans since the US, UN and over 180 countries of the world have cut off diplomatic relations with Taiwan and recognised China. The Latin Americans see this as yet another attempt to make a fool of them.

Given the historic exploitation and hegemony of US, the Latin Americans welcome China as a relief to counter the US domination, to a limited extent. This is the first time in Latin American history since Monroe Doctrine that an outside power has established a massive presence challenging the US control of the region. The Latin Americans like to play the China card against US to get the best from both. The Latin American presidents who craved to be invited to the White House in the past, now  queue up to make pilgrimage to Beijing with business delegations to promote trade and investment.

Latin America is conscious of the downside and limitations of partnership with China. Firstly, they see it as a purely commercial transactional partner and nothing more. They detest the communist dictatorship of China, having come out of dictatorships themselves after terrible sufferings. They are suspicious of the non-transparent nature of Chinese activities and the overwhelming role of Chinese state companies and financial organisations. There is an enormous cultural and communication gap. They are also hurt by the flooding of less expensive Chinese products which have adversely affected domestic manufacturing sector. 

But the Latin Americans see that China is a manageable risk unlike US whose actions are beyond control. While the US has repeatedly invaded Latin American countries and changed regimes, the Chinese will never dare to do such atrocities in Latin America. The Latin Americans have the option to stop, reduce or reject Chinese credit and investment and manage the Chinese activities smartly. For example when the Chinese  looked around to buy hundreds of thousands of agricultural land, the governments of Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay changed their rules and imposed restrictions on acquisition of agricultural land by foreigners. The Chinese backed out. It may be noted here that these restrictions are only against new investors. They do not affect the ownership of hundreds of thousands of hectares of South American farmland by European and Americans who had invested before the new restrictions.

The Latin Americans would love to see an end to the unipolar world and welcome the rise of other powers to challenge US and minimise the harm and domination of US. At the same time, they would also like to reduce their overdependence on China and diversify their economic partnerships. In this context, they welcome more trade, investment and involvement of India in the region. 

Unfortunately, India has no plan, vision or trade target for Latin America, despite the emergence of the region as a large market for its exports and the region’s contribution to India’s energy and food security through supply of petroleum, vegetable oil and pulses.  

India’s credit to the region is just under 200 million dollars in contrast to the 150 billion Chinese credit. India’s total trade with Latin America is just about the same as China’s trade with Chile which is 36 billion dollars. The Latin Americans hope that India would wake up and take advantage of the opportunities for business in the large and growing middle-income market of Latin America with 620 million people.

India could set a target of 25 billion dollars of export (from 12 billion in 2017), investment (from the current 13 billion) and credit of 5 billion ( from 200 million so far) by the year 2025. This could be announced during the visit of Prime Minister Modi to Buenos Aires in November 2018 for the G-20 summit.

The Wire published an edited version of this article in 




Sunday, July 08, 2018

It is time for President Ortega to go...

  
I used to be an admirer of Daniel Ortega. I liked his poem, ¨I Never Saw Managua When Miniskirts Were in Fashion¨, when he was a political prisoner at the young age of 23.  While in jail, he received visits from Rosario Murillo, a poet. The prisoner and visitor fell in love; Murillo became Ortega's wife. She has published several books of poems. One of them is called as ¨Amar es combatir ¨- to love is to combat. Ortega and his wife underwent sufferings and sacrificed a lot for Nicaragua. They are part of the noble Sandinista Revolution which became a successor to the legendary Cuban revolution. Both these revolutions liberated the countries from foreign-installed dictatorships and succeeded in surviving the illegal and destructive interventions and invasions of US. 


Ruben Dario, the most famous poet and writer of Nicaragua wrote in the beginning of the twentieth century, 

Eres los Estados Unidos,
eres el futuro invasor

You are the United States
you are the future invader

An American mercenary adventurer William Walker maneuvered to appoint himself as President of Nicaragua in 1856 and ruled for a year and even made English as the official language. Walker recruited about a thousand American and European mercenaries to invade the other four Central American nations: GuatemalaEl SalvadorHonduras, and Costa Rica. This was supported by the American tycoon Cornelius Vanderbilt who had business interests in the region. Fortunately the invasion failed and Walker was later executed.

Ortega was a hero of the Sandinista revolution which liberated Nicaragua from the notorious Somoza dictatorship, which was installed by the US.  When the Somoza dictatorship was overthrown by the Sandinistas, the US waged a ruthless Contra-War against the Sandinista government and made the country bleed.  In the name of the Contra War, the Americans destabilised the region of Central America itself, again. 


After coming to power, the Sandinistas have contributed to democratic stability, economic growth and social peace to the country, while their neighbours Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras suffer on all three counts. You don’t hear of Nicaraguans crossing into US border illegally. When they lost the elections in 1989, the Sandinistas left the government peacefully, quietly and gracefully. They waited for their time and won the elections in 2006 and came back to power.  The Sandinista government has brought about land reforms and have made life better for the masses with their socialistic policies.

Here the good story ends..

When Ortega reached out to Catholic religious establishment and the private sector business, I thought he was becoming pragmatic, growing out of his narrow ideological boundaries. But Ortega has now compromised his ideology and principles with the only aim of hanging on to power by hook or crook. He has made the government as a family business, having given lot of power to his wife who is now the vice president. His son was the chief negotiator on the Nicaragua canal project. Many revolutionaries who were comrades of Ortega have left him disappointed and frustrated by his personal egoistic agenda.

But President Ortega has turned out to be yet another betrayer of a great revolution. He has given a bad name to socialism, by misusing it to perpetuate himself in power. His government is facing protests against his regime. Many protestors have got killed by the Nicaraguan police.

The worst is his blatant sacrifice of ideology for pure money making. He had promised to restore diplomatic relations with China and break Taiwan relations. But he still carries on with relations with Taiwan unashamedly even while centre-right governments in Latin America have recognised China.

Ortega’s announcement of the Nicaragua canal project to be done by an unknown Chinese company was simply and purely a scam.. There is no realistic possibility of building the canal at this time. 

Now Ortega is facing protests especially from students and young people. The Nicaraguans are fed up with the Ortega family dictatorship. But clearly, the protests are being supported by funds and guidance from US which has smelled yet another opportunity to overthrow a democratically elected government in Latin America.  


I wish Ortega leaves power peacefully without betraying the noble Sandinista revolution. He can call for early elections and prove that the majority is with him. Or even better, if he lets other leaders come up. I hope he does not become another Chavez under whom and his successor Venezuela has been destroyed. Chavez and Ortega should be the warning signals for Evo Morales ( I am an admirer of this first elected native Indian president in Latin American history ), who is also toying with the idea of prolonging his rule.

Tuesday, May 01, 2018

Gang violence in Central America

El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala in Central America have the highest homicide rates in the world. Gangs, popularly known as Maras, are responsible for much of the violence and crime. Most of the killers and victims are gang members themselves in turf battles. Mara Salvatrucha, popularly known as MS-13 and the Barrio 18 (18thstreet gang) are the two dominant gangs which hold the three central American countries to ransom. The rivalry between these two became so violent at one stage in 2012, the government of El Salvador 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, over a million people had fled to US to escape the violence. Many of them went to Los Angeles, which has been described in the official website ( http://www.lapdonline.org/get_informed/content_basic_view/1396) of the LA Police Department, “ The County and City of Los Angeles are the “gang capital” of the nation.  There are more than 450 active gangs in the City of Los Angeles. Many of these gangs have been in existence for over 50 years. These gangs have a combined membership of over 45,000 individuals”.  Unable to fit in the social milieu, the poor and marginalised illegal immigrant youth joined the criminal gangs in LA. The Reagan administration denied refugee status to these Central American immigrants, who were forced into clandestine lives. In the nineties, the US authorities cracked down on the gangs and deported thousands of the gang members to Central America. 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 these countries. The gangs have evolved a culture of tattoos, brutal rites of initiation, extortion, crime and drug trafficking. It is worth noting that both the MS-13 and Barrio-18 gangs are still active in many states of the US, even after the deportations.



The US is responsible, to a large extent, for the civil wars in Central America. To protect and promote the commercial interests of the American corporations in the region, the US administration had converted the Central American countries as ‘banana republics’ by undermining democracies and encouraging and installing right wing military dictatorships. In 1954, CIA overthrew the democratically elected leftist government of Arbenz in Guatemala and installed pro-US military dictatorship. The immediate reason for the coup was the Guatemalan government’s land reforms which affected the interests of United Fruit Company, the single largest land owner in Guatemala and which had over three million acres of land in Central America. Incidentally, Che Guavara got his anti-imperialistic revolutionary inspiration after seeing personally the destruction of the Guatemalan democracy by the US. Using the pretext of anticommunism, the US had forced the governments and security agencies of Central America to persecute leftist parties and liberals. When Sandinistas came to power in 1979 after defeating the US-supported Somoza dictatorship, the Reagan administration turned its guns against Nicaragua and involved the other Central American countries too in the dirty and illegal “ Contra War” against the Sandinista government. The US sent arms, trained local militias and waged an all out war to hurt Nicaragua and tried to bring about regime change.  While playing this US game, the right wing dictators and death squads in the region had killed hundreds of thousands of opponents of the regimes and innocent people.

The fundamental reason for the violence and crime is, of course, poverty and income disparity in the region and the indifference of the oligarchs in power to the struggle of the masses. The neoliberal economic policies forced on the Central American governments by the “Washington Consensus” had increased poverty and inequality while the oligarchs gained more wealth. The continuing crime and violence have made it more challenging for the countries to increase economic growth and job creation, causing a vicious cycle. The tax rates and revenues of the three Central American countries are very low with the result that the governments do not have enough funds for welfare programmes. On the other hand, the gangs harass and extort money from the shop keepers, transport operators and others vitiating the business atmosphere and hindering economic growth.



The security forces of the region have also become part of the problem rather than than solution. In some cases, the military and police take protection money from the gangs and even join them in extortions and killings. 

Some Central American governments resorted to harsher punitive methods against the gangs through Mano Dura (strong hand) policies. They had cracked down on the gangs with mass detentions and extra judicial killings.  US security agencies such as FBI and DEA had a hand in pushing the Central American security forces to use harsher methods.  ‘Zero tolerance’ policies were sold to Central America by  ex-policy makers and police chiefs of US. But this harsh policy had the opposite effect and became counter productive. The gang members retaliated against the government and security forces with fierce counter attacks. When the authorities filled the jails with suspected gang members along with many innocent youth, the gangs recruited the detainees and became stronger. The jails have in fact have become the command centres for the gang leaders. 

Another reason for the high homicide rates is the liberal gun laws and free availability of illegal guns smuggled from US. The gun shops in the US states bordering Mexico do big volume business of selling guns without adequate verifications. The illegally sold arms end up in Mexico and Central America. In the case of drugs, the US claims that the production and trafficking from Latin America is the main problem and wants to stop the supplies through aerial chemical spraying of fields and arrest of traffickers. But the US does not use the same supply side logic to help in stopping the killings in Mexico and Central America with the guns produced and supplied from US.  

Central America will continue to be a transit for drug trafficking and the consequent gang violence, as long as millions of Americans continue to pay billions of dollars to consume illegal drugs. The US has to admit this simple and clear truth that illegal drugs are basically a consumer driven business and has to take action within the US to stop the consumption. There will be no sellers if there are no buyers…No brainer, in American speak..



While the US is an important factor for the gang violence in Central America, one should, however, give the credit due to US for two things: the large remittances of the emigrants in US is a major source of foreign exchange revenue for Central America; Secondly, these countries benefit from the Free Trade Agreements (CAFTA) with US, which has given duty free access for Central American goods. The FTA has given rise to a sizeable maquiladora (assembly) industry in Central America for exports to US.
  
While the gang violence continues unabated in El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala, their next door neighbour Nicaragua has not let the big gangs to take root.  This is interesting since Nicaragua is much poorer in comparison to the other three and had suffered worse in the Contra War waged by the US. The CIA had recruited mercenaries from Guatemala and Honduras  and armed them to attack Nicaragua in addition to instigating right wing Nicaraguan gangs to fight against the leftist Sandinista government. But the Nicaraguan authorities have prevented the emergence of gangs by their humane methods of community  policing and effective disarmament of the civil war fighters. The police department had programmes to prevent youth crimes and to rehabilitate the youth who had gone astray or were vulnerable. The socialist Sandinista government had better pro-poor policies and had distributed land to the poor. 

Another important reason why Nicaragua is spared of the big gangs is that they did not receive criminal deportees from LA. Those Nicaraguans who had emigrated illegally to US went mostly to Miami and not LA.  In Miami, the Nicaraguan immigrants were given a sympathetic treatment by the state administration (thanks to the lobby of right wing Cuban emigres who disliked the socialistic Sandinistas) which gave them refugee status and did not deport many Nicaraguans. So the Nicaraguan immigrants were less desperate in Miami which does not have the gang culture as it exists in LA.

Amidst the gang violence in Central America, Costa Rica stands out as an island of peace, thanks to its enlightened political leadership which has uplifted the poor and reduced income disparity with welfare policies and focus on education and health care. The Costa Ricans have avoided military dicatorships after their abolition of armed forces in 1949. The Costa Rican government refused to be part of the Contra war of US and kept its neutrality. In fact, Oscar Arias, the Costa Rican president took the initiative to bring about ceasefire and peace through negotiations between the warring parties in the region. Arias was awarded a Nobel peace prize for this.

Both Nicaragua and Costa Rica had rejected any security assistance from US and did not allow their security and intelligence agencies to be corrupted and commandeered by the US, as it happened in the case of the other three countries.  US has a military base in Honduras which suffered, not surprisingly, a coup in 2009, the only coup in the twenty first century Latin America. Panama has learnt from Costa Rica and abolished its army in 1990. Nicaragua has reduced the size of the army which is very small, with a limited budget. The Northern Triangle countries (Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras) have much to learn from Costa Rica and Nicaragua.

The gang violence in Central America is distinct from the experience of Mexico, Colombia and Brazil, where the big drug cartels are responsible for much of the crimes. These cartels are more powerful with money, firepower and political contacts in comparion to the Maras, described as the Mafia of the Poor. The Maras blackmail and kill low level workers such as bus and taxi drivers for small change.  While Colombia has succeeded to a large extent in liberating the country from the drug cartels and guerrillas, Mexico and Brazil have seen increase in cartel crimes. Drug trafficking has not become big in Central America since their local drug markets are small and their gangs are just minor players in comparison to the big league cartels of Mexico. While Central America is a transit route for the drugs going to US, the local gangs get only a small share of the trafficking revenue from the Mexican cartels. 

The gang violence in Central America is certainly much smaller in scale than what happened in Medellin. Pablo Escobar and the drug cartels had ruined the city which was labelled as a narco-crime capital. Escobar and the other rich traffickers had held the Colombian government to ransom with their money, clout and capacity to hurt. But today, Medellin has dramatically transformed into a peaceful and vibrant city. Businesses are flourishing and tourism is booming. It has become a silicon valley of the region with a number of tech companies and professionals including from India. Colombia had suffered much more from the guerrillas in addition to the drug traffickers and was almost branded as a failed state at one time. But the country has come out of these scourges and has become peaceful and prosperous. Central America can certainly repeat the Medellin act.. 

 Sources:
-“Maras: Gang violence and security in Central America” book, edited by Thomas Bruneau, Lucia Dammert and Elizabeth Skinner and published in 2011
-Congressional research paper-2016 https://fas.org/sgp/crs/row/RL34112.pdf




Monday, January 22, 2018

In the Midst of Winter



In her latest novel "In the Midst of Winter”( mas alla del invierno), published in November 2017, Isabel Allende brings together a trio of tragic stories from Chile, Brazil and Guatemala. 

The three protagonists Lucia, Richard and Evelyn meet together after a minor car accident caused while driving in the snow in Brooklyn, New York. In the course of trying to solve the problem of dead body in the trunk of the car, they start telling each other their life stories which are poignant accounts of violence, dictatorship, struggles, exile and migration.

The Chilean dictatorship, disappearances and deaths are familiar themes in many novels of Allende.  Her portrayal is authentic since she herself is a victim of the Pinochet dictatorship from which she escaped to Venezuela on exile and finally migrated to the United States, where she is living since 1988. In this story, Lucia Maraz is the Chilean character, whose family is subjected to suffering by the military dictatorship. Lucia’s brother Enrique is one of the ‘disappeared’, as punishment for his left wing activism. When the secret police comes after Lucia also alleging that she is a sympathiser of guerrillas, she seeks asylum in the Venezuelan embassy. Later she goes on to live as an exile in Venezuela and Canada. She returns to Chile after the restoration of democracy. She comes as a visiting professor to New York where she gets to meet the other two characters.


Lucia is described by the author as “ blessed with the stoic character of her people, accustomed to earthquakes, floods, tsunamis and political cataclysms”. Lucia grows worried if there is no disaster within a given length of time. And disaster comes in the form of a snowstorm in the winter of 2015. Her basement apartment is freezing and it makes her feel even more lonely and insecure.  But the New York winter cannot subdue Lucia’s Latino heart which pines for the warmth of sex, romance and love. Lucia, aged sixty two, is looking for mature love, after her divorce and a few flings in her earlier life.  She fantasises about romance with her landlord Richard who lives in the house above her basement.  The car accident in the middle of winter gives her the opportunity to melt the ice cold Richard and win him over. When Richard recalls his sins and sad past, Lucia tells him, “ Enough wallowing in the sorrows of the past. The only cure for so much misfortune is love”. 


Through the story of Richard Bowmaster, the author brings out some Brazilian cultural aspects. He goes to Rio for his research work on the Brazilian dictatorship and there he falls in love with the Brazilian dance teacher Anita. Unable to adjust to Anita’s complex personality and her large extended family, he takes to drinking and drugs and runs his car over his own son killing him accidentally. He returns to US to work in the New York University as professor for Latin America studies. After Anita’s death, Richard leads an austere life in the company of his four cats named um, dois, tres and quatro in Portuguese. Lucia finds him as ‘ liviano de sangre’ a chilean expression for someone who is good natured and loveable.

Evelyn Ortega, the Guatemalan without documents, works as a nanny in the New York house of Frank Leroy who is involved in human trafficking of Latin Americans into US. Evelyn is from a small Guatemalan village Monja Blanca del Valle, which is also the name of the the national flower. Evelyn’s mother migrates to US, like many of her compatriots, to earn a safe livelihood and to escape the violence in the country. The Guatemalans who had earlier suffered the reign of terror of the right wing regimes are now traumatised by more cruelty and violence inflicted by the deadly gangs such as MS-13. Evelyn and her two brothers are brought up by their grand mother. The elder brother joins MS-13 but is killed and his body hung over a bridge when he is suspected of betrayal. In its typical way of revenge on the whole family, the gang kills the other brother also and rapes and brutalises Evelyn.  After seeing the gruesome death of her brothers and her own nightmare of rape, Evelyn loses speech and starts stammering and becoming almost like a mute. The grandmother sends her with a coyote to enter US illegally through Mexico. On the way she and her group face the Mexican gangs who torment the migrants with extortion and violence. Evelyn is lucky to reach her mother and later to get to work with the Leroy family.


The experience of the main characters in the three countries are not much different from reality. Fortunately, Chile has now become peaceful and free from violence. But Brazil has pockets of violence in major cities where drug traffickers operate. Guatemala still continues to suffer from the gang violence along with Honduras, El Salvador and Mexico. In fact, the actual violence and crime are much worse than the fictional portrayal of Allende. 

Allende uses every opportunity to compare and contrast Latino and American cultures, based on her own experience of living in US since 1982. This is one of the recurrent themes in her novels. She briefly mentions Trump whose hate speeches have hurt the feelings and image of Latin Americans. Trump ignores the fact that it is the US which is mainly responsible for the past and present tragedies of Latin America through its consumption of and demand for drugs as well as its political destabilisation of the region on the pretext of containing communism. The CIA had the lead role in the overthrow of democratically elected governments of President Arbenz of Guatemala in 1954, President Goulart of Brazil in 1964 and President Allende of Chile in 1973 and subsequent installation of military dictatorships which were responsible for death and disappearance of hundreds of thousands of people in the three countries.



Having read most of her books, I found that the main plot of this novel is somewhat thin and less complex than her previous works. But the author’s focus on the Latin American spirit,  colours and expressions takes the readers through a virtual journey of the fascinating region .
Allende is at her best when she gives voice to the female characters in her novels. They are emotional but strong enough to survive and succeed at the end. It is for this reason that she has been described as the diva of “ Magical Feminism”. Some of her novels belong to the Latin American signature genre of “ Magical Realism”.

Allende’s inspiration for the title of her book is the following quote of Albert Camus,“ In the midst of winter, I finally found there was within me an invincible summer”. In her own winter years at the age of 75, the summer of Latino love is still shining within Isabel Allende. In one of her interviews, Allende says,”I have been in love all my life, with different men, of course. Love is beautiful and melodramatic”.  In this novel as well as in her last one “The Japanese lover”, the theme is about old people falling in love. In an essay written in November 2017, she says,” I am in my seventies and I want love, passion and romance, like any teenager, but match.com is not for me. No one online would ever be interested in a short, bossy Latina grand mother. Now, if I get to meet a guy I like in person, well that’s different. I grab him by the neck, or whatever part of him is closest to me, and he doesn’t stand a chance. We humans are sexual and sentimental creatures to the very end of our lives, a fact that makes my grandchildren cringe. This reminds me of the advice given by my Argentine friends at my retirement party in May 2012, “ Don’t stop having fun when you are old. You become old only when you stop having fun”.

Monday, January 01, 2018

தென்னமெரிக்க தமிழர்கள் - South American Tamils

I was browsing in Amazon for books to kick off new year reading yesterday. One of the titles, "தென்னமெரிக்க தமிழர்கள்" (Thennamerica Thamizhargal-South American Tamils) struck me like a lightning. It had the effect of not only intriguing me but it also challenged my self-proclaimed Latin America expertise. How come I did not know the Tamil link to South America despite having spent twelve years in the region and read so many books on Latin America. So I ordered the book on kindle and read it immediately. It did not take much time to finish reading, since it is just 174 pages. The book, published in July 2017, is in Tamil language only. 

The author, Naveena Alexander, has tried to establish a link between ancient Tamils and the Meso Americans such as Olmecs, Aztecs and Mayas. He claims that the Tamils had discovered the American continent long before the Europeans  and much before the birth of Jesus Christ.  He believes that the Tamils had the capacity to travel long distance through the oceans, with their knowledge of the winds and ocean streams. He is of the view that the Tamils had established trade settlements in Meso American ( Mexico and the northern part of Central America) region. He has identified some similarities between the Tamil and Mesoamerican cultures. Pity..He has forgotten to mention the common role of ‘chillies’ in the spicy Mexican and Tamil food.

But the book has not done justice to the audacious title it bears. The author has given flights to his fancy based on speculations and conjectures, without any credible evidence to prove his theories. However, he has given an overview of the history and culture of Mesoamericans which is educative for the readers in Tamil language. 

I called the author who lives in Chennai. His real name is David J Praveen. I told him about my feeling about the book. He told me to wait till his next book on the Incas and other South American native Indians come out. He sees Tamil connection with the Indians of the Andean region too. He is enthusiastic about his discoveries and theories.  He recalls having read a Tamil book " South American Cholas". There is, of course, proof that the Cholas had conquered south east Asia but South America? hmm..

Praveen is a prolific writer and has authored over a dozen books on diverse topics such as artifice intelligence, e-commerce giants, Magic and Magicians,the streets of the colonial city of Madras and the mystery of Egyptian pyramids. His mission is to educate and provoke the curiosity of the readers in Tamil language. 

My curiosity, triggered by his book, took me to google for information on Tamil link to South America. I was not disappointed. A historian and General Secretary of Kanyakumari Historical and Cultural Centre, Mr S Padmanabhan has found striking similarities between South Indian and Mayan culture. He claims that the ‘Padala Logo’ ruled by Mahabali, as described by the Puranas, is actually Mexico. The Professor had found evidence to this theory during his field trips in Mexico. In a lecture in 2010, he has claimed that there is influence of Dravidian culture, particularly Keralite culture in Mayan architecture, domestic equipment and social and religious practices. He has called for research into the submerged Kumari continent and the Mayans.

Am I puzzled and confused after reading these? Not at all. In fact I see a clear and solid similarity between the South Indians and Latin Americans. That similarity is ‘Magical Realism”, the signature genre of Latin American literature. Magical realism blurs the line between imagination and reality. In fact, some Malayalee scholars have claimed that magical Realism was invented by O V Vijayan in ‘Khasakkinte Itihasam’, much before Gabriel Garcia Marquez. No wonder that the book “ one hundred years of solitude” was the best seller in Kerala at one time. More on this in my earlier blog http://latinamericanaffairs.blogspot.in/2016/08/malayali-adventures-in-land-of-marquez_16.html#links

Perhaps the theory of Magical Realism explains why the Tamils vote for actors to become chief ministers. They don’t seem to distinguish between the filmy magic and the political reality. 

In any case, the South India-South American link of Magical Realism promises to be an interesting area for research..

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Volver al Oscuro Valle - return to the dark valley - book review

"Volver al oscuro valle" ( Return to the dark valley), the latest novel of the Colombian writer Santiago Gamboa, explores the Colombian society in the aftermath of the peace process agreed between the government and the FARC guerrillas. While most Colombians are trying their best 'to forget and forgive', it is impossible to do so for some of the victims who had suffered terrible trauma by the violence and crimes committed by FARC and others. Manuela Bertran a Colombian, who lives in Madrid, cannot get over the cruel way in which the guerrillas killed her father in front of her when she was a child. After this tragedy, Manuela, goes through more sufferings in school and afterwards. But she manages to finish university studies in philology in Madrid where she has an accidental encounter with the Consul. When Manuela proposes to go back to Cali on her revenge mission, the Consul and his Colombian friend Juana accompany her. Tertuliano, the Argentine pries, tracks down the guerrilla who killed the parents of Manuela and gets him tortured and killed.





On the trip to Colombia, Manuela, Juana and the Consul are overwhelmed by nostalgia and nightmares of their past lives in Colombia and  feel as though they have returned to a dark valley.

Tertuliano, the crazy Argentine priest claims to be the son of Pope Francis. According to his story, the the Archbishop of Buenos Aires Jorge Mario Bergoglio ( before he became the Pope) was requested for mediation with the Argentine guerrilla group Montoneros to release a family member of the rich Bunge family kidnapped by them during the time of military dictatorship. Bergoglio is advised to wait in a hotel room in Cordoba for a call from the guerrillas. One day, there is a knock on the door from the hotel cleaning service. The cleaning lady turns out to be a member of Montoneros. She and the priest finalize the deal for the release of the kidnaped businessman for a hefty ransom. But during the negotiations, the lady stays in the night with Bergoglio. This is how Tertuliano is born. Who knows?  This reminds me of the true story of the Paraguayan catholic priest Fernando Lugo who became the President of the country in 2008. Soon, a Paraguayan woman claimed that she had a son through Lugo. President Lugo accepted the claim and agreed to take care of the family's financial needs. Later, another woman came out with a similar story. Lugo did not deny or nor accept this. Then there was a chorus of more claims from other women. Father Fernando Lugo came to be called jokingly as "the father of the nation". In any other country the President would have been impeached. But not in Paraguay, where they took the scandal as part of life and moved on. Why the Paraguayans did not make a big fuss is ..yes ..another big story. President Lugo was later impeached for a trivial reason by the Congress. 

Gamboa has combined this Colombian story with the real life story of the French poet Arthur Rimbaud. Manuela, Juana and the ex-consul are admirers of Rimbaud. Gamboa takes the reader on a fascinating journey with the poet prodigy whose provincial character and Bohemian life shocks even the Parisian society given to libertine excesses and experiments. Rimbaud has a torrid affair with an older poet Paul Verlaine, driving him and his wife and family to nuts. Rimbaud gives up poetry for a while and goes to Ethiopia and Yemen to try his hand in coffee and arms trade. Consumed by diseases, he dies in France at a young age. The story of Rimbaud's stay in Harar, a trading post in Ethiopia, inspires the Colombian characters so much that they also visit Harar after completing their revenge mission in Colombia.

Gamboa's linkage of the Colombian characters with the French poet has made the novel not only colorful but also profound with literary and cultural richness. Gamboa quotes many of Rimbaud's poems and put them in perspective giving the readers the background of emotions which drove Rimbaud at different times. Almost half of the book is devoted to Rimbaud's story. Gamboa has cleverly juxtaposed the violence in the Colombian society with the violence of war in Europe which Rimbaud witnesses first hand. 

There is a side story of Boko Haram terrorists holding the Irish embassy in Madrid as hostage. Gamboa has used this episode to explore terrorism and its shocking impact on the democratic and civilized societies. He has also introduced a character from Equatorial Guinea who works as a nurse in a prison hospital in Madrid and loves Rimbaud's poems.

Gamboa, who had worked as a cultural attaché in the Colombian embassy in Delhi, had made an interesting connection between  Colombia and Asia in his earlier novel " Night prayers". My blog on this book http://latinamericanaffairs.blogspot.in/2016/12/night-prayers-colombian-novel_31.html#links. Juana, the Consul and the Mexican diplomat in the novel " Night Prayers"have continued their stories in Volver al oscuro valle.

Gamboa has covered a wide spectrum of the political, economic, social and cultural issues of Colombia as well the rest of the world and has interpreted and analyzed them philosophically and intellectually. He uses the characters of Bergoglio, Tertuliano and another priest Fernando Palacios to examine the religious and moral issues.




Since he is a Colombian writer, Gamboa is often asked about and compared to the greatest writer from his country Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Gamboa distinguishes himself as having the mindset of the cosmopolitan city of Bogota, which is cool at an altitude of 8000 feet. He does not relate much to the hot and humid Aracataca in the Caribbean part of Colombia where Marquez was born. While the Bogotans are formal, reserved and sober in taste, the Caribbeans are informal, talkative, laugh loud and like bright colors. Marquez has written mostly about Colombia. But Gamboa has explored other countries besides Colombia. His Colombian characters living in and travelling to other countries give their experience of other cultures. He says he was influenced by the American writer Paul Theroux's advice to writers, "Read a lot of books and then leave home". This is the reason why Gamboa has chosen the Consul as a protagonist in his novels. The Consul lives abroad, moving from country to country, and interacts with other peoples. Gamboa has not given a name to the Consul who narrates his story in first person. It appears that the romantic, poetry reciting and gin loving Consul is the alter ego of Gamboa himself.  Gamboa admits to being inspired by the Consul characters in the novels of Malcolm Lowry's " Under the Volvano" as well as Graham Green's " Honorary Consul" and Marguerite Duras's " the Vice Consul". It is a pity that Neruda who was a Consul in Rangoon did not write much about his Asian experience.

Having enjoyed the two books of Gamboa, I have just bought another one ' Perder es question de metodo' ( loss is a matter of method). I can't wait to start…

Wednesday, April 05, 2017

Lenin's Ecuador victory lifts the Leftist spirit in Latin America

Lenin Moreno (popularly called as Lenin), the leftist candidate has won the Presidential run-off elections of Ecuador on 2 April, beating his rightist rival Guillermo Lasso, a wealthy banker.

Moreno's victory is being celebrated by the Latin American Left which had lost power to the right in Argentina and Peru in the recent elections. In Brazil and Paraguay, the rightists have brought down the leftist Presidents through constitutional coups. There is talk of 'retreat of the left' and 'fading of the pink tide' in the region. Against this background, the victory in Ecuador has come as a moral boost to the Left in the region. Moreno is the hand-picked candidate of the leftist President Rafael Correa, who has ruled the country since 2007. The outspoken Correa is known for his fierce crusade against neoliberalism and Washington Consensus. He had refused to sign FTA with US and pulled out of the negotiations even when the other neighbours Colombia and Peru went ahead. He closed the American airbase in Ecuador when the lease expired in 2009. In a bold move, he gave asylum to Julian Assange who is wanted by US prosecutors after he had published secret American documents in 'wikileaks'. Assange is still staying in the Ecuadorian embassy in London since June 2012. Lasso threatened to evict him if he won the election.


The victory of the Left in Ecuador comes as a relief and hope for those frustrated with the rise of the right-wing extremism in Europe, US and some other parts of the world. It should not be forgotten that the Left continues to rule in Bolivia, Chile, Uruguay and Venezuela. Ex-President Lula is still rated as a potential winner in the next elections in Brazil, if he is not banned by right-wing conspiracy. The chances of Lopez Obrador, the Mexican Leftist candidate, has become brighter in the elections next year, as a reaction against the anti-Mexican diatribes of Trump. 

The credit for the victory of the Left in Ecuador goes to the the exemplary performance of Rafael Correa's government in the last ten years. Correa has pulled the country out of its economic mess of the past when it had suffered one crisis after another. He has reduced the poverty rate from 40% in 2006 to 23% in 2016. He has doubled the social spending and improved the living standards, infrastructure and public services. He has included native Indians and other marginalized groups in the political and economic development. He achieved all these without stoking inflation, which stood at 1.3% in 2016. Under his government, economic growth increased steadily while unemployment decreased. He redrew the unequal oil and mining contracts of the multinational corporations and made them pay more. He used the additional revenue for education and healthcare. Alarmed by the fact that 38% the government revenue went to service external debt, he cut it down by aggressive and compulsory restructuring and by standing up to IMF and World Bank and the western creditor mafia. While his close friend Chavez ruined the Venezuelan economy with disastrous policies in the name of 'Twenty first century socialism', Correa, who got his economics Masters and PhD from a US university, showed pragmatism. For example, he continued the policy of his predecessors in keeping US dollar as the country's currency as part of the economic stabilization, despite his anti-US rhetoric and his own criticism of dollarisation when it was introduced in 2000. 

More importantly, Correa gave political stability to the country which was notorious for chronic political instability. It had seen eight presidents in the previous ten years and witnessed military coups and congressional impeachment of Presidents before Correa came to power in 2007.  Three of his predecessors in the previous ten years were forced out of office before completing their terms. Correa was the first Ecuadorian President elected to serve a third consecutive term in the last hundred years of Ecuador's history. After his first election in 2006, Correa got a new constitution approved in 2008 under which he won the elections in 2009 and 2013. Correa is leaving the Presidency honorably with his head high and a respectable approval rating of 44% after ten years in power. He has announced that he would pursue academic work in Belgium, where he had done university studies and married a Belgian student.

Moreno, who had served as Vice President during Correa's first term (2007-13), has promised continuation of Correa's inclusive agenda of development. He is more moderate and conciliatory than his sharp-tongued and thin-skinned combative predecessor who was intolerant of criticism. Moreno is a paraplegic and uses wheel chair, after he was shot in a robbery attempt in 1998. He had used 'laughter therapy' as part of his recovery process and has created a foundation "Eventa" to promote humor and joy as a way of life. He is the author of numerous books on his theory of humor.

Lasso, who lost narrowly with 48.83% of votes as against Moreno's 51.17 %, is contesting the results claiming irregularities. He has asked  his supporters to protest peacefully but forcefully. But he has not come out with solid evidence to substantiate his allegations. The external missions of observers sent by the Organisation of American States (OAS) and UNASUR (the South American community of States) have not reported any adverse observations on the polls. In fact, the Secretary General of OAS has already congratulated Moreno for his victory. It may be noted that Lasso  got 10% less votes than Moreno's 39.36 in the first round of elections held in February. His party CREO got just 34 seats while Moreno's Alliance Pais (Country Alliance) party has got 74 and secured a majority in the 137- member National Assembly in the February elections. Lasso had lost to Correa in the 2013 Presidential election getting  just 22.7% vis-a vis Correas's 57%.

Ecuador, a small country with a population of 16.4 million and 100 billion US dollars of GDP, depends largely on oil exports for its revenues. With the drastic decline in oil prices in the last two years, the country faces problems of budget deficit, foreign exchange shortage and austerity. The GDP growth in 2017 is projected to be just 0.3% after the contraction of 2% in 2016. The country is in deep debt to China which has given a cumulative credit of 17.4 billion dollars. The Chinese are taking oil against repayment and are dominating in the oil, mining and infrastructure sectors of Ecuador.The excessive dependence on China for credit and investment is the price Correa had to pay in view of the hostile and high-handed approach of western cartel of financial institutions.


India's trade with Ecuador was 378 million US dollars in 2016 (January-December) of which exports were 165 million and imports 213 m. India's imports have fallen drastically from 987 m in 2014, due to the fall in price of crude, the main import of India. Ecuador is an OPEC member with an estimated 8 billion barrels of proven reserves and daily production of 540,000 barrels. TCS has implemented a 150 million dollar IT project for Banco Pichincha of Ecuador. This is one of their largest contracts in the region. India had exported seven Dhruv helicopters to Ecuador but four of them have crashed. The delay in amicable resolution of this issue has caused some strain in bilateral relations. In spite of this, Ecuador is keen to strengthen trade with India and attract Indian investment. It had sent a large business and government delegation headed by their Vice President to the Indo-LAC Business Conclave organized by CII in December 2013. PetroEcuador has signed a MOU with ONGC Videsh Ltd (OVL) for cooperation in hydrocarbons. Ecuador has established a consulate in Mumbai besides an embassy in New Delhi. This is noteworthy given the fact that only Brazil and Argentina are the other Latin American countries with consulates in Mumbai. It is time for India to consider opening an embassy in Quito. Ecuador is more important than Iceland where India has an embassy for unknown reasons. India's exports to Iceland are less than 20 million dollars and imports below 5 million. The cold and barren Iceland, with a tiny population of 330,000 and an insignificant GDP, does not have oil, minerals or opportunities like Ecuador has.