Saturday, January 12, 2019

Bolsonaro, Bible and Bullet


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

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



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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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



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

https://www.theweek.in/theweek/more/2019/01/11/bible-beef-and-bullet.html


Thursday, January 03, 2019

Roma - the Mexican film

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



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

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

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

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

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



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




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

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




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

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


Saturday, November 17, 2018

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


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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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.