Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Remembering Simon Bolivar

Simon Bolivar's birthday on 24 July was commemorated by the new proactive Venezuelan Ambassador Augusto Montiel who organized a gathering to discuss the legacy of El Libertador (the Liberator). 

Bolivar is not just a Liberator of Venezuela. He has a special place in the history of Latin America as the hero of independence of not one country but five;  Venezuela, Colombia, Peru, Ecuador and Bolivia. In fact, Bolivia was named after him which is unique in the history of the world. He went even beyond the five countries and had a vision for Latin America as a whole. He was the first true Latin American dreamer, thinker and statesman who laid the foundation for regional unity. It is this legacy which endures to inspire Latin America even now.

Bolivar was an inspiring leader of many dimensions. He was a an audacious and exceptional military strategist who lead successful campaigns against the Spanish colonial forces. He was a revolutionary and a political thinker. Although he came from a wealthy oligarchic family, he became a reformer championing equality and abolition of slavery. He called on the governments to provide education as the fundamental duty.

Bolivar was a colorful Latino personality and had as many conquests in the camp of the opposite sex as in the battlefields. But the macho mujeriego, was himself conquered by La Libertadora del Libertador (lady liberator of the liberator) Manuelita Saenz. Her story is portrayed poignantly in a  Venezuelan film with the same title, released in 2000.

Critics point to the inconsistencies and contradictions of his personality and especially his dictatorial inclinations. While there is truth in these, they should be seen in the larger perspective in the context of the time of political instability and challenges faced by the newly liberated countries without adequate preparation to rule by themselves. 

It was Bolivar who made the first official call for Latin American integration in 1824. As president of Gran Colombia, he invited the other countries in the region to send diplomatic representatives to the proposed Congress of Panama in 1826. In this conference, a Treaty of Union, League and Perpetual Confederation was signed on 15 July by the Andean and Central American states as well as Mexico. The Treaty which consisted of 31 articles provided for common defense and resolution of territorial disputes among other things. It was an extraordinary and ambitious achievement at that time of the history of the region. Although this union did not survive, it provided inspiration to many other attempts at integration since then. The latest is the formation of  CELAC, the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States in 2011. While its goals are modest, it is a useful forum for the countries of the region to have their own identity and voice without the intrusive presence of US. Besides this larger union, the countries of the region have established several subregional groups such as Mercosur,Andean Community, SICA, ALBA and Pacific Alliance. Thanks to these groupings, there is substantial increase in intra-regional trade, cooperation and free movement of people. 

Integration is not only useful for facilitation of free movement of trade, services, capital and people. It has given collective strength and security. UNASUR, the union of the 12 South American countries formed in 2008 as an umbrella organization for security among other goals, has already set successful examples of protection of democracies and sovereignty of member countries. It had sent delegations to defuse political crisis when the democratically elected governments were challenged in Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador in recent times. In 1996, Mercosur had prevented a military coup by Gen Oviedo in Paraguay. But for these timely and decisive initiatives by the regional groups, the coup makers and their external patrons might have succeeded in messing up the democracies of those countries. Even now, Venezuela would have faced more external threats if it were not a member of Mercosur and Unasur. The external forces have certainly been deterred and they are now more cautious and less blatant ( as was the case in Honduras) because of the regional unity.

Bolivar was prophetic when he said' The United States appear to be destined by providence to plague Latin America with misery in the name of liberty". Latin America has been a victim of US military interventions and its support to military dictatorships and polarization of societies in the name of its anti-communist war. The latest case was the support to the coupsters in Honduras in 2009 when the democratically elected government of President Manuel Zelaya was overthrown. The war on drugs is another excuse for US intrusion into Latin American internal affairs. While the Latin Americans need to exercise constant vigilance against external threats, it does not mean that they should continue the bad habit of using external bogey to hide their internal flaws and problems. The Latin Americans need to set their own countries in order with political stability and inclusive economic growth.

Monday, July 13, 2015

'seduce me' says La India to Latin America

Hari Seshasayee cannot stop listening to 'seduceme', a salsa by Latino singer 'La India' ( her real name Linda Viera Cabellero) He has let himself be seduced by salsa and Latin America. He is the the latest victim of the magic of Latin America. He has surrendered himself to the Latino charms and has even bet his career on Latin America. 
Hari from Chennai studied journalism in Mumbai. His life changed when he went to work with AISEC in Peru in 2008. He stayed there for  two years and also travelled to Brazil. He learnt Spanish and made many Peruvian friends 14 of whom attended his wedding in 2014 in Chennai. After his return to India, he taught Spanish and then covered Latin America for the Mumbai think tank Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations. He has written articles on the region in Indian and foreign newspapers and publications. He has just finished a masters degree in Latin America Studies at Stanford University and is going to travel for two months in Peru and Brazil on a research grant from the University. Hari is keen to work in Latin America itself for some years to deepen his knowledge and experience of the region.

He says, " Living in Peru was amazing, and it affirmed that I will for the rest of my life continue to be engaged with that country and the people from that region. More than anything else, it is the people of Latin America, their vibrant, friendly and happy nature, that keep me interested in the region. From an economic and social perspective, I feel we have a lot of complementarities with the Latinos, and there is much scope to work together and learn from each other".

Nivedita Kashyap from Bengaluru is another young person who has hitched her destiny to Latin America. She studied IT and worked in a company for a few years, before getting a chance to go on an AIESEC exchange programme to Lima to work at an e-business startup there for a year.  She travelled all over Peru and to Ecuador, Bolivia and Brazil. Back in Bengaluru, she worked as a Spanish teacher and interpreter. Two years ago, she moved to Washington D.C to do a Master's in international affairs from Georgetown University with focus on Latin America and business diplomacy. At Georgetown, one of the experiences that stood out the most for her was working with Yoani Sanchez, a Cuban blogger, at the time the U.S announced its policy change last December. Nivedita is looking forward to a career in Latin America and India-Latin America relations.
There are other young Indians who have done studies in Latin America itself and have got into Indo- Latin American business with their Latino friends. Anish Narang from Delhi has started a consultancy for Latin America in partnership with his Brazilian MBA classmates from the prestigious FGV business school in Sao Paulo. Sonia Aroul did a bilingual MBA from Di Tella University in Buenos Aires is helping Indian companies with Latin America strategies. This is a welcome contrast to many old Indians who consider the region as too far and have an outdated and negative mindset. Most Indian scholars of Latin America are said to be either in their sixties or stuck as admirers of the Latin America of the sixties continuing to be uncritical and ideological fans of the Cuban revolution and Che Guevara. 
I tell Indian businessmen that ' the risk of doing business with Latin America is.. falling in love'. Quite a few have taken the risk and ended up with Latin American spouses besides business success. Ashok Parthiban, married to a Guatemalteca has a flourishing pharmaceutical business in Guatemala. Three Indian IT boys, who went for a IT project in Colombia,  promptly married three Colombianas ( and have set up their own company in Bogota. Rakesh Vaidyanathan, Arvind Krishnan and Nitai Panchmatia, married to Girls from Ipanema, are in Brazil doing business with India.  Vimal Menon and Somnath Naha, married to Bolivians are promoting Indian business in La Paz. Rajesh Vairon, married to a Paraguayan helps in Indo-Paraguayan business from Asuncion. Reshmi Kwatra, a pharmaceutical export executive from Delhi became Reshmi Murillo after falling in love with a Costa Rican. There are over hundred young Indian executives working in Latin America with Indian IT companies as well as MNCs. Many of them have started dancing Salsa with Latino youth while their Latino counterparts have taken to Bollywood dancing, besides yoga and 'the art of living'.
Shoban Saxena, a young Indian journalist, based in Sao Paulo and married to a Brazilian, writes on Latin America in Indian media. His reports and comments on Latin America are objective in contrast to the biased western media. Mathang Seshagiri from Bengaluru, was in Colombia teaching journalism there. He has learnt Spanish and conquered many hearts there. At present he is working with Google in Bengaluru but is itching to get back to Latin America.  
Some young Indian diplomats and their spouses too have taken Latin America to their hearts after their postings in the region. Taruna, wife of Sandeep Chakravorty, the Ambassador to Peru, is doing a PhD in Latin American literature. She had taught Spanish in Delhi University after her return from Colombia. She said, "I cried when I left Colombia. Now I am going to feel at home in Peru'. 
Over fifty young Indian entrepreneurs had gone in the last five years to Santiago to work on their new ventures, taking up the financial and other support given by the the Chilean government under their pioneering  'Start-Up Chile' programme. During their stay, they had taken Chilean interns and mentored them, as required under the contract. Some of them have stayed on beyond the six-month term under the contract and pursue ventures on their own.
The inflow of youthful energy is great news for the Indo-Latin American relations which is undergoing a paradigm shift. The young Indians blend easily and merrily with the vibrant Latino spirit. Their positive, pragmatic and future-oriented approach is laying the foundation for a new win-win cultural and business partnership.

Tuesday, July 07, 2015

'The sound of things falling'- novel by Juan Gabriel Vasquez, Colombian writer

'The sound of things falling' (El ruido de las cosas al caer- in Spanish) gives insights into the origin of drug production and trafficking in Colombia. The American Peace corps volunteer Elaine Fritts comes to Colombia to work for the poor as part of the idealistic "Alliance for Progress" project started by John F Kennedy. She falls in love with Ricardo Lavarde, a pilot trainee and the son of the owner of the house in which she stays in Bogota. Another peace corps volunteer Mike Barbieri gets into drug business. He encourages the farmers to grow coca which would give them more profit than the conventional agricultural crops. He advises them how to increase the yield through use of chemicals and fertilizers. He recruits Ricardo to become a pilot of a small plane to carry drugs from Colombia to Jamaica and Bahamas. Ricardo comes back from each trip with bags full of dollars. Eventually, he is caught and sent to jail for twenty years. Elaine hides this story from her only daughter Maya and tells that her father had died in a plane crash. Ricardo comes out of the jail and calls his wife to meet her. The plane in which she travels to Colombia from US crashes and she dies. Ricardo is also killed soon by the drug mafia. Maya has come to know about more about her father through his billiards acquaintance Antonio Yammara from Bogota. Antonio was also shot while walking with Ricardo but he survives. Antonio and Maya visit the ranch of the late drug baron Pablo Escobar in Medellin while sharing the story of Maya's father and mother. 
This story confirms the truth that drug trafficking started in Colombia in response to the demand-driven business from US.  According to an official US report, the value of the illegal drug retail market in US in 2010 was 110 billion dollars with a consumer base of 22 million. As long as the consumers in US as well as the Europe continue their addiction and willing to pay top dollars, there will never be an end to drug supply. It is a no-brainer, as the Americans would say. But the US government and the media have twisted the truth and made it as a problem of supplies from Colombia. The DEA gets into Colombia and forces the government to destroy coca plantations with aerial spraying of deadly chemicals which spoil the health of people and agricultural crops. Finally the US has now realized the failure of the 'war on drugs'. They could learn from the example of Uruguay which has passed laws legalizing production, distribution and consumption of marijuana.
This is the first ever book of Juan Gabriel Vasquez I have read. I enjoyed the book thoroughly and loved his ingenious way of story telling. I liked his vivid descriptions of life in the 'muddy Magdalena river', the cool Bogota and the hot and humid valleys surrounding the capital. He has given subtle and profound comments and interpretations of the history and politics of Colombia. He has given a Colombian perspective of the drug wars imposed by external consumers and enforcers. He has analyzed the psychological and social impact of violence which has come to afflict Colombia since the beginning of the second half of the last century. He says that ' fear' has overtaken the emotional space of the Colombians many of whom have lost their relatives and friends due to the violence. Bombings, murders and kidnappings had made every Colombian afraid of going out to shopping malls or public places. Fortunately, the violence has now come down significantly and the citizens are able to reclaim their streets and getting out of the fear complex.
After enjoying this book, I read two more of his books: " The Informers" and " The secret history of Costaguna". The first is a story about the arrival and settlement of German Jews and Nazis after the first world war. Some of them get detained and deported due to the pressure from US which sends a 'blacklist' to the Colombian government. Some Colombians including the father of the protagonist in the novel become informers to the government, motivated by jealousy or coveting German properties.
'The secret history of Costaguna' is more absorbing with poignant narratives of the death and destruction caused in the process of building of the Panama canal. The civil war between the Colombian conservatives and liberals add to the death toll. Taking advantage of this situation, the Americans take over the northern territory of Colombia and create a separate country Panama to build the canal. 

Juan Gabriel Vasquez is inventive like Borges and elaborative like Garcia Marquez. But Vasquez is critical of the magical realism approach and says, ' in my novel there is a disproportionate reality'. While reading ' the secret history of Costaguna' I had an intense feeling as I had felt while reading the ' War of the end of the world' by Mario Vargas Llosa. I could not read at one go. I had to pause and reflect many times. 
Juan Gabriel Vasquez has now become a delightful addition to my list of favorite Latin American writers such as Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Mario Vargas Llosa, Jorge Amado, Isabel Allende and Carlos Fuentes. Vasquez, in my opinion, is Nobel Prize material.