Thursday, August 27, 2009

Vlugvoos, the Starr Report and the return of Che Pablo

The title above, which is an Afrikaaner word for jet lag- to have been made spongy, perished or rotten by flight. Baie danke, Harper's and Breyten Breytenbach for the enlightenment. I luv Harper's for teaching me such things as the percentage change in profits of the top ten insurance companies (+428); the number of Little Tike Cozy Coupes sold in America last year (457,000) and the percent that this exceeds the sales of the top automobile model (5 percent); that amphibians prefer to mate under the full moon.

I'm starting to think it isn't jet lag, but rather stress over finishing my photo exhibit. I'm getting there, but it doesn't make me worry any less.

School has started and I luv it. I had my first day back at school yesterday. I had hoped to get a good night's rest, but alas the jetlag kept me up until 3am. I set 3 alarms to wake me in morning, and it was the third that did the trick. I had my Pub D Latin America class at 9am with Prof. Pam Starr. She had come highly recommended by a few of my friends who became her class groupies (Starrlets). I was also told be sure to bring your "A" game to class because she pushes her students hard, but in a positive manner. Sure enough, we received an email a few weeks back with a set of readings and polls to examine so we could hit the first day running. We had some interesting pre-class readings that consisted of a Peter Hakim piece from Foreign Affairs, “Is Washington Losing Latin America?,” plus speeches by Chavez and Obama and a variety of polls (Pew 2007, 2009 and Latinobarometro) All of this was to lay out the dichotomy between Guantanamo and Bolivar.

We received an intro into the class, with Prof. Starr making it clear that the class was not a US foreign policy in Latin America course, but rather an examination of the public diplomacy of a variety of actors (state and nonstate) in the region and those with interests in the region. We would be examining the PD of the great powers like the US, middle powers like Canada, and regional powers like Mexico and Brazil, among the rest of the actors. Prof. Starr made a point that the perspective on regional heavyweights like Mexico can shift the perspective, ie Guatemala looks at Mexico in a similar fashion the Mexico looks at its bigger neighbor to the north. She also made a good point that for weaker states, PD is vital- the weaker you are, the more you need to rely on public diplomacy. Also that the same pd tools create different outcomes in different places- this can be due in part to different cultures. She made a quote that I really liked, stating, "culture is a consequence of shared historical perspective."

We shifted the discussion to the symbol and the reality of the general in his labyrinth, the Liberator Simon Bolivar and what he was attempting to achieve some few centuries prior. He felt that the liberated Latin American states would be too weak on their own in the face of imperialist powers (at the time Spain and Britain), and would need to band together in an alliance. His exercise in unity sadly did not pan out.

I would love to go through all we discussed in class, as it was a fascinating discussion but I haven't the time (unless the jetlag gets really, really bad). To summarize, Latin Americans have been surprisingly socialized to like the market economy- although there are still many who don't. They also generally dislike intervention into their own affairs, be it from the gringo neighbor to the north or even Chavez and his grandstanding "Bolivarian revolution."

Meanwhile, Peter Hakim laid out (in 2006) some structural points of why the US-Latin America relationship wouldn't improve over the next few years- over issues like farm subsidies and trade barriers, immigration and developmental aid. None of these structural facts have changed, but the Pew polls indicate a dramatic shift in attitudes in Latin America towards the US. What changed? President Barrack Obama and a change in American Public Diplomacy towards the region. A public diplomacy message by the US that there must be a better partnership and better communications- a message of respect and recognition that we have been arrogant in the past, but now we are going to listen and work with you on issues that are important not just to us, but to you as well.

One such way, Prof. Starr, pointed out was President Obama hosting Pres. Lula of Brazil as the first Latin American leader to the White House (Mexico's Calderon met when Obama was Pres-elect). The symbolism was that the US was bestowing its respect on the regional power, giving deference to Brazil almost as an equal but definitely as a respected partner.

The discussion ended on Prof. Starr pointing out some perceptions and historical facts. 1) In the 19th century, the US jumped past Latin America in growth and development; 2) Up until lately, Latin America had a hard time getting democracy right; 3) There have been many times that the US has been arrogant towards Latin America; 4) Latin America's historical memory is more profound. The weaker party remembers history more clearly than the strong; the weak remembers slights more clearly than the strong and perceives slights more readily.

By no means is this the full discussion, and some of what is summarized lacks the proper context of the discussion, but it was interesting and I thought worth sharing. I hope that is enough of a caveat so that no attribution should be made.

My class on Latin America gave me the inspiration to stave off a midday jetlag nap and bike down to the Argentine Catalina's Market in Los Feliz. I had a nice long bike ride through Central America and Korea, until I reached Argentina. I was welcomed with some delicious empanadas, the best I have had since I got back north. I wandered in and out of Argentine dreams and memories as I picked up a kilo of mate, alfajores, dulce de leche, chimichuri sauce and a giant bottle of Paso de los Toros pomelo soda. I eyed the matambre and other assorted Argentine delicacies that wouldn't keep well in my bike ride back. What I wouldn't give for a cafe cortado at El Gato Negro on Corrientes, with the smell of spices wafting in the air.

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