Saturday, April 13, 2013

The Philippines

The Philippines

A History of the Philippines: From Indios Bravos to Filipinos



As a Spanish language major, I cannot tell you how many times I have had to sit through presentations about the Spanish-American War of 1898. It seemed like every semester I took a Spanish course, the  War of 1898 would be doubtlessly mentioned in at least 2 student presentations. If through a “Spain” lens, it would be mentioned as the monumental moment in which Spain ceased to be an imperial power. If through the “Latin America” lens, it would be mentioned as the monumental moment in which the United States began to actively seek to influence the internal affairs of the countries of Latin America. 

One of the points of the presentation would always sound something like this: “As well as gaining considerable influence over Cuba through the Platt Amendment, the United States also gained control over the remaining Spanish territories of Guam, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines.” I will admit that I never really thought deeply about this point. The idea that there is an Asiatic island nation that was not only a part of the Spanish empire (despite the very pronounced geographic distance), but also the empire of the United States empire is a topic that now very much interests me. In my experience as a United States American, the Philippines is not really mentioned – although it was an integral part of our identity and our foreign policy for some time. Likewise, in Spain, the Philippines never came up in conversation, the way that other countries colonized by Spain would. 

Knowing very little about this area of the world, I decided to buy an historical overview of the Philippines entitled “A History of the Philippines: From Indios Bravos to Filipinos” by Luis H. Francia. The main topics of the book are the Philippines’ colonial history and the challenges the country faces in trying to break out of colonialism, particularly evident in the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos who was President of the country from 1965 to 1986. Colonialism is by far the greatest and driving force of the nature of the Philippines, which is an island nation that is spread out, encompassing a large range of diverse peoples. It is important to note that the Philippines was ruled by a colonial power from 1565 to after World War II – first by the Spanish, then by the United States, and finally, by the Japanese. “For all of the cultural, racial, and political differences among the three, they exhibited the same attitude towards the indigenous population: couched in official rhetoric, the natives were to be saved from themselves – whether through Spanish Catholicism or U.S. democracy or Japanese ascetism” (page 14.)

There were three points of the book that really permeated my thoughts: 1.) the role of religion in creating a complacent nature among the colonized; 2) the imperialism of the United States and how this history remains forgotten in the U.S. discourse; and 3.) the importance of language in the creation of a national identity. 


  • Role of religion: Spain began to claim control over the Pacific islands after the taking of the islands for Spain by the Portuguese explorer Magellan in 1521.  However, the distance of the islands made it difficult to exert power over these islands. Essentially, a system arose in which both religion and the state had equal and mutually-dependent power. “Since pacification rested mainly on the indigenous embrace of Catholicism, the religious played an inordinate role in maintaining Spanish power in most communities” (page 73.) Interestingly, the book mentions that in many instances, it is impossible to tell who wielded the most power: the state or the church. It is important to note that the state did not only view religion as a tool to placate the locals, but also (nominally) as the primary motivation for exerting power on the Philippines by the Spanish: it was Christian duty to provide religion to the native peoples. 
  • The power or the United States: I will admit, I was a little taken aback of how much I did not know about the involvement of my country in the Philippines. It was never taught to me and never mentioned in the history books I read. Following the Spanish-American War of 1898, the Philippines tried to establish itself as a republic under United States protection. United States imperial ambitions ensured that the 1899 Philippine-American War broke out. The book describes the conflict: “The 1899 Philippine-American War (described by the United States government as a mere ‘insurrection’) was fierce, bloody, and long-drawn out, officially ending in 1902, but in fact continuing for a decade more” (page 145.) In this war (the first war of the United States fought on Asian soil), 130,000 United States troops participated. The struggle quickly took on a racist facet: many of the soldiers were veterans of the wars against the Native Americans and dealt with the locals brutally. (On a side note: I will mention that Rudyard Kipling wrote his poem, “The White Man’s Burden,” based on the Philippine-American War.) The United States wielded direct control of the island nation until 1935 after which a commonwealth was created. When discussing the nature of United States rule in regard to the Philippines’ colonial history, the author notes that “U.S. intentions towards the Philippines were remarkably similar to Spain’s: to exploit the Philippines as a market and source of raw materials, and to utilize the island as a steppingstone from which to gain access to the markets of China” (page 148.)
  •  Importance of Language for a National Identity: The Philippines is a diverse and divided country, brought together by the forces of colonization – mutual distrust of powers and an imposed Catholic faith (granted there are some separate Muslim communities who always showed resistance.) The author notes this diversity exists even today: “Being home to a diverse array of ethnicities, the islands possess close to 170 languages and dialects, with man on the verge of extinction” (page 39.) One of the things that struck me is that each colonial power tried to impose their language onto the Filipino people – Spanish, English, and Japanese. Even now that Tagalog is the official language, it was not accepted with open arms as some groups worried that their cultural heritages were not represented by the Tagalog language. 


Please feel free to comment on these topics or note something interesting from the book. I look forward to hearing your opinions!  

Thailand

Thailand

Thailand Unhinged: The Death of Thai-Style Democracy



Looking for a book about Thailand, I decided to find a book through my trusty source of Amazon and Amazon reviewers. However, I soon encountered a problem – the academic literature which covered Thailand (that did not include Lonely Planet guides and books with questionable titles, such as “How to Get the Most Bang-for-Your-Buck in Thailand”) were few and far between.

I found this surprising because Thai culture seems to have hijacked the dining world. Any city (yes, including Spartanburg, South Carolina) will host a plethora of restaurants which feature Thai cuisine. The beautiful beaches of Thailand are the locations for U.S. reality television shows, such as The Bachelor. However, as I searched for an academic book on the country, this question kept on popping into my mind: How can such a country embed itself in the western world as a favorite cuisine, a touristic destination, and a source of fantasy – and still be so far removed from the western discourse and the western thought? I realized that the phenomenon of western detachment and lack of public awareness might be more evident in Thailand than in any other country. 

One of my go-to movie rentals as a child was the 1956 film, The King and I, an adaptation of the musical by Rogers and Hammerstein. This movie shares the story of the King of Siam, who in the process of modernization of the country employs a British female tutor for his children.  During the era of colonization, the Siamese monarchy attempted to cultivate good ties with the European colonial powers to ensure that it would retain its power over the land – unlike its immediate neighbors, such as Burma/Myanmar. The monarchy was not only able to retain its power in spite of threats from the European powers, but also in spite of manifestations and domestic uprisings with Siam (modern-day Thailand) itself. It was only in the 1930s that Siam changed from an absolute monarchy to a constitutional monarchy. Although Thailand is now nominally a democracy, the king and the elites still wield a great deal of power. 

The book which I ended up buying about Thailand, “Thailand Unhinged: the Death of Thai-Style Democracy” by Federico Ferrara, deals with the current political situation in Thailand, as well as the distribution of power, especially in regard to the monarchial system. That being said, I found the book to be somewhat dry (many aspects just flew over my head) and somewhat biased toward one side of the spectrum. The author has an agenda and starts each chapter with a quote from George Orwell’s 1984.) Updated and revised in 2011, it covers the political instability of 2010, in which protestors for governmental change were silenced by the government. 

Although many of the names and events presented in the book seemed unconnected to me, perhaps because of my previous knowledge of Thai history, there is no doubt that Thailand has had a very tumultuous time over the past century: “Thailand, of course, has a long history of ‘democratic coups d’etats’ – having famously drifted in and out of military dictatorship ever since a group of mostly young, foreign-educated military officers and high ranking civil servants overthrew the absolute monarchy in 1932” (page 18.) It was only in 1975 that Thailand experienced their first “real” democratic elections. The author notes that the main problem is that Thailand does not have clear boundaries. The king, although not legally, still has the final say in many matters, ensuring that “unelected institution can still impose their will on the people’s representatives” (page 125.) 

In order to bring this post full-circle, I am going to end by talking about Thailand, its relation to the West, and the author’s argument. While reading, I found myself gravitating to and truly gaining the most information from Chapter 4 in the book, entitled “Thailand for Sale,” which discusses Western exploitation. Discussing the sex and tourism trade (noting that many in this trade are from poor families in the countryside who have decisively lesser say in Thailand’s democracy), the book shares the current situation of Thailand as a Western playground. Indeed, there is historical precedent for this, as the King of Siam in some ways seemed to cultivate this role, in order to maintain his power starting in the nineteenth century. That being said, the author notes that he does not see Thailand as a victim of colonization or of modern global capitalism, but rather the victim of a select elite who are “pimping Thailand’s provincial youth” (page 114) for financial gain, instead of investing and promoting methods of growth. The argument of the author, I believe, can be summed-up by the following quote: “the real hindrance to democratization in Thailand… is rather the interest of elites who are otherwise eager to borrow from abroad what can be used to entrench their power at home” (page 142.) 


Please feel free to comment on these topics or note something interesting from the book. I look forward to hearing your opinions! 

Venezuela - Book 3

Venezuela - Book 3



Venezuela Speaks! Voices from the Grassroots

(For a short introduction and to view the other books I have read about Venezuela, please click here.)

One thing that I knew for sure, when picking books about Venezuela: I needed to choose a wide assortment of books, representing a wide assortment of voices. All the Venezuelans I have met are securely in the opposition camp. When I have mentioned the name “Chávez,” I received either a slim smile and a slight shrug meaning “Let’s not talk about this right now,” or a long speech about justice and rights. I knew that if I wanted to hear/read voices in favor of Chávez and the Bolivarian Revolution, I would need to find them myself. I ended up choosing the book “Venezuela Speaks! Voices from the Grassroots,” by Carlos Martinez, Michael Fox, and Jojo Farrell, which is written in the form of short interviews by people associated with the Bolivarian Revolution. 

First, what is the Bolivarian Revolution? It was termed by Hugo Chávez during his first presidential election in 1998. After taking power by majority vote in 1999, he re-wrote the Venezuelan constitution according to Bolivarian principles. It is named for the revolutionary Simon Bolívar, who fought for independence from Spain in the early 19th century and is subsequently viewed as the founding father of Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Bolivia, and Peru. The book defines the Bolivarian Revolution through the following quote:

“Chávez has certainly brought the charismatic leadership necessary to unite many previously divided grassroots sectors, and he has provided a framework and name to Venezuela’s political situation, the Bolivarian Revolution. But a rigorous look at Venezuela’s political situation and the various on-the-ground experiences reveals that, to a great degree, this is a process being constructed from below” (page 1.)  
 
The authors argue that the Bolivarian Revolution is not dependent upon Chávez , but that the rise of Chávez  to power is just a sign of a larger political movement: of the “bottom-up” political process, where the masses – who have often been voiceless and powerless in the past- take on active roles in democracy. The authors support this claim by including interviews which not only criticize the system before Chávez , but show discontentment with the Chávez government as well. The authors’ argument is especially interesting as we consider the current political atmosphere of Venezuela, which is experiencing a void without Chávez ’s presence. 

To be honest, I found this book somewhat difficult to read – not because I was opposed to what was being said, but rather I felt like I was reading the same voice over and over again: This  was the situation before and these are the injustices that we faced. Now things have changed. This is what I do now in the Bolivarian Revolution. Things still are not perfect and this is what needs to change. Most of the people in the book seemed to lack original ideas: While they all had different experiences, they had all taken up the same ideas about how to advance the future – something which made the book seem less legitimate, in my view.

Granted, there were a few people who presented ideas in unusual ways. One was Marianela Tovar, a LGBT activist in Venezuela. She does not credit Hugo Chávez with explicitly helping the movement. However, she does credit him for changing the political atmosphere, so that the LGBT movement could begin organizing itself: “There was a political spark [with Chávez .] Before there was apathy and indifference toward politics; there was a very pessimistic attitude toward the future of the country…” (page 97.) She draws her own experience, noting that although she knew that she was a lesbian in the early 1990s, she saw no reason to take on a role of activism during these years. 

I also found the chapter detailing the stories of Mechedniya and Wadajaniyu, two students of the Indigenous University of Venezuela, thought-provoking. At this education institution, they seek to study and validate their indigenous roots – studying the language, religious beliefs, and history of their people – noting that their “culture has been disappearing for a long time due to the arrival of Western education and the loss of [their] identity as indigenous people” (page 197.) Although the organization has received limited financial support from the government and has not even yet received recognition, the fact that it exists at all is something which they contribute to the Bolivarian Revolution: “fortified by Article 121 of the Venezuelan Constitution, which gives indigenous peoples the right to develop their own education” (page 196.) 

Please feel free to comment on these topics or note something interesting from the book. I look forward to hearing your opinions!  

Venezuela - Book 2

Venezuela - Book 2


The Silence and the Scorpion: The Coup against Chávez and the Making of Modern Venezuela

(For a short introduction and to view the other books I have read about Venezuela, please click here.)

For United States Americans, Chávez and his anti-U.S. stance put Venezuela “on the map.” Following his ascendancy to the presidency in 1999, Chávez cultivated strong relationships with countries such as Cuba, Russia, and Iran. His anti-U.S. rhetoric included tirades against U.S imperialism and U.S. involvement in the inner dealings of Latin America. Needless to say, Chávez quickly became a name thrown about on United States talk show programs and Venezuela became one of the most heard-of Latin American countries in the populace’s ears.

I chose "The Silence and the Scorpion: The Coup against Chávez and the Making of Modern Venezuela" by Brian A. Nelson partly because it came with excellent recommendations, including from the The Economist magazine. However, my primary motivation for getting this book was to gain a better understanding of the political situation of Venezuela in all of it complexities. This book is divided into short vignettes – telling the stories of many of the key players in the 2002 attempted coup against Chávez, both on the government and the opposition sides. In short, this book reads like a thriller and I stayed up an entire trans-Atlantic fight to finish it. 

In order to understand the importance of the 2002 coup, it is important to understand how Chávez grew in popularity so that he could gain the presidency in 1999. The political and social atmosphere of the 1990s played a huge role: “But from the early 1980s, Venezuelans watched their country – which had seemed so close to first-world prosperity – sink deeper and deeper into recession. Poverty, inflation, and unemployment skyrocketed, while per capita income plummeted. The oil bonanza [of the 1970s] had been illusory and fleeting” (page 3.) In 1992, Chávez (who was then a lieutenant colonel in the army) helped organize a military coup against the government, which ended up failing. Realizing that it would fail, Chávez jumped to national attention through a television broadcast calling for the other organizers of the coup to end their fight for the time being – implying that their fight was only just beginning. During the following years, which he spent in prison, he continued to gain popularity and won the 1998 election. One of his first actions was to rewrite the Constitution and convert Venezuela into a “Bolivarian Republic” based on more egalitarian principles. 

By 2002, Chávez’s increase of power had led to massive demonstrations and calls for his resignation. The books notes that “his 80 percent approval rating had fallen to 30 percent” (page 7.) Moreover, the old elite and the workers had allied themselves together against Chávez. The book tells the story of a few days in April, in which Venezuela would experience chaos to an extreme degree- undergoing 3 presidents in 72 hours and the revocation of the ruling Constitution of 1999. The author begins this story on April 11, 2002, in which nearly one million people marched (as a part of what began as a peaceful protest) to the presidential palace in Caracas to demand Chávez’s resignation. Violence quickly erupted as hardcore Chávez supporters, organized in neighborhood Bolivarian Circles and supported by the government, took it upon themselves to defend the presidential palace against the protestors. The situation became more and more chaotic throughout the day as the police and the army were called to intervene. Moreover, the presence of snipers led to even more chaos. 

Over the next few days, coalitions between the military, political, business, and labor sectors would come together and fall apart, as each individual group attempted to protect its own interests. Nonetheless, through this process, Chávez lost his power, was put under arrest, and plans were made to transport him to Cuba. (Interestingly, as the military tried to decide what to do with him, one solution was to have him tried for human rights abuse following the violence and the deaths during the protest.) As a new government was in the process of establishment, the coalitions recognized that they had different goals for the country, particularly with the revocation of the 1999 Constitution. The military restored Chávez to power on April 13th

History is made up of the actions of a countless number of individuals acting upon their own self interest, ideals, and experiences. The author is careful to not present the 2002 coup as a concrete event in the past – with a “true” and a “false” -  but rather an important event (with serious implications for Venezuela) which we can never truly understand and are still in the process of discovering. Nonetheless, there are very clear results of this event, especially the consolidation of Chávez ’s power in Venezuela: “Chávez artfully painted himself as the victim of a right-wing conspiracy led by wealthy businessmen and fascist generals who were willing to set up a dictatorship in order to plunder Venezuela’s oil wealth” (page 268.)

Please feel free to comment on these topics or note something interesting from the book. I look forward to hearing your opinions!