Monday, September 30, 2013

Venezuela, Book 7

Venezuela, Book 7

The Unraveling of Representative Democracy in Venezuela

For those of you who didn’t already know, I was homeschooled for the last two years of my high school education. When I share this piece of information with people in the United States, many immediately assume that I am some religious fundamentalist.  (Not the case.) When I share this with people in Germany, many assume that I am an anti-society “badass,” as homeschooling is against the law in Germany. (Also not the case.)

The reality of my situation? It’s quite simple, actually. I became increasingly unhappy in normal classes. Classes felt as if they moved too slowly and that too much time was wasted in them. At the time, I wanted to be an opera singer and wanted to restructure my day to put opera at the center. (Less than a year after my decision to become home-schooled, I was taking college courses and was being recruited by the physics department – go figure.) 

As I reflect on my behavior the year before I left school, there were signs of my unhappiness and boredom everywhere. After spending months in history class on ancient Greece (repeating the same information over and over again), we were required to write our own research papers – a big assignment for new high school students. The topic of my research paper was the Western obsession with the so-called democracy of Athens and how it manifests itself in today’s classrooms. (Yes, my research paper was essentially an argument on how we had been wasting our time in class. Yes, my teacher did recognize this and luckily, he was laid-back enough to realize the humor of it all and give me an A.) 

I feel as if “democracy” is an interesting concept because I recognize a huge divide in how it is discussed by academia and the general public in the United States. While academia is willing to challenge and discuss the boundaries of democracy, it seems to me as if these conversations are not only non-existent in the general public, but are also discouraged. I remember once that I was explaining some of the problems of our democratic system to my grandmother. She took it upon herself to interrupt me and proceeded to gently lecture me (in a style very reminiscent to the Cold War) about how our democracy is the best system on earth and anyone who doesn’t agree has socialist beliefs. I find this discrepancy extremely curious - a small portion of the population not only comfortable talking about but also challenging our institutions of governance without the input of the great majority, who are uncomfortable joining in on the dialogue.

It was with this in mind that I decided to purchase The Unraveling of Representative Democracy in Venezuela. The purpose of the book is to describe the political atmosphere that existed in Venezuela in the 1990s which gave rise to a political leader such as Hugo Chavez. I had engaged in several conversations about these years and was eager to back up this new information with book knowledge. This book, which was published by The Johns Hopkins University Press in 2004, was edited by Jennifer L. McCoy and David J. Myers. However, each of the twelve chapters is written by an individual scholar and focuses on a different aspect of Venezuelan society. This provides a very comprehensive and informative review. 

As this book deals extensively with democracy pre-Chavez, I would like to digress to mention a few facts regarding the state of Venezuelan democracy today. Firstly, a few facts regarding Chavez: He was elected President of Venezuela four times (1998 with 56% of the vote; 2000 with almost 60% of the vote; 2006 with almost 63% of the vote; and 2012 with 55% of the vote) before his death earlier this year. These elections are not contested by the opposition. While the percentages indicate that a fairly stable and strong opposition movement existed throughout these years, it is important to mention that it was almost impossible for these opposition parties to get financing through official means. Companies which gave money to the opposition were in danger of being expropriated. Following the death of Chavez, elections were held in April 2013 where Venezuelans were given the choice between Chavez successor Nicolas Maduro and opposition candidate Henrique Capriles. The results were extremely close and the opposition movement cried foul: Maduro with 50.6% of the vote and Capriles with 49.1% of the vote, with nearly an 80% turnout. The opposition suspects voter fraud and has filed a request at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to investigate election fraud. Needless to say, the democratic institutions currently in place in Venezuela have come under scrutiny – which makes this book even more relevant. 

To understand the rise of Chavez, it is important to understand how Venezuela fell from one of the most-lauded democracies in the western hemisphere in the 1960s to a divided land with a corrupt bureaucracy. As David Myers describes, “The unbroken thread of Venezuelan democracy dates from January 1, 1959 when Rómulo Betancourt took the oath as president… This fledgling political regime, known as Punto Fijo democracy, withstood challenges over four decades from neighboring dictators, leftist guerrillas, disgruntled military officers, and urban rioters.” (page 11) In the following years, the majority of the political sphere was dominated by one of two political parties – Acción Democrática (Democratic Action, or AD) and Comité de Organización Política Electoral Independiente (the Committee of Independent Electoral Political Organization, or COPEI.) During the 1970s in the midst of large oil gains, the Punto Fijo regime began to fall back on distributive policy and the politicians “favored policies that could be implemented by distributing new resources over ones whose implementation required redistributing wealth or crafting additional regulations.” (page 16) These policies were impossible to maintain during falls in the price of petroleum. 

The next chapters are dedicated to the situation of different social groups in Venezuelan society at the end of the Punto Fijo years and at the beginning of the presidency of Chavez, including:

  • The Urban Poor: “In 1990, more than half of the residents in Caracas were classified as impoverished, with 7 percent labeled as extremely poor. Similar conditions existed in Venezuela’s other urban centers. In these areas, more than 70 percent of the residents were classified as poor in 1990 and 2 percent as extremely poor (Gruson, 1993.)” (pages 34-5)
  • The Military: Chavez, a former member of the military, utilized it as a means to consolidate his own power: “The elimination of the constitutional requirement for legislative approval of military promotions for the ranks of colonel and general makes civilian control by oversight much more difficult because no other elected officials besides the president have effective means to remove potentially disloyal officers from the armed forces.” (page 64)
  • Entrepreneurs: Some prominent entrepreneurs and leaders of businesses supported Chavez’s presidency in 1998 as a protest vote against the AD and COPEI political parties. “The post-1974 institutional collapse [of the Punto Fijo regime] can be explained by bad decision making, in particular by two costly mistakes… first, the misuse of revenue from the 1973 oil windfall; and second, mismanagement of the drop in oil prices after 1982.” (page 77) These mistakes led Venezuela to abandon the fixed exchange rate, fixed interest rates, and fiscal expenditures equal to fiscal revenues, which created a difficult business environment.
  • Intellectuals: “Intellectual opposition failed to produce consensus on a viable alternative to the existing political regime… this left the door open for a radical solution.” (page 121)

I am glad that I read this book after having read several other books about Venezuela  or else a great deal of information would have been hard to fully comprehend. That being said, I found it to be a very interesting and thought-provoking book and I enjoyed reading the works of many different authors, who each focused on his or her own expertise. As I end this blog post, I want to bring to attention one key point from this work: “It is important to note that Chávez is a consequence, not the cause of the party system’s unraveling. The key to Chávez’s success rests on the pervasive desire among Venezuelans’ for a proud change; most wanted to throw out AD and COPEI.” (page 169)

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

Venezuela, Book 6

Venezuela, Book 6

Café con Leche: Race, Class, and National Image in Venezuela

I will say that while in Berlin, I found myself in one of the coolest English-language groups: The Booker Tea Reading Group. This book club, which meets once a month to discuss literature has one of the most diverse memberships that I had ever encountered. Once a month, people of all backgrounds, nationalities, and ages (in fact, the only similarity was that all of the members were highly educated with unique international experiences and perspectives) would bring vegetarian and gluten-free dishes to celebrate world literature. It was here that I met one of my dearest friends from Berlin – a woman who had grown up in Peru but studied in the United States and had moved to Germany with her American husband, who works as an engineer at Siemens. 

We had so much fun exploring the city together – hiking, dining, going to an opera, and often just "chilling." One of my favorite days in Berlin was a day in June when she, her husband, and I ventured out to the “Open Embassy Day” together for an entire day of different languages, foreign foods, and interesting conversations. The first embassy on our agenda? Venezuela.

Needless to say, the Venezuelan embassy was an interesting experience and was located inside a big building. When we walked into the lobby, there was a man seated in full military uniform. (Note: Venezuela was the only embassy we attended with somebody present in full military uniform.) He stamped our “Tag der offenen Tür in Botschaften” (Open Embassy Day) passports with great seriousness and signaled for us to get into the elevator. When the elevator doors opened, we were welcomed by a full wall mural of the recently deceased Hugo Chavez –with a broad smile, bright eyes, and an optimistic gaze into the future. My friends, who knew I was dating an anti-Chavista, started chuckling and quickly scrambled to get a photograph of me in front of the mural to send him before an embassy official appeared. 

We entered into the open room, which featured different tables elaborately decorated and manned by Venezuelans. Each table focused on a different aspect of the culture. Although I was surprised how many tables were dedicated to religion, the table which interested me the most was the one that looked as if it were a shrine to a portrait with three different women – a European woman, a woman native to the Americas, and a woman of African descent. It was a very interesting portrait: each woman dressed in her respective culture’s dress according to the 18th or 19th century. I turned to the woman standing at the table to inquire more. She began to describe to me that this portrait represented the beauty of Venezuela’s people – that it was a society made up of all three types and how each and every Venezuelan recognized that his or her culture was based in this special mix of culture and ethnicity. 

I found her discourse extremely interesting and somewhat contradictory to my own experience in Latin America. Early in my undergraduate studies, I had spent about six weeks in Chile for a language and culture program. While encountering people out on the street, I was witness to some of the most appalling conversations I had ever heard about race. While I never saw any outright acts of racism, I was surprised by the people who felt comfortable making racist remarks in my presence – solely based on me looking “German.” (If you have never seen me angry, you should have seen me in those instances!) It was with this thought in mind that I bought Café con Leche: Race, Class, and National Image in Venezuela, written by Winthrop R. Wright and first published in 1990 by the University of Texas Press. 

For anyone who has taken an introductory Spanish course or has been to a Spanish-speaking country, the title must seem a bit odd: coffee with milk - to talk about race relations? The author introduces this concept in the first chapter, explaining that “In 1944, the poet-politician Andrés Eloy Blanco wrote a column in the partisan El País in which he likened the racial composition of Venezuela to café con leche… Venezuelans, after all, had already achieved racial balance through centuries of racial mixing.” (page 1)  

The author, a United States professor who arrived in Venezuela to teach, initially found the environment stimulating – especially in contrast to the environment of Birmingham, Alabama in the 1960s. He noted that “Culturally as well as physically, Venezuela society manifested the combining of African, Indian, and European elements. For that reason, most Venezuelans rightfully considered themselves members of a hybridized race.” (page 8) However, after spending more and more time in Venezuela, he began to notice a great deal of undertones in society based on race. This short book basically offers a brief history of Venezuelan racial relations – from Spain’s colonial legacy, the shipment of slaves from Africa to work on plantations, Bolivar’s Pan-Americanism, and the subsequent Federal War of Venezuela (a civil war in Venezuela, lasting from 1859 to 1863 and leading to a great deal of hardship.) All of the information in these sections is noteworthy and, for those of my readers who are Spanish-speakers, I would suggest taking a look at this summary (in Spanish.)

At the end of the book, however, the author notes that race still plays an important role in Venezuelan society. He summarizes his ideas in the last paragraph: “Venezuela’s pardos [a person of mixed African, European, and Indian ancestry] comprise a majority and operate openly in a society that accepts them as they appear. Their multiracial origins do not hold them back… As for whites, they have an option. They can retreat to exclusive clubs and cliques and ignore the gains of other racial groups or they can acknowledge their belief that they live in a racial democracy, secure that in any case they set the norms for cultural advancement. Only blacks realize the full implications of the lingering prejudice that operates below the surface. They, probably more than any other racial group in Venezuela, realize that Venezuelans want only a little café with their leche.” (page 131) 

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

Venezuela, Book 5

Venezuela, Book 5

Venezuela and the United States: From Monroe’s Hemisphere to Petroleum’s Empire

Time is a very interesting concept – sometimes it seems to move slowly, and sometimes quickly. Lately, it has felt as if weeks have passed at the pace of months and months have passed at the pace of years. At first, I thought that this just might be the product of the process of waiting to hear back on the results of job interviews. However, yesterday I attended an event on the campus of my alma mater, where I found myself overwhelmed by these thoughts of the pace of time. After having left the United States in late 2012 for Europe for various internships and language studies and after having lived on my own in different cities, I found it strange to find myself inundated by the student culture once again – the fraternity t-shirts, the obnoxious flirting, the discomfort by which the students talked with faculty, the constant talk of alcohol by students as if alcohol is something new, etc. I felt extremely out of place: as if I had left behind all aspects of this lifestyle years before.

Although it is clear that I have personally grown a great deal in the past year, interestingly, nothing seems to have changed in Spartanburg, South Carolina. (Granted, a popular neighborhood bar has closed up and moved across town – a noteworthy scandal for most all.)  I would venture to say that time moves very slowly in most all small southern towns. In fact, with very few exceptions, it seems as if nothing has changed in this town – or even this state - since I was a little girl. Most of the textile mills which caused great growth in my region in the early 20th century had already closed by the time I was young – the working class subsequently un- or under-employed; abandoned mill buildings present throughout the city, and a growing movement of businesses in other industries moving out to more lively towns. 

The concept of time and the pace by which time moves were underlying thoughts of mine as I read my fifth book about the country of Venezuela. I bought the book, Venezuela and the United States: From Monroe’s Hemisphere to Petroleum’s Empire “new” from Amazon. I could tell that when I opened it, I was the first one who had done so – there were no spine creases, the “new book smell” wafted up to my nostrils providing me with an ecstatic high, the pages were taut and clean, and the cover was jet black and glossy. However, this book by Judith Ewell was no new book: Published in 1996 by the University of Georgia Press, this book predates the era of Hugo Chavez. Although Chavez had tried to stage a military coup in 1992, the author did not seem to believe this to be significant in any way: Chavez’s name is not even mentioned in the Index. 

This book, which chronicles the development of United States and Venezuelan diplomatic relations throughout the history of both nations, is subsequently inapplicable in regard to its predictions about the potential developments of relations between these two countries. The author ends the book by offering this point to ponder (which although still a point to ponder in US-Venezuelan relations – is certainly not the most important point to ponder!), “Only time would tell whether the postwar changes implied a real, or a prematurely announced, death of U.S. hegemony in the hemisphere.” (page 224) Reading this “new” book, I found it amazing how the dialogue regarding Venezuela had completely changed since the publishing of this book in 1996. (Note: Chavez won the 1998 Venezuelan presidential elections and the following year, he replaced the Venezuelan constitution in place since 1961 with the so-called “Bolivarian Constitution.”) Growing up in an area with so few changes, to imagine a country where the political discourse and social problems could change virtually overnight was extremely interesting to me. 

At the same time, I enjoyed viewing U.S.-Venezuelan relations without using the lens of Chavez – which all more recent books have. It gave me a better understanding of not only the relations between the two countries, but also made me think about what role the United States should take in regard to other countries in this hemisphere. 

The author discusses the relationship between the United States and Venezuela through the metaphor of a traditional Venezuelan folktale, that of Tío Conejo and Tío Tigre. Similar to the United States southern fables of Br’er Rabbit, this folktale tells of how a small, cunning rabbit constantly outwits the stronger, bigger tiger. The entire book subsequently focuses on how Venezuela (as Tío Conejo) finds itself right at the edge of United States influence (but not within its control), yet able to benefit greatly through its partnership with the U.S. and reach levels of prosperity due to U.S. trade. Indeed, the author presents Venezuela as a country caught between two points of view -  that of the rest of Latin America and that of the United States: “Within the hemisphere, Venezuela shares with other Latin American nations a cultural affinity, a Third World perspective, and the legacy of Bolivar’s Pan-Americanism. At the same time, the nation’s relative wealth and the dependence of its hydrocarbon economy on the United States weakened its Latin American solidarity. Moreover, Washington still drew on the tradition of James Monroe and John Quincy Adams to claim the Western Hemisphere, especially the Caribbean, as a special zone of U.S. influence.” (page 213) 

If I would recommend one book on the country of Venezuela, I would not choose this one – due to its lack of applicability to the issues that Venezuela faces today. However, this is an excellent book when discussing what the limitations of United States influence and power should be. I found myself very interested by some of the points made at the end of the book regarding Venezuela’s behavior during the Cold War: “Democratic Venezuela stood squarely with the United States and the West but did not interpret all cold war issues in the same way that the United States did.” (page 199) During the first term of Romulo Betancourt in the 1940s, the President broke relations with the Dominican Republic, Spain, and Nicaragua. The author notes that he “challenged Washington’s tilt toward non-intervention and geopolitics. He advocated breaking relations with Latin American dictatorships and endorsing democratic governments regardless of their political coloration.” (page 151)  

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

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Afghanistan, Book 1

Afghanistan, Book 1

Come Back to Afghanistan: A California Teenager’s Story

How do I even begin trying to write about Afghanistan? 

Well, when I was nine years old, the Twin Towers fell. Nine years old was a hard age to deal with something of that magnitude because I was just old enough to be told what was going on, but not quite old enough to understand it. It was an unprecedented event and no one knew how to react. I remember the morning of September 11th, 2001 well because my 4th grade class was interrupted by a school administrator, who announced to us what had happened. The rest of the day was kind of a blur. I think I remember walking by the school library with a bunch of faculty members crowded worriedly around a television. It was there that I saw a plane crash into one of the buildings. I was the only student in my classroom who had ever been inside the Twin Towers and was thus subjected to the questions of my fellow peers – a very scary experience for me. Parents picked up their children early from school. I was picked up at the normal time, but by both of my parents – an unusual occurrence. My father was never one to withhold information from me and so when I asked “Why did this happen?”, I found myself overwhelmed by information about Osama bin Laden, Al-Qaeda, the Soviet Union, the Taliban, and a place I had never heard of: Afghanistan.

That was the first time I had ever heard of the country and needless to say, my child’s mind associated it as a place of violence, fear, and hatred. The next day at school, the teacher gave us each a sheet of paper and told us to write down our thoughts. For the ensuing time (it seemed like hours), a visitor could have heard a pin drop in the classroom full of about twenty nine-year-olds drawing pictures of burning buildings with magic markers and writing letters to Mr. bin Laden, asking him “Why?”

Later that year, the United States went to war – a war that has lasted twelve years and counting. As a nine year old, when I heard that we went to war, it made me feel safe: There would be no more planes flying into towers. The adults (the politicians, the soldiers) would take care of the problem and my country would go back to being the peaceful, safe place I had always thought it to be. But, as time passed and the war dragged on, I realized that the problem wasn’t being solved. By the time I was a teenager, I began to wonder if we were possibly creating more problems than we were solving. By the time I reached my twenties, I became exasperated with it all: I was tired of my country being at war for well over half of my life. I was frustrated with our leaders for not fixing these problems and for the generation before me for not demanding that they solve them. I was frustrated with the education system, which did not give my generation the background information for us to solve the problems ourselves. Needless to say, in all my years of secondary school education, Afghanistan was hardly ever mentioned. I was not taught where Afghanistan was located on a world map, what its capital was, the reasons why we went to war, and the history of Soviet invasion in the Cold War. This was all information I had to learn on my own.

Based on these thoughts and experiences, I had a very negative view of Afghanistan in my mind; and I was very worried that this would affect the book I would chose to read about the country. Subsequently, I decided that I would read many books about this country to give me as wide an understanding as possible. The first book I read is a book which I picked up at a used book sale benefiting the local library. I picked it because, firstly, it was only $1 and it looked as if it had never even been opened. Secondly, it seemed like the lightest read I could find about Afghanistan and still learn something worthwhile – an introduction into the country that would make me want to learn more. The book was entitled Come Back to Afghanistan: A California Teenager’s Story

This book was written by Said Hyder Akbar, with assistance from Susan Burton, and chronicles his story witnessing - and often participating in - the reconstruction of Afghanistan following the fall of the Taliban. Born into an Afghan political family that had sought refuge in Pakistan following Soviet invasion, Hyder Akbar was brought up in California, where he attended school. When he was a teenager and following 9/11, his father returned to Afghanistan, where he later took up positions as the spokesman for President Hamid Karzai (who has held the presidency since December 22nd, 2001) and as the governor of the Kunar province, an area known for its violent conflicts: “Since the fall of the Taliban, Kunar has been among the most volatile provinces in Afghanistan. The tumult is due in part to its position along the Pakistani border. As for the rest of it, you could almost say that ‘it’s in the water.’ People in Kunar will tell you that theirs was the first province to rise up against the Communist, as well as the first place to which the Arabs came during the Soviet war.”(page 135)  

During the summer months, Hyder Akbar would join his father and assist him in these various positions (his native English ability proving very helpful in the process), experiencing the Afghan political environment firsthand. These were his first instances ever visiting Afghanistan, and subsequently, he approaches the country not as someone returning “home.” Instead, his voice is that of both a foreigner who finds himself befuddled by certain customs, but also as someone with a deep emotional attachment to Afghanistan. This book is filled with interesting tidbits and is perfect for someone wanting a gradual and interesting introduction to Afghanistan.

This book does not really provide any “solutions” to solving the problems of Afghanistan, but provided information that helped me gain a deeper understanding of the problems that the country is currently facing:

  • When the new government was determined, the author stated a bit of frustration: “At the end of the Jirga [an old tribal tradition of the Afghan people], Karzai is scheduled to announce his cabinet. There’s still hope that the body will be filled with qualified professional people rather than with warlords and others picked to satisfy various factions.” (page 61) However, there were no major changes to the status quo. There exists a necessity in Afghanistan to bring about gradual reforms in order to maintain stability – thus, ensuring that those in power before the new government still retain some degree of power. However, in my opinion, there must be a system of checks and balances to this system so that reform is truly achieved, particularly as Afghanistan has been characterized as a “narco-terror state.” (page 264)
  • Another instance discussed at length in the book is the death of Abdul Wali, an Afghan man who turned himself in willingly for interrogation (a strong indication that he was probably innocent) and ended up dying in US custody due to violent interrogation tactics. The interrogator, “David A. Passaro, a thirty-eight-year-old CIA contractor from North Carolina, [was] arrested in connection with Abdul Wali’s death” (page 260) and is serving a sentence of  8 years and 4 months in jail. The author’s father, who was the governor of Kunar, the region where this occurred, noted that the death severely affected the legitimacy of the U.S. troops, as well as the new Afghan government.

I will end this post with a quote from the author, which I found very interesting: “There is still a lot of goodwill toward the Americans here… The Americans did not invade this country: they helped overthrow an occupying force. Since then, they’ve decreased the detrimental influence of neighboring countries. And perhaps most important, their continued presence prevents a return to chaos.” (pages 288-9)

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