Sunday, April 29, 2007

Señor Garcia Goes to Washington

Prospects for ratification of the Peru-United States free trade agreement (FTA) inched forward last week when Peruvian president Alan Garcia met with George W Bush and Democrat and Republican legislators during a trip to Washington DC.

Democrats continue to insist on changes to strengthen the labour and environmental conditions of the agreement. But they look set to reach a compromise with Republicans that will allow the agreement - which has already been approved by Peru's congress - to be debated and passed by the US Congress before its August recess.

Garcia's meeting with Bush was full of hearty cordiality, as they discussed both the trade agreement and measures to counter narcotrafficking. Bush said that Garcia was "a good guy, and he gives good advice" ('escape to Colombia at the end of your presidential term to avoid investigation', perhaps?).

But in a later meeting, Democrat Senate leader Harry Reid continued to press for changes in environmental and labour sections of the FTA, as did congressman Bill Pascrell who said there was still much to be improved in these areas before he would be convinced to support the agreement.

On day two of his visit, Garcia met with Charles Rangel, chairman of the Ways and Means committee, one of the two committees charged with reviewing the trade agreement. Rangel declared that the chances of congress ratifying the agreement were "better than good" but could not specify a timeframe. He stressed the need to continue work through details with the Republicans and the executive branch.

Accompanying Rangel was fellow Democrat Sander Levin, who had previously expressed misgivings about the trade agreement after a four-day fact finding mission to Peru.

While there is general consensus that the FTA will help produce the economic growth needed for Peru's development, critics say that it will hurt small rural producers that will have to compete with imports of subsidized American corn, rice, cotton, sugar and beef. They also worry that stricter enforcement of intellectual property law under the agreement could restrict Peruvian access to modern medicines.

Levin would like to see the US use its influence to support more stable, equitable growth when negotiating trade agreements with developing countries. He has argued that countries should be held to International Labor Organization minimum standards, rather than merely enforce their own laws, which may fall short of ILO standards. He also asserted that "it's necessary to assure access to generic medicines for Peruvians".

Garcia also met with congressional majority leader Nancy Pelosi - who reiterated her conditional support for the agreement - as well as Charles Cresley and Max Baucus from the Senate Finance Committee, the other body required to review the FTA. The Peruvian leader assured the press that he was confident of a way ahead. He stated that "it's a matter of process, rather than of reopening the negotiations".

By the end of the trip, Garcia had met with 43 representatives from the Congress and Senate, and declared that he was "leaving satisfied". Later, Peruvian chancellor José Antonio García Belaunde announced that there were "rumours" in Washington that Democrat and Republican leaders would soon sign a pre-agreement that would allow the agreement to be ratified by Congress before August.

But meanwhile, nationalist members of Peru's congress were planning to travel to the US with the aim of convincing US representatives not to ratify the agreement. They claimed to represent the "98 percent of business people who have been completely excluded from the negotation of this agreement". In an open letter to Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi, they argued that the trade agreement as it stands will exacerbate rural poverty and force poor farmers to turn to the illegal cultivation of coca.

(quotes as reported on Peruvian current affairs show 90 Segundos)

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Saturday, April 28, 2007

Jungle Pics

I never quite got around to adding photos to the post on my brief excursion into the Amazon jungle. So here's a follow up post with a few snaps.

Junglecraft 101: the branches of the liana tree act as natural filters, so if you know how to identify the tree, you can always find a source of pure, fresh water in the jungle.

Most palm-type trees have edible larvae or suri in their branches. They have a slight flavour of coconut, though I'm ready to believe that they're tastier when fried.

At night, tarantulas can easily be found on tree trunks in the jungle. Their diet includes small birds. To humans, their venom is not fatal, but will apparently leave you in considerable pain for about eight hours. This was about as close as I wanted to get.

The river was high, and we canoed through the flooded forest looking for birds. Occasionally, we spotted a sloth high in the tree branches.

Under the shade of some mangroves, we managed to catch a few snapping piranhas, while the others stole half a chicken's worth of bait.

Despite it's resemblance to a large goldfish, there's reason for the piranha's fearsome reputation. It's teeth are razor sharp, and are said to be able to take off a finger with a single bite.

On the river, thunderclouds gathered in the afternoon heat.

But it was great to catch a breeze cruising along in the motor canoe.

Back in Iquitos, some Indian girls do a fantastic drum-accompanied tribal dance on the waterfront most evenings. Their party trick to finish off is dancing with a couple of boas that have been slithering around their feets. The snakes seem pretty tame, but I'm not sure I'd want to get as, ah, intimate as they do.

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Sunday, April 22, 2007

A Renaissance Writer

Occasional visitors to this blog will note that it's been updated only infrequentlyover the last month or two. One of the reasons is that I've been diversifying my activity. I've recently written several pieces for a site called Journal Peru . My contributions are here, here, here, and here. All but one of these pieces have never appeared on my blog.

Meanwhile, plans are afoot for a new website of my own, with its own domain name, and space for photos and articles as well as a blog. Details coming soon.

I'm also working my way through Mario Vargas Llosa's Conversación en la Catedral, a dauntingly complex yet controlled piece of literary virtuosity.

This is the third novel of Vargas Llosa's that I've read, and I've concluded that he is of at least equal literary stature to Gabriel Garcia Marquez - whom he famously, and with a still-unknown motive, punched in a movie theatre in 1976. Garcia Marquez developed a prose style of mythic proportions that spawned a thousand imitators, and captured something of the essence of the Latin American experience .

But Vargas Llosa's writing is more prolific and stylistically varied, and has greater intellectual curiosity and insight. As a public intellectual and a (nobly failed) politician, he's the kind of Renaissance Man that in the Anglo-Saxon world we don't really expect artists to be.

It's pleasing, therefore, to see him profiled in today's Guardian, which reviews a new collection of essays and musings called Touchstones.

It's interesting to hear him recite his approval for the fragile movement towards a Latin American social democracy, as exemplified by Lula in Brazil, Bachelet in Chile, and - somewhat improbably - perhaps now also Alan Garcia in Peru.

It's also touching to hear that, though a citizen of the world with homes in London, Paris, and Madrid, Vargas Llosa "seems most animated when talking about Peru". He says:

"I feel very attached to my country, family, friends, certain images, and also the language. You know the kind of Spanish that I write is the Peruvian branch of Spanish and to hear this kind of Spanish is for me something very warm."

It's true; one of the great pleasures of reading Vargas Llosa - and fellow outstanding novelist Alfredo Bryce Echenique - is the rich, hearty Peruvian-ness of the language.

His birthplace? Like the man who could be described as his polar opposite - Shining Path leader Abimael Guzman - Vargas Llosa originally hails from the White City of Arequipa.

Saturday, April 07, 2007

Blood of a Continent

After all this time and four visits to the relevant part of the world, I finally got around to reading Eduardo Galeano's The Open Veins of Latin America. I remember on my very first day in South America, an intense young Spanish political science student explaining to me on a hot hostel terrace in Santiago that I sould read this book if I wanted to understand the continent's tortured history, society and politics.

He was right. I regret to say that in the intervening time, I lazily inherited a view of the book as an "it's all the gringos' fault" polemic that oversimplified the issues facing the different countries. I came to associate it with some of the tub thumping nationalist politics I encountered in Peru and Bolivia, and the view that wealth is something static that you find or steal, rather than create.

There's certainly enough in Open Veins' outrage-flecked prose style to give succour to those who would blame it all on the foreigners. Yet it's also consistent with the view of some local writers that Latin societies are hobbled by self-inflicted woes, including fatalism, lack of a work ethic, unhealthy hero worship, corrupt politicans, weak institutions, and systematic bureaucractic obstacles to entrepreneurs.

You don't by any means have to share all of Galeano's politics to appreicate Open Veins as a compelling story of how Latin America came to be the way it is.

Galeano's thesis is simple. Systematic exploitation and underdevelopment wasn't something that contingently happened to Latin America - it was the continent's colonial raison d'etre. He documents how it became a "source and reserve of...raw materials and food for the rich countries".

These raw materials were initially gold, silver, and copper; later coffee, bananas, sugar, cotton, rubber, nickel, tin, and oil. Their extraction was on the backs of the enforced labour of native populations, replaced or supplemented by the slave traffic from Africa as the former were exhausted.

Colonisation, in the sense of the gradual establishment and building of a new society, was never the point. Rather, the aim was plunder, and to funnel the raw materials out through "veins" that led to the ports or capital cities. Ticket-clipping local elites got rich enough, at the expense of their hinterlands, to be able to buy back some of the finished goods from Europe and later the USA.

While it was the Spanish and Portuguese crowns that undertook the original conquests, by the 17th century they were weak, overstretched and indebted. It was British and Dutch capital that financed the Latin American imperiums, and it was British, Dutch, French, and later American interests that determined the course of the continent's (under) development.

So far, so Marxist, you might say. But once we get past the undeniable horror of the conquests, the encomiendas, and the slave trade, Galeano's historical diagnosis is relatively uncontroversial. The ongoing failure of Latin America is its inability to develop a strong, indigenous capitalism that adds value to raw materials and spreads wealth through the wider society by broadening and deepening the economy.

Galeano explains the systematic protectionism of the northern European countries and the United States as they built their industrial economies, and documents how attempts to follow a similar process in Latin America have been kneecapped politically, often from the outside. The sine qua nons of development - improvements in agricultural productivity, land reform, and strengthened internal markets - have rarely got past first base.

It's a moot point how much this is due to external manipulation, and at what point local weakness and incompetence shares the blame. For Galeano, the underlying causes are the same.

In any case, Galeano has enough evidence that the odds have been sufficiently stacked against Latin American producers as to make modern cries for "free trade" seem hypocritical. In just one example he cites from the 60s, Brazil agreed to tax its own exports of soluble coffee, so as not to undercut US producers (given their handicaps, is it surprising that the wannabe entrepreneurs of Latin America have conspired to develop the one industry where they do have full control of resource extraction, processing, distribution and marketing: cocaine).

In order to appreciate the problem description, you don't have to agree with the solution. Galeano's unabashed cheerleading for Fidel Castro and the Cuban revolution slightly embarasses even this pinko leftist. In our world of post-Friedman orthodoxy,his favourable view of the big-government adventures of various nationalist caudillos - including Peron in Argentina - seems almost as radical. But if you factor in the diagnosis, even avowed economic liberals might concede some of his rationale. So weak were local capitalists, argues Galeano, so passively complacent the thin upper-middle classes, that if anyone was going to deepen and diversify the local economy, it had to be the state.

Part II of Open Veins deals with the post-industrial age, where Galeano accounts for the partial development of parts of Latin America. His concept of "poles of development" refers to how the subjugation of Latin America by the West is mirrored locally: through Brazil and Argentina's dominance of their smaller neighbours, and, within countries, the "exploitation by the big cities and ports of their internal sources of food and labour".

He argues that much "foreign investment" actually results in a net outflow for Latin countries. Auto assembly, for example, involves local subsidiaries of large Western companies paying arbitrary prices for parts from their head office, and then remitting most of the profits back to their home country.

There's a lot that could be critiqued by political and economic historians, and indeed I would be interested to see his empirical evidence subjected to scrutiny (rather than simply sweeping it under the carpet and calling him a Marxist).

But part of what is so compelling about the narrative of Open Veins is that it ties together much of what one experiences when getting to know Latin America.

The poor internal transport links and communications between countries and regions; the land sitting idle (parts of Peru had a more comprehensive network of roads and more agricultural land in production during the Incan empire than they do now); the upper class people more likely to have visited Miami than Cuzco. The arbitrariness of wealth, where some people work frantically hard, and other people have money, but there's no discernible connection between the two. The local and central government more likely to hinder citizens' attempts to get ahead than to help them. The prearranged deals which make it easier for politicans and bureaucrats to be corrupt than honest.

In many ways, it's remarkable that this was published in 1973. So much of what we associate with Latin America's contemporary history has happened since. Pinochet's coup in Chile; the Argentinian military dictatorship; financial crises; revolution and war in Nicaragua, El Salvador and Guatemala; Peru's Shining Path insurgency; IMF neoliberal makeovers leading up to the "Bolivian gas wars" and Argentina's 2003 financial collapse.

Reading Open Veins makes me eager to hunt down Galeano's more contemporary writings to see what he makes of all these events. In particular, I'd like to know whether he thinks the current state of affairs is an improvement on the dark days of his 1977 epilogue.

Because, perhaps with unreasonable optimism, I believe a corner may finally have been turned in Latin America's long struggle for maturity. Whether you approve more of Evo Morales' nationalisation process, or Chile's incremental social democractic reforms (and reasonable people might concede that both approaches are appropriate for the respective countries in their different situations), it seems that a majority of countries are now electing governments better equipped and prepared to tackle their underlying problems. More are insisting on the right to tackle their own unique challenges in their own way.

There are also signs that the countries of Latin America are, in an intermittent and still bitchy way, putting aside their artificially sustained national rivalries and working towards greater integration and a greater say in world affairs.

Of course, setbacks and failures are still ahead. The greatest challenge will be to empower and unleash the creativity of the masses of people who have long been nothing more than a source of cheap labour. Who knows how long it will take to shake off Latin America's historical legacy and ensure that blood flows heathily through and around its body, nourishing all its members?

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