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From issue: Health Care (Summer 2010)

Fresh Look Reviews

Fresh, unique perspectives on recent books from across the hemisphere originally published in English, Spanish and Portuguese.

In this issue:

Política de seguridad democrática by Alfredo Rangel and Pedro Medellín

Adam Isacson

Juan Manuel Santos, Colombia’s newly elected president, arrives in office on the coattails of President Álvaro Uribe’s 70 percent approval ratings. As president, Santos is expected to continue much of Uribe’s agenda including his signature “Democratic Security” policy.

While the policy is popular, it remains a source of sharp division. Launched in 2003, it focused on military and public security responses to Colombia’s drug-funded conflict involving leftist guerrillas, right-wing paramilitaries and the government. Initiatives included a near doubling of the security forces’ size, their deployment in much greater numbers among the general population, the use of paid citizen informants, and negotiations to secure the demobilization of pro-government paramilitary bands. Human rights and civil liberties advocates have denounced the policy as a dangerous escalation of executive and military power, arguing that it failed to address—and in fact may have strengthened—the power of paramilitary and organized crime networks beyond the principal cities.

Política de seguridad democrática (Democratic Security Policy) is a stimulating contribution to the debate, which is likely to continue well past the June 2010 election.  It is co-authored by two prominent Colombian columnists and analysts: Alfredo Rangel, an Uribe backer who heads the Bogotá-based Fundación Seguridad y Democracia, and Pedro Medellín, a university professor and much-cited critic of President Uribe’s policies. The book provides an excellent point-counterpoint on the policy’s successes and failures. It is the latest in the Cara & Sello (Heads and Tails) series published by Editorial Norma and the respected Colombian news magazine Semana.

Rangel offers, in effect, a sales pitch for Democratic Security. His section of the book is a withering barrage of statistics—most of them derived from official sources but some compiled by Fundación Seguridad y Democracia. His claim that the policy has reduced murders, kidnappings, infrastructure attacks, and guerrilla activity is convincing. Kidnappings, he points out, are down 89 percent. Attacks on electrical towers went from 483 in 2002 to 138 in 2008, and the number of murders dropped from 28,837 to 16,140 during that same period.

“All violence indicators have decreased substantially,” writes Rangel. “These decisive facts are enough to show the benefits of this public policy’s design and application.” However, Rangel leaves out less comfortable statistics. There is no mention of the 21,000 combatants and at least 14,000 civilians killed by the conflict since 2002, the 2.2 million forcibly displaced during that period, or the fact that no paramilitary leaders have been convicted of war crimes.

Medellín’s section is also heavy on statistics but is organized around a chronological narrative of the policy decisions, advances and setbacks of the Uribe years. He acknowledges the security gains but questions the means chosen to achieve them, arguing that Democratic Security has taken a severe toll on the rule of law and the health of democratic institutions in Colombia.

Both authors have a point. Democratic Security achieved security improvements beyond anyone’s initial expectations. Those gains, however, have come at a steep cost for the rule of law, the ability to control or limit executive power, and human rights. In later years, amid diminishing returns on security, the policy has been tarnished by some shocking scandals involving murder, narco-corruption and abuse of power.

Rangel and Medellín disagree about a lot. Both authors acknowledge that the frequency of attacks by the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC) fell precipitously in Uribe’s first few years in office. Medellín, however, contends that the group’s activity increased in 2005–2006 and in 2009—a claim that Rangel sharply dismisses. At the same time, Medellín blames Democratic Security for drawing attention away from common urban crimes and notes a troubling rise in urban violence since 2008. The city of Medellín, for example, saw murders double from 2007 to 2009. Rangel rejects the increase as a short-term anomaly.

The authors also diverge on the seriousness of the threat posed by new armed groups that have sprung up in regions formerly dominated by right-wing paramilitaries. Rangel maintains that paramilitarism disappeared from Colombia after the groups’ main umbrella organization, Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (AUC), demobilized in 2006. He contends that the new groups who filled the void are just bandits with “no counterinsurgent purpose.”

Medellín, on the other hand, sees them as the paramilitaries’ direct heirs and a new form of drug-funded warlordism. Indeed, many of these groups—though certainly not all—closely resemble their AUC forebears. They are led by former mid-level paramilitary commanders, maintain relationships with local landowners and government leaders, and frequently issue threats against leftists and human rights defenders.

Contrasting views are also presented on the seriousness of the human rights scandals resulting from Democratic Security’s excesses. Many civilians—perhaps thousands between 2002 and 2008—have been killed by the armed forces; yet civilian deaths were often misrepresented as members of armed groups killed in combat. Medellín calls the ensuing scandal (termed “false positives”) “a blow that could be mortal.” Rangel challenges the prevalence of extrajudicial civilian murders, claiming they “are being used opportunistically to falsely accuse the military of murder in cases that could be legitimate combat killings.”

For casual observers of Colombian security policy, the book provides many answers but fails to address some key questions. First, why did Democratic Security yield results with such ease and rapidity? Or, why did the FARC, thought by some to be a formidable force massing at the gates of Bogotá, crumple so quickly? Rangel cites the security forces’ increase, and Medellín hints at the risky choice to involve civilian auxiliaries. But neither author provides a satisfying explanation.

Moreover, both authors remain far apart in their assessment of the future direction of Colombia’s security policies. Rangel suggests almost no adjustments at all. Medellín calls for more respect of the rule of law and accountability on the part of civilian leaders, but offers few specifics.

Since 2007, Democratic Security has focused on nation-building and the creation of a non-military state presence in ungoverned areas. This consolidation phase, also known as Integrated Action, will be financed by up to a billion dollars in U.S. assistance to Colombia. Will it work? Neither author has an answer. Medellín says it “could be viable” but isn’t clear about what could guarantee its success.

Despite these shortcomings, Política de seguridad democrática provides a review of Colombia’s recent history by two of its most skilled essayists that will be useful to readers who have not closely followed the country’s security debate. While the exchanges between the authors are lively, the book misses the chance to provide signposts for how President-elect Santos should build on, or completely rethink, Democratic Security, and it does not provide much of a road map for the United States and other international partners.


Which Way Latin America? Hemispheric Politics Meets Globalization edited by Andrew F. Cooper and Jorge Heine

Patricio Navia

Social scientists are often more inclined to explain past events than to predict future economic and political developments. That approach makes their scholarly production more rigorous, their claims and explanations more parsimonious and their theoretical and methodological constructions more solid. Unfortunately, it is also unlikely to interest those concerned with current developments and inclined to look ahead.

In Which Way Latin America? Hemispheric Politics Meets Globalization, Jorge Heine, professor of political science at Wilfrid Laurier University, and Andrew Cooper, professor of political science at the University of Waterloo, step beyond the traditional backward-looking approach of social sciences to analyze the future of globalization in Latin America. In a sophisticated exercise of educated guessing, the editors, both fellows at Canada’s Centre for International Governance Innovation, and their collaborators ponder questions of democratic consolidation, institutional strength, trade and economic integration, and international relations as they affect Latin America.

Their answers are full of caveats and what-ifs, but their take is mostly optimistic and positive. In the eyes of Cooper and Heine, a “tectonic shift is taking place” in which Latin American leaders such as the soon-to-be-former Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and former Chilean President Michelle Bachelet have been “opening themselves up to new perspectives and new ways to interact” politically with globalization without being swept away by it.

Rather than carving out a structure of challenges facing Latin America and recruiting experts to write chapters keyed to each challenge, Cooper and Heine invited 15 scholars on the United States and Latin America to reflect on how recent developments anticipate the path Latin America will take during the twenty-first century. As a result of their eclectic recruitment strategy, the book reads as a rich—albeit incomplete (and perhaps not even representative)—sample of relevant challenges in the continuing path toward globalization.

The book addresses topics ranging from the alleged leftward turn in several countries to the reform of the Organization of American States (OAS). It also explores national and regional challenges such as Haiti’s failed development and the impact of India and China on the region’s future. These otherwise unrelated issues are tied together by an introduction that provides context. Here, Cooper and Heine reflect on whether the changes caused by globalization constitute a tsunami that will sweep everything away in its path, a tornado that will follow a more selective and narrowly focused track—or just a mild breeze. In other words, is globalization really changing Latin America? And if so, how much?

They conclude that globalization has indeed changed the rules of the game. One important consequence, they argue, is that our traditional understanding of economics and politics can no longer appropriately explain the way Latin America advances. They warn that by continuing to use models that emphasize the prevalent role of the U.S. and focus on the impact of Washington Consensus policies on development, scholars will be unable to assess present developments and will fail to anticipate future ones. The 2009 crisis in Honduras shows the limits of existing tools to deal with democratic challenges.

In a provocative foreword, Abraham F. Lowenthal takes on the 800-pound gorilla in the room: the legacy of imperialism in the U.S. relationship with Latin America. According to Lowenthal, the U.S. role as a regional hegemon will be reduced, but its influence will strengthen over Mexico and possibly over the Caribbean and other countries with strong migration ties to the United States.

This theme is continued in the chapters on relations with China (by Nicola Phillips of the University of Manchester) and with India (by Jorge Heine). Though neither China nor India seem interested—at the moment—in challenging the Monroe Doctrine, their emergence as important trading partners inevitably challenges the historic U.S. dominance of the region.

Cooper’s chapter on renewing the OAS neatly lays out the challenges faced by an organization that needs to find both a voice and a strategy to strengthen democratic institutions. Although electoral democracy is now the default for the region, there is still a long way to go to make elections genuinely free and fair. Dexter Boniface of Rollins College examines the implications of this in a separate chapter where he maintains that a better regional structure of governance and accountability is needed to counter threats to democracy.

Cooper and Heine conclude by arguing that the “region is pulling away from ideological straitjackets as it tries to contend as best it can with globalization.” The results are not always positive. While they see Brazil and Chile as celebrated successes, Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador have not moved in the right direction—partly due to past failures in achieving sufficient social inclusion.

Though the book does not provide a complete answer to the question posed by its title, it does offer a broad range of thought-provoking perspectives. As the editors suggest, there should be less attention paid to Washington. Instead, the focus should be on the new players who will be the source for new developments.


The Dictator’s Seduction: Politics and the Popular Imagination in the Era of Trujillo by Lauren Derby

Frank Moya Pons

From 1930 to 1961, Rafael Trujillo presided over one of Latin America’s most brutal dictatorships. Countless books and articles have dissected the political nature of his regime, but none has fully examined the way Trujillo managed to control Dominicans’ everyday lives. Lauren Derby’s book, The Dictator’s Seduction: Politics and the Popular Imagination in the Era of Trujillo, is a long-awaited attempt to fill that gap.

Derby, associate professor of history at the University of California, Los Angeles, offers an innovative portrayal of the culture, in many ways created by Trujillo himself, that allowed him to consolidate such absolute power in the Dominican Republic. She does this by distancing herself from attempts that focus on biographical singularities to analyze Latin American dictatorships. Instead, Derby explains Trujillo’s absolute control by looking at cultural instruments, such as music, art, religion, and poetry, that he used to create political consensus and build symbolic legitimacy. She employs a post-modern perspective that attempts to go beyond traditional historians’ interpretations of the Trujillo regime as one based solely on brute military force.

The approach works well and provides new insights. She begins by examining the liberal politics that dominated late nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century Dominican society. In a first chapter, Derby identifies the conditions that led to Trujillo’s 31-year reign, namely a literate, predominantly white, urban elite that unsuccessfully tried to impose a European pseudo-aristocratic worldview on the rural masses. But the profound racist undertones of this social model drew sharp criticism from the 80 percent of Dominicans belonging to the Creole, mulatto peasantry.

The pessimistic, anti-populist ideology of Dominican liberals eventually alienated an emerging and frustrated middle class. They saw Trujillo as a leader who could channel their social and economic aspirations. Originally from the lower-middle class, he had climbed the country’s social ladder, advancing through the ranks of the national constabulary. By the late 1920s, as army chief, he had become a key political figure.

The liberal elite despised Trujillo. After becoming president, he moved quickly to destroy the political power of his adversaries. He reached out to the rural masses and the urban poor using all available means—most notably by expanding the army with new recruits from the lower ranks of society and by broadly distributing land, seed and cattle.

The ability of Trujillo and his collaborators to obtain absolute control is what made his regime different from other dictatorships. Economic domination was a key objective. Trujillo created a predatory regime that developed a system of monopolies and allowed his family to eventually control more than 60 percent of the Dominican economy.

But that was not enough. According to Derby, Trujillo understood that the masses were longing for a savior, a messianic father figure who could take them out of poverty or at least end their traditional exploitation by the country’s landowners, ranchers, planters, and merchants. The poor were looking to cast away the label of gente de segunda (second-class people), and Trujillo presented himself as the answer to their wishes.

Trujillo developed an aura of mystique around himself. He appeared in flashy clothes and cars and developed a system of gifts and exchanges of services. He also baptized thousands of children to build family loyalties and strengthen compadrazgo (ritual-based coparenthood) ties—relationships that had important political consequences in this period.

Derby argues that Trujillo also took advantage of a symbolic crisis of masculinity among Dominicans. Ownership of a revolver had traditionally been an honor that came along with a young man’s coming of age, but the U.S. military disarmed the civilian population during its occupation from 1916 to 1924. Trujillo capitalized on this national sense of emasculation to portray himself as a supermale. The book provides extensive insight into how he continually used a masculine discourse employing not only words, but dress codes, parades, political rallies, popular dances, merengue lyrics, gossip, and rumor. He even paraded his mistresses in public view.

Three weeks after his inauguration, a powerful hurricane destroyed Santo Domingo, providing an opportunity for Trujillo to play up an image of masculine capacity and unwavering leadership. Derby dedicates a chapter to the reconstruction of the capital city. She shows how the disaster allowed Trujillo to consolidate his authority and to portray himself as the builder of a new nation of which he was the only benefactor. Soon afterwards, he demanded to be formally addressed as “Generalissimo Doctor Rafael Leonidas Trujillo, Benefactor of the Motherland, and Father of the New Motherland.”

With this new image, Derby shows that Trujillo used an array of means to instill fear among Dominicans. He projected a supernatural capacity to inflict harm on his enemies—not only physical, but also, through his association with witchcraft and the Catholic Church, spiritual and psychological. Rumors spoke of Trujillo’s association with demonic powers, and while unsubstantiated, he would go to the wildest of extremes. In 1937, for example, Trujillo ordered the massacre of several thousand Haitians who lived illegally in the Dominican Republic.

According to Derby, Trujillo combined and projected many images. He was both a magnificent and generous father who organized the motherland and developed the wealth of the country, and a tiguere, or thug, capable of committing any atrocity to keep absolute control. Trujillo treated the country as his personal feudal domain in which every citizen was a servant. Yet he and his collaborators devised many ways to instill in the masses a sense of common accomplishment as co-participants, with him, in the construction of a new country.

By building on Derby’s dissertation work and her primary research, the book offers this type of rich analysis. And despite its choppiness, The Dictator’s Seduction is an outstanding and original book that is surprising in its originality and depth and displays a clear command of this period in Dominican history. Experts and beginning students of Dominican affairs will find this book a worthy read.


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