aqlogo_white X
Politics, Business & Culture in the Americas
Countries   |   About    |   Subscribe   |   Newsletter |   Videos
aqlogo_white

Banner Ad
Banner Ad
From issue: Fixing Brazil ( )

Books

In this issue:

Book Review: Multiple Choice

Vanessa Londoño

A work of fiction and misdirection by one of Chile's brightest young writers, Alejandro Zambra.

The literature of Alejandro Zambra is one of both movement and repose.

On one hand, his work — reflected in titles such as Ways of Going Home, Bahía Inútil and Mudanza — brings to mind an expert in packing bags, works of few pages that speak to a traveler who knows in advance that the weight he carries will one day impose itself on his surroundings. Zambra’s writing reveals an extreme weakness for the ephemeral; he is an author who, instead of trying to mold a creation, is attempting to carve one out from the ether.

But Zambra is also concerned with the way we situate ourselves once we’ve arrived in a given place — repose, in a traditional sense. Bonzai and The Private Life of Trees, for example, refer to that other stage of a travelers’ trajectory, to the circuits of the hallway or the yard, to discovering one’s own home, such as it is.

It is no surprise, then, that readers of Zambra’s latest work, Multiple Choice (translated by Megan McDowell), are faced with an examination of their lives both in motion and at rest. What might be less expected is just how literal that test turns out to be.

A novel, of sorts, Multiple Choice is written entirely in the format of the familiar standardized tests of bygone school days. (Zambra drew its structure from the tests taken by literature students in his native Chile.) The book, for example, prompts the reader to “mark the answer that corresponds to the word whose meaning has no relation to either the heading or the other words listed,” followed by a series of possible responses. With questions that vary from the absurd to the existential, Zambra suggests to his readers that the choices made in life are devastating, contradictory, valid and invalid, all at once. In our journey, in our trajectory, all categories of experience are left to be questioned: the political, sexual, laborious, paternal, amorous — the very act of writing. Life, according to Zambra, contains the same degree of chance and uncertainty as a test answered entirely at random.

To what end? When I consider Zambra as a generational author, as his contemporary Daniel Alarcón described him, I think that it is because he is able to capture the solitude of the homes that my generation inhabits. They are transient places, maladjusted and dismantled; home is no longer the family, but perpetual movement, perpetual choice. When we leave — wherever we leave —  we think of return as a return to the homes of our parents, while our parents’ return is to a home of their own. Their home is stable, unchanging. Ours has multiple correct answers. Or none at all.

--

Londoño is a writer and editor from Bogotá based in New York.


Book Review: Open for Business

Pedro Freyre

Richard E. Feinberg's book takes a look at Cuba's fascinating - and frustrating - new marketplace.

It can be difficult to document a historic moment while it’s still unfolding, but Richard E. Feinberg has taken to the task with his book, Open for Business: Building the New Cuban Economy. In exploring how President Barack Obama’s opening to Cuba “fits squarely within a broader theme of his foreign policy,” Feinberg has provided an eminently readable take on the changes unfolding in Cuba’s economy, seen through the lens of the U.S. president’s engagement initiative.

Feinberg deals with the paradoxes, challenges and contradictions of Cuba’s unique social model with clarity and sensitivity — and places them in their current economic context. Setting aside the mixed feelings of shock, nostalgia and aversion that Cuba may provoke in a new wave of American tourists, Feinberg makes clear that the island’s social standards are simply not sustainable without increases in labor productivity, competitiveness and exports; he minces no words in describing the dilapidation of the Cuban housing stock and its transportation system. Open for Business provides a thorough look at the problematic rise of the service sector in the Cuban economy, the impact of insufficient investment rates, and the squeeze put on the economy by Cuba’s balance of payment problems.

In the face of such challenges, Feinberg explains how Cuba has launched an effort to address its external debt burden. As of 2008, Cuba’s external debt totaled $31.6 billion to major country creditors, including Venezuela ($11.4 billion), Spain ($3.2 billion), China ($3.2 billion) and Japan ($2.8 billion). Though the numbers are somewhat stale, they still provide an accurate picture of the scope and scale of Cuba’s external debt dilemma, even after the announcement in late 2015 of a deal with 15 wealthy Paris Club creditor nations, which resulted in the forgiveness of $8.5 billion in debt and $2.6 billion in restructuring.

The author’s discussion of the island’s debt problems provides a stepping stone for a larger analysis of Cuba’s structural challenges, including finding a way to diversify its economic links and recalibrate its relationship with Venezuela, China and Brazil. Feinberg notes that opening the country to greater foreign investment will offer major opportunities for the island.

Among the most interesting aspects of the book are the case studies of Cuban joint ventures with foreign investors such as Sherritt, Imperial Tobacco, Meliá, Nestlé, Souza Cruz, Unilever and Rio Zaza. Feinberg provides a wealth of details on the structuring, business case, and internal governance of these efforts, and he notes that they provide some cautionary tales for prospective investors.

An examination of the Cuban private sector closes the book. Feinberg’s portraits of the nascent entrepreneurial class on the island, and the bureaucratic challenges faced by young Cubans trying to plant the seeds of capitalism in the arid landscape of socialist central planning, should be required reading for U.S. consultants, attorneys, economists, academics, and especially business executives considering forays into this fascinating — and frustrating — new marketplace.

--

Freyre is chair of international practice at Akerman, LLP, and a lecturer at Columbia Law School


Book Review: The Salvador Option

Benjamin Russell

Russell Crandall offers a nuanced take of El Salvador's civil war - and whether it offers U.S. policymakers any real lessons.

Despite decades of military support and millions in development aid, for many Americans El Salvador remains a caricature, caught somewhere between an episode of Gangland and the milieu of sex, alcohol and jungle violence portrayed in Oliver Stone’s 1986 film, Salvador.

Those Americans who do spare a thought for the tiny country are prone to oversimplification. Some are quick to excuse Washington’s support for its authoritarian leadership in the 1970s and ’80s by using the Cold War to excuse all manner of sin. Others glorify leftist insurgent groups that were neither monolithic nor free from a considerable share of blame for the brutality of their country’s conflict. (Judging from his film, Stone falls into this camp.)

Russell Crandall, a professor at Davidson College and author of The Salvador Option, is not like most Americans. His book is an exercise in nuance, offering a critical and honest assessment of U.S. relations with El Salvador from the tense years preceding its civil war to the signing of the Chapultepec Peace Accords in 1992.

The Salvador Option begins with an analysis of the regional and international currents facing U.S. policymakers as they focused on Central America in the 1960s and 1970s. As left-wing movements gained ground in much of the region, El Salvador remained a secondary concern to many in the diplomatic and military establishment, who were more troubled by the possibility that Guatemala and Nicaragua would be the next “dominoes” to fall to Communism.

Successive U.S. administrations gradually came to grips with a civil war that would ultimately kill 75,000 and displace more than 1 million. U.S. support for El Salvador’s succession of right-wing, authoritarian governments most often hinged on honest assessments of the options at hand and, in hindsight, a misplaced optimism over how much U.S. support could moderate the illiberal impulses of the country’s leadership.

Equally damaging were U.S. policy choices to look the other way — as with, for example, the Ronald Reagan administration’s early denials of what became known as the El Mozote Massacre. Crandall’s study shows how individual worldviews, diplomatic machinery, and local and international politics influenced decision-makers who were often torn over the best course of action in a situation with few good answers.

The author also disabuses the notion that El Salvador can provide a test case — both positive and negative — for U.S. foreign policy elsewhere. Particularly in the context of the Iraq War, the Salvador Option, Crandall explains, came to be understood by its proponents as a militarily successful means of supporting favorable governments without significant on-the-ground U.S. involvement.

Crandall contends that the complexity and murkiness of U.S. policy in El Salvador over nearly two decades — not to mention the atrocities that took place there — should instead limit the degree to which the Salvador Option is understood as a coherent policy strategy. “U.S. backing (of the Salvadoran government) most likely made some things worse and some better — and this is before we ask whether those negative costs contributed to any lasting, positive outcomes,” he noted.

Crandall is an elegant writer and keen storyteller, and The Salvador Option covers an important but little-understood episode of the Cold War with considerable historical and analytical skill. For students of U.S. foreign policy, diplomats with an eye on Central America, or even casual film buffs wondering if Oliver Stone has any idea what El Salvador is really like, this book is essential reading.

--

Russell is an editor for AQ


Like what you're reading?

Subscribe to Americas Quarterly's free Week in Review newsletter and stay up-to-date on politics, business and culture in the Americas.