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From issue: The Environment (Fall 2009)

Fresh Look Reviews

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

In this issue:

China in Latin America: The Whats and Wherefores by R. Evan Ellis

Gabriel Marcella

China’s expanding role in Latin America has sparked a cottage industry among academics and think tanks that are focused on the potential for geopolitical competition with the United States. R. Evan Ellis’ China in Latin America: The Whats and Wherefores represents an important—although in some aspects, overly alarmist—contribution to the growing literature in the field.

Ellis, an assistant professor at the Center for Hemispheric Defense Studies at the National Defense University in Washington DC, has produced a remarkably detailed compendium—nearly encyclopedic in scope—of China’s diplomatic, economic, military, and cultural activities in the region. He also draws on extensive field research and interviews (including with Chinese diplomats) to explore the reasons for China’s interest and to examine why Latin American countries are increasingly receptive to Chinese overtures.

The book’s overall conclusion is that the relationship benefits both sides. China is eager to acquire primary resources (grains, oil, copper, iron, meat, and fish meal) for its domestic market as well as find new markets for its exports, such as low-end manufactured and tech goods. According to the author, Latin America is also a potential arena for strengthening Chinese foreign policy aims, such as securing international isolation of Taiwan and developing “strategic alliances as part of China’s global positioning as it emerges as a superpower.” In turn, Ellis notes, Latin American countries are motivated by the search for export markets, Chinese investment capital to fuel development and the desire to “offset the traditional political, economic and institutional dominance of the United States.”

The author presents strong evidence for most of his arguments. The book brims with statistics on trade and investment flows, amplified by the statements of government officials, academics, journalists, and businesspeople. He notes that Argentina, Brazil, Mexico, and Venezuela are key targets for Chinese “strategic” partnerships because of the value of trade and their regional influence.

The Sino-Brazil relationship may be the best example of how motives and interests intersect: bilateral trade surpassed $11 billion in 2007, second only to China’s trade with Mexico. In addition to their growing technology cooperation, Brazil sells China soy, iron and steel, petroleum, meat, and wood products. In return, China sells Brazilians cars, motorcycles, appliances, textiles, footwear, and electronics.

Political and military exchanges are another key facet of the growing relationship with Brazil as well as with other key regional players like Mexico. Moreover, China, as it has done elsewhere in the world, has linked trade incentives and aid to Central American and Caribbean countries with its campaign to end diplomatic recognition of Taiwan.

However, the book exaggerates the threat posed by China to U.S. alliances in Latin America. It incorrectly leads the reader to believe that Chinese activities are a zero-sum exercise, where the result is a potential geopolitical loss for the United States. In a passage that seems steeped in Cold War thinking, Ellis writes, for example, “The growing Chinese presence in Latin America implies that the Western Hemisphere cannot be considered a U.S. sanctuary in a future conflict with the PRC (People’s Republic of China), and that the United States will be forced to devote significant resources to protecting its operations there, as well as in the Asian theater of operations.”

Yet as Ellis notes, Chinese activities are limited to visits and consultations, with the occasional sale of military equipment. Though a foundation for further military cooperation may have been established, China is unlikely to displace the U.S. as the preeminent source of equipment and doctrine. While some populist governments such as Venezuela’s may want to find alternative military suppliers, most Latin American countries prefer security ties to the U.S. both because they are politically important and because they don’t trust China’s longer-term political ambitions.

Despite the breadth and depth of its investments and its many forms of outreach, Chinese policy toward Latin America appears rather conventional. It is rationally pursuing national interests and building for the long term. Similar to other emerging powers, China uses a range of foreign policy tools, from diplomatic, cultural and military to economic, with a heavy emphasis on trade and investment.

Although the book is generally accurate, there are some errors in the text. For example, Hutchison Whampoa Limited—a Hong Kong-based international conglomerate—is referred to as both Hutchison and as Hutchison-Whampoa. Additionally, the first Chinese arrived in Panama in 1854, not 1954. Stylistically, heavier editing would have eliminated some of the redundancy that tests a reader’s attention span.

Ellis’ broad survey helps the reader appreciate the extent of relations between Latin America and China and its historical background. The book also examines the demographics of the Chinese community in each country and the intellectual infrastructure for China studies.

But his argument that Latin Americans see China as a way to offset U.S. dominance is unpersuasive. The U.S. has no reason to worry about Chinese activities in Latin America. It is, in fact, a win-win situation. More international trade will raise Latin American living standards, and an economically healthy and more dynamic Latin America expands the market for U.S. goods, services and investments. The impressive statistics marshaled by Ellis lead, in fact, to a more encouraging judgment: the world is better off as a result of China’s constructive engagement in international affairs, including Latin America.

Read two Letters to the Editor submitted in response to this article.

Gringo na laje: Produção, circulação e consumo da favela turística by Bianca Freire-Medeiros

Jorge Pontual

The relatively recent trend of tourism in the favelas, the huge slums of Rio de Janeiro, perplexes many middle-class Brazilians who would rather leave the reality of poverty hidden from the eyes of foreign visitors. Gringo na laje: Produção, circulação e consumo da favela turística (Gringos on the Rooftop: The Production, Circulation and Consumption of Slum Tourism), a short book by sociologist Bianca Freire-Medeiros focusing on tourism in Rocinha (the largest favela in Rio), is a welcome and fresh look at the subject. Through interviews conducted by the author and her team of sociology students with residents of Rocinha and their foreign guests, the book shows how slum visits are more than a passive experience for both favelados (the locals) and their visitors and can actually challenge stereotypes.

But while the book provides Brazilians with an inside look at urban areas seen mostly as hotbeds of crime and violence, it fails to offer much insight beyond what would be gleaned by a casual tourist.

Its main shortcoming is the repeated claim that crime and violence in the favela is just a “spectacular media-centric representation,” blaming the media for depicting only the slums’ negative sides. Freire-Medeiros writes that the recent phenomenon of “tourism in Rocinha has deconstructed the logic that associates favela and violence.”

As favelados struggle for their everyday survival, the thriving new industry of favela tourism indeed brings thousands of foreign visitors to Rio’s slums. The most visible, Rocinha, is located on prime real estate with views of Ipanema beach and sits adjacent to the expensive condos on São Conrado beach. The top dwellings in Rocinha have arguably the best view in Rio.

But Rocinha is dominated by a gang of drug traffickers with a narcotics business that brings in an estimated $5 million in monthly sales. The government of President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva is investing $90 million to upgrade infrastructure in Rocinha as part of its national PAC (Plan of Accelerated Growth) program, but for the works to go forward, the government had to have the implicit support of the drug cartel. Since then, at least at the time this issue went to press, the constant shootouts between rival gangs and the police have been replaced by a deceitful peace, with the drug lords still ruling inside the favela and administering their brand of justice.

Freire-Medeiros doesn’t ignore the presence of the narcotics gangs, but she claims that the media have exaggerated their importance. This is particularly troublesome to read in light of the 2002 murder of Tim Lopes, an investigative reporter working for the Globo TV network while researching a story in another Rio slum, an incident she does not mention. Lopes was captured by a drug gang, tortured and personally butchered by the notorious drug lord, Elias Maluco (Crazy Elias). The journalist’s body was burned in what the traffickers call a “microwave,” a pile of burning tires used to hide evidence of their crimes. Elias Maluco was arrested and sentenced to 28 years in prison. Later his sentence was lowered; he’ll be out on parole in a few years.

Instead of the “media-centric stereotypes” alleged by Freire-Medeiros, Tim Lopes’ many stories for Globo showed how the hard-working, honest people of the favelas are terrorized daily and exploited by organized crime, with no recourse to justice and law enforcement. These are facts left out of Gringo na laje.

Freire-Medeiros focuses on what she calls the “complexity” of daily life in Rocinha and the exchanges between favelados and tourists, but she treats the role that drug trafficking plays in creating that complexity as irrelevant. Gringo na laje ends up analyzing Rocinha with just about the same amount of insight as a tourist, failing to do much more than look around with casual interest. The author—like tourists who are instructed to look away and not take pictures of armed drug soldiers—does not understand or care to explain the mushrooming narcotics trade and its implications.

Ironically, Freire-Medeiros reports that most tourists want to visit Rocinha after having seen the film City of God, a harrowing depiction of violence and drug rule in the favelas. Some of them confessed to her they wanted to experience the thrill of being in a place like those shown in the movie. It has been alleged that the travel agencies that bring tourists to Rocinha have arrangements with the drug lords (through payments) to ensure tourists’ safety. But the travel operators interviewed by the author deny this, and she accepts their word without further investigation.

Freire-Medeiros subscribes to the theories of British sociologist John Urry, who focuses on the new patterns created by globalization—of which the phenomenon of slum tourism is an example. To understand this global trend, the author visited the Soweto slum in Johannesburg, South Africa, and the Dharavi slum in Mumbai, India, to compare the tours offered to those in Rocinha. Her conclusion: “Marx states that capitalism imposes the conversion of things, subjects and social relations into market goods. Poverty, theoretically, escapes this unavoidable fate, for it is impossible to buy it or sell it. Contradicting Marx, we see, at the turn of the century, poverty acquiring value and being marketed in the tourist trade.”

But for a reader interested in more than just a light scratching of the surface of Rio’s slums, a better choice would be Favela, Four Decades of Living on the Edge in Rio de Janeiro by Janice Perlman, which Oxford University Press will publish in November. Perlman’s classic study of the favelas, The Myth of Marginality (ignored by Freire-Medeiros), researched in the late 1960s during the military dictatorship and published in 1976. In Favela, Four Decades of Living on the Edge in Rio de Janeiro, she goes back to the same families and traces the destinies of four generations of favelados. Perlman, who had previously debunked the myth that favelados are “marginal” by showing how the slum was deeply integrated into the city, now recognizes that the marginalization of the favelas has become real. The culprits: governments that have left them increasingly under the rule of the drug lords.

Gringo na laje
captures the yearning of the residents of Rocinha to be accepted as full citizens, and how tourism helps to break their isolation. In it, Freire-Medeiros concludes that “slum tourism is not the cause of poverty and inequality, though it feeds on them.” But a more detailed examination of how such tourism is linked to the rising power of organized crime in the favelas might possibly make people think twice before booking one of these tours.

"No hay ley para nosotros..." Gobierno local, sociedad y conflicto en el altiplano: el caso Ilave by Ramón Pajuelo Teves

Gary Bland

On April 26, 2004, the municipality of Ilave, Peru, a town with a majority of indigenous Aymara people in the Peruvian altiplano (highlands), was the scene of a tragedy that sent shock waves through the nation and abroad. Then-mayor Cirilo Robles Callomamani, elected less than two years earlier, was beaten to death by a mob of angry citizens. His bruised and tortured body was dragged through town and dumped near a bridge that his administration had failed to repair—and which was apparently one source of the crowd’s fury. The incident raised many questions about the underlying causes of the violence, and most particularly, about its relationship to the contemporary political and socioeconomic environment of Andean Peru.

Some intriguing, and troubling, answers are provided in “No hay ley para nosotros…” Gobierno local, sociedad y conflicto en el altiplano: el caso Ilave (“No Law for Us…” Local Government, Society and Conflict in the Highlands: the Ilave Case), by Ramón Pajuelo Teves, a researcher at the Colegio Andino del Centro Bartolomé de las Casas in Cuzco, Peru. The book, co-published by Peru’s Asociación Servicios Educativos Rurales (SER) and Instituto de Estudios Peruanos (IEP), brings together two separate studies done in 2005 by researchers at the organizations, when the incident at Ilave was still fresh in the collective memory. Together, the lucid, well-researched studies place the murder against the larger context of the profound changes affecting the highlands in recent decades—changes that have dramatically affected the indigenous population and structure of power in the region.

Often, the analysis of traumatic events like a political assassination is dominated by the search for a clear and simple explanation. But the strength of this volume is that it demonstrates the deep-rooted and multiple factors in the complex rural society of the highlands that led to the outbreak of violence. The truth is, there are no easy answers. While that may leave some readers dissatisfied, most will come away with a better understanding of society, culture, and rural and municipal politics in the Peruvian highlands.

The authors suggest that the roots of the conflict go back as early as the 1960s, when a new and better-educated commercial class of nonindigenous and mestizo entrepreneurs emerged in the Puno region of the Peruvian highlands, where indigenous Aymara people have lived for centuries. They represented, in effect, a new social elite, generally younger than the traditional leadership, and they soon began to make their presence felt in local politics. Provinces such as El Collao, in which Ilave is located, became increasingly urban, while the rural population also continued to grow. Ilave itself became the third-largest population center in the region, and the capital of the province. Yet despite modernization, the region’s indigenous campesinos (farmworkers), who comprise the majority of the population, remained highly impoverished.

Ilave has an especially large number of centros poblados—or rural jurisdictions similar to municipalities typically headed by traditional indigenous leadership. Ranging in population from as small as 150 to more than 7,000 people, these centers emerged in recent years as influential players in local politics. Centros poblados were central to the Ilave incident, and the first research study in the volume focuses on them.

Centros poblados
can deliver certain public services and expect public support to do so—critical considerations in such poor areas. But that support is not necessarily provided and depends on the province’s municipal government. Despite these resource constraints, for the rural poor—and principally the indigenous—the centros poblados attract residents and, as the authors put it, become a center of rural influence and “constitute one of the spaces of fundamental interaction among the state, society, and territory.”

Political and institutional developments arguably added the most combustible ingredients to the mix in Ilave—the focus of this volume’s second study. In Ilave, like the rest of Peru, the decline of traditional political parties by the late 1980s was accompanied by a proliferation of local candidates representing independent movements, which split the electorate. A “micro-party” could win the mayoralty by simply garnering the most votes, and in 2002, Ilave’s ill-fated mayor won with a mere 21 percent of the vote. Additionally, Peruvian law allows for the removal of mayors, a procedure that, as we have seen in Bolivia and Paraguay and elsewhere in Latin America, produces politically motivated attempts by the opposition to pressure or actually remove the locally elected leader. Finally, Peru’s attempt to decentralize as part of a major government reform in early 2000 raised unrealistic expectations in rural communities. Many residents of centros poblados, for instance, believed the reforms gave them immediate access to funds administered by the province’s municipalities.

Fierce local competition for power was the match that set this combustible situation ablaze. As the region headed into the 2002 elections, the Independent Front for Public Works (FIJO), which had controlled the Ilave mayoralty for three consecutive terms, was under sustained attack. FIJO had carefully cultivated its main power base in the centros poblados by ensuring that traditional indigenous leaders, working through community councils, retained authority over public works projects. But FIJO’s internal divisions and association with corruption left it vulnerable to the successful challenge from Cirilo Robles, a university professor from a rural zone and a fierce FIJO opponent. As the authors of the study point out, the new mayor, was not as participatory as his predecessors, in part because he wanted to distinguish himself from them.

In the process, he alienated the centros poblados who had come to expect the support of the provincial municipality. When promised repairs of the bridge, as well as a new road—both crucial to the region’s economy—failed to materialize, the anger of indigenous leaders finally came to a head. His attempt to convene a municipal council session at his home, because he was blocked from doing so at the municipality, set the deadly mob in motion.

The study goes on to review developments in Ilave after the assassination. After months of political turmoil, the situation appeared to stabilize. A new mayor was elected, and the first meeting of the new municipal council was marked by a “conciliatory disposition,” according to the study authors.

The book falls short in several key aspects. Neither of the studies answers the question about whether Cirilo Robles’ murder could have been prevented. And while the lessons from Ilave could be applicable in other municipalities, the authors fail to look at the larger implications.

Residents of Ilave seem to want very much to move beyond the violent 2004 episode and live in peace. But as noted in the opening of the volume, a new Ilave mayor in 2008 had literally to beg the pardon of 300 traditional indigenous leaders who had angrily gathered to protest his use of external security personnel for a local festival. We are left wondering whether history could repeat itself. Severe poverty coupled with weak state presence, fractured political institutions, the understandable demands of a mobilized community, and the slow learning process involved in leaders valuing compromise over conflict, are all part of the challenges Ilave and many similar municipalities in Peru face today. The apparent weakness of the state to manage and incorporate the mosaic of local commissions and movements that have proliferated remains a crisis of democratic legitimacy in the Andean highlands that can only increase our worry for the future.

Las vías de la emancipación: Conversaciones con Álvaro García Linera by Pablo Stefanoni, Franklin Ramírez and Maristella Svampa

Miguel Centellas

Bolivia captured international attention with the 2005 election of President Evo Morales, the country’s first indigenous president. Since then, many books and articles have explored Bolivia’s place in the regional turn toward new Left politics—with some defining the election as part of a broader global struggle against the excesses of neoliberalism, and others celebrating the rise of indigenous political power as a new form of postcolonial liberation. Much of the literature, written by outsiders, rarely focuses on the ideas, principles and choices of those actually shaping Bolivia’s new politics.

Las vías de la emancipación: Conversaciones con Álvaro García Linera (The Paths of Liberation: Conversations with Álvaro García Linera) is an exception. This small volume is the record of nine conversations (held between September 2005 and August 2008) with Álvaro García Linera, Bolivia’s vice president and the intellectual architect of Evo Morales’ Movement Toward Socialism (MAS) government. The conversations, conducted by Argentine journalist Pablo Stefanoni, Ecuadorian sociologist Franklin Ramírez and Argentine sociologist Maristella Svampa, reveal the thinking of Bolivia’s new political elite in a way that other books on the new regime have failed to do. In particular, they offer a fascinating portrait of one of Bolivia’s most prominent leftist intellectuals.

García Linera is given the freedom to provide his perspectives on the goals and objectives of his country’s newest “revolution in democracy”—a catchphrase first used by former Bolivian President Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada during his first government (1993–1997). But this freedom is also one of the book’s shortcomings. The nonadversarial approach of the interviewers leaves many of García Linera’s arguments unchallenged, and as a result, Las vías de la emancipación fails to fully explore important developments such as the 2008 recall referendum, the autonomy movement in eastern Bolivia and any contradictions or tensions in the “revolution in democracy.”

The book offers a succinct intellectual portrait of García Linera himself, who emerged as the public voice of Bolivia’s indigenous movement in the 1990s after an early career as a student radical, labor activist and community organizer. His radicalization deepened when he became involved in the Tupac Katari Guerrilla Army, a Marxist-indigenous guerrilla group active from 1990 to 1992, and for which he was imprisoned for five years.

While in prison, Bolivia’s future vice president dedicated himself to a close reading of Marx’s Das Kapital and to writing an academic treatise on the letters of Vera Zasulich, a late-nineteenth-century Russian anarchist leader who won fame for her attempted assassination of the Czarist governor of St. Petersburg. Zasulich later rejected terror tactics and converted to Marxism. She became a key leader of the movement to translate Marx’s works into Russian and spread his views. What drew García Linera’s attention to Zasulich? What lessons, if any, did he find in these works for Bolivia’s future political development? Unfortunately, the interviewers leave these questions unexplored.

However, the conversations do offer a glimpse of the intellectual roots of García Linera’s political philosophy which, as he describes it, merges Marxism with an “indigenous vision” in which “symbols (and) narratives that permit the unification of [national] identity around the Aymara” can be constructed. According to García Linera, a Bolivian political-cultural identity must be built upon Aymara (a “nation”) rather than Quechua (only a “proto-nation”) ethnicity. Among the prominent left-wing thinkers invoked during the conversations are British historians E. P. Thompson and Eric Hobsbawm; U.S. sociologist Charles Tilly, who explored social movements; Italian neo-Marxist philosopher Antonio Negri; and French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, who pioneered the field of cultural hegemony.

The conversations are mostly undated. They often allude to, but rarely explain, specific events, forcing even readers familiar with Bolivian political history to wonder whether they occurred before, during or after particular events. The single dated conversation took place on August 10, 2008—the day after autonomy referendums were held in the indepence-minded eastern regions and several weeks after the election of an opposition indigenous female prefect (governor) in Chuquisaca. On August 10, there was also a national recall referendum in which both Morales and opposition prefects won popular backing.

But these important events are not mentioned. Instead, the bulk of the August 10 conversation tackles class theory and the role of intellectuals in perpetuating neoliberal ideology and class structure.

Under prodding by the authors, García Linera does discuss his government’s limitations and shortcomings in some of the later conversations. But the prodding seems halfhearted: one gets a clear sense that the authors share their subject’s worldview. For example, García Linera argues that state intervention must “generate wealth, because we need much economic wealth to promote the other modernizations,” but he is not pushed to explain how that differs from the professed goals of previous development-oriented regimes, which, like the present government, favored state-directed exploitation of hydrocarbon and mining resources.

In that same conversation, García Linera is challenged on the apparent contradiction that the MAS espouses a “bottom-up” approach to politics, yet continues the historical Bolivian tendency to centralize power. When he is reminded that the Right also favored centralized power, he responds that the current government is justified because it has different goals: “recovering state enterprises,” as opposed to neoliberal privatization.

In an era when Bolivian politics is deeply polarized, this book does little to advance the debate needed for the country’s development. Nevertheless, as an intellectual biography of a key player in the nation’s new politics, it makes an important contribution to understanding Bolivia today.

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