Monday, January 31, 2005

Latin America, Democracy, and Orientalism

Hi Class,

After we finished our class, Rosemary came to my office to talk about her paper and she raised a very important question regarding the classifications of regimes that we considered during our class this Monday.

She asked me if these regime classifications are, for the most part, an example of Orientalism. I told her yes.

This is important and for those of you who are not familiar with the concept of Orientalism I will suggest some very basic readings. One, from the books I use for my Introduction to Sociology course. British sociologist Karim Murji tells us in page 237-8 of Uses of Sociology that Orientalism is:
A systematic form of cultural discourse that creates and reproduces various interlinked oriental stereotypes--ideas of 'the East' characterized by sexual exoticism, religious mysticism and corrupt despotism, for instance. These distinctive ways of conceptualizing the Orient as 'different' set up a 'we-them' opposition or distinction to the 'West' through which exoticism of the former is contrasted with the morality of the latter.

It is important to underline that in Said's argument ideas about 'us' and 'them' are mutually constituted: they depend upon one another. They also establish the link between knowledge, power and government (...)

Said maintained that Orientalist discourse is to be found in the writings of academics as well as government officials. The academic category included historians, geographers, anthropologists and sociologists. Their writings dichotomize the East and the West and produced seemingly authoritative ways for Westerners to 'see' the Orient, its places and people. Orientalist discourse therefore shapes notions about civility, purity, cleanliness, and so on, which places--or rather centres--the 'West' on one side and 'the rest' on the other, on the periphery. Again the imagined location of the 'West' depends upon, indeed it is constituted by, the notion of 'the other' as being on the margin. As Chandra Mohanty says: 'it is only insofar as ... the East [is] defined as Other, or as peripheral that (Western) man/humanism can represent him/itself as the centre. It is not the centre that determines the periphery, but the periphery that in its boundedness determines the periphery. For Said, the 'gaze' of sociological--as well as other disciplines--knowledge and expertise was instrumental in making and legitimating such distinctions.

I think it is quite easy to see how frequently political regimes and entire societies in Latin America and other regions are labeled as democratic or non-democratic with paradoxical consequences. On the one hand, the pressure put on those societies to adopt democratic rule as a standard to be measured against, has prevented many Human Rights abuses; on the other hand, that pressure has been frequently an excuse to debunk legitimate regimes.

Moreover, in the case of the US foreign policy, a key variable when dealing with Latin American topics, it is possible to observe overtime how the democratic criteria changes and does not fit a clear standard. The best possible examples of this double standard are Cuba and China. While in the case of Cuba there is tremendous pressure to deny any merit to its government with China there is plenty of room to accommodation.

However, the question of who is democratic and who is not is still relevant. I already spelled out some of the reasons why I think it is important to raise those kinds of questions. One additional reason that we will consider later in the course connects with the quest to expand citizenship rights in the region. For this kind of questions substantive analysis of the conditions to classify a regime as democratic not democratic are relevant.

Of course, here we come to clash with the old question about the universality of a concept as Human Rights. Can we really believe that there is such thing as a universal concept of Human Rights? Foucault and many other post-moderns and post-structuralists will say no, no way. I, a habermasian, reconstructed Catholic believe that it is possible to find elements of Human Rights beliefs and practices in almost all known societies, and that even if there are some that lack such tradition in specific aspects of it (lets say as in the case of female "circumcision"), it is necessary to push for changes in that direction. Of course, I do not believe in military interventions, not even in the kind of regime-harassment so common nowadays in the US foreign policy parlance.

So even if the classifications that we consider today at class follow, up to a certain extent, the pattern of Said's 'sociological gaze', I also believe that the debate about the requisites to consider a country a democracy is relevant and necessary because such debate happens, as I mentioned during class, not only outside of the country, but also within the countries themselves.

If you want more information about the connection between Orientalism, democracy, Latin America and the United States click here. A very brief summary and review of Said's Orientalism can be found here.

If you want a brief article by Said himself celebrating 25 years of the publication of Orientalism, click here. Finally, a brief review of Orientalism from 1980 can be found here. A good, more contemporary book by Said is Power, Politics and Culture: Interviews with Edward Said and is available at Rose Hill with the call number CB18.S25 A3 2001B .

Thursday, January 27, 2005

Bolivia and Santa Cruz

Hi Class,

Just in case you want to access more information on Bolivia's conflict with the province of Santa Cruz, I am writing here some data and providing some hyperlinks. Not all is in English, but try your Spanish, I am sure you will learn a lot.

Keep in mind that Bolivia is a country with a long standing history of regional rift, ethnic tension, and foreign intervention, and that up until today has territorial disputes with Chile and Peru. Here you can see a map of the territories lost by Bolivia over time.

The conflict, as many other conflicts in World history, has a complex history. On top of the geographic isolation of La Paz and the relatively privileged position of Santa Cruz as food producer and now as natural gas producer, the national government of Bolivia recently passed an increase in the price of diesel. The measure has come to be known in the country media as the "dieselazo".

(In Spanish when you add the suffix -azo to a word it means that you were hit with that thing: martillazo means that you were hit with a hammer, trapazo means that you were hit with a rag, so diesel-azo means that you were hit with an increase in the price of diesel).

The "dieselazo" came as a consequence of policies aimed at keeping "fiscal discipline". Fiscal discipline is a big thing for the international lending institutions (International Monetary Fund and Inter-American Development Bank) and risk rating firms (I give you more information on them at the end). Fiscal discipline seeks to keep prices of nationally produced goods (such as gas or oil) "real" by adjusting them to the prices of the foreign markets in US dollars or euros. Bolivia has had a very bad experience with "fiscal discipline" as you were able to read in "Economics of Empire".

Moreover, the dieselazo came at a bad timing, and as any increase in fuels all over the world has a direct impact on the prices of transportation, and also on the prices of food. This is critical for a country like Bolivia where is so expensive to take the food from lower regions as Santa Cruz to regions in the hills.

As I mentioned in class Santa Cruz is pretty much at sea level, while all the other major cities in the country are above the 2 500 metres mark: La Paz: 3 658; Cochabamba: 2 558; Sucre: 2 790; Potosí: 4 200. The issue with transportation in countries like Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, México, and Chile is then not only distance from point A to point B, but the amount of fuel required to go from sea level to 2500 or 3000 metres above sea level. That is why a hike in the price of diesel will have a chain-reaction effect on the entire economy, from fares in the public transportation to prices of food and other goods (here you can get some pictures of Bolivia).

After the "dieselazo" was announced by the government in La Paz, different groups in Santa Cruz started a "civic" movement to seek autonomy, and ultimately independence from Bolivia. The "civic" movement has scheduled a mobilization for this coming weekend.

As I mentioned in class today one key aspect that we should considered when analyzing this kinds of social or political movements is the institutional design of the country. For this case is more relevant because unlike what happens in Argentina, Brazil, or Mexico (federal republics, like the United States) Bolivia (like Chile) is a central republic. That means that the President has a great deal of power to appoint the prefect of the province. The movement originally started with demands to elect a governor.

Bolivia's case also allows me to introduce the issue of the qualification of risk. This "grading" is given by firms like PNC
and CRG. For a more academic take on country risk analysis you can go to the website of the Fuqua School of Business at Duke University.

All Latin American countries are heavily scrutinized by these firms and, as a consequence of the political instability in Bolivia, their country risk rating was increased. This rating is so important for some countries, that--as an example--Argentinean newspapers will include it in the frontpage of their daily editions. You can see here
La Nación Argentina's most influential newspaper. Go to where it says "Índices de Mercado" (Market Indices) and see the 5022 points of Risk Country given to Argentina.

Risk country ratings are given sometimes as points, some times as grading letters (AAA for very good countries), and some times as groups (Group III for a country like Mexico, Group V for a country like Argentina). Almost always the rating tries to capture how risky is for a private foreign investor to put his/her money in that specific country. The higher the country risk the bigger the premium a country will have to give to investors going to their country.

Lets say that Mexico, Argentina, and Bolivia want to attract investment, Mexico is a group III or a B+ country in most ratings, while Argentina and Bolivia are group V or C in others. That means that if the Federal Reserve here in the States is paying 1.25 to investors of its bonds, Mexico will have to give more than that, and Argentina and Bolivia much more than that (if they are actually able to find investors willing to take the risk of investing there).

It is important to emphasize that there are many valorations of Risk Country and that none is totally objective. The most recent published by The Economist Intelligence Unit, a special division of The Economist Group in London puts Chile with 20/100, Mexico with 42/100, and Argentina with 76/100. Moody's, as an example, gave Mexico in January 2005 a "Baa1", up from a "Baa2" rating in August 2004.