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Latin American Conflicts

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There’s an awful lot going on in Latin America right now.

I don’t really know what to believe about the anti-government protests in Cuba, largely because there’s no one you can really trust in the U.S. to report on Cuba. The reporting always just reflects American politics. The default position of the media is that Cuba is bad. The right-wingers really just wish for Bay of Pigs 2. The left media instinctively defends the Cuban government.

So here’s my very tentative thoughts, based on my own limited time on the island and a lot of reading about it. There’s no question that the economy in Cuba hasn’t worked well since 1991. It got a boost during the Chavez years in Venezuela, but with that gone, the subsidies to the government disappeared too. Then it got a boost during the Obama years, due to the rise of tourism thanks to the softening of relations. Of course, Trump put an end to that and Biden has been exceedingly indifferent to Cuba. COVID-19 cut off tourism, which meant that the limited subsidies to the people are cut off too. Even though those subsidies were in fact quite limited–oil, eggs, a few other staples–it was something and enough cash flowed through the economy that a little bit of it trickled down at least. But without that, it’s really rough in Cuba. Has the government made enough adjustments to allow possibilities for people to survive otherwise? It’s hard to argue in the affirmative. Whether there’s the will in Cuba to really crack down on large-scale dissent right now, I do not know. It would really bring down the condemnation of the world at a time when the government is trying to push a soft vision of itself (which was very clear on my visit) in order to attract more tourism. I mean, I don’t see my institution continuing its connections with the island if a crackdown happened and that tourism is necessary for the government to survive.

This is all speculation of course. There is real suffering in Cuba. There’s also a whole anti-government propaganda machine out there, largely based in Miami, ready to pounce. I’d only say to not take anything you read particularly seriously as an objective view of what is going there. I’d also note this tweet:

Now this is interesting. If the Cuban government does fall, the entire leverage Miami Cubans have over American politics disappears overnight. I’m not surprised that a lot of Republican leaders actually want communism to remain. It helps them a lot! I’m far from saying that the important issue about Cuba is its impact on U.S. domestic politics. But as a blog primarily about U.S. politics, this is very much worth noting.

Then there is Haiti. This assassination story is bonkers, with the Miami-based doctor trying to place himself in power with the use of Colombian paramilitaries. It was clearly an inside job too, as no one was killed but the targets. How this guy and his bought military guys thought this would lead to him taking power is beyond me. I know Haiti is a mess, but that takes a hell of a leap of faith. Then again, if you are an exile who hires guns to place yourself in power, your connection to reality may not be that sharp in the first place. I do strongly oppose the U.S. sending in the military to stabilize Haiti. I just don’t see how it will help anything. Opening our borders to more Haitian immigrants would be good. NACLA has an excellent reading list by experts for those of you who want to read more about the Haitian situation and what people are demanding there.

Speaking of Colombia, getting far less attention are the anti-government protests in that nation. Alma Guillermoprieto has an excellent run-down of how a neoliberal government pressing taxes down on the poor while the rich go scot free can still lead to serious resistance in Latin America.

What amounts to a nationwide state of confrontation started on April 28. A long-seething mood of dissatisfaction and frustration had caught fire a couple of weeks earlier, when Duque’s finance minister presented a sweeping tax bill to Congress. Squinting hard, one could almost see why raising taxes at that particular moment might have seemed like a good idea to the president. Colombia, never a wealthy country, has been poleaxed by the Covid-19 pandemic, with more than 3.6 million reported cases and nearly 95,000 deaths in a population of some 51 million; it has been burdened with medical bills and income supplements for the poor even as the economy shrank by 6.8 percent last year. The government needed money, and Duque decided to get it by increasing taxes, mostly on the poor.

The bill vastly expanded the range of goods and services subject to an existing 19 percent value-added tax—which notoriously devours a far greater portion of the budgets of wage earners than of the wealthy—and promised to impose an income tax by 2023 on people earning as little as $715 a month. Having read its provisions, the novelist Juan Gabriel Vásquez noted the obscene irony, in a country with one of the highest Covid mortality rates in the world, of imposing a 19 percent tax on funerals.

Taxing funerals! Smart politics there…..

It took only four days for President Duque to withdraw his tax bill, but by then no one was paying attention. Kids with perhaps eight years of schooling who would never be able to find a proper job kept marching, alongside youths with college degrees who couldn’t find work either. Schoolteachers marched and so did nuns. It poured rain for days on end and the protests only grew larger. The kids set up roadblocks along city streets, and women organized to feed them and to collect rags and vinegar as a defense against tear gas. Everyone wore the national soccer team’s bright yellow T-shirt or waved Colombia’s yellow, blue, and red flag or painted a map of the country on their faces. In the cities, people who didn’t march leaned out of windows and banged on pots.

Those were the euphoric early days, but even then the dreadful human toll was mounting: tens of thousands of protesters have been teargassed or attacked with giant grenade launchers loaded with flashbangs and stingballs; hundreds have lost an eye or been otherwise wounded by the police—in some cases certainly on purpose.

Duque is terrible. But he and his mentor Alvaro Uribe have been supported by the U.S. because they brought some stability to a once incredibly dangerous place. Traveling in Colombia about 5 years ago or so, I was constantly amazed I was there after knowing what it was like in the 80s and 90s. But that American support and relative peace have covered up the fact that this was a government by and for the rich. That can only last so long in a nation with high rates of inequality. So while our attention is riveted on Cuba and Haiti (to the extent that Americans ever really pay attention to Latin America, so perhaps “riveted” is not the right word), what is happening in Colombia may be as important.

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