Saturday, March 31, 2012

Latin America and China, Perfect Together

For years, analysts of China's growing economy have explained how the country has been expanding its presence in Latin America.  China is looking for new markets and suppliers of raw materials and they have found both in the Americas.  But the question of just how connected the economies of Latin America and China are has been been difficult to understand in snapshot form.  Problem solved.  In its Winter 2012 issue of AQ Quarterly, the Council of the Americas has created an easy-to-use set of charts that lay out the case why China, not the United States, may be Latin America's trading partner of the future.    

Friday, March 30, 2012

Maradona, Machismo and the Arab World

It's not easy being Diego Armando Maradona.  Never has been, never will be.  But the sight of Maradona heading into the stands during a game this week between Al Wasl and Al Shabab in the UAE was something new.  Maradona coaches Al Wasl and was furious at the treatment his girlfriend and the wives and girlfriends of some of his players received from Al Shabab fans.  In a post game press conference he angrily defended himself to a reporter.  He had some choice words about domestic violence, a problem that many in the Arab world have failed to acknowledge.  See Maradona's press conference for yourself, here.

Monday, March 26, 2012

The Cardinal’s Gambit

Pope Benedict XVI arrives in Cuba today. Unlike the historic visit of John Paul II to the island in 1998, the visit of Benedict to the island has generated less discussion about the transformative possibilities of the papal visit than it has recriminations from democracy advocates about the relationship between the Castro regime and the island’s Roman Catholic hierarchy.  In the exile community at least, the target of the greatest scorn has been the Archbishop of Havana, Cardinal Jaime Ortega.  Critics have accused the Cardinal, once imprisoned by the Castro regime in the UMAP reeducation camps that dotted the island in the 1960s and 1970s, of striking a tone of appeasement with the Castro regime while attempting to ignore or silence voices of protest on the island.  In a move that infuriated many Catholics and critics of the Cuban government, Ortega recently allowed Cuban police to dislodge dissidents who had holed themselves up in a Catholic church in Havana demanding that the Pope address the issue of human rights on the island.  In the aftermath of the removal of the dissidents, the Archbishopric of Havana issued a statement arguing, “no one has the right to turn churches into political trenches.” (“Nadie tiene derecho a convertir los templos en trincheras políticas”.)
Of course, churches have always been sites of political conflict and nowhere has this been more obvious than in Latin America.  In the aftermath of the Medellin Conference of 1968, many Catholic churchmen took public stances against human rights abuses that often placed them in direct and public opposition to governments and guerillas.  One need only recall the iconic image of Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero of El Salvador, sprawled dead beside the altar of the Cathedral of San Salvador after having been assassinated by a right-wing sniper, to understand just how much the words and actions of a priest can strike fear in the hearts of oppressive regimes.       
But in stark contrast to Romero and others like him, who used their pulpits to speak bluntly and accusingly about matters of human rights and social justice, Cardinal Ortega has adopted a strategy in Cuba that reflects what we might call, to borrow a phrase from my days back in Catholic grammar school, “constructive criticism.”  This position has infuriated the Cardinal’s critics but it may reflect both the historical role of the Church in Cuba as well as a calculated decision by Ortega to safeguard the small but important public space that the Church has managed to occupy in recent years.        
At the end of the nineteenth century, as Cubans launched their third and final war for independence from Spain, the Catholic Church on the island was in dire straits.  The Church had always depended on the largesse of the Spanish crown but throughout most of the century the Spanish authorities, influenced by anticlerical currents on the peninsula, were less willing to dig into their pockets to support priests and parishes.  The church authorities struggled with tight budgets and against the perception that Cuba was a remote and unrewarding outpost that Spanish priests were wise to avoid or escape.  Separately, as Cubans began to fight for their independence, the Church hierarchy—with its significant number of Spanish-born clerics—was loath to support the insurgent cause.  The partisanship of the Spanish Catholic hierarchy was obvious.  The deaths of José Martí in 1895 and Antonio Maceo in 1896 were each greeted with Te Deums in Cuban churches.  The Spanish crown may not have been kind or supportive of the Church but in the face of an insurgent movement led by Cubans, the Church chose accommodation over confrontation with its imperial patrons.  Not surprisingly, once the War of Independence was completed and Cuba was free of Spain, the Church struggled to significance on the island.  The American military government not only challenged Catholic control over marriages and burials but it invited Protestant churches to enter the island and compete for souls. 
In the years after the end of the American occupation of Cuba, the Catholic Church floundered.  Most Cubans still considered themselves Catholic but the bonds that tied Cubans to the Church were weak.  The Catholic Church became an institution for which many Cubans felt neither profound hatred nor devotion; their ambivalence toward it reflected a broader Cuban ambivalence toward religion, generally.  As Jorge Dominguez pointed out several years ago, in the years before the Cuban Revolution of 1959, “most people simply were not concerned much with religion.”
The Castro regime, of course, targeted the Cuban Catholic Church as never before in the institution’s history.  It railed against the hierarchy, accused priests of treason, and framed them as agents of foreign imperialism. In short order, Castro systematically expropriated Church schools and other properties, deported priests and nuns, and barred any public expression of worship.  To be Catholic in Revolutionary Cuba was to risk political harassment, social exclusion, imprisonment and intimidation.
Yet by the late 1980s, the Church had begun to recover some ground in Cuba.  The number Baptisms on the island rose and vocations began to increase.  In the years that the Cuban regime refers to as the Special Period, the Church emerged as an important social safety net for starving and desperate Cubans.  With the failure of the economic model espoused by the Cuban government laid bare and the collapse of Soviet Communism rattling the confidence of many Cubans, the Church offered weary Cubans spiritual respite and physical relief.
Several years ago, with the worst of the Special Period over but many Cubans particularly in the interior regions of the island struggling to eat, I witnessed first hand the life-saving work of the Church.  Through friends I was able to secure a ride from Havana to the small Cuban towns from which my parents fled in the late 1960s.  Before we stepped into the small van that would carry us into the interior, a group of young seminarians and I stuffed slabs of meat, cooking oil, and bags of vegetables underneath the van’s trunk-floor.  All of this was done hurriedly and quietly because the food had been purchased illegally.  After our hours-long trip into the interior we arrived at our destination.  It was dark and the streetlights were off in order to conserve energy.  In the heat and darkness we unloaded our contraband into a local church and from there I watched as a group of women quickly began dividing the meat and preparing dishes for distribution to the poorest corners of diocese.  The next day, as I arrived at the church, I watched a discreet caravan of cars come and go, each armed with cantinas to feed the old, the infirmed, the forgotten.  I don’t know whether the Cuban security apparatus, with its skillful and ubiquitous network of chivatos, was aware of the goings-on at the Church.  If they were, they did little stop this clandestine network of aid.
What struck me most about this entire episode was the fact that these were Cubans helping other Cubans through a system that operated if not entirely outside the control of the Castro government then at least in that small but nebulous space called Cuban civil society.  There are, of course, other groups in Cuba that also operate in these space.  The Damas de Blanco, the bloggerverse led by Yoani Sanchez, the small organizations that risk beatings, detentions and intimidation every time they demand even the most basic recognition of their human rights.  But the Catholic Church with its island-wide network of churches and priests, with its connections to the international community through the Vatican, occupies a special place.  I too share the frustration of those who have watched Cardinal Ortega seemingly turn his back on Cuba’s dissidents, including remaining silent in the face of the increasing and violent repression of the Damas de Blanco, and avoiding virtually any opportunity to directly challenge the authority of the Cuban regime.  I too wish for a more vigorous and public opposition in the model of Archbishop Romero.  But my guess is that Cardinal Ortega is trying to safeguard the little space conceded to him by the Castro brothers.  In doing that, he is betting he will be able to build a Cuban Church—one soul, one meal at a time—that will help to guide Cuba once the inevitable transition away from los Castro begins.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Why Don't Latino Children Read

Several years ago, one of my students sent me a note telling me how grateful she was that I had assigned her to read Junot Diaz's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.  The book, which tells the story of a young Dominican-American "ghetto-nerd," hit home with this student, who wrote that she finished the book in tears.  I loved the book too but what really struck me about her note was the way she described herself:  "Professor, I'm not really a reader."  I'm always struck by the blunt honesty of my students regarding most anything in their lives (my wife calls it "verbal vomit") but the idea of admitting, in college no less, that one wasn't much for reading always stayed with me.  That student was not alone, each year I read the work of students, particularly Latino students, whose writing--awkward, halting, unclear--reveals a life devoid of reading.

We know, of course, that the love of reading starts early in childhood and that parents are the most important early models of reading for their kids.  Despite this, when we look at the reading proficiency rate of American children, the rates are very low.  And when we take a look at the reading proficiency of Latino children, the rates are among the lowest in the nation.  Monica Olivera has offered parents some advice about how to get our kids to read more and to enjoy it.  Given the importance of reading and the scope of the reading crisis in this country we would all do well to listen to her.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Oil for Ice Cream?

The Mr. Miyagi/Daniel-san relationship that is Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez has taken a new an unexpected turn with the news that the Cuban government will begin making its famous Coppelia Ice Cream in Venezuela.  This is only fair, of course, since Venezuela provides the Cuban government with approximately 90,000 barrels of subsidized oil per day, many of which Cuba resells on the international market for a healthy profit.  One can only imagine what the Venezuelans will give in exchange for the Cubans' dulce de fruta bomba.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Sonora Ponceña's "Don Quique" Honored At Lehman College

This weekend, the Lehman Center for the Performing Arts in the Bronx will host the Sonora Ponceña for a concert honoring the group's founder, Enrique “Quique” Lucca Caraballo.  La Sonora is one of Latin music's most enduring bands thanks in large part to hits such as Fuego en el 23.  The band is also famous, of course, because its long-ago guitarist was Filiberto Ojeda Rios, the Puerto Rican nationalist whose death in 2005, at the hands of FBI agents, outraged many Puerto Ricans. 

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Rodriguez, Martinez...It's All The Same To The NYT

I guess when one guy is a Latino elected official who gets beaten up at Occupy Wall Street and the other is a Latino activist who raps about Occupy Wall Street, you're pretty much interchangeable for the New York Times.  Besides, both of their names end in "ez." 

On Latino Electorate, Romney Can't Shoot Straight

It is already clear that Mitt Romney's presidential campaign suffers from a lack of, como se dice, umph.  But nowhere is this clearer than when it comes to the campaign's attempt to connect with Latino voters.  The Romney campaign has struggled to understand the often significant differences that exist between Latino groups in the United States.  Had this campaign been taking place thirty years ago, maybe one could forgive Romney.  But for decades, academics, political consultants, think tanks and, most especially, advertising companies have been pointing out that when it comes to Latinos, recognizing intra-group differences is the key to success.  Put simply, Romney and his high-paid and very smart crop of advisers have no excuse.  Alicia Menendez has captured the essence of Romney's problem writing yesterday:

"These differences — Puerto Rican islanders vs. Latino mainlanders, Mexicans vs. Cubans —  are the type of things you expect someone who is vying for your vote to understand about you, about your priorities, about your American identity. That basic level of cultural understanding shows respect. How can Mitt Romney represent us if he doesn’t even know who we are?"

If Romney has any desire to move in to the White House in January, 2013--he needs to fix this ayer.

For more of Menendez's analysis click here.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Gonzalez for Gross?

A US federal judge granted permission last night for convicted Cuban spy René González to visit Cuba to see his ailing brother.  He may remain in Cuba for a period of two weeks after his arrival on the island.  Gonzalez, who served 13 years in prison, was paroled last year and is required to serve his three year probation in the United States.  Among Gonzalez's crimes were infiltrating the Cuban exile organization Hermanos al Rescate, a group whose pilots combed the Caribbean in search of Cuban rafters attempting to flee the island.  In 1996, four of the organizations members were killed when Cuban fighter jets shot them down in the Caribbean.

Granting Gonzalez's request to visit his sick family member in Cuba might pressure the Cuban government to grant a similar request from American Alan Gross, who was arrested for delivering satellite communication equipment to members of Cuba's Jewish community.  Gross was sentenced last year to 15 years in prison.  He has asked the Cuban government to allow him to travel to the United States to visit his 89 year-old mother, whose health is failing.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Inside Latin America's Prisons

The fire that claimed more than 300 lives last month at the Comayagua prison in Honduras raised awareness of the problem of prison overcrowding in Latin America.  The New York Times provides an inside look at the conditions in some of Central America's most overcrowded prisons and the sight isn't pretty. 

La re-elección de Obama no está garantizada

En la Casa Blanca me imagino que están contentos con la larga y aparentemente interminable interna republicana.  Pero en marzo no se canta victoria.