Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

September 29, 2015

Will the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank be any different than the World Bank?

Filed under: Argentina,China,economics,imperialism/globalization,Latin America — louisproyect @ 10:33 pm

Screen Shot 2015-09-29 at 10.53.52 AM

The day before yesterday an article appeared on the Guardian website that had the aura of a Chinese government press release:

As world leaders met quietly behind the scenes, others lined up to express support for the new development push that aimed to eliminate both poverty and hunger over the next 15 years. They replace a soon-to-expire set of development goals whose limited success was largely due to China’s surge out of poverty over the past decade and a half.

China’s president vowed to help other countries make the same transformation. Xi said China would commit an initial $2bn to establish an assistance fund to meet the post-2015 goals in areas such as education, healthcare and economic development. He said China would seek to increase the fund to $12bn by 2030.

And Xi said China would write off intergovernmental interest-free loans owed to China by the least-developed, small island nations and most heavily debt-burdened countries due this year.

He said China “will continue to increase investment in the least developed countries,” and support global institutions, including the Beijing-backed Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank that is due to launch by the end of the year and is seen as a Chinese alternative to the more western-oriented financial institutions of the World Bank.

After having read and reviewed Patrick Bond and Ana Garcia’s “BRICS: the anti-capitalist critique”, I am more skeptical than ever about Chinese altruism especially the role of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank referred to in the last paragraph above.

I was also puzzled by the provenance of the article since it was included with others in the category “Sustainable Global Development” that was support4ed by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which is described as follows:

This website is funded by support provided, in part, by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Content is editorially independent and its purpose is to focus on global development, with particular reference to the millennium development goals and their transition into the sustainable development goals from 2015.

All our journalism follows GNM’s published editorial code. The Guardian is committed to open journalism, recognising that the best understanding of the world is achieved when we collaborate, share knowledge, encourage debate, welcome challenge and harness the expertise of specialists and their communities.

I confess that I have as much confidence in this foundation’s commitment to sustainable development as I do in the Windows Operation System, especially for their promotion of the Green Revolution, an application of chemicals to food production that has led to all sorts of problems as I indicated here: http://louisproyect.org/2009/09/20/food-imperialism-norman-borlaug-and-the-green-revolution/

In an article for Huffington Post, Richard Javad Heydarian, the author of the forthcoming “Asia’s New Battlefield: US, China and the Struggle for Western Pacific State”, casts a skeptical gaze over the Chinese gifts to the developing world, reporting on the Philippines’s encounter with the China EximBank, an entity that the new bank will likely mimic:

Under the Arroyo administration (2001-2010), the Philippines’ National Broadband Network (NBN) signed a $329.5 million contract with China’s ZTE Corp. to upgrade its facilities and communications network. It also signed the $431 million Northrail infrastructure contract, which was awarded to China National Machinery and Industry Corp. (Sinomach) and largely financed by the China EximBank.

The NBN-ZTE venture, however, would be mired in a massive corruption scandal, after investigations revealed huge kickbacks, cost inflations, and irregularities in the contract. Failing to meet laws requiring competitive bidding, the Philippines’ Supreme Court, meanwhile, struck down the Northrail project.

The common perception in the Philippines is that the ZTE and Northrail contracts were some sort of bribe to pressure/persuade the Arroyo administration to compromise on South China Sea and sign up to the controversial and secretive Joint Maritime Seismic Undertaking (JMSU) agreement in 2005, which was deemed unconstitutional and in violation of Philippine national patrimony and requirements for transparency and consultations with other branches of the government, particularly the legislature.

During his recent visit to Tokyo, Philippine President Beningo Aquino also complained about the alleged decision of the China EximBank to prematurely demand drawdowns from its Northrail project loan at the risk of default. In short, Aquino suggested that China wanted to punish his government for standing up to China by using its loan payment card.

In a CounterPunch article dated March 6, 2015, Ecuadorian journalist Raul Zibechi considered the possibility that Chinese investments in Latin America could have a different character than what the Chase Manhattan Bank and Citibank offered. Initially China was focused on mineral extraction and agricultural commodities such as soybeans but in the more recent period, it has invested in areas that depart from the traditional colonizing relationship between the core and the periphery. They include arms manufacturing in Latin America, which offers the possibility of ancillary benefits to the non-military sector just as was the case with radar after WWII, and infrastructure. He points to the construction of two hydroelectric dams in the Santa Cruz province. One is named the Kirchner after the late President and the other is called the Cepernic after the late governor of the province. Another ostensibly worthwhile project is the upgrade of railway equipment, including cars to renovate dilapidated trains. So how can you be like the old-time Anglo-American imperialists when you are building dams and modernizing the railway system in Argentina? How dare you stand in the way of progress?

If the goal is “sustainable development”, it is doubtful that there is much difference between the World Bank when it comes to hydroelectric dams. The Dialogo Chino website that is dedicated to tracking the impact of Chinese investment in Latin America referred to these dams as “mired in environmental conflict” in a February 13, 2015 article.

Experts claim the maximum level of the Kirchner dam, at the same average level of the Argentino Lake, is unsuitable, increasing the level of the lake and causing tides that will erode the front of the Perito Moreno glacier and stop the traditional blocks of ice breaking off, a phenomenon that attracts thousands of tourists.

The controversy is not without precedent. Across the border in Chile, also in Patagonia, the HidroAysén project would have resulted in the construction of five hydroelectric power plants, two on the River Baker and three on the River Pascua. However, fierce criticism from environmental groups and indigenous communities resulted in a council of ministers rejecting the project last year.

“The dam will be fed from the lake, whose level will rise and fall to meet Buenos Aires’ energy requirements and consumption. The glacier will not be immune to variations and their erosive effects,” argues Gerardo Bartolomé, the engineer at the head of an online petition aiming to ensure the correct environmental studies are carried out for the dams.

Similarly, Juan Pablo Milana, a glaciologist and researcher at the National Scientific and Technical Research Council (CONICET), believes the dams will cause irreversible damage to the Spegazzini and Upsala glaciers.

“The glaciers are already subject to the forces of nature and introducing further changes is complicated. Increasing the level of the Argentino Lake will create a flotation effect. Lower water pressure at the base of the glacier will not only cause detachment of ice but will also change the way it breaks off,” explains Milana.

It seems that the Chinese engineers overseeing the project worked on the Three Gorges Dam so you can get an idea of how much thought has gone into the environmental impact in Argentina.

Finally on the question of Argentina’s rail system. Pardon me for sounding like an unrepentant Marxist but when I hear about improvements to a transportation system that is primarily intended to haul commodities from the interior of a country to its seaports, I reach for my revolver.

This is an article I wrote on the construction of railroads in Argentina in the 19th century as part of a series on the financial crisis in the country back in 2002. Somehow I doubt that China’s intentions are any nobler than Great Britain’s.

The Collapse of Argentina, part one: Railway Imperialism

As the Argentine economic collapse began to deepen, I decided to search for radical or Marxist literature on the country written in English to help me understand the situation better. This proved futile (although I continue to be open to recommendations). Nestor Gorojovsky, an Argentine revolutionary who I have been in touch with on the Internet or by phone for at least five years now, could recommend nothing. (His own efforts at a Marxist overview of Argentine history can be found at: http://www.marxmail.org/archives/january99/argentina.htm.) Not even after posting an inquiry to the H-LatinAmerica list, whose subscribers are exclusively academic specialists, were any recommendations forthcoming.

Taking the bull by the horns, I plan now to fill this gap beginning now with a series of posts based on scholarly material from Columbia University’s library. Although I do plan to review literature on Argentina written in Spanish, most of the source material for my posts will be in English, a language that I am more comfortable with when it comes to higher-level analysis.

My own involvement with Argentina dates back to the mid 1970s when I was drawn into a faction fight within the world Trotskyist movement over political perspectives in Argentina. The two main antagonists in the debate were the late Joe Hansen, Trotsky’s bodyguard at Coyoacan and a leader of the Socialist Workers Party, and the late Ernest Mandel, the renowned Belgian economist who was on the executive committee of the International Secretariat. The Americans and their mostly English-speaking followers (I use the word advisedly) backed a Trotskyist group in Argentina that appeared to be implementing their own orthodox approach.

Led by the late Nahuel Moreno, this group participated in trade union struggles, the student movement and opposed the ultraleftist guerrilla formations that were kidnapping North American executives or hijacking trucks in order to dispense meat and other goods in poor neighborhoods like Marxist Robin Hoods. It was one of these groups that the Mandel faction backed. Although they paid lip service to Trotsky, these Argentine guerrillas organized as the PRT/Combatiente were more interested in applying Regis Debray’s foquismo theory to the urban sector.

My role in all this was to battle the Mandel supporters in Houston, Texas who held a near majority in the branch and whose affinity for guerrilla warfare was open to question. Most were disaffected from the SWP leadership, whose alleged “petty-bourgeois” orientation to the student movement was supposedly leading the party to ruin. A couple of years later, the SWP leadership would go completely overboard in a kind of ‘workerist’ orientation to the trade unions, thus robbing the dissidents of their raison d’etre. By the time this turn had taken place, the SWP and the Fourth International had parted ways. As a local leader of the anti-Mandel faction, I had the opportunity to spend long hours in discussion with Argentine co-thinkers who visited Houston to give reports for our faction. Security was extremely tight in those days and I had to check my 1968 Dodge Dart for bombs before driving any of them to a public engagement.

During that intense struggle, I gained a deep appreciation for the Argentine people, their culture and their revolutionary will. Although I grieve to see their personal suffering today, I am inspired to see them acting collectively for a better country and world. One hopes that their heroic example can begin to erode the “TINA” mood that has affected wide sections of the left since 1990.

In this first post, I want to address the question of Argentina’s “golden age”, a notion that you can find in many left publications or on the Internet. In this version of Argentine history, the country is seen as an exception to the rest of Latin America where conventional notions of “imperialism” and “dependency” might not apply.

For example, British state capitalist theoretician Chris Harman writes:

Argentina is an industrial country, with a higher proportion of its workforce in industry than in Britain. It’s also a country where working people have, within living memory, experienced living standards close to west European levels. It was known as the ‘granary of the world’ at the beginning of the 20th century, with an economy very much like that of Australia, New Zealand or Canada, centred the massive production of foodstuffs on giant capitalist farms for the world market. Relatively high wages made it a magnet for millions of immigrants from Italy and Spain who brought traditions of industrial militancy with them.

Brad DeLong, an economist who held a post in the Clinton administration and who is a ubiquitous figure on leftwing electronic mailing lists, wrote the following on Progressive Economists Network (PEN-L):

As I said quite a while ago, Argentina was a first world country–like Canada, Australia, or New Zealand–up until the 1950s. Arguments that development possibilities were constrained by relative backwardness may work elsewhere: they don’t make *any* sense for Argentina.

If views like these are meant to support a kind of Argentine exception to the Leninist concept of imperialism or its subsequent elaborations such as the Baran-Sweezy theory of monopoly capitalism, they are mistaken. They would fail to see Argentina’s role in the world capitalist system, which–despite favorable moments–has been that of victim of imperialism. Comparisons with the USA, Canada, etc. are specious, even if in a given year income or other statistics were comparable. The *structural* questions are far more important for understanding Argentina. Despite the presence of European immigrants, industrialization, national independence, the lack of feudal-like latifundias, etc., Argentina had much more in common with direct colonies in the 19th century like India.

Specifically, one of the main factors that led to Argentine dependency was its reliance on British capital and expertise for the construction of railways in the 19th century. Just as was the case in India, these steam-driven showplaces of modernization did nothing but drain the country of capital and force it into a secondary role in the world economy.

If one is a Marx “literalist,” there can obviously be a lot of confusion about the introduction of railways into Argentina or India, especially when Marx wrote:

I know that the English millocracy intend to endow India with railways with the exclusive view of extracting at diminished expense the cotton and other raw materials for their manufactures. But when you have once introduced machinery into locomotion of a country, which possesses iron and coals, you are unable to withhold it from its fabrication. You cannot maintain a net of railways over immense country without introducing all those industrial processes necessary to meet the immediate and current wants of railway locomotion, and out of which there must grow the application of machinery to those branches of industry not immediately connected with railways. The railways system will therefore become, in India, truly the forerunner of modern industry.” (“The Future Results of British Rule in India,” NY Daily Tribune, Aug. 8, 1853)

In contrast to these early hopeful writings, before Marxism had developed an understanding of the negative role of imperialism, the historical record demonstrates that foreign owned railways did not lead dependent countries to become anything like the those of the investors, engineers and builders from the core. Rather than serving as a catalyst for Argentine industry, they did nothing except enrich British finance capital, the nefarious Barings Bank in particular. For a scholarly treatment of this subject, we can turn to Alejandro Bendaña’s 1979 PhD dissertation “British Capital and Argentine Dependence 1816-1914”. (Bendaña was a senior level Sandinista official who served as ‘responsable’ with Tecnica, the volunteer organization I was involved with in the 1980s. He continues to participate in the radical movement, nowadays with the Center for International Studies in Managua and the Jubilee Campaign against 3rd world debt.)

The most important sector of the Argentine ruling class in the 19th century was the ‘estancieros’, or ranchers. From 1820 onwards, they began to develop an alliance with British capital, which was seen as strategic for the goal of exploiting the country’s land-based riches. Arising from within its ranks, Juan Manuel de Rosas emerged as the primary spokesman for this class. British merchants played an important role in guaranteeing the Argentine rancher access to world markets. Smiling benignly on this interdependence, the British consul wrote:

the manufactures of Great Britain are becoming articles of prime necessity. The gaucho is everywhere clothed in them. Take his whole equipment – examine everything about him – and what is there not of raw hide that is not British? If his wife has a gown, ten to one that it is made at Manchester; the camp-kettle in which he cooks his food, the earthenware he eats from, the knife, his poncho, spurs, bit, all are imported from England. . . Who enables him to purchase these articles? Who buys his master’s hides, and enables that master to employ and pay him? Who but the foreign trader. Stop the trade with foreign nations, and how long would it be before the gaucho would be reduced to the state of the Indian of the Pampas, fed on his beef and horse-flesh, and clothed in the skins of wild beasts? (Bendaña, p. 34)

However, one important piece was missing from this jigsaw puzzle. Unless a modern railway system was introduced into the country, Argentine goods would be not as competitive with those of countries which could deliver beef, hides, and etc. to seaports in a much shorter time over rail rather than horse-back. Furthermore, unless workers and managers could make reasonably quick trips over rail between cities and rural points of production, the entire system would lack the kind of internal cohesion that other capitalist countries enjoyed. From the standpoint of classical economics, one would think that it would be to the mutual benefit of English and Argentine capitalist classes to develop a kind of partnership. Instead, what transpired has much more in common with the con games of the 1990s in which Wall Street banks got rich at the expense of the Argentine people. Except, in the 19th century, it was Barings Bank rather than Goldman-Sachs that was doing the robbing.

To look after its interests in this vastly ambitious railroad-building enterprise, the Argentine government named North American William Wheelwright as its agent. They were overly optimistic. After making the rounds in British banking houses, Wheelwright said in 1863 that a deal could be done only on the following basis:

–The land grant must be doubled (land adjacent to the tracks given free to the railroad company.)

–45 percent of the railroad revenue would be counted as working expenses.

–The profit ceiling would be raised to 15 percent, more than triple the norm.

–Most importantly, the expropriation clause would be eliminated.

Although the Argentine ruling class and its British partners were committed to liberalism in the economic sphere (the model for 1980s-90s neoliberalism), this loan-sharking deal had nothing to do with free market principles. Such concessions could only reflect the internal weaknesses of a bourgeoisie that relied on cattle ranching, as opposed to the British ruling class that had accumulated vast amounts of capital through manufacturing, and then finance.

When the shares for Central Rail, the new British-owned railroad, sold sluggishly, the bankers demanded further concessions. No longer would working expenses be limited to 45 percent, they would be *whatever the company accountants said they were*. So, not only do you get concessions forced down the throat of the Argentine government, you get an 1860s version of the kind of accounting that Arthur Anderson did on behalf of the Enron crooks.

To make sure that all the Central shares got sold, the British investors demanded that the Argentine government buy 2000 shares, which is a little bit like asking someone being hijacked to drive the truck. An Argentine Minister glumly commented:

We are faced with having to lower our heads for all these demands and any other ones that may be put before us given our nation’s need for the railway’s benefits and our own incapacity to secure these by any other means. (Bendaña, p. 93)

Finally, in the May of 1870, 17 years after the original conception and 7 years after work began, the first locomotive arrived in Córdoba. Over the course of the 1870s, the Argentine state provided nearly 40 percent of the guaranteed profits for the new railroad. In a nutshell, the wealth of the country was being drained to make sure that British investors enjoyed super-profits. Furthermore, the British enterprise was tax-exempt. This turned out to be a bonanza for the Central Argentine Land Company that came into existence in 1871. Unlike the railroad, commercial exploitation within land claim areas were far less risky and had no particular claim to the kind of tax-exempt status enjoyed by large-scale capital projects. Once again, the weak Argentine bourgeoisie had been given an offer that it couldn’t refuse.

With British technological superiority, one might at least hope that the new railway would provide adequate service. As it turned out, the Argentine people had ended up with a Yugo rather than a Rolls-Royce. Public complaints about service and rates grew legion.

Central was just the first in a series of white elephants. Next came the Northern, the Eastern, and the Great Western Railways, all financed by the British and all imposing larcenous penalties on the people of Argentina. A government audit revealed that the East Argentine railroad was marked by an excess of employees (exclusively English at high salaries), overly generous salaries for company directors, inadequate rolling stock, dubious accounting procedures, and bloated operating costs.

When such exploitation operates in open view, one might ask why the Argentine capitalists did not rebel. After all, if one is committed to national development, then one must allow oneself the ultimate weapon against foreign exploiters: expropriation. Unfortunately, except for the urban middle-class, such calls were not made. As is the case today, the dominant fraction of the national bourgeoisie lost its nerve. And like today, the ideological excuse for inaction was a commitment to the “free market.” The estancieros regarded their own economic well-being as synonymous with the extension of railway lines made possible by foreign investment.

When the harsh reality of British theft collided with the delusional schemas of the local bourgeoisie, voices of dissent began to be heard in parliament. Why couldn’t the nation redeem itself through seizure of properties that were based on criminality to begin with? Even the conservative “La Nación” asked in 1872:

Can and should the state build all railways itself and expropriate existing ones? We do not believe that the benefits of state railways should necessarily carry us to the latter consequence . . . Although the country cannot afford expropriation now or for many years to come, there may come a day when revenue and necessity may, possessed of means and facing a need for new lines, expropriation might become convenient. (Bendaña, p. 152)

Skilled as they were in keeping the natives at bay, the British turned to one defense after another. They bribed ministers, congressmen and railroad bureau officials to vote against nationalist legislation or to look the other way when laws were being broken. When this proved insufficient, the British were not above gunboat diplomacy. In late 1875, the British bank in Rosario suddenly demanded immediate repayment of railroad notes as part of a maneuver to destroy local financial competitors. When the nationalist-minded local governor in Santa Fe sided with his countrymen, the British sent their navy to blockade the city. Buenos Aires caved in to the show of force and the British won their demands without a shot being fired. Bendaña cites H. S. Ferns’s “Britain and Argentina in the Nineteenth Century”:

“prosperity had created a nation of boosters, and the porteños (Buenos Aires elites) looked at the Governor of Santa Fe as Pierpont Morgan might have regarded William Jennings Bryan.” (p. 258)

By 1913, Great Britain owned 95.8 percent of all private railways in Argentina. That amounted to 60.2 percent of total British investment in the country. The economic consequences on the nation were enormous. Arturo Castaño, a legislative deputy and rail expert, warned:

“the more the railways extend themselves, the greater will be the economic disruptions, and the greater will be the migration to the cities from the provinces. A third of our national production is absorbed by the railways, without the Executive being able to intervene in rate-making due to an administrative system which favors the companies.”

Indeed, when foreign capitalists absorb a THIRD of national production, the question of imperialism has to be addressed.

The railway era lasted about a century. The first 3 decades, from 1830 to 1860, were a time of rapid expansion in the imperial centers. The spread of railways into Asia, Africa and Latin America did not produce concomitant benefits. Although Cecil Rhodes characterized railroads as “philanthropy plus 5 percent,” the profits were always far higher and the progress realized in countries such as Argentina was far less than advertised.

In my next post, I will take up the question of Juan Perón and his legacy.

March 20, 2015


Filed under: Argentina,Film — louisproyect @ 8:39 pm

The press notice for “Jauja” that opened today at Lincoln Center Cinema and the IFC gave me the impression that indigenous peoples might have played a major role in this Argentine film directed by Lisandro Alonso, whose work was unfamiliar to me:

Patagonia, 1882: In a remote military outpost, during the so-called Conquest of the Desert, a genocidal campaign is being waged against the indigenous population of the region. Acts of savagery abound on all sides. Captain Gunnar Dinesen has come from Denmark with his 15-year-old daughter, Ingeborg, to take an engineering job with the Argentinian army. Being the only female in the area, Ingeborg creates quite a stir among the men. She falls in love with a young soldier, and one night they run away together. When he wakes up, Captain Dinesen realizes what has happened and decides to venture into enemy territory to find the young couple.

As it turns out, the Indians only make a brief appearance in a scene approximately twenty minutes into the film. Actually it is only a single Indian who steals Captain Dinesen’s horse and rides off into the Argentine desert laughing triumphantly as he disappears across the horizon.

While the film starts off as if it were an updated version of “The Searchers”, it soon becomes something much more like “Aguirre, the Wrath of God” with Captain Dinesen [Vigo Mortensen] squaring off against the Patagonian desert rather than the jungle. Except that no Indians wreak justice on the Danish colonizer as they do in Werner Herzog’s classic, nor does the captain have to deal with resentful underlings who become convinced that his trek is suicidal. Instead, the narrative is much more about someone lost in the desert, evoking films such as Gus Van Zant’s “Gerry” or Nicolas Roeg’s “Walkabout”.

Until the final fifteen minutes of the film, there is not a single word spoken. If you expect Alonso’s film to be about survival strategies of the kind seen the aforementioned films or those seen in “All is Lost” or “Cast Away”, you will be disappointed.

So without conflict with Indians or Nature, what is the momentum that drives the film forward? The answer to that is to simply go with the flow since Alonso has made a powerful film in which Nature itself is the subject. You see some of the most awe-inspiring landscape that at least to me is worth the price of a ticket. Furthermore, your interest is sustained because you want to know Captain Dinesen’s fate.

What makes it all work is Finnish cinematographer Timo Salminen’s novel technique, which is perfectly suited to such a film. He uses a square frame instead of the typical 3×4 ratio most films use. Additionally, he eschews the shallow depth of field that most directors rely on to privilege a character against some backdrop. A shallow depth of field will typically show the actor in sharp relief against a blurry background. Instead, Salminen practically shows a tree a mile in the distance in as much detail as Vigo Mortensen’s face. Salminen has worked most frequently in the past with Aki Kaurismaki, the Finnish director whose work I have praised in the past but there’s nothing in his past work that has the look of “Jauja”.

Lisandro Alonso is a member of the New Argentine Cinema, which emerged as a reaction to the films of an earlier period that were engaged with the problems of military rule, repression and the like. While no single theme unites their work, film scholars generally agree that an aversion to conventional narrative is widespread.

In Gonzalo Aguilar’s “New Argentine Film: Other Worlds” that can be read on Google books with the usual massive amount of dropped pages, he characterizes Alonso and his peers as breaking with the Argentine films of the 1980s.

Instead of a message to decode, these movies offer us a world: a language, an atmosphere, some characters…a brushstroke—a brushstroke that does not respond to questions formulated insistently beforehand but sketches out its own questioning.

In his chapter titled “The Politics of Indeterminacy: Renouncement and Liberty in a Lisandro Alonso Movie”, he quotes the director: “I don’t want to tell a story. I’m only interested in observing.” That certainly describes “Jauja”. Considering the fact that I am generally averse to films that lack a story (I am moderating a panel on storytelling tomorrow at the Socially Relevant Film Festival for what that’s worth), my rapt attention to “Jauja” probably amounts to a rave review—even if I had no idea what point the director was trying to make.


January 24, 2014

Mercedes Sosa: the voice of Latin America

Filed under: Argentina,Film,music — louisproyect @ 10:43 pm

“Mercedes Sosa: The Voice of Latin America”, the title of a documentary that opens today at the Quad Cinema in NY, is no hyperbole. She was such a voice just as much as Um Khaldoun was the voice of the Arab world. The Argentinian nueva cancion legend died four years ago at the age of 74 and the film is a loving tribute made up of her performances, reminiscences by a wide range of musicians from Pablo Milanes to David Byrne, and interviews conducted with the great musician up until her death of endocrinal and respiratory ailments. After her passing, President Kirchner declared 3 days of mourning in marked contrast to the gorilla military leaders who drover her out of the country in 1979.

The idea for the film came from her son Fabián Matus who is seen in conversations with family members throughout the film who help to understand the personal fears and insecurities of a musician who had achieved immortality. Indeed, as the film nears its conclusion we learn that the greater her popularity, the more lonely she felt—so much so that bouts of depression left her feeling suicidal.

Of mestizo, French and American Indian ancestry, Sosa was born to a desperately poor family in the state of Tucumán in Argentina. Her father shoveled coal in open pit furnaces in a steel mill and died relatively young. Her social protest ballads came directly out of the experience of being oppressed.

I heard Mercedes Sosa in Carnegie Hall on October 18, 1987. Just to refresh my memory of her performance, I found the N.Y. Times review that stated:

Ms. Sosa has a full folk contralto that is especially beautiful when she dips to the bottom of her lower register. But it can also rise to express a staunch defiance. Ms. Sosa, whose pan-Latin American taste in songs has earned her the nickname ”the voice of the Americas,” performed a program that included everything from mountain folk tunes in which she accompanied herself on the drums to chromatically advanced pop ballads (Alejandro Lerner’s ”Solo le pido a Dios, or ”All I Ask of God,” was particularly wrenching) and stalwart political anthems. The spectrum of songwriters ranged from Argentine composers like Mr. Lerner, Nito Mestre, and Leon Gieco to Cuba’s Silvio Rodriguez and Brazil’s Milton Nascimiento.

In 1987 Sosa symbolized the hopes of the Latin American left as well as activists in the United States like me who were working in Nicaragua. You can see concert footage of Sosa in Nicaragua from that time that includes the remarks of ordinary Nicaraguans who went to the concert feeling that something important was happening in their country.

Nearly thirty years later, the Central American revolution remains little more than a memory. Nueva Cancion was the art form that expressed the determination of an oppressed people to take control of their economies and produce for human need rather than private profit.

While the specific forms of the struggle have changed from guerrilla warfare to the electoral front, Mercedes Sosa will be an inspiration to a new generation of artists following her example. The film ends with Sosa performing alongside René Perez, a young tattooed rapper who leads Calle 13, a Puerto Rican band that is known for its social commentary.

For people who are part of René Perez’s generation in New York who are unfamiliar with Sosa, I recommend a trip down to the Quad to learn about one of the hemisphere’s most important musicians.

December 16, 2013

Two Lessons

Filed under: Argentina,Film,Poland,Russia — louisproyect @ 6:40 pm

Now that I have fulfilled my obligations to New York Film Critics Online by watching just enough Hollywood crapola to allow me to fill out a ballot for our December 8th awards meeting, I can return to the kind of film that really matters to me and presumably my readers. As the first post-NYFCO awards film reviewed by me, “Two Lessons” is the perfect example of why I would prefer a low-budget Polish language documentary that cost perhaps $50,000 to make over something like “Gravity”.

Opening today at the Maysles Theater in Harlem, “Two Lessons” is an exquisitely beautiful and spiritually elevated study of rural poverty in Siberia and Argentina pivoting around director Wojciech Staron’s wife Malgosia, who was sent by the Polish government to give Polish language lessons to émigré communities after 1989 when nationalism took the place of Communism. Although it is a documentary, the filmmaker whose work it bears the closest resemblance to is that of French Catholic New Wave narrative film director Robert Bresson, especially his “Diary of a Country Priest”.

One of my favorite Bresson quotes is “Don’t run after poetry. It penetrates unaided through the cracks”, words that describe “Two Lessons” to a tee. Like the young priest in Bresson’s classic who arrives in a country village on a mission to save souls, Malgosia Staron (she was the director’s girlfriend at the time) comes to Usolie-Siberskoe in 1998 in order to preserve culture. What she and Wojciech rapidly discover is that the citizenry is also in need of material salvation, facing one hardship or another in the aftermath of the collapse of the USSR. This is a people who never benefited from the “free market” revolution led by Yeltsin and Putin. Malgosia arrives in the middle of a teacher’s strike. After not having been paid in months, they are ready to confront the new rulers whose contempt for working people is well understood by the teachers who carry a portrait of Lenin at a rally.

That being said, this is not a social protest film even though the director’s sympathy is with those at the bottom. Instead it is a beautiful and moving portrait of people living in a forbidding realm who manage to make the best of their lives despite all sorts of challenges. While the primary inspiration seems to be Bresson, the film also evokes Werner Herzog’s “Happy People: A Year in the Taiga”, a riveting portrait of hunters and trappers in Siberia. When not focused on Malgosia’s lessons to her students, her boyfriend’s camera is trained on a number of local “personalities”, including a Pole who is determined to translate the bible from Polish into Russia just as an exercise. There are scenes of ice-fishing, local dances, church gatherings, and many landscapes that appear inspired by the Bressonian stricture: “Don’t run after poetry. It penetrates unaided through the cracks”.

If there was ever a reason to go slow on the digital revolution, it is this film which was made with a 16-millimeter camera—probably a necessity given the year when it was made. It is a reminder that film can capture images in a way that digital cameras never can unless they are prohibitively expensive. It would appear that director Wojciech Staron made part one of “Two Lessons” with a one-man crew, namely himself. This is a miracle of filmmaking and an inspiration to anybody working in the field including a patzer like myself.

Part two of “Two Lessons” was made possible by Malgosia’s assignment to work in Azara, Argentina but the film is much more about the struggle of an 11-year-old Polish girl named Marcia to eke out a living with the Staron’s 8-year-old son Janek in tow.

Marcia’s parents have fallen on hard times and she is forced to make bricks, pick yerba mate leaves, or sell ice from a roadside stand to help her mother make ends meet. Her father has separated from the mother out of a combination of financial difficulties and personal strife, no doubt aggravated by the failing economy. (The film was made in 2011, supposedly after Argentina’s economic recovery, which like Russia’s never seemed to have filtered down to the rural backwaters.)

As is the case with part one, the focus is on human relationships and the solace of natural beauty rather than the class struggle. In one of more captivating scenes, the young Staron teaches the older and much more assertive Marcia how to swim.

At the risk of sounding like a hack reviewer hyping something like “Gravity” or “Inside Llewyn Davis”, I would describe this film as breathtakingly beautiful and a reminder of Polish filmmaking when people like Roman Polanski and Andrzej Wajda were in their heyday. That the underfunded Wojciech Staron can be mentioned in the same breath as such masters should be recommendation enough.

December 20, 2012

Argentina, vulture funds, and Thomas Griesa

Filed under: Argentina,economics,financial crisis,imperialism/globalization — louisproyect @ 9:00 pm

Thomas Griesa

My first exposure to “vulture funds” was at the 2010 Left Forum in NY, where I walked into a BBC documentary by Greg Palast that was in progress. Although I didn’t care for Palast’s Michael Moore-like shtick as he accosted and badgered the financiers who buy up the debt of poor countries at reduced prices and then sue them to get inflated repayments, I was glad to see attention paid to what Woody Guthrie once referred to as bankers robbing people with a fountain pen.

Although I didn’t make the connection at the time, this comment on my blog from an Argentinian who was subscribed to the Marxism list that preceded Marxmail was dealing with the same kind of larceny:

Hi, dear Louis. I’m Julio Fernández Baraibar, your friend from Buenos Aires. I lost the contact with you, but I remember you very heartly.

We are struggling just now against the decision of Judge Griesa and I remembered that you, once, told something about him in relation with somo trotskist militants. Do you remember the case?

I wait for your response.


In 2001 Argentina’s economy had totally collapsed, foreshadowing in many ways what has befallen most of southern Europe. It defaulted on $95 billon worth of bonds. When Nestor Kirchner took office in 2003 he proposed that Argentina offer new bonds paying 30 cents for each dollar owed in default, an offer accepted by 93 percent of the original bondholders.

A couple of bondholders held out, however. One was NML and the other was Aurelius Capital Management Inc., both who insisted on getting 100 percent of the face value of the bonds. On October 26th Judge Thomas Griesa ruled in their favor, forcing Argentina to pay $1.4 billion. NML was particularly aggressive in pressing their demands, winning a court order to detain an Argentine naval vessel in a Ghana port as a kind of hostage. (On December 17 the U.N. ruled that the ship had to be released.)

The June 10, 2011 Irish Times described the strategy of Aurelius:

MANHATTAN-BASED lawyer Mark Brodsky named his hedge fund after the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius, a Stoic philosopher.

He set up the fund in 2005 but Brodsky fine-tuned his skills as a distressed debt investor over nine years at Elliot Associates, a hedge fund known for taking on sovereign states that defaulted on debt, particularly Peru and Argentina.

The strategy he learnt at Elliot was straightforward buy debt on the cheap and then run a legal campaign to recover a higher value. This is the art of the vulture fund which sees value in high-risk investments in the debts of financially stricken firms and countries.

A recent win for Aurelius was its purchase of just $5 million out of $25 billion in debt at Dubai World, the state-owned investment fund, for 50 cents in the dollar.

NML is a subsidiary of Elliot Associates, the forenamed vulture fund. Paul Singer is the CEO and a major player in rightwing politics, having contributed millions of dollars to the Romney campaign, serving as the chairman of the Manhattan Institute, and funding the American Spectator, a key rightwing magazine. During the Occupy movement’s heyday, a Spectator reporter named Patrick Howley basically functioned as an agent provocateur by his own admission:

This weekend, journalist Patrick Howley of the American Spectator admitted infiltrating the Occupy DC protest and leading a charge into the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum which resulted in his and several other protestors’ being hit with pepper spray. His explanation? The protesters had been ruining his story of how crazy they were by failing to think of this course of action on their own.

In his original story on the subject (now removed from the Spectator site) Howley noted: “As far as anyone knew I was part of this cause — a cause that I had infiltrated the day before in order to mock and undermine in the pages of The American Spectator — and I wasn’t giving up before I had my story.”

Argentina’s minister of the economy Hernán Lorenzino reacted angrily to Griesa’s decision, calling it “a kind of legal colonialism” and that all “we need now is for Griesa to send us the Fifth Fleet.”

On November 29 the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit issued a stay on Griesa’s order. Ironically one of the factors favoring Argentina is the determination of some other scumbag hedge funds to keep NML and Aurelius from getting their way.

Chief among them is Gramercy Funds Management that holds the discounted Argentine bonds as a tax shelter for its clients. It fears that a full-blown nationalist response by Argentina to default once again will harm its own profit-seeking interests. In many ways the rivalry between Gramercy and NML/Aurelius is like a war between rival mafia gangs over who will control a legitimate business.

There’s another mafia gang that has taken Gramercy’s side in all this, namely the U.S. government that worries about the turbulence that would ensue if Argentina defaulted. Reuters reported on December 13:

U.S. government lawyers reiterated their position that the court’s interpretation of the “equal treatment” clause in Argentina’s defaulted bonds “may adversely affect future voluntary sovereign debt restructurings, the stability of international financial markets, and the repayment of loans extended by international financial institutions.”

The U.S. government argued this point in April with an amicus brief when Argentina first appealed the original court orders made by U.S. District Court Judge Thomas Griesa in Manhattan.

Let me conclude with a word or two about Thomas Griesa who is now 82 years old. A life-long Republican, Griesa was appointed to the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York by Richard Nixon in 1972.

In that capacity Griesa served as the judge in the landmark suit that the Socialist Workers Party filed against the FBI in 1973 for its decades-long disruption of party activities, including the burglaries and poison pen letters that victimized many members including me.

In between jobs at the time, I was able to attend many sessions of the trial and observed Griesa as entirely fair-minded despite his Republican roots. In one of the more memorable exchanges, he allowed Stephen Cohen to make the case that the Russian Revolution was a massively supported movement despite constant objections by the FBI lawyers. He decided in favor of the SWP claims but disappointed us by awarding us only $264,000, a relative pittance compared to the $28 million we had demanded.

The irony of course is that in the final analysis we ourselves destroyed the party far more efficiently than the FBI bumbling ever could. Let’s hope that Argentina proves far more resilient since—after all—the Latin American revolution that “Kirchnerism” is a constituent part of has a lot more importance than we ever had.

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