Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

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.

Greetings

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.

The Rubric Theme Blog at WordPress.com.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,535 other followers