Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

June 27, 2010

The New York Times assaults Oliver Stone and the truth

Filed under: Film,Latin America,media — louisproyect @ 6:00 pm

Larry Rohter

In yesterday’s NY Times, there was a most curious article in the arts section, usually devoted to the latest buzz about Tom Cruise or a Picasso exhibition. Larry Rohter, the toad who usually covers Latin American news from the perspective of Fulgencio Batista, weighed in on Oliver Stone’s “South of the Border”. Needless to day, the emphasis was on defending the agenda of the State Department rather than camera angles.

Rohter begins by trying to undermine the credibility of the movie by pointing out factual errors. We learn, for example:

As “South of the Border” portrays it, Mr. Chávez’s main opponent in his initial run for president in 1998 was “a 6-foot-1-inch blond former Miss Universe” named Irene Sáez, and thus “the contest becomes known as the Beauty and the Beast” election.

But Mr. Chávez’s main opponent then was not Ms. Sáez, who finished third, with less than 3 percent of the vote. It was Henrique Salas Romer, a bland former state governor who won 40 percent of the vote.

This is the same ploy that has been used against Paul Buhle and Howard Zinn over the years. Pinheaded liberal professors go over their books with a microscope looking for factual errors when it is really the politics they are after.

Once you get past the Miss Universe slip-up, the rest of Rohter’s article is the same old crap about Hugo Chavez the evil tyrant. To buttress his case, he calls attention to José Miguel Vivanco, the director of Human Rights Watch’s Americas division, being expelled from the country “in violation of Venezuelan law, after Human Rights Watch issued a critical report in 2008.” HRW is supposedly to be trusted because “has issued tough reports on both” Colombia and Venezuela. Of course, it is necessary to write that Colombia violates human rights, a rather unremarkable observation, if you want to get the upper hand in trashing Venezuela and Cuba. HRW is quite skilled at this game. The problem, however, is that there really is no comparison between the two countries and it is disingenuous to make an amalgam of the two. In Colombia, there are death squads roaming the country that assassinate trade unionists and peasant leaders. In Venezuela, Hugo Chavez pushes for an end to term limits. Bad Colombia. Bad Venezuela. And, bad, bad NYT and HRW for linking the two countries.

Moving on from HRW, Rohter dredges up the 2002 coup that Oliver Stone gets all wrong, relying on the narrative put forward in the excellent “The revolution will not be televised” that can now be seen online, thank goodness.

What he neglects to mention, however, is how the NY Times became part of the well-orchestrated campaign to rob Venezuelans of their democratic rights. On April 13, 2002, immediately after Hugo Chávez was overthrown, the paper editorialized:

With yesterday’s resignation of President Hugo Chávez, Venezuelan democracy is no longer threatened by a would-be dictator. Mr. Chávez, a ruinous demagogue, stepped down after the military intervened and handed power to a respected business leader, Pedro Carmona.

But a powerful mass movement forced the reactionaries, so beloved of the New York Times, to restore Hugo Chavez to power. Three days later the NYT ate crow:

In his three years in office, Mr. Chávez has been such a divisive and demagogic leader that his forced departure last week drew applause at home and in Washington. That reaction, which we shared, overlooked the undemocratic manner in which he was removed. Forcibly unseating a democratically elected leader, no matter how badly he has performed, is never something to cheer.

Of course, these filthy propagandists would have never eaten their words had the coup been successful.

Rohter tries to make his case by “revealing” that Chavez supporters have personal and financial ties that compromise them:

Instead Mr. Stone relies heavily on the account of Gregory Wilpert, who witnessed some of the exchange of gunfire and is described as an American academic. But Mr. Wilpert is also the husband of Mr. Chávez’s consul-general in New York, Carol Delgado, and a longtime editor and president of the board of a Web site, Venezuelanalysis.com, set up with donations from the Venezuelan government, affiliations that Mr. Stone does not disclose.

Anybody who has paid the slightest attention to the revolving door policy of the NY Times that allows their top functionaries to take seats in Republican and Democratic administrations alike can only laugh at Rohter’s smear. In fact, if he were not so dangerous, the best response to his garbage would be a belly laugh. But dangerous he is.

Rohter has been a hard-core counter-revolutionary going back 30 years. In 1980 he wrote an article for Newsweek warning about Grenada introducing “an ominous note of instability into the politics of the eastern Caribbean.” Later that year writing for the same magazine, he honed in on Nicaragua: “Nicaragua’s ambivalent revolution, after two years of internal struggle, slid further toward Marxism last week when a mob attacked the house of opposition leader Alfonso Robelo Callejas and the junta shut down the on-again, off-again opposition newspaper La Prensa. The Reagan Administration has almost abandoned its last faint hopes that Nicaragua’s Sandinistas could be persuaded to follow a pluralist path–and the hard-line U.S. policy toward Central America has turned even harder.”

It was this kind of yellow journalism that apparently recommended him to the NY Times, where he has been functioning effectively as an unpaid (or paid?) agent of the CIA since 1985.

Oliver Stone had it right. There is a media war on Venezuela and Larry Rohter is a first class sniper. The newspaper of record won’t be happy until Venezuela gets the same treatment that Chile got under Pinochet. For all of its fretting over democracy in Venezuela, this is the same newspaper that stated that there was “absolutely no evidence whatsoever of American complicity in the coup” against Allende. An editorial argued that “Dr. Allende’s experiment failed because his Popular Unity coalition, dominated by Socialists and Communists, persisted with an effort to fasten on Chile a drastic socialist system.”

Someday an enterprising documentary filmmaker will get the goods on the newspaper of record itself going back to its gushing profile of Generalissimo Francisco Franco on August 9th, 1936:

Short, black-haired, somewhat round-faced and forceful, General Franco showed no signs of fatigue as be outlined with an occasional easy smile the aims of the Rebel movement, hitherto somewhat obscure. He was working in a tiny room in a palatial Seville home, dressed in a plain tan army uniform with a soft shirt. His aides, wearing every costume from swank uniforms and red staff caps to blue denim, were busy in the magnificent rooms outside.

The Rebel chief insists that every organized force of government has deserted the Madrid leaders and that they should surrender to avoid further bloody civil war. He is willing to promise them safe passage out of Spain and insists the Rebel aims are “to restore peace justice and democracy with favor to no one class.”

“We propose.” he declared, “to see that long-needed social reforms are pushed forward in Spain. As far as the church is concerned, we intend to allow complete freedom of worship, but under no conditions will we permit the church to play a part in politics.

“The trouble with the present Constitution, drafted after King Alfonso left, is that it is more of a dream of what might be than a practical instrument of government. The proof is it has been suspended much of the time since it was drafted, with 30,000 political prisoners jailed and a class war that was a result of its one-sidedness.

“We started the revolt only after it had become self-evident that the government was playing into the hands of the Communists and extreme Socialists and that there was no justice for others. We wanted to halt the daily murder toll and the social disintegration of Spain.”


Another rebuttal to Larry Rohter


Oliver Stone responds to Larry Rohter

June 22, 2010

South of the Border

Filed under: Film,Latin America — louisproyect @ 6:42 pm

With a screenplay co-written by Tariq Ali and Mark Weisbrot, Oliver Stone’s South of the Border promised to be a good movie. I am pleased to announce that it is much better than I expected and a must-see for people knowledgeable about the Latin American left as well as those who only get their information from CNN. Indeed, part of the pleasure of watching the movie is seeing the talking heads at Fox and CNN get exposed as the lying idiots that they are. The movie opens with three dorks from Fox discussing Hugo Chavez’s “drug problem”, which is described as starting his mornings with cocoa. You can’t make this shit up.

The movie consists of footage from television and old newsreels, largely intended to demonstrate the willingness of the media to serve State Department ambitions, as well as interviews with key Latin American leaders. It dawned on me during Oliver Stone’s sit-down with Ecuador’s Rafael Correa that I have never seen him interviewed on American television, nor were Argentina’s Kirchners, Bolivia’s Evo Morales, or Cuba’s Raul Castro ever given a moment on “Sixty Minutes” or any other news show. By allowing them to speak for themselves, Stone breaks a news embargo that is almost as vicious as that Cuba faces on the economic front.

About half the movie is devoted to Venezuela and provides a bird’s eye view of the roots and dynamic of the Bolivarian revolution. Hugo Chavez serves as a guide to these events in some very moving as well as comical moments. He recounts being on an island surrounded by his captors just after the 2002 coup, when a bishop arrives to demand that a letter of resignation be signed. By this point, Chavez has learned that the coup has failed and informs the bishop of that fact who thereupon decides to fly back to Caracas with Chavez on a military helicopter, all the while stating his happiness with the turn of events. In this anecdote, the Latin American church is exposed for its opportunist role but without the usual anti-clerical rhetoric. Chavez is too smart for that.

All in all, the time spent with Chavez is pure entertainment. He is the most unlikely president in all of Latin American history. He grew up in a mud shack and has an obvious affinity with the slum dwellers that are the base of his presidency. He appears to genuinely enjoy coming in contact with the people who are genuinely determining the country’s future, unlike the typical politician who sees them as potential votes and nothing else.

After Venezuela, Stone’s next stop is Bolivia where he meets with Evo Morales who gives him some coca (not cocoa!) to help him fight off nausea and fatigue brought on by the high altitudes.

Perhaps the most interesting moments, at least for me, are those spent with the Kirchners of Argentina. Néstor Carlos Kirchner was president from 2003 to 2007 and has been succeeded by his wife Cristina. They are witty and urbane like most Argentinians I have known throughout my life, plus they provide some insights into the thinking of the more progressive wing of Peronism, a current that has obviously influenced Hugo Chavez. At one point, Cristina Kirchner sends an aide into a nearby room to bring back a photo that she is proud of. After a moment or two, before the aide has returned, she turns to Oliver Stone and asks “what makes men so slow?” Priceless.

It turns out that the photo was Hugo Chavez, Néstor Carlos Kirchner, Lula and Fidel Castro in a group portrait. It is a sign of the times that the heads of Venezuela, Argentina and Brazil are proud to be photographed with American imperialism’s most hated enemy. What the movie reflects more than anything else is the tidal wave that is sweeping Latin America. While it might not result in the immediate overthrow of capitalism in the countries that are part of this change, it does make it a lot easier for country following that path to resist American domination. Arguably, if the Sandinista revolution had triumphed today rather than in 1979, when Reaganism was triumphant, it might have had a chance for survival. For this reason alone, it is a mistake to sneer at the Latin American left for not living up to Bolshevik norms.

Just a word or two about the technical details of how this film was made, a subject becoming more interesting to me as I entertain notions of doing my own documentary some day. The legendary Albert Maysles served as a cameraman. Now 84, Maysles is best known for movies about popular culture (Gimme Shelter) and eccentrics (Grey Gardens). Considering his advanced age, my first impulse was to wonder why he would endure the hardship of filming on location in a place like Bolivia with its high altitude. And then I remembered what a 92 year old Harry Magdoff told Michael Lebowitz: “If I was only in my 80s again, I’d be down in Venezuela.”

Stone used a bare-bones film crew that shot with two Sony Z-7U HD cameras, costing less than $6000 each. In keeping with the relaxed and DIY character of South of the Border, which often feels like a home movie, there is no attempt made to hide the cameras or the mikes. Despite the film’s modest means, it is more successful than any of Oliver Stone’s recent movies. Good work all round for Tariq Ali, Mark Weisbrot and Oliver Stone.

South of the Border opens nationwide on June 25th. Schedule information is here.

June 15, 2010

Argentina soccer players support the candidacy of the Grandmothers of May Square for the Nobel prize

Filed under: Latin America — louisproyect @ 3:17 pm

From an Argentine socialist:

Dear friends, I am attaching a picture of the Arg World Cup Team holding a banner in support of the candidacy of the Grandmothers of May Square for the Nobel prize. I am sending it for good reason.

It seems to have been censored on every mainstream media outlet, including Internet concerns they control, because the main owner of the main private media group in Argentina, Ernestina Herrera de Noble, has a couple of stolen children. After a most protracted justice process, they are at last to undergo a confrontation of their DNA with data in the world famous National Genetic Data Bank of Argentina.

The CEO of the group has been reported as boasting long ago that he had obtained the kids for Mrs. Herrera de Noble.

In the midst of a war against the great media, the results of this comprobation are unfathomable.

And it is the Grandmothers who are behind the whole thing.

Please circulate as widely as you can.

October 16, 2009

Latin Music addendum

Filed under: Latin America,music — louisproyect @ 12:35 am

Desi Arnaz, husband to and co-star with Lucille Ball of the I Love Lucy Show in the 1950s when Latin Music was first taking off, performs “Babalu Aiye”, a Yoruban hymn to the Orisha god of death and healing. When I was a kid, we used to love to sing “Babalu”, the Afro-Cuban Santeria chant that slaves brought over from the Yoruba kingdom.

October 14, 2009

PBS Latin music documentary

Filed under: Latin America,music — louisproyect @ 4:13 pm

Departing from its usual stodgy, white bread fare, PBS has scheduled a two-part series on Latin Music. The first part aired last Monday night and can be viewed on their website as well, a benefit for those who are outside of the USA.

Part one focused on Afro-Cuban music and particularly the Fania Records phenomenon. When I was collecting vinyl records, I bought at least 50 Fania Records starting from the mid 70s until the label began to peter out after its sale in 1979. Fania was the place to go if you wanted to hear artists like Willie Colon, Ruben Blades, and Larry Harlow—all of whom are interviewed for this superb documentary. Now in their 50s and 60s, they reflect back on the golden age of Salsa, a term that was practically synonymous with the Fania label. The best way to think of Salsa is Afro-Cuban musician adapted to the streets of New York City. It is still played but without the passion and creativity of the 1970s. Like the jazz of that period, it was an art form that reached maturity and now exists only as a pale shadow of its golden age. And just as the Blue Note label epitomized classic modern jazz, so did the Fania label epitomize Salsa.

Part one puts Salsa into historical context, showing the importance of a Cuban musician like Israel “Cachao” Lopez who along with his brother Orestes López practically invented the Mambo in the 1940s. Cachao died in 2008 at the age of 90 but I had the great fortune to see him in concert. This is from my review:

While I’m sure just about everybody is aware of the phenomenon of Afro-Cuban music, or the derivative “salsa”, some words are in order about the origins of this music. Afro-Cuban music is distinguished by a rhythm known as “clave”, the Spanish word for key. This is a one-two-THREE, one-two beat that underlies all the various forms, from Mambo to Rumba to Charanga (what evolved into the 1950s dance craze, the cha-cha.) The music is characterized by improvisations on a repeated theme that grow in intensity. Imagine Ravel’s Bolero with a driving bongo beat and passionate lead singer and you get the idea.

The music is a marriage of African percussion and Spanish dance music that originated on the island of Cuba in the 1920s. A typical Afro-Cuban conjuto (band) consisted of African percussion instruments–bongo, timbale, conga–and some combination of brass, piano and strings. A key component was a coro (chorus) or lead singer who sang in a nasal, high-pitched style that evoked the folk singers of the countryside. Some musicologists speculate that this singing style was derived from the slaves’ attempt to vocally imitate the sounds of the guitar that they heard being played inside the plantation.

Two of the great pioneers of the style were the blind guitar player Arsenio Rodriguez and bandleader Benny More. Rodriguez adopted the polite danzon style of the predominantly white middle-class Cuban society and adapted it for performance in working-class African dance-halls in the 1930s. His driving guitar and the tight percussion ensembles that accompanied him captured the imagination of Cuban society. More’s band adapted the swing style of contemporaries like Count Basie and he performed before huge audiences in Havana throughout the 1940s and 50s. His music in turn influenced American Jazz, especially Dizzy Gillespie’s Afro-Cuban Jazz orchestras of the 1940s and 50s. Gillespie hired the Cuban percussionist Chano Pozo and the arranger Machito to help him incorporate the distinctive style.

Cachao…was born in 1918. He plays bass and was a member of the Havana Symphony orchestra for 30 years. He invented the Mambo in the 1940s. He arrived in the United States in 1963 and has never performed in Cuba since the revolution. Along with the singer Celia Cruz, Cachao is a symbol of the generation of Afro-Cuban musicians who felt more comfortable as expatriates. Cruz is an outspoken enemy of the Cuban revolution, while Cachao keeps his beliefs to himself for the most part.

Watching this show put me in a nostalgic mood, reminding me of my encounters with Latin music for over 50 years. Back in the mid 1950s, my Boy Scout troupe took Latin dancing lessons. We learned the mambo and the cha-cha-cha, which the documentary describes as a simplified Mambo. This was around the time of the Honeymooner’s episode when Jackie Gleason as the bus driver Ralph Kramden takes lessons as well. One of the most popular musicians of the time was Perez Prado, whose “Patricia”, a typical cha-cha-cha, was a huge hit.

In Kramden’s Brooklyn and the Catskill Mountains, where I grew up, Latin music was extremely popular with Jews. Larry Harlow muses that for some reason Jews took to Chinese food and Latin music. In the Borscht Belt hotels of my youth, you could always hear Tito Puente and other stars performing before adoring fans. Harlow was born as Lawrence Ira Kahn in Brooklyn in 1939. On his way to his classical piano lessons in East Harlem as a young boy, he was mesmerized by the sounds of Afro-Cuban music and resolved to become a Latin musician himself. Other Latin musicians referred to him as el Judio Maravilloso. Here’s the young Larry Harlow performing a classic Cuban tune “La Cartera”:

In 1966 I lived on the second floor of a tenement in Hoboken, New Jersey while going to graduate school. My apartment was above Felix’s restaurant, a lunch counter that catered to Latino longshoremen. This was long before Hoboken was transformed into a yuppie, hedge-fund manager playground. Sometimes I felt like I lived in Felix’s restaurant since the smell of bacon frying in the morning pervaded my apartment, as did the sounds of the juke box which blasted Latin music all day long. Although it is difficult to remember what they were playing, my guess is that it was what they call jibaro music, the sounds of the Puerto Rican countryside. As a Nuyorican, Willie Colon went back to the island frequently in order to learn how to play the music of his gente. The fruits of this labor was “There Goes the Neighborhood” (Se Chavó El Vecindario), an album featuring Hector Lavoe as lead singer and traditional Puerto Rican trombonist Mon Rivera.

A year later a friend who lived in the same tenement, who was always on the lookout for the latest thing happening in music, suggested we take in a concert featuring Eddie Palmieri who I knew nothing about. Palmieri did not record for Fania, but his albums were among the best-selling of that period. He is still going strong at the age of 73. Palmieri is an incredible song writer and pianist strongly influenced by Thelonious Monk and McCoy Tyner. And like Willie Colon and Ruben Blades, his music has always been socially aware without being didactic. Here he is in a 2008 performance of “Palo pa’ Rumba”. This is among the greatest music of the past half-century:

October 4, 2009

Mercedes Sosa, dead at 74

Filed under: Latin America,music — louisproyect @ 5:01 pm

Award-Winning Singer Mercedes Sosa Dies at 74

By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 4, 2009 7:54 AM

Mercedes Sosa, an Argentine singer who emerged as a electrifying voice of conscience throughout Latin America for songs that championed social justice in the face of government repression, died today at a medical clinic in Buenos Aires. She was 74 and had liver, kidney and heart ailments.

With a rich contralto voice, Ms. Sosa was foremost a compelling singer whose career spanned five decades. She performed with entertainers as varied as rock star Sting, the Cuban singer-songwriter Pablo Milanés and folk singer Joan Baez, who said she was so moved by Ms. Sosa’s “tremendous charisma” and emotive firepower that she once dropped to her knees and kissed Ms. Sosa’s feet.

Ms. Sosa’s towering artistry, which led to several Latin Grammy Awards, belied her physical dimensions. Short, round, dark-skinned and often dressed in peasant clothing, Ms. Sosa was affectionately nicknamed “La Negra” (the Black One) as an homage to her indigenous ancestry.

It was a term of endearment that followed her throughout the Spanish-speaking world, said ethnomusicologist Jonathan Ritter, who has written about Ms. Sosa. “It’s hard to overestimate her popularity and importance as a standard-bearer of folk music and political engagement through folk music,” he said.

Ms. Sosa once declared that “artists are not political leaders. The only power they have is to draw people into the theater.” While not defining herself as a political activist, Ms. Sosa asserted herself in the “nueva canción” musical movement of the 1960s and 1970s that blended traditional folk rhythms with politically charged lyrics about the poor and disenfranchised.

This “new song” movement, formed by singers, poets and songwriters with Marxist leanings, cast light on the struggle against government brutality and the plight of the downtrodden throughout the hemisphere. Ritter said, much of the nueva canción songs favored by Ms. Sosa “drew upon the rich heritage of Latin American poetry and literature to score their political messages.” This, he said, gave it a far-more enduring fascination than protest songs in the United States during that period, whose “blunt, direct lyrics were part of their political efficacy, but also limited their long term poetic appeal.”

Here are the lyrics of “We’re Still Singing,” which she sang accompanied by the large Andean drum called the bombo: “I was killed a thousand times. I disappeared a thousand times, and here I am, risen from the dead. . . . Here I am, out of the ruins the dictatorship left behind. We’re still singing.” Ms. Sosa came under official harassment and intimidation by the right-wing, nationalist junta that ruled Argentina from 1976 to 1983. The government was responsible for the deaths and disappearances of an estimated 30,000 real and perceived leftists, and Ms. Sosa transformed her sold-out concerts into rallies against the abuses of power.

Her songs were banned from Argentine radio and television, and she courted arrest by singing anthems of agrarian reform such as “When They Have the Land” at one performance in the university city of La Plata. Many in attendance were arrested by security forces, and Ms. Sosa was publicly humiliated by an officer who walked onstage and conducted a body search.

Ms. Sosa scheduled more concerts in the face of threats against her. They were subsequently canceled when anonymous bomb threats were called in. The military governor of Buenos Aires prohibited her from further performances. Unable to earn a living or speak out as an opponent of the regime, she moved in exile to Europe in 1979 and lived for three years in France and Spain.

She recalled this as a dark period for her artistically, and at times her voice failed. “It was a mental problem, a problem of morale,” she told the New York Times. “It wasn’t my throat, or anything physical. When you are in exile, you take your suitcase, but there are things that don’t fit. There are things in your mind, like colors and smells and childhood attitudes, and there is also the pain and the death you saw. You shouldn’t deny those things, because to do so can make you ill.”

Ms. Sosa returned to Argentina shortly before the dictatorship crumbled, and she found that her popularity had risen to a dramatic new peak. At home, her concerts attracted tens of thousands of ticket buyers, and her albums sold hundreds of thousands of copies.

Abroad, she was a star attraction as well, and a political celebrity. She received a 10-minute standing ovation for a 1987 concert at Carnegie Hall and received ecstatic reviews when appearing in other major American cities, including Boston and Washington. She broadened her repertoire to include rock, pop and cabaret songs, always sung in her native language.

Esquire magazine noted, “Your Spanish may or may not be good, but Mercedes Sosa requires no translation. Hers is the song of all those who have overcome their fear of singing out.”

Haydée Mercedes Sosa was born July 9, 1935, in San Miguel de Tucumán in rural northwestern Argentina. She was of mixed Indian and French ancestry, and her parents were day laborers.

She said the geography and culture of the area was also crucial to her development. It was desolate, with far greater influence from the indigenous culture of nearby Bolivia than distant, cosmopolitan Buenos Aires. She called it “an advantage for someone who wanted to be a folk singer,” and at 15, she won a local radio station’s amateur-hour contest.

In the late 1950s, she and her first husband, guitarist Manuel Oscar Matus, with whom she had a son, moved to Mendoza, a city at the foot of the Andes. There, they helped form the new-music movement that fused folk rhythms with the language and politics of the moment, and wrote an artistic manifesto as well. Her international touring career followed her appearance at an important folklore festival in Cosquín in 1965.

Not a songwriter, she was a keen interpreter of others’ works. The Chilean writer Violeta Parra was responsible for Ms. Sosa’s signature song, “Gracias a la Vida” (Thanks to Life), a number more nostalgic that political. Ms. Sosa collaborated on two acclaimed albums in the early 1970s with composer Ariel Ramírez on lyricist Félix Luna on the albums “Cantata Sudamericana” ( South American Cantata) and “Mujeres Argentinas” (Argentine Women).

She received a Latin Grammy Award for Best Folk Album in 2000 for Ramírez’s “Misa Criolla,” and again for “Acústico” in 2003 and “Corazón Libre” in 2006. She continued to win over younger audiences by incorporating the music of rock singer-songwriters such as Argentina’s Charly García and Sting, whose song “They Dance Alone” paid tribute to the disappeared in Argentina.

June 9, 2009

Cocaleros: a documentary about Bolivia

Filed under: Latin America — louisproyect @ 6:01 pm

May 13, 2009

The difference between Bush and Obama

Filed under: Latin America,Obama — louisproyect @ 6:11 pm

by Carlos Latuff, a Brazilian cartoonist.

(Hat tip to http://www.monthlyreview.org/mrzine)

April 14, 2009


Filed under: Film,Latin America — louisproyect @ 4:28 pm

Opening at the Film Forum in New York tomorrow, Heddy Honigmann’s “Oblivion” (El Olvido) is a penetrating study of poverty in Peru, particularly its impact on children who scrape by as shoeshine boys, jugglers, gymnasts, and musicians on the busy streets of Lima. They are like the children you can spot selling candy in New York subways or flowers on the streets of Los Angeles, but with much greater odds against them. Despite the grimness of the topic, the documentary is often very funny as well as always lyrical.

Honigmann, a child of Holocaust survivors who was born in Lima in 1951, got the idea for the movie from a waiter:

A few years ago it was a waiter, at work in a fancy restaurant, who was the inspiration for the rediscovery of my city. This waiter, whom I recognized after many years away from Peru, told me how he has survived the humiliation and hardship by smiling. Others manage to hold up their heads by silently making fun of the class that oppresses them, remembering with pride that they have survived both economic crisis and political terror from both sides. And some survive by entertaining car drivers with acrobatics, hoping for a few coins.

All my characters are first-class actors. Hardly any of them have ever been in a museum. Nor have they heard of Marcel Proust or Maria Callas; yet all the people you’ll meet in Oblivion are born poets.

The characters in “Oblivion” are either like the waiter, adult veterans of decades of misrule who are reflective about Peruvian realities, or the children who are barely old enough to understand what is happening to them.

Honigmann interviews the waiter at the restaurant where he points out the table that Alan Garcia used to sit at. Notwithstanding the fact that Garcia as a good tipper, his presidency was regarded by the waiter and all other adults in the movie as a complete disaster for working people. This includes a bartender who whips up a Pisco Sour, a kind of national cocktail. As he mixes together the brandy, lime juice, egg whites and native brandy, he reflects on the greed and treachery every president in his lifetime has demonstrated.

She follows the waiter home to his modest home where she continues to interview him and now his wife. She asks her if she has ever been to the restaurant to enjoy the meal that Garcia favored. No, they could not afford it. After a while, the waiter puts on a tape of a local singer from his province in the North, a place he was forced to leave because of a lack of jobs. (Lima has grown 16-fold since the 1950s because of economic hardship in the countryside.) The singer’s lyrics tell a tale of army-inflicted terror on villagers, an obvious reference to the dirty war conducted by Fujimori and something deeply personal to the waiter, two of whose cousins were murdered in his native village.

By coincidence, the movie arrives at the Film Forum just 8 days after former president Fujimori was convicted of crimes against humanity, as the Washington Post reported:

Former Peruvian president Alberto Fujimori was convicted Tuesday of “crimes against humanity” and sentenced to 25 years in prison for his role in killings and kidnappings by security forces during his government’s battle against leftist guerrillas in the 1990s.

The verdict, delivered by a three-judge panel on a police base outside Lima where Fujimori has been held throughout the trial, marked the first time that an elected head of state has been extradited back to his home country, tried and convicted of human rights violations.

Human rights activists called it a precedent-setting verdict that upheld the ideal that violent abuses cannot be ignored under the banner of fighting terrorism.

“This is a sentence for all the innocents killed in the dirty war,” said Gisela Ortiz, whose brother was among a group taken from a Lima university and executed in 1992 by a military death squad under Fujimori.

While nobody would gainsay the need for punishing Fujimori for his crimes, true justice would require a social and economic transformation of a Peru that has condemned its children to work as beggars in its streets by the thousands. Death by malnutrition or disease is as permanent as one brought on by a soldier’s bayonet.

Despite their hardships, the children in “Oblivion” put on a brave face and do the best they can to survive, if not enjoy their crafts. Clearly, they juggle balls or perform cartwheels in the streets partially for the same reason that other children do so for play. Wearing a big smile, one young girl tells Honigmann that she has dreams to be an Olympics gymnast one day. Perhaps the greatest crime of the permanent Peruvian government that rules on behalf of the white upper classes is that it effectively prevents such dreams from being realized.

I watched “Oblivion” last night after spending an hour preparing a scanned version of José Carlos Mariátegui’s out-of-print “Seven Interpretative Essays of Peruvian Reality” that will eventually be uploaded to the Mariátegui Internet archive. Although Mariátegui was politically active in the 1920s, his critique of Peruvian society would be the same as the waiters and bartenders in Honigmann’s movie. In the 1929 essay titled “Anti-Imperialist Viewpoint“, Mariátegui wrote:

In Peru, the white aristocrat and bourgeois scorn the popular and the national. They consider themselves white above all else. The petty bourgeois mestizo imitates their example. The Lima bourgeoisie fraternizes with the Yankee capitalists, even with their mere employees at the Country Club, the Tennis Club, and in the streets. The Yankee can marry the native senorita without the inconvenience of differences in race or religion, and she feels no national or cultural misgivings in preferring marriage with a member of the invading race.

In contrast to the “white aristocrat and bourgeois”, Honigmann demonstrates her affection for and solidarity with the “popular and the national”. For a glimpse into Peruvian reality that rates about as high as any political documentary that I have seen on Latin America, a trip to the Film Forum to see “Oblivion” is very highly recommended.

February 26, 2009

The End of Poverty?

Filed under: Africa,Film,imperialism/globalization,Latin America — louisproyect @ 7:50 pm

Scheduled for theatrical release in September 2009, Philippe Diaz’s “The End of Poverty?” was a feature presentation at the 2008 African Diaspora Film Festival. After watching this documentary last night, I feel confident in stating that there is no sharper critic of the capitalist system in the film world than Philippe Diaz. This amazing movie not only explains how global inequality has its roots in 1492, but also allows the victims of “Western civilization” to speak for themselves. Indeed, the movie will remind you of Mahatma Gandhi’s famous reply to a Western reporter who asked him what he thought of Western civilization. He answered, “I think it would be a good idea.”

The documentary begins by putting third world poverty into historical context. Although it wisely draws upon expert witnesses indisposed to openly use Marxist terminology, there is little doubt that the movie’s implicit inspiration for its analysis of colonialism and dependency comes from chapter thirty one of Volume One of Capital, The Genesis of the Industrial Capitalist, where Karl Marx writes:

The discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement and entombment in mines of the aboriginal population, the beginning of the conquest and looting of the East Indies, the turning of Africa into a warren for the commercial hunting of black-skins, signalised the rosy dawn of the era of capitalist production. These idyllic proceedings are the chief momenta of primitive accumulation. On their heels treads the commercial war of the European nations, with the globe for a theatre. It begins with the revolt of the Netherlands from Spain, assumes giant dimensions in England’s Anti-Jacobin War, and is still going on in the opium wars against China, &c.

In keeping with his determination to allow the victims of this process to speak for themselves, Diaz goes to Potosi where miners escort him into a section of the mine that commemorates its earliest victims. (It should be mentioned that Diaz, unlike Michael Moore, does not interject himself into the film. That, plus his revolutionary politics, distinguishes him from the popular but essentially liberal documentary maker.) Quoting Eduardo Galeano, one miner states that the silver extracted from the mines could have been used to build a bridge from Potosi to Europe. He adds that a bridge could have also been made with the bones of the miners who perished in the silver mines-an estimated 8 million succumbed to the hardships imposed by the Spanish rulers. Another miner, clearly educated in his nation’s class history rather than its classrooms, observes that the mita, a form of Incan forced labor adapted to the emerging capitalist system, required miners to live and work underground for periods of up to six months.

Even for those who are well-schooled in the history of imperialism, including myself if you will allow me a moment of immodesty, there are some revelatory moments. One expert points out that the Dutch lacked the resources and the capital to develop capitalism on its own. It “jump started” its economy by colonizing the islands now known as Indonesia. I was far more informed about the relationship between Great Britain and the slave trade outlined in Eric Williams’s “Capitalism and Slavery” but now feel strongly motivated to learn more about the Dutch thieves commemorated in those Rembrandt paintings.

“The End of Poverty?” conducts interviews with workers and peasants across the planet, from Bolivia to Brazil in Latin America to Tanzania and Kenya in Africa. As inured as I am to the brutality of imperialism, I practically bolted from my chair to locate a phone number or email address for an agribusiness named the Dominion Group that has made life hell for Kenyans. Having lived on and worked the same farmlands for hundreds of years, they were robbed of their livelihood when Dominion dammed a nearby river in order to irrigate their legume crop that was strictly for export. In a fine article that appeared in the Nation Magazine, Laura Flanders detailed the impact:

Dominion Farms, an affiliate of Dominion Group, based in Oklahoma, moved into Siaya in 2003 through an arrangement with the local and state authorities. After several years of negotiations, Dominion CEO Calvin Burgess leased public land from the government on a pledge to develop a high-tech fish and rice farming operation that he promised would bring jobs, reduce hunger and make Siaya and neighboring Bondo provinces the “breadbasket” of Kenya. (In the United States, Dominion builds for-profit prisons and federal buildings.)

Until Dominion came along, the people of this part of Kenya made their living drawing water from the local Yala River. They raised goats and cows and farmed small plots of land. Widows and children harvested papyrus and sisal from the nearby swamp from which they crafted rough mats and baskets. A major habitat for endangered fish and birds, the Yala Swamp is recognized by environmentalists as one of the richest and most delicate ecosystems in East Africa. The half-million or so local residents weren’t rich but they were self-sufficient, says Owiti. Now they’re forced to live on the generosity of churches or on the corporation’s handouts.

“Development should not bring harm to the local community,” said Owiti at the World Social Forum. But that, she says, is just what has happened. In the last four years, Dominion Farms has built a dam on the Yala River, drained much of the swamp, subjected the fields to aerial spraying and drowned not only public land but, residents claim, private property without legal authority.

Dominion offered residents compensation to leave their homes (generally 45,000 Kenyan shillings, approximately $64). Many, like Salome, a local grandmother, refused, but their land was submerged anyway. “I grew cabbages, I made mats, I planted maize and millet. Now all my fields are flooded,” said Salome.

For those that remain, the company’s dam blocks access to the river, the one available source of fresh water. “Now they want us to use standing water,” explained Paul Obeira, another Yala Swamp resident. But with the standing water comes infection. Malaria and typhoid rates are rising. Now aerial spraying is killing livestock. “I have lost 110 goats and our women are suffering from health problems because of the spraying,” added Obeira. Dominion Farms has applied for a permit to spray the pesticide DDT, which has been banned in this part of the world because of its negative health consequences.

Although Diaz’s documentary does not mention him anywhere, it is obvious that the title of the film is a rebuttal to Jeffrey Sachs’s “The End of Poverty”. Sachs was the architect of the neo-liberal “shock therapy” that ultimately led to the revolt that placed Evo Morales in power. In more recent years, Sachs has positioned himself as a prophet of global equality and has toured with U2’s Bono in well-publicized missions to lift up the natives. Obviously, unless the capitalist system is abolished, there is little that Sachs’s measures can do. Indeed, that is the whole point of the movie.

Ironically, Bono has just moved his music-publishing business from Ireland, one of Europe’s most underdeveloped capitalist countries, to Netherlands in order to shelter its song-writing royalties from taxation. Ireland now joins the ranks of countries alongside Java that have been screwed by the Dutch.

Jeffrey Sachs is one of Columbia University’s most visible “public intellectuals” and now runs the The Earth Institute, a think-tank devoted to all sorts of ideological flim-flammery, including the notion that chemical farming is what Africa most desperately needs to relieve hunger.

Another economics professor/celebrity at Columbia University is Joseph Stiglitz who is one of the experts interviewed in “The End of Poverty?” Although Stiglitz is obviously not an unrepentant Marxist like me, he certainly makes a lot more sense than Sachs since he focuses more on changing social structures rather than Bono-Sachs’s style aid. One has to wonder however whether Stiglitz still believes that China, his model for the developing world, is still viable. In the past year or so, over 25 million workers have been fired from their jobs in the coastal export manufacturing zone and forced to return to the impoverished countryside.

In the final analysis, it is only central planning and production for human need rather than profit that can relieve such suffering. In years past, this kind of proposal would have been dismissed as “socialism”. With the financial crisis tearing the world apart, that might not be a scare word any longer. As a recent cover of Newsweek put it, we are all socialists now. Of course, my idea of socialism varies greatly from Newsweek, but at least the newsweekly allows people like me to get our foot in the door. One must assume that after another two or three years of growing unemployment worldwide, that door will be smashed down by colossal social forces led by the poor people Diaz so generously gave a voice to.

I also strongly urge you to watch Diaz’s “The Empire in Africa”, which is available from Netflix. This movie is about the civil war in Sierra Leone and, unlike most documentaries about suffering in Africa, indicts the imperialists and the UN. Here’s an excerpt from my review:

As the violence deepened in Sierra Leone, the UN “came to the rescue”, just as the expensive full-page savedarfur.org ads in the NY Times call for now. Using Western funding from aboveground and clandestine sources, Ahmad Tejan Kabbah was elected President with a clear mandate to stop the killing. A long-time employee of the UN, he had the enthusiastic support of the US, Great Britain and France who understand how to manipulate the international body to their own devices. He also had support from ECOMOG, an armed force made up of contingents from a number of African nations, with Nigeria supplying most of the muscle. In other words, Sierra Leone was a model for what is called for in Darfur. As those who urge “humanitarian” intervention in Darfur keep telling us, an effective fighting force made up UN and or African nations is all that is needed to save innocent lives. Nobody should have any such illusions after watching “The Empire in Africa”.

“The End of Poverty?” website

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