Saturday, February 27, 2010

Earthquake Update from Chile

A massive earthquake just struck the south of Chile, affecting nearly the entire country. I'm fine, a bit shaken however, and am safe and sound over at the girlfriend's house about 15km inland.

At about 3:30 am local time, the ground started shaking as such that I thought it was just a minor tremor (which is fairly commonplace here), but quickly realized that it was much more powerful than that and was able to get to a safer part of my apartment. No serious damage done to the apartment, but some broken glass and the place is a mess.

As I was walking down to catch a micro (the local bus) to take to the polola's house, I was struck by the surreal normalcy of the city- people still seemed to be going about their business as normal, but conspicuously quieter and less dynamic than usual. I'm impressed by the efforts thus far not only by the rescue squads and such, but even the normal everyday citizens, such as the transportation drivers, continuing as usual.

On the whole, I didn't see too much serious damage in Valpo, mostly some busted glass, toppled street lights, broken siding, and a few people camping in the streets. Elsewhere the situation is not so fortunate: in nearby Viña, there are five confirmed deaths, and damage is worse farther inland in Santiago and Rancagua, where there have been several buildings collapsed. The worst has been of course concentrated in the south near the epicenter- Concepción and other nearby cities have been hit pretty hard, and lots of infrastructure has been wrecked.

From what I've seen so far, the epicenter was an 8.8 magnitude quake, which makes it one of the most powerful recorded in history. Where I am in Valpo recorded between a 6 and a 7, and there were at least 6 aftershocks of 6.0 or higher. So far, 122 deaths have been confirmed. This is all the more extraordinary considering that the quake that devastated Haiti was about a 7.

More up-to-date information can be seen at El Mercurio Online and The BBC.

Why does all the action in Indiana have to happen while I'm away?!?

As anyone who has had the conversation with me surely knows, anytime I get talking about Indianapolis (where I just spent four formative years of my life at university), I point out my biggest complaint about the city is that it doesn't really have any personality or character of its own. Instead, it's just kind of stuck in between everything: it's too big to be "mid-sized" and too suburban to be "big," it's not dynamic enough for jet-setters and go-getters, nor laid-back enough for bohemians and artists, and it's smack dab in between Chicago, Columbus, St. Louis, and Louisville. (Indeed, I know very few people who actually claim they're from Indy... Even amongst people who've lived there quite a while, they generally resist attaching themselves to the city, instead claiming "Chicago," "The Region," "St. Louis," or if they're a Hoosier [myself included] it's whatever town they were born in. Most people that live in Indy, it seems, is by default rather than by choice...)

Now, this is fine if you want to run a trucking company or open a new chain of family dining establishments, BUT (and this brings me to the point in conversation that I inevitably get to), if you want to see nationally-recognized music artists... Well, it makes things a bit more difficult. Instead, most "big" names (all things being relative, speaking as a fan of so-called "indie music") stick to Chicago, while the up-and-comers usually go to the quintessential college town Bloomington to the south. Louisville and Columbus both also have pretty well-established local scenes, which is also a testament to their major campus presences as well (which is another key factor missing in the Indy equation...).

And so, after having just returned from a 3-day trip to the Chilean countryside in Cajón del Maipo (where I noticed an astonishing amount of Piñera paraphernalia, which all makes sense considering General Pinochet owned a guest home there...), why am I talking about Indianapolis?

Well, after sitting down at my computer after a brief absence and pulling up my email, the first page I pulled up was (and feel free to interpret what this says about me however you please...) and the news headline was regarding a new single from one of my favorite bands in the world, Titus Andronicus. And, most importantly, not only are they announcing a massive tour that includes numerous *free* in-store performances across the US, Indy-freaking-anapolis is one of the stops, AND they're even looking for places to crash for the night!

I did have the good fortune to be one of (I'm being generous) the five people who caught them at an in-store at Luna Music the last time they were in town (and I think the only person not behind the counter that was there specifically to see them play...) and, needless to say, they were spectacular. And they're also the only lo-fi indie punk band that I can think of that exudes such a gloriously-epic character and can pull off references to obscure Shakespearean tragedies, "Seinfeld," Albert Camus, and the (American) Civil War. If you're not the least bit interested or aroused by now, then you're probably not a very close friend of mine or should at least stick to reading my posts on politics...

And so, with all that being said:


P.S.- One final important note: all my "criticism" of where I come from is dashed with a hearty helping of love. Indianapolis does at the very least try to define itself, primarily as a top-rate sports destination, though I wish there was more of a focus on my beloved Butler Bulldogs, and their most popular pro sports team was stolen in the middle of the night...

But seriously, there are a lot of great things about the city outside of the rather limited appeal that sports can have, including a tremendous art museum, great neighborhoods in Broad Ripple, Mass Ave, and Irvington, and, of course, a tenacious local music scene that includes great venues such as The Melody Inn and The Emerson Theatre.

P.S.S.- Did I really go this entire time w/o saying "Nap Town"???

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

"Pink Houses"

John Mellencamp as the next Senator of Indiana? Ugh I certainly hope not... I have a ton of respect for "The Nation" and John Nichols in general, but this has to be one of the sillier political articles I've read in a while...

(Photo taken in Valpo, Feb. 2010)

Monday, February 22, 2010

Just Returned from Santiasco; and Justice, Impotance, and Crimes Against Humanity

Spent the past weekend in the nation's capital. Didn't have as much time to visit museums as I'd liked, but with Santiago only being about an hour and a half away (via bus), I'll have plenty of chances to go back.

I did have the chance to find out why it's called "Santiasco." It's not that it's actually disgusting, but it's just generally a pretty underwhelming city. Not in size by any means mind you, Santiago is massive: a population ~6 million people, though with it being February an estimated 2 million Santiguinos are out of town on vacation. But it is, to be quite frank, rather bland and uninteresting for what one would expect from the social and political center of the nation. Obviously, there are plenty of things to do and see, but it really just doesn't have much character of its own, like a Buenos Aires or Madrid (to name two Hispanic cities that I'm familiar with). Lots of malls, smog, and Las Condes, an upper-class suburban neighborhood community who could be regarded as the base of the Chilean right and president-elect Piñera. Yuck.

Valpo on the other hand is another story. Literally, whereas Santiago's draws are the museums and parks and restaurants and such that you go to a city of its size to enjoy (and seek to spend as little time as possible getting from point A to B!), Valpo is the complete opposite: it's bursting with character and is a spectacular city to wander and get lost in, but it really doesn't have much to offer in the way of things to "do" (most of those kinds of things are located instead in nearby Viña). I love it here, and after being in Santiago for a few days I was longing to come back.

One thing that did strike me while in Santiago is the number of museums and sites dedicated to the victims of Pinochet's torture regime. I had the opportunity to visit the Parque por la Paz at the former site of Villa Grimaldi, one of the most notorious detention centers during the 70s and 80s and where thousands of political dissidents lost their lives.

What's so striking to me is that a number of them opened only a handful of years after democracy took hold and while still on the cusp of that military government and of course, long before any real attempts at holding any of the torturers, murderers, and other-human-rights violators accountable for their crimes (which of course has yet to happen at all on a broad scale, and is almost certainly unlikely to ever happen). Pinochet in fact would have still been serving on his self-appointed Senate seat, which he held until 1998, at the time that the Parque por la Paz opened in 1994.

I believe it is remarkable that these gestures can be made, even by the state itself, in the absence of any real attempts, or even discussion of an attempt, at exacting justice and holding these men and women accountable for their crimes against humanity. Even outside of the torture, rape, murder, and kidnappings, the Pinochet regime was even so bold as to track down and assassinate opponents on foreign soil, including the notorious car bombing of Orlando Letelier in Washington, DC.

Of course, there is a significant discourse about what exactly it means to "hold the wrongdoers accountable" and what the implications are under such circumstances, especially when democracy is still so fragile in the years immediately after the dictatorship is over. But the fact of the matter is that in the Chilean case, and in so many other of these situations where severe human rights abuses are acknowledged but their perpetrators left unaccountable, it was never truly a matter of "the justice" of such actions. Instead, as my girlfriend says, having several family members who were imprisoned and tortured under Pinochet for their nonviolent political activities and beliefs, it's a matter of "la impotencia" to even consider legal accountability for these crimes.

Again, this is why Piñera’s election is so important for Chile. So much of media coverage, especially at the international level and by corporate interests, is focused on the narrative of the “progress” that Chile has made now that it can elect a right-wing president. But what progress is it when that President had close ties to the dictatorial regime and may be returning these same criminals back to power?

And of course the same can be said here in the United States in the wake of the torture, repression, and extrajudicial killings perpetrated by the Bush regime. Former Vice President Cheney was just on national television last week (crawling out of his lair to be on ABC News, mind you, not FOX), boasting about his support of and authorization of the US government’s use of waterboarding, one of the common methods of torture employed by the Chilean secret police at Villa Grimaldi. I recall a conversation I had with Boston University professor and author Andrew Bacevich before he spoke at Butler last spring on this very issue of holding the Bush Administration officials guilty of these transgressions accountable. I was trying to make the point that having a legal inquiry into what happened is essential for reestablishing the legal precedent against these actions (considering there already is a significant body of international and US legal writings regarding waterboarding as a torture method and the illegality of such methods) and preventing these crimes from happening again, while Dr. Bacevich, an ardent critic of the Bush Administration, argued the point that it was simply not politically feasible nor prudent to pursue such a course. Be sure to note that neither of us got around to the issue of “justice,” for it so often is merely a secondary issue to the “practicality” of criminal proceedings, if it is even considered at all.

But what really is to be said about the “impracticality” of these measures where in Chile a democratic government has been established for 20 years, and in the United States we are supposedly the most exemplary “democracy” in the Western Hemisphere, if not the world? Per Slavoj Zizek, we don’t actually believe in such things as “justice” and “democracy” and “human rights,” but instead we believe that we believe in these values. And here it's also worth recalling that much of the discourse in the mainstream media in the United States on the issue of waterboarding didn’t merely focus on whether or not waterboarding was in fact torture or not, but on whether or not “torture” in and of itself should be completely ruled out for use against terrorists!

Of course, part of the reason that states won't have these investigations, or when they do they are such toothless examinations as the ongoing UK invesigation regarding the leadup to the Iraq War, is because the responsibility lies with too many of those still in power. This is especially true here in the US, where so much of the political elite is so established that the US still refuses to join the International Criminal Court out of fear that people in Washington may actually be held accountable for their actions, and even the "progressive" Obama Administration still continues to carry out shady Bush-era tactics such as indefinite detention and extraordinary renditions (a brief scan of Glenn Greenwald's superb blog can quickly bring one up to speed on this). One might even make the case that all nation-states have at least some blood on their hands. But again, this should only further call into question the legitimacy of our political authorities and of the state itself, and we should not be afraid to ask these questions if we truly think we believe in "justice," "democracy," and "human rights."

In other news, later this week I'll be going to Cajón del Maipo, a forested area about an hour SE of Santiago that's a popular place to camp and go rafting and such. Definitely looking forward to it. In the meantime I'll be posting my most recent NACLA article and try to get some posts in before I take off.

Friday, February 19, 2010

"Apaga la tele, vive tu vida"

A Bit of Background and Context on Current Chilean Politics

I think it's only appropriate to use my first substantive post for some commentary and background on the current political situation here in Chile into which I’ve arrived. This is indeed an interesting time for this country, who just this past January concluded their presidential elections, with the conservative billionaire Sebastián Piñera defeating the center-left candidate Eduardo Frei in the runoff.

Now, within most political contexts (at least, I suppose, that we in the North or other parts of Latin America are accustomed to), this would seem rather banal. For Chile however, Piñera's victory is quite significant on a variety of levels.

Firstly and perhaps most importantly, the election of Sebastián Piñera signals an official end to the nearly two decades of continuous leadership by the center-left coalition known as the Concertación. In fact only a handful, indeed if any, political organizations in the world have had as much success at effectively leading a democratic state as the Concertación. Over the past 20 years, Chile has established itself as arguably the most stable, peaceful, and best-functioning nation in the region. This is a remarkable feat in and of itself, but especially so considering the extreme challenges posed the historical and geographic conditions of South America that undermine the ability to run a functioning, let alone democratic state, and a quick look around at Chile's neighbors illustrates just how difficult this is.

Of course, Chile is not immune from some of the same problems as its neighbors. There is a substantial income inequality gap between the wealthiest of society and the poorest; infrastructure definitely lags behind European or North American standards; and other, though perhaps less “official,” indicators of underdevelopment, such as just the sheer number of stray dogs living on the streets here in Valpo (it’s quite remarkable!), suggest that Chile faces these same challenges as well.

But it is also clear that Chile ranks at or near the top of Latin America in not only most of the social and economic ranking systems, but many of the political indices as well, such as Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index and The Economist’s Democracy Index. From 1990, since just before the Concertación came to power, until 2006, the poverty rate was reduced from nearly 40% of the population down to just 13%. And significant progress in these areas has been made under current President Michelle Bachelet, who actually defeated Piñera back in 2005 and whose popularity and approval ratings are amongst the highest in the world.

And these high degrees of socio-economic and democratic political development under the Concertación are most remarkable considering that they came immediately in the wake of 26 years of the right-wing dictatorial regime of Augusto Pinochet, who with the support of the United States ran one of the most notorious governments in Latin America. Much credit should then be afforded to Concertación leadership for stabilizing democracy and development amidst these turbulent conditions (though the role of the Chilean people themselves and civil society cannot be discounted either).

This of course leads into the second significant point to be made about Piñera’s victory, which is that it is the first return to power by the right in Chile since Pinochet stepped down. While I don’t particularly agree with some of the “Piñera = Facha [Fascist]” sentiments expressed down here, there are indeed some troubling right-wing connections for Piñera that betray his carefully-cultivated mainstream image. Piñera’s own brother was a high-ranking minister in Pinochet’s government and several of his top aides and political allies have close ties to dictatorial regime and the reactionary Catholic sect Opus Dei. Piñera himself also amassed his personal fortune under Pinochet’s neoliberal “shock therapy.”

Some may say that this is merely what is to be expected in politics, especially in a context where extremists held power for so long, that whichever candidate from the Chilean right who came to power would have some “dirty hands,” so to say. Can’t we just move on? Or better yet, perhaps this can in fact serve as evidence that Chile can finally or actually has in fact “moved on” from its unsavory past? Here however I would have to disagree, and instead assert that if this is the case that it is in fact more emblematic of a deeper ethical problem as opposed to evidence of “progress.” Complacency with regards to our political leaders’ shady connections suggests a normalization and/or acceptance of these poor characteristics that we should instead be trying our best avoid, and in the case of Chile perhaps this is even some semblance of a “return” to this state. These questions also altogether avoid any discussion of justice, as very little responsibility was ever truly meted out for the crimes and abuses of power perpetrated under the coup regime. As such, Piñera’s victory is for many Chileans not only a troubling rebirth for many of the same shareholders of power from the Pinochet era, but the calls for “moving on” and “change” are indeed also a slap in the face to those who still bear the physical and emotional scars of a nightmare that wasn’t all that long ago.

Going back to Piñera himself, in his attempts to distance himself from Pinochet’s legacy he may instead be molding himself into a more refined version after another unpleasant figure on the right, Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi. Chilean friends of mine are incredulous of the billionaire’s attempts to self-identify as “middle-class” despite owning key stakes in one of Chile’s top soccer clubs and its national airline. Piñera has also already come under intense criticism for cashing in to the tune of millions after wrapping up his victory. And just last week I was fortunate enough (if one so wishes to call it that I suppose…) to witness the bizarre “spectacle” of his cabinet appointment ceremony, in which he personally handed out flash drives with all of his “goals” and “ambitions” to each of his new team members on national TV. (As I remarked to a friend, “You better believe that Mitt Romney is taking notes on this as we speak!”)

And so, in so many words, this is the political situation that I am stepping into here in Chile. As for actual analysis of the election itself, political scientist Robert Funk has been invaluable: the general message however has been that this election result, despite efforts by favorable allies in the mainstream media to depict it as otherwise, was not so much a ‘victory’ by Piñera as it was a ‘loss’ by the Concertación, whose complacency, poor campaign management, and a tepid candidate spelled an end to its own rule. Hence, in a way, the coalition was a victim of its own success, yet it may also be seen as taking a fall for a recent slump in performance indicators that may or may not be linked to the global economic downturn.

As always, there is much more to say, but I will save it for another day. How this situation plays out from here, both in terms of how Piñera will govern (most analysts I’ve read thus far don’t expect much of a change, especially in terms of domestic policy; personally I see the recent developments in the regional politics as the most interesting area to watch as it offers the most potential for Piñera to define himself) and how the Chilean people will react to his rule (I am most interested in the divide between more traditional mainstream core of society and radical fringe elements and the tension between them). More to surely follow as things develop…

Tuesday, February 16, 2010


Valparaíso, Chile, January 2010

For What It's Worth...

For those who are interested, here are some links to previous articles I have recently written for NACLA, the North American Congress on Latin America. NACLA is a progressive nonprofit organization based in the United States that does advocacy journalism on Latin America.

My first exposure to the organization came last summer while I was Seattle: browsing an independent bookstore, I came across their quarterly magazine, which for this particular issue was focusing on right-wing paramilitary activity in Colombia (a subject of particular interest to myself). Lately, I have been contributing articles to their website on a volunteer basis, and have found the organization to be an excellent resource that I'm proud to be a small part of. (Any organization that prominently highlights glowing recommendations from Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn on their front page definitely gets a vote in my book!)

Here's my most recent article for them, an analysis of the Honduran elections and it's regional implications- An Electoral Defeat for Democracy: The Regional Implications of the Honduran Vote

Another article regarding the events in Honduras from last fall, regarding the use of Colombian paras by the Honduran elites and coup regime: The Plot Thickens: Honduran Coup Regime and Landowning Elites Enlist the Support of Foreign Paramilitaries

Additionally, I wrote a piece on the subject of the Dominican Republic's recent overhaul of its constitution, a matter which recieved very little mainstream coverage: A Giant Step Backwards: The Dominican Republic Reforms Its Constitution

I will shortly be contributing an article previewing the upcoming Brazilian elections, and will be providing the appropriate links to that as well.

Monday, February 15, 2010

"Just Chillin"

Taken in Valparaíso, Chile, January 29, 2010.

Inaugural Post

Having arrived here in Chile just a little over two weeks ago and having settled in a bit, I feel it's now an appropriate time to get this project, "Hoosier Gringo," up and running. Accordingly, I'd like to establish a little background about myself and what I seek to accomplish with this blog:

Last year I graduated from Butler University (in Indianapolis, IN) where I majored in Political Science and Spanish, with an additional minor in Philosophy. During this time, I became interested in Latin American politics and US-Latin American relations. Beyond these areas, I also have a broad range of interests with regards to political theory and political philosophy which I seek to explore here on this blog, and perhaps better define for myself with respect to my academic future. Among my longer-term goals for myself is the desire to pursue graduate studies in Political Science, International Relations, or a related field.

At minimum, my goal for this blog is for it to be an outlet for my creative and intellectual energies so that I can keep them sharp in this time spent living abroad and out of school. Beyond that, it's also my aspiration to regularly contribute relevant and interesting insights on the US and Latin American political experience, and the norms and theoretical underpinnings that both underlie and transcend this realm, as seen through the eyes of a small-town Indiana farmboy living in Latin America with a cosmopolitan perspective on the 21st Century.

The name "Hoosier Gringo" came to me rather spontaneously, though I feel it pretty adequately reflects who and what I am and what the focus of this blog will be. Additionally, and indeed more importantly I believe, I think it also gives a sense of the importance I see in acknowledging and respecting one's own personal background, while also reaching out and connecting with others in the world at large in solidarity.

These themes and ideas, among others, will be the source of inspiration for my future posts. Enjoy!