Monday, March 22, 2010

Wednesday Night/Thursday Morning Links and Briefs

1.) With Obama signing his health care reform bill into law yesterday, having passed the House of Representatives this weekend (without the support of a single Republican in either chamber), much attention has accordingly been devoted to covering this matter. The New York Times has an interesting interactive piece that helps explain how the bill will affect "you," and Democratic Congressman John Larson outlines the ten immediate benefits of the health care bill that will come before the bill goes fully into effect in 2014.

Regarding the more "political" aspects of the bill and its process:

-Talking Points Memo discusses the next "step" to polish the bill via reconciliation in the Senate

-Nate Silver breaks down how and why the Democrats voted for the bill

-Ari Melber, whose previous interview with Marshall Ganz expressed a justifiably critical view of OFA and the administration, highlights the important role that the organizing program played throughout this process

-Political scientist Steven Taylor (in between his excellent reporting on the recent Colombian midterm elections where he was an electoral observer) has some interesting predictions and observations

-NPR has a great piece analyzing popular support for health care reform (and summing up in so many words why one should always be suspicous of polls, especially as they are trumpeted by a party whose leaders don't give a damn about public opinion)

-David Rothkopf at Foreign Policy takes a look at what the bill might mean for the USA's changing role in the world

-And finally, for those on both sides of the spectrum who still harbor suspicion for the health care reform bill, Ezra Klein reminds conservatives to recall the Right's fear-mongering amidst the passage of Medicare a generation ago, while left-wing critics of the health care reform can take at least some comfort in knowing that even Noam Chomsky, arguably the most important leftist intellectual of our time, would prefer to "hold his nose and vote for" the bill versus the consequences otherwise if given a chance.

2.) One also can't discuss the health care reform bill without mentioning all of the vitriol that it brought about from the reactionary right, not just from irate tea baggers but even Congresspeople themselves. Extremism from the right isn't by any means a new phenomenon in American politics, but this particular strand does need to be taken seriously as it not only continues to escalate its rhetoric and actions, but actually gain even greater influence within the contemporary conservative movement, poisoning the broader political discourse. And with progressive activists pressing Obama to make immigration reform the next domestic priority, as several hundred thousand demonstrators did this weekend in Washington even as a far smaller number of right-wing activists stole the show, one can be certain that things are only going to get a lot uglier...

3.) Wednesday marked the 30th anniversary of the slaying of Catholic arch-bishop and tireless human rights advocate Oscar Romero. Romero, a liberation theologian who spoke out on behalf of the poor and oppressed against the brutal El Salvadoran regime of the 70s and 80s that shared close ties to the United States, was murdered by a government-sponsored death squad as he delivered mass. In an unprecedented show of support, the current El Salvadoran President Mauricio Funes commemorated the occasion and asked for forgiveness on behalf of his state. Both Tim's El Salvador Blog and the Central American Politics blog have more on this event and the life and work of Oscar Romero and what he meant to the El Salvadoran people.

4.) Former Chilean Cabinet member José Miguel Insulza was elected to a second term as head of the Organization of American States. Running unopposed Insulza won easily, though he faces criticism from those on the right who seek harder stance towards Venezuela and Cuba, as well as a broader contigent of regional actors who seek greater independence from the US's overwhelming dominance in regional affairs. This comes on the heels of the recent Rio Summit where a new regional organization was proposed that would leave out both the United States and Canada in an attempt to better ensure autonomy amongst Latin American and Caribbean nations.

5.) Via "affirmative atheist" PZ Myers, philosopher Daniel Dennett has coauthored a fascinating new article about nonbelieving members of the clergy that is worth a read no matter your faith (or lack thereof).

6.) And of course, I've got to mention that my both my beloved Butler Bulldogs and Purdue Boilermakers are going on to the Sweet Sixteen in the NCAA Men's Basketball tournament. #5 seed Butler takes on #1 seed Syracuse tomorrow, while #4 seed Purdue takes on (the loathesome) #1 seed Duke on Friday. Meanwhile, Pat Forde at ESPN points out, this has gotta hurt extra for IU fans who watch not only as their in-state rivals advance but also a number of former players and recruits for other teams.

Regarding the tournament's off-the-court news, much ado has been made about Education Secretary Arne Duncan's (very problematic) proposal that schools with low graduation rates be barred from the tournament. However, an arguably more important story continues to be overlooked in college sports: many schools continue to use official apparel merchandisers who don't ensure that their uniforms and products are sweatshop-free. As a Butler grad I'm ashamed that my school is on that list, but I am encouraged that more and more schools, Purdue included (due to the remarkable efforts of students who went on a hunger strike to pressure the administration), are taking strides to ensure that the workers who create the clothing that represents their image are given a living wage and decent conditions.

Friday, March 19, 2010

A Look to the North: US Health Care Reform and Seven Years of War in Iraq

There is much excitement back in the United States as the Democrats make the final push towards passing health care reform legislation in the House of Representatives. In just the past few days, several Democrats who previously voted against the original House bill have been persuaded to change their upcoming vote, solidifying the odds of a successful passage expected in the next few days. Included in this bloc of Democrats who will be voting for the bill are Ohio's Dennis Kucinich, a progressive champion and staunch proponent of universal care, and Indiana representative Brad Ellsworth, a conservative Democrat who will be running for Evan Bayh's soon-to-be-vacant Senate seat.

This is certainly a remarkable milestone in a legislative battle that has been waged for months for what has been the centerpiece of Obama's political agenda for the first half of his term. President Obama has expended significant political capital on this piece of legislation, and indeed it seems that he has staked his political fortune on its passage. Republicans, who ironically often represent lower-income districts (especially in the South) that will benefit most from the legislation, have been in lockstep in their voracious opposition to the bill, with the knowledge that its defeat would deal a massive blow not only to the Obama administration, but to possibility of further progressive reform in the United States. Their greatest contentions with the bill regard its cost, an estimated $940 billion over 10 years, and the fact that it runs contrary to their ideology of "free markets" and a minimal Federal government.

Amidst this context however, it's essential to note that today, March 19, marks the seventh anniversary of the beginning of the Iraq War, a conflict that we are still deeply engaged in today. This war of aggression by the United States, predicated on lies and whose legality is questionable at best, has so far claimed the lives of more than 4300 American soldiers, hundreds of coalition fighters, an unknown number of private mercenaries, and, perhaps most appallingly, affected the entire population of Iraq, with hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civillians killed, injured, traumatized, and displaced.

As Representative Kucinich said in yesterday's interview on Democracy Now! on the health care legislation and its relationship to the Iraq War,

War has become ordinary. War has become like part of our daily lives. That’s a serious problem, because it means that we’ve accepted war. And we have to reject it. We have to reject it in all of its manifestations, which includes, you know, the spending to keep the war going, the support for the military contractors, the assassination policies that are involved, the unmanned aerial vehicles that are used to strike at people without anyone taking any real responsibility for the results of dead civilians.

Thus as the health care reform bill moves into its final stages, and especially as conservatives balk at the size of the bill, remember this key point: the United States, whose military budget accounts for more than 40% of the world total and is greater than the next 46 countries combined, will spend nearly the same amount in only one year of defense expenditures as the cost of this health care reform bill over 10 years.

Accordingly, the objections that this health care bill will worsen the deficit (even in the face of all evidence to the contrary), voiced by the same by the same people who have consistently supported the unabashed bloating of military expenditures abroad and opposed deficit-reducing tax increases on the wealthiest 0.28% of Americans, are nothing more than a red herring.

The health care reform bill currently on the table is, of course, not without fault. But contrary to the claims of conservatives and right-wing interests, the problem with the health care reform bill is that it doesn't go nearly far enough. Instead, the bill is in fact largely a capitulation to the corporate interests that back both the Republicans and Democrats. It doesn't even ensure health insurance for all of the roughly 45 million of Americans who lack it, let alone universal health care, threatens women's access to reproductive care, and doesn't provide a real alternative to a health care system dominated by corporate interests. Accordingly, there is a great amount of concern that this reform bill will merely perpetuate the status quo of a failed free market system, creating blowback in the form of outrage stemming from the bill's shortcomings and a strengthening the hand of the health care corporations that stymie real reform in the interest of the American people.

With that being said, this health care reform bill does mark the most significant domestic policy reform in the United States in a generation (which unfortunately speaks more about the failure of our political institutions than the strength of this bill...). It's strengths are significant, including legal protections against the worst exploitation by the health insurance industry, the expansion of community health clinics, and most importantly, health insurance for millions of Americans who currently lack it. As such, I stand with many of the most important advocacy organizations in the United States, including the American Medical Association and the AARP, the majority of the progressive community, and the millions of Americans who support this legislation.

But I also agree with The Nation magazine that "genuine reform begins, not ends, with passage of the current legislation." We cannot allow our political leaders to rest on the passage of this bill alone, which the majority will undoubtedly seek to do. Instead, the legislation must be seen as a step towards making this country work for all Americans, not just those of a certain socio-economic status. This includes not only reforming our health care system, but radically changing the values and actions of our political institutions from callously investing trillions of dollars to our military-industrial complex to satisfy imperial ambitions to investing in social and economic justice at home and abroad.

So, when you contact your representative to support the health care reform proposal, be sure to also tell them to put an end to our bloated defense spending, stop our military occupations abroad, and invest the money saved here at home.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Wednesday Night/Thursday Morning Links

In the spirit of maintaining a regular posting routine, here are some interesting links I've come across the past few days. I was originally planning to write a more extensive bit on the recent Colombian Senate election/preview of May's Presidential election (and its troubling characteristics...), but I'll try to save that for this weekend.

...That is, assuming of course I can pull myself away from the myriad college basketball games this weekend for the onset of March Madness, arguably my favorite time of year according to the sports calender.

1.) I found this report on Brazilian President Lula da Silva's alleged remarks on maintaining ties with his Iranian and Venezuelan counterparts Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Hugo Chavez utterly fascinating, and I find it rather unfortunate it hasn't recieved more attention in the political press.- though not at all surprising considering the lazy (at best, "propagandistic" at worst) political "analysis" we find in the mainstream press. Is there any doubt whatsoever that Lula is, for better or worse, one of the most brilliant and interesting politicians on the international stage of our time? (Of course, the fact that he let this leak out might indicate otherwise, but I'm confident he knew what he was doing. Plus, he's at the end of his term anyway!) Seriously, what better example of international relations theory combined with sheer human drama could one ask for?

2.) Here's something else that's getting very little pub for as important as it is: serious indications that the US may be drastically curtailing its nuclear weapons programs, or at least the acknowledgement from people with influence in the Defense Department that it should. Yes, the facts we've been saying this for years (40 to be exact) and that we're still here 20 years after the end of the Cold War means I won't be holding my breath on this one. And a 90% reduction is still 10% short of what we should be striving for (not to mention the rest of the world's nuclear material and weapons, accounted for and not). But as a critical observer of US foreign policy and its role in the world, this seems like something for which to give credit where credit is due- but I also demand to see results.

3.) Finally, via Pitchfork, legendary British trip-hop group Massive Attack have a new music video that is a must-see, whether you like electronic music or not. More than just a standard music video for their new song "Saturday Come Slow," the 8 minute clip highlights the use of sound torture, like that employed by American interrogators at Guantánamo Prison and elsewhere, and its effects on human beings such as Ruhal Ahmed. Ahmed is a British citizen who was detained without trial or charges brought against him for over two years by the United States government while he was on his way to a wedding in Pakistan. A powerful counter to another certain video regarding torture and detainees in the "War on Terror..."

Monday, March 15, 2010

Blackout in Chile, and The Quake's Lesser-Publicized Victims

Last night, Chile was hit with a rolling blackout that affected nearly the entire country. From about 9 to 11:30 pm, most of the country, all the way from Region III in the north to Region XIV in the far south, was without electricity.

Though it was reported to have been unrelated to last month's powerful earthquake and the series of tremors that have followed in its wake, it was nevertheless a powerful reminder of the serious geographic and infrastructural challenges that Chile faces. Though the same can be said for Latin America as a whole, Chile's position straddling the thin peripice between the massive Andes mountain range and the Pacific Ocean for 2700 miles (4300km) with an average width of 109 miles (or 175 km, making it slimmer on average than my home state of Indiana) only amplify these problems. With only a handful of major electrical arteries to send energy up and down the country, problems in one part of the chain can affect the entire country, as was the case last night.

While having such extensive access to the ocean does have its upsides for international trade, the limits on what kind of internal infrastructure can be built has a serious effect hampering development within the country. Accordingly, it will be important to watch how the serious damage done to the nation's highways, railways, bridges and otherwise will affect the country's economic and social prosperity in the years to come.

Another interesting side note to last night's blackout: after power was restored in Santiago, we were able to listen to Radio Bio Bio in the car, which reported that President Piñera had quickly mobilized the police to take to the streets to prevent looting and other such activity. Clearly Piñera seeks to distinguish himself from former President Bachelet's slow response to mobilize the armed forces in the wake of the earthquake, but nevertheless I don't find an eagerness to use such force as a positive characteristic in a political leader. And with further blackouts to be expected, along with the other challenges of rebuilding to be faced, it will be important to see how this continues to play out...

One final important note tonight: I found this article from the BBC focusing on the plight of the indigenous Mapuche and other overlooked segments of society in the wake of the earthquake to be especially interesting and important. Just as we tend to focus on socio-economic challenges such as poverty and drug abuse in urban communities at the expense of attention paid to these same problems in rural areas, even though they are often even more serious considering the lack of available resources to assist, we must be sure not to overlook rural communities in the wake of disasters like the recent quake. This particular issue is also all the more relevent considering the recent heightening of tensions between the Mapuche community, which has long struggled for autonomy and self-determination, and the Chilean government. Just one more important storyline in the ongoing events here in Chile...

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Out With The Old, In With The New (But The Tremors Haven´t Gone Anywhere!)

It's now official: Sebastián Piñera is the new President of the Republic of Chile. I was able to make my way down near the Congreso here in Valpo, where the inauguration ceremony took place and snap these photos of both outgoing President Michelle Bachelet and the new President Piñera. There was a good turnout of supporters for both Bachelet ("¡Gracias Presidenta! ¡La única!") and Piñera ("Piñera, amigo, El pueblo está contigo!").
The inauguration wasn't the only excitement going on either. While I was out and about (and amidst the inauguration), another earthquake, 6.9 on the richter scale, shook the earth about 3 hours south of here. A tsunami warning has been issued, and Piñera has already taken quick action to declare an emergency alert for Region VI where the epicenter was located. He will also be making his way down to Region VII later this afternoon to visit the hardest-hit parts of the country. And so begins the Sebastián Piñera chapter in modern Chilean history...

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Wednesday Night Links

1.) Tomorrow's a big day down here in Chile, as President-elect Sebastián Piñera will be assuming office. Numerous heads of state from all over the continent (and even the Prince of Spain) arrived today and Valpo will be abuzz mañana as they will all be coming to the Congreso Nacional for the inauguration ceremony, despite the fact that parts of the city and neighboring Viña are without water. Earlier this afternoon I watched on tv as Colombian President Álvaro Uribe's jet landed, while Piñera and Bolivian president Evo Morales had a friendly soccer match. Only in Latin America, right?

2.) Despite leaving office on the dour note of the earthquake and the widely criticized governmental response, outgoing President Michelle Bachelet's popularity numbers are as high as ever, with an utterly astonishing 84% approval rating. Of course, as Greg Weeks points out, keep in mind the fact that the hardest-hit areas could not be reached by telephone...

3.) While the Chilean economy will certainly continue to suffer the social and economic effects of the earthquake (One of the headlines I saw the other day read "TURISMO EN EL SUELO"- Tourism [industry] on the floor), Piñera himself is sure to be pretty comfortable. In the latest rankings of the richest people in the world, the Chilean magnate jumped 260 spots up to number 437 on the list. Latin American tycoons were well represented this year, as Mexican Carlos Slim claimed the top spot by knocking off Bill Gates, and Brazilian mining head Eike Batista made the biggest financial gains.

4.) Regarding the other serious earthquake in this hemisphere in the past year, the indomitable Noam Chomsky on Haiti in Counterpunch.

4.) Back in the United States, Glenn Greenwald lays open the brutality employed by the US government while torturing suspected terrorists. The chilling facts of what our "democratic" government did and continues to defend calls to mind the title of a previous article Greenwald wrote on this subject: "What Every American Should Be Made to Know [About the IG Torture Report]."

5.) Johann Hari has an excellent article in The Nation regarding the "selling out" of major American environmental organizations to corporate interests, and especially some of the most dangerous pollutors in the world. He also appeared with Christine MacDonald, a former member of one of the most widely-criticized such organizations Conservation International, on Democracy Now! I found this to be particularly interesting as I spent several summers canvassing for a grassroots environment organization in Indiana called the Hoosier Environmental Council. The last summer I worked there our canvass and several policy people was cut in what was a very peculiar cost-cutting move for a members-based advocacy organization. Many of my colleagues and I believed that there were shadier motives at heart, and was a result of pressure from the more moderate aka "business-friendly" members of the board of directors...

6.) And back home in the Hoosier State, Indiana Governor (and 2012 Presidential hopeful? Ha!) Mitch "The Blade" Daniels and his private sector goon squad have come under intense criticism for inflating Indiana's job creation numbers by 40%. (The statistics look so much better when you make them up!) I guess cutting the jobs of social workers and replacing them with private call centers isn't merely cruel and legally objectionable, but a bad economic policy as well!

7.) Finally, I encourage you to check out "Exiled in the Land of the Free," a benefit album for Native American activist and US political prisoner Leonard Peltier that was originally supposed to be released in 1995, but was instead shelved. 15 years later, a sympathetic recording assistant came across the tracks and has put them on the internet for free. Even better than the music is the cause, which you can become familiarized with and take action upon on the link above, and which I was first introduced to while reading the liner notes in Rage Against the Machine cds in high school and doing my own personal research on COINTELPRO. And yes, even the United States is guilty of holding political prisoners and sheltering terrorists.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Some Thoughts On Our Lack of Control in the Digital Age

This weekend, for reasons still not fully explained to me, Google blocked access to my blog and my corresponding gmail account for suspicion of "violating the terms of the user agreement." After being locked out of my email account and denied access to any of my writings that I had posted, I was given an opportunity to challenge my suspension from Google's services. Needless to say, the matter was fortunately resolved after about a 12 hour time span- I recieved an automated email from Google saying that an error had been made and the issue had been resolved, though no further explanation was given.

While this may have been just a random mistake, it nevertheless was a disconcerting reminder of how little control we truly have over the modes of communication and the dissemination of information. It is widely-held liberal truism that the expansion of the internet and communication technology is an overwhelming "good" thing for us and our socio-political institutions. We are not only afforded more and better economic opportunities, but there are numerous benefits for us as social beings to connect and engage with one another and to be better informed and educated, which will in turn "open up" our societies and make them more democratic, or so we are told. This is a belief expounded by the likes of Thomas Friedman and many others in the media and communications industry, not to mention many of those who lead our political institutions, who all have a direct stake involved in propagating this idea.

Obviously, as someone who has his own blog and regularly spends hours each day on social media and internet news sites, I do have some sympathy in this regard. But of course, this matter is a bit more complicated than this rosy picture so often painted for us. Evgeny Morozov is an excellent blogger for Foreign Policy whose research is centered precisely on the issue of communications technology and politics, and both he and I share a more skeptical perspective on this matter. From his blog's About section he writes,
Even a cursory look at top technology issues facing us today -- from Internet censorship to online surveillance to cyberwarfare -- makes it clear that technology poses almost as many threats as opportunities. Most interestingly, we see authoritarian regimes gain proficiency with the Internet and actively turn it to their own advantage -- a phenomenon I dub the "spinternet". Even more disturbingly, many of these more sinister activities happen very quietly, while the public gets overly excited about edgier issues like cyber-spies.
Morozov does an excellent job highlighting how regimes like Russia not only subtly mislead and manipulate their populations with news media and the internet, but also actually channel and intensify already-existing nationalistic and authoritarian sentiments towards their own political ends. However I think he is at his best when dissecting what he calls "slacktivism"- the type of "digital activism" via Facebook, Twitter, and other social media that "make us feel very useful and important but have zero social impact." Slacktivism can also be seen as not only having little positive effect, but may actually serve to undermine more effective means of social action by making citizens less eager to take part in real (and more risky) expressions of direct action.

Of course, it's easy to highlight how conventional authoritarian regimes like China use the internet and social media to control their population, but alas, even so-called democracies including the United States and the United Kingdom are guilty of this as well. In the same year Western liberals hailed the so-called "twitter revolution" in Iran, an activist was arrested in Pittsburgh during the G-20 summit protests for using twitter to report on police activity. Furthermore, like Morozov I think we should be very skeptical of the US government's efforts to "help create supply of US ideas on the Internet" to better "brand" itself for both foreign and domestic populations, much like corporations do.

But what I'm most concerned about is the fact that as we are increasingly being pushed into the digital age, we have little to no real ownership, oversight, or control over these sources of media and communication that are taking an ever-more important role in our lives. The right to freely have access to and disseminate information is a fundamental political right and a necessity for a functioning democratic society, but there is very little public and regulation to ensure that this right is not only properly respected, but indeed that it can best serve the public interest. Instead, private corporate interests not only maintain full ownership rights over the electronic media they control and can thus dictate their own policies within the law, but can have an incredible effect on influencing what law there is to regulate their behavior through political lobbying and indeed using their own media influence to advocate for their cause.

Now, I don't wish to delve too far into this matter as it's far too complex to properly address in a blog post that has already perhaps gone on too long... But I would like to say that the very nature of intellectual, artistic, and digital "property" (each category of which has its own similarities and differences) has certain characteristics that fundamentally seem to deny their compatibility with how we traditionally understand and define property rights. (Which of course doesn't even take into account the myriad difficulties with "traditional property rights" that a radical leftist or anarchist could cite.) But furthermore, and perhaps even more importantly, there seems to be a normative case for ensuring that something so fundamental as the free exchange of ideas and information via the internet or other communication technology (and everything tied in with this) is managed, perhaps even "owned," by the very public that uses and relies upon this technology.

Currently, there are two main fronts in which this struggle for control over the internet and communication technology is being waged. First regards the issue of digital rights, which is a broad field that encompasses issues of ownership, privacy, access, and expression, and the Electronic Frontier Foundation has been a progressive advocate at the forefront of this matter. Secondly is the issue of network neutrality, which is more narrowly defined and regards user access to digital content, and in the United States the organization Free Press is a key player in this fight against corporate interests.

Of course, I can't end this post without discussing Google's role in all of this. Google does make a point (like many in the tech industry) of presenting itself as ethical and responsible, but it is nevertheless a private corporation with its own interests that sometimes conflict with what can be understood as the broader public good. Accordingly, there are a number of issues that lead some to question the organization's unofficial motto of "Do No Evil." Privacy concerns have been at the center of the controversy surrounding Google, especially regarding Google Maps (particularly the street view feature), GMail, and its new social networking feature Buzz. Most interestingly I think regards Google's foray into intellectual property rights, as the company has been digitizing books for years now and placing them into its online database. While this may be viewed as a positive means of increasing access to these materials, there is also some concern regarding the extent of Google's ownership rights of these texts (especially those whose copyrights have expired or were in the public domain to begin with) once it has them in its database, making it the center of some controversy and a lawsuit. Finally, there is increasing concern that Google is achieving monopoly status as it encroaches more and more into our lives and society, effectively summarized in this video (which does have English narration).

The point of all this is that we must first be aware of all of this, and secondly we must strive for more control and autonomy with regards not only to our internet and media access, but in every other facet of our lives. And this furthermore calls for a radical reshaping of our social, economic, and political institutions to truly represent the values of a peaceful and just world. This of course isn't something that can be easily achieved in and of itself, but steps can be taken and progress can be made. I have taken a rather critical stance so far towards Google, but for convenience's sake (at least for the time being) I won't be changing the format of this blog any time soon, though I will still continue to use and support independent, alternative sources of internet media and explore options of open-source software. However, one shouldn't focus too closely on particular areas of change while missing the bigger picture, just as one shouldn't become too overwhelmed by the grand struggle and skip over the smaller foci of change- such is the difficulty that we face.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

¡Fuerza Chile! One Week After the Quake

Well it´s now been officially more than one week after one of the most powerful earthquakes ever recorded shook Chile, and things are starting to settle back into place, more or less. Here in Valpo, a rather uneasy normalcy has started to return, as most businesses, public transportation, and utilities are back up and running. Walking around the city, it´s really difficult to believe that only a few days ago we felt the same magnitude on the richter scale as what devastated Haiti- aside from a few broken windows, some cracked siding, and the like, there really isn't much to suggest that this city suffered much physical damage at all. And certainly, by my understanding, it is the case that we here in Valparaíso were extremely fortunate not to suffer more than we did.

One sees here in Valpo a large outpouring of support for our less fortunate neighbors. Chilean flags and messages of support can be seen everywhere. The past few days I also took part in some of the relief effort being organized by the Pontífica Universidad Católica de Valparaíso, gathering and sorting clothing and food and other supplies to send to the south. My personal experience in these circumstances is rather limited, so I have little to base my analysis directly off of, but nevertheless I think it is remarkable both how quickly things here are going back to "normal," as well as the amount of support being provided by the people themselves. I was completely overwhelmed by not only the amount of provisions that the student organizers at PUCV were able to gather, but also how many hundreds of students were dedicating their time and energy to the thankless task of sorting and packaging these myriad supplies, two weeks before their classes start back up.

But of course, I am only going off of what I know based on what I've personally seen. Beyond that, I like most everyone else has to rely on what I'm being told. The problem is that under such circumstances there's really no way of knowing what's really going on, nor how "bad" it really is- and we won't really have any way of knowing what the effects of this quake will for some time to come. Signs are emerging however, as the tourism industry is starting to suffer and certainly the devastation that this quake has had on Chile's infrastructure, especially the highways, railways, and bridges, will have a crippling effect on the economy for a long time to come.

In the meantime, there is much going on and many storylines emerging, but personally I am most interested in the issue of the looting and violence going on in Concepción and other hard-hit cities in the south-central regions, and what the implications of this and the government´s response will be. For several days one couldn´t turn on the television here without being bombarded with the images of people breaking into stores and businesses, to which the government responded with a strong hand by mobilizing thousands of soldiers, tanks, and issuing a toque de queda ("curfew"), which is the first time such action has been taken in the country since the restoration of democracy. I have little doubt about the seriousness of this matter and the need to restore order amidst this chaos and violence, and The BBC has a thoughtful article on the complex issues involved in deploying the Chilean military for this relief effort with the memories of the military government still fresh.

Nevertheless, I think we should also always remain cautiously skeptical about state efforts to use force to "increase security," especially when military units are deployed for policing efforts. Situations such as these often serve as convenient opportunities for state authorities to overextend their reach, which almost always ends up doing more harm than good, especially over the long term. Perhaps my background in the post-9/11 United States leaves me to draw unfair comparisons between the Chilean government's response and how my country typically operates under these circumstances, but tanks are surely an extreme measure to deal with bands of looters. And certainly questions of the long-term "security presence" need to be asked considering reports indicate that any decision regarding lifting the toque de queda down there will be postponed until March 11, when new president Sebastián Piñera assumes office.

Accordingly, what will be most interesting to watch (IMHO) throughout the duration of the Piñera administration will be how he uses this event to shape his agenda and ultimately his legacy, and how in turn the Chilean people will respond. With his right-wing background and his calls to "reestablish public order", I can't help but consider that this may be early indicators that Piñera may use this opportunity to take a more heavy-handed "law and order" approach than what Chileans have experienced in 20 years. Furthermore, this crisis and the much-critized response of the Bachelet government, especially regarding the failures of the tsunami alert system that may have led to more casualties than the quake itself, will leave a deep stain on her and the Concertación´s legacy and give Piñera further incentive to separate himself politically and ideologically. And this in turn will certainly impact Piñera's economic policies, perhaps leading to an onslaught of neoliberal reforms and privatization schemes in the reconstruction effort, as well as a convenient excuse to back away from his campaign promises on Chile's projected economic growth.

How will the rest of Chile respond? I see here in Chile and throughout much of Latin America a great deal of skepticism towards state authority and institutions, which has only been amplified by the government's response to this event. Furthermore, I think one can be assured that Piñera's efforts at neoliberalization or "securitization," if they come to fruition, will be met with a great deal of resistance. Ultimately, it's still too early to tell, but despite the devastation, chaos, and violence in some parts of the country, the compassion and support seen in the rest does give hope for what is yet to come.
(Both pictures taken in Valpo, March 2010. First is a micro, second is a scene from the PCUV relief effort.)

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Article on Lula and the Upcoming Brazilian Elections; Checking In Again (Briefly)

My most recent article for NACLA, "Brazil Faces Its Post-Lula Future" is now up on their website. I encourage you, of course, to check it out.

Needless to say, it's not easy to sum up the past eight years in Brazil under Lula's leadership, his complex relationship (to say the least!) with the Brazilian left, the nation's emerging role on the global stage, and the two leading candidates in the upcoming elections, in under 2,000 words. Nevertheless, the lesson to be taken from his presidency, and from what we've seen so far under Obama as well, is this: for true progressive and fundamental change to radically reshape society along more just and equitable lines, one cannot rely on political leaders alone.

There's much more to say, but it will have to be saved for another day. As for now I'm gettting ready to go back into Valpo- I apologize for the lack of reporting on the earthquake, as you can imagine it has been a rather surreal couple of days. I'm still trying to sort everything out that's been going on these past couple of days before I write more on the subject. My friend Rose Costello has some pics and commentary from Santiago, as does political scientist Robert Funk, and The Clinic and The Mostrador are two great sources of Spanish-language reporting down here. More on this to come shortly...