Wednesday, September 30, 2009
Blog written by Rodrigo Brandao, writer and director of publicity for Kino International
The notion that Latin America exists as a clearly defined space and as a positive identity seems to be the status quo in our day and age.
Yet, the two largely diffused notions of Latin America (i.e. Latin America as comprising all land south of the US border with Mexico, or as a region made of all American countries shaped by French, Spanish and Portuguese colonial powers) can not easily co-exist. If the former notion was an absolute truth, Quebec would have to be considered part of Latin America. And on the same token, if the latter was the governing rule, English speaking countries like Belize and Barbados would have to be excluded from the “continent.”
My point in raising these somewhat conflicting notions of Latin American is neither to question the term's validity nor to highlight its obvious complexity. Instead, I want to make a case that the concept of Latin America demands both abstraction and historical precision, since the spaces in which Latin America exist are always caught between colonial times, with its traumatic uses of culture and identity as a subjugating force, and post-colonial realities, where identity itself has transgressed spatial and national boundaries. In other words, Latin America is both a geographical space and an identity grounded on the transgression of these very geographic spaces.
Personally, I believe this to be an asset. The fact that Latin America can never be as cohesive as a single national identity (i.e. the term Latin American will never “stand” for Brazilian or Mexican) or the fact that the entire area has not been romantically blended into a neoliberal identity (in the same way that Europe has) is something that leads to a gamut of positive ends.
Let's take for instance, the ways in which the Latino and Latin American identities intersect (or, fail to intersect) in the United States.
It goes without saying that the US Latino voting block is a somewhat self-sustained and coherent constituency – with unique priorities and alliances. But it is interesting to me that it is obvious to almost anyone paying attention that Latino interests don't necessarily represent (or align with) the interests of Latin Americans. And this ruptured intersection between two similar groups is, I believe, a very productive site of political discussions and negotiations. It allows for both notions (or categories) to bounce off each other and, therefore, discover their own political grounds/limits.
But of course, not every fracture is productive: the latest significant development in Latin American politics seems to be the rapid and widespread increase in the region's military investment.
In what seems to be part strategic political approximation and part opportunistic military buying, Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez (currently in New York promoting an Oliver Stone film!) saw last year as just such a (rare) moment - and took full advantage of spoiled Russian and US relations.
Immediately after the end of the war in South Ossetia, Venezuela announced an unprecedented military and political partnership with the Russian government – largely sponsored by oil money and a $2.2 billion loan from Moscow. Chavez' argument comes on the heels of increasing American military investment in Colombia, which reached record-high numbers in 2008 – more so after the country's right-wing government granted the US government an additional seven military basis in their country.
Brazil didn't follow too far behind: Lula's government signed a $12 billion defense deal with France to buy 50 French EC-725 Eurocopter-helicopters and 5 submarines (one of them nuclear) – on top of a recent bid that has military giants Dassault (France), Boeing (US) and Saab (Swedish) competing to a three or four billion dollar contract with Brazil - to renew the country's aging bomber jet fleet. The deal, however, seems to be also going to France's advantage, as President Lula “mistakingly” announced that Dassault had the winning bid days before the submission deadlines. A Biden-style confusion, or a sign of a much more intricate defense alignment between France and Brazil?
No matter what, Latin America has its shares of hot buttons, and an arms race only increases cross national tensions: Ecuador, Colombia and Venezuela have been on the verge of larger scale conflicts for a long time now, and last year's Colombian excursion into Ecuadorian territory (to assassinate Raul Reyes) had the touch of a US-approved effort – since it was such an unprecedented move. Ecuador responded by buying 24 Brazilian jets and others arms from Israel.
But while many would say that an actual all-scale war in South America is still somewhat improbable, the region's social problems (I.e. widespread poverty and violence, combined with decades of a failed trickled-down social policy) has Latin Americans already at odds with their own local neighbors.
In Brazil, for instance, urban violence and social warfare has reached such high levels, that what was once referred to as a parallel powers (i.e. organized crime functioning as a parallel power structure) has now become much more incomprehensible; these days, not even organized crime offers a real articulation (i.e. a description and explanation) of the current levels of social exclusion and disparity.
Last week, while surfing the internet before I started my work day in New York, I ran into a web site streaming live footage of a kidnapping just blocks away from my family's apartment in Rio de Janeiro. The footage showed a man threatening a woman with a grenade just as he had two armed cops pointing guns at him. My heart went silent for a second: could this be someone I know?! Minutes later, I saw the woman's face, and once again, I had been “spared.”
Thirty minutes later, I noticed that the local police managed to kill the man holding the grenade without hurting the kidnapped woman – and at that time, I tried to remind myself that behind the flat low-res images, there was a man, a victim, a story and a logic.
But before I regained my moral compass, and right after I turned off the live-video streaming tab, I ran into a link to story about a Brazilian filmmaker and his wife, a famed film producer, who had been made hostages a day before, in similar circumstances. These were indeed my friends... Good friends of mine.
Suddenly, the feeling that one can forever dodge bullets and explain social disparity from a distance completely disappears. What's next then?