The beginning of the end for the drug war?

There is no need to argue about the complete failure of the drug war. Repression has clearly been disastrous, filling jails, criminalizing the poor, destroying communities in most countries of the Americas. Once Colombia, now Mexico illustrates the drug war absurdity and irrationality. Voices are increasingly being heard everywhere in Latin America, both right and left, asking for an end to this nonsense; an expensive nonsense.

In the last 20 years, many Latin American governments, such as those of Argentina and Brazil, have relaxed their drug laws, mainly to control the growing jail population. Uruguay is now discussing a new global approach to the issue. President Mujica proposes to legalize marijuana (the state would produce and sale it to avoid smuggling to neighboring countries) and invest heavily to help individual addicted to pasta base (a drug similar to crack), being an important social problem. The idea is simple; move resources away from repressing ordinary citizens remove revenues out of organized crimes hands, and with these new resources help drug addicts and fight serious criminal activities. In diplomatic terms, many elected officials have called for legalization or de-criminalization of drug use, from Mexico, Colombia, Ecuador, Guatemala, Bolivia, etc. For example, the Ecuador president Rafael Correa said: “these laws are tough, north-americans imposed them on Latin America at the beginnings of the 90s: repressive, they sanction production, but they are not doing anything in their own countries to control drug use.” Even former president of Mexico and of Coca-cola, Vincente Fox has taken a similar position. For years, they have been asking for a “joint responsibility”, with the United-States, to a lesser extent Canada. Now, they are just rejecting the strategy as a whole. Nobody can put his head in the sand anymore; the drug war has become a joke.

These calls for new policies are mostly directed at the United-States. For two simple reasons: US governments have impulsed and forced on many Latin American countries this strategy –remember the Plan Colombia- and it constitutes the main market for drug trafficking, which creates most of the violence along its route (mostly Central America and Mexico). What is changing is the balance of power between the USA and Latin America. Fast growing economies, democracies in a consolidation process, Latin American countries are moving away from being the US backyard where Uncle Sam could dictate how things work. The debt and economic crisis, combined with a democratic president –especially in a second term, if Obama is re-elected-, make it less likely the United-States would want to invest more in fighting drug production south of its border or even resist changes.

The Uruguayan initiative is being discussed and seems to face some internal resistance. If it does go through and shows some positive results in the next few years, it could represent the best argument many Latin American leaders needed to elaborate a continental strategy to face drug use, production and trafficking with decriminalization of use, and maybe straightforward legalization. A growing desire for continental collaboration, as exemplify diverse institutions (UNASUR, MERCOSUR, ALBA, or even the OEA less and less dominated by the USA), might facilitate this alternative way. In my humble opinion, it seems clear that the actual paradigm will keep failing over and over again until some changes are made, at least to limit revenues thrown at organized crime; and if repression is used, at least target with more precision who should go to jail. Debates remain open en relation with decriminalization versus legalization, and which drugs we are talking about.

A short history of cacerolazos

Quebec’s student protest turned into something much bigger y diversified when Charest’s government adopted bill 78 on May 18, in various ways limiting rights to assemble and protest. A few days later, people of all ages and backgrounds starting hitting kitchen pans to make noise and express their discontent to this tired, corrupted and incompetent government. First on their balcony, later in the streets. Les casseroles also gained regions outside Montreal, traditionally less inclined to protest and take the streets. How this original form of protest came about? Where does it come from?

A cegep political science profesor first proposed the idea on facebook. François-Olivier Chené thought it could represent a good way to protest without disobeying bill 78, since people would stay on their balcony to protest. Protesters quickly got taken away and les casseroles took the streets. He had heard that Chileans had protested against Pinochet’s dictatorship doing cacerolazos. The first protesters to use this technique were indeed Chileans, but were upper class right-wingers protesting the socialist government of Salvador Allende – killed during a military coup led by Pinochet in 1973. Later, the other camp performed cacerolazos to protest Pinochet’s repressing regime. It also spread to other Latin American countries living under dictatorships. Members of my family in law were proud to show me that some of their pans were in bad shaped, due to the bagging received during the last months of the Uruguayan dictatorship (1985), when they would get on their roof during cacerolazos.

Cacerolazos came to be known worldwide following Argentina’s economic and political crisis starting in December 2001. Following the collapse of its financial system and the uncontrollable capital flight, the government imposed a corralito, strict restrictions on banking activity, forbidding people to take their economies. When the pesos devaluated, many lost their life savings. To draw a parallel, imagine Greece had to leave the Euro and went back to the drachma, individual savings would lose most of its value, just as it happened in Argentina. Hopeless and angered by their collective and personal bankruptcies, middle and upper class Argentineans took the streets, armed only with kitchen pans. First in Buenos Aires, los cacerolazos then spread all over the country. It allowed people to show loudly their discontent and probably letting off some steam in a tense moment.

Casually, while Quebec protesters where making noise with casseroles, some Argentineans took part in new cacerolazos in Buenos Aires. While a small movement, they did get some attention. The 2012 cacerolazos are denouncing the government (centre-left) power abuses and corruption. Because they take place only in very wealthy neighbourhoods, many think these new cacerolazos are mainly due to new restrictions imposed on changing American dollars, in an effort to strengthen the Argentinean peso (Argentina has a double currency system, in which houses or cars are bought with dollars and day-to-day spending with pesos).

It is not clear why hitting on a saucepan has become a popular protest technique. It could be because it symbolizes private citizens making direct pleas to government officials – noise coming out of the kitchen to be heard by authorities. That people love being part of something bigger, feeling as they are not alone to feel anger. Or, it could be that people just enjoy bagging shinny objects… In any case, it seems very interesting to me that protesters can appropriate for themselves another culture protesting tradition and that it could spread so quickly. We will see with time if les casseroles become a traditional form of protest, resurfacing occasionally, when people are upsets, as it was the case in Argentina.

Masthead photo courtesy of jazzjava’s photostream on Flickr

Las Malvinas conflict

In addition to the end of the world, 2012 marks the 30 years “anniversary” of the Malvinas/Falkland islands war, fought between Great Britain and Argentina in 1982. In part for this symbolic year, this conflict has made its way back in the news. In the last few months, Argentina’s government has put pressure on Great Britain and on other countries to force negotiations concerning the control over the tiny islands, home of 3000 people, mostly British descendants. President Kirchner got most Latin American countries to denounce what she considers being British colonialism. She even left the Summit of the Americas early to protest the absence of the issue in the final resolution. For its part, the British government has maintained a none negotiable hard line, sending war ships and, beware Argentineans, Prince Williams to reinforce its military presence on the island. Nothing to worry about, neither country is looking for a war. What is all this about then?

A little history first, the Malvinas are under British rule since 1833, following French, Spanish, and short-lived Argentinean occupations (destroyed in 1829 by an American war ship). Because of its proximity with mainland (464 km), the fact they were expulsed by force and their past possession of the islands (including Spanish rule before independence), Argentina never recognized British authority over the islands. One must also note a long tradition of British imperialism in Argentina, mostly economically, but also militarily, such as the consecutives invasions in 1806 and 1807. Which brings us to 1982. An incompetent and corrupted military dictatorship, faced with its own failure to redress Argentina’s economy and eager to move the attention away from its terrible human rights record (about 30 000 individuals “disappeared” during the dictatorship), saw the invasion of the British Islands as great national cause that could get them popular support. Which it did for a few weeks, until Margaret Thatcher decided to response with force. The British navy crushed an inadequately equipped and formed Argentinean military. The truth is, the generals thought Great Britain would negotiate or maybe even let go of the islands. Result, more than 900 deaths, and the end of Argentinean military dictatorship who was completely discredited both in Argentina and abroad.

In the 21st century, Las Malvinas plays a similar role it has played in 1982. Faced with slower economic growth for the first time since 2003 (although Argentina still enjoys an enviable economic situation and is still far from recession), Kirchner and her government are stimulating national fervor around Las Malvinas issue. Denouncing Great Britain, asking to negotiate the islands’ return to Argentina comes with no internal political cost and it gives Kirchner an image of power in front of imperialist countries. It brings together left wing entities – Imperialism, to this day, is part of many left wing discourses – and right wing groups – trying overcome of a national humiliation -. In my opinion, this is the main reason why this conflict has reappeared in diplomatic circles, combined to the fact that Las Malvinas are surrounded by immense reserves of offshore oil. Argentina is in dire need of energy sources, as the recent expropriation of the oil company Repsol-YPF shows, and could settle for a deal that would include share exploitation of these reserves.

The British point out to auto determination principles (most islanders want to stay under British rule) while the Argentineans underline some historical and geographical reasons to back their claims. At the end of the day, that the small community of las Malvinas are Argentinean or British matters little in the actual conflict. It is more a question of internal politics and interests than international law. Even if nothing comes out of these diplomatic and media actions, it would have served the simple political purpose of bringing Argentinean behind a national cause once again.

A look at hockey from South America

artbrom / flickr

I have been living in Buenos Aires for 4 years now. Usually people do not know much about Canada. Sometimes I get weird face when I say I’m from Canada even if I clearly speak with a french accent. First thing Argentineans mention is how cold it must be. Some think we don’t even have a summer. The second element most associated with my home country is ice hockey (“ice” is necessary since grass hockey is quite popular in Argentina).  The other day, I was working in a café when a saw NHL images on TV, I was very surprised since argentinean media do not even cover the Stanley cup finals –except its riots of course. Unfortunately, the TV show was presenting images from the Rangers/Devils game that started with a few fights, with the title “Ice hockey or boxing?” As too often, I felt a little bit of shame, as a hockey fan, but also as Canadian/Quebecois. It is somewhat difficult to explain to Argentineans that I enjoy watching hockey, it is a sport of speed and beauty and hockey is part of my culture. Hockey’s image here is limited to fights, violence and dirty hits, closer to Ultimate Fighting than anything else.

Fighting has been part of hockey for so long that it seems almost natural to canadian eyes. However, when you see it from the outside, it seems ridiculous, even idiotic. Try to explain to someone not familiar with north american hockey that fighting is allowed but not really because it is punished; referees let players fight, if they previously  agreed to it; and that it does not have anything to do with the object of the game (scoring goals), except maybe “change the momentum”… Believe me, it is impossible to make any sense out of it. Take any other sport, even very physical ones such as rugby or football, and insert fighting in it… it just looks silly and pathetic. I always thought fighting was not a very important part of hockey and that we could easily do away with it, but its absurdity really hit me a few years ago. I was in my hometown with my uruguayan girlfriend. She was getting familiar with our culture and asked to see a hockey game. Since I was bringing here to a small town, semi-pro game, I warned her that it could get violent. She thought I was talking about physical plays, much like rugby… she was horrified when came the staged fights, she could not believe it. There was not much I could say, it is true that if one has not been desensitized to it from a young age, it does seem barbaric.

As for anything else, change can be tough to come about. If you are old enough, you might remember the old days when car belts were not mandatory or when people could smoke in bars, restaurant and hospitals… Although it seems ridiculous now, many resisted when we collectively decided to modify these situations. I believe we came to a point fighting has to be completely eliminated from our national sport. We could not accept this kind of health risk in any other profession. We do know now that hitting someone’s head repeatedly damages his brain permanently… shocking that it took us so long to figure this one out. Still, how can we accept to see young adults hurting each other like this, for something not even directly related to the game itself, as last year’s death of a few “enforcers” forced us to see. With rare exceptions in the russian KHL, fighting does not exist in international and european hockey, nor does it in the NCAA, and canadian junior is seriously talking about banning it as well. Hopefully, the NHL will follow this trend. It might be difficult to get there, considering that the Bruins just gooned their way to the Stanley Cup. Even the Canucks have recently travelled back to the 80s by adding muscles and “enforcers” to their lineup… The biggest problem remains that some important NHL market keep selling hockey using violence. Added to the NHL extremely conservative management, fighting might very well keep making me ashamed of our national sport in front of my argentinean friends. I might have to start pretending I like baseball…

Buenos Aires’s Terrible Train Tragedy

As newspapers from all over the world have discussed, Argentina has faced a terrible train tragedy last week resulting in 50 deaths and 600 people injured. Obviously, accidents happen, a normal reaction would be to investigate what caused it (material or human failings) and make sure such tragedy does not happen again. In this particular case, it is more complicated since the punctual cause matters less than the structural issues related to argentinian trains. Such accident was to be expected (since 2009, 70 persons have died in train accidents) and many actors had warned public opinion and authorities of the poor state of Buenos Aires communal trains – many of them dating from the 1950s.

As so many problems in Argentina, they are better understood from an economic point of view. All trains still in function in the country were put in place by the state after the second-world war and its union became one of the strongest, very close to the peronist party (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peronism). Under President Carlos Menem government (1989-1999), Argentina followed neoliberal precepts to implement radical reforms. Which meant privatizing most public companies such as trains, water distribution, electricity, phone, etc. So trains were acquired by private enterprises, paying little for the infrastructure and to this day getting subsidies to maintain tickets price relatively low. Government officials has been in charge of controlling security and services provided. In the case that interest us, TBA acquired its trains in 1994.

What is the problem then? Shouldn’t private companies be more efficient than the government to run things? When circumstances are right, it might be so. It is definitely not the case here. The whole argument behind private advantage over public is based on competition. Any company will try to offer the best services at the lowest price possible to get more customers and ultimately more profits. However, communal trains rarely face real competition. |In Buenos Aires, customers have little or no alternatives, since having a car is very expensive, impossible for most Argentinians using trains to go to work. In any case, traffic jams also represent a real problem in Buenos Aires. Furthermore, TBA, as most privatized services, enjoys a virtual monopole. It got the trains in the 90s and since then are cashing in, squizing every penny out of their “investment”. In this context, the enterprise has no incentive to invest in security measures, renew its trains or even offer a comfortable travelling experience. Trains are full, people do not have any other option, so every dollar invested means a dollar less of profit. One could, in many aspects should, blame negligent behaviour of the company, union collusion, and incompetent state control, however, as horrible as it sounds, TBA is acting  according to capitalist principles. It maximizes its profits…

In my opinion, public transport is structurally organized in Buenos Aires to produce bad and even dangerous services. For example, buses are in the same situation, every line is “owned” by a different private company… Therefore, the most logical solution would be to go back to state own public transport. Nonetheless, some things can be done within the actual flawed system. The situation is quite complex, since it reflects many common “argentinian” problems. For example, the head of TBA is very close to Kirchner’s government and has allegedly participated actively in fund raising activities for the actual President. Some claim that explains why state control was so deficient. One can also point out the difficult re-professionalization of state agencies, after decade of destruction. The other issue is “terciarización” or outsourcing. The company hires third parties to perform activities such as maintenance, pays union leaders to look the other way, and get cheaper workers. This issue has engendered a few violent confrontations between different unions. These corruption problems could probably be addressed with some political will.

Last week accident goes way beyond a punctual accident – even if it represents a terrible tragedy – it speaks to us about the legacy of the 90s neoliberal reforms. It is important to put in context this tragedy in a time when many countries are facing similar situations to what Argentina has experienced 20 years ago. Greece and Spain might wake up in a decade or so with the kind of headaches Argentina is having today…

Masthead photo courtesy of born1945

Quebec’s political scene upside down

Last spring, I wrote a post on the great Daily Gumboot following the federal elections, trying to explain Quebec’s unexpected vote for the NDP. I thought a conservative majority could help sovereignist parties, such as the PQ, so far it has not been the case. Since then, Quebec’s politics has continued moving quite a bit. Pools are extremely volatile, new actors are emerging; others are destroying themselves from within. As May 2th election showed, Québécois seem to look for change, but do not know where to find it.

Let’s start with the old parties. Liberals are in power since 2003, under Jean Charest. They have sunk extremely low. Charest’ government is an administrative one, stay with the flow, “do not make drastic changes and you might get re-elected” type of government. However, his government has lost most of its important ministers (one died, the other left for good private sector jobs), but most of all, it has been crippled with incompetence, bad decisions, and numerous scandals, notably his refusal for a year and half to implement a commission of inquiry on corruption in the construction sector). In the moment, Charest maintains his support only in liberal strongholds.

The Parti Québécois is also facing a storm after another. As the official opposition leader, Pauline Marois has suffered many attacks coming from inside her own party. Last June, 3 MPs left to sit as independents (Jacques Parizeau’s wife, a well-know actor and a former minister) to protest her leadership; another one left to form his own sovereignist party (Option Nationale); lately, a last one has joined the CAQ (see below). On top of this, different groups or influential personalities have called for her to renounce. In the last weeks, Gilles Duceppe has intended what has been described as a failed coup to replace Marois, without results. We have to remember that the PQ was formed as a coalition, including right and left wing nationalists. Now that a referendum seems very unlikely, even if the PQ takes power, this coalition seems to be falling apart.

While old parties are having a rough time, new ones are growing. Québec Solidaire is getting a lot of love from disillusioned left-wingers and former PQ followers. Based mostly in Montreal, it has one elected MP, Amir Kadhir who is party co-leader with well-known feminist Françoise David (yes, they have two equal leaders). Kadhir has been very effective in giving QS a great deal of visibility and raising new issues at the Assamblée Nationale. Pools are around 10% for them and are obtaining more support outside Montreal, which has always been their biggest challenge.  So much so that rumors are running the PQ is looking to make an alliance with QS in the next election. One thing is for sure, QS is stealing votes mainly to the PQ.

Another party just disappeared, the center-right ADQ (Action Démocratique du Québec) who had offered a disappointing performance as the official opposition in 2007-2008 and lost its life-long leader Mario Dumont. Their positions included usual right-wing reforms, such as limiting immigration, slash social programs, etc. After a very difficult year, the ADQ just got integrated in the Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ), a recently formed political party. Former PQ minister and businessman François Legault has regrouped individuals from all political families (PQ, Liberal –both provincial and federal-, ADQ). It stands as nationalist, yet no sovereignist, and refuses labels. Journalists describe the CAQ as center-right while Legault says they are neither left nor right but pragmatic. Basically, they want to reform the state, fighting bureaucracy while using the state as an economic force. For example, Legault proposes to increase teachers’ salaries but evaluate them to be able to fire the inefficient ones. The CAQ’s program is not very clear still. Its pool numbers were very high at first, now are around 30%. In my opinion, the CAQ main problem will be similar to the PQ’s, getting individuals with different ideologies working together, in short being a coalition… For example, MP François Rebello left the PQ and joined Legault to “undertake a green Quebec” while former ADQ MPs have always been very critical of environmentalists.

Next elections could be this spring or this fall, it is very difficult to say which party will win. For now it is a tie between the CAQ (31%) and Liberals (29%), PQ (25%) being very close behind. Charest could pass trough, since all the other parties are courting francophone votes and he can almost certainly count on most Montreal West Island ridings. However, things change quickly and Québécois seem to change their political tastes even quicker.

Rating Agencies: What’s Wrong With You?

The financial crisis has tarnished many myths that have been presented as truths during the last decade or so – for example, lower taxes inevitably create wealth, autoregulation works, money trickles down, etc. However, many ideological and concrete elements of the international financial and economical system seem unwilling to die. The legitimacy and role enjoyed by rating agencies is one of them. My opinion on rating agencies is quite clear. The way they actually work is nonsense, hurtful and should be thrown out the window to set a new system.

What are we talking about exactly? There are only 3 major international rating agencies, all are private companies. Their role was initially to rate a business’ viability when entering the stock market to help investors and credit lenders make decisions. Starting in the 80′s, when states’ debts began representing huge financial opportunities, especially third world countries, theses agencies started rating countries as well. Now, they strongly influence the interest a country will pay to borrow on the international financial market. Let’s see what is wrong with all this.

First issue: rating agencies present their activities as simple technical-objective work while in reality they are extremely ideological in their core. For them, neoliberal economics is synonymous with economical science, leaving out a large part of economic thinking. For example, rating agencies do not accept Keynesian principles. A country trying to solve it’s problems applying Keynesian economics would therefore see its rating go down. I am not saying that they are wrong (actually, I am), but it is only my humble opinion. What is important here is that we are talking about IDEOLOGICAL positions, not technical work. Therefore, why should only one side be represented on such important issues? Especially when the ideological positions held by these agencies have proven themselves, if not always, often wrong. The 90′s and the 2001 Argentinean crisis, the highly regulated and robust banking system in Canada, and the Brazilian interventionist economical model are only a few examples of this.

Second issue: agencies do not even respect their own principles, namely competition. A few years ago (just before the international crisis broke out) I gave language classes – I will not say exactly which language, for those who know me might have a good laugh – to a few employees and directors in one of these agencies in their Buenos Aires office. It gave me the opportunity to talk with very interesting and smart individuals about their work. I pointed out to them 3 things that seemed problematic to my outsider eye:

1. An oligopoly, as there is not enough competition in a market limited to 3 companies.

2. Clear conflict of interest, as when they rate a business, guess who the client paying for the rating is – yes, that same business.

3. Considering the types of services they sell, they benefit from global economic growth, when more businesses need ratings for their investments, which translates into more business for them (and the other two agencies).

4. Little or no incentive to give bad ratings and jeopardize their own profits.

The employees basically answered my critiques with one simple and clear solution for these apparent problems: their work is based on reputation, so if they get it wrong they get discredited and lose clients. It seems very logical, but not in a 3 player worldwide market. It seemed obvious at the moment, and got even clearer when the financial crisis broke out that these structural contradictions make it impossible for the agencies to fill their role properly, which most importantly, is to give accurate information and evaluations of different actors (countries, businesses, etc.).

That’s all good, but how does it translate into the real world? The recent financial crisis has highlighted many of those problems. Agencies have given great ratings to crumbling institutions (Freddie Mac, Goldman Sachs) and have provided their “seal of approval” to many toxic financial products that accelerated the crisis. To describe the agencies responsibility in the crisis, the US Senate Investigations Subcommittee (bipartisan) said: “when sound credit ratings conflicted with collecting profitable fees, credit rating agencies chose the fees.” Basically, they got it wrong and made money out of it. Following orthodox economics, they should be castigated, run out of business … well, that’s not what happened. Market principles might apply to those being rated, especially those unable to influence the agencies –yes, I’m looking at you Greece – but they certainly do not apply to those who are doing the rating. For rating agencies, it’s still business as usual.

Finally, one could make a case about the agencies’ usefulness in rating enterprises, with some competition and more public control mind you. However, are they equipped to rate countries? Considering that financial issues cannot be isolated from their political, social and cultural contexts, how can agencies adequately rate countries? They simply do not have the expertise to do so. Cutting social services such as health care and education engenders structural consequences a lot more complex then lowering one’s deficit, which in turn affects economic capabilities in the long run. Of course, sometimes it has to be done, but rating agencies, which base their ratings on these types of measures, don’t know anything about these complex consequences and do not pretend to either.

In short, collectively we should stop giving any importance to what rating agencies say. They are in a conflict of interest, are ideologically biased, lack the expertise to rate countries and most of all, their actions hurt millions of people for the benefit of a few. Governments are forced to implement reforms to satisfy the market in the short run, even though they are doomed to fail in the long run. Argentina got out of its terrible crisis at the beginning of the century when they stopped trying to get ratings. Hopefully we can learn from history for once.

Masthead photo courtesy of Ken Lund (apparently it’s picture of a rating agency)

Argentina’s presidential elections and Occupy Wall Street

As the world is noticing the emergence of a popular movement that sparked in Spain last spring, Argentina is holding presidencial elections next week-end. What do these two things have to do with one another you might ask? Not much on the surface, but the almost inevitable reelection of Cristina Fernandez de Kirchener in Argentina on sunday proves that people are willing to experience and support other economical and
financial models, just as Wall Street occupiers are demanding.

To make a long story short, starting at the end of the 80s, Argentina experienced a period of hyper inflation, followed by a near textbook case of neoliberalist reforms. The welfare state was dismantled, most public enterprises were privatized (phone, water, transportation, etc.), financial and commercial markets were deregulated to attract foreign capital. It created a growth bubble in the 90s based on speculation and rising
unemployment, the model crashed in 2001. Basically, Argentinians experienced
what Americans could have experienced if the US did not have the capacity
borrowed limitless to bail out banks in 2008. They had to live by capitalist
rules while the US did not…The country went bankrupted, it could not pay its
bills. It meant 25% employment, millions of people losing their life savings
and a lot of people upset and manifesting in the streets. After almost two
years of political crisis, disillusioned Argentinians elected president a relatively
unkown politician from a small province named Nestor Kirchner. His widow is now
running for reelection, pools give her winning by a comfortable margin.

Kirchernismo basically did what FDR had to do in the 30s, go against orthodox economics and confront financial interests. Both Nestor and Cristina have negotiated hard to pay only a small portion of Argentina’s national debt and have mobilized
national financial resources to promote economic growth aiming at creating
jobs. In short, Argentina has had to live without the approbation of Moody’s or
Fitch, without access to international financial market to borrow. What most
economics would call a context of uncertainty for investments. If one listen to
orthodox economists that should have resulted in a disaster. But helped by a
devaluated pesos and rising prices of commodities (in particular soy beans),
the economy grew by 7 or 8 percent a year since 2003. The state used an important part of its revenues for social and economic programs, notably to stimulate job creating
sectors – which exporting natural resources is not-. Don’t get me wrong, Kirchner’s government has been far from perfect, what I am highlightening is the state interventionism that is associated with such economic growth.

Going back to the Occupy Wall Street, los indignados or les indignés movements, people involved in them have different preoccupations, but all of them are upset about the concentration of wealth and the injustices associated with it. What the argentinian example shows is that state intervention in the economy does not mean economic disaster, quite the contrary. I believe most people in the streets now and an important portion of the silent majority understand that reality. While it is true that protesters
do not propose clear and defined solutions, they imply a reconsideration of how
our economic and financial system works. Growth for the sake of growth is
futile. Economic growth is a mean to better the common good. To do so, state
intervention is necessary. As the argentinian model shows – but also most
industrial countries in the post-war period- is that it is possible to combine
economic growth and wealth redistribution. I would go further, saying that
wealth redistribution is necessary if one wants to maintain a healthy economic
growth.

As I wrote earlier, Argentina’s actual government is far from being perfect. However, it strongly relates to what protesters in Wall Street are asking for. Furthermore, Kirchner’s more than probable reelection demonstrates that when people experience a relatively
effective – while not always efficient- state interventionism, they tend to embrace it because they benefit from it. What is most impressive about the oncoming elections is that the biggest media outlets have been extremely critical of the actual government using right wings arguments (need for less state, less taxes, etc.), but guess who is second in the polls? A moderate socialist…

Masthead photo courtesy of David_Shakbone

Reflections after a trip back home

I just came back to Argentina, where I live, after a month and a half trip to Quebec, where I’m from. Every time I have to opportunity to go back home, enjoy friends and family, speak my language and feel my culture, all of this fills me with renew energy. Thus, on a personal level, it was a great trip. On the other hand, every visit up north makes me feel uneasy about Quebec and Canada cultural evolution. In Argentina, I pride myself in explaining how Canada and Quebec are different from the US, stretching our collective desire to build a lesser unequal society and protect our cultural distinctiveness. I now feel uneasy defending theses ideas and perceptions about my own country. Obviously, these are merely personal impressions, but I would like to share a few observations/feelings I got while visiting friends and family in Quebec.

First and most striking, politics have made a huge shift on the right. I am not only referring to Harper’s conservative, 19th century governing, but even more so to our collective incapacity to reject and denounce it. I will spare you my list of grievances against his government, let’s only mention his great symbolic gesture of reintroducing the “royal” appellation in the army and Canadian Embassies’ obligation to have a portrait of the Queen. Maybe we should also replace our dollar with the pound and sing God Save the Queen before hockey games… Talking with friends, I was shocked to see how right wing’s arguments/myths have now been integrated and interiorized as to become something banal. A few examples of things I heard/read as if they were simple truths we ought to accept: we pay too many taxes, we are broke, collective transportation is too expensive, we have to create more wealth if one day we want to distribute it (I’m guessing 2075…). The same shift is observable in the Media. Both the Journal de Montreal and Journal de Quebec have always been populist newspapers, however, together with the other main media controlled by Quebecor, TVA (the most watched television network), they now defend a clearly right wing agenda. All of this gave me the impression that left wing individuals do not even define themselves as such and seem to try to temper right wing politics instead of confronting it. Of course, this shift might seem dramatic to me, while other applause it. However, I think our very moderate social-democrat political culture has played an important role in defining both Quebec and Canadian identities, its actual disintegration might have great political and cultural impacts.

The other thing that has upset me while in Quebec concerns the quality of the French language. My parents’ generation has fought to defend and preserve it. Politically, by implementing controversial laws such as Bill 101, but also in their day to day lives. For example, they have “franciser” English words and resist the temptation to incorporate more and more words from the language spoken by 300 millions in North America. Every time I visit, this collective will seems to weaken. I got the impression that we are back to my grand-parents’ time when English words were used to qualify new things or as is happening in France, anything that is cool. For example, since I left “week-end” has replaced “fin de semaine” or “fucking” has appeared in French sentences to design something extreme. The biggest symbolic and linguistic aberration for me resides in the movement created to bring back an NHL team to Quebec City. They call themselves “Nordiques Nation”, nation being pronounced in English… A French name should be something like “la nation Nordiques”. This is breathtaking to me since the Nordiques used to take advantage of all of Quebec nationalist heritage to sell hockey: blue colors, fleur de lys etc. Basically, I feel that Quebec culture shows signs of falling apart, not because of foreign oppression, as it was the case under British rule, but for our incapacity to preserve our own language and culture. Injustices can always be fought and denounced, but what can you do against apathy and insouciance?

One might think I am being overreacting here. It might be the case that these impressions of fast Americanization of my culture say more about my own transformation living abroad or about my idealization of my collective “home”. Anyhow, just as it is depressing to observe a growing cultural uniformity all over the world, it makes me uneasy to see my own little culture getting slowly swept away from within.

 

I´ve read that book!

A few years ago, I taught history in a Cegep (for those not familiar with the concept, Cegeps are Québec educational institutions that regroup technical formations with pre-university ones, more or less the equivalent of 12th grade and first year of university put together). Even though I met very interesting and dynamic students, I perceived a few major flaws in their formation and interests that would make their university studies and their capacity to be informed citizens compromised, to say the least. One of them was their inability to read effectively and their simple lack of interest to do so. Obviously, many could and did read, however they did not represent a majority of my students. In my own modest opinion, it helps explain that their writing and critical thinking abilities were “limited”. I am not referring to writing complex dissertations about Nietzsche’s conception of God here. More in the lines of backing an opinion with clear arguments, making full sentences or conjugate properly. Many teachers tend to blame laziness and partying to explain poor student performances. Of course, that was common too, however many students were indeed trying hard to write papers or exams but could not do it. They did not possess basic abilities necessary to write a coherent text. Reading might not be the only they lacked, but it would definitely have helped. Briefly put, I am deeply convinced reading is an essential part of academic formation, but more than that, it represents a crucial mean to open our mind and broaden our culture.

That brings me to a great citizen project that was created a few years ago in Argentina and that spread to other Hispanic countries (Spain, Venezuela, Dominican Republic, Uruguay and others). Yo leí este libro (I have read that book) leaves books in public spaces – bus stops, parks, etc.- so random people can pick it up and read it. Each book contains directions asking to read the book o leave it there so someone else can read it. In the case a stranger wants to read it, he or she is asked to sign it on the last page and leave it again in a public space. Yo leí este libro intent is to create a solidarity chain of books. This way they hope to stimulate curiosity toward reading, give an opportunity to a person that normally does not read and make people feel part of something bigger, knowing that others want him or her to read.

The fact this initiative emerged in Argentina is not accidental. Argentineans are great readers, at least some sectors of the population. Writers are well known and presented as public figures. Buenos Aires is filled with book stores, often opened until late at night. I am not idealizing Argentina’s reading culture, since my teaching experience here did not show a much better situation than what I saw in Quebec a few years ago. However, I appreciate the idea that many Argentineans perceive reading as a social cause and want to do something about it. I never felt this urgency to preserve and promote reading when I was living in Canada, even working in education…

As for the project Yo leí este libro, I doubt it can ever have a notable impact. After all we are talking about a small project within funding, competing with playstations, internet, cable TV and the rest. Nonetheless, I am impressed with the effort…