Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Malayali adventures in the land of Marquez and Maradona

"Latin America is my favorite destination for travel", says Dr Natarajan Pillai, the ENT surgeon from Kochi, who has made six trips to the region. He 'feels at home' there and describes his experience as 'adventures'. I saw  a lustrous Latino shine in his eyes and an enigmatic Ipanema smile whenever the word Latin America came up during my encounter with him in his Kochi home in January this year. He is yet another proof of my saying, " Indian visitors to Latin America come back happier and younger.."

Dr Pillai has been to Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Paraguay, Uruguay, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Mexico, Costa Rica and Nicaragua. He has spent a total of around 130 days in the region. He has plans to visit the remaining eight Latin Americans in the future, to match my record..!

He has written three books in Malayalam on his Latin American journeys: 

1. Dakshinaayana Kaalam ( Southward Bound ') - about his trip to Sao Paulo and Santos in Brazil. Published in December 2010.

2 Samkrama sooryante Nizhal (The shadow of Transiting Sun), March 2012. It covers Rio and Foz de Iguazu in Brazil besides Ciudad del Este and a Guarani village in Paraguay

3.Ven Samkholikalude Pranaya Theeram ( echoes from the white conch in the shore of love) -  about his journey through Chile and his 'love affair with poems of Pablo Neruda and Hispanic literature'. Published in July 2014, this book got him the ' KV Surendranath ' Award of C.Achutha Menon Foundation for the Best Travelogue published in Malayalam in the last five years.

He has written another book  'Mekkongile Malsyam' ( Mekong Fish)- March 2008, on his experience in Laos. He has a passion for travel and has visited 57 countries. He takes off every six months or  year since 1984 on travel to different destinations in India and and the world. Once he spent nine months traveling in northern India, staying in temples, ashrams and monasteries. Dr Pillai's next book, 'Shadow of Winter Solstice', about his Antarctica trip is coming out soon  in English. He writes a regular column for Mathrubhumi Yathra Travel Magazine. The June 2016 issue carries his article on La Paz , the Capital of Bolivia.

I had requested Ambassador Sajeev Babu ( speaks Malayalam and is posted in Guatemala at present) to review the three books on Latin America. Here is what he wrote: 
"There are three aspects in Dr. Natrajan’s travel writing. First, there is well researched background information; from history, geography and anthropology to contemporary economics, politics, education, arts, sports, cuisine and culture of the places.  Second, there are his observations and comments on what he witnesses during the journey. The reader is taken as his fellow traveller, accompanying him to the cities, monuments and museums; enjoying art,music and sports, tasting the typical food and drinks and living the experience. Here too, details do not escape the eyes of Dr. Natarajan; be it the presentation of the Carnival in Rio or just the preparation of a local drink in a bar. Third, he gives us yet another dimension of the adventure through his informative conversations with people whom he meets. They include Guaresi of Sao Paulo and Alfonos in Chile with whom the author gets to spend considerable time. Then there are others with whom he enjoys brief interactions, like Amelio, the hotel boy in Sao Paulo, Eloy the moto taxi driver and Abdullah Khuri, the Lebanese settler in Ciudad del Este, Pauline from Belgium in Paraguay and Matias and Leonor in Santiago. The simplicity he adopts in his travel also reflects in his narration. His passages through history and description of art and interpretation of literature are more like story telling. He has used easy-to-read language for the ordinary Malayalees to understand and appreciate. He has sprinkled humor here and there to make the reading more interesting such his description of the CafĂ© de las Piernas ( coffee with legs !!) in Chile. He has made an effort to expose the reader to the Spanish and Portuguese languages by including some words and sentences in them". 
Dr. Pillai is a backpacker, uses public transport and stays in budget hotels when he is not able to find local people to stay with. This approach has given him opportunities to get a real feel of the daily life of the common people and interact with them.  He says, "People are the greatest sights and all else is secondary"He does not plan and prepare everything in advance. Sometimes he lets his legs wander without a pre-planned programme. 

Latin America, in many ways, is close to Malayalee heart. Malayalees, along with Bengalis are the most knowledgeable and interested in Latin America especially in literature, Leftist politics and football. 

Latin American authors are familiar to Keralite readers thanks to prolific translations. Gabriel Garcia Marquez is a household name and his books have been in the best-seller lists in the state and had fifteen editions. When Gabo was diagnosed with cancer, about 200 people in Kozhikode had held a prayer meeting.  When Marquez died,  the Keralite media paid homage saying," Marquez leaves an indelible mark in Malayalee hearts". Some even claim that "Magical Realism was invented by O V Vijayan in ‘Khasakkinte Itihasam’, much before Garcia Marquez had published a word". Khasak in Vijyan's novel is similar to the mythical place Maconde in Marquez's works. Dr Pillai had started reading Latino literature since his college days.

Posters of Fidel Castro, Che Guavara and Chavez are the sacred trinities adorning the Marxist party conferences even now in the interior of Kerala. The adoration is so much that the Trivandrum audience in my lecture last year were not amused when I described the destruction of Venezuela by Chavistas. Dr Pillai was himself a leftist in his youth.

The Maradona-Pele rivalry plays out and flags of Brazil and Argentina go up in rooftops across Kerala during World Cups. Maradona had visited Kerala in 2012 at the invitation of Bobby Chemmanur Group of Kannur which has made him as their brand ambassador. The Chemmanur Jewellery released a gold coin with Maradona’s picture on one side and his signature on the other.The suite no. 399 of Hotel Blue Nile in Kannur, where Mardaona had stayed, has become so famous that the management has converted it into a museum.  

There is a spice connection too. The Keralite cardamom growers make long distance calls to Ambassador Babu asking him to report on the Guatemalan production which determines the global prices. Guatemala has become the largest exporter of cardamom in the world, overtaking India in the last three decades. The variety grown in Guatemala was originally taken from the Malabar coast.

Despite the political, literary and sporting inspirations, Malayalees have not ventured out to the region except for about a hundred catholic priests who connect the Latin Americans to Jesus in fluent Portuguese and Spanish across the region. There are a few professionals married to Latinas and settled there. The most prominent is Mathew Kodath, who has become a leading producer of Honduran films. He has married a Honduran and settled there. I liked his film "Amor y frijoles"( love and beans).
Dr Pillai's books, the first-ever comprehensive travelogues on contemporary Latin America in Malayalam language, have become popular.  Latin America can expect more Mallu travelers to come greeting 'Hola' and 'Ola'.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

The Japanese Lover

The latest novel of  Isabel Allende, "the Japanese lover" is a different kind of romantic love story. It is not her usual recipe of Latino love and magical realism. She has brought together a free-spirited Californian girl with a disciplined and traditional Japanese man. 

Alma Belasco, from a rich San Francisco family, falls in love with Ichimei Fakuda, son of the Japanese gardener working in the mansion of her grand father. But it was a wrong time. It was after the Japanese declaration of war against the US during the Second World War. The Americans round up the Japanese in the country including the family of Ichimei and detain them in internment camps. Having been separated without any communication, the two get on with their own separate lives. After the release from the camp, Ichimei gets married to a woman from Japan. Alma also gets married and ends up in the old-age home Lark House as a grand mother. 

There is the second love story of Irina, the employee in Lark House, with Seth the grand son of Alma. Irina takes to the challenging old age home job enthusiastically to escape from her traumatic past of an abused victim. To supplement her modest salary, she does part time work of washing and grooming dogs and becomes the secretary to Alma. Irina and Seth are intrigued by the weekly delivery of flowers and letters received by Alma at the old-age home and her frequent disappearances. They investigate and discover the secret romantic story of Alma. 

Allende has given a fascinating account of life in retirement homes and the way old people deal with memories, loneliness, pain and diseases while waiting for death to come. The Lark House residents have lots of stories and affairs. There is Jacques Devine, the in-house Casanova who continues his old habit of flirtation and enjoys being the heartthrob for the old ladies. He had fallen in love sixty seven times. During his earlier days as businessman in Venezuela and Puerto Rico, he had learnt the Latino art of 'appreciating women from the rear'. He falls in platonic love with the young Irina too and bequeathes his property to her.

Allende has contrasted the colorful Californian culture with the sober and sensitive Japanese value system. She has given a glimpse of Japanese culture and character. The book reminded me of the Brazilians of Japanese origin ( there are about a million of them living mostly in Sao Paulo state) who dance samba crazily and at the same time bow respectfully before the elders. It is a remarkable blend of Brazilian ecstatic exuberance and Japanese subdued sobriety.The Japanese golf club in Arauja, Sao Paulo reverberates with raunchy jokes and loud laughter, unimaginable in any club in Japan. 

After having read many of Allende's novels, I enjoyed reading this one too, even when my favorite Latino flavor was missing. It was a different dish.. not a spicy Bahian Moqueca but a tasty Californian sushi roll.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

The Great Novel of Central America

" Divine Punishment is on the way". This was the message received in my mobile phone the other day. I did not open it, thinking that it could be a spam from one of the evangelical preachers. Later in the evening, there was another message saying that Divine Punishment has already been delivered at my residence. Alarmed, I opened it quickly to find  that Divine Punishment was actually the name of the book I had ordered from Amazon, two weeks earlier. 

It was Carlos Fuentes, the Mexican writer who had described the book ' Divine Punishment' written by Sergio Ramirez as the great novel of Central America. Having read many books of Carlos Fuentes and developed an admiration for him, I ordered 'Divine Punishment' immediately.  The novel is set in Leon, the second largest city of Nicaragua but covers Guatemala and Costa Rica too, giving a feel of Central America to the readers.  The protagonist Oliverio Castaneda is a Guatemalan living in Nicaragua. Another character in the novel Dona Flora, wife of the Nicaraguan Don Contreras is from Costa Rica. The ladies of Leon, jealous of Flora's sophistication and progressive and liberal lifestyle, calls he disparagingly as 'that Costa Rican woman'. Even now, Costa Rica is the envy of the other Central Americans for its political maturity, economic prosperity and social stability.

Having known about Ramirez as a Sandinista leader, I expected the book to be about revolution, Marxism, Contra War and other such issues of Nicaragua and Central America. Ramirez, who was part of the Sandinista Revolution, later got disenchanted and turned into an opponent of Daniel Ortega. He had written Divine Punishment in the period 1985-87, when he was Vice President under President Ortega and when the government was in the middle of a deadly war with the Contras supported by US . With this background, Ramirez is in the best position to write about the story of the country. But Ramirez had consciously decided against writing on a contemporary theme, with this candid explanation,' Since I myself was part of the revolution, I would have run the risk of taking sides and turning the narrative into a discourse tainted by ideological convictions and political propaganda. From a position of power, it is impossible to place oneself above events, as a novelist should always do"

 A newly-married Guatemalan Oliverio Castenada arrives with his wife at Leon for legal studies and takes up residence in a hotel. He is soon invited to shift to the residence of  Don Contreras, a businessman living opposite to the hotel. The two daughters of Contreras as well as his wife ( more beautiful than the two daughters put together) fall in love with Castenada, who also gets involved in the business of Contreras. The sudden and untimely death of Castenada's wife is followed soon by the death of the elder daughter of Contreras  and the businessman himself. While the doctors have certified these deaths as due to backwater fever, there is suspicion that Castenada is the one who murdered all the three by poisoning. The rumour starts at the 'accursed' table in a bar where a group of friends meet regularly to exchange gossip. The group includes a doctor, who starts the rumor about poisoning and a journalist who writes about it as well as about the affairs of the Contreras ladies with the accused. The scandal shocks the society and the church of Leon. Much of the story is in the form of newspaper stories, courtroom trials and letters exchanged between the characters. The innocent and pure romance of the daughters of Contreras  is juxtaposed with the cruel manipulation of their emotions by Castaneda for his criminal motives. The story goes like an Agatha Christie detective novel with mystery and suspense till the very end, but with an authentic Central American feel.  Once I started, I could not stop till I finished the 500 plus pages book. 

The novel is based on a real life story of murders which took place in the 1930s in Nicaragua during the time of the Somoza, the military strongman who was controlling the government, before becoming a full fledged dictator. Ramirez had done thorough research of the case before fictionalizing what had happened and letting his imagination run. 

The author gives an insight into the political and social situation of Nicaragua and Central America in the first part of the last century. The US, which had invaded and occupied Nicaragua from 1912 to 1933 had just left, paving the way for the military dictatorship of Somoza. The National Guards trained by the US had started calling the shots, running roughshod over the judiciary and democratic institutions. Ramirez has used many colors and shades to paint the complex personality of the protagonist Castaneda who is a Casanova-like charmer who seduces women with a vast repertoire of jokes, wit and playfulness. At the same time, he is a sociopath who executes his criminal intentions with evil machinations, cruel pranks and ruthless manipulations. The readers are amazed by the ingenious way in which Castaneda plans the poisoning and influences the doctors as well as family and friends making them believe that the deaths were caused by blackwater fever. Ramirez has given vivid, colorful and humorous descriptions of the characters of journalists, doctors, businessmen, domestic servants, clergy and police. The way Ramirez portrays the people in his book reminds me of such memorable and lively characters I found in the novels of the Brazilian writer Jorge Amado. 

The story is enriched by the poetic characters of Judge Fiallos and court clerk Vanegas. The judge is a narrator of homely tales with love for the homeland of scorched Pacific plains and of volcanos whose ancient haughty peaks interrupt the landscape, "raw with age and solemn with myth" as Ruben Dario says. Dario is the famous Nicaraguan writer, born in Leon. Salman Rushdie, in his book ¨The jaguar smile", quotes a saying that there are poets and writers in every street of Nicaragua and that everybody is considered to be a poet until proved to the contrary. Daniel Ortega, the President is a poet and his wife Rosario Murillo is also a writer.  More on this in my blogpost 

Ramirez is the second Central American writer, I have read after Miguel Angel Asturias of Guatemala who won Nobel prize for his book " The President". I am looking forward to read Ramirez's book " Adios Muchachos: a memoir the Sandinista revolution" which has already arrived in my iPad Kindle.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Argentina's Anti-incumbency verdict

The election of Mauricio Macri  as the President of Argentina in the elections held on Sunday, is an anti-incumbency verdict.  The Argentine economic situation had been steadily getting worse in the last five years with high inflation, shortage of foreign exchange, isolation from the global capital markets and low growth. President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner had run out of ideas  and had been in denial mode. Her government had resorted to blatant cooking up of statistics showing single digit inflation while it had been over 20% annually in the last five years. Her antagonism to private sector business, unpredictable policies and the arbitrary restrictions on imports and foreign exchange had hurt the business and the middle class. The poor people, who form a solid vote bank of the Peronist party, were hit even harder by inflation and unemployment. Some of the Peronist voters had, therefore, switched loyalty and decided to give a chance to Macri's promise for change . 

Macri's market-friendly approach should reboot the economy and revive the industry and agricultural sectors which had remained paralyzed under the command and control approach of the outgoing regime. Macri's business family background and  his track record of competent administration during his two term Mayorship of Buenos Aires should restore investors' confidence.

Wall Street will hail Macri as the latest pro-market poster boy of  Latin America. The anti-neo liberalism brigade should, however, note that Macri will not be a worse sinner than the Peronist President Menem who got the country into the 2002 crisis with his neoliberalistic policies including unsustainable exchange rate regime and wholesale privatisations in a hurry.

Macri should be able to a turn around the economy soon, just as President Nestor Kirchner did so successfully in 2003. In fact, Macri's challenge is much smaller in comparison to what Nestor faced  after the historic crisis and collapse of the economy in 2002.  Nestor should be given full credit for rescuing the Argentine economy quickly with his unorthodox and bold policies and handing over to his wife in 2007 a reasonably sound economy with robust growth. It is a pity that she mismanaged it, taking it back almost to the brink of another crisis.

Argentina does not have any serious unsolvable fundamental problems. It is blessed with large area of fertile land, abundant water, mineral riches, hydrocarbon reserves and an educated homogeneous population of just forty two million. It is free from racial, religious and ethnic conflicts.  The current economic problems are basically short term in nature, caused by the fall in demand and prices of its commodity exports, besides incompetent management.  

The foreign policy of the country will undergo a major change under Macri. He will not be friendly to the leftist governments in the region which enjoyed close rapport with President Cristina. He will seek suspension of Venezuela from Mercosur on the ground that it does not meet the democracy clauses of the group's charter. He will extend proactive support to the Venezuelan opposition. Macri cannot afford to displease President Dilma Rouseff too much since Brazil is the largest trading partner with lot of mutual investment and stake. He will, however, shake up Mercosur which is stuck with introvert and outdated protectionist mindset. Macri promises to move closer to the countries of Pacific Alliance (Chile, Colombia, Peru and Mexico) which is perceived as a rival to the Brazil-lead Mercosur. Macri's approach to China will be more calibrated unlike President Cristina who wooed China desperately for financial help. 

Macri will open up to US with which the Kirchners had uneasy relations. The Americans had kept Argentina at arms length after Nestor Kirchner joined hands with Chavez during the 2005 Summit of the Americas and killed the American proposal to establish a hemispheric Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA).  President Cristina craved for a White House invitation to visit  but the Americans refused.  

Although President Cristina flaunted Argentina's G-20 membership, the country was not taken seriously  due to the huge gap between her radical rhetoric and the reality on the ground. But under Macri, the country will get a higher profile in the global stage, as it did under President Menem. 

Macri will certainly continue Cristina government's policy of friendly ties and cooperation with India. Conscious of the importance of India as a major market for Argentine exports and as an emerging global power, Macri had visited India in 2010 to get a feel of the country. He spoke warmly about India when he inaugurated the TCS global delivery centre in Buenos Aires in 2009. 

Macri is on the left side of Ramadorai

The Indian exporters and companies with investment in Argentina are excited about the opening up of the market by Macri. Argentina, which used to be India's third largest trading partner, is now relegated to the sixth rank. India's exports to Argentina is just about half of the exports to Peru, although Argentina's GDP is double that of Peru.

The Argentine verdict is inspiration to the centre-right opposition parties hoping to replace in the next elections the leftist governments in Brazil and Venezuela which are also mired in severe political and economic difficulties. Some western commentators have hastened to pronounce the end of the Left in the region. This is wishful thinking and wrong conclusion. Centre- right governments have also been voted out of power in recent years in Chile and Nicaragua where the Left is back after sitting out in the opposition for some time.The same could happen in Argentina too, if Macri does not deliver. He should remember that the previous centre-right government of Fernando de la Rua was overthrown by mass protests in December 2001 (just two years after coming to power) when it was unable to handle the economic crisis. It is performance which matters more than ideology in the Latin America of today. 

The version published by The Wire on 24 November

Monday, October 26, 2015

Guatemala shows the way to fight corruption

The people of Guatemala chose Jimmy Morales as their next President in the elections held on 25 October. They gave Morales, a former TV comedian, an overwhelming 67.44% of the votes. His opponent Sandra Torres got just 32.56%. 
The election result should be seen as a victory for the people of Guatemala in their struggle against corruption and impunity. The Guatemalans have made their voice loud and clear by choosing a political outsider and decisively rejecting the traditional political oligarchy. In fact,  this is the second victory. The people had achieved their first one in September when President Otto Perez was forced to resign and put in jail facing a trial for his involvement in the La Linea (The Line) corruption scandal. His vice president and some senior officials were imprisoned before him. The courageous and continued protests of the people for over six months from April lead to this unprecedented resignation and jailing of a sitting president.
Morales comes from a poor family unlike the previous presidents of the country who were from the oligarchy or military. Until April, when the corruption scandal surfaced, Morales had single digit ratings with no hope of win. He was trailing way behind the candidates of traditional political establishment.  The luck of Morales changed dramatically after the direct implication of President Otto Perez Molina and his vice-president. 
Although he became famous as a comedian, Morales holds University degrees in business administration as well as theology. He joined politics only in 2013 and became the secretary general of National Convergence Front, a small centre-right party. 
Sandra Torres has conceded defeat gracefully wishing the winner success in his mandate. She did not blame the loss on electoral frauds nor did she call for recount, as has happened in some countries. This is a good sign of political realism and maturity in the young democracy of Guatemala, which had suffered military dictatorship and a terrible civil war which ended in 1996.
During the 2008-11 Presidential term of her husband Alvaro Colom, she had cultivated the poor by distributing doles to them like the Argentine Evita. But the goodwill generated by this and her leftist ideology got overtaken by the disgust of the people with the corruption scandal. 

Morales will  formally assume the charge on 14 January. In his victory speech, Morales attached top priority, understandably, to combat corruption. He also needs to tackle the rampant  gang violence which has given a bad name to the country. Besides these immediate concerns, he would have to address the long term issues of poverty, health care and education especially among the native Indians who form over fifty percent of the population. He has to find new ways to raise funds for social expenditure since Guatemala has one of the lowest tax rates and revenue collection. His job is going to be challenging since his party has just 11 members in the 158 member Congress. He has not held any electoral office before and lacks administrative experience. In his campaign speeches, he had given out eccentric suggestions that the teachers should be tagged with GPS devices to monitor their attendance in schools and that every child should get a smart phone. 
What is important is that the protests of the people, the resignation of the President, imprisonment of the President and Vice president, the interim transfer of power and now the election of a political outsider have all taken place peacefully. There was no firing on protestors nor any threat of a military coup. This is especially remarkable in view of the fact that Guatemala is a country with one of the highest rates of crimes and murders.
The success of the Guatemalan people has now become a source of inspiration for other Latin Americans fighting against corruption and impunity. It has raised the hope, confidence and optimism of Latin America which is marching towards a better future.

Saturday, October 03, 2015

cafe, cardamom and contrasts in Guatemala

The aroma of cafe and cardamom in the air has been filling my lungs, raising the heart beat and reigniting my passion for Latin America since my arrival in Guatemala early this week. I find the political discussions in the cafes hotter than coffee and spicier than cardamom.  The topic is the contrast between the two candidates for the second round of presidential election to be held on 25 October;  Jimmy Morales  a TV comedian and a political outsider vs Sandra Torres, a former First Lady and political insider. 

Jimmy Morales, who had played the role of a presidential candidate in one of his comedy shows, threw his hat in the ring, in the same way as every Tom, Dick and Trump join the Presidential race in US. He had no chance since the well-known political candidates from the traditional parties and oligarchies were leading in the opinion polls. His luck changed when the politicians got a bad name after the customs scandal which lead to the jailing of the President of the country just before the election. He got the maximum votes in the first round of the elections on 6 September. 
The Guatemalans can't stop laughing, recalling the old spicy jokes of Jimmy Morales.  At the same time, some don't know whether to laugh or cry when Morales seriously repeats his campaign slogan 'ni corrupto ni ladron" (not corrupt nor a thief). Some Guatemalans believe when Morales says, ' for twenty years I have made you laugh. Now I promise I won't let you cry'.

Sandra Torres, on the other hand, had acted out a real life political comedy in the 2011 elections. The Guatemalan constitution prohibits the immediate family members of the President of the country from contesting in the elections to prevent dynastic succession . But Sandra, the wife of the former President Alvaro Colom (2008-11) wanted to succeed her husband and divorced him to circumvent the constitution. She said, ' I am divorcing my husband but I am getting married to the people. I am the only woman to get divorce for her country'. The Guatemalan people, used to  manipulative politicians, thought that she might get her way, with the help of friendly judges. But the supreme court, in a strong show of  independence, disqualified her at that time. Now, of course, she is entitled to contest. 

Guatemala is one of the countries notorious for impunity. Political leaders and military officials have generally got away with corruption and human rights violations. So when the customs scandal involving  the President surfaced in April, many thought that the corrupt would go unpunished this time too. But the investigating agency showed a remarkable courage and made public proof of bribes shared by corrupt officials. The Congress acted swiftly by removing the Presidential immunity forcing him to resign. He was arrested and put in jail immediately.  This was unprecedented and historic. More on this in http://latinamericanaffairs.blogspot.com/2015/09/guatemalan-president-goes-to-jail.html#links
What is even more interesting is that the people have used peaceful protests to bring down the government in Guatemala, a country known for violence and has one of the highest murder rates in the world. The protestors had continued the agitation relentlessly and fearlessly for six months from April to September. When President Perez's supporters tried to prevent the entry of congressmen to vote in the resolution on presidential immunity, the agitators formed a human wall to let the entry of deputies into the Congress building. The success of the courageous Guatemalan people in bringing down a sitting President on corruption charges has made them as heroes for people in other Latin American countries who have been protesting against corrupt governments.
The investigation agencies and the agitating public got crucial support from the courts, the business community and the members of the Congress (including those belonging to President Perez's party) who passed a unanimous resolution withdrawing Presidential immunity. Such collective, united and unprecedented action against a powerful president is a lesson to others in power in the region.
While the contrasts mentioned above are recent, here is a permanent and historic one. Native Indians constitute around sixty percent of the population. But they have been systematically discriminated and kept outside political and economic power since the Spanish colonial days. Around eighty percent of them are poor. Over one hundred thousand Indians were killed and many were tortured and made to disappear during the bloody civil war from 1960 to 1996. The Guatemalan military and right wing death squads were responsible. But the criminal perpetrators have got away. The Indians are yet to get justice, democratic inclusion and opportunities for development. They have been inspired by Evo Morales, a native Indian President of Bolivia since 2006 and his success in emancipating and empowering the Indians. But Guatemala has not got so far any Indian leader of the calibre of Morales. Rigoberta Menchu, the Guatemalan Indian woman activist for the rights of Indians and who won Nobel Prize in 1992, contested the elections in 2007 and 2011 but with poor and discouraging results.
Guatemala has the biggest economy in Central America but the contrast between the rich and poor are glaring. Two percent of the population control over 75% of the cultivable land. The government collects one of the lowest taxes in the world and spends the least on poverty-alleviation, health care and education. However, since 2008 the government has initiated a conditional cash transfer programme called as " mi familia progresa' (my family progress) to provide financial handout to the poor. Sandra Torres ran this programme and used it to create a constituency of the poor, as was done by Evita of Argentina.
The small Guatemala has beaten the big India to become the largest producer and exporter of Cardamom. In 2014-15 Guatemala produced 30,000 tons against India's 20,000 tons. The Indian cardamom producers complain that they are being hurt by illegal import of low cost Guatemalan cardamom sometimes.  While India has been a cardamom exporter for several hundred years, Guatemala started production after the first world war when a German coffee planter brought the Indian seeds to Guatemala. The Guatemalans export almost all their cardamom production since the local consumption is insignificant, unlike India which consumes a major part of the production.
Here is something India, the land of many political dynasties, could learn from the young Guatemalan democracy.  Article 186 of the Guatemalan constitution prohibits the President's relatives ' within four degrees of consanguinity and second degree in-laws' from contesting for Presidential post. The Indian democracy would certainly become more inclusive and better if the constitution is amended to include this article.

Tuesday, September 08, 2015

Guatemalan President goes to jail

Last week, Guatemala witnessed high drama and historic change. In three days, the Perez, the President became a prisoner on corruption charges. On 1 September, the Congress passed a unanimous resolution (all the 132 deputies present in the chamber including the members of the Patriotic Party of the President) to remove the immunity from prosecution of President Otto Perez Molina. On 2 September, the Attorney General requested for an arrest warrant after which Perez  submitted his resignation at midnight. On 3 September, a judge issued an order for arrest following which Perez was taken to a court for preliminary hearing and then put in a jail on the same day. 
The Guatemalans have been protesting ever since the corruption scam called as La Linea (the line) surfaced in April in which several millions of dollars have been taken as bribes by officials who let businessmen import without customs duty. The chief of Customs and some officials were charged and detained. In May, the Vice President resigned after her name was linked to the scam. She is in jail facing trial. On 21 August, the investigators revealed the involvement of President Perez himself. Thereafter, the protests intensified with tens of thousands of youth, businessmen and indigenous people calling for the impeachment of President Perez. It was not driven by any political party. It was pure civil society in action. The organizers had used social media such as facebook extensively. The protestors were careful and did not indulge in any violence and in fact some of them wore masks in the beginning, fearing retaliation from the regime. Guatemala has a terrible human rights record. The country had gone through a deadly civil war for 36 years till 1996 in which several hundred thousands of people were killed. The indigenous people who form the majority of the population and are the poorest, bore the brunt of the military crackdown. Even now, Guatemala has one of the highest murder rates in the world.

The Guatemalans could not believe that they have brought down a powerful President by peaceful protests  in a country known for violence. They consider it as a revolution and turning point in their history. Perez was not some weak or ordinary politician. He was a General in the army and was one of the strong men of the feared military regime before the restoration of democracy. More importantly, he was also the head of the military intelligence unit. Perez was said to have been behind killings of political opponents and innocent people, although he was never formally charged.

The corruption charge against Perez is not that big by Latin American or even Indian standards. He is alleged to have received 800,000 dollars as bribe. Perez himself argued that he would not have taken the risk for such a paltry amount. He mentioned that he was offered ten times more money by 'El Chapo' Guzman, the Mexican drug mafia don when arrested by the military unit lead by Perez in Guatemala some years back.
Credit for the unprecedented and courageous investigation against the high and mighty should go to the proactive pursuit of the case by CICIG, the United Nations International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala established in 2007. The name of the Commission reveals it all. It was created to add strength to the local agencies considered weak and corrupt. Perez had reluctantly extended the tenure of the UN Commission which is a headed by a Colombian. With their support, the Guatemalan investigators had collected evidence from tapping of thousands of  phone conversations and emails exchanged between businessmen and officials spread over a year. 
Three days after jailing the President, Guatemala went ahead with the elections on 6 September as previously scheduled to elect a new President and Congress. The voters have punished the traditional politicians by voting for Jimmy Morales, a political outsider, who has emerged as the front runner with 24% votes. Morales, who is a popular TV comedy actor has told the voters" For the last twenty years I have made you laugh. If I become president, I promise I won't  make you cry". The centre-right candidate Manuel Baldizon, who was leading in the opinion polls before the scam, is tied for second position with the Leftist candidate Sandra Torres. A second round of elections will be held on 25 October between Morales and the candidate who came( this will be confirmed later this week) in second position. Until the new elected President assumes office on 14 January, the vice president Alejandro Maldonado has been sworn in as the interim President. 
The Guatemalan political leaders and officials who had taken for granted their impunity in the past have now been given an unequivocal notice. The Guatemalan people have tasted power, lost their fear and gained courage and confidence as democratic stake holders. 
It is important to note that President Perez did not use force or other means to stop the investigation or the protests. Nor did he attempt any coup. Perez himself had told the media that he could have derailed the investigations or changed the prosecutor but he did not. He had declared that he would let himself be subject to the law while claiming that he did not receive any bribe. To be fair to him, Perez was not bad as President and he did not show any authoritarian attitude. The army has remained neutral and did not try to rescue their ex-colleague in trouble. The courage of the Attorney General and the investigators in going after the very top of the government, has strengthened their offices. This is good news for the stability and institutional strength of the young democracy of the country.

The victory of the peaceful anti-corruption movement of the Guatemalans against all odds, is an inspiration for those protesting against corruption in Latin America and other parts of the world.

Guatemala is the largest market in Central America with a population of 15.8 million and GDP of 58.7 billion US Dollars. The macroeconomic fundamentals of the country are fairly strong with inflation under 3%, external debt at 33% of GDP and forex reserves at 7.6 billion dollars. The average annual GDP growth in the last four years is 4%. It was 4.2% in 2014 and is projected to be 4% in 2015. 
Guatemala matters to Indian business for two reasons. It has emerged as a significant market in Central America for India's exports which have been increasing steadily over the years and has almost tripled from 87 million dollars in 2009-10 to 229 million in 2014-15. Secondly, the Indian cardamom exporters keep an eye on Guatemala which plays a critical role in international prices as the largest producer and exporter of cardamom, having overtaken India in the last few decades. 
The Ministry of External Affairs is planning a Central American business summit in Guatemala city in early 2016 during the next India- SICA (Central American Integration System- the regional group of seven Central American countries) political dialogue. 

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Remembering Simon Bolivar

Simon Bolivar's birthday on 24 July was commemorated by the new proactive Venezuelan Ambassador Augusto Montiel who organized a gathering to discuss the legacy of El Libertador (the Liberator). 

Bolivar is not just a Liberator of Venezuela. He has a special place in the history of Latin America as the hero of independence of not one country but five;  Venezuela, Colombia, Peru, Ecuador and Bolivia. In fact, Bolivia was named after him which is unique in the history of the world. He went even beyond the five countries and had a vision for Latin America as a whole. He was the first true Latin American dreamer, thinker and statesman who laid the foundation for regional unity. It is this legacy which endures to inspire Latin America even now.

Bolivar was an inspiring leader of many dimensions. He was a an audacious and exceptional military strategist who lead successful campaigns against the Spanish colonial forces. He was a revolutionary and a political thinker. Although he came from a wealthy oligarchic family, he became a reformer championing equality and abolition of slavery. He called on the governments to provide education as the fundamental duty.

Bolivar was a colorful Latino personality and had as many conquests in the camp of the opposite sex as in the battlefields. But the macho mujeriego, was himself conquered by La Libertadora del Libertador (lady liberator of the liberator) Manuelita Saenz. Her story is portrayed poignantly in a  Venezuelan film with the same title, released in 2000.

Critics point to the inconsistencies and contradictions of his personality and especially his dictatorial inclinations. While there is truth in these, they should be seen in the larger perspective in the context of the time of political instability and challenges faced by the newly liberated countries without adequate preparation to rule by themselves. 

It was Bolivar who made the first official call for Latin American integration in 1824. As president of Gran Colombia, he invited the other countries in the region to send diplomatic representatives to the proposed Congress of Panama in 1826. In this conference, a Treaty of Union, League and Perpetual Confederation was signed on 15 July by the Andean and Central American states as well as Mexico. The Treaty which consisted of 31 articles provided for common defense and resolution of territorial disputes among other things. It was an extraordinary and ambitious achievement at that time of the history of the region. Although this union did not survive, it provided inspiration to many other attempts at integration since then. The latest is the formation of  CELAC, the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States in 2011. While its goals are modest, it is a useful forum for the countries of the region to have their own identity and voice without the intrusive presence of US. Besides this larger union, the countries of the region have established several subregional groups such as Mercosur,Andean Community, SICA, ALBA and Pacific Alliance. Thanks to these groupings, there is substantial increase in intra-regional trade, cooperation and free movement of people. 

Integration is not only useful for facilitation of free movement of trade, services, capital and people. It has given collective strength and security. UNASUR, the union of the 12 South American countries formed in 2008 as an umbrella organization for security among other goals, has already set successful examples of protection of democracies and sovereignty of member countries. It had sent delegations to defuse political crisis when the democratically elected governments were challenged in Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador in recent times. In 1996, Mercosur had prevented a military coup by Gen Oviedo in Paraguay. But for these timely and decisive initiatives by the regional groups, the coup makers and their external patrons might have succeeded in messing up the democracies of those countries. Even now, Venezuela would have faced more external threats if it were not a member of Mercosur and Unasur. The external forces have certainly been deterred and they are now more cautious and less blatant ( as was the case in Honduras) because of the regional unity.

Bolivar was prophetic when he said' The United States appear to be destined by providence to plague Latin America with misery in the name of liberty". Latin America has been a victim of US military interventions and its support to military dictatorships and polarization of societies in the name of its anti-communist war. The latest case was the support to the coupsters in Honduras in 2009 when the democratically elected government of President Manuel Zelaya was overthrown. The war on drugs is another excuse for US intrusion into Latin American internal affairs. While the Latin Americans need to exercise constant vigilance against external threats, it does not mean that they should continue the bad habit of using external bogey to hide their internal flaws and problems. The Latin Americans need to set their own countries in order with political stability and inclusive economic growth.

Monday, July 13, 2015

'seduce me' says La India to Latin America

Hari Seshasayee cannot stop listening to 'seduceme', a salsa by Latino singer 'La India' ( her real name Linda Viera Cabellero) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4KDDMEuiJGI. He has let himself be seduced by salsa and Latin America. He is the the latest victim of the magic of Latin America. He has surrendered himself to the Latino charms and has even bet his career on Latin America. 
Hari from Chennai studied journalism in Mumbai. His life changed when he went to work with AISEC in Peru in 2008. He stayed there for  two years and also travelled to Brazil. He learnt Spanish and made many Peruvian friends 14 of whom attended his wedding in 2014 in Chennai. After his return to India, he taught Spanish and then covered Latin America for the Mumbai think tank Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations. He has written articles on the region in Indian and foreign newspapers and publications. He has just finished a masters degree in Latin America Studies at Stanford University and is going to travel for two months in Peru and Brazil on a research grant from the University. Hari is keen to work in Latin America itself for some years to deepen his knowledge and experience of the region.

He says, " Living in Peru was amazing, and it affirmed that I will for the rest of my life continue to be engaged with that country and the people from that region. More than anything else, it is the people of Latin America, their vibrant, friendly and happy nature, that keep me interested in the region. From an economic and social perspective, I feel we have a lot of complementarities with the Latinos, and there is much scope to work together and learn from each other".

Nivedita Kashyap from Bengaluru is another young person who has hitched her destiny to Latin America. She studied IT and worked in a company for a few years, before getting a chance to go on an AIESEC exchange programme to Lima to work at an e-business startup there for a year.  She travelled all over Peru and to Ecuador, Bolivia and Brazil. Back in Bengaluru, she worked as a Spanish teacher and interpreter. Two years ago, she moved to Washington D.C to do a Master's in international affairs from Georgetown University with focus on Latin America and business diplomacy. At Georgetown, one of the experiences that stood out the most for her was working with Yoani Sanchez, a Cuban blogger, at the time the U.S announced its policy change last December. Nivedita is looking forward to a career in Latin America and India-Latin America relations.
There are other young Indians who have done studies in Latin America itself and have got into Indo- Latin American business with their Latino friends. Anish Narang from Delhi has started a consultancy for Latin America in partnership with his Brazilian MBA classmates from the prestigious FGV business school in Sao Paulo. Sonia Aroul did a bilingual MBA from Di Tella University in Buenos Aires is helping Indian companies with Latin America strategies. This is a welcome contrast to many old Indians who consider the region as too far and have an outdated and negative mindset. Most Indian scholars of Latin America are said to be either in their sixties or stuck as admirers of the Latin America of the sixties continuing to be uncritical and ideological fans of the Cuban revolution and Che Guevara. 
I tell Indian businessmen that ' the risk of doing business with Latin America is.. falling in love'. Quite a few have taken the risk and ended up with Latin American spouses besides business success. Ashok Parthiban, married to a Guatemalteca has a flourishing pharmaceutical business in Guatemala. Three Indian IT boys, who went for a IT project in Colombia,  promptly married three Colombianas ( http://businesswithlatinamerica.blogspot.in/search?q=risk+of+doing+business+with+colombia) and have set up their own company in Bogota. Rakesh Vaidyanathan, Arvind Krishnan and Nitai Panchmatia, married to Girls from Ipanema, are in Brazil doing business with India.  Vimal Menon and Somnath Naha, married to Bolivians are promoting Indian business in La Paz. Rajesh Vairon, married to a Paraguayan helps in Indo-Paraguayan business from Asuncion. Reshmi Kwatra, a pharmaceutical export executive from Delhi became Reshmi Murillo after falling in love with a Costa Rican. There are over hundred young Indian executives working in Latin America with Indian IT companies as well as MNCs. Many of them have started dancing Salsa with Latino youth while their Latino counterparts have taken to Bollywood dancing, besides yoga and 'the art of living'.
Shoban Saxena, a young Indian journalist, based in Sao Paulo and married to a Brazilian, writes on Latin America in Indian media. His reports and comments on Latin America are objective in contrast to the biased western media. Mathang Seshagiri from Bengaluru, was in Colombia teaching journalism there. He has learnt Spanish and conquered many hearts there. At present he is working with Google in Bengaluru but is itching to get back to Latin America.  
Some young Indian diplomats and their spouses too have taken Latin America to their hearts after their postings in the region. Taruna, wife of Sandeep Chakravorty, the Ambassador to Peru, is doing a PhD in Latin American literature. She had taught Spanish in Delhi University after her return from Colombia. She said, "I cried when I left Colombia. Now I am going to feel at home in Peru'. 
Over fifty young Indian entrepreneurs had gone in the last five years to Santiago to work on their new ventures, taking up the financial and other support given by the the Chilean government under their pioneering  'Start-Up Chile' programme. During their stay, they had taken Chilean interns and mentored them, as required under the contract. Some of them have stayed on beyond the six-month term under the contract and pursue ventures on their own.
The inflow of youthful energy is great news for the Indo-Latin American relations which is undergoing a paradigm shift. The young Indians blend easily and merrily with the vibrant Latino spirit. Their positive, pragmatic and future-oriented approach is laying the foundation for a new win-win cultural and business partnership.