Monday, June 22, 2009


Marketing Memory -- Latin American Studies Conference in Rio

Rio LASA Windup -- Don't Move All Meetings to the USA! And, The Obama Effect

Killing Kodachrome

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Expanding Genocide’s Definition at LASA

Only seeing Rio from the bus so far: Latin American Studies Association meetings, Rio de Janiero, Brazil......
Parsing Political Violence
There is more reason every day to study the paroxysms of violence that shook Chile, Argentina, Peru, Guatemala, El Salvador and other Latin American countries in the late 20th century. Knowing in depth what happened can mean they may never happen again. But examination also determines whether they fall into the category of genocide, what journalist and academic Samantha Power calls, “The Problem from Hell.”

The problem defining genocide comes first. Panelists discussing Institutional Memory -- that of political parties, the military, etc -- ended up grappling with what genocide is, and which killing events might fall into it, for much of their lively session. In particular: should the definition of victims be expanded to include members of a political affiliation?

It’s well known that genocide includes targeted killing of individuals because they belong to a particular group -- religious, racial, ethnic, national. What is less well known, as Pablo Policzer of the University of Calgary, pointed out, is that the first several drafts of the 1946 U.N. Genocide Convention included the political category, making it a crime of genocide to kill someone for his affiliation with a particular political group. Only at the last moment, because the Soviet Union and Iran threatened not to sign the convention if that group were left in, was it removed.

Some panelists said only the most numerically massive and egregious killings ought to be included in genocide's definition, like the WWII Holocaust, Cambodia, or the slaughter of Armenians; others stood for the original, wider definition including political groups, which might bring in Chile, for instance.

Against the wider definition is the argument that political affiliation is a choice one makes, less basic to identity than one’s ethnicity or religion. The counterargument is that a person’s choice of political affiliation is far more fundamental to who one is than even the other protected categories: Ethnic identities may be constructed; religious affiliation may be changed. By political affiliation we are not talking here about U.S. citizens choosing between the parties of Democrats and Republicans, who have more in common than they do separating them; instead we are talking about political world views, dictated by a person's birth or experience to become as intrinsically part of his being as his blood type.

Any of the already recognized categories of victims of genocide include identities that are not necessarily objective, but can be created or defined by the perpetrators of the genocide themselves. That is true too of political grouping -- consider the Guatemalan military policy of eliminating entire indigenous villages because of its belief the Maya were natural “allies” of insurgents. It was the military’s own definition of who the enemy was, its assumption of alliance with a political group, without regard to the stand of individuals.

Beyond scholars, lawyers and judges are wrestling with definitions of crimes against humanity and genocide to an increasing degree each year. Defining genocide is not an exercise like determining the number of angels that fit on the head of a pin. It has real world consequences for justice: crime juridically defined as genocide becomes a crime against humanity, which makes perpetrators liable under international law.

At least one panelist was convinced by colleagues’ arguments at LASA, he said, so that by the session’s end he said he believed the political affiliation category ought to be included when considering the crime of genocide.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

A Back Story (Maya Poetry panel)

The PUC campus where LASA is being held in Rio has its own rainforest....

Guatemala’s own Nobel and Pulitzer prizes for Literature rolled into one, the Miguel Angel Asturias prize, named after the country’s Nobel novelist (and father of guerrilla chief Gaspar Ilom), was presented to Humberto Ak’abal in 2004. He declined to accept it This shocked the country’s intellectual elite.

As a young writer, Asturias had opined on the majority Maya as a lesser kind of people, with passions and proclivities that signalled they were inferior to Guatemalans of European roots. His Social Problem of the Indian encouraged racism, Ak'abal said.

As I've said, I've known Humberto for years. In January, in Antigua, he told me he couldn't accept an honor named after Asturias. Humberto is gentle, peaceable; internationally and at home, he has accepted honors as a way of bringing light to Maya history, aesthetic, and living conditions. But even illiterate (but not uneducated) Maya know about this writing of Asturias, and there was no way he could accept, because he answered to his community.

“I am one of my people,” he said.

Arturo Arias has received the Miguel Asturias prize.

Coming: Marketing Memory, and Was there Genocide in Latin America or Not?

It's pouring like crazy in Copacabana as I write…

Whose Literature is it Anyway?

The take-away from a panel on Literature and the Left and Right turns in Latin America was that testimony is out; gone are the articulate first-person narratives of key figures that made us understand in an intimate way moments in the national liberation movements. I think of Omar Cabezas in Nicaragua, unforgettable Mario Payeras in Guatemala, Nidia Diaz, Ana Maria Guadalupe, and the story of Radio Venceremos in El Salvador.

“The testimonial mode is out, and the neo-liberalism T.V. mode is in, “ said Marc Zimmerman. That must be at least partly true, given the appearance of some of Brazil’s famous telenovelas which include memory of the military dictatorship and torture as themes amid romance and usual format (more about memory marketing later).

Literature in Latin America has long been associated with political and social commitment, represented by the left. But as the very clear and funny Ileana Rodriguez showed in words and pictures, the return of the left in Nicaragua, for instance, can too easily be seen as a joke, with Ortega the punch line. Alliances between writers and “revolutionaries” cannot now be assumed. No more Gabo-Fidel.

When Mario Benedetti died recently, it felt as if an era were passing. At the panel it was easy to understand why when Jon P. Beasley-Murray, younger and more brusque than Zimmerman, said when he heard the Benedetti news his reaction was surprise. “I thought he was already dead,” he said. Tellingly, Beasley-Murray’s presentation was titled, “Literature at the Margins.”
Does commitment and engagement for revolutionary change disappear for the writer now that the shooting wars are over? If the left is in electoral power here and there (Let’s leave aside “what the Left is” for the moment), does that mean the writer no longer feels a compulsion to expose hypocrisy and the human condition?

And testimony is some of the most riveting literature on earth -- just ask the protagonist of the haunting Senselessness by Honduran novelist (in exile) Horacio Castellanos Moya. Or ask the tens of thousands of students first exposed to the realities of Central America in I, Rigoberta Menchu. It’s not a fashion genre.

A lot of us have stayed up nights reading truth reports (or our own interviews) from Argentina, Peru, El Salvador, Guatemala, as unable to put down the troubling stories as we would be unable to close a page-turner of a novel. The fact that they are first person and non-fiction grabs us in a way all its own. Now that fear is dispersing in certain corners like fog in the sunlight, it’s arguable new and even more crystal testimony is forthcoming, written by witnesses themselves, or with collaborator writers cursed with commitment.

The LASA “Left Turns” panel might have been happening on a different planet from another on modern Quechua and Maya poetry. I cannot speak to Quechua, but two of the most prominent Guatemalan Maya poets, the Kakchiquel Calixta Gabriel Xiquin, from Poaquil, Chimaltenango, and Humberto Ak’abal, who is Ki'che from Momostenango, have been my friends for more than 20 years; their poetry, and their lives, have been and continue to be testimonial, committed, and engaged. Panel chair and novelist Arturo Arias, a former LASA president, recognized their “revolutionary” work, and that of memoirist Victor Montejo, Jacalteco Maya. One presenter from the United States delivered an entire paper on Calixta’s poetry.

When talking about “the literature of Latin America” it’s just dangerous and embarrassing to open the umbrella only half way.

Let Loose at LASA

Just returned from a death squads comparison workshop…
Good to meet old friends-- David Holiday now in D.C.; Martha Doggett, whom I hadn’t seen since visiting her office high up in the secretariat at the U.N. 4 years ago.
Like minds end up in the same rooms here at the Pontifical University, which is good because otherwise people would be hard to find among 5500 attendees at more than 1240 panels over the four days of the conference.
Peter Kornbluh and colleagues from the National Security Archive presented fascinating panel on how uncovered documents pursue and nail dictators and other rights violators in Chile, Peru and Mexico. Never underestimate that good, old-fashioned virtual paper trail.
Unfortunately, Kate Doyle unable to appear, but word is the Guatemala genocide case is proceeding apace. Perhaps most hands-on useful of all was Emilene Martinez-Morales’ explanation about how access to information with regard to human rights is now mandated and available by request to govt. files in Peru, Guatemala, Uruguay , and perhaps soon, if legislation passes, in Argentina. And in Mexico now at
Mexico takes 12 days to reply; a Freedom of Information Act request to Washington takes an average of 2 years.
Look on the Archive’s website for more, but if needed, emilene’s mail is

Friday, June 12, 2009

Bye Bye Bahia -- for now

I must stop writing about Bahia now because a couple of days have passed and we are already at the Latin American Studies Association meetings in Rio. I’ll return in memory from time to time, to Bahia at night, the folk dance company (a name that falls far short of doing justice to the troupe), and the food, the food. Meanwhile, here is a picture of our last evening in Bahia, on the corner of the street near the Guest House. Maria Angelica was always a wonderful little traveler as a child; now all grown up she’s the best traveling companion a mother could want.

Pelourinho Bahia

Spent the day with a native guide of Bahia named Wilson, who wears his long hair in about a thousand tiny braids and taught himself four languages besides Portuguese. we went to the oldest part of the old city, a warren called Pelourinho. Pelo, as it’s called for short, has its own reputation for quick heists and muggings, so you don’t wear earrings, other jewelry, don’t show cameras etc.

Yet Wilson showed examples of ecclesial beauty in a place I would never have expected to see them. Florence, Taxco, Seville, yes. But not Pelo, which now I have to add to my list of places to find great church art.

Asian -- mostly Chinese --artisans from Portuguese colonies built a Jesuit church using the blue of Ming dynasty pottery for the Madonna’s robes, with its touch of teal instead of the traditional clear blue, and her usually-flowing mantle draped instead across her waist, obi-style.

Staring into the baroque carved golden curls and swirls that covered the walls reminded me of the kid’s game of looking into drawings of clouds and answering, “Who do you see there?” Once your eyes became adjusted , you see Chinese masks everywhere.

Niches in the Jesuit church were roofed with what looked like Asian warrior helmets -- think Genghis Khan. Parallel to an altar column, if you looked closely, a dragon climbed from floor to ceiling. Unless I’m mistaken, it breathed fire.

The Franciscan golden church was built by black African slaves, not paid workers like the Asians. They created a stunning jewel box: seriously, imagine every inch of every surface, ceiling and walls, niches and chapels, covered in gold. Yet the effect was not cold, not gaudy.
But neither did the blizzard of gold feel like it would lead a church-goer to greater understanding or devotion; that is, to me it impressed without inspiring. Wilson pointed out acts of resistance on the part of the enslaved artisans: male cherubs with saucy expressions whose penises ---- before they were discovered by an abashed cleric -- stood large and erect.

In the cloister, 4 walls are covered in tiles in dutch blue and white, telling legends. I’ve never been in one like this. Walls not of paintings or carvings or marble or sandstone but tile, remarkably preserved in spite of Bahia heat and moisture. I felt like Alice in Wonderland after having the Eat Me cookie (small), sitting on a Delft platter.

Inside the church, a large, covered entrance, where the tiles were perfectly preserved, they looked fine as a teacup.

When we left the church I told Wilson how fabulous it all was, and he said the beauty of Bahia is ‘passing us on all sides.’ Blue eyes, green eyes, although three quarters of Salvador’s population are descendants of African blacks. But his dark skin is red toned “from the Indians,” his hair black and tightly curled, and his lips “not thick but narrow like the Europeans in my ancestry.” This is Bahia’s true beauty, “its best gift,” he said.

Barra Bahia--Nearly All Sins

A few blocks from the guest house here in the sector of Salvador called Barra, an old Portuguese fort is pounded by spray from breaking sea waves on one side, while on the other, the sound of gently lapping water rises from All Saints Bay, one of the biggest in the world. As daughter Maria Angelica likes to say [], before there was Brazil, there was Bahia.

The Portuguese (1549) landed with everything they needed to set up a New World colony: 400 soldiers, 400 settlers, priests, prostitutes, and city plans for Salvador, which would be the new country’s capital for the next 300 years. They even brought paving stones in the holds of the ships, and in one case dismantled an entire Portuguese church, numbered its stones, and reconstructed it in the middle of the fortified town they built here on a hill. ( Today that church is the plainest-looking.)

The worship houses didn’t keep Salvador from getting a raunchy rep, and the Bay getting another name: “The Bay of All Saints and of Nearly All Sins.”

Wednesday, June 10, 2009


Bahia heat and humidity turns to rain, which makes it easy, even magical, to go in and out of sleep all day, recovering. At 7 pm, Russell the innkeeper shakes up the first caipirinha of the evening, and we talk on the front porch. It’s cane liquor--40 proof--lime wedges, sugar and ice.
It’s so good I can even have the economy conversation.
Brazilians have only been buying homes using mortgages for 4 years, he says, so the crunch from a housing bubble affects them less than Americans. Two years ago, Russell sold his software company and opened a small guest house three minutes walk from the beach. “I know, everyone’s dream,” he says. “But you have to see me at the computer at 6:00 a.m. dealing with bureaucracy as a small business, and see what a dream it is.”
Russell wears shorts and flip-flops downstairs to work, laughs and talks with guests animatedly about the beauties of Bahia, has a lovely family and a charmer of a dog named Snoopy. Looks like a dream to me.

Bahia on My Mind

Stayed up too late last night, juggling packing with watching Flying Down to Rio. Now there was elegance -- Dolores del Rio. With Fred Astaire playing accordion, and young Ginger Rogers in a transparent black gauze dress -- guess the film code hadn’t started yet They had a better time of it: my trip was 26 hours through 4 airports. When I bought the ticket I thought the price was great; now I know why.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Coming up

This is a continuation of my electronic GlobeWatch column once posted on Pacific News Service/New America Media. In June I'll be posting from Brazil. Please return and join me.
Mary Jo