Archive for the ‘Latin America’ Category

The Lost City of Z

April 30, 2017

The Lost City of Z tells the story of Percy Fawcett, a British explorer of the early twentieth century, who believed that there had once been a large civilization in the pre-Colombian Amazon Basin. Fawcett and his son, Jack, disappeared while looking for the ruins of a city that Fawcett called “Z”.

This film is ostensibly based on the book, The Lost City of Z, by David Grann. (I haven’t read Grann’s book, but I did read a lengthy excerpt from it in The New Yorker.) Yet it actually has little to do with the book. Grann’s story is an account of his attempts to find out what happened to Fawcett, as well as to to ascertain whether there is any truth to his notion of Z. The film, however, is basically just a biopic about Fawcett. Which is OK, but it would have been better if the film had followed Grann’s narrative combined with scenes from Fawcett’s life. (Embrace of the Serpent, which also happens to be set in the Amazon, shows how effective a dual narrative can be.) Also, the film departs from Grann’s version of Fawcett’s disappearence.

Aside from that, I mostly enjoyed this film, although it dragged in some places. The scenes of Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam) arguing with his wife, Nina (Sienna Miller) and his son, Jack (Tom Holland) are unconvincing, and they should have been left out. (Also, Holland is miscast as Jack. He looks and sounds like a teenager. It’s impossible to believe that he would have been allowed to follow his father into the jungle.)

The Lost City of Z is worth seeing, but it could have been a better film.

Embrace of the Serpent

February 29, 2016


The destruction of the Amazon rain forest is one of the great tragedies of our time. It’s not just an environmental tragedy, but a human tragedy as well. Ciro Guerra’s film, Embrace of the Serpent, is a fierce condemnation of what European colonialism has done to the Amazon Indians.

The film has two stories running parallel. In 1909, a German ethnologist, Theo (Jan Bijvoet) enlists the help of a shaman, Karamakate (Nilbio Torres) in finding a rare medicinal plant called yakruna. Thirty years later, the American botanist, Evan (Brionne Davis) gets an older Karamakate (Antonio Bolívar) to help him look for the same plant. Karamakate is the last surviving member of his people. He has a deep distrust of whites, yet in each case he reluctantly agrees to help a stranger.

Embrace of the Serpent reminds one of Kurosawa’s Dersu Uzala, in the ways it contrasts the values of a primitive hunter-gatherer with those modern people. Karamkate complains about the wastefulness of whites and about their attachment to “things”. This film also criticizes the way in which the knowledge of indigenous peoples of the Amazon, including their knowledge of medicinal plants, has been destroyed.

It is also critical of the influence of the Catholic church in the region. In one scene Theo and Karamakate come across a mission run by a Capuchin friar. He forbids the children there from speaking their native language, and he whips them when they disobey him. Years later, Evan and Karamakate find this same mission. It is now the site of a religious cult led by a white man who claims to be Jesus. The suppression of native culture has allowed a perverted existence to take its place.

Embrace of the Serpent is a great film.

Kill the Messenger

November 16, 2014


Kill the Messenger, directed by Michael Cuesta from a screenplay by Peter Landesman, tells the story of Gary Webb, the journalist who reported on contra drug-dealing in the US, and who was blacklisted by the news media for his efforts. The film follows Webb (Jeremy Renner) as he gradually uncovers the story and then writes about it for the San Jose Mercury News. The article causes a sensation, but then it immediately comes under attack from major news outlets, such as The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Los Angeles Times. Webb then struggles to defend the article, as well as his reputation.

An interesting question here is: why was Webb’s article so controversial? I remember during the 1980’s hearing rumors that the contras were running drugs. A Senate committee eventually confirmed this as true. So why did Webb’s revelations upset so many people? I can only guess it was because Webb drew an explicit connection between the contras and the crack cocaine epidemic that swept South-Central Los Angeles in the 1980’s. I remember at the time, some journalists expressed fear of “black anger” as a result of Webb’s article.

This film suggests another possible motive: reporters at major newspapers were incensed that they had been scooped by a mid-size paper. Webb was, in that respect, a victim of the news media pecking order. What this movie also makes clear is the extraordinary vindictiveness of these people: even after the CIA admitted that Webb’s story was basically true, he was unable to get work at any newspaper.

Kill the Messenger is a tribute to a courageous reporter.

A Reply to Noam Chomsky: America’s Imperial Power Is Not in Decline

August 4, 2013


Aletnet has posted an article by Noam Chomsky entitled America’s Imperial Power Is Showing Real Signs of Decline. Chomsky cites as proof of his claim the fact that the Organization of American States (O.A.S.) has passed a resolution condemning the countries that refused to allow Evo Morales’s plane to enter their airspace last month. However, I doubt that this resolution will have any concrete results. What is of greater significance is the incident that led to this resolution in the first place. The U.S. apparently pressured four countries – France, Italy, Portugal and Spain – into denying passage through their airspace to the President of Bolivia, in the belief that Edward Snowden might be on his plane. In doing so, these countries not only violated international law, they insulted the leader of a resource-rich nation. So, the U.S. got four governments to act against their own best interests. That’s a pretty impressive display of political power, if you ask me.

Chomsky argues that the U.S. no longer wields as much influence over Latin America as it once did. This is true, but a major reason for this is that since the 9/11 attacks, U.S. foreign policy has shifted its focus to the Middle East and southern Asia. The U.S. now wields greater power in that region of the world than ever before. The U.S. carries out drone attacks in countries such as Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Yemen with impunity. The U.S. now has military bases set up throughout the region. The Arab Spring was a setback, but the U.S. has since been able to reassert its influence in the countries involved.

Empires don’t always get what they want. When the British empire was at its height, the British suffered a military defeat in Afghanistan. A resolution passed by Latin American countries is no proof that the U.S. empire is in decline. Neither is Putin’s refusal to extradite Snowden.

Chomsky wants to believe the U.S. is in decline when it really isn’t.

Edward Abbey

June 3, 2013


The latest issue of CounterPunch contains an article by Jeffrey St. Clair, in which he expresses his deep indignation that some people have actually dared to criticize something that appeared on his poorly edited and politically confused website. The article is mostly not very interesting, but my curiosity was piqued by the following passage in which St. Clair recounts a conversation he allegedly had with Joshua Frank:

    “Right, right. Are we Trots?”
    “Not that I know of.”
    “Doug Henwood just wrote that we were Edward Abbeyists.”
    “Sounds good to me.”
    “He didn’t mean it as a compliment.”
    “What does he know? He hasn’t left his apartment in the last 12 years.”

I have never met Doug Henwood, but I feel reasonably certain that he does leave his apartment sometimes, if only to buy groceries at the very least. That’s not what concerns me here, however. What interests me is that St. Clair and Frank apparently see themselves as “Edward Abbeyists”. (The correct term is “Abbeyists”. I know, I’m nitpicking.)

Edward Abbey was an American writer and environmentalist. I remember that his writings were very popular during the 1980’s. They influenced the radical environmentalist movement of that period, as well as some anarchists. However, I don’t hear his name mentioned often nowadays. When I lived in Oregon, the anarchists I met there mostly talked about Kropotkin and Bakunin. There may be any number of reasons for this, but I suspect that one of them may be that Abbey sometimes wrote things like this:

    This being so, it occurs to some of us that perhaps evercontinuing [sic] industrial and population growth is not the true road to human happiness, that simple gross quantitative increase of this kind creates only more pain, dislocation, confusion, and misery. In which case it might be wise for us as American citizens to consider calling a halt to the mass influx of even more millions of hungry, ignorant, unskilled, and culturally-morally-genetically impoverished people. At least until we have brought our own affairs into order. Especially when these uninvited millions bring with them an alien mode of life which – let us be honest about this – is not appealing to the majority of Americans. Why not? Because we prefer democratic government, for one thing; because we still hope for an open, spacious, uncrowded, and beautiful–yes, beautiful!–society, for another. The alternative, in [sic] the squalor, cruelty, and corruption of Latin America, is plain for all to see. [Emphasis added.]

This is from an article that Abbey wrote for The New York Times. The Times, which has never been a huge defender of immigrants, refused to publish it.

How did Abbey propose to keep out these “culturally-morally-genetically impoverished” people? He tells us:

    Therefore-let us close our national borders to any further mass immigration, legal or illegal, from any source, as does every other nation on earth. The means are available, it’s a simple technical-military problem. Even our Pentagon should be able to handle it. We’ve got an army somewhere on this planet, let’s bring our soldiers home and station them where they can be of some actual and immediate benefit to the taxpayers who support them.

So, Abbey wanted to militarize the U.S.-Mexican border. Some environmentalist. Few things are more environmentally destructive than an army.

Elsewhere, Abbey wrote:

    Am I a racist? I guess I am. I certainly do not wish to live in a society dominated by blacks, or Mexicans, or Orientals. Look at Africa, at Mexico, at Asia.

One sympathetic article in The New York Times described him as as a “a melancholic naturalist who loved the land but did not care much for Indians, Hispanics or blacks.”

This melancholic naturalist is the man with whom the editors of CounterPunch politically identify.


Nostalgia for the Light

April 10, 2011

Nostalgia for the Light the latest film by the Chilean director, Patricio Guzmán, is about the Atacama desert in Chile. It is widely considered to be the driest place in the world. Because of its perpetually clear skies, Atacama is the home to a number of astronomical observatories. It is also of great interest to archaeologists, because of the ruins and numerous petroglyphs left by pre-Columbian peoples.

The place is also the site of a concentration camp used by the Pinochet government. It was originally an abandoned mining camp, but the government found it could easily be converted to a prison. (The point here being that the miners were little more than prisoners themselves.) We meet a former inmate. He talks about how he and other prisoners formed a club devoted to learning about astronomy. Thinking about the vastness of the universe made him feel free. (Interestingly, the film tells us that the Pinochet government was hostile towards science.)

We meet women who spend their time digging in the desert, looking for the bodies of people killed by the Pinochet regime. We also meet an employee at one of the observatories, whose parents disappeared under Pinochet.

Nostalgia for the Light is a meditation on the nature of the past and of the importance of memory. In some ways, it is a subtle rebuke to those Chileans who want to forget the dark moments from their country’s history. In various ways, the film makes the point that the past is always with us.

James Cockcroft

April 9, 2011

James Cockcroft, scholar, activist, and author of numerous books on Latin America; recently gave a talk on Mexico at the University of Oregon, to promote his new book, Mexico’s Revolution: Then and Now. He began by calling Mexico a “social volcano”. He pointed out that in the 2010 elections in that country, nearly half the eligible voters didn’t vote. There is a deep alienation from the government in that country. He said that after Felipe Calderón stole the 2006 presidential election from López Obrador, he launched a “reign of terror” in the name of the “war on drugs”. He put down the uprising in Oaxaca, and attacked political dissidents. Calderón claims to be fighting against the Mexican drug cartels, but what he has actually done is side with the Sinaloa cartel against the Juarez cartel. The leader of the Sinaloa cartel, who is known as “El Chapo”, is one of the richest men in the world. Every year, billions of dollars in Mexican drug money is laundered through U.S. banks.

Cockcroft argues that Mexico is not a failed state. Quite the contrary, it carries out all the tasks of neoliberalism. Rather, it is a state of failed law. Assassinations and kidnappings are common. The military controls whole regions of the country. 40,000 people are dead as a result of the “war on drugs”. Cockcroft believes that the formation of a civilian-military dictatorship is in progress. He also sees a U.S. occupation of Mexico as a real possibility. He pointed out the Mexican congress is considering a bill that would allow foreign troops to enter Mexican territory. And he claimed that U.S. drones are already flying over Mexico. Because Mexico is the third largest provider of oil to the U.S., as well as the U.S.’s largest trading partner, the U.S. has an interest in how the country is run.

Cockcroft sees three movements of resistance in Mexico: 1) the labor movement (non-corrupt labor unions), 2) the broad-based non-violent movement led by López Obrador, and 3) the Zapatistas. So far, these movements have been working independently. What is needed is for them to come together to challenge the government.

Cockcroft recalled that 105 years ago, the Mexican anarchist, Ricardo Flores Magón, predicted that if the Mexican Revolution were crushed, it would be a disaster for workers in the U.S. Corporations would move their factories south to exploit Mexican workers with no political rights. We saw this begin to happen with the ratification of NAFTA.

Cockcroft concluded by asking a question: Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Madison, Mexico? He believes the seeds of revolt exist.

The day before his talk, I met Cockcroft at a dinner at a friend’s house. He told stories from his long career as a writer and activist. He recounted how when he was a student at Cornell in the 1950’s, he and some friends invited the black-listed writer, James T. Farrell, who wrote Studs Lonigan, to speak at their school. He arranged to have Farrell have dinner at his apartment, so he cooked some steaks To his amazement, Farrell ravenously devoured one steak after another. Cockcroft had to go out to buy some more, which Farrell duly wolfed down. “I’ve got nothing,” Farrell explained. “If you hadn’t invited me here, I don’t know what I would have done.” This was one of a number examples of he gave of the destructive effects of black-listing. He recounted something I had never heard before, which was that there was a wave of black-listing in the early 1970’s. Many left-wing academics lost their jobs and had to go to other countries to find work.

Cockcroft is a remarkable speaker, and if you get the chance to see him, I strongly urge doing so.

The Secret in Their Eyes

July 25, 2010

The Secret in Their Eyes is an Argentine film that was awarded the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. Although I liked this film very much, I don’t think it is a better film than A Prophet or The White Ribbon, both of which it beat out. I suspect it won because it tells a more conventional story than the other two.

The story, most of which is told through flashbacks, is set in the 1970’s. Benjamín Espósito (Ricardo Darín) is a federal justice agent, who works with his alcoholic partner, Pablo Sandoval (Guillermo Francella). Their boss is Irene Menéndez-Hastings (Soledad Villamil). Benjamin and Pablo are sent to investigate the brutal rape and murder of a woman, Liliana Colotto. The chief suspect, Isidoro Gómez (Javier Godino) has disappeared. Most of the first half of the film is taken up with the efforts of Benjamin and Pablo to find Gómez. When they do, the latter confesses. However, after being in prison for only a year, he is pardoned by Argentina’s president, Isabel Peron. It turns out that in prison, Gómez spied on “subversives”, and he is now an armed agent of the government. A government official haughtily informs Benjamin and Irene that Gómez has done the state a great service, and the government doesn’t care about his “personal life”. Benjamin and Irene then begin to fear for their own lives, with Gómez loose on the street with government immunity.

The Secret in Their Eyes manages to build suspense without a lot of action-filled scenes. In contrast to most Hollywood thrillers, it doesn’t romanticize law enforcement. The police come across as barely competent. One of Benjamin’s fellow agents is blatantly corrupt. Most of the film takes place during the beginning of Argentina’s Dirty War. Throughout these scenes there are ominous hints about what is about to happen to the country. The film also touches upon how notions about class and gender affect people’s behavior in Argentina. At the beginning of the investigation, for example, an agent tries to frame two construction workers for the murder. In a later scene, Irene goads Gómez into confessing by insulting his manhood.

Although I mostly liked this film, there are a few weak spots. In one scene the film actually revives the hoary cliché of the woman running after the train that is carrying her lover. (Has anyone ever seen this happen in real life?) I remember back in 1980, the film Airplane! made fun of this sort of thing.

All quibbles aside, this film is highly recommended.