Latin America

COVID-19 in Latin America

Flyer for our upcoming presentation

Next Tuesday my department will be having a presentation on Zoom  about COVID-19  in Latin America. During this discussion I’ll be talking about Bolsonaro’s leadership in Brazil, and the current pandemic trends in that country. Dr. Rodriguez will be talking about Argentina’s response, while Dr. Young will be discussing the experience of both Cuba and Mexico. Since I know little about the COVID-19 situation outside of Brazil in Latin America, I am particularly interested to hear what my co-presenters will say. The talk will be 2pm West Coast (US) time. Please RSVP if you are interested in participating.

Shawn Smallman

Bolsonaro and democracy in Brazil

When I wrote my book on military terror in Brazil (please ignore the ugly cover if you click on the link to the left. #uglybookcovers) I thought that the processes and events that I described were consigned to history. Then as well I believed that my articles on torture described a political practice that had passed in Latin America, and certainly in the West. My confidence proved to be misplaced after 9/11, which brought the U.S. crimes at Abu Ghraib, and the CIA’s adoption of waterboarding. Similarly, authoritarianism and populism have moved to the forefront in Brazil, as the nation has elected a former army officer (Jair Messias Bolsonaro) best known for his outrageous political rhetoric. And his vice-president -another former military officer, Gen. Antonio Hamilton Mourão- makes even more extreme statements than he does. …

The Venezuelan Disaster

French television has a recent documentary, “Dancing with the Dead” which captures the terrible collapse of that country. It begins by looking at popular religion in a cemetery, where people worship dead thieves. One follower of the group says “They weren’t like today’s thugs.” When people become sentimental for the criminals of the past, you know that things aren’t going well. Within the cemetery the graves are trashed by grave robbers looking for gold, rings and body parts that they can sell. Even the former president’s casket has been raided. For me, the moving scene was one in which a long-suffering priest performed a funeral for a homicide victim, while knowing that the people he buries will soon be dug up.

Still, the scene that I’ll most remember was when two ambulance attendant brought a thief to the hospital who had been shot in the hand. The hospital employees asked the ambulance medics if they wanted the hospital to treat his wound, with a touch of amazement or frustration in their tone. One would think that was an obvious question. But then they told the ambulance drivers that the hospital didn’t have the resources for this treatment, and that they should take him somewhere else, because he could lose his hand if they didn’t act quickly. The ambulance attendants asked rather plaintively where they should take him, but didn’t seem to receive an answer before they drove off into the night.

One point that you can’t miss viewing the video is how painfully thin many of the poor are. This film is highly recommended, but be forewarned that it does have disturbing images.

If you are interested in Latin America, you might want to read my book on the HIV epidemic in the region, or the history of military terror in Brazil.

Shawn Smallman, 2019

The Venezuelan migration crisis

Christine Armario has an outstanding article “I’ll walk in my broken shoes: Mom, daughter flee Venezuela,” which was just published by the Associated Press. In general, I try to avoid just sharing a link on this blog, because this isn’t a news aggregation site. Still, this article conveys the reality of what many Venezuelans are experiencing, as they escape a nation defined by starvation and hardship. Despite the fact that an immense amount has been written about this crisis, there is nothing like the human experience to grasp a process so immense it is difficult to fathom. As refugees flood into Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and other states, Venezuela’s social collapse is having a political and social impact upon the entire region. In Brazil, I believe that it has pushed voters towards the political right, and is one factor that helps to explain the rise of Jair Bosonaro, who will likely be Brazil’s next president. The failure of the Worker’s Party to explicitly condemn Venezuela’s leadership has handed their opponents a powerful tool to damage their credibility. But all these political factors fade into the background when faced with the story of one desperate mother’s effort to bring her daughter to safety.

Shawn Smallman, 2018

Brazil’s National Museum

Every Brazilian and Brazilianist that I know is lamenting the loss of Brazil’s National Museum in a terrible fire. The loss is incalculable -fossils of dinosaurs and pterosaurs, the records of extinct languages, a skull from perhaps the oldest person found in the Americas, a library of a half million books, and hundreds of thousands of specimens of every form of animal life from insect to birds. Henry Grabar has a thoughtful article in Slate, which describes the scale of the loss, and how it was almost inevitable: the Brazilian state had so starved the museum of funding that it had to launch a GoFundMe account after termites damaged a room containing an exceptional dinosaur skeleton. Academics mourn for all the lost information. Graduate students must replan their theses after they lost access to the specimens. But most of all, ordinary Brazilians lost a pearl of a museum in Rio de Janeiro, which was housed in the former Presidential palace. Rio de Janeiro has already lost vast amounts of colonial architecture, but none had as much historical significance as this. So many people I know are genuinely distraught, and can’t stop thinking about what this means. Within Brazil, it has come be seen as emblematic of the failures of the nation’s political leadership. …

Bioterrorism and Cocaine

“A beautiful landscape of Mendoza City’s park seen from the height of the Gómez building.” By Itsmemarttin (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Mat Youkee has a fascinating article, “Who Killed the Nazi Scientist trying to Wipe out Cocaine,” on the online site Ozy. The piece tells the story of Heinz Brücher, who had served as a second lieutenant in the German military (S.S.) during World War Two. A biologist, Brücher had stolen a Ukrainian seed-bank on Heinrich Himmler’s orders. Later in the war, he disobeyed orders to destroy these seeds, and fled the Reich with them. As with other German military figures at the war’s end, he fled to Argentina, as part of an evacuation which has become a theme in popular culture from film to conspiracy theories. He did not stay in Argentina only, however, but also taught as a faculty member everywhere from Venezuela to Paraguay. Later in life, though, he wound up living in a farm house in Mendoza, Argentina, where he seems to have hatched an incredible plot: to destroy the coca plant that is the basis for the cocaine trade.

The coca plant has been used for thousands of years in the Andes. One can see ancient indigenous sculptures in which the cheek of one figure is extended, because the person is chewing coca. The leaf figures in ritual and religion, but is also a rich source of nutrition.Throughout Latin America coca tea is often used as an infusion because it is supposed to have medicinal properties. The leaf itself is vastly different from the processed drug known as cocaine. In 1898 a German chemist, Richard Martin Willstätter, created cocaine, which had become one of the most used drugs in the world. By the 1970s and 80s, cocaine was the basis for the cartels of Colombia. At the same time, there were allegations that the U.S. intelligence services were themselves involved in the cocaine trade in order to fund the guerrillas fighting against the Sandinista government in Nicaragua.

The Nisman Conspiracy Theories

In Argentina a judge has just ruled that the death of Alberto Nisman was a murder, not a suicide. One of Nisman’s old employees was also charged as an accessory to murder. Nisman’s death has been an ongoing mystery, after he was found dead with a bullet wound in his head, the day that he was supposed to testify to Congress regarding a potential government coverup in the 1994 AMIA bombing.

My colleague Leopoldo Rodriguez and I wrote an article on this topic, which was published at an open-source journal. The focus of our work was the competing conspiracy theories regarding the Nisman case, and how they reflected not only the nation’s political divisions but also its history. If you are interested in this topic, please read our article, which is freely available.

Rodriguez, L. and Smallman, S. (2016). Political Polarization and Nisman’s Death: Competing Conspiracy Theories in Argentina. Journal of International and Global Studies Volume 8, Number 1, p. 20-39.

The article ended with these sentences: “The best path forward would likely be for the Argentine state to ask for a panel of international experts to investigate both the AMIA bombing and Nisman’s death. This step is unlikely, given the interests of different political actors and the power of nationalism in Argentine political discourse. Nonetheless, only this step is likely to restore public trust and thereby weaken the power of conspiracy theories in Argentina.”

Are you interested in Latin America. You can find my own book on military terror in Brazilian history here.

Shawn Smallman, 2017

Protest march in Buenos Aires 1 year death anniversary of Alberto Nisman. By Jaluj (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Venezuela and Zimbabwe

“Food Insecurity in Zimbabwe,” By Mangwanani (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Last weekend 7.6 million Venezuelans voted to reject a new Constituent Assembly called for by President Nicolas Maduro. Desperate to prevent the Assembly from taking place, the opposition’s leadership have also called for a mass strike this Thursday, and may appoint their own Supreme Court. The Venezuelan military is deeply tied to the current regime through corruption, including profits from controlling the distribution of food. All of Venezuela has been in an economic and social free fall, which has profoundly undermined the health care system. In this context, perhaps it is unsurprising that over 98 percent of the people who voted rejected President Maduro’s call for a Constituent Assembly, and called instead for free and transparent elections.

Devil’s Breath: An Andean drug

Brugmansia sanguinea. By Paul K from Sydney (Brugmansia bicolor) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
This spring I taught a class on the Global Drug Trade, and one of the students in the class shared a Vice News video with the class regarding a drug called Devil’s Breath. Please be warned that this video contains disturbing content, including discussion of rape and violence, as well as profanity. It is also an unusual video regarding drug usage, because Devil’s Breath (scopolamine, which is also known as Burundanga in Latin America) is unlike other drugs in that it is not consumed for pleasure. Rather, it is allegedly used by criminals in Colombia in order to take away someone’s will. The drug itself can be created easily from a common tree in Colombia, called the borrachero tree. There are seven trees in the Brugmansia genus, which contain the active ingredient scopolamine. These trees are common throughout northern South America, where they are extinct in the wild, but are sometimes used as ornamental trees because of their beautiful flowers.

According to Colombians who were interviewed in the video, criminals can ask someone to smell the powder, and the drug is so potent that it will take effect when they sniff. The video contains a series of interviews, including a taxi driver who seems to know all too much about the drug, and some people who were victimized using it. Still, the stories were so extraordinary that I couldn’t help but wonder, could this possibly be true? Can victims truly lose their will, so that they will assist a robber to burglarize their home? Or is this partly folklore? Vice’s reporter Ryan Duffy did not appear to be someone with a deep knowledge of Colombia. Nonetheless, the interviews with authorities, including the police and a doctor, were very convincing. Nonetheless, I wondered how to judge where reality ended and folklore began. After all, this drug is used in Western medicine to treat some conditions such as motion sickness? Wouldn’t this effect be familiar from this usage? Or are there differences between scopolamine and the the drug variant used …

Hope and Fear in the Amazon

Macaw in the Amazon, taken by Shawn Smallman
Macaw in the Amazon, taken by Shawn Smallman

In the 1980s the global media gave extensive coverage to deforestation in Amazonia. Over the last thirty years, there has been a significant decline in media attention to this topic, which partly reflects very real progress that Brazil and neighboring countries have made in slowing deforestation. Still, the problem remains. In 2014, Brazil decided not to sign a UN agreement to defend forests.

I’ve been teaching a course on Amazonian history for 20 years, and I’ve never found such a good classroom resource on the topic as this storyboard by the Council on Foreign Relations. The storyboard combines small amounts of text, with imagery and short videos to place the issue into historical context. Many of the pages are dynamic; that is, there is movement in the background. Some of the maps are excellent. I also particularly liked the successive aerial shots of forest in the Brazilian state of Rondonia over ten year increments.

One weakness is that the storyboard focuses only on Brazil. While Brazil is the country that on its own has the largest Amazonian territories, it would have been useful to have more information on Bolivia, Peru, Colombia and Venezuela as well. I also personally believe that dams are perhaps the greatest environmental threat in the region, and would like to have seen more coverage of this issue in the storyboard. Still, for any class that addresses environmental issues, this would be a great link in a course shell.

Shawn Smallman, 2017

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