Legal Representation for Refugees in Argentina

By Sabrina Vecchioni

Granting protection for refugees is a historical and current issue that concerns individual states and the broader international community. In the last two decades, the global displaced population has grown from 33.9 million in 1997 to 65.6 million in 2016, due to armed conflicts in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Burundi, Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of Congo, South Sudan, and Sudan. Natural disasters and extreme poverty also contribute to the forced displacement of people in what the United Nations Commissioner for Refugees calls ‘mixed migratory flows.’

In some countries, these massive population movements are seen as matters of internal security.  However, in Argentina, they are understood as an obligation to provide legal and social assistance to every person who seeks the international protection of the State, following the provisions of the General Law of Recognition and Protection to Refugees.

In Europe and Australia, these services are provided by non-governmental organizations, are supported through State resources, and are narrowly focused on assisting asylum seekers who enter the country with a visa. However, the Argentinean government has prioritized international obligations based on of the International Convention of Refugees Status of 1951, the Additional Protocol of 1967 and theCartagena Declaration of 1984. In 2007, the Argentinean Ministry of Public Defense created a Commission that specializes in providing legal and social assistance to unaccompanied minors who enter the country.


The Touma family (Taufic, 40, Ani Habad, 29, Kristel, 12, and Mari, 10) left Syria and settled in Cordoba, Argentina. (Photo courtesy of Noticias Perfil.)

Furthermore, in 2011 with a Cooperation Agreement between the Argentina National Commission for Refugees, the Argentinean Ministry of Public Defense and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees took a step forward in granting the right to legal defense by creating a special program that ensures free access to representation and social aid to every person who seeks asylum in Argentina. This program has been implemented throughout the provinces with the full cooperation of the regional offices of the Ministry.

Through this law, Argentina became the first country in the region to give full comprehensive access to defense for refugees and asylum seekers. More importantly, this service has no limitations: legal representation is granted starting the moment the foreigner communicates a request for international protection to any public authority figure, and continues through every stage of the administrative and judicial proceedings. Furthermore, the program authorizes lawyers to provide advice on migration and citizenship, regardless of the legal or criminal status of the individual.

It is also important to mention that the lawyers involved in the program work as public servants in a public institution and are selected after passing technical exams in English and French on International Refugee Law. This demonstrates Argentina’s commitment to providing a strong defense in accordance with the international and internal standards applicable to every proceeding – administrative or judicial. In recognition of this effort, the UNHCR gave a special mention to the work of the Program.


Nowadays, protection should be seen as a given asylum seekers and refugees. The State should welcome them and is obliged to grant legal representation. This should not be seen as a secondary concern – rather, it is necessary to ensure that refugees can integrate successfully into society.



Sabrina P. Vecchioni is an Attorney at the Assistance and Legal Representation Program for Refugees and Asylum Seekers of the Argentinean Ministry of Public Defense. Professor of International Public Law and International Humanitarian Law at the University of Buenos Aires.

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History, Education, and “Mapuche Terrorist Conflict” in Chile

by Cristobal Madero and Daniel Cano

In August 2015, a telephone rings in the history department of an elite high school in Santiago, Chile. After several unanswered calls, Marcela, one of the history teachers, finally picks up the phone. It only takes us a few minutes to convince her to participate in a program on conflict resolution that the authors of this article designed to educate the misinformed Chilean upper class about the so-called “Mapuche terrorist conflict” in the Araucanía Region of southern Chile.

We named the program Kuykuitin, which means “building bridges” in Mapudungun, the language of the Mapuche people. Kuykuitin is a pilot project to provide history teachers from the wealthiest 5 percent of the country with a cross-cultural learning experience at a school inside the conflict zone. “An intercultural experience with the Mapuche for history teachers?” Marcela asked from the other side of the phone. “Where do I sign up?”

The Conflict

Today, the Mapuche people are fighting to recover their territorial rights in the Araucanía Region. In these efforts, they confront forestry companies as well as the military. The consequences of the conflict are dramatic. Levels of poverty, unemployment, domestic violence, and illiteracy in this region are the highest in the country.

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The Quebrada de Cura coastline in Southern Chile. (Photo by Cristobal Madero.)

Moreover, the mass media labels Mapuche protests as “terrorist,” misleading the general public and encouraging the spread of violence. The economic consortiums that control the forestry industry in the region also own the national mass media. This relationship fuels the conflict, protects specific economic interests, and validates military intervention against the Mapuche.

The roots of this problem run much deeper, however. Experts in the social sciences agree that the current conflict in the Araucanía Region is an expression of ongoing colonialism that favors national development over indigenous rights, thereby increasing violence in Mapuche territory.

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Mapuche ritual tools. (Photo by Sebastian Tuma.)

 The Project

Against this backdrop, we considered how Chilean history is taught and the role the Mapuche people play as “invisible actors.” We questioned history teachers’ relevance in the public debate as vectors of national narratives that fail to explain the historic roots of the current Mapuche conflict. We also reflected on the fact that young students from the Chilean elite have the limited exposure to the conflict in their day-to-day lives.

Based on these questions, we designed Kuykuitin to bring history teachers from elite high schools together with their teaching peers in areas of the Araucanía Region affected by the violence. The teachers from Santiago also lived with Mapuche families who hosted them during the seven-day program.

Thanks to support from the Center for Latin American Studies at UC Berkeley and a grant from the Tinker Foundation, as well as the enthusiastic participation of families from the Mapuche communities of Ranquilhue, Ponotro, and Primer Agua, the schools in the Municipality of Tirúa, and Jesuit missionaries working in the region, we invited more than 10 elite high schools from Santiago to participate in the Kuykuitin program. In the end, we selected six teachers from four different schools.

The participating teachers shared “as equals” with the Mapuche families who hosted them. The families’ composition varied: some families were entirely Mapuche, while others were not. They also held diverse opinions about the political situation of their people: some maintained close connections with more radical groups, and others were critical about these groups. Likewise, some of the Mapuche families sought to preserve and honor indigenous values and ways of life, while others rejected tradition. The participating teachers reflected on these differences in our daily debrief meetings, but they agreed unanimously that these encounters had made them truly mindful of the complexity of the so-called “Mapuche conflict” that exists today in our country.


The town of Tirua, in the Bío Bío Region of Chile. (Photo by Sebastian Tuma.)

The experience of sharing every school day with peers and students for an entire week expanded the visiting teachers’ vision of the conflict. Like the host families, the school settings also varied: some of the schools were large, others were small; a few of the schools were in rural environments and others were in the heart of the village. Some of the staff and students welcomed the teachers from Santiago with open arms, while others were more reluctant. At the end of the week, the teachers in the program agreed that the experience had helped them to better understand the importance of their role as educators. They viewed themselves as potential channels to transmit a more nuanced understanding of the Chilean–Mapuche conflict to their students, from the perspective of history as well as their personal experiences as participants in the Kuykuitin program.

Outside the classrooms, we held meetings with different parties who have some relation to the conflict in the local territory. They included Mapuche staff working in the municipal government of Tirúa, beginning with the indigenous mayor, Adolfo Millabur. We also introduced the teachers to Mapuche intellectuals, like Juanita Paillalef, a Mapuche activist and director of the Mapuche Museum in the town of Cañete, the historian Fernando Pairican, and the poet Leonel Lienlaf. We also met with Relmu Witral, the Mapuche Association of Artisan Weavers, and with Jesuit priests who have worked in Tirúa for 20 years. These encounters took the form of intensive conversations — nutram in Mapudungun — that encouraged the teachers to collaborate with those communities, thereby offering various perspectives on the ongoing conflict. As Marcela (our original contact who became a Kuykuitin participant) explained, the nutram gave the teachers an opportunity to engage with the Mapuche communities in a “less paternalistic and more horizontal fashion.”

The participating teachers all taught students belonging to a specific population, both in terms of their age and socioeconomic status: 10th-grade students attending elite high schools whose families belong to the country’s top 5-percent income group. In Chile, 10th-grade history curriculum includes the most material on Mapuche culture and society, yet their proximity to economic and cultural power is likely to expose these young people to a one-dimensional view of the conflict. In addition, students of this social class tend to have more negative perceptions about the Mapuche people. A 2014 study from the Instituto Nacional de la Juventud (INJUV, National Youth Institute) entitled “Percepciones de un Conflicto” (Perceptions of a Conflict) shows that young people from the highest socioeconomic level consider the conflict as less relevant compared to those from lower socioeconomic levels. Our own data reveals that upper-class students associate the Mapuche people first with the concept of “conflict” (37 percent), followed by “our origins” (35 percent), and “discrimination” (15 percent). Twenty percent say that they have discriminated against Mapuche people, but 29 percent disagree or strongly disagree with the assertion that the Mapuche are violent people.


The school Escuela Pichi Lafquenche. (Photo by Sebastian Tuma.)

 The Impact

The impact of the program can be measured in many ways. Here, we present an impact assessment that looks at the perception of the conflict held by elite high school students of the participating teachers. Under the supervision of a teacher, 601 students answered a self-administered survey that was given twice: first in March 2016 (Sample 1) and then in November 2016 (Sample 2), immediately before and after we implemented Kuykuitin in April 2016. We divided the group in two sub-groups: a test group made up of students of the teachers participating in Kuykuitin (54 percent of the total sample) and a control group of students from the same high schools whose teachers did not participate in Kuykuitin (46 percent of the sample).

We asked all the students about their opinions and perceptions concerning different elements of the conflict. The evidence of our study revealed statistically significant changes in the opinions and perceptions of the students in three areas before and after Kuykuitin: 1) the relationship between the Mapuche people and the Chilean government; 2) the Mapuche people; and 3) history classes and their importance for reflecting on the conflict.

Regarding the relationship between the Mapuche people and the Chilean government, 43 percent of the test group agreed or strongly agreed with the statement “The Mapuche people deserve to be acknowledged in a special way by the Chilean government” in Sample 1 (see Figure 1). This percentage increased to 50 percent in Sample 2. More interestingly, when we compared the test group with the control group, the significance of the change was greater. In other words, when we compared the group with itself and with the control group, the results showed that Kuykuitin could have been the key element producing the change in the students’ opinions and perceptions. This trend applies for all the findings that follow.

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Three statements were related to opinions about the Mapuche people (see Figure 2). One reads “The Mapuche people are responsible for the conflict.” Students in the treatment group who agreed or strongly agreed with the statement decreased from 32 percent to 24 percent between the intervals. With regards to the statement “The Mapuche people take advantage of the Chilean government,” students showed an almost 50-percent decrease in agreement before and after Kuykuitin (from 22 percent to 12 percent). Finally, 50-percent fewer students in the treatment group agreed or strongly agreed with the statement “The Mapuche people are, generally speaking, a violent people,” (from 29 percent to 15 percent) from Sample 1 to Sample 2.

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We stated earlier that history classes, curriculum, and teachers are all essential for transferring knowledge of history from one generation to another. For this reason, we included a question in the survey about how much students valued their history classes as a means of reflecting on the conflict in the south of Chile. Students in the test group showed an increase of 150 percent (24 percent to 67 percent) from Sample 1 to Sample 2, with regards to their opinion about how much their history classes helped them reflect on the conflict (see Figure 3).

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The Future

Chile can certainly develop first-rate plans in favor of intercultural education. It can even design the best public policies for teaching history at the high school level or a curriculum that addresses the Chilean–Mapuche conflict in detail. These are all worthwhile, and indeed urgent, goals. Yet nothing can replace what a history teacher can gain through an immersion experience like Kuykuitin, which allows teachers to understand firsthand the complexity of the Chilean­–Mapuche conflict.

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Marcela Salazar, a teacher from Santiago (center), with a student group in Tirua. (Photo by Sebastian Tuma.)

When the classroom door closes and instruction begins, only the students and their teachers remain inside. In the hands of these teachers lies the future of the next generations of students. If these students become wise, empowered citizens, it will be thanks, in part, to the encouragement of wise, empowered teachers. Kuykuitin seeks to promote opportunities of empowerment for those teachers and through them, their students. Therefore, we believe that Kuykuitin might be a way to change the course of the Chilean–Mapuche conflict.

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Cristobal Madero is a Ph.D. candidate in Education Policy and Organizations at UC Berkeley. He researches the changing meaning and possibilities of the teaching profession at the secondary level. Cristobal received a 2016 Tinker Summer Research Grant, awarded by the Center for Latin American Studies. 


Daniel Cano photo

Daniel Cano is a Ph.D. candidate in History at Georgetown University. His research has focused in the history of Latin America and indigenous communities.

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Doctor Atl’s Olinka

By Alfonso Fierro

The story of Doctor Atl’s Olinka is the story of a failure. Olinka was meant to be a city for artists, intellectuals, and scientists – a place where they could work independently and collectively, in a space detached from the modern world. Dr. Atl was a disenchanted revolutionary and a landscape painter. He became well-known for his “aeropaisajes” (landscapes from the perspective of the sky) that express the telluric force he found in nature, as well as for his harsh criticism of Mexico’s transition to capitalist modernization after the Revolution. Olinka is a direct product of these times. It is also the project that occupied Atl during the last decade of his life (1952-1962). He worked relentlessly, perhaps in vain, trying to find a place for his utopian city. From Chiapas to Jalisco, from the Santa Catarina range to Tepoztlán and finally to the “Cerro de la Estrella” close to Mexico City, Atl was never able to muster the support necessary for his project.

I received a Tinker Grant from CLAS to travel to Mexico to research Dr. Atl’s Olinka. During the last few days, I have visited his personal archive in the incredible brutalist building of the Biblioteca Nacional at UNAM (National Autonomous University of Mexico), submerging myself in the notes, memos, schemes, diagrams, letters, and every other document related to this project. In this process, it is impossible not to ask oneself what exactly leads a man of eighty-something years of age to devote such energy to building of a utopian city. Was it an urge to leave a legacy? Was it part of the post-revolutionary impulse to construct and erect? Was it a tantrum, an obsession? Or perhaps it was an unmovable conviction, like those that no longer seem to really exist anymore.


The entry to the archive collections in the Biblioteca Nacional at UNAM. (Photo by Alfonso Fierro.)

According to Atl’s own words, the idea of Olinka first came to him in Paris during the 1910s, when he belonged to the avant-garde movement behind the publication Action d’Art. However, it did not crystallize fully until the 1950s in Mexico. Crear la fuerza (Create the force), a 1952 publication written by Atl and signed by the people he united under the Consejo Nacional de la Cultura, is the utopian manifesto and key to understanding Olinka. Both in this and in later texts, Atl described a city that would have buildings dedicated to the arts and sciences, housing facilities, an open-air theatre, an archaeological pre-hispanic museum, a “Temple for Men,” and a “Temple for Women”. The idea behind the project was to create a “movement” of such force that the utilitarian modernity he despised could finally be overcome.

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“Crear la Fuerza”, the program/manifesto for the utopian city of Olinka. (Photo by Alfonso Fierro.)

Ironically enough, over the years, after failure upon failure, Doctor Atl became increasingly more pragmatic. In some later texts, the temples begin to disappear, followed by the arts buildings, and even the open-air theatre. By the time Atl attempted to build Olinka in the Cerro de la Estrella during the early sixties, he speaks only of the archaeological museum and the institute for “outer space” investigations.

But perhaps even this idea was a failure. It seems that every time Doctor Atl attempted to do science he ended up doing science fiction. That was the case of his understanding of Atlantis (he was certain it had been a pre-hispanic city on a sunken island). And indeed, Olinka resembles his own 1935 science fiction novel Un hombre más allá del universo (A man beyond the universe), an epistemological journey to outer space that is depicted as the reencounter of men with the cosmic forces that moved the universe. Once more, the idea was to overcome a fallen, alienated modernity, albeit through scientific knowledge and material progress, that is, through modernity itself. This explains why in Olinka Atl put such high hopes behind the possibility of space traveling, considering it the first step toward the evolution of mankind, as well as the utopian resolution of the modern alienation that asphyxiated him.

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A sketch of Olinka by Doctor Atl. Possibly the so called “Temple for Men”. (Photo by Alfonso Fierro.)

Several people expressed support for Atl’s utopian city, including ex-president Lázaro Cárdenas, but Atl never received the official support that was necessary for success. The archives I have been exploring are full of letters, memos, telegrams, and legal papers that testify to Atl’s relentless insistence, but also to the silence with which he was met. In a country that during those same years was very busy building a huge “Ciudad Universitaria” as the central campus for UNAM and a monumental archaeological museum in Chapultepec, it is no wonder that Olinka was sidelined. Today, one can visit the Museo Nacional de Antropología and the Ciudad Universitaria of UNAM, both key sites of postrevolutionary modernity in Mexico. But Olinka, which Atl envisioned built on the crater of one of those Mexican volcanoes he loved to paint, is now only accessible through the documents kept in two plastic boxes of his personal archive.

IMG_1071Alfonso Fierro is a PhD student at the University of California Berkeley, in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese. He studies modern literature, architecture, and culture in Latin America. His research currently focuses on urban utopias in post-revolutionary Mexico. The project on Doctor Atl’s Olinka was possible thanks to a 2017 Tinker Summer Research Grant. 



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Turning the Devil into an Angel

By Michael Mitchell

I came to Tabasco, Mexico with a Fulbright research grant in August 2014 to study the socio-economic impact of small-scale fish farming in rural communities.  Nestled between Chiapas and Campeche, Tabasco shares a southern border with Guatemala and is one of the primary transit points for Central American refugees and migrants into Mexico.  Over 13,000 families in the state depend on the expansive network of rivers and lagoons to sustain themselves through fishing.  Though Tabasco was the epicenter of the Mexican oil boom of the 1980s through the mid 2000s that brought significant wealth to the Mexican economy, Tabasco has remained one of the poorest states in the country.

I landed in Tabasco with high expectations to study fish farmers.  However, once I started visited fishing communities to execute pre-survey interviews, a completely unexpected issue came up repeatedly – the “pez diablo”.  The “pez diablo” or devil fish was ruining the livelihoods of the fish farmers.  “There’s no longer any other fish, just this useless trash fish,” they would say.  Not having a clue as to what they were talking about, I began asking around at the university where I worked, seeing what could be done with this ‘devil fish’.  I soon realized that it’s a common aquarium fish!  In fact, I had dozens of them growing up – these odd-looking ‘cleaner fish’ that spent its days vacuuming up algae, in turn cleaning fish tanks.


The ‘devil fish’ or armored catfish has wreaked havoc on fisheries in Southern Mexico. (Photo by Michael Mitchell.)

The ‘devil fish’, also known as the suckermouth or armored catfish in English, had first been found in Mexico about 15 years ago. Many estimates calculate that 70%-80% of the wild capture today is comprised of the suckermouth catfish. This has been devastating to the thousands of Mexican families that depend on fishing as their primary economic activity.  Because of its ugly appearance, as well as the stigma and lack of information, people have generally refused to consume the suckermouth, often believing it to be poisonous. However, it is completely edible and is commonly consumed in its native Amazon region of Brazil, Colombia and Ecuador.  I learned that it is even sold in the markets in those countries!

To demystify this foreign creature I began giving informal community presentations to share the information I had learned at the university.  After witnessing the success of these workshops I asked myself, “Well heck, what if we just change the name and start selling the fillet?”  I’d seen this done with other fish before – the Chilean Sea Bass, Swai, Orange Roughy – all these fish had terrible names and reputations before getting a “makeover”.  So I started to ask around and talk to different restaurants in the capital Villahermosa.  After being laughed out of several meetings, a friend put me in touch with Chef Lupita Vidal from La Cevichería.


The author (in blue) working with the Red Cross to give devil fish workshops in rural communities. (Photo by Michael Mitchell.)

With Lupita’s help, we soon created the “Pez diablo burger” and began marketing the fish as “Acarí”.  Lupita took the plunge and included the burger on her menu, which was met with a sharply divided response.  Many applauded her efforts though many more responded with repugnance – one woman even said she’d never return to her restaurant again!


Chef Lupita Vidal teaching a woman how to prepare a dish using the devil fish. (Photo by Michael Mitchell.)


The Pez Diablo Burger. (Photo by Michael Mitchell.)

Through our persistence and guerrilla marketing, we’ve started a company named Acarí that has sold hundreds of pounds of suckermouth fillet across the country. Lupita’s burger has become a hit in her restaurant.  Most importantly, the fish farmers we partner with have found a new source of income.  As I am writing this article, they are currently filleting over 200kg of fish that would have previously been thrown to the riverbank.  The end product will net them around 700 pesos, about half of their monthly salaries before Acarí.


Team photo with fisher men and women from the pilot community, Simón Sarlat, in Tabasco. (Photo by Michael Mitchell.)

During my first year in the Berkeley MDP program, I worked to further develop Acarí in several of my classes including the Food Venture Lab.  I also had the opportunity to participate in Innovation for Equality, which spurred me to explore other markets or innovations.  Thinking about the relationship between social necessity and profit, I began to think about who could benefit the most from our products in Southern Mexico.  What, I wondered, was being done for the hundreds of thousands of immigrants and refugees crossing Mexico each year?  It turns out that many of these folks lean heavily on a network of NGOs and nonprofits like La 72 Immigrant and Refugee Shelter across Mexico.  These organizations depend on donations and are often only able to provide basic staples like rice, beans and some vegetables to these people.  Among the people fleeing rampant violence and poverty in Central America include an increasing number of women and young children.  I knew we had an opportunity to do something.


Donating fish croquettes to La 72 Immigrant and Refugee Shelter in Tenosique, Tabasco. (Photo by Michael Mitchell.)

Through Lupita’s guidance, we’ve developed an Acarí croquette with chaya that’s packed full of essential vitamins and nutrients.  We’re rolling out the croquettes in July under the slogan “turning the devil into an angel”.  For every croquette we sell in Mexico and the United States, we’ll donate one to the immigrant shelter La 72 located in Tabasco.  Our hope is that as we expand sales, we’ll able to expand our network of shelters, eventually providing vital nutrition to these vulnerable populations from Tapachula to Tijuana.  

Picture1Michael Mitchell is MA student at University of Calfiornia, Berkeley, in Master of Development Practice program. His academic focus is Mexico and Central America.  He is currently working in Tabasco, Mexico with his company Acarí. 

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One Year Post-Temer: A Conservative Shift, the Left Response, and an Uncertain Brazilian Future

June 12, 2017

By Rebecca Tarlau

It has been one year since the first female President of Brazil, Dilma Rousseff, was removed from office and her Vice President, Michel Temer, took power. I have spent most of the past year in Brazil, observing the tumultuous events unfold. In this short blog post, I recount some of the most important developments that have taken place under Temer’s new administration. I highlight three overarching takeaways from Temer’s year in office: 1) Temer’s administration is a radical ideological break with the previous, left-leaning Workers’ Party’s (PT) administration, and represents a coherent and coordinated attempt to shift the country in a more conservative political and economic direction; 2) Brazilians have broadly rejected Temer’s proposed austerity reforms, in particular the reform of the public pension system; and, 3) The organized left is divided about how to harness this discontent and collectively act to stop these reforms from being implemented.

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March 15 National day of Action calling for “Fora Temer!” (Out with Temer!) (Photo by Rebecca Tarlau.)

When Dilma Rousseff was forced to step down from the presidency on June 12, 2016 due to allegedly manipulating budget accounts, her Vice President, Michel Temer, immediately fired her entire cabinet and appointed in its place a cabinet of his political allies—all of whom were white males. Although it was still several months until Rousseff would be tried for impeachment, Temer was already playing his political cards and pushing forward a series of economic reforms as quickly as possible. Why would a Vice President represent such a different policy paradigm than the President? Unlike the United States, Brazil uses a system of coalition politics, in which more than 35 political parties make alliances each election to win enough votes to take office. It is common practice for parties to shift alliances every few years, more often based on opportunism than ideological coherence. This is what happened when Michel Temer’s center-right Brazilian Democratic Movement Party (PMDB) aligned with the left-leaning Brazilian Workers’ Party (PT). The PMDB, linked to one of two legal parties during the dictatorship, was infamous for being the “chameleon” of Brazilian politics, i.e., shifting alliances based on the political tide. The PT, known as a “social movement party,” was founded by grassroots movements and oppositional labor unions during the democratic transition, and has generally promoted progressive social and political policies. In 2006, in order to maintain power after Lula’s first term in office, the PT made an official political alliance with the PMDB, despite the PMDB’s drastically different origins and shaky ideological positions.

Fast forward a decade later. In 2016 it became clear that the PT’s popularity was faltering throughout the country (see previous CLAS blog post). In a strategic move to remain aligned with the most powerful forces in Brazil, the PMDB dramatically broke with the PT, despite Temer’s Vice Presidential status. The PMDB formed a new alliance with a much more ideologically coherent party, the center-right Brazilian Social Democratic Party (PSDB), which was the PT’s major rival in the political scene. The PSDB supported fiscal austerity, cuts to government spending, and restrictions on the power of labor unions, all with the hope of reviving the economy and increasing international financial investment. The reforms that Temer began to push forward in 2016 were straight out of the PSDB economic playbook. The most important of these initiatives was a freeze on public spending for public education and health for twenty years (known as the “ceiling reform”), a restructuring of the high school system to support more vocational offerings, a change in workers’ rights legislation to allow contracts to trump workers’ rights laws, the elimination of automatic union dues, a law that makes the outsourcing of workers easier for employers, and most polemically, a major transformation of the public pension system.

Since these reforms have been rolled out there has been an increasing wave of discontent and unrest. The organized left, of course, has been furious since 2015, when the calls for Rousseff’s impeachment first began, describing the process as political coup d’état: using the rallying call of “corruption” to overthrow a legitimately elected government (again, for more on these corruption allegations see previous CLAS blog post). Nonetheless, as the agenda of the Temer administration became increasingly clear, the idea of an unfolding coup began to take on more meaning in the lives of working-class populations across the country. I was doing field work with teachers unions in São Paulo when Temer announced the specifics of the pension reforms. I went to dozens of schools and saw as teachers’ jaws dropped when they were told that they would have to work 49 years to receive their pension benefits—a huge increase from the current 25-year requirement for women and 30-year requirement for men. Although unionists and social movement activists had been trying to mobilize workers to take to the streets for months, their calls of emergency were finally being heard. On March 8, International Women’s Day, there was a huge national mobilization involving hundreds of thousands of people. On March 15, over a million workers participated in a national day of protest and mobilization, largely due to the teacher unions that instigated these protests.

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Participant in the March 15 National Day of Action holding up a sign that says “retired” with a grave, critiquing the new public pension reforms. (Photo by Rebecca Tarlau.)

Then, on April 28, all of the union confederations in the country—deeply divided politically and ideologically—called for a general strike and 35 million workers shut down many parts of Brazil for 24 hours. Finally, just a few weeks later, it seemed as though Temer’s fall had finally come, as the all-powerful TV network Globo, traditionally a strong ally of the Temer administration, released tapes that implicated the President in a corruption scandal that involved payments to a prominent politician in exchange for his silence. To keep up the pressure, on May 24, tens of thousands of people travelled to the capital city of Brasília, to call for Fora Temer! (Out with Temer!) and Diretas Já (Immediate Direct Elections!). Temer deployed federal troop to crackdown on the protesters, an extreme measure that many interpreted as a signal of an increasingly precarious grip on power.

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Union organizers up early in the morning on April 28 to shut down a factory. (Photo by Rebecca Tarlau.)

But Temer did not fall. And direct elections have not been called. Temer claims that the tapes were manipulated and he has refused to resign; instead, he has committed to pushing forward what he acknowledges as “highly unpopular” but “essential” reforms to restore the economic stability of the country. The organized left, which up until this point has succeeded in coordinating several significant national actions to contest these reforms, seems divided about next steps. The union centrals have called for another general strike on June 30. The Workers’ Party (PT) is still calling for immediate direct elections but is also looking ahead to the 2018 election cycle, placing their bets on ex-President Luis Inácio “Lula” da Silva’s ability to win the presidency again and reverse many of these reforms. There are dozens of other political groups, social movements, and unions that support this strategy, most of which participate in the broad national coalition “Brazil Popular Front.” These groups have invested a lot of energy into mobilizing against the attempts to implicate Lula in the ongoing corruption scandals. On May 29, the Brazil Popular Front also launched an “Grassroots Emergency Plan,” with 76 proposals concerning the democratization of the state, employment, agrarian reform, tax reform, workers’ rights, health, education, culture, housing, public security, human rights, environment, and international politics and national sovereignty.

Photo 4Large Assembly of teachers participating in a National Day of Action in Brazil. (Photo by Rebecca Tarlau).

The other major left-coalition is the “People without Fear,” which also includes several grassroots social movements, as well as many other political groups that have broken with the PT over the previous two decades. Many of these organizations dismiss the Lula-as-savior strategy and are attempting to organize what they refer to as a “left front” that will promote a more radical transformation of the capitalist system, not a series of reforms through political alliances. What exactly this would look like is unclear. Some of the groups in the “People without Fear” front have been organizing “grassroots neighborhood advisory councils” that they hope can take on the role of governing local neighborhoods if there is a full collapse of the state. As of now, the biggest question is whether any of these groups will be able to continue mobilizing the unorganized popular masses, i.e., the millions of workers who do not participate in parties, movements, or unions, but who are worried about living in a country without pensions, without workers’ rights, and without job stability. There is clearly momentum, but the big question is how to keep this momentum going and in what direction. The general strike called for June 30th will be an important litmus test of whether workers are willing to take to the streets again to protect their rights, or whether other organizing strategies are necessary. What we can be sure of is that Temer represents a stark break with the social and economic policies of Brazil’s previous decade. People did not vote for this new economic and political paradigm and the majority of the country does not seem to accept the reforms as legitimate. With decades of hard-earned workers’ rights at stake, the organized left has to think hard about the most appropriate political strategy to take as Temer enters his second year in office.

2014-07-02 21.00.17

Rebecca Tarlau is a Postdoctoral Scholar at the Stanford University Graduate School of Education. Her current research project examines teacher organizing in Brazil, Mexico, and the United States. Some of Tarlau’s recent publications include “How Do New Critical Pedagogies Develop? Educational Innovation, Social Change, and Landless Workers in Brazil” (Teachers College Record); “Not-So-Public Contention: Movement Strategies, Regimes, and the Transformation of Public Institutions in Brazil” (Mobilization); “From a Language to a Theory of Resistance: Critical Pedagogy, the Limits of ‘Framing,’ and Social Change” (Educational Theory).

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The Bitter Side of Sweet: Peru’s Nutrition Transition

By Shane Fallon

As a 2016 recipient of the Tinker Summer Research Grant from the Center for Latin American Studies, as well as the recipient of UC Berkeley’s Center for Global Public Health Reporting Fellowship, my summer research project took me south of the hemisphere to Peru. My photojournalism project in the coastal, urban city of Trujillo captured how dietary changes have created a public health crisis by contributing to the rise of noncommunicable diseases such as obesity and Type II diabetes. A meta-analysis conducted by the World Health Organization showed that 58.2% of adults over 18 years of age in Peru are overweight or obese; that is well over half of the population.1 No one is immune from obesity and for various reasons, and women and children are at greatest risk.2 Thus, this is a public health issue that requires urgent attention, action, and programs with accountability.


There are many “scale vendors” throughout Peru, in part because the majority of people do not have access to a scale. These scales are a positive shift towards weight consciousness, however just knowing one’s weight is unlikely to change lifestyle habits such as modifying one’s diet or exercising more. (Photo by Shane Fallon.)

As is the case with nearly all cities around the world, the population of Trujillo is growing. Many of Trujillo’s new residents have migrated from more rural parts of Peru, such as the highlands of Huaraz. Upon moving to the urban core, people tend to shift away from an agrarian lifestyle, which consists of doing hard manual labor on a daily basis, to a more sedentary lifestyle. While caloric output radically decreases, caloric input remains high. Oftentimes, caloric intake is even higher in urban settings due to ample access to processed foods and fast food. Fast food chains have yet to infiltrate Huaraz, but they claim prominent real estate on Trujillo’s Plaza de Armas (the city center). Residents in Trujillo are bombarded with an overwhelming excess of food. Food vendors are stacked in a line along the street and offer up sweet treats such as mazamorra morada (Peruvian purple corn pudding) or variations of fried dough. The food is seductive and inexpensive.


Similar in price to a bottle of water, which needs to be purchased because tap water is not potable, people generally prefer sweetened drinks to unadulterated water. Discussions on the deleterious effects of sugar sweetened beverages are essentially nonexistent. In fact, advertisements for brand names encourage consumption, particularly amongst impoverished communities. (Photo by Shane Fallon.)

My adventure to the city and province of Huaraz began upon repeatedly hearing that Trujillo’s most at risk populations for noncommunicable diseases, such as obesity and diabetes, are indigenous groups who have moved into the urban core. I find this hypothesis plausible since socioeconomic status is the most potent predictor for the risk of noncommunicable diseases.3 Even though Peru is considered an upper-middle income country, many regions, such as Huaraz, have large communities of indigenous populations that live well below the national poverty line.4 Consequently, many people are moving to urban cities such as Trujillo in search of better economic opportunities.


No Peruvian meal is complete without a starch. Though famous for the hundreds of potato varietals, many other starchy items such as corn, wheat, rice, and pasta, have become a fixated part of the Peruvian diet. Oftentimes, a typical dish will serve two starches such as this dish of white rice with white pasta. (Photo by Shane Fallon.)

Huaraz is the capital of the Ancash region and home to the snow and glacier-capped Cordilleras mountain range. Presently, the people of Huaraz are in the middle stages of Peru’s nutrition transition, meaning that they are facing a double burden of malnutrition.5 The nutrition transition refers to changes in diet and physical activity patterns that are changing body composition at a population level. The double burden refers to high rates of both undernourished and over-nourished (overweight and obese) people – both of which are forms of malnutrition. Though the prevalence of noncommunicable diseases is generally higher in upper income countries, the rate is growing much more quickly in lower and middle income countries such as Peru.5


Trujillo’s most at risk populations for non-communicable diseases, such as obesity and diabetes, are indigenous groups who have moved into the urban core. However, even in the highlands of Huaraz, sugary drinks are a part of everyday life. (Photo by Shane Fallon.)

Coming to Peru has given me a new perspective on the meaning of diversity. Driving through Huaraz, villages just a 30 minutes combi (public van ride) apart from each other celebrate different cuisines, garb, and dialects. Furthermore, the contrast between city life in Trujillo and rural life in Huaraz gives insight into the complexity of creating a national strategy to address salient public health issues in Peru. My observations suggest that a singular national policy to address obesity in Peru would be an ineffective use of resources. Instead, nutrition interventions that are individually tailored to these diverse groups of people are more likely to have an impressionable impact. Thus, the next obstacle is designing a regional policy to create healthier communities within Trujillo’s morphing urban center.


  1. “WHO | World Health Organization.” WHO | World Health Organization. World Health Organization, 2015. Web. 10 Feb. 2016.
  2. “Obesity and Overweight.” WHO. World Health Organization, 2016. Web. 10 Feb. 2016.
  3. Claire Conway. “Poor Health: When Poverty Becomes Disease.” UC San Francisco, 06 Jan. 2016. Web. 25 June 2016.
  4. “Peru Data.” World Bank, 2016. Web. 25 June 2016.
  5. Chaparro, M. Pia, and Leobardo Estrada. “Mapping the Nutrition Transition in Peru: Evidence for Decentralized Nutrition Policies.” Rev Panam Salud Publica Revista Panamericana De Salud Pública 32.3 (2012): 241-44. Rev Panam Salud Publica, 2012. Web. 25 June 2016.


Ceviche is a refreshing departure from much of the fried food of Peru. The fish is eaten raw but preserved in a robust bath of acidic lime juice, salt, ricotto (a type of Peruvian chili pepper) and garlic. The vendors at the markets in Trujillo will cut the fish into the bite sized pieces desired, making the final preparation process less than ten minutes. Ceviche can be eaten just minutes after all of the ingredients are added together. However, the longer the ingredients mingle, the more juice the fish will absorb. On our plate of ceviche, we added the cooked choclo (big boiled corn kernals), yucca, and seaweed. (Photo by Shane Fallon.)


Living in Trujillo, I gathered an appreciation for Peruvian food from the jungle, desert, highlands, and coast. Though Central, ranked the best restaurant in South America and located in Lima, draws from these same environments, the food was nothing like I had ever tasted before. I have eaten potatoes nearly every day in Peru, but tasting the dozens of potato varietals at Central challenged my notion of how a Peruvian potato could look and taste. (Photo by Shane Fallon.)



Shane Fallon is a graduate student in the School of Public Health at UC Berkeley. Shane received a 2016 Tinker Summer Research Grant, awarded by the Center for Latin American Studies. 

To read more about Shane’s travel and research visit her blog at


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Tropical Biology and Ships: Animal Behavior Research with Background Whistles

By Ignacio Escalante


A muddy trail on Barro Colorado Island, Panama, right after the rain. (Photo by Ignacio Escalante.)

I am walking in a tropical rainforest on a small island in central Panama. The sound of my muddy boots mixes with the sounds of raindrops hitting the tree canopy, and toucans singing, and monkeys howling in the distance. That is the typical mid-afternoon symphony around here. Suddenly, those noises are interrupted by the loudest and longest ship whistle I have ever heard. On the top of the hill, through a break in the trees I see it: a big transoceanic ship approximately 3 miles away, moving slowly through the Panama Canal. On its hull I can read “MONROVIA” (the capital of Liberia in West Africa). Such daily sightings are a constant reminder of the non-stop human activity surrounding this small tropical island.

Tropical biologists expect field sites to be as pristine, protected, and isolated from human intervention as possible. Those expectations do not necessarily hold true here, in Barro Colorado Island, a 1500 hector (3706 acre) island of protected rainforest that serves as a research station and mecca for tropical biologists. There is a small caveat: this island is in the middle of the Panama Canal. Every day, 40 vessels pass by carrying oil, cars, produce and every other imaginable product. Their passage through the canal is a shortcut, a way get from the Pacific Ocean to the Caribbean Sea avoiding the long trip South America. Thus, the history of Barro Colorado Island is perhaps as interesting as the organisms I study for my dissertation.


The sign welcoming researchers to Barro Colorado Island, which is administered by the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute. (Photo by Ignacio Escalante.)

Before the Panama Canal was built, the place where I am standing today was not an island, but a large forest. In the early 1900s, the Chagres River was dammed and the Gatún Lake was flooded, causing the water level to rise and creating the Barro Colorado Island. The United States established the Panama Canal Zone, increasing the need to protect forest and the watershed around it. In 1923, Barro Colorado Island was officially protected and the few inhabitants with leases were dispossessed of their land. Thus, the world’s oldest biological station was born, and most of our knowledge about tropical rainforests is derived from research conducted on this tiny island. Botanists, ecologists, geographers, taxonomists, and sociologists have come from the US, Europe, Asia, and Latin America to study this isolated patch of rainforest.

During the summer of 2016, I joined the long-standing tradition of tropical biology research at Barro Colorado Island. I am a short-term fellow at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI), conducting evolutionary biology and animal behavior research for my dissertation. With funding from STRI, a Tinker Grant from the Center of Latin American Studies, and the Pre-dissertation Grant from the Institute of International Studies at UC Berkeley, I am able to spend part of my summer on this Panamanian island. I am conducting an in-depth field survey of arachnids (spiders and daddy long-legs), working to understand how evolution has shaped these animals to respond to pressures from predators, parasites and food scarcity.


The study organisms, daddy long-legs and spiders, respectively. (Photo by Ignacio Escalante.)

My days start and end the same way. I eat breakfast in a cafeteria with Panamanian, Latin American, European and American researchers, professors, students and interns. Broken English and broken Spanish (and occasionally some Portuñol – the improvised mixture of Portuguese and Spanish) are frequently heard at the table, and I proudly become part of these engaging multi-language conversations. My breakfast companions come from a myriad of backgrounds, with research interests and career paths that contribute to yet another level of diversity on this island. After breakfast, I hike into the forest with a tripod on my shoulder and a camera in my backpack, ready to film short high-speed videos of spiders shaking their webs. I also search for daddy long-legs located under rocks, inside rotting logs, and deep in the leaf litter. By recording the defensive behavior of these arachnids in these field experiments, and noting when they are found in particular microhabitats, I will contribute to our understanding of the variety of defensive strategies animals have.

Meal times punctuate every day, and my morning arachnid search is interrupted by lunch. I head back into the forest for a few more hours before dinner and I run experiments in the pitch-black forest every night. The rhythm of each day is accompanied by the sounds of ships’ horns, which are such a constant part of the forest in this part of the world that they may no longer startle the animals, though they still startle the newly minted. Consequently, the sound of ships moving through the canal are an ever-present reminder that I am not far from civilization.


A typical view from the BCI laboratory: The Panama Canal and a big ship crossing it. (Photo by Ignacio Escalante.)

Research on Barro Colorado Island has an interesting irony. This island is a field station where the forest is protected from direct human intervention. However, the forest was protected thanks to the early 19th century trade industry, mostly led by developed countries. The result is a dialectic relationship between protecting the watershed to operate the canal and, in the process, establishing a mecca of knowledge on tropical ecology, all while developing a heavy trade route through the heart of Panama.

Barro Colorado Island’s situation begs the question: can development and environmental protection coexist? I ponder this question and its implications while hiking on these muddy trails. With this in mind I continue my search for arachnids, feeling lucky that this place exists and motivated to work to unravel nature’s complex processes, one video at the time.

2016Summer-Escalante-GatheringSpecimens-750pIGNACIO ESCALANTE is a Ph.D candidate in the Department of Environmental Science, Policy and Management at University of California, Berkeley, specializing in behavioral ecology, phenotipic plasticity, tropical biology, animal communication and cognition, and spiders. Ignacio received a 2016 Tinker Summer Research Grant, awarded by the Center for Latin American Studies. 



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“Mexit”; o el retorno a la vecidad distante

por Lorenzo Meyer

(Click here for English version of this blog)

¿Salida o Expulsión?

En 2016, y tras un referéndum, Gran Bretaña votó por salirse de la Unión Europea, el “Brexit”. El 8 de noviembre de ese mismo año, las elecciones presidenciales norteamericanas le dieron el triunfo al candidato del Partido Republicano, Donald Trump, y justo ahí empezó lo que podemos llamar el “Mexit”, es decir, la salida de México no tanto del Tratado de Libre Comercio de la América del Norte (TLCAN) sino del proyecto político de largo plazo que suponía para ese país la decisión tomada en 1992 de mudar de piel. Hace 25 años, México pareció dejar de ser un país latinoamericano para empezar a transformarse, obedeciendo a imperativos geográficos y económicos más la una voluntad política de sus élites, y con la aceptación de Washington y de Ottawa, en el tercer miembro de la América del Norte. (1) Hoy, todo indica que México ha empezado a retomar su carácter de país latinoamericano.


Logotipo del Tratado de Libre Comercio de América del Norte (TLCAN).

El Brexit fue una decisión soberana de los electores británicas de salirse de la Unión Europea (UE) y que, de inmediato, llevó a la caída del gobierno encabezado por David Cameron. Su sucesora, Theresa May, aún tiene que negociar los detalles de la salida con la UE en Bruselas. En contraste, el Mexit no es la salida de México sino su expulsión de hecho del espacio político, económico y social de la América del Norte por decisión del gobierno de Trump que, en contraste, reafirmó los lazos de buena relación política con su vecino del norte, con Canadá, durante la visita que le hizo el Primer Ministro de ese país, Justin Trudeau, en febrero pasado. El Mexit tampoco significó la caída del gobierno de Enrique Peña Nieto, pero su debilitamiento aún mayor del que ya experimentaba desde 2014.

Es verdad que la América del Norte no es una institución formal como la UE sino apenas una idea que nació con la firma del TLCAN en 1992 y que ese tratado aún está vigente, aunque se va a renegociar a mediados de este año y su extinción es una posibilidad muy real. Pero si la salida de México de la América del Norte económica y política no tiene la formalidad del Brexit, sí tiene su contundencia. Los ataques reiterados de Trump desde 2015 al TLCAN, su decisión de crear una gran barrera artificial entre México y Estados Unidos con un muro de 3, 142 kilómetros y acelerar la deportación de los cinco millones y pico de mexicanos indocumentado que se encuentran en Estados Unidos -la mayoría como trabajadores en puestos eventuales, de bajos salarios pero que han sido caracterizados por el ejecutivo norteamericano como un conjunto que alberga en su seno una buena cantidad de “bad hombres” -, implica un rechazo brutal a la idea de México como parte de una Norteamérica aceptable a los ojos del nacionalismo duro, agresivo, que se acaba de instalar en Washington.

El “Mexico bashing” que formó parte del discurso de Trump desde el inicio de su campaña para llegar a la presidencia, buscó beneficiarse de una predisposición anti mexicana muy arraigada en sectores amplios del público norteamericano, pero que no había sido activada por los gobernantes norteamericanos de los últimos tiempos. Sin embargo, desde 2015, el discurso de Trump optó por culpar a los mexicanos de ambos lados del río Bravo de “robar” empleos que históricamente pertenecían a la clase obrera norteamericana e incrementar la inseguridad y el crimen en ese país.

Los datos no abalaron la veracidad de las tesis antimexicanas de Trump, pero en la práctica sí le redituaron políticamente de una manera muy similar a la que en 1846 favoreció a James Polk acusar al gobierno mexicano de una supuesta “agresión” mexicana en la indefinida frontera con Texas, La agresividad, y falsedad de Polk –“se ha derramado sangre norteamericana en suelo norteamericano”- le permitieron aumentar el apoyo interno, ya que la victoria sobre su rival en la elección de 1844 había sido por apenas un raquítico 1.4%. Además, Polk consideró que la creciente tensión interna entre los estados del norte y del sur que amenazaba la unidad de su país, podía ser superada si la energía política del conjunto se dirigía a atacar a un enemigo común perfecto: a un México débil en extremo, pues aún no era un Estado nacional en el sentido estricto del concepto. La jugada le salió muy bien a Polk, aumento al doble el territorio de su país y por 13 años más logro retrasar la ruptura entre los estados del norte y del sur.


El batalle de Chapultepec en Mexico, el 13 de septiembre de 1847.

Si la invasión de México entre 1846 y 1848 no fue la verdadera solución de la desunión norteamericana de entonces, igual podría suceder ahora, pues el TLCAN o la migración indocumentada no parecen ser la causa profunda, real, de la desindustrialización del rust belt norteamericano y de la división social creciente en Estados Unidos, aunque hay quienes sostienen con argumentos económicos que sí es ese el caso. (2)

Dos Crisis en Una

El Mexit es solo una de las dos crisis políticas en que está atrapado hoy México. En realidad, esta experiencia no es nueva, tiene historia. México nació como Estado independiente de una simultaneidad de crisis interna y externa. A inicios del siglo XIX la Nueva España primero recibió el ramalazo de la invasión francesa de España que llevó a una crisis política interna que se transformó en una cruenta guerra civil que desembocó en la independencia. Cuando los norteamericanos declararon la guerra a México en 1846, la lucha interna (federalistas vs centralistas, monárquicos vs. republicanos, etc.) era ya de tal magnitud que entre mediados de 1833 y 1848, hubo 34 cambios de presidente y la fragilidad de las instituciones era extrema: en ese mismo lapso la Secretaría de Hacienda cambió de titular 66 veces. (3) En esas pugnas intestinas se encuentra una de las explicaciones de la derrota mexicana. La posterior “aventura francesa” que llevó al efímero Segundo Imperio (1864-1867) no se explica sin la fiera división y lucha interna entre liberales y conservadores. Hubo otros momentos en que se convergieron crisis internas y externas, pero ya no de esa magnitud.

El origen de la actual crisis política interna mexicana es resultado del fracaso de la transición que arrancó a fines del siglo pasado, cuando se creyó posible, pasar pacíficamente del largo autoritarismo priista a una democracia razonable y aceptable para la mayoría. Y este fracaso lo prueban a diario los muchos elementos del antiguo sistema que siguen vigentes: notablemente la corrupción, la impunidad y, como derivado de ambas, un crimen organizado cuya violencia no disminuye y que incluso le ha arrancado al Estado el control de ciertas regiones y zonas del país. Resultado de lo anterior es la clara desconfianza del ciudadano frente a toda la estructura institucional. (4) Otros indicadores del problema son el bajo apoyo a la presidencia (12%, aunque hay fuentes ponen una cifra aún menor) y su alta desaprobación (86%).(5) El aumento sustantivo de los precios de la gasolina a partir de enero de este año (2017) ha desatado protestas en casi todo el país, incluso en estados y ciudades sin tradición en ese tipo de política ciudadana. Esas movilizaciones son hoy la muestra mas reciente de un hartazgo ciudadano que, si bien no han llegado a poner en peligro al gobierno, indican un malestar generalizado y en crecida. (6)


La Tercera Mega Marcha contra la Imposición en Guadalajara el 22 de julio de 2012. (Fotografía por Marte Merlos.)

El Índice de Confianza del Consumidor elaborado con cifras del INEGI en el arranque del 2017 es el más bajo desde hace quince años (7) y las perspectivas de mejora de la economía también han ido a la baja: para 2017, el crecimiento esperado, según el FMI, es de apenas un pobre 1.7%. (8)

Desde el inicio de su campaña electoral en junio de 2015 y hasta hoy, Donald Trump eligió a México como un enemigo y lo caracterizó como fuente de problemas importantes para su país -crimen y desempleo- y ya en el poder, decidió usar al vecino del sur como ejemplo de la forma dura como el Washington de Trump se propone tratar con “países problema”.

De tiempo atrás -siglos en realidad- México ha sido mal visto por un sector importante de la sociedad norteamericana. Por motivos históricos, raciales, religiosos y culturales, ese sector desearía la expulsión del territorio norteamericano de los más de cinco millones de indocumentados mexicanos y el final del tratado de libre comercio con el vecino sureño. Y es en ese sector donde anida el anti mexicanismo, del que se nutre en parte el trumpismo, pues el “Mexico bashing” da puntos políticos fáciles, inmediatos y a bajo costo.

Por ahora, la inesperada crisis externa mexicana se manifiesta en un discurso duro -brutal- desde el lado norteamericano: su promesa de completar la construcción de un muro fronterizo que puede costar 20 mil millones de dólares o más, la humillante y absurda exigencia de que sea México el que pague directa o indirectamente por esa gigantesca obra de infraestructura, la amenaza de la repatriación masiva de indocumentados y de una dura negociación para modificar e incluso echar abajo el pilar de la economía exportadora mexicana: el TLCAN, pues ese tratado –“el pero firmado por Estados Unidos” según Trump- significa un déficit comercial de 60 mil millones de dólares anuales. Finalmente, está una amenaza inicial -no repetida después- disfrazada de oferta: si el ejército mexicano no puede actuar con eficiencia, Estados Unidos puede usar directamente la fuerza para acabar con esos “bad hombres” que, desde México, dirigen y conforman los carteles de la droga que están fomentando las adicciones y la violencia criminal en Estados Unidos.

Es más que significativo que las dos primeras órdenes ejecutivas del presidente Trump fueran para mandar construir la muralla con México y añadir más efectivos al sistema de migración. Ambas órdenes las firmó teniendo como testigos de honor a familiares de víctimas de criminales indocumentados. Así pues, y como no hay un mar, una gran cordillera o una gran depresión o río inmenso entre los dos países, Estados Unidos va a hacer lo que natura no hizo: un gran muro defensivo, vigilarlo a conciencia, obligar a México a costearlo y retornarle sus indocumentados.

 Imposible predecir en este momento la evolución de la doble crisis que vive México, salvo que la interna se va a ahondar y la externa obliga, a querer que no, a que en México se dé forma a un nuevo proyecto nacional que ya no dependa tanto de su relación con Estados Unidos, tarea muy complicada y que el actual gobierno mexicano no está en posibilidad de encabezar. Como sea, algo ya quedó claro que la redefinición en el país vecino de lo que es su interés nacional frente a México no permite considerar ya ninguna relación “especial” entre ellos.

Lo que ya no Funciona

El desastre económico en que concluyó el nacionalismo revolucionario en 1982 demandaba un cambio a fondo tanto del sistema económico como el político. Sin embargo, el gobierno de Carlos Salinas impulsó transformar al primero para preservar al segundo. Convenció al Washington de George H. B. Bush de la conveniencia de revitalizar a la economía mexicana vía su incorporación como apéndice de la norteamericana a cambio de darle una nueva oportunidad al viejo sistema político que, por autoritario y predecible, le había sido muy funcional a Washington en tiempos de la Guerra Fría. Al final, el PRI debió dejar “Los Pinos” en el año 2000 para refugiarse en los estados, pero el partido de relevo, el PAN, no estuvo a la altura de las circunstancias y terminó por aceptar jugar con las viejas reglas del priismo y, tras dos sexenios de desgaste, el PRI recuperó la presidencia con nuevos cuadros, pero con su vieja cultura intacta y una ilegitimidad creciente. Es en esa circunstancia que “llovió sobre mojado” y ocurrió lo inesperado: el cambio sorpresivo y brusco de la relación con la potencia hegemónica.

  La naturaleza de la actual coyuntura mexicana lleva a concluir que para enfrentar con cierto la crisis causada por la redefinición en Washington de la política hacia su vecino del sur -el interés nacional norteamericano ya no requiere de la estabilidad y prosperidad mexicanas- México debe enfrentar también la disfuncionalidad creciente de su propio sistema político. Sin una reestructuración a fondo de su institucionalidad y sin la recuperación de su nacionalismo defensivo, el país no podrá enfrentar con éxito a unos Estados Unidos impredecibles. De nuevo queda clara una lección de la historia mexicana: la mejor política externa debe ser una sólida política interna, una que de legitimidad a la autoridad y le permita superar la herencia de la enorme corrupción y violencia en que naufragó la supuesta transición democrática de inicios del siglo.


  1. Rouquié, Alain, Le Mexique. Une état nord-américaine, (Fayard, 2013), pp.306-314.
  2. Véase a Alan Tonelson, The New York Times, (2 de marzo, 2017).
  3. Stevens, Donald F., Origins of inestability in early republican Mexico, Duke University Press, 1991, p. 11).
  4. Véanse los indicadores en: Instituto Federal Electoral y El Colegio de México, Informe país sobre la calidad de la ciudadanía en México, IFE, 2014; María Amparo Casar, México: Anatomía de la corrupción, 2015).
  5. (Periódico Reforma, 18 de enero, 2017).
  6. Semanario Proceso, 5 de febrero, 2017.
  7. Periódico El Financiero, 7 de febrero.
  8. Publicación digital, Animal Político, 16 de enero.


LORENZO MEYER es un historiador, analista política y profesor en el Colegio de México A.C. Dr. Meyer se formó en el Colegio de México, donde consiguió su doctorado, y completó su posdoctorado en la Universidad de Chicago. 

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“Mexit,” or the Return to Distant Neighbors

by Lorenzo Meyer

Exit or Expulsion?

In 2016, and following a referendum, Great Britain voted to leave the European Union: the “Brexit.” On November 8 of that same year, the United States’ presidential elections were won by the candidate of the Republican Party, Donald Trump, and at that moment, we saw the beginning of what we could call the “Mexit,” the departure of Mexico not so much from the North American Free Trade Agreement (Nafta), but rather from the long-term political project for our country, which had decided to change its spots in 1992. Twenty-five years ago, Mexico seemed to cease being a Latin American nation and began to transform itself, obeying geographic and economic imperatives in addition to the political will of its elites and with the acceptance of Washington and Ottawa (in the third North American country). (1) Today, everything indicates that Mexico has begun to retake its identity as a Latin American country.


A logo of the North American Free Trade Agreement (Nafta).

Brexit was a sovereign decision of the British electors to leave the European Union (EU) and one that immediately led to the fall of David Cameron’s government. His successor, Theresa May, has yet to negotiate the details of the exit process with the EU in Brussels. In contrast, Mexit is not the willing departure of Mexico, but its de facto expulsion from the political, economic, and social space of North America as the result of a decision by the Trump government. In contrast, during the February visit of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, the United States reaffirmed the bonds of good political relations with its neighbor to the North. And Mexit did not result in the fall of President Enrique Peña Nieto’s government, but rather an even greater weakening than what had already been experienced in 2014.

It is true that North America is not a formal institution like the EU, but rather just an idea that was born with the signing of Nafta in 1992. It is also true that this treaty is still in force, although it will be renegotiated by mid-2017 and its end is a very real possibility. But while the departure of Mexico from economic and political North America does not have the formality of Brexit, it does have its weight. Trump’s repeated attacks on Nafta since 2015, his decision to create a large artificial barrier between Mexico and the United States by building a 3,142-kilometer (1,952-mile) wall, and the steps he has taken to accelerate the deportation of some five million undocumented Mexicans from the United States — most of whom are seasonal workers with low salaries who have been characterized by the U.S. president as a group that includes “a lot of bad hombres” — imply a stark rejection of the notion that Mexico is a part of North America and are welcome in the eyes of a brutal, aggressive nationalism that has recently taken hold in Washington.

The “Mexico bashing” that was part of Trump’s speech from the beginning of his presidential campaign sought to leverage an anti-Mexican sentiment deeply rooted in broad sectors of the U.S. public that had not been invoked by recent U.S. governments. Since 2015, however, Trump’s rhetoric has blamed Mexicans on both sides of the Rio Bravo/Rio Grande for “stealing” jobs that historically belonged to the working class in the United States and for increased insecurity and crime in that country.

While the facts do not support Trump’s anti-Mexican ideas, in practice they did provide him with a political backing reminiscent of the support that encouraged James Polk to accuse the Mexican government of a supposed “aggression” against the undefined border with Texas in 1846. Polk’s bellicose stance and his “alt facts” — “American blood spilled on American soil” — helped boost domestic support for his government, which had begun with a mere 1.4-percent margin of victory over his rival in the 1844 election. In addition, Polk believed that the growing internal tension between the northern and southern states that threatened the unity of his country could be overcome if the political energy of the whole nation were directed against a perfect common enemy: an extremely weak Mexico, since it was not yet a nation state in the strict sense of the term. Polk’s move played out to his advantage: it doubled the total territory of his country and successfully postponed the rupture between the North and South for another 13 years.


Battle of Chapultepec in Mexico, September 13, 1847 (artist unknown).

If the invasion of Mexico (1846–1848) was not a real solution to the conflict in the United States at that time, then something similar may happen now. Neither Nafta nor undocumented migration appear to be the true underlying cause of the deindustrialization of the U.S. rust belt nor of the growing social division/divide in the United States, although there are those who raise economic arguments that this is indeed the case. (2)

Two Crises in One

Mexit is just one of two political crises in which Mexico is trapped today. In fact, this experience is not new – there is a history behind it. Mexico was born as an independent State from a simultaneous internal and external crisis. At the beginning of the 19th century, New Spain first received the shocking news of the French invasion of Spain, which led to an internal political crisis that turned into a bloody civil war that led to independence. When the United States declared war on Mexico in 1846, the internal struggle (Federalists vs. Centralists, Monarchists vs. Republicans, etc.) was already of such magnitude that from mid-1833 to 1848, there were 34 changes of president, and government institutions were likewise extremely fragile: in that same period, the Secretaría de Hacienda (Ministry of Finance) changed leadership 66 times. (3) This internal strife is one of the reasons why Mexico lost. The later “French adventure” that led to the ephemeral Second Empire (1864–1867) cannot be explained without noting the fierce division and internal struggle between liberals and conservatives. There have been other times when internal and external crises have converged, but none of such magnitude.

The origin of Mexico’s current internal political crisis is the result of the failure of the transition that began at the end of the last century, when a shift from the longstanding authoritarianism of the PRI to a democracy that was acceptable and reasonable for the majority seemed possible. And this failure is seen daily in the many elements of the old system that are still in force, notably, corruption, impunity, and as the result of both, organized crime whose violence only grows and has even wrested control of certain regions and areas of the country from the State. The result is the citizenry’s clear distrust of the entire institutional structure. (4) Other indicators of this crisis are low support for the presidency (12%, although some sources give an even lower figure) and high disapproval ratings (86%). (5) The substantial increase in gasoline prices since January 2017 has sparked protests throughout most of Mexico, even in states and cities with no tradition of this kind of civil action. These mobilizations are the most recent sample of civil unrest that has not endangered the government, but does indicate widespread and growing discontent. (6)


A woman protests against the PRI in Guadalajara City in 2012. (Photo by Marte Merlos.)

Based on early 2017 data from the Instituto Nacional de Estadística y Geografía (INEGI, National Institute of Statistics and Geography), the Consumer Confidence Index is the lowest seen in 15 years. (7) The outlook for Mexico’s economy is also dim. For 2017, expected growth, according to the International Monetary Fund, is a scant 1.7%. (8)

From the beginning of his presidential campaign in June 2015 until today, Donald Trump chose Mexico as an enemy, characterizing it as a source of important problems for his country: crime and unemployment. Now in power, he has decided to use his neighbor to the south as an example of the rigor with which Trump’s Washington intends to deal with “problem countries.”

For a long, long time — centuries, in fact — Mexico has been frowned upon by an important sector of U.S. society. For historical, racial, religious, and cultural reasons, this sector eagerly desires the expulsion of the more than five million undocumented Mexican immigrants from the United States and an end to the free trade agreement with its southern neighbor. And it is this sector that nurtures anti-Mexicanism, which partly feeds Trumpism, since “Mexico bashing” produces cheap, easy, instant political points.

For now, Mexico’s unexpected external crisis is manifested in the United States’ harsh, even brutal, discourse: its promise to complete the construction of a border wall that could cost $20 billion or more, the humiliating and absurd demand that Mexico pay directly or indirectly for this enormous work of infrastructure, the threat of the mass repatriation of undocumented workers, and cutthroat negotiations to modify and even do away with Nafta, the pillar of Mexico’s export economy, since that treaty — “the worst trade deal maybe ever signed by the United States,” according to Trump — means a trade deficit of 60 billion dollars annually. Finally, there’s that initial threat — one that has not be repeated — which was disguised as an offer: if the Mexican army cannot act efficiently, the United States may use direct force to eliminate those “bad hombres” from Mexican drug cartels who are encouraging addiction and criminal violence in the United States.

It is more than significant that the first two executive orders of President Trump were to call for the wall with Mexico to be built and to add more troops to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), both orders signed with witnesses who were relatives of victims of criminals who were undocumented. So, since there is no vast ocean, huge mountain range, great valley, or immense river between the two countries, the United States is going to create what nature did not: an enormous defensive wall, which it will guard conscientiously, force Mexico to pay for, and send back undocumented Mexicans.

At this moment, it is impossible to predict the evolution of the double crisis Mexico is experiencing, except that the internal one will get worse and the external one will force Mexico to undertake a new national project that no longer depends so much on its relationship with the United States, whether it wants to or not. Such a task is incredibly complicated, and the current Mexican government is in no position to lead it. In any case, it has already become clear that the neighboring country’s redefinition of its national interest in Mexico allows for no “special” relationship between the two nations.

What No Longer Works

The economic disaster with which Mexico’s revolutionary nationalism ended in 1982 required a profound change in both the economic and political systems. However, the government of Carlos Salinas pushed to transform the former to preserve the later. He convinced the administration of George H.W. Bush of the desirability of revitalizing the Mexican economy, by incorporating it as an appendage of the U.S., in exchange for giving the old political system a new opportunity because even though it was authoritarian and predictable, it had been very helpful to Washington in during the Cold War. In the end, the PRI had to leave “Los Pinos” in 2000 to take refuge at the level of the states, but the next party in power, the PAN, did not live up to expectations and ended up playing by the PRI’s old rules. After two exhausting six-year terms, the PRI regained the presidency with new cadres, but with its old culture intact and with a growing illegitimacy. And since “it never rains, but it pours,” the unexpected has happened: the sudden and surprising change of Mexico’s relationship with the hegemonic power.

The nature of Mexico’s current conjuncture leads us to conclude that to overcome the crisis caused by the redefinition of U.S. policy towards its southern neighbor — since U.S. national interest no longer requires a stable and prosperous Mexico — our country must also face the growing dysfunction of its own political system. Without an in-depth restructuring of its institutions, without the recovery of defensive nationalism, Mexico will not be able to successfully confront an unpredictable United States. Once again, a lesson from Mexico’s history is clear: the best foreign policy must be a solid domestic policy, one that legitimizes authority and allows it to overcome the legacy of tremendous corruption and violence on which the supposed democratic transition of the beginning of the century was shipwrecked.


  1. Alain Rouquié, Le Mexique, un État nord-américaine. Paris: Fayard, 2013, pp. 306-314.
  2. See Alan Tonelson, The New York Times, March 2, 2017.
  3. Donald F. Stevens, Origins of Instability in Early Republican Mexico. Durham: Duke University Press, 1991, p. 11.
  4. See the indicators in Instituto Nacional Electoral & El Colegio de México, Informe país sobre la calidad de la ciudadanía en México. Cuidad de México: INE, 2014; María Amparo Casar, México: Anatomía de la corrupción. Cuidad de México: Instituto Mexicano para la Competitividad A.C. (IMCO) & Centro de Investigación y Docencia Económicas (CIDE), 2015.
  5. Periódico Reforma, January 18, 2017.
  6. Semanario Proceso, February 5, 2017.
  7. Periódico El Financiero, February 7, 2017.
  8. Digital media, Animal Político, January 16, 2017.


LORENZO MEYER is a professor at El Colegio de México A.C. and is widely recognized as the foremost historian and political analyst in Mexico. After completing his post-doctoral studies at the University of Chicago, Dr. Meyer returned to Mexico to teach at El Colegio de México. Dr. Meyer has worked as an editorialist at the prestigious national newspaper Reforma, as well as the host of a political TV show in the nation’s largest network. 

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Two Mexicos

The Center for Latin American Studies is partnering with the non-profit organization Prospera to create the Innovation for Equality Fellowship. Innovation for Equality is a program that aims to help social entrepreneurs understand the ecosystem in which they are embedded so that they can design innovative and effective solutions to tackle inequality in Latin America. The Innovation for Equality Fellowship is an online seminar in which the most sophisticated analysis techniques of social sciences are articulated with the most modern tools for social entrepreneurship. In this seminar, we will evaluate the literature on the root causes of inequality in Latin America, the tools of social entrepreneurship and will take practical implementation of a plan of social entrepreneurship along with a personalized tutor. The program provides an opportunity for fellows to learn about the use of technical tools and put them into practice to generate and design ideas for building a self-sustaining organization that develops financial products or services that improve the social problems of the ecosystem in question. Read more about the Innovation for Equality Fellowship here.

On April 7th, the Innovation for Equality Fellows will present their projects at UC Berkeley. The following blog entry is written by Alejandra Rodarte, one of the Fellows.

By Alejandra Rodarte

Walking down the streets on my way to my university, I see something that never stops to amuse me – two Mexicos, one next to the other. You can turn to the right and see a beautiful, modern and productive Mexico. Then if you look the other way, you see an informal, unproductive and marginalized Mexico. People are starting to get used to the idea of inequality, not only in Mexico but all around Latin America.

I ask myself, “what causes these inequalities, and why do we live without fighting it?” It seems that people no longer care about the children or elders who ask for money in the streets. After giving them some money, people feel they have done everything in their power to help them. Mexicans with higher incomes feel bad about this problem for five seconds, and then they return to their normal lifestyle without thinking about inequality. They are ignoring the reality around them.


Paseo de la Reforma, Mexico City. (Photo by Lidia Lopez.)

Last year, I participated in an entrepreneurial contest sponsored by my university, Instituto Tecnológico Autónomo de México (ITAM), and the MIT Global Founders’ Skills Accelerator. As part of the contest, I was placed on a team with a political science student, an applied math student, an industrial and mechatronics student, and an economics student. The goal was to join different talents, skills and knowledge to create a business idea that could make the world a better place by helping older adults and children. Our team – composed of Victoria Medina, Benjamín Castro, Regina Ceballos, and Emiliano Gutiérrez, and myself – won 2nd place, and each member got a scholarship to spend 3 weeks in some of the most important entrepreneurial ecosystems in the United States.

We approached our project through the two most marginalized groups in society: children and seniors. First, we focused on education, the problem that most impacts children. We started by researching statistics of education in Mexico, and we found that only 63% of children ages from 3 to 5 years attend preschool. The problem continues, as only 31.5% of people aged 18 to 24 to complete their education.

The low percentage of children attending preschool caught my attention. There are multiple studies that prove the importance of early child care, because prevention and intervention programs are more effective at an early age. Early interventions can provide a good foundation for school success, by reducing school dropouts and increasing the chances for productive lives. I agree with the Institute for Research on Poverty from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, that “as long as some children have far less in the way of parental investment in them, society has an opportunity, if not an obligation, to try to equalize their opportunities for future success.” I would hazard a guess that every child in the streets would love to have the opportunity to study, to change their life path and be able to decide what they want for themselves and their families.

Around the world, the population is aging. Most of the countries in Latin America are not prepared for this major demographic shift. In 2030, there will be more people above the age of 60 than young children under the age of 15. This presents many challenges for Mexico. Our society needs to work harder in order to protect elderly people from poverty. According to the Mexican National Institute of Statistics, there are 7,492,778 senior adults who work and earn less than the minimum wage. They should be able to have a dignified retirement after all they have done for us.

Millions of senior adults experience discrimination in their jobs, which can lead to depression. In Mexico, depression is the most frequent affective disorder in people at then age of 60 and above. We need to stop seeing elders as burdens, synonymous with disease, inefficiency, and lack of productivity. As a country, we are ignoring older people with life experience, while at the same time we are raising younger generations without educational opportunities with experience. This creates a deep social problem.

KnowlAge photo.jpg

KnowlAge connects wisdom with imagination. (Photo courtesy of Alejandra Rodarte.)

I am a co-founder of KnowlAge, an organization that creates intergenerational connections to improve the quality of education in Mexico. Our goal is to connect wisdom with imagination. We believe elders have knowledge and values that need to be shared with younger generations. The KnowlAge team trains elders so they can teach young children and introduce them to a love of knowledge. It’s the perfect solution for the two most marginalized groups of our society. The future is in our hands, and it is up to us to try to make a better world for everyone.

Rodarte 2.pngALEJANDRA RODARTE is a 22 year old economics undergraduate student at Instituto Tecnológico Autónomo de México (ITAM). As part of the ITAM Student Council, she organizes charitable and political events. She has participated in different entrepreneurial contests and is currently developing the social project of KnowlAge. Visit KnowlAge’s facebook page.

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