“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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Undocumented and Unafraid?

By Juan Prieto

When I was eight, I crossed the border using my cousin’s papers. In other words, I came to this country pretending to be someone I’m not. Pretending to be someone else did not end there, as I went through life acting as if I was just another average citizen even though I am undocumented.

The pretense was hard. Given that my legal status was such a huge part of my life, it even dictated where I would study. Due to the complexity of my family’s status, I wanted to stay near home and help my father, who is finding it harder to work as he ages. So although UC San Diego was closer to my family, I chose UC Berkeley because at the time, it was the only school in the nation to support undocumented students. Although it has been hard for me to help my family back home, Berkeley helped me stop pretending about my legal status.

I began to truly believe I was undocumented and unafraid, as the chant goes.


Sproul Plaza during Cal Day. (Photo by Wikicommons/BrokenSphere)

But that’s changed since Donald Trump commanded the national spotlight.

At Cal, it’s become increasingly dangerous for undocumented students who are outspoken. Last June, I received an anonymous email threat claiming that my family and I had been reported to immigration officials, which caused me to stop going to classes for a week. Shortly after that, right-wing activist James O’Keefe came onto our campus. He built a mock wall by Sather Gate, and engaged in xenophobic conversations with anyone who would listen.

And on February 4th, my undocumented peers and I felt vulnerable when alt-right figure Milo Yiannopoulos was scheduled to speak at Berkeley. According to the right-wing website Breitbart, Yiannopoulos intended to launch a campaign against undocumented students that night.

I spent much of that evening locked in my room, afraid to go out. I was afraid that being undocumented and vocal would make me a target for his followers. I blame UC Berkeley for enabling Milo Yiannopoulos and his fringe form of hate. At the University of Washington, a protester was shot at a Yiannopoulos event. At the University of Wisconsin, a transgender student was outed. Clearly, both Yiannopoulos’ tactics and followers could place some of us in physical danger.

I believe that UC Berkeley allowed the event to go on at the expense of students’ safety because it feared an attack over its reputation as the home of the Free Speech Movement. When it weighed the right for a bigot to organize radicalized white men over the safety of a marginalized group on our campus, it chose the former.

Now, as the nation examines the idea of free speech and who has it, Berkeley’s decision feels ironic. Because of the fear of deportation, undocumented immigrants like me feel the need to be more silent than ever. I fear that being too critical of immigration policies might mark me as a threat to the nation. Or that perhaps I need to tone down my thoughts on certain issues. That’s because the same people who claim that they have no freedom of expression want to use the power of the state to deport our perspectives from this nation. To remove us from the lives we’ve managed to create for ourselves here.

I graduate this May, worried that work and plans for law school might become impossible under the Trump administration. I refuse, however, to return to the shadows in fear.

I refuse to pretend to be anyone but myself any longer.


This essay was originally published on NPR’s “Perspectives.” It has been modified from its original version.

JUAN PRIETO is an undergraduate student at UC Berkeley majoring in English. He is an on-campus organizer and activist for issues that impact undocumented students. He is currently the Transfer Retention Coordinator for the Raíces Recruitment and Retention Center (formerly known as RAZA), and sits on the board for the Social Justice Collaborative, a non-profit organization which protects immigrants from criminal law.

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Latin America Moves Forward with Renewable Energy

By Steve Weissman

You don’t need to convince the farmers in Bolivia’s Altiplano that their climate is changing, as weather patterns and drought become consistently more severe. Glaciers have retreated. Snow pack is short-lived. People living and working in these communities have no confidence that sufficient water will return to support plants and animals. Dramatic life changes in that region are no longer a question of “if”. The remaining questions are: Can they adapt? And if so, what does the future look like?

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Alto y plano: the Bolivian high planes, with the Huayna Potosí mountain in the background. (Photo by Orlando Contreras López.)

But when it comes to the specter of challenges stemming from a changing climate, Latin America is expansive enough to have it all. While a 1.5 degree Celsius temperature rise appears to be locked in, scientists and planners try to imagine what even higher temperatures might bring to the region. According to the World Bank, with a four degree temperature rise,

  • Almost all land area in the region – 90% – would likely be subject to heat events that are currently experienced only every 700 years.
  • The Amazon basin and many highly inhabited areas would be expected to experience extreme droughts.
  • The Andean glaciers would be gone by the end of the century. Glacial melt would at first raise the risks of floods and then result in drought for the communities that depend on them.
  • Category 4 or 5 hurricanes might occur more frequently and more powerfully. This, together with a one meter sea-level rise, would have devastating impacts, especially on the Caribbean.
  • A 4 degree world would mean that Rio de Janeiro and Barranquilla would have to cope with a massive 1.4 meter rise in sea level.

Although the people of Latin America have their neighbors to the north to thank for much of this, there is no debating the fact that applying the breaks to global temperature rise requires every nation to do its part. And the people of Latin America get it. According to a Pew Research Center survey in 2015, while only 45% of those in the United States were very concerned about climate change, the numbers to the south look like this:

Percentage of People Very Concerned About Climate Change 

  • Brazil         86%
  • Chile          77%
  • Peru           75%
  • Venezuela  72%
  • Mexico       66%
  • Argentina   57%

The good news is that much of Latin America is fertile ground for extensive renewable energy development – a critical ingredient in any effort to phase out fossil fuels. According to Mario Guillen, of the Wharton School of Business, for investors in the renewable energy sector, “Latin America is huge opportunity. It is a large part of the world with [over] 600 million people.” Recently, Mexico and Chile have joined Brazil among the 10 largest renewable energy markets on the planet. According to the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), Brazil, which historically generated 40% of its power from large-scale hydroelectric facilities, has been steadily adding non-hydro renewables to the mix. Onshore wind and bioenergy have led the way. Meanwhile, Mexico has been adding hundreds of megawatts of wind power capacity per year, while Uruguay and Panama have significantly added wind power. Geothermal power is popular in Mexico, Costa Rica, El Salvador, and Nicaragua, while solar power has seen significant growth recently in Chile, Mexico, Peru, and Uruguay.


Canela Wind Energy Park, Mexico. (Photo by Edu3k.)

This steady growth in renewable power deployment has not happened by accident. IRENA counts over 300 policies, scattered across almost all Latin American countries, supporting renewable energy development. Twelve countries conduct auctions to attract renewable power sellers. Thirteen countries have policies ensuring grid access for new projects. Various countries offer tax incentives, “net metering” credit for customer-side renewable power fed back into the grid, renewable fuel mandates, and projects directly funded by government.

IRENA points out that policies and programs differ across the Latin American states. This helps make the region a laboratory for designing better policy initiatives. And as more and more renewable energy projects take hold, the job creation benefits of renewables will become all the more obvious. As the sector develops, the companies providing the wind turbines and installing the photovoltaic arrays will speak with a stronger voice to help ensure program continuation.

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Solar panels in Chile. (Photo courtesy of Rainer Lippert.)

Renewable power is just part of any successful effort to decarbonize energy use in Latin America. It must be coupled with programs designed to phase out the use of fossil fuels more directly – through caps on carbon emissions, moratoria on new fossil-fueled power plants, and well-executed plans to reduce the use of fossil fuels across all sectors. The progress to-date among so many Latin American nations is a great starting point. As the cost of renewables continues to fall, the region should witness continued renewable energy growth.



STEVE WEISSMAN is currently a lecturer at the Goldman School of Public Policy at UC Berkeley. He spent ten years creating and directing the Energy Law program at Berkeley Law, where he also taught numerous energy law and policy courses. He came to UC Berkeley from the California Public Utilities Commission (PUC), where he was an administrative law judge. He also served as policy and legal advisor to three different commissioners at the PUC. He is an energy and environmental attorney, and an environmental mediator.

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Political Crisis in Brazil: What is at Stake for Public Policies?

By Carlos R. S. Milani

In 2014, the Workers Party won their fourth consecutive presidential election. Since then, Brazil’s economic crisis has deepened, gradually developing into political turmoil and threatening its 30 year-old democracy. At the origin of this crisis is the belief that corruption is the country’s worst problem (rather than inequality!), and that the Workers’ Party (the PT) is the main responsible agent (if not the only one!) for the dissemination of corruption practices in Brazilian contemporary politics and business. Fighting against it could include a series of “innovative” instruments and “exceptional and selective” measures within the police, the judiciary, the media, and the lower house. Cleaning Brazil could mean criminalizing the PT and socially condemning all individuals (even Brazilian composer and writer Chico Buarque), social actors and other political parties connected with any sort of progressive banners.


A protest in São Paolo against corruption and President Dilma Rousseff’s administration (Photo by Editorial J.)

The crisis can be analyzed as a classical case of social polarization and elite division, which is not new in Brazil’s history (Vargas in 1954, Goulart in 1964). It opposes economic orthodoxy demands from “the market” that impinge upon and frequently override social priorities, including modest welfare and rights-based social development programs directed towards historically marginalized people. Within this context, strategic elite members have not been able to reach a consensus on how to solve the economic and political crisis. All these factors associated with the end of the global “commodity boom,” a fiscal crisis, a violent social atmosphere, and Dilma Rousseff’s series of political mistakes since her elections yielded in 2015-16 Brazil’s most serious institutional crisis in the aftermath of the 1988 Constitution. Part and parcel of this crisis, the Senate voted for Dilma Rousseff’s ousting in August 2016, even though there was no empirical evidence of a crime of responsibility (which, according to the 1950 Law of Impeachment, is mandatory).

What are the main political actors in this process? First, corporate funding of electoral campaigns has supported the election of 594 congressmen and women (both in lower house and senate). Among them, 318 have been under investigation for wrongdoing, but they have played a key role in the impeachment procedure, particularly Eduardo Cunha (former president of the Lower House, now in prison). Second, political control institutions (public ministry, general attorney’s office, federal police) have gained autonomy and capacity, and increased their funding (and their salaries) in recent years. However relevant their investigations and judicial operations may be, they have been very selective in terms of their fight against corruption. They have also been closely linked to the media through leaks of judicial operations in order to gain public support, condemning politicians before due process of law. Between 1995 and 2002, the federal police implemented 48 operations, whereas from 2003 to today, that number is 2,226. Third, the judiciary has adopted different criteria and timing to analyze judicial processes, being very slow in some cases (against center-right and rightwing politicians), and extremely quick in others (against PT political leaders). That may be a coincidence, but this time gap has drawn the attention of the citizenry. It took the Supreme Court more than four months to decide on Eduardo Cunha’s ousting from the presidency of the lower house, but less that 24 hours to prevent Lula from being nominated minister. Fourth, the vice president who was elected with Dilma Rousseff behaved like a political traitor. His party, the PMDB, has been an ally of the PT for 13 years, and has partial responsibility for the good and bad results of their policies. It is true that in politics alliances may change — the question is how and why. After Rousseff’s ousting from power, Michel Temer built an alliance with PSDB and other smaller parties, and has since implemented a series of measures with seriously negative effects on social policies and strategic national development (such as energy, naval and regional aircraft industries). Fifth, the media is not a neutral agent in this process, and on behalf of an apparent freedom of expression, newspapers, magazines and TV channels (mainly Globo, Folha de Sao Paulo and Estado de Sao Paulo) have ended up “manufacturing dissent.”

Sixth, there is also an international dimension that must not be neglected. Indeed, several international organizations and leaders, as well as foreign media, have expressed their concern about the undemocratic political process against President Rousseff. These include the Organization of the American States, the Inter-American Human Rights Court, the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR), the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC/CEPAL), and several United Nations agencies (UN Women and UNHCR for instance), just to cite a few. The global media has also criticised the conservative and putschist Brazilian media for its coverage of the political facts since the crisis began. The political crisis in Brazil has been covered not only by leftist media such as the Mexican newspaper La Jornada and the Argentine Page 12, also by mainstream newspapers and weekly magazines such as the New York Times, The Washington Post, The Guardian, The Independent, The Guardian, Die Zeit, Le Nouvel Observateur, Süddeutsche Zeitung, El País, and O Público.


President Dilma Rousseff. (Photo by Antonio Cruz/Agência Brasil)


The crisis is more than domestic politics — it also has an international and geopolitical agenda. In 2003, Brazil’s foreign policy moved away from its previous trajectory aligned with Western world (especially the United States). Although Lula and Dilma have differences, their approaches to foreign policy are based on a shared interpretation of the world order (less hegemonic, and more multipolar) and defending Brazil’s self-esteem, political autonomy and development. Since 2003, Lula-Dilma’s foreign policy has pushed an idea of a rising power whose major priorities are regional integration (Mercosur, Unasur, Celac), diversified South-South relations (IBSA, ASPA and ASA summits), new coalitions of power through the BRICS grouping, and demand for the reform of global governance institutions. In foreign policy, Brazil has proposed mediation (together with Turkey) for the Iran nuclear problem, built the G-20 trade group with the WTO, and has refused to sign the Free Trade Agreement of the Americas. China has become one of Brazil’s major trade and investment partners, including in the exploitation of oil from the pre-salt layer resources. Currently, these foreign policy principles and decisions are being set aside.

It goes without saying that such a deep-rooted political crisis has major effects on public policies, both domestically and internationally. And this will be the subject of my talk on Thursday, February 9th, at the Center for Latin American Studies (2334 Bowditch Street).


CARLOS R. S. MILANI is a visiting scholar at the Center for Latin American Studies at UC Berkeley and an Associate Professor at the Rio de Janeiro State University’s Institute for Social and Political Studies (IESP-UERJ). He is also a Senior Research Fellow with Brazil’s National Research Council (CNPq) and the Rio de Janeiro State Research Foundation (FAPERJ), and the Associate Editor of the Brazilian Political Science Review. His research agenda focuses on Brazilian foreign policy, international development politics, and comparative foreign policy.  While at Berkeley, he will be writing a book, provisionally titled, South-South Cooperation and Foreign Policy Agendas: Comparing the Cases of Brazil, China, India, Mexico, South Africa and Turkey.  More information on his research, teaching and publications can be found at www.carlosmilani.com.br.


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Passion and Reason

By Sergio Aguayo

Our old understanding with the United States has been shattered. Let’s redesign the relationship by changing attitudes in order to “Mexicanize” – without complexes – our strategy, our policies, and our story.

Trump Pinata


Piñatas featuring President Trump are popular across Mexico. (Photo by Paul Sableman)


Let’s face it. There has always been a strong racist and anti-Mexican streak in the United States (and an anti-Yankee one in Mexico). James R. Sheffield, U.S. ambassador to Mexico from 1924 to 1927, despised us. He described Mexicans as “Indians” who were unable to understand any “arguments, apart from force.” We were close to another war, but Washington thought better and sent Dwight Morrow, who came to an understanding with Plutarco Elías Calles.

In the 90 years since, moderation has prevailed in the public discourse of presidents, ambassadors, and high-ranking officials. Phobias have rarely left the closet. In The Best and the Brightest, David Halberstam recounts that President Lyndon B. Johnson categorized Mexicans as fat, barefoot creatures who would take advantage of and steal from the people of the United States. However, Johnson kept a tight lid on his anti-Mexicanism, and when he visited our country in 1966, he went so far as to praise us, calling our country “grandiose” and “wonderful.”

But that’s over. Donald Trump has legitimized anti-Mexicanism and shattered the Morrow–Calles understanding. He has dedicated himself to insulting and despising us, and he is determined to deport undocumented immigrants, build a wall with Mexican money, and repeal the North American Free Trade Agreement (Nafta). I don’t know what Peñanietism will do in the short time it has left. The basic task is collective: to rethink our strategy, our policies and our story, reminding them insistently of their “joint responsibility” in the accusations that they hurl at us. To provide examples for this argument, I’ll review three themes: migration, trade, and security.

Migration: History helps to unravel the present and build the future. The mass displacement of people is a regional problem to which the United States has contributed. Let’s look at two moments: 1) The massive displacement of Mexicans began when the U.S. entered World War II; the priority now is to defend our people from racism and abuse, and to respond to this abuse we must return to the hundreds of thousands of criminals of other nationalities currently sent over our northern border every year; 2) The aggression of Ronald Reagan’s Republicans in Central America triggered the demographic cataclysm that they now want to contain by building a wall. To begin with, Mexico must repudiate the commitment of acting as the southern border guard, agreed upon by Enrique Peña Nieto and Barack Obama. Then the next step is demanding a regional discussion on Central American migration.

Trade: Nafta was a joint effort. Ronald Reagan proposed it to José López Portillo, who ignored him. Years later, Carlos Salinas suggested it to George W. Bush, who adopted it. Nafta will be reviewed, and our best bet is the approach suggested by Bernardo Sepúlveda: to build multiple lines of legal defense.

Security: Since the blackmail of Operation Intercept (1969), Mexico’s grand strategy has followed Washington’s directives and made decapitating and fragmenting cartels a priority. What worked for them failed for us. Mexicanization of this strategy means, for example, legalizing marijuana and filing lawsuits against U.S. actors to indemnify the families of the (more or less) 140,000 Mexicans who were murdered with U.S. weapons smuggled into Mexico, thanks to Washington’s permissive stance.

Let’s take responsibility for how we are treated by demanding the same of them. We don’t know what will happen under the Trump administration, neither do we know the plans of Peña Nieto and Luis Videgaray, who call for unity without saying how they will use it. It is absurd for them to continue a line of counterproductive defeatism. Do they have a general project to negotiate with the Trump administration? Are they considering approaching U.S. citizens who oppose Trump? (We did so during the Central American wars and it worked.) Unity can only occur around the defense of our interests and dignity, with the weapons of reason and passion and with a very clear understanding of our national project.

This article was originally published in Spanish in Reforma on January 18, 2017. The English version was translated by Deborah Michelle Meacham.

aguayo-photoThe author is grateful for Andrew Selee’s suggestions.

SERGIO AGUAYO QUEZADA is a professor at the Centro de Estudios Internationales at El Colegio de México and researcherin Mexico’s Sistema Nacional de Investigadores. He contributes weekly to Reforma, as well as to other newspapers and TV shows. He recently published a book, The Mexican Enigma, which is now available for purchase in English digital download.


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Across the Aisle: Berkeley and Michigan Students Discuss the Election


By Sofia Gonzalez-Platas

As I walked into the room where the panel was about to take place, I was welcomed by a screen showing the faces of 12 students from Macomb County Community College looking back at us — eager and reluctant.

On the other side of the screen, the students from Macomb County could see 10 UC Berkeley students sitting down alongside professor Harley Shaiken, chair of the Center for Latin American Studies and the mastermind behind this discussion.

The majority of students involved in the panel from UC Berkeley were students from Shaiken’s class “The Southern Border,” and an invitation was extended to all students who wanted to participate. Before our panel commenced and while the speakers were in mute, professor Shaiken encouraged us to be open-minded and respectful — this activity was not supposed to be a debate but a conversation.

Michigan went through a stunning shift from blue to red during this election. Having voted for Barack Obama twice in the past, Michigan was accredited for placing Donald Trump as the Republican candidate for the presidential election because of the influence of white working-class voters.

Macomb County is the third-largest county in Michigan, and its vote made the difference for this election. On the fateful Tuesday, Nov. 8, Trump took 54 percent of the vote in Macomb County against Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton’s 42 percent. A strikingly different picture than what happened in Berkeley, where Trump took 3.2 percent of the votes compared to Clinton’s 90.4 percent.

Talking about politics is difficult enough. Born and raised in Mexico City, I felt compelled to speak about this election because my country and its people were silenced and severely attacked by Trump’s divisive campaign and hurtful rhetoric.

The opening question addressed people’s feelings regarding the election results. The Michigan students were the first to speak, acknowledging that this election had proven divisive for them, particularly because of Michigan being a swing state.

Trump’s campaign, Macomb students expressed, triggered people’s emotions and concerns — “he tapped into people’s fears,” some of them explained. That he certainly did. And, unfortunately, because of the election results people in the United States will be living in fear for far longer than just a political campaign, students from UC Berkeley responded.

The discussion veered into the realm of economics very quickly. Macomb students explained how middle-class workers were experiencing an economic crisis with the disappearance of the auto industry in Detroit — unemployment skyrocketing and small businesses suffering to stay afloat. For Michigan, Clinton represented the past, an establishment that did little to help the working class in Macomb. Trump, on the other hand, gave economic promise and hope to a forgotten and downtrodden middle-class. He ultimately vowed to Make America Great Again — a promise that many individuals who struggle to make ends meet in Michigan wanted to hear, and something that UC Berkeley students could not comprehend given the man’s proposed political platform.

Macomb students vehemently described how Trump visited Michigan eight to nine times throughout the campaign while Clinton visited them once or twice — a difference that proved significant to them.

Many acknowledged that Trump addressed crowds that possibly did not understand economics or the extent to what he was proposing, but ultimately the levels of enthusiasm that this man created were exceptional in comparison to those Clinton ever reached. Good ol’ Bernie Sanders, on the other hand, excited people in Berkeley and in Macomb as well — that was something both sides agreed on.

Ultimately, the conversation reached a hopeful tone. Both sides agreed that conversations like this one, even if it only lasted for one hour, are necessary and essential — however awkward and difficult they may be — in order to move forward.

As Millennials in the United States, we have the immense privilege to be surrounded by communication tools every single day — platforms such as Facebook, Instagram and Twitter help our thoughts and ideas travel faster and wider than ever before. This communication accessibility, however, is a double-edged sword because it can be easy to feel disarmed and shut down by the information overload it provides, not to mention the misleading sources that spread quickly.

As time passes by, however, we need to move away from this shock and instead embrace communication. Let’s sit down and talk to one another, even if we don’t necessarily see eye to eye. The most valuable conversations are, in fact, with people who do not agree with one’s opinions. It is time to understand how this so-called “American Tragedy,” could have possibly happened but, most importantly, it is time to move forward, empathize and reconcile.

The United States I used to hear about growing up in Mexico represented unity and prosperity. If there is any country in the world that can recover from such political and social division, it is the United States — that I am sure of. But we need to learn to talk and hear one another again, there is no other way around it.

This article was previously published in The Daily Californian.

portraitSOFIA GONZALEZ-PLATAS is a fourth-year undergraduate student at UC Berkeley double majoring in Political Economy and International Development Studies. Outside of class, Sofia is involved with the Public Service Center and Golden Bear Orientation, and has been a writer for the Daily Californian since her first year at UC Berkeley. She hopes to work on immigration policy and education after her graduation. 
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Colombia: Falling to Peaces

By Lauren Withey

It has been a mixed week here in Colombia, including hopeful highs and disheartening lows. On September 26, enemies of more than 50 years, standing in front of leaders from around the world, committed to ending the longest war the Western Hemisphere has seen. Victims of some of the most horrific violence pardoned the perpetrators. Innocent children whose parents’ greatest hope is for them to grow up in a peaceful country sang as the FARC’s leader, Rodrigo “Timochenko” Londoño Echeverri, and Colombia’s president, Juan Manuel Santos, signed an accord more than four years in the making. Santos guaranteed the right of the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) to have their voices heard in the political arena; Timochenko guaranteed that he and his followers would take that responsibility seriously and hinted at ways they hoped to contribute to the country in peacetime.


President Juan Manuel Santos signs the peace accord as Rodrigo Lodoño (right) watches in Cartagena on September 26. Leaders from around the world came to show their support for the peace deal. (Photo courtesy of Gobierno de Chile.)

On the evening of October 2, the positive feelings of this moment were dramatically tempered by citizens’ rejection of the accord by a slim margin in a national plebiscite. Voter turnout was low: some 13 million made the decision for the nearly 50 million Colombian citizens. Some analysts have blamed the polls for the result, which consistently indicated that the “Sí” vote approving of the accord was likely to win by a generous portion. The plebiscite would serve (the narrative had promised) as a helpful mandate for lawmakers to work under while passing the legislation necessary for the accord to take effect. Though some had warned Santos early on that the plebiscite was a gamble, given the concessions he would surely have to make, many observers in Colombia and around the world were shocked when “No” eked out a win. Few seemed to know immediately what this would mean for the country and the peace process.

Populist former president Álvaro Uribe and his Central Democratic party led the “No” campaign, after opposing the peace talks throughout the process. Uribe and his party have accused President Santos of agreeing to “impunity” for the FARC and have convinced their followers that the accord would lead the country into a state of “Castro-Chavísmo” by (among other things) giving the FARC guaranteed political seats for the first two elections after the accord was passed. Uribe has traveled around the country, hosting town halls to convince people that, as he put it, “We want peace, but not this peace.”

In the vote, the center of the country  (with the exceptions of Bogotá and the state of Boyaca) fell to the “No” side, while the peripheries voted overwhelmingly for “Sí.” It was not lost on anyone that citizens in the peripheries are indeed those who have suffered most over the last 20 years of this conflict and those who understand better than anyone that this accord is just one step along a much longer road to peace. It was a stated mission of many of them to lead the country toward forgiveness with their example, with the peace deal as a crucial step. They fulfilled their end of the bargain, but like many of their “Sí”-supporting compatriots, were horrified as results were finalized just over an hour after the polls closed.

“I couldn’t sleep. I feel like we and all those who have been working for so long toward peace have been dealt a low blow,” one community leader from an Afro-Colombian community told me a day after the vote. She is one of the many community leaders who have received death threats as a result of their efforts to protect their communities from violence over the years. Other leaders, like the one I accompanied to the polls on Sunday, were left only to contemplate the vagaries of democracy and hope that out of this crisis, a more perfect union might emerge.


Graffiti reflects Colombia’s divide. (Photo by Galo Naranjo.)

As I return to my field sites along Colombia’s Pacific coast this week, many key questions remain unanswered. President Santos has called on all political parties to meet and come up with a plan for designing a new agreement that everyone can live with and that will pass into law. Then, he and his negotiating team must take this new accord to the FARC to consider. Some have suggested that the moment calls for a more dramatic reckoning, perhaps in the form of a new constitutional assembly.

What all in Colombia recognize, though, is that even with an accord passed, there are many issues that will continue to challenge those living in the periphery. The so-called “paracos” (neoparamilitary narcotrafficking gangs who control drug routes and illegal gold mines and seek land and power through violence) pose a greater threat to rural people in many parts of the country than any other group. The ELN, a separate guerrilla army, has not yet reached a lasting ceasefire with the government, nor have they agreed on the terms of their own peace process. Public services do not reach many regions of the country, or they are of very poor quality, and massive wealth gaps remain. Official statistics suggest a third of the country lives in poverty. No crop is as lucrative for farmers as coca, and difficult transportation routes and poor support for cash and commodity crops make these products even less valuable in comparison. Latent fear and mistrust are hard to overcome after so many years of trauma instilled by all parties to the conflict.

The moment, then, could not be more important to move forward ambitiously with this peace with the FARC. The agreement as signed last week not only aimed to put an end to that fighting, but also sought to begin to address some of these grander challenges of uniting the “Two Colombias.” It is with great hope for the future of all in the country — and particularly of those I work with in the Pacific — that I will be watching closely as leaders work toward a “National Pact” in the coming days. This country is sick of war. The next few days and weeks will indicate whether its polarized parties are capable of coming together to advance an agenda that recognizes this exhaustion and helps the country toward a more inclusive and peaceful future.

Lauren Withey is a Ph.D. candidate in Environmental Science, Policy, and Management. She is currently based in Cali, Colombia, where she researches forest conservation programs along Colombia’s tropical Pacific coast.

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“Yes” Is the Answer


Photo by Efrain Hererra

Por Claudia Steiner, PhD

Hace unos días caminando hacia mi casa, note en tres apartamentos de un edificio, unos cartelones pegados a las ventanas. En el primero, con letras grandes se leía NO. En el tercer apartamento aparecía el mismo cartel con un SI grande y en el del medio, uno en que se leía NI IDEA. Inmediatamente pensé en el humorista politico Jaime Garzon, asesinado por grupos paramilitares en agosto de 1999. En sus populares programas en ocasiones hacia el papel de portero en el “Edificio Colombia” donde con ironía se refería a la actualidad política del país a través de lo que sucedía entre los habitantes de los diferentes apartamentos, generalmente personajes de la política colombiana.

Creo que los carteles, con el “si,” con el “no” y con el “ni idea” en un mismo espacio reflejan de manera precisa la  situación que los colombianos estamos viviendo cuando el 2 de octubre participaremos en el plebiscito en que se votara para aprobar o no los acuerdos suscritos entre el gobierno y las Farc que permitirán abrir el camino para que la guerrilla se convierta en un partido politico legal. Si bien el SI cuenta con el apoyo y la ayuda de la comunidad internacional, para quienes el argumento que ha esgrimido el presidente durante el proceso de negociación, “prefiero una paz imperfecta que una guerra perfecta” parecería mas que suficiente, los argumentos del NO también tienen unas solidas bases.

Para quienes sufrieron la muerte y secuestro de sus familiares es difícil aceptar que los guerrilleros no vayan a ser encarcelados por los crímenes que cometieron durante los días de guerra. Para ellos no es suficiente que el gobierno comprometa a los guerrilleros a decir la verdad y resarcir a sus víctimas. Es decir, la paz por muy imperfecta que sea no puede ir acompañada de lo que consideran impunidad. Pero, y aquí esta el cartel del tercer apartamento, están los de NI IDEA que como la mayoría de los colombianos quieren la paz pero también quisieran ver un castigo mayor para quienes secuestraron y mataron a civiles desarmados. Muchos argumentos sensatos e inteligentes han esgrimido los del SI para convencer a los indecisos. Estos van desde la responsabilidad histórica para que las nuevas generaciones puedan vivir en un país en paz hasta la posibilidad de realizar programas de desarrollo social y político que antes eran imposibles en medio de la guerra.

Para quienes trabajamos durante décadas investigando sobre violencia y campesinado en Colombia, la idea de que por fin le llego la hora al campo es una razón suficiente para el SI. Gran parte de la violencia colombiana de los últimos 52 anos ha sido el resultado de un conflicto agrario no resuelto y de un sistema político que impidió la participación de expresiones distintas a las establecidas por los partidos tradicionales. El estado y los colombianos perdimos la oportunidad histórica de hacer una reformas agrarias y políticas en el momento adecuado. Las víctimas de ese NO histórico fueron los campesinos y los sectores sociales mas vulnerables del país… Los guerrilleros que hoy piden la paz han sido en su mayoría campesinos.

Los soldados muertos durante la guerra también han sido en su mayoría campesinos. Eso parecen entenderlo las víctimas y los principales actores del conflicto. Por esa misma razón ha sido alentador y admirable ver en este proceso a los generales del ejercito y a los soldados pidiendo a los colombianos votar por el SI. Por eso mismo, el lunes en la celebración  de la firma de los acuerdos entre la Farc y el gobierno para muchos uno de los momentos mas conmovedores del evento fue cuando las mujeres de pueblo de Bojaya cantaron un “alabao” la música que cantan en sus rituales funerarios. Representaron a las mujeres, principales víctimas de la guerra. Representaron a ellas y todo un pueblo que sufrir de una de las masacres mas brutales del país, cuando en un solo día de 2002 fueron asesinados 117 habitantes del pequeño caserío, entre ellos ancianos y niños. Si ellas fueron capaces de cantarle a la paz y de perdonar, porque no pensar que todos los colombianos podemos también hacerlo?


The following is an English translation of the above:

By Claudia Steiner, PhD

Last week, while walking home, I saw in one of the buildings on the street that on the windows of three different apartments signs had been posted. On the first apartment written in black letters, I read a big NO and on the third a big . I couldn’t help but smile when I read the one in the middle that said NI IDEA (no idea). I realized that these signs correctly summarized the emotion generated by a referendum that will take place on October 2 where Colombians will vote on whether or not to approve the agreements signed on September 26 between the government and the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC).

But the signs on the windows also reminded me of Jaime Garzón, the political humorist killed by paramilitary groups in August 1999. In his popular programs, he sometimes played the role of the doorman of the “Edificio Colombia,” where he ironically referred to the then current political situation of the country through events that took place with fictional residents of the building — usually characters in Colombian politics.

While the SI has the support and assistance of the international community, for whom the reasons argued by the president during the negotiation process, “I prefer an imperfect peace to a perfect war,” would seem more than enough, the NO arguments are also based on solid foundations.

For those who suffered from their relatives’ deaths and kidnappings, it is difficult to accept that the guerrillas are not going to be imprisoned for crimes they committed during the war. For them, it is not enough that the government has compelled the guerrillas to tell the truth and compensate their victims. In this sense, an imperfect peace for them means impunity. But, and here lies the meaning of the third sign, the NI IDEA represents the dilemma of an important group of undecided voters.

Those, that like the majority of Colombians, want peace but would also like to see more severe punishments for those who kidnapped and killed unarmed civilians. Many sensible and intelligent arguments have been presented by the SI to convince the undecided. These range from the historical responsibility that the country has to allow the new generations to live in a country at peace, to the possibility of carrying out programs of social and political development that were previously impossible in the midst of war.

For those that have for decades done research about violence and peasants, the idea that finally the time has come for rural Colombia is sufficient reason for SI. Much of Colombian violence of the past 52 years has been the result of an unresolved agrarian conflict and of a political system that prevented the participation of other expressions different from those established by the traditional parties.

The Colombian state missed the historic opportunity to make agrarian and political reforms at the right time. The victims of that historical NO were peasants and the most vulnerable sectors of the country. The guerrillas, who today call for peace have been mostly peasants. The soldiers killed during the war have also been mostly peasants. This seems to be understood by the victims and by the main actors in the conflict. For that reason, it has been encouraging and admirable to see in this process generals and soldiers of the army asking Colombians to vote for the SI.

For this same reason, last Monday, during the ceremony where the agreement was signed between the FARC and the government, one of the most emotional moments of the event for many was when a group of women from Bojayá sang an “alabao,” the music sung in their funeral rituals. They represented women, the main victims of war. They also represented the people of Bojayá. These people suffered one of the most brutal massacres in the country, when in one day in 2002, 117 inhabitants of the small village, including the elderly and children were murdered. If they were able to sing for peace and forgive, why not hope that all Colombians can do it too?

img_0905CLAUDIA STEINER has a Ph.D. from the University of California at Berkeley and an M.A. from the University of Wisconsin at Madison. She has been a professor of history and anthropology at Universidad Nacional and Universidad de los Andes in Bogotá, Colombia. She was chair of the Anthropology Department at Universidad de los Andes from 2004 until 2009. Until 2013 she was associate professor and editor of the journal Antípoda.

She has published several articles about peasants and violence in Colombia and written the book “Imaginación y Poder en Urabá. El Encuentro del Interior con la Costa (1900-1940)”. With Roberto Pineda and Carlos Paramo she published the edited book “El Paraíso del Diablo. Roger Casement y el Informe del Putumayo, un Siglo Después.” Currently she is adjunct professor of the Anthropology Department at Universidad de los Andes.

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The Dark Side of Summer Carnivals


Photo by Kevin Burkett.

By Levi Bridges

Summer carnivals are a quintessential American tradition, an opportunity for families to enjoy time together, eat a funnel cake or two and take a ride on the Ferris wheel.

But there’s a dark side to this summer fun. These same carnivals, which sprout up in cities and towns all over the United States, are the same places where workers from Latin America, mainly Mexico, experience some of the worst exploitation among industries that legally recruit foreign workers.

Walk onto the fairgrounds of most county fairs anywhere in the United States today and you will notice that a lot of the workers are Latino. Many come from Tlapacoyan, Mexico, a bustling town in the southern state of Veracruz.


A group of men boards a bus bound for the U.S. in the town of Tlapacoyan, Mexico. Workers from Tlapacoyan are recruited to work at U.S. carnivals on H-2B visas. Many say their employers commit wage theft and other forms of exploitation. (Photo by Levi Bridges.)

A U.S. labor recruiter with connections to Tlapacoyan started bringing workers to U.S. carnivals on temporary H-2B visas two decades ago. Since then the business has expanded. Roughly 4,000 workers now come from Tlapacoyan to work at fairs all over the lower 48 states each year.

Foreigners who arrive in the United States on H-2B visas often fall victim to exploitation by employers because their visas do not allow them to change jobs if they are unsatisfied with the working conditions. Wage theft and other abuses are widespread.

Many Mexican carnival workers say they earned about $5 an hour on average and were housed in bedbug-infested trailers.

I witnessed these working conditions firsthand during a summer I spent working undercover as a carnival ride operator with workers from Tlapacoyan. I’m currently writing a book about the experience, a mix of ethnography and reporting from Mexico, as a student at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism.

Some workers in Tlapacoyan, I discovered, decided to fight back. Three years ago, over a dozen migrant carnival workers in Tlapacoyan filed a class action lawsuit against their employer, Deggeller Attractions, hoping to receive lost wages. Deggeller Attractions is one of the largest carnival companies on the East Coast.


Roughly 4,000 men and women leave the Mexican town of Tlapacoyan each year to work at summer carnivals in the U.S. Many of these workers report that their U.S. employers housed them in roach-infested trailers and paid them as little as five dollars an hour without overtime. (Photo by Levi Bridges.)

The lawsuit has dragged on for over three years, and although the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals recently ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, a final appeal by the employer has stalled any resolution.

I wanted to find out what had happened to the Deggeller plaintiffs three years after the case began. With the generous support of a travel grant from the Tinker Foundation and the UC Berkeley Center for Latin American Studies, I traveled to Tlapacoyan in summer 2016.

Back in Mexico, I learned that most of the plaintiffs deeply regretted joining the lawsuit. I spent most of my time with Vicente Guerrero, one of the main characters in the book I’m writing. Like most of the plaintiffs, Guerrero never realized how much the case would change his life. Intoxicated at first with a desire to take a stand against his former bosses, the romanticism quickly wore off. Guerrero and the other plaintiffs were blacklisted by the recruiter in their town from ever returning to work at U.S. fairs.

Guerrero now works driving a taxi. He usually just earns enough money to live day by day. When we met last summer, he had grown desperate. Once a vocal opponent of the carnival industry, he now longed to return to the American fairs.

When his old supervisor at Deggeller Attractions offered him a job if he agreed to drop out of the lawsuit, Guerrero told him that he would even take a pay cut for the opportunity to work with them again.

Thousands of towns like Tlapacoyan are scattered across Mexico. The potential benefits of what work in the United States can provide rural Mexicans back home often makes workers put up with abusive employers. Speaking out frequently results in workers losing the best economic opportunity available to them.

The experiences of workers like Guerrero have unfortunately become commonplace.

Some names in this story have been changed to preserve the identities of those involved.


Levi Bridges is a print and radio journalist focusing on immigration and labor and a current student at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. He has reported for Radio Ambulante, The Associated Press, The Washington Post and helped found one of Mexico’s first shelters for Central American refugees during a year spent in the country as a Fulbright Scholar. He grew up on a farm in rural Maine.

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