Boric: Anguish and Hope in Chile

By Sofía Barahona and Felipe Vial

Chilean deputy Gabriel Boric speaks for CLAS at UC Berkeley, February 2020. (Photo by Nicolás Novoa-Marchant/

Chilean Deputy Gabriel Boric speaks for CLAS at UC Berkeley, February 2020.
(Photo by Nicolás Novoa-Marchant/

Artículo en español

On February 10, Chilean Deputy Gabriel Boric, of the Social Convergence party, spoke at Berkeley for CLAS. He discussed the social unrest in Chile and described the main agendas of reform that are being discussed in the country. There is a social agenda to find an answer to the most urgent problems of Chileans. There is also a human rights agenda, to guarantee the recognition, sanction, and reparation of numerous cases in which the rights of protesters have been violated, as well as the need to reform the armed forces and the police. Finally, there is the constitutional agenda that will be pushed forward by, among other things, the April 26 plebiscite to decide whether or not to begin the process of drafting a new constitution. (1)

On the constitutional agenda, Boric left us with several thoughts. The levels of violence and protests that Chile is experiencing as a country are a response to the institutional violence that generated decades of marginalization for a significant percentage of the population. The economic advances that positioned us as one of the most developed countries in Latin America are not reflected in the daily realities for Chileans. One reality is high student indebtedness linked to institutions that do not meet their promises of better jobs on graduation. Protesters’ demands also reflect widespread discontent with low wages, pensions, and a highly segregated education and health system.

It is this political and social climate that keeps Chile, as Boric stated, in a constant tension between anguish and hope. Its anguish is due to the urgent needs of the country that still have no solution, as well as ongoing violence, repression, and a lack of concrete programs to meet Chileans’ most urgent needs in the near future. The social upheaval these conditions have sparked is used by the most conservative politicians and their backers to oppose the constitutional agenda, arguing that the minimum conditions to guarantee a democratic process do not exist today. Those conservatives also argue that a constitutional change would take a long time, and that short-term reforms can solve the most urgent problems. It is ironic that those actors are the same people who opposed a constitutional reform process during Michelle Bachelet’s second government — in conditions that were much more stable than now — and have also labeled many of the recently proposed reforms as unconstitutional.

A huge protest march in the Plaza Baquedano in Santiago, October 2019. (Photo by Hugo Morales.)

A protest march in the Plaza Baquedano in Santiago, Chile, October 2019.
(Photo by Hugo Morales.)

The second part of this constant tension is hope. The social upheaval in Chile grew in the face of institutional violence and has created a great opportunity for change. It is citizens who have declared themselves “awake” and with no intention of going back to sleep. The Congress began to legislate as never before, politicians managed to reach agreements, the people took to the streets, dialogues ensued, and people continued to participate. The only certainty we have is that, although the next few years will be difficult for everyone, there is the unprecedented possibility of building a new social pact created through reason and democracy, not imposed by force. An intersectional agreement such as our fundamental document, the social framework in which Chileans operate, has space for everyone.

1. Please note, since this blog was written, the plebiscite has been postponed until October 25, 2020, in response to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Sofia Barahona.


Sofia Barahona is the Development Coordinator at Lavender Youth Recreation and Information Center, an San Francisco-based NGO working with LGBTQ youth. She has also worked in the East Bay Sanctuary Covenant and OLAS-LGBTQ Sanctuary Project, two NGOs that work with Latin American migrants in the Bay Area. In 2017, before moving to the U.S., she was President of PUC Chile’s student union (FEUC) and a spokesperson for the Chilean Student Movement.

Felipe Vial.


Felipe Vial is a 3rd year Ph.D. student in the Department of Economics at UC Berkeley. He received both his B.A. and M.A in Economics from PUC Chile. His research interests revolve around labor economics and political economy, particularly focused on unions and collective action.

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When “staying home” might not be an option for everyone: Reflections on the effects of Covid-19 in Brazil

By Laura Belik

The São Remo favela in São Paulo, Brazil. (Photo by Ben Tavener.)

The São Remo favela in São Paulo, Brazil. (Photo by Ben Tavener.)

In Brazil, according to the 2010 Census, 11,425,644 people (6% of the population) live in what is classified as Aglomerados Subnormais (Subnormal clusters), including favelas, comunidades, squatted land, invaded land, and the like. In a country where 81% of the people reside in urban areas, informal settlements are often overcrowded areas with low-income populations where access to basic infrastructure is not a given. Most of these people also make up a large part of the 41% of the population in the informal labor market, with jobs that are not regulated or protected by the state. While these unstable conditions already represent a struggle in their lives, a crisis such as Covid-19 make some of these issues ever more evident.

Common scenarios like families of nine or more sharing a one-room shack exemplify why social-distancing might simply not be an option. Intermittent access to water and open-air sewage systems right beside one’s home make it difficult to meet the World Health Organization’s sanitation regulations. On top of that, hand sanitizer has become an unaffordable item, or more commonly simply out of stock. When thinking about the effects of a fast-spreading virus in cities like São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, wealth disparity and its consequences on the urban setting, how the urban form echoes social and economic inequality, become even more recognizable. No one can escape the effects of the coronavirus, but prevention methods to “flatten the curve” are a luxury that only the privileged can enjoy.

In Rio de Janeiro parties and the baile funk have been called off, and there is a curfew established by gangs and militias for people to return to their homes. At 8 pm, sirens normally used to announce risky situations such as storms and landslides are now an official Covid-19 curfew warning. Public health measures, as well as everyday practices, are once again determined and held informally by the ones that truly dominate these spaces. Neighborhood associations in peripheral areas have also been actively responding to the crisis in whatever ways they can, and collectively demanding official guidelines and support from the state.

Cleaning of public spaces in Brasilia, March 30, 2020. (Photo by Lúcio Bernardo Jr / Agência Brasília.)

Cleaning public spaces in Brasilia, March 30, 2020.
(Photo by Lúcio Bernardo Jr / Agência Brasília.)

Federal, state and local governments have been brainstorming specific measures to relieve at-risk populations during the spread of the epidemic. The use of hotels and even naval ships to house and isolate the elderly and other high-risk populations from informal settlements has been considered as an option.

“Stay at home” becomes a loaded term with multiple layers when cities heavily rely on informal relations. Many people cannot afford not to work, and will not be able to get help from the government precisely because of their lack of documentation. “If I don’t die of the virus, I will die of hunger,” says José Maria, 65, a street vendor who sells ice cream and is concerned with his income over the next few months. Home might also be an unstable place that has never symbolized safety in any sphere, not just considerations of health. In times of seclusion, Covid-19 makes clear how urban spaces in Brazil are disparate and unequal, and reemphasizing that thinking about our cities is a complex and interdisciplinary issue with no single solution at hand.


Laura Belik is a Ph.D. Candidate in Architecture – History, Theory and Society at UC Berkeley. She holds an M.A. in Design Studies from Parsons – The New School (New York) and a B.Arch. in Architecture and Urban Planning from Escola da Cidade (São Paulo- Brazil). Her main research interests are urbanism, history of architecture, politics of space, design theory, and curatorial studies.  Her dissertation research focuses on the histories and dimensions of socio-spatial inequalities in the Brazilian Northeast region, and how to interpret the multiple memories related to the built environment.

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“Una mezcla de miedo y esperanza”

Por Enzo Nervi

Protesta chilena en Puerto Montt, diciembre de 2019. (Foto de Natalia Reyes Escobar).

Protesta en Puerto Montt, diciembre de 2019. (Foto de Natalia Reyes Escobar).

Reflexiones sobre la conversación entre Gabriel Boric y estudiantes hispanohablantes de la Universidad de Berkeley, 10 de febrero de 2020.

“Una mezcla de miedo y esperanza”. Con esta frase, el diputado chileno Gabriel Boric comenzó su conversatorio en UC Berkeley, refiriéndose al “estallido social”, el ciclo de manifestaciones sociales que han venido ocurriendo en Chile desde el 18 de octubre del 2019. Como chileno, sentí diversas emociones al escuchar esa frase. Primero, y bajo la esperanza de que una autoridad tendría respuestas sobre el futuro de mi país, no pude evitar sino sentir desesperanza al darme cuenta de que un Diputado de la República siente el mismo grado de incertidumbre que un ciudadano común. En segundo lugar, y luego de un mayor análisis, logré percibir las sinceras palabras del Diputado Boric como un intento de entregar completamente el protagonismo de las protestas a la ciudadanía, dejando atrás su pasado como líder estudiantil.

Como parte de la élite del país, según él mismo se identificó, Boric aprovechó para hacer un mea culpa sobre la percepción que se tiene actualmente respecto del Frente Amplio, coalición política a la que pertenece. Argumentó una excesiva “parlamentarización” donde, como Partido, se enfocaron en exceso en el Congreso, lo que se tradujo en una pérdida de cercanía e identidad con los movimientos sociales. Para Boric, todos los partidos políticos requieren una refundación después del 18 de octubre si quieren continuar en política, escuchando las demandas de la calle y replanteándose sus convicciones democráticas, para así lograr que la ciudadanía se sienta efectivamente representada por ellos.

Gabriel BorGabriel Boric escucha al congresista Giorgio Jackson, quien también asistió a la conversación. (Foto de Enzo Nervi.)ic escucha al congresista Giorgio Jackson, quien también asistió a la conversación. (Foto de Natalia Reyes Escobar.)

Gabriel Boric escucha al diputado Giorgio Jackson, quien también asistió a la conversación. (Foto de Enzo Nervi.)

Entendiendo plenamente el descontento con la clase política, Boric no intentó dar respuestas mesiánicas a la ciudadanía, ni ser el vocero de las actuales protestas, ni mostrarse como un experto en temas constitucionales. Boric procuró situarse como un ciudadano más, siendo su estrategia demostrar, a través de casos evidentes como la ley de pesca, o las disparidades en la justicia para ricos y pobres, que el contrato social instaurado en dictadura “tenía bases endebles que hicieron que colapsara”.

Según sus propias palabras, “no hay que ser experto ni abogado para darse cuenta de que la constitución del 80 está entrampada”. En este contexto, el Diputado se refirió a la votación del Senado para consagrar el agua como bien de uso público, donde, con 24 votos a favor y solo 12 en contra, se rechazó el proyecto. Mediante ese ejemplo, argumentó cuán necesario es crear una nueva Constitución que no tenga un vicio de origen, en vez de utilizar una sofisticada terminología legal para defender la opción aprobatoria en el tan esperado plebiscito.

Finalmente, el Diputado Boric citó al politólogo Juan Pablo Luna: “La élite está experimentando la incertidumbre que el resto de la sociedad tiene en su vida cotidiana”. A pesar de que, como la mayoría de los chilenos, esperaba tener respuestas concretas sobre la situación del país, después del conversatorio concluyo que hay certeza en cuanto a que el estallido social logró democratizar la incertidumbre en Chile, y así también, regaló esperanza a quienes han sido víctimas del modelo neoliberal implantado durante la dictadura de Pinochet.

Enzo Nervi.

Enzo Nervi

Enzo Nervi es estudiante del Programa de Maestría en Prácticas de Desarrollo de UC Berkeley y es de Valparaíso, Chile. Después de recibir una licenciatura en Economía y Administración y una Maestría en Economía y Políticas Públicas de la Universidad Adolfo Ibáñez, realizó una pasantía en la Comisión Económica para América Latina y el Caribe de las Naciones Unidas. También fue asistente de enseñanza para el curso “El impacto de la globalización en América Latina”.

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The Antihero

By Denise Dresser

Andrés Manuel López Obrador shakes hands with children at an event on March 15, 2020. (Photo from AMLO/Twitter.)

Andrés Manuel López Obrador shakes hands with children at an event on March 15, 2020.
(Photo courtesy of the Presidencia de la República Mexicana..)

March 16, 2020

Kissing and hugging. Going from meeting to meeting and from one restaurant to another. That is how Andrés Manuel López Obrador continues to move around Mexico, more like a tour guide than a president.

As if he were a cooking show host instead of the leader of a country confronting a global pandemic. As if he had not heard even one of the precautions against coronavirus shared by Hugo López-Gatell, the Subsecretary of Health. If we believe that epidemics reveal underlying truths about the societies they impact and the individuals they affect, then COVID-19 shows AMLO’s irresponsibility. A leader who does not lead, but avoids.

Far from Angela Merkel, who bravely told Germans that probably 70% of the population would become infected and they needed to prepare. Far from the Italian Prime Minister, who unequivocally declared, “There is no more time. Stay at home,” and quarantined 60 million of his fellow citizens. AMLO does not want to talk much about the coronavirus; he does not want numbers that show the scale of the problem; he believes that the virus is a conservative conspiracy rather than the biggest threat to his capacity to manage the country in times of crisis. He seems more interested in maintaining his approval ratings than in preventing the worst consequences of the infection.

To this day, many of AMLO’s followers are convinced that, when it comes to the coronavirus, Mexico is exceptional: more informed and with a better strategy than other countries. For them, there is no need to look at South Korea, Japan, China, Iran, Italy or the United States. Some say that additional testing is not needed because we are still in Phase 1 and there has been no community spread. They insist that we do not need to adopt more aggressive strategies – such as the ones adopted by countries that have flattened the curve of transmission – because of the very few reported cases.

Dr. Hugo López-Gatell Ramírez, Mexico's Subsecretary of Prevention and Promotion of Health, at a presidential press conference on Covid-19, March 19, 2020. (Photo from

Dr. Hugo López-Gatell Ramírez, Mexico’s Subsecretary of Prevention and Promotion of Health, at a presidential press conference on Covid-19, March 19, 2020.
(Photo courtesy of the Presidencia de la República Mexicana.)

It would be great to believe that López-Gatell and his team are right. But what is rapidly happening within and outside of Mexico contradicts the “do not worry” message that they are trying to disseminate. It is probable that Mexico will pay a steep price for not taking a more aggressive and preventative stance. It is possible that political loyalty to the president and his disdainful delay may have cost us the valuable time needed for more powerful measures. We now face the coronavirus with a health system that has been crippled by the current austerity and previous lack of investment: hospitals without sufficient beds, respirators, testing kits, medical teams or coordination. Serious mistakes have permitted the quiet spread of the virus while no one noticed and few suggested measures to stop it. Containment and mitigation efforts, early detection, and social distancing should have been implemented weeks earlier and with full presidential support. The same can be said about the distribution and administration of tests, which have reduced mortality rates in other regions. Instead of that, we go ahead with the “Vive Latino” music festival for economic reasons, and with the presidential tours for political reasons. As Alfredo Narváez wrote in Nexos, “The epidemic will not forgive mistakes.”

The coronavirus adds itself to the list of other current pathologies: deep polarization, a lack of trust in the institutions, the threat of an economic contraction that could become a recession, corruption that switches political parties but does not leave the government, the collapse of oil prices, a forecasted fall of the Pemex bonds, and the difficulty to unite our country when AMLO reviles anyone who does not applaud him. To point this out is not to be an alarmist but a realist; it is not to be the “opposition” who wishes a failure but a citizen who demands a correction.

Mexican cases of Covid-19. (Image from Wikipedia, data from Mexico's Secretariat of Health.)

Mexican cases of Covid-19. (Image from Wikipedia, data from Mexico’s Secretariat of Health.)

However, the president still thinks that he can stop a pandemic with kisses, hugs, handshakes and mass gatherings. He is more concerned about his personal popularity than the lethal virus. His narcissism is stronger than his patriotism. As Bob Dylan said, ” A hero is someone who understands the responsibility that comes with his freedom.” When acting irresponsibly, one kiss at a time, AMLO becomes the antihero.

This article originally appeared in Spanish in the March 16, 2020 edition of Reforma and was translated to English by Ana De Carolis, with the author’s permission.

Denise Dresser. (Photo by Paco Diaz.)

Denise Dresser. (Photo by Paco Diaz.)

Denise Dresser is Professor of Political Science at the Instituto Tecnológico Autónomo de México (ITAM). A political analyst and columnist writing for Reforma and Proceso, she is also the author of numerous publications on Mexican politics and U.S.–Mexico relations. Dresser received France’s Legion of Honor medal for her work on democracy,  justice, gender equality, and human rights.

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“We have seen the curve of history and it goes up” — An Evening of History and Humor with Isabel Allende

By Evan Fernández


Adam Hochschild and Isabel Allende speaking at Berkeley, February 2020. (Photo by Peg Skorpinski.)

On February 25, the UC Berkeley Center for Latin American Studies hosted author Isabel Allende and Berkeley’s own Adam Hochschild to discuss the publication of Allende’s newest novel, Largo pétalo de mar (A Long Petal of the Sea). Published in 2019, the work is the most recent of Allende’s approximately two dozen novels and once again proves her ability to capture and process through fiction the drama and tragedy of real historical events. Despite her status as one of the world’s great literary figures, Allende exudes a disarming wit and a charming charisma. As she spoke before an excited audience of 300 people, her words throughout the evening wove together both humor and substantive contemplation. Punchy jokes ran alongside her more somber reflections on some of the tragic chapters of Latin American and world history in the stories which fill her books.

While I aspire to neither spoil the story of her new novel nor dare to think that I could concisely summarize the contours of a literary work à la Allende, the context in which Largo pétalo de mar is set goes something like this: in April 1939, the right-wing nationalist alliance led by Francisco Franco achieved victory in the Spanish Civil War, which had raged since 1936. The violence and suffering produced by the war led to the exodus of hundreds of thousands of Spanish refugees sympathetic to the left-leaning Republican coalition fighting against Franco. Many fled to France, where they were interned in concentration camps and forced to live in squalid conditions. Watching this crisis unfold was another giant of Latin American literature, Pablo Neruda, who at that moment served as a Chilean diplomat in Paris. Disturbed by the experiences of and sympathizing with the Spanish Republican refugees in France, Neruda, with the endorsement of the Chilean president, personally orchestrated the migration of 2100 of these individuals to Chile. Neruda acquired an old ship, the SS Winnipeg, which set sail from France in August of 1939 and arrived in the Chilean port of Valparaiso a month later. In a twist of historical coincidence too dramatic to make up, the Spanish refugees disembarked the Winnipeg in Chile on September 1, the very day that Germany invaded Poland and ignited the Second World War. Many of the 2100 on board resided in Chile for the remainder of their lives. Allende’s novel seizes the chaos and tragedy of this moment and narrates the stories of those on board as they sail across the Atlantic and begin their lives anew in Chile.

A packed Sibley Auditorium listens to Allende and Hochschild, February 2020. (Photo by Peg Skorpinski.)

A packed room listens to Allende and Hochschild, February 2020. (Photo by Peg Skorpinski.)

I am inevitably giving short shrift to the premise of the story Allende tells, but at least for me, grasping the history embedded in her work of fiction was central to understanding the lessons Allende sought to impart to her audience that night. The evening developed as a casual conversation between Allende and Hochschild before they both fielded questions from the audience. However, underneath her layers of charm, charisma, and humor, Allende’s words touched on numerous themes whose contemplation asks for a more serious response.

Adam Hochschild and Isabel Allende at Berkeley, February 2020. (Photo by Peg Skorpinski.)

Adam Hochschild and Isabel Allende at Berkeley, February 2020. (Photo by Peg Skorpinski.)

The aspect of Allende’s dialogue that most impacted me was her discussion of migration, mobility, and displacement; a trio of experiences to which she herself has extensive exposure. Allende narrated how she was born in Peru in 1942 and raised in Chile, where she matured as an author across her early life. She was then exiled to Venezuela after the coup d’état in Chile on September 11, 1973, which brought Augusto Pinochet’s right-wing military junta to power. Allende was one of thousands of Chileans who left during Pinochet’s 17-year dictatorship. While residing in the U.S., and now an American citizen, Allende transparently described how the trauma of exclusion from her own country informs her aspiration to process these experiences, which are shared by millions of refugees across the world, through the characters in her novels. Informed by her own experience, Allende thus conceives characters whose stories comment upon the feeling of a person displaced. She noted that her perseverance through years of exile was based on her philosophy that “we all feel pain, but suffering is optional.” On the broader point of exclusion and the tens of millions refugees across the world today, Allende called for the acceptance of people whom certain nationalist ideologies ostracize, and for reigning in the unchecked power of government officials. “My obsession since I was very young,” she asserted, “was justice.” One cannot separate the call for action implied in her words from a critique of the attitude towards immigration espoused by certain U.S. policy-makers today.

To say that the past remains with us is to repeat a truism. Even when articulated by a historian such as me, who is all too eager to point out the pressing lessons of history, it feels too obvious to need saying. Yet Allende assured that, among the crowd of 300 gathered to hear her speak, the weight of the past hung over the evening. Indeed, the author stated that she can only write fiction based on historical events. The vast majority of her work takes some inspiration from the human past, and Largo pétalo de mar sits alongside her previous novels (such as La isla bajo el mar, which takes place in the Haitian Revolution), in telling through fiction individual stories which could very well have happened.

Invoking though fiction the historical experiences of refugees in order to contemplate the world’s migration crisis today certainly leaves one exasperated and disheartened. However, Allende’s brilliance and inspiration as a public speaker lies in her ability to weave together tragedy, optimism, and humor. Despite raising these pressing themes, Allende left the crowd in Berkeley with a ray of hope, assuring that “we have seen the curve of history, and it goes up.”

Evan Fernández, UC Berkeley Ph.D. student in History.

Evan Fernández is a Ph.D. student in UC Berkeley’s Department of History, studying the history of Latin America, particularly Chile and Peru, as part of the Pacific world. His current project explores the Chilean sodium nitrate (salitre) industry and the sale of nitrates to Japan in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Evan also is working on a project concerning the Peruvian-Chilean border dispute in the 1920s and international relations in the Americas in the early 20th century.

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Upheaval in Chile

By Gabriel Boric

Written remarks prepared for a public talk at the University of California, Berkeley | Hosted by the Center for Latin American Studies (CLAS) | February 10, 2020


A protest in Santiago, Chile, October 2019. (Photo by Carlos Figueroa.)

It’s incredible how language can limit your expression and even your imagination. As you know, my mother tongue is Spanish, so please excuse me if I have a hard time making myself clear in this talk. I’ll do my best, but I also might need some help to express some ideas.

I would like to thank CLAS and Beatriz Manz for giving me the opportunity to be here in Berkeley. For me it is very important to have the chance to talk to you and get a different perspective on what’s going on in Chile, because being in the center of the effervescence for so many weeks (months now), narrows your view of the problems and opportunities we’re facing.

Before I start I must say that I don’t pretend to be an impartial observer of the situation we’re living in Chile. I’m into politics and a militant of Convergencia Social (the name of our party that has just been legalized), which is part of Frente Amplio, a left wing coalition that in the last presidential election had the 20% of the votes. Therefore, I have a point of view, which of course doesn’t prevent me from questioning my own ideas, an exercise that for me at least is very important in politics and in life. As Albert Camus said, “doubt must follow convictions as a permanent shadow”.

I’m going to center my talk on what I believe are the main causes of the social rebellion in Chile, and leave the future perspectives, proposals and the constitutional challenge to the dialogue, so I can go deeper on those topics.

Neoliberal public policies were introduced after the overthrow of Salvador Allende in 1973. At the end of the 70’s, Chile became the guinea pig of this Chicago-made experiment in the whole world. Of course, these reforms could only have been made in an authoritarian regime, where no discussion was permitted.

These policies have been softened by the transition to democracy, but their essential pillars were preserved. Chile has had a remarkably good record of growth, and while in the 1960-70s it was in the middle of Latin American GDP per capita, it is now the richest Latin American country. The success in growth is incontestable.

But where are the hidden parts of this growth?

I’ve always thought that we should make efforts to link politics with cultural expressions, so I’m going to start this talk with a poem from Enrique Lihn that describes in a heart-rending way an endemic problem that is in the center of the discussion nowadays in our country. It’s called “Punta Arenas Cemetery” (the translation is mine with a friend so my excuses to Enrique Lihn if we didn’t express its power).


Not even death could make these men alike

who give their names to different gravestones

or shout them into the sun’s wind that rubs them out:

some more dust for a fresh gust of wind.

Here, by the sea that matches the marble,

between this double row of generous cypresses,

peace rules, but a peace struggling to shatter itself,

ripping the burial parchments in a thousand pieces

to poke out the face of an ancient arrogance

and to laugh at the dust.


This city was yet to be built

when its first born sons raised another empty city

and, one by one, they settled deep into their place

as if they could still dispute it.

Each one forever on his own, waiting,

the tablecloths laid out, for his sons and grandsons.

Continue reading

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Humor is no Joke

By Gabriel Lesser

Political humor is booming in Brazil. It’s practically inescapable if you’re on social—or unsocial—media. Sérgio Augusto recently wrote in the Folha de São Paulo newspaper that the election of an extreme right-wing president who reveres Brazil’s most recent dictatorship (1965-1980) has resulted in a rebirth of anti-authoritarian, resistance-focused humor.  My Facebook feed, for example, supplies me with daily memes mocking President Jair Bolsonaro and a variety of other government actors.

My CLAS Summer Field Research Grant project initially sought to explore the relationship between humor and political resistance in Brazilian literature. My focus was political satire and graphic humor during Brazil’s military dictatorship. I hoped to analyze continuities in resistance culture during times of political oppression by examining political cartoons in newspapers and humor magazines.

Once I started visiting archives, such as the State University of São Paulo’s (UNESP) Centro de Documentação e Memória (CEDEM) and the Mário de Andrade Library, a different picture emerged. Many political cartoons in well-known left-wing magazines such as O Pasquim, and lesser-known ones such as Ovelha Negra, attacked the dictatorship by mocking other marginalized groups. Stereotypes such as the horny, money-obsessed housewife or the wild, uncivilized person of African descent were often the punchline. What contemporary academic research categorizes as “resistance humor” seemed littered with contradictions to me. The humor criticized the country’s political shift towards authoritarianism while reinforcing many facets of the social status quo. A mostly white and male cast of humorists mocked politicians, women, immigrants, non-whites, the LGBT community, and anyone else they could caricature.


The author researching early 20th century humor magazines at Mário de Andrade Library. (Photo courtesy of Gabriel Lesser.)

This new insight shifted my direction in the archives. I began to examine mainstream, popular newspapers and magazines published during and before the dictatorship, regardless of political orientation. In these publications, cartoons were not acts of humoristic resistance but of oppression: homophobia, sexism, and racism were performed through jokes that reached a wider audience than those in clandestine resistance humor periodicals.

Below is an example of a seemingly innocuous social cartoon that reinforces negative stereotypes about Afro-Brazilians, published in 1937 in Tit-Bits magazine. Tit-Bits did not have an explicit political orientation, claiming its goal was simply to entertain and spark laughter. In this cartoon, the Afro-Brazilian is a shirtless, uncivilized cannibal, who works as a cook, a stereotype found in Brazilian cartoons throughout the 20th century.


– Don’t cry: be brave!
– Easy for you to say: you don’t realize that they are cooking me with raw onions!
(Tit-Bits. September 17, 1937.)

Another cartoon, published in Careta magazine in 1931, uses humor to criticize immigration and inter-marriage in Brazil. Careta was a weekly humoristic illustrated magazine with a large national readership. It lasted more than fifty years and published pieces by some of Brazil’s best-known writers. In the cartoon below, the different racial and ethnic groups are portrayed as the ingredients of a cocktail. When mixed, they create a repulsive, uncivilized creature, dressed similarly to the Afro-Brazilian in the Tit-Bits cartoon above. Jews, Arabs, Japanese, and Italians, among others, are caricatured.


– Take various colored people of foreign races.
– Shake up the contents!
– And what you get is an ethnic person! A standard person! The desired standardized person!
(Careta. April 4th, 1931. From Brazil’s Biblioteca Nacional, available online)

Academic literature tends to focus on political humor as a form of resistance in Brazil. My thesis expands on these approaches by showing how social humor is used as a tool of oppression and exclusion. By making fun of the “other,” the jokester and their audience form a new type of community—often at the expense of the underclasses. These cartoons represent tendencies like racism and classism across the political spectrum. 

My approach to studying humor will illustrate a weapon still common in contemporary acts of oppression, both in Latin America and the United States. It may point to continuities in elite Latin American culture and literature from as early as the 18th century. Canonical Latin American texts often make fun of the lower classes, indigenous groups, immigrants, and many other “others.” It’s time to take those quips seriously! Studying humor is no joke.

Gabriel Lesser. (Photo courtesy of the author.)


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Trump’s NAFTA Replacement Needs to Have its Tires Kicked

By Harley Shaiken

A version of this article originally appeared as an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times on July 5, 2019.

President Trump at the Conservative Political Action Conference in 2017. (Photo by Michael Vadon.)

President Trump would like to see the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement ratified without delay. It’s a bit like a used car salesperson giving you 10 minutes to accept the deal of the century. You may want to look under the hood and test-drive the vehicle first.

USMCA is largely an updated and rebranded version of the North American Free Trade Agreement passed in 1993. That deal contributed to what the economist Joseph Stiglitz views as a defining national problem: “stagnant or declining wages at the bottom, an eviscerated middle class, and top wages that are soaring.”

The central question now is, will the USMCA correct the flaws of NAFTA or lock them in for another quarter-century? Specifically, what impact will the new agreement have on U.S. jobs, wages and outsourcing to Mexico? Merchandise trade soared sixfold under NAFTA from $101 billion in 1994 to over $615 billion last year. What is problematic, however, is the paradox that fueled much of this growth. Mexican workers have produced more and earned less, creating a lure for investment and a fierce downward pressure on U.S. wages.

Why? Industrial wages in Mexico aren’t simply low, they are suppressed by few labor rights — workers cannot form independent unions — and government policy to throttle wages to attract investment. Despite high productivity, Mexican industrial wages now trail wages in China and are among the lowest in the world.

In a highly integrated economy, this dismal picture is also an American story. Not surprisingly General Motors put its fast-selling new Chevy Blazer SUV in Ramos Arizpe, Mexico, with labor costs at $3 an hour, rather than in Lordstown, Ohio, at $30 an hour. At these rates, the total annual compensation bill of wages and benefits for 3,000 hourly workers in Lordstown would be more than $360 million, compared with $30 million in Ramos Arizpe.

A Chevy Cruze. (Photo by Otto Kristensen.)

On March 6, the last Chevy Cruze rolled off the line in Lordstown. The sprawling Ohio plant that employed 4,500 workers three years ago now sits empty and the town is reeling. Dave Green, president of United Auto Workers Local 1112 in Lordstown, told me in March about divorces, depression, and parents unable to care for disabled children or their own elderly parents. In spite of the pain, he still took pride in the high-quality cars they built.

Mexican workers are shortchanged as well. Suppressed wages mean many industrial workers live in poverty despite their high productivity, and $3-an-hour wages diminished economic growth.

The auto sector accounts for about a third of Mexico’s manufacturing exports and reflects a highly distorted trading relationship. While the market remains in the U.S., production has migrated to Mexico. The U.S. ran a $95-billion auto trade deficit with Mexico in 2018 — more than the U.S. deficit with Japan and South Korea combined.

We need a new trade agreement but one that will protect U.S. workers and families. The best way to do this is ensuring the rights of Mexican workers. Two critical changes are needed before ratification: improved labor rights in the agreement and demonstrated labor rights reform in the export sector. Simply put, workers would actually have to be able to join independent unions and bargain collectively. The first change is important, the second fundamental.

President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (center) in Mexico City. (Photo by Eneas de Troya.)

Mexico has a new reform government genuinely committed to change. President Andrés Manuel López Obrador was elected in 2018 with an overwhelming majority. He already has passed impressive labor reform legislation, but the law has not yet been carried out. Fierce opposition to labor reform from well-financed old-guard unions and employers who profit from suppressed wages still rules the day, with state institutions too weak to implement far-reaching changes in the labor sector.

Whatever the relative merits on paper of the old NAFTA and the USMCA — in effect, the “new NAFTA” — the reality for both Mexican and U.S. workers would not be much changed, if at all, without labor reforms.

What we know from NAFTA is that any leverage evaporates once the trade deal is signed. That’s why it’s crucial that reforms to USMCA happen before ratification. This would not require tackling the entire economy immediately, but it would make it more likely that the new trade agreement will result in a more broadly shared prosperity.

Harley Shaiken is a professor at the University of California Berkeley specializing in labor and the global economy. 


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Colombia: A Touch of Humanity Amidst Negative Evenness

By Margarita Martínez

This article is partially abridged from The Peace Project by the VII Foundation

A demonstration against FARC, 2008. (Photo by Camilo Rueda Lopez).

Imagine being in Havana, Cuba, in perhaps the only room in the entire Caribbean city devoid of charm, with long beige curtains and particle-board tables set into a fixed rectangle. Seated at these tables, facing each other, are two delegations of eighteen people—nine in each delegation. They all have poker faces, changing their expressions only to issue an icy “Good morning”. Occasionally, someone rises and starts pacing, the steps measuring the tension like beats on a metronome. It is November 19, 2012, the beginning of the first day of the torturous negotiations between bitter enemies: the Colombian government of President Juan Manuel Santos and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).

The half-century war brought unspeakable violence; more than 50,000 kidnappings, hundreds of thousands of deaths, and the displacement of a staggering eight million people. This negotiation is the fourth attempt to reach peace between the democratic government and the Marxist guerrillas.

A woman lights a candle in Bogotá to remember those killed in the conflict. (Photo by Silvia Andrea Moreno).

I am a privileged observer, a Colombian journalist making a documentary film about the peace negotiations. All bets, including my own, were against success. Like most Colombians, I didn’t believe there was a will or a way. Alongside my skepticism and experience of the tense environment, I carried with me what had happened in the past.

Yet the negotiators on both sides experienced a moment of immense humanity when victims of some of the most horrendous crimes committed in Colombia were invited to speak. No other peace process had included victims this way, in the process itself; this was a Colombian innovation. The United Nations, the Catholic Church, and the National University put together a list of victims of the most brutal crimes committed by the guerrillas, the government, and the paramilitaries.

Five groups of twelve victims were brought to Havana starting on August 16, 2014. No one knew how this gambit was going to play out, and there was high anxiety about what the victims were going to say. Each of them spoke in a quiet room with windows opening to lush Caribbean vegetation. A few sobs punctuated their stories.

From the author’s documentary film La Negociación. November, 2018.

Constanza Turbay, a 57-year old from the Caquetá Department, in the southern Amazonas region, told how her brother died as a FARC hostage. Her mother and her other brother, a politician, were accused of being corrupt. They and their bodyguards were killed and dumped on a rural road. Turbay witnessed the demise of her entire nuclear family.

“I’ve already lost everything,” Turbay said calmly to the negotiators. “But we can do a lot to honor those loved ones we lost, to rebuild peace and reconciliation in Colombia.”

To everybody’s surprise, although the peace process had deeply divided Colombia, other victims were as supportive of it as Turbay. They gave a sense of humanity to a dry political process and sent a message to society that they, the ones who had suffered the most, where willing to turn the page, to imagine a different country for future generations.

Márquez, the FARC’s chief negotiator and a fellow child of Caquetá, approached Turbay afterwards and asked for her forgiveness. “This should have never had happened,” he said.


Margarita L. Martínez is a Colombian documentary filmmaker and journalist.  She received a masters’ degree in Journalism and International Affairs from Columbia University, then started her career at NBC in New York. She returned to Colombia in 1999 to work for the Associated Press, covering internal conflict at one of the peaks of violence. She has produced four feature-length documentaries and more than a dozen shorts since then. Granted unprecedented access to the peace talks between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) in Havana, Cuba, her documentary The Negotiation was released in November 2018. 





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Everyday Use of Plants in Pre-Hispanic Costa Rica

By Venicia Slotten

Arenal Volcano viewed from the archaeological site La Chiripa. (Photo by Venicia Slotten).

This July, supported by a Tinker Foundation and CLAS-funded research grant, I helped excavate a house structure in Costa Rica that was preserved by the eruption of Arenal Volcano around 3,500 years ago. This archaeological site, La Chiripa, is one of the oldest known domestic structures found to date in Central America. The ancient house was discovered in 2016 by the Proyecto Prehistorico Arenal, directed by Payson Sheets and Christine Dixon. The recovery of ancient botanical remains here provides an excellent opportunity to address questions regarding the daily lives and resilience of ancient people in this region of the world. La Chiripa’s landscape has been continually inhabited for approximately 2,500 years, persevering through frequent volcanic activity. Distinct ash deposits help distinguish between periods of human occupation, with abandonments, ecological recovery, and reoccupations after each eruption. The research will provide invaluable information regarding ancient household practices, long-term residence stability, and environmental resilience in pre-Hispanic Central America.

As a paleoethnobotanist, my role was to collect soil samples from the floor surface of the house structure and also from each cultural strata covering this remarkable find. Extra samples were taken from any cultural features we encountered during excavations as well, such as post-holes from where the house was once anchored or darkened organic features that could have been a hearth or cooking pit. Once processed and analyzed, these soil samples will help researchers know the assemblage of food the ancient inhabitants of the house were consuming and other details about the environment that surrounded their home. Soil samples designated for water flotation were taken to recover the larger macrobotanical remains such as seeds and wood charcoal that can be identified later based on their morphological and anatomical characteristics. Separate samples were also taken that were designated for phytolith and pollen analysis, to provide a more microbotanical view of the ancient flora.

The author takes soil samples systematically from each stratigraphic layer of the excavation at La Chiripa. (Photo courtesy of Venicia Slotten).

All botanical samples were then exported back to the UC Berkeley McCown Archaeobotany Laboratory for analysis. Employing a variety of collection techniques will help my project determine which methodology is more productive in future excavations while also maximizing what was collected in 2018. Operation of the flotation device and collection of materials is labor intensive and requires assistance, so it was an excellent opportunity to train a local Costa Rican archaeologist who can now aid in the recovery and processing of the botanical data elsewhere on other archaeological projects in their country. Processing archaeological samples using water flotation is not yet widely practiced in this region of the world, so there is still much to learn about past foodways of Central America. Paleoethnobotanical recovery can speak to various aspects of daily household practices: This analysis can reveal information regarding how plants in the past were utilized as food, medicine, fuel, tools, clothing, construction material, and even art. The botanical results will be combined with research from other members of the archeological team, who focus on lithic, ceramic, organic residue, and spatial analyses. All of this information will be combined and work together to depict the past lives of pre-Hispanic Central Americans.

PhD student Andres Mejía-Ramón (Penn State) operates a drone to map the area surrounding the archaeological site. (Photo by Venicia Slotten).

The analysis of the paleoethnobotanical samples is a long process that I will undertake here at Berkeley for the next several years, as it involves hours of microscope work and identification of plant material. The experience of collecting these botanical samples showed me just how much there is to learn archaeologically in this region. Few researchers have collected these types of macrobotanical samples in Central America, often claiming that there just is not enough preservation of organic remains to make the recovery efforts worthwhile. While this particular site does have exceptional preservation due to nearby volcanic activity, the project also suggests that other efforts elsewhere in the region to recover macrobotanical remains could prove to be productive as well. I hope that my interactions with other scholars during my time in Costa Rica demonstrated that this field of study could yield fantastic results; it is just a matter of taking the time and energy to collect the samples.

The author processes soil samples using a flotation tank in order to recover preserved organic remains. (Photo courtesy of Venicia Slotten).

Initial results of the floated soil samples show abundant carbonized organic matter was collected.  The next step is to sort and identify the assemblage of plant remains that were preserved for thousands of years to tell us a story about the past lifeways of Central America!


Venicia Slotten is a PhD student in Anthropology at UC Berkeley. Venicia earned her MA in Anthropology from the University of Cincinnati and a BA in Anthropology and Latin American Studies from Miami University. Her main research interests include household archaeology, paleoethnobotany, historical ecology, and Latin America.





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