Sunday, September 30, 2007


I admit that this review is fairly negative, but what can you do?

Waisman, Carlos H., and Raanan Rein, eds. Spanish and Latin American Transitions to Democracy. Brighton: Sussex Academic Pres, 2005.

The Preface to Carlos Waisman and Raanan Rein's co-edited Spanish and Latin American Transitions to Democracy opens by declaring that "this volume compares the political and economic transitions that have occurred in Spain and Latin America over the past three decades" (vii). But the book does little of the sort. Rather it collects six essays on Spain and adds a further five on Latin America; only one of these makes even the most token of gestures (and it is little more than a token) towards comparative analysis. Any such analysis, then, is up to the reader to undertake at his or her leisure. All of which rather belies the Preface's subsequent declaration, that "this comparison is a natural one" (vii): in fact it is not, it would seem, natural for any of the contributors to this volume.

The failure to compare the two case studies, however, is not necessarily a cause for disappointment, at least judging from Waisman's Introduction, in which he does indeed attempt to consider Spain and Latin America together. Waisman argues that the Spanish transition is a "paradigmatic case," but that the Latin American transitions differ from it on just about every count. A strange paradigm, then, surely? So whereas Spain (Waisman argues) boasted a healthy civil society, a consensus over past trauma, positive demonstration effects from regional neighbors, a strong state, and cooperation from the European Community and the USA, Latin America lacked each of these five pre-requisites for a successful transition. Hence, Waisman concludes, Latin America is "likely to remain at the margins of modernity" (13). But if the result of such a comparison, then, is once again simply to use Europe as a yardstick by which to condemn an implicitly "premodern" Latin America, then we should be glad that this volume's contributors have not been tempted to go down that road.

Fortunately, the collection's essays on Spain are much more interesting than either Preface or Introduction might suggest. Moreover, each one of them gives the lie to Waisman's assertion that the key to Spanish success has been "state effectiveness" (6). In different ways, they emphasize the Spanish state's weaknesses: the historical myopia and short-termism of its leaders in Enric Ucelay-Da Cal's analysis; its popular illegitimacy that bolstered social movements in José María Marín Arce's account; its increasingly diffuse sovereignty vis-à-vis the regions in Xosé-Manoel Núñez's essay; its inability to deal with Basque nationalism in Ander Gurrutxaga Abad's contribution or with nationalist violence in Juan Avilés's; and the unexpected effects of its half-hearted educational reforms according to Tamar Groves. Indeed, so often do these six authors refer to what Ucelay-Da Cal terms Spain's "weak systemic loyalty and underlying doubts of political legitimacy" (41) that, pace Waisman, we might even suggest that it is a certain measure of state ineffectiveness and incapacity that has been central to the Spanish transition.

The essays that follow, on Latin America, are far weaker than the contributions on Spain. Luis Roniger's overview stands out, perhaps above all for his repeated and rather bizarre attempt to present Colombia as a model democratic polity, and his praise for that country's "most dynamic elites" for their "profound vision of democratic public co-existence" (144). The little matter of the ties between said elites and paramilitary forces goes strangely unaddressed, except with the note that such violence is a "blemish" (134). By contrast, Roniger's whipping boy is Venezuela, which "seems to have lost this shared vision in the last few years" (144). Yet the notion that there ever was such a shared vision of communal well-being will come as a surprise to, say, Caracas's urban poor: they have understandably backed Hugo Chávez on the grounds that his attitude is rather more inclusive than that of the elites whose political monopoly he has overthrown.

Like Waisman, Roniger cloaks his political judgements behind the norms and the jargon of mainstream political science. But he can't quite shake pervasive metaphors that are now second nature within such discourse. Strikingly, for instance, he suggests that some nations and some publics evince "immaturity" compared to others (132). This of course is an age-old trope, dating back at least as far as Las Casas, for which the "Old World" is adult while those who can do no better than "thinking themselves as part of the civilized world, by visiting or following attentively the centers of diffusion of new ideas and styles" (151) are condemned permanently to childishness.

In this context it is worth praising the essay written by Tamar Groves, who I take to be the youngest of the twelve contributors; she is certainly the only one still studying for her PhD. In a book that is at best uneven (plagued also by poor translations and seemingly non-existent copy-editing), her essay is much the most interesting. And it is, moreover, a study of childhood, of the political sensibilities in rural Spanish schools in the early 1970s. Groves explores the complex interactions between Francoist state initiative, liberal pedagogical theories, teacher mobilization, relative isolation, and schoolchildren who soon demonstrate they have minds of their own. These young people are aware that they are ignored and looked down upon. But they show incisive critical spirit towards such condescension, and their response to the tired discourse of the older generation could be applied to much of the standard line on Latin American democracy, as evidenced by this collection: they point out that it is "sin razonar y creemos que sin pensar" (123).

Wednesday, September 26, 2007


The Wednesday quotation, Part VII: Chávez's government by television.
Welcome to Aló Presidente!, a television chatshow like no other. Sunday's edition, No 295, was the longest yet, a marathon of politics and showmanship, and for many proof that Venezuela has become a country governed largely through television. There are cabinet meetings, national assembly debates and committee hearings in the offices of state in central Caracas, but the most emphatic exercise of power resides in the weekly show hosted by the president. This is where Mr Chávez engages with the masses, announces policies, muses on his political philosophy, and signals the next step in his self-described socialist revolution.

"Chávez governs from Aló Presidente. It is on this show that ministers find out if they have been fired or hired; it is here where mayors and governors are reprimanded for anything they have done wrong," said Arturo Serrano, a political scientist at the Universidad Católica Andrés Bello in Caracas. (Rory Carroll "Government by TV: Chávez sets 8-hour record". The Guardian 25 September, 2007)

Thursday, September 20, 2007


God’s Comedy is perhaps the oddest film I’ve ever seen.

The God of the title is protagonist João de Deus (“John of God”), a Portuguese ice-cream maker with a thing for adolescent girls. Among his many other oddities, de Deus has an expansive collection of pubic hair, carefully catalogued in his “Book of Thoughts.” Yet his ice cream is, we’re given to understand, divine, so justifying the name of the establishment in which he works: “Paradise.”

But its thanks to his odd penchants that life takes a turn for the worse for João. He invites the butcher’s young daughter back to his apartment where, inter alia, he encourages her to sit on a chair full of eggs and to take a bath in milk, from which he will later make the most perfect ice cream. The butcher is none too pleased, and after an extended routine in which the João’s cigarettes are confiscated one by one, the butcher beats the ice-cream maker to a bloody pulp.

True to his name, however, de Deus seems to have a touch of immortality. At the hospital he overhears the doctor whisper that he won’t make it through the night, at which he summons up sufficient energy to raise one bony finger and intone “That’s what you think.” And so although the film ends in apparent disaster, with de Deus fired from his job, his apartment trashed, and his “Book of Thoughts” burned to a cinder, we have the impression that he will continue on to play out his surreal perversions another day. In this sense, the film is also a comedy of bare life.

Shot almost exclusively in excruciatingly long takes and an absolutely immobile camera, it would be hard to say that this “Comedy” is a barrel of laughs. Often enough time practically stands still, though this too can be a source of humour as in a scene in which a visiting French dignitary solemnly undertakes a tasting of de Deus’s product, in the wake of speeches and national anthems and a priestly blessing. At the scene’s climax, the Frenchman solemnly declares that the ice cream tastes “shit” (though we are led to believe that this may be a function of national jealousy).

And if we accept the metaphorical implications, that this is also a film more broadly about la comédie humaine, it should be said that on the whole that’s not particularly funny either.