Remember Your Fellow Activist

In November 1988, my parents left El Salvador and came to Canada, uncertain of what would become of their future. That didn’t matter: sure, Canada’s winter was tough, but the war in El Salvador was tougher.

They came searching for peace. They found it, and as a result, were able to start a family and have their kids graduate from college and university (yours truly went on to finish his graduate degree).

The cruelties of war were ones my parents and their generation experienced firsthand; ones which I have been fortunate enough to miss out. Even as someone who reads and writes about Latin American issues, I find it hard to imagine or understand them. Here in Canada, we’re fortunate to live in a country that has never gone through a civil war.

As you read this, thousands of kilometers away, real people—activists—are on the ground in Latin America doing real work in hopes of making their countries better: in El Salvador trying to keep kids out of gangs, in Venezuela fighting to restore democratic rights, or in Colombia trying to restore peace after half a century of fighting between the government and FARC. The list is endless.

And unfortunately, it’s a struggle. Activists often put their lives in danger. Living under the constant danger of death threats is part of the job. They’re aware of the risks. They accept them for the love of humanity.

So, to the children of my parents’ generation: we haven’t lived through violent struggles, but let’s not forget that these struggles exist. I’m lucky enough to share my thoughts behind the safety of a computer screen.

Others aren’t afforded that luxury.

The views expressed in this blog post are mine alone. They do not represent the views of any entities I am affiliated with in the past, present, or future.


Mexico Has Learned From Previous Tragedies

Image result for mexico earthquake

As seen in the October 2017 edition of Eco Latino (Ottawa)

Mother Nature hasn’t been good to the Caribbean and Mexico these last few weeks. Hurricanes in the former and earthquakes in the latter have created worry.

The clean-ups will be long and costly. However, in these hard times, I find relief in Mexico.

To be clear: the Mexican earthquakes have been tragic. Anywhere where an earthquake destroys buildings and kills hundreds is a place that deserves a spot in any news cycle.

But at these times, it’s important to pause and see Mexico for the country it is. Mexico is better equipped to deal with these tragedies than other Latin American or Caribbean countries—by international measures, Mexico is better developed (Mexico is one of two Latin American countries in the OECD. The other is Chile.) and has made moves in recent decades which may have saved thousands of lives leading up to the 2017 earthquakes.

Earthquakes aren’t new to Mexico. For instance, the 8.0 Richter scale earthquake that shook Mexico City in 1985 killed thousands of Mexicans (estimates range from 5,000 to 45,000) and resulted in the collapse of over 400 buildings.

After that quake, new codes were implemented to strengthen buildings: buildings are now required to have reinforced concrete as well as better load distribution. One Mexican engineer told the Agence France-Press that these regulations likely saved thousands of lives during the most recent quake.

He may have a point. The damage in the 1985 quake is arguably much worse than that of the September 19, 2017 quake, which (at the time I write this) has so far claimed 308 lives and 44 buildings—far less than the thousands of lost lives and hundreds of lost buildings in the 1985 earthquake.

These codes are a sign that Mexico has learned from its past, and it’s a sign that Mexico can rebuild. Leave no doubt: the latest quake is a tragedy, but it’s one the country can overcome.

The Venezuelan Revolution Will Not Be Televised

My newsfeeds over the last year have been filled with viral videos, news clips, and outrage over Venezuela. Some are expecting the country to fall into a civil war.

How did the country fall to this depth? Venezuela was at once one of Latin America’s stronger economies. Did Western influences undermine Chavismo? Or was Chavismo doomed to fail?

Much is made of the influence of Hugo Chavez, with good reason. Chavez entered Venezuelan politics following a period of Latin American frustration over external influences in its backyard—the neoliberal policies brought on by “Western Imperialism,” as argued by many. A “Pink Tide” was rolling through Latin American politics as left-leaning figures became leaders of countries. Chavez was one of them.

People wanted change. Chavez signified that change.

And so “Chavismo”, or the “Bolivarian Revolution” swept through Venezuela. Chavez’s policies shrunk poverty levels in the 2000s. He brought heavy regulation across the nation’s industries in the name of social progress, and, quite notably, began relying heavily on oil exports to bring in some cash for the country. Whether done with good or bad intentions (corruption isn’t rare in Pink Tide-era Latin America), many analysts agree that these policy decisions were the seeds that grew into the malnourished apple tree that is present-day Venezuela.

Chavez became increasingly polarizing in his final days. He spoke out against the West (here publicly speaking out against the USA, and here publicly speaking out against Spain), accusing it of undermining the Bolivarian socialist efforts. His policies made it difficult for private investments to flourish, which was significant given the amount of social programs he implemented. By the end of his days, the poorest of Venezuela’s segments were feeling the pinch from economic shortages (see here for more). Chavez flew to ally Cuba to receive Cancer treatment but succumbed to his illness in 2013.

The general election that followed to fill Chavez’s vacant seat was indicative of how the country felt about Chavismo. Chavez’s successor, Nicolas Maduro, ended up winning the election, but by only a razor thin margin of 1.5%. That meant that half of the country was tired of Chavismo.

But the other half was willing to give it one last go.

That was 2013. Since then, oil sales haven’t been the same, meaning the country has continued to free fall from the summit Chavez promised to climb.

There are a number of events that have taken place over the last four years since Chavez’s death that illustrate the state of the country. Here are just some of the more recent story-lines I’ve decided to highlight:

The country’s economy has continued to plunge in recent months, with reports of inflation running at more than 700 percent.

Food Black Market
Access to food is scarce. Venezuelans are waking up early to line up in front of grocery stores for a chance to get their daily rations—“chance” because rations aren’t guaranteed. This has allowed a food black market to flourish, with consumers paying up to 100 times the regular price for basic food items like corn.

The black market runs deep.

The Venezuelan army was put in charge of distributing food rations, and as a result (and as reported by the Associated Press), investigators have discovered that soldiers of different ranks within the military have played a significant role in directing the market. Soldiers and generals have been reported to take significant percentages of sales.

Public Health Concerns
According to Venezuela’s Health Ministry, the country’s infant mortality rate shot up thirty percent in the last year. More than 11,000 babies died because of a lack of basic medicines and food. Furthermore, at that same time, three-quarters of Venezuela’s adult population reported having lost an average of 19 pounds in the past year.

International Concerns and room for Canada
The Associated Press reported that the country is pulling out of the Organization of American States. The Globe and Mail also reported that, much to the chagrin of Venezuelan officials, Peru’s Foreign Minister Ricardo Luna has publicly stated his wishes for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to act as a mediator in the crisis.

Protests against the country’s government have been commonplace and have unfortunately left casualties: In the last three months, more than 70 have died in demonstrations.

Desperate to Leave
More recently, the Globe and Mail noted the effects the crisis is having on neighbouring countries: many Venezuelans are leaving their homes; 150 Venezuelans a day are seeking asylum in Brazil, and an estimated 550,000 are living illegally in Colombia.

The Associated Press also reported that the number of Venezuelan asylum requests for the US is also on the rise as

The most recent data from Citizenship and Immigration Services show 8,301 Venezuelans requested asylum in the first three months of 2017. That compares to 3,507 in the first quarter of 2016 and puts the country on pace to surpass last year’s record of 18,155 requests.

And those are only a few of the story-lines. Do a quick Google search and you’re bound to find more.

From Chavez to Maduro

Keep Your Eyes Peeled

An editorial note: I’ve written this post in part because some within my social circles are confused about what’s happening in Venezuela. I can’t blame them. For one, there’s a long history of Venezuelan politics to cover (consider my version a NotesByHenry Coles notes). Also, at the conception of this blog post, the world had just been hit by the news of numerous London terrorist attacks and the Trump/FBI saga. There’s only so much news one can absorb.

The other part of me is genuinely concerned and the region and the real-world consequences of this crisis—for instance, as I’ve written above, the ripple effect that is Venezuelan migration can already be seen in the migration patterns of refugees. History has shown how Latin American civil wars in the 1980s altered the demographics of Western countries—not just in Canada and the US, but also in faraway countries like Australia and Italy—which has fueled conversations around immigration politics, civil rights, etc. (*ahem* the 2016 US election, *ahem* Brexit).

As I’ve written in my previous post about Fidel Castro’s legacy, this post isn’t meant to criticize socialist policies. It’s meant to examine what happens when a country is mismanaged, regardless of whether you lean toward the left or the right.

We could learn something from this case—the issue is complex but one worth keeping an eye on. The threat of civil war looms on the horizon.

Colombia: Agree or Disagree, You’ll Probably Learn Something

In early April, I attended a discussion on Colombia’s post-civil war future hosted by the Canadian International Council. For those who don’t know, the Colombian government recently ended a five-decade-long war with one of the country’s prominent rebel groups, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia—People’s Army (FARC, in Spanish).

Overall, it was a great discussion. I was impressed by the level of interaction between audience members and the moderators.

But even more importantly, I was impressed with the quality of ideas exchanged during the discussion. I was reminded that peaceful disagreements can exist in political arenas which are known for mud-slinging.

For instance, while there were disagreements on how to ensure the smooth transition from war-time to peace, there was common ground found between all camps in that 1) the peace treaty is important for Colombia to move forward (even if it contains clauses of contention), and 2) Colombia’s infrastructural needs cannot be ignored, particularly the need for roadways to connect Colombia’s rural areas with its urban ones–roads connect people, literally and figuratively. Roads help drive the economy. Roads are good for peace.

But those were only a few ideas exchanged at this discussion. For the most part, disagreements outnumbered the agreements, but I was reminded of how fruitful these civilized, educated discussions could be. I walked away with a better understanding of how Canada can play a role in the peace process. I also left with a sense that all could play a part in the discussion, whether it’s actually sharing ideas or just being informed of current events.

It seems as though we are constantly bombarded by sad news—countries being bombed, social injustices, violent crimes. In the midst of the negativity, it’s refreshing to hear the promotion of peace in a country that saw fifty years of war.

I heard one professor remark that she had stopped researching the armed conflict because she thought she would never see the end of it. I think all sides in attendance were pleased that she was wrong.

Spreading the Word: News Media and Bad Policies

Spreading the Word: News Media and Bad Policies

This piece will appear in the April 2017 edition of Ottawa’s Eco-Latino.

Calling all researchers: the world needs you.

Last month, I examined the legacy of El Salvador’s civil war, one which includes an ongoing gang problem that has no end in sight.

Why has the country’s gang problem gone on for so long?

Many researchers point to failed anti-gang strategies; specifically, right-wing ARENA’s “Mano Dura” (“Hard Hand”) strategies introduced in the 2000s, which focused too much on incarceration and not enough on rehabilitation or bridging social gaps—gaps which have existed since El Salvador became a country in 1841.

A few weeks ago, I picked up Mano Dura: The Politics of Gang Control in El Salvador, a book written by Mexican-based researcher Sonja Wolf. Like many commentators, Wolf argues that at the heart of the gang problem are the socio-economic issues that plague the country. Simply put: El Salvador can hunt gangsters all it wants, but if it doesn’t address the conditions that give birth to gangs, the problem won’t go away. It’s putting a Band-Aid on a bullet hole.

What struck me about her argument was how mainstream news media pushed for ARENA’s “Mano Dura” policies even though they were flawed from the very beginning. It’s alarming—for instance, she suggests that the two leading newspapers in the country, El Diario de Hoy and La Prensa Grafica, failed to question the effectiveness of these policies because the owners of each paper had entrenched interests with ARENA. As a result, the public saw “Mano Dura” and “Super Mano Dura” as legitimate anti-gang options.

It’s unfortunate that this is only crystal clear in retrospect, but in a country where inequality has historically been “the way it is,” it’s easy to see gangs as the source of evil that require the holy fist of the state.

But let’s be clear: gangs are bad, but the governments that have been unable to bridge the social gaps—the same governments, on the right and left, that have been caught literally stealing millions of dollars from public funds—are arguably worse.

This is where researchers can fill the gap that Salvadoran journalists can’t. El Salvador lacks independent journalists and media outlets, and because of so many aligned interests are held by its biggest news outlets, it’s difficult to find ones that critically examine anti-gang policies and hold presidents accountable. It’s easier said than done, but it’s necessary.

Media producers, for good or bad, select particular stories to follow. Imagine if mainstream news outlets were our only sources for information? There’s a reason why some of my friends identify Trump vs. Mexico as the most important story in Latin American affairs right now, while being unaware of the ongoing food crisis in Venezuela.

So I’ll tell you what I used to tell my students: read your books. Knowledge can go a long way.

Notes by Henry listed in list of Top Blogs of 2017


Some exciting housekeeping news to take care of.

A highlight, indeed–Notes by Henry was listed in Focus Economics Top 101 Blogs of 2017. See it listed here!

Thank you, dear readers, for stopping by Notes by Henry. Discussing Latin American issues is something I’m personally passionate about, and it’s through discussion and engagement that we can hammer out the issues within the region.



Bullet The Disappeared: U2’s El Salvador

Bullet The Disappeared: U2’s El Salvador


2017 marks 25 years since the end of El Salvador’s civil war. It also marks the 30th anniversary of U2’s groundbreaking album, “The Joshua Tree” (which included hits such as “Where the Streets Have No Name” and “With or Without You“).

U2 and El Salvador? What’s the connection?

People of my generation (“millennials”) will likely know U2 as the “washed up rockers” who have desperately tried to stay relevant in pop culture—it’s hard to forget how the band forced their 2011 album, “Songs of Innocence,” onto everyone’s iPhone (it didn’t go so well).

But for others, U2 was a dominant, innovative rock n’ roll force of the 80s, one soaked in creative guitar-playing and politically charged lyrics. Some of these lyrics were on 1987’s “The Joshua Tree” and were ones which dealt with El Salvador’s civil war.

Civil War

I’ve touched on El Salvador’s civil war in previous blog posts, but for those who are new to this blog or to the subject, the following can offer some context.

2017 marks the 30th anniversary of U2’s “The Joshua Tree.”

Like other Latin American countries, El Salvador was caught up in a conflict between leftist rebels and the oligarchical (military junta) state. It was a conflict which was a microcosm of a larger proxy war between Cold War combatants. Tensions were high, not just in Latin American, but across the Western World—with the fear that the country could become “another Cuba,” El Salvador’s geopolitical significance was hard to ignore. As a result, the US helped fund and train El Salvador’s army to fight against the guerilla front (the FMLN).

The civil war lasted 12 years, ending in 1992 with a peace treaty between the FMLN and the state. Along the way, horrendous acts were committed by both sides.

Using this as a backdrop, U2 recorded two songs for The Joshua Tree. It was recently announced that the band would be re-touring the album this year to mark its anniversary. U2’s guitarist told Rolling Stone that their decision to revisit the album has much to do with the times we live in today: the Trump election, Brexit…”it feels like we’re right back [in the turbulence of the 1980s] in a way.” If the tour isn’t profitable (which it probably will be), it will be at least poetic.

U2’s El Salvador

The connection between The Joshua Tree and El Salvador’s civil war is inconspicuous at first—what does a band from Ireland have to do with Central American politics? For U2, it was a matter of timing.

The Joshua Tree conceived two songs which were inspired by Bono’s visits to Central American countries, which included El Salvador: “Bullet the Blue Sky,” and “Mothers of the disappeared.”  Both deal with wartime atrocities.

Bullet,” one of U2’s heavier tracks, is based on Bono’s experience as he witnessed the fire-bombing of a nearby village (you can listen to his whole story here). Its lyrics are politically-charged—at one point, Bono becomes critical of US intervention and Ronald Reagan, describing him as a rich, “red-faced” man:

Lyrics from “Bullet the Blue Sky”

This guy comes up to me
His face red like a rose on a thorn bush
Like all the colors of a royal flush
And he’s peeling off those dollar bills
Slapping them down
One hundred, two hundred
And I can see those fighter planes
And I can see those fighter planes
Across the mud huts where the children sleep
Through the alleys of a quiet city street
You take the staircase to the first floor
Turn the key and slowly unlock the door
As a man breathes into a saxophone
And through the walls you hear the city groan
Outside is America
Outside is America

Indeed, with the growing fear of state-sanctioned death squads and disappearances, the overarching mood of Bullet was that US intervention was detrimental to Salvadorans.

On the subject of “disappearances,” U2 wrote Mothers of the Disappeared. Less politically-charged than Bullet, Mothers deals with a common, unfortunate occurrence of the civil war: the disappearance or murder of those perceived as rebel sympathizers. These included human-rights defenders, journalists, and students (Wolfe, 2017, p. 33).

The song was written after Bono and his wife met with members of CoMadres, an organization founded by women who had had lost family members during the civil war (Jobling, 2014, p. 159):

Midnight, our sons and daughters
Cut down, taken from us
Hear their heartbeat
We hear their heartbeat

In the wind we hear their laughter
In the rain we see their tears
Hear their heartbeat
We hear their heartbeat

US support for the Salvadoran government only ceased in 1989 after six Jesuit priests and two employees from the Central American University were murdered by the Salvadoran army. The widespread condemnation forced the US to cut military aid (Wolfe, 2017, p. 31).

25 years later, many question if the war accomplished any of the goals the sought out by the FMLN. The economic divide persists. There’s little access to well-paying jobs. Perhaps worst of all, citizens are held hostage by relentless gang activity. Some Salvadorans I’ve spoken with have commented that in spite of the social inequalities pre and post-civil war, they felt the country was in better shape before the war than after it—the logic, they’ve told me, is that despite the shortcomings of the pre-civil war oligarchy, Salvadorans were at least able to roam the streets without worrying about being shaken down by gangs.

I recently picked up Mano Dura: The Politics of Gang Control in El Salvador by Sonja Wolfe, a research fellow at the Centro de Investigacion y Docencia Economicas in

Fearing the threat of communism, Ronald Reagan’s administration provided support to El Salvador’s army throughout the civil war.

Aguascalientes, Mexico. I’ve only scratched its surface (36 out of 237 pages), but in it, she outlines how the failure of current anti-gang policies stem from the flawed creation of the country’s national civil police force. She argues that the same government officials who were heads during the civil war—and who were responsible for atrocities during the war—were the same ones in charge of creating the police force once the country demilitarized. Plus ça change, plus c’est la meme chose.

Does that mean the sky falling? In this whole U2-El Salvador connection, good news exists: after meeting with a delegation comprised of activists and scholars, El Salvador President Sanchez Ceren announced on January 27 that his government would create a National Commission into the disappearance of persons during the civil war. However, given the flip-floppiness of previous administrations, Ceren’s administration should be observed stringently to ensure that it sticks to its word and conducts a thorough investigation.

Coming Full Circle

An interesting (and brief) thought to end.

There’s a theory by some music historians that the popularity of certain music genre fluctuates depending on who’s in the white house. Prominent Canadian music historian and radio personality Alan Cross has made the argument that rockier, edgier, punk-infused music grows in popularity whenever Republicans take Capitol Hill. Conversely, pop music (Britney Spears, The Backstreet Boys) reigns when the Democrats are in.

Subscribing to this theory would add yet another similarity between 1987 and 2017.

1987: Violence plagues El Salvador. Republicans are in the White House. Latin American migration is a contentious US-policy issue. U2 tours the Joshua Tree while criticizing the Reagan administration.

2017: Violence plagues El Salvador. Republicans are in the White House. Latin American migration is a contentious US-policy issue. U2 tours the Joshua Tree while criticizing the Trump administration.

An anniversary, indeed. One could hope that the next El Salvador-themed song U2 writes has less to do with violence and more with harmony.