from the pages of
Nancy Scheper-Hughes,... Death Without Weeping: The Violence of Everyday Life in Brazil.... Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1992.
Roger N. Lancaster,... Life is Hard: Machismo, Danger, and the Intimacy of Power in Nicaragua.... Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1992.
Latin America has virtually disappeared from the news. According to the media, and the U.S. government, capitalism and democracy have triumphed there, economic miracles are waiting to occur, and only the retrograde Cuba and Haiti remain exceptions--an anachronistic communist dictatorship waiting to fall, and a power-hungry military which refuses to agree to a U.S.-sponsored "moderate" compromise. The solidarity movement has not disappeared, but it has lost both funding and volunteers. If the U.S. goal in Sandinista Nicaragua was as much to destroy the hope for creating a new kind of society there as it was to overthrow the Sandinistas, U.S. activists have also been affected by the destruction of that hope.
But the issues which mobilized activists have not disappeared or even fundamentally changed. The books reviewed here, while written for a scholarly audience, explore these issues and provide a perspective that challenges the suppositions of the "New World Order."
Both books use anthropological participant-observation, examination of everyday life, and a post-modernist emphasis on the subtleties of power--and both are published by university presses--but they are also uncompromising about understanding Latin America in its real-world context. They connect national and international political and economic questions with the politics of everyday life: from community organizations to relations between men and women and between parents and children. "Hardship" and its effects on human beings is the theme of both books, and in both cases, hardship has been enforced brutally and effectively. As Lancaster rightly points out: "Hardship on one hand, and war on the other, were Washington's twin strategies for disciplining a people who had the audacity to make a revolution. The transparent aim of U.S. policy was to make life in Nicaragua as precarious as possible, to exact impossible sacrifices, and in so doing, to wear down the political resolve of a people." This argument is not very different from what people on the left already know. What is valuable is the vivid documentation of the everyday experiences of people in situations of hardship, and both authors' scholarly honesty about the political sources of hardship.
Lancaster's informants' lives are shaped by the realities of revolution and counter-revolution in the late 1980s. They speak of the tremendous hope and optimism the revolution inspired, and the ways in which hope was ground down by decisions and policies made in the U.S. His presentation is especially powerful precisely because he does focus on everyday life rather than on the political sphere per se. Through almost painfully forthright and insightful analysis, he moves easily from homosexuality, to race, to child-rearing, to war, to arguments between neighbors about political issues. His informants, and his arguments, have none of the hollow, superficial sound of leaders' revolutionary rhetoric. To quote one of his informants in 1988: "I had a lot of time for politics before, but not so much now. I'm working to help support my family and going to school, and that doesn't leave me a lot of time for politics. It's strange, but it just seems that everything important is out of our hands."
Lancaster's analysis of the failure of opinion polls to accurately predict the 1990 election results is based on comments like these. Polls showed the Sandinistas ahead, but when the votes were tallied many who had claimed to support the Sandinistas had clearly voted for UNO. Rejecting the common idea that intimidation prevented voters from revealing their true preferences to pollsters, Lancaster suggests that voters lied out of shame, rather than fear. "Voters still responded to the ideas, ideals, and ideology of the revolution... But politics alone failed to carry the day... previous Sandinista supporters... cast ballots on the basis of private and pragmatic concerns." However, they "were not proud of their choice and were thus unlikely to discuss" it.
In Brazil, Scheper-Hughes returned in the 1980s to a shanty-town community in Northeast Brazil where she had worked as peace corps volunteer in the 1960s. Her theme in ...Death without Weeping... in some ways parallels Lancaster's: the ways that outside forces, poverty and hunger, affect people's moral, political, psychological and ideological as well as physical selves. She focuses on mother-infant relationships, and argues that the situation of scarcity, high infant mortality, and the inevitable need for mothers to carry out triage within their own families, in deciding how to distribute scarce food and water, has led to a kind of "maternal thinking" which distances mothers emotionally from fragile infants, and leads them even to deliberately withhold nourishment from infants who are seen as "wanting" to die: those who are weak, sickly, or undernourished.
"Despair" and "seeming paralysis of will" characterize the shanty-town dwellers, but Scheper-Hughes also describes the "political sources" of the despair. The community organized and built a crèche and community center in the context of the "wholesale `die-out'" of infants following the (U.S.-supported) coup of 1964, and the cooperative succeeded in bringing the community together and saving infants' lives so that "many `prestigious' elites... climbed the stigmatized hillside for the first time in their lives to witness, with their own eyes, `the miracle' that had seemingly transformed the shantytown. For a brief period at least, the people of Alto [the shanty-town] came to be seen by townspeople as full of vitality, creativity, and initiative." However, the military government soon stepped in, accusing the association of "Marxist subversion and infiltration," and banned public meetings. Rather than ban the organization outright, government actions created conditions under which the organization fell apart from within.
How can entering into the lives of Nicaragua's and Brazil's poor, and seeing on such an immediate level how hope was transformed into despair, be an organizing tool? Both accounts show how economic and political repression can undermine not only the objective conditions for organizing but also the subjective conditions: the ability to hope and dream, and act on those hopes and dreams.
In the wake of electoral defeat for the FSLN and the FMLN many U.S. activists have focused on failures of local organizations, rather than on the conditions¾in which U.S. policy plays such a large role¾under which they are forced to operate. Works like these remind us that the more practical approach for U.S. activists is to focus on fostering the conditions under which Latin American organizations¾and the social programs they advocate¾could have a chance to develop and succeed. Structural adjustment, "free trade," and other U.S. economic goals might appear prosaic compared to ideological battles within the left, but their effects on the poor and on the options available to the Latin American left are crucial.
Avi Chomsky teaches at Bates College in Maine.