Wednesday, November 14, 2007

The Southern Altiplano: Glimpse of our Future in a Mirror of the Past


A visit to Bolivia’s southern altiplano (the stoic highlands that lies between the eastern and western chains of the Andes) can be an unnerving experience. At an average of 3700m above sea level and filled with freezing winds, half-dead volcanoes, chemical-stained lakes too toxic to support most forms of animal life, twisted rocks deformed by the violent erosive powers of the unforgiving wind into shapes reminiscent of something from a Salvador Dali painting, roaming herds of wooly llamas and other creatures that somehow find a way to survive at altitudes most animals would balk at, and the rare colony of hardy Aymara who scratch their living growing quinoa and herding llamas or through more creative methods at the higher altitudes at which even those forms of flora and fauna cannot survive.


The chemical-stained lakes are the result of the peculiar geology of the Altiplano, which was formed millions of years ago when the Andes were pushed up from the pacific basin rim in a violent climb from seabed to sky. The cordilleras Oriental and Occidental (east and west mountain ranges of the Andes) rose together and the sediment that fell from each between them created a closed basin that was only slightly lower in altitude. Thus was born the altiplano. As a basin, what little rain that does fall in it gets trapped, never to make it to the ocean. Instead, rainfall settles in lakes and lagunas where it slowly evaporates over eons, eventually giving birth to the phenomena of mineral-sediment imbalance that paints the waters a stunning array of different colors. Blue-green arsenic, stark-white borax, sickened-yellow sulfur. Algae of some kind stains some of them a rustic red that the refection of the sun’s rays turns quite brilliant. And of course there is the amazing Salar de Uyuni, the world’s largest salt lake.


At over 12,000 square kilometers, the Salar is by far the largest salt lake in the world, creating a giant and overpowering expanse of pure white that stretches to seemingly-endless horizon where the vague haze of distant mountains reminds one of the real world’s presence, so foreign to the alien landscape over the salt. The salt, at several meters of thickness at most spots, is strong enough to support the weight of 4WD Land cruisers throughout, and the occasional flatbed truck that has come to exploit the natural mineral wealth.


The rugged Aymara who live in small communities throughout the altiplano are an example of the resilience of those humans that happen to have been on the losing side of history’s resource wars and population migrations, making the most of the little natural resources that they happen to encounter through some form of unintended consequence-turned-good (or mixed) fortune. For example, mineral extraction from the lakes and lagunas is actually a large form of income for the surrounding Aymara communities that settled in the altiplano long before the Inca sent his armies to conquer them there, and an eternity before the Spanish rounded them under the mita system of forced labor to go die in the silver mines of Potosí. While at lower altitudes the option of cultivating quinoa (a highly nutritious native grain) and other forms of barely above-subsistence poor-soil and altitude-resistant crops remains, at around 4500m this option turns moot. Llama herding is also a common method of surviving, but even these rugged animals refuse to settle at the 5000m marks. What remains for the Aymara, pushed to these lands from thousands of years of retreat from successive encroachments, is the extraction of the frozen mineral sediments. Thus, many of the Aymara communities have organized themselves into cooperatives in order to facilitate the exploitation and shipment of the different mineral deposits for their use in the modern cities that lie far below in the more habitable lands. Borax and other bases for detergents, salt for food processing and commercial sale, and lithium.


It is rumored that the Salar contains the world’s largest lithium reserve in the world, something like 70% of the total extractable lithium on the planet. However, since the Salar is a nationally protected reserve under Bolivian law, the lithium that lies underneath its icy waters is not available for extraction. This doesn’t mean that Bolivians will remain without exploitable lithium, however, as manmade environmental change has unearthed another sizeable deposit. Lagos Uru Uru and Poopó are fed by the Río Desaguadero coming from Lago Titicaca, but in recent decades campesino and other marginalized communities have redirected the river’s stream to provide the water which they cannot get through state- or aid-funded projects. The result is that the twins lakes are drying up, creating a smaller man-made version of the Salar, along with matching latent lithium deposits. Since this relatively recent development is not natural in the legal sense of the word, the area is not protected as a national reserve, meaning the lithium is fair game. So, making the best of a man-made ecological disaster, the lithium is now being exploited as a development project.


And in this way there’s something oddly familiar about the surreal and stark environment of the southern altiplano, almost like a future-memory passed back through the strange particles that permeate the air, or a warning from the Aymara earth-goddess pachamama of what a future Bolivia might look like in the absence of any checks on man’s interference in its ecology. Or perhaps the apocalyptical feel of the area is a precognitive glimpse from our species’ shared future. For the sense of a land used-up, over-spent and age-worn bears an odd resemblance to the vision of the planets future expounded by those scientists (only around 95%+ or so) who maintain that our planet has reached a critical point in terms of the long-term sustainability of current human standards of living.


Indeed, the southern altiplano offers some interesting lessons of what such a future might look like for both the winners and the losers of this dystopian future earth. For we should remember that, just as there were winners and losers from Incan and Spanish colonization, there will be winners as well as losers from any coming ecocides. The winners are easy to identify, and their lifestyles are easy to predict: they will look pretty much the same as the gated-community “winners” of globalization today, living in armed suburban “green zones” amidst the chaos of de-industrialized urban wastelands and teeming peri-urban slums. But when we think of what the winners will look like, we should remember the words of award-winning BBC journalist Greg Palast, in the context of the recent California fires, when he reminded us that “disaster response is class war by other means.” Indeed, ecocide for many of the world’s poor and marginalized (and increasingly for the world’s middle classes as well) could mean a life similar in many ways to the bare existence visited in the freezing winds above the brightly colored lakes and salt flats of the southern altiplano: scratching a living amidst the chemical-stained ruins of a former green earth, extracting the unintended consequences of man-made ecological changes to sell to the rich “chosen ones” living in their militarized urban fantasy lands. Indeed, rather than being sinners or non-believers, the real identity of those who will be “left behind” by any coming ecocide will be those not lucky enough to be on the winning side of today’s patterns of global development.

James Read, The Rough Guide to Bolivia, (August 2002).

Samuelo, Tupiza Tours, (November, 2007).

Monday, November 5, 2007

Baghdad Dreams

My work at the UNHCR has so far been unrelated to Iraqis, although the crowd of them downstairs every day means that they are never far away. Instead, I get to determine whether the Sudanese and Somalis who somehow made it to Jordan are entitled to refugee status. Since Jordan, like most countries that border Isreal, isn't a signatory to the refugee convention, getting refugee status here means very little. Jordan doesn't want them here, and so they aren't allowed to work, receive microfinance, or government benefits. Instead they survive on charity after their money runs out (if they somehow arrived with some), and hope that they can be resettled to a western country, the odds of which are pretty bad. But all of which is still better than returning to Somalia, which is in the midst of the worst fighting since the fall of Siad Barre in 1991, and has the distinction of being the only country in the world right now with more refugees than Iraq. What little government there is has resorted to indiscriminately shelling parts of the capital for days on end in its efforts to fight of the Islamists, who briefly led the only stable government that Somalia has seen in 17 years, as well as the only peace time.

The UNHCR can do about as little for the 750,000 Iraqi's in Jordan (bringing the country's population to about 6.5 million). And since they can't work, many find that they have to go back home. Of course some people take it as a good sign.

After being in South Africa, where you're generally better off if you never have to talk to the police, Jordan is refreshing in that the police, like most people, are ridiculously nice to westerners. I was trying to find a restaurant the other day, and so I asked a cop. He ignored my question, and insisted that we become friends. We talked, in a mix of my extremely broken arabic and his mostly broken english, about all the important things - where we were from, if we're married, what we like to do for fun, etc. - for a good 15 minutes, before I realized that I was late, and again brought up the subject of the restaurant. After asking a few people, he took my arm, as friends do, and lead me there, where we exchanged phone numbers and I promised to call him.

In the interest of keeping this a non-travel blog, I won't ramble at great length about Syria, but I will mention a few things.
  • We waited at the border for almost 10 hours. Which gave us lots of time to do fun things like look at this sign:
  • The people are ridiculously friendly. Well, to foreigners. Although probably not to Iraqis.
  • Syrian men hold hands. Full-on, fingers intertwined, holding hands. It's amusing, until some does tries it with you, and then it's a little weird. They're very touchy everywhere, even in the baths, where friends wash each other. I saw one guy slap his friend's ass to tell him he was done scrubbing.
  • Boys play with guns. A lot. Even in mosques:
  • The president is everywhere. But people refuse to talk about him, except to say that the love him. And how could you not love this face?

Monday, October 29, 2007

ALCA and the Chocolate Factory


Sureños are extremely proud of their city, the "true" capital of Bolivia. "Sucre, Captial Plena" stickers can be seen on every street corner and every other car you see driving the streets, and it's almost as if by some magic that every street festival turns into a pro-capitalia march, with at least the majority of the audience chanting quaint and profane slogans ("¡Sucre se respeta, carrajo!"). This pride applies equally to Sucre's proud history, which includes (amongst other things) the distinction as being the first (though ill-fated) liberty cry in the Americas, as well as its local chocolate shops.


And there are quite a few things to be proud of in those chocolate shops, and not just in how great they taste (some of my friends here who fall more on the female side of the gender ledger have developed a bit of an addiction to them). Shops like Para Ti and Taboada are an important part of the local economy, and a nearly ubiquitous symbol of life in Sucre, up there with Salteñas, coca leaves, artisanal rugs, and really cheap quality imported plastic goods.


Para Ti is a brilliant example of Bolivian pride and practicality at work. Just outside the main city bowl you'll find the Para Ti Chocolate factory, from which Sureños (and a small export market) receive their weekly (or more frequent) fix of sweet milk chocolate. Para Ti, a privately-owned joint venture between two of the old aristocratic families in Sucre, runs under a business model that reflects Sureño hard work and pride in their community and their country. Over seventy percent of the factory's employees are female, working in two seven-hour shifts five days a week, with two three-hour shifts on Sunday. The result of this hard work is the production of over two tons of the typically sweet chocolate every month.


Two tons a month might not sound like a lot until you realize that the majority of the work done at Para Ti is done by hand, making scale-economies somewhat of an uphill battle. Think egyptian slaves carrying large blocks of rock up the sides of in-progress pyramids and you start to get an idea.


Even more impressive is the fact that Para Ti, with the exception of some packing and mixing materials not readily available in the domestic market, sources practically all of its inputs from local producers in the domestic Bolivian market. Thus, with every chocolate you purchase from Para Ti, you have the added pleasure of knowing that a large portion of the relative-high price you paid (in comparison to industrially produced chocolates imported from whichever country can supply a given good at the lowest possible cost) stays in the hands and mouths of Bolivia's farmers and primary producers (and both their children).


But price is also a problem. Artisanal production methods and local sourcing sound romantic, and they suggest the element of endogenous economic growth that attracted economists like Keynes, JK Galbraith and Raúl Prebisch, only without the emphasis on industrial development. But it also means that your product are going to be too expensive to compete on the international markets, which are dominated by firms producing industrially, meaning scientific management and increasingly larger scales, which drives down production costs well below what artisans who buy their inputs in the local economy can compete with. Think those same egyptian slaves competing with a Kellog, Brown & Root and you start to get an idea.

The problem of costs is endemic to Bolivian producers, which has struggled to industrialize during the course of its economic history. In fact, production techniques for many of Bolivia's goods have not changed much in the past hundred years or so, making the artisanal production methods of Para Ti less of anomaly among and more of a analogy for the state of Bolivian producers in the global marketplace.

All this places Bolivia in a difficult policy dilemma. The country can either seek to reduce trade barriers, so as to allow low priced industrially produced goods from abroad to make it into the hands of Bolivian consumers, making their already-low incomes go farther. However, the problem with this solution is that it is likely to devastate local producers, further decreasing the already-low national income. Many economists, especially those likely to find employment at multilateral credit agencies, would argue that such short-run costs will be more than balanced out in the long run, as the "invisible hand" of production and trade based on "comparative advantage" replaces arbitrary government policy based on rent-seeking by special interest groups. This policy stance is often equated with support for trade agreements such as the US-conceived Área de Libre Comercio de las Américas (ALCA), though this is largely inaccurate, as most US-backed “free” trade agreements are anything but, imposing protectionist barriers to trade on certain sectors (particularly intellectual property and medical patents) that outstrip the savings accrued by liberalizing manufacturing or IT services. In any event, the promise that such an “initial shock” will be worth it in the long-run simply hasn’t been borne out in practice.

On the other hand, by not signing onto trade agreements like ALCA, the default trade policy stance would mean maintaining the current set of bi- and multilateral agreements. This would maintain preferences for artisan and local producers, but would not do much in the way of creating an industrial development policy, either based on trade and foreign investment (see above) or based on some version of “infant industry” protection. Protecting non-value added, low scale production is not necessarily bad in and of itself, since it can be seen as a form of social-welfare program where the domestic economy pays a “tax” directly to the local producers in the form of higher prices for goods, without first having that tax filter through government bureaucracy before being distributed to said producers. However, most economists would consider this program less efficient than an economy-wide (and thus non-market-distorting) income tax-and-spend program (assuming, of course, that the deadweight loss from government corruption is negligible—probably not the most sound assumption in Bolivia). Further, if this sort of protection is all you’re really doing then you shouldn’t expect your economy to develop, in any sense of the term. Rather, such “Malthusian cronyism” seems more a recipe for stagnation.

For all these reasons, Bolivia is seeking alternatives to current economic paradigms. President Evo Morales has sought alternative trade relations to those epitomized by ALCA, joining the Alternativa Bolivariana para las Américas (ALBA), which was created by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez to oppose what he considers “imperialism” and “neocolonialism” implicit in the US-led ALCA. But politics aside, the size of an ALBA market is vastly inferior to what an ALCA-type agreement would achieve access to, and thus the appeal of the latter to industrialists and export-oriented industries in Bolivia remains great. And it's unclear whether a regional agreement based on ALBA-style "cooperation" would really be that much different for Bolivia's small-scale and primary producers if it meant that they'd be pitted against the industries of countries like Venezuela or Chile, which are significantly more industrialized and able to produce at much larger scales than those in Bolivia.

So far President Morales has tried to maintain a balance between the interests of the campesinos and indigenous, which formed his electoral base, and the traditional elites that have traded rule amongst one another since Bolivia’s independence, which still dominate most of the appointed positions in the Morales government. Thus there is a vast uncertainty as to where Bolivia’s future lies, and what this future will entail for the artisans that comprise such a large percentage of Bolivia’s population. At the least, I pray that's Sucre's delicious chocolate continues to flow.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Potosí y Cerro Rico


I am rich Potosí, treasure of the world, king of the mountains, envy of kings.

Potosí is a testament, more than anything, to Bolivia’s dependency and vulnerability to economic forces external to it; first marked by outright imperial and colonial control, but subsequently and currently defined by imperatives set by the international markets. Continuing to this day, the place has the overwhelming feeling of being a “company town,” with the original “company” being a dynamic joint venture between the Spanish Imperial Crown and the Catholic Church. Legend has it that the Old Gods intervened when the Andean Empire (what is somewhat problematically referred to as the “Incas”) discovered silver in the place prior to the Spanish invasion, telling Inca Huayna Capac that the deposits were meant for others. While the interpretation is usually a variation on your bread-and-butter imperialist manifest destiny, another reading could reasonably conclude that the Gods were warning the Inca against the unforeseen consequences that would accompany exploitation of the vast reserves of precious minerals hidden just below the surface of what the Spanish eventually termed Cerro Rico.


Cerro Rico towers above Potosí as though a sovereign, and indeed the economic history of the city (perhaps all of Bolivia) suggests that the analogy might be more than just poetic symbolism. Since the beginning of colonial rule in the Andean region, Potosí’s seemingly endless silver deposits become a central aspect of imperial policy, fuelling the long-term growth of the Spanish empire and funding its many wars, as well as financing trade relations between Europe and Asia. The Spanish colonial empire cherished the silver deposits in Potosí so much that while most Catholic churches face west, all of those in Potosí face South directly towards Cerro Rico, so that the silver mines could be blessed from their alters through open doors. The Crown celebrated the wealth of the mines by literally paving the streets with silver at one time.


The mountain that eats men alive.

For the native Bolivians, all of this meant radical social change. In order to continue exploitation of the mine’s wealth, the authorities of Alto Peru (a colonial administrative province spanning Peru, Bolivia, and much of northern Argentina) reinstituted the Andean Empire’s mita, a system of cross-regional forced labor, and implemented the importation of thousands of Black Africans through the international slave trade. The dangerous conditions in the mines meant near-certain death for most of these workers, with death rates estimated at seven out of every 10. Total estimates for the number of indigenous deaths occurring in the mines run as high as 9 million over the period of colonial rule, suggesting that Cerro Rico alone maintains bragging rights for a significant role in the long-term decline in the Alto Peru indigenous population. While the Spanish empire formally prohibited religious syncretism (the mixing of pre-columbian and Christian forms of worship), the Crown did not dare venture inside the mines where worship in El Tío, a cross between old mountain deities and the Catholic devil, helped preserve the mitayo soul against the inhumanly brutal realities of life in Cerro Rico.


The miners’ lots never really improved, even after the end of formal imperialism, as the fate of the industry was still dependent upon the international market price for mineral extracts. While the nationalizations that occurred after independence allowed the development of a strong miner’s union as a political force in the nation, corruption in the state-owned enterprise, inefficiency compared to international competition and increasingly northern-focused politics led to the privatization of the state-owned mining industry, effectively ending organized bargaining over prices and mining conditions. Whatever protections remained died with the crash in the international price of Tin in 1985 (which had replaced Silver as the main mineral extract of Cerro Rico after a century-long production decline), when even private ownership of mineral extraction was liquidated.


Where do you think the metal for your digital camera comes from?

However, this did not mean the end of exploitation of Cerro Rico’s rich veins, nor of the workers that eked a living inside them. After the “crisis” of mineral prices in the 1980s, formal ownership of the mines was transferred to existing workers and their families through the break-up of the quasi-statal private enterprises, creating a system of small- to medium-scale “traditional cooperatives.” However, these are not reflective of what one would normally think of as a cooperative. Rather, the cooperatives function by informalizing the system of labor in the mines, where the workers organize themselves and work either independently or in small- to relatively large- groups. Membership in a cooperative, however, merely means that the product of your labor accrues to the group’s total output, in exchange for a share of the market value of the minerals extracted, which is sold in tonnes to the privately operated refineries, which are freed of the labor costs associated with mineral extraction. In this way, the cooperative system functions similarly to what we in the U.S. would associate with an “independent contractor” system of informal labor, whereby a single agent is hired through contract by an employer, who is then freed from any further involvement in the subcontracting process organizing the division of labor. Similarly, the miners in Cerro Rico all work under the auspices of the “socios” of the cooperative, who retain the benefits of much of the group’s labor product themselves, in the form of life and health insurance which are unavailable to non-socios (socios receive a larger share of the market value of the extract output, and are also the only ones who pay taxes). And since it takes around 15 years of membership in a given cooperative to become a socio, this means that the majority of workers in Cerro Rico live according the luck of the mineral draw, whereby “quality and quantity” times the price set on the international market (London) determines his (no females work in the mines) standard of living. The inadequacy of this system’s ability to provide a sufficient standard of living is reflected in the high rates of child and female labor (outside the home) in Potosí.


The international price for the minerals drawn from Cerro Rico (Silver, Gold, and Tin are among the majors) is currently high, and this has led to an increase in the number of workers, both adults and children (some claim the number of the latter to be as high as 8000 kids or more, ages 11-18). Coupled with historically slow growth rates in most of Bolivia, this goes a long way towards explaining the sustained popularity of working in the mines. For example, one study reported a full 94% of miners responding that their main reason for working in the mines was a lack of alternative employment. “Tradition” was the second most frequent response. “I like it” was a distant third, and this was attributed mainly to the child workers, who compare mine labor not to the fantastical concept of a childhood spent in school, but against the prospects of working in the city, where earnings are lower and the romantic conception of doing a “man’s work” is absent.


However, the market price of precious minerals could fall at any time, and while Bolivia’s overall growth rate under President Morales has been impressive, it remains uncertain whether this growth rate will be extended evenly across the county. In the foreseeable future Cerro Rico remains the destination for an increasing number of Bolivia’s poorest.

James Read, The Rough Guide to Bolivia, (August 2002).

Pedro Negro, Koala Tours-Potosí, (October, 2007).

Mark Weisbrot & Luis Sandoval, Bolivia's Economy -An Update, (August 2007).

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

It's almost عيد

Friday is the holy day here, which means the day off of school, and a welcome break from the noisy trucks that patrol the neighborhood: the Junk truck, who's shouts into the megaphone letting people know he will pick up their junk (although it sounds like he's ranting about government conspiracies); and the gas truck, which advertises tanks of gas with a 4 note tune, like an ice cream truck, only it sounds more like something from a Final Fantasy game.

Without real weekends, I don't have much of a chance to travel, but Jordan is small enough that I can get to most places in the country in a few hours, and cheaply. Last friday I went with a Japanese woman in my class, her husband, and some Japanese kids my age, to Petra, the 2000 year old city in the desert best known for it's appearance in Indiana Jones. The place was enormous, with countless caves and carved out rooms and decorations and facades. The Treasury, below, is the first part of the city, which you approach through a mile long canyon.

The end of Ramadan is finally here, and it means our one and only break from school. I'm taking full advantage, and going to Syria and Lebanon for the week. Due to the fact that Syria is in the AXIS OF EVIL, I will apparently have some difficulties getting across the border, and will have to wait several hours, or all day, to get a visa, while the australians and british that I'm traveling with can sail through. At least I'll be with some other Americans, and I haven't been to Israel yet – if there is any indication in my passport that I've spent time in “occupied Palestine,” there's no way I'm getting in.

After I get back I'll start working at the UNHCR, where I got a job doing refugee status determinations for, apparently, everybody but Iraqis. It should be interesting, and after the backlog in this department goes away (which is only 30 at this point) I'll be able to find other projects to work on.

Monday, October 8, 2007

Saludos desde Sucre, la ciudad blanca de las americas, y la Fiesta de la Virgen de Guadaloupe


Sucre is my first destination on my leave of absence from law school, and a very interesting city. Despite having less than a few hundred thousand people, it's managed to hold onto one of the three branches of national power in Bolivia. And that's not all, it's demanding more.


The movement towards "capitalia" is asking that the entire capital be "returned" to Sucre, being the center of colonial power for "Alto Peru" and the site of the national capital after independence, but La Paz took two of its branches of national power during a civil war between the cities a while back. The sureñas (Sucre-ites) want them back, and they're willing to take to the streets to get it. Protests, like those that led to miner's blasting caps and police teargas in the streets of this beautiful colonial town a few weeks back, are expected to start again this week as the Constitutional Assembly reconvenes, but the word from the family I'm staying with is that they're expected to be much more peaceful this time.


As I said, Sucre is beautiful, the White City of the Americas, filled with white-washed colonial architecture.


These streets were recently filled with dancers from different fraternities (different meaning here, btw) in Sucre and the surrounding provinces for the two-day-long Fiesta de la Virgen de Guadaloupe, a two-day-long parade and massive public display of debauchery that left the city so está de ch'aqui (a quecha-spanish combo meaning "hungover") that the crowds in the saltañerias (shops that sell Bolivia's delicious version of the empanada) couldn't muster their usual enthusiastic morning cacaphony.


The festival is a major event, the biggest party of the year. In it, fraternities from all over Chuquisaca (Sucre's province) and Potosi come together to dance on a route that lasts nearly 3 hours before terminating in the main plaza in Sucre.


So far, Sucre seems like a very pleasant and idyllic start to my Bolivian adventure.


Wednesday, September 26, 2007


School is moving along quickly. After two days of learning the alphabet, we were somehow expected to be able to read a page of text, and after a week, to be able to to recite a page from memory. I was able to, eventually, but it took a few minutes and lots of correcting. Tonight, I have to memorize the numbers, days of the week, how to conjugate for the past tense, and the possessives. Which is why I finally decided to post.

Although the school as a whole is at least half devout Muslims, the rest are Americans, and most are in college. I ended up in a class with two American girls who are taking a year off before college, two Japanese women whose husbands are here for the Iraqi reconstruction effort (I wished them good luck), and a Spanish woman. It's too bad, I think, that there aren't any Muslims (aside from the teachers) in my class, because I think I could have learned a lot from them.

It's been Ramadan since I arrived, which means that I've gotten used to the absurd schedule, and it's going to be weird when it goes back to “normal.” The work day starts later, and ends at 2 or 3, when everyone goes home (and the traffic is a mess), where they sleep or cook until the sun goes down and it's time to eat. Shops are intermittently open during the day, and all restaurants are closed by law, but everything opens up after people have eaten, and stays open until 12 or 1 or so. And aside from the handful of places (like large hotels) with a tourist license, it's illegal to sell alcohol, so all the bars are closed.

Aside from that, I really can't say enough about how normal this city is. West Amman, which contains the middle class suburbs is generally pretty nice, with a few newer and swanky neighborhoods scattered around. Like everywhere else there are mall, some of which are a hodgepodge collection of cheap shops and supermarkets, others are filled with upscale boutiques and international brands, and are priced accordingly. I even found the local equivalent of a Wal-Mart, which was just like home, except for the Arabic signs and only the occasional group dressed in traditional white headdress and thob. Most people in the upper class areas, and especially the younger generations, are westernized, wearing normal clothes, and speak English, even amongst themselves.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Orientation, Redux

The next act in my non-travels has me in Amman, Jordan, where things have been so easy that it's hard to believe I'm in the heart of the Middle East. Much to my surprise, everything was taken care of when I arrived, as the school picked me up from the airport and took me to temporary housing. By the end of the next day I had found a place to live, I moved in the day after, and so now I find myself, on the third day, settled in for the long haul.
From Amman

Amman seems, like Johannesburg, to be a great place to live, but perhaps not to visit because its appeal lies in getting to know the place rather than passing through. I've found none of the stereotypes I associated with the Middle East – narrow streets, markets, shouting vendors, pushy restaurateurs – but rather a modern, friendly city with white apartment and office buildings built across hills and valleys, scattered with shopping streets, coffee shops and malls, and extremely friendly and helpful people. It's striking in how tame it is, how easy people are to deal with, how few stares I get, and how calm it all seems. The call to prayers throughout the day were eerie at first, but have started to seem more normal.

Ramadan (which started the day after I arrived) has been an interesting wrinkle in exploring the country. Since most people spend a lot of time with their families, most restaurants are closed during the day, and empty at night, not to mention that the bars are all closed for the month. like everyone else here, I've been fasting (although cheating by drinking water). I don't have a lot of energy to go explore, but there's nothing quite like breaking the fast with fresh, bright yellow dates, followed by a big meal. For someone who likes to eat his way into a new place, only being able to fantasize about what goodies are served in the sweets shops and take aways has been a little frustrating. What I've had though – fresh fruit juices, fresh, soft pita filled with meats and pickles, chicken on rice, yoghurt milk – has been amazing, and cheap.

School starts tomorrow (Sunday being the beginning of the week, apparently), and although I barely know 10 words of Arabic and am still struggling to figure out the alphabet, I'm hoping to be able to pick it up soon. Most people don't speak much English, which I think will make learning easier, and I'm looking forward to talking to talking to people once I get the basics down.

More as I explore.

Wednesday, May 9, 2007

While waiting in line at the post office today, I saw a woman go up to the teller, and calmly and collectedly tell her that she, and the entire post office, was racist. “As an older white women in the country, I am discriminated against. You helped a black man with my same problem last week, but no one has helped me.” The teller, who, like almost everyone else working there, was black, patiently and without raising her voice explained to her that this had nothing to do with race: “I'm sorry that your dog chewed up your packet slip, but if we can't read the numbers on it we can't help you.” “But everyone went out of their way to help the black man last week, but because I'm white, you're not helping me. You are all racists.” The conversation continued along these lines until I left; completely civil, but not going anywhere.

While I've never heard someone voice their complaints so explicitly, in many ways this was a completly normal attitude for a white South African to have. Non-blacks complain all the time about government favoritism, like Black Economic Empowerment (BEE - or Black Idiot Empowerment, as one friend's mom put it), and how increasingly marginalized non-blacks are in society. There is a lot of resentment about how poorly Blacks are perceived to be running the country. While lack of education is certainly a huge factor in why many employees are usually incompetent, nepotism also runs rampant, making it even harder for the lucky few with education to get a job, or promotion. There's a sense among non-blacks that the blacks abandoned socialist policies after taking power in favor of enriching themselves. Any some blacks are getting very rich - but disproportionately so: while there has suddenly emerged a black middle and upper class, overall poverty and inequality has increased. No wonder that the Zulu term for white man now also refers to rich blacks.

With this perception of their country, it's no surprise that so many white South Africans are leaving. Those who are getting an education are getting out. Two percent a year, I was told by a South African who moved to Arizona 6 years ago, and was bragging about moving his Mom. “Less crime,” he said when asked why he liked the US so much, “and more white people.”

I, on the other hand, can't understand why anyone would want to leave such a beautiful place.

Friday, April 13, 2007

"It's not like that here anymore..."

"You're probably safer in here than we are out there."

Such is what the Street Law assistant professor said to an 8-year inmate in Joburg prison when we visited it as part of our service program. The words go a long way to summing up the views of a large majority of South Africans; crime is rampant all over the country, but especially in Joburg. Explanations are not hard to come by; opinions ranging from racist attributions of inherent criminality to more sophisticated ones that attribute the crime rates to deep poverty, vast divides in inequality, legacies of violence from the apartheid struggle, and the influx of traumatized and criminalized refugees from nearby and war-torn African nations. But the disturbing certainty about it is not the amount of crime, but rather the extremity of it; violent crimes have become so common that they often don't even make it into the news.

This goes hand in hand with high levels of death all around here; whether by HIV/AIDs, chaotic and nearly lawless roads (over easter weekend over 140 deaths occurred due to vehicle accidents; a third of which were pedestrians), or what often seems like random violent crime, there is a growing suspicion that human life just holds less value here.

"All I know is that I'm getting my degree and then fucking OFF."

The phrase '2010', referring to the date of the next World Cup for Futbol taking place in SA, gets a lot of talk time in SA; will it be a boon? will it be a bust? what will it actually do for SA? But the biggest upcoming crunch will not be the tourist influx, but rather the outflux of the country's rising "professionals." It's been common occurrence in SA since at least Apartheid (and this is not just concerning the exiles) for SAicans to travel/study/work abroad for a significant portion of their youth, so it's not surprising that so many people are or know someone who's leaving for a long time. Couple this with the fact that, due to the high cost of nice housing, most people can't afford to live on their own without some form of subsidy until well into their 20's, so moving abroad is often the best way for the youth to attain some level of independence from their parents. But the worry is that the outflux will not be met by a coincident return by those leaving, and that the rising black "middle class" (more accurately, the small elite benefiting from current ANC economic neoliberal policies) will not continue to grow in pace to replace this loss (or even that they themselves will start their own version of "white flight"). The result would be the same sort of "brain drain" that India has been agonizing about over it's highly educated professionals.

The combination of these two problems could be disastrous for SA; the poor communities imploding into bloody chaos, and the beneficiaries of the State's investment in education and human capital (those theoretically most qualified to maintain the proper functioning of the State in the future) fleeing from the mess and stagnation of the broken nation, resulting in a disastrous downward spiral whereby the hope of 1994 is forever lost.

The "Two Nations" Dilemma

Thabo Mbeki shocked the nation a few years back by talking about how SA was really "two nations"; the rich white and the poor black (also the majority). This speech was problematic for a number of reasons (not least of which for ignoring the significant Indian and Coloured communities), but it hit the nail on the head in terms of explaining what the true failure has been and what the challenge will be. The fleeing of the rising bourgeoisie overseas and the privatized revolt of the poor in the form of consumerism and crime can both be attributed at least in part to one common thread; the inequality which has increased since the end of apartheid.

The ANC, especially under Mbeki, has favored economic and social policies that have favored globalization- and export-led development, mostly within the framework which became known as "neoliberal" in the 1990s, including a nearly complete absence of redistribution in order to correct for apartheid ghettoization and impoverishment policies. The result has been the creation of a global elite, a rising black "middle class" that is largely disconnected from the larger township communities that they likely left in their upward mobility, and the stagnation of the rest of the nation in much the same state they were in through 1994. The old Marxist academic term "uneven development" is fairly accurate as a description of present-day SA.

Roger accurately summed up the dilemma; "this whole society was built on the availability of cheap and replaceable labor; no one wants to give that, and it's hard to blame them since it has made life here so easy. But they have to give that up if they want to develop."

Ironically, it was Mbeki himself, in 1996, who said that "true reconciliation can only take place if we succeed in our objective of social transformation." This social transformation, for whatever reason, has not yet come to fruition. Perhaps it is for this reason, because the shades of the past remain, that the deformity of formal apartheid's "two nations" has been replaced by a racial and class-based de facto economic apartheid, that South Africa still bleeds today.

Friday, March 2, 2007


When I first arrived, I was surprised, even disappointed to find that I had traveled 11,000 miles to visit what seemed like suburbia. Most of the rich (white) people here lead remarkably western, even American way of life. I wasn't expecting lions and monkey servants, but I had no idea that shopping in decadent malls would be just as much of a competitive sport, and a part of life, as the in the US. As we're becoming more integrated into the community, we're hearing more and more how much this way of life is an illusion available to those who can afford it. With 25% of the country unemployed (down from 40% a few years ago) and the upper income bracket beginning at R150,000 (about $22,000), the security and comforts of the mall centered existence are available to only a few. So it seems more than perverse that one of the largest, most expensive, and opulent malls in the city is dedicated to Nelson Mandela, complete with a giant bronze statute.

While racism certainly still exists, I can't help but think that the enormous class disparities are at play when people tell me that the country is on the verge of civil war. Although the new government has been incredibly successful in many areas, to the extent that social mobility has proven impossible for many, while whites continue to get richer, it's no surprise that many would feel tricked and betrayed.

From Joburg

It comes down to this

Seeing as how we are law students, it was inevitable that we would eventually have to learn something about South African law. In short, it is a hybrid of civil and common law, owing to the fact that this is both a Dutch and British colony. Procedure (criminal, civil, evidence, etc) follows the common law tradition, while the laws themselves are taken from civil law pre-codification (I'm not sure what this means, but it sounded important). There are exceptions, and some bodies of law such as corporations follows English law. Delict (dee-lickt) is essentially torts, but with an entirely different set of rules. Rather than following the negligence standard, the judge (there are no juries here, even for criminal cases) has a “smorgasbord” of liability rules to choose from, depending, it seems, on what they feel like. For example, the judge could choose the last person who could have avoided the harm to be “wrongful,” and they will have to pay the “quantum” the judge decides is appropriate. What makes the least sense is the traffic accident system. Rather than suing the person who injured you (who is off the hook, maybe why drivers here are so crazy), you have to sue a government fund for accidents, which is limited by statute to pay out up to R25,000 (about $3,500).

Now if only I could figure out how to research cases. 1995 (3) SA 786 (CC) anyone?

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Crime and the Golf

One of our first impressions of the local whites was their extreme paranoia. You can see it quite regularly in the international press: "whites fear land reform in South Africa", "whites fear rising crime rates." Now, clearly most of the crime takes place in the communities which breed the criminals, and the gated, barbed-wired and electrically-fenced tree-covered northern suburbs, filled with the city's ex-winners from apartheid are typically not the communities (if one can call them that) which breed crime. So while whites do face crime, I would warrant that they don't even face the worst brunts of it, or at least not the rich whites whose opinions fill the international press. And as for the land reform, once you realize that the majority of land (70+%) is commercial agricultural land (read 'white owned land'), well, it makes you at least a little more sceptical about the extent to which white paranoia here is based in reality, rather than being a reaction to loss of the Utopian near-absolute security they faced under apartheid.

Indeed, the whites here are going quite literally crazy with fear. An Afrikaner friend told me that some old Boer guerrilla communities are re-organizing to create "anti-crime" militias, which almost certainly must mean vigilante justice and possibly anti-black retaliatory assaults at the worst.

That said, crime is indeed a problem. Our car was broken into Saturday night, for example, and they fucked up the wiring and starter, but were unable to steal the vehicle as a whole (thank god, since we're as yet unregistered and w/out insurance...). The parking guard (a single poor black guy with a reflective vest) was literally no deterrent against the vandalization; either the perpetrators paid him, threatened him, or knew him (this is what most people here suspect; complete complicity from these private security guys), but the most he did was tell us as we're returning to the car that "hey, your window's down". Well, thanks so much! A police car drove by as we're trying to get it started, and I had to run up and tap on the car to get them to stop. they proceeded to threaten me for failing to respect them and made a number of menacing comments until I apologized and let them drive away.

In short, crime is a problem and while statistically the worst affected are the other poor, the vast majority of whom are black, it is the formerly safe (under apartheid) whites who are most upset about it. They feel "abandoned in their own homes, and where else do we have to go, since I'm not FROM anywhere else? Where else in the world do they speak Afrikaans?" The lack of legal and official recourse is breeding a massive white proto-fascist revolt which, if it is allowed to happen, will certainly end in bloodshed and worse. The poor, economically marginalized, blacks here will not, I think, be the source of the next South African revolution, but the poor and middle-class whites, politically and economically marginalized and increasingly nationalist, funded by the rich Afrikaner aristocrats of the last century.


After the ordeal of registering for classes and two weeks of waiting to hear whether or not we would be allowed into the Clinic, we were pretty thrilled to find out last Friday that not only were we in, but that we had been given the assignments that we wanted. Kate (one of the two Wisconsin law students) and I were assigned to the refugee clinic, and when we showed up to clinical hours on Monday, they told us to find a cubicle and go get a client from the waiting room. Not that we knew the first thing about South African refugee law, or even South African law. After being reassured that we only needed to figure out what the client's problem was, and a supervisor would do the actual advising, we got out first clients. The couple was from the PRC; the husband had obtained refugee status some years ago; after their recent marriage the wife moved here and was hoping to get permission to say in the country through her husband's status. After getting the gist of their story, we were waiting for the supervisor to show up and overheard them speaking in French. Kate, who is fluent in french, and I, who can understand about every other word, were able to get the rest of their story in french. Although we weren't able to give them the answer they wanted (she would have to apply separately for refugee status), it was a great start to the year.

Naturally, this morning we found out that we hadn't really been assigned to our first choice, and only one of us would be able to do the refugee clinic. Some of the clinic admins even thought that us Americans were trying to barge our way in by just showing up uninvited, even though we had been told to go there. Oh well.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Movin' on up

From Joburg

While the autotaxis are a fascinating system, where the person who happens to sit next to the driver handles all the cash and makes sure everyone has paid, since they don't run at night, are nearly impossible to catch during rush hour, and only provide transportation in two directions (in and out from the city), we figured it's time that we stop asking other people for rides, suck it up, and learn to drive on the wrong side of the road. Most white people are shocked (Shocked!) that we've been brave, or stupid enough to use them, but it was good to see how most of the city gets around. After paying someone else to do our paperwork, we own a car, and the endless tree lined streets filled with houses surrounded by high walls and electric fences, and the occasional robot, are ours for exploring.

From Joburg

Sunday, January 28, 2007


This is not a travel blog. I'd like to avoid the rantings on life and the world that make most of these things unreadable; but also, I finished traveling almost a week ago, when we arrived. I'm here for the long haul, and this blog will intermittently document my successes and failures, trials and tribulations in adapting to life on the other side of the world. Which I've found so far to be both uncomfortably close, and fascinatingly far from home.

Taxis, above, run to and from a parking garage in the center of the city on set routes - meaning that unless your destination lies between you and the center, you'll have to go downtown and transfer. To ensure that all 15 passengers pay their fare, the driver collects the money by rows - about 80c a person.

More familiar are the endless suburbs and shopping malls. I don't think this requires any explanation - it's just like home. Only with more fast food.

More in a few days, as we venture out of suburbia, and into the wilds of africa.