Take any town: understanding and misunderstanding the importance of the local

For the most part I found Sam Youngman’s Politico piece on getting out of Washington to be regrettable. As I wrote here, it’s full of bad advice for journalists, and misleading on the real source of DC’s occasional journalistic pathologies.

But there’s an additional vein, buried beneath the populist posturing, that’s interesting: an affection for an America that lies well beyond the corridors of power, that is richly bound up with the resonance of a specific place and the pull and mystique of the local. Youngman tends to bundle multiple ideas together in a way that’s not always clear, and this is no exception: his plea to get out of DC contains an impressionistic, even spiritual, component (getting out of Washington as salvation), as well as an epistemological component (we can’t really understand American politics if all we understand is the capital). Both have at least a grain of truth, and I will try to unpack them both here in turn.

Chasing place

I have always thrilled to the power of place. My childhood memories of small-town piedmont North Carolina are replete with great green and golden fields of corn and soybeans, hemmed round with forests of oak and pine that I hiked through every autumn, rambling with my family’s dogs through searing summers. Later, when my family relocated to the western NC mountains, I fell hard for the austere beauty of the Appalachians in winter, the driving winds and soothing snow that blanketed our little valley. These communities could seem small, cramped at times. But they were possessed, like every other place, with their own character, a particular terroir that made them what they are.

I split my time now between NC and DC (and parts further out), and I certainly find that any time I spend in North Carolina resets my perspective. The town does not thrum with the tension of taut ambition and constant striving. The sky is framed, anywhere I turn, by stone and stark bare branches. After I was out of the country over the summer, I returned to my hometown to find a new brewery, bearded young locals busily making an excellent porter, as black as crude oil and nearly as dense. A woman I went to high school with stopped by my parents’ house with fresh bagels. Out walking after a snowfall, I tracked deer through two inches of snow, big rounded-off buck hooves pressed clean through to the red earth below.

It is impossible to think, faced with this reality, that the world of our nation’s capital is the only world that is. While “merely” impressionistic, it seems to be nonetheless indispensable. To lose our sense of place, of where we are from, of the ground on which we stand, is to lose a big chunk of what makes us able to write.

But then again, Washington is, of course, as real a place as Western North Carolina, with locals who have built their lives here, and (of course!) local institutions (of the political and culinary variety). To deny this is to indict our own terroir; we pull the ground from underneath ourselves.

How (not) to talk about local politics

Youngman’s essay is not terribly concerned with proving the assertion that political journalists should get out of DC to cover “regular people” in real places (as though, to repeat myself from above, Washington were not a real place). But in asserting the importance of local politics, he’s not wrong. Just ask Ibn Khaldun, whose entire ontology of historical change is built on the idea that actors from the periphery periodically arise to take over (or destroy!) political centers. Or look at the Tea Party wave – a phenomenon that arose more or less from the provinces, and has certainly invaded the political center in some strength at the time of writing.

Beyond the ever-present possibility that peripheral actors will arise from their localities to exert their power at the center, the lived reality of local politics is vitally important. At the risk of sounding trite: it is in local elections, the administration of schools and other public facilities, discussions of county property and zoning, oversight of municipal bodies and law enforcement that local politics is lived and experienced firsthand by most people. These are just as real as national politics playing out in Washington DC (a place that is itself real, and has its own local politics to boot). And these are vital – for example, if the highhandedness of the recently elected Republican majority at work in my home county is not a story worth telling, and one of high importance for the insights it provides into small town political life in the current era, than its hard to imagine what would be. Unfortunately, it’s in talking about these stories that Youngman goes off the rails a little.

This is a big part of the substance of Youngman’s critique, and he uses his experience in Kentucky as an example of local truths demolishing “conventional wisdom.”

At least once a week, I hear conventional wisdom from D.C. or New York upended by words directly from the mouths of a Kentucky voter. Democratic Senate candidate Alison Lundergan Grimes’s campaign is described as strong nationally, but it looks like a hot mess up close. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), often mocked by cable news, is cheered and encouraged to run for president at small restaurants in impoverished mountain towns throughout Eastern Kentucky.

I am sorry to report that these are not useful or surprising ground truths. It should be no surprise to anyone that Sen. Paul is cheered by the conservative core voters in his home state. And perhaps I’ve been reading different pieces than Youngman (or don’t have access to his sources), but national pieces seem more than aware of Grimes’ weaknesses as a candidate. Indeed, this leads into a point already made plenty ably by Chris Cilizza: plenty of national outlets have resident experts at covering state politics (and world politics, too, for that matter). Perhaps there should be more coverage, because there’s certainly a lot of news. But it’s hard to argue that national media outlets don’t understand the crucial importance of local politics. Reporters ought to be expected to bring a little more nuance back to the capital when they trek out to the states – and Youngman, writing in from one, certainly should have done better.

All real places

All in all, this piece should be a reminder that, while apprehending local realities is vitally important, there are right and wrong points to take away from these encounters. And more importantly, perhaps, the attitude with which we approach other places – rural places, foreign places, the strange hybrid city positioned in the District of Columbia – should be one of openness, and not of dismissal of any given scene, any given town.

I promised myself that I’d end this piece on an upbeat note, and so it strikes me that this is not a bad lesson to take away: the importance of a relentless attention to local dynamics, terroir and place and power and the unflagging search for story, without fetishizing small towns or Middle America, nor privileging the viewpoint of the capital or the center. And more upbeat still: it is almost Christmas Eve. We are all in real places.

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Finding your Kentucky

I’ve been wrestling for days with Sam Youngman’s currently Twitter-famous essay on Washington, DC, and journalistic culture. As a sometime freelance writer with a keen interest in national and international politics, raised in small-town North Carolina, and based more-or-less  in DC, Youngman’s jeremiad piqued my interest, then tied me up in knots for days. Am I doomed by my residence on this patch of ground, consigned irrevocably to egotism within this little sphere, and irrelevance beyond it? Will This Town destroy my passion for writing – and by extension, might it kill the passions of hundreds of other aspiring journalists, essayists, engages? Must I, and should others, flee post-haste?

No. Youngman’s essay contains wrenching confessions, but bad advice. It strips the writer (Youngman, and by extension others) of agency, while absolving journalists of the obligation to write courageously, and presenting a deterministic account of journalistic failure. It obscures the contingent nature of falling out of love with Washington, and politics, and political journalism. Reading Youngman, you’d think that Washington is an inevitably corrupting place – but it doesn’t have to be this way.

The fundamental, fatal flaw in Youngman’s piece is that it is at heart two essays, connected weakly at best. One is a confessional piece, detailing Youngman’s descent into dissipation and his loss of faith in his own profession. This piece is moving, and the impressions one can glean from them are important, even if they are inherently impressionistic.

The other part of the essay is an indictment of the culture of the national press, and indeed contains prescriptions for how his colleagues can avoid sinking into this same pit. This second essay is not so moving, and its prescriptions are unhelpful, and in some places border on disingenuous. They are founded on the idea that Youngman’s crackup, and his failure to find meaning in covering the national political scene, are etiologically traceable to the miasma of This Town. But this case is overstated; the corrosive influence of Washington culture is not inevitable, as plenty of national journalists seem to eschew gladhanding and social climbing in favor of simply doing their jobs and building families in a city that is just as real as any other. Youngman’s advice is unhelpful, bordering on inane, and potentially harmful. Part of his argument is valid: local and state-level politics is incredibly important! But this doesn’t mean fetishizing local processes at the expense of national coverage, and it certainly doesn’t excuse passing off flawed journalistic advice as the solutions to problems that may lie more in the realm of personality and nerve.

For an easy example, political reporters don’t need to ignore polls in favor of talking to regular people. Polls sometimes contain wisdom that isn’t always obvious from chatting up the man on the street – as the 2012 election amply demonstrated. Besides, who says that you have to do one or the other? And where is the space for other modes of reporting (data-driven journalism, for example). Writers can do more than one of these things! Chris Cilizza makes this point above, in fact. But the problem is deeper than that, even: Youngman is focused on a critique of technique, positing this as the answer to self-absorption and devotion to the incestuous insider networks of official Washington; he then pivots to blaming all this on DC culture, when he should be focused on his own agency. It is a question not of connecting with “real people,” getting out of this noxious den of ambition, but of nerve, even courage.

Youngman decries the lack of attention to issues of poverty during the 2012 presidential campaign. Yet he himself never seems to have broached the subject on Air Force One; and a perusal of his pieces for the Herald-Leader reveal that he hasn’t opened the discussion back home either. On the other hand, The Atlantic, storied old-media monster in the very heart of DC, has repeatedly devoted space to a social justice issue far less likely to arouse public sympathy – prison reform – and for that matter, so it is clearly not impossible to wrote about these things. Rather, it is our responsibility, as writers, if we seek that path, to bring up these questions; to push that debate forward, if need be, even when politicians and the public do not want to have these hard discussions. What we should not be doing is blaming the culture of a city for our failure to do so. The fault, oftentimes, lies not in This Town, but in ourselves.

This is not, I feel compelled to repeat, intended to discount Youngman’s experience with personal disillusionment (and substance abuse). This is a separate issue and one that merits conversation. There is no denying that DC can be a toxic place, with a heavy drinking culture. And the destructive effect this has on some people is clearly at odds with a good society, and with the Washington that we might hope to build.

But if you, like me, have been a bit disheartened by Youngman’s diagnosis of DC journalism’s pathologies, cheer up, and ignore both his grim diagnosis and his advice on journalism! No pathology is inevitable, even here, and with courage, we as writers and reporters can build fulfilling careers wherever passion takes us. There are almost as many ways of doing journalism as there are writers, and most of them are valid, as long as we remember our own agency and do not become stenographers for power. Indeed, your Kentucky may well be right here – and there’s not a damn thing wrong with that.

The companion essay to this piece can be found here: Take any town: understanding and misunderstanding the importance of the local.

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Some thoughts on Columbus/Bartolomé/Indigenous People’s Day

We’ve passed into the wee hours and out of Columbus Day, and I’m still browsing commentary on the holiday. It’s an awkward feeling. After all, it’s a bit hard to figure out what to do with a holiday that holds within it a celebration of all the following: the greatest single-shot cultural and biological exchange in human history; the destruction and domination of myriad indigenous cultures via military conquest and disease; and also, implicitly, the of everything that followed Columbus’ arrival in this hemisphere, from the thirty-five states that now exist on this soil, to the existence of almost everyone I know.

It’s awful, after all, to celebrate an event that led to massive genocide; but it’s hard as well to follow certain disavowals to their logical conclusion, and wish away oneself and the world that exists now. And it is, of course, complicated by the fact that for me, as for many commentators, any discussion of the meaning of Columbus Day veers swiftly into confrontation with “the Other.” Some traces of Cherokee blood notwithstanding, I am positioned from the outset at the vantage point of the conquering white male, ineluctably privileged and unable to assume, directly, the Native American viewpoint.

I’ve read several approaches to this conundrum. There is condemnation of the holiday itself and Columbus as individual, which is fine as it goes – the holiday, as we’ve already established, makes us feel weird, and Columbus personally did lots of horrible things. There is also (of course) plenty of silly, slightly gross, rather self-indulgent whinging by rightists who feel slighted that anyone else should feel ambivalent about the holiday. I’ve read columns and comics that attempt to re-appropriate the holiday – Indigenous People’s Day, Bartolomé Day – and essays proposing to split the difference and ignore the entire thing in favor of Canadian Thanksgiving.

And yet the effort to square the circle is a difficult thing to abandon, and it strikes me that to only decry Columbus Day as a day of horror and a celebration of a genocidaire risks the relinquishment of a true stake in this land, and overlooks other key themes in the history of the Americas: encounter, hybridity, agency. As soon as Cristoforo Colombo’s ships hove in view of Guanahani/San Salvador, encounter became inevitable, and hybridization followed. And this encounter took a multitude of forms, molded by the actions of Native Americans who were anything but helpless victims, and produced a hybrid hemisphere which is with us yet.

 Indigenous agency and hybrid polities

Encounters of violence, we know, were inextricable from the process, and the first Europeans to arrive in (particularly Spanish) America were master practitioners of violence: death by fire and the sword ensued, and rape, and enslavement. And yet these encounters of violence swiftly shifted, almost from the beginning. What emerged was neither straightforward victimization of indigenous peoples by European invaders, nor heroic resistance, but a many-sided struggle over who would shape and benefit from the terms of encounter. Matthew Restall’s Seven Myths of the Spanish Conquest serves as an exemplary literature review of scholarship that reveals Native Americans not as merely victims, but as agents. Local leaders collaborated with or resisted Spanish conquest strategically, to maximize their own local position, often at the expense of other indigenous leaders. Seen in this light, Spanish conquistadores were not an irresistible new force to arrive on the scene, but a (very powerful) new player in local political games.

Just as the political and military history of conquest in the Americas is variegated, the fabric of the polities that emerged, and that are in a continued process of formation today, are complexly woven from indigenous and grafted influences – particularly in Latin America, where large indigenous populations have survived in Mesoamerica and the Andes. For centuries, indigenous people have navigated incorporation into the Spanish empire and into independent republics, responding to changing circumstances by adapting political strategies for preserving spheres of local power and autonomy. Again, these histories have seen plenty of exploitation, but local collaboration often led to exploitation by indigenous local notables, such as the kurakas of the Quechua-speaking Andes, just as by European colonists and “mistis.” This is a perverse sort of agency, but it does denote agency, as opposed to mere annihilation – what Restall calls the “Myth of Native Desolation.”

Today, attempts to draw upon a rhetoric of pure “resistance” often mark gambits by individual leaders to stake out an ideological territory and advance their own personal leadership, as in the internecine struggles over leadership of the indigenist Left in Bolivia, where relative radicals of that movement have lost out to relative moderates like Evo Morales, whose core constituency – the cocaleros – represents a particularly postmodern sort of indigenous identity, well-adapted to transnational capitalism at the same time that it embraces “ancient” symbols. Encounter seen through this lens is a profoundly political phenomenon, producing hybrid polities. It is, as much as anything, this hybridity that is worthy of celebration on this day of doleful remembrance, as a celebration of the condition of the Americas as a whole, and of the perpetual encounter which has produced the hybrid cultures of our hemisphere.

Resistance in the heart of 14th Street, NW DC.

Resistance on a light-post in the heart of 14th Street, NW DC.

Does Columbus himself deserve a holiday? Surely not. But we need, perhaps now more than ever, a holiday which forces us to remember and reflect upon the complexities and ambiguities of our hemispheric past; a holiday on which we celebrate not just resistance, but resilience; and which spurs us on to the work of building a more just Americas. The reality is that many descendants of native peoples still suffer deeply in this hemisphere, from Patagonia to the Arctic Circle. Throughout the hemisphere action is desperately needed to put an end to outright discrimination and systemic blights (the dire state of the reservation system in the US springs to mind, as does the battle to bring justice to victims of a much more recent genocide in Guatemala). Other struggles are even more lateral, structured around the environment, sustainable development, and education issues. If Columbus Day reminds us of nothing else, it should remind us of the tremendous amount of work that remains to be done in building a more just Americas. That is a cause for pain, and a cause worth celebrating.

All our ancestors within us

I read today a long piece – worth reading – on the descendants of Columbus’ first interlocutors in the New World, the Taino of Hispaniola, Puerto Rico, and the Bahamas. Long thought to have been wiped out, the author finds them to be very much alive, and in the midst of a resurgence of identity, mannered and intentional as these things always are:

In Puerto Rico’s central mountains, I came upon a woman who called herself Kukuya, Taíno for firefly, who was getting ready for a gathering of Indians in Jayuya, a town associated with both revolution and indigenous festivals. She had grown up in New York City but had lived in Puerto Rico for 35 years, having been guided to this remote community, she said, by a vision. Green-eyed and rosy-cheeked, she said her forebears were Spanish, African, Mexican and Maya as well as Taíno.

“My great-grandmother was pure-blooded Taíno, my mother of mixed blood,” she said. “When I told people I was Taíno, they said, ‘What, are you crazy? There aren’t any left!’ But I don’t believe you have to look a certain way. I have all of my ancestors within me.”

As citizens of the Americas (and almost regardless of our physical bloodlines, though these, too, are often as tangled as Kukuya’s, admitted or no) we carry within our political selves all our ancestors, Bartolome de las Casas and Christopher Columbus, Sheridan and Sitting Bull, resistance fighters, collaborators, and conquerors. Columbus Day – this uncomfortable holiday, a memorial to a genocide and to tremendous achievements of hybrid cultures, should remind us of the imperative to encounter others upon an equal ground, and to continue to work to better this patch of earth on which we find our hybrid selves.

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Participatory budgeting and the bohemian lifestyle: some notes on the consulta virtual, deepening democracy, spatial fragmentation, and a sense of place in Barranco, Lima

I’ve been back in DC a couple weeks now. It’s strange, after Southern winter, to be immersed again in the dense sweaty soup of this city. And I’m still processing my time in Peru, which I spent in part attempting to engage deeply with a social and political context deeply inflected by distinctive patterns of citizen participation and contention, and by institutional arrangements meant to variously channel, contain, enable, and thwart those currents of participation.

The process of digestion is still ongoing; it’s been helped along by a piece I’m writing for the International Budget Partnership recapping and updating my earlier reporting on Lima’s innovative reforms to Peru’s participatory budgeting process (I’ll insert a link once it goes live). For now, what follows is a set of related, if slightly rambling, notes on local governance and participation, a sense of place amidst fragmentation, and the participatory budget process in Barranco, Lima.

Lima is a sprawling and disjointed place, full of local pathologies and local problem-solving. It has been called a “hackable city,” and indeed I found a sort of civic hacking coexisting quite well with urban disjunctions of all kinds in a primary site of research: Barranco, Lima’s lovely old bohemian neighborhood. It has also a bit of a shady reputation, some perhaps merely atmospheric, but some plenty well-deserved. It has its own municipal administration, part of the cluster of municipalities that make up the entirety of Lima. It is surrounded on several sides by more marginal neighborhoods, Surquillo, Chorillos, gritty, working-class and the not-working class, and this produces a distinctive dynamic as these denizens of the city intersect with artists, young and old hippies, purveyors of organic goods. It’s a curious vibe: while I have fond memories of nights spent in beautiful little cafes, drinking craft beer or great coffee, and enjoying the newest Limeña hipster electronica, I also remember a street full of car repair shops, men sitting out drinking in the middle of the day, parks full of dog shit and broken glass, people staring at me as though to say “what the hell are you doing here.”

Swimming up from nostalgia: this cluster of municipalities, aided by the policies of a city government which has committed to enhancing public participation and meeting the needs of the city’s poor and working class, has recently undertaken a sort of push toward self-help, pushing various initiatives at the local and neighborhood level to improve education and after-school programs. One of these initiatives, the creation of a youth enrichment center at the boundary of these three neighborhoods, was recently proposed for funding in Lima’s participatory budgeting exercise. As such, it was also part of the inaugural group of projects proposed in Lima’s brand-new online consulta ciudadana, an effort aimed at using online voting to expand participation in the participatory budgeting process, about which I’ve written here.

The consulta ciudadana has all sorts of interesting potential implications for the politics of Lima, and perhaps even for the institution of participatory budgeting more widely in Peru. At the most local level, I found fascinating the way that activists, residents, and members of local government took ownership of the participatory budgeting process in Barranco.

A hackable poster.

A hackable poster.

Sometimes this manifested itself in quite striking visual forms. Note, for example the photo showing a poster publicizing the virtual consultation, to which someone (perhaps municipal workers, perhaps local neighborhood activists) have affixed a sticker, indicating the number of the project proposal for which to vote. The raw material of a larger project, at the level of the entire conurbation of Lima, filters down to the smaller constituent municipalities in distinct ways, which include “hacking” posters – and also hacking processes, adding additional signifiers and appropriating political projects in ways that add layers of local ownership.

It will be interesting to watch the extent to which municipalities in Lima rally around their participatory budgeting projects. My research and conversations in Barranco indicated, as I’ve noted above, that municipal governments push hard for these projects; they stand to gain from their implementation, and are not shy about going into the streets to promote not just the consultas in general, but PB projects in their municipality. Moreover, as local citizen participation offices are staffed with veteran advocates for public participation and PB, in some neighborhoods officials and activists make common cause, overlapping in networks of mutual imbrication.

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Municipal square, Centro Barranco.

Walking through Barranco one drizzly, foggy afternoon in late autumn, I met a handful of women, activists and officials, handing out fliers urging people to vote for option number 77, the youth center. With one of them, Vilma, I talked at length: she’s spent a decade working to promote citizen participation. She now works for the municipal government of Barranco, and spoke passionately of her hopes for the neighborhood should the youth center receive enough votes to earn funding. Through these participatory exercises, iterated, they might build a better Barranco, she and the women around her bundled in windbreakers and holding up signs. Another woman, Mary Elena, told me in urging their vecinos to vote, to participate more fully, these women were catalyzing a genuine revolution. A lot of the change that could take place around the PB process depends on this sort of local-level engagement by committed activists, who will have a variety of reasons to engage.

Spine-tingling graffiti. Photo credit: La Mula

Spine-tingling graffiti.
Photo credit: La Mula

So it seems likely that neighborhood policy entrepreneurs will mobilize vecinos to support geographically specific projects. And because categories of neighborhood activists, NGO figures, and municipal employees are not necessarily mutually exclusive, mobilization may occur along explicitly geographical lines, with the active participation local government figures in the neighborhood. But as voters can vote for a maximum of four projects – more than were allotted to any one neighborhood – this mobilization still could leave room for voters to vote beyond the simple confines of their neighborhood, based on more complex calculations of geographic proximity or self-interest, on gender or class solidarity. (But maybe not – while this assumes that voters use all four of the votes which they’re allowed to cast, it’s clear from the numbers that some voters did not use all their four votes, probably casting votes only for projects of the most direct significance to themselves, and leaving their remaining votes on the table, so to speak.)

This is a process which is compatible with a profound geographic fragmentation that characterizes governance across Latin America. I’ve described the (many) dark sides of this fragmented mode of governmentality in a review essay. But Lima’s PB experience presents, perhaps, a more benign face of this phenomenon of fragmentation as local actors – ordinary citizens, not just brokers and bosses – gain greater agency. This may even help knit neighborhoods previously subject to a sort of contingent political marginality – useful to central governments at the national, regional, or (in Lima) municipal level at key electoral junctures – into a broader political whole. (Note that I’m distinguishing this form of political marginality from the “myth” of economic marginality.) It is too early to say for sure, but perhaps participatory budgeting can help break patterns of brokerage by placing more power in the hands of citizens. Then again, brokerage in Peru is relatively weak by Latin American standards, so PB could, ironically, strengthen clientelistic relationships by giving brokers another point at which to insert themselves in political processes. Both of these possibilities bear watching.

As the process of expanded citizen consultation in PB is repeated, and as neighborhoods mobilize around programs, these sorts of contradictions and ironies may play important roles. I recently exchanged emails with Vilma, and our correspondence strengthened my sense that plenty of questions await resolution.

  1. Perhaps the most important single issue will be proper implementation of projects once they’re funded. Seeing the projects that they voted for actually implemented will be crucial, in Barranco and elsewhere, to ensure the long-term viability of PB and of broad-based consultations. Indeed, the ordinary people who have been invited to vote online for projects may be even less patient than seasoned advocates should projects not be implemented. This is great, of course, if it means public pressure on local governments to fulfill their obligations; but it’s very bad if it causes people to throw up their hands in disgust and exit the process.
  2. How does losing a vote affect the losers’ perception of the process’s legitimacy? When I was in touch with Vilma, she was happy, and I was happy for her; the youth center had placed seventh in overall voting, a fact that should (if implemented properly) make a real difference to young people in need of social assistance. But only 14 or 15 of the projects seem likely to be funded, out of 167 proposals. What was the reaction of the “losers” to having projects, potentially of great benefit to them, voted down? I hope that they don’t give up on the PB process, but it’s hard to make even an educated guess as to what their reaction might be.
  3. Related to that second point, if neighborhood mobilization helps determine public expenditures, at least from certain pots, what role might a sort of mobilization gap play in creating long-term barriers to realizing the benefits of the PB process? In such a case, the consulta virtual might entrench profoundly spatial divisions between winners and losers, with ambivalent or negative consequences for local legitimacy of the program in “losing” neighborhoods, and for the potential of PB to effect positive change.
  4. Finally, it’s hard to say what role straight-out resistance to expanding PB may play in some neighborhoods. In conversation, public officials have indicated that not all functionaries are as eager to push forward participatory processes as others (for example, the stalwart Vilma). Some officials are likely to be jealous of their own power and distrustful of public participation in policy-setting. If such local actors act on these sentiments, by not publicizing or campaigning for the process, they can in fact have an impact, making sure that residents do not vote, are not mobilized. In the long term, this could create another spatial marker of fragmentation, between neighborhoods that are relatively more fiscally democratic, and those that are more authoritarian.

Epilogue

Although I didn’t live in Barranco proper, I spent a lot of time there, and a lot of time thinking about it, spatially, politically, culinarily, and so forth. It is a neighborhood in transition, as more little boutiques are opening, and fair trade coffee shops and art galleries, and a brand-new gorgeous brewpub. And on the heels of these places are coming new apartment buildings, up-market wine bars, business lunch spots. This is all for the good, largely; I remember one conversation with a friend in which she told me that in past years taxis would not even come to the street on which her thriving café sits, in a handsome old townhouse – the street used to be too dangerous, a haunt for addicts and other marginal types. And these changes reflect well on the efforts of dedicated public servants like Vilma, who have dedicated big chunks of their lives to making Barranco a better place to live. Still, with any such changes come uncertainty.

And so there’s another question for Barranco: with respect to the PB process, might the kinds of PB projects and proposals that the neighborhood sees change in nature as the neighborhood shifts toward a more wealthy – dare I say, even a little Brooklyn – flavor of bohemianism? How will participatory institutions in Barranco change as Barranco itself changes? And will participatory processes, iterated and reiterated over the next decade, entrench spatial, political, socio-economic divisions, or knit them together and alleviate the inevitable pain and disruption which attend upon these changes?

With regard to these questions, Barranco has a lot in common with the rest of Lima, and indeed with the rest of Peru. It may offer a useful example in thinking through the implications of participatory institutions, variance in their practice, and trajectories of political and economic change.

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Remembrance and forgetfulness on Lima’s “Rutas de la Memoria”

Posting has been light in this space, as I’ve been working on some larger projects, but interesting things are happening in Peru all the time, including when I fail to write about them. For one thing, we’re coming up on the tenth anniversary of the release of Peru’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission report. This has spawned thoughtful reflection in some quarters of the public discourse (by no means all), and events to commemorate the release.

Devin and I spent four hours yesterday morning driving along one of four Rutas de la Memoria – paths of memory. These are sort of like city tours, except that they visit sites in Lima that are important in commemorating Peru’s internal armed conflict of the 1980s and 1990s, many of  which are the sites of noteworthy human rights abuses. These tours are expertly run by the Equipo Peruano de Antropología Forense (Peruvian Forensic Anthropology Team), in conjunction with the Municipality of Lima – if you are reading this and are in Lima, I strongly encourage you to go. If you’re reading this and not in Lima – well, EPAF is an excellent organization, and I urge you to keep up with (and support!) their work, as appropriate.

Some reflections on the ruta, and implications for projects of memory in Peru, follow below.

 I: Spaces of Memory

It was the first time that I had visited El ojo que llora (The Eye that Cries), a memorial to the victims of the conflict created by sculptor Lika Mutal. It was deeply affecting to see thousands of small stones laid out into a labyrinth, each one representing someone who died in the conflict, each one representing a universe of pain beyond the initial moment of loss. A young woman, wearing a patterned sweater and packing a serious camera, took pictures, fighting back tears. EPAF volunteers bustled around, preparing for a public event that took place later that day. On the hilltop above the memorial, a woman wearing the flat-brimmed black hat of the southern sierra sat on the grass with her husband and watched us swirling slowly and sadly through the paths laid out by the labyrinth of names.

After reflecting at that rendezvous, we clambered aboard a bus belonging to the municipality. This particular route focused on the center of Lima, and thus we navigated a remarkably varied landscape of terror and violent acts. Our bus visited the site of Frecuencia Latin, a radio station that was bombed, presumably by Sendero Luminoso, in 1992.[1] We circumnavigated the old and new Japanese ambassador’s residence; the former is where the MRTA took a slew of dignitaries hostage at a party. It is also where, in the commando raid which ended the standoff, two soldiers, one hostage, and all of the guerrillas died – some of these last executed after they had already surrendered or been otherwise apprehended.

We stretched our legs at the Plaza de la Democracia, which used to be the site of a Banco de la Nación before agents of Fujimori’s regime burned it down in a false flag attack intended to discredit the protest movement that subsequently dislodged the president. This was an episode with which I was mostly unfamiliar, though it exemplifies the duplicitous thuggishness of the regime, which ordered policemen to bar firefighters from the building. This preserved the desired spectacle, the theatrical presentation of a national symbol’s total destruction, if at the cost of six security guards who died of smoke inhalation in the building’s basement.

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Ghostly in Barrios Altos.

We passed slowly by the house in which the famous Barrios Altos murders – the massacre of a barbecue party, alleged-Senderistas who turned out to be entirely innocent, by the infamous death squad Grupo Colina – took place. As it turned out, there were two events going on in the same building, and the “right” meeting was one floor up. This didn’t stop one member from shooting an eight-year old boy to death, perhaps after the death squad had already realized that they’d gotten the wrong barbecue.

And finally we motored out to Huachipa on the outskirts of Lima. This bleak spot, on military land, is where the ten victims of the La Cantuta massacre were initially buried, in clandestine graves, after being kidnapped from their university, tortured, and murdered. We all got out of the bus and stood on the side of the highway in the blowing sand. It was sad and desolate, which was in a sense the point.

II: Spaces of Forgetting

And yet there was a hollow quality to our journey across the memoryscapes of Lima. The capital, indeed much of the country, is consumed by the effort of forgetting, not remembering the violence of twenty years ago. This feeling of hollowness started even before we started the Ruta. Our taxi driver into Centro de Lima, despite being familiar with the attractions of Campo del Marte, the park system which houses various monuments (and soccer fields, and playgrounds), had no idea where the Ojo que llora was situated, and indeed seemed not to even know what it was. Perhaps the vandals who attacked the memorial in 2007 might as well not even have bothered – inattention is erasing the monumental intervention better than hammers and orange paint.

But there’s no sense in blaming our taxi driver. Civic devotion to memory was in scant evidence, even in the sites where memory might reside. Everywhere we visited was shuttered. The Parque de Democracia was shut for cleaning (and, according to a provocative reflection by Mauricio (one of our guides), because its budget is insufficient to keep it open). It contains no mention of the acts of state terror which took place on its site. Barrios Altos remains unsafe to enter, situated in a somewhat marginal neighborhood. In this sense it is surely an apt symbol of the ways in which the marginalization that characterized many of the war’s victims has persisted for millions of Peruvians in the post-war period, not only in Lima but also in the provinces, which saw the most ferocious fighting and suffered the great majority of the conflict’s deaths and other human rights violations. And as Mauricio further pointed out, the capital retains the fortress architecture of a country at war, with official sites still swaddled roughly in concrete barriers to hold car bombs and “delincuencia” beyond the periphery of a blast zone.

At Huachipa, we could not enter; we could not even see onto the land. A twenty foot wall of poured concrete stood between us and the ex-gravesite. The artist-activists of the Lugar de Memorias project recently put up a poster to commemorate the significance of the site; in turn, someone tried to rip it down, with limited success. The tatters flapped in the wind like a macabre playbill. Twenty feet up, a statue of a soldier stared out at us, incongruous and disquieting. Of memory, nothing else remained.

Even our bus was only half full.

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Guarding the wall at Huachipa.

III: Spaces of possibility?

It is important to end on a note that looks forward, rather than lamenting at the sound of a door closing on memory, opening onto a prosperity that threatens to leave behind far too many victims of violence and affected persons. Individuals and organizations, like the dedicated staff members of EPAF, are fighting hard, both to keep memory alive, and to take concrete measures to build a better future,

These efforts run a wide gamut, from conflict resolution in areas still riven by wartime divisions, to education of affected persons on the benefits available to them,[2] to attempts to economically empower highland communities. This fight is certainly made more difficult by widespread public indifference and ignorance about the internal armed conflict and the challenges faced by affected populations. It takes real dedication to keep fighting; fortunately, I’ve met a good many activists in my time in Peru who are richly blessed with this dedication, determination, and a deep commitment to this cause.

It is not comforting, however, to ponder a society which may yet need to navigate, with humanity and respect for human rights, significant challenges to internal security and cohesion. A significant part of Peruvian public discourse seems incapable of absorbing the object lessons of a bloody and painful civil war, in which all sides committed significant atrocities, and using these painful experiences to nurture a culture committed to the protection of human rights. The implicit preference for forgetting, rather than commemorating, closes off the possibility of learning, even from past mistakes, how to build a better future.

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Artistic intervention at the base of the column in the Parque de la Democracia.

I hope that EPAF and likeminded activists can help to divert this path away from civic oblivion, in which memory becomes an almost subversive act; it is in this spirit, for example, that the activists of the Lugar de Memorias project place their public interventions at these closed off sites, confronting the viewer with antidote to the sanitized banality of a discourse that covers over the past. I hold out hope for the success of these memory-keepers because that hope represents hope for Peru, that as Paulo Drinot writes in an excellent essay on El ojo que llora, these projects of memory and remembrance might yet be the “kernel of a democratic and inclusive project that may still form the basis of a more solidary and just Peru.”

Our half-empty bus was populated largely – or more than half – by young people, some college-age, some a little older. And there was also one young child on our bus, a boy of perhaps eight. He listened raptly to awful stories of pain and loss, answered questions posed by guides, nominated himself as their unofficial assistant for the tour. Perhaps it is in the – admittedly modest – ranks of these people, young and unencumbered with the same deep need to forget, who will remember what they learned at these spaces of memory and forgetting, and open new, humane and visionary avenues for Peruvian politics. These are the spaces where memory and commemoration opens new possibilities: not in the civic life of a city devoted to forgetting and the pursuit of wealth, but in the heads and hearts of a generation more willing to remember.

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EPAF staff and volunteers set up on the hillside above El ojo que llora; labyrinth of stones with the names of victims in the foreground.
Photo credit: Devin Finn


[1] There is speculation that the attack may have been a false flag, carried out by one of the shadowy military intelligence-affiliated commands that proliferated in parallel structure during Garcia’s presidency, and especially under the Fujimori regime.

[2] The benefits aren’t always generous. Monetary recompense is set at a fixed sum for children of those killed or disappeared, leaving the same total pot to be granted to an only child as to five children. Scholarships available to children of victims are among the most impressive benefits offered by the state – full tuition to any state school represents a life-chaging opportunity if you’re, say, an 18-year girl living in a highland village six hours by (unpaved) road from the regional capital.

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A heuristic for Humala

I’ve been pondering in recent weeks the inscrutability of Peru’s president Humala, a man without a clear political philosophy who governs Peru with a certain bland pragmatism. My impressions congealed watching him give a presidential address two weekends ago, at least enough to offer an interpretation of sorts; more structured comparisons of Humala to his military-background predecessors, more rigorous examinations of his economic programs, and indeed more in-depth historical treatments of Peru’s fascinating military governments of the 1970s, which surely deserve their own post, will have to wait for another day. But for now, a certain interpretivistic sense of image is inescapable. Like any image, this one changes depending on the angle from which it is viewed, looks different to everyone, and may not look the same next week. 

Watching the presidential address for Fiestas Patrias, the great Peruvian national festival that combines July Fourth, Thanksgiving, and Decoration Day into one grand, nationalistic, tragic spectacle, it struck me that Humala looked more than a little dutiful giving his speech. As usual, he gave a workmanlike speech in which any real political philosophy was hard to discern, and drew upon his military bearing and slight reserve to carry the day. It’s like almost everything else he does – the good soldier, very slightly uncomfortable at doing what must be done. The impression of watching the heir to Peru’s unusual military dictatorship(s) of the 1970s has never been stronger. Yet is he the melancholy Velasco, the revolutionary who took power to forestall a revolution, or the counter-revolutionary Bermúdez, who took power because he was afraid of the excesses of the people, and was in turn chased from power by popular protest?

Whichever he may be, Humala has in him more than a little of the authoritarian modernizer. Indeed, his projected policies propose to address deep issues, not just of growth and prosperity, but also of equity and inclusion, that have long dogged the Peruvian polity. And it is hard not to see in Humala someone with a real concern for a sort of social justice, particularly in the sense that he is focused upon remedying the profound social injustices of poverty and inclusion. Yet he seeks solutions to these problems without concern for procedural justice and inclusion, while seeking to discourage, in many cases, the popular participation that might give political weight to an agenda of social justice and inclusion. (This is, of course, by no means his fault alone; the Peruvian state is not an inclusive beast, nor one that welcomes public participation. It is, however, his problem.)

 Humala must be aware that his government sits atop a slumbering – but ever-stirring – volcano, one that looks a lot like a still-bleeding national wound. Mixed metaphors aside, this is both more or less empirical truth, and a reflection of the hegemonic narrative of Peru’s still-smoldering national divisions.

It is empirically true in that Peru has faced multiple leftist and anti-systemic insurrections in the past, statistically correlated with increased risk of civil war (the why of course is harder to get at, but that’s for another day!). Less histrionically, it is empirically true in that the Defensoria del Pueblo currently has over 220 ongoing social conflicts logged as of June of this year. And it is empirically true in that Humala is currently facing an uptick in social protest, from striking doctors and nurses protesting medical reforms, to the emerging anti-corruption and anti-politics as usual movement currently stewing in the streets of Lima and elsewhere.

The interpretive truth behind the cliché accords with the dominant narrative in that the targets of Humala’s development schemes are the historically disadvantaged and disenfranchised indigenous campesinos of the highlands, a patchwork of peoples with one of the most storied histories of violent rebellion in the Americas. Official Lima, in so many manifestations, has always seethed with anxiety over those people, what they might do next (when it isn’t ignoring them). Humala’s big idea seems to be to resist the temptation to ignore the highlands, to push a broad economic integration into the national prosperity, satisfying the economic needs of those who the dominant narrative inscribes as most likely to revolt – because it is in their nature, because they are sick of poverty, because to revolt is unfortunately at the moment justified, heck, pick a reason – before they revolt again.

In Puno region, for example, in the conflictive far south of the country, Humala recently paid a visit to the town of Ayaviri, where he presided over the regional council of ministers. While there he delivered, in person, some 150 refrigerators, meant to hold enough basic vaccines to resolve the shortage which plagues the country’s rural zones. He then unveiled a new program to promote cheese production for export to neighboring countries, made a speech touting Puno’s potential to be among the greatest regions in Peru, and winged back off in military helicopter.

Besides the populist gesture of refrigerator delivery – and Humala is so clearly a certain sort of populist, the kind of military president who occasionally drives his own car to events, that it’s barely interesting save to note in passing – one gets a fair sense of what Humala is about here. Puno is poor and rural, prone to outbursts of popular protest that draw particularly disruptive forms from the Andean repertoire of contention. The last time I was in Puno, a sea of informal miners chanted for Humala’s resignation – “Humala, traitor,” was a popular pairing – in the main square of Puno city. A year later, the traitor to the nation himself is back in the region, delivering refrigerators and promising agricultural promotion programs to wean such people from their (incredibly environmentally destructive) squalid livelihoods, to put these people, the region, the entire country on a sustainable path to inclusive prosperity.

Humala, then, is making a great capitalist gamble: he is betting that enough people in Peru will get rich enough soon enough that the inevitable conflictivities of the nation of which he is head of state can be defused. This is an impressive and ambitious goal; in terms of economic development, and, indeed, psychically, he is dragging with him heavy freight in attempting to race against time.

Yet can he succeed in catalyzing inclusive growth while failing to promote popular participation, while neutering participatory and consultative organizations? The approach he is pursuing, particularly in striking populations most-affected by the vast majority of mining projects from the rolls of those to be consulted, and flirting with the criminalization of protest in other areas, suggests an attitude of pursuing growth at all costs. We may not doubt that his motives are pure, and focused on lifting people out of poverty. Yet this is an approach that cuts indigenous campesinos of the highlands out of the conversation on extractive-driven growth because their participation is inconvenient, and threatens to slow the implementation of mining projects. It is an approach that focuses only on results, at the expense of process.

But carried to its furthest extent, this is barely the approach of a democrat. Watching Humala chart his country’s path forward is more like seeing the shadow of Velasco, gripped with the passion of solving his country’s deepest problems before the nation can be engulfed in blood and chaos, and then seeing him becoming Bermúdez, the counter-revolutionary revolutionary, before one’s eyes, all within the figure of one man, possessed of a certain pragmatic vision, and ruling in the midst of a certain splendid isolation.

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Land bonds, peasant protest, and legitimacy in Puno

I spent part of this morning at a meeting of campesinos from throughout Puno region, who had gathered at the region’s First Agrarian Forum, titled “Causes and Consequences of the Agrarian Reform.” The event itself was organized by a group of regional peasant federations: a couple catch-all campesinos organizations, and some more specialized: one for indigenous women, one for participants in the informal sector.

The municipal auditorium was packed with indigenous campesinos, men and women, many sporting “traditional” dress (the usual panoply of hats and polleras). Some of the women had brought their babies with them; men were in the majority of attendees, and many of them were quite aged. I was in the standing section, and throughout the course of the meeting, those of us who were in the original standing contingent moved around the room as more and more people packed into the auditorium.

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Forum attendants listen to speakers.
Photo credit: Devin Finn

Though it may not have been planned this way, the biggest issue up for “discussion, debate, and analysis” ended up being the Peruvian Supreme Court’s ruling on government payment of bonds issued to landholders whose properties were expropriated during Peru’s land reform 40 years ago. This polemical ruling, issued last week, saw furor over process, including public pressure from the President’s office to delay the ruling until the appointment of six more judges (these appointments ran into their own set of problems). The court snubbed these pronouncements by issuing its ruling anyway: the government would have to pay, but the payments need only be a fraction of what previous estimate pegged it at – perhaps 400 million, instead of perhaps 8 billion – and the government has considerable flexibility to repay in land or in new securities. Bondholders are, of course, unhappy.

So are government ministers, who have spoken out saying that paying out even 400 million could jeopardize social programs and other government obligations. Indeed, successive governments have refused to pay, arguing that payment would overstretch Peru’s treasury to an onerous extent. As the land reforms recede into memory, moreover, governments are less and less inclined to pay for actions undertaken by a military regime increasingly distant in time and in priorities from contemporary administrations. This is just as true for Ollanta Humala’s administration as for others in the past.

The issue of these bonds is even more confused than the paragraphs above would suggest, because of arguments (and, frankly, deliberate obfuscation) concerning who owns the bonds now. The investment companies that probably hold the majority have typically refused to comment on the allegations that they’re the majority bondholders. Peru’s Banco de Credito, holds just over a quarter-billion dollars worth of the bonds (although it’s unclear how much those will be worth now); there’s also a Peruvian association of bondholders in the mix, although it’s not entirely clear how many of the original landowners have held onto their bonds, and how many bonds have been sold in the secondary market.

But what was most fascinating to observe was how this issue played out at the grassroots level. This is just a snapshot, really, but it’s worth taking a brief look at how this is interpreted at local level.

The assembled men and women were not happy about the ruling. They view repayment of the debt as illegitimate, for one because of statutes of limitations on the payout (the court was mandating compliance with an older ruling, from 2001, which exceeds a supposed ten-year limit on judicial decisions in Peru). More importantly, those assembled repudiated the decision because of the perception that 400 million dollars, or whatever the final payout ends up as, should be spent on social welfare, and especially on developing the capacities of the intended beneficiaries of the land reform – campesinos like those assembled – who are not seen as having benefited from the original reform, or anything that came after it. The phrase used was paying the “social debt” – to Peru’s own citizens – before paying off debt to bondholders, especially of the foreign variety. The legal authority of the court in this case was presented as distinctly subsidiary to its forfeited moral authority.

Expressions of that illegitimacy took various forms, some of them fanciful, some less so. Successive speakers railed against supposed US colonization, seen in reports that accumulated interest to be added to the value of the bonds will use US Treasury interest as a benchmark (despite the fact that this is the most favorable possible interest for the Peruvian Treasury). They denied the existence of individual Peruvian bondholders, a negation which is incorrect, but which served the rhetorical representation of bond payouts as solely representing the interests of Gramercy Funds Management LLC and other “North American Capitalists.” They declared solidarity with Venezuela and Bolivia, allegedly allied projects of subaltern unity and struggle.

But on a deeper level, these anti-imperial posturings are epiphenomenal to a deep chasm between rural citizens of this remote corner of Peru and their supposed government representatives. This comes in at least two flavors. One is a deep sense of marginalization – as poor people, as workers of the land, as indigenous people, who have always been treated as second-class citizens. This has been reinforced by centuries of institutionalized racism, and speakers were quick to remind their audience of this legacy. One speaker reminded his audience of the illiteracy and rapacity of the pig-farming (and pig-importing!) Francisco Pizarro and made the case for reclaiming (alleged!) indigenous legacies of peaceful self-rule. Another contrasted Catholicism unfavorably with (presumed) Quechua and Aymara beliefs, then doubled down on the theme of autonomy by declaring that it was time for indigenous Peruvians to rule themselves.

The other “flavor” is more concrete, related to specific actions committed by official actors. Perhaps the most egregious example in this particular case is the failure of the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court to recuse himself from the bond ruling, despite his deep ties to the Banco de Credito, a major bondholder, and indeed despite holding bonds himself. Peru’s judiciary is the least trusted institution in the country, and one of the least trusted in the region. Cases like this, where the most powerful judge in the country is seen ruling in favor of himself and a former employer, and against the interests of the nation, both illustrate and perpetuate the narrative, which in turn feeds a larger narrative of citizen marginalization and lack of state accountability.

The antidote to marginalization, at least at this meeting and in this context, is mobilization. Multiple speakers called for a national strike against the bond ruling, to be held during Fiestas Patrias; I hope to write about this in a later post, but it’s hard to see this issue achieving that kind of salience in the national debate. It was, to be frank and perhaps a little sentimental, inspiring to have seen this kind of popular participation in action. Whatever the overreach of some of the analysis presented, the First Agrarian Forum saw a lot of people, often marginalized from the formal arenas of national politics, take the opportunity to present their points of view, and plan for concrete action. The Peruvian state is going to have to ultimately address the legitimacy gap that is so keenly felt by a great many of its citizens, regardless of how far they may be from the center of political life.

Later, after I had left the meeting, the audience spilled out of the auditorium to gather in the Plaza de Armas of Puno, repeating their demands and reiterating their resolve in the open air. It was startling to see the relatively small size of the crowd; in the confines of the municipal hall, their moral force made them appear as multitudes.

Note: this piece was updated July 23, around 10:30 AM Puno time to clarify some issues related to accumulated bond interest benchmarking.

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