Saturday, December 13, 2008


Nearly fifty years after I saw it for the first time, Washington still thrills me. Its monumental architecture, the permanence of its geography, the excitement of being close to the seat of government are an intoxicating brew.

Washington was the first city of any consequence that I ever saw. In 1962, with an appointment as page to the Honorable E.C. Gathings of Arkansas, I got on a plane in Memphis, flew to Washington National airport and followed directions provided by the Congressman’s secretary to Mrs. Smith’s boarding house, near the Capitol. For a month I worked on the floor of the House of Representatives, delivering messages between Congressmen and their minions and other duties, as assigned.

It was very much a CSpan experience. I never saw anything even vaguely resembling a debate. The chamber was often empty, except for the presiding officers and those with business in the chamber. When I did see the nation’s representatives, I usually did so in the cloakroom, a large space filled with booths and tables where pie, coffee and chat were served up in ample portions. I also glimpsed the very privileged world that Congress took for granted. In those days the Capitol was a world within the world—meals, drinks, recreation, grooming, travel arrangements (and who knows what else—this was before Wilber Mills’ downfall) were all provided in the vast underground that connected the House chambers with the office buildings across Constitution Avenue.

I left that summer’s experience in haste, as I was beginning my three years at Woodberry Forest School, and the Head Master seemed to think that my attendance was more important than the life experience I was getting in the halls of government. Washington was a very different city in the early 1960s—before integration, before urban renewal, before the Metro. But from those two months, I gained a feeling for the geography of the Capital zone very much akin to a GPS and an appreciation for the museums and other cultural meccas of the National Mall—real eye-openers for a boy from rural Arkansas.

On this trip, I came to evaluate proposals for the National Endowment for the Humanities. That, in itself, was enlightening. Who knew that five manuscripts for Homeric verse still existed and are in need of conservation or that Yiddish speakers from Galicia and regions of the former USSR not only survived the Holocaust but Soviet persecution as well? With projects like these to talk about, time goes quickly, and I had a few hours the next day before I needed to catch my plane, incidentally at the same airport where I touched down in 1962.

I was especially interested in seeing the “broad stripes and bright stars” that inspired Francis Scott Key to write the national anthem. The flag was once the principal tableau of the National Museum of American History, unfurled right at its entrance. But fabric’s obvious deterioration necessitated a major conservation project, and it has only now returned to the museum five years later. To prevent further damage, the curators have provided a climate controlled cased and dark room for its display, but what an artifact! It’s huge, over forty feet long, even though its size was reduced by early souvenir hunters who clipped several inches of stripes and one of its stars. And the exhibition has a bevy of supporting cases with information about the flag maker who sewed it for $400 and change and how the artifact made its way to safe keeping in Washington.

To mark the reopening of the museum, the White House has lent its copy of the Gettysburg Address—the only one “titled, signed and dated,” as the caption says. Since my own institution boasts one of the four other copies of the document, I had to take a look, and there are differences. This one is written on three separate sheets of paper; Cornell’s is a folded letter with the text appearing on both folios and the recto of one piece of paper. But the words are the same, beginning “Four score and seven years ago” and reminding us of the high ideals that marked our country’s founding. Let us hope that the new administration, now establishing itself to face challenges only slightly less prodigious than those faced by Lincoln, will help us reestablish our moral compass.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Deja vu in Quito

I had an invitation to speak at an Ecuadorian studies meeting that took me to Quito for six days at the end of the summer. The papers were the usual mélange of subjects, with highly-varying degrees of experience and expertise, but the theme that ran continuously through the week was how small the world is. I made at least half a dozen unexpected encounters, (almost)all of them pleasant.

The Facultad de Ciencias Sociales was my gracious host, providing airfare and accommodations at Hotel Quito. My wife and I have warm memories of this place from my Fulbright lectureship 1992 when we would take the kids to the hotel’s Sunday brunch and avail ourselves of their facilities. Otherwise I managed only a minimum of nostalgic events between the conference, a visit to Ecuador’s excellent military mapping facility, the new National Museum and the used book shops in the old city.

Before the conference even began, I spoke with Will Waters, one of the organizers, and learned that he had graduated from Cornell in 1981 and worked with the late Fred Buttle whose ex-wife is a friend of my current one. All right, that’s two degrees of separation, but it gets closer. No sooner had Will and I parted than I spotted Nelly Gonzalez, my counterpart at the University of Illinois, who was in Quito buying books. She plans to retire in the fall, so this is her last trip on Illinois’ dime. Nelly offered up memories of her long career over coffee and pastries.

After attending a session on Ecuadorian migration, a phenomenon that experts believe has moved 20% of Ecuadorians overseas in the last ten years, a young woman came up to me and introduced herself as a Cornell graduate in sociology. She went on to reveal that she is the daughter of an Ecuadorian mother and a Peace Corps volunteer and was en route to visit her grandmother in Ambato. In the course of our brief conversation, she told me that she had three children and an engineer for husband. It only later occurred to me that the engineer must be Raul Casas, whom Peggy and I sponsored in the mid 1980s. We went to their wedding in New Jersey.

On the second day I gave my paper and a radio interview. At the talk, I was pleased to notice some familiar faces in the front row, half-a-dozen of my former students from the Fulbright lectures I gave fifteen years ago. We adjourned directly to La Choza, Quito’s canonical Ecuadorian-food restaurant (lapingachos, seco de chivo, locro de papa-- the whole nine yards), where another ten or so alumni joined the group. I was delighted to learn that they have battened. Many head university libraries in the city and one is Ecuador’s Librarian of Congress. I realized a long time ago that the thing I most regret about my career choice is not having the opportunity to contribute substantially to student’s intellectual growth.

And if all this weren’t enough, on my last day in the city I ran into Juan Jauriegui of the University of San Andres in La Paz, Bolivia. Both of us were browsing the shelves of an antiquarian bookstore in the old city. The last time I saw Juan, he had asked me for a reference to FLACSO’s PhD program. He’s now half way through, with the thesis to go.

I ended the trip with an unpleasant encounter, a rendezvous with one of Quito’s many thieves. He managed to make off with my backpack as I insouciantly worked away at an Internet café. The fingersmith (whom I never saw) got neither my passport nor much money-- hope he wasn’t too disappointed.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Meanwhile Back in Bolivia

Evo Morales’ stunningly decisive victory in the 2005 national elections came with a promise to increase the economic and political power of Bolivia’s Native American majority. His triumph reprised that of Hamas on the West Bank in forcing the United States to deal with an unfriendly but democratically-elected regime. The Bush administration has grudgingly conceded Morales’ popularity, but it remains unwilling to recognize his legitimacy. By refusing to appreciate that Morales and his allies represent a profound desire to change the status quo through peaceful means, the United States clings to a policy with little support in Latin America and one that will continue to erode U.S. influence in the region.

Since his election, Morales has been confronted by a loose coalition of national and regional politicians opposed to his platform. Despite ongoing negotiations, intermittently mediated by Catholic prelates and representatives of the Organization of American States, positions have only hardened in the past two years. What began as a legitimate dispute over how Morales and his allies would govern escalated into the pattern of street demonstrations, roadblocks, and building takeovers characteristic of Bolivian politics. In September Morales and his adversaries seemed willing to take the country over one of the Andean nation’s many cliffs. Violence spiked, culminating with the massacre of 18 peasants at Cobija, in the Bolivian Amazon. And, in the midst of the upheaval, Morales declared U.S. Ambassador Philip Goldberg persona non grata.

Bolivia’s relations with the United States are colored by its traditional reliance on large amounts of economic assistance and our ambassadors’ proclivity for inflammatory remarks made to the local media. Morales has chosen to employ his own brand of verbal pyrotechnics which fires up his base but are often quoted in the North American press as evidence of his instability. The appointment of a career diplomat as ambassador was initially viewed in Bolivia as the beginning of a new relationship with the United States. However, Goldberg quickly proved himself a vociferous advocate for coca eradication and became embroiled in the struggle between Morales and his political opponents. In August of 2007 Bolivian officials accused the United States of channeling money to conservative opponents of the government, and Morales himself later threatened “radical actions” against ambassadors who meddle in his country’s internal affairs. Goldberg’s departure was triggered by his subsequent meeting with prominent members of the opposition, giving the impression of U.S. support.

At the end of October, Bolivia began to walk back from the brink. Violence subsided as did the political impasse. A new constitution, which embodies many of the issues central to Morales and his allies is before the Bolivian legislature. And demands for greater regional autonomy, especially control of petroleum and natural gas revenues, will be decided within the framework of political discourse rather than through street violence. But it was an alliance of South American nations, notably excluding the United States, that defused the crisis.

The Bush administration’s relationship with Bolivia is based almost solely on coca eradication. So when the State Department’s Annual Report on Major Drug Transit or Major Illicit Drug Producing Countries, released on September 15, found that Bolivia “failed demonstrably” to enact counter narcotics strategies in the year 2007, it threatened to suspend several aid programs. Bolivians were quick to disagree with the report, pointing out that the annual increase of coca production in their country was smaller than that of Peru and much smaller than Colombia’s, neither of which was sanctioned. Eleven days later, President Bush requested that Congress suspend Bolivia’s preferential tariffs under the Andean Trade Promotion and Drug Eradication Act. As the New York Times noted in its editorial of October 6, these decertifications seem more a reaction to the expulsion of Ambassador Goldberg than part of a coherent foreign policy.

While the United States threatened sanctions, a recently-constituted regional organization undertook constructive action. UNASUR, the Union of South American Nations, met in emergency session four days after the Cobija massacre. On the same day that the State Department released its Annual Report, seven heads of state and representatives of four other South American nations quickly hammered out a nine-point plan that strongly supports Bolivia’s democratically elected government and urges all parties to enter immediate negotiation. UNASUR’s unequivocal backing of Morales, its refusal to recognize any of his opponents as legitimate representatives of the state, and its insistence on the territorial integrity of Bolivia broke a two-year old stalemate.

While it is still too early to declare the Bolivian political crisis resolved, the quick actions of UNASUR offer Bolivians a chance to resolve their problems through political means. U.S. policy in the region, tying economic aid to drug eradication, is narrow in its approach and punitive in its interpretation. It has failed to offer democratically-elected governments the means to foster domestic peace and stability, outcomes that serve the interests of all concerned. It is time for a new administration in Washington to offer a new approach to Latin America.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

A Wild Trip, May 2008

Just before we left to visit our daughter in Chicago, my wife’s cell phone recorded a message from the airline. “Your flight from La Guardia to O’Hare has been cancelled, call 800 644-4000 to reschedule.” Although we did not sense it at the time, this simple transaction flipped a cosmic switch from green to red. Thereafter our travel ceased to observe any semblance of order.

Calling the 800 number deployed an automated answering program. “To make a reservation, press one; to check flight schedules, press two; if you are calling from a rotary phone, stay on the line, and an operator will assist you.” Through trial and error, I learned that the third choice eventually leads to voice recognition software that identifies the caller and his problem. “Say your confirmation number,” chirped a perky sounding robot voice that followed up with examples of suggested syntax. “For letters, say ‘A as in Alexander;’ for digits, ‘the number five.’” My speech proved unintelligible to the machine, and after three failed attempts, the program switched me to a location somewhere in South Asia where Ms. Patel took over my case. Now speech recognition became my responsibility. She haltingly summarized my interaction with the computer and determined that our flight had, indeed, been canceled. Then in a cheerful voice, Ms. Patel announced that she could get us seats on a flight that left the next afternoon. “It’s the Memorial Day weekend,” she explained. Though she admitted that the cancellation was due to a mechanical problem, Ms. Patel stubbornly refused to consider flights other than those of her employer. Feeling myself wearing out, I disingenuously played the paternity card. “We’re going to see our daughter graduate from college; tomorrow afternoon won’t do!” With that a supervisor intervened and authorized us to fly outside the network. The upshot was two reservations from LaGuardia to O’Hare at the crack of dawn-- only one night lost.

Bad weather at our point of departure gave my wife a chance to talk to an airport reservation agent in person. Soon we had abandoned LaGuardia altogether and had tickets in hand to Philadelphia with a connection to O’Hare scheduled to arrive at midnight. We felt pretty cocky; all it took as face-to-face communication. But not so fast.

As we walked down the ramp to board our flight in Philadelphia, the gate agent called out: “sir, oh sir.” The computer showed that though we had tickets and seats, we were not checked in. Our arguments that we had tickets in hand failed to trump the computer’s silent authority; we were stuck in Philadelphia for the night. Actually, sticking in Philadelphia would have been a blessing. Turns out that the airline uses a motel in Glouster, New Jersey, for its distressed passengers. After waiting twenty minutes for the motel van to arrive, and learning from others in our situation that they had been waiting for nearly an hour, we crossed to the other side of the airport and hailed a taxi. The ride took twice as long as it should have. The driver did not know the way; his GPS was on the blink; and he refused to communicate in any meaningful way with the four people in his automobile, two of whom had directions taken from their Blackberries. A part of the problem, perhaps, was that the driver had ingeniously equipped his steering column with a tiny TV on which he was watching soap opera reruns. We finally reached the motel at 12:30. My wife and I dashed to the checkin window-- the motel locked its lobby at midnight and refused to open the front door. However, our traveling companions decided that the accommodations were not to their liking. The male of the two was very concerned that all the rooms had “exterior doors.” They struck off for points unknown in the taxi, and we set off to bed. With four hours sleep under our belts, we took the shuttle to our 7:30 departure and reached Chicago without further ado.

I’m writing two days later on my way to New Orleans, and both of my flights have been right on time. Maybe this time an invisible hand has flipped the switch.

New Orleans, June 2008

Water defines New Orleans, so much so that the natives use “riverside” and “lakeside” to refer to the cardinal directions of north and south. In August 2005, water, roiled by Hurricane Katrina and abetted by faulty engineering, entered the city. A year and a half after the deluge, when a group from our church went to work in the city, New Orleans still struggled to regain its footing. It had roughly a third of its pre-hurricane population, a severely-damaged infrastructure, and an economy too weak to change the status quo.

New Orleans is one of the country’s premier cities. It commands the vast river network that drains North America from Pennsylvania and Montana to the Gulf of Mexico. This strategic location, the particularities that cotton, cane, oil, port-of-call and tourism bring to the local economy and the rich mixture of language and ethnicity, subsumed in the deceptively simple expression, “creole,” make it one of the most distinctive locations on the planet. Katrina’s waters, and the nation’s inability to completely repair the damage they did, add another note of distinction to New Orleans’ repertoire.

I’m back in the city now, a year after the work crew from Ithaca visited at Easter 2007. Things look better but not good. The city’s principal gateway, Louis Armstrong International Airport, has a freshness created by paint and cleaning that removes the hurricane look-and-feel and smell. The roadways seem less a work in progress, too, even during the morning rush hour. According to official statistics, the city has regained 2/3 of its pre-Katrina population, but that part of the recovery has stalled. New Orleans is a long way from recovery, and there’s not much visible construction underway.

I’ve come for the SALALM meeting, hosted by Tulane University and taking place at the Monteleone Hotel in the French Quarter. Wanting to see how much flood damage had been repaired, and wanting to add my drop in the bucket, I arrived a day early and spent the day before the sessions volunteering at St. Paul’s Homecoming Center, a group with an appealing web site. I was the old guy in a crew that, with a dozen middle schoolers from Maryland, cleaned up an overgrown lot in the Lakeview area northwest of down town.

The day began with a cab ride from the hotel to the worksite. The driver was Haitian, her knowledge of the city, sketchy. St. Paul’s provided directions from the French Quarter to their headquarters that involved only an exit from the freeway and two right turns on surface streets. I must admit that I was not paying attention, watching the neighborhoods rather than the road as the driver missed the freeway exit that was our primary point of reference. After a time she started to ask me for directions. We just avoided a disaster, taking the last exit off I-10 before the highway passes over the swamplands that separate New Orleans from Baton Rouge-- twenty miles without a turn around. As we headed back south, the driver and her dispatcher carried on an animated discussion in patois about where she went wrong. It began with screaming but gradually transformed to laughter; all’s well that ends well, and armed with new directions we found the work site pretty quickly.

The work group’s task was to mow and rake a large lot where flood-damaged houses had been demolished and removed the season before. The clean up has now moved past gutting houses to making neighborhoods more attractive for the people who have moved back into them. That is certainly an improvement. The abandoned houses are much fewer now, and unkempt lawns stand out as eye sores rather than the status quo. Like the RHINO group last year, St. Paul’s, an Episcopal organization, furnished the logistics. We volunteers received standard garden tools-- two lawn mowers, rakes, clippers and large plastic bags. In addition, the organizers provided a flock of gasoline string trimmers whose two-cycle engines mimicked the sound of angry wasps. The teenagers swarmed to these.

The temperatures reached the 80s by 10 AM but did never cracked 90, and the humidity was a relatively low 47 %. High pressure has kept New Orleans unseasonably dry, a good thing for us gardeners. By two o’clock, we had finished the lot and even did some extra work on a house across the street that retained its spray-painted “X” on the door and water stains on the exterior walls.

The taxi back, by a New Orleans native, was a very different experience. First, because he knew the way to the hotel; second because he had lived in the city for some forty years and saw Hurricane Katrina in a larger perspective. He remembers other storms, especially Betsy that hit the area more directly, caused extensive flooding, and brought more wind damage. The difference with Katrina was, of course, the levee failure. His take on the “recovery” is that most of the work has been done by volunteers (this may have been for my benefit), and he is very angry that government at all levels-- he was particularly unkind to Bush and Nagin-- have done practically nothing. At the end of the ride, he confessed that he has essentially given up. He is staying in the city because his attempt to change his life with government-underwritten training as a long-distance truck driver was no life at all.

No matter how much you know about the Katrina, you have to come to New Orleans to appreciate its huge dimensions. On my Haitian trip, I passed several landmarks: the Superdome, where storm survivors led a miserable existence; arching sections of I-10, once desolate refuges for flood survivors; and the infamous Industrial Canal that channeled flood waters into the Lower Ninth Ward. We also saw several maps that document the flooding. With the exception of the high ground deposited by the Mississippi, “the sliver by the river,” the entire city went under-- from a few inches to several feet and from a week to forty days. The water is gone now, but it left its stains, on the facade of any building not yet repainted and on the conscience of anyone with eyes to see.