One of the many pleasures that life offers is seeing your critics prove your point. I got to see this dynamic first hand in Ecuador when I was interviewed by Roberto Aguilar, described as the “Content Editor” of Hoy. Aguilar’s column, which seethes with hostility and disdain, unintentionally proves the thesis of my talk.
This first installment responding to Aguilar will discuss only the most important points. I was confused by Aguilar’s column the first few times I read it. His column is so angry that I wondered what terrible thing I said that caused him such pain. I focused too much in these early readings on his ad hominem attacks on my looks, my inability to speak Spanish, and my non-elite nature because I teach in “Kansas” (sic) (“profesor de Kansas”). Aguilar is unable to speak English and does not understand the U.S. system of federalism or he would not write that the University of Missouri is in the state of Kansas rather than the state of Missouri.
Aguilar then launches a joint dismissal of me and the government of Ecuador. He states that no one from the government bothered to attend my attack because I’m a rube from the hinterlands of the U.S. The reader is supposed to infer that even the government of Ecuador realized that listening to me wasn’t worth their time.
“They have not reached the high authorities of planning or economics to hear this message, there are no ministers or officials from the Ministry of Education or Senplades….”
(No han llegado las altas autoridades de la planificación o de la economía para escuchar este mensaje; aquí no hay ministros ni funcionarios de la Secretaría de Educación o de la Senplades….”)
Senplades is Ecuador’s planning agency and it is one of Ecuador’s most important agencies. Except that none of this is true. Two of the senior officials of Senplades were present and I talked with them at some length before I gave the talk. Roughly ten other economists or engineers from Senplades were also present in the audience. At the request of the government of Ecuador I met personally with the Deputy Minister of Education and the Minister in charge of post-secondary education in hour long meetings. I also gave an hour long briefing to the staff of Ecuador’s competition agency during my most recent trip to Ecuador. In prior trips I have made lengthy briefings to the senior staffs of Ecuador’s central bank, Senplades, and Ecuador’s competition agency. (I have made similar presentations in Iceland.)
But the fourth time I read Aguilar’s column the reason for Aguilar’s rage became clear. He isn’t upset with me. He agrees with my central thesis that Ecuador experienced an economic, political, and social miracle instead of the disasters that conservative U.S. commentators prophesied in 2006. Indeed, he terms my extensive discussion of the background of Ecuador’s miracles “irrefutable” (“Su punto de partida es irrebatible.”) Despite my poor looks, inability to speak Spanish, and my non-elite nature I got my facts and analysis right according to Aguilar.
Aguilar Writes to Stress Hoy’s Contempt for the People of Ecuador
I am only a bit player in the tale Aguilar wishes to tell. The story he was so desperate to write was that his fellow-citizens of Ecuador who are not elites disgust him. Aguilar’s rage has nothing to do with me or my presentation. Aguilar’s rage is at the audience of university students who listened to my talk. Aguilar despises them because they are not elite university students. His contempt for them is so great that he returns again and again to add snide insults of them. Aguilar revels in his disdain for the students and adults that attended my talks. They are not the elites of Ecuador, a character flaw from which they can never recover.
“This day, the 250 auditorium chairs of the Flacso are reserved for college students. Graduate Students of the host institution? No. The schools represented here do not reach the category B and most of the students are candidates for a degree in Communications.”
(“Este día, las 250 sillas del auditorio de la Flacso están reservadas para estudiantes universitarios. ¿Alumnos de posgrado de la institución anfitriona? Tampoco. Los centros educativos aquí representados no llegan a la categoría B y la mayoría de los presentes son aspirantes a una licenciatura en Comunicación Social.”)
Aguilar then explains what such inferior students study when waiting for my talk to begin. They read Esika rather than Hoy.
“[N]one of them, not one of the 250 seats of the auditorium, kills time with a book. What do they carry in their backpacks and briefcases? The only readers of the room are entertained with a copy of Esika magazine makeup sales catalog, which this year offers tips for selecting and applying lipsticks.”
(“Los únicos lectores de la sala se entretienen con un ejemplar de Esika, la revista de venta de maquillaje por catálogo, que en esta edición ofrece tips para la selección y aplicación de lápices labiales.”)
What the students did overwhelmingly while waiting for my presentation to begin was to do what elite graduate students do in the U.S. – they talked with their friends. Aguilar’s contempt for the students allows us all to figure out what he wanted them to be reading rather than wasting their time in talking with their friends. The students should have been reading Alvaro Vargas Llosa’s Guide to the Perfect Latin American Idiot and his article in 2007 entitled “The Return of the Idiot.” I wrote a column about this Mitt Romney-like dismissal of one’s fellow citizens by the ultra-right in Latin America.
Aguilar chants Llosa’s bigotry and loathing for the peoples of Latin America as if it were holy writ. Social justice is for Argentine popes, not the pages of Hoy.
Aguilar next extends his snide attacks on the students.
“[T]he Undersecretary Andrés Michelena presents the speaker: ‘In China we are labeled the ‘American jaguar’ – he says proudly – in Colombia, a right-wing journal spoke of the Ecuadorian miracle. It is important that you, as young people, know how to appreciate the actions of government.’ All this must sound very impressive to Esika readers.”
(“Todo lo cual debe sonar muy impresionante para los lectores de Esika.”)
Aguilar even ends his article with an attack on Ecuador’s non-elite university students. He figuratively casts FLACSO as an island of elite competence polluted by inferior students from less prestigious universities. As Aguilar tells the tale, FLACSO “casts pearls before swine” – with the inevitable result.
“These young people are now leaving the auditorium and on their way towards the exit they walk a few feet from Flacso’s library, where the classical and contemporary works of social sciences tempt onlookers from the window. They don’t even look at them.”
(“Ya abandonan los jóvenes el auditorio y en su camino a la salida pasan a pocos metros de la librería de la Flacso, donde los clásicos y los contemporáneos de las ciencias sociales tientan a los curiosos desde la vidriera. Ni los miran.”)
Aguilar’s portrayal of my talk is designed to extend his attack on the non-elite peoples of Ecuador. Aguilar’s tale is that this U.S. professor came from “Kansas” (sic) to talk to fellow rubes from “schools [that] do not reach the category B.” The professor, therefore, dumbed down his talk to an “elementary” level and hammed it up with a bunch of physical humor (emulating Shakespeare’s tactics to keep the ruffians entertained). The non-elite audience was so pathetic that its members just sat in its seats – “nobody … seems to understand [the presentation] at all.”
“[Black presents] in elementary terms and with gentle simplicity, qualifying his discourse with winks and comical references to basic general culture that nobody, judging by the lack of reaction in the auditorium, seems to understand at all.”
(“Lo hace en términos elementales y con bonachona sencillez, matizando su discurso con guiños y referencias humorísticas de cultura general básica que nadie, a juzgar por la impavidez del auditorio, parece comprender en lo más mínimo.”)
Sadly for Aguilar there is a video of my entire presentation, as well as the powerpoint slides.
It is not an “elementary” presentation. It is a presentation designed for a non-specialist university audience. Aguilar’s description is inaccurate. I watched the audience. They got the jokes. As the video tape will show, they laughed at appropriate times with just the delay one expects from (nearly) simultaneous translation. Their faces were not looking lost and they were not playing games on their phones rather than watching. Aguilar should be of good cheer. His fellow citizens, even if they do not go to university or attend non-elite universities are far smarter than he believes.
It is Ecuador’s miracle that drives its critics to such fits of rage. The title of my talk was not “Correa’s Miracle.” My title was “Ecuador’s miracle” – a miracle made possible primarily by the people of Ecuador rather than the oligarchs.
Roughly 500 of Aguilar’s fellow citizens attended my presentation (there was an overflow room). He did not make a single favorable comment about any of them. He did not quote any of the students. He does not suggest he even bothered to interview any of the students. They are non-people in his narrative. They are simply sexist stereotypes (lipstick lovers). Did one of the 500 students read Esika? Well, then all of them are conclusively proven by Hoy to be unworthy of any respect. The humans disappear in Aguilar’s tale. They are replaced by a faceless uniformity, a social class so inherently inferior to Aguilar that their views are not worth presenting or discussing. Hoy reduces Ecuador’s non-elite university students to the status of non-persons and non-entities in their own country.
Aguilar Proves My Point
Aguilar’s contempt for the citizens of Ecuador proves the central point I made at FLACSO about Ecuador’s miracle. As I explained to the audience at the beginning of my talk, memories tend to be plastic (they bend to fit what we wish were true). I researched what conservative U.S. and U.K. scholars were writing about Latin America and Ecuador before President Rafael Correa was elected in 2006 and took office in 2007. After my greeting, I started my substantive presentation (slides 2-6) by quoting extensively from what a representative conservative U.S. scholar, Thomas C. Bruneau, was writing in 2006 before the presidential elections in Ecuador. I chose him because his article related that he visited FLACSO to consult with its faculty in the preparation of his article.
Bruneau’s conclusion can be summarized briefly: Ecuador is hopelessly screwed up and likely to remain so. His rationale is more detailed. The core of my presentation was explaining at length to the FLACSO audience the twelve principal reasons for his conclusion. Given Aguilar’s critique it is worth emphasizing that the third reason that Bruneau cited in support for his thesis was that Ecuador was a classic victim of the “curse of oil” rather than a beneficiary. But the heart of Bruneau’s dozen reasons (numbers 7, 10, 11, and 12) was his conclusion that Ecuador’s financial, political, and military elites were the central problem. “By observing the behavior of the elite and talking with them, it is clear to me that they have not embraced democracy….” They did not embrace democracy because they did not embrace their fellow citizens. Instead, they looked at them as inferiors unfit for democratic rule. Bruneau describes Ecuador in classic crony capitalism terms in which the business and military elites create political, social, and economic chaos because they’re energies are devoted to competing with rival elites to see who can best use the government to siphon the limited wealth of a poor nation into their troughs.
Aguilar provided, unintentionally, the best proof of Bruneau’s thesis. Bruneau was a conservative writing in an extremely conservative U.S. military journal. His conclusions about Ecuador’s oligarchs did not spring from ideological antipathy. It is clear, however, that the contempt that Ecuador’s elites displayed toward the people of Ecuador “disgust[ed]” Bruneau as well as the great bulk of the citizens of Ecuador. Aguilar’s column revels in expressing that same contempt and a represents a continuing refusal of the elites to “embrace democracy.” Instead, Hoy celebrates privilege and the crassest form of Social Darwinism and sexism. Aguilar and Hoy want us to know that Ecuador’s non-elites are so hopelessly inferior that they are unfit to participate in democracy.
Bruneau concludes that the results of the elite’s contempt for their fellow citizens, the elite’s rapaciousness in looting the nation, and the resultant failures of government and democracy were that the ordinary citizen of Ecuador showed “total disgust” (slide 4) with the elites and were “voting with their feet” by emigrating from Ecuador in record numbers (slide 3). Ecuador’s miracle was that in these circumstances, when conservative scholars were predicting disaster in 2006 – and that was before Ecuador’s leading trading partner sank into a Great Recession in 2008 – Ecuador instead achieved political stability and a government that worked on behalf of the Nation rather than dining on the Nation. Ecuador, rather than being ruined, achieved the development trifecta: sharply reduced poverty, unemployment, and inequality. The citizens of Ecuador voted both in elections and “with their feet” to support the reforms that made possible Ecuador’s political, social, and economic miracle. Migration reversed to a net-inflow. My central point was how proud the people of Ecuador should be of the hard work and intelligent decisions they made that built this miracle.
Aguilar demonstrates Bruneau’s points about the venomous nature of far too many of Ecuador’s elites. Aguilar and Hoy also show that he think that elite readers continue to share in this contempt for the people of Ecuador and for democracy and will enjoy reading Aguilar’s screed attacking them as peasants wearing lipstick. Aguilar is embracing a saying that is famous in the U.S.: “you can put lipstick on a pig, but it’s still a pig.” Clearly, these non-elite university students, these lipstick-wearing Esika readers are so inferior that they are not worthy of voting. Of course, that means that the non-university students are even more inferior and not worthy of voting. Ecuador would be so much better off if the oligarchs could again rule Ecuador and return it to a stable democracy with high employment, low poverty, and negligible inequality. Oh, wait, that didn’t happen when the elites of Ecuador looted the Nation. Indeed, the opposite was true.
Aguilar’s Living Hell: Living in Ecuador during its Miracles
Let us end with a note of compassion for Aguilar and Hoy. Think how miserable Agullar’s life is. All his dogmas have proven to be false. The days when Ecuador’s leading newspapers routinely presented the oligarch’s sneering contempt for the people of Ecuador as irredeemably déclassé are over. Aguilar and Hoy now have to live in a country where some newspapers in Ecuador will call them out when they print bigoted screeds smearing the people of Ecuador – screeds that masquerade as news stories. Mostly, however, we should have compassion for Aguilar’s sad fate. Aguilar’s life is taken from the pages of the play No Exit. He is surrounded by millions of the non-elite people of Ecuador – the people who make his life a living hell even though he inhabits one of the most beautiful places on earth. Aguilar knows that his beloved elites have frequently looted the Nation for over a century. Aguilar’s constant “nightmare” occurs every morning when he wakes up and has to witness his social inferiors, the lipstick-lovers he despises, produce the growing miracles of Ecuador. Aguilar and Hoy are devoted to yesterday – the bad old days in Ecuador in which the worst people in Ecuador celebrated the looting of the Nation that made them wealthy. As the (deeply conservative) French proto-economist Frederic Bastiat warned long ago:
“When plunder becomes a way of life for a group of men living together in society, they create for themselves in the course of time a legal system that authorizes it and a moral code that glorifies it.”
Hoy’s “moral code” is so immoral that it feels it necessary to glorify the elite plunderers by featuring Aguilar’s crude smearing of the “ordinary” people of Ecuador who were the victims of those elite looters.