Thursday, April 03, 2008


The academic world moves at the speed of a glacier. It is a culture within a culture, and more often than not a culture which examines other cultures and rarely, if ever, examines itself. It is a culture with all the elements of a culture, and at times a very conservative culture, even if coded in the language of progressive terminology. It has its own code of words that shouldn't be used and those that must be used instead. It is even faddish and provincial at times.

As cultures do, it moves slowly but when it moves, it moves. And it leaves tracks which then can only be erased by new tracks, when the next glacial period of intellectual reflection rolls by. Attending a recent, and excellent, two-day “Symposium on Latin America” at Grand Valley State University on the topic of “marginalization and exclusion”, we detect what looks like a movement into one of those glacial periods in Latin American Studies (LAS). Now is up to those of us, who follow those developments closely, to translate the necessary language of research for the concerned citizen.

One of the observable dynamics in that culture is the difference in concerns and approaches between new and established scholars. Among those of the established generation of LAS specialists attending, there seemed to be a mix of relief and sadness that the expectations for Latin America, coming from academic political identification with certain movements in the region since the 70s and 80s, have not come to pass. It looks like the thawing of the Cold War is finally been accepted there.

At the same time it was a bit scary to see younger and upcoming scholars parroting terminology and mannerisms of speech of the older generation, as if without thought, either because it has been drilled into them or because they fear moving ahead through that Ph.D. application or dissertation unless they do so.

There were also some puzzling feelings at the political choices of Latin American indigenous peoples, who seem to be rejecting the totalitarian rhetoric of radical Marxist inspired movements, in preference of more participation in the democratic process.

We brought up the subject of the silence in academia, for near fifty years, of human rights violations, the usurpation of a revolution, and the social and political marginalization of a “racialized” population in Cuba. An academician responded that finally there is some recognition about the failure in Cuban human rights. It took 49 years! Yet, this will remain a stain in the conscience of academia. Just as we still ask how it was possible the world looked the other way on the treatment of Jews in Germany, future generations, especially in Cuba, will ask how we failed to recognize their oppression.

Yet, policy makers, policy analysts, advisers, ethicists, commentators depend on the slow, painstaking, often dreary doldrums of serious scientific academic work. We need to rely on the intellectual honesty that seeks "objective" and "disinterested" insights into reality. Some people think that perhaps that would be too much to ask, I don't think so.

Very rich information was shared in that very useful symposium about changes in Latin America, which we hope to continue reflecting upon on later issues. Among them is the fact of an opening of new political spaces, especially for the indigenous peoples, which seem to be expanding and becoming more inclusive.

One of the changes brought about by the thawing of “The Big Default”—the U.S. as the cause of all Cuban and Latin America’s woes—is the realization that Latin American problems were, and are after all, Latin American problems.

Perhaps we are witnessing a move toward scholarship that sees the great divides on a more human scale, one that goes beyond the limited spaces of ideology and more in scale with human needs. Perhaps we are beginning to see the opening of spaces of inclusion in Latin American studies, with scholarship that seeks to understand the nature of the subject under study from their point of view and not from the point of view of our own and exported political dynamics.

Spanish translation