Category Archives: Latin America

The End of the World

By Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins

CÓRDOBA, Argentina — Running and walking are terrific ways to get to know a place. The ground-level approach allows for the assimilation of sights and sounds into one’s impression of a city or region. I’ve had a few unique running-based experiences these past few weeks that stood out and I thought I’d share two of them.

Tucumán, Argentina. Tucumán, located in northwestern Argentina, is one of the country’s more forlorn provinces. Sure, the statistics will tell you as much — per capita GDP, unemployment, blah, blah, blah. But so does an experience I had while running the perimeter of the central park of the province’s eponymous capital.

Runners, at least the ones I know, are renowned for peeing in public places — after all, nature is not a call one lets go unanswered. To their credit, however, they generally take pride in discreetness. But the runners from Tucumán, or at least one runner from Tucumán, are in an entirely different league when it comes to audacity for public urination.

One evening a guy running in front of me abruptly stopped, directed himself towards a tree adjacent the sidewalk, dropped trou, lost some water weight, and returned to his workout without so much a glance at the passing rush-hour traffic on one of the heaviest used thoroughfares in Argentina’s fifth biggest city. From the reaction, or lack thereof, of perambulating passers-by, using public parks as a very public toilet is just as normal as the odor that wafts from Tucumán’s public waterways (perhaps not unrelated), the litter on the street, or the countless poor who traverse the city in horse-drawn carts scavenging for recyclables.

Fiambalá, Argentina. Fiambalá is ground zero for organizing this little mountain-measuring excursion into the mountains. It’s a modest pueblito at “the end of the world,” as its residents like to say. It feels the part. Surrounded by desert and near-constantly assailed by howling, sand-laden winds, Fiambalá nonetheless manages to take advantage of its location.

There are two attractions: hot springs and the Andean cordillera. I was there for the latter, but one night I ventured on a run to the former. After departing just a few kilometers beyond the town limits I was stopped in my tracks by the visually arresting clarity of the night sky. When in this part of the world last (two years ago) I made a similar observation in my journal — it is rather hard not to notice. Neither has this escaped the attention of the international astronomical community, which has sited the highest density of high-performance telescopes in the world in the Chilean-Argentinean altiplano region which Fiambalá abuts.

Looking into the sky, I practically felt my own eyes were telescopes. It was all there. The celestial dust of galaxy smeared from horizon to horizon in one shimmering longitudinal stripe, a fallow-yellow crescent moon, and a twinkling firmament stars everywhere else. When the night sky is this clear, this unadulterated, it’s the best show there is.

As fortune had it, the night sky was not the only entertainment on the evening. After reaching the hot springs I took a break to enjoy the lesser twinkling cluster of lights of Fiambalá in the valley below, and of course the greater twinkling mass of lights above. That’s when the guardrails on the side of the road started rattling. Earthquake!

Aftershocks still echo in this part of the Andes from the catastrophic 8.8 Chilean earthquake of late February. Whether this comparatively quaint 5.3 was an aftershock I am unsure, but it was a fun ride and an impressive second act to the sublime display of natural beauty and power to which I was fortunate to bear witness. Fiambalá may seem to be the end of the human world, but it one of the final, increasingly scarce frontiers to the truly natural world as well.


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Filed under culture, environment, geography, Latin America, Overseas Bureau

I (Try To) Measure Mountains

By Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins

This is the “who am I, what am I doing, and where am I doing it” post. I’ll attack it sequentially. Firstly, I’m a rising junior in Branford who enjoys studying public policy. But that doesn’t mean I’m without “avocational academic interests.” In fact, this summer is all about avocational academic interests — specifically, a field of geophysics called geodesy (study of measurement of the earth), and more specifically, a field of geodesy called hypsometry (study of altitude).

In general, hypsometry is an antiquated field of study, if one can even call it a field of study in the first place. Remote sensing has done to altitude-measuring mountaineering expeditions what video did to the radio star. But there are exceptions here and there. Mountains that indicate tectonic change, for instance, are of particular interest to geologists, and mountains that represent superlatives, such as Everest, capture the public’s attention. Both require a degree of precision that remote sensing cannot offer.

The summer project that brings me to South America falls more into the latter category; I am working with a mountain of superlatives. Ojos del Salado is the second highest mountain in the world outside the Central Asia cordillera and the highest volcano in the world. It is also in an extremely remote region of the world — the northern Argentine-Chilean border — and has been climbed by very few people and been measured by even fewer. I am in South America to try to measure it.

There is a primary and secondary goal. Primary: Ojos del Salado has two summits of approximately equal altitude and no one knows which is taller. So, using rather precise GPS units (precision<1 cm) that are worth about as much as I am, myself and my climbing partner will try to get to the top of both of Ojos’ summits and record data that can definitively determine the “true”summit.

Secondary: Using altitude data from Ojos’ “true” summit, we’ll compare and corroborate it with data from Aconcagua and Monte Pissis, ostensibly the highest and third highest mountains on the continent, respectively. Through the twentieth century and up until the advent of the GPS, there was a protracted kerfuffle among mountaineers and geodesists concerning the order of the three highest peaks of South America. While that debate has effectively been settled (the accepted order, from first to third, is Aconcagua, Ojos del Salado, and Monte Pissis) it doesn’t hurt to throw additional data of nearly incontrovertible quality at the matter.

Obviously, though, there are a lot of things that can go wrong with this whole endeavor (for one, the weather’s awful — it’s winter in the Southern Hemisphere). And in fact, something already has gone quite wrong: a major bureaucratic obstacle from the Argentine Federal Police that has set everything back four weeks. So if you see my posts from locations that are not northwestern Argentina, it’s because I’m piddling around, killing time, and visiting friends before getting back to work. Fortunately, there are worse parts of the world to be “stuck” in!

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Filed under environment, geography, Latin America, Overseas Bureau

Culture and the Cup, Dispatch 5: Buenos Aires

Looming over it all. (Gonzalez/TYG)

By Ramon Gonzalez

BUENOS AIRES — After going back to the tape, a few reactions to a day so troubled by the lack of instant replay. Undoubtedly the demand for limited video replay (on goals, major penalties, etc.) grew even more after Sunday’s abysmal day for World Cup referees – England’s second goal that wasn’t and Tevez’s glaring offside on Argentina’s first goal. In both cases, the disparity of the final score is unlikely to soften national grievances. England’s second goal would have tied a frantic game after England found itself early in a two goal deficit.  Mexico, which even some Argentines believed outplayed their South American opponent, lost much of its composure after the first goal and surrendered a second goal later on a egregious mental error that at the least seems less probable absent the first score.

FIFA is a slow-moving body and the purists that largely control it have long been resistant to replay technology. Yet after a series of such high-profile mistakes and the likelihood that one or two more are still in store, I would place money that by 2014 in Brazil we’ll have some video replay.  At the very least, it seems clear which way English and Mexican support will fall.  Who knows, by the end of the tournament a coalition of the sorrowful losers might have many members in its ranks.

The Mexican gaffe was instructive for other reasons, as the stadium monitor replay highlight of the goal ignited Mexican frustration on the pitch and in the stands (Argentine announcers claimed that before Mexican players saw the replay they were not loudly protesting the goal but I don’t have clear evidence of this.) It’s standard FIFA procedure not to reshow footage of controversial plays revealing referee error for precisely this reason, so the Mexicans and the crowd were treated to the sad farce of having to accept a goal that the large video screens in the stadium clearly showed should not have stood (FIFA has since announced that it is reviewing its in-stadium video procedure to avoid precisely this incident). There are extended arguments for and against replay…I feel it does not much detract from the pace of the game, or at least not more than the theatrical whimpering of some fallen players who perform like stricken farm animals. Furthermore, postgame video replay would mete out punishment for truly egregious flopping and might even speed up play and improve its quality.

I'll wave my flag if you promise to stop playing that song. (Gonzalez/TYG)

I watched the Argentina-Mexico game in the Plaza San Martin along with a couple thousand of my rowdiest Buenos Aires friends. Though I can’t claim that many Argentines were too troubled by Mexico’s poor fortune, the announcers on the Argentine feed did ruminate a little on the incident, and somewhat pedantically told us, in the context of Argentina’s tendency to view FIFA as prejudiced towards Brazil, that the referee’s error in the match goes to show that mistakes are not always the product of conspiracy but sometimes just of chance or competence.  Should Argentina face Brazil, though, it remains to be seen how long the lesson lasts. As it was, the words did not seem to make much impression on the crowd.

Before I ratchet up Argentine-Brazilian tensions to too high a pitch, I do want to corroborate Jonathan’s account of support for Brazil in the (unlikely) case Argentina does not win the Cup. A few days ago after Brazil won I forget what game, the sports channel had some poor female reporter interviewing drunken and delirious Brazilians who, when presented with the reverse scenario, extended support for Argentina out of South American solidarity. Then again, the whole interview was a chaotic mess of fans hungering for a few seconds on screen and fellowship is easy to give and imagine after victory and a few drinks. What is grace if one does not really believe one will have to give it?

At the office on Monday, the mood was buoyant, though Germany’s dynamic play against England won respect and occassioned a few worries for Saturday’s showdown. The victory caused a little extra work as a co-worker’s plans for a conference next week had to be rearranged as it would fall on the date of Argentina’s potential semifinal appearance. I like to imagine that it is poor form to even advertise an event to take place during Argentina’s potential future games and shoulder the risk of having to reschedule it, as if the fortunes of the national team depend on our vigilant commitment to keep those times free, to project to each other, our players, and the world our confidence that we will have more important worries than work on those days.



Filed under Culture and the Cup, Latin America, rivalry

Culture and the Cup, Dispatch 3: The Andes

By Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins

FIMBALÁ, Argentina — Hard as it may be to believe, when I found myself watching Argentina’s World Cup squad battle Nigeria’s on a flickery TV screen 200 km away from the closest permanent human settlement, 4,000 meters/13,000 feet above sea level, and ensconced between towering snow-capped Andean volcanoes that rank as the highest in the world, it was part of my summer research. Seriously! Admittedly, to fully explain the latter will take a while, so for now I will focus on the former — Argentina, the World Cup, and association football.

Argentina won, 1-0. Argentina also deserved to win. They played better. To those not fully initiated in the ways of the world’s sport (which included me until two years ago) these last two sentences might seem like an odd, redundant thing to say: Of course the team with more goals deserves to win, that’s why you keep track of them in the first place! In football, however, this is not necessarily so.

Football is the most arts-like of sports. Quality of play is adjudicated as much, if not more, by the gut than by the scoreline. After watching a match, deep down, you know which was the better team, regardless of how many goals they scored. How this happens, goodness knows. The “gut” is an incredible organ. But it happens, and at a football match’s conclusion you walk away with closure and an opinion. Uniquely, though, relative to other sports, there is a dearth of statistics to confirm and substantiate what your gut clearly knows to be.

Of course, there are goals — a rather important statistic indeed — but they come sparingly in football. So while goals often correspond to the quality of play and indicate the truly superior team, surprisingly frequently they do not. There are ties. Or a team, utterly dominated for 89 of a match’s 90 minutes, benefits from a singular error and wins 1-0. Usually in other sports to analyze these sorts of phenomena, onlookers would cite a battery of statistics to show just how “lucky” the 1-0 winner was, or to indicate the “better” of two tied teams. But try as the Nate Silvers of the world might, it is exceedingly difficult to condense a football match into a pithy few meaningful numbers. (Not coincidentally, in fantasy sports — statistics-driven online sports competitions — football has all the popularity of spinach.)

The sport’s resistance to statistical simplification stems from its fluid nature. The clock runs continuously, even through injuries, and the ball is in motion for almost all that time. Thus, football cannot be conveniently compartmentalized into possession, as with basketball, or individual plays, as with baseball or American football. So while you can often partly determine the worth of strikers (designated offensive players) by their goal tallies, how can you do so for defensive midfielders or full-backs or even teams as a whole? Empirically — statistically — you cannot.

As such, in the absence of statistics, football aficionados are left to appraise the on-field product as Roger Ebert does movies or Robert Parker does wines. Football journalists, for example, become more critics, albeit mild-mannered ones, than dispassionate reciters of numerical fact. To those accustomed to baseball or basketball recaps — essentially an obligatory litany of statistics rendered readable by an occasional anecdote — the football recaps in The Guardian or the Mirror might seem airy and ungrounded, but it’s difficult to write a grounded 500 words when spectation yields only ineffable “feels” of offensive or defensive energy and changes in momentum.

The lexicon of this journalistic genre is telling. Andrés Iniesta and Xavi Hernández, the supremely talented Spanish national team midfielders, seem to be called “maestros” more often than their legal names. Ingenious passes are “inspired.” Football itself is “the beautiful game.” Though inconspicuous and largely unintentional, the sport’s vocabulary, delicate in its effort to describe the constant stream of on-field creativity that makes football football, betrays the sport’s art-like aspect.

Of course sports fans the world over still like a good old number or two. Enter: player ratings, an epitomizing example of football’s subjectivity, of trying to quantify the unquantifiable. Ebert gives movies up to four stars; Parker gives wines a number between 50 and 100; football journalists give all 22 players a 1-10 rating after their matches for passing creativity, work ethic, and finishing ability. It’s essentially a hybrid between a box score and a critical review.

All told, football inspires an almost unsports-like appreciation of the sport. A loyalty exists to the beauty of the game — of the art of the game — that supersedes club and national identity. Which leads me back to my rather unusual World Cup-viewing location.

I watched Argentina’s World Cup match at Las Grutas, a snowbound Argentinean national police outpost sited on a desolate mountain pass leading to Chile and the Pacific, while acclimatizing for an alpine science expedition. Watching the match with me were Domingo and Juan, the caretakers of Las Grutas’ three weather-worn concrete Quonset huts.

Domingo and Juan are Argentines, of course. So I floated a hypothetical their way. What if Argentina were not to be victorious this World Cup? Who, then, would you prefer to win?

They exchanged a guilty look, understandable considering their answer. Brazil.

Blasphemy! Argentina and Brazil, of course, are like Lex Luthor and Clark Kent or chocolate and vanilla: rivals of the highest order. But nonetheless their answer rings honestly. First, there is South American fraternity; a sort of epiphenomenal pride in having one of the continent’s own claim a world’s prize. But more significantly their admission speaks to a transcending fidelity to football as a sport.

The Brazilian samba superstars of 2010 play brilliantly and beautifully. That even an Argentine can admit this of their greatest foe — of the country, fittingly, that first gave the world the joga bonito style in the ’50s — is proof positive that football is the beautiful game and, partly by consequence, the world’s game.

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Filed under Culture and the Cup, Latin America

Culture and the Cup, Dispatch 2: Buenos Aires

By Ramon Gonzalez

BUENOS AIRES — It began as a World Cup, has become South America’s, and the hope here is that it will end as Argentina’s. With confident play so far and brief glimpses of brilliance, the national squad has grounded the faith here in reason, and to see a well-coiffed Diego Maradona patrolling the sidelines in a suit makes one believe in the providential workings of the Hand of God.

With the recent and (here) delightful collapse of the French team, the struggles of Old Europe, the bizarre and card-happy referring which makes even NBA referees appear competent, the charming American exuberance, and the sincere concerns for the North Korean’s coach’s return home, the travails of Argentina’s qualifying campaign have largely faded from mind. I believe, however, that they do deserve a brief nod. Argentina suffered through a 6-1 thrashing from Bolivia (the second to worst team in the continent). It spent many long nights and days discussing why Lionel Messi — Argentina’s star and the world’s best player — could not replicate the form that graced his club play for Barcelona, risked seeing Coach Diego Maradona — the best player in Argentina’s history and among the best ever — suffer the indignity of helming this tragic failure, squeezed into the last automatic qualifying slot from South America, and sat through verbal volleys in the press from players, coaches, and administrators that mucked through the lewd to make their points. So Argentina can be forgiven her present excitement.

Besides offering irregular soccer commentary, in Buenos Aires I am working at the Argentina Council for International Relations where you’ll find my writing on the G20 Finance Ministers’ Meeting, Obama’s National Security Strategy, forecasts about European financial trouble, and a preview of the upcoming G20 conference in Toronto (sorry, but Spanish only). To whet your appetite and in case your favorite team books an earlier than expected flight home from South Africa, I’ll soon be covering (provided Argentina (or the US or Spain – I’m working the odds here) doesn’t do too well) the consequences of Juan Manuel Santos’ victory in the second round of the Columbian Presidential elections and Argentine debt and trade disputes. Please pace your reading so you don’t overload the servers all at once.

Let’s return to the game. Or rather, the game surrounding the game, as there is little of much interest to say about Argentina’s productive and solid victories against rather outmatched competition. As most of the matches fall here during normal working hours, many employers have taken to setting up televisions in the office for everyone to gather around, a clear-eyed concession to the reality that when the national team plays, everything stops. For those caught walking on the streets, a symphony of car horns keeps all abreast of an Argentine goal, and inside the slap of hands and shouts of joy match the sound. On television Argentina games merit hours of commentary and dissection with strategic considerations and player decisions receiving the full CNN election treatment of touch finger screens and images dragged in all directions.

In reading about the Cup I’ve comes across a quote from CLR James, a Trinidadian historian of repute, that I particularly enjoy. Motivating his famous autobiography which discusses cricket, Beyond a Boundary, was the question, “What do they know of cricket who only cricket know?” From the inescapably charged discussion surrounding the use of vuvuzelas to the oftentimes enjoyable awkwardness and bad feeling when countries play their former colonial powers (and frequently win), the nasty commentary at some French players after the team’s poor showing to the wincing at a white American’s overdone enthusiasm for the African teams: when the camera cuts to the mugs of politicians and royalty watching their teams play, it’s a reminder that there are not just 22 men on the pitch.

Four geopolitical storylines involving Argentina deserve mention, one already in progress and three to play out. First, the poor showing by European and African squads and the dominance by the Americas, and in particular South America, whose five teams have not yet suffered a loss, seems likely to ignite pressure for reform of the qualifying system and FIFA rankings. Using the grass leaves from the pitch as clues to some larger commentary on national strength is as hackneyed as it often is wrong, but European failures can’t be welcome by politicians back home desperate for some good news during a brutal series of months on the economic front. Second, the emergence of Brazil as a world power and leader in South America has occasioned a noticeable inferiority in Argentina, another reminder of its past economic superiority and the accumulated toll of years of anemic growth. An Argentine victory in the Cup would be enjoyed, but a victory over Brazil particularly so. Third, Argentina and Uruguay have a longstanding dispute over a pulp mill on the Uruguay River. Though less present in the national consciousness, a game against Uruguay would invite reflexive flexing of nationalist muscles in some quarters. Finally, with Presidential elections a year away a fairly strong anti-Kirchner (referring to both the current President Cristina Fernandez and her husband, the former President Nestor Kirchner) mood has taken hold. At a gathering of diplomatic types I was told that some opposed to the pair are privately hoping for an early Argentine defeat to prevent soccer success from propelling the duo back into the Casa Rosada, the seat of the Argentine presidency, amidst a general national mood of good feelings. Though you have to imagine those doing so are not the most devoted of soccer fans.

That cautions one against the geopolitical instinct. Sometimes as Americans know well, it is tough enough just to know cricket. Though it’s difficult to resist imagining some friendly side-betting taking place between leaders at the G20 summit this weekend, when politics seems to intrude on soccer I generally prefer to imagine it the other way around, that soccer and sport intrude on politics, or more precisely, on the human lives that make up our politics. The world now is at play. Let’s enjoy it.


Filed under Culture and the Cup, economy, geography, Latin America, partisan politics

Media and Aid

by Diana Saverin

When the urge to donate money to charity strikes, images of global poverty, famine, and health issues often arise. This is a justified phenomenon; these issues are as tangible as the computer screen you are looking at, but how can you put your dollar to the most work? UNICEF does a fantastic job of dissipating donor concerns over where their money is going on their “Trick-or-Treat for UNICEF” boxes by putting statistics such as “$45 provides school supplies for 20 kids, $112 provides emergency blankets for 37 kids, $200 immunizes 104 kids against measles.” These numbers reassure the donor that he or she is truly helping, but what about the causes that don’t lend that warm feeling?

Enter a crucial element of the infrastructure of any organization: media. It may not directly save lives, but it allows organizations to raise money and awareness. Organizations aiming to help women have especially struggled in this area, and need to improve the public relations of their organizations more than ever with the changing tides of technology. Media and PR receive around 2% of the money donated to infrastructure, which is only 1.8% of the total amount donated to women annually. If these organizations had the resources to tap into mainstream media to publish articles about their projects, the effects on donations could make a true difference. The National Council for Research on Women has published several groundbreaking reports, with little to no media attention. Two sisters discovered their wealth when they saw their names listed as the 500 richest Americans, and went on to create “Women Moving Millions,” which has over $150 million pledged to give back to women, but most haven’t heard of it. Right now, for every development dollar spent, girls receive less than 2 cents. Media is a crucial component for an organization to survive. It may not immunize a child, it may not be inspiring, and it may not evoke the same emotions as a picture, but it mobilizes the public’s interest in these topics and educates them on the issues at hand.

The recent tragedy in Haiti highlights the efficacy of a successful media campaign. Within two days of the earthquake, over $5 million were raised through texting. The donations have continued to multiply, and are in large part due to the strong technology and media resources employed by the American Red Cross. If women’s organizations could capitalize on the efficiency of media and technology to affect change, using a strong and accessible model like the American Red Cross so successfully did, the implications for women around the world would make history.

The infrastructure of an organization matters almost as much as the services they provide, and for a donor to make a difference, she has to look to see beyond the statistics to what is truly needed.

Diana Saverin is a freshman in Berkeley College.

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Filed under activism, disaster relief, foreign aid, Latin America, media

Tea with the Ambassador to Chile

This past Monday, the US Ambassador to Chile, Mr. Paul Simons, chatted with a group of Yale undergraduates at a Master’s Tea hosted by Jonathan Edwards College. A JE alum, Mr. Simons studied philosophy at Yale and even took English 125 with Penelope Laurans, the current Master of JE, when he was a freshman. At the tea, Mr. Simons shared his experience and stories as a career foreign service officer.

Before his November 2007 appointment to the Embassy, Simons served as Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Energy and Sanctions, Acting Assistant Secretary of State for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, and Deputy Chief of Mission at the U.S. Embassy in Israel. Earlier in his career, he served at U.S. Embassies in Ecuador, Malawi and Colombia, as a speechwriter at the State Department, and as international economist at the Treasury Department. These Foreign Service positions were preceded by a career in international corporate lending.

Ambassador Simons was careful to point out that these impressive appointments only came after working his way from the bottom up.  He entered the Foreign Service as a visa interviewer in Colombia, during which he screened around 150 visa applicants every day. “Of course it is tedious,” he responded to a student, “but this is the boot camp of Foreign Service—everyone has to go through it; you don’t really get to choose.” Simons assured students that the jobs get better and more interesting as one accrued more experience. When he moved to work in Malawi, his responsibilities grew to include oversight of commercial projects. His other adventures included accompanying President Clinton in Middle East and working on drug regulation in Columbia.

Throughout his diverse experiences, Ambassador Simons has maintained faith in diplomacy as the best way to solve international problems. To him, the most pressing issues now are climate change and the Middle East, as he has spent several years in Israel. He told students that “we need policies that make sense and sell them properly if we want to make an impact.” He believes that climate changes must be regulated diplomatically, even in light of the difficulties that the U.S.’s high expectations are bound to cause during negotiations. Simons remains hopeful of future diplomatic potential in the Middle East as well: “We have the tools and the credibility to solve the problem, all we need is time and a lot of attention over the next few years.”

What I find particularly interesting about Mr. Simon’s career path is the fact that he has worked on almost every important issue. Finance, energy, drugs, the Middle East….the list doesn’t miss any popular buzzword. He told me that he found rotating from topic to topic very enjoyable and even more challenging. Working in so many different fields allowed him to see more connections and view every situation more comprehensively.

Many Yalies have worked in the Foreign Service, but Mr. Simons is one of the few that have come back to tell Yale students how it is from the inside.  Sure, you start in the trenches, but as long as you put in enough time and energy, your effort will pay off. Even if you end up somewhere outside the Foreign Service, it seems like a helpful starting place from which to see the intricate web of international affairs more clearly.

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Filed under diplomacy, Latin America