Book Talk

Contesting Civilization's Destiny

A REVIEW BY MARÍA CLEMENCIA RAMÍREZ

Manifest Destinies and Indigenous Peoples
Edited by David Maybury-Lewis, Theodore Macdonald and Biorn Maybury-Lewis
The David Rockefeller Center Series on Latin American Studies, Harvard University, 2009

This book is a tribute to the work of David Maybury-Lewis, the late and distinguished Professor Emeritus at Harvard's Department of Anthropology, where I had the honor to be his student and advisee. It is his last book and a continuation of his life's work: the examination of another aspect of what governments have long called “the Indian question,” a topic to which Maybury-Lewis dedicated himself from both an academic and an applied perspective.

The book provides a comparative analysis of policies in the United States, Canada, Argentina, Brazil, and Chile in the second half of the nineteenth century to legitimize state expansion into territory inhabited by indigenous peoples within their national boundaries.

Four chapters concern the United States and Canada and the other three deal with South America. Theodore Macdonald’s introduction summarizes the authors’ central concerns and debates, while an afterword by Professor Maybury-Lewis’s son, Biorn Maybury-Lewis, discusses the life of his father not only as a respected academic but also as an intellectual committed to the welfare of indigenous peoples. These dual commitments date back to Dr. Maybury-Lewis’s eighteen months of intensive fieldwork with the Xavante people of Brazil in the late 1950s, which his son Biorn also experienced as a toddler.

The book’s historical perspective and its emphasis on North America allow us to explore another question beyond its own primary concern: the means by which the United States was constructed as a nation whose “destiny” was to bring civilization not only to the lands within its own borders, but beyond them as well, thus legitimizing its role as an expanding empire and producing the national imaginary that has lasted to this day. In this vein, the chapter by Richard White discusses the rise of U.S. corporations beginning in the mid-19th century and the extent to which state and corporate activities would result in the separation of indigenous peoples from their lands in the name of development.

In his chapter, Anders Stephanson explores the ideological content of the idea of Manifest Destiny, a catchphrase coined by John O’ Sullivan in 1840 according to which the United States was “the nation of human progress” and no person or thing could constrain it in this, its intrinsic mission (p. 25). Stephanson indicates that “the massive expansionist moves of the 1840s entailed a much more centered politics of ‘destiny,’” and that “destinarianism (to coin a phrase) became the very idiom of the whole project of expansion” (p. 26). The mission of the United States was to propagate democracy on the North American continent, and its ultimate goal was to liberate humanity.

Stephanson shows how these ideas inform the actions taken in the conquest of the national territory “conceived not as war but as ´pacification´” (p.33) that were directed toward the western territories of the United States in order to promote freedom, eliminate wilderness, and institute a private property regime as a symbol of national independence and a means to make the land productive. This was justifiable since Native Americans were represented as lacking any conception of property and unable to produce beyond the level of subsistence. Thus they had no intrinsic right to the land.

All of the chapters refer to the existence of internal frontiers or the relation between the center and the periphery of states. These relations correspond to a contrast between what is considered civilized and savage. Frontier areas are represented as places where barbarity reigns, places that by rights should be integrated into the nation as represented by the center, where development takes place and from which the modern civilized nation is constructed and the politics of destiny are implemented. The differences among the countries discussed refer to the origin and nature of policies and the actions to be taken, in keeping with each nation's self-image and representation. The elucidation of these differences is the most important contribution of the book.

Anders Stephanson, Edward Chamberlain and Roger L. Nichols contrast English relations with indigenous peoples in their direct colonial possessions with the indigenous policies of the colonies’ successor governments. All three authors highlight indigenous policies in Canada that continued the English “protectionist” approach followed since 1670, based on the premise that the newcomers should deal justly with the Indians, learn their languages, and protect their territories and possessions (p. 175).

Nichols points out that by 1877, “while American authorities treated tribal peoples as enemies or at least obstacles to national growth and development, early Canadian leaders considered First Nations people as military and diplomatic allies” (p. 151). At the end of the nineteenth century Canadian and U.S. policies grew steadily more similar, and by the beginning of the 20th century their common pursuit of advanced civilization, progress, and the construction of homogeneous nation-states justified to their governments the goal of eliminating the indigenous peoples, now seen as obstacles to meeting those objectives.

In Argentina, Brazil, and Chile (and unlike in Canada and the United States), the representation of areas in the interior of the country as “empty” and the consequent invisiblization of indigenous peoples living there were used to legitimize policies for the conquest of these internal frontiers. These policies entailed active attacks, Iberian-style crusades, and the promotion of colonization by foreign immigrant populations.

In the case of Argentina, the pursuit of order, progress, and civilization took on dramatic dimensions. For example, General Julio Argentino Roca led a series of military campaigns between 1878 and 1885 collectively known as the “Conquest of the Desert,” seeking to annex the Indian territories of La Pampa and Patagonia. Claudia Briones and Walter Delirio argue that this policy was designed to transform La Pampa and Patagonia “into a sociological ‘desert’ through de-tribalization and practical extermination that extended well beyond the period of military campaigns” (p. 52). This approach freed Argentina from having to develop a policy for the incorporation of the indigenous peoples of Patagonia into the nation-state. It implicitly promoted the colonization of this “empty desert region,” arguing that the Mapuches who were living there were not only savages, but invaders from neighboring Chile who should be expelled, if not exterminated. Briones and Delirio conclude that to the Argentine government, the task of governing the national territory included populating these empty spaces. This was seen as “a vital constituent of the national Project and Destiny.” Unlike the U.S. idea of expanding into new territories, the Argentineans spoke of recovering territory.

As the 20th century neared its end, the results of these de-Indianization and extermination policies allowed Argentina to define itself as having either no Indians or perhaps only a few remnant groups. The authors present testimony from elderly representatives of indigenous groups who describe their silent resistance in the face of continuous assaults. Although Mapuches have lived in the country for generations, their rights began to be recognized only with the constitutional reforms of 1994, and their authenticity as natives continues to be debated.

In his chapter, José Bengoa describes Chile as a country at the southern end of the American landmass whose center is contrasted with the unconquerable south. Just as Argentina embarked on a Conquest of the Desert, the Chilean military launched a campaign for the “Pacification of Araucania (Mapuche Territory),” a period of intense military activity between 1866 and 1881, breaking a peace treaty between the Mapuche and the Marquis de Baydes reached in 1641 after a major uprising in 1598. This treaty gave the Mapuche the right to self-government, and although their culture had flourished with the incorporation of foreign elements such as the use of horses, people at the center imagined the south as largely uninhabited, with only a few small indigenous groups on the verge of extinction. During the 19th century Chilean expansion toward its northern and southern borders was seen as a civilizing process entailing the Chileanization of the Aymaras in the north and the extermination of the indigenous peoples of the south. Although Chile counted 101,118 Araucanos or Mapuches in its territory in 1907, Bengoa asserts that like Argentina, Chile sought to “whiten” itself after its independence in 1810. A European-American national image was constructed and between 1881 and 1927 the indigenous population was restricted to reservations established after Pacification.

This practice of indigenous relocation and geographical restriction is also analyzed. In the case of United States, thousands of people from almost all the eastern tribes were relocated, while in Canada relocation affected only a few small bands (p. 158). In addition to relocating the native inhabitants, in the middle of the nineteenth century the Chilean government organized the colonization of its “empty” southern territories by German settlers, promoted as representatives of European civilization whose presence would benefit the nation. Bengoa concludes with the affirmation that “Chile has united its national territory and thus “fulfilled its destiny” to reach the fabled south but has done so by suppressing the indigenous peoples in the south, and has thus created a conflict that lasts to this day” (p. 138).

In the case of Brazil, João Pacheco de Oliveira discusses the contrast between the coastal areas and Amazonia, which was also represented as an empty territory or a territory inhabited only by savages where both the natural environment (a green hell) and its inhabitants needed to be domesticated in order for wealth to be produced. During the colonial period there was much talk of conquering the Amazon jungle. Evangelization of the savages by missionaries played a central role in their subordination to the colonial regime. Those who resisted were considered legitimate military targets in what was deemed a just war to integrate them into the nation. Pacheco de Oliveira discusses the Brazilian imaginary in which “wild Indians” are said to be “the true and ancient lords of the land [constituting] indisputable proof of the existence of Brazil before the arrival of the Portuguese,” and “the oldest and most authentic symbols of Brazilian nationalism” (p. 100). He evaluates the contradiction in which indigenous Brazilians of the past were portrayed as noble savages while contemporaneous Amazonian Indians have in practice been represented as a “residual humanity that was headed towards inevitable extinction” (pg.102). This kind of tension between government discourse and policy recurs in every chapter. Nonetheless, at the dawn of the 20th century the idea of incorporating savage and unbaptized Indians into the nation gained favor and the state took an ever-more tutelary and protective approach, considering the natives primitive beings who did not know or understand the white man and his ways. As a result, the levels of violence unleashed against Indians diminished, with the exception of the Argentine persecution and elimination of the Mapuches, justified by their stigmatization as foreign invaders.

This book and its role in presenting the work of international scholars on indigenous peoples in the construction of the nation-state in the Americas is a fitting tribute to our late Professor Emeritus David-Maybury-Lewis who fought to make visible the indigenous groups in the Americas, defending their rights and protecting their lands languages and cultures, aiming to to stop the cultural devastation so thoroughly examined in this book.

María Clemencia Ramírez is Research Associate and former Director of the Colombian Institute of Anthropology and History. She holds a Ph.D. in Social Anthropology from Harvard University and was the 2004-2005 Santo Domingo Visiting Scholar at Harvard’s David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies. She is a Fellow of the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation for the year 2009-2010.

Time for a New Toolkit in Mexico

A REVIEW BY KEVIN P. GALLAGHER

Development and Growth in the Mexican Economy: A Historical Perspective
By Juan Carlos Moreno-Brid and Jaime Ros
Oxford University Press, 2009, 328 pp

If all you have is a hammer, all you see is nails. Mexico, however, is plagued with loose screws. These screws have become way too loose over the past 25 years as economists and politicians have hammered away at the wrong problems.

Such is the diagnosis of the Mexican economy conducted by Juan Carlos Moreno-Brid and Jaime Ros in this enlightening new book. Moreno-Brid, a senior economist at the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America (and former visiting fellow at DRCLAS) and Ros, a distinguished professor of economics at the University of Notre Dame, have produced the first ‘development economics’ history of Mexico.

In contrast to other economic histories of Mexico, and economic history in general, Moreno-Brid and Ros deploy an approach pioneered by two Harvard development economists, Dani Rodrik and Ricardo Hausmann. Referred to as “growth diagnostics,” this analytical framework is an attempt to move beyond ideological and atomistic theoretical and empirical approaches to an economy. Simply put, the goal of growth diagnostics is to figure out what the core binding constraints are on an economy, and then to work to loosen them.

The authors analyze the Mexican economy from independence (1821) to the present financial crisis. The book has many findings that add to or contrast with those of previous histories of the Mexican economy. The authors find that the Mexican Revolution did not stunt growth as much as others have argued, and that the country was hurt much more by the Great Depression than had been previously understood. They estimate that during Mexico’s high-growth period of 1940 to 1970, agricultural growth was more significant than had been thought, and the economic costs of trade protection were smaller than the literature has suggested. Further, they find that Mexico’s recent reduction in poverty and inequality is due more to a demographic transition than to government poverty programs or remittances by Mexican migrants in the United States.

The most striking and prescient new findings relate to Mexico’s recent growth performance.

In contrast to growth diagnostics is the prevailing “one size fits all” approach of hard-line neo-classical economists and right-wing policymakers. These folks have hammered on the same diagnoses for Mexico and other developing nations for years: get the government out of economic affairs, once and for all and as quickly as possible! Mexico took this advice and, from the mid-1980s to the present, has liberalized, privatized, and globalized nearly all of its economic activity.

Boy, did Mexico get hammered. During this period, Mexican incomes have grown less than one percent per annum. Mexico has fallen victim to two financial crises (one of its own making and now this current one); domestic industries and investment have been all but wiped out; financial instability has been persistent; global competitiveness has slid; wages have been stagnant; and poverty and inequality have remained grave.

These facts are well known and not controversial. The analysis of their cause and remedy, however, is as controversial as it can get.

Harvard graduate Felipe Calderón won the 2006 presidential election as a representative of the center-right-wing party, the PAN. Since taking office Calderón has held the view that the Mexican economy is not performing well because it still has more liberalizing, privatizing, and globalizing to do. After reading this book, it does not appear that Mexico’s new president took any classes at Harvard with Rodrik or Hausmann.

Moreno-Brid, who is a former DRCLAS Visiting Scholar, and Ros take issue with Calderón’s approach—as well as with the policies of the U.S. government (which formalized them through the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1994) and of the international financial institutions that support this view. To the authors, Mexico suffers from two things: first, an incorrect diagnosis of the true binding constraints that the economy faces, and second, the lack of political consensus on that very diagnosis.

Moreno-Brid and Ros see Mexico’s lack of investment as the single most binding constraint on economic growth in Mexico. Investment in an economy leads to economic growth. A general rule of thumb is that developing nations need investment to be at about 25 percent of GDP to maintain the growth rates needed to catch up to more developed countries. East Asia has steadily been over 30 percent since the 1970s.

Total investment as a percentage of GDP in Mexico has gone from 25 percent for the 1979-1981 period to 20 percent in the2004-2007 period. Declining investment has been the result of a fall in public investment (thanks in part to Mexico’s numerous privatizations and weak tax base), an overvalued exchange rate, which has led investors to look elsewhere, the lack of government policy geared toward industrial competitiveness, and the lack of financing for domestic manufacturing firms.

Such a diagnosis implies that Mexico should increase its tax base and engage in modestly expansionary macroeconomic policy alongside financial reforms and an aggressive effort to modernize its domestic manufacturing base. If done right, the initial increases in public investment could “crowd in” private investment in Mexico, leading to sustained and more balanced economic growth.

Looking back, Moreno-Brid and Ros show that it was a similar mix of policies (and a political consensus behind them) that led to Mexico’s golden age of economic activity in the 20th century, from 1940 to 1970. During that period, average incomes grew by 3.2% per year and the gap between average incomes in the United States and Mexico narrowed.

If one wished to quibble with parts of this otherwise excellent book, it would be only to note that the reader is left somewhat guessing as to the exact nature of this public investment in industrialization, and how such policy should be re-constructed in future. What did industrial innovation and education policies feature back then? How might a country’s government develop a world-class industry today? UN economist Mario Cimoli’s book, Developing Innovation Systems: Mexico in Global Context can serve as a useful companion to help answer these questions about Mexico’s past, while Dani Rodrik’s One Economics, Many Recipes can help formulate industrial policy for the 21st century.

Overwhelmingly, however, this book is pioneering in its approach and striking in its findings. It is essential reading for anyone interested in economic development in Mexico and Latin America and in development economics in general. In a more immediate sense, it can help Mexican policymakers and managers of international financial institutions better understand the binding constraints to economic development in Mexico so that they may produce a more sustainable development path for Mexico’s future.

Kevin P. Gallagher is an associate professor in the Department of International Relations at Boston University and co-author of the recent book, The Enclave Economy: Foreign Investment and Sustainable Development in Mexico’s Silicon Valley.

Democracy Revisited

A REVIEW BY ALFREDO CORCHADO

Constructing Democratic Governance in Latin America, Third Edition
Edited by Jorge I. Domínguez and Michael Shifter 2008
Johns Hopkins University Press, 412 pages

Democracies are messy—none so more than those across Latin America. A common refrain used by academics and journalists alike to describe those democracies is usually “weak,” or “fledgling.”

And yet, in spite of endemic poverty, weak economies, rising security concerns and growing drug violence, democracy continues to take root across the continent, albeit with a few hiccups here and there. This is the thesis of the third edition ofConstructing Democratic Governance in Latin America, a 412-page tome edited by Jorge I. Domínguez, a professor and Vice Provost for International Affairs at Harvard University and Michael Shifter, Vice President for policy of The Inter-American Dialogue and an adjunct professor at the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. The book features chapters written by thirteen experts on the region.

Even under the glare of media scrutiny and the criticisms of some skeptical analysts and constituents alike, democracy in Latin America is proving to be a “resounding success,” according to Shifter. “The advance may not be irreversible,” he notes in his chapter. “But it is becoming increasingly ingrained, and voting, happily, is a tough habit to break.”

Still, economic problems, security issues and old paternalistic practices continue to challenge these incipient democracies, threatening the very advances that people fought for decades to achieve, often at the cost of their own lives.

In Venezuela, President Hugo Chávez continues to amend the constitution to assure his power for years to come. In Colombia, President Álvaro Uribe is accused of thinking about doing the same. And in Argentina, economic calamity threatens new generations and a democracy with a weak congress, and fragile state institutions. The president remains too powerful, thus hampering the checks and balances that any democracy needs to fully take root, notes Steven Levitsky, a professor of government and social studies at Harvard University, in his chapter on Argentina.

But “no government across Latin America today is killing voters, or stealing elections, or using coups to take power,” Levitsky said in an interview. “It’s difficult to sustain democracy with high levels of poverty so the fact that democracy works even at a minimal sense represents a major achievement for Latin America.”

Levitsky and other experts, however, warned that Latin American governments must do more to tackle poverty and provide security for its citizens, or risk seeing democratic institutions weakening and populist leaders rising. “Economic crisis and security concerns are the prime killers of a democracy,” he said.

Consider the drug violence across Mexico, a nation of 110 million people that shares a 2,000-mile border with the United States. Nine years after the opposition National Action Party, or PAN, defeated the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, ending 71 years of one-party rule, the verdict is still out. The PAN was supposed to solidify democracy, which had been little more than a word among Mexicans during several decades of oligarchic rule until that point. Today, the rule of law in Mexico is withering even before it takes root. Since 2006 more than 10,000 people have been killed in drug-related violence.

The government’s inability to restore order and retake regions of the country from drug traffickers has some growing nostalgic for the semi-authoritarian PRI. The PRI, after all, ruled with an iron fist. Its corrupt governance provided the glue that kept society together, as it protected citizens by coddling criminals in exchange for hefty kickbacks. Often, PRI government officials made arrangements with members of organized crime in exchange for lucrative kickbacks. The pacts guaranteed that deadly disputes were taken care off internally, unlike today when powerful weapons and decapitations terrorize entire communities.

Almost overnight, Mexico’s “Imperial Presidency” lost its power and transferred quickly to some members of Congress determined to hold on to as many past paternalistic practices as possible. The result: stagnation that has made governing Mexico more difficult by stalling pivotal reforms, as Denise Dresser, a professor of political science at the Autonomous Technological Institute in Mexico City, notes in her chapter. “So what the presidency has given up, or been forced to concede, Congress has gained,” she writes. “ …. Drug traffickers and organized crime have taken advantage of what the Mexican state is no longer able to ensure – such as a monopoly on violence.”

And yet Levitsky argues, “Being there in Mexico and reading the newspapers everyday makes you convince that Mexico doesn’t look good … but Mexico’s long term trajectory is very good.” He added that Mexico is on par with Costa Rica, Uruguay, Chile and Brazil as nations that have emerged, or are emerging, as “serious democracies.”

Nonetheless, Domínguez strikes an ominous note in his chapter when he warns of the generally poor “record of Latin American democratic performance.” “The key to democracy remains the decision of its citizens,” Domínguez stated. “In their hands and on their wisdom, rest the region’s democratic prospects. As the region approaches the 200 anniversary of the start of its independence, Latin America’s democratic star shines less brightly than it did a decade ago, but it still shines more brightly than it did for the proceeding generation.”

Alfredo Corchado is a 2009 Nieman Fellow at Harvard University and Mexico Bureau Chief for The Dallas Morning News.

See also: Book Talk, Democracy

Whose Idea of Cuba?

A REVIEW BY KAEL ALFORD

The Idea of Cuba
By Alex Harris (with an essay by Lillian Guerra)
University of New Mexico Press, 2007, 136 pages

Who could photograph a thought
as a horse is photographed at full gallop
or a bird in flight?
—José Martí (The epigraph from The Idea of Cuba)

First reactions to photographs are important. Photographs, in their slippery relationship to the observable world, often speak to us with quick impact, even before we can articulate to ourselves what they are saying.

For photographers, or those who look at a lot of photography, this impact is accelerated. The inscription to Alex Harris’s book holds special meaning for photographers, reminding us that the Cuban revolutionary José Martí lived his life close to an important moment in art history, the invention of still photography. It lets us know that we should read on. We photographers know quickly if we are drawn to the work or not.

The photographs in Alex Harris’ book have immediate appeal. They are also, for this photographer, immediately unsettling.

The text of the The Idea of Cuba delves into the history, politics and abstract notions of what it means to be Cuban, or at least what one American has learned about Cuban identity by observing Cuba. The cover image is selected from the most intimate series of images in the book—portraits of alluring, young Cuban women. The woman on the cover is posing next to a television set showing a man in a military uniform. For a book that contains as many complexities as this one, the cover image may initially raise doubts in the minds of those sensitive to cultural or gender stereotypes. But with this book, it’s important to keep looking—and reading.

Inside its pages, in addition to women, there are also cars. Rehabbed 1950s U.S. cars, photographed from the inside out so both the interior and the view through the windshield are visible in each frame. The interiors are lit so that the brightly painted trim, dashboard controls and car kitsch stand apart from the more muted tropical landscapes and dilapidated mansions framed through the cars’ windshields. It’s as if the viewer were a backseat driver. The driver is absent, or a ghost, as are the few figures in the streets who appear in the long exposures. The cars and the landscapes they frame, with their patina of age, are nostalgic and seductive in the way that old Ladas and flaking Stalinist blocks in eastern Europe are charming—unless of course you happen to live in one.

In contrast to the cars, the women are young, supple and scantily dressed, showing plenty of rich bronze skin. Sometimes they are faceless, their torsos examined in detail. In other images they look directly at us, daring us to be drawn in by their frank and confident sexuality.

In a third set of photographs are street scenes that all include a factory-produced bust or statue of José Martí, the Cuban revolutionary who spent his life as an exile in New York but devoted much of his work and writing to stirring up revolution among Cubans. His image is as ubiquitous as Lenin’s behind the Iron Curtain before 1989. Scenes that juxtapose the busts of Martí with gritty streets or playful children in decaying or neglected environments point to the contrast between the seminal ideals of that revolution and the modern realities of the Cuban state.

It’s well worth viewing the photos and imagining what those motivations might be before reading the text in the book. One’s shift in response to the images before and after reading the text may be striking.

At first glance, some of Harris’ visual metaphors are clear. Americans see Cuba through the economic and political relationships defined in the 1950s when the last American cars were imported and a trade embargo halted free trade, free travel and the free exchange of ideas between the two nations. As the photographs suggest, many Cubans see the world, literally, through the windshield of American cars. (Interestingly all the cars pictured are owned by men. The owners’ names and the location of the scene appear below each plate.) To an American viewing these images, Cuba looks like a country trapped in an economic and automotive time warp. Even the Cuban architecture reminds us of a particular, shared but colonial history. The view is nostalgic, gritty and it happens to be lovely.

Harris’s portraits of women are lovely too, but it’s not clear on initial viewing why these women are singled out. On first approach to the work, and before reading the text, it might seem that Cuba, which few Americans know at first hand thanks to the U.S. government’s travel ban, is populated largely by stunning, sexually astute nymphs. Only after we’ve read Harris’ essay do we lean that they are jineteras, “jockeys”— slang for women who trade sex for money, and other commodities. Why are prostitutes central to Harris’s idea of Cuba? We need to look beyond the photographs and read Harris’ essay to learn why.

There is a final group of images that provides a visual bridge between the previously mentioned groupings. The seductive portraits of women, American cars in the landscape, and busts of José Martí. gain context through a fourth set of pictures. This last set is the most visually direct and provides a fiber that tenuously holds the other disparate categories of photographs together. They are portraits of statues of women, statues on graves, in gardens, hotel lobbies, of women as angels, mothers and goddesses, echoing the ideals of the ancient Greeks or the sentiments of revolution as the fashion of the day required. They are iconic in their monumental roles. Some of the statues are broken; their worn expressions seem to reflect the loss of an arm or a wing, or the loss of a dream.

There is a resonance between these depictions of women and Harris’ portraits of jineteras, between the artful stone angels and the factory-produced busts, between the architecture of Havana in the car photos and the public art of the statues. Harris’ portraits of real women appear subtly defiant, beckoning, or composed, often gazing back at the camera as unapologetically as the camera gazes at them, while the women in the statues are frozen in iconic modes, in victory, in repose, in motherhood, in celebration. Is the author following a tradition or departing from it?

Both sets of women’s images remind us that the female form as muse and subject (or object) is nothing new, particularly among male artists. Photographs of beautiful young women in a book entitled The Idea of Cuba also imply that these women have been selected from the general population to represent Cuba in some way, not unlike the stone sculptures that came before them.

Certainly, Cuba, in one U.S. stereotype, is sexy. It’s warm, rhythmic ( at least Cuban music is), as well as politically defiant and transgressive. Even Cuban cigars are forbidden and coveted. In another U.S. conception, Cuba is a satellite, a tourist stomping ground, a historical colony and once an important stop on the slave trade route.

In the context of this book, Harris’s portraits of young women seem to allude to contemporary conceptions of Cuba, just as the artists whose work graces Havana’s famous Necropolis Cristóbal Colón found inspiration in their models when invoking the abstractions of spiritual life. Yet unlike sculpture, which removes the viewer from the model so we no longer recognize the individual or the time and place in which she lived, Harris’ portraits of jineteras portray more immediate flesh and blood and the particulars of each woman. Whether this is a tribute to or an over simplification of womanhood may come down to one’s perspective.

What we don’t learn is how these women might see themselves or what their lives might be like. Nor do we learn how their sacrifices, gains or circumstances are connected their own ideas of identity or country. The images themselves seem to be the product of transactions rather than relationships, but then, perhaps that in itself is telling about how our countries interact.

Too often, photographers’ writing muddles the clarity of their visual messages and one ends up wishing artists had stuck to what they know best. That is not the case with this book. Harris, who has collaborated extensively with Harvard Professor Robert Coles, has provided a text that is informative and revealing. An extended essay, interwoven with the images, is essential to understanding the author’s insights and intent. The text illuminates not only the history of Cuba but also the reflections of the photographer. Both are valuable.

We learn that the work was produced over a series of three trips. With each visit, Harris grew more familiar with the landscape of Cuba. First came the cars photos, then the Martí busts, and by the final trip, he had grown familiar enough with the country to travel and communicate on his own without the help of a driver or a translator. This is when he began taking portraits of the jineteras. In his writings, he describes his interactions with these women. He paid them, because it seemed to be the only way to get permission to take their photographs. He attempted to photograph them in public, with street life in the background, but found that he preferred photographing them in private, where their expressions were more revealing. Certainly there is a long tradition of voyeurism and photography behind these images, and Harris touches on some of his own discomforts with this tradition in his discussion.

Harris also outlines the efforts of the early Castro government to eradicate prostitution in exchange for equality and revolution, followed by prostitution’s resurgence when the twilight of Soviet-funded communism gave way to the economic apartheid of capitalism. Harris compares his personal values and attitudes toward women with the feminist leanings of José Martí and wonders frankly how much more enlightened he may or may not be.

In the end, it’s the portraits in the book that leave the most lasting impression, though we learn little about the women in these portraits as individuals. The complexity of these women’s lives, as Harris notes, is not captured within the frame. Harris is not a photographer immersed in Cuban life or subculture, so much as he is an earnest, sensitive and well-studied traveler affixing historical and symbolic lenses on a place that is foreign and yet has become familiar to him.

Viewing these photographs, an American who’s never been to Cuba may feel the push-pull effect of watching an interesting but reclusive neighbor through a fence. The subjects become familiar, even personal, but they ultimately mysterious, even taboo.

Kael Alford is a 2009 Neiman Fellow. She is a photographer and documentary filmmaker.

See also: Cuba, Book Talk