MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, the ladies in the Beauty Shop are coming in for their first visit of the new year. We wanted to talk about some big news in the world of entertainment and celebrity, including a sports star's announcement about a new baby he's expecting with someone other than his equally famous fiancee. And we want to talk about why people think that's important. But first, we want to look at some of the big stories that are unfolding around the world, particularly in Latin America, the Middle East and Africa.
So we're joined now by three guests on three different continents. NPR's East Africa correspondent Gregory Warner is back with us, with us from Nairobi in Kenya. Gregory, thanks so much for joining us once again. Happy New Year to you.
GREGORY WARNER, BYLINE: Happy New Year.
MARTIN: From Doha in Qatar, Shadi Hamid. He's the director of research for the Brookings Institution Center there in Doha. Shadi, thank you so much for joining us once again. Happy New Year to you.
SHADI HAMID: Hi. Thanks for having me.
MARTIN: And closer to home, here in Washington D.C., Fernando Espuelas, managing editor and host of "The Fernando Espuelas Show" which airs on Univision America. Welcome back. Thank you so much for joining us once again. Happy New Year to you.
FERNANDO ESPUELAS: Thank you, Michel. Happy New Year.
MARTIN: I'm going to start with you because we just talked about Colorado's decision to legalize sales of marijuana to people 21 and over for general use. The president of Uruguay also recently signed a bill, and that became the first - they became the first nation state to legalize marijuana for general use. And, you know, Uruguay is not a big, you know, country kind of on the world scene, but this is one of these kind of important attention-getting moves. And can you talk a little bit about - and it's part of other moves that this country is making. Why is it important? And why did they do it?
ESPUELAS: Well, I think I would take it at face value that President Mujica has said that he wants to take the criminals out of the system and essentially legalize something that people are already consuming. By the way, pot smoking has been legal since the 1970s. It was just the whole infrastructure of sales.
MARTIN: ...In sales. So he wants to create a market. He wants to create a national market...
MARTIN: ...Which is very similar to what Colorado is doing.
MARTIN: He wants to create a market, regulate the market and bring that market out into the open.
ESPUELAS: And tax it.
MARTIN: And tax it.
ESPUELAS: Yeah. Uruguay is an interesting case because it is one of the most affluent countries in Latin America - highly educated. And so - but the only real resource it has are people. And so they are focused right now in this administration on enabling people to do as much as they can with their lives and get rid of anything that stands in the way or costs a lot of money, frankly, like drug interdiction, which is very expensive and not very effective.
MARTIN: Yeah, Uruguay was also just named country of the year by the Economist. Why is that?
ESPUELAS: Well, I think it's a country that is very unique. This president is a Marxist. He used to be - he was a guerrilla in the '60s and '70s. He spent about eight years in a well - imprisoned in a well. And when he gets to power, instead of becoming sort of the typical wacko left-winger, he says, you can't distribute poverty. You have to distribute wealth. So it's become a magnet for foreign investments. It's become a magnet - it's completely secure in terms of the court system. And so it's attracting tremendous amount of foreign investment. And he is reinvesting that in the development of the population.
MARTIN: Now, we're not going to country by country here 'cause we have a lot that we want to cover.
But, Fernando, one more sort of thought from you, you know, for now is that we've talked a lot about kind of the rise of the BRICS, you know - Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa, you know - Brazil being the first, you know, of the BRICS - a lot of attention being focused on Brazil...
MARTIN: ...Because of the, you know, World Cup - next year's World Cup, the 2016 Olympics. But we're also hearing now that the economic growth there has kind of cooled off. There's been a lot of kind of civil disorder there. Just talk about, you know, what's...
MARTIN: ...Is there some harbinger of things to come for the region in general? What lesson should we be drawing here?
ESPUELAS: Well, there's an old saying in Brazil, which is Brazil is the country of the future, and it always will be because they have gone through boom and bust many times. Now I don't think this is a bust exactly, but during the very successful period, say, five years ago - or the last five years - they failed to invest in very important things like infrastructure. They failed to essentially modernize the country sufficiently so that it would have a self-sustaining economic model. And so now they're trying to readjust those things. And there's also - they've woken up the spirits of the people. And people want to now have their own businesses and emerge from poverty into the middle class.
MARTIN: I should've said this year's World Cup. I'm still kind of transitioning to the...
MARTIN: ...Fact this is a new year. So, you know, sorry for that. It's this year's World Cup. So let's go to Africa now. And, of course, Fernando, we want you to stand by and continue to stay with us. Gregory Warner, we just spoke with you because you just returned from South Sudan, which gained independence from the north in 2011. The situation there seems to have deteriorated. Just - could you just bring us up to date on what's happening there now before we move on to kind of broader issues of the continent?
WARNER: Sure, sure. I was thinking that my last week in South Sudan made me very grateful for George Washington, who left power after just a term, and in our own time, Mandela. So if you think of President Salva Kiir, president of South Sudan, he has a similar story. He was the liberation struggle hero - war hero. It was pretty certain that he was going to win the election in 2010. All this problems though - I mean, there's a complex history, but a lot of the problems now began when people started looking ahead to 2015.
His former vice president, Riek Machar, announced his intention to run in 2015. Now there are allegations on either side, whether you believe that there was a coup or no. Clearly, there's no clear path for what to do next, no clear path to a handover for power. That political struggle turned violent, turned military, and now it's turned into a battle for territory. We see battles going on in Bor right now. Of course, today...
MARTIN: I was going to say is there any broader message here? 'Cause one of the things that's been so interesting about the Africa story over the last decade is tremendous economic growth, tremendous improvement in living standards for many people in many different places, and yet these kind of cataclysmic clashes that lead to these big population flows and, you know, just incredible, you know, violence directed at civilians and so forth. So is there kind of overall a theme you're looking at for the year in terms of what Africa can expect?
WARNER: I mean, one theme is, is it elections, or is it democracy? And that's been something the West has tried to do in Africa is export elections. Now there's been recent research showing that elections can actually increase political violence, and that's something we're seeing in South Sudan - elections, when certain other measures are not there, and then certainly South Sudan is at the bottom of a lot of humanitarian measures. I think, though, the other question, though, is tribalism. Tribalism is the story very much of Africa. It's often what the Western media ends up talking about. You know, in South Sudan, we see soldiers killing civilians. Why? Why are they killing civilians?
Well, maybe it's a kind of gerrymandering, a kind of redistricting, you know. Kill the other guy's tribal base, and therefore, you know, boost your own. The other thing, though, that's going on, though, is that it's not just killing of the other tribe, it's looting. And so it's a redistribution of wealth, you know, rewarding loyalty. So if people feel that they need to retreat to tribalism, if tribalism is a way that they can have safety or they can have political voice, then they're going to express it that way. But it doesn't have to be that way in Africa.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we're having a global roundtable with NPR's East Africa correspondent Gregory Warner. That's who was speaking just now. Fernando Espuelas of Univision is also with us and Shadi Hamid of the Brookings Doha Center. So, Shadi Hamid, turning to the Middle East - one of the things that you were talking to us about was that you were also fascinated by how people kind of gave up on democracy so quickly and seemed to become - we're talking about in Egypt now - and seemed to embrace - is that the right word - military, a dictator. Could you talk a little about that and also whether you think that's a harbinger of other things in the area that you spend the most time thinking about?
HAMID: Yeah, sure, sure. Well, I mean, everyone says they support democracy in theory, and it's very easy to say that. But I think the real challenge in the Middle East is what happens when the people you don't like win elections and they keep on winning elections. Then democracy becomes very real, and it becomes existential because you're worried the other group is going to destroy you. So in these kinds of zero-sum contexts, democracy and elections can be very frightening for people. So that's why we saw such a remarkable shift where you had the vast majority of so-called liberals in Egypt passionately supporting a military coup and the subsequent crackdown. So it's been remarkable to watch that, first of all. And it continues.
We're six months after the coup, and you really see millions of Egyptians who are buying into this personality cult of the new strongman, General Sisi.
MARTIN: Another theme you said is the rise of radicals, particularly in Syria and Libya, Yemen, as well as Egypt. Do you want to talk a little bit more about that?
HAMID: You know, at the start of the Arab uprisings, in a lot of countries, people tried peaceful protest - in Syria, for example - but they kept on getting shot at and killed in very large numbers. And when that keeps on happening, people start to question the peaceful approach. And then you start to see the rise of radicals who say violence is the only way. And there isn't any kind of - I mean, you can't have peaceful protests in Syria now because it's a civil war. It's a war zone. So it's totally shifted from a kind of people-power type movement to full-on militarization.
In a place like Egypt, you have something similar where people try five consecutive democratic elections, which are reasonably free and fair. That doesn't work out. The military steps in. Then the real question now is, do those on the receiving end of the coup question their commitment to democracy and start to think about resorting to violence? That's what we're going to have to watch very closely in Egypt.
MARTIN: You know, one of the things that, us a frustration, I think, for correspondents who work in these regions, as well as the analysts who report on them for an American audience, is that they're constantly defined by certain narratives and themes. In the Middle East, it's oil and war as the lens through which people in the U.S. see these countries. So, Shadi Hamid, I wanted to ask you in the time that we have left - I wanted to ask each of you, is that still the right lens for the region? And are there other things that you would wish Americans think about when they think about the part of the world that you spend the most time in? Shadi.
HAMID: Sure. Well, yeah, sure. So, I mean, I think one way to look at it is not to compare the Arab Spring to Eastern Europe in the 1990s. I think the better comparison is to the revolutions of 1848 in Europe, which were very tumultuous and very bloody. And they unfolded over decades. The Middle East has so many fundamental divides, and I think one of the most troubling is the divide over the role of religion in public life. That hasn't been resolved yet. So people have to kind of think about, what is the meaning of the nation state, and what are the fundamental bases for building a new state? And that's why it becomes so violent because these existential issues haven't been worked out yet.
MARTIN: Fernando, what about you? What do you want Americans to be thinking about when they think about the part of the world that you cover?
ESPUELAS: Well, something someone said to me once when I was trying to explain the differences between countries, he said, oh, well, it's just that big blob south of Texas. And I think a lot of Americans, because of media, think of it that way. But I think the other way to think about it is that those countries that are genuinely committed to democracy, such as Costa Rica, Chile, Uruguay, Colombia, Mexico, perhaps - we'll see what happens. They're actually the truly successful countries of that region and look much more like European countries than they do the traditional Latin American countries. And then you have the failed states like Venezuela, where you do have a crazy left-winger who's trying to destroy the economy on purpose, it would seem.
MARTIN: No politics there, Fernando.
ESPUELAS: No, no. But here's the thing. How do you take a country like Venezuela, which is one of the richest countries in the world and are unable to provide even milk for the people? I mean, that takes tremendous amount of talent in some fashion. And therefore, these contrasts, I think, are important because we should be supporting from the U.S. those countries that are more successful or trying to transition those countries.
MARTIN: To - spend just one minute on Mexico, if you would, because as I think most people do know, the majority of immigrants from Latin America do come from - from South America - do come from Mexico even though, as you know, there are people from, you know, obviously, all over the world, and all over Latin America - people transversing through Mexico to come the U.S. from other countries. Spend a little bit if you would on it. Is the U.S.-Mexico relationship, I think, in most people's minds, it's defined by immigration, the drug war...
MARTIN: ...And to some extent, trade? So.
ESPUELAS: I think people would be surprised how close the U.S. and Mexican governments are functionally in terms of policy. For 150 years, the U.S. has imported labor from Mexico and the Mexican government has exported labor for its own purposes. So the solution is really a bi-national solution eventually. But I think there's some openings here in the political system of Mexico. The partial privatization of the oil industry, for example, which was untouchable, will actually create opportunities for more transparency, and if that spreads across the economy, it could create a much more robust middle class in Mexico.
MARTIN: Gregory Warner, same question to you. What are the stories that you would like Americans to be thinking about when they think about the part of the world that you cover?
WARNER: Well, it was interesting, President Obama of course visited Africa last year while it was on my watch. And I remember in the lead up to the president's trip, there was a minor, you know, three-day media scandal about the cost of the trip. I don't remember how many millions of dollars it was, and there was some response where the president and the first lady canceled the safari they were going to do. The point is, though, I was talking to business analysts at the time, and they said, you know, the media is really missing the point. A trip to Africa pays for itself. And in fact, the Chinese president made Africa his first visit because the GDP growth in Africa is second only to Asia.
I think it's something like the six or seven in the 10 fastest-growing countries are on the African continent. And increasingly, it's become the means of influence on the continent. You hear this mantra - trade not aid. This is from Africans. We want direct investment, not foreign aid, is the way to talk to us. And we mentioned BRICS. I mean, Kenya of course wants to be the K in BRICS. And that's going to be a little ways away, but we'll see. What's interesting to me is that American firms are still so cautious about getting involved in the African growth story and - except for the big, big guys like Coca-Cola, GE. And I asked many of them, you know, what is it? Why the caution in getting involved in Africa? Is it the stereotypes, that it's the dark continent?
Some people said that to me. I think, more fairly, it's a question of risk and risk versus reward. Certainly, the China model is very different. It's a state-sponsored capitalism. But the president's trip was all about really trying to set up more government support. I don't think that got covered as much as the politics around his, you know, criticisms of the governments and this kind of thing. One person from GE said, you know, the real important thing for Americans is if we don't get in now - we being the business community - in 10 years, many African economies will be humming along. They'll be - these relationships will be established. It'll really be too late.
MARTIN: Get on board, or get left...
MARTIN: ...Is the message of the business community. So, Gregory, final thought from you - 30 seconds. What's the one story you wish you'd covered this year that you couldn't get to that you want to tell us about now?
WARNER: Well, you know, there was a Christmas story that I never got to, but I probably will get to it next year. But it's about this phenomenon of going back to your village. And this is something that every Kenyan, in fact, lots of Africans and many people around the world have to do when they live in the city. They go back to their village. The problem is when you go back to the village and you're from a city, you get besieged upon - 50 shillings at a time, then you're out of money.
Every first cousin is asking you for - so somebody I was talking to - and I like this story because it really captures not only the mood and the climate, but also the technological revolution. Somebody wants to use Twitter and such to let people know, hey, I am contributing to your village. Please don't ask me for money.
MARTIN: Don't ask me for money. Well, you know, it's not just Kenyan relatives who want it. Anyway, we'll just leave it at that. Gregory Warner's NPR's East Africa correspondent. Fernando Espuelas is managing editor and host of "The Fernando Espuelas Show," which airs on Univision America. Shadi Hamid is director of research for the Brookings Doha Center. Thank you all so much for speaking with us today. Happy New Year to you all.
WARNER: Thank you, Michel.
HAMID: Thank you. Happy New Year.
ESPUELAS: Thanks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.