Good morning, friends from international aid agencies,
Out of the friendship that I have with a good number of you, I write you this letter from a Central America immersed in an unfavorable context imposed by COVID-19, like most of the countries in the world.
Surely you are rethinking your 2020 agenda and your post CIVID-19 agenda, due to the fact that your budgets will tend to drop, because the economy is deteriorating and governments are adjusting their budgets to the issue of health, and because COVID-19 is leaving us a new institutional context, strengthened States, markets-elites weakened and a new perspective on climate change, while our societies are slowly awakening.
COVID-19 is revealing the “emperor has no clothes” (story written by Hans Christian Andersen, in 1837): “disaster capitalism” for decades privatized public goods like the health care system, has dispossessed indigenous peoples and peasant families of their lands, and has appropriated natural common goods (wood, minerals, water, oil…); a plunder possible thanks to the hierarchical, authoritarian and patriarchal structures of our own societies. This is the fertile soil for COVID-19 to multiply like sunflowers or soy beans on long plantations. COVID-10 is affecting the entire world, but affects more vulnerable people, the elderly, the Afro-american and Hispanic populations in the United States, because they are an impoverished and low paid population. It is a virus that is transmitted not just by coughing, but through normal breathing. Even without touching them, the virus is squeezing the working class, and diminishing the three meals of families in the informal economy. Even though the mortality affects more men, women who deal daily with family meals and human health suffer the daily stress more than any other social group, and are those most affected by gender violence. Impoverished people from the rural area who distrust the State from centuries ago, will prefer to die in their homes than go to the health centers. The cry of the earth and the cry of impoverished people is heard more severely in the universe.
It is important to connect the short-term urgencies with the long term needs. In the short term, it is important that they be based on facts like the effects of the virus that I just mentioned, and prevent big capital from imposing their economic logic on human life – that people go back to work sacrificing human lives. In the long term we must recognize that COVID-19 has to do with the impact of capitalism that has eroded our society and our common home, planet earth – which commonly is repeated as climate change. This is the fertile soil for COVID-19 and other diseases that scientists predict will come. It is our duty to keep big capital from wanting to ignore the current reality and return us to the “normality” prior to COVID-19. We need to change not for a while, but forever.
There is a saying that “behind every adversity is an opportunity”. The world is awakening, there is the opportunity. Humanity is realizing that the first floor that sustains the edifice of humanity are the indigenous and peasant families who produce food and protect nature, above all when these families are organized into different associative forms in their own communities, led by principles of social and environmental justice. It is not nefarious agro-business, the mono-cropping system, industrial animal raising or extractivism led by market justice the path for preventing diseases and dealing with climate change. This is the opportune moment to work with these families who are organizing, particularly because of their ecological knowledge and traditional practices.
International aid organizations should think about quick ways to capture alternative resources, and/or adjust their resources to the opportunities that would lead us to build societies with social and environmental justice. Thinking about more effective ways to work with grassroots organizations (associations, cooperatives, social enterprises, community organizations, social movements) that move about in the communities themselves, not so much with NGOs (or second tier organizations), that are confined – for safety – to their homes and cities. We should think about mechanisms that would ensure work at the grassroots level in order to expand sustainable production. Because the worst is not COVID-19, what is worse are the conditions that incubated COVID-19, and what is coming after it. And it is this alliance among community organizations and some international aid organizations more committed to social and environmental justice that can change for the good these post COVID-19 tendencies.
René Mendoza Vidaurre, Mark Lester and Fabiola Zeledón
The unfaithful market
“Bring your coffee and I will pay you 100 córdobas more per quintal than that coyote that is circling you”, Carmelón the trader said by cell phone. Pedro weighed his coffee before leaving on the bus, it weighed 3 quintals. Now in town, Carmelón put the three sacks on the scale and it weighed 2.3 quintals! He paid him 2990 córdobas, at 1300 per quintal. Pedro left dazed: in his own village they were offering him 3600, at 1200/qq; and he would have saved the cost of the transportation and the lost day. He arrived home with a headache. “What is bothering you?”, asked his wife, Julita. “Carmelón cheated me,” he responded angrily. Ah Pedrín, you know very well that the market is like a lover, you cannot demand that it be faithful. Pedrín felt like the earth opened up in front of him, how right his beloved was!
The market is like a lover, you cannot demand that it be faithful“. If it does not cheat you with the price it does it through the weight, if not, it tells you that your sun-dried coffee is wet, and if not that, it tells you to “wait on me.” Price, weight, and quality are structural challenges that can be resolved if people organize into a cooperative. But it is not automatic, most cooperatives are taken over by elites who turn their backs on their members, and turn into traders dressed up as “cooperatives”. Ah, but when the members of a community organize and the organs of their cooperative function, in that community they reduce violence, generate more equality and peace – this is what Esterlina Talavera says, from the 13th of October Cooperative in San Antonio: “In these cooperatives where only one person is in charge, one is not worth anything; in this cooperative, where the assembly is in charge, there I feel like I do have value.” If importers, roasters and sellers of ground coffee in the United States and Europe work with those corrupt cooperatives, they instead sow violence in peasant communities, like what happens with traditional mediation connected to big corporations, but if they work with democratic cooperatives, they support peace with justice.
Under what conditions can small producers, women and men, and small roasters and coffee sellers build communities of peace between rural areas of Central America and consumers in the United States and Europe? Responding to this question in this article, we see that markets can become “faithful” to the challenge of making peace with justice.
1. Perspective and ways of riding the markets
With Mark Lester´s visit to 50 importers and roasters in the United States, we discovered similar perspectives on both sides of the ocean: buyers and producers. He met with roasters who buy from 6 sacks of coffee a year to those who bought containers of coffee; there are peasant families also who produce 4 quintals of export coffee to those who produce 100 or 150 quintals of export coffee. In the face of this situation, there are importers who connect these two worlds: they import coffee in lots in one containers for roasters who want lots of a smaller size than that of a container; they are lots that come from 3 or 5 producers with the same coffee profile, possible through the grassroots cooperatives (1st tier).
He learned that roasters ask for samples of coffee to be able to express their interest in buying; some cup and define their own cup profile, and others ask the importer to define their cup profile; generally they are looking for a score above 82, because they think that is the way that they can differentiate themselves and compete in the face of large corporations whose costs are less because of their economies of scale. The cooperative sends the sample, indicates the volume of coffee that it offers from that sample, and the roaster responds whether they are interested in that coffee or not; as a sign of loyalty, the cooperative does not sell the volume it offered with the sample until the roaster has responded, to do so would be behaving as an “occasional lover”; the roaster or importer responds as quickly as possible, to not do so would be to behave like a “lover”. The roasters prefer lasting connections, it does not work out to each year have a new seller of coffee, because they want to maintain their cup profile; the cooperative also wants to have lasting relationships, especially if the buyer pays them based on quality and there is good deal; this implies that the cooperative also is loyal to its members, only collects their coffee, and thus maintains the same cup profile that it agreed upon with its buyer. It is a loyalty among several actors who revolve around coffee.
Mark found roasters and importers concerned about the sustainability of their enterprises and that of the coffee growing peasant families. If the peasantry with less than 5 hectares of coffee goes broke, the coffee is left in the hands of large mono-cropping enterprises, thus the quality of the coffee would drop because they are committed to varieties that produce volume and they grow them in full sun. This is not helpful to the buyers nor to the peasants. So from both sides of the ocean they want peasant families to increase their productivity (more and better coffee per hectare), and importers and roasters process more coffee in the same physical space. Both sides of the ocean also want diversification and the commitment to coffee quality to lead them to increase their productivity, that diversification would also include sustainable practices with several crops and the agro-industrialization of products, roasters who diversify their markets; university communities that demand coffee from cooperatives…
2. Trust, the beginning of triangulation
Cultivating these described connections and commitments are not possible with conventional practices. Financial organizations provide credit requiring financial statements (indicating expenses and income) and balance statements (indicating assets of the cooperative versus its debts) from the cooperatives; but these in turn tend to hire accountants who “invent” their financial reports, while their members do not have access to that information, and if they do, the numerical chaos is incomprehensible to them. Financial organizations and buyers assume that on signing contracts with cooperatives, they actually are operating as cooperatives; at the same time it is seen that most of them do not redistribute their earnings, they treat their members as any intermediary would treat them; they are cooperatives whose members do not rotate in their posts, nor does their administrative staff rotate in accordance with their merits. So the aid organizations, on learning of these realities, turn a blind eye; thus, trust in people becomes trust in money on the part of a small global club.
Those connections and commitments can, nevertheless, be built based on trust if cooperatives function as cooperatives, if buyers and roasters treat them as cooperatives and not as if they were haciendas, connecting only with the manager or only with their president. How can trust be built? From the work of the Winds of Peace Foundation (WPF) with grassroots cooperatives and its contacts with buyers and roasters, we propose an inclusive triangulation.
Social banks, buyers and second tier cooperatives already practice triangulation, they sign contracts where the cooperative collects coffee with financing from the social banks, and the buyer pays the loan owed by the cooperative to the social bank. But it stays there, they are that club that turns a blind eye to the true functioning of the cooperative and its members. We take up that triangulation, buyers, financiers and cooperatives, but not with second tier cooperatives but with grassroots cooperatives (first tier); and we do not stay there, we do an inclusive triangulation, that implies that part of the contract stipulates the distribution of profits and information, that they be democratic and efficient organizations (that they lower costs), and work in sustainable agriculture. That this inclusive nature be verified by an accompaniment that helps the members govern their cooperatives, and that the transparency between buyers, roasters and cooperatives be reciprocal.
Being inclusive means that the member families coordinate among themselves to achieve a cup quality of 85, improving their soils, assuming the costs of sending coffee samples: not letting the market govern them, believing that it is only a matter of putting up money and moving coffee; it is that we work with members over the entire year and not just in the coffee harvest season, connecting small producers who organize into cooperatives with small roasters. If one actor acts as an opportunist, they damage the entirety of the coordination with the different actors, and they do damage to themselves. If the price in the market goes way up, the cooperatives prefer to stay in a lasting relationship; if the prices of the market go way down, the buyers prefer to stay in a lasting relationship. This is coordinating, trusting and being faithful.
3. Role of accompaniment
There are roasters aware of the fact that peasant families cannot improve their lives if they do not organize into cooperatives, and that is why they seek out healthy relationships with these cooperatives. There are importers who understand the importance of connecting small roasters with small producers who are organized into grassroots cooperatives. There are also foundations, like WPF, that accompany this process of triangulation.
In this role, WPF, in collaboration with a team from the COSERPROSS cooperative, accompanies the grassroots cooperatives, contacts importers and roasters, and because of its connections with Universities in the United States, works so that the triangulation reaches university communities.
Previously WPF did not play this role. It assumed that that role belonged to the cooperatives. But seeing that the cooperatives are being absorbed by structures that sow injustice, violence and environmental unsustainability, WPF took on new roles, of being a hinge in the relationships between cooperatives and buyers, helping to make transparent the agreements between the different actors. If previously WPF provided credit on the basis of bilateral trust with a cooperative, now it does it in the framework of an inclusive triangulation, precisely to build greater trust.
At the beginning of this article we asked ourselves about the conditions in which small producers and small roasters can build communities of peace. We provided three responses. First, small producers and roasters pursue common perspectives; perspectives that start from having similar size, committed to coffee quality, and social and environmental sustainability, innovating through diversification. Second, establishing relationships of an inclusive triangulation where the economic transaction goes along with the economic and organizational democratization of the cooperative and the other allied actors. Third, ongoing accompaniment of these perspectives and this inclusive triangulation.
Under these three conditions trust, mutual loyalty and lasting relationships can be built. This leads us to be concerned about the people. It is a perspective where Pedro and Julita, from the story at the beginning of the article, organized in a cooperative can collect their coffee harvest in their own communities. It is a path where markets can work to build communities of peace with justice, communities that plough the seas.
From time to time I have reproduced the writings of others at this blog site, because they have stated ideas so powerfully. I have elected to do it again, given the words written by Kathleen at the Center for Development in Central America (CDCA). Kathleen has been quoted here before because what is in her heart is so well said in her words. The following is excerpted from the CDCA May 2019 newsletter.
My mother has said over and over that one of the two things Jesus wished he had never said was, “The poor you will have with you always.” Why?
Because so many Christians use that phrase to justify pouring money into church buildings and doing nothing for the poor. But what if we re-examined that phrase, and instead of looking at it as meaning an impossible goal of eradicating poverty, look at that phrase as an indictment of the rich?
It is true that, “There is enough in the world for everyone’s need, but not enough for everyone’s greed,” a quote from Frank Buchman.
Staying with my daughter in the Northeast, it is easy to let the poor slip my mind. As she recuperate from surgery, my daughter is watching mindless television so she can crochet and heal. One of her shows is “Top Chef.” I have found it addictive but also, when I remember the poor in Nicaragua, nauseating.
In Nicaragua with climate change and with the socio-political crisis there, people are looking more and more at hunger. It is easy to forget that as the Top Chef judges say to a contestant that the prime rib was not plated to please the eye.
It is easy for the wealthy or the intellectual class in Nicaragua to create and foment a crisis when their children will be fed and given medical care or even schooling if a new government comes in and discontinues social programs.
It is easy to forget that people are sweating and bearing unbelievable heat when there is cool air at a touch. When you have food to eat and can jump in an air-conditioned car, it is easy not to feel the urgency that climate change should be our top priority (when diesel prices had dropped, one opposition leader said that the Nicaraguan government was doing the people a disservice by investing in renewable energy!).
A Brazilian priest, Frei Betto, helps those of us who would say we choose to stand with the poor by telling us that, “The head thinks where the feet stand.”
He says that, “It is impossible to be a leftist without dirtying one’s shoes in the soil where the people live, struggle, suffer, enjoy and celebrate their beliefs and victories. To engage in theory without practice is to play the game of the right.”
Many tell us that our opinion of what is happening in Nicaragua is just wrong, and maybe it is; but Fr. Betto also says, “Choose the risk of making mistakes with the poor over the pretension of being right without them.”
Conditions in the country we serve, Nicaragua, continue to hearken back to a generation ago, when the administration in power faced enormous protests and demands for a new government. The confrontations continue today, just as they did all those years ago, leading to violence and deaths, denials, accusations, reprisals and lots of pain. It’s tough to watch in a country of such charm and character.
Two recent documents, written by The University of Central America and the Episcopal Church, provide both a news update as well as perspectives about how at least part of the population places its support. The following is a statement provided by the UCA following a Wednesday night demonstration:
“The University of Central America (UCA) reports that this Wednesday, May 30, at around 4:30 PM, there was an attack by the “shock troops” against the defenseless population participating in a civic march that had the UCA as its final destination.
The attacks took place in the vicinity of the gate closest to the National University of Engineering (UNI). In support of the people, the UCA security guards opened the gates so that the protesters could take refuge in the campus. Fleeing the attacks, more than 5,000 people managed to enter, while many fled in other directions. Countless injured people were treated by volunteers immediately on campus and ambulances took all of the injured to medical centers.
After 8:30 PM, volunteers and drivers from the UCA had managed to evacuate the majority of the refugees to different parts of the capital and, at the time of publication of this message, continue in this process. Despite the shooting, the refugees did not want to stay on campus because of threats received about attacks on the university.
The UCA, which stands on the side of the people in their struggle for justice, denounces this new criminal attack and demands from the authorities the immediate cessation of the repression that uses shock troops to assassinate with impunity, protected by the current misrule.
We urge human rights organizations, national and foreign, to take note of this situation that seriously affects the lives of citizens and to use mechanisms for the protection of human rights such as the Inter-American Human Rights System and the United Nations.
We urge the international community to stand in solidarity with the people of Nicaragua and to apply mechanisms which can help resolve this crisis, which has reached the level of a massacre against a defenseless population.”
The document quoted below was generated by the Bishops Conference of the Episcopal Church in Nicaragua:
To the People of God and men and women of good will:
We the Bishops of the Episcopal Conference of Nicaragua have experienced with profound pain the violent events carried out last night by armed groups allied with the government against the civilian population. We energetically condemn all these violent acts against the exercise of peaceful free demonstrations and we absolutely reject this organized and systemic aggression against the people, which has left dozens of wounded and some people dead.
We cannot continue allowig this inhumane violence “that destroys the lives of the innocent, that teaches to kill and equally disrupts the lives of those who kill, that leaves behind a trail of resentment and hate, and makes more difficult the just solution of the very problems that caused it” (Centesimus Annus, 52).
We the Bishops of the Episcopal Conference condemn these acts of repression on the part of groups close to the government, and we want to leave clear that the National Dialogue cannot be renewed as long as the people of Nicaragua continue being denied the right to freely demonstrate and continue being repressed and murdered.
At this moment in which the history of our country continues being stained with blood, we cry out to Jesus Crucified, who on resurrecting from the dead conquered evil and death with the strength of his infinite love. “Oh, Cross of Christ, we teach that the dawn of the sun is stronger than the darkness of night. Oh Cross of Christ, we teach that the apparent victory of evil fades in the face of the empty tomb and in the face of the certainty of the Resurrection and the love of God, which nothing can defeat or darken or weaken” (Pope Francis, Holy Friday 2016). That Mary, the grieving Virgin, whose heart was pierced by a sword in the face of the pain of her Son on the Cross (Lk 2:35), consoles so many Nicaraguan mothers who suffer over the murder of their sons and watch over all our people with maternal love.
Issued in the city of Managua on the thirty first day of the month of May of the the two thousand eighteenth year of the Lord.
Episcopal Conference of Nicaragua
This communique was signed by the ten bishops of the conference.
(For those interested in tracking developments in Nicaragua, one source is La Prensa. The daily newspaper provides very current coverage of events in Nicaragua, as well as perspective on events elsewhere in the world.)
For those who know and love Nicaragua and the people there, this is a painful and sad time. It’s made even more so by how little the U.S. news media writes about it. Their lack of attention does not diminish the anguish and tragedy of what is occurring in the land of our neighbor to the south….
The height of injustice is to be deemed just when you are not. Plato
Even an honest man sins in the face of an open treasure. Saying.
The VII song of the Odyessy tells how the goddess Circe warned Ulysses that the sailors of those waters were so enchanted by the song of the sirens that they went mad, and lost control of their ships. To not succumb to that enchantment, Ulysses asked that he be tied to the mast of the ship, and that the oarsmen have wax put in their ears, and ordered that if he, because of the spell of their song, would ask that they free him, instead they should tighten the knots. So it was that Ulysses and his oarsmen were saved, and the sirens, failing in their objective, threw themselves off the cliff.
Facing unfair commercial relations, Fair Trade (FT) emerged as an alternative so that people who organized might improve their lives and be a space of solidarity among different actors beyond their countries´ borders. Nevertheless, in our case study in Nicaragua and Central America, we show that the institutional structure of power relationships under the market control of elites is like the sirens in the myth, capable of seducing the FT network, turning it against its own principles, and turning solidarity into just a bunch of words, numbers and papers. How can FT tie itself up so as to not succumb to the song of the sirens, and in this way, grow, enhancing its FT alternative principles? To respond to this question we take as a given that there are exceptional cooperatives, organizations, and people who confirm the importance of organizing and cultivating global solidarity, and that there are successful cooperatives, in countries in the south as well as in the north, in FT as well as outside of it. Nevertheless, in this article we study certain practices of the FT framework that seem to indicate its involution, and on that basis we suggest its reinvention. To do so we focus on coffee, which constitutes 70% of the volume of what is sold through FT.
This Easter has been a sweet deal for candy manufacturers: more than $2 billion was spent on candy alone this season, and the overall spending on all Easter-related purchases figures to be the second-highest in U.S. history. (I know that I didn’t receive any chocolate bunnies on Easter Sunday, so somebody else has been taking more than their share. ) But it started me thinking about wants and needs and central Easter messages.
That candy cost isn’t exactly chicken feed. By comparison, the total amount of all U.S. aid to Nicaragua in 2017 was $31.3 million, 15% of all that candy. I only offer the comparison here for contrast; neither I nor most Nicaraguans would argue for greater aid dependency on the U.S. But it’s quite a difference in sums when one considers the two categories: resources for basic human living standards in Nica versus Easter candy consumption in the U.S. Setting aside such notions as national boundaries, something seems inequitable in all of that, no matter to what political or economic perspective one may subscribe. Let me elaborate.
I spent a week with my colleague Mark in Nicaragua last month, visiting with rural partners, hearing about their struggles with various harvests, understanding the need for late repayments in several cases, and attending a two-day workshop designed to teach information analysis, so that these producers might go about their work on a more data-driven basis.
Our week did not represent some kind of hight-level financial development. We lunched with them on rice and beans. We spoke with some, in impromptu huddles, about small loans and the most basic tenets of our partnerships: accompaniment, transparency, functioning bodies of governance, broad-based participation, and collaboration within the coops. We described the nature of goals and goal-setting. They asked us about work processes. We laughed some. The interactions may have been at their most basic level, but they were important and appreciated. Basic stuff usually is.
What does any of that have to do with Easter candy sales? Simply this: the sweet taste in the mouth from a dissolving Peep or jelly bean is both artificial and temporary. And it can never take away the bad taste in the mouth from the recognition that we spend more on candy than on the very lives of others who are in significant need for their basic survival. That bad taste comes from recognition that our own lives are made up of moments, moments of priority and precedence, wherein we have the free will to decide how we will spend our time and our money and our spirit. Those decisions impact the impoverished in profound ways, and as importantly, paint the portrait of who we truly are. And they do leave a taste in the mouth, one kind or another.
Last month in Nicaragua I heard the observation of a producer who was considering the raising of a few chickens as a supplement to his coffee-growing efforts. His words of hesitation were like a fist to the gut. “The corn that my hens eat,” he observed, “could be food for my family.” He was not speaking about candy corn.
Easter is a season of resurrection and salvation, of new beginnings and new chances. It is a time of reflection for many about the life and example of Jesus and the basis of those who claim followership of his teaching. It also gives me pause to think about the price of candy and the value of corn….
A long-time friend of mine recently bestowed a gift on me, one that has intrigued, perplexed and annoyed all at the same time. It may seem strange that one small gift could accomplish all of this, but given the nature of the giver, I would expect no less.
George is an octogenarian, and one who has stuffed a great many experiences into his years, whether in vocation, family, service to others or contemplation of self. For these reasons, as well as the fact that he is simply a very nice man, I enjoy meeting with him every so often for excellent conversation. Neither one of us will ever be able to recount the winners and losers at The Academy Awards, but both of us like to expound upon what is right and what is wrong with the world today. We both pretend to have the answers, if not the questions.
The gift he brought to me is no less than a presentation of life’s virtues. One hundred thoughtful descriptions of moral excellence and goodness of character are printed on 4X5 cards, along with certain actions which embody the particular virtue. They are a product of The Virtues Project, an international initiative to inspire the practice of virtues in everyday life. Each day at breakfast, I’m confronted with a new aspect of right action and thinking which may or may not be attributable to myself. But they’re good triggers for thought and conversation with my wife, as I either claim ownership of a virtue or confess my weakness of it. (I am too afraid to keep track of whether I have more “hits” than “misses.”) The object is not keeping score, but reflecting on one’s personal posture.
The experience is stimulating. I mean, how often do most of us have the questions posed about our daily existence and how we have chosen to live it? Consider matters of integrity. Honesty. Humanity. Commitment. Honor. Gratitude. Faith. Empathy. Grace. Generosity. Love. Peacefulness. Responsibility. Sacrifice. Tolerance. Truth. The list is as long as it is deep. Serious reflection of virtue is sobering, affirming and complex, all at the same time.
Yet there is a sort of elitist quality about contemplation of such things. My past week in Nicaragua reminds me that consideration of manners and philosophies often becomes subjugated in light of the daily grind of feeding one’s family or securing the particulars of suitable shelter. In some cases, circumstances tend to bend absolute virtues, or at least place them in conflict with other virtuous aims.
I do not imply that Nicaraguan peasants are without virtuous living; in fact, the reality is quite the opposite. My experiences with rural Nica farmers often have been object lessons about living with dignity and hope despite enormously difficult circumstances. Virtuous behaviors come from within, cultivated from generations of living in concert with their faith, the earth and one another, rather than from a conscious deliberation of what “ought to be.”
What occurs to me in the understanding of living against great odds is that the opportunity for meditation on matters of virtue and how to cultivate such behaviors is almost non-existent. The conscious deliberation of what “ought to be” is too often a luxury afforded to those who are well off enough to indulge in contemplation of 4X5 cards.
Perhaps the observations are of no note. Certainly, those who have been blessed with opportunity for musing on such matters have brought about only a modest degree of change and equity in the world: children still starve against the virtues of Generosity, Humanity, Justice, Mercy and Sacrifice. In my own reading of the virtues, I long for the recognition of them inherent within myself, regardless of the words on the cards. But it is not always so, and the gentle reminders of what I could be are blessings to embrace.
There’s still time. The questions are not complete, the answers not finished, our lives are not done, our legacies are not written and our virtues are not known until the end of our days….
I’ve continued to think about the comments made last week by the President of the U.S. Even though he later denied some of the words attributed to him, and two of his most ardent supporters stated that they did not recall his use of the words, there seems to be little doubt about what was actually said and why. The entire episode was astonishing to those with any sensibilities, regardless of political affiliation.
But my own reflections on the matter shifted to the countries in question, the ones which were denigrated so graphically by the leader of the free world. What’s the possible basis for such demeaning remarks? Are these nations really so awful? And if so, why? I suppose that, by comparison, Nicaragua might be one of those countries which the U.S President had in mind: it’s the second-poorest nation of the Western Hemisphere (next to Haiti), has a history of internal conflicts and dictatorships, contributes to both legal and illegal immigration to the U.S. and has sustained a strained relationship with U.S. administrations for decades. With that in mind, I considered the circumstances that might have led countries like Nicaragua, Haiti and the African nations to be held in such contempt by the wealthiest country in the world.
At least in the case of Nicaragua, the beginning of their modern-day difficulties date back to the 1850’s invasion of that country by invasion from the U.S. Over subsequent decades, the North American neighbor alternately funded insurrection, invaded with U.S. Marines, supported a generations-long dictatorship of oppression, illegally funded a war against a duly-elected Nicaraguan administration, ignored a World Court penalties of $6 Billion for their illegalities, consistently and forcefully interfered in elections and has recently threatened legislation to eliminate U.S. remittances to Nicaragua families. In sum, it has been an excellent recipe for the creation of a troubled existence.
In Haiti, the early troubles inflicted by the U.S. were quite similar to the incursions in Nicaragua. On July 28, 1915, American President Woodrow Wilson ordered U.S. Marines to occupy the capitol. Forces were instructed to “protect American and foreign” interests. The U.S. also wanted to rewrite the Haitian constitution, which banned foreign ownership of land, and replace it with one that guaranteed American financial control. To avoid public criticism, the U.S. claimed the occupation was a mission to “re-establish peace and order… [and] has nothing to do with any diplomatic negotiations of the past or the future.” Within six weeks of the occupation, U.S. government representatives seized control of Haiti’s custom houses and administrative institutions, including the banks and the national treasury. Under U.S. government control, a total of 40% of Haiti’s national income was designated to repay debts to American and French banks. For the next nineteen years, U.S., government advisers ruled the country, their authority provided by the United States Marine Corps. The U.S. retained influence on Haiti’s external finances until 1947. It was a good way to subdue a culture, an independent economy and self-determination and to ensure their third world status.
For the African continent, the litany of U.S. interventions and self-serving intrusions is far too long to even summarize here. Africa is a big place, and nearly every one of its fifty-four countries has experienced U.S. interference at one point in history or another. But the following description of cause-and-effect, excerpted from an article by Mark Levine at aljazeera.com provides some context for current reality:
Traveling across Sub-Saharan Africa it becomes a truism—but nonetheless in good measure true—that the areas where the region’s much-celebrated recent growth is most evident are precisely where people are able to create local markets largely outside the control of corrupt government and private elites. But the large-scale and still expanding militarisation and securitisation of US policy makes the development of such truly free-market mechanisms that much more difficult to realise, precisely because the strengthening of capacities of militaries and security/intelligence sectors invariably strengthens the power of elites and states vis-a-vis ordinary citizens, exacerbates economic conflicts and inequalities, and strengthens the position of those groups that are violently reacting to this process.
The poverty which continues to envelop much of the continent is the result of far more than just the meddling of the United States. But the U.S. footprint is present in both actions taken and assistance NOT rendered; if these constitute s***hole countries, perhaps they are perceived this way because we in the U.S. have chosen to see them and respond to them in that way. After all, no less than the U.S. President has identified them as such. (I think the President is unaware of the fact that earliest humans emerged from Africa. Not Europe. Not North America. Not Norway. But Africa.)
The unfortunate truth for many struggling nations is to be found in the poor-man-crawling story:
A wealthy man was walking on a city street, preoccupied with cell phone and important connections. His preoccupation resulted in a collision with a somewhat disheveled and homeless man walking in the opposite direction. The poor man fell down, momentarily stunned by the contact, but immediately reached out to gather up several of his belongings which had been knocked from his hands. The wealthy man, perturbed at the mishap and the dropping of his own phone, retrieved it brusquely and then observed the poor man on hands and knees, salvaging his few possessions. As he walked away indignantly, the wealthy man observed, “It’s disgusting to see the way these vagrants crawl our sidewalks. The police should do something about them, to make the streets safe for respectable folks.”
Where there is hunger and thirst, need and distress, poverty and injustice, there are reasons for it. And sometimes the reasons lie at the feet of those who are not thus afflicted. S***hole countries, if they actually exist, may well be the result of outsiders who have created them….