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Sunday, May 25, 2008

Beg to Differ

Joel Brinkley usually manages to come across as the typical quasi-benevolent moderate -- occasionally passionate when discussing human rights issues in Third World cesspools, but generally not challenging the overall dynamic of corporate imperialism that truly drives most aspects of policy. Thus it is not especially surprising that he weighs in on the appointment of a Sandinista tool to be UN president.

Starting in September, the politician in question, Miguel d'Escoto Brockmann, will have one of the world's most prominent podiums from which he can inveigh against Washington. D'Escoto was the Sandinista foreign minister during the 1980s, when Nicaragua was at war with the Reagan administration. Back then, he once described America's view of his country this way: "They're saying: 'You drop dead, or I will kill you.' "


I'm not sure what the controversy is, either in the accuracy of D'Escoto's assertion, or the supposedly urgent nature of his selection. It would be practically impossible -- intellectually dishonest at the very least -- to look at systematic US meddling in Central America since the days of William Walker and realize that it has been catastrophically brutal for the majority of the inhabitants there. What exactly does Brinkley think someone from that region who was not lucky enough to come from one of the oligarchic families that run those countries should say?

Brinkley ends his column ominously:

Ortega and d'Escoto, no doubt, still hold an acid view of Washington. Very soon the world will hear all about it.


Sure, and it will be taken about as seriously as the japes of Ortega's buddy Hugo Chàvez. So what? Again, whatever the level of the Sandinistas' corruption, it doesn't remotely approach the violent kleptocracy of the Somozas or even the crude burglar Alemán. That certainly doesn't excuse the self-serving hypocrisy of autocrats such as Ortega and Chàvez, but it's fundamentally dishonest to completely decontextualize the situation the way Brinkley (and, to be fair, most American commentators on the region) has done here.

If D'Escoto wishes to be serious and comprehensive in his critiques of US policy, people will listen; if he decides to act like a buffoon and call Bush a dickhead or a devil, he'll just get an easy laugh. But the idea that we can't tolerate or discuss any grievance, no matter how legitimate, is ridiculous.

Johann Hari places things much more in their overall context:

A corporation called United Fruit took one particular type – the Gros Michael – out of the jungle and decided to mass produce it on vast plantations, shipping it on refrigerated boats across the globe. The banana was standardised into one friendly model: yellow and creamy and handy for your lunchbox.

There was an entrepreneurial spark of genius there – but United Fruit developed a cruel business model to deliver it. As the writer Dan Koeppel explains in his brilliant history Banana: The Fate of the Fruit That Changed the World, it worked like this. Find a poor, weak country. Make sure the government will serve your interests. If it won't, topple it and replace it with one that will.

Burn down its rainforests and build banana plantations. Make the locals dependent on you. Crush any flicker of trade unionism. Then, alas, you may have to watch as the banana fields die from the strange disease that stalks bananas across the globe. If this happens, dump tonnes of chemicals on them to see if it makes a difference. If that doesn't work, move on to the next country. Begin again.

This sounds like hyperbole until you study what actually happened. In 1911, the banana magnate Samuel Zemurray decided to seize the country of Honduras as a private plantation. He gathered together some international gangsters like Guy "Machine Gun" Maloney, drummed up a private army, and invaded, installing an amigo as president.

The term "banana republic" was invented to describe the servile dictatorships that were created to please the banana companies. In the early 1950s, the Guatemalan people elected a science teacher named Jacobo Arbenz, because he promised to redistribute some of the banana companies' land among the millions of landless peasants.

President Eisenhower and the CIA (headed by a former United Fruit employee) issued instructions that these "communists" should be killed, and noted that good methods were "a hammer, axe, wrench, screw driver, fire poker or kitchen knife". The tyranny they replaced it with went on to kill more than 200,000 people.


What cheap criticisms and reflexive cries of "anti-Americanism" do is keep the discussion at the surface level, the better to muddle the substantial sociopolitical issues that might inform the antipathy of this or that individual. I mean, none of this destructive interference is a closely guarded secret; it's been going on for generations, to the point where, as Hari points out, phrases like "banana republic" become an uninformed cliché. But it means a bit more to the people who have had to endure the brunt of those policies.

The notion that we (or anyone) should be automatically inoculated from all dissent, that people are not only supposed to just forget decades of systematic expropriation and murder, but are also expected to put our interests before their own, is not automatically bad. It just displays a profound failure to understand human nature.

5 comments:

cavjam said...

What, in response to the history of U.S. interventionism in Central America, "reflexive cries of anti-Americanism" also do is imply that "Americanism" means communal violence against sovereign nations for the profit of its privileged business class. It may be, whether via the military or Capitalism's Invisible Army (as Bucky Fuller called the CIA), de facto truth; it doesn't fit the meme of America as the guys in the white hats.

I know it's cited to near death, but at the risk of cliche I think it's apropos, given the nature of the excellent post and the observed holiday, to present General Smedley Butler's words.

"I spent thirty- three years and four months in active military service as a member of this country's most agile military force, the Marine Corps. I served in all commissioned ranks from Second Lieutenant to Major-General. And during that period, I spent most of my time being a high class muscle-man for Big Business, for Wall Street and for the Bankers. In short, I was a racketeer, a gangster for capitalism.

I suspected I was just part of a racket at the time. Now I am sure of it. Like all the members of the military profession, I never had a thought of my own until I left the service. My mental faculties remained in suspended animation while I obeyed the orders of higher-ups. This is typical with everyone in the military service.

I helped make Mexico, especially Tampico, safe for American oil interests in 1914. I helped make Haiti and Cuba a decent place for the National City Bank boys to collect revenues in. I helped in the raping of half a dozen Central American republics for the benefits of Wall Street. The record of racketeering is long. I helped purify Nicaragua for the international banking house of Brown Brothers in 1909-1912 (where have I heard that name before?). I brought light to the Dominican Republic for American sugar interests in 1916. In China I helped to see to it that Standard Oil went its way unmolested.

During those years, I had, as the boys in the back room would say, a swell racket. Looking back on it, I feel that I could have given Al Capone a few hints. The best he could do was to operate his racket in three districts. I operated on three continents."

Grace Nearing said...

Very soon the world will hear all about it.

Assuming Americans get to hear it at all through the media clutter, it will be, for most, the first time they do.

Uninformed as students and misinformed as adults -- it's the American way of doing...whatever it wants.

The Promiscuous Reader said...

"If D'Escoto wishes to be serious and comprehensive in his critiques of US policy, people will listen; if he decides to act like a buffoon and call Bush a dickhead or a devil, he'll just get an easy laugh. But the idea that we can't tolerate or discuss any grievance, no matter how legitimate, is ridiculous."

Hahahahahaha... right. Whom do you mean by "people" here? Serious and comprehensive critiques of US policy do not get a hearing in the
US mainstream; they're dismissed as incomprhensible anti-Americanism. When Kofi Annan, for example, allowed that the US/UK invasion of Iraq might just be illegal aggression, the monkeys of the US corporate media hooted and threw their feces at him.

Or by "serious and comprehensive critiques of US policy" do you mean the "We meant well, but something went tragically wrong, so we have to figure out how do the next invasion right" line that is the usual mainstream tack?

Anonymous said...

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Heywood J. said...

Hahahahahaha... right. Whom do you mean by "people" here? Serious and comprehensive critiques of US policy do not get a hearing in the
US mainstream; they're dismissed as incomprhensible anti-Americanism. When Kofi Annan, for example, allowed that the US/UK invasion of Iraq might just be illegal aggression, the monkeys of the US corporate media hooted and threw their feces at him.


Yeah, I don't know what I was thinking there. Occasionally I might get caught up in a sort of "tide is turning" quasi-optimism, forgetting momentarily that we not they are the actual tide, and it is up to us to actually turn and change, or at least to begin rethinking bad habits.

Still, D'Escoto's goal at the UN will not be to convince us; he has to know that's a fool's errand. Instead it should be to constructively engage our allies, people we might actually listen to once in a great while. It's a small hope, but one still marginally more useful than the fleeting pleasure of pulpit-pounding.

But yeah, even the prospect of pulpit-pounding and demagoguery and insults doesn't really bother me. Americans need to grow a damned hide already, and just accept the fact that not everyone else wants to kiss our asses or emulate us. Sometimes they just want to be left the hell alone, and not exploited and plundered for their resources.