The Upside Down World News

"If the world is upside down the way it is now, wouldn't we have to turn it over to get it to stand up straight?" - Eduardo Galeano

A Tourist in Latin America

By Benjamin Dangl

August, 2002

The Upside Down World News

It was about 115 degrees on the bus as we wobbled through the Chiapas jungle in Southeast Mexico. The foul smell of the broken bathroom fermented in our nostrils. Suddenly a woman stood up and made a dash for the bathroom, and realizing the doors were locked shut, proceeded to vomit on my head. This was how an eight-month trip through South America began.

Sandinista marches in the northern jungles of Nicaragua, an illegal upstream border crossing into Guatemala, hitch hiking in Cuba, trapped in a civil war in Bolivia, riots and economic turmoil in Argentina, Inca ruins in Peru, penguins in Patagonia, dengue fever in Brazil rain forests, and Valentines day in Paraguay.

Parasites were not the only thing I brought back with me from Latin America. A sense of political concern developed for the first time when colorfully dressed women and farmers in Bolivia started hurling grapefruit sized rocks at our bus from the side of the road. I was caught in the midst of a nation-wide road blockade. Angry farmers were protesting the new government pressure against their production of coca leaves. These leaves, which are used for medicine and cultural events, as well as the production of cocaine, are the coca farmers main source of income. The U.S. government is putting more pressure on this production each year. I was caught in the middle of something I thought was completely unrelated to me, while in fact, I lived in the country that was responsible for the increased tension.

Nicaragua has been deeply effected by the results of U.S. foreign policy as well. The Sandinistas war with the Contras in the eighties still remains a strong memory to Nicaraguans. After years of oppression that proved capitalism did not work in such an agricultural state, the Sandinistas fought to take back the land. And it worked, starting in 1979 when they kicked out their corrupt president Somoza. Under the Sandinista government there were literacy campaigns, vaccinations and healthcare, farming collectives were developed, and the land was taken from the rich and given back to the people working on it. Then the U.S. government decided it was not commercially convenient for there to be a socialist state so close to home, and the Contra war in Nicaragua began. Possibly the hope and anguish of the Sandinista Revolution can be summed up in a conversation I had with a gnarled old union leader there. - I could tell you beautiful things about the revolution. We had war, we had a blockade but we had work, land, food, medicine and education. Now look out at the streets, there are dozens of strong men out there without work. Shoe makers, carpenters, masons, mechanics, all with hungry families. I could tell you beautiful things, but here the life is very hard now. -

On the other hand, in many ways, the revolution in Cuba continues. With their free education for all and excellent healthcare system they maintain a better literacy and infant mortality rate than that of the U.S.. Unlike many capitalist countries, the government controls the economy there and not vice versa.

In most rural areas throughout Latin America high literacy rates and good healthcare are the exception rather than the rule. In Cuba it is the opposite. I met ten year-old kids in the middle of the jungle that could read and write because their government had made sure there was a school nearby. And whereas thousands of people in Latin America die each year from basic sicknesses or lack of simple surgery, in Cuba rural areas had pharmacies and hospitals. I met rural people that had had complex and expensive surgery done for free.

In a land without Coca-Cola, Marlboros or McDonalds, Cuba is Cuban, and most take a great pride in this. The relationship with Fidel Castro is a mixed one. The presence and pressure of the government is seen everywhere. In the evenings in many small towns people gather around a communal outdoor TV in the parks.

There the old men and families watch shows and soap operas. One evening in the middle of a show, Fidel Castro started giving a speech on nation wide television. Everybody groaned, - Oye, por favor...otra vez! - (Come on, not again!) and wanted to watch the other evening program instead. So someone changed the channel, and then again, and then again. But Castro was on every station. Eventually they all resigned themselves to watching their bearded leader. He happened to be giving a speech thanking U.S. congress for trying to pass a law against the trade embargo on Cuba (which President Bush later vetoed).

Then there was Argentina. I would ride my bike up to school each morning and know if I had classes depending on if there was black smoke in the sky. The professors regularly burned tires and banged pots to protest their ongoing lack of pay. Instead of trying to deal directly with their problems of unemployment, rising poverty and social unrest, the Argentine government has done little else but ask for more money from the International Monetary Fund (I.M.F.) in the first months of their economic crisis.

Columbia, whose war torn history has led to a current, four sided drug war, with thousands dead, has a government helpless in the midst of their chaos. So they plead to the U.S. military which is more than willing to go in there and help out.

It is important to know what the U.S. is doing to and in the world. For example, due to the years of U.S. mandated economic sanctions on Iraq, over 500, 000 Iraqi children have died. In 1996 when Madeleine Albright was questioned on national television about our responsibility for this loss of life, she said it was - a very hard choice, but we think the price is worth it. - On a similar note, more innocent people have died in Afghanistan than in the World Trade Center bombing. Who are the terrorists when so many innocent people die?

As the U.S. becomes more powerful it is important to be critical of what our government is doing. The world is watching the U.S.. What are we doing?