Rick Steves' Travel as a Political Act Blog
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Americans hate thinking of themselves as an empire. After all, weren't we fighting an "empire" in our Revolutionary War? And wasn't it an "empire" that crucified Jesus and persecuted his followers? The USA — that bastion of freedom and democracy — might not literally claim other countries as part of our own territory. But only we can declare someone else's natural resources on the far side of our planet “vital to our national security” (but in reality, are vital only to our accustomed material lifestyle).
You could debate long and hard about whether the US is an "empire." But actually, what you and I think is irrelevant. The fact is, much of the world views us that way, and therefore they — especially our enemies — will treat us as an empire.
Why are we perceived as an empire by so many people? For starters, look at our United Nations voting record: According to the UN website, in 2007, the US voted “no” more than any other nation. In 40 percent of those "no" votes, we were outvoted by at least 150 to 4. Who stands with us as we oppose issues such as creating a declaration of rights for indigenous peoples, the human right to food, child labor laws, dropping the embargo against Cuba, and restricting illicit small arms trade? Israel, Marshall Islands, and Micronesia. Even if you write off the United Nations as a group of one-world-fixated loonies, many other countries take it seriously...and our dismissal of it speak volumes about our willingness to engage in peaceful and constructive problem-solving.
When others look at us, rather than see a hardworking policeman of the world defending freedom wherever we can, they see a nation with military bases in 130 countries. They see a nation with 4 percent of this planet's people spending as much as everybody else put together on our military.
Many Americans consider the emblems of the Bush years — Iraq War, Guantánamo, the Abu Ghraib torture scandal, world isolation, domestic surveillance, loss of civil liberties, and so on — a reasonable price to pay because we avoided another terrorist attack. Much of the rest of the world saw these as an overreaction to a tragic situation. The wave of sympathy that poured into America after 9/11 could have lifted the whole world to an unprecedented new unity. Instead, our leaders manipulated our national grief to justify acts that have alienated us from many of our allies and swollen the ranks of our enemies.
Some might brush off questionable American policies by saying, "Well, that was just our government." We are our government. We cannot rest on the notion of the "innocent civilian." Morally, when it comes to a free and powerful nation like ours, I believe there are no innocent civilians. If I pay taxes, I am a combatant. Every bullet that flies and every bomb that drops has my name on it. It could be a good bomb or a good bullet. Sometimes military action is necessary. But right or wrong, I take moral responsibility for it. That's simply honest, responsible citizenship.
Posted by Rick Steves on October 30, 2009
If Salvadoran voters embrace the FMLN, then who does the cutting? It's still the USA. Much as US corporations exert an undue influence over Latin American business, the US government continues to exert its authority over "democracies" south of our border. For example, in El Salvador's 2004 presidential elections, the left-wing FMLN candidate seemed poised to win. The US sent an envoy, Jeb Bush, to El Salvador to feed the rumor that if the FMLN won, the US would expel the two million Salvadorans living in America. The loss of money from these Salvadoran expats sent to their starving relatives back home would be devastating. A TV ad showed a woman opening an envelope from the US and reading a letter from her son: “Sorry, mom, if the FMLN wins, this will be the last money I can send from the USA.” A week later, the right wing and US-friendly ARENA party won big.
You can argue whether American meddling in Latin American politics is justified. Either way, it makes me uncomfortable to think that a nation founded on the principles of liberty and democracy wields such a strong influence south of the border. In recent decades, throughout the developing world, the US has made it clear that if the left-wing candidates win, “relations will suffer.”
I asked Father Jon Sobrino (a leading Jesuit priest and scholar at the University of Central America) about America's influence on Salvadoran politics. He said, “These days, when I hear the word 'democracy,' my bowels move.”
Posted by Rick Steves on October 28, 2009
When Oscar Romero was made archbishop in 1977, wealthy Salvadorans breathed a sigh of relief. If his reputation as a fairly conservative priest was any indication of how he would run the Church here, they believed the right wing had nothing to fear. But the growing violence against the poor and the repeated killing of church leaders who grappled with economic injustice drove Romero to speak out. Eventually this mild-mannered priest became the charismatic spokesperson of his people.
As a Liberation Theologian, Romero invited his followers to see Christmas as the story of a poor, homeless mother with a hungry baby. Romero taught that the lessons and inspiration offered by the Bible were tools for the faithful as they dealt with the struggles of their day-to-day lives.
Because Archbishop Oscar Romero asked why, he was gunned down in 1980 while saying Mass. Then, dozens of worshippers were murdered at his funeral.
After the killing of Romero, the poor — emboldened by their Liberation Theology — rebelled, plunging El Salvador into their long and bloody Civil War. The united guerilla front (FMLN) expected a quick win, but the US under Ronald Reagan spent $1.5 million a day to keep that from happening. With the success of the Sandinistas in Nicaragua in July 1979, Reagan was determined to stop the spread of what he considered to a communist threat.
Salvadoran forces assumed, because the guerillas were maintaining their strength, that innocent civilians in territory leftist forces controlled were no longer innocent. Civilian women and children were considered combatants — fair game — in order for the popular revolt to become less popular. As if draining the sea to kill the fish, right-wing forces targeted and terrorized civilians with a brutal vengeance. Notorious "death squads" wrought havoc on El Salvador's poor. Today this policy, considered an option for quelling insurgencies around the world, is known as the “Salvador Option.”
While the FMLN could have fought on, the toll on their country was too great. In 1984, negotiations began that finally led to a 1992 peace accord. The negotiated settlement ending the Civil War meant the guerilla forces would trade in their guns for a spot in the government. Suddenly, the guerillas shaved, washed, and found themselves members of parliament representing a now-peaceful FMLN party.
Posted by Rick Steves on October 26, 2009
The 1980s was the golden age of Liberation Theology in Latin America (explained in my previous blog entry). But, while it gave hope to millions of previously hopeless people, the movement also had many critics. Mingling religious authority with social, political, and even military power, Liberation Theology could lead to armed revolution. And it had a potentially corrupting influence on local charismatic priests, who created a cult of personality to empower themselves and their followers. Still, lacking an equally uplifting alternative, many people saw Liberation Theology as the only viable option for people dissatisfied with what they consider a social and economic structure that keeps them poor.
In the 1990s, after the peace accords ended the Civil War, this revolutionary movement morphed into a political party (FMLN), and the Christian Base Communities slowly lost their vibrancy. Today, Liberation Theology seems dormant as a political force. The progressive side of the Catholic Church has been tamed.
Traveling — whether in Christian, Muslim, Hindu, or Buddhist lands — you see how religion injects passion into local politics. Lessons learned on the road tend to give me both empathy for people's struggles and a respect for the importance of separation of religion and state. Just as I oppose prayer in school in the US, I don't like it when a Muslim society becomes a theocracy and legislates morality according to Quranic values. Yet when a politicized Church (such as the one that stood by the revolutionaries of Central America in the 1980s) fights for economic justice, I find myself rooting for the politicization of religion. My heart makes my politics inconsistent.
Posted by Rick Steves on October 23, 2009
If economic elites use religion as the "opiate of the masses," Latin America's Liberation Theology movement is the opposite. Liberation Theology is a politicized view of Christianity popular among the world's poor and those trying to inspire the poor to fight for economic justice. Liberation theologians preach that every person is created in God's image, and God intended them to have dignity. They say economic injustice and structural poverty is an affront to God, and it is right for the downtrodden to mobilize and fight for their God-given rights now rather than docilely wait for heavenly rewards.
Liberation Theology has easy-to-trace roots. In 1959, the success of the Cuban Revolution inspired revolutionary movements throughout Central America. In 1965, Vatican II encouraged the faithful to take their religion a little more personally. In 1968, the Catholic bishops of Latin America met at Medellín (in Columbia). They called for Christians to live out the gospel and encouraged them to find dignity while on earth. Although it didn't have a name yet, this was Liberation Theology.
The movement was officially born in 1972, when Gustavo Gutiérrez published A Theology of Liberation. The 1970s saw the rise of the first Christian Base Communities, which incorporated this take on Christianity into their daily lives. In these Liberation Theology-driven barrios, resurrection is the responsibility of the community. When one is killed, he or she lives on in the community.
As it was in feudal Europe, the power centers in Central America have been the military, the landowners, and the Church. After Vatican II and the bishops' conference at Medellín, the Church decided to embrace Jesus' "preferential option" (or special concern) for the poor. When this happened, the old alliance (state, church, and land-owning elites) — which had so effectively kept the people down — began breaking apart. Revolution followed.
Liberation Theology was serious stuff, and the US took note. President Nixon dispatched future Vice President Nelson Rockefeller to Latin America to find out exactly what it was. He helped establish an American Cold War stance that considered this politicization of Christianity (with its Marxist underpinnings) a direct challenge to American interests in Central America.
From this point on, the story of El Salvador's struggle became a story of martyrs. First, politically active peasants were killed. From the 1970s on, Church leaders were targeted. "Be a patriot...kill a priest" was a bumper sticker-like slogan popular among El Salvador's national guard.
I'll cover more points about Liberation Theology in my next blog entry.
Posted by Rick Steves on October 21, 2009
Rich Christians can't imagine God was serious. But the sad modern history of El Salvador shows the wisdom in the Biblical Jubilee year. There's a pattern that I think of as Jubilee massacres: a dramatic spike in violence every fifty years. Twice a century, landless peasants rise up...and are crushed. In the 1830s, an insurrection and its charismatic leader were put down. In 1881, peasants suffered a big and bloody land grab. In 1932, after the great global depression and communist influence made landless peasants both hungry and bold, an estimated 30,000 were massacred following an insurrection. In the 1980s again, the people rose up and were repressed so cruelly that a 12-year Civil War followed. The 1830s, 1881, 1932, the 1980s — during the last two centuries, El Salvador has endured a slaughter every fifty years.
Thoughtful travelers who respect the Bible can make a point to read it as the majority of Christians on this planet do: through the eyes of the poor world. Christians with two different outlooks could read Matthew 25, where Christ says, “I was hungry and you fed me, imprisoned and you visited me, naked and you clothed me. What you have done to the least of people, you have done to me.” One could be motivated to find ways to tackle structural poverty in poor nations. The other might think that's naive, and continue pounding plowshares into swords.
Posted by Rick Steves on October 19, 2009
Under the Spanish, land long used to grow corn (the local staple) was re-cultivated to grow indigo (a better cash crop for export). As indigo needed flat land, locals were displaced and pushed into the hills. Later, when the rise of cotton wiped out the indigo trade, coffee became El Salvador's top cash crop. Coffee needed to be grown on the hillside. So the people were displaced again.
Rebellion after rebellion was put down as the land was Christianized. Making religion the opiate of the masses, the priests preached, “Don't question authority. Heaven awaits those who suffer quietly.” (Even today, when labor organizers try to mobilize workers against structural poverty, they hear, “No, our struggles are God's will.” Those promoting the left-wing people's party report that their challenge is to teach poor Christian peasants that it's okay to get political and vote for change.)
El Salvador won its independence from Spain in 1821. The local victors were not the indigenous people, but the descendants of those first Spanish conquistadors. They wanted to continue harvesting El Salvador…but without giving Spain its cut. Indigenous Salvadorans gained nothing from “independence.”
After the popular uprisings and massacres of 1932, indigenous culture was outlawed, the left wing was decimated, and a military dictatorship was established. Those who spoke the indigenous language were killed. Traditional dress was prohibited. After 1932, when a white person looked at an Indian, the Indian's head would drop. To be indigenous was to be subversive. And today, the word indígena still comes with negative connotations: illiterate, ignorant, savage. All these centuries later, some things still haven't changed.
Posted by Rick Steves on October 16, 2009
Looking at those kids and thinking of their dump-dwelling cousins, I realized that, even if you're motivated only by greed, if you know what's good for you, you don't want to be filthy rich in a desperately poor world. I've seen it here in Central America, where fancy houses are built with speed bumps in front forcing angry people to slow down before tossing explosives into their yard enabling guards to get the license plate number. I've seen it in Java, hanging out with rich Chinese behind designer fortifications. And I've seen it in Dallas, driving out to Plano past ten miles of fortified front yards with chicken wire over the top to protect those relatively wealthy children from the have-nots who roam those fine streets.
Feeling the breeze of the chopper as Santa climbed back in and it flew away, I took another sip of the drink I just paid half a day's local wages for. Pulling out my little notebook, I added a few more observations, and continued my education.
Posted by Rick Steves on October 14, 2009
It was a ramshackle world of corrugated tin, broken concrete, and tattered laundry. I'll not forget the piles of scrap metal, the ripped and shredded sofas, tire parts, and filthy plastic bowls I saw stacked neatly at one point. This was a store entirely stocked by junk scavenged from the city dump. Even the store's chairs, tables, walls, and roof were scavenged — made of battered tin.
Overlooking the shacks was a slap-in-your-face billboard from a local bank, advertising home loans for the wealthy. It read, "With every day that passes, your house is closer to being yours."
We passed through a "suburb" of tin shacks housing people who lived off the dump, passing yards where they sorted out saleable garbage, stacked broken glass, and pounded rusty metal barrels into cooking pots and pans. In a church there was a sandbox manger scene with two soldiers standing over a slashed and bloody campesino positioned next to the Wise Men and cows — the modern-day soldiers represented the government, while the poor people saw themselves as Christ figures, crucified for the truth.
The people had done what they could to make their slum livable. There was greenery, cute children bringing home huge jugs of water (two cents each), and lots of mud, bamboo, and corrugated tin buildings. As we approached the ridge overlooking the main dump, I started thinking that this really wasn't all that awful.
Then we entered a kind of living hell. We'd heard of the people living off garbage dumps, and now we were in for a firsthand look: huge bulldozers, circling black birds, and a literal mountain of garbage ten stories high with people picking through it. It was a vast urban fruit rind covered with human flies.
A policeman with a machine gun kept the people away from one half of the garbage mountain. That was where aid items that the government figured would cost them too much to disperse were being buried under the garbage. About thirty people gathered. Our guide said they were waiting for the guard to leave. I couldn't believe him. Then the guard left, and all thirty scavengers broke into a run and dashed into the best part of the dump. The smell was sweet and sickening.
Posted by Rick Steves on October 14, 2009
As globalization shrinks our planet, people worry that their rights, livelihoods, and identities — religious, national, and cultural — are in jeopardy. This means that as our world consolidates economically, it ignites forces that can divide it culturally. As groups perceive that their values and ways of life are threatened, they will embrace even more strongly their cultural distinctions. This is already happening, and issues of cultural and national pride are becoming politicized: Americans fly the Stars and Stripes from car antennas, while Muslim immigrants riot over a cartoon that insults their prophet and insist their children be allowed to wear their headscarves in public schools. This creates a fearful, schizophrenic dynamic that may stoke today's terrorism and tomorrow's international conflicts. As this fear and nationalism make peaceful coexistence more challenging, the value of people building understanding through travel will be greater than ever.
Posted by Rick Steves on October 12, 2009
From my previous blog entries, you might suspect that I'm "anti-globalization." But I'm not. I'm just anti-bad globalization. I do my best not to fall into a knee-jerk "campesinos good, corporations bad" school of thinking. I believe that the rich don't necessarily get rich at the expense of the poor. (As conservatives might say, "It's not a zero-sum game.") If implemented thoughtfully and compassionately, globalization could be the salvation of the developing world. Progress can include or exclude the poor...and, as wealthy people who reap the benefits of globalization, we have an obligation to be aware of that.
As a businessman who manufactures some of my travel bags in South Asia, I'm keenly aware that globalization can be either a force for good or a force for harm. I have struggled with and understand the inevitability and moral challenge of it — there's simply no way to produce a bag that will sell without finding the least expensive combination of quality, labor and materials. I contribute to globalization only because I'm confident that the people who stitch and sew my bags are treated well and paid appropriately. They work for a fraction of the cost of an American, they appreciate the employment, and American consumers want the cheap prices. If I believed that the factory conditions were bad for that community or for its workers, I'd take my business elsewhere. To ensure this, I fly one of my staff to the factory for a periodic re-evaluation. It's a carefully weighed decision that I make with my humanitarian principles (and with the plight of people I met in El Salvador) in mind.
Even if the rudiments of globalization didn't make people's eyes glaze over, it's human nature not to want to know how our affluence impacts others. No comfortable American enjoys being told how her cat is outbidding some hungry child just south of the border, how his investments may be contributing to the destruction of the environment, how the weaponry we sell and profit from is really being used, or how — if you really knew its story — there's blood on your banana. Privilege brings with it the luxurious option of obliviousness. Most Americans don't understand or particularly care about the impact of a new IMF regulation on a person who sews clothing in Honduras or plants coffee beans in Nicaragua. Here in the rich world, the choice is ours: awareness and concern, or ignorance and bliss.
Posted by Rick Steves on October 09, 2009
Why so cynical? When globalization was taking root in the early 1990s in places like El Salvador, their US-friendly governments chose growth over policies designed to protect labor and the environment. Still today, if a country has a sick economy, the medicine is predictable: "structural adjustment." That means new laws that protect investors from governments who may someday want to defend their people from the will of aggressive corporations. The end result: Corporations become stronger than the governments of the nations who host them...and the needs of those corporations begin trump the needs of the nation's own citizens.
In Central America, egregious examples of mishandled globalization are epidemic. In the aftermath of their devastating 2001 earthquakes, Salvadorans saw American capitalists roll up their sleeves and speed to the rescue. Clothing manufactures moved into the earthquake-devastated area to provide jobs...on condition that the government allow them to lower the minimum wage from $144 a month to $85 a month.
Folk remedies are the salvation of poor campesinos who can't afford the drugs sold by pharmaceutical companies. But the people of neighboring Honduras were forced to sell patent rights for these local plants to the American biotech giant Monsanto...which now has the legal right to charge rural Hondurans for using their own traditional remedies.
Trade levies, which increase with processing, make it easy for a poor country to export raw peanuts. But the prohibitively higher tariff for processed peanuts makes it nearly impossible to produce peanut butter competitively outside of the already developed world. (While some people refer to poor countries as the "developing world," I find that label ironic — since economic policies like this one systematically keep these places underdeveloped.)
Many participants like to think of globalization as "tough love," as the rich world tries to pull up the poor world. The scorecard tells a different story. In the last 40 years, the average annual income in the world's 20 poorest countries — places where people make on average less than $1,000 a year — has barely changed. In that same period, the average per capita income in the richest 20 nations has nearly tripled to over $30,000. The bottom 50 percent of humanity lives on roughly 5 percent of the planet's resources. The top 20 percent lives on over 80 percent. The greatest concentration of wealth among economic elites in the history of the human race is happening at the same time our world is becoming a global village.
Posted by Rick Steves on October 07, 2009
The people of El Salvador — and you and I — are players in a vast global chess game of commerce. As the world's economy evolves, modern technology is shrinking the planet, putting the labor, natural resources, and capital of distant lands in touch with each other and revolutionizing the way products are made and marketed. Globalization is a complicated process that, frankly, nobody can control or even fully understand. But the people I met in El Salvador made it more meaningful for me than any book or lecture ever could. Free trade, neoliberalism, and globalization — which are abstract political buzzwords back home — are all too real to the half of humanity struggling for survival.
The rich world likes to imagine that globalization brings needed resources to poor nations. And often, it does. In this equation, a company from a wealthy country decides to have their product manufactured in a poor country. The company enjoys a much lower payroll than if they employed workers back home, while still paying a wage that's considered generous in the local economy. It's a win-win. At least, that's the hope.
But in reality, all too often, globalization is driven not by altruism, but by a naked ambition to open new markets to firms and products. The legally mandated responsibility of a corporation is to maximize profits. (Technically, to do anything less opens its officers up to law suits from stockholders.) If the only way to do so is to exploit cheap labor in poor countries, they do it. That's why, if you talk with people in El Salvador, even proponents of globalization don't claim anything compassionate about it. It's presented simply as unstoppable: "Globalization is a big train, and it's moving out. Get on or get run over."
Posted by Rick Steves on October 05, 2009
My educational tour group dropped in on Beatriz and her daughter Veronica, who live in a shack on El Salvador's minimum wage. The place was as clean and inviting as a tin-roofed shack with a dirt floor can be. Beatriz sat us down and told of raising a family through a Civil War:
"The war moved into the capital, and our little house happened to sit between the police headquarters and the guerillas. At night I hid with my children under the bed as bullets flew. For ten years, the war put us in never-ending fear. Mothers feared the forced recruitment of our sons. Finally, we arranged a peace. But the peace accords didn't benefit us poor people." She explained how this "peace" is no more than an acknowledgement of the futility of a continued struggle. To this day people are unhappy. In some regions, there is even talk about taking up arms again. Beatriz said, "If war started again, I think some of us would die from the stress."
About her life, she said, "My house becomes a lake in the rainy season. Still, we are thankful to have this place. Our land was very cheap. We bought it from a man receiving death threats. He fled to America. While we make $144 a month in the city, the minimum in the country is much less — only $70 a month. Nearly half the families in our country are living on $1 a day per person. To survive, you need a home that is already in your family. You have one light bulb, corn, and beans. That is about all. Living on minimum wage is more difficult now than before the war. Before, electricity cost about $1 a month. Water was provided. Today electricity costs $19 and water $14 — that's about one-quarter of my monthly wage. My mother has a tumor in her head. There is no help possible. I have no money."
Beatriz's 22-year-old daughter, Veronica, was as strikingly beautiful as one of the Latina stars so hot on the popular scene. Veronica dreamed of going to the US, but the "coyote" (as the guy who ferries refugees across Mexico and into the US is called) would charge $6,000, and she would probably be raped before reaching the US border as a kind of "extra fee."
As a chicken with a bald neck pecked at my shoe, I surveyed the ingenious mix of mud, battered lumber, and corrugated tin that made up this house. It occurred to me that poverty erodes ethnic distinctions. There's something boring and uniform about desperation.
For me, munching on that tortilla provided a sense of solidarity — wimpy...but still solidarity. I was what locals jokingly call a "round-trip revolutionary" (someone from a stable and wealthy country who cares enough to come down here...but only with a return plane ticket in hand). Still, having had the opportunity to sit and talk with Beatriz and Veronica, even a round-trip revolutionary flies home with an indelible understanding of the human reality of that much-quoted statistic, "Half of humanity is trying to live on $2 a day."
Posted by Rick Steves on October 02, 2009