Bad Habits

A small gesture of national dignity set off a raging scandal early this year. Throughout the world the press gave the story top billing as if it were a freak event, like, ”Man bites dog.”

So what was the cause? Brazil had required of US visitors what the US required of Brazilian visitors: to obtain a visa and have their picture and fingerprints taken at the border.

Many condemned this normal act as an expression of perilous insanity. Perhaps, if the world were not so misconditioned, things would be seen in another light. At bottom, what was abnormal was not what the Brazilian president Lula did but the fact that he was the only one to do so. What was abnormal was that everyone else simply accepted the conditions that Bush imposed on the rest of the world with the exception of a privileged few that were held beyond suspicion of terrorism and evil-doing.

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Everything was explained by September 11. This tragedy, which President Bush continues to use as a shield of perpetual impunity, obligates his country to defend itself without ever letting its guard down.

However, as everyone knows, no Brazilian had anything to do with bringing down the World Trade Centre. In contrast, as few will remember, the most serious terrorist act in Brazilian history, the coup of 1964, took place with the political, economic, military, and media participation of the United States.

This matter of the border check, which caused such a flap, is little more than a case of retributive justice, and it would be ridiculous to see it as belated historic revenge. Nonetheless, we should bear in mind that the routines of indignity in Latin America have a lot to do with the bad habit of amnesia — amnesia, for example, of the fact that US participation in that terrorist coup was explicitly proved through both documentation and the confessions of the major participants. And it is worth remembering that this event not only opened the way to a long military dictatorship but also killed and buried the social reforms that the democratic government of Jango Goulart was introducing to make the most unjust country of the world less unjust.

It took forty years for this impulse for justice to revive. In that time, how many Brazilian children died? A terrorism that kills with hunger is no less abominable than that which kills with bombs.

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Bad habits: indignity, amnesia, resignation. Fear keeps us from changing; mental laziness, from imagining ourselves without them.

It is inconceivable for us to imagine the story the other way around. For example, what would have happened if Iraq had invaded the United States on the pretext that the US had weapons of mass destruction? Or if the Venezuelan embassy in Washington had pushed and applauded a coup against George W. Bush, like the one the US embassy in Caracas orchestrated against Hugo Chavez? Or if the government of Cuba had organised 637 assassination attempts against US presidents, in response to the 673 times the US tried to kill Fidel Castro?

And what would happen if the countries of the South refused to accept a single condition imposed by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank unless they began imposing the same conditions on the US as well, the major debtor of the planet. Or if the tariffs and subsidies the rich countries imposed at home but prohibit elsewhere were introduced in the South? And so on…

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Bad habits: fatalism. Let’s accept the unacceptable as if it were part of the natural order of things and no other order were possible. The sun chills the world, liberty oppresses, integration breaks things apart: like it or not, it can’t be avoided. Take your pick: this or this. That’s how the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) is being sold.

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Back at the beginning of time, old Zeus, the boss of all bosses, made no mistakes. Of all of the inhabitants of Mount Olympus, Hermes was the most deceitful, the trickster who conned everyone, the thief who stole everything. Zeus gave him sandals with gold wings and named him the god of commerce. It was Hermes, later called Mercury, who engendered the World Trade Organisation, NAFTA, FTAA, and other creatures conceived in his image.

NAFTA, the North American Free-trade Area comprising the US, Canada, and Mexico, was set up ten years ago. The hand of Hermes guided its every step. From the life and work of NAFTA over its first ten years, consider just a few of the revealing indications of what awaits us if the FTAA comes into being, if so-called free trade, humiliating and sovereign, is extended throughout the Americas.

In 1996, the government of Canada prohibited the sale of ”a neurotoxin dangerous to human life”: it was an additive to gasoline manufactured by the US firm Ethyl. This poison, prohibited in the US, was sold only in Canada. Ethyl, which dedicated many a year to the noble mission of poisoning foreign countries, reacted by suing the Canadian government for damaging its reputation by banning this product and for ”expropriation”. Canada’s lawyers warned their government that the jig was up, there was nothing to be done. Under NAFTA, the corporations rule. In mid-1998, the Canadian government lifted the ban, paid Ethyl an indemnification of 13 million dollars, and said it was sorry.

In 1995, another US company, Metalclad, couldn’t reopen a toxic waste dump in the Mexican state of San Luis Potosi. With machetes in hand, the people prevented the company from continuing to poison the land and the water table. Metalclad sued the Mexican government for this act of ”expropriation”. Because of provisions contained in NAFTA, in 2001 the company received an indemnity of 17 million dollars.

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The United Nations Organisation was born at the end of World War Two. John Fitzgerald Kennedy and Orson Welles were among the 1500 journalists covering the great event. The founding charter of the UN established ”equal rights for large and small nations”. And the big promise: building on the sovereign equality of all of its members, the new international organisation would change the path of human history.

Sixty years later, the results are plain to see: the change was for the worse.

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But bad habits are not destiny, and more and more countries are refusing to play the fool in this grand universal farce.

A year ago, Thomas Dawson, spokesman for the IMF, stated: ”We have many distinguished alumni in Latin America.” It was the same old rhetoric. Now Argentinean president Nestor Kirchner warns, ”We’re not just a door mat any more.” This is the new rhetoric.

A new rhetoric, a new attitude. Our countries get along very badly with their people and get along even worse with their neighbours. It is a long and sad history of serial divorce. However, the most recent regional meetings –in Cancun and Monterrey– were battered by the gusts of a new wind. After so many years of solitude, the weak are beginning to understand that divided they fall. Only a few, like Uruguayan president Jorge Batlle, believe that we can still hope to be happy beggars. Even the most hardheaded are convinced that the vast humiliation machine, where the powerful practice financial extortion, military violence, and trade protectionism with impunity, dignity is either shared or non-existent.

But we must hurry up, before we end up looking like the pictures coming back from Mars.

(*) Eduardo Galeano, a Uruguayan writer and novelist, is the author of ”The Open Veins of Latin America” and ”Memories of Fire.”

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