To be like them

[Translated by Francisco González]

Dreams and nightmares are made of the same stuff, but this particular nightmare claims to be the only dream we are allowed to have: a development model that scorns life and worships things.

Can we be like them?

Such is the promise of politicians, the goal of technocrats, the fantasy of the helpless: The Third World will become part of the First World, it will become rich, cultivated and happy–provided it learns how to behave, and does what it’s told to do without smarting off or raising any objections. A destiny of prosperity will reward the good behavior of the destitute, in the final chapter of History’s soap opera. We can be like them, proclaims the great neon sign standing on the road that leads to the development of the underdeveloped, the modernization of the backward.

But what is not possible is just not possible, and besides–as bullfighter Pedro el Gallo used to say–it’s impossible. If the poor countries were to rise to the level of production and waste of the rich countries, the planet would die. Our poor planet is already in a coma, severely poisoned by industrial civilization, and squeezed nearly dry by consumer society.

During the last twenty years, as the number of people in the planet increased threefold, erosion killed the equivalent of the entire agricultural land of the United States. The world, having been turned into a mere market and merchandise, is losing 37 million acres of forest per year, out of which 15 million become deserts. Nature is humiliated and ordered to serve the interests of capital accumulation. Soil, water, and air are being poisoned so that money can produce more money without decreasing its rate of return. Efficiency consists in making the largest profit in the shortest amount of time.

In the North, acid rain produced by industrial gas emissions is killing the forests and the lakes, while toxic waste is poisoning the rivers and the oceans. In the South, agribusiness marches on, laying waste both to trees and to people. North and South, East and West, humankind keeps on sawing, with delirious enthusiasm, the very bough on which it sits.

From forest to desert: modernization, devastation. The relentless bonfire of the Amazonian region consumes, by dint of sheer greed, half the surface of Belgium every year–and in all of Latin America the land is being flayed and drying up. In Latin America, 54 acres of forest die every minute, most of them sacrificed by large-scale producers of wood and meat for foreign consumption. Costa Rican cows become McDonald’s hamburgers in the United States. Trees used to cover 75% of the land of Costa Rica, only 50 years ago, but few of them remain standing today, and at the current pace of deforestation this small country will grow bald very soon. Costa Rica exports meat to the United States, and from the United States it imports pesticides which the United States has banned on its own soil.

A few countries are squandering the resources that belong to the entire world. Crime and delirium of the society of waste: the richest 6 per cent of humanity gulps down one third of all the energy and one third of all the natural resources used worldwide. According to statistical averages, a single American consumes as much as fifty Haitians. Needless to say, this kind of average is not useful to describe a resident of Harlem, or Baby Doc Duvalier. Still, one wonders what would happen if, suddenly, those fifty Haitians were to start consuming as much as fifty Americans. What would happen if the entire huge population of the South could begin to devour the world with the unpunished voracity of the North? What would happen if luxury items, cars, refrigerators, television sets, nuclear and electrical power plants, all began to proliferate at such an insane rate? What would happen to the climate, which is already near collapse due to global warming? What would happen to the soil–the already scarce amount of soil spared by erosion? What would happen to water, which one fourth of humanity is already drinking contaminated by nitrates, pesticides, and industrial residues that contain mercury and lead? What would happen? It wouldn’t happen. We would have to move to a different planet. The one we have, worn out as it is, just could not handle it.

The precarious balance of the world, reeling at the brink of an abyss, depends on the perpetuation of injustice. The misery of the many is necessary for the extravagance of the few. In order for the few to continue consuming too much, the many must continue consuming too little. And to prevent them from crossing the line, the system multiplies the production of weapons of war. Unable to combat poverty, the system combats the poor, while its dominant, militarized culture blesses the violence of power.

The American way of life, based on the privilege to squander, can only be practiced by the dominant minorities in the dominated countries. Its implementation worldwide would mean the collective suicide of humanity.

So it’s certainly not possible. But, would it be desirable?

Do we want to be like them?

In a well-organized ant colony, the queens are few and the workers are many. The queens are born with wings and can make love. The workers can neither fly nor love; they work for the queens. Police ants watch both the workers and the queens.

Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans, said John Lennon. In our times, marked by the confusion of means and ends, we don’t work to live: we live to work. Some people work increasingly longer hours because they need more than they consume, while others do the same in order to continue consuming more than they need.

In Latin America, it seems perfectly normal to consider the eight-hour work day as something that belongs in the realm of abstract art. Working two jobs–a rarely admitted fact in official statistics–is a reality for vast numbers of people who have no other means to avoid going hungry. But, does it seem normal that a person must work like an ant in the height of technological development? ¿Does wealth lead to freedom or does it multiply our fear of freedom?

To be is to have, according to the system. An the trick is that the more you have the more you want, so people end up belonging to things, working under their orders. The lifestyle of consumer society, which is becoming universally established as the only guiding model, turns time into an increasingly scarce and increasingly more expensive economic resource: time is sold, rented, invested. But, who is the owner of time? Cars, TV’s, VCR’s, PC’s, cell phones and other passwords to contentment: the very devices designed to help us save time or pass time, are taking possession of time. Let’s take, for example, the automobile: it not only puts urban space at its disposal, it also controls human time. In theory, cars are meant to save time, but in practice they swallow it. A good portion of the time we spend working goes to pay for our driving to and from work, which in turn takes up increasingly more time due to the traffic jams in our modern Babylons.

One need not be an expert economist to see that technological progress, by multiplying productivity, should decrease work time. Common sense tells us that. But common sense did not foresee our fear of leisure time, or the pitfalls of consumer society, or the manipulative power of advertisement. In Japanese cities, people have been working 47 hours a week for the last twenty years. Meanwhile, the work day has grown shorter in Europe, but at a pace that bears no relation to the accelerated increases in productivity. Automated factories have 10 workers where there used to be 1,000, but this technological progress generates unemployment instead of increasing the amount of free time: the freedom to waste time. Consumer society does not allow such kind of waste. Even vacations–organized by the large corporations that industrialize mass tourism–have become an exhausting task. The killing of time: modern vacation resorts reproduce the vertigo of daily life in the urban anthills.

According to anthropologists, our Paleolithic ancestors didn’t work more than twenty hours a week. According to newspapers, our contemporaries in Switzerland held a referendum in 1988 on a proposal to reduce the work week to 40 hours (without reducing the salaries). And the Swiss voted against it.

Ants communicate by touching each other’s antennae. Television antennae communicate with the centers of power in today’s world. Television offers us the craving for ownership, the frenzy of consumerism, the excitement of competition, and the eagerness to succeed, the way Columbus offered baubles and trinkets to the Indians. Successful merchandise. Advertisement does not tell us, however, that the United States currently consumes almost half the total amount of tranquilizers sold in the entire world, according to the World Health Organization. In the last twenty years the work day has grown longer in the United States, and the amount of people suffering from stress has doubled during the same period.

The city as a gas chamber

In Caaguazu, Paraguay, I am informed that a peasant is worth less than a cow but more than a hen. And in Northeastern Brazil, those who cultivate the land have no land, and those who have land do not cultivate it.

While our countryside is becoming depopulated, Latin American cities grow into hells as populous as entire countries. Mexico City is growing at a rate of half a million people and 7,000 acres per year. It has already five times the population of Norway. In a short time, by the end of the century, the capital of Mexico and the Brazilian city of Sao Paulo will be the largest cities in the world.

The great cities of the South are like their counterparts in the North, but viewed through a deforming mirror. Copy-cat modernization multiplies the defects of the model. Loud and smoke-ridden, Latin American capitals have no bicycle lanes or catalytic converters to filter out toxic substances. Clean air and silence have become so expensive that not even the richest among the rich can afford them.

In Brazil, Volkswagen and Ford produce automobiles without filters (catalytic converters) to be sold in Brazil and other Third World countries. But in those very same Brazilian plants, Volkswagen and Ford produce cars with catalytic converters to be sold in the First World. Argentina produces unleaded gasoline for export, but for its internal market it makes the poisonous variety. In all of Latin America, cars enjoy the freedom to spit out lead through their exhaust pipes. From a car’s point of view, lead increases the octane rating, and therefore makes fuel more efficient. From the point of view of a person, lead damages the brain and the nervous system. But cars–the masters of our cities–don’t listen to intruders.

Year 2000, memories of the future: people with breathing masks, birds that cough rather than sing, trees that refuse to grow. In Mexico City we currently see signs that read: “Please do not bother the walls or slam the door.” There aren’t any signs yet that say: “Breathing is not recommended.” How long will it take for such warnings to start appearing? Automobiles and factories make a daily gift of 11,000 tons of enemy gas and smoke to the atmosphere. The air is fogged thick with filth; children are born with lead in their blood, and on more than one occasion dead birds have rained down all over the city, which, not so long ago, was the most transparent region of the air. Today, the cocktail of carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide reaches levels three times above the maximum tolerable for human beings. ¿What will be the maximum tolerable for urban beings?

Five million cars: the city of Sao Paulo has been compared to a patient at the brink of a heart attack. Enshrouded in a cloud of fumes, the most developed city in Brazil is visible from a distance on Sundays only. On its downtown streets, electric signs warn de population daily:

Air quality: very poor.

According to the measuring stations, in 1986 the air was either dirty or very dirty on 323 days.

In June of 1989, during a long rainless and windless spell, Santiago de Chile competed with Mexico City and Sao Paulo for the World Pollution Championship. The hill of San Cristobal, in the heart of the city, was invisible behind a mask of smog. The incipient democratic government of Chile took some minimal measures to reduce the 800 tons of pollution that are incorporated daily into the city’s air. Immediately, cars and factories began to cry foul: those restrictions were a violation of free enterprise and the right to property. The freedom of money, which tramples on the freedom of everything and everyone else, had been unlimited during the dictatorship of General Pinochet, and had made a generous contribution to generalized poisoning. The right to pollute is an important incentive for foreign investments, almost as fundamental as the right to pay minuscule salaries. After all, General Pinochet never denied Chileans their right to breathe shit.

The city as a prison

Consumer society–that is, the society that consumes people–forces people to consume, while television programs give courses on violence to both the educated and the illiterate. Those who have nothing may live far from those who have it all, but they are allowed to peep on them everyday through the small screen. Television displays the obscene squander that takes place at the party thrown by consumer society, and at the same time it teaches the art of blasting one’s way life through with a gun.

Reality imitates television, and street violence is the continuation of television through other means. Street children practice their initiatives for private enterprise on the only fields where they can apply them: delinquency and crime. Their human rights are restricted to stealing and dying. Tiger cubs, abandoned to their own fate, go out in search of prey. They make their hit wherever they can and run away. Life ends early, consumed by glue and other drugs that help fool hunger, cold, loneliness; or else it’s suddenly cut short by a bullet.

Walking the streets of the great Latin American cities is becoming a high risk activity, but the same is true for staying at home. The city as a prison: those who are not imprisoned by need are imprisoned by fear. Those who have something, no matter how little, live with a sense of impending threat, condemned to a permanent fear of the next onslaught. Those who have a lot live imprisoned in their security fortresses. The great residential buildings and complexes are the feudal castles of the electronic age. It’s true they don’t have a moat full of crocodiles, and they also lack the majestic beauty of medieval castles, but they do have great protective iron grills, high walls, watchtowers and armed guards.

The State–no longer a paternalistic State but a police State–does not practice charity. The rhetorical debates about the domestication of the wayward by means of education and work seem to belong to ancient times. In the period of market economy, the excess portion of the human litter is eliminated by hunger or gunfire. Street children, born out of marginal labor, cannot be useful to society. Education belongs to those who can pay for it; repression is exercised against those who can’t afford it.

According to the New York Times, between January and October, 1990, the police murdered more than 40 children in the streets of the city of Guatemala. The bodies of child beggars, child thieves, child scavengers in garbage piles, were found without their tongues, without their eyes, without their ears, in garbage dumps. According to Amnesty International, 457 children and adolescents were executed during the course of 1989 in the Brazilian cities of Rio de Janeiro, Sao Paulo and Recife. These crimes, carried out by the Death Squads and other paramilitary forces, did not happen in backward rural areas, but in the largest Brazilian cities; i.e. they did not happen in places where capitalism is less present, but rather in places where there is too much of it. Social injustice and contempt for human life increase with economic growth.

The death penalty is regularly used (in countries that officially don’t have it) in the defense of personal property, and opinion manufacturers are in the habit of justifying these murders. In the mid 1990’s, in Buenos Aires, an engineer shot dead two young thieves that were running away with his car’s cassette player. Bernardo Neustadt, the most influential Argentinean journalist, said on television: “I would have done the same.” In Brazil, during the 1986 elections, Afanasio Jazadji won a deputy seat in the state of Sao Paulo. He was among the deputies who received the highest number of votes in that State’s history. Jazadji had won his immense popularity from the microphones of his own radio program, where he used to shout in defense of the Death Squads, and preach torture and extermination for felons.

In the civilization of savage capitalism, the right to property is more important than the right to live. People are worth less than things. Impunity laws are very revealing in this respect: The laws that absolved the military dictatorships of the terror they had inflicted in the three Southern Cone countries forgave all murders and tortures, but they did not forgive crimes against property (Chile: decree number 2191 in 1978; Uruguay: Law 15848 in 1986; Argentina: Law 23521 in 1987).

The “social cost” of Progress

Caracas, February 1989. Bus fares suddenly go through the roof; the price of bread triples, and popular rage breaks out: three hundred people, maybe five hundred–who knows–lie dead in the streets.

Lima, February 1991. Cholera strikes the Peruvian coast and proves particularly deadly in the port of Chimbote and the slums of Lima, killing one hundred people in a few days. Hospitals lack serum and salt. The Government’s economic adjustment has dismantled what remained of the public health system and has doubled in a hurry the number of Peruvians living in severe poverty, earning less than the minimum salary. The minimum salary is 45 dollars a month.

Today’s wars–electronic wars–occur in videogame screens. Victims remain unheard and unseen. Nor does our laboratory economy hear or see the hungry, or the ravaged lands. Remote control weapons kill with no remorse. The international technocracy, which imposes its development programs and its adjustment plans on the Third World, also knows how to murder from the outside and from afar.

For over a quarter century Latin America has been dismantling the fragile dams intended to hold back the overbearing power of money. Creditors and bankers have bombed these defenses with the accurate weapons of extortion, while governing politicians and military rulers have helped to bring them down by wrecking them from within. Thus the protection barriers that the State once raised have been falling, one after another. And now the State is selling the public national companies in exchange for nothing–or worse than nothing, because the seller ends up being also the payer. Our countries are giving the keys and everything else to the multinational monopolies, now called “price-formation factors,” and they are becoming free markets. The same international technocracy that teaches us to give injections into wooden legs, also tells us that free markets are talismans of wealth. But why is it, then, that the wealthy countries that preach this doctrine refuse to practice it themselves? Free markets–the most successful export product of the powerful–are instruments for the subjugation of the weak. They are manufactured for consumption among the poor countries. No rich country has ever had free markets.

Talismans of wealth–for how many? Here is official data about Uruguay and Costa Rica–the Latin American countries where social polarization used to be less pronounced: nowadays, one in six Uruguayans live in extreme poverty, and two out of five Costa Rican families are poor.

The dubious marriage between offer and demand, in a free market that serves de despotism of the powerful, punishes the poor and generates an economy based on speculation. Production is discouraged, work is discredited, consumerism is glorified. The boards showing currency exchange rates are watched as if they were cinema screens, and the dollar is spoken of as if it were a person:

And how is the dollar doing?

The tragedy is repeated as a farce. From the times of Christopher Columbus, Latin America has suffered the development of foreign capitalism as a familiar tragedy. Nowadays it relives the process as a farce, a caricature of development: a dwarf pretending to be a child.

Technocracy sees numbers, not people. At the end of this long quarter century, certain successes of modernization are being flaunted: the “Bolivian miracle,” for example, accomplished thanks to the gracious funding of drug capital. The mining of tin came to an end, and with it fell the mining centers and the most feisty unions in Bolivia. Today, the village of Llallagua–which lacks drinking water–has a parabolic antenna on top of Calvario hill. There is also a “Chilean miracle,” courtesy of General Pinochet’s magic wand–a successful product that is being sold to the eastern European countries in potion-like packages. But what is the price of the “Chilean miracle”? And who are the Chileans that paid for it, and are paying for it? Who will be the Poles, and the Czechs, and the Hungarians that will pay for it? In Chile, official statistics proclaim a redo of the gospel’s Feeding of the Five Thousand, while confessing the multiplication of the hungry. The rooster crows in victory, but this boisterous bragging seems suspect. Could it be that failure has gone to his head? In 1970, the poverty rate in Chile was 20%. Today, it is 45%.

Numbers confess, but they don’t repent. After all, human dignity depends on a cost-benefit analysis, and the sacrificing of the poor is merely the social cost of Progress.

What would be the value of this cost, if it could be measured? At the end of 1990 Stern magazine gave a careful estimate of the damage produced by development in today’s Germany. The magazine evaluated, in economic terms, the human and material harm derived from car accidents, traffic jams, air, water and food pollution, reduction of green spaces and other such factors, and it reached the conclusion that the value of the damage is equivalent to 25% of Germany’s GNP. The multiplication of human misery was not included, of course, among these damages, because Europe has been drawing its wealth out of the poverty of others for several centuries. And we should keep in mind that in Germany the State controls and limits, up to a certain point, the harmful effects of the system upon people and the environment. What would the damage assessment look like for countries such as ours, which have bought the whole free-market tale and allow money to move around like a loose tiger? What is the extent of the damage we suffer–and will continue to suffer–from a system that makes us numb with artificial necessities? To what extent could it be measured? Can mutilations to the human soul be measured? How about the multiplication of violence, or the debasement of daily life?

The West is living the euphoria of triumph. After the fall of the Eastern block, the alibi is all set up: there it was worse. Was it worse? I think we should rather wonder if it was radically different. In the West we see justice sacrificed in the name of freedom, at the altar of goddess Productivity. In the East we saw freedom sacrificed in the name of justice, also at the altar of goddess Productivity.

In the South, it’s not yet too late to wonder if this goddess deserves our lives.


Eduardo Galeano, Ser como ellos y otros artículos, Siglo Veintiuno Editores, México, 1992.

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