Blues for America
"When life looks like Easy Street
there is danger at your door"
—Grateful Dead / Uncle John’s band
"Big Darkness, Soon Come"
—Hunter S. Thompson
I’m no stranger to consequences. I’ve been an international anti-war activist and environmentalist for over four decades. I’ve been beaten and gassed and jailed in eight countries, more times than I can count. I became politicized as a young teenager when six of my classmates and close friends lost a total of nine older siblings and a cousin in the Oct. 2 1968 Tlatelolco massacre in Mexico City. Before I turned 26 I had planted trees in Vietnam, worked on sea-turtle habitat restoration projects in Costa Rica and Ecuador, been busted four times in front of the US Embassy in Mexico City, and had talked government officials at the Secretaría de Relaciones Exteriores (the Mexican government’s Foreign Relations Office) into subsidizing a 6-month stay in Cuba to study Latin American history, agronomy and psychology at the University of Camagüey.
In ’79 I went to India. By late ’81 not even magic mushrooms, miles of tropical beach, or an endless parade of naked and very friendly German hippie chicks could tear me away from a transistor radio broadcasting daily BBC updates on Ronald Reagan’s delusional fear of the non-existent Nicaraguan communist hordes poised to rape a defenseless America as they approached the Texas border.
I got back to Mexico City the day before Christmas. I looked up some friends and by Feb. ’82 was officially on the staff of a fake NGO ostensibly funded by Jesuit prelates within the Catholic church but which was actually the pet project of a dozen or so guilt-ridden but half-way decent leftist has-beens who still pulled weight within the PRI hierarchy at Relaciones Exteriores. ?I personally didn’t give a damn if the K-fuckin’-GB was bankrolling the show. I was there.
I spent a total of 64 months as a volunteer paramedic / interpreter in Central America during the 1980’s. There I learned what it meant to live in nations where the mighty U S of A gave millions in cash and weapons to Nazi-style death squad governments run by flat-out amoral butchers commanding throngs of heavily armed sociopaths, nations where every authority figure made monsters like Jesse Helms look like Mother Teresa. ?I spent many glorious months living in utter squalor and eating what amounted to garbage with some of the most courageous and wonderful people I have ever been lucky enough to meet. I helped treat men, women, children and little babies for everything from amoebic dysentery to ulcerative colitis. This didn’t include countless hours trying to glue together those who had been shot, stabbed, beaten, raped, burned with white phosphorous and napalm, slashed with bayonets, and horribly tortured in various highly imaginative ways by military and paramilitary sadists, some who were trained for the job by Uncle Sam himself at the "School of the Americas" (since re-named) at Ft. Benning, Georgia. When I wasn’t thus occupied I amused myself dodging mosquitos, scorpions, spiders, poisonous snakes, stinging beetles, centipedes, and many species of weird parasitic vermin. It took me 2 months to come down with malaria. ?That was my first 32-month rotation. Most but not all of our time was spent in El Salvador outside a place called Perquin, snug up against the Honduran border. I swear it once didn’t stop raining for seven solid weeks.
During my second shift of more of the same I also managed to piss off the wrong sargent and lose 5 teeth at a military checkpoint in Guatemala, I enjoyed 4 months of hospitality at the jail in San Salvador, and 2 weeks before I was slated to go home I almost lost an eye when a kid threw a firecracker in my face.
I don’t regret a single day of it. I might be there today if my body could still handle it. ?
In my experience, most (but certainly not all) North Americans seldom actually think long and hard about the causes of "illegal" Latin-American immigration and the complicity of the politicians they vote for. Most don’t bother to look beyond the distortions, omissions, oversimplifications and flat-out lies repeated ad nauseum by the mainstream media. ?How many have had real conversations with undocumented persons who have come from Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala, and other Latin-American nations? How many have traveled or lived or worked or done research or made an effort to learn the language in any of those countries, with the intention of fully comprehending the circumstances that drive the northward exodus? How many who have done none of these things drone on and on and on about the issue as if they actually knew what they were talking about?
How many are even vaguely familiar with the extensively documented history of US economic, diplomatic, and military foreign policy in the region and the consequences of those policies? And how many of those who do possess some knowledge of these issues actively deny or distort or simply ignore that history?
How many Americans know that millions of these "illegals" never wanted to leave their countries in the first place? How many North Americans don’t give a shit?
One more question: How many North Americans have read and considered any of the declassified government documents that explicitly reveal the official purposes, goals and motives of US policy in Latin America?
Here’s a fragment of one of them, part of a declassified and now widely available 1948 top-secret report (PPS 23) written by George Kennan, head of the State Dept. Policy Planning Staff after World War II. If you think that the basic tenets of US foreign policy have changed since then, you’d be wrong.
"We have about 50% of the world’s wealth, but only 6.3% of its population. In this situation, we cannot fail to be the object of envy and resentment. Our real task in the coming period is to devise a pattern of relationships which will permit us to maintain this position of disparity without positive detriment to our national security. To do so, we will have to dispense with all sentimentality and day-dreaming; our attention will have to be concentrated everywhere on our immediate national objectives. We need not deceive ourselves that we can afford today the luxury of altruism and world-benefaction. We should cease to talk about vague and unreal objectives such as human rights, the raising of living standards, and democratization. The day is not far off when we are going to have to deal in straight power concepts. The less we are hampered by idealistic slogans, the better."
Since long before WW II, successive US administrations have worked tirelessly to destroy every chance of economic advancement for millions upon millions of people in Latin America. US policy in Latin America has for decades formally designated the nations to the south as being nothing more than "resource areas", where North American corporate criminals exploit cheap labor, loot timber, minerals, agricultural and animal and seafood products, and anything else that isn’t nailed down. All with the enthusiastic collaboration of bought-off local oligarchs who make up and/or control the national police and military forces, which in turn have been used to harass, persecute, kidnap, incarcerate, torture and execute trade unionists, priests, nuns, environmentalists, independent nationalists, student activists, social workers, moderate reformers, miners, peasant farmers, teachers, journalists, and anyone else who gets in the way or gets out of line.
For the last fifty years in particular, every revolutionary baby in Latin America has been strangled in its crib by Uncle Sam himself. Every regional social justice movement that has attempted to forge a path of independent nationalist economic development, with the goal of using local resources for the indigenous population instead of acting to preserve the interests of local elites and foreign investors, has been mercilessly attacked and crushed with the full force of North American economic and military power. ?Of course these people come north. Where the fuck else can they go?
Over the years, what the US has done and is STILL DOING in El Salvador, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Honduras, Colombia, Mexico and other countries in the region continues to force people to flee for their very lives. Countless small farmer’s cooperatives in Mexico were rendered useless by NAFTA, resulting in the utter destruction of an already precarious rural agricultural economy and the forced displacement of tens of thousands of families and millions of single adults. Tens of thousands of small businesses were also destroyed in the process.
"The Mexican government of Felipe Calderon is screwing its own people", you cry. ?Why yes, this is true. And who the hell do you think provides that government with the intelligence and cash and military muscle and umbrella of protection that makes it all possible?
Although some effective resistance to the US plan for perpetual continental hegemony has gained a foothold in a few southern nations of late while America has been preoccupied with its wars in Asia, the Reaganite spirit of US policy is alive and well. The Obama administration’s criminal support for the bloody rightwing military coup in Honduras last year and his recent agreement with former president, drug-trafficker, and death-squad godfather Alvaro Uribe to build new US military bases in Colombia will only guarantee more misery, political oppression, extrajudicial killings, population displacement, and emigration. ?Yes, emigration. More angry young undocumented Colombians and desperate Honduran families, coming soon to a theater near you.
Anybody think there’s room for another million or two desperate "illegals" in California, Texas, Arizona, New York or New Jersey? No? Then call off US efforts to undermine and overthrow Hugo Chavez in Venezuela and Evo Morales in Bolivia and to destabilize Ecuador. That a significant number of Americans ignore the relationship between "illegal" Latin-American migrants and the US proclivity for establishing Pinochet-style death-squad dictatorships created to enforce US corporate interests in the region’s nations speaks volumes about the stupidity and immorality of mainstream US political culture.
Take Cuba. Perfect? Hell, no. Would Cuba ever be my first choice of nations to permanently reside in? No again. But it would be far from last on my list, and unlike the majority of Americans I’ve actually been there. Five times since ’75. As such, ?I have no trouble saying that compared to Haiti or Honduras or Guatemala, nations which despite being under near-total US domination for over a century are still some of the worst cess-pools on the planet, Cuba is a virtual paradise.
Funny how the Cold War played out, no? As brutal as the Soviets were in Eastern Europe the majority of people in Poland, Bulgaria, and other former Communist Bloc nations today enjoy relatively decent living conditions. Compare that to what the US has engineered in Guatemala, Nicaragua, or Haiti. Hell, if a farmer in El Salvador fell asleep and magically woke up in Romania, he’d think he had died and gone to Heaven.
Ah, but poor Cuba. Uncle Sam is simply not predisposed to tolerate the sin of disobedience. Blindly following the misguided policy of every previous White House denizen since Kennedy, Obama must continue to teach an important lesson to the Latin American rabble. So the embargo stays locked in. They’re the threat of the bad example. Those dirty Cubans will continue to suffer the consequences for having the temerity to make their own decisions and deny their nation’s resources to North American capitalists. They must be crushed as a message to the rest of the region’s struggling poor: Don’t get any cute ideas. This is what happens if you disobey.
How many Americans know who Ben Linder was? ?He, also, was an American. I met him and spoke to him for maybe ten minutes, one year before his death. We were both involved in similar projects at the time and though I never got to know him, I remember him. He seemed like a helluva guy. ?I walked in his funeral procession in Matagalpa, Nicaragua in the late 80’s. Do you know who made his murder possible? Other Americans, Dem and Rep politicians (some you might have voted for) who armed and bankrolled former Somozista torturers and rightwing mercenary butchers who raided towns and villages and torched schools and raped women and killed children.
Ben was an engineer. He was assassinated while trying to provide clean water and electricity to impoverished peasants that his own government was terrorizing and slaughtering. I spent well over half of that miserable decade in Central America. I had front-row seats. I saw what official US policy was in Latin America then, and I damn sure know what it is now. ?
Fast-forward a couple decades. ?Ever been to Oaxaca? It’s the name of both a state and the state’s capital city in southern Mexico. Beautiful place. Stunning, even. Wonderful people. Hippie paradise in the late 60’s and 70’s. Not so much, though, in 2006. In October of that year the Mexican president at the time, Vicente Fox, gave the green light to corrupt Oaxaca state Governor Ulises Ruiz. Off-duty cops and hired hit-men opened fire on groups of protesting university professors and students who were fed up with the proven and repeated State government theft of money earmarked for the Dept. of Public Education and with the systematic intimidation, extortion, kidnappings and assaults perpetrated against student activists and faculty by State Judicial Police units. Most of the bodies of those who fell were dragged away by the Governor’s goons and I personally know two families who never got to bury their sons because despite multiple eyewitness statements to the contrary the official line was "we don’t have those bodies and we are sorry but you are mistaken".
Another American also died there that day. Shot dead by the same gang of thugs and paid killers working for yet another Mexican administration that (surprise!) was unquestionably supported by the usual bipartisan cadre of heavy hitters in Washington, D.C. ?His name was Will Roland. He was a video grunt, a talented cameraman working with Indymedia out of New York. He was a stand-up guy. Just so you fucking know.
Fast-forward again. To yesterday. Today. Tomorrow. Do not for a minute doubt that every single day brings another atrocity. Right now it’s Colombia and Honduras. Next week? Next month? Next year? No telling. But you can bet your ass there’s a MADE-IN-USA plan for every corner of the southern map.
A tall skinny guy with a Poirot ‘stache and a Cajun accent summed it up for me pretty damn well one afternoon in ’85. He was sitting with a half-drunk crew of 101st Airborne hardasses in a stinking hole-in-the-wall cantina a couple kliks outside Palmerola AFB, Republic of Honduras. But this guy was no troop. It must have been 100+ in the shade and even the locals were sweating buckets. Not this guy. This guy barely moved as he sipped his Coke and sat calm and cool as a Buddha behind his mirror shades. I pegged him as Agency the second I saw him and no doubt just as quick he figured I was NGO. ?At that time and in that place, whether a journalist, G.I., NGO volunteer, embassy staffer, US military advisor, wandering hippie, counter-insurgency spook, low-level corporate sales rat or evangelical missionary, every gringo in Central America knew that every other North American they laid eyes on down there had made the scene for one of two reasons: to ratchet up the pain or to try and ameliorate it. And despite this shared reality (or maybe partly because of it) members of both teams still did what Americans have always done when out on a shaky foreign limb light-years removed from the Land of Plenty and the morning paper. They all flocked together.
I paid for a beer and sat down. The Screaming E’s were talking local under-age talent and didn’t look up. We got along. Every two or three months they boosted some saline solution and a case of antibiotics from Supply, I showed up with a box or two of methaqualone, and we all went home happy. ?I did what I always did when I ran into a mouse. It was automatic. I told the spook who I was and what I was doing (he knew that I knew that he already knew, but it was important he understood that I was also burrowed deep enough to not have to lie). I told him about all the stuff he didn’t give two shits about: moving banned surgical tools and iodine through military checkpoints, the crumbling orphanage across the border in El Salvador, the medical clinic overrun with rodents and no running water that doubled as a morgue, the torture victims we treated with vitamins and Valium when what they needed was a month in an ICU, and the children and babies slowly being killed before our eyes by intestinal parasites because the "moderate" US-backed Duarte government wouldn’t allow medicine into FMLN "conflict zones". I also said some things that proved I had first-hand knowledge that US military personnel were leading Contra ops across the other border. Into Nicaragua.
All real matter-of-fact. It was the game we played. I was knocking. Seeing if a human being lived there.
Sometimes one actually did. Sometimes you’d see the flash or get a glimpse and in that moment your ultimately worthless reward was a tiny breeze of hope. A delicate flame of solace. ?Not that it happened very goddamn often.
More likely I’d get a variation of what we’d come to call the "useful idiot" lecture (how they fucking loved that phrase–it just had to be part of some class at Langley) or a generous pouring of scorn upon my deliberate anti-American treachery, or perhaps a sarcastic and highly detailed analysis of the cognitive deficit that rendered me too simple-minded and foolish to comprehend the severity of the "communist threat". Or some variation of all the above.
Poirot didn’t move a muscle. For a minute I thought he’d dozed off. Even for Company field mice the unwritten rule was a kind of demilitarized psy-ops game of "gotchya". At bare minimum that meant playing the dozens with drinks and smokes and laughter all around before calling it good. They held every high card regarding material and resources, but we had our own edge. They just could never get comfortable with these weird, malnourished, iron-willed oddballs. They couldn’t even write us off as hippies. Some of our most hard-core people were rock solid born-again paleo-cons on every subject but this one. Despite all their power and persistence and Pentagon juice, try as they might, the mice couldn’t wrap their minds around a ragged bunch of fellow Americans who all had malaria and spoke like the locals and knew the land like the locals and never wrote anything down but remembered everything anyway and never slept and would only maybe use violence in self-defense but who at the same time always acted like they didn’t give a damn if they made it out alive or not.
They would never, ever admit it, but we had the spooks spooked. I’ve seen and heard things that convinced me Reagan and Abrams never opted for direct USMC intervention and USAF bombing like Robert Gates wanted (yes, THAT Robert Gates) because they knew for a fact they’d have to kill thousands of Americans both there and at home and the US of A would literally explode. Shit, we had grandmothers in every church from Kansas to Connecticut in our corner back then. Don’t think so? Ask anyone who was in Congress at the time just which demographic was bringing the pressure and what about and where from and how relentless it was. Fact is, the motliest crew you ever imagined helped stop a fascist invasion. I stand by that statement and you’re goddamn right I’m proud of it. ?
?Meeting up with field mice one-on-one or in groups usually meant a fairly relaxed few hours of mental Chess where both crews knew they couldn’t cheat or lie and where both camps kept most of their animosity off the table.
This guy was different. This guy wasn’t playing. At anything. He just sipped and sat and didn’t sweat. I was about to split when I heard him say it. In that furry Cajun drawl. ?Not loud, but loud enough.
"Bummer for the spics".
I looked at him. He was smiling like a shark. I smiled back. I blew him a kiss, got up and walked out. The next time I made it up to Palmerola I asked around but the guy was gone.
I’ve managed to forget enough of the 80’s to get a solid 7 hours most nights, with no pharmaceutical backup. I no longer have nightmares. I beat malaria and a case of fungal crotch-rot so severe that it required hospitalization. But out of all the hideous inhuman shit I had to wade through down there, what I’ll never forget is that one dude. Not because his vibe was pure grade-A high-octane evil. He was all of that. The reason I’ll never forget him has to do with what he represents today, with what has risen once again, almost 30 years later, back on Main Street.