Monday, November 12, 2007

On Contributing to Poverty

"How did the United States contribute to the poverty in Latin America?" asks commenter and fellow-blogger Jen. The drum roll of military interventions and roster of investment companies and list of rebels killed springs to mind, but that is not her question. She asks something well worth pondering that doesn't often get addressed: how have we, collectively and individually contributed to poverty outside our immediate context?

Indeed, how does anyone contribute to poverty? How have we contributed to poverty around us? The short answer is that most of us who do not hold the major economic and political levers in our hands do so primarily by omission, inaction and neglect.

Things Undone

In the 1928 Book of Common Prayer there was a general confession recited in Morning Prayer that said, in part:
We have left undone those things which we ought to have done;
And we have done those things which we ought not to have done;
And there is no health in us.
The idea is that we all know that we are born into a human society that is morally askew, whatever the reason and however it came to be.

In this sense, while it is true the U.S. did not systematically create poverty in Latin America (or elsewhere), it's a fair question to ask what our country, we collectively, have left "undone" that might have alleviated or diminished poverty.

As someone culturally with one foot in Latin America and one here in the USA, I have long struggled to understand how it was that, say, the United States, Perú, Argentina and Haiti started out more or less at the same starting line about 200 years ago, yet reached vastly different levels of socioeconomic and technological advancement and well-being.

Travel these countries' histories and you'll find a distant European exploration and colonization, with all the attendant tragedies of the meeting of newcomers and inhabitants, the importation of African slaves, the establishment of miniature European political and social structures, an often bloody war of independence, followed by conflicts in nation-building throughout the 19th century.

Compare the USA, Perú, Argentina and Haiti in 1861, when one of my grandfathers was born, and there really wasn't such a huge difference. Sure, DeTocqueville had predicted in 1836 that the United States and Russia would be the major powers of the 20th century, but that was based merely on their land mass and continental expansion.

From Baring Brothers to United Fruit

In 1861, all were agricultural countries in which land tenure had become largely hereditary and oligarchic. Although slavery had been abolished in all but the United States, the agricultural labor regime in all four countries had in common elements of medieval serfdom.

In 1907 it was not yet a sure bet that of the four the United States would become the richest, even though U.S. industrial development far outstripped that of the other three countries, it was early enough in industrialization to allow for a quick sprint by Perú or Argentina -- although probably not tiny Haiti -- to an equal spot. Certainly, Argentina had the resources.

One missing piece in this history is neocolonialism, the system by which one country controls another through economic, rather than political or military means. Early in the 19th century, George Canning, British under-secretary of state for foreign affairs, wrote that South America, freed from political bondage to Spain, would be "in our thrall" provided Britain managed its business with the new republics well.

Without firing a shot, British railroads and banks positioned their nation in a controlling role in many South American countries. In Central America, the British model began to be attempted by U.S. companies such as the infamous United Fruit Company (since 1984 Chiquita Brands International Inc.), which arranged the election and deposition of countless governments, along with multiple U.S. military interventions.

Still, some ask, how come foreign investment in the United States didn't wreak the havoc that it did in Latin America? The short answer is that, first of all, it did: the hated railroad men who spawned countless popular outlaws in the U.S. West worked for British and European investors. (Just wait until foreigners start dumping their U.S.-denominated investments -- coming soon to a financial market near you -- and see how you like foreign investors.)

Indeed, my grandfather participated in an 1890 popular uprising in Argentina to stop the government from paying what were deemed exorbitant interest fees to the Baring Brothers & Co. (now Barings Bank), which then went into its first bankruptcy, causing a European continent-wide financial panic. My father burned Union Jacks in the 1930s. (Of course, then I did them both the dishonor of being born in the United States, heir to perfidious Albion.)

The U.S. pre-eminence in the Western Hemisphere does not date back to 1823, when President James Monroe first claimed that "as a principle in which the rights and interests of the United States are involved, that the American continents, by the free and independent condition which they have assumed and maintain, are henceforth not to be considered as subjects for future colonization by any European powers." The United States lacked the power to enforce the position -- and did not try in the most egregious and obvious example, Canada.


The real change was brought about by the Spanish-American war and the "hero" of San Juan Hill, Theodore Roosevelt, who in 1904 added to Monroe's position the view that
If a nation shows that it knows how to act with reasonable efficiency and decency in social and political matters, if it keeps order and pays its obligations, it need fear no interference from the United States. Chronic wrongdoing, or an impotence which results in a general loosening of the ties of civilized society, may in America, as elsewhere, ultimately require intervention by some civilized nation, and in the Western Hemisphere the adherence of the United States to the Monroe Doctrine may force the United States, however reluctantly, in flagrant cases of such wrongdoing or impotence, to the exercise of an international police power.
From this declaration, with loopholes and vagaries large enough to run a truck though them, sprang the bulk of the 150 U.S. military interventions in Latin America. From the 19th century bombardment of Nicaragua by the U.S. Navy for the effrontery of attempting to charge a fee on Cornelius Vanderbilt's yacht to the 20th century occupation by U.S. Marines leading to the execution of one Augusto Nicolás Calderón Sandino in 1934.

In every instance, U.S. troops, spies and influence conveyed not the alleged message of liberty and freedom for all, but the message of the freedom of the wealthy, of their corporate structures and of their local landowning oligarch allies to squeeze the last drop of labor from anyone as they please for as little as possible.

That's how the governments of the United States, my country, contributed to squelch every legitimate claim to human dignity in Latin America (and elsewhere), to support those who would deny the essentials of living to the majority.

And it's not history. In 2002 the Bush Administration attempted to overthrow President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela.

I won't claim that Chávez or Castro or the Sandinistas have the answer, or even an answer I would advocate. I know many Latin Americans feel the same way.

In fact, every time the United States has intervened, the political space for reasonable and balanced compromises has shrunk, in favor of the extremes of the (usually U.S.-supported) right and left. I explained how and why here. Want moderate answers to come from Latin America? Let's keep the hell out of their politics.

Discerning the path to socioeconomic fairness and prosperity in Latin America is not something to be handled in the boardrooms of Wall Street or the situation rooms of the White House or the Pentagon. It's something that, left to their own devices, Latin Americans are perfectly capable of figuring out on their own.


Alex Fear said...

Good analysis.

It's interesting that illegal immigrants cross the border into North America for more/better paid jobs.

If North America was actually to invest (ethically!) in South America instead of always trying to control and influence the current regime, it may actually find the immigration problem solves itself.

George Youngkins said...

If we are to consider the "immigration problem", the usurpers on this continent are not the Spanish-speaking border crossers (who are for the most part aboriginal), but the European colonists that conquered by colonization the land and resources that by reason of primacy belong to " native Americans".

jen said...

i love it when you humor me.

the difference between not intervening (people dying, genocide, starvation) and actually prompting the crisis (panama, ecuador, el salvador) are two different things and yet evil, both.

i spent some time in northern el sal earlier this year and was quite humbled by the very recent misdoings of the US. people who still have our shrapnel in their bodies.

Geneviève said...
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