Thursday, January 11, 2007

Terrorism Is the New Communism

One of my all-time favorite quotes is from El Salvador Archbishop Oscar Romero, who said “If I feed the poor, they call me a saint; if I ask why they are poor, they call me a communist.” I always chuckled at this, because I get called a communist every now and then when advocating for more equality in social structures. I see it as comical because it is such a lazy debating point, similar to calling pacifists traitors or using the term “politically correct” to mean “I don’t have a real argument, so will try to smear you with an unfashionable label.”

However, I’ve learned here in Guatemala that being called a communist in Central America during the cold war was no laughing matter. Romero was gunned down while celebrating mass in 1980 precisely because his advocacy for the poor was too much of a threat to the rich and powerful. In fact, Guatemala is just now emerging from under the shadow of a 36 year civil war that began as a result of powerful people being threatened and fighting back with the word “communism” (and, of course, a huge arsenal of U.S. weapons).

The civil war came about because of the two biggest problems in Guatemala, which still exist today: land reform and taxes. Most of the land is currently owned by a small number of wealthy people and foreign corporations: 6% of the people own 76% of the land, which includes, not surprisingly, the best agricultural land. One interesting demographic here is that 55% of the people here are Mayan Indians, who depend on the land for survival, and whose land has been systematically stripped from them over the centuries.

The other side of the problem is taxes. As in, rich people don’t pay much in taxes here, and there isn’t much of a middle class, so the state has very little money to help with social services. Without land to support themselves through agriculture, or decent jobs because there is no middle class or government social services to help, the poor are squeezed into whatever they can get. This often includes sweatshops jobs where their treatment is shameful (so we in the U.S. are ensured a steady supply of cheap t-shirts). They are happy to have jobs in the same way that you would be happy to get breadcrumbs when you are starving. It is no wonder that anything of value here is barricaded within a compound protected by large walls with razor-wires on top.

The irony is that these were exactly the same problems that existed in the 1950s, when democratically elected President Arbenz decided to institute land reform, so that more people could own land and support themselves. However, he came up against the almighty United Fruit Company, who had a number of Eisenhower administration officials on their board, including John Foster Dulles, the secretary of state. UFC owned a huge amount of the richest land in Guatemala (see Open Veins for how that might have happened). Arbenz passed a law mandating they sell any unused, idle land at the price they claimed on their taxes. They complained that the value they reported on their taxes was only 1/10th of the actual value. Arbenz said too bad, they should have claimed the real value. So, Dulles pronounced them communists. The CIA came in, overthrew Arbenz, and replaced him with a dictator that would be more sensitive to US economic interests. Guatemalans, who merely wanted to control their own resources to help their own people, were rewarded with a civil war that produced genocide on an off for 36 years, with the government being steadily supplied with US arms and personnel.

It is old news by now that terrorism is the new communism, but being here has reminded me how freaked out everyone used to be about communism. This helps explain the current hysteria surrounding terrorism. People are apparently easy to scare and those in power have no trouble whipping up fear to command the obedience of most people. Simply replace the word “communism” with the word “terrorism” and go on as before. So, if we label someone a terrorist, we don’t need to provide proof of their wrongdoings or follow the rule of law. If we need control of another country’s resources, we call them terrorists and invade their country. If we want to expand government’s power to spy on citizens at home, we simply claim that we need to do it to fight terrorists. Note that I’m not saying that Soviet Communism and Terrorism were/are not threats to the well being of the world. It is just that they are used to support all kinds of nefarious deeds that have nothing to do with fighting communism or terrorism, and cause even well-meaning people to enact misguided and counter-productive measures.

Luckily for Central Americans, they have been able to end their civil wars and at least stop open conflict since the word “communism” lost its teeth. This has helped development of these countries, but it hasn’t made many injustices go away, since the problems of land reform and taxes have not gone away. One would think that with the U.S. distracted by trying to control oil instead of fruit and coffee, and with a number of South American countries paying closer attention to the needs of their poor, that things will improve. Possibly, but remember that Bush tried to overthrow democratically elected Hugo Chavez in Venezuela a few years back, and that the phrase “war on drugs” is almost as effective as the word “terrorism” in maintaining U.S. hegemony in the region. Still, things are better than they were. Hopefully someday the situation can go from “not openly massacring people” to “actual structural changes that enrich the lives of ordinary Central Americans”.


Dan S said...

Wow, Dan, Guatemala sure is making you prolific.

Yea, I'm not taking the class for credit, so while everyone else here is writing their papers, I'm writing blog entries.

It will slow down next week because we will be doing some traveling, and I'm getting a bit weary.

Greg Springer said...

Hey, Dan. Can I come live with you? Write me.

Greg (pgregory.springer @

Brownie said...

People often behave like lemmings whether the enemy is communism or terrorism, and leaders understand this all too well. Which is why they will continue to prey on the poor, the masses, the disenfranchised, and the voiceless.

Does this sound familiar? It does to me too.

I think history has shown quite clearly that there has never been any real justice for the weak, and given the repeating nature of history, I imagine it will go on just as it has. Is this pessimistic or realistic? Is this despair or rationality?

Again, I have to go back to what (I think) I know about the Teacher, that is: Blessed are the meek: for they shall posses the land. Blessed are they that suffer persecution for justice' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven And: it will be easier for a camel to pass through a five foot high gate (AKA the needle, in Jeruselem's wall) than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. Not impossible for a camel, but extremely difficult.

Gotta love the beatitudes.


earcaraxe said...

What you said is definitely true. I came up with this idea earlier today, and came across your blog while I was looking to see what other people had said on the matter.

It's scary.