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The International Writers Magazine

Latin America Report
Dean Borok

Every morning Venezuelan President-for-Eternity Hugo Chavez surveys the oceanfront leading to the Lake Maracaibo petrochemical region. If he doesn’t see an American naval armada poised to strike, he breathes a sigh of relief and goes about another day of building socialism.
 Maybe he prays to the spirits of Simon Bolivar and Che Guevara in a Santeria ceremony. He would be imploring the spirits to grant another day of life to his benefactor, George W. Bush, whose prosecution of the Iraq war has depleted American military strength to such a degree that the American neo-conservative Masters of the Universe can only observe in total impotence the utter destruction of a Latin American empire that had been an unimaginably lucrative American sphere of influence almost from the inception of the North American republic, when the Latin American colonies, having thrown off the yoke of Spanish domination quickly found themselves squeezed in the loving embrace of their new protector.

But nobody ever said that transforming this former fiefdom of Standard Oil and the Rockefeller family into a freestanding socialist model economy was going to be easy, and Chavez still has several pressure points of internal discord to contend with. The U.S. military may be otherwise occupied but the American intelligence services still have plenty of cash to spread around and not a few willing Venezuelan operatives to help them spend it.

This is not to state that all of Chavez’ problems spring from the head of Eliot Abrams and Condoleeza Rice. There are plenty of domestic elements that stand against him out of distaste for his close association with Fidel Castro. Or maybe families who were accustomed to running the country for generations and now finding themselves dispossessed by an uncouth cowboy are absolutely blowing their lid.

The latest crisis to bring the university students into the streets is the Chavez regime’s refusal to renew the broadcasting license of their favorite TV network. Students in Caracas have always emptied into the streets no matter who was in power. Ask Nixon. When he was vice-president, Eisenhower sent him on a “fact-finding tour” of Latin America to get him out from under foot for a while. What other reason would have Eisenhower had, for Nixon to find “facts”? Nixon always made up his own facts.

At any rate, when Nixon arrived in Caracas the students went berserk and stoned and spit on his motorcade. Like Monica Lewinski with the blue dress, Nixon never had his suit cleaned. He kept it as a souvenir and, returning to Washington, barged into the Oval Office still wearing it to show Eisenhower, “Look, I want to show you what they did!”
Anyway, the kids don’t have Nixon to kick around anymore but they still have to differentiate themselves from the previous generation, even though the establishment they are protesting now is the one responsible for giving them free university tuition, free medical care, money in their pockets and subsidized food and rent for their families.
No matter. They want their MTV. The station they are fighting to keep on the air has all their favorite videos and cartoons. This is a case where the CIA finally got things right, feeding chickenfeed to an adoring audience.

Tele-Maricón, it’s called, and it has all the features an adolescent mind can appreciate. Since most of the programming is written by Cuban exiles, a lot of the shows poke fun at Chavez personally, with titles like “Chavez al Carajo,” a fictionalized account of the president taking it in the butt during his student days at Patrice Lumumba University; and “Chavez Cabrón,” a biography of his mother working as a prostitute at the Caracas Fish Market. There was even a show called “Chavez Bailando Con Las Estrellas,” a Venezuelan take on “Dancing With The Stars” with computer-generated images of Chavez dancing with Chairman Mao, Karl Marx, etc. For Chavez to get offended at these innocent jokes shows that El Caudillo has no sense of humor, and that he has not been indoctrinated into the North American mentality of political correctness.

This writer, being fortunate enough to watch some of these broadcasts through the modern marvel of satellite television, was intrigued at some of the unique products being advertised on Tele-Maricón, products not offered anywhere else throughout Latin America, like “Pinochet Lavadora de Cerebro,” which offered a 4-minute brainwashing complete with a free wax job for bald-headed men.

I located a Venezuelan bodega in Jackson Heights where I could obtain a can of “Tío Sam Sopa de Pato,” duck soup with a distinctive labeling showing Uncle Sam having sex with a duck whose head resembled El Presidente. When I got home I was shocked, shocked! to discover that there was no duck in the duck soup. When I called the telephone number listed on the can, which was an Arlington, VA, exchange, to complain, a message came on in execrable Spanish telling me “¡Chinga tu madre y no me joda más, coño!”

I anticipate that Chavez will hang on to power as long as oil prices hold up and the U.S. military is otherwise engaged, but we can’t dwell on him forever, particularly when the natives are restless “South of the Borderrrr Down Mexico Wayyyy!”

The beautiful thing, as a walk down any street in my neighborhood of the Upper East Side will tell you is: you don’t have to go to Mexico. It will come to you. New York’s Spanish-speaking population used to be predominantly Puerto Rican. Then the Dominicans took over, and they are rather more entrepreneurial than the Puerto Ricans, with a lot of Dominicans getting rich in business and even more making a good living running small enterprises, though a walk through Washington Heights will reaffirm that most Dominicans prefer drinking Brugal rum and playing dominos, while their women engage in the island’s second favorite sport after el beísbol, pitching bags of garbage out of second- and third-story windows and trying to land them in the sidewalk garbage cans, which are already full, in a kind of Washington Heights variation on Coney Island skee ball, to the rocking rhythms of Los Pendejos de la Lachuga singing “Basurero.”
Saque tu tanque por fuera
Llega el basurero
Yo soy el basurero
Que busca la basurera
[Stick out your can here comes the garbage man]

Having been blessed by the opportunity to visit the Dominican Republic on several past occasions, I know that the population there is endowed with a very rudimentary concept of public hygiene. Due to an extremely primitive system of solid waste treatment it is not possible to flush toilet paper down the toilet. In the popular quarters each bathroom contains a can for the disposal of paper wastes, which are then put out for regular garbage disposal with the household garbage.

Unfortunately, early toilet training habits are extremely difficult to break, and there is no public orientation to tell new arrivals to New York that it is OK to flush toilet paper into the sewage system. Consequently, some of the garbage bags pitched out the windows in the course of domestic housekeeping contain not just traditional kitchen waste, but rather unmentionable sanitary by-products as well, and when they miss their target they sometimes burst upon hitting the sidewalk, which results in an unbelievably sordid scene reminiscent of the ravine that traverses the provincial Dominican city of Higuey, which has been used since time immemorial as a provisional garbage dump and open-air trench latrine that the municipal authorities, reasoning that most of the waste is biodegradable anyway, have neglected to address. It is a far cry from the charming beach resorts of nearby Punta Cana, let me reassure you!

In recent years, though, New York has, along with the rest of the United States, been inundated by a veritable tsunami of Mexicans, who are more reminiscent of Miami Cubans – hard working, serious and focused on the money – than of the more personable hard-partying Puerto Ricans and Dominicans who preceded them (this is an oversimplification, naturally. Nor does it include many other large ethnic groups like the Ecudorians, Brazilians, Colombians and Peruvians, all of whom exert their own distinct fascination). Mexicans are here strictly for the money, and not to integrate of assimilate. They know us better than the other Latin Americans, and have no illusions about the kind of welcome they will receive here, and they are prepared to take jobs that the Puerto Ricans and Dominicans won’t do so that they can send money home. They know what we think of them and they don’t care. Just show me the money.
When NAFTA was established, it was conceived strictly as a tariff agreement without provisions for immigration or regulatory issues, unlike Europe where it was understood that only a global agreement was realistic in view of the inevitable dislocations of population that would occur as a consequence of industrial contradictions. Also, NAFTA was never considered as a means toward political union the way the common market originally was. NAFTA was designed by Americans for the benefit of American interests and successfully sold to the Canadians and Mexicans as mutually beneficial to them as well. Whether is possible to have an open borders policy with regard to goods and not labor remains to be seen in the long run.

The short-term consequence of NAFTA has been for industrial jobs to move south and agricultural jobs to move north, and also menial job openings that Americans and more established immigrant groups refuse to consider. Into this vacuum rushed superfluous Mexican labor who faced starvation in their own country as a result of the avarice of their own political and financial élites. If you think the Republicans are bad: in Mexico there is no minimum wage, no unemployment insurance, no welfare, no public health insurance, no public assistance of any sort. Mexican political leaders, who continually complain about American immigration restrictions against Mexican laborers never utter a syllable about improving conditions in their own country that might induce their people to stay home.

A large part of the problem is historical. If Mexicans jeer the American soccer team or Miss USA, what they are really complaining about is the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which resulted in half of their national territory being annexed by the Americans. Not just half, but the best half: Texas, with its oil and agriculture; California, with wealth beyond description; and everything in between. To be sure, part of it was their own fault: the area was theirs on the map, but in 300 years the Spanish colonial regime and then the Mexican governments had never seen fit to populate it, aside from a few small outposts on the California coast and some isolated Catholic missions.

The Mexican government had some success in populating Texas by soliciting immigration of European and American settlers in the early nineteenth century, but they revolted after that government tried to abolish slavery, creating the Republic of Texas. In 1846 the American army invaded Mexico on the pretext of a border dispute and made that country “an offer they couldn’t refuse” in which 1.3 million square kilometers (500,000 sq. mi.) of territory, half the country, were ceded to the U.S. in exchange for a payment of $15 million.

Transfers of territory to the winning side after a war are a normal procedure. Borders and adjusted and provinces are annexed, but to annex half a country’s territory is, to put it mildly, a little irregular. No, really irregular! Of course, this occurred during an epoch when European powers were starting to grab really large pieces of land – the French conquest of Algeria in 1830, for example, so the Americans, despite their stated ideology against imperial conquest, were right in step with the times.

Most Americans, whose ancestors only arrived after the fact, are willfully ignorant of how this territory arrived in our possession. They think that land was given to us by the tooth fairy. Unfortunately, the Mexicans have a longer historical memory, so it’s not surprising that they curse us out. We’re getting off easy by having to endure a few insults. If you rob a man blind, you should be able to laugh it off if he later calls you a bastard. In fact, it’s shocking that the Mexicans have accepted the loss of half of their territory with such equanimity and that a charismatic populist demagogue hasn’t emerged to exploit the seething resentment of the masses with thundering denunciations, shaking his fist at the north and exhorting the people to mobilize and avenge the country’s lost honor.

Maybe that’s the reason the American establishment has stuck its neck out in the face of militant anti-immigrant sentiment in this country, to soft-peddle the illegal immigration issue, hoping to mollify revanchist sentiment in Mexico. We own the best part of Mexico. Better to let their disenfranchised population come here to work than for armies of them to mass at the border armed with weapons.

During the debate over NAFTA the American labor unions worked to get provisions added that would force the Mexican government to address labor and environmental issues to bring them more into line with American standards. The reasoning was that these modifications would level the playing field somewhat, and that American jobs would not just get sucked into a snake pit of industrial misery and polluted filth.

That was a very astute and responsible approach. Maybe today’s politicians could learn a thing or two from that, and instead of just treating Mexican immigration as an isolated issue Bush, Clinton, Kennedy et al should expand the debate to address the social conditions in Mexico that force Mexican to crawl through rat-infested sewers and traverse searing deserts without water so that they can work as porters and laborers, driving bicycles loaded with take-out food the wrong way down the sidewalk.

That would bring us closer to the thinking of the European Commission, which realized long ago that trade, immigration and social welfare are all really interlocking issues.

© Dean Borok

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