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Civil wars do not start overnight. You do not simply wake up one morning in what has been a peaceful country only to discover organized armed forces trying to destroy each other. One of the great insights of genuine conservatism (not the vulgar market fundamentalism that tries to pass for sound political philosophy today) is that human beings have a strong yearning for order and stability, and will put up with unfairness, even gross injustices, rather than risk violent chaos. Even when civil wars seem to emerge suddenly into the world news--as in, say, Sierra Leone in the nineties or Sri Lanka the previous decade--closer inspection invariably reveals many years of groundwork, of deteriorating economies, weakening governments, ethnic or social discrimination, of a cycle of earlier riots, vicious repression, attempted or successful coups, revenge.
Civil wars are rare as well. What is surprising about the world today is not how many there are but how few. In the early 1990s, people on both the left and the right warned that some combination of globalization and its disruptive changes, worsening unemployment and inequality, the rise of ethnicity and the end of the cold war international system meant that killing of the sort taking place in the Balkans, say, or Somalia, was likely to spread widely. Yet there is no pandemic. There are a half-dozen or so conflicts in Africa (a continent of fifty-odd nations), and a few more in south and central Asia. And Latin America, which was ripped during the 1980s by violence in Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Peru and by an earlier dirty war in Argentina, is basically peaceful. Except for Colombia.
We are lucky to have an on-the-spot look at the war there from one of the best and most experienced Latin American correspondents around, Alma Guillermoprieto, as part of her important and topical new book, Looking for History. She includes a brief but touching description of a "lively and doll-eyed" young guerrilla named Claudia, whom Guillermoprieto met in San Vicente del Caguán, the small town on the edge of the rainforest in southern Colombia that is the main base for the FARC, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia. The FARC, in existence since 1964, is the largest left-wing insurgency in recent Latin American history and is the main target of $1.3 billion in American aid to the government, most of it military.
Guillermoprieto notices that Claudia "had taken to bumping up against me and squeezing me...with a persistence I was beginning to find alarming until I thought to ask how old she was. 'Seventeen,' she answered. And how long had it been since she'd seen her mother? 'Four...no, five years,' she said."
Claudia is one of the 2 million Colombians already displaced by the growing civil war. Something has gone dramatically wrong in a country when a 12-year-old has to leave her mother and join a guerrilla army. Soon fifty American-made helicopters will join the Colombian military that is already trying to kill her.
Guillermoprieto is an indispensable corrective to the cool and fragmented mainstream reporting from Colombia, which, following the conventions of the genre, does indeed set down some of the facts. We do learn, approximately, of the rising number of political deaths (some 6,000 last year), the deepening economic crisis (20 percent unemployment) and the surface area of coca plants supposedly eradicated.
But we miss many of the human truths. Colombia is not a chess game in which various armed forces move around a map, advancing and retreating. Nor is it an intellectual debate, in which bureaucrats from the US government and Washington Post editorial writers (the Post favors American intervention) cleverly score points. It is a terrible civil war, one that is getting worse. It did not start quickly, and it will not end quickly, and before it does, many 17-year-old girls will die.
Guillermoprieto started off her American journalistic career at the Post, where she (along with Raymond Bonner of the New York Times) courageously reported on the 1981 El Mozote massacre in El Salvador, in which the American-backed army slaughtered nearly 1,000 people. The Reagan Administration denied the killings for years. Then she went off to write one of the great books about how poor people in the Third World live. Samba (1990) is her dazzling account of a year spent with Mangueira, one of the samba "schools" in a slum of Rio de Janeiro, preparing for the fierce music and dance competition that takes place at Carnaval. You learn about more than just the contest, interesting as that is; you get to know fascinating people and are introduced to an entire way of life.
Since then, Guillermoprieto, thoroughly bilingual and bicultural, has reported from all over Latin America for The New York Review of Books and The New Yorker. Looking for History is the second collection of her articles, following The Heart That Bleeds (1994). This time around, she deals almost exclusively with Colombia, Cuba and Mexico.
Her firsthand reporting on Colombia could not be more timely. One of Bill Clinton's most evil legacies is Plan Colombia, the military assistance program that will fail in its purported aim--to reduce the drug problem in North America--but that is already adding to the violence farther south [see Marc Cooper, "Plan Colombia," March 19].
Arguably her most valuable work is based on her visits to territory held by the left-wing FARC. Back in 1986, she met the reclusive FARC leader Manuel Marulanda, whose nickname is Tirofijo, or "Sureshot," in a remote spot in the Andean foothills, and last year she visited the group's present main base in San Vicente.
She is unsentimental about the FARC, pointing out that it raises funds by kidnapping civilians, a clear violation of international humanitarian law. The guerrillas also freely admitted to her that they are connected to drug production but insisted that they do not grow or traffic coca themselves, only "tax" the people who do in the areas they control.
Colombian small farmers plant coca to survive economically, not because they want to poison Americans, Guillermoprieto asserts. "Colombia had found what most developing countries lack," she writes, "a cheap crop that can produce levels of employment, return on investment, and national growth that only industrial goods normally provide." World prices for other primary commodities--like coffee, Colombia's other major export--continue to stagnate, a grim fact of life in the Third World that the cheerleaders for globalization usually ignore. She also emphasizes that drug production is by no means limited to areas controlled by the FARC or the ELN (National Liberation Army), a different (and sometimes rival) left-wing group. The right-wing paramilitares--who have been growing in recent years and who, according to Human Rights Watch and other monitoring groups, are responsible for three-quarters of all human rights violations in Colombia--are much more deeply implicated in the drug trade, getting significant financial support from the smaller and more numerous trafficking networks that replaced the infamous Medellín and Cali cartels of the 1980s. Yet Plan Colombia's coca defoliation efforts so far have concentrated on the FARC areas in the south, not in rightist-controlled territory elsewhere.
Probably Guillermoprieto's most important point is one invariably left out of the pro-Plan Colombia editorials and State Department briefings: that the FARC did try to advance its cause peacefully, back in the 1980s, forming a legal party called the Unión Patriótica. The group ran candidates in mayoral elections in 1988, winning in eighteen locales. "Thirteen of these mayors were subsequently assassinated, often after having been forced to resign," she reports. "No one has ever been charged with these murders, but it is widely assumed that members of the military, which has historically operated more or less independently of the chief executive, and sometimes at loggerheads with it, played a role."
She continues with an understated but quite astonishing summary: "By 1992, 3,500 UP militants and leaders of the legal party, including two presidential candidates, had been assassinated (although only a handful of those murders have ever been brought to trial). The guerrillas had lost nearly all of their urban, better-educated, politically minded leaders." Even so, as she reports, the FARC has not turned into a fanatical messianic movement like the Khmer Rouge, nor is it enslaved in a cult of personality, like Peru's Shining Path, now thankfully in decline after years of spreading terror in the Andean highlands.
Colombia's president, Andrés Pastrana, apparently recognizes that the guerrillas have deep roots in parts of rural Colombia, and he has been making what Guillermoprieto (and other observers as well) regard as genuine efforts to negotiate. But Colombia's central government is weak, and the right-wing paramilitares, with the collusion of key elements of the army and police, are undercutting his efforts by invading and terrorizing areas in which the left has support, and by murdering more labor leaders and human rights activists. The government did in fact recently stage a raid on a northern paramilitary stronghold, Montería, seeking information on the largest right-wing paramilitary army, the United Self-Defense Forces, but the move will do little to slow the rapid growth of the armed right. (Up-to-date information is available at www.colombiareport.org.)
Guillermoprieto is hopeful that Colombia's worsening polarization might be slowed by a massive grassroots movement for negotiations. In October 1999, a nationwide march for peace attracted 5 million people--a significant showing in any country, but in a country of 40 million, astounding.
Plan Colombia will add to the killing, however. Last August, President Clinton waived human rights requirements in American law so he could disburse the aid--because he knew the Colombian military could not otherwise qualify. The psychological impact will be even greater than the money, significant as that is to a Third World army. Colombia's generals and colonels understand exactly what they are being tacitly told: Crush the left-wing guerrillas by any means, pretend to move against the right-wing paramilitares, and America will look the other way.
Colombia could be on the road to an even more bloody reprise of El Salvador. There, several billion dollars in US aid promoted a twelve-year war in which 75,000 people died, including Archbishop Oscar Romero, other Salvadoran priests and American nuns murdered by right-wing death squads. Yet the Salvadoran government could not defeat the guerrillas and had to reach a negotiated settlement in 1992. Without American dollars, the war would have ended much sooner.
Guillermoprieto's reporting on Cuba is also gloomy, but for very different reasons. The island's impressive and undeniable advances in social welfare are stained by the fact that its leader is a tiresome and sometimes vicious megalomaniac. She reminds us of the disgusting Ochoa trial of 1989, a tropical repeat performance of Stalin's 1930s Moscow show trials. (Fidel Castro almost certainly ordered a general and national hero named Arnaldo Ochoa framed and then executed for drug trafficking, possibly in part because Castro feared Ochoa's popularity--and he televised the trial.) After the brave human rights activist Elisardo Sánchez gave an American reporter details about the show trial's aftermath, he was sentenced to three and a half years in prison, where he joined hundreds of other political prisoners; Guillermoprieto suggests that Castro cynically uses them to bargain with the outside world.
Cuba has survived economically since the collapse of the Soviet Union partly from increased tourism, which has now far surpassed sugar as a foreign exchange earner. But not just run-of-the-mill tourism. Guillermoprieto explains, without sensationalizing, that "the island has become an established part of the world sex tour circuit." The revolutionary government has become a de facto pimp, because "how [else] could Havana hope to compete with the likes of Martinique, Santo Domingo, Curaçao, or Cancún? Not on the basis of its shabby hotels, limited food supply, or terrible flight connections, certainly."
The tone of Guillermoprieto's reporting suggests she is personally disappointed. She respects Cubans who are still loyal to the revolution, and she is careful to make a distinction between their genuine idealism and power-madness at the top. But she notes that consumerism is growing, encouraged by tourists and visiting exiles bearing gifts. Consumptionism is a real force all over the world, one the left has historically gravely underestimated (and often too harshly dismissed). But it may have special potential here, as a safe outlet for human expression in a country whose one-party state stifles independent grassroots organization and cultural freedom.
Guillermoprieto then turns to Mexico, and finishes her remarkable book with optimism. She portrays a defining epoch in Mexican history, which opened with the Zapatista uprising on New Year's Day 1994 and reached one culmination in the July 2000 election of the first opposition president in the country's modern history, Vicente Fox.
Once again, Guillermoprieto has done her legwork, visiting the Zapatista home area in the southern state of Chiapas and interviewing Subcomandante Marcos sitting in a car in the middle of the night. She provides a much needed revisionist view of the Zapatistas, recognizing their importance without romanticizing them. She starts off with some genuine globalist analysis, not the unreflective cheerleading in the mainstream press, by pointing out that the collapse of the world coffee price in 1989 increased human misery among the small growers in Chiapas, aiding the insurrection (the same kind of economic pressure that induces some rural Colombians to turn to coca).
But she points out that the first reports that the Zapatistas constituted a huge avenging army of the poor were greatly exaggerated; "it turned out that they had no military strength and were in reality an armed pressure group." The Zapatistas survived because the Mexican public was tiring of the ruling party, the PRI (the oxymoronic Institutional Revolutionary Party), and would not have tolerated a military crackdown.
In early 1993, The Economist said that the PRI president, Carlos Salinas, "has a claim to be hailed as one of the great men of the 20th century," an honor the magazine conferred for his supposed courage in trying to impose market fundamentalism on Mexico. This judgment, typical of the mainstream world press at the time, was already more than a little starry-eyed; Salinas had almost certainly stolen the 1988 election. In time, though, this hero had to flee Mexico. Guillermoprieto reports that he had become "the person most deeply hated by most Mexicans," because of his links to corruption, drug trafficking and possibly murder, and because of his responsibility for the catastrophic collapse of the Mexican economy following the devaluation of the peso at the end of 1994 (which required a US bailout of nearly $50 billion).
Guillermoprieto does describe this economic debacle, but she might have devoted even more attention to it. "Transparency" is one of the buzzwords of market fundamentalism, the idea that governments and businesses should provide a free flow of information so people can make informed decisions. What actually happened was that the Mexican government, Wall Street and the US Treasury Department essentially cheated the Mexican people out of a free election in August 1994 by holding back key information about the deteriorating economy until after the ruling party's candidate had won. Then, too late, Mexico devalued, causing $5 billion in investment to leave within days, triggering a serious depression and making necessary a bailout of the (just privatized) banking system that is costing the Mexican people proportionally much more than the S&L rescue did here.
Mexico's story does have a happier tenor, at least for now. Vicente Fox, a maverick from the right who is nonetheless not afraid to listen to his high-ranking leftist advisers, seems set to consolidate democracy. The old ruling party is still reeling, having just lost a gubernatorial election in Yucatán, one of its former strongholds. Guillermoprieto credits the left's standard-bearer, the honest and courageous Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas, with making change possible by breaking with the ruling party and then continuing the fight for democracy even after being robbed of the presidency in the 1988 election. Millions of Cuauhtémoc's supporters, seeing he would fall short this time around, cast strategic votes for Fox.
During one of Guillermoprieto's visits to the Zapatista base area in southern Mexico, some of the campesinos, or rural poor people, reversed roles and asked her: "Were there many campesinos in this city I wrote for, New York? I informed them that in truth, there were very few left. That was too bad, one of them said--they had wanted to send their regards. 'But in any case,' [one] added, 'please convey our very best greetings to the people you know in that place.'"
Fortunately, the lives of Guillermoprieto's campesino friends in Mexico are improving, however slowly, without real civil war; genuine land reform is even coming to Chiapas. The friends Guillermoprieto has in Colombia are not as lucky.
Quite recently yet another of Jasper Becker's indispensable dispatches from China appeared in his newspaper, the Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post. "Every year," Becker reported, "about 10,000 of China's five million coal miners meet gruesome deaths underground." He went on to explain that censorship limits news of industrial accidents, but that conditions have certainly gotten worse in the past two decades, during China's breakneck effort at economic growth.
You have to pause a bit to let the impact of this statistic set in, especially after realizing that it does not include deaths from other industrial accidents, including factory fires, explosions and collapsing buildings, only a fraction making it into the pages of the Morning Post. Chinese workingmen and -women are dying at a higher rate than their counterparts in Victorian England or turn-of-the-century America, and, until now, the world has been paying little attention. By contrast, when an explosion at a coal mine in Monongah, West Virginia, killed 361 coal miners in 1907, the single largest such accident in our history, the disaster attracted national coverage.
You won't see much of Jasper Becker's kind of reporting in the American mainstream press. Over the past decade or so, American journalists, along with their ideological elder brothers at The Economist, have focused on the booming Chinese coastal cities, glorifying young entrepreneurial yuppies with cell phones and marveling at the construction burst of shopping plazas, office towers and upscale housing.
Slightly more conscientious reporters may mention, in passing, sweatshops and pollution, but they imply that these are the unfortunate and temporary byproducts of "economic reform," a phrase normally presented without the quotation marks, suggesting a self-evident good instead of a controversial set of economic policies. This uncritical attitude, best described as "market fundamentalism," has taken over much of the US media. Even Paul Krugman, currently the economic columnist at the New York Times and someone smart enough to know better, wrote an article back in 1997 titled "In Praise of Cheap Labor."
Jasper Becker is different. He is British-born but fluent in Chinese, and he has spent the past ten years in China, most recently for the Morning Post, skeptically tramping into areas of the country and listening to people most other Western journalists disregard. His years of work (some of it is also available on the Internet, at www.scmp.com) provide two tremendous services. First, he introduces us to Chinese people we would never otherwise meet. Second, he raises profound doubts about a core belief of market fundamentalism: that Chinese suffering today will be justified by a developed nirvana in the future.
Becker is not inspired by any nostalgia for the now-departed Maoist era; his last book, Hungry Ghosts (1998), was a powerful account of how the Great Helmsman's arrogance and the undemocratic Chinese Communist system caused more than 30 million people to die in a man-made famine during the disastrous Great Leap Forward (1958-61).
In The Chinese, Becker continues to care about the impact of economic policy on the lives of ordinary people. His book's very structure proves his determination to look beyond the minority of the newly prosperous, the people the Western market fundamentalists and investors find most photogenic. He starts at the bottom, in a village in the Guangxi region with some of the poorest of the 1 billion peasants, and then slowly moves up through the increasingly stratified Chinese society. Local officials shadow and harass him on his visits to the rural poor, who he says "probably constitute the largest unenfranchised group in the world." He goes on: "Forbidden openly to organize themselves to defend their interests against either the central state or local despots, they form secret underground armies, cults and millenarian sects as they have done throughout history. The state seems involved in a continual battle to crush them, and from time to time faint reports of this repression...reach the outside world." He speculates, "Given the chance, peasants would quickly organize themselves into associations or even political parties but at present that seems a remote prospect."
Becker also writes about the several hundred million migrant workers, third-class citizens who flock into the cities for low-paid, dirty work and who have no permanent right to stay or to bring their families, a state of affairs that would be depressingly familiar to black southern Africans. He visits the collapsing old industrial cities of the northeast, with their millions of angry, sullen unemployed. Becker profiles Chinese intellectuals, demoralized by repression after the 1989 Tiananmen uprising and the consequent "depoliticization of so many aspects of life." He explains: "Censors searching for subversive messages have examined everything from slogans on T-shirts to poetry magazines. The propaganda machinery has returned to its traditions." His grim conclusion is that "intellectuals have tried but generally failed to find some independent space within the system."
Becker describes the Communist Party, with its 58 million members, as a privileged minority in a country that now has nearly 1.3 billion people, but he estimates that "the real size of the ruling elite, from county magistrates upwards, is thought to be no more than 4 million." Only toward the end of his quest does he reach what he calls "the apex of the pyramid, the tiny group of self-selecting rulers."
Becker is extraordinarily cautious and measured. He points out that many of the precise-sounding government statistics, including the glowing economic growth figures, are either exaggerated or "simply made up to suit the propaganda needs of the day." Still, his years of experience crisscrossing the giant country have earned him the right to make certain observations, some of which may surprise even experienced China watchers:
§ Inequality in China is widening dramatically. Becker reminds us that the average annual peasant income in China is still only $240, a figure that has actually fallen in the past few years. The growing gap is distorting the Chinese economy; Becker points out that "much of the considerable investment in new housing was aimed at the very top end of the market despite a pressing need for low-cost housing."
§ Health and education for most Chinese are deteriorating. This discovery is perhaps Becker's most alarming. The decline is a disheartening contrast with the Maoist era, which despite its crimes and excesses brought significant progress. Becker even speculates that the Falun Gong religious cult, which continues to suffer vicious state repression, attracts adherents partly because "its leader, Li Hongzhi, promised his followers that if they adopted his system of exercise they need never take medicines or go to [the] hospital for treatment."
§ China today is governed by a kind of lawless authoritarianism. Local party bureaucrats, most apparently drained of any revolutionary idealism, wield unchecked power, arbitrarily imposing hundreds of different kinds of taxes on the rural poor. Quite logically, corruption flourishes.
At the upper levels, "princelings," the offspring of high party officials, commandeer what was once state property for personal gain and, in league with foreign (often overseas Chinese) investors, dominate vast segments of the economy, accompanied by corruption on a grand scale. Becker reports one particularly ominous development; some of the elite--you cannot call them "new" because many are the actual biological heirs of the old rulers--seem to be stashing billions outside China, a variant of Latin American- or African-style rapacity.
Such capital flight is a dangerous break with the East Asian pattern. In places like South Korea and Taiwan, the new industrialists did prosper, but they were required to keep the gains inside their countries, to reinvest in productive growth. Also, in neither place did the expanding economy widen inequality.
§ China's success at exporting from its coastal enclaves may be exaggerated. The inhuman conditions in these sweatshops are slowly becoming known, thanks to courageous Chinese activists and to solidarity movements overseas, but it may still be a surprise to learn that for the mostly female workers "talking is usually forbidden. To go to the toilet or drink a glass of water requires a permission card. Sexual harassment is common and punishments can involve beating, confinement or cancellation of wages."
Becker once again provides a fresh look, by raising serious doubts about the purely economic benefit of all this repression. He points out that the export zones are subsidized by the rest of the economy and that some of the apparent growth is in fact a speculative bubble (the kind of feverish phenomenon that Internet investors in the West have just painfully learned about).
§ China's security apparatus is actually expanding. Becker's revelation comes as something of a surprise, because the surface of Chinese life looks more relaxed after the monochrome, bleak thought control of the Mao Zedong period. But as Columbia University scholar Andrew Nathan explains in his valuable introduction to the recently published Tiananmen Papers, "To be sure, [the regime] has diminished the range of social activities it purports to control in comparison to the totalitarian ambitions of its Maoist years. It...no longer aspires to change human nature. It has learned that many arenas of freedom are unthreatening to the monopoly of political power."
So even though people in Beijing and Shanghai now wear Western-style jeans and running shoes, Becker points out that repression continues; arrests--not just political--are arbitrary, torture is routine and the death penalty is applied more frequently. Bill Clinton's 1998 state visit and China's accession to the World Trade Organization were supposed to be liberalizing influences. The market fundamentalists who insist that increased trade somehow automatically improves human rights have some explaining to do.
§ China is--for now--not a strong military threat to Taiwan, despite Beijing's bellicose threats. Contrary to the alarms of Western conservatives, Becker contends that the Chinese Navy could not--yet--mount an invasion across the Taiwan Strait, adding that "Chinese pilots cannot even fly in bad weather because their radar screens are unreliable."
§ Environmental degradation is perhaps the worst threat to China. The water table in the north is dropping; The Chinese includes a photograph of a forlorn figure trying to pump from a shallow pool in what is left of the Yellow River. China's water and air are polluted, and deforestation and loss of topsoil continue. Much of this is no surprise, thanks in large measure to the pioneering work of the scientist Vaclav Smil. Becker stresses that the environmental catastrophe is linked to China's lack of genuine democracy: "Since almost everything the state says is untrue, and most information is kept secret, there is no real trust or co-operation between its officials and the rest of the population."
Becker points out humorously that even Chinese weathermen have lied: "In 1999 it emerged that meteorologists had for fifty years been under orders never to report that the temperature had risen above 37 degrees centigrade (98.6 degrees Fahrenheit), although why no one would explain. Perhaps such an admission was seen as discrediting the Party."
China's environmental failure illustrates one of Becker's most important conclusions: Human rights, democracy and government accountability are not luxuries, worthy ideals to be set aside until economic growth is achieved. In fact, genuine, broad-based, environmentally friendly growth will not happen until there is respect for human rights. Spasmodic government exhortations will not reduce corruption at either high or local levels, but a vigorous free press, freedom to speak out and genuine multiparty elections are the only hope. Continuing government lying will not heal the environment, but independent ecology movements can help, as they have already demonstrated in neighboring Taiwan.
Becker is cautious about the prospects for change. He does recognize that "some foreign and domestic observers have predicted that such an explosive mixture of corruption, poverty and unemployment in China must one day result in a rural revolt. Perhaps." But he also points out that the Chinese bureaucratic state can trace its ancestry continuously back to the first Emperor in the third century BC, making it "probably the oldest functioning organization in the world," one that has been "exercising a tighter grip over its subjects than any other comparable government in the last two millennia."
The market fundamentalists of course assume that change will come as the automatic consequence of economic growth. They have done little to help this evolutionary process along. The great Chinese democratic dissident Wei Jingsheng, released in 1997 after eighteen years in Chinese prison camps, sits in exile in the United States, just about ignored by the mainstream media. Alexander Solzhenitsyn was a household word at a similar stage in his career.
Market fundamentalists disregard China's terrible level of industrial accidents and the decline in health and education. They are uncomfortable about Chinese sweatshops, air and water pollution, and corruption, but they justify these ills as an inevitable part of growth, looking back with a kind of misty glow at Dickens's England and post-Civil War America for reassurance that "we" came through the hard times, and so will the Chinese. Jasper Becker's remarkable book ought to raise crushing doubts.
But let us just imagine for a moment that the market fundamentalists are right. Their point of view is still immoral. They are implicitly suggesting that some people, those who gain from the unjust international economic order, have the right to impose suffering on other people, in the name of some ultimate goal. No one asked those 10,000 Chinese coal miners who died last year, men and certainly at least some women, whether they wanted to sacrifice for a greater future. No one allowed them to vote for people who might have protected their rights; no one permitted them to form independent labor unions. Apparently, globalization does not yet mean that members of America's United Mine Workers and other overseas unions can openly visit their Chinese colleagues and share their experience in fighting for safer workplaces. But at least, thanks to Jasper Becker, we are becoming aware that the Chinese miners exist, so they are no longer dying in total silence.