Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Weapons of Mass Development 

I don't generally like to just expropriate the work of others and reproduce it in my blog. But sometimes there are things that are so good and so well said they cry out to be disseminated as widely as possibly. And this is clearly the case with the most recent essay by Charles Hardy, U.S. citizen who has been living in Venezuela for over 20 years:

The WMDs of Venezuela
By Charlie Hardy,
Posted on Wed Dec 14th, 2005 at 11:53:45 AM EST
I have often said that my living in Latin America the past twenty years has been similar to being hit over the head daily, but in a very positive sense. I have had to see so many things from an entirely different perspective.

It probably should not have been a surprise to me, therefore, when I heard a Venezuelan colonel tell a group of visitors from the U.S. that Venezuela was in possession of missiles.

Then he clarified the matter.

He said the missiles, which Venezuela has and is already using, are missiles with books, missiles with medicines, missiles with food. I think you might interpret this as saying that Venezuela possesses WMDs – Weapons of Mass Development.

Linguistically we are products of our times. And too often the media and those who hold the reigns of governments dominate our ways of thinking and the meanings of words and symbols. Entering the twenty-first century, the word “war” brings to mind Iraq and Afghanistan and the great excuses for every abuse that a government can perpetrate: “the war on terrorism” and “the war on drugs.” We forget that even in the United States of American there was once a positive use of the word “war,” the “War on Poverty.”

The word “weapons” brings to mind the billions of dollars that are spent on destruction throughout the world. A common dictionary definition says that a weapon is something used to injure, defeat or destroy. We have been locked into the idea of injuring and the negative connotations of “defeat” and “destroy” and have overlooked the possibility that the word “weapons” could also be used positively (e.g., for books and food) as means to defeat and destroy problems such as illiteracy and hunger.

I listened very carefully to the closing remarks of the Latin American presidents who were at the Mercosur meeting in Montevideo, Uruguay, last week. They spoke repeatedly about the threats to democracy in the region. But in their remarks, and possibly I missed something, I didn’t hear any of them referring to the need for a “War on Terrorism” or a “War on Drugs” to protect democracy. They did speak repeatedly about poverty and inequality as the menaces in today’s world that had to be overcome. In spite of the fact that the meeting was about trade agreements, the emphasis seemed to be more on social development than economic development. The second was of importance only in relation to accomplishing the first.

In that connection, President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela spoke of the concept of “free zones.” To those who travel to foreign countries, “free zones” bring to mind the Duty Free Shops that populate the international airports. To those involved in commerce, “free zones” provoke the thoughts of free trade.

But Chávez said that the world needed to begin to speak not only of free trade zones but also of: “zones that are free of illiteracy, zones that are free of malnourished infants, zones that are free of abandoned women living alone with their children in shacks, zones that are free of youth who are not able to finish their secondary education, zones that are free of young men and women who finished high school with hard work and who now can’t go to college; zones that are free of the street children that fill our cities; zones that are free of exclusion, exploitation and misery.” He added, “We can plan for this and we must plan for this. If we, who are political leaders, can plan for economic development we are even more obligated ethically to plan for social development.”

So, once again, I feel like I’ve been gently hit on the top of my head and my brain is spinning a bit. Leaders here are speaking a different language. But happily these linguistic thumps don’t bring me to the medicine cabinet for an aspirin; they do bring a smile to my face and give me hope for the future of our world.

Other essays by Charles Hardy can be found on his personal blog Cowboyincaracas.com . You may write him at cowboyincaracas@yahoo.com.

This essay really resonated with me for one particular reason. He makes reference to the "War on Poverty" that was carried out by Lyndon Johnson in the 1960's. I was quite young during it and have no first hand memory of it.

But recalling that time serves to remind me how far the U.S. has regressed. The U.S. did have governments, that while pro-capitalist, did believe it was their role to improve the welfare of the population. The New Deal, the War on Poverty, and even the turn of the century Progressive Movement were examples of this. And the U.S. had politicians who ranked right up there with Hugo Chavez in terms of their belief in what government can and should do to address social wrongs. Huey Long, who was only prevented from becoming President by an assasins bullet, comes to mind.

Yet for any American in their mid-40s or younger they are likely to know nothing but right wing governments of varying degrees with whom the only question is how far they will be able to roll back the hard won gains of previous generations. And even the one or two progressive ideas, such as Clintons desire for a national health plan, never seem to last more than a month or two. As Mr. Hardy points out Americans too once dreamt of building a better society, one without poverty and illiteracy, without wars of conquest but with social justice. And we too had our own version of "missions" to help get us to that better society. But it is so long ago now and we are so far removed from it, not even daring to dream about those things anymore, that it is hard for us to remember it ever existed.

That is one of the things that makes for such an incredible contrast between the current governments of the United States and Venezuela. The U.S. is a very wealthy country with a high standard of living. Yet every year the question seems to be how many more decent jobs will disappear, how many more people will have to reconcile themselves to a lower standard living, how many more people will join the ranks of the poor and uninsured, or how many more hours they'll have to work just to pay the bills. Venezuela is of course a much poorer country and its citizens have a much harder life. Yet for now things have turned the corner with the standard of living going up, poverty being reduced, education being improved and just the overall quality of life being better - if not a lot better at least somewhat better.

It is often said that it's not where you are that counts, but where you are going. I think that is why Charlie Hardy's essay so resonated with me. Although those in the U.S. in many ways enjoy a privaleged position we have now spent several decades going backwards - being less than what we once were. It shouldn't be then such a surprise that we sometimes look with envy upon Venezuelans who, although they have a very long and hard road ahead, have at least begun to take steps in the right direction.


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