August 27, 2003

Lima: Welcome to the Third World

LIMA, Peru -- Traveling in the third world is extremely unsettling these days, moreso than ever before for an American because at no time has it ever seemed so much like one is looking at the future of one's own country.

Anyone who looks at the figures -- the increasing income disparity, the trend toward greater class divisions since the 1960s -- cannot deny that the U.S. is evolving toward the model of a third world society. For people who grew up in the shadow of the New Deal when government programs were not structured nearly as much as they now are to favor the rich, it's a crushing disappointment.

The New Deal programs and their descendants in post-Roosevelt U.S. helped give a leg up to people who had little to start with but were willing to make the most of an opportunity provided by the government. The trend during the '50s and '60s was toward a growing middle class. The rising tide lifted all boats, or at least it seemed to provide a chance. Since the Reagan times, as progressive social programs have been systematically dismantled, America is returning to the vicious, tenuous environment of the early 20th century. Class divisions are solidifying.

So when you travel in Latin America, you can see the kind of class society the U.S. is evolving toward. Bear in mind that the present power structure -- staffed by alumni of the Nixon, Reagan and Bush administrations -- are not only in sympathy with the kinds of dictatorships that keep those third world class structures in place with an iron hand, these are actually the same people who have provided the military "assistance", covert or otherwise, to maintain those dictatorships for the benefit of the U.S. corporations who steal the resources of the countries. These are in a very real sense the people who create the conditions of the third world. And now they are increasingly creating those same circumstances at home. Welcome to Banana Republic U.S.A. Who would have thought 40 years ago it could have happened?

When you see the glaring income disparities, the homes of the wealthy designed like jewel-encrusted crowns protected by barbed wire and elaborate security systems only a short distance from shanties made with sheet metal from scrapped cars, you know you are looking at a more pronounced form of the kind of wealth disparity that is growing in the U.S.

I caught a glimpse that made me shiver this morning. During breakfast at an expensive restaurant, an obviously rich couple came in, an old crotchety man and his young, glamorous companion. It occurred to me that in an environment in which there are few opportunities to rise above class boundaries, the temptation for young women to go with rich old men would be more pronounced.

They were a haughty couple. Though obviously rich, they did not seem happy. I observed as the young woman encountered the server of the buffet. There was a palpable sense of scorn in her demeanor as she ordered the server to serve her. The body language was clear. She held her head high and looked down her nose as if it was distasteful even to be served by such an inferior.

The server on the other hand, looked down slightly, a gesture of humility. She accepted her place, as we all must. The language of gesture reminded me of the huge land tortoises in the Galapagos islands who vie with each other for dominance by trying to raise their heads higher than the other. They don't physically fight, they just have a contest over who can get his head higher. Whoever does wins and the other skulks away in humiliation. How similar we are.

The young woman who was in the role of server was wearing a white apron and a chef's hat. It was anything but glamorous. At the same time, she was a very pretty woman no matter what she wore. But in the system of status we 21st century primitives embrace, she was below the other, the one who some may refer to as a bimbo. It was as if the customer were saying, "Keep your distance, do not dare to step outside the boundaries of your class, show your respect. I am superior because I sleep with the rich man. You merely work for a living."

For Americans with short memories and little sense of history, it may be forgotten the degree to which early America rebelled against the class structure of Europe. In the early colonies when it took so much effort to survive, those who fancied themselves "gentlemen" earned the scorn of their fellows. Wasn't it Franklin who said, "A gentleman isn't worth a plowman on his knees."

But that early American spirit seems to be lost. It's gotten swallowed up in a love of wealth and all its trappings. Americans have lost their soul. Not all of them, of course, but in the culture at large, those early American values -- what made the country great in many people's minds -- is submerged. The hope now as America plunges into a disaster unseen in its history is that Americans will wake up to what has been lost and try to restore it before it is lost forever.

From Lima, it's your reporter on the scene saying, "Keep smiling."


August 28, 2003

Possible Worlds

LIMA, Peru -- A post script to yesterday's observations of third world class divisions and the frightening fact that the U.S. is now progressing toward a third world style society with massive inequality:

Greater Lima has a population of 8 million people. Half of them -- 4 million -- live in shantytowns. They are called pueblos jovenes or "young towns". They are made of anything available. Squalid and miserable the shacks grow up the sides of the mountains around Lima. Somehow the people live; they find reasons to continue; they have their dreams; they fall in love; they have children and the children have the sparkling eyes and fun-loving natures of children everywhere. At least a surprising number of them do.

And then there are the rich districts, Miraflores and San Isidro, where there are homes like palaces, showcases of opulence surrounded by tall, spikey iron fences with electrical wires on top. The rich huddle within their fortress homes, unable to be really free. Their lives are distorted by the extremes in economics just as are the lives of the poor, only in different ways. They can never be truly free in their abundance when there are so many around them with nothing. Even their wealth cannot separate them from the society they live in.

The rich make up maybe 3% of the country. There is little of what would be called middle class by North American or Western European standards. Most of the rest are divided into the poor and the extreme poor. As a social structure, it's not a pretty picture.

As Franklin Roosevelt's legacy unravels, my respect for his achievement heightens. When you see untempered capitalism in the third world, it makes you appreciate the moderated version he introduced in America and the relatively comfortable world that grew up under the influence of that vision.

Reagan ushered in the New Age of Greed, and Bush II is pushing the U.S. beyond Reagan's vision, back to barbarism. I hope the American people wake up to what is being lost before the country becomes a third world feudal aristocracy with no more chance of turning back.

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