Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Capitalism, Poverty, and Humanity: A Paraguayan Lense

    There is an opinion that I have found distressingly too often among typically reasonable and intelligent people during conversations about poverty and development. The origins of this idea (in my opinion) are rooted somewhere deep within Western individualism, hidden subtly in the mentality of a world mystified by an un-analyzed, un-criticized notion of “freedom” as fed to us by the powers that be. This opinion automatically assumes that if someone is poor then they must therefore also be lazy or inept. On the surface, this already sounds like too absurdly general of a statement. Most people, even those who do indeed believe as such, would shy away from full-fledged allegiance to such ignorance. “Of course,” they will likely say, “there are always exceptions and people with genuinely bad luck.” But even such a caveat is poison.
    Within this idea lies the fundamental disconnect in our collective perspective on poverty, be it domestic or international, urban or rural. Believing that being poor somehow equates being lazy is a wonderful prescription for those that seek to not only ignore history but also to wash the dirty hands of those who have benefited the most (directly or indirectly) from the inequalities that have subjugated, disenfranchised and otherwise dehumanized those very poorest among us for centuries.
    And as those neo-cons and pundits dismiss any acknowledgment of our tainted history as “white guilt” or “liberal scheming” the reality is that we should be guilty. Not to the point where we sell all our worldly possessions and become prostrating monks begging for forgiveness (although for you Christians out there, this was kind of what Jesus had in mind when he said, “Drop everything and follow me.”), but to the point that we realize that we are responsible to those most wretched of this earth and that our good fortune was not, could not ever have been, entirely our own making. Our fates are intertwined, we are a collective humanity or we are without any.

Here’s the economic reasoning, the morality of it all has to be worked out individually, that’s the only way it ever sticks anyway:

    We live in a world of classes--upper, middle and lower class. This economic stratification is evident to a greater or lesser extent in every society through time and space, with the only exceptions being (depending on how you look at it) the most egalitarian societies of hunter-gatherers. The reality of life, of humanity, is that there are differences between people, between individuals and between cultures (this is not meant as a qualitative statement, but an objective observation). Variation is a biological, social and cultural necessity, it is a physical predisposition, it is that thing which colors our world. Difference is inherent, beautiful and necessary and yet, it never justifies discrimination in any form.
    In this world of differences, ultimately there are those who win and those who loose. Capitalist ideology would have us believe that those who win are those who achieved while those who lost are those who just couldn’t cut it. Only those who deserve to win would ever do so, and those who loose, well, they deserved their lot just as well. If we lived in an “ideal” world, one where everyone was competing from an even platform and only with their ‘god’ given talents, perhaps I could get more on board with such capitalist ideas, but that is not the case. We living in a world that is the contingent product of millennia of war and slavery and exploitation and treachery and all of the worst aspects (and at the same time, all of the best aspects as well) of human history. We cannot ignore this because to do so would be to ignore ourselves, we are the products of inequality, the most successful and the most impoverished alike.
    So what does this mean? Do we wallow in our guilt, paralyzed by the heinous inhumanity of our past and to a large extent, our present? Not at all. We must, however, be willing to recognize that “free competition” as idealized and essential as it is to the capitalist model, is a fantasy that can never and will never exist. One could never make the argument that the earning power of a poor Latin American farmer is equal to that of a middle-class, white-American male (me, for example). Why? Not because of any inherent differences in intelligence, capability, or our willingness to work hard but, simply because that Latin American farmer has been disenfranchised from almost every direction since before he was even born.

Let me relate an example from my own work here in Paraguay:

    For those who have never experience farm work, particularly manual farm work (that is without any machines, just your two hands, a machete and a hoe) I would highly suggest trying it on for size. I live in a community right now where every family engages in small-scale agriculture. My next door neighbor and best friend, Don Zaccarias will turn 80 years old next month. Every morning at 4 am he gets up, drinks his maté in the dark and goes out to his field before the sun rises. He works for hours, farming by hand about 3 hectares of cash and consumption crops, and comes home before the sun peaks in the sky and the temperature soars to over 100 degrees. If he can coax his weary body and sinewy muscles back to life later in the day, sometimes he can put in a few more hours in the evening before the sun sets. He has been doing this backbreaking kind of work his whole life, literally since he was a child and could carry a hoe. His story is not unique among my community, or among most people in the developing world for that matter.
    If effort and gumption could somehow be equated to success (as traditional capitalism would have us believe), the my good friend Don Zaccarias would be a millionaire. Instead, he lives in poverty. Abject poverty. The kind of poverty where I need to visit his house daily to make sure he has something to eat for the day. The kind of poverty where he refuses to go see a doctor, despite the fact that his heart condition desperately requires it, because he can’t afford the bill, let alone the medicine. This was Don Zaccarias’s lot from the day he was born. He is the victim of a system that never allowed him to receive an education, to make a different sort of life for himself or his family, a system that is increasingly reinforced on a global scale every day. Still, the Don would never say he was a victim, and truly, he laughs and smiles more than most people I have ever met. Tell that to a Wall Street executive who wouldn’t even know how to hold a shovel, let alone use one.
    I am not here to preach Marxism, for that is not what I believe. To me, it seems that the strong leftist ideas of Marx and Hegel were really more reactionary than practical, responding to the global inequalities it saw stemming from a newly industrialized, capitalistic, and Western-oriented world. But we must be willing to admit that any submission to pure capitalism represents the greatest possible injustice we could possibly commit. No one, not even the most “I built this!” people of capitalistic-repute can claim that they did it all on their own. That is not how this world works. It never was. We are not programmed that way.
    While yes, there are always cases of people breaking out of the lower-classes to achieve the Holy Grail of entrepreneurial stardom, the system is such that there will always be a lower class. No matter how many success stories there are, there are a million losers along the way--not because they didn’t try, and certainly not because they are lazy--but simply because that’s the way it is supposed to work.
    Of course, there are freeloaders, there are always a few rotten apples. But I posit this comparison--what is the difference between someone living off of government welfare and someone who makes their living buying and selling toxic financial “products” that create absolutely no value in this world and are ultimately set up to fail? The prior is, at worst, a passive beneficiary of an inefficient public service. The later is an active saboteur, willing to trade anything, even his/her most precious of American ideals to make a buck.
    Are we really so naive to think that there are no freeloaders on Wall Street or among the elite? As a matter of fact, the amount of corruption and mismanagement that is so common of politicians and CEO’s receiving underhand government contracts (the economics behind the War in Iraq would be a great case study) would lead me to believe that there are even more freeloaders among that bourgeoisie, or at least freeloaders who drain so much more from society than a single mother collecting food stamps ever could.  There are always bad apples, regardless of class or nationality or race or creed or gender or whatever else, but that doesn’t mean the whole barrel is rotten, or somehow undeserving of our compassion or relief. I’d rather feed a poor freeloading family any day, but that’s just me.
    As a conclusion to this post (which turned out to be a lot longer than I thought it would), poverty is not a product of laziness, or listlessness, or lack of motivation. It is a symptom of a sick system, a fallout for which we all (and especially those most successful among us) bear an enormous burden. We need not rise in armed insurrection or flagellate ourselves upon the alter of guilt and shame, but we must, we must, come to honest terms with the world we have created. It is our collective history, our collective present and our collective future. Poverty and inequality are not on their way out any time soon, but the greater we can empathize and internalize the struggles of others, the more compassionate and holistic our future will become. As the Buddha so wisely noted so long ago “Life is suffering.” We should strive always to turn outward with our own love and ability to alleviate that suffering and make it the pinnacle of our struggles not the capitalist ideal of wealth and status, but the humanization of every aspect of our world.

from Paraguay,
little hupo

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Walking the Line: Hotel Westfalenhaus and Campo Trippin’

    You know when you see a completely different side to something that you have been staring at for a long time--that plus good wine is how I would describe the past 8 days or so. This week I was graced with a visit from the world-renowned scholar, the amazing individual, and my great friend (that also happens to be my professor), Petra Tshakert. I first met Petra, almost 2 years ago now, during a study abroad trip to South Africa. Since then, she has sort of taken me under wing on several projects and begun introducing me to the academic side of international development. The summer before I left for Peace Corps, I was able to work with her and a number of other academics on developing an NSF proposal studying biofuel land-grabs in Africa and the social impacts of such practices. In addition, a few months ago we co-authored and published a paper (my first scholarly publication) in the Journal of Ethics and Social Welfare.
    Petra’s visit to the Paraguayan campo comes as a respite for her, a quick detour en route from South Africa, where she has been living as of late, to Buenos Aires, where she will be attending the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) conference this following week. For her, this time out in the field with no responsibility and no leadership role was a vacation from her otherwise demanding position as project leader and field-marshal on projects in places such as Senegal, Ghana, South Africa, and even into Nepal and Central America. For me, it was an opportunity to recharge my analytical batteries, gain a fresh new perspective on the little bubble-of-a-world in which I have been living for the past year, and to re-inspire myself for the next year of service. Plus, what better company could one as for than a lively, charismatic, profoundly-intelligent and well read scholar to talk, debate and drink tereré with?

    Last Monday, Petra arrived in the Asuncion airport. We taxied downtown to the city center, stopping off to see some of the old Spanish architecture along the river and to buy some nice wine and cigars. Asuncion is always a funny and strange place when you first get here. That day happened to be an idillic sunny South American afternoon that ended with singing, dancing and free glasses of sangria courtesy of the managers at an adorable local restaurant with authentic, Old World-style Spanish food. The stage was set, the following morning it was off to the campo.
    The alarm went off at 5 am. As I stumbled to get my bags together, all I could think of was that first sip of my first cup of coffee. We stopped for a little breakfast’i at the famous Bolsi bar, which takes after the classic American roadside diner tradition and also happens to be one of the few 24 hour eateries I have found in the capital. We got to the bus terminal by 7 prepared for a stop-and-go journey to Carayao by way of Coronel Oviedo. We arrive, tired and laden with our heavy backpacks only to find that, due to a moderate amount of rain the night before, the bus wasn’t running. We started out on foot on the 30 kilometer dirt road back to my site.
    As it turns out, when you travel with an energetic and youthful Austrian woman, it seems anyone with space in their truck is willing to pick you up and share some tereré. After maybe an hour and a half of bumming along the dusty road, a couple of campesinos driving a logging semi gave us a lift. We got to my community around mid-afternoon, shared a glass of wine, made diner and called it a night.
    These next few days turned out to be an awesome learning experience for me. While I was Petra’s unofficial tour guide and translator in my village (although her Spanish skills seemed to come back easily--although she did speak with a distinct French accent, I should note. Oh, the perils of being multi-lingual!), it was an awesome process to see Petra at work meeting the locals and being the cross-cultural expert that she is. From my perspective, it was a week long lesson in community interaction and integration, something that I had previously settled into easily but was in need of some new inspiration. There is a certain demeanor to people who are good in these sorts of situations. Such a capability can be as natural as it can be learned, but either way when you see a pro at work, it is always impressive to watch them effortlessly navigate all sorts of cultural and linguistic barriers. I am getting better at this myself, but as I have seen, I still have a lot more work to do.
    Another lesson I took from this week wasn’t so much about anything new, but simply reaffirmation of a principle I have already assumed although never really articulated. While traveling with someone like Petra around a developing country, you realize that it is unbelievably imperative to go with the flow. For those people who have experienced the chaos and unpredictability of the third-world, it becomes essential to control those few factors you can (usually those pertaining to yourself) and yet remain willing to continually adapt to every circumstance as it evolves. You must always be ready just to let go. It is important to know your limits, whether explicitly or implicitly, and to be able to judge when a situation has crossed a certain threshold of safety that you are no longer comfortable with. But within those constraints, you must be willing and capable to accept whatever might come your way and to do so with a smile. Again, Petra is an expert at this. I am getting better by the day.
    We spent Petra’s final night in Asuncion at a very nice German hotel called Hotel Westfalenhaus. This might be the fanciest sort of hotel I have ever stayed in my entire life, but seeing as it was close to the airport and it was Petra’s treat, who was I to object. Oh yeah, and they served real bacon for breakfast. What PC volunteer could turn that down? The contrast between this place, in all its clean and orderly glory, and the rural community we had just left couldn’t be more stark. But within that contrast lies the lesson.
    For those working in modern development, it is becoming increasingly important to be able to transcend such boundaries, to engage in such different bubbles of existence in order to facilitate communication and progress. It is rare for individuals to be completely comfortable to one day be farming with poor campesinos, using a latrine, showering with a bucket and sleeping on the floor, only to turn around the next day and present important grass-roots research to a crowd of intellectuals and policy makers. That is one of the most important roles that we can play, however, so that the voice of those marginalized and disenfranchised people can be heard in a forum for change. It is a strange sort of life, but also unbelievably fulfilling and exciting.
    After a week of intellectual discussion, debate, speculation about the fate of humanity and the constant sharing adventure tales, Petra boarded a plane this morning to Argentina. I remained at Hotel Westfalenhaus and made the most of their complimentary breakfast by sitting and eating for the entire 3 hours that it was open. I also must admit, I did steal a plastic bag full of bacon to take with me and munch on all day. Unfortunately, my supplies didn’t last nearly as long as I expected and now I am seriously craving some chancho asado. Peace Corps may be the ruin of me.
    What an awesome adventure this week. And who could have asked for a better third-world traveling companion? I am very much looking forward to grad school and learning more of the ropes from my soon-to-be graduate adviser--Petra Tshakert. For now though, it is more than enough to be here, very much at home in Paraguay with the next year of service to enjoy and live to the fullest. And for anyone else that would care to visit my little corner of the globe, the door of my humble (and clean--ask Petra!) abode is always open.

little hupo

Friday, October 5, 2012

Growing Grass

     Over this week I have had the amazing opportunity to talk, to re-connect, with several of my favorite people in the world. The problem with being so far away is not that communication is necessarily prohibitively difficult (although usually fairly inconvenient), but when your life is so physically removed from the lives of others, it also becomes somehow emotionally separate, or at least less connected. Many years ago, someone shared with me a poem they had written (this mysterious someone just happens to be one of these wonderful individuals with whom I spoke this week--the one and only Thomas Storm) and a quote from that poem has always stuck with me. I share it in the hopes that it may similarly haunt others of the traveling and/or adventurous disposition. The quote:

    “I walked into the woods today and found the grass growing without me.”
    I think this perfectly describes the sentiment of reconnecting with good friends after a period of emotional and physical distance. I didn’t realize until I spoke with these people how much I actually missed them and yet, at the same time, their energy and spirit and encouragement was exactly what my travel-weary heart needed.
    The Peace Corps experience is a lot of things. One thing it certainly has become for me is a way to gather a deeper understanding of myself, an appreciation and perspective of the complex nuances that compose the slightly insane individual that I am. When you live in a social and cultural situation that, even despite the greatest efforts on everyone’s part, is extremely isolating such a self-reflective process is inevitable.
     I just finished re-reading the book Life of Pi which chronicles the fictional experience of a shipwrecked survivor at sea for many months. The situation is one of extreme physical isolation and while I am daily surrounded by people (I live in a rural community, not a deserted island) I found myself relating so well to the main character. There is so much more to human connection than just physical presence.
    Every day I sit with groups of individuals and we have conversations and discussions, make jokes and commiserate about this and that--these moments are wonderful and I appreciate them immensely. But it is almost in these moments that I feel most alone. Culturally, I am a visitor. Linguistically, I am a child. Personally, I am such an outlier that most of my proudly wielded individuality doesn’t even register for most of my neighbors. Such is the lot of a Peace Corps experience and I am hardly the first, nor the last person to run such a gauntlet.
    Please do not interpret these notions somehow as complaints or sorrow, they are just observations of situations that continually help me grow as a person. The idea I am hoping to illustrate here is that, despite all this ambiguity in personal definition and identity, it takes the smallest things to keep a wandering spirit grounded in something like home. Talking to my friends from the states, people that are as close to family as my own family, hearing about their lives, re-telling those old stories, these are the things that bring me back to life.
    In this place, I am living and thriving in my own way. Indeed, this is one of the most enriching and enlightening experience of my entire life. But the contrast between this place, this life, and my life at home sometimes make me feel like separate people. There is something so full and beautiful in this idea, but at the same time an emptiness and a confusion. My life is truly a life of contrasts. Despite that, I still have my anchors, I know those people would fight any storm to keep me at harbor, if not in my body than in my spirit, always. You know who you are. Thank you and I love you.

from Paraguay,
little hupo

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Walking in the Rain

    I harp on about rain as if it were the only song I know. It permeates my writing, my blogs and my thoughts like some long-lost lover forever haunting over each horizon. Its maddening and obsessive at times, the anticipation and the expectation that comes with particularly shaped clouds on particularly ominous afternoons. In this place, in this life I am living, the rains are not just passing storm systems or blips on the radar, they are baptisms and blessings that literally control the pace of the world around me--ushering farmers to and from the field, turning leaves upside down in quiet reverence, being precluded by winds that make the trees dance and sing.

    They had been calling for thunderstorms this whole week and each time the heat of midday peaked unbearably under a lingering-cloudy threat only to blow over into nothing. More sun. More parched earth. More sweaty nights.

    Today, finally it came and in no small way. I was restless sleeping, knowing it would be here soon. I woke several times just to sit outside and listen to the winds churning. Around 2 am, the sky opened up. Thunder and lightning of all shapes and sizes, with moderate to furious temperaments. I couldn’t have been happier. It continued all morning, on and off at points. Eventually, I decided I just needed to go out and walk around in it. So I made up a bullshit excuse to myself to walk 10 kilometers to the local pueblo just so I had a reason to be out there. I would cuddle up with a cup of coffee later this evening, but I wanted to earn it first.

    Walking to pueblo is a long, hot ordeal during the summer. During the rain, it is a messy labyrinth of puddles and streams, requiring keen knowledge of what kind of textured mud is safest or sturdiest or least likely to swallow up your whole leg. It was a glorious walk, just like I thought. Within 15 minutes, I was soaked through, the winds whipping the rain horizontally and relentlessly into my face and under my coat. There were very few people on the road other than me. The locals are smarter than this. Still for me, it was a perfect afternoon stroll.
    I have said this before--Paraguay is not a particularly beautiful country. There is beauty here, of course, but it has to be sought out. It is a different kind of landscape that requires a different kind of appreciation. Unlike towering mountains or pristine coastlines, the land itself is does not contain the beauty a seeking eye would hope to find. But if you look closely, if you are quiet enough, patient enough, you realize that Paraguay is not the art, it is the canvas upon which the artists draw. The sun and the sky and the wind, each carefully cast their lines across this flat, empty space. It is a collaborative effort and some of the artists work faster than others--the weather for instance, at a feverish pace. Still others, like the geology or the topography, produce their art glacially.
    That is what I saw today on my walk. Like some sort of impressionist painting, muddled in its clarity by millions of descending droplets. You need to stare for a few minutes in order to realize what it is you are even staring at. And then there it is, all before you. Not a breathtaking or earth-shattering type of beauty, but a subtle and delicate type, an aching beauty that weighs upon your shoulders and makes you homesick. In reality, it was just a mash of colors--green pasture, red clay dirt-- just a flat wetness interrupted by trees and cows and a shack here and there. But whatever it was, it had its way with my heart.
    Its a confusing feeling, homesickness for a place that is not your home. I guess when you have so radically altered that notion of “home” to begin with, its not really places you are sick for anyway, it is people and moments and smells and feelings. When your home as a concrete place ceases to exist, you can feel that tug of nostalgia anywhere at anytime in anyplace, its just totally unclear in which direction its pulling you.
    I got home a few hours later, changed out of my wet clothes, made a cup of coffee and some fresh-baked bread. I am warm inside now and I feel much better for having made myself walk. I love the rain but I prefer it when I have someone to share it with.

From Paraguay,
little hupo