Thursday, March 28, 2013

Evenings in the Fall

In the evenings in the fall, after the mosquitoes have hatched in biblical droves, the campesino houses of my community are thick with smoke and the smell of pine and earth. The locals burn tin pans full of Paulo Santo wood, wagering lungs full of ash and bloodshot eyes in a bet to deter the hoards bugs and flies. The dirt roads fill with the smoke like valleys full of fog while the last strands of sunlight dance with it through the forest and I know that it is a smell and a feeling that will forever bring me back to this place. It’s this time of year, after the heat of summer has broken and the groundwater has cooled to the point of being perpetually surprising on the lips, that I feel cradled and loved by this country.
            The summer in the Plata Basin is a harsh and sadistic time and it sucks the life out of your pores. That South American sun taps you like a maple tree and drains the sap from your veins, drinking it up one bead of sweat at a time. But once those days have faded, once you have survived the harrowing ordeal of feeling your insides wither, it’s nothing but breezy beautiful days that lounge comfortably on the land. Then it is only the passing rains that provide a break in this pulse of autumn in the Southern Hemisphere. In the fall, each morning blossoms from the horizon with yellow pedals that unfold between the trees. The air is cool like crisp apples and you can almost taste the cinnamon in your chest as you breathe.
In the winter days it will get cold, sometimes frosting the grass and chastising those hopeful crops either left in the ground too long or planted too early for their own good. Yet, even these days are so much more manageable that those peak days of the deep summer. You see, when you wake to a summer sun, you know that the already hot morning will only lead to an even more unbearably hot afternoon; but in the winter, you can sip your maté and bundle by a wood fire, knowing that the afternoon will inevitably bring with it ideal hammock-napping weather. And there are precious few things in the world better than a cozy hammock nap with a good book. Weather like this is redemption. It keeps me grounded,  it makes me feel more Latin American (that Cuban side of me swells and smiles), like I belong here or in the very least that I am welcomed as an old friend.
And yet, what a strange contrast that an internet connection can yield when you live in such a remote area as I do. Whatever efforts to be present in this place, no matter how accommodating the weather may be, are always at odds with that periodic reminder that I am living another life, that there is a whole other "me" out there whose home is in the northeast United States, whose mother cooks pecan pies when the leaves begin to change, and whose addiction to black coffee sets a stronger tempo than the seasons.
In my mind, I can easily reconcile that these are just different facets of the same person, and at the same time, I am well aware that straddling these two alter-egos is a torturous and unsustainable practice. In a way, I know that I must choose which vessel to inhabit at any one time, not because one is superior to the other, but simply for the sake of happiness and effectiveness given the outrageous differences between the two environments to which they are adapted.
 On one hand, staying connected to that other person (via the internet and other such forms of communication) helps me maintain a grasp on reality. I am able to reach out and sense that distant and fast-paced world that in so many ways could not be more different than this place. Things are happening, the earth keeps turning, issues are being debated, and important events continue to unfold. I can at least observe it all even though it might feel as if I am watching from the opposite side of a plate-glass window.
Part of me feels left out as the world at home keeps passing by and it can be slightly disconcerting, especially considering that I am the kind of person who always wants to be in the thick of the action. I miss being that other “me”, I miss the thrill of intellectual discussion and libraries stacked endlessly with musty, age-scented books, I miss my friends and family, I miss walking through the woods that I grew up in, I miss picking up the morning paper, I miss the smell of bacon waking me up. And despite all of that aching nostalgia (made all the more poignant by a portable internet modem and computer), at this point in my life, I would choose to be this Paraguayan me any day.
I love this country and it loves me in it’s own strange way. And my days here are limited, so I am trying to drink each one to the point of inebriation. In so many ways, this is an indescribably greater education than I could have ever received in any university stateside. It is enlightening and real and a continuous lesson on perspective and understanding (as much so about the world as about myself). The ultimate result of living this sort of alternate-life is that I am discovering more about who I really am than I could have ever found if I had stayed “home”. These two awkward, wandering boys—the different parts of myself—are just faces of the same coin and it is infinitely more complex, resilient, and capable than I could have ever imagined. It’s just that I have had to travel halfway around the world to figure that all out.
When I really center myself in this place, when my little brick hovel feels most like my home and my neighbors more like family than friends, I settle into a rhythm and a mindset that is the closest to an inner-peace that I have ever known. It’s a combination of the lifestyle and the pace of life and the calm with which the bird-sung days pass into cricket-sung nights. It’s within this cocoon that I am aware the smallest of details, like the changes in the breeze or the variable retorts of the each and every farm animal, and I sense them with my whole body.
My actions are smooth, my thoughts are light, and these strange tongues which I am still learning to speak slip easily from lips to jumble naturally with the rivers of conversation that flow around me. This place is teaching me to see, to smell, to hear, to listen all over again. It’s teaching me what is really important and daily showing me how beautiful life can be no matter what material things you might lack. It is generous and selfless and it is helping me to become a better person with every passing day and with even the smallest of human interactions. Through this experience, through this crazy Paraguayan life I am living, I know that I will be given much more than I will give. But maybe at least, once the dust settles and I have gone back to being “me” again, it will be with a bigger heart and bigger hands, so that as I continue with my life, I can do so with a greater empathy, a greater resolve to help others, and a greater ability to carry my share of the burden in a world that is as abundant in its beauty as in its suffering.
But oh, how these evenings in the fall strum my soul like a song.

From Paraguay.
little hupo

Monday, March 25, 2013

In Pursuit of Happiness

            I am some distance away yet and it is already night, but through the dark and the smoke from the kitchen fire I can see Don Zaccarias sitting by himself. His face is half illuminated by an incandescent bulb as he reclines in one of those wire-strung chairs that seem as ubiquitous to this country as their constant need of repair. He leans forward and lifts his thermos, refills his yerba, and sits back to sip the hot maté slowly. It is the same sort of rhythm—pour, sip, sip, sigh, pour—that he has been on for about 20 minutes now. If left undisturbed he could probably keep it up for another few hours or more, or at least until the thermos runs dry (Opa la ŷ as they say in Guarani).
It’s about half past seven and this is the hour I usually share with Don Zaccarias, my trusty 80-year old friend, either in conversation or silence or comfortable intervals of both while we drink tea from his warped and weathered wooden guampa. It has become our sort of nightly ritual and I make a point of being there every evening to keep him company (although I am sure it does much more for my sanity and solitude than his). Tonight I am late, not an unusual thing in a country that typically rounds hours up and sometimes skips entire days altogether, and it has afforded me this brief moment of perspective: what would normally appear lonely, the figure of a solitary old man staring off into the night, is instead a lesson in happiness. He is as peaceful as a Buddhist monk but with tanned leather skin and sinewy muscles in the place of a crimson robe and white prayer sash. Pour sip sip sigh pour--the quiet mantra of the Southern Cone.

My time here in Paraguay as a Peace Corps volunteer has had its fair share of ups and downs. I can’t lie, in this place I have been both infinitely happier and infinitely sadder than I have ever felt in my entire life, sometimes within the same day. That’s a truth of volunteer service that they don’t tell you in the information sessions: you will be a slave to your fickle and incomprehensible emotions for 2 years straight. And while I toss and turn in the changing tides of life in a cross-cultural context, I can’t help but measure myself against those around me, my Paraguayan neighbors and friends who seem to have tapped some mysterious reservoir of South American tranquility.
Understandably, part of the frustration I have with maintaining my personal state of happiness is a product of the fact that I am far from my family and everything I once knew. But as this place has become my home--and it truly does feel like my home--my patience with myself has worn thin. I can no longer explain away all my shortcomings with distance or loneliness; the problem is with me and the cultural elements that shape my personal perspective and define my experience. With the seemingly unlimited time I have had in this place to reflect upon and critique my own cultural underpinnings, especially as they have been laid so bare and exposed by such contrast, I have come to realize how much my own enculturation has molded my expectations and my perceptions.
I tend to consider myself rather independent minded and somewhat removed from the mainstream on many levels; surely, I would not consider myself a “typical American” (whatever the fuck that is supposed to mean). But what has become more than obvious to me from my experience outside that little bubble we call the United States is that, not only is our culture radically removed from the realities of the rest of the world, but also that such elitist isolationism has shaped me to a greater extent that I care to admit. Still, despite whatever privilege our country’s economic and military hegemony has afforded the American people, there is something much more profound that we lack, something that so many other people across the globe, often times the poorest of the poor, seem to have in abundance.
Let me offer a brief caveat before I continue. I don’t mean to idealize poverty or ignore the challenges and desperation that comes from a life without the promise of even the most basic of needs. There is no merit or silver lining in watching helplessly as your children starve or suffer from chronic disease. Such a lifestyle is not a choice but a symptom of uncontrollable circumstance and systematic inequalities (something that all too many boot-strap pullin’ Americans just can’t seem to wrap their heads around). But given such inherent uncertainty and vulnerability, it speaks to the true resilience and persistence of the human spirit that so many of these people can find a reason not only to smile and laugh, but to be genuinely happy and content.
While entitled Westerners (myself included) stress about trivialities, those most impoverished of our world are daily faced with life-or-death decisions and unbelievably trying circumstances. Where we complain about the momentary lack of the instantaneous access to the entirety of human knowledge (i.e. internet service) that delays us in posting pictures of our cats or what we had for lunch, other people of the world are toiling in the sun to produce enough food to keep their families through the next season. And yet they find reason to be content, whereas we might not feel fully at ease until we’ve contacted the internet service provider and bitched out the completely faultless phone operator on the other end. I am just as guilty as the rest, a fact that I have recognized in the past months and one that has challenged me greatly.
Given my current situation, I have endeavored to live a simpler life by reducing my sense of entitlement, weaning myself from luxuries and personal indulgences, and finding happiness in more tangible yet non-material parts of this life. It has not been easy, and I feel ashamed now that I realize how incredibly spoiled I have been my whole life, but so far it has led me to a much greater appreciation of the littlest things and it has helped me to find a sense of happiness that transcends whatever geographic or cultural-barriers I might have once perceived. Still, I am an American, and as much as I might hope to atrophy my sense of privilege, it will never disappear completely. For those who haven’t had the opportunity to take an outside perspective on Western culture to any meaningful extent, I wonder as to the nature of their happiness as well as my own.
Of all the countries in the world, it is the West (and countries with strong economic and cultural ties to it) that have the highest per capita incidences of depression and anxiety disorders by several orders of magnitude. While some of this is likely due to over diagnosis in the West for the sake of selling pharmaceuticals (and placating patients with consumerist mentalities) or underdiagnoses in the developing world, I believe that the majority of this contrast is founded in the variable effects that different cultural modalities have on the human psyche.
One cultural modality teaches us that we can only ever be satisfied with more, the next best thing, the newest gadget on the market, and that such satisfaction is only attainable through consumption. Our social, political, psychological being has been reduced to only the material items we can amass. From a young age, an assault of advertisements and product placements teach us implicitly that money can buy happiness. As adults, we are inaugurated into society only once we begin to assume debt (credit). These factors create human beings that cannot envision a better future, a future without the crushing weight of money-owed as we relentlessly struggle to keep up with the Jones’ (forgive the shameless cliché)—its no wonder we live in a chronically depressed and anxious society.
In this Western cultural paradigm, the ultimate (and only) expression of our “freedom” and “independence” is through our practices of consumption. As individuals, we forge our identities through our patterns of consumption and nothing else, foregoing the true freedoms of democracy without an afterthought, turning a blind eye to the rest of the troubled word, and settling instead for the platitude of “voting with our dollars”. As the cynical question goes, “Is Freedom just another word for many things to buy?” We have devolved into Homo economicus. We have set our sights too low.
For other cultural modalities, especially of the developing world (and I am speaking quite generally), such practices are impossible. For the poorest of the world, conspicuous consumption is quite literally unaffordable. These people have been traditionally marginalized and disenfranchised and often excluded from the markets of consumerist goods (although more and more corporations are now eyeing the poor as future exploitable markets). All too often, they are the ones making those very luxuries for bottom-dollar wages that we in the West get to enjoy. It’s socio-economics and it’s inequality, and through the perpetual dynamism of culture, it is integrated into society.
Such different economic conditions have created quite different cultural manifestations. Instead of being defined by what they consume, the individuals of impoverished cultures and communities more appropriately define their lives through their relationships to other human beings; it is as much a function of philosophy as it is a necessity of survival. The notion of a happiness that can be bought and sold is incongruous in such a context. Surely, with the advent of modern communications, they hear the consumerist message, but with limited economic abilities to engage in the global consumerist market, it falls on deaf ears (although, many could well argue that even the message itself is corrupting).
In such cultures, happiness is not over the next hill and it is not a distant notion, if it were it would likely never materialize. The uncertainty and immediacy of life below the poverty line means that delayed gratification would more often than not translate into no gratification—a crippling element of disempowerment and under-development in the third-world. So in response, people live in cultures that values human connection, strong relationships, family bonds the likes of which are rarely seen in the West (in my experience at least). Happiness must be founded in these few reliable aspects of their life. It is their lifeline, their livelihood and the wellspring of all their triumphs and tribulations. And it doesn’t have a price-tag. As opposed to the hubris of Americans who ‘do it all on their own’ (more than likely, that is just as much of a personal illusion as their purchased happiness), such uncompromising individuality is not only unvalued but maladapted. Below the poverty line no one can survive on their own—it’s a lesson in reciprocity for our world to ignore at its peril.
So what the fuck am I really trying to say with all of this, that the West is a soul-less society of consuming robots while the developing world has unlocked the true secrets of happiness and perpetual enlightenment? No. There are unbelievable merits the Western cultures offer and likewise the developing world is full of struggle and immense sorrow. I apologize if I seemed to have characterized them too strongly either way, but I was trying to make a point, and my point is this: in a changing world with an unpredictable future we cannot continue to rely solely on such quantitative, economic measures as indicators and guidance for policy. To do so belies the true essence of human nature, creating societies of consumers instead of societies of human beings. We are so much more incredibly complex and dynamic than GDP and economic growth will ever encapsulate, and to reduce our political objectives to simply making these numbers go up year after year will not only prove ultimately unsustainable, but it will eventually dilute and dissolve the most essential elements of the human experience.
Instead of a truncated and disconnected culture of individuals who only interact to conclude transactions, we should learn one of the many lessons that the developing world has to offer: above all, it is human relationships and contentment that lead to true happiness. At the same time, those people of the developing world deserve an equal share of the economic abundance that has been so unfairly distributed (or hoarded, or stolen) in the West. We should not abandon plans of development or economic growth, but begin to understand their limits and consider other ways of evaluating the true “development” of a society. A few suggestions include: 1) economic measures of wealth distribution (not just GDP per capita) with the variations on this theme along lines that consider minority populations and gender dimensions, 2) the World Happiness Index, 3) Indexes of civil liberties and social freedoms, 4) Human Security evaluations, 5) Quality of life surveys that evaluate disease, vulnerability, capacity of adaptation etc.

Don Zaccarias is out in the evening, sitting in his chair and sipping maté as always. I am about to go join him. Spending time with him is always a good lesson in being content. Here is a man born poor, raised poor, lived poor and who will one day die poor, but I couldn’t imagine someone more at peace with his life. Maybe it’s because his aspirations were always tempered by his economic disposition, maybe it’s because his lack of education limited his scope of the world and its possibilities; I am sure these are all true. But in the end, regardless, he is a happy man. He enjoys simple things and always has a smile to spare. In that sense at least, we should all be so lucky.

From Paraguay,
little hupo

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Hot Days After Strong Rains

Part I: 

     On hot days after strong rains, almost every able bodied man and boy from my village takes to the winding cow paths that meander carelessly through the surrounding marshy lowlands. As they romp through the water and rushes and a labyrinth of massive termite mounds, like lonely atolls in chaotic archipelagos stretching onto the horizon, their recreation often seems more self-sacrificing than good fun. But undaunted, they continue on their way, on this pilgrimage induced by passing storms and a brutal sun. Often the only thing visible as they disappear into depths of the steamy marsh are their 3 meter long bamboo fishing polls, bobbing curiously above a sea of slender grasses.
     They are seeking any one of a number of calm, muddy pools, about knee-deep or so, and they are willing to brave hoards of mosquitoes, poisonous snakes, intense heat and life-sapping humidity to reach them. Their prize at the end of this typically Paraguayan ordeal are heaps of miniscule fish, in the end all bloodied and tethered by the gills to a strong reed which is then slung over their shoulders to carry home. If they are lucky, they might catch a few as big, maybe a bit bigger than their hands. If they are really lucky, they'll score some marsh eel (mbu'su in Guarani)--the holy grail of campo Paraguayan pond fishing.
     Lucky for me, not all of these otherwise isolated marsh ponds are so far-flung. Along the main dirt road that leads to my community, the one I bike or walk or run at least once every day, there are at least three (sometimes more if the skies have been particularly generous). Usually, these are the first to be picked over, fished out by the early-bird locals eager to grab some diner without the self-flagellation of the deep wetlands. This also tends to be where the youngest kids hone their skills—sitting for hours and hours crouched around dangling poles, watching their bobber-less lines with fervent devotion, waiting for the childhood rush caused by the slightest nibble from a fish that, more than likely, won't be much longer than a finger.
     In a world with homemade poles and recycled fishing line, the absence of reels means that these fish are only hooked by violently yanking upwards on the poles. No controlled capture, no epic battles between man and beast-- just an anxious kid, a deceptive fishing line, and a wild, occasional attempt at hooking a bite. If they miss the bite, of course, their over-zealousness simply sends a scraggly, rusty hook on the end of a line flying through the air, liable to snag any one in the remote vicinity. If they have in fact hooked the fish, however, it is likewise sent soaring. There is skill involved in this method, for sure, its just hard to appreciate when you are dodging hooks and fish ever few minutes. Still, it is incredibly endearing and immensely entertaining to see the little boys scramble once they realize that so-and-so has actually caught something, each one trying to be the first one to grab the line and unhook the unlucky specimen. Endearing, of course, until you realize that a bunch of these pathetic little fish might be the only serving of protein any one of these young kids receive for the day (or possibly a few days). Regardless its hard not to smile; their excitement is contagious.

Part II: 

     Several days ago, on a dusty walk home under a peak noon-day sun, I passed a motley group of neighborhood youngsters intently engaged with one of more popular watering holes that line the edge of the wetlands. From the looks of things, they wouldn't have been eating much for diner that night—a small cat-fish type thing (about as long as a hand), a few half-palm sized sun fish, and various other assorted pond treasures, each one seemingly smaller than the one before. I sat with the kids for some time, bullshitting in Guarani and trash-talking about local soccer clubs, as they persisted in their marginal efforts. Perhaps my arrival brought some good luck, or maybe it was just the heat of midday that had drawn some better prospects for the boys-- in the psuedo-matra of my more fish-minded neighbors “Sí sale el sol bien, por eso sale la pesca también.” (When the sun comes out, so do the fish.). Pretty soon we were no longer dodging empty hooks as they orbited our heads, but instead foot-long marsh eels that wriggled-madly at the sudden shock of being mercilessly ejected from their aquatic home.
     One boy, the unusually small and high-pitched Willy, was the resident expert eel-smasher as well as defacto comic relief. The moment an eel would spectacularly exit the muddy shallows, he went into action-- grabbing the line and de-hooking the poor devil in a matter of seconds. In their final efforts, the eels would cling desperately to his arm, each long serpent-like creature easily consuming almost the entirety of Willy's tiny forearms with its coils. Calmly and while uttering a constant string of Gurarní profanity (even I, with my limited grasp on the language, knew that this kid had a very dirty mouth), he would slowly unravel the tail in a way that did as much to exhaust the struggling animal as to audibly break its bones and ligaments. Soon, it hung like a limp rag from his small hand, still alive but barely.
     Taking each one by the tail he would then proceed swing it through the air in a wide arc, bringing its head down onto a large stone, the combination of the two issuing a loud, wet “Whack” every time. The whole spectacle--complete with more indigenous cursing, Willy's exaggerated efforts and wide grin, and occasionally punctuated by a traditional 'campo call' (a very Paraguayan practice of offering a brief holler or yelp at opportune moments)--might seem somewhat barbaric to those accustomed to more “humane” ways of treating their future meals. Rest assured, Willy is a burgeoning eel-smashing professional and the whole process, from catching the eel to its skull-smashing death, took less than a minute. Maybe this is still not the greatest consolation to the animal-lovers out there, but what can I say: this is life in the Paraguayan campo and these boys are as proud as they are hungry.
     After snagging a few more mbu'su from this surprisingly productive pond, the young boys in all their victorious pomp, invited me to their home for diner that evening. Among the wide array of strange Paraguayan dishes that I have had the pleasure of sampling over the past year and a half, including not only (seemingly) every wild animal that these Plata Basin forests have to offer, but also their various organs and other assorted “innards”, marsh eel was still not on the list. So of course, I had to accept.

Part III: 

     Willy's house is one of a number of houses in my community that seem the quintessential example of abject poverty: its a small, wooden-plank structure with dirt floors and thatch-grass roofing (more than likely also playing host to a number of South American “kissing bugs” which carry the potentially lethal parasitic disease, Chagas). The house consists of one-room, maybe the size of a single typical American suburban bedroom, and an accompanying yet separated kitchen structure where the mother Elisa cooks over an open fire.
     The house is stuffed-full with four small beds, each topped with a moth-eaten foam mattress (enough to accommodate the entire family of 12), and a small television balanced precariously on a dresser in the corner. A single incandescent bulb hangs from the ceiling on its thin, black chord; another flickers quietly in the kitchen to help momma prepare diner after the sun has gone down. Ducks, pigs, the family dog and chickens all make their way through these sleeping quarters on a fairly regular basis, the later sometimes laying eggs in the warm nooks otherwise occupied by spiders or trash.
     The smaller children themselves (Willy, his younger brother Richard, as well as their two sisters, Maria and Luz) seem to reflect this austerity in their anatomy, displaying all the feature typical of malnourishment and underdevelopment. Their small bodies are disproportionate—thin in certain areas with bulbous joints and large heads. They seem like poorly-drawn caricatures, complete with awkwardly gaped teeth, eyes that bulge from their sockets, and protruding foreheads on top of delicately small bodies. It was surprising (or perhaps sobering) when I learned that Richard and Willy were 5 and 6 years old, respectively. I wouldn't have guessed anything more than 3, maybe 4.
     But goddammit, if these kids are the happiest little runts in the world and the easiest people to make smile. As we prepared the day's meager bounty for diner (which would eventually be a sort of salty eel stew with onion and oregano), I pretended to eat bugs which sent the children into peels of laughter. It seemed like this may have been the funniest thing they had ever seen, up until I unleashed the power of the “claw” (for anyone who has seen LiarLiar with Jim Carey, you should know what this is). At a certain point, I realized that I needed to calm them down again; such laughter and commotion so close to bedtime was certainly not appreciated by the neighbors. Once I stopped, the children seemed instantly caught-up in the descending curtain of tired eyes. With little more than a few spoonfuls of soup and mandioca in their bellies, the four little ones feel asleep within minutes, huddled up like small rabbits in a mosquito-net draped clutch. Willy, that day's fearless hunter, lay squashed in the middle of them all, his small mouth still holding on to the subtle grin from an afternoon of childhood triumph.
     The rest of the family and I all hunched over two bowls of eel-stew and made quick work of it all. For those who have never eaten eel, its quite ideal. With all the flavor and texture of fish (maybe slightly tougher) yet without the infinite little spines of cartilage and bone that typically irritate efforts at eating other aquatic animals. Once one has cut the flaps of ligaments around the head and face, the rest of the eels slimy skin slides off easily like a coat. Sometimes, to loosen up the outer-layer so that it can be more easily stripped from the body, the whole eel is placed on the ground and rolled like a rolling pin. This not only helps to release the skin from the flesh but also acts to tenderize the meat at the same time.
     Once the skin is peeled and the organs removed and tossed aside (unless of course, the eel is full of eggs, which can be eaten as well—Paraguayan caviar), the whole eel can simply be sliced into segments and cooked as is. The final product, a thin and salty fish-soup (with eel taking the place of fish, of course), is a prized favorite of campo Paraguayans who live far from the riparian borders of the country. The soft eel-flesh can be effortlessly slurped off of the bone--a single continuous spinal column that runs the length of the creature but without the additional eating-hazards of tiny ribs. In my humble opinion, and speaking with the authority of my extensive experience with other Paraguayan rarities, I must say that eel-stew is quite delicious. He'iterei (delicious in Guaraní).
     Here's to unexpected afternoons and unexpected perspective.

Del Tierra de Estero (from land of marshes),
little hupo

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Hugo Chavez: Thoughts from Heart of South America

      Later yesterday afternoon, the Vice President of Venezuela announced the passing of Hugo Chavez, the country's charismatic and revolutionary leader for the past 14 years. Reviled by some, loved by many, he leaves a legacy that is as colorful as it is controversial, but one that will have a lasting impact far beyond the borders of his own small South American country. The leftist coup that Chavez led in 1998 set a precedent (politically, not necessarily methodologically) soon to be invoked in almost every other country in South America and in many others throughout Latin America as well. The new age of socialism, what Chavez called the 'Bolivarian revolution' (named after the 18th century South American patriot and independence fighter Simon Bolivar), had come to fruit in the continent. Soon following would be leftist (and also notably anti-imperialist) regimes in Ecuador (Correa), Bolivia (Morales—the first ever indigenous president in SA), Argentina, Brazil, Guatemala and many other countries, including even little, forgotten Paraguay (Lugo in 2008).
      In contrast to socialism earlier in the century (1950's-1970's, more or less), this modern manifestation was perhaps somewhat less radical and less internationally polarizing, but nevertheless equally as hated and derided by the imperialist West. As such, many countries of the global, neo-liberal order reacted predictably by marginalizing and demonizing the new Latin American socialists both politically and in the media. In 2002, a US backed coups attempted to and briefly succeeded in overthrowing the democratically elected Chavez in Venezuela (heralding back to the days of US led assassinations and/or military coups in almost every other Latin American nation). Unable to consolidate power and with overwhelming popular pressure, the coups fell apart and Chavez was reinstated as president 2 days later. Always weary of the strong arm of the US (sometimes quite publicly so), the coups put Chavez at even harsher terms with the US. The failed coups played a large role in motivating and substantiating many of the anti-democratic, power-grabbing measures that Chavez would later enact over the next decade. Still, Chavez remained unafraid to stand up to imperialist bullies and was forever resilient to falling in line with the dogma of global politics and economics.

      Obviously, my personal feelings and political leanings can be easily gleaned from the preceding narrative of the political life of Hugo Chavez. Its not that I adore or idolize him in any superhuman sort of way—he was a human being, a leader who did much good and some bad (if I may dramatically over-simplify my position for the sake of explanation). I would certainly say that I am a much bigger fan of Chavez than I am of almost all US presidents (with the notable exceptions of Lincoln, FDR, Carter, and on some days, Obama). But what I can say definitively, is that having lived in South America for almost 2 years now and having studied extensively the political and social landscape, is that I believe I can offer a much different perspective on this very important political figure of our century. What I am hoping to do in the following few pages is not to convert anyone to radical, anti-imperialist socialism, but to simply provide a framework for reevaluating the life of someone that most Americans hate and yet have no concrete ideas why.

      In 2005, in front of the UN general assembly, Chavez famously called US President George Walker Bush (American cowboy of the century) “the devil”. While not entirely savvy or politically proper, it was a way of expressing a very strong international sentiment at the time. Lets take a look back in time: At the insistence of neo-cons such as Dick Cheney (through their proxy, the president of the United States) the US was waging a war in Iraq, bombing and killing thousands of civilians (totals would reach around 500,000 or half a million of innocent Iraqis killed), all justified through a series of elaborate lies about WMDs. A few years earlier, the US congress had passed laws that threatened the freedoms of their own citizens in a way not seen since the height of Cold War McCarthyism (ironically called 'The Patriot Act'). Additionally, the US had implemented torture of prisoners in their global 'War on Terror' despite international pressure and in complete disregard for the Geneva conventions.
      This, of course, is just the most prominent among a laundry list of other violations and immoral deeds that would all go unpunished, despite the fact that many members of the Bush administration, including Bush himself, could easily have been tried for war crimes by international courts (if it wasn't for the pardon that Obama so generously offered them right after he squashed independent investigations into US torture practices by Spain and Germany). So personally, if it were me, I would not have called George W. Bush “the devil” in front of the UN, but still, I would have had trouble holding my fiery tongue.
      What I think the previous example illustrates is that the popular image of Chavez as some crazy South American dictator is not necessarily a product of any particular policies (although, there are some of his actions that are more authoritarian), but instead the international media's attempts to brand him as a lunatic and a fool, made all the easier by his larger-than-life and flamboyant nature. If you take an objective look at the political history of Chavez in Venezuela, it is undeniable that he has done more for the poor and disenfranchised in the country than any leader before him. He cut illiteracy, extended social health care to the farthest reaches of the country, and fought poverty like a fiend by building houses, creating safety-nets, and redirecting nationalized oil-funds to social programs for the poor instead of allowing them to be siphoned overseas by tax-dodging, multinational corporations. He empowered the most marginalized of Venezuelan citizens and included them in the national democracy, giving them a voice and a champion for the first time in history.
      Over the course of only 14 years, he would eventually cut poverty in his country in half—something that few other leaders (and not a single US president) could claim. He did all of this, of course, at the expense of ostracizing the Venezuelan elite and the international community of moneyed interests, including those of US economic imperialism. This would cost him dearly in the martyr-happy and bourgeoisie-controlled media, always willing to throw another socialist on the pyre of so-called tyranny. And so, most US citizens have never heard of Chavez's dedication to improving the lives of millions of his impoverished country-men, only that he suppressed media opposition within his own borders and insulted (rightly so) our gun-slinging President in front of the UN.
       Another major charge leveled against Chavez is that he has held onto power undemocratically for over a decade, that his re-elections were never fair or free, and that he is therefore, in the most textbook sense, a totalitarian leader. After the leftist coup in 1998, Chavez was elected by popular vote. Following the coup attempt against him in 2002, Chavez was re-elected by popular vote. He would continue to win elections. After each re-election, the West would let loose their accusations of undemocratic processes. To appease this international pressure, Venezuela would invite international watch groups to monitor elections as they were recast and later deemed fair and free. While Chavez has been re-elected 3 times to the presidency, he has won 15 elections (if we include all the times he was called a liar and a cheat and national ballots were recast under independent scrutiny to appease international pressure).
      It seems inconceivable to the West how someone like Chavez could be democratically elected, but if you think about it, it makes perfect sense: Chavez was a champion of the poor, he fought for their rights and their inclusion in the democratic system. They responded by re-electing him infallibly. The reality is that there are far more poor people in Venezuela (and almost every country in the world, for that matter) than rich people, so in a free and fair election, the popular vote from the proletariat will always win. No doubt, mobilizing the masses of Venezuela's impoverished was a key to Chavez's numerous re-elections—it was a politically smart move on his part. But still, how can anyone claim that such an effort was somehow wrong or immoral. To make democracy accessible to all people, to undermine the unfair advantage of moneyed interests in the political system, to give a voice to the most forgotten and marginalized—shouldn't that be the goal of all good democratic countries? The greatest irony of all is that those American conservative Republicans who are so eager to criticize and demonize Chavez are the very ones who are currently engaged in the very opposite practice, that of the making American democracy inaccessible to minority populations in hopes of ensuring a conservative victory in the next election. Personally, I think I'll vote for Chavez in 2016.
      All of this is not to say that Chavez (as I stated before) has not done bad things during his administrations in Venezuela. His suppression of the political right and curtailment of free media sources are certainly undemocratic (inhibiting freedom of speech) and authoritarian in nature, no doubt. But I challenge you to put it in perspective: are these actions any more undemocratic, somehow more dangerous to freedom then, lets say, The Patriot Act (which if you haven't looked at in detail, I would highly encourage you to do so—its fucking terrifying) or President Obama's executive orders to assassinate US citizens by drone attacks without habeus corpus or a fair trial? Are Chavez's attacks on free media in his country any worse than corporate-controlled, castrated media sources in the US that are so plugged into the modern Washington-Wall Street complex? Are they any worse than the fact that we operate in a bipolar “democracy” where actual free opposition is buried and muted under the immensely-wealthy and equally dogmatic paradigms of the Democratic and Republican parties? Are they worse than the Bush administration's insistence (and massive media crack-down) that kept images of dead soldiers coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan in flag-draped caskets off of every major news source? Perhaps the authoritarian actions of Chavez were easier to deride because they were more blatant, whereas the US has learned the importance of maintaining the facade, but both are equally as undemocratic and despicable in their own right.
      With the death of Hugo Chavez, Latin America has lost a historic and revolutionary figure and the poor (both of Venezuela and the world) have lost a champion. Whether you love him or hate him (or at least think you hate him), I would challenge you to take another look at who he was and what he fought for. No leader is ever perfect and undoubtedly, one could find a thousand things that might justify the image of Chavez as a modern-day dictator. I assure you that a similar analysis of any US president would yield the same. When we evaluate a leader, it is important not to attempt and fit him/her to any sort of preconceived mold, but instead to understand them in the light of their humanity and who they were as people in all of their triumph and imperfection. Biases and personal opinions aside, one can not question Hugo Chavez's devotion to the poor and disenfranchised. He was dedicated to making his country and our world a better place for those untold numbers of people that society had otherwise forgotten. In this respect at least, Chavez was a truly remarkable figure in history.

From Latin America, and in solidarity,
little hupo