The Corruption of Memory

September 25, 2007

Just like the Mexican buildings that collapsed in the earthquake, Latin American democracy has been robbed of its foundations. Only justice could have provided the solid underpinnings; but instead of justice, we have obligatory amnesia. Goiania City, Brazil, Sep- tember, 1987: two paper- pickers come a- cross a metal tube in an empty lot. They hammer it open and find a glowing blue stone inside. The magic stone shines, turns the air blue, and makes everything it touches sparkle. The paper-pick- _ ers break up this lightning-bug of a stone, and give pieces to their The aftermath of the 1985 earthquake in Mexico City. Old buildings withstood neighbors. Whoev- the quake. New ones fell as if they had no foundations, because they had none. er rubs it on his skin shines in the night. The entire barrio glows like a America is condemned to obli lamp. The poor, suddenly endowed with light, cele- took in the children of Goiania brate. tion sickness, and gave them fi The next day the paper-pickers start to vomit. This event was met with the sa They'd eaten mangoes and coconut: that must be why. part of the mass media, even tt But the entire neighborhood is vomiting and swelling ers of public opinion are alwa and burning up inside. The light devours and mutilates concerned about Cuba. and kills; and it is carried everywhere by the wind and Mexico City, September, 19 rain and flies and birds. A thousand houses and building This was the worst nuclear catastrophe after Cher- three minutes. nobyl. Many died, no one knows how many. Many We don't know, nor will we died in that moment of horror i fragile city in the world. When dig through the rubble, the go Later, it stopped saying. The fi more were maimed for life. In that bar- rio on the outskirts of Goiania, no one knew the meaning of the word radio- activity, and no one had ever heard of cesium-137. Nothing hap- pened to those responsible. The clinic that discarded the cesium tube functions normally. Latin America is the land of impunity. Chernobyl re- sounds in the ears of the world. Who's ever heard of Goia- nia? As news, Latin vion. Last year, Cuba suffering from radia- ree medical treatment. me indifference on the hough the manufactur- ys, as we know, very 85: the earth trembles. gs collapse in less than ever know, how many n the largest and most people first began to ,vernment said 5,000. first bodies they pulled VOL XXVII, No 3 Nov/DEc 1993 35 Eduardo Galeano, the Uruguayan essayist, is the author most recently of We Say No: Chronicles 1963-1991 (Norton, 1992). Translated from the Spanish by Mark Fried. 35 VOL XXVII, No 3 Nov/DEC 1993REPORT ON CORRUPTION out carpeted an entire baseball field. They ended up in common graves. Old buildings withstood the quake. New ones fell as if they had no foundations, because they had none, or had them only on the blueprints. Years have passed and nothing has been done to those responsible: the developers who built and sold these modern sand castles; the officials who authorized skyscrapers in the most sunken area of the city; the engineers who lied murder- ously in their calculations; the inspectors who grew rich looking the other way. The rubble is gone, they've rebuilt what was destroyed, and everything continues as if nothing had ever hap- pened. At the end of 1991, the Economist and the ' New York Times published a World Bank inter- nal memorandum. The Bank's Harvard-trained 0 chief economist, Lawrence Summers, admitted to being the author. According to the document, 0 the World Bank ought to stimulate the migra- dildo tion of dirty industries to less developed coun- (Who tries for three reasons: economic logic, which the a favors dumping toxic waste in poor countries; the low pollution levels of lightly populated countries; and the low incidence of cancer among people who die young anyway. Some raised their voices in protest, because such things are done but not said. The international tech- nocracy earns its high salaries by coining euphemisms. But Lawrence Summers is no surrealist poet; he's a successful exponent of capitalist realism. The South has long been the garbage dump of the North, a toilet for nuclear and industrial shit. The memorandum said nothing new. Usury follows a similar pattern. Seventeen centuries ago, Saint Ambrosio, priest and doctor of the Catholic Church, outlawed usury among Christians but autho- rized it as a weapon against barbarians. "If war exists," that pious man said, "the right to usury exists." Today, what is bad for the North is good for the South, in accordance with the right of the few who usurp nearly everything to wage war against the many who have practically nothing. Beyond the walls of order and civilization, that undeclared war justifies everything. The kingdom of impunity extends south from the banks of the Rio Grande and the Mediter- ranean, and down the peaks of the Himalayas. Attracted by tiny wages and the freedom to pollute, several U.S. corporations have crossed the border into Mexico in recent years. The frontier city of Mata- moros is one place where the consequences are plain to see: the drinking water is thousands of times more toxic than in the United States. According to a recent study by the Texas Center for Policy Studies, the Meireles. Insertions into Ideological Circuits: Bank Note Project Killed Herzog?). 1970. Rubber Stamp and bank note. Collection rtist. water near the General Motors plant is 6,000 times worse than the U.S. average, and in the river where Stepan Chemical dumps its waste the water is 50,000 times more toxic. Brazilian physicist Ennio Candotti has made the point that the richest and most powerful countries can no longer maintain their levels of well-being without exporting devastation to other lands. Japan, for exam- ple, no longer makes aluminum. Aluminum is pro- duced in countries like Brazil, where energy is cheap and the environment suffers in silence. If the price of aluminum included the ecological cost of production, the industry would be priced out of the market. Colombia grows tulips for Holland and roses for Germany. Dutch companies send tulip bulbs to the plains of Bogot4; German companies send rose cut- tings to BoyacA. After the flowers have bloomed on these immense plantations, Holland gets its tulips, Germany gets its roses, and Colombia is left with low wages, damaged soil, and a diminished supply of poi- soned water. Colombian sociologist Maria Cristina Salazar is researching the devastating consequences of these industrial floral arrangements: the plains of BogotA are drying out and sinking; and the workers and lands of Boyaci are sick from the large-scale use of insecti- cides and chemical fertilizers. With impunity, Bayer and Dow Chemical make and sell in Latin America the fertilizers and pesticides out- lawed in Germany and the United States. With impunity, Volkswagen and Ford make and sell cars 36 NACLA REPORT ON THE AMERICAS 36 NACIA REPORT ON THE AMERICASREPORT ON CORRUPTION without the catalytic converters mandatory in Ger- many and the United States. Over 200 pesticides on the World Health Organization's black list are used in Uruguay, a country that has one of the highest cancer rates in the world. The inhabitants of Mexico City have the highest concentration of lead in their blood. The Indians who work on the coastal plantations of Guatemala breastfeed their children with the most toxic milk on the planet. Economic logic is what the World Bank report invokes; but what has been elevated to the cate- gory of divine law is the law of profit, and it rules with impunity. On its altars we sacrifice nature and human dignity. It's no news. After five centuries, scorn for human life has become habitual. Impunity feeds off fatalism. We're like the guy who to obey the law of gravity jumped from the tenth floor. We've been raised to believe that misfortune is a question of fate. Just like the Mexican buildings that collapsed in the earthquake, Latin American democracy has been robbed of its foundations. Only justice could have pro- There is nothing strange in the fact that the very same people who cheer the trials of human- rights violators in Eastern Europe applaud impunity in Latin America. In the South, state terrorism is a necessary evil. vided solid underpinnings; but instead of justice we have obligatory amnesia, a corrosive corruption of memory. All the Latin American countries to emerge from military dictatorship, from years of blood and dirt and fear, have sprinkled holy water on the fore- heads of torturers and murderers. The most recent amnesia law was passed in El Salvador in March of this year. And there is nothing strange in the fact that the very same people who cheer the trials of human rights violators in Eastern Europe applaud impunity in Latin America. In the South, state terrorism is a neces- sary evil. Over the last 20 years, the gap between North and South has doubled in size. We'll have to write a new dictionary for the century to come. What we call uni- versal democracy has little or nothing to do with democracy, in the same way that socialism in the Soviet bloc had little or nothing to do with socialism. Never has the distribution of bread and fish been so anti-democratic: there's enough for all, but few eat; 80% of humanity pays the bill for the extravagance of the chosen few. The state is being dismantled in Latin America. Governments should exist only to pay off the foreign debt and to guarantee social peace, which in proper English means to stand watch and to punish. To keep the invisible hidden, we need more guns and more uniforms, while public financing of education, health and housing take a free fall, and food subsidies disap- pear altogether. The system produces poor people, then declares war on them. The numbers of the desperate and the impris- oned multiply. The jails-branch offices of hell- can't contain them. Last year 50 riots erupted in Latin America's most overcrowded prisons. The riots left 900 people dead, nearly all of them prisoners, nearly all of them executed in cold blood. Those who reestablished order were congratulated. Of the dead, some had committed crimes which were child's play compared to the feats of more than one decorated general. Others were guilty of thefts which seem like jokes compared to the frauds perpe- trated by our most successful businessmen and bankers, or compared to the commissions charged by certain politicians every time they sell off a piece of the country. And many were imprisoned by mistake, or just in case. The owners of this fin-de-sidcle world have achieved astonishing levels of perfection in the tech- nology of information and death. Never before have so few been able to manipulate or suppress so many. The electronic dictatorship bestows immunity on the worldwide military dictatorship of the ruling powers: those who have the monopolies on guns and televi- sion, the consumers of consumer society who devour the earth, and in the heavens gobble up the ozone layer. The most atrocious acts of humiliation against people and violation against nature are in reality attempts to corroborate and perpetuate this world order. Take the war in Iraq, the largest and most expensive television show in history: a million extras, a billion dollars a day. Saddam Hussein, once a favored child of the West, suddenly turned into Hitler because he invaded Kuwait. George Bush led the call for punish- ment in the name of the world: "The world," he declared, "cannot wait any longer." The super extrava- Vol XXVII, No 3 Nov/DEc 199337 37 VOL XXVII, NO 3 Nov/DEC 1993REPORT ON CORRUPTION ganza left scads of dead Iraqis, though TV avoided any unpleas- ant images. One year before, Bush did not turn into Hitler when he invaded Panama, and he did not punish himself in the name of the world. After all, the United States had previously invaded Panama 20 times this century; invasion number 21 was televised as a docudrama on this time-honored tradition. To capture the infidel General Manuel Noriega, his former employee in the CIA, Bush bombed the poorest neighbor- hoods of Panama City and fol- lowed that up with the largest ' mobilization of ground troops Street children--and a guardian--consuming cocaine in Rio. Drug trafficking comes from mobilization of ground troops he TV a way of life that requires the massive consumption of chemical consolations. since the Vietnam War. The TV counted 100 bodies. The official statistics later claimed 500. Now we know it was in the thousands. The occupying troops produced a president, Guiller- mo Endara, sworn in at Fort Clayton, a U.S. army base. Three and a half years later, this unpresentable character out of a Botero painting organized a plebiscite. Three out of every four citizens voted against him. Illegitimacy could not scream any louder; but impunity could not rule if it were not deaf. U.S. writer Bud Flakoll says that news and entertainment are becoming ever more alike. Drug trafficking, which was the alibi in Pana- ma, remains the pretext of choice for violating nation- al sovereignty in Latin America. On the news, as in the movies, there are good guys and bad guys, victims and executioners. Colombia, for example, usually plays the villain, and the consumer the innocent vic- tim. But the business of drugs, an industry of death no less virtuous than the arms industry, would not exist if it were not fed by prohibition and if the market did not give it a reason to be. Drug traffickers are the best stu- dents of neoliberal economics: they understand the laws of the market and provide the supply that demand requires. The most lucrative business in the world is the result of a way of life that generates anxi- ety, solitude and anguish through the vertigo of unbri- dled competition, where the success of a few implies the failure of many. This way of life-projected daily on the small screen as a universal panacea-requires the massive consumption of chemical consolations. Last year in Colombia there were 26,000 murders and 2,000 kidnappings. Are Colombians violent by nature? Are they people with happy trigger fingers whom violentologists ought to place under a micro- scope? Or is this obstinate violence the child of scorn and desperation? Why is it that when the economy grows, people shrink? The social contradictions in this country of the richest rich and the poorest poor are more explosive than all the bombs that go off daily in Medellfn. Just as drug trafficking isn't made from a sow's ear, neither do guerrillas leap forth from the Devil's mouth. Many of the crimes are the direct work of state ter- rorism, backed up by the complicit silence of the mass media. Human rights organizations in Colombia recently published a detailed list of 250 military brass and 100 police officers responsible for murders, disap- pearances, massacres and torture between 1977 and 1992. Only 10 of them have been punished. The rest are still in charge. We don't need the ends to justify the means any- more. Now the means of communication justify the ends. Social injustice gets reduced to a police matter. If groups of individuals are consumer societies instead of peoples, and consumption is outlawed for 80% of humanity, then world order depends on the relentless application of the technologies of repression and oblivion. The mask of impunity is woven with threads of impotence and resignation. But there is a latent threat in each of the victims of this system which struggles against the consequences of its own acts. Even while celebrating the annihilation of its enemies, the system cannot fail to suspect that it is condemned to beget them.

Tags: corruption, Eduardo Galeano, impunity, neoliberalism

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