excerpts from the book
a primer for the looking glass
by Eduardo Galeano
Picador USA / Henry Holt, 2000,
Al Capone, speaking to Cornelius Vanderbilt Jr - interview published
in Liberty magazine October 17, 1931, a few days before Capone
went to jail.
"People respect nothing nowadays.
Once we put virtue, honor, truth, and the law on a pedestal....
Graft is a byword in American life today. It is law where no other
law is obeyed. It is undermining the country. Virtue, honor, truth
and the law have all vanished from our life."
The world economy is the most efficient expression of organized
crime. The international bodies that control currency, trade,
and credit practice international terrorism against poor countries,
and against the poor of all countries, with a cold-blooded professionalism
that would make the best of the bomb throwers blush.
The worst violators of nature and human rights never go to jail.
They hold the keys. In the world as it is, the looking-glass world,
the countries that guard the peace also make and sell the most
weapons. The most prestigious banks launder the most drug money
and harbor the most stolen cash. The most successful industries
are the most poisonous for the planet.
In Latin America children and adolescents make up nearly half
the population. Half of that half lives in misery. Survivors:
in Latin 5 America a hundred children die of hunger or curable
disease every hour, but that doesn't stem their numbers in the
streets and fields of a region that manufactures poor people and
outlaws poverty. The poor are mostly children and children are
mostly poor. Among the system's hostages, they have it the worst.
Society squeezes them dry, watches them constantly, punishes them,
sometimes kills them; almost never are they listened to, never
are they understood.
Everywhere on earth, these kids, the children
of people who work hard or who have neither work nor home, must
from an early age spend their waking hours at whatever breadwinning
activity they can find, breaking their backs in return for food
and little else. Once they can walk, they learn the rewards of
behaving themselves-boys and girls who are free labor in workshops,
stores, and makeshift bars or cheap labor in export industries,
stitching sports clothes for multinational corporations. They
are manual labor on farms and in cities or domestic labor at home,
serving whoever gives the orders. They are little slaves in the
family economy or in the informal sector of the global economy,
where they occupy the lowest rung of the world labor market:
* in the garbage dumps of Mexico City,
Manila, or Lagos they hunt glass, cans, and paper and fight the
vultures for scraps
* in the Java Sea they dive for pearls
* they hunt diamonds in the mines of Congo
* they work as moles in the mine shafts of Peru, where their size
makes them indispensable, and when their lungs give out they end
up in unmarked graves
* in Colombia and Tanzania they harvest
coffee and get poisoned by pesticides
* in Guatemala they harvest cotton and get poisoned by pesticides
* in Honduras they harvest bananas and get poisoned by pesticides
* they collect sap from rubber trees in Malaysia, working days
that last from dark to dark * they work the railroads in Burma
* in India they melt in glass ovens in
the north and brick ovens in the south
* in Bangladesh they work at over three hundred occupations, earning
salaries that range from nothing to nearly nothing for each endless
* they ride in camel races for Arab sheiks and round up sheep
and cattle on the ranches of the Rio de la Plata
* they serve the master's table in Port-au-Prince, Colombo, Jakarta,
or Recife in return for the right to eat whatever falls from it
* they sell fruit in the markets of Bogota and gum on the buses
of Sao Paulo
* they wash windshields on corners in Lima, Quito, or San Salvador
* they shine shoes on the streets of Caracas or Guanajuato
* they stitch clothes in Thailand and soccer shoes in Vietnam
* they stitch soccer balls in Pakistan and baseballs in Honduras
and Haiti to pay their parents' debts
* they pick tea or tobacco on the plantations of Sri Lanka and
harvest jasmine in Egypt for French perfume
* rented out by their parents in Iran, Nepal, and India they weave
rugs from before dawn until past midnight, and when someone tries
to rescue them they ask, "Are you my new master? "
* sold by their parents for a hundred
dollars in Sudan, they are put to work in the sex trade or at
any other labor.
Armies in certain places in Africa, the
Middle East, and Latin America recruit children by force. In war,
these little soldiers work by killing and above all by dying.
They make up half the victims of recent African wars.
In nearly all these tasks, except war,
which tradition decrees and reality teaches is a male affair,
girls' hands are just as useful as boys'. But the labor market
treats girls the same way it treats women. They always earn less
than the meager bit paid to boys, when they earn anything at all.
Prostitution is the fate of many girls
and fewer boys around the world. Astonishing as it seems, there
are at least a hundred thousand child prostitutes in the United
States, according to a 1997 UNICEF report. But the vast majority
of child victims of the sex trade work in the brothels and on
the streets of the southern part of the globe. This multimillion-dollar
industry, with its networks of traffickers, intermediaries, travel
agents, and procurers, operates with scandalous ease. In Latin
America, it is nothing new: child prostitution began in 1536,
when the first "tolerance home" opened in Puerto Rico.
Today half a million Brazilian girls sell their bodies for the
benefit of adults-as many as in Thailand, but not as many as in
India. On some Caribbean beaches, the prosperous sex tourism industry
offers virgins to whoever can pay the price. The number of girls
placed on the market is rising steadily: according to estimates
by international organizations, at least a million girls swell
the ranks of the global supply of bodies every year.
The number of poor children who work,
in their homes or out, for their families or for whomever, is
uncountable. They work outside the law and outside statistics.
And the rest? Many are superfluous. The market doesn't need them,
nor will it ever. They aren't profitable; they never will be.
From the point of view of the established order, they begin by
stealing the air they breathe and soon steal anything they can
lay their hands on. Hunger or bullets tend to shorten their voyage
from crib to grave. The system that scorns the old also fears
the young. Old age is a failure, childhood a threat. Ever more
poor children are "born with a tendency toward crime,"
according to specialists. They are the most dangerous category
of the "surplus population." The child as public threat:
"the antisocial conduct of youth in Latin America" has
been a recurring theme at the Pan-American Children's Congress
for years. Governments and some experts on the subject share this
obsession with violence, vice, and perdition. Each child is a
potential El Nino, and the disasters he or she may cause must
be prevented. At the first South American Police Congress, held
in Montevideo in 1979, the Colombian delegate explained that "the
rising daily increase in the population under eighteen leads us
to expect a higher POTENTIALLY DELINQUENT population (uppercase
In Latin American countries, the hegemony
of the market severs ties of solidarity and tears the social fabric
to shreds. What fate awaits the nobodies, the owners of nothing,
in countries where the right to own property is becoming the only
right? And the children of the nobodies? Hunger drives many, who
are always becoming many more, to thievery, begging, and prostitution.
Consumer society insults them by offering what it denies. And
then they take vengeance, united by the certainty of the death
that awaits them. According to UNICEF, in 1995 there were eight
million abandoned children on the streets of Latin America. According
to Human Rights Watch, in 1993 death squads linked to the police
murdered six children a day in Colombia, four a day in Brazil.
The number of malnourished children in the world is growing. Twelve
million children under the age of five die every year from diarrhea,
anemia, and other illnesses caused by hunger. A l 998 UNICEF report,
full of such statistics, suggests that the struggle against child
hunger and death "become the world's highest priority."
To make it that, the report turns to the only argument that seems
to work today: "The lack of vitamins and minerals in the
diet costs some countries the equivalent of more than 5 % of their
gross national product in lives lost, disability, and lower productivity."
The world economy requires consumer markets in perpetual expansion
to absorb rising production and keep profit rates from falling.
It also requires ridiculously cheap labor and raw materials to
keep production costs down. The same system that needs to sell
more and more needs to pay less and less.
In 1960, the richest 20 percent of humanity had thirty times as
much as the poorest 20 percent. By 1990, that figure had increased
to seventy times. And the scissors continue to open: in the year
2000 the gap will be ninety times.
Between the richest of the rich, who appear on the pornofinancial
pages of Forbes and Fortune, and the poorest of the poor, who
appear on the streets and in the fields, the chasm is even greater.
A pregnant woman in Africa is a hundred times more likely to die
than a pregnant woman in Europe. The value of pet products sold
annually in the United States is four times the GNP of Ethiopia.
The sales of just the two giants General Motors and Ford easily
surpass the value of all black Africa's economies. According to
the United Nations Development Program, "Ten people, the
ten richest men on the planet, own wealth equivalent to the value
of the total production of fifty countries, and 447 multimillionaires
own a greater fortune than the annual income of half of humanity."
The head of this UN agency, James Gustave Speth, declared in 1997
that over the past half century the number of rich people doubled
while the number of poor tripled and that 1.6 billion people were
worse off than they had been only fifteen years earlier.
In the United States half a century ago, the rich earned 20 percent
of national income; now they get 40 percent. And in the South?
Latin America is the most unjust region in the world. Nowhere
else are bread and fish distributed as unfairly; nowhere else
does such an immense distance separate the few who have the right
to rule from the many who have the duty to obey.
Latin America is a slave economy masquerading
as postmodern: it pays African wages, it charges European prices,
and the merchandise it produces most efficiently is injustice
and violence. Official statistics for Mexico City from 1997: 80
percent poor, 3 percent rich, the rest in the middle. The same
Mexico City is the capital of the country that in the 1990s spawned
more instant multimillionaires than anywhere else on earth: according
to UN figures, one Mexican has as much wealth as seventeen million
of his poor countrymen.
There is no country in the world as unequal
as Brazil. Some analysts even speak of the "Brazilianization"
of the planet in sketching a portrait of the world to come. By
"Brazilianization" they certainly don't mean the spread
of irrepressible soccer, spectacular carnivals, or music that
awakens the dead, marvels that make Brazil shine brightest; rather
they're describing the imposition of a model of progress based
on social injustice and racial discrimination, where economic
growth only increases poverty and exclusion. "Belindia"
is another name for Brazil, coined by economist Edmar Bacha: a
country where a minority lives like the rich in Belgium while
the majority lives like the poor of India.
Every year poverty kills more people than the entire Second World
War, which killed quite a few. But from the vantage point of the
powerful, extermination is not a bad idea if it helps regulate
a population that is growing too fast. Experts decry "surplus
population" in the South, where ignorant masses violate the
Sixth Commandment day and night: "surplus population"
in Brazil, where there are seventeen inhabitants per square kilometer,
or in Colombia, where there are twenty-nine. Holland has four
hundred inhabitants per square kilometer and no Dutchman dies
of hunger, but Brazil and Colombia belong to a handful of gluttons.
Haiti and El Salvador are the most overpopulated countries in
the Americas-just as overpopulated as Germany.
The moral code of the end of the millennium condemns not injustice
but failure. Robert McNamara, one of those responsible for the
war in Vietnam, wrote a book in which he admitted it was a mistake.
That war, which killed more than three million Vietnamese and
fifty-eight thousand Americans, was a mistake not because it was
unjust but because the United States carried on in full knowledge
that it could not win. By 1965, according to McNamara, there was
already overwhelming evidence that the invading force could not
prevail; nonetheless, the U.S. government continued as if victory
were possible. The fact that the United States spent fifteen years
visiting international terrorism on Vietnam in order to impose
a government the Vietnamese did not want does not even enter into
the discussion. That the world's premier military power dropped
more bombs on a small country than all the bombs dropped during
the Second World War is utterly irrelevant.
Power recalls the past not to remember but to sanctify, to justify
the perpetuation of privilege by right of inheritance, absolving
those who rule of their crimes and supplying their speeches with
alibis. What schools and the media teach as the only possible
way of remembering the past simply passes on the voices that repeat
the boring litany of power's self-sacralization. Exoneration requires
unremembering. There are successful countries and people and there
are failed countries and people because the efficient deserve
rewards and the useless deserve punishment. To turn infamies into
feats, the memory of the North is divorced from the memory of
the South, accumulation is detached from despoliation, opulence
has nothing to do with plunder. Broken memory leads us to believe
that wealth is innocent of poverty. Wealth and poverty emerge
from eternity and toward eternity they march, and that's the way
things are because God or custom prefers it that way.
Free trade is sold as something new, as if born from a cabbage
or the ear of a goat, despite its long history reaching back to
the origins of the unjust system that reigns today:
* three or four centuries ago, England,
Holland, and France practiced piracy in the name of free trade,
through the good offices of Sir Francis Drake, Henry Morgan, Piet
Heyn, Francois Lolonois, and other neoliberals of the day
* free trade was the alibi all Europe used while enriching itself
selling human flesh in the slave trade
* later on, the United States brandished free trade to oblige
many Latin American countries to accept its exports, loans, and
* wrapped in the folds of that same flag,
British soldiers imposed opium smoking on China, while by fire
and in the name of freedom, the filibuster William Walker reestablished
slavery in Central America
* paying homage to free trade, British industry reduced India
to the worst penury and British banks helped finance the extermination
of Paraguay, which until 1870 had been the only truly independent
country in Latin America
* time passed, and in 1954 it occurred to Guatemala to practice
free trade by buying oil from the Soviet Union, and the United
States promptly organized a devastating invasion to set things
* shortly thereafter, Cuba, also failing to see that free trade
consisted of accepting prices as imposed, purchased outlawed Russian
oil; the terrible fuss that ensued led to the Bay of Pigs invasion
and the interminable blockade.
"Developing countries" is the name that experts use
to designate countries trampled by someone else's development.
According to the United Nations, developing countries send developed
countries ten times as much money through unequal trade and financial
relations as they receive through foreign aid.
In international relations, "foreign
aid" is what they call the little tax that vice pays to virtue.
Foreign aid is generally distributed in ways that confirm injustice,
rarely in ways that counter it. In 1995, black Africa suffered
75 percent of the world's AIDS cases but received 3 percent of
the funds spent by international organizations on AIDS prevention.
... the free flow of capital only fattens drug traffickers and
the bankers who offer refuge to their narco-dollars. The collapse
of public financial and economic controls provides good cover,
allowing for the more efficient organization of drug distribution
and money-laundering networks.
Today, there are certain things one can't say in the face of public
* capitalism wears the stage name "market
* imperialism is called "globalization"
* the victims of imperialism are called "developing countries,"
much as a dwarf might be called a "child"
* opportunism is called "pragmatism"
* treason is called "realism"
* poor people are called "low-income people"
* the expulsion of poor children from the school system is measured
by the " dropout rate"
* the right of bosses to lay off workers with neither severance
nor explanation is called "a flexible labor market"
* official rhetoric acknowledges women's rights among those of
"minorities," as if the masculine half of humanity were
* instead of military dictatorship, people say "process"
* torture is called "illegal compulsion" or "physical
and psychological pressure"
* when thieves belong to a good family they're "kleptomaniacs"
* the looting of the public treasury by corrupt politicians answers
to the name of "illicit enrichment"
* " accidents" are what they call crimes committed by
* for the blind, they say "the unseeing"
* a black man is "a man of color"
* where it says "long and difficult illness," it means
cancer or AIDS
* "sudden illness" means heart attack
* people annihilated in military operations aren't dead: those
killed in battle are "casualties," and civilians who
get it are "collateral damage"
* in 1995, when France set off nuclear tests in the South Pacific,
the French ambassador to New Zealand declared, "I don't like
that word 'bomb.' They aren't bombs. They're exploding artifacts"
* "Getting Along" is what they call some of the death
squads that operate under military protection in Colombia
* "Dignity" was what the Chilean dictatorship called
one of its concentration camps, while "Liberty" was
the largest jail of the Uruguayan dictatorship
* "Peace and Justice" is the name of the paramilitary
group that in 1997 shot forty-five peasants, nearly all of them
women and children, in the back as they prayed in the town church
in Acteal, Chiapas, Mexico.
In 1997, there were 1.8 million prisoners in U.S. jails, more
than double the number ten years earlier. But that figure would
triple if it encompassed those under house arrest, out on bail,
or on parole. That total would include five times as many black
prisoners as all those imprisoned under apartheid at its height
At the end of the twentieth century, a private U.S. prison company,
Corrections Corporation of America, was one of the five highest-priced
companies on the New York Stock Exchange.
In the United States, where prisoners are always plentiful, jails
are hotels that never have a vacancy. In 1992, over a hundred
companies were designing, building, or administering prisons.
In an interview at the beginning of 1998, novelist Toni Morrison
pointed out that "the brutal treatment of prisoners in private
jails has grown so scandalous that even Texans are concerned.
The National Criminal Justice Commission estimates that at the
current rate of change in the prison population, by the year 2020
six out of every ten black men will be behind bars. Over the past
twenty years, public spending on prisons has grown by 900 percent.
After a few years of decline at the end of the Cold War, arms
sales have turned around. The world market in weaponry, with total
sales of $40 billion, grew 8 percent in 1996. Leading the list
of buyers was Saudi Arabia at $9 billion. For several years that
country has also led the list of countries that violate human
rights. In 1996, says Amnesty International, "reports of
torture and ill-treatment of detainees continued, and the judicial
punishment of flogging was frequently imposed. At least 27 individuals
were sentenced to flogging, ranging from 120 to 200 lashes. They
included 24 Philippine nationals who were reportedly sentenced
for homosexual behavior. At least 69 people were executed."
And also: "The government of King Fahd bin 'Abdul 'Aziz maintained
its ban on political parties and trade unions. Press censorship
continued to be strictly enforced."
For many years that oil-rich monarchy
has been the top client for U.S. weapons and British war planes.
Arms and oil, two key factors in national prosperity: the healthy
trade of oil for weapons allows the Saudi dictatorship to drown
domestic protest in blood,
while feeding the U.S. and British war
economies and protecting their sources of energy from threat.
A skeptic might conclude that those billion-dollar purchase orders
bought King Fahd impunity. For reasons that only Allah knows,
we never see, hear, or read anything about Saudi Arabia's atrocities
in the media, the same media that tend to get quite worked up
about human rights abuses in other Arab countries. Best friends
are those who buy the most weapons. The U.S. arms industry wages
a struggle against terrorism by selling weapons to terrorist governments
whose only relation to human rights is to do all they can to trample
In the Era of Peace, the name applied
to the historical period that began in 1946, wars have slaughtered
no less than twenty-two million people and have displaced from
their lands, homes, or countries over forty million more. Consumers
of TV news never lack a war or at least a brushfire to munch on.
But never do the reporters report, or the commentators comment,
on anything that might help explain what's going on. To do that
they would have to start by answering some very basic questions:
Who benefits from all that human pain? Who profits from this tragedy?
"And the executioner's face is always well hidden,"
Bob Dylan once sang.
In 1968, two months before a bullet killed
him, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. declared that his
country was "the world's greatest purveyor of violence."
Thirty years later the figures bear him out, every ten dollars
spent on arms in the world, four and a half end up in the United
States. Statistics compiled by the International Institute of
Strategic Studies show the largest weapons dealers to be the United
States, the United Kingdom, France, and Russia. China figures
on the list as well, a few places back. And these five countries,
by some odd coincidence, are the very ones that can exercise vetoes
in the UN Security Council. The right to a veto really means the
power to decide. The General Assembly of the highest international
institution, in which all countries take part, makes recommendations,
but it's the Security Council that makes decisions. The Assembly
speaks or remains silent; the Council does or undoes. In other
words, world peace lies in the hands of the five powers that profit
most from the big business of war.
So it's no surprise that the permanent
members of the Security Council enjoy the right to do whatever
they like. In recent years, for example, the United States freely
bombed the poorest neighborhood in Panama City and later flattened
Iraq. Russia punished Chechnya's cries for independence with blood
and fire. France raped the South Pacific with its nuclear tests.
And every year China legally executes ten times as many people
by firing squad as died in Tienanmen Square. As in the Falklands
war the previous decade, the invasion of Panama gave the air force
an opportunity to test its new toys, and television turned the
invasion of Iraq into a global display case for the latest weapons
on the market: Come and see the new trinkets of death at the great
fair of Baghdad.
Neither should anyone be surprised by
the unhappy global imbalance between war and peace. For every
dollar spent by the United Nations on peacekeeping, the world
spends two thousand dollars on warkeeping. In the ensuing sacrificial
rites, hunter and prey are of the same species and the winner
is he who kills more of his brothers. Theodore Roosevelt put it
well: "No triumph of peace is quite so great as the supreme
triumphs of war." In 1906, he was awarded the Nobel Peace
There are thirty-five thousand nuclear
weapons in the world. The United States has half of them; Russia
and, to a lesser degree, other powers, the rest. The owners of
the nuclear monopoly scream to the high heavens when India or
Pakistan or anyone else achieves the dream of having its own bomb.
That's when they decry the deadly threat of such weapons to the
world: each weapon could kill several million people, and it would
take only a few to end the human adventure on this planet and
the planet itself. But the great powers never bother to say when
God decided to award them a monopoly or why they continue building
On a wall in San Francisco: "If voting changed anything,
it would be illegal."
A good part of the U.S. public, astonishingly ignorant about everything
beyond its shores, fears and disdains all that it does not understand.
The country that has done more than any other to develop information
technology produces television news that barely touches on world
events except to confirm that foreigners tend to be terrorists
and ingrates. Every act of rebellion or explosion of violence,
wherever it occurs, becomes new proof that the international conspiracy
continues its inexorable march, egged on by hatred and envy.
Official sources estimate that U.S. citizens spend $110 billion
a year on drugs, the equivalent of one-tenth the value of the
country's entire industrial production.
Is there a better ally than drug trafficking for banks, weapons
manufacturers, or the military hierarchy? Drugs make fortunes
for the bankers and offer useful pretexts for the machinery of
war. An illegal industry of death thus serves the legal industry
of death ...
Frank Hall, former head of the New York police narcotics squad,
once said, "If imported cocaine were to disappear, in two
months it would be replaced by synthetic drugs."
... the war on drugs is a cover for social war. Just like the
poor who steal, drug addicts, especially poor ones, are demonized
in order to absolve the society that produces them. Against whom
is the law enforced? In Argentina, a quarter of the people behind
bars who have not been sentenced are there for possession of less
than five grams of marijuana or cocaine. In the United States,
the antidrug crusade is focused on crack, that devastating poor
cousin of cocaine consumed by blacks, Latins, and other prison
fodder. U.S. Public Health Service statistics show that eight
out of ten drug users are white, but of those in jail for drugs
only one in ten is white. Several uprisings in federal prisons
labeled "racial riots" by the media have been protests
against unjust sentencing policies. Crack addicts are punished
a hundred times more severely than cocaine users. Literally )s
one hundred times: according to federal law, a gram of crack is
I equivalent to one hundred grams of cocaine. Practically everyone
imprisoned for crack is black.
Although the Encyclopaedia Britannica doesn't mention this at
ail, Queen Victoria was(also)the greatest drug trafficker of the
nineteenth century. Under her long reign, opium became the most
valuable commodity of imperial trade. Large-scale poppy cultivation
and opium production were developed in India at British initiative
and under British control. A large portion of that opium entered
China as contraband, and the drug industry pried open a growing
consumer market. The number of addicts was said to have grown
to about 12 million by 1839, when, observing its devastating effects
on the population, the Chinese emperor outlawed the trafficking
and use of opium and ordered the cargoes of several British ships
impounded. The queen, who never in her life uttered the word "drug,"
decried that unpardonable sacrilege against free trade and sent
her fleet of warships to the coasts of China. During the two decades,
with a few interruptions, that the opium war lasted, the word
"war" was also never uttered.
The prestige of Swiss banks is long-standing; a seven-century
tradition guarantees their seriousness and security. But it was
during World War II that Switzerland became a great financial
power. Loyal to its equally long tradition of neutrality, Switzerland
did not take part in the war. It did, however, take part in the
business of war, selling its services, and at a very good price,
to Nazi Germany. The deal was brilliant: Swiss banks took the
gold that Hitler stole from the countries he occupied and from
the Jews he trapped, including gold teeth from the dead in gas
chambers and concentration camps, and turned it into convertible
currency. The gold crossed into Switzerland without any problem,
while people persecuted by the Nazis were turned away at the border.
Bertolt Brecht used to say that robbing
a bank is a crime but the greater crime is to found one. After
the war, Switzerland became the cave of Ali Baba for the world's
dictators, crooked politicians, tax-evading acrobats, and traffickers
in drugs and arms. Under the resplendent sidewalks of the Banhofstrasse
in Zurich and the Corraterie in Geneva lie the fruits of looting
and fraud, transformed into stacks of gold bars and mountains
Besieged by scandals and lawsuits, numbered
accounts are not what they used to be, but for better or worse
the engine of national prosperity hums along. Money still has
the right to wear a costume and a mask in this never-ending carnival,
and referendums have proved that the majority of the population
finds nothing wrong with that.
Though the money arrives as dirty as can
be and the washings are incredibly complicated, this launderette
leaves it spotless. In the eighties, when Ronald Reagan presided
over the United States, Switzerland was the center of operations
for the many-faceted manipulations of Oliver North. As Swiss journalist
Jean Ziegler discovered, U.S. arms went to Iran, an enemy country,
which paid for them in part with morphine and heroin. From Switzerland
the drugs were sold and in Switzerland the money was deposited
that later financed the mercenaries who bombed cooperatives and
schools in Nicaragua. Back then, Reagan liked to compare those
mercenaries to the U.S. Founding Fathers.
Whether temples with high marble columns
or discreet chapels, Swiss sanctuaries dodge questions and proffer
mystery. Ferdinand Marcos, despot of the Philippines, kept between
$1 billion and $1.5 billion in forty Swiss banks. The Philippine
consul in Zurich was a director of Credit Suisse. At the beginning
of 1998, twelve years after Marcos's fall and after many suits
and countersuits, the Federal Tribunal ordered $570 million returned
to the Philippine government. It wasn't everything, but it was
something and an exception to the rule: normally, stolen money
disappears without a trace. Swiss surgeons give it a new face
and name, fabricating a new legal life and a fake identity for
it. Of the booty looted by the Somoza dynasty, vampires of Nicaragua,
nothing at all turned up. Practically nothing was found, and nothing
at all was returned, of what the Duvalier dynasty stole from Haiti.
Mobutu Sese Seko, who squeezed the last drop out of Congo, always
visited his bankers in Geneva in a fleet of armored Mercedes.
Mobutu had between $4 billion and $5 billion: only $6 million
could be found after his dictatorship fell. The dictator of Mali,
Moussa Traore, had a little over $1 billion; Swiss bankers returned
The money of the Argentine officers who
sacrificed themselves for the fatherland by waging terror from
1976 on ended up in Switzerland. Twenty-two years later, a lawsuit
revealed the tip of that iceberg. How many millions vanished into
the mist that shrouds their phantom accounts? In the nineties,
the Salinas family stripped Mexico clean. Raul Salinas, the president's
brother, was called "Mr. Ten Percent" in recognition
of the commissions he pocketed from privatizing public services
and protecting the drug mafia. The press reported that his river
of dollars ended up in Citibank, the Union des Banques Suisses,
the Societe de Banque Suisse, and other affiliates of money's
Red Cross. How much will be recovered? Money plunges into the
magic waters of Lake Geneva and becomes invisible.
Sixty years ago the Argentine writer Roberto Arlt had some advice
for anyone wanting to pursue a career in politics: "Proclaim:
'I have robbed, and I aspire to robbing on a larger scale.' Promise
to sell off every last inch of Argentine soil, to sell the Congress
building and turn the Palace of Justice into a tenement. In your
speeches, say: 'Stealing isn't easy, gentlemen. You have to be
a cynic, and that's what I am. You have to be a traitor, and that's
what I am."
There are few exceptions to the rule: politicians promise change
and once they're elected they change . . . their minds.
Johnnie Chung, businessman who acknowledged making illegal donations
"The White House is like a subway.
You have to put in coins to open the gates."
Hans Tietmeyer president of the German Bundesbank
" Financial markets more and more
play the role of gendarmes. Politicians should understand that
from now on they are under the control of financial markets.''
Polls reveal this lack of faith: fewer than half of all Brazilians
and just over half of all Chileans, Mexicans, Paraguayans, and
Peruvians believe in democracy. In the 1997 legislative elections,
Chile recorded the largest number of blank ballots in the country's
history. And never have so many young people not bothered to register
In the twelve years of her government, from 1979 on, Margaret
Thatcher ran a dictatorship of finance capital in the British
Isles. The iron lady, much praised for her masculine virtues,
brought an end to the era of polite behavior, crushed workers
on strike, and reestablished a rigid class society with astonishing
speed. Thus Great Britain became the model for Europe. Meanwhile,
Chile, under the military dictatorship of General Pinochet, had
become the model for Latin America. These two models figure today
among the most unjust countries in the world. According to World
Bank statistics on income distribution and consumption, a deep
chasm currently separates those Britons and Chileans who have
plenty left over from the Britons and Chileans who survive on
left overs. In those two countries [US and Britain], incredible
as it seems, social inequality is greater than in Bangladesh,
India, Nepal, or Sri Lanka. Just as incredibly, since Ronald Reagan
took the helm in 1980, the United States has achieved even greater
inequality than Rwanda.
Latin America's countries are being denationalized at a dizzying
pace, with the exception of Cuba and of Uruguay, where in a plebiscite
at the end of 1992, 72 percent of the country voted to halt the
sale of public enterprises. Presidents go about the world like
traveling salesmen, selling what doesn't belong to them. "My
country is a product, I offer a product called Peru," President
Alberto Fujimori has proclaimed on more than one occasion.
Profits are privatized, losses are socialized.
In 1990, President Carlos Menem ordered Aerolmeas Argentinas to
die. That profitable public enterprise was sold or, better put,
given away to another public enterprise, Spain's Iberia, which
was a model of poor administration. The Argentine airline's national
and international routes were ceded for one-fifteenth their value,
and two Boeing 707 planes, still perfectly airworthy, were purchased
for the modest price of $1.54 apiece.
On January 31, 1998, the Uruguayan daily
El Observador congratulated the Brazilian government on its decision
to sell the national telephone company, Telebras. On page 2, the
paper applauded President Fernando Henrique Cardoso "for
getting rid of companies and services that had become a burden
on the treasury and on consumers." On page 16 that day, the
paper reported that Telebras, "the most profitable company
in Brazil, last year made liquid profits of $3.9 billion, a record
in the country's history."
In 1997, of every $100 in currency transactions, only $2.50 had
anything to do with the exchange of goods and services. That same
year, on the eve of the hurricane that battered stock markets
in Asia and the world, the Malaysian government suggested a commonsense
measure: outlawing currency trading for noncommercial purposes.
The shouting of floor traders makes a lot of noise, and understandably
those who benefit from currency speculation were deaf to the idea.
In 1995, only three of the ten largest fortunes in Japan were
linked to the real economy. The other seven multimillionaires
Ten years ago, the financial markets suffered
another collapse. Distinguished U.S. economists from the White
House, the Congress, and the New York and Chicago stock exchanges
tried to explain what had happened. The word "speculation"
was not uttered in any of their analyses. After all, popular sports
deserve respect: five out of every ten North Americans play the
stock market in one way or another. Just as "smart bombs"
killed Iraqis in the Gulf war without anyone except the dead finding
out, "smart money" earns 40 percent profits without
anyone finding out how. Wall Street, which some say was named
for a wall built to keep black slaves from escaping, is today
the center of the great global electronic gambling den, and all
of humanity is enslaved by the decisions made there. The virtual
economy moves capital, trashes prices, plucks fools, ruins countries,
and churns out millionaires and mendicants in the time it takes
to say, "Amen."
The world may be obsessed with personal
insecurity, but reality teaches us that the crimes of finance
capital are far more fearsome than those we read about in the
papers. Mark Mobius, who speculates on behalf of thousands of
investors, told the German magazine Der Spiegel at the beginning
of 1998, "My clients laugh at ethical criteria. They only
want us to increase their profits." During the crisis of
1987, another phrase made him famous: "You've got to buy
when blood runs in the streets, even if the blood is mine."
George Soros, the most successful speculator in the world, who
made a fortune successively bidding down the pound, the lira,
and the ruble, knows what he's talking about when he says, "The
main enemy of the open society, I believe, is no longer the Communist
but the capitalist threat."
Capitalism's Dr. Frankenstein has created
a monster that walks on its own, and nobody can stop it. It is
a superstate over and above all others, an invisible power that
governs us all even though it was elected by no one. In this world
there is too much misery but there is also too much money, and
wealth doesn't know what to do with itself. In other times, finance
capital broadened the consumer market by extending credit. It
served the real economy, which to exist needed to grow. Today,
utterly bloated, finance capital has put the productive system
to work for it, while it plays with the real economy like a cat
with a mouse.
Every crash on the stock exchange is a
catastrophe for small investors who swallowed the line and bet
their savings on the financial lottery. And it's a catastrophe
for the poorest barrios of the global village, whose residents
suffer the consequences without ever knowing what caused them:
in a single blow each "market correction" empties their
plates and wipes out their jobs. But rarely do crises on the stock
exchange fatally wound the suffering millionaires who, day after
day, backs bent over their computers, fingertips calloused from
the keyboards, redistribute the world's wealth by moving money,
setting interest rates, and deciding the value of labor, commodities,
In the British Isles, one out of every four jobs is part-time.
And many are so part-time that it's hard to say why they're called
jobs. To massage the numbers, as the English say, the authorities
changed the statistical criteria for unemployment thirty-two times
between 1979 and 1997 until they hit on the perfect formula: anyone
who worked more than one hour a week was not unemployed. Not to
boast, but that's how we've measured unemployment in Uruguay for
as long as I can remember.
Argentine businessman Enrique Pescarmona
"Asians work twenty hours a day,"
he declared, "for eighty dollars a month. If I want to compete,
I have to turn to them. It's a globalized world. The Filipino
girls in our offices in Hong Kong are always willing. There are
no Saturdays or Sundays. If they have to work several days straight
without sleeping, they do it, and they don't get overtime and
don't ask for a thing."
The price of a Disney T-shirt bearing a picture of Pocahontas
is equivalent to a week's wages for the worker in Haiti who sewed
it at a rate of 375 T-shirts an hour.
McDonald's gives its young customers toys made in Vietnamese sweatshops
by women who earn eighty cents for a ten-hour shift with no breaks.
Vietnam defeated a U.S. military invasion. A quarter of a century
after that feat, which cost many lives, the country suffers globalized
In 1995, the Gap sold shirts "made in El Salvador."
For every twenty-dollar shirt the Salvadoran workers got eighteen
Bishop Juan Gerardi led a task force that rescued the recent history
of terror in Guatemala. Bit by bit, through the testimonies of
thousands of voices collected throughout the country, he and his
colleagues gathered forty years of isolated memories of pain:
150,000 Guatemalans dead, 50,000 disappeared, 1,000,000 displaced
refugees, 200,000 orphans, 40,000 widows. Nine out of every ten
victims were unarmed civilians, most of them Indians. And in nine
out of every ten cases, the responsibility lay with the army and
its paramilitary bands.
The Church released the report on a Thursday
in April 1998. Two days later, Bishop Gerardi was dead, his skull
beaten in with a chunk of concrete.
According to the calculations of the Worldwatch Institute, if
ecological damages and other "hidden costs" were taken
into account the price of gasoline would at least double. In the
United States gasoline is three times as cheap as in Italy, the
second-most motorized country in the world, and each American
burns on average four times as much gas as the average Italian
... ever since Hawker Hunter jets bombed Salvador Allende's presidential
palace in 1973 and General Augusto Pinochet inaugurated the era
of the miracle. A quarter of a century later, the New York Times
explained that it was the "coup that began Chile's transformation
from a backwater banana republic to the economic star of Latin
On how many Chileans does that star shine?
One-fourth of the population lives in absolute poverty and, as
Christian Democratic senator Jorge Lavandero has pointed out,
the hundred richest Chileans earn more in a year than the entire
state budget for social services.
People in the United States consume half the sleeping pills, tranquilizers,
and other legal drugs sold in the world, as well as half the illegal
drugs, which ain't chicken feed considering that the United States
makes up only 5 percent of the world's population.
The country that invented "lite", "diet",
and "fat-free" foods has the most fat people in the
The NSA [National Security Agency], a U.S. spy agency with a budget
four times that of the CIA, has the technology to record every
word transmitted by telephone, fax, or e-mail in any part of the
world. It can intercept up to two million conversations per minute.
The NSA's real mission is to maintain U.S. economic and political
control over the planet, but national security and the struggle
against terrorism are its formal covers. Its eavesdropping systems
allow it to track every message that has anything to do with criminal
organizations as dangerous as, for example, Greenpeace or Amnesty
... the world's advertising statistics - half of all the money
the world spends on advertising goes down the throat of only ten
conglomerates that produce and distribute everything you can imagine
involving images, words, and music.
Charity consoles but does not question.
Brazilian bishop Helder Camara
"When I give food to the poor, they
call me a saint. And when I ask why they have no food, they call
me a Communist."
Suppose we rave a bit? Let's set our sights beyond the abominations
of today to divine another possible world:
* the air shall be cleansed of all poisons
except those born of human fears and human passions;
* in the streets, cars shall be run over
* people shall not be driven by cars,
or programmed by computers, or bought by supermarkets, or watched
* the TV set shall no longer be the most important member of the
family and shall be treated like an iron or a washing machine;
* people shall work for a living instead of living for work;
* written into law shall be the crime of stupidity, committed
by those who live to have or to win, instead of living just to
live like the bird that sings without knowing it and the child
who plays unaware that he or she is playing;
* in no country shall young men who refuse to go to war go to
jail, rather only those who want to make war;
* economists shall not measure living standards by consumption
levels or the quality of life by the quantity of things;
* cooks shall not believe that lobsters love to be boiled alive;
* historians shall not believe that countries love to be invaded;
* politicians shall not believe that the poor love to eat promises;
* earnestness shall no longer be a virtue, and no one shall be
taken seriously who can't make fun of himself;
* death and money shall lose their magical powers, and neither
demise nor fortune shall make a virtuous gentleman of a rat;
* no one shall be considered a hero or a fool for doing what he
believes is right instead of what serves him best;
* the world shall wage war not on the poor but rather on poverty,
and the arms industry shall have no alternative but to declare
* food shall not be a commodity nor shall communications be a
business, because food and communication are human rights;
* no one shall die of hunger, because no one shall die from overeating;
* street children shall not be treated like garbage, because there
shall be no street children;
* rich kids shall not be treated like gold, because there shall
be no rich kids;
* education shall not be the privilege of those who can pay;
* the police shall not be the curse of those who cannot pay;
* justice and liberty, Siamese twins condemned to live apart,
shall meet again and be reunited, back to back;
* a woman, a black woman, shall be president of Brazil, and another
black woman shall be president of the United States;
* an Indian woman shall govern Guatemala and another Peru;
* in Argentina, the crazy women of the Plaza de Mayo shall be
held up as examples of mental health because they refused to forget
in a time of obligatory amnesia;
* the Church, holy mother, shall correct the typos on the tablets
of Moses and the Sixth Commandment shall dictate the celebration
of the body;
* the Church shall also proclaim another commandment, the one
God forgot: You shall love nature, to which you belong;
* clothed with forests shall be the deserts of the world and of
* the despairing shall be paired and the lost shall be found,
for they are the ones who despaired and lost their way from so
much lonely seeking;
* we shall be compatriots and contemporaries of all who have a
yearning for justice and beauty, no matter where they were born
or when they lived, because the borders of geography and time
shall cease to exist;
* perfection shall remain the boring privilege of the gods, while
in our bungling, messy world every night shall be lived as if
it were the last and every day as if it were the first.