Peruvian Percolator

Thanks to Rick Stewart and Frontier Natural Products Co-op, I just spent a week in Peru, where Frontier and an allied local group, the Institute for Sustainable Agriculture in the Tropics (SIAT), have made possible a bridge and a newly installed hydroelectric plant as well as trade links to improve the lives of peasants and develop sources of organically grown coffee. It was an exciting and strenuous trip, primarily visiting poor, rural areas, but also including large, congested cities and a hike through cloudforest to scenic mountain lagoons above 10,000 feet. Our visit, accompanied by Frontier's friends and agricultural contacts in Peru, was full of moving scenes and impressive people.

Frontier Co-op has for the past several years been investing thousands of dollars in infrastructure as well as coffee in Peru, primarily in remote mountain valleys in the north. Through SIAT, men and women in the pueblos are learning to improve the quality and productivity of their small plots, through methods such as shade grown coffee, worm composting, and gardening. Organic certification is by OCIA.

U.S. coffee sourcing, of course, also extends to countries elsewhere in Latin America as well as Africa and Southeast Asia. I only gained a glimpse of rural social and production conditions in Peru, where hours of walking each day is common -- as is riding up and and down the valley while standing in the back of a truck rocking over the roughest and most difficult road (in the dry season!) I've ever seen. I also witnessed much generosity, humor and hard work by peasant families -- people who have very little, but whose lives are being improved by companies and projects such as Frontier's and its gringo members and customers.

These experiences underscored my dismay, upon return from Lima to Miami, at the prevalent overfed bellies and underfed minds evident here. Hence the remainder of my comments.

Our brief visit to Peru coincided with the observation, televised from Lima complete with marching soldiers and jet warplanes roaring overhead, of national independence -- achieved over 170 years ago, along with separation of Bolivia. It was the latter's namesake, Simon Bolivar, who said around the same time, "the United States is destined to plague and torment the continent in the name of freedom." And the name of another great liberator, Jose Marti, is alluded to by MRTE, the guerilla group in the northern Peru area we visited.

The guerillas' grievances -- impoverishment of the peasantry and workers and the control of their country by a military elite behind a facade of democracy -- are longstanding. So is the Monroe Doctrine that Bolivar objected to, summarized by humorist Dave Barry:

  1. Other nations are not allowed to mess around with the internal affairs of nations in this hemisphere.
  2. But we are.
  3. Ha ha ha.

With even greater candor, the liberal leader and State Department spokesman George Kennan fifty years ago summarized American policy:

"We have about 50% of the world's wealth, but only 6.3% of its population...Our real task in the coming period is to devise a pattern of relationships which will permit us to maintain this position of disparity without positive detriment to the national security....We should cease to talk about vague and unreal objectives such as human rights, the raising of the living standards, and democratization...The final answer might be an unpleasant one, but we should not hesitate before police repression by the local government."

I offer these historical thoughts to clarify the nature of the so-called Cold War and of the present. The international disparity referred to continues to this day and is mirrored within each of the nations of the South. On my trip I carried Lawrence Weschler's book, A Miracle, A Universe: Settling Accounts with Torturers, which exposes in horrific detail the background to today's deceptive quiescence on the front of social struggle.

Throughout Latin America, the military leaders providing the iron fist beneath the glove have been trained and overseen by their powerful brethren in the colossus to the North. "They had learned in American war colleges," stated a famous report by the Brazil clergy, "that strengthening the national system against possible external attack was in fact less important than shoring up institutions against an 'internal enemy' that might be trying to undermine them." And in their 1979 statement, "Thoughts on Political Violence," the Latin American bishops noted that "the so-called doctrine of national security is in fact more ideology than doctrine. It is linked to a certain elitist, hierarchical, political and economic model which denies the vast majority of the population any part in political decision-making."

As Weschler remarks, "One wouldn't want to come upon the doctrine of national security alone in some dark alleyway. It is a fearsome piece of work," one that sees subversion everywhere, as in this Uruguayan army definition: "actions, violent or not, with ultimate purposes of a political nature, in all fields of human activity within the internal sphere of a state and whose aims are perceived as not convenient for the overall political system."

With this kind of military threat backing the established social order, today's rulers can concentrate on negotiations over the extent to which so-called open market forces will be allowed to build economic growth. My companion and I engaged in heated arguments over the meaning and impact of this ideology, which looks very different in Chicago classrooms than on the ground of history, where it is Bolivar's lament again.

We did agree that a critical lack everywhere is that of imagination. Our international duty, in remembering the murderous past and rectifying an unjust present, is never completely defined, but surely includes building fair, cooperative business relations -- dollar by dollar, hectare by hectare -- production and trade that build, not undermine, the health of the soil and the farm economy.

Early next year, readers of these pages will have an opportunity to hear a group of North American voices reporting in depth on several attempts to do just that, through coffee trade in Central and Latin America and around the globe.

See other articles from this issue: #078 September - October - 1998