What follows is a slightly altered article I submitted for the Grand Rapids Press Sunday essay column. As you might have guessed, it was rejected. After the essay, there is a response from one of the Press editors, my e-mail response, and a longer response which will appear in the May issue of Recoil magazine.
It was 25 years ago as I write these thoughts that the Archbishop of El Salvador, Oscar Romero, was gunned down while saying mass in San Salvador. Romero, was assassinated just weeks after he sent a letter to then President Jimmy Carter demanding that the US stop sending weapons. “I ask you, if you truly wanted to defend human rights, to forbid that military aid be given to the Salvadoran government, to guarantee that your government will not intervene directly or indirectly, with military, economic, diplomatic, or other pressures, in determining the destiny of the Salvadoran people. It would be unjust and deplorable for foreign powers to intervene and frustrate the Salvadoran people, to repress them and keep them from deciding autonomously the economic and political course that our nation should follow.” (1) As a response, Carter sent an emissary to Rome in order to get Romero in line(2), a detail that was not reported in the US media. So it was that on March 24, 1980 that Romero was shot while saying mass in San Salvador. It was Romero’s death and later that of the 4 US women religious workers in December of 1980 in El Salvador that propelled me to become involved in the Central American solidarity movement.
In 1986 the community house I live in became part of the Sanctuary Movement, which offered a safe haven to political refugees from El Salvador and Guatemala. We have been working with Guatemalan refugees ever since and they number several thousand now in West Michigan. Moved by their stories I began to travel to Guatemala in 1988, as did many people in the Grand Rapids area. I know dozens of people from here who traveled to Central America in the 1980s with church delegations, as human rights workers, journalists and filmmakers. Many were moved by the courage and conviction of Archbishop Romero, the popular church, labor organizers, campesinos, and Indigenous people. By the mid 1980s Central America solidarity week became a fixture in movement organizing, with the anniversary of Romero’s death, March 24, the cornerstone of that week.
In the 1990s Central America began to see the end of several counter-insurgency wars, with peace accords signed in El Salvador and Guatemala. A Truth Commission was set up in both Guatemala and El Salvador to investigate those responsible for the brutal war crimes, massacres, and death squad activities. Soon Central America began to fade from the international scene, and since the “War on Terror” is focused in the Middle East, countries like Nicaragua and Guatemala are way down the list of current political “hot spots.” Beginning last year, that started to change. When the White House began proposing CAFTA, the Central America Free Trade Agreement, a renewed interest began for our neighbors to the South. I myself had not been to Central America since 2001, so I decided I needed to have a first hand update and find out what people in Central America thought about this new trade proposal. I spent a month in Guatemala interviewing hundreds of people and dozens of organizations on human rights issues in general, but I was particularly interested in their thoughts on CAFTA.
The first day I was there on December 14, I was greeted by several thousand people on the streets protesting the TLC, the Spanish acronym for CAFTA. From there on I could not find one person in favor of CAFTA. I spoke with human rights organizations, teachers, farmers, student groups, indigenous organizations, women’s groups, foundations, labor groups, even street vendors and not one of them supported CAFTA. I was amazed at the level of understanding on an issue that was virtually an unknown in the US. I could talk with women on the street corner selling orange juice and they knew what CAFTA was. I soon found out that there was a lively broad-based coalition organizing around this issue that made public education about CAFTA a priority.
Without losing you on the details of their opposition let me just share one major aspect of why Guatemalans are opposed to CAFTA. Much of Guatemala is still a rural society. Most of that rural population is Mayan, which still grows much of its own food on small plots of land known as milpas. The major Mayan crop is corn, elote in Spanish. Corn not only is used to make tortillas, but tamales, a hot beverage called atole, and corn on the cob with a whole array of toppings known as elote loco – crazy corn. Corn also has tremendous spiritual significance, since in the Mayan creation story, the Popol Vuh, humans are made from corn. If CAFTA goes through, the US will be allowed to flood Central America with cheap subsidized corn grown here that will undercut the ability of small farmers there to compete with lower prices. This will result is thousands of small farmers being forced off their land and either coming to urban centers like Guatemala City or flee north to Mexico or eventually to the US. A similar scenario happened in Mexico, particularly around corn.
In early March Guatemala became the third country to ratify CAFTA despite strong public opposition. Friends in Guatemala sent me e-mails about the public demonstrations the happened as a result of the vote and thousands of people have taken to the streets. The Catholic Bishop of San Marcos, Bishop Ramazzini, has been one of the most out spoken critics of CAFTA saying “CAFTA is much more than a simple trade agreement, as it includes a range of mechanisms that combine prohibitions on governments with rights for foreign investors on such issues as investment, national treatment, intellectual-property rights, market access, public services and access to bidding on public contracts. If implemented, CAFTA will transfer privileges for corporations into rights. CAFTA was negotiated behind peoples’ backs, and this is the reason that people today are now protesting.” Like Archbishop Romero, who was assassinated for speaking out of economic injustice in El Salvador, Ramazzini is now receiving death threats in Guatemala. As a reward for ratification of this trade agreement, the US is considering the renewal of military aid to Guatemala, something that had not happened for the better part of a decade.
Back here in the US, CAFTA is still not a topic on people’s minds, but that is beginning to change. Recently, a broad-based coalition of unions, environmental organizations, farmers, human rights activists and fair trade advocates have banded together to stop CAFTA and to promote fair trade policies. You don’t need to go far to find people who have been impacted by job loss in West Michigan, particularly those jobs that have gone out of state, particularly to Mexico. NAFTA for many of our families and communities has been disastrous. If there is anything we learned from NAFTA it was that we can not assume that trade negotiations are decided with the public’s best interest.
Before our government decides on another trade agreement, on CAFTA, it is important for all of us to find out what we can about this trade proposal. We need to ask hard questions of our representatives about what CAFTA means, and demand to be included in the process. Twenty Five years from now I don’t want to be observing an anniversary for another Central American martyr. Twenty Five years from now I want to look back and know that the American people organized to fight against an unjust trade policy and defended farmers rights, workers rights and environmental sustainability for Central American and communities in West Michigan.
1. School of Assassins: Guns, Greed, and Globalization by Jack Nelson Pallmeyer, Orbis Press, 2001.
2. Manufacturing Consent: The Political economy of the Mass Media, Chomsky & Herman, page 55.
Response from the GR Press – April 7
Thank you for your essay submission. It is a bit hard to place because it is more an op ed piece than what we would normally run as an Essay. It doesn’t quite work as op ed, because it provides a surface look at the issue. Surely there is another side. For instance, if it is unquestionably bad for Guatemala, why also would it be bad for West Michigan?
From what I know of CAFTA, it appears to be a negative for Guatemala, especially since their goods largely enjoy unlimited access to the U.S. already. But without CAFTA, is that situation sustainable? In the long run, doesn’t a free market provide the better path to higher living standards? Might this result in the importation of improved farming methods so Guatemalans might increase corn production?
I don’t pretend to know the answers to these questions, but I think they are questions a reader would ask after giving a thoughtful read to your essay. Surely there is a reason the government there voted overwhelmingly to approve it.
While this is too long for a guest editorial in its current form, a trimmed-down version might work as a Saturday guest column or a daily op-ed piece. But a stronger case would be made if you provided both sides to the issue.
Mark Allen Press Essay editor
My response to Mark Allen
Mark, thanks for responding to my submission. You make many assumptions about trade and the market. I have spent quite a bit of time in Mexico as well and have not found many people who think NAFTA was beneficial for them. The market, whatever that is defined as, often does not lead to a higher standard of living. The government of Guatemala voted for it in part because the US was pressuring them to do so – small countries don’t often challenge the US, since they know there would be consequences – but they also voted for it because they don’t tend to listen to the wishes of the public. The government is made up of Ladinos, who are mostly Spanish descendants, whereas the public is made up mostly of Mayans which are treated as second class citizens.
I understand that you might want something written that presents both sides, but don’t most of what is run in the Sunday essay column represent a one-sided perspective? I wrote a piece that the Press ran in 1996 about men who picked up women in prostitution in my neighborhood. That article did not provide the “johns” point of view.
I also submitted the article in part since there has been virtually no coverage of this issue in the local media, yet it will impact everyone of us as all trade policy does.
Thanks again for responding, but I hope you reconsider running it. If need be I can make it shorter. Let me know.