Archive for the ‘Capitalism’ Category


Posted: 09/11/2011 in Capitalism, Development, Mexico, Personal

It is something to get used to the reality that going out means absolutely walking everywhere. This may reveal something American or suburban or both about me, but I feel like I’ve tackled the project in the last two weeks with notable enthusiasm. In a given day, I walk to work and back (which is 2.6 kilometers round-trip), to the post office and back to work (about another 3), and out to the store or market. That last trip adds 3 more if we’re going to Bodega Aurrera (or Mexican Wal-Mart, in all seriousness –part of the Wal-Mart Mexico empire) or .5 if we’re headed to Mercado Chorizo (the local covered market, filled with the stalls of local produce vendors and shop owners with the slightest variations in merchandise). At least I think that’s what it’s called. I am fascinated by both of these places for very different reasons, but that’s a topic for another post.

My daily walk to work.

My daily walk to work.

Naturally, going to lunch means walking as does going out after work as does making plans to see a site. If there is something that I am noticing now that I am walking on average about 8 kilometers a day, it’s that I’m tired. I truly like the walk-ability of the city and I like walking, but I’m just not used to doing this much of it all the time.

Account also, please, in the equation, that this is not easy walking. Mexico City is a sinking concrete city built over an ancient lake-bed on top of a seismic fault. (I feel inclined to add here that there is also a looming and active volcano, but I’m not sure it contributes directly to the jumbled slabs of sidewalk I’m getting to.) You must watch the path in front of you at all times. Additionally, there are always people in the street to dodge and be dodged by and I think crowds are good –business-people in the morning, school kids, parents and grandmas in the afternoon, vendors all day long, and everyone after 6:ooPM. I feel a lot of safety in the crowds in Mexico City. They are beautifully normal, though they do require a bit of grace and attention to navigate safely (Mexicans are incredibly good at this and there is no pushing on the sidewalk –in the subway though, all bets are off). Truthfully, cars are what I’m most unnerved by in Mexico City. There are cars everywhere. Every side-street is lined with parked cars on both sides and, as a result, most of the smaller streets are marked as one-way, though it is likely you’ll see a car driving the wrong way about half the time. Mexicans in this city drive like maniacs. On big streets, at least 6 cars will fly through a light that’s just turned red while motorbikes and motorcycles never bother to follow the lights or the lanes at all. I feel I can describe it best as a warfare mentality. Mexican drivers are at war with each other, with traffic, with their city. Even my mild-mannered taxi driver from the airport who spoke so softly I had to lean over the front seat to hear him drove like we were about to botch the mission and lives were at stake.

All this conspires to make running to the store to get something (and then carrying it back) a little exhausting. This is why I am quickly falling in love with my Tienda de abarrotes –the tiny convenience store just around the corner from my apartment. If I go down to the stop sign on the left side of the picture and hang a right, my apartment is three or four doors down on the left. Lately I’m spending more time and money at this Coca-cola advertisement on the corner.

Tienda de abarrote around the corner from my apartment --lucky, lucky me.

Tienda de abarrote around the corner from my apartment --lucky, lucky me.

I introduced myself to the owner. His name is Juan. At first I would come in every morning and get a cup of coffee. For $14 (pesos), I would get something equivalent to what a 7-11 cappuccino machine might produce. But this past weekend, Juan stopped stocking his automated coffee machine, so I took matters into my own hands and visited Bodega Aurrera to buy a coffee pot. I was going to show it to Juan on my way home and tell him, “Look! The world is changing…” but he wasn’t working this once.

It might have turned out that with morning coffee covered I would’ve stopped finding reasons to visit Juan’s store, but the truth of the matter is that Juan seems to have everything. Water, of course. Eggs? Check. Dish soap, hot sauce, milk, matches, and fresh Oaxacan cheese? All of the above. And I am far from the only one. Today, I was taking a bit of time standing in the tiny space, crowded on all sides by bags of chips, trying to figure out exactly what I wanted and I was in everyone’s way. On a Saturday afternoon, Juan had a steady stream of customers. Two little boys buying ice cream sandwiches. An older guy getting two big bottles of Coke and a churro. A mom and her young daughter picking up milk and bar soap. I had previously wondered how this corner supported the two almost identical stores (I never go into the one marked Sol… I don’t know why not), but now I know how.

Juan’s tiendita is a huge addition to my life here thus far. And he’s probably saving my life by keeping me from walking too much farther.



Yesterday I visited the Zócalo, the center of historic Mexico City, and toured the Palacio Nacional. There may be other reasons for visiting this historic government seat, but most captivating are the murals of Diego Rivera. Below, a Rivera mural depicting the history of Mexico from Pre-Columbian times to the then contemporary 1930s dominates the main stairwell.

Rivera's History of Mexico in the National Palace.

Across the top are pictured the revolutionaries of various eras, such as Emiliano Zapata holding one side of a banner that reads “Tierra y Libertad” (Land and Liberty). Below, the Conquistadors and Spanish clergy engage in various struggles with the native population –to convert, to kill, or to plunder and exploit. In the center is the eagle clutching a snake in its beak, the sign that, according to the myth, indicated to the Aztecs where they should build the city that has centuries later become my temporary home.

The eagle with the snake, important iconography in Mexico.

On the right-most wall of the stairwell is a baffling idyllic portrait of Tenochtitlan, the Aztec city that the Spaniards razed before constructing Mexico City from its ruins. Rivera’s central theme in this mural, as in much of his work, is the struggle of the classes across history, so his peaceful representation of the Aztec (which I did not take a picture of) is presumably meant to cast them as residents of a Pre-Columbian utopia. By contrast, archeologists and historians tell us that the Aztec were a warrior tribe that enthusiastically practiced human sacrifice, but Rivera ignores this.

On the left-most wall, traveling across the history of the central mural, Rivera painted his vision for the Mexico he lived in the 1920s and 30s –a Mexico that seemed ripe for social change and a Marxist revolution. Striking workers surround the dominant classes and share their copies of Marx’s teachings.

Cheery workers share the teaching of Karl Marx.

The drumbeat of the socialist revolution is heard in paint.

It’s an amazing mural. My dad visited Mexico City in the 1960s and said that he still remembers staring up at these paintings. The tragedy of seeing Rivera’s work now is, of course, how little has changed. Indeed, how in a country that has produced the world’s richest man, so many continue to suffer in poverty, trapped within the confines of their class. The vivid and lively socialists that must have seemed to Rivera to be ushering in a new age now look quaint and dated, the unrealized revolutionaries of a bygone era.

According to David Lida in his excellent book First Stop in the New World: Mexico City, the Capital of the 21st Century: “The minimum wage in Mexico City is about five dollars a day. Only 12 percent of the working population earns more than twenty-three dollars per day. The largest sector, about 45 percent, earns between nine and twenty-three dollars per day. Another 24 percent earns between four and a half and nine dollars, and 8 percent earn less than the minimum. The remaining 11 percent don’t specify.”

Lida also writes, “In Mexico City, upward mobility is virtually non-existent.” So it has been, so it continues to be.

Rivera signed his masterpiece under the feet of a peasant woman.

I went out to an end-of-internship lunch with my fellow ACLU interns yesterday, all law school students. It’s still a week before the internship officially ends, but work is dwindling down, especially for me. One of my supervisors has been on vacation for two-weeks and the other has permanently moved to Houston. Predictably, my desire to sit in the office for eight-hour stretches has been severely diminished. My project is basically complete and even though that third star on Angry Birds 3-16 is eluding me, it hardly seems like reason enough to stay parked behind my laptop for my last month of summer.

So, not knowing when my last day of work will be, that is when I’ll simply have no reason to go into the ACLU’s Austin office any longer, we made a Friday intern lunch of it and headed up S. Congress to Hop Daddy, a hipster burger joint, where we fell to talking about the economy. Specifically, if there would be one next week.

I’m not an economist and neither are any of the law students I had lunch with, but there are a few things I thought we as a country were already clear on. The basics, let’s say. The first of these is, you don’t cut during a recession. Or even more simply, you have to spend money to make money. If the goal is to reduce unemployment (and that’s a big if), then cutting federal spending and federal programs at a time when the states are already facing huge budget deficits is a mistake. It seemed like Obama knew this, once upon a time, but that was back in the long forgotten stimulus era. Those calling for more stimulus now are voices in the wilderness. The second basic was that fixing our economic disaster and putting people back to work was our top national priority. Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has said more than once that making Obama a one-term president is his single most important goal.

I asked my colleagues if they were cynical enough to think that the Republicans were trying to tank the economy in order to destroy Obama’s reelection possibilities.

“Hell to the yes,” says Tim.

My other fellow interns were a little more hesitant. If Boehner was simply trying to sabotage the president, they mused, he’s gone about it in an exceedingly impractical and embarrassing way. Fair point. Perhaps the Tea Party is truly a runaway tiger, this overzealous bunch of ideologues with no idea how to govern. But when you’re voting between your representatives being malicious or incompetent, everyone loses.

So, will Republicans pull the trigger? Or run out the clock?

“They already have,” says Tim. Tim tends to say most things authoritatively. “Moody’s is definitely downgrading our credit, it’s too late for that.” So, there’s one prediction. Lower credit rating means higher interest on loans for everyone, less money in the economy overall and more paid into our already astonishing amounts of personal debt. No one else was willing to speculate.

“I certainly hope not,” says Alyssa.

Last weekend I watched the film “Collapse” and bits and pieces of it have been playing in the back of my mind. This is not a feel-good film, but reality has been pretty uncomfortable these past few weeks.

I find myself wanting to go swimming, to go float in our pool and worry about whether I’m getting enough sun or too much, rather than worrying that forces far beyond my control are playing Russian roulette with the system. That’s not to say that I think the system is particularly great, but the looming upheaval is going to be very, very painful, as it is already for so many.

This is the private prison industry issue as I understand it: Increasingly, to “save costs” and “promote free-enterprise” our government has turned over the job of incarcerating those who are incarcerated for breaking the laws the government establishes to private prison companies. These companies, the biggest being Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) and GEO Group, are supposedly subject to government oversight through the BOP but have repeatedly refused to share information about what’s happening inside their facilities’ walls. The legal argument goes like this: information on how the prisons are run, the kind of medical care prisoners receive, for example, is considered a trade secret and sharing it would put the company in question at a competitive disadvantage in the marketplace. As a result, abuse goes unreported.

How are things going inside these privately run and private beyond government scrutiny facilities? It’s difficult to know, but there have been riots and prisoner deaths, and many reports of abuse, such as the overuse of solitary confinement. Cases like that of Jesus Gallindo, reported by Dan Rather in the video below. Gallindo is one of nine prisoners known to have died at the Reeve’s detention facility in Pecos, Texas since 2006.

Today at the ACLU of Texas internship we had a guest speaker, Bob Libal from Grassroots Leadership which works on prison issues. He spoke mainly on immigration detention as locking up undocumented migrants has become a money-making strategy employed by the for-profit prison industry. NPR reported on this last year in the wake of the passage of Arizona’s SB1070, the “Papers, Please” law.

If you live in Texas and want to find a private prison near you (or just see the scope of the issue), check out this incredible map from Texas Prison Bid’ness.

How has our so-called justice system become a for-profit industry? How could we have gone so wrong? Grassroots Leadership is promoting a divestment campaign as part of its strategy and will be rallying tomorrow at Congress and 1st to protest Wells Fargo’s stock ownership in these for profit prisons.  I think this poster says it best.


Two Sundays ago I went with a friend to the Boston/Chelsea May Day rally. May Day, a labor rights celebration, has brilliantly incorporated the migrant rights movement. Here’s a picture that Elisha took while we were waiting to march.

May Day Protest, Boston, 2011

Migrant rights have been a focus of mine in graduate school. The three-years I spent on the Texas/Mexico border helped shape my understanding of the issue. For the first time in my life, I met some of the many people whose lives are defined by our nation’s continued failure to enact comprehensive immigration reform.

This is just the first of what will no doubt be many posts on migrant rights. Today is the day that President Obama traveled to El Paso to finally speak about addressing immigration reform. And the commentary has already shifted to how this is an effort to secure Hispanic voters in 2012 and how real reform is a political impossibility.

I don’t mean this as blogging laziness, but I just wrote a paper in which I tried to analyze the role of anti-immigrant rhetoric in the media on immigration reform. I didn’t do my own study, but I did do a relatively thorough literature review on public opinion regarding immigrants/immigration, especially undocumented migrants. Here are my conclusions, helpfully written in academic jargon:


The anti-immigrant rhetoric in the media and among politicians pulls the public conversation farther to the right-of-center and radicalizes the fringe against migrants, especially the undocumented. These more racist and dehumanizing viewpoints, perhaps fueled by an anti-assimilation bias or ethno-cultural fears, lead to other anti-immigrant claims being perpetuated and unquestioned in the media. These claims, especially that immigrants steal jobs, drive down the value of labor, and access social services they do not deserve, continue to be repeated in the media and have achieved, without investigation or supportive evidence, unquestioned legitimacy in public opinion. The belief that immigrants compete with certain segments of the population for jobs and thereby lower the value of labor is demonstrably true in economic terms. There are benefits to the economy, however, from this competition as less expensive goods and services are available as a result. This benefit is cultivated by the powerful business lobby through collusion with government to maintain the status-quo. The claim that immigrants access services they do not deserve is largely untrue. Documented immigrants are eligible to receive TANF and the children of immigrants, including undocumented immigrants, were constitutionally determined to have the right to attend public schools. Immigrants, both documented and undocumented, do pay taxes in many forms (through a false Social Security Number, through an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number (ITIN), and/or through sales tax) and the continued isolation of immigrants and stagnation of immigration reform discourages undocumented income tax payment.

The continuation of these claims has conflicting and contradictory impacts on public opinion. While older and less-educated individuals continue to hold anti-immigrant beliefs, the general trend in public opinion towards immigrants is positive, especially on the individual level. There is broad confusion among Americans regarding immigration and most Americans claim that the majority of immigrants are undocumented, which is untrue. As a result, most Americans identify undocumented immigration as a much larger problem for the country than documented immigration, though in numerical terms a larger percentage of new immigrants to the country are documented. Improving opinions of immigrants are credited to increasing exposure and increasing frequency of inter-group experiences between the Anglo-American majority and the growing Hispanic population. Most Americans identify positive stereotypes when asked about the characteristics of individual immigrants (such as identifying immigrants as hardworking and family-oriented). In times of economic hardship, however, as is the current case with the lingering economic recession from 2008 to the present, immigrants broadly (especially the undocumented) become scapegoats for financial difficulties. Although American’s hold increasingly positive views of immigrants and immigration, immigration reform remains stagnant which has the effect of continuing to isolate undocumented immigrants and reinforce out-group status for these individuals.

Both the media and politicians are to blame for perpetuating anti-immigrant claims. The amplified public platform of these two groups has been disproportionately influential in shaping public opinion. From this platform, there has been a consistent failure acknowledge the complexity of the relationship between business and government in regards to maintaining the status-quo in immigration policy. Likewise, the macro-economic benefits to powerful business interests that might otherwise unite low-skilled American workers with immigrants in the pursuit of higher wages go unrecognized or are framed so as to foster competition between these groups. By continuing to present immigrants to the public as undeserving and non-taxpayers, the mythology that undocumented immigrants are welfare recipients and that the children of undocumented immigrants are not eligible to attend public schools is likewise perpetuated. It is very difficult for the American public to access accurate and balanced information on the impact of immigration and rights of immigrants and therefore very difficult to unite the public or build a broad coalition to promote immigration reform.

This is how U.S. Marine Major General Smedley D. Butler described himself in his work War is a Racket in 1935. The economic pillaging detailed in the more recently popular Confessions of an Economic Hitman by John Perkins seems piddling by comparison. I learned about Butler’s work by reading about the banana wars for my International Law for Development Practitioners course, better referred to in GTalk shorthand as Intl. Law. Coincidentally, I was with my family this past week, having lunch with my dad, and my dad was eating a banana. My dad is the kind of guy to look at an import like this and ask Where did this banana come from? It’s one of many things I like about him and it taught me the same habit.

Page 1 of War is a Racket, 1935

My guess was Honduras, having recently read Overthrow by Steve Kinzer, but I really had no idea. And then I checked my homework for next week’s Intl. Law and found that we’re reading about and discussing the banana wars, the most recent ones, not Butler’s, which took place throughout the 1990s. Butler’s wars secured the Latin American banana industry for US corporations at the turn of the century. The banana wars of the 1990s secured the rest of the world for US-owned, Latin American-grown bananas.

So here’s what I’ve learned about where bananas come from. My understanding isn’t particularly nuanced, but I aim to not oversimplify here to the point of error.

Bananas come from three regions primarily. The Caribbean, Latin America (Central and South), and the Philippines. They’re the second most widely traded food item, after coffee. Before 1993, the European Community (EC) had some policies in place to buy bananas from the Caribbean region (from former European colonies) duty-free which had the effect of protecting the slightly more expensive Caribbean bananas and providing a market in Europe where they could be exported and sold. It was one of the very few industries where an agrarian Caribbean islander could farm, export, and make enough to live decently. Notice my usage of the past tense?

This arrangement was offensive to massive US-based corporations (Chiquita and Dole, to name names) and their Latin American banana industries which, different than the small, island, agrarian model, are massive factory farming operations. Regardless, the unequal banana-selling playing field was offensive to these businessmen (never-mind the busy work these countries had of recovering from colonialism) and the US government went to bat for them in the international trade arena by suing and disputing the EC’s policies. Ultimately the protectionist arrangements were dissolved and now a rural banana farmer in Jamaica has to sell his bananas for the same price as Chiquita Central America. Fair, right? This explains why I’ve never eaten a Caribbean banana. The Caribbean farmer can’t afford to get it into my hands.

Here is what Butler said about his efforts 90-years earlier:

“I spent 33 years and four months in active military service and during that period I spent most of my time as a high class muscle man for Big Business, for Wall Street and the bankers. In short, I was a racketeer, a gangster for capitalism. I helped make Mexico and especially Tampico safe for American oil interests in 1914. I helped make Haiti and Cuba a decent place for the National City Bank boys to collect revenues in. I helped in the raping of half a dozen Central American republics for the benefit of Wall Street. I helped purify Nicaragua for the International Banking House of Brown Brothers in 1902-1912. I brought light to the Dominican Republic for the American sugar interests in 1916. I helped make Honduras right for the American fruit companies in 1903. In China in 1927 I helped see to it that Standard Oil went on its way unmolested. Looking back on it, I might have given Al Capone a few hints. The best he could do was to operate his racket in three districts. I operated on three continents” (Butler, 1935).

Capitalism is an inherently tragic system. But capitalism says that I only need the most uniform and cheapest banana the world can produce. What would I choose if I had the option? If I knew more of the story or if I had a personal friend who was a farmer in Jamaica and desperately needed the chance to sell his or her bananas for a few cents more? Maybe Caribbean bananas taste better. The truth is, thanks to capitalism, I don’t know.