The Technology of Barbarism


Image by Crisologo via Flickr

Tecnología de la barbarie (Spanish)

The Technology of Barbarism

           Uncle Caíto was about thirty years old when they took him in 1972. They said that he had collaborated with some Tupamaro guerrillas who were running loose in the countryside where he worked.

           I remember him as balding and with a big mustache. He still stuttered whenever he was nervous.

           If he were still alive, we would probably fight a lot, due to political disagreements. Why did you get involved in that? How could you not realize that the Russians had their dictatorship too, their own crimes, their own injustices, their own excrement?

           Of course, it’s easy to think that now. It’s easy to solve the problems of the past. If we had only seen where we were going with the same clarity with which we look behind us, where it is too late for us to do anything. But that’s the human condition: we learn at the same rate that we cease needing to learn. We learn to raise a child when that child has already grown or we truly understand a parent when he is already an old man or is no longer with us.

They took Uncle Caíto in a field in Tacuarembó, Uruguay, and they dragged him behind a horse as if his body was a plow. They tried to drown him several times in a creek. He was not able to confess anything because he knew less than the soldiers who wanted to know something, and to have a little fun as well; because the days were long and their salaries were meager.

Maybe Caíto made up a name or a place or some detail to make things easy on himself for a moment.

He had to spend some time in prison. One visiting day he confessed to his mother that he had become a Tupamaro there inside. At least from then on the military dictatorship had a reason for holding him.

Military justice must have had other reasons for using pleasure and entertainment through the suffering of others, the way respectable spectators receive pleasure from the torture of an animal in a bullfight.

The military personnel at that time were quite ingenious when they were bored. I have proposed several times the creation of a Museum of the Cold War, as a monument to the human condition. However, I have always been told that this would be somewhat inconvenient, something that would not promote understanding among all Uruguayans. Maybe that is why there are so many museums about the Charrúa indians where pottery and little arrows from those sympathetic savages is collected, but not a single one about the Charrúa holocaust carried out by some of those heroes who still gallop like multiplied ghosts on their bronze horses through the streets of many cities. I am certain that the material of such a museum would be diverse, with so many declassified documents here and there (those sterile psychoanalytical confessions that democracies make every thirty years to relieve their existential conflicts), with so many sexual toys and other curiosities so instructive for students and scholars.

For example. One day the soldiers punished a prisoner and pretended that they had castrated him. Then they came by Caíto’s cell and showed him a kidney-shaped surgical basin filled with blood.

“Today we castrated this guy”, said one of them. “Tomorrow it’s your turn.”

The next day Caíto’s groin was monstously swollen. He had spent the entire night trying to hide his testicles.

I heard this story from some of those who had been imprisoned with him. That was when I remembered and understood why my grandmother Joaquina had told someone, secretly, that they had not been able to find her son’s testicles. When I was little I had imagined that my uncle suffered from a congenital defect and that was why he had never had children.

They told his wife, Marta, something similar:

“Today we castrated him. Tomorrow we shoot him.”

Of course, the soldiers of the fatherland did neither of these things. They didn’t go to such extremes because in Uruguay the disappearances were not as common as in Argentina or in Chile. We Uruguayans were always more moderate, more civilized. More subtle. We always felt so small between Brazil and Argentina, and always so relieved and so proud of not engaging in the barbarities practiced by our stepbrothers. At the end of the day, if one does not speak of such things, they do not exist, like in García Lorca’s The House of Bernarda Alba: “silence, silence, silence I said…”

In those days my brother and I were in our grandparents’ house in the countryside. I was three years old and my brother almost doubles that. We were playing on the patio, next to the wheels of a wagon, when we heard a very loud noise. I remember the patio, the wagon, the tree and almost everything else. We went running and were the first to arrive at Aunt Marta’s room. Our aunt was laying face up on the bed, with a hole in her chest.

An adult immediately dragged us outside to avoid the inevitable.

The assumption was we would be traumatized, turned into delinquents or something of the kind.

I don’t know about the trauma, but I can testify that the most outside the law I have been in my life was when I was five years old. I climbed the control tower of a prison and set off the alarms. After the commotion of security guards chasing after me, they brought me down hanging from one arm.

Caíto died not long after being set free. This is an ironic manner of speaking. He was held in the largest prison for political prisoners, in a town called Libertad (or Freedom). Let’s just say, to be precise, he died in the countryside, shortly after leaving prison, at the age of 39. Perhaps from a heart attack, like the doctor said, or from a blow to the head, as his mother believed, or from both. Or from all the other things.

If he were alive today, we would be arguing all the time about politics. I would be throwing his mistakes in his face. He would be calling me “petty bourgeois” or something equally deserved. Or maybe I’m wrong and we would continue being the good friends we were until he died.

Because ultimately what matters most are not political arguments. The sadism they practiced on him has no ideology, although eventually it may serve left-wing or right-wing dictatorships, democracies of the North or those of the South.

The Caítos and the Martas of Uruguay are not considered very important. They weren’t disappeared, and they died of natural causes or committed suicide. On the other hand, those soldiers with a sense of humor who played at castrating prisoners today are probably poor little old men who make sure that their grandchildren don’t watch violence on television, while they explain to them that violence is a lack of morality in today’s society, and has resulted from a loss of fundamental family values.

 Squawk Back (USA)

Jorge Majfud

The History of Immigration

Cesar Chavez Estrada

Image by Troy Holden via Flickr

The History of Immigration

by Jorge Majfud


One of the typical – correction: stereotypical – images of a Mexican has been, for more than a century, a short, drunk, trouble-maker of a man who, when not appearing with guitar in hand singing a corrido, was portrayed seated in the street taking a siesta under an enormous sombrero. This image of the perfect idler, of the irrational embodiment of vice, can be traced from old 19th century illustrations to the souvenirs that Mexicans themselves produce to satisfy the tourist industry, passing through, along the way, the comic books and cartoons of Walt Disney and Warner Bros. in the 20th century. We know that nothing is accidental; even the defenders of “innocence” in the arts, of the harmless entertainment value of film, of music and of literature, cannot keep us from pointing out the ethical significance and ideological function of the most infantile characters and the most “neutral” storylines. Of course, art is much more than a mere ideological instrument; but that does not save it from manipulation by one human group for its own benefit and to the detriment of others. Let’s at least not refer to as “art” that kind of garbage.

Ironies of history: few human groups, like the Mexicans who today live in the U.S. – and, by extension, all the other Hispanic groups, – can say that they best represent the spirit of work and sacrifice of this country. Few (North) Americans could compete with those millions of self-abnegating workers who we can see everywhere, sweating beneath the sun on the most suffocating summer days, in the cities and in the fields, pouring hot asphalt or shoveling snow off the roads, risking their lives on towering buildings under construction or while washing the windows of important offices that decide the fate of the millions of people who, in the language of postmodernity, are known as “consumers.” Not to mention their female counterparts who do the rest of the hard work – since all the work is equally “dirty” – occupying positions in which we rarely see citizens with full rights. None of which justifies the racist speech that Mexico’s president, Vicente Fox, gave recently, declaring that Mexicans in the U.S. do work that “not even black Americans want to do.” The Fox administration never retracted the statement, never recognized this “error” but rather, on the contrary, accused the rest of humanity of having “misinterpreted” his words. He then proceeded to invite a couple of “African-American” leaders (some day someone will explain to me in what sense these Americans are African), employing an old tactic: the rebel, the dissident, is neutralized with flowers, the savage beast with music, and the wage slaves with movie theaters and brothels. Certainly, it would have sufficed to avoid the adjective “black” and used “poor” instead. In truth, this semantic cosmetics would have been more intelligent but not completely free of suspicion. Capitalist ethics condemns racism, since its productive logic is indifferent to the races and, as the 19th century shows, slave trafficking was always against the interests of industrial production. Hence, anti-racist humanism has a well-established place in the hearts of nations and it is no longer so easy to eradicate it except through practices that hide behind elaborate and persuasive social discourses. Nevertheless, the same capitalist ethics approves the existence of the “poor,” and thus nobody would have been scandalized if instead of “blacks,” the Mexican president had said “poor Americans.” All of this demonstrates, meanwhile, that not only those in the economic North live off of the unhappy immigrants who risk their lives crossing the border, but also the politicians and ruling class of the economic South, who obtain, through millions of remittances, the second most important source of revenue after petroleum, by way of Western Union to the “madre pobre,” from the blood and sweat of those expelled by a system that then takes pride in them, and rewards them with such brilliant discourses that serve only to add yet another problem to their desperate lives of fugitive production.

Violence is not only physical; it is also moral. After contributing an invaluable part of the economy of this country and of the countries from which they come – and of those countries from which they were expelled by hunger, unemployment and the disfavor of corruption – the nameless men, the unidentified, must return to their overcrowded rooms for fear of being discovered as illegals. When they become sick, they simply work on, until they are at death’s door and go to a hospital where they receive aid and understanding from one morally conscious part of the population while another tries to deny it to them. This latter part includes the various anti-immigrant organizations that, with the pretext of protecting the national borders or defending the rule of law, have promoted hostile laws and attitudes which increasingly deny the human right to health or tranquility to those workers who have fallen into illegality by force of necessity, through the empire of logic of the same system that will not recognize them, a system which translates its contradictions into the dead and destroyed. Of course we can not and should not be in favor of any kind of illegality. A democracy is that system where the rules are changed, not broken. But laws are a product of a reality and of a people, they are changed or maintained according to the interests of those who have power to do so, and at times these interests can by-pass the most fundamental Human Rights. Undocumented workers will never have even the most minimal right to participate in any electoral simulacrum, neither here nor on the other side of the border: they have been born out of time and out of place, with the sole function of leaving their blood in the production process, in the maintenance of an order of privilege that repeatedly excludes them and at the same time makes use of them. Everyone knows they exist, everyone knows where they are, everyone knows where they come from and where they’re going; but nobody wants to see them. Perhaps their children will cease to be ill-born wage slaves, but by then the slaves will have died. And if there is no heaven, they will have been screwed once and forever. And if there is one and they didn’t have time to repeat one hundred times the correct words, they will be worse off still, because they will go to Hell, posthumous recognition instead of attaining the peace and oblivion so desired.

As long as the citizens, those with “true human” status, can enjoy the benefits of having servants in exchange for a minimum wage and practically no rights, threatened day and night by all kinds of haunts, they will see no need to change the laws in order to recognize a reality installed a posteriori. This seems almost logical. Nonetheless, what ceases to be “logical” – if we discard the racist ideology – are the arguments of those who accuse immigrant workers of damaging the country’s economy by making use of services like hospitalization. Naturally, these anti-immigrant groups ignore the fact that Social Security takes in the not insignificant sum of seven billion dollars a year from contributions made by illegal immigrants who, if they die before attaining legal status, will never receive a penny of the benefit. Which means fewer guests at the banquet. Nor, apparently, are they able to understand that if a businessman has a fleet of trucks he must set aside a percentage of his profits to repair the wear and tear, malfunctions and accidents arising from their use. It would be strange reasoning, above all for a capitalist businessman, to not send those trucks in for servicing in order to save on maintenance costs; or to send them in and then blame the mechanic for taking advantage of his business. Nevertheless, this is the kind and character of arguments that one reads in the newspapers and hears on television, almost daily, made by these groups of inflamed “patriots” who, despite their claims, don’t represent a public that is much more heterogeneous than it appears from the outside – millions of men and women, overlooked by simplistic anti-American rhetoric, feel and act differently, in a more humane way.

Of course, it’s not just logical thinking that fails them. They also suffer from memory loss. They have forgotten, all of a sudden, where their grandparents came from. Except, that is, for that extremely reduced ethnic group of American-Americans – I refer to the indigenous peoples who came prior to Columbus and the Mayflower, and who are the only ones never seen in the anti-immigrant groups, since among the xenophobes there is an abundance of Hispanics, not coincidentally recently “naturalized” citizens. The rest of the residents of this country have come from some part of the world other than where they now stand with their dogs, their flags, their jaws outthrust and their hunter’s binoculars, safeguarding the borders from the malodorous poor who would do them harm by attacking the purity of their national identity. Suddenly, they forget where a large part of their food and raw materials come from and under what conditions they are produced. Suddenly they forget that they are not alone in this world and that this world does not owe them more than what they owe the world.

Elsewhere I have mentioned the unknown slaves of Africa, who if indeed are poor on their own are no less unhappy for fault of others; the slaves who provide the world with the finest of chocolates and the most expensive wood without the minimal recompense that the proud market claims as Sacred Law, strategic fantasy this, that merely serves to mask the one true Law that rules the world: the law of power and interests hidden beneath the robes of morality, liberty and right. I have in my memory, etched with fire, those village youths, broken and sickly, from a remote corner of Mozambique who carried tons of tree trunks for nothing more than a pack of cigarettes. Cargo worth millions that would later appear in the ports to enrich a few white businessmen who came from abroad, while in the forests a few dead were left behind, unimportant, crushed by the trunks and ignored by the law of their own country.

Suddenly they forget or refuse to remember. Let’s not ask of them more than what they are capable of. Let’s recall briefly, for ourselves, the effect of immigration on history. From pre-history, at each step we will find movements of human beings, not from one valley to another but crossing oceans and entire continents. The “pure race” proclaimed by Hitler had not emerged through spontaneous generation or from some seed planted in the mud of the Black Forest but instead had crossed half of Asia and was surely the result of innumerable crossbreedings and of an inconvenient and denied evolution (uniting blonds with blacks) that lightened originally dark faces and put gold in their hair and emerald in their eyes. After the fall of Constantinople to the Turks, in 1453, the wave of Greeks moving into Italy initiated a great part of that economic and spiritual movement we would later know as the Rennaissance. Although generally forgotten, the immigration of Arabs and Jews would also provoke, in the sleepy Europe of the Middle Ages, different social, economic and cultural movements that the immobility of “purity” had prevented for centuries. In fact, the vocation of “purity” – racial, religious and cultural – that sunk the Spanish Empire and led it to bankrupcy several times, despite all of the gold of the Americas, was responsible for the persecution and expulsion of the (Spanish) Jews in 1492 and of the (Spanish) Arabs a century later. An expulsion which, paradoxically, benefited the Netherlands and England in a progressive process that would culminate in the Industrial Revolution. And we can say the same for our Latin American countries. If I were to limit myself to just my own country, Uruguay, I could recall the “golden years” – if there were ever years of such color – of its economic and cultural development, coinciding, not by accident, with a boom in immigration that took effect from the end of the 19th until the middle of the 20th century. Our country not only developed one of the most advanced and democratic educational systems of the period, but also, comparatively, had no cause to envy the progress of the most developed countries of the world, even though its population lacked, due to its scale, the geopolitical weight enjoyed by other countries at the time. At present, cultural immobility has precipitated an inverted migration, from the country of the children and grandchildren of immigrants to the country of the grandparents. The difference is rooted in the fact that the Europeans who fled from hunger and violence found in the Río de la Plata (and in so many other ports of Latin America) the doors wide open; their descendants, or the children and grandchildren of those who opened the doors to them, now enter Europe through the back door, although they appear to fall from the sky. And if indeed it is necessary to remember that a large part of the European population receives them happily, at a personal level, neither the laws nor general practice correspond to this good will. They aren’t even third class citizens; they are nothing and the management reserves the right to deny admission, which may mean a kick in the pants and deportation as criminals.

In order to obscure the old and irreplaceable Law of interests, it is argued – as Orian Fallaci has done so unjustly – that these are not the times of the First or Second World War and, therefore, one immigration cannot be compared to another. In fact, we know that one period can never be reduced to another, but they can indeed be compared. Or else history and memory serve no purpose. If tomorrow in Europe the same conditions of economic necessity that caused its citizens to emigrate before were to be repeated, they would quickly forget the argument that our times are not comparable to other historical periods and, hence, it’s reasonable to forget.

I understand that in a society, unlike a controlled laboratory experiment, every cause is an effect and viceversa – a cause cannot modify a social order without becoming the effect of itself or of something else. For the same reason, I understand that culture (the world of customs and ideas) influences a given economic and material order as much as the other way around. The idea of the determining infrastructure is the base of the Marxist analytical code, while the inverse (culture as a determinant of socio-economic reality) is basic for those who reacted to the fame of materialism. For the reasons mentioned above, I understand that the problem here lies in the idea of “determinism,” in either of the two senses. For its part, every culture promotes an interpretive code according to its own Interests and, in fact, does so to the measure of its own Power. A synthesis of the two approaches is also necessary for our problem. If the poverty of Mexico, for example, were only the result of a cultural “deformity” – as currently proposed by the theorists and specialists of Latin American Idiocy – the new economic necessities of Mexican immigrants to the United States would not produce workers who are more stoic and long-suffering than any others in the host country: the result would simply be “immigrant idlers.” And reality seems to show us otherwise. Certainly, as Jesus said, “there is none more blind than he who will not see.”


Translated by Bruce Campbell


The Illegitimate Constitution

Montañas de la Sierra de Agalta, Olancho. Hond...

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Honduras IV: La constitución ilegítima

The Illegitimate Constitution

Jorge Majfud

The dialectical dispute over the legality of the violent process of removal from office and expulsion from the country of the president of Honduras has not reached closure. Months ago we explained our point of view, according to which there was no violation of the constitution on the part of president Zelaya at the moment of calling for a non-binding poll on the question of a constituent assembly. But at base this discussion is moot and rooted in a different problem: resistance by a social class and mentality that created the institutions of its own Banana Republic and seeks desperately to identify change of any kind with chaos, at the same time that it imposes repression on its people and on the communication media that oppose it.

The main argument of the authors of the coup in Honduras is rooted in the fact that the 1982 Constitution does not allow changes in its wording (articles 239 and 374) and establishes the removal from power of those who promote such changes. The Law of Citizen Participation of 2006, which promotes popular consultations, was never accused of being unconstitutional. On the contrary, popular participation is prescribed by the very same constitution (article 45). All of which reveals the scholastic spirit of its drafters, nuanced with a humanistic language.

No norm, no law can stand above a country’s constitution. Nonetheless, no modern constitution has been dictated by God, but by human beings for their own benefit. Which is to say, no constitution can stand above a natural law like a people’s freedom to change.

A constitution that establishes its own immutability is confusing its human and precarious origins with a divine origin; or it is attempting to establish the dictatorship of one generation over all generations to come.  If this principle of immutability made any sense, we would have to suppose that before the constitution of Honduras could be modified Honduras must first disappear as a country. Otherwise, for a thousand years that country would have to be ruled by the same wording.

The orthodox religious have tried to avoid changes in the Koran and in the Bible by counting the number of words. When societies and their values change but a sacred text cannot be altered, the text is salvaged by interpreting it in favor of the new values. This is clearly demonstrated by the proliferation of sects, isms and new religions that arise from the same text. But in a sacred text the prohibition against change, even though impossible, is more easily justified, since no man can ammend God’s word.

These pretensions of eternity and perfection were not rare in the Iberoamerican constitutions which in the 19th century attempted to invent republics, instead of allowing the people to invent their own republics and constitutions to their own measure and according to the pulse of history. If in the United States the constitution of 1787 is still in force, it is due to its great flexibility and its many amendments. Otherwise, this country would have today three fifths of a man in the presidency, a quasi-human. “That ignorant little black man,” as the now former de facto Honduran foreign minister Enrique Ortez Colindres called him. As if that weren’t enough, article I of the famous constitution of the United States originally prohibited any change in constitutional status with reference to slaves.

The result of a constitution like that of Honduras is none other that its own death, preceded sooner or later by the spilling of blood. Those who claim to defend it will have to do so with force of arms and with the narrow logic of a collection of norms that violate one of the most basic and undeniable natural rights.

For centuries, the philosophers who imagined and articulated the utopias that today are called Democracy, State and Human Rights said so explicitly: no law exists above these natural rights. And if such a thing were attempted, disobedience is justified. Violence does not originate from disobedience but from he who violates a fundamental right. Politics is for everything else. Negotiation is the concession of the weak. A convenient concession, inevitable, but in the long term always insufficient.

A mature democracy implies a culture and an institutional system that prevent breaks from the rules of the game. But at the same time, and for that same reason, a democracy is defined by allowing and facilitating the inevitable changes that come with a new generation, with the greater historical consciousness of a society.

A constitution that impedes change is illegitimate in the face of the inalienable right to freedom (to change) and equality (to determine change). It is paper, it is a fraudulent contract that one generation imposes upon another in the name of a nation that no longer exists.

Translated by Bruce Campbell