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Letter From Chile:
Are Americans Stupid?
By Jim Scanlon

Escaping the US Election

I first came to South America in 1990, and since then, have returned 16 times during the past 14 years, usually in the autumn of the northern hemisphere-springtime down here. At first it was an accident that I missed the US elections, but after a few years, I began looking forward to getting out of the US during our ever extending period of obsessive, intrusive election rituals concerning just about everything except what is important. I also missed most of the Christmas shopping season, another bonus.

I always voted absentee, usually for the lesser evil, as I saw it, not being able to bear the thought of having to admit to a special friend that I hadn't voted. No one ever asked me before I left if I had voted, not once. That is, until this year when everyone I know asked me with a tinge of anxiety, "Did you vote?" or, sometimes more forcefully, almost accusingly, "You are going to vote, aren't you?" I felt defensive and guilty that maybe just voting absentee wasn't enough, as if I had no right to leave!

I got to Chile five days before their national elections for mayors of cities and city counselors and, although the print and broadcast media here were interested in the fight, la pelea, between Bush and Kerry, the US election was really far in the background.

Local Elections

Down here no citizen is required to vote, but if you are registered to vote, you have to vote. And you have to vote where you are registered. If you travel somewhere and you don't vote you have to make your excuses to the police. It is OK to cast a blank ballot and a couple of hundred thousand voters did just that, but you have to vote, or face court action later.

I saw TV footage of men in ponchos from the humid temperate rain forest on the coast of south central Chile who had traveled on horseback for hours, through the night, over streams swollen from the constant rain, just to vote. Other rural voters stood patiently in line in the pouring rain. They take voting seriously.

In Punta Arenas, where I am staying, about two thousand people gave their preemptive excuses to the police for not voting, or not being able to vote, two days before the election. The most common excuse reported in the newspaper was being away from home on business or on family matters. Punta Renas, on the southern tip of the continent, can only be reached by a three day ferry boat trip, or by air, or by a long drive through Argentina. A few alienated citizens were reported saying things like, "My life doesn't change no matter who gets elected."

Election Day this year was on Sunday, October 31st, Halloween, or as that word is sometimes rendered in Spanish, "Jalouin." The next day, November 1, All Souls Day, The Day of the Dead, being a national holiday, made a long weekend, a definite temptation to make an excuse and travel and, of course, not vote.

On election day, just about everything shut down-stores, bars, restaurants, even hotel restaurants. I had to get a take-out salad in the one, very crowded supermarket that was open. Men and women vote at separate places here, and there is a tendency not to vote early, sine early voters are in danger of being drafted, and stuck all day as a "volunteer" poll watcher. Voting is such a serious business here that a citizen can actually get arrested if he or she refuses, without good cause, to "volunteer." One woman volunteer had to send home for her infant daughter so she could breast feed her. She was there all day with the baby but, according to the newspaper, didn't complain.

There were a few posters and signs around the city, but I didn't see one ad on TV-although I don't watch much TV, and I may have missed some. It all seems innocent, serious and sensible-as it should be.

A Strange Country

What seems so strange about Chile-"el primer alumno" (teacher's pet) of the International Monetary Fund, the "poster boy" country of neo conservative University of Chicago free market capitalism-is that it is so unlike the United States of America. The day I arrived, El Mercurio, the conservative, business oriented national newspaper, published an eight page supplement on "Socially Responsible Businesses," i.e., raising money for retarded, disabled children, awarding prizes to responsible businesses, two full pages of examples of businesses being "good citizens," supporting sports, and even setting up a bond market to reduce waste carbon dioxide in support of the Kyoto Protocol to slow down global warming.

The supplement made me think nostalgically of all the gray headed Lions and Rotary Club businessmen in the US who are now out of business because of the likes of Walmart, Supermarket Drug Stores and Home and Office Depots.

El Mercurio can certainly not be called a "liberal" newspaper, although it tries, mostly unconvincingly, to be "hip" now and then. It was totally on the payroll of the Nixon and Ford administrations for years before, during, and after the US sponsored coupd'etat of September 11, 1973.

Strange Politics

The President of the Republic belongs to the Socialist Party (Is he to the left or right of Ted Kennedy?) which, together with the Christian Democratic Party and three other smaller parties (two of which are self described "Marxist" and Revolutionary) form the ruling coalition governing the so-called "neo-conservative" economy.

Michelle Bachelet, the former Defense Minister, also a socialist party member, is a woman whose Air Force General father was murdered while being tortured by the secret police after the 1973 coup. She and her mother were both tortured but she downplays her suffering. She is an MD pediatrician, appears very reserved and serious in public, is the mother of three, is separated from her husband and is an agnostic in an overwhelmingly Roman Catholic country where abortion is still a crime. She is also ahead in the polls for the next presidential election in 2006. Is this imaginable in the US?

There is even an active Communist Party, which, in alliance with the Humanist Party, got almost 10 percent of the vote in the municipal elections.

Strange Capitalism

Capitalism here make out sourcing, tax avoiding, Congress lobbying (bribing), low wage, bottom-line, plant closing US Capitalists seem like crazed sociopathic, mafioso, pirates on a rampage. Chile has a very low level of foreign and consumer debt, a high level of personal savings and doesn't import more than it exports. It hasn't invaded another country since 1870 and their biggest political problem seems to be sex-extramarital sex that is.

Chile has not sold off (privatized) its National Oil Company like bankrupt Argentina and Russia, and the privately owned and operated copper mining industry pays a fixed royalty to the government for every pound of copper sold. The armed forces get a fixed cut of the royalty money-which seems only right, since the army and navy stole the copper mines from Bolivia. The Chilean Air Force is now using its share of the royalties to buy a fleet of used, but modernized, US F-16s from Holland to replace its aging French Mirage fighter bombers.

And, on another level, it is amazing what support services are available to students in the local university-and not just for the indigenous and physically disabled-but also students from impoverished families and even those living away from their families who might not eat well on there own - they can get two full meals a day six days a week. They have a gym and a wide variety of organized sports and cultural activities.

The US President Elected At Last!

On November 2nd, I did not turn on the TV. I had no radio. I worked all day scanning century data, old tables and graphs of temperature, wind speed, rainfall and relative humidity. I went to bed early and tired but woke up at 5 AM, 1 AM on the West Coast. I turned on CNN for about 10 seconds, enough time to hear that George W. Bush was ahead in the electoral and, more importantly I thought sleepily, the popular vote, and had won Florida. I went back to bed and quickly fell asleep.

None of my friends and hardly anyone I know likes the policies of the George W. Bush government. The Chilean newspapers and the people I know all seem puzzled that he was reelected. Their being so puzzled is somewhat like their mystification as to how the US benefits from its unconditional financial, military and political support of the government of Israel. The day before the US election, El Mercurio editorialized in favor of Bush, but its endorsement seemed half hearted, almost lethargic. It mentioned just two important points: that he didn't hold it against the Chile government that it voted in the UN Security Council against the invasion of Iraq, and that he spoke in favor of free trade while Kerry expressed reservation and was therefore, a "question mark."

A few days after the election, the local paper summarized an interview in a German newspaper by Isabel Allende the world famous Chilean American novelist who lives with her husband in Marin, where she actively contributes to local charities, but otherwise keeps a very low profile. She is quoted saying, "I am almost ashamed when I am asked to present my (US) passport," and that she "...never had friends who were Republican." She is also quoted calling religious fundamentalism in the US "a kind of Fundamentalist Christian American Taliban." (Of course something might have been lost in all these translations.)

El Mercurio continued it's bland appreciation of George W. Bush but now, after the elections expressed great concern over the US debt, the deficit and the war in Iraq. But deep in the C section, there was a reproduction of the front page of the British Daily Mirror with a photo of the US president with his hand raised in greeting and the headline, " "How can 59,054,087 people be so DUMB?" At the top of the page was the smaller title, "DOH! 4 MORE YEARS OF DUBYA.

The local paper also printed a summary of a German newspaper interview with an American writer who compared the division in the US electorate to that before the [US] Civil War. In another place it reported that thousands of American were preparing to emigrate to Australia and New Zealand and ex President Bill Clinton, very popular here, is quoted saying Democrats should stop being "cry babies."

As this letter is being sent off, Bush arrived in Chile for the summit meeting of Asia-Pacific leaders. The security is unprecedented. Basically Santiago, a huge, very crowded city, has been shut down. Businesses have been closed, streets rerouted and there are police and security forces everywhere. One astonished radio reporter said referring to the men around Vladimir Putin: "You can tell them by their dark sun glasses. The look like the come out of a James Bond movie.

One can look forward to daily confrontations between demonstrators and the police and probably several deaths. Demonstrations are taken seriously down here. In Punta Arenas about a hundred young demonstrators marched to the governors office under the watchful eye of the Carabinero and burned an American flag. One hundred demonstrators saying "No to Bush" is about three times the number here that celebrated the arrest of General Pinochet in 1998. That number is really extraordinary when you think of it!

Indict Pinochet? Indict Bush?

Pinochet is currently facing several serious attempts to indict him for human rights violations, but his most serious threat seems to be the discovery of a US $13,000,000 personal bank account in the Riggs Bank in Washington DC. (Where the money came from? Where is Osama bin Laden's money kept?) He just might be convicted of tax evasion if he doesn't hurry up and die. One wonders why so little?, Arrafat had half a billion and Menem $225,000,000!"

Arrafat's gone now, and Castro seems about ready to fall. It would probably be helpful if Osama bin Laden would finally die of kidney failure.

There a strange effort here to indict George W. Bush for war crimes and human rights violations in Iraq, and Cuba. The effort was probably inspired by the process in which Pinochet was arrested in 1998 in England on charges filed in Spain, Holland, Belgium and Norway for crimes committed in Chile and Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil against Europeans, 25 years previously. But it seems safe to say that Bush will never face charges in Chile although some deranged person might try to kill him. The joke is that he will be staying on an aircraft carrier off the coast in the Pacific.

The Dollar Flies At One Third Mast

When I arrived in Chile I exchanged on hundred US dollars and got $62,200 pesos. The day after the US election I got 60,000 pesos. I'll probably get less than 600 per dollar the next time. Two years ago I got over 700 pesos per dollar. Serious concerns about the devaluation of the dollar emerged immediately after our election in the Chilean press as did worries about our enormous US trade deficits and debt. Chileans seem to worry more about the dollar than we do.

According to El Mercurio, the dollar is expected to level off at 580:1. Even though this exchange rate favors them and even though Chile was voted as the best place to live and work in South America they worry. They worry about everything.

Government Sponsored Torture

On November 10th, President Lagos received the only copy of a three volume secret report on "Political Prisons and Torture" during the military government of Augusto Pinochet which officially lasted from 1973 to 1990. However, the real power of the military diminished only after Pinochet was arrested and detained in Britain in 1998 for over a year. 

For example, the abduction and murder of a former Army intelligence agent, biochemist Eugenio Berrios, took place in 1995. Berrios was an unstable person and probably knew too much. He is suspected of having been involved in manufacturing nerve gas and the murder of a former president, and several others by using dangerous bacteria.

Berrios was a close associate of Michael Townley, a US citizen and Chilean army officer who admitted murdering prominent opponents of the Pinochet government, and others during the 1970s. Since 1979, he and his entire family have lived under federal protection in the US. He is usually described here as an agent of the CIA. One can see, there are a lot of "loose ends."

The multi- volume report on terror will not be officially released until late November, or early December, but summaries of each of every section have already been printed in newspapers and the Commanders in Chief of the Army has issued a preemptive apology, which created an uproar in the press.

The official reason for there being only one copy of the report is to prevent leaks. Nevertheless, this has to be the leakiest document ever printed! And, the president, having the only copy, is in a position to "bargain," that is "blackmail" any institutional leader. I suppose it is unkind to write that, but who ever heard of printing one copy of a three volume report?

Thirty-five-thousand victims of imprisonment and torture were interviewed. 530 from Punta Arenas. It is estimated that some 60,000 people were tortured and a large percentage chose not to be interviewed even if their names were not used.

This report will obviously keep the media and the courts occupied for another ten years as the last official report on torture issued in 1991, the Rettig Report, did. No doubt about it, this is a BIG DEAL! It has finally exposed the fault line that has run through Chilean society since the election of Salvador Allende in 1970, and the US sponsored regime change. It has exposed the suppressed rage and the anger, guilt and fear of the victims and the perpetrators and their passive supporters. The frozen fault line of who is at fault, locked for 30 years, just moved.

How Stupid Are Americans?

In spite of my dislike for president Bush, I felt personally offended by the smug, superior "How dumb can Americans be?" headline in the British Daily Mirror alluded to previously. If my memory serves me correctly, the government of the UK supports and contributes unreservedly to the occupation and democratization of Iraq. Tony Blair frequently appears with President Bush, both impeccably tailored , strutting to, or from a helicopter or someplace or other. Is Tony the evil twin of George or is he just George's lap dog? And what does this say about the British electorate and the largest newspaper in the UK?

Perhaps we should all order freedom muffins for breakfast with freedom tea.

Be that as it may, it seems more useful to rephrase "dumb" to "frightened" or "easily misled" or "misinformed" or "manipulated." It is a lot easier-for this writer anyway-to contemplate in sadness, the words of Henry Louis Mencken, that great and good "bad boy" American. The "Sage of Baltimore" was definitely not a "liberal"-he didn't like Roosevelt or the New Deal, ridiculed boobs, uplifters, blowhard politicians and greedy businessmen. He hated the South, with its KKK, Bible Belt hypocrites and religious fanatics, "As I recall," he wrote: "No one ever went broke underestimating the stupidity of the American People".

Preemptive Quotation Check

A few years ago the Coastal Post received a dozen letters or so claiming that the quote, " A billion here, a billion there and pretty soon you're talking real money!" which I attributed to former Democratic House Majority Leader Tip O'Neil was really made by Senator Everett Durkson from Illinois. The letters, some abusive, all concerned the quote and not the article, the substance of which even I have now forgotten.

Excellent examples of not only not "seeing the forest for the tree" but just seeing a twig in the forest!

I decided to check out the Mencken quote and make sure it wasn't made by Billy Graham or Pat Robertson, or Karl Rove and went to a dingy Cyber Cafe with broken down worn out keyboards, uncomfortable chairs, bad lighting and ancient PCs squeezed into tiny cubicles.

I found a different version of the Mencken quote: "No one in this world, as far as I know ... has ever lost money by underestimating the intelligence of the great mass of plain people." A lot nicer I thought.

Also this quote: "Democracy is the theory that holds that the common people know what they want and deserve to get it good and hard."


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