Southerners and Central America. The Ideology of Domination
By Dow Kirkpatrick
Vol. 6, No. 1, 1984, pp. 1-3, 5-6
Southerners, of all US citizens, should be best equipped to understand the peoples’ rebellion in Central America. The forces which impoverished the South for a hundred years are the same which produce oppression in Latin America.
The primary issue is the ideology of domination versus dependency, not East versus West, capitalism versus communism. The application of the ideology of domination has produced dependency in Central America and the US South. Dependency results in the oppression of poverty.
Born a Yankee, Georgia is my home. Almost fifty years ago I made that choice. Native born Southerners have affirmed my decision by accepting me as something other than a carpetbagger. This personal history may give a perspective on the history of our region not seen so clearly by others.
Another factor sharpens my perceptions. I am a member of The Century Club, persons who have traveled in one hundred countries. I prefer to think of myself as at home in the world–not a Southerner, nor a Yankee, not even an American. I resent passports and visas. National boundaries are anachronisms in today’s world.
For nine years I have served The United Methodist Church as a missionary-in-reverse. Based on the conviction that God is speaking a special word today among the oppressed poor of the world–a word North Americans need
to hear–have lived a substantial portion of each year somewhere in Latin America. During these periods of residence I have not preached to them, nor taught, nor been associated with a project which did something for them. Just the reverse, I have sought to live in Peru, Central America, Cuba and Brazil in a listening, learning mode.
The balance of each year is spent in the United States (my mission field) trying to preach and teach to North Americans. The implications for us of what Latin Americans know about religious faith–that we don’t seem to know–is my message.
From such experiences I expect Southerners to be aware of the parallels between their impoverishments and the plight of the Latin American poor.
In February 1982 I was invited to debate, in Atlanta, Lawrence Pezzullo, US Ambassador to Nicaragua during the end of the Somoza dictatorship. In preparation for this event I clarified my memory of one of the dramatic examples of this domination/dependency syndrome.
Former Georgia Governor Ellis Arnall has documented his role in helping to liberate the South from the disparity of freight rates kept in place by a conspiracy of northern railroads. “As a boy in Newnan I learned about the poverty of a great segment of our Georgia people. . .As I grew older. . . I realized that the south was merely a colonial appendage of the imperial domain called the north.”
Let me set next to Arnall’s image, “a colonial appendage of the imperial domain,” a conversation with the chief economist of the Sandinista Government of Nicaragua in November 1983.
Xabier Gorostiaga, Jesuit priest, Cambridge-trained economist, heads the Central American Institute for Economic and Social Research. The Institute has recently issued An Alternative Policy for Central America and the Caribbean (June 1983. Summary and Conclusions of a Policy Workshop held in The Hague), which includes the observation that “The United States’ commitment to preserving its hegemony in the region has given the struggle for social justice in Central America an anti-imperialist character.”
To return to former Governor Arnall: “The people of the south had reason to know that he who controls the means of production has a vehicle for tyranny.”
During his terms as Attorney General (1939-43) and Governor (1943-47) of the state of Georgia, Ellis Arnall carried the case of the South against “the imperial domain” to the US Supreme Court, won freedom from “the North’s stangle-hold,” and helped break the “shackles.” Until then it cost thirty-nine percent more to send a freight shipment from Atlanta to New York than the same shipment coming from north to south. This was only one of many repressive economic, social and political factors operating against the development of the South.
Governor Arnall’s description of his homeland in the 1920s and ’30s sounds like El Salvador and Guatemala today:
I found that the only way the few textile mills in the South could stay in business competitively with their Northern counterparts was by paying low wages, requiring the workers to live in mill villages owned by the companies, requiring the workers to trade with the mill commissaries on credit terms which were much higher than offered by non-company stores, to use child labor and other devices which the mill owners did not want to employ but which were required for them to stay in business.
He continues with a description which accurately parallels what I have heard from economists in Nicaragua and Cuba concerning the state of the economies they inherited from US–supported Somoza and Batista domination:
The end of the Civil War intensified the North’s strangle hold, since the exhausted South was left entirely without capital with which to develop its own manufacturing. The North concentrated on the exploitation of the Southern natural resources which were so plentiful. The Northern owners of Southern plants confined their efforts to crude processing of these raw materials, shipping them north for final fabrication into usable articles….As each carload of raw materials moved north, that much less wealth was left in the South.
This should help us understand what Latin Americans mean when they say, capitalists decapitalize dependent nations.
The turning point in Governor Arnall’s struggle came in 1942 when he won a decision (Georgia vs. Evans) in which the US Supreme Court held that Georgia was a “person” and could sue as a person under the antitrust law.
Southerners with a strong streak of humanity should be expected to regard Central America as a “person.” This perspective would challenge the Reagan Administration’s insistence upon seeing the Central America revolution as a battleground between the forces of “communism” and those of “freedom.”
The only way to understand correctly the Sandinista Government and the rebellions in El Salvador and Guatemala is to know the revolutionary significance of regarding the people of those nations as “persons.” This is the definitive difference between US policy and the Central American Alternative:
The politics of counter-insurgency and containment adopted by the United States over a decade ago, but applied with renewed zeal under the Reagan administration, is essentially defensive. It proposes no alternative other than that of repressing popular demands.
I have added the emphasis, because that sentence clearly distinguishes the differences between US and Sandinista regard for persons.
What kind of alternative results from a commitment to people as persons?
The first proposition is that no Regional Alternative can be implemented successfully unless it conforms to what we have called the ‘logic of the majority’, that is to say, any solution must, above all, conform to the interests of the Region’s poor who constitute the vast majority of the population. If a Regional Alternative is to be genuinely democratic, its fundamental characteristic must be to give the common people not merely a voice, but the leading voice, in constructing their own society.
This contrasts with other models based on the logic of profit, capital and growth for growth’s sake.
Ordinary men and women have come to see themselves as agents of social change and have begun to recover their identity both as individuals and as citizens of a nation.
While US observers focus on our fetish for ‘elections’ as a sign of democracy, we easily overlook the democratic pluralism, more extensive than a two party electoral process, in the emergence of popular organizations. These grass roots organizations, pluralistic in their political positions and multi-class in composition, provide a more representative presence in the Council of State in Nicaragua than the Congress of the US.
I recently spent some time with the Council of State which is composed of elected representatives of thirty-six different organizations, only six or seven of which are political parties. The diversity there makes the Senate of the United States look like a collection of clones. Again, quoting from the Central American Institute’s Alternative Policy:
The formal political institutions of El Salvador and Guatemala have collapsed … Given this situation, popular struggles are opening up new space for a political alternative based on a mixed economy, non-alignment and new forms of participatory democracy.
A second fundamental of this Alternative is nonalignment. Xabier Gorostiaga defines what this means–diversifying the dependency. “We intend to build an economy,” he said in private conversation, “which rests on four equal legs: one-fourth with the US, one-fourth with Latin American countries, one-fourth with Europe, and one-fourth with Africa and the socialist countries, including Russia. In the past our national economy rested very unevenly on two legs–one very big one with the US and a much smaller one with the rest of the world. This is no way to stabilize a society. We must diversify our dependency.”
As we approach the end of the twentieth century, it is clear that national sovereignty and self-respect cannot be attained by living in anyone’s ‘backyard.’ In failing to concede political and economic space for non-alignment, the United States, far from guaranteeing its security, jeopardizes it. This, above all, must be the message of all those, including friends of the United States in Western Europe, who wish to promote peace.
The third proposition is that any alternative must be regional in character. “For the many small (in some cases island) economies of the area, the only alternative to economic dependence on the United States is the construction of a regional market. . .”
This is the truth behind the falsehood which accuses Nicaragua of supplying the El Salvador revolution. “One must remember that the Region has a shared colonial history, and, today, an increasingly shared experience of oppression and violence against which so many common people of the Region are united in different forms of struggle.”
Governor Ellis Arnall rightly tried to lay Southern oppression on the consciences of Northern states as a national concern. The same lesson is being clearly spoken from Central America to the United States’ South, North and to the entire world.
In a 1943 address to the National Governors’ Conference in Columbus, Ohio, Arnall said:
We (in the South) have seen, for eighty years, our land despoiled and exploited in an effort to turn it into a colonial empire whose riches others might enjoy. We have seen our section isolated from the rest of America by economic barriers that impoverished our people. We have seen the leadership of other sections of America turn away from our urgent pleas for justice with blind eyes and deaf ears … We ask but one thing: Equality and full fellowship within that union which we helped to create. We ask no more. We will compromise for no less.
The same plea comes from Latin America to North America in this moment. We cannot talk of our affluence without including their poverty. They are poor because the poor subsidize the rich. We could not be what we are without making them what they are. As north and south must be seen as one unit in the US, so the south and north of the American hemisphere must be regarded as a single unit.
There is a more fundamental factor in Central America which explains the present social, economic and political ferment. It is an actuality with which Southerners should be easily ‘simpatico’–the religious factor.
Central America is engaged in a twentieth century biblical reformation. Failure to see this is to misread everything else going on there.
“The Bible Belt” is a characterization of the South meant to be derisive. The label could be appropriated positively, if allegiance to the Bible links us to a profound understanding of Central America revolution as biblical reformation.
A new Christian faith, born in struggle, lived biblically, is as radically different from the conventional religion practiced in US churches as Luther’s Reformation differed from the theology of Pope Leo X in the sixteenth century.
This is not just a “religious” phenomenon. Believer or not, the person who ignores the social, economic and political results of this biblical reformation flaws the entire analysis. The reading then is as shallow as a social, economic, and political history of the past four centuries would be with Luther omitted.
The modern day reformation covers all of Latin America. Central America is simply the place where, in this moment, it is most dramatically available to our understanding.
The Regional Alternative referred to above is the social, economic and political outcome of reading the Bible from the perspective of the oppressed poor. If the ‘good news’ is that God has taken an option for the poor (as Jesus says when annoucing his reason for coming), then the mission of the church must be to opt for the poor. When the church lives faithfully this option, a social, economic and political revolution, based on the logic of the majority, may be expected.
I’m tired of hearing Marx given all the credit for what Jesus initiated.
Who can estimate, for example, the impact on the future of this hemisphere of a hundred-thousand small organizations of the poor in the slums of Brazil–communities which fight political battles for justice and read the scriptures together in the light of their struggles?
The rich, who study the Bible and accept its call to conversion, discover the same truth, so obvious to the poor. Don Emilio Baltodano is the Comptroller General of Nicaragua. Before the revolution he was a wealthy coffee exporter. He asked his fourteen children and children-in-law what they wanted of his estate before he gave his wealth to the Sandinistas. They wanted nothing. Several of them are Ministers in the present government.
Let me report some observations made at a weekly Bible study I attended in Don Emilio’s home in November 1983. A young mother, who was described to me as from perhaps the richest family of anyone present that night, said, “Thank God I don’t have the security and isolation I previously had. Then we went to the beach as a family. Now all my children, except the five year old, are in the mountains. We go as a
family to pick coffee. Then we had no understanding of our people. Now we don’t have privileges above others, but we are close to the people.”
Another responded to Luke 12:32. “According to the gospel the poor are giving the most, not the rich. They give everything. The gospel is demanding more of us. We have not given enough yet. We must change our idea of family. These crucified people are our family. They are our hope.”
The dean of the law faculty reminded the group that their social class were descendants of historical figures of the nation. “We have not only our own sins, but the historical injustices. Our past privileged position was a bad privilege. Now it is a good privilege to be a servant of the poor.”
Ricardo Chavarria, Vice-Minister of Energy, recalls the scripture of the evening’s study saying, of those who have much, much will be expected. “But historically much was demanded of the poor. To live in Nicaragua today is a privilege far greater than to be rich. The rest of Latin America will be expecting a testimony of Christians. If we fail, it will affect all of Latin America.”
Of all the conflicting interpretations, what can we believe about Central America? It is not oversimplification to summarize the truth in four points:
The revolution of the poor is happening.
It is a revolution we can’t stop. The only impact the US is having and seems intent on having is to make the victory of the oppressed more costly–for them and for ourselves.
It’s a revolution we shouldn’t want to stop. To be true to our own idealism we should be on the side of the people, instead of against them.
The Latin American revolution is a biblical reformation which will shape every aspect of the future of this hemisphere.
Dow Kirkpatrick is a missionary-in-reverse of The United Methodist Church, bringing the Christian Faith as believed and practiced in Latin America to North Americans. A substantial portion of each year is spent in residence somewhere in Latin America, listening and learning From January to June he holds Encuentros throughout the US. In these spiritual life retreats he helps persons re-examine their own faith in the light of Latin American realities. Most recently (fall of 1983) he travelled to Argentina, Brazil, Nicaragua and Cuba–his sixth visit to Nicaragua and seventh to Cuba.