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April 5, 2006

Alejandro Bendaņa

Tuesday afternoon I attended a lecture by Alejandro Bendaña. After this lecture, the first person to comment said: "Thank you for this speech, but I don't think I've ever been so angry in my life." The second person said: "I think this was the best speech I have ever heard."

Bendaña is the founder of the Center for International Studies in Managua, Nicaragua. He has a PhD in History from Harvard and has been active in solving conflicts in for example Sri Lanka and Somalia. He was a UN ambassador for Nicaragua in the 80s, and he is known for his inspiring speeches.

And given all this, he disappointed me.

Yes, his speech was inspiring, and not just because it made me want to go home and write this. But it felt more like listening to a sermon than a lecture at my University library. He was preaching - putting more effort into memorable slogans and fiery words than actually arguing a point - and he was mostly preaching to the choir. Because we all agree with his main message. This is the really tragic part, actually: we all know that there are horrific conflicts and deep injustice in the world. I'm not arguing against that fact. And I'm all for doing something about it. But if this man - who clearly should be an expert - has to resolve to the kind of rhetoric that he did yesterday, then who are we supposed to turn to for advice on how?

When he quotes Dante, saying "The ring closest to hell is reserved for people who in an era of moral crisis opt for neutrality," Bendaña is displaying a frightening kind of "you're with me or you're against me" attitude. I remember being twelve and being asked: "Why aren't you a communist?" and I remember thinking: "If what this person is saying is completely true, if the world really is that simple, then everyone would be a communist. So it can't be that easy." Sydney J. Harris said that "Any philosophy that can be put in a nutshell belongs there.", and frankly, if I had to summarize everything I've learned since I started college (although I would never put all of that in a nutshell), I would say: the world is usually more complicated than you think. And when an otherwise intelligent person disagrees with you about something, you should probably hear them out before dismissing them entirely. Because if the answers were easy, everyone would agree. (And at the very least, you should know your enemy.)

Throughout his speech, not to mention in his comments during the final debate, Bendaña keeps contradicting himself. He says clearly that free trade is not free and only benefits a select few, then he argues against trade restrictions. He speaks of a ruling elite which can be identified because "they think alike". Yet this can be said about so many groups of people - including the people who agree with Bendaña. And in his rejection of the whole idea of listening to the other side, Bendaña encourages us to think just like him. This is a very different message from the one he gives when telling the story of Tom Fox, who wished to understand his murderers.

Bendaña encourages us to find the facts, search for the truth, "ask the critical questions" and then "not accept stupid responses". Yet in my opinion, if asked: Why are some countries so rich and some so poor? the response: 'Because 'they' want it to be that way', is pretty stupid. Who are 'they'? George Bush? The G8? The West in general, since the beginning of time? Give me the facts, please!

And given how much he encourages critical thinking, he might have had the courtesy to answer our questions after his speech. If you examine what he's actually saying in the debate, it seems to me that he's just trying to tie some loose ends that he forgot to mention in his speech, into the debate by very loosely linking them to the questions from the audience. After the question: "How come I sleep well at night?" Bendaña says "Sometimes you won't sleep at night." Huh?

Maybe, in his defence, maybe he just underestimated his audience.  When accused of describing globalization as a part of the evil plan of the ruling elite, he replies: "Look at the concentration of wealth in the world. There aren't too many African billionaires." Is he saying that this is the direct consequence of globalization? So people are starving because of "the process of increasing interconnectedness between societies such that events in one part of the world more and more have effects on peoples and societies far away"? When he dismisses globalization altogether as a word 'they' use against 'us', he might realize that this would provoke me if he knew that I'm studying globalization, that the longest text book I read last semester bore the title The Globalization of World Politics.

This book would classify Bendaña as a Marxist theorist when it comes to questions of globalization - a classification which I don't think would anger him. So I suppose I could just close my mind to what he's saying. We disagree politically, so I'll just think of him as an idiot. But again, it's not that simple. I prefer to criticize what individual people are actually saying, not the political factions they might belong to. Because in so many respects, he's right: We should remember the pacifists. We should believe that "Yes, it can be done." We shouldn't let the US get away with Guantanamo. And we need not submit voluntarily to "blissful ignorance". But ignorance can take many forms, and I refuse to submit to the idea that Bendaña's alternative is the only alternative if I want to work toward a better world.

Notes from the lecture/debate: 

Do you know who A.J. Must was? He was a pacifist during the Vietnam War.  He would hold vigils at the White House at night with a candle. When asked if he thought this would change anything, he replied: "I don't do this to change the country. I do this so the country won't change me."

Power structures can change us into accepting an unjust order, oppression and oppressors, violence or disparities in income and wealth. We think this is normal because it has nothing to do with us, that somehow we are not changed. If we believe in humanity, these things should not be acceptable and normal.

Power structures can control, dictate and have you believe that the use of force is good - that war is peace. If the question has been posed, then at least you're asking. If not, then you are in a blissful ignorance, silent.

"Each word has an echo. And so does each silence." - Sartre

It is dangerous if power and morality go in opposite directions. Power without morality is dangerous, but morality without power is useless.

"The ring closest to hell is reserved for people who in an era of moral crisis opt for neutrality." - Dante (in Dante's Inferno). Are you going to say: 'Ok, I'll hear arguments from both sides. I'll be a neutral mediator.'? No!

How do you break out of the ignorance and complicity? You can't fight against these structures unless you admit that they exist. Structural violence doesn't make the headlines; that 1 out of 4 babies in a country will not make it to the age of one, this is violence.

G7 or G8 rule the world - this is not a conspiracy theory. Actually it’s G1 and the rest, like Snow White and the 7 dwarves. (And the USA likes to pretend it's white). The US military budget is greater than the military budgets for the rest of them put together. Can this power be taken on? The first step to doing so is thinking that you can. Begin with resistance: saying no, asking why and who. Not resistance for resistance’s sake, (although something positive can be said about this in itself), but a routed rebellion.

The best way to avoid critique is to make sure people don't know history. By studying how countries became rich or poor, the conclusion is: if this was made by human beings, it can be unmade by human beings. With resistance, you begin to create alternatives.

How to resist? Step 1: truth. Get the facts. Understand what is happening. This is not easy. Elites have power and media, and they want to set the tone. In the rebellion against Franco in Spain, Franco made sure a football match was televised whenever there were protests. Distraction!

Another element they use: words. If we use their words, they've already won half the battle.
GLOBALIZATION. As if it's new and inevitable. It's old, and it's not that different from imperialism.
THE FREE MARKET There is nothing free about it. What they mean is access to other people's resources.
DEBT RELIEF. What debt? What if you went back 500 years and calculated the wealth that went from south to north and became the basis for the industrial revolution - the north owes the south a debt!
POVERTY ALLEVIATION. Why don't we talk about poverty erradication - or the erradication of extreme wealth? It's not poverty; it's empoverishment, which is the other side of enrichment! Is the Congo really poor? Ask the Belgians...
They take all these words that NGOs invented 20 years ago, absorb them, take out their social significance and throw them back at you.
The World Bank: "Our goal - a world free of poverty" Horse manure!

The FBI was just caught in Puerto Rico trying to pay to shape public opinion.
Exxon Mobile is keeping the world back from doing something about global warming. They have their own NGOs for this.  This company made a profit of 36 billion dollars this year – the highest amount of profits any company entity has ever had in the history of the world. Go to www.exxonsecrets.org (Green Peace)

Ask the critical questions.

Don't accept stupid responses.

Be aware of the backlashes.

"If I give the poor something to eat, they call me a saint. If I ask why the poor are poor, the call me a communist."

Do you know who Rachel Corey was? Three years ago she sat in front of the house of a Palestinan doctor. The house was to be demolished by Israelis. She was crushed by a bulldozer. A play about her life was cancelled - her example was dangerous. When asked why she was protesting, she explained "Palestinian children are living lives that children shouldn't have to live.” Norwegian government supports Israel’s right to live behind borders, which equals the right to build walls, which equals the right to bulldoze houses - and human beings. They don't want you to know about Rachel - they want you to think you're alone.

Do you know who Tom Fox was? He was killed by Iraqis on a mission to help Iraqis who had people in jail. He wrote messages in case he died. In one of them, he wrote that although he did not accept or condone violence, “we must do everything in our power to understand what drives the violence of those who may kill me.”

It's not a WAR ON TERRORISM. It's the political counterpart of what they call globalization – the US grasp for oil and hatred of minorities.

Last week was the largest demonstration in California history. There were high school students walking out in protest, both in California and in Chicago, protesting a bill that will criminalize the people who are poor, a bill that will make it a felony for anyone to extend their hand and welcome an [illegal, I suppose] immigrant.

The US government is intercepting Google. If you search for something they don’t want you to search for, I suppose you wind up on a list in the Pentagon.

Ask the Norwegian government if they will bring up Guantanamo (and if prisoners make it there, they're lucky. In the dungeons where they are put first, in Afghanistan, Iraq and Egypt, we don’t even know what’s going on) in Geneva.

If the UN can't do anything about this, we've got a problem with the UN, don't we? Can the EU be a counterweight?

Last week in Buenos Aires, the 30th anniversary of a dictatorship was observed. 30 years ago, Kissinger encouraged this regime where "to disappear someone" became an expression. The mothers of the disappeared still don't know what happened to their children and say: "We are here because we will not forget, we will not forgive and we will not reconcile. The struggle will continue (...) until they tell us what happened to each [one]." The murderers still have amnesty. Sometimes conflicts should be provoked in order to avoid future violence. The terrorists of the past (Gandhi for example) have tea with the Queen now if they're still alive.

"What are you doing out of jail?" - Thoreau

Do you believe in democracy or only in selective democracy? (Palestine for example.)

Do you know what 3 by 5 is? It was a UN goal: by 2005, 3 million AIDS infected should be receiving drugs. This goal was obviously not reached. You could have provided all that medical support with a fraction of what is being spent on the war in Iraq. To help Botswana you would need roughly what Iraq costs in a day and a half. 40 billion more than what is being spent today, would give food, health and education to everyone in the world - less than the US spends in a month.

So if they tell you you're too radical, say yes. Moderation in the pursuit of justice is not something to be proud of.

Do you know who Chavez is? He is an organizer of Mexican American farmers in California with a famous slogan: "Yes, it can be done." And we want to say that it will be.

When did we forget about active compassion? Is there a course here that teaches this? No, because there can be no compassion without passion. Optimism is a moral choice and a political choice.

Pacifists don't end up in textbooks. Remember them. Like Norway told Germany during World War II: "We will not submit voluntarily. The struggle is already underway."



Comment from the audience:
Thank you for your speech, although no one has ever made me so angry. You portray the world as if there is a ruling elite that is evil. Globalization as a part of their plan to rule the world. France has been protesting free trade, protesting trade with the south, which would help. You are missing an alternative to globalization. You speak of knowing history. Well, I am a student of history, and when China stopped globalizing, they stopped their development. Your picture is too easy.

Other questions include: please comment Latin America, Morales in Bolivia, Central Asia

You can't get simple about something that is complex, but that doesn't mean that something complex cannot be easily understood. You can speak of global elites. They think alike. Ministers of finance are a boring crowd of people. It's all neoliberalism. The Chinese have their own thing, but pay lip service to the market. Look for facts - see the world economic forum.
Globalization: look at the concentration of wealth. Not too many African billionaires.
Latin America has the deepest levels of inequality. STRUCTURAL ADJUSTMENT, FREEDOM OF TRADE etc is breaking down. Lula will not be able to change this. Chavez and Morales? They were democratically elected. We may not like the results, but the right of self-determination deserves respect. The same people that apposed them are the wealthy elites connected to the US. The US doesn't like the Latin American development, so they build bases. Search for the Pentagon's defence report - it's a public document published on the internet.

"I'm studying the root of evil. (...) How come I sleep well at night?"
Can we organize the UN differently, or is it the fault of the US?
What would you do practically to make the world better for good?

The structures make us feel isolated and even depressed, but how do we put the dissenters in communication with eachother? Don't warn; organize! Sometimes you won't sleep at night. We are individuals and we need to connect in order to have power. Hope is problematic and can sometimes be a subsitute for action. There's a huge disconnect between this and the UN. Yes, the UN has to be defended in spite of itself. The World Bank cannot be democratic, so the UN has more possibility. If they got rid of the veto... People must change governments so they can change the UN.
Poor Nicuraguans will be hurt by free trade.
Ask: For the benefit of who? If this is good for Norway, who's Norway?
Regional integration: the South American integrated market. If they can make an entity of their own, they will be in a better position. What the EU in regional trade policies is proposing, is just as awful as what the US is proposing.
(he then argues against CAP although he has just argued against free trade?!)
As king I would use natural resources rationally. The US is addicted to oil, they say, but addicts have a way of killing to get what they want. Americans should get out of Ecuador.


Posted by Julie at April 5, 2006 9:11 PM

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Thank you, Julie, for a thorough analysis of our guest speaker at IscoMUN (www.iscomun.net). I shall take your remarks into consideration when we evaluate Dr. Bendaņas performance. I also did enjoy the rather differing views of the two first persons to comment on his lecture that you mention. I should add that their personal political views differ even more than did their comments. Being my usual moderate self, for whom Bendaņa has reserved a particularly warm spot in Hell, i did not raise my eyebrows untill he started answering the questions. Then I did however find him rather leftist..

Posted by: YoHv at April 11, 2006 12:33 AM