New Internationalist

Prohibited items

Issue 386

On the night of the Day of the Dead in November 2005, Helena Villagra and I had to pass through Miami airport on our way back to Uruguay. We had just been in Honduras, El Salvador and Mexico. Before we flew out of Mexico our four bags were carefully checked, before our eyes, by gloved hands that rummaged through every millimetre and sent them off to Montevideo.

So far so good. Only that was not the end of it. We had to change planes in Miami where we spent about 40 minutes, the time it took to complete the Calvary of lines, forms, questioning, digital impressions, photos and the striptease before boarding. Hours later, when we reached Uruguay, we found that two of our bags had been violated. The lock of one had disappeared. On the other the security seal had been broken. Inside, we found an explanation: ‘prohibited items’.

In each bag there was a notice from the Transportation Security Administration. ‘Your bag was among those selected for physical inspection. During the inspection, your bag and its contents may have been searched for prohibited items. We appreciate your understanding and co-operation.’

Helena has the fortunate or unlucky habit of seeing reality before it happens. She sees it while she sleeps. She saw it shortly before our baggage suffered this attack from official curiosity. She saw us in line in an airport where we were required to pass our pillows through a machine. In the pillows the machine was able to read the dreams that we had dreamt upon them. It was a detector of dreams dangerous to public order.

I’m afraid the security agents that opened our bags grew suspicious not because of what they found but because of what they didn’t find. The bags did not contain weapons of mass destruction. Perhaps this is why they deserved to be invaded.

• There were many books. But there was not among them a complete collection of the speeches of the president of the planet, who from his first oratorical forays in Texas stood out for his sublime prose, his mystic fervour, his limpid honesty and his involuntary sense of humour.
• The agents did not find among our papers a single job contract like those used by Wal-Mart, the universal model of success, which prohibits unions and other nuisances that are the enemy of worker productivity.
• They did not find a single document by the international wisemen capable of proving that water, right up to rain itself, should be privatized, as happened in Bolivia until it was deprivatized by the people.
• We were not carrying a single free-trade tract of the sort regularly decreed by the all-powerful country that has never practised and never will practise anything like free trade.
• We also failed to pack electrodes or other instruments of torture necessary for the interrogations that this country has conducted, and still conducts, to promote freedom of expression.
• In our suitcases there were no wrappers from McDonald’s, Burger King or any other enterprise sanctified by its noble mission to fight hunger by propagating obesity.
• Also revealing was the absence of genetically modified seeds like those converting the farmers of the world into happy functionaries of the Monsanto company.
• Equally revealing was the absence of the genetically modified press, whose journalists call the daily terrorist acts of consumer society ‘natural catastrophes’.

We had been run down by hurricanes and visited some of the countries hardest hit by the madness of cyclones, droughts and floods which are becoming ever more frequent and more ferocious.

What is natural about these pooricidal natural disasters? Is it nature that is poisoning the air, polluting the water, razing the forests and driving the climate into the madhouse?

In Honduras we visited the ruins of Copan, one of the Mayan kingdoms mysteriously toppled six centuries before the Spanish conquest – or not so mysteriously. Researchers tend to believe, with growing reason, that the cause was an ecological disaster. In the case of Copan, the forests had been reduced to deserts that produced stones instead of corn. But isn’t that what is happening now? In Honduras the extermination advances at a clip of 75,000 trees per day, according to priest Andres Tamayo, who lives in the service of the heavens and the earth. In the Americas, and in many other parts of the earth, the natural forests, green feasts of diversity, are being brutally reduced to nothing or converted into pastures of profits or false industrial forests that are drying out the earth.

Can we not see ourselves in the mirror of the past? Is memory a prohibited item?

The disaster of cyclone Stan in Chiapas would have been only half as severe, experts assert, if the region had still been protected by its forests. In Cancun, where Wilma left nothing standing and beaches stripped of sand, the immense megahotels of the tourist business had annihilated the dunes and mangroves that had protected the coast.

And those other ‘hurricanes’? The unstoppable storms that force desperate people from the South to the North – are they natural disasters as well? In Tegucigalpa, in San Salvador, in Oaxaca, we saw long lines of barefoot women from distant villages, carrying children, standing in front of currency exchange offices. They were waiting for money wired from the US – from husbands, brothers or children.

Misfortunes are disguised as acts of fate and presented as natural. But is it natural for a country to condemn its poorest to gamble their lives chasing hope at the cost of humiliation and rootlessness?

Throughout Latin America, it must be acknowledged that the philanthropists of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank have succeeded in increasing exports – exports of human flesh.

Are these emigrants or were they expelled? Many of these people, the so-called ‘wetbacks’, die on their way North, whether from thirst or bullets, or return mutilated to their villages. Those that survive and reach the Promised Land work themselves to the bone at any job in any condition, day and night, so that far away their despoiled families can survive, with neither land nor food, in the land that banished them. It is a hard road. They too are prohibited items.

Eduardo Galeano, Uruguayan writer and journalist, is author of The Open Veins of Latin America and Memories of Fire.

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