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new internationalist
issue 168 - February 1987


Star rating system. Film reviews

Hasta cuando?
directed by David Bradbury

Chilean police 'seek help with enquiries' in Hasta Cuando? 'You can do what you like in Chile,' says a friendly business executive. 'The only freedom we don't have is political.'

Water cannons knock women over in the street. Demonstrators are clubbed by riot police. The bodies of murdered union leaders show up in the city morgue. In Hasta cuando? Australian filmmaker David Bradbury sets out the cost of such political restrictions.

Comfortable middle-class women fulminate against communists' who are inciting 'the stupid little twerps in the universities'. Workers in the shanty towns sweeping the streets for a dollar a day and surviving on soup-kitchen handouts are asking 'Hasta cuando?' - 'How long' must this tragedy continue?.

Hasta cuando? mixes videos shot by Chileans with Bradbury's own footage collected under cover of making a documentary about Chilean culture and religion. The result is grim and powerful.

Scenes of violence from Chile come as no surprise. More surprising, but just as disturbing, is the naivete and/or duplicity of some Western visitors. The American ambassador, for example: 'The destiny of Chile is in good hands'. John Denver, on a visit for a music festival, responds to a report of torture: 'I don't believe that's true'. (To be fair to Denver, a middle-class woman interviewed on the street agrees: 'Why torture people when you can kill them?')

In one of the most moving scenes of the film, Manuel Guerrero, the 14-year-old son of a murdered schoolteacher eloquently mourns his father. Quoting from Berthold Brecht, he gives some sense of the spirit that Chileans need. 'A person who can struggle for one year is good, one who does so for two years is better. Those who struggle all their lives are indispensable.'

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Music reviews

by Zinica

Celebratory, exuberant and unapologetically wacky, Zinica should be Nicaragua's ambassadors of pop. This record beams good will - it demands that we enjoy it. Zinica constantly surprise by doing the unexpected, plundering other traditions of popular music to create something that is uniquely their own. Westerners are surfeited with music made with much expensive equipment but little imagination, so it's refreshing to hear a wheezily amiable accordion and snatches of acapella that clearly haven't been manufactured on a Warners' production line.

You find a touch of the Beach Boys in Sitting on the Dock; a bluegrass gutsiness in their banjos; a hip-swinging reggae rhythm in Rinky Tine Tin and a touch of gospel-style call and response in Zion Send Come Call Me.

Zinica's mixture of English lyrics and Caribbean beat is unique - and it's also made for dancing. The record puts paid to the idea that life under the Sandinistas is a grey, joyless sombreroed gulag: it's clearly a party if Zinica are in town.

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Book reviews

The Last Man out of Saigon
by Chris Mullin

In these days of Ramboism it is refreshing to read a gripping political thriller where the hero isn't overcoming incredible odds, gleefully zapping inhuman gooks and all for the dubious honour of saving cherished Western values.

The unlikely hero in this book is a disillusioned CIA agent ordered into Vietnam during the final humiliating days of US withdrawal. As the last helicopter disappears from sight he is left to carry on the CIA's dirty work and we follow his fate as things go wrong. What emerges is a sympathetic insight into postwar Vietnam - as well as a not-so-sympathetic insight into the nature of US foreign policy. Thus in the novel's last paragraph the hero's boss muses on what comes next: 'I guess that just about wraps up Vietnam. Let's hope we have better luck in Nicaragua'.

Of his novels, Chris Mullin says 'It is one of my aims in life to write popular fiction without the right-wing prejudice of authors like Frederick Forsyth or Jeffrey Archer. Until now the Right have had most of the best plots. My aim is to redress the balance'. In The Last Man out of Saigon he goes a long way towards doing that.

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Patriarchy and Accumulation on a World Scale
by Maria Mies

Maria Mies' vision is huge: she sets out to explain women's subordination from the beginnings (men's control of the instruments of killing) through the middle (the burning of millions of women as witches in order to control their work, at the same time as white men were colonizing and enslaving black peoples) to the end (a future society in which men and women share necessary work and are in harmony with the environment).

The scale of her project is breathtakingly bold: its deficiencies lie in its lack of detail about how capital itself interacts with the patriarchal power she describes. It may not convince those who doubt that one mega-theory can explain everything that happens to women. But if you believe that men's domination of women needs to be explained through the history of work - and think Marx's idea that women were going to get treated just the same as men by capital is not good enough - then this is the book for you.

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For Richer for Poorer
by John Clark
(Oxfam UK)

[image, unknown] The response in Western countries to the African famine of 1984 to 1985 has still not made politicians take Third World issues seriously - they still just pay lip-service while their actions tell another story. The Australian foreign aid budget has just been cut again, for instance; while the British Government gave no extra money at all during the African famine, instead simply transferring aid originally destined for India

But the movement for world development has nevertheless become much more political. This is because voluntary aid agencies have realised that they cannot go on silently setting up helpful projects in the developing world while economic and political decisions make things worse. As a result, arguments that might once have only surfaced in the pages of the Niare now becoming commonplace in aid agency campaigns aimed at the wider public.

For Richer for Poorer could almost act as the bible of that new concern. Written by John Clark, who helped set up Oxfam UKs excellent Hungry for Change campaign, it isolates five areas of Western connections with world hunger aid, trade, agriculture, debt and arms. And instead of merely describing the probems, it advocates practical policies that could be adopted by governments. It is clear, well-organized and admirably succinct - the perfect primer.

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Available for £2.50 (inc postage) from Oxfam, 274 Banbury Road, Oxford, OX2 7DZ, UK.


The Bhopal Syndrome
by David Weir

[image, unknown] Protected by anonymity, this reviewer can admit to being bored by the Bhopal tragedy. Perhaps it's because the event has been used so often to flog the tired old dog or hydra-headed monster (depending on your viewpoint) of US corporate imperialism. But, whatever the reason, David Weir's booklet on poisonings and deaths caused by pesticide production plants in Brazil, Indonesia, Taiwan and elsewhere, had to overcome a certain hostility.

Antipathy turned to respect when faced with level-headed, well-written investigation. In Java, Weir found that smoke from burning DDT-infected waste at a pesticide factory was responsible for 25 deaths in the nearby village over a nine-month period. People living near the giant Bayer chemical complex outside Rio de Janeiro say the air is foul and the nearby river turns red with pollution. The only emergency procedure known in the neighbourhood is to look at the windsocks hung around the complex to find out which way to run.

Pesticide plants are proliferating in the nations of the South, where there is a lack of trained personnel, slack government safety controls and no possibility of stopping squatters from camping right alongside the factory fence. The chances of avoiding future Bhopals look slim.

Yet Weir goes beyond whistle-blowing to offer ways of curbing demand for the agrichemicals - the only realistic brake on the momentum of the Bhopal syndrome. His work is in that honourable tradition of American muckraking journalism, standing up for private citizens' rights against the power of big business.

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The Conquest of New Spain
...being the book that was the inside story of a conquistador

I first read Bernal Diaz' eyewitness account at an age when I wasn't sure where Mexico was; it seemed a horrific tale of fabulous courage in a fantasy world. I read him again as a student just before visiting the Third World (India, in fact) for the first time, and some faint idea of the parallels came to me; of decadent, luxuriantly gifted but sadistic empires shattered by tiny bands of ruthless adventurers (with their respective governments' blessing).

In my recoil from the abjectness that subsequently overtook both India and Mexico, I put Bernal Diaz away for years. Rereading now, it seems once again a tale of unreal heroism in a mythical landscape - because that is how, as an old and impoverished man writing of the great adventure of his youth, it seemed to him.

Between 1519 and 1521 Cortes overthrew Montezuma and his successor Guatemoc, each able to command tens of thousands of disciplined and ferocious Aztec troops, with a force of just 400 Spaniards. There were innumerable factors in this bizarre triumph. The Mexicans had been so unpleasant to their neighbouring subject states that Cortes very quickly found he had armies of dedicated Tlascalans fighting for him, hungry to avenge rape and pillage, slavery and tax extortion. His unfamiliar cannon and horses terrified the Mexicans - though Diaz insists that it was their skilled swordplay that counted most. Montezuma's indecision and faction-ridden court prevented the Spaniards from simply being pushed straight back into the Caribbean. But Diaz has no doubt who won the fight for them: the more absurd the peril they find themselves in, the more they put their faith in Christ.

The Spaniards' lust for wealth (or even just enough gold to pay off military surgeons' bills) went constantly hand in hand with an intense religious zeal; this is too easily forgotten. Indeed, the money and the metaphysics can hardly be separated. In one town Cortes gives the citizens 'an image of Our Lady and a cross which would always aid them, bring them good harvests and save their souls'. Remembering the norms for dealing with 16th-century heretics in Europe, the Spaniards can seem paragons of moderation. They do accept gifts of virgins, but nicely insist that they be baptized first. Human sacrifice disgusts them, especially when they have to watch 80 of their own captured comrades being cut open and eaten, but the expedition chaplain cautions Cortes not to force conversion too fast: 'It was too much to expect the chiefs to destroy their idols until they had a better understanding of our faith'.

In every town they cleared a pyramid and erected a cross. 'What's the point,' muttered the common soldiers, 'they'll only sacrifice again as soon as we leave.' There was a point, though, when during the final battle Guatemoc presented to a warrior the arms of the Sun-War god Huitzilopochtli with which to annihilate the Spaniards. This ultimate weapon failed; Cortes and his allies tumbled the image of Huitzilopochtli down the pyramid and the war of the gods was lost.

Below this cosmic struggle snarl harsher realities. Every time the Spaniards climb a temple pyramid, the open sores on their legs throb with pain. They live in their armour day and night throughout the final three-month siege. They suffer malaria and cold, fight amongst themselves, fart in front of Montezuma to goad him into giving them jewels and have Cortes snap at them to 'behave like gentlemen'. They burn their boats (literally) to push themselves on against the ridiculous odds while the Pope gives them dispensation for any wickedness committed during the struggle.

And, of course, they hunt out gold everywhere. But you cannot read Diaz' account and still believe that economic gain was the only driving force behind the conquests. The subtlety of motivation the old man describes is extraordinary. My student's 'politicoeconomic' reading of Diaz - of conquerors on whatever continent as mere instruments of long-term plunder - left me with a glib, inadequate understanding. I now revert rather to the sense of wonder.

Which was the reaction of the Spaniards to Mexico. 'And when we saw so many cities built in the water. we were amazed and said it was like the enchantments they tell of... and some of our soldiers even asked whether the things we saw were not a dream .

Everything was shining with lime and decorated with different kinds of stonework and paintings which were a marvel to gaze on. But today all that I then saw is overthrown and destroyed; nothing is left standing.'

Jo Hugh-Jones
The Conquest of New Spain by Bernal Diaz

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New Internationalist issue 168 magazine cover This article is from the February 1987 issue of New Internationalist.
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