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The Ugly Americanos

Of what importance is it that I have learned, with every schoolboy, that the world is round?
Man needs but little earth for enjoyment, and still less for his final repose.

J. W. von Goethe

Last week I turned off the paved route onto the dirt road that runs up and through the village where I live. About fifty yards ahead a woman was struggling up the hill on foot with a shopping bag weighing her down in the heat. I stopped and motioned her to get in. She sat alongside of me with a sigh as she basked in the air conditioning. We exchanged the usual chatter about the heat and the bad road until finally, noticing my accent, she asked where I was from. I’m used to the question, so I often ask the interrogator to guess so we could both enjoy the game. Mostly the first guess is German, not because I have a German accent, which I don’t, but because the locals don’t think of American, because there are relatively few of us in Argentina and only one other in this area, as far as I know. (By the way, in general one does not use “Americano”, at least not in Argentina, where it is considered to be somewhat arrogant because, after all, everyone in the American hemisphere is an “Americano”. So “Estadounidense”, although a mouthful, is more politically correct; also, instead of “America”, “Estados Unidos”)

In this case, since we didn’t have far to go, or maybe because I wasn’t in the mood, I answered directly: “Estados Unidos”.

“Aha!” she said, “I’m so glad you are here; it must be awful to have to live in the United States. Here we think of the United States as the big bully of the world and everything we suffer is because of that country.” Or words to that effect.

I don’t like to be in the position of trying to defend my native land, mostly because lately there is so little to defend. On the other hand, at the moment Argentina is in one of its states of cyclical crisis, and the government, which has only itself to blame, instead blames “foreign interests” – meaning the U.S.  – an easy scapegoat. And the uninformed – the majority – swallow it in one gulp. Another big  gulp is Venezuela, where a military populist like Chavez had gained enormous popularity in the rest of Latin America, despite having ruined the country’s economy and turned democracy into a farce. He was similar to Perón of Argentina, another elected semi-dictator who was so popular because he was the first and only one to do something for the working-class poor. The poor in both countries are just as poor, but Peronism is still a formidable political phenomenon here – as Chavism will probably live on for many decades in Venezuela.  

But it wasn’t always this way.

I was in the U.S. Army in Germany during the nineteen-fifties, not so long after the end of World War Two, when the Cold War was in full bloom. The Germans loved us! An exaggeration? Perhaps. But in West Germany – especially in Berlin – they knew that we were their only protection from Soviet Russia, under whose brutal yoke their countrymen in East Germany, and the rest of Eastern Europe, suffered.  There was the Marshal Plan, the Berlin Airlift had saved the city from starvation and Soviet ingestion. And for an occupation armed force, our soldiers were remarkably well behaved.

The Korean War had just ended, but it didn’t turn out badly. The Republic of South Korea, after all, exists and is flourishing. Without American intervention it would probably be all one big North Korea now. In any case, it wasn’t an issue for criticism.

But then came Vietnam.

In 1960 Jack Kennedy was elected president, and it looked as though the stupidity of American domestic and foreign policies was about to change direction.  Two years later he was dead and the old direction forged ahead.

I heard the news almost the moment it happened. I was sitting in a café in downtown Buenos Aires waiting for my Argentine assistant. When he arrived, breathless, he said (I remember it like it was yesterday) “Did you hear the news? Kennedy has been shot!” I rushed out and to the La Nación building on the next block. The newspaper had an area above its entrance where breaking world news was constantly updated by hand, using plastic  letters. I joined the crowd watching it. “Kennedy shot in Dallas, Texas” was already there, along with “rushed to hospital”. We waited. Then, finally: ”President John F. Kennedy pronounced dead.” There was a moment of shocked silence. Then came the ahs and ohs, and the Dios mios! It was unbelievable; it was unacceptable. Some began to cry, others ran to spread the anguishing news. The U.S. consulate was in an office building in Downtown B.A. then – with no security, nothing, you just walked in as you would into any office building. In the entrance they placed a condolence book to sign. A line of Argentines waiting to sign the book formed. For three days the line snaked down the street and around the corner.

This wasn’t New York or San Francisco, this was Buenos Aires, Argentina!  

Then came the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy…and it was all over. All hope for rational, peaceful action by the United States government had been done in by bullets.

President Johnson, and the horrors of the Vietnam War went on and on. Nixon and Kissinger, on and on. Until it finally ended when the last of the Americans were evacuated from the embassy roof by helicopter. 

Then came Iraq and Afghanistan – Bush and Bush.

The night Barack Obama was elected, when CNN announced it a 3 a.m. here, I jumped up and gave the TV a fist-in-the-air bump and yell. The yell could have been more restrained, because Obama has been a disappointment – until now. He has two more years, so one can at least hope.  But Guantanamo is still open, the drones are still droning, the idiotic Cuban curfew is still in effect.

The rest of the world is not interested in a new Health Plan or a pipeline from Canada or Michelle’s anti-obesity program, as important as they may be domestically.  

The rest of the civilized world was astonished that an African-American with such progressive views was actually elected. Was the U.S. finally changing for the better? Well, think of what the alternative would have been like: John McCain!

Actually, the United States stopped paying attention to Latin America long ago, which is probably just as well, considering its history here: supporting and helping Pinochet’s ouster of Allende in Chile, support for the “dirty war” military dictatorships in Argentina, Chile and Brazil in the seventies; the idiotic Cuban embargo, which has only served to keep the Castros in power and has created sympathy for them all over Latin America. And so on.

Except for the NSA electronic snooping, almost forgot that. The Argentine president, Cristina, probably regrets that her mobile phone wasn’t tapped like Vilma’s in Brazil or Angela’s in Germany. It would have been a wonderful opportunity to proclaim that the U.S. is responsible for all her government’s disastrous foolishness. Hell, even Angela Merkel was a “victim” who knew how to play it to her political advantage.  

Please do not think that I am defending the NSA’s shenanigans. It is just another example of the U.S. government’s disastrous foolishness.

Since Vietnam, the once good guy, who saved the world from the Nazis and the Communists, has morphed into the world’s evil cop – at least in the minds of the majority of the world’s under-privileged. Sure, they are not well informed and are victims of their own politicians’ propaganda, but that propaganda only works because the United States’ administrations, since and including Vietnam, have made it so easy by their actions.

An old saying: What are the three best things a man can possess? Answer: An American passport, a Japanese wife and a Chinese cook. I don’t know about the latter two, but the American passport? Forget it. Who wants to be an ugly Americano?   

Frank Thomas Smith – February 2014