Mike On Purpose

Finding purpose in the twenty-first century

Voluntourism and Latin American history

Posted by mikeonpurpose on July 5, 2010


I recently had a chance to view the 1996 Ken Loach film “Carla’s Song”, which uses the vehicle of love triangle (of a sort) to look back on life in Nicaragua during the Sandinista revolution. I appreciated the politics of the film, and I felt that the story had a lot of the right elements for a good story, but as a feature film I found it unsatisfying.  The Scottish bus driver was clearly meant to be portrayed as a passionate and impulsive rebel against the uncaring bureaucracy in his own country before taking off to Nicaragua, but I found his behavior a little over the top and his relationship to Carla while in Scotland struck me as more than a little like stalking.  The American Witness for Peace volunteer who was in Nicaragua, played by Scott Glenn, also seemed over the top and as much as I wanted to be moved by his own story of transformation I just couldn’t feel any connection to his character.

Despite all of that, the images of the Sandinista revolution itself (the film took place in 1987) were somehow inspiring.  I was trying to imagine what it must have been like to live in Nicaragua during those heady days of optimism when the people had banded together to build a better society.  The images of Contra violence in the film were also a stark reminder of all the forces that exist in the world who will use any means necessary to sabotage efforts to strive for justice.  This has especially been true throughout much of Latin America’s history.

Alas, the United States has played a very unfortunate role in the history of this region.  In 1954, for example, the CIA engineered a coup against the democratically elected government in Guatemala.  The legacy of this horrible history of intervention lingers on there, as a recent story in the New York Times reveals:

Guatemala’s criminal networks extend deep into the institutions of state. Even the language of Guatemala’s agreement with the United Nations refers to “illegal security groups and clandestine security organizations” with the ability to “avoid investigation or punishment.”

When the democratic political fabric is destroyed and when aid is given to death squads and military dictators, is it any surprise that even once a country is at “peace” after a protracted civil war that it is a long way from the normality of civil society?  I often ponder how different things would be today in Guatemala had the events of 1954 not taken place; or how Chile would have been different had the events of 1973 been different; or how Nicaragua would have been different had the US not armed the Contras to terrorize the country into submitting to the aims of Washington policymakers.

I used to own a vinyl copy of the Clash’s 1980 album “Sandinista”.  The song “Washington Bullets”, published just a year after the Sandinista revolution, celebrated the events in Nicaragua with this hopeful but (in retrospect) clearly naive lyric:

For the very first time ever,
When they had a revolution in Nicaragua,
There was no interference from America

Of course, that was 1980, and we all know what happened later.  There was plenty of interference.

Fast forward many years later, and in 2009 we saw a coup in Honduras, in which a democratically elected government was overthrown by the military.  Deja vu all over again.   Honduras was expelled from the OAS, but the US government refused to take part in any sanctions against the new military backed regime.  And just last month, the Obama administration came out publicly in favor of re-admitting Honduras back into the OAS.  As one writer describes it:

The Organization of American States suspended Honduras and has continued to resist efforts of Secretary of State Clinton to pressure them into readmitting Honduras. However, the US pushed for and was able to secure the formation of a high-level OAS panel to “study” the re-entry of Honduras at its recent meeting in Peru. We may well start to see the international community beginning to normalize relations with this illegitimate government.

As it stands now the coup government of Honduras’ biggest ally is the United States….

Once again the US is on the wrong side in Latin America.

Once again, the US government is undermining democracy and actively supporting a government that is murdering its own people.

Once again, the US has sided with anti-democracy forces and is trying to bully the world into rubber-stamp approval of our mistakes.

Because this is par for the course, my response to this is angry and yet in some ways muted. I am just not surprised by any of this.   It does remind me of why I invest so much personal energy into the concept of volunteering overseas.  If I have no faith in the political establishment to do the right thing with respect to Latin America, then I instead put my faith and hope in the efforts of impoverished and indigenous peoples of this region (and elsewhere) to organize themselves, and my efforts at voluntourism are directed with this sense of solidarity in mind.   As people struggle to survive financially in the face of the powerful forces of neo-liberalism, globalization, and free markets, not to mention racism and government repression, then the volunteer work that we do can express our support in their struggles for economic self-determination.

This gets back to a point I have raised earlier in this blog.  I think that volunteering abroad is not about solving other people’s problems, but rather assisting and participating in the basic work that a people are engaged in to make their lives better.

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