Thursday, August 04, 2005


This week, after many hold-ups and some aggressive Republican lobbying George Bush signed off CAFTA, which extends Uncle Sam's free trade backyard from El Paso down to the Darien Gap.

Guatemala's fractious street sentiment opposes President Oscar Berger's decision to ratify the treaty last winter. The feeling is that the markets opened up to US goods will be unable to afford them and that poor urban and rural workers will be in turn be opened up to further exploitation. The provisions regarding generic medicines and software patents are also unpopular, and with good reason.

Yet one of history's hardest lessons is that you often have to take a couple of steps backward in order to move forward. And regretably for those of us born at the wrong time and in the wrong place, these material retreats can often last several generations. (These days you have to try to avoid using the word progress because it always sets off a load of savage barking from the sadly still unmuzzled watchdogs of cultural relativism. But even this lot would have to admit in their less dog-matic moments that civilisation can improve in terms of basic standards in health and education and respect for human rights.)

Who remembers Robert de Niro and Jeremy Irons in The Mission? It was released in 1986 when my tripos supervisor was a shaggy post-grad operating out of King's College. In spite of the radical reputation of that institution, he expressed the view that the Jesuits' tutelage of the Guaraní had been seriously misrepresented in Roland Joffé's film.

For a start the great missions on the ill-defined borders of Spanish and Portuguese America were run by men of the cloth who habitually carried arms, not just when the nasty secular world approached with musket and cannon. The Indians, lifelong hunter-gatherers were forced to convert not just to Catholicism, but also to agriculture, and their state of physical and mental health declined as a result, regardless of all the extra-curricular violin playing and choir practice.

The priests had in effect created lucrative little fiefdoms for themselves. The academic consensus was that in the long run the spiritually-enslaved Indios would have been better off quickly signing up for the secular outside world, small-print and all.

Similarly Central America could remain outside the orbit of America's free trade empire, and for some time at least the poor majority may be better off that way. But such sanctuary and comfort may be as artificial as the isolated religious states the Jesuits tried to establish for themselves in the rainforest.

As a global community we should be looking at what needs to be done to extending the same legal and institutional protections to the international labour force as are currently enjoyed by the citizens of the modern nation state. Nor should it be forgotten that the hidden victims of First World equality and prosperity have included members of the four-legged and web-footed communities.

In the UK 50% of dairy cows go lame annually and many factory-farmed ducks go from egg to paté without ever being properly immersed in water. (Also referred to in animal welfare legislation as "the opportunity to express natural behaviours".)

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