The Third World in Crisis: Excerpts from an Interview with Medea Benjamin
These are highlights from an interview that Steve Babb of the Hesperian staff conducted with Medea Benjamin this past March. Medea is executive director of the San Francisco-based non-profit organization Global Exchange, which sponsors educational programs concerning Third World issues and promotes the growing “citizen diplomacy” / internationalist movement. She is also the coauthor of Don’t be Afraid, Gringo: A Honduran Woman Speaks from the Heart and No Free Lunch: Food and Revolution in Cuba Today. If you would like more information on this important new group, you can write them at 2141 Mission Street, Room 202, San Francisco, CA 94110, or give them a call at (415) 255-7296.
Q: What lessons do you think the changes going on in the Eastern Bloc hold for progressive movements in the Third World?
A: Communism as it has been practiced in Eastern Europe has been an extremely statist, top-down, Stalinist system that is certainly not the kind of system that people in the Third World are struggling for. One of the issues that I’m most concerned about is how the changes in the Eastern Bloc are being perceived by people in the capitalist First World. What you see on the part of the US government, for example, is a sense of triumphalism, of, “We told you all along that capitalism is a better system and now that has been proven true,” even to the point of declaring that “History has ended.” That’s very dangerous, because what it doesn’t take into consideration is what capitalism has done throughout the Third World. And capitalism has been an absolute disaster in the Third World. In many Third World countries, the living standards today are worse than those of twenty years ago.
When we talk about the triumph of a system, we need to look at the whole world, and acknowledge that neither capitalism nor Communism as they're being practiced today has worked for the majority of the people in this world.
When we talk about the triumph of a system, we need to look at the whole world, and acknowledge that neither capitalism nor Communism as they’re being practiced today has worked for the majority of the people in this world. If there’s one lesson to draw from all this, it’s that we need to be creative, we need to be flexible, we need to be non-dogmatic, and we need to look for hybrids of different kinds of systems that will work in different societies. It’s not an either/or situation.
Q: Some people argue that now that the Soviet Union is receding as a threat, this will deprive Washington of a justification for intervening in Third World countries. Others say that the US government will find substitute enemies or threats, for instance the drug threat in the case of Panama, and that the effect of the changes in the Soviet Union on US foreign policy will be negative, removing a check on Washington ’s power. Which of these positions do you think is more accurate?
The US is taking advantage of the thaw in the Cold War to impose its policies more blatantly than ever before.
A: In the long run, the potential for peace is much greater than it ever has been, and that’s an incredible challenge and an incredible opportunity for us. But, in the short run, the US is taking advantage of the situation to impose its policies more blatantly than ever before. We saw that no sooner did relations with the Soviet Union improve than the US invaded Panama. And we’re seeing that US policy towards Central America is not changing at all. I just got back this week from a trip to Cuba, and it was clear that Cuba feels more threatened than it has for a long time by the US, and feels that without the Soviet Union there as a buffer, Washington is smelling blood and is being extremely aggressive. So I think that in the short run there’s a great danger of increased US interventionism in the Third World.
Our job as responsible citizens is to force our government to respond in kind to the changes going on in the Soviet Union, to the Soviets' puling back from their interventionism overseas, so that the opportunity that has opened for detente and for a more peaceful world is actually realized.
Q: Many analysts are predicting that the US will lose its position as the world’s dominant economic power to a united Europe in the near future. Do you think that the transition period while this happens may be especially dangerous, with the US feeling a need to reassert its power, and the Third World providing the most convenient stage on which to do so?
A: I think it’s definitely a dangerous period. When you look at the kind of justifications Washington used for the invasion of Manama, it could use those justifications for invading any number of countries that are involved in drug production and trade: Peru, Bolivia, Colombia, a number of Asian countries. A country in the throes of decline—and I think the US really is in the throes of decline—tends to kick and scream a lot.
Q: One of the perennial challenges to progressive movements in the Third World, or for that matter anywhere, is how to combine socioeconomic democracy with political democracy. What lessons can we learn from recent events about how to reconcile these two different sorts of democracy?
A: I feel more negative about the possibilities of reconciling them than I have ever felt before, because I see the tremendous power that the US government has to sway political processes in its favor. If you look at the Nicaraguan Revolution, I think that for many progressives throughout the world it was an example of a movement that wanted to combine the two, that wanted to have more open political and economic systems while at the same time working for economic and social justice. After the first three or four years, that experiment was systematically destroyed by the US, and the result was that the Nicaraguan people became so war-weary and economically deprived that they voted against the Sandinistas. But for those three or four years, from 1979 to about 1983, there was a real flowering of the two forms of democracy together, and that does give me hope that the two can go together were we able to keep the US off a country’s back.
We haven’t had one case yet where a Third World country has been allowed to carry out a revolutionary change in its system in peace. So I do believe that in the best of all possible worlds those two sorts of democracy can go together, but not unless we stop the US from shutting off the possibility.
Q: The debt crisis appears to be one of the most desperate situations confronting the Third World, with little hope in sight. It also appears to be a hard issue to organize the US public around, since it’s relatively intangible. How do you think people in the US can be made more aware of the tragic human toll the debt crisis is taking in the Third World? How do you feel the crisis can be resolved?
A: I think the debt crisis is going to get a lot worse before it gets better. I think that the changes in Eastern Europe are going to exacerbate the Third World debt crisis even more. A lot of the little bit of money in both economic aid and investments that had been going into the Third World is now being shifted to Eastern Europe. The economic aid that the US has promised to Poland and Hungary—two countries! is about the equivalent of the economic aid it is giving to all of sub-Saharan Africa. So the Third World’s situation is becoming more and more hopeless in terms of getting any kind of economic aid or any kind of investment, either from government or private sources.
In the years to come there's going to be an absolute draining of the Third World, and a growing dichotomy between North and South.
In the years to come there’s going to be an absolute draining of the Third World, and I think we’re going to see a growing dichotomy, not between East and West any more, but between North and South. The result of all this is that it’s going to become clear that it’s absolutely impossible for Third World countries to repay the debt. The coming crisis is going to force some kind of moratorium on the repayment of the debt.
The mobilization on this issue is going to come, not from the US, but from the Third World. It’s going to come in the form of riots—more bread riots like those we’re seeing now and have been seeing for the last five years, and more upheaval. This is what is finally going to push people in the US to get more involved m the debt issue, and this is what is finally going to push the IMF and the World Bank to change their policies. But there’s going to be a lot of upheaval before that happens. HW