January 23, 2003 Episode 32:  Three Degrees of Separation

Canada is a small world in many ways.  Here is a case in point.  A new Canadian friend we met in December started telling us of her time in Grenada as an intern with the Canadian International Development Agency (also known as CIDA) youth program.  Upon introducing her to another friend whom we knew had spent time in Panama, we discovered that the Panama internship was also sponsored by CIDA.  We then discovered that a third friend, a filmmaker, produced a film about a Guatemalan activist that was funded by CIDA.  These three experiences by our Canadian friends got us thinking this week about the role Canadians and Americans play in the larger global picture.  Understanding the global village as a place where people can help people rather than where markets are developed and exploited is the kind of globalization that can lead to peace and tolerance rather than war and endless cycles of rumours of war.  It is that kind of globalization that we are examining this week. 

Heather MacAndrew's film, The Man We Called Juan Carlos, is a beautiful meditation on how the subject of her first documentary, Wenceslao Armira, and her own life intertwined for 25 years.  It is political and personal. In a simple and understandable way, it takes the viewer through the complexities of development in countries where simply helping the poor is a radical, political act. We reviewed this film, examining the implications of it for development, globalization and peacemaking in the contemporary world that seems to be on the brink of war. 

CIDA’s International Youth Internship Program was created in 1997 to send college graduates to developing countries for meaningful employment in working towards a development project.  The purpose is twofold:  First, to enable young adults to have the opportunity to learn more about sustainable development within their field of training, and second, to encourage sustainable development in impoverished countries.  The internships are created in partnership with a number of businesses and not-for-profit organisations that provide the money and the security to keep interns in a country for six months.  It was one of these internships that led our friend Sara Mimick to Grenada to provide training in eco-tourism.  Sara shares her stories of Grenada and her impressions of CIDA’s internship program. 

The delineation of who is "in" our group and who is "out" is one of the ways people define themselves and their social connections.  However, this in/out delineation can lead to violence if it carried to extremes.  It has always been easier for people to go to war if they regarded those whom they were fighting as carriers of ideologies rather than human beings who have families, have livelihoods and struggle with the same kinds of issues that "we" do.  Political leaders and military personnel have understood this for some time.  They depend upon people to forget that the enemy are human.  We discuss this week how this might change if we come to understand how small a world it really is.  We are supposed to be just six introductions away from anyone else on earth.  Perhaps this six degrees of separation will allow us to live more peacefully if given a chance.


Review of The Man We Called Juan Carlos:


Much is made these days about, quote, globalization, close quote. The word evokes the spectre of multi-national corporations picking and choosing from the least empowered of work forces to make items for consumption by greedy North Americans to use and then discard. The North Americans in this cosmology give little thought to the suffering the production and disposal of the items create in the lives of other people on the planet.


The greediest among us see globalization as a means to maximize profit either through exploitation of such work forces or the so-called, quote, opening of new markets, close quote, which often is cultural genocide masked as expanding capitalism. The power-mongers among us see globalization as a way to keep developing countries in their place, so to speak, and dependent upon more developed countries. Much has been produced about the abuses and shortcomings of The World Bank Group and its role in these power games, especially in relationship to the World Trade Organization and the so-called quote, Group of Eight, close quote.

The mainstream media calls the protesters at WTO events, "anti-globalization." This is a misnomer. Many of the protesters believe in a global view of the world, but their vision differs from that of the corporations. Globalization, they argue, can happen without the exploitation and in ways that are respectful of diversity and local culture.

Those among us who are neither protesters against the greedy and powerful, nor greedy and powerful ourselves, often fall into a glazed stupor when discussions of globalization ensue. These are big issues with large consequences that seem out of reach. Some of us recycle, think about the impact of our vehicles on the environment and maybe even avoid buying products we know were produced by slave labour or near slave labour in certain countries. But to spend time and effort understanding these larger-than-life forces is overwhelming and seemingly irrelevant to our daily lives.

We forget that it is persons who are being hurt. We are taught to think in terms of ethnicities or nationalities rather than in terms of human beings. It is easier to dismiss the plights of the quote, Guatemalans, close quote, than it is to think about families being torn apart, livelihoods being stripped and lives being scarred forever. Heather MacAndrew's film, A Man We Called Juan Carlos put faces and feelings upon events about which we, as North Americans, learned little during the 1980s.

Reminiscent of Stephanie Black's film, Life and Debt, the documentary about the so-called free enterprise zones in Jamaica, MacAndrew mixes the personal with the political in her meditation on the ways in which the filming and documentary work she and her partner, David Springbett, did in Guatemala interacted with the life work of Wenceslao Armira, a farmer, an activist, a guerrilla warrior and, later, a Mayan priest.

Heather's life and Wenceslao's life intertwined on several occasions, even though they never met in person, and these connections had consequences that neither anticipated. By presenting personal history along with the biographical milestones of Armira, MacAndrew pushes the viewer into an understanding of this man's humanity as well as the incredible divergence of what it meant to grow up as a middle-class Canadian versus a poor Mayan farmer in Guatemala.


But the film is not a guilt-fest. MacAndrew doesn't settle for the cheap version of these encounters where middle-class people are led to believe that if they just change their eating habits life will be better for the starving children in some distant land. The picture MacAndrew paints is much more complex and layered, grounded in history and experience rather than politics and ideology.

Wenceslao's impact on Heather's life as a documentary filmmaker is profound. The story is about a Guatemalan farmer who, with the help of an organization from the United States called World Neighbours, began finding ways to improve the plight of the local subsistence farmers through better techniques of growing corn. As the local village began to learn how to take control of their land and their farming, they began to pull themselves out of poverty. Armira's methods were becoming well-known in Central America, and delegations of other subsistence farmers found their way to his village to learn his farming techniques. It was these techniques that led to the first documentary film about Armira in 1976 by MacAndrew's partner, Springbett. The shooting MacAndrew did for this documentary was her first documentary work. It was a change she described in the film as from being active in social justice causes to being a documenter of social justice causes, something that had advantages and disadvantages in her mind.

While the documentary was in production, World Neighbours assisted Amira's village in the acquisition of more land so that they could expand their farms and increase their livelihood. In other words, they were successfully developing. The rhetoric of organizations such as The World Bank Group suggests that this effort should have been regarded as a resounding success. Their website states:


Quote, We believe that people who live in poverty should not be treated as a liability, but rather as a creative asset that will contribute more than anyone else to the eradication of poverty. An empowering approach to poverty reduction puts poor people at the center of development and creates the conditions that enable poor men and women to gain increased control over their lives, through access to information, inclusion and participation, accountability, and local organizational capacity, close quote.


However, the Guatemalan government, installed through a U.S. backed coup just a few years before this effort felt threatened by the acquisition of land by Mayan farmers. In the 1950s, for a short time, a democratic socialist government in Guatemala began a redistribution of land from the few Spanish land-owners to the Mayans. Even though this acquisition of land by Armira's village was through the market and not through any state-sponsored program, it was labelled as communist. The threat was so real that when the film was distributed, Armira's identity was concealed through the pseudonym Juan Carlos. This simple farmer who figured out a better way to grow his crops, feed his village and bring himself, his family and his neighbours out of poverty was now ipso facto an enemy of the state and a politically controversial figure.

By 1984, villages had been destroyed and burned, land had been seized by the, quote, government, close quote, Mayans had been kidnapped and killed at the hands of the, quote, government, close quote, and Armira had become a guerrilla warrior. He was in exile in Mexico City when MacAndrew and Springbett were invited to interview him once again. The complexities of North America's relationship to the oppression of the Mayans made it impossible for the interview filmed in 1984 to be produced and distributed. The oppression felt in Guatemala was evident in Canada as well, and this connection is not lost on MacAndrew. Information control in North America contributed to the pain and suffering felt by Armira and his fellow Mayans.

As Americans, watching this film, the most poignant moment for us was during a later interview, where Armira notes the irony that it was Americans who came and helped them learn better farming techniques and assisted them in acquiring more land, but it was other Americans who gave their government the weapons and fire-power to strip them of their land and livelihoods, and kill them and their children. Roger Bunch, an American from World Neighbours, summed up the feeling best when he said, I used to be proud to be an American, now I'm not.

In the end, MacAndrew's The Man We Called Juan Carlos is as much a story of development and the complexities of solving poverty problems in a world in which poverty serves the needs of a power class as it is about the intertwining of her life with that of the Guatemalan farmer. The film puts flesh and bones on complicated issues of development, environment, war, power and market exchange. It indicts the efforts of developed countries in which there are factions who at least claim to care about creating development but in which there are also factions that just want to increase their own power and dominance. Some overlap exists between factions of the first sort and factions of the second sort. The film suggests that ordinary citizens working on these problems in local spaces have a lot more to offer in solutions than sweeping government or international policies.

Much was made during the 1980s about how the strong stance Reagan took regarding the Soviet Union led to the end of the cold war. We don't believe this is the whole story. During the 1980s a number of people decided that the only way to end the escalation of nuclear power was for ordinary citizens to get to know each other. Delegations of Russian and US citizens travelled to each other's countries and talked to each other. Phil Donahue and CNN held, quote, global town meetings, close quote, between citizens of the two countries. The citizens, thus empowered, engaged in lively debates, which were shown on national television in both countries. This citizen diplomacy put pressure on both governments to find a different way to relate to each other. It also uncovered misleading rhetoric. No one can really say how much of the end of the cold war was caused by the quote, evil empire, close quote rhetoric of the American government and how much was caused by the simple exchange of human beings who chose to know their enemies as people rather than as carriers of ideologies. But we suspect that the latter had more to do with the collapse of the Berlin wall than the politicians want us to believe.

copyright by Pattie Thomas and Carl Wilkerson 2003


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