"Europe 2004-05" story # 12

Umea, Sweden           August 11, 2004

Hello, again, to everyone, from Umea, Sweden.
     Hello from the apartment of Oumar. Oumar is a twenty-five-year-old smily extrovert from Senegal, Africa. He works with me, and I just began renting a room from him and two Swedish girls. Oumar doesn't drink alcohol, but he always thinks it would be fun to hang out. He calls me "Bush," because he thinks it's funny. Pretty much everyone in Sweden thinks George W. Bush is funny.
     When Oumar and I hang out, we frequently play the Swedish version of Scrabble. Oumar - like me, and also like Paakow from Ghana - loves Scrabble. Oumar has opened my eyes to my latest revolutionary theory, and that theory is: All people from Africa love Scrabble, and not only that, but each one thinks he is the best person in the world at it. How silly is that? I mean, come on, you can't actually think you're the best person in the world at something.
     And, besides, it should already be a well-known fact that I'm the world's best Scrabble player. I mean, yeah, I lose sometimes. I've lost often to this forty-year-old loudmouth guy in Delaware named Ted. Ted think he's the best Scrabble player in the world. His name's not actually Ted, actually; it's Tim or Todd or Ned or something. I just call him "Ted" because I think it's kind of a lousy name, and I want to get under his skin so he'll get flustered and accidentally set me up for a triple-letter score.
     Intimidation is a big part of Scrabble. When I beat Oumar the other night, I grabbed one of his African bongo drums and started beating on it and doing a little celebratory dance. My best word in that game was "TICKA" ("to tick," as in a clock), which was taught to me by Pippy Longstalking. However, Oumar still holds a two-games-to-one lead.
     When Oumar and I aren't playing Scrabble, we're often working. We work in a cafe. The cafe is on a tiny, wooden ship, which is permanently anchored in central Umea on the sunny, black, moderately-sized Ume River. Oumar is the cook. I cut vegetables, prepare meals, run meals to tables, pick up dishes, and wash dishes. I (try to) speak Swedish with most of the customers.
     The cafe's owner is a youthful Iranian named Nouri. Nouri is in his late forties, he's short, he wears shorts and relaxed button-down shirts, and his thick hair is oil-black with gray tips. In the past, Nouri spent twenty-two years traveling around the world.
     He can be quite political. From the beginning, he has given me a hard time for my country's policies. When I ask him where he has been while traveling, he wisely cracks, "Everywhere but the United States, Great Britain, and Israel."
     He's told me some rather enlightening things. He said he once got thrown in jail in Indonesia, because he was Iranian and happened to be going to the same island President Reagan was going to. Nouri explained, "When Iran stopped selling their oil at the price the United States had picked, the United States labelled Iran terrorists." Nouri says that, in foreign trade, the United States dictates the buying and selling prices of goods as best favors the United States.
     Changing to an environmental topic, my boss has noted that the climate in Iran has become much drier in the past few decades. During this time, big holes have been made due to the drilling of oil; Nouri thinks a lot of the water that would reach the land ends up sinking into these holes.
     Asia - especially India and Southeast Asia - is Nouri's favorite place to travel. Like Europe, Asia is heavily populated with people. Unlike Europe, Southeast Asia is still dominated by beautiful nature. "They haven't been polluting over there," says my boss.
     But, back to the United States. Nouri wonders why the U.S. wants to be so powerful. He wonders why the U.S. wants to be so needlessly rich, at the expense of poor third-world citizens. He wonders why the average American doesn't know what's going on in the world, nor what a huge, controlling part our country plays.
     I tell him Americans don't question things. We're copasetic; we don't think outside the box.
     At the same time, all of our mass media is controlled by very rich businessmen and advertisers who would never dream of actually telling us what's going on. Most Americans have no connection to the poor people in Africa or Latin America, no knowledge of how people suffer. More of us need to read Noam Chomsky.
     I, and most non-Americans, believe U.S. foreign policy goes something like this:
     The U.S. gov't tries to make sure poor, weak countries are run by someone who will allow U.S. interests to benefit while the country's poor lose even more rights. The U.S. gov't really doesn't care if hte country is a (corrupt) democracy like Argentina or Liberia or Iraq will soon be, or if it is a dictatorship as in Saudi Arabia. The U.S. gov't helps to create a money-based, capitalist system. The country's poor are then offered jobs for the least amount of money possible (often less than enough to live on). Businessmen get rich, the country's politicians get rich dealing their people's labor, and the U.S. trades and gets even richer. Perhaps 10% of the country also makes it to a cushioned upper class. Meanwhile, the economy is now open and ripe for American and European countries. Soon, all the country's land and resources and ports and buildings are owned by the rich, and the country's poor majority own nothing. All they get is poorer.
     It's very difficult for a foreign country to resist the U.S.'s pressure, for a foreign leader to try to help his poor people. In these cases, the U.S. intervenes.
     In Chile, in the 1970's, a communist named Salvadore Allende came to power by way of the people's choice in a democratic election. The U.S. gov't and CIA managed a bloody military takeover there, led by Chilean General Augusto Pinochet. During the infamous, oppressive dictatorship that followed, Pinochet and his henchmen murdered and tortured tens of thousands of opposing Chilean voices.
     In the 1980's, Ronald Reagan ordered the U.S. invasion of the tiny island of Granada, because it was becoming too close a friend of Cuba's.
     In Venezuela, populist Hugo Chavez won the country's most recent election. A military coup was led against him; the U.S. is suspected to have been involved. Chavez continues to rule, but every day Venezuela's rich and privileged and the country's newspapers wage a war of marches and market closures meant to undermine Chavez's efforts to give the poor hope.
     In Nicaragua, the leftist Santanista political party has been a contender in the most recent prestidential elections. Led by a man named Daniel Ortega, the Santanistas were a source of optimism and celebration for the country's 80% who live miserably. The U.S. has been sticking its nose in to contribute millions of dollars to the campaign of the Santanistas' rightwing opposition. The Santanistas lost this last election day, and many spirits were broken.
     These are just a few examples, without getting into Southeast Asia and the U.S.'s bombing campaigns there.
     And I'll leave with one more statistic. This is for those people who think that when a third-world country begins trading its valued resources and boosting its "economy," that this enhances the life of the average citizen. OK: Acording to National Geographic, the percentage of people in Nigeria living in "abject poverty" has doubled (to about 36%) during the past three decades since the country began drilling for and exporting oil.
     I'm sure rich Americans are going to find their hands on a lot more Iraqi oil money than poor Iraqis. That's just not right.
     The suffering in the world touches us all. Wealth makes poor. We have to question things.

later. Modern Oddyseus

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