My favorite foreign affairs moment occurred in Laymebamba, an Andean town, which is an eight-hour drive from Cajamarca, which — in turn — is an 11-hour drive from the capital, Lima. A hardware store attendant was selling us (ironically, as it turns out) gasoline by the bucket — at $3/gallon — when he suddenly turned to me and asked in Spanish, “What’s with George Bush and Iraq?”
I was unprepared for the question, so I checked my zipper and asked him to repeat himself.
“The war is really about oil, isn’t it?”
“Our president says it’s about liberty,” I answered.
“Of course he says that, but why do your people believe it?”
“They are afraid and people will fight for liberty more often than they will fight for oil.”
He laughed. “But you can choose in America. You should know better.”
“Just because we have liberty does not mean we are free.”
He laughed again. “You got that right.” I spoke to teachers, businessmen, housewives, engineers, taxi drivers and athletes, and they all agreed that the United States has lost much of its international prestige. It’s not just that the pretexts for war have proved false or that oil may or may not be the real justification for our invasion. It’s the arrogance our nation has shown towards so many others.
But then again, they were just Peruvians, and the United States hasn’t cared what the people of the Third World think for generations.
My traveling companion during this Andean trek was my 32-year-old nephew, Anibal “Dani” Diaz. As we drove down the one-lane dirt road to Cajamarca, I asked him what he thought of the attendant’s words.
Even though we are close, Dani weighed his comments carefully. He knows I am proud of being an American, even though I often disagree with our foreign policy.
“Most Peruvians think Bush is a puppet of big business,” he said. “On television he does not seem to know so much.” At some points on this thin mountain road, the drop off is over a thousand feet. We drove slowly, stopping only occasionally to pick up hitchhiking campesinos or to squeeze by a vehicle coming in the other direction. In our eight-hour drive, we passed three cars and one truck.
“But he makes the final decisions,” I said.
“Bush is short-sighted. When he attacked Iraq based on lies and bad information, he changed the world forever.”
Dani gave up a safe government job in 1998 to begin his own business. Because he works in the Third World, his potential customer base is smaller and every day expenses are higher (see gas prices above). My analysis is, he can earn five times his old government salary working twice as hard, but he could also lose everything. There will be no unemployment benefits should his business fail. On some days, he criticizes his Peruvian government. On this day, he criticized ours.
“Is it Bush’s fault his advisors steered him wrong?” I asked.
“Of course. You cannot attack another country on suspicion alone. The United States has lost the moral high plain. Even if you win this war, you will pay for it for generations.”
“What about Iraqi liberty?”
“That argument is for American ears. The rest of the world knows Bush has other goals.”
“But don’t all leaders lie to their people a little?”
“Yes, but America pretends to be above us all and know what is best for us all. Its actions do not just hurt Americans.”
“In fact, Americans never know.”
“In fact, Americans do not want to know.”
I conclude that the argument of fighting for liberty is just the secular version of fighting for God. We are shocked that bin Laden orders his followers to kill innocent people in God’s name. Peruvians are shocked that Americans can let innocent people die in the name of liberty.
The Andean mountains are so magnificent that it is easy to imagine God’s (or gods’) hands working wonders. In the Andean mountains, wisdom can come from a hardware store employee or a young businessman — if one only listens.
Hank Fincken survives as an actor/writer, performing six original one-man plays throughout the Midwest.