Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Politics, Near and Far

Last night, on the rumour that everything was 50% off on lunes y martes (Monday and Tuesday), we went out to an Irish pub for dinner. I ordered the Fish and Chips, which was on the menu in English, I suppose because it is that most English of foods; Chris ordered a hamburguesa, and both of us were thrilled just to have good old-fashioned thick-cut French fries for the first time in over a month.

A funny thing happened on the way to the pub: we passed a man sitting at a coffee shop painting a gigantic portrait of – who else? – Barack Obama. Sadly, my former Hyde Park neighbor was not sitting for the portrait in this little café in Mexico City; instead, the artist was painting from a much smaller 4 x 6 image of the senator from the great state of Illinois.

It’s an odd thing, keeping up with politics from afar. Last week, while Chris was gone, I checked the New York Times’ website every day, watched some excerpts from speeches on the DNC’s website, and downloaded the Daily Show and the Colbert Report for their Tuesday-Friday coverage. I even took the risk of talking politics with the other Americans in our group, but I still felt estranged, somehow, from the events back home.

Then, suddenly and without warning, on Thursday the two worlds, the one I was trying to keep up with back home and the world in which I currently live were suddenly smashed together, as if a wormhole had opened up between them, or as if a veil had suddenly been lifted and the connections between our two countries were laid bare, clear for all the world to see.

We were visiting UNORCA, an influential organization of campesinos (farmers) from throughout Mexico. Like any organization UNORCA is concerned with the needs of its members. It used to be, they told us, that Mexican farmers could feed all of their fellow Mexicans. They could grow the historic, seemingly eternal staples of maiz (corn) and frijoles (beans) to feed the cities and towns and fields from the Rio Bravo to the Riviera Maya.

But no more. NAFTA, they told us, has destroyed any meaningful level of food sovereignty. (For a quick primer on the concept of Food Sovereignty, read and click around the relevant Wikipedia article here http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Food_sovereignty.) Now, these farmer/organizers told us, corn is dumped into the Mexican market from United States producers. While NAFTA was supposed to make products like corn cheaper, prices are instead skyrocketing, threatening the only way of life many Mexicans have ever known.

Not that UNORCA’s beef is with the United States. I asked (through a translator) whether there was any relationship between farmers in Mexico and farmers back in the States. I was thinking especially of the folks I met on the Nebraska Rural Immersion Program back in January, who faced challenges of their own, some as a result of NAFTA. Yes, they told us: UNORCA works with the National Family Farm Coalition in the U.S., finding common cause on policies that hurt farmers in Mexico AND in the United States. This is the kind of thing that excites the populist in me: people coming together, people working together, people building relationships and solving common problems together.

Anyway, what struck me about UNORCA – and about several other folks we’ve talked to along similar lines – is that they aren’t dreaming of some impossible world. They aren’t crazy liberal. They’re world-weary people who know dang well the world is changing. They just want to make things a little better – a little fairer. The concrete, short-term goal that UNORCA is pushing for, and that several others we’ve talked to this week are also pushing for, is a renegotiation of NAFTA. Did you catch that? Not an abolishment of NAFTA. The cat, no matter how much it continues to hurt the little guy both in Mexico and in the United States, can’t be put back in the bag. No, say people here, we just want a renegotiation of some of the parts that are particularly unfair.

“That’s why,” says one of the UNORCA representatives (in Spanish, of course), “we are paying close attention to your Democratic convention this week. One of the candidates, Obama, has indicated that he would be open to renegotiating NAFTA. So we are paying very close attention.”

Let me be clear: I am a skeptic when it comes to these kinds of things. I know so little about NAFTA it’s embarrassing. I can’t jump on a bandwagon that quickly, I need to learn a lot more before I start taking positions on how we solve the global food crisis (although, it should be said, one way you learn more is by listening to the concerns of everyday people, just like we’ve been doing all last week). So, let’s (a) recognize that this NAFTA issue is really important and deserves more attention in the coming weeks, and then (b) set the specifics aside for a moment to recognize that this much is true regardless: The policies, the actual concrete policies of candidates and elected leaders, the policies of the United States matter, to people both near and far. Again: The policies of the United States matter, to folks at home and abroad. One last time: Policies matter.

And so, as you might imagine, I returned to keeping up with the political news with renewed interest, but with a much higher level of annoyance at all of the horse-race coverage. Is Obama an elitist? Will McCain be able to woo Hillary voters? Enough! What are their proposed policies, and how will those policies affect us? We need to start asking that question – and start pressuring our journalists to do the same. Because if I have learned anything this week, it is this:

Policies matter.


Mike and Beth said...

Yes, they do, Matt, they certainly do. You know, I do believe you will be published one day...keep writing. You have a way of opening eyes and minds. You both remain in our prayers daily.

From Michigan with Love said...

what's your point?!...oh yeah policies matter...right oops! :-)