America's promise

Jim Shultz Oscar R. Olivera
12 September 2004

Dear Jim,

Against the world, against the people, against life: that is what the United States means to me.

It means a state apparatus run by the gangsters of petroleum companies and banks operating with the commercial and investor arms of the World Trade Organisation, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. Its big companies spread their tentacles to all parts of the world, even to the remotest corners of the countryside and city. And it means the omnipresence of an invading army that assassinates and tortures those who oppose the policies of its government.

A country where people consume anything and everything they can.

A country where people are fearful, but know that their fear is a product of media propaganda.

I have not always thought this way. Before I first visited the US four years ago, I had a different impression of your country. Because I had seen so many of those Hollywood films which portray the US as a land of perfection – a land of cultivated, tall, white people – I could feel something of the inferiority complex that such propaganda displays create in the hearts of those who live outside your country’s borders. At the same time I could see what creates the desire in so many to live like the Americans do – to live what we have all learned to call “the American dream”.

But a dream is all it is. So many of my compatriots have left for the US to pursue that dream, only to find it becoming a nightmare. The deteriorating standard of work and living in the US, which we never hear about; the lack of healthcare, education, social security for immigrants; the discrimination and scorn. This is the real America that we find. America’s great power and complexity not withstanding, there are many gringos (not you, Jim) who are living proof that many people in that nation today live without hope nor dreams.

Here in Bolivia, the negative impacts of the United States on our land and our people are many. From your government’s “kind” donations of genetically–modified flour to make bread for our poor, to the political manipulation that sees the rulers of our towns and even our national government in the pockets of your economic interests, the US does not bring us any joy.

The aggressive, criminal and disastrous Washington–based policies of the World Bank and the IMF on our people, combined with the impact of your economic bullying and cultural and military policies, like the creation of military bases and your government’s sending us reams of experts in “anti–narcotics” and “anti–terrorism”, amounts to one thing: a plan of occupation. Not just an economic, cultural and political one, but also a military occupation of our lands, territories, and the hearts and minds of our people.

We must change this situation. What we need is a joint operation between the people of the United States and Bolivia. We need your countryfolk to consume less, to lose their fear of the world outside their borders, to overcome their indifference to the rest of the world and to ask themselves how much they owe us and whether they have time to repent for the way they have treated us, their neighbours in the south of the Americas.

Meanwhile, until this happens, we must continue to struggle, to maintain our solidarity, to organise and mobilise ourselves – and continue to dream.


Dear Oscar,

It did not take seven years of living in Bolivia for me to realise the damage that my country can inflict on the poor around the world. It is possible to see that while living in America – to see how a culture addicted to owning things has left its own poor in the dust and a good portion of its middle class headed in that direction. I do not write to apologise for America, but perhaps to explain it through the eyes of one raised there and who still has affection for his country.

America (the United States of America, that is) is many things. First, it is a promise, one which still has tremendous passion and power more than two centuries after it was made. “We hold these truths to be self–evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

Sure, those words were written by a slaveholder. Yes, they were the opening lines of a nation (as a minister friend of mine once put it) “founded on the genocide of one race and the enslavement of another.” That said, the promise those words contain is still one of the most glorious that a nation has ever made.

The history of my country is about the never–ending struggle by valiant people to make that promise a real one. Lincoln invoked the promise when he issued his proclamation freeing US slaves. Martin Luther King Jr invoked the promise when he called on the nation to grant blacks full civil rights. Today in America that same promise is still being invoked – by women, gays, Latinos, immigrants, and others – for whom it has still not been kept.

America is also its people. Most of them are just like Bolivians in that they live their lives, work their jobs, do the best they can to raise their children well, and don’t see a very clear way to affect the actions of a government that supposedly acts in their name. Americans are also running pretty scared and blind these days. They are scared because the attacks of 11 September 2001 left a deep wound. Watching two of your tallest buildings collapse after having jetliners flown into them, as the helpless leap to their deaths, will do that to a people.

Americans (not all, but many) are blind because the political and corporate powers that run the nation have perfected manipulation of the media to a fine art. As a rule even the Bolivian media has more balanced analysis of world events than does the big media in the US. Have a look at CNN sometime if you want to see this one–sided US–cheerleading in action.

In 1986 I visited Nicaragua during the US–backed war there. It was then that I realised that the US was a nation so powerful that with a flick of its little finger it could inflict a huge toll of death and violence on people abroad, yet so oblivious that most people were not even aware of that fact.

This, of course, is the side of the US that you see here in Bolivia all the time. A US corporation, Bechtel, was the force behind the water privatisation that you and other residents of the city of Cochabamba so bravely fought. The US government’s “war on drugs” tosses innocent Bolivians in jail by the hundreds, just to show off good arrest statistics back at home. US–manipulated institutions such as the World Bank and IMF have coerced Bolivia to turn over its most important economic decisions to officials in Washington, who have blundered one time after another. No nation is more blind in the way it treats the poor of other nations.

But Oscar, my friend, do not forget all you have seen and learned these past four years about the courageous efforts of Americans, especially the young, to make America something different and more just. Do not forget the people who have been gassed in their own streets, who have spoken out forcefully, who have challenged their government, and who are insisting that the promise of America be kept today, not just for those who are citizens of the US but for all the citizens of the world.

I recall a cool spring morning in Washington four years ago, walking with you at the head of the April 2000 protests against the World Bank’s and IMF’s policies toward poor nations. It was your first visit to the US and came just days after the anti–Bechtel protests that you helped lead in Cochabamba. I asked you: “Oscar, so what do you think of the United States?” You thought a minute and replied: “It looks just like Cochabamba, young people and police everywhere.”

Bechtel is not America. George W Bush is not America. The war on drugs is not America. The World Bank is not America. America is the struggle to be better than each of these, in the face of enormous obstacles of lies, power, and the mass hypnotism that comes with addiction to material comfort. So hold our feet to the fire and wish us well. There is a lot riding on the outcome.


The Letters to Americans project will run until the US presidential elections on 2 November 2004. Projects like this are challenging to organise and expensive to deliver, but we think it is worth it to bring America into dialogue with the world. If you agree, please support us.

Copyright and Contact All Letters to Americans exchanges are copyright openDemocracy. For syndication, republishing and other enquiries please e-mail Julian [email protected]


Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData