Friday, September 25, 2009

Escape from Freedom...

The serious threat to our democracy is not the existence of foreign totalitarian states. It is the existence within our own personal attitudes and within our own institutions of conditions which have given a victory to external authority, discipline, uniformity and dependence upon The Leader in foreign countries. The battlefield is also accordingly here--within ourselves and our institutions.

--John Dewey, "Freedom and Culture" (1939)

After centuries of struggles, man succeeded in building an undreamed of wealth of material goods; he built democratic societies in parts of the world, and defended himself against new totalitarian schemes; yet...modern man still is anxious and tempted to surrender his freedom to dictators of all kinds, or to lose it by transforming himself into a small cog in the machine, well fed, and well clothed, yet not a free man but an automaton...

...we are proud that we are not subject to any external authority, that we are free to express our thoughts and feelings and we take it for granted that this freedom almost automatically guarantees our individuality. The right to express our thoughts, however, means something only if we are able to have thoughts of our own; freedom from external authority is a lasting gain only if the inner psychological conditions are such that we are able to establish our own individuality. Have we achieved that aim, or are we at least approaching it?

--Erich Fromm, "Escape From Freedom", 1941

Reviewing Fromm's book "Escape from Freedom", published almost 70 years ago, helped me focus on some bothersome mental twitches I have been experiencing lately as I consider society's state of being as I observe it. These observations about personal freedom just before a world war that focused on taking down a couple imperialistic governments (Germany and Japan) are scarily similar in my mind to the mindsets of today. A majority of the world's citizens seem content to accept "business as usual" when it comes to their government's actions...or inaction in some their personal freedoms continue to get tromped on and living in a police state just accepted as the mode of the day. Its not hard to see how the majority of German citizens simply succumbed to Hitler's Nazi regime.

I still haven't got my arms around the paradox of first world governments spending billions every day on the "battle for freedom and democracy" while my experience and observations are that people are becoming less free on an almost daily basis. Freedom to travel is reserved for the "rich" or at best the middle class. If you don't have wealth, you cannot get a visa to enter most desirable countries. There is so much violence and guns in the streets of most of the world's major don't really have the freedom to travel freely within those cities when you get there. And government policies such as the USA's "Patriot Act" continue to overextend the boundaries of government rights into the private lives of its citizens. Institutions are using fear and intimidation to convince their constituents that "this loss of freedom is for the citizen's own good"...

The biggest barrier to freedom in my view is the lack of objective education for all. Most of the poor have no appreciable education and therefore have no real opinion on what is going on while most of the "rich" educate their children in religious or private schools that in many cases program the kids in their own religions, cultures or lifestyles...but don't necessarily provide objective, contrary viewpoints for the youth to consider. And lets face it, most people want and therefore accept "easy answers" as truth or reality. To have freedom of thought or a true objective opinion/viewpoint that someone struggled to arrive to is a luxury to find in discussion these days. We tend to be people of extreme labels. You are either right or left, liberal or conservative, of faith or not of faith...and we filter our listening or reading in the world to those imposed labels of one's viewpoints. Some people listen only to FOX news, others only CNN, while very few Americans seem interested in news from the BBC. The actual news itself is almost impossible to find without the taints and editorial comments from the news companies and their corporate owners. Where is there true freedom of objective information?

Most of us are so enslaved to the machinery of consumerism and is quite impossible to keep up on or care about major global issues like...climate change, terrorism, starvation, and growing totalitarianism throughout global governments. Its up to our governments, churches or other institutions to deal with those world realities while we pursue our own path of "freedom"...which in many cases is just "freedom from caring" or "freedom from pain".'s costly and painful to be truly free. To be independent from our families, religions or government terribly lonely, isolating and even risky. The masses who make decisions on whether you get jobs, contracts, or elected to public office don't REALLY want a strong, free thinking individual. They want "team players"...people who can be a chameleon and fit into any scene...and the last thing most people want is to be around people who make them feel inferior. So...if you are a superior, free thinking person with new ideas or originality...don't expect to be liked or accepted...unless you're truly entertaining and so outrageous that you just become the life of the party. will not be taken seriously. We love and are entertained by "clowns". is no wonder that the masses go along with the status quo as "cogs in the wheel" of contemporary thought and motion. Image is status...status is power...and power is more addictive than money. Money just really keeps score of how you have played the game...but it doesn't necessarily guarantee freedom. Most of the wealthiest people I have known are not free to come and go...have to constantly defend themselves from leeches and thieves...and of course they spend a high percentage of their lives filling out forms and trying to beat the State's tax systems...that fuel the supposed pursuit of freedom and security guessed it...the average citizen...cog in the wheel.

Its much easier being a cog...but oh so boring. And its definitely not what I call living "free". We might be well advised to read up on some old "Fromm" and other literature from earlier this century and ask ourselves if we are not simply repeating history in all its blood, gore and devastation. We might have very advanced technology and a few richer people than that era...but I'm not sure the human psychology towards accepting the responsibility of freedom has come very far in this modern age.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Nature of doing business in Latin America

I begin this blog wondering if I will ever publish it or not. After spending almost 10 years of my life in Latin America, I find my biggest challenge and illusive dream is building a more significant business in this culture. For whatever reasons, I still find myself fully comfortable and enjoying life in this culture. Yet, in business and in social situations...I still sense being an "outsider", foreigner...or "Gringo"...and while I feel I am almost half Latino by now, in the eyes of other Latinos I am quite sure they see me as "the Gringo". I speak Spanish and have a pretty good read on my Latin friends by now...but I think they still don't see all of me or my acculturation because of my exterior image. I still watch American football though I have learned to appreciate futbol/soccer as well. My humor is still "gringo" oriented. My mannerisms are still a bit more restrained and emotions less outward than the typical Latino. For me this is a mixed bag...

It is a "mixed bag" because WASPS like me are acknowledged as coming from a successful, rich country. We get in some doors that others can't because everyone is interested in how "rich" we are or what advantages and ideas we can bring to local causes and businesses. On the other hand, I believe there is a constant "tendency" to try and "get one over" on the Gringo...maybe a form of "get even" for some latent sense of Latinos being disenfranchised from the "American dream". Maybe it even goes back 150+ years to when the USA took much of the southwestern area of the United States by force and encroachment from Mexico. It really wasn't that long ago when you think about it.

Without going too far down that road of historical perspective, I do think some backdrop of that past reflects on current dynamics between Latin American and North American relations. Latins still view Americans as sometimes friend, sometimes foe. There is still a sense of their being "conquered" by both European and North American white culture, yet Latins also aspire and embrace the imaging and "front" of success and consumerism. These people like to shop just like their "gringo" neighbors, and easy credit hit this culture quite a bit later than North America and I fear the abuse and ease of debt will cause some economic problems in this region somewhat behind the curve that has hit North America.

While Latin culture has been quick to imitate American consumerism and styles, they have not been quite so quick to adopt our concepts of democracy and free enterprise. In light of their histories, its not hard to understand why. These Latin countries in most cases have fewer then 150 years as independent, sovereign nations/states. They developed in the aftermath of the Spanish "conquistadors" who gave them most of their identities, mores, legal and governmental customs. So, they started out as subjects of a European King or queen...and never quite grew away from their acceptance of subservience to "authority". Tie into that the thorough adoption of Catholicism in huge majorities and you have the ultimate chemistry for poor, simple masses following their leaders, whether political or religious, into various states of submission. If there are uprisings against authority, it is not so much based on individual pangs of patriotism or desire for freedom than rather a sudden disgust at finding themselves totally victimized and manipulated...normally by people whiter and richer than they are.

One of the reasons democracy and free enterprise are such fleeting concepts, not just in Latin America, is because a majority of the world is much more comfortable being told what to do and taken care of rather than live independently and freely. For hundreds of years a majority in these countries have taken for granted the "caste system" they live in. The darker skinned people tend to do the menial labors and support the households of "whiter", more noble folk. The educations, dowries and estates stay in the same few, whiter families century after century.

Politically in Latin America like other regions in the world we are seeing another pendulum swing from "capitalism" and "free enterprise" towards socialism or further left ideologies. The poorer countries in Latin American seem to be rushing towards socialism or versions of communism behind simpleton leftist leaders like Chavez in Venezuela, Evo Morales in Bolivia or Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua. You have the haves fighting the have-nots politically in Honduras, Guatemala and Salvador. The bigger economies in the region like Brazil, Colombia, Chile, Argentina and Peru tend to be more balanced towards socialistic democracy...whatever that is. The military in many of these countries is almost an independent arm of government which is wooed and managed as well as possible by whatever party or leader is running their governments. Honduras is just the latest example of a President losing control and respect from his military...which basically acted in support of the wealthy elite in the country against the President's move towards a "Chavez" style dictatorship supported on the shoulders of the masses who live in poverty.

A key to peace in these countries...and anywhere in the modern day to have a balanced policy of economic growth while taking care of the social needs of the whole population. Corruption and treachery have been the modus operandi in most of these Latin countries for over the last century. Only now are you seeing any true concerted efforts by SOME governments supported by the people to clean up their systems and watch the money trail of these various political leaders. Here in Panama the pendulum is currently switching to a fervor of retaliation against recent political robber barons who have been caught raiding funds before leaving their offices in this past administration. Of course, the new President is from the wealthy elite class and does not need to raid funds to sustain his future or his policies. Many leaders throughout Latin America have come from destitute, middle or low class backgrounds or the military. When in office, there is an unwritten code that it is alright to enter office a pauper and leave a multi-millionaire. I'm not sure if this is any more outrageous than those who buy their offices through ill gotten gains in past generations and then get elected to protect the wealthy elite or the corporate complex. That happens in some first world countries I know of.

Politics aside, it seems business and financial institutions thrive in Latin America no matter what happens politically. It is my thinking that if a person or company can stay away from politics while doing business...they can succeed while staying above the fray of political machinations, but it is a tough tight rope to walk on through these countries.

Before I turn this into a "book", let me summarize for this chapter of a very large theme. Doing business in Latin America is more about the relationships you establish over a period of time than they are about the most winning ideas or cost effective proposals. This is for a variety of reasons:

-No one believes you just because you said it was so. They need proof and assurance.

-Image is very important. Business people in this region for the most part "dress for success". Men dress formally for business at all levels, and middle to upper class women never leave their homes during the business week without looking their best. No hair curlers or jeans even for stay at home moms...and men don't wear shorts in the city even in this tropical Panama climate. Foreigners need to take this into consideration if they want to "relate" to business associates here.

-Relationship is more important than price and most cases

-Cronyism and nepotism is the standard custom in business. They may fight within their family and even steal from each other, but no third party person should speak disparagingly of a family member of theirs, especially in business.

-The sales cycle is much longer and few are in a hurry to make decisions in general. Plan on taking your time, building the relationship and dickering and dealing. No one ever accepts the first "price".

-Token gifts and "doing favors" is not considered corruption in these cultures. It is expected. Also, a favor is expected to be reciprocated at some point in time.

I have more thoughts but I believe the above is important enough and much to ponder for now. I think there will be a "Part 2" on this blog covering some of these points:

Bureaucracies that inhibit growth and enterprise

Business ethics and rule of law

Lack of a middle class

More cultural differences and mores

Work ethic

Nature of the "deal"

Keys to success

Until then, it is never too early to start your relationship building process. If you are thinking of doing business or marketing in these parts...come on down. We are here to help and share our experiences if we can.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Un-winnable Wars

Since World War 2, it seems my country is intent on fighting un-winnable wars...and depleting the country's resources while they are at their losing game. Its amazing to me how in less than two generations America has gone from the proud saviors of the world from Imperialist Japan and Nazi mounting its own imperialist campaign on the world. We have taken all our historic productivity, ingenuity, wealth and power...and squandered it along with hordes of American lives on failed "conflicts" (can't officially call them "wars" unless Congress declares it) in Korea, Viet Nam, and now Iraq and Afghanistan. I know, I know...many Americans have drank the "kool-aid" our government serves up about our "winning" in Iraq with the two "Bush" wars this past 18 years. From what I see reported on international news and online about the aftermath and continued fractious bloodshed and bombings there...I don't see how we can call that a "victory". Sure, we dethroned our arch enemy, "Saddam", from his rule over Iraq...but where is the peace, prosperity and capitalism we were supposed to be restoring to those poor Iraqis? Where are all the spoils of war or payment in oil we were supposed to get from them in return? Most American leaders and citizens just want to get OUT of there ASAP...and most don't really give a damn about the cost monetarily or in lives our government has wasted in my opinion.

Now we hear more saber rattling regarding Afghanistan...on both sides of the equation. The American generals there say we need to double our troops and expenditures. The Taliban continues to ebb and flow throughout the whole region, even into Pakistan in the middle of this nearly 9 year "conflict" we have been waging there..."looking for "Bin Laden"". Do we really think we have a chance in hell to overcome Islamic fundamentalism in that land-locked, desolate desert region through armed conflict and confrontation? Have we learned nothing from the demise of the Russians and before that the "British Empire" who never conquered these people? How pathetic in this day of modern technology, night vision, satellite surveillance and big money espionage that in 9 years we have not found that one man in Afghanistan or Pakistan who caused more civilian deaths on 9/11 than Pearl Harbor experienced in 1941 in combined military and civilian casualties.

For all the military power and expenditures America has invested the past 60 years, it sure seems inept to me how we can fight so many losing battles. As a citizen, I want more "results" for our investment. If the government and military were a capitalistic corporation, they would be disgraced and out of business long ago. But no, they are not held to the same levels of accountability by their investors...we the American people. We continue to errantly accept their budgets, their flag-waving, hymn singing platitudes and the ongoing printing of worthless paper to cover our debts that will never be paid in my lifetime to cover their "war games".

On top of all this, we are losing the war on drugs and for the minds of the young world-wide. For all our respectable power, riches and amazing growth of our way of life...we are despised for our arrogant disregard of other country's sovereignties. If other cultures don't accept our western ways including democracy and capitalism...we find a way towards military action and solutions. Nicaragua, Grenada and Panama are just a few examples of extreme involvement and manipulation by our government of other countries just in Latin America alone. Add to that our arming and supporting conflicts in the middle east and Africa...where does it end? What is the end result we are looking for? Is it revenge for 9/11? Is it our demand that other civilizations practice democracy and capitalism with us? Is it the need for the West to win over the East? Is it about Christianity over Islam? Maybe its a little of all those things...

Yes, I have heard the arguments for a long time about how if America is such the "bad guy", why does everyone want to come there and why the overflow of immigration? To that I have to answer with a resounding YES to our American ideals...of democracy and economic freedom. The dream of America is that of a place where anyone no matter what your race, creed or economic level with hard work and ingenuity can reach unlimited levels of success and security. Compared to most of the globe we live on, that is still the ideal and hope any reasonably intelligent human will aspire to. But just like most "dreams", reality can be a startling task master. Our shining beacon of freedom and democracy is crumbling from within based on growing government controls, an expanding "police state", and an unextinguishable thirst by the majority for entitlements that can't be paid for. A large number of both citizens and immigrants are living off a system that is unsustainable. When you add to that the price tag of our decades of fighting losing "conflicts", I see a battered and disillusioned American dream being doused by the combustible combination of debt, anger, hopelessness and despair. To see that in a third world country is not unusual. To see that in my country is inexcusable. To that end I blame our government...and our lazy democracy which seems helpless to contain our appetite for "un-winnable wars".