Wednesday, October 11, 2023

I wish you a Central American


My partner and I lived in Honduras and Nicaragua for almost five years doing Cuso International development work in the 2010s. I concluded very quickly that if ever there was an apocalypse, I’d want to go through it with a small-town Central American at my side.

I’m feeling that more than ever in these eye-opening days of global reckoning.

Time and again during the period we lived there, I saw people in those countries come through with a quick fix for whatever unexpected weird thing had just happened. It was an ingenuity borne of centuries of certainty that nobody was coming to fix their problems.

They stepped up with little hesitation to help random strangers with their problems, too, because they knew a time would come soon enough when they’d need strangers to step up for them. It’s not just a nice thing to do down there, it’s smart and strategic. You need to be ready for anything, and living in a permanent state of pay-it-forward.

One day, the car we were in broke down on a quiet road past Leon, Nicaragua. Within 15 minutes, we were repaired and on our way after two strangers on a motorcycle pulled up and began scrounging up scraps of this and that from the roadside, and then used them to do something inexplicable but effective to the car engine to get it running again.

Such anecdotes are coming to mind more often these days as events play out around the world to remind me that nobody’s really got our backs.

How must the citizens of Israel feel to realize that their much-touted security systems were easily compromised? How do Libyans feel about all those decades of government ignoring dam maintenance? What do Americans make of the hard lessons first from Hurricane Katrina, and more recently in the Maui wildfires – that their emergency preparedness systems are in no way prepared?

How do we feel here in Canada, where successive governments were so wrongly presumed to be managing the work of making sure we’d always have enough housing? They weren’t even counting the number of new Canadians right.

How come we can’t access basic medical care anymore? How are 13,000 British Columbians dead from toxic-drug overdoses in the last seven years and we’re still bickering about public drug use?  How can governments be allowed to “step back” on fossil fuel use and the development of greener alternatives after the entire planet just spent a horrifying year seeing where climate change is taking us?

If I’d been born a small-town Honduran, I suspect I’d have known better than to believe that the big things of life were being taken care of by government. Honduras has no social safety net, minimal public health care, lousy schools, and wages so low that most people need two jobs and a side hustle just to get by. It’s a country where you learn early to take care of your own business.

But I was born a comparatively privileged Boomer in a peaceful, liberal democracy with a social and legal commitment to human rights and a better life for all. I just always figured everything was going to be OK, at least in Canada.

Ah, but there’s far less Canada in Canada these days. Free trade ties us to some of the world’s most fraught countries. With minor exceptions, we don’t make our own clothing, household goods, vehicles or parts. Ninety per cent of our medicines are made with ingredients imported from China or India.

We’re dependent on other countries’ supply chains, food production, human resources. When their wildfires burn, we breathe the smoke. When their people don’t come to fill our workforce, it’s our services that suffer. We're frighteningly dependent, yet still so blissfully unaware of that reality. 

For better and worse, the world has tied its fortunes together through intricate trade deals and border-crossing corporate entities outside the management of any government. No war, climate disaster, or economic collapse anywhere on Earth is far enough away to avoid a direct impact everywhere else.

And even though virtually everything tripping us up these days requires a long-term plan to fix, there is no long-term plan for any of it. Even when some government starts on a plan, it rarely lasts beyond the four-year election cycles that doom progress on the complex issues of the modern world.

This is the world we live in now. This is the world my grandkids will have to find their way through. If I hear that they ran away in search of cheap land where they could grow a simple diet, generate their own electricity and count on a handful of good neighbours who knew how to fix things, I will understand completely and cheer them on.

Develop your inner Honduran, kids. Things are going to get rough.