Oh, Those People

 

In February 1961, as deputy director of the newly constituted White House office of Food For Peace under George McGovern, I was dispatched to survey the food needs of our neighbors to the south. At my first stop, Caracas, I was described by its newspaper, El Comercio, as “El joven con poco barbe” (the beardless youth).

           

It was not long before I became aware of the race and class distinctions that President Kennedy hoped to mitigate through his newly announced Alliance for Progress. A vivid example was provided by an invitation to visit the home of a Peruvian grandee in Lima. We were sitting on his veranda, which overlooked the city as far as the horizon, when he surprised me with the question, “Why are you here?” I explained that my mission was to survey the nutritional needs of the continent. “But why here?” asked my host, “There is no hunger here.” Puzzled, I pointed to a tiny blue-painted church atop a distant hill, which I had visited earlier that day. It was the centerpiece of a barrio called Leticia. There youngsters suffering from kwashiorkor (a protein deficiency) were carrying up to their cardboard huts buckets of fetid water they had collected in puddles below. “Oh, those people!” he exclaimed. “They’ve lived like that for centuries!”

           

The disconnect between my caudillo host’s perception and the reality I had just witnessed was too startling to address politely. A conquistadorial attitude toward the Indian majority prevailed in the upper classes of a number (but not all) of the countries I visited. In others a radicalized majority of mestizos (people of mixed blood) had either assumed power or were shortly to do so. It was no wonder the Cuban revolution resonated throughout the continent, a condition JFK hoped to head off with his Alianza para Progreso.