The Moral Saliva of Don Pepe


Thanks to Wikipedia I have acquired a new hero: José Figueres Ferrer, aka ‘Don Pepe’, the Costa Rican President in the 1940s-50s, who certainly achieved a great deal more progressive change in his nine years of power than Tony Blair has: in his first term in office he nationalised the banks, gave women and illiterate people the right to vote and abolished the army. This last move is of course absolutely laudable – it is difficult, let’s say, to imagine Blair or even Gordon Brown doing the same – but it led to short-term problems during the, ahem, war with Nicaragua seven years later.

In 1958 the then vice-president of the US, Richard Nixon, was spat at by a crowd in Caracas, Venezuela while visiting on a goodwill tour. An inquiry was held to attempt to ascertain the causes of the incident, and Ferrer was asked to speak before the Congress in Washington. The wonderful speech he gave reminded me of one of something I posted last year on the politics of spitting, actually my second favourite thing I’ve wrote here, in which I typed:

One of the other potential uses of staring, spitting and other generally anti-social behaviour is in the field of International Relations. A logical and non-violent way of resolving the territorial disputes of the world is in the same way that cats do – if Saddam Hussein had had the foresight to piss all over Kuwait in 1990, the Americans would have been understandably less keen to go in and remove him. Similarly , if Mao Zedong had sent all those young Chinese soldiers to North Korea in 1950 armed only with the simple order to stand on the border and spit, maybe one million lives could have been saved.

Somehow I’ve always managed to restrain myself from adopting expectoration as a form of direct action, although the constant vigil outside the Marie Stopes Centre in Ealing next to where I work presents quite a challenge to this. In the speech Ferrer explicitly cites spitting as a form of resistance against imperial power, against what he calls the ‘moral spitting’ of the powerful. It is well worth reading the whole thing; it is a rousing piece of rhetoric, which may just make you want to, regardless of the potentially drastic consequences, run up to the gates of the nearest American embassy and let fly:

“As a citizen of the hemisphere, as a man who has dedicated his public life to promoting inter-American comprehension, as an educated man who knows and appreciates the United States and who has never tried to hide that appreciation to anyone, no matter how hostile he was, I deplore that the people of the Latin America, represented by a fistful of overexcited Venezuelans, have spat on a worthy public officer who represents the greatest nation of our time. But I must speak frankly and even rudely, because I am convinced that the situation demands it: the people cannot spit on a foreign policy, which was what they tried to do. But when they have exhausted all other means of trying to make themselves understood, the only thing left to do is spit.

“With all due respect to Vice-President Nixon, and with all my admiration towards his conduct, which was, during the events, heroic and ultimately noble, I have no choice but to say that the act of spitting, however vulgar it is, lacks a substitute in our language to express certain emotions… If you’re going to speak of human dignity in Russia, why is it so hard to speak of human dignity in the Dominican Republic? Where is intervention and where is non-intervention? Is it that a simple threat, a potential one, to your liberties, is, essentially, more serious that the kidnapping of our liberties?

“Of course you have made certain investments in the (Latin) American dictatorships. The aluminum companies extract bauxite almost for free. Your generals, your admirals, your public officers and your businessmen are treated there like royalty.

“Like your Senate verified yesterday, there are people who bribe the reigning dynasties with millions, to enjoy the privilege of hunting in their lands. They deduct the money from the taxes they pay in the US, but it returns to the country and, when it arrives to Hollywood, becomes extravagant furs and cars that bring down the fragile virtue of female stars. And, meanwhile, our women are kidnapped by gangsters, our men are castrated in the torture chambers and our illustrious professors disappear, lugubriously, from the halls of the University of Columbia, in New York. When one of your lawmakers calls this “collaboration to fight communism,” 180 million Latin Americans feel the need to spit.

“Spitting is a despicable custom, if done physically. But what about moral spitting? When your government invited Pedro Estrada, the Himmler of the Western Hemisphere, to be honored in Washington, didn’t you spit upon the face of all democrats in (Latin) America? … I can assure you that, when it comes to international economic policy, the United States seems to be willing to repeat certain errors of domestic policy that inflicted much damage in the past, including, of course, the ones that led to the great crisis of 1929.

“We, the Latin Americans, are tired of pointing to these mistakes; especially, the lack of interest in the prices of our products. Every time we suggest a plan to stabilize prices at a fair level you answer with economic slogans, like “the law of supply and demand” or “the free market system,” or with insults like “Aren’t we paying you enough money now?” We don’t beg, except in emergencies. We’re not people who will spit for money. We’ve inherited all the flaws of the Spanish character, but also some of its virtues.

“Our poverty does not diminish our pride. We have our dignity. What we want is to be paid a fair price for the sweat of our people, for the impoverishment of our land, when we provide a product needed by another country. That would be enough to live, to raise our own capital and to carry on with our own development.”

Isn’t that great?! Costa Rica sounds like a jolly nice place. Personally I’m hoping for los costarricenses against my beloved Angola in the World Cup final, and a tournament largely free of regrettable spitting incidents. Let everyone save up their ‘moral saliva’ for those who really deserve it!

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