‘That Sixty Million Americans Voted For Him Is Terrifying’

Joseph Zarate’s in-depth reporting* on the effects of natural resource extraction on indigenous communities and the land in Peru have won him a reputation as one of Latin America’s most insightful and accomplished young journalists. Here, he gives International Boulevard a glance from his vantage point on the United States as Donald J. Trump takes power.

As a Peruvian, how do you interpret Donald Trump’s victory? Did it surprise you or change how view the United States?

It still seems unlikely to me that such a grotesque character as Trump could win over millions of voters with this xenophobic, misogynistic, and fascist rhetoric. How is it possible that 60 million North Americans could overlook Trump’s brutality, despite the international media campaign that was launched against him? This election convinced me once again that the absolute power of the media does not exist. The media does not change basic conduct spontaneously, but reinforces conducts that are in the process of transformation. If Trump’s rhetoric and behavior were validated by nearly a half of the voters, it is because those voters agree, partially or completely, with some of his ideas and proposals. And that mentality, for me, is the most terrifying thing in this situation.

The largest media outlets underestimated the growing discontent that exists in the towns in the middle of the country, where Trump won convincingly. There, Trump turned into a catalyst for white men and women with lower levels of education, people who are tired of unfulfilled promises, of politicians from Washington who every four years come out and ask for them to vote for the establishment that shelters its own privilege and its own multi-million dollar companies that benefit from thousands of laborers like them. The indignation is understandable. But because these people are frustrated and angry does not mean they will make the right choice. And now we know how that turned out.

The United States has turned over power to a man who, like an angry child, attacks and threatens anyone who criticizes him, who promotes discrimination against Latinos and Muslims, who denigrates women, just to mention a few of his low blows. I feel like the United States is entering an era of monumental corruption that even the writers for ‘House of Cards’ could not have imagined.

As as journalist who frequently writes about the human and environmental cost of natural resource extraction, how do you face Trump’s victory? And where does new Peruvian president Pedro Pablo Kuczynski [Peruvians call him PPK] fit in?

It is concerning to think in terms of environmental politics, not just for the United States but for the world. At a time when the world’s countries have reached an agreement to lower our carbon emissions (the Paris Agreement, for example), Trump is a guy who thinks global warming is a myth, a lie made up by ecologists and scientists to frighten nations and oil companies. It does not surprise me that the choice for head of the EPA would be Scott Pruitt, the former attorney general from Oklahoma who does not believe in global warming either, and who has dedicated his energy to blocking in the courts Obama’s regulations to fight global warming. Trump represents the kind of businessman/dinosaur who only wants to milk natural resources to ensure profits.

PPK, the Peruvian president, has a different profile. He is a right-wing politician but is more of a policy wonk and less extreme than Trump. However, in terms of environmental policy, up until now his administration has focused on removing roadblocks and regulations so mining and oil companies can operate in the country. The environmental conflicts in the Peruvian Amazon, most of all the ongoing oil spills (in 2016 alone there are have been 14 spills from the Norperuano Pipeline), have not been resolved.

There are no effective sanctions, and meanwhile the indigenous communities cannot drink the water or fish or bathe because the rivers are contaminated with oil. The absurdity of this administration was on display in December 2016 when the Minister of the Environment gave the National Environmental Prize to Pluspetrol, the Argentine oil company that has received the most fines in recent years for contaminating the Peruvian jungle. What can we expect? Thinking about the answer scares me.

PPK said at one time that he would cut diplomatic ties with the U.S. if Trump won, but now speaks in more conciliatory terms. How do you see the future of relations between Peru and the U.S.?

I have not followed closely what PPK has said about Trump, but the other day I read where PPK criticized him for his economic ideas. I think it is good that he criticizes him. However, PPK has demonstrated that he is not a confrontational leader. He is a politician who adjusts on the fly and prefers reconciliation, even if that means making a deal with people who want to destroy him (like the Fujimori party[political competitors in Peru]). I do not doubt one bit that when it is time to talk to Trump, he will forget about his criticisms and end up caving, like all of his predecessors have, to the economic policies of that country.

It is enough to look at the many social and environmental conflicts generated in the Peru by the free trade agreement signed with the United States, which pushed through laws that threatened the integrity of the indigenous communities and made environmental regulations more lax to benefit mining and oil companies, in name of the old “progress for everyone” fallacy.

It has happened and it will happen again. It is sad and enraging. Fortunately, our civic conscience is growing more and more and citizens are coming out to protest and not let their rights be stepped on.

*International Boulevard has translated several of Joseph Zarate’s luminous profiles of South American environmental activists:

The Lady of the Lake Vs the Black Lagoon.

The Man Who Chose the Forest, and Died For It.

The Woman Who Bore the River on Her Back.

Brian Hagenbuch Translated from Spanish by International Boulevard