It’s been interesting to follow the American presidential election from afar. Though I infrequently interact with Americans down here in Guatemala, the election still comes up in discussions almost daily. The economic crisis also.
Last night was particularly interesting.
I watched the second presidential debate with a group of people from my Spanish school that included a few Israelis, a Belizean, a French-American, and a fellow Midwesterner. We got some beers and had a good time watching the debate on CNN. The Belizean — an older man named Mario — even hung around to watch the post-debate analysis with me, and we had some good conversations about American politics.
It impressed me that the non-Americans were so interested. I mean, it’s not like these debates are all fireworks; they can be very boring for anyone uninterested in rhetoric, politics, or policy. Not only were the non-Americans well informed, particularly about American involvement in the Middle East, but we all seemed to share similar views. I was pleased to see everyone rally around Obama.
In particular, people took loud offense to McCain’s memorable reference to Obama as “that one” (video), which I personally felt was condescending as well as — intentionally or not — racially charged. For pete’s sake, McCain couldn’t bring himself to refer to Obama by name or even shake his hand at the end of the debate, but he has no problem objectifying him in a demeaning manner.
As interested as many people here are in our election, I find myself talking more often about the financial crisis. Perhaps that’s because non-Americans down here are confused about why there is a crisis in the first place. Besides the confusion, they’re concerned. As my Spanish teacher explained the other day, “When the United States has a cold, the rest of the world also gets sick.”
Somewhat relatedly, I’ve enjoyed meeting several Israelis here who have served in the military, plus a former Australian soldier at my school who served in Iraq. These encounters are frequent reminders that war is very real and has consequences that extend far beyond the political arena or the news media.
Most memorable was a long conversation I had with an Israeli who shared some of his experiences in the summer 2006 war with Hezbollah, known in Israel as the Second Lebanon War, when Katyusha rockets were raining down on the northern region of Israel, including the large city of Haifa. I followed that war with great interest, watching a lot of CNN that summer, so it was fascinating to hear some first-hand experiences.
Unlike in the United States, where it’s often the disadvantaged and underprivileged who march off to fight our wars, military service is compulsory in Israel. In fact, most of the Israelis I’ve met here in Guatemala — and there are many here — have recently finished serving their time in the military. They come here to travel cheaply around the Americas for several months before returning home and either going to college or starting a career.
While I have some reservations about America’s alliance with Israel, I’ve come to develop a greater respect for the Israelis I meet here. They’re among my favorites — always interesting and generally cool to hang out with, and often filled with curious military tales.