By Peter Stromberg
As I stood on the beach last weekend, I found myself engaged in a conversation with an Ecuadorian businessman who had been involved in international affairs for the past two decades. Having lived in Canada, the United States, Korea, and Japan, he had spent his adult life immersed in various cultures and ways of life across the globe. I was taken aback by his candid assessment of the United States, especially considering the recent assassination of a prominent presidential candidate in Ecuador, just a week before their federal elections and a few days prior to our conversation.
He declared, "America isn't what it used to be. Today, I wouldn't aspire to live there as I once did. When I was growing up, it was everyone's dream to go to America and become American. But it's different now. I'd prefer to be in Ecuador."
As I gazed out over the Pacific Ocean and contemplated his words, it felt like hearing something I had recently sensed but had never heard articulated so clearly. Although our backgrounds couldn't be more distinct, we had reached the same conclusions despite taking vastly different paths.
As an American, it's one thing for me to willingly relinquish the so-called "privileged" lifestyle of comfort and opportunity. It's acceptable for me to question American exceptionalism. Yet, hearing this perspective from someone from a developing part of the world was astonishing. I found myself feeling a sense of shame at the judgmental thought that crossed my mind: who is this Ecuadorian to criticize? Is he genuinely suggesting that he'd rather reside in Ecuador than in the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave? I appreciate statements that jolt you, that strike you in the gut. They're usually indicators that one of your fundamental beliefs is being challenged—a gut punch of sorts.
His words prompted me to consider a crucial question: what does America appear to be when viewed from outside its borders? When you zoom out to take in the bigger picture, it's not a flattering sight. Let me provide a couple of examples...
One of the most glaring instances of America's influence causing upheaval is the proxy war against Russia unfolding in Ukraine, the poorest country in Europe. Despite which version of events you trust, the casualties resulting from this war are staggering. Estimates put the number of soldiers killed on the Ukrainian side at over 400,000 in this conflict, making it difficult to justify once the dust settles and the anticipated outcome of a smaller Ukrainian territory materializes.
In a misstep, the U.S. attempted to weaken Russia with financial sanctions that ultimately lacked the potency to destabilize the Ruble as intended. This strategic error will have far-reaching consequences for the world economy. The act of weaponizing the U.S. dollar and eroding international confidence in its stability has already altered the financial landscape. The established notion that the U.S. dollar would remain the world's reserve currency, which has held since the 1960s, is shifting as a multipolar world emerges. With the increasing membership of BRICS nations, this tectonic shift in the global economic order appears increasingly inevitable, further underscored by each billion-dollar "aid" package thoughtlessly dispatched to Europe's glaringly corrupt NATO hopeful.
Even following a global pandemic that claimed countless lives and caused unimaginable hardship, the citizens of the United States are still without proper healthcare. It stands as the sole developed nation that fails to provide a safety net proportionate to its wealth. The incredulity of not being able to afford basic healthcare in the world's largest economy is confounding.
As the people of Hawaii witness their homes and businesses reduced to ashes, the government has tethered aid to a condition: they demand the simultaneous approval of an additional multi billion-dollar Ukrainian aid package.
According to a Newsweek article, approximately $46 billion in non-military aid flowed to Ukraine in the past year alone. The same article boasts about allocating a mere $700 per American household affected by recent fires. As the article unfolds, this pattern continues, culminating in the introduction of a “charitable” loan package for fire victims. The article states: "Homeowners and renters in Maui can secure loans up to $500,000 at 2.5% interest for home repairs or reconstruction, or up to $100,000 for repairing or replacing personal property. Businesses can claim loans up to $2 million at 4% interest." Impressively favorable interest rates, indeed—for the victims of a natural disaster that was arguably caused by an incompetent state owned power grid that failed due to an acknowledged lack of maintenance.
It's rather unbelievable that the U.S. government is attempting to profit from loans extended to disaster victims as they rebuild their lives and communities, while handing over aid to the Ukrainian government without any strings attached. I'm not naive; I understand that there will likely be returns for the U.S. in the form of reconstruction scams and resource extraction. Nevertheless, when you're a taxpayer who has spent your entire life in Hawaii, it's a tough pill to swallow watching aid pour into a country most Americans struggle to locate on a map, while aid for your own citizens in dire straits pales in comparison.
It's a challenge to take pride in this situation, and the list goes on. Our American opioid crisis is another stark example of what not to do. According to data from USAFACTS, "In 2021, the U.S. witnessed 70,601 fatalities due to fentanyl overdoses. This represents a 25% increase from 2020 and nearly a twofold surge from the number of fentanyl-related deaths in 2019. Fentanyl-related deaths in 2021 were over 26 times higher than a decade ago."
In major cities on the East and West coasts, open-air drug markets create scenes reminiscent of a zombie apocalypse movie. Needles protruding from people's arms in public spaces, alongside heaps of human waste strewn across landscapes. From San Francisco to Philadelphia, the confluence of the opioid epidemic with the homelessness crisis paints a grim picture.
One can also consider the crime rates. A quick Wikipedia search reveals that as of July 31, 2023, there have been 427 shootings resulting in at least 492 deaths and 1,708 injuries. These statistics are unparalleled worldwide. Nowhere else on the planet experiences the magnitude of gun violence that we do. School shootings have become an American pastime, consuming our thoughts and prayers as a nation. As our nation lacks sufficient mental health care facilities, contends with a mounting addiction crisis, and faces a shrinking middle class grappling with an unsteady economy, we're unlikely to witness a significant drop in these numbers unless sweeping cultural and legislative reforms transpire. Yet, don't hold your breath.
And what about ordinary citizens? A Pew Research Center article highlights, "The middle class, once comprising a clear majority of American adults, has steadily dwindled over the past five decades. The share of adults residing in middle-class households has dropped from 61% in 1971 to 50% in 2021, based on a new Pew Research Center analysis of government data."
The article goes on to elucidate that as the middle class recedes, the wealth disparity between the two ends of the spectrum grows more pronounced. The age-old adage of "the rich get richer, the poor get poorer" rings true. As the middle class bears the brunt of economic policies driven by our shortsighted and avaricious leaders, their plight is compounded by the blank checks written to the industrial war complex—funding perpetual wars that stoke inflation and impact everyday Americans at the grocery store.
So, you may wonder where I'm headed with this extensive catalog of grievances concerning my homeland. Over the past two years, Ecuador has grappled with its own growing pains and political unrest, grappling with rising crime and heightened political instability. As previously mentioned, the murder of a prominent presidential candidate cast a shadow over the presidential elections. While recent times have been marked by increased violence, including shockingly surreal reports of Mexican gang-style atrocities in urban centers, Ecuador is currently navigating an uncertain period.
But... As crazy as it might seem from the perspective of Vice News in this little South American paradise, and as I field calls from friends and family residing in the U.S., inquiring about our well-being in such a perilous country... I can't help but smile at their lack of concern for their own supposedly “safe" or civilized country.
I suppose it boils down to the nature of danger itself. Is it the danger of living in the world's most heavily propagandized nation, unaware of the world beyond your borders? Is it the peril of recognizing that you're being manipulated and misled by authorities? Is it the risk of walking through the streets of any major American city after dark? Is it the peril of homelessness? The danger of being unable to afford nourishing, genuine, organic food free of contaminants? The threat of falling ill and being unable to afford medical treatment? Ultimately, as the sun sets over the Pacific Ocean and I wiggle my toes in the warm sand, I can't help but feel that I've defied the odds. I've escaped the confines of the matrix. Perhaps there are dangers here, but name a place on Earth free from them. Nonetheless, when I compare a life in the U.S. to the life one can craft in Ecuador, it's challenging to explain the certainty in my heart that Ecuador is where I belong—despite the genuine or perceived dangers.