FEBRUARY 12, 2020
ONE WAY TO LOSE a popularity contest in the United States is to mention in polite company — who may be chatting about, say, the impeachment or the Mueller investigation — the numerous ways the United States has meddled in the affairs of other countries throughout many years.
Rigging elections might be the most benign offense on a list that includes engineering military coups, forcing economic policies beneficial to corporations, or blasting another country to bits. And if you mention any of these truths, and the wrong person is in the crowd, there is a chance that the rebuttal will be the following old insult: if you don’t like the country, why don’t you just leave?
Belén Fernández did just that. And it was no whim. As she explains in her book Exile: Rejecting America and Finding the World, she left because the United States is, as she writes, a “large-scale lab experiment on how to best crush the human soul.”
The book carries the momentum of that very sentence, as Fernández relates more than 15 years spent journeying through Lebanon, Honduras, Turkey, Italy, and other places. The result is one of the most poignant, searing, and, at times, deadpan critiques of the United States and its mass media that I have ever read.
Fernández begins by describing her upbringing in the United States, including debilitating panic attacks that persisted into her university years. She attributed the panic attacks to “the fear that no one would help me — hardly an irrational sentiment in a system predicated on individual isolation and general estrangement from humanity.” This led to her 2003 departure from the United States, for good, with no other plan but just to get out. She left and never came back.
The result is an extraordinary and unorthodox travelogue. We join her in Lebanon, where she happened to marry a Palestinian-Lebanese man “as part of a heavily wine-fueled scheme to procure for him a U.S. passport, with which document he might travel to Israel to see his late father’s Palestinian family members in a village near Nazareth.” In Turkey, we are at the dinner table where a former intelligence agent goes on an anti-Kurd tirade after learning about the suicide attack (not done by Kurds) at the Istanbul airport in June 2016. Fernández writes, “I made the mistake of suggesting that perhaps his anti-Kurdish rant hadn’t been merited and was promptly accused of terrorist sympathies.”
Later, and on another occasion, while she was inhaling tear gas at an Istanbul café, she offered an example of the self-effacing prose found throughout the book: “As any moderately resilient person would do, I dug my nails into the stranger nearest to me and begged him not to let me die.”
As you progress through the short book, you can feel Fernández grinding and gnawing away, sentence by sentence, at the US-centric worldview. For example, she contrasts her travels with ample quotes from globetrotting New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman. In Exile, Friedman becomes representative of how world news is framed by the US media where American exceptionalism is a given, and the US military and corporations can go wherever they please. Friedman once posited, as Fernández quotes, that McDonald’s was the key to world peace, and on another, “McDonald’s can’t flourish without McDonnell Douglas, the builder of the F-15.” Or when Friedman wrote about the Central American Free Trade Agreement, he stated, “I wrote a column supporting the CAFTA, the Caribbean Free Trade Initiative [sic]. I didn’t even know what was in it. I just knew two words: free trade.”
Her prose had a way of crawling around in my thoughts long after I put the book down. I made the mistake, at one point, of turning on the news right after reading yet another story about Russia, this time about the potential of that country meddling in the 2020 US elections. I’ll tell you, I never felt so acutely aware of the US media echo chamber. Like Suzy Hansen in her acclaimed book Notes on a Foreign Country, Fernández shows the yawning divide between what is reported and what is actually happening across the globe through the lens of US foreign policy. She backs this with a plethora of examples across many countries and regions — rendered via a unique perspective garnered by her self-imposed exile and endless travel. The result is a book loaded with observations and adventures, ranging from the mundane to the revelatory (often both at the same time), and filled with a cast of characters and experiences that, in my case, continued to chatter in my mind after finishing the book. And they get louder when you listen to the news.
In this sense, by rejecting America to find the world, as the subtitle suggests, one of the book’s accomplishments is that Fernández does actually find the United States. She shows that it is an illusion to think that just by crossing the border, one actually leaves the country. She exposes a world where Washington and US corporations know no bounds abroad, and, reminiscent of European-style colonialism, regularly rob another country’s natural wealth (otherwise known as “free trade”) and then ship weapons to the same country to contain the dispossessed populations.
There is so little scrutiny of Honduras, for example, that discerning readers are left with reporting around “gang violence” with no further explanation, contemporary or historic, as if that’s just how it is “down there.” But Fernández begins her Honduras chapter recalling the June 2009 Honduran coup that ousted president Manuel Zelaya and the subsequent US promotion for a “free and fair election,” as put by then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. How this could happen after a democratically elected president was forced from office was never quite revealed. In the aftermath of the coup, homicides increased by 50 percent from 2008 to 2011. The country was left more open to US corporations and meddling than ever before.
By the end of the chapter, you see the fiercest and deadliest “gang” in Honduras was Washington: using Honduras as a launching pad for the violent Contra war in Nicaragua in the 1980s; then the endless trainings of Honduran military and police officials in the name of US interests; to a free-for-all for US corporations under an open border policy known as the Central America Free Trade Agreement. In the face of this, Fernández describes a US border enforcement strategy that confines Hondurans “to their appointed geographical spaces to consume US products, ingest Popeyes and Taco Bell, and basically suck it up and deal with whatever obscene brutality might come their way.” For my part, as a person who has both walked the streets of Tegucigalpa and San Pedro Sula and studied US border enforcement for two decades, this unfortunately glib analysis rings true. As Fernández writes: “The U.S. obsession with the sacrosanctity of its own borders clearly hasn’t stopped it from violating everyone else’s.”
Characteristically, Fernández renders these stories with insightful storytelling, such as when she had to stave off propositions from US-trained Honduran commander who, after an interview, claimed he was in search of a “second wife.”
Fernández doesn’t cover everything. She might have put more emphasis on the United States as the world’s historic top emitter of greenhouse gases. According to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre in Switzerland, for instance, people are already being displaced due to climate catastrophes at rates higher than war, roughly 22.5 million people per year. To her credit, though, she is very aware of the climate crisis (and how her plane travel contributes to it) and mentions it on several occasions, including in the closing pages where she cites a report forecasting potentially a billion people on the move in the near future.
Throughout the book, Fernández continually stresses that her exile is self-imposed, and that her US passport gives her the ability to cross the militarized borders that exclude most other people. And as I reached the final pages, what at the beginning were lingering thoughts became more forceful: the urgency for a globe that recognizes the freedom of movement for all people, and the urgency of a globe where people have the right to stay where they are. In both cases, US policies are an impediment.
At the same time, this book, in the end, is a personal treatise. In the most intimate way, long before the rumblings we hear today of other countries messing with US elections and internal affairs, Fernández had impeached the United States. As she writes near the end, by leaving the United States she might have other problems, but the debilitating panic attacks have long left her.
Todd Miller is the author of Empire of Borders: The Expansion of the U.S. Border Around the World; Storming the Wall: Climate Change, Migration, and Homeland Security; and Border Patrol Nation: Dispatches from the Front Lines of Homeland Security.