My parents were all dedicated to fighting U.S. imperialism around the world. I’m dedicated to the same thing.”Chesa Boudin, New York Times, 12/9/2002
I recognized there there are cases for where armed struggle is a legitimate tool for social and political change in the face of much greater, more highly organized force.Chesa Boudin, Gringo, 2009
But far from avoiding the legacy of his parents, Boudin embraces it. It is impossible to understand him, the author says, without understanding the strong impression that their politics made on his own.James Kirchick, The New Republic, Fall 2009
As members of the Weather Underground, San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin’s biological parents bombed a number of buildings in an attempt to overthrow the United States. After killing a few innocent people, they were jailed in 1981, and a one-year-old Chesa was adopted.
You might have hoped that Chesa’s adoptive parents would have been less radical. No such luck. Not only were Bill Ayers and Bernadine Dorhn members of the Weather Underground – they were the founders of the movement. On the run from the government for years after committing a series of felonies, they only escaped serious jail time because some of the evidence against them turned out to have been illegally obtained.
Meet the parents:
Given these two fine sets of folks, it’s worth asking how much daylight there is between Chesa’s value system and those of his murderous moms and dads.
And we’ve got plenty of information here, thanks to Chesa’s 2009 autobiography “Gringo”, which, as the name implies, reflects mainly his experiences in Latin America. Reviewing the book, The New York Times rolled its eyes at Chesa’s insipid observations and stilted writing:
There is no wit in “Gringo,” no humor, no sharp observations, no strange or thrilling adventures.New York Times, 4/16/2009
No, there isn’t. But “Gringo” has plenty of a few other things, including a burning hatred for America, a desire for radical socialist revolution, and the promotion of Venezuela as a model civilization. Let’s move through each country Chesa visits, and learn about the man as we go.
The book begins with his trip to a Spanish immersion program in Guatemala during high school. Newly arrived in the country, he walks past a factory and logs:
The sweatshops I saw that day…were one of the faces of neoliberalism that defined the economic landscape I was travelling through. Guatemala, like many countries across the global south at the time, was part of the “Washington Consensus”, a partnership with American-based financial institutions like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund…this resulted in such disastrous economic performance that the 1980s became known as the “lost decade” in Latin America.
A few points here. First, his views parrot exactly those of his terrorist parents. The Weather Underground was founded to fight against so called “American Imperialism“. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.
Second, as their names imply, the World Bank and International Monetary Fund are not American institutions, but global organizations with the majority of the world’s countries as members.
Third, the “disastrous economic performance” in Latin America in the 1980s was due mostly to local governments’ behavior in the 1970s. Here’s how former Chairman of the Federal Reserve Ben Bernanke, who has just slightly more economic expertise than Chesa, explains it:
[Latin American] Governments had run up large amounts of external debt in the 1970s in an attempt to maintain growth in the face of oil price shocks and macroeconomic mismanagement at home. But in 1982, during a period of high real interest rates and slow growth around the globe, Mexico briefly defaulted on its debt, an event that marked the beginning of the debt crisis of the 1980s. The crisis effectively closed off the region’s access to international credit.
In reality, bad luck, poor management, and too much debt lead to this “lost decade”. In Chesaworld, it was all the America’s fault.
What else in Guatemala is America to blame for? Well, pretty much everything.
You might find it a stretch to blame the bad teeth people in poor countries like Guatemala have on America, but Chesa finds away. The culprits? Pepsi and Coke. Chesa sees ads for these in the country, and surmises omnisciently that these imperialist companies have “left even young children’s teeth rotten, while adults had more metal caps than I’d seen anywhere outside rap videos.”
Chesa moves in with his host local family, and immediately begins indoctrinating them on the evils of the US, boring them to tears:
I regularly sought conversation about the tragic history that decades of brutal civil war, unleashed by a United State-supported coup, had visited on the country. But whenever I tried initiating a discussion about President Jacobo Arbenz and the role of the CIA in overthrowing him back in 1954, my host family and their friends seemed uninterested.
Really, Chesa? Nobody cared about a rich teenager, lucky enough to have been born in the US, slumming it with a poor host family while espousing anti-American theories? No irony there. I bet you were fun at parties.
In Chesaworld, every shortcoming in Guatemala can be tied back to the US. Poor diet and environmental damage? Yup, America’s fault:
High-quality meat was being produced locally, often on land that had been cleared of jungle using slash-and-burn techniques, with all the attendant environmental problems. But this was too expensive for locals and was shipped to Guatemala City – or more often to the United States.
So, what do we know so far? That Chesa, just like his four parents, really doesn’t like the US.
Having diagnosed the ills of Guatemala, Chesa returns to Chicago, and heads off to college, where he does a study abroad program in Chile.
Terroist leanings in Chile
Chesa visits Chile in 2001. He spends his time there feeling guilty for being American:
Many Chilean military officials implicated in the [1973 Pinochet] coup, torture, and human rights abuses were trained the US….Even though I wasn’t born at the time of the atrocities, I felt connected to them, and somehow implicated.
Pinochet’s coup and the downfall of Chile’s democratic socialist experiment had represented a victory for United States imperialism and corporate profits. It was hard not to feel a sense of shame for the role the US government and the CIA played in supporting the Pinochet dictatorship….
Here, stunningly, Chesa praises his parents’ terrorist activities in the US:
But I took solace in the fact that my family, unlike other study abroad students I knew in Chile, had taken action in support of Chilean democracy, against the coup and their own government’s disgraceful role in it.
What actions is Chesa praising here? It was around this time that his parents’ terrorist organization was bombing both the US Capitol and the Pentagon, Osama Bin Laden-style. And it’s here that he gives us the quote at the top of this post, about the benefits of armed struggle.
For the record, the US had no direct role in the Pinochet coup, though it did support elements against Marxist Salvadore Allende, after he joined forces with the USSR and threatened to nationalize US companies operating legally there.
What we learned: America does horrible things, and violent responses, like those of his parents, are probably ok.
Venezuela: The Promised Land
I’ll spare you quotes from Chesa’s travels through Argentina, but suffice to say the US, the CIA, and the IMF and really, really, bad actors responsible for every malady in the country.
In his next adventure, worthy of a brief mention, Chesa travels to Brazil in 2003, thrilled at the election of Socialist President Luiz Lula.
I was excited by the prospect of a country as powerful as Brazil having a progressive, working class president.
Unfortunately, Lula didn’t ultimately seem radical enough for Chesa’s tastes:
Lula would ultimately disappoint many of those on the traditional Brazil left with conservative economic policies and good relations with Washington…
Ask yourself: which parts of the global community see good relations with America as a bad thing? Yet these are the people Chesa aligns himself with repeatedly in the book.
Lula, incidentally, was later sentenced to 10 years in prison for corruption and money laundering.
Finally, in 2006, Chesa lands in Venezuela, then in the process of transforming its country from a market economy into the type of socialist paradise Chesa admires so much.
Chesa isn’t one to let ignorance stop him, as long as radical politics are on the menu:
I knew almost noting about the Chavez government except that it purported to represent power to the people, wealth redistribution, and anti-imperialist global south regionalism, which sounded like worthy goals to me.
What could possibly go wrong?
Chesa gets caught up in Chavez destructively unique brand of socialism:
One of Chavez’s central themes was that to end poverty, power had to be given to the poor. That simple concept made sense in a revolutionary kind of way, and I wondered why I hadn’t heard it articulated so concisely before.
Before long, he actually joins the Chavez administration as a translator. He realizes, to his delight, that he’s playing an active role in the type of socialist revolution his parents could only dream (or perhaps bomb) about:
I had heard plenty of of criticisms of export-oriented neoliberal economies before…rarely had they put forward alternative models on a national scale, and the had never, to my knowledge, been seriously debated within the inner circles of a head of state….Venezuela seemed like the perfect country to try and imagine and implement an alternative system.
These must have been heady times for our young radical:
I took to signing my emails to friends and family “in the belly of the revolution”
While the Chavez administration was typically suspicious of Americans, Chesa had the ultimate revolutionary pedigree.
I had found one of the few places on the planet where having parents in prison in the United States for politically motivated crimes actually opened doors rather than closed them.
Tip: when you find yourself working for any organization that glorifies Americans in jail for murder, it may be time to seek other employment.
Chesa believed so deeply in the socialist revolution in Venezuela that he co-authored a book on the subject:
And translated another of Chavez’s speeches:
The results of Chesa and Chavez’s radical socialist policies were predictable and depressing. Paragraph 3 of his Wikipedia article says it all.
What we learned: Chesa loves the radical socialism of Chavez’s Venezuela.
Colombia, and wrapping up
A couple of years later, Chesa heads down to Colombia, to survey the awful damage the US has wrought on the country:
President Uribe, a darling of the US State Department, has a sordid history. His popularity in Washington as a conservative, pro-United States neoliberal….
That association with America, the Great Satan, is all Chesa needs to know to condemn him. In a meeting in Colombia, Chesa condemns the US in sweeping terms:
I was self-conscious of our position as the only two representatives from the United States, a country that, directly or indirectly, had fueled the violence in all of the Latin American countries represented in our solemn gathering.
Who makes such statements, besides terrorists and deeply misguided radicals? Chesa is one of the two.
The book continues in the same way. His next trip is to Ecuador, where, of course:
United States oriented economic policies, particularity the dollarization of the economy, had totally undermined the area’s traditional sustenance farming economy.
Probably not a bad thing – “sustenance farming” doesn’t seem like much of a life. But Chesa can’t resist a dig at the US.
Back in Venezuela in 2006, Chesa continues with his now-familiar tirades against the US. Just one example, which succinctly sums up Chesa’s world view:
Maybe if we “estadounidenses” [Americans] did a better job of making sure our tax dollars didn’t go toward undermining democratic experiments or overthrowing or destabilizing governments unwilling to adhere to US policy imperatives, people in countries like Venezuela could do a better job resolving their own internal problems.
You get the idea. No shortcoming of any country is anyone’s fault but ours.
At the end of the book, a 28 year old Chesa is living in New York City, but keeps a close eye on his hero down south:
I followed from afar as Chavez introduced a new currency, removed price controls on milk, and successfully brokered the release of hostages held for years in Columbia.
What we learned: The usual. America, Bad. Venezuela, Good.
“Gringo” gives us plenty of insights into the mind of a young, revolutionary radical. Will Chesa take up bombing government buildings in the hopes of destroying the “Imperialist America” he despises? It’s hard to say, but the fact that we even have to consider the question makes you wonder if Chesa Boudin is the right person to head criminal prosecutions, acting on behalf of the government, in San Francisco.
4 thoughts on “Travels with Chesa”
Well written. It’s also worth checking out the 2002 documentary called ‘The Weather Underground’. They were responsible for a number of bombings around San Francisco.
Might be worth pointing out the other (Democrat-led) petition to recall Boudin, at safersfwithoutboudin.com
I guess the thinking is that a recall effort led by Republicans is bound to fail in SF, which is why a group of Democrats started their own.
Liberal New Yorkers voted for (fellow liberal) Mike Bloomberg, who ran as a Republican.
I guess voters are smarter than to be scared off by such labels, especially when they aren’t true.