My Life in Saudi Arabia
by Carmen Bin Ladin
Warner Books, 2004

by Chesley Hicks

“Socially, Saudi Arabia is medieval, dark with sin and interdiction,” opens chapter seven of Carmen Bin Ladin’s chronicle of the years she spent married to Yeslam Bin Ladin, one of the infamous Osama’s 22 brothers.

In her 2004 memoir, recently out in paperback, the Western-raised, half-Swiss, half-Persian Bin Ladin (the book refers to Carmen and Yeslam as Bin Ladin, and the rest of the clan, including the notorious brother, as Bin Laden) outlines how she came to meet and marry a young Saudi Arabian jetsetter, leave her Geneva home, and endure life for nine years as a near-captive on his family compound in the Arabian desert.

Bin Ladin describes how the path to this fate really began with her mother. Far from fundamentalist, but nonetheless socially conventional, Carmen’s mother was eager for her eldest daughter to find a husband after her own husband—Carmen’s father, a Swiss man—abruptly left her. Carmen says that when she first met her future husband in Geneva, both were young, idealistic, and living Western lives. At the time, his family—who were taking a long vacation in Geneva—also struck the author as open-minded and even hip. However, as she gradually became acquainted with Yeslam’s family on their own turf, Carmen recognized that her husband was different from the rest—more progressive and appreciative of her Western values and autonomy—just as she was radically different from the Bin Laden clan’s subjugated wives and sisters. Even so, when the oil boom hit Saudi Arabia in the ’70s and it became apparent that colossal cash piles could be collected doing business there, Carmen and Yeslam decided to make a go of it in the desert kingdom.

Before moving there for good after the birth of their first daughter, the couple made several trips to Saudi Arabia, the earliest in order to procure the Saudi King’s mandatory permission to marry. From beneath an abaya—the compulsory head-to-toe covering for Saudi women—Carmen made her prescient first encounter with Saudi Arabia: “I watched the desert approach as we landed. The light through the black gauze cloth was so dim, I didn’t know if this new country was simply the darkest, dimmest place I had ever seen, or if the cloth across my eyes was preventing me from seeing anything that was there.”

Her ensuing Saudi wedding was likewise foreboding. “I waited, in my abaya, in the car,” she writes. “Yeslam and Ibrahim [his brother] brought me out a book that I had to sign. That was the marriage register… Then someone took the book back and we were married.” On this first visit to Saudi Arabia and with each subsequent one, Carmen portrays her increasing awareness of Saudi culture’s deeply entrenched misogyny, utter disregard for women’s welfare, and penchant for violent oppression. Yet she says that when the young couple arrived there to live, she was optimistic. “I thought [wearing the abaya] was temporary,” she writes. “Jeddah was booming, and foreigners had come flocking to the country… I assumed that Saudi culture would move into the modern world, just as other cultures had.” Writing in hindsight, Carmen seems alternately appreciative of and dismayed by her naive temerity, which she says was born both of her youth and having been a teenager in the revolutionary-feeling sixties. Coming from what appears to have been a sheltered, wealthy environment, it’s fair to say she found her Altamont in Saudi Arabia, 1979.

From 1976 to 1979, Carmen witnessed massive, breakneck modern development in Saudi Arabia. Though the culture followed at a glacial pace—she spent those years adjusting to harsh Saudi protocols, learning to circumscribe her public behavior while creating a liberal safe haven within her own home—she describes a relative loosening of fundamentalist strictures. Women began to appear in public without the full abaya, some of the Bin Laden wives brought their children to the birthday parties Carmen threw for her daughters (observation of birthdays is considered sacrilege by some strict Saudi Muslims). But it all came to a grinding halt in 1979 with the overthrow of the Shah of Iran. The Iranian revolution caused panic in the royal family, which was already straining between the pull of the austere Wahabist Islam it purported to uphold and many of the royal family members’ libertine inclinations. “The more debauched princes,” Carmen writes, “continued indulging in their privately lavish lifestyles, while at the same time the royal family enforced increasing restrictions on the ordinary people they ruled.” Nearly overnight, the kingdom’s streets reverted to its brutish, tribal past, the culture of which Carmen spends a good portion of her book dissecting—revealing the parts to be even less appealing than the desiccated whole.

Throughout book—sometimes with a redundancy perhaps resounding with the years spent silent on the matter, and with how intensely she believes it a threat to the world—Carmen depicts a Saudi culture as crude as the oil that sustains it. She contrasts the culture of Saudi Islam with the Persian Islamic culture of her grandmother: “The Saudi version of Islam—Wahabism—is ferocious in its enforcement of a stark and ancient social code. This is not a complex intellectual culture like that of Iran or Egypt.” In her view, contemporary Saudi Arabia amounts to little more than a primitive tribal society that stumbled upon a whole lotta money, which has brought the country gross material wealth and power but not a whit of sophistication or enlightenment. She offers vivid, succinct depictions of the ways in which the Saudis have adopted garish and gaudy simulations of Western opulence without any sense of form or function She describes her first impression of her mother-in-law’s home: “It was a relief to take off my abaya. Suddenly the light inside the house seemed blinding. There were so many chandeliers blazing, it was like stepping into a lamp shop… The lack of sophistication surprised me. I had imagined an exotic Oriental abode, like in the movies, or like my grandmother’s home in Iran. After all, Yeslam’s father had been one of the richest men in Saudi Arabia. But this was just a basic house furnished in poor taste.” She also presents numerous examples of comically absurd but painfully oppressive Saudi moral bureaucracy, generally employed to keep women lowly.

And where she thought she might find sorority among the repressed women with whom she lived in the Bin Laden compound, she instead found relationships among wives and sisters to be superficial and catty—a consequence in part of their being relentlessly segregated, herded, and quartered like breeding heifers. Carmen depicts many Saudi women as spiritually and intellectually lobotomized, forced to get by on the favors they are able to curry from the men who control them, usually by dint of deceit and manipulation. Their dynamic reflects a concentration camp mentality—the sense that there are never enough resources to go around and what is given to another extracts from one’s own welfare. This might seem strange in as wealthy a nation as Saudi Arabia, but polygamy is the norm there—so it seems each wife knows she is only as good as her last performance. Even the wives’ forays into lesbianism come off as desperate attempts to compensate for what they don’t get from men and aren’t allowed to do for themselves. Carmen addresses these behaviors with varying degrees of compassion and resentment, and of course takes care to detail the exceptions—a handful of women with whom she could relate, including some who remained close following her estrangement from the kingdom.

And the men in Carmen’s kingdom are generally craven-hearted brutes wearing complacent veneers. By adolescence, Carmen says, boys have learned to control their own mothers with an arrogance and sense of entitlement bred deeply into them. Within the family, they are subject mainly to birth order. The formerly nomadic tribes relied heavily on patrilineal clan organization: still in full effect today according to Carmen. “Families are headed by patriarchs and obedience to the patriarch is absolute,” she writes. “The only values that count in Saudi Arabia are loyalty and submission—first to Islam then to the clan.”

Carmen says she got by not just pursuing illusory Saudi liberalism, but by going on a mission to educate herself on the country’s history and the inextricably entangled intrigues of the Saudi royal and Bin Laden families. She achieved her goal by listening to the conversations around her and reading books and newspapers smuggled in from elsewhere. Apparently the governmental watchdogs dared not investigate luggage or packages bearing the Bin Laden name, so she even was able to access information that was critical of the royal family.

The result of that inquiry helps make Inside the Kingdom the compelling read it is. Carmen connects what’s going on in her personal life to what’s happening globally and in Saudi Arabia in particular. It’s a view into Saudi culture and a political history lesson, shown in the unfolding of the author’s personal saga.

Carmen’s rendition of modern Saudi affairs resides largely in an examination of legacy, which is a recurring theme in the book. She frames the current state of the Bin Laden family as reflective of each brother’s relationship to the pious, self-made, and shrewd patriarch, Sheik Mohammed Bin Laden, who had 22 wives and 54 children before he died at age 59 in a plane crash—rumored to have occurred en route to his taking a 23rd wife. “Sadly,” Carmen writes, “none of his children has ever really measured up to Sheikh Mohamed,” her misgivings about the family he spawned oddly notwithstanding her admiration for the legend of the man she never met. One doesn’t have to read too far between Inside the Kingdom‘s lines to see that Carmen craves a father figure.

Similarly, Carmen identifies her haste to marry as, in part, answering her mother’s insecurity and concern for appearances—something that she says was not of her mother’s true character but a carry-over from her Iranian upbringing that only expressed itself after she was humiliated by her husband’s departure. (Carmen’s mother never admitted her divorce to her own family). “That is what it meant to me to be from the Middle East,” Carmen writes. “You lived behind secrets. You hid things that were disagreeable.” It is not clear when in Carmen’s life she fully figured this out, though she describes an epiphany—one of a few in the book—she had upon returning to Iran as an adult. Though she maintains her respect for the rich and ancient Iranian culture, she describes having been devastated to find that life on Iran’s streets did not resemble the aristocratic gardens within the walls of her grandmother’s estate she visited as a child. Carmen says she told Yeslam when she first met him that she would never marry, as she didn’t want to see her children abandoned by a father as she and her three sisters were. Yet about 15 years later, that is precisely the predicament in which Carmen finds herself.

And in that vein, the dissolution of the Saudi royal family itself can be seen as a microcosm of modern Saudi Arabia. Carmen says there are rumored to be some 25,000 in the Saudi clan now, and she portrays the generation coming to dominate the country as remarkably shiftless. They all receive some stipend or another from the country’s oil wealth and believe themselves above work (Carmen depicts Saudis relying heavily upon yet abusing their foreign hired help, treating them as slaves). Add to that the Saudi belief that, as the caretakers of Mecca, they are a chosen people, and you have delusional, dysfunctional elite—yet depicted as possessing little substance with which to fill their lives. One can only wonder how that legacy will unfold when the oil wells begin to run dry.

Returning to the Bin Laden legacy: there is the book’s tacitly central character of Osama, and there is Yeslam. Among Carmen’s chief reasons for writing her memoir, she says, was the opportunity to exonerate her daughters and herself from the scourge wrought on their surname, and to warn the world of the roiling Saudi threat. Osama, she says, was neither a black sheep nor an exalted member of the Bin Laden family while she lived in the compound. She met him only briefly on a few occasions and comes to no definitive conclusion about him other than that his pious commitment to strict fundamentalism and its causes celebres seemed to earn him increasing respect in polarized, backward-sliding Saudi society. Near the book’s conclusion she writes: “I cannot believe that the Bin Ladens have cut Osama off completely. I simply can’t see them depriving a brother of his annual dividend from their father’s company, and sharing it among themselves. This would be unthinkable—among the Bin Ladens, no matter what a brother does, he remains a brother.” She also says: “It’s certainly possible that Osama retains ties to the royal family, too. The Bin Ladens and the princes work together, very closely. They are secretive and they are united.” On 9-ll she asserts: “Though they have made a few public statements condemning the tragedy, neither clan has gone to any length to prove that they have not given Osama Bin Laden and Al Qaida moral and financial support in the past, and that they are currently not doing so.”

Yeslam, as it turns out, succumbs to neuroses and, ultimately, to the pull of the clan’s gravity. According to Carmen, Saudi Arabia is a nation of wealthy hypochondriacs who fly across the globe to visit their various favorite doctors and collect prescriptions. Her husband, whose level-headed, intelligent composure had always impressed her, eventually joins and then even surpasses their obsessive ranks. She watches as he slips deeper into anxiety disorder, becoming phobic, distant, and, finally, estranged. It’s hard not to feel the parallels between his trajectory and that of his country. He ascends his family’s stature-ladder, defying birth order, establishing contacts within the royal family, and making a name for himself as a highly successful businessman. He marries a Western woman to whom he intimately and intellectually relates, while always managing to maintain face in traditional Saudi culture as it catapults into Western capitalism. But eventually his sanity splinters, his own psychiatric decline and the subsequent deterioration of his marriage mirroring the kingdom’s decent into fractured consciousness.

It seems that as Carmen was finishing her book, she was still involved in a protracted, painful divorce from Yeslam. She says that as she watched Yeslam lose his sanguine self-possession, she also saw him drawn further into the recesses of Saudi moral despotism. When she recognizes that she’s losing him as an ally, she realizes that she and her daughters are close to becoming true captives in Saudi Arabia. Her daughters are coming of age–and becoming subject to the Saudi interpretation of womanhood. Finally, with of one of their annual visits to Switzerland, they simply don’t return to the desert. Then the marriage disintegrates. Carmen says that though he was living in Geneva, Yeslam became ever more Saudi, and even started cheating on her. They divorce. The odd thing is that Yelsam stays in Switzerland, too, but lives an entirely separate life and eventually denies the existence of his daughters. According to Carmen, he used his might and money to try to extradite all of their daughters to Saudi Arabia—even though he’d asked her to abort her pregnancy with the third daughter—where she would lose access to them. Apparently parts of their battle became public news in Switzerland—something one imagines might also have compelled Carmen to set the record straight with a book.

Though there are some holes in the telling, one tends to believe Carmen’s story comes from the heart, and that her insights are solid. Her tale is a memoir, yet it’s not as forthcoming as it could be. For instance, she never reveals the source of her birth family’s wealth, though it’s apparent and certainly shapes her experiences and perspective on the world. (Hell, I doubt you meet and marry a Bin Laden if you’re not rich to begin with.) Sometimes you get the feeling that as far out on limb as she’s gone to tell her story, she’s still holding back at times—maybe a remnant of her mother’s secretive conventionalism.

She offers lucid views into many of the kingdom’s angles and shadows, but Carmen says little about the intimate intertwining of US and Saudi legacies. Her approach is uncritical of Western values, coming rather from a vantage of unmitigated gratitude for the freedoms the West offers in relief to Mideastern oppressions. Indeed she even sees in the rigors of her own divorce from Yeslam an epochal struggle against Saudi tyranny. In the conclusion, she says that she fears for her and her three daughters’ safety in the wake of the book’s release. But a year later, it doesn’t seem to have roused dire controversy. Maybe it’s because she never injured Allah in her writing, or perhaps it is because her words are too close to the truth.

For more on the Bin Laden dynasty see:




Special to WORLD WAR 4 REPORT, Sept. 1, 2005

Reprinting permissible with attribution



from Weekly News Update on the Americas

Shortly before flying to his Texas ranch for a month-long vacation, on Aug. 2 US President George W. Bush signed the Dominican Republic-Central America Free Trade Agreement (DR-CAFTA) into law, following a 19-month effort to get the controversial measure approved by Congress. So far, the legislatures of El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and the US have approved it; Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic and Nicaragua have not yet ratified. “CAFTA is more than a trade bill,” Bush said at the White House signing ceremony. “It is a commitment among freedom-loving nations to advance peace and prosperity throughout the region.” (Bloomberg News, Washington Times, Aug. 2)

Weekly News Update on the Americas, Aug. 7


On Aug. 26 the Dominican Senate voted 27-2 to ratify DR-CAFTA. The approval process requires the Senate to vote a second time and the Chamber of Deputies to also ratify the pact; the vote in the lower house is expected soon. The trade accord has yet to come up for a vote in Costa Rica and Nicaragua. (El Diario-La Prensa, NY, Aug. 27; Miami Herald, Aug. 28)

At a press conference in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, on Aug. 23, leftist unionists from the region announced plans for the Central America and Caribbean Union Coordinating Committee, an organization to coordinate regional strategies against the impacts of DR-CAFTA, which is expected to go into effect on Jan. 1. “[I]t is essential that we workers be united to block the negativity of this trade accord,” Israel Salinas, general secretary of the Unified Federation of Workers of Honduras (CUTH), told a press conference. The organization expects to have branches in Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and Panama. (El Nuevo Herald, Miami, Aug. 23 from AP)


Three members of Panama’s National Maritime Service died on Aug. 14 while participating in “Operation Panamax 2005,” a US-led international naval exercise in which some 3,500 sailors from nine countries practiced repelling a hypothetical terrorist attack on the Panama Canal. The maneuvers took place from Aug. 9 to 16 with the participation of the Panamanian maritime police agency and the navies of Argentina, Chile, Colombia, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Honduras, Peru and the US. Six other countries–Canada, Costa Rica, El Salvador, France, Mexico and Uruguay–acted as observers. After Sgt. Luis Perez and marines Omar Durango and Jackson Angulo drowned in an attempted amphibious landing on Guacha Island in Lake Gatun, Panama suspended its forces’ direct participation in the exercises and began an investigation. (Adital, Aug. 16; El Nuevo Herald, Miami, Aug. 15)

Weekly News Update on the Americas, Aug. 28


On Aug. 15, a string of gang riots at six Guatemalan prisons left at least 33 alleged gang members dead and at least 80 others wounded. The attacks–five of which were nearly simultaneous–are believed to have been planned by the Mara Salvatrucha gang; nearly all the victims were apparently members of the rival Mara 18 gang. Weapons used in the attacks included fragmentation grenades, 9mm and 45mm pistols and at least one “mini-Uzi” assault rifle. The riots took place in the departments of Guatemala, Suchitepequez and Escuintla. Police reportedly headed off similar riots at prisons in Chimaltenango (Chimaltenango department) and Coban (Alta Verapaz). (Centro de Estudios de Guatemala–CEG, “La Semana en Guatemala,” Aug. 8-15; Guatemala Hoy, CEG, Aug. 16)

Penitentiary System director Francisco de la Pena said prison guards were responsible for inflicting most of the deaths, in their efforts to restore order. One of the wounded prisoners said Salvatrucha members at the “El Hoyon” prison in Escuintla–where 18 prisoners died–planned the attacks and coordinated them via telephone. A representative of the Human Rights Ombudsperson’s office in Escuintla, Osmin Revolorio, said survivors told him a prison guard had entered one of the jails with a suitcase full of weapons which were later used in the attacks. (GH, Aug. 16)

Weekly News Update on the Americas, Aug. 21

Weekly News Update on the Americas

See also WW4 REPORT #112


Reprinted by WORLD WAR 4 REPORT, Sept. 1, 2005

Reprinting permissible with attribution



Peasants are stepping up pressure on Venezuela’s government to enforce the land reform law, decreed by President Hugo Chavez in November 2001. Over a million hectares of public lands were redistributed in the first three years of the law under the “Plan Ezequiel Zamora,” named for a nineteenth-century populist leader. This year, for the first time, the government is starting to redistribute private lands—mostly titling disputed lands to peasant settlers. In response, the rural oligarchy is striking back against campesino organizers. The latest assassination is reported from the west-central state of Portuguesa. Meanwhile, Rev. Pat Robertson’s comments point again towards a natural anti-Chavez alliance between reactionary sectors in Venezuela and the US alike.—WW4 REPORT

from Weekly News Update on the Americas


On Aug. 12, campesino Carlos Hernandez was shot to death at the La Felicidad cooperative in Guanarito, in Venezuela’s Portuguesa state. The murder was apparently carried out by a group of five hired killers (sicarios) accompanied by a woman named Noly Carmona. The cooperative includes about 25 families who have rights to agricultural use of 200 hectares on the Romulo Lepage settlement. The murder was reported in an Aug. 17 statement issued by the Ezequiel Zamora National Campesino Front (FNCEZ) in conjunction with several international groups–including Brazil’s Movement of Landless Rural Workers (MST)–participating in an “International Bolivarian Camp” in Venezuela. (FNCEZ, Aug. 17, via Colombia Indymedia)

Weekly News Update on the Americas, Aug. 21


On his nationally televised “700 Club” program for Aug. 22, rightwing US televangelist Pat Robertson complained that left-populist Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez Frias “is a dangerous enemy to our south controlling a huge pool of oil.” Robertson said: “If he thinks we’re trying to assassinate him, I think that we really ought to go ahead and do it. It’s a whole lot cheaper than starting a war, and I don’t think any oil shipments will stop.” Robertson, a strong supporter of President George W. Bush, initially denied making the remark, then apologized for it on Aug. 24.

The US government was restrained in commenting on the incident, which could get Robertson’s Christian Broadcasting Network in trouble with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). Sean McCormack, US State Department spokesperson, said in Washington on Aug. 23: “We don’t share [Robertson’s] view, and his comments are inappropriate.” US defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld remarked: “Private citizens say all kinds of things all the time.” (NYT, Aug. 28; Financial Times, Aug. 23)

On Aug. 26, the second day of a meeting in Bariloche, Argentina, the foreign ministers of the 19 Latin American and Caribbean countries in the Rio Group expressed “astonishment” that a man whose organization is “linked to the US Republican Party” could call for the assassination of a “democratically elected president.” The group expressed its confidence that the US government would start “the relevant legal processes.” In a speech the same day, Chavez asked: “What would happen if here, in Venezuela, someone got on television to ask my government to assassinate the president of the US? I can imagine everything they’d say.” (La Jornada, Mexico, Aug. 27)

Weekly News Update on the Americas, Aug. 28

Weekly News Update on the Americas

See also WW4 REPORT #112

See our last blog post on Venezeula


“Land for People not Profit in Venezuela” by Gregory Wilpert, Venezuelanalysis, Aug. 23


Reprinted by WORLD WAR 4 REPORT, Sept. 1, 2005

Reprinting permissible with attribution



from Weekly News Update on the Americas


On Aug. 17, hooded assailants armed with assault rifles arrived at the home of an indigenous Embera Chami family in the community of Ubarba, in the Nuestra Senora Candelaria de la Montana indigenous reservation in the central Colombian department of Caldas. The assailants shot to death Rosalba Morales and Evelio de Jesus Morales at their home, and severely wounded Jose Abelino Morales, who died on the way to a hospital in Riosucio. An hour after the attack, unidentified assailants murdered William Andres Taborda at his home in the community of Limon, on the same indigenous reservation. (National Indigenous Organization of Colombia–ONIC statement posted Aug. 19 on Colombia Indymedia)

On Aug. 19, the Attorney General’s office ordered the arrest of 11 soldiers in connection with the Oct. 4, 2004 murder of indigenous Kankuamo leader Victor Hugo Maestre Rodriguez in northeastern Colombia. In a communique, the office said people in camouflage uniforms had taken Maestre from his home in the Atanquez community in Valledupar municipality, Cesar department. Soldiers from the Colombian army’s La Popa battalion later brought Maestre’s body to the morgue in Valledupar, claiming he was a rebel from the leftist National Liberation Army (ELN) who was killed in a battle with government forces. (AP, Aug. 19)

Weekly News Update on the Americas, Aug. 21


Between July 23 and 29, rightwing paramilitaries murdered at least 28 campesinos in rural areas of San Miguel municipality in the southern Colombian department of Putumayo near the Ecuadoran border. Another 13 families have disappeared from neighboring communities, including La Cabana and Tres Islas. Reports of the massacre came from local residents who survived; given the remote location and the current fragile security situation in Putumayo, most of the killings have yet to be officially confirmed. (Asociacion MINGA, Aug. 2)

The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) have been carrying out an armed strike in Putumayo since July 21, blocking roads and destroying vehicles and critical infrastructure. The strike has caused food and water shortages and a breakdown in communication and transport in the zone, and the resulting clashes between the FARC and the military have caused massive displacement as people flee the rural areas for the larger towns to find safety. (Asociacion MINGA, Aug. 2; El Tiempo, Bogota, Aug. 10; Drug War Chronicle, Aug. 12; El Nuevo Herald, Miami, Aug. 1)

The massacre began on July 23 when paramilitaries forced seven people from a canoe in the community of La Balastrera and killed them. The bodies of Colombians German Obando Recalde and Julian Eduardo Canticus and an unidentified Ecuadoran man were later found; the other four remain missing. The paramilitaries then went to the rural village of La Cabana, where they tied up and tortured a woman but finally released her under pressure from the community. On July 27 the paramilitaries went to the village of El Sabalo, bringing with them six unidentified people they had tied up. Four of the six were later found murdered on the road. In El Sabalo, the paramilitaries murdered two more people. In the community of San Carlos, residents said 11 people had been forcibly disappeared. (Asociacion MINGA, Aug. 2)

Putumayo governor Carlos Palacios confirmed on July 31 that two bodies had been found, and that families had reported 11 other people missing, though residents believe 28 people were killed in the massacre. “The rumors indicate that a guerrilla surrendered to the paramilitaries and is fingering alleged FARC collaborators,” said Palacios. “But the people don’t want to give details for fear of being murdered.” Palacios said local campesinos blame the massacre on paramilitaries from the Central Bolivar bloc of the rightwing United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), which is officially involved in a peace process with the government. (ENH, Aug. 1 from AFP)

Government forces are also engaging in abuses, according to a report from the MINGA Association, a human rights group based in Bogota. In the village of Verdeyaco in Mocoa municipality, the military and police are carrying out searches without warrants and conducting an illegal census of the population, including photographing all residents. The government forces warned residents to cooperate the good way, “or else the paramilitaries will make you collaborate the bad way.” (Asociacion MINGA, Aug. 2)

In the northern department of Antioquia, meanwhile, campesino Luis Sigifredo Castano was found murdered by the Colombian army on Aug. 7 in the village of Campo Bijao, Remedios municipality. Castano had been dressed in a camouflage guerrilla uniform, “even though everyone in the Northeast [of Antioquia] knew he was a rural worker and that he was disabled in one of his arms,” the Campesino Association of the Cimitarra River Valley (ACVC) reports. Soldiers from the Battalion Calibio, part of the Colombian Army’s 14th Brigade, had detained Castano on his farm in the village of Cano Tigre. Castano was a member of the Communal Action Board of Cano Tigre and had participated in two recent humanitarian protest actions exposing human rights violations in northeastern Antioquia. (ACVC, Aug. 14)


On July 29, in the village of Carmen, in the northern Colombian department of Bolivar, armed men in military uniforms abducted agrarian leader Jairo Gonzalez from the vehicle he was traveling in. They subsequently murdered him and buried him in a common grave. His body has not yet been recovered. Gonzalez was secretary general of the Union of Small Farmers of Bolivar (SINPABOL) and a member of the national board of the Only National Agricultural Union Federation (Fensuagro). He was also in charge of human rights for the Bolivar section of the Unitary Workers Federation (CUT). In April of this year, Gonzalez led a march of some 7,000 campesinos in Carmen to demand various public works, as well as respect for human rights, in the surrounding area. (Fensuagro-CUT Executive Committee, Aug. 5 via Colombia Indymedia)

Weekly News Update on the Americas, Aug. 7


In an Aug. 9 communique marking International Indigenous People’s Day, the National Indigenous Organization of Colombia (ONIC) reported that so far in 2005, 66 members of Colombia’s indigenous communities have been murdered, 16 have disappeared, 111 were wounded, 124 arbitrarily detained, 9,250 threatened and 18,602 forcibly displaced. The food crops of at least 10 indigenous communities have been sprayed with the herbicide glyphosate, causing the death of two children. (The herbicide is used by the Colombian government in a US-sponsored campaign against drug cultivation.) Most of the abuses against indigenous people have been carried out by right-wing paramilitaries (37.9%); the rest are by government forces (24%), leftist rebels (15.2%) and unidentified criminal groups (22.7%). (ONIC, Aug. 9)

The same day ONIC issued its communique, Aug. 9, two Colombian soldiers from the Jose Hilario Lopez Battalion attacked 19-year old indigenous student Emerita Guauna in Coconuco, Purace municipality, in the southern department of Cauca. Wearing their uniforms and with their faces covered by ski-masks, the soldiers used their military weapons, along with physical force and threats, to overpower Guauna; one of them then sexually assaulted her, in the presence of an indigenous boy. The soldiers told Guauna: “We’re doing this to you because you’re a guerrilla.” The attack took place a short distance from a National Police outpost. On Aug. 11 members of Guauna’s community held a meeting with an officer named Velez, who admitted that a soldier was responsible for the assault on Guauna. Velez said the soldier had since fled, and that in any case such incidents happen; he said he wouldn’t apologize for the incident. Velez made no reference to the other soldier involved in the assault. (Comision Intereclesial de Justicia y Paz, Aug. 12 via Colombia Indymedia)

On Aug. 1, troops from the army’s San Mateo Battalion opened fire at three alleged subversives in the central park of the town of Villa Claret in Pueblo Rico municipality, Risaralda department. The army’s gunfire hit the wooden home where 20-year old Lucely Osorio Nequirucama lived with her parents and six younger siblings, killing Osorio and wounding her mother, Leticia Ogari Nequirucama. The family is part of the Embera Chami indigenous community of Pueblo Rico. (Comite Permanente por la Defensa de los Derechos Humanos en Risaralda, Aug. 12 via Colombia Indymedia)

Weekly News Update on the Americas, Aug. 14

Weekly News Update on the Americas

See also WW4 REPORT #112


Messages protesting the Colombian government’s involvement in and acceptance of human rights abuses against indigenous communities, campesinos and human rights activists can be directed to:

President Alvaro Uribe Velez (fax 571-566-2071;; Vice President Francisco Santos (; Defense Minister Jorge Alberto Uribe (fax 571-222-1874;,,; Prosecutor General Edgardo Jose Maya Villazon (fax 571-342-9723;; Carlos Franco of the Presidential Human Rights and International Humanitarian Law Program (fax 571-337-4667;; Attorney General Mario Iguaran (fax 571-570-2000;;; and Defender of the People (Ombudsperson) Volmar Antonio Perez Ortiz (fax 571-640-0491;


Reprinted by WORLD WAR 4 REPORT, Sept. 1, 2005

Reprinting permissible with attribution



from Weekly News Update on the Americas


In the pre-dawn hours of Aug. 1, some 3,000 to 6,000 residents of campesino communities in northern Peru seized control of the Henry Hills mining camp, owned by the mining company Majaz in El Tambo, Huancabamba province. The campesinos came from Ayabaca and Huacabamba (Piura region) and Paicapampa and San Ignacio (in Jaen province, Cajamarca). Many of them are members of the rondas, campesino self-defense groups formed during the 1980s to combat Maoist rebels. Armed only with sticks and agricultural tools, and a few old back-loading rifles, they quickly surprised and overpowered the camp’s guards.

But their occupation prompted a violent reaction from police agents of the National Department of Special Operations (DINOES), who arrived to disperse them with AKM semi-automatic rifles and tear gas grenades. In the ensuing clash, campesino Amado Velasco from Jaen was shot to death and four other campesinos wounded by bullets; dozens more campesinos were injured by rifle butts or tear gas grenades. Unable to get access to medical attention, one of the wounded campesinos, hit by a bullet in the shoulder, died later on Aug. 1; as of Aug. 4 he remained unidentified at the Piura morgue.

Fourteen police agents were also wounded, including a police captain who shot himself in the leg while a campesino struggled to take away his AKM rifle. Police halted the advance of the campesinos and chased them along narrow trails on the mountainside, 3,000 meters above sea level. Some campesinos are believed to have been thrown–or to have fallen–off the steep cliffs during the pursuit. At least 32 people were confirmed arrested, including a radio journalist; most were apparently released by Aug. 4. The bishop of Chulucanas-Piura, Msgr. Daniel Turley, told RPP Noticias news agency that unofficially there were believed to be seven campesinos dead, 40 wounded and six disappeared, including Carlos Munoz, president of the District Federation of Campesino Self-Defense Groups of Namballe.

The Majaz company, financed by US and British capital, has refused to discuss the conflict with the Defense Fronts of Ayabaca and Huancabamba and the Provincial Federation of Campesino Communities of Ayabaca. The campesinos are demanding the company’s departure from their region, since its operations are destroying local agriculture, water sources and the environment.

More than 4,000 campesinos marched in Huancabamba on Aug. 5 to protest the repression, while others continued to blockade four local roads. The government broke off a dialogue because campesinos threw objects at Energy and Mines deputy minister Romulo Mucho following the first round of talks. On Aug. 8, the campesino organizations plan to set a date for a regional strike to demand the Majaz company’s departure. (Adital-Servindi, Aug. 4; Article by “observador” posted on Colombia Indymedia, Aug. 5; Prensa Latina, Aug. 5; Zafa, Aug. 5; La Republica, Lima, Aug. 6)

Weekly News Update on the Americas, Aug. 7


On Aug. 11, Peruvian president Alejandro Toledo swore in Fernando Olivera of the Independent Moralizing Front (FIM) as the country’s new foreign minister, replacing Manuel Rodriguez Cuadros, who resigned unexpectedly the night before, allegedly for personal reasons. Some three minutes after Olivera took office, Prime Minister Carlos Ferrero resigned in protest over Olivera’s appointment. Ferrero’s move then forced Toledo to request the resignation of the entire 16-member cabinet, as mandated by Peru’s Constitution. Toledo said later on Aug. 11 in a nationally broadcast address that he would evaluate who would stay and who would leave. (Miami Herald, Aug. 12; AP, Aug. 13)

But on Aug. 13, it was Olivera who was forced to resign, on Toledo’s request. Olivera said he felt betrayed; he insisted that no members of his party would accept future posts in Toledo’s administration, marking the end of the strategic alliance between the FIM and Toledo’s Possible Peru party. (El Nuevo Herald, Aug. 14; AP, Aug. 13)

The week before his appointment, Olivera publicly clashed with several of Toledo’s top ministers when he argued in favor of a regional law expanding legalized coca leaf production in some parts of southern Peru. Peru allows cultivation of about 10,000 hectares of coca, mostly in the Cuzco region, for traditional use. (MH, Aug. 12) Olivera backed away from his position days later, during a ceremony at the Foreign Ministry, saying that Peru must remain firm in its fight against drug trafficking. (AP, Aug. 13)

Olivera’s crass image and reputation for crude behavior also angered many members of Possible Peru and officials in Peru’s diplomatic service. Olivera, a former member of Congress, previously served as justice minister and most recently as Peru’s ambassador to Spain. But the Lima daily La Republica reports that Olivera never graduated from university and doesn’t speak any language besides Spanish. Alfredo Torres, director of the polling firm Apoyo, Opinion y Mercado, said Olivera “has had many conflicts with a series of politicians and journalists, who present him as an impulsive and aggressive person without the manners expected of a foreign minister.” Recently Olivera made obscene gestures to the press, and injured a reporter’s hand by closing a car door on him.

“I know this is a political appointment, but this will only work if he has support, so I am asking foreign affairs officers for that,” Toledo had said at Olivera’s swearing-in ceremony. (AP, MH, Aug. 12, La Jornada, Mexico, Aug. 14) Toledo’s approval rating is around 14%. He is barred by law from running in April 2006 elections and will leave office the following July. (FT, Aug. 11)

Weekly News Update on the Americas, Aug. 14

Weekly News Update on the Americas

See also WW4 REPORT #112


Reprinted by WORLD WAR 4 REPORT, Sept. 1, 2005

Reprinting permissible with attribution



from Weekly News Update on the Americas

On Aug. 22, members of Argentina’s Union of Unemployed Workers (UTD) led by “Pepino” Fernandez occupied a gas plant belonging to the companies Plus Petrol and Panamerican in General Mosconi, near the Bolivian border in the northern province of Salta, to demand real jobs, retirement benefits and the nationalization of Argentina’s oil and gas. The protesters are former employees of the YPF oil company, which was Argentina’s state oil company until it was privatized in 1991; YPF was later sold to the Spanish company Repsol in 1999. The privatization cost thousands of workers their jobs, and the laid-off workers were denied retirement benefits.

In Buenos Aires on Aug. 22, a delegation of former YPF workers exploded noise bombs at a demonstration outside the Spanish embassy. About 50 former YPF workers–including many who are sick from exposure to toxic chemicals in their former jobs–had been in the capital for two months, holding a vigil in the Plaza de Mayo and pressing demands for jobs and retirement benefits; most returned to Salta on Aug. 21 or 22, leaving the smaller delegation behind to keep up the pressure. Later on Aug. 22, the workers in Salta–frustrated that the Argentine government was still ignoring their demands–shut off the valves that supply gas to neighboring Chile. (Resumen Latinoamericano, Aug. 23, 26)

In Pico Truncado, in the southern Argentine province of Santa Cruz, about 80-100 unemployed oil workers had been camped out at a Repsol-YPF plant since Aug. 15 to demand jobs and retirement benefits. On Aug. 25, acting on a request from the company, judge Graciela Ruata de Leone ordered the protesters evicted from the site. Santa Cruz provincial police carried out the order that same day using billy clubs, rubber bullets and tear gas against the protesters; 10 people were arrested. (RL, Aug. 23, 26)

The oil workers’ protests are part of a resurgence of social conflicts in Argentina. On Aug. 25 workers at the Juan Garrahan Hospital, Argentina’s main children’s hospital, began a 48-hour strike to demand better wages. The workers are represented by a leftist union, one of three unions at the hospital; it was their 22nd strike so far this year. Piqueteros (organized unemployed people) have been holding protests and blocking traffic every week in Buenos Aires and other cities, demanding jobs and subsidies for the unemployed. (El Nuevo Herald, Miami, Aug. 25; RL, Aug. 23)

On Aug. 25 in Buenos Aires, police attacked dozens of piqueteros and other workers as they tried to enter an event at the Rural Society where Economy Minister Roberto Lavagna was scheduled to speak. At least 10 people were injured and 16 arrested. The next day, Aug. 26, the government deployed some 1,200 riot police agents, backed by helicopters, to block protests in Buenos Aires by thousands of piqueteros and other activists. Police kept a march which left the Plaza de Mayo from reaching the presidential palace, and prevented protesters from blockading the Pueyrredon bridge that links the city of Buenos Aires to the district of Avellanada to the south. Activists blockade the Pueyrredon bridge on the 26th day of each month to commemorate the day in June 2002 when police killed piquetero activists Maximilano Kosteki and Dario Santillan during a protest action there. (ENH, Aug. 27, Comunicado de Prensa de la Agencia de Noticias RedAccion–ANRed, Aug. 25 via RL; Joint Communique from 4 Piquetero Groups, Aug. 26 via RL)

The administration of President Nestor Kirchner blames the recent conflicts on ex-presidents Carlos Menem (1989-1999) and Eduardo Duhalde (2002-2003), claiming they are engaged in a “destabilization pact” against his government as the country prepares for legislative elections. Half the seats in the Chamber of Deputies and a third of the Senate seats are up for grabs in the Oct. 23 vote. “The destabilization pact consists of creating a certain climate of violence just before the elections, using people who not long ago were invited to Olivos manor [the presidential palace],” said Cristina Fernandez, Kirchner’s wife, who is running for a Senate seat representing Buenos Aires province. (Her main opponent in the race is Duhalde’s wife, Hilda Gonzalez.) Fernandez was referring to the fact that Duhalde had invited several piquetero leaders to Olivos during his presidency.

President Kirchner, now just over halfway through his term, is hoping the October elections will serve as a plebiscite on his administration. Argentina’s dominant Justicialist (Peronist) Party is deeply split, with Kirchner leading the center-left faction, Duhalde in the center and Menem on the right. (ENH, Aug. 23, 25, 27) Menem is running for a Senate seat representing his home province of La Rioja. (ENH, Aug. 22)

Meanwhile, three of 15 activists detained since July 16, 2004, for allegedly committing acts of violence during a protest at the Buenos Aires city legislature against a repressive municipal “anti-crime” bill have gone on hunger strike. Pablo Martin Amitrano began the strike on Aug. 23, and Cesar Gerez and Marcelo Ruiz joined the fast on Aug. 24; the three are being held at the Devoto prison in Buenos Aires. The courts recently ruled for a third time against releasing the 15 activists from jail. The only evidence against the activists comes from undercover police agents. The Madres of the Plaza de Mayo staged a 12-hour fast at the plaza on Aug. 24 to demand their release. (Adital, Aug. 25; RL, Aug. 26)


In mid-August, combined units of the Argentine National Gendarmerie–a federal police force–and provincial police surrounded and seized a squatted estate in El Soberbio, Misiones province, in northeastern Argentina near the Brazilian border. The agents fired their weapons, physically attacked men, women and children and burned the campesinos’ homes and crops. Five campesinos were arrested, including several leaders of the Agrarian Movement of Misiones (MAM) and the Federation of Argentine Workers (CTA). The attack took place during the week of Aug. 15, according to the CTA’s news agency. MAM said the attack was carried out without a warrant on orders of Misiones minister of government Miguel Angel Iturrieta; the agents also reportedly took orders from the landowner and from Ari Krusiner, secretary of the Association of Tobacco Planters of Misiones (APTM).

Salvador Torres, a MAM leader and general co-secretary of the CTA in Misiones, was among those arrested. The attack took place just hours before Torres and other MAM leaders were scheduled to meet with the director of the provincial Department of Land to discuss a possible future dialogue between the campesinos and the landholders. The MAM leaders missed the meeting because they were in jail.

Four days after the operation, the CTA and the MAM joined other social movements in a demonstration at the provincial government headquarters in Posadas to protest the complicity of the provincial government with local landowners. More than 500 campesino families in the region have been demanding titles to the lands where they have lived and worked for decades; the large landholders call them “usurpers” and are fighting them in the provincial courts. (Adital, Aug. 24)

Weekly News Update on the Americas, Aug. 28


On Aug. 11, the Buenos Aires Criminal Court ordered the release of Raul Castells, leader of the Independent Movement of Retirees and Unemployed (MIJD), detained since June 9 on a warrant accusing him of extortion. Castells was reportedly on hunger strike for most of his entire two-month detention, and at some point was transferred to a clinic for medical attention.

The extortion charge originated with Castells’ participation in a protest last Dec. 9 at a McDonald’s restaurant, where he and other MIJD members demanded that the US-based chain hand over 50,000 orders of hamburgers and french fries to distribute to the hungry. Castells was previously sentenced and served two years in jail for an action at a Walmart store in Avellaneda in 2000 in which he and his supporters demanded food. He was later tried again for alleged extortion in connection with the July 2004 occupation of a casino in Resistencia, Chaco province. (La Jornada, Mexico, Aug. 12; Adital, Aug. 11)

Castells is demanding that President Nestor Kirchner grant him a presidential pardon; the MIJD leader blamed his arrest on the fact that he is running for senator representing Buenos Aires, in direct competition with the current first lady, Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner. (Adital, Aug. 11)

Weekly News Update on the Americas, Aug. 14

Weekly News Update on the Americas

See also WW4 REPORT #111


Reprinted by WORLD WAR 4 REPORT, Sept. 1, 2005

Reprinting permissible with attribution



from Weekly News Update on the Americas

On Aug. 4, residents of the southern Bolivian city of Camiri, in Santa Cruz department, lifted their general strike after Hydrocarbons Minister Jaime Dunn signed an agreement promising to speed up the re-establishment of the state oil company, Yacimientos Petroliferos Fiscales de Bolivia (YPFB). The agreement, reached after eight hours of negotiations, lays out a timetable under which the process will culminate in three weeks. The government also committed to install gas service in 3,800 homes in Camiri by 2006, and to locate the exploration and drilling management headquarters of the newly founded YPFB in Camiri. The re-establishment of the state firm was mandated by a hydrocarbons law enacted by Congress on May 17, but its implementation has been delayed.

Camiri residents had been blocking the main highway linking the city of Santa Cruz to the Argentine border since Aug. 1, and had begun a general civic strike on Aug. 3. The protests had threatened to spread throughout Bolivia’s Chaco region, center of the country’s oil and gas production.

Meanwhile, the Federation of Municipal Associations (FAME) and the Executive Committee of Bolivian Universities (CEUB) are planning a national protest if the government doesn’t agree to assign 20% of a new gas and oil tax to municipalities and 5% to higher education. In a joint communique, the municipalities and universities gave the government until Aug. 15 to include them in the distribution of the Direct Tax on Hydrocarbons (IDH), imposed by the new hydrocarbons law. Finance Minister Waldo Gutierrez said the demands cannot be met; in the case of the municipalities, he said that if they receive 20% of the tax, they will have to take over paying for health and education services. (Prensa Latina, Aug. 4; AP, Aug. 3, 4)

Weekly News Update on the Americas, Aug. 7

Weekly News Update on the Americas

See also WW4 REPORT #112


Reprinted by WORLD WAR 4 REPORT, Sept. 1, 2005

Reprinting permissible with attribution



from Weekly News Update on the Americas

On Aug. 15, residents of the Amazon provinces of Sucumbios and Orellana in northern Ecuador began an open-ended civic strike–backed by local elected officials–to demand higher wages, more jobs and the construction of roads, schools and health clinics in the region, as well as the cancellation of contracts with two transnational oil companies, the US-based Occidental (OXY) and Canada’s EnCana. The Ecuadoran prosecutor’s office has legally challenged OXY–the largest private oil producer in Ecuador–for breach of contract, saying it bought some of EnCana’s operating rights without the required approval from authorities. The strikers are demanding that OXY abandon Ecuador altogether. Some protest leaders are apparently demanding that the government renegotiate all contracts with foreign oil companies to demand a 50% share of the profits they make in Ecuador; others are demanding the full nationalization of Ecuador’s oil. (Adital, Aug. 18; Financial Times, Aug. 19; AFP, Aug. 20)

EnCana, Ecuador’s second biggest private producer, is desperate to leave the country, Britain’s Financial Times reports. No new foreign investors have signed exploration or production contracts in Ecuador since 1996. (FT, Aug. 19)

On the first day of the strike, protesters from the city of Nueva Loja (better known as Lago Agrio, capital of Sucumbios province) occupied “control station 1” of state oil company Petroecuador’s Trans-Ecuadoran Pipeline System (SOTE), leading the company to shut down pumping operations. (El Nuevo Herald, Miami, Aug. 17) EnCana followed by shutting down its output in Orellana on Aug. 17. Energy Minister Ivan Rodriguez claimed protesters had sabotaged EnCana’s pipeline, causing 1,000 barrels of crude to seep into a river. (FT, Aug. 19) In a statement, the Ecuadoran grassroots environmental group Ecological Action said the accusation was a lie, and that reporters who went to the site of the alleged pipeline leak had found no such spill. (Accion Ecologica, Aug. 19)

On Aug. 17, the government of President Alfredo Palacio decreed a state of emergency in Orellana and Sucumbios, allowing constitutional rights to be suspended in the two provinces. The Ecumenical Human Rights Commission (CEDHU) said Palacio had no legal basis to institute the state of emergency. (Adital, Aug. 18; CEDHU, Aug. 19) Indignant over Palacio’s response to the strike, thousands protested in the streets of Nueva Loja and elsewhere in the region on Aug. 17. Police and army forces cracked down on the crowds with tear gas bombs, water cannons and mass arrests. The repression left numerous people injured and many dozens arrested. Soldiers also detained between 40 and 50 people who were trying to seize a Petroecuador station. In Orellana, six people were wounded by bullets and three by tear gas bombs, according to CEDHU. (Adital, Aug. 18; CEDHU, Aug. 21)

Protesters did successfully seize several Petroecuador installations, leading the company to suspend all production on Aug. 18. Palacio announced on Aug. 18 that Petroecuador had suspended all crude oil exports because of the protests. Later that evening, the armed forces claimed they had secured the two provinces. (FT, Aug. 19; AFP, Aug. 20) Protesters also blockaded the region’s major roads and occupied the two main airports in El Coca (also known as Puerto Francisco de Orellana, the capital of Orellana province) and Nueva Loja. Soldiers finally retook control of the airports on Aug. 19 and reopened them. (AFP, Aug. 20; El Diario-La Prensa, NY, Aug. 20)

New economy minister Magdalena Barreiro said on Aug. 19 that Ecuador would need Venezuela’s help to meet oil export targets. Ecuador is South America’s fifth largest producer of crude and second biggest exporter to the US. Oil exports finance about 35% of Ecuador’s budget. (FT, Aug. 19; AFP, Aug. 20)

On Aug. 19, soldiers raided the home of Nueva Loja mayor Maximo Abad Jaramillo, who was supporting the strike, and arrested him. Later in the day, government forces burst into a meeting and arrested Sucumbios governor Guillermo Munoz and about 20 other local officials and leaders of social organizations who had gathered there to discuss a government dialogue offer. (Agencia Altercom, Quito, Aug. 19) As of Aug. 19, at least 60 people had been injured in the government repression, according to Munoz. (AFP, Aug. 20) Twenty people were detained in Orellana on Aug. 19, but they were later released. Four more people were arrested on Aug. 20. (CEDHU, Aug. 21)

On Aug. 19, members of various Sucumbios women’s organizations marched in Nueva Loja dressed in white and with their mouths taped shut to support the strike and protest the repression. (Altercom, Aug. 19) The Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE) and the indigenous Pachakutik Movement political party both issued statements expressing support for the strike’s demands, and condemning the repression. (CONAIE, Aug. 18; Radio Nizkor, Aug. 20; ED-LP, Aug. 20)

After visiting detainees at police headquarters in Nueva Loja on Aug. 19, the Lago Agrio Human Rights Commission reported that a number of people detained there since Aug. 17 were tortured by soldiers. “They are being beaten and every half hour they [the soldiers] throw a tear gas bomb into the cell,” the group reported. Among the detainees were eight boys ages 12-17. (CEDHU, Aug. 21)

On Aug. 19, Defense Minister Gen. Solon Espinosa either resigned or was forced out–apparently because he opposed repressing the strikers. (ED-LP, Aug. 20 from AFP) The Permanent Human Rights Assembly (APDH) of Ecuador blasted Palacio’s choice of retired general Oswaldo Jarrin to replace Espinosa, saying Jarrin heads a rightwing pro-US tendency among high-level retired officers and supports a heavy-handed response to social conflicts. (APDH, Aug. 19)

On Aug. 21, Nueva Loja mayor Abad–still under arrest–told the Spanish news service EFE the strike had been “suspended” to allow a dialogue with the government. He clarified that the suspension didn’t mean an end to the strike, but rather a temporary truce while a dialogue proceeds. Guadalupe Llori, president of the strike committee in Orellana province, told EFE that the strike had not been suspended and would continue in force until Abad and Munoz had been freed. (Resumen Latinoamericano, Aug. 21)

Weekly News Update on the Americas, Aug. 21


After serving for five months as Ecuador’s economy minister, Rafael Correa resigned from his post on Aug. 4, saying he was being forced out by “strong pressures” seeking to “block any relationship with a brother country like Venezuela.” (El Nuevo Herald, Miami, Aug. 6 from AP) Since July, Correa had been leading negotiations with the leftist Venezuelan government over plans for Venezuela to buy some $200 million in Ecuadoran debt bonds; on July 18 Correa called the plan “great business for Venezuela and great business for Ecuador.” Also being negotiated is a plan for Venezuela to refine Ecuadoran crude oil. (AP, Aug. 18, 20)

President Alfredo Palacio’s acceptance of Correa’s resignation prompted hundreds of students, workers, indigenous people and others to protest in Quito on Aug. 4, and again on Aug. 5. Palacio, the former vice president, became president on April 20 when popular protests forced out previous president Lucio Gutierrez Borbua. Humberto Cholango, leader of the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE), warned that if Palacio fails to maintain Correa’s progressive economic policies, “there will be an immediate national mobilization.” If Palacio “dares to sign the Free Trade Treaty (TLC) with the US” or otherwise “betrays the trust of the people,” said Cholango, there will be a new “popular insurrection.” (Noticieros Televisa, Aug. 5 with info from EFE, Notimex)

On Aug. 5, Palacio rushed to deny that Correa’s resignation was prompted by pressures or that it would bring changes in economic or foreign policy. Regardless of who replaces Correa, said Palacio, “the Ecuadoran government’s policy will be exactly the same; it has to be a policy of sovereignty, dignity, social orientation.” Palacio specifically confirmed that the negotiations with Caracas “will continue and will not be stopped.” Palacio emphasized that he would not order any repression against protesters, and said he was prepared to resign if the people demand it. (ENH, Aug. 6 from AP; Prensa Latina, Aug. 5; Hoy, Quito, Aug. 6)

Weekly News Update on the Americas, Aug. 7

Weekly News Update on the Americas

See also WW4 REPORT #112


Reprinted by WORLD WAR 4 REPORT, Sept. 1, 2005

Reprinting permissible with attribution



A Critique of Energy Alternatives

by George Caffentzis

The discussion of energy politics in the US is now dominated by two competing paradigms. One is promoted by the Bush Administration and its corporate allies; the other by a wide assortment of liberal and left-wing NGOs and analysts (and occasionally by corporate supporters of the “Gore-wing” of the Democratic Party including, at times, John Kerry).

The Bush paradigm is all too familiar: the “real” energy crisis has nothing to do with the natural limits on energy resources, but is due to the constraints on energy production imposed by government regulation and the OPEC cartel. Once energy production is liberalized and the corrupt, dictatorial and terrorist-friendly OPEC cartel is dissolved by US-backed coups (Venezuela) or invasions (Iraq), the free market can finally impose realistic prices on the energy commodities (which ought to be about half of the present ones), while stimulating the production of adequate supplies and a new round of spectacular growth of profits and wages.

This presidentially-approved paradigm is receiving decisive practical criticism from millions of pro-Chavez demonstrators and voters in the streets of Caracas, and from thousands of resistance fighters in Falluja and Najaf. I will leave its fate in their hands.

In this article I examine the other, more sympathetic energy paradigm. Its key components are: (a) the claim that the time when oil production permanently outpaces discovery of “new” oil is nearing (often called “the Peak Oil hypothesis”); (b) a view of the United States as being a powerful nation-state whose government is moved by “national security” imperatives in its energy politics. This paradigm is politically problematic for those opposed to the Bush Administration’s imperialist energy policy, not because its component parts are completely false, but because these parts come together to form a misleading and disarming totality.

In order to make good on my criticism, let me review the paradigm’s component parts. Oil consumption is growing, old oil fields are drying up, and new fields—objectively rare–are expensive to find and exploit. A price hike of dramatic proportions looms


Up until early modern times, miners, natural philosophers and other “experts” believed that gold, silver and other minerals were vegetable-like in that when mined they would literally grow back like a snipped rose bush. This insight in the case of coal and its hydrocarbon cousins in gaseous and liquid form was not wrong in principle (they are the residue of ancient organisms), but it was mistaken as a practical maxim, for the time it would take normal geological processes to transform organic matter into coal, natural gas and petroleum is on the order of millions of years. Consequently, these fuels are, for all intents and purposes, finite, non-renewable energy resources.

This finitude forms the theoretical basis of modern geology. But it has often haunted capitalists extracting profits from the production of the major energy-producing hydrocarbons, since the extent of this finitude was difficult to gauge—e.g., in the late 19th century there was a fear that coal supplies would soon run out. Is the exhaustion of coal, oil and natural gas near (a couple of decades) or far off (a couple of centuries)?

The energy industry in the past tended to put the actual total exhaustion of coal, natural gas and oil reserves as far into the future as plausibly possible. But the industry’s deferral of its death has recently been abandoned. (This was, perhaps, signaled by British Petroleum’s re-tagging of its acronym as “Beyond Petroleum”). It is increasingly recognized that the decisive question posed by the finitude of oil is not the static one: how much time there is from the present to the pumping of the last drop of oil out of the last extant field on the planet. Th important question is dynamic: when will oil production permanently outpace new finds, begin to deplete the world’s reserves and to tendentially decline? This inflection point, of course, will occur much earlier than the complete depletion of oil, gas and coal. It is often called “peak oil,” since it is the point when production definitively outpaces the replacement of exhausted fields by newly discovered ones. Once this “peak oil” point is reached and passed, geology and economics dictate a new era of expensive oil.

Oil companies are now desperately trying to position themselves to stake out and possess the remaining oil areas on the planet. According to the widely recognized reasoning, if the companies do not make their claims now, they will be left out of the price boom in the first half of the 21st century caused by a decline in production and an increase in demand. This consensus is based on the work of M. King Hubbert in the 1950s, who accurately predicted that US non-Alaskan oil production would peak around 1969 (the actual peak was in 1972). Extrapolating Hubbert’s work on the US to the whole planet, geologists like Colin Campbell, Jean H. Laherrere and Craig Bond Hatfield have noted that the number and size of new oil discoveries have been falling since the 1960s and are rapidly heading to zero. They also note that the larger fields are usually found first, while there are diminishing returns on new exploratory wells recently.

In sum, oil consumption is growing at approximately two percent per year, while the old oil fields are drying up and new fields are expensive to find and exploit as well as being objectively rare. Hence, once again, a price hike of dramatic proportions looms.

It follows that the owners of large quantities of “old” oil still in the ground (mostly the governments of Middle East OPEC nations) are becoming notionally richer by each coming year even if they do not extract any oil during that year, and that all the profit to be made out of the production of “new” oil now lies in the hitherto neglected geographical “margins” of the planet. Both conclusions invite scenarios licensing imperialist interventions.

On the one side, Middle East governments’ nationalized “banks of ‘old’ oil” are becoming even more desirable objects of control and possession as the local “peak oil” points are met and passed outside the region. Thus the US government’s sudden interest in invading Iraq and Iran and occupying them—as its troops are already stationed in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Bahrain—is immediately understandable.

On the other side, it is exactly in the drive to the margins to find “new” oil that all the horrors of the primitive period of the oil industry are returning. Indigenous people must be driven from their lands; previously uncontaminated waters and lands must be polluted; cultures, peoples and ecologies must be exterminated. But these peoples—from the Chiapans to the U’wa to the Ogonis to the West Papuans—are resisting their own extinction by stalling the oil industry’s self-proclaimed final advance, through threatening to commit collective suicide (the U’wa in Colombia) or through armed confrontations (the Ijaws on the oil platforms in the Niger Delta).


The second basis of this anti-Bush paradigm is simple: the US is a nation-state with recognized territorial borders and its government is presumably primarily interested in satisfying its constitutional injunction: to “form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquillity, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty.” The state and citizenry are presumably put into danger when vitally necessary goods are imported from outside its territory, especially from states that are either ideologically or economically hostile. National security would therefore be increased by an import substitution policy that would produce these necessary goods at “home.” In so doing, of course, the need for engaging in foreign military adventures diminishes.

This argument (a sort of pacific mercantilism) holds good for energy in general and oil in particular. There is hardly any natural stuff more vital for social and capitalist reproduction in the US than oil. But beginning in the early 1970s, oil production in the “lower 48” has fallen to the point that more than 50% of the oil burned in the US is now imported. Since oil reserves are increasingly concentrated in OPEC nations, especially in the Middle East, and these nations are turning hostile, the US faces a national energy security crisis.

Given these principles and facts, the supporters of this paradigm argue, the solution to national insecurity created by energy dependency is a strategy of import substitution, i.e., the US government should invest in an effort to derive most of the nation’s energy required for socio-economic reproduction from domestic sources. Such a result would eliminate the need for invading and occupying Iraq (and other belligerent OPEC countries) in order to directly control the oil fields there.

The paradigm’s supporters emphasize the urgency of implementing such an import strategy with the approach of “Peak Oil.” As the actual hydrocarbon “stuff” in the planet’s subsoil decreases, there is even more temptation for energy-importing countries (like China) to aggressively, and desperately, insure themselves a continuous supply. If the US continues on its path of increasing energy dependency, it will soon be competing with other nuclear-armed states for the final pools of subterranean petroleum, with deliriously catastrophic consequences.


This anti-Bush paradigm, though correctly appealing to anti-imperialist fervor and ecological anxieties, is problematic since it poses the question as a matter of “oil dependency” and not of the inevitable consequences of the present system of commodity production. It does not recognize that: oil is a commodity (not a thing); the oil industry is devoted to making money profits (and not producing oil); the US government is essentially involved in guaranteeing the functioning of the world market (and not in the energy “security” of its citizens); and energy politics involve classes in conflict (and not only competing corporations and conflicting nation-states).

In brief, it leaves out the central players of contemporary life: capitalists and workers. Somehow, when it comes to writing the history of petroleum, capitalism, the working class, and class conflict are frequently forgotten in a way that never happens with oil’s earthy hydrocarbon cousin, coal. Once we put capitalism and class conflict into the oil story, the plausibility of the Peak Oil/National Security paradigm lessens. Let me breakdown my points of criticism:

(a) Oil is a commodity

Oil in a capitalist society is not produced to satisfy human needs and desires (although as a commodity it must satisfy some desire, real or contrived). It is produced to make profit and to increase control over and accumulate human labor (which requires the creation of a universe of misery)! Even if oil was the elixir of life, as long as it could not make a profit on sale, it could just as well be sewer water as far as capitalism is concerned.

In other words, oil must be a commodity to have a value—but oil is not just like any other commodity. It creates even more mysteries and metaphysics than its average cousins. First, it is a basic commodity, since it is involved directly or indirectly in the production of most other commodities. Its price changes affect the prices of almost all other commodities and hence wages and profits throughout the world. Also, its production process has a high organic composition, i.e., it involves large amounts of machines and equipment and relatively little direct labor. Finally, it has a rent component in its cost. All of these elements together make of oil a special commodity from the point of view of political economy, and they undermine the Peak Oil/National Security paradigm.

Basic commodity. Surely, the price of oil can influence the rest of the capitalist system in the way interest rates can. Oil prices ultimately have a power much more general and diffused than it immediately appears simply because oil is involved in the production of most other commodities. The many economic models since 1973 that have correlated world and regional recessions with oil price hikes empirically express this connection. Consequently, those who control the nationalized oil companies of the OPEC nations are crucial to the functioning of contemporary capitalist production not only because of the importance of oil for actual production of plastics and transport of steel, but also because of the larger economic consequences of any change in oil prices they charge. When government and corporate officials in NY, Washington and London look at the composition of the OPEC leaders and see only Islamic terrorists and nationalist revolutionaries this clearly poses not only a political and military threat; it is most immediately an economic one for them.

Transferred value. Most commodities do not sell at their values; otherwise highly demanded commodities like oil would not be produced, since their almost labor-less production would not generate enough surplus value directly. Consequently, some value from branches of production which require less investment in machinery and plant (e.g., textiles) must be transferred through market competition into the branches like the oil industry which require much more investment in technology. This means that oil is a commodity that is the object of the collective interest of capitalists around the planet. Any attempt to run such an industry in a way that would be detrimental to the general capitalist interest will face opposition from a vast assembly of individual capitalists around the world. (As Kissinger said in the early 1970s: “Oil is too important to leave it to the Arabs.”) Thus oil companies are closely monitored (and regulated) by capitalist governments domestically and internationally. It is not only the US oil companies that are vitally interested in the fate of the oil reserves of Iraq; there are behind them many other kinds of corporations in the US, Europe and Japan whose profits will depend upon that fate as well.

Indeed, there is such a collective (almost communal) capitalist concern for industries that (a) produce commodities with high levels of machinery and little direct labor and that (b) are important to the production of commodities, they can easily be the object of political and military action by a capitalist class domestically and internationally. Sometimes this action can be legislative. For example, Rockefeller’s oil operations were the initial target of the “anti-trust” movement in the late 19th and early 20th century US. But sometimes this action can be violent and prompt wars—as can be seen from the British attack on Ottoman Iraq in WWI to the 2003 US/UK invasion of Saddam’s Iraq.

Rent. Rent is one of the categories of political economy that is clearly relevant to the oil industry. There is a rent that goes to the owners of the oil fields due to the fact that not all underground oil is the same. Some is “sweet” (i.e., it has a low sulphur content), some is not; some is deep, some is not; some is on land, some is not; some requires a lot of technology to find, some does not. Clearly, if the price of oil is roughly the same throughout the world, then the owner of the territory where the oil has positive characteristics can charge rent (and expect to be paid it). Indeed, there is probably some “Absolute Rent” in the rental costs of oil that is paid simply as tribute to the regime of private property even when a company is producing in the worst oil areas. All this rental value comes from the transferred value from the rest of the capitalist system. Again, there is a collective capitalist interest in its part of the cost of oil.

Indeed, there has been a capitalist critique of “rent-seeking” throughout the modern history of political economy. Rent is presumably the epitome of unproductive income. This critique still goes on today in the textbooks of both Keynesianism and neoliberalism. However, for all the critique of the rentier, rent still is a decisive form of income in a capitalist society, as any New Yorker will attest! But the productivist ideology that has its roots in John Locke’s defense of English colonialism in the late 17th century is always waiting on the horizon to be brought in to justify attacks on the rights of the rentier. If the rentier, exercising the right of exclusion, disrupts the productive development of a profitable industry, then there is a right of the “more productive” to lay claim to the right of exclusion. Therefore, war is always on the wings of all rental claims.

Since oil is a “peculiar” commodity in all these dimensions and is crucial to the functioning of world capitalist production, the considerations appropriate to understanding its role in world economics and politics are not merely technical or scientific. US capitalists and the US government alike are vitally involved in the fate of the world oil industry independently of whether corporations based in the US import oil or not.

(b) The US is not a nation-state any more, if it ever was.

The primary function of the contemporary US government as far as energy policy is concerned is not defined in the Constitution’s famous preamble. Indeed, even if the US economy was completely self-sufficient in energy production and no longer dependent on imports from OPEC countries, the US government would still be instigating “oil wars” for at least two reasons.

First, the US government would still need to guarantee the profits of the major energy corporations that are involved in “foreign” production and often need US military assistance (cf. from the Iranian coup in 1954 to the Iraq invasion of 2003). Second, the US government (in both its Democratic and Republican embodiments) is “responsible” for the survival of the neoliberalism/globalisation project as a whole. Profit-making is now (as it has always been) dependent on the world market, and today this market’s rules are determined by the WTO, the World Bank and IMF, institutions that are committed to a neoliberal doctrine.

The main problem with neoliberal/globalisation is that for it to “work” the system must be global and the participating nations and corporations must follow the “rules of trade” (including trade in services, patents and copyrights) even when participation goes against their immediate self-interest. In a time of crisis, however, there is a great temptation for many participants to drop out of or bend the rules of the game, especially if they perceive themselves to be chronic losers. What force is going to keep the recalcitrants (both old—those who refused to be part of the game—and new—those who dropped out) from proliferating? Up until the 1997 “Asian Financial Crisis,” most of the heavy work of control was done by the IMF and World Bank through the power of money. Since then, it is becoming clear that there are countries that will not be controlled by structural adjustment programs (SAPs) and the fear of being exiled from the world credit market if they do not follow the instructions of the IMF and the World Bank.

The most illustrious recalcitrants are the Bush-baptized “Axis of Evil” states—Baathist Iraq (one of the last of the national socialist states), Iran (one of the last fundamentalist states after the demise of the Taliban) and North Korea (one of the last of the communist states)—but there are many other Islamic, national socialist and communist governments that have not transformed their economies into neoliberal form. This list will undoubtedly grow unless there is a check, in the form of a world police officer that will increase the costs of an exit.

The neoliberal order needs an equivalent of the role Britain played for the liberal capitalist system of the 19th century in order to function. Bill Clinton and his colleagues believed that the UN could eventually be used by the US government as such a force. The Bush Administration disagrees and concludes that the US will have to act in its own name to enforce the rules of the neoliberal order, and that action must at times be military. In the end, it is only with the construction of a terrifying US Leviathan that the crisis of neoliberalism will be overcome and the regime of free trade and total commodification will finally be established for its Millennium.

The invasion of Iraq is a crucial step in this construction process. It is seen by Bush as a sacrifice of US human and capital resources for the greater capitalist good (hence, perhaps, the continual evocation of “God” in the administration’s rhetoric). There is some truth in the Bush Administration’s claim that the present war on Iraq (and future wars on the remaining problematic OPEC countries, if the more “extreme” elements of the Administration have their way) is not about oil per se. It is about imposing a uniformly neoliberal structure on countries that, because of their ability to receive transferred value through their oil sales, have been able to evade the rules of the global market. Indeed, oil is the main internationally-traded commodity that is not regulated by WTO rules to this day.

The Bush Administration’s project of policing the neoliberal order might have been possible, if there promised to be but a few recalcitrants to and migrants from the neoliberal order. However, this is not likely. For neoliberalism does not seem to have been able to deliver on the “sustained growth” that raises all ships even in its halcyon days in the late 1980s. On the contrary, experience shows that it does not even raise 20% of the “ships” it had claimed to do in its inception. This means that many millions in the Third World who aspired to membership in the local ruling class and the many billions who simply wanted an increased wage have been devastated by the course of neoliberal globalisation and have become its implacable enemies in the 1990s and early 21st century.

Consequently, there will be wars fought by US troops aplenty in the years to come, if the US continues to play the British Empire of 21st century neoliberalism. For what started out in the 19th century as a tragedy, will be repeated, not as farce, but as catastrophe in the 21st. At the same time, it is not possible for the US government to “retreat” from its role, without jeopardizing the neoliberal/globalisation project itself. Thus the supporters of the Peak Oil/National Security paradigm are offering up a questionable connection between energy import substitution and the path of imperialism. As logicians would say, energy dependence might be a sufficient condition of imperialist oil politics, but it is not a necessary one.

(c) Peak Oil?

Are we actually witnessing the oil industry’s “final advance,” with the moment of “Peak Oil” nigh? We should be as skeptical of the early 21st century Hubbertian “end of oil” as we were of the Club of Rome’s “limits to growth” scenarios of the late 1960s. For oil is inevitably surrounded by an ideological aura. It is impossible to read the lineaments of history solely from the limits and constraints of nature, especially in a capitalist society where “nature” is often playing surrogate for the commands of a ruling class (cf. the long, continually revived career of “Social Darwinism”). The problem with the debate concerning the hypothesis is simply that while the geological reasoning Hubbert used is compelling for predicting oil use, the class consequences of such reasoning are far less compelling.

For the “Peak Oil” hypothesis is now becoming a the justification for an attack on pensions, wages and workers’ guarantees in the so-called advanced capitalist countries. Presumably, the increased cost of finding new fields and their increased rent in an era of Peak Oil will require an increase in the mass of exploited labor. The permanently increased energy costs presaged by the “Peak Oil” hypothesis are now a convenient way for capitalists to invoke the need for “austerity” (for their workers) long before the actual exhaustion of oil, natural gas and coal is on the horizon.

Thus this hypothesis is an even more pernicious tool in class struggle than the energy limitation ideology of the 1970s. But the apparently logical connection between the “end of cheap oil” and reduced wages and working class expectations is simply a mirage. The hidden assumption of Peak Oil ideologists is that increased energy prices (for corporations) inevitably require a reduction of the wage rate instead of a reduction in the profit rate. In other words, Peak Oil politics assumes that the working class will finance the transition from cheap to expensive oil come what may. Given the present configuration of class forces in the US, this assumption is perhaps a good bet, but it is a far from necessary outcome.


Given our critique of the Peak Oil/National Security paradigm, one can understand why the Bush Administration’s paradigm is appealing to many in the US working class. First, it has a much more plausible account of the US government’s general role in the world economy and its specific role in controlling the price of oil. No one seriously believes that the US capitalist class is going to abandon its “global reach” or its profit-making just for the sake of providing a reliable, domestically-produced energy supply to US workers. Second, it offers to members of the US working class an understandable role in the future division of labor, i.e., as mercenaries and low-level managers of the world market in energy. Incidents such as the horrible deaths of the four “contractors” in Falluja in April 2004 are increasingly to be seen as “work accidents” that go with the territory, and not as exceptional circumstances. Third, it seems to imply that US military dominance will be applied in the service of the working class’ need for oil energy.

Thus, the key oil issue in contemporary class politics in the US is not the one addressed by the Peak Oil/National Security paradigm, viz., the notion that US corporations and workers are economically dependent on an imported commodity that is increasingly becoming more “expensive” and that the political project of our era is to have a US economy self-sufficient in energy. The problem is that a significant minority of US workers see their only secure future in a neoliberal/globalised world with its main recalcitrants—the OPEC countries—policed by a military recruited from the US working class. One cannot explode this enclosing vision of the future by offering a logically and politically alternative project of national energy independence that does not challenge the neoliberal order.

George Caffentzis is a member of the Midnight Notes Collective and a coordinator of the Committee for Academic Freedom in Africa.

This article originally appeared Feb. 9 in Metamute. &NrSection=10&NrArticle=1480


Colin J Campbell, and Jean H Laherrere, “The End of Cheap Oil,” Scientific American, vol. 278, no. 3, March 1998

JE Hartshorn, Oil Trade: Politics and Prospects, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993

Michael T. Klare, Resource Wars: The New Landscape of Global Conflict, New York: Henry Holt and Co, 2001

Michael T. Klare, Blood and Oil: The Dangers and Consequences of America’s Growing Oil Dependency, New York: Henry Holt and Co, 2004

Paul Roberts, The End of Oil: On the Edge of a Perilous New World, Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co, 2004

Also by George Caffentzis:

“The Struggle for the Petroleum Commons: Local, Islamic, and Global,” WW4 REPORT #105

See also:

Tim Corrigan reviews The Long Emergency: Surviving the End of the Oil Age, WW4 REPORT #112

See our ongoing coverage of the global oil shock


Reprinted by WORLD WAR 4 REPORT, Sept. 1, 2005

Reprinting permissible with attribution



by David Bacon

BASRA, Iraq – The cracking towers and gas flares of the Al-Daura oil refinery rise above the neighborhood on Baghdad’s outskirts that bears its name. On February 18, Ali Hassan Abd (Abu Fahad), a leader of the refinery’s union, was walking home from the Al-Daura Refinery with his young children when gunmen ran up and shot him.

Abu Fahad had been one of 400 union activists who emerged from the underground or returned from exile in May 2003 and at a Baghdad conference formed the Iraqi Federation of Trade Unions. Afterwards, he went back to the refinery and urged his fellow workers to elect department and plant-wide committees. That, in turn, became a nucleus of the Oil and Gas Workers Union, one of the twelve industry unions that make up the IFTU.

Less than a week after Fahad was killed, on February 24, armed men gunned down Ahmed Adris Abbas in Baghdad’s Martyrs’ Square. Adris Abbas was an activist in the Transport and Communications Union, another IFTU affiliate. The murder of the two followed the torture and assassination of Hadi Saleh, the IFTU’s international secretary, in Baghdad on January 4. Moaid Hamed, general secretary of the IFTU’s Mosul branch, was kidnapped in mid-February, as was Talib Khadim Al Tayee, president of the metal and print workers’ union. Both were later released.

The targeting of trade unionists is a particularly alarming feature of life in occupied Iraq. According to the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions, “the torture and murder of labour leaders in Iraq has become a troubling trend in a country where trade unionists still operate under anti-union legislation which dates back to the Saddam era.”

In February, the British Trades Union Congress brought representatives of the IFTU out of Iraq, along with leaders of other Iraqi labor federations. After a memorial for Saleh, they spent a day describing to British unionists the need for keeping open the political space they need to survive. Then, in June, US Labor Against the War (USLAW) brought a group of six Iraqi trade union leaders to the US.

Hassan Juma’a, head of the General Union of Oil Employees at Iraq’s huge oil installations in the south, predicts that “an attack on myself will take place, but I’m not afraid. I expect the terrorists will strike everywhere.” Juma’a, like most Iraqi unionists, attributes the murder of Saleh and other leaders to remnants of Saddam’s secret police, the old Mukhabharat. “They seem to be able to operate freely,” he said.

The Federation of Workers Councils and Unions of Iraq (FWCUI) reports that it recently discovered a plot to bribe relatives of its leaders in Basra, and to eventually kidnap and kill them. Harry Barnes, a left-wing Labour MP with close ties to Iraqi unions, charges that “the so-called resistance is deliberately targeting leaders of the Iraqi labour movement in order to prevent the growth of a new civil society in Iraq.”

In the broader context of anti-union violence, it’s clear that IFTU leaders are being singled out, a probable response to the union’s position on the Iraqi elections, one of the few issues on which Iraqi unions disagree. “The IFTU supports democratic principles,” explains Ghasib Hassan, head of the IFTU’s Railway and Aviation Union. “And one of those principles is elections. So we supported them. The IFTU wants to see a democratically elected and accountable government, mandated by the people, so we can raise our legitimate questions and concerns… This election was also a way of facing head-on those extremists and anti-democratic forces who don’t want to see Iraq a democratic and secure state.”

The FWCUI, on the other hand, condemned the balloting. “We called on workers to boycott these elections, because people were divided according to their ethnicity, language and religion,” explains Falah Alwan, the federation’s president. “Its purpose was to impose the American project on Iraq, and give legitimacy to the government imposed by the Americans and the occupying coalition. The same parties we saw in the old Governing Council will remain in power, and the political balance will remain the same.”

The oil workers union took no official position on the election, but its leaders estimate that most members voted for the party slate headed by the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, which now governs the country.

Iraqi unions do agree, however, on most other broad political issues, including the occupation itself, which they regard, in Ghasib Hassan’ word, as “brutal.” The IFTU, like other Iraqi labor federations, has close relations with a set of political parties–in its case, the Iraqi Communist Party (with two ministers in the current government), the party of outgoing Prime Minister Issad al Allawi, and a party of Arab nationalists. IFTU activists say they opposed the occupation before the insurgency war, but were forced to deal with it once it began to take off. They call for using UN Resolution 1545 as the basis for insisting that the US leave once an elected government holds office.

“The war has resulted in extreme destruction of our country,” Hassan says. “This is not liberation. It is occupation, and we oppose it absolutely. At the beginning of the 21st century, we thought we’d seen the end of colonies, but now we’re entering a new era of colonialization.”

The FWCUI is affiliated with the Worker Communist Party of Iraq, which has taken a much more distant attitude toward the occupation authorities. Alwan says UN forces should replace US troops. “We call for a congress of liberation, including all the powers in Iraq, to end the occupation and rebuild civil society,” he explains.

The General Union of Oil Employees want the troops to leave right away. After surveying Southern Oil Company Union (SOCU) members, “almost everyone [told us] they want the occupation to end immediately, and the immediate withdrawal of all occupying forces from Iraq,” says Juma’a.

At the end of the US tour, the three unions agreed on a statement, made together with USLAW. This is the first time Iraq’s major unions have developed a common position on the two key issues that confront them–the occupation and privatization.

“The occupation must end in all its forms, including military bases and economic domination,” the statement said. “The war was fought for oil and regional domination, in violation of international law, justified by lies and deception, without consultation with the Iraqi people. The occupation has been a catastrophe for both our peoples.”

The statement condemned the occupation’s economic program. “The national wealth and resources of Iraq belong to the Iraqi people,” it emphasized. “We are united in our opposition to the imposition of privatization of the Iraqi economy by the occupation, the IMF, the World Bank, foreign powers and any force that takes away the right of the Iraqi people to determine their own economic future.”

There are a lot of reasons why workers and unions might hate the occupation. Iraqi unemployment, according to the economics faculty of Baghdad University, has been at 70% since the occupation started. Among US occupation czar Paul Bremer’s neoliberal orders was number 30, issued in September of 2003 and still in force. It lowered the base wage in public enterprises, where most Iraqis work, to $35/month, and ended subsidies for food and housing. Most of all, workers hate Law 150, issued by Saddam Hussein in 1987, which prohibited unions and collective bargaining in the public sector. Bremer chose to continue enforcing this measure, and bound the transitional government of Allawi to do the same. Bremer backed it up by issuing Public Order 1, banning even advocacy leading to civil disorder, and arrested IFTU leaders, expelling them from their Baghdad offices.

Iraqi unions see these moves as a way to soften up workers to ensure they don’t resist the privatization of the country’s economy. Interviewed at the Al-Daura refinery in October, 2003, manager Dathar Al-Kashab predicted that in that event “I’d have to fire 1500 [of the refinery’s 3000] workers. In America when a company lays people off, there’s unemployment insurance, and they won’t die from hunger. If I dismiss employees now, I’m killing them and their families.”

Privatization defies the tradition of social solidarity in Iraq, which would favor using oil revenues to industrialize the country, creating a public sector that can put people to work and ensure a self-sustaining national economy. Hassan Juma’a says workers at the Southern Oil Company began organizing their union as the troops were entering Basra because of “our fear that the purpose of the occupation is the oil, that they’ve come to take control of the oil industry. Without organizing ourselves, we would be unable to protect our industry.”

The IFTU also opposes privatization. “Iraqi publicly owned enterprises should stay publicly owned,” says Ghasib Hassan. “We will never accept the privatization of oil. It is the only source of wealth we can use to rebuild our country.”

Alwan and the FWCUI have organized worker committees in a number of Baghdad factories, and opposition to privatization has been a major motivation there also. Interviewed in October, 2003, at the Mamoun Vegetable Oil Factory, manager Amir Faraj Bhajet observed that “there’s no private person in Iraq with enough money to buy this place. It would have to be a foreign owner. They would like the assets, but would they want the workers?”

Despite facing a hostile occupation with a vested interest in their suppression–and an armed insurgency targeting unions and civil society–Iraq’s labor movement has done a remarkable job of organizing workers and challenging the free-market rules. Some of the first street protests in Baghdad were organized by the Union of Unemployed of Iraq, now part of the FWCUI, which led to many arrests–particularly of the union’s head Qasim Hadi. This past February, as IFTU leaders were being killed, Baghdad’s hotel workers struck first at the Sheraton, and then the next-door Palestine Hotel. Both are luxurious establishments behind high blast walls, housing US journalists and administrators.

Despite the US-imposed ban, the IFTU has managed to force de facto recognition and bargaining in some workplaces, and now claims 12 national unions and 200,000 members. Metalworkers at Baghdad’s Al Nassr molding and car parts factory won a minimum wage of 150,000 dinars per month. The Rail Workers Union forced a wage increase at Railways of the Iraqi Republic from 75,000 to 125,000 dinars per month, and equal pay for men and women. And in May, 2004, Basra’s power station workers, a hotbed of union activity, elected the first woman union president in Iraq’s history. Hashimia Muhsin Hussein says the Electricity and Energy Workers’ Union “will continue to struggle for workers’ rights to union representation, social justice and a stable, pluralistic and democratic Iraq.”

While the oil workers and the two Iraqi labor federations are organizationally independent from each other, they cooperate on the ground, especially in Basra and the south. According to Juma’a, “We’re still looking to see which unions, at the end of the day, are the legitimate ones representing the interests of the workers.”

Basra is also the scene of Iraqi workers’ biggest victory so far. At the Southern Oil Company, the union first took on KBR, a division of Halliburton Corp., which was given a no-bid reconstruction contract to repair oil facilities. When KBR tried to bring in workers from outside the country to do the work (as a result of a strike in August 2003), Iraqi workers threw them out. Then the union directly challenged the Bremer wage order. “We managed to get the minimum salary up to 150,000 Iraqi dinars, or about $100,” Hassan Juma’a recalls. “This is a beginning of the struggle to improve the income of the oil workers.”

Similar fights broke out in the electrical stations around Basra. Juma’a and the Basra head of the IFTU, Abu Lina, also went to the deepwater port of Um Qasr to help dock workers get organized and begin their own push for better wages. In April, the port workers union, supported by the oil workers and others, blockaded the port of Zubair, and forced out the Danish shipping giant Maersk, which took over the terminals at the start of the occupation. In mid-2004, the US multinational Stevedoring Services of America was also forced out of the port of Um Qasr.

As a result of this activity, a higher percentage of factories in Iraq have worker-based organizing committees and fledgling unions than do factories in the US. Iraqi workers and unions clearly need help and support, especially from the US and Britain. But they may have something to teach, as well, about how to organize and move forward in a situation unionists in most industrialized countries would find paralyzingly dangerous.


David Bacon is a West Coast writer and photographer, and former factory worker and union organizer. His book, The Children of NAFTA: Labor Wars on the US/Mexico Border, was published last year by the University of California Press. His photo-documentary project on immigration, Beyond Borders: Transnational Working Communities, is due next year from ILR Press/Cornell University Press.

This story originally appeared August 10 on TruthOut.

See also our last report on labor struggles in occupied Iraq


Reprinted by WORLD WAR 4 REPORT, Sept. 1, 2005

Note: Reprinting of this story by permission of author only.



1400s: Nomadic tribes from Yemen invade the Sahara. Mixing with the local indigenous population of Saharan Berbers, they form the people who now inhabit the westernmost Sahara.

1884: Spain establishes a “protectorate” over what is now called the Western Sahara. The colony, Spanish Sahara, lasts until 1975.

1973: Several Saharans form a liberation movement named after the two regions of the Western Sahara: Popular Front for the liberation of the Saqiyah al-Hamra and the Rio De Oro (Polisario Front).

1975: Although the International Court of Justice dismisses his historical claim to the Western Sahara, Morocco’s King Hassan II announces that he will march 350,000 Moroccan civilians into the Spanish Sahara to “reclaim” it from Madrid. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger’s advice to his staff shortly before the march was “Just turn it over to the UN with the guarantee it will go to Morocco.” The US representative at the United Nations, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, later bragged, “In both [East Timor and Western Sahara] the United States wished things to turn out as they did, and worked to bring this about. The Department of States desired that the United Nations prove utterly ineffective in whatever measures it undertook. This task was given to me, and I carried it forward with no inconsiderable success.”

1976: Nearly half the indigenous Western Saharan population flees to Algeria for protection, with many joining the independence movement, the Polisario Front. At the end of February, as Spain formally withdraws, Polisario declares the birth of the Saharan Arab Democratic Republic (SADR). Today the refugee population is estimated at 150,000 dispersed between four camps near Tindouf, Algeria.

1976-1991: Morocco and Polisario wage war for the Western Sahara; Morocco is able to restrict Polisario attacks by bisecting the territory with a heavily mined and manned sand wall, called the berm.

1981: Reagan administration reverses the Carter administration’s Western Saharan policy and starts massively funding the Moroccan military effort. IMF and Saudi Arabia help offset the costs for Morocco.

1991: United Nations mission arrives in the Western Sahara to organize the referendum and maintain a cease-fire between the two sides. Although colonial authorities had only counted some 74,000 Western Saharans of all ages in 1974, Morocco managed to find some 170,000 voting-age Saharans that Spain somehow missed.

1997: Former US Secretary of State James Baker revives stalled peace process.

1999: King Hassan II dies; his son, Mohammed VI assumes the throne.

2000: In the shadow of the UN’s 1999 East Timor debacle, Western policy makers fear that a vote for independence might jeopardize the rule of the young King Mohammed. Security Council pushes Baker to propose an alternative solution more favorable to Morocco.

2001-2003: Baker presents two proposals that would allow Moroccan settlers to vote in a referendum along with Western Saharans after a four-year “autonomy” period. Morocco accepts the former but rejects the latter, claiming it will not have its “territorial integrity” put to a vote.

October 2001: Kerr-McGee and Total enter into reconnaissance contracts with Morocco for areas off the coast of the Western Sahara.

2005: In late May there is a large pro-independence uprising in the Moroccan-occupied Western Sahara, which is quickly repressed by Moroccan forces.

—Jacob Mundy



by Jacob Mundy

“We preferred that occupation,” Salim says, pointing to the Spanish news channel on his television, “to this one,” he says gesturing toward Moroccan settlers walking past his West Saharan shop window.

Western Sahara is a disputed territory sandwiched between Mauritania and Morocco, on the north African coast of the Atlantic ocean. The current struggle for control began in 1975 when Spain ended its colonial occupation and rule of Western Sahara and hastily handed over administration of its former colony to Morocco. Refugees fleeing their homes in Western Sahara, joined the nascent independence movement named Polisario, and declared the region a sovereign republic, setting off a guerrilla war.

Today, if the Oklahoma City-based Kerr-McGee Corporation gets its way and begins extracting oil and gas in contested Western Sahara, another volatile element will be added to the region’s long-standing dispute.

On the dusty streets of the sleepy Western Saharan capital, Al-‘Ayun, where I met Salim, and around the world, Morocco finds little open support for its continued occupation. Not one country or international organization recognizes Moroccan sovereignty over the Western Sahara. The United Nations defines the largely uninhabited Colorado-sized area as Africa’s last remaining colony.

But Morocco has found allies in its claim of sovereignty over Western Sahara in the corporate world. One of its more recent friends is Kerr-McGee. In 2001, the company signed a hydrocarbon “reconnaissance permit” with the Moroccan government to explore areas off the coast of the Western Sahara. Since inking the deal, Kerr-McGee has been assessing the results of a “large 2D seismic grid” of the region and a 2004 “drop core survey.” Kerr-McGee has renewed its contract several times, with the current agreement set to expire this October.

A Fortune 500 company founded in 1929, with more than $5 billion in revenue in 2004 and over $14 billion in global assets, Kerr-McGee “is one of the largest U.S.-based independent oil and natural gas exploration and production companies, with proved reserves of more than 1.2 billion barrels of oil,” according to its website.

The area of Kerr-McGee’s interest, the Boujdour Block, is a 27 million-acre expanse claimed by Western Sahara. The Block stretches from the Sahara’s cliff-lined shores to depths of more than 10,000 feet in the Atlantic Ocean.

Are there significant quantities of oil and gas off the shore of the Western Sahara? No one knows for sure. In neighboring Mauritania, Woodside Petroleum, Australia’s second-biggest oil and gas company, is expected to start pumping in 2006. The Chinese government is also heavily involved in offshore Mauritanian petroleum prospects. From the middle of the Sahara to all along the coast, West Africa is fast becoming an importance source of oil and gas for the United States.

But in Western Sahara, with uncertainty about ownership adding to the risk, oil companies are reluctant to commit resources. French oil “super-major” Total, which also contracted with the Moroccan government in 2001 to explore off the Saharan shores, withdrew in 2004 for “business” reasons.

The Norwegian geological survey firm TGS-Nopec has also abandoned its interests in the area. Contracted to carry out the research for Total and Kerr-McGee, and with 85% of its survey completed, TGS bowed to intense grassroots pressure in 2003. After dozens of shareholders divested, TGS issued a public statement announcing that it “has decided not to undertake any new projects in Western Sahara without a change in political developments.” The subsequent withdrawal of two minor companies for similar reasons left Kerr-McGee as the only foreign company working with Moroccan oil interests in the area.

For now, Kerr-McGee is holding firm and keeping quiet about its Saharan prospects. “[U]ntil we have completed the analysis and evaluation we cannot speculate on future activities,” external communications specialist John Christiansen told this reporter.

Kerr-McGee’s stockholders may also be less than fully informed about the risks of investing in a contested territory. In its 2004 report and a letter to shareholders, Morocco-but not Western Sahara–appears under a map titled “Targeting World Class Prospects.” And although the words “Western Sahara” appeared in Kerr-McGee’s 2003 report, the reference was omitted in the 2004 version.

Western Sahara is far more visible at the United Nations, where its fate is under the management of the Security Council. That body is torn between Morocco’s close relations with several permanent members, especially France and the United States, and the Western Saharns’ right of self-determination under customary international law.

The right goes back to 1974, when Spain promised the Western Saharans a chance to hold a popular referendum on whether they wanted to join with Morocco or become independent. Before the vote could be held, Morocco invaded, claiming the Western Sahara as a historical part of Morocco. Since 1991 the United Nations has been promising the Western Saharans another chance to vote, but fearing it might lead to independence, Morocco has rejected any proposal that challenges its “territorial integrity.”

“This issue is really not unlike the Arab-Israeli dispute: two different peoples claiming the same land,” said James Baker, former US secretary of state and key UN mediator in the dispute between 1997 and 2004 . “One is very strong, one has won the war, one is in occupation and the other is very weak,” he told Wide Angle, a New York television show produced for the national Public Broadcasting Service (PBS.)

With the discovery of significant hydrocarbon deposits in the Western Sahara, the power equation has grown more complex. The potential wealth provides the Moroccan government with strong motivation to hold onto the contested territory and to shun the peace process.

“Morocco is seeking to impose a fait accompli,” says Kamel Fadel, a representative with the Western Sahara government in exile, “as well as implicate foreign companies and interests in its illegal occupation of our country.”

Kerr-McGee contends that its interests are not biasing the peace process. “Kerr-McGee, by its Reconnaissance Permit, has not prejudged or prejudiced such efforts, and we hope to make a contribution to the development of this area and its people,” Christiansen says.

The Norwegian government, for one, believes that Kerr-McGee’s actions are indeed prejudicial. Citing its own ethical guidelines, the Finance Ministry’s advisory council called on the national retirement fund to divest its $52 million in Kerr-McGee stock: “The Council regarded [the exploration] as ‘a particularly serious violation of fundamental ethical norms’ e.g. because it may strengthen Morocco’s sovereignty claims and thus contribute to undermining the UN peace process.”

“It actually says in the Petroleum Fund’s ethical guidelines that it is highly problematic to invest in occupied and Non-Self Governing Territories,” says Ronny Hansen, spokesperson for the Norwegian Support Committee for Western Sahara, which helped bring the situation to his government’s attention. “The guidelines also make specific reference to Western Sahara. So when we called for disinvestment, the fund had an easy decision to make.”

Hansen hopes that a mix of public exposure and financial divestment will drive Kerr-McGee out of the Western Sahara. Responding to Kerr-McGee’s claim that its contract with Morocco, in its present form, is perfectly legal, Hansen argues, “Kerr-McGee offers political legitimization to the Moroccan occupation and contributes in escalating the conflict. This is crystal clear.”

Kerr-McGee spokesperson Christiansen counters: “Again, we support the ongoing efforts of the United Nations to find a permanent and amicable solution to the Western Sahara issue. Kerr-McGee, by its Reconnaissance Permit, has not prejudged or prejudiced such efforts.”

Not only are there serious questions as to whether Kerr-McGee is helping Rabat (the Moroccan capital) strengthen its hold on the Western Sahara, and thereby undermining the peace process, but Morocco may not have a legal right to offer oil and gas exploration contracts in the contested territory.

Given the Western Sahara’s international status as a colony (i.e., a Non-Self-Governing Territory), the United Nations called for an official legal opinion in 2001, shortly after Morocco offered the Western Saharan concessions to Kerr-McGee and Total.

The following February, UN Under-Secretary General for Legal Affairs, Hans Corell, offered an opinion that gave ammunition to both sides.

“The UN under-secretary for legal affairs has confirmed that we acted lawfully in contracting with Morocco,” Christiansen says. “Neither the United States nor the United Nations recognizes any other administrative authority or government in that territory.”

In Kerr-McGee’s favor, Corell’s opinion said, “The specific contracts are not in themselves illegal.”

But Fadel, representing the government in exile, counters that by undermining the legitimacy of Morocco’s occupation, the opinion actually confirms the illegality of Kerr-McGee’s contracts.

Another passage in Corell’s opinion seems to support Fadel: “[I]f further exploration and exploitation activities were to proceed in disregard of the interests and wishes of the people of Western Sahara,” the UN official wrote, “they would be in violation of the principles of international law applicable to mineral resource activities in Non-Self-Governing Territories.”

In its most simple form, the issue may boil down to the common sense proposition that only the side with legal sovereignty can legally grant exploration and extraction rights.

According to Corell, the 1975 Madrid Agreement “did not transfer sovereignty over the Territory, nor did it confer upon any of the signatories the status of an administering Power, a status which Spain alone could not have unilaterally transferred.”

“[A]s far as International Law is concerned,” Spanish foreign minister Miguel Angel Moratinos recently told the Spanish parliament, “Spain remains the administering power” of the Western Sahara, and its hand-off to Morocco was never legal.

Even Morocco’s allies have had to clarify their position on the status of the Western Sahara. On the conclusion of a bilateral free trade deal with Morocco in July 2004, US Trade Representative Robert Zoellick said: “The United States and many other countries do not recognize Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara and have consistently urged the parties to work with the United Nations to resolve the conflict by peaceful means. The Free Trade Agreement will not include Western Sahara.”

Despite Rabat’s intransigence and Kerr-McGee’s legal parsing, the exiled Saharan government has remained optimistic. It has even offered its own licenses to competing oil companies for the same areas off the Western Saharan coast, although these deals will only come to fruition if their nation achieves independence.

Fadel is certain that this will happen soon enough. “Most colonial powers cling to power until the last minute and Morocco is not an exception,” he said. “The [Moroccan] regime knows deep inside that they have failed to win the heart and minds of the Saharan people despite 30 years of occupation and that they have to leave sooner or later. Our hope rests on our faith in the determination and will of our people and the justice of our cause.”


Jacob Mundy served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Morocco (1999-2001) and is a member of Western Sahara Resource Watch. He is the co-author of a forthcoming book on the conflict with Stephen Zunes.

This story originally appeared July 21 in CorpWatch.


History of Western Sahara

Friends of the Western Sahara

See also our last news update on Western Sahara


Reprinted by WORLD WAR 4 REPORT, Sept. 1, 2005

Reprinting permissible with attribution