Having lost his constitution reform vote by a razor-thin margin, Venezuela’s President Hugo Chávez said he will accept the results—with caveats. “I faced a great dilemma,” he said. “I wanted to wait until the results were irreversible, but we cannot… Read moreChávez accepts defeat —”for now”
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Survivors of Cold War Nuclear Testing Say No to Revived Weapons Program
by Lisa Mullenneaux
They have heard it all before. Residents near the Nevada Test Site, 65 miles from Las Vegas, call themselves “downwinders” because they disproportionately suffer from cancers, leukemia, and other fallout-related illnesses. They know the government’s deceit carries a deadly payload. That’s why in 2006 when the Pentagon’s Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA) announced a test of 700 tons of explosive (50 times the power of our largest conventional weapon), anti-nuclear groups in four states and the Shoshone Nation gave DOE a blast of their own.
Downwinders didn’t share DTRA head James Tegnelia’s euphoria that the test, code-named Divine Strake, would send contaminated dirt sky high. “I don’t want to sound glib here,” Tegnelia told reporters, “but it is the first time in Nevada that you’ll see a mushroom cloud over Las Vegas since we stopped testing nuclear weapons.” In February 2007 the agency cancelled Divine Strake, replacing it with plans for “smaller blasts” aimed at underground enemy targets.
Small or large blasts, what downwinders fear is the Bush administration’s aggressive pursuit of new nuclear weapons and renewal of underground tests, banned since 1992. They have reason to be wary. In 2002 Bush accelerated the Doomsday Clock by reneging on an agreement with Putin to destroy 4,000 nuclear warheads, and rejecting the Anti-Ballistic Missile and Comprehensive Test Ban treaties. In 2003 Congress reopened the door to research and development of low-yield nuclear arms by repealing the Spratt-Furse ban, but has since balked at funding more ambitious programs like the Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrators (“bunker busters”). Undaunted, the Bush White House this year requested $88 million for “Reliable Replacement Warheads” to upgrade the existing nuclear arsenal. Just in case those warheads need to be tested, an “enhanced” Nevada Test Site—cost: $25 million—will be ready.
“I remember my father telling me about how people in southern Utah would watch the sky light up from the nuclear tests in Nevada,” says Rep. Jim Matheson (D-Utah), “and how they supported the program because they were strong patriots, who believed in their country and trusted their government.” Neither Matheson nor his neighbors trust the Bush administration’s assurances that funding new nuclear weapons won’t lead to testing them nor that underground testing is foolproof. Why should they? According to the Department of Energy’s 1996 report, radioactive material escaped from 433 underground tests between 1961 and 1992. In 2004, Matheson introduced the Safety for Americans from Nuclear Weapons Testing Act, that would require health and safety assessments prior to tests, Congress to authorize those tests, and independent radiation monitoring.
Downwinders in Nevada and Utah heard and read the Atomic Energy Commission’s (and later DOE’s) insistence “there is no danger” for 47 years, often in the pages of the New York Times and Washington Post. Not until 1980 did Congress admit what downwinders already knew: the danger of radiation was “not only disregarded but actually suppressed,” as a House of Representatives Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations concluded.
In 1990, Congress passed the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act, but for many victims and their families it was too late. A total of 928 above- and below-ground nuclear tests were conducted at the Nevada Test Site between 1951 and 1992 and 21 subcritical nuclear weapons tests since 1997, most recently in February 2006. Though the site has been renamed an “Environmental Research Park” by the DOW, it’s not a park you would want to picnic in. Soil at the site and for miles around is contaminated with radioactive material—which is why downwinders want to ban all tests.
Says Preston “Jay” Truman, who heads Downwinders, a Salt Lake City-based organization of those who were exposed to radioactive fallout: “Back in the ’50s, we were given a booklet on the first day of kindergarten that read, ‘You people who live near the test site are, in a very real sense, active participants in this nation’s testing program.’ We had no idea then how much we were at risk, but in opposing Divine Strake, we showed how much we have learned since then. When DOE refused to allow public hearings on the project, we held our own hearings. The government got 11,000 comments.”
Another Downwinder, Salt Lake City journalist and cancer survivor Mary Dickson premiered her play this year about the effects of radiation poisoning called “Exposed.” “I like to think the people do have power so I can go on thinking this fighting we do matters,” Dickson says. But sweet as the Divine Strake victory was, the Downwinders know they are fighting a Goliath in the weapons industry.
Some of those fighting Goliath lost family members who worked on the construction of test sites. Beverly Aleck’s husband Nick helped drill the mile-deep pit for the Cannikin test on Alaska’s Amchitka Island in 1971; four years later, he died of myelogenous leukemia. Aleck, an Aleut, has waged war with the DOE ever since to open the records and begin a health monitoring program for Amchitka workers. When the Alaska District Council of Laborers of the AFL-CIO investigated in the early ’90s, at Aleck’s insistence, the DOE claimed none of the workers had been exposed to radiation. They later admitted that exposure records and dosimeter badges had been lost.
Amchitka was the site of three large underground nuclear tests, including Cannikin, the most powerful nuclear explosion the US ever detonated. To allay fierce public opposition, then AEC chairman James Schlesinger claimed, “The site was selected—and I underscore the point—because of the virtually zero likelihood of any damage.” But the AEC already knew from Nevada tests there was no guarantee that radiation released by the blasts could be safely contained underground. In fact, research by Greenpeace and the DOE show it began to leak almost immediately. Amchitka remains the only national wildlife refuge chosen to test bombs.
Environmentalists, the Deptartment of the Interior, and the Auke Tribe all failed to save Amchitka or to change a pattern of military secrecy established years earlier in the Pacific. When Bikinians and others in the Marshall Islands were relocated starting in 1946, they were never told their homelands would be unsafe for 30,000 years. They were never told they would be used as guinea pigs in their new locations so the US military could better understand radiation poisoning. After many small tests, in 1954 the US exploded a hydrogen bomb, code-named BRAVO, and islanders experienced fallout over 7,000 square miles. Its gruesome results are cancers and malformed children called “jellyfish babies.” Darlene Keju-Johnson, a public health official born on Ebeye Island, has dedicated her life to interviewing Marshallese women and exposing their fear of ever bearing normal children. “They know they’ll be dying out soon. They are dying now—slowly.”
Russian women fear the same birth deformities as the Marshallese because of fallout from nuclear tests and accidents like Chernobyl. A 2005 conference organized to mark the 51st anniversary of the first hydrogen bomb test at Bikini Atoll allowed survivors to compare the patterns of secrecy that led to their radiation exposure, including still-classified government documents. “The reason the exposure [at Chernobyl] was so bad,” said Dr. Lyudmyla Porokhnyak, “is that we were lied to all the time.” After Chernobyl in 1986 and the BRAVO nuclear test in 1954, Russia and the US denied health risks and delayed evacuating residents. Fallout continues to be treated by US officials as the inevitable price for military superiority.
After President Bush’s Star Wars speech on May 1, 2001, when he argued that Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) could no longer guarantee our national security, companies began getting orders for fallout shelters for the first time since the Cold War. This year Huntsville, Alabama, dusted off its civil defense manual and announced plans to create a fallout shelter in an abandoned mine large enough for 20,000 people. Fighting the Red Menace during the 1950s was a bonanza for companies that sold pre-fab shelters, protective clothing, first-aid kits, disposable toilets, and books with titles like How to Have a Baby in a Bomb Shelter and America Under Attack! But while Eisenhower and Kennedy wanted nuclear preparedness they didn’t want national panic. An issue of Life, September 1961, devoted to the importance of fallout shelters, advised taking hot tea and aspirin for radiation sickness. “You can recover from a mild case of radiation sickness just as you can recover from a cold it’s not contagious. It loses its deadliness rapidly.”
Created in 1951, the Federal Civil Defense Administration (FCDA) was a shill for the weapons industry, designed to convince Americans they could survive a nuclear war by, among other things, ducking under a “sturdy table.” Its mascot was Bert the Turtle, who taught kids with a catchy jingle to “duck and cover” when the air raid siren sounded. Serious treatment of fallout, as in the film “On the Beach,” was condemned by the FCDA “because it produced a feeling of utter hopelessness, thus undermining efforts to encourage preparedness.” More entertaining were films like Mickey Rooney’s The Atomic Kid (1952) and Them! (1954) that exploited bizarre effects of genetic mutations.
Though scientists knew more than the public about radiation, their level of ignorance is astounding based on what we know today. As described by Gerard J. DeGroot in The Bomb: A Life, visitors were allowed into the Trinity site at Alagomordo, NM, in 1946 to collect Trinitite—the glassy substance of melted sand created by the blast—and local shops sold it as souvenirs. In September 1945, more than a thousand US servicemen were sent to Hiroshima and Nagasaki to help reconstruction. They were given no protective clothing, dosimeter badges, nor any precautionary advice. Meanwhile back in the US, secret experiments were being conducted in hospitals and prisons to study the effects of radiation on human beings. When the details of the experiments were released, the son of one of the women injected with bomb grade plutonium said: “I was over there fighting Germans who were conducting these horrific medical experiments. At the same time, my own country was conducting them on my mother.”
Part of the military’s pattern of secrecy is to use “nukespeak,” words that sanitize the horror of nuclear war: “collateral damage” for human death, “low-use segment of the population” for expendable downwinders. It speaks of “clean bombs” that release a bigger bang but less radiation than “dirty bombs,” calls the MX missile (Peacekeeper) a “damage limitation weapon,” speaks of a “limited nuclear war.” It justifies nuclear weapons research as “science-based stockpile stewardship.” Aware of US commitment under the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) “to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to the cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament,” the Bush administration speaks covertly about its own testing plans while decrying those of other nations.
Pushing in 2003 for funds to research a new generation of mini-nukes, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was careful to insist the Pentagon wanted to study them, “not to develop, not to deploy, not to use” them. From a low of $3.4 billion in 1995, US spending on nuclear weapons rose to $6.5 billion in 2004, far surpassing average yearly spending during the Cold War. “All the saber-rattling leads me to fear that they might try to resume testing,” says Nevada State Senator Dina Titus, who has written extensively on the state’s history of weapons testing. “We won the arms race, so why are we starting it again?”
No wonder downwinders are protesting—they’re catching the drift. And why should we worry? Because if studies by the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research (IEER) and National Cancer Institute are correct, we are all downwinders, exposed to radioactive fallout carried thousands of miles and lodged in food chains. Downwinders in Nevada are like canaries in the mine. They know what reactivating the Nevada Test Site means to them and their families or to having the nation’s nuclear waste dumped at Yucca Mountain. Chip Ward, who lives near the Nevada Test Site, writes, “Once again in a new age of nuclear testing, American citizens will be the first victims of our own weapons. We will live with uncertainty and doubt while waiting for the results of our own military folly to unfold in our tissues, our blood, our chromosomes, and our bones.”
Defense Threat Reduction Agency
Pentagon Plans Gigantic Explosion at Nevada Site, Reuters, March 30, 2006
Scientists Say Planned Blast a Part of Nuclear Testing
The Las Vegas Sun, April 6, 2006
Online at CommonDreams
Experts: Divine Strake ‘mushroom cloud’ could have sickened many
The Las Vegas Sun, June 27, 2007, from AP
The Spratt-Furse Law on Mini-Nuke Development
Union of Concerned Scientists, May 2003
Bush Speech on Missile Defence, Nuclear Reductions, May 1, 2001
Online at the Acronym Institute
The Low-Use Segment
Idaho’s downwinders got their hearing. But are their voices being heard?
by Nicholas Collias, Boise Weekly, Nov. 17, 2004
RESISTING THE NEW EURO-MISSILES
Czech Dissidents Stand Up Again—This Time to the Pentagon!
by Gwendolyn Albert,
WW4 REPORT, June 2007
NUCLEAR AGENDA 2005
Bush Charts New Generation of Warheads
by Chesley Hicksby Gwendolyn Albert,
WW4 REPORT, March 2005
From our weblog:
“Doomsday Clock” two minutes closer to midnight
WW4REPORT, Jan. 18, 2007
Special to WORLD WAR 4 REPORT, Dec. 1, 2007
Reprinting permissible with attribution
Militarization and the “Mérida Initiative”
by Laura Carlsen, Foreign Policy in Focus
After months of talks, President George W. Bush finally announced the “security cooperation” plan for Mexico. On Oct. 22, he sent a request for $500 million in supplemental aid for 2008 as part of a $1.4 billion dollar multi-year package.
No surprises there. The Bush administration has been negotiating the package with President Felipe Calderón’s administration for months. In the lead-up to the announcement, both governments marshaled studies and statistics to support the dual—and contradictory—thesis that the drug war in the United States and Mexico has reached a crisis point and that current efforts on both sides of the border have been very successful.
From what’s known of it, the package—officially dubbed the “Mérida Initiative” but more commonly referred to as “Plan Mexico”—contains direct donations of military and intelligence equipment, and training programs for Mexican law enforcement officials. A White House fact sheet lists surveillance equipment, helicopters and aircraft, scanners for border revisions, communications systems, and training programs for “strengthening the institutions of justice.” An additional $50 million dollars is earmarked for Central American countries to support their fight against “gangs, drugs, and arms.”
The Washington Post, which obtained a copy of the “Overall Justification Document,” reported that more than a third of the package will be spent on aerial surveillance and facilitating the rapid deployment of troops.
But what has legislators and civil society worried on both sides of the border is not the money involved or the equipment to be sent. It’s the reach of Plan Mexico in recasting the binational relationship, to create what the Bush administration calls “a new paradigm for security cooperation.”
The Politics of Counternarcotics
Characteristic of the “war on drugs” model, Plan Mexico takes a serious transnational problem and casts it in such a way as to promote the specific interests of the US and Mexican right-wing governments.
Following his narrow and questionable electoral triumph, President Calderón has made the war on drugs a cornerstone of his government. After taking office Calderón rapidly built an image of strength in arms. He dispatched over 24,000 army troops to Mexican cities and villages, dressed himself and his children in army uniforms for public appearances, and created an elite corps of special forces under his direct supervision.
The message of a weak presidency bolstered by a strong alliance with the military has not been lost on Mexican citizens. Many have criticized the repressive undertones, increasing human rights violations, constitutional questions, and threats to civil democratic institutions.
For the Bush administration, Plan Mexico has a dangerously misguided political thrust as well. Mexico is one of only two far-right governments among the major countries in the hemisphere. The other, Colombia, has received billions of dollars of US military aid, also originally as part of a war on drugs that soon broadened into an overall military alliance.
Washington officials have been lavish in their praise of the Calderón government and stated explicitly that the National Action Party’s government permits an “historic” level of cooperation in security matters. Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Tom Shannon spoke openly about the newfound commonality of interests between two nations with a history of conflict: “The Calderón government has acted with alacrity, with intelligence and with boldness in its fight against organized crime and drug trafficking, and we want to be part of that.”
But Bush administration interests go well beyond aiding the Calderón government in its domestic drug battles. Stephen Johnson, deputy assistant secretary for Western Hemisphere affairs in the Defense Department, recently made the connection between Plan Mexico and Washington’s bid to recover its influence in a slipping geopolitical context.
“While a groundswell seems to exist for greater engagement with the United States, there are challenge states such as Venezuela, Cuba, and to some extent Bolivia and Ecuador. For now, Venezuela and Cuba are clearly hostile to the United States, western-style democracy, markets, and are actively trying to counter our influence. Our challenge is not to confront them directly, but instead do a better job working with our democratic allies and friendly neighbors.”
In this context, Johnson—a former Heritage Foundation analyst—cites Plan Mexico as an excellent example of the direction to move in, stating, “With some 2,000 execution-style murders this year on the part of drug mafias, Mexico is under siege. Yet, this is an historic opportunity for the United States to cement closer ties with its closest Latin American neighbor and encourage a sea-change in law enforcement.”
The concept of a joint security strategy for North America goes back at least as far as the creation of the Security and Prosperity Partnership (SPP) in March of 2005. Since that time, the Bush administration has attempted to push its Northern American trade partners into a common front that would assume shared responsibility for protecting the United States from terrorist threats and bolstering US global hegemony in the region.
The Bush administration and the right-wing think tanks that have developed the strategy explicitly formulate hemispheric security policy in these terms. The American Enterprise Institute’s Thomas Donnelly calls the Western Hemisphere “America’s third border” and argues that “American hegemony in the hemisphere is crucial to U.S. national security.”
Plan Mexico twists the plot by presenting Bush administration efforts to create a North American security strategy in the guise of a war on drugs. It builds on SPP security negotiations that included expanding the presence of US drug enforcement and customs agents within Mexico, requiring legislation to commit Mexico to fight “international terrorism,” and curtailment of civil liberties similar to those found in the US PATRIOT Act that would legalize increased spying. Although not formally announced as elements of SPP agreements, the Mexican government has complied with all these requests.
The Mérida Initiative Joint Statement reads, “Our shared goal is to maximize the effectiveness of our efforts to fight criminal organizations—so as to disrupt drug-trafficking (including precursor chemicals); weapons trafficking, illicit financial activities and currency smuggling, and human trafficking.”
According to the terms of the security aid package, there is virtually no difference between an international terrorist, a migrant farm-worker, a political protestor, and a drug trafficker. The most unexpected and pernicious feature of Plan Mexico is that it targets all these groups indiscriminately. Lumping together all “transnational threats” and stripping them of any social or historical context creates a broad definition of security in the region and justifies a blanket regional security strategy.
In this way, Plan Mexico goes beyond Plan Colombia, which at least began with close congressional oversight to assure that military aid focused on drug trafficking. Plan Mexico skips the focused stage and leaps right into a wastebasket definition of security so broad that it could encompass an unlimited range of problems and actors.
In her testimony before Mexican Senate committees, Foreign Minister Patricia Espinosa cited four target areas of Plan Mexico: counter-narcotics, counter-terrorism and border security, public security and administration of justice, and institutional strengthening and law enforcement. The inclusion of anti-terrorist activities “to detect terrorists who might try to attack our neighbor” drew fire from legislators as proof that the US seeks to impose its own security agenda.
Espinosa’s admission that the plan contained a program to digitalize information on migration and apply detection and control measures on the southern border also caused controversy. Mexico has a history of offering refuge to Central Americans and accepting them into its society. That has been changing as the US government has pressured Mexico to intercept Central American migrants before they make it to the northern border.
Plan Mexico advances that process and increases Mexican participation in stopping its own migrants at the northern border too. For Mexican workers thrown out of a job by the US-Mexico trade agreement, being snagged as criminals by their own government at the border is a cruel irony.
Reactions North and South
Both governments have sought to avoid the moniker “Plan Mexico,” which despite their efforts tends to be the media’s favorite in the messaging battle. The name “Plan Mexico” invites comparison to the failed Plan Colombia, which has entrenched violence and corruption in that South American country while failing to reduce drug flows. The “Mérida Initiative” implies that it is an agreement put together by the two nations exclusively to address the drug offensive—Mérida is the name of the Caribbean state capital where Bush and Calderón met last spring.
Despite their efforts, the announcement has been a PR flop. President Bush’s unilateral announcement of the package annoyed Mexican legislators, and the plan lost credibility on its claim to be a binational program.
It also didn’t help that it was tacked onto the Iraq supplementary funding request. Any linkage between Plan Mexico and the reviled US security doctrine as applied in Iraq increases suspicions among Mexican politicians and public. In any case, it appears the Mexican legislature has little say in the matter. Although there was some confusion as to whether the Mexican government would put up funds for the plan, the Calderón administration denied any specific funding commitment. Therefore the aid plan is not subject to congressional review in Mexico.
In the US Congress, meanwhile, it seems lately you can sell anything to the democratic leadership if it has a “security” label on it. House leader Nancy Pelosi was quoted as admitting to not knowing the content of the new plan and in the same breath implying she would support it since national security “is our highest priority.”
Although US troop presence in Mexico has been ruled out, Mexican civil society has begun to react to what they see as forms of interference included in the plan. Members of the judicial system, including judges from the Supreme Court and lower courts, have publicly stated objections to US funds for the court system. Foreign participation in military training is even more questionable and its expansion under Plan Mexico has raised concerns on both sides of the border. The School of the Americas military training program in Fort Benning barely survived a recent vote in the US Congress and Mexican and US citizens have expressed human rights concerns surrounding US training methods.
The role of private contractors in implementing the package remains unclear and a source of dismay. Security analyst Sam Logan says Blackwater will be likely be the major beneficiary, despite its tarnished reputation following its shooting of Iraqi civilians. Corruption in contracts related to both training and equipment purchase seems a certainty given recent experience in Iraq.
But by far the biggest complaint in both congresses is the lack of information. The Mexican Senate immediately demanded that Foreign Minister Espinosa appear to explain the security package negotiated with the United States. In the United States, Senator Robert Menendez (D-NJ) protested the secrecy and stated that without details, it was impossible to evaluate the plan.
The Need for a Different Plan
Faced with a real problem—the strength of drug cartels in Mexico and the United States—Plan Mexico proposes solutions that replicate the logic of force and patriarchal control that the drug cartels rely on. Then it applies these solutions not only to a bloody frontal battle with drug traffickers, but to a multitude of complex security threats with roots deep in Mexican society.
The “commitment to a regional security strategy,” which uses counter-narcotics as a starting point and moves on from there, also entails a radical break with Mexico‚s traditional neutrality in foreign policy. The sheer scope of the package reflects the Bush administration’s military/police focus in international security issues, just when those strategies have hit a low point in popularity within the United States.
While heralded as binational cooperation, Plan Mexico seeds grave divisions within Mexico and in the long-term between the two nations.
It also drives an ideological stake into the heart of Latin America. By scooping Mexico up into a “common regional security strategy” the Bush administration creates technological, military, financial and political dependencies that seal the already overwhelming economic dependency Mexico has on the United States and isolates it from the rest of the hemisphere.
Unless checks and balances appear that have so far not been revealed, Plan Mexico could contribute to the creation of a police state in Mexico.
Laura Carlsen is a program director of the Americas Program at the Center for International Policy.
This story first appeared Oct. 30 on Foreign Policy in Focus
The Merida Initiative
US State Department fact-sheet, Oct. 22, 2007
Thomas A. Shannon, Assistant Secretary for Western Hemisphere Affairs
Testimony to Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Nov. 15, 2007
Security and Prosperity Partnership of North America
QUEBEC: PROTESTS ROCK NAFTA SECURITY SUMMIT
As Reports Reveal Free Trade’s Empty Promise
from Weekly News Update on the Americas
From our weblog:
White House prepares “Plan Mexico” drug war package
WW4 REPORT. Oct. 6, 2007
SOA survives House vote
WW4 REPORT. June 25, 2007
Reprinted by WORLD WAR 4 REPORT, Dec. 1, 2007
Reprinting permissible with attribution
A Threat to What Was Won Through Struggle
from El Libertario, Caracas
This is the editorial from the November edition of the Venezuelan anarchist journal El Libertario, analyzing the controversy over the pending constitutional reform, from a position harshly critical of both the Hugo Chávez government and the conservative opposition. In El Libertario’s view, the conflict is between rival sectors of Venezuela’s elite for control of the country’s lucrative energy resources—with the Chavista sector now making a grab for total power. This translation provided by El Libertatio was slightly edited by WW4 REPORT.
Once again we must consider the dilemma of whether to participate or not in the electoral contest, this time with the difference that it is not a case of choosing a candidate but rather constitutional norms. This situation requires careful reflection. We have a ruling party that accepts en masse the reforms proposed by the Boss and increased embarrassingly in a premeditated manoeuvre by a servile National Assembly. The absurdities of the original constitutional reforms [of 1999] were so many that it set the scene for the comical debate which has resulted in a plastering of equally aberrant additions. There is no serious debate of content and reasons, only discourses that are submissive to the tyrant, without any other sustaining logic than the desire to keep him in power. On the other hand, the institutional opposition stumbles in the darkness, not knowing how to confront it, relying on discourses and spokesmen from the past. They content themselves with showing through the media a small part of the absurdities that the Constitutional Reform contains—precisely those parts that threaten their own narrow interests, such as the rule changes of the political game—without any clear position or concrete campaign.
Thus, we suggest that faced with the alternatives of either voting for the rejection of the Constitutional Reform or abstaining, it is better to renounce participation in the Referendum and promote abstention. The timid questions that arise from the grassroots supporters of the Chavez regime clearly demonstrate the general [low] level of analysis and understanding of the proposals, highlighting the infantilization of the discourse promoted equally by the leaders of the militaristic pseudo-left in power and the right-wing and social democrat opposition.
We can partially see the logic behind the rush to change what up until recently has been sold as the “best constitution in the world.” The oil bonanza allows the executive to increase its broad client network in readiness for the coming electoral showdown. In addition to this is the clear opportunism by which, bypassing proper electoral norms, the Government conducts its “Yes” campaign, forcing the support of public sector employees and everyone else who is dependent on public finance. The precariousness and lack of independence of the electoral process is illustrated by the trajectory of the last head of the CNE [National Electoral Council], Jorge Rodríguez, who is now Vice-President.
We believe that with or without voters, the Reform will be passed. However, through abstention it is possible to make it illegitimate, even when it is [technically] legal. A very low number of voters in the coming poll would be a way of debilitating the regime from making any further moves, demonstrating that there is no “revolution” in popular participation, but rather a deepening of presidential personalism. If you believe that this is unimportant because the Government will consolidate its power anyway (which will happen regardless), or because people prefer to be on the winning side even when its victory is deceitful or fraudulent, remember that there is always a space to negate the validity of the leadership due to its illegitimacy. An illegitimate Government, despite maintaining itself in power, dissolves the tacit relationship of obedience that the population bestows upon it, removing, even if partially, the collective acceptance of its activity, and thus the implementation of its mandates have to based increasingly on the authoritarian exercise of power.
A significant abstention would mark the separation of the people, their aspirations and desires from those who hold State power, breaking the voluntary servitude that makes it possible to govern. It would also highlight the failure of the State as an institution that manages collective life… Of course the transition from the current situation to a clear and coherent horizon of social justice and liberty will not be achieved in a short period of time. The avoidance of shortcuts and a focusing on the reconstruction of intransigent and autonomous grassroots social movements is, without doubt, a long road, but it is also the most realist. A first step in this direction would be a complete understanding of what confronts us in this country, a perspective that is both realist and utopian, which will not be found in the ballot boxes this December.
It is also relevant to consider the situation after the ineluctable ratification of the Reform. From January 2008, new powers granted by the National Assembly to the President, based in the approved constitution and through the mechanism of the Ley Habilitante (which gives Chavez the ability to pass laws without recourse to Congress) will be established. It will be necessary to withhold efficiency from the offensive prepared by the ruling party in order to have absolute power…. We underline the fact that Governmental and State actions to imprison public opinion in their own hands have already begun. This process implies a set of measures tending towards silencing dissidence, criminalizing protest, squashing any sort of opposition to the State and leading the country in an authoritarian manner, ready to punish dissenting attitudes…
The State’s economic boom is not exclusively subordinate to the price of a barrel of oil… The plans for social support are financially backed up by the current surplus of funds, but if this ceased to be the case, due to the overwhelming financial liabilities of the state, it would be necessary to employ regressive policies that would negatively affect the population such as devaluations, tax increases, cutbacks in the Misiones program [grassroots development initiative] and other measures… These factors will generate social conflicts that will be suffocated by different repressive means according to each case.
Faced with this panorama, those of us who don’t renounce liberty and social justice must prepare ourselves to confront a general increase of coercion and collective control. This must be done without becoming paranoid; we know that we are not faced with the military government of Myanmar but rather an expression of neo-militarism as an efficient model for maintaining the despotic domination of Venezuelan society, in the service of the global energy market. All of this suggests that we must prepare ourselves for the escalation of repression, legitimized by the constitution that will be approved in December and that will consecrate the architecture of the totalitarian State. Moving beyond the conservative and reactionary elements of the media-driven opposition, the social struggle must confront the governmental Leviathan by developing new, creative and unexpected forms of organization and resistance.
This article first appeared in the November issue of El Libertario, Caracas
Text of the Ley Habilitante
Venezuelan Ministry of Popular Power
Venezuelan Ministry of Popular Power
FREE SPEECH IN VENEZUELA
The case of RCTV and the fictional democratization of communication
from El Libertario, Caracas
WW4 REPORT, July 2007
From our weblog:
Venezuela destabilization document emerges: real?
WW4 REPORT, Dec. 1, 2007
Reprinted by WORLD WAR 4 REPORT, Dec. 1, 2007
Reprinting permissible with attribution
What’s at Stake
by Sujatha Fernandes, ZNet
On Sunday Dec. 2, Venezuelans will return to the voting booths to ratify or reject two slates of constitutional reforms, 33 of which have been proposed by President Hugo Chávez and 36 additional reforms made by the National Assembly. Included in the proposed reforms to Venezuela’s 1999 constitution are an increase in the presidential term from six to seven years and a removal of the two-term limit, a shortening of the work week to 36 hours, the suppression of the right to information during national emergencies, the elimination of the autonomy of the central bank, increased funding for communal councils, the creation of new forms of collective property, the requirement of gender parity in positions of public office, and the recognition of Afro-Venezuelan groups, in addition to indigenous groups included in the previous reforms.
This mixed bag of proposed reforms has provoked polarized reactions across the country, and from international observers. The familiar cries of “dictadura” (dictatorship) coming from the opposition camp are no surprise, but the student protests coming out of the main public and private universities of Caracas, and the renegade voices within Chávez’s own administration have caused some confusion over where the fault lines lie. Some social movements supporting Chávez have been concerned that retrogressive proposals are mixed together with progressive reforms, making it difficult to campaign and vote on the issues as a bloc. What is at stake in Venezuela’s upcoming reform referendum? Does the outcry over the reforms signal yet again the frustrations of a thwarted opposition in its ongoing tussles with the government, or is there something more at play?
It is important to understand the anatomy of the various social forces who have thrown their hat into the ring. The long-term anti-Chavista camp, opposed to the proposed reforms, is divided over what strategy to take to the reform referendum. Some opposition parties, including Primero Justicia, Un Nuevo Tiempo, and the Christian Democratic COPEI have begun a campaign to encourage people to vote “No” to the reforms. By contrast, the National Resistance Command, which includes opposition parties such as Acción Democrática (AD), Alianza Bravo Pueblo and Bandera Roja called for a boycotting of the referendum and have mobilized people in the streets for their cause, although the AD retracted this position and joined the “No” campaign just a few days later. Like in earlier moments, the opposition’s indecisiveness and its inability to come to a united decision about how to confront Chávez has weakened its political impact.
In a surprising move, Chávez’s former Defense Minister Raul Isais Baduel who had played an important role in restoring Chávez to power during the 2002 coup, also came out against the constitutional reforms and urged people to vote “No” in the upcoming referendum. The former army commander described the changes as a “coup d’état” that would concentrate further power in the hands of the president, saying that there was no need to overhaul the 1999 constitution. Some were concerned that the defection of a senior military figure could have an impact on the armed forces, but so far there is no indication that this should be the case. It also seems that Baduel’s opposition stems from his concerns over the proposed changes to Article 328, which would require changes to the structure of the Armed Forces.
Resistance to the reforms has also come from opposition-identified student protesters from the large public Universidad Central de Venezuela (UCV), as well as private institutions such as the Andrés Bello Catholic University and the Universidad Simón Bolívar (USB). During October and early November, students marched four times to the National Assembly, the National Electoral Council (CNE), and the Supreme Court to demand that the referendum be stopped. The students attacked security forces with rocks and bottles, breaking down security barriers, and starting fires, and the forces responded with tear gas and water cannons, producing violent clashes in the streets that received national and international coverage. Pro-Chávez students organized counter-rallies to protest in support of the reforms. The pro- and anti-Chávez student activists are divided along class lines, with aspiring upwardly mobile or privileged elite students forming the core of the large demonstrations that are opposing the reforms.
The violence between anti-Chávez and pro-Chávez students reached a climax on Nov. 7, when a group of opposition students returning to the UCV from a rally surrounded the School of Social Work, a traditionally left-wing division, and held a siege of the building where 123 pro-Chávez students and staff had been making posters and planning their activities for the “Yes” campaign. In the opposition-controlled media, the events were falsely reported as a case of masked gunmen who opened fire on peaceful opposition student protesters.
On the day that the National Assembly approved the set of proposed reforms to go before a public referendum, José Manuel González, the president of Fedecámaras, the Venezuelan business association, announced that “Venezuelan democracy was buried today.” Opposition parties and media, the business federation, Gen. Baduel, and opposition-identified students all frame their disapproval of the reforms as a concern that democracy is being eroded. This framing is consistent with the charges that the opposition has leveled at the Chávez government from the start, and is in keeping with their limited notion of democracy as procedural democracy.
Procedural democracy, derived from Western experiences of representative government, is based on the rule of law, free and fair elections, and a separation of powers between the executive, legislative, and the judicial branches of government. At the time of the drawing up of the 1999 constitution, opposition critics complained that the executive branch was being expanded at the expense of other branches. The opposition expressed concerns that Chávez threatened judicial autonomy by intervening in the court system through disbarring judges and increasing the size of the Supreme Court, and that he had unduly increased the power of the military. They continue to make the same charges against the current proposed reforms to expand the presidential term by a year and remove limits on holding office, saying that this concentrates power in the executive.
Yet this focus on procedural democracy functions as a means of protecting hierarchies of existing power. The abstract concepts of the rule of law, separation of powers, and procedure inherent in liberal discourse assume the participation of rational, autonomous individuals who share equality under the law, without taking into account the tremendous inequalities in Venezuelan society. For marginal sectors, the liberal logic of procedural democracy can not be easily reconciled with histories of discrimination in a class and racially stratified landscape. Some have argued that the greater power being given to the executive may indeed be necessary in order to bring about the redistribution of social wealth and property that could alter the entrenched class structure.
At the same time, some in the Chavista camp are also uneasy about the reforms, albeit for different reasons. In October, community media activists from the National Association of Free and Alternative Media (ANMCLA) had expressed concern over the proposed changes to Article 337, which would remove the right to information of citizens during states of emergency. The move was justified by the Chávez government as a response to the manipulation by the media that took place during the 2002 coup. But activists from ANMCLA see the proposed restrictions on the right to information during times of emergency as dangerous recourse to a tool that has been used by powerful sectors throughout Latin American history to detain, persecute, and silence the population. The revolution should not be defended through censorship, argue ANMCLA, but rather through millions of voices on the air, as demonstrated during the 2002 coup.
The Agency of Alternative News (ANA), the ANMCLA agency that provides an alternative news source to the government-controlled Bolivarian Agency of News (ABN), also circulated a piece written by UCV Sociologist Javier Biardeau that questioned the route of constitutional reform as a means to effect changes in Venezuelan society. Referring to reforms in the legal arena as a “minefield,” Biardeau argues that constitutional reforms are a limited means to transform the state in a transition towards socialism. He concurs with journalist and blogger José Roberto Duque, who acknowledges that the constitutional reform is an attempt to accelerate and deepen the revolutionary process, but that for the moment it has only succeeded in sparking some dramatic exchanges without really touching any powerful interests.
The path of constitutional reform by plebiscite that has been taken by the Chávez government has also closed off other, more inclusive forums for the discussion of changes to the constitution. Rather than having a small group of representatives decide on the proposed reforms and then put them to the people in a referendum, Biardeau argues that it would have been preferable to convoke another Constituent Assembly to allow for a public debate and the broad participation of a range of social movements and popular groups. Through the proposed reforms, argues Biardeau, “21st century socialism” is being decreed from above rather than democratically debated and given substance from below.
As can be seen from the criticisms coming from social movements and commentators supportive of the Chávez government, it is possible and necessary to criticize the state’s attempts to monopolize power, not in the name of a procedural democracy, as the free-market proponents of the opposition would have it, but rather in the name of a substantive democracy that puts decision-making power in the hands of people organized within communal councils, assemblies, and popular organizations. On this account, “participation” is not limited to campaigning and mobilizing people to vote in the recall referendum on articles that have already been decided by a small group of representatives. It aspires to a local level of decision-making that would have people themselves determine the content of their laws and institutions.
This story first appeared Nov. 11 on ZNet, and was also run by Upside Down World
From our weblog:
Venezuela destabilization document emerges: real?
WW4 REPORT, Dec. 1, 2007
Reprinted by WORLD WAR 4 REPORT, Dec. 1, 2007
Reprinting permissible with attribution
Iranian Left-Opposition Activist Azar Majedi Says No to Both
by Riposte Laique
Azar Majedi is founder of the Organization of Women’s Freedom in Iran, and a veteran of a generation of struggle against dictatorial regimes—first against the Shah, and then against the Islamic Republic. Forced to flee the country in 1982, Majedi has continued her activities in exile in Europe. She now produces programs in Farsi and English on New Channel TV, an independent satellite station broadcasting into Iran, which can also be seen on the Internet. Her weekly program “No to Political Islam” is a critical voice for secularism and women’s rights. She also publishes the journal Reflections, and is a leading member of the Worker-communist Party of Iran. She lives in England with her three children. This interview first ran in the French progressive journal Riposte Laique.
The interview was published just as Britain’s Mosques and Imams National Advisory Board (MINAB) has drawn up a “code of conduct” on “civic responsibility” and tolerance for Muslims in the UK. Dissidents in the Muslim community protest that MINAB—which emerged from a Home Office taskforce on extremism in the wake of the 2005 London Underground attacks—is a male-dominated body which has failed to sufficiently emphasize women’s rights and dignity. Taking a stronger stance, avowedly secular critics such as Majedi and Riposte Laique view talk of “multiculturalism” and “tolerance” as too often a cloak for oppression and protecting privilege. At the same time, they oppose the culture of Islamophobia as paradoxically fueling Islamist reaction. They are especially critical of elements in the British left—including the Socialist Workers Party (UK), a leading force in the Stop the War Coalition—for failing to make this critical distinction.
Would you say that the British have become aware of the danger of multiculturalists’ policies since the London terrorist attacks?
Azar Majedi: It is difficult to judge the British public opinion, as it is usually the media that makes and shapes the public opinion. As far as the British political arena is concerned, I must say no, it has not changed. The British government continues the policy of appeasement of the so-called “Moslem leaders,” whom to my opinion, are self appointed. Consulting with these religious men, in order to “win the hearts of Muslim community,” is British government’s key policy.
Unfortunately, an atmosphere of mistrust has developed between the so-called Muslim community and the general public. The Muslim community feels isolated and discriminated against. It has been stigmatized. This is the negative effect of the present tension In the eyes of some, whoever considers themselves Muslim, has their origin in the region associated with Islam, or looks “Muslim” is considered a terrorist suspect. This attitude deepens the tension and friction in the society and deepens the existing separation.
On the left, perhaps with a good intention—to fight racism and stigmatization of Muslim community, the general mood is to support the Islamist movement, the veil, gender apartheid, and all the Islamic values which are deeply reactionary, discriminative and misogynist. This is very wrong. This is in effect racism—to say that gender apartheid and discrimination is OK for the “Muslim.” This is in fact a double standard.
We should first and foremost distinguish between “ordinary Muslims” and the Islamist movement. Second, we should feel free to criticize Islam just as we feel free to criticize any other religion, ideology or set of beliefs. However, part of the left movement does not distinguish between these categories and accepts the self-appointed Muslim leaders’ proclamations. The Islamist movement is not the representative of Muslim, is not the representatives of Palestinians’ or Iraqi people’s grief. This should be stressed.
I believe we need a healthy debate. We need to criticize Islam and the Islamist movement and at the same time fight racism, stigmatization and defend individual rights. Since the tragic events of September 11, many civil liberties have been eroded in the society, in the name of security. We should try and reverse this tide.
Has the Trotskyite SWP distanced itself from the Islamic fundamentalists or does it carry on openly in public with them as it did at the 2005 Social European Forum in London?
Azar Majedi: I must admit that I do not follow this party’s actions closely. As far as I know SWP has not changed its policy towards the Islamists. I believe they still fully support this reactionary and terrorist movement.
What’s your opinion about [London Mayor] Ken Livingstone’s Big Mosque project?
Azar Majedi: I am totally against it. We don’t need more mosques. There are already too many of them. What we need is better and more schools for the children and youth in the Muslim community, a better and better-funded education for them, more leisure centers and sports facilities. Much more funds have to be poured into these communities to improve the social environment. These mosques are the place for brainwashing of the children and the youth. Usually the underprivileged and marginalized youth are drawn into these mosques and are being fed by hatred and reactionary and misogynist values. It is proven that some of these mosques, for example the Finsbury, have been used to [indoctrinate] terrorists. We should also be aware that Islamist governments, like Iran and Saudi Arabia, are behind such monumental projects. This is quite telling about the goals for building such monuments.
You are hostile to Iran’s ayatollahs. What’s your stand concerning the war threats relayed by [French Foreign Minister Bernard] Kouchner?
Azar Majedi: Yes, I am a staunch enemy of the Islamic Regime in Iran. This is a brutal regime that has executed more than hundred thousand people. It is a brutal dictatorship that oppresses the people and it is misogynist to its bones. I have been fighting this regime from the day it came to power.
Having said that, I must add that I am totally against the war. Military attack will be a catastrophe. It is the people in Iran and the region who will suffer as a result of this war. This, to my opinion, is a war of terrorists. There are two poles of terrorism, state terrorism and Islamic terrorism, which are inflaming this war. Such a war has no positive result for humanity, for peace, or for the people of Iran and the region.
This war will strengthen the Islamic regime, just as the Iraq war strengthened the Islamists and Islamic regime of Iran, just as the war in Lebanon strengthened Hezbollah and the Islamic movement. As soon as the threat of war becomes imminent, the Islamic regime will make more restrictions for the people. It would brutally crush any sign of discontentment. It will execute people even more mercilessly.
The war will also be an environmental catastrophe. Attacking the nuclear sites will mean a nuclear hell in the region. I am totally against the war. We should try and stop this war. It will create a chaotic situation, a black scenario, which will only be a breeding place for terrorism. Look at Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon—the future for Iran will be if not more disastrous, just as catastrophic.
We must take the volatile political situation in Iran into consideration. People in Iran are resisting this regime. There is a great protest movement in Iran—workers’, women’s rights and youth movements against Islamic restriction and for cultural freedom. There is a significant secular movement in Iran. The war will have devastating effects on these popular and progressive movements. I believe our slogan should be “No to the war and no to the Islamic regime!” International left and progressive movements must support these movements in Iran
We should also expose America’s war-mongering propaganda. I should add that dismantling the Islamic regime’s nuclear power is a pure misrepresentation of the war’s aim, just like the weapons of mass destruction in Iraq was a pure lie. The American government has been defeated in Iraq. To win back its position as the bully of the world it needs another war. The Islamic regime was the actual winner in Iraq. By attacking Iran, the US will show the world it still has the muscles to fight this regime, to attack any country, or do whatever it so pleases to, for that matter.
How did you react when you heard about the Vosges case? [Concerning Yvette “Fanny” Truchelut, hostel owner in Vosges who was fined 8,000 euros for demanding that two female Muslim boarders remove their headscarves in the public rooms of the establishment.] Do you think that forbidding the headscarf altogether is the best solution to the headscarf offensive throughout Europe?
Azar Majedi: This is a complex issue. I must first state that I am against the veil. I believe that the veil is the tool and symbol of women’s oppression and enslavement. Moreover, nowadays the veil has become the banner of the Islamist movement. Many women both in the west and in the Middle East and North Africa wear the veil as a political gesture. American aggression, the wars in Iraq and Lebanon and America’s full-fledged support of Israel vis-a-vis the Palestinians have motivated many young women to wear the veil as a sign of protest against the US and the West’s policies.
I have been fighting against the veil and have tried to expose its nature. Moreover, I am for banning the veil for underage girls. I think no child should be forced to wear the veil. A child has no religion. It is the parent’s religion that is forced upon them. The veil restricts greatly the physical and mental development of a child, and must be banned. I am also in favor of banning the burqa in all circumstances.
However I do not believe that other forms of the veil should be banned for adult women, except in public institutions and schools, as the French law has prescribed. I believe more than would be restricting individual rights of citizens to freedom of clothing and religion.
I believe a complete ban on the veil will have more negative effects than positive ones and will create a negative backlash which will damage our goals for a free and secular society, and for the freedom and equality of women. Instead of a total ban on the veil, we should campaign strongly against the veil, the Islamic movement and American aggression. We should expose both poles of terrorism to open up the eyes and minds of those women who have “freely” chosen the veil as political manifestation. The Islamic movement is trying to portray itself as the liberator of the people in the Middle East, the Palestinians, and the Iraqis. This is a big lie. We have to expose that. We need to fight against the Islamists and their banner the veil in the ideological and political sphere as well.
Organization for Women’s Liberation in Iran (OWLI)
New Channel TV
Worker-communist Party of Iran
France renews threats against Iran
Press TV, Iran, Nov. 18, 2007
The battle over mosque reform
BBC, Nov 29, 2007
Watchdog for UK mosques launches
BBC, June 27, 2006
IRAN: STATE STILL STONES WOMEN
by Assieh Amini, Stop Stoning Forever Campaign
WW4 REPORT, August 2007
From our weblog:
Free women activists in Iran
WW4 REPORT, Nov. 20, 2007
UK Class War bashes “leftist” Hezbollah cheerleaders
WW4 REPORT, Sept. 2, 2006
Reprinted by WORLD WAR 4 REPORT, Dec. 1, 2007
Reprinting permissible with attribution
Issouf ag-Maha on Music, Culture and the Guerilla Struggle in Niger
by Bill Weinberg
Issouf ag-Maha is a political leader of the Tuareg people of Niger, and a social activist involved in numerous humanitarian efforts in Niger and elsewhere in West Africa. Born into the traditional nomadic way of life, he was a goat and camel herder and stockbreeder before going on to become a trained agronomist specializing in development and environmental issues. He participated in the armed Tuareg rebellion in the 1990s, and after the 1995 peace accords he was elected mayor of the town of Tchirozerine.
Ag-Maha now serves as a spokesman for the Nigerien Justice Movement (Mouvement des Nigeriens pour la Justice-MNJ), a new rebel organization that took up arms earlier this year, charging the Niger government with failing to live up to the accords, especially provisions on regional autonomy and control of natural resources. In recent weeks, army attacks have forced the entire population of villages in northern Niger to flee across the desert to Algerian territory, where ag-Maha is now helping to organize an emergency relief effort. MNJ representatives also report Niger government forces are systematically attacking the camel herds which sustain the nomadic Tuareg tribes—with army troops killing up to 100 camels in one day in November.
On Nov. 13, Issouf ag-Maha, spoke with Bill Weinberg over the airwaves of WBAI Radio in New York City. He discussed the threats to Tuareg way of life from climate change, uranium mining and militarism; the role of music and culture in the Tuareg struggle, and the roots of the new guerilla movement. Geoffroy de Laforcade of Wesleyan University, who helped organize ag-Maha’s trip to the United States, translated from the French.
Bill Weinberg: Issouf, how long are you in the United States for? What brings you to New York City?
Issouf ag-Maha: I am in the United States on a three-week tour, visiting universities to discuss the current situation of the Tuareg people and the political crisis in Niger.
BW: Which has been heating up quite dramatically in recent weeks…
IM: It's true, it is getting worse by the day. It something we find very worrisome, especially since we’ve always hoped that peace could prevail, that a reasonable solution could be found. And we’re still working as well as we can towards that goal.
BW: Tell us something about your life, and how you came to be a representative of your people’s struggle.
IM: Well, I was born in the nomadic camps. I attended school by chance, and was able to work my way all the way up through higher education. I've had personal, professional and social activities that have given me some authority in Niger and have led me to the situation where I'm qualified to be a spokesperson for my people.
I've had a very unique life. I'm very familiar with the nomadic lifestyle and the traditions of the Tuareg, but also of the unemployed young people who have to migrate to the shanty-towns. I talk about it in a memoir that I wrote that was published recently in France, called Touareg du XXIème siècle [Tuareg of the 21st Century], which we're working on getting translated in English, so we can bring that testimony to the people here in the United States. The book tells my life story as a means to understand some of the fundamental issues that have faced the Tuareg, such as devastating droughts, ongoing political difficulties, and of course the Tuareg rebellion that broke out in Niger and the surrounding regions between 1991 and 1995 and culminated in peace accords. I’ve used all of that experience, personal and political, to try to allow young generations and the future leaders of the Tuareg people to understand their history as well.
BW: During that period, the world was very closely watching what was happening in Bosnia and Rwanda and other terrible conflicts around the world, but what was happening to the Tuareg was largely invisible. I only became aware of it after the fact, when since the peace accords there has been a tremendous renaissance of Tuareg language, music and culture, and some of the wonderful music began to reach me here at WBAI.
IM: You're right, music plays an important role in the political and social struggle of the Tuareg. Culture has a lot importance in Tuareg society traditionally. We have a traditional musical instrument called the imzad, which actually embodies our culture and our code of ethics, since historically the Tuareg don't have a written law. But we have a code we call the hasheq, a customary law that is actually enshrined in the instrument, and we look to ceremonies in which the instrument is played for guidance.
BW: A stringed instrument?
IM: It is a one-stringed violin. It is a very simple instrument, but one that has a lot of symbolism and depth in our culture. And the modern music which is very new and interesting and important is still rooted in the traditional role of culture and music in our society, where everything started.
People should know that we’re a nomadic people with a long history. We occupy the largest desert in the world, the Sahara. We’re a pastoralist people, we practice extensive herding and stock-breeding. And the most important aspect of our society is that the land is absolutely communally owned. It belongs to no-one, and we don’t recognize the modern concept of property.
The most important part of the desert, the sacred place, for these pastoralist peoples is the well. Our saying is "Water is life."
The need to belong to a community and have strong traditions is really necessary. This feeling of solidarity is not just an ideal, its a matter of survival in a very hostile and difficult environment. And that's why the imzad is so important. Because when we play it, it invokes solidarity and brings people together and gives them a feeling of belonging to something durable that can survive.
Because of the phenomenon of global warming, the Tuareg and West Africa in general have suffered tremendous droughts, catastrophic droughts that have been disastrous for our very existence. As a result of that, a lot of Tuareg youth—massive numbers—have been forced to migrate into urban shanty-towns as unemployed. A whole generation of people who were deprived of their traditional means of subsistence found themselves uprooted and cut off from their traditional lifestyle. Other Tuareg who stayed behind had to make a conversion to some level of semi-nomadism or sedentary farming.
BW: This process began when…?
IM: It began around three decades ago.
BW: What exactly was that traditional way of life, and to what extent does it continue to exist today in spite of everything?
IM: Well, the first thing is nomadism. The Tuareg people are never idle. They never stop moving around in search of rain, in search of water, or in search of pasture. And there's no sense of property; all the land is shared, it’s wide open and everyone can wander. In order to live that lifestyle, people need to have herds. We have herds of camels, goats, sheep, cows. So when the herds die massively because of climatic conditions and disasters, the means of subsistence fades. People are forced into displacement, and it creates a culture shock.
Entire generations have found themselves completely lost and without direction. Because the Tuareg have never received a modern education. They weren't prepared for the demands of an urban economy. So not only did the traditional culture suffer, but there was a need to find a means of survival in the new circumstances.
A lot of young people raised in these circumstances felt quite rebellious and dissatisfied with their situation, and they left. Waves of them went to other countries in the region, to seek work abroad. Through exile and migration, they were exposed to other lifestyles and other idioms. This generation actually gave themselves a colloquial name, which is ishoumar, from the French term for the unemployed, chômeur.
So they created a new trend in music that was called ishoumar music, which is much more militant, much more of a social commentary, than the traditional music that we were used to hearing in the camps. This music is a call for resistance. It is a call for raising consciousness among the Tuareg people. It seeks to explain the tradition of the Tuareg people today, their dispersal, their vicitmization by phenomenon such as the arbitrary drawing of boundaries by colonial powers.
BW: Is this when the electric guitar entered Tuareg music? When did this genre begin to emerge?
IM: These young people were the children of the displaced migrants from the 1970s who suffered from the droughts. In the 1980s, they grew up in a situation of distress and despair, with an acute sense of awareness that something was seriously wrong with the society at large. And in exile, they met with young people from other cultures and movements, and developed a sort of criticism from the outside. And this developed into a brand new style of music, a brand new idiom, and a brand new outlook on the very critical situation that the Tuareg in both Mali and Niger are undergoing.
BW: Where did this exile experience take place, for the most part?
IM: The two main countries where young Tuareg went were Algeria and Libya. And the young people who came from Mali and Niger met up with other young people from elsewhere in Africa, and it was a kind of coming-together of a whole generation that was becoming aware that it had become fractured by forces of history, such as the drawing of boundaries and colonization.
One of the strengths of the Tuareg movement is the very strong sense of belonging to a culture that transcends state borders, that has a coherence that's much more ancient and meaningful than the abstract and artificial administrative boundaries and the empty shells of nation states that have been created over the years.
BW: Tuareg country is largely divided between Niger and Mali, and in the early '90s Tuareg guerilla resistance emerged in both those countries. Tell us how that went down.
IM: To understand the situation, you have to go all the way back to the 1885 Conference of Berlin and the colonial partition, where European states that were unlikely to take the socio-economic realities on the ground into consideration—because they were completely ignorant of them—divided up this region into various zones of influence. We’re talking about France, England, Germany, Spain, Italy—they all argued, and they partitioned Africa. As a result, the Tuareg people, who had been around for thousands of years, were arbitrarily divided between five main states. You have Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso, Algeria and Libya. From being a people with a territory, we became ethnic minorities—roughly one-fifth of the Tuareg people live in each of those countries, and as ethnic minorities, of course, we became discriminated against and oppressed.
It is well-known that at the time of independence after World War II, new countries emerged with names like Niger, Upper Volta, Ivory Coast—all of these countries had flags, national anthems, constitutions, bureaucracies that were all forged by the colonial powers and that remained. And in the new context of independence, the Tuareg people were told "Now, whatever confederation you belong to, whatever your culture is, whatever language you speak, you're now Nigerien, or Malian—and that's it. You're just going to have to live with it, and you don't have a choice."
In Africa historically there has been some degree of co-existence between a wide variety of people. When the modern notions developed in Europe of republican democracy appeared, people began competing for pieces of power and resources. So there was more and more ethnic conflict. And we rapidly realized that this talk of democracy can also be a form of dictatorship, if large groups end up dominating and excluding smaller groups from power.
The Tuareg haven't had an intense consciousness of this because they weren't directly colonized, or they were weakly colonized. They were completely cut off from the world economy and world politics, because they had a subsistence lifestyle based on ancestral nomadic traditions. So they didn't have the education, awareness or even the language to understand what was going on at a national level, or even to demand their inclusion in politics.
So with the droughts and displacement and the pain caused by that, people came into contact with the world around them. And this gave them an acute awareness of not only of the causes of the crisis that was affecting them, but a consciousness of their existence as a people and of the need to engage in some kind of cultural resistance. That's why this youth movement that we call ishoumar has been so critical in structuring our identity in the contemporary world.
Unfortunately, the national states reacted brutally. So many of these young people found that the only way to make themselves heard was to take up arms. And this was the beginning of the conflict, in the early 1990s. In the first half of the 1990s, in those five years, the entire traditional territory of the Tuareg was kind of a no-man's-land, where there was brutal repression, torture and suffering. We have a very forceful memory of what we had to go just to be able to continue to exist.
But the result of this rebellion was, at the time, quite satisfactory for all parties involved. We obtained a new policy of administrative decentralization, and the promise of at least local elections ion which the Tuareg people could have representatives that they could choose themselves.
So we obtained in principle equal rights, we managed to get the state to recognize its obligation to fairly distribute wealth and resources, and to provide us with education, access to jobs, and some influence in the policies of the entire country.
BW: This was the 1995 peace accord. And what was the name of the organization that had taken up arms?
IM: First there was an organization called the FLAA—the Liberation Front of the Air and Azawad, which over the course of the conflict splintered into several groups and which reunited in a broad organization called the ORA, the Organization of Armed Resistance. And that was the organization that signed the peace accords on the 24th of April, 1995.
BW: What are the Air and Azawad?
IM: These are the names of large territories that span over several national boundaries. The Air is a massif that separates the deserts of the Azawad and the Tenere—vast, barren stretches of desert.
BW: As I understand it, the Tuaregs have traditionally maintained semi-permanent settlements in the massif, and then would bring their herds and caravans into the desert in a seasonal migration.
IM: Exactly. And you must remember that the main economic activity in this region was the trans-Saharan caravan trade which united the peoples of North Africa and sub-Saharan Africa. So the Tuareg have a very long experience and an expertise in cross-cultural communication between the peoples of Africa.
BW: Now, at the same time there was a Tuareg guerilla struggle underway in Mali. So what was the relationship between the guerilla organizations in Niger and Mali?
IM: Well, throughout these years the Tuareg people had become very scattered. An entire generation had lost the custom of crossing paths. So each region where Tuareg confederations live has its own specific characteristics. The Tuareg were united in the struggle, they shared a common ground and a common cultural discourse. But in practice, each movement regionally had a different enemy, a different state, a different government, with its own characteristics, its own blindness or administrative flexibility or lack thereof. So we led a struggle that had several centers.
The movement in Mali was very fractured. The organization that was best known was the MPA, the Popular Movement for Azawad. But the Malian government was more inclined to obtain a durable peace with the various Tuareg organizations. Whereas in Niger, we may have been more unified, but we had a more reluctant state.
BW: Yet there was terrible repression in the Adrar des Ifoghas, the massif in Mali which was the Tuareg stronghold.
IM: There was rebellion in the region you are talking about in 1963, early in the independence era, where the government of Modibo Keita, who had the support of the Soviet Union, led a fierce struggle against the Tuareg, a repression that we sometimes call "the genocide." So there is a long history there, and a lot of bitterness.
In the 1990s, there was a real civil war in Mali, a struggle for land, with other ethnic groups seizing Tuareg lands as property and the government playing divide-and-conquer. This was possible because the Tuareg were traditionally very isolated in Mali.
In Niger, there was more interaction between the Tuareg. Military governments have tried, but it is impossible to completely isolate the Tuareg from the rest of the population in Niger. So our struggle had more national resonance, and it was less of a civil war environment.
BW: The peace deal in Mali was in 1996, one year after the peace deal in Niger. In both cases, the dialogue was brokered by Algeria. But by then, many thousands had been forced to flee. Have most been repatriated at this point?
IM: There were several waves of emigration. First, due to the poverty and droughts and loss of means of subsistence. Then there were huge waves of political flight as a result of the repression and persecution. Thousands of people went into exile. And then when peace returned in 1995, the UN High Commission on Refugees organized the repatriation.
So people came back to Mali and Niger. But they came back to the realization that there was no infrastructure there to greet them, that things hadn’t really changed. There was absolutely no work, no means of subsistence, no way to survive.
BW: I understand there are still Tuareg refugees in Burkina Faso and Mauritania.
IM: Yes, there are still people there who haven't returned. Because they understand that in order to return, you need capital. You need to come back with the means to re-establish the traditional lifestyle. Concretely, that capital means herds. We are stock-breeders. We need camels. And if they know they don’t have the capital needed to resume the lifestyle, the alternative is to end up impoverished or in urban shanty-towns. We need water, we need medicine, we need access to the land. Those things weren’t guaranteed, and the word gets around.
BW: Which brings us to the current situation. Just in the past year, there’s a been a sense of history repeating itself, and Tuareg leaders both in Niger and in Mali have returned to armed resistance.
IM: About eight months ago, a group of Tuareg in Niger decided to alert the population and the government to the deterioration of the situation and the non-respect of the agreements that had been signed in 1995. The country is currently run by an elected president named Tandja Mamadou who was a colonel in the army and one of the men primarily responsible for the historic Tchintabaraden massacre in May of 1990 that actually started the first war. It was a classic case of a brutal military official becoming all of a sudden a friendly politician in a formal democracy, and achieving international recognition as such.
So Tandja responded to this new uprising eight months age with absolutely brutal and decisive violence. His government has made a decision that once and for all this situation must end, and the Tuareg and opposition must be completely annihilated. He seeks to eliminate Tuareg expression in politics and society entirely. So the situation has been made much worse in a very short time.
He brought back old habits. Anybody identified as a Tuareg is automatically suspected of supporting or being a part of the rebellion. Tuareg community leaders and intellectuals are being singled out and forced into exile as a result of the repression.
BW: So there’s been a new wave of displacement just in the last few months…
IM: Exactly. And these months have also seen a spectacular rise in the popularity of the MNJ, the movement that was created to express the discontent of the Tuareg people at the beginning of this year.
BW: That's the Justice Movement of the People of Niger.
IM: Yes, and it called that because it is not just a Tuareg movement. It is a movement that has rallied people from across the country. It is a resistance movement of all the peoples of Niger. There are representatives from the majority as well as minority peoples. It has turned into a popular rejection of corruption and arbitrariness
BW: And it has been engaging in low-level harassment of army patrols and so on in the north of the country. What are the MNJ’s demands?
IM: The main demand is a very basic one—fairness and rights. Also, the sharing of wealth, a better understanding of regional needs in Niger. But the most important new phenomenon in this particular conflict is the widespread and arbitrary sale by the national government of huge tracts of land in the desert to foreign uranium companies that are acquiring legal rights to our ancestral lands, without any of the peoples of northern Niger being consulted or even informed.
We fully understand that one of the poorest countries in the world can’t afford to not take advantage of the existence of a significant resource that’s in demand. We’re not saying that uranium shouldn’t be touched. But the very survivial of a whole people is at stake here. What we say, is that the conditions for the exploitation of this resource, the system which is put in place to extract it, how the whole economy of this resource is regulated, the accountability of the firms—all of these things have to be discussed by the population.
And what about the consequences on the environment, which is already in a bad state. We're dealing with a radioactive resource here. It’s not too much to ask that there be some consultation, that we be involved. We’re being dispossessed arbitrarily of lands and resources for the survival of our way of life, without any kind of democratic deliberation.
BW: I thought one of the things to come out of the 1995 peace accords was precisely provisions for consultation of the Tuareg people on local development and a return of the profits from resources exploited on their lands. Are you saying that the government has failed to live up to this?
IM: Yes, that was the main factor that led the people to rebel—the understanding that none of the accords were being implemented, at a time when many foreign countries were becoming eager to enter Niger. The largest one is China—which has a gigantic appetite for energy and resources, but very little consideration for basic things such as the environment, social conditions, culture. It is this basic disconnect of the foreign companies from local realities that caused the Tuareg to take up arms again.
BW: And I understand the government of Niger is calling the MNJ "bandits" and is refusing to negotiate at all.
IM: Yes, we are called bandits, drug-traffickers, terrorists. They have completely excluded negotiations. They say we are just a selfish movement that wants to take all of the uranium wealth for the Tuareg. But nothing could be further from the truth. Not only is this a rapidly expanding movement all over Niger, but its sole demand, the main purpose of this show of force, is to achieve the right to simply exist, to be equal partners in discussions on the future of the country.
BW: What rationale is the government using to justify failing to comply with the 1995 accords?
IM: They say the peace accords were brokered by France and Algeria, yet neither France nor Algeria gave the government the resources to carry them out. So its the fault of the foreign powers. And they accuse the Tuareg of bad faith and of refusing to apply their own accords.
BW: I understand there were just meetings, once again in Algiers, to try to mediate the conflict which has broken out again both in Niger and Mali. But it was just a meeting attended by Tuareg leaders to try to establish some kind of groundwork for dialogue, and representatives of the governments of Mali and Niger did not attend.
IM: Yes, it was an initiative by Algeria based on previous experience. But the problem is that the Tuareg need to get the attention of the government of Niger. And with the Algerians unable to meet that goal, the steps towards negotiations were really a futile exercise.
The government was perfectly aware of the invitation from Algeria, but they basically stated that their position is never, ever will they negotiate with, or even recognize the existence of this rebellion.
BW: And the position of the government of Mali is the same?
IM: They did not attend the Algiers meeting, but they have established contacts with the rebels in Mali for negotiations.
BW: The new rebel movement in Mali is calling itself the Democratic Alliance for Change. So, once again, what is the relation between the MNJ in Niger and the Democratic Alliance for Change in Mali? Are you formally allied, or just informally support each other?
IM: There’s no formal alliance. There’s mutual recognition and dialogue, but they’re dealing with the Malian government and we’re dealing with the Nigerien government
BW: The United States has been directly drawn into the fighting in Mali recently. A US military supply plane was bringing in supplies for Malian military forces in the north of country in September, and Tuareg guerillas apparently opened fire on it. The US has Green Berets stationed in both Niger and Mali now under the Trans-Sahara Counter-Terrorist Initiative, allegedly in response to the presence of al-Qaeda in the region. How do you view this situation?
IM: It is a service that the United States has rendered to both governments, in Mali and Niger, to go around claiming and trying to persuade people that al-Qaeda is involved in any way, shape or form in the region. They are certainly not with the Tuareg. But the government has been able to say that they have no choice but to collaborate with American anti-terrorism. When you talk about al-Qaeda, George Bush gets all excited and gets involved personally. So this has been propaganda that has justified government policies, and the Tuareg see it as a gigantic mystification.
BW: What is your message to people in New York City and the United States?
IM: The US government has a lot of leverage it could use—rather than engaging in military and anti-terrorist operations—to pressure the governments to negotiate and dialogue and acknowledge the existence of democratic movements and bring peace in the region.
Another thing I'd like to mention is that some of the young Tuareg have left the country have come to the United States. All of them are trying to make a future for themselves and their people. A lot of them are becoming students and going to school. And the government of Niger is never going to provide aid or scholarships to these people. So maybe something could be done to make people aware of the need to support youth in the diaspora as well.
Mouvement des Nigeriens pour la Justice-MNJ
Rebellion in the Sahara
Radio Netherlands, Nov. 19, 2007
From our weblog:
Ethnic cleansing in Niger
WW4 REPORT, Nov. 30, 2007
Special to WORLD WAR 4 REPORT, Dec. 1, 2007
Reprinting permissible with attribution
Electronic Journal & Daily Report VOICE OF THE TUAREG RESISTANCE Issouf ag-Maha on Music, Culture and the Guerilla Struggle in Niger by Bill Weinberg, WW4 REPORT AGAINST U.S. AGGRESSION; AGAINST THE ISLAMIC REPUBLIC Iranian Left-Opposition Activist Azar Majedi Says No… Read moreIssue #. 140. December 2007