The Untold Story of Women’s Resistance Behind Bars

Book Review:
The Struggles of Incarcerated Women
by Victoria Law
PM Press, 2009

by Hans Bennett, AlterNet

“When I was 15, my friends started going to jail,” says Victoria Law, a native New Yorker. “Chinatown’s gangs were recruiting in the high schools in Queens and, faced with the choice of stultifying days learning nothing in overcrowded classrooms or easy money, many of my friends had dropped out to join a gang.”

“One by one,” Law recalls, “they landed in Rikers Island, an entire island in New York City devoted to pretrial detainment for those who can not afford bail.”

Law shares this and other recollections in her new book, Resistance Behind Bars: The Struggles of Incarcerated Women. At 16, she herself decided to join a gang, but was arrested for the armed robbery that she committed for her initiation into the gang. “Because it was my first arrest—and probably because 16-year-old Chinese girls who get straight A’s in school did not seem particularly menacing—I was eventually let off with probation,” she writes.

Before her release from jail, Law was held in the “Tombs” awaiting arraignment. While the adult women she met there had all been arrested for prostitution, she also met three teenagers arrested for unarmed assault. “Two of the girls were black lesbian lovers. In a scenario that would be repeated 13 years later in the case of the New Jersey Four, they had been out with friends when they encountered a cab driver who had tried to grab one of them. Her friends intervened, the cab driver called the police and the girls were arrested for assault.” Law notes that “both of my cellmates were subsequently sent to Rikers Island.”

These early experiences, coupled with her later discovery of radical politics, pushed Law “to think about who goes to prison and why.” She got involved in several projects to support prisoners, which included helping to start Books Through Bars in New York City, sending free books to prisoners. In college, she “began researching current prisoner organizing and resistance,” and upon discovering almost zero documentation of resistance from women prisoners, she began her own documentation and directly contacted women prisoners who were resisting. A college paper became a widely distributed pamphlet, and at the request of several women prisoners she’d corresponded with, Law helped to publish their writings in a zine called Tenacious: Art and Writings from Women in Prison. Law writes that the zine and pamphlet “heightened awareness not only about incarcerated women’s issues, but also women’s actions to challenge and change the injustices they faced on a daily basis.”

“This book is the result of seven and a half years of reading, writing, listening, and supporting women in prison,” Law says about Resistance Behind Bars, noting that each chapter in her book “focuses on an issue that women themselves have identified as important.” The chapters include topics as diverse as health care, the relationship between mothers and daughters, sexual abuse, education, and resistance among women in immigration detention. Resistance Behind Bars paints a picture of women prisoners resisting a deeply flawed prison system, which Law hopes will help to empower both the women held in cages and those on the outside working to support them.

Who Goes to Prison?
Since 1970, the US prison population has skyrocketed, from 300,000 to over 2.3 million. According to the US Justice Department, this staggering increase has not resulted from a rise in crime. Since 1993, the prison population has increased by over one million, but during this same period, both property offenses and serious violent crime have been steadily declining.

The New York Times recently cited a 2008 report by the International Center for Prison Studies at King’s College London documenting that the US has more prisoners than any other country. Furthermore, with 751 out of 100,000 people, and one out of every 100 adults in prison or jail, the US also has the highest incarceration rate in the world. With only five percent of the world’s population, the US has almost a quarter of the world’s prisoners.

While women comprise only nine percent of the U.S. prison population, their numbers have been increasing at a faster rate than men. As Law documents, “between 1990 and 2000, the number of women in prison rose 108 percent, from 44,065 to 93,234. (The male prison population grew 77 percent during that same time period.) By the end of 2006, 112,498 women were behind bars.”

Like with male incarceration rates, women behind bars are disproportionately low-income and people of color. Law writes that “only 40 percent of all incarcerated women had been employed full-time before incarceration. Of those, most had held low-paying jobs: a study of women under supervision (prison, jail, parole or probation) found that two-thirds had never held a job that paid more than $6.50 per hour. Approximately 37 percent earned less than $600 per month.”

A 2007 Bureau of Justice study documented that 358 of every 100,000 Black women, 152 of every 100,000 Latinas, and 94 of every 100,000 white women are incarcerated. Explaining this racial discrepancy, Law argues that inner-city Black and Latino neighborhoods are disproportionately targeted by law enforcement. She cites a 2005 US Department of Justice study which concluded that Blacks and Latinos are “three times as likely as whites to be searched, arrested, threatened or subdued with force when stopped by the police.”

The so-called “War on Drugs” has played a key role in the growth of the US prison population. Law writes about the impact of New York State’s Rockefeller Drug Laws passed in 1973, “which required a sentence of 15 years to life for anyone convicted of selling two ounces or possessing four ounces of a narcotic, regardless of circumstances or prior history. That year, only 400 women were imprisoned in New York State. As of January 1, 2001, there were 3,133. Over 50 percent had been convicted of a drug offense and 20 percent were convicted solely of possession. Other states passed similar laws, causing the number of women imprisoned nationwide for drug offenses to rise 888 percent from 1986 to 1996.”

Distinguishing women prisoners from their male counterparts, Law cites a Bureau of Justice study which “found that women were three times more likely than men to have been physically or sexually abused prior to incarceration.”

Women Prisoners Don’t Resist?
The central thesis of Resistance Behind Bars is truly profound. In clear, non-academic language, Law argues that recent scholarship documenting and radically criticizing the increased incarceration rates and mistreatment of women prisoners “largely ignores what the women themselves do to change or protest these circumstances, thus reinforcing the belief that incarcerated women do not organize.” Alongside academia, Law also harshly criticizes radical prison activists, arguing that “just as the civil rights movement of the 1960s and 1970s downplayed the role of women in favor of highlighting male spokesmen and leaders, the prisoners’ rights movement has focused and continues to focus on men to speak for the masses.”

Law gives honorable mention to two books that documented women’s resistance at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility in New York State: Juanita Diaz-Cotto’s Gender, Ethnicity, and the State (1996) and the collectively written Breaking the Walls of Silence: AIDS and Women in a New York State Maximum Security Prison (1998). Since these two books “no other book-length work has focused on incarcerated women’s activism and resistance,” writes Law. As a result, Law argues that women prisoners “lack a commonly known history of resistance. While male prisoners can draw on the examples of George Jackson, the Attica uprising and other well-publicized cases of prisoner activism, incarcerated women remain unaware of precedents relevant to them.”

Epitomizing the scholarship that Law criticizes, author Virginia High Brislin wrote that “women inmates themselves have called very little attention to their situations,” and “are hardly ever involved in violent encounters with officials (i.e. riots), nor do they initiate litigation as often as do males in prison.”

To challenge Brislin’s assertion, Law gives numerous examples of women rioting and initiating litigation, including the “August Rebellion” in 1974 at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility in New York State. On July 2, 1974, prisoner Carol Crooks won a lawsuit against prison authorities, with the court “issuing a preliminary injunction, prohibiting the prison from placing women in segregation without 24-hour notice and a hearing of these charges,” writes Law. In response, “five male guards beat Crooks and placed her in segregation. Her fellow prisoners protested by holding seven staff members hostage for two and a half hours. However, ‘the August Rebellion’ is virtually unknown today despite that fact that male state troopers and (male) guards from men’s prisons were called to suppress the uprising, resulting in 25 women being injured and 24 women being transferred to Matteawan Complex for the Criminally Insane without the required commitment hearings.”

Law also criticizes author Karlene Faith, who acknowledges that women resist, but who wrote that in the 1970s, women prisoners “were not as politicized as the men [prisoners], and they did not engage in the kinds of protest actions that aroused media attention.” To challenge Faith’s argument, Law cites several rebellions that received significant media attention, including one that the New York Times wrote two stories about. As Law recounts, “in 1975, women at the North Carolina Correctional Center for Women held a sit-down demonstration to demand better medical care, improved counseling services, and the closing of the prison laundry. When prison guards attempted to end the protest by herding the women into the gymnasium and beating them, the women fought back, using volleyball net poles, chunks of concrete and hoe handles to drive the guards out of the prison. Over 100 guards from other prisons were summoned to quell the rebellion.”

In light of the many such stories documented in Resistance Behind Bars, Law argues that “instead of claiming that women in prison did not engage in riots and protest actions that captured media attention, scholars and researchers should examine why these acts of organizing fail to attract the same critical and scholarly attention as that given to similar male actions.”

Resisting With Media-Activism
In the chapter “Grievances, Lawsuits, and the Power of the Media,” Law observes that “gaining media attention often gains quicker results than filing lawsuits.” Among the many organizing victories that were significantly aided by media attention, in 1999, Nightline focused on conditions at California’s Valley State Prison for Women. Law explains that “after prisoner after prisoner told Nightline anchor Ted Koppel about being given a pelvic exam as ‘part of the treatment’ for any ailment, including stomach problems or diabetes, Koppel asked the prison’s chief medical officer Dr. Anthony DiDomenico, for an explanation.”

DiDomenico was apparently so confident that he would not be held accountable for his misconduct, that he answered Koppel by saying “I’ve heard inmates tell me they would deliberately like to be examined. It’s the only male contact they get.” After this interview was aired, DiDomenico was reassigned to a desk job, and as of 2001 he had been criminally indicted, along with a second doctor.

Demonstrating the power of this media coverage, Law notes that the “prisoner advocacy organization Legal Services for Prisoners with Children had been reporting the prisoners’ complaints about medical staff’s sexual misconduct to the CDC for four years with no result.”

Along with agitating for coverage in the mainstream media, women prisoners have also created their own media projects. The chapter titled “Breaking The Silence: Incarcerated Women’s Media” documents many important projects. Law explains that these projects are necessary because women prisoners’ “voices and stories still remain unheard by both mainstream and activist-oriented media. Articles about both prison conditions and prisoners often portray the male prisoner experience, ignoring the different issues facing women in prison.” Therefore, “women’s acts of writing—and publishing—often serve a dual purpose: they challenge existing stereotypes and distortions of prisoners and prison life, framing and correcting prevailing (mis) perceptions. They also boost women’s sense of self-worth and agency in a system designed to not only isolate and alienate its prisoners but also erase all traces of individuality.”

Some activist-oriented publications have been receptive and have published prisoners’ writings. From 1999 until its final issue in 2002, the radical feminist magazine Sojourner: A Women’s Forum featured a section on women prisoner issues which included writings from the prisoners themselves. Law writes that this section, entitled “Inside/Outside” covered many topics, including “working conditions in women’s facilities, the dehumanizing treatment of children visiting their mothers, and prisoner suicides.

Law spotlights many different projects. From 2002 to 2006, Perceptions was a monthly newspaper published by and for the women at the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women in New Jersey. Because of censorship from prison warden Charlotte Blackwell, Perceptions was forced to limit its criticism of the prison, but the women published what they could. For example, in one issue, women wrote about how they would run the prison differently if they were in charge. Law notes that “their fantasies revealed the absence of programming for older women and those in the maximum custody unit, emergency counseling and therapeutic interventions and opportunities for mother-child interactions. It also drew attention to the facility’s overcrowding and increased potentials for violence and conflict among prisoners.”

Tenacious, the zine published by Law, was initiated by women prisoners who sought the help of friends outside the prison to actually publish and distribute it. “Free from the need to seek administrative approval, incarcerated women wrote about the difficulties of parenting from prison, dangerously inadequate health care, sexual assault by prison staff and the scarcity of educational and vocational opportunities, especially in comparison to their male counterparts. Although circulation remained small, the women’s stories provoked public response,” writes Law.

“Prison officials do whatever they can to strip prisoners of their dignity and self-worth,” stated Barrilee Bannister, one of the founders of Tenacious. “Writing is my way to escape the confines of prison and the debilitating ailments of prison life. It’s me putting on boxing gloves and stepping into the rink of freedom of speech and opinion.”

Arguing for Prison Abolition
When Victoria Law was first introduced to radical politics, shortly after her own stint behind bars, she “discovered groups and literature espousing prison abolition.”

“These analyses—coupled with what I had seen firsthand—made sense, steering me to work towards the dismantling, rather than the reform, of the prison system.” Law’s subsequent research has only served to affirm her belief in the need for abolition. She states clearly that “this book should not be mistaken for a call for more humane or ‘gender responsive’ prisons.”

Some readers may view Law’s prison abolitionist politics as being abstract or overly theoretical. However, to support her abolitionist viewpoint, she makes the practical argument that prisons simply don’t work to reduce crime or increase public safety. She writes that “incarceration has not decreased crime; instead, ‘tough on crime’ policies have led to the criminalization … of more activities, leading to higher rates of arrest, prosecution and incarceration while shifting money and resources away from other public entities, such as education, housing, health care, drug treatment, and other societal supports. The growing popularity of abolitionist thought can be seen in the expansion of organizations such as Critical Resistance, an organization fighting to end the need for a prison-industrial complex, and the formation of groups working to address issues of crime and victimization without relying on the police or prisons.”

Towards the end of Resistance Behind Bars, Law quotes Angela Y. Davis, who is a leading activist intellectual of the prison abolitionist movement. In her recent book Are Prisons Obsolete?, Davis writes that “a major challenge of this movement is to do the work that will create more human, habitable environments for people in prison without bolstering the permanence of the prison system. How, then, do we accomplish this balancing act of passionately attending to the needs of prisoners—calling for less violent conditions, an end to sexual assault, improved physical and mental health care, greater access to drug programs, better educational work opportunities, unionization of prison labor, more connections with families and communities, shorter or alternative sentencing—and at the same time call for alternatives to sentencing altogether, no more prison construction, and abolitionist strategies that question the place of the prison in our future?”

As if answering Davis’ question, Law concludes that while striving for prison abolition “we need to also reach in, make contact with those who have been isolated by prison walls and societal indifference and listen to those who are speaking out, like many of the women who have shared their stories within this book. Because abolishing prisons will not happen tomorrow, next week or even next year, we need to break through these barriers, communicate, work with and support women who are in resistance today.”


Hans Bennett is an independent multi-media journalist whose website is Insubordination

This review first appeared July 21 on AlterNet.


Books Through Bars

U.S. prison population dwarfs that of other nations
New York Times, April 23, 2008

Bureau of Justice Statistics—Facts at a Glance

King’s College Prison Briefs…


Reprinted by World War 4 Report, Aug. 1, 2009
Reprinting permissible with attribution

Continue ReadingBEYOND ATTICA 


Landfilling old gas-guzzlers for new gas-guzzlers isn’t green—it’s a subsidy

by Michael I. Niman, ArtVoice, Buffalo, NY

Let’s be honest and get one simple fact straight. The Obama administration’s “Cash for Clunkers” program is a $1 billion subsidy to the auto industry. We can debate whether or not that’s a good thing and how it will or won’t help pull us out of our economic morass. But let’s not make believe this is about protecting the environment.

Building a car produces, on average, about seven tons of CO2. The steel and aluminum for that car comes from iron, chromium, bauxite, and nickel. More and more, steel production is carried out in countries with lax environmental and worker safety regulations. The largest bauxite producers are Guinea, Jamaica, Brazil, and Australia. Bauxite is harvested through strip mining, where the surface forest and soil is destroyed.

Other ingredients in your car include zinc, whose production byproducts include heavy-metal-laced slag, sulfur dioxide, and cadmium vapor. Interiors, electronic and mechanical components, and upholstery are often made from PVC—a material whose production and disposal releases persistent carcinogenic environmental toxins such as dioxin. More and more, these plastic components are made in overseas sweatshops, again, with lax environmental and worker safety regulations. The costs of producing new cars are both environmental and social, with entire communities being poisoned and workers being sickened and crippled.

So let’s look at the alternative: keeping old cars on the road. That’s the Cuban model, where they’ve taken this concept to the extreme. Go to Havana and hail yourself a 1937 Chevy taxicab and you’ll see this theory in action. Of course the Cubans weren’t thinking about the environment when they opted out of the new car game. It was economic necessity. As a communist bloc country, Cuba didn’t have access to hard currencies. After the fall of the Soviet empire, Cubans had little access to any currency. The same conditions led Cuba to become a global leader in organic agriculture. Cubans couldn’t afford pesticides. They also couldn’t afford most disposable goods associated with a consumerist economy.

By the time Cuba’s economy started to pick up during the last decade, it had already become recognized as the model for sustainable development. So they ran with it, essentially replacing the red flag with a green one.

But is a 70-year-old, fuel-guzzling, soot-belching car really the green model for the future? Let’s compare keeping this 10-miles-per-gallon dinosaur on the road to the American model of keeping cars on the road for 10 years. While the contemporary American Crown Victoria, at 18 miles per gallon, is a cleaner machine, the hidden environmental cost is buried in the production of seven of these cars, six of which have long ago been crushed.

For a visual comparison, imagine a Cuban house with a 1955 Chrysler in the driveway. Then imagine an American house, with a 2006 Chrysler in the driveway, and five rusted wrecks in the garden. Whose environmental footprint is smaller?

You’ll never quite see the comparison with such stark visuals, however, since in the US, we send all of our trash and wastes to the mythical land of Away, never to be seen or thought of again.

My argument pops a hole or two, however, when that 1937 Chevy rumbles by, with soot belching from its 1965 Russian diesel engine. While the American model of disposable cars clearly produces far more carbon pollution, the newer American cars produce far less smog. So while they foul the global environment, they’re much easier on the local environment. This is the magic of American pollution—it all goes to the land of Away. The Cuban model offsets this problem with the reality that there just aren’t that many cars, of any vintage, on the road. Most of Cuba’s population relies on government-subsidized mass transportation.

Putting more people in busses and subways, not crushing 16-miles-per-gallon clunkers and replacing them with 18-miles-per-gallon clunkers, is the real green solution. In this light, the billion dollars that the Obama administration plans to spend subsidizing the purchase of personal automobiles is a billion dollars not spent on mass transportation infrastructure or operations.

The Cash for Clunkers program also really doesn’t address the smog issue, since you can only trade in a vehicle that is 25 years old or newer. Hence, all the clunkers will already be equipped with catalytic converters and will be relatively clean. The oldest of these cars, whose pollution control systems have already failed, will stay on the road, since their poorer owners will not be able to afford new cars, even with the cash incentive. If smog was the issue, some of the clunker cash could have been better spent as grants to repair anti-pollution systems on cars whose owners could not otherwise maintain them.

There are other problems with the Cash for Clunkers program. For one, it rewards past irresponsible, and dare we say, anti-social behavior. If you bought a gas-guzzling SUV, say, 10 years ago, when it didn’t take an Einstein to figure out the environmental footprint of such a pig, you now get up to $4,500 dollars as an unearned reward.

The more selfish you were back then, and hence, the lower the miles-per-gallon rating on your clunker, the more selfish you can be today, with your new clunker only having to best your old clunker’s lousy fuel efficiency by two to five miles per gallon. Hence you can trade in your used 16-miles-per-gallon vehicle for a new 18-miles-per-gallon SUV and get $3,500, or best your old pickup by two miles per gallon for a $4,500 windfall. If, by comparison, you shopped responsibly 10 years ago and bought, say, a 35-miles-per-gallon Ford Focus, and you now want to trade up to a 50-miles-per-gallon car, there’s nothing here for you, since the program only buys cars getting less than 18 miles per gallon—and that new car will cost a few grand more due to all the clunker cash flowing into the new car market.

This program only benefits those who can afford a new car. And it hurts those who can’t, since the crushing of hundreds of thousands of perfectly good used cars will tighten the bottom end of the used car market, causing prices to rise. Hence, the oldest and dirtiest cars will have to stay on the road a bit longer since their owners can’t afford to replace their 20-year-old car with a 10-year-old model.

The influx of all this clunker cash into the new car market will also cause prices to rise as the market heats up with more new car buyers. Hence, where automakers were offering deep discounts to lure consumers into showrooms, they now can simply advertise that they’ll give you $4,500 of the government’s money for your junker—and ditch the deep discounts. In this scenario, the Cash for Clunkers program becomes a direct subsidy to automakers who can now sell cars at higher prices to newly cash-rich buyers. Again, if you never bought a gas-guzzler in the first place, this gravy train ain’t for you, and all you get is higher new car prices.

Cars are like anything else. Throwing away usable things so you can replace them with new “green” products isn’t green. It’s just a way for you to feel good about being a consumer at a time when the world can no longer afford consumerism. Only now, the government will pay you to consume, and bless your new gas-guzzler with a green aura.


Dr. Michael I. Niman is a professor of Journalism and Media Studies at Buffalo State College. His previous columns for ArtVoice are archived at, and available globally through syndication.

This story first appeared July 30 in ArtVoice.

From our Daily Report:

Non-motorists bear brunt of traffic fatalities
World War 4 Report, June 20, 2009

India: tribe forms human chain to protect sacred mountain form bauxite mine
World War 4 Report, Feb. 6, 2009

See also:

Lessons from Post-Consumerist Cuba
by Michael I. Niman, ArtVoice, Buffalo, NY
World War 4 Report, April 2009

Is There a Model-T in Your Future?
by Michael I. Niman, ArtVoice
World War 4 Report, July 2007


Reprinted by World War 4 Report, Aug. 1, 2009
Reprinting permissible with attribution



Climate Bill Offers Pseudo-Solutions

by Brian Tokar, Toward Freedom

A palpable sense of triumph accompanied the passage last month of a first-of-its-kind global warming bill in the US House of Representatives. Rep. Henry Waxman of California, one of the bill’s two main sponsors, called it a “decisive and historic action,” and President Obama described the bill as “a bold and necessary step.” Fred Krupp of the Environmental Defense Fund, among the most corporate-friendly of the major environmental groups, called it no less than “the most important environmental and energy legislation in the history of our country.” After twenty years of congressional inaction on the worldwide threat of catastrophic climate changes, there was a palpable sense of anxiety underlying the view that any step in the direction of regulating carbon dioxide and other climate-damaging greenhouse gases is better than nothing.

But is it? Throughout the 2 1/2 months that the current bill meandered its way through various congressional committees, groups like Friends of the Earth, Public Citizen, and Greenpeace issued sharp critiques. Even more scathing were analyses from smaller independent groups such as Chesapeake Climate Action and the Arizona-based Center for Biological Diversity (CBD). The bill falls far short of international standards in mandating a meaningful level of reductions in global warming pollution, and seeks to implement decades of emissions cuts through the market-based device known as “cap-and-trade.” It also contains a number of Trojan Horse provisions that could ultimately forestall, rather than encourage, genuine climate progress. While low expectations and politics-as-usual continue to impede progress in the US, activists in Europe and throughout the global South are raising far more forward-looking demands in the lead-up to the next global UN climate summit, to be held in Copenhagen in December.

To those who may not have followed all the legislative play-by-play since this bill was first released by Waxman’s House Energy and Commerce Committee in early April, the loopholes are staggering to behold. An international consensus is emerging that reductions in greenhouse gas emissions on the order of 30-40% are needed in the next decade or so to prevent a slide toward uncontrollable global climate chaos, with reductions on the order of 85-95% required by mid-century. The Waxman bill—cosponsored by Rep. Ed Markey of Massachusetts, and known as the American Clean Energy and Security Act, or ACESA—first attempts to shift the terms of the discussion by measuring emissions relative to 2005 levels rather than the accepted Kyoto Protocol benchmark of 1990. It promises a 17% reduction by 2020, relative to 2005, which only translates into 4 or 5 percent less global warming pollution than the US produced in 1990. The much-touted cap-and-trade provision of the bill accounts for about a 1% reduction by 2020, according to the Center for Biological Diversity’s analysis, with the remainder coming from regular, old-fashioned performance standards for smaller pollution sources, including automobiles, and from a controversial USAID effort to reduce deforestation in poorer countries. For comparison, most wealthy countries agreed over a decade ago in Kyoto to reduce their emissions by 2012 to 6-8% below 1990 levels.

Cap-and-trade, of course, is the latest catch phrase for attempting to control pollution by establishing an artificial market in permits to emit carbon dioxide. Since George Bush Senior’s Acid Rain Program of the early 1990s, advocates have aggressively promoted the idea that the most efficient pollution reductions come from the government setting a cap, and then allowing companies to freely trade pollution permits in order to nominally encourage development of the most cost-effective technologies. The Acid Rain Program succeeded modestly, but mainly because still-regulated electric utilities (this was the pre-Enron era) were mandated by state officials to hold true to their obligations and actually reduce their output of acid rain-causing sulfur dioxide. Trading contributed only marginally to the 50% pollution reductions from that program. An effort to reduce air pollution in southern California by a similar scheme appears to have mainly delayed the installation of emission controls, and the region still has the dirtiest air in the country. In Europe just three years ago, the value of tradable carbon dioxide allowances plummeted and the carbon trading system almost collapsed under the weight of excess permits that were freely granted to favored industries.

Under ACESA, some 7,400 facilities across this country would be given annual allowances to continue emitting carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. As many as 85% of the allowances would initially be given to polluting companies for free, reversing Obama’s campaign pledge that they should mainly be auctioned off. Meanwhile, the quantity of available allowances would actually increase through 2016, only falling gradually thereafter, and companies would be allowed to indefinitely “bank” them for future use, borrow from their future allowances, and finally trade them with other regulated companies as well as with Wall Street firms and an emerging cadre of brokers in carbon futures. If all this reads a little too much like the financial machinations that nearly brought down the world’s financial markets in 2008, consider that carbon market boosters are projecting a worldwide trading system ultimately valued at $10 trillion a year—perhaps launching the next financial bubble. All this potential for increased financial fraud and manipulation is for a mere 1% in CO2 reductions over the next decade, and a questionable promise of 70% by mid-century.

Many argue that, for all their uncertainty, these highly manipulable financial dealings are worth the risk because they facilitate the phase-in of an enforceable cap on global warming pollution. But the ACESA legislation replicates another of the most egregious features of the largely failed Kyoto Protocol: a virtual “hole in the cap,” in the form of an offset feature that allows companies to meet their obligations by investing instead in pollution control projects anywhere in the country, and even overseas. Companies could satisfy their full obligation to reduce CO2 by buying offsets until 2027; those familiar with ACESA’s fine print suggest that companies could stretch this out for 30-40 years.

An entirely new global mythology has arisen around the idea of carbon offsets. Nearly every time you buy tickets for an airplane flight, or for some major cultural events, someone is out to sell you offsets to alleviate your contribution to global warming. Carbon offsets have become the postmodern version of the indulgences the Catholic church used to sell in the Middle Ages to buy your way out of sin. But on a global scale, with corporations instead of individuals as the main players, they have become a scam of gigantic proportions. Rather than promoting innovative measures to reduce energy use in poor countries, as they are usually advertised, carbon offsets are subsidizing the already routine destruction of byproducts from China’s rising production of ozone-destroying hydrofluorocarbons, minor retooling of highly polluting pig iron smelters in India, and methane capture from a notoriously toxic landfill in South Africa. One of the most notorious cases is that of the French chemical company, Rhodia, which is anticipating a billion dollars in offset credits in exchange for a $15 million investment in 1970s-vintage technology to destroy the potent greenhouse gas nitrous oxide in its facility in South Korea. A German study of UN-approved carbon offset projects in 2007 reported that as many as 86% of offset-funded projects would likely have been carried out anyway.

Allowing companies to postpone their own greenhouse gas reductions by buying offsets is one Trojan Horse provision in the climate bill that could forestall future progress against the continued disruption of the climate. Another such measure largely prohibits the EPA from using the Clean Air Act to impose future regulation of greenhouse gas emissions. Recall that it was a 2007 Supreme Court decision allowing the EPA to regulate greenhouse gases as a pollutant that forced the Bush administration to finally start talking about global warming. Removing this authority represents a massive concession to polluting industries, one that would essentially remove the teeth of enforcement from future measures to forestall climate chaos.

Along with these systemic measures to weaken the climate bill, politically powerful industries wrote in further concessions of their own. (The Center for Public Integrity reported in February that some 2340 lobbyists are working in Washington on this issue.) The coal industry gets until 2025 to have to comply with the bill’s mandated pollution reductions, with ample means for gaining further extensions. Agribusiness, which is responsible for as much as a quarter of US greenhouse gas emissions, is exempt from the bill’s provisions, but large-scale farmers who, for example, reduce tillage by growing crops genetically engineered to withstand megadoses of herbicides, may be eligible for offset credits. Assessments of ethanol’s eligibility as a “renewable fuel” are to exclude its effects on land use, a factor that researchers from Princeton and the University of Minnesota proved decisive in a pair of landmark studies last year, which showed that industrial biofuels are actually net contributors to global warming. Finally, the nuclear industry promises to be a leading beneficiary of the bill’s free allocation of emission allowances; a memo leaked to the Huffington Post reports that Exelon, currently the largest US nuclear power company, expects a $1-1.5 billion annual windfall from the bill.

With horse-trading continuing on the House floor right up to the time of the vote, the bill ultimately included “billions of dollars in special interest favors,” according to the New York Times. On the positive side, this included $1 billion for green job creation job training in low income communities, but the biggest concessions were clearly to oil and gas producers. Requirements for utilities to invest in renewable energy were severely curtailed to satisfy some southern Democrats. Still, despite all these concessions, senators beholden to major polluting industries are already jockeying for much more, threatening to hold up the bill indefinitely if they cannot win even bigger concessions. A bill that passed the Senate’s Energy and Natural Resources Committee just a week prior to the ACESA vote in the House would open large new tracts of the Gulf of Mexico to oil and gas drilling, fund a new gas pipeline in Alaska, and increase funds for scientifically dubious efforts to permanently capture and store CO2 emissions from coal-burning power plants.

The current debate on climate policy is even more disturbing in light of international developments. The US, which still produces a quarter of the world’s global warming pollution, is still seen as one of the main obstacles to a meaningful climate treaty being approved in Copenhagen at the end of the year. The other is Japan, which recently announced that it would only aim to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions another 2% beyond its Kyoto Protocol obligation over the next decade. Negotiators meeting in Bonn in early June sought to begin hammering out the details of an agreement. Instead, according to Martin Khor of the Malaysia-based Third World Network, a decades-long participant in the UN process, “not only is the climate in crisis, the climate talks are also in crisis.” With corporations hovering like vultures to shape the future of the global carbon market, and the World Bank jockeying to control the funds to curtail deforestation, hopes are waning for a deal in Copenhagen that is adequate to the task of preventing a worldwide climate catastrophe.

In response, European activists are planning major demonstrations to coincide with the Copenhagen talks. At a meeting earlier in June, they agreed on a comprehensive five-point agenda, reaching well beyond the increasingly corporate-dominated UN process. Their priorities include leaving fossil fuels in the ground, socializing and decentralizing energy production, relocalizing food systems, respecting indigenous peoples’ rights, regenerating ecosystems, and repaying the ecological and climate debts owed by the richest countries to those who are most affected by resource extraction and climate-related disasters. Environmental justice advocates based in communities of color across the US are joining with indigenous activists and representatives of affected communities around the world to articulate a climate justice perspective that rejects carbon trading and seeks a just transition to a non-polluting economy.

In the US, activists are focusing on several dates in the fall for coordinated actions demanding a more effective response to the climate crisis. Indigenous groups (see have called for actions around the annual commemorations of Indigenous People’s Day on October 12th, and environmentalists such as Bill McKibben and David Suzuki (see are calling for an international day of climate actions on October 24th. A nationwide Mobilization for Climate Justice (see is aimed at linking the climate crisis “to the financial crisis, the food crisis and the extinction crisis, as well as to militarism and war,” and seeking to illuminate the root causes, promote the voices of those most affected by climate changes, and challenge corporate-friendly false solutions. They are focusing on November 30th, the tenth anniversary of the mass demonstrations that successfully confronted the World Trade Organization in Seattle in 1999 as a day of action, with ongoing events leading up to the December meetings in Copenhagen. Hopefully, these diverse grassroots mobilizations will help refocus the world’s attention away from politics-as-usual and toward more meaningful and effective solutions to the global climate crisis.


Brian Tokar is the Director of the Vermont-based Institute for Social Ecology. His books include Earth for Sale, Redesigning Life? and the forthcoming collection (co-edited with Fred Magdoff), Crisis in Food and Agriculture: Conflict, Resistance and Renewal (Monthly Review Press).

This story first appeared July 6 in Toward Freedom.


Internal Memo: Nuclear Power Company Could Make A Billion A Year From Climate Change Law
Huffington Post, Aug. 23

With Something for Everyone, Climate Bill Passed
New York Times, June 30

Third World Network

From our Daily Report:

Colombia biofuel production linked to human rights violations
World War 4 Report, June 4, 2009

African peasants receive Zapatista maize at Nairobi WSF
World War 4 Report, Feb. 25, 2007

See also:

Malthus, Biofuels and Free-Market Environmentalism
by Carmelo Ruiz Marrero, World War 4 Report
World War 4 Report, August 2009

by Walden Bello, Foreign Policy in Focus
World War 4 Report, August 2008


Reprinted by World War 4 Report, Aug. 1, 2009
Reprinting permissible with attribution



Malthus, Biofuels and Free-Market Environmentalism

by Carmelo Ruiz Marrero, World War 4 Report

The Washington DC-based Worldwatch Institute is no ordinary environmental organization. Founded by environmental maverick Lester Brown, a man hailed by the Washington Post as “one of the world’s most influential thinkers,” Worldwatch was the first environmental think tank ever. Since its founding in 1974 it has published thoroughly researched reports on global environmental issues ranging from fisheries depletion and China’s soaring resource consumption to green economics and renewable energy.

The organization has also assumed brave and highly principled positions, for example exposing the downside of technologies like nuclear power and genetic engineering, as well as the military’s impact on the environment—issues most mainstream environmental groups dare not touch. Regarding organic agriculture and local food production, their research in recent years has been top-notch. Worldwatch senior researcher Brian Halweil’s book on the international local foods movement, Eat Here, deserves no less acclaim than the writings of Michael Pollan and Carlo Petrini.

But progressive environmentalists have long had mixed feelings about the organization because of its technocratic approach to global environmental problems, enthusiastic support for Green Revolution agriculture, and Malthusian world view. In the 1980’s Worldwatch had a long and protracted debate with Frances Moore Lappe and her fledgling organization Food First. The subtitle of the epochal book Food First, co-authored by Lappe, said it all: “Beyond the Myth of Scarcity”. The book’s thesis—that the apocalyptic “population vs. resources” equation put forth by Thomas Malthus in the 19th century (and by Paul Ehrlich in the 20th) is plain wrong, and that hunger can and does exist where resources and food are plentiful—put Lappe and company in direct contradiction not only with Worldwatch but with the conventional views of the mainstream environmental movement and its supporting foundations. Worldwatch underwriters, which included the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, no doubt were pleased with the organization’s defense of the Green Revolution and Malthusianism (1).

Lester Brown left Worldwatch in 2001 to form the Earth Policy Institute. Since then, some observers have perceived Worldwatch to be moving into some rather questionable positions and endeavors. In 2007 it joined the global debate on biofuels by releasing a report which highlighted the economic, social and environmental problems posed by the biofuels boom. (2) But, quite incredibly, the report’s conclusions fell way short of its analysis and gave biofuels a rather glib and uncritical thumbs-up.

Then in February 2009, Worldwatch released another report on the subject, titled “Smart Choices for Biofuels”, co-authored with the Sierra Club. (3) This report should be regarded with skepticism and concern. Its authors are good at pointing out the pitfalls and problems of biofuels but in the end—and against all logic—conclude that biofuel production can be made sustainable with a few reforms here and there. They assume from the start that biofuels are desirable and inevitable. The industrialized North’s voracious and irresponsible consumption is unadressed, and endless economic growth remains unquestioned. Reports like these can do more harm than good, since their most immediate and obvious effect will be to confound and divide the environmental movement on this issue.

In June 2009, Worldwatch released a report, co-authored with Ecoagriculture Partners (EAP), on the relationship between agricultural practices and global warming. (4) But some of the report’s recommendations are questionable and controversial, to say the very least, especially “biochar” and “voluntary markets for greenhouse gas emission offsets.”

Two months before the report’s release, 147 organizations from 44 countries had signed on to an international declaration against biochar, denouncing it as a false solution to climate change. According to the declaration’s press release:

Civil society groups have called for caution on Biochar in view of serious scientific uncertainty. Many share concerns that this technology would lead to vast areas of land being converted to new plantations, thus repeating the unfolding disasters which agrofuels cause. They point out that large scale financial incentives for biochar or other soil sequestration could result in large scale land conversion and displacement of people. (5)

As for carbon offsets and market-based approaches to address global warming, these have been constantly denounced as false solutions by climate justice advocates, like the World Rainforest Movement, the North America-based Mobilization for Climate Justice and the Global Forest Coalition.

EAP describes its proposal thus: “Ecoagriculture recognizes agricultural producers and communities as key stewards of ecosystems and biodiversity and enables them to play those roles effectively. Ecoagriculture applies an integrated ecosystem approach to agricultural landscapes to address all three pillars, drawing on diverse elements of production and conservation management systems.” (6)

But University of California entomologist Miguel Altieri, one of the biggest authorities on agroecology worldwide, argues in an extensive critique that ecoagriculture is no more than a corporate-friendly mockery of organic agriculture. (7) EAP director Sara Scherr fired off a furious response to Altieri, accusing him of misstating and mischaracterizing her organization’s activities and philosophy.

Any weighing of the relative merit of each side’s arguments must consider Altieri’s consistent, principled and highly erudite defense of the principles of agroecology and progressive political positions in light of EAP’s list of “partners”. These include the World Wildlife Fund—vilified for its support for NAFTA and its collaboration with the Roundtable of Responsible Soy, a high-profile attempt to rationalize the millions of hectares of unsustainable soy monocultures in South America. (8) Other EAP partners include pillars of what could be called pro-corporate eco-capitalist nature conservation, like the Nature Conservancy, which also campaigned for NAFTA and has been accused of greenwashing soy monocultures in Brazil through its controversial partnership with Cargill grain corporation. (9) There’s also Conservation International, strongly criticized by civil society groups for its activities in Mexico’s Lacandon jungle, and the Katoomba Group, a pioneer in developing rationales for “ecosystem markets.” (10)

Altieri reported in 2004 that EAP’s partners included European biotech giants Bayer Cropscience and Syngenta (through its charitable foundation), as well as Croplife International, a trade association that represents the “plant science industry” (read: genetically engineered crops). As of July 2009, none of these appear on EAP’s web site as partners or supporters—apparently the organization wants to keep the appearance of critical distance from the biotech industry.

On July 8 2009, Worldwatch and EAP unveiled a new initiative: “a two-year project to point the world toward innovations in agriculture that can nourish people as well as the planet, supported by a $1.3 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The project will focus specifically on sub-Saharan Africa.” (11)

The Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), the Gates Foundation’s joint endeavor with the Rockefeller Foundation to address the problem of hunger in Africa, has not gone without controversy. In March 2009 the Oakland Institute released a report titled “Voices from Africa: African Farmers & Environmentalists Speak Out Against a New Green Revolution in Africa”, which features essays and statements of leading African farmers, environmentalists, and civil society groups which directly challenge AGRA’s plans for the continent. (12) Well-founded critiques of AGRA were also presented by GRAIN (13), the ETC Group (14) and Food First (15).

Furthermore, in November-December 2007 the west African country of Mali hosted an international meeting on Alternatives to the Green Revolution (read AGRA). Attendees—over 150 participants from 25 African countries and 10 non-African countries—included farmers, pastoralists, environmentalists, women, youth and development organizations.

The Worldwatch/EAP initiative intends to research “practical solutions for creating sustainable food security.” Most of the “practical solutions” mentioned in the press release— rainwater harvesting, adding nitrogen-fixing plants into crop rotations, farmer-run seed banks, and involving women in decision making—cannot be thought of as innovations by any definition of the word. They are what organic and family farmers have always been doing. Other solutions mentioned, like “tapping international carbon-credit markets”, reflect once again a blind faith in discredited “market solutions”.

What’s most upsetting about the two joint Worldwatch/EAP communiques is their silence about the IAASTD report (also known as the Agricultural Assessment), an enormous document that is to world agriculture what the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is to global warming. Written by over 400 experts under the auspices of the World Bank and UN agencies, with the full participation of civil society, governments and industry, and subjected to two independent peer reviews, it is the most thorough appraisal of world agriculture ever undertaken. It concluded that business-as-usual Green Revolution agriculture is not an option. As an alternative, the report’s authors recommended small-scale agroecological production that utilizes local resources, precisely what organic farmers worldwide have been doing all along. As for genetically engineered crops, the Agricultural Assessment expressed caution and skepticism, which did not sit well with the biotechnology industry.

The IAASTD report was released over a year ago, Worldwatch itself took note of it in an April 18, 2008 communique. (16) To approach the subjects of world hunger and sustainable agriculture without reference to the Agricultural Assessment is to court genuine ignorance.

The alternatives to the Green Revolution model and misguided market “solutions” can be summed up in two words: food sovereignty. This innovative concept is the product of one of the most remarkable, democratic and inclusive collective thinking processes in history. It was formulated and refined through years of dialogue and debate among dozens of small farmers organizations from all over the world over a period of years, culminating in the Nyeleni Declaration issued at the World Forum on Food Sovereignty in Mali in 2007. The main architect of the food sovereignty concept is worldwide peasant federation Via Campesina, probably the single most important civil society organization in the world right now.

Global civil society is currently carrying out an exciting, hopeful, inclusive, bottom-up dialogue on food sovereignty, climate justice and the future of agriculture, which is breaking with old paradigms and offering proposals that radically break with the conventional wisdom of industrial civilization. But sadly, Worldwatch seems to have decided to play it safe instead and turn to mainstream partners like EAP, and play along with major funders like the Gates Foundation. Especially sad, considering that the organization has repeated times shown courage and willingness to step out of the herd on sensitive and important issues. It is not my intention to single out the Worldwatch institute—unfortunately it is far from being the only environmental group that has followed this sorry trend.


Ruiz-Marrero is a Puerto Rican author, journalist and environmental educator. His articles have been published by Synthesis/Regeneration, Alternet, Corporate Watch, The Ecologist, Earth Island Journal, E Magazine, the CIP Americas Policy Program, Food First, and many other media. He currently heads the Puerto Rico Project on Biosafety.


1. Worldwatch was founded with a $500,000 grant from the Rockefeller Brothers Fund. Philanthropic foundations founded and controlled by the Rockefellers, like RBF and the Rockefeller Foundation were key in conceiving and funding the Green Revolution. See Mark Dowie’s book American Foundations: An Investigative History (MIT Books, 2002), and also Gerard Colby and Charlotte Dennett’s Thy Will Be Done: Rockefeller and Evangelism in the Age of Oil (Harper Collins, 2005).
2. “Biofuels for Transport: Global Potential and Implications for Sustainable Agriculture and Energy in the 21st Century,” Worldwatch Institute
3. “Smart Choices for Biofuels,” Worldwatch Institute
4. “Mitigating Climate Change Through Food and Land Use,” Worldwatch Institute
5. “Biochar, a new big threat to people, land, and ecosystems,” Rainforest Rescue
6. I normally do not consult the Wikipedia as a primary source, but the EAP web page specifically directs inquiries to ecoagriculture’s Wikipedia entry:
7. Altieri, Miguel. “Agroecology vs. Ecoagriculture,” Institute of Science in Society
8. See,
9. “Conservation Corp.: Enviros Ally with Big Grain,” Multinational Monitor
10. Katoomba Group
11. “Worldwatch Institute Launches Initiative to Assess Agricultural Methods’ Impacts on Sustainability, Productivity,” Worldwatch Institute
12. “Voices From Africa: African Farmers & Environmentalists Speak Out Against a New Green Revolution in Africa,” Oakland Institute, March 2009
13. “A new Green Revolution for Africa?” GRAIN, December 2007
14. “Food Sovereignty or Green Revolution 2.0?” ETC Group, April 2007.
15. “Ten Reasons Why the Rockefeller and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundations’ Alliance for Another Green Revolution Will Not Solve the Problems of Poverty and Hunger in Sub-Saharan Africa” by Eric Holt-Gimenez, Miguel A. Altieri and Peter Rosset. Food First, October 2006 (PDF)
16. “International Commission Calls for ‘Paradigm Shift’ in Agriculture,” Worldwatch Institute

For more information on what is biochar and what is wrong with it:

For more on AGRA:

For more on IAASTD:


Worldwatch Institute

Earth Policy Institute

Via Campesina

From our Daily Report:

Colombia biofuel production linked to human rights violations
World War 4 Report, June 4, 2009

African peasants receive Zapatista maize at Nairobi WSF
World War 4 Report, Feb. 25, 2007

See also:

by Rachel Smolker and Brian Tokar, Toward Freedom
World War 4 Report, March 2009


Special to World War 4 Report, Aug. 1, 2009
Reprinting permissible with attribution



by Nikolas Kozloff, Señor Chichero

When the Honduran military overthrew the democratically elected government of Manuel Zelaya there might have been a sigh of relief in the corporate board rooms of Chiquita banana. Earlier this year the Cincinnati-based fruit company joined Dole in criticizing the government in Tegucigalpa which had raised the minimum wage by 60%. Chiquita complained that the new regulations would cut into company profits, requiring the firm to spend more on costs than in Costa Rica: 20 cents more to produce a crate of pineapple and ten cents more to produce a crate of bananas to be exact. In all, Chiquita fretted that it would lose millions under Zelaya’s labor reforms, since the company produced around 8 million crates of pineapple and 22 million crates of bananas per year.

When the minimum wage decree came down Chiquita sought help and appealed to the Honduran National Business Council, known by its Spanish acronym COHEP. Like Chiquita, COHEP was unhappy about Zelaya’s minimum wage measure. AmĂ­lcar Bulnes, the group’s president, argued that if the government went forward with the minimum wage increase employers would be forced to let workers go, thus increasing unemployment in the country. The most important business organization in Honduras, COHEP groups 60 trade associations and chambers of commerce representing every sector of the Honduran economy. According to its own Web site, COHEP is the political and technical arm of the Honduran private sector, supports trade agreements and provides “critical support for the democratic system.”

The international community should not impose economic sanctions against the coup regime in Tegucigalpa, COHEP argues, because this would worsen Honduras’ social problems. In its new role as the mouthpiece for Honduras’ poor, COHEP declares that Honduras has already suffered from earthquakes, torrential rains and the global financial crisis. Before punishing the coup regime with punitive measures, COHEP argues, the United Nations and the Organization of American States should send observer teams to Honduras to investigate how sanctions might affect 70% of Hondurans who live in poverty. Bulnes meanwhile has voiced his support for the coup regime of Roberto Micheletti and argues that the political conditions in Honduras are not propitious for Zelaya’s return from exile.

Chiquita: From Arbenz to Bananagate
It’s not surprising that Chiquita would seek out and ally itself to socially and politically backward forces in Honduras. Colsiba, the coordinating body of banana plantation workers in Latin America, says the fruit company has failed to supply its workers with necessary protective gear and has dragged its feet when it comes to signing collective labor agreements in Nicaragua, Guatemala and Honduras.

Colsiba compares the infernal labor conditions on Chiquita plantations to concentration camps. It’s an inflammatory comparison, yet may contain a degree of truth. Women working on Chiquita’s plantations in Central America labor from 6:30 AM until 7 at night, their hands burning up inside rubber gloves. Some workers are as young as 14. Central American banana workers have sought damages against Chiquita for exposing them in the field to DBCP, a dangerous pesticide that causes sterility, cancer and birth defects in children.

Chiquita, formerly known as United Fruit Company and United Brands, has had a long and sordid political history in Central America. Led by Sam “The Banana Man” Zemurray, United Fruit got into the banana business at the turn of the twentieth century. Zemurray once remarked famously, “In Honduras, a mule costs more than a member of parliament.” By the 1920s United Fruit controlled 650,000 acres of the best land in Honduras, almost one quarter of all the arable land in the country. What’s more, the company controlled important roads and railways.

In Honduras the fruit companies spread their influence into every area of life including politics and the military. For such tactics they acquired the name los pulpos (the octopuses, from the way they spread their tentacles). Those who did not play ball with the corporations were frequently found face down on the plantations. In 1904 humorist O. Henry coined the term “Banana Republic” to refer to the notorious United Fruit Company and its actions in Honduras.

In Guatemala, United Fruit supported the CIA-backed 1954 military coup against President Jacobo Arbenz, a reformer who had carried out a land reform package. Arbenz’ overthrow led to more than 30 years of unrest and civil war in Guatemala. Later in 1961, United Fruit lent its ships to CIA-backed Cuban exiles who sought to overthrow Fidel Castro at the Bay of Pigs.

In 1972, United Fruit (now renamed United Brands) propelled Honduran General Oswaldo LĂłpez Arellano to power. The dictator was forced to step down later, however, after the infamous “Bananagate” scandal, which involved United Brands bribes to Arellano. A US federal grand jury accused United Brands of bribing Arellano $1.25 million, with the carrot of another $1.25 million later if the military man agreed to reduce fruit export taxes. During Bananagate, United Brands’ president fell from a New York City skyscraper in an apparent suicide.

Go-Go Clinton Years and Colombia
In Colombia United Fruit also set up shop and during its operations in the South American country developed a no less checkered profile. In 1928, 3,000 workers went on strike against the company to demand better pay and working conditions. At first the company refused to negotiate but later gave in on some minor points, declaring the other demands “illegal” or “impossible.” When the strikers refused to disperse, the military fired on the banana workers, killing scores.

You might think that Chiquita would have reconsidered its labor policies after that but in the late 1990s the company began to ally itself with sinister forces—specifically right wing paramilitaries. Chiquita paid off the men to the tune of more than a million dollars. In its own defense, the company declared that it was merely paying protection money to the paramilitaries.

In 2007, Chiquita paid $25 million to settle a Justice Department investigation into the payments. Chiquita was the first company in US history to be convicted of financial dealings with a designated terrorist organization.

A lawsuit launched against Chiquita victims of the paramilitary violence claimed the firm abetted atrocities including terrorism, war crimes and crimes against humanity. A lawyer for the plaintiffs said that Chiquita’s relationship with the paramilitaries “was about acquiring every aspect of banana distribution and sale through a reign of terror.”

Back in Washington, DC Charles Lindner, Chiquita’s CEO, was busy courting the White House. Lindner had been a big donor to the GOP but switched sides and began to lavish cash on the Democrats and Bill Clinton. Clinton repaid Linder by becoming a key military backer of the government of AndrĂ©s Pastrana which presided over the proliferation of right-wing death squads. At the time the US was pursuing its corporately-friendly free trade agenda in Latin America, a strategy carried out by Clinton’s old boyhood friend Thomas “Mack” McLarty. At the White House, McLarty served as chief of staff and special envoy to Latin America. He’s an intriguing figure who we’ll come back to in a moment.

The Holder-Chiquita Connection
Given Chiquita’s underhanded record in Central America and Colombia, it’s not a surprise that the company later sought to ally itself with COHEP in Honduras. In addition to lobbying business associations in Honduras, however, Chiquita also cultivated relationships with high-powered law firms in Washington. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, Chiquita has paid out $70,000 in lobbying fees to Covington and Burling over the past three years.

Covington is a powerful law firm which advises multinational corporations. Eric Holder, the current Attorney General, a co-chair of the Obama campaign and former Deputy Attorney General under Bill Clinton was up until recently a partner at the firm. At Covington, Holder defended Chiquita as lead counsel in its case with the Justice Department. From his perch at the elegant new Covington headquarters located near the New York Times building in Manhattan, Holder prepped Fernando Aguirre, Chiquita’s CEO, for an interview with 60 Minutes dealing with Colombian death squads.

Holder had the fruit company plead guilty to one count of “engaging in transactions with a specially designated global terrorist organization.” But the lawyer, who was taking in a hefty salary at Covington to the tune of more than $2 million, brokered a sweetheart deal in which Chiquita only paid a $25 million fine over five years. Outrageously, however, not one of the six company officials who approved the payments received any jail time.

The Curious Case of Covington
Look a little deeper and you’ll find that not only does Covington represent Chiquita but also serves as a kind of nexus for the political right intent on pushing a hawkish foreign policy in Latin America. Covington has pursued an important strategic alliance with Kissinger (of Chile 1973 fame) and McLarty Associates (yes, the same Mack McLarty from Clinton-time), a well-known international consulting and strategic advisory firm.

From 1974 to 1981 John Bolton served as an associate at Covington. As US ambassador to the United Nations under George Bush, Bolton was a fierce critic of leftists in Latin America such as Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez. Furthermore, just recently John Negroponte became Covington’s vice chairman. Negroponte is a former Deputy Secretary of State, director of National Intelligence and US representative to the United Nations.

As US ambassador to Honduras from 1981-1985, Negroponte played a significant role in assisting the US-backed Contra rebels intent on overthrowing the Sandinista regime in Nicaragua. Human rights groups have criticized Negroponte for ignoring human rights abuses committed by Honduran death squads which were funded and trained by the Central Intelligence Agency. Indeed, when Negroponte served as ambassador, his building in Tegucigalpa became one of the largest nerve centers of the CIA in Latin America, with a tenfold increase in personnel.

While there’s no evidence linking Chiquita to the recent coup in Honduras, there’s enough of a confluence of suspicious characters and political heavyweights here to warrant further investigation. From COHEP to Covington to Holder to Negroponte to McLarty, Chiquita has sought out friends in high places, friends who had no love for the progressive labor policies of the Zelaya regime in Tegucigalpa.


Nikolas Kozloff is the author of Hugo Chávez: Oil, Politics and the Challenge to the U.S. (Palgrave, 2006) and Revolution! South America and the Rise of the New Left (Palgrave, 2008). His website is Señor Chichero.

From our Daily Report:

Colombia: lawsuit accuses Dole of funding paramilitaries
World War 4 Report, May 27, 2009

Colombia: survivors remember “Bananera Massacre”
World War 4 Report, Dec. 10, 2008

Eric Holder: death-squad defender
World War 4 Report, Nov. 20, 2009

See also:

by Bill Weinberg, World War 4 Report
World War 4 Report, August 2009


Reprinted by World War 4 Report, Aug. 1, 2009
Reprinting permissible with attribution



U.S. Right Mobilizes to Support Putsch

by Bill Weinberg, World War 4 Report

It’s a sign of hope that no nation on earth has yet recognized the de facto regime that took power in Honduras June 28, when the military summarily deported President Manuel Zelaya to Costa Rica in his pajamas. Protests demanding Zelaya’s return continue in the Central American nation. The struggle has already cost lives. When the army blocked Zelaya’s plane at the airport in Tegucigalpa July 5, security forces opened fire on his supporters who had gathered there. Popular leaders have been arrested or forced into hiding, and some have been killed.

One of the grassroots groups mobilizing for Zelaya’s return is the Honduran Black Fraternal Organization (OFRANEH), which issued a statement July 3 asserting the “undeniable involvement” of former US under-secretary of state Otto Reich in the coup d’etat.

Similar claims were made at the emergency session of the Organization of American States (OAS) in Washington DC as the coup went into action. Venezuelan representative Roy Chaderton said: “We have information that worries us. These is a person who has been important in the diplomacy of the US who has reconnected with old colleagues and encouraged the coup: Otto Reich, ex sub-secretary of State under Bush. We know him as an interventionist person…” He cited Reich’s purported involvement in the attempted coup d’etat against Venezuela’s President Hugo Chávez in April 2002.

Recalling Reich’s involvement in the Nicaragua destabilization campaign in the 1980s and (apparently) the Venezuelan coup attempt, he quipped, “We suffered the First Reich, the Second Reich, and now we are suffering the Third Reich.”

In 2001, President Bush used a recess appointment to make Reich assistant secretary of state for the Western Hemisphere, bypassing strong Congressional opposition. In 1987, Reich had been investigated by Congress for illegal activities in support on Nicaragua’s right-wing Contra guerillas.

In April 2002, the New York Times confirmed that on the morning the Venezuelan putsch went into action, Reich spoke by telephone with Pedro Carmona, the conservative businessman who would be installed as de facto president for the two days before the coup collapsed. The account claimed Reich coached Carmona on how to handle the coup, urging him not to dissolve the National Assembly. (Carmona did, cited as a key factor in the coup’s failure.)

In January 2003 the White House quietly moved Reich over to the presidential staff as special envoy to Latin America rather than face Congressional opposition to his re-appointment as assistant secretary of state. He resigned in 2004 and returned to (ostensibly) private life. Lats year, he served as a foreign policy advisor to presidential candidate John McCain.

Whither the Arcadia Foundation?
OFRANEH’s statement also asserts that Reich was working with the DC-based Arcadia Foundation to destabilize Zelaya. The Arcadia Foundation website identifies the non-profit as an anti-corruption watchdog that also promotes “good governance and democratic institutions.” Reich’s name does not appear in any obvious place on the website. However, one of the two names on the site’s “Founders” page is Robert Carmona-Borjas, identified as “a Venezuelan lawyer and an expert in military affairs, national security, corruption and governance.” It notes in genteel terms that he fled Venezuela after the coup attempt: “In Venezuela, concerned with the issue of governability, the defense of human rights, democracy and the fight against corruption, he became an activist, disregarding the risks that such a stance implied. Following the events of April 2002, he was forced to abandon his country and seek political asylum in the United States of America.”

The Mexican daily La Jornada reported April 27, 2002 (just after the Venezuelan coup collapsed) that Carmona-Borjas had drafted “anti-constitutional” decrees for the coup regime. He was immediately granted asylum in the US.

This June, Honduran newspapers noted that Carmona-Borjas had brought legal charges against Zelaya and other figures in his administration for defying a court ruling that barred preparations for the constitutional referendum scheduled for the day Zelaya would be ousted. A YouTube video dated July 3 shows footage from Honduras’ Channel 8 TV of Carmona-Borjas being extolled from the stage at an anti-Zelaya rally in Tegucigalpa’s Plaza la Democracia to enthusiastic applause. In the same speech, the speaker accuses Zelaya of collaboration with narco-traffickers.

Reich’s name popped up in the media in relation to Honduras earlier this year, when he publicly accused the Zelaya administration of corruption after the Latin Node digital telephone company (since acquired by eLandia) was fined $2 million by US authorities for allegedly bribing officials in Honduras and Yemen. “President Zelaya has allowed or encouraged this kind of practices [sic] and we will see that he is also behind this,” Reich was quoted by the Miami Herald in April. After an outcry in Honduras, Reich said he was prepared to make a sworn statement on the affair before Honduran law enforcement—but said he would not travel to Honduras to do so, because his personal security would be at risk there.

And in a September 2008 interview with the Honduran daily El Heraldo, Reich warned of Tegucigalpa’s growing closeness with Venezuela, remarking cryptically that “if President Zelaya wants to be an ally of our enemies, let him think about what might be the consequences of his actions and words.”

The Hondutel Scandal
Interestingly, the obscure Latin Node scandal may touch on one of the key issues behind the coup. Despite the media focus on Zelaya’s supposed agenda to get term limits overturned, one of the real issues in his proposed constitutional reform was to mandate national control over Honduras’ telecom system. The officials who were supposedly bribed were with the national company Hondutel.

In an April 7 piece he wrote for Miami’s Spanish-language Nuevo Herald, Reich reminded readers that Zelaya’s nephew, Marcelo Chimirri, was a high official at Hondutel and had been accused of various illicit practices. The outraged Zelaya went on national radio and TV to announce that he would sue Reich for defamation: “We will proceed with legal action for calumny against this man, Otto Reich, who has been waging a two year campaign against Honduras.”

In January, the US Embassy in Tegucigalpa denied Chimirri an entry visa into the United States, citing “serious cases of corruption.” This wasn’t Chimirri’s first attempt to get a visa. Zelaya had complained to Washington a month earlier about the visa issue, urging US officials to “revise the procedure by which visas are cancelled or denied…as a means of pressure against…people who hold different beliefs or ideologies which pose no threat to the US.”

Bush-appointed US Ambassador Charles Ford also weighed in, telling the Honduran newspaper La Tribuna that the US government was investigating North American telecom carriers for allegedly paying bribes to Honduran officials to engage in so-called “gray traffic” or illicit bypassing of legal telecommunications channels. He recommended greater competition as a means to combat this supposed abuse.

The Honduran business elite has long sought to privatize Hondutel. In the late 1990s, none other than Roberto Micheletti—the current coup-installed president—was Hondutel’s CEO. Writes Latin America expert Nikolas Kozloff author of Revolution!: South America and the Rise of the New Left, in a July commentary onthe affair: “At the time, Micheletti favored privatizing the firm. Micheletti later went on to become president of Honduras’ National Congress. In that capacity, he was at odds with the Zelaya regime that opposed so-called ‘telecom reform’ that could open the door to outright privatization.”

Chimirri was arrested by the new regime on July 2, 2009. The Arcadia Foundation did not respond to repeated requests for a statement. In a July 9 Miami Herald op-ed titled, “I Did Not Orchestrate Coup in Honduras,” Reich denies being the “architect” of the coup—which he also denies was a coup, and defends as “legal and constitutional.” The website of Reich’s consulting firm, Otto Reich Associates, lists among its former clients AT&T and Bell Atlantic (now Verizon)—both of which would be possible purchasers of a privatized Hondutel.

US right squawks: “not a coup”
In defiance of world opinion, the US right is scrambling to build political support for the coup regime. The New York Times comments from a House Western Hemisphere Subcommittee hearing in Washington July 10, where several members of Congress criticized the OAS for suspending Honduras mere weeks after it lifted the suspension of Cuba. Rep. Connie Mack (R-FL) urged the US to cut its support for the OAS, which gets 60% of its financing from Washington. He said its response to the Honduras crisis proves it is a “dangerous organization,” siding with Hugo Chávez in undermining democracy in the region. “What has happened in Honduras was not a military coup,” Mack said. “If anyone is guilty here it is Mr. Zelaya himself for having turned his back on his people and his own Constitution.”

Sen. Jim DeMint (R-SC) has also made several comments in support of the coup, calling Zelaya “a Chávez-style dictator” who had flouted the authority of the Honduran congress and Supreme Court. He said President Obama’s call to reinstate Zelaya is “a slap in the face to the people of the Honduras.” On another occasion, he asked rhetorically: “On what basis does the [Obama] administration demand Zelaya’s reinstatement? His removal from office was no more a coup than was Gerald Ford’s ascendance to the Oval Office or our newest colleague Al Franken’s election to the Senate.”

Reich was also among those who testified on July 10, a transcript of Senate Foreign Affairs Committee hearings that same day reveals. “What happens in Honduras may one day be seen as either the high-water mark of Hugo Chavez’s attempt to undermine democracy in this hemisphere or as a green light to the continued spread of Chavista authoritarianism under the guise of democracy,” he said, adding that Zelaya’s removal constituted “legal and defensible measures” by the Honduran judicial and legislative branches against the executive.

Hans Bader of the Competitive Enterprise Institute told Voice of America that the Honduran Supreme Court and Congress believed Zelaya had put the country in peril. “I don’t think they needed to wait until he actually made himself into a dictator,” he said. “I think they were entitled to take action against a budding dictator. But even if they weren’t, it seems to me that it is not so clear that he is in the right that the United States should be meddling in Honduras’ affairs.”

Meanwhile, as every other country in the hemisphere (as well the European Union) have recalled their ambassadors from Honduras, the US has maintained diplomatic ties—while suspending aid projects, and encouraging a Costa Rica-brokered dialogue which has thus far failed top bear fruit. While most military cooperation has been officially suspended, Honduran officers are apparently still being trained at the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC), the former School of the Americas at Fort Benning.

Honduran military admits: We broke the law
In a turnaround, the Honduran army’s top lawyer in an interview with the Miami Herald July 3 admitted that the military broke the law by removing Zelaya—while insisting the move was necessary. Col. Herberth Bayardo Inestroza said: “We know there was a crime there. In the moment that we took him out of the country, in the way that he was taken out, there is a crime. Because of the circumstances of the moment this crime occurred, there is going to be a justification and cause for acquittal that will protect us.”

Bayardo proudly invoked the military repression that gripped Honduras in the 1980s: “We fought the subversive movements here and we were the only country that did not have a fratricidal war like the others. It would be difficult for us, with our training, to have a relationship with a leftist government. That’s impossible. I personally would have retired, because my thinking, my principles, would not have allowed me to participate in that.”

The Shadow of the 3-16 Battalion
The methods Bayardo nostalgically recalls were called horrific human rights abuses by international jurists. The Inter-American Court of Human Rights in 1988 ruled the Honduran government responsible for the “disappearance” of four individuals (two Hondurans and two Costa Ricans). The ruling found that the Honduran state “conducted or tolerated the systematic practice of disappearance” in the 1980s, naming a clandestine military death squad, the 3-16 Battalion.

From 1980-1982, when the repression was at its worst, the Honduran military was headed by Gen. Policarpo Paz GarcĂ­a, a graduate of the US Army’s School of the Americas. There was a massive US military presence in Honduras at this time, and the US ambassador was John Negroponte—later George W. Bush’s UN ambassador, Iraq envoy and first Director of National Intelligence. At the time, US State Department reports, prepared under Negroponte’s supervision, found that “there are no political prisoners in Honduras.” In 1994, after a public reckoning with the abuses of the previous decade, the Honduran Human Rights Commission charged Negroponte personally with complicity in several human rights violations.

One hopes the methods of the 1980s will not be revived if the coup regime in Honduras persists. Gen. Romeo Vasquez, the head of the armed forces who led the coup, was also trained at the SOA at least twice—in 1976 and 1984. Billy Joya, a self-confessed veteran of the 3-16 Battalion (although a denier of its human rights abuses) has been appointed an advisor to Micheletti.

“Kafka in Honduras”
Those who argue that the coup was not a coup invariably cite Article 239 of the Honduran constitution, which states that any president who even proposes a constitutional amendment to allow re-election “shall cease forthwith” in his duties. They do not mention that this constitution was crafted by a military-dominated state in 1982, and this measure was aimed precisely at keeping elected civilian leaders subordinate to the generals.

Zelaya was removed on the very day his non-binding referendum on whether to open a constitutional convention was to take place. He had pledged to go ahead with the vote despite a Supreme Court ruling barring it. Hours after his removal, the National Congress read an obviously forged “resignation letter” from Zelaya, then passed a resolution giving legal imprimatur to the removal and making congress leader Micheletti president. The move has been portrayed as necessary to prevent Zelaya from setting himself up as president-for-life.

Actually, given that the binding vote establishing the constitutional convention (following the non-binding one scheduled for June 28, to establish a popular mandate for the referendum) was to take place in November, simultaneous with the presidential election, it was impossible for Zelaya to extend his term through the constitutional reform—at best, to be able to run again in four years. And the issues Zelaya touted concerned beefing up the labor code and enshrining public control of the telecom system and power plants—not abolishing term limits.

Grahame Russell of the solidarity organization Rights Action, responding to claims that the ouster of Zelaya was legal, calls it “Kafka in Honduras.” He notes a case filed in the Honduran courts earlier this year by the Honduran Committee for the Defense of Human Rights (CODEH), charging that a military coup was in the works and calling on judicial authorities to intervene. Other such cases were also filed in the months leading up to Zelaya’s removal—but were all apparently allowed to languish.

Then, in the days before the coup, the Supreme Court received the accusation against President Zelaya. This was evidently rushed through the legal process—without Zelaya ever being able to see or respond to the charges. Writes Russell: “The Honduran Armed Forces (HAF) have no authority whatsoever—none, ever—to carry out detention orders of the Supreme Court. If there were a valid detention order (there was not), it would be the police forces that would have to be authorized by the court to carry it out. Having said that, no detention order was even presented when the HAF broke violently into the President’s residence…”

Whatever constitutional violations Zelaya may have committed, the military circumvented the legal process by having the president summarily deported. Given this admission by the military itself, why should any subsequent acts by the Honduran state be considered legitimate? If Zelaya had been arrested (and this also would have been of dubious legality), he would have had a chance to face his accusers in court, and put his case before the Honduran people. The congressional vote removing him would have had at least arguable validity. As it is, the democratic process has been abrogated entirely.

The political right throughout the hemisphere is assembling a barrage of legalistic sophistries in defense of the Honduran coup. If they prevail and the coup is allowed to become a fait accompli, it will be a grave step backwards for democracy in the Americas and worldwide—and all the more insidious because this time around (in contrast to the Cold War coups d’etat) it is being done under a veneer, however transparent, of propriety.


A shorter version of this article ran July 29 in In These Times.


Arcadia Foundation

Rights Action

Nikolas Kozloff’s Señor Chichero blog

From our Daily Report:

Honduras: generals plead case on TV; deadly repression grows
World War 4 Report, Aug. 8, 2009

Honduras: Micheletti appoints death squad veteran
World War 4 Report, July 24, 2009

Honduras: talks break down again; Otto Reich denies involvement
World War 4 Report, July 23, 2009

See also:

by David L. Wilson, MRZine
World War 4 Report, July 2009


Special to World War 4 Report, August 1, 2009
Reprinting permissible with attribution

The Andes

Venezuela and Colombia at brink of war—again?

At the South American summit in Quito, Hugo Chávez warned that the “winds of war are beginning to blow” on the continent—a day after accusing Colombian troops of a border incursion.