CounterVortex Resisting the Downward Spiral Wed, 24 Jun 2020 04:10:37 +0000 en-US hourly 1 CounterVortex 32 32 HAS COVID-19 STRENGTHENED XI JINPING? Wed, 24 Jun 2020 02:43:59 +0000 Vincent Kolo of cuts through Beijing's propaganda of "victory" over the pandemic.]]> by Vincent Kolo,

On June 15, the National Bureau of Statistics cancelled its press conference in Beijing. It was due to present May’s economic data, showing that China’s economy continues to “gain momentum” following the shocking crash of the first quarter.

The cancellation was forced by the new wave of coronavirus infections in Beijing, which caused authorities to sharply reverse plans to fully re-open the city. Schools, which only re-opened the previous week, were again closed and 40 percent of flights from the capital’s two airports were cancelled. Over 90,000 residents near the outbreak’s center were put under strict lockdown with armed police cordoning off the area.

The new outbreak, with almost 200 confirmed cases in one week, is linked to the city’s biggest wholesale food market at Xinfandi. It came like a lightning bolt from a clear blue sky. Beijing had not reported a single new case of COVID-19 for 55 days. That this has happened in the capital, the Chinese dictatorship’s seat of power, is both chilling and embarrassing for Xi Jinping following months of propaganda claiming China’s “victory” over the pandemic.

It underlines a bigger global problem: That much is still unknown and unpredictable about COVID-19 and governments that are everywhere rushing to re-start profit-making economic activities are still cutting corners where public health is concerned. The World Health Organization warns that a second wave of the pandemic is “a very real risk.”

Unprecedented crisis
The pandemic and the global economic crisis are bringing fundamental and historic changes. Global capitalism as a whole including China’s authoritarian state-guided capitalism have decisively failed this test. Humanity faces a period of economic depression, record unemployment and sharply deteriorating international relations.

Xi’s regime has attempted to shield itself from a massive global blowback. Rival capitalist governments, most notably Trump in the US, want to place the whole blame on China for the health and economic crisis, while of course hiding their own crimes. Above all the CCP is concerned about public opinion at home—more than its global reputation. Favorable reports in global media or praise from foreign governments mainly have value for the CCP in showing Chinese people the regime is respected. With unemployment soaring in China and the economy in a worse plight than at any time in the past 40 years, Xi’s regime is desperate to generate “positive news” while tightening its crackdown on dissenting voices from whichever direction.

Since March, to improve its image, Beijing has engaged in global “mask diplomacy,” selling or donating over 4 billion facemasks worldwide. The shocking incompetence of the US government’s response, which pushed it to the number one spot for COVID-19 infections and deaths, enormously helped the CCP’s propaganda campaign.

But despite this the regime is facing a storm like no other, certainly the most serious since the mass anti-authoritarian struggle of 1989.

In fact, a leaked internal report of the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations (CICIR), a think-tank affiliated to the Ministry of State Security, warned that the rising global tide of anti-China sentiment in the wake of COVID-19 is the worst since the Tiananmen massacre of June 1989. The leak itself, published by Reuters in May, could be connected to the intensifying power struggle within the Chinese regime.

It is clear that a growing wing of the CCP regime are increasingly disquieted by the aggressive “wolf warrior” diplomacy which has become the new normal for China’s foreign diplomats in 2020. This flows from Xi’s increasing dependence on ever more nationalistic policies (on the pandemic, the South China Sea, the US-China conflict, Hong Kong and Taiwan) in order to drum up domestic support and divert attention from the crippled economy.

This is a dangerous dynamic as underlined by the conflict on the border with India in the high reaches of the Himalayas (Ladakh region), where Chinese and Indian troops have clashed repeatedly since early May. In June this conflict escalated with 20 Indian soldiers killed, while China has refused to reveal its own casualties. While the two sides have clashed before, these were the first fatalities for 45 years.

Both governments—almost like a mirror image of each other—rely heavily on nationalism to shore up their rule, something the pandemic has accentuated. Both sides have recently strengthened their defenses and infrastructure on each side of the disputed border. The recent conflict is an attempt by both sides to increase pressure on each other before eventual negotiations, as took place in Wuhan in 2018. Neither Delhi or Beijing are looking to go to war, but both sides’ actions are infecting old wounds.

This is one front in the sharpening power struggle inside the CCP, with Xi’s hardline foreign policy seen by some as increasingly counterproductive, alienating and pushing foreign governments into the US camp in the burgeoning Cold War. A layer would prefer a return to the CCP’s traditional pragmatism and a more tactful approach. China’s diplomats were once known for being “well-trained, colorless, and cautious,” says US-based commentator Minxin Pei. He bemoans the rise of such figures as Zhao Lijian, deputy director of the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs Information Department, a prominent representative of the “wolf warrior” class.

The new strident tone, amplified by the pandemic, has caused a deepening backlash in Australia, Southeast Asia, several African countries and the EU, pushing some of these governments closer to the US position of military containment and economic decoupling from China. Of course this is not just about “tone” and clumsy diplomacy, but the fear among the capitalists in other countries that this crisis tilts global power in China’s favor. Xi’s unilateral abolition of Hong Kong’s limited political autonomy, a move designed to bolster his domestic strongman image, has only reinforced these fears. Even the Philippines, which under Duterte has moved much closer to China, recently reversed its decision to end a military pact with the US.

Desperate economic situation
Foreign policy is a continuation of domestic policy. That Xi’s regime is flexing its muscles from the Indian border to the South China Sea is a reflection of its insecurity in the face of the deepening global and domestic crisis.

China’s recent economic data is rather contradictory. The monthly data for May, which the NBS had intended to present at its cancelled Beijing press conference, shows a further rebound in industrial production, up 4.4 percent from a year earlier, and within this a 5.2 percent increase in manufacturing output. But while these figures suggest China’s industry is “recovering,” the bigger question is where will it sell its goods?

“Supply is significantly exceeding demand,” stated Larry Hu Weijun, chief China economic expert at the Macquarie Group (Australia). The problem is underscored by May’s retail sales figures showing a fall of 2.8 percent. This follows contractions of 7.5 percent in April and 15.8 percent in March. If the capitalists cannot sell their goods due to depressed demand at home and in overseas markets, then they won’t invest in increased production no matter what tax incentives and credit easing measures are offered. For the first five months of 2020 investment in the manufacturing sector declined by 14.8 percent. It is hard to envisage a worse performance in the “world’s factory.”

At the National People’s Congress in May, Beijing shifted its focus from chasing a GDP target to employment: staunching the collapse of the job market. Some regime economists still believe the economy can achieve 2-3 percent growth in 2020, while the IMF in April forecast only 1.2 percent.

China’s official unemployment figure is 6 percent, but few believe this. Even based on this low-end estimate, which only covers the urban (wealthier) half of the population, 26 million are currently unemployed. Yet less than one in ten (2.3 million) are receiving unemployment assistance, with the average per capita payout just 1,350 yuan (US$190) per month based on Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security data for March.

While this is bad enough, the real picture is much worse. No official figures are provided for unemployment among China’s 290 million migrant workers (classified as “rural” under hukourules), who make up 36 percent of the workforce. In March, as the lockdowns and travel bans were being lifted, only 129 million—less than half—of these workers had returned to employment.

By April, according to the National Statistics Bureau, the number of migrant workers who had returned to their cities of employment was at 90 percent of levels in previous years, indicating that almost 30 million had still not returned. Independent studies indicate a much lower return to work.

“In late April, only about half of those rural workers who were working last year were [still] working,” said Scott Rozelle, an economist who led a study by researchers at Stanford University and Renmin University in Beijing based on samples with nearly 700,000 villagers from seven Chinese provinces. The crisis has “so dramatically reduced migrant workers’ incomes that most have been forced to buy less food,” this study found. (NPR, June 8)

In many cases, migrants found the new jobs awaiting them in the industrial provinces were on lower pay than before the pandemic, with wage reductions of around 50 percent reported from the Pearl River Delta. Factories could only offer a standard workweek without overtime, but migrants have never been able to survive on their basic pay without long hours of overtime.

Some unofficial but credible estimates say that China’s real unemployment rate could now be around 20 percent, with up to 80 million migrants unable to find jobs and returning to their villages because the wages offered do not support life in the cities where costs are high.

Still poor
In May, at the press conference that always follows the annual NPC session, Premier Li Keqiang dropped a political bombshell. He remarked that China has 600 million people (43 percent of its population) with a monthly income not more than 1,000 yuan (US$140).

“It’s not even enough to rent a room in a medium Chinese city,” the Premier said, shocking many listeners whose perception was that such extreme hardship no longer exists in China, not on such a colossal scale. Li’s moment of honesty demolished at one stroke the CCP’s keynote propaganda claim that China will by next year become a “moderately prosperous society” (by doubling 2010 per capita GDP).

In the following days, Premier Li also gave his personal endorsement to the creation of a “stall economy” as a means to generate employment in the current crisis. Overnight, “stall economy” became a major trending topic on social media and there was even a buying boom for shares in companies linked to this idea. Li praised Chengdu’s city government for allegedly creating 100,000 jobs by opening facilities to support street vendors. It was reported that 27 other cities are promoting similar policies.

This changed dramatically, however, with the Beijing municipal government, which is factionally allied with Xi Jinping, denouncing the stall economy concept as “unhygienic and uncivilized.” This marked a sudden policy swing, and within days the “stall economy” policy was largely expurgated from official media.

Neither Li’s promotion of the “stall economy,” or the pushback seemingly coming from Xi’s camp, represent policies in the interests of the working class. Eking out a living by peddling on the streets is no alternative for real jobs and shuttered factories. But the campaign to block Li’s policy is not grounded in offering alternative support for the poor and jobless masses. It reflects the CCP’s elitist contempt, especially in major cities like Beijing, towards the “low-end population” who in many cases have been uprooted and driven out of these cities in mass expulsion campaigns over recent years. The CCP’s urbanization strategy increasingly resembles segregation and a form of Chinese apartheid to reserve the major cities for “civilized” sections of the population.

Power struggle
At the same time this policy dispute reflects a more fundamental process: the reopening of the fierce power struggle within the CCP which we were told belonged to the past. With Xi succeeding in abolishing presidential term limits in a 2018 constitutional change, he had allegedly fully consolidated his hold on the regime and was moving unchallenged towards a third term in power. This no longer looks so certain.

Li Keqiang’s recent role, and sympathy for him among a section of the masses on the basis of a more “populist,” humble, and man-of-the-people image, suggests the band-aid that had been placed over the internal factional struggle has been ripped off. Not since Xi ascended to power has such a public and personalised conflict erupted within the regime—and this centred on its two most prominent figures.

The reaction from state-controlled media (under the CCP’s Propaganda Department, which is controlled by Xi Jinping’s camp) has been immediate and overwhelming, going far beyond clamping down on the “stall economy” issue. Speeches and articles by Li Keqiang are now being deleted or changed. The last time this happened to a Chinese Premier, formally the second-ranking official in the state hierarchy, was against Zhou Enlai during the Cultural Revolution (1966-76).

Li represents the tuan pai (so-called Young Communist League) faction within the CCP, which has been pushed back and driven from many of its positions during eight years of Xi Jinping rule. But Xi’s hardline power struggle tactics and increasingly serious policy setbacks at home and internationally, could see new factional combinations come to the fore, whether or not Premier Li is their standard bearer, to challenge Xi’s position in the next period.

For socialists, the shifting of tectonic plates within the Chinese regime is an important portent of the social and political upheavals that lay ahead. Revolution, as the saying goes, starts at the top. We do not place any confidence in any wing of the thoroughly bourgeois, thoroughly authoritarian CCP apparatus. We stand for independent working class struggle in China and globally around the program of socialism and a genuine working class government.


This story first appeared June 21 in


From our Daily Report:

Himalayan border conflicts escalate
CounterVortex, June 15, 2020

US-China brinkmanship over Taiwan
CounterVortex, June 13, 2020

Hongkongers defy police on Tiananmen anniversary
CounterVortex, June 4, 2020

Wuhan death toll massively under-counted?
CounterVortex, April 15, 2020

China: internal resistance to bio-police state
CounterVortex, Feb. 15, 2020

Xi proves: capitalism, totalitarianism no contradiction
CounterVortex, March 12, 2018

China: changing of the guard —amid same old repression
CounterVortex, Nov. 15, 2012

See also:

Disbarment, Suspension and Harassment
by Patrick Poon, Jurist
CounterVortex, May 2018

by Vincent Kolo,
CounterVortex, June 2017

China’s Third Plenum Signals New ‘Paramount Leader’
CounterVortex, November 2013

The Heavy Toll COVID-19 Takes on Undocumented Immigrants
by Allyssa M.G. Scheyer, Jurist
CounterVortex, April 2020


Reprinted by CounterVortex, June 23, 2020

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SHADOW WAR ON THE BORDERLANDS Sat, 09 May 2020 00:42:17 +0000 Joshua Collins reports for The New Humanitarian.]]> Guerrillas, Smugglers and Militarization on Colombia-Venezuela Frontier

by Joshua Collins, The New Humanitarian

Even against the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic, a war is being waged along the vast and porous Venezuela-Colombia border, across which people, narcotics, black-market gasoline, food, and medicine are smuggled, and where criminals and guerrillas find refuge.

The low-intensity conflict has been simmering for years, but border closures have had a habitof driving up the violence. In 2019, when the frontier was closed for three months on the Venezuelan side, violence, kidnappings, forced recruitment by armed groups, and disappearances of migrants fleeing Venezuela spiked.

On March 14, the more than 2,219 kilometer-long border was again closed, this time by the Colombian authorities as a measure to contain the spread of the coronavirus, and just as thousands of Venezuelan migrants tried to make their way home.

Several local people contacted independently by The New Humanitarian by telephone from May 1-4 described a string of recent killings on the trochas, the smuggling routes that criss-cross the border and where rival gangs fight for control.

Local press in the Colombian border city of Cúcuta, as well as Venezuelan officials, have also reported displaced residents fleeing borderland battles between armed groups in and around the town of Boca de Grita, just inside Venezuela.

The broader conflict involves an array of different armed criminal groups and paramilitaries, as well as government forces from both countries. It threatens residents on the frontier and migrants alike, not to mention Colombia’s increasingly shaky peace accord.

As criminal groups battle one another—and state forces—on either side of the border, territory can switch hands so fast that local residents often don’t know who is in charge, and fall victim to gangs that weren’t present only weeks before.

“It’s worse for residents when a region is contested than when it is controlled by one of these armed groups,” Gimena Sánchez-Garzoli, Andes director for the human rights group WOLA, explained. “It means even more chaos. Nobody knows what rules to follow and aggressive criminals commit violence to mark territory.”

One 49-year-old woman, who earns a living smuggling gasoline across the border from Venezuela to Colombia, was willing to talk to TNH, but asked that her real name not be used for fear of reprisal from armed groups.

“There was a fierce firefight [near Cúcuta] immediately after the border closure that left local paraco leaders dead,” she said, using the slang term for paramilitary gunmen. “Since then, I avoid the trochas near Cúcuta.”

The woman said she now sends her black-market wares north through an intermediary who crosses the border by canoe before continuing via trochas near the Colombian town of Puerto Santander, where things are calmer.

Reliable data on the recent activity of armed groups is non-existent on the Venezuelan side, and difficult even to obtain for Colombia as government reports and those of monitoring groups are only released annually. However, according to official police statistics, there were 2,795 homicides across Colombia during the first three months of 2020—an increase of almost 40 percent over the same period in 2019. Four out of five had links to narco-trafficking or armed groups.

Trapped on the border
In recent years, the Colombia-Venezuela borderlands, especially around the migration hub of Cúcuta, have witnessed a mass exodus of millions of Venezuelans fleeing their homeland amid the rapid disintegration of its once oil-rich economy.

Since mid-March, despite the border closure, the traffic has been more two-way as tens of thousands of Venezuelans have headed home from Colombia and other Latin American countries due to lockdown restrictions forcing hardship and drying up opportunities.

Nicola Rodríguez, an unreserved 24-year-old musician from Táchira, the Venezuelan province just across the frontier from Cúcuta, smiled constantly and made dark jokes about the reports of violence on the frontier.

He had returned to Cúcuta recently with his wife and children from the Colombian capital of Bogotá, where the lockdown measures had left him unemployed. “We want to return to Venezuela,” he told TNH. “I can no longer support my family in Colombia. But now, after travelling here with nothing, we find ourselves trapped.”

Venezuelan and Colombian officials have opened a “humanitarian corridor” between the two countries near Cúcuta, allowing roughly 200 crossings daily for people trapped on either side to repatriate.

But 40,000-50,000 people crossed daily before the closure at the seven official checkpoints and—although traffic has dropped due to both lockdown measures and severe gasoline shortages within Venezuela—the trochas remain very active. Those left without recourse to cross legally often find themselves preyed upon.

Rodríguez said he feared using the smuggling routes to cross with his young daughters, aged three and one. “Lately, the situation has been difficult,” he said. “Four people have been killed in the trochas since we arrived. We’re staying [In Cúcuta] for now until things calm down.”

Due to the quarantine measures, even imposed in Cúcuta, Rodríguez can no longer perform in the streets for food money. “I’m not sure what we’re going to eat tomorrow when the last of our food runs out,” he said, trying not to look worried.

Both the migrants leaving Venezuela and those seeking to return—members of either group may be unfamiliar with the region—can find themselves caught in the crossfire, robbed, or even forcibly recruited.

Human Rights Watch described the situation in Arauca, just south of Cúcuta, in a January report. “Armed groups use violence to control people’s daily lives,” it stated. “They impose their own rules, and to enforce compliance they threaten civilians… [T]hose who do not obey face punishments ranging from fines to forced labour to killings. Residents live in fear.”

Just before the frontier’s closure in March, eight bodies were discovered in Juan Frío, a border village near Cúcuta: a result of ongoing conflict between the National Liberation Army (ELN by their Spanish acronym), a leftist Colombian guerrilla group, and a narco gang known as the Rastrojos.

“This region has always been at war,” Juan Maldonado, a social worker in the nearby Colombian border town of La Parada, told TNH dismissively when asked about the gruesome discovery. “The people here barely even register a [massacre] like that. It only made the local news because they found the bodies on the Colombian side.”

Local officials and human rights groups say the number of killings has always been higher than official Colombian government statistics, as many people are afraid to report incidents for fear of reprisals.

On the eastern front of a war that never ended
Most armed groups operate in rural areas where there’s little state presence, and their territories stretch along the border all the way from Amazonia in the south to the northern peninsula of Guajira, which is heavily populated by indigenous groups.

“The Colombian conflict is incredibly complicated,” said Sánchez-Garzoli of WOLA. Most groups date back to the Colombian civil war, and “they are fighting for territory for smuggling, illegal mining, and cocaine production. Lately, the ELN has been trying to expand its territory.”

When the 50-year civil war officially ended with a controversial peace accord in 2016, the central leadership of the main guerrilla group, the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, agreed to lay down its weapons and join the political process.

But some FARC factions splintered off following the accord, becoming known as “the dissidents,” and the ELN, Colombia’s second largest guerrilla outfit, used the opportunity to expand into the power vacuum.

Right-wing paramilitary groups that had battled the ELN and the FARC—committing atrocities of their own—competed with the fracturing guerrilla groups for territory and resources. By the end of the civil war, all these groups used drug-trafficking to finance their operations, putting them at odds with narco-groups in Colombia too.

Decades of violence combined with a lack of official law enforcement and economic marginalization by successive Colombian governments has created large territories where the only law is the one imposed by the armed groups.

In 2018, according to a report by the public ombudsman’s office, armed groups were active in 178 municipalities and in 22 of the country’s 32 districts, with the ELN the most prominent. Right-wing “self-defense forces,” or paracos from the term “Colombian paramilitary”—followed in second place.

TNH conducted a survey of reports from various NGOs, independent think tanks, the Colombian media, and government studies, and found that since the peace accord was implemented in 2017, there have been credible reports of activity by armed groups in every one of Colombia’s 32 provinces or departments. And their presence appears to be growing.

The result is that the Venezuelan border—a hotspot for conflict throughout the civil war—has become even more dangerous.

“Armed groups use the border as a shield,” said Oney Bedoya, an international security consultant and Colombian army veteran. “When they are pursued by the military from one side, they merely cross to the other. And there are areas neither government will enter.”

Both the ELN and the FARC have held territory on the Venezuelan side of the border since the 1990s. Insight Crime, a non-profit that studies the impact of criminality on human rights, has reported that both FARC dissident groups and the ELN have expanded their territory in Venezuela considerably since the Colombian civil war officially ended.

A threatened peace accord
As part of the 2016 deal, the government promised to develop infrastructure in former rebel-controlled areas, but the process has been slow and Colombian President Iván Duque—who won the 2018 election partly on promises to dismantle aspects of the agreement—has slowed down its implementation even further through legislative tactics.

Since the election, Duque’s administration has continued its heavy-handed approach, as well as a controversial aerial coca fumigation program, even under national lockdown measures.

“The government isn’t living up to its [peace deal] promises,” Sánchez-Garzoli told TNH. “Their response isn’t to invest in conflict areas, but rather to deploy the military and focus on [coca] crop eradication. Government hardline tactics have only increased the presence and attacks of armed groups.”

But Sánchez-Garzoli said the blame isn’t completely on one side, stressing that the ELN has to listen to the communities it operates in and fulfill promises not to attack civilians. “Since the accord, the ELN has upped recruitment and expanded territory,” she said. “Vulnerable indigenous communities are among those threatened, and [the ELN] no longer respect[s] international accords.”

The ELN offered the government a unilateral month-long ceasefire due to the coronavirus crisis. The agreement expired April 30, but the group has since announced it will form “no attack plans, only defensive plans.” Even during the ceasefire, however, the ELN was fighting other armed groups, and it continues to be one of many actors threatening and assaulting local and indigenous communities.

The 2016 peace accord was strongly opposed by many in Colombia, failing a popular referendum by a razor-thin margin of less than one percent. Some here are still bitter over the decades of violence and a compromise they feel lets the guerrillas off too easily.

“No one is happy with a good deal,” Shauna Gillooly, a peacebuilding and conflict researcher for University of California-Irvine who is based in Colombia, told TNH. “Peace accords by nature are slow, messy processes. But the government needs to live up to its obligations. The only other choice is a return to war.”

Meanwhile, violence is increasing: a record 120 social activists were killed in 2019, drug production is at record levels, and armed groups are growing more powerful. Many Colombians who live in the main conflict zones have lost confidence in both the government’s ability and its will to address the problem.

Rodríguez, still trapped in Cúcuta due to the violence and coronavirus quarantine measures, wasn’t much concerned with the bigger picture. As he strummed his guitar, he just wanted the immediate consequences of the conflict to end.

“I have faith we will find a way to come out of this ahead,” he said, referring to his family’s situation. “I have faith. I have to have faith, because I have almost nothing else.”

Additional reporting from a Venezuelan journalist who asked to remain anonymous for security reasons.


Joshua Collins is a freelance journalist, based in Bogotá, focused on migration and violence

This story first appeared May 5 in The New Humanitarian.

Photo: Colombian police in the border town of La Parada block the Simón Bolívar International Bridge to Venezuela.
​Credit: Joshua Collina

From our Daily Report:

Colombia: ELN ends COVID-19 ceasefire
CounterVortex, May 4, 2020

Poor persecuted in COVID-19 police state (on plight of Venezuelan migrants)
CounterVortex, May 3, 2020

Colombia: UN protests slaying of rights activists
CounterVortex, Jan. 21, 2020

Who is behind Venezuela aid caravan?
CounterVortex, Feb. 12, 2019

Colombia to resume aerial spraying, join NATO
CounterVortex, July 7, 2018

See also:

Mega-Dam Project Now a Site of Heightened Conflict in Post-War Colombia
by Jeff Abbott, Toward Freedom
CounterVortex, December 2017

by Robin Llewellyn, Colombia Reports
World War 4 Report, November 2014

What the Boliviarian Revolution Owes the Yukpa and Bari
by Sybila Tabra and Jorge Agurto, Servindi
CounterVortex, March 2013

Far-Right Militias Survive ‘Peace Process’ and ‘Para-Politics’ Scandal
by Memo Montevino, World War 4 Report,
World War 4 Report, July 2007


Reprinted by CounterVortex, May 8, 2020

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WE ARE KILLING THEM Thu, 23 Apr 2020 21:14:41 +0000 Allyssa M.G. Scheyer writes for Jurist.]]> The Heavy Toll COVID-19 Takes on Undocumented Immigrants

by Allyssa M.G. Scheyer, Jurist

By now, the effects of COVID-19 on American life and society are widespread and deeply felt, almost regardless of one’s socioeconomic status. However, for undocumented immigrants in the United States, the COVID-19 crisis compounds issues that have existed for years, exposing immigrants to a barrage of political, social, and economic storm fronts that have disastrously collided at once. News outlets have reported on the real consequences of the near-national shutdown across the country. However, many recent news articles that cover the effects of COVID-19 on immigrants run the risk of understating the uniquely devastating effects that the virus has on undocumented immigrants and their families.

The COVID-19 Crisis is Adding Pressures to an Already Overburdened System

COVID-19 is creating additional chaos for immigrants in detention or who work frontline jobs. Over the past three and a half years, the Trump administration has increased its efforts to detain as many undocumented immigrants as possible, eschewing the Obama-era approach to targeting only those accused of violent crimes. Additionally, undocumented immigrants and low-income immigrants historically have worked in a variety of important jobs, ranging from field farmworker to retail clerk to registered nurse. These jobs, many of which now don the “essential” label that allows businesses to continue operating, disproportionately employ low-income and undocumented individuals, exposing them to COVID-19 on a daily basis.

Immigrants in Detention

Even before the COVID-19 crisis, advocates and lawmakers expressed grave concerns about the availability and adequacy of the healthcare provided in detention centers, which hold anywhere from 40-50,000 immigrants nationally. Though Immigration & Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Customs & Border Protection (CBP) generally delay or outright refuse to give responses to questions about healthcare and immigrant deaths in custody, in March, media sources were able to determine that 10 immigrants had died in ICE custody since October 2019, before the COVID-19 crisis even arrived in the United States.

Detention center conditions, including overcrowding and the lack of adequate healthcare, create a tinderbox scenario for detained immigrants, who often wait days or weeks, or even months, in small, packed cells. Detainees almost always share toilets, sleeping mats, clothing, and food amongst themselves, and sleep on bunkbeds no larger than eight by ten feet. Current ICE detention guidelines allow COVID-19 to spread rapidly throughout its detainees, at times literally preventing any type of recommenced social distancing measures. Civil confinement should never result in the death of the individual, yet in ICE detention centers, death via COVID-19 will inevitably arrive.

Overcrowding is not the only problem immigrants face in ICE detention; access to adequate healthcare in ICE detention is spotty at best. Survivors of ICE detention have revealed ICE’s cruel and inhumane practices—such as ignoring a pregnant woman’s pleas for help during birth, and failing to transport ailing immigrants to offsite hospitals in a timely manner. More recent experiences of detained immigrants, including an allegation that guards used pepper spray on detainees asking for masks to prevent the spread of COVID-19 at Otay Mesa Detention Center in California, are evidence that ICE detention centers care little about the health of its occupants. There are already over 200 detainees who have contracted COVID-19 at ICE facilities nationwide. This number is sure to increase as the virus spreads rapidly through crowded cells and common eating areas.

In ICE detention centers, overcrowding and poor quality of healthcare are not the only problems detained immigrants face. ICE and CBP are blatantly opaque agencies that refuse to give an inch when protecting the secrecy of agency practices and rules from legal advocates. Battles for even the smallest amounts of information related to detention center conditions are frequently fought between government attorneys and immigrant advocates, resulting in surreal arguments that stretch the imagination (see ICE trial attorney Sarah Fabian arguing that soap and blankets are not necessary for “safe and sanitary” detention conditions).

Congressional oversight of these agencies is insufficient—not because Congress members have no interest, but because ICE and CBP refuse to answer most questions posed to them. Senators, including recent presidential candidates Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and Kamala Harris, have sent multiple letters to ICE, asking for more information about their efforts to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and pleading for the release of many detained immigrants. These letters have not been answered by the Department of Homeland Security. Lawsuits inevitably illuminate some information regarding detention conditions, but this information is generally limited in scope, as judges hesitate to give outsiders access to documents that could undermine “national security.” The lack of transparency within ICE and CBP prevents advocates from ensuring that rights of undocumented immigrants are respected.

Immigrants Working on the Frontline of the COVID-19 Crisis

Detained immigrants are obviously vulnerable to the transmission of COVID-19 due to inadequate healthcare and extreme overcrowding. However, undocumented, un-detained immigrants are also uniquely vulnerable to the effects of the COVID-19 crisis. One estimate places about six million undocumented workers at the frontlines of the crisis, acting as farm employees, grocery store clerks, and delivery truck drivers, and more. These workers, deemed “essential” in many cases, work long hours and are in contact with many other individuals often unable to implement the recommended social distancing practices. Undocumented frontline workers have so far received no financial support from the federal government. Some states, such as California, have created special funds dedicated to supporting undocumented immigrants during the COVID-19 crisis, but most states have not. Undocumented workers, like other low-income workers across the United States, must weigh the possibility of COVID-19 transmission against empty refrigerators and mounting utility bills every single day.

Protections for low-income frontline workers are minimal at best, and are often absent in places where personal protective equipment (PPE) is most needed. Undocumented immigrants are less likely to have access to healthcare benefits and social safety nets than other low-income Americans, and are more likely to work in sectors where furloughs and layoffs have occurred at exponential rates. Whether Americans realize it or not, labor from undocumented immigrants supports nearly all sectors of modern life. Failing to protect these frontline workers from COVID-19 and its economic repercussions will have devastating effects across the nation.

The Consequences of COVID-19 Will Be Deadly for Many Immigrants

People across the United States are dying from COVID-19 at a rapid rate, despite steps taken to mitigate the spread of the virus. However, undocumented immigrants (approximately 11 million strong) remain uniquely vulnerable to COVID-19 transmission. We continue to hold people, the majority of whom have never convicted of a crime, in overcrowded civil detention in a time where crowds almost certainly mean illness and death. Due process rights are seemingly falling by the wayside when detained immigrants need them most, another casualty of COVID-19. Immigrants who have the ability to pay bond, and leave overcrowded detention cells behind, are unable to have hearings when judges close courtrooms. Bond hearings are abruptly canceled or indefinitely postponed, because immigration judges refuse to endanger themselves and court staff by holding proceedings in confined courtrooms. Detainees are so desperate for any semblance of protection from COVID-19 that some have begun hunger strikes to protest the inhumane, dangerous conditions inside detention centers.

Social safety nets, ranging from existing Medicare programs to newer COVID-19-specific relief, is often unavailable to undocumented immigrants, leaving this vulnerable population even more at risk of economic disaster than other low-income groups. Despite widespread government and community criticism, many employers of frontline laborers continue to fail to provide PPE, or even hand soap on site. Undocumented immigrants fear COVID-19, but also ICE and CBP, who are certainly not slowing their operations to track and apprehend undocumented immigrants during this crisis. Some undocumented immigrants describe an intense fear of seeking healthcare for COVID-19, noting that ICE has detained immigrants at doctors’ offices and emergency rooms around the country. Congressional calls for the rapid, widescale release of immigrants from detention centers have been largely ignored, although in recent days, reports of limited releases from detention centers have begun to surface.

It is certainly, then, possible to release immigrants from detention. It is also morally and ethically imperative to release individuals accused of civil violations from the overcrowded detention centers where COVID-19 outbreaks will certainly erupt. It is only a matter of time, and a short one at that, until ICE reluctantly admits that detained immigrants have died from COVID-19. Individual lawsuits that result in the release of handfuls of immigrants at a time are a piecemeal solution that will save few lives. The exact number of immigrants who died preventable deaths from COVID-19 in ICE custody will likely be exponential unless immediate action is taken to release detainees.


Allyssa M.G. Scheyer is a third-year law student at the University of California, Irvine School of Law, and a graduate of Occidental College. She is a future immigration attorney.

This story first appeared April 22 on Jurist.

Photo: Homeland Security’s Otay Mesa Detention Center, San Diego.
Credit: BBC World Service via Flickr

From our Daily Report:

Demand detainee release amid COVID-19 outbreak
CounterVortex, March 25, 2020

ICE detainees in Newark on hunger strike
CounterVortex, March 19, 2020

See also:

by Nava Thakuria, CounterVortex
CounterVortex, April 2020

Africans Caught in US-Mexico Migration Limbo
by Melisa Valenzuela, The New Humanitarian
CounterVortex, October 2019

by Kristy Siegfried, IRIN
CounterVortex, November 2016


Reprinted by CounterVortex, April 23, 2020

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CAN NEWSPAPERS SURVIVE COVID-19? Sun, 12 Apr 2020 23:32:16 +0000 Nava Thakuria reports from Guwahati, northeast India.]]> by Nava Thakuria, CounterVortex

As an unprecedented lockdown imposed in response to the COVID-19 pandemic continues across India, the country’s newspaper groups face an uphill battle to maintain their devoted readership. The complete shutdown, to last at least through April 14, instantly prevented deliveries of morning papers to readers’ doorsteps, and rumors spread that a paper itself could carry the novel coronavirus. Many publishers have been forced to drastically reduce their circulation figure.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced the lockdown in a televised address to the billion-plus nation on March 24. The death toll from COVID-19 in India now stands at 275.

For newspapers, the first impacts were felt in Mumbai where the vendors refused to work because of COVID-19 menace. Management of all the city’s print media houses resolved to suspend publication after a meeting with leaders of the Brihanmumbai Vruttapatra Vikreta Sangh (BVVS), the newspaper vendors’ union. The decision was shortly followed by publishers in Bangalore, Hyderabad, Bhopal, Thane, Pune, Nagpur and other cities.

However, management of The Times of India, The Indian Express, The Hindu, Hindustan Times, Mid-Day, and other newspapers have made it clear that even though no physical editions would hit the stands, content would continue to be available on the internet.

Many media houses started sharing the PDF version of the complete newspaper free of cost.

Magazines have also been hit. Acclaimed news magazine Outlook, Hindu-nationalist mouthpiece Organiser, sports magazine Sportstar, Karnataka’s weekly Taranga, Assam’s popular magazine Prantik, and others have suspended their print editions. Most of them vowed to continue their digital versions for the readers. The voice of ethnic Indians in the USA, Gopal Raju’s 50-year-old weekly India Abroad, also faced the same fate on March 29.

The closures have especially hit Guwahati, Imphal, Agartala and Aizawl in northeast India. The region with a population of over 60 million supports over 50 morning dailies in different languages including Assamese, Bengali, Boro, Meitei, Karbi, Khasi, Mizo, Nagamese and Nepali, as well as English and Hindi.

A few viral posts on social media identifying newspapers as a potential coronavirus carrier created panic for hundreds of newspaper agents and hawkers, along with other media employees. Residents collectively prevented the vendors from delivering newspapers in some localities.

The World Health Organization (WHO) in its Q&A page on COVID-19, however, states: “The likelihood of an infected person contaminating commercial goods is low and the risk of catching the virus that causes COVID-19 from a package that has been moved, travelled, and exposed to different conditions and temperature is also low.” This text is quoted on the website of the New York Times, which continues to publish a print edition.

Nonetheless, the fear is taking a toll on newspapers worldwide. From Sylhet in Bangladesh to Colombo in Sri Lanka, from Rabat to Rome to American cities like Pittsburgh and Seattle, daily and weekly newspapers have announced the temporary suspension of print editions.

India, the largest democracy in the world, today supports over 82,000 registered newspapers with a cumulative daily circulation of 11 crores (110 million), estimated to be a Rs 32,000 crore (US$5 billion) industry. As India has been improving its literacy rate, now estimated at 75%, more citizens develop the capacity and resources to access newspapers and digital platforms. As more middle-class Indian families start using the internet, advertisement revenues for traditional media have slowly shifted to digital platforms. This shift is of course now dramatically accelerating.

However, internet access has now been harshly limited in Jammu & Kashmir for eight months in response to the political crisis there—the longest such shut-down on the planet.

It also need not to be reminded that a newspaper in India is sold in the market at a lower price than its actual cost. The deficit is made up by commercial advertisers. Moreover, traditional advertisers from sectors like the automobile industry, construction, home appliances, private education, travel, hospitality, etc. have themselves faced the shutdown and consequent restriction on their resources.

Newspapers may have to significantly depend on government advertisements in the post-corona period. This situation has clear political implications, and is particularly alarming for regional newspapers like those published from Guwahati, Imphal, Agartala and Aizawl, which may not be seen as a priority by the central government.

A host of media houses in India’s northeast—including Asomiya Pratidin, The Assam Tribune, Dainik Janambhumi, Niyomiya Barta, Dainik Asom, Amar Asom, Purvanchal Prahari, Sadin, The North East Times, The Meghalaya Guardian and others—have issued a collective statement stressing that there is no scientific proof for newspapers carrying the coronavirus to readers.

The world will eventually return to some kind of normality after the ravages of COVID-19 pass. But whether newspapers, and especially regional ones in places like northeast India, will be able to revive in the post-corona era is an open and difficult question.


Nava Thakuria is a wirter and media activist based in Guwahati, northeast India.

A different version of this story appears in Indian Printer & Publisher.

Photo by the author.

See also:

by Nava Thakuria, CounterVortex
CounterVortex, December 2019

by L. Ali Khan, Jurist
CounterVortex, August 2019

by Bill Weinberg
CounterVortex, February 2015


Special to CounterVortex, April  12, 2020
Reprinting permissible with attribution

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STALIN’S CAUCASUS CRIMES Mon, 24 Feb 2020 04:59:23 +0000 James Oliver explores for Euromaidan Press.]]> That Putin Wants You to Forget

by James Oliver, Euromaidan Press

On February 23, the Chechen and Ingush peoples of Russia’s North Caucasus commemorated a tragedy in their history—the start of the Soviet deportation in 1944. Initiated by Stalin and supervised by his intelligence chief Lavrentiy Beria, it was carried out by a force of approximately 120,000 NKVD officers that would round up and expel 478,479 people. Today, Vladimir Putin is trying to suppress this history.

Exploring the Caucasus is akin to exploring a mini-continent with its many diverse ethnic groups and cultures all contained within a small geographic region. Here the historical forces of East, North and South collide.

To the Northeast we have Kalmykia, the only majority Buddhist region in the whole of Europe. Like the Tatars, the Kalmyks were swept along from their far-east homeland to their present-day location by the might of Genghis Khan and the Mongolian Empire. To the Northwest we have the Kuban. Formerly a majority Ukrainian area, the Kuban region has since been thoroughly Russified, its Ukrainian identity practically all but stamped out. Much of this is the result of the Holodomor as well as the policies of the Kremlin since. To the South we have Georgia, the birthplace of Stalin himself. According to one survey in 2013, half of all Georgians still possess “a positive attitude towards Stalin.” However, if you believe this BBC report, younger generations of Georgians are not as enthusiastic about the tyrant as their parents and grandparents. Surveys also show that the vast majority of Georgians want to join NATO and the EU, not surprising given what Putin did to Georgia in 2008.

North of Georgia we have the Russian-controlled Caucasus, home to many ethnic groups, including the Chechens, the Ingush, the Balkars, the Circassians. It is here that the legacy of Stalin’s policies loom large still today.

The Caucasus were one of the main focal points of the clashes between the Russian Empire and its great rival, the Ottoman Empire. The result was a cultural legacy of Islam among the aforementioned ethnic groups as well a continuing cultural sense of unease. Token resistance to the Russian annexations of the North Caucasus areas previously controlled by the Ottomans resulted in the Circassian genocide of 1854-56. General Nikolai Evdokimov, who led the Russian forces that conducted the genocide, described his actions as “ochishchenie.” This was perhaps the first instance where the term “cleansing” was used as a euphemism for genocide. In this genocide, an estimated 600,000 people succumbed to shooting, starvation and forced emigration—three quarters of the Circassian population. Under Stalin, things would not be any better for the peoples of the North Caucasus.

Between 1942-44 the North Caucasus once again played host to a clash of two empires—Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. What attracted the Germans to this part of the world was the allure of oil. Ninety percent of the oil supply for the Soviet Union came from the Caucasus, significantly Azerbaijan, whose capture would severely choke the Soviet war effort. Hitler considered the Caucasus to be of such high priority that he told his generals on June 1, 1942, “If I do not get the oil of Maikop and Grozny, then I must end this war.” Although in the end he failed to capture Grozny, the Chechen capital, he continued the war. The reason for his failure is often attributed to Hitler splitting his forces in the name of capturing a city on a map he had noticed by chance. That city was called “Stalingrad.”

Other than the distraction of Stalingrad, the plans for capturing the Caucasus entailed a deep thrust to Grozny, which needed local collaborators. To this end, the Nazis printed numerous propaganda posters for a hearts-and-minds campaign waged to try and convince locals to join.

Simultaneously but unrelated to the German advance into Russia, an anti-communist insurgency erupted across the Chechen-Ingush Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic. To be sure, the Germans would come to learn about it, and try to convince the Chechen rebels to join their side, but to little effect. But, as we have seen before, to Stalin the details mattered little; bogus pretexts for targeting entire ethnic groups, however, did. And to Lavrentiy Beria, the man who would personally oversee the punishing of the Chechen and Ingush peoples, they were all tantamount to “German saboteurs.”

This, together with their “anti-communism,” formed the pretextual basis for their deportation, which began on February 23, 1944. Beria and his NKVD officers rounded up and expelled 478,479 people from their homes and sent them to Kazakhstan and the Asiatic steppes. “Because no Chechens or Ingush were to be left behind, people who could not be moved were shot. Villages were burned to the ground everywhere; in some places, barns full of people were burned as well,” wrote historian Timothy Snyder.

This pretext was a recurring theme in Stalin’s deportations. On December 28, 1943, Supreme Soviet Presidium chairman Mikhail Kalinin signed a decree ordering wholesale deportation of the Kalmyks, another North Caucasus people, based on the assumption that “many Kalmyks [had] betrayed their Motherland” by assisting the Germans. Between 1943 and 1944 more than 120,000 Kalmyks were to be forced out of their homes. When the Soviets came to deport the Crimean Tatars in May 1944, they again used the same pretext, and expelled 200,000 Tatars.

Despite claims that USSR embraced “internationalism,” in reality nationality and ethnicity always mattered. It didn’t matter that many Kalmyks, Tatars or Chechens had fought in the Red Army too. In the words of historian Simon Sebag-Montefiore, Stalin “certainly carried all the traditional Georgian prejudices against the Muslim peoples of the Caucasus whom he was to deport.” And that’s not only true for the peoples of the Caucasus. Throughout his reign as ruler of the USSR, Stalin absorbed Russian nationalism, and by doing so absorbed all the traditional hatreds and prejudices against other peoples that went along with it.


The deportation of the Chechen and Ingush peoples was part of Stalin’s great deportation plan of ethnic minorities in the USSR:

900,000 Soviet Germans, 89,000 Finns deported in 1941 & 1942
69,267 Karachais deported to Central Asia 19 Nov 1943
91,919 Kalmyks deported to Siberia 28–29 Dec 1943
478,479 Chechen and Ingush peoples deported to Siberia on 23 Feb 1944
37,107 Balkars deported to Kazakstan on 8–9 Mar 1944
180,014 Crimean Tatars deported to Uzbekistan on 18–20 Mar 1944
91,095 Meshketian Turks deported from Soviet Georgia later in 1944
(Figures via Timothy Snyder).

These crimes against humanity form yet another stain against the former USSR and its predecessor, the Tsarist Russian Empire—both of which today’s Russian leader Vladimir Putin expressly admires. Against this background, it is unsurprising, then, that Putin has continued the legacy of repressive measures regarding any attempt at commemorating these historic events. This was evident in 2014, when Crimean Tatars were not allowed to mark the 70th Anniversary of the 1944 deportations. It was also evident when Putin banned a motion picture about the Chechen deportations on the grounds it was “historically false.”

It is precisely for these reasons, that the stories of Russia’s ethnic deportations are worth telling.


This story first appeared Feb. 26, 2015 on Euromaidan Press.

From our Daily Report:

Russia upholds Chechen-Ingush border agreement
CounterVortex, Dec. 16, 2018

Eid terror in Ingushetia (with background on North Caucasus deportations)
CounterVortex, Aug. 20, 2012

Circassians call for boycott of Sochi Olympics
CounterVortex, Feb. 1, 2014

Exiled Crimean Tatar TV threatened with silence
CounterVortex, Jan. 26, 2020

See also:

by Terry Burke
CounterVortex, June 2019

The View from the East Village
by Bill Weinberg, The Villager
CounterVortex, September 2016

The Chechnya War and the Right Not to Kill
from War Resisters International
CounterVortex, February 2007

Stalin’s Shadow Looms Over Trans-Caucasus Pipeline
by Rene Wadlow
CounterVortex, February 2007


Reprinted by CounterVortex, Feb, 23, 2020

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SQUAT CALABRIA Mon, 30 Dec 2019 02:37:36 +0000 Bill Weinberg offers a first-hand account for the Brooklyn Rail.]]> by Bill Weinberg, The Brooklyn Rail

The abandoned Hotel Centrale in downtown Cosenza, Italy, is a relic of ghastly 1970s-style retro-futuristic architecture, starkly at odds with the stately if decrepit medieval buildings of the city’s historic center, which begins just a few blocks away. But the Centrale has clearly been reclaimed by oppositional cultural forces.

The flag of Syria’s revolutionary Kurds flies from the roof. A multiculti congregation of scruffy youth hang out in the lobby—some Italian kids with dyed hair and a punk aesthetic, some young migrants from Africa and the Middle East. A hand-scrawled sign at the entrance reads “Hotel Centrale Occupato”—with the O in occupato slashed with a lightning bolt, making the squatter symbol. Below, it reads, “Mangia, riposa… e lotta!” Eat, rest… and fight!

The Centrale is one of six buildings in the provincial city that are under occupation by the local squatter network, Prendocasa Cosenza—literally, Taking House Cosenza. The group began reclaiming abandoned properties around Cosenza in 2011, especially opening housing for the migrants and refugees that began entering Italy and Europe in large numbers around this time. In addition to the Centrale, still technically under private ownership, two of the properties are owned by the Catholic church and the remaining three by either the municipal government or the regional government of Calabria—in the extreme south of Italy’s mainland, the proverbial toe of the boot, a traditionally marginalized part of the country.

Some 300 people are living in these reclaimed properties, and only one squat has been evicted by the police since the movement was launched. The municipal and regional governments tolerate the squatters, and the municipality is actually paying the church for use of its buildings by the migrants and their activist allies.

It remains to be seen how long this arrangement will last, given the recent political changes in Italy. The country’s far-right interior minister (and de facto ruler) Matteo Salvini was just removed from power in September as his coalition fractured and a new government was formed. But last November, he pushed through his draconian Decreto Salvini—explicitly aimed at two broadly overlapping groups: immigrants and squatters. In addition to restricting the rights of migrants and refugees to asylum and government aid, it imposes a five-year prison term for squatting.

The first squat eviction under the law sparked street-fighting in Turin, up at the other end of the country, in February. The squatters of Cosenza are waiting uneasily to see if Salvini’s fall will be a reprieve for them.


Pride in ‘Meticcia’
Across some overgrown train tracks from the Hotel Centrale is the Rialzo social center, in a squatted abandoned rail station. It was established in 2007 as a centro politico occupato autogestito (self-managed occupied political center, or CPOA), and brings together cultures of the many lands now disgorging their disenfranchised and usurped to Italy and Europe.

Rialzo mosque

A part of the Rialzo has been established as a makeshift mosque for migrants from Muslim lands—the only mosque in Cosenza. In the spring, Rialzo hosted a Nowruz celebration in solidarity with the rebel Kurds of Syria’s Rojava region. On the night I attended a squatter soirée there, a class in traditional West African drumming and dance was being led by a young teacher from Ivory Coast.


Some of the young Calabrese squatters at Rialzo recalled Salvini’s past as leader of the Northern League, who rose to prominence in the ‘90s by stigmatizing Italy’s South as an economic drain. The Northern League actually sought secession from Italy for the industrialized Po Valley. Having dropped its separatist pretensions and now renamed simply the League in a bid for national power, it today demonizes immigrants rather than Southerners. Prima gli Italiani—Italians First—was Salvini’s new slogan.

cozenza meticcia

But the kids at Rialzo have not forgotten his (recent) past. “Salvini is racist against African people but also racist against people from the South,” a young squatter named Roberto tells me. He points to a door painted brightly with the words “Cosenza Meticcia”—mixed, akin to the Spanish word mestizo. “Calabria is multicultural,” he says. “So many peoples passed through over the centuries—Greeks, Romans, Saracens [Arabs], Normans, Spanish, Arbresh [Albanians].” Going back to ancient times, he recalls that the Bruzzi or Bruttians, the local Italic tribe, resisted Rome. “We in Cosenza inherited that mentality,” he says wryly.

Rialzo mural

Battling the bureaucracy of detention
One of the murals at Rialzo depicts the local protests against the CIE—the Center for Identification and Expulsion, a prison-like camp for intercepted undocumented migrants, across the mountains to the west in the coastal city of Lamezia. It was closed in 2006 after a four-year protest campaign. A second CIE in Calabria, at Crotone, across the mountains to the east on the Ionian coast, was closed after an uprising at the camp in 2013. But there are still 10 such camps around Italy—including three in Sicily. They have recently been renamed CPRs, or Centers of Detention for Repatriation. The detained can be held at the CPRs for up to 18 months, usually followed by forced deportation.

The Italian government maintains a bureaucratic alphabet soup of agencies for every stage of processing migrants. Those deemed to have a credible case for asylum are held in a Reception Center for Asylum Seekers, or CARA. Once an asylum bid is filed and pending, the detainees are transferred to an Extraordinary Reception Center, or CAS. There are several of both in Calabria and Sicily. Those cleared as legitimate asylum applicants are released to the Protection System for Applicants, or SPRAR, with local branches often overseen by nonprofits. Those in the SPRAR system have freedom of movement and can apply for citizenship after five years.

A registered SPRAR facility in Cosenza is the Kasbah, which began as a community center in an occupied empty school building in 2001. It entered the SPRAR system in 2005, under contract to the Cosenza municipal government, with Interior Ministry oversight. The Kasbah’s Emilia Corea says the center has processed hundreds of asylum applicants, helping them to find housing and providing them with counseling and other aid. Most passed through Libya, a key transit point for migrants.

Corea works with the Kasbah’s multidisciplinary team for torture victims. “The big majority of those who were detained in Libya experienced torture, and that usually means sexual violence as well,” she says. “And they were already fleeing violence in their home countries. In Libya, human beings are business and are tortured for extortion,” Corea relates. “If they have no money, they are forced to work or sold.”

Many of those who have passed through the Kasbah were from Syria or Afghanistan, as well as conflicted or repressive African countries, such as Nigeria, Ethiopia and Eritrea.

And Corea says many of these people have been further traumatized in detention in Italy. Even at the CARA and CAS facilities, which are nowhere near as harsh as the CPRs, asylum seekers live in container housing within compounds heavily policed by the Carabinieri. “It’s very hard for someone who has been tortured by soldiers, coming from war-torn countries, and then experienced more violence in transit,” she says.

Worse, this system for aiding asylum seekers is to be phased out under the Salvini Decree. After the law took effect, several families were expelled onto the street from the CARA facility in Crotone—with winter approaching. “Subsidiary protection” and “humanitarian protection”—EU-recognized status afforded those who do not meet the criteria of refugee, but still have credible fear for their safety if deported to their homelands—are also to be phased out by the Salvini Decree. And under the new law, refugee status can be revoked for any crime.

Other means of legal immigration have been closing. Under the 2002 Bossi-Fini law, immigrants from outside the EU can enter only with an employment contract arranged through their embassies. Later, the Decreto Flussi (Flow Decree) imposed strict quotas on how many can enter from each country, of the kind that were imposed in the United States by the 1924 immigration law, and overturned in 1965 as a racist embarrassment.

The Interior Ministry officially provides each individual in the asylum system some 35 euros a day—but only some three euros go directly to them as pocket money. The rest goes to pay for provisioning and administration of the facility where they are being held. And Corea believes much of that is siphoned off into corruption networks. “The ‘Ndrangheta operates at every level of society,” she says, referring to Calabria’s notorious crime machine.

Nonetheless, Salvini and the right-wing press portray the asylum-seekers as an economic drain, and competitors for jobs. “Unemployment is a problem,” Corea says. “But it’s not migrants who are responsible for this, but politicians. The propaganda of the media is used to create a racist climate against migrants.”

Hotel occupato

From Ghana to Libya to Calabria
Translating for me in my interviews with the Prendo Casa folks is Omar Hossin, a clean-cut, reserved young man from Ghana with a pending asylum claim, now living at the Villa Savoia, one of the government buildings in Cosenza under squatter occupation. Hossin’s harrowing story, related without emotion as we hang out on the Corso Mazzini, the city’s pedestrian mall, is probably all too typical.

Ghana is seen as one of the more stable countries of West Africa, but even here there are numerous agrarian conflicts that win virtually no outside media coverage. Hossin relates that in 2013, when he was 16 years old, his father was killed on the orders of what he calls a local “king.” He is circumspect on the details, but apparently a land dispute was involved. There may have also been an ethnic dimension, as Hossin is of the Kotokoli people while the king (or traditional chieftain) was Ashanti—although he is not, he makes clear, speaking of the overall king of the Ashanti people in Ghana, Otumfuo Nana Osei Tutu II, but some lesser figure.

In any event, Hossin was sure that he was next and that he had to flee. “I felt they could find me anywhere in Ghana, and I had to get out of the country,” he says. He had saved some money working as a motorcycle mechanic, and made arrangements to cross the Sahara with people-smugglers, headed for Libya, where he was told he could find work. Ten days after leaving Ghana, he arrived in Tripoli, passing through the desert as a virtual captive of the armed smugglers.

Hossin found construction work in Tripoli, and lived in an unfinished building, allowed to stay in exchange for his labor. But the sound of gunfire often kept him awake at night. This was one of the periods when rival militias were fighting for control of the city. “I was running for my life in Ghana and now there was fighting again,” he says.

In July 2014, he decided to cross the Mediterranean, getting on an overcrowded boat with a group of fellow migrants and refugees—three-days passage in an uncovered outboard-motor craft not designed for the open sea. On the third day, things started to look bad. “The boat was about to sink, the motor was getting tired,” Hossin recalls.

They were rescued by the Italian navy and taken to Licata, Sicily, where they were given showers and medical attention at a reception center, presumably one of the CARA facilities since closed under the Salvini Decree. “I was happy to be there with no loss of life,” Hossin says.

After being screened, he was put on a chartered flight to Rome, where he was held in a camp, presumably a CAS. There were seven to a room, among some 30 at the facility. There were Italian classes, and during the day he had freedom of movement around the city. With the €2.50 daily pocket money he was given (sometimes delayed for weeks), he saved up enough to get a phone. On social media, he made a friend in Cosenza. He relocated there after his release from the camp in 2015.

With his asylum claim pending, he has been given a UN-issued passport. If his claim is accepted, he’ll be able to apply for Italian citizenship in five years, based on his employment prospects. Meanwhile, he has been working on local farms, doing housework, and squatting at the Villa Savoia in a room with a gas stove but no heat or hot water.

Squatting technically puts him afoul of the Salvini Decree, which could theoretically forfeit his asylum claim. Still, he is accepting of his circumstances. “It’s better than my time in Libya,” he says. “I’m not afraid someone will kill me.” He is sporadically in touch by phone with his mother, who is in hiding in Ghana.

prendocasa cosenza

Meet the New Boss?
Emilia Corea is only guardedly optimistic about the new regime in Italy, which brings together Salvini’s former coalition partners, the fuzzy populists of the Five Star Movement, with the center-left Democratic Party. “Salvini is no longer the interior minister, and this is the only good news,” she says. “The party that has ruled Italy with him until a month ago is still there. And more, it is going to rule the country with a party that in the past caused serious problems for people.”

She recalls that it was the Democratic Party’s Marco Minniti, as interior minister in 2017, who began the crackdown on NGOs operating vessels to save migrants imperiled on the Mediterranean crossing—a policy later pursued more aggressively by Salvini. It was also under the Democratic Party government that year that Italy began aiding the Libyan coast guard to intercept migrant boats, leading to a big drop in the number able to flee North Africa for Italian shores—from 180,000 in 2016 to just 23,000 last year. This policy was protested by Amnesty International as making Italy and its EU partners in the program “complicit” in the horrific abuses migrants face in Libya.

Corea sees a historical irony in the anti-immigrant atmosphere, which will clearly survive Salvini. “People don’t understand that in the past Italians were in the same position as migrants today,” she says. “100,000 Italians came to America because they could not live in Italy. They were subject in America to the same racist attitudes that migrants now face in Italy. But they have forgotten everything.”


Bill Weinberg is an award-winning 30-year veteran journalist in the fields of human rights, indigenous peoples, drug policy, ecology and war. He is the author of Homage to Chiapas: The New Indigenous Struggles in Mexico (Verso, 2002), among other books. He is currently at work on a sequel about indigenous struggles in the Andean nations. He blogs daily on global politics from an anarchist perspective at

This story first appeared in the November 2019 edition of The Brooklyn Rail.

Photos by the author.


The EU’s Complicity in Migrant Abuse in Libya
Amnesty International, Dec. 18, 2017

La Kasbah

Prendocasa Cosenza

From our Daily Report:

Calabrian connection in Brazil narco busts
CounterVortex, Sept. 18, 2019

Amnesty: EU complicit in violence against refugees
CounterVortex, March 18, 2019

UN tells migrants to leave Libya ‘transit center’
CounterVortex, Dec. 13, 2019

Libya: Europe ‘complicit’ in horrific abuses
CounterVortex, Dec. 13, 2017

Libya slave trade becomes political football
CounterVortex, Dec. 7, 2017

Libya: Black African migrants face ‘slave markets’
CounterVortex, April 17, 2017

Ghana: four killed in chieftaincy succession dispute
CounterVortex, Nov. 3, 2007

See also:

by Bill Weinberg, Fifth Estate/The Villager
CounterVortex, September 2019

Africans Caught in US-Mexico Migration Limbo
by Melisa Valenzuela, The New Humanitarian
CounterVortex, October 2019

Please Don’t Call Us Terrorists
by Belal Younis, Middle East Eye
CounterVortex, May 2017


Reprinted by CounterVortex, Dec, 29, 2019

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INDIA 2019 JOURNO-MURDER INDEX Fri, 20 Dec 2019 09:35:37 +0000 Nava Thakuria reports from Guwahati, in India's strife-torn northeast.]]> by Nava Thakuria, CounterVortex

As the year 2019 is approaching the finish line, India appears to have improved its journalist murder index—with authorities counting only two slain in circumstances directly related to their work this year. Reporters Without Borders counts nearly 50 journalists killed for their work to date this year (compared to 95 in 2018), and India’s share has also gone down considerably—from six last year. Moreover, none of its neighbors except Pakistan and Afghanistan—that is, Bangladesh, Nepal, Myanmar (Burma), Sri Lanka, Maldives, Tibet (under China) and Bhutan—have reported any incident of a scribe’s murder this year. Pakistan and Afghanistan topped the list of journo-murders in South Asia, with each country losing five journalists to assailants in 2019.

The two murders confirmed as being related to journalism in Inida were of Andhra Pradesh-based reporter K. Satyanarayana and Madhya Pradesh-based Chakresh Jain. Young reporter Satyanarayana, who worked for Telugu daily Andhra Jyothy, was hacked to death by assailants at Annavaram village in East Godavari district on the night of October 15. Local accounts reported that Satyanarayana was attacked on an earlier occasion too, and had informed to the police. Jain, a independent freelancer, died of serious burn injuries following a quarrel with the assailant at Shahgarh locality on June 19.

However, in several other cases it is yet to be confirmed that the victims were targeted for media activities. Others killed this year include Vijay Gupta, a Kanpur-based scribe shot in an apparent family dispute October 29; Radheyshyam Sharma, a Kushinagar-based journalist apparently murdered by neighbors on October 10; Ashish Dhiman, a Saharanpur-based photo-journalist shot dead along with his brother on August 18; Anand Narayan, a Mumbai reporter killed in attack at his home on June 4; and Nityanand Pandey, a magazine editor in Thane killed by an employee on March 17.

In a case that may warrant closer scrutiny, Kerala-based journalist K. Muhammed Basheer lost his life August 3 when he was mowed down by a running vehicle, driven by a senior government officer.

There were also some who survived. Bihar scribe Pradeep Mandal was targeted in an attack on July 28. He written a number of news stories exposing the local liquor mafia for Dainik Jagaran newspaper. A Guwahati-based scribe named Naresh Mitra died on December 9 after sustaining head injuries in a mysterious accident in the city.

If we discount the killing Naresh Mitra, the trouble-torn northeastern region of India—now being rocked by angry protests over the controversial new citizenship law—has evaded the murder of any journalist for two consecutive years. This is somewhat surprising, as the northeast is the scene of multiple armed insurgencies over demands for greater autonomy or independence. Among the northeastern states, Tripura reported the murder of five media workers between 2013 and 2017, while Assam and Manipur each witnessed their last killings of journalists in 2012.

For Indian working journalists, the year 2017 is recognized as a particularly deadly year, as 12 scribes were murdered or lost their lives in suspicious situations. Two of these cases were in Tripura.

In 2016, India witnessed the targeted killings of six scribes, whereas the previous year the country lost five journalists to assailants. Only two were slain in 2014, but the year before that was also particularly deadly; 11 journalists were killed in 2013,  including three from Tripura.

Various media rights bodies including Paris-based Reporters Sans Frontiers (RSF), New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), and the Brussels-based International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), have come out with reports tracking the number of journalists murdered worldwide in 2019, which is the lowest death toll in 15 years. Those organizations demanded full investigations and punishment of the culprits.

These organizations also note that many more journalists have been the target of threats, assaults and imprisonment. Over 350 journalists were imprisoned worldwide in 2019, wuth China, Turkey, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Vietnam taking the lead.


Nava Thakuria is a wirter and media activist based in Guwahati, northeast India.

A different version of this story appears in India’s Counterview.

Photo: The slaying of newspaper publisher Gauri Lankesh in Karnataka state sparked protests across India in the bloody year of 2017. Credit: Indian Cultural Forum


49 journalists murdered worldwide in 2019
Channel News Asia, Dec. 17

Reporters Without Borders

Committee to Protect Journalists

International Federation of Journalists

From our Daily Report:

Protests sweep India over citizenship law
CounterVortex, Dec. 15, 2019

See also:

by L. Ali Khan, Jurist
CounterVortex, August 2019

Standing for the Human Rights of Journalists in India
by Nava Thakuria, CounterVortex
CounterVortex, October 2017

by Nava Thakuria, World War 4 Report
CounterVortex, February 2016

Jihad and Ethnic Conflict Heat Up India-Bangladesh Borderlands
by Nava Thakuria, World War 4 Report
CounterVortex, November 2008


Special to CounterVortex, Dec, 20, 2019
Reprinting permissible with attribution

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IDLIB RESISTS Sun, 10 Nov 2019 07:41:11 +0000 Leila Al Shami provides an account.]]> Syrian Resistance Stands Up Again—This Time Against Islamist Militia

by Leila Al Shami

Over the past few days a popular uprising has broken out across northern Syria’s Idlib against the hardline Islamist group that is militarily dominant in much of the province—Hayaat Tahrir Al-Shaam or HTS, formerly the al-Qaeda-linked Nusra Front. The uprising began when HTS increased zakaat (taxes) on a number of goods and services including bread, electricity and olive oil.

In Kafar Takharim, a town in north-estern Idlib, which is dependent on olive oil production for income, locals refused to pay increased taxes and attempts by HTS to control the olive oil presses. The local council in Kafar Takharim has long resisted attempts at take over by the HTS-linked Salvation Government. Locals staged protests and stormed HTS- controlled olive presses and police stations, successfully evicting HTS from their community.

HTS surrounded the town and demanded that locals hand over a number of individuals who participated in the protests under threat of retaliation. The locals refused and determined to continue their resistance against the militants.

On November 6, HTS forces besieged the town and began attacking it with mortar and machine-gun fire, killing at least three people and injuring others. But the locals continued resisting, and all around Idlib towns and villages rose up in solidarity with Kafar Takharim, demanding that HTS and its leader Jolani leave the province. People took to the streets in Idlib city , Salqin, Maarat Al Nu’man, Darkush, Samarda, Ariha, Kurin, Armanaz and elsewhere. People from Armanaz and Idlib city began marching towards Kafar Takharim to try and break the siege but were blocked by HTS militants. On November 7, protesters from Salqin managed to break into the town from the north.

Popular resistance to HTS has been a regular occurrence in Idlib province and chants against Jolani are regularly heard at the anti-Assad regime protests which are held almost every Friday. Many see the group’s authoritarianism as no different from that of the regime.

HTS militants increased their control over the province in January following intense fighting with rebel groups. Since then HTS has attempted to impose control over civilian governance through the creation of the Salvation Government, which has taken over service provision, local councils and education—despite the widespread resistance of locals, who have courageously attempted to defend their autonomy and the democratic institutions they established following liberation from the regime.

People were further outraged by widespread arrests which have targeted civil society activists and media workers, some of whom are reported to have died under torture in HTS-run prisons. HTS is widely believed to have been behind the assassinations of Raed Fares and Hamoud Jneed in November 2018—key figures in revolutionary organizing in Idlib and involved in the popular independent radio station Radio Fresh.

In September, large-scale protests erupted against both HTS and the continuing aerial bombardment of the province by the regime and Russia. The regime intensified its assault on the province in April, conducting an aerial campaign against residential areas which has caused some half a million to flee, has killed over 1,000, and has directly targeted civilian infrastructure including over 50 hospitals and medical centres.

The dominant narrative promoted by the regime and supporters of Syrian fascism is that Idlib is a “terrorist enclave.” The presence of a few thousand extremist militants is presented as justification for the campaign of extermination waged against Idlib’s civilian population of some 3 million people, which includes 1 million children.

Today’s uprising should challenge this narrative. Syrians have continually resisted all forms of authoritarianism and sought to defend their autonomy and exercise their desire for freedom and democracy since 2011.

Despite being trapped between the regime and extremists, Idlib remains home to many inspiring civil initiatives and outpourings of creative resistance. Just a few weeks ago, 20-year-old rapper Amir Al Muarri released the fierce track “On All Fronts,” produced in Idlib. The video (which has subtitles in English, Spanish and Russian) provides a portrait of the province and the diversity of its residents who continue to survive and resist despite living under apocalyptic conditions. He spares no criticism for the brutality of the regime, the armed factions which have hijacked the revolution, and the foreign interventions of Russia, Iran and Turkey.

It’s people like Amir and the civilians risking their lives to protest today who are Syria’s future. Their experience defies lazy assumptions that the choice Syrians face is between a fascist regime and Al Qaeda. There’s always been a third option.


Leila Al-Shami has worked with the human rights movement in Syria and across in the Middle East. She is the co-author of Burning Country: Syrians in Revolution and War (Pluto Press, 2016) and a founding member of Tahrir-ICN, a network that aimed to connect anti-authoritarian struggles across the Middle East, North Africa and Europe.

This story first appeared Nov.  9 on Leila’s blog.

Photo of demonstration at Maarat Al Nu’man via MMC

From our Daily Report:

Russia admits: Syria is test war for weaponry
CounterVortex, Sept. 27, 2019

Syria: Idlib displaced march on Turkish border
CounterVortex, June 1, 2019

New York City vigil for Raed Fares
CounterVortex, Dec. 11, 2014

Syria: al-Qaeda taking over Idlib governorate?
CounterVortex, Aug. 30, 2017

Syria: new popular uprising against al-Qaeda
CounterVortex, July 25, 2017

See also:

Civilians trapped between Assad regime, foreign states and warlords
by Leila Al Shami, Fifth Estate
CounterVortex, July 2019

Key to Ending the War
by Maria J. Stephan, Waging Nonviolence
CounterVortex, April 2017

by Mark Boothroyd, The Project
CounterVortex, September 2016

A Bold Challenge to Extremism
by Julia Taleb, Waging Nonviolence
CounterVortex, May 2016


Reprinted by CounterVortex, Nov, 9, 2019

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LEFT WAITING Thu, 24 Oct 2019 21:44:40 +0000 Melisa Valenzuela reports from Tapachula for The New Humanitarian.]]> Africans Caught in US-Mexico Migration Limbo

by Melisa Valenzuela, The New Humanitarian

For months, hundreds of African migrants and asylum seekers from conflict-ridden countries like Cameroon and the Democratic Republic of Congo have been camped out in tents in front of the main immigration detention facility in the town of Tapachula, in southern Mexico.

Most flew halfway around the world to Brazil, then made the dangerous journey north through the Darien Gap—a remote, roadless swath of jungle—before traversing Central America into Mexico in the hope of finally reaching the United States to claim asylum.

On reaching Tapachula, they found themselves corralled into a detention centre and told they couldn’t progress further without a permit that protects them for deportation and allows them to stay legally—permits that are harder to come by since Mexico agreed in June to help the United States limit the number of migrants crossing the US-Mexico border.

Fearing deportation or that the permits will never come, a frustrated group of migrants—including hundreds of Africans—set off north this week only to be stopped shortly afterwards by Mexican national guard and police and returned to a holding facility.

Even if the Africans were to reach the US border and get to the front of the long queue, a recent policy—pushed by President Donald Trump and known as “Remain in Mexico”—means migrants hoping to seek asylum in the United States must await their fate in Mexico.

The US administration is also set to enforce a series of bilateral agreements that will bar people from applying if they don’t first apply for asylum in the Central American countries they travelled through: Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala. The asylum-seekers could be deported back to the so-called “safe third country,” which critics say are not safe at all and would put many at renewed risk.

Pressure is growing on many of the Africans to claim asylum in Mexico, but several told The New Humanitarian they didn’t want to because of the lack of economic opportunities and a perception they could struggle with racist attitudes.

Even if they were to pursue asylum in Mexico, the system is already overwhelmed. According to the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, asylum applications in Mexico rose from 2,100 in 2014 to 48,000 for the first eight months of 2019. Chiapas, the southern Mexican state and home to Tapachula, hosts 70 percent of those applicants.

According to the Mixed Migration Centre, an independent resource for data on migrants and asylum seekers, some 4,799 Africans were apprehended in Mexico between January and July this year—a fourfold increase over the same period in 2018. “Somewhere between 1,500 and 3,000 [Africans] are currently stranded in the southern Mexican city of Tapachula,” it said.


For this film, video journalist Melisa Valenzuela travelled to Tapachula and spoke to asylum seekers from the Democratic Republic of Congo and Cameroon about their long journeys, their lives in limbo, and why they don’t want to stay in Mexico

This article first appeared Oct. 18 on The New Humanitarian.

Photo of protest at detention center in Tapachula from El Dictamen, Veracruz, Sept. 25

From our Daily Report:

SCOTUS allows enforcement of Trump asylum ban
CounterVortex, Sept. 12, 2019

Mexico: new security force to Guatemalan border
CounterVortex, June 8, 2019

See also:

by Bill Weinberg, Fifth Estate/The Villager
CounterVortex, September 2019

Zapatista Presidential Candidate’s Vision to Transform Mexico from Below
by Benjamin Dangl, Toward Freedom
CounterVortex, August 2017


Reprinted by CounterVortex, Oct, 24, 2019

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ROME SQUATTERS FACE CLAMPDOWN Mon, 16 Sep 2019 07:56:49 +0000 de facto ruler) Matteo Salvini was just removed from power in a government shake-up—but not before passing his draconian "Salvini Law." In addition to restricting the rights of migrants and refugees to asylum and government aid, the Salvini Law imposes a five-year prison term for squatting. Italy's thousands of squatters—many of them displaced from their homelands in the Middle East, Africa and South America—are now in a precarious position. Bill Weinberg offers a first-hand account from the squats and migrant enclaves of the Eternal City.]]> by Bill Weinberg, Fifth Estate/The Villager

It was a multicultural crowd that gathered in Rome’s Plaza San Silvestro to oppose the draconian Security Decree then pending in the Italian parliament. Popularly called the “Salvini Law” after Italy’s far-right Interior Minister Matteo Salvini (who appears to be the real power behind the government), the Security Decree was explicitly aimed at two broadly overlapping groups: immigrants and squatters.

Many of those in Plaza San Silvestro were both. One prominent banner read: DALLE MONTAGNE DEL KURDISTAN AL CUORE DI ROMA, ARARAT NON SI SGOBERA. “From the mountains of Kurdistan to the heart of Rome, Ararat will not be evicted.” It displayed painted images of a mighty mountain and an old industrial building. Flying above the banner was the red-star flag of Kurdish revolutionary movement in Turkey and Syria.

Ararat is, of course, the famous mountain in Turkey’s Kurdish east, but here it also refers to the Ararat Kurdish Cultural Center, one of Rome’s many squatted community centers, in a reclaimed industrial space in the city’s outlying Testaccio district. There was another contingent at the protest of Peruvian migrants living in a squatted building, and yet another of squatters from various Horn of Africa countries. The contingents clustered in groups, while the riot police and paramilitary Carabinieri formed a ring around the perimeter of the plaza.

The Salvini Law, in addition to restricting the rights of migrants and refugees to asylum and government aid, also imposes a five-year prison term for squatting. It was passed Nov. 29, 2018, just six days after the protest in Plaza San Silvestro. Italy’s thousands of squatters—many of them displaced from their homelands in the Middle East, Africa and South America—are now in a precarious position.

The first mass evictions under the law sparked street-fighting in Turin on Feb. 10 after police raided the squatted community center called El Asilo (The Asylum).

Ferment in San Lorenzo
Rome’s San Lorenzo neighborhood, just east of the historic center, may be next to feel the heat. This area of mixed decaying apartment buildings and abandoned light industry has the city’s highest density of occupazioni. as squats are called. In this area, they are mostly community centers in reclaimed abandoned properties—generally dubbed CSOAs, for centro sociale ocupato auto-gestito (self-managed occupied social centers).

Communia is a self-described spacio de mutuo soccorso (space of mutual aid) facing a thoroughfare on the edge of San Lorenzo. A banner above the entrance reads OMNIA SUNT COMMUNIA—Latin for “The Commons is All,” the slogan associated with Thomas Müntzer, the radical theologian who became a rebel leader during the German Peasants’ War of 1524–5. Pass through the gate, and a big mural portrait of the revolutionary cleric adorns the warehouse wall across the courtyard.

CommuniaYlena, one of the volunteers at Communia, sees the area’s occupazioni as threatened by economic forces even apart from the Salvini Law—along with the neighborhood’s traditional commons. As San Lorenzo is gentrified, “public streets are being closed by private developers,” she says.

The struggle for control of space was dealt a propaganda blow in October, with the death of Desireé Mariottini, 16, who was apparently given drugs before being sexually abused in a derelict building in San Lorenzo, and suffered an overdose. Three migrants from Senegal and Nigeria were arrested in the case, and Salvini personally visited San Lorenzo to rail against the “worms” infesting the district. The case helped lubricate passage of his Security Decree.

But Ylena sees the crime as related to the squeeze on wholesome places for youth and the disenfranchised to gather. “When something like this happens, they say something must be done. But we have been saying for years we need more community spaces,” she says. “Now they can say everything sucks here, so we can destroy everything and build new houses. So we are trying to get legalized.”

Communia has moved through various locations in San Lorenzo since its founding in 2013, before settling into its current complex of disused warehouses. It now hosts a café, library, art gallery, and a sartoria migrante—a workshop where mostly West African migrants make whimsical fashion items from recycled materials for sale in local markets. It is called Karaló Roma, from the word for “tailor” in the Mandinka language. Space is also provided for a group that offers legal counseling for migrants.

Communia is hoping to gain legal rights to occupancy of the space, which is still formally owned by the proprietors who abandoned it.

CommuniaEven amid the related threats of repression and gentrification, there is still a palpable sense of social ferment in San Lorenzo. Among the numerous CSOAs is a palestra popolare, or popular gymnasium where local rads can stay in shape for street actions. Radio Onda Rossa (Red Wave), a pirate station rooted in the Autonomist movement of the ’70s. has been on the air for almost 40 years. And in a narrow storefront on Via dei Campani, near ancient walls dating to Rome’s imperial era, is Anomalia anarchist bookstore. Founded in 1984, its private lower level houses the archives of Errico Malatesta’s Italian Anarchist Federation, dating back to the 1940s.

palestra populareMuseum of the Other and Elsewhere
Further east, in an outlying industrial area along the Via Prenestina, is one of Rome’s most public occupazioni, the Metropoliz. This won fame on the underground film circuit with its 2011 cinematic project Space Metropoliz, about squatters colonizing the Moon (a nod, if not an intentional one, to Ursula K. Le Guin’s novel The Dispossessed). Filmed in the cavernous ex-factory, the flick is on YouTube, and has screened at film festivals in Italy and elsewhere.

metropolizEvery vast room in the rambling former salami plant is filled with bizarre artwork—murals on the walls, huge sculptures hanging from the ceilings, surreal, menacing or idealistic. Many are crafted from found industrial debris.

metropolizBut the upper floors are inhabited by mostly migrant families, laundry hung to dry in the corridors. In the canteen, where a big circle-A hangs above the kitchen doorway, a family of Peruvians is cooking up lunch fare: the typical Italian proletarian dish pasta fazool, and the traditional Peruvian specialty, papas a la Huancaína.

Giorgio de Finis, who directed the film and co-founded the squat, sits down with me over coffee in the canteen. “Many squats in Europe are inhabited by artists,” he says. “But this one is inhabited by families. Artists initiated it, but with the political intention to advance what we call the diritto a la città—the right to housing.” (Literally, the right to the city.)

The salami factory was abandoned in the ’80s, and the space was taken over in 2009 by a squatter movement called the Blocchi Precari Metropolitani—the Precarious Metropolitan Blocs, a reference to the uncertain social status of the disenfranchised. The year after the film came out, it was opened to the public as the Museo dell’Altro e dell’Altrove di Metropoliz, or MAAM—the Museum of the Other and the Elsewhere. Amid the droves of alterno-tourists groking on the artwork, live some 200 migrants—from Peru, Morocco, Sudan, Ethiopia, Eritrea—as well as some Italian families left unemployed and homeless in the wake of the 2008 economic crisis, and several Romani families, otherwise forced to live in camps under what de Finis calls a “policy of ghettoization.”

But by the time the squatters moved in, the ex-factory had already been bought by the Salini Impregilo construction firm, which wants to build an apartment complex on the site. De Finis emphasizes that this development would not serve the communities now living in the Metropoliz.

Irene di Noto, another Metropoliz co-founder, sees the project as an experiment in a new form of social organization. “We want to go beyond the dichotomy between public and private,” she says. “What we call ‘public’ today is space not yet appropriated by the private. We want to establish space outside that dynamic—a space managed by citizens, as well as accessible to citizens.”

Acknowledging that Metropoliz has a weak claim to the space under the law, she says, “We speak not of legality but legitimacy—serving the bene comune [common good].”

metropolizDi Noto believes there are some 6,000 people living in some 100 squats across Rome, and criminalizing them will not address the social pressures that brought about this reality. “Rent control was abolished throughout Italy in the ’90s, and public housing has been sold off since then; there is less each year. Salvini’s ‘Italians first’ rhetoric and security law facilitate evictions.”

One of the slogans seen on banners at the rally in Plaza San Silvestro was SPEGNI LA MICCIA—”douse the fuse,” with the implication that the Salvini Law would put the country on a countdown to social explosion. Now that it has passed, the challenge facing Italy’s squatters is greater than ever.


Update: Matteo Salvini was removed from power as his coalition fractured and a new government was formed in September 2019. The new government brings together Salvini’s former coalition partners, the populist Five Star Movement, with the center-left Democratic Party. It remains to be seen if the new government will enforce the Salvini Law.

Portions of this article previously appeared in the Spring issue of Fifth Estate and the June 17 edition of The Villager.

Photos by the author. In bottom photo, Giorgio de Finis on far left and Irene di Noto in center.


Communia Network

Libreria Anomalia

Umanità Nova

Space Metropoliz

See also:

by Diego Cupolo, IRIN
CounterVortex, July 2018

Anarchist Scene Survives ‘Clean-Up’ in Lima, Peru
by Bill Weinberg, Fifth Estate
CounterVortex, March 2018

Criminal Networks Exploit Italy’s Anti-Immigrant Backlash
by Giulio D’Eramo, World War 4 Report
CounterVortex, March 2010

Neo-Nazis Exploit Growing Anti-Roma Racism
by Gwendolyn Albert, World War 4 Report
CounterVortex, July 2009


Reprinted by CounterVortex, Sept, 15, 2019

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