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Che in Bolivia: a Rough Draft of History

By Richard Gott / Counterpunch.

I was living in 1967 in Santiago de Chile, where I worked at the university and wrote from time to time for the Guardian in London. That January, I was told by Chilean leftist friends that Che Guevara was in Bolivia. Public indications of an incipient guerrilla movement emerged in March. Several journalists descended on the abandoned guerrilla camp at Nancahuazú, close to the oil town of Camiri in eastern Bolivia, and a group that left the camp, including the French writer Régis Debray, were captured and detained in the town in April. Then, in Havana, the Cubans published Che’s final work, an essay, “Create one, two, many Vietnams”, which was an appeal for action by the international left.

I decided to visit Bolivia to see whether it was really a suitable terrain for the development of another Vietnam, for there had been little news in the international press about the war there.

In August I took the train over the Andes from the Chilean port of Antofagasta to the capital La Paz. Bolivia was a military dictatorship ruled by General Rene Barrientos, an air force officer who had seized power two years earlier. With the emergence of the guerrillas, the country had been placed under martial law, and there were military checkpoints at the entrance to every town.

I took all the necessary precautions: I arrived by train to avoid the airports that were more closely surveyed, and I shaved off my beard since all barbudos were suspect. My idea was to travel as a tourist, without – officially – registering as a foreign correspondent, but this proved impossible. It was forbidden to travel outside the city without the written permission of General Alfredo Ovando, the commander-in-chief, later the president.

So I went to register in La Paz with other foreign journalists, including a friend from the Times in London. He told me that there was something strange about a journalist from Denmark who spent two hours daily sending telex messages to Copenhagen with every detail from the Bolivian newspapers.

“Was there really such interest in Denmark in the affairs of Bolivia?” asked my friend, amazed. I was rather surprised, too. Years later I discovered that the Dane was a distinguished leftwing journalist who was sending news to the Cuban newsagency, Prensa Latina, in Havana, via Denmark.

I travelled for several weeks to report on what was going on, and to examine whether Bolivia was really in a pre-revolutionary situation. I visited the tin mines at Oruro, Siglo Veinte and Potosi, all under military control, with armed soldiers at every pit entrance. The union leaders had all been imprisoned, and the miners were fearful of saying very much.

Unhappy peasants

I also tried to see what was going on in the countryside. Bolivia had had a revolution 15 years earlier, in 1952, with a land reform that had reached many regions, but I found that many peasants were unhappy with the way things had turned out. I drove across Bolivia’s high plateau with a team of agrarian experts from a United Nations agency before descending to the town of Tarija, and everywhere we heard peasants complaining that landlords had returned to seize their land.

I retraced my steps to La Paz to interview the United States ambassador, Douglas Henderson. He had read Che’s famous essay, calling for new Vietnams, in the Cuban magazine Tricontinental, and he assured me that although the US was helping the Bolivian army with a military training mission there was no intention of sending US troops to fight.

At the end of August I arrived at Camiri, and interviewed Debray, then a prisoner in the officers’ club. I also talked to the officers of the army’s Fourth Division, who told me that the guerrillas had left the zone of Camiri and moved north, to the difficult region west of the road to Santa Cruz. To discover what was happening I would need to get to Vallegrande, in the foothills of the Andes, where the army’s Eighth Division had its headquarters.

I drove there early in September and talked to the officer in charge of the base, Colonel Joaquin Zenteno Anaya, who was assassinated some years later in Europe. He told me that the guerrillas were encircled and that it would be difficult for them to escape; that they had been surrounded and were left with only one possible exit, where the military had soldiers disguised as peasants who would give the alarm if the guerrillas came their way. Comments recorded by people living in a hamlet visited by the guerrillas a few days earlier, as well as those of captured guerrillas I was allowed to interview, left no one in any doubt that the guerrilla chief was Che Guevara. “Within a few weeks we shall have some news,” Colonel Zenteno said.

Base of the ‘special forces’

I took the road from Vallegrande to Santa Cruz, to visit the camp at La Esperanza, the military base of the US special forces, where some 20 servicemen were lodged in an abandoned sugar mill. Their sophisticated radio equipment enabled them to talk with Vallegrande and the guerrilla zone, and with Panama, HQ of US Southern Command in the Canal Zone. I was greeted by Major Robert “Pappy” Shelton, who told me that 600 “Rangers” – Bolivian special forces trained by US instructors – had just graduated from their course and left for the anti-guerrilla base at Vallegrande.

On the evening of 8 October 1967 I was walking through the main square of Santa Cruz with my friend Brian Moser, a filmmaker from Granada Television, when a man beckoned to us from his cafe table. He was one of the US officers we had met at La Esperanza. “I have news for you,” he said.

“About Che?” we asked, for his possible capture had been on our minds for weeks.

“Che has been captured,” he told us. “He is severely wounded and he may not last the night. The other guerrillas are fighting desperately to get him back, and the company commander is appealing by radio for a helicopter so that they can fly him out.”

The commander had been so agitated that his words came out in a jumble. “We’ve got him, we’ve got him!”

Our contact suggested that we should hire a helicopter to take us at once to the guerrilla zone. He did not know whether Che was still alive, but he thought there was little chance of his surviving long. We did not have the money to hire a helicopter, even had one been available. It was already 8.30pm, and it was not possible in Bolivia to fly after dark. So we hired a jeep and set off at four in the morning, Monday 9 October, to drive to Vallegrande.

We arrived there five and a half hours later. The military would not allow us to travel further, to La Higuera, and we drove straight to the primitive airfield. At least half the town seemed to be there, schoolchildren in white dresses and amateur photographers. The inhabitants of Vallegrande were used to the comings and goings of the military. The most excited were the children, jumping up and down and pointing to the horizon.

A few minutes later a speck appeared in the sky and soon materialised into a helicopter, bearing on its landing rails the bodies of two dead soldiers. They were unstrapped, unceremoniously loaded into a lorry and carted into the town.

But as the crowd melted away, we stayed behind and photographed the crates of napalm provided by the Brazilian army that lay around the periphery of the airfield. With a telephoto lens we took photographs of a man in olive-green uniform with no military insignia, identified to us as an agent of the CIA. Such temerity by foreign journalists, for we were the first to arrive in Vallegrande by -24 hours, was ill-received, and the CIA agent, in the company of some Bolivian officers, tried to have us thrown out of the town. Our credentials showed us to be bona fide journalists, and after much argument we were allowed to stay.

The one and only helicopter then set off again to the fighting zone, 30km to the southwest, bearing with it the figure of Zenteno. He returned in triumph shortly after one o’clock, barely able to suppress a huge grin.

Che was dead, he announced. He had seen the body and there was no room for doubt. We had no reason to disbelieve him, and we rushed to the tiny telegraph office and thrust our dispatches to the outside world into the hands of a startled and disbelieving clerk. None of us had much confidence that they would ever reach their destination.

Four hours later, the helicopter came back again, bearing this time a single small body strapped to the outside rail. Instead of landing close to where we were, as it had done before, it stopped in the middle of the field. We were forbidden to break through the cordon for journalists. Speedily, the distant corpse was loaded into a Chevrolet van, which began a hectic run up the airfield and away.

We leapt into our jeep, which was standing nearby, and our enterprising driver followed close. After about a kilometre, the Chevrolet turned sharply into the grounds of a tiny hospital. Soldiers tried to shut the gates before we could get through, but we were close enough behind to prevent them. The Chevrolet drove up a steep slope, and then reversed towards a small colour-washed hut with a bamboo roof and one side open to the sky.

We leapt out of the jeep and reached the back doors of the van before they opened. When they were thrown open, the CIA agent climbed out, yelling in English: “All right, let’s get the hell out of here.” Poor man, he was hardly to know that a British journalist was standing outside.

Unmistakable

Inside the van, on a stretcher, lay the body of Che Guevara. From the first moment I had no doubt that it was he. I had seen him once before four years previously in Havana, and he was not a person one would forget easily. There could be no doubt that this was Ernesto Che Guevara.

When they carried the body out, and propped it up on a makeshift table in the hut that served as a laundry in less troubled times, I knew for certain that Guevara was dead.

The shape of the beard, the design of the face, and the rich flowing hair were unmistakeable. He was wearing olive-green battledress and a jacket with a zippered front. On his feet were faded green socks and a pair of homemade moccasins. Since he was fully dressed, it was difficult to see where he had been wounded. He had two obvious holes in the bottom of his neck, and later, when they were cleaning his body, I saw another wound in his stomach. I do not doubt that he had wounds in his legs and near his heart, but I did not see them.

The two doctors from the hospital were probing the wounds in his neck and my first reaction was to assume that they were searching for the bullet, but in fact they were preparing to put in the tube that would conduct the formalin into his body to preserve it. One of the doctors began cleaning Che’s hands, which were covered with blood. But otherwise there was nothing repellent about the body. He looked astonishingly alive. His eyes were open and bright, and when they took his arm out of his jacket, they did so without difficulty. I do not believe that he had been dead for many hours, and at the time I did not believe that he had been killed after his capture. We all assumed that he had died of his wounds and lack of medical attention sometime early on Monday morning.

The humans round the body were more repellent than the dead: a nun who could not help smiling and sometimes laughed aloud; officers who came with their expensive cameras to record the scene; and the agent from the CIA, who seemed to be in charge of the operation and looked furious whenever anyone pointed a camera in his direction. “Where do you come from?” we asked in English, jokingly adding, “From Cuba? From Puerto Rico?” But he was not amused, and curtly replied in English, “From nowhere.”

Later we asked him again, but this time he replied in Spanish, “Que dice?” and pretended not to understand. He was a short, stocky man in his mid-30s, with sunken piggy eyes and little hair. It was difficult to tell whether he was a North American or a Cuban exile, for he spoke English and Spanish with equal facility and without trace of an accent. Subsequently I discovered that his name was Gustavo Villoldo, and he lives to this day in Miami. I wrote of his presence in Vallegrande in an article for the Guardian, but it was another year before any mention appeared in the mainstream US press.

After half an hour we withdrew from the hut to drive back to Santa Cruz, and send out our reports. It was already nightfall and we did not get back till early on Tuesday 10 October. There was no telegraph office, and I took a plane to La Paz, from where I was able to send my report. It was published on the front page of the Guardian that day.

On the plane I bumped into Major “Pappy” Shelton, who said simply: “Mission accomplished!”

Richard Gott is a journalist, who has worked for the Guardian, London. Among his books are ‘Cuba: a New History’ (Yale University Press, New Haven, 2004) and ‘Hugo Chávez and the Bolivarian Revolution’ (Verso, London, 2005).

This article originally appeared in Le Monde Diplomatique.

Loyalty to the Don

By  Andrew Levine / Counterpunch.

Photo by Chairman of the Joint Chief | CC BY 2.0

Secretary of State Scott Tillerson nailed it: his boss is “a fucking moron”; Donald Trump is a world-class embarrassment too.

But this hardly makes him stand out.  Is there a Republican politician at any level of government who is not a moron and an embarrassment?   And don’t most Democrats, especially the prominent ones, fall under the same description?   Federal and state courts, up to and including the Supreme Court, have their share of morons and embarrassments too.  Trump has lately been adding to their numbers, but there were already plenty even before the tabloids discovered that he made good copy.

The difference is not just that Trump is worse than most of the others, though he surely is.   It is that, in virtue of the powers presidents have, he is more dangerous; indeed, it would be fair to say that he is, by far, the most dangerous man on earth.  Imagine a troubled teenager with a gun or a middle-aged Stephen Paddock with an arsenal of automatic weapons.  This is many times worse.

Nevertheless, there are millions of Americans, perhaps as many as thirty percent of the electorate, who stubbornly refuse to take this fact on board.

They are flooding the Republican National Committee with money, far more than their counterparts in the so-called “resistance.”  According to The Washington Post, of the $68 million that the RNC had taken in by the end of August, more than $40 million came in donations of $200 or less.

Could so many people really believe that their hard-earned money will be used to  “drain the swamp?”  Could Fox and Breitbart and talk radio shock jocks have made them that stupid?  That is almost as scary a thought as the ones that Trump’s presence conjures into being.

Everybody knows that “you can fool some of the people all of the time,” and that the United States has fools to spare.  Even so, it is surprising, and more than a little disheartening that so many of them are putting their money where their folly is.

But folly alone cannot explain the fervor of the most steadfast supporters of the most appalling president in modern American history.  Trump’s hardcore supporters may be foolish and stupid, but they aren’t all moral cretins.  I would hazard that many, maybe most, of them are aware at some level of the flaws in Trump’s character; and that even those who are not try to keep their children from acting out in the ways that Trump often does.

If they nevertheless back Trump with an almost cult-like fervor, it is because they hate what they think he hates, and because even the ones who realize what an asshole Trump is think that he is their asshole.  Their enemy’s enemy is their friend.

However, they are wrong – not to hate Clintonites (war-mongering, neoliberal imperialists) and what they stand for, but to think that the Donald shares their views.  Even at a cultural level, he is, at most, ambivalent about them.

He plainly yearns for the approval of the “bicoastal elites” pundits go on about.  It is true that, when it suits his purpose, he will deride latter-days version of Spiro Agnew’s “effete intellectual snobs,” and he is certainly no fan of  “political correctness.”   But it is also true that he craves admiration from people more refined than the patrons of his over-the-top hotels, resorts, and casinos.  The Donald’s tastes run towards the vulgar, but he wants the kinds of people who would never buy the schlock he and his children peddle to see him as one of their own.

He even used to crave admiration from Bill and Hillary Clinton.  It should surprise no one that, when it suited their purpose, they were willing to confer it.

Hardcore Trump supporters could care less.  They see what they want to see.

Just as there are still people who remain willfully blind to Barack Obama’s ties to Wall Street, people still standing by Trump fail to see that, notwithstanding his tweets and campaign bluster, their man is not only a populist poseur, but even more of a “capitalist tool” than his predecessor.

The capitalists Trump is keenest on serving are generally more odious than the ones who supported Obama, and he is not just their servant; he is one of them as well.  If anything, Trump is even more on the side of those who are bleeding working Americans – black, brown, and white – dry than Obama or Bush or, for that matter, those two unreconstructed epigones of the neoliberal turn, Bill and Hillary Clinton.

And yet, his marks don’t see it.  Instead, many of them actually believe that his aim is, as he says, “to drain the swamp.”

If, by that, they think that he favors workers over capitalists, they could hardly be more wrong.

If they think that the “swamp” is deleterious because it teems with predatory capitalists, and that Trump wants to save them from that, then shame on them.  With Trump and his family in the West Wing, some of the most detestable capitalists on earth now live in the White House itself.

But if they understand the “swamp” in the Steve Bannon sense, they arguably do have a point.

When Bannon explains his intentions, he talks about “deconstructing the administrative state.”  These are terms more commonly used by chowder-heads in highfalutin academic precincts than by “alt-right” (quasi-fascist) babblers; and it is far from clear what Bannon thinks they mean.  A little knowledge can be a dangerous thing.

But his general drift is clear enough.

The word “deconstruct” obfuscates more than it illuminates; depending on what Bannon and therefore Trump has in mind, “diminish” or “neuter” or even “eliminate” would be more on point.  What Trump, following Bannon, wants to do is weaken and, insofar as possible, dismantle government programs and institutions that serve the people, the better to enrich and empower people like him, his class brothers.

In a word, Trump wants to empower the swamp he rails against.  This is plain as day; and yet the fools in his base don’t see it.  How pathetic is that!

The short answer is – very.  But then, the obsequiousness of the high and mighty from whom Trump demands, and obtains, public displays of loyalty is worse.

This is not just a matter of their character flaws or his own, though it must be said that the willingness of self-promoters in the Trump orbit to abase themselves when they see a percentage in it truly is mind boggling, as is the degree of psychological insecurity and emotional immaturity that cause Trump to demand it of them.

Even so, the problem is of more than clinical interest.  Trump’s need for abject expressions of loyalty, and the readiness of people around him to indulge that need, shed light on a problem of great political moment: the legitimation crisis brought on by the increasingly transparent decadence of the American political system, and of the neoliberal world order which it superintends.

*                                              *

The virtue of a thing, according to Plato, is that which makes it perform its function well; thus speed is the virtue of a runner and sharpness of a knife.  Loyalty is the virtue of masters and subjects in feudal societies.

At the dawn of human history, there were primitive societies in which economically productive activity — hunting and gathering, mainly – yielded only a bare subsistence.  In such cases, there is no economic surplus and therefore no struggle over its appropriation.

Everywhere else – that is to say, in nearly all human societies everywhere from the time that settled agricultural production emerged – property rights regulated the production and distribution of wealth.  Thus class struggle, struggle over the control of productive assets and rights to appropriate the wealth they generate became, as Marx put it, the motor of history.

Before the emergence of distinctively capitalist social relations some four or five centuries ago, nearly every society on earth recognized property rights in human beings.   In one way or another, people owned other people.

In many instances, it is appropriate to describe the owners as “masters” and the people they owned as “slaves.”  Economic systems based on slavery were sustained both by violence and by beliefs about the naturalness of master-slave relations.

In many parts of Europe, as levels of economic activity declined in late Roman antiquity, property rights in persons were accordingly transformed; masters still demanded and received a share of the economic surplus that their underlings produced, but they no longer controlled productive labor directly.

This was the worldwide norm.  Most direct producers were peasants, not slaves, who controlled their own labor power and means of production, but who were obliged, even so, to turn over portions of the wealth they produced to feudal “lords.”

Nearly all societies that predate the modern era in which the majority of direct producers were peasants could be described as feudal in some respect.

For sustaining and reproducing feudal societies, the use or threat of force was generally less important than in societies based on outright slavery; and ideology – especially, religious ideology – was more important.  In Europe throughout the so-called Dark Ages, the Church was the cement of society.  There were functional equivalents all over the world.

Emerging capitalism ushered in modernity, which, in turn, established a secular understanding of civil society in which relations between persons, and between a people and its ruler, were based on mutually advantageous, hypothetical contracts, not divinely grounded obligations; and in which, in theory if not always in practice, the rule of law superseded the personal authority of masters and lords.

In economically and culturally backward quarters where the rule of law was precarious at best, and in more developed societies in which groups of persons chose, for whatever reason, to live outside the law to at least some extent, order was maintained by overt violence — in more or less the ways it had been in pre-capitalist societies.

This was inevitable because, without the benefit of divinely grounded fealties, there are limits to how well order based on loyalty can be maintained; and because what cannot be sustained by conviction can only be sustained by force.

  • *

When Trump held his first and so far only cabinet meeting last June, he presided over one of the weirdest spectacles in memory, as cabinet officers, many of them as rich or richer than Trump, regaled the Donald with flattery so obsequious that it was hard not to turn away in disgust.

Their professions of servility would have repulsed the two Don Corleones, father and son, in Parts One and Two, respectively, of The Godfather. However, they would both have understood Trump’s need for deference and his strategy for obtaining it.

The fictional Dons earned their standing, in part, on their merits; they were wise leaders – keeping their friends close and their enemies closer, and they maneuvered their way through the underworld landscape with consummate skill.

Trump doesn’t have a wise bone in his body.

But he was like them in at least one respect – having grown up in his father’s house and having been mentored by miscreants like Roy Cohn and by sleaze-balls in the New York real estate world, he understood, as they did, that to come out on top, the appearance of strength is indispensable.  He also learned that moral constraints are nuisances at best, and that they should be ignored whenever following them would make him look weak.

The fictional Corleones would kill when they thought they needed to in order to establish and retain their power.  Unlike them, Trump doesn’t have it in him for the evil he does to rise to a similarly sublime level, but by giving free reign to his playground bully side, he gives a good approximation.

He has usually been able to get away with it until now because his enemies, unlike those the two Don Corleones dealt with are, wusses — little Marco Rubio types, easily put in their place.  Trump wouldn’t survive a minute against enemies as formidable as those the two fictional Dons had to deal with.  However, in the New York real estate world and in Washington D.C., he was able to do just fine: fooling some of the people all of the time, and all, or nearly all, of the people some of the time.

The Godfather dons were more impressive characters than our Don, and they were also more like true feudal lords.  As Mafiosi, they, like their counterparts around the world, had something like an ideology to fall back upon. Thus their power was not based on force alone, but on something rather like the legitimacy the Church conferred in medieval times.

Trump has nothing like that; all he has is money and a blowhard persona, slender reeds indeed.   And so, he lashes out in counter-productive ways.

If he really did care about anything beyond his own power and glory, the last people he would set out to humiliate are cabinet officers he deems insufficiently obsequious, and Republicans in the House and Senate upon whom he must rely.

Too bad for him that he is too much of a moron to grasp that simple truth.

The good news is that he has put himself in an impossible position that cannot endure for long.  That is the bad news too, inasmuch as the institutional power that comes with the office he holds confers upon him the power to do catastrophic harm, while his failings incline him, as his presidency founders, and as he self-“deconstructs,” to take the world down with him.

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Escalating Kaepernick’s Protest to Victory

By Michael Albert / Z Communications.

Colin Kaepernick knelt against racist police violence. Teammates joined. Trump rejected non existent anthem dissing to hijack the protest’s meaning. Team owners curtailed Kaepernick’s career. How can protestors beat Trump, owners, and racist policing?

Some answer that winning requires retaining the tactic of kneeling during the anthem because that was how the protest first captured attention. Yet random fans, media mavens, sports moguls, and Trump virtually all say they only oppose dissing the anthem. So some wonder, why not take the anthem out of it? Others answer, because that would capitulate. Momentum would dissipate. Obedience would resurface.


But what if an NBA, NFL, WNBA, NWSL, or MLB team stood for the anthem and then sat down and refused to play for two minutes? What if enough team members sat so the game couldn’t start? What if those sitting publicly demanded the mayor of their city sponsor meetings convening police and neighborhood organizers to seek programmatic steps to reduce police violence, racial profiling, racial sentencing, and crime, while enlarging community oversight of policing? What if they added that if the meeting they demanded didn’t occur within a week, the pre-game sit-down duration would double to four minutes, and then double again for each new week of inaction? Two minutes, four, eight, sixteen... so after five weeks, maybe six of inaction, there would be no games.


Suppose the sit down didn’t occur as long as meetings were conducted and the protesting players accepted that the meetings were occurring in good faith, but the sit down resumed whenever players felt that progress was insincere or interrupted. Even better, suppose community groups judged progress and then protesting players followed their lead.


Envision groups of fans marching outside games, some merely complaining about the game delays, but others opposing racism. Envision college athletes and then college student bodies giving support, and then high school athletes and then high school students more broadly - and then parents. Envision teams in other countries also sitting down to fight the immense harm of institutional and personal racism.


With any variant on the above, getting rolling would be hard, but once in motion, the patriotism focus would disappear. The cost of ignoring players and communities would be clear. The cost of persistent intransigence would steadily increase. The sit-downs would provoke discussion and real change. Their leadership would increasingly come from those most affected while support and aid would come from all over. Gains would be won regarding policing. Next up, prison, housing, education, health -- everything.


We all celebrate the civil rights movement of decades back standing up to dogs, clubs, ropes, and jail. And while the impetus and insight at the core of the civil rights struggle came from Blacks, many whites also fought for justice. Can we conceive similar commitment surfacing in response to the problems of our times? Black athletes are nearing such a stance. Can white athletes see their way forward as well? How long until we see an international echo?


In my town, Boston, the local football hero, Tom Brady, has already said Kaepernick should be employed. If Brady also thinks blacks shouldn’t have to fear police, shouldn’t he say that too? Shouldn’t he stand - perhaps sit - to help make it so? Shouldn’t the players’ unions? Shouldn’t fans?


The power to spark activism is everyone’s to exercise. Some weeks back a group of NYC police held a demo on behalf of Colin Kaepernick being hired. If police can join the campaign, what is the ceiling on actions? Perhaps there is no ceiling. You owners want to stop the sit downs? Propel successful community/police meetings and ensuing changes, and also hire Kaepernick to quarterback. You want to persist in claiming Kaepernick isn’t being blackballed but is, by the oddest coincidence, and against every non-owners’ opinion, simply no longer able to play well enough, okay, hire him as the new commissioner of the NFL.


Hollywood is suddenly in turmoil too. An uprising against sexual predation is growing due to the Harvey Weinstein revelations. Women are coming forward, and many men are outraged as well. Imagine that clear demands emerge. Imagine that strikes pressure studios.


Simultaneously, Puerto Rico is being murdered. Imagine anti racist activism decides that too deserves pressure. And so does stopping anti-immigrant deportations. And imagine woman-led Hollywood movements grow and agree on both those issues. Imagine each campaign supports the other’s demands. Players invite potential deportees to occupy stadium rooms for sanctuary and demand rich corporation owners make their stadium suites available. Actors invite potential deportees to share space in Hollywood mansions and demand studios offer sanctuary as well. Players protest sexual predation. Actors protest racist police violence. Fans become participants. What is the activism ceiling if people refuse to accept an activism ceiling?


No doubt athletes on the field, students in colleges and high schools, women and men in TV, movies, and drama classes, and activists everywhere will have better ideas to elicit sustained creativity and commitment than the above. What’s offered here is, after all, only words on paper. The details and full depth of dissent that can sum to successful campaigns can only emerge from people in motion. The point here is only to suggest there are paths forward and that obstacles may owe more to our own hesitations than to the inane threats and even vicious clubs of the likes of Jerry Jones and Donald Trump.





Michael Albert
Z Communications
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German Federal Elections: Chauvinistic Identity Policies Outperform Left Economic Alternatives

By Ingo Schmidt / Socialist Project.

Conservatives: Overestimating their Popularity

“For a Germany in which we live well and happily.” Maybe it was just this less than catchy campaign slogan that cost Angela Merkel’s conservative CDU so dearly at the polls; leaving the party at a record low of 26.8 per cent of the total vote. What is more likely, though, is that the slogan was better at revealing chancellor Merkel’s state of mind – something like: A Germany that should be happy that I govern it so well – than capturing the mood of many of her erstwhile supporters. The conservatives had little sense that terrorism and refugee hysteria were much more than media spectacles. The hysteria indicates how much the so-glad-it’s-not-as-bad-as-elsewhere mood that helped to elect Merkel in the aftermath of the Great Recession and after the Euro-crisis had given way to a much more pessimistic zeitgeist. Locked into the corridors of power, Merkel and her party underestimated the shift from positive to negative outlooks amongst significant parts of the electorate.

Die Linke: Foreigners Welcome

Social Democrats:
Stumbling over the equity-employment trade off

The Social Democratic Party (SPD) failed doing the splits. One foot, notably at the beginning of Martin Schulze’s campaign, moved toward genuine social democratic policies. The reward: A massive surge in the polls and party membership. Yet, while the campaign went on, the other foot moved toward the embrace of the social counter-reforms that, in the early 2000s, former chancellor Gerhard Schröder forced through party and parliament at the cost of losing the left wing of the SPD, which merged with the then existing Party of Democratic Socialism into Die Linke. For years, corporate media and Merkel praised the Schröder-cuts as trigger of an employment boom. In fact, Merkel won the last two elections resolutely by propagating the view that Germany had found the magic formula to prosperity while the rest of the world went bust. Crediting Schröder rather than herself as originator of this formula gave her an aura of modesty in a political world mostly inhabited by bullies and big mouths. And, of course, it was a constant reminder to social democratic supporters, who are usually more concerned with social justice than conservatives, that it was ‘their’ chancellor who cut the German welfare state to size.


Vote share in %Change in %
from 2013 election
CDU 26.8 -7.4
CSU 6.2 -1,2
SPD 20.5 -5.2
Die Linke 9.2 0.6
Greens 8.9 0.5
FDP 10.7 6.0
AfD 12.6 7.9
The Bavarian CSU (Christian Social Union) and the CDU (Christian Democratic Union) in the rest of the country form a joint conservative caucus in the federal parliament.
SPD – Social Democratic Party of Germany,
FDP – Free Democratic Party (liberal),
AfD – Alternative for Germany (far right). [German federal election, 2017]

The SPD tried twice to cash in on their alleged role in boosting employment. They failed twice and decided to have it both ways this time: Advocating social justice and taking credit for advancing employment at the price of escalating inequality. Voters, proving that they are much smarter than politicians usually think they are, figured that this was a contradicto in adjecto. Some among them may also have had doubts whether a trade off between equality and employment exists in the first place. Whatever issues voters had with the SPD, their electoral results went from bad to worse, reaching, like the CDU, an all-time low of 20.5 per cent.

Die Linke:
Unable to capitalize on widespread tastes for welfare state policies

Die Linke is puzzling. Founded as a merger of left-wing social democrats who defected from Schröder’s Third Way SPD and the PDS, which came out of East Germany’s former ruling Socialist Unity Party, Die Linke had social justice written on its birth certificate. It furthers constant debate around the question how social justice could be realized in a world of class struggle from above and economic stagnation. These debates deliver a plethora of facts and arguments to hammer out election campaigns. One of its frontrunners, Sarah Wagenknecht, routinely deconstructed neoliberal mythologies about the welfare state and union triggered crises and developed alternative policies out of the rubble of these mythologies. This ability made her something like a media darling. But neither Wagenknecht’s media presence nor the endless hours party activists spent on the campaign trail helped to translate the widespread taste for social justice, time and again revealed in opinion polls, into rising support for Die Linke.

When the SPD candidate Schulz hinted at a social democratic turn early in his campaign, SPD ratings shot up. When these hints turned out as fake news, SPD ratings collapsed but it still wasn’t Die Linke that benefited from the widespread taste for social democratic policies that the SPD couldn’t satisfy. Compared to the last elections, Die Linke’s share of the total vote improved by a meagre 0.9% to 9.2 per cent.

The Greens:
From greening the old left to elitist lifestyle policies

The Greens share Die Linke’s inability to capitalize on widespread discontent. However, the difference between the two is that Die Linke aims at turning discontent with economic and social conditions into a social force that could change these conditions. The Greens, once a vanguard of greening old left agendas, would be content to attract voters from governing parties to increase their electoral market share within largely unchanged conditions. As a social force, they mostly represent a saturated middle class engaging in greened conspicuous consumption to distinguish itself from the cheap-deal chasing classes. Locked into self-chosen exclusivity, they have a hard time gaining shares in mass democratic voter markets. But this doesn’t mean that they are locked out from the corridors of power. At the time of writing, it seems that 8.9% of the total vote suffice as entry ticket to a coalition government with the conservatives and the liberal FDP.

The Greens emerged at the tail end of the rebellious 1970s as an attempt to transform the still existing zeal of the new social movements into an institutional presence against the rising tide of neoliberalism. The new social movements, to be sure, were triggered by insufficiencies of the old left. Tragically, efforts to green the old red agenda failed inside the movements and the Green party also. This opened the door for their transformation into a rather elitist middle-class party. A position it shares with the liberal FDP.

Liberals:
Organize opportunism embraces economic nationalism

After WWII, this party of organized opportunism gave democratic cover to some old Nazis, though most of them joined the conservatives, and free traders. This strange mix was only possible under Cold War conditions. When policies of détente softened these conditions and the 68 rebellion signalled the coming of a new world, the FDP shed its Nazis and reinvented itself as a party of social liberalism and became a coalition partner of the SPD in the late 1960s. In the 1950s and into the early 1960s, the still Nazi-enriched liberals had been loyal to the equally Nazi-staffed conservatives. The late 1960s social liberal incarnation of the FDP didn’t last long; it had barely begun when a combination of economic crises and various social movements represented a double threat to profit rates. Under those conditions, the social democratic left failed to forge a bloc with unions and other social movements that would have pushed the entire party from the post-WWII class compromise to a socialist reformism consciously deepening the crisis of profitability to further socialist transformation. Yet, efforts to do so were enough for the liberals to renew their alliance with the conservatives. Being a catchall party with support from farmers, the petty bourgeoisie and even layers of the working class, the conservatives were slow and hesitant to embrace the neoliberal creed capitalists adopted in response to the crisis of profitability.

The liberals with a smaller support base less reliant on the social layers supporting the conservatives became the vanguard of neoliberalism in Germany. They were so true to their principles that eventually many of its long-time supporters realized that they had long denied stakes in the welfare state and that future doses of neoliberal policies might kill these stakes. As a result, the FDP failed to pass the 5% mark necessary to gain seats in parliament in the 2013 elections but, scoring 10.7% of the vote, had quite a comeback this time around. The liberals had refined their neoliberal commitments, inextricably linked to free trade in the past, by calling upon the state to secure the gains from international economic activity for German citizens. In a time of economic instability and stagnation where even many middle-class people fear they might fall behind, this economic nationalism has more voter appeal than the unrepentant free trade commitments of the pre-Great Recession and pre-Euro-crisis years.

Far right AfD:
Neoliberalism wrapped in Deutschland über alles

Even more successful than liberals at rebranding as economic nationalists was the far right AfD by wrapping its programmatic commitment to neoliberal counter-reforms into thick layers of racism, Islamophobia and, more recently, anti-Semitism supplemented with praise for Germany’s Nazi-past. This brew allowed the AfD to increase its vote share by 7.9%, a little more than the losses suffered by the conservatives, to 12.6 per cent. All other parties campaigned in an ideological field demarcated by neoliberal economics, by conjuring up its past glory, like the conservatives, amending it with touches of social justice, green or assertive foreign policies, like the social democrats, Greens and liberals respectively, or by advocating for the transformation of the neoliberal order into a new kind of welfare state or even a socialist order, like Die Linke. The AfD abandoned the economic field entirely and moved on to politically greener, or maybe browner, fields of race and nation. In a softer version these are presented as culturally inherited identities, in a hard-core version they are biologically determined. Deutschland über alles is the key message in both versions.

Fear Takes Centre Stage

All other parties consider the AfD as a threat to democracy and social cohesion in Germany. To be sure, most parts of the Bavarian CSU and parts of the CDU understand this threat as some other party, the AfD, occupying an ideological field they had reserved for themselves in the past even though they made less noise about it than the AfD. Apart from this qualification, the shock about the AfD’s rise is genuine but pretty helpless, too. Expressions of this shock adopt the far right agenda so that the AfD’s preferred scapegoats – refugees – have taken centre stage in political discourse while they are marginalized economically and socially. Other parties don’t share the AfD’s message, at least not as blatantly as the AfD puts it forward. They may even oppose it. But by focusing so much on refugees they contribute to the shift in discourse from economics to race and nation. Sure enough, many people who feel the pinch of economic insecurity see refugees as unwanted competitors for jobs or welfare provisions. This economic rationale would actually be open to debates seeking policies to reconcile domestic concerns about job and income security with refugee concerns about – exactly the same issues. This is what Die Linke tried. Occasionally, Wagenknecht added a dose of anti-refugee sentiment to her economic messaging while other parts of the party came to a moral defense of refugees that put the left classic argument that capitalism is based on a scarcity of jobs on hold as far as refugees were concerned. For most parts of the election campaign, though, Die Linke managed to present refugees as a particularly vulnerable part of a working class undergoing massive transformations.

The recomposition of the working class in Germany, as elsewhere, certainly has something to do with the influx of refugees and immigrants. But it also has to do, in quantitative terms probably more so, with outsourcing, privatizations, relocation of operations and automation. Combined with pressures on wages, the lowering of social standards and public service cuts this recomposition leads to massive insecurities. They are particularly hard felt, though to different degree by different layers of the working class, because long established forms of representation, through unions, parties, civil society organization and the media were thrown into crises by waves of economic restructuring. A decline of membership in unions and civil society organizations, increasing volatility in the electoral system, most recently illustrated by the fall and rebound of the FDP and the rise of the AfD, and the social media spectacle testify to this crisis of representation. This crisis renders frames through which workers and layers of the middle class could make sense of their respective economic and social conditions obsolete. As a result, objectively existing and increasing insecurities are perceived as unintelligible threats. Fear reigns supreme and eclipses reason. The new German angst is projected onto refugees and immigrants. Arriving at a time of present-day insecurities and dismal outlooks onto the future, foreigners who run for their lives or look for a brighter future unleash the ghosts of history amongst wide swaths of the German population. The conservatives were still living in the recent past when Germany looked like an island of stability in a sea of economic turmoil. Pointing at high levels of employment and balanced budgets, they were quiet about increasing inequalities and insecurities. Yet, these are important concerns for growing numbers of people.

Tragically, thinking about economic and social issues is still dominated by the neoliberal imperatives of competitiveness, deregulation and balanced budgets. Alternative ways of economic thinking that can explain growing inequality and insecurity as outcomes of neoliberal policies, thereby articulate growing discontents and rally for policy alternatives, remain in the shadow of the neoliberal populism that dominates public debates for decades. Die Linke tried hard to strike a different economic chord but it either wasn’t heard or didn’t resonate. Economic reasoning and neoliberalism, even if, or maybe because, it is more of a religion than reasoning, are widely seen as one and the same. This is not only true for 99% of economic professors, 90% of politicians but also the vast majority of the population. Consequently, people finding themselves at the losing end of neoliberalism often express their discontent in non-economic terms. That’s why the AfD’s wrapping their own brand of neoliberalism in a diversity of chauvinistic identity covers was so successful. Finding a different economic language that the discontented can understand and clearly distinguish from the neoliberal creed is possibly the key challenge for Die Linke and the left outside the party to counter the pull to the right that currently dominates politics in Germany. •

Ingo Schmidt teaches Labour Studies at Athabasca University and is one of the organizers of the annual World Peace Forum teach-ins in Vancouver. His latest books are The Three Worlds of Social Democracy, Reading ‘Capital’ Today (with Carlo Fanelli) and Capital@150, Russian Revolution@100 (in German).

Mexicans Denounce Canadian Mega-Mining Projects

As Prime Minister Trudeau makes his first official visit to Mexico, writes Mining Watch Canada, “the Mexican Network of Mining Affected People” (REMA by its initials in Spanish) has issued a communiqué to call on Trudeau to live up to his commitments and stop the devastation of Indigenous and campesino communities that has enabled Canadian mining companies to make big profits.

“Canadian investment in Mexico – the principal destination abroad for Canadian mining investment after the U.S. – is expanding precisely in the most deadly places for anyone to get by on a daily basis, let alone speak out in defence of their land and wellbeing. As the future of the North American Free Trade Agreement is uncertain and Trudeau seeks to shore up a bilateral relationship with Mexico, it's time to put words into action and answer for lives and livelihoods destroyed or at risk around Canadian mine sites.”

The text of the original communiqué follows. Translation by Mining Watch Canada. Footnotes have been converted to embedded links. The original text can be found here.

Richard Fidler

Canadian Mining is Dispossessing Indigenous Peoples and Campesino Communities in Mexico

Mexican Network of Mining Affected People

On the occasion of Justin Trudeau's state visit to Mexico (12 Oct. 2017), the Mexican Network of Mining Affected People urges Canadian mining company invasion of Mexico to stop and withdraw.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has presented himself on the international stage as a democrat, a supporter of human rights and freedoms, and committed to fulfilling the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.[1] Although on this latter point it is important to mention that the government has taken a weak position, limiting its support for the declaration within the scope of the Canadian constitution, which is not minor, particularly if Canada continues to refuse to ratify Convention 169 of the International Labour Organization[2] and fails to respect the self-determination of Indigenous peoples in practice.

Community members look on Los Filos open pit mine in Guerrero, Mexico.

Trudeau's visit to our country has been announced as an opportunity to strengthen commercial ties between Mexico and Canada, which is bad news for those peoples and communities who have been seriously affected by Canadian mining activities. Today, Canada has become the biggest source of foreign investment in mining around the world and in Mexico, to such an extent that 65 per cent of foreign mining companies in Mexico are listed in Canada. For Canada, Mexico has become the second most important destination for Canadian mining investment abroad, after the U.S., such that 11.3% of Canadian mining assets are in Mexico.

The power that Canadian mining wields in Latin America has been openly and arbitrarily promoted by Canada's entire diplomatic corp along the lines of its “economic diplomacy” policy through its embassies. Like good colonialists, they continue to propagate racism and hatred toward Indigenous peoples and campesino communities when they encourage mining investment in an area such as Guerrero – where there is tremendous Canadian mining investment – and then issue alerts to Canadian tourists to avoid traveling to the same place, given the violence and risks that people live with there.

The political and financial weight of Canadian mining companies and the government is a reality that has been used to influence the promotion of constitutional reforms, laws and regulations in the extractive sector to help facilitate foreign investment, as well as to weaken and deny redress for harms, tax payments, or any other condition that might affect company profits.

Violating Human Rights

In Mexico, this has led to an unconstitutional legal framework that violates human rights because, among other things, it gives mining priority above all over activities, which despite being undertaken pretty much exclusively by private companies is also considered in the public interest. This has meant dispossession and forced displacement of legitimate landowners, who when they try to defend their rights, these are denied by the very same companies or through the structures of illegal armed groups or in collusion with diverse actors in the Mexican government.

Health harms, environmental contamination and destruction, criminalization of social protest, threats, harassment, smear campaigns, surveillance, arbitrary detentions and the assassination of defenders are the formula for progress and development that Canadian mining investment has brought to our country. To counteract its brutality, in the media and among the spheres of power, companies gloat about their corporate social responsibility, clean industry certification or safe cyanide use, or their adherence to absurd standards of “conflict free gold” that are supported and certified by organizations largely created by the very same corporate sector.

To substantiate claims of dispossession, pillage, displacement and violence caused by Canadian mining companies, it is enough to visit the communities of Carrizalillo and Nuevo Balsas in Guerrero, Chalchihuites and Mazapil in Zacatecas, the northern highlands of Puebla, Tetlama in Morelos, or Sierrita de Galeana in Durango, as well as Chicomuselo, Chiapas, where Mariano Abarca was murdered for his opposition to a Canadian mining company, prior to which the Canadian embassy in Mexico was alerted to the risks he faced as they monitored the conflict.

The abuses of Canadian mining companies have been ongoing, repeated, and have violated human rights such as rights to territory, property, a safe environment, participation, consultation and consent, lawfulness and legal security. For example, we have seen the same company (Goldcorp) break the law repeatedly by purchasing collectively owned lands, first in Carrizalillo, Guerrero and then, three years later, in Mazapil, Zacatecas. Today in Mexico, Canadian companies are operating 65% or over 850 mining projects at different stages from exploration through to construction and extraction.

It is important to mention, Mr. Justin Trudeau, that the only thing that mining investment from your country has ensured for us is dispossession and the risk that thousands and thousands of communities and persons could lose their culture and identity as a result of destruction of their territory; the arrival of organized crime (whether or not companies are signed up to the bombastic conflict-free gold standard); as well as the escalation of violence, repression and criminalization of those who defend their territories and life.

Accumulating Profits Through Dispossession

In this context, REMA calls on the Canadian government to stop institutional and political support provided through your diplomatic apparatus to enable private Canadian companies to accumulate profits through dispossession. We also demand that you stop promoting policies and weak laws that legalize the activities of these mining companies, among them voluntary codes of conduct known as Corporate Social Responsibility, in place of mandatory compliance. Instead, corporate accountability is urgently needed to put a stop to the ongoing atrocities and illegalities that violate the human rights of Indigenous peoples and campesino communities.

In addition, beyond the positive accounts of the business sectors and government officials in defence of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), it is important to mention that this pact has only helped to legalize dispossession, enabling more wealth to be accumulated by already wealthy sectors, as well as the gradual displacement of both products and local economies to stimulate a new form of accumulation and control, an increase in the deregulation of land ownership and dilution of protections over the public interest and public good, further enabling private pillage. In sum, the principal objective of NAFTA has been to disappear the countryside and campesino farmers.

Finally, Mr. Trudeau, we would like to remind you that well over a year ago, on April 26, 2016, various organizations including ours sent you a letter in which we requested you to kindly bring your attention to the context of human rights violations of Canadian companies in Mexico and Latin America, just shortly after you had assumed your mandate as Prime Minister when you committed yourself and your party to support human rights. To date, we have never received a response to this letter, nor seen any concrete actions to better protect human rights.

Canadian mining investment is destroying our country

Canadian mining companies violate human rights

We will fight for territories free of mining!

Mexican Network of Mining Affected People (REMA)

Postscript: Canada's role in promoting and defending its mining activities in Mexico, in violation of indigenous interests and rights, has not gone unnoticed in that country's media. See, for example, this article in the Mexican daily La Jornada, October 13: “Justin Trudeau en México: frivolidad y decepción.”

The author concludes: “Sadly, after two years in power Justin Trudeau maintains a complicit inaction regarding the death and destruction provoked by Canadian mining companies, consistently aided in this plunder by the help they receive from a legion of corrupt specialists in the sale of our biocultural patrimony. Faced with this, the road to follow has been traced by many peoples in Mexico who have organized to declare their territories free of megaprojects of death, including mega-mining. We should expect nothing from Justin Trudeau other than huge disappointment.” (R.F.) •

Endnotes

1. See in particular Articles 10, 28 and 32, which require the “free, prior and informed consent” of the indigenous peoples concerned by projects impinging on their lands, territories and resources. The Supreme Court of Canada has ignored this requirement in some recent rulings.

2. Also known as the Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention, 1989.

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