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In Chiapas, A Revolution That Won’t Go Away January 23, 2014

Posted by rogerhollander in Latin America, Mexico, Revolution.
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Roger’s note: William Blake coined the phrase “mind forged manacles,” the shackles we impose upon ourselves that prevent our imagination from envisioning a world other than the shitpot we live in.  When a skeptic alleges that human nature will never allow us to be free or to govern ourselves in a truly democratic way, we can and must point to the Paris Commune and the Zapatista Revolution as living proof that it can be done.  I have read some who insist that the Mexican government will inevitably one day wipe out the Zapatistas.  Maybe so, maybe not.  As Marx said, the lesson of the Paris Commune was its living breathing existence.  Unless we are ready to fall into cynicism and despair, we must never lose faith in these living examples of human freedom and dignity.

Published on Thursday, January 23, 2014 by TomDispatch.com

Now You See Me: A Glimpse into the Zapatista Movement, Two Decades Later

The mantra of ‘democracy, liberty, and justice’ has informed the Zapatista movement for more than twenty years. (Photo: Flickr/David Apellido/Falso Handala3)Growing up in a well-heeled suburban community, I absorbed our society’s distaste for dissent long before I was old enough to grasp just what was being dismissed. My understanding of so many people and concepts was tainted by this environment and the education that went with it: Che Guevara and the Black Panthers and Oscar Wilde and Noam Chomsky and Venezuela and Malcolm X and the Service Employees International Union and so, so many more. All of this is why, until recently, I knew almost nothing about the Mexican Zapatista movement except that the excessive number of “a”s looked vaguely suspicious to me. It’s also why I felt compelled to travel thousands of miles to a Zapatista “organizing school” in the heart of the Lacandon jungle in southeastern Mexico to try to sort out just what I’d been missing all these years.

Hurtling South

The fog is so thick that the revelers arrive like ghosts. Out of the mist they appear: men sporting wide-brimmed Zapata hats, women encased in the shaggy sheepskin skirts that are still common in the remote villages of Mexico. And then there are the outsiders like myself with our North Face jackets and camera bags, eyes wide with adventure. (“It’s like the Mexican Woodstock!” exclaims a student from the northern city of Tijuana.) The hill is lined with little restaurants selling tamales and arroz con leche and pozol, a ground-corn drink that can rip a foreigner’s stomach to shreds. There is no alcohol in sight. Sipping coffee as sugary as Alabama sweet tea, I realize that tonight will be my first sober New Year’s Eve since December 31, 1999, when I climbed into bed with my parents to await the Y2K Millennium bug and mourned that the whole world was going to end before I had even kissed a boy.

Thousands are clustered in this muddy field to mark the 20-year anniversary of January 1, 1994, when an army of impoverished farmers surged out of the jungle and launched the first post-modern revolution. Those forces, known as the Zapatista Army of National Liberation, were the armed wing of a much larger movement of indigenous peoples in the southeastern Mexican state of Chiapas, who were demanding full autonomy from their government and global liberation for all people.

“A popular uprising against government-backed globalization led by an all but forgotten people: it was an event that seemed unthinkable. The Berlin Wall had fallen. The market had triumphed. The treaties had been signed. And yet surging out of the jungles came a movement of people with no market value and the audacity to refuse to disappear.”

As the news swept across that emerging communication system known as the Internet, the world momentarily held its breath. A popular uprising against government-backed globalization led by an all but forgotten people: it was an event that seemed unthinkable. The Berlin Wall had fallen. The market had triumphed. The treaties had been signed. And yet surging out of the jungles came a movement of people with no market value and the audacity to refuse to disappear.

Now, 20 years later, villagers and sympathetic outsiders are pouring into one of the Zapatistas’ political centers, known as Oventic, to celebrate the fact that their rebellion has not been wiped out by the wind and exiled from the memory of men.

The plane tickets from New York City to southern Mexico were so expensive that we traveled by land. We E-ZPassed down the eastern seaboard, ate catfish sandwiches in Louisiana, barreled past the refineries of Texas, and then crossed the border. We pulled into Mexico City during the pre-Christmas festivities. The streets were clogged with parents eating tamales and children swinging at piñatas. By daybreak the next morning, we were heading south again. Speed bumps scraped the bottom of our Volvo the entire way from Mexico City to Chiapas, where the Zapatistas control wide swathes of territory. The road skinned the car alive. Later I realized that those speed bumps were, in a way, the consequences of dissent — tiny traffic-controlling monuments to a culture far less resigned to following the rules.

“Up north,” I’d later tell Mexican friends, “we don’t have as many speed bumps, but neither do we have as much social resistance.”

After five days of driving, we reached La Universidad de la Tierra, a free Zapatista-run schoolin the touristy town of San Cristóbal de Las Casas in Chiapas. Most of the year, people from surrounding rural communities arrive here to learn trades like electrical wiring, artisanal crafts, and farming practices. This week, thousands of foreigners had traveled to the town to learn about something much more basic: autonomy.

Our first “class” was in the back of a covered pickup truck careening through the Lacandon jungle with orange trees in full bloom. As we passed, men and women raised peace signs in salute. Spray-painted road signs read (in translation):

“You are now entering Zapatista territory. Here the people order and the government obeys.”

I grew nauseous from the exhaust and the dizzying mountain views, and after six hours in that pickup on this, my sixth day of travel, two things occurred to me: first, I realized that I had traveled “across” Chiapas in what was actually a giant circle; second, I began to suspect that there was no Zapatista organizing school at all, that the lesson I was supposed to absorb was simply that life is a matter of perpetual, cyclical motion. The movement’s main symbol, after all, is a snail’s shell.

Finally, though, we arrived in a village where the houses had thatched roofs and the children spoke only the pre-Hispanic language Ch’ol.

¡Ya Basta!

Over the centuries, the indigenous communities of Chiapas survived Spanish conquistadors, slavery, and plantation-style sugar cane fields; Mexican independence and mestizo landowners; racism, railroads, and neoliberal economic reforms. Each passing year seemed to bring more threats to its way of life. As the father of my host family explained to me, the community began to organize itself in the early 1990s because people felt that the government was slowly but surely exterminating them.

The government was chingando, he said, which translates roughly as deceiving, cheating, and otherwise screwing someone over. It was, he said, stealing their lands. It was extracting the region’s natural resources, forcing people from the countryside into the cities. It was disappearing the indigenous languages through its version of public education. It was signing free trade agreements that threatened to devastate the region’s corn market and the community’s main subsistence crop.

So on January 1, 1994, the day the North America Free Trade Agreement went into effect, some residents of this village — along with those from hundreds of other villages — seized control of major cities across the state and declared war on the Mexican government. Under the name of the Zapatista Army for National Liberation, they burned the army’s barracks and liberated the inmates in the prison at San Cristóbal de Las Casas.

In response, the Mexican army descended on Chiapas with such violence that the students of Mexico City rioted in the streets. In the end, the two sides sat down for peace talks that, to this day, have never been resolved.

The uprising itself lasted only 12 days; the response was a punishing decade of repression. First came the great betrayal. Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo, who, in the wake of the uprising, had promised to enact greater protections for indigenous peoples, instead sent thousands of troops into the Zapatistas’ territory in search of Subcomandante Marcos, the world-renowned spokesperson for the movement. They didn’t find him. But the operation marked the beginning of a hush-hush war against the communities that supported the Zapatistas. The army, police, and hired thugs burned homes and fields and wrecked small, communally owned businesses. Some local leaders disappeared. Others were imprisoned. In one region of Chiapas, the entire population was displaced for so long that the Red Cross set up a refugee camp for them. (In the end, the community rejected the Red Cross aid, in the same way that it also rejects all government aid.)

Since 1994, the movement has largely worked without arms. Villagers resisted government attacks and encroachments with road blockades, silent marches, and even, in one famous case, an aerial attack comprised entirely of paper airplanes.

The Boy Who Is Free

Fifteen years after the uprising, a child named Diego was born in Zapatista territory. He was the youngest member of the household where I was staying, and during my week with the family, he was always up to something. He agitated the chickens, peeked his head through the window to surprise his father at the breakfast table, and amused the family by telling me long stories in Ch’ol that I couldn’t possibly understand.

He also, unknowingly, defied the government’s claim that he does not exist.

Diego is part of the first generation of Zapatista children whose births are registered by one of the organization’s own civil judges. In the eyes of his father, he is one of the first fully independent human beings. He was born in Zapatista territory, attends a Zapatista school, lives on unregistered land, and his body is free of pesticides and genetically modified organisms. Adding to his autonomy is the fact that nothing about him — not his name, weight, eye color, or birth date — is officially registered with the Mexican government. His family does not receive a peso of government aid, nor does it pay a peso worth of taxes. Not even the name of Diego’s town appears on any official map.

By first-world standards, this autonomy comes at a steep price: some serious poverty. Diego’s home has electricity but no running water or indoor plumbing. The outhouse is a hole in the ground concealed by waist-high tarp walls. The bathtub is the small stream in the backyard. Their chickens often free-range it right through their one-room, dirt-floor house. Eating them is considered a luxury.

The population of the town is split between Zapatistas and government loyalists, whom the Zapatistas call “priistas” in reference to Mexico’s ruling political party, the PRI. To discern who is who, all you have to do is check whether or not a family’s roof sports a satellite dish.

Then again, the Zapatistas aren’t focused on accumulating wealth, but on living with dignity. Most of the movement’s work over the last two decades has involved patiently building autonomous structures for Diego and his generation. Today, children like him grow up in a community with its own Zapatista schools; communal businesses; banks; hospitals; clinics; judicial processes; birth, death, and marriage certificates; annual censuses; transportation systems; sports teams; musical bands; art collectives; and a three-tiered system of government. There are no prisons. Students learn both Spanish and their own indigenous language in school. An operation in the autonomous hospital can cost one-tenth that in an official hospital. Members of the Zapatista government, elected through town assemblies, serve without receiving any monetary compensation.

Economic independence is considered the cornerstone of autonomy — especially for a movement that opposes the dominant global model of neoliberal capitalism. In Diego’s town, the Zapatista families have organized a handful of small collectives: a pig-raising operation, a bakery, a shared field for farming, and a chicken coop. The 20-odd chickens had all been sold just before Christmas, so the coop was empty when we visited. The three women who ran the collective explained, somewhat bashfully, that they would soon purchase more chicks to raise.

As they spoke in the outdoor chicken coop, there were squealing noises beneath a nearby table. A tangled cluster of four newly born puppies, eyes still crusted shut against the light, were squirming to stay warm. Their mother was nowhere in sight, and the whole world was new and cold, and everything was unknown. I watched them for a moment and thought about how, although it seemed impossible, they would undoubtedly survive and grow.

Unlike Diego, the majority of young children on the planet today are born into densely packed cities without access to land, animals, crops, or almost any of the natural resources that are required to sustain human life. Instead, we city dwellers often need a ridiculous amount of money simply to meet our basic needs. My first apartment in New York City, a studio smaller than my host family’s thatched-roof house, cost more per month than the family has likely spent in Diego’s entire lifetime.

As a result, many wonder if the example of the Zapatistas has anything to offer an urbanized planet in search of change. Then again, this movement resisted defeat by the military of a modern state and built its own school, medical, and governmental systems for the next generation without even having the convenience of running water. So perhaps a more appropriate question is: What’s the rest of the world waiting for?

Celebrating Dissent

Around six o’clock, when night falls in Oventic, the music for the celebration begins. On stage, a band of guitar-strumming men wear hats that look like lampshades with brightly colored tassels. Younger boys perform Spanish rap. Women, probably from the nearby state of Veracruz, play son jarocho, a type of folk music featuring miniature guitar-like instruments.

It’s raining gently in the open field. The mist clings to shawls and skirts and pasamontañas,the face-covering ski masks that have become iconic imagery for the Zapatistas. “We cover our faces so that you can see us” is a famous Zapatista saying. And it’s true: For a group of people often erased by politicians and exploited by global economies, the ski-masks have the curious effect of making previously invisible faces visible.

Still, there are many strategies to make dissent disappear, of which the least effective may be violence. The most ingenious is undoubtedly to make the rest of the world — and even the dissenter herself — dismissive of what’s being accomplished. Since curtailing its military offensive, the government has waged a propaganda war focused on convincing the rest of Mexico, the world, and even Zapatista communities themselves that the movement and its vision no longer exists.

But there are just as many strategies for keeping dissent and dissenters going. One way is certainly to invite thousands of outsiders to visit your communities and see firsthand that they are real, that in every way that matters they are thriving, and that they have something to teach the rest of us. As Diego’s father said in an uncharacteristic moment of boastfulness, “I think by now that the whole world has heard of our organization.”

Writing is another way to prevent an idea and a movement from disappearing, especially when one is hurtling down the highway in Texas headed back to New York City, already surrounded by a reality so different as to instantly make the Zapatistas hard to remember.

The most joyous way to assert one’s existence, however, is through celebration.

The New Year arrived early in Oventic. One of the subcomandantes had just read a communique issued by the organization’s leadership, first in Spanish, then in the indigenous languages Tzotzil and Tzeltal. The latter translations took her nearly twice as long to deliver, as if to remind us of all the knowledge that was lost with the imposition of a colonial language centuries ago. Then, a low hiss like a cracked soda can, and two fireworks exploded into the air.

“Long live the insurgents!” a masked man on stage cried.

“Viva!” we shouted. The band burst into song, and two more fireworks shot into the sky, their explosions well timed drumbeats of color and sound. The coordination was impeccable. As the chants continued, the air grew so smoky that we could barely see the fireworks exploding, but in that moment, I could still feel their brilliance and the illumination, 20 years old, of the movement releasing them.

© 2014 Laura Gottesdiener
Laura Gottesdiener

Laura Gottesdiener is an organizer with Occupy Wall Street and a freelance journalist in New York City.

Zapatistas at Twenty January 15, 2014

Posted by rogerhollander in Latin America, Mexico, Revolution.
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Roger’s note: In my opinion the Zapatistas are the most important humanist revolutionaries our time.  They have shown us that the notions of individual dignity and communal responsibility are not in opposition to one another.  As revolutionaries they have avoided the pitfall of vanguard-ism and dogmatism.  From the beginning Zapatista women have struggled for and won equality within the movement.  By all traditional logic they should have been wiped out by the U.S. supported democratically elected undemocratic Mexican governments.  But through determination and having captured the imagination and support of  freedom loving peoples around the globe, they not only have survived but continue to maintain authority over various Chiapas regions.  They are a revolutionary example and inspiration for all of us.

 

By January 14, 2014.  Foreign Policy In Focus

There are two tests of social change movements: endurance and regeneration. After two decades, Mexico’s Zapatista movement can now say it passed both.

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Mexico’s Zapatistas, one of the world’s most unclassifiable revolutionary movements, celebrated the 20th anniversary of their movement with high hopes for passing it on to the next generation. (Photo: Void Network / Flickr)

There are two tests of social change movements: endurance and regeneration. After two decades, Mexico’s Zapatista movement can now say it passed both.

Thousands of Zapatistas turned out this month to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the 1994 uprising of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN). At the New Year festivities in the five Caracoles, or regional centers of Zapatista autonomous government, veterans and adolescents not yet born at the time of the insurrection danced, flirted, shot off rockets, and celebrated “autonomy” — the ideal of self-government that lies at the heart of the Zapatista experience.

Public Re-Emergence

The Zapatistas came out by the thousands for their anniversary parties, surprising some. Their death, it turns out, had been greatly exaggerated. Accustomed to the face of politics as a white man talking, the press and the political class began writing obituaries for the movement when Subcomandante Marcos retired from public view in 2006.

Although Zapatista communities have continued to emit a steady stream of communiqués denouncing military and political attacks, land grabs, and the presence of paramilitary forces in Zapatista communities, the media has ignored them. It smugly predicted that the movement was moribund and would soon merit nothing more than a folkloric footnote in the history of the inexorable advance of global capitalism. The return of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) to power in 2012 seemed to reaffirm the idea that Mexico was “back to normal.”

When nearly 50,000 Zapatistas marched in silence on December 21, 2012, they challenged the official line that their movement had all but died. The EZLN communiqué was brief and to the point: “Did you hear that? It is the sound of your world crumbling. It is the sound of ours resurging.”

The 20th anniversary and New Year celebrations this month marked a second moment in that resurgence. The festivities were a family affair. Press was banned, and although a series of articles by Subcomandante Marcos came out before the events, the organization put out no public documents on January 1st, the day of the anniversary itself. It was a time for Zapatistas to pat themselves on the back, an internal affirmation more than a political statement.

It may have been “just family,” but the Zapatistas have a wide extended family. Thousands of supporters and students, mostly youth from Mexico and abroad attending La Escuelita (the Little School), fanned out to theCarcacoles to join in ceremonies and all-night dancing.

The Little School was launched in August to teach “freedom according to the Zapatistas.” Students paired up with tutors from among movement members and were placed in families throughout Zapatista territory. Classes consist mostly of accompanying Zapatista families during their daily chores and long talks over beans and tortillas.

The experience opened up the Zapatista experience to outsiders, who were encouraged to ask questions of their host families. It also enabled the organization to hold up a mirror to itself — to see itself through the eyes of the students, reflect on the ground covered, and get to know other communities.

On New Year’s Eve, many of the 4,000 students attending the school’s winter sessions went out to Oventic, a foggy village in the highlands close to the city of San Cristobal de las Casas, or remained in more remote communities with their host families to join in the sports competitions, music, speeches, and dancing.

zapatista-revolution-mexico-indigenous-autonomous-community

(Photo: Clayton Conn)

The anniversary sparked a debate on the movement, two decades after thousands of masked Mayans came out of the jungles and mountains in military formation to take over municipal seats in the southeastern state of Chiapas.

Subcomandante Marcos published a series of his characteristic communiqués, weaving meditations on death(“it’s not death that worries us and keeps us occupied, but life”) and biography (“historiography feeds on individualities; history learns from peoples“) with reflections on the organization and a story from a beetle named Durito.

Critics rushed to point out that poverty still exists in Zapatista communities — a fact not denied by the organization and obvious to the many visitors. Journalists and pundits invented and then passed around statistics on the number of Zapatista adherents, or lack thereof, as well as on the extension of Zapatista territory and on living conditions in autonomous regions. Many pronounced the world-famous uprising dead or dying for failing to resolve problems or maintain its high profile.

What reporters missed as they snuck into celebrations closed to the press is the significance of “autonomy.”

Zapatistas say the word with pride, much as you’d talk about your children or grandchildren. These communities have moved steadily off the traditional power grid. Disappointment at the Mexican government’s betrayal in rejecting its own signature on the San Andres Accords of 1996 led to a decision to de-prioritize pressuring institutions and instead build from below.

Imagine communities where local officials rotate to avoid accumulating power, political parties have no role or presence, and state and government programs — long used to buy off advocates for a more equal society — are banned. Much of the food is produced by the community, cooperatives do buying and marketing, and decisions are made collectively rather than being imposed by a state. The Zapatistas have attempted to resurrect this model, practiced for centuries in indigenous Mexico prior to the Spanish conquest.

Comandante Hortensia addressed the crowd in Oventic. “We’re learning to govern ourselves according to our own ways of thinking and living,” she said. “We’re trying to move forward, to improve and strengthen ourselves — men, women, youth, children, and old people.”

She added that 20 years ago, when the Zapatistas first said ¡Ya basta!(“Enough!”), “there wasn’t a single authority that was of the people. Now we have our own autonomous governments. It may have be good or bad, but it’s the will of the people.”

The Zapatistas acknowledge that progress in improving material conditions has been slow and hampered by obstacles and errors. But they express deep pride in what has been built, in “their” organization. Local health clinics — often poorly stocked and precariously staffed — use natural medicines made by community cooperatives and have special areas where trained midwives attend childbirth. Schools with rudimentary equipment teach in the indigenous languages of the communities, focusing on understanding the world the children live in and basic concepts of freedom, equality, and cooperation. The organization of defense and production in the communities shows discipline and commitment.

The anniversary revealed that at 20 years old, this military-political organization that defies easy categorization is what a democracy should be: an ongoing effort at building a better life collectively. When Zapatistas came together from communities throughout their lands to celebrate, the main achievement they marked was the survival of the organization itself — after 20 years of attacks, they’re still there, running their own communities, raising new generations of Zapatistas, and carrying on the dialogue with the outside world that has enriched both sides.

Communities have survived the moment in a long distance race when the runners pass the baton. Youths make up a large part of the Zapatistas’ base, representation, and more and more, leadership. Educated in the Zapatista school system and raised in Zapatista communities, a new generation is beginning to take on positions of authority. Their eagerness to assume the collective identity of their organization is another mark of the staying power of the autonomy experiment.

The role of women has also transformed visibly — not just in the number of women in leadership positions, but also in aspects of daily life, such as increased male participation in housework and childcare, and sanctions against violence towards women. The shift from downtrodden alienation to indigenous self-government makes a huge difference in their lives, even as poverty remains.

In evaluating the two-decade experience, most criteria ignore these subjective factors. By opening up the communities to participants in La Escuelita, the Zapatistas did something governments almost never do: let the people publicly evaluate the experience themselves. Returning studentsrecounted the experience enthusiastically, describing how their hosts revealed a world that wasn’t perfect by a long shot, but a world where each person mattered and each effort, each achievement, and each mistake was their own.

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(Photo: Clayton Conn)

As the Zapatistas celebrated their accomplishments, vowed to correct their mistakes, and honored their dead, they also enjoyed more traditional New Year’s activities like setting off bottle rockets and dressing up in their finest. The solid continuity of Zapatismo was joined by a portent of change, the sense that yet another phase of one of history’s most unclassifiable revolutionary movements had begun.

As visiting students from all over the world joined together with veterans of the movement and younger members of the community, new possibilities shimmered under the moon of a new year. Contact with a new generation of supporters proved that the indigenous autonomy movement continues to attract people from all over. For now, the schools will continue. The Zapatistas have also jump-started the dormant National Indigenous Congress, holding an event in August where hundreds of indigenous representatives described the situation in their lands.

Amid mud, guitars, vivas, fireworks, and embraces, thousands of Zapatistas welcomed 2014. The debate on whether the movement is dead or alive, victorious or defeated, was left behind along with 2013. It wasn’t just the alcohol-free festivities that made people optimistic; it was a feeling of collective accomplishment, under tough conditions. A feeling of finally having a future.

“I know you don’t care,” Subcomandante Marcos noted in a missive to his critics, “but for the masked men and women from around here, the battle that matters isn’t the one that’s been won or lost. It’s the next one, and for that one, new calendars and grounds are being prepared.”

Foreign Policy In Focus columnist Laura Carlsen directs the Americas Program for the Center for International Policy in Mexico City.

Fresh Leak on US Spying: NSA Accessed Mexican President’s Email October 20, 2013

Posted by rogerhollander in Brazil, Latin America, Mexico, Surveillance State.
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By Jens Glüsing, Laura Poitras, Marcel Rosenbach and Holger Stark

http://www.spiegel.de, October 20, 2013

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DPA

The NSA has been systematically eavesdropping on the Mexican government for years. It hacked into the president’s public email account and gained deep insight into policymaking and the political system. The news is likely to hurt ties between the US and Mexico.

The National Security Agency (NSA) has a division for particularly difficult missions. Called “Tailored Access Operations” (TAO), this department devises special methods for special targets.

 

ANZEIGE

That category includes surveillance of neighboring Mexico, and in May 2010, the division reported its mission accomplished. A report classified as “top secret” said: “TAO successfully exploited a key mail server in the Mexican Presidencia domain within the Mexican Presidential network to gain first-ever access to President Felipe Calderon’s public email account.”According to the NSA, this email domain was also used by cabinet members, and contained “diplomatic, economic and leadership communications which continue to provide insight into Mexico’s political system and internal stability.” The president’s office, the NSA reported, was now “a lucrative source.”

This operation, dubbed “Flatliquid,” is described in a document leaked by whistleblower Edward Snowden, which SPIEGEL has now had the opportunity to analyze. The case is likely to cause further strain on relations between Mexico and the United States, which have been tense since Brazilian television network TV Globo revealed in September that the NSA monitored then-presidential candidate Enrique Peña Nieto and others around him in the summer of 2012. Peña Nieto, now Mexico’s president, summoned the US ambassador in the wake of that news, but confined his reaction to demanding an investigation into the matter.

Now, though, the revelation that the NSA has systematically infiltrated an entire computer network is likely to trigger deeper controversy, especially since the NSA’s snooping took place during the term of Peña Nieto’s predecessor Felipe Calderón, a leader who worked more closely with Washington than any other Mexican president before him.

Brazil Also Targeted

Reports of US surveillance operations have caused outrage in Latin America in recent months. Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff cancelled a planned trip to Washington five weeks ago and condemned the NSA’s espionage in a blistering speech to the United Nations General Assembly.

The US surveillance of politicians in Mexico and Brazil is not a one-off. Internal documents show these countries’ leaders represent important monitoring targets for the NSA, with both Mexico and Brazil ranking among the nations high on an April 2013 list that enumerates the US’ surveillance priorities. That list, classified as “secret,” was authorized by the White House and “presidentially approved,” according to internal NSA documents.

The list ranks strategic objectives for all US intelligence services using a scale from “1” for high priority to “5” for low priority. In the case of Mexico, the US is interested primarily in the drug trade (priority level 1) and the country’s leadership (level 3). Other areas flagged for surveillance include Mexico’s economic stability, military capabilities, human rights and international trade relations (all ranked at level 3), as well as counterespionage (level 4). It’s much the same with Brazil — ascertaining the intentions of that country’s leadership ranks among the stated espionage targets. Brazil’s nuclear program is high on the list as well.

When Brazilian President Rousseff took office in early 2011, one of her goals was to improve relations with Washington, which had cooled under her predecessor, the popular former labor leader Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. Lula focused primarily on establishing closer ties with China, India and African nations, and even invited Iran’s then-President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to Brazil, in a snub to the US. President Barack Obama postponed a planned visit to the capital, Brasília, as a result.

Rousseff, however, has distanced herself from Iran. And the first foreign minister to serve under her, Antonio Patriota, who recently resigned, was seen as friendly toward the US, maintaining good ties with his counterpart Hillary Clinton. Obama made a state visit to Brazil two years ago and Rousseff had planned to reciprocate with a visit to Washington this October.

Then came the revelation that US authorities didn’t stop short of spying on the president herself. According to one internal NSA presentation, the agency investigated “the communication methods and associated selectors of Brazilian President Dilma Rouseff and her key advisers.” It also said it found potential “high-value targets” among her inner circle.

Economic Motives?

Rousseff believes Washington’s reasons for employing such unfriendly methods are partly economic, an accusation that the NSA and its director, General Keith Alexander, have denied. Yet according to the leaked NSA documents, the US also monitored email and telephone communications at Petrobras, the oil corporation in which the Brazilian government holds a majority stake. Brazil possesses enormous offshore oil reserves.

Just how intensively the US spies on its neighbors can be seen in another, previously unknown operation in Mexico, dubbed “Whitetamale” by the NSA. In August 2009, according to internal documents, the agency gained access to the emails of various high-ranking officials in Mexico’s Public Security Secretariat that combats the drug trade and human trafficking. This hacking operation allowed the NSA not only to obtain information on several drug cartels, but also to gain access to “diplomatic talking-points.” In the space of a single year, according to the internal documents, this operation produced 260 classified reports that allowed US politicians to conduct successful talks on political issues and to plan international investments.

The tone of the document that lists the NSA’s “tremendous success” in monitoring Mexican targets shows how aggressively the US intelligence agency monitors its southern neighbor. “These TAO accesses into several Mexican government agencies are just the beginning — we intend to go much further against this important target,” the document reads. It goes on to state that the divisions responsible for this surveillance are “poised for future successes.”

While these operations were overseen from the NSA’s branch in San Antonio, Texas, secret listening stations in the US Embassies in Mexico City and Brasília also played a key role. The program, known as the “Special Collection Service,” is conducted in cooperation with the CIA. The teams have at their disposal a wide array of methods and high-tech equipment that allow them to intercept all forms of electronic communication. The NSA conducts its surveillance of telephone conversations and text messages transmitted through Mexico’s cell phone network under the internal code name “Eveningeasel.” In Brasília, the agency also operates one of its most important operational bases for monitoring satellite communications.

This summer, the NSA took its activities to new heights as elections took place in Mexico. Despite having access to the presidential computer network, the US knew little about Enrique Peña Nieto, designated successor to Felipe Calderón.

Spying on Peña Nieto

In his campaign appearances, Peña Nieto would make his way to the podium through a sea of supporters, ascending to the stage like a rock star. He is married to an actress, and also had the support of several influential elder statesmen within his party, the PRI. He promised to reform the party and fight pervasive corruption in the country. But those familiar with the PRI, which is itself regarded by many as corrupt, saw this pledge as little more than a maneuver made for show.

First and foremost, though, Peña Nieto promised voters he would change Mexico’s strategy in the war on drugs, announcing he would withdraw the military from the fight against the drug cartels as soon as possible and invest more money in social programs instead. Yet at the same time, he assured Washington there would be no U-turn in Mexico’s strategy regarding the cartels. So what were Peña Nieto’s true thoughts at the time? What were his advisers telling him?

The NSA’s intelligence agents in Texas must have been asking themselves such questions when they authorized an unusual type of operation known as structural surveillance. For two weeks in the early summer of 2012, the NSA unit responsible for monitoring the Mexican government analyzed data that included the cell phone communications of Peña Nieto and “nine of his close associates,” as an internal presentation from June 2012 shows. Analysts used software to connect this data into a network, shown in a graphic that resembles a swarm of bees. The software then filtered out Peña Nieto’s most relevant contacts and entered them into a databank called “DishFire.” From then on, these individuals’ cell phones were singled out for surveillance.

According to the internal documents, this led to the agency intercepting 85,489 text messages, some sent by Peña Nieto himself and some by his associates. This technology “might find a needle in a haystack,” the analysts noted, adding that it could do so “in a repeatable and efficient way.”

It seems, though, that the NSA’s agents are no longer quite as comfortable expressing such pride in their work. Asked for a comment by SPIEGEL, the agency replied: “We are not going to comment publicly on every specific alleged intelligence activity, and as a matter of policy we have made clear that the United States gathers foreign intelligence of the type gathered by all nations. As the President said in his speech at the UN General Assembly, we’ve begun to review the way that we gather intelligence, so that we properly balance the legitimate security concerns of our citizens and allies with the privacy concerns that all people share.”

Meanwhile, the NSA’s spying has already caused considerable political damage in the case of Brazil, seriously denting the mutual trust between Rousseff and Obama. Brazil now plans to introduce a law that will force companies such as Google and Facebook to store their data inside Brazil’s borders, rather than on servers in the US, making these international companies subject to Brazilian data privacy laws. The Brazilian government is also developing a new encryption system to protect its own data against hacking.

 

So far, Mexico has reacted more moderately — although the fact that the NSA infiltrated even the presidential computer network wasn’t known until now. Commenting after TV Globo first revealed the NSA’s surveillance of text messages, Peña Nieto stated that Obama had promised him to investigate the accusations and to punish those responsible, if it was found that misdeeds had taken place.In response to an inquiry from SPIEGEL concerning the latest revelations, Mexico’s Foreign Ministry replied with an email condemning any form of espionage on Mexican citizens, saying such surveillance violates international law. “That is all the government has to say on the matter,” stated a spokesperson for Peña Nieto.

Presumably, that email could be read at the NSA’s Texas location at the same time.

Students Leave the Zapatistas’ First School With Homework August 25, 2013

Posted by rogerhollander in First Nations, Latin America, Mexico, Revolution.
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The 1700 students who travelled from across Mexico and the world to attend the Zapatistas’first school last week are leaving with an important homework assignment: to transfer what they learned to their respective collectives and movements.

A man takes notes during the Tata Juan Chávez Alonso Seminar about indigenous struggles, which began directly the Zapatistas first school on liberty earlier this month. (Photo: WNV/Marta Molina)

Some left with blisters on their hands from working in the fields with a machete for the first time. Others told stories of waking before the sun rose to prepare tortillas and beans and pozol (water with corn flour added) for their companions who were going to work in the milpa (cornfields) and to chop and carry wood. As the students prepared these meals, often for the first time, they listened to the sounds of indigenous languages like Tojobal, Chol, Tzeltal, and Tzotzil. As they ate, they shared experiences and began understanding that their sense of resistance came from their own families, from the very beginning of their childhoods.

The focus of the five-day school’s curriculum was liberty according to the Zapatistas, and students grew to understand how the home stays in Zapatista territories were an integral part of the lesson. “They care for Mother Earth because it’s what brings them food,” explained Marcos, a student from Argentina. “In the cities we buy everything in containers, and we don’t even know where it comes from. That [growing one’s own food] is also part of liberty.”

Others said that liberty lies in exercising autonomy without government help. It is the hard daily work that allows the Zapatistas to survive without the government and be free, said the students. Coherence, resistance and responsibility were words they repeated often in describing the Zapatista way of life.

“To be free is to be able to decide for themselves what lives they want to have,” said Marcos.

“What education they want. How they want to raise their children. How they want to organize. We have to go to the supermarket, go to the school that the system offers us to then reproduce that system — at university as well. We have to take the healthcare system that the system offers us and that we don’t understand,” he said.

During the school, Toño from Brazil stayed in the Rosario de Río Blanco in the Caracol La Realidad, close to the city of Las Margaritas. “It was the best school I’ve been to in all my life,” he said. Toño and other students learned how a Zapatista family can live peacefully in communities where the majority of people support the PRI, the governing Institutional Revolutionary Party, and receive money from government projects. “But if one day they lose their government financial support, they won’t know what to do,” said Toño.

Erwin, a student from Cuetzalan, a small town in the Mexican state of Puebla, works to build autonomy for the community where he lives, and he understands how the Zapatistas navigate relationships with their non-Zapatista neighbors.

“They have differences with their neighbors, but they don’t treat them as enemies,” he said. “The system is negatively affecting the everyday life of all, partisan, non-partisan. Even the army has indigenous people in it. And that’s what capitalism wants: for brothers to fight each other.”

Many felt that learning how the Zapatistas live alongside, and assume a non-confrontational attitude toward, people who don’t think like them was an indispensable lesson. Non-Zapatistas can even come to the autonomous clinic when they are sick, and they will be attended to rather than rejected. “In this same community we greet all people who are not Zapatistas with affection, because we are all affected by the system…The real enemy is the same, the system,” said Erwin.

The fact that oftentimes students did not speak the same language as their host families, teachers and guardians, called votanes, was not necessarily a problem. “We wound up understanding each other,” said 17-year-old Camila, who is a student at the College of Sciences and Humanities at the National Autonomous University of Mexico. The texts provided by the Zapatista school were very different than those she was familiar with from college. “They explain through anecdotes, which are reflections of practice.” Camila said she hopes that a second grade will be added to the escuelita, and that, if one is, she will be allowed to attend. She said she learned over the course of those five days that autonomy exists and is possible.

The lesson that most impacted Uruguayan Mónica Olaso was when she asked her teacher why they were summoned and what the Zapatistas expected of the students. The response, Mónica recounted, was, “You know, Mónica, a bullet is not going to reach Uruguay. But our word will.” She is returning to her country, she said, with the mission to insist on organizing with the patience required to realize the commitments they make with people in her communities. She also feels the responsibility to pass along the lessons both in the books she was given by the Zapatistas and those already within her — her experiences.

“The Zapatistas wanted us to hear them, to see them, to share with them their experiences of struggle. Now, we have a mission: that every one of us, in accordance with our ways and places, continue organizing according to our context,” said Mónica from Uruguay. Toño, who is part of the Passe Livre Movement in Brazil, which helped organize the mass protests against the fare hikes earlier this summer, agreed. “Rural movements, urban movements, no matter which. But we have to learn how to be more autonomous, and therefore we will be more free. We will even live alongside the enemy itself, because if you are autonomous and free, then you can live with them,” he said.

 Alex, a student from San Francisco, Calif., stayed at the Caracol La Realidad with Toño during the school. He says that he learned discipline, listening and the importance of having a long-term strategic vision. In his opinion, these are three things that are missing from social movements in the United States. “There are two main lessons,” he said. “First, is the discipline to accomplish what you say you’re going to do. The second is being self-critic and evaluating our mistakes and victories.” He quoted the Zapatista saying — “we walk slowly because we are going far” — as he explained the longevity of the movement: the Zapatistas have already celebrated 30 years since founding the EZLN, 20 years since establishing the municipalities and starting to build their autonomy, and ten years since the creation of the autonomous governing structure, the Councils of Good Government. This long-term view, Alex said, is lacking in the United States.

In addition to organizing the escuelita, the EZLN also brought together representatives of indigenous peoples from all over Mexico to inaugurate the first Tata Juan Chávez Alonso Traveling Seminar. Held directly after the escuelita at the Centro Indigena de capacitación Integral,

The University of the Earth, in San Cristóbal de Las Casas in Chiapas, the seminar was a gathering of members of indigenous communities from around the world. The location for the inaugural seminar was significant because the Zapatistas are organizing — like so many other indigenous communities in resistance — to defend their territories from threats by transnational corporations, narco-trafficking and governments. Some students who attended the escuelita to listen and learn with Zapatista families about the meanings of liberty and autonomy also attended the Tata Juan Chávez Alonso Seminar. Indigenous participants shared their victories and organizational missteps as a way to measure of the strength of the indigenous communities that conform the National Indigenous Congress, and those who still do not belong to it.

The ongoing seminar will continue to re-convene in different regions of the Americas and is intended to create a traveling forum for indigenous voices, while the Zapatistas have announced that they will hold a second escuelita this coming winter.

Marta Molina is an independent journalist from Barcelona, Catalunya. She has written about cultural resistance in Brazil and Palestine, and now she is based in Mexico following the steps of the Movement for Peace Justice and Dignity (MPJD) against the war on drugs.

The Zapatistas’ First School Opens for Session August 13, 2013

Posted by rogerhollander in Education, First Nations, Latin America, Mexico, Revolution.
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Roger’s note: The Zapatistas are perhaps the most important revolutionary movement of our times.  The figure known as Subcomandante Marcos was a Mexico City academic who went to Chiapas to teach revolution to the Indigenous population.  Instead, he himself got his world view flipped 180 degrees, coming to realize that the true revolutionary spirit is indigenous to the Indigenous.  What the Zapatistas have taught us is the prime importance of the notion of “dignity,” self-governance, and that genuine revolution at a given time does not necessarily imply the necessity of winning state power.  I recommend that anyone interested in revolutionary theory and practice look into the Zapatista experience.  I also recommend a work greatly inspired by the Zapatista movement, John Holloway’s “Change the World Without Taking Power.”

 

Yesterday, 1,700 students from around the world enrolled in the first Zapatistas school, held at the University of the People’s Land of Chiapas. (Photo: WNV/Moysés Zúñiga Santiago)

Last December, tens of thousands of indigenous Zapatistas mobilized, peacefully and in complete silence, to occupy five municipal government office buildings in the state of Chiapas, Mexico. That same day, which coincided with the end of one cycle on the Maya calendar, Zapatistas released a communiqué, asking, “Did you hear it?”

It appears that the answer was yes, because this week thousands of people from around the world are descending on Chiapas for the Zapatistas’ first organizing school, called la escuelita de libertad, which means the little school of liberty. Originally the group allotted for only 500 students. But so many people wished to enroll that they opened an additional 1,200 slots for the weeklong school, which begins on August 12.

Just as the Zapatistas have, for two decades, rejected hierarchical systems, the escuelita will also eschew traditional teaching models. Instead, it will be an open space for the community to learn together.

“There isn’t one teacher,” wrote Subcomandante Marcos, the spokesperson for the Zapatista movement. “Rather, it is the collective that teaches, that shows, that forms, and in it and through it the person learns, and also teaches.”

While attending the escuelita, students will live with a family in a rebel zapatista community and participate both in the school and in the daily life of the community. Participants will cut wood, work in the cornfields and cook and eat with their host families.

Subcomandante Marcos acknowledged that attending this type of school requires shifting one’s way of thinking about learning and indigenous communities. As he asked in a communiqué:

Would you attend a school taught by indigenous teachers, whose mother tongue is typified as “dialect”?

Could you overcome the temptation to study them as anthropological subjects, psychological subjects, subjects of law or esoterism, or history?

Would you overcome the urge to write a report, interview them, tell them your opinion, give them advice, orders?

Would you see them, that is to say, would you listen to them?

Leading up to the school, the Zapatistas published a series of seven communiqués entitled “Them and Us.” These essays illustrated the absurdities of “those from above” — those who hold coercive and repressive power — trampling the freedoms of “those from below.” The writings also spoke to the need to learn by observing and listening in order to build an alternative world. But more than abstractions, the seven publications were a collection of lessons about how everyday life in the Zapatista communities, including how people resolve problems and how they organize themselves into an autonomous networks in which the people rule and the government obeys.

The last installation of this manual, published on March 27, also announced the upcoming escuelita and outlined three requirements necessary for any applicant: “an indisposition to speaking and judging, a disposition to listening and seeing, and a well-placed heart.”

The Zapatistas are unique not only for challenging power or maintaining their resistance for nearly 20 years. What sets them apart is their ever-evolving definition of liberty, and this topic — liberty according to the Zapatistas — will be the central focus of the school. According to Subcomandante Marcos, liberty is “to govern and govern ourselves according to our ways, in our geography and in this calendar.” But the definition also shifts from generation to generation, and Marcos explains that new generations must find their own paths through rebellion and dignity.

The experience of living with Zapatistas and other indigenous families will be another central part of the school. Some students will stay with families living in autonomous rebel communities, while others will be with nearby non-Zapatistas, or even anti-Zapatistas families. These hundreds of families have all agreed on a votán, a person who, in the Zapatista movement, represents a guardian and the heart of the community. The votáns will translate for the families and the foreign students, although Marcos acknowledges that translation itself is an imperfect process.

“In legal cases, do cultures translate?” he questions. “In that sense, one understands that what they call ‘equality under the law’ is one of the greatest travesties of justice in our world.”

As for final evaluations, the school won’t, unsurprisingly, have an exam, a thesis, or a multiple-choice test. Rather, as Marcos explained, the school “will make its own reality,” and the results will be “a mirror.”

The school began after three days of festivals in rebel communities to celebrate the 10-year anniversary of the councils of good governance, the Zapatistas’ autonomous governing system in which the community makes decisions and the government carries them out. During the celebrations, one could see empty buses and vans parked along the streets to Ocosingo and Palenque, waiting to transport the 1,700 students from San Cristobal de Las Casas into the rebel communities the following morning.

Earlier this summer, the Zapatistas announced that future escuelitas in the Zapatista communities will be held this coming winter.

Marta Molina is an independent journalist from Barcelona, Catalunya. She has written about cultural resistance in Brazil and nonviolent resistance in Palestine. Now she is based in Mexico following the steps of the Movement for Peace, Justice and Dignity (MPJD) against the war on drugs, and the movement Yosoy132 for the democratization of media and an authentic democracy in the country. She also reports about movements on defense of the land and struggles for autonomy in the South of México and Guatemala. You can follow Marta on Twitter at @martamoli_RR

 

Obama and the Militarization of the “Drug War” in Mexico and Central America May 10, 2013

Posted by rogerhollander in Costa Rica, Criminal Justice, Drugs, Honduras, Human Rights, Latin America, Mexico.
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Honduran soldiers exercised at Forward Operating Base Mocoron, one of three military outposts the United States is building in Honduras to help take the fight in Central America’s vicious drug war into remote, ungoverned areas that have been safe havens for narcotics traffickers. (Photo: Tomas Munita for The New York Times)

During his trip last week to Mexico and Costa Rica, President Obama sought to down play the U.S.’s security agenda in the region, emphasizing trade relations, energy cooperation and other more benign themes.  In a May 3rd joint press conference with his Costa Rican counterpart Laura Chinchilla, Obama stated that it was necessary “to recognize that problems like narco-trafficking arise in part when a country is vulnerable because of poverty, because of institutions that are not working for the people, because young people don’t see a brighter future ahead.”  Asked by a journalist about the potential use of U.S. warships to counter drug-trafficking, Obama said “I’m not interested in militarizing the struggle against drug trafficking.”

Human rights organizations from North America and Central America have a very different impression of the administration’s regional security policy.  In a letter sent to Obama and the other region’s presidents on April 30th, over 145 civil society organizations [PDF] from the U.S., Mexico and the countries of Central America called out U.S. policies that “promote militarization to address organized crime.”   These policies, the letter states, have only resulted in a “dramatic surge in violent crime, often reportedly perpetrated by security forces themselves.”  The letter presents a scathing indictment of the U.S.-backed so-called “war on drugs” throughout the region:

Human rights abuses against our families and communities are, in many cases, directly attributable to failed and counterproductive security policies that have militarized our societies in the name of the “war on drugs.”  The deployment of our countries’ armed forces  to combat organized crime and drug-trafficking, and the increasing militarization of police units, endanger already weak civilian institutions and leads to increased human rights violations.

In Mexico, the letter says, “drug-related violence and the militarized response has killed an estimated 80,000 men, women, and children in the past six years. More than 26,000 have been disappeared, and countless numbers have been wounded and traumatized.”  The letter also discusses the situation in Guatemala, where violence is “reaching levels only seen during the internal armed conflict” and “controversial ‘security’ policies have placed the military back onto the streets.  And, in Honduras:

Since the coup d’état that forced the elected president into exile in 2009, the rule of law has disintegrated while violence and impunity have soared. We are witnessing a resurgence of death squad tactics with targeted killings of land rights advocates, journalists, LGBT activists, lawyers, women’s rights advocates, political activists and the Garifuna’s community. Both military and police are allegedly involved in abuses and killings but are almost never brought to justice.

Though Obama claims that he has sought to avoid “militarizing the struggle against drug trafficking”, the opposite trend has been observed throughout his administration.  As the “Just the Facts” database of U.S. military spending in the Western Hemisphere shows, military assistance to Central American countries has significantly increased under Obama, from $51.8 million in 2009, to $76.5 million in 2013 and an anticipated $90 million in 2014.

The U.S. sale of arms and military equipment to the region has also soared.  According to a recent Associated Press investigation by Martha Mendoza , “the U.S. authorized the sale of a record $2.8 billion worth of guns, satellites, radar equipment and tear gas to Western Hemisphere nations in 2011, four times the authorized sales 10 years ago, according to the latest State Department reports.”

The presence of the U.S military in the region, and the U.S. promotion of military tactics in law enforcement, has also increased under Obama.  A New York Times investigative report from May 5, 2012 described how the U.S. military had recently established forward operating bases in the remote Moskitia region of Honduras and was providing support to drug interdiction efforts.  A heavily armed DEA Foreign-deployed Advisory Support Team (FAST) previously deployed in Afghanistan was conducting operations with a U.S.-trained and vetted Honduran Tactical Response Team.  Six days after the article was published, FAST and TRT killed four indigenous Miskitu villagers during an early morning operation.  As we showed in a report published last month jointly with Rights Action, the victims’ families continue to wait for some form of justice and compensation for the killings.

Alexander Main

Alexander Main is Senior Associate for International Policy at the Center for Economic and Policy Research.

Walmart: The Stench of Bentonville Spreads to Mexico — and Back May 5, 2012

Posted by rogerhollander in Economic Crisis, Labor, Mexico.
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Published on Saturday, May 5, 2012, www.commondreams.org

 

by Jim Hightower

Wal-mart has long boasted of its “Always Low Prices,” but now it has confirmed that it also has “Always low morals.”

The bottom line has always been THE line for Wal-mart executives, and sinking to the ethical bottom to enhance that line has not only been tolerated, but legitimized as a proven path to executive promotion and riches. Squeezing suppliers, crushing competitors, exploiting employees, using enslaved workers in foreign factories and resorting to other brutish tactics to pound out another dollar in profit are central components of Wal-mart’s management ethos and business plan.

Now, we can add bribery to the list of accepted practices — so accepted that even getting caught at it doesn’t mean you get fired.

Walmart de Mexico is now the largest retailer and employer in that country, an exalted status that it gained the old-fashioned way: by doling out millions of dollars in corporate bribes. With sluggish sales and a tarnished brand in the U.S., the retailing giant has been pushing hard to expand internationally, and in amazingly short time, its Mexican branch became huge, with one out of five Walmart stores presently located there.

All it took, we now learn from an excellent investigative report by The New York Times, was the systematic spreading of muchos, muchos pesos to government officials across the country to gain needed permits quickly, dodge environmental restrictions and generally have the company’s path cleared for market domination.

Not only is this wrong, it is seriously criminal — a blatant violation of our Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. And, lest you think the corruption was the work of some lower-level manager gone rogue, the knowledge of this wholesale bribery scheme goes all the way to the top, including the current and one former CEO.

David Tovar, a Wal-mart PR agent, was rushed out as the scandal was gaining media coverage to assert, disingenuously, “We are committed to getting to the bottom of this matter.” Too late, sir.

Wal-mart already reached bottom.

Apparently, though, a skunk doesn’t smell its own stink — or at least it’s not offended by it.

Thus Wal-mart honchos are addressing the nauseating stench of this still-evolving bribery scandal as though it’s coming from somewhere else.

“We are deeply concerned by these allegations,” declared PR man Tovar, “and are working aggressively to determine what happened.”

Well, gosh, you could just walk aggressively over to the executive suite and ask CEO Mike Duke, board member Lee Scott and vice chairman Eduardo Castro-Wright. All three have first-hand knowledge of what happened, for they were butt-deep in it. You see, while Wal-mart’s massive bribery payments took place in Mexico, the corruption emanated from the very top of corporate headquarters in Bentonville, Ark.

It stems directly from Wal-mart’s ruling ethic of grabbing market share and profits at all costs, pressuring managers to achieve “very aggressive growth goals” by doing “whatever was necessary.” A decade ago, when Castro-Wright became head of Wal-Mart operations in Mexico, he decided that “necessary” included unbridled bribery. As early as 2005, this was known by the corporate chieftains in Bentonville, including then-CEO Scott. Also, Duke, who oversaw all international divisions at the time, was told in 2005 about corrupt payouts, which eventually totaled some $24 million.

So, did Scott and Duke rebuke the perpetrator? No. Instead, Scott rebuked those who’d brought the illegalities to his attention, chiding them for being too aggressive.

Fearing that exposure could hurt Wal-mart’s stock price, he killed the internal investigation by turning it over to — guess who? — Castro-Wright. Yes, the very same man pushing the bribery scheme! The bribes continued, and in 2008, Castro-Wright was promoted to vice chairman of the corporation. Scott has since retired with a golden pension and a multimillion-dollar fortune, and Duke was elevated to CEO, now drawing $18 million in pay.

It’s all part of Wal-mart’s business model — and it’s stinkier than a whole den of skunks could possibly be.

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Jim Hightower

National radio commentator, writer, public speaker, and author of the book, Swim Against The Current: Even A Dead Fish Can Go With The Flow, Jim Hightower has spent three decades battling the Powers That Be on behalf of the Powers That Ought To Be – consumers, working families, environmentalists, small businesses, and just-plain-folks.

The Zapatistas Return Amid Failed Drug War June 11, 2011

Posted by rogerhollander in Drugs, Latin America, Mexico.
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After Javier Sicilia spoke to the crowd of thousands, he called for a 5-minute period of silence to honor the memory of victims of the drug war. (Photo: Kara Newhouse / Flickr)
Saturday 11 June 2011
by: Michael McCaughan, The Indypendent

 

San Cristobal, Mexico – This nation is caught in the grip of an escalating drug war that has cost 40,000 lives in the past five years. The daily body count varies but is usually measured in the dozens.  Methods of extermination range from decapitation and mutilation to asphyxiation and a bullet in the head. Most Mexicans have become numbed to the extreme cruelty and hope they don’t get swept up in the river of blood.

Once in a while, however, a single incident can trigger a powerful reaction. Juan Francisco Sicilia was one of seven friends found bound and murdered on March 28 south of Mexico City, with evidence pointing to a drug cartel. His killing has sparked a national mobilization and a new movement aimed at shifting government policy away from perpetual warfare and toward an integrated political solution.

Javier Sicilia, poet and father of Juan Francisco, launched “The March for Peace with Justice and Dignity,” a three-day event that culminated in a rally in Mexico City. The idea was simple – a silent march and a single slogan: “Estamos hasta la madre, no mas sangre.” “We’ve had it up to here, no more bloodshed.” This idea captured the popular imagination and on May 8 hundreds of thousands of people marched all over Mexico demanding a radical change to government policy.

In southeast Mexico, the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN) answered the call and announced their plan to march into San Cristobal de las Casas on May 7, the town where the Zapatistas first appeared in January 1994. It has been five years since the Zapatistas last mobilized in this manner, and many people remember the movement as a noble insurrection that inspired millions but ultimately fizzled out, victim of a bitter debate over the pitfalls and possibilities of electoral politics.

The return of the Zapatistas to San Cristobal thus seemed like a reckoning. Could the Zapatistas match the years when they could gather more than 10,000 masked rebels to occupy the city, watched by nervous local elite who pulled the shutters down and held their breath till the indios left?

Since 2006 the Zapatistas have consolidated their autonomous rule across five “caracoles,” self-governing councils whose delegates take turns to “be the government,” learning the ropes before passing the torch to delegates from another village. The goal is to allow many people to learn how to “be the government” without giving birth to a professional, bureaucratic political class.

The Zapatistas have also largely severed ties with visiting NGOs and no longer encourage foreigners to visit their communities. Thousands of outsiders, trekking in to jungle communities to learn how to make revolution, came in good faith. They served as an important buffer against army and paramilitary forces in the late 90s, but they also disrupted daily life and generated inequalities and jealousy as gifts and money were left behind.

When May 7 arrived, San Cristobal was drenched in warm sunshine and an air of expectancy filled the main square where TV crews jostled for position in front of an improvised stage. The Zapatistas arrived in a long, winding trail of men and women of all ages, each one wearing a ski mask that bore a number representing the caracole from which they came. The square quickly filled to overflowing, and by the time the Zapatista comandantes opened the event with Mexico’s national anthem, the rebels had already won a major victory by organizing the biggest march San Cristobal has ever seen. Some 20,000 rebels were present, bringing with them the fragrant aroma of corn and wood smoke, and the elusive element of community cohesion, described by one analyst as “the sacred fire of the movement.” Getting that many rebels to San Cristobal was an enormous effort as each community was in charge of its own transport and food at a time when corn, rice and beans are scarce.

The Zapatistas have an ambivalent relationship with the rest of Mexico. “Here we are,” their silence seems to say. “We have territory and self rule in our small corner of the country, what have you done?”

The images of Javier Sicilia, a lone individual leading a march of the indignant and the impotent in Mexico City, contrasted sharply with Zapatismo. The rebels moved as one, arriving and leaving in formation, sharing transport and territory. This cohesion is amplified by the shared “means of production,” the milpa or cornfield that forms the basis for survival across regional and linguistic boundaries.

The 30 comandantes of the Clandestine Indigenous Revolutionary Committee who formed a guard of honor on the stage melted into the crowd after the event, their faces unknown, their words attributable to no one.

Nonetheless, the situation is fragile as the Zapatista communities struggle to survive and withstand the twin pressures of army and paramilitary aggression and state funds used to tempt rebels away from the Zapatista ranks.

Meanwhile, the next day in Mexico City, at least 70 victims of violence took turns to speak out, including Patricia Duarte, whose infant son was burned to death in a crèche in Sonora along with 47 other children. In Mexico today, the state of insecurity covers everything from the village of San Juan Copala, Oaxaca, whose inhabitants were forced to flee en masse last year due to state-sponsored violence and the parents of those children who died in the nursery. San Juan Copala declared an autonomous zone, Zapatista-style, on Jan. 1, 2007 and was immediately besieged by paramilitaries with close links to the state governor. Unlike the Chiapan rebels they had no weapons to back up their claims.

Mexican President Felipe Calderon responded to the march with a televised address in which he equated the call for an end to state violence with surrender to the drug cartels. “We have might, right and the law on our side,” said a belligerent Calderon, insisting that the army would remain on the streets and at the center of his national security strategy.

Mere days after the march, Amnesty International released a report accusing Mexican security forces of torture, disappearances and murder, including charges of disguising innocent victims of army violence as members of drug gangs. Amnesty also criticized Mexico’s justice system for failing to charge a single member of the armed forces with criminal activity despite dozens of well-documented cases.

Juan Sicilia countered, “We are not trying to overthrow the government. We want to rebuild the social fabric of this nation.” Sicilia said that the Mexican people were paying an intolerable price for an unwinnable war that no one asked for, the course of which is determined by politicians “in upscale restaurants and offices paid for by us.” By the end of the three-day march Sicilia’s tone had hardened, recognizing perhaps that Calderon had no intention of paying him any heed. Sicilia called for civil disobedience should the government ignore their demands. “It takes balls to strike back, to refuse to pay taxes, and it will take all of us to surround parliament until our demands are heard.”

Sicilia has launched a citizen initiative that is gathering momentum and which has no affiliation with Mexico’s discredited political parties. In 2006 the EZLN launched “la otra campana,” the other campaign – an attempt to build a popular movement that would eschew elections and challenge the state from below. If there is one lesson learned since 1994, it is that the Zapatistas cannot carry the burden of hope alone and that the rest of Mexico must do its own share of the heavy lifting.

“We know you didn’t understand anything,” joked one Zapatista delegate in San Cristobal, referring to the translation of each speech into several indigenous languages. “But that’s the way it goes, you just had to put up with us. Thank you for your patience.”

The Zapatistas remain the ever-patient outsiders in a country rent by violence and corruption, quietly building an autonomous alternative, a living example of what a disciplined, long-term struggle can achieve. “You are not alone,” said Comandante David during the rally, addressing victims of violence throughout Mexico. The Zapatistas have been alone for too long, and derided for lacking “common sense” and refusing to throw their weight behind the lesser of three evils at election time.

With just a moment in the limelight Javier Sicilia has already concluded that if Mexico’s political system fails to respond to the current crisis of representation, and if a sweeping new security law is approved, the 2012 presidential elections shall be a pointless exercise: A candidate bound and gagged by institutional corruption will be elected to lead a nation edging dangerously close to a politico-military dictatorship.

Michael McCaughan is a writer and researcher based in the Burren, Ireland. He is working on a biography of Mumia Abu-Jamal.

War Crimes against Women: A Private Hell May 16, 2010

Posted by rogerhollander in Human Rights, War, Women.
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Published on Sunday, May 16, 2010by Laura Carlsen

Gender justice is an unfamiliar term to most people. Many assume it is merely a feminine (and therefore diminutive) form of justice, created by adding an awkward adjective to an abstract ideal.

But thanks to years of documenting gender-based crimes, pressure from women’s movements, testimony from victims and legal arguments, there is now a body of jurisprudence and a history of movements that define gender justice and promote it internationally. At an historic conference in April, organized by the Women’s Initiative for Gender Justice (WIGJ) and the Nobel Women’s Initiative, fifty women gathered in a Mexican beach town to evaluate the progress of gender justice and set forth a three-year work agenda.

I had the good fortune and tremendous responsibility of being among the luchadoras -women who struggle-charged with beginning this task. Participants made a collective promise to work closely with organizations back home and with the International Criminal Court and other bodies to end gender-based crimes in armed conflict and attain justice.

No small task. In a place as orienting as the edge of the Pacific Ocean, I often found myself disoriented by the enormity of it. I was part of a world linked by common values, but fragmented by hundreds of seemingly senseless wars-each with a political complexity and historical intransigence that defied solutions. The room filled with the stories of how women from diverse cultures, rich in resistance but plagued by discrimination and traditions of gender violence, seek peace and justice in equally diverse ways.

Some are immersed in internationally recognized conflict situations, others in peace processes, and others in rebuilding post-conflict societies. The law provides some framework, albeit insufficient, for their demands for punishment and reparations for gender-based crimes. They are learning to use those legal tools.

But many of us from Latin America came from countries where conflict situations are not internationally recognized; peace in Honduras and Colombia has been restored, we are told, even as murder, displacement and crimes against women continue on a daily basis. Mexico’s growing violence against women in the context of the drug war and impunity is the dirt that is routinely swept under the political rug. We grappled with questions of where we fit into the international legal system, how we could build movements to stop gender-based crimes in low-level local conflicts, how a stronger gender perspective could help fend off the growing militarism that marks our lives.

Some women spoke the language of the courtroom and explained the international instruments that have been developed to document and punish gender-based war crimes. Other women talked of grassroots organizing tactics and how to build peace movements that take women’s demands and realities into account. Their experiences combined provided a broad and complex range of strategies. They reflected what Brigid Inder of WIGJ called “the tension between the punitive formal justice model and the more comprehensive and complex agenda for what we call transformative justice, where the finding of guilt or innocence is accompanied by efforts to transform both communal and gender relations.”

Common themes soon emerged. Testimonies from brave women revealed that within the hell of war lies a private hell. The hell of sexual violence-an inner circle shielded from scrutiny by the socially imposed shame of its victims and the willful ignorance of legal and political systems.

Our Latin American perspective required us to interpret from a framework of recognized conflict with an applicable body of international law, to a continent of emerging threats including the drug war and local battles over natural resources. The thread that united our experiences was the role of women as the leaders of social justice movements and the victims of conflict.

The sands beneath our feet shifted during the conference. Not when the tide rolled over during early morning walks on the beach-although those moments were also an important part of forging a common commitment-but when we heard survivors´ stories and statistics like these, from Joan Chittister:

* At the turn of the 20th century, 5% of war casualties were civilians
* In World War I, 15% were civilians
* In World War II, the figure leapt to a 65% civilian death toll, as whole cities were bombed
* By the mid-nineties, 75% of war deaths were civilians
* Today, 90% of the human war toll are civilians-the majority women and children

Forget the complaints of “collateral damage”. As military leaders brag that modern technology has produced the most accurate weapons in history, during war strikes in places like Iraq or Afghanistan, women and children die.

They are not the collateral damage-they are the targets.

When finally, through the efforts of women like those at the Dialogue, international agencies produce some statistics on rape and other forms of sexual violence in conflict situations, the figures are so staggering, the stories so shockingly brutal, that all attempts to explain away the phenomenon as the acts of a few rogue soldiers or part of the pillage of war fall away. Rape is a calculated weapon of war. It decimates communities, destroys families, spreads disease and leaves deep physical and psychological scars. That is the purpose.

No geographic region has a corner on barbarity when it comes to gender-based crimes. For example, women reported sex crimes and violence by paramilitary and military forces against displaced populations in Burma, Colombia and Sudan.

Many speakers noted that the use of women’s bodies as both the spoils and the battlefields of war appears to be on the rise. In some cases, women organizers for peace and justice have made progress, such as the fight against land mines and for peace in Northern Ireland, but new and terrible challenges have emerged in unexpected points of the planet, like Honduras. The opportunity to compare notes, to learn what works, what doesn’t work, who are allies and who are enemies gave renewed commitment and shared knowledge to women peace organizers who girthed themselves to return home to local battles.

Gender Justice is now an international issue

The International Criminal Court as a Tool of Gender Justice

The timing of the Dialogue responded to an immediate challenge: in early June the Assembly of State Parties will hold a 10-year Review Conference of the International Criminal Court. In addition, the year marks the fifteenth anniversary of the Beijing World Conference on Women, the tenth anniversary of the UN Security Council resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security, and the dawn of a new “gender architecture” within the UN to promote women’s rights. As the organizers explained, “This is an opportune moment to reflect on the progress and work of the ICC, the possibilities embodied in the Rome Statute for the accountability of conflict-related crimes, and the responsibilities of the United Nations for the deterrence and resolution of armed conflicts, women’s global citizenship and gender-inclusive international justice.”

The ICC is currently hearing cases from four armed conflicts-Uganda, Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Central African Republic and Sudan-and all include charges of gender-based crimes. It has provided a forum to seek justice and to create public awareness of these crimes and has launched innovative projects, including the ICC Trust Fund for Victims. For women involved in giving testimonies-women and girls who live with the scars of war-time rapes and mutilations-the work of the court may be far away but the concept of justice that it seeks to provide is at the core of their daily lives.

The ICC takes a case when national systems of justice will not or do not function. It can be a blow against impunity. It is easy to think of impunity as a sin of omission. The hand not raised in protest appears genteel alongside the hand stained with the blood of the victim. And yet we learned from the testimonies of women on the frontlines of the battle for gender justice that impunity not only perpetrates crimes against women, it teaches generation after generation how to continue the practice.

Dialogue members noted that the international system offers both opportunities and limitations. Joanne Sandler of UNIFEM warned that Resolutions are not always proof of resolve. Since the Security Council issued Resolution 1325, there have been 24 formal peace processes. Women have been only 10% of the negotiators and 2% of the signatories. Worse yet, she said, there doesn’t seem to be progress. More formal mechanisms are needed to assure compliance with gender policies. Without permanent pressure from women organizers and experts, legal advances could remain a dead letter.

From the Courts to the Streets and Back Again

Gender-based crimes require responses in three areas: Prevention, protection and reparation. Experts working in the international legal system noted that prevention, the most important of all, is given fewer resources because it does not have measurable benchmarks. How do you measure the number of lives not nearly destroyed by horrors we can scarcely imagine? Participants agreed that although bureaucrats have yet to come up with a formula, prevention should be our ultimate goal.

To prevent sex crimes requires nothing short of a revolution in cultural, political and social norms. This group has demonstrated its willingness to step up to the task. The Nobel Women’s Initiative was founded by six women Nobel Prize winners who refused to rest on their laurels. Then there is Yanar Mohammed of Iraq, who went out into a Baghdad street to speak on International Woman’s Day in a bullet-proof vest, following numerous death threats, and then went on to denounce the rape of women in detention centers and sex trafficking, and create a vibrant cultural movement for youth.

Or Gilda Rivera, who was kidnapped and beaten during Honduras´ dirty wars of the eighties, then saw the nightmare return when a military coup d’état took over her country in June of 2009. It would be enough to drive anyone into exile or retreat. It drove Gilda into the streets of Tegucigalpa. Every morning she marched against the coup and every afternoon organized with Feminists in Resistance to protect women and document the crimes against them.

Too often the cry is not heard. Deputy Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda, in a taped message, called rape “the silent crime against communities.” Then she immediately questioned the terminology, asking “Is rape really silent?” Women scream, yet far too often no one hears. Just sharing stories was a sort of catharsis for women who see far too much suffering in their work and lives. The Dialogue provided a forum to cry out to a gathering that will not only hear, but act.

What to do faced with such a daunting challenge?

The question was on the table, and since this was an action-oriented gathering there was no escaping it. The International Gender Justice Dialogue sketched out ideas for the coming years in three areas: peace talks and implementation, justice and jurisprudence and communications. Dialogue members came up with lists of tactics, hints, strategies and challenges for the coming years, from Nobel Laureate Jody Williams´ creative messaging in the successful campaign to ban land mines, to lawyers´ advice on using the court.

But the key message was just one: Don’t give up. Ever.

As I write this, we have just received word that human rights defender Bety Cariño was murdered by paramilitary forces in the Mexican state of Oaxaca. She was part of a humanitarian aid caravan and is the third woman murdered in the conflict in this region recently. Bety wasn’t necessarily singled out as a woman, but it’s no coincidence that she was one. The same concerns and qualities that make it imperative for women to be among the peace negotiators and the leaders in social reconstruction and justice proceedings are the qualities that led Bety to become a defender of grassroots movements and to be carrying aid to an autonomous indigenous community when she was shot to death.

Bety´s assassination, the recruitment of girl soldiers in the DRC, rape in Sudan all are issues of gender justice. Jody William points out that that doesn’t mean they are “women’s issues.”

Gender justice is not a subcategory of social justice; it’s an essential component.

This article was originally published by Open Democracy.

Copyright © Fluxxus Digital Limited 2010

Laura Carlsen (lcarlsen(at)ciponline.org) is director of the Americas Policy Program (www.americaspolicy.org) in Mexico City, where she has been an analyst and writer for two decades. She is also a Foreign Policy In Focus columnist.

Reagan’s Refugees: Why Undocumented Migrants Have a Right to Work Here May 2, 2010

Posted by rogerhollander in El Salvador, Guatemala, Immigration, Mexico.
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Posted by Tikkun Daily at 2:41 pm
April 30, 2010

By David A. Sylvester. Cross-posted on Tikkun Daily.

Undocumented migrants have a right to work here because they deserve economic reparations for failed U.S. economic policies and disastrous military interventions.

Hundreds of thousands march for immigration rights in Chicago, May 1, 2006. Credit: Alana Price. Hundreds of thousands march for immigration rights in Chicago, May 1, 2006. Credit: Alana Price. 

We hardly need another symptom of the spiritual and social bankruptcy of the system, but this new Arizona law targeting and criminalizing undocumented migrants is a good example. You might know that Gov. Jan Brewer signed last week a new law that broadens police power to stop anyone at anytime for virtually any reason simply for looking suspiciously like an undocumented immigrant. It is supposed to take effect in August, but this is unlikely since it is probably unconstitutional and will face a barrage of court challenges.

This Saturday, May Day, the traditional day for workers rights, more than 70 cities are planning protests against the law, and boycotts against Arizona are spontaneously spreading — as they should. Mexican taxi cab drivers are apparently refusing to pick up anyone from Arizona, and the Mexican government has issued a travel advisory warning Mexicans of the danger of traveling through Arizona. In California, pressure is growing to join the boycott.

In the midst of this uproar, few are asking one simple question: Why? Why do so many Mexicans, Salvadorans and Guatemalans enter the U.S. by the most dangerous and expensive route possible? Just imagine yourself in their shoes: You leave your family and neighborhood to make a dangerous trip, including a difficult trek for three nights across barren deserts, pay as much as $7,000 person to put yourself in the hands of an unofficial guide of questionable character. On the way, you are prey to exploitation, robbery and especially if you are a woman, to rape. Then you arrive to live in crowded apartments, hopefully with some family members or people you know, but under constant fear of arrest and deportation. If you’re lucky, you get the brass ring you’ve been reaching for: casual work cleaning homes, gardening or working odd jobs in construction for $8 to $10 an hour. If you’re unlucky, you might stand on street corners for hours waiting without work, vulnerable to the temptations of drugs and alcohol to numb despair.

Sound like a bargain? Now, consider that, in spite of this, you decide scrape together another $7,000 to bring the next family member. How can this make any sense? It does if you take a close look at what has happened to the economies and social fabric of the countries below the U.S. border. Most U.S. citizens have little idea of the devastation wrought by NAFTA in Mexico and by the murderous civil wars that Reagan Administration funded and supported during the 1980s has done to El Salvador and Guatemala.

This is the reality that none of the opponents of this “illegal” immigration want to face. And it is a reality that even the advocates of change have not fully articulated. In essence, the neoliberal economic policies of the so-called Washington consensus, including NAFTA, have plunged Mexico into an economic crisis in the countryside. More than 2 million agricultural workers have been forced off their land and have moved into urban areas that can’t absorb them. The undocumented workers from El Salvador and Guatemala, the two other main sources of migration into the U.S., are fleeing dysfunctional and oppressive social and economic systems maintained by U.S. military power and funding since Ronald Reagan and CIA director William Casey turned these small countries into demonstration projects for Cold War power. As a result of these interventions, the U.S. has blocked democratic social change in these countries, sustained the exploitative legacy of the conquista and kept the concentration of wealth and power in the hands of rich, uncontrolled oligarchies.

In other words, Arizona is facing “blowback,” the natural consequences of failed U.S. policies trumpeted by the Arizona-style conservatives. These undocumented workers are economic refugees fleeing from broken economic systems — and they have every right to work here to earn the living that they cannot earn in their home countries. It’s a form of economic reparations. And the situation would be considered ironic if it wasn’t so tragic: The more the economic policies fail, the more the poor of these countries are impoverished and the more they seek to survive in el Norte, the more the supposedly anti-government, free-market fundamentalists want to put the government squarely on the backs of and into the lives of individuals through increasingly repressive measures.

It isn’t just some kooky left-wing thinking to blame Washington’s policies for a large part of the problem. This is widely known among the academic researchers. I spoke with Marc Rosenblum and Miryam Hazan, two staff policy analysts at the Migration Policy Institute in Washington, D.C. who have studied the issues. “NAFTA has supported a low-wage development model, and with Mexico’s implementation, you haven’t seen integrated development,” Rosenblum said. “Almost everybody will agree it has increased migration.”

The basic problem is that Mexican tariffs were lowered under NAFTA so that inexpensive corn and other agricultural products from U.S. agribusiness flooded Mexico and drove out up to 2.3 million small and medium-sized farmers. The idea was that they would move to the cities and provide the labor for new, more advanced industries to export. As Hazan describes it, the idea was to “modernize” the Mexican countryside.

The only problem is that such a plan depended on Mexico’s GDP growing at 6 percent to 7 percent — almost two-thirds of the rate of China’s growth. In fact, Mexico’s growth has stagnated under NAFTA at half the expected rate. Besides, it isn’t clear what these “new advanced industries” were supposed to be, except for the sweatshops and maquilladora along the U.S. border. Cheap labor is not what economists would call “a competitive advantage,” because there’s always another country with even cheaper labor to exploit.

Hazan has found that each year, Mexico adds 1 million new workers to its labor force — but only creates half a million jobs. This means that every year, half a million Mexicans must either enter what she calls “the informal economy” of low-wage work without benefits, the criminal and black market economy, or leave the country.

In fact, the criminal economy of the drug cartels, estimated at 2 percent of Mexico’s GDP, has become the new export-oriented industry. Again, for all the complaining about the Mexican drug traffickers, few people are wondering what kind of society has developed we’ve developed in the U.S. that generates such an incessant and growing demand for narcotics. Without the U.S. demand, the narcotraffickers would be largely out of business.

In El Salvador, there’s a separate problem stemming from the violence of the Reagan wars of the 1980s — and now compounded by the recent deportation of U.S. gang members back to El Salvador. Originally, they entered the U.S. as children with their undocumented parents, learned their gang skills in the U.S. and then once arrested, were deported back to El Salvador. As a result there’s been an explosion of gang violence in El Salvador.

Every week, I hear of new reports from Salvadoran friends: Six bodies showed up on the streets overnight in one small town, a man with an expensive car is kidnapped and killed, a schoolteacher threatened with a gun by a disgruntled parent of one of his students. During a visit three years ago, the student leader of the National University suddenly disappeared without explanation, and the newspapers were reporting a wave of killings of poor drug dealers in the slums as “social cleansing.” In addition, the phenomenon of femicide, the rape and murder of women, is not just a problem in Juarez or the border towns but has become a new problem throughout the countries. At one point, gang members had apparently infiltrated the telephone companies in El Salvador, found out who had been making calls to the U.S., then called those U.S. cell phone numbers with a simple message: Send us $500 within 24 hours or we’ll kill your family.

Guatemala is hardly any safer. A friend of mine who was a journalist in Guatemala City had to leave with his family after a government official took him aside and played for him tape recordings of his cell phone conversations with his sources — when he was inside his own home! Assassinations of the community leaders opposing destructive mining operations are common. At another point, a well-known TV reporter was gunned down in broad daylight in the capital.

From my experience, when I asked about this violence, many people there said it was difficult to know exactly what to blame: the economic crisis, the unresolved conflicts of the civil wars, the habit of violence from the wars or the lure of fast money in the drug trade, the unraveling of families as the more and more parents head north into the U.S. to work. All of it is connected to U.S. policies and actions, particularly the 1980s wars.

“There’s no question that the civil wars were a big source of initial migration of Central America into the U.S.” Rosenblum told me. The problem has become worse in El Salvador, he said, because besides the violence, it has embraced the neoliberal economic policies of corporate development that has led to highly unequal growth among the rich and poor.

These economic and social problems are precisely why the U.S. will never solve the problem by enforcement, no matter what kind of walls we build or border patrol we fund. The “push” out of these countries has become much greater than the “pull” of a better economy and growing social networks of migrants now living in the U.S.

The Arizona law shows how much enforcement alone sacrifices basic moral values. The law itself is chilling to read. In the tradition of the double-standard legal system pioneered during the war on terror under Bush, it broadens police powers and makes enforcement much more stringent for non-citizens than for citizens. It requires all immigrants to carry documents, such as driver’s license, to prove their immigration status whenever asked by police with a “reasonable suspicion” about their status. If you are undocumented, you can be charged with a misdemeanor, fined (between $500 on the first offense up to $2,500) jailed for six months under mandatory sentencing. Courts are prohibited from suspending or reducing sentences. It also turns citizens into vigilantes: anyone can sue a government for failing to enforce this law. It prohibits picking up day laborers on streets to hire, transporting anyone in your car without documents if you do so “recklessly disregarding” their immigration status. And it expands the powers of police to pose as workers when they investigate employers who might be hiring the undocumented workers.

Where’s the Tea Party when you need it? Isn’t there supposed to be a revolt brewing in this country in favor of a “constitutionally limited government”? And isn’t this the free market at work, with workers responding to the market signals of wages to meet the demand for labor where there is a lack of supply? Oh, I forgot: Free markets and limited government are good — unless they interfere with U.S. dominance and privilege.

It’s easy to slip into bitter rhetoric, but the hypocrisy of the debate has its own spiritual significance. The U.S. seems to be afflicted by a strange blindness that prevents it from understanding the full dimensions of the problem it has created. I think this blindness is a natural spiritual consequence of the idolization of power and wealth. In my opinion, one of the best analyses of this was in the Nobel Prize speech of British playwright Harold Pinter. He spoke about the relationship of truth and lies in art, and then connected this to the relationship of truth and lies to political power.

To maintain that power it is essential that people remain in ignorance, that they live in ignorance of the truth, even the truth of their own lives. What surrounds us therefore is a vast tapestry of lies, upon which we feed.

Then he focused how lies played a part in the brutality of the U.S. government’s treatment of Central America:

I spoke earlier about ‘a tapestry of lies’ which surrounds us. President Reagan commonly described Nicaragua as a ‘totalitarian dungeon’. This was taken generally by the media, and certainly by the British government, as accurate and fair comment. But there was in fact no record of death squads under the Sandinista government. There was no record of torture. There was no record of systematic or official military brutality. No priests were ever murdered in Nicaragua. There were in fact three priests in the government, two Jesuits and a Maryknoll missionary. The totalitarian dungeons were actually next door, in El Salvador and Guatemala. The United States had brought down the democratically elected government of Guatemala in 1954 and it is estimated that over 200,000 people had been victims of successive military dictatorships.

Six of the most distinguished Jesuits in the world were viciously murdered at the Central American University in San Salvador in 1989 by a battalion of the Alcatl regiment trained at Fort Benning, Georgia, USA. That extremely brave man Archbishop Romero was assassinated while saying mass. It is estimated that 75,000 people died. Why were they killed? They were killed because they believed a better life was possible and should be achieved. That belief immediately qualified them as communists. They died because they dared to question the status quo, the endless plateau of poverty, disease, degradation and oppression, which had been their birthright.

Pinter pointed out that at the time the U.S. maintained 702 military bases in 132 countries and said:

The crimes of the United States have been systematic, constant, vicious, remorseless, but very few people have actually talked about them. You have to hand it to America. It has exercised a quite clinical manipulation of power worldwide while masquerading as a force for universal good. It’s a brilliant, even witty, highly successful act of hypnosis.

This hypnosis isn’t just of the rest of the world; we’ve hypnotized ourselves so that we fail to understand the consequences of our actions. We’ve become like the violent drunk who trashes a motel room at night, then wakes up in the morning and demands to know who made such a mess.

In my brief search of the Web this week, I found only one person who had the courage to say aloud an obvious truth. Seth Minkoff of Somerville, Mass., a lone letter-writer to The Boston Globe of Somerville explained eloquently why the immigrants have a moral right to be here:

What goes unmentioned, however, is that some of us also feel that the fundamental aim of this law — enforcement of federal immigration regulations — is immoral.

A great many undocumented immigrants come here from countries that the United States has systematically devastated for generations by overthrowing democracy (as in Guatemala), sponsoring dictatorship and state terror (Guatemala, Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Haiti), and invading and annexing territory (Mexico). Actions such as these have helped the United States to control a grossly outsized share of world resources.

Until the US share of world resources is proportional to its population, so-called illegal immigrants will have a moral claim second to none on the rights of US citizenship. Arizona’s new law, like the federal laws it seeks to enforce, is an assault on people’s basic right to feed and clothe their families – in other words, on their right to access their fair share of the planet’s wealth, the patrimony of humanity.

The readers of The Boston Globe, profiled for advertisers as highly educated and high-income, responded with such comments as:

What a complete F$%KING MORON. Does that moral right include stealing, bank robbery, perhaps rape and why not murder too.

And:

Shame on you Minkoff, go take your nonsense to Cuba or talk to Chavez and see how you make out.

And:

This letter sounds like it was written from some fatuous far left wing Chomskyan elitist nutty northeast college professor.

Seth, Harold Pinter’s got your back.

It would be helpful if more people had his back as well. But some of the opposition to the Arizona law is disappointing. For instance, U.S. Catholic bishops couched their opposition entirely in terms of pragmatics. Salt Lake City Bishop John Wester called the law “draconian,” as if problem is only its severity, not its inherent nature. He worried that the law could “possibly” lead to racial profiling when racial profiling is almost unavoidable in spite of hypocritical language to the contrary in the law. He worried about how immigrants might be “perceived and treated” and the impact on U.S. citizens who are unfairly targeted.

This statement should have been much stronger in the light of Roman Catholic tradition. Basic Catholic teachings evaluate the moral value of actions and distinguish between morally good and evil choices. Actions are “intrinsically evil” if they are “hostile to life itself.” The examples of these actions include the obvious, such as homicide and genocide but also include:

whatever violates the integrity of the human person, such as mutilation, physical and mental torture and attempts to coerce the spirit;

whatever is offensive to human dignity, such as subhuman living conditions, arbitrary imprisonment, deportation, slavery, prostitution, and trafficking in women and children; degrading conditions of work which treat laborers as mere instruments of profit and not as free responsible persons;

all these and the like are a disgrace and so long as they infect human civilization they contaminate those who inflict them more than those who suffer injustice, and they are a negation of the honor due to the Creator (Encyclical Letter of John Paul II, Veritatis Splendor IV, italics mine).

By this Catholic standard, the Arizona law is not only badly designed and unconstitutional but quite possibly an intrinsic evil. One can argue that the law is also an attempt to stop human smuggling and trafficking in women and children, but if this was its aim, it would have been designed differently. As written, it subjects immigrants to the torture of insecurity and offends their human dignity with arbitrary imprisonment and deportation.

In the end, the crisis can be solved until we face the spiritual roots of the lies, the violence and the self-righteous myths we tell ourselves. We need to understand and address the real nature of the problem if we want to solve it. I’ve always remembered the words of a friend of mine as we participated in a memorial service for Monseñor Oscar Romero in San Salvador: “We have to start telling ourselves the truth.”

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