Analysis of foreign affairs and policy that emphasizes global cooperation and grassroots participation.
This article is a joint publication of TheNation.com and Foreign Policy In Focus.
On February 22, the US and Mexican governments caught the Big Fish. Mexican Navy forces and police walked into a beachside condominium and arrested Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, head of the immensely powerful Sinaloa cartel, without firing a shot.
The weeks since have been packed with details of the capture, which was surprisingly undramatic. Self-congratulatory remarks and speculation about what happens next are the order of the day here. While many Mexicans are skeptical about any real change resulting from the capture, US government officials have heralded the beginning of the end for the Sinaloa cartel.
There isn’t enough public information yet to measure whether drug flows to the US market have been interrupted or how the cartel is responding. If experience is any indication—and it usually is—the loss of El Chapo will neither disrupt cartel operations nor end the violence.
As the undisputed head of a global criminal enterprise, El Chapo Guzmán was one of the few people in the world on both the most-wealthy list (Forbes listed him at No. 67, with an estimated yearly income of $3 billion) and the most-wanted list (the US government had a $5 million reward out for him).
Yet for thirteen years, Guzmán dodged law enforcement after escaping from a Mexican high-security prison in 2001. His uncanny ability to slip out of the noose, along with other indications, led to a commonly held belief in Mexico that the US and Mexican governments were favoring the giant Sinaloa cartel as they killed and arrested high-level members of rival cartels. El Chapo’s arrest knocks a hole in the theory, although it remains to be seen how the cartel will reorganize relations internally and with government officials.
For now, all viable scenarios add up to more, rather than less, drug-war violence in Mexico. The kingpin strategy of taking out capos has been found to provoke battles for succession and turf wars, so the nation is braced for a wave of violence.
Relations between the drug lord, the government and Mexican society are anything but a typical cops-and-robbers story. El Chapo had, and still has, politicians and security forces on his payroll throughout the country. His organization provides employment and social services to communities, as well as sowing fear and bloodshed.
In Guzmán’s home state of Sinaloa and the neighboring state of Durango, residents have protested his capture. Melissa Montenegro, who organized one of the marches, told the Mexican news site Sin Embargo that El Chapo “has done more for us than any government” in fighting hunger and poverty in the region. The Mexican government dismissed the marchers, claiming that most are relatives of the criminal.
What’s undeniable is that the perception of a negligent and corrupt government went a long way to building the Sinaloa cartel’s reach and empire. When the government withdrew support for small farmers, the drug lords moved in to provide credit and marketing—not only for those willing to switch to opium or marijuana production but also to those growing legal crops.
El Chapo’s outlaw cult built on his Horatio Alger story of the poor kid made good. Peasants sang popular ballads of how he outwitted the government time after time and lauded his community projects.
And, of course, he also spread around a lot of money.
What Happens Next?
It’s possible that this was a strategic surrender. Guzmán gave up without a fight, unlike the showdowns with other cartel leaders. As he felt the circle close around him, he left his stronghold in the mountains and went to an exposed location at the beach—apparently without even a fraction of his 300-man guard service.
Common sense indicates that if he did agree to surrender, he would have two non-negotiable demands: not to extradite him to the United States and not to touch his wife and kids. Surprisingly, the US and Mexican governments seem to have granted these without question. The United States has not requested extradition, although it still could, and the Mexican attorney general let El Chapo’s young wife, Emma Coronel, go without even questioning her, although her father and El Chapo’s two ex-wives are both designated by the US Treasury Department as having drug ties.
So what happens next? None of the current scenarios bode well for Mexico’s ill-conceived war on drugs. One possibility is that someone will rise up to fill El Chapo’s shoes in the Sinaloa cartel leadership. His sons and closest collaborators are undoubtedly well trained to do that.
Another possibility is that El Chapo will continue to call the shots from inside prison. This happened before, when he was imprisoned from 1993 to 2001, and given the corruption in Mexican prisons, it could happen again. This scenario would indicate a high degree of collusion between the government—not just prison officials—and the cartel.
The most dangerous scenario would probably be the breakup of the Sinaloa cartel. The Mexican experience with cartel dissolution has been violent and tragic. The Zetas split off from the Gulf cartel when its leader was extradited to the United States, and it soon gained a name for itself as the most ruthless in a tight field. The Knights Templar formed after its parent cartel, La Familia, was decimated by government attacks. The Knights soon strangled Michoacán communities with violence and extortion.
Shoring Up the Drug War
The Mexican government was relatively cautious about crying victory over El Chapo’s capture. But US officials grabbed the occasion to shore up the leaking credibility of their drug war in Mexico.
Indeed, they’re the only ones predicting that this capture will destroy the power of the Sinaloa cartel, reduce violence and restore law and order in Mexico. “It’s not just the most significant capture and the arrest of one man,” the AP quoted US Representative Michael McCaul, chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security, “but it bodes well for our efforts to dismantle and unravel the Sinaloa cartel.”
In his statement US Attorney General Eric Holder called the arrest a “landmark achievement” and praised “the cooperative relationship that US law enforcement agencies have with their Mexican counterparts.” Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson similarly congratulated the Mexican government and implied that the bust would increase security on the US-Mexico border, calling Guzmán’s arrest “a significant victory and milestone in our common interest of combating drug trafficking, violence, and illicit activity along our shared border.”
Ironically, Sinaloa cartel control is often credited with pacifying formerly volatile border cities.
This is not to justify the cartel’s crimes or argue for a hands-off approach to organized crime. But as more is understood about different approaches to law enforcement and how the cartels themselves construct their influence, it is clear that blunt force backfires. Community-building, prosecution of financial crimes and regulation rather than prohibition of controlled substances have far greater potential to succeed.
Yet with millions of dollars in security contracts at stake and a Pentagon plan to extend its influence in Mexico, the US government continues to focus on what it calls “hard security” training and equipment. Poverty, clearly the most potent recruiting tool for the cartels, receives barely a nod in the 2015 Obama budget.
These are tense times for Mexico. The UN drug representative has warned that the capture will “destabilize” cartel activity. That usually means more bloodshed.
As government officials pat themselves on the back, no one seems to be concerned about the effect this will have on real security—the kind that determines whether children can safely play outside, not the kind that feeds the military-industrial complex and offers politicians a soapbox to stand on.
Read Next: Chase Madar on the over-policing of America
This article is a joint publication of TheNation.com and Foreign Policy In Focus.
The April 6 rally in Cherkasy, a city 100 miles southeast of Kiev, turned violent after six men took off their jackets to reveal T-shirts emblazoned with the words “Beat the Kikes” and “Svoboda,” the name of the Ukrainian ultranationalist movement and the Ukrainian word for “freedom."
– Jewish Telegraphic Agency, April 12, 2013
While most of the Western media describe the current crisis in Ukraine as a confrontation between authoritarianism and democracy, many of the shock troops who have manned barricades in Kiev and the western city of Lviv these past months represent a dark page in the country’s history and have little interest in either democracy or the liberalism of Western Europe and the United States.
“You’d never know from most of the reporting that far-right nationalists and fascists have been at the heart of the protests and attacks on government buildings,” reports Seumas Milne of the British Guardian. The most prominent of the groups has been the ultra-right-wing Svoboda or “Freedom” Party.
The demand for integration with Western Europe appears to be more a tactic than a strategy: “The participation of Ukrainian nationalism and Svoboda in the process of EU [European Union] integration,” admits Svoboda political council member Yury Noyevy, “is a means to break our ties with Russia.”
And lest one think that Svoboda, and parties even further to the right, will strike their tents and disappear, Ukrainian News reported on February 26 that Svoboda party members have temporarily been appointed to the posts of vice prime minister, minister of education, minister of agrarian policy and food supplies, and minister of ecology and natural resources.
Svoboda is hardly a fringe organization. In the 2012 election won by the now deposed president, Viktor Yanukovych, the party took 10.45 percent of the vote and over 40 percent in parts of the western Ukraine. While the west voted overwhelmingly for the Fatherland Party’s Yulia Tymoshenko, the more populous east went overwhelmingly for the Party of Regions’ Yanukovych. The latter won the election handily, 48.8 percent to 45.7 percent.
Svoboda—which currently has thirty-six deputies in the 450-member Ukrainian parliament—began life in the mid-1990s as the Social National Party of the Ukraine, but its roots lie in World War II, when Ukrainian nationalists and Nazis found common ground in the ideology of anti-communism and anti-Semitism. In April 1943, Dr. Otto von Wachter, the Nazi commander of Galicia—the name for western Ukraine—turned the First Division of the Ukrainian National Army into the 14 Grenadier Division of the Waffen SS, the so-called “Galicia Division.”
The Waffen SS was the armed wing of the Nazi Party, and while serving alongside the regular army, or Wehrmacht, the party controlled the SS’s thirty-eight-plus divisions. While all Nazi forces took part in massacres and atrocities, the Waffen SS did so with particular efficiency. The postwar Nuremberg trials designated it a “criminal organization.”
Svoboda has always had a soft spot for the Galicia Division, and one of its parliament members, Oleg Pankevich, took part in a ceremony last April honoring the unit. Pankevich joined with a priest of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church near Lviv to celebrate the unit’s seventieth anniversary and rebury some of the division’s dead.
“I was horrified to see photographs…of young Ukrainians wearing the dreaded SS uniform with swastikas clearly visible on their helmets as they carried caskets of members of this Nazi unit, lowered them into the ground, and fired gun salutes in their honor,” World Jewish Congress president Ronald Lauder wrote in a letter to the Patriarch of the Ukrainian church. He asked Patriarch, Filret, to “prevent any further rehabilitation of Nazism or the SS."
Some 800,000 Jews were murdered in Ukraine during the German occupation, many of them by Ukrainian auxiliaries and units like the Galicia Division.
Three months after the April ceremony, Ukrainians re-enacted the battle of Brody between the Galicia Division and Soviet troops, where the German XIII Army Corps was trying to hold off the Russians commanded by Marshall Ivan Konev. In general, going up against Konev meant a quick trip to Valhalla. In six days of fighting the Galicians lost two-thirds of their division and the XIII Corps was sent reeling back to Poland. The Galicia Division survivors were shipped off to fight anti-Nazi partisans in Yugoslavia. In 1945, remnants of the unit surrendered to the Americans in Italy, and in 1947 many of them were allowed to emigrate to Britain and Canada.
The US press has downplayed the role of Svoboda, and even more far-right groups like Right Sector and Common Cause, but Britain’s Channel 4 News reports that such quasi-fascist groups “played a leading role” in organizing the demonstrations and keeping them going.
In the intercepted phone call between US Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs Victoria Nuland and US Ambassador to Ukraine Geoffrey Pyatt, the two were, as Russian expert Stephen Cohen put it to Democracy Now, “plotting a coup d’état against the elected president of Ukraine.”
At one point in the call, Nuland endorsed “Yat” as the head of a new government, referring to Arseniy Yatsenyuk of the Fatherland Party, who indeed is now acting prime minister. But she went on to say that Svoboda leader Oleh Tyahnybok should be kept “on the outside.”
Her plan to sideline Tyahnybok as a post-coup player, however, may be wishful thinking, given the importance of the party in the demonstrations.
Tyahnybok is an anti-Semite who says “organized Jewry” controls the Ukraine’s media and government, and is planning “genocide” against Christians. He has turned Svoboda into the fourth-largest party in the country, and, this past December, US Senator John McCain shared a platform and an embrace with Tyahnybok at a rally in Kiev.
Svoboda has links with other ultra-right parties in Europe through the Alliance of European National Movements. Founded in 2009 in Budapest, the alliance includes Svoboda, Hungary’s violently racist Jobbik, the British National Party, Italy’s Tricolor Flame, Sweden’s National Democrats and Belgium’s National Front. The party also has close ties to France’s xenophobic National Front. The Front’s anti-Semitic former leader Jean-Marie Le Pen was honored at Svoboda’s 2004 congress.
Svoboda would stop immigration and reserve civil service jobs for “ethnic Ukrainians.” It would end abortion and gun control, “ban the Communist Ideology” and list religious affiliation and ethnicity on identity documents. It claims as its mentor the Nazi-collaborator Stepan Bandera, whose Ukrainian Insurgent Army massacred Jews and Poles during World War II. The party’s demand that all official business be conducted in Ukrainian was recently endorsed by the parliament, disenfranchising thirty percent of the country’s population that speaks Russian. Russian speakers are generally concentrated in the Ukraine’s east and south, and particularly in the Crimean Peninsula.
The US and the EU have hailed the resignation of President Yanukovych and the triumph of “people power” over the elected government—Ambassador Pyatt called it “a day for the history books”—but what is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander.
Before the deployment of Russian troops this past week, anti-coup, pro-Russian crowds massed in the streets in Crimea’s capital, Simferopol, and seized government buildings. While there was little support for the ousted president—who most Ukrainians believe is corrupt—there was deep anger at the de-recognition of the Russian language and contempt for what many said were “fascists” in Kiev and Lviv.
Until 1954, Crimea was always part of Russia until, for administrative and bureaucratic reasons, it was made part of Ukraine. At the time, Ukraine was one of fifteen Soviet republics.
Ukraine is in deep economic trouble, and for the past year the government has been casting about for a way out. Bailout negotiations were opened with the International Monetary Fund and the European Union, but the loan would have required onerous austerity measures that, according to Citibank analyst Ivan Tchakarov, would “most probably mean a recession in 2014.”
It was at this juncture that Yanukovych abandoned talks with the EU and opened negotiations with the Russians. That turnaround was the spark for last November’s demonstrations.
But as Ben Aris, editor of Business News Europe, says, “Under the terms of the EU offer of last year—which virtually nobody in the Western media has seriously examined—the EU was offering $160 million per year for the next five years, while just the bond payments to the IMF were greater than that.”
Russia, on the other hand, “offered $15 billion in cash and immediately paid $3 billion.… Had Yanukovych accepted the EU deal, the country would have collapsed,” says Aris.
The current situation is dangerous precisely because it touches a Russian security nerve. The Soviet Union lost some twenty-five to twenty-seven million people in World War II, and Russians to this day are touchy about their borders. They also know who inflicted those casualties, and those who celebrate a Waffen SS division are not likely to be well thought of in the south or the east of Ukraine.
Border security is hardly ancient history for the Kremlin. As Russian expert Cohen points out, “Since the Clinton administration in the 1990s, the US-led West has been on a steady march toward post-Soviet Russia, beginning with the expansion of NATO…all the way to the Russian border.”
NATO now includes Croatia, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Slovenia and former Soviet-led Warsaw Pact members Albania, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Romania.
NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen’s comment that the IMF-EU package for Ukraine would have been “a major boost for Euro-Atlantic security” suggests that NATO had set its sights on bringing Ukraine into the military alliance.
The massive demonstrations over the past three months reflected widespread outrage at the corruption of the Yanukovych regime, but they have also unleashed a dark side of Ukraine’s politics. That dark side was on display at last year’s rally in Cherkasy. Victor Smal, a lawyer and human rights activist, said he told “the men in the T-shirts they were promoting hatred. They beat me to the ground until I lost consciousness.”
Svoboda and its allies do not make up a majority of the demonstrators, but as Cohen points out, “Five percent of a population that’s tough, resolute, ruthless, armed and well funded, and knows what it wants, can make history.”
It is not the kind of history most would like to repeat.
Read Next: John Feffer and Foreign Policy in Focus on the clash of partnerships in Ukraine.
This article is a joint publication of TheNation.com and Foreign Policy In Focus.
The Cold War is history. For those growing up today, it is as distant in time as World War II was for those who came of age in the 1970s. In both cases, empires collapsed and maps were redrawn. Repugnant ideologies were laid bare and then laid to rest, though patches of nostalgia persist.
Surely the Cold War has been consigned to the textbooks as irrevocably as the Battle of the Bulge. The Berlin Wall is in pieces. The US president speaks of the abolition of nuclear weapons. The “common European home” from the Atlantic to the Urals—a conceit embraced by such odd bedfellows as De Gaulle and Gorbachev—beckons on the horizon, with the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) in place and the European Union creeping ever eastward. Tensions inevitably crop up, but they’re nothing worth exchanging ICBMs over.
What was once confrontation has turned into joint efforts to address global challenges: stabilizing the world economy, negotiating nuclear agreements with Iran, ending the war in Syria. A long article in The New Yorker on a multibillion-dollar nuclear fusion project being constructed in France reminds us that this quest for a sustainable replacement for fossil fuels began as a late Cold War agreement between Moscow and Washington. Impending environmental catastrophe is gradually uniting all sides in much the same way that Ronald Reagan once imagined that a Martian invasion would.
And then there’s Ukraine.
Just when you thought it was safe to get back into geopolitics, the Cold War has reared its ugly head once again. All your favorite characters have returned to the footlights—the iron-fisted Russian leader, the thundering American secretary of state, troops of multiple nations on alert and lots of cloak-and-dagger intrigue behind the scenes. And starring in the role of Prague 1968 is that new and untested actor: Crimea 2014. We can only hope that history is repeating itself as farce, not as a tragic tale told twice.
But there are some crucial differences in this restaging of the Cold War classic. The West has not been practicing containment of Russia so much as rollback of its influence by expanding NATO and the EU up to the country’s doorstep. And Moscow is not invoking some form of internationalism in support of ideological compatriots but nationalism pure and simple to safeguard its ethnic brethren. Moreover, this is a democratic age: Russian military intervention now comes with the Duma’s imprimatur. From the West, so far, has come much sound and fury, including the threat of economic sanctions and other penalties, but a military response remains off the table. There is still time to find a diplomatic solution that can preserve Ukrainian sovereignty, address the concerns of Russians on both sides of the border and revive that old vision of a common European home that treats Russia as a member, not a mobster.
When people speak of “Russia’s doorstep,” they mean Ukraine. No one aspires to be a doorstep, because that’s what people walk on with their muddy boots. As Timothy Snyder has detailed in his book Bloodlands, Ukraine has suffered incalculable losses because of its location, first as a locus of potential resistance to Soviet control and then as a battleground during World War II. War pushed the country’s boundaries westward to incorporate what had once been parts of Poland. Changing the map only further emphasized Ukraine’s centrality to the fate of Europe, particularly after the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991. The western sections have leaned Europe-ward, while large numbers of Russian speakers in the east feel some measure of allegiance to Moscow.
It’s not just language that threatens to divide Ukraine like the poor baby in the parable about King Solomon. It’s also a question of which collective entity to huddle in for shelter. Ukraine joined Russia and Belarus to create the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) in December 1991 as the Soviet Union fell to pieces around them. But Ukraine was also the first CIS member to join NATO’s Partnership for Peace program in 1994. Fifteen years later, Ukraine signed up for the European Union’s Eastern Partnership. Russia has not been happy about either of these partnerships. Moscow put together its own partnership, the Eurasian Economic Community, more than a dozen years ago, but Ukraine is only an observer.
A clash of partnerships is now threatening to break out on the peninsula of Crimea. This semi-autonomous region is the only part of Ukraine with a majority of Russian speakers, and it also hosts Russia’s Black Sea Fleet. In Crimea’s 2010 parliamentary elections, Viktor Yanukovych’s Russophone Party of Regions scored a huge victory. But a large population of Crimean Tatars—twelve to fifteen percent of the two million people who live on the peninsula—has rallied in support of the new government in Kiev. The sympathies of Crimeans are clearly divided.
And now, it seems, Crimea itself is divided. Armed men stormed the Crimean parliament last week and forced the appointment of Sergei Aksyonov as the new prime minister of the peninsula. Aksyonov immediately appealed to Russia for assistance and set a date for a referendum on Crimean independence. Russian troops have spread throughout the peninsula to secure both civilian and military installations. Russian guards are posted outside Ukrainian military bases. The peninsula is divided between pro-Russian and pro-Ukrainian forces, with Aksyonov already declaring a new Crimean army that he insists Ukrainian soldiers must join. Russian troops conducting exercises at the border recently returned home, and Vladimir Putin has said that his country has no intention of swallowing Crimea. Indeed, absorption might not be his goal, for even the tastiest morsels have a habit of sticking in the throat.
Crimea is not the only challenge to Ukraine’s unity. Kharkiv, located a scant forty kilometers from the border with Russia, is the country’s second-largest city. Earlier in the week, a group of Cossacks seized control of the city hall and hoisted a Russian flag. But the new Ukrainian authorities eventually re-established control. Places like Crimea and Kharkiv could swing either way in their sympathies. Russian troops plus separatist sentiment could produce an Abkhazian or Transnistrian scenario: breakaway provinces recognized by only a handful of countries around the world. Only compromise—a free-and-fair referendum, the preservation of minority rights, a moratorium on NATO expansion—can prevent fracture.
The continuing crisis in Ukraine has generated its share of Cold War–style inanities. One favorite trope of that period was the “mote in your eye” accusation. Secretary of State John Kerry, who apparently only lives in the present, recently intoned that “you just don’t invade another country on phony pretexts in order to assert your interests.” Then there’s the “if they only had nukes” argument. John Mearsheimer thinks Ukraine shouldn’t have given up its nuclear arsenal back in 1994 because those weapons would have made Russia think twice about sending troops into Crimea. Will the MAD scientists never learn? The situation in Ukraine is bad enough without adding WMD to the mix, whether in the form of deliberate attack, accidental use or loose nukes.
But the chief inanity is the one that has governed Western policy since 1991—that there would be no costs to the expansion of NATO and the European Union. Leaders in Washington and Brussels have been repeatedly warned by those with just a passing familiarity with Russian history and culture that encroachment in Moscow’s sphere of influence—its “near abroad”—is tantamount to poking the bear. Yes, it’s true that both institutions are responding to genuine interests “on the ground.” But the stakes here are very high. It’s not just about “losing Ukraine.” It would be an even greater catastrophe to “lose Russia.” And here I mean not the Cold War game of winning and losing but the more universal struggle between a liberating order and a debilitating chaos.
Indeed, with the rise of Putin and the freeze that has settled over freedom of expression and assembly, Russia is already being lost by degrees. It can’t be allowed to drift further into the politics of reaction. But the traditional approach to “saving Russia” has been a dual strategy of rolling back its influence externally and funding democracy initiatives within the country. However much I would love to see Ukraine in the European Union one day and however much I support civil society initiatives inside Russia, enthusiasts for these projects must recognize that they strengthen the hands of those who argue the West is only interested in neutering Mother Russia. Backlash is almost inevitable.
Policymakers in Washington and Brussels should take a much longer view. Instead of concentrating on “partnerships” that put Russia beyond the pale, they have to revive a much more encompassing vision of European security. As long as we continue to shave away at the habitat where the bear lives, it will swipe at its encroachers and defend its ground. “Some days you’ll eat the bear,” goes the old Joan Armatrading song, while “some days the bear will eat you.”
It might seem ridiculous to talk about grand partnerships with Russia at the very moment when the international community wants to put Putin in the penalty box. But Russia is much bigger than just Vladimir Putin, despite the man’s penchant for self-aggrandizement. Making a place at the table for this vast country is a chief challenge for the twenty-first century. So, even as we condemn the introduction of Russian troops in Crimea and decry the narrowing of democratic freedoms in Moscow, we have to remember that the Cold War is over, it should never return and both sides must act that way.
Read Next: the editors urge realism and common sense on Ukraine.
This article is a joint publication of TheNation.com and Foreign Policy In Focus.
Sustained anti-government rallies in Thailand, Ukraine and Venezuela have captured the attention of millions. But large pro-democracy demonstrations in Burkina Faso last month largely escaped the Western media’s radar.
Since January, tensions have flared between the West African country’s authoritarian government and the impoverished masses yearning for democratic reforms. Depending on how developments unfold, the protests in Burkina Faso could serve as a catalyst for further uprisings in the region.
On January 18, over 10,000 Burkinabé citizens rallied in the nation’s capital, Ouagadougou (WAH-gah-DOO-goo), and other cities to protest the concentration of political power in one man—President Blaise Compaoré, who has ruled Burkina Faso since 1987. While Compaoré claims democratic legitimacy, the opposition demands his departure from power, maintaining that Compaoré’s past electoral victories were fraudulent and rigged.
The demonstrators, led by opposition leader Zéphirin Diabré, have taken to the streets to protest Compaoré’s plans to revise Article 37 of the country’s constitution. This provision, incorporated in 2000, limits the president to two five-year terms. After winning presidential elections in 2005 and 2010, Compaoré’s final term is set to end in 2015. Although Compaoré has issued no official statement concerning his intention to seek another term, his critics contend that he is laying the groundwork for a constitutional amendment to extend his rule beyond 2015. Calling January 18 a “historic day,” Diabré declared that the thousands of protesters were “taking a stand in this free and republican protest to send Compaoré into retirement in 2015.”
Compaoré’s failure to improve living standards for average Burkinabés also factors into popular resentment of the government. Despite being rich with gold reserves, Burkina Faso remains one of the world’s poorest countries. Nearly half of the eighteen million citizens who inhabit this landlocked nation live below the poverty line, and GDP per capita hovers around a paltry $1,400. Fewer than thirty percent of adults are literate and the nation’s infant mortality rate is the ninth-highest in the world. Recurring floods and droughts in recent years have exacerbated all of these dismal conditions.
The perception that Compaoré’s cronies in power have usurped the nation’s resource wealth at the public’s expense has further fueled the opposition’s determination to end his presidency.
Compaoré's reckoning reflects tensions that have accumulated gradually since the country’s independence.
Burkina Faso’s Cold War experience was marked by violent instability. Following its independence from France in 1960, power changed hands frequently through a series of bloody coup d’états, including a Marxist-inspired revolution in 1983 that installed the Communist leader Thomas Sankara as president.
Sometimes likened to “Africa’s Che Guevara,” Sankara implemented radical social reforms, ranging from efforts to abolish gender inequality to the collectivization of agricultural land. He even renamed the republic, replacing its previous name (Upper Volta) with its current name, Burkina Faso, or “Land of Upright Men.” Such reforms drew some support from the poorer sectors of society, but they also created enemies among the economic elite.
Under Sankara’s leadership, Burkina Faso faced numerous challenges on the international stage. Burkina Faso and Mali went to war during December 1985 in a conflict referred to as the “Christmas War.” The brief war resulted from a territorial dispute between the two countries over a 100-mile-long portion of desert, rich with minerals, referred to as the Agacher strip. Both militaries engaged in aerial bombing before a truce was reached.
More generally, Sankara pitted Burkina Faso against the interests of Western superpowers and their African allies. Sankara was an outspoken opponent of South Africa’s apartheid system and military raids against the African National Congress (ANC) in Botswana, Zambia and Zimbabwe. Additionally, the Burkinabé leader expressed solidarity with the Palestine Liberation Organization and Nicaragua’s Sandinistas. Burkina Faso’s ties with Libya and Ghana prompted the United States and France to fear that the “Burkinabé model” would spread throughout Africa. From 1983 to 1990, Paris canceled foreign assistance to Ouagadougou.
On October 15, 1987, Sankara was killed in a coup that the United States, France and Liberia are widely suspected of helping to orchestrate. Blaise Compaoré, who served in the upper echelons of Sankara’s government and was a childhood friend of Sankara himself, was one of the major leaders behind the coup. Compaoré continues to deny any role in Sankara's death.
Compaoré moved quickly to undo many of the social reforms of Sankara’s government, working to build a neoliberal economy that was integrated into the global marketplace. Burkina Faso returned to its former colonial master France for international support, as opposed to countries like Cuba or the Soviet Union. These reforms allowed the country to export its ample natural resources and created a stable political climate for investment. But they also allowed for the enrichment of a small elite, which stoked growing resentment of the privileged governing class.
Burkina Faso and Washington
Western capitals have eyed the current protests warily, viewing Burkina Faso as a strategic ally in the post-9/11 era. Certainly, the country’s stability contrasts markedly with the ethnic conflicts, insurgencies and civil wars that have destabilized the Central African Republic, Liberia, Libya, Mali, Nigeria and Sierra Leone, among other countries.
The government has managed to keep the region’s extremist jihadist forces at bay even as bloody insurgencies are waged in neighboring countries. Burkina Faso has remained a steadfast US ally in the “war on terrorism” and is lauded by the State Department as a cooperative partner in the Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Partnership (TSCTP), a US-led initiative in North and West Africa designed to confront Al Qaeda. The State Department has not made any major pronouncements about the recent rallies or the possibility of Compaoré’s re-election. On the contrary, the United States has remained more concerned with continuing military co-operation through the TSCTP than bringing up the issue of political unrest.
Given the potential for Islamist extremists—such as Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), the Nigeria-based Boko Haram and the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO)—to exploit any power vacuum that could emerge in a post-Compaoré era, it is doubtful that the United States or France will side with the Burkinabé protesters demanding that Compaoré relinquish power.
Compaoré has also taken credit for mediating conflict resolutions in war-torn neighboring countries. In June 2013, Compaoré’s government hosted talks between the Malian government and two Tuareg rebels groups—the Movement for the National Liberation of Azawad and the High Council for the Unity of Azawad—in Ouagadougou. The Ouagadougou Accords that resulted were a preliminary agreement aimed at resolving the lingering tensions between the Malian government and Tuareg rebels following last year’s French-led military campaign (Operation Serval) that dispersed AQIM and MUJAO from northern Mali. In 2011, Compaoré hosted African Union–sponsored talks in Burkina Faso to help mediate the Cote D’Ivoire crisis. Two years earlier, the Burkinabé president secured the release of two Canadian envoys for the United Nations whom AQIM had kidnapped in Niger for 130 days. During the 2008 coup in Guinea, Compaoré helped mediate the aftermath. And in 2006, Compaoré played a role in brokering negotiations that ended a crisis in neighboring Togo.
Compaoré’s opponents, however, are unimpressed. They contend that the president’s efforts to mediate regional conflicts and focus on international terrorism are guided by an interest in deflecting criticism over corruption and cronyism within his own government.
Burkina Faso’s relationship with Western superpowers cannot easily sustain Compaoré’s presidency into its twenty-seventh year. Even if Compaoré maintains his hold on power this year, he will face new pressures that were not in play earlier in his rule, such as an energized and better-connected opposition.
At the beginning of the year, seventy-five politicians from Compaoré’s Democracy and Progress Party published a letter that announced their resignation, citing that democracy had “disappeared” from the ruling party. The president’s former allies formed a new party, the Movement of People for Progress, which claims to represent the will of the demonstrators who took to the streets and used nonviolent measures to demand an end to Compaoré’s presidency.
Burkina Faso’s future is naturally uncertain, and the regional climate will bring unique challenges to a post-Compaoré political order. However, this new party’s formation and the demonstrators’ peaceful tactics justify cautious optimism about what may yet become a “West African Spring.”
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This article is a joint publication of TheNation.com and Foreign Policy In Focus.
When it comes to immigration, US policymakers have never been shy about which types of foreign workers they want living and working in the United States. In his 2013 State of the Union address, for example, President Barack Obama listed attracting “the highly skilled entrepreneurs and engineers that will help create jobs and grow our economy” as a key tenet of immigration reform.
This sentiment is widespread among policymakers. They want doctors and engineers, not dishwashers and landscapers.
But while this kind of immigration can pay dividends for a small pool of educated migrants and the companies who hire them, it produces losers as well. Like their outsourcing counterparts, some US corporations use imported workers as a way to keep wages down as well as to fill their labor demand. And what happens to the countries these educated individuals leave behind is almost never discussed.
The term “brain drain” was first coined by the British Royal Society to describe the migration of scientists and technologists from the United Kingdom to the United States and Canada in the 1950s and ’60s. Today, the term has come to explain the large-scale emigration of educated individuals from the countries of their birth. When a nation exhausts its human capital, economic development is impeded, leaving the citizens who remain in dire straits.
Despite having an entire agency—USAID—that promotes the development of human capital abroad, US immigration policies can have just the opposite effect.
Bait and Switch
The US immigration structure operates on a visa system. The government issues H-1B visas to foreign workers with specialized skills in science, technology and medicine, among many other fields, allowing them to legally reside and work in the United States. This particular visa is popular among large corporations with the resources to pay the visa fees for their foreign applicants. By spending a little extra on the hiring process for these workers, they can net higher profits by paying their immigrant employees less than their US-born counterparts. More than 80 percent of H-1B visa holders, in fact, are paid lower wages than US citizens in comparable positions.
The tech industry in particular is notorious for its abuse of H-1B visas. In 2012, after claiming that it could not fill 6,000 domestic jobs due to a lack of available visas and qualified American workers, Microsoft proposed a solution. If the US government would increase the number of visas available by 20,000, Microsoft said, the company would agree to pay $10,000 for each applicant—nearly four times the usual fee. The revenue earned would go toward funding STEM education programs in the United States.
Microsoft’s bid garnered support from the STEM Coalition, an organization made up of corporations, educational nonprofits and some labor advocates that Microsoft is a member of. The coalition signed a letter expressing support for the visa increase as Microsoft approached a group of senators to craft the bill. It was a noble solution to the alleged problem, but the final draft of the legislation turned out to be vastly different from what Microsoft had initially described. In what was billed as a “classic bait and switch,” the bill ended up calling for an increase of 300,000 available visas—some fifteen times what Microsoft had proposed—with Microsoft only paying a paltry fee of $1,825 per visa, or less than 20 percent of what the company had promised.
The tech industry is not the only sector with a shortage of workers—many parts of the United States, especially rural areas, suffer a shortage of physicians. Part of the problem is that the United States simply does not train the number of doctors it needs—annually, 50 percent of medical school applicants are rejected despite the fact that many of them have stellar GPAs. The steep cost of medical school deters other applicants from even applying. This creates an attractive vacuum for well-trained and ambitious doctors from developing countries—as of 2010, over a quarter of all US physicians were born outside the country.
What’s Left Behind
The increase of available H-1B visas allows for highly educated foreigners to pursue a more prosperous career in the United States. But what does it mean for the countries they leave behind?
In India, home to the large majority of H-1B visa recipients, many medical students opt to study abroad because of rising costs and limited capacity at their public institutions. The medical brain drain in India not only reduces the number of doctors available for care, but it also removes the people needed to push for healthcare reforms.
Considered the most privatized health system in the world, India’s public health system is made up of mainly rural health centers that lack basic infrastructure, medicines and staff. India spends only 0.9 percent of its GDP on healthcare, which promotes a large private healthcare industry that remains inaccessible to the poor. The wealthy can afford to be treated at a state-of-the-art hospital for a stomach ache, while the poor must walk long miles to receive treatment for sicknesses and sometimes discover that the medicine they need is unavailable. The shortage of doctors is staggering: there are only six doctors for every 10,000 patients. People in need of medical attention may spend days waiting in line for tests or drugs because there are simply not enough doctors and nurses available to tend to their medical needs.
India is not the only country that suffers from brain drain, and the loss of human capital does not only affect the medical industry. Zimbabwe is struggling to keep its education sector from collapsing after losing 45,000 teachers in 2010 alone. Haiti has lost more college graduates than any other country in the world. Brain drain is occurring in every region of the developing world.
Plugging the Drain
Ensuring that skilled workers have opportunities to flourish at home is ultimately a challenge for source countries, not the richer countries that absorb them when they leave. But the loss of brain power to the United States and other developed countries creates an unfortunate cycle for poorer countries: educated individuals migrate, leaving their home countries’ tax base and infrastructure in poor shape. The weakened infrastructure in turn means that more people will leave, driving the cycle onward.
In order to solve this problem, the governments of developing nations should strive to create incentives for their educated workers to stay home and use their abilities to create a better and more sustainable society. Perhaps developed countries can provide some assistance through educational partnerships or other forms of cooperation. But because freedom of movement is an inalienable human right, neither the United States nor the source countries can (or should) simply prohibit skilled workers from moving around the globe.
Meanwhile, the United States should reconsider its own prejudices about foreign workers. In their drive to welcome skilled laborers to the United States, US policymakers often overlook the value of unskilled and semiskilled migrants. The construction, agricultural and homecare industries, for example, all rely heavily on the labor of a foreign-born workforce. These are seldom the people praised by pundits as the “best and brightest,” but they’re vital to the US economy and perform valuable work for their fellow Americans.
Immigration can be a blessing for all who are touched by it. But to reap the benefits, we need an honest accounting of the costs. How can countries be expected to manage brain drain when all the plumbers have left?
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This article is a joint publication of TheNation.com and Foreign Policy In Focus.
On December 10, Filipinos held rallies in key cities around the country to commemorate Human Rights Day and blast the administration of Benigno Aquino III for the country’s dismal human rights situation.
Millions of Filipinos fell victim to Typhoon Haiyan (also known as Typhoon Yolanda). The affected regions already faced immense poverty. Supporting these victims is a daunting task that has not been made any easier by the Aquino administration’s crackdown on human rights defenders that serve these communities.
The Alliance for the Advancement of People’s Rights (Karapatan), a human rights group in the Philippines, has already documented six extrajudicial killings in 2014. According to Karapatan, from July 2010 to August 2013 there were 152 extrajudicial killings, eighteen enforced disappearances, eighty instances of torture and 168 unsuccessful assassination attempts.
The headlines are focusing on the recent peace agreement between the central government in Manila and separatists in Mindanao, but the US press in particular has largely ignored these human rights violations, which are taking place in an increasingly militarized environment. Both the Philippine government and the United States have used the maritime disputes with China and the alleged prevalence of terrorists on the islands as a pretext to justify US support for the Philippine military as well as additional US troop presence in the area. The humanitarian disaster created by the typhoon has also provided an opening for the militaries of both countries to amplify their role at the expense of civilian actors.
History of Repression
President Aquino’s predecessor, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, had a policy of eliminating all forms of opposition.
In 2002, as part of the US-initiated “global war on terror,” the Philippine government launched the counterinsurgency plan Oplan Bantay Laya (Operation Freedom Watch), a holistic approach to counterinsurgency aimed at all manner of opposition activists in the country. The plan made no distinction between armed combatants and civilians. Regions where the plan was implemented saw escalating numbers of civilian killings, including many members of leftist popular organizations that the government alleged to be “Communist fronts.” The attacks were not limited to political party activists but extended to lawyers and judges who had been involved in human rights work or cases where government interests were at stake.
Killings of other government critics similarly escalated. Between 2001 and 2007, hundreds of activists with progressive organizations were murdered, including trade union leaders, human rights activists, journalists, church workers, indigenous leaders, civilians, farm workers and peasant leaders. In 2006, the worst year for human rights since the toppling of the right-wing Marcos regime in the 1980s, the Philippine military and its paramilitary death squads killed an average of one activist every thirty-six hours.
In February 2007, the Philippine government’s investigative task force issued the report of the Melo Commission, a body formed under pressure from domestic and international rights advocates in response to the grave human rights situation. The commission noted that victims were generally unarmed, alone or in small groups, and were gunned down by two or more masked or hooded assailants, often riding motorcycles. Further, the commission admitted there was evidence that implicated members of the armed forces, in particular Gen. Jovito Palparan, for allowing, tolerating and even ordering an undetermined number of killings. Although the task force absolved the administration of committing human rights abuses, it nonetheless concluded that “this does not mean the State can sit idly by and refuse to act. Ultimately, the State has the responsibility of protecting its citizens and making sure that their fundamental liberties are respected.”
The Supreme Court called for the establishment of ninety-nine special courts to prosecute the killings by June 2007. The Arroyo government created several investigative bodies, including the Melo Commission. But human rights groups in the Philippines have suspected that the government was using these mechanisms merely to exonerate the military and police perpetrators. Despite statements of concern as well as reports by the UN (including findings by the Human Rights Committee), human rights organizations, international observers and the Arroyo government’s own commission, the killings continued unabated, and victims and their families were left without justice.
The Current Human Rights Situation
The Philippine government continues to commit human rights violations with impunity. According to Karapatan, President Aquino’s implementation of the counterinsurgency program Oplan Bayanihan (Operation Shoulder to Shoulder) has thus far resulted in 152 documented cases of extrajudicial killings, 168 attempted killings, eighteen instances of forced disappearance, eighty cases of torture, 608 cases of illegal arrest and more than 30,000 forced evacuations.
General Palparan faces a 2011 warrant of arrest from a Bulacan court for his involvement in the 2006 disappearance of two student activists in Central Luzon. He is still in hiding, probably with the assistance of the Philippine armed forces. Palparan is regarded as the key implementer of Oplan Bantay Laya and was promoted by Arroyo at the height of the extrajudicial killings and forced disappearances.
The promotion of military generals who are known human rights violators is an indication of the persistent climate of impunity under the Aquino administration. The military, private armies and paramilitary units silence independent media outlets and journalists with impunity. Journalists face rampant vandalism of their offices, constant intimidation and surveillance, and abduction and killings. In December 2013, Rogelio Butalid, a block-timer for 107.9 FM Radyo Natin, was shot dead by a lone killer in Tagum City in Davao del Norte province shortly after he finished his radio program. That same month, radioman Michael Milo was gunned down in Tandag City in Surigao del Sur province.
This has also affected US citizens active in Philippine solidarity, as evidenced by the 2009 abduction and torture of BAYAN USA member and Filipina-American activist Melissa Roxas by the Philippine military. Roxas has filed complaints with the US State Department and the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, in addition to exhausting the domestic court system in the Philippines.
Lawyers and human rights groups providing counsel to activists imprisoned on trumped-up charges have become targets of repression themselves. They are subject to extrajudicial killings, violent harassment, illegal detention and surveillance by a state apparatus keen to silence dissent. For example, Army chief Lt. Gen. Noel Coballes recently named the human rights organization Karapatan an “enemy of the state” for its objection to the promotion of Brig. Gen. Aurelio Baladad. Baladad faces a string of credible charges, including the illegal arrest of forty-three community health workers in a dawn raid in Morong by a swarm of Philippine Army and police personnel just before Arroyo’s term ended.
According to the National Union of People’s Lawyers (NUPL), which has been at the forefront of efforts to legally challenge government repression, “This statement from a top military official is dangerous and betrays what various organizations and concerned groups have said all along, that the present counterinsurgency program Oplan Bayanihan is no different from the deadly Oplan Bantay Laya.”
Leaders of people’s organizations are also facing criminal charges over a protest held during President Aquino’s State of the Nation address last July. According to NUPL, in the course of negotiating with police representatives for a resolution to the impasse, the police suddenly attacked protesters, hurting scores of people—including the NUPL secretary general.
The Philippines, a US colony for the first half of the twentieth century, is considered a key strategic partner for US economic and strategic interests. The large Subic and Clark military bases, for example, played a key role in the Vietnam War. In return, from 1972 to 1986, the United States supported the Marcos military dictatorship with massive economic and military aid.
In the mid-1980s, the Philippine people ousted Marcos and enacted a new constitution that banned “foreign military bases, troops, or facilities” unless duly ratified by Congress or a national referendum. In 1991, the Philippine government banned all permanent foreign bases from its soil, and in 1992, the last American base closed down after relentless street protests and campaigning.
But in 1998, Washington and Manila signed a Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), which allowed the United States to establish twenty-two “semi-permanent” bases in the archipelago to get around the ban that opposition to US bases had prompted. Former US ambassador to the Philippines Thomas Hubbard signed the VFA as an executive agreement rather than a treaty, eliminating the need for the advice and consent of the US Senate. Foreign Secretary Domingo Siazon signed the VFA on behalf of the Philippines, and the Philippine Senate ratified the agreement.
After the 9/11 attacks, President Arroyo was one of the first heads of state to pledge support to President George W. Bush’s “war on terror.” Since 2002, the Joint Special Operations Task Force Philippines, which comprises about 500 members of the US military, has been stationed at a “temporary” base in the southern Philippines. Constitutional challenges to the VFA by human rights lawyers have been thus far unsuccessful. On June 27, 2013, Philippine Defense Minister Voltaire Gazmin and his Japanese counterpart announced that the Philippines would be establishing basing arrangements with both the United States and Japan, which would increase the US troop presence in the Philippines. Human rights lawyers quickly pointed out that the arrangement would circumvent the constitution and the VFA.
In early November, disagreements between US and Filipino negotiators prolonged the talks on the increased American troop presence. But after Typhoon Haiyan, both Manila and Washington are justifying more US troops as part of humanitarian aid missions, and negotiations are back on track.
The Philippines, one of the closest US allies in Asia, is crucial to the Obama administration’s “pivot” to Asia, which aims to counter the rising influence of China on the world stage. The United States provided more than $507 million in military assistance to the Philippines from 2001 to 2010. After pressure from human rights groups inside the Philippines—which were supported by international efforts to bring attention to extrajudicial killings, disappearances and other human rights violations—US military aid decreased and the United States withheld the release of some military financing. A March 2007 Senate hearing resulted in the cutting of a portion of the 2008 Foreign Military Financing package to the Armed Forces of the Philippines due to the latter’s involvement in human rights abuses.
American funding was down to $11.9 million in 2011. It is on the rise again, however, and along with it there has been a dramatic increase in human rights violations against activists, many of whom are farmworkers, peasants and indigenous people opposed to the incursions of multinational corporations and the theft of their land. The most recent incident happened on February 5, when two unidentified men onboard a red motorcycle shot and killed 41-year-old peasant leader Julieto Lauron, who was with organizer Nermie Lapatis on their way to the village of Haindangon, Valencia City. Lapatis had recently moved to Valencia City because of threats against her life. As an organizer among indigenous peoples in Bukidnon, Lapatis campaigned against the entry of large-scale mining companies in the area, earning the ire of the military and paramilitary groups.
Military aid in 2012 rose to $30 million, and the Philippine foreign ministry recently announced that the United States has increased the military assistance package to about $50 million for the next fiscal year. This comes as Philip Goldberg, who returned to the United States after the Bolivian government expelled him and President Evo Morales declared him persona non grata for “conspiring against democracy and seeking the division of Bolivia,” was recently appointed US ambassador to the Philippines. Together, these developments signal the US government’s renewed support for Oplan Bayanihan, the Aquino administration’s latest attempt to end a forty-five-year-old insurgency led by the Communist Party of the Philippines and its armed wing, the New People’s Army (NPA). Oplan Bayanihan has adopted a similar framework and similar techniques to Oplan Bantay Laya, and has led to human rights violations. These techniques include smearing all opposition activists as Communists and treating them no differently than the NPA.
Systematic human rights violations are also being committed in the very same places where foreign interests are currently operating or exploring new ventures in highly destructive industries such as open-pit mining, cash-crop agriculture, oil and gas extraction and logging. For example, Human Rights Watch has documented cases in which critics of mining and energy projects have been killed, allegedly by paramilitary forces under military control. The activists had been vocal in opposing mining and energy operations that they said threatened the environment and would displace tribal communities from their land. These include the southern Philippine island of Mindanao, where massive amounts of oil and natural gas have been found. The island also plays host to lucrative plantations for large corporations like Dole and Del Monte. Karapatan reported in December that since President Aquino assumed power in 2010, twenty-five people, most of them political activists and three of them children, have been killed in southern Mindanao.
Time to End US Military Aid
American military aid to the Philippines violates US laws regulating aid to human rights-violating militaries. The US Arms Export Control Act, as well as the Leahy Law, stipulates that no funding shall be furnished to foreign security forces if the United States has knowledge that those forces have committed “a gross violation of human rights.” Yet human rights violations committed by the Philippine military do not currently affect the frequency or quantity of US military aid provided to the Philippines.
Human rights groups in the Philippines, such as Karapatan, have called for an end to US military involvement that “violates the sovereignty of the Philippines and perpetuates the culture of impunity” for rights abusers.
As Americans, we must ask why the US government is sending millions of taxpayer dollars to the Philippine military at the same time this institution is committing systematic human rights violations. American military involvement in the Philippines must end.
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This article is a joint publication of TheNation.com and Foreign Policy In Focus.
Honduras’s new president, Juan Orlando Hernández, takes office on January 27. However, given ongoing questions about his victory in November’s election, the legitimacy of Hernández’s presidency remains in doubt. On this shaky democratic mandate, Hernández will likely continue to militarize Honduran society while implementing more of the neoliberal economic measures that have increased income inequality in the country since the 2009 coup d’état, which deposed the populist president Manuel Zelaya.
These developments bode poorly for the consolidation of democracy in Honduras, where the military has committed human rights violations with impunity throughout the post-coup era. Continued repression in this increasingly polarized country will dim hopes for regional stability and democratization in post-coup Honduras.
A Return to Democracy?
In anticipation of November’s election, many Hondurans held high hopes about a return to democracy four years after the military ousted the democratically elected Zelaya and installed a right-wing caretaker government. Zelaya’s supporters largely boycotted the 2009 election that followed the coup, pushing turnout below fifty-one percent and casting a pall on the vote, which was overseen by the coup authorities and protested by the region’s left-leaning governments. While the Honduran constitution barred Zelaya from running in the 2013 presidential election, his loyalists decided to participate and supported his wife, Xiomara Castro.
As the presidential candidate of the Libre Party, which was created by anti-coup activists in the aftermath of Zelaya’s ouster, Castro offered a vision for Honduras that greatly contrasted with Hernández’s. Although in agreement with Hernández that Honduras’s dire homicide crisis needed to be addressed, Castro opposed Hernández’s calls for deploying more soldiers on the streets, instead calling on the military to secure the country’s international borders from drug traffickers. While speaking of a “new Honduras,” Castro emphasized support for her husband’s progressive policies. Her campaign received widespread support from many elements of Honduran civil society, including prominent artists and writers, low-income Hondurans and indigenous communities.
After polls closed, the electoral authority—run by Hernández’s right-wing National Party—announced that Hernández had won 36.8 percent of the vote, defeating Castro by a margin of eight points. The European Union (EU) and the Organization of American States quickly declared that Honduras’ election was free, fair, and transparent, yet such claims are bitterly disputed by many Hondurans. Other outside observers have since lodged complaints of vote buying, voter intimidation, ballot box stuffing and violence against opposition candidates and supporters.
The Libre Party released its own vote count several days after the election and documented an over-count of 82,301 votes for Hernández and an under-count of 55,720 for Castro. These figures alone constitute 4.6 percent of the national vote, equivalent to more than 50 percent of the National Party’s lead in the government’s tally. Leo Gabriel, an Austrian delegate from the EU’s observer mission, told Brazilian media that he witnessed considerable irregularities in the election, noting that living voters showed up as deceased and dead people’s votes were counted. Gabriel also asserted that votes were bought and sold and that one-fifth of the original tally sheets were sent to an illegal server. Moreover, the murder of three Libre Party activists during the weekend of the election underscored the environment of fear and intimidation in which the election was held.
Triumph of the Oligarchs
It’s difficult to hold an election that is entirely transparent in any developing country. But if the large pro-Castro demonstrations that followed the election are any indication of public sentiment, it is doubtful that many Hondurans will accept Hernández as a democratically legitimate leader.
Festering social and economic conflicts exacerbated by Zelaya’s ouster will make matters worse for the new administration. Two in particular include the campesinos’ struggle to reclaim land from major agribusinesses and the Lenca tribe’s battle to prevent the construction of a dam in its traditional homeland. Both of these conflicts have sparked crackdowns that have brought death and unrest in recent years.
Carbon markets have driven much of the unrest, with entrenched Western economic interests pushing for investment in “green energy” in Central America. In Honduras, this takes the form of large palm oil plantations owned by the country’s economic oligarchs. The palm oil plantations are located on land once farmed by poor campesinos, but which were transferred to big agribusinesses such as the Dinant Corporation.
Dinant is owned by Miguel Facusse, one of the wealthiest men in Honduras. His company, which pushes peasants off their land and has been accused of hiring hit squads to target resisters, has received investment funds from the World Bank for the production of “green energy,” and is able to count the investment as “sustainable” and “green” for the purpose of selling carbon credits on international markets. The World Bank’s own compliance office investigated the bank’s investment in Dinant and found that the institution had been willfully ignorant of the social problems emerging from within Honduras.
In 2009, a number of campesinos who claimed to have been removed from the land started an organization called the United Peasants Movement, or MUCA. MUCA occupied stretches of Facusse’s land, creating subsistence farms and cooperatives. Since then, violence has been waged between Dinant’s private security forces and the Honduran state on one side, and armed campesinos on the other. Blood has been shed on both sides, with most of the casualties being poor farmers. In response to the violence, the Honduran military has reportedly reinforced the strength of the state security apparatus in the region.
Tensions are also rising in the Rio Blanco region, where the Lenca indigenous tribe has resisted a recent plan to construct hydroelectric dams on the Gualcarque River, situated in its traditional land. The project—set to benefit DESA, a company tied to the oligarchs, and Sinohydro, a Chinese firm—was pushed forward without the Lenca tribe’s consultation or consent. In response, the Lenca began to set up roadblocks and protests. During one rally, government soldiers shot at least two protesters, resulting in one death. Indigenous leaders also claim to have received death threats from the military and police.
Such clashes reinforce the widely held view that the 2009 coup—along with events since—was orchestrated by Honduran oligarchs. (WikiLeaks cables have suggested that Facusse may have been personally involved, although he denies any role.)
It remains doubtful that peace can be reached when indigenous communities and campesinos view the government as a representative of the private interests arrayed against them and their livelihoods—a perception no doubt exacerbated by the murky circumstances of Hernandez’s recent victory. Long-term questions regarding the stability of Honduras and the government’s ability to administer an inclusive republic must be raised alongside questions about its legitimacy and desire to peacefully resolve internal conflicts.
Even if the November election was legitimate—and there is ample reason to doubt that it was—the continued marginalization of indigenous communities will bode poorly for democratic consolidation in post-coup Honduras.
Read Next: Dawn Paley on how the people’s will was hushed but not silenced in the Honduran election.
In 2006, a visitor to the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, England, accidentally became an artwork. Let’s call him Dude Descending a Staircase in honor of that merry prankster Marcel Duchamp. This particular visitor tripped over his feet as he was going down the museum stairs. As he fell, he knocked into three large Qing Dynasty vases that rested on their mounts in a recess.
All three vases fell to the ground and smashed into countless pieces.
In a current exhibit on violence and art in the wake of the bombing of Hiroshima—“Damage Control” at the Hirshhorn in Washington, DC—the German artist Thomas Demand has turned this act of destruction into a work of art. It is a single photograph of the fragments of the vase on the landing, with a hint of orderly English landscaping visible through the window. The work, Landing, is a recreation of the damage, a reminder that sometimes all that remains of Humpty Dumpty when he falls from the wall is the forensic reconstruction.
As I stood in front of this photograph, I thought about Colin Powell and Iraq. You might remember Powell’s famous quip about Pottery Barn. In his advice to President George W. Bush before the Iraq invasion, Powell warned the president of the Pottery Barn rule: you break it, you own it. The United States would be responsible, Powell implied, for whatever wreckage the military incurred in its headlong dash to unseat Saddam Hussein.
Pottery Barn actually has no such a rule, and it was New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman who “made up the whole thing.” But Powell, who apologized to Pottery Barn, still embraces the message.
“We were essentially the new government until a government could be put in place,” he told David Samuels in The Atlantic. “And in the second phase of this conflict, which was beginning after the statue fell, we made serious mistakes in not acting like a government. One, maintaining order. Two, keeping people from destroying their own property. Three, not having in place security forces—either ours or theirs or a combination of the two to keep order.”
We did none of those things, and Iraq, as a result, is broken. Nor has the United States made much effort to own it—that is, to own up to our responsibility for breaking the country. We gave up trying to sweep up the pieces. At this stage, all we do is take photographs of the damage, putting them in the newspaper accompanied by descriptions of the carnage. We mull over the consequences. We hope that our chickens don’t come home to roost.
The real Pottery Barn rule—the same rule that all retailers have—is to write off the broken merchandise as a loss. And that is what we have done to Iraq.
The latest violence in Iraq rivals the levels last seen during wartime. Last year, between 8,000 and 10,000 civilians were killed, the highest number since 2008. According to one recent study, half a million Iraqis have died from war-related causes since the 2003 US invasion, a figure that includes indirect casualties from the breakdown of the country’s social structure.
The recent successes of Al Qaeda–linked insurgents in Falluja and Ramadi have received particular attention from US newspapers because of the role played by US soldiers in earlier fighting in those two places. Remarkably, a relatively small number of insurgents—120 in Ramadi and 200 in Falluja—seem to have been enough to take those towns. But the insurgents are sufficiently well equipped to make the Iraqi government worry that they could take over Baghdad as well.
The persistent chaos in Iraq is partly a function of continued sectarian divisions between a Shiite-dominated al-Maliki government and Sunni insurgents. What passes for reconciliation these days in Iraq is the government’s attempt to reproduce the Sunni Awakening in Anbar by paying Sunni tribesmen to fight against the insurgents. After all, Al Qaeda is as unpalatable to most Sunnis as it is to most Shiites. There is also the larger geopolitical context in which Iraq is crumbling, including the regional struggle between Iran and Saudi Arabia and their proxies. The disintegration of Syria plays into the conflict as well, for the Al Qaeda militants in Iraq have received a boost from their campaign against the Assad government next door.
The effort to replay the Sunni Awakening, which the United States used to its advantage after 2006, will be a great deal more difficult now. “From 2006 to 2008, tribesmen were able to beat Al Qaeda with the cooperation of American forces and the support of the Iraqi government,” Sunni politician Osama al-Nujaifi told The New York Times. “After gaining victory over Al Qaeda, those tribesmen were rewarded with the cutting of their salaries, with assassination and displacement.” Many Iraqis complain that the United States has not done enough to pressure the al-Maliki government to heal the rift with the country’s Sunni minority.
The last US combat troops left Iraq at the end of 2011. Washington failed to negotiate a status of forces agreement with Baghdad and so followed through on its threat of a “zero option.” Only about 300 US soldiers remain at the US embassy—mostly guarding the complex—and another 100 oversee the supply of the Iraqi army. The Pentagon just recently broached the possibility, in addition to upping the flow of arms to Iraq, of sending over some trainers.
The prospect of re-engaging militarily with Iraq is far from appealing. “Having unleashed an unexpected insurgency, the U.S. felt obliged to deal with it, at a cost of thousands of American lives,” editorializes the Los Angeles Times. “But the statute of limitations on that obligation has run out, and when U.S. forces left in 2011, Iraqis were happy to see them go.”
This is true—to a point. Inserting US troops in Iraq—even as trainers—makes no sense. We would just tumble down the staircase and break a few more vases. But is that all we have: an impoverished choice between troops and no troops?
I recently stumbled across a powerful article by Dexter Filkins in The New Yorker about the impact of the country’s implosion, not only on Iraqis but also on US soldiers. In “Atonement,” he writes of a fatal collision in Baghdad between a contingent of US Marines and a family of Iraqi-Armenians trying to flee the violence. Mistaking the family for a carful of insurgents, the Marines opened fire, killing the husband and two sons. Eight years later, one of those Marines, Lu Lobello, beset by guilt and nightmares, tracked down the family in their California exile. He met them. He tried to explain himself. He apologized.
There was nothing about apologies in the Pottery Barn rule. It was all about objects and ownership. But Iraq has never been simply a china shop. It is a country of people. When you break a person, do you own them? Of course not. And what we did in Iraq was far from accidental.
I’m not aware of any US administration that has apologized for our military involvement in that country. Getting rid of Saddam Hussein does not excuse us of responsibility for what happened afterward. So, we could start by apologizing for our mistakes.
But when it comes to countries, apologies are not sufficient. There should also be an element of restitution.
In Prague, I recently learned of a plan that a Charter 77 member had for dealing with all the Communist apparatchiks who had interrogated and imprisoned and immiserated his colleagues. “Send them to the forest,” the fellow recommended. I had visions of a firing squad executing its own form of retribution. But no, he meant something entirely different. The Communist system had made a mess of nature during its four decades of headlong industrialization. Those responsible should simply spend a year cleaning up the forests and waterways. After a year, he imagined, they would be clean: the forests and the apparatchiks alike.
Alas, the Czech Republic never did follow this sensible plan. Could the United States send all the Lu Lobellos back to Iraq to clean up the environment, rebuild schools and repair what has been broken? Many US veterans would likely welcome such a program, for both its employment and mental health benefits.
We can never reconstruct those Qing vases. But surely we can do more than just mourn their passing and stare at the wreckage.
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This article is a joint publication of TheNation.com and Foreign Policy In Focus.
Of all of the displays in the Rwandan Genocide Memorial in Kigali, it is one of the least memorable. Humbly settled between panels describing the historical tensions that led to the genocide, it’s largely overshadowed by the stained glass panels and commemorative statues placed in front of and behind it.
The display is a simple glass panel that quotes an African proverb: “A tree can only be straightened when it is young.” Understated as it may be, this small placard is invaluable when it comes to understanding the post-genocide mindset in Rwanda.
In particular, it echoes the Rwandan government’s focus on rehabilitation and development for the country’s youth. To prevent another outbreak of ethnic violence, the country’s autocratic regime—which enjoys friendly relations with Washington—has strived to cultivate a healthy sense of nationalism among young Rwandans, and has instituted an ambitious educational agenda in a bid to offer young people jobs and direction.
But though the government has dedicated itself to a variety of youth-oriented reform projects, it has also instituted propagandistic “national solidarity” camps that peddle militaristic values and obedience to the state. At the same time, the country has cracked down on free speech and political dissidents.
The question remains as to whether its efforts in the twenty years since the genocide have amounted to straightening its citizen saplings or simply stunting their growth, creating a generation of Rwandan bonsais.
Education and Employment
Some of the most significant efforts have been aimed at the country’s education system. These reforms have focused on overcoming the colonial legacy of reserving education for Tutsis—the ethnic group favored by the Belgians, which helped stoke ethnic animosity in the country—as well as developing the sort of “human capital” necessary for young Rwandans to compete on the global job market.
The government has worked at breakneck speed to expand access to quality education. Between 2009 and 2011, the government constructed 9,000 new classrooms and switched the language of instruction from French to English, and it’s currently undertaking a review of the national curriculum. In addition to improving traditional forms of education, the government has also upgraded the vocational training available to students and instituted nationwide courses in entrepreneurship in an effort to decrease the country’s high unemployment rate.
Rwanda’s efforts have not gone unnoticed: in 2012, the government won the Commonwealth’s Education Good Practice Award for its establishment of free and compulsory basic education for all Rwandans for nine years. Suggesting that the program be used as a regional model, the judges determined that the program “represented a qualitative shift in the dynamics of schooling and made a major contribution to national reconciliation.” As a representative for UNICEF in the country noted, “the government has recognized education’s role in creating social cohesion” and has acted accordingly. Representatives from both USAID and UNICEF admitted sheepishly to me that, at times, it is difficult for them to keep pace with the Rwandan government’s reforms.
The reason for the government’s sense of urgency, according to an employee of Kigali’s Youth, Sports and Culture Ministry, is that in Rwanda “we have to be careful with our youth. They can destroy or rebuild our country.” In particular, the government has identified Rwandans between ages 14 and 35 as particularly critical to the process of reconciliation and development, as this subset of the nation’s youth “participated in or were directly affected by the immediate aftermath of the genocide.”
Yet for all of its laudable efforts to straighten the trees while they’re still young, Rwanda’s efforts to rehabilitate its youth have a dark side as well: a mysterious system of “national solidarity camps,” most commonly referred to by the Kinyarwanda term ingando. According the government officials I spoke with, the majority of Rwandan youth in the target age range have participated in ingando. Many officials said they hoped that all citizens will complete such a program by 2020.
Despite the widespread participation, information concerning the objectives and structure of the program is difficult to come by. Foreigners I spoke with, even those who have worked in the country for a number of years—including a representative of USAID, the country director of a major religious philanthropic group and the founder of a private school on the outskirts of Kigali—were entirely unaware that the program existed.
Part of this opacity stems from the variety of names for these camps. Andrea Purdeková of the Oxford Department of International Development has noted that “since their inception soon after the genocide, the three to eight week long camps have been known variously as ‘solidarity camps,’ ‘re-education’ camps, ‘civic education’ camps, ‘political awareness’ camps, ‘reorientation’ camps and ‘reintegration’ courses.”
From interviews with local government officials and camp participants, I found that there was a subtle but noticeable divide between the descriptions of the camps given by officials and participants. Though government representatives argued that ingando camps were a return to a “pre-colonial tradition” of retreat and reflection on the state of society, participants more frequently described the camps as a post-genocide innovation.
The camps have targeted a variety of populations within the country, ranging from pre-university students to prisoners and refugees. From discussions with both government officials and Rwandan citizens, I was able to glean that attendance at the camps was mandatory for certain demographics of society. Most notably, for a number of years, students who were attending public university on national scholarship were required to attend ingando. Even when ingando is not strictly mandatory, social and political pressure is often strong enough to coerce citizens into attending. The amount of time spent at ingando varied according to the age of the person I spoke with and their reason for attending, but the most frequent report was that the program lasted between one and three months.
According to most reports, days in the camps are strictly scheduled, with early morning exercise followed by lectures from government officials, then more exercise or military drills and finally the singing of “patriotic” songs at night. Across the range of experiences with ingando, the most frequent refrain was that the camps “taught us how to be soldiers.” This description is unsurprising, as observers have speculated that the camps are modeled after the sort of military and political education camps the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) used to train Rwandans during the civil war between 1990 and 1994.
Patriotism or Propaganda?
According to a Rwandan government official who has lectured at ingando camps in the past, these programs are a way of “creating a national identity” and serve to “help people realize that ethnic identities give us nothing.” An employee of the Youth, Sports and Culture Ministry even claimed that “ingando is the reason we are so peaceful.” A high-ranking police officer in Kigali, also speaking on terms of anonymity, agreed with this assessment, attributing the country’s stability since 1994 to “a change in the mindset of the people,” which he says was facilitated through ingando. A young woman who attended ingando and is currently working at a post-conflict education nonprofit mused that “the older generation has been corrupted; they have different ideologies than we do,” and suggested that the new ideologies had been learned in the camps.
Some Rwandans who recalled their experience at ingando positively report that this program instilled in them “patriotism” and taught them “how to love our country,” as well as imparting civic education “about the importance of paying taxes and contributing to development.” The mandatory lectures from government officials, they said, “explain why the government has created these policies” and seek to foster support for government programs. One middle-aged NGO coordinator who did not attend ingando was excited for when her children would be old enough to attend, stating that “I don’t know how to teach my children about the country, so I am happy that there is a way for them to learn how to love their country.”
However, some researchers and dissidents have suggested that the lectures by government officials are a means of indoctrinating participants and mainstreaming the Rwandan Patriotic Front’s political agenda. Even Rwandan participants who enjoyed their experience admitted that “people do have different views of ingando” both within and outside of Rwanda.
By some accounts, the camps have evolved over time. Descriptions of the camps from people who attended before 2010 are particularly disturbing. A 25-year-old master’s candidate who attended ingando in 2008 said that the program “taught us how to contribute as soldiers, not as intellectuals.” It was frequently reported that upon entering the camps, participants were forced to wear military fatigues and were treated as if they were new recruits. One participant recalled being beaten and harassed at the camps, a common refrain among ingando participants now in their mid-20s. In addition to physical intimidation, some participants reported that the government lectures were also coercive and propagandistic. One young man stated quietly that “some outsiders say ingando is a way of attracting the youth to the Rwandan Patriotic Front…but if you feel that way in this country, you must keep silent.”
The future of these camps is uncertain, as certain members of the government suggested that ingando was being phased out and replaced with a less militaristic, more community-centered civic education program called itorero. Others stated that ingando had been tamed in recent years, while still others unequivocally declared that the program was as militaristic as ever. Even if ingando is entirely discontinued, which is unlikely, the program may have already stunted the development of a flourishing civil society in Rwanda.
A Dangerous Combination
President Paul Kagame’s government has often been criticized for its limitations on free speech and its authoritarian tendencies. Its approach to resolving the conflict in the country has amounted to a de facto ban on the use of ethnic titles under “genocidal ideology” laws, which have been used to shut down newspapers and websites. Under these same laws, the leaders of opposition parties were arrested ahead of the 2010 elections. The government says that such laws are necessary to construct a national unity in the wake of a horrific genocide, but researchers at Oxford concluded that “‘Unity’ in Rwanda is a totalitarian unity which… can hardly be politically contested.”
Such censorship gives way to graver threats, as illustrated by the recent murder of Rwandan dissident Patrick Karegeya, who was found dead in South Africa. A variety of international observers have attributed the killing to Kagame, though there has been remarkably little public discussion about the matter in Kigali. Kagame recently threatened that “you cannot betray Rwanda and get away with it. There are consequences for betraying your country.”
In light of the broader political situation in Rwanda, the propagandistic and militaristic components of the ingando camps are troubling. By instilling a sense of national identity explicitly connected to the programs of the current administration—while silencing dissent through oppressive regulations on free-speech—the Rwandan government may have created a self-policing society that allows no peaceful means for citizens to express their grievances. Such a society is not only undesirable, but also untenable. In simultaneously militarizing the society and denying citizens the ability to peacefully dissent, Kagame’s policies create a situation in which both dissent and reaction to dissent are likely to be violent.
The stability Rwanda has achieved in the two decades since the genocide is indeed remarkable, but stability based on repression and propaganda is seldom durable. Government services can promote citizen development, just as straightening a sapling and modestly pruning its leaves can promote its growth. But ingando camps and state repression are more like the aggressive pruning that stunts a bonsai tree—and a tree stunted carelessly may die.
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This article is a joint publication of TheNation.com and Foreign Policy In Focus.
Thousands of Zapatistas turned out this month to celebrate the twentieth 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.
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 twentieth 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 1, 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 the Carcacoles 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 Cristóbal de las Casas, or remained in more remote communities with their host families to join in the sports competitions, music, speeches and dancing.
Living Off the Power Grid
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 about 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 with 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 students recounted the experience enthusiastically, describing how their hosts revealed a world that wasn’t perfect by a long shot, but where each person mattered and each effort, each achievement and each mistake was their own.
A New Phase?
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.”
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