Issue 279 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published November 2003 Copyright © Socialist Review
|New Bolivian president Carlos Mesa addresses demonstrators in La Paz|
For the third time in three years a spontaneous uprising has forced a neoliberal president to flee from a presidential palace in South America. First Jamil Mahuad in Ecuador in January 2000, then De La Rua in Argentina in December 2001, and now Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozado in Bolivia.
When miners armed with sticks of dynamite, clubs and rocks joined the crowds thronging the centre of the capital, La Paz, on 17 October they showed the extent to which the movement against corporate globalisation finds its sharpest practical expression on the streets of Latin America.
Bolivia is a poor country--the poorest in the continent after Nicaragua. Its population is still mainly rural--a very different state of affairs to Brazil, Venezuela or Chile, where most people now live in cities, let alone long-industrialised Argentina. But its wealth historically came from the mines, and this led to the emergence of a tight-knit, highly combative working class. In 1952 it spearheaded one of the world's most spectacular revolutions, occupying the capital, disarming the armed forces, and bringing to power a nationalist government that nationalised the mines and divided the semi-feudal latifundia (large estates) among the peasantry.
The miners' union leaders agreed to power going to middle class nationalists intent on fostering the growth of an independent Bolivian bourgeoisie. But the weakness of Bolivian capitalism compared to its competitors led to dependence on a succession of military regimes prepared to use extreme repression to break the workers' organisations. Yet at the end of the 1960s, and again at the beginning of the 1980s, renewed miners' struggles shook up the whole political structure. In 1971 there was even a brief period of near dual power, while in the early 1980s the military were forced to give way to a formally democratic regime with a centre-left government. It was the neoliberal policy accepted by this government, with privatisation of industry and halving the mining workforce, that seemed to break working class power for good.
Then in 2000 began a new phase of rebellion--not among the miners, but in the Cochabamba region among peasants and workers, who blocked roads and brought the economy to a halt in protest against price rises caused by water privatisation.
The president, the former military dictator Banzer, was forced to rescind the water privatisation. In the elections that followed Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozado, the main bourgeois candidate, only got 1 percent more votes than one of the leaders of the protest, Evo Morales of the Movement Towards Socialism.
The new government nevertheless felt confident enough to try to repress the wave of protests that began in mid-September against the sell-off of natural gas to British and European multinationals. It seemed it was going ride out the storm until a massacre of demonstrators in the Al Alto suburb of La Paz caused the miners to re-emerge as a strategic force, against the background of strikes, and worker and peasant road blockages that paralysed the country's economy. As in 1952, the organised working class, although small numerically, was able to give the lead to the frustrations of the rest of the exploited and oppressed population.
In a desperate attempt to save the situation, the parties that brought Sanchez de Lozado to power opted to replace him with his deputy, the TV presenter turned media millionaire Carlos Mesa. This seems to have bought some time for the country's ruling class, with the protesters returning to their home districts and production restarting. The new president may try to keep control by sprinkling his speeches with nationalist phrases and ritual criticisms of neoliberalism while reassuring the US that its interests are not threatened. This has been the method used by Kirchner, the new president of Argentina, to try to bury the memory of the uprising there.
But it is unlikely that Bolivia's workers and peasants will simply accept that. Meanwhile the reverberation of the Bolivian events will spread throughout the continent. Already the Economist is expressing fear of a similar revolt shaking Honduras, long seen by US imperialism as central to its control over Central America, while anti-privatisation struggles are worrying the government of neighbouring Peru. And the Kirchner government in Argentina cannot for long maintain the pretence of being friends with the social movement and the IMF at the same time.
Some of US imperialism's strategists have been hoping that the Lula government in Brazil would help to contain the growing radicalism across the continent. Lula was still a hero to thousands of young left wingers at the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre in January, and has since sought to head off his friendship with the IMF and his acceptance of the planned Free Trade Area of the Americas through an agreement to work with Chavez in Venezuela and Kirchner in Argentina to expand the Latin American trade bloc, Mercosur. Gutierrez, the new president of Ecuador, is following a similarly timid path, and the State Department must be hoping that expected left victories in forthcoming elections in El Salvador and Uruguay will have a similar outcome.
But Lula and Gutierrez are increasingly under fire from workers, peasants and indigenous peoples. The Bolivian example will deepen their problems--and those of their allies in Washington. The new wave of struggle will grow--and grow more radical.
Bolivia is a small country, with a population of just 6 million, but strategically important. That was why Che Guevara chose it 36 years ago as the launching pad for his desperate attempt to break the isolation of the Cuban Revolution. His tragic mistake was to underestimate the country's miners and instead place his hopes on the most remote part of the countryside. Last month the miners showed the potential he ignored--the potential for workers right across the continent to spearhead the struggles of all the groups who suffer under capitalism and imperialism.
BETWEEN THE LINES
The governor of the Bank of Italy, Antonio Fazio, is known as 'the Pope': his job is for life, he's inaccessible, and he has absolute power over bank mergers. But when satirical TV show Striscia la Notizia tried to award him a 'raspberry' for failing to prevent a financial scandal, he denied his identity and had his bodyguards knock over the journalist, telling them to 'kick him a bit so he goes away'. Divine retribution, perhaps.
The new deregulated directory enquiry services are nothing to phone home about. Since 192 was switched off in August, calls to its 118 successors have dropped by 45 percent while complaints have doubled. A case of 'We've got your number'?
If you feel you haven't been force-fed enough of Alastair Campbell's opinions for the last six years, don't despair: Tony Blair's former chief spin doctor has been approached by corporate speaking agency JLA. His fees have been estimated at 25,000 a time. Who says war crime doesn't pay?
Feel the rhythm
Around 150 people gathered for the launch of the London Social Forum at the start of October. There were discussions about the role of the media, the Tobin Tax, the anti-war movement and student activism. It was generally critical of the mainstream of the movement. Many speakers argued that the movement relied too much on mass demonstrations and on the power of the unions--in the words of one participant, on the 'ideology of mobilisation'. There was not a clear agreement about what an alternative strategy might be. In fact one of the main speakers in the opening plenary explained that the organisers had not decided whether the meeting should be explicitly against the war or not.
One organiser used the meeting to announce that Bernard Cassen, honorary president of Attac France, was expressing serious concern about the European Social Forum (ESF) coming to London. The organisers invited Christophe Ventura, one of the leading figures in the French movement who has resisted holding the ESF in London. Both of them have been campaigning to slow the rhythm of the movement by making the ESF biennial and to distance the social forums from the growing radicalism of the grassroots in France.
Apart from this worrying link-up the main problem with the meeting was that it was not representative of the movement in London. There were very few trade unionists present, the mainstream peace movement was underrepresented and the Muslim community was virtually absent. There appeared to be no one there from the anti-racist movement and very few students.
Because there was no voting the meeting took no decisions. The clear danger is that because the London Social Forum is conceived as an 'open space' rather than as a vehicle to build activity, it will become a talking shop on the margins of the movement.
London's not waiting
As we go to press, London postal workers look set to go on all-out strike in response to management attacks on CWU reps. Management has tried to go on the offensive, suspending workers for refusing to carry out duties not in their job description and threatening to derecognise the union.
Workers are increasingly bitter about attacks on pay and conditions, and the cost of living in London. The Unison/CWU one-day strike over London weighting marked a comeback after the loss of the CWU national strike ballot. Now the rank and file is taking the lead.
In the post, the London divisional committee has led a serious campaign, calling an unofficial ballot, and producing pamphlets, leaflets and stickers. The rank and file paper Post Worker--now selling 3,000 copies in London alone--has played a key role in agitating on the ground, building a network of activists around it.
There is an ongoing process of politicisation among workers. The firefighters' strike and a series of defeats for the 'awkward squad' have deepened the questions raised by taking action. The rank and file has begun to provide answers in Oxford, Wolverhampton and London.
Following the success of last month's London weighting strike, Unison has called two further strike days in December. After two derailments on the tube in as many days, the RMT is balloting for action on London Underground.
At the CWU London strike rally deputy general secretary Dave Ward received an enthusiastic response when he said that New Labour is worth about 'a fiver' of the CWU's money. The political fund has become a key question in the unions. The importance of action taken by post workers, Unison members or tube workers is that behind their own management stands the government.
|Millions of Iraqis are dependent on the Oil for Food programme, which is due to expire|
Six months into the occupation Iraqi society is becoming increasingly fragile. A generation living under war and sanctions has stretched the ties of social solidarity painfully thin. Those at the bottom of the pile face utter destitution. A World Food Programme (WFP) report released on 23 September estimated the number of Iraqis living below the poverty line had increased since the war to 55 percent of the population, or more than 14 million people.
The Public Distribution System (PDS)--a gigantic welfare system set up by the UN--has been supplying almost the entire Iraqi population with meagre rations since 1997. Millions are completely dependent on the monthly supplies they receive from the PDS, which is funded by the Oil for Food Programme. The WFP report found that between 20 and 25 percent of Iraqis cannot afford the 18 US cents/250 Iraqi dinars per person needed to buy the PDS rations.
By the end of November, UN officials will have handed over the entire rationing system to the occupying powers' Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), as instructed by UN Security Council resolution 1483, which ended the sanctions on Iraq, and with them the Oil for Food Programme. The UN Office of the Iraq Programme is scathing about the CPA's ability to administer the ration system. The CPA failed to appoint personnel to oversee the transfer of the complex distribution system until August and has proved incapable of guaranteeing security for aid workers to continue the programme. By late September the UN was preparing to cut its losses and leave.
Meanwhile the occupying powers have other priorities. Even before the war started the spoils had been divided. The US army handed out major contracts to Kellog, Brown & Root, a subsidiary of Halliburton (US vice-president Dick Cheney's company) and Fluor, KBR's major rival. USAid engaged a series of private contractors to carry out reconstruction work on Iraq's health system, schools, local administration, sea and airports and capital construction projects. The list of the main contractors reads like a roll-call of the biggest names in corporate crime.
The Californian construction company Bechtel has attracted most of the media's attention. But Bechtel's competitors in looting Iraq are hardly more attractive. Take Dyncorp for example. This British-based company specialises in running training programmes for police officers. Dyncorp's track record in 'post-conflict reconstruction' is far from encouraging. The company paid large out of court settlements to two of its employees who were dismissed after blowing the whistle on company personnel who were trading Bosnian children as sex slaves during Dyncorp's stint in the Balkans.
Like any incoming government, the occupation authorities are quick to stress that economic and social problems are the result of the previous administration's 'wilful neglect' of the country's infrastructure. US officials promote the idea that Iraq's ills are the result of Ba'athist economic planning, rather than 20 years of war, 12 years of sanctions and six months of occupation.
However, far from relying on the mechanisms of the open market, the occupying powers have stacked the 'reconstructed' Iraqi ministries with powerful 'advisers' who provide a crucial link between the corporations and the neo-conservative war planners who have provided the ideological driving force for regime change. The appointment of Dan Amstutz as senior adviser to the Ministry of Agriculture prompted a furious outburst from Kevin Watkins, Oxfam's policy director.
'Putting Dan Amstutz in charge of agricultural reconstruction in Iraq is like putting Saddam Hussein in the chair of a human rights commission,' he said. Amstutz was vice-president of the US grain exporter Cargill. He also served in George Bush Sr's administration as an undersecretary of agriculture and was the US chief negotiator for the Uruguay round of the negotiations over the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), the forerunner of the World Trade Organisation.
It is not just Iraq which will be open for US business under proposals by the Bush administration for a Middle East Free Trade Area. At the World Economic Forum meeting in Amman in June, Paul Bremer sketched a vision of a neoliberal Iraq at the heart of a Middle East in which US, and by implication Israeli, firms would have a free run to dominate Arab markets.
The men and women who are now re-engineering Iraqi society have decades of experience in shock therapy and structural adjustment, but even they can't wave away the problems of postwar Iraq. The country is likely to remain poor for years to come, according to a report by the Institute of International Finance in October. Iraq's oil revenues may reach $10 billion during 2004, but a draft assessment by the World Bank, the UN and the International Monetary Fund estimates that meeting Iraq's basic needs will probably cost $17.5 billion, leaving a substantial shortfall which US taxpayers may yet baulk at filling. And as resistance to the occupation grows, the corporate looters may well find that Iraqi reconstruction is not such a commercially attractive proposition.
Not-so-jolly gene giants
New Labour and the biotech industry have been left floundering by a succession of blows to their strategy to engineer public support for genetically modified (GM) crops.
In July the Strategy Unit of the Cabinet Office reluctantly reported that there was little economic gain in GM while consumers remained so hostile. This was illustrated by the results of the government's six-week 'GM Nation?' public consultation. Twenty thousand people attended 675 meetings across Britain, with 36,557 feedback forms revealing a mood which 'ranged from caution to doubt, through suspicion and scepticism, to hostility and rejection'. Only 2 percent were happy with GM food in all circumstances, with 86 percent unhappy to eat it, and 93 percent saying too little was known about possible health effects, and believing that GM technology was driven by profit not public interest.
Then in October came the results of three years of GM field trials. They were designed to give biotech companies the green light to plant GM crops in Britain. They excluded some of the biggest safety fears about GM--the spread of GM genes to other plants, the effects on soil or on human health from eating the products. And the trials would not be subject to the commercial pressures that lead to hazardous overspraying of crops. Nevertheless, on the narrow (but still important) question of whether local plants and small animals would suffer from the use of the GM-tailored weedkillers, the answer was a resounding 'yes' in the case of both sugar beet and oilseed rape. Though the maize trials were more favourable to the GM lobby, the main herbicide used on non-GM maize in the tests, atrazine, is so dangerous that the EU has banned it, thus invalidating the results.
Faced with patented technology that no one wants to eat, biotech companies are now discussing growing GM crops for biomass fuel. This neither prevents the threat of GM 'superweeds' caused by cross-pollination nor does much to prove their supposed commitment to feeding the world.
People are right to be worried about the safety of GM foods. GM advocates point to their widespread consumption in North America for the last seven years. But no significant studies have charted the effects of this. BSE-infected meat was eaten for more than a decade before the government was forced to admit it could cause CJD. Possible GM-related dangers--increased cancer risk, a weakening of the immune system--would not be immediately obvious, especially if no effort is made to track its consumption. GM crops often also carry antibiotic resistance--a dangerous property should it be transferred to humans. Gene insertions could also link chemical pathways to previously inactive toxins or transfer allergenic proteins. Soya allergies have multiplied since large-scale GM soya production began.
But the danger of GM is also economic--it is a weapon for a few multinationals to extend the corporate control of the food chain. Far from feeding the world, technologies such as the 'terminator gene' (designed to be sterile) and its 'traitor' successor (designed to be sterile without a patented Monsanto chemical to 'switch on' its fertility) are clearly attempts to profit from small farmers' dependency. From seed to supermarket--via harvesting, transportation and processing--the gene giants want to patent the basis of life itself.
Public pressure has forced the EU to insist on the labelling of GM products--but admissible GM contamination levels being discussed by the European Commission would still allow up to 600 million GM plants to be grown in Britain every year. Even such inadequate regulation has provoked a trade war with the US--which ignores the view of 92 percent of its citizens that GM food should be labelled. The EU has also decided to allow 'GM-free zones'. But the ecosystem is too interdependent for GM and non-GM crops to coexist without cross-fertilising.
Even regulated GM production would thus quickly erode the choice not to eat GM foods, and perhaps permanently reduce vital biodiversity, while strengthening the gene giants' grip on global agriculture.
Talk isn't cheap
The recent decision by MSN, the huge Microsoft-owned internet provider, to stop access to its online chat rooms, made front page news across the globe.
When the internet first started to grow into more mainstream usage, one of the biggest attractions was the ability to talk with people all over the world. This quickly became one of the widest used facilities on the web. Many companies like MSN or Yahoo! offered the chance for users to communicate about any issue under the sun with thousands of others.
More recently, the cheap availability of webcams allowed chat to become more than simple text--now you could see and hear the person you talked with.
But there are clouds in this vision of a utopia where the whole world can communicate freely. See for instance this 2001 report of the Home Office's newly launched guidelines to chat room use--tinyurl.com/pb2t--which shows how many problems there are with the current set up.
But what is MSN's real motivation?
In an article on the 'Wired' site www.wired.com the manager of MSN for Europe said, 'It's a signal that some of the joyful early days of the internet have moved on a bit. Chat was one of those things that was a bit hippie-ish. It was free and open. But a small minority have changed that for everyone. It's very sad.'
Of course, this myth about the internet has abounded for many years--that the web has only recently become a home for pornographers and paedophiles. As I've argued before at tinyurl.com/pb2w, the driving force behind the web has often been porn companies.
Indeed 'Cyber sex' has been one of the most common uses for chat services, a cursory glance at the room titles in Yahoo's chat area shows hundreds of rooms dedicated to sex.
The 'Wired' article points to a number of other factors, not least that MSN's replacement service will be chargeable. But as many commentators have already pointed out, the real reason behind the decision is the fear of future litigation, and the prohibitive cost of employing people to watch over the discussion areas.
So will the disappearance of one of the biggest chat room providers make for safer browsing? Of course not. Yahoo! and the rest will be rubbing their hands with glee at the prospect of getting MSN's ex-users. And nobody will be any safer.
|The McGowan family campaign protesting for justice|
If you want a licence to inflict racism on black and Asian people with impunity, then look no further than a career with the British police. The Secret Policeman, the undercover BBC documentary of a police training college in Cheshire shown last month, shocked a lot of people with the level of extreme racism it revealed. PC Rob Pulling, the man who thought it 'fun' to dress up as the Ku Klux Klan, was caught articulating racist prejudices straight out of a BNP meeting: 'A dog born in a barn is still a dog. A Paki born in Britain is still a fucking Paki.' 'He [Stephen Lawrence] deserved it, and his mum and dad are fucking spongers.'
Or how about PC Adrian Hamilton of Manchester police: 'I class them as one thing and that's it--Pakis.'
These were not the opinions of a
minority--the programme showed a large clutch of racist police trainees on the course who were relaxed in the knowledge that none of their fellow officers would report them. Pulling especially, who revealingly had spent time in the Metropolitan Police, was quite confident that his vile prejudices would fit nicely with his future colleagues in North Wales.
Top police and the government have been at pains to argue that racism in the police is merely a reflection of wider society. This is nonsense. It is clear from the programme that the 'canteen culture' of bigotry in the police is at a level way above most of British society--only matched by that in other authoritarian jobs such as the armed services and prison officers. The police are not like any other profession--they wield massive power over ordinary people. They have the tools to put their racism into action, safe in the knowledge that ultimately they have the protection of the powers that be.
And it is the response of the state and those in high office that has been as revealing as the programme itself. New Labour home secretary David Blunkett chose to attack the BBC and smear the programme as a 'stunt' that 'created' a story instead of reporting one. He was forced into an about-turn only because the majority of the public supported the programme makers.
Blunkett's pre-emptive strike was part of a wider campaign to bury the programme. The Home Office's most senior civil servant, John Gieve, presumably on Blunkett's say-so, wrote to the BBC in an effort to get The Secret Policeman pulled. And Mike Todd, the Manchester police chief, while in public weeping crocodile tears over the racism the programme uncovered, had also been in private threatening the BBC with withdrawing any future cooperation if the exposé was broadcast.
We should not be surprised at these attempts at political censorship. Despite all the public inquiries, the police still get away with violent and extreme racism.
A few days before the programme was screened, an inquest jury ruled that Roger Sylvester had been 'unlawfully killed' by officers from the Metropolitan Police. Roger, a black man from north London, died in 1999 after being pinned down by a gang of police. The jury delivered the verdict despite the Crown Prosecution Service having earlier decided not to charge the officers involved. These officers are working today on the streets of London. No disciplinary action has been taken against them. Indeed, no police officer has ever been successfully prosecuted with the murder of a black person, despite the long list of deaths in custody. One could describe this as a licence to kill.
After the Stephen Lawrence inquiry there was a concerted effort by top police and the Home Office to clean up the public image of the police. Attempts have been made to get a few black faces in the ranks. Top officers have declared that they are for an 'anti-racist' force. This has failed. Blacks and Asians still make up a tiny minority of officers. Most of those who are recruited don't last long.
The 'diversity' training the police get has only succeeded in teaching PCs not to be racist in front of senior officers. Now they wait until they get to the police locker room, canteen, or face to face with the public before they give vent to their bigotry.
The focus has been on the racist bobby on the beat. But it is those at the top who have been carrying out a huge campaign against the moderate Black Police Association (BPA), highlighted by the case of Ali Dizaei, the high-flying black officer brought low by a failed corruption investigation that smells of a frame-up. The situation is so bad that the BPA official policy is to urge blacks and Asians not to join the police!
We have a New Labour home secretary who is not afraid of playing the race card when it suits him. Where did officers in the BBC documentary get the notion that Asians don't belong in Britain? Look no further than a government that argues that Asians are to blame for the racism they suffer because they are not 'British' enough and don't integrate. Who recently argued that there was no such thing as 'institutional racism', and that the whole Lawrence inquiry had been a useless diversion? David Blunkett.
It is clear from the programme that the 'everyday' way that the police exercise racism over black and Asian people is through stop and searches. Yet after the Lawrence inquiry New Labour bent over backwards to defend and even extend these powers. One of the demands arising from The Secret Policeman debate should be that stop and search powers should be scrapped now--at least taking away one racist weapon from a racist institution.
Big questions should be asked of those who still argue that the police can be reformed. The Secret Policeman showed that the British police is an irredeemably racist institution. It's not a matter of rooting out a few rotten apples--the whole barrel stinks.