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'Intelligent discontent is the mainspring of civilization.' -- Eugene V. Debs

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

War Porn, Part II 

Everybody's been talking about the the forth-coming Nation story about NowThatsFuckedUp.com, a photo clearinghouse site in which anyone may upload a picture that started out as a straight amateur porn site but morphed into a porn of war site:

The website has become a stomach-churning showcase for the pornography of war--close-up shots of Iraqi insurgents and civilians with heads blown off, or with intestines spilling from open wounds. Sometimes photographs of mangled body parts are displayed: Part of the game is for users to guess what appendage or organ is on display. [ ... ]

Some of the images on nowthatsfuckup.com appear to be of Iraqi insurgents--one soldier posted eight graphic photos of a person he claimed was a suicide bomber who accidentally detonated before he got close to US troops. "Wow. Nice set of pics. Amazing how the face just wrapped off," is the response from another user.

Other images appear to be of Iraqi civilians. A series of photos showing two men slumped over in a pickup truck, with nothing visible above their shoulders except a red mass of brain matter and bone, is described as "an Iraqi driver and passenger that tried to run a checkpoint during the first part of OIF." The post goes on to say that "the bad thing about shooting them is that we have to clean it up." Another post, labeled "dead shopkeeper in Iraq," does not explain how the subject of the photo ended up with a large bullet hole in his back but offers the quip "I guess he had some unsatisfied customers."

The site has caused quite a stir. It led, for example, to Billmon coming around to the Out Now! position, and it certainly is repulsive. The thing is however ... this is precisely the second time that someone turned over a rock and brought a site like this into the light of the media. You may have read about it the first time on this very blog. Here's me from last July:

Rorschach of No Capital flags this article from the Australian press:

THE US Defence Department has been asked to investigate a website being used by American soldiers to post grisly pictures of Iraqi war dead.

The site, which has been operating for more than a year, describes itself as "an online archive of soldiers' photos".

Dozens of pictures of decapitated and limbless bodies are featured on the site with tasteless captions, purportedly sent in by soldiers.

Captions include "plastic surgery needed", "road kill" and "I said dead".

Australian expat Iraqis, most of whom supported the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, have been angered by the website and called on the US government to ensure it was taken down.

The article doesn't provide a URL and I thought at first the site was already down, but notice that the Department of Defense has only "been asked" to investigate, meaning no action has been taken or necessarily will be. And lo and behold, I, being the value-added linker that I am, tracked down the website in question: Under Mars, still sleazing along, jokes about severed heads and all. The disgusting stuff starts in at about gallery 52.

I remember at the time I thought that the above could be a big story and sent my link to the few actual media contacts that I have; I think that that resulted in a small piece in the Independent... Anyway, maybe even three months ago the time still wasn't right, but now apparently it is...

Monday, September 26, 2005

Years from now, unfortunately it may be many years... 

This is a few days stale, but, for what it's worth, here's Karen Kwiatkowski commenting on Rumsfeld saying so long, farewell, Auf Wiedersehen, goodbye to Douglas Feith:

We live in a world where outspoken mothers of dead American soldiers are manhandled by police in Texas and in New York City, where free speech in America is as endangered as a twelve-point buck on the first day of deer season, where law-abiding if waterbound citizens are made to give up their weapons in the face of bully cops and war-weary federal soldiers who understandably can’t distinguish between an occupied foreign country and our own.

We have a nearly 75-year-old secretary of defense who wants to live another fifty so that, in his own words,

"Years from now, unfortunately it may be many years, accurate accounts of what’s taking place these past four years will be written and it will show that Doug Feith has performed his duties with great dedication, with impressive skill and with remarkable vision during this perilous and indeed momentous period in the life of our country. … And I’m absolutely convicted that history will thank you for it as well."

My goodness. These adoring words from a man known not to personally care for Doug Feith are bad enough, but must we wait so long? Yet this is the neoconservative proposal. They say history will thank them for what we have done in Iraq. Maybe they are confusing some future account with the contemporary desires of Iranian mullahs to the east and the Likud to the west.

Perhaps the unspoken conclusion for America is a simple, "Ya’ll go back to sleep, now."

Many years, huh? You keep on waiting Rummy, some day baby... and what's this about Rumsfeld being "absolutely convicted"? Is it some sort of Freudian slip? -- just keep your ass out of Germany, Rumsfeld and you should be all right.

Personally I liked this touching bit from Rumsfeld's speech:

You know the truth about life is, that if you do something somebody’s not going to like it.

The backside of that is also true, and that is that if you don’t do much, people won’t notice and if you’re criticized, it’s likely because you are doing something.

If you’re not criticized, it could very well be because you’re not doing much.

Well, Doug has been doing a great many things. I didn’t mean to pause there. He’d been doing a great many things that have been of great benefit to the Department of Defense and the United States of America, let there be not doubt.

So it comes as no surprise to me that given his position, in the center of the arena, that there have been some critics, and there have.

Yeah, Feith did "a great many things", a great many things that have led to a couple of investigations by the FBI and by Congressional committees: the FBI investigation is, of course, the whole "Iran-Contra II" scandal that everyone seems to have forgotten about and a congressional committee is investigating whether Feith's staff was planning to arrange a coup d'tat in Syria without presidential approval.

All of this, of course, has nothing to do with Feith's resignation. Everyone knows that the boy genius resigned for "personal and family reasons."...

Sunday, September 25, 2005

Stuff That I Missed 

While I was travelling around in India I managed to stay informed about Katrina and its aftermath because most hotels got either BBC World or CNN International. Actually, the BBC coverage in particular was a lot better than anything I would have seen here. I still felt isolated, however, because I depend on the blogosphere for the kind of information they don't put on TV.

For example, I really wanted to check out Chuck Taggart's blog Looka! -- I discovered it last year after "War President" broke and lots of people were contacting me to exchange blogroll links. Looka! focuses on New Orleans culture, New Orleans cuisine, New Orleans music, cocktail recipes, and liberal politics. As I had guessed Looka's Katrina coverage turned out to be very good and I'd like to belatedly plug Doctors, Professors, Kings and Queens: The Big Ol' Box of New Orleans, a 4-CD box set produced, compiled and annotated by Chuck, all profits from which will be donated to New Orleans disaster relief.

Speaking of the kind of story they don't put on CNN, I just missed the hubbub about Bush falling off the wagon, which seems to have started with this National Enquirer piece. Lord knows, I don't want to insinuate that one can't trust the fine investigative reporting of such a prestigious institution as the Enquirer, but I'd like to point out that the most interesting thing about this little side-show is what it says about Bush's popularity among the tabloid-reading demographic. The supermarket tabloids have a deep conservative bias -- Seriously, haven't you ever noticed that those aliens in Weekly World News always endorse Republicans? -- and one imagines that the producers of the tabloids know quite a bit about their readers and skew their product towards the conservative worldview based on this knowledge. The Enquirer turning on Bush, therefore, could be a very significant red flag: it might indicate some seismic shift in the universe inhabited by Rove's values-voters and the so-called NASCAR dads.

I came back on the 23rd and it simply wouldn't have been possible for me to attend yesterday's protests in Washington. But what really annoys me -- I had this idea in India and couldn't do anything about it -- is that I have a few of the huge prints (about 5' by 4.5' or so) of the Bush mosaic just sitting around in boxes in my apartment and I would have gladly mailed them to any activist who promised to use them in the Sep 24th demonstrations. Oh well ... but, anyway, the offer stands, when the next big antiwar event rolls around, if you are an activist who could do something productive with a couple of really big prints of George W. Bush composed from photos of the Iraq war dead, contact me and I'll send them to you.

I was a little too jet-lagged yesterday to do any coverage of the demonstrations but, if you haven't already read it, Left I covered the coverage, which, having not gone, is all I would have been able to do anyway. I agree with Eli's assertion that CNN and CNN Headline News apparently totally ignored the protests -- yesterday I think they did Hurricane Rita literally every minute of the day.

UPDATE: Actually, wouldn't you know it, via Milfuegos, I leaned that "War President" did indeed make an appearance at the Sep 24th demonstations. It's nice to see that the kid has stayed in the picture...

My India Trip 

I'm really bad about taking pictures when I travel.

I'm kind of spiritually opposed to the whole enterprise. It always seems that if you take a lot pictures on some vacation five years later all you remember are the things you photographed, whereas if you don't take any pictures you end up remembering the experience more holistically. Also I hate carrying the camera around.

The other problem I had in India was that the subjects I most wanted to photograph were people -- street scenes, market scenes, etc. -- but I hate to treat human beings living their daily life as though they are exotic animals, so I took almost no daily-life-in-India type pictures and the ones I did take didn't come out because I took them quickly on the sly and my hand wasn't steady enough. In retrospect I kind of regret that I didn't just ask a few people permission to photograph them.

Anyway I did take a few pictures that came out all right...

Here's the sun coming up over the Indian Ocean at the southernmost point of India:


This one is looking down on Tamil Nadu from the mountains in Kerala. That's a waterfall in the lower right; you can see it better in the high res version of this picture. As you can tell, Kerala was already in its rainy season.


And here's a picture from my close encounter with a monkey that occurred when a gang of the little bastards layed seige to our hotel room in Thekkady. (One of them actually made it into the foyer of the room but was quickly shooed away by the room service guy.)


Anyway, I feel as though I should write a big post about the experience but the problem is (a) I don't feel like it, (b) I don't think I could boil it down to a blog post length chunk of text, and (c) this is American Leftist, after all, and I didn't really do anything political there.

(We did meet a fellow who rows tourists out to see the mangroves of Tamil Nadu and talked to him a bit about the Indian government's response to the Tsunami (he was very satisfied with it) and he told us that the boat tour guides were about to unionize and want to strike, but the Communist Party advised them to wait until the tourist season when striking would be more costly. Also when we were on the road somewhere, I saw a Communist Party organized workers' rights march which was interesting because it was composed predominantly of women. I learned a lot about the Indian activists who fought for civil rights for the lower castes -- much like the civil rights movement here in the 60's. One time a bartender asked me to explain the US's support of Pakistan and I talked a little with a shopkeeper from Kashmir about the situation there ... but, honestly, that's about it for the American-Leftist-Goes-To-India side of the trip)

Saturday, September 24, 2005

I'm Back 

Hey, Joe here ... I'm back from India. It was a pretty interesting trip, but right now I'm very sleepy. Also I'm completely out of touch with the current political scene and will need a few days to catch up (probably I'll start by reading the articles flagged by the last three weeks worth of cursor posts).

Thursday, September 22, 2005

Reflections on the German Election: Leftists Need Not Apply 

The recent German election again highlights the resurgence of the left in Europe and South America. Looking South, Chavez has prevailed in Venezuela, Lula in Brazil, and mass protest movements have emerged in response to the failure of pro-American economic policies of austerity and privatization in Bolivia, Ecuador and Argentina.


In Europe, a conservative, pro-American, Spanish government that supported the war in Iraq, and engaged in mililtary exercises in 2001, conducting a mock assault in which the United States and allied countries simulated an attack on western Venezuela from bases in Panama and Colombia, has been replaced by a socialist one that now ships CS gas there, commonly used for riot control, but possibly very useful in the event that US Marines decide to enter Caracas.


Meanwhile, the French have rejected a proposed European Union ("EU") constitution that would have enshrined neoliberal economic values and given the United States control over European foreign policy. Equally important, the Germans, in an election prior to the launching of the war in Iraq, reelected a socialist prime minister, Gerhard Schroeder, who vigorously opposed German participation in the impending conflict under any conditions, and, last week, although you would never know based upon US media reports, again provided center-left parties a majority of the seats in parliament. As noted by Apostate Windbag in his excellent commentaries, Germans rejected neoliberalism in an election that became a referendum on it.


Anti-imperialism, resistance to the avowed intention of the neo-conservatives to militarily and economically dominate the world, is the coarse thread that runs through all of these political developments. But Germany will not have a left government. Instead, despite a left majority, it has, in the words of the Guardian, "been plunged into uncertainty". Why? Because the Social Democratic Party, the SPD, and the Greens have flatly rejected the prospect of such a government, as has, admittedly, the new left party, the Linkspartei. Naturally, the media generally expresses the view that it is more acceptable for the SPD to enter into a coalition with its right wing opponent, the Christian Democratic Union, than with a party more ideologically compatible, the Linkspartei. While the refusal of the Linkspartei can probably be attributable to campaign necessity (after all, how can a small, new party hope to gain support if it starts with the proposition of displaying a willingness to enter into a coalition with ideologically similar parties that it purports to reject?), the refusal of the SPD and the Greens raises profound questions about the extent to which liberal democracies are intentionally structered to disenfranchise the left.


"Well, of course!" interject impatient readers. "Who doesn't know that liberal democracies are controlled by money, by corporate interests that use them to impose a neoliberal, finance capital economic model on the rest of the world?" Indeed, there is much truth to this, but, perhaps, the more indulgent will agree that a more thoughtful analysis is required. Based upon recent history, it is possible to understand the methods by which this disenfranchisement is accomplished.


A Preference for Two Party Federal Systems Over Parliamentary Ones


Here, the focus is, naturally, on the US and the Americas. The benefits are obvious: leftists find themselves submerged within a socially liberal, pro-business party, such as, in the US, the Democrats, which then proceeds to spend much of its time, frequently more than it spends confronting the opposition party, marginalizing them, to the extent that many economic liberals are likewise ostracized. Through their friends in the media, the general public is persuaded that there are no meaningful political organizations or political ideas outside these parties. Finding common ground on the desirability of militarism and neoliberal economics, despite substantial domestic opposition, the parties fight elections over local issues and personality conflicts. Anyone with the influence to challenge this system, like, say, the mildly reformist Ralph Nader, is subjected to the most embarassing forms of character assassination while paradoxically described as irrelevant. It appears that this kind of system, sometimes called a "duopoly", can only be successfully transformed as the result of an extensive social and economic meltdown, combined with very effective political organization, as occurred in Venezuela.


Within Parliamentary Systems, the Left is Ostracized


In Britain, New Labour was created on this principle, while in France, the left was subjected to hysterical political and media attacks during the referendum on the proposed EU constitution. As a result, there is really no electoral voice for Britons who oppose the shared Labour/Tory vision of a society based upon lesser protections for workers and human rights than provided in the EU. Meanwhile, in France, a substantial part of the left, even within the Socialist Party and the trade unions associated with it, find themselves trapped within institutions that malign its own members as xenophobes bent upon facilitating a resurgence of fascism. Likewise, most recently, in Germany, a similar phenomenon occurred, although one of the Linkspartei leaders, Oskar LaFontaine, did make some anti-immigration statements during the campaign, although, curiously, such opportunism is accepted, and even encouraged as a prophylactic measure against bigotry and possible violence, when parties such as Labour and the French Socialists engage in the practice. Again, the media, increasing concentrated in fewer and fewer hands globally, plays a central role, as in the US, by blaring a uniform message of social absurdity and unacceptability when it comes to left politics.


If the Left Wins, Steal the Election


No, I'm not talking about Al Gore and the 2000 election here, and the vicious struggles that sometimes erupt between competing governing elites. Indeed, the more common response to an electoral dispute, as both sides fear the loss of public confidence in the system more than a temporary loss of power, is John Kerry's refusal to contest the results in Ohio in 2004, despite having raised, and saved, millions of dollars to do it.


Instead, I am speaking of situations like the 1988 election in Mexico, where it is generally acknowledged that Cuauhtemoc Cardenas won the election, but was deprived of the Mexican presidency through a "computer shutdown" and widespread vote fraud. The United States accepted the election of Carlos Salinas, because NAFTA loomed just over the horizon, and Salinas rewarded them generously, denationalizing the banks, devaluing the peso, eliminating common land ownership, permitting foreign control of Mexican businesses, and, of course, approving NAFTA. For these actions, Salinas is, not surprisingly, viewed favorably in the US, even as he finds himself voluntarily exiled as a result of possible criminal prosecution and extremely unpopular in Mexico. One can only hope that Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador has a strategy for avoiding Cardenas' fate in next year's election.


If the Left Wins and You Can't Steal the Election, Destabilize the Regime


Anyone still remember Nicaragua, the Sandinistas, the Contras, and the enormous sums of money the National Endowment for Democracy poured into the country? Another, more recent, equally tragic example, is the destabilization and removal by force of President Aristide in Haiti, and the violent suppression of his Lavalas supporters with the connivance of UN peacekeepers in advance of the upcoming elections. If violence is ineffective in preventing a Lavalas victory, expect recourse to the type of fraud experienced by Cardenas.


If the Left Wins, You Can't Steal the Election and You Can't Destabilize the Regime, Slander the Ruler as a "Strongman"


Of course, I am speaking of Chavez and Venezuela here. Chavez has won three presidential elections, survived a referendum for his recall with strong support and enacted a new constitution approved by the electorate. He has survived a coup in April 2002 and a strike/sabotage in the oil industry in the winter of 2002 and 2003, both of which were supported by the US. With this record, the US perpetually describes democracy to be at risk in Venezuela, describes Venezuela as a threat to its neighbors, predictably, in, you guessed it, Bolivia and Ecuador, and attempts to organize the members of the Organization of American States in support of possible military intervention.


By contrast, President Bush has launched a wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, continues to occupy both countries, continues to control the resources of both countries as the populace lives in poverty, captures people described as "terrorists" around the world and incarcerates them indefinitely at Guantanamo Bay under brutal conditions without charge and curtails the liberties of his subjects at home. If the US overthrows Chavez's government or kills him, it will no doubt lead many people around the world to believe that Lenin and the Bolsheviks weren't so wrong after all.

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Tuesday, September 20, 2005

The Venezuelan Series (Part 3): Escaping the Legacy of Colonial Development 

[This is a series of posts based upon my experiences during an August tour of Venezuela. Each post is a stand alone commentary, but, if you are interested, here are Part 1 and Part 2. Comments can be e-mailed to me at restes60@earthlink.net.]

UPDATE: 9/23/05: From Bernardo Delgado of Venezuelanalysis.com: President Chavez announced on Tuesday that Venezuela would no longer provide private, national, or foreign mining concessions. “There will no longer be mining concessions. We have to make a big turnaround,” said Chavez. Chavez made the announcement during a ceremony marking the creation of 125 Social Production Companies that are part of Venezuela’s complex of state-owned mining and metal production and processing, the Venezuelan Corporation of Guyana (CVG). . . Instead of providing mining concessions to foreign or domestic companies, Venezuela plans to create a national state-owned mining company that would take charge of all mining activities in the country. . . Since late last year the Chavez government has been engaging in an effort to get transnational companies doing business in Venezuela to pay more taxes and royalties on their oil production activity. Also, it is forcing companies to enter into joint ventures with Venezuela’s state-owned oil company PDVSA, where foreign companies would hold a maximum 49% ownership. Venezuela’s Ministry of Energy and Petroleum says foreign companies owe as much as $3 billion to the Venezuelan state in back taxes.



ORIGINAL POST: 9/20/05: People familiar with the intense conflicts associated with the neoliberal globalization process may find this lengthy post tiresome, but it is not possible to properly understand the economic ambitions of the Bolivarian Revolution without recognizing the alternatives that it has rejected. Much has been written about the economic collapse of Venezuela since the oil boom of the 1970s, and the emergence of Chavez as conditions worsened. But it is also important to understand why the preservation of state control over the aluminum and oil industries, though CVG Alcasa, CVG Venalum and PDVSA, is a marked departure from the discredited form of global economic development implemented around the world by the United States, Japan and Western Europe.


Mexico, China and "Economic Processing Zones"


One need only look to Mexico for a plausible Venezuelan alter ego. Like much of Central and South America, it has traveled down a road similar to Venezuela's, but, unlike Venezuela, perhaps because of its close proximity to the United States, it has not abandoned the neoliberal model. In 1964, Mexico launched the maquiladora program, a program centered around the creation of facilities in the northern border regions to manufacture goods for export in return for foreign exchange, with the intention of relying upon braceros who could no longer work legally within the US. Participation of foreign investors in the Mexican economy expanded through the following decades as a result of an accumulated foreign debt that could not be serviced by a domestic economy that relied upon import substitution.


Mexico acknowledged the primacy of international finance capital over Mexican living standards through the implementation of NAFTA in 1994, an act that ignited the Zapatista revolt in Chiapas. According to Naomi Klein, citing figures provided by the WTO and the Maquila Solidarity Network, maquiladoras increased from 789 in 1985 to 3,509 in 1997, employing 900,000 workers. Corporations associated with Germany, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan invest in these facilities in addition ones identified as American.


As recently documented by David Bacon, in his compelling book, The Children of NAFTA, maquiladora workers toil under brutal conditions and live in appalling squalor, yet still seek to improve their lives through political action. More broadly, as in Venezuela, Mexicans have been forced out of agricultural and manufacturing work into "the unregulated informal economy", an economy in which people work under unpredictable, challenging conditions for low pay and no benefits, such as pensions and health insurance. Increasing social polarization and income inequality is almost universally acknowledged, with neoliberals meekly defending it as the necessary cost of "reform".


Mexico may well be a more benign example, possibly more benign because it is a relatively early manifestation of the phenomenon, of what are bureaucratically described as "export processing zones" or EPZs. Klein describes these zones as social netherworlds, outside any government control, except when police and military are required to suppress labor unrest. Workers live in shantytowns, devoid of public services, such as clean water, roads, education and medical care, as foreign investors frequently live nearby in upscale, planned communities. Investors are often excused from the obligation to pay taxes and import/export duties, and exploit the legally useful fiction of relying upon subcontractors to manage the actual manufacturing process.


EPZs have proliferated all over East and South Asia, even though they constitute the abandonment of post-World War II economic development policies that enabled Japan, South Korea, Singapore and Taiwan to spark the creation of new manufacturing sectors and the reinvigoration of old ones, through tariffs, import restrictions, privileged access to investment and public sector expenditures. As Chalmers Johnson has observed, the economic transformation of East Asia in the decades after World War II resulted from a conscious rejection of prevailing IMF/World Bank dogma.


Perhaps, the most extreme instance of this development model, an instance of the Frankenstein monster escaping the control of his creator, is China. Even if one discounts the xenophobia of recent condemnations of China and its economic system, there is no doubt that it is autocratic and oppressive. Isabel Hilton, in an article recently published in Granta, quotes one man as stating, "In China, it is a death sentence to be a worker." Suffering from a lung disease, silicosis, he, like many of his associates, faces a premature death after having been perpetually exposed to mineral dust in a gem cutting plant.


In Guangdong province, transnational corporations and entrepreneurs collude with local Communist party officials to manufacture an incredible amount of the world's clothing and electronic goods at a tremendous cost to people and the environment. Struck by the perverse juxtaposition of Guangdong's mesmerizing productive energy alongside a grotesque disregard for decent living conditions, Hilton recalls Friedrich Engels' description of Manchester in the 1840s.


Financing Economic Development through State Control of Resources


Chavez, like many in South America, comprehends this globalization process as the lastest incarnation of colonial exploitation. In a world that celebrates the service sector, he is emphasizing industrialization as a means of charting an independent economic course. Here in the United States, there is a tendency to address Venezuela solely in terms of oil and natural gas revenue, but this obscures the actual economic development goals of the Bolivarian Revolution. Resources such as oil, natural gas, alumina, iron ore, bauxite and hydroelectric power are means, not ends. Tariq Ali has frequently insisted upon the urgency of developing an economic alternative to neoliberalism, and Chavez seeks to exploit these resources as a means of doing so. Failure is, quite literally, not an option, as it is estimated that between 50-56% of Venezuelans earn a living, such as it is, in the informal sector, and, in the absence of an effective economic plan, this percentage can only grow given demographic trends.


Aluminum is an interesting case study that enables one to address the issues more clearly, without the static and feedback that is associated with any discussion of oil and natural gas. As a point of departure, it is important to note that much of Venezuela’s oil revenue in the 1970s was wasted on grandiose, export oriented industrial and public sector projects. It is not uncommon to encounter housing complexes and roads built into hillsides that have collapsed from heavy rains, as I did in Caracas, and abandoned processing facilities, like the abandoned coffee plant that now serves as one of the government’s education Misions near Sanare. In response to the implementation of export oriented policies within the aluminum industry that nearly resulted in its privatization, La Causa R, the radical political movement within Bolivar state, advocated the creation of downstream production concentrating on lesser manufacturing activities that would transform raw materials within Venezuela.


Such a perspective strongly colors the current economic development plan within the aluminum industry. CVG, Corporacion Venezolana de Guayana, and its aluminum production arms, CVG Alcasa and CVG Venalum, expect to play an integral role in the social and economic transformation of Venezuela. As described by Elio Sayago and Antonio Guzman of CVG Alcasa, the aluminum industry will assist in the creation of cooperatives that transform the plentiful raw materials of Bolivar state into goods and services. For example, it is believed that cooperatives can successfully manufacture value added products from aluminum such as kitchen wares and specialized parts for production and transportation. Across the decades, we hear the echo of the old Venezuelan dream of an automotive industry, downsized into something more realistic. Ultimately, it is anticipated that the development of this region, especially if the export expectations of the aluminum industry are also realized, will result in the intensification of the shift in population from north to south, and hence, the economic center of gravity as well, thus shattering what a number of Venezuelans described to me as the country’s colonial legacy.


Cooperatives are already being formed to provide services to CVG. They are replacing independent contractors compensated through commissions and rebates. A compelling example of this endeavor can be found in the salvage yards of CVG Venalum. For many years, a variety of indigenous people, like the Warao from the Rio Orinoco delta, and immigrants, from places like neighboring Guyana, crossed a lake and entered the CVG Venalum salvage yard to collect scrap metals created and discarded during the aluminum production process. Much as homeless people in the United States collect aluminum cans, they sort out the scrap metal and sell it for money.


Private companies wanted the profit from recycling the scrap metal, and fought a conflict lasting over 20 years with the scrap collectors who entered the yard. There were seven deaths during this period, with one of them “disappeared” in the lake. In the late 1990s, the Guardia Civil attacked them at the behest of the companies. The termination of the privatization plans for CVG Venalum also apparently ended the violent conflict in the scrap yard. CVG Venalum created seven cooperatives with 110 people, and supplied them with a vehicle to transport scrap as well as gloves, boots and clothes.


In the yard, I personally observed an unusual public relations event that would be incomprehensible in the US. Jose Seguea, the President of CVG Venalum, arrived around noon to give out some clothing and other materials to the scrap collectors. During a subsequent interview, Sequea enthusiastically acknowledged his inspiration by Che Guevara, and his Venezuelan proteges, Douglas Bravo, Francisco Prada and Julio Escalona, by showing me photographs of them. Bravo, paradoxically, repudiated Chavez in 1992, yet this has clearly not cast a shadow over Seguea's opportunities in the industry.


Sequea mingled freely about the collectors, accompanied only by a photographer and some white collar staff, with little or no security. Hector Louis, a longtime collector whose brother had been shot during the conflict, talked amicably with the Sequea and his entourage, an entourage that included my indispensable political guide, David Hernandez. Another collector walks by on crutches, and Hernandez tells me that he lost his leg during the struggle. He points towards another collector being sent to Cuba for surgery because of an organ problem. I begin to recognize that, masterfully interwoven here somewhere, is the outline of a fable about how bonds of family and community, as handed down by indigenous people of Africa and South America over the centuries, have fused with the class solidarity of European Marxism to create a vibrant social world apart from the ruthless individuality of American capitalism. But, being a gringo, I can only faintly perceive it.


Of course, if you are a Marxist, you are already grasping for the contradiction. It is this: Chavez is financing the creation of a socialist Venezuela, and possibly, ultimately, a socialist South America, from the export earnings generated by the sale of oil, natural gas and aluminum. Much like the oil company PDVSA, CVG Alcasa and CVG Venalum are implementing an export strategy based the development of markets in the Global South, in places like India, China, Iran and the rest of South America. Foreign investment is desired if it brings new production technologies capable of being improved for domestic use, and assists in the training of workers. Italy, Spain and Germany have already provided such investment through joint ventures where Venezuela holds a 51% interest. I heard complaints implying that the US was engaging in a virtual capital strike against the country, but this was disproven by the recent revelation that foreign investment has increased 210% over last year, with 60% of this investment from the US.


Fortuitiously benefitting from an era of high commodity prices and supply uncertainty, Chavez is breeding a Griffin that may actually fly, at least long enough for him to construct a new, independent Venezuela with a more diverse economy. Through the imposition of structural adjustment plans upon many commodity producing countries incapable of paying their debt in the 1990s, when prices were historically low, the US achieved its ambition of privatizing the resources necessary to educate their people and economically compete globally, most disasterously in Africa. Chavez understands, however, that this era has passed. This is the true significance of his remarks on Democracy Now! to the effect that the failure of the April 2002 coup forced the US to forcibly obtain its oil elsewhere by launching the war in Iraq.


Unlike Trotsky in Russia in the 1920s, Chavez is freed from the frightening prospect of trying to build socialism in an impoverished society decimated by war, freed from pondering how to induce the masses to sacrifice to permit the primitive socialist accumulation required to construct his utopia. As the US, Mexico and China evolve in a symbiotic economic relationship bound by a brutal discipine imposed upon peasants and industrial workers, the money is falling out of a hole in the bottom of the bag into the hands of the Venezuelan people. Selling the rope to hang yourself, indeed. No wonder Chavez is convinced that the US will destroy him and the Bolivarian Revolution by any means necessary.

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Monday, September 12, 2005

The Venezuelan Series (Part 2): Resistance to Privatization of Aluminum and Steel 

[This is a series of posts based upon my experiences during an August tour of Venezuela. For Part 1, go here. Comments can be e-mailed to me at restes60@earthlink.net.]


In my first post, I described the social activism that resulted from the creation of state owned steel and aluminum companies in Bolivar state. Such activism, initiated by leftists who consciously entered the plants to organize the workers in these industries, played an essential role in facilitating the emergence of Hugo Chavez. As Richard Gott has described in his recent book, Hugo Chavez and the Bolivarian Revolution, Chavez's failed 1992 coup attempt mortally wounded the neoliberal duopoly that governed Venezuela. If anything, it appears that the coup, and the subsequent outpouring of popular support for Chavez after his brief, successful televised exhortation to his supporters to cease opposition to the government, created a sense of urgency for people both inside and outside the country to accelerate plans for the privatization of state owned industries.


Steel


Steel privatization was already underway, moving forward despite a union reform movement that had commenced in the 1970s. During my time in Ciudad Guyana, I encountered two people involved in this endeavor, David Hernandez, described in Part 1, and Elio Sayago. Sayago emigrated from the Venezuelan city of Barinas in the llanos to Puerto Ordaz to work as an apprentice metallurgist for SIDOR, the steel company, in 1979. There were 18,000 workers in the plant. Hernandez had already started working there in 1977.


Both were involved in the La Causa R effort to create a truly independent union at SIDOR. As described by Gott, Alfredo Maneiros, a communist guerrilla who had split from the party when the insurgency ended, created La Causa R in 1970. Implementing a doctrine evocative of the approach taken by Rosa Luxemburg at the turn of the century, La Causa R sought to create a political framework for mass action without dictating political decisions and leadership. Activists thereafter struggled within SUTISS, the mainstream union that represented the workers in the plant. SUTISS, through its parent union, Fetrametal, was affiliated with CTV, the national union confederation politically aligned with one of the parties in the duopoly, Accion Democratica. Many workers believed that SUTISS was subordinating their interests to those of Accion Democratica, denying them a voice in the operation of their own union and issues of workplace safety. In 1979, La Causa R unionists took control of SUTISS, but the parent union, Fetrametal, removed the elected officers two years later.


Fetrametal's action had significant consequences, possibly preventing the emergence of a reinvigorated union that could have successfully resisted the privatization of the plant in the 1990s. Hernandez and Sayago went "underground" within the plant, organizing departmental committees. Sayago, educating himself at the university as he worked at the plant, was promoted to a maintenance position. By the late 1980s, La Causa R was resurgent, but it was too late. The Venezuelan economy had collapsed, and the duopoly was either unwilling or incapable of resisting neoliberal policies being pressed upon it by international investors and transnational corporations.


Shortly thereafter, the "reconversion process" began. CTV, and by extension, SUTISS, accepted privatization as instructed by Accion Democratica. After 15 years in the plant, Hernandez was fired in 1992. Privatization was subsequently completed in 1997, with the ownership interests of the state and the workers reduced to approximately 44%, during a period in which Chavez had been released from prison but had not yet taken power. Out of a workforce of 14,500, 10,000 employees were converted into subcontractors, without benefits and pensions. Sayago, as a member of the SUTISS Executive Committee, opposed illegal buyouts for workers in 1998 and 2000, resulting in his removal from the factory as well. CTV supported the buyouts, as well as Sayago's removal. In 2002, Sayago went to work in the nearby aluminum plant at CVG Alcasa as an environmental specialist. It is perhaps a telling indication of the Chavez regime's sensitivity towards the need to attract foreign investment and technology that no effort has been made to renationalize SIDOR.


Aluminum


Aluminum was the bigger prize. Again, as with La Causa R and SUTISS, Estelito Garcia and Fernando Serrano, officers in the union SUPRALUM, a union that represents 2,200 workers at CVG Venalum, described a process by which rebellion against union acceptance of adverse working conditions inevitably resulted in resistance to privatization. In 1991, Garcia was originally a supervisor, but was appalled by the day to day injustices that he observed as workers were habitually mistreated. The union was subordinate to the company, directed by a group of people that went along with management.


Serrano worked in the reduction area, and faced pressure to increase production, motivating him to seek better treatment of workers, advocating for benefits such as better pay, housing and education. Privatization of aluminum moved forward in the mid-1990s, despite domestic opposition. There was a conscious decision to depreciate the value of the companies, as the law governing privatization prohibited new investment. CVG Alcasa, the predominately domestic aluminum producer, was deprived of any new investment from 1996-1998 as the company awaited privatization, with the facility bordering on being non-operational, according CVG Alcasa public affairs officer Antonio Guzman. At CVG Venalum, the international producer, more than 60 of the facilities 905 alumina pouring pots were out of service.


Ironically, it appears that the transformation of the unions in aluminum into more radical instruments of worker self-interest occurred after La Causa R emerged triumphant in the steel industry. Yet the aluminum unions stopped privatization, and the steel unions did not, for one obvious reason. Steel privatization was first. By 1998, Hugo Chavez was running for President, and it was not possible to complete the privatization of aluminum prior to the outcome of the election.


Chavez halted the privatization of aluminum after taking office, permitting both companies to invest in the upgrading and expansion of their facilities. CVG Alcasa is completing a new line that will increase production from 250,000 tons annually to 460,000 tons. CVG Venalum is considering installing a new line that would increase production annually from 480,000 tons to 600,000 tons, and employ 2,200 people during two and a half years of construction. Now, only 2 of the 905 alumina pots are out of service. Steel worker subcontractors no doubt wonder whether SUTISS might have been able to delay the completion of steel privatization until 1998, gaining enough time for Chavez to kill it as well, if not for Fetrametal's removal of La Causa R leadership in 1981.

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Friday, September 09, 2005

Falluja and New Orleans: Hide the Dead 

UPDATE (9/9/05): From the New Standard, FEMA attempts media black out in New Orleans:

Additionally, several columnists, the Baltimore Sun editorial page editors and NBC News anchor and managing editor Brian Williams have all come forth to speak out about the recent and apparently growing effort to control the news coming from New Orleans.


In his personal weblog yesterday, Williams recounted being turned away from news sites by police and National Guardsmen. "While we were attempting to take pictures of the National Guard… taking up positions outside a Brooks Brothers on the edge of the [French] Quarter, the sergeant ordered us to the other side of the boulevard," Williams wrote. "At that same fire scene, a police officer from out of town raised the muzzle of her weapon and aimed it at members of the media... obvious members of the media... armed only with notepads."


Similarly, Peter Fimrite, of the San Francisco Chronicle:


I did not actually count the number of automatic weapons pointed at me, but there were at least five, and I was certain they were all locked and loaded, or whatever that military phrase is signifying that a gun is ready to blow a hole in somebody.


"Step out!" commanded the black-helmeted man in the middle of what appeared to be a tactical formation. He was pointing a laser-like flashlight attached to his machine gun at me. I must have been quite a sight alone out there on the darkened New Orleans street wearing a headlamp and holding a cell phone at an odd right angle, the only way I could get it to work. I had just been placed on hold.


At least, unlike the US military in Baghdad, FEMA hasn't started shooting the reporters, not yet, anyway.



ORIGINAL POST (9/7/05): From Reuters, it appears that FEMA is more concerned with public relations than the provision of disaster relief:

The U.S. government agency leading the rescue efforts after Hurricane Katrina said on Tuesday it does not want the news media to take photographs of the dead as they are recovered from the flooded New Orleans area.


The Bush administration also has prevented the news media from photographing flag-draped caskets of U.S. soldiers killed in Iraq, which has sparked criticism that the government is trying to block images that put the war in a bad light.


And, one is compelled to add, the news media was also prevented, to the extent it was inclined to escape its embedded escorts, from establishing the number of people killed during the attack upon Falluja last November. In the old South, African Americans were at least legally construed as 3/5 of a person. In New Orleans, FEMA is trying to render them invisible, as the US military does with civilian casualties in Iraq.

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Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Donate to the American Red Cross? I Think Not 


It is ubiquitous. Everywhere you look, they are exhortations to donate to the American Red Cross as the antiseptic, non-partisan, reliable way to assist the victims of Hurricane Katrina.


Unfortunately, there is good reason to believe that the Red Cross will not be especially helpful to the people of Lousiana and Mississipppi. As Will Bunch has written in the Philadelphia Daily News, the Red Cross collaborated in the abandonment of the poor people of New Orleans before the storm struck:

"You're responsible for your safety, and you should be responsible for the person next to you," local Red Cross executive director Kay Wilkins explained to the Times-Picayune just six weeks ago. "If you have some room to get that person out of town, the Red Cross will have a space for that person outside the area. We can help you. But we don't have the transportation.”


Ironically, the Red Cross has run a network of shelters in New Orleans in the event of hurricane warnings. But it decided several years ago not to open them for a Category 3 or stronger storm that it was more important to get people out of the below-sea-level area - despite the lack of any organized system for transporting them.


Translation: the Red Cross will house and feed you if you don't drown, starve or die from lack of medical care on your way out of town. Apparently, the Red Cross agreed with local officials who, according to Bunch and the New Orleans Times Picayune, communicated the following approach in a DVD distributed to the public a few months ago:

"City, state and federal emergency officials are preparing to give the poorest of New Orleans' poor a historically blunt message: In the event of a major hurricane, you're on your own."


When it came to the poor of New Orleans, where, again, according to Bunch, an estimated 134,000 people lacked vehicles, the Red Cross' decision to refuse to open shelters and organize transportation takes on a decidedly Mathusian cast. To put it bluntly, it failed New Orleans, and now it wants you and me to give them money to confront the consequences of their failure. I'm not very confident the Red Cross will overcome the racial and class bias that caused it, so I suggest that people look for alternatives.


Here is a random list of sites for possible donations and more information. Naturally, make sure and do your own due diligence.


FOOD NOT BOMBS


BATON ROUGE FOOD BANK


NATIONAL ASSOCIATION FOR THE ADVANCEMENT OF COLORED PEOPLE


CALIFORNIA NURSES ASSOCIATION AND THE NATIONAL NURSES ORGANIZING COMMITTEE


ACORN (Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now)


BATON ROUGE AREA FOUNDATION

Don't hesitate to provide additional links and information. An emphasis upon community based activity, with a sensitivity towards the needs of poor people and African Americans is appreciated.

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Saturday, September 03, 2005

The Venezuelan Series (Part 1): Ciudad Guyana and "the New Working Class of Venezuela" 

David Hernandez and Francisco Arevalo move freely through the aluminum production facilities and executive offices of CVG Alcasa and CVG Venalum with a relaxed self-assurance, a self-assurance that I have only personally encountered among the most indispensable employees during my work in California state government. Arevalo is edgier, more impatient than Hernandez, but, given that this seems to be his natural persona, I would have to say that he is, paradoxically, displaying a relaxed self-assurance as well by consciously refusing to conceal his true temperment.


CVG Alcasa and CVG Venalum are enterprises in which the state owns a majority interest, located in an enormous industrial zone adjacent to the fictional city of Ciudad Guyana in south central Venezuela, a city that exists primarily in the minds of cartographers and travel guide authors, approximately 450 miles from Caracas. In fact, Venezuelans know that Ciudad Guyana is actually two cities, divided by the Rio Caroni River, the newer, modern (or is it postmodern?) Puerto Ordaz to the west, and the older, colonial (or, in its own way, equally postmodern?) San Felix to the east. Flights to Ciudad Guyana don't exist, as the airlines remain loyal to Puerto Ordaz. CVG Alcasa and CVG Venalum produce Venezuela's most valuable commodity other than oil, aluminum, and my curiosity about it attracted me to the region, persuading me to forego relaxing in the Andes before the start of my Global Exchange tour in Caracas.


Just as names of cities on maps can be deceiving, so can the outward demeanor of Hernandez and Arevalo. Neither of them are bureaucrats in the American mold. Instead, they are political radicals who have lived long enough to see their vision of society embraced by the populace, or, at least by enough of it, as expressed through support of President Hugo Chavez, to now work within the economic establishment of Bolivar state instead of outside of it.


Hernandez and Arevalo, and the people I encountered through them, revealed how Chavez and his Bolivarian Revolution is indebted to social movements in which people made profound sacrifices for over 30 years. It is an aspect of Chavez's emergence that the American news media ignores, because it contradicts the conservative perspective that Chavez is an autocratic military leader, despite his perpetual success in democratic elections, with no legitimate roots in the social history of his country.


Back in the 1960s, there was a Venezuelan guerrilla movement, inspired, like many others in the Americas, by Che Guevara and the Cuban Revolution. If I can ever find a copy of Richard Gott's book, Guerrilla Movements of South America, I'll read it, come back, and edit this post to include what I discover. For now, all we need to know is that the movement was Marxist, and that it was suppressed by the Venezuelan military.


I did not ask Hernandez or Arevalo if they were associated with either the armed or political branches of the insurgency. I'm not a journalist, and the question seemed, well, rather personal, especially as I had just stumbled off a plane and met them. I tended to ask general questions, and allow them, and anyone else I met, to determine the extent to which they wanted to reveal things about themselves.


After the defeat of the insurgency, the left required new strategies, one that recognized the need to organize people with an understanding that it was going to take longer to prevail than originally anticipated. Venezuela was developing a steel and aluminum industry to the west of the Rio Orinoco delta, because of the happy conjunction of the things required for the manufacture and shipping of them: alumina, bauxite, iron ore, hydroelectric power and river transport. Someone told me that the ultimate purpose of this huge, state sponsored enterprise was the creation of a Venezuelan automobile industry, a dream that was never fulfilled, although the desire to create industries that can transform aluminum and steel into processed, value added products endures. Harvard architects designed a new city to support it, Puerto Ordaz. Transformed downtown storefronts, large boulevards, and high rise apartment buildings, still evoke the midsized cities of 1960s America. Here, as Hernandez explained, leftists believed that "the new working class of Venezuela" would be created.


They were correct, but did they know that it would take decades? Hernandez, Arevalo and a generation of activists consciously educated themselves for factory work, so that they could go into the plants and organize the workers. Just like Cesar Chavez became a farm worker to organize farm workers here in California. Hence, Arevalo is a poet who worked in the plants, and listens to Barry White, while Hernandez worked in the plants, and developed a sociological understanding of the many types of people who migrated to this region to work, the fastest growing in Venezuela during this period. Hernandez often found what he accurately described as my "California English" incomprehensible, but we communicated much more easily when the conversation turned to the academic language of sociology.


With the population of the two cities growing from an estimated 40,000 in 1961 to probably over 1,000,000 today, through the arrival of people from from other states in Venezuela, including many indigenous people, as well as refugees from persecution in Colombia, Peru, Chile and Argentina, Hernandez observed that it was frequently necessary "to act without thinking", because of the the urgency of events. No doubt there is a rich social history here with many compelling stories to tell for someone ambitious enough undertake the endeavor, if it hasn't been done already.


As Gott relates in his most recent book, Hugo Chavez and the Bolivarian Revolution, the unions in these plants were closely aligned with one of the two parties in the Venezuelan "duopoly", Accion Democratica. In the Bolivarian cosmology, Accion Democratica and the other party, Copei, bankrupted the country throughout the 1980s and 1990s as a result of corrupt neoliberal policies. A political movement known as La Causa R ("Radical Cause") and the privatization schemes of the 1990s would sever this bond, accelerating the destruction of the duopoly itself by Chavez. But it never would have happened without the efforts of many people like Hernandez and Arevalo, people who consciously decided to align themselves with the dramatic changes resulting from the anticipated industrialization of Bolivar state.

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Thursday, September 01, 2005

Random Notes on Katrina 

Selections from some excellent commentaries that speak for themselves. Links have been provided for those who want to read them in their entirety.


First, from Democracy Now yesterday:

AMY GOODMAN: Bill Quigley, I wanted to ask -- this is a bit of an odd question. You're a law professor. We usually talk to you about the crisis that's going on in Haiti, where you have been a number of times and represent, among others, Father Jean-Juste, who is in prison there. How does what you are seeing in New Orleans right now, how does it compare to Haiti?

BILL QUIGLEY: Well, you know, I had always hoped that Haiti would become more like New Orleans, but what's happened is New Orleans has become more like Haiti here recently. You know, we don't have power. We don't have transportation. At this point, I think, at least the people in the hospital have some fresh water, but they're telling people you can’t drink the water out of the taps. So there's people wandering around the city without water, without transportation, without medical care. So in many senses, we have about a million people in the New Orleans area who are experiencing, you know, what Haiti it like.


Second, from one of my favorite journalists, Chris Floyd:

The destruction of New Orleans represents a confluence of many of the most pernicious trends in American politics and culture: poverty, racism, militarism, elitist greed, environmental abuse, public corruption and the decay of democracy at every level.


Much of this is embodied in the odd phrasing that even the most circumspect mainstream media sources have been using to describe the hardest-hit victims of the storm and its devastating aftermath: "those who chose to stay behind." Instantly, the situation has been framed with language to flatter the prejudices of the comfortable and deny the reality of the most vulnerable.


It is obvious that the vast majority of those who failed to evacuate are poor: they had nowhere else to go, no way to get there, no means to sustain themselves and their families on strange ground. While there were certainly people who stayed behind by choice, most stayed behind because they had no choice. They were trapped by their poverty - and many have paid the price with their lives.


Third, New Orleans is one of the great multicultural American cities, with one of the most influential African American communities in this country. Katrina has inflicted imcomprehensible damage upon it:

I can't say I saw everything that the TV newscasters pumped out about Katrina, but I viewed enough repeated segments to say with 90 percent confidence that broadcasters covering the New Orleans end of the disaster demurred from mentioning two topics that must have occurred to every sentient viewer: race and class.


Nearly every rescued person, temporary resident of the Superdome, looter, or loiterer on the high ground of the freeway I saw on TV was African-American. And from the look of it, they weren't wealthy residents of the Garden District. This storm appears to have hurt blacks more directly than whites, but the broadcasters scarcely mentioned that fact.


To be sure, some reporters sidled up to the race and class issue. I heard them ask the storm's New Orleans victims why they hadn't left town when the evacuation call came. Many said they were broke—"I live from paycheck to paycheck," explained one woman. Others said they didn't own a car with which to escape and that they hadn't understood the importance of evacuation.


But I don't recall any reporter exploring the class issue directly by getting a paycheck-to-paycheck victim to explain that he couldn't risk leaving because if he lost his furniture and appliances, his pots and pans, his bedding and clothes, to Katrina or looters, he'd have no way to replace them. No insurance, no stable, large extended family that could lend him cash to get back on his feet, no middle-class job to return to after the storm.


Finally, for a good, one stop shop for information about Katrina and its aftermath, with numerous links, I have been visiting Sam Smith's excellent Progressive Review. Feel free to post links to whatever articles that you have found especially compelling.

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