Maidan Square with mist, Kyiv. Ukraine

Finding our moral and political compass on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine

How should opponents of oppression, centralized power, militarism, and greed take a stance on the war begun by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine? Here’s a rundown of the (mostly aligned) factors people of good conscience and/or people on the political left ought to consider as they take a stand.

Note: This piece was born of a Twitter thread written as news of the Russian invasion of Ukraine broke on February 23. I’ve corrected a few things (mostly spelling, he said sheepishly) and enriched that thread with links to sources here.

Anti-imperialism

Anti-imperialism and self-determination are foundational values for looking at international conflicts.

Both are grounded in a refusal of the right to conquer territory by force. Since the 1928 Kellogg-Briand Pact and 1929 Litvinov Protocol, even imperial powers like the US and France, as well as the Soviet Union, are formally signed on to the inadmissibility of acquiring territory by force.

Legal condemnation of the Axis Powers in the Nuremberg and Tokyo trials are built on this foundation, so is modern international law. The UN Charter made this a treaty obligation of all states. Self-determination and decolonization built on this. Uprisings and resistance across the global South turned the UN framework, built by colonial powers, into an organization committed to decolonization.

“Occupation Is A Crime“: Poster for Palestine by Jorge Arrieta.

This is what we invoke when we defend(ed) Algeria, Vietnam, Palestine, Western Sahara, East Timor.

While freedom of smaller countries from foreign powers has been an uphill climb, large and substantial regional, inter-state peace—notably in Europe, Latin America—has also emerged in this framework. Where the 19th century and early 20th century were full of invasions and border wars in both regions, the European Union and several Latin American forums offer an alternative. (This is why this new invasion is both one point in a long series globally, with Iraq 2003, Georgia 2008, Yemen 2015 as prior examples, and a shocking break in the European context.) So principles of international law are both close to causes of justice and elements that are routinely violated.

Those of us who live in imperial powers have ample opportunity to take stands in defense of international law by demanding that our governments abandon occupied territories and occupying allies… For US Americans, this includes ongoing wars/occupations in Yemen, W Sahara, Palestine. But that doesn’t mean that we have no ethical interest in the anti-imperial struggles, or rights for self-determination of people affected by rival imperial powers.

In the early 21st century, there are at least three independent great powers:
the US (& many allies), Russia, and China.

All are expansionist. All are capitalist.

Part of our ideological work as anti-imperialists is refusing the cognitive structures of empire. We should reject the Monroe doctrine and US domination of Latin America. They are not our backyard. We have no right to veto governments there, or put down opposition protests, much less invade and occupy them.

And for the same reason, we must reject the concept of a Russian near abroad, a sphere of influence where it has a veto over local movements and self-determination, where it can invade with impunity.

Our efforts should focus on alliances and empathy with anti-militarists and anti-imperialists in Russia, not with Russian fears of an independent Ukraine. Mutual recognition among imperialists is our enemy, whether it is Trump’s idolization of Putin or Germany’s commitment to a Russian gas pipeline.

“Occupation of the Crimea is a shame of Russia” (Photo CC-BY-SA Bogomolov.PL)

We should educate ourselves about, and cultivate solidarity around past forms of imperial domination in the Russian orbit, notably the coordinated starvation of Ukraine and the mass deportation of ethnic groups across the Soviet Union. We must listen to Ukrainian voices in a time when they are under attack.

Anti-militarism and the threat of nuclear war

Inter-state wars have been rare since 1946. (Peace Research Institute Oslo)

The next level, militarism, is more complex: Confrontations among countries with large militaries are disastrous. We’re witnessing the beginning of one of only a handful of military-military conflicts since 1945. (Most wars in that period were fought by irregular, non-state forces on at least one side.) Iran–Iraq and US–Iraq (1|2) both illustrate the horrifying toll that such conflicts can bring. De-escalation is a huge priority. As is global diplomatic and economic isolation of states that start such wars.

Between wars, US military alliances like NATO are massive export markets for weapons manufacturers. Each sale increases the risks and costs of future conflict. Despite its successful deterrence so far, then, NATO represents a gamble that could eventually make future conflicts far more deadly.

Separately, the involvement of nuclear powers represents both a severe risk and a mechanism that can cause military powers to think twice before escalating. For a mirror image example, consider Cuba in the 1960s… the Soviet Union developed an alliance with a former colony of the US, provoking a nuclear crisis, but also likely deterring a full-scale US invasion.

Ukraine would be a nuclear power too, were it not for a series of denuclearization agreements in which both Russia and the US promised to respect its sovereignty and territorial integrity. There are long-term implications of a world that reneges on protection for giving up nuclear weapons. Those of us who want a nuclear free world have an implicit stake in Ukrainian security.

Democracy

Last but not least, the conflict in Ukraine sees a democratic government facing invasion by a oligarchical and authoritarian one, whose leader has declared that it isn’t a real nation. Nothing good can come of that.

As anarchists in Russia put it: ”this will mean the further spread of the so-called ‘Russian world’: a crazy combination of neoliberal oligarchy, rigid centralized power, and patriarchal imperial propaganda. This consequence is not as obvious as the rise in the price of sausages and the sanctions on smartphones—but in the long run, it is even more dangerous.”

To sum up

In short, there are wide reasons for left sympathy with Ukraine in this conflict.

In the context of Russian threats, and violence, Ukraine’s practical refuge is engagement with the EU and future alliance with NATO, two institutions leftists have long questioned.

Leftists’ rightful rejection US imperial power should not cloud our moral rejection of Russia’s current imperial invasion.

We can simultaneously be a voice that highlights divisions and dissent in the invading power, builds cross-border alliances against imperial power, supports bold moves to undercut fossil fuel revenue to Russia, and urges caution on military actions.

Other left analyses:

Top photo: Maidan Square with mist, Kyiv, Ukraine. CC-BY Juan Antonio Segal.

The death of Bolivian mining leader Orlando Gutiérrez was accidental, investigators conclude.

The death of Bolivian mining leader Orlando Gutiérrez Luna remained a matter of dispute for a full year after his untimely death in October 2020, shortly after the electoral victory of Luis Arce and David Choquehuanca. While estranged from the inner circle of Evo Morales, Gutiérrez headed the pivotal miner’s union, Federación Sindical de Trabajadores Mineros de Bolivia (FSTMB), and campaigned hard for Arce and Choquehuanca. He also feared for his life and warned his wife not to accompany him on his final journey to La Paz. From such murky circumstances seems to have sprung the notion that he may have been the victim of foul play. His widow, Karen Calle, was the leading proponent of suspicions of an attack.

Gutiérrez’s death became a matter of public concern, both in Bolivia and for the international left, after a denunciation issued on social media by the FSTMB on October 23, 2020. (Detailed in previous coverage here) The statement, which has since been disavowed by the FSTMB leadership, spoke of “hired killers” and “street thugs” who “assassinated” Gutiérrez. In the wake of some three dozen deaths in 2019, this claim set off concern and more than a few sympathetic denunciations far beyond Bolivia’s borders.

Within Bolivia, however, conflicting evidence was easier to hear. Three friends of the deceased labor leader reported that he fell on stairs in his home when they were with him, causing his fatal injuries. This explanation matched that given by the clinic that cared for him. Karen Calle, too, heard Gutiérrez himself offer this explanation to the medics who cared for him. but felt sure her husband was concealing the real cause out of fear. Bolivian social movement, union, and political leaders, who initially reacted with shock and anger, shifted from calling for “justice” for Orlando Gutiérrez to “clarification” of the circumstances of his death.

And still, that clarification was slow to arrive.

In March 2021, prosecutors declined to treat the matter as a homicide. Their statement said, “While there is testimony from witnesses, there is no place or date of the events, nor an original cause of his death.” However, they did not attempt to clarify the cause of death.

Then in August 2021, a detailed investigation was restarted.

While a final report is still pending, Bolivian prosecutors have now told the independent news network Erbol the results, which confirm that writing on the wall since late 2020: Gutiérrez died of an accidental fall. Other conclusions:

  • Gutiérrez fell in a private residence after an evening out drinking.
  • Both criminal investigation and spatial reconstructions found the fall was accidental.
  • An autopsy found that he died of lesions to his upper nerve centers, cerebral hemorrhage, and cranioencephal trauma.
  • Gutiérrez also suffered from post-COVID pulmonary fibrosis and caridomegaly.
  • The Departmental Health Service audited Gutiérrez’s care during a prolonged clinic.

Hopefully the conclusions can put to rest the concerns of a grieving and fearful widow, concerned members of Bolivian movements, and activists worldwide who feared—for healthy reasons, but without sound evidence—that Gutiérrez was the victim of unknown agents of the Bolivian right wing.

Several men carry the white coffin of Basilio Titi Topolo to a crypt.

Four deaths surrounded Bolivian political mobilizations in 2021. Responsibility for two remains in dispute.

Four Bolivians died in or around social movement conflicts in 2021. These were the first deaths since the deadly political crisis of 2019, when political violence claimed 38 lives, 29 or 30 of them killed by the security forces after the ouster of Evo Morales. In the year that followed, Bolivian politics centered on a single national struggle.

This year’s deaths came in four separate mobilizations, only one of them around a national issue.

  • Police Sergeant Miguel Ángel Quispe Nina — The ongoing conflict over leadership of Adepcoca, the La Paz Departmental Association of Coca Growers which split between pro- and anti-government factions, resurfaced in 2021 in a series of protests, unarmed street battles, building takeovers, and finally an electoral campaign. In July, this included an episode of armed violence.
    The pro-MAS faction led by Elena Flores convened a meeting of the organization in Coripata. The opposition factor led by Armin Lluta (since Franclin Gutierrez’s incarceration) blockaded a roadway leading to the town. Police came in to break up the blockade and police sergeant Miguel Ángel Quispe Nina was shot dead. Sub-lieutenant Reinaldo Quispe suffered a nonfatal gunshot to the head. Police and Flores blamed Lluta’s faction and alleged foreigners were involved. Afterwards, the government negotiated an agreement to hold leadership elections in the combined organization in September, but dissension and physical confrontations between the two sides continued. Five others died in the Adepcoca conflict in 2018 and 2019.
  • Chiquitano community leader Lino Peña Vaca (78) — One of many ongoing struggles over land between “Intercultural” highland migrant communities and Indigenous residents in Bolivia’s lowlands escalated in San Ignacio de Velasco, in Santa Cruz department. Chiquitano indigenous claims to the land in question stretch back twenty years. They sought title to the land from the National Land Reform Institute in 2016, but were given other lands in 2018, while the Interculturales had the land titled as Jerusalén III. A confrontation on the matter broke out on July 5, during which Lino Peña Vaca was severly injured, including with broken ribs and a broken nose. He was hospitalized eventually died of septic shock, severe pneumonia, and pulmonary fibrosis. However, his cause of death is disputed: his community, including leader Dino Franco assert that he died of complications of his injuries, while the death certificate indicates his respiratory maladies were due to COVID-19. Franco asserts that Peña Vaca’s COVID test was negative.
  • Indigenous marcher Rafael Rojas Abiyuna (63) — Rojas Abiyuna died of natural causes during the negotiation phase of a cross-Santa Cruz Indigenous march in defense of land and territory. At the time of his death from a heart attack in Santa Cruz de la Sierra in late October, the marchers had completed their trek and were unsuccessfully demanding negotiations with the Arce government.
  • Pro-MAS demonstrator Basilio Titi Topolo (21) — During the year’s most significant partisan mobilizations, opposition protesters mounted urban blockades in protest of Law 1386, an anti-money laundering statute that shopkeepers claimed will lead to abusive investigations of their books. In Potosí, as in several other cities, largely rural pro-MAS counterprotesters arrived to challenge these blockades in defense of the Arce government. Among the pro-MAS protesters was Basilio Titi Topolo, a miner of rural origin. He died while fleeing anti-MAS crowds, falling, and according to the official autopsy choking on a ball of coca lodged in his upper respiratory tract. The government alleged that violent anti-MAS groups blocked the passage of an ambulance carrying Titi and that “the lack of medical attention” led to his death. An unofficial autopsy pointed to other signs of trauma. Despite the rapid intervention of the Defensoría del Pueblo, the facts surrounding his death remain sharply disputed. Coverage on this blog: One dead as urban opposition battles pro-MAS campesinos in Potosí.
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“If you enter the city, I will hunt you.”: Sacaba massacre was preceded by open threat of military violence

On November 13, 2019—one after Jeanine Áñez was sworn as interim president of Bolivia—the highest police authority and highest-ranking peasant union leader of Cochabamba met in the Integral Police Station (EPI) of Huayllani, the neighborhood that would see the country’s deadliest massacre in sixteen years just two days later.

The Cochabamba peasant federation (Federación Sindical Única de Trabajadores Campesinos de Cochabamba; FSUTCC) had joined calls by the Movement Towards Socialism leader and coca grower Andrónico Rodríguez to mount a national march “against the coup d’ètat” and Áñez’s succession to president. Following in the footsteps of many prior mobilizations since the 1980s, the march would proceed from the coca-growing Chapare to Cochabamba and onto La Paz. The outlying town of Sacaba was the necessary first stop on that journey. FSUTCC leader Jhonny Pardo was in Huayllani to prepare the ground for this mobilization.

Colonel Jaime Edwin Zurita Trujillo, departmental commander of the Bolivian National Police, received Pardo and Nelson Cox, the departmental head of the Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office (Defensoría del Pueblo). Zurita had only recently taken command of the region’s police; National Police Commander Yuri Calderón installed him on November 8 in the wake of the nationwide police mutiny, which took a dramatic form in urban Cochabamba. Police officers in mutiny had demanded the removal of their prior commander Colonel Raúl Grandy. (Both Calderón and Zurita had received new commands in 2019 as part of anti-corruption house-cleaning in the police force. Calderón was later investigated by the Áñez government for his alleged loyalty to President Morales during the 2019 crisis, and by the Arce government for his role in the Sacaba massacre.)

After Morales‘ fall, Zurita had publicly embraced the Resistencia Juvenil Cochala, a right-wing motorcycle gang and called upon the it and self-organized citizens of Cochabamba to defend a police station in the city from pro-MAS opposition attacks. Zurita asked them to “organize brigades, organize barricades; we have information that people are coming towards the city from the Sacaba side and from the south… do not let them pass” (GIEI Report, p. 87). He also spoke out publicly to assure police officers in mutiny that he was on their side: ”[I would] say to the the comrades that I came to work … and that this is a moment for institutional cohesion. They should know that the Police chiefs are fully supporting all of the demands and that we are not going to leave them alone.” He offered to step down if it would be in the interest of police unity. “Of course” he supported the police mutiny, as did “absolutely all of the police command,” and he had nothing more in common with Cochabamba MAS leader Leonilda Zurita than their shared last name.

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One dead as urban opposition battles pro-MAS campesinos in Potosí

Young pro-MAS protester Basilio Titi Tipolo has been identified as the first fatal casualty in renewed partisan confrontations in Bolivia. Titi died amid the yesterday’s most intense street clashes, in the city of Potosí, where the Potosí Civic Committee (Comcipo) was leading the second day of a nationwide strike. In Potosí, as in several other major cities of Bolivia, striking opposition protesters mounted road blockades in protest of Law 1386, an anti-money laundering statute that shopkeepers claim will lead to abusive investigations of their books. But the issue primarily serves as a lightning rod for the civic opposition, which previously led October–November 2019 protests that culminated in the overthrow of President Evo Morales, to coordinate a nationwide challenge to what they call the “authoritarian” rule of Luis Arce, who was elected in October 2020.

During Tuesday’s protests, multiple efforts were on a collision course in urban Potosí:

  • The Potosí Civic movement intended to paralyze economic life through blockades as part of a national strike.
  • Campesinos arrived in town as opponents of the strike and as supporters of President Luis Arce.
  • Bolivia’s National Police were taking a more-hostile-than-usual approach to the blockades, assailed by Arce’s government as economically damaging.
  • The Departmental government, led by Jhonny Mamani (MAS-IPSP), was preparing to hold an honorary parliamentary session on Wednesday to commemorate the department’s anniversary.
  • On Tuesday morning, Comcipo announced that it would not allow President Luis Arce and Vice President David Choquehuanca to attend the anniversary festivities.
  • Once in town, campesinos rallied around and damaged the headquarters of Comcipo.
  • The Potosí Civic movement mounted a sustained effort to push campesinos out of the central Plaza 10 de Noviembre, eventually achieving this objective.

Security forces and pro-government and opposition protesters were thus pursuing objectives that led to confrontation. Unarmed street battles are not rare in Bolivian political life, but most often involve one group of demonstrators and security forces. Tuesday saw clashes between all three groups, as well as prolonged violent attacks upon individuals isolated in crowds of their political opponents. A pall of confusion and self-interested statements hangs over many of the details of yesterday’s events, but some facts are gradually becoming clear.

Potosí’s mayor reports that fifty people were treated in hospitals in clinics following the confrontations, two remain in intensive care, and one protester died. The deceased protester is Basilio Titi Tipolo, a young man just shy of his 22nd birthday. Basilio had residential ties in Surichata and Potosí, where he had worked as a miner. His body lay in state in the Potosí Peasant Confederación headquarters, where he was mourned by his Quechua-speaking mother.

The Defensoría del Pueblo has taken charge of compiling information on Basilio Titi’s death. Defensora Nadia Cruz stated that he died in the context of the confrontations, that he reportedly fell in attempt to reach safety, and that the medical cause of his death was broncoaspiración—the entry of food or other obstruction into the lungs causing suffocation. Separate accounts have been offered by Comcipo and the national government.

Comcipo issued this comment: “We know that a person has died, a 25-year old who had choked on their coca, surely while running away. There were no signs of violence, and I regret very much that there was a death on the side of our campesino brothers.” Further comments alleged that the campesinos were given alcohol, money, and chile pepper (that is, meals) to cajole them into protests. This is a statement so full of hostility and stereotypes that (1) any sincerity to the claimed lament of the death rings hollow; (2) it’s hard to take the claim that the death was accidental rather than caused by violence at face value.

Comcipo was also at pains to declare that Titi was physically unharmed, placing him among the handful of Bolivians who have fled violent confrontations to their deaths over the years.

Álvaro Terrazas, a vice minister of health, presented a more sinister narrative. He alleged that violent groups blocked the passage of an ambulance carrying Titi and that “the lack of medical attention has led to the death of one person.” Terrazas claims that the forensic medical report established that Titi suffered multiple traumatic injuries, including hematomas from the blows that were struck upon him in the street. He did not cast doubt on the medical cause of death, but rather argued that someone who lost consciousness could suffer broncoaspiración from something as mall as a bit of bread. Terrazas also accused blockaders of throwing dirt to attack the ambulance carrying Titi.

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“We didn’t know what we were doing”: Afghanistan as tragic repetition

“Everyone” knows that Daniel Ellsberg leaked the Pentagon Papers about Vietnam fifty years. What few people know is that the study that compiled those papers was an effort by the military/intelligence apparatus to understand why the US makes such bad, unaware, and self-destructive decisions in war.[1]

Those who do not learn the lessons of history are destined to repeat them.

One of the many ways that history repeats itself is that George W. Bush assembled a team led by Nixon administration alumni to prosecute two massive new wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.[2] And the US governments of Bush, Obama, and Trump all repeated many of the same patterns in Afghanistan as they did in Vietnam.

Again, there was a study behind closed doors, leaked to the press. Here’s an opening sentence from the (much less celbrated) coverage: “We were devoid of a fundamental understanding of Afghanistan — we didn’t know what we were doing,” Douglas Lute, a three-star Army general who served as the White House’s Afghan war czar during the Bush and Obama administrations, told government interviewers in 2015.[3]

The fact that the US participated in and enabled atrocities in Afghanistan, and that the precedent of past US wars meant that the most craven local leaders gravitated to the US-backed government does not undermine the fact that hundreds of thousands or even millions of Afghans made their peace with that same government, and built the stability they could find around it. Today is not so much the US government’s tragedy, as it is theirs.

As citizens of a country that has failed to restrain our own military-industrial complex from repeating its own destructive patterns across more than half a century, our first debt is to those it has killed and wounded, to those whose lives it has ended or wasted, and our second debt is to those who sought shelter under its wings. Refuge is the least we owe them.

On a larger level, if you look around the world you will see that the worst off countries are those who were colonized most recently (largely sub-Saharan Africa) and those the US military has invaded and occupied: Iraq, Afghanistan, Haiti. Vietnam, for all its continuing problems, has emerged far better than most. We have to stop doing this, because in the wake of our government’s most costly endeavors comes poverty and stagnation.

[1] Daniel Ellsberg, Secrets
[2] Errol Morris, The Unknown Known
[3] The Afghanistan Papers: A secret history of the war, Washington Post

Tick-tock coverage of the overthrow of Evo Morales: What we know now

A flood of new declarations from politicians and official involved in the 2019 ouster of Evo Morales have come out. These declarations have accelerated because the matter is now the subject of a criminal investigation that led to the arrest of Jeanine Áñez. This post revises and updates my January 2020 coverage of accounts of Morales’ overthrow; the original text remains online there. Since both posts are intended to gather historical evidence and illuminate critical questions, I‘m avoiding using the word “coup d‘ètat” here. Readers are invited to apply their own definition to the mounting facts, as I have elsewhere.

What’s at stake

Without a doubt, the post-electoral protests against President Evo Morales, his sudden resignation under pressure from both protesters and the military, and the unexpected succession of Jeanine Áñez (previously, second vice president of the Senate) are the most significant events of Bolivian political life in 2019. The hinge point of these events was the dramatic week stretching from November 8 to 15, during which the police and military joined protesters as central actors; significant transactions occurred behind closed doors; acts of violence and arson targeted politicians on all sides; uncertainty surrounded presidential succession; and finally, a remobilized military killed a shocking number of people in four dramatic days.

I want to offer here some detailed accounts of what happened during that pivotal week and lay out the crucial questions as to whether, when, and how the overthrow of Morales was planned.

Why did an inexperienced junior senator with no mandate get empowered to lead a disastrous coup, unleashing the deadliest month in 15 years in Bolivian politics? How did a military “suggestion” claiming to head off bloodshed so rapidly lead to operations against civilians that cost many more lives than had been lost in the previous three years (let alone the three weeks of protest since the election)? In short, to what extent was a unified planning process (what we might call a coup plot) at the heart of this political transition?

Put differently, do we understand Evo Morales’ overthrow, Jeanine Áñez’s succession, and the military shakeup that followed the result of:

  • The foresight and planning of a small circle of actors. Did someone in the civic movement set her up? Work out a deal with those in the military who craved a crackdown? There are real signs of premeditation, coordination, and alliances among political forces and people within the military who might have a crackdown as a goal.
  • A convergence of fearful choices that led to a disastrous transition. Did the military leadership believe a quick transition would de-escalate an increasingly deadly confrontation on November 10? Did multiple actors think confirming someone, any civilian at all, was preferable to prolonging interim military rule and nightly violence on November 12? The real consequences of fear, urgency, distrust, violence, and reactions to violence that led people to act without considering the worst-case scenario that could emerge.

Since plotting is necessarily a closed-door activity, we couldn’t fully know the answers to these questions on November 10 or 15. But since these are matters of public concern and the principal actors are talking to journalists, we are getting more and more details (all possibly filtered through self-justifications and political ambitions) about what exactly happened when. What follows is an evolving list of sources for those of us trying to understand what happened in detail.

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Note from the field: Bolivia redefines its history [2010]

I’m reposting this fieldwork newsletter account that I wrote in 2010 because it feels relevant to current conversations about narrating American history.

Imagine for a moment the following scenario:

There’s a formal diplomatic function between the United States and France, in which the visiting French president is honoring a hero of the Franco-American effort during the American Revolutionary War. Military and civil honors are being accorded to Thomas Jefferson, say, or the Marquis de Lafayette.* The French President is there, before a special session of the United States Congress. Picture the well of the House, the assembled guests, the audience of Americans watching on video screens on the streets outside the Capitol. The first to speak, on behalf of the United States Government is Joe Biden. He strides to the podium, welcomes the French President, and begins a speech. He remembers the revolutionary era as a period of liberation for the American continent, a key point in a still unfinished process. Then he says we must think of the revolutionary period as two distinct struggles for independence and self determination: the American Revolution we all know, extending through the War of 1812; and the struggles Native Americans fought against invasion during the same decades. He says we must remember as American heroes Tecumseh as well as Jefferson, Blackhawk as much as Lafayette. For good measure, he adds Nat Turner to the list. The Age of Liberation we celebrate as the birth of our nation, he argues, will only be fulfilled when Native peoples have self governance and Blacks have ended oppression and racism against them.

I’m sure I can imagine this scene. You can too; hopefully, you just have. But those words out of the mouth of our current President or Vice President probably seem impossible. At least, I’m confident I won’t hear them. And I’m confident that if I did hear them, I would break into tears with the unexpected justice of the situation.

I mention this scenario not just because it represents a good goal, or underscores the place of talking about history in righting historic wrongs. I mention it most of all because changing the national context, it is exactly what I witnessed on the 26th of March in Sucre. The figure in question was not Thomas Jefferson or Lafayette, but Juana Azurduy de Padilla, a mestiza military commander in the wars against the Spanish from 1809 to 1825. Born in the town of Chuquisaca (now named Sucre after her contemporary military and political leader), she fought for the independence of both Argentina and Bolivia in a war in which she saw four of her sons and her husband die. It was also a war during which she gave birth to a daughter. Azurduy is embraced by nationalists and pro-indigenous activists, as an Argentine and a Bolivian, as a woman and as a soldier.

The speech was given not by Joe Biden, of course, but by Bolivian Vice President Álvaro García Linera. Before becoming Vice President, he was a partisan of a guerrilla movement of the 1980s and 90s, a professor of sociology, and a moving force within a leftist theory collective in La Paz called Comuna.

It is one thing to sit in a graduate classroom and learn about the extended history of South America’s Age of Revolution, to learn how the indigenous revolts of the 1770s and 1780s presaged the independence wars of the early 19th century. It is a different and altogether remarkable thing to watch a country’s national leadership embrace that narrative as a way of understanding its past. One of the better aspects of fieldwork has been the opportunity to do both.

* Military commander and diplomat Lafayette was in fact given honorary American citizenship in 2002. I won’t ask you to imagine the above scenario with Dick Cheney playing the role of García Linera.

Arturo Murillo began corruption scheme in first week of Áñez regime

On May 21 and 22, the United States government arrested Arturo Carlos Murillo Prijic, the former minister of government under the interim government of Jeanine Áñez, his chief of staff Sergio Rodrigo Mendez Mendizabal, and three of Murillo’s long-time associates. These include Murillo’s childhood friend Luis Berkman Littman, his son Bryan Samuel Berkman, and Argentine lawyer Philip Lichtenfield. The men are charged with money laundering and corrupt practices surrounding the Áñez government’s purchase of riot control munitions.

Based on the facts laid out in the indictment (Murillo is “Co-Conspirator 1”), confirmed by prior document releases in Bolivia since June 2020, this scheme is best understood not as an arms company bribing Murillo and Mendez to secure a contract, but rather the joint effort by the men involved to interpose the Berkmans’ shell company, Bravo Tactical Solutions, into an existing arms supply arrangement between a Brazilian arms manufacturer and the Bolivian government. This was done at a substantial mark-up, generating between $2 and $3 million, some $600 thousand of which were recycled back to Mendez, Murillo, and an unnamed Ministry of Defense official.

Since the public indictment provides a detailed timeline, we now know that this corrupt scheme originated in the first week of the Áñez government, before the government was even recognized by opponents, while blood was still on the ground from the Sacaba massacre, and before the second mass killing at Senkata.

I think about this crisis moment all the time; I’ve studied it intensely to understand who did what when, how hardline officials came in with guns blazing, killing more with the police and military in ten days than Bolivian security forces had killed in the past decade of policing protests. What I had not imagined, however, was that this first week was also a time for them to think about profiteering.

Arturo Murillo’s dramatic week

The week of November 10th through 16th, 2019, was a momentous one for Bolivia and for conservative hardliner Arturo Murillo.

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How to survive and outflank Justice Amy Coney Barrett

At 49, Amy Coney Barrett is four years older than me, and has just been given a lifetime appointment to the US Supreme Court. Her appointment is the culmination of a generation of efforts by the Federalist Society and allies to engineer the Supreme Court into a brake on the emerging social democratic politics of a multiracial and economically unequal America. It is the last act of an unprecedented decade of obstruction of Federal judiciary appointments by a Republican Senate majority that represents a minority of Americans. Barrett herself is the standard-bearer of a judicial philosophy that upholds the intentions of eighteenth century lawmakers in a twenty-first century society, as well as personally committed to religious and community politics that would roll back a half-century of feminist social transformation.

Despite all this, our existing institutional arrangements will give Amy Coney Barrett the power to review the laws of this country well into the 2060s, long after the United States has ceased to a majority-white country, and when Millennials and Generation Z will rightly be democratically shaping their own present and future.

I promise you that the Constitution itself is less sacred than the right of my children and children’s children to not have their freedom overseen by Amy Coney Barrett in 2060.

So how can we prevent that future? Here’s a list of strategic options, including those already in circulation, for the coming months and the years and decades beyond. We too can strategize in terms of decades, outflanking the regressive minority that brought us Justice Barrett.

  1. First, our mentality must change. We must divest ourselves of the notion that the current Constitution and the Supreme Court are sacred. Only rarely has the Court marched ahead of society in the fight for greater justice (notably, Brown v. Board of Education, Miranda); mostly it has played a role of cementing widespread changes already underway (Roe, Obergefell), or even worse standing in the way of transformative progress (Bakke) and rolling back critical protections (Shelby County v. Holder). If we want a visionary court again, we will have to fight for one, and not offer compromise justices that split the difference between the parties (looking at you, Merrick Garland) or between liberal identity politics and corporate power (Elana Kagan). With respect to the Constitution, virtually every other country in the world has written a new constitution since 1945, and collective notions of human rights have dramatically expanded worldwide. We’re overdue to catch up. The trifecta of an unrepresentative Senate, a majority-canceling Electoral College, and a lifetime-appointed Supreme Court is no holy trinity. Get over your allegiance to these institutions and the flawed, outdated and political document that created them.
  2. Supreme Court expansion: Comes in two flavors: partisan retribution (you got 3, we get 3) and fundamental rethink (let’s have many more justices and a less-partisan process). Biden seems down for legal scholars to sort this out.
  3. Impeach Brett Kavanaugh, who committed perjury in his nomination hearings. Congress could do this. Controversial, but not as controversial as having someone who lied about sexual assault sitting on the court for a generation.
  4. Expand and nominate to the Federal judiciary: There really is a backlog of cases in the Federal courts and plenty of candidates waiting.
  5. Amend the constitution and enshrine the rights Barrett doesn’t believe in. While constitutional amendment is an exhausting process, the Equal Rights Amendment has already been ratified by 38 states, and just needs formal acceptance and some legal defense. A Biden administration could do this unilaterally, though there will be legal wrangling to follow up.
  6. Legislate Roe. There’s draft legislation to do this, the Women’s Health Protection Act: “A health care provider has a statutory right under this Act to provide abortion services, and may provide abortion services… without any of the following limitations or requirements.” This legislation does away with a generation of debate as to whether the Constitution itself provides the right to abortion, by making that right a matter of law.
  7. Make human rights treaties legally enforceable in Federal Courts. The US is signatory to a raft of global and hemispheric treaties enshrining a variety of human rights, but their enacting legislation prohibits citizens from raising claims from them in court. Reverse this.
  8. Ratify the American Convention on Human Rights and thereby allow the Inter-American American Court on Human Rights to issue binding protections for human rights, reviewing Supreme Court rulings. This is the system that most of the hemisphere lives under, and it sets a high floor for human rights across Latin America.
  9. Incorporate radical transformations of our country’s identity, institutions, and constitution into mass movements. Much of my last dozen years has been spent documenting how social movements revolutionized Bolivian politics. One important ongoing demand of those movements was radical constitutional reform in which everyday people and grassroots leaders rewrote the constitution from top to bottom. New visions were inserted and old structures abolished. What made this process possible was that instead of thinking about a “movement to amend” the political structures of society, this was a movement to reconceptualize what Bolivia is, into a plurinational, autonomy-centered society in which indigenous peoples rule themselves. Everything from history to national identity sense of self was up for grabs. A new constitution was the by-product of far more radical transformation.
  10. Keep fighting for the world we want. Don’t get locked in a defensive crouch about Barrett and her five new best friends. When they come to say we can’t have universal health care, stabilize the Earth’s climate, remake criminal justice, or rethink our society, take those moments as opportunities to re-build the kinds of institutions we need to achieve these real goals.

As the United States’ overly romanticized Founding Fathers once wrote, “whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it.”