Eight deaths in Bolivian political conflicts in 2012

Bolivia’s Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office (Defensor del Pueblo) reports that 2012 was another busy year for social conflict in Bolivia. The office compiled a list of 500 political disputes that were the subject of protests or direct actions since January 1. (coverage: Erbol). The year is the deadliest in the country’s political life since 2008 with eight people losing their lives in these conflicts. Six of them died from violence by state forces; by my count, this is the most people killed by police responses to political actions in any one year since Evo Morales took power in January 2006.*

Those who died in 2012 were as follows:

  • Abel Rocha Bustamante, 27, and Michael Sosa, 23. Shot by police in the January Yapacaní conflict. (This blog’s coverage: 1|2)
  • Eliseo Rojas, 22. Reportedly electrocuted on a fence while attempting to storm police barracks during the Yapacaní conflict.
  • José Mamani Mamani, protester in Mallku Khota mining dispute, died of bullet wounds to the neck apparently fired by police on July 5.
  • Ambrosio Gonzáles, 45. Died from a police bullet during the July 31 operation to retake the Caranda gas plant, in Buenavista, Santa Cruz, which was seized by protesters demanding that a roadway and bridge be built.
  • FSTMB member Héctor Choque. Killed by an explosion of dynamite during fratricidal protests in La Paz between his union of mining employees and cooperative miners over the disposition of the Mallku Khota mine following its nationalization.
  • Óscar Omar Cruz Mallku, 17, dead from a gunshot, and Oscar Ricardo Gómez Bertón, 27, dead from wounds after a police raid on illegal used car sellers in Challapata, Oruro faced public resistance by the sellers.

*Police killed four protesters in 2007 and 2010. If one excludes the October 2012 Challapata event as a confrontation with criminal entrepreneurs during a raid, then all three years have the same number of police killings in political situations.

From the archives: On Strike, USA, 1936

From the Bolivian press, May 1936, this captioned photo illustrates the use of tear gas against American strikers during that turbulent period. The caption reads:

 This mask to protect against suffocating gases is not worn by a soldier nor by a militiaman, but rather a youth in North America on strike, who goes forth here well protected from the effects of teargas.

No further details are provided about the strike or the source of the image.

EnHuelga1936

Martin Luther King on riots and property destruction

Martin Luther King Jr. was an extremely committed proponent of nonviolent and nondestructive methods of protest. In his private strategic manifesto inside the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, A New Sense of Direction,* he advocated “militant” and “defiant” action to dislocate the function of American cities and enforce a popular demand for economic redistribution, but he did not deviate on this tactical direction. He even declared, “I, Martin Luther King, take thee, Non-violence, to be my wedded wife, for better or for worse, for richer or for poorer—this isn’t a bargaining experience—for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health, until death do us part.”

Still, the King of 1967 and 1968 would hardly be at home among some of the critics of property destruction who often revere him. First, he draws a strong moral distinction between “violence against property” and “violence against persons.” And second, rather than prioritizing rooting out property destroyers for obscuring his message, he tries to explain their message. Third, he is careful to emphasize police responsibility for most violence against people during the riots.  I quote him here at length describing the Black urban riots of summer 1967, the third consecutive summer of riot waves, largely touched off by local police violence. The following was first published in The Trumpet of Conscience (1967).

This bloodlust interpretation ignores one of the most striking features of the city riots. Violent they certainly were. But the violence, to a startling degree, was focused against property rather than against people. There were very few cases of injury to persons, and the vast majority of the rioters were not involved at all in attacking people. The much publicized “death toll” that marked the riots, and the many injuries, were overwhelmingly inflicted on the rioters by the military. It is clear that the riots were exacerbated by police action that was designed to injure or even to kill people. As for the snipers, no account of the riots claims that more than one or two dozen people were involved in sniping. From the facts, and unmistakable pattern emerges: a handful of Negroes used gunfire substantially to intimidate, not to kill; and all of the other participants had a different target—property.

I am aware that there are many who wince at a distinction between property and persons—who hold both sacrosanct. My views are not so rigid. A life is sacred. Property is intended to serve life, and no matter how much we surround it with rights and respect, it has no personal being. It is part of the earth man walks on; it is not man.

The focus on property in the 1967 riots is not accidental. It has a message; it is saying something.

If hostility to whites were ever going to dominate a Negro’s attitude and reach murderous proportions, surely it would be during a riot. But this rare opportunity for bloodletting was sublimated into arson, or turned into a kind of stormy carnival of free-merchandise distribution. Why did the rioters avoid personal attacks? The explanation cannot be fear of retribution, because the physical risks incurred in the attacks on property were no less than for personal assaults. The military forces were treating acts of petty larceny as equal to murder. Far more rioters took chances with their own lives, in their attacks on property, than threatened the life of anyone else. Why were they so violent with property then? Because property represents the white power structure, which they were attacking and trying to destroy. A curious proof of the symbolic aspect of the looting for some who took part in it is the fact that, after the riots, police received hundreds of calls from Negroes trying to return merchandise they had taken. Those people wanted the experience of taking, of redressing the power imbalance that property represents. Possession, afterward, was secondary.

A deeper level of hostility came out in arson, which was far more dangerous than the looting. But it, too, was a demonstration and a warning. It was designed to express the depth of anger in the community.

King was not an proponent of these tactics, but he was a prominent voice (at times, the most prominent voice) of his community when they were carried out. Rather than devote attention to their ”obscuring the message,” he sought to analyze their message, even as he argued such tactics would not prove victorious. I wish those who follow in his strategic footsteps on these tactical choices, would also follow him in prioritizing such explanations.

* “A New Sense of Direction” was one of King’s last overall strategic reflections before his assassination. It was delivered at a SCLC staff meeting and its private audience allowed for additional candor. It should be required reading for people seeking to understand King’s strategic vision. For more on King’s late political evolution, see Michael Eric Dyson’s I May Not Get There With You.

Data points on tactics and revolution

An article by George Lakey is circulating around the Internet* under the headline, “The More Violence, The Less Revolution.” While title is a quotation from 1930s radical Bart de Ligt, the thrust of the piece is to read Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan’s large-scale study Why Civil Resistance Works (website) under this headline. Chenoweth and Stephan do make a serious and wide-ranging attempt to measure the outcomes of tactical choices made by movements, and both their data and conclusions should be read widely among people interested in changing their societies. Chenoweth and Stephan’s expansive category of civil resistance is actually one that spans across existing internal debates in the Occupy Movement (and earlier generations of tactical debates in the global justice movement and elsewhere). Vitally, their analysis of what conditions make civil resistance successful can help us focus our tactical conversations in a very productive direction.**

George Lakey, while an opponent of both violent tactics and property destruction, issued a strong rejoinder to Chris Hedges’ The Cancer in Occupy, arguing: “The issue of the appropriateness of property destruction and/or violence is, like any other aspect of community organizing, not settled by blanket statements or posturing but by getting in there and dialoguing, over and over again.  Advocates of nonviolent action need to learn from the Civil Rights movement and the field of community organizing in this way—there really aren’t any shortcuts.” Lakey has developed a nuanced, historically informed position on nonviolence. His strategic approach to thinking about nonviolence that has been surprisingly contagious internationally. And Lakey is willing to have difficult conversations with people who profoundly disagree with him, to his credit.

However, Lakey’s headline and overall argument are a misreading of Chenoweth and Stephan. This rankles me both as a social scientist (quibble ahead) and as a student of/participant in freedom struggles. First, the quibble: Why Civil Resistance Works and related studies divide all struggles into “nonviolent” (like the first Intifada, Lavalas against the Duvaliers in Haiti, the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia, and the Defiance Campaign in South Africa) and “violent” (like the Mexican, Chinese, Algerian, and Iranian Revolutions). 0 for “nonviolent,” 1 for “violent.” (Incidentally, I think my four examples on each side of the “nonviolent”/”violent” categorization is a fairly good representation of successful cases, biased towards things anyone reading this blog would probably recognize. A complete list is in the Methodological Appendix [pdf] they posted online.) A dichotomous variable (definition) cannot be used to produce the more x, the less y statements. Ever.

Okay, so the real problem here is the made plain by the wide, wide variety of things crammed into the nonviolent category, including nearly all of the tactical patterns Lakey and those citing this study through him are most likely to rail against inside of movements: confronting police with bricks and stones (Intifada), building burning barricades in the streets (Defiance campaign), yielding the moral high ground by defending against violence rather than showcasing differences in suffering. Both such militant, but ultimately civil revolutions and nearly pacifist mobilizations like Solidarity in Poland or the Velvet Revolution have much to teach us about how to resist.

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Debating Tactics: Remember to ask, “What works?”

Our tactical debates should solve protesters’ problems, instead of dividing movements

In the midst of Yet Another Tactical Debrief, this time on the recent Move-In-Day–turned—street-semibattle—then—mass-arrest at Occupy Oakland, I ended up tossing out on Twitter a cluster of successful movement moments, some of which involved fighting back against cops—Stonewall, Cochabamba Water War, anti-apartheid defiance campaign, Tahrir Square 2011—and others of which involved a calculated refusal to fight back, even to the point of enduring direct state violence: anti-nuclear demos, the 1980s Central America solidarity movement, Gandhian salt march. In my estimation, every single one of these was successful, which raises the question of what they had in common.

What these moments do not share in common is their achievement of a universally correct balance of nonviolence and forcefulness, self-sacrifice and safety, or daring and accessibility, but rather their solution to an immediate and tangible tactical problem which had been totally disabling to their movements. Without these solutions, the trajectories of their movements were towards frustration with the possibilities of action, and thereby to spirals of apathy and spurts of ineffective outrage. With them in mind, the trajectories shifted to hopeful emulation, contagious optimism, and surges in new participation, leading to a whole new scale for participation.

The Miami Model is a global problem (as the New York Times acknowledges for Bahrain), how do we work out a solution?

(very long post follows the break)

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So you say you wanna #OccupyWallSt? Some lessons from experience — Part I

Note: I started writing this weeks ago, but wanted to share its content now, since plans are being laid for Monday and beyond. Ultimately, as a speaker said at yesterday’s opening rally: “Monday is a work day; and that’s when we have to get to work.”

There is Internet buzz and face-to-face planning going on around a September 17 occupation of Wall Street. With a pitch in the August Adbusters as a grain of sand, this proposal is crystallizing energy around a common action:

  • On September 17, we want to see 20,000 people flood into lower Manhattan, set up tents, kitchens, peaceful barricades and occupy Wall Street for a few months. Once there, we shall incessantly repeat one simple demand in a plurality of voices.

Internet forums have been setup, and in-person general assemblies are taking place in New York City (next one: August 9). The vision and politics behind the event reflect 20 years of Euro-American activism against corporate rule, but the plan and the courage are coming from the success at Tahrir Square. Or as Adbusters puts it:

  • A worldwide shift in revolutionary tactics is underway right now that bodes well for the future. The spirit of this fresh tactic, a fusion of Tahrir with the acampadas of Spain, is captured in this quote: The antiglobalization movement was the first step on the road. Back then our model was to attack the system like a pack of wolves. There was an alpha male, a wolf who led the pack, and those who followed behind. Now the model has evolved. Today we are one big swarm of people.

And at the center of this swarm are places for people to assembly, to debate plans, to envision their futures.

In the coming weeks, key preparations will help to decide the fate of this effort. Aside from enthusiasm, I want to offer some past experiences, all of them from the United States to help people who are making plans. The advice below is almost entirely about tactics, and not about old debates about which tactics are morally acceptable or politically enticing. Rather, this is to open a conversation about what works and doesn’t work on the ground for gathering, holding space, and taking over a place where hostile decisionmakers meet.

1. 2011 Capitol occupation in Madison, Wisconsin

I was a hemisphere away from this when it happened, but the basic structure has so much that could be replicated on Wall Street. Wisconsinites who followed this protest the whole way through should be hosted at least one night in the next six weeks in every community that plans to participate on September 17. One key idea:

  • Interplay of mass marches with more disruptive actions. Taking the Capitol inspired the whole state; bringing tens of thousands to the capitol justified the more confrontational action. Each effort should think about how it can best be a love letter to the other.

2. January 2002 World Economic Forum Protests in New York City

The buzz about #OCCUPYWALLSTREET that isn’t enthusiasm is basically about one thing: NYPD Lockdown. These protests, held four months after 9/11, saw the worst of times for mass deployments of cops and demonization of protesters. The key tool? Not some fancy weapon shooting rubber bullets or piercing sounds, but linkable security fences. NYPD circulated the idea that any legitimate protester needed to put him- or herself inside of a ring of these, or on street blocks enclosed by them at front or back. Then they arbitrarily closed protesters in and pushed them around using them. Options for resistance: It turns out these cages open with a good upward shove and are quite movable, if a crowd isn’t intimidated by the letters N,Y,P, and D in metal on the side.

Despite the clampdown, actions took place across the city. It turns out that Manhattan is a long island with lots of centers for corporate power stretched out along it. Police have to drive up and down it to get to your protest. Overly concentrating makes their life easier; a variety of locations makes your life easier. Also, pop-up actions in public places like forced security forces to play catch-up while locating their actions in view of the general public. Non-participating witnesses are a major deterrent.

Know the NYPD: Thanks to lawsuits, we now have a view of how the police saw their tactics in 2002. Some key elements:

  • “It should be noted that a large part of the success in policing the major demonstration on Saturday, Feb. 2, 2002, was due in part to the proactive arrest policy that was instituted at the start of the march at 59th Street and Fifth Avenue, and directed toward demonstrators who were obviously potential rioters.”
  • In another report, a police inspector praised the “staging of massive amounts” of armored vehicles, prisoner wagons and jail buses in the view of the demonstrators, writing that the sight “would cause them to be alarmed.”
  • Indeed, one of the documents — a draft report from the department’s Disorder Control Unit — proposed in blunt terms the resumption of a covert tactic that had been disavowed by the city and the federal government 30 years earlier. Under the heading of recommendations, the draft suggested, “Utilize undercover officers to distribute misinformation within the crowds.”

Extra reading: People with time may find useful information in these reportbacks on the tactical situation from the protesters’ perspective: 1.

3. March 2003 Financial District Shut-down in San Francisco

This large-scale mobilization paralyzed the city’s financial district on the first two days of the invasion of Iraq. In summary,

  • In San Francisco, the Bay Area Direct Action to Stop the War called for a next-day shutdown of the city’s financial district if the United States invaded Iraq. The well-publicized goals of the shutdown said in part, “We will impose real economic, social, and political costs and stop business as usual until the war stops…” (David Solnit and Aimee Allison, Army of None, p. 140)
  • Thousands of anti-war protesters poured into San Francisco on Thursday, fulfilling their promise to disrupt life in the city as they occupied intersections, blocked buildings and tried to shut down the Bay Bridge in protests that occasionally turned violent.Sirens wailed throughout downtown and helicopters whirred overhead most of the day as police in riot gear hustled to keep up with bands of demonstrators. Often they were unsuccessful, as small groups of protesters scurried into place in intersections or dodged around corners to elude police.  (SF Chronicle, March 20, 2003)
  • Up to 1,400 had been arrested before the protests finally began to wind down after 11 p.m., and about 1,000 remained in custody. Most face citations for blocking traffic and failing to follow police orders, but at least 18 face felony charges.”This is the largest number of arrests we’ve made in one day and the largest demonstration in terms of disruption that I’ve seen,” said Assistant Police Chief Alex Fagan Sr., a 30-year department veteran. (SF Chronicle, March 21, 2003)
  • A more detailed view here, and on video in We Interrupt this Empire.

Tactics for organizing: David Solnit and Aimee Allison assign the success of this movement to four factors that make up what they call a “common-strategy framework”:

  •  Clear What-and-Why Logic:  Shut down the Financial District in order to impose a cost on war.
  • Broadly Publicized: Repeated lead-up actions and press conferences, street art, tens of thousands of fliers, a widely utilized Web site and broad community mobilizing made sure a huge portion of the Bay Area knew what was planned and why.
  • Mass Training and Mass Organization:  A few thousand people received civil-disobedience trainings at schools, churches, and rallies, and well over a thousand people were directly involved in the organizing via affinity groups, working groups, and public meetings.
  • Decentralization: Many allied groups who had minimal contact with the initiating organization understood and supported the strategy, and participated in the action without  coming to an organizing meeting or bothering to identify as part of the organizing nucleus, “Direct Action to Stop the War.”

From my experience in this mobilization, it’s clear that all of these things were crucial. But so too was the nature of the overall plan, traditions of taking the streets, methods of responding, and sheer numbers. And one more thing helped incredibly:

  • The civil disobedience pick and roll: Those of us who have gone through conventional nonviolence training usually learned to plan an action around arrests. Maybe not everyone gets arrested, but people who are willing to use that willingness to hold space, shut down an office, or simply make a point (recent example: the Tar Sands protests at the White House). Most normal people, on the other hand, tend to get out of arrestable situations while the getting is good. With an aggressive police force, this results in a very boring game of cat and mouse where people are swept all over town.
    What San Franciscans accomplished in 2003, however, combined the best of both worlds. Committed activists, with our without lockdown equipment sat down in roadways, linked up across the fronts of corporate offices, and surged through semi-private spaces like lobbies and malls, in potentially arrestable actions. They took their places as if ready to get arrested, and they worked together with larger gathering crowds. But when the arrests came, nearly all of them melted back into the crowd. Meanwhile, the larger mass took advantage of the police concentration on one corner, including the really massive effort it takes to lock people up and cart them off to jail, to start taking over the next. Like the basketball move the pick and roll, this let people hold space in one place while setting up the next. It kept San Francisco protest rolling all day, while shutting down the financial district.

There’s much more experience to feed in, but all of this is a good start.

The most powerful forms of worker action, illegal in the USA

The worst active anti-union law in the United States was not Scott Walker’s recently passed assault on collective bargaining by state employees, but a law that makes many of the most powerful ways for workers to fight back against such a law illegal: the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act (wikipedia). That law makes many practical collective responses used by unions around the world illegal acts (technically “unfair labor practices”) in the United States. Nearly all of these are recognized as part of the fundamental right of freedom of organizing, recognized by international conventions to which the United States is a signatory. Among these actions are:

  • Jurisdictional strikes—A strike to demand that work be performed by members of the union
  • Wildcat strikes—Strikes called from the workplace floor, for new demands or in direct response to events
  • Solidarity strikes—A strike by one workplace in solidarity with a strike at another
  • Political strikes—Strikes in support of demands that extend beyond a single workplace, such as the minimum wage, overtime rights, or national health care
  • Secondary boycotts—The refusal of workers at one company to handle goods from another company during a strike there
  • Secondary picketing—Picketing (say be striking workers at one workplace) intended to get workers at a second shop to engage in a secondary boycott

If you haven’t worked for union or gone out on strike, you probably have never heard this list, and the first items that are illegal probably sound like basic elements of free speech. Harry Truman, whose veto of the Act was overriden, would agree with you. He called the law a “dangerous intrusion on free speech.”

Today, as union members, people who believe in the right of workers to represent themselves, and people who hope for a better life for themselves and their communities debate how to respond to Scott Walker’s union-busting bill in Wisconsin, far too many effective forms of nonviolent collective action require formally breaking the law. Increasing numbers of union activists have brought up the general strike, a coordinated work stoppage by multiple unions, and ideally the public at large, as a means of exerting pressure. General strikes are in fact ideal ways for workers to press demands on a government: Spanish and Italian workers have repeatedly pressed for wage increases through general strikes; Bolivians have used general strikes for a broad range of goals; the French used them to oppose raising the retirement age; and most of Western Europe established the worker protections they enjoy under threat of general strikes. It is indeed an exciting time now in Wisconsin because this extremely powerful tool is being broadly considered. However, incorporated unions have to consider the legal risks in not just calling a general strike, but in taking steps beyond wearing a common color in solidarity (one of the other proposals being planned right now). Meanwhile, right-wing opponents are covering this debate under the headline, “Socialists, Unions Plotting Illegal Strike in Wisconsin.”

We should remember that illegal does not mean immoral, or wrong-headed. Like the right to bargain collectively, the right to strike and the right to strike together to press common demands are basic forms of democracy; they are rights that everyone has, as even our government has recognized at the international level. Rolling back laws that turn rights into crimes should be on our agenda, whether those laws are from 2011 or 1947.

Tactical Gems from the Egyptian Uprising

As we cheer on Egypt’s anti-regime uprising, we should also be learning as much as possible how it worked. Some things, of course, are only important in a society that has lived under decades of emergency rule. But most, I think,  apply just about everywhere. Since we’ve seen government spying and storm trooper-style riot cops deployed in just about every country, it’s great when we can learn things that stop them.

Here are some of my favorites so far.

Open source protesting: Making its round in Egypt during the last days of January was a brilliant little pamphlet called “How to Protest Intelligently.” This easily reproducible, forwardable, xeroxable pamphlet brought together an open-ended set of tactics and strategies and widely distributed them. San Francisco bikers will be familiar with the well-distributed xeroxes that circulate at Critical Mass (some mockingly call this form of leadership “xerocracy”), but its relatively rare that protesters aim for mass distribution of their plans to the rest of society. When enough people are fed up, but might remain inactive without a plan, this can be strikingly effective.

By the way, open source is a metaphor here, that has relatively little to do with actual computers. It seems that e-mail and pdfs did actually help in Egypt, but mimeographs, printing presses, fax machines, or copiers would have functioned just as well in another era. (Non-blog-oriented hat-tip to the European collectives circulating open source windmill designs to put renewable energy into grassroots hands.)

You can read nine pages of the pamphlet at Indybay (the San Francisco Bay Independent Media Center), one of my favorite open media institutions.

Advice on gathering and mobilizing from “How to Protest Intelligently”

Gather where you is, Converge on where you ain’t:* One piece of simple advice from the pamphlet is this universally applicable tactical plan. Apparently, it actually happened this way. Ahdaf Soueif, for example, reports:

This is the scene that took place in every district of every city in Egypt today. The one I saw: we started off as about 20 activists, after Friday prayers in a small mosque in the interior of the popular Cairo district of Imbaba. “The people – demand – the fall of this regime!” Again and again the call went out. We started to walk: “Your security. Your policekilled our brothers in Suez.”

The numbers grew. Every balcony was full of people: women smiling, waving, dangling babies to the tune of the chants: “Bread! Freedom! Social justice!” Old women called: “God give you victory.”

For more than an hour the protest wound through the narrow lanes. Kids ran alongside. A woman picking through garbage and loading scraps into plastic bags paused and raised her hand in a salute. By the time we wound on to a flyover to head for downtown we were easily 3,000 people. (“An eyewitness account of the Egypt protests,” Guardian, January 28)

* “If you can’t organize where you is, you can’t organize where you ain’t” — received Saul Alinsky-style wisdom

Missing step, How to Defend a Public Plaza from Cops and Mobs of Hired Thugs: Seriously, I’m curious. And a lot of experience has been generated.

How to make demands from a giant crowd: Now that Tahrir Square has proclaimed itself an “autonomous republic,” and demands are flying from every corner of Egyptian society, not to mention every foreign government, the crowds whose effort has made change possible are trying to articulate their demands. Here’s how:

In Tahrir, the square that has become the focal point for the nationwide struggle against Mubarak’s three-decade dictatorship, groups of protesters have been debating what their precise goals should be in the face of their president’s continuing refusal to stand down.

The Guardian has learned that delegates from these mini-gatherings then come together to discuss the prevailing mood, before potential demands are read out over the square’s makeshift speaker system. The adoption of each proposal is based on the proportion of cheers or boos it receives from the crowd at large.

Delegates have arrived in Tahrir from other parts of the country that have declared themselves liberated from Mubarak’s rule, including the major cities of Alexandria and Suez, and are also providing input into the decisions.

“When the government shut down the web, politics moved on to the street, and that’s where it has stayed,” said one youth involved in the process. “It’s impossible to construct a perfect decision-making mechanism in such a fast-moving environment, but this is as democratic as we can possibly be.” (“Cairo’s biggest protest yet demands Mubarak’s immediate departure,” Guardian, February 5)

Local road blockade challenges Egyptian election fraud

On Sunday, Egypt held parliamentary elections which are widely known to be neither free nor fair (denunciation by the Carnegie Endowment for international peace). The elections were a demonstration of the government’s plans in advance of the 2011 elections, when long-time president Hosni Mubarak may make way for his son to rise as a successor. Unlike the media frenzy over the selection of Kim Jong-Il’s son to receive a special title, little mainstream outrage has been directed at Mubarak’s machinations. Egypt remains under its third decade of emergency rule (which ban demonstrations and some opposition parties), and is the largest non-democratic recipient of United States’ foreign aid by far. It’s also the largest undemocratic country in the Middle East, helped to remain so by our tax dollars, and military and diplomatic support. It’s the clearest sign that the alleged US policy to support democracy in the region is a joke.

In the absence of outside support, people in Egypt have made a number of challenges to this situation. One of the latest was the mid-day peaceful uprising on Sunday by residents of Balteem and Hamoul against voter fraud. Their actions were in defense of independent candidate Hamdeen Sabahy (profile). Since 1995, three of Sabahy’s voters have been killed by Egyptian riot police, while he won office in 2000 and 2005.

Blogger Baheyya has an hour-by-hour account of local resistance (h/t to The Arabist). Here are some highlights:

8:30 am. Sabahy’s representatives rush to photocopy the new certification papers required to gain access to polling stations. Early that morning at 12:30 am, Sabahy’s campaign was dumbfounded to learn of sudden new regulations for the papers, requiring that they be stamped from police precincts rather than notary publics as had been announced earlier. Certain that this is an 11th hour rule manipulation to bar Sabahy’s agents from accessing polling stations, campaign workers spend all night driving to police stations to get the necessary stamps.

9:10 am. The first reports of foul play trickle in. Candidate agents from 12 polling stations phone in that they have been kicked out of polling stations, and one says her certification papers were ripped up despite having the necessary police stamp.

1:00 pm. Sabahy’s representatives sent to Hamoul and agents of other candidates who are sympathetic to Sabahy begin to phone in reports of ballot-stuffing in favor of Abdel Ghaffar in villages surrounding Hamoul.

1:50 pm. Balteem’s main streets are lined with men congregating and sitting on the sidewalks, expressions somber and nerves frayed. A procession of cars and pickup trucks loaded with youth speed past in the direction of the highway. “They’re blockading the highway!” Spontaneously, Balteem and Borg youth decide to blockade the highway to protest what is now a certain sense of election rigging. The news travels like wildfire and some cars change route and head for the highway rather than Sabahy’s house. Frantic calls to campaign cars instructs them to make sure no women are headed to the highway, in anticipation of violence between protestors and riot police.

2-4 pm. Town youth blockade the highway with burning tires and clumps of tree branches and wooden sticks. Highway traffic comes to a standstill, with freight trucks backed up as far as the eye can see. A campaign worker says to no one in particular, “Didn’t I say that this morning was the quiet before the storm?”

4 pm. Townspeople converge on Sabahy’s courtyard and the candidate comes out to speak, standing on a pick-up truck. Livid, fiery youth and men climb on the pick-up truck and demand revenge. Sabahy struggles to control the crowd’s emotions, saying he’d rather withdraw and give up his seat than join this scandalously handpicked parliament. A fully veiled woman in black climbs on the truck and pulls the microphone from his hand, screaming, “Don’t you dare withdraw, Sabahy! Don’t you dare withdraw!”

The crowd chants, “Balteem boxes won’t leave! Balteem boxes won’t leave!” By law, counting stations for the entire district are located in Hamoul but since Hamoul was experiencing rigging, residents feared their ballots would be destroyed or disappeared en route to the counting station.

Ultimately, these efforts appear not to have saved the day. Instead it was the threat of further government violence that won. Al Ahram reported at 4:35 pm, “Police armored vehicles have stormed Balteem, in Kafr El-Sheikh, firing tear gas and live ammunition into the air.” Later, Sabahy himself convinced his supporters to stand down (again, the full day is here):

7:00 pm. Sabahy comes out and is immediately mobbed by the crowd, lifting him on their shoulders and giving him a hero’s welcome. He gives a rousing speech in which he denounces the government and several Amn al-Dawla officers by name for fixing the elections in Hamoul, and reiterates his position of withdrawing from the elections. The crowd presses him to authorize and lead a peaceful protest march to the police station to protest the rigging, but Sabahy fears security forces’ violent response and does not want injuries and casualties among his supporters, as in the past. The back-and-forth goes on for an hour that feels like an eternity, but in the end Sabahy prevails and the people are dejected, though none take matters into their own hands as some did that afternoon.

Somewhat obnoxiously, a government spokesman claimed, “The [governing] party’s careful selection of its candidates was a factor in defeating big opposition names such as Hamdeen Sabahi.” Sabahy withdrew from the race, and made these comments later: “The rigging proves that the [governing] NDP wants no opposition in parliament. With the new parliament, we will see increased restrictions on freedom of expression, including new restrictions on the media.” Whatever the wisdom of backing down (and no one should be too eager to second guess such moves when lives are at stake), residents’ willingness to take their anger to the streets are remarkable under so much pressure.

p.s. Apparently, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak would like another dictatorship in Iraq, according to advice he gave to US officials (Thanks, Wikileaks).

What’s behind the Potosí regional strike?

As the department-wide strike in Potosí continues to edge into the international press (primarily through its effect on tourists and now upon mining companies that operate in the region), I want to give more of the background on the strike and its demands, so it’s at least understandable why people are blockading and hunger striking there.

“It can be summed up in one single thing: in misery. … We are fighting for a hill that as of yet is not a factory, just a hill; it’s raw material. For the dream that some time we, that the families that live there, might have something. They are places forgotten by the hand of God: they don’t have water. They are using up the water in the wells. There is no electricity. It is misery.”
Saúl Juarez, Potosino hunger striker in Cochabamba

If you are from North America, this use of misery might be unfamiliar to you, but it is common in the language of Latin America. We must first organize, then-Haitian president Jean Bertrand Aristide once said, to move from misery to poverty. Here in the hemisphere’s second-poorest country (after Haiti), Potosí is the poorest of nine departments. The rate of extreme poverty, which is falling nationwide, is still 66.7%; meaning that two-thirds of Potosinos cannot afford to buy their family’s basic necessities. Of every 1000 live births there, 101 children will die before their fifth birthday. Both of these figures are the highest in Bolivia; in the case of child mortality, the second place departments—La Paz and Chuquisaca—see 63 deaths per 1000 children. It is for this reason that Potosinos have spread to the rest of the country in search of better opportunities.

“We can say that we are fighting for the reactivation of the productive apparatus of Potosí.”
Claudia López, Potosino hunger striker in Cochabamba

Most of the demands advanced by the Potosí mobilization are focused on specific industrial or economic projects, which in the eyes of protesters, have languished for the lack of state interest. The boundary dispute with Oruro centers around two hills that contain limestone, a key ingredient for cement, and a second demand is for a cement plant to earn money and create jobs from that resource. Likewise, Potosinos are calling for the activation of a metallurgy plant and for the creation of an international airport to connect Uyuni and its phenomenal salt flats to international tourists.

Potosí, of course, is not poor for the simple lack of investment from the outside. It has never simply languished in the absence of foreign interest. Instead, it was once the largest the city in the Western world precisely because of the rich attraction its mineral wealth held for the Spanish state and its investors. Immense wealth was symbolized by the Cerro Rico which sits above the city, or simply by the phrase “it’s worth a Potosí.” Every Bolivian, rich or poor, left or right, knows how Bolivian wealth enriched Spain, and through it Europe. And every Bolivian understands that to take part in that wealth requires doing more than extracting minerals from the ground and shipping them out of the country.

More recently, Potosí was hit hard by the shock-therapy program of neoliberal economic restructuring that began in 1985. At the time, the miners who worked for COMIBOL—the national mining company that took over the mines run by three wealthy tin barons in 1952—were the strongest social movement in the country. The government of Paz Estenssoro aimed to break this power, and essentially shut down the government-run mining sector to do so, laying off tens of thousands of workers. Those miners who did not resettle elsewhere in the country became the backbone of the cooperative mining sector, a collection of small scale mining projects that engage in uncoordinated mining of the Cerro Rico, and other mountains like it, in search of rich veins of minerals. Decades of such drilling have brought the Cerro to the brink of structural collapse, posing the threat that the hill—recognized as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO—could become a ruin.

“They all come to promise and promise, and to say this and that could be done. The [current] government has done the same: it has promised. But after five years of their rule, of creating new laws and a new constitution, of re-electing them, there is nothing. … So, we want dates; we want concrete responses of when and how; we want specific studies; we want operational plans that establish dates for the processes that are going to happen.”
Claudia López

If one had to choose a symbol of the capacity for delay in pursuing development projects in Bolivia, it might well be Karachipampa, the metallurgical plant that the mobilization is demanding to be activated. This lead and silver smelter was built between 1985 and 1988. It has never operated.

Several years ago, in 2005, the Canadian firm Atlas Precious Metals Inc. entered a shared-risk agreement to invest in the plant. You can see on their web page an optimistic assessment of the plant’s production capacity. As of April, only 20% of the firm’s promised investment had been realized (article in Spanish). Currently, Atlas and COMIBOL are in a legal dispute in which Atlas demands its $12 million investment be repaid, and COMIBOL seeks compensation for the value of the plant, which remains unused. In a letter to the government (es), the Potosinista Civic Committee washes its hands of the whole dispute and demands:

The only thing the Potosí people want is to see, in an immediate manner, the effective functioning of the Karachipampa Plant, whether it is with the [foreign] company or through state intervention.

Beyond all these details, the strongest emotion visible here is simple, exhausted, impatience. Whether the timeline is 21 years for the plant, or 5 years for the MAS government, or three generations for the border dispute (more on that when I can provide a fuller background, or transcribe more of my interview with a Coroma resident), those who have thrown themselves into this protest have run out of patience. Against the experience of delay, they have enacted tactics based on urgency: extended blockades, hunger strikes, and so on. So far, Potosinos themselves, beginning with the hunger strikers have borne most of the costs of these urgent tactics themselves, or imposed them on the surrounding communities. However, they are increasingly enacting or talking about tactics that will cost companies operating in the region substantial losses on a daily basis.