International Day of Action in Defense of Coca Chewing Underway

Massive coca leaf made out of coca leaves
On the plaza, a giant coca leaf made out of coca leaves

Coca growers from the Chapare (Cochabamba Department) and the Yungas (La Paz Department)—Bolivia’s two coca-growing regions—have travelled to Bolivia’s nine departmental capitals today to publicly chew the traditional leaf and to support the Bolivian government campaign to end the UN prohibition on coca chewing. Coca leaves are a traditional crop in the Andes and are both chewed in the mouth and boiled into a tea called mate de coca. Both forms are valued for their medicinal properties and cultural role in Andean culture, particularly the protection they offer against altitude sickness, fatigue, and upset stomachs. Bolivia’s demand that a 1961 UN drugs convention be amended has attracted broad support, including from the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) and Africa, and several countries that had expressed doubts about the move have been won over. However, the United States—a major cocaine-consuming country and the main international sponsor of Bolivia’s once-heavily-militarized war on drugs—and Sweden continue to block the move. The deadline for changing their position is January 31.

Events in Cochabamba are still underway, but here is an early preview of the gathering in the city’s main square, the Plaza 14 de Septiembre.

 

bagging and sorting coca leaves
Vendors from the May 27 Association bag coca leaves to give away
Marchers with coca plants
Two women from the Six Federations of the Tropics of Cochabamba march with young coca plants and bags of coca leaves
TV journalist interviews Leonilda Zurita, president of Coca Growers' Women's Federation

A more complete set of photos from today’s protest is online at flickr.

Bolivia’s anti-racism law at the center of face-off with corporate press

Since August, one issue has generated more headlines here in Bolivia than any other: The Law Against Racism and All Forms of Discrimination, which was debated and passed by the Plurinational Legislative Assembly (aka, the parliament) in late September.

The remarkably short Law 045 is the Bolivian equivalent of more than a generation of civil rights law in the United States. It bans discrimination by public officials and private businessmen, criminalizes verbal and physical aggressions, charters educational efforts on discrimination, creates a national commission on issues of discrimination, and imposes sanctions on the media for circulating “racist ideas.” The scope of the law is broad, including discrimination on the basis of race, ethnicity, religion, language, age, sexual orientation, disability, and pregnancy, among other statuses. A such, it is parallel to American laws from the 1948 integration of the Armed Forces to the 1965 Civil Rights Act to the yet-to-be-passed Employment Non-Discrimination.

So, it would not be shocking if wide range of controversies had emerged over the manifold implications of the law. But this has not occurred. One single controversy, however, has risen to national prominence.

Two articles of the proposed legislation, Articles 16 and 23, have been roundly criticized by the mainstream, privately-owned press. Article 16 makes publications subject to economic fines and even closure for circulating racist ideas. And Article 23 removes any special immunity for members of the press from prosecution under the law. The mainstream press has characterized the articles as the rebirth of a 1980s proposal for prior press censorship, known as the Ley de Mordaza (the Jaws Law, for its ability to crush the press). They led marches across the country as the law was being considered, and coordinated a nationwide protest by in which newspaper covers all read only: “Without freedom of expression, there is no democracy.”

As an (US) American, of course, these provisions are shocking. Our Voltaire (“I detest what you have to say but will defend to the death your right to say it”)-to-American Civil Liberties Union tradition of free speech is, however, a globally extremely tolerant position. (I’ve written before about how our notion of the freedom of the press is, on the other hand, a highly restricted vision of public access to the media, essentially limited by press ownership.) Following the nightmares of World War II, the global human rights regime initiated by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights drew the line on free expression at racism and incitement to war, which it said should be prohibited. International conventions follow these lines by banning “racist incitement.” Germany bans Nazi parties, advocacy of and apology for genocide, and rallies by the racist right. Several other Latin American countries have restrictions on racist media which include prison terms, unlike the Bolivian law. Both the OAS president and the UN human rights representative who have visited in recent weeks have emphasized that the law is appropriate, although the line between racist incitement and free expression must be scrupulously drawn. They’ve also urged the private press to end their boycott of the rule-making process on the legislation.

Strangely, however, the American standard is irrelevant to the debate here. In three months, I have not heard or read a single defense of free *speech* as opposed to free *press* on these issues. No one is suggesting that criminalizing calling someone an “Indio de mierda” (“shitty Indian”) to their face is inappropriate. (Doing so in the United States would of course ignite a national firestorm over “thought police” and be overturned in short order by any competent Federal Court.) There has been a great deal of concern about whether the a TV station filming and disseminating that act would be liable to prosecution (the government regulations proposed on the issue now make it clear that such reporting of others’ speech will not be subject to sanction).

Aside from marches, the press and many media workers’ unions have used a one-day strike, hunger strikes in Santa Cruz, and an immense petition campaign to oppose the law, which sailed through the MAS-controlled parliament. On November 26, they submitted a sample selection of signatures to Vice President Álvaro García Linera. The press claims to have gathered one million signatures, although they are still being sent to a single place to be verified, and the eight books they handed over only come to some 32 thousand. Which brings us to the current impasse: while the new Constitution permits citizen initiatives as part Bolivian democracy, there is no enabling legislation yet to regulate the process. The press is depending on the moral weight of its gathered signatures (one million is a substantial portion of Bolivia’s 10.6 million inhabitants) to kickstart the initiative process. So far, the government seems resistant. And so, a policy controversy seems about to cross over to a crisis of democracy.

Meanwhile, the mainstream press is not the only voice on this issue. During the debate, a book was published on racism by the press over the last century in Bolivia. This racism runs up through the media’s overt collaboration with (really, rallying for) attacks on indigenous protesters in Cochabamba in January 2007 and Sucre in 2006, 2007, and 2008. The cocalero movement has declared itself on alert in defense of the law, and marched here in Cochabamba. And a stream of “alternative media” which includes indigenous radio producers, radical working-class publications, and (strangely given the name) workers in the government-owned media, has taken a distinct position calling for professional standards and arguing that racism and free expression are fundamentally different. They’ve also used the anti-racism law as an opportunity to argue for systematic coverage of indigenous issues and use of indigenous languages in the media.

For me, this storyline is a fascinating instance of public debate in the process of rights-making, an opportunity to see the shape of the Bolivian legislating process (very little of which takes place inside the walls of the Legislative Assembly), and another turn in the kaleidoscope of political alliances here in Bolivia. It’s also forcing me to reconsider (although not yet change) my ideas of what free expression is. I’ve conducted some interesting brief interviews with the alternative press on this, and hope to delve more as the story develops.

Potosí isolated by 12-day regional protest

[There is, as of today, rising hope for negotiations to begin between the Government and Potosinos (and for three-way dialogue with Oruro on the border issue to take place as well) soon. More on that soon. This post comes as written yesterday. Also, I added a little bit on Pablo Solón’s comments on Democracy Now at the end.]

A department-wide general strike in Potosí department, Bolivia’s traditional mining center, has entered its thirteenth day today, with no clear end in sight. The strike is now taking three major forms: a comprehensive blockade of transport in and out of the department, a general closure of businesses by both their workers and owners, and a growing hunger strike reported at more than 500 people on Sunday. The mobilization was backed by a remarkable show of unity on last Tuesday, August 3, when some 100,000 people marched in the city of Potosí in support of the effort. The number is phenomenal relative to the city’s population of 160,000, and even the department’s of some 700,000.

The systematic isolation of the department has made it impossible for me to visit the protests, once it became clear (with the march) just how significant this event is. Hundreds of trucks and buses are lined up at the various entrances to the department. As of Sunday, the Governor of Chuquisaca was mobilizing food and supplies to people stranded on the border.

Potosinos in protest are coordinated by the Civic Committee of Potosí, a coordinating committee of major institutions. Other key actors include the community of Coroma (part of which is in territory also claimed by a neighboring community in the department of Oruro), the Federation of Cooperative Miners, and since the massive march, major politicians including Governor Félix Gonzales (MAS). Gonzales and four Potosino members of the Plurinational Legislative Assembly (formerly, the National Congress) are at the head of the hunger strike.

Compared to the mobilization, the demands are quite modest:

  1. Delimitation of the inter-departmental border between Quillacas (Oruro) and Coromo (Potosí), which centers around control over limestone resources in the area
  2. Installation of a cement plant in the Coroma region, using those resources
  3. Reactivation of the metallurgy plant in Karachipampa, currently suspended due to a legal conflict among two companies
  4. Preservation of the Cerro Rico, the massive mining mountain just outside the city of Potosí, whose structural future is in jeopardy after five centuries of mining
  5. Construction of an international airport for Potosí as soon as possible
  6. Completion of delayed highway projects

The protests seemed to have expanded as rapidly as they did because in the first week the national government insisted, primarily through its Minister of Autonomy Carlos Romero, that they were a purely partisan effort in defense of Potosí Mayor René Joaquino (see ). This added to a sense of indignation at being ignored by a MAS government to which they have supplied an overwhelming vote for the past five years. Their sense of being slighted has rebounded into the chant (heard at a solidarity march of Potosinos here, as well) of “Potosí Federal,” a call for devolving power to the region. (This is clearly not a demand of the mobilization, however, and it’s unclear how such a demand would differ from the departmental autonomy approved by referendum in December, and soon to be delimited by a Statute of Autonomy.) Comcipo leader Celestino Condori emphasized a new sense of unity on the day of the march, “We’d like to demonstrate to the government that in Potosí, there is unity, among Moors and Christians; everyone is changing their polleras [traditional indigenous women’s dress] to put on the red and white which are the colors of the Potosino flag.” In action, this is taking the form of a wide variety of hunger strike pickets led by different organizations, and since the weekend, spreading to other cities in Bolivia.

Currently, the impasse blocking negotiations concerns where and how they might take place. As with movements across the continent (and using good strategic sense), the Potosí movement has demanded to negotiate at their place of strength, while the pressure of mobilization is on. On the other hand, the Morales government is insisting that discussion of border must occur in neutral territory and that no negotiations can take place without an intermediate truce that suspends mechanisms of pressure. On the question of territory, they are backed up by concerns that Oruro might mobilize as well if discussions began on non-neutral ground. Oruro’s civil society placed themselves in a “state of emergency,” preparing to mobilize last weekend.

In a broader sense, this mobilization is one of a growing number of signs that MAS allies (and members, such as the governor) are moving to pressure the national government over particular demands, making Evo Morales’ second administration a period of serious conflict, though of a very different kind than the years of confrontation with the right-wing of the media luna. It also is an early sign that the new autonomy in the western departments will come with genuine political independence on the part of regional leaders.

Incompetent English-language coverage: As a side note, this central political story in the last week here in Bolivia is being described to the English-speaking world by reporters who can only be described as myopically focused on the lives of wealthy foreign tourists and stunningly ignorant of local realities. Local realities such as the front page stories of every single national newspaper. Associated Press, I’m talking about you. Here, in its entirety is Saturday’s AP story on the Potosí situation:

Protest traps tourists in Bolivian highland city

(AP) – 1 day ago

LA PAZ, Bolivia — A protest by Bolivian miners has trapped more than 100 mostly European tourists in the southern Bolivia mining city of Potosi for more than a week.

The protesters piled rocks on the runway of the Potosi airport Friday to prevent a plane from landing to pick up some of the foreign tourists.

The miners have also blocked roads into the area for 10 days.

Also trapped are about 500 Bolivians, and local media say the blockade is beginning to cause food shortages in the city of 200,000 people.

The miners have a series of grievances with the government, including a demand to reactivate mines that officials ordered closed and to settle land disputes. (“Protest traps tourists in Bolivian highland city,” The Associated Press)

I’ve highlighted in red things that are basically wrong, or reflect the listening-to-other media’s-stories as reporting that seems to have gone into this story, filed from La Paz. As noted above, cooperative miners are one of many groups that have folded into the department-wide protest. There are substantial reports of Bolivians being stranded, but descriptions of around five hundred people refer to people on vehicles waiting to get in to the region. “The area” is actually the Department of Potosí, which has one “land dispute” on the table, its border with Oruro. The only mine under discussion in the demands is the Cerro Rico, whose structural instability could result in the closure of mining, under a review currently underway and encouraged by UNESCO, which maintains the mountain (as well as the city) on its World Heritage list. For details of the actual airport incident, which did involve miners, you can see this article in Spanish. For consolation on the ability of English reporters to competently discuss life in Bolivia, see this piece from Agence France Presse: Protesters seize Bolivia airfield, seal off Potosi.

Pablo Solón on Democracy Now: Potosí got a sliver of further US media coverage today with the mention of the protest made by Amy Goodman while interviewing Bolivian Ambassador to the United Nations Pablo Solón. Amy’s question got to the heart of the protest: “The demonstrators are calling for more investment by the Bolivian government in the lithium-rich area.” And Solón basically dodged her question by talking about borders and not development commitment. It’s hard not to be sympathetic with him having to explain this issue alongside the other awesome work he’s doing, which the interview does a good job of describing.

Love for Tristan, Solidarity for Ni’lin Against the Wall

This past Friday afternoon, my friend and comrade Tristan Anderson was shot in the forehead by Israeli occupation forces at a demonstration against the wall they are building across the West Bank. The International Solidarity Movement reports,

Another resident from Ni’lin was shot in the leg with live ammunition. Four Ni’lin residents have been killed during demonstrations against the confiscation of their land.

Ahmed Mousa (10) was shot in the forehead with live ammunition on 29th July 2008.  The following day, Yousef Amira (17) was shot twice with rubber-coated steel bullets, leaving him brain dead.  He died a week later on 4 August 2008. Arafat Rateb Khawaje (22), was the third Ni’lin resident to be killed by Israeli forces.  He was shot in the back with live ammunition on 28 December 2008.  That same day, Mohammed Khawaje (20), was shot in the head with live ammunition, leaving him brain dead.  He died three days in a Ramallah hospital.

Residents in the village of Ni’lin have been demonstrating against the construction of the Apartheid Wall, deemed illegal by the International Court of Justice in 2004. Ni’lin will lose approximately 2500 dunums of agricultural land when the construction of the Wall is completed. Ni’lin was 57,000 dunums in 1948, reduced to 33,000 dunums in 1967, currently is 10,000 dunums and will be 7,500 dunums after the construction of the Wall.

The campaign against the construction of an apartheid wall across the West Bank is a crucial part of changing the dynamics of occupation in Palestine. The wall is the greatest manifestation of the policies of confiscating land, turning the occupation into annexation, and maintaining a logic of social separation between Jews and non-Jews in the occupied West Bank. It is also the key place where international law, solidarity from around the world, Palestinian civil society cooperation, and nonviolent direct action are being experimented with as tools for liberation. It does not surprise me, but does make me proud that Tristan placed himself in this crucial location.

Gabrielle Silverman, an activist, eyewitness and Tristan’s girlfriend, described the scene:

We were at a demonstration against the wall, against the Israeli apartheid wall in the West Bank village of Ni’lin, which is about twenty-six kilometers west of Ramallah. I was very close to him when he was shot. I was only a few feet away. The demonstration had been going for several hours. It was wrapping up; it was almost over. Most people had already gone home.

We were standing on some grass nearby a village mosque, and Tristan was taking pictures. He likes to take pictures and post them on Indymedia, sometimes under assumed names. And he was taking pictures, and he was shot in the head with the extended range tear gas canister. He fell to—nothing was happening immediately around us, by the way, I should mention. No one was throwing rocks around us. Nothing was happening. We were standing there.

He fell to the ground, and immediately medics from the Palestinian Red Crescent responded, came running over. And more people came running over. It was very clear that he was—that there was a seriously injured person on the ground. The medics are impossible to mistake. They wear neon uniforms. They have bright yellow stretchers. The medics were working on him, were getting him onto the stretcher, and as we’re doing so, the army continues to tear gas all around us. As we’re carrying him off on the stretcher, there’s tear gas falling, tear gas canister after tear gas canister falling at our feet.

Finally, we get him to the ambulance. The ambulance is very good. The Palestinian medics were excellent. And we get into the ambulance. We drive in the ambulance to the checkpoint at the beginning of town, and we are stopped there at the checkpoint for about fifteen minutes. For about fifteen minutes, the army, the Israeli army, refuses to let us through, even though we have a critically injured person in the ambulance. And the reason why is because under no circumstances are Palestinian ambulances ever allowed to enter Israel from the West Bank. And so, with Tristan being critically injured and getting worse and worse and worse and worse and falling deeper into this abyss, the soldiers are holding us up and waiting—we had to wait there for an Israeli ambulance to come from who knows where and then transfer him into that ambulance. All of this is taking precious time.

Finally, we drive to the hospital in Tel Aviv. I should add also, once the Israeli ambulance did finally show up, there was a soldier who stood in the doorway smirking and wouldn’t move and wouldn’t let the ambulance through until finally another international activist grabbed this soldier and we slammed the door shut, and then the ambulance was first able to start moving towards the hospital. When he got to the hospital, they started doing surgeries on him. (Democracy Now!, March 16)

Solidarity demonstrations have been held in London and San Francisco. A demonstration will be held in New York on Friday. It will be at the Israeli consulate, 800 2nd Ave, 4:00pm – 6:00pm. More than 4,000 people have joined “Solidarity with Tristan Anderson” on Facebook.

Tristan has been transferred to intensive care and his condition remains serious.

Tristan is unconscious, anesthetized and artificially respirated, has
sustained life-threatening injuries to his brain (as well as to his
right eye), and is expected to undergo several operations in the
coming days.

Change will come from us, when and where it comes…

It’s 19° here in DC this morning, where I will be joining some six or seven digit number of people outside for the inauguration. Washington is an old hometown to me, but it does have a different feel when it’s claimed as a front yard by people from across the country. Walking around last night, I saw more people on the street than I ever have, black folks selling “I was there” sweatshirts, and other black folks dressed to the nines out partying, a big time reception or three in different night spots, people dressed to be dropped off in limos (and clearly used to that too) walking through the cold because of the security perimeter, and a cleared out and brightly lit Pennsylvania Ave. surrounded by security fencing but nonetheless open to the public.

And in the past month, I’ve seen a disastrous war, bought, paid for, armed, and endorsed by my country but carried out in Gaza. I’ve called my black, Democratic Congressman from Brooklyn, Ed Towns, only to hear the exact Israeli line from his legislative aide, calling the deadliest assault in Palestine in three decades an act of “self defense.” Now over 1300 people are dead, and 50,000 are homeless.

I’ve also seen on video a black man shot in the back in Oakland, while waiting to be cuffed by BART police. And Oakland was my city, and New Year’s is my holiday in the Bay, and I had helped break up a fight earlier in the week, so I can sure imagine being swept up when the cops arrived. Oscar Grant could have been me.

These causes for despair can be healed, but it will be us, our actions that heal them by standing up and challenging injustice. I’m proud of so many people for standing up to these two in recent weeks (on Gaza | on Oscar Grant). They are what I have to celebrate today.

A couple months ago, I signed on to a call for a Bloc to be present at today’s inauguration called “Celebrate People’s History, Build Popular Power.” Given today’s mega-concert like feel, it might not be the action with the greatest impact. But I’m grateful for a way to set myself a bit apart today, to say the words “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for,” in a way that can never be the same as listening to the same words. To make the future we want, we all need to produce rather than consume our politics. See you in the streets, celebrating and fighting.

Politicians, Wobblies pile on to support Chicago workers; BoA caves

The Republic Windows and Doors factory occupation turned out to be the right action at the right time. It attracted solidarity from Jobs with Justice, congresspeople, President Elect Obama, and from the New York City IWW (Industrial Workers of the World, a longstanding union built on anarchist principles). The NYC solidarity action visited 3 Bank of America offices:

The net result…

The 240 workers who had occupied the factory since its abrupt closing Dec. 5 voted unanimously Wednesday night to accept a deal to pay them severance, vacation time, and temporary health care benefits. The $1.75 million agreement was negotiated over three days with the workers’ union, Republic owners and lender Bank of America.

Union negotiators were unable to obtain a commitment from the parties to reopen the Goose Island plant, said United Electrical Workers organizer Mark Meinster. So the union has decided to forge ahead to find someone new to run the plant, he said, using some of the money donated from around the world during the sit-in. (Chicago Tribune)

The settlement, happily coming on my birthday, includes the following:

The settlement totals $1.75million. It will provide the workers with:

– Eight weeks of pay [workers] are owed under the federal WARN Act;
– Two months of continued health coverage, and;
– Pay for all accrued and unused vacation.

JPMorgan Chase will provide $400,000 of the settlement, with the balance coming from Bank of America. Although the money will be provided as a loan to Republic Windows and Doors, it will go directly into a third-party fund whose sole purpose is to pay the workers what is owed them. In addition, the UE has started the “Window of Opportunity Fund” dedicated to re-opening the plant. (Jobs with Justice)

Of course, larger success will come (or not come) as these tactics are taken up across the country, as they change agenda and form of contest, and if they make workers (and, yes, that’s us) think of themselves as owning the economy instead of just working for it.

For now the threat alone may have an impact as well, as U.S. Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.) put it, “This Republic Windows saga, I’m sure, is reverberating throughout boardrooms in America.”

Bitch, Ph.D. notes insightfully:

The last time American workers resisted mass layoffs this way, we ended up with a middle class.
And that’s change you can believe in.