Review: A Place of Strangers. By Geoffrey Seed


Life as a result of circumstance: men and women of an older generation, one born to suffer two world wars, who suffered, killed and died in the horrendous conflicts of the first part of the twentieth century over which they had no control. “We weren’t born killers, we were made to be”, declares one of the main characters of Geoffrey Seed’s first novel, `A place of Strangers’, as he struggles, decades later, with the moral complexity of war, genocide and revenge, a dish that is not perhaps,`best eaten cold’.

On the surface, A Place of Strangers is an espionage thriller. The book contains all the usual elements of the genre: murder, treachery, ambition, love (in this case a triangle), undercover agents and their unethical and not particularly pleasant world of shifting sympathies, where `knowledge shared is an advantage lost’. But more than anything `A Place of Strangers’ is a story about revenge, about the settling of scores. It is a novel that speaks to the ethical and moral dilemmas that retribution brings with it, above all in a world where formal justice is extremely unlikely or simply impossible, and in which entire peoples have been brought to the edge of oblivion.

The novel does not offer an unequivocal opinion about the nature of justice and revenge: any conclusions about what is right or wrong in circumstances such as those prevalent in the aftermath of the Second World War are bound to be fraught with inconsistencies. That is not to imply that the book is some sort of moral relativist tale, but rather that justice and revenge are closely linked, sometimes inseparable, and that an absolute standard against which justice and its associated punishments can be measured, is sometimes simply unavailable.

Seed informs us that the novel is based on a story once told to him by an unnamed older diplomat: an account later informally corroborated by other links he managed to track down. The narrative related to the apparent suicides of a number of ex-Nazis still living undercover decades after the Second World War. But, despite the verbal support, the story finally proved impossible to substantiate. No concrete evidence was ever provided or could ever be found. What did exist was the desire to keep a fascinating story alive. There was enough material, says Seed, and by filling in some of the gaps a novel took shape.

The protagonist of the tale, McCall, is a television journalist working at the time of the late Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher. His untidy, rather unhinged personal life is thrown into even greater disarray by revelations made to him by his dying stepfather, a man who, now near death, increasingly suffers from remorse over his part in the fire bombing of German cities. But while McCall’s own life and struggle to survive is crucial to the account, it is not the principal theme. The journalist is the agent whose actions and questions help to peel back the layers of personal, political and generational duplicity linked to a murderous war and to the holocaust, events that have deeply affected McCall’s life and traumatised the people who most care for him.

Geoffrey Seed thinks the Holocaust is the greatest crime in history, and perhaps it is, although there are other historical `events’ that are clearly in the running for what is an extremely dark honour. But ranking crimes such as these does not help much, and in practice the title hardly matters: the killing of millions of Jews, Roma, and the mentally and physically infirm, certainly ranks amongst the most horrific crimes in human history. However, the moral question posed by `A Place of Strangers’ is not related to the guilt of the perpetrators, but rather to the right of the victims of that horror (and, by implication, of other cases of mass murder) to retribution, to `an eye for an eye’, to a justice that even in its most `civilized’ form is not so very distant from those supposedly cruder forms.

The fundamental problem is that the sheer scale of events such as the holocaust and conflicts such as the Second World War, leaves little recourse to formal justice for the millions affected by the often vindictive cruelty and violence. Defeated leaders are obvious targets, but as for the rest, the evidently inadequate `forgive and forget’ is often the only recipe on offer. Always supposing, of course, that justice and not revenge is the intention of the victors, whose interests are not always served by an excessive scrutiny of their own actions – the murderous fire bombing of Japanese and German cities comes to mind – and who are busy taking whatever advantage they can from the post war situation.

So what responsibility and what rights do individuals have in such situations? Is it wrong to take an unavailable `justice’ into one’s own hands decades after the event and, if the opportunity presents itself, to exact revenge for families that have disappeared, been murdered in cold blood, or merely tortured? Is it wrong to collaborate in acts of revenge for crimes that do not concern one directly, but which will clearly never be brought to trial? Justice would say that personal revenge is wrong and therefore punishable, but while that characterisation might make life more stable for society in general, for the offended the very fact of impunity can understandably generate a desire to settle scores, above all when there is evidence.

Revenge and the doubt about its own legitimacy are the essence of `A Place of Strangers’. Retribution is the emotion that drives an often very personal, intimate, and deeply felt novel, one that almost certainly contains elements of Seed’s own life, and which is clearly not the result of a production line process. The sentiment in this espionage style thriller is evident, less evident is why the book has not had greater exposure.

21 May 2013




There are always surprises, but probably not this time

13 February 2013
Hugo, Chavez, South America´s best known politician may, or may not, recover from what is obviously an extremely serious illness. But even if he does manage to recover, it seems unlikely that he will be able to maintain the political rhythm he and his followers have become accustomed to. Whether dauphin Nicolas Maduro or any of the other ‘pretenders’ could steer Venezuela as successfully as Chávez is an unknown, they have had plenty of time to prepare, but that does not always make it any easier, as others in similar situations have become painfully aware.

The larger question related to Chávez is his influence outside of his home country. He is the undoubted leader of the more radical brand of ‘twenty first century socialism’ and although the oil keeps flowing, the most prominent critic of United States influence in the region, although the Brazilians and the Argentineans , while not receiving the same attention in US media outlets, are in practice very little behind the Venezuelan leader. Who will inherit the Venezuelan leader’s legacy is therefore an important question for the stability of the region and its continued fight to free itself from the political and economic interference of the United States.

Heinz Dietrich, inventor of the ‘twenty first century socialism’ concept, has publicly speculated about who could possibly take Chávez’ place on the international stage, if that should prove to be necessary. Dietrich´s conclusion was that Rafael Correa, the Ecuadorian President, was the most obvious candidate, while warning that “Ecuador does not have the necessary clout that would enable Correa to fill the void that Hugo Chávez is leaving” . And while Correa himself has declared a lack of interest, there is little doubt that given his charismatic personality and evident ability to communicate, that welcome or not, he could easily find himself receiving increasing amounts of international media attention over the next few years.

There is a small problem however. The Ecuadorian president´s mandate runs out this year and the post Chavez debate will hardly concern him if he is not reelected in next Sunday’s (February 17th) presidential elections. Correa has never lost an election, and the opinion polls do in fact predict a win, with possibly enough votes to avoid a second round run-off. Unfortunately, the pollsters’ research is generally considered to be unreliable, lending the process a slight air of doubt, and there is at least a slender chance that another candidate might upset Correa´s apple cart, and set the pundits scurrying to find another ‘successor’ to Hugo Chávez.

The magnificent seven

Of the seven candidates challenging Rafael Correa, only two, the banker Guillermo Lasso and Alberto Acosta , the candidate for the left wing front, Unidad Plurinacional, appear to have any real chance of springing a surprise. The other five are in the race to position themselves for future electoral races (Mauricio Rodas of SUMA, although this could also apply to Lasso); consolidate a new party (Norman Wray, Ruptura); or to preserve their party´s seats in the National Assembly (Ex President Lucio Gutiérrez, Sociedad Patriotica, and Nelson Zavala of the PRE). The last of the eight, the curiously comic banana magnate, Alvaro Noboa, appears to be running in response to a battle over taxes, using the campaign in a rather futile attempt to take some measure of revenge on Rafael Correa.

While Lasso and Acosta may have to be given some sort of chance of forcing a second round of voting, for this to happen the pollsters would have to be making dramatic errors. With only a few days to go before election day, Correa is apparently riding high. In a poll carried out by ‘Perfiles de Opinion’ the incumbent had a voting intention of more than 60%. Others are not so generous, but no one gives him less than the 40% he would need to secure a victory in the first round. Acosta´s campaign people put him at 15% and growing, but even that, or Lasso´s 20%, would be far from enough to take either of them into a second round.

Guillermo Lasso´s numbers also probably represent the limit of his popularity. The banker likely has a high negative vote given that he acted as a chief economic advisor to ex President Jamil Mahuad, in exile since a financial meltdown threw the country into chaos in 2000; the destructive effects of that period have not been forgotten. Perhaps understandably, Lasso has been notably absent from the political field in the intervening years. The financier´s recent resurgence is due in part to the right´s need for a challenger who is not Lucio Gutiérrez, the very same colonel who led the military-civilian coup that toppled Mahuad, and who, despite finishing second in the last presidential election, is not viewed with much enthusiasm by the country´s right wing elites. Lasso’s campaign has also been helped by the financial resources at his disposal, and the fact the bank of which he is the major shareholder (Bank of Guayaquil) provided a convenient pre campaign promotional vehicle.

But the avuncular Lasso´s links with Mahuad have quite understandably been a problem for his now apparently stalled campaign. He is too easy a target and his presence as a major candidate speaks volumes about the lack of options on the right. The economy is another factor. The financial elites are doing quite well thank you very much; the country´s economy is rolling along at a healthy rate (last year GDP grew at slightly less than 8% and is projected to grow at around 4 to 5% in 2013) and are understandably ambiguous about fixing something that is evidently not broken.

The country´s economic health and Rafael Correa´s use of the available resources to bolster investments in Education and especially Health, an area where the results are more immediate and more than evident to those with little money have brought him high levels of approval throughout his mandate. The middle classes meanwhile have their salaries and expanding opportunities as well as a much improved highway system and a new airport. Overall social spending has, in fact, risen substantially, although in percentage terms the rise is not quite as impressive and Ecuador remains in the mid-lower ranks in terms of social spending as a percentage of GDP.
The fact that corporate power has grown under the present government is one of the major reasons cited by followers of Alberto Acosta (Unidad Plurinacional or Plurinational Front) for their opposition to Correa´s re-election. And while it is evident that with a healthy economy the wealthy are bound to do well, even consolidating their power through the proliferation of economic groups and a concentration of resources , the lack of change in the productive matrix (recognized by Correa himself) and the very slow reduction of the inequality index lend weight to left wing claims. The weakness of the reforms is a problem in another sense: without deep roots any transformation will be easily overturned by future right wing governments.

Magic Socialism

Ecuador´s governing Alianza País may not be economically right wing, but what has become clear over the years is that even in Venezuela or Bolivia Twenty First Century Socialism is not socialism at all, at least not in any recognizable form. This too is a sore point with many one time supporters of the ‘Citizen´s Revolution’, although it is hard to believe that there was ever much evidence that Rafael Correa himself was anything other than a very strong willed social democrat with a church based philosophy of ‘helping the poor’. Strong willed may be putting it too mildly. There is less talk today of dictatorship, a term promoted by the right and unfortunately adopted by the left, but there is no doubt that discipline is the order of the day. A series of punish and pardon exercises has been used to squash opposition to government policies or extraction schemes and to tame the right wing press and avoid situations such as the present standoff in Argentine where the media group Clarin and President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchener have locked horns. But the opposition press is not the only political force on the government´s list, and in fact, anything that looked vaguely as if it might comprise a political threat to Correa has been systematically attacked. The indigenous organisation CONAIE (Confederation of Ecuadorian Indigenous Nationalities) has been a major target for that very reason.

Despite having lost a lot of its political clout in recent years after a devastating alliance with Lucio Gutierrez that fractured the organization and resulted in a loss of credibility, this indigenous group is still a force in Ecuadorian politics. CONAIE and other indigenous organizations are one of only two social sectors with any real ability to put together a healthy political campaign outside the parliamentary system . And the fact that many of the major mining and oil exploration projects are also located in indigenous territory has lead to heightened tensions and conflict.

As a consequence indigenous leaders have been branded ‘terrorists’, arrested and jailed for short periods , and while apparently none are presently in jail a many of the charges are still pending : a time tested tactic for shutting people up. The trend is worrying, to say the least. The most recent and most serious case involves the Luluncoto 10, a group of young people arrested while planning a protest against the government as part of the mass demonstration of March 2012. Supposed members of the Group of Popular Combatants (GCP) none of the ten had committed any crime. The evidence against them consists of pictures of Ché Guevara, pamphlets, left wing books and more seriously, a manual for producing a bomb, a fact that while evidently not admissible as proof of intent, does raise serious concerns .

The major charge against the ten is that they belong to the GCP , something which the state has not been able to prove, and that that group exploded a number of pamphlet bombs in November 2011, also a supposition. The ten were held without trial until only recently, a period of approximately ten months. Seven men were granted bail before Christmas but two women are still being held; the trial has now been interrupted and will not conclude until after the elections. The Attorney General is quoted as saying that the group “planned to destabilise our democracy …… there are mobile phone messages which clearly show that their intention is to take power by force of arms”. But in the circumstances that seems laughable, and, all in all, it is difficult to see the case as anything other than a bad dose of paranoia.

The episode has produced an extensive but relatively low key response in the mainstream press (the GCP is hardly looked on with great sympathy). But on the left the issue has been roundly criticised and has become a cause célèbre; the issue of class is also important here. An interesting comparison could be made with the case of a communication sent to clients by the directors of four large banks. The e-mail suggested that a proposed tax increase on their profits, levied in order to increase welfare payments to the country´s poorest sectors, could have an impact on client´s savings. While the action produced a lot of noise from the government side, and whose results could have been extremely serious, much more so than a supposed pamphlet bomb, the only action taken was to fine eight directors of the four banks involved.

The constant campaigner

These events, concerns and forces (apart from the bankers) have found a voice in the Acosta campaign which is presently running well behind Rafael Correa. There are always surprises, and there may be some hidden support for Acosta in provinces whose indigenous populations are higher, but it seems more likely that the real battle will not be for the presidency but rather for control of the National Assembly. Here the left wing front lead by Acosta may have more success, although one of the major problems is that the alliance’s principal candidate on the national level, Lourdes Tiban, can only generously be described as being on the left and who does not generate much enthusiasm in the general population.

Another problem is proportional representation. The method used to take into account minority voters has recently been changed, with the result that Alianza País candidates are likely to fare better in the final count, and could possibly be elected in large numbers. Two recent polls do in fact predict that Correa’s party could end up with a large majority in parliament.

A third factor is the efficiency that has become one of the hallmarks of the present government. The political arena is clearly part of the tendency and the constant campaign strategy already visible in governments in other parts of the world has now been instituted here in Ecuador. In the short term it seems virtually impossible for any opposition movement to overcome the electoral deficit, in particular against a President as popular as Rafael Correa. In the long term the result almost certainly signals the need for a reorganization of existing political organisations, something the new Constitution aimed at but which can now be seen to have been only partially successful given that 12 parties are registered officially for the February elections.

Correa´s way of doing politics is likely to become the norm, and given that no other presently existing electoral force has the capacity to mobilize resources and propaganda in the same way, any future challenge to Correa´s green machine will involve changes. What might that mean for the hard left, whose parties are generally small and operate with severely restricted financing? The options seem to be three: to operate even more marginally than at present; join forces with other less radical parties in a broad spectrum alliance; or leave the electoral scene all together. The right, with its financial resources, presently appears far better positioned to deal with this new state of affairs.

The consequences of victory.

On the electoral front, the Unidad Plurinacional will likely have some time to sort itself out after the elections are over. It is possible to win losing, however, and the positive side of this electoral exercise is that there is, in practice, a left wing front that, if the process can be maintained in the face of personal and organisational agendas, may be able to position itself well for the post Correa era. The big decision is whether that should be as an electoral force.

On the social front, nothing short of victory will be enough for the left wing opposition, the post oil economy proponents, the indigenous leaders or the organizers of anti mining protests. In Correa´s lexicon legitimacy is equivalent to victory at the ballot box and, as a consequence, if you do not win then you have no right to protest and impede the agenda, and if you do, then you had better watch out. And while a higher than expected vote for Alberto Acosta might have some momentary impact and strengthen the resolve of that opposition, in the longer term it is unlikely to have any great impact on the economic plan. It can be said of Correa and his agenda that ‘this man is not for turning’. The implications are a greater likelihood of mobilisation and confrontation over oil, mining and water projects and, on the part of the government, greater use of the police and armed forces and attempts to ‘convince’ local leaders of the value of these projects for their people as well for as the wider community. This local–national/rural- urban debate is in fact one of the two that underlies almost every issue, the other being how to avoid the trap of an extractivist economy and what that implies on every level.

Rafael Correa clearly falls on the National Urban side of the divide, and whether or not you agree with his methods, there is no doubt that he and his team are excellent strategists. They will be hard to defeat in any arena, including the political. As for the candidate himself, it seems likely that he will be reelected either in the first or second round of voting. And given the increasing sense that, if he lives, Hugo Chávez will no longer be the force he was, as President of Ecuador once again, Rafael Correa will be called upon to play a greater part in the ongoing battle for the soul of South America. It is a battle he clearly believes in, and an arena in which he will have the support of the majority of the regions leaders. The internal politics of his country look somewhat more complicated.



[1] A Cold War has apparently developed between Argentina and the US. The most recent events in the standoff are the cooperation between Iran and Argentina to investigate the bombing of  a Jewish bank in Buenos Aires in 1994 in which 85 people died,  and the  ruling by an Argentinean appeal tribunal that ratifies an embargo on the assets of Chevron oil company due to a ruling in an Ecuadorian court that awarded damages against the company of US$19,000 million. and the dispute with the IMF over official financial data.  Brasil has just refused to recognize the Apple Iphone trademark.


[3] International recognized economist and ex President of the Constitutional Assembly which wrote the 2009 constitution.

[4] Partido Roldosista Ecuatoriano, PRE, was founded after the death of President Jaime Roldos in an air ‘accident’ in 1981, the year in which President Omar Torrijos of Panama also died in similar circumstances. The PRE’s de facto leader is the deposed and exiled ex president Abdala Bucaram who presently resides in Panama.

[5] With his wife Anabella Azin as his Vice-Presidential nominee,

[6] If is, if he wins 10% more than the second place finisher. Otherwise he would need 50% +1 to avoid a second round.

[7] Mahuad who now teaches at Harvard University was recently, and not so coincidentally, the subject of an Ecuadorian request to Interpol for his arrest and subsequent deportation. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the request failed.

[8] According the Economic Commission for Latin América and the Caribbean, ECLAC, Ecuador’s social spending amounted to 9.3% in 2011, up from 7.5% in 2007 but down from 9.5% in 2010. The economy has of course grown substantially and the amount of constant dollars spent has therefore increased in proportion, by (a dramatic) 28.5% in 2009, 4.8% in 2010 and 6.2% in 2011. In terms of public spending Ecuador at 36% of GDP  in 2010 was amongst the highest in Latin  America. (Panorama Social de América Latina. ECLAC, January 2013 p173.  Cuadro IV.1 AMÉRICA LATINA Y EL CARIBE (21 PAÍSES): GASTO PÚBLICO TOTAL, GASTO PÚBLICO SOCIAL Y GASTO PÚBLICO NO SOCIAL, 2008 A 2011

[9] There is another side to the story.  Major increases in public service pay scales – teachers, police, armed forces and state bureaucrats – have also been a major feature of this government.

[10] Even though Ecuador is now amongst the least unequal countries in the region (headed by Venezuela and Uruguay) its Gini index is still just under 5. (Panorama Social de América Latina. ECLAC, January 2013.  P 91. Gráfico II.2 AMÉRICA LATINA (18 PAÍSES): DESIGUALDAD SEGÚN DIVERSOS ÍNDICES, AÑO MÁS RECIENTE.

[11] Correa´s variety of politics was recently branded ‘Magic Socialism’ by the Quito based journalist Roberto Aguilar

[12] Rafael Correa is a practicing Catholic.

[13] The other being the National  Teachers Union, UNE, whose political expression is the Marxist Leninist party, the Movimiento Popular Democrático, MPD. The union has successfully resisted attempts to divide it, but rising salaries and better conditions have weakened its core support.

[14] A new round of oil exploration concessions has been advertised and offers will be declared in March of this year. The 13 blocks, of 200.000 Ha. Each, are located principally in the south eastern –Amazon area of the country, and have been rejected by indigenous and environmental organizations .

[15] Recent conflicts include oil exploration around Sani Island and the Mirador and Fruta del Norte mining projects.

[16] Prominent amongst these is Pepe Acacho, ex President of the indigenous Shuar Federation, who was arrested in a combined Police and Armed Forces operation and taken by Helicopter to Quito. He was charged with terrorism and sabotage in connection with a September 2009 protest against proposed water legislation in which one person died. He was held for 7 days before the charges were thrown out as invalid. He was also charged with being an accomplice to the murder of Bosco Wizuma the man who died in the protests, and those charges are still pending despite the fact that the murder has never been resolved. Acacho is now a candidate for the National Assembly. El Comercio Pepe Acacho, preso en el ex penal García Moreno  02 febrero 2011.

[17] “Según informes de organismos de derechos humanos y de la Defensoría del Pueblo del Ecuador, en el 2011 existían 129 defensores de derechos humanos judicializados por el gobierno y por empresas privadas, así como 31 activistas políticos que tiene juicios en su contra o están sentenciados” En Ecuador hay presos políticos que necesitan la solidaridad y compromiso de todos y todas. 22 June 2012

As of December 2012 47 social leaders were facing charges for terrorism. Lunes, 10 Diciembre 2012 ECUADOR: 47 DIRIGENTES AFRONTAN JUICIOS POR TERRORISMO. Agencia Ane

[18] The presence of the manual on how to produce a bomb raises questions about who knew about the manual, and about whether this was a serious plan to produce a bomb (in all likelihood a pamphlet bomb designed to attract attention and spread propaganda) and finally at what point the police or the authorities in general should intervene, if at all, if there is a suspicion that a pamphlet bomb could be made and could be used.

[19] The implicit accusation is that this group is the armed wing of the Ecuadorian Marxist Leninist Party, although no arms were found in the raid.

(20) “pretendían desestabilizar nuestra democracia… Hay mensajes de celular que claramente determinan que su intención es tomarse el poder por las armas.” Quoted in  LOS DIEZ DE LULUNCOTO ¿TERRORISTAS? por Ramiro Ávila Santamarí 29 January, 2013

[21] Bank profits have been taxed in order to pay for an increase in welfare payments to the poorest sectors

[22] Market and Santiago Perez.

[23] The entire process of re-inscription of political parties was plagued by irregularities, principally the use of false signatures by all organizations involved, including the governing party.


Review: Inside Putin’s Russia, by Andrew Jack.



1 Mar 2005

Although it was not widely recognised at the time, the choice of Vladimir Putin as Prime Minister of Russia in 1999 appears to have marked the beginning of a transition from chaos to order in the once communist nation. The question is, in moving away from chaos, might the pendulum swing once again towards the repression of the Soviet years?. But, while Western political pundits and politicians talk of a return to Stalinism, the majority of Russians appear to be unconcerned; Putin and his nationalist policies enjoy high levels of support.

Despite what many commentators would have us believe, the situation in Russia is complex; fortunately, Andrew Jack’s ‘Inside Putin’s Russia’ offers help in understanding it. The book provides us with a well documented and equally well balanced account of the surprising rise of Russia’s President, and of the struggle for power and control over an emerging society. Jack, a former Moscow Bureau Chief for the Financial Times, tracks the course of Putin’s career, from his rather low-profile time with the KGB, to his development into a more polished and more authoritarian President whose efforts to place the country back under the control of the central government have met with mixed reviews in the West.

Personal history aside, the real value of Inside Putin’s Russia is that it provides us with a richly detailed description of the political context in which to judge the man and his actions. Control of the media is one key area. The Russian President has been strongly criticised for bringing independent media under state control, but as Jack points out, the Russian media has enjoyed very few, and very short, periods of independence. At the time of Putin’s first presidential victory most ‘independent’ sources were to a large extent under the control of commercial interests, principally those of ‘Oligarchs’: the men who gained ownership of much of Russian state assets in exchange for financial or media support of Boris Yeltsin’s presidency.

The struggle for control of the television channel NTV, once owned by the Oligarch Vladimir Gusinsky, has been portrayed in Western media as a simple issue of freedom of the press, but as Jack’s presentation makes obvious, there are other important aspects. Media independence is an important element in a pluralistic society,it is therefore a problem that much of the Russian media now functions as an organ of the state. However, it would be naïve to assume that the press is free where it is not under state control. The ground rules must be clearly set out, but the question is, by whom, the state or the super rich? In western liberal democracies the answer is also not as clear as we might wish while Rupert Murdoch and Silvio Berlusconi continue to increase their influence over political processes. The Russians are not the only people with problems, and it ought to be more of a concern.

Putin’s Russia has also come under attack as being ‘undemocratic’ but it would be wise to take into account that the country is not, and has no history of being, a liberal democracy. As Jack rightly points out, most of its citizens believe the role of the state to be fundamental, hence the approval of policies involving greater state control. Much of the criticism has its roots in American efforts to pre-empt any future Russian threat, and their need for continued access to increasingly important Russian oil. The campaign has, meanwhile, proved a useful vehicle for more personal agendas. As part of his own anti-Putin crusade, Boris Berezovsky is funding Human Rights groups, some of which paint the Oligarchs – particularly the now jailed Mikhail Khodorkovsky – as ‘victims’ of Human Rights abuses rather than the beneficiaries of a highly unethical, although technically legal, massive transfer of public funds to private pockets.

The case for respecting Human Rights is more evident in Chechnya. Whether Putin has made a Faustian bargain with the military, allowing them free rein in order to concentrate on other areas, or whether he himself is directing operations, the results of the re-occupation of Chechnya and the ‘dirty war’ being waged there now the official conflict is over, are brutal. No matter that one unnamed Russian officer is quoted as claiming that the army is ‘only’ responsible for 50% of disappearances. It remains to be seen if the situation can be changed and the army curbed. For the military, the occupation now appears to have become, as Jack puts it, ‘its own raison d’etre’, while the roots of the ‘Chechen Problem’ itself go back beyond the first war of 1994-6, beyond even the chaos and corruption that invaded the region after the collapse of the USSR.

Inside Putin’s Russia manages to find a way through the Chechen minefield without veering too much to one side or another. It is to Andrew Jack’s credit that he does not lend himself to simplistic analyses and presents information on which we can form an opinion. That does not mean that the tangle of characters and vested interests is always easy to follow, but Jack can hardly be blamed for that, and he has taken the trouble to provide a helpful Dramatis Persona.

As for Putin’s legacy, in many respects he deserves credit for curbing the excesses of the Yeltsin period and bringing financial resources back under state control. But the Russian President has questions to answer, in particular over Chechnya, and in his quest for order he may have, or may be tempted to go too far. Overall, Jack is probably correct when he states: “He (Putin) is unlikely to go down in history as a great transformational leader. But he may yet be viewed as playing an essential role of cohesion, stability and predictability – in domestic and even international affairs”. After the roller coaster ride of the Yeltsin years, that will be no small achievement.

THE POLICEMAN COMETH: Yesterday’s insurrection by the police is over, but the results are far from certain.

Quito . 1st October 2010

It felt strangely like a film, a very long film. It was exciting, at times dangerous, and had a good ending. The good President (Rafael Correa) was rescued after a gun battle between the army and the police, returned triumphant, and denounced the evil ex President (Lucio Gutierrez) as being the influence behind police units that took him hostage. So at ten o‘clock, when it was all over, I switched off the television and went to bed.

This morning it doesn’t seem quite so clear cut. On the radio I can hear talk about the next time, about the police and the military joining up with the civil servants affected by the new legislation that supposedly sparked yesterday´s insurrection. A friend warns me: “in Latin America “, he says “these semi coups are often followed by real ones”. He’s probably thinking about Chile in 1973. It was a long time ago though, and things have changed. Maybe. Still, his words are worth pondering.

On the radio I can hear a repeat of yesterday’s  pronouncements by  the head of the joint military command, General Ernesto Gonzalez. He’s saying that the fault lies with the imposition of the legislation, and while Correa is not mentioned by name, it is evident that he is the one implicated. General Gonzalez also suggests that the legislation be amended or shelved, hardly a ringing endorsement of the government or a condemnation of the police. On another station, someone asks why the military took so long to act. We don’t know. It could have been nothing more than logistics, but it is valid to ask why it took from around three in the afternoon, when Gonzalez made his declaration of support, until about eight at night, for the special forces to get to the hospital where the President was being held.

Once there, it has to be said that they did their job well. There was a lot of shooting. A lot. In total the confrontation lasted about five hours; some members of the military were taken hostage by the police, but there was little bloodshed  (at the time it was said only two policemen and one soldier died- although more recent figures put the overall total at 8 dead and 193 injured). The president was successfully rescued, ‘carried out like a corpse’ as he put it later, and if anyone seriously doubted that this was an attempted coup (at least by some elements of the police), then the long drawn out gun battle needed to get Correa out of the hospital must have put those reservations to rest. There seems no other explanation. This was clearly not the result of a dispute over a piece of legislation.

Today there is some police presence on the streets, but little evidence of the military apart from the odd helicopter flying overhead. Things are quiet. Relief is the general sentiment and people are talking, exchanging stories, commenting on the events of the day before: the looting and bank robberies in Guayaquil; the robberies in Quito, where two banks were also broken into; the aggression of the police. A friend who took part in the march to the hospital where Correa was being held, tells me he´s never seen so much tear gas.

I had my own stories. I was punched to the ground when I tried to intervene to save a man being attacked by about seven policemen; I later had to escape when police charged with guns drawn firing live ammunition into the air, at least as far as we could tell. There wasn’t much point in hanging about to make sure.  So we all ran, like hell.  I later saw one man lying on the ground surrounded by a few friends, looking seriously injured, although from where I was at that point  there was no way to tell. At that moment police reinforcements arrived: a phalanx of motorcycles that began chasing the crowd into the park, while I took shelter on the other side of the street. 

My neighbor has his own account. He is about 65, works as a carpenter´s assistant and can only be described as having humble origins. He tells me he was in the main square until eleven at night listening to the President who had returned triumphant. “We said we were going to stay and die there, or wait till Correa came back.”

I was also in the Plaza de Independencia, but earlier in the day. The square was full, and most of the people were like my neighbour, working class, although that’s a bit of a misnomer; most of them likely don’t have full time work, are sub employed as they say. The same thing couldn’t be said for the people I met a little later outside the National Assembly. They were evidently protesting and the red flags led me to think, somewhat naively, that they were Correa supporters. But no. These were judicial workers, also affected by the new Civil Service legislation, and they were also angry, and well dressed. The flags belonged to the Marxist Leninist party and its political wing, the MPD, which seemed to be behind the demonstration. I asked one woman if they supported the police. She said yes. The world was off its axis. I shook my head and walked away. On television  I saw images of other MPD supporters confronting a group of Correa supporters, ‘a palos’ as they say, .

For Correa this is part of the problem. In his four years in office he has made a lot of changes, mainly for the good, but also a lot of enemies. He has never courted the social movements and they’re not all on his side. However, despite what the woman said to me outside the National Assembly, it seems unlikely that the unions, the indigenous groups, the environmentalists , the majority of teachers , or even the majority of civil servants, actively support the police. There is general agreement that they are dangerous, often in league with thieves and recently the subject of accusations of Human Rights violations made by the Truth Commission. But that does not make them Correa supporters, they don’t like him that much.  His major support can be found amongst the poorest, least organized sectors, and that could be a bit of problem if it comes to another confrontation.

A lot of people have been affected by Correa’s confrontational, steamroller style. He´s a man in a hurry, and that causes problems. but there have been major positive changes. He far outshines the other do-nothing governments I’ve know. The country is no longer the banana republic it was for example in the time of President Bucaram, in the mid nineties. The opposition on the other hand, of whom many previously spent a lot of time calling for governability, doesn’t seem to understand that in a democracy the ruling party implements its agenda, and there is little the rest can do about it except shout. Or maybe they do understand. They just don’t like it. That is fine, but even for them actions such as yesterday’s can hardly be called democratic. The police have no business taking control of the streets.

For their part the media are calling for more democracy, more dialogue, although it’s hard to understand what that means, unless you take it as a call for Correa to implement what the opposition wants. And for better or worse, ´dialogue´ is not Rafael Correa´s strong point.  As for the agents of law enforcement, no one seems sure of what will happen. What do you do with a group of armed and dangerous people in uniform?  In the long term the rebellious elemants, the kidnappers, have to cleared out and dealt with. But  in the short term it’s hard to imagine that much can or even should be done. No one wants a repeat of yesterday, and that is still a possibility. It´s still a delicate situation and there is undoubtedly a lot of resentment. There is also the question of relations between the police and the military. The police will undoubtedly feel aggrieved that their ‘legitimate’ protest was put down by the army. However, if the police do decide to take to the streets again, there is a feeling that the support of the military may not be that firm the next time around.

The most important point is that government is back in control. Plans will likely include a large scale march of support for the President that will bring people in from all parts of the country.  Correa himself is still very popular nationally, with approval ratings over sixty percent, and this may help to dissuade any further troublemaking.  But things do need time to cool down.  And for the time being at least, a more rational, less confrontational approach would seem the wisest course of action.

ELECTIONS IN BRAZIL: Beyond Lula and Dilma

28 Sept 2010


According to the latest polls, Dilma Rousseff, the Workers Party (PT) candidate in the Brazilian presidential elections scheduled for October the 3rd, has a more than twenty percent advantage over her rival, José Serra.  The election appears to be as good as over.

The reason seems to be that Rousseff, a one time member of the Brazilian guerrilla movement Vanguardia Armada Revolucionaria Palmares[i], is all about continuity; President Lula da Silva has an astounding popularity rating of more than 80% and has been campaigning tirelessly on her behalf. The reason for Lula’s popularity is primarily economic: there has been little shakeup of the economic order, yet the lower middle classes i.e. those with a family income between US $550 and US$2,400, now make up 53% of the population, up from 40% in 2002. There is more work available and people are better paid. A lot of people are content with the direction in which things are moving.

Brazil has also been much more active on the world stage, and no matter what they may think of the details – relations with Iran, the support for Manuel Zelaya in Honduras, and the brokering of a nuclear deal between Iran and Turkey – Brazilians are proud of their country’s increasingly important role. Economically the country is more powerful than ever, expanding its economic influence in South America with major investments in Argentina, Colombia, Peru and Chile. Dilma Rousseff is heir to a nation in expansion.

But there is another side to the story. The economic achievements are undeniable, but some of the impressive statistics are skewed by using the turn of the century as a baseline. At that time the country, like others in the region went through a major financial crisis and poverty levels rose dramatically[ii]. A recent review of Latin America carried out by ‘The Economist’ also quoted Ricardo Paes de Barros, of the Institute for Applied Economic Research, a government linked think tank, as saying that “If Brazil wants to achieve average social conditions for a country of its income level, it must keep up its ‘fantastic’  progress in tackling deprivation over the past 15 years for another two decades”.

And despite some improvements, Brazil is still one of the most unequal countries on the planet: it ranks tenth on the world scale of inequality according to the CIA Fact Book[iii], while Venezuela is the most equal in S. America. According to the UN Brazil also has one of the highest murders in the world; in South America it ranks behind only Venezuela and Colombia, well ahead of Mexico. The police battles with drug gangs in the favelas have been made famous by Films such as City of God, and in Rio de Janeiro the city is now building walls, ostensibly for environmental reasons, although the majority opinion seems to be that they are nothing more than barriers to keep out the poor[iv]

So despite the media attention focused almost exclusively on Lula and Dilma Rousseff and the Brazilian tale of success, there is more to the story. The major question is how to bring the tens of millions of people still living in misery in Brazil, into the political and economic process. The other question is, who will do it? It seems unlikely to be the PT, and many intellectuals are critical of the Workers Party  for not going far enough. José Arbex Jr is one of them.

In the following interview carried out by Brazil de Fato in late May of this year, Arbex suggests that it is time for a new political party in Brazil, one that represents the marginalized sectors, and that is capable of tackling a state apparatus not set up to serve the majority of people in Brazil.

Arbex was a member of the PT, and worked for ten years as a journalist for Folho, a major daily in Sao Paolo, and was the editor of Brasil de Fato, a newspaper with strong links to social movements such as the Movemento Sem Terra (MST). He presently teaches at the Catholic University of Sao Paolo (PUC-SP).

The interview is reproduced here in order to provide some balance to the predominantly Lula /Rousseff  focus of the mainstream media.




Translated by Gerard Coffey


In the midst of a growing exclusion caused by the advance of liberal capitalism over the last few decades, the journalist Jose Arbex Jr. proposes that social movements form a new political party in Brasil. For Arbex, these organizations are the only ones on the left that have been able to dialogue with the sectors most marginalized by the capitalist economy, such as the Sem Terra (Landless) , and the Sem Teto (Homeless). These groups tend to be increasingly devastated, as Neoliberalism has proved to be incapable of incorporating them – quite the contrary – within its dynamic. And so the state then becomes increasingly repressive and segregationist in order to maintain a certain level of social stability. What Arbex proposes, therefore, is that the social movements create a political instrument that, by bringing the excluded sectors together, is based on the supposition that the Brazilian state was built in opposition to the nation, and puts into question the issue of power, making a qualitative leap in relation to its present condition. 

Brasil de Fato: In Brasil the black people, the poor and the deprived communities, principally in the large urban centres have been the victims of all types of violence, in particular that perpetrated by the police and the state. How do you evaluate the social chaos that Brazil is living through today?

José Arbex Jr. – Let´s compare the present situation with that of October 1992, when the Carandiru massacre took place (In Sao Paolo, SP). You’ll find a great deal of difference. At the time 111 prisoners were killed and the event produced a huge national debate, it was a scandal, and society in general saw what happened as unacceptable. By comparison, these days the Governor of Rio de Janeiro, (Sergio Cabral – PMDB) can state with a sense of triumph that the police are killing 1,500 people a year in the favelas of Rio: a Carandiru every month. And this doesn’t provoke much comment; it’s as if it were normal. The police, both in Rio and Sao Paolo, are using a unconstitutional measure, the collective search warrant. That is, the right to enter your house, not because you are suspected of having committed some sort of crime or that you are linked to organised crime of some sort, but simply because you happen to live in a particular place. Would it be possible to get a collective search warrant for the Jardins? I’m not even talking about the neighbourhood, I’m talking about in a block of the Jardins, or rather not in a block, but a collective search warrant for a building on Oscar Freire street? And supposing that this was possible, would everyone be happy to have the police in the apartments simply because they live there? Obviously not. So what we have, is a state that treats some Brazilians as the subject of rights and others as having none. We are in a process of terror, one directed specifically at a more numerous sector of the population, the working class.

BF: The United Nations has published data which points to Brazil as having one of the highest homicide rates in the world…

JA: The United Nations states that Brazil has one of the highest homicide rates in the world, with about 50,000 deaths per year, and that the police and the death squads are responsible for the greater part of these. In Brazil more people die as a result of guns than in Iraq, or Palestine, or in other areas of conflict on the planet. By comparison, the thirty years of civil war between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland, which started in 1968 and which was considered to be extremely violent, produced less than 3,000 deaths. This is the equivalent of three normal weeks in Brazil. It’s a permanent situation, which covered up by the media, that is turning into something ‘normal’. This is very dangerous. We know what happens when massacres become normal: the segregation of the state, terror against defenceless populations… it’s enough to look at the recent history of Germany. This is really worrying.  It’s the most terrifying aspect of the national situation today.

BF: And who are the people most responsible for this situation?

JA: In the first place, the state. It’s the state that paves the way for the universality of the law. The law is valid for all citizens, independent of their religion, colour, race, or bank account. They are universal and that’s what the state – the bourgeoisie itself – is all about, making the law universal and not simply for the benefit of particular groups in society. In the second place, it’s the responsibility of a government – whether federal or local – that privileges the payment of some 200 billion Euros to the banks instead of creating a basic infrastructure – of education, health, transport, public health ….. Basic infrastructure that would improve the lives of ordinary people, assuring them of what is guaranteed to the middle class, for example in France, The United States or England.

I’m not talking about socialism here, but the rights of the middle class. Here, today, you have a government that is destroying the state bit by bit in the name of a primary surplus, with the result that the lives of millions of people living on the periphery have become a total hell. The big economic groups that are interested in property speculation, the government contractors, the agents of financial capital and the groups that control the Brazilian state are working to produce this type of social environment. Those responsible are well known. But saying this doesn’t mean that I’m absolving criminals. I’m not saying that the periphery has a lot of crime because the state is absent, and the crime is justified by the absence of the state. What I am saying is that a situation of moral degradation of the population is evidently much more propitious for the development of crime and organized crime as opposed to a situation in which people have a decent life. In a desperate situation people see a way out in the drug trade, crime, or gangs, because they can’t find other options. It’s obvious. State terror breeds crime and crime breeds state terror. 

BF: And the principal victim of this situation is youth?

JA: In the main. If you look at the murder rates that the Brazilian government itself puts out, you’re going to see that the vast majority of victims are men between 16 and 28 years of age: black people, poor people. Of course the vast majority are poor, living in areas considered to be criminal, the so called periphery. Although I don’t like the word periphery, because periphery ends up having a negative connotation, as if there were homogeneity in the life style and cultural interests etc. of the entire country. When you talk about the periphery, it would seem that the periphery in Sao Paolo is the same as that of Rio, of Recife, Salvador, Belem… It’s not true. Each one of those places has its own social, cultural, economic, and moral problems.  They’re different. It’s the same here in Sao Paolo, you can’t compare Jardim Angela for example, with Heliopolis. That is, the periphery is a word that conveys the idea of a whole, a grey whole. It’s a term  invented by the media to signify a stain, something that threatens social stability, that threatens the life of decent citizens, those of  us of the middle classes, the people that live in the urban centre, as if there were a cordon of danger surrounding those who think of themselves as the ‘good christians’. The term is also indicator that legitimises the killing of young people. So, if someone is killed by the police, then people say, but he was from the periphery…. and no problem, it’s justified.

 On the other hand, there’s a very important movement in Brazil, the Mothers of May, comprised of the mothers of the 600 people (more or less) killed by the police in May 2006, in reprisal for the attacks of the PCC[v]. Amongst those killed were a number of Pizza delivery boys whose only crime was (they were listening to music on their headsets) not hear the police and not to stop. Those young people were killed under the banner of the ‘periphery´, a banner that makes everyone a suspect. It’ s similar to what happened in Nazi Germany,  where people  would say, it’s a Jew, and then anything was justifiable.

BF: And the Government of Rio de Janeiro is building walls to isolate the poor. What’s your opinion about that?

JA: It’s a wall of segregation. Walls are multiplying all over the world, and they’re a result of the capitalist system itself, a system that no longer has a way to integrate billions of human beings into the global economy. They don’t know how to integrate them. So the only way they can find to maintain order is to build walls. You’re probably going to say to me: but isn’t it an exaggeration to talk about billions? No, not at all. All you need to do is to consult the recent statistics published by the FAO, the United Nation’s Food and Agricultural Organization, and you’ll see that for the first time in the history of mankind the economic system has managed to produce the incredible figure of 1 billion starving people.  If we add this 1 billion people to those so called under nourished – those that are not called starving because they somehow manage to get the minimum level of calories each day to keep them alive for 24 hours – then we have 2 billion people. And then, if we add this number to the people that are forced to steal to get a litre of milk for their children, then we’re talking about half of humanity. Billions of human beings that are not, and never will be, integrated into the global economy.  The only way out for the system is to consider them disposable. And in order to isolate the disposables, they build walls.

BF: This scenario presents the left, which has shown itself incapable of mobilizing this immense majority of the population, with a huge challenge. How do you see the Brazilian left within this framework?

JA: I have a very particular point of view with regard to this. I think that the MST (Landless Movement) found a way to bring the most excluded and impoverished sectors of Brazilian society into an organised movement, one that provides its members with a sense of dignity, political awareness, and the opportunity to assume their own destiny as citizens.  This makes the MST the most important movement in the history of Brazil, certainly in the history of the Republic.  The MST and a good part of those movements that reflect its experience, (the MTST (Roofless), the MAB (people affected by Dams) and so many others) have found a formula for organising their grassroots, and if we take a look at what’s happening today in the urban barrios, in the countryside, in fact in all the sectors that are discriminated against, we’re going to see that we have a good basis for organization. So, I don’t believe there has been a total dispersion.

The problem now is that the sum of those social movements needs to make a qualitative leap and create a movement whose concrete goal is to make an issue of political power. The period that we’ re going through in Brazil has made evident the incapacity of political party such as the PT (Workers Party) to resolve the problems of the large masses of people in Brazil. The PT hasn’t been able to resolve their problems. When it came to power it didn’t carry out Land Reform and it’s macroeconomic policy was designed to please global financial capital. With the result that today a magazine such as Veja or dailies such as O Estado of Sao Paolo clearly state that both Dilma Rousseff or José Serra (the two major presidential candidates) will apply the same macroeconomic policy. There may be cosmetic differences: Dilma could be less repressive and continue with some programmes that provide social crumbs. But this won’t resolve the problems we talked about previously.

So I think the social movements need to take that qualitative leap, and create an organisation with a strategic alternative, on that puts the issue of power on the table. It’s time for a new party in Brazil: either a united front of parties or social movements. We need to think of a creative way to make that organisation a reality and how it can make that qualitative leap. In the future all the social movements will need to create and build a leadership that will be known both nationally and internationally, people identified as the transformers of society, people that won’t  let themselves be co-opted  by a lucrative participation in the neoliberal economy, that don’t agree to participate in the system, leaders identified with the daily struggle of the Brazilian workers , both in the  city and the countryside. These leaders do exist, they are known, and in my opinion, they have the responsibility to recognize this new, historic moment in the history of Brazil.

BF: You’re defending the creation of a new political mechanism. Does this mean that the old parties and left wing organisations have not been able to find the answers to the needs of the immense majority of the population? and haven’ t been able to confront the new Brazilian reality as an instrument of transformation?

 JA: Without any doubt.  Historically, the Brazilian parties  (including the PT,  of which I was a part , and I’m therefore not excluding myself from this history )  were able to bring together affiliated workers : public officials, workers from large scale metal works , the automotive industry etc. and  also a group  of small businesspeople, an impoverished middle class. These parties succeeded. But they made up only a small proportion of the population. Today, the vast majority lives on the periphery, in the countryside, in the depths of Brazil. These sectors were never structured by the parties. They were organized to a much greater extent by the Globo Television Network that reaches everywhere. In the furthest reaches of the Amazon region people have an antenna and watch the soap opera Viver a Vida. So who can reach these sectors? The answer is the MST, the MAB, and the MTST.

Today we have a situation in which the parties that claim to represent the population, don’t talk to those sectors. Or, rather, they talk to them through violence, through state terrorism. And on the other hand, the social movements that do organize these sectors are excluded from the sphere of power. This creates an absolutely intolerable situation, because it means that the Brazilian state exists for a specific sector of society, but not for the rest. Historically the parties failed in their mission and the social movements succeeded in organizing these sectors. Although when I say succeeded, that doesn’t mean that the job is finished.  There is still a great deal to be done.  But the MST did show that the path exists. That is to say, that it is possible to organise these sectors. And so, the social organisations either take on the job of making a political leap, and lead those sectors that have never formed part of Brazilian political life towards a strategic option in which they will form part – and they must do this right away – or what we are going to see is that these segments of the population will pay an increasingly high, and appalling, price for not having a political voice, and will end up being segregated by walls. 

BF: With regard to the permanent offensive by the elites to criminalise the social movements and the struggles,  do you see that a political instrument, such as the one you spoke of, would help the social organisations in that battle?  Do you think that a legal political party would be a fundamental support in this situation?   

JA: It seems obvious to me, because when the right goes on the offensive it uses the apparatus of the state. For example, it uses the CPI[vi] to paralyse the MST, which then has to put all its energy into defending itself. And when the state mounts an offensive, it can count on its armed wing, the police or the armed forces, to come down on the social movements. This creates a consensus in the middle classes by means of fear. The state apparatus is not neutral, as I said previously the law is not universal. So it’s logical that if the social movements don’t have a political instrument that can put the question of state power on the table, this situation is going to become permanent.  Those social movements will be lead into a disastrous situation, because at the moment they’re impotent. 

For example, let’s take the case of Belo Monte. Entire populations are going to be displaced from their homes because of a dam  –  a business that interests half a dozen state contractors – and they’ re defenceless. They’re willing to sacrifice themselves to keep their land; they say they will occupy the land scheduled to be inundated. These people don’t have a political instrument to defend them; they don’t have a political party to defend them in a decisive way, one that can mobilise the population, one capable of bringing all the social movements together to defend them. It doesn’t exist. The PT is not that party. And so, if it’s not possible to take that qualitative leap it obvious that Neoliberalism, with the state as its apparatus, is going to produce a massacre, and an increasing criminalization of the social movements. And in their latest declarations both Serra and Wilma are pointing to that path. E very day there are more accusations against the MST in the Tucano[vii], and when the PT candidate visits the various agricultural shows throughout Brazil, she‘s  very clearly in that she doesn’t support the invasion of land, and here the use of the term invasion is significant, because she knows that it’s not a matter of occupation. 

BF: What are the central political elements that would give direction to a new instrument of this type, including to make sure it doesn’t fall into the same mistakes that so many other Brazilian parties have made?

JA: Today, any serious political group in the country has to have as its basis a proposal; it has to have a very serious discussion about the fact that in Brazil the nation is organising against the state. This is an idea that comes from Professor Istvan Iancson – who was part of the older generation of university professors that were in fact university professors. He showed that during 400 years of slavery in Brazil, the state’s objective was to repress the vast majority of the population, composed of indigenous peoples and slaves brought from Africa. In Brazil there has never been a sector of the middle classes that was willing to support a revolutionary movement similar to that of France and other countries, a movement whose aim was to integrate the working classes into the productive process. It’s the same story in the Republican period.

The first 30 years brought the coffee and milk oligarchy. Later, Getulio Vargas’ New State did have a national project, but it worked on the basis of a union structure dominated by the state, in which the workers were never independent enough to achieve autonomy from the state. Then we had the military dictatorship that lasted more than twenty years.  So what I’m saying is that we’ve had a long history of catastrophes that demonstrate that in Brazil, the state has always operated in a way that it was considered by the elites to be a type of private property. The rise of the PT and the CUT (workers central­) produced a form of earthquake in this structure, because, for the first time, you have the formation of an independent workers’ central, i.e. the CUT, and the formation of a political party, the PT, that that were not created by the elites.

These organisations were able to provoke tremors in the state structure, something the traditional workers parties such as the PC and others had never been able to do. It’s undeniable that the rise of the CUT and the PT produced this earthquake, which was something extremely important in Brazilian history. However, neither the CUT nor the PT took to its logical conclusion the idea that the State was created in opposition to the nation. And in very simple terms, to participate in the present state structure does not resolve the problem, because it is a state built against the Brazilian nation.    

BF: The state structures are unaltered….

JA: They are still the same. For example, and to make quite clear what I’m talking about, I think it’s a mistake to say that in Brazil the health system doesn’t work, or that the public education system doesn’t work.. They work perfectly.  Or perhaps someone has established that at a particular moment in the history of the country, the elites, who control the state, intended to build a really efficient system that guarantees quality health and education for the majority of the Brazilian people?  Has someone said that?  Only if they were crazy!  And so from my point of view these systems function perfectly well, when you take into account what the Brazilian state is, and the moguls that have controlled this country for 500 years. 

So, if you build a party that doesn’t prioritise the need for an upheaval that transforms the Brazilian State and creates the conditions for integrating the state and the nation, it is going to fail, just as all the other parties have failed. I think that the only party that is in condition to do this is a party born of the grassroots. And by grassroots I mean the poorest, most marginalised, most impoverished sectors of the Brazilian population: the social movements, the campesinos, the unemployed workers, the roofless, the indigenous poor, those that have to turn themselves inside out to get the food they need for the next 24 hours. All these sectors form the mass of people that was never integrated by the Brazilian state, and that understands exactly what the Brazilian state stands for. And despite the fact that experience of the CUT and the PT has been extremely positive, because it produced cracks in the relation between the state and the nation, those organisations didn’t go all the way. In reality the PT was never constituted as an anti-capitalist party. It never had the demolition of capitalism as an objective.

BF: What will be this new party in opposition to the Brazilian state be like? Will it be a socialist party, a social development party that wants to develop internal capital?

JA: I don’t know. I´m not able to read minds.  I also think that it’s not the business of an enlightened leadership to say what this party is going to be. At the moment, what’s most important is to find a formula that allows the social movements to come together. This would establish the basis for a discussion about how are we going to unite these movements and, and on the basis of the discussions between theses social movements, to form the grass roots nuclei. A programmatic discussion will come from the grassroots. Of course we can’t have a party that integrates itself into the Brazilian state, as at present. This is the fundamental point, the rest people will discuss. We can’t put as series of pre-conditions which will only serve as obstacles to the formation of a great, really working class, grassroots party.

BF: I imagine that you, as an intellectual, will be in the party. Do you think that other intellectuals, the universities, would also join a party with those objectives? Is there moral reticence in a Brazilian left that might be able to create this type of party? 

JA: Of course there is moral reticence…. and I prefer not to cite names or be unfair…… But if the MST is really an historically important movement in Brazil, then it’s clear that the leaders and spokespeople of the MST are amongst those who can, and indeed should, support the process. I believe that given his national and international profile, João Pedro Stedile would also have a special role to play.  But there are also a lot of good people in the social movements, in the parties of the left, and within the PT itself, that would be enthusiastic about a plan to build a powerful anti-capitalist party in Brazil.  

I suspect that this party would give a fright to a large swathe of the Brazilian middle classes. Imagine what’s going to happen the moment a party is able to bring together the MST, the organised movements in the periphery, hip hop, the Mothers of May,  etc, etc. and begins to show the dark  side of Brazil. This is not going to be the Brazil that goes shopping in the shopping centre. The same thing with the Universities. People who today say they’re in favour of social transformation will get a fright when they see the real face of social transformation. On the other hand, the party will have the incredible effect of raising the self esteem and dignity of tens of millions of Brazilians who today have little of either because they can see they’ve got no future.

You can imagine what that would mean for a person that works 15 hours a day for a minimum wage and who drowns himself in drink, to suddenly realise that he can participate in something like this? It would give a tremendous boost to political organization in Brazil. It would be something much bigger than what’s happening today in Venezuela with Hugo Chavez. Bigger because of the size of the Brazilian economy, because of the number of people, and the power that these millions of organised workers would have, workers who have a tradition of struggle that is denied by the elites,  something that is completely outrageous. Think of the Quilombos dos Palmares, and the MST, together with the Ligas Camponesas, Canudos, the Revolt of the Malês, the regional revolts throughout the entire 19th century … those people have not stopped fighting for a moment.

All this means that we have a history of combat, a history of struggle. And a party of this type would have a tremendous power to galvanize the Brazilian nation. That is, presuming that the party doesn’t fall into the trap of becoming part of the Brazilian state, like the one that exists today. It is a party that has to have a commitment to rupture. Without this commitment it’s not going to able to galvanize anyone.  And I think that in this process, the people involved will end up formulating what everyone says and wants: a programme for Brazil put together on the basis of Brazilian reality, rather than some European formula. It’s not that I’m denying the validity of Karl Marx or other European thinkers, that wouldn’t make sense. What I am saying is that it’s precisely the absence of the people in politics that has produced a type of thinking that is too intellectual, too concerned with concepts of the Avant Garde that exist in Europe. These concepts were formulated in Europe, but don’t represent a dialogue with the people itself, a people that has its own history, a history that is not European. It’s another history. I think all this will produce a transformation in the universities themselves. That is, the intellectuals will have to respond to the challenge that this kind of party will represent for them as intellectuals.

[i] Arrested in 1970, Rousseff spent three years in jail. 

[ii] According to figures of the Brazilian Embassy in London, GDP per capita dropped buy almost half between 1997 and 2002, from US$ 4,932 to US$ 2,604. Of course none of this can be blamed on Lula.

[iii] According to the same publication, other South American countries such as Bolivia and Colombia are even worse, ranking 7th and 9th respectively. Above (below if you like) Bolivia all the countries are African, including South Africa, which ranks second on the inequality scale. The figures for Brazil are also from 2005, and according to other measures, inequality has decreased somewhat, although even there it has been outpaced by Ecuador (31st overall) which, according to the above mentioned report of the The Economist, decreased its inequality coefficient by 3% between 2000 and 2006.

[iv] Rio slum barrier plans spark outcry. The Guardian, Tuesday 6 January 2009.…/brazil-rio-slum-barrier

[v] The Primeiro Comando da Capital, PCC, is a group founded in 1993 by inmates of the Taubaté prison in Rio de Janeiro. In 2006 the group launched a major surprise attack on the police. – Mafia attacks brazilian police

[vi] Comissão Parlamentar de Inquérito. Parliamentary Investigatory Commission.

[vii] The Tucano is the nickname for the right of centre Partido do Movimento Democrático Brasileiro, PMDB. It was the party of former President Joe Sarney, but it no longer runs presidential candidates.

IN SEARCH OF ANTANAS MOKUS: The light is green but no-one is moving

09 September 2010

I was recently in Colombia. I like Bogotá. It’s a big city that seems to have everything: good writers, a Botero Museum, lots of places to drink good coffee, people who actually want to help you, a mass transit system that seems to function, at least most of the time. Colombia is also the land of deserts, heaven for the sweet toothed.  But apart from personal vices[i], the visit had other highlights. The country’s bicentenary was being celebrated (20th July) and the visit also coincided with the period between the recent Presidential elections and the inauguration of Juan Manuel Santos as the country’s new head of state (August 9th). An interesting time. Not least because of the surprisingly populous march held by the regime’s opponents the day after the official celebrations[ii], and the friction between Venezuela and Colombia resulting from still President Alvaro Uribe’s accusations that the neighbouring country was sheltering terrorists, more commonly known as the FARC.

The visit was not work related, but I did have a goal: to interview Antanas Mokus, the Green Party Candidate who lost the Presidential election, but was supported by more than a quarter of Colombian voters, i.e. those that did actually vote[iii].  Despite the loss, there was a sense at the time that something important was happening. The Mokus Green Party campaign was different, a veritable lungfull of clean air, offering  hope for a country plagued by the decades of internal violence, drugs and corruption.  It could make things happen.

But I was never able to find Sr. Mokus or, what seemed far more surprising, the Green Party.  I looked everywhere, I tried all the phone numbers and e-mail addresses I could find, I even found a man who gave me two telephone numbers he said would help, on the condition that I didn’t mention his name. That turned out to be less of a problem than I imagined: neither of the numbers was ever answered. I once even thought I had found the party´s head office. Two people, a local vendor and a security guard assured me that it was close by, just around the corner. And I found it. They were right. It was the party headquarters, of the Polo Democrático.  A friend finally suggested that his brother, who apparently lived behind  Mokus’ house, was willing to go and knock on his door. But apart from the invasion of privacy issue, by then it was too late. It was time to go back to Quito. So I contented myself with the few books I had bought, and the experiences the stay had brought.

With hindsight

Two months later the whole episode seems more curious than anything else. The world has moved on. Santos has installed a massive majority in the Colombian Congress, appears to have reunited the Liberal Party, has been making comforting noises internationally, heads a government more technocratic than ideological, especially when compared to the previous regime, and has distanced himself from his predecessor. Santos is his own man. And Alvaro Uribe? Well, he appears to have disappeared.  Off the map. Into the special house/fortress designed for him in a military sector of the city.

With time the search for Antanas Mokus and the Green Party also seems less puzzling.  I’m no longer surprised that I couldn’t locate either. As I now realise, the Green Party  doesn’t exist. Never did exist. It was an electoral apparatus. That is not to say that the objectives of the people that participated in, ran, and supported the Mokus- Fajardo campaign were a sham. Far from it.  The movement embodied a great deal of sincerity and hope, as well as counting on heavy weight political backers such as Luis Garzón and Enrique  Peñalosa, both ex mayors of Bogotá and, of course, on the vice presidential candidate, Sergio Fajardo, himself a popular ex mayor of Medellin. But there was never any infrastructure. And I can’t help asking myself what would have happened if Mokus had won. Perhaps the voters asked themselves the same question.

Perhaps everything would have been taken in stride. After all neither Mokus nor Garzón is a political neophyte.  Perhaps if he had won, everything would have seemed normal enough.  Perhaps the worst thing, at least in institutional, party political terms, was to lose. If the head of foam that surrounded the campaign in the first round had gone flat by the second, the beer itself has now drained from the glass. The party, such as it is, appears to be in a state of paralysis. Fajardo has gone, dissociating himself from the group after complaining of being treated with a lack of seriousness. The campaign, he has said, lost momentum when he also lost it, after falling from his appropriately green bicycle and fracturing his hip. The statement has the taste of sour grapes, but it does seem evident that he and his group do not fit into whatever plans the party might have.

For the moment at least, those plans are a matter of guesswork. The papers are full reports painting Mokus as a mayoralty candidate for Bogotá in 2011, or on the other hand that, he is not a candidate, that his wife, Adriana Córdoba is a mayoralty candidate, or that she is not a candidate, that Gustavo Petro, the presidential candidate for the Polo Democrático, and one of the few losers that came out smelling of roses, has been invited to join the Greens now that the floral aroma has become too rich for the other members of the Polo, or, that he has not signaled a desire to join, or that he supports the mayoralty candidature of Mokus’ wife, of course, should she actually be a candidate. In practice the only solid evidence of movement is the appointment of Garzón as Party President and spokesperson.

A lot of the sense of confusion and loss of direction could be press manipulation, not of the facts, but rather what is printed and what is not. The mainstream media in Colombia is heavily Santified and in large part falls under the influence of his family, and Juan Manuel is probably not too keen to see the Green Party and its people pick up an opposition mantle that is presently lying over a puddle in the road. It all seems such a shame, such a deception. Perhaps Mokus is right when he says that decisions must be timely but not hasty. Perhaps under Garzón the Party will be able to shake off the slightly Wizard of Ozzish image it has recently acquired.  Perhaps by the time of the municipal elections in 2011 the Greens will be able to take on the role that so many hoped they would. Perhaps I won’t have to write any more articles like this. That would be nice.

A final anecdote: one that in other circumstances might be considered hilarious, but in the present situation strikes a somewhat sadder, although quite telling, note. The writer cum political analyst Daniel Samper Pizano, brother of ex President Samper and columnist for El Tiempo, tells that Antanas Mokus was to have attended a recent international meeting of Green Parties in Europe, but unpacked his bags on learning that most of them were full of environmentalists and left wingers.[iv]

[i] And without wanting to ignore in any way the very serious problems of poverty and violence the city suffers from.

[ii] Judging from the banners most of the marchers were from rural areas and while no literature or information was available about the organizers, or the demands, the mere size of the march, and its open hostility to Santos/Uribe was impressive. The march must have been at least ten thousand strong, but did not receive major coverage. El Tiempo mainly commented on accusations of damage created by the marchers, although this observer saw no violence. The march was in fact heavily patrolled by its own marshals.

[iii] The election was marked by extremely high levels abstention. In the first round only 42.9% voted, while in the second 44.41%. However, this is not a record. For example, when Ernesto Samper was elected in 1994 only 34% of the voting population found their way to the booth.

[iv] Daniel Samper Pizano Los verdes: biches y extraviados El Tiempo Jueves 04 de septiembre 2010

Latin America: Counterinsurgency and Poverty. Interview with Raul Zibechi

The Uruguayan journalist Raul Zibechi is one of the best, and best known, political analysts in Latin America. He has worked with numerous publications in the region and has a long list of books to his name. His latest, Latin America: Counterinsurgency and Poverty was published in June of this year in Bogotá Colombia, by desdeabajo . The book is critical of the current wave of progressive governments in the region, in particular regarding the Poverty Reduction Policies most of them have adopted. Zibechi calls these a new form of domination.

The principal problem, according to the author, is that these policies adopt the language and methodology of World Bank programmes, dividing and sub dividing the population into groups of ‘beneficiaries’ of programmes that do little more than smother the appetite for the structural change. To make things worse, the very social movements that until recently lead the fight for change have not only become institutionalised, but now form the leading edge of attempts by governments to create a world in which everything is resolved peacefully through a type of lop sided negotiation.  This is a world with only two ‘actors‘ : the state and business.

According to the author: “The strategy of domination and control of populations, of consolidation of states without problematic dissidence’, is taking on new forms and is becoming a reality in many places. This book allows us to get inside the details of these new forms, known by the name of the ‘Integrated Action Doctrine’, applied in Colombia with full force, but also in the majority of Latin American countries by means of the Poverty Reduction Policies promoted by the Multilateral Banks after the defeat of the United States in Vietnam.”

In the following interview Raul Zibechi answers questions about his book and the negative impact of this type of policy.


Interview with Raul Zibechi


Gerard Coffey

18th August  2010

G.C. Your book appears to be calling for revolution, or rather a non frontal resistance in the small spaces of daily life in order to overwhelm the capacity of the state to control, and from there go on to achieve structural change.

R.Z. I’m not in the habit of calling for anything in particular, least of all revolution. My interest in writing this book, is to make the new forms of  ‘open sky’  oppression and domination visible (the  idea  comes from Gilles Deleuze) , because I think that  by making domination visible it’s easier to neutralise it. I’m not someone who thinks that taking control of the state is a good idea, I do think that the best idea is to resist in the small spaces of daily life and, as a result, create non state forms of power in order to defend those small spaces. That’s where that “other possible world” can be created, not from above, nor through the state.

GC. You say that the fight against poverty, at least in the way it is carried out by progressive governments in Latin America is a mistake, that wealth, not poverty is the real problem.

RZ. Of course poverty is a problem, but poverty can’t be resolved with crumbs but rather with basic changes that impede a greater accumulation of capital at one end of the societal scale.  I’m not against fighting poverty, but I am opposed to onlyusing this type of mechanism, because it’s something that doesn’t address the real issues. It’s like trying to cure a serious illness with aspirin. It helps alleviate the pain a bit, but the illness is still there. And this particular illness is called neoliberalism, whether due to accumulation by eviction or by robbery, as David Harvey has pointed out.

GC.  And these poverty reduction policies are nothing more than a form of governability, a way to make sure that the social movements lose ground vis a vis the state, and only serve to cover over the structural problems and dissipate the fight for structural change.

Compensatory poverty reduction policies, i.e. those that based on monetary transfers that compensate the loss of the right to an income, domesticate social conflict and push social movements into a dynamic of vying to present the most attractive projects in order to resolve the smallest problems. For example, pregnancy amongst rural adolescent girls. That’s fine, it’s a problem, but by presenting the issue like this you lose the wider perspective, which is that these families are being ruined because their land is being taken from them, or because they’ re being pushed into abandoning the countryside so that increasing amounts of soya or sugar cane can be produced for biofuels.  So while it is possible to apply a policy such as this as part of a structural reform, as an isolated proposal it achieves nothing. What it does do, is weaken social movements.

GC. Isn‘t this era of progressive governments inevitable after decades of right wing or corrupt administrations? And isn’t it also inevitable that, despite the risks involved, people are  willing to abandon the fight  when a government appears that gives them a good part of what they have been asking for during those decades of struggle for rights?

RZ.  Of course. An important phase of struggle has come to an end and people need something. And that something, whether it be a little or a lot, are progressive governments that do have some positive characteristics:  they have put poverty on the agenda, they’ re not so repressive, some have nationalised oil and gas; they have a more sovereign stance. It’s no small thing viewed from a historical perspective. There’s been a major change of direction in Latin America, a change that can be summed up by the reduced domination of the United States. To me this is all to the good, but it’s not enough. And if the consequence is that social movements are weakened, then there will be no one left to defend these progressive governments.

GC. If the only way to fight for real change is to break with the state and its social policies and challenge the NGO’s and the International Aid Agencies that have a negative effect on the social movements,  and in fact have had no effect on poverty or inequality, does this imply that that these institutions and their staff are always a problem rather than a solution, no matter that they  work in good faith.

RZ. My impression is that things are not black and white.  In the period when labour struggles were important, in the factory the foremen and other company people whose job it was to control, often sided with the workers, or at least maintained a neutral position that benefitted them. So it’s not always that clear. Although times are different, it’s the social workers on the ground, in the local areas, who are putting the policies into practice, that have now assumed that role. Many of have an activist background, at one time were part of a social movement, and this is an attractive for Social Development Ministries.  In the future these workers could play an important role, that is if they side more with those that receive the benefits rather than those that provide them.  It’s the same situation with many of the people that work for NGO’s, people who have a moral commitment to the people they work with. They can all be allies of the social movements, and in fact it’s evident that they’ re often very unhappy with these social policies.

GC . Isn’t it likely that the social movements will revive when these progressive governments start to lose legitimacy and are replaced by right wing governments more aligned with business and capital?

RZ. The movements were never inactive, even when some of them were co-opted by governments. And there are new social movements that have cropped up under these progressive governments. For example, in Argentina the fight against mining involves the more than 100 members of the Union of Citizen’s Assemblies; in Brazil the urban ‘Sin Techo’ movements that were fairly weak before Lula arrived on the scene, have acquired a new urgency; in Chile youth movements are an important element, and in Bolivia the lowland, i.e. Amazonian, indigenous groups are very active. We don’t know what’s going to happen, what’s  certain is that if the Right gets back into power it will be difficult for them to govern, but what is clear is that they’ll keep  using the same social policies.

GC. And you think that because the fundamentals of domination are no longer questioned, that’s  why financial power groups are willing to work –  given certain conditions of course – under governments led by left wingers, and even ex guerrilleros such as José Mujica in Uruguay where 1,500 business leaders pledged to work with his administration?

RZ. That’s the point of view of Chico de Oliveira, a Brazilian sociologist and a founder of the Workers Party (PT) but who has since left the organisation. And I share his analysis. When domination isn’t questioned, anyone can govern; the dominant classes don’t need to take control of power directly, or even indirectly. Now the businessmen and the rich say: the best way to maintain the Status Quo is for you, the leftists and ex guerrillas take charge. But don’t start questioning wealth. And if you don’t, then not only can you govern with no problem, we‘ll also give money to help the poor thought eh social responsibility of the companies who are paying their taxes. And they are right. The ex leftists look after their wealth and also look after the crowd.  That is, until the crowd wakes up to the illusion and begins to rebel.  This is what I’ve been writing about all these years, about dispelling the illusion.

GC. You talk about extractivism as another stage of a neoliberalism, a neoliberalism that hasn’t  been defeated, but simply changed its shape. On the other hand in Bolivia the state depends on, and presently has much more control over, natural resources such as oil and gas. Not only that, but the struggle to control these resources has been one of the major political changes that have taken place in that country. What’ s your opinion?

RZ. I don’t think that there is such a thing as good extractivism and bad extractivism. It’s a matter of defending the environment and of a system that creates exclusion. Whether the resource companies belong to the state or not doesn’t change this. Almost a century ago the same debate took place in the Soviet Union. It was said that when the companies belonged to the state there could be no exploitation. But when you go to a factory, and see that it functions on the basis or Fordism or Taylorism, with work rates like those in Chaplin’s film ‘Modern Times’, and you put yourself in the place of the worker, there’s  not the slightest difference.  In the USSR it took decades to wake up to the reality. These days in Bolivia they say that because the mines and the gas are state property there’s no problem. But the indigenous people are fighting for control over their resources, and this is a conflict that has no solution within the framework of the state, plurinational or not. There’s also conflict in Venezuela with the Yupka, and in Ecuador over water and mining, and conflicts are increasing in all parts of the continent.

GC.  In the Soviet Union everyone was expected to sacrifice for the good of the revolution, but here, now , we’re not talking about sacrifice. So isn’t it possible to resolve the problem by improving working conditions? And then if the government redistributes the income from the copper or gas or whatever, and improves the living conditions of the general population, doesn’t that legitimise the extraction?

RZ. The problem is that extractive industries employ very few people and the consumption takes place outside the country. So increasing salaries doesn’t change anything. And redistribution is exactly what they are doing now. How?  They haven´t nationalised gas in Bolivia for example, they’ve negotiated new contracts and the increased income has been distributed, even though it might be a small proportion, to the general population. Of course this increases the legitimacy of extractivism , but the population becomes dependent on subsidies and not work, which from my point of view affects self esteem as well as personal and collective sovereignty.

GC.  As a last question, if Brazil is now a middle class country, and increasingly powerful, what implications does this have in the medium term for the rest of the countries of the region, above all vis a vis the presence of the United States?

RZ. These are two different issues. That Brazil is a middle class country implies that the internal market is going to grow a great deal.  This offers the chance to depend less on the global market, and above all the North, which is in crisis and can’t buy what it previously imported. On the other hand, Brazil is the fifth ranking economy in the world and its reserves of oil and uranium and other resources are amongst the largest in the world, as are some of its multinationals. So you could say that its economy is in a major expansionary process. To complete it, Brazil needs South America as its back yard, in the same way that a century ago the Caribbean was, and still is, the United States backyard. On the one hand this is positive, because the United States will no longer be the region’s dominant power, but on the other the fact that Brazil could take its place would not be quite so positive. For the moment we’re are in an era of transition and this is important because in all situations of change cracks open that the marginalised sectors can use to exert influence on the process.