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Unsettled Business in Latin America

Francesca Fiorentini
Date Published: 
June 1, 2010

Continuing Left Turn’s coverage of Latin America, in the following section independent journalist Kristin Bricker will take us into the heart of the Mexican government's war on its own working class, solidarity activist Lisa Fuller exposes the dirty world of Canadian mining in El Salvador and the powerful movement to stop it, and author and journalist Garry Leech looks at the Obama Administration’s continued militarization of Colombia and other Latin American countries.

In other Latin America news, there continues to be unsettled business and important movements that aren’t making the headlines they should be: political repression and organizing in Honduras after January’s illegal elections, the need for long-lasting reconstruction for Haiti, and perhaps the most visionary gathering on climate change this world has seen.

The coup that wasn't

In Honduras, the media focused on democratically-elected President Manuel Zelaya’s violent removal from power and his risky return to the country, where he was holed up in the Brazilian Embassy for four months. The untold stories however, were those of the people—the students, teachers, union leaders, journalists, the indigenous, campesinos, and particularly LGBT and women’s rights activists—who were brutalized, detained, raped, tortured, and murdered by the Honduran Armed Forces during their consistently nonviolent protests against the military coup.

Despite this campaign of terror, Hondurans have grown one of the largest social movements in the history of the country. On January 27, tens of thousands of people from the National Popular Front Against the Coup came out to protest the illegal elections, which were supported by the US State Department (that never admitted to a military coup in the first place) and opposed by international human rights groups and labor unions, including the AFL-CIO. The election-day protests were either ignored by international corporate media or painted as violent and overly allied with Zelaya. In fact, the National Popular Front Against the Coup, now known as the Popular Front for National Resistance (FNRP), has decided to remain nonviolent in the face of such repression and the media blackout.

Though many Hondurans boycotted the heavily militarized elections, others voted out of fear after receiving threats of job loss or violence. In the end, despite a mere forty-nine percent of the electorate voting, landowner and former presidential candidate Porfirio Lobo claimed victory and was sworn-in in February. Saying he would create a government of  “national reconciliation,” Lobos was quickly recognized by the US as the legitimate Honduran president, and has since normalized relationships with 51 countries.

Since the elections, the repression has continued, with four journalists and 13 members of the FNRP murdered—nine of whom were unionists and one a teacher. The violence that has rained down upon the country is reminiscent of the US-trained death squad networks that targeted social movements in the 1970s and 1980s, and a reminder that the same forces are alive and well today. In fact, the School of the Americas (SOA) trained Billy Joya, a former military officer who worked with Battalion 3-16 that carried out torture of political opponents throughout the 1980s, and is now a special advisor to Lobo. Another SOA graduate and orchestrator of the 2009 coup, Romeo Vasquez, is now head of the national phone company. 

Still, the 60,000 people who make up the FNRP continue to resist the repression and expand their movement, hoping to write a new constitution for Honduras through the creation of a national constituent assembly made up of representatives from all sectors of society. Their sights are set on the 2013 national elections.

Post-disaster posturing

As coverage of the devastating earthquake that hit Haiti in January wanes, now is the time for those who wish for a just and sustainable reconstruction to pay close attention. With more than 300,000 people dead and 1.5 million people left without homes, Haitians have found themselves living in makeshift refugee camps, in fear of further displacement as the country tries to “normalize.” Residents have two fundamental concerns: food and safety. However it is the latter, the anti-crime and policing efforts that have been prioritized, as more than $422 million of US aid out of a promised $1.5 billion has come from the Department of Defense (DoD).

This money will be directed to the DoD-funded Haiti Stabilization Initiative, a program in place since 2007 under the State Department’s Office of the Coordinator for Reconstruction and Stabilization, a body that “coordinates and leads US government efforts to plan, prepare, and conduct stabilization and reconstruction operations.” In 2008, the Haiti Stabilization Initiative awarded a $3 million contract to the private security firm DynCorp International to refurbish the police station and train police in the slum of Cité Soleil. Bad sign.

With the Obama Administration pledging more than $1 billion and the UN raising nearly $10 billion for reconstruction, Haitians and human rights groups are concerned about overspending on anticrime measures instead of on long-term relief, and are worried about the role private contractors will play.

Long-term relief in a country largely unemployed and heavily dependent on imported food and food aid might look something like Haiti of the past: a soil-rich country worked by small farmers able to provide for their communities. In fact one of the most agriculturally rich areas of the country was the Maribahoux plain. In 2002, the plain was destroyed to create one of a series of World Bank-loan-financed free trade zones for textile manufacturing, or better put, sweatshops. Thanks to IMF loans and the opening up of the country to subsidized US agricultural imports, the majority of Haitian farmers have been priced out and forced off their land, left to find work sewing Hanes underwear.

Merely one month after the earthquake, despite the deaths of thousands of workers on the job, factories on the brink of physical collapse began to re-open, their owners claiming that time and money had been lost. Haitians went back to work at $3 a day with intensive and unpaid overtime. The garment industry is now reporting it is back to functioning at near full capacity.

Yet rather than providing a way out of devastation for Haiti, the garment industry, as it has been for impoverished and post-war countries like Cambodia, will only further entrench the country in poverty. And leaders of the reconstruction efforts like Bill Clinton and the US Congress are the pushers. At the end of April, Congress passed a bi-partisan law giving favor to the Haitian garment industry by renewing and extending the Caribbean Basin Trade Partnership Act (NAFTA of the Caribbean) and the Hemispheric Opportunity through Partnership Act (guaranteeing Haitian garments tariff-free access to US markets) until 2020, and increasing the overall amount of Haitian garments that qualify for tax breaks.

Clinton, as UN Special Envoy to Haiti, has been a staunch supporter of the garment industry, and in October 2009 spoke to international investors at a conference in Port-au-Prince to encourage further investment in the sector. This is the person leading the allocation of billions of dollars through the UN Haiti Rebuilding Commission. Let the clothing importers rejoice.

Despite this, the Haitian people continue to resist. In May, thousands of demonstrators poured into the streets calling for the resignation of President Réne Préval, who Parliament announced would remain in office three months beyond the end of his term if proper elections are not able to take place. Protestors, who decried the hands-off attitude of the president during the aftermath of the earthquake and are suspicious of his use of the disaster for political gains, were met with tear gas from the police while a US Army helicopter circled overhead. 

Cochabamba calling

Though ignored by corporate media, one of the most important gatherings around the problem of and solutions to climate change converged on the Bolivian city of Cochabamba in April. In response to the pitiful nonbinding rhetoric that came out of December’s Convention on Climate Change in Copenhagen that established no mandatory limits on greenhouse gases, Bolivian president Evo Morales convoked the World People’s Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth.

More than 35,000 delegates from 140 countries attended, representing movements of those most negatively affected by climate change such as campesinos and indigenous peoples from local organizations, as well as larger networks like Via Campesina. Also in attendance were environmental NGOs such as Friends of the Earth,, and the Canadian-based Blue Planet Project. 

Panels, workshops, and 17 thematic working groups met and discussed issues of deforestation, agriculture, and food sovereignty, the effects of the carbon market, distribution of technology, and climate migration, among other topics. Each group arrived at final written conclusions that included problems as well as concrete proposals for addressing them. Unlike Copenhagen, delegates to Cochabamba’s climate conference emerged with immediate steps for action.

In May, Morales, along with delegates from distinct geographic areas and organizations, submitted these steps to the UN in a “People’s Accord,” to be included in the debates under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). Though compared to the political machinery of the UNFCCC process the People’s Accord may feel like a drop in the bucket, its proposals are bold, smart, and look to long-term change.

The People’s Accord calls for a 50 percent reduction of greenhouse gases by 2017, and the creation of an International Climate and Justice Tribunal with the capacity to enforce it through fines or further lowering of gas limits. It also calls for a global referendum on climate change and puts forward a Universal Declaration on the Rights of Mother Earth to be adopted by the UN. Mother Earth’s rights include the “right to life and right to exist; the right to regenerate biodiversity free of human disruption; the right to be free from contamination, pollution, and toxic or radioactive waste; and the right to not have its genetic structure modified.” Sounds reasonable.

The Accord also states that it is the disproportionate responsibility of developed countries to tackle climate change, and that the process by which agreements are made must be “inclusive, transparent, and participatory,” unlike the bilateral backdoor discussions seen in Copenhagen. The most critical aspect of the People’s Accord, however, is that it puts into plain language what many have tried to water down or evade: capitalism is bad for Earth. It says:  “a system of unfettered and unregulated markets has resulted in prioritizing the extreme competition for profits and growth, and that this has separated humanity from nature, establishing a logic of domination over it, turning everything into a commodity:  water, earth, the human genome, the ancestral cultures, biodiversity, justice, ethics, rights of peoples, and life itself.”

Now that’s what many would call real progress. The Accord also states that the root causes of climate change must be addressed, like the “unsustainable patterns of consumption and production” and “unlimited development in a finite planet.”

In a speech to the G-77, Morales denounced the now $70 billion carbon market that promotes the trading of carbon credits as a “lucrative business that commodifies nature, favors a few intermediaries, and does not significantly contribute to the reduction in greenhouse gases.” Dispelling the market-based solutions to climate change, Morales concluded, “We have two paths to save capitalism, or to save life and Mother Earth.”

The choice couldn't be clearer. Either a path of democracy for the people of Honduras, a path toward sustainable reconstruction for Haiti, and sovereignty for the people of Latin America and the world, or a path that time and time again will prove to fail the life on this planet.