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Entries since December 2011

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Mining for Profits

December 18, 2011 ·

The small country of El Salvador has dared to stand up against powerful international gold mining companies. And now they're dealing with the blowback.

One of the companies salivating over El Salvador's gold is suing the government for their failure to bow down and grant a permit for a proposed mining project. There is strong local resistance to the project because of concerns it could poison a river that is the source of water for more than half the national population.

The company, Pacific Rim, is demanding in excess of $77 million in compensation, alleging violations of "investor protections" under the U.S. trade agreement with Central America.

If Pacific Rim wins, the government will face a stark choice: fork over a huge chunk of taxpayer dollars to a foreign corporation or put its people's health at risk.

But those fighting the case in El Salvador have an increasing number of influential allies in Washington, where the case is being heard at an international arbitration tribunal housed in the World Bank. On December 15, labor, environmental, faith, and other groups turned out for a rally to demand that the case be dismissed. They delivered a letter to World Bank and tribunal officials signed by more than 240 international organizations, including 14 U.S. labor unions.

Particularly notable among them was the United Mineworkers. Although their members' livelihoods depend on the mining industry, they expressed solidarity for those in El Salvador who are resisting this mining project because of the possible repercussions for public health and democracy.

El Salvador is still struggling to transition to representative democracy after years of civil war and there are lingering concerns about political violence. Tim Beaty, Director of Global Strategies for the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, spoke about his union's long history of solidarity with unions in El Salvador and said they are still seeking justice in the case of a Teamster organizer, Gilberto Soto, who was killed while he was working to make connections between U.S. and Salvadoran port workers in 2004. In the course of the dispute over Pacific Rim's proposed mining project, four Salvadoran anti-mining activists have been murdered.

The Pacific Rim case is just one example of a growing number of "investor-state" lawsuits over natural resources. An Institute for Policy Studies report, Mining for Profits in International Tribunals, finds that 43 of the 137 pending cases before the World Bank tribunal are related to oil, mining, or gas. By contrast, one year ago there were only 32 such cases and 10 years ago there were only 3.

Not surprisingly, this increase has coincided with an increase in commodity prices. The price of gold, for example, has quadrupled, from $282 per ounce in January 2000 to $1,900 in September 2011. Corporations are using expensive lawsuits filed under trade rules as one more weapon to get their hands on these valuable resources.

new video produced by the Democracy Center in Bolivia tells the broader story of how corporations are using these new powers to push back against all manner of government actions, including anti-smoking regulations in Uruguay, and the growing resistance in many developing countries. Even if Pacific Rim loses its case against El Salvador, the bigger struggle will continue to rewrite our trade rules so that governments don't have to face such outrageous cases in the first place. 

Eight Fearless Mexicans

December 17, 2011 ·

An unprecedented number of Mexicans have received international recognition over the past year for their courageous work on behalf of migrants, workers, and the millions of victims of the country’s spiraling violence, institutional decomposition and appalling inequality.

Most recently, Mexican poet Javier Sicilia, received a nod from TIME Magazine, which proclaimed that "the protester" was the 2011 "person of the year."

Below, we profile some of these movement leaders, artists, grass roots organizers, labor leaders, and clergy people who are working in the front trenches of the struggle for human rights. Through them we can hear the voices of millions more Mexicans crying out for justice and for the very soul of their nation.

They urge us to respond to the frightening militarization of Mexico, the hyper-exploitation of the poor, indigenous, and working classes; and the infuriating impunity enjoyed by well-connected and ruling-class criminals. They embody the struggle to end the profound injustice — both economic and legal — at the root of the murderous crime wave sweeping the country.

These eight distinguished advocates have been recognized because the Mexican government has failed to respond to a growing national emergency. As Mexico’s crisis deepens, these patriots have gone abroad to sound an urgent alarm — amplified by the human rights, labor, and cultural groups who invited them — that Mexico is at the breaking point.

These are the kinds of Mexicans that President Obama, the U.S. Congress, the media, the American public, and philanthropic foundations should be listening to and taking their cues from. These are the voices of those who have lived the tragic consequences of bad bi-national policies — so unlike President Calderon and his supporters north of the border who echo the hollow victories of the drug war and repeat market based delusions of success in the face of NAFTA’s bitter harvest.

The need for profound systemic changes on both sides of the border is painfully clear. 50 thousand Mexicans have died since President Calderón escalated the drug war. Millions are displaced by the economic disaster of “free trade.” In Mexico, as in the United States, ultra-rich plutocrats have hijacked the political system and are trying to foreclose on a dignified future for the poor and middle classes.

We need intelligent strategies and urgent action to end the “war on drugs,” level the economic playing field, and to make real our democratic aspirations on both side of the border. We must not let the inheritance of Mexico’s NAFTA generation be a disintegrating society where neither jobs nor educational opportunities exist for an expanding and politically repressed underclass.

In 2012, both Mexico and the United States will hold presidential elections. These elections, while no doubt important, won't bring the kind of deep changes needed in both countries. Such change and the movement necessary to make it happen must be driven from below — by those who bear the greatest burdens of inequality and have the most to gain by shattering the toxic status quo.

During 2011 movements led by victims of violence and those who are alienated from politics as usual have broken through the discourse of silence, altered the political landscape, and brought calls for revolutionary change back into view in both our countries.

The new struggle for fundamental reform is just getting underway and will take many forms, some of them unpredictable. But you can be sure that, as resistance to war and inequality grows on both sides of the border, the Mexicans leaders profiled below will be on its frontlines. They'll join their voices together with millions more on both sides of our shared border.

  • Abel Barrera, an anthropologist and human rights defender of indigenous and rural communities, who founded the respected and successful NGO Tlachinolan in the southern and impoverished state of Guerrero, was honored by the RFK Center for Justice and Human Rights;
  • Javier Sicilia, a leader of the Movement for Peace with Justice and Dignity, was awarded a “people’s choice” human rights prize by Global Exchange; The movement is led the victims of the “drug war”. He was also profiled in TIME Magazine’s 2011 Person of the Year issue.
  • Gael Garcia, a well-known Mexican actor, and AMBULANTE, an organization he co-founded, headlined the Washington Office on Latin America’s (WOLA) annual gala in recognition for his passionate and committed work to give visibility to the plight of migrants who undertake the perilous journey north and to the organization’s work to promote documentaries and to bring these films to the Mexican population;
  • Father Pedro Pantoja received the Letelier–Moffitt International Human Rights Award from the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, DC on behalf of Bethlehem, the Migrants’ Shelter of Saltillo, for its work to protect migrants in Mexico from kidnapping, extortion, sexual abuse, and murder — courageously challenging organized crime and corrupt public officials.
  • Marta Ojeda, a long time maquiladora activist, was saluted by the New York Radio Festival and received an award for her organization, the Coalition for Justice in the Maquiladoras and “La Frontera,” a documentary investigation of organized crime, violence and impunity and injustice along the Mexico-U.S. border; Marta connects the dots between the neoliberal policies, economic dislocation, arms industries, money laundering corruption, and impunity that have submerged Mexico in a deep crisis.
  • Napoleon Gómez Urrutia is the president of Mexico's mine workers union. He received the AFL-CIO Kirkland Award in recognition of his brave work, which included accusing the Mexican government of industrial homicide following a mine explosion that killed 65 miners — and whose bodies remain buried. The government retaliated with bogus charges, and he has been forced into de facto exile in Canada.
  • Sister Consuelo Morales, who received the Human Rights Watch’s Alison Des Forges Award for her work in Mexico to defend victims of human rights violations and hold their abusers accountable. She has worked with indigenous communities and street children, and she founded Citizens in Support of Human Rights (CAHDAC) in her native Monterrey.
  • Tita Radilla was granted an award by Peace Brigades International and the Alliance for Lawyers at Risk for her relentless struggle for human rights.She has worked for more than 30 years with the Association of Relatives of Disappeared and Victims of Human Rights Violations (AFADEM), demanding justice for the victims of enforced disappearance in Mexico.

Ted Lewis directs the Mexico Program of Global Exchange. Manuel Perez-Rocha is an Institute for Policy Studies associate fellow.
An earlier version of this post ran on Global Exchange's blog.

Why the 99 Percent are Protesting at the World Bank Today

December 15, 2011 ·

99 Percent Protesting at the Word BankToday I will join leaders from the labor, environmental, faith, and human rights communities to protest in front of the World Bank.

Why?

We'll be there to stand up for the democratic rights of people everywhere in the face of ever-expanding corporate rule.

There's a set of people from the 1 percent who don't think we should be there. Twenty-one years ago, those people got together just two blocks north of the World Bank, in the K Street corporate lobbyist corridor, and crafted a set of corporate rights that they then inserted in the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).

These so-called "investor protections," now in dozens of U.S. trade and investment treaties, are some of the most extreme examples of excessive corporate powers you could find. They grant corporations the right to sue governments in international tribunals over actions that reduce the value of their investment. This can even include environmental, health, and other measures to protect the public developed through a democratic process.

These rules empowered an obscure tribunal in the World Bank to rule on these "investor-state" cases. Three people who no one elected can decide the fate of millions.

One of these tribunals will soon decide the fate of El Salvador. A gold mining company, Pacific Rim, is suing for compensation because that government has not approved a permit for a gold mining project. The majority of Salvadorans oppose this project because of legitimate concerns that it could poison a river that's the country's biggest source of drinking water. Pacific Rim is demanding in excess of $77 million.

The story gets even more outrageous. Pacific Rim is suing under the U.S. trade agreement with Central America and the Dominican Republic, called DR-CAFTA. But since Pacific Rim is based in Canada, and Canada isn't part of the DR-CAFTA pact, they created a subsidiary in Nevada in order to file this lawsuit.

If Pacific Rim gets away with this, it will give a green light to global corporations everywhere to pull this same trick. U.S. corporations could set up subsidiaries in other countries that are trade partners with the United States, in order to sue the U.S. government.

During today's protest, I'll be part of a group of us that will walk across the street and deliver an open letter to this tribunal (called the International Center for the Settlement of Investment Disputes) and to the president of the World Bank, who chairs the tribunal's administrative council.

The letter, signed by over 240 labor unions and other international organizations representing more than 180 million people, demands that El Salvador's domestic governance processes and national sovereignty be respected and that the Pacific Rim case be thrown out. This is the 99 percent standing up to the 1 percent. We're saying: You must stop trampling on democracy.

John Cavanagh is Director of the Washington-based Institute for Policy Studies. In August, he published in The Nation , with Robin Broad the article Like Water for Gold in El Salvador.

When Number Two Acts like Number One

December 13, 2011 ·

In late November, NATO forces whacked 24 Pakistani soldiers on the Afghan border. As of November 30, the Pentagon and Secretary of State Hilary Clinton had not yet accepted blame; but they were “investigating” and “regretting.”

Washington thinks it's number one, but the world is starting to realize that's not true. Photo by KP Tripathi.However, the next day, Iranian demonstrators invaded and destroyed property at the British Embassy complex in Teheran and briefly grabbed some embassy staff. London and Washington expressed outrage.

Obama, however, expressed no sentiments over police behavior in New York and other cities and campuses where police officials (not low-level ones) beat and pepper sprayed unarmed and non-violent U.S. citizens exercising their rights to free speech and assembly. Nor did he or the British ever apologize for staging their joint 1953 coup in Iran, which ousted Iran’s elected ruler and replaced him with a pro-U.S. Shah. Coincidentally, this resulted in a boon for U.S. and British oil companies.

In those days the U.S. economy grew, and what was good for General Motors was good for the country. Bi-partisanship prevailed in Congress! U.S. steel mills belched smoke, and auto assembly lines poured out cars – pre rust belt days, before globalization.

After decades of change, however, neither U.S. rhetoric nor policy kept pace with material reality.

The U.S. military remains the strongest in the world, but it has not protected the country from serious economic and political dysfunction. Bi-partisanship has evaporated with the ozone layers. Recession – now four plus years old – has meant devastation for tens of millions without jobs, homes, health care or hope. But not for the military budget – well, not yet.

The President continues to expand the nation’s imperial commitments. We hear Obama warn about the lack of money to make needed repairs in the infrastructure while we see him simultaneously stride boldly forward to undertake new and costly international obligations. Weeks before the deadly mistake in Pakistan, Obama committed the country to station more troops in a base in Australia to counter the “Chinese threat.” The anti-missile defense pact to counter presumably Iranian (distant future) threats to Europe brought forth a Russian promise to station its missiles near Poland. The new U.S. Middle East Security arrangement involves the most undemocratic nation – Saudi Arabia.

Congress doesn’t notice this asymmetry between its largesse in military appropriations and its abstemious allocations for desperately needed national infrastructure. Congress agreed with the President that previous levels of government spending could no longer continue for schools, clinics, hospitals and social services. Many Members want to cut Social Security and Medicare. They find no funds to shore up levees and bridges; some cities even declared bankruptcy.

What’s wrong with the thinking of the Washington policy crowd? The Cold War is long dead, the world is reeling from recession, but U.S. “strategic” thinking ignores these elements. “We’re still number one,” remains the axiom of official rhetoric. The statistics, however, reveal the dramatic decline of U.S. predominance in education, health and social welfare and a dramatic increase in poverty, and an unequal distribution of wealth.

Similarly, the rise of the Indian and Chinese economies seems to have bypassed the strategic consciousness of U.S. policy makers and Members of Congress.

George W. Bush started – with Congressional approval – two wars based on the notion of overwhelming U.S. power. The cost in human life and money has yet to be estimated. But Obama couldn’t just walk away – “weakness,” his opponents would scream. And so the conflicts drag on, and naturally in war “shit happens” like  “friendly fire” killing 24 Pakis.

Hey, Pakistan was disobedient. It didn’t toe the line against the Taliban. Its intelligence service even cooperated with our enemy in Afghanistan. Shape up or else, ordered Joint Chiefs of Staff boss Admiral Mullen. Did no one notice that China has begun to assist Pakistan?

Do Washington analysts think the U.S. can continue killing Pakistanis, sending in lethal drones and invading its turf with Seals to execute our enemies (Osama bin Laden)? Tens of millions of Pakistanis, including high military officials, began to scream “enough.” A leading Pakistani army general, Ashfaq Nadeem, accused NATO of staging a "deliberate act of aggression."

On November 29, Pakistan withdrew in protest from a scheduled meeting in Germany to discus Afghanistan’s future. It closed the supply routes the U.S. and NATO uses for troops and operations in land-locked Afghanistan.

The meeting’s goal was to forge a joint effort to stabilize Afghanistan as NATO combat forces begin to leave in 2014. Indeed, Pakistan’s government raised questions about future cooperation with the U.S. and NATO on Afghanistan.

U.S. policy rests on false assumptions. Pakistan, Washington decided, has no choice but to obey its aid-giving ally. The Chinese, however, understand the possibilities that will open to them as Washington marches to the beat of imperial ignorance.

China has moved resources and advisers to Pakistan, including nuclear experts. Washington can’t seem to grasp a decline, that the rest of the world sees, in their once undisputed world power. It cannot keep its home in good repair, but it still acts as if it can make other nations bend to its will.The 24 dead Pakistani soldiers might become the symbol for the beginning of the end of U.S. empire.

A Wish for the Holidays: Children's Voices Ringing through the Halls of Congress

December 13, 2011 ·

On Thursday, December 8, 2011 I was part of a delegation that delivered over 5,000 letters to members of Congress that had been written by children from all across the nation.

The event was organized by the We Belong Together Campaign and was held in celebration of International Human Rights Day. Children of all ages and backgrounds were talking about their wish to be together with their parents and families (during the holidays and beyond), without fear of separation or deportation. 

Some of the kids were U.S. born citizens of immigrant parents, some of them were undocumented themselves, and some of them wrote letters because they were worried about the families of their friends.

Jaydon, a ten year old boy from California wrote

One day I got home and watched TV. Then my dad walked in and said "There are some people here". So mom got up from scrubing the floor and some weird people walked in and went in the basement. With my dad and my mom walked up stairs and started crying. Then she said, "they're taking your dad away." And before I knew it they were gone. My dad even forgot to say "good-bye. After my dad was taken away for a while, I thought we weren't a family anymore. I was so sad and mad I couldn't think clearly.

As I was carting one of the boxes over to the Hart building for the press conference, I took a peak at some of the other letters.  Their words and their pictures impacted me. It struck me that all they could do was hope that members of Congress and the Obama administration would listen to their stories and do something to make their young lives a little less precarious, lonely, and uncertain. What sort of reaction did we get from the staffers who received our letters?

A group of congressional staffers seem perplexed at the unusual delivery. Photo by Celia Perez Garcia.My role that day was to visually document the events that unfolded so I was keenly aware of their faces and their attitudes. I was traveling with a group of four Spanish speaking women from Tenants and Workers United. Some of the “anti-immigrant” congressional offices looked at us as if were aliens from another world- blank stares of indifference. One of the “pro-immigrant” congressional staffers did stop and engage in conversation with us. It was great.

Sadly, many of the individuals who wanted to come out and participate in the day’s events were kept at bay because they were afraid of random document checks. Maybe these letters will do something to persuade politicians to pursue more humane legislation (such as the HELP Act) that allows immigrant families to speak, act, and live without this fear. Given the recent news that the Supreme Court has decided to review  Arizona’s less than immigrant friendly immigration law, perhaps we are moving in the right direction.

Celia Garcia Perez is a 2011 fall intern with the Break The Chain Campaign.

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