A culture of life, A culture of death
November 5, 2001 / New Internationalist
It is the end of September and, as US war planes mass in dark swarms over the planet, in Bolivia it is spring. Fat humming birds thrust their heads deep into the purple blossoms of the jacaranda trees that line the streets of Cochabamba.
This is the city whose citizens rose up last year to reverse the World Bank-imposed privatization of its water system. In the hills surrounding the town, irrigation ditches built by the people were sold off by the Government to a US multinational, the Bechtel corporation – just one of many insults that instigated a popular insurrection here ‘in defence of water and life’. The radical history of Cochabamba is written on its walls in the poetic graffiti and murals dotted around town.
This place has become a symbol of resistance to globalization. I am here for the third conference of Peoples’ Global Action (PGA), an international gathering of grassroots movements from North and South that have been a catalyst for the increasingly vociferous opposition to global capitalism. The PGA network is made up of an unlikely constituency: Asian peasant unions a million strong; European and Canadian anarchists; indigenous peoples – Mapuche, Maori, Aymara and many others; landless movements from everywhere; South African activists against privatization; Thai sweatshop unionists; Chilean human-rights workers; and a mindboggling array of other assorted grassroots radicals of many shapes, colours, sizes and beliefs. They were pioneers of global grassroots resistance to the World Trade Organization’s free-trade agenda, and have been involved in the growing anti-globalization protests from Bangalore to Seattle to Genoa.
This motley gathering is the embodiment of ‘globalization from below’. In its multiplicity and chaos, in its opposition to hierarchy, capitalism, patriarchy and nationalism, and in its maddening contradictions, it challenges the basic premises of fundamentalists of all stripes. It challenges both the market fundamentalists and their pact with transnational finance, and the religious fundamentalists who, threatened by the power that pact has given to Western élites, respond with fascism and terror.
But these are dangerous times to be fighting the free-trade agenda when one of its most potent symbols – the World Trade Center – lies in ruins. Italian Prime Minister Berlusconi noted the ‘strange unanimity’ between the movements resisting economic globalization and Islamic terrorists, who were both ‘enemies of Western civilization’. In the British periodical New Statesman, Johann Hari went as far as to draw parallels between the writer Naomi Klein and Osama bin Laden. As George Bush has made clear: you are with him, or with the terrorists. The Governor of Cochabamba District absorbs these instructions rapidly and announces to the press that the PGA conference is a meeting of ‘international terrorists’.
Duly, on arrival in La Paz I am interrogated by an intelligence official. With the correct visas but the wrong political beliefs, dozens of us are threatened with deportation; many are trapped for a week in a bus on the border with Peru. Meanwhile, US Drug Enforcement officers take upon themselves the powers of local immigration officials and haul foreigners off the buses into Cochabamba to conduct on-the-spot identity checks.
Stanis, an unflappable Papua New Guinean, has had possibly the most nightmarish journey to the conference. In a sense his journey began when he started using the internet connection of a friend who lived two hours’ walk from his village. In this way he discovered, to his delight and astonishment, how many others around the world there are who, like him, oppose the policies of the World Bank. To come to this conference he made the long trek to his capital, Port Moresby, then took a plane to Sydney. Flight disruption after the attacks in the US delayed him there for three days. Despite the fact that he was in transit, in Los Angeles he was held in a hotel under armed guard for two nights – then sent on to La Paz. Here he was detained for two more days, sitting in a small office in the customs lounge with no bed, no food and $10 in his pocket. He demanded to be imprisoned, in the hope of having a bed to sleep on. Occasionally officials brought him hamburgers, which he refused, lining them up along the shelf. ‘I’ve been eating junk for eight days. I did not come to Bolivia to sit here,’ he told them calmly. Finally he was released when they realized they didn’t have a flight to send him home on.
The conference is held in a local school while small children play around the ‘terrorists’. The meetings and workshops concentrate on exchanging realities, developing strategy, and reshaping the PGA manifesto – workshops on Plan Colombia, campaigns over community control of water, land, a global call to action for the upcoming World Trade Organization meeting, and so on. But the developments of 11 September loom large over the proceedings.
Oscar Olivera, a key figure in the Coordinadora del Agua y de la Vida (Co-ordination for Water and Life) that won the water war in Cochabamba, sends condolences to the US victims of the attacks. But he also says: ‘Terrorism is bringing the police and the soldiers on to the streets to repress the hunger and legitimate protest of the people who suffer the policies of neoliberalism.’ Agnes, who has worked with Southeast Asian women sweatshop workers, makes clear the ‘difference between this kind of terrorism and our political dissent’.
A trade unionist from Cochabamba comes fresh from a local meeting to discuss the implications of the terror attacks: ‘As campesinos, we do not congratulate anybody for having carried out the attacks. It hurts all of us. But the crimes of the US in other countries have generated a lot of enemies. The US have advisers at a military base several hours from here in Chaparé, which is used as a US surveillance base for the whole of South America.’ He shakes his head in sorrow. ‘And now a lot more innocent people are going to have to die because the US needs to believe it is invincible.’
For the US, the war has come home, but for the people at this conference – for the indigenous Kuna living along the border between Colombia and Panama, for the cocaleros (coca growers) of Bolivia, for the Brazilian Landless Movement (MST) – this was always a war. The ‘war on terrorism’ is as vague as the ‘war on drugs’, a fine-sounding crusade that provides a rationale for US intervention in Latin America. We hear, via the Argentinian newspaper La Prensa, that at a military base in northeast Argentina there are 250 US instructors training 750 locals not just for the ‘war on drugs’ but also to target ‘anti-globalization activists’ like MST.
Naka, an Afro-Colombian whose ancestors fled slavery to form free communities in the forests of Colombia, explains how his people are among the most invisible casualties of the US militarization of Colombia. ‘They call it “development” when one person is a horse and the other is the horse rider with a whip,’ he says. ‘They have sent US-funded paramilitaries against our communities in order to access the biodiversity and the oil. Two million people have had to leave the country because of Plan Colombia.’
South African poet Dennis Brutus is a veteran anti-apartheid campaigner who was imprisoned on Robben Island at the same time as Mandela. He points out: ‘Nelson Mandela was on a CIA list as a terrorist and the ANC was a “terrorist organization”.’ These days Brutus concentrates on fighting economic globalization, and he argues that the attacks on the US are ‘going to make our work very much harder’. He speaks from long years of experience, though, when he says: ‘But the struggle will continue. That is in human nature. One does not submit to oppression. You resist when necessary. In life, but if not in life then in death. People will die to be free. And I think this is what we will see in our time.’
Jim Schultz is an activist and writer based in Cochabamba and the man who broke the story of the city’s water wars over the internet in April 2000. He says that a movement’s long-term survival relies less on its initial success, than on how it responds to repression. It keeps building and building until it reaches a critical mass, at which point the powers-that-be realize the real threat it poses and crack down hard. We could see this happening to the anti-globalization movement even before the terror attacks. We could even see it happening before the Italian carabinieri shot one protester dead and broke the bodies of 80 sleeping activists during the G8 meeting in Genoa last July.
A Swiss activist recalls that when the PGA convened in Prague their meeting was broken up. He said that even before Genoa, ‘the custom of European democracy was hardening in the face of real political dissent. And after New York, everything has been changed.’ The real test of this movement’s success will lie in how it responds to repression and builds public support.
Meanwhile, like Nero fiddling as Rome burns, the masters of the universe continue to equate freedom with free trade, democracy with plutocracy and outright imperialism. Their only solution to this crisis seems to be ‘more of the same’. US Trade Representative Robert Zoellick, gunning for a new trade round at the WTO, writes: ‘On 11 September, America, its open society and its ideas came under attack by a malevolence that craves our panic, retreat and abdication of global leadership… This President and this administration will fight for open markets. We will not be intimidated by those who have taken to the streets to blame trade – and America – for the world’s ills.’
In conflating this movement and the terrorists, Zoellick leads us deeper into a world of madness, dispossession, and desperation.
But, though it faces heavy repression, this movement is not going away. In fact, with its call for global justice, it has never been more necessary. As US-based academic George Caffentzis writes, ‘We in the anti-globalization movement must not be caught between the huge bombs of Bush and the smaller bombs of Islamic fundamentalists… for the moment, our movement is the only one capable of leading an escape from the hellish dialectic of homicide and suicide launched by the forces of global capital and the perpetrators of the 11 September massacre.’
Resistance is growing all across this movement’s grassroots base in the South. The dispossessed around the world are getting more and more desperate. These people are not going to give up their fight: they have little left to lose. Hundreds of thousands of Indian farmers are planning, for example, to reclaim their government’s grain supplies and distribute them among the poor, as a protest against the WTO’s upcoming attempt to launch a new round of trade liberalization.
The powers-that-be can either try to brutalize or kill off all the myriad constituencies of this resistance movement, or they can address the root causes of the coming unrest. The alternative is a world come apart at the seams, a world of their own making.
An Aymara man says: ‘This is a fight between two cultures. One is a culture of life. One is a culture of death. In the West they seem to have lost the value of this culture of life, which has not been totally lost in Latin America.’
One evening the Bolivian volunteers of the youth group, Tinku, put on a cultural show. They gather in the centre of the room. With pipes and drums they play a choppy, driving indigenous rhythm – one that was banned for years as subversive.
Farmers from Bangladesh; Afro-Colombians; Spanish anarchists; Bolivian village kids: all the conference participants hold hands in concentric circles around the musicians, moving in different directions around them. This turns to hysterical chaos as gleeful dancers lead their circle under the arms of the outer circle and back again, until everyone is dancing and laughing in a giant, confused tangle.
In this moment, no power on earth seems as strong, as heady as the potential of this combined, diverse humanity. I sit down for a rest, still laughing, and the man next to me tells me that one of the Colombians’ compañeras has been killed by paramilitaries that morning.
Like the Aymara man said. A culture of life, a culture of death. At war.