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I returned this week from nearly a full year researching mass protest in Bolivia. As luck would have it, 2010 has seen protests in greater numbers (67 per month!) than any year since 1971 , when the Center for Studies of Economic and Social Reality (Centro de Estudios de la Realidad Económica y Social) began keeping records on the subject. And based on both a comparative look at Bolivian history and pure population growth, it’s safe to extend that title to the most protests in a single year since the beginning of the 19th century, or even Bolivia’s history as an independent country.

Unlike 2003 and 2005, Bolivian protests did not mount into an overarching national wave capable of toppling a sitting government. However, many of the forces involved in those years are showing increasing independence from President Evo Morales and the Movement towards Socialism (MAS) party. Morales was ratified by a 64% majority in the December 2009 presidential elections and his party won the mayor’s office in nearly two-thirds of the country’s 337 municipalities in the April 2010 elections. However, this year many of the voters who backed the MAS in national fights showed their willingness to take to the streets to denounce its policies. Meanwhile, the MAS itself mobilized its base in a spectacular welcome to a global summit of climate change activists and against a 2011 workers’ strike.

Here, then, are the one election and ten mass mobilizations that defined the past year.

Read the rest of this entry »

The State Department (@StateDept) reminds us that the United States Agency for International Development has it’s 50th anniversary today. Somehow, the United States had the bright idea to place its international aid agency within the national security apparutus right from the start. John F. Kennedy and his top global policy planners saw USAID, the Alliance for Progress in Latin America, and other friendlier faces of the US government as working hand-in-glove with the planners of military maneuvers, trainers of military and para-military forces, and plotters of coups.

Not only was Kennedy into such soft power–hard power collaboration, but he was personally fascinated by counter-insurgency (a word that would later become so common, it lost its hyphen). John F. Kennedy, a man with a political halo is most American circles, brought about the Green Berets and the Special Warfare School at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. In March 1961, just as US AID was getting its commission publicly, a committee of the National Security Council (later the Special Group – Counter Insurgency) was commissioned to report on “U.S. Strategy To Deal With Wars of National Liberation,” as put in the title of the report they issued in December.

This report did not remain in a file, but instead drove new concepts like “counter-insurgency” and “internal defense” into the heart of US foreign policy for a generation. In Latin America, where I am now, “internal defense” became “internal security” or the “national security state,” the key American vision for reorienting Latin American militaries towards a new enemy: internal leftist parties and social movements.

Here’s a breakdown of the worldview behind this (all quotes are from the Overseas Internal Defense Policy written for the National Security Council in 1962; I swear no critic of the government was involved in making any of this up!):

  1. Communism was the global enemy, but the most serious losses to it had come in China, Vietnam, Cuba, and Algeria, where local leftists were almost entirely responsible. This is called internal agression.
  2. “Communists often infiltrate nationalist and reform movements.” So they might be a problem too.
  3. Everyone’s a target: “The vital sectors within modernizing societies include the rural sector; the labor front; students and youth organizations; the intelligentsia; the educational systems; internal communications and informational media; the military and police; religious groups; the civil bureaucracy; the various middle-class elites; ethnic minorities; and the political parties, sometimes including a legal communist party but invariably an illegal communist apparatus operating underground or through various fronts.”
  4. This matters to the USA because (1) We like freedom; (2) For military reasons, “strategic areas and the manpower and natural resources of developing nations” must not fall under communist control; (3) For economic reasons, “resources and markets of the less developed world [must] remain available to us.”
  5. The USA can get involved everywhere: to “immunize” countries where there is no insurgency, to “defeat the threat” where “subversive insurgency is latent or incipient,” and to train countries for and get involved in fights against insurgents.
  6. We need to get local governments to sign on to this policy. “To persuade these leaders to act in the interests of their society is often a complex and subtle task. … It is therefore essential that U.S. Country Teams know where the points of strength and vulnerability lie. This done, they can determine how to strengthen those elements which most effectively support U.S. objectives.”
  7. The US is okay with revolution: “The U.S. does not wish to assume a stance against revolution, per se, as an historical means of change. … A change brought about through force by noncommunist elements may be preferable to prolonged deterioration of governmental effectiveness or to a continuation of a situation where increasing discontent and repression interact, thus building toward a more dangerous climax.”
  8. However, the US will act against any revolution still in its early stages: “Where subversive insurgency is latent or incipient, U.S. strategy will be directed toward its elimination, lest it provide a communist foothold and escalate into active insurgency.”
  9. All hands on deck! “Anticipating, preventing and defeating communist-directed insurgency requires a blend of civil and military capabilities and actions”

Okay, so what does this have to do with USAID? Well, guess who was on the Special Group – Counter Insurgency:

  • Military Representative of the President, Chairman
  • The Attorney General
  • Deputy Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs
  • Deputy Secretary of Defense
  • Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff
  • Director of Central Intelligence
  • Special Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs
  • Administrator, [US]AID
  • Director, USIA

Further, the AID has a strategic role in “immunizing” countries against uprisings, in making the existing social order more palatable, and in training militaries and paramilitaries. Or as the NSC put it:

Where subversive insurgency is virtually non-existent, or incipient (PHASE I), the objective is to support the development of an adequate counter-insurgency capability in indigenous military forces through the Military Assistance Program, and to complement the nation-building programs of AID with military civic action.* The same means, in collaboration with AID and CIA, will be employed to develop a similar capability in indigenous para-military forces.

*[From the glossary]: The use of preponderantly indigenous military forces on projects useful to the local population at all levels in such fields as education, training, public works, agriculture, transportation, communications, health, sanitation and others contributing to economic and social development, which would also serve to improve the standing of the military forces with the population.

And just in case you’re thinking that USAID-Counterinsurgency cooperation is so fifty years ago, here’s a quote from the US Government Counterinsurgency Guide of January 2009:

“The large numbers of foreign service nationals that make up the professional cadre of field staff provide a unique understanding of the local situation, while the range of sectors and levels of activity allow USAID great operational flexibility and agility to both implement and track the effectiveness of COIN operations.” (Appendix: US Government Roles in COIN [Counterinsurgency], p. 51)

So, happy birthday, USAID! And remember, if anyone confuses you with an organized attempt to thwart radical social change, it’s just because they’ve figured out your mission statement.

Bibliographic note: The Overseas Internal Defense Policy is just one of many declassified documents now freely available. Many subsequent implementation decisions on counter-insurgency issues are part of the Presidential Decision Directives archive by the Federation of American Scientists.

As we cheer on Egypt’s anti-regime uprising, we should also be learning as much as possible how it worked. Some things, of course, are only important in a society that has lived under decades of emergency rule. But most, I think,  apply just about everywhere. Since we’ve seen government spying and storm trooper-style riot cops deployed in just about every country, it’s great when we can learn things that stop them.

Here are some of my favorites so far.

Open source protesting: Making its round in Egypt during the last days of January was a brilliant little pamphlet called “How to Protest Intelligently.” This easily reproducible, forwardable, xeroxable pamphlet brought together an open-ended set of tactics and strategies and widely distributed them. San Francisco bikers will be familiar with the well-distributed xeroxes that circulate at Critical Mass (some mockingly call this form of leadership “xerocracy”), but its relatively rare that protesters aim for mass distribution of their plans to the rest of society. When enough people are fed up, but might remain inactive without a plan, this can be strikingly effective.

By the way, open source is a metaphor here, that has relatively little to do with actual computers. It seems that e-mail and pdfs did actually help in Egypt, but mimeographs, printing presses, fax machines, or copiers would have functioned just as well in another era. (Non-blog-oriented hat-tip to the European collectives circulating open source windmill designs to put renewable energy into grassroots hands.)

You can read nine pages of the pamphlet at Indybay (the San Francisco Bay Independent Media Center), one of my favorite open media institutions.

Advice on gathering and mobilizing from “How to Protest Intelligently”

Gather where you is, Converge on where you ain’t:* One piece of simple advice from the pamphlet is this universally applicable tactical plan. Apparently, it actually happened this way. Ahdaf Soueif, for example, reports:

This is the scene that took place in every district of every city in Egypt today. The one I saw: we started off as about 20 activists, after Friday prayers in a small mosque in the interior of the popular Cairo district of Imbaba. “The people – demand – the fall of this regime!” Again and again the call went out. We started to walk: “Your security. Your policekilled our brothers in Suez.”

The numbers grew. Every balcony was full of people: women smiling, waving, dangling babies to the tune of the chants: “Bread! Freedom! Social justice!” Old women called: “God give you victory.”

For more than an hour the protest wound through the narrow lanes. Kids ran alongside. A woman picking through garbage and loading scraps into plastic bags paused and raised her hand in a salute. By the time we wound on to a flyover to head for downtown we were easily 3,000 people. (“An eyewitness account of the Egypt protests,” Guardian, January 28)

* “If you can’t organize where you is, you can’t organize where you ain’t” — received Saul Alinsky-style wisdom

Missing step, How to Defend a Public Plaza from Cops and Mobs of Hired Thugs: Seriously, I’m curious. And a lot of experience has been generated.

How to make demands from a giant crowd: Now that Tahrir Square has proclaimed itself an “autonomous republic,” and demands are flying from every corner of Egyptian society, not to mention every foreign government, the crowds whose effort has made change possible are trying to articulate their demands. Here’s how:

In Tahrir, the square that has become the focal point for the nationwide struggle against Mubarak’s three-decade dictatorship, groups of protesters have been debating what their precise goals should be in the face of their president’s continuing refusal to stand down.

The Guardian has learned that delegates from these mini-gatherings then come together to discuss the prevailing mood, before potential demands are read out over the square’s makeshift speaker system. The adoption of each proposal is based on the proportion of cheers or boos it receives from the crowd at large.

Delegates have arrived in Tahrir from other parts of the country that have declared themselves liberated from Mubarak’s rule, including the major cities of Alexandria and Suez, and are also providing input into the decisions.

“When the government shut down the web, politics moved on to the street, and that’s where it has stayed,” said one youth involved in the process. “It’s impossible to construct a perfect decision-making mechanism in such a fast-moving environment, but this is as democratic as we can possibly be.” (“Cairo’s biggest protest yet demands Mubarak’s immediate departure,” Guardian, February 5)

As I alternate between interviewing Bolivians about the process of mass collective action that overthrew two neoliberal governments in 2003 and 2005, and watching the unfolding uprising in Egypt by the Internet, I’m doing my best to learn from both situations. For now, here’s one bit of writing describing Bolivia’s 2003 Gas War that seems especially relevant to events in Egypt in 2011:

Hay ocasiones en que la muerte y el miedo son los puntos infranqueables que detienen una insurgencia social frente a las murallas del gobierno. Por eso el Estado necesita monopolizar la coerción legítima pues ésta, que encarna el posible uso de la violencia y muerte en contra de la sociedad, es la garantía última y final de todo orden político constituido. Sin embargo, hay momentos en que la muerte cataliza el ímpetu de la sublevación, en que la muerte es la seña que permite unificar colectividades distanciadas dando pie a un tipo de hermandad extendida en el dolor y el luto. En ese momento la muerte es derrotada por la vitalidad de una sublevación de voluntades sociales llamada insurrección.

There are occasions when death and fear are the insuperable obstacles that stand in the way of a social insurgency outside the walls of government power. For this reason, the State needs to monopolize legitimate coercion, which embodies the possible use of violence and death against the society, since this is the last and final guarantee of every constituted political order.

Nevertheless, there are moments in which death [instead] catalyzes the impetus of the uprising, in which death is the sign under which formerly distant collectivities can unify, giving rise to a sort of extended bortherhood of pain and mourning. In that moment, death is defeated by the vitality of the uprising of social wills that is called insurrection.

—Álvaro García Linera, “La sublevación indígena popular en Bolivia
[The Indigenous Popular Uprising in Bolivia],” 2004

On Sunday, Egypt held parliamentary elections which are widely known to be neither free nor fair (denunciation by the Carnegie Endowment for international peace). The elections were a demonstration of the government’s plans in advance of the 2011 elections, when long-time president Hosni Mubarak may make way for his son to rise as a successor. Unlike the media frenzy over the selection of Kim Jong-Il’s son to receive a special title, little mainstream outrage has been directed at Mubarak’s machinations. Egypt remains under its third decade of emergency rule (which ban demonstrations and some opposition parties), and is the largest non-democratic recipient of United States’ foreign aid by far. It’s also the largest undemocratic country in the Middle East, helped to remain so by our tax dollars, and military and diplomatic support. It’s the clearest sign that the alleged US policy to support democracy in the region is a joke.

In the absence of outside support, people in Egypt have made a number of challenges to this situation. One of the latest was the mid-day peaceful uprising on Sunday by residents of Balteem and Hamoul against voter fraud. Their actions were in defense of independent candidate Hamdeen Sabahy (profile). Since 1995, three of Sabahy’s voters have been killed by Egyptian riot police, while he won office in 2000 and 2005.

Blogger Baheyya has an hour-by-hour account of local resistance (h/t to The Arabist). Here are some highlights:

8:30 am. Sabahy’s representatives rush to photocopy the new certification papers required to gain access to polling stations. Early that morning at 12:30 am, Sabahy’s campaign was dumbfounded to learn of sudden new regulations for the papers, requiring that they be stamped from police precincts rather than notary publics as had been announced earlier. Certain that this is an 11th hour rule manipulation to bar Sabahy’s agents from accessing polling stations, campaign workers spend all night driving to police stations to get the necessary stamps.

9:10 am. The first reports of foul play trickle in. Candidate agents from 12 polling stations phone in that they have been kicked out of polling stations, and one says her certification papers were ripped up despite having the necessary police stamp.

1:00 pm. Sabahy’s representatives sent to Hamoul and agents of other candidates who are sympathetic to Sabahy begin to phone in reports of ballot-stuffing in favor of Abdel Ghaffar in villages surrounding Hamoul.

1:50 pm. Balteem’s main streets are lined with men congregating and sitting on the sidewalks, expressions somber and nerves frayed. A procession of cars and pickup trucks loaded with youth speed past in the direction of the highway. “They’re blockading the highway!” Spontaneously, Balteem and Borg youth decide to blockade the highway to protest what is now a certain sense of election rigging. The news travels like wildfire and some cars change route and head for the highway rather than Sabahy’s house. Frantic calls to campaign cars instructs them to make sure no women are headed to the highway, in anticipation of violence between protestors and riot police.

2-4 pm. Town youth blockade the highway with burning tires and clumps of tree branches and wooden sticks. Highway traffic comes to a standstill, with freight trucks backed up as far as the eye can see. A campaign worker says to no one in particular, “Didn’t I say that this morning was the quiet before the storm?”

4 pm. Townspeople converge on Sabahy’s courtyard and the candidate comes out to speak, standing on a pick-up truck. Livid, fiery youth and men climb on the pick-up truck and demand revenge. Sabahy struggles to control the crowd’s emotions, saying he’d rather withdraw and give up his seat than join this scandalously handpicked parliament. A fully veiled woman in black climbs on the truck and pulls the microphone from his hand, screaming, “Don’t you dare withdraw, Sabahy! Don’t you dare withdraw!”

The crowd chants, “Balteem boxes won’t leave! Balteem boxes won’t leave!” By law, counting stations for the entire district are located in Hamoul but since Hamoul was experiencing rigging, residents feared their ballots would be destroyed or disappeared en route to the counting station.

Ultimately, these efforts appear not to have saved the day. Instead it was the threat of further government violence that won. Al Ahram reported at 4:35 pm, “Police armored vehicles have stormed Balteem, in Kafr El-Sheikh, firing tear gas and live ammunition into the air.” Later, Sabahy himself convinced his supporters to stand down (again, the full day is here):

7:00 pm. Sabahy comes out and is immediately mobbed by the crowd, lifting him on their shoulders and giving him a hero’s welcome. He gives a rousing speech in which he denounces the government and several Amn al-Dawla officers by name for fixing the elections in Hamoul, and reiterates his position of withdrawing from the elections. The crowd presses him to authorize and lead a peaceful protest march to the police station to protest the rigging, but Sabahy fears security forces’ violent response and does not want injuries and casualties among his supporters, as in the past. The back-and-forth goes on for an hour that feels like an eternity, but in the end Sabahy prevails and the people are dejected, though none take matters into their own hands as some did that afternoon.

Somewhat obnoxiously, a government spokesman claimed, “The [governing] party’s careful selection of its candidates was a factor in defeating big opposition names such as Hamdeen Sabahi.” Sabahy withdrew from the race, and made these comments later: “The rigging proves that the [governing] NDP wants no opposition in parliament. With the new parliament, we will see increased restrictions on freedom of expression, including new restrictions on the media.” Whatever the wisdom of backing down (and no one should be too eager to second guess such moves when lives are at stake), residents’ willingness to take their anger to the streets are remarkable under so much pressure.

p.s. Apparently, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak would like another dictatorship in Iraq, according to advice he gave to US officials (Thanks, Wikileaks).

The weapon used against Tristan Anderson, a high velocity tear gas round, has once again proved deadly on the West Bank. This time, on Friday, occupying Israeli soldiers attacked demonstrators, including Bassem Abu Rahme. According to demonstrators’ reports, “He participated in the weekly protest and was standing in the other side of the wall, and was shouting at the soldiers “we are in a nonviolent protest, there are kids and internationals” he couldn’t continue his scrim and was shot. He was transferred to Ramallah governmental hospital, but he was dead. The funeral will be tomorrow in the village of Bilin at 1:00 pm.”

The relative position of soldiers and protesters is clear from this photo: a recently wounded Bassem is in fluorescent yellow.

April 17, 2009: IDF fatally shoots Palestinian protester. Photo by Lazar Simeonov

April 17, 2009: IDF fatally shoots Palestinian protester. Photo by Lazar Simeonov

This was the predictable consequence of the flagrant repurposing of “less lethal” or “non-lethal” munitions to maim and kill at close range. See reporting by Israeli human rights group B’Tselem.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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