Posts by Justin Podur

Anti-Authoritarian Current: A Review of Dixon’s Another Politics

First published on TeleSUR 16 December 2014

In Another Politics, Chris Dixon presents a part of the North American left, defining it early on in the book as the “anti-authoritarian current”. A significant part of the book is dedicated to defining this current, its ideology, and its practices. Dixon is explicit about being a part of this current, and while the book raises some of the dilemmas and internal criticisms of the current, it is largely a celebration of the current's beliefs and methods.

How is the current defined? Dixon identifies three strands: Antiracist feminism, prison abolitionism, and anarchism. Antiracist feminism is Dixon's summary for what is sometimes called intersectional analysis or anti-oppression politics: the idea that there are multiple oppressions, along lines of gender, race, and class, and that true liberation requires liberation from all of these oppressions. Moreover, in this current, none of these oppressions can be assigned a place of primacy over the others. Prison abolitionism is “a set of politics aimed at the complete elimination of the institutions of incarceration” (pg. 38). On anarchism, Dixon emphasizes that this current is defined by a “reconfigured anarchism”, a bundle of features fusing “consensus decision-making, affinity groups, and direct action”, “a strongly prefigurative movement culture based on working together collectively, sharing resources equitably, challenging power relations, and supporting one another”, “along with a commitment to egalitarianism, mutual aid, and freedom as well as a far-reaching critique of domination.” The “glue that largely held it all together was a shared counterculture and template of activities” (pg. 42).

After defining these three strands, Dixon goes on to further define the current according to four “antis”: anti-authoritarianism, anti-capitalism, anti-oppression, and anti-imperialism. The four “antis” help define what the current is against; a chapter on prefigurative politics discusses the positive aspirations of the current as its members try to redefine relations within their groups as they challenge oppressive institutions in society.

Dixon traces the lineage of the anti-authoritarian current to North American left movements and organizations of past decades. For the book, Dixon interviewed dozens of members of the current across North America and studied dozens of existing organizations (listed at the end of the book pg. 239). Organizations whose work and analysis is given special emphasis in the book include: No One Is Illegal, Colours of Resistance, INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence, the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty. As a member of the political current under study, Dixon states that the research borrows from:

“'ethnography' (analyzing lived culture by experiencing it), 'participant observation' (understanding how and why people do what they do by participating it), and 'oral history' (gathering history by inviting and listening to people's stories). However, none of these methods has fully satisfied me, largely because they still rest on inside/outside distinctions between movements and researchers.” (pg. 12)

As the title of Dixon's blog ( suggests, Dixon's interest is in “writing not about or even for but with movements”. (pg. 12)

Dixon's attempt to remove the “inside/outside distinction between movements and researchers” raises some philosophical questions: what is the role of an individual's thoughts, or contributions, in the anti-authoritarian current? Another Politics has a high proportion of quotes from members of the current. Dixon's writing practice is to lend weight to other voices. But it is clear that the interview subjects, the organizations, and the quotes were all selected by Dixon, and the presentation of Another Politics is Dixon's vision of these politics.

Another philosophical question arises: can someone who writes with movements, who refuses inside/outside distinctions, be critical enough to challenge these movements? Can movement weaknesses and failings be seen from that inside position of a writer who writes with movements? On the other side, can criticisms of movements from the outside be ignored based on their outside origins?

Certainly the book is full of self-criticism, by both the author and the interview subjects. Pitfalls to prefigurative politics mentioned include “getting fixated on particular forms of talking rather than how those forms are connected to practical activities”, as “when organizers... master specialized anti-oppression vocabulary without substantially changing how their organizations function,” (pg. 98) or of focusing “narrowly on anti-oppression politics as a fixed set of behaviors and understandings that we can grasp individually, rather than as a dynamic set of politics, practices, and sensibilities” (pg. 100). What results is “absolutism”, involving “scrutinizing one another's behavior, creating our own status hierarchies, and excluding those who don't live up to our righteous standards” (pg. 101).

Pitfalls to the current's strategic thinking include “a tendency to focus on principles over plans”. Based on “a legitimate concern that radicals may sacrifice our core values in order to win”, “focusing exclusively on principles slips into a kind of magical thinking” (pg. 111). Another strategic weakness is “a tendency to fetishize particular tactics”, especially direct action. Since the 1990s, “a narrow understanding of this tactical approach has gained some popularity among radicals. This mainly involves street protests and confrontations and confrontations with police, often including black bloc tactics.” (pg. 113) While “there is nothing wrong, in principle, with any of these tactics,” radicals can get stuck, “focusing most of our attention on debating the validity of certain tactics rather than on considering how those tactics fit into overall plans to achieve something” (pg. 113). Finally, Dixon criticizes “crisis mode organizing”, a tendency to work on urgent problems at the expense of long-term strategy (pg. 114).

Another Politics offers some thoughts towards addressing these pitfalls. The solution to the problems of prefigurative politics, Dixon proposes, is to remember that “prefigurative praxis... is genuinely transformative only as long as it is part of movements that are fighting to win a new world” (pg. 105). As for the strategic pitfalls, Dixon proposes a “movement-building orientation”, including anti-authoritarian notions of leadership that go beyond patriarchal notions of charismatic (usually male) individuals who lead organizations, and organizations that go “beyond subcultures and service providers” (pg. 139).

In a section about “minding the ruts” (pg. 201), Dixon criticizes traditional left organizational forms: the political party, the revolutionary party, the NGO, and the affinity group – all of which are one or another kind of “rut”. Here, Another Politics admits that organizations that don't fall into these ruts are “something that another politics doesn't yet fully have – a way to be critical, conscious, creative and constructive in how we approach organizational structures” (pg. 207).

Another Politics is well-organized and well-researched, a comprehensive look at the anti-authoritarian current in North America. As a result, the book's limitations are really the limitations of the current itself. I, too, see myself as part of this current. But my assessment of the current's doctrine and practice is less positive, and less optimistic than Dixon's.

While I agree with most of the self-criticisms posed in Another Politics, I believe that the problems mentioned in the book (self-destructive internal dynamics and deficits of strategy) have been a major brake on political progress within the current and, thinking in terms of missed opportunities, in the society as well. If, as Another Politics reports, the anti-authoritarian current came into its own in the 1990s, this means that the current has been active for some two decades. In that period, established power has become stronger, inequalities have increased, union organization has declined, the political spectrum has shifted to the right, and US intervention has destroyed several countries (Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine, Haiti, Libya, Syria). It would be terribly unfair to attribute these declines to a set of small groups of radicals in North America's major cities, of course. But decades ago, when we were becoming politically active, the anti-authoritarian current defined itself against not only the systems of oppression in society, but also against the established left. Now, the anti-authoritarian current is becoming the establishment: in the two bases of the current, nonprofits and the academy, left politics are defined by the anti-authoritarian current more than any other rival left currents (such as old socialists). Another Politics reflects the anti-authoritarian current's youthful attitude, arguing on the basis of potential and that the best is yet to come. I fear that our record so far does not match this prediction.

Part of the anti-authoritarian current's limitations have to do with the lack of a base. The organizational forms mentioned as “ruts”, especially political parties, have been disdained by the activists of the anti-authoritarian current. But before that current even came into its own, the left had been largely kicked out of political parties and then kicked out of unions. Today, most Another Politics-type radicals in North America work through nonprofits or on campuses, both of which have severe limitations. The lost history of radicals in elected office is told in books like Eric Leif Davin's Radicals in Power (2012), and Lipset and Marks' It Didn't Happen Here (2013). Some radical victories through unionism are discussed in Pizzigatti's The Rich Don't Always Win (2012). Another Politics devotes pages to discussing the pitfalls of sectarianism and the importance of a non-sectarian approach, but the anti-authoritarian current has been as sectarian as any other left current, which has meant that these other histories have not been incorporated into the anti-authoritarian current's thinking.

In other words, if Another Politics is based on writing with movements, it could have offered a much stronger challenge to those movements. It is clear to me that there is a great deal to be learned before the left in North America is up to the task it is faced with. We learn more to the extent that we are willing to be uncomfortable. To the extent that Another Politics is celebratory, it makes its movement readers comfortable rather than uncomfortable, and it misses opportunities to make criticism and proposals that could strengthen movements.

Another Politics has a tension within it. On the one hand, it is trying to explain the movement - of which Dixon is a part – to outsiders, with all of its features, many of which are an important part of the author's political identity. In these parts, Dixon writes like someone who is just discovering these remarkable people and organizations, and who is greatly impressed by them. On the other hand, Another Politics is written for the anti-authoritarian current, trying to show its members what kinds of dilemmas and problems its activists are thinking about. In these parts of the book, Dixon writes very gently and emphasizes that the weaknesses and pitfalls that are raised are in the process of being worked out.

The movement audience for the book could benefit from more discussion of our failures and limitations, as well as Dixon's own thoughts and speculations about how to get beyond them, even if these thoughts go beyond what Dixon's interviewees say.

In building up a picture of the common points and ideas of the current, Another Politics also left me wondering about areas of difference among members of the current. Such differences are the seeds of future splits and internal conflicts, and they, too, deserve more space.

Despite these criticisms, Another Politics is an invaluable snapshot of the North American left today. In recent years, a number of studies have attempted to measure the state of the left in North America. Alex Khasnabish's 2008 book, Zapatismo Beyond Borders, followed North American radicals influenced by the Zapatistas of Mexico. The Ear to the Ground Project ( is another massive initiative that is still yielding results. Dixon's Another Politics is an important contribution in this literature. To understand the state of the left in North America, in all its aspirations and its limitations, Another Politics is an important book.

The Power of Crazy Ideas: A review of Naomi Klein’s ‘This Changes Everything’

A review of This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate, by Naomi Klein (Simon and Schuster, 2014), 576 pgs.

Review first published at TeleSUR

Sources of misery in the world are difficult to rank, but any short list would have to include inequality, war, and environmental degradation. People who are concerned about inequality and war have historically been called leftists. Those who are concerned about the planet have been called environmentalists. Over the decades, they have distrusted one another, and synthesis has been elusive.

Environmentalists have argued that waiting for "the revolution" in order to try to save species from extinction, or prevent the planet from boiling over because of climate change, is denying the urgency of environmental problems. They have argued that, given the urgency of environmental problems, we have to use whatever mechanisms are available to us, from high-tech solutions to market mechanisms, to rich philanthropists. They point to spectacular environmental failures by the communist governments of China and Russia, as well as to numerous failures by left-leaning social democratic governments. They note how worker's unions, who try to preserve work and jobs, can campaign to do so at the expense of nature.

On the other side, leftists see environmentalists as willing to displace people from their lands in order to preserve species against human influence and create biological reserves that are, in theory, inaccessible to anyone, but in practice, are usually accessible to elite tourists and scientists. They see environmentalists as willing to accept compromises with elites in ways that ultimately compromise not only left, but also environmental values. They view the concerns of humans as primary, and other species as a much more distant concern, which many environmentalists do not understand.

Some of the views environmentalists and leftists hold about one another are true, others are caricatures, and still others might be true now but could potentially change through dialogue and common action. Such a dialogue is urgent, since the planet, and the people, have the same enemy.

Naomi Klein's new book This Changes Everything is a step towards such a synthesis. It is interesting that the synthesis came from a writer of the left who spent years studying and working with the environmental movement, and becoming a part of it. Though Klein's personal journey to meeting and joining the environmental movement, is described in the book, it is fundamentally an analysis and synthesis of the problem of climate change as a problem for social movements (or, in other words, as a problem for leftists).

Klein's method of writing, which was followed in her previous book, The Shock Doctrine, is to carefully study the words and ideas of those in power, and then to travel the world and see what people are doing, learning from the analyses of movements that are contesting state and private power and combining them, revealing connections that, for those heavily involved in local struggles, can be hard to see. The result, in this book as in The Shock Doctrine, is to reveal a common enemy, to reveal common methods that the enemy uses, and to share methods of resistance that might prove promising.

In The Shock Doctrine, Klein described how the most vicious neoliberal doctrines were thought of as crazy ideas in the decades following WWII. The neoliberals persisted with their crazy ideas, and today we are all living under their heel. In the same spirit, This Changes Everything starts with an analysis of some of the crazy ideas of this moment, presented at right-wing climate-denying conferences which she attended and reports on. The deniers, Klein notes, deny the science of climate change because they don't like its implications: that in order to prevent environmental catastrophe, societies will have to make massive changes to the economic system, a system that is serving the deniers and their funders very well. Klein argues that in their recognition that deep changes in the direction of equality would be needed to stabilize the climate, the right-wing deniers are not wrong. Indeed, they grasp something that many in the environmental movement fail to grasp: that economic changes deep enough to stabilize the climate are too deep to leave existing inequalities completely intact. In order to tackle climate change, Klein argues, we have to return to many of the social-democratic, Keynesian policies that are so despised by neoliberals: economic planning, regulation, progressive taxation, and redistribution, led by democratic governments playing a major role in the economy, with active movements pressuring them.

To recap: the book observes that the reason for climate denial is not that the political right lacks an understanding of the facts and the science, but instead that they deny the facts because they recognize better than most what the facts actually mean. Building on this observation, This Changes Everything proceeds to try to help readers in the environmental movement discard some bad ideas that have plagued the discussion of solutions to climate change.

The first illusion to discard is that the environment is an issue that unites the wealthy and the poor, an issue that transcends inequality.

“Environmentalists spoke of climate change as a great equalizer, the one issue that affected everyone, rich or poor," writes Klein on page 52. "Yet all signs are that it is doing precisely the opposite, stratifying us further ... divided between those whose wealth offers them a not insignificant measure of protection from ferocious weather ... and those left to the mercy of increasingly dysfunctional states.”

But there are many others. Reviewing the record of environmental organizations making alliances with corporations, This Changes Everything finds that compromises beget compromises. The most dramatic example is the story of the extinction of the prairie chicken, whose breeding grounds, after being gifted to the Nature Conservancy, were destroyed by drilling by the Nature Conservancy. This Changes Everything also discards the current fashionable idea that philanthropists can stabilize the climate at the last minute.

The cautionary tale in this section is the story of Richard Branson of Virgin Airlines, who saw the light after watching Al Gore's powerpoint presentation and proceeded to make grand promises and then to do absolutely nothing of any use for the climate, expanding his highly pollutant industries in the meantime. The brief and completely ineffectual history of cap-and-trade, carbon markets, and other climate market mechanisms that created speculative markets while emissions continued to increase, is also reviewed in the book.

The most terrifying section, however, is a crazy idea that is still sitting on the shelf. However, it's inclusion in the book is more than merited in order to help inoculate readers before it becomes more prominent, as it likely will: the idea of manipulating the atmosphere directly, spraying toxins into the atmosphere on an ongoing basis to reduce sunlight reaching the earth, instead of trying to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases. The risks of this lunacy (it would be insulting to call it a strategy) are catastrophic, and the potential benefits would be extremely unequal. The book notes that, when presented with geoengineering-type solutions to climate change, right-wingers who would ordinarily deny climate change are more inclined to believe in it — another piece of evidence that it is the implications that are really being denied, rather than the facts.

Geoengineering is only one of the high-tech bad ideas that are currently on offer to environmentalists. Bioengineering, carbon-capture and storage, ocean "fertilization," and, of course, nuclear power as an alternative, are all put forward by one or another environmentalist as possible solutions. Because nuclear is an existing technology and perhaps the least crazy of the options, Klein handles it quite gently, advocating a gradual phase out of nuclear power; “prioritizing fossil fuels for cuts because the next decade is so critical,” she writes on page 138, proposing “a moratorium on new nuclear facilities a decommisioning of the oldest plans and then a full nuclear phase-out once renewables had decisively displaced fossil fuels.”

I agree with her conclusions here, but I believe that nuclear advocacy by environmentalists has been another diversion that has lost us precious time, like the others discussed in the middle section of This Changes Everything.

The problem with all of the bad ideas presented in the middle of the book is that they take for granted the world-view criticized in the book's first section, a world-view that, following anti-mining activists, Klein summarizes as extractivism. In the third and final section of the book, Klein showcases many examples of resistance to extractivism from all over the world, including Canada, Greece, India, Nigeria, and many other places. Those who are fighting against the destruction of ecosystems, the basis of life where they live, are having to do so without institutional support and find themselves having to build their own systems of community and of survival, drawing on old traditions and on new experiments. In Greece, some of these activists used the term Blockadia, which Klein suggests could be seen as the changing, dynamic network of people resisting extractivism anywhere in the world. This section is a breath of fresh air (atmosphere pun intended). Where most environmental books present packages of policies, technologies, or laws, Klein presents the voices of people who are fighting for the lands and communities they live in and love.

The conclusion of the book is in her own voice, and returns to the Shock Doctrine parable of crazy ideas sitting on the shelf.

"Any attempt to rise to the climate challenge will be fruitless unless it is understood as part of a much broader battle of worldviews, a process of rebuilding and reinventing the very idea of the collective, the communal, the commons, the civil, and the civic after so many decades of attack and neglect," she writes on page 460.

After so many decades of neoliberalism, the ideas presented in This Changes Everything are the crazy ones. Read them, and when the opportunity arises, as it will, reach for them, and not for geoengineering, nukes, philanthrocapitalists, and climate markets.

Colombia: The Early Signs of a Violent Peace

First published at Telesur English

In my last column, I described the Colombian peace process between the government and FARC. I discussed possible spoilers of the peace agreement, especially the role of the paramilitary-linked former Colombian president, Alvaro Uribe Velez. I also discussed the many things that the peace process will not solve, including some of the most gruesome violence occurring in Buenaventura, committed by the 'demobilized' paramilitaries.

Since then, we have seen some of the peace process's first murders of indigenous people, this time by the FARC. What happened is summarized in an open letter published by Pueblos en Camino. As the peace negotiations enter their final phase, the FARC faced its victims in Havana and acknowledged wrongs it has committed. On October 30, they made what WOLA called their "clearest recognition that it (FARC) owes something to its victims."

On the ground, in the indigenous territories of the Nasa of northern Cauca (for historical background on the Nasa see my photo essay), the FARC embarked on a campaign of armed propaganda about the peace process, commemorating fighters that were assassinated by the government. One of those, killed in 2011, was Alfonso Cano. A billboard set up by FARC with Cano's picture, reads, "We will not relent for one instant in the struggle for a political solution to the conflict, for our principles, for the certainties that motivate us, because we are revolutionaries, because we love peace. - Sixth Front, Western Bloc, Commander Alfonso Cano." While the FARC considers northern Cauca to be its territory, and recruits Nasa people to its ranks, the Nasa have struggled at great cost for autonomy in their territory. Over the decades, the Nasa have liberated much of their territory from the speculators and large landowners who had stolen it from them, established their own municipal governments, and administered their own traditional justice system, at communal assemblies. In order to resist armed attacks, usually by the state and paramilitaries but too often also by the FARC, the Nasa have a traditional 'indigenous guard', a standing organization of people who carry nothing but traditional sticks as a symbol of their authority, who have played a major role in maintaining the indigenous people in their territory, resisting all of the forces that have sought to displace them.

Two of these indigenous guards, Manuel Antonio Tumina (42), and Daniel Coicue (63), began to take down some of the FARC's propaganda, in accordance with the community's autonomy: the decision to put up or take down propaganda materials in indigenous territory, is a political decision and belongs to the Nasa. They took down the Cano billboard. The FARC killed them in response.

Two days later, a communique appeared, signed by FARC (the FARC denies that it's theirs) filled with further threats against a large number of indigenous people, claiming that according to their "intelligence", "the indigenous movement in Cauca is betrayed by some of its leaders who have left the sentiments of their humble communities to work with the government". FARC declares this long list of 26 indigenous leaders "military targets" in the ugly memo, to which the indigenous organization has responded here.

The day after the memo, on November 8, another member of the indigenous guard, 26 year old Jose Libardo Pacho, was also killed - whether the FARC killed him too is still unknown.

The FARC's official response was not much better than the threats they disavowed, claiming that the indigenous guards (who were unarmed except for their sticks) were killed when they attempted to disarm a group of “indigenous militants”. The FARC's official statement thus attempts to cast this as a dispute between two groups of indigenous people that got out of hand. The problem with this is that the “dispute” was between unarmed indigenous guards and armed people who, presumably, were acting on orders. This makes the FARC command responsible for the deaths. At a time when justice for victims is being discussed at the negotiating table, at a time when FARC claims to be facing its victims and taking responsibility, it is creating new victims and engaging in deception to avoid responsibility.

The FARC wants to claim these territories as its own because it has been operating in them. But the defense of the land in these territories has been done by indigenous people's autonomous resistance - the FARC's threats, and now killings, can be interpreted as trying to benefit from the indigenous struggle, trying to take, in a peace deal with the government, something that the indigenous people have struggled for.

The Nasa organized a search and apprehended the killers, trying them in assembly and sentencing them according to their traditional system (see Al Jazeera's story). Those who were tried and punished for the crimes were, as the FARC had claimed, indigenous people too. But what about the organization that gave them the orders? What about the FARC's standing threats to community members?

Two years ago, when the peace talks were starting to gain momentum, president Santos said, "We are not negotiating the state. We are not negotiating the development model. We are not negotiating public policies." (president's site, via Santos was reassuring his base that this was not "peace at any cost", and that there were "red lines".

Throughout the decades of the war, the FARC and the government told the indigenous that their autonomy and territory would need to be sacrificed for the needs of war. Now, it seems they are being sacrificed for the needs of a "peace process" in which two armies treat their territories as prizes and their lives as a matter of indifference.

A peace process should be a chance for these armed actors to behave differently. The statements from Havana sound nice, but they are little comfort, accompanied as they are by threats, lies, and murder on the ground.

The Colombian Peace Negotiations: Prospects and Continuing Horrors

From TeleSUR English

It is now about four years since the unofficial initiation of the ongoing peace process between the FARC and the Colombian government (secret approaches were made starting in October 2010), and over two years since the official opening of talks based on a “General Agreement” signed on August 26, 2012. There have been thirty rounds of negotiations to date, which have brought negotiators from the government and the FARC to Havana.

The Washington Office on Latin America has created a website,, that collects documents and media reports in a single place, and has even arranged them on a remarkably complete, and ongoing, timeline (, which we can use to begin to understand what is happening with the peace process.

The process is being supported by an unusually expansive set of actors. The Cuban government is hosting the talks. The United States government, the United Nations, most of the governments of Latin America, the Venezuelan government, are all supportive. Effusive statements have been made. Uruguay's President Pepe Mujica last year called the peace process “The most important thing happening in Latin America”. In July 2013, Argentina's President Cristina Fernandez suggested that the process could be opposed by “only idiots, those who do not love their country”. In November 2013, Ecuador's President Rafael Correa went further, suggesting that “only psychopaths” would boycott the process.

Speaking of which, despite the remarkably wide-ranging support for a negotiated solution to the conflict, Colombia's former president Alvaro Uribe Velez is staunchly opposed, as is his political party (which lost at the polls earlier this year, in an election which effectively became a referendum on the continuation of the peace negotiations). Whether the Argentinian and Ecuadorian presidents were thinking of Uribe when they mentioned “idiots” and “psychopaths” is, of course, unclear. Uribe's attempts to spoil the peace process go far beyond running against it in an election, however, a point to which I will return.

The talks have gone on for a long time, but considering that the beginning of the conflict is sometimes dated to 1964, and other times all the way back to 1948, it is perhaps reasonable to expect that a peace agreement would take a few years to achieve. So far, they have resulted in three draft accords, which were made public at the end of September and are published on the joint website, All of the accords are linked, as might be expected given the principle that “nothing is agreed until all is agreed”. The draft accords on solving the illicit drug problem, on rural development, and on political participation, include many proposals that were brought to the table by social movements, and if implemented, would represent social progress, including land reform and agrarian reform, the extension of campesino land reserves (which are already legal under Colombian law as of 1994) and guarantees for political dissent.

The occurrence of the talks, and the content of the talks and of the public discussions around the talks, have also brought some positive elements to public politics. In the years preceding the talks, Colombia saw the rise of an organized movement of the victims of the conflict. The Colombian government has focused on the FARC's victims, but the point for the negotiations is that delegations of victims have come to the talks, and that many of the victims have mobilized for peace. The talks have created an atmosphere in which the FARC has taken responsibility for crimes, committed to stop kidnapping civilians for ransom, and seen its leaders face some of the people it has committed crimes against. The government, which has been forced to send some of its politicians and military officers to jail in past years over scandals (to which I will return), has also shown a degree of seriousness in the talks. Last year, president Santos changed the military high command, and in the wake of the agrarian strike, he changed his entire cabinet as well. In his public statements about the talks, Santos has shown a degree of political maturity that US allies rarely have, admitting that it is only with enemies that peace can be made: “We’re trying to give our enemies, in this case the FARC, a bridge to a dignified way out–lay down their arms and enter the political arena.” This contrasts with statements by peace's most famous opponent, Uribe, who constantly invokes Al Qaeda (and probably will soon be comparing FARC to ISIS).

Uribe is a formidable threat to the peace process, because he is a powerful member of the Colombian establishment with important elite and, it must be admitted, significant right-wing popular support. Perhaps a few sentences should be spent on reminding readers who Uribe is. A document published by the National Security Archive, a 1991 report from U.S. DEA officials in Colombia, called Uribe “A Colombian politician and senator dedicated to collaboration with the Medellin Cartel”, “a close personal friend of Pablo Escobar”, “linked to a business involved in narcotics activities in the US.” When he was president of Colombia, Uribe survived a number of scandals, but the one that got closer and closer to him was called the “para-politica” scandal, or sometimes the “para-uribismo” scandal, which broke when military officers and paramilitaries spoke to the media about pacts they made with politicians to cleanse areas of leftists, unionists, indigenous people, and peasant movement leaders. The paramilitaries were also major narcotraffickers, operating the business on a much more massive scale than the FARC's involvement in illicit cultivation. Uribe was also president during the “false positives” scandal, in which the Colombian military killed helpless peasants, posed them with weapons, and claimed they had scored kills against FARC (the current president, Santos, was defense minister during the scandal).

Uribe has made his political career on being an opponent of peace, and had his biggest political successes doing so. The last time the Colombian government and FARC negotiated for peace from 1999-2002, they agreed on a demilitarized zone under de facto FARC control, centered on San Vicente del Caguan. In this same period, in 2000, the US approved Plan Colombia, a multibillion ($1.3 billion was US money, most was Colombian money) boost to the Colombian military ostensibly for counternarcotics. Plan Colombia, and all of the covert counterinsurgency programs that accompanied it, helped scuttle the peace initiative. When in 2002 the FARC kidnapped an important senator, the government went on the offensive, sensing a change in public opinion. Uribe capitalized on this change in his presidential run that year, ran as the anti-FARC candidate, and won.

On the other hand, Uribe is not opposed to peace agreements on principle – he initiated a peace process with the paramilitaries in 2002, which, given the state backing of the paramilitaries (and the specific backing by Uribe's political base and allies), was something of a peace process between two branches of the same organization. That 'peace process' was begun some 12 years ago, and featured some ceremonial handovers of old weapons by paramilitaries who then 'demobilized'. Paramilitary violence against the state's opponents has continued more or less unabated.

Uribe's stance towards the ongoing negotiations is one of outright sabotage, both overt and covert. The most recent scandal (in August 2014) was about a hacker, Andres Sepulveda, who worked with Uribe supporters to spy on negotiators in Havana. While Sepulveda spied on the FARC, he said, others from the military and police spied on the government negotiators. Last year, Uribe tweeted the location from which two FARC negotiators were going to be extracted – revealing his continuing connections with the military.

Another important threat to the peace process might end up being media polls. Over the years, the polls have shown a majority, sometimes a plurality, in favor of a peace agreement, but they have also shown majorities in favor of FARC leaders going to jail, and majorities against FARC leaders entering politics. A current principle of the negotiations is that those who were deeply involved in crimes against humanity will have to submit to justice and do jail time, while most would receive suspended sentences and be able to enter politics. The talks almost ran out the clock this time, and would have, had Uribe's party been elected. If polls, which aren't always reliable, start to show a shift away from support for peace and Colombian politicians follow them, the chance for peace might be lost.

If the negotiations succeed, they would be a positive step for Colombia. The outcome could include some positive agrarian reforms, guarantees for political opposition and dissent (badly needed in a country where thousands of people have been killed yearly for participating in unions, peasant organizations, indigenous movements, or opposition political parties), and an end to the FARC's kidnappings of civilians and indiscriminate attacks. It could create openings for further democratic struggle and reform.

But this peace process will not end violence in Colombia, because Colombia's establishment, and its North American patrons, have been pursuing two wars for all of these decades: the war against the FARC (and ELN), and a generalized war on the poor. It has been a long time since the poor were represented by the guerrillas and their armed struggle. Today, they have a huge variety of their own organizations, all of which have suffered tremendous violence at the hands of the state and paramilitaries. While the Colombian government acknowledged this, when the Basta Ya report was published last year as an “uncomfortable truth”, with Santos talking about “state agencies’ collusion with illegal armed groups, and the security forces’ acts of omission at some stages of the internal armed conflict”. Santos said at that time that “the state must investigate and punish this conduct in order to comply with the victims’ rights to truth and justice.” But the negotiations don't really cover this war, which continues. Colombia still has millions of internally displaced people, who have been displaced from their lands, lands which have been repurposed for various mega-plantations and other megaprojects. They were displaced through paramilitary massacre. Colombia also is still a very deadly place to be a union leader, human rights activist, indigenous person, Afro-Colombian, or peasant leader. In 2008, on the campaign trail, Obama opposed a free trade agreement with Colombia “because the violence against unions in Colombia would make a mockery of the very labor protections that we have insisted be included in these kinds of agreements.” There continue to be dozens of murders of unionists every year.

But the most devastating site for the war whose peace is not being negotiated is Buenaventura, a port city on the Pacific coast through which much of the country's cargo travels. Buenaventura is currently famous for its chop houses, where the paramilitaries chop people into pieces, alive, and which has led thousands to flee the city in terror. Human Rights Watch has a report on the chop houses from March 2014. These horrors have nothing to do with the conflict between FARC and the state. They are committed by the supposedly demobilized paramilitaries, and are over control of the important territory of the port city. A peace deal with FARC, if signed, will do nothing to address them. At best, it might give some more breathing room to those in Colombian society who struggle against violence.

The BBC Documentary doesn’t deny the genocide

The BBC Documentary, Rwanda: The Untold Story, does not deny the Rwandan genocide against Tutsis. It is a documentary primarily about Paul Kagame, Rwanda's current ruler, who came out of the Rwandan civil war and genocide of 1994 into a position of absolute power in Rwanda, from which he launched multiple invasions into the neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo, invasions which resulted in well-documented mass atrocities. I wrote about the documentary after I watched it (“The BBC and the Rwandan Genocide”:, saying that I hoped that it would create an opening to talk about the current government in Rwanda and about Western support for Kagame. So did many others, including Jonathan Cook, who has done excellent work on Israel-Palestine and has a sharp critique of propaganda in that conflict (See his Oct 4 blog, “Why is the truth about Rwanda so elusive?”:

On October 12, a group of academics and writers wrote to the BBC to express their "grave concern" about the documentary. Their letter, which has been posted on media lens ( is supposedly about 'genocide denial', but since no one involved in the BBC documentary denied the Rwandan genocide against the Tutsis, the letter is really about Kagame, and continuing to protect him from criticism using the slur of genocide denial. The letter seems designed to ensure that no discussion about Kagame or Western support for his regime occurs. It repeats the term "genocide denial" 10 times, but it centers on a number of factual claims which can be evaluated. In the spirit of the "utmost intellectual honesty and rigor" that they claim to seek in their letter, let us evaluate these claims.

1. The documentary features a woman, Marie, whose childhood involved living through an incredible number of horrors: first she lived through the Rwandan genocide, then she lived through being hunted as a refugee through the forests of the Congo as a refugee. The writers write that "the programme allows a witness to claim that 'only ten percent of the Interahamwe (militia) were killers". The letter counters with "eyewitness testimony by several militia leaders who cooperated with the ICTR", who argue that "the majority of the Hutu Power militia forces - estimated to have been 30,000 strong - were trained specifically to kill Tutsi at speed, and were indoctrinated in a racist ideology."

The witness is a survivor of the genocide, and a survivor of the RPF massacres in the DR Congo. Her estimate is obviously not the outcome of a detailed sociological study or survey, and viewers should exercise skepticism in interpreting it, but it is very, very far from "genocide denial". The context was one in which mass numbers of Hutus were being punished collectively for the genocide - and the witness was trying to say that not all of those punished were guilty. That is not so far from what was written in the suppressed Gersony report, about the thousands of people massacred by the RPF during their advance: "It appeared that the vast majority of men, women, and children killed in these actions were targeted through the pure chance of being caught by the RPA. No vetting process or attempt to establish the complicity of the victims in the April 1994 massacres of the Tutsis was reported." As Theogene Rudasingwa, a former member of the RPF who is now in exile, wrote in his reply to the letter (posted on medialens:

"The BBC documentary, in its opening moments captures the agony of the victims, as they are hacked to death by this militia. So what if they were 5,000, 10, 1000, 30,000? For the American Professors (note: Rudasingwa is referring here to Davenport and Stam, academics at the University of Michigan, to whom I will return), and the authors of the letter trading polemics on this matter, I would say this is not time well spent. The militia had to be defeated militarily. I am glad they did. Unfortunately, the military victors of 1994 went on a killing spree in Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo that is yet to be accounted for. That should be a subject of urgent interest rather than counting the number of militia that were involved in the genocidal madness."

2. The second claim is that "the programme attempts to minimize the number of Tutsi murdered". The programme presents figures by Davenport and Stam. Davenport discusses their study at length in this lecture: ( To me, the value of their study was in this discussion of their sources, the ranges of figures, and how they understood the violence in Rwanda in space and time. You can look at their data here ( Their figures should definitely be viewed with caution, but their analysis has several points of interest. They concluded that more Hutus died in the genocide than Tutsis, arguing that a specific dynamic occurred: once the killings started, people began to flee, and the killers, unable to distinguish between Tutsi and Hutu, killed indiscriminately; because there were many more Hutus than Tutsis, more Hutus ended up dying. Like Marie, the witness's testimony, this analysis, and this conclusion, does not amount to 'genocide denial'. Davenport and Stam set out to study the Rwandan genocide, and have never denied that there was an anti-Tutsi genocide that was carried out by the Rwandan government at the time. You can disagree with their analysis, or with their conclusions (I do disagree with the figure they gave in the BBC documentary, of 800,000 Hutus and 200,000 Tutsis killed, and I think Fillip Reyntjens's estimates are the most accurate, of 600,000 Tutsis and 500,000 Hutus killed, and he has repeated his figures in a post about the documentary in facebook) but it is simply false to call them 'genocide deniers'. They presented an analysis of data, not "a tactic of genocide deniers", in the letter's ugly language.

3. "The film argues that the shooting down of the plane on April 6, 1994 was perpetrated by the RPF." The film presents RPF insiders claiming to have heard the planning of the assassination of the Rwandan and Burundian presidents. The letter writers cite French magistrate judge Marc Trevidic, whose investigations suggest that the missiles could not have been fired by the RPF. Two other judges concluded otherwise: Fernando Merelles from Spain in 2008 and Jean-Louis Brugiere from France in 2006. Reyntjens and Rudasingwa, in their replies, have both pointed out that Marc Trevidic's investigation is not over - like many others, they have concluded that the RPF shot down the plane.

I have reviewed the material that is available and I am not confident about who shot down the plane. But as a matter of logic, whether the RPF shot down the leader of their enemy government, or whether the government shot down their own president, culpability for the genocide does not change, does it? If - as the letter-writers, the BBC reporters, and all the people the BBC reporters interviewed agree - the Rwandan government and its militias organized and carried out the mass murder of Tutsis immediately after the plane was shot down, surely they are culpable for the genocide regardless of who shot the plane down? If the RPF shot the plane down, they would be guilty of assassination, but it would still be the Rwandan government that would be guilty of genocide. Regardless, the film presents some claims, the letter-writers present some claims, about an assassination that occurred at the beginning of the genocide. Whether the RPF shot the plane down or not, the genocide occurred. So, presenting a claim that the RPF shot the plane down cannot be 'genocide denial'.

4. "The film-maker, Jane Corbin... even tries to raise doubts about whether or not the RPF stopped the genocide." The letter writers cite Romeo Dallaire (one of the signers of the letter) as "The authority on this subject". But is Dallaire a greater authority than Kagame himself? At 20:38, there is an interview with Kagame, who was at the battlefront. Kagame is asked: "Are the massacres still continuing?" He replies: "Yes, the massacres are continuing, though on a lower scale, and this is not because the killers have stopped killing but because, I think, they have killed quite a big number of those they are supposed to kill."

Now to the departures from the "utmost intellectual honesty and rigor" engaged in by the letter writers. There are many, including the systematic slinging of mud and the constant argumentation from authority, but let us take two.

1. Do the letter-writers really believe that the civil war between the RPF and the Rwandan government at the time, led by Habyarimana, which killed tens of thousands of people, is a mere "smoke screen"? Do they really believe that the term 'civil war' belongs in scare quotes? Do they really not believe that the civil war created the context for the genocide?

2. Are the letter-writers really blowing off the invasion of the DRC, the millions killed there, the stealing of elections, the testimonies of the former RPF who are on the run and in exile and admit to committing crimes at Kagame's side? Do the Hutu deaths, even though they occurred on a smaller scale, really mean nothing to them?

The writers write that "Denial... ensures the crime continues. It incites new killing. It denies the dignity of the deceased and mocks those who survived." And yet, the letter writers do all of those things. If the victims of the RPF don't count, as they do not seem to to these writers, then what is this except denial? All of the victims in Central Africa - of the defeated Rwandan government, of the RPF, of the RPF's proxies and of their opponents - all deserve to be acknowledged, not denied. The BBC documentary deserved better than shoddy arguments and mudslinging. Kagame is still in power, and the only function of this letter is to provide him with cover. Rather than a letter about 'genocide denial', the authors would have been more honest to write a manifesto of unconditional support for Rwanda's dictator.


The BBC and the Rwandan Genocide

First published on TeleSUR English:

At the beginning of October 2014, the BBC aired a documentary called Rwanda: The Untold Story. The outlet, the BBC, and the producer and presenter, Jane Corbin, don't just possess impeccable mainstream credentials - they define the mainstream in the West. The one hour documentary is intended for a British audience, and Britain is a bigger supporter of Rwanda and its ruler, Paul Kagame, than even the US. Up until now, in Western media, scholarship, and commentary, the Hutus as a community have been held solely responsible for the Rwandan genocide of 1994, and Kagame held up as Rwanda's savior. The titular untold story is that of the crimes committed by the winners in the Rwandan civil war, and especially the crimes committed by the biggest winner who took all, Kagame, Rwanda's president for the past 20 years.

In the documentary, Corbin talks to Rwandan dissidents who were once close to Kagame, but are now exiled and hunted - Kagame's former army chief of staff, Kayumba Nyamwasa, has survived four assassination attempts so far. Kagame's former intelligence chief, Patrick Karageya, was not so lucky, and was strangled in a hotel room in South Africa in January of this year. The documentary shows Kagame at a prayer meeting after Karageya's assassination telling the crowd that anyone who crosses Rwanda will pay the price, and that "it's a matter of time." Details of assassination plots are provided by another exile, who fled the country rather than carry out a killing of these dissidents for Kagame.

Corbin also talks to a Hutu survivor, Marie, who was a school girl, whose family sheltered Tutsi children from the anti-Tutsi genocide in 1994, and who then fled and was hunted in the jungles of the Congo, along with hundreds of thousands of others, when Kagame's forces invaded the DR Congo in 1996, and who can't go back to Rwanda. Marie estimates that 10% of organized Hutu forces participated in the genocide - but all Hutus were hunted, indiscriminately, by Kagame's forces in the Congo. Marie's conclusions are similar to those reached by Robert Gersony, the author of a report on the Hutu refugees who were being killed in large numbers by Kagame's forces. The report was suppressed, as the BBC documentary notes - in order to protect Kagame from criticism.

The Gersony report was not the only suppression of evidence which international institutions engaged in to protect Kagame. When Carla Del Ponte, the prosecutor for the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) began investigations into crimes by Kagame's forces, Del Ponte tells Corbin in the documentary, she was told by Kofi Annan, the UN Secretary General, that the ICTR was political, and that there would be no tolerance for investigations into crimes committed by the winners in the war, only by the losers. When former FBI investigators were looking into the shooting down of the plane of the presidents of Rwanda and Burundi in 1994, an event that helped set the genocide in motion, they told Corbin, they were told to stop by Louise Arbour, then UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and well known Canadian human rights advocate. Successive, well-documented UN reports on the exploitation of natural resources in the Congo and of human rights violations there, all of which attribute primary responsibility to Rwanda and Kagame, have been filed and ignored.

The BBC report also talks to academic experts who rarely get a hearing despite being among the most knowledgeable people on Rwanda: political scientists Christian Davenport and Allan Stam, and political scientist Fillip Reyntjens. Anyone who studies Central Africa knows Reyntjens for his role in compiling the annual L'Afrique des grands lacs journal, as well as his articles and books. Davenport and Stam are known for compiling all of the numbers and data sources on deaths in the Rwandan genocide in 1994. Unlike Reyntjens, they are not experts on the region, but have worked to come to solid conclusions based on solid methodology and the available evidence. Good scholars, their academic publications show all of their data and the process by which they arrived at their conclusions, so that readers can come to their own conclusions.

What are their conclusions? In other words, what is this untold story that is so shocking, 20 years later? To look into it requires some careful study of the death counts, which, while simultaneously gruesome and dehumanizing, is politically important. One scholar, Gerard Prunier, who wrote one of the standard accounts of the Rwandan genocide, and who was at the time very sympathetic to Kagame and the RPF (more recently, like others close to Kagame, he has had experiences that drove him out of sympathy), reasoned as follows based on the 1991 Rwandan census and a growth rate of 3.2%. The Rwandan government said Tutsis were 9% of the population, 700,000 people, but Prunier bumps this up to 12%, 930,000 people. Based on figures of Tutsi survivors after the genocide, of 130,000 in refugee camps, Prunier estimated roughly 800,000 Tutsi deaths in the genocide.

Davenport and Stam, by contrast, encoded all of the massacres described in all of the human rights reports, including Alison Des Forges's field study for Human Rights Watch, a definitive report from African Rights, and government and other scholarly sources. Where the records showed a range of casualties, Davenport and Stam included the range in their analysis. Using this method, they produced a wide casualty range for the genocide and settled on a mean value of 1,063,336 deaths. This is very close to Filip Reyntjens's estimates, which are based on tallies made in refugee camps in the three years after the genocide. These estimates are between 1,069,643-1,143,225 deaths. Most of Davenport and Stam's 1,063,336 deaths, 891,295, were in areas under Rwandan government control. A much smaller, but substantial number, 77,043, were in areas under RPF control. Analyzing the available figures for Tutsi who survived the genocide, between 130,000-300,000, the range of Hutu victims is as low as 28,573, but as high as 958,573. Their best estimate, they tell Corbin, is of about one million killed in the genocide, 800,000 of which were Hutu, and 200,000 of which were Tutsi. Thus in Davenport and Stam's estimation, Hutus were the majority killed.

In Reyntjens's calculations, Tutsi were 10% of the population, or about 800,000 before the genocide, and 600,000 Tutsi were killed. This means, according to Reyntjens, 500,000 Hutu were killed. While not the majority, it is still nearly half of the victims.

How, if the Rwandan government set out to organize people to kill Tutsis in organized massacres, could so many of their victims have been Hutus? For several reasons. The main reason cited by Davenport is that the civil war and the massacres were creating massive displacement, of nearly the entire population. Even though local organizations were responsible for the killing, and locally, the killers could distinguish Hutu from Tutsi, in a situation where nearly everyone was fleeing from somewhere, and in a situation where admitting to being Tutsi was certain death, killers would have faced potential victims who were claiming to be Hutu, and killed them anyway. Many of the people who were killed as Tutsi, were Hutu.

Hutus were the demographic majority, so if there was a random element as well as a systematic element to the killing, this random element would led to many more random Hutu victims than Tutsi. I would also add a third possibility: that many Hutu were killed trying to protect Tutsi. The idea that the killers in the genocide were everyday Hutu neighbours of the Tutsi is quite pervasive, but it is also likely that many of these Hutu neighbours tried to protect the Tutsi members of their community and died doing so.

Davenport and Stam concluded from their analysis of the timing of the massacres that they occurred in government-held areas just before the arrival of RPF troops. The pace of the killing was set by the pace of the RPF advance. The Rwandan government turned away from its military enemy and instead committed genocide against its own population.

This was, as the BBC documentary shows, a matter of complete indifference to Kagame. His RPF rejected a peace deal with the Rwandan government because in his assessment, total victory was within his grasp. The BBC documentary argues that Kagame did not stop the genocide at all. Instead, it was actually the victims of the genocide who paid the price of the RPF's victory. Contemporary footage, shown in the BBC documentary, shows Kagame telling the camera that the killing is slowing down as the RPF advances, not because of the advance, but because most of those who were to be killed had been killed.

I should note here that I disagree with writers Ed Herman and David Peterson on the interpretation of this evidence. Herman and Peterson conclude that it was Kagame's RPF who did the majority of the killings. In their book The Politics of Genocide, they suggest that “Davenport-Stam shy away from asserting the most important lesson of their work: not only that the majority of killings took place in those theaters where the RPF “surged,” but also that the RPF was the only well-organized killing force within Rwanda in 1994, and the only one that planned a major military offensive.”

I disagree with Herman and Peterson because the RPF was not "the only well-organized killing force within Rwanda in 1994". The RPF was fighting a "well-organized killing force", in the Rwandan army and its militias, who turned primarily on the civilian population instead of fighting Kagame's RPF forces.

The BBC documentary also does not accuse Kagame's RPF of primary responsibility in the Rwandan genocide of 1994. The truth of Kagame's acts is bad enough without adding this crime: Kagame's invasion and the civil war set the context for the genocide; Kagame's massacres of Hutus in areas under RPF control were smaller in scale but were also crimes against humanity and were also genocidal like the Rwandan government's massacres; Kagame's massacres, proxy warfare, and occupation of the Congo have led to the deaths of, by best estimates, millions of people; Kagame's suppression of human rights and freedom in Rwanda have created a brutal dictatorship that has somehow been sold to the world as a developmental miracle.

Up until now, these discussions were impossible to have in the West, even on the left. One did not have to argue, as Herman and Peterson do (incorrectly in my opinion) that Kagame conducted the Rwandan genocide, to be labeled a genocide denier. Indeed, anyone who suggested that Kagame's forces committed crimes against Hutu civilians in Rwanda and Congolese civilians in the Congo was eventually labeled some kind of genocide denier, or a proponent of something called double genocide theory. Rather than coming to some kind of shared understanding of events in Rwanda, as Davenport and Stam tried to do, or as scholars like Reyntjens and Rene Lemarchand have tried to do, proponents of Kagame's government have smeared those who seek to understand the full magnitude of crimes and criminals in Central Africa in the 1990s as genocide deniers. In doing so, they have of course participated in their own kind of genocide denial, but worse than that, they have helped prevent any actual reckoning with the past, any end to impunity, that might help prevent the repetition of genocides in the future, including in the region. As Reyntjens said in the BBC documentary, there might presently be a lid on the volcano there, but it may erupt again.

The BBC documentary is not perfect. It shows Tony Blair smiling all over the place next to Kagame, and even a shot of Clinton, but a whole other hour could be spent with the evidence on economic interests unearthed by the UN investigations into the exploitation of natural resources in the Congo, the parallel genocides and wars in Burundi, the Western interventions that set all these horrors in motion in the 1960s, and the disgraceful role of most Western media and scholarship in covering it all up. But for one hour, on the BBC, it is a remarkable opening to think about Central Africa and the West's role. It remains to be seen whether the BBC and Jane Corbin will now be accused of genocide denial, or whether this documentary can help Westerners begin to understand what they are actually supporting in Africa, in Reyntjens's words, "the most important war criminal in office today”.


A massacre in the NAFTA zone

Written for Ricochet Media

A national day of action in protest against the disappearance and massacre of 43 education students in Mexico occurred on Wednesday, Oct. 8. The national teachers’ union made the call to protest, which was answered in 59 cities in Mexico and included a silent march organized by the Zapatistas in San Cristóbal de las Casas. Protests occurred all over the world, including Canada.

The college students from the Mexican community of Ayotzinapa in the state of Guerrero, 43 of whom were disappeared from a bus on Sept. 26, were studying to be teachers and protesting the starvation of the public system they were planning to work in. The bus was ambushed by police, probably on orders from officials in the nearby city of Iguala, Guerrero, from the director of Seguridad Publica (Public Security), Francisco Salgado Valladeres, and the mayor, José Luis Abarca. Both of these men are currently on the run. Six people were killed in the ambush, among them people on an unrelated bus, which was mistaken for a bus with student protesters and was actually carrying a soccer team.

An unknown number of bodies, 34 at last count, almost certainly belonging to these students, were unearthed in a mass grave in Iguala. The bodies had signs of torture and were probably burned alive.

Randal Archibold, writing in the New York Times, put forward the theory that the police were a part of a gang, or passed the kidnapped students on to a gang, which was strange because the students “were not known to have criminal ties.”

Canadian journalist and author Dawn Paley, currently studying in Mexico, writes, “The killers in Iguala were not drug gangs. They were cops and paramilitaries. Paramilitaries are non-state armed groups who work with state forces. There can be no clearer example of the horrors of state and paramilitary violence than what has happened to these students.” This massacre, Paley notes, is far from the only mass grave in Mexico. The New York Times report went so far as to say the country was “accustomed to mass killings.”
the key context for these killings is the use of state violence, up to mass murder, to manage social protest and to dismantle the public sphere

All of these issues are linked — drugs, crime, corruption and politics — but the key context for these killings is the use of state violence, up to mass murder, to manage social protest and to dismantle the public sphere. In this case, the attack focused on an embattled network of rural teacher education that has survived only through student mobilization, that seeks to serve Mexico’s rural population of 28 million, 20 million of whom live in extreme poverty.

The first escuelas normales were established in Mexico in the 1920s. They were a part of the country’s distant revolutionary history, where the goal was to bring public education to Mexico's countryside and to create schools that would educate teachers and rural leaders among Mexico's peasants. They were explicitly based on inculcating values of democracy and self-governance.

Historian Tanalis Padilla has described a pattern of violence against normalistas over many decades in La Jornada, concluding that “the lives of normalistas seem to have little value.”

The state and police certainly have acted that way. Unless people in Mexico and their friends outside, including here in Canada, prove them wrong, we can expect more Ayotzinapas.

Democracy: Failed Installation In Afghanistan

Written for TeleSUR English

In 2000, George W. Bush and Al Gore were the winner and loser in a very close US presidential election, with Gore getting 48.4% and Bush getting 47.9% of the vote amid irregularities and fraud. The issue was ultimately decided not by recounting the votes, but by a decision of the US Supreme Court not to count the votes. This was irregular, bizarre, and made a mockery of the election. But the recent Afghan election was worse.

Take all of the despair of those who realized their votes didn’t count, all the disillusionment in a nontransparent electoral system that came about in the US in 2000, and imagine a few changes. Imagine a foreign country, say the UK, coming to broker a power-sharing deal between Gore and Bush. Imagine the deal involving making emergency changes to the US constitution in order to accommodate the ambitions of both the winner and the loser in the contest. Imagine the loser of the contest insisting not only on the nullification of the electoral outcome, but also that the outcome never be made public. That gets us closer – but the recent Afghan election was still worse.

Some background: In October of 2001, the declared winner of the US election, George W. Bush, sent troops to invade Afghanistan and bring about a regime change in Kabul. Most of Afghanistan had, from 1996-2001, been under the control of the Taliban, a Pakistan-sponsored group that was battling for control of Afghanistan’s territory and resources. The Taliban’s opponents were a coalition of commanders, who combined military, territorial, and business power, and legal and illegal activity, in a way that got them characterized as ‘warlords’. The warlords had ruled in Kabul, destroyed and plundered their parts of Afghanistan from 1992-1996, and still held parts of Afghanistan in 2001. Bush’s invasion sent the Taliban into retreat and the warlords back to power. The Taliban went first across the border into Pakistan and then, years later, returned to fight the Afghan government and the US from base areas in southern Afghanistan.

From the US invasion in 2001 until now, Afghanistan has been ruled by a different kind of coalition. The warlords were back. The US-created Afghan government, led by President Karzai, tried to absorb the warlords into it, with some success. The US oversaw the appointment of the warlords to the government, the writing of the constitution, and two electoral exercises that brought those warlords into the legislature, with Karzai at its helm. Military force was supplied by the US military (and its US, Canadian, and other partners), which fought the Taliban from its own fortified military bases and conducted air strikes throughout southern Afghanistan and in Pakistan’s border areas. The economy was also organized by the US and NATO partners, who channeled funds on a neoliberal, charity-driven model favoring nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) over government programs. The Afghan government was simultaneously supported by the West militarily and economically and also derided as being corrupt and ineffective.

The US got its bases established in central Asia and assured influence in the region, but also lectured Afghanistan on how it would have to stand on its own feet eventually – standing, presumably, against the US ally, Pakistan, and the Taliban. 2014 was set as the date for the US withdrawal, and even though it would be a typically ambiguous withdrawal, with troops and bases remaining, it was a symbolic and important date, and the 2014 Afghan election was set to be an important one. If successful, it would be a peaceful transfer of power from one elected government to another. After 13 years of occupation, the US would be able to claim that it had successfully installed a democracy, at least in the most limited sense of a ‘democracy’ as a country that has one elected government succeeding another.

What Afghanistan got instead does not have a precise political science word, but there is no way that it could be called a democracy in any sense of the word.

The Taliban had threatened voters and attempted to disrupt the elections, but people voted anyway. According to the Afghan constitution, if a candidate does not get an absolute majority in the first round, there is a second round with the first and second place candidates on the ballot. In the first round of voting in April 2014, Abdallah Abdallah won 45% of the vote, Ashraf Ghani 31.56%.

Both leading candidates have connections to the warlords. Abdallah Abdallah was close to Ahmed Shah Masoud, who led the Northern Alliance against the Taliban until his assassination just before 9/11, 2001, and campaigned on this proximity to the famous warlord. Ashraf Ghani has weaker ties to the warlords, but his party includes general Rashid Dostum, one of the longest-surviving and best-organized warlords (see Anthony Giustozzi’s book Empires of Mud for background on Dostum and other warlords). Ghani campaigned as a free-marketeer, close to the West, interested in economic development and anti-corruption. He even has a TED talk, a pretty solid pro-West credential (

It was the second round, in June, that things started to go wrong. It became clear early in the second round that Ghani was going to win. The preliminary results should have been announced in July, but they were delayed. When they were announced, with Ghani at 56.44% and Abdallah at 43.56%, Abdallah Abdallah said he would refuse to accept the result, claiming fraud. Given that Afghanistan’s new government would have to either fight or negotiate with the Taliban (most likely do both) and could ill afford an absolute opposition from a powerful faction, Abdallah Abdallah must have decided that he had enough power to dictate terms regardless of the electoral outcome. A UN-supervised audit of the votes was organized, and was completed in September.

What was the result of the UN-supervised audit of the votes? We may never know, because the US negotiated a power-sharing agreement, making Ghani President and creating a new post for Abdallah to fill called “Chief Executive Officer”. One of the clauses of the agreement, insisted on by Abdallah, was that the results of the recount not be made public. Not only do Afghan’s votes not count, the counts can’t even be known.

Some of the Western commentary has been as strange as the election itself. The NYT editorial on the topic (“A Shaky Step Forward in Afghanistan”, Sept 21/14) simultaneously praises Kerry for negotiating the deal while calling it “far from democratic” and noting that “at the end of the day, the millions of Afghan voters who defied Taliban threats to cast ballots are now left wondering if their votes counted.” A BBC commentator, David Loyn, decided to publish speculations he’s heard about the electoral outcome: “one source told me the margin of victory could be as close as 3% but other figures being quoted by Afghan officials say it’s more like 10%,” but then concluded that “nothing is certain unless or until Afghanistan’s Independent Election Commission publishes the final result,” leaving readers to wonder why he threw the 3% and 10% figures out there (BBC News, Sept 21/14, “Afghan presidential contenders sign unity deal”). Western media have also noted that both Ghani and Abdallah are supportive of an agreement allowing US forces to stay on in Afghanistan. One way of summarizing these comments might be: We don’t really know or care how Afghans voted, but it seems that Western interests in Afghanistan will be protected by the deal the West brokered.

Among all the uncertainties about what happened, about the real and hidden agendas of the players, about whose votes were counted and whose ignored, that is the one constant: Western interests are taken care of. Western interests are why Afghans have been bombed, they are why Afghans have been presented with these candidates, they are why their votes were counted, and they are why their votes were ultimately ignored. Whether the deal holds or it doesn’t – and it probably won’t – Afghanistan is another example of how US invasions don’t bring democracy, even more than a decade later.

Justin Podur is based in Toronto and blogs at

Reading from and a review of The Demands of the Dead, Oct 10, 12pm, Toronto Public Library

I will be reading from the Demands of the Dead on Friday Oct 10, 12pm, at the Toronto Public Library. If you're in the city, come and check it out.

I also wanted to call attention to the review of the book by Megan Cotton-Kinch at the Two Row Times, which was also republished at

Here's the event listing:

The Demands of the Dead: A crime novel by Justin Podur

Fri Oct 10, 2014

12:00 p.m. - 1:15 p.m.

75 mins

Toronto Reference Library, Elizabeth Beeton Auditorium

Here's Megan Cotton-Kinch's review:

Book review: A detective story set in the middle of an Indigenous insurgency

Demands of the Dead, By Justin Podur
Reviewed by Megan Cotton-Kinch

While I’ve always enjoyed a good detective novel, I’ve always felt like this genre usually contains an underlying message of support for the police, and never really takes a critical look at the role of “law-and-order” in maintaining a society based on the oppression of poor people and the theft of Indigenous land. At best, this kind of stories will look at corruption in police and politics but offer no solutions. This is where Demands of the Dead transcends the genre, and moves beyond works like The Wire by actually looking at the larger political context and offering possible solutions. In the case of Podur’s novel these are represented by the Zapatista Indigenous insurgency, which has an important presence in the book.

In the opening of Demands of the Dead, an ex-cop receives an email, in Spanish that says, “The dead demand so much more than vengeance.” But the dead are more than the two dead police, or his dead friend, but include all the dead in southern Mexico who have been killed in the counter-insurgency. And unlike most books in the detective genre the novel does offer up the possibility of solutions that go beyond personal vengeance.

Did Zapatista guerrillas murder two police officers? Or was it the Mexican police? Or drug traffickers? What were the police, in the political context of an armed uprising, doing on Zapatista territory anyway? The main character “Mark” is in southern Mexico to investigate. But in reality he is there to investigate the murder of his best friend, a progressive lawyer and activist, back in New York, by cops on the force he used to serve on.

The novel, and its protagonist “Mark”, doesn’t shrink from looking at what it means to be an ex-cop, and ‘independent’ contractor working with semi-sponsorship from the American embassy and their proxies in the Mexican counter insurgency (police and military). Back in the States, Mark’s murdered best friend had told him, “You can’t help. You should just go. I don’t care what kind of person you are Mark. If you’re a cop, we’re enemies.” But Mark is not just an ex-cop, he also has wilderness survival and tracking skills, and a personal history that gives him connections to progressive lawyers and an inclination to cross into Zapatista territory to get their side of the story.

As asides into the two cases, one official and one personal, there are discussions of Zapatista political and military strategy, with people’s organizations and democratic decision-making as preferred weapons in a struggle, but with an armed self-defense strategy in reserve. Podur also shows what they are up against: a counter-insurgency strategy targeted at the Indigenous Zapatistia movement that is linked with machine politics, American imperialism and drug money.

Nonetheless, the novel has a very nuanced take on the state and police systems, seeing them worthy of analysis and full of contradictions.

The book has realistic fight scenes with descriptions to suit martial arts fans, and accurate descriptions of guns and military tactics. The main character’s wilderness skills are not overplayed but are realistic assessments of the kind of things that skilled trackers can do (hear people approach before they arrive due to concentric disturbances in the forest) and can’t do (find individual tracks of intruders on a heavily trafficked roadway). The one thing I’d wish for is more fully developed female characters with plot importance.

The author, Justin Podur, is better known as a non-fiction writer and commentator on political topics, including Indigenous issues and solidarity efforts with Palestine. He is a professor at York University who does research on forestry and forest fires. In the novel, this background is present but doesn’t overwhelm the story.

The novel is available for download or purchase as a book from Justin’s website

The Demands of the Dead: a novel

My novel The Demands of the Dead is out as of September 2014. It's a self-publication, inspired by authors like Hugh Howley, available on KDP and Smashwords (as an e-book) and on CreateSpace as a physical book. Cover design by Suzy Harris-Brandts.

Get the e-book on KDP

Get the e-book on Smashwords

Get the physical book from CreateSpace