Friday, June 25, 2010

Podcast: My Conversation With the National Youth Federation for Development in Haiti

Fighting for Haiti by aus10

Recently, I had a conversation with Ernst Louis and Gilles Sassine of the Haitian grassroots organization, National Youth Federation for Development. Ernst, Gilles and their colleagues were among the first responders after the disaster beginning 2 hours after the earthquake in January that took the lives of over 200,000 people. Founded in 2004, the organization is currently managing 50 camps in Haiti serving over 147,000 people. They need our help to raise financial and material resources for their camps as the threat of a new hurricane season this summer could totally devastate Haiti if proper precautions are not taken immediately. Please, listen to this podcast and get involved. You can find the facebook page of the National Youth Federation by clicking here.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Former Angolan Liberation Party, Struggles to Meet Social Expectations

As a youth, I was tremendously inspired by the story of Angola's struggle against Western imperialism. Lead by the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA), Angola won its independence but suffered from decades of a civil war fomented by the U.S. and apartheid South Africa. A large part of their mystique was a commitment, not just to independence, but to transforming Angolan society and investing in the social development of the nation's people. Angola was a Portuguese colony from the end of the 16th century until it achieved independence in 1975 through armed struggle. Colonial rule had neglected any focus on health care, education, or food sovereignty. How has the MPLA done after 35 years of political independence?

Today, Angola's civil war has ended and the MPLA remains the dominant party in the country. But it no longer remains the popular radical nationalist party it once was. Angola is rich in mineral resources and one of Africa's biggest exporters of oil however, the majority of the popular classes live in poverty and are excluded from the economic boom of the past few years. The export-oriented development model in Angola has generated enormous amounts of new wealth in the country but imports almost all of its food and basic medical supplies. The MPLA is currently working to meet the United Nations' Millennium Development Goals, which include dramatically improving the lives of the poor in the areas of health, income, and education.

The video below is an inside account of life in Angola and the unresolved social development needs in the capital city of Luanda.

Angola from Nacho Salgado on Vimeo.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Are We Headed Toward Another Food Crisis?

Two years ago African countries erupted into massive protests following dramatic increases in the price of food. Now, economists are predicting that financial speculation is on the verge of causing yet another episode of food price inflation. Are governments prepared to respond to the potential social crisis? If they aren't are existing social and political forces prepared to hold them accountable?

Fashionably Counter-Revolutionary

There is absolutely no reason to be hopeless about Africa's future. We have seen in history how organized masses of people working toward the same aims can quickly change their society despite great odds. However, there is also nothing happening in the continent that should make us wildly optimistic about the potential of sweeping change under the status-quo either. Movements in Africa today are fragmented where they exist and NGO's have crowded out the spaces where radical trade unions, student associations and peasant organizations should be. Political leaders across the continent are stooges of foreign economic and military powers and the ideological choices in elections range from moderately conservative to neofascist. Voting in most African countries is roughly the equivalent of choosing between Ronald Reagan and General Francisco Franco of Spain.

I have noticed a pattern among African descendants in the United States, who share an affinity with Africa's people, to respond to the deteriorating situation of religious and ethnic conflict, economic inequality and foreign militarization by overstating progress in other areas such as cultural expression or growing consumer classes. The FIFA World Cup in South Africa is another profound opportunity to exaggerate both. Here we have a very vivid case study of well intentioned individuals making mountains out of molehills in a country where the majority of the population suffers under the tight grip of domestic elites and foreign capitalist interests.

The same African National Congress (ANC) which famously won elections and ushered in liberal democracy in 1994 is today celebrated as helping build a rainbow nation with the African continent's most shining success story. In reality, the first democratic elections in South Africa's history effectively ended centuries of white political rule but maintained the deeply unequal structure of the political economy. The only difference was this time multinational corporations helped create what author Moeletsi Mbeki, says is “a new class of rich blacks, many of them ANC politicians and former politicians," that "support the perpetuation of the migrant labour system and South Africa’s continued reliance on mineral exports.” The rhetoric of Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) after apartheid allowed elites within the ANC to enrich themselves by serving as a political buffer between the black masses and the ruthless machinations of the capitalist system its self.

Today, participants in the former national liberation struggle with the ANC are among the most articulate critics of the "black empowerment" schemes that only benefit a few well positioned black political elites and leave the black majority begging for crumbs. Activists in Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) and South African Communist Party (SACP) have in recent months organized vocal campaigns against crony capitalism and corruption in the state bureaucracy and, for the first time in the last two decades, have questioned the logic of neo-liberal capitalist management of the economy. Even more antagonistic toward the social and economic policies of South Africa's political leadership, the grassroots Anti-Privatization Forum and Abahlali baseMjondolo, the South African shackdwellers' movement, have consistently resisted the ANC's policies. The later group organized their own sports event in opposition to this year's World Cup in South Africa.
This Poor People's World Cup is organized, because we feel that we are excluded from the FIFA World Cup 2010. We see that the government has put enormous amounts of money in Greenpoint Stadium and in upgrading Althone stadium, but we as poor communities don’t benefit from all of these investments. The soccer matches will be played in town, but we don’t have tickets or transport to go there. Besides this, the FIFA World Cup has negatively impacted our communities as we are not allowed to trade near stadiums, fan parks and other tourist areas any more. The poor are not only evicted from their trading spaces for the World Cup, we are also evicted from our homes and relocated to the TRA’s, such as Blikkiesdorp, far away from the centre and from job opportunities and from the eyes of the tourists.
The voices of social movements and left political parties are seldom represented in the dominant media discourse about Africa. During the World Cup these voices were even more marginalized. Take for example, an article published in the lead up to the World Cup praising the supposed "democratization" and "growth in foreign investment" in the continent.
After a year hobbled by the global slowdown, Africa is quietly preparing for a growth trajectory that could astonish the world. Its popular image is still the same: hunger; corruption; war; poverty. But take another look. Beyond the stereotypes, Africa’s potential is explosive. Its human talents, its vast natural resources, its rising democracies and new technologies – all are reaching a tipping point that could send it surging dramatically upward.
The article continues by predictably listing South Africa as an example of the continent's recent successes. The piece juxtaposes Africa's past liberation movements to the new and "ultimately more important", ( to steal a phrase from Obama), capitalist reforms.
Under apartheid, Soweto was notorious as a place of rebellion and violence. The sprawling black township was the site of the 1976 uprising that ignited the final battle against the apartheid system. But many of its two million inhabitants today are middle-class consumers, and savvy entrepreneurs are recognizing it as a place to make money.
As many well-to-do Africans begin celebrating their droves of new "middle-class consumers, and savvy entrepreneurs" the unintended consequences of un-restrained economic boom are relegated to the margins of the discussion just as are the chief victims of its excesses. Africa's economic boom is exclusively driven by the extraction of oil and strategic mineral resources. Competition over the wealth generated is fueling resource wars (Congo, Sierre Leone) and rent-seeking (Nigeria, Guinea Conakry) in the continent that thrives in an atmosphere of political instability and regional inequities.

Yes, the expanded exploitation of the continent's natural resources has led to the creation of new middle-classes in Africa, but this process has been accompanied with ever worsening social conditions among the popular classes. For example, the aforementioned post-apartheid South Africa has witnessed black political elites living luxuriously off of the country's mineral wealth while the poor majority remains mired in desperate poverty and exploitation. South African author and brother of a former president, Moeletsi Mbeki has written at length about how the white owners of the capitalist economy in South Africa protected themselves from revolution by offering top black political officials billions of dollars worth of shares in multinational corporations.

Too many well-intentioned individuals give their tacit support to some of the most reactionary leaders in the world in an effort to believe something good is happening in Africa. The biggest African success story of the last 20 years is the fact that the workers, peasants and shack-dwellers of the continent have been able to survive day-to-day under the most relentless neo-colonial plundering in the entire planet. Their strength and determination to live under conditions of abject poverty and corruption is a legitimate reason to be hopeful. As global powers loot strategic mineral resources for military weapons and consumer goods where are the consistent voices opposing that project inside the belly of the beast? In a way, we empower this status-quo when we engage Africa in order to be cultural satisfied and then quietly resume our lives as if the continent has not witnessed the deaths of millions in imperial conquests for profit.

Instead of looking to claim victories that don't exist, concerned individuals should encourage and support organized movements of the popular classes in political struggle. Only a fundamental transformation of society under the leadership of grassroots social forces can the cycle of poverty and ruthless exploitation come to an end in Africa. Anything less by proclaimed supporters of the continent's people is simply fashionably counter-revolutionary.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Guinea Conakry and the Meaning of Democratic Reform

The colonially engineered nation-state of Guinea in West Africa has faced decades of authoritarian leadership and ethnic conflict ever since independence from French-rule in 1958. After a coup led by Moussa Dadis Camara in 2008, there was much enthusiasm about a break with that past. Then, on a day which will live in infamy, September 28, 2009, a protest against Camara's military junta turned violent when at least a hundred and fifty-six people were shot dead and women gang-raped in the streets. You can see and hear an audio slide-show in the New Yorker on the history. A video of the ensuing political crisis is below.

Today, Guinea is headed for a reportedly "free, transparent and credible" election on June 27, 2010, that will usher in a civilian controlled government. A list of presidential front-runners in the election are already announced. The Guinean military has sworn that it will not interfere in the election process. A Guinean diplomat happily told Reuters,"for now, the army has remained out of the political process."

But is it really possible? Has Guinea, after years of brutal dictatorship finally entered into the paradise of a Western approved multiparty democracy? A timely analysis in Foreign Policy magazine warns that transition from military to civilian rule will in no way challenge Guinea's kleptocracy (rule by thieves)---a system in which multinationals and elites work with the military behind the scenes to ensure the safe extraction of resources.
"No one doubts that the military, through its affiliated networks of businessmen and political allies, will continue to overshadow the running of any elected regime. Guinea is the world's largest bauxite exporter and home to vast iron ore deposits, and possibly even oil reserves -- all of which the military is keenly aware."
The challenge therefore is to understand just how much democracy Guineans can expect after the polls on the 27th? If a sign of democracy is how much Guinea's people directly share in the fruits of the nation's wealth, signs are so far not looking positive. After all, the free-flow of Guinea's mineral resources in past have not in anyway improved the social and economic lives of the country's majority poor population. According to U.S. sources, when economic growth rose slightly in 2006-08, due to increases in global demand and commodity prices on world markets the standard of living fell. Guinea remains among the poorest countries in the world despite its rich natural resources.

Another historical problem in Guinea is the habit among the state to utilize political violence against opposition movements and political parties (often along ethnic-lines). And while a transition to a nominally civilian government represents the opportunity for a serious change, the amount continuing military intrusion in economic and political affairs is a warning sign. The Foreign Policy article lists the continuing influence of the military as a warning sign for future violence along ethnic or religious lines.
"Most alarmingly, serious splits have emerged within military circles. Last year, Camara brought in Israeli mercenaries to train as many as 10,000 new recruits for the army. They came mostly from Camara's ethnic Geurzé tribe in the isolated Forestiere region....Over the last few weeks, ethno-religious clashes have killed several people in Forestiere amid fears that Camara may be stirring up trouble ahead of the polls."
I recently listened to a piercing analysis in a Brecht forum podcast on Western military and judicial influence in the African continent. One speaker noted toward the end of the discussion the fact that forms of natural resource extraction conspicuously match political structures in Africa. Guinea is a text-book case of this phenomena even during significant moments of regime change as we are about to witness later this month. What does democratic reform mean in a state like Guinea where the political structure is configured for the cheap extraction of the country's mineral resources rather than endogenous social development of its citizens?