Archive for the 'HISTORY' Category

Justicia!: Sotomayor and the Long March of Puerto Rican History

June 18, 2009

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NEW YORK — Inside the red brick walls of the Bronxdale housing projects, 24-year-old mother of two Geisha Sas says she still hears echoes of music from the 1950s, when her building’s most famous former resident, Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor, lived there. “Older people still listen to Tito Puente and Eddie Palmieri inside their apartments,” said Sas, a salsa and hip-hop fan. Before morphing into the embodiment of urban decay that they became in the 60s and 70s, these public housing projects provided the young Sotomayor the new, lower-middle class housing that facilitated her early pursuit of justice. For Puerto Ricans of Sas’s generation living here, the Bronxdale experience of justice is quite different.

“I’ve also heard gunshots and saw a boy killed on that grass,” said Sas, looking at a large patch of grass surrounded by several seven-story buildings. Asked what expectations for justice she has from fellow Bronxdale Boricua (Puerto Rican) Sotomayor, Sas declared, “I hope she knows how to tell the difference between justicia and injusticia. I hope she does the right thing and that she doesn’t forget where she’s from.

Sas’s clamor for justice echoes the very particular concerns expressed by many Nuyoricans (Puerto Ricans in New York). Lost in debates about Sotomayor’s “ethnic allegiances” and what they consider the story of her rise from poverty, are the contributions of the silenced majority living in and beyond the Bronxdale projects: the Puerto Rican community whose political thought and action made Sotomayor’s rise possible.

“The media keeps telling us that she (Sotomayor) has a ‘one in a million’ story,” says Miriam Jimenez Roman, a visiting scholar in Africana Studies at NYU and director of the Afro-Latino Project. “But what they forget to tell us is how the million made the one possible. Many people struggled so that she might become the first Latina on the Supreme Court.” Roman notes that, for example, most news reports and commentaries about Sotomayor frame her life as an up-from-the-bootstraps story of individual accomplishment. This story, says Roman, is partial, at best, in that it excludes mention of the many and ongoing efforts of Puerto Ricans in the Bronx and other areas who fought to improve educational, health, employment, electoral, and other institutions.

Most importantly, says Roman, Sotomayor was very likely exposed to a broad spectrum of political thought about “justicia” that is not mentioned in the current national discussion surrounding her nomination. “I suspect that she heard and was influenced by the Puerto Ricans who were fighting for social justice,” said Roman. “We’re all glad about the nomination. But collapsing the story of an entire people into the story of a single individual is extremely problematic.”

Groups like United Bronx Parents, ASPIRA and the Puerto Rican Student Union organized for improved educational opportunities for young Puerto Ricans like Sotomayor, who herself was active in student access and curriculum issues while at Princeton. More militant groups like the the Young Lords, the Health Revolutionary Unity Movement and the Think Lincoln Committee took over Lincoln Hospital — one of the only health facilities in the Bronx — and forced it to provide better services and greater access to the community when 16-year-old Sotomayor lived in Coop City. A long line of Puerto Rican independistas (those who support ending what they consider the colonial status imposed on the island by the United States), from Pedro Albizu Campos and the Puerto Rican Nationalist Party to the activists who took over the Statue of Liberty, have kept the issue of Boricua identity in the minds of many like Sotomayor, who wrote her graduate thesis about Luis Muñoz Marin, the former nationalist who went on to become the island’s first elected governor. And the hometown associations that doubled as political organizations — fighting housing discrimination, racism and police brutality — were the first to organize the annual Puerto Rican Day parade that took place last weekend along Fifth Avenue.

Beneath the signs marchers in last Sunday’s parade were holding in support of Sotomayor was the long march of Puerto Rican political history, a history many believe helped raise the judge to the pinnacle of legal and political power as much as her much-lauded personal efforts. “There were many institutions that have helped her (Sotomayor) and many others,” said Angelo Falcon, director of the National Institute for Latino Policy.

“Different people took different routes to social justice,” said Falcon, who knows Sotomayor and supports her nomination. “She took the legal route, but is still a product of her community.”

Roman, who is around the same age as Sotomayor, agrees. She says she hears the workings of Puerto Rican political struggle in the music heard in Bronxdale since the 50s. “Back then,” said Roman, “even listening to booglaoo and salsa — Spanish language music created in the United States by the children of immigrants — was a statement, an assertion of our history and culture. It was normal for us to listen to it, but, in the larger context of an English-speaking country, it was radical in a way.”

Mision Cumplida Indeed: Salvadorans Inaugurate Funes as They Embark on a Journey Out of Darkness

June 1, 2009

MISION CUMPLIDA

Taken during the celebrations of the historic victory of the FMLN in the recent presidential election, this picture has a power I find hard to describe.

In and of itself, the very simple message hand written on the pancarta -Mission Accomplished: Companeros Fallen in the Struggle- says much about what it took to reach today’s inauguration of Salvadoran President Mauricio Funes. Humble young hands paying homage not to comic book or video game characters, but to heroes from a real-life place: their familia.

The kids in the pic told me that they were there celebrating the life of aunts and uncles who died fighting the Salvadoran government so that they would have a future. In the current context, the sign in the background – “Laboratory, Diagnostic Center”- symbolizes for me the fact that the patient suffering under the cancer of U.S.-sponsored military dictatorship has miraculously improved -and now there’s space for experimentation outside of the rat’s cage of U.S. and corporate domination.

But the clincher for me is the picture’s ciarosucuro effect, the claro-oscuro contrast between the darkness behind the young people, who are the same age as their aunts, uncles and many of the combatants when they fought and died in the 80-‘s and early 90’s, and the light shining on them. The young people are members of the first generation in Salvadoran history that will live free of the darkness of a government dominated by oligarchs and military dictators; The light shining on those kids in the picture has no precedent in either the history of light or the history of children in El Salvador. Mision Cumplida indeed.

Sotomayor’s Confirmation Hearings Will Be a Trial-of the GOP

May 27, 2009

The Huffington Post

As she faces what is already expected to be a host of hostile questions from the Republican members of the Senate Judiciary Committee in her confirmation hearings, Judge Sonia Sotomayor, President Obama’s first nominee to the Supreme Court, should remember one thing: that it is not she who will be on trial, but the Republican Party.

Rather than allow herself to be put at the center of another racism and sexism-laden political circus around the qualifications of a candidate who brings more real-life prosecutorial and actual judicial experience than any other Supreme Court nominee in the last 100 years, Sotomayor should consider another strategy. She – and we – should instead view those hearings as nothing less than a trial to determine whether the GOP is ready to make restitution for its role in a number of judicial and political wrongdoings perpetrated in the Bush era. Those wrongdoings include unleashing unprecedented and dangerous political attacks on Latinos, and breaching the political and electoral contract the “new GOP” said it wanted with Latinos, one of the country’s most important voting blocs.

The Sotomayor hearings will determine whether members of the Republican Party are ready to renew fundamental principles of justice and the rule of law.

Consider the case of U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas. Cornyn supported the nomination of the last Latino to be considered for a high office dealing with matters of justice — disgraced former Attorney General and Republican Alberto Gonzales. Even after Gonzales’s role in crafting the now infamous “torture memos” became apparent, Cornyn raised none of the “red flags” and “lots of questions” he now says he has about Sotomayor.

During the Senate Judiciary hearings around the Gonzales nomination, Cornyn declared that the candidate would be vindicated by history: “The growing consensus behind the president’s decision that al Qaeda terrorists are morally entitled to humane treatment but not legally entitled to the special privileges afforded to prisoners of war under the Third Geneva Convention of 1949 provides compelling vindication to supporters of Judge Alberto R. Gonzales’ nomination to be our nation’s 80th attorney general.”

Even when Atty. Gen. Gonzales came under fire for his role in the firings of a group of United States attorneys in late 2006, Cornyn and other Republicans on the Senate Judiciary defended Gonzales as an “honorable and decent man” who “finds himself in a bad situation.”

Though Gonzales will likely turn into the invisible brown GOP man, or go on a long vacation during the Sotomayor confirmation, millions of Latinos will watch what for them is a historical event of the utmost political and intimate importance. Many of these Latinos will be watching to see any signs of the racism and xenophobia many Latinos blame the GOP for and voted overwhelmingly against in the last election. Latino voters will, for example, be vigilant about what GOP Senate Judiciary members like Jeff Sessions say before and during the hearings.

Earlier this month, reports linking Sessions, the ranking Republican on the committee, to anti-immigrant groups filled Spanish-language
media. According to the Washington-based America’s Voice, the Alabama senator has appeared at several events organized by the Center for
Immigration Studies (CIS), NumbersUSA, as well as the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which was designated by the Southern
Poverty Law Center and other organizations as a “hate group.”

Anything in this must-see Latino political event resembling the anti-immigrant rhetoric that has been Sessions’ trademark will cost his party for years to come. Such concerns about GOP leaders among Latinos, who are only beginning to realize their enormous political potential, pose a gigantic dilemma to a Republican Party that must make inroads among Latino voters if it is to have a political future.

Whatever they say in the hearings, Republicans will be at a great disadvantage when it comes time to counting votes in a Democrat-controlled Senate that will be at, or very close to, the filibuster-proof 60-vote majority needed to confirm Sotomayor.

So it will be the GOP and not Sotomayor that will be on trial in this high-stakes judicial confirmation of the post-Bush era of Republican dominance. Latinos will watch to see if GOP leaders will use the Sotomayor hearings to distance themselves from Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck and others many Latinos consider to be anti-immigrant extremists.

And we should all be watching to see if Republicans are prepared to use the Sotomayor confirmation as a way to communicate a willingness to redeem themselves for the great injustices of our recent past.

Climate of Hate Means Immigrant Rights Organizations Should Commit to Excluding Punitive Policies in Any Reform Proposal

May 5, 2009

This post was inspired by another post by my friend, Alisa Valdez, who uses the MSM’s coverage of the Markoff “Craig’sList Killer” case to draw our attention to how twisted -and dangerous-the values of the media ecology we inhabit have become. Reading Alisa’s tight analysis alongside reports of that the racist killers of immigrant Luis Ramirez were declared innocent (and of course, the daily bread of anti-immigrant, anti-Latino hate found on radios, TV’s and websites everywhere), triggered concerns made even clearer during a recent visit to Europe to cover the UN conference on racism. More specifically, Alisa’s piece provided me with the spark to say something I’ve been mulling for while: the dangerous even murderous anti-migrant climate requires that immigrant advocates commit not to support any “Comprehensive Immigration Reform” (CIR) proposal containing punitive immigration policies.

The piece below floats the seemingly uncontroversial idea of a petition asking immigrant rights orgs-and their leaders- to commit
to excluding, not supporting any and all punitive policies in any “comprehensive immigration reform.” Seems pretty obvious,
but the absence of such accountability allows the noxious policies-and the immigrant=criminal logic undergirding them- to pass
with the apparent support of that segment of the “immigrant rights movement” that can afford media flaks, PR spinsters, bloggers
and others allowing them to speak for the entire immigrant rights movement. Hopefully, this is non-controversial, but let’s put it to a test.

Neither aggressive, nor hostile, such a petition simply commits its signatories to excluding policies that, in such a radically hateful
climate, enable further hatred, terror and death in immigrant communities. how could anyone purporting to be a defender of immigrants
not agree to something so basic?

I encourage any comments, suggestions or disagreements those of you reading this might have. Gracias, R

Here’s the response to Alisa’s piece:

That a crazed murderer would be described with such fawning language while maids, gardeners and immigrants and other Latinos are described in the harshest, most hateful language speaks powerfully to how perverted the “values” of this decadent “civilization” have become. Reinforces a theory I have about how we’ve moved beyond the rather stale notion that legalization or increases in the Latino vote will do anything to diminish the rise in hate towards Latinos.

Between radical demographic shifts (young, rapidly growing Latino population, aging, diminishing white population), editorial rooms chock full of old- and young- still mostly white “editors” who normalize lethal logics and the companies that capitalize and profit from “news”programs, talk shows premised on promoting Darwinian racial ideologies, what we have is the possible institutionalization of perpetual race war targeting Latinos, especially immigrant Latinos, who are suffering the brunt of hatred, death and devastation.

In such a lethally charged climate, at such a decadent moment in the history of this country, we need to raise the cost of promoting or enabling the radical racial logic of the newsrooms described so cogently by Alisa. This is why I propose, for example, that we start eviscerating any trace of the racially charged immigrant=criminal logic in our own “community.” We can start addressing this by developing and circulating a petition or some document demanding that any “immigrant rights organization” commit itself to excluding any and all punitive immigration proposals they might advocate in the name of “legalizing the 12 million” or whatever spin people come up with in their efforts to legitimize the now deadly immorality known in legislative circles as a “tradeoff” (legalization in exchange for more punitive policy). We can then extend the commitment to the Hispanic Caucus and other members of Congress and move forward into the editorial rooms with greater force and unity of purpose.

As the possibility of “comprehensive immigration reform” rears its head again, we might want to consider the possibilty that, in allowing or even supporting punitive policies, we in the “immigrant rights movement” are unconsciously accepting the logic of criminality by allowing or supporting laws premised on now extremely lethal notions of immigrant criminality manufactured in hate groups, “think tanks” and the news rooms Alisa aptly describes. Make no mistake, in times when hating immigrants is proven to yield daily profits for news organizations and their advertisers, times when you can kill an immigrant and go scott free (or even hailed as heroes as in the gross distortion that is the Compean case), “tradeoffs” mean we are willing to accept logic that kills, the same logic of the racists disguised as editors use. I also think that the institutions-news orgs, hate groups, political parties, including Democrats- invested and investing in this radical, deadly turn deserve the same treatment we used to give those who enabled the slaughter of innocents in El Salvador: pouring colored red liquid symbolizing the blood of the dead and maimed on their offices-or even their suits and dresses. Things, have, I believe, reached that point of urgency-but the “news” will not report it or, if they do, they’ll do so in the most banal terms possible. Such are the rotten fruits of decadent “civilization.”

Thanks again for your work on this, Alisa. Good writing should spark discussion and debate and you succeeded.

Best,

R

Silencing the Breakers of Silence: UN Durban II Conference Threatened by Conflicts

April 21, 2009

GENEVA, SWITZERLAND Before asking him about Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s controversial speech here at the followup to the U.N.-sponsored World Conference Against Racism (Durban II), I first gave Nobel prize-winner, Elie Wiesel, my thanks. I thanked him not because of his condemnation of an opening speech in which the Iranian president called the holocaust a “dubious question”; I thanked holocaust survivor Wiesel because he provided us with one of the main slogans for combating past and recent racism in the United States: “No Human Being is Illegal.” After he shook my hand and after I offered, in the most Spanish-inflected French possible, my gratitude on behalf of the Central Americans who first launched the “No Human Being is Illegal” campaign back when the United States denied them political asylum and refugee status in the 1980’s, Wiesel smiled and reminisced,”Yes, I gave that term to the Sanctuary movement. It was wrong to deny them (Salvadorans and Guatemalans) (legal) status. I was happy to support the cause.”

As one who dedicated a significant part of his adult life to the cause of Central Americans, meeting Wiesel served as a deeply personal reminder of the profoundly serious issues being discussed here. But as one dedicated to the global movement for migrants rights, which has, in many countries, also adopted his elegantly simple coinage, I’m also gravely concerned about how the focus on Ahmadinejad and the boycott of the Geneva conference supported by Wiesel, the United States and the powerful minority of countries backing the Israeli government is distracting the world from one of its most urgent facts: the exponential rise in xenophobia, hatred and racism around the world, especially following the exponential decline in economic stability triggered by the global greed and corruption centered in the United States.

Were Iran, Israel and other players involved in this display of geopolitical drama not so viscerally divided, someone attending the conference might reach the conclusion that their high-profile conflicts are a subterfuge designed to mask over and disguise the most damaging and deadly racial and ethnic consequences brought on by the depredations and failures of western governments – and the “blue eyed bankers” in the U.S. and other countries recently denounced by Brazilian President Lula and others.

Speaking with some from among the thousands of passionately committed and very smart participants from around the globe attending Durban II, I couldn’t help but hear the grave disappointment and even anger at the damaging, even catastrophic effect that both the the boycott and President Ahmadinejad’s speech are having on issues discussed throughout the conference.  For example, lost in the global media’s almost exclusive focus on Ahmadinejad’s speech and on the walkout by a small minority of mostly white Western diplomats, are concerns of the overwhelmingly non-white majority attending the conference, attendees like Yousif Aboh.

“These conflicts (around the speech and the boycott) only help governments like Sudan’s to continue racist practices that push people out, that starve people and that attack and kill people,” said a very somber Aboh, who works with Darfur Peace and Development, a non-governmental organization which is the only Darfuri-led organization still operating in Darfur. “I’m here to get support for the people still living a great crisis in Darfur- people without food and water because of discrimination-and these kinds of controversies make my work difficult to impossible because many in the media don’t want to talk about anything else except Israel and Iran.”

Aboh and others attending Durban II also expressed deep disappointment at the Obama Administration’s decision not to attend the conference.  Non-attendance was roundly condemned as a very dangerous act that communicates the wrong message to racists, xenophobes and genocidal governments around the world. “Their (the Obama Administration) not attending tells governments like Sudan’s that their dangerous racist policies are not a priority,” said Aboh, who also condemned the government of Iran for its support of the Sudanese government.

For his part, Khalil Shahabi, an economist at the Tehran-based Insitute for Sceintific and Political Research, agreed with Aboh about the Obama Administration but also defended the Iranian government against Aboh, Wiesel and other critics, “Our President is the only head of state to come. It’s important that he tell the world about how Israeli racism kills innocent people in Gaza, including fifteen percent who were children.” When I asked him about the Iranian President’s statements about the situation in Palestine, Wiesel told me he thought Ahmadinejad had done “dishonor to his people, who have such a rich history. What arrogance he has to come here to a UN conference on racism only to express such hatred.”

Largely lost in the largely simplistic media coverage of both the conference and the speech by President Ahmadinejad were the more nuanced discussions taking place inside and outside the stately halls of the U.N. For example, Norway’s Foreign Minister, Jonas Gahr Støre, delivered a speech indirectly criticizing Iran, Israel and the United States. “We who have made a point of defending freedom of expression cannot opt for non-attendance as a strategy, leaving the floor to precisely those who hold opposite views” said  Støre  “We will not surrender the floor of the United Nations to the extremists.The President of Iran has just exercised that human right. He did so – I believe – in a way that threatens the very focus of this conference.”

Such an inauspicious start to an event of such global import inspires fears; fears that the specific conflicts involving only a few of the world’s many actors may detract from communicating the powerful spirit motivating most of those attending the Durban II conference. This spirit was best captured by Wiesel, when he said many years ago, “I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”

Mo(u)rning in El Salvador

March 26, 2009

The Nation.

A young supporter of FMLN presidential candidate, now president-elect, Mauricio Funes. RODRIGO ABD/AP

Roberto Lovato

March 26, 2009

In Izalco, El Salvador, an idyllic but very poor village nestled under the gaze of the great volcano of the same name, I asked Juliana Ama to help me understand how the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN), the guerrillas-turned-political-party, had managed to triumph over the Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA) in the presidential election on March 15, ending the right-wing party’s twenty-year reign. Ama guided me to a dusty, football field-size dirt lot adjacent to a church. The 61-year-old schoolteacher said nothing at first, staring meditatively at a round spot blackened by a campfire or some burnt offering. Then she said simply, “It’s our dead.”

Her explanation lacked the revolutionary bravado and the análisis político heard from chain-smoking former guerrilla commanders and Facebook-using radical students in San Salvador, the capital. Instead, she threw open her arms and said, “Most of the people killed in the Matanza [the Great Killing] are buried here.” Before us lay the remains of many of the 20,000 to 30,000 mostly indigenous Pipil-Nahuat killed in January 1932 on the orders of military dictator Maximiliano Hernández.

In slow, measured speech, Ama, one of a tiny fraction of Salvadorans who identify themselves as indigenous, explained how indigenous peasants like her great-great-granduncle, the peasant leader Feliciano Ama of Izalco, and others from the western coffee-growing part of El Salvador rose up against deadly poverty, stolen land and other abuses in Depression-era El Salvador, only to be brutally slaughtered.

“We’ve organized commemoration ceremonies on this spot since 2001,” said Ama, as she pointed at the darkened patch on the lot. “People who can’t remember and are silent are people who are submitted (sumisos). Those ceremonies made it normal and acceptable to be open about the loss of long ago, the loss that still lives with us. Nothing like this was ever possible before, and I think that the ceremony made it possible for people to start being more open about political feelings too.”

My initial reason for visiting Izalco during the country’s presidential election season was that I’d learned of ARENA’s defeat in the Izalco mayoral race in January–the party’s first defeat since it was founded in 1981 by Roberto D’Aubuisson, who also founded El Salvador’s notorious death squads. The death squads, backed by the right-wing military government, were responsible for killing many of the 80,000 people who died during the bloody civil war of 1980-92.

The FMLN’s recent victory in small, neglected Izalco–after campaigning on a message of change backed by a coalition of Catholics, students and evangelicals–had political analysts buzzing about how it might herald a national trend in the lead-up to the historic presidential election. Even some ARENA loyalists I interviewed quoted D’Aubuisson’s prophetic maxim: “The day we lose Izalco, that day will be the end of the party.”

In Izalco it became clear how Ama’s explanation of the FMLN’s victory aligned perfectly with the central lesson of revolutionary political warfare that some former Salvadoran guerrilla commanders told me they’d learned in Russia, Vietnam and other Communist-bloc countries in the 1960s and ’70s: the spirit of the people matters most. The power that broke the chain of oligarchies and military dictatorships that shackled El Salvador for 130 years was the will of the people to break their silence.

Few embody this will to break the silence like Mauricio Funes, the FMLN candidate and the first leftist elected president in the history of El Salvador.

Funes, a 49-year-old former journalist, rose to prominence in no small part thanks to the democratic space created by the signing of the peace accords ending the war in 1992. Until then, the seventy-year rule of oligarchs and dictators made freedom of expression a rarity. My first memories of Funes are as the talk-show host and commentator my family in San Salvador would listen to in the late ’80s as they huddled around a small, battered black-and-white television set during their lunch breaks.

As the grip of state military-run television loosened in the postwar period, Funes became the country’s most popular TV personality in his role as host of Entrevista al Dia (Interview of the Day), El Salvador’s equivalent of Meet the Press.

Hosting al Dia, on which he grilled and debated left- and right-leaning guests with his famously mercurial intelligence, helped to make Funes a symbol of the openness ushered in by the signing of the peace accords. After losing every presidential race since laying down its arms to become a political party in 1992, the FMLN embraced change. With the help of people like Funes’s mentor Hato Hasbun–a sociology professor who worked closely with the six Jesuit priests killed by the military during the FMLN offensive in 1989–the party finally recognized that putting up presidential candidates who were former guerrilla commanders or wartime opposition leaders might not be the best strategy for winning over an electorate trying to overcome the war’s painful legacy. The party chose Funes, who was neither a combatant nor a member of the FMLN during the war.

In doing so, the former guerrillas gave their party a much-needed upgrade that allowed them to use the FMLN’s legendary organizational capacity (during the war, the US State Department called the FMLN one of the “best organized” and “most effective” people’s movements in Latin America in the last fifty years) to meet the political requirements of the media age. And as a Jesuit-influenced intellectual, Funes also gave the FMLN–an organization with many leaders who were themselves profoundly influenced by liberation theology and first organized in Christian base communities–some ideological comfort.

When I interviewed Funes on the night of his victory, in the restaurant of a San Salvador hotel, the first thing he did was echo the thinking of one of those who courageously broke El Salvador’s silence. “Now we need a government like the one envisioned by [Archbishop of El Salvador] Óscar Arnulfo Romero, who, in his prophetic message, said that the church should have a preferential option for the poor. Paraphrasing Monseñor Romero, I would say that this government should have a preferential option for the poor, for those who need a robust government to get ahead and to be able to compete in this world of disequilibrium under fair conditions.”

Like almost every Salvadoran I spoke with after Funes’s victory, the candidate said he wished a deceased family member, in his case his brother killed during the war, was with him to share the moment.

And like Juliana Ama, he too rooted his victory in the legacy of silence and struggle from Izalco: “Our history–what happened in 1932, the poverty of the ’70s that caused the armed conflict in the ’80s and the state in which many in the countryside like Izalco still find themselves today–these can be explained fundamentally by the unjust distribution of wealth, the use of the government to support the process of concentrating wealth.”

After talking with Funes at the hotel, I went to the Escalon neighborhood, where those who have benefited from the concentration of the country’s wealth live and do business behind the big, heavily guarded walls of gated buildings and fortressed mansions. For reasons I don’t know, but imagine have something to do with poetic justice, the FMLN decided to hold its massive victory celebration that Sunday night on Escalon Boulevard.

The neighborhood was also where the FMLN launched its offensive on San Salvador in 1989. After the demise of Communism put in doubt the survival of Latin American revolutionary movements, including El Salvador’s, the FMLN made a strategic decision to bring its guerrilla army of young men and women and older adults, some of whom had little to no combat experience, into the capital, leading to some of the bloodiest battles of the war.

I walked along the crowded blocks of the Escalon with my good friend Joaquin Chávez, a fellow in the NYU history department, who founded the first Central American studies program in the United States with three other colleagues and me. Passing by Citibank and Scotiabank, OfficeMax, McDonald’s and other corporate buildings on the Escalon never felt so exhilarating. The major difference was the hundreds of thousands of boisterously happy, red-shirted, mostly poor children, youth and families waving homemade red-and-white FMLN flags.

For his part, my bookish, bespectacled historian friend Joaquin, who had lost many friends and family members during the war, was initially pretty academic about what the electoral victory meant.

“The origins of the war were not ideological. What brought on the armed struggle,” began Joaquin, whose current research looks at the role of intellectuals in the origins of the war, “was the reaction of various groups to the repression of the state. If the government had allowed fair elections in 1972 and 1977, there would have been no war.” His voice started to crack slightly with emotion. “And that’s what makes tonight so hope-inspiring: it makes possible a political transition through legal and electoral means.”

Watching the wave of thousands of mostly young FMLN supporters walk, sing and dance as they held handpainted signs with messages like Misión Cumplida: Compañeros Caídos en La Lucha (Mission Accomplished: Compañeros Who Fell in the Struggle), Joaquin reminisced, not as the accomplished historian but as the former guerrilla leader: “I remember being here on Seventy-fifth Street (during the 1989 offensive) to pick up the bodies of dead and injured young combatants. They were the ages of these kids walking here now.”

He continued: “Tonight I feel like they didn’t die for nothing. Spiritually, it feels like a weight has been taken off of you, where you feel the absence of those who initiated these processes. This is an explosion of happiness and a celebration of rebellion, a triumph of the 1932 rebellion of Feliciano Ama and the indigenous people.”

Back at the empty lot, near the blackened patch of dirt that is ground zero of revolutionary El Salvador, Juliana Ama pondered the escape from silence her country had begun. Despite the threats the commemoration ceremonies provoked, she said, “our ceremony is not intended as a political act. It is first and foremost a spiritual act. We have no choice; we can’t remain and suffer in silence.” Her eighth-grader son, Alex Oswaldo Calzadia Chille, stood solemnly nearby.

Asked what he thought the political turns in his country portended, the rather reticent, dark-skinned 14-year-old star student, soccer forward and drummer at the Mario Calvo school responded with an unexpected forcefulness. “I’m Pipil (Indian). Feliciano Ama, he’s my family and was killed defending the land against the government, like many people do today.” As if he’d been waiting for the opportunity to speak even more, he declared, “My family voted for the FMLN because they wanted change.” His intense brown eyes alive with the energy one imagines his rebellious ancestor had, Alex added, “When I’m old enough, so will I.”

Must See Moyers Interview: Mike Davis on “De-globalization,” the Socialist Option and the Role of the U.S. Left

March 22, 2009

Mike Davis, photo by Robin Holland

If we lived in a world in which depth of thought-regardless of political orientation- was publicly recognized and rewarded, my friend and companero (a word he loves), Mike Davis, would have a movie about him called “A Beautiful Mind” (hopefully a better-made, well-acted and ardently personal-is-political version.) One of less than a handful of inspirations for my own preferential option for the Militant Word, Mike is the author of more books than I have time to name here (Late Victorian Holocausts & City of Quartz are among my favorites).

I can think of few thinkers whose depth of analysis, way with words and serious conviction rise to the moment of crisis we face. This interview with Bill Moyers gives Mike the ample space needed for us to appreciate his thought, short of actually reading him.Trust me: you can’t leave listening to Mike without reconfiguring your synapses in some way. Besides introducing concepts like “de-globalizaton,” one of the most interesting things about the interview, which, BTW, Bill conducts nimbly, is that Mike let’s out the lesser-known optimism lurking in his socialist heart. Must Watch Television. Really. Enjoy.

R

CUNY TV Interview on El Salvador Elections

March 22, 2009

This interview with CUNY TV‘s Gary Pierre-Pierre goes over lots of terrain. Thanks to CUNY TV’s Michelle Garcia for conceiving of and developing the idea for what turned out to be a good interview. Enjoy!

Daring to Change: Exclusive Interview with El Salvador’s President-Elect, Mauricio Funes

March 18, 2009

A Conversation With Mauricio Funes

by Roberto Lovato & Josue Rojas

March 17, 2009

On March 15, the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) became the first leftist party to clinch a presidential election in the history of El Salvador. By 10 pm, it became clear to Salvadorans and to the world that the former guerrillas had ended more than 130 years of oligarchy and military rule over this Central American nation of 7 million. In the streets, thousands of red-shirted sympathizers chanted “¡Si Se Pudo!” (Yes, We Could), while they celebrated the victory of the FMLN’s Mauricio Funes.

Funes captured 51 percent of the vote, to 49 percent cast for Rodrigo Avila of the Nationalist Republican Alliance party, which had been in power for twenty years. Though Funes, a former journalist, is the best-known Salvadoran on his country’s TV networks, he is little known outside the region. Thanks to a collaboration between The Nation and New America Media (NAM), reporters Roberto Lovato and Josue Rojas had the opportunity to interview El Salvador’s next president on the night of his election. What follows is an excerpt from this interview with Funes, who addressed numerous issues: the meaning of his presidency, El Salvador’s relationship with the United States, immigration and other domestic and foreign policy concerns.

Immigration has become one of the defining issues of the US-El Salvador relationship. How will your administration’s approach to this issue differ from that of the outgoing Saca administration?

The fact that we’re going to rebuild the democratic institutions–enforce the constitution and make of El Salvador a democratic state that respects the rule of law–is the best guarantee to the United States that we will significantly reduce the flows of out-migration. Salvadorans who leave to go the United States do so because of the institutional abandonment, the lack of employment and dignified ways to make a living. This forces them to leave in search of new possibilities in the US. It’s not the same for us to ask the US government to renew TPS [temporary legalization] without a Salvadoran effort to avoid further migration flows, as to do so from a position in which we have undertaken efforts to reduce the migration flows.

What’s the first message you’d like to send to President Obama?

The message that I would like to send to President Obama is that I will not seek alliances or accords with other heads of state from the southern part of the continent who will jeopardize my relationship with the government of the United States.

Opinion polls in El Salvador indicate that large majorities of its citizens reject key policies that define, in many ways, the relationship between El Salvador and the United States, specifically CAFTA, dollarization and the Iraq war. What will your approach be to these issues?

We can’t get mixed up in repealing CAFTA…nor can we reverse dollarization, because that would send a negative message to foreign investors, and then we’d be facing serious problems because we wouldn’t have enough investment to stimulate the national economy.

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What do you think the United States government should be concerned about with regard to El Salvador at this time?

To the degree that we do our part, which is to rebuild our productive capacity and to create a coherent social policy that improves the quality of life, there will be fewer reasons to leave for the US and we’ll reduce migration flows. And that should be a concern for the US.

Where will the effects of the transition in power be felt most immediately?

We’re going to change the way we make policy. And one of the most significant changes is that we will no longer have a government at the service of a privileged few. And we will no longer have a government that creates an economy of privileges for the privileged. Now, we need a government like the one envisioned by [Archbishop of El Salvador] Óscar Arnulfo Romero, who, in his prophetic message, said that the church should have a preferential option for the poor. Paraphrasing Monseñor Romero, I would say that this government should have preferential option for the poor, for those who need a robust government to get ahead and to be able to compete in this world of disequilibrium under fair conditions. This government implies a break from traditional policy-making. Now, what we’re going to do is put the government and the structure of the state at the service of the Salvadoran people–the totality of the Salvadoran people–but fundamentally, of that great majority who are oppressed and excluded from the country’s social and economic development. [The people who for] not just the last twenty years but for last 200 years or more have not had the possibility of participating in the formation of public policies. A government like the one I’m going to create will give them the protagonist’s role, which, until now, they have not ha

Democracy Now! Interview on FMLN Electoral Victory in El Salvador

March 16, 2009

Democracy Now!

You can find what will surely be my most cogent (estoy super cansadisimo, pero contento) interview on yesterday’s elections in El Salvador here at the DN website. Clips from a video interview with President-elect Funes will be forthcoming, depending on what editors tell me. Transcript of interview below. R

Amy Goodman: In El Salvador, Mauricio Funes, of the former rebel FMLN party, has won the country’s presidential election, ending two decades of conservative rule. Funes won 51 percent of the vote to 49 percent for Rodrigo Avila of the ruling right-wing ARENA party. He conceded defeat late on Sunday.

ARENA had won every presidential election since the end of El Salvador’s brutal civil war eighteen years ago. The FMLN was a coalition of rebel guerrillas who fought the U.S.-backed military government during almost two decades in which more than 70,000 people died. Tens of thousands, the majority of those people, died at the hands of the Salvadoran military or paramilitary forces.

Funes is a former television journalist who reported on the years of the conflict and is the first FMLN presidential candidate who is not a former combatant. In his victory speech, he stressed his moderate policies during his campaign and says he intends to maintain good relations with the United States.

President-elect Mauricio Funes: [translated] To strengthen international relations and implement an independent exterior policy based on protection and the boosting the national interest, the integration of Central America and the strengthening of relations with the United States will be aspects of priority on our foreign policy agenda.

Amy Goodman: The Obama government has assured Salvadorans it would work with any leader elected, a departure from the Bush administration, which in 2004 threatened to cut off aid to El Salvador if the FMLN won.

Close U.S. ties saw El Salvador keep troops in Iraq longer than any other Latin American country, with the last of its 6,000 soldiers returning last week. El Salvador had also become a hub of regional cooperation with Washington in the so-called drug war. The country’s economy depends on billions of dollars sent home by 2.5 million Salvadorans who live in the United States.

We go now to San Salvador to speak with Roberto Lovato. He is a contributing associate editor with New America Media and a frequent contributor to The Nation magazine. He blogs at ofamerica.wordpress.com. He met with the President-elect, Mauricio Funes, last night and interviewed him. Roberto Lovato joins us now via Democracy Now! video stream.

Welcome to Democracy Now!, Roberto. Can you tell us the climate now in San Salvador?

Roberto Lovato: I would just say — I’ll just quote a song that says, “Y que venga la alegria a lavar el sufrimiento” — “Let the joy come and wash away the suffering.” It’s something on an order I’ve never seen in my life. As a child of Salvadoran immigrants and as someone who’s spent time here and as someone who saw the Obama experience, I really can’t tell you what this is like, when you’re talking about ending not just the ARENA party’s rule, but you’re talking about 130 years of oligarchy and military dictatorship, by and large, that’s just ended last night. You’re talking about $6 billion that the United States used to defeat the FMLN, as you mentioned earlier. You’re talking about one of the most formidable — a formerly political military, now political forces, in the hemisphere, showing the utter failure of not just the ARENA party but of somebody in particular, too, who has a special place in many of our hearts: Ronald Reagan. This is the defeat of Ronald Reagan, nothing less.

AG: Explain what you mean.

RL: Ronald Reagan — well, you mentioned those 70,000 dead. If there’s a single person responsible for the death squad apparatus that pursued many of our family members, that pursued some of us, that killed — according to the United Nations, 95 percent of all the 70,000 to 80,000 people killed were killed by their own government. Ronald Reagan really, really started us along the road to the — what’s even called in Iraq now “the Salvador Option.” And so, $6 billion — it cost Ronald Reagan and the US $6 billion to try to destroy the FMLN.

And now the streets are red, not with the FMLN’s blood, but with young children, boys, girls, elderly people, families dressed in red, joyously celebrating, singing revolutionary songs commemorating a victory that they’ve never known in their lives, coming out of a silence that this country has always known its whole life. And so, I mean, there were tears and not blood in the streets of San Salvador this morning and even now. It’s about 6:00 a.m. You guys got me up a little early, but it’s just something I’ve never seen in my life, and I’m so moved. I wish I had the words to tell you how moved many of us are here right now.

AG: Can you tell us who Mauricio Funes is? Tell us his background.

RL:
Mauricio Funes is, I would say, one of the great symbols of the aspects of democracy brought to El Salvador, thanks to the FMLN bringing the United States and El Salvador to the negotiating table. Freedom of expression was not a possibility under a military dictatorship. And so, the peace accords brought a modicum of political space, in the media, in particular. And so, Mauricio Funes was like a talk-show host who became the biggest media star in El Salvador, one who happened to lean left, who lost a brother during the war, and who is extremely smart, extremely smart.

You know, I interviewed him for about twenty-five minutes last night, and I find him to be a very, you know, smart guy, in terms of foreign, domestic policies, and speaks with great details and not the usual inanities and simplistic nonsense that most Salvadoran politicians I’ve spoken of — about for most of Salvadoran life. And so, he came as a breath of fresh air, to the point where even 46 percent of the evangelical vote in El Salvador — an extremely conservative evangelical vote, I might add — voted for him.

AG: Explain, finally, Roberto Lovato, speaking to us from San Salvador, the significance of this election of Mauricio Funes, of the FMLN party, for Latin America.

RL: Well, this is a continuation of the red and pink tide that’s taken hold in the hemisphere. The big difference is that it brings us even closer to the north. It brings us even closer to the border wall. Remember, there are more Salvadorans here than there are most — in the United States than there are any other South American country. So the Salvadoran population was here in force, as were many North Americans. People that — like, I’m sure many in your audience, Amy, have supported the people of El Salvador since the 1980s, doing solidarity work, doing sanctuary work. So all of those people’s hearts were moved last night. I’m sure a lot of people in the United States cried with joy. I’m sure a lot of people in United States know and are going to be committed to El Salvador. And so, you bring a tiny Latin American country with one of the most powerful solidarity movements in the United States right now. So, this is major.

This is major also because the Summit of the Americas is coming up, and now Barack Obama is going to have to deal with another Latin American country that has turned away from the United States agenda and that he’s going to have to try to woo somehow, to back into some conversation and not confrontation with the US.

AG: Roberto Lovato, we’re going to leave it there, though we will continue to cover these developments. Again, the FMLN presidential candidate of El Salvador has won. Mauricio Funes is his name. Roberto Lovato, our guest, contributing associate editor with New America Media, frequent contributor to The Nation magazine, blogs at ofamerica.wordpress.com, in San Salvador covering the elections.

Salvadoran Elections Provoke Cautious Optimism On U.S. Relations

March 13, 2009

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Editor’s Note: El Salvador’s elections this Sunday, March 15 has Salvadorans and observers in Latin America wondering, not just about the outcome, but also about the future of United States relations with this Central American country in the new era of Pres. Barack Obama. NAM contributor Roberto Lovato reports from the capital city.

SAN SALVADOR– El Salvador’s election on March 15 is an occasion for Salvadorans to consider future relations with the United States and the new Obama Administration. How the new president and his advisers respond to these elections could be an early measure of U.S.-Latin American relations. And it may also be an opportunity for Obama to begin fulfilling his campaign promise to “lead the hemisphere into the 21st Century.”

As much as he appreciates the change of U.S. administrations, philosophy student Carlos Ramirez, 24, who was sitting beneath a tree near the central plaza of his school, the University of El Salvador in San Salvador, expressed concern that the administration has only made a brief statement of neutrality on the widely-watched elections here. Ramirez and others, including more than 33 U.S. congressmembers who sent Obama a dear-colleague letter about the Salvadoran elections, fear a repeat of 2004. Then, Bush Administration officials intervened in the Salvadoran elections, suggesting that a victory by the opposition party would endanger the legal status of Salvadoran immigrants in the United States and would prohibit remittances they send home.

“I want Obama to understand that there are some students here–a minority, I would say–who still have the ‘80’s attitude of permanent confrontation with the United States that we see in campus protests against the Iraq war, CAFTA [Central American Free Trade Agreement] and other policies,” said Ramirez. “But most of us are open to re-thinking the relationship with the United States. We all recognize that all of us, including the United States, are in a profound crisis and extremely interdependent, as you can see in issues like immigration, trade and security. We’re open and now it’s up to Obama to define his position, and the elections are a good place to start.”

Ramirez’ open-but-cautious attitude is the product of both political maturity and the Bush era policies toward Latin America that bred alienation from the United States. Viewed from this perspective, Sunday’s elections have significance beyond the tiny country of 7 million. How the Obama Administration deals with El Salvador’s hotly contested elections and their aftermath will communicate much about what this country and Latin America can expect from him.

The policies of post-World War II presidents in the United States, both Republican and Democratic, make many Salvadorans wary of Obama, even though they give him high popularity ratings, says Edgardo Herrera, an international relations expert at the university.

“If it is truly committed to improving relations with El Salvador and the rest of Latin America, the Obama Administration should remember what we say about justice here,” said Herrera. “Justice is like a snake. It only bites the barefoot poor, not the rich who have shoes.” He thinks the United States is not in sync with ideas about justice on the Salvadoran street. He cites an annual opinion poll conducted by Central American University since 2003. “Every year Salvadorans are telling the United States they do not like its policies, including the Iraq war, the CAFTA and the dollarization of the country’s currency,” Herrera said. “Rejection of these policies has turned the Salvadoran electorate against the ARENA government-and the United States.”

For Robert White, former ambassador to El Salvador in the Carter Administration and President of the Center for International Policy, the challenge of U.S.-El Salvador policy before and after Sunday’s elections is to foster autonomy and self-determination. “Although the country may be small and its economy heavily dependent on remittances from the United States,” White said, “it is still important for that country to demonstrate its policy independence. Many questions have been raised by some of the Salvadoran government’s past actions.”

White, who is monitoring the elections in El Salvador from Washington, D.C., recalled how the Bush Administration influenced El Salvador’s “extraordinary rapid recognition of the 2002 coup regime in Venezuela, which I believe lasted less than 48 hours.” The leftist Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) is leading the right-wing ARENA party, which dominated politics for 20 years. Should the FMLN win, White said the U.S. should “treat it as a normal event in a democracy.”

Ramirez agreed. “The best thing Obama can do is to engage us in this time of transition and expectation,” he said. “If he were to visit us, he would see immediately that what he needs to do is simply help us reconstruct the campus and the country as the Uniteds States did in Europe and Japan after World War II.”

Izalco, El Salvador and the Way Beyond the Silence

March 12, 2009

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Mystical Izalco portends the end of Salvadoran silence.

To understand the current presidential elections in El Salvador, you have to understand the cities, towns and the campo, El Salvador’s countryside, located outside the capital of San Salvador. What follows is my attempt to provide further context for the media’s description of the horse race between the FMLN and the ARENA parties. A good starting point is the fact that both parties trace all or some of their political roots to Izalco, a relatively small town in the western, coffee-growing part of the country. Izalco is also home to one of the largest concentrations of El Salvador’s small (less than 1% of the population) indigenous population.

For strange, tragic, even mysterious reasons, Izalco, which in the racist popular national lore (ie; one way to call someone ugly is to say they look “indio”) is home to witches, is also home to what, in my opinion, is the ever-present, but unspoken political and cultural spirit of the country. And this region also concentrates large numbers of volcanos, some of which are also quite alive (see above) , as are the narrow and crowded streets of Izalco (below).

izalco-streets

If we want want to take the political pulse of a country as poor (50% of the population lives in poverty) as El Salvador, speaking with people who are not just poor, but a small, indigenous poor minority living in such an enchanting and dark land will give us a unique read. Not all people here in Izalco identify as native people, but all recognize and live indigenous reality like few other places in this country of 7 million.

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You can see the indigenous presence in the sublime faces of the kids here.

You can also find it in and on the nahuatl textbooks and notebooks:

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And you can find the indigenous presence in the deep, dark soil of Izalco’s history. Almost all of the children from Izalco’s Mario Calvo school pictured above are descendants-great, great and great, great, great, grandchildren- of the 20,000-30,000 indigenous people who rebelled against deadly poverty and abuse and were then slaughtered in 1932 by General Maximiliano Hernandez Martinez, the dictator who perpetrated what is known as “La Matanza” (the Great Killing). Martinez and his troops did all this in less than a month, according to scholars like my friend Aldo Lauria-Santiago, whose book is pictured below with a cover of the Izalco volcano.

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Recent research like Aldo’s and that of other scholars reveals that the idea that the rural insurrection in the west was led by urban communists of the period like Farabundo Marti is wrong. In fact, these scholars tell us, it was led by the ancestors (below) of the children pictured above. Below is the picture of the real leader of the insurrection, Jose Feliciano Ama.

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The spiritual reality behind images such as these inspired revolutionary Salvadoran poet Roque Dalton to say in his oft-quoted poem,

Todos nacimos mitad muertos en 1932

Sobrevivimos pero medio vivos

(we were all born half dead in 1932

we survived but half alive)

Despite recent research, many still blur the differences between the communists and the indigenous rebels of the period. Even many members of the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) make the mistake as do members of the governing ARENA party, which was founded in Izalco by Roberto D’abuisson. D’abuisson also founded El Salvador’s notorious death squads, one of which was named for the old dictator, Hernandez Martinez.

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I actually have no idea who the group of Izalco Areneros pictured above are. I visited the office and spoke with the directores of Arena’s campaign in Izalco, who told me why their message of “democracy,” their message of “freedom” from the threat of El Salvador becoming a “Hugo Chavez satellite” moves Izalco’s voters.; The directores also lauded D’abuisson, whom they met, and Hernandez Martinez, whom they admire. The events of 1932, they said, saved the country from comunismo and laid the foundation for the later formation of the ARENA party. For these and other reasons, they said , ARENA always begins its presidential campaigns in Izalco, as they did when this year’s presidential candidate, private security mogul and former head of the national police, Rodrigo Avila, came here to kickoff his campaign.

The directores also showed me a copy of the ARENA anthem which hails El Salvador as the “tomb where the reds will be terminated.” I thought it odd that, rather than let me take their picture, the directores told the people pictured above to stand outside the ARENA office, where I took the picture. Less than half a small block to the right of the ARENA office is the large (1.5 blocks) field where most of the indigenous people killed in 1932 are buried in an anonymous mass grave (see picture of plaque and smoky Izalco volcano in background below) excavated by forensic scientists from Argentina in 2007.

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The fact that this is the only commemoration of La Matanza in El Salvador, a country where surveys tell us that 75% of the population knows nothing about the events of 1932, provides an object lesson in the dangers of institutional and political amnesia; It also tells us why ARENA has won every mayoral election in Izalco since it was founded here in 1981; Every mayoral election until this year, that is:

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Pictured above in the blue shirt is Roberto Alvarado, a member of the FMLN and Mayor-elect of Izalco whose stunning victory last January reflects the depths of the changes here and in the entire country. “They sang that stupid song about “the tomb of the reds,” Alvarado,a former teacher who was pursued by death squads, told me adding, “Now we are going turn Izalco, the cradle of ARENA, into the the political grave of the ARENA party.” Alvarado’s coalition-students, indigenous communities, Catholics and evangelicos– provided the FMLN with a major spiritual and political victory -and a model to be emulated across the country.

Streets reddened and silenced for several decades by the blood of the indigenous martyrs are now red with the hope voters are placing in the FMLN and its candidate , the multi-mediagenic former journalist, Mauricio Funes:

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The unprecedented openness expressed in the shoes, shops and streets of Izalco has many, many reasons and thousands of people to thank for it. Together, these forces ended the silence that cast a permanent cloud over Izalco -and El Salvador-after the events of 1932. One of today’s most vocal and effective breakers of the silence is Juliana Ama, director of the Calvo school that teaches nahuatl. She is also the great, great granddaughter of rebel leader, Jose Feliciano Ama (above). Since 2001, Juliana has organized commemoration ceremonies every January at the site of the mass grave near the ARENA office in Izalco, ceremonies that draw conflict and controversy.

Despite the tensions, despite the threats she has received, Ama soldiers on in what she defines first and foremost as a”spiritual act” because, she says, “we have no choice; we can’t remain and suffer in silence.” Juliana also believes that there is a direct link between the commemoration ceremonies and the defeat of the ARENA party. “Those ceremonies made it normal and acceptable to be open about the loss of long ago, the loss that still lives with us,” she said. “Nothing like this was ever possible before and I think that the ceremony made it possible for people to start being more open about political feelings too.

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Finally, as the son of the 10 year-old boy who witnessed and survived la Matanza and then went on to become my father, I want to thank Juliana and the people of Izalco for their example, their courage and their great wisdom.

R

Secretary of Labor Designate Hilda Solis: One to Celebrate

December 19, 2008

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In what will be the first progressive appointment of his administration, President-elect Barack Obama invited Southern California Congresswoman, Hilda Solis, to join his cabinet as the Secretary of Labor. This is especially welcome news to labor and immigrant rights groups who have constituted Solis’ primary base in her rise to national prominence. The daughter of Mexican and Nicaraguan immigrant laborers, Solis brings the most solid progressive credentials of any member of the Obama cabinet-including Obama himself. She has won abundant praise and wide support because of her positions on labor rights, immigration issues, environmental protection and women’s rights, to name a few. Her appointment reflects the growing power and influence of the labor and immigrant struggles of Southern California and across the country as her trajectory, like that of L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, took rapid upward turn thanks to the political energy and power unleashed after the struggles against Proposition 187 in California. For those looking for hope in the great labor and immigration struggles we’re still engaged in, look no further at what your work has wrought: Hilda Solis, Secretary of Labor.

(Full disclosure: I know and have worked on a number of issues with Hilda since we fought Proposition 187 in California in the early 90’s and have, since then, found her to be nothing, if not a smart and capable fighter and an upright person. In addition to celebrating Hilda’s political capabilities, I am also likely being moved by the fact that I’ve never seen someone whose extraction so closely resembled my own (Central American immigrant unionist household) enter the Star Chamber of global power, except maybe to clean it. May she enlighten it with the warmth and brilliance of Southern California and the Américas. In sum, I can say without reservation, that this really is one to celebrate as I am about to go do as soon as the this period in my sentence drops….

Our (Still) Monumental Dream: Democracy

December 17, 2008

This pic taken at the Parthenon in Greece makes your day. In the face of the violence, corruption and other anti-democratic practices of the Greek government (including the shooting of a 15 year-old boy), students there are taking matters into their own hands by calling on all of us to resist-and they do so in 4 languages (Greek, Spanish German and English) no less!

3,000 years after this most sacred symbol of western democracy was built by slaves, prisoners and others denied citizenship (also known as ἰδιώτης, idiōtēs in Greek, the origin of our term “idiot”), we are, it seems, still searching for ways to realize the monumental dream of democracy. I find the image of these young descendants of ancient Greek citizens and “idiots” unfurling their multilingual calls for global “resistance” in front of the sublimely-proportioned arches and columns of the Parthenon most inspiring; Reminds me of how the heart of the student has always and forever provided us with the golden ratio of great change. Whatever your age, let the student in you rise to the urgent occasion of change in Greece, in the U.S. and across this troubled planet.

Obama and the Future of Immigration Reform

December 5, 2008

The Takeaway

This early morning interview with John Hockenberry of the WNYC’s The Takeaway program looks at the possibility of helping President-elect Obama put an end to the deadly workings of our miserable failure of an immigration system. Hope you like it!

Immigration Reform Trapped in Political Dualism

December 2, 2008

New America Media, Commentary, Roberto Lovato, Posted: Dec 02, 2008 Review it on NewsTrust

Recent talk about “immigration reform” coming from Washington inspires some hope, some fear and lots of reminders about what I call “political-dualism”: the ability of a President or political party to simultaneously communicate opposing policies while delivering either no new policies or exceptionally bad ones.

As the Obama Administration prepares to take the reins of the massive and massively inefficient and broken immigration system, it is important to have clarity about the incontrovertible need to overcome the political dualism that created our immigration mess in the first place.

My first practical experience of lobbying and of political dualism came during the Clinton years. At that time, in the mid-‘90s, I was head of Central American Resource Center ( CARECEN), then the country’s largest immigrant rights organization. Like many immigrant rights activists today, my colleagues at CARECEN and around the country and I marched and protested and sued and lobbied to end the undocumented status of immigrants.

In one case, for example, we sought to secure legal status for the hundreds of thousands of Central American refugees denied political asylum and other forms of legalization by both the Reagan and Bush I Administrations due to the Republican’s politicization of the immigration process. In the end, our many efforts yielded only partial success in the form of what is known as Temporary Protective Status (TPS) granted by the first Bush Administration.

Much like the rising tide of expectations today, the triumphal return of the Democrats to the White House in 1992 brought with it expectations –and official promises- of an immigration reform, one that would legalize Salvadorans and Guatemalans living under TPS. TPS allows immigrants to work temporarily in the country, but does nothing to remove the specter of vulnerability before employers, landlords and others who exploit immigrants’ temporary status for economic and personal gain.
Images of my cousin, Maria, crying alone in her room because of oppressive hotel bosses and because of her inability to see her son, who she left and had not seen since he was 3 years old, remain with me as a reminder of the perils and pain of temporary and undocumented status.

I remember how Clinton Administration officials with impressive credentials like Alex Aleinikoff and others charged with immigration matters, told us in un-Republican and friendly terms, that “We definitely want to resolve the TPS issue- but right now is not the right time.” Eight years after the Clinton Administration led the Democrats return to power, Maria and other immigrants with TPS saw no change in their legal status. And, now, nearly 20 years since TPS was first instituted, as I watch how Republican rejection and the Democrats’ political dualism have left many TPS holders and more than 12 million other immigrants living under the tyranny of “temporary” and undocumented status, I find myself struggling with my own dualism: believing in the possibility of “real change” inspired by Obama’s presidential campaign while also hearing distant echoes of the Democrats’ immigration siren song.

Consider the conflicted and conflicting recent statements about immigration reform made by Congressional Democratic leaders. Asked last month what she thought about the possibility for immigration reform, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi responded, “Maybe there never is a path to citizenship if you came here illegally,” adding “I would hope that there could be, but maybe there isn’t.” Asked the same question last week, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid responded in no uncertain terms, “We’ve got McCain and we’ve got a few others. I don’t expect much of a fight at all.” That such mixed messages would come from the Democrats is much more than another expression of the contradictory views often held by members of the same party. Viewed from the vantage point of the recent and not-so-recent and rather twisted history of non-reform has been immigration policy, these conflicting messages sent by the Democratic leadership should be viewed as a more recent variation on the theme of the political dualism that lead us nowhere.

Hearing recently that Obama had appointed Aleinikoff, the former Clinton operative, as one of the two people leading the immigration policy transition team did little to inspire hope among those of us with a political memory. But Obama’s announcement that Stanford scholar, Tino Cuellar, a young, outside-the-Beltway academic whom I’ve spoken with and who friends in the legal community consider fair, decent and smart, tilted my spirits towards believing change might be possible. But then news of Obama’s likely appointment of Arizona Governor and former Clinton-U.S. Attorney appointee, Janet Napolitano, to lead the Department of Homeland Security only reinforced the belief that political dualism may define the Obama legacy on immigration; Napolitano has enthusiastically supported “emergency measures” like militarizing the border to “fight” the “threat” posed by immigrant gardeners, meatpackers and maids like my cousin, Maria; But she has also vetoed at least a few of the more than 75 anti-immigrant measures introduced in Arizona home to the infamous Sheriff, Joe Arpaio.
Arpaio, who is responsible for introducing highly controversial policies like deploying deputies in immigration sweeps of entire Latino neighborhoods, enjoyed the tacit political and financial support for these practices from Napolitano for several years. Napolitano did nothing to curtail the alarming number of deaths in Arpaio’s immigrant jails and only decided to yank funding for his immigration program in the middle of the Democratic primary earlier this year.

If anything, the immigrant deaths, racial tensions, incessant raids and other indicators of the failure to improve immigration policy in Arizona provide immigrant advocates like Alexis Mazon of the Tucson-based Coalicion de Derechos Humanos, little inspiration and lots of concern. According to Mazon, Napolitano’s record of previous support for Arpaio and for “some of the most dangerous immigration practices of any state in the country” give one no cause for joining the chorus of Democrats, media pundits and Beltway (as opposed to outside-the-Beltway groups like Mazon’s) immigration groups gushing over Napolitano’s “tough and smart” approach to immigration.

And as the Obama Administration and the rest of us prepare for the possibility of a renewed discussion and debate around immigration reform, those of us outside the Beltway must put terminating political dualism alongside developing and advocating for a real reform agenda at the top of our strategies and actions.

Such a mobilizing approach revived what I remember was a moribund immigration debate of 2006, and nothing less is required now. In addition to mobilizing as they did in 2006, outside-the-Beltway advocates will also have to find new and creative ways to move the debate and discussion around immigration beyond the growing Washington consensus: combining the politically dualistic “tough and smart” policies that legalize immigrants while increasing the number and types of punitive policies that took up 700 of the 800 pages of the failed McCain-Kennedy “liberal” reform proposal.

Transcending the “tough and smart” political dualism of immigration reform means replacing the so-called “tradeoffs” of the McCain-Kennedy bill with “safe and sane” policies that combine legalization with fundamental and necessary changes to our broken immigration system.

The first consideration in any serious reform should be removing the immigration processing functions from the anti-terrorist bureaucracy of the Homeland Security Department and placing them in the Commerce or Justice Departments or some other less national security-focused part of government as has been the case throughout the history of immigration policy.

In addition to a less-punitive approach to legalization than the get tough approach of the McCain-Kennedy bill, out-of-the-Beltway advocates are also advocating for immigration reform policies that consider fair trade and economic development, human rights, U.S. foreign policy and other hemispheric issues that directly influence the flow of migration. Such a firm and steady, yet flexible and inclusive approach to immigration policy fits well Obama’s promise of change while also freeing Maria and millions of undocumented immigrants from the perils and pain of political dualism.

Upload Real Change: What Activists Must Learn From the Obama Campaign

November 19, 2008

A cover story I wrote for this month’s issue of Colorlines Magazine highlights what the Obama campaign can teach us the urgent necessity of combining offline (actual streets, communities) with online organizing. While we may or may not want to support Obama’s policies, we should study closely the epoch-making deployment of technology to advance political ends. Hope you like it. R

Issue #47, Nov/Dec 2008

Upload Real Change

By Roberto Lovato

WHILE CRISSCROSSING CRACKED STREETS to knock on the rickety doors of rundown row houses in Philadelphia’s 14th Ward, Liza Sabater also found herself crossing the overlapping lines of political and technological history late last spring as she canvassed for Barack Obama’s campaign.

“I got to spend some time with these Puerto Rican mechanics—guys most people wouldn’t expect to have Internet access,” said Sabater, an Afro-Puerto Rican technologist who blogs at culturekitchen and The Daily Gotham. “But there—among the wrenches and jacks—were their cell phones and handheld devices they use to surf the Web.”

Sabater, who helps nonprofits use technology to further their missions, canvassed in Philadelphia with her two sons and coordinated work in the 14th Ward with three Latino volunteers from the Obama campaign. She saw in the mechanics’ mobile devices proof of her belief that “the ‘digital divide’ is a crock when we realize that laptops and desktops aren’t the only ways to access the Web.” But was the Obama campaign reaching these mechanics on their cells?
•••
As they write future narratives of Obama’s astounding rise, historians will likely foreground how skillfully the “change” candidate maneuvered around the racial, geopolitical and economic terrain of our crises-ridden time. Lost in the background of most of these narratives will be how Obama, the former community organizer, took what he learned about mobilizing working- and middle-class residents on Chicago’s South Side and combined it with the stuff that actually wins elections: money, organizing and technology.

Obama’s campaign for the White House deployed in unparalleled ways Web. 2.0 tools—the set of technological developments that turned the World Wide Web into the ubiquitous, mobile, wireless and interactive Web we use today. As this issue of ColorLines went to production in late August, Obama’s Web site, Mybarackobama.com, was as interactive as any online social networking site. More than 10 million people had signed up at the site, and the campaign had raised millions of dollars. The Web site was the centerpiece of an online and offline political strategy that defeated the Clintons—one of the most powerful Democratic political dynasties—and, in the process, Obama took community organizing to new territory as he redefined the practice of electoral politics in the United States. Whatever the election results, Obama’s campaign demonstrated that it’s possible—and necessary—to go online and move people to action offline.

Sabater, who was born in New York’s El Barrio
neighborhood and raised in Mayaguez, Puerto Rico, was one of the many who responded to the campaign’s appeal. She is still fascinated by how Obama’s team fused state-of-the-art media and technology with the community organizing that the candidate learned in poor communities. Yet while she thinks community-based organizations can learn from the online organizing methods innovated by the Obama campaign, she also sees reason for concern in the cracked streets of Philadelphia.
Sabater noted, for example, that although her fellow Obama campaign volunteers were by definition “Latinos,” it was a poor decision on the part of the campaign to send three middle-class Chicanos from the west coast to a predominantly working-class, Spanish-speaking, Puerto Rican neighborhood.

“When my colleagues told me ‘we don’t speak Spanish’ and couldn’t interact with the people, I saw the interface problem,” said Sabater, adding, “I saw the disconnect between the online and offline strategies, both of which are focused on middle-class people. Nobody’s reaching out and targeting these working-class communities of color with technology. They don’t think that the mechanics and maids use technology or vote.” The Obama campaign fell through the cultural cracks in the street, while members in the community fell through the technological cracks of the campaign’s Web strategy.

“The (Obama) campaign created a fantastic interface for people to join the campaign,” Sabater said. “But it didn’t do as well in reaching people who don’t have laptops and whose technology is primarily their cell phones. There’s an age and class and race gap.”

Sabater saw these gaps while trolling the same streets canvassed in a previous era by W.E.B. Du Bois, who went door-to-door documenting how railroad tracks in Jim Crow Philadelphia served as a wood-and-steel color line dividing poor, politically disenfranchised Black neighborhoods from wealthier white neighborhoods where electoral participation was encouraged and expected.

Today, Sabater and others concerned with poor communities must prepare for similar but perhaps more nuanced racial, political and economic divisions in the city of brotherly love and other urban areas. If left to the folks who ran the Obama campaign, equity and freedom may well depend on which side of the silicon and fiber optic tracks a person lives on. If activists take to heart the lessons of this last presidential campaign, though, we might just see what political changes can happen among poor people when we combine media and technology with street-level political organizing beyond elections.
•••
Anyone dealing with what are traditionally defined as “racial” or “social justice” issues (housing, labor, criminal justice, immigration, LGBT, women’s issues, etc.) will have to figure out the “interface” problems identified by Sabater and others like U.C. Berkeley’s danah boyd. A digital anthropologist, boyd caused considerable controversy when she wrote a paper in 2007 positing that MySpace was more working-class than Facebook, which she says tends to cater to older, more elite social networkers.

Whether we deploy MySpace or Facebook, those
of us committed to pursuing the possibility of bottom-up democracy in the digital age will also have to confront
the same kinds of issues Benjamin Franklin identified in Philadelphia. Back when newspapers began their long reign as the defining medium of politics, Franklin wrote: “Those who govern, having much business on their hands, do not generally like to take the trouble of considering and carrying into execution new projects. The best public measures are therefore seldom adopted from previous wisdom, but forced by the occasion.” But one definitive difference between Franklin’s age and ours is the degree to which our economy, our government and politics, and even our culture are for better and for worse being fundamentally reconfigured by media and digital technology.

The need to deploy media and technology as a force on those who govern is a daily concern for Chris Rabb, a Philadelphia resident, entrepreneur and founder of the popular political blog Afro-Netizen. Of particular concern to Rabb is the urgent need for Black, Latino and other communities to use media to flatten the deeply entrenched political pyramids built by the large national Black and Latino nonprofits born in the waning decades of the industrial age in the United States. Many of these nonprofits, he says, center power in Washington, D.C., at the expense of the majority of Blacks and Latinos who are far from the Beltway.

“Hierarchies in Black and brown communities are as bad as in any other community,” said Rabb, who also consults with nonprofit organizations about how to make media and technology a component of their core strategy. “There’s so little power that people hold on to power as long as they can. Blacks are the most urban, overwhelmingly Democrat-leaning community in the country, but we have the least democracy. Black politicians last forever, and lots of our [nonprofit] organizations tend to be run by people who stay there for life.”

Rabb thinks the stunning accomplishments of the Obama campaign mirror the ways in which technology gives communities the capacity to self-organize on a scale never before seen.

“We need to study the Obama movement,” he asserted. “They weren’t the first to use the media in this way, but he came along at that precise moment when the technology had matured, when the audience of media users had reached critical mass.”

To illustrate his point, Rabb mentions the Jena 6 movement, which, he said, used media and technology to alter the game of “ethnic” politics. Initially ignored by the mainstream media and major civil rights organizations, as well as by traditional leaders, bloggers concerned about the Jena 6 case, like Color of Change’s James Rucker and Rabb, took their case directly to the community by using the Web.

By combining Web 2.0 tools—blogs, MySpace, and other social networking sites and interactive websites— with traditional media like radio and newspapers, the more youthful organizers of the Jena 6 movement made it politically impossible for mainstream Black leaders like Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson and NAACP leaders to ignore the cause. The tech-savvy organizers gathered hundreds of thousands of signatures, raised hundreds of thousands of dollars on the Web, and in the process, they informed, engaged and activated constituents. Similar media and generational dynamics can be found in the immigrant rights movement.

Policy people at the National Council of La Raza, the National Immigration Forum and the majority of large Latino and immigrant rights organizations were in the throes of defensiveness before the onslaught of the Sensenbrenner immigration bill, which sought to criminalize the undocumented. One jaded policy analyst told me at that time that the Republicans “are going to push Sensenbrenner through—and there’s nothing we can do.” Apparently, someone forgot to communicate the analyst’s resignation to the local and regional grassroots groups who used media and technology to organize the largest simultaneous mass mobilizations in U.S. history in 2006.

Like those organizing the movement in support of the Jena 6, the local and regional networks at the core of the immigrant rights movement also deployed a number of media tools to bypass the lethargic hierarchies of the larger Washington-based groups. Many in the media focused their coverage on better-funded and (mainstream) media-savvy groups in the Beltway who rallied behind different versions of the McCain-Kennedy immigration bill, which, in its “bipartisan tradeoff” combined legalization with some of the most punitive immigration proposals in U.S. history. Left out of this coverage was the galaxy of organizations opposed to McCain-Kennedy.

In the face of such a limiting of the political debate around immigration, local and regional activists combined old-school media with a big “M” (television, radio, bullhorns and butcher paper) with new-school media with a small “m” (MySpace, text messaging, cell phones, radio, video and YouTube). Suddenly, mainstream media outlets were forced to cover the political messages that Latino teens were sending with their cell phones in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., and in rural Oregon.

While the mainstream media’s immigration coverage remains in its default position of focusing on the larger, better-funded national immigrant groups in Washington, activists like Sabater are combining online and offline organizing to influence the political process around and coverage of immigration and other issues that strongly impact Latinos. Sabater joined other bloggers to form the Sanctuary, a bloggers’ hub that combines information-sharing with offline activism. Members of the Sanctuary developed a survey of the presidential candidates and received coverage by CNN and other media outlets who usually interview only the National Council of La Raza and other large Latino organizations when it comes to “Latino issues.” At a time when political theorists like Manuel Castells tell us that “media is the space of politics,” the old rules just don’t apply, and that can be good news for poor communities of all colors.
•••
Regardless of the election outcome, Rabb, Sabater and others see valuable lessons in how the Obama campaign positioned itself to benefit from the epic self-organizing movement enabled by Web 2.0. It’s especially critical for activists (and everyone else, for that matter) to learn how the Obama campaign used its Web site,
Mybarackobama.com. More than 10 million people signed up at the site, and 1.5 million of those donated money. At the site, the campaign provided volunteers and organizers with campaign literature, virtual meeting spaces and other resources. Even viewers who might have been skeptical of Obama as a candidate or those not interested in electoral politics couldn’t help but be a bit curious. At every turn, the site insisted on interactivity. In August, a huge banner on the site stated: “Who will be Barack’s VP? Be the First to Know. Sign Up Now.” Below it was the “make a difference” banner with ways to volunteer and find local events, and then, of course, there was the “Obama Map”—where a few clicks and the inputting of zip codes got Americans tuned in to groups supporting Obama in their neighborhoods. Indeed, by the time Obama’s party gave him the official nomination in August, journalists and historians were already pointing out how the multimedia-genic Obama fit well with the media of his time as did Kennedy at the dawn of the age of television.

“The next step of activism is for grassroots groups to connect online and offline organizing like Obama did, but targeting working-class people,” said Sabater. “And the first step is for us to learn how our communities use their media and to engage them on their own terms.”

Rabb agreed. “The big question is whether activists for social justice can make the leap from what an organizer candidate did in the presidential cycle to the kind of organizing needed at a time when media and technology are so central to the work of government and power,” he said.

Rabb believes that groups who are organizing communities need to prioritize breaking down the barriers that separate media from their programmatic work. “It’s the very nature of organizing to want to reach audiences on race, class, immigration and other issues” he said, adding, “People have to get with the fact that media’s not replacing but complementing and enhancing their ability to do more with less, to achieve better and greater outcomes.”

Roberto Lovato is a writer with New America Media based in New York City.

What Will Obama do About Terror Incognita: Immigrants and the Homeland Security State?

November 17, 2008

Before anything, my apologies for not notifying you about my hiatus. I was in China and thought I’d be able tp post from there-and I was wrong. In any case,I’m back and ready to deal. Best, R.

Check out this must-read issue of the NACLA Report on the Americas, which looks at something we’ve been looking at for some time: how immigrants are being used to build up the national security state. The impetus for the issue was this piece, which I wrote for Political Research Associates several months ago and which turns out to be one of the more widely circulated and read pieces I’ve written. NACLA and I revised, amended and shortened the PRA piece for publication now. As the immigrant rights movement and those concerned with human rights search for measures of President-elect Obama’s commitment to immigrant rights, issues discussed in this still-quite-relevant analysis might provide a good starting point. If Obama fails to do something in short order about stopping the terror wrought by the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency, that should give more than a few of us a clear signal of his willingness to continue the bi-partisan support for the the machinery of death and destruction. We should at that point end the Latino honeymoon in short order.

Over the course of this longest of campaigns ever, I’ve interviewed several of Obama’s and the Democratic party’s operatives, more than a few of whom told me -off-the-record- about dealing with the raids through “executive orders” in which the President simply calls for an immediate end to the ICE raids. While that would be a welcome start towards returning us to the problems of the pre-9-11 period, I have serious doubts about the willingness of the Obama operatives and the Democrats to deliver. I hope I’m really, really wrong about this one. Really wrong. Veremos. In any case, do read the NACLA issue as it touches on things we’ll still be facing after January 20th. R

Building the Homeland Security State

by Roberto Lovato

Lost in debates around immigration, as the United States enters its greatest economic crisis since the Great Depression, is any sense of the historical connection between immigration policy and increased government control—of citizens. Following a pattern established at the foundation of the republic, immigrants today are again being used to justify government responses the economic and political crises. Consider, for example, the establishment in November 2002 of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the largest, most important restructuring of the federal government since the end of World War II.1 The following March, the Immigration and Naturalization Service was dismantled and replaced with the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency under the newly established DHS. ICE’s rapid expansion—16,500-plus employees and near $5 billion budget—quickly transformed it into DHS’s largest investigative component, accounting for more than one fifth of the multibillion-dollar DHS budget. ICE is also the second-largest investigative agency in the federal government, after the FBI, responsible for enforcing more than 400 statutes, and is arguably the most militarized federal entity after the Pentagon.2 Not long after its inception, ICE began to wage what many advocates have called a “war on immigrants.”

Beginning in fall 2006, ICE launched a campaign of workplace and home raids aimed at “getting tough on immigrants.” Thousands of heavily armed ICE agents were deployed in these high-profile raids designed, we were told, to find and deport undocumented immigrants. Since 2006, hundreds of thousands of immigrants have been detained in jails that constitute the fastest-growing part of the prison system in the country. The speed with which the militarization of migration policy took place left many questions. Why, for example, did the Bush administration move the citizenship-processing and immigration-enforcement functions of government from the more domestic, policing-oriented Department of Justice to the more militarized, anti-terrorist bureaucracy of the Department of Homeland Security? Most explanations view this transfer, and the relentless pursuit of undocumented immigrants that it enabled, as a response to the continuing pressures of angry, mostly white, citizens. Widespread fear and xenophobia following the September 11 attacks, together with the “anti-immigrant climate” fostered thereafter by civic groups like the Minutemen, Republican politicos, and media personalities like CNN’s Lou Dobbs, we are told, has led directly to the massive new government bureaucracy for policing immigrants. The Washington Post, for example, told us in 2006 that the rise of the Minutemen and their armed citizen patrols along the U.S.-Mexico border was “credited with helping to ignite the debate that has dominated Washington in recent months.”3

But while many can believe that there were ulterior motives behind the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, few consider that there are non-immigration-related motives behind ICE’s Al Qaeda-ization of immigrants and immigration policy: building a domestic security apparatus, one made possible by multibillion-dollar contracts to military-industrial companies like Boeing, General Electric, and Halliburton for “virtual” border walls, migrant detention centers, drones, ground-based sensors, and other surveillance technology for use in the Arizona desert that was originally designed for Middle Eastern war zones. Not to mention the de facto militarization of immigration policy through the deployment of 6,000 additional National Guard troops to the U.S.-Mexico border; thousands of raids across the country; and the passage of hundreds of punitive, anti-migrant state and federal laws like the Military Commissions Act, which denies the habeas corpus rights of even legal residents who are suspected of providing “material support” to terrorist groups.4

This is not to say that public pressure from the anti-immigrant right played no role in the Bush administration’s immigrant crackdown. And another interpretation of the increased repression against immigrants is articulated by journalist David Bacon, who posits that the crackdown is purposefully meant to trigger an immigrant-labor shortage, which will eventually enable the government to establish the migration policy it’s been pushing for all along: a temporary guest-worker program.5 While that is surely part of the government’s response, such conclusions fail to explain why the government needs to deploy its military might to deal with gardeners, maids, and meatpackers. Such explanations fail to consider how reasons of state, the logic of government, figure heavily in the Bush administration’s historic and massive government restructuring. By framing such militaristic measures as targeting noncitizen immigrants makes it easier for citizens to swallow the increased domestic militarism inherent in increasing numbers of uniformed men and women with guns in their midst. As David Cole put it in his Enemy Aliens: Double Standards and Constitutional Freedoms in the War on Terrorism (The New Press, 2005): “What we are willing to allow our government to do to immigrants today creates a template for how it will treat citizens tomorrow.” Constant reports of raids on the homes of the undocumented immigrants normalize the idea of government intrusion into the homes of legal residents.

In order to understand how and why ICE now constitutes an important part of the ascendant national security bureaucracy, we must first look at the intimate relationship between national security policy and homeland security policy. In July 2002, the Bush administration introduced its “National Strategy for Homeland Security,” a document that outlines how to “mobilize and organize our Nation to secure the U.S. homeland from terrorist attacks.” Two months later, the administration released the more geopolitically focused “National Security Strategy of the United States of America,” whose purpose is to “help make the world not just safer but better.” September 11 provided the impetus to create a bureaucratic and policy environment dominated by security imperatives laid out in two of these documents, two of the most definitive of our time, which outline strategies that “together take precedence over all other national strategies, programs, and plans”—including immigration policy, which receives considerable attention, especially in the section on homeland security strategy.

By placing other government functions under the purview of the national security imperatives laid out in the two documents, the Bush administration enabled and deepened the militarization of government bureaucracies like ICE. At the same time, immigrants provided the Bush administration a way to facilitate the transfer of public wealth to military-industrial contractors through government contracts in a kind of Homeland Security Keynesianism. The role of the private sector is also made explicit on a DHS webpage called “Information Sharing and Analysis,” which says that the department “is responsible for assessing the nation’s vulnerabilities” and that “the private sector is central to this task.”

Such dealings are provided for in the two Homeland Security strategy papers, which call for DHS to “establish a national laboratory for homeland security” that solicits “independent and private analysis for science and technology research.” This materialized in ICE’s budget, which has resources for research and development of technologies for surveilling, capturing, detaining, and generally combating what politicos and Minutemen alike paint as the Malthusian monster of immigration. Immigrants not only justify but make possible such massive state expenditures—at great human cost.

*

Shortly after the September 11 attacks and the creation of DHS, the Bush administration used immigrants and fear of outsiders to tighten border restrictions, pass repressive laws, and increase budgets to put more drones, weapons, and troops inside the country. Government actions since 9/11 point clearly to how the U.S. government has set up a new Pentagon-like bureaucracy to fight a new kind of protracted domestic war against a new kind of domestic enemy, undocumented immigrants.

In the process of restructuring the immigration bureaucracy, national security concerns regarding threats from external terrorist enemies got mixed in with domestic concerns about immigrant “invaders” denounced by a growing galaxy of anti-immigrant interests. This should not have come as a surprise: In times of heightened (and often exaggerated) fears about national security, immigration and immigrants are no longer just wedge issues in electoral politics; they transform into dangerous others who fill the need for new domestic enemies. Immigrants can provide the rationale for expanding the government policing bureaucracy in times of political crisis, economic distress, and major geopolitical shifts. At a time when less than 18% of the U.S. population believes it is living the American Dream, according to one poll, the state needs many reasons to reassert control over the populace by putting more gun-wielding government agents among the citizenry.6

A brief look at historical precedents for this kind of government anti-immigrant action yields the conclusion that this instrumentalizing of immigrants to build up government policing and military capabilities is, in fact, a standard practice of the art of statecraft. The historical record provides ample evidence of how national security experts, politicians, elected officials, bureaucrats and other managers of the state have used immigrants and anti-immigrant sentiments and policies as a way of normalizing and advancing militarization within the borders of the United States.

Long before the Patriot Act, DHS, and ICE, policies linking immigrants to the security of the country formed an important part of U.S. statecraft. Like many of the newly established countries suffering some of the political and economic shocks of economic and political modernization in the late 18th century, the fledgling United States and its leaders needed to simultaneously consolidate the nation-state established constitutionally in 1787 while also maneuvering for a position on a global map dominated by the warring powers of France and England. Central to accomplishing this were immigrants, who provided both a means of rallying and aligning segments of the populace while also legitimating massive expenditures toward the construction of the militarized bureaucracies meant to defend against domestic threats to “national” security, threats that linked external enemies, real and perceived. In response to the devastating effects of economic transformations, thousands of French, German, Irish, and other immigrants led uprisings like the Whiskey Rebellion and Shay’s Rebellion, which were viewed as threats by elites, especially the Federalists.

In the face of both popular unrest and competition for political power, and in an effort to consolidate the state and the globally oriented mercantile and pre-industrial capitalist economy, Alexander Hamilton and then president John Adams did what has, since their time, become a standard operating procedure in the art of U.S. statecraft: build the state and insert its control apparatus in the larger populace by scapegoating immigrants as threats to national security. The period before and after the passage of the 1798 Alien and Sedition Acts, which gave Adams, the father of the national security state, unprecedented powers. Fearful of Jacobinism’s influence, Adams secured the authority to unilaterally deport any immigrant he deemed a threat to national security. According to historian John Morton Smith, the internal security program adopted by the Federalists during the Adams administration “was designed not only to deal with potential dangers from foreign invasion . . . but also to repress domestic political opposition.”7 In this context, immigrants became the domestic expression of the threat represented by the French Jacobins, the subversive threat of the early 19th century. Indeed, the modern use of the word terror first enters the language when Edmund Burke gazed across the English Channel and, in his Thoughts on the Prospect of a Regicide Peace (1796), used it to describe the actions of the Jacobin state. Burke’s conservative U.S. cousins then adopted the term and applied it to French-influenced immigrants and others considered subversive.

Another major buildup of the government policing apparatus took place during the Red Scare of 1919. The U.S. government faced several economic and political pressures, including the end of World War I, the demobilization of the army, returning troops, joblessness, depression, unemployment, and growing inflation. The precarious situation gave rise to increased elite fear of Jewish, Italian, and other immigrant workers in the era of the Bolshevik revolution and an increasingly powerful, and militant, labor movement. Socialists, Wobblies, and other activists staged 3,600 labor strikes involving 4 million workers, many of whom were led by and were immigrants. Government and big business had to watch as fully one-fifth of the manufacturing workforce staged actions.8 Massive organizing by Jamaican immigrant Marcus Garvey’s United Negro Improvement Association and race riots in northern cities further stoked elite fears.

Like other national governments of the period—and in contrast to today’s era of outsourcing—the United States had begun intensifying the centralization of functions formerly carried out by the private sector, including keeping labor and other dissidents in check. In the words of Regin Schmidt, author of The FBI and the Origins of Anti-Communism in the United States (Museum Tusculanum Press, 2000): “In response to social problems caused by industrialization, urbanization and immigration and the potential political threats to the existing order posed by the Socialist Party, the IWW and, in 1919, the Communist parties, industrial and political leaders began to look to the federal government, with its growing and powerful bureaucratic organizations to monitor, and control political opposition.”

FBI historian John A. Noakes concludes that “the domestic unrest during this period presented the Bureau of Investigation the opportunity to expand its domain and increase its power.”9 Major expansion of the state through the building of new bureaucracies (Bureau of Corporations, Department of Labor, Federal Trade Commission, etc.) and bureaucratic infighting for government resources and jurisdiction turned the largely immigrant-led unrest into an unprecedented opportunity for A. Mitchell Palmer and his lieutenant, J. Edgar Hoover, who just five years after the scare went on to serve as the director of the Bureau of Investigation, later to become the FBI, where he became the most powerful nonelected official in U.S. history.

During the raids, thousands of immigrants were surveilled, rounded up, and deported during the Red Scare’s Palmer Raids. In what sounds like a precursor to the current ICE raids, local police and federal agents collaborated around immigration. According to FBI historian Kenneth D. Ackerman, in his Young J. Edgar: Hoover, the Red Scare, and the Assault on Civil Liberties (Carroll & Graf Publishers, 2007): “Backed by local police and volunteer vigilantes, federal agents hit in dozens of cities and arrested more than 10,000 suspected communists and fellow travelers. They burst into homes, classrooms and meeting halls, seizing everyone in sight, breaking doors and heads with abandon. The agents ignored legal niceties such as search warrants or arrest warrants. They questioned suspects in secret, imposed prohibitive bail and kept them locked up for months in foul, overcrowded, makeshift prisons.”

Sound familiar? Ackerman concludes: “Almost 90 years later, today’s war on terror exists in an echo chamber of the 1919 Red scare.” It was in the era of the Red Scare that talk of establishing a border patrol began, after Immigration Service authorities were overwhelmed by the tasks demanded of them after the United States entered World War I in 1917. “Thus,” concludes Joseph Nevins in Operation Gatekeeper: The Rise of the “Illegal Alien” and the Remaking of the U.S.-Mexico Boundary (Routledge, 2001), “the roots of the U.S. Border Patrol are to be found not only in concerns about unauthorized immigration, but also (and perhaps more so) in a preoccupation with matters of national security as related to the boundary.”

During the Great Depression, Mexicans in the United States were scapegoated for the economic hard times, as public xenophobia for the first time turned against them (having previously been fixated on the Chinese and “undesirable” Europeans). According to historians Francisco E. Balderrama and Raymond Rodríguez in their history of this program, Decade of Betrayal: Mexican Repatriation in the 1930s (University of New Mexico Press, 1995), calls to “get rid of the Mexicans” resulted in the INS’s Mexican repatriation program (1929–37), which, like today’s war on immigrants, relied heavily on warrantless mass raids and arrests—which “assumed the logistics of full-scale paramilitary operation,” according to a history of the program—with detainees routinely held incommunicado before being shipped off to Mexico. According to California’s Apology Act for the 1930s Mexican Repatriation Program, passed in 2005, about 400,000 U.S. citizens and legal Mexican residents were forcibly removed in California alone; nationwide, an estimated 2 million people of Mexican descent were forcibly relocated to Mexico.

Complaints of INS abuse were legion, and a 1932 government commission on the matter concluded: “The apprehension and examination of supposed aliens are often characterized by methods [which are] unconstitutional, tyrranic and oppressive,” as quoted in Decade of Betrayal. The program represented the INS’s entry into the national security realm. This was cemented in 1940, when the Roosevelt administration transferred the agency from the Labor Department to Justice, home of the FBI. Indeed, Roosevelt, who a year later would begin detaining and interning Japanese Americans en masse, played a key role in framing immigration and the border as a national security issue. In the context of World War II, this often centered on keeping out “enemy aliens,” and as Nevins notes, for this reason, the Border Patrol personnel was almost doubled and played a role in the war, managing enemy alien detainment camps and helping defend the east coast. Again, we see the ways in which immigrants—in this case Japanese and Mexican immigrants—provide the state with the means to circumvent laws designed to protect the people from their government.

*

As shown in the examples from U.S. history, immigrants provide the state with ample excuse to expand, especially in times of geopolitical and domestic crisis. During the post-revolutionary period, the pursuit of alleged immigrant subversives led to the massive funding of the Navy and to the expansion of state power through laws like the Alien and Seditions Acts. Similarly, the crisis following the end of World War I led to the creation of the FBI and to unprecedented government repression and expansion embodied by the Palmer raids. Viewed from a historical perspective, it is no surprise that the government should respond to the geopolitical and domestic crisis in the United States with expanded government power and bureaucracy. Rather than view the placement of ICE under DHS as solely about controlling immigrant labor or about political (and electoral) opportunism disguised as government policy (both are, in fact, part of the equation), it is important to connect the creation of ICE and its placement under DHS to the perpetual drive of government to expand its powers, especially its repressive apparatus and other mechanisms of social control.

From this perspective, the current framing of the issue of immigration as a “national security” concern—one requiring the bureaucratic shift toward “Homeland Security”—fits well within historical practices that extend government power to control not just immigrants, but those born here, most of whom don’t see immigration policy affecting them. One of the things that makes the current politico-bureaucratic moment different, however, is the fluidity and increasing precariousness of the state itself. Like other nation states, the United States suffers from strains wrought by the free hand of global corporations that have abandoned large segments of its workforce. Such a situation necessitates the institutionalization of the war on immigrants in order to get as many armed government agents into a society that may be teetering on even more serious collapse as seen in the recession and economic crisis devastating core components of the American Dream like education, health care, and home ownership.

Perhaps the most salient difference between today’s security state and those of the past is the central importance of the private sector. And unlike the previous periods, the creation of massive bureaucracies superseded the need to surveil, arrest, and deport migrants. Today, there appears to be a move to make permanent the capacity of the state to pursue, jail and deport migrants in order to sustain what we might call the migration-military-industrial complex, following Deepa Fernandes, Targeted: National Security and the Business of Immigration (Seven Stories Press, 2007). Several indicators make clear that we are well on our way to making the war on immigrants a permanent feature of a government in crisis.

Multibillion-dollar contracts for border security from DHS have created an important new market for aerospace companies like General Electric, Lockheed, and Boeing, which secured a $2.5 billion contract for the Secure Borders Initiative, a DHS program to build surveillance and other technological capabilities (see “Barricading the Border”).10 That some saw in 9/11 an opportunity to expand and grow government technological capabilities—and private sector patronage—through such contracts, can be seen in DHS’s “national laboratory for homeland security.”

Like its predecessor, the military-industrial complex, the migrant-military-industrial complex tries to integrate federal, state, and local economic interests as increasing numbers of companies bid for, and become dependent on, big contracts like the Boeing contract or the $385 million DHS contract for the construction of immigrant prisons.11 Like its military-industrial cousin, the migrant-military-industrial complex has its own web of relationships between corporations, government contracts, and elected officials. Nowhere is this connection clearer than in the case of James Sensenbrenner, the anti-immigrant godfather, who sponsored HR 4437, which criminalized immigrants and those who would help them. According to his 2005 financial disclosure statement, Sensenbrenner held $86,500 in Halliburton stocks and $563,536 in General Electric; Boeing is among the top contributors to the congressman’s PAC (Sensenbrenner also owns stocks in the Olive Garden restaurant chain, which hires undocumented workers.)12 The current war on immigrants is grounded in the need to build and maintain massive policing bureaucracies like ICE and DHS. The immigrant-rights movement must clearly understand this if it is to succeed in its strategies for the right to migrate, the right to work, and the right of migrants to share the fruits of their own labor.


Roberto Lovato is an associate editor with New America Media. A New York–based journalist, he contributes frequently to The Huffington Post and The Nation.


1. This article is a revised, updated version of “One Raid at a Time: How Immigrant Crackdowns Build the National Security State,” which appeared on publiceye.org, the website of Political Research Associates, in March.2. “Special Report: Homeland Security Appropriations for FY 2005 (House & Senate) and California Implications,” the California Institute for Federal Policy Research, September 16, 2004.

3. Alec MacGillis, “Minutemen Assail Amnesty Idea,” The Washington Post, May 13, 2006.

4. “Militarizing the Border: Bush Calls for 6,000 National Guard Troops to Deploy to U.S.-Mexican Border,” Democracy Now!, May 16, 2006.

5. David Bacon, “The Real Political Purpose of the ICE Raids,” Dollars & Sense, January/February 2007.

6. “The American Dream Survey 2006,” Lake Partners Research, August 28, 2006.

7. John Morton Smith, “President John Adams, Thomas Cooper, and Sedition: A Case Study in Suppression,” The Mississippi Valley Historical Review 42, no. 3 (December 1955): 438–65.

8. Todd J. Pfannestiel, Rethinking the Red Scare: The Lusk Committee and New York’s Crusade Against Radicalism, 1919–1923 (Routledge, 2003).

9. John A. Noakes, “Enforcing Domestic Tranquility: State Building and the Origin of the FBI,” Qualitative Sociology 18, no. 2 (June 1995): 271–86.

10. Martie Cenkci, “At Technology’s Front Line,” Air Force Outreach Program Office, Outreach Prospective 5, no. 4 (Fall–Winter 2006): 10–11.

11. Alexandra Walker, “Sensenbrenner: Immigration Profiteer,” The Real Costs of Prison weblog, October 5, 2006.

12. Roberto Lovato, “Sensenbrenner Under Fire—Does Congressman Profit From Undocumented Labor?” New America Media, October 6, 2006.

Ahorra Votamos y Manana Militamos: Direct Actions Against ICE Preview Post-Electoral Militancy

November 4, 2008

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I know we’re all growing anxious and increasingly elated at the probable outcome of today’s elections, but I just caught wind of a very important development in the Bay Area. From San Francisco, my hometown, a preview of things to come.

A warm, powerful hug and shout out to the more than 600 young people and community-based organizations who organized and participated in this weekend’s Halloween actions against the terror wrought by the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE). As some of us have, for some time, been suggesting to the movement here and here, we will get nowhere without going on the offensive against ICE, without taking direct action against them. Young activists in San Francisco have taken a clear and hugely important step towards the more militant actions necessary to effect a change in the disastrous and devastating immigration policies; Drumming, marching and chanting “No More Raids!” students from San Francisco, Richmond, San Jose and other locations throughout the Bay Area delivered a powerful message to ICE -and to the community: we will start taking more direct and militant action to prevent the terror infliicted on families and children.

Not only will we undertake hunger strikes to stop the anti-immigrant madness; We will literally start shutting down ICE.

Activists temporarily closed the entrance into ICE offices by locking themselves down with 55-gallon drums on both ends of the ICE building’s driveway, where vans normally load and unload detainees. I can tell you that, though many, including more centrist, foundation & corporate-funded “immigrant rights” organizations and their “leaders”, will tell you that such actions are of little to no use, these more direct actions do much to communicate urgent messages to numerous sectors; Current and former ICE agents I’ve interviewed tell me that nothing throws agents off their game, nothing SCARES them like direct actions, especially those that political acts that target. Same with the politicos, including the Democrats, who need to start fearing us if we are to see any change in migration policy. Such proactive, offensive actions do much to take the psychological pressure off of our communities and put it where it belongs: on ICE; Such actions communicate to the community that it’s not just OK to be angry; it’s OK and necessary to be angry to the point of striking back at ICE in a direct and political way; Such actions make clearer the distinctions between those in the “immigrant rights community” willing to accommodate terror and those ready to fight it.

Along with ongoing fasts, vigils and other actions, these more militant actions allow us to re-take some of the integrity we lost in the perpetual psychlogical warfare inflicted on the group that’s the object of the most hate crimes according to the FBI: Latinos, especially immigrant Latinos. Given the promise of action inherent in the chants of “Ahorra Marchamos, manana votamos,” events in San Francisco, Los Angeles and other locales preview the coming militancy that will become clearer as the smoke, confetti and genuine joy inspired by the end of the elections clears. For more information check out alianzanews. Thank you, San Francisco.
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Infomercials, Hatemercials and the Multi-mediagenic Presidency: GRITtv Panel Analyzes Elections & Media

October 31, 2008

http://a5.vox.com/6a00cd970c86034cd500fa967c8fb50002-500pi

This was a fun and informative panel. Always-thoghtful host Laura Flanders gets her guests -the New Yorker’s Hendrik Hertzberg, Chris Rabb of Afronetizen and mois- to spill the media beans on this breathtaking political moment. Don’t miss a minute!

R