Pervez Hoodbhoy’s Response to my report and commentary

A couple of posts ago I reported on a talk by Pervez Hoodbhoy (who I will now call “my friend Pervez Hoodbhoy”) that he gave at the University of Toronto on October 6. I sent my post to him to elicit reactions and corrections. He made a correction and posted a response in the comments section – but I want to make sure everyone sees it, so I am putting it here as well.

Below is Pervez Hoodbhoy’s response:


Continue reading “Pervez Hoodbhoy’s Response to my report and commentary”

To cut down a rebellion

Colombian riot police surround thousands of indigenous and labor activists in Cauca, in southwest Colombia. The number of protestors remains around 10,000, and has been that high for a week, according to on-site reports. Most of the demonstrators are indigenous Nasa people from the region, struggling to stay on their land. Others are sugar cane-workers fighting for their rights. The riot police have attacked them repeatedly, injuring dozens with tear gas and killing several with live ammunition. Beyond the police killings and injuries there are those carried out by the paramilitaries, who supposedly don’t exist any more, but have nonetheless, in the past few weeks, murdered a women’s rights activist and her whole family, several indigenous leaders, several indigenous people who were not involved in any protest activities at all, and several protesters in live fire attacks.

The international environment is favorable to the Colombian state’s strategy of making its enemies invisible before physically attacking them. The US electoral spectacle is a black hole for attention, mainstream and alternative. The US Democrats have a slightly different position from the Republicans on free trade with Colombia, and the question of murdered union leaders even made it into a presidential debate (McCain ignored it, while Obama actually suggested that Colombia’s murdering union leaders was a bad thing). The policies of privatization, social service cuts, militarization, and the pillage of Colombia’s resources by multinationals have been bipartisan for decades. But so has the dispensability of individual Colombian leaders and contractors of dirty work. Perhaps Colombia’s President, Alvaro Uribe Velez, and his team, are worried that their heads could roll if there is a change of administration in Washington. Perhaps they are trying to accelerate their own program to destroy local opposition before this occurs. That may explain the particular brutality of the past few weeks.

The causes of the protest run deeper, however. The history of this part of Colombia mirrors much of Latin America. In the 1950s, hundreds of thousands of people were thrown off their lands through massacre, violence, and civil war (an event called “La Violencia”). Many of these people were then forced to come back to lands that had been theirs, and work as insecure laborers on massive sugar plantations owned by a wealthy elite. Some groups, like the indigenous Nasa of Northern Cauca, over decades of struggle, succeeded in winning back their lands and recovering much of their culture and traditional economy. Many others, including thousands of Afro-Colombian cane workers, struggled hard just to keep themselves and their families alive.

Today, the economics of sugar plantations are absurdly exploitative. In a full 14-hour day of work, a cane cutter can harvest some six tons of cane, one of which they get paid for. That ton gets turned into 200 kg of refined sugar that sells for about $120. The cutter gets, before deductions, about $2.50. After deductions, it’s about $1.50.

The plan is for such plantations to expand massively. And, indeed, much of the land of the 3.5-4 million internally displaced people in Colombia (the majority of whom are Afro-Colombian and a huge disproportion of whom are indigenous) has been taken over by sugar plantation owners. The plan is not just for refined sugar, but also for biofuels. Long after Venezuela’s oil runs out, North Americans will still be able to pour the products of Colombia’s sugar plantations into their car engines.

The enemies of this plan are the indigenous and peasants who want to stay on their land and use it to grow food and a decent agricultural economy, and the labourers who want to be able to survive on their wages. Both are treated the same way: to false accusations, to arrested and murdered leaders, to tear gas, and to bullets. The cane workers have been on strike since September 15 and their demands are heart-breakingly minimalist. They want to have an actual contract, rather than the piecework system they have now; the right to unionize; and a decent salary and working conditions.

On October 19, the indigenous protesters held a press conference to outline their position. “We don’t have a government in Colombia”, said Nasa spokesperson Feliciano Valencia. The indigenous authorities announced their own agenda: “No to the economic model and the FTA´s with the US, Canada and Europe, removal of legislation that impoverishes peoples, destroys and denies rights and freedoms, delivers the wealth of the country to corporate interests and has not gone through consultation with those affected. No more war and terror as the main Government policy. Respect and application of international and national agreements and establishment of the conditions that will allow the people to construct a new, possible and necessary country.” Next Tuesday (Oct 21), they announced, they will march from the site where they are gathered, La Maria Piendamo, to Cali. They will be joined by other movements and organizations. They will accept a dialogue with the government but the military must cease fire and remove itself from the territories.

Colombia’s movements continue to shoulder more than their fair burden against one of the most brutal regimes in the hemisphere. The regime can’t be allowed to drown out their story.

To read more about and to financially support the cane workers:

The statement of the indigenous movement:

Justin Podur is an activist with Pueblos en Camino ( and a Toronto-based writer. His blog is

Can the Taliban Win? Pervez Hoodbhoy in Toronto (back on Oct 6)

On October 6 I was lucky enough to finally meet Pervez Hoodbhoy, the Pakistani activist and physicist, who I have long admired and corresponded with a little. He was going to be in Ottawa and on short notice people at the University of Toronto’s Munk Centre managed to organize a talk for him. The talk was called “Can the Taliban Win?” As usual with these blogs, I will summarize what he said, and follow with my reactions.

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The financial economy and the real economy: Notes on the economic crisis part 1

“This extraordinary capacity to finance not on past wealth but on the present value of future anticipated cash flows is at the core of America’s dynamic approach to wealth creation”
– Edelstein, R., and Paul, J.M. Europe needs a new financial paradigm. Wall Street Journal Europe June 12-13, 1998. Quoted in The Fisherman and the Rhinoceros.

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Media Democracy Day Thurs Oct 23, Toronto

For those in Toronto, please come to the Media Democracy Day conference and my workshop. Callout below.


Organized by OPIRG U of T

Left punditry: doing and presenting political analysis.

This workshop is for the rogue opinionated radical, or (better), the activist with an organization working on some aspect of communication.

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Myths for Profit

I have written a bit about Canadian foreign policy over the past few years. The big piece I wrote and built on since, I called “Canada for anti-imperialists”. That was about four years ago now. Since then, I learned two things.

1) Films can reach audiences that written articles can’t, and
2) I have absolutely no skill, ability, aptitude, or enjoyment in filmmaking

Luckily for me, others do!

Continue reading “Myths for Profit”

Canadian election taboos – and possibilities

The 2008 Canadian election has some of the features of the past few elections. The majority of the population faces the quandary of how to defeat a reactionary party that just might have the largest plurality of support. Will they get a majority or just a minority? The second place party has slight differences with the ruling party but has a record of lies, destructive neoliberal economics, and destructive foreign policy. Should they be taught a lesson or have they learned it? Can they be punished without the electorate punishing itself? The electoral system is increasingly out of step with the diversity of popular opinion. And some very important questions about immigrant rights, indigenous rights, indigenous territory, corporations, and the country’s relationship to the rest of the world, are off the table. But for all that, it is still an interesting situation. In last week’s leaders’ debates, three of the five parties, who got equal time, had left-of-center views. Of course, in North America the center moves steadily to the right and is defined by it, but the debate was still refreshing. Environmentalism is popular, and the presence of the Green Party forces the NDP to run more openly to the left, since the centrist environmentalist niche is already filled by the Greens. Fighting with the Greens for this niche has also had a civilizing influence on the Liberals, who are talking about climate change seriously.

There are still too many taboo topics. Taxation, for example, was denounced by all parties in the debate, who fall over themselves and each other to insist their plans won’t increase anyone’s taxes. This is public miseducation. Like budget deficits, taxes have their role, and for politicians to eschew them is to tie the society’s hands before situations that require flexible economic responses. Making people pay more to ride public transit, or adding user fees for health care services or pharmaceuticals, or cutting funding for the arts, causes suffering just as surely as raising taxes does – it just causes suffering for different people. Letting the transportation, energy, and water infrastructure rot doesn’t make a budget deficit, but it does make an infrastructure deficit, and society ultimately will pay for either kind. This is especially true in a time when the Harper/Bush/McCain people’s economic policies have proven so spectacularly and widely disastrous and ideas of public economic management need to be quickly and sensibly resurrected and implemented.

But these simple points cannot be made in any political campaign because for a party to say they would use deficit spending or increase taxes (as opposed to “shifting” taxes) would be harmful to them politically. But allowing the society’s economic discourse to be dominated by ideological distortion also does political harm, especially to progressive forces (and parties that would use those forces to come to power).

Another example is ‘terrorism’. You would never know from politicians or the media that everything that is a crime under new ‘anti-terror’ legislation (killing people with bombs or guns, kidnapping people, destroying infrastructure) was a crime before the ‘anti-terror’ legislation. The legislation is a political tool for increasing state and police powers, and is being used in ugly ways against a group of young people in Toronto as these elections are unfolding. In his recent sentence against one of the Toronto 18, the judge argued that it did not matter that the 20-year old had committed no crime, and it didn’t matter that he may not have known. The NYT correspondent (and yes, for sensible coverage of this Canadian topic the NYT was better than the mainstream Canadian press) Ian Austen described the trial this way:

“Evidence presented in court made it clear that, at best, the man was a minor character in the group… There was no evidence offered directly linking the defendant to the bomb plot or plans to storm Parliament. Instead, most of the case focused on his attendance at two camps that the police described as terrorist training sessions but that prosecution witnesses characterized as recreational or religious retreats. Both were videotaped by a paid police informant who was part of the group and who testified that he choreographed some of the scenes.” (NYT Sept 25/08)

The informant, in question, said this about the young man found guilty: ‘“I don’t believe he was a terrorist,”… Mr. Shaikh said he did not believe that the defendant was aware of the group’s violent plans.’ (NYT Sept 26/08)

As for Judge Sproat, who rendered the verdict, he argued that “planning and working toward ultimate goals that appear unattainable or even unrealistic does not militate against a finding that this was a terrorist group… engaging in activities such as paint-balling, physical exercise and rafting is by no means inconsistent with the existence of a terrorist group” (NYT Sept 26/08)

Sproat’s verdict fits with well the Rumsfeld doctrine on the same topic: “The absence of evidence does not indicate the evidence of absence.” And it has the same shocking implications for Canada’s legal system. Or would, if anyone were paying the slightest attention. But here, too, it seems politicians have nothing to gain by suggesting that we ought not allow the state to use entrapped suburban youths to terrify us into surrendering rights to due process.

Other non-debated examples that politicians stay away from? The continuing occupation of recently hurricane-devastated Haiti, Canadian support for all of Israel’s moves against Palestinians, the neoliberal “Free Trade Agreements” with the US and other Latin American countries like Colombia, the use of force and prison terms against indigenous communities defending land and life, and so on.

And yet there is the occasional glimmer of a genuine discussion. When an Afghan-Canadian argued that Canada should remain with NATO in occupying that country, Jack Layton argued that Canada should not have been there in the first place and should withdraw as soon as possible. When Harper tried to offer the usual deceptions about reducing ‘emissions intensity’ as opposed to carbon emissions, Giles Duceppe used his time to explain exactly why this was a deception: the example he gave was – you would reduce emissions by 10% per barrel, but then you would produce 5,000 barrels instead of 1,000. These are glimpses of what one could actually hope for from a political debate: people not letting sham arguments pass unexposed.

The most intriguing possibility has more to do with the voting pattern than with the outcome. As much as I like what they are doing at in spite of critiques like this one, I don’t like the final outcome sought by (75 Con, 123 Lib, 52 NDP, 1 Green, 55 Bloc, 2 IND). I would prefer it to be even closer between the Liberals and the Conservatives. The latest national poll has Con 33%, Lib 26%, NDP 19%, Green 12%, and Bloc 10%. It is certainly true that it is worth putting thought and effort into averting a conservative majority. But a split of 35-25-20-20 in Anglo-Canada and the Bloc taking most of Quebec, for example, that resulted in a Conservative minority (or even a majority) would create strong pressure for change in the electoral system: in such a system the Liberals would have much more to gain from insisting on such a change than trying to keep a two-party system and hope they can win in it. Proportional representation would create other possibilities for progressive forces during elections, and reasons for politicians to have to pay attention.

Justin Podur is a Toronto-based writer.