The Ossington Circle Podcast Episode 2 - Syria, Environment, War, and Refugees

This episode of the podcast is a lecture given on a panel at York's Faculty of Environmental Studies on January 28, 2016. The panel was on Environment, War, and Refugees, and the lecture was on Western policy and the war in Syria.

Paz Colombia: the latest US attempt to control Colombia?

The U.S. has announced funding for a new Plan Colombia as the country moves towards a resolution to its civil war. What is its real purpose?

Colombia's peace process has entered its final phase. Agreements have been reached on land reform, political participation, and the rights of victims. The discussions are now focused on ending the conflict and implementation and verification of the accords. The deadline for a final agreement is March 23, and it might be met.

In this last phase of negotiations, Colombia's president reached out to the US for aid. On February 4, a new initiative was unveiled in Washington by presidents Santos and Obama: the new version of Plan Colombia, which they called “Paz Colombia”. Obama began by commemorating the success of Plan Colombia, a plan that brought military helicopters and escalated aerial fumigation to the country. “We were proud to support Colombia and its people as you strengthened your security forces, as you reformed land laws, and bolstered democratic institutions,” he said. “And after 15 years of sacrifice and determination, a tipping point has been reached. The tide has turned.”

Santos elaborated on the successes since Plan Colombia was rolled out in 2000: “Today we can say without a doubt that the goals that we had in 2000 — such as fighting the drug war, strengthening institutions, and imposing the rule of law, and to take social programs to great parts of remote Colombian territory — those objectives have been met.”

The history of Plan Colombia is slightly different than that presented by Obama and Santos. As lawyer Dan Kovalik outlined in this article for TELeSUR English, the problems the presidents claim Plan Colombia solved were mostly made worse by it.

Take Santos's objectives, which Plan Colombia supposedly met: The drug war? There may be a peace agreement between the government and FARC, but the drug war promises to go on and on. The rule of law and the strengthening of institutions? These were certainly areas of struggle over the past 15 years, but any gains made there were fought for by the people, not flown in by the military helicopters of Plan Colombia. Social programs and protections? Many have been lost under neoliberalism – some have been preserved by struggle by Colombia's movements.

War is still not the answer: Antiwar sentiment may mostly have evaporated, but war is as horrible as ever

The unelected Saudi monarchy began the year by executing 47 people. It continues to bomb hospitals, homes, and civilians in Yemen as it has done for nearly a year. In October of last year, a few weeks before the election, the Turkish state almost certainly arranged bombings in Ankara that killed more than one hundred people at a peace demonstration. The ruling party won the election, have now accelerated their own war on the Kurdish population of their country, and are targeting anti-war academics. Egypt's current dictatorship came to power in a coup and cemented its power with a major massacre in August of 2013. Israel has spent the months since October extrajudicially executing Palestinians. When the Swedish Foreign Minister mentioned the possibility of investigating these executions, a former educational secretary in Israel suggested that the Swedish Foreign Minister should be assassinated.

All of this is to say, a quick regional roundup of very recent atrocities suggests that there are few governments in the region that have not lost the moral authority to govern. If Syria's dictator, Assad, must go, perhaps these other governments must, as well.

But how? What if, in a moment of republicanism, the US decided on regime change in the Saudi Kingdom? What if in a fit of sympathy for the Kurds, Washington were to draw up a plan to bomb Turkey from the air until it withdrew from the Kurdish areas? Or to bomb Cairo, until Sisi resigned and elections were held? Or to bomb Israel until it ended the occupation of Palestinian lands?

Vaccinations and the war on science: Donald Trump's championing of the "anti-vaxer" cause takes advantage of scientific illiteracy

Science is a massive, ongoing human undertaking. It is a creative endeavour: the greatest scientific discoveries have involved wild guesses and hypotheses. But it also depends on rigor, self-criticism, and self-correction. The wild guesses must be tested against evidence. Science is the most dynamic of endeavours: the accepted claims of today may be overturned tomorrow. Ambitious scientists dream of changing our understanding of the world.

So how can someone make decisions that rely on science? If science is always changing, if claims are being tested and overturned, if tomorrow's discovery could change our whole way of looking at things, why should we believe anything scientists say today? How can a creative and dynamic endeavour become a source of legitimate authority to be followed? Most of us are not going to collect and analyze atmospheric data to test whether burning fossil fuels causes climate change, but we have to decide whether to press for reduced emissions based on what scientists are saying.

This decision of the ordinary person to trust scientific authority is made even more difficult because scientific authority can be abused, and has been abused in the past. Take scientific authority in the area of mental illness. The manual of mental illness produced by the American Psychiatric Association is the famous DSM, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. We are currently (as of 2013) on the DSM-V. Prior to a change made in the DSM-II in 1973, 'homosexuality' was defined as a mental illness. Before the DSMs, in the 19th century, an American physician defined 'drapetomania': a mental illness that caused African-American slaves to try to escape. Diagnoses of 'hysteria', 'frigidity', and many others were used to control women since the 19th century. Psychologist Bruce Levine has argued that diagnoses of ADHD and ODD are similar tools that “psychopathologize” and “medicate” people who are “natural anti-authoritarians”, “before they achieve political consciousness of society's most oppressive authorities.”

Who is ISIS afraid of? Popular outrage in Afghanistan sees the Islamic State avoiding responsibility for beheadings of families

Kabul is Afghanistan's capital, a city of over five million people that has transformed completely since 2001. Kandahar was, and remains, a stronghold of the Taliban. The highway between Kabul and Kandahar, which passes through Wardak, Ghazni, and Zabul, is sometimes called the Highway of Death. One British journalist, writing in 2012, called it a “bomb-cratered, 300-mile long shooting gallery”. Most Afghans have no option but to travel along it. Tens of people are killed taking the highway each year.

In early 2015, survivors of the highway told journalist Samad Ali Nawazesh about the pattern of attack:“When we go off the Kabul-Kandahar highway towards Jaghoori we are accosted by many types of robbers and armed individuals. They search the passengers, rob and release some. Sometimes they behead passengers”.

Before that, in 2014, the Kabul-Behsud highway (that intersects the Kabul-Kandahar highway) had become famous as a “Death Road” where Afghanistan's minority Hazara were specifically targeted for murder by the Taliban. The Hazara are a traditionally oppressed minority. In recent decades, they have begun a resurgence, attaining opportunities in education and employment that had traditionally been closed to them. The Taliban's persecution of them has been partly sectarian (Hazara are Shia, while the Taliban are Sunni), partly traditional oppression (trying to keep the Hazara in their lower-status place through terror). Many factions in the civil wars Afghanistan has suffered since 1979 have targeted Hazara civilians with a particular ferocity.

So, when, a few months ago, a group of Hazara civilians – four men, two women, and a child – were abducted on the Kabul-Kandahar highway, held for a month, probably by ISIS-Afghanistan (a split from the Taliban), and then beheaded, the authors of the atrocity, as well as the country's government, may have expected the same kind of terrorized response that they have grown accustomed to.

The response was not what they expected. The families of the victims refused to bury the bodies. They marched with the coffins in Kabul.

2015 in review (at this blog)

A report on 2015 activities for readers of this blog.

I spent a fair amount of time working on a couple of books, that I am hoping you will be able to read in 2016. Although I type fast, and write fairly fast, I haven't got the knack for getting books done fast. The truth is that the Demands of the Dead was started in 2000, and published in 2014, and Haiti's New Dictatorship was started in earnest in 2006, and published in 2012. The two books I am working on now have start dates around 2010 and 2014. There's a first draft of one and a half a draft of the other.

Always trying to improve my writing, so I took a MOOC at the University of Iowa on How Writers Write Fiction. It was a good time.

The Ossington Circle, Season 2, did not come out in 2015. It is in the works, and we do have plans to get the show going again in 2016. We're going to try to raise our game on the show, with better equipment and a different style. We'll see how we do.

I taught a course on online anonymity - how to encrypt your email, protect your chats, etc. at WISC. I also met the good people at toronto crypto in 2015, which was a good connection to make.

Mostly I focused on writing my TeleSUR columns, which covered the conflicts that I have studied and written about here: Iraq/Syria, Palestine, the DRC and neighbours, Colombia, Haiti, Afghanistan, and India. If I had something to say about an issue in North America, I also did a column about it.

Here are the TeleSUR columns:

Escalating violence in Burundi

Even when there are constitutionally mandated term limits, many leaders try to hold on to power. In Central Africa (where the small country of Burundi, with its population of 10 million, is located) there are several leaders that have tried, or are trying, to bend the rules to stay in office. The DR Congo, Burundi's giant neighbour, is currently the site of a democratic movement to try to uphold the Constitution and stop President Joseph Kabila from changing the rules to stay in office. Rwanda is sometimes called Burundi's 'twin': it has about the same land area. It has about the same population (slightly higher), which has the came ethnicities in the same proportions (Tutsi minority, Hutu majority, and Twa). It was once jointly ruled with Burundi by the colonial powers. In Rwanda, too, the president, Paul Kagame, has recently made all the necessary moves to stay in power beyond his term limits – a special exception to the Constitution, just for him.

The current round of political violence in Burundi began in April when its president, Pierre Nkurunziza, announced that he intended to seek a third term in office. In May, a military coup was attempted against him, and failed. In July, Nkurinziza was re-elected with 69% of the vote, after months of heavy-handed tactics. The opposition did not recognize the legitimacy of the result. A major crackdown on the opposition by the government began in November – hundreds killed, hundreds of thousands displaced to neighbouring countries. Now, after the failed coup and the disputed election, Nkurunziza's government is facing an armed rebellion.

Rebels attacked military bases on December 11th with 87 deaths before the attacks were repulsed. The next morning the capital city, Bujumbura, woke up to find 34 murdered bodies in the streets, probably extrajudicial executions. The UN special advisor on the prevention of genocide, quoted in the journal Foreign Policy, raised a dire warning: “I am not saying that tomorrow there will be a genocide in Burundi, but there is a serious risk that if we do not stop the violence, this may end with a civil war, and following such a civil war, anything is possible”.

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For Venezuela's Bolivarians, victory even in defeat

What preceded this 17-year Bolivarian era? A corrupt power-sharing electoral machine (resulting from the Punto Fijo Pact, signed by the country’s main political parties and effectively keeping them in power) ruled Venezuela after a period of dictatorship ended in 1958. From 1958 to 1998, Punto Fijo administered poverty for the population, enforcing it through limiting press freedom, police violence, and even state-sponsored murder and disappearances. I went to a very moving event in Caracas in 2004 in which survivors of the “dirty war” of the 1960s and 1970s commemorated their lost loved ones.

The beginning of the end for Punto Fijo was the 1989 riots — known as Caracazo — that were sparked when people woke up to doubled bus fares. The army was called. Hundreds of people were killed. In 1992, a group of army officers, among them Hugo Chavez, tried to overthrow Punto Fijo. When the coup failed, Chavez went on television to call on the soldiers to stand down, took responsibility, and went to jail. When he got out, he advocated an electoral and constitutional path to change. Twenty successful elections later, the Bolivarians have lost the legislature.

Why did they lose? From 2008 on, and especially since the oil price drop in 2014, Venezuela's oil-dependent economy suffered, as did the Bolivarian social programs and the people that benefited from them. Macroeconomic mistakes by the government in an already difficult situation fed the black market in dollars and the smuggling economy (see analysis by Greg Wilpert), which led to major suffering, frustration and a loss of support for the government.

Continuing problems of corruption within the state, as well as crime, also hurt. Both of these problems preceded the Bolivarians, but the revolution was not successful enough in dealing with them. The opposition earned points campaigning on both.

The Bolivarians accomplished much since arriving on the scene. Massive barriers to health care and education were removed. Social services were built where there had been none. Before it became the target of smugglers, a program guaranteeing affordable prices for staple grocery and other items was very successful.

'The Butterfly Prison' reignites hope for a better, more just world

The Butterfly Prison
by Tamara Pearson
(Open Books, 2015; $20.65)

Tamara Pearson is an independent left journalist from Australia who writes about Latin America. Her novel, The Butterfly Prison, set in Sydney, weaves together three different threads. In the following spoiler-filled review, I discuss each thread.

In the main thread, a young working-class woman named Mella leaves an unhappy home as a teenager, finding herself in an exploitative relationship while working in an exploitative retail job. At the job, she meets a friend, an Iranian refugee named Rafi, who introduces her first to union politics, then to radical politics, before being summarily deported to Iran and never seen again.

Mella has already become a part of an activist network by the time of Rafi's deportation, so her growth continues without him. We read about Mella's political awakening, her political education, and her participation in an ultimately successful revolution.

In the second thread, we read the story of an Aboriginal man named Paz as he grows up in a childhood marked by constant police harassment and violence. As a youth, he sets up a house with some young friends in the poor suburb of Macquarie fields, where they support one another and try to get by.

Paz takes shifts at a 7/11, works as an office cleaner for a few months; his friends busk in the subway, gamble for money, and make repairs in the neighbourhood. None of this is enough, as the police constantly return to raid their house, injure them, destroy their property, plant bugs, and make their lives intolerable.

In a (slightly) fictionalized version of the incident that precipitated the actual Macquarie fields riots of 2005, Paz is driving a car from a party when the police begin a chase. Paz loses control of the car, which crashes, killing one of his best friends. Paz surrenders to police and is imprisoned, where he lives the rest of his life, partly in solitary confinement, which destroys his sensitive mind. A fire in the prison sees him escape, but he has no options or hope, and commits a very violent suicide.

In the third thread, the author presents vignettes of incidents from various corners of the world. Inspired by Eduardo Galeano, the author turns a sensitive eye to environmental destruction, wasted human potential, and war, shown as the outcomes of the inequality and violence of capitalism.