Friday, November 13, 2015

Fracking a Big Concern in the Amazon

As global oil prices remain in the dumps and Brazil’s state-owned petroleum company Petrobras reels from a corruption scandal, an October auction of exploratory oil blocks yielded little interest from major multinational corporations...Greenpeace Brasil called the auction a "double disaster." In a note on its Web site, the environmental advocacy group said, "In addition to being a clear incentive for dirty and polluting energy sources, the onshore exploratory blocks are located in ten large hydrological basins." The nongovernmental organization (NGO) also noted that the auction considered blocks of shale gas in the Amazon, which require the use of a process known as hydrologic fracturing, or fracking, that has been at the center of controversy about natural-gas extraction in the US.-from NotiSur, Nov. 6, 2015
Hydraulic fracking fracking or simply “fracking” is the process of drilling and injecting fluid into the ground at a high pressure in order to fracture shale rocks to release natural gas inside.  

The process is becoming an increasingly popular method to extract natural gas in the US and Europe, drawing strong opposition from environmentalists in both continents. Opponents have raised concerns about the huge amounts of water used in the process and the potential for contamination of groundwater with carcinogens. Fracking has also been known to cause earth tremors.

The Brazilian government has also developed an ambitious plan to use fracking to extract natural gas in a vast area of over 122,000 square kilometers across 12 states, including including protected areas and lands directly adjacent to indigenous domains in the Amazon.

"Effects from drilling and extracting oil and gas in the Amazon are characterized as being not only disastrous for ecosystems and biodiversity where drilling takes place, but also for the populations living in surrounding areas, as is the case with many indigenous and traditional peoples," said Amazon Watch. Fracking activities have been linked to devastating environmental, social and economic effects such as water contamination, air pollution, destruction of terrestrial and aquatic fauna, soil infertility, and also to health problems such as increased risk of cancer, neurological and heart problems and birth defects.

Greenpeace Brasil has come out against fracking, but the strongest opposition is heard from the activist group Coalizão Não Fracking Brasil - COESUS (The Brazilian No Fracking Coalition) has organized to fight against the corporate takeover of indigenous lands and precious bioregions. This coalition formed mainly by indigenous leaders and environmental activists, in a strange twist of political resistance, actually represents a shared-interest with those interested in protecting the traditional oil industry, such as the leaders and investors of Petrobras.
In an act of defiance targeting the Brazilian Oil and Gas Agency (ANP), Brazilian indigenous leaders and activists interrupted a major auction of new fracking concessions set to spread across the Amazon rainforest. Holding up signs calling for "No Brazil Fracking" (Não Fracking Brasil), activists seized the spotlight to demand indigenous rights and divestment from dirty energy, briefly halting the 13th round of bidding for fracking exploration rights at the ANP on October 7th in Rio de Janeiro. Amazon Watch
Fracking has had another effect on the Brazilian energy market. The increased availability of shale gas has reduced prices. A boom in fracking mostly in Brazil’s northern Amazonian provinces is literally sucking up a large portion of foreign interest in Brazil’s energy resources.

Fracking in the Amazon might represents a serious threat for Brazil’s oil interests, and contributes to a trend of dropping oil values worldwide, as well as new sites for foreign investment in places like Iraq and Western Africa. US investors, as well as other foreign prospectors, are far more interested in Amazonian fracking than Brazilian oil right now, and that may also have something to do with the fiscal policies that make it much more difficult, expensive and risky to invest in oil.

The greatest obstacle for fracking projects in the Amazon is the inability of the government to draw up land deals that do not violate agreements between the state and indigenous groups.  Because of this, we may be seeing the start of a new era in which national governments are forced to backtrack on land deals they made decades, even centuries ago. States have backtracked on agreements with indigenous peoples for generations. What is different in contemporary times is is the strength of the opposition voices, particularly voices that speak for the wellbeing and sustainability of the earth.

 Jake Sandler contributed to this post

Friday, October 16, 2015

Ecuador's Fundamedios at the Center of International Fight for Freedom of the Press

The beginning of an administrative process to shut down the Fundación Andina para la Observación y Estudio de Medios (FUNDAMEDIOS), a nongovernmental organization (NGO) that works to promote and protect the right to free expression and association, alerted civil society organizations to the start of new restrictions on these rights and the danger that other organizations could be forced to close. While the reaction of domestic and foreign organizations—including a statement by four UN rapporteurs and the Organization of American States (OAS)—forced the Secretaría Nacional de Comunicación (SECOM) to shelve the case already underway, the risk for civil society organizations remained because of the arbitrary way cases can be opened or closed to fit the political convenience of the government. -from NotiSur, October 16, 2010

By Jake Sandler
In 2006, a group of Ecuadoran journalists, anthropologists, economists and architects organized themselves formally in an effort to improve the quality and integrity of the nation’s journalistic output. This was the seed of the organization called Fundamedios, according to the organization's’ official Web site.  Once the effort began to gain traction and support from almost every corner of academia, social activism and community watchgroups, the new organization assumed the role of independent observer to ensure the quality of print publications and broadcast media outlets.

Soon, the young organization realized that the most significant obstacle to quality of journalism was liberty; if too many journalists feel scared and intimidated (by the government, by corporations, by organized crime, etc.) to write and report the full depth and degree of their stories, then the quality and integrity of the overall media output will continue to suffer tremendously. And so Fundamedios formed itself as an organization focused specifically on working to keep tabs on the activities of hired thugs and other actors that work to threaten, violently or otherwise, the liberty for journalistic work. Each year, Fundamedios watched its registro de agresiónes (register of aggressions) continue to grow  to an irrevocable point of reckoning – there was now an empirical and accessible list of proof of all the journalists who have been or are being actively repressed. In 2008, the young register project identified 23 cases of repression. In 2009: 103, 2010: 151 cases, until 2013 when they registered a startling 174 cases of aggressions against journalists.

International attention
Finally, after the government gave absolutely no action or acknowledgement of the complaints and evidence that Fundamedios was reporting, the organization went to international human rights groups, including the UN. After the international community began wagging its finger at the Ecuadoran government, President Rafael Correa's administration began cracking down on the organization itself, and Fundamedios found itself the subject of the same threats and active repression that was being wielded against the journalists on the Fundamedios’ register.

The more reports that Fundamedios would supply to the international community, the heavier the threats and repression from the Ecuadoran government became. The most successful action taken by the government to quiet the group was its own propaganda, designed to convince the public that the Fundamedios group was undermining liberty and had too much control of the press. Under these auspices, the government began legally chipping away at the power of Fundamedios to exist. However, the impact on the international community was felt strongly, and many groups including the UN continue to battle with the Ecuadoran government on behalf of Fundamedios’ right to exist.

Because so many other nations in the world face the same grave problems of freedom of the press, not only in Latin America, the impact of Fundamedios has influenced the growth of similar groups, as well as the growth of action by the international community to combat such repressive tactics. In Ecuador, due in large part to international pressure, the government’s plans to shut down Fundamedios have been abandoned, at least for now.

Monday, October 5, 2015

Uruguay Opposes TiSA and Effort by U.S., European Union to Control the Flow of Digital Information

The strong domestic dispute that, during the first six months of Uruguayan President Tabaré Vázquez’s term, muddied the waters of the Frente Amplio (FA) ended in early September. On Sept. 7, the president and his ministers adopted as their own the recommendations from an FA congress and closed the controversial negotiations on Uruguay’s eventual participation in the Trade in Services Agreement (TISA), an accord promoted by some of the biggest US and European service-industry corporations.   NotiSur, October 2, 2015

By Jake Sandler
On the surface, the Trade in Services Agreement (TiSA) appears to be a tool to renovate and enhance the services sector of existing international trade agreements, particularly the more ephemeral and immaterial aspects of global services commerce such as the trade and migration of digital information and Internet services across national borders. Therefore, we might think of TiSA as a transnational data-flow agreement.

TiSA’s overall promotional framework is that the agreement would stimulate the growth of the services sector (by far the most robust and important sector of the US, EU and many other highly developed nations’ economies) by opening up channels of access and better regulating for fair practices.

However, this agreement--predominantly designed and pushed by the US and the EU, along with Taiwan, Israel, Chile and New Zealand--has come under harsh criticism for its suspicious focus on regulation mechanisms to control of information flow. This is a subject that whistleblower Edward Snowden has made so potent a topic for many people throughout leftist communities in the Western hemisphere.

Uruguay’s recent decision under President Tambaré Vázquez of the leftist Frente Amplio coalition to drop out of the deal is highly representative of the general criticism of the agreement. The decision of  the Vázquez administration is certainly not motivated by economic interest, as Uruguay would likely benefit from new opportunities to invest overseas and new markets for exporting their own services. Uruguay views TiSA as a threat to information privacy and freedom of information. The South American country also fears that this deal would give the US and the EU a disproportionately strong amount of control over international data flow.

With Uruguay decision to drop out, six other Latin American countries remain part of TiSA: Chile, Mexico, Peru, Costa Rica, Colombia, and Panama.

Controversy, WikiLeaks
In June of 2014, WikiLeaks released a document from the TiSA negotiations called the "Financial Services Annex," This document reveals that the talks were shrouded in secrecy, a clear departure from the World Trade Organization’s traditional template. The break-away group of  WTO nations  conducting the TiSA talks, led by the US and the EU, is often referred to as the Real Good Friends of Services Club.

Furthermore the WikiLeaks report investigation found that:
  • TiSA is designed for and in close consultation with the global finance industry, whose greed and recklessness has been blamed for successive crises and which continues to dominate rulemaking in global institutions.
  • A sample of provisions from this leaked text show that governments signing on to TiSA will: be expected to lock in and extend their current levels of financial deregulation and liberalisation; lose the right to require data to be held onshore; face pressure to authorise potentially toxic insurance products; and risk a legal challenge if they adopt measures to prevent or respond to another crisis.

Ban on Access to Source Codes 
TiSA also contains stipulations that require an open access for source codes of all member nations. For example, the Mayor of Munich has already taken the step of making a mandatory switch of all public systems to open source systems like LibreOffice or OpenOffice.While this can be considered a part of the framework of creating openness and transparency, the second edge of the blade is that it also knocks down national and subnational barriers of protection against the reach of other nations into their own public information flow.

Friday, September 25, 2015

Jimmy Morales: the Comedic Actor Who Could Become President of Guatemala

Jimmy Morales, a comic actor who once starred in a slapstick comedy as a cowboy who ran for president, is the surprise winner of the Guatemalan elections held on Sept. 6.
Morales, of the minuscule Frente de Convergencia Nacional (FCN), is running for office in the midst of the greatest political crisis in the country’s recent history and has successfully portrayed himself as an outsider. However, his critics have warned that most of his party members are right-wing Army veterans and that, given the country’s recent history of authoritarian military regimes, Guatemala could be heading for a repeat episode.  from NotiCen, September 24, 2015
 By Jake Sandler
The string of protests that have consumed Guatemala in the aftermath of the scandals involving ex-President Otto Pérez Molina and his former vice president Roxana Baldetti includ what  some journalists and academics have called it ‘the Guatemalan Spring and the emergence of  a fascinating political leader, comedic actor Jimmy Morales. Morales is famous for playing a bumbling cowboy who accidentally becomes president. Well, after Morales garnered 24% of the votes cast in the recent Sept. 6 national election, his famous comedic interpretation in Presidente de a sombrero (“President in a Cowboy Hat”) may become real life, just without the cowboy hat. Here is a trailer.

Born James Ernesto Morales Cabrera in the capital city of Guatemala in 1969. Morales spent his earl school years at the Evangelical Institute of Latin America. If elected president, Morales would become the third Evangelical President of Guatemala. Before beginning his career in television and film, Morales went on to earn various degrees, including a bachelor’s in Business Administration and Theology, and a master’s and doctorate the University of San Carlos in Strategic Security, focusing on security and defense.

Morales entered the entertainment industry alongside his brother, Sammy Morales, with the still popular television series Moralejas (“Morals”), a comedic show that centers on satire of society and government. In addition to this series for which he is best known, Morales has appeared in seven Guatemalan films, including Manzana güena en noche buena, La misteriosa herencia, Detectives por error, “Ve que vivos, una aventura en el más allá, Repechaje, Gerardi, and Un presidente de a sombrero. He has also starred in the movie Fe as a morally bound priest, directed by renowned Guatemalan director Alejo Crisóstomo.

The 2011 casting of Morales to this role as priest-protagonist displays the artistic reach of his acting, which goes beyond comedic satire into the profound and dramatic nuance of Crisóstomo’s internationally awarded films. That same year he changed his name to Jimmy Morales and ran for mayor of Mixco as the candidate for the Acción de Desarrollo Nacional (AND) political party. Two years later in 2013, Morales was elected as Secretary General of the Frente de Convergencia Nacional (FCN) party, a post he currently holds.

Jimmy Morales’ emergence as a political leader and serious frontrunner in Guatemala’s presidential race places the actor, writer, director, producer and politician in a group of memorable moments throughout recent history – when democracy crosses the paths of popularity with professional entertainers and artists. Here is his campaign Web site.

Morales joins list of entertainers running for office
Earlier this year we published a blog post on the story of Haiti’s pop music icon and President Michael Martelly, who has led the Haitian government since 2011. In 2010, popular Haitian-American hiphop artist Wyclef Jean had attempted to join the fray of presidential hopefuls, but was turned down by the national election committee.

Elsewhere, we have seen actors make their way into the top offices of government: Eva Peron, although never president, maintained a great degree of power and popularity in Argentina; actresses Silvia Pinal and María Rojo both became senators in the Mexican National Congress. However, India and the Philippines top the list with famous actors turned politicians. The United States is a  close third. We all know about Ronald Raegan, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jesse Ventura, Jerry Springer (mayor of Cincinnati) and Sonny Bono (US representative in California). In the current election cycle, Donald Trump has emerged as political player. Trump might claim to be more of a businessman than an entertainer, although many would disagree.

Some US news outlets have begun to dub Morales “The Donald Trump of Guatemala," but there are stark differences between the two politicians, namely: money. A first-round win by Morales was a remarkable achievement considering his party spent around US$480,000 for the campaign through July, according to electoral records. In contrast, Manuel Baldizón, of Libertad Democrática Renovada (LIDER), who came in third, spent US$5.3 million.

Part of Morales' appeal is that he has centered his campaign on convincing the electorate that he is not part of the elitist political establishment. His slogan, “neither corrupt nor a thief” could earn him some support in the runoff election. However, his conservative views on social issues, including his anti-abortion stance, could alienate voters who lean left, and especially the youth student movement, which is looking for a change. His primary opponent is Sandra Torres, ex-wife of former center-left  President Álvaro Colom (2007-2011).

Friday, September 18, 2015

Meet the Fire Expert Behind the Investigation at the Garbage Dump in Cocula, Guerrero

A report from a group of independent experts working under the auspices of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) has cast doubt on a Mexican government report regarding the fate of 43 students from a teachers college (Escuela Normal Rural de Ayotzinapa Raúl Isidro Burgos) in Guerrero state. An investigation from the IACHR-sanctioned Grupo Interdisciplinario de Expertos Independientes (GIEI), however, challenged the administration’s version of the events, including the official conclusion that the students had been killed in Iguala and taken to the garbage dump in Cocula where their bodies were burned to ashes. The GIEI based its conclusion on an investigation of the site conducted by José Torero, a renowned Peruvian expert on fire, who visited the site on July 13. Torero’s report said, "The minimum amount of fire needed to cremate the bodies could not have occurred" at the dump in Cocula, not even enough to burn one body.  -SourceMex, September 16, 2015

Photo: University of Queensland
 By Jake Sandler
 The decision by the IACHR to hire José Luis Torero as a consultant gives the investigation significant credibility. After all, Torero has done extensive research on fire safety, arson and other matters related to the incendiary sciences. He has  published 20 book chapters and over 300 articles on subjects relating to fire protection and fire safety engineering. His specialties include “fire dynamics, flame spread, microgravity research, smoldering combustion, smoke detection, structures and fire, suppression systems, contaminated land and education in fire safety engineering.

Torero has conducted work on prescriptive and performance based design, forensic fire investigation and product development, conducted detailed structural response to fire, fire resistance evaluation, material selection, life safety analysis, smoke evacuation, detection and alarm design as well as standard and advanced fire suppression systems.” Over the years his numerous awards and honors include a NASA-Certificate of Recognition for Outstanding Contributions to Space Shuttle Mission (1995).

Born in Lima, Peru, Torero graduated with a Masters Degree in Engineering from Pontificia Universidad Católica del Perú (1989), MSc. from the University of California at Berkeley (1991), and a PhD. from the University of California at Berkeley (1992). In 2001 he took a position as Associate Professor of Fire Protection Engineering at the University of Maryland. That same year he was also awarded a position as researcher with the National Center for Scientific Research in France. That began his move into European research communities, where since the 1970s the University of Edinburgh had established the most state of the art Fire Safety Engineering program in the world. His current positions include a Chair and Directorship of Fire Safety Engineering at the Building Research Establishment at the University of Edinburgh, where he is also head of the Institute for Infrastructure and Environment.

His expertise on this specialty subfield in engineering is extraordinary and rarely matched throughout the globe. The question is, has he had experience intersecting his work and research with a volatile and politically charged issue such as that which Mexico has contracted him? Although it can be said that fire safety and protection are socially loaded fields everywhere, it seems most of Torero’s work had been in aerospace engineering, urban planning and fire suppression systems, not necessarily this more forensic and criminal angle at play in Guerrero. Although this is a somewhat new position for Torero, he will be utilizing his expertise in the same way he has in his previous studies, focusing on patters and nature of the flames themselves, and the materials that were burned in an attempt to construct a better overall understanding of what actually happened.

Friday, September 11, 2015

Food and the Politics of Identity in Mexico: The Paradox of Turtle Eggs from El Istmo

The Mexican government has launched a campaign to protect several species of threatened and endangered sea turtles that reproduce on the country’s beaches, enacting measures to prevent poaching of eggs in Oaxaca and other areas. The government’s primary effort involves a scheme to increase monitoring beaches where turtles make their nesting grounds, particularly the olive ridley turtle. The Secretaría de Medio Ambiente y Recursos Naturales (SEMARNAT) recently acquired two drones from the Secretaría de Marina (SEMAR) to monitor the Escobilla and Morro Ayutla beaches in Oaxaca during the summer months. The two beaches account for 90% of the olive ridley turtle’s nestings in Mexico. SourceMex, Sep 2, 2015
 By Jake Sandler
“Hrutuaa’ dxitabigu’, dxitabigu’ guero!” shouted an older indigenous Zapotec vendor outside of the central marketplace in Juchitán de Zaragoza, Oaxaca, Mexico. ‘I’m selling turtle eggs, I’ve got turtle eggs white boy!’

She knew just by looking at me that I was not from around there, not so much because of my physical appearance but because of the clothes I wore, or even more so the way I wore them, the way I walked through the market, looking excitedly around at everything. I had been living in Juchitán for over a year, and I had bought turtle eggs from that same woman several times before. But they never stopped being a very special treat. And I never stopped being a güero.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Turtle eggs are not to be eaten all the time; they are precious, relatively expensive, and, after all, should not be over hunted. This is known locally and is a part of the cultural knowledge that surrounds them in the Isthmus region of Oaxaca. For instance, it is known that these eggs are incredibly high in cholesterol, fats and other things to be eaten in moderation. This helps keep consumption down to a level that ultimately would not seriously harm the local population of turtles and the surrounding ecosystem. Furthermore, they are regarded locally as an aphrodisiac, a sort of Viagra for the pre-pharmaceutical age. Therefore, unlike iguana meat or other local specialties, the consumption of turtle eggs is linked to gender and sexuality; men typically eat them, but they may also be considered a special and spiritual stimulant for woman. In any case, they are to be eaten with care and treated with reverence (at the end of the article, look to see the typical way to eat a turtle egg). However, despite this local reverence and moderation, the recent growth of interest and demand in the turtle eggs from outside has caused an economy of export in which the turtle eggs are being over hunted.

This is part of a much larger pattern in which objects imbued with cultural meaning find demand in cosmopolitan centers where a high price is placed on their exoticness and cultural value, while from the very same cosmopolitan centers emanates the environmental reform movement and the discourse against poaching and over-fishing. However, there is a distinction between, on one hand, black market trade in exotic foods and animals and, on the other hand, foodies who simply enjoy consuming pre-Hispanic or otherwise culturally loaded gastronomical products.

In other parts of Oaxaca, platos típicos (“typical dishes”) include pollo con mole coloradito (chicken smothered in a dark sauce made from dozens of local ingredients that include chocolate, chiles, bananas and peanuts), chapulines (grasshoppers, toasted and seasoned), nopales (pads of the Opuntia “prickly pear” cactus, sautéed and served with an egg omelet), huitlacoche (corn smut, a naturally occurring black corn fungus, served as a filling in quesadillas) and perhaps the most internationally recognized mezcal (a liquor distilled from an agave mash, using multiple species of the plant).

Photo: Jake Sandler
Unique offerings at the market in Juchitán
In turn, none of these dishes are considered iconic of the the Isthmus of Tehuantepec region, or simply el Istmo en local parlance. Rather, at the marketplace in the center of Juchitán de Zaragoza, the cultural epicenter of El Istmo, los platos típicos include huachinango al horno (red snapper fried in a light batter) and camarón fresco (fresh shrimp from the lagoon, sometimes served in a tomato cocktail), or you can have a stew with your choice of meat: ngupi, leshu, or guchachi’ (armadillo, rabbit or iguana, respectively).

One of the most prized of all Isthmus gastronomical specialties is turtle eggs. Turtle eggs are called dxitabigu’ (pronounced jee-tah-bee-goo) in diidxazá, the Isthmus Zapotec language, and they are consumed as much, if not more, for their medicinal or spiritual value as they are for nutrition. Oaxaca is Mexico’s fifth largest state, and it is the largest state south of Durango. It is also one of the three poorest states in the nation, along with its neighbors Chiapas and Guerrero. Aside from long stretches of Pacific coast, all three of these southern states are mostly mountainous, relatively difficult to traverse and contain rural populations and communities that are spread out over great distances. Lacking the wide scale industrial development of northern and central Mexico, these southern states rely heavily on tourism for economic revenue.

But no other state has conquered the tourism market of southern Mexico like Oaxaca. Oaxaca’s cultural bureaucracy has worked within a national project of indigenismo, a particular ideological interpretation of indigenous culture that has been central to national politics and tourism marketing since the Revolution in the early 20th century. Arts and crafts took center stage in this nationalized exhibition of culture – the black pottery of San Bartolo Coyotepec, the woven wool textiles of Teotitlán del Valle and the flower embroidered huipiles (traditional women’s blouses) of the Isthmus. In time, a number of important artists emerged from this climate of cultural production and promotion, including perhaps the most famous, Francisco Toledo, an Isthmus Zapotec, or binnizá, born and raised in Juchitán de Zaragoza.

Graphic arts, poetry musicians and journalism united the cultural commodities that the national government had promoted and funded since the post-Revolutionary era with their own desires for local autonomy and the political power to fend off the increasing presence of multinational interests. Through the work of artists like Toledo, an entire visual lexicon was created, a sort of catalogue of symbolically, and therefore politically, important objects. Toledo often drew the figures of the iguana and the turtle. Poets, too, used those animals as metaphors, and even musicians used the bichuga bigu, a turtle shell used as a musical instrument.

The turtle, the iguana and other small game and fish popular in the cuisine of Juchitán took center stage in the cultural symbolism deployed throughout the grassroots resistance movement that was taking place. By 1980, Juchitán became the first municipality where the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI) was defeated in municipal elections since the revolution. The PRI lost to  COCEI Coalición Obrera, Campesina y Estudiantil del Istmo (COCEI), a leftist party that used the diidxazá language as their principal mode of communication and the central marketplace in Juchitán as its soapbox, staging grounds and performance center.

Photo: Jake Sandler
Environmental hypocrisy?
Not coincidentally, the late 1970s and early 1980s was the time that a movement for environmental awareness and policy reform began to represent an important role in global economies and domestic political discourses. Therefore, the success of politically and culturally organized juchitecos to imbue their material world with real political significance was running head on with emerging discourses about resources and the environment.

While the juchitecos were using consumable objects such as turtle eggs as symbols of resistance against the salt mines and petroleum refineries in Salina Cruz, transgenic corn seeds from Monsanto, and Latin America’s largest wind park in La Ventosa, the national government was enacting policy reforms that favor capitalist interests in salt, oil, corn and wind energy as commodities while making the sale and consumption of turtle eggs illegal. An important question for Mexico’s national government arises: If you are going to actively police turtle egg poaching because of its environmental danger, why not do the same for transgenic corn?

However unfortunate or ironic, turtle eggs find their way to markets outside of Juchitán in a more environmentally detrimental way than, say, a painting, a book of Zapotec poems or a music album. No matter how politically important it is for juchitecos that elements of their local cuisine are being demanded and consumed in the cultural and fashionable hearts of the national capital, the Mexican government’s priority is stopping turtle egg poachers. Whether in terms of gastronomy, language, dress or artistic styles, el istmo is a region of its own within the state of Oaxaca, and although it is not significant part of the state’s tourism economy, certain elements of the iconic istmeña culture, such as turtle eggs, cannot help but find their way into the vogue of the nation’s capital from time to time. Turtle eggs are only the latest example.

Friday, August 28, 2015

Museum Serves as a Reminder of Dirty War in Chile

By Jake Sandler
The death earlier this month of Gen. Manuel Contreras, a notorious secret-police boss and unrepentant human rights abuser, coupled with legal developments in a number of decades-old criminal cases, have shed new light on the dark and still haunting legacy of the dictatorship of Chile’s Gen. Augusto Pinochet (1973-1990). On Aug. 7, nearly nine years after Pinochet passed away at age 91, Contreras, 86, followed his former boss to the grave. Both men died of natural causes, and, in both cases, the deaths prompted spontaneous street celebrations. Outside the Santiago hospital where Contreras had been treated since September 2014 for kidney problems and other serious health issues, critics of the 17-year military regime poured sparkling wine and waved flags. -from NotiSur, August 28, 2015
The date of September 11th has its own infamous meaning in Chile. The US-backed coup that toppled the Allende government and launched Chile into a seventeen-year military dictatorship headed by General Pinochet occurred on September 11th, 1973, a day when the presidential palace was under violent siege and Salvador Allende allegedly committed suicide in his chambers. The years that followed were marked by grave violations of human rights committed by the Pinochet regime.

Although that period ended with the transition to democracy in 1990, the wounds have not healed into healthy scars, but remain fresh and open in so many ways. The trials of crimes against humanity, with their failings and achievements, have been a centerpiece of that public healing process. However, outside of law and government, a prominent place where this process of collective healing and construction of historical memory has taken place is within Chile’s vibrant cultural sector. Hence, El Mueso de la Memoria y los Derechos Humanos (MMDH), “Museum of Memory and Human Rights”.

Bachelet and the Bicentennial Foundation 
The MMDH was founded in 2010 as a part of the cultural initiatives carried out during the Chilean Bicentennial. Obviously, the national celebrations of Chile’s independence caused many questions of Chile’s recent past to surface anew. Then President Michelle Bachelet headed the effort herself, as she and her family had a publicly-known connection as victims of the crimes against humanity; Bachelet’s father died in detention following the coup, while she and her mother were detained, tortured and later exiled. Bachelet has reported that she was interrogated in detention by Manuel Contreras himself, in the infamous detention center Villa Grimaldi. The board of directors includes Bachelet and many academics, artists and intellectuals linked with La Concertación political movement.

Contemporary Architecture and Center of Santiago’s Cultural Eastside The MMDH is located in Santiago’s cultural heartland – the eastside. The architecture of the museum itself is contemporary and encourages a dynamic, interactive relationship between the indoors and the outdoors, and between the public and the space. MMDH not only supports artists and archives collections of important historical documents relating to the 1973-1990 period, but also hold educational initiatives, community performances and art contests to promote awareness and production of art that discusses themes of the dictatorship, such as kidnappings, detention, torture, memory and exile.

“Bad Memory”: A Musical Tribute
In 2013, the MMDH held a music contest called “Mala memoria”, or ‘bad memory’, which encouraged musicians to pay tribute to various themes of the dictatorship and of collective memory. The artist Vilú wrote her song “Gloria” in homage to Gloria Lagos Nilsson, who was kidnapped and killed in detention in 1974. Almost two years after Vilú was awarded by the MMDH for her song, Manuel Cantreras was convicted in court for Gloria’s disappearance, torture and murder. This video of the beautiful song "Gloria" was subitted to the MMDH.

Museums of Memory – A Larger Picture
MMDH was not the first such institution in Chile, although it has come to hold a certain importance especially within the arts community of Santiago. The Catholic Church’s Fundación Vicaria de la Solidaridad , Villa Grimaldi: Corporación Parque por la Paz  and la Casa de la Memoria all played a part in supporting the founding of the MMDH in 2010.  The MMDH is among five places in Santiago cited by the organization Global Voices where  one can remember the Pinochet dictatorship and say “Never Again”

Given that Chile’s history is unique, but not alone in Latin America, cultural institutions and organizations that focus on collective memory and human rights have emerged elsewhere. Such institutions exist in Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Guatemala and elsewhere. Earlier this year we featured a piece on Paraguay’s Museo de la Corrupción any of these institutions follow in the footsteps of museums, such as the Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C., which have marked a new era of responses to state violence. In this context, we are seeing museums transforming their traditional roles in society.

Traditionally, museums were about collections and exhibition. Today, as we see with the MMDH, the museum’s societal purpose is found not just in the collections themselves, but the very act of collecting. Through this act, the community engages in archiving of their own memories. And as we see with Vilú, younger generations have a physical place to express their connection to their cultural and political past.

Friday, August 14, 2015

A View of Government Impunity in the Community of Nahualá in Rural Guatemala

By Jake Sandler
(The author, a graduate student at the University of  New Mexico, spent several weeks in Guatemala in June and July of 2015)

In one of the articles in NotiCen this week, Thomas Shannon, a top-level US State Department advisor suggested to reporters that El Salvador and Honduras would do well to follow Guatemala’s lead and set up anti-impunity commissions of their own, similar to Guatemala’s Comisión Internacional contra la Impunidad (CICIG), a powerful judicial instrument established nearly a decade ago in collaboration with the UN. "Each country would have to determine what the structure would be, but the CICIG has worked well," said Shannon.  The Salvadoran government rejected the proposal .  Read more

The CICIG seems to have found some level of acceptance in Guatemala, and the reason is because the commission is international in nature.  Very few Guatemalans would actually trust an anti-impunity commission that was comprised with government officials that linked to the impunity that had prevailed in the country for decades. Many Guatemalans remain fearful of what their government does to its own people when the world is not watching.  

This extremely widespread, popular distrust is rooted in the countless massacres and assassinations, the hundreds of thousands of innocents killed at the hands of the government during the Guatemalan Civil War (1960  1996).  Although the peace accords in ’96 ended the internal armed conflict on paper, the Guatemalan people have continued to watch as the brutally repressive actions of illegal or clandestine security groups with direct or indirect links to state officials and judicial institutions go unpunished.   

Government mistrusted
Many communities throughout the nation, particularly indigenous villages in rural areas that were most affected during the war, have become accustomed to expecting very little of their government officials, and at times having to take matters of local security and justice into their own hands. One such community is in the city of Nahualá, where I spent five weeks this summer living with a family in the center of town while attending a linguistics field school for the K’iche Maya language.

Nahualá, Sololá, Guatemala  (Jake Sandler)
Nahualá is a K’iche Maya town, which means that essentially everyone there identifies with the K’iche Maya ethnicity and almost everyone speaks K’iche Maya as their first language, not Spanish.  My host father, Tat Mash (in Spanish, Don Tomás), was born in the late 1950s and has for most of his life lived through the internal armed conflict.   

If you ask an elder in Nahualá what it was like during the infamous year of 1982, the year of many massacres of indigenous communities, they will respond with a comment like “the army never entered Nahualá, because we didn’t let them.  So nothing too terrible happened here, thank God.”  But what do they mean by that, ‘we didn’t let them enter the town,?'

 It is extremely rare that people will talk about such topics at all; in fact, it seems the culture of fear and silence permeates even the most fiercely independent of communities.  However, one evening the topic was brought up over dinner. 

The Discovery Channel Effect
That night over dinner, they asked me where my family came from and said that I looked Arab.  I told them "sort of" and explained the complicated story of the wandering Jew.  Little Diego said "You mean the ones that killed Jesus!"  I laughed to lighten the worried looks of the adults sitting around the stove fire, looking on intently.  I told them that most of my family had immigrated to the United States before the Holocaust.  Victor, the 30 year-old son of Ta Mash and Al Talin, said he had seen a few documentaries about World War II on the Discovery Channel and he saw how millions had died in the gas chambers and the firing squads.  He said something like "but I believe one must have a better understanding of history before watching a documentary like that".  The room agreed.  

The humility with which they treat highly complicated information impacted me, considering we consume very serious material on the Discovery Channel in the United States as casually as the way one might eat an ice pop or cheese crackers. I said I didn't know much, because acting as an authority of information here, where education about the genocide of past generations is so fraught, is a bit like taking out dollar bills and throwing them on the floor. And, anyway, how much do I really know about my grandparents and their experience?   

How much does our historical memory actually serve us?  At other times, in other places I may have been ready to blabber on about a few stories I had heard.  But, becoming accustomed to the silence, humility and sacredness with which the Nahualeños treated the massacres of ’82, I decided not say more.  And then, as if feeding the unknowable silence, Ta Mash began talking a bit about the Guatemalan Civil War, a very delicate subject you don’t hear much about here. 

Two Nahualeñas visiting a cemetery with unmarked graved seen behind to the right
Revisiting the massacres of 1982
 He talked about the massacres in 1982, when so many were also killed in front of firing squads and other awful techniques of state-sponsored ethnocide.  He said here in Nahualá, the people set up self-defense watches and had rifles and alarmed the town when the army was coming.  He said the army only entered a few times, and they kidnapped a couple people suspected of cooperating with guerillas, but they never massacred like they did out in the rural areas.  Out in the rural areas!!! I suppose everything is relative.  

Outside in the patio, pine wood smoke was wavering in the wind above dozens of corrugated tin rooves.  Ta Mash finished by saying "I suppose every place in the word has their wars, their massacres, their terrible sadnesses, just like every place has their own beautiful customs, hairdos, and dresses." We all took sips from our hot drink, a sweet milk with cinnamon and Nescafe served in clay bowls.  The room fell silent, but somehow comfortable.  

Over in the corner was a stack of garments ready to be sold at tomorrow’s market. Then Al Talin asked me what type of huipiles they wear in Nuevo Mexico, and the middle generation laughed, knowing that we wear Lakers t-shirts and blue jeans.  Al Talin's face got red and scrunched as she laughed, and I wished I could say more about the Navajo and Apache traditional garments we have up there in El Norte, where the desert serves as a grave for unidentified bones of migrants who can't follow their coyotes any longer.
"My host family in Nahualá may not be willing to say that they know what happened or how to change things, but they certainly know that not enough people have been brought to justice for it."
Nahualá is 22 km east of Quetzaltenango in Southwest Guaemala (Wikimedia Commons)
And just like that, we moved on to another topic.  Why waste any more time discussing tragic topics that are anyway so inevitable and uncontrollable. You get the sense here that such systematic and structural forms of state violence appear natural. I suppose lowering one’s expectations of the government and of respect for human rights is an organic reaction to so many unending years of repression and violence without justice.  Although the crimes themselves may not be seen, nor the faces of their perpetrators, the impunity never goes unseen.  Impunity never goes unseen because it is precisely the not happening – the lack of trials, the absence of convictions – in the face of so many unmarked graves and clandestine mass burial sites.  My host family in Nahualá may not be willing to say that they know what happened or how to change things, but they certainly know that not enough people have been brought to justice for it.

To kill with impunity; to rob, extort and exploit with no fear of punishment; to do wrong without having to contend with justice and the forces of righteousness – for those who have ever occupied themselves with the binding together of social order, the prospect of judicial impunity is both frightening and ancient.  Indeed, the construction of political mechanisms that prevent instances of impunity is absolutely central to the construction of the modern, democratic nation-state itself.  In Alexander Hamilton’s Federalist Papers No. 27 on Restraining the Legislative Authority, he writes:
The hope of impunity is a strong incitement to sedition; the dread of punishment, a proportionably strong discouragement to it. 

Interestingly, what Hamilton was writing about is that the federal state or nation will have the ability to crush impunity through the watchful eyes of the states’ union.  This is in stark juxtaposition to the present-day context of fighting against impunity in the Northern Triangle nations of Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras, where impunity is a problem that emanates directly from within the state itself.  In fact, the context of impunity in the Northern Triangle nations today takes on almost exactly what Hamilton describes in the absence of a federal union: “A turbulent faction in a State may easily suppose itself able to contend with the friends to the government in that State”.  
"It is not a state of resistance, not a state of anger nor action – it is a state of being accustomed to hearing politicians speak of peace and justice and witnessing the very opposite."   
Back around the kitchen stove in Nahualá, loudspeakers are heard from the streets outside, where megaphones are lashed to the top of pickup trucks blaring out the slogans of political parties in K’iche.  The two major parties, Patriota and Líder, are battling for the upcoming elections not only at the municipal level but at the national level.  Regardless, the people here are paying attention to the mayoral race, and it is as if the national election does not exist.  Everyone is interested in the immediate local system, the one they can feel, taste and touch day in and day out. Caring about the federal government, so far off in the capital, so uncontrollable and untrustworthy, seems a futile act.   

No one mentions the CICIG here, nor the trials and the cases it fights for.  It is not that the people are not happy to have an institution like that working on behalf of justice; it is simply that no one, not here at least, is ready to put their trust into anything that bears the government seal.  It is not a state of resistance, not a state of anger nor action – it is a state of being accustomed to hearing politicians speak of peace and justice and witnessing the very opposite.