BUSH'S WAR: THE FALL-OUT ON WOMEN AND FAMILIES
Posted on: Friday, June 28, 2002
As the atrocities of Sept. 11 become part of our collective past, their repercussions shape our present and future. The legacy of these attacks embodies an ugly truth: namely, that the Bush Administration has exploited Sept. 11 to advance a pre-existing agenda.
“Terrorism,” after all, is an abstract noun. Like “crime” or “poverty,” it is an elusive target for war. Indeed, the “war against terrorism” has proved to be a shape-shifter, easily molded to suit the interests of arms manufacturers, oil companies and free traders. Meanwhile, for the world’s poor — 70% of whom are women and children — the US reaction to Sept. 11 has intensified the overlapping crises that shape daily life: poverty and worker exploitation; free-trade agreements that harm the poor; government neglect of urgent issues; US military intervention; and spiraling political violence are some of the issues that MADRE’s sister organizations are tackling with renewed urgency since Sept. 11. Through MADRE’s community-based programs and our work at the United Nations, the women of our sister organizations are delivering a powerful message: there is no such thing as national security. For security to be genuine, it must be global. Moreover, “state security” must be complimented by “human security,” based on protection of human rights, including the right to food, housing, health care, education and decent work.
The day after the World Trade Center attack, Congressional Republicans declared without irony that the tragedy called for new global trade talks and the passage of Trade Promotion Authority. Republicans had been pushing this legislation for months, to enable the President to negotiate trade agreements with little input from Congress or advocates of worker rights, sustainable development and environmental protection. At the same time, US trade representative Robert Zoellick launched his “countering terror with trade” campaign. Mr. Zoellick counsels that the way to avert “threats to our security” is by offering “economic hope” to poor nations (The Washington Post, 10/3/01). He and other neo-liberal enthusiasts argue that since poverty is a “breeding ground” for terrorism, we must alleviate the plight of the world’s poor.
The argument embodies the main fallacy of neo-liberal economics: that guaranteeing huge profits for corporations somehow benefits poor people. After more than a decade of strict neo-liberalism imposed on poor countries, the verdict is in: these policies exacerbate poverty and inequality wherever they have been implemented. Besides, we don’t need to look further than the three billion people worldwide who live on less than $2 a day for a reason to eradicate (not just alleviate!) poverty. Surely, ending the world’s most widespread human rights violation is its own reward.
In the wake of Sept. 11, Bush, Cheney & Co. have worked to deflect attention from their flagrant opportunism (what luck that increasing corporate profits turns out to be the key to fighting terrorism) by waxing ideological about the virtues of free trade. Since Sept. 11, unregulated capitalism has been reinfused with a sense of mission not seen since the Cold War. Shopping has been elevated to a patriotic duty; trading on the “free” market has become an exercise in freedom itself. In contrast, the grinding poverty of countries that “hate America” is an embodiment of their barbarism and repression. “Trade is about more than economic efficiency,” Mr. Zoellick intoned solemnly. “It promotes the values that are at the heart of this protracted struggle” (The Washington Post, 10/3/01).
Zoellick and the many CEOs in Bush’s Cabinet present their dogma as plain truth rather than ideology. Like religious fundamentalists, proponents of strict neo-liberalism espouse an absolute and literal interpretation of an economic theory and implement it without regard for context or room for critique. US leaders will no doubt continue to proclaim that market fundamentalism is the best defense against Islamic fundamentalism. We need to respond by questioning all forms of rigid orthodoxy, whether religious, cultural, political or economic.
CORPORATE RIGHTS VS. HUMAN RIGHTS: FTAA & PLAN PUEBLA-PANAMÁ
Topping the Administration’s economic agenda for the hemisphere are the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) and Plan Puebla-Panamá. The FTAA, which some activists have described as “NAFTA on crack,” would turn all of Latin America (except Cuba) into one big free-trade zone, mainly for the benefit of US corporations. Regulations on foreign investment would be minimal and governments would have to treat foreign investors the same as domestic businesses. Because multi-national corporations can out-compete most local businesses, the policy undermines efforts to promote sustainable industry in poor countries. The FTAA would even allow corporations to sue governments for enforcing certain labor and environmental standards.
Together with the FTAA, Plan Puebla-Panamá seeks to create an extensive free-trade zone, build a giant network of highways and railroads and develop the oil and electric industries from Mexico’s Puebla state all the way to Panamá. Some of Mexico’s largest oil reserves are thought to lie beneath autonomous Zapatista communities in Chiapas, where the struggle for democratic rights is underlaid by a contest for control over this valuable resource. “You can see which areas are thought to be richest in oil,” explained one member of MADRE’s Chiapas sister organization, K’inal Antzetik (see box on page 5). “These are the places where the government has stationed the most troops.” For indigenous farmers who live in these areas, more oil wells mean the loss of more precious farmland and the further erosion of their way of life.
There is no doubt that the FTAA and Plan Puebla-Panamá will exacerbate inequality and unemployment, create many more maquilas (sweatshops), destroy natural resources and biodiversity, displace poor farmers and Indigenous Peoples and result in further militarization of the region. Communities that are threatened by these developments, including MADRE’s sister organization, K’inal Antzetik, are opposing the neo-liberal plans and insisting on human rights for poor and Indigenous Peoples.
THE MAN-MADE ROOTS OF “NATURAL” DISASTER
If Sept. 11 intensified the recession in the US, it has been disastrous for poor countries that are economically dependent on the US as an export market and a source of investment. In human terms, “slower economic growth” and “falling commodity prices” mean that 40,000 more children are likely to die worldwide this year from poverty-related causes and 10 million more people will sink into extreme poverty, surviving on less than $1 a day.
In Central America, the collapse of world coffee prices and one of the worst droughts in recent memory have conspired to intensify the economic repercussions of Sept. 11. Coffee is Guatemala’s number-one export and the backbone of the rural economy. In the village of Xemal, home to MADRE’s sister organization, T’al Nán K’oi (see box on page 6), most families depend on picking coffee for corporate plantations. While companies like Starbucks have tripled their profits in the last five years, these laborers do not earn the price of a Starbucks cappuccino in a whole day of work.
The coffee price-collapse is global, but its impact has been harshest in Central America, where drought has left 1.5 million people without enough food since Summer 2001. Since then, thousands of peasant farmers have fled the parched countryside to undertake the dangerous journey to the US. In Guatemala, as elsewhere in Latin America, whole communities are dependent on money sent home from relatives working in the US. But Sept. 11 has brought tighter border restrictions, heightened xenophobia and worsening unemployment for immigrants in the US, diminishing even this last resort for peasant farmers to ensure their families’ survival.
Mainstream economists attribute the coffee price-collapse to the “ups and downs” of the market, as though these were forces of nature. Actually, the crisis stems from the World Bank’s decision in the early 1990s to finance large-scale coffee production in Vietnam. The Bank didn’t consider that other coffee-producing countries would be unable to compete with Vietnam’s labor costs, which remain among the lowest in the world. Vietnam quickly became the world’s second-largest coffee producer, causing a glut on the global market. The over-supply has pushed the price of coffee so low that a 100-pound bag, which sold for $140 in 1999, today barely brings in $50.
Similarly, the drought in Central America may be natural, but the disaster visited on the region’s poor has its roots in agrarian policies. Under pressure from the International Monetary Fund to pay off foreign debts, Central American governments have catered to agro-exporters, taking land, credit and technical assistance away from small farmers. Poor farmers lack reserves to make it through bad harvests, and are left with the stark choice that many faced this year: starvation or emigration.
FALLING PROFITS, _RISING POVERTY
With diminished prospects for working in the US, rural Guatemalans are flocking to the city, hoping to find jobs in the maquila sector. Even before Sept. 11, maquila closings were making headlines across Central America. In Guatemala, 27 factories shut down in 2001, leaving more than 11,000 people (mostly young women) jobless. Now, with the worsening recession in the US (the market for 90% of Central America’s maquila-made apparel), more factories are closing. Owners, meanwhile, are working to offset the dip in profits by increasing worker exploitation. In one maquila where MADRE’s sister organization, Qati’t, is active, managers pressured women workers to sign a waiver after Sept. 11, releasing the factory owners from compliance with Guatemala’s labor laws.
Without the protection of unions, Guatemala’s 80,000 maquila workers suffer deplorable working conditions. Most earn only about $150 a month and spend more than a quarter of their wages on water in the under-serviced shantytowns where they live. Yet for many women, the prospect of no work at all is worse than their exploitative jobs. That’s why activism in solidarity with maquila workers needs to steer clear of tactics that can result in plant closings or punitive lay-offs. In the US, a call to “shut down the sweatshops!” may evoke the need to end abusive labor conditions. But organizing that truly supports maquila workers needs to recognize that families depend on these jobs for their survival. Linking workers’ rights to international trade agreements is one important way of holding factory owners — and governments — accountable to core labor standards while minimizing the threat of lay-offs. This strategy is one aspect of MADRE’s THREADS Program (see box on page 6).
PLAN COLOMBIA & THE RETURN OF THE “NARCO-TERRORISTS”
For women and families in Latin America, one of the most frightening trends triggered by Sept. 11 is the further militarization of their societies and the specter of increased US military intervention. The trend is exemplified by Plan Colombia, a $1.3 billion aid package that makes Colombia the third largest recipient of US military aid worldwide. Its stated aim is to intercept the trade in heroin and cocaine at its source by wiping out cocoa production in southern Colombia. But doing that means taking on the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) guerrillas who control these areas and fueling Colombia’s 38-year conflict by providing the military with massive amounts of weapons and funding.
Moreover, aid to the Colombian military means indirect support for brutal paramilitary groups that are closely tied to the army. These forces are responsible for 75% of the country’s human rights violations, including about 3,500 killings each year and the displacement of more than two million people. The Colombian military and the FARC also stand accused of human rights violations.
“Drug warriors” lost no time after Sept. 11 trying to grab a share of the $40 billion in emergency military spending authorized by Congress. Reviving the Reagan-era “narco-terrorist” label, House Republicans, the Colombian government and lobbyists for US arms manufacturers all called for an expansion of the war on drugs in the name of fighting terrorism. It is well-known that the Colombian army uses US training and equipment designated for counternarcotics missions to carry out operations against the FARC, making any distinction between the drug war and the state’s counterinsurgency operations purely academic.
Now, the Bush Administration is considering doing away with the distinction altogether. In January, the State Department announced a new counterinsurgency effort that would allow the Colombian government to use US aid directly for operations against the FARC. The move represents a dangerous escalation of US involvement in Colombia’s conflict. For people in Latin America, the policy shift is an eerie throwback to the 1980s, when the US supported murderous regimes and paramilitaries that killed hundreds of thousands of people in Central America.
THE END OF HISTORY?
We’ve heard repeatedly since Sept. 11 that the attacks “changed everything.” Yet, much of the world remains dismally unchanged. In sub-Saharan Africa, the world’s poorest region, issues like AIDS, access to clean water and debt relief are as urgent as ever. Consider Rwanda: almost eight years after the genocide, 11% of the population is infected with HIV (the figure is 8% for sub-Saharan Africa as a whole; 0.6% for the US). The relatively few AIDS patients who have access to hospital care are often crowded two to a bed. Almost one in five Rwandan children die before age five from easily preventable illnesses, many caused by untreated water.
These appalling health indicators and the human suffering that lies behind them have steadily worsened since the genocide, largely because policymakers have prioritized the repayment of Rwanda’s national debt over the lives of its people. Oxfam estimates that bringing clean water to rural communities in Rwanda could save the lives of 6,000 children who die each year from diarrhea. The project would cost far less than the $42 million a year that Rwanda pays in debt servicing. But with a public health budget that’s barely 10% of what the government spends on debt, potable water remains out of reach for most rural Rwandans.
For several years, the global justice movement has demanded a cancellation of debt for the world’s poorest countries as part of a debt relief program that’s linked to governments’ performance on meeting people’s basic needs. The Bush Administration staunchly opposes debt cancellation. Yet after Sept. 11, Bush quickly promised Pakistan $1 billion in debt rescheduling and aid. The message was clear: debt relief can be had in exchange for cooperation with the US, while governments’ track records on reducing poverty, promoting public health or respecting human rights are irrelevant.
SHARON’S RAMPAGE: ANTI-TERRORISM AS A COVER FOR TERRORISM
Bush’s ultimatum to the world’s governments that “you are either with us or with the terrorists” was interpreted by many governments (e.g., India, Russia, China, Pakistan and Colombia) as license to crack down on rebel groups and nationalist movements that challenge them. In Israel, the exploitation of Sept. 11 was especially swift and far-reaching. On Sept. 13, the Hebrew daily, Ma’ariv, described the attacks on the US as “a rare opportunity to… use against terrorism the kind of means which [Israel formerly] did not dare to use for fear of international reaction.”
These “means” have included the shelling of civilian neighborhoods with US-supplied attack helicopters and opening fire on homes, schools and hospitals. But far from “rooting out terrorism,” Sharon’s war has only produced more grief, rage and bitterness among Palestinians, generating a climate of despair and hopelessness that in turn gives rise to support for extremism. “No one is born a suicide bomber,” said Su Schachter, a MADRE member and activist in the Israeli women’s peace movement. “These are invariably young people from the poorest refugee camps. They’ve grown up watching their parents humiliated, their brothers beaten, arrested or shot, their dreams extinguished by grinding poverty and Israeli army violence. None of this justifies terrorism; it merely helps explain it. If you want to understand how a young man could be drawn to the hateful ideology of Hamas, visit a refugee camp. Once you’ve seen what it’s like to grow up there, you go from being incredulous that there are suicide bombers to being thankful that there aren’t more of them.”
Just as Israeli repression helps generate Palestinian extremism, Palestinian attacks against Israeli civilians galvanize support in Israel for Sharon’s assaults. The spiral of violence is self-perpetuating, strengthening the most reactionary forces in each society. In fact, religious fundamentalists and right-wing demagogues, both Israeli and Palestinian, have a vested interest in ongoing conflict. Each new death enhances their capacity to mobilize people on the basis of fear and hatred. Meanwhile, Palestinian and Israeli progressives face a shared challenge: to demonstrate that people’s basic needs — material, social and spiritual — are better served by support for human rights and democratic process than by religious fundamentalism, war-mongering or extreme nationalism.
For progressives in the Middle East, as elsewhere, Sept. 11 has renewed the urgency of this challenge. In Israel, Sharon’s brutality has been met by a revitalized peace movement. In Palestinian society, too, progressives are calling for a halt to the cycle of armed conflict. As the courageous Palestinian leader, Hanan Ashrawi, recently asked, “Why and when did we allow a few in our midst to interpret Israeli military attacks on innocent Palestinian lives as license to do the same to their civilians?”
Of all the trends to emerge since Sept. 11, at least one offers a glimmer of hope: in communities around the world, people have renewed the call for peace and human rights. In the US — even among some families who lost loved ones on Sept. 11 — shock and grief have been channeled into demands for peace and justice. In Latin America, poor and Indigenous Peoples are organizing locally, nationally and internationally to confront the twin threats of neo-liberalism and militarism. In Africa, social justice activists are calling for people-centered policies to revitalize the continent. And in Palestine and Israel, people are insisting that terrorism and military violence against civilians are two sides of the same coin — and that both must end immediately. MADRE is part of all of these efforts. We are outraged at the destruction and right-wing opportunism that have gripped the world since Sept. 11. But our work with other women whose lives, families and communities are on the front lines of the world’s most entrenched conflicts gives us tremendous strength. Together with our sister organizations and our 23,000 members, MADRE’s response to Sept. 11 has been to step up our fight for justice and human rights around the world.
Last year, MADRE helped open CADAMUC, the first women’s health clinic on Nicaragua’s Atlantic Coast. CADAMUC specializes in gynecology, obstetrics, dentistry and general medicine, combining indigenous healing practices with Western medicine. In its first year, CADAMUC treated almost 1,000 women, many of whom previously had no access to health services. And MADRE sent two shipments of medicine, medical equipment and medical supplies valued at over $2.5 million. The shipments provided CADAMUC with equipment for treating cancer and monitoring high-risk pregnancies and supplied a regional hospital and rehabilitation center with critical medicine. CADAMUC also provides women and girls with education about reproductive health and the prevention of sexually transmitted disease and offers counseling on domestic violence and child abuse.
MADRE’s sister organization, K’inal Antzetik, is working to ensure that indigenous women in Chiapas have the knowledge and resources to confront the neo-liberal economic programs about to be imposed on their communities. With MADRE’s support, K’inal Antzetik is working to equip women with leadership skills and to develop sustainable local alternatives to an economic model that sees indigenous communities as expendable obstacles to increasing corporate profits. MADRE is also enabling K’inal Antzetik to respond to ongoing urgent needs, such as reproductive health care for women and girls.
T’al Nán K’oi (“We Are Our Mothers’ Children” in the Indigenous Mam language) is a group of young women and men working to generate resources for their community by refurbishing the weaving and corn mill cooperatives founded by their mothers — with MADRE’s support — 10 years ago. T’al Nán K’oi is committed to raising awareness of women’s rights through workshops in the community and advocating for the rights of indigenous women and youth internationally.
In Guatemala City, MADRE’s THREADS Program (Training for Human Rights Enforcement — Advocacy, Documentation and Support) equips women maquila workers to document and combat human rights abuses in factories where they work. This year, the project offered several trainings for maquila workers on labor law and occupational health hazards and produced a manual outlining women’s rights in the workplace. And THREADS extends beyond the shop floor to support women workers confronting crises in their communities, including violence, drug addiction and the near-total lack of health care and housing in the sprawling shantytowns around Guatemala City.
MADRE’s Palestinian sister organization, the Ibdaa Children’s Center, is a critical resource in the impoverished Deheisheh refugee camp, which is under attack by Israeli forces as we go to press. Members of the community have been killed and several children have been shot by Israeli snipers. Homes have been destroyed and many buildings ransacked and badly damaged, including the Ibdaa Center.
With the community under seige, Ibdaa’s programs are more urgently needed than ever. Its trauma counseling, human rights education, media training, youth leadership development and Internet training enable young people to cope with — and transform — the violence that permeates their lives.
In response to the Israeli military assault, MADRE is working to rebuild homes in Deheisheh, refurbish Ibdaa’s children’s library and kindergarten, which were destroyed by soldiers, and provide trauma counseling to help the community heal from this violence.
For progressives like those from Ibdaa, ending Israeli occupation is only the most immediate goal. They must also work to build the democratic society that they envision. That’s why every activity at Ibdaa teaches values of human rights, democratic process and respect for women’s rights, embodying the hope that a generation scarred by war will be able to build a peaceful, progressive society.
MAKING THE WORLD SAFE FOR OCCIDENTAL PETROLEUM
In late February 2002, Colombia exploded into full-fledged war when President Pastrana unilaterally broke off peace talks with the FARC. Backed by the Bush Administration, the Colombian military bombed the 16,000-square-mile demilitarized zone, which is home to more than 100,000 people. President Pastrana’s decision to derail the peace process coincided with a US effort to expand Plan Colombia from anti-narcotics funding to direct support for counterinsurgency. Under the guise of the “war on terrorism,” Bush has requested an additional $500 million in military aid for Colombia. But the budget has more to do with protecting US oil interests than fighting terrorism. Its allocations include $98 million to secure military access to the 480-mile oil pipeline in northeast Colombia that belongs to US-based Occidental Petroleum. The FARC succeeded in shutting down the pipeline for most of 2001.