War on Terror or War on Women?
Posted on: Thursday, January 1, 2004
War on Terror or War on Women?
The View from Latin America
By Yifat Susskind
Associate Director, MADRE
Most Americans judge George Bush’s fixation on national security to be an appropriate response to the atrocities of September 11, 2001. But for millions of women in Latin America, the US ‘war on terror,’ is a cynical euphemism for the Administration’s unbridled greed, macho militarism, and callous disregard for the needs of the world’s majority. In this article, women human rights activists from Nicaragua, Mexico and Colombia discuss how the ‘war on terror’ impacts their communities and what they are doing to challenge US-driven policies that rob them of their rights. In partnership with MADRE, an international women’s human rights organization encompassing a network of women in 10 countries, these women deliver a powerful message to their own governments and to the Bush Administration: there is no such thing as national security. For security to be genuine, it must be global. Moreover, ‘state security’ must be grounded in human security, based on protection of women’s human rights, including the rights to food, housing, health care, education and decent work.
STATE SECURITY V. FOOD SECURITY: HUNGER IN NICARAGUA
The day after the attacks on the United States, US trade representative Robert Zoellick launched his “countering terror with trade” campaign, capitalizing on the attacks to reinfuse US economic policy with a sense of mission not seen since the Cold War. Suddenly, free trade became an exercise in freedom itself. As Zoellick said, “Trade is about more than economic efficiency. It promotes the values that are at the heart of this protracted struggle” (The Washington Post, 10/3/01). Zoellick counseled that the way to avert “threats to our security” was by offering “economic hope” to poor nations (Ibid). Like others in the Administration, Zoellick seemed untroubled by the fact that long before September 11, more than a billion people around the world were surviving on less than $1 a day. After the attacks, however, Zoellick reasoned that since poverty is a “breeding ground” for terrorism, we must alleviate the plight of the world’s poor by promoting trade and investment.
“How lucky for Bush that increasing corporate profits turns out to be the key to fighting terrorism,” laughed Mirna Cunningham, an Indigenous leader and medical doctor from Nicaragua’s North Atlantic Coast. Mirna underscored that Zoellick’s argument embodies the main fallacy of neo-liberal economics: that guaranteeing huge profits for corporations somehow benefits poor people. “Here in Nicaragua, any child can tell you that the big lumber, mining and fishing companies have robbed poor people of their lands and livelihoods, “said Mirna. Indeed, after more than a decade of US-imposed economic policies in Nicaragua, corporations control over 40% of the country’s natural resources.
“On the North Atlantic Coast, where I am from,” said Mirna, “the rain forests on which local Peoples depend for food, water, medicines and which are the source of our cultural and spiritual practices are being destroyed. When women go out to haul water, fish or gather plants, they are confronted with armed guards protecting land that is now corporate property. Women are responsible for making sure that our families have food, water and the healing plants they need. Without our lands, women cannot care for their families.” In a region where a full 75% of the population already suffers from malnutrition, the loss of these lands is undermining traditional diets. Meanwhile, processed foods imported from the US, such as white bread and cola, are aggressively marketed. Women, who have less access to food in the first place because of gender discrimination, are especially threatened.
“We have already lost so much,” said Mirna. “Yet Bush continues to pressure our government to sell off our forests and lagoons. Indigenous Peoples are fighting back. Last year, the people of Awas Tingni blocked the government’s sale of their territory to the SOLCARSA lumber company. It was a landmark legal victory that we will build on to win further recognition of our collective rights as Indigenous Peoples. The Bush Administration insists that Nicaragua’s government support its wars and respect its need for security. But Bush does not respect our need for security – for job security or food security, for example.”
Zoellick and the many CEOs in Bush’s Cabinet present their dogma as plain truth rather than ideology. Like the Islamic fundamentalists targeted in the ‘war on terror,” proponents of strict neo-liberalism espouse an absolute and literal interpretation of a theory and implement it without regard for context or room for critique. As Mirna said, “Bush has declared that market fundamentalism is the best defense against Islamic fundamentalism. But as Indigenous Peoples we are skeptical of missionaries bearing any kind of fundamentalism, whether religious, cultural, political or economic.”
CORPORATE PROFIT AS NATIONAL SECURITY: FTAA & PLAN PUEBLA-PANAMA IN MEXICO
Topping the Bush Administration’s economic agenda for the hemisphere are the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) and Plan Puebla-Panama. 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. After September 11, 2001 the Bush Administration stepped up pressure on Latin American governments to sign onto the FTAA, which the Administration sees as an economic arm of the ‘war on terror.’ In fact, Bush’s National Security Strategy of September 2002 describes the FTAA as a component of US national security in the hemisphere.
Plan Puebla-Panama, a regional expression of the FTAA, would 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 Panama. Some of Mexico’s largest oil reserves are thought to lie beneath the lands of Indigenous communities in Chiapas, where a decade-long struggle for democratic rights is underlain by a contest for control over this valuable resource. “You can see which areas are believed to be richest in oil,” explained Carolina*, a young Indigenous woman and social activist. “These are the places where the government has stationed the most troops since September 11. After the US was attacked by men from Saudi Arabia, Bush decided that he could no longer rely on oil from the Middle East. He doubled US military aid to Mexico and we saw a sharp rise the number of soldiers in Chiapas.”
Carolina is a member of K’inal Antzetik, a local organization founded in 1991 as a women’s weaving cooperative. “We now work in a variety of ways,” said Carolina, “to advance the rights of Indigenous women within our communities and the rights of Indigenous communities in Chiapas. We offer women reproductive health care and counseling for survivors of military violence.”
“Women suffer from the presence of soldiers, both government troops and the more brutal paramilitary forces,” said Carolina. “Women live in fear that their families will be hurt, their houses burned down and their lands taken by the army to build military camps or roads. These threats cause tremendous psychological stress. We have seen more mental health problems among women in our community. When the army comes, it is no longer safe for women to be outside. Girls are raped and forced to become prostitutes for the soldiers. Others have been kidnapped by paramilitaries and held as slaves to cook, clean and provide sex for the men.”
“We know that the FTAA and Plan Puebla-Panama will mean even more soldiers on our lands,” said Carolina. “Bush says that oil is a matter of US national security. Well, we Indigenous are used to being called threats to national security. We are working to develop alternatives to Bush’s economic model, which sees us as expendable obstacles to increasing oil revenues. This year, we are training women to work as carpenters, to improve their productivity as farmers and to learn business skills. Our aim is to develop economic autonomy at the community level and improve women’s ability to feed their families.”
TEACHERS AS TERRORISTS: THE EROSION OF HUMAN RIGHTS IN COLOMBIA
Even before September 11, Colombia ranked as both the worst human rights offender in the hemisphere and the largest recipient of US military aid. Now, Bush’s ‘war on terror’ has allowed the Colombian government to use US military aid directly for operations against the leftist guerrillas that it has been battling for 40 years. The new policy has fueled the armed conflict and given the government a green light to subordinate human rights and democratic process to its counter-terrorism operations.
For the first time since the 1980s, the US is undertaking a counterinsurgency effort in Latin America, giving weapons, training and money to a government that relies on paramilitary death squads. According to Cecilia*, who works with a small women’s organization in Bogotá, “since Bush declared his ‘war on terror,’ civilian deaths have risen to almost 20 a day. That’s nearly double the figures for 2000. Last year, another 400,000 people-- mostly poor Indigenous and Afro-Colombians -- were driven from their homes.” To date, more than two million Colombians have been displaced. Most are women with children who are surviving in overcrowded, makeshift neighborhoods, where they have no source of income. “We organize social safety nets among displaced families; educate women about their rights and help them respond to the many forms of violence that permeate their lives,” said Cecilia.
“The ‘war on terror’ has made our work more dangerous. Now the Colombian government thinks it has permission from the White House to treat critics as terrorists.” Shortly after September 11, Bush pushed to revoke human rights conditions on military aid for its allies in the ‘war on terror.’ As a result, hard-won human rights protections in Colombia and elsewhere were unraveled. A new "anti-terrorism bill" granted the Colombian military sweeping powers, including the right to detain people as young as 16 without a trial. The bill also allowed the government to declare a State of Emergency under which constitutional rights are suspended. “Last year,” said Cecilia, “half of all those detained under counter-terrorism measures were social activists and human rights workers. Schoolteachers have become a major target of the death squads. Teachers are labeled as terrorists for allegedly influencing students the wrong way and more than one is killed every week.”
“Security has become a code-word for justifying government violations of our basic rights. For most Colombians, the real cause of insecurity is the government itself: its social policies, which keep people poor and landless; and its alliance with the paramilitaries, which are responsible for most of the killings. But how can we hold our government accountable when the US says that anything is allowed in the name of national security? How can we fight for the rights of political detainees when people in the Bush government defend the use of torture against their prisoners in Guantanamo Bay?”
In their struggles for a broad range of human rights, Mirna, Carolina, Cecilia and many other women throughout Latin America are creating a powerful alternative to the model of security enshrined in Bush’s ‘war on terror.’ “We need to ask what security means for the world’s majority, for poor women and their families,” said Mirna. “What are the needs of women -- we who are denied rights and resources, but given responsibility for the health care, day care, nutrition, housing, teaching and emotional well-being of the vast majority of the world’s people? What do we need to keep ourselves and our families safe from poverty, preventable disease and violence? What needs to change for women to be part of decision-making in our families, communities and at all levels of government?” As women human rights activists throughout the hemisphere address these questions, we build a new definition of security, one that is rooted in human rights protections, state accountability and women’s perspectives of the world’s needs.
* Carolina and Cecilia are pseudonyms for protection from government or paramilitary violence.