segunda-feira, 2 de novembro de 2009

Hope and Disappointment in Uruguay's Elections

From Upside Down World

Monday, 02 November 2009

"Democracy doesn’t exist without truth and justice. We have the right to know where our dead are and we have the right to demand that these people, although they are old, pay for the crimes they committed," said Graciela Pintado Nuñez, as their bus reached the outskirts of Uruguay’s capital, Montevideo.

On Friday, October 23rd, two days before Uruguay’s Presidential elections, Nuñez and a group of nearly fifty Uruguayans made the overnight trip from their homes in Southern Brazil to their native country of Uruguay. It was a trip most of them had made many times before.

"I have caravanned to Uruguay to vote in every election and referendum since the return of democracy!" said Nuñez, who fled to Brazil with her husband 33 years ago, after they were kidnapped by the military police.

But this election was special. On top of voting for Uruguay’s next president, and the new Congress and Senate, they would be voting on two important plebiscites, both of which could directly affect their lives. If passed, one would annul the Ley de Caducidad, a 1986 law granting amnesty to military and police officers involved in human rights abuses during the dictatorship. The other would allow Uruguayans living abroad to vote in future elections from their home country. According to government statistics, a fifth of the Uruguayan population lives outside of Uruguay. Like Nuñez, many of those abroad fled during the dictatorship.

Upon its arrival in Montevideo, family members greeted the bus with cheers and waving banners. TV cameras filmed the travelers stepping on to the pavement, as they waved Uruguayan flags and sang. Excitement was in the air. The same scene was occurring across the country, as thousands of Uruguayans were arriving by boat from Argentina or plane from Spain, France or elsewhere. The Uruguayan Diaspora was coming home to vote.


Everyone knew it would be a close race. The polls showed both of the referendum losing, but when a Uruguayan Supreme Court decision declared the Ley de Caducidad unconstitutional less then a week before the elections, supporters believed it might change some minds.

ImageChildren of parents who were disappeared by the military dictatorship of the 1970s and 1980s, such as Amaral García, Macarena Gelman and Mariana Zaffaroni, publicly endorsed the annulment of the Ley de Caducidad. As did influential Uruguayans such as the internationally acclaimed author, Eduardo Galeano, who addressed the multitudes stretched along Montevideo’s 18 de Julio Avenue during the closing rally of the campaign to annul the law on Tuesday, October 20th.

"It is a sad legacy of the military dictatorship, which has condemned us to pay its debts and to forget its crimes," said Galeano, calling on citizens to vote in favor of both plebiscites. "May Uruguayans put an end once and for all to this discrimination which has mutilated us."

The charismatic candidate of the leftist coalition, Frente Amplio, ex-guerrilla leader, José "Pepe" Mujica, was clearly the front-runner in the presidential race. But there was doubt if he would achieve the 50 percent of the vote necessary to avoid a runoff.

Frente Amplio supporters prayed for a remake of their legendary victory on October 31, 2004 when the coalition broke Uruguay’s traditional two party system and Presidential candidate, Tabaré Vásquez, took the presidency in the first round with just over fifty percent support.

Now at the end of his presidency, Vásquez has one of the highest approval ratings of any Uruguayan president in recent history. His administration has not been perfect, but it has instituted a number of poplar new social programs, succeeded in stabilizing sustained economic growth, passed a new progressive income tax reform, and despite the Ley de Caducidad, begun to try a number of military officials for human rights abuses during the dictatorship.

With the high approval, the presidential candidates, including those in the National and Colorado parties postured themselves as the continuation of the Vásquez presidency. Nevertheless, Frente Amplio supporters feared that a shift back to the traditional parties would mean an end to the social programs and fiscal policy that has characterized the last five years under the Frente Amplio administration, helping to lower poverty and sustain economic growth.

The stakes were high and completely divided. Leading the National party ticket was the conservative former president, and presidential candidate, Luis A. Lacalle. The smaller Colorado party was running Pedro Bordaberry, the son of the former President turned dictator, Juan Maria Bordaberry, who in 1973 kicked off the tiny country’s 12-year long dictatorship when he dissolved Uruguay's Parliament and Regional Assemblies.

On the other side of the spectrum was Frente Amplio’s José Mujica (Agricultural Minister for most of the Vásquez administration), and his running mate, Danilo Astori, (Finance Minister under the Vásquez government). Mujica, a humble no-nonsense farmer, was a former member of Uruguay’s Tupamaro urban guerrillas, who served 14 years in prison before he was released in a general amnesty for political prisoners in 1985.

The stage was set. In the plazas and along the streets, campaigners passed out the last flyers. Cars drove through the city with Uruguayan, Frente Amplio and National party flags sticking out their windows, and blowing in the breeze. Families strolled through Parque Rodo and along the Ramblas past the waterfront, catching the last rays of the warm spring sun.

Election Day - Sunday, October 25

The polls opened early. Just after 8am, the first of the more than 2.5 million registered voters made their way to the voting stations. Compared with many countries in Latin America, voting in Uruguay in general, is relatively calm. This election was no exception. There was no mention of the possibility of fraud. Voting is mandatory, but Uruguayans exercise their civic duty more as their right, rather than an obligation.

"Uruguayans love to vote," said more than one person in a line of 10-20 people at a polling station in Montevideo. Many sipped on mate (a typical South American green tea), refilling their gourds with hot water from the thermoses beneath their arms.

Luisa Cuestas, 89, one of the founders of the Mothers and Family members of the Detained and Disappeared, arrived to her polling station in Eastern Montevideo by 9am. She was done in a half-hour.

"We have said from the very beginning that the Ley de Caducidad was null and immoral. We were never in doubt that the law shouldn’t exist," she said after placing her vote.

Macarena Gelman voted at the Escuela Alemana on the other side of town. She’s the granddaughter of the Argentine writer, Juan Gelman, and the child of Argentine parents who were kidnapped in Buenos Aires in 1976. Her father was murdered that year, and her pregnant mother was transferred to Uruguay under Operation Condor. Macarena believes she was born in a military hospital. Within a few months, her mother was "disappeared", and Macarena was left on the doorstep of an "adopted" family. She didn’t find out her true identity until 23 years later.

Gelman placed her ballot flanked by a half a dozen cameras, and stepped outside to explain how much the vote meant to her, and why people should vote to annul the Ley de Caducidad. And so was the case across the city as the day wore on. Adults took their elderly parents to vote. Families ate together and strolled through the park, or watched the latest news coming in from across the country. Excitement, hope, but like many things in Uruguay, relative calm.

The Results

At roughly 8:30pm, an hour after the polls had closed, Luis Eduardo Gonzalez, a pollster for Channel 2, announced that it appeared that the Ley de Caducidad was on its way to being annulled. The result was immediate. At the headquarters of the PIT-CNT, Uruguay's national labor coalition and the principal supporter of the initiative, activists celebration. Frente Amplio supporters cheered and danced at the rally along the waterfront. Meanwhile, supporters at the National party headquarters booed.

ImageBut the news did not last long. Within an hour, the result of the Ley de Caducidad referendum was reversed. By 10pm, the preliminary results were announced. Both referendum have lost. Mujica had roughly 47 percent, not nearly enough to take the presidency in the first round.

The results were quickly confirmed when Mujica and Astoria held a press conference, stating that the people had spoken and that they were now headed to a second round. A half-hour later, they took to the stage before thousands of supporters lined along the waterfront.

"There is no doubt, after today’s vote that we are on our way to victory!" Astori told the crowd. The multitudes responded enthusiastically, but there was a thick sense of defeat. The following day, it was confirmed that the plebiscite to annul the Ley de Caducidad had received 48 percent support. Several percent points better than the last referendum attempt to annul the law in 1989, but not enough for victory.

"I can’t believe it. I can’t believe it. I just can’t believe that the people didn’t vote for it," said freshman sociology student, Agustin Flores at the Frente Amplio rally after Mujica had left the stage. "It was our second chance [to annul the Ley de Caducidad]. I understand that the first time maybe people were scared because they were just coming out of the dictatorship, but how can the people not want to bring to justice what was unconstitutional for 15 years? A coup d’etat. A coup d’etat and everyone saw it. Judicially, the law is unconstitutional. It doesn’t allow democracy’s separation of powers. It doesn’t allow the executive branch to investigate what happened."

But only five blocks away, supporters at the National party headquarters were already celebrating.

"From the legal point of view, the idea of annulling the Ley de Caducidad is just ridiculous. Imagine if they annulled Uruguay’s divorce law that allows me to get a divorce. I’d still be married to my ex-wife," said Luis Silva, a Montevideo businessman carrying a picture of the National Party candidate, Luis A. Lacalle. "We believe that you can’t look to the past. We believe that you have to treat the issue with respect and memory, but always looking towards the future."

Other National party supporters criticized the fact that only the Ley de Caducidad had been up for a referendum and not the 1985 Amnesty Law, which granted amnesty to individuals charged with "political, common or military crimes" from January 1st, 1962 on. The Amnesty Law opened the door for José Mujica’s release from prison in 1985, after 14 years as a political prisoner.

"Asesino, asesino, asesino!" ("Killer, killer, killer") erupted the National party supporters only moments later, as Mujica’s name was mentioned on a large screen set up outside of the National party headquarters, transmitting the incoming results.

"Mujica was an assassin," says the former real estate agent, Sandra Verniz, matter-of-factly. "I think it’s terrible that the Uruguayan people could be so ignorant to support a thief and assassin in the government."

"On top of that, he doesn’t speak correctly, he’s uncultured, he doesn’t know anything about the laws, he doesn’t know anything about anything," says Alicia (who declined to give her last name), a life-long National party supporter, while celebrating the results. "How is he going to rule? It’s impossible that someone like that is going to be able to govern. Impossible!"

Of course, Mujica knows much more than his adversaries would like to admit. In 1994 he was elected as a Montevideo Congressional representative and in 1999, he took a seat in the Senate where he remained until now, except for a three year stint as Agriculture Minister in the Vásquez administration. His simple, non-political and humble persona, which alienates some members of the traditional parties, is exactly what carries Mujica among his supporters. "He arrived to his first day in the Senate on an old motorscooter, hair uncombed. They didn’t want to let him in to the Senate!" recalls a Frente Amplio supporter laughing.

On election night, Mujica showed where his alliances lye, cutting short the press conference to go greet the rally of thousands of Frente Amplio supporters along the rambla. "The most important things now is to go speak with the compañeros," he said.

But while this may have a decisive effect on his supporters, as the Uruguayan weekly leftist journal, Brecha, pointed out the day after the elections, this is not going to help Mujica capture the must needed votes among independent, undecided and center-left voters in order for Frente to take the runoff election on November 29th.

And this appears to be more important than ever. While Mujica and Frente Amplio (47.15 percent) came in 19 points above their closest challenger, Lacalle. Before the end of election night, Lacalle (28.76 percent) and Bordaberry (16.80 percent), who came in 2nd and 3rd had already committed to forming a coalition to defeat Frente Amplio.

"We can do it! We can do it! We can do it! We are going to win!" cried Lacalle to hundreds of supporters still amassed around the National party headquarters at nearly 1am. The total votes received by Lacalle and Bordaberry combined, are within four percentage points of Frente Amplio.

The results portray two clear realities. One, that with little breathing room, the November 29 runoff is going to be a tight race. Two, with the loss of both referendums and the failure of Frente Amplio to acquire more than 50 percent in the first round, "the progressive project" is rolling through troubled waters.

Image"Today, the progressive project was defeated," said Frente Amplio supporter, Carlos Soria, on election night after the rally. "You have to assume it as it is—a defeat. We have to learn from this lesson, because throughout the world, the right-wing and the reactionary vote is winning all over the place. Latin America is a flower in the world, and you win with your openness, with generosity, speaking with every group there is. There are no single recipes to repeat."

"In the background, [the electoral results] are a response to the fact that the leftist government has not created a cultural shift in Uruguay’s political cosmovision,"

wrote Sociologist Gustavo Leal, the night of the elections in his Brecha article, "The ‘Brake’ on the ‘Progressive era." In other words, although Frente Amplio’s 2004 win may have broken a 170-year-long two party system and although the Tabaré Vásquez presidency may have an approval rating of 65 percent, Frente Amplio hasn’t been able to completely alter the political landscape of the country in the direction of the left.

"We couldn’t win the conservative vote and the most fundamental thing now is to defeat the conservative project," said Soria. "I feel like the presidential candidate didn’t do the right things to defeat the conservative project. They got stuck on him and he didn’t say the right things. If we are not going to end up like we were, you have to talk about the Uruguay that dreams, innovates, produces, and this is the Uruguay that we are already constructing. I think we need to reorganize, with ideas and a lot of enthusiasm."

Going Home

The day after the election, Nuñez, and the group of Uruguayans, amassed outside of an old bus station a couple of blocks from 18 de Julio, preparing to board their bus home. The mood was more somber, but Frente Amplio supporters are used to setbacks and challenges.

There was some positive news. The leftist coalition had taken a legislative majority in the Senate and the Congress. Even if Frente were to somehow lose in November, the incoming president would have to fight against a Frente-control legislature.

The failure to annul the Ley de Caducidad was a huge defeat, but it is not the end of the struggle.

"We must begin again," says Eduardo Pirotto, a member of the Uruguayan Family Members of the Disappeared. "This isn’t over. There is no end. We just have to find the way to begin the road again, from where we are now."

The October 19 Uruguayan Supreme Court decision which declared the Ley de Caducidad unconstitutional may help. Only three days before the elections, a Montevideo court sentenced Uruguay’s last dictator, Gregorio Alvarez, to 25 years in prison for murder and human rights violations. The decisions could set a precedent to help expedite other convictions.

There were no musical serenades on the overnight trip back into Brazil, as there were on the way down. But the energy on the bus was light. The sun rose as the bus approached the Guaiba River and the city-scape of Porto Alegre in the distance.

"Are you going back for the runoff?" someone asked. "Of course," someone else responded.

They were just pulling into town and people were already discussing the return trip. The tired travelers descended from the bus, said their goodbyes and slowly dispersed into the city with their luggage.

"We’ll see you next month," says Nuñez. November 29, 2009 is now a date that many Uruguayans are waiting for.

terça-feira, 29 de setembro de 2009

In Search of Care :: International Adventures in Public Health

From Yes Magazine

Tuesday, 29 September, 2009

Freelance journalist and veteran traveler Michael Fox has sought medical care in more than a dozen countries. One of them stands out as the most difficult place to get treatment: his native United States.

Five years ago, I broke my arm in a tractor-trailer accident while traveling in Honduras. I’d left my friends outside of Tegucigalpa and thumbed a ride with a Nicaraguan truck driver hauling tens of thousands of pounds of fabric to the Nicaraguan capital, Managua.

Just a few miles outside the city, the Pan-American Highway winds steeply down the hillsides into thick forest. On our first major descent, the driver and I both knew something was wrong. The aging 18-wheeler was speeding up. The brakes were gone. The driver flipped the wheel hard to stay on the road. Grinding metal screeched through the air and the whole rig came crashing down on my side of the truck. We skidded to a halt, halfway on the gravel shoulder.

Passersby quickly helped us out through the shattered windshield. We were covered in glass. My right arm was limp, and pulsated with pain.

A passing family offered to take me to the hospital in Tegucigalpa. Since I didn’t have insurance, it would have to be the Hospital Escuela, the major public hospital in the Honduran capital.

There was a long line ahead of me, but the nurses walked me right in to a bed in the emergency room, without question of insurance or payment. Within a few hours I was X-rayed and a nurse came to pick the pieces of glass out of my bloody hands. Thankfully, only my right arm was broken—an incomplete fracture so close to my shoulder it didn’t need a cast. There was no charge for the X-rays, the consultation, or the pain medication.

My friends would pick me the following day, but with few funds for a taxi or hotel, and with no extra beds available at the hospital, I spent the night on the hospital floor.

“The abandoned son of the United States,” laughed the janitor the next morning, when he greeted me there on the floor and I told him where I was from. He repeated the phrase again to himself and then walked down the hall to tell his coworkers the news that someone from the United States of America had spent the night on his floor.

The uninsured and underinsured in the United States have a harder and more expensive time receiving adequate medical care than in any other country I know.

But the truth is that I got far better care in Honduras than I would have been able to get had I been in the United States, where I’ve been uninsured since graduating from college a decade ago. In fact, a year after the truck accident, my nose was broken during a random attack in San Francisco’s Mission district. The firefighters who responded to my 9-1-1 call advised me to say I was homeless—there was a safety net in place for homeless people, but none for those who simply couldn’t afford care.

In the years since, San Francisco has solidified a system of hospitals and clinics that provide free health care for all its residents while they’re in the city, making it an exception to the simple truth I’ve learned after using the public health system in more than a dozen European and Latin American countries over the last decade: The uninsured and underinsured in the United States have a harder and more expensive time receiving adequate medical care than in any other country I know.

I’ve been following the debate about health care reform from my current home in Brazil, where health care is considered a right of citizenship and all Brazilians are covered by the Unified Health System. As a foreigner, I have private insurance through my wife’s plan, which costs about $25 each month.

As protests rocked town halls in the U.S., I was shocked that so many people wanted to protect the most expensive, least inclusive health care system in the industrialized world. Lobbyists and industry groups have led many people to fear any change to the system, broken though it so obviously is. What does universal coverage really mean, they wonder? Does it take away my choice of doctor? Will it provide adequate care? The answers they hear are mostly in the form of fear-mongering industry spin.

But as a U.S. citizen who’s been a patient in countries throughout Europe and Latin America, I’ve experienced firsthand what universal access to health care is like. And what I’ve learned is that, in failing to offer what every other developed nation has been providing for decades, the U.S. and its citizens are missing out—and suffering unnecessarily as a consequence.


Six years before my accident in Honduras, I was traveling with a pair of friends on the tiny Greek island of Santorini. This time, rather than the brakes going out, the accelerator got stuck, and the scooter I was driving spun out, landing on my foot. While private practitioners are common in Greece, the Greek Health System (ESY- Ethniko Systima Ygeias) was established in 1983, guaranteeing free health care for all residents of Greece. I visited Santorini’s tiny clinic, then a larger clinic on neighboring Ios, where doctors took X-rays and outfitted me with a cast and crutches—all for free.

A few days later I was in Germany, home to the world’s oldest universal health care system. My foot still looked bad, and I decided to have it checked out again.

Pirna hospital

A hosptial in Pirna, Germany

Photo by Norbert Kaiser

German health care has no deductibles, and all Germans get the same high quality of coverage. To keep payments proportional to income, Germans pay a percentage of their salary into general “sickness funds,” forms of nongovernmental insurance that are closely regulated by the government. While high-income people can opt out and buy private insurance, few do.

Within a few days of arriving to Munich, I was sitting in the operating room of one of the best orthopedic doctors in the city, his nurses quickly shuffling around me, preparing the fiberglass walking cast which they would put on my foot moments later. They held my leg up to a cylindrical 3-D X-ray machine, which immediately showed the image of my foot on a nearby television screen—technology I have not seen before or since in the United States.

There was no charge for the diagnosis or for the cast. The doctor waved away any discussion of it, saying quickly, “I like to help people.”

He told me to have my foot re-examined in six weeks. By then, I was in London.

England is considered to have one of the most socialized health care systems in the Western world. Like many European countries, the UK established a public health care system on the heels of World War II. The National Health Service (NHS) provides free universal care to all UK residents, although eight percent of the population has private insurance.

I decided to go to King's University College Hospital. After a new X-ray, the doctors said that the bone had healed enough that I would be fine to continue without a cast. The service was top-notch and—like everywhere else—free. They did ask me to sign a form stating my “intent” to pay for the service. They made it very clear that I was not obliged to pay, but they at least wanted to insure that I “intended” to pay. British residents receive such NHS care free-of-charge (or free-of-intent-to-charge).

Over the following years, close friends and I would also use the public health systems in neighboring France and Spain. Each system differs slightly. Everyone is covered under the French health care system, funded mainly by payroll and income taxes. Also created just after World War II, the French Social Security system provides public health care to 80 percent of French people. The rest of the population receives their care through additional public or private insurance companies.

Latin America

Cuba clinic

Cuba's health care system is based on the neighborhood doctor and nurse.

Photo by Sarah van Gelder

On the flip side is the tiny Caribbean island of Cuba, under embargo by the U.S. for more than 47 years. Despite their lack of resources, Cubans have developed an extensive and world-renowned system of universal health care based on prevention, rather than on expensive emergency and intensive care.

When I was in Cuba in 2006, I came down with 104-degree fever and a wicked case of food poisoning. I was quickly rushed to a local clinic and then to a larger hospital. While the resources were low, the care I received was as good, if not better, than anything in Europe. Cuba has begun to charge foreigners for health treatment; however the price was far cheaper than anything I would have received in the United States. Had I been a citizen, all my care would have been free.

Despite their lack of funds, the Cubans have also opened their doors to many sick individuals who would never find adequate treatment in their home countries. Since 2000, thousands of Venezuelans have been treated in the island nation through the Cuba-Venezuelan Agreement. In 2006, I spent a day at a beach near the La Pradera International Health Center just outside of Havana, bathing in the turquoise-blue waters alongside dozens of bald Ukrainian children (and their families) who were being treated in Cuba for the cancerous effects of the fallout of the Chernobyl disaster.

The Cubans are also quick to send their health professionals abroad. According to the North American Congress on Latin America (NACLA), “since the first Cuban medical mission in 1963 (to Algeria), more than 100,000 of the country’s health professionals have served in 103 countries.” At least 20,000 Cubans have worked in Venezuela’s poorest communities through Venezuela’s six-year-old Barrio Adentro Mission. Venezuelans are now being trained to take over the positions from the Cuban doctors. According to government statistics, the Barrio Adentro Mission has carried out 300 million consultations and is estimated to have saved 120,000 lives.

I don’t doubt it. In 2006 and 2007, I lived and worked in Venezuela as a journalist. Everyone I knew used the Barrio Adentro public health care system—for everything from broken bones to bladder infections, yearly checkups to dental care. It was, and still is, utterly accessible and completely free to all.

With one of the largest petroleum reserves on the planet, and an average production of just over three million barrels of oil per day, largely in the hands of the state, Venezuela has the oil income to bankroll its social and educational missions. According to Venezuelan government statistics, as of 2007, spending in public health had roughly doubled over the last decade, to 4.2% of the national budget.

But that number sounds cheap, when you compare it with the 16 percent of GDP that the United States spends yearly on health care. And the U.S. figure doesn’t even cover the entire population.

United States

According to the World Health Organizations’ (WHO) 2000 report on Health System Performance, France came in at number one; Spain, number seven; Greece, number 14; the UK, 18; and Germany, number 25. The United States was way down at number 37. And when it came to the WHO’s ranking of Fairness of Financial Contribution to the Health System, the U.S. was tied with Fiji for 54th place, just after the Republic of Korea, the Maldives and Bangladesh. For the country whose total per capita health expenditure is by far the largest on the planet, that is dismal.

The problem is not one of production, but of distribution. The same WHO report rated the U.S. health system number one in its Level of Responsiveness. That is to say, if you have the money, anything is possible. The service is there. It just isn’t getting to everyone who needs it.

sick george
YES! Magazine's special issue, Health Care for All

It’s that last part that really bothers me. Health is not an item to be privatized. It is not a pair of shoes or a new car. It is not something you can do without. It is a human right–Article 25, in fact, of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights. And, as I’ve learned from my experiences, it’s not an unattainable goal, but something that countries far poorer than ours are able to deliver.

The health care crisis in the United States is not an accident. It is a by-product of a system built to maximize profit for large health insurance and pharmaceutical companies. When concern for the health of the citizens comes after the bottom-line, it’s a sign that the system is broken. If left only to the private companies, the system will remain broken, no matter how many reforms or vouchers you hand out to the growing poor.

The health care plan President Obama laid out in his speech on September 9th is a step in the right direction. There should be regulation of the private insurance companies. A public component is vitally important—as a competitor to keep private plans in check, and as a safety net all Americans can rely on. But reform cannot stop there.

Public health systems across the developed world rely on government-run programs not for five percent of the population (the number that Obama said in his speech would probably benefit from his public option) but for everyone. If citizens want to look for coverage elsewhere, they can, as in all the aforementioned European countries, pay for private insurance, or keep their existing private plan.

Millions of U.S. citizens would likely receive better medical attention in a foreign country thousands of miles away than in their own back yard.

I’ve been lucky to need medical help in places where it was accessible to me, and I’m grateful for the professional treatment I received. It is sad to think that millions of uninsured and underinsured U.S. citizens would likely receive better medical attention in a foreign country thousands of miles away than in their own back yard. That is what has to change.

Polls consistently show that 60 percent of U.S. citizens support some sort of government-run universal health-care system. Politicians say our current system is too entrenched, but they are just delaying the inevitable. It is not a question of “if.” It is a question of “when.” Because like the end of segregation, like the right to vote for all citizens, like the forty-hour work week, the right to universal health care will also come.

But it will only come with the grassroots mobilization of U.S. residents—which, in turn, will only come when we realize that universal health care is not something to fear, but a way to vastly improve our health system.

So, to answer the questions: Would a single-payer program take away my choice of doctor? Would it lower the quality of care? Based on my experiences across the planet, the answer is “no.” Quality can only improve with either a public or single-payer option. As Obama said, “Consumers do better when there is choice and competition. That's how the market works.”

But all of the companies competing in that market, concerned primarily with their bottom line, are now using their considerable resources to protect it, funding a disinformation blitz against public health care. In response, I say simply this: Don’t knock it, if you’ve never tried it. And if you have tried it and you don’t like it, then you can still purchase private care. That’s your choice. That’s freedom. That’s democracy.

quinta-feira, 13 de agosto de 2009

The Globalization of Garbage: Following the Trail of Toxic Trash

From Toward Freedom

Thursday, 13 August, 2009

"English Trash Going Home" read the front page of Brazil’s Porto Alegre journal, Correio do Povo on Monday, August 3rd. The image showed the hefty MSC Oriane tanker piled with dozens of containers. The photo’s caption explained that 920 "tons of domestic and toxic trash, imported illegally and which were in Rio Grande, were embarked and will make the return trip home to England." On her way North, the tanker stopped by the Santos port in Sao Paulo and picked up another 41 containers. For Brazil, it was the welcomed resolution to what had become a small-scaled international scandal. But globally, it is not even a scratch on the surface.

From February through May of this year, roughly 1,600 tons of "domestic and toxic trash" was imported from the English Suffolk port of Felixstowe, under the guise of plastic material for recycling. But when the containers—which were delivered to two ports in the Brazilian state of Rio Grande do Sul and one in Sao Paulo—were opened, they were found to contain domestic and toxic waste including used diapers, condoms, syringes, batteries, leftover food, chemical toilet seats, computer fragments, and old medicine.

"It was really frustrating to think that someone would actually send this to us," said Luis Carlos De Oliveira, a federal police officer at the Santos Port in Sao Paulo who inspected the containers personally. De Oliveira told Toward Freedom that not only was there hospital waste and bags of blood, but chorume or leachate, a foul-smelling gooey black substance "and that is only produced when you have organic waste," he said.

The toxic trash shipment violated international law under the Basel Convention, and the discovery of the containers sparked uproar in Brazil.

"Brazil is not the world's dump," said Roberto Messias Franco, head of Brazil’s Environmental and Renewable Natural Resources Institute, IBAMA. Brazil fined five companies 408,000 Reais ($223,000 USD) each for importing the containers, including the multinational shipping companies Mediterranean Shipping Company (MSC) and Maersk Brasil Brasmar, which shipped the illegal trash. England’s Guardian newspaper reported that Britain’s Environmental Agency raided three properties and three men were arrested. Britain apologized and agreed to accept the trash back.

According to IBAMA, only eight containers remain, still in the Southern mountain town of Caxias do Sul, waiting to be transferred to the port at Rio Grande, near Brazil’s border with Uruguay. The other 81 containers carrying 1,477 tons of waste are now being shipped back to England and are scheduled to arrive later this month.

"For us at IBAMA, getting this trash out of here is the conclusion of our job. It’s a good sensation. We got the results we hoped for." said Ingrid Maria Furlan Oberg last week, regional head of IBAMA at the Santos Port in Sao Paulo, where 41 of the containers were shipped out in early August. "It is symbolic, because it shows that Brazil will not accept this type of behavior. Let it serve as an example for other countries."

This is perhaps precisely what others need. The English trash may have made headlines in both England and Brazil, but in much of the world, this is an all too common reality.

The Trail of Electronic Waste

Domestic, hospital waste, or even plastics aren’t of interest to most, but electronic waste is.

"Most of our e-waste is getting exported, and exported to developing nations," says Barbara Kyle, National Coordinator of the U.S. based- Electronics TakeBack Coalition. "I’m not talking to the refineries, the smelters in Sweden or something, I’m talking low road."

Despite a near universal international ban on exporting toxic or hazardous material, Kyle says that most of electronic waste from the United States ends up in China, India, Vietnam, or in up and coming African countries, like Ghana, and Nigeria.

"It’s very, very cheap to ship, and typically what’s getting sent is stuff that costs more money to take it apart here," says Kyle. "People don’t want to spend the money here, and over there—where people basically earn pennies an hour, essentially just bashing stuff open to reclaim the metals—they can still make the economics work for a TV or a monitor for a buck a piece maybe."

CBS’s 60 Minutes reported in its November 2008 special Following the Trail of Toxic E-Waste, that the illegal recycling e-trade has wreaked environmental havoc in China’s Guiyu region.

"Women were heating circuit boards over a coal fire, pulling out chips and pouring off the lead solder," read part of the written report. "Pollution has ruined the town. Drinking water is trucked in. Scientists have studied the area and discovered that Guiyu has the highest levels of cancer-causing dioxins in the world. They found pregnancies are six times more likely to end in miscarriage and that seven out of ten kids have too much lead in their blood."

The situation is just as bad in Ghana, where PBS’s recent Frontline expose, Ghana: Digital Dumping Ground, filmed an area known as Agbogbloshie, where millions of tons of e-waste each year is pulled apart and dumped into endless fields of trashed electronics parts.

There are international laws against the shipping of hazardous material. Under the Basel Ban—an agreement that went in to effect in 1998—the world’s 29 wealthiest most industrialized nations are banned from exporting all forms of hazardous waste to the less developed nations. However, the ban is difficult to enforce and the United States has fought against it tooth and nail. Although the U.S. signed on to the Basel Convention in 1989 (the precursor to the Ban), it is one of only three countries that has never ratified it into effect. The chances of the United States agreeing to adhere to the Basel Ban are even less likely.

"Our government believes that the fact that this stuff has commodity value is more important than the fact that it’s very hazardous, or the fact that its illegal from the importing country’s point of view," says Kyle.

She likens the electronics recycling industry in the United States to the "wild west" where there is little to no regulation, the business model of many recyclers is export, and where most of the recyclers export at least some of what they get.

In response, U.S. organizations like the Basel Action Network (BAN) and Kyle’s Electronics TakeBack Coalition have helped to create the e-Stewards Initiative, where member electronics recyclers must pledge not to ship their recycling abroad to developing countries. Thirty-three recyclers have so far joined the program.

According to a recent BAN press release, beginning next year, the initiative "will become the continent’s first ANSI-ASQ National Accreditation Board (ANAB) independently audited and accredited electronic waste recycler certification program that will forbid the dumping of toxic e-waste in developing countries, local landfills and incinerators; the use of prison labor to process e-waste; and the unauthorized release of private data contained in discarded computers."

They have also waged a campaign to convince electronics manufacturers and retailers to pledge not to ship their e-waste abroad. So far, Dell and Sony have jumped on board.

The steps offer important options for U.S. consumers looking to ensure that their old TV sets and leftover computers don’t end up polluting a dried up river bed halfway around the planet. According to the 2005 report, The Digital Dump, by the Basel Action Network (BAN), 75% of the exported e-waste is not easily recyclable or reusable, so it is dumped into landfills or burned. Much of this is the bulky plastic of old televisions, printers and other electronic devices.

Brazil Says No to Importing Garbage

But plastic also has varying degrees of quality. According to De Oliveira, the Brazilian companies that imported the British trash believed they were importing much higher quality plastic than is commonly found in most of Brazil. They were obviously mistaken.

Nor was it the first time that Brazil had unwillingly received a toxic shipment. IBAMA spokesperson Janete Portos says Brazilian prosecutors are still investigating the arrival of a hazardous international shipment of heavy metals that reached the Santos port in 2004, but "we had never seen anything like this," said De Oliveira.

"We only have one option and that is to return the containers to the country where they came from, because we want to import other things, not trash." said Brazilian President Luiz Inácio "Lula" da Silva at the International Organic Product and Agroecology Fair in Sao Paulo on July 23rd. "We don’t want to export our trash and we aren’t going to import the trash of others."

Brazil has been one of the most outspoken critics in Latin America against the import-export of electronic waste.

"We hear that Brazil doesn’t even want to take used equipment because they know that’s just how people cheat; that’s how they dump on countries, in sending their crap, supposedly for reuse," says Kyle.

Perhaps this is part of what Brazilian Environmental Minister Carlos Minc had in mind when he met with U.S. Special Envoy for Climate Change, Todd Stern on Tuesday, August 4th, to discuss the upcoming Climate convention in Copenhagen this December.

Brazil’s Folha de Sao Paulo reported that they also discussed possible measures to ensure that the British trash incident not be repeated.

Brazil is now considering possible modifications to federal legislation to more strictly punish such crimes, and of using X-ray equipment to identify material within the containers. But in much of the developing world, it’s business as usual with middle-men brokering the deal to get the toxic e-trash past customs.

With the United States looking to undermine the Basel Convention and Ban, there doesn’t appear to be any solution on the horizon.

"We are the absolute outlier from the rest of the developed nations of the world on this topic," says Kyle. "The rest of the world is covered by the Basel Convention, and the only other countries that haven’t ratified it other than us are Afghanistan and Haiti. So nobody should be taking our waste. It’s a violation even to accept our e-waste, so we’re violating all of those developing nation’s laws by sending the waste there."

segunda-feira, 3 de agosto de 2009

Honduras and Washington: A Few Contradictions


Monday, 3 August, 2009

On Tuesday, July 28, the U. S. government announced that it had revoked the visas of four leading members of the government installed by the June 28 Honduran coup. More than a month after the Honduran military awoke President Manuel Zelaya at gunpoint and sent him packing to Costa Rica, it appears that Washington is finally beginning to put its foot down—lightly.

The Obama administration had responded quickly with harsh statements against the coup, but over most of the last month, it has carried out few active measures to pressure the coup plotters to step down. U.S.-backed negotiations, in fact, have been criticized in some quarters for helping to legitimize the coup-installed regime.

Not one country in the world—including the United States—has recognized the de facto Honduran government of Roberto Micheletti that swore itself in the same day it deposed Zelaya in June. But the United States has dragged its feet behind Latin America and Europe and refused to pull its ambassador or to cut off all aid to the coup-installed government.

In fact, Washington has yet to officially classify the Honduran coup as a “coup d’etat,” which, by U.S. law, would forbid any U.S. aid to the de facto government. $16.5 million in aid for military assistance programs has already been suspended, but $180 million dollars in U.S. aid is still flowing—although the State Department says it is under evaluation.

A week and a half ago, Secretary of State Hilary Clinton called Zelaya’s decision to attempt to return to his country from the Nicaraguan-Honduran border, “reckless.” "We have consistently urged all parties to avoid any provocative action that could lead to violence," she said. A group composed of eight organizations and two dozen U.S. academics focused on Latin America quickly responded .

“Given that neither Clinton nor President Obama, nor any U.S. official, has even once criticized the Honduran dictatorship for the violence and political repression of the last four weeks, Clinton's pointing the finger at Zelaya is especially threatening to the human rights of Hondurans,” the group said in a press release.

The group pointed to the “shootings, beatings, arrests and detentions of journalists, closing of radio and TV stations, and other repression” which has been documented by a half-dozen international human rights organizations including Human Rights Watch and Reporters Without Borders. In mid July, the Committee of Family Members of Detained and Disappeared in Honduras (COFADEH) published a report detailing over a thousand human rights abuses committed by the coup regime.

Yet representatives of the Micheletti government have been free to visit the United States, and General Romeo Vasquez Velásquez—head of the Honduran Armed Forces—had planned to speak in Miami last weekend. Clinton spoke briefly with Micheletti over the phone in late July and communication has been open between the Micheletti government and the U.S. Embassy in Honduras.

The White House says these conversations have been aimed at pressuring the Micheletti government to negotiate. According to the July 21 Los Angeles Times, Washington has been putting the pressure on. Clinton has said that she was “tough” in her call to Micheletti, and U.S. personnel in Honduras have been threatening consequences if Zelaya is not returned to power.

Finally, on Tuesday, July 28, Washington announced that it had cut the visas of four Hondurans working with the Micheletti regime, and that others were being evaluated. But the visa cuts were Washington’s only concrete active measures against the de facto government since it cut off the $16.5 million in military aid on Wednesday, July 8. It has now been reported that the visa cuts only pertain to their diplomatic visas— not their tourist visas—meaning the four Hondurans and their families could still travel freely to and from the United States.

Indeed, the coup plotters have some powerful friends in Washington. According to the New York Times, “Mr. Micheletti has embarked on a public relations offensive, with his supporters hiring high-profile lawyers with strong Washington connections” to lobby against sanctions. Among them are Clinton adviser Bennett Ratcliff, and Lanny J. Davis, who was a personal lawyer for President Clinton and who campaigned for Hilary Clinton. On Friday, July 10, Davis testified on Capitol Hill in support of the Micheletti de facto government.

Davis is not paid directly by the Micheletti government. He’s working for the Honduran chapter of the Latin American Chamber of Commerce (CEAL). “My main contacts are Camilo Atala and Jorge Canahuati. I'm proud to represent businessmen who are committed to the rule of law," Davis told Roberto Lovato of the American Prospect two weeks ago. Both Atala and Canahuati represent vested business interests in Honduras.

Atala is CEO of Banco Ficohsa, which according to the World Bank’s International Finance Corporation , is “the third-largest bank in terms of loan portfolio and deposits” in Honduras. Canahuati is the majority owner of two of Honduras’ largest newspapers, La Prensa and El Heraldo, both of which have supported the coup. He also happens to be on the Executive Committee of the Inter-American Press Association (IAPA), and head of the IAPA’s International Affairs Committee. The IAPA is an organization of newspaper tycoons, publishers and editors, which, among other things, immediately recognized both the Honduran coup and the 2002 Venezuelan coup.

In its response to the ongoing Honduran coup, the organization has criticized the censorship and loss of press freedoms, and cited “complaints from news media and journalists that they are still restricted, intimidated and attacked while they attempt to report.” The organization has not, however, blamed the de facto Micheletti government for perpetrating these acts, and when it has pointed the finger, it was at “a mob” and a “People’s Commando.”

Despite their discourse in the name of “free press,” members of the organization have a long history of supporting Latin American dictatorships and U.S. interventions.

Interestingly, the IAPA secretary is Elizabeth Ballantine, the director of the McClatchy Company since March 1998. McClatchy is the third-largest newspaper company in the United States, owning 30 papers in 29 markets, including the Miami Herald and El Nuevo Herald in Florida. The Washington Post is also represented. Diana Daniels was Vice President of the Washington Post Company from 1988-2006, during which time she also served a few years as IAPA President. Deputy Managing Editor of the paper, Milton Coleman, is currently serving as IAPA Treasurer.

Along with many U.S. papers, the Post has painted Zelaya as a Hugo Chávez-backed caudillo, attempting to overtake the powers of the Honduran government. The Post quickly echoed the talking points of the coup plotters that Zelaya was ripped from office because he was attempting an unconstitutional referendum to extend his term in office. In fact, the Honduran President was actually planning a non-binding referendum that according to the Spanish news agency, EFE , asked the Honduran people if “during the general elections of November 2009 there should be a fourth ballot to decide whether to hold a Constituent National Assembly that will approve a new political constitution?"

According to a legal memorandum prepared by Micheletti supporters on June 29 and available on the website of the conservative Virginia-based think tank, Americans for Limited Government, the Honduran Supreme Court had found the referendum “illegal”, because the Honduran Constitution explicitly states that certain Constitutional articles cannot be reformed; such as those that “refer to the type of government, the national territory, the presidential term and the prohibition of serving again as President of the Republic.” The Supreme Court thus inferred that since a Constituent Assembly may have attempted to reform these articles, it was unconstitutional. Therefore, they said, a referendum on the possibility of holding a Constituent Assembly was also unconstitutional.

This, of course, did not have to be the case. A reform of the Constitution could have taken place without affecting those articles. The United States knows it. According to an AP report on July 28, one of the four diplomatic visas revoked this week belonged to the “Supreme Court magistrate who ordered the arrest of ousted President Manuel Zelaya and the president of Honduras' Congress.”

The position of de facto Micheletti regime is even more ironic when we remember that in October 1985, Micheletti himself had been one of a dozen Honduran congressional representatives to back a piece of legislation calling for a Constituent Assembly in order to extend the term of then-Honduran President, Roberto Suazo Córdoba. According to a July 9 article in the Salvadoran El Faro, the representatives were looking to suspend certain articles of the Honduran Constitution. “The same [articles] that now serve the Honduran authorities to justify Zelaya’s dismissal.”

Meanwhile, Nike, Adidas, Gap and Knights Apparel, who all manufacture clothing in Honduran factories, wrote to Clinton to call for the "restoration of democracy in Honduras." Honduran military has now thrown its support behind a possible negotiated solution in which Zelaya would return, albeit with limited powers. And Micheletti has hinted that he may be willing to back the San Jose accords, which would allow for Zelaya’s return.

These pronouncements could help produce a settlement. But the roots of the problem remain. As COFADEH director, Bertha Oliva, told a delegation of U.S. activists to Honduras the week after the coup, "This is a coup not only to Honduras, but to all of Latin America." It was a coup against Latin America’s leftward shift; against the possibility of a Constituent Assembly that might redistribute the scant resources in this tiny country of eight million people, where more than half the population is under the poverty line.


For extended versions of this article visit:

The Honduran Coup as Overture from Counterpunch
and Honduras and Washington: Semantics and Contradictions from Upside Down World

quarta-feira, 8 de julho de 2009

Fighting for Cyber and Software Freedom

From Toward Freedom

Wednesday, 08 July 2009

With his pleasant smile, his thick beard and curly shoulder-length hair that he twirls while he talks, Richard Stallman looks more fit to be following the Grateful Dead, than attending Latin America's largest technology and information event. But Stallman is not just attending, he is the guest of honor: The Jerry Garcia of Free Software.

"What format will the audio be in? See if they can carry it in Ogg," he responds quickly when I ask him for a radio interview during the 10th International Forum on Free Software (FISL) in Porto Alegre, Brazil. Ogg Vorbis is the free software audio equivalent of mp3. "That’s the only format you should use if you really want to stand up for freedom," he says.

Stallman takes his activism home, and for good reason. He is the founder of the Free Software movement, and he is up against some big odds, especially now with the Internet under attack.

The 10th International Forum on Free Software

The exhibition hall is packed with booths. The companies are probably unfamiliar to many: Red Hat, Oracle, Insigne, Boo-Box, Khomp, but for the nearly seven thousand participants at this event, these are some of the foremost in the industry. Dozens of software user groups are on one end of the hall; squeezed into tiny round tables and hunched over their laptops. The first free software robot building competition is a few aisles away.

"The truth is that I have found this event to be incredible. It is a huge event. It surprises me to see so many people involved in free software," says José Masson in thick Argentine Spanish. Masson is a member of Gcoop, a seven-person free software cooperative based in Buenos Aires. He’s representing his cooperative at the FISL.

Open Source or Free Software is computer software that is open to be freely used modified, shared, and distributed. It is seen as an alternative to copyrighted software, which must be bought, cannot be copied and may contain features to spy on users, and restrict what can be done without the user’s knowledge.

Hundreds of activities, talks, forums, and meetings took place during the four-day International Free Software Forum in late June. But this year, there was a sense of urgency.

"This is important today, because the Internet, our civil rights, have never been under such an attack as today," said Marcelo Blanco, the founder and organizer of the international conference. "Right now they are looking to regulate the Internet. So regulating the Internet will either lead to the loss of user privacy in order to defend the interests of the copyright industry, or the fight against ‘terrorism’... Or, we are going to guarantee civil rights that prohibit that we get spied on."

Several countries, including New Zealand and France, have already attempted to establish laws that would restrict the ability of Internet users to share content over the web. The United States, the European Union and more than a dozen countries are two years into closed-door negotiations over the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement, or ACTA. While the content of the agreement is still unknown, Free Software activists fear it could lead to Internet filtering and cyber-searches though what is known as Digital Rights Management (DRM), or as activists call it, "Digital Restrictions Management". Internet service providers would be required to comply by the new laws. Users suspected of sharing copyrighted material could be disconnected from the Internet.

On the second day of the forum, I asked Stallman if they were trying to take us in the direction of a pay per use Internet.

"Not only pay per use Internet, but a pay per use world. They want a pay per read world. They want a pay per listen world, and this is what Digital Restrictions Management is designed to achieve," he said. "I call this the war on sharing. Because it’s waged by governments that are working for the companies that want to keep us divided and helpless."

In response, the theme of this year’s forum is "Freedom." Organizers went out of their way to bring Swedish hacker, Peter Sunde to the event. In April, Sunde and three co-defendants were found guilty for "making copyright content available" through their website Pirate Bay. They were sentenced to a year in prison and $3.5 million in fines.

Critics often write off free software advocates as "pirates" or "criminals", but supporters say they are fighting for freedom.

"Free software gives us individual freedom, social solidarity and democracy, where as a proprietary program is a dictatorship," says Stallman. "The developer has total control and the program functions as an instrument to impose his power on whoever makes the mistake of using it."

From the 1950s through the 1970s— when Stallman got his start at MIT’s Artificial Intelligence Laboratory—it was common for computer users to share software and code. But when copyright law was extended to computer programs in 1980, everything changed.

"When that community died, I really missed it. I could see my past, living in a free world and the future I saw in front of me with proprietary software, and I realized that I might get to be one of the masters, but that wouldn’t make it acceptable," says Stallman. "So the only thing I could do was fight to restore the lost freedom."

Three years later, he coined the term "free software" and founded the movement that over the last two and a half decades has grown across the planet.

Free software is now showing optimistic resilience in these hard economic times. In late May, The Economist published the article, "Born Free", about the growing opportunities in the free software industry. It pointed to Red Hat, the world’s largest independent free software firm, which grew by nearly 20% in the first quarter of this year alone.

"Free software is the issue of the moment," said Jarbas Lopes Cardoso Junior in the Brazilian government’s Science and Technology booth at the FISL. Cardoso is Cooperation Projects Coordinator of the Brazilian government’s Public Software program. "With the unemployment, with the lack of resources, there are many opportunities, and the Brazilian government has an important contribution to make."

The FISL’s location in Southern Brazil isn’t coincidental. The free software forum began in 2000, the year before the World Social Forum began in Porto Alegre. Under the Worker’s Party government of Luis Inácio "Lula" da Silva, Brazil has embraced free software, installing it in computers across the country.

Free Software has also been growing across the region. Cuba renewed interest after Microsoft blocked the use of Messenger on the island in May. Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa recently created an office to move his government to free software.

In the United States, support for free software isn’t as strong as in many Latin American countries, and issues of software and Internet freedom are rarely discussed in the media. Stallman agrees that these may seem like obscure technical subjects until you see their consequences.

"There is a big push to turn our computers into our chains," says Stallman. "Because after all, you know a computer does what people program it to do, but who tells your computer what to do for you. Is it you? Or is it Microsoft, or Apple, or Adobe, or some other nasty company?"

"I don’t know where we are headed, because I can’t see the future, because it depends on you," Stallman continues. "What I see is that if we’re going to keep our freedom, it’s through a fight."

With a smile, Stallman tosses out his customary goodbye before quickly turning back to his tiny silver laptop, and attacking a seemingly endless stream of emails.

"Happy hacking," he says.


Click here to watch a video report on this year's FISL. Voting in support of the video report (on the upper right hand side of the screen) will increase its chances of being shown on the Current TV broadcast.

Click here for the radio report on this year's FISL.

For more information on Richard Stallman, Free Software and current campaigns for software and Internet freedom, visit his blog, and The Free Software Foundation

Michael Fox is a South America-based freelance journalist, radio reporter and documentary filmmaker. He is co-director of the recently released documentary, Beyond Elections: Redefining Democracy in the Americas.

Budgets by the People

From In These Times

Wednesday, 8 July 2009

On a chilly evening in late May, hundreds of Porto Alegre, Brazil, residents packed into the Cecores gymnasium of the working-class neighborhood of Restinga for their yearly regional Participatory Budgeting (PB) assembly. Mayor José Fogaça and his PB team sat before them at long tables. This year marked the 20th anniversary of the process in this southern city. The lively crowd cheered and waved banners. Residents spoke in support of their needs, or denounced the government for not fulfilling promises it had made. “Housing” was on the lips of many. 

“I struggled. I’m proof of this,” said Fabiana dos Santos Nacimento, a mother of six, who won her own home through the PB process a decade ago. “I waited six or seven years to acquire my home. And now my daughters are here and I’m struggling to help them acquire a home next door.”

More than 750 residents voted housing as this year’s third most important priority, behind social assistance and roads. During the last decade and a half, thousands of working families with the National Movement for the Struggle of Housing (MNLM for Movimento Nacional de Luta pela Moradia) have won homes through participatory budgeting in this region alone. 

The assembly was just one of 23 that occur in Porto Alegre every fall. At the assemblies, neighborhood residents participate in the allocation of city funds by prioritizing needs, proposing future government projects and electing neighborhood delegates and councilpersons to carry out their decisions throughout the year. 

The Brazilian Workers’ Party first implemented participatory budgeting in the city two decades ago, under a wave of democracy that engulfed the country following the fall of Brazil’s brutal two-decade-long dictatorship in 1985. Since it started in 1989, city residents have organized thousands of public works, cultural, health and economic projects. The process has been replicated across the globe, and the World Bank now promotes participatory budgeting for “developing” nations. 

Although the Workers’ Party lost control of the city government in 2004, Mayor Fogaça (who was re-elected last year under the centrist Brazilian Democratic Movement Party) promised to maintain the process.

On its 20th anniversary, this year’s assemblies had surprisingly high participation thanks to the federal “Minha Casa, Minha Vida” (My House, My Life) program, which promises to finance a million homes across Brazil by 2010. City officials told Porto Alegre residents that if they were interested in enrolling in the program, they should participate in the PB process. Residents came out in record numbers. “It has become part of the city. It is not a political process,” says Ernani Mário da Pereira, the city’s Participatory Budgeting Transportation theme coordinator. “The process is not part of the government—it is part of our residents.”

But with cronyism, a drop in funds and almost everything behind schedule, long-time participants worry the process could be headed toward extinction in Porto Alegre. 

“The projects that we prioritize aren’t carried out,” said Roberto Oliveira, president of the Vila São Judas Neighborhood Association, in the region of Partenon. He strongly denounced the system’s shortcomings during a regional assembly in May. “In the last three years in Partenon, not one road was paved through participatory budgeting … Health, which was one of our priorities, didn’t get one cent.” 

Like many city residents, Oliveira blames Mayor Fogaça for the process’ “half-dead, semi-vegetative state.” Porto Alegre residents are clear that any mayor who attempts to rid the city of Participatory Budgeting would quickly find himself without a job.

“So it’s easier not to eliminate [participatory budgeting], but in reality it doesn’t work. It’s propaganda,” Oliveira says. 

Oliveira’s comments are echoed by the non-governmental organization Cidade, which has been following Porto Alegre’s participatory process from the beginning. Its statistics show that only one percent of the city budget is now debated in participatory budgeting, a tremendous drop from its heyday when all budgeting decisions were discussed and as much as 10 percent was decided directly by residents.

Nevertheless, participatory initiatives across the planet continue to look to Porto Alegre. In 2007, Cidade held an international conference on the future of participatory democracy. Some are now calling for a profound analysis of the system.

“After 20 years, we have passed from the inauguration phase, through the boom phase, the golden years, and now we are facing many difficulties,” says Cidade Director Sergio Baierle, who has been with the organization for nearly two decades. “I think that if you don’t discuss these difficulties, the other experiences that are trying to replicate the experience of Brazil will face similar problems.”

Despite the challenges, delegates and councilpersons continue to hold their weekly meetings, and Porto Alegre residents continue to participate, forcing the city government to follow through with their decisions.

“The process is not in good shape right now,” says Ubiratan Souza, the former coordinator of Rio Grande do Sul’s statewide participatory budgeting system, “It is much more a process of resistance, with the participation of the community.”


Click here for the radio report on this year's Participatory Budgeting.

segunda-feira, 29 de junho de 2009

Honduras: Old Coup Strategy, Different Stage

From Upside Down World & Venezuelanalysis

Monday, 29 June 2009

The Presidential residence is surrounded; the president is kidnapped and flown out of the country. The opposition says the president has resigned and a conservative pro-business leader is appointed de-facto president, immediately shutting down the state television and cracking down on the dissidence. Unconfirmed reports say arrest warrants have been issued for all mayors in support of the defunct government. Thousands take to the streets, but the mainstream television stations report nothing.

No, this is not Venezuela in 2002. Nor is it Haiti, 2004. It’s Honduras, 2009, but roughly the same story is once again being told, on a different stage with different actors. But that difference could mean everything.

Even as of halfway through last week, both the Civic Council of Indigenous and Grassroots Organizations of Honduras (COPINH) and Honduran President Jose Manuel Zelaya Rosales had already denounced the impending coup.

For months, Zelaya had been planning a non-binding consultative referendum to take place this Sunday that would have asked the Honduran people if the issue of a 2010 constitutional assembly should be added to the ballot of this November’s upcoming elections.

Then, last week, a politically motivated Honduran Supreme Court ruled the referendum "illegal." General Romeo Vásquez Velásquez, head of the Armed Forces, refused to distribute the ballot boxes. Last Thursday, June 25th, Zelaya removed the general from his post, and accompanied by members of the country’s grassroots social movements, Zelaya went personally to recover the 15,000 ballot boxes.

But Defense Minister Ángel Edmundo Orellana resigned in solidarity with Vásquez Velásquez and soldiers took to the streets. An emergency session of the Organization of American States (OAS) was called to evaluate the deteriorating situation.

Despite opposition in the National Congress, the Supreme Court, the majority of the major parties, the chamber of commerce, and the Catholic Church, Zelaya was steadfast. Supported by the grassroots movements, the non-binding referendum would go on.

Just a day later, the world has changed.

President Zelaya is now in Nicaragua, after having been "kidnapped", and thrown on a plane to Costa Rica in the early hours of Sunday morning. The head of the National Congress, Roberto Micheletti was sworn in as de facto President of Honduras on Sunday afternoon, declaring, "I did not reach this position because of a coup. I am here because of an absolutely legal transition process."

Like Pedro Carmona—the head of the Venezuelan chamber of commerce, Fedecameras, who took power when Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez was briefly ousted on April 11, 2002—Micheletti received a round of applause as he was sworn in. Like Carmona, outside, the people protested.

But unlike Carmona, the rest of the planet doesn’t buy it. That is the difference. Not one country has recognized the de facto Micheletti government. On Sunday, the U.S. ambassador to Honduras declared, "The only president the United States recognizes is President Manuel Zelaya."

U.S. Secretary of State, Hilary Clinton declared, "The action taken against Honduran President Mel Zelaya violates the precepts of the Inter-American Democratic Charter, and thus should be condemned by all."

The OAS, which held an emergency meeting on Sunday afternoon, issued a resolution condemning the coup and calling for the immediate reinstatement of Zelaya as president. The president of the United Nations General Assembly, Miguel d'Escoto Brockmann, called the Honduran military intervention a "criminal action".

Although the Micheletti government has not been recognized, that hasn’t stopped the international media from acting as though it has. CNN online is airing an interview with the conservative former Venezuelan Ambassador Diego Arria, who blames not the military, but Zelaya for "attempting a coup against the [Honduran] constitution".

The BBC asked their English-speaking readers in Honduras if they thought the Honduran Constitution should be changed. By reading many of the comments, it would also appear as though Zelaya was the criminal: "The events that ocurred today ARE NOT an attack to the Honduran democracy. There is no coup in Honduras. Finally we have peace in our country."

Many in opposition to Sunday’s non-binding referendum feared Zelaya was attempting to alter the constitution in order to eliminate term limits and be re-elected beyond the end of his term early next year. Brazil’s largest media chain, Rede Globo, echoed the fears in an article on Sunday evening.

Nevertheless, Sunday’s non-binding referendum was simply meant to test the waters for the possibility for a referendum for a Venezuela-style Constitutional Assembly. Since the 1999 Constitution, Ecuador and Bolivia have followed, holding Constitutional Assemblies in each of their countries and passing democratically written constitutions with large participation. Zelaya’s re-election was not on Sunday’s ballot.

"Today's proposed referendum was non-binding and merely consultative. Thus no one could argue that allowing it to go forward could cause irreparable harm," said Mark Weisbrot, co-director of the Washington-based Center for Economic and Policy Research on Sunday. "There was no excuse for the Honduran military to intervene, regardless of the constitutional issues at stake."

Meanwhile, in Honduras, thousands have been in the streets protesting.

COPINH wrote in a communiqué, "We tell everyone that the Honduran people are carrying out large demonstrations, actions in their communities, in the municipalities; there are occupations of bridges, and a protest in front of the presidential residence, among others. From the lands of Lempira, Morazán and Visitación Padilla, we call on the Honduran people in general to demonstrate in defense of their rights and of real and direct democracy for the people, to the fascists we say that they will NOT silence us, that this cowardly act will turn back on them, with great force."

Mexico-based reporter, Kristin Bricker, has been reporting for Narco News that according to Radio Es Lo De Menos, the military has set up roadblocks all over the country in an attempt to prevent Zelaya supporters from reaching the capital. The soldiers are also reportedly attempting to shut down public transportation.

Honduran labor leader Ángel Alvarado told TeleSUR that he has called a national strike for Monday in Honduras to protest of the coup. According to Daniel Ortega, President of Nicaragua, the Honduran military has closed the border between the two countries.

Only time will tell what course the next few days will bring, but the around the clock coverage by Telesur, and the immediate international solidarity echoed around the globe may have changed the face of military coup d’etats in Latin America.

Only a few short decades ago, military dictatorships ruled much of the region, and in Central America, those that weren’t, were steeped in brutal civil wars. In less than 24 hours after the Honduran coup, President Zelaya was joined by the countries of the progressive trading block, the Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas, (ALBA) in Nicaragua for an emergency presidential summit. The Presidents of Ecuador, Rafael Correa; Venezuela, Hugo Chávez; Bolivia, Evo Morales; Nicaragua, Daniel Ortega and others joined together with Zelaya and demanded the Honduran president be returned to power.

This is the new face of Latin America, and only with this international solidarity, and overwhelming repudiation against the blatant disregard for the rule of law, will these actions be isolated, overturned and hopefully never again repeated.

That is the difference. It is the same story as before. Told with similar actors—some of whom even studied at the School of the Americas in Ft. Benning, Georgia — only this time we live in a different age; under a shifting geo-political backdrop. On the presidential level, the coup has been denounced across the planet, and governments are standing behind Zelaya. On the local level, Honduras’ Radio Es Lo De Menos has called on international activists to march on Honduran embassies across the globe. There is a necessary active roll for all to play. The difference could mean everything.

Like in Venezuela, where the people remember the way they flooded into the streets to demand the return of their President Hugo Chavez just two days after he had been taken from office, "Every April 11th has its April 13th".

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sexta-feira, 17 de abril de 2009

ALBA Summit Ratifies Regional Currency, Prepares for Trinidad


Friday, April 17, 2009

Cumaná, April 17th 2009 ( -- Latin America's most progressive governments met in Cumaná, Venezuela on Thursday for the seventh summit of the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas, ALBA. There they prepared their positions for this weekend's Summit of the Americas in Trinidad, and signed the decree for a new South American currency, the Sucre.

In attendance were the presidents of the ALBA nations; Venezuela's Hugo Chávez, Cuba's Raul Castro, Bolivia's Evo Morales; Honduras's Manuel Zelaya; Nicaragua's Daniel Ortega; and the Prime Minister of Dominica, Roosevelt Skerrit.

Paraguayan President Fernando Lugo, the Prime Minister of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Ralph Gonsalves, and the Ecuadoran Foreign Minister Fander Falconí were also present.

"We shouldn't expect anything, except from ourselves, from our own hands and our own will and our own courage," said Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez in his opening remarks, setting the theme for the four hour-long meeting. "That's where we'll find the solution to our problems. Magic solutions aren't going to come from the North, and much less through the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank."

In the major issue of the day, the Latin American leaders signed into effect a new South American currency, to be called the Sucre.

"I sincerely believe that this initiative is writing a new page in history," said Chávez as the eleven leaders took turns signing the official order. "Here in ALBA, we came to take action to confront the economic and social crisis."

The progressive ALBA leaders say the Sucre is necessary to help defray the regional effects of the world economic crisis by substituting their trade in dollars with this new alternative currency. The ALBA countries and their allies plan to begin using the virtual Sucre by early next year, with future plans to convert it into a hard currency.

The regional currency is named after one of South America's founding fathers, Antonio José de Sucre, who was born in the Venezuelan town of Cumaná where the summit was held. Sucre fought alongside South American Liberator, Simon Bolivar.

During the meeting Chávez said that the SUCRE, which stands for the Unified System of Regional Compensation (Sistema Único de Compensación Regional), "will be much more than a currency." According to Chavez, the Sucre system will have four branches: The Regional Monetary Council, The Sucre currency itself, the Central Clearing House, and a regional reserve and emergency fund.

"This will help us to overthrow the dictatorship of the dollar, imposed on us from over there, from Bretton Woods," said Chávez.

The economic crisis, this weekend's Summit of the Americas, and the role of the United States in Latin America were also discussed during the meeting.

Cuban President Raul Castro lashed out at recent comments by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton who said the US would consider lifting the Cuban embargo if Cuba released dissidents from prison and embraced democracy.

"We have told the North American government in private and in public that when they want, we are prepared to discuss everything, human rights, freedom of press... everything, everything, everything they want to discuss, but they keep their conditions without even attempting to respect Cuban sovereignty, while violating the Cuban people's right of self-determination," said Castro.

All in attendance supported Cuba's stance.

Paraguay's new President Fernando Lugo asked if "someone at the UN or the Organization of American States (OAS) gave the United States the power to elect itself as the judge of the democratic people of Latin America."

"We are in a new moment in Latin America. And we are the true authors of our own destiny, and there is no nation in the world that can judge us, over who is more democratic or not. We each have our own unique process of democratization," Lugo said.

"The United States doesn't have any authority to speak about democracy, because from over there they install coup d'etats, like these civil coups now in Bolivia," agreed Bolivian President Evo Morales who was unexpectedly in attendance, having only just finished a multiple-day hunger strike.

He proposed that the ALBA nations present a resolution at the Trinidad Summit to ask the United States to end its embargo on Cuba and to cease intervening in Latin American affairs.

"Cuba has the support of everyone in the world, except the United States and Israel. So if Obama wants the whole world's support, he's going to have to lift the embargo on Cuba," said Morales.

The Bolivian president said that Cuba should be re-admitted in to the OAS, because the reason for Cuba's expulsion from the organization in 1962 is that it was "Marxist, Leninist, and Communist."

Now with numerous Latin American countries openly in support of Socialism, Morales joked that either Cuba should be readmitted, or they should all be kicked out.

Morales also condemned the Human Rights Councils of the UN and the Organization of American States, which he said only criticize the region's progressive governments. He called for the creation of an ALBA commission on human rights, to carry out its own investigations in to human rights violations and destabilization attempts against their countries.

After signing the Sucre legislation, the heads of state rushed to a public event in Cumaná's Ayacucho plaza where they were greeted by thousands of cheering Venezuelans.

"For us, the Sucrenses, it is a huge honor to have welcomed them to our land, Cumaná!" cried Milagro Marcano after the event. "And we are very proud that the ALBA currency, the currency of South America, will be called the Sucre... It is important that the empire knows that our strength is in our union, and the people are in the street, and we have awoken and we are going to continue to fight for our free and sovereign country."

In the crowd a hundred feet away was a colorful and vocal group of two-dozen Bolivian students studying in Venezuela as part of the ALBA agreements between the two nations.

"The main goal of ALBA is to overcome this crisis and support each other from one country to the next so this crisis doesn't hit us so hard in Latin America," said Lisbel Paniagua, who is studying study Computer Science. "This means to fulfill the dream of Bolivar and Sucre, that we are one united America."

Beside Paniagua was Victor Valdiviez who said that ALBA has been very beneficial. "For example in my case, I am from a province there in Bolivia, in which the doors were locked for me. I was really afraid of the camera, but today I can express myself thanks to the ALBA agreement, I am studying," said Valdiviez.

The Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas, or ALBA was founded five years ago between Cuba and Venezuela as an alternative to the US-backed Free Trade Area of the Americas. Since its founding, the ALBA nations have implemented numerous social program and cooperation agreements. Among those is the recently founded ALBA bank that Chavez announced on Thursday will be taking over the funding of a number of Nicaraguan projects that were dropped by Millennium funding from the United States and Europe.

"We don't need the gringo money with these undignified conditions to continue exploiting the people. You can take your millions. We have the means to resolve our problems. We have the how, and we know how," said Chavez at the summit.

The ALBA heads of state traveled to Trinidad and Tobago today, but left behind government representatives in Cumaná to work on the details. Both Cuba and the international crisis are expected to be hot topics at the Trinidad & Tobago Summit. But with a heavy US agenda, the ALBA nations don't have high hopes, and President Chavez has already threatened to abstain from signing the final Summit of the Americas document.

To hear a radio report by Michael Fox on the ALBA summit visit Free Speech Radio News at