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In the Shadow of Paraguay’s Coup

By: Benjamin Dangel/ 7, 2012

Rain or shine, every Thursday in Asunción, Paraguay, activists gather to protest the right-wing government of Federico Franco which came to power in a June 22 parliamentary coup against left-leaning president Fernando Lugo. These weekly protests represent a new spirit and strategy of protest in post-coup Paraguay.

The coup gave birth to new corporate agreements, repression of citizens’ rights and crackdowns on press freedoms. It also unwittingly created a new panorama of leftist social struggles and movements.

These movements for democracy have risen up against the coup government and the renewed state and corporate assaults on human rights, the environment and small farmers. Some activists are protesting politically-motivated layoffs, while others are demanding a new constitution. Beyond questioning the Franco government, these movements are putting forth a progressive agenda in the debate about what kind of country Paraguayans want, regardless of who is in power.

Collective Resistance

“What we are seeing are self-organized protests that are organized collectively,” Gabriela Schvartzman Muñoz, the spokeswoman for Movimiento Kuña Pyrenda, a socialist and feminist political movement which organizes the Thursday protests in the capital, explained in a phone interview from Asunción.

This more collectively-organized form of mobilization is a relatively new phenomenon in Paraguayan social movements, and has marked the new protests for democracy in the country.

“Before it was the president of the union that organized people for a strike, or a campesino [small farmer] leader marching ahead of a mobilization. Now we don’t see this kind of traditional leadership,” Muñoz explained. “Behind these citizens’ marches, there is no political leader, there is no leader of an organization; these are more spontaneous mobilizations.” Such protests involve “the participation of people who were invisible before, and are now protagonists.”

The resistance to the coup is dispersed around the country and typically involves small urban protests (largely in Asunción) that have utilized colorful marches, art, theater, music, and poetry as expressions of resistance. Notably, youth have led much of the organizing in this movement, and social networking tools such as Facebook and Twitter have played a key role in bringing people together against the coup government.

“This [urban movement] represents a fresh breeze within the weak and demobilized social sector,” Paraguayan human rights lawyer Orlando Castillo explained to me in an interview. “Paraguay is now in a very interesting period, where a new range of possibilities could strengthen social processes.”

Outside the nation’s landlocked borders, the waves of Paraguayan migrants whose numbers have skyrocketed in the last eight years are also mobilizing against Franco’s coup. Castillo said, “These people have organized to make the resistance global. Outside of the country, this is the international face against the coup.”

A Fight for Sovereignty

Nationally, the Franco government has not improved the outlook for much of the impoverished country’s working class. “The social situation has basically remained the same [since the coup]: poverty and extreme poverty affect nearly 57% of the population,” Raúl Zacarías Fernández, a sociologist and Director of the Department of Social Sciences at the Universidad Católica de Paraguay said in Revista Debate. According to the sociologist, those in the landless movement fighting for their own land “are reorganizing and preparing for occupations.”

Meanwhile, Franco has not met with a single social, urban or campesino organization since taking office. Instead, according to his official agenda, he has focused on meetings with business leaders. In the short time that he has been in office, Franco has fast-tracked controversial deals with Monsanto and the Montreal-based Rio Tinto Alcan (RTA) mining company, deals which critics charge will threaten human and environmental rights, and the economic sovereignty of the nation. These moves have motivated numerous protests and debates around the country.

Speaking of the deal with RTA and Monsanto, Paraguayan economist Luis Rojas told IPS News that “It’s worrisome that a government that was not elected by popular vote is bringing in these foreign investments without any kind of control.” In the case of deals with both companies, Franco is moving ahead without studies that are typically required for such agreements.

On July 30th, the “No to Rio Tinto Alcan’s Coup” campaign was launched by ex-president Lugo, and Ricardo Canese, an engineer and leader of the Guasu Front social organization. They are seeking to prevent the company from arriving in the country, and are working on gathering 100,000 signatures against the RTA deal, which they said paved the way for the coup.
In response to the deal the Franco government recently struck with Monsanto supporting genetically-altered cotton seeds, campesino leader Jorge Galeano told the AP that the use of this seed “goes against the economy of small farmers” and will utilize agro-chemicals that only benefit large-scale production. “This is a commercial condition that violates the concept of our fight for Paraguay’s agricultural sovereignty,” Galeano said.

A number of protests and strikes have also been organized by workers and unions to denounce the Franco government’s politically-motivated firing of state employees in a wide range of agencies, ministries, hydroelectric plants and public media outlets. The workers say they are being dismissed for their support for Lugo, or their leftist political beliefs. The fact that this purging of public employees is being committed by an administration that was not democratically-elected has further incensed workers and their supporters.

Out of the Dictator’s Shadow

Much of these recent political and social changes can be traced to the shadow of the Alfredo Stroessner dictatorship (1954-1989), which still hangs over the nation. After the fall of the dictatorship in 1989, many of the same politicians from the regime simply re-entered politics with new roles, Castillo said. “While the dictatorship left, the system of power remained intact.” And this power structure – feudal, repressive, elitist and conservative – continues to define Paraguayan politics today.

“What the coup has succeeded in doing is basically re-positioning the political actors, unmasking them, allowing rural and urban citizens to be able to distinguish between those who propose to change the status quo and those who want to maintain it,” Castillo explained.

Such renewed political awareness has manifested itself in various ways. According to Muñoz, the coup proved that the 1992 constitution was worthless, as it was manipulated by politicians who used it to conduct an illegitimate parliamentary coup. “And so the people say ‘No!’ We have to begin to plant another model of democracy, another model of society, and people are already talking about organizing a national constitutional assembly where we can discuss these issues.”

She said the country’s current crisis would not be solved with the presidential elections scheduled for April of 2013. The solution, according to Muñoz, would emerge when citizens can sit down to discuss their future in a constitutional assembly. “There is an urgent need now,” she said, “to develop stronger mechanisms which guarantee that the rights of the citizens are not violated… We are moving toward this, we’re discussing a new paradigm.”

Benjamin Dangel is editor of, a progressive perspective on world events, and, a website on activism and politics in Latin America.
Email: BenDangl(at)gmail(dot)com.

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Assault on Colombian Trade Unions Continues Unabated


By Carey L. Biron/Inter Press Services/July 24, 2012

Two months after a free-trade agreement between the United States and Colombia went into effect, workers and activists are warning that US-stipulated labour reforms have not been fully implemented and have yet to result in promised improvements in the lives of workers.

“We ask President (Barack) Obama to push for more guarantees for Colombian workers,” Miguel Conde, with Sintrainagro, a union representing workers on palm-oil plantations, said here on Tuesday. “In Colombia, it is easier to form an armed group than a trade union… because we still have no guarantees from the government.”

Colombia today is the most dangerous place in the world to be a member of a trade union.

Further, those gathered Tuesday at the Washington headquarters of the AFL-CIO, the largest federation of trade unions in the US, warned that much of a year-old labour agreement, meant to pave the way for the free-trade agreement (FTA), was in certain respects making things even more difficult for labour organisers in Colombia.

The FTA, although stridently opposed by a spectrum of workers and rights activists, was originally signed in late 2006 but was only passed by the US Congress in October 2011. One of Washington’s prerequisites for the deal was the implementation of a 37-point Labour Action Plan (LAP), aimed at improving decades’ worth of labour rights abuses in Colombia.

According to a new report by the AFL-CIO, of those 37 points, at least nine have yet to be adopted, while the implementation of several others “can be regarded as partial or insufficient”.

The FTA came into full effect in mid-May, though only after President Barack Obama claimed, in April, that the Colombian government had already met its LAP-related commitments – just a year into what was expected to be a four-year plan.

“What happened since then is a surge in reprisals against almost all of the trade unions and labour activists that really believed in the Labour Action Plan,” Gimena Sánchez-Garzoli, a rights advocate at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), a watchdog group, said at the report’s launch.

This included the April 27 killing of Daniel Aguirre, a labour leader who had helped to organise Colombia’s sugarcane workers. According to Sánchez-Garzoli, 34 Colombian trade unionists have been killed since the LAP was implemented, including 11 this year alone.

Further, such figures do not capture an ongoing campaign of intimidation. According to José Luciano Sanín Vásquez, executive director of the National Trade Union School, in Medellin, Colombia, since the LAP began more than 2,900 acts of violence and 1,500 assaults have taken place, aimed at workers and labour activists.

The Colombian government dismisses such numbers as simply part of a half-century of paramilitary violence that has dogged the country.

This is in part correct, says Vásquez, but it misses the crux of the matter: as paramilitary violence has wound down in Colombia in recent years, former rebel groups have been hired by companies to provide thuggish repression of trade unions.

Tolerated, condoned, promoted 

While many have been critical of certain parts of the LAP – including that it does not cover public-sector workers – those gathered here on Tuesday were quick to note the agreement’s promise if it were fully implemented.

“We think the LAP is a very positive step forward and, if properly applied, would radically change a situation that’s been systematically problematic for the past 20 years in Colombia,” WOLA’s Sánchez-Garzoli says.

But the recent spike in anti-labour violence has forced a slowdown in progress on the LAP, Jhonsson Torres, a founding member of the sugarcane union Sinal Corteros and former colleague of Daniel Aguirre, said Tuesday.

More critical is a continuing lack of political will. “Even if the different sectors want to implement the Labour Action Plan, they can’t do it,” Torres said in Spanish. “In places where the government has complied with the LAP, it has only been because they’ve been forced to do so due to strikes and other actions.”

Others point to broader issues. “There is no reason to believe that top officials are not making sincere efforts to make a change,” cautions Celeste Drake, a trade policy expert with AFL-CIO.

“The problem is these changes cannot simply be made by people with good intentions at the top. It’s a culture within the government and throughout Colombia that for years has tolerated, condoned, promoted intolerance to the exercise of worker rights.”

Citing eyewitness reports, Drake says that government ineffectiveness and corruption is leading to hesitancy in reporting labour-rights infringements, for fear that an employer – or a paramilitary group – will be notified.

Workers and activists repeatedly reference the government’s stubbornness or inability to offer judicial or even informational responses to trade unions’ LAP-related queries and requests for justice and security.

At Tuesday’s meeting, when a representative from the Colombian Embassy in Washington noted that officials were taking note of the recent allegations of violence against labour organisers, participants responded that it was unfortunate that workers needed to come all the way to the United States to get an official response.

Rallying point

The Colombian business community, meanwhile, is hesitant to make LAP-instigated pro-labour changes, for multiple reasons.

“Most businessmen still think that (these reforms) won’t progress, that soon we’ll be back where we were a year ago,” says Vásquez, speaking in Spanish. “For that reason, this part of the political message needs to reach the public in all areas of the country.”

Drake, Sánchez-Garzoli and others are urging that financial and technical assistance for building up such a culture of trust come in part from the US government.

“Obama and (Colombian President Juan Manuel) Santos have clearly delivered for the multinational companies and commercial interests,” Sánchez-Garzoli says.

“That’s fine. However, they must also keep their promises to the labour and human rights community. This is a matter of US legislation as well, including specific protections for trade unions.”

While many observers have been frustrated that an opportunity for a broader public debate in Colombia on labour issues has so far been missed, there remains optimism over the unique opportunity to continue organising around the LAP in the years to come.

“The Labour Action Plan, imperfect though it may be, provides hope for the future,” Drake says.

“There are now themes that workers can point to and say, ‘This is now what I’ve been promised by my government. This is what we are going to hold the government up to’.”

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What’s the Word

What’s the word is the space that community members can use to leave thoughts about the things that are taking place in our community. Whether you are from London, or from anywhere else in Canada we want to hear what you have to say.

You can use the space by leaving a comment on the space below or via twitter @SURLA

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Somalia famine a year on: effects of al-Shabaab conflict and hunger persist

By: Clar Ni Chonghaile/The Guardian/July 20, 2012

Hussein Warsame spends most of the day sleeping in his tent. There is little else for the farmer to do in this bleak landscape of thorns and dust on the border between Somalia and Ethiopia, far from his fields of sorghum.

The 45-year-old from Xudur came to Kabasa camp in Dolow nine months ago, fleeing Islamist al-Shabaab insurgents and drought. His tale is a common one in Kabasa where lives are held hostage by conflict, political stagnation and hunger.

Warsame’s testimony captures the complexity of Somalia’s crisis, one year after famine killed tens of thousands of people. Nobody will ever know the exact number, and more lives will be lost. War and hunger still stalk this land where African forces are seeking to drive out al-Shabaab fighters.

“[Al-Shabaab] just come to a person’s house and say he is pro-government, and kill him,” Warsame said, speaking through a translator. He will not go home until he is sure it is safe. The insurgents were pushed out of Xudur this year, but there have been sporadic attacks around the town since. “The most urgent need … is to liberate the country … If the country is liberated we can go back and work,” Warsame said.

Therein lies the crux of Somalia’s crisis – aid agencies, both international and local, can only do so much in a country at war and governed by a discredited administration, where people are still too scared to go home. Just under a third of Somalia’s population is displaced – there are 1 million Somali refugees in the Horn of Africa and around 1.3 million displaced within the country, out of an estimated population of 7.5 million.

The August harvest is expected to be poor in some areas because of late and patchy rains, but no one is predicting another famine yet. This does not mean the crisis is over, said the UN’s humanitarian co-ordinator for Somalia, Mark Bowden.

“We need to actually start to ensure that the … displaced people get back to their homes and their livelihoods, and some more proper and normal life,” he said after visiting Kabasa this week. “If we don’t do that this year, we will be consigning people to long-term displacement and a level of misery that, frankly, I find unacceptable.”

Bowden has provided $3m from a fund he manages to assist people who want to go home. “It’s so easy to slip into … shantytowns, mini-Dadaabs … all over Somalia, and you have real long-term problems of social exclusion, lack of access to education [and] lack of employment,” he said, referring to the world’s largest refugee camp, Dadaab in north-east Kenya, home to 471,000 people.

Somalia is one of the most difficult places for aid agencies to work – al-Shabaab has banned international groups from the areas it controls in the south and centre, the region hardest hit by last year’s famine.

African Union peacekeepers, Ethiopian troops and Somali soldiers are fighting the militants, inching closer to their stronghold in the port city of Kismayo. Each battle sends more people fleeing from their homes. But the military advance does not always grant immediate access to needy populations. Aid agencies are reluctant to follow the soldiers too closely as security is fragile, and travelling with an army is perceived to compromise neutrality in an acutely sensitive situation.

Despite these difficulties, and with the world’s attention turning to other crises, such as hunger in Africa’s Sahel region, aid officials say Somalia must not be forgotten. Around 2.5 million people still need humanitarian assistance, and another 1.2 million could slide back into crisis without sustained assistance. Less than half of the $1.2bn required for Somalia in a revised UN consolidated appeal has been received so far this year.

Bruno Geddo, the UN refugee agency UNHCR’s Somalia representative, said people still arriving in Dolow feared more fighting, a bad harvest, and forced military recruitment and taxation by insurgents. “They tell us … either you give up a camel, or you give up a child, or you have to pay thousands of dollars to the militants,” he said.

The international aid community was criticised for failing to react to early warning signs of famine last year. Bowden acknowledges failings but says the huge international response once famine was declared gave Somalis hope. “It’s so easy to ignore Somalia and just put it in the ‘too difficult to respond to’ category. I think it’s immeasurable how the response to the famine last year really created a sense of hope among lots of Somalis,” he said.

However, aid agencies have to tread a fine line between providing aid and creating dependency – if food is available in one area, people will come and many will stay, at least for a time, exacerbating the displacement problem.

Some projects aim to counterbalance this by creating longer-term resilience. A short drive from Kabasa, there is a green oasis – three farms where the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) has worked with local farmers to grow maize, tomatoes and onions. The FAO and Somali partners provided seeds, tractor hours, irrigation vouchers and technical knowhow. Despite a serious grasshopper infestation this year, the maize is knee-high in places and the onions are thriving.

This is the kind of resilience-building project that many aid officials want to see more of in Somalia. Such projects go on side-by-side with emergency relief but require funding and stability – and the latter is something the humanitarian organisations cannot deliver. Bowden put it diplomatically but bluntly in Nairobi before his Dolow trip: “Political and security issues need to be resolved in as short a time as possible to ensure Somalia’s recovery.”

Somalia’s discredited transitional federal government is due to be replaced by a new parliament and president by 20 August. However, many of the most senior politicians are lobbying to stay in power – despite widespread condemnation of staggering corruption.

As the political horse-trading reaches a climax in Mogadishu and the battle against al-Shabaab goes on, people like Deka Osman, 30, a mother of seven, wait in limbo in Kabasa camp. Fleeing al-Shabaab, Osman sold her house in Diinsoor to buy passage on a truck to Kabasa. “There is no life in Diinsoor,” she says, as Amran, her 10-month-old daughter, suckles at her breast. “If there is food, clothes, school and all we need … I will go back. I love my country if it is safe.”



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Election results challenge to go ahead in Federal Court

By: Laura Payton/CBC News/July 19, 2012

The Federal Court is letting a challenge proceed regarding the 2011 election results in seven ridings across the country.

A group of voters, backed by the Council of Canadians, wants the court to overturn the results because of allegations of misleading phone calls that attempted to send voters to the wrong polling stations.

Overturning the results would mean a byelection in each riding.

Riding challenges

The applicants are challenging the election results in the following ridings:

  • Don Valley East in Ontario, won by Conservative MP Joe Daniel by 870 votes.
  • Nipissing-Timiskaming in Ontario, won by Conservative MP Jay Aspin by 18 votes.
  • Saskatoon-Rosetown-Biggar in Saskatchewan, won by Conservative Kelly Block by 538 votes.
  • Vancouver Island North in B.C., won by Conservative John Duncan by 1,827 votes.
  • Winnipeg South Centre in Manitoba, won by Conservative MP Joyce Bateman by 722 votes.
  • Elmwood-Transcona in Manitoba, won by Conservative MP Lawrence Toet by 300 votes.
  • Yukon won by Conservative MP Ryan Leef by 132 votes.


The seven Conservative MPs who won those seats had asked the court to dismiss the case before it went to a full hearing.

Prothonotary Martha Milczynski heard the case on June 25. In her ruling, she says the applications to dismiss the election results raise serious issues about the integrity of the democratic process.

The applications identify practices that, “if proven, point to a campaign of activities that would seek to deny eligible voters their right to vote,” Milczynski said.

A prothonotary is a full judicial officer who has many of the powers and functions of Federal Court judges. Prothonotaries handle case management, mediation and practice motions.

Conservative Party lawyer Arthur Hamilton had argued the case was frivolous and vexatious. He said the applicants didn’t present any evidence that people didn’t vote as a result of the phone calls, and contended the case has no chance of success.

The decision says elections are not something that can be lightly overturned. “Nor should the ability to contest elections be used for improper purposes, whether a candidate or elector simply disagrees with or does not like the result.”

But it’s too early to conclude that the case shouldn’t be heard, Milczynski wrote, and the full arguments should be heard on their merits.

Milczynski was careful to note that not all challenges should go ahead and that allowing obviously frivolous and vexatious applications to move forward would itself “diminish the electoral process.”

“Accusations and bare assertions will not sustain an application to annul the results of an election,” she wrote.

Hamilton had argued that the applications were filed too late, outside of the 30-day limit for challenges to election results.

Milczynski said it’s too early to know that. “It cannot be concluded at this juncture simply on the basis of inference and argument that the applicants as a group, or any of them, sat on their rights until after the time for bringing the application had expired.”

Milczynski urged the two sides to move to a hearing as quickly as possible.

Barlow pleased with decision

Maude Barlow, the chair of Council of Canadians who was singled out for criticism by the Conservatives as a “virulent critic” of Prime Minister Stephen Harper who had “orchestrated” the litigation, said Thursday night her group was “very pleased with this thoughtful decision.”

“Clearly the court sided with with applicants and denied their case is frivolous,” she said. “This case concerns a serious charge that hits at the heart of our democracy — namely that widespread voter fraud that benefitted one political party may have taken place during the last election.

“It is imperative that this case come to court to be heard on its merits,” she said. “Shame on the Conservative Party for trying to stop it from going to court”

A separate case related to last year’s federal election was heard in Supreme Court earlier this month. Former Liberal MP Borys Wrzesnewskyj is challenging the result in Etobicoke Centre, where Conservative MP Ted Opitz was elected.

Opitz is appealing a ruling by an Ontario Superior Court judge that there isn’t the paperwork to back up the identity of some of the people who cast their ballots.

The Supreme Court justices haven’t ruled yet on the appeal.


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