Beat Goes On But Ecuadorian Economy Reeling

DSCN1351Quito    I had not visited Ecuador for three years. I sat for hours in the sparkling new airport that opened after my last visit or more specifically in the Airport Center across the street from the actual ticket counters, security, gates and airplanes. If modern airports have become shopping malls serviced by airplanes and runways, Quito has essentially built a mall across the walkway from their airport. There’s a patio. There are plenty of chairs and free Wi-Fi. There are many worse places in the wide world to spent hours waiting for a plane.

Walking through the main streets of the city near our hotel not far from the major park and Botanical Garden, everything seemed clean and well-ordered. The coffee shops were active and on the streets people bustled along in well-turned sport coats or high heels and big leather purses. Talking to friends, colleagues, and organizers we had worked with us on campaigns either in the United States or Ecuador or both, a more unsettling picture emerges.

This is not Venezuela where food riots have become almost daily occurrences and political and social unrest is intense, but nonetheless Ecuador at all levels is feeling the pain. One former political activist we knew well from our work on field operations in the last presidential campaign in Ecuador in describing the impact of the falling price of oil, remarked that 60% of the national budget was derived from oil revenues and even as the price moves towards the $50 per barrel that is essentially breakeven in the United States, Ecuador needs the price to hit $60 to $70 because of the extra cost of bringing their crude to the market. An organizer I had worked with at Casa de Maryland, back home now and working at a governmental ministry, told us that this year the budget of her department had been cut from $20 million to $6 million. Needless to say, the impact was devastating and the layoffs severe. She was surprised to still have a job!

Many don’t! An activist we knew, was now living at home. Her brother had lost his job with the state, and her sister in another job had her hours cut in half. An old friend, comrade and former organizer who had worked with us in Florida on our Walmart campaigns a decade ago, told me when he responded to my email and arranged to meet us for breakfast at the hotel that he would do his best to make it because “he was so busy.” When we met, I asked him what kind of jobs he was handling now that were keeping him so busy. “None,” came the surprising answer from my well-connected friend. He was hustling just to keep above water. A job in another country had mysteriously fallen through a week before. When I asked after his father, an elegant and sophisticated gentlemen, whom I admired and knew well and would have thought traveled smoothly in the upper class of the country, I learned he was also now unemployed and in danger of losing his home.

I worried that our members, many of whom depended on the “bono” or basic, cash welfare assistance that President Correa had raised unilaterally in the previous political campaign, might have seen that cutback. The answer from everyone we talked to was, “Not yet,” which was hardly reassuring. Higher oil prices had led to more robust economic projects, expanded public programs and public employment, and increased debt for Ecuador, both externally and internally. Like any bubble of sorts, the country, like Venezuela and smaller states like Louisiana, was caught still standing when the music stopped and everyone raised for a chair.

After the encouraging gains in many Andean countries where recent economic growth in Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia had lifted education, citizen wealth, health, and living standards, one gets the sense that this is unraveling in a case study of what globalization gives, it then takes away. We met with two young doctors. They were originally from Honduras, but had trained for seven years in the vaunted Cuban healthcare system. They wanted to practice in rural areas where the need was greatest, but Honduras had no government program to support their work, so then ended up in Ecuador about 4 hours by bus from Quito. I asked them to rank the healthcare systems they knew and how the economic situation was impacting healthcare. Not surprisingly, they said of the three, Cuba was first, Honduras last, and Ecuador in-between. As for the economy, they were still getting paid, so at least that was something they said, but they could already see shortages starting to show up in medicine supplies.

Being forced to root for the price of a barrel of oil to go up just about says it all about the unsustainable economy we have built in the world.

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Informal Workers’ Unions Voices are Rising in Latin America and Elsewhere

mexicans-protestMexico City   Some recognition of the role of unions emerging among informal workers is easier to be seen in Latin America. It was unsurprising to read that one of the clearest voices expressing concern about the impact of the devaluation of the peso in Argentina by the new government and its impact on inflation and increase of precariousness for workers was from the Confederation of Workers of the Popular Economy, which represents workers in Argentina’s gray economy, like recyclers and street hawkers. La Confederación de Trabajadores de la Economía Popular (CTEP), as it is known in Spanish, describes itself on its website as an independent and professional organization of workers in the popular economy or informal employment sector, and, interestingly, their families as well.

The International Labor Organization more than a dozen years ago estimated that “Informal or precarious employment comprises between one-half and three-quarters of non-agricultural employment in developing countries: specifically 48 percent in northern Africa, 51 percent in Latin America, 65 percent in Asia, and 72 percent in sub-Saharan Africa (78 percent if South Africa is excluded). 60 percent or more of women workers in the developing world are in informal employment, rising to 84 percent in sub-Saharan Africa (non-agricultural).” That’s a lot of workers, and even in the developed world the ILO notes “that three categories of non-standard or atypical work – self-employment, part-time work, and temporary work – comprise 30 percent of overall employment in 15 European countries and 25 percent of total employment in the United States.”

In Mexico, the most notable union including informal workers is the Confederacion Revolucionaria de Obreros y Campesinos, known as CROC which in English would be the Revolutionary Confederation of Workers and Peasants. The union began almost 65 years ago and now claims more than 4 million members and 15,000 collective agreements, though it is unclear how many contracts cover informal workers. The Union of Informal Workers’ Associations in Ghana is a widely recognized federation of informal workers in Africa. The Federacion Departmental de Vendedores Ambulantes de Lima or Federation of Street Vendors of Lima is also well known.

In a 2011 ILO paper another federated model was given attention, highlighting the Manual Labourers’ Association in Pune which united unions of informal workers including street vendors, waste pickers, domestic workers, head-loaders, auto-rickshaw and other temporary and constructions workers. Vinod Shetty, director of ACORN India in Mumbai and I visited with KKPKP, the Trade Union of Waste Pickers of Pune, one of the organizing unions of that federation. KKPKP has 6000 largely women members who have also formed a savings and credit cooperative, scrap shop cooperatives to broker their waste pickers recyclable materials for higher prices, and a solid waste doorstep collection cooperative which operates as a subcontractor for several neighborhoods with the municipal corporation.

Formal trade unions have been hesitant and in many cases resistant to taking on the task of organizing informal workers. The income and dues are difficult and erratic, making few of these efforts stand-alone and self-sufficient. As the economy becomes more precarious for workers, the fewer excuses unions will have for not embracing the challenge of organizing informal workers, whether they like it or not. Luckily emerging organizations in Latin America and elsewhere are increasingly providing models that point the direction for unions in the future.

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Nicaragua for My Father

1560550_10101026878658975_1626274147673135687_nNew Orleans       My father, much missed, used to ask me whenever I returned from a country “new” to both of us not to tell him so much about what I had done, but what I had seen that would surprise or interest him.   In many ways, Nicaragua surprised all of us from the Organizers’ Forum.  We knew we were going to Central America and one of the poorest countries in Latin America, and we had read the Lonely Planet notions of the country well enough to know that Managua was not going to be something that classified as a tourist destination, but none of that was really adequate preparation.

            In fact all of us found ourselves surprised and impressed with the urban infrastructure of Managua.  The buildings may have not been the tall towers of other Latin American capitols in the rebuilding from a revolution, boycott, and earthquake disasters, but it was solid.  The airport was amazingly efficient.  I have never been through customs and baggage pickup more quickly anywhere in the world, including the USA.  The airport was modern without being ostentatious, and clean as a whistle, so I had better add this on the front end of these notes, that I cannot remember a cleaner country from the city to the countryside than Nicaragua.  The bustle of Leon, when we visited there, and some trash on the side streets almost came as a relief, that these were people of our same species!

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            There aren’t that many main thoroughfares in Managua but they were smoothly paved with frequent roundabouts that kept traffic moving briskly even when we were navigating rush hours.  Visiting the barrio of Tipitapa, a lower income, working areas, where we might have expected more rutted and dirt roads, the streets were paved and many were curbed.  Without saying so, many of us were thinking, “if this is a slum, this is better than many of our neighborhoods!”  There were issues, but it was decent.  Our ACORN Honduras organizers marveled continually, as we all did, at the security of the centro and the barrios.  There was one guard at the hotel, but this was not a country where security was everywhere, armed and ready.  Government worked here at that very fundamental, and critical, level.

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            We were there during a multi-day Independence Day celebration.  Revolutionary Square though was relatively empty on the Sunday we went by, especially compared to the amusement and food area along the lake.  Government was ubiquitous, but not as suffocating as we found in Vietnam for example.  Though the President Daniel Ortega’s government is currently often labeled a kleptocracy, the party, the FSLN, is more prominently at the forefront than a cult of personality for the president.  They wisely embrace Augusto Sandino and his struggle predating the Sandinistas as their iconic image.

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            The food was standard fare, dominated by rice, beans, and plantains, though the pitahaya fruit, which is also called dragon fruit in Nicaragua, and grows from a cactus was a revelation, producing a rich purple drink that was simply delicious.  Excuse me, while I go get an importing license for ACORN International!

Throughout the neighborhoods pedicabs were everywhere, rivaling Indian bicycle rickshaws, but with a totally different design, less a frontloading basket design, than an efficient box with seating, which was very interesting and practical.  And, of course taxis were numerous as well as the kind of repurposed school bus designs called collectivos in Argentina. 

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Grenada and Leon were not the colonial cities we expected after Antigua, Guatemala or San Miguel del Allende, Mexico, but on the plus side, none of these were the ex-patriot, tourist centers creating English-speaking islands in those countries.  In fact interestingly, the only major signs of mass foreign tourism we saw were the surf boarders coming and going from the airport.

My grandfather’s name was Erdman, which means “man of the soil” in German, and that had been our family heritage forever in Germany and even in the United States until my father, so what would have interested my father the most would have been our visits to the farms or fincas outside of Matagalpa.  The lemon and orange trees would have reminded him of California, along with the chickens and roosters running in yard, which I remember well from my grandfather’s place in Orange County on our infrequent visits as well.  The rich, wet soil and the rows of well-tended coffee plants interspersed between fences of hibiscus or tall and straight cactus and the huge pride of the cooperative farmers, optimistic even in the grip of the roya epidemic, would have had my dad wondering if it were time to see about buying a hectare for himself, just as I have often debated every time I’ve walked under the shade of tall trees and held the green coffee plants in my hands, while adjusting my feet to the steep incline.

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Alternative Universes Collide between North and South on Hugo Chavez Re-election

Quito  Landing in Ecuador after 11 pm and clearing customs, Hugo Chavez’s press conference was on all of the television sets as we exited the airport.  The first question I was asked as I headed for the hotel was whether or not I had heard that Chavez was re-elected.  This was big news in Ecuador, and I would dare say throughout Latin America where Chavez has been a defining figure for the last decade, who has walked with big steps throughout the region.  You would not have known that from reading the United States papers though.  The Times using a covey of reporters focused mainly on the opposition and its prospects despite what many, including even CNN, reported a surprisingly strong victory of nearly 10% over his opponent in a race that some pollsters had been calling even.  After a front page story on Sunday recognizing that Chavez’s strength might be the huge support for his social programs, almost seemed disappointed over his victory in their own brand of foreign policy.

No doubt there are serious issues in Venezuela that need to be addressed and Chavez’s health and prospects are absolutely a cause for concern, but it is interesting how different the perspectives on him and his election are between north and south.  In Bolivia recently with the Organizers’ Forum, we heard his name repeatedly.  People talked about “Chavez checks,” as they called them, of $10,000 USD each that Venezuela had given to rural communities to use at their discretion for economic development in their areas.  Both Ecuador and Bolivia have left-leaning governments which have been strong allies of Venezuela and beneficiaries of the better times when oil prices were soaring for Chavez so their interest was intense.  With elections coming next year for Ecuador’s President Rafael Correa, it would not be surprising for people here to be looking for signs of which way the regional winds are blowing politically.

Without knowing all of the ends and outs of Venezuelan politics,  I would venture that there are still some things worth noting, whether or not the global south and the global north can agree.

  • Interestingly, there has not been one allegation about the election having been anything other than fair and above board, as opposed to the past where this was a constant refrain.  All reports is that voting stayed open as long as people were there and that the electronic system, though new, worked well, and gave no cause for any allegations of irregularities.  That must stick in some craws, I’ll bet.
  • There’s a global lesson in the chagrin of the Times’ story yesterday that people might in fact vote for Chavez in Venezuela because they wanted to see their social programs continue.  There are senior citizens voting in the United States who want to protect Social Security and medical programs.  Hello?  Why is it strange that beneficiaries of public services might make electoral decisions based on whether or not they believed government served them?
  • Voting participation rates of 80 to 90% in Venezuela which everyone concedes showed huge interest in this election make a difference!  This is part of the reason why Republican voter suppression efforts in the United States are so important to them.  If you keep the beneficiaries of public services away from the polls, then your opposition to public services has a better chance of winning, but if, as in Venezuela’s election, you turnout as much of the vote as possible, then the 99% of that country will raise their voices, leaving the critics to be satisfied with 45% rather than 55% when majorities are what matter in democracies.

Seems to me politicians and their parties could learn something important here about the connections between services, benefits, voting participation, and elections, but maybe that’s just me?

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Fairtrade Fracas Confusing Consumers and Producers

New Orleans   Fairtrade has a language problem that is quickly becoming a huge commercial and consumer problem.  There’s no copy write to the name “fairtrade,” so like it or not, anyone can use it, claim it, or con with it.  As a relatively new movement trying to build commercial strength and consumer identification, a “classic” understanding of what fairtrade is and means only dates back several decades, so full on assault and, more worrisome, corporatization, of the concept along with increased commercial usurpation could have the impact of knocking the socks off of what might still be fairly called the “fairtrade movement.”

As we prepare to have a large meeting at Fair Grinds Coffeehouse in several weeks (Tuesday, September 18th at 7pm if you are in New Orleans!) to discuss “Fairtrade and the Port of New Orleans,” this is all very worrisome.  On one hand we are trying to get our community to embrace fairtrade and on the other large, powerful forces have significant economic investments in confusing consumers.   The Nation in a September 10th piece by Scott Sherman painfully entitled, “Brawl Over Fair Trade Coffee,” does a good job of putting the internal schism within the fairtrade movement and the external corporate predation before the readers.

Once again, here is the back story, friends.  There are internationally agreed upon fairtrade certification standards for coffee and similar products.  In the case of coffee, the requirements of production by close to 400 coffee growing producer cooperatives, largely in Latin America, which are regularly inspected, pay the fees, and then receive a premium for doing so that is roughly $0.50 above the quoted price on the New York commodities exchange.  FLO, the Fairtrade Licensing Organization from Bonn, Germany runs the certification operation and has for years with a number of country affiliates largely in Europe and North America.  In a small version of a Tom Cruise/Katie Holmes kind of divorce, Fair Trade USA, the American affiliate, pulled out of the international relationship to go on its own, bringing the whole mess front and center and displaying in full force the ideological and commercial disagreements within the fairtrade movement.

Once the name-calling is taken out of the dispute, the heart of the matter is that Paul Rice  and his USA Fair Trade operation want to be able to certify coffee plantations and single producers, rather than cooperatives.  There are no virgins here.  FLO, the international body, already certifies plantations in tea production for example.  The 800 pound gorilla of coffee, Starbucks, “certifies” its own coffee purchases and claims the “fairtrade” mantle in its advertisements, which is a little like Wal-Mart self-certifying its subcontractor work standards!  Among progressives there is also confusion such as Just Coffee direct trade certifications in protest to what they, probably correctly, view as lax certification standards for roasters.  Did I mention that this was a mess?

Sherman catches the heart of the beast well:

Fair trade coffee has been a valuable experiment, one that has brought concrete benefits to hundreds of thousands of farmers.  But it rests upon a fragile foundation, and the corporate embrace of the concept could undo decades of work by activists, consumers and farmers: democratically run, farmer-owned cooperatives may be unable to compete with corporate-sponsored plantations. “The fair trade model provided some protection from the unequal conditions of the open market,” says Nicki Lisa Cole, a sociologist at Pomona College who has studied fair trade. Welcoming large-scale plantations into the model “re-creates the problematic conditions for small producers that spurred creation of the model in the first place.”

Rice for his part argues opening the door to more commercialization and bigger producers is part of “innovation.”  He cites Apple as an example, but since all of us are so fresh from the Apple scandals with FoxConn and all of its offshore, largely Chinese subcontractors, it is hard to embrace this model as any other than exploitation, and certainly not innovation.

All of this leaves the US movement in a shambles.  The excellent Canadian fair trade organization is essentially managing all of North America now.  In working with a growers’ cooperative in Honduras that produces aloe vera, we have been bounced from the Canadian organization to the Swedish fairtrade affiliate in our negotiations with a cosmetic company that wants to go fairtrade and organic, because no one has time for anything much other than the American mess.

And, the consumers?  Anarchy will not produce more fairtrade purchases.  “Looking for the label” could mean asking a consumer to pick between Rain Forest Action certification, Catholic Relief Service certification, corporate self-certification and branding (Starbucks and friends), and not one but two competing outfits claiming to certify for United States consumers.

The producers will be hurt by this chaos, if not permanently crippled.  Purveyors like Fair Grinds will end up continuing to pay market premiums for our beans with customers drinking “great coffee for a change” out of trust more than understanding.

This is no way to run a railroad or a social movement.

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Saving Money, Lives, and Mexico by Raising the White Flag in the Drug War

March in Mexico of individuals who had family members who were murdered or disappeared in the drug war

New Orleans    Sitting in the jury pool in Orleans Parish Criminal Court and watching each case tainted by a touch with drugs and the huge waste of police and court resources and being force to think for hours at a time about exactly what I thought about the huge divisions and lack of security in the community over public safety and its agents, it was hard not to feel that locally the 30-year War on Drugs had been our worse defeat since Vietnam and much more deadly.  Visiting Mexico for the ACORN International leadership and staff meeting, the impact of the drug violence was everywhere and dominated the political discussion that culminated in what seems to be the return of the PRI to power after a dozen years in no small measure due to the loss of 50,000 lives to drug violence in the failing militarization of the drug war conducted by the now departing President Calderon of the conservative PAN party.  A recent shooting of police by either other police or narcotrafficos dressed as police happened in one of the International terminals where we had gathered to meet our organizers from Honduras and Canada.

Eduardo Porter, a financial columnist for the New York Times, made a devastating argument economic argument on this score including these key facts:

  • Retail price of one gram of cocaine now is $177.26 according to the DEA.  The price represents a 74% decrease over 30 years, meaning in class economic supply-demand terms that the supply has increased.
  • A gram of cocaine can be purchased on the streets for 16% less today than 10 years ago despite an expenditure of 20-25 billion a year by the United States alone to “fight” the drug war.
  • Early experimental drug use for high school seniors has risen from 30% 20 years ago to roughly 40% now.  Seems they it’s “just say yes” to drugs now.
  • Porter cites several polls to buttress his argument that the real purpose of the expenditure is political, and that is the only way the billions are providing a return, since less than one-third of the American people even care to think the drug problem is that important (where are the other 2/3rds living?!?) and only 31% think we are “winning” and they may actually be on drugs.
  • 1.64 million people were arrested in the USA in 2010 for drug violations.  80% of the arrests were simply for possession.  Almost 50% were for “often-tiny” amounts of marijuana.  20% of the inmates in state prisons are in for drugs and 50% in federal prisons are doing drug time.  In NYC each arrest alone costs close to $2000 to process and they arrest 85,000 people per year.

This is all crazy expensive and has made minority and lower income urban communities (and some meth crazed rural areas) mini-war zones as well.  Add the 55,000 Mexican dead over the last 6 years, tens of thousands claimed by drug violence in Central America, and the murder rate for minority youth which has claimed a generation of young men and the body count is devastating.

from the National Post

The drug war has produced a river of blood that no amount of money can continue to conceal, and the money.  The money is not spent in the USA on rehab, needle exchanges, and other acknowledgments of reality which also means higher health care costs, higher HIV rates, and more devastation in families and communities.

Porter cites a economist at Harvard named Jeffrey Miron who estimates that legalization could save $65 billion per year.  A RAND Corporation study suggests that legalization of only marijuana in only California would take away 20% of the $6.5 billion income Mexican cartels strip from the USA.   Presidents of Latin American countries, including many where ACORN International organizes, have asked the USA to consider “market solutions” to the drug crisis, which is a euphemism for legalization, particularly of marijuana.

Porter tries to find someone to make the case for a continued pursuit of the failed “war on drugs” strategy and can only muster one generalized position from one professor who is “worried” that legalization could lead to more usage and health care costs.  Hell, we’re all worried, but that doesn’t justify continuing to pursue a ruinous strategy that is killing our cities in the USA and the whole economies of many of our Latin American neighbors.

When you are worried, you do something to relieve your concern.  We could make that list pretty quickly.  There seems to be no excuse other than political cowardice for continuing to throw good money after bad and fill our jails and city streets with the blood and bodies that are the victims of this war.  We’re all losing now.  Why not choose a winning strategy or at least a different strategy?

 

 

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