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?


The Strongest Community Organization, Bartolina Sisas, and the Union of Lowlands Indigenous People

Organizers' Forum Delegation with members of the strongest civic organization in Bolivia

La Paz   We were off to El Alto again for a meeting in the morning with the general secretary of FEJUVE, which is essentially is the largest civic association of united neighbors of El Alto.   Arguably FEJUVE was not only the strongest community organization anywhere in the province of La Paz, but also the country.  Frequently, the secretary would speak of the “glorious FEJUVE” and the fact that they “did not know the meaning of the word defeat, because they had never experienced it.”  This very charismatic leader was a force of nature, but also an unpaid volunteer leader only reimbursed for experiences whose whole life was building the organization.

The affiliates, the juntas had a dues (cuotas) system of 2 Bolivianas per month, but none of that supported the central apparatus.  FEJUVE was clear it was “apolitical” or nonpartisan, but was also clear that it would not hesitate to take money from the parties, but justified this on the grounds that they would promise nothing in return.  When I asked directly if they felt Evo Morales, the indigenous, forceful president, had delivered more to the rural areas than urban areas like their own, still fighting for water, lights, gas, road, and housing, he quickly agreed.  There were obviously plans afoot to up the pressure on the President.   More than any other group, FEJUVE was simply powerful and knew it because in a battle of social movements against the government, in El Alton, they literally controlled the high ground and the transportation choke-points.  In a country like Bolivia where  blocados are a very popular and powerful tactic, they were masters of its utilization and could ground airplanes, bus routes, and hold La Paz under siege when blockading transportation routes.  Right now there were 60 blockades ongoing around different issues in Bolivia.  Our fight tomorrow to Cochabamba was now packed because it was the only way out.  FEJUVE was teaching all of us the basics of the importance of tactical strength!

Next we met the most well known women’s organization in La Paz, which is popularly known as Bartolina Sisas, named after the martyred widow of  Tupac in a long ago revolution in her early 30’s.  The “technico” or staff member and the political leader we met with were very well spoken and forthright.  This is a national organization, CNMCIOB or the Conferacion Nacional de Mujeres Campesinas Inigenas Originarias de Bolivia.  They were overtly the political arm of the women’s movement and more.  They directly thanked Evo Morales for the building where they were housed not far from San Francisco Plaza.  The political leader had run a project for Morales’ party, MAS, to get more women involved.  Most of their support came from international state financed NGO’s especially in Norway.   This was an interesting organization but seemed to be the closes to an classic NGO type, international/state funded group that we had encountered on our visit.

leaders and staff of Bartolina Sisa

We had a very engaging final visit with CPILAP, Central de Pueblas Indigenous de la Paz, which was seen as the 80,000 member organization of the indigenous people of the low lands.  It had been their affiliate, the Tippi, that was currently the center of so many stories we heard repeatedly in La Paz.  The much vaunted new constitution required consultation with indigenous peoples before development projects.  For some reason Morales had simply blown them off (another source had said he just didn’t think the tribe was significant enough to bother with), so instead of consulting where he most probably would have found support, he had bulled forward, and now this was a national issue, because the Tippi did not want the road through the park or their territory.  A road around according to Juan Miguel Suarez, the coordinator with whom we were meeting, would only add a couple of hours though might cost more around the mountains, while others had told us it would add 10 to 12 hours of driving.  Everyone conceded a north-south road was needed, but now it was “all bets off” and felt to be only benefiting oil development for multi-nationals and cocoleros growing coca for export for illegal purposes.  Morales had at first promised he would pull the road off the drawing board, and then once again reversed field and in January 2012 said he would simply consult.  The sides were now at logger heads and the Tippis were gathering arrowheads and stringing their bows.  It looked less than promising.

office of CNMCIOB "Bartolina Sisa" women's organizer

We are learning more than we could imagine from some meetings, and learning some things we did not want to hear from other sessions, but nonetheless we are learning invaluable lessons from everyone with whom we have met in this amazing country, where social movements are very powerful, one way or another.


Rough Justice in El Alto

the El Alto Barrios

La Paz    Not sure that we were doing the right thing since many of our Organizers’ Forum delegation were still shaky with the altitude transition, before 9 AM we embarked on a different kind of experience – a walking tour from El Alto down to La Paz with La Paz on Foot for four hours.  It actually worked out great, largely because we took cabs to the top and walked down, but hey, that’s not as easy as you think either when you are dropping a 1000 feet or more.

El Alto is an interesting city that 80 years ago essentially did not exist as little more than an airfield but now with almost 10% per year growth has surpassed a million people.  La Paz with a couple of million is below El Alton in the valleys built on what once were more than 30 rivers, originally where gold was found, a Sacramento of the Andes.

El Alto has an interesting tactical position vis a vis all of Bolivia and can cordon off La Paz.  We heard stories of various issues between the communities and that El Alto was able to win by blocking off all outside access to the country by bus or by air or highways.  When people hit the streets in El Alton the country knows about it.

We walked down long staircases and drainage tunnels which are huge public improvements.  ACORN Peru had fought for 5 years in San Juan Laragancho to win ones just like these.  El Alto had brought water, lights, and even gas to many of their barrio districts which was quite impressive.

stairs and drainage = a step up from Lima

So were the very stark notices of the rough justice that would await burglars who might be caught in these barrios.  From the hanging effigies it was clear there would be no waiting for the police!


Stealing Congress Seat by Seat in Texas

brick homes all the way to the top in La Paz

La Paz  We flew overnight via Miami to La Paz, Bolivia for the 10th consecutive International Dialogue with the Organizers’ Forum.  We came at a good time.  Forty-eight hours earlier, we would have been stuck in the small airport there as striking miners blocked all of the highways coming into the city in a dispute that seems to involve trying to prevent privatization of the mines.  In the pre-dawn, the city was serene and beautiful.  The airport at 13,000 feet drops you down to 11,000 odd feet in the city, still the highest capital of any country in the world.  We could see peaks emerging from the clouds and sweeping vistas of brick houses rising in browns and reds up the mountains around us.

We all hoped to get here early to acclimate a bit to the altitude, though we’ve already beaten a path to the pharmacy for reinforcements.  In between naps and cups of hot water with coca leaves floating in them, which is the recommended local cure, I would wake up to continue reading a sobering and somewhat shocking tale even in these jaded political times by Robert Draper in the current issue of The Atlantic called the “League of Dangerous Mapmakers.”  I was especially horrified to read a story probably well-known in Texas, but still amazing in its ham fisted transparent voter manipulation.

The U.S. Census every ten years counts the country.  Where there has been growth there, maybe new Congressional seats, especially in Texas and Florida, and where there have been losses in the Midwest and in Katrina-ravished Louisiana, there may also be losses of seats.  Legislatures are responsible for the redistricting, so where Republican control has increased, once again in states like Florida and Louisiana, fairness can be an issue.  The Voting Rights Act fortunately still places some obstacles for Republican legislatures if there is blatant racial discrimination to suppress the representation of African-Americans and Hispancis.

Draper pulls the curtains open in Texas though:

…Texas, which was granted a whopping four.  But on the other hand, most of each state’s new residents are African Americans and (especially) Hispanics.  In Texas, the population has swelled by 4.3 million over the past decade.  Of those new residents, 2.8 million are Hispanic and more than half a million are African Americans.  While those groups grew at a rate of 42 percent and 22 percent, respectively, the growth in white Texans was a merger 4.2 percent.  In other words: without the minority growth, Texas – now officially a majority-minority state – would not have received a single new district.  The possibility that a GOP map-drawer would use all those historically Democratic leaning transplants as a means of gaining Republican seats might strike a redistricting naïf as undemocratic.  And yet that’s exactly what the Texas redistricting bosses did last year.

It kind of took my breath away, which was the theme of the day for me.  The courts refused to allow in some of cases so they didn’t totally get away with it, but they mostly got away with it, and Draper makes it clear that if they hadn’t been some stubbornly stupid about the way they did it, they likely would have succeeded altogether as they did in North Carolina and elsewhere.

Hard ball politics is one thing, but when it is this undemocratic and meant to do little more than rob citizens of representation and voice, there’s no excuse.

murals along the municipal plaza in La Paz

street vendors in La Paz



Looking at Occupy and the Arab Spring

AADERT Conference

Springfield   Looking at the connections and contrasts between the revolutionary upheavals of the Arab Spring in the Middle East and the Occupy Movement was an irresistible topic for the 20th conference of AADERT (African and African-American Development, Education, Research, and Training) at Springfield College.  In fact anything that seeks to look deeply at social movements and learn from them counts as irresistible in my book, so I’m clearly not an unbiased guide.  Nonetheless 150 students, professors, activists, and men and women of the African diaspora assembled in the rain at the newish Flynn Union Center for the discussion all day on Saturday.

Listening to others from the diaspora, it did not seem to hold that distance had made hearts go fonder or certainly more secure.  Long time expatriates and exiles from Somolia, the civil wars of Liberia and Ethiopia, and elsewhere had to be judged from their remarks as highly skeptical of the real likelihood for reform and democracy arising from the Arab Spring.  Even less controversial issues like using the internet still reverberated with fears of security and surveillance 7000 miles away and in another world.

I had to heed the perspective since the Organizers’ Forum delegation’s visit to Cairo has been both inspiring and depressing as we both joined friends in hope for the future and the excitement of Tahrir Square and tried last fall to parse the views of mostly secular presidential candidates, none of whom have now survived to the runoff in recent Egyptian voting.  Were I talking to our friends on the Young Revolutionary Council now, I would imagine they are disaffected and uncertain whether to boycott the election completely with a choice between a member of the old Mubarak regime and the Muslim Brotherhood candidate, or hold their eyes and vote for the Brotherhood in hopes they can make a difference.

My own remarks focused on the elements of movements and how they could be identified in each of the movements by shining a light that revealed the hands behind the curtain.  I also tried to look at the contributions of each.  Interestingly, asking people to raise their hands less than a handful had any real knowledge or involvement with Occupy, further making my point about the somewhat elite nature of the movement attacking elites.  [See my remarks soon in Social Policy).  It was fun to be challenged to look at both of these major events together, even though the results are also still out in the jury on both of them.   The highlight for me was a woman at the end of the questions & answers, who said she just had to say something and then told a story of being doorknocked in Springfield by an ACORN organizer a couple of years ago, then getting together with her neighbors and winning – it was magical!

Almost as interesting to me was visiting with a class of Human Services graduate students and their professor, Dan Russell, in between sessions.  These were hardened veterans of real work in the trenches of the caregivers with experience  in unions from SEIU to Steel, and real cynicism and trepidation about whether their voices mattered and whether it was worth them speaking up and raising them when they saw injustice.  It goes without saying that I made my best, impassioned plea.  Their assignment had been to read some of my recent blogs, so it was fun to find some real traction with my remarks about the need for even the lonely voices in the jury box to speak truth to justice about the erosion of both mercy and justice in our criminal system.

Hope is not a plan, as I reminded the AADERT crowd, but persistent and committed work and events like these and the dialogues they produce still keep the heart light with expectation.   After my remarks a young man came up, stood in line to speak with me when it came to his turn, said he was from Monrovia, Liberia, and he wanted to know how he could join ACORN and help.  Now that’s a plan!


Celebrating Barbara Bowen

Barbara smiling in Melbourne next to the head of the Australian Labor Federation

New Orleans     There is no way that anything I can write would do complete justice to the life and work of Barbara Bowen, my friend and comrade for over 40 years, but luckily I don’t really need to because her life and work was about justice and she lived it exactly that way from beginning to end.

My path first crossed Barbara’s in mid-October of 1969.  I used to hear her tell the story of being sent from Boston where she was working with Massachusetts Welfare Rights Organization to Springfield, where I was working, to see if she could help out in some way during a large action demanding winter clothing for adults that was hitting its climax on the same day as the Vietnam Moratorium.  The short story is that we didn’t win and all hell broke loose, but Barbara used to tell the story of breaking clear of the riot and finding a telephone booth in the middle of the chaos to put a collect call into Boston for whatever reinforcements might be available to get me and others out of jail and do whatever it might take.

In 1970 when I moved to Boston as head organizer, I lived on Rutland Square in the South End one or two units above Barbara and my other old friend and comrade over all of these years, Mark Splain, who she married around the same time.  Over the many decades our paths would always be interwoven and crisscross continually.

After I left to move to Arkansas and found ACORN, she and Mark and others ended up in Chelsea founding Massachusetts Fair Share, a landmark organization in the 1970’s.  When she and Mark left Fair Share, they worked in various capacities with ACORN.  We all worked on jobs campaigns.  We founded the United Labor Unions together, with Mark and Barbara in Boston, me and Danny Cantor, Kirk Adams, and Cecile Richards in New Orleans, Keith Kelleher in Detroit and then Chicago, and Mike Gallagher a little bit of everywhere along with many others.  Barbara did stints with SEIU and the AFL-CIO.  Around 2000, I convinced her to join me at the Organizers’ Forum where she worked for a decade as its coordinator until she retired at the end of 2008, as she told me then, “…because she could.”

Barbara in Moscow assembling the troops before we head to the next stop in Red Square

The other day talking to Mark about a list of email addresses, I asked him if he wanted me to edit the list and make up a shorter one, and he replied that it didn’t matter, “Barbara doesn’t have an enemy in the world.”  That phrase stuck with me.  It was precisely correct.   People loved Barbara.  She was a sweetheart.  Leading delegations around the world with the Organizers’ Forum she was always willing to go the last inch of the last mile to make sure it worked, that people were taken care of, and that it all came together.

But, if that conjures up an image of a laid back, California girl who was in the first avant garde women’s class at Pitzer College outside of Los Angeles, and a “helping hand” VISTA volunteer, all of which she also was, you didn’t know Barbara Bowen or at least you didn’t know enough about Barbara Bowen.  The Barbara Bowen I knew and worked with all of these years was a stickler for details with a thousand questions, both large and small.  My first day on the job as her boss in Boston in 1970, she asked me to look at a flyer she had made for a meeting, something she had probably done a couple of hundred times at the point.  I remember telling her she should probably be showing me how to make the flyer, rather than the other way around!

But whether it was details on the menu in Kolkata or the rooming arrangements in Jakarta, she always included me and wanted input.  If she had a question you heard about it, and she forced the plans to be crystal clear so there was alignment of my big picture, “it’ll all work out world,” and her details, planning, and preparation.  It was easy to appreciate why on all the houses that Mark and Barbara built in Boston, Washington, and then finally in Stinson Beach how Mark might be architect and master builder, but Barbara would be permits, general contractor, bookkeeper, and finish painter and punch list person.  On the three international dialogues I have done since Barbara’s retirement in Thailand, Vietnam, and Egypt, I’ve always warned people in the first orientation that they were going to miss experiencing the trip that they would have had if Barbara had been with us….

My point is not that she was just a details person or a meticulous note taker, planner, and so forth, because that was not the core of the woman.  At the heart of the woman was character and courage.  Once she was convinced of the plan, had it clear, and committed to it, she was fearless and unstoppable.   Once she was in, she was all the way in.

In the late 1970’s and early1980’s, US Air had something called “Liberty Fares.”  For $700 for 14 days a passenger could fly anywhere throughout the US Air system from Boston or Providence to New Orleans or Phoenix or Memphis or whatever.  It often meant circling back to the Pittsburgh or the Philly hub.  Obviously USAir meant the ticket to work with one flyer, but as a fledgling union and community organization, we were “up in the air” and could keep various folks flying from place to place endlessly during that period just by passing them off to our fellow travelers in the hubs or wherever the connections aligned.  You can imagine the stories, but the best and boldest often featured Barbara.  In the post-9/11 world this is unimaginable, but Barbara would talk her way onto one flight after another with nothing but moxie despite the fact that the ticket seemed to be in a man’s name and often with little or no ID.  She had the ticket, and for her it was a ticket to ride, and if she had a problem with one flight, she would walk away and jump another one.

Anyone who underestimated Barbara or her toughness did so at their peril!   Like I said, you had to be careful with Barbara.  If you asked her to go through a wall on an action, once she was clear where the wall stood, how it worked, and that it was important, then that wall was going down, one way or another.  Barbara had your back, front, and sideways!  I hate to think about the number of times she went on unemployment to do the work, including once with the Organizers’ Forum.  I can’t even imagine the times she maxed out credit cards or whatever.   I loved that woman.  There was no quit or whine to her.  Ever!

It took me forever to realize that almost all of our international dialogues were too close to her daughter’s birthday and often had her doing crazy things to get home in time or in at least one case, missing the event entirely.  She was an elected member of the school board in her community for years, but it took me almost that long to hear her mention it and talk about it.  She was never going to put herself ahead of the program, even when it was just the two of us figuring it out.

I’m glad on the back end, especially now, that she and some of the women in Kolkata moved to a better hotel after our wild experience at the Great Eastern (now torn down!) and that she took an extra day to go to Agra when in Delhi and a couple more to see the Iguazu Falls at the border of Brazil and Argentina.   For all of the times I may have taken her for granted for 30 years as a friend and colleague, I was glad that in the 10 years with the Organizers’ Forum for the most part I could feel like, I did right by her.  People loved her and could appreciate her contribution at every level.  She saw the world in India, Indonesia, Brazil, Turkey, Russia, South Africa, and Australia, and like all of us it made us better organizers and better people.  We all became clearer about the larger community where we live and work.  We had great experiences together.  She was fun, and she had some fun.

Thank goodness!

In Sydney I had noticed her walking uncharacteristically slowly up a stairway near the harbor.  I asked her about it then, and she just said she was being careful.    The next year when she called me to say she was having some health issues, she reminded me of that conversation and how even then is seemed there were starting to be coordination problems.

Luckily she and Mark got to do some traveling in Europe and Hawaii.  They visited with friends.  She got to her college reunion.   When I saw her last fall she was still fawning over Tera’s children and delighted over Manuel’s pending wedding.

She was a great organizer.  She was a wonderful woman.  She was friend, mother, wife, comrade, and sister.   She had a great life, just not enough of it.

My life is better for having known her and all she did with and for me in large and small ways over 40 years.  Like so many others, I will carry the flame forward for her into the future and spend the rest of my life time and work time paying back her loyalty, faith, and trust.

Over recent years Barbara and I learned together how to say and understand “hello,” “thank you,” “democracy,” “union,” “justice,” and “freedom” in many of the world’s languages.  Her life and legacy has meaning in all of those words and every time they are spoken in the struggle of people everywhere.  And, anywhere those words are spoken, sung, or shouted, the heart and soul of Barbara Bowen will still stand strong.

Barbara admiring the fresco in the cathedral in St. Petersburg