Canadians can't quite believe it: Suddenly, we're interesting.
After months of making the news only with our various communicable diseases-SARS, mad cow and West Nile-we're now getting world famous for our cutting-edge laws on gay marriage and legalized drugs. The Bush conservatives are repulsed by our depravity. My friends in New York and San Francisco have been quietly inquiring about applying for citizenship.
The Bush administration has found its next target for pre-emptive war, but it's not Iran, Syria or North Korea — not yet, anyway.
Before launching any new foreign adventures, the Bush gang has some homeland housekeeping to take care of: It is going to sweep up those pesky non-governmental organizations that are helping to turn world opinion against US bombs and brands.
The war on NGOs is being fought on two clear fronts. One buys the silence and complicity of mainstream humanitarian and religious groups by offering lucrative reconstruction contracts. The other marginalizes and criminalizes more independent-minded NGOs by claiming that their work is a threat to democracy. The US Agency for International Development (USAID) is in charge of handing out the carrots, while the American Enterprise Institute, the most powerful think tank in Washington, D.C., is wielding the sticks.
The streets of Baghdad are a swamp of uncollected garbage and crime.
Battered local businesses are going bankrupt, unable to compete with cheap imports. Unemployment is soaring and thousands of laid off state workers are protesting in the streets.
In other words, Iraq looks like every other country that has undergone rapid fire "structural adjustments" prescribed by Washington, from Russia's infamous "shock therapy" in the early nineties to Argentina's disastrous "surgery without aesthetic" a few years later. Except that Iraq's so-called reconstruction makes those wrenching reforms look like spa treatments.
Paul Bremer, the U.S. appointed governor of Iraq, has already proved something of a flop in the democracy department in his three weeks there, nixing plans for Iraqis to select their own interim government in favour of his own handpicked team of advisors. But Bremer has proved to have something of a gift when it comes to rolling out the red carpet for U.S. multinationals. No wonder George Bush looked so pleased when he met Bremer in Qatar.
Jessica Lynch and Rachel Corrie could have passed for sisters. Two all-American blondes, two destinies forever changed in a Middle East war zone. Private Jessica Lynch, the soldier, was born in Palestine, West Virginia. Rachel Corrie, the activist, died in Israeli-occupied Palestine.
Corrie was four years older than 19-year old Lynch. Her body was crushed by an Israeli bulldozer in Gaza seven days before Lynch was taken into Iraqi custody on March 23. Before she went to Iraq, Lynch organized a pen pal program with a local kindergarden. Before Corrie left for Gaza, she organized a pen pal program between kids in her hometown of Olympia, Washington, and children in Rafah.
Lynch went to Iraq as a soldier loyal to her government. In the words of West Virginia Senator Jay Rockefeller, "she approached the prospect of combat with determination rather than fear."
In most of the world, it's the sign for peace, but here in Argentina it means war. The index and middle finger, held to form a "V" means, to his followers, "Menem Vuelve," Menem will return. Carlos Menem, poster boy of Latin American neo-liberalism, president for almost all of the 1990s, is looking to get his old job back on May 18.
Menem's campaign ads show menacing pictures of unemployed workers blockading roads, with a voice-over promising to bring order, even if it means calling in the military. This strategy gave him a slim lead in the first election round, though he will almost certainly lose the run-off to an obscure Peronist governor, Nestor Kirchner, considered the puppet of current president (and Menem's former vice-president) Eduardo Duhalde.
In 1812, bands of British weavers and knitters raided textile mills and smashed industrial machines with their hammers. According to the Luddites, the new mechanized looms had eliminated thousands of jobs, broken communities, and deserved to be destroyed. The British government disagreed and called in a battalion of 14,000 soldiers to brutally repress the worker revolt and protect the machines.
Fast-forward two centuries to another textile factory, this one in Buenos Aires. At the Brukman factory, which has been producing men’s suits for fifty years, it’s the riot police who smash the sewing machines and the 58 workers who risk their lives to protect them.
Review of Letters to a Young Activist, Todd Gitlin, Basic Books: 174 pp.,$22.50
Two years ago, I was invited to the South Australian desert to meet a group of Aboriginal elders who were fighting a radioactive waste dump on their land. I went to Coober Pedy expecting to be bombarded with alarming facts about toxic waste leaking into groundwater, cancer risks and the half-life of radium. Something else happened instead. Immediately upon my arrival, I was scooped up by a group of young environmentalists who dressed like "Mad Max" characters and took me camping.
For five nights we slept by a bonfire on the cracked red earth under the stars. During the days they showed me secret sources of fresh water, plants used for bush medicines, hidden eucalyptus-lined rivers where the kangaroos come to drink. It was amazingly beautiful, but by the third day I started getting restless. When, I asked 22-year-old Nina Brown, were we going to get down to work? She replied that the senior Aboriginal women, who called themselves the Kupa Piti Kungka Tjuta, had taught her that before you can fight, you have to know what you are fighting for.
On April 6, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz spelled it out: There will be no role for the United Nations in setting up an interim government in Iraq. The US-run regime will last at least six months, "probably...longer than that."
And by the time the Iraqi people have a say in choosing a government, the key economic decisions about their country's future will have been made by their occupiers. "There has got to be an effective administration from day one," Wolfowitz said. "People need water and food and medicine, and the sewers have to work, the electricity has to work. And that's a coalition responsibility."
The process of getting all this infrastructure to work is usually called "reconstruction." But American plans for Iraq's future economy go well beyond that. Rather, the country is being treated as a blank slate on which the most ideological Washington neoliberals can design their dream economy: fully privatized, foreign-owned and open for business.
As a kid, I had trouble understanding why my parents and siblings lived in Montreal and the rest of my family – grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins – were scattered across the United States. On long car trips to visit relatives in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, my parents would tell us about the Vietnam war, and the thousands of US peace activists who, like us, snuck across the border to Canada in the late sixties.
I was told that the Canadian government not only stayed officially neutral during the war, it offered sanctuary for US citizens who refused to fight in a war they believed was wrong. Derided as “draft dodgers” at home, we were welcomed in Canada as conscientious objectors.
My family’s decision to emigrate to Canada was made before I was born, but these romantic stories planted an idea in my head when I was far too young to fend it off: I believed that Canada had a relationship with the world that was radically different from that of the United States; that despite cultural similarities and geographic proximity, more humane and less interventionist values guided our dealings. In short, I thought we were sovereign.
On a muddy piece of squatted land in the outskirts of Buenos Aires, Florencia Vespignani is planning her upcoming tour of the United States, where she will be speaking with students and activists about Argentina's resistance movements.
"I'm a bit scared," she confesses.
"Of the war?" I ask.
"No. Of the plane. We have wars here all the time."
Vespignani, a 33-year-old mother and community organizer, is a leader in the Movimiento de Trabajadores Desocupados (MTD), one of dozens of organizations of unemployed workers, known as piqueteros, that have emerged out of the wreckage of Argentina's economy. When Florencia describes life as war, it is not a metaphor. In a country where more than half the people are living in poverty and 27 children die of hunger each day, she has simply learned that to stay alive, you have to go to the streets and fight-for every piece of bread, for every student's pencil, for every night's rest.