Vanessa Baird lived and worked as a journalist in Peru during the tumultuous mid-1980s, and she maintains a passionate interest in South America. She joined New Internationalist as a co-editor in 1986 and since then has written on everything from migration, money, religion and equality to indigenous activism, climate change, feminism and global LGBT rights. She also edits the Mixed Media, arts and culture section of the magazine.

Vanessa’s books include The No-Nonsense Guide to World Population (2011), Sex, Love and Homophobia (2004), The Little Book of Big Ideas (2009) and, People First Economics (2010). In 2012 she won a prestigious Amnesty International Human Rights Media award.


Vanessa Baird lived and worked as a journalist in Peru during the tumultuous mid-1980s, and she maintains a passionate interest in South America. She joined New Internationalist as a co-editor in 1986 and since then has written on everything from migration, money, religion and equality to indigenous activism, climate change, feminism and global LGBT rights. She also edits the Mixed Media, arts and culture section of the magazine.

Vanessa’s books include The No-Nonsense Guide to World Population (2011), Sex, Love and Homophobia (2004), The Little Book of Big Ideas (2009) and, People First Economics (2010). In 2012 she won a prestigious Amnesty International Human Rights Media award.

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Can Brexit be stopped?

More than 50,000 took part in a People’s March for Europe in London on Saturday, calling for an ‘exit from Brexit’ and promising an ‘Autumn of Discontent’.

Amid the stalemate of Britain’s aggressive and delusional exit negotiations with the European Union, more people are daring to defy the view that Brexit is inevitable.

And they are refusing to be silenced by those who say that continued resistance is undemocratic and goes against ‘the will of people’ – as defined by the 2016 referendum in which 52 per cent chose to leave and 48 per cent voted to stay in the EU.

This week sees the second reading in Parliament of the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill, which will enable the transfer of EU laws into British law. But this ‘monstrosity’ of a bill has provoked fury because, in the words of legal expert Mark Elliott from Public Law for Everyone, it represents ‘an unprecedented transfer of power away from parliament, placing extraordinary authority in the hands of the executive.’

The irony was not lost on speakers at Saturday’s rally who recalled that a key axiom of the Leave campaign was for Britain to ‘take back control’ – only to have that ‘control’ taken back by a minority government kicking parliamentary sovereignty and democratic oversight in the teeth.

This week also sees the minority government of Theresa May attempting to rig a Conservative majority in key committees which will be involved in scrutinizing the laws. When the Tory plan emerged last week, Labour opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn was quick to condemn it.

Much of the debate in Parliament these days is over how the negotiations with the EU are going (badly) and what kind of Brexit (‘hard’ or ‘soft’) should result at the end. Though most MPs voted to remain and believe that leaving the EU will damage Britain, few now dare to say it should not happen at all.

Outside parliament it’s different. Citizens are increasingly confident in saying what politicians will not dare – that Brexit is a disaster and it can and should be halted. Minority views – in fact those of 48 per cent and probably considerably greater now – must be heard.

‘Thinking again is also a part of democracy,’ as a placard read. And as one of the speakers put it: ‘We had a referendum in 1975, and the result was “stay in”. Then another in 2016, and the result was “leave”. How can it be undemocratic not to go back to the people again?’

A man holds a placard bearing the words 'Brexit Fuxit'

Placards and flags at the People's March for Europe. Picture: Vanessa Baird.

There is the background issue that people were lied to an industrial scale by Leave campaigners, and the tangled network of consequences of EU withdrawal were never properly explained by anyone.

A year on, British citizens are perhaps a little better informed and have had time to reflect and to see that Brexit is not a solution to problems caused by the 2008 financial crash (which began in the US) – which was followed by austerity imposed on the least well-off by the British Conservative government that came to power in 2010.

Many who voted Brexit were angry and frustrated with the establishment that had both ushered in globalization and then hammered them with austerity policies which protected the wealthy. But the Trade Unions Congress, which is meeting this week, is almost unanimous in its view that leaving the EU harms working people who will face an uphill struggle to retain labour rights post-Brexit.

Leaving the EU will not help those outside the London power hub, either. Rather, as we see already, the move is towards a concentration of political power in even fewer hands in Westminster. Activist Graham Hughes told the rally he was from Liverpool, which was rescued from rapid economic decline by the EU: ‘We weren’t going to get any help from London.’

Outspoken Tory peer Patience Wheatcroft said that Brexit negotiator David Davis wanted a special trade relationship with the US and the EU. ‘But we already have a special relationship with the US and with Europe – that’s what we’ve got, as part of the EU!’

Although Britain will not finally leave the EU until 2019, the impact of the referendum result is already being felt. The economic indicators are well known – a falling pound, rising inflation, economic slow-down, repeated warnings from industry and farmers about loss of skilled staff and productivity. The impact on public services is acute, as European medical staff are leaving or deciding not to come, leaving a hole in the health and other care services. One speaker reported that in his hospital EU staff who were leaving were being replaced by staff from Asia, with his cash-strapped hospital trust having to pay £1,000 in visa fees per recruit.

Three million EU nationals living in Britain, who have had their right to permanent residency ripped up as a result of Brexit, will have to re-register by 2019. Some were wrongly served with deportation notices. Paperwork for re-registration is already taking up ‘15 miles of shelf space’, one speaker reported.

More serious is the increase in discrimination and hate crime, against all minorities, but especially towards people from Eastern Europe. Landlords have refused to rent flats to eastern Europeans who have chosen to make Britain their home, and building societies have refused mortgages. There are cases of those who are jobless or homeless being moved to a detention centre in Dorset, awaiting deportation. ‘This is the face of Brexit Britain,’ said a spokesperson for a support group, citing the case of an Eastern European woman who asked to join a local choir and was told: ‘No, and I’ll come and wave you off at the airport when you are deported.’

As a number of speakers said: ‘The most important thing is – what kind of country do we want to be?’

Can Brexit be stopped? Technically, it was supposed to be irreversible after the triggering of Article 50. But with the people pressure – and at the very least a referendum on whatever exit deal is reached with the EU deal is reached – who knows? It is, after all, un-charted territory. And maybe those who have taken it upon themselves to navigate it cannot help but make an almighty hash of it because it is such a bad idea to start with.

Meanwhile, ‘Exit from Brexit’ campaigners are taking the fight to politicians, with actions planned across Britain. On 17 September they will be at the LibDem Conference in Bournemouth, on 24 September at the Labour party conference in Brighton, and the big one will be a national march and rally on 1 October in Manchester for the Conservative Party Conference.

See or follow @StopBrexitMarch for more information. Every week there is vigil against Brexit opposite No. 10 Downing Street.

Is Lula’s sentence ‘another coup’?

‘Oh Brazil! This is a coup after a coup!’ said Miguel do Rosário, editor of Rio based O Cafezinho website.

Like many on the Left in Brazil, do Rosário thinks that Sergio Moro, the judge leading the Operation Car Wash (Lavo Jato) corruption investigations, has an agenda beyond the obvious.

The principle purpose, says do Rosário, is to derail the Worker’s Party and to stop Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva becoming the country’s president in 2018.

Recent polls showed Lula as the clear frontrunner, with others trailing way behind. Now, if the appeal court upholds his conviction, and his 10 year jail sentence, he will be barred from office. But it is expected to take at least eight months for the court to rule.

At the outset the Car Wash investigations did seem to be unfairly targeting the Workers Party (Partido Trabalhadores).

In recent weeks, though, the parties on the right have also fallen victim to their interrogations, which have often been conducted in a way that is itself beyond the law.

About a third of the senate and a third of the cabinet of the current President Temer are facing charges. Leading political figures, such as former lower-house speaker Eduardo da Cunha and Aecio Neves have already been imprisoned. In all more than 90 parliamentarians are implicated.

President Temer himself is facing serious corruption charges involving taking bribes from the world’s biggest meat packer, JBS. There are darker accusations too – of pay-offs to potential witnesses to silence them and threats of violence.

Temer, Brazil, Lula
People walk past a sign reading 'Out Temer' at the end of a protest against Brazil's President michel Temer in Sao Paulo, Brazil on 21 May 2017 © REUTERS/Nacho Doce

So now, politicians on the Right also hate Carwash. One conservative congressman recently said that Brazil was living in a ‘dictatorship of judges’. The rightwing media however, is closely aligned with the Car Wash judges, and have received copious leaked information from them.

One theory is that the corporate media and the US-educated Judge Moro are all part of a neoliberal plan to run down Brazil’s social provision, and open the country wide to international, profit-seeking capital. Such economic interests may have no particular allegiance to any one party, just whichever grouping will most successfully deliver what they want.

Meanwhile, the country is in a bizarre and unprecedented crisis, where its institutions are at war with each other, according to activist-academic Leonardo Sakomoto, of Reportér Brasil in São Paulo.

Wednesday’s sentence against Lula related to accusations that he benefited from around $1.2 million in bribes from construction company OAS (aka Odebrecht) in the form of seaside apartment renovated at Lula’s request. Prosecutors say that the payment was part of around over $20 million that OAS paid in bribes to the Workers Party in exchange for lucrative contacts with the state-owned oil company Petrobras.

These charges are denied and Lula’s lawyers have already lodged an appeal. Four more cases are in the pipeline, however. The lawyers say that Lula is innocent, no credible evidence of guilt has been produced, and that the ex-president has been subject to a three-year long politically motivated investigation.

Ardent Lula and Workers Party supporters too believe the charges against the man who Barack Obama called ‘the world’s most popular politician’ are baseless. Lula himself said during his trial: ‘What is happening is not getting me down, just motivating me to go out and talk more. I will keep fighting.’

Some others on the Left, for example from the PSOL party, are doubtful that Lula and those around him are entirely innocent. Part of the problem, they say, is that the party became too institutionalized, too close to corporate power and detached from its social movement base.

There is a general acceptance on the Left that the impeachment of Dilma Rousseff in 2016 for breaking budgetary rules was a ‘soft’ or parliamentary coup, with the purpose of ending the 13-year rule of the Workers’ Party.

Since the coup, there has been a sharp lurch to the right, with the PMDB-led government shamelessly representing large rural landowning and corporate interests. Draconian reforms to change labour laws to the benefit corporations were passed this week, in spite of strong popular and union resistance. Violence against indigenous people has increased significantly, and there are moves to withdraw indigenous land rights and makes swathes of forest available for agribusiness. The rights of women are also under assault, with moves to further restrict access to abortion.

Many Brazilians have come out on the streets, calling for immediate elections as the government of Michel Temer becomes increasingly embroiled in scandal. Each day it seems less likely that Temer will be able to hold onto his presidency until the 2018 elections.

If Lula win his appeal against imprisonment, there is an outside chance that could still run for president. It’s looking unlikely, though.

But there is no clear alternative to Lula. A large number of possible candidates exist, including the rightwing mayor of São Paulo, João Doria. He is presenting himself as ‘non-political’ – which may go down well with the many Brazilians disgusted by their entire political class. He is an authoritarian – as demonstrated during a recent crackdown on homeless people in São Paulo. He is a millionaire media owner featured on the Brazilian version of The Apprentice. He is perhaps the closest to a Trump or Berlusconi figure on the Brazilian landscape.

Further right is Jair Bolsonaro, the misogynist, homophobe, who praised the army officer responsible for the torture of Dilma Rousseff during the military dictatorship in the 1970s.

On the Left, some are talking about Fernando Haddad of the Workers Party, a former São Paulo Mayor, and even Guilherme Boulos, leader of the homeless workers movement the MTST. Marina Silva of the environmental Rede party is also being mentioned, while centre- left maverick Ciro Gomes has thrown his hat in the ring.

For many of the country’s poor and more marginalized people, it makes no difference who wins. ‘For us, it feels like a coup every day,’ one homeless São Paulo squatter told me. The political disengagement is extreme, as the Workers Party has lost touch with its popular base – and, according to the Car Wash judges, corrupt as well.

Look out for the October issue of New Internationalist which looks at Soft Coups, with a special focus on Brazil.

Five paradoxes about the state of the media


by ZoonarRF/Thinkstock

We are living in a time full of threats – and unprecedented possibilities, especially when it comes to the state of the media. Let’s consider five paradoxes, in no particular order.

Is print dead or reviving?

Rumours of the death of print magazines and newspapers have been circulating for years – but many of us are still here. What’s more, we are seeing signs of a renaissance in independent, alternative print magazines and hyperlocal newspapers.

The internet, that great disrupting technology, has prompted print’s decline, cannibalizing the revenue of publishers. After all, why buy news in print when you get it all for free online? The proportion of readers actually prepared to pay for news online (nine per cent) cannot replace those who used to buy print.1

But the internet has also been amazing for media like ours. In the days before the worldwide web, we never imagined that two million people a year would be reading our content and getting our kind of journalism, rooted in social, economic, global and environmental justice.

Vast sums are generated by online media activity, but the lion’s share lands in the pockets of the tech companies (Facebook, Google, et al). Although they don’t say so, these digital titans are de facto advertising agencies and publishers, profiting from content produced by others who have seen their income streams dry up in the process.2

Is the media hated or loved?

In recent times, the media has been under attack on an unprecedented scale.

The ease with which Donald Trump and his special advisor Steve Bannon, master purveyor of ‘fake news’, have turned the same accusation against outlets reporting unpalatable truths, is quite stunning.

But now we are seeing a reaction against such assaults. Donald Trump’s animosity towards The New York Times and others has been cause for celebration in their subscription departments, as people buy papers (yes, buy them) as an act of support and defiance. Being hated by Trump, or banned from presidential news briefings, has become a badge of honour.

Is news fake or real?

But still, there is tremendous public mistrust of journalism.

Anxieties over ‘fake news’ have reinforced the notion that the media – and those who manipulate it – just tell lies.

It is incredibly easy to spread misinformation today – and for total fabrications to get around the world, unimpeded, in record time. In fact, the technology favours lies over truth.

It’s all in the algorithms. The internet has enabled crafty operators to push out false and eye-catching stories as clickbait for advertisers.

And lies, it turns out, are far more profitable than the truth. Lies, such as Breitbart’s report that a 1,000 strong mob of Muslims attacked and set fire to the cathedral in Dortmund, Germany, do better still. This piece of pure fiction, parading as news, went viral around the world on New Year’s Eve, raking in ad dollars as it went.3

Couple this with the hands-off (‘we are not the media, we are just the technology’) claims of Facebook, Google and Co, and the whole system appears to be spinning out of control.

Most of the extremist sites that have emerged in the US since 2010 are on the Right, politically. But here’s another twist: two ‘hyper-partisan’ sites, the leftwing Liberal Society and the rightwing Conservative 101, are both owned by the same company, American News LLC of Miami. This is the publisher of the viral made-up story that Denzel Washington endorsed Donald Trump. The company now appears to be expanding into religious clickbait, registering the domains and

A cover up or a clean up?

News outfits that tell lies, misinform, or in others ways abuse the press freedom they enjoy, are not new or solely digital.

The tabloid press – especially, but not exclusively, titles owned by Rupert Murdoch – has long had a slippery relationship with the truth and a readiness to invade personal privacy.

Britain’s phone-hacking scandal (centring on murdered teenager Milly Dowler) and the first part of the Leveson Inquiry that ensued, exposed some of the rot.

When certain big players repeatedly pollute the pool of press freedom, it affects the entire media environment. Polls show that trust in the media has plummeted, with confidence in journalists languishing at 25 per cent, on a par with estate agents. In some sectors of the tabloid press it’s down to 11 per cent.5,6

But this sorry state of affairs has produced another reaction – that of active public interest and engagement. Concerned citizens and journalists have been uniting within the Media Reform Coalition 7,8,9 Last December, its Media Democracy Festival at Birkbeck College, London was crammed to capacity.

Pressure is growing on the industry to clean up its act. One reason the British tabloid press has got away with so many abuses is that its system of self-regulation is ineffective. And the industry big beasts are still trying to dodge the bullet, crying that Lord Justice Leveson’s recommendations are tantamount to censorship and violation of press freedom.

The Daily Mail, Murdoch-owned papers The Sun and The Times, and The Express, have joined the Independent Press Standards Organization, a toothless body of their creation.

Their ‘misleading’ press campaign against Leveson’s low-cost arbitration system (adopted by the officially recognized monitor, IMPRESS, and ourselves) was slammed by the UK Parliament’s Culture, Media and Sport Committee.10

Veteran campaigning editor Sir Harold Evans added his voice, recently calling for The Guardian, The Financial Times and others sitting on the fence to sign up to IMPRESS which, he said, offered ‘the best protection for serious news reporting and investigations into corruption and the abuse of power.’11

Owned by the many – or the few?

The final paradox relates to who owns the media. Australia and New Zealand/Aotearoa have some of the most concentrated media ownership in the world. Britain follows not far behind, with three companies owning 70 per cent of national newspapers, and six companies owning 80 per cent of local titles.12 The trend is mirrored worldwide and exacerbated by the economic conditions of the internet, which favours large, highly capitalized companies.13

This reduced pluralism shrinks democracy. The internet and social media may give an impression of diversity, but it is an illusion. Much of the material circulated and recirculated, comes from the same small pool of dis-proportionately powerful content producers and influencers. The media-baron owners often have holdings across different media types – press, broadcasting, online – and cultivate close connections with government to expand their power and profits. Social media, for all its vitality, cannot replace the need for professional journalism that holds power to account.

But there are signs of change. Independent hyperlocals are popping up, set up by journalists who want to do a proper job. Crowdfunding is becoming a more common means of supporting independent investigations.

Social media, for all its vitality, cannot replace the need for professional journalism that holds power to account

New media-ownership models are emerging, like this magazine’s community share offer. The role of media is to inform to the best of its ability and to speak truth to power. It needs to be accountable. This new media model, based on collective ownership rather than by one tycoon, has journalistic ethics and accountability at its heart.

By investing, our readers, supporters, collaborators, can become the owners of New Internationalist. They will be the custodians of our mission, our ethics, our editorial charter (see

It’s an innovative model for a new and challenging era; the next stage on New Internationalist’s co-operative journey towards an expansion of media democracy.

These are times of danger and turmoil for independent media, as we battle through a stormy and unpredictable landscape.

But they are also the most exciting, raw and democratically vibrant of times. And you can be part of it.

  1. Reuters Digital News Report, 2015
  2. New Internationalist, March 2016
  3. The Guardian 7 Jan 2017
  4. Nieman Lab
  10. UK Parliament Culture, Media and Sport Committee,
  11. Statement from IMPRESS, 28 Feb 2017.

Oxford University to throw 21 homeless people on to the streets


One of the richest universities in the world, Oxford University, is using a quick, brutal legal tool to evict homeless people. Vanessa Baird reports.

The 21 homeless people who have been living in a disused building in the centre of Oxford since February have been given just five days to leave, a court decided this week.

At the request of Oxford University, the court issued an Interim Possession Order for the squatters to quit Old Mill at Osney, by Sunday 12 March. The building had been left empty by its university owners for seven years.

The homeless group, including elderly people and single women, were recently evicted from a disused VW garage owned by Oxford University’s Wadham College, which is redeveloping the site to create135 student flats. Wadham College described the squatters as ‘good tenants’ and local residents said they were ‘good neighbours’.

Interim Possession Orders (IPOs), introduced in 2012, are a quick and brutal way for property owners to reclaim possession of their unused and neglected property. It becomes a criminal offence to remain in the building 24 hours after an IPO is served. Anyone doing so can face a fine or prison. Effectively, IPOs criminalize homeless people.

Every night, an estimated 100 people are sleeping rough in Oxford, a situation made worse by local council cuts in funding of homeless shelters. Miranda Shaw, a local resident, commented: ‘It’s ridiculous that people are still on the streets in one of the richest cities in the world with so many empty buildings. The university owns so much of the city centre.

‘It would be incredible if the University could show leadership in the face of corrosive cuts at both a national and city level. We are facing a social emergency and this is now the second time that Oxford University has closed its doors. We hope that this will change in the future.’

Usually IPOs are enforced within 24 hours, but the group, now calling itself Osney Open House, were given an extension until Sunday. In a statement read in court they said:

‘The persons unknown feel that an IPO is inappropriate in this case and that a conventional Possession Order would allow conclusion of the negotiations with Oxford University Estates and opportunity to leave the building safely.’

Oxford University said that it requested an extension so that ‘the occupiers are given a few days to pack up their belongings without compromising our right to reclaim the property’.

It added: ‘We have been given to understand that the occupiers will be vacating over the weekend. Homelessness is a serious issue in Oxford, and we will continue to work with local stakeholders on this matter. Osney Open House have made a serious point by drawing attention to this issue, and we hope to continue working with them. In particular, we would like to see how we can work with and support local homeless charities in the future.’

Perhaps by releasing some of their many empty buildings for use by self-help projects to tackle homelessness – like, Osney Open House, for example?

For more info and updates visit:

This is what it takes to stand up: the essence of courage


Sometimes the unarmed, but brave, have the greater power. This protester is confronting Louisiana police after the killing by police of yet another African-American youth. © Jonathan Bachman/Reuters

Who doesn’t love a tale of courage?

They pop up in all cultures, traditions and eras. From shepherd-boy David facing giant Goliath, to Gilgamesh defeating the monster Humbaba, to Harry Potter and friends confronting deadly Lord Voldemort.

There’s something exhilarating about individuals, pitted against the odds, rising above fear and narrow concerns about self-preservation.

And when real life provides examples of valour, our faith in human nature, in the possibility of virtue, is enhanced.

Take the passengers who in 2015 tackled and disarmed an AK47-wielding terrorist on a French train, saving who knows how many lives.

Or an ordinary – and extraordinary – woman called Ingrid Loyau Kennett, who in May 2013 was travelling on the number 53 bus when she spotted a young soldier, Lee Rigby, being knocked down and brutally hacked to death on a London street.

Ingrid leapt off the bus and tried to save Rigby’s life – in vain; his head had been almost severed. Then she went right up to his two assailants (armed with machete, meat cleaver and pistol) and talked to them – for 12 long minutes – until help arrived.

Her aim, she later said, was to keep them occupied so that they would not go on to attack more people, including women and children who had gathered nearby. When help arrived, she got back on a bus and continued her journey. In interviews later, she said she did not see her actions as heroic – she was just doing her job ‘as a human being’.

So what is courage?

To Aristotle it was a virtue, the greatest quality of the mind. For Richard Avramenko, who teaches political science at the University of Wisconsin, courage is the primary means by which humans raise themselves out of their individualistic, isolated and materialistic existence.

He writes: ‘Courage... is the willingness to risk life and limb for the sake of something. In other words, courage reveals what we care about... It reveals that which inspires us to overcome ourselves. And it is the self-overcoming character of courage that makes it so poignant. When we are witness to real acts of courage, we know immediately what matters most fundamentally to the courageous actor – and it is not herself, not her own physical well-being.’ 1

In praising fearlessness we may be making a virtue of deficiency

Physical bravery attracts most attention, winning honours and awards. But courage takes many forms – moral, intellectual, emotional, psychological, political, social, spiritual, financial...

You have to pluck up your courage to express ideas that are not majority opinion, or to face the hostility or ridicule that may accompany departing from social norms.

Brave is not fearless: the science

Often we call brave people ‘fearless’. But courage isn’t fearlessness. As Nelson Mandela recalled: ‘I learned that… the brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers fear.’

If there is no fear to start with, there is no need for courage.

Admitting we are afraid can make us feel small. But often the first step towards being brave is to feel fear – then do the thing we are afraid of anyway, to paraphrase Sheila Jeffers’ self-help classic. 2

Even those who feel no fear at the time of performing heroic deeds may find that the trauma catches up with them later – as was the case for Loyau Kennett, who became depressed in the months following the event.

In praising fearlessness we may be making a virtue of deficiency. There is, indeed, a rare medical condition called Urbach Wiethe disease that damages the amygdala – the part of the brain that processes fear – and may result in total fearlessness.

‘In biological terms,’ says science author Jeff Wise, ‘bravery emerges from a primal struggle between the brain’s decision-making hub, the prefrontal cortex, and the focal point of fear: the amygdala. When we find ourselves in an unexpected and dangerous situation, the amygdala sends a signal to the prefrontal cortex that interferes with our ability to reason clearly.’ 3

It can be paralysing.

Ingrid Loyau Kennett talkes to Lee Rigby's killer, still holding bloody knife, to try to prevent him from attacking other people.


People who act bravely appear not to succumb to fear. Sometimes their calm, practical responses derive from intense preparation. Firefighters, airline staff, paramedics, soldiers and the like, will have been trained for dangerous, unexpected situations. Their responses may be like ‘muscle memory’.

In one 2009 study, Yale University psychiatrist Deane Aikins subjected soldiers to extremely stressful situations to see what happened to their body chemistry. He found those who remained calm produced less of the ‘stress’ hormone cortisol. They also made more neuropeptide Y, a compound that counteracts the effects of cortisol. His work suggests that by measuring hormone levels it is possible to predict who will keep their cool under pressure – and who won’t. 4 More recently, neuroscientists have identified a brain region called the subgenual anterior cingulate cortex (sgACC for short) as the part activated during courageous acts. 5

Passion and compassion

But for many analysts, the cultivation of courage has more to do with emotions. ‘Follow your heart’ is how psychotherapist Melanie Greenberg puts it in her useful analysis of the six main attributes of courage, which provides the framework for this article. She quotes the pioneering, 20th century Japanese actor, Midori Komatsu: ‘Passion is what drives us crazy, what makes us do extraordinary things, to discover, to challenge ourselves. Passion should always be the heart of courage.’

And so should compassion.

In this magazine we feature half a dozen exceptionally brave people and their accounts are dominated by compassion, as well as passion.

Tatiana Vivienne braves daily violence in the Central African Republic to reach the most vulnerable girls and women; Alicia Cawiya, in Ecuador, defies authority at every level to defend her people and their environment from ruin by oil companies; Jlo Córdoba in Honduras, despite numerous attempts on her life, keeps challenging impunity for those who murder and abuse transgender people, because she ‘loves’ her community.

As the 6th century BCE Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu says, being loved gives you strength, but loving deeply makes you brave. He also says: ‘From caring comes courage.’

It’s a view that might be shared by Abdullah Al Khateeb, also featured in this edition, who will not be deterred from his humanitarian work with refugees though it has turned him into a target for both sides in the Syrian conflict. ‘When you care about people, your responsibility is total,’ he says.

Stand up for what is right

Brave people are often those who take a moral stand and have a clear sense of purpose.

Environmental activist S Mugilan, like others we interviewed, ignores death threats to confront powerful business interests and their hired thugs who are ‘swindling and destroying’ the state of Tamil Nadu. He puts his courage down to being ‘the kind of person who is determined to change how things work’.

'A hero is no braver than an ordinary man, but he is braver five minutes longer'

Today, some of the bravest people in the world are defenders of human rights. ‘Human rights activists in Saudi Arabia are an endangered species,’ said Amnesty International’s Lynn Maalouf recently. ‘One by one they are vanishing – prosecuted, jailed, intimidated into silence or forced into exile – highlighting the authorities’ zero-tolerance approach to freedom of expression.’

Whistleblowers, too, pay heavily for their efforts. Often they lose not only their jobs, but their friends, relationships, homes and liberty. Chelsea Manning, Edward Snowden and, more recently, Barrett Brown, have felt the weight of US government retribution for their exposures of abuses the state wishes to conceal. 6

In all these cases, solidarity, the existence of people out there who support the whistleblower’s actions, is vital.

Persistence in adversity

‘A hero is no braver than an ordinary man,’ wrote poet Ralph Waldo Emerson, ‘but he is braver five minutes longer.’

Staying power in the heat of adversity is a frequent characteristic of the valiant engaged in long-term struggles for social justice.

Take Turkish lawyer and former newspaper editor Eren Keskin, hauled before the courts more than 100 times for her criticisms of the government, particularly its treatment of the Kurdish minority. Over the years she has been given several prison sentences. Following the failed military coup in Turkey in July 2016, her passport was revoked. Erin was to have been interviewed for this edition, but she is once again in court.

As artist and writer Mary Anne Radmacher puts it: ‘Courage does not always roar. Sometimes courage is like the little voice at the end of the day that says I’ll try again tomorrow.’

Illustration by Donaugh O'Malley

Donaugh O'Malley

Expanding horizons

In his seminal study The Hero with a Thousand Faces, mythologist Joseph Campbell identified key ingredients of the archetypal hero’s journey.

She or he leaves their familiar surroundings and passes into a special world where they must confront demons, face challenges and ordeals, and encounter their worst fears. They need to conquer their fear and will ultimately claim ‘treasure’ or reward. Then they return home to their familiar world, but they themselves will have changed.

The people we are featuring in this magazine have, in various ways, left their familiar surroundings, journeyed, and grown. For Angolan rapper Luaty Beirão, the journey has been literal, political, personal. While in prison for speaking out against a repressive government, he became stronger. He thought: ‘I won’t accept your threats. If you want to kill me, do it. With each step I found I could take one step further. I found out I had the guts for things I hadn’t imagined before.’

For all the physical privations the brave people in these pages have suffered, their actions have enabled them to overcome fear, to grow, and in a moral sense claim the ‘treasure’.

Ultimate courage

Finally, there is what some people call ‘spiritual’ courage. This includes the bravery we may show when we endure suffering – and ultimately, face death. Deep down it’s the thing most of us fear most. I have witnessed people I love dig deep into their reserves of courage as they experience terminal illness. I have seen how their courage encourages those around them to be brave too. Courage does that. It encourages; it is positively infectious, even in the worst, most hopeless seeming of situations.

Good courage, bad courage?

While scientific studies of courage are intriguing – one Israeli study puts the subject into an MRI tunnel, then exposes them to snakes! – they have some worrying implications.

It would be deeply troubling – if not plain immoral – if such research led to the development of a ‘courage pill’ that could turn soldiers into ‘perfect’, fearless fighters.

Fear can stop us taking necessary action. But it can also give us pause for thought. The trick is not to let it take hold, and to be able to transcend it when we need to. ‘There’s only one way with fear and that’s through it,’ says psychologist Noam Shpancer. It’s an ongoing, dynamic process, that will never be completed and that is essential for making change happen, in the individual and in the world.

Of course, bravery does not always involve virtuous action. It can be violent, militaristic, macho, tribal. ‘This is the paradox of courage,’ according to Avramenko. ‘On the one hand, it is about self-overcoming and commitment to others. On the other hand... it is exclusionary and violent.’

He sees the shift away from an ancient, martial conception of courage to one that is political and justice-based as a way through this theoretical conundrum. The kind of courage we are focusing on in this edition is the justice-based variety. It is empathetic and community minded, geared towards resisting and limiting harm.

One common theme in all the stories is caring, and the comradeship that courage fosters as it creates a virtuous circle of valour. Many of our interviewees point to the work of others, and the sacrifices they have made, as sources of inspiration.

Such courage is the lifeblood of a healthy individual and a healthy society. It’s what makes for meaningful, purposeful change, challenging the cynicism of that slick, fashionable, armchair elision of the word ‘brave’ with ‘stupid’.

It inspires and impels the human spirit towards building a better world.

Before you go...

It’s a critical time to build media that brings people together – not drives them apart. That means journalism that creates an inclusive global community, and emphasizes that the struggles of people are often in opposition to the same elite-driven globalization and share the same aspiration to a global, common good.

At New Internationalist, we have never had a rich benefactor or a media tycoon bankrolling what we do. So it makes sense for us to turn to our readers to help shape the kind of journalism that makes the case for something better.

On 1 March, we are launching an ambitious Community Share Offer, opening up ownership of New Internationalist to ordinary people all over the world. If you are interested in joining us, visit

  1. Richard Avramenko, Courage: the Politics of Life and Limb, University of Notre Dame Press, 2011,
  2. Sheila Jeffers, Feel the fear and do it anyway, Vermilion, 2012 (first published in 1987).
  3. Jeff Wise, ‘What makes people brave’, Readers Digest, 2013,
  4. Ian Sample, ‘Natural born heroes’, The Guardian, 2009,
  5. Daniela Schiller, ‘Snakes in the MRI Machine’, Scientific American, 2010
  6. The Courage Foundation

Let’s stop pussyfooting. Trump’s presidency = fascism

Anti-Trump protesters in Oxford

We have to make a stand: anti-Trump demonstrators in Oxford after the announcement of Donald Trump's travel ban on citizens from seven mainly Muslim states. © Vanessa Baird

Among the chants that rang out as thousands took to the streets in anti-Trump marches in cities and towns across Britain on Monday night was: ‘This is what democracy looks like!’

Indeed. And it was heartening to be part of it. Even Oxford, not known for its febrile political culture, massed thousands in a speedy response to two things: President Donald Trump’s travel ban on all citizens from seven mainly Muslim states, and British Prime Minister Theresa May’s promise of a state visit (Queen, pomp and circumstance included) to the new US leader.

The 90-day travel ban, officially on the grounds of protecting Americans from terrorism, demonizes a specific group of people on the basis of race and religion and effectively calls open season on Muslims. It is also without logic. Syria, Iran and Iraq are among the countries included but not Saudi Arabia, which provided most of the bombers for 9/11 – still the biggest terrorist attack the US has ever suffered.

Over the weekend we witnessed the pain and suffering of people, many of them refugees, affected by the US president’s brutal and suddenly imposed executive order. That the chaotic order was made on Holocaust Day was not lost on many observers.

But we still seem reluctant to say, of the politics emerging from the White House, that: ‘This is what fascism looks like!’

Now trying to define fascism is a tricky and highly contentious activity. But a quick survey of around 20 different political and philosophical attempts to do so reveals that Donald Trump meets the criteria of a fascist leader (pudgy) hands down.

In the first few days of his presidency, the fascist rhetoric has turned into reality. The scapegoating and apocalyptic fearmongering that fuels fascism has not toned down with high office. Trump’s wish to bring back torture is a clear indication of repressive intent. The similarities with Nazi Germany in its early days are too chilling to ignore.

But if you use ‘fascist’ to describe Trump – or indeed any of the other nationalist leaders on the rise in Europe (including Britain) – you are likely to be accused of hyperbole.  

Part of the problem is that the word has been overused, especially by some on the Left, to insult anything they don’t like. But when you see an actual wolf in the henhouse, it’s necessary to cry out that this is what you are seeing – rather than quietly say that there’s a greyish-sort-of-a-dog about.

It may be semantics but what we call things matters. One of the most destructive effects of the machinery of fascism is that if you do not properly identify it and take a stand against it, you can easily become a part of it – especially if you do not, at this moment, belong to a group that is being targeted.

Those who lick the boots (let’s be polite) of fascists – say, in the quest of a post-Brexit trade deal, or to protect a ‘special relationship’ – need to have no illusions about what they are doing.

Identifying Trump as a fascist puts on the spot those who are doing his bidding, and gives due credit to those who follow their conscience and refuse to obey, as he makes his way through the list of targets – Muslims, women, sexual minorities – whose rights and freedoms are to be assailed.

Hitler was democratically elected. Say it three times, à la Trump. The trouble was not enough people, at the time, saw the monstrosity of his hate-fuelled politics and where they could lead. Not enough people took a stand at the time – or in time.

This is why immediacy and numbers matter – whatever the armchair cynics at the BBC say about the pointlessness of protest.

We need to be out there on the streets wherever in the world we live; clogging the system with our petitions; holding politicians, officials, corporations to account; agitating at every point and turn.

This is a critical moment in history. The good news is that we are alive to do something about it.

Here are some petitions:

Avaaz petition against Trump bigotry

Petition to UK Parliament to stop Trump state visit

Open Rights Group against UK passing bulk data to Trump’s administration

And a planned protest on 18 March in London.

Squatters make home in the heart of inequality


Neo, resident of Iffley Road Open House, with community donated clothes on wooden palettes. The building was formerly a VW garage. by Vanessa Baird

Vanessa Baird reports on how a disused garage near her Oxford home has become a beacon of hope.

There's a sign reading 'solidarity'. On the opposite side of the disused garage, an elderly homeless man is painting a portrait on a vast canvass.

Donated clothes have been arranged in neat piles on pallets. A stack of shelves hold donated food. A gender-free bathroom boasts a shower, towels and toilet paper. A dog sleeps circled up on a cushion while residents go about their activities.

A couple of people are cooking in a cosy kitchen has been rigged up, complete with microwave, table and fairy lights. Someone is watching a donated TV in the impromptu hardboard living room, thrown up buy a local carpenter.

Suddenly the empty two-storey former VW garage – that for years I've walked past thinking 'this is obscene in a city with an acute housing shortage' – looks like home. A shelter for homeless people on an evening that weather forecasters are predicting 'snow thunder'.

Photo by Chris Spannos

In the past year the number of people sleeping rough in Oxford has risen by 50 per cent, the local council forced by government cuts to slash homeless support by 38 per cent.

Neo, who is helping to organize the squat on East Oxford's Iffley Road says: 'We're not here to be a thorn in anyone's side. It's a humanitarian issue. We just want to get people a place to stay during the winter. Then we will leave. '

The squatters have said as much in a meeting with Oxford University's Wadham College, which owns the site. (Henry McGarth, the homeless painter, is hoping to sell the college a magnificent cityscape he has completed.) But, it turns out that it is the Midcounties Co-operative – which has a convenience store just yards away – that has a lease on the site and has started legal action to evict the squatters.

'The only real crime is keeping a building empty in a city where more than 100 people have to sleep rough every night'

Maxine, one of the volunteers says: 'We were a bit thrown. We thought we were dealing with Wadham and then this legal notice came from the Co-op.' A hearing is scheduled for Oxford Magistrates Court on Friday. The squatters are trying to get a postponement in order to develop their legal case for staying put.

Wadham College is apparently concerned about 'health and safety' issues relating to the ground floor former garage, though the squatters have had it safety checked by an electrician. They have also contacted the electricity provider to arrange to pay for the power they use.

Photo by Vanessa Baird

'The ground floor is not ideal as living quarters,' concedes Maxine, 'but it's a lot better better than sleeping out in this weather.' The 11 flats above, meanwhile, are fine.

At present, about 15 homeless people are living in the building, and there is a rota of volunteers. Basic 'guidelines' are in place – Neo baulks at the word 'rules'. Residents need to respect each other and it's a 'dry house' – no drugs, no alcohol. Priority has been given to single women and older people.

A musician and rough sleeper who has worked with homelessness charities for years, Neo was alerted by activists who secured the building on New Year's Eve. 'I'm thinking we could accommodate about 25 people here,' he says.

Donated food. Photo by Vanessa Baird

One of the most encouraging aspects of the squat has been the overwhelming support that has come from local residents. Donations of food and clothing have been flooding in. 'It's been amazing. People have been really generous. And our petition has attracted over 4,000 signatures,' says Maxine.

'But now is a critical time,' she adds. 'We are in limbo. We need the Co-op to drop their legal action.'

Wadham has a reputation for being one of the more politically progressive Oxford colleges, while the Co-operative presents itself as an ethical retailer that helps communities.

Let's see how each lives up to their image.

The site is due for demolition in March, after which it will be redeveloped by Wadham College as student accommodation. 'The timing is good,' says Neo.

Maybe both Wadham College and Midcounties Co-operative will draw inspiration from Oxford residents and others who are supporting the squat. When it comes to housing the only real crime is keeping a building empty in a city where more than 100 people have to sleep rough every night.

And maybe, maybe, in spite of draconian laws to prevent it, we are seeing a re-emergence of squatting as an effective grassroots, self-help way of tackling the profound inequality that is homelessness.

Take action:

You can sign the petition to support Iffley Open House.

Urge Midcounties Co-operative to act according to their principles and drop their legal action to evict homeless people from Iffley Road Open House/former VW garage.

Look out for a special issue of the New Internationalist on Homelessness in the near future.

Say ‘no’ to lying, bullying, criminal and monopolizing corporate media!


Rupert Murdoch accepts the 2015 Global Leadership Award. © Hudson Institute

Rupert Murdoch is only part of the problem. Vanessa Baird reports from the Media Democracy Festival in London.

Media outlets that lie, bully and engage in unethical and even criminal activity are about to become even more powerful and less accountable if we don’t act now.

That was the message from the Media Democracy Festival, packed to capacity by media workers and activists at London’s Birkbeck College on Saturday. 

A recent survey shows that public trust in the British media has slipped even further. Only politicians now are less trusted. Currently a handful of men own and control most of the British media and this is set to get worse.

An already fragile media democracy faces a set of new and interconnected threats.

First and most immediate, is a bid announced by Rupert Murdoch’s 21st Century Fox to buy Britain’s largest broadcaster, Sky, in which it has a large share. Murdoch’s massive media empire already includes News Corp, The Sun and The Times titles in Britain, the Wall Street Journal, Dow Jones and Fox News in the US and a long string of papers in Australia.

Apart from giving Murdoch an even larger share of the market, there are serious doubts as to whether Rupert Murdoch is a ‘fit and proper person’ to take further control of the media. A petition has been launched to stop him.

The billionaire media baron was the first person that Theresa May, on becoming Britain’s Prime Minister, visited in New York.

‘If this [Sky] deal goes ahead,’ said Labour MP John McDonnell, ‘it will prove that the intimate relationship between political and media elites has been re-established.’

In spite of declining sales, and the rise of the digital titans, newspapers remain disproportionately influential in shaping public and political opinion. Newspaper journalism is the original source of a large proportion of the stories that are broadcast.

‘These newspapers set the agenda and dominate what circulates online,’ said Natalie Fenton, author of Digital, Political, Radical.

Second, the British government appears to be back-peddling on the recommendations of Lord Justice Leveson to tackle the abusive, unethical and even criminal culture of the British tabloid media – exemplified by the hacking of the phone of murdered teenager, Milly Dowler.

The government was due to implement Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act, which has been voted into law with approval of all political parties. This would provide members of the public with a new access to justice when they become victims of abuse by the press. But instead of triggering Section 40, culture secretary Karen Bradley has bowed to pressure from media bosses and put it out to a complex, unnecessary and, some say, ‘deliberately misleading’ process of public consultation. The deadline is 10 January 2017, with the corporate media lobbying hard for its rejection or watering down.

The government also appears to be dragging its feet on the second half of the Leveson Inquiry, which should have started this summer after the last trials into phone hacking and bribery of public officials were concluded. The next stage will examine collusion between police, media and political elites.

More serious wrongdoing (including the conduct of murder inquiries) will come to the surface through this process. ‘It’s not just a case of rogue reporters. No newspaper culture is as criminal as [Britain’s],’ said Peter Jukes author of The Fall of the House of Murdoch.

There are strong incentives for the tabloid media, the Metropolitan police and the government to stall it and work public opinion against the Inquiry on the basis of cost.

Third, corporate media editors are engaged in a campaign to discredit and disable Impress, the independent regulator that recently gained authorization from the Press Recognition Panel. Corporate editors from The Sun, The Daily Mail and others have routinely attacked both the Leveson process and Impress in order, they say, to defend the ‘freedom of the press’ from ‘state interference’.

Commenting on tabloid claims to be defending press freedom, writer Jukes said, ‘Free-speech absolutists often turn out to be Nazis. We have to fight the stupid idea that a “statute” is somehow the same as “the state” and that all law is state control.’

The tabloid editors are urging their readers to, in effect, deny ordinary members of the public access to affordable justice when victimized by a press spreading falsehoods. Impress tries to resolve complaints through arbitration rather than costly court cases, which only super rich individuals or large media corporations can afford.

Via their front organization the News Media Association, the corporate bosses have now launched a judicial review against the approval of Impress.

‘There is no threat to freedom of expression presented by Impress,’ said Brian Cathcart, professor of journalism at Kingston University. ‘The only freedoms that are being challenged are the freedom to bully and to lie.’

Impress is not about censorship but about accountability. It cannot prevent anything being published. But it does hold the media accountable for any lies or inaccuracies it publishes.

The regulator has won the backing of the National Union of Journalists, welcoming the whistleblower provision for reporters pressured by their bosses to act unethically. New Internationalist joined Impress several months ago, on the basis that the media environment is a common good that must be protected, and not just the domain of companies and owners that pollute it with bad practice.

Among the corporate media opposed to Impress is The Guardian – although many of its reporters privately support it, including investigative journalist Nick Davies. The Guardian’s commercial ambition to capture the US market is reckoned to be a major factor in its reluctance to sign up to a British-based regulator, those attending the Media Democracy Festival heard.

The biggest selling media, including The Sun and The Daily Mail, have signed up to an alternative pseudo-regulator – the Independent Press Standard Organisation (IPSO). This toothless, unrecognized body, which is not Leveson-compliant, is set and run by newspaper bosses and editors themselves. It is no better than the defunct Press Complaints Commission it replaces.

IPSO’s effectiveness was on display recently when 400 people complained about Sun columnist Katie Hopkins’ description of immigrants as ‘cockroaches’ – and a further 200,000 signed a petition calling for her to be sacked. IPSO responded by saying that ‘bad taste’ was not within its remit. More than 2,000 complaints about Sun columnist Kelvin McKenzie’s Islamophobic attack on Channel 4 newsreader Fatima Manji for wearing headscarf, were also dismissed.

The way forward

The aim of the Media Democracy Festival is to build a movement for democratic and accountable media and provide a forum in which media workers and activists can exchange ideas.

If you care about media democracy, here are a few things you can do.

  • Sign this petition to stop Murdoch’s Sky bid.
  • Tell the government to get on with Leveson, including implementing section 40 in full and starting the second part of the inquiry. There’s a handy template here.
  • Write to the editor of the Guardian and urge it to join Impress: [email protected]
  • Tackle racist and sexist reporting in papers such as The Sun, The Express and The Daily Mail by urging big brands to stop advertising via the Stop Funding Hate Stop Funding Hate | Facebook Lego has scrapped contracts with The Daily Mail thanks to SFH.
  • Call for media reform and caps on concentration of media ownership and to encourage pluralism.
  • Join the call for a levy on digital giants to support new news providers.
  • Support media pluralism from the bottom up too, calling for policies to help smaller, independent media, especially co-operatives.

At the festival, New Internationalist was involved in workshops on Real Media Training and on Media Co-ops. The latter featured speakers from The Ferret, Positive News, Bristol Cable, and Sheffield Live as well as New Internationalist, possibly the longest surviving media co-op in Britain.

The big challenge, especially for alternative and independent media, is sustainability. Increasingly, the idea of shared ownership is gaining traction, as a means of financing decent, ethical, independent journalism in a hostile landscape.

This is the route that New Internationalist will be taking in Spring 2017, when we launch a Community Share Offer. The idea is to expand our co-operative and global justice mission, enabling our readers, collaborators and supporters to invest in a media environment in which they want to live and to become part owners of New Internationalist. You can find out more about this on our ‘Own us’ page.

A previous version of this article stated PM Theresa May had hired Craig Woodhouse, from the Murdoch-owned Sun, as her special adviser. In fact, he's adviser to the culture secretary, Karen Bradley, not the PM. The article was edited on 13 December 2016.

A previous version of this article stated Impress gained authorization by the Press Regulation Panel. In fact, the organization is called Press Recognition Panel. The article was edited on 13 December 2016.

'Fidel Castro is not dead'


Fidel Castro speaks during a visit to Luanda, Angola in March, 1984. © REUTERS/Prensa Latina

Vanessa Baird reports on activist reaction to the passing of the world's great internationalist.

There was a minute's silence at Adelante, the yearly gathering of Latin America activists in London on Saturday who had woken up to news that Fidel Castro was no more.

And then another minute's silence at the end of the day, rich in tributes to the towering figure of socialism and internationalism.

It was fitting. Just one minute would barely reflect the revolutionary leader who rarely gave a speech lasting less than four hours and ruled Cuba for five decades.

But the achievements that most people kept coming back to during the day, were not leadership or longevity but two ordinary areas of everyday life: health and education.

Under Castro's leadership, Cuba went from being a country of poor and largely illiterate people, to one that puts most of the rest of the Western world to shame with its impressive health and education statistics.

As rich countries, such as the US and Britain, have fostered growing inequality and are failing to meet the public health and education needs of their populations, Cuba has for years provided high quality free health care and education for all. The result: a literacy rate higher than the US's and life expectancy that equals it.

Through its international programme Cuba has exported teachers and health workers around the world, most recently to West Africa to tackle the Ebola epidemic. In Kashmir, Cubans were the first international responders to the country's earthquake, and the last to leave.

Meanwhile, Cuban support for liberation struggles in Angola and Mozambique, played a key role in the defeat of apartheid in South Africa. On his release from prison, one of the first trips Nelson Mandela wanted to make was to Cuba to thank Fidel Castro.

But anyone listening to the BBC's mealy mouthed and biased coverage of Castro's death on Saturday morning, would not have come away with a sense that Castro might been one of the good guys.

Disproportionate time was given to right-wing Cuban exiles in Miami and their supporters in the media. According to one of the conference speakers, journalist Victoria Brittain, the BBC used clips that were several years old. She urged people to complain to media outlets if they were unhappy about the coverage.

Former MP George Galloway commented that every interview he had given on Fidel's death during the day was dominated by the issue of human rights in Cuba. One US journalist asked him if there was torture in Cuba, to which he replied 'the only place that has torture in Cuba today is ‎Guantánamo Bay' – inside the US detention centre.

Without doubt, many Cubans living on the island today want more freedom. There has been some loosening of the state's grip on several aspects of life. Under Fidel's brother, the current President Raúl Castro, a reform programme has lifted many restrictions on freedom of movement and to do business. Most political prisoners have now been released. Freedom of expression and of the press remains restricted, though. But in a world full of human rights abuses, with the US and Britain systematically taking part in torture in their 'war on terror', Cuba hardly features as a major violator.

The continued domination of the Cuban Communist Party and reluctance to embrace a multiparty system, needs to be seen in context. The fear that the benefits of the revolution could be swiftly undone is real and underpinned by decades of extreme US hostility and interference, a crippling trade embargo, and the continued occupation of ‎Guantánamo Bay. Not to mention the many CIA plots to kill Castro himself.

There are few shining examples of successful and enduring revolutions that you can point to in the world today. But Cuba is a candidate. The small island has been a David to the US Goliath; a source not only of inspiration, but of practical and generous support to the those around the world who are struggling for justice, equality or just a basic quality of life.

RELATED: The new Cuba, New Internationalist magazine, October 2014, Issue 476

Take, for example, the thousands of people who were going blind but who can now see thanks to Operation Miracle, a Cuban programme to deliver cataract operations to people in some of the poorest and most remote parts of the world, such as the Bolivian high Andes.

There were many moving tributes to Fidel Castro during the course of Saturday's conference, from Latin American activists and politicians, and British figures including former London mayor Ken Livingstone and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn.

But one of the most rousing came from George Galloway, who delivered a long list of Castro's living legacy around the globe, concluding: 'Fidel Castro is not dead... he lives on in the hopes and dreams of poor people everywhere.'

When Two Worlds Collide – people vs corporate greed


A scene from the documentary.

Vanessa Baird reviews a gripping new documentary from Peru which has global implications.

In 2007 Peru's President, Alan Garcia, declared his country open to foreign corporations for extraction of its natural resources – mineral, gas, oil, timber.

And within the first few minutes of When Two Worlds Collide, a tense documentary directed by Heidi Brandenburg and Mathew Orzel, we see Garcia courting US capital and signing a free trade agreement with President Bush.

What Garcia did not reckon on, however, was the clarity and strength of the resistance that would come from the indigenous communities of the Peruvian Amazon. The people who, as this film shows, are so often dismissed by the metropolitan elite as 'primitive', 'savage' or in Garcia's words 'obstacles to progress’; and 'dogs in the manger'.

These people soon cottoned on to the fact that the new laws passed by the Garcia administration to make their ancestral lands 'open to business', without consulting them, were unconstitutional and contrary to international accords (ILO 169, chiefly.)

Their appointed leader, the quietly charismatic Alberto Pizango, set about trying to get an intransigent government to repeal the laws. To no avail. There were mass mobilizations of indigenous people and road blocks that threatened the national economy. In Congress, parliamentarians who were about to debate repealing the contentious new laws, were suddenly stopped from debating them.

And on 5 June 2009, the war of words descended into violence. Police, trying to clear a roadblock near the Amazonian town of Bagua, opened fire on protesters who retaliated with spears.

The following morning, government forces launched a full scale attack on indigenous protesters, moving into the town itself. (We now know, thanks to WikiLeaks, that the Peruvian government was being pressured by the US to use force against the protesters). This film captures the attack in all its shocking ferocity, taking us right to the frontline of the action.

Word spread that a genocide was taking place and so elsewhere a group of indigenous activists seized 38 police at a Petro Peru installation and threatened to kill them. As one TV journalist had predicted, the government's approach to the crisis had all the wisdom of 'dropping a match on gasoline'.

An understanding between indigenous protesters and police that they wouldn't attack each other – 'brother police, our fight is not with you but with the government', was one indigenous chant – fell by the wayside.

During two days of violence, 23 police officers and 10 civilians lost their lives and hundreds were injured. Those are the official figures. The story of the massacre at Bagua has been told before, including in this magazine by our regular contributor in Peru, Stephanie Boyd.

But what makes this documentary exceptional is the proximity to Pizango that the filmmakers enjoyed over a period of several years. We see him at every stage, in his rainforest community, bathing, chatting intimately with his father, addressing a meeting; in Lima, lobbying politicians, escaping arrest by climbing out of the window; in exile in Nicaragua, then returning to face the music in 2010; and finally giving evidence in the first phase of the trials against the Bagua protesters in 2013.

By then the hated laws had been repealed in a government climbdown and Garcia was no longer in power. But deals are still made with foreign corporations 'under the table' and without consulting the indigenous inhabitants of the land. Over 50 protesters remain charged with crimes associated with the Bagua events; Pizango and three other indigenous leaders are accused of inciting murder, kidnapping and conspiracy against the state – charges they deny. No government official has been brought to justice to date over the affair.

Pizango speaks simply but with a depth of environmental wisdom. Don't destroy nature for short-term gain, he says. If we contaminate it and it will die and so will we. Film footage of rivers turned into hellish ponds of crude oil and forests stripped bare by logging, show us what he is talking about. 'We only borrow the land, we do not own it. It is our duty to look after it so that we hand to future generation in a good a state or better than we found it,' he says.

We see the indigenous leader making mistakes (declaring the protest an 'insurgency' in a country that suffered decades of appalling violence on account of a Shining Path 'insurgency' was not a wise move). His early reluctance to express regret at the police deaths as well as the indigenous victims was unhelpful.

For dramatic impact, the film presents the central conflict very much as a story of two powerful leaders, Garcia and Pizango, pitted against each, with two contradicting world-views. But the reality that emerges, through interviews and a wealth of painstakingly edited archive material, is far more complex than that.

For a start, there are all the people in between, who are neither indigenous Amazonians nor members of the neo-liberal elite. Take Flor Montenegro, the impressive widow of a police commander who lost his life in the violence. Through tears of grief at his funeral she is able to extend a hand of peace to her 'indigenous brothers'. Or Felipe Bazan, who, in his quest to find his missing police-officer son, finally asks Pizango for help. Even after he has discovered the worst, the father's verdict is: 'Ordinary people died because of the government's greed'. What is it, he says 'when oil or a piece of gold is more than life?'

It would have been good if we could have heard more from the families of indigenous victims of the Bagua massacre and the impact the tragedy had on them. Also, there should have been mention of reports that scores of indigenous protesters are missing and the death toll is probably much higher than official figures suggest.

But, quibbles aside, this feature-length doc is a tremendous achievement, especially bearing in mind it's a debut for Brandenburg and Orzel. It deals with an extremely complex national reality, providing a narrative that is both in-depth and dramatic. The photography is stunning, and the editing tight enough to keep the narrative moving at a cracking pace. The issues raised are key to both democracy and environmental survival. It's a story that is about specific events in Peru but which also has global resonance; it's relevant to all who share, and will share, this planet.

Star rating ****

When Two Worlds Collide is currently on release in Britain.

To read more about the indigenous resistance to corporate greed in Peru see our award winning magazine Nature's Defenders.