issue 252 - February 1994
Salsa star stands for president
Panamanian salsa star Ruben Blades, 45, is running for president in May 1994 elections intended to seal the Central American nation’s transition from dictatorship to democracy.
The Harvard-educated singer, who popularized the Caribbean-beat salsa sound the world over, has led every opinion poll, normally scoring twice as much as his nearest rivals. And the grassroots Papa Egoro movement he founded in 1991 – named after a Panamanian Embera Indian term equivalent to 'Mother Earth' – has risen from obscurity to be the second most popular party in Panama.
‘I think that people are so disappointed with the traditional forms of politics that they’re – we’re all – turning to outsiders,’ says Blades. His popularity has stunned Panama’s mainstream politicians, who are used to rotating power among a few well-entrenched oligarchies.
But it has delighted ordinary Panamanians who worship his music, and the media who have compared him to other political outsiders such as Ross Perot (US), Alberto Fujimori (Peru) and Våclav Hável (Czech Republic).
Blades was born the son of a Panamanian musician-turned-police-detective in a poor neighbourhood of Panama City – a stone’s throw from the presidential Palace of Herons he hopes to occupy. He left for the US in 1975 ‘with $100 in my pocket’ and is now an international star with several albums, concerts and Hollywood film roles to his credit.
His passionate political concerns have underpinned many of his songs, most notably Tiburon, or 'Shark', which attacks US imperialism in Latin America, and El Padre Antonio, a eulogy for Catholic Archbishop Oscar Romero who was murdered in 1980 in the early days of El Salvador’s civil war.
Should he triumph on 8 May, Blades has pledged to reverse the current government’s emphasis on paying Panama’s $6 billion foreign debt – the highest per capita debt in Latin America – and to tackle poverty, corruption and bureaucracy. He also wants a radical overhaul of Panama’s ailing health, education, judicial and infrastructure systems based on grassroots consultation, province by province.
Blades’ biggest potential vote-loser is undoubtedly his 18-year absence from Panama – particularly on the night of 30 December, 1989, when 27,000 US soldiers launched an invasion which devastated parts of Panama City and left hundreds, possibly thousands, dead.
ROMUALD MEIGNEUX / CAMERA PRESS
A new biography of famed oceanographer Jacques-Yves Cousteau by Bernard Violet asserts that he is not quite the champion of wildlife and the environment that he is made out to be. For example, an offshore bauxite-dumping site that fouls the fishing waters near Marseilles was approved some 30 years ago by the French Underwater Research Office – then headed by Cousteau. The book alleges that he mistreats animals to re-create scenes in his movies. It also says that he has long-standing ties with the French Navy and provided scuba gear from one of his companies, Spirotechnique, to the commandos who blew up the Greenpeace ship Rainbow Warrior in New Zealand, killing a photographer.
World Press Review, vol 40, no 8.
On 14 December 1993 the presses started printing the 'final agreement' as soon as the European Union (EU) and the US shook hands on the Uruguay Round of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade. Seven years of negotiation had reached a triumphant conclusion – but no-one had consulted the 100 or so other countries that are supposed to be parties to GATT. 'The biggest trade deal in history' was done without reference to the two most intractable economic issues facing the world: the North/South divide and environmental constraints. Commodity prices are expected to keep falling, which will cost Africa about three billion dollars a year and increase environmental destruction worldwide. The poorest members of the Lomé Convention (most of them former European colonies in Africa) will lose out when it is replaced by GATT. New 'intellectual property' provisions will increase payments for patents from South to North and legitimize the claims by multinational corporations over genetic material taken from the South without payment. A deal that will deepen the North/South divide and promote environmental destruction was nonetheless greeted with euphoria on the world's financial markets.
C. WARD / CAMERA PRESS
The Environmental Investigation Agency has been checking out the trade in rhino horn in South-east Asia. In China, posing as dealers, an undercover team found and filmed the largest stockpile of rhino horn yet seen, representing some 400 dead rhinos – more than are currently alive in Zimbabwe. A Chinese government official tried to sell the horn to them and offered a military escort to Hong Kong. In Taiwan rhino horn was readily available in 19 out of 24 pharmacies surveyed, and in 59 out of 90 pharmacies in Hong Kong. Although the UN is exerting pressure to stop the trade, until these countries cease to import rhino horn poaching will continue. In Zimbabwe non-governmental organizations frustrated by the cuts in funding to national parks by the government have also withdrawn their support. The immediate result has been the slaughter, since August 1993, of between 40 and 60 white rhinos in Hwange National Park, reducing the park’s population to just two animals.
Environmental Investigation Agency
Banana farmers square up to fruit companies
A new regime introduced for bananas by the European Union* in July 1993 is costing tens of thousands of plantation workers their livelihoods and bringing to the boil simmering conflicts in the industry.
Farmers’ actions in Martinique, Ecuador, Panama and – most recently – St Lucia have revealed a growing resistance to abuse by the powerful forces driving the banana trade. On 5 October 1993 two St Lucian farmers were killed by a government paramilitary unit. Many more were tear-gassed as they tried to blockade the centre of the capital, Castries. Prices had fallen to around 60 per cent of the costs of production. Their monopoly exporter, Geest, was rumoured to be preparing to quit.
Under the new regime of EU ‘tariff quotas’ the first two million tonnes of Latin American and Filipino bananas are subject to a tax of $112 per tonne. After that there is a punitive tariff of $952 per tonne. There is no tariff at all on exports from former European colonies in the ACP (Africa, Caribbean, Pacific) group of countries.
The big multinational companies that control the banana trade are angry. The US-based companies Chiquita, Dole and Del Monte backed five Latin American governments in taking their case to the world trade regulating body, GATT, which ruled that the EU would have to make changes.
But the big fruit companies are also to blame for their problems. They miscalculated badly when they greatly increased capacity, presuming that the Single European Market – which came into operation in January 1993 – would reduce tariff barriers against non-ACP members. The UK-based giant Geest set about clear-felling Costa Rican forests for new plantations. But the trade barriers against non-ACP members stayed in place, overproduction saturated the market and the international price of bananas came spiralling down.
Banana workers have not been taking all this lying down. A mass mobilization of trade unionists, environmentalists, peasant-farmers and churchgoers in the streets of San José in Costa Rica in October 1992 caused the companies to pause in their socially and ecologically destructive drive for ‘new pastures’. Honduran plantation workers have secured compensation for cumulative damage from dangerous chemicals used in the drive to boost production – 6,000 now-sterile Costa Rican workers have cases pending in the US.
But attempts to cultivate ‘organic’ fruit with a low input of fertilizers and agricultural chemicals have been blocked by banana companies. In Costa Rica the giant Dole fruit company produced a false title deed to 70 hectares of plantation where the banana workers’ union was about to use organic methods.
Good organization on the ground, networking between regions and concerted pressure from consumers and producers will be needed to build a banana trade based on new principles. There is nothing utopian about this: Filipino banana producers and Japanese consumers have already set up a partnership based on fair remuneration, social justice and ecological sustainability.
Alistair Smith and Chantal Finney
The video El Mundo Curvo del Banano (with subtitles in English) is available from Farmer’s Link, 38 Exchange Street, Norwich NR2 1AX, UK, price £10.00 – £7.50 goes to the Plantation Workers’ Union.
* Following ratification of the Maastricht Treaty the European Community (EC) has now become the European Union (EU).
An Indian General Election is one of the greatest shows on earth. But this time, with the Assembly elections of November 1993, the electorate took everyone for a massive ride. The predictions everywhere were dismal – the Hindu fundamentalist BJP, a party committed to turning India into a fascist state dominated by the politics of communal hatred, would win. It was what the masses wanted, the political pundits agreed. Even the staunchest secularists nodded sadly in agreement.
But the Indian masses – illiterate, divided by caste and creed – voted. And they voted for a secular, non-communal, decent India, exactly a year after the country was shocked by the demolition of the Babri Masjid – the Ayodhya Mosque.
N Ram, editor of Frontline, a leading national magazine, summed it up succinctly: ‘The most important thing is not who has won (although that is somewhat important) but who has lost’.
And the BJP has lost – there are no two ways about it. The BJP declared that the election results would constitute a referendum on its politics and ideology. Furthermore, the elections were in the states of the Hindi heartland, considered the most important region electorally.
The rout was in three states where the BJP held power – the place where Ramjanmabhoomi (a resonant term used by orthodox Hindus for the birthplace of the god Ram) was to be re-established.
Instead the people voted into power two champions of the ‘backward’ classes who espouse a tough brand of secularism. Kanshi Ram made the irreverent suggestion that ‘the best solution for the Ayodhya dispute is to build a public toilet on the disputed site’. A gutsy election Commissioner, Seehan, ensured fair and free elections in all the states concerned. For once there were no strong-arm tactics, no bullying or brow-beating.
And so the voice of the people has been heard. It’s been a vote for secularism, and it gives the country more reason for hope than has been possible for some time.
Mari Marcel Thekaekara
Zoopharmacognosy is a new area of study concerned with animals’ self-medicating behaviour. The findings speak for themselves.
Birds in the Amazonian forests eat toxic caterpillars to protect themselves against parasites. Chimpanzees eat Aspilia leaves containing anti-fungal, anti-viral and anti-parasitic compounds first thing each morning. A Tanzanian park ranger saw an ill chimpanzee who had lost her appetite chew shoots of the bitter Vernonia amygdalina plant. The plant is traditionally prescribed by herbal healers of several African tribes and has several anti-parasitic properties, including against amoebic dysentery, malaria, schistomiasis and leishmanaiasis. Pregnant elephant cows eat a particular species of plant a few days before giving birth and often local people use it to assist human deliveries. Navajo elders recall how bears instructed them to use a forest root against insects. Bears use the root – known as osha or bear root (Lingusticum) – spreading the juice on their body to ward off insects and swallowing it for treating stomach problems and parasites. Pharmacological analysis has revealed it contains compounds active against fungi and insects. Scientists hope that studying such animal behaviour will narrow down their search for useful plants.
Down to Earth, Vol 2, No 13
Indefinite detention for child warriors
The civil war that has been raging in Liberia since 1989 (when the autocratic President Samuel Doe was ousted) is taking its unfair share of casualties from the civilian population. In the first year of the fighting 10,000 children were orphaned or homeless in the capital Monrovia. Famine claims about 500 children weekly and more than 200,000 people face starvation in the country.
Among the warring factions is an armed alliance of West African nations – Ecomog – which entered as peacekeepers but now plays a combat role. It has also become a key player in the continued imprisonment of child prisoners of war (POWs). Children have been enlisting to fight because they have no choice but to join or be shot, or because enlisting can be the only means of getting food. Some join to avenge the deaths of family members.
Now they have their own POW camp in Monrovia. The War Affected Children’s Home was established in December 1992. A local non-governmental organization runs the home, offering counselling and education to the children and attempting to locate their families – difficult as this is with people escaping to other countries or hiding in remote parts.
The first of the children to arrive was a 13-year-old boy plagued by nightmares and covered in fungus, who surrendered because he was simply too tired to carry on fighting. Now there are 60 children between the ages of 9 and 16. Most were brought in malnourished, in rags, some with malaria, all traumatized, disturbed and confused.
The home has no electricity and, like the rest of Monrovia, no running water. Food and medical aid are provided by the United Nations Children’s Fund. The home had planned to keep children for up to six months but Ecomog does not want any children released – even when families have been located. They say they can’t have former soldiers running in the streets whom they cannot shoot because they are children. So the children’s detention and schooling are indefinite.
Repeated attempts at a ceasefire have proved futile. An election has been scheduled for this month but seems unlikely to be held.
Theodore Liasi and Sharmilla Joshi / SOA
‘No force can now stop or even delay our emancipation
from the pain and shame of our racist past.’
Judge Ismail Mohamed, who chaired
negotiations for South Africa’s new