Better than Batman
Corpulent caped crusader: Super Barrio at work in Mexico City.

Local heroes triumph in social crusade

Batman and Robin hover in the shade of City Hall, surrounded by children pleading for autographs. Across the street, another ‘superhero’ leads a delegation of angry housewives, protesting the authorities’ failure to deliver promised housing. But ‘Super Barrio’ (a barrio is a neighbourhood), the paunchy symbol of Mexico City’s inner-city slum-dwellers, is unimpressed by the Caped Crusader’s aura. ‘We don’t need glitigo (foreign) superheroes to come here and save the Mexicans,’ he says of Batman.

Mexico City’s Batman is a 23-year-old student who has cashed in on the comic-book character’s cinematic revival. Every day he creates tableaus on the capital’s streets – selling instant snapshots of children to harried parents. ‘It’s a living,’ laughs Batman, ‘but the rubber suit is very expensive.’ North American superheroes have captured the fancy of generations of Mexicans. Local heroes were never much of a challenge. But in the wake of the 1985 Mexico City earthquake, which killed up to 30,000 people, new local heroes emerged from the rubble. They put on masks and strode out to rescue their neighbourhoods from the Government’s incompetence. Super Barrio was the first to burst out of the comic books.

Initially, Super Barrio was three people who took turns donning the scarlet-and-canary tights and cape. But the role eventually fell to a corpulent candy vendor whose simple, earnest pronouncements soon captured attention. Super Barrio became the emblem of the Assembly of Barrios, one of the liveliest of the darnizificado (earthquake victims) groups to evolve. The creation of this urban hero is credited to Marco Rascon, a politician from the Party of the Democratic Revolution. The popularity of Super Barrio has spawned many copycat superheroes, including: Super Animal Crusader (wears black with a gold lamé cape and eagle crest mask); Super Eco, an environmental crusader who began life as a symbol of opposition to Mexico’s nuclear-power program (wears verdant green, with yellow piping and codpiece); and El Chupacabras Crusader, who defends and avenges debt-wracked members of Mexico’s middle class (wears a fanged mask and business suit).

The plethora of social warriors-turned-heroes is a forceful expression of how popular culture inspires creative resistance to foreign imports in Mexico. Even Batman concedes as much, saying: ‘Super Barrio’s right. Mexico needs to have its Photo by PAUL DOYLE own superheroes. But we have to be active to change Mexico and not just its superheroes.’

John Ross/ Gemini

Lebanon’s peace: cast in stone?
After 15 years of bitter civil war, Lebanon is finally at peace. In the capital, Beirut, the French artist Armand Fernandez has created a permanent, 5,000-tonne reminder of the conflict. His 10-storey sculpture, which cements real Soviet tanks, artillery and armoured vehicles in a concrete grave, transforms objects of death and destruction into symbols of peace and hope. Yet initiatives by the Lebanese Government to cement the nation together are proving problematic. Reconstruction is proceeding amid a curtailing of democratic freedoms, trade-union protests and strikes over low wages. Together with the almost daily exchange of gun and mortar fire between Israel and Hizbollah for sovereignty over south Lebanon, hopes for peace may yet fall on stony ground.

Paul Doyle

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Malaysia paves the way
Kuala Lumpur’s City Hall has built the country’s first dedicated bicycle tracks in the suburban area of Wangsa Maju. Shaded trees are being planted along the bikeways, and sheltered bicycle parking constructed at certain bus stops in the area. Developers will also be required to provide bikeways in any new housing estates.

Sustainable Transport Action Network for Asia and the Pacific

Holiday Inn pulls out of Tibet
The ‘Holiday Inn’ hotel group has not renewed its partnership with the Chinese authorities. As of October 1997, it stopped operating the only luxury hotel in Tibet. Although Holiday Inn gave no reason for its withdrawal, the Free Tibet Campaign believes the decision was influenced by an international boycott of the hotel group, launched by the Campaign in 1993. The Campaign objected to the hotel because its management allegedly co-operated with the Chinese security forces, because it brought financial benefits to the Chinese rather than to local Tibetans and because it was used as a propaganda tool by the Chinese.

Free Tibet Campaign



Gunning for the veil
Women lead the resistance

When Kobra Tehmasbi speaks, men in Camp Ashraf listen. She is a division commander of the National Liberation Army (NLA) and has hundreds of men and women under her command. The NLA is the armed wing of the Paris-based Iranian opposition party, the National Council of Resistance (NCR).

Tehmasbi, 35, is one of thousands of women who constitute more than 70 per cent of the army’s officer corps, and a third of its rank and file. Based in Iraq, near the Iranian border, the NLA claims to be almost 30,000-strong.

‘Most of the repression of the Iranian regime is directed against women,’ says Tehmasbi, adjusting her khaki headscarf. ‘It should not be shocking to find women making up the backbone of an armed resistance.’

Women opposing the austere Islamic regime in Tehran have found inspiration in the NCR’s charismatic leader, Maryam Rajavi, whose husband is the NLA’s senior commander. Some 52 per cent of the NCR’s parliament-in-exile is female.

Rajavi’s dedication stems from her own experience of repression. Two of her sisters were killed in Iran – one during the regime of the deposed Shah and the other by the Islamic state.

Gender roles in the camp differ from elsewhere in the Middle East. Many of the men work as cooks and gardeners, while women lead battalions, drive tanks and pilot helicopters.

‘Here we believe that the most important thing for leadership is not whether you are a man or a woman,’ says Tehmasbi, who commands an armoured division. ‘The question is whether you are competent or not.’

The NLA receives most of its backing from Iraq and has five similar camps. Troops train in the desert and await the opportunity to ‘liberate’ their country. Yet despite its assertions of support for democracy and freedom, the NCR remains a controversial and totalitarian group in many people’s eyes, and has formal relations only with Iraq.

Emad Mekay/ Gemini

Nuclear jails
Prisoners in Belarus are being sent to work in colonies in the radiation zones surrounding Chernobyl. Most of the prisoners have been convicted of offences such as hooliganism, violence and theft. On arrival the predominantly young prison population is dealt a double blow: harsh treatment in labour camps and exposure to dangerous levels of radiation. Doctors refuse to enter the villages because of risks to their health. Troops who guard the enclosures operate on week-long shifts to avoid excessive exposure to radiation. Belarus has one of the highest prison populations in Europe, with 60,000 people in prison custody – one in every 168 people in the country.

Red Pepper, No 39

Two steps back
A ban on airing criticisms of female genital mutilation on government-owned television and radio in Gambia has stirred widespread opposition from women activists. The order has caused confusion in Gambia about government policy on the issue. Although President Yahya Jammeh has pledged to support measures to improve the health of Gambia’s women, he is also anxious to strengthen his image as a devout Muslim. The censorship move came only a few weeks after Vice-President Isatou Mjie Saidy had publicly supported the World Health Organization’s campaign against genital mutilation.

World Press Review Vol 44, No 9

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Perilous pesticides
Banana workers speak out

The burden of bananas: low pay and danger. But a fair-trade banana is coming.

Bananas are one of the most popular fruits on the market. Yet the people who work on Latin America’s vast plantations see little profit. Transnational plantation owners keep wages low by banning independent unions, and jeopardize the health of their employees by using dangerous agrochemicals.

‘I used to apply the pesticides eight hours a day, every day. I had no protective clothing, no training. We were like animals. You either worked the way you were told or you didn’t work. Those in authority said the chemicals weren’t harmful.’

Victor Velaquez, who worked for a Costa Rican company supplying bananas to Dole, has been left sterile with heart and memory problems after using the nematicide DBCP. He is one of 16,000 banana workers from 12 countries who are pursuing a court case in the US. A settlement is expected later this year. Accused of negligence stand companies like Dole, Chiquita and Del Monte, who forced workers to use the nematicide long after it was banned in the US.

DBCP is no longer used in Costa Rica, but such a tragedy could easily recur. Costa Rica now uses eight times more pesticides per person than the world average; has one of the highest rates of pesticide poisoning; and saw pesticide imports shoot up by almost 50 per cent between 1990 and 1994. At least four of the chemicals currently used on banana plantations have been classified as extremely hazardous by the World Health Organization (WHO). This includes Paraquat, which the WHO says is ‘one of the most dangerous chemicals in the world’. It can, on direct contact, cause damage to kidneys and the nervous system, as well as sterility and cancer.

Workers have little influence over plantation health-and-safety practice: ‘Since the company got rid of the union in 1982, we’ve had no voice... if we put a demand to the company, we become enemies of the company. Even just saying the word “union” is asking to be sacked,’ says a worker on a Del Monte plantation.

In recent years, as competition for European markets has increased, conditions on the plantations have worsened. To meet their targets, employees frequently work 12-hour days for abysmally low pay: ‘The pay we get doesn’t even buy enough for us to eat.’ At present, workers get only two to three per cent of the final retail price of a banana.

The British-based World Development Movement is campaigning to raise awareness of the bad practice of the banana transnationals and increase both consumer and government pressure for change. A fair-trade banana has already taken ten per cent of the market in the Netherlands and Switzerland and a British version should be launched before the end of the year.

Sara Chamberlain



Choked by P&O
Locals fight to save the lungs of Mumbai

Dahanu, located on India’s west coast, is known as the fruit and vegetable basket of Maharashtra state, and the ‘lungs’ of Mumbai (formerly Bombay). It was designated an ‘ecologically fragile’ area by the Supreme Court of India, and is supposed to be out of bounds to developers. Now the Australian branch of P&O, the old Peninsula and Oriental Navigation Company, wants to build a multi-purpose port – eight times the size of Liverpool’s – in Dahanu.

The maritime authorities say it is critical to meet the nation’s booming trade. Nergis Irani, a local leader of opposition to the port, says the development would not only be environmentally disastrous, but detrimental to the livelihoods of Dahanu’s fisherfolk and large tribal population.

When fully operational, the 30-berth mega-port would handle 300 million tonnes of cargo a year, including oil, coal and cement. Yet P&O claim that it would not encroach on tribal lands, disrupt local fishing grounds nor pollute Dahanu’s fragile environment.

Dahanu’s 5,000 fishing families disagree, and local opposition is mounting. People from villages likely to be disturbed have marched against the company’s survey team, and courted arrest. To a person, they are fearful of losing their livelihoods, and openly mock the authorities’ mantra which promises jobs.

Nergis Irani says the proposed site breaches the Supreme Court’s protective order. But this is vehemently disputed by the company. P&O spokesperson Captain Jimmy Sarbh says: ‘Those who have their own self-interest at heart cannot hold the nation to ransom.’ At least during its construction phase, the port would provide jobs for many of Dahanu’s tribals, who work the coastal saltpans for meagre pay. Rather than scrap the entire project, some NGOs are calling for an alternative site. Meanwhile P&O are seeking final clearance from Delhi – a decision is expected later this year.

Steve Percy


‘I will train her in two days.’

Laloo Prasad Yadav, the low-caste chief minister of India’s Bihar state who resigned
in response to an arrest warrant for his participation in a $280-million corruption scandal,
on naming his illiterate wife, Rabri Devi, as his successor.

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New Internationalist issue 296 magazine cover This article is from the November 1997 issue of New Internationalist.
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