openDemocracy
The inner lives of queer comrades in early Soviet Russia
December 15th, 2017, 04:38 PM

At the dawn of Soviet power, LGBT people found a language to express their identity. 

A drag ball in the 1920s. Photo courtesy of Irina Roldugina.
The annual Side by Side Lesbian and Gay International Film Festival took place in St Petersburg from 16-25 November, and included not only feature and documentary films but public discussions as well.

One of the participants in these discussions was historian and Ira Roldugina, a DPhil student at the University of Oxford who has been studying the lives of “Soviet queers” for many years. Roldugina is specifically interested in those changes in society that were nipped in the bud by the beginning of the homophobic politics of the Stalinist era. Journalist and cultural historian Artyom Langenburg talked to her about her research.

Artyom Langenburg: As a historian, you chose to study homosexuality in the Soviet Union, which was criminalised and treated as psychologically abnormal for most of the period. What drew you to this theme? Have others investigated it before you?

Ira Roldugina: There were two main factors — the personal and the political — hardly original! I was interested in the sociology of gender, Foucault, and so on. I then discovered Dan Healy’s book, Homosexual Desire in Revolutionary Russia, long after I got interested in the subject. First came the stigma of being seen as “abnormal” myself, and my experience of that. My academic research became a kind of sublimation — I don’t know what I’d have done if I hadn’t been a history student. And of course it’s always interesting to study more obscure topics. There’s quite a buzz when you find archival resources that no one has ever looked at before.

I was also stimulated by the subject’s political dimension. The agglomeration of fears and prejudices, the explicit and implicit repressive mechanisms in Russia around non-normative sexuality make working in this area particularly attractive and meaningful. I’m not saying, of course that a gender analysis of medieval European frescos or 18th century Russian politics would be less valuable to scholarship: it’s more about my own identification with this issue. I just feel that it’s very relevant to the here and now and that looking at it could be liberating not only for me but for anyone with an interest. My plan has so far been successful: I’m involved in a major research project at Oxford and no longer feel any need for the ambiguity and secretiveness of younger years.

My main forerunner in this topic is professor Dan Healy, whom I work with at Oxford. He was the first to study the history of homosexuality in Russia, collecting a vast amount of source material and generally laying out the street plan. Igor Kon also worked in this field, although from a sociological perspective, and I really wish I had been able to get to know him personally. There’s also Laura Engelstein, an American slavic studies specialist who has now retired. They’re all brave and wonderful scholars.

We can probably see the first Soviet years (up to the late 1920s) as a time when non-normative sexuality became liberated. Were there any social projects on the subject at the time; was it spoken about in the press? Was this incredibly liberal attitude towards gays and lesbians perhaps influenced by psychoanalysis?

IR: I think we can talk about the early Soviet period as a time of liberation, although not of liberty. In my research, I move the emphasis away from experts and the Bolshevik authorities towards the self-advocacy of queer people themselves. I also need to explain why I use the word “queer”, although not exclusively: I feel that today’s LGBT etc. terminology doesn’t translate to the past, and I at least try not to use it reflexively.

But looking back at the 1920s, a lot of the concepts and practices that are common today would have been unthinkable and unknown. When it comes to those like Tatyana Miroshnikova, a student who fought in the Russian Civil War, had a loving wife, a passion for male uniform, and asked the renowned neurologist and psychiatrist Vladimir Bekhterev what was known to science about changing sex — queer seems the most appropriate word. This vague term with indeterminate limits denotes a rejection of normative behaviour and existing models of sexuality but doesn’t explain them and doesn’t assign anything specific, whether socially or medically.

As for the Bolsheviks’ attitude to homosexuality, they made no attempts to emancipate “gender dissidents”. The Bolshevik government did provide support for many specialists, including financial support, but it would be wrong to describe their relationship in terms of dependency. The medics had a considerable amount of independence, and used it. Bekhterev himself gave lectures across the country: I haven’t been able to find any actual lecture scripts in his archive, but judging from the letters he received from his audiences, he was engaged with the issue of decriminalising homosexuality. In his work as a doctor and lecturer, Bekhterev came across people who in the 1910s and 1920s had literally emerged from silence and created their own language of gender, stripped of all overtones of religion, guilt or medicalisation.

No special organisations existed for Soviet queers — it was self-advocacy; nobody forced them into it “from above”

These people, born at the turn of the 20th century, belonged more or less to one generation: they were children of peasants and town dwellers influenced by various factors — left-wing ideas, secularisation, economic growth, weakened censorship after the reforms of 1905 and the new literature on psychoanalysis and sexual pathology. They started describing their non-normative sexuality using new terms and concepts. They were reaching for a language of their own that drew on both medical and legal models, but mostly on their own experience. No special organisations, such as women’s sections [a section of the communist party devoted to women’s affairs - ed.], for example, existed among early Soviet queers — that’s for certain. It was self-advocacy, no one forced them into it “from above”.

What do you, as a researcher, think led to the repressions which began in the early 1930s? Many people regard this as something merely implicit, as opposed to the explicit homophobic rhetoric of the Nazis.

IR: I don’t have any easy answer. Despite the brazenness and scale of Stalin’s Terror, the reasons behind it, as opposed to the mechanisms, aren’t so easy to analyse, especially where homosexuality was concerned.

But it’s not just that. New slants on collectivisation, for example — a policy that led to the death from starvation of millions — are still appearing. And if we more or less have a handle on the “technical” aspect of collectivisation, the thinking behind it is much less clear. Stephen Kotkin, author of a recent three-volume monograph on Stalin, believes that none of the Soviet leaders of the time, apart from Stalin, could have carried out such an extreme policy. But why Stalin? Kotkin describes him as a “true believer”.

Repressions of homosexuals had even more complex reasons. It’s well known that the mass operations in the large cities were carried out by the OGPU, a branch of the Security Services that in 1934 was amalgamated with the NKVD. Documents revealing the details of this campaign can still be found in FSB archives.

"Perversions" - reads this archive file. Photo courtesy of Irina Roldugina.My biggest breakthrough has been access to the papers from a multi-volume criminal case against 200 queer people Leningrad in 1933-1934. I know their biographies and when and how they were arrested; I even know what they were wearing at the time. But all the operative details and, for example, correspondence between the officers dealing with the case — i.e. the “organisational” side, documents attached to charge sheets and sealed in envelopes — are still classified and unavailable to the public.

There must be other sources, not directly relating to this case, still lurking in FSB archives: Secret Police correspondence such as, for example, documents coordinating the work of different departments and the leadership and so on. In other words, precisely what I need to find, to discover the reasons behind the campaign. But although I can have no access to these documents, I can make a shrewd guess at the campaign’s possible causes.

In general, there can never be one single reason for any phenomenon (as opposed to event). And there were certainly a number of them in this case. One of the main reasons, in my view, was the emergence of a grassroots queer agenda and the literal visibility of queer people — on streets and squares, in the pubs they frequented — that increased throughout the 1920s (and the sources confirm this).

In the second place, it was no coincidence that the campaign was led by the OGPU. This crucial Soviet executive organ has been little researched, for obvious reasons: most of the documents in it are still classified. Secret police operatives as a social group are another subject that requires independent research. My intuition tells me that the start of the anti-homosexual campaign was somehow connected with the evolution of an internal group “morale” within the directorate.

Among the names mentioned by detainees during interrogations in 1933 — the thousands of acquaintanceships made through the homosexual subculture or sexual partners — were people connected with the OGPU. They didn’t figure as defendants in any trials I looked at, but I’m sure that these facts brought them to the attention of their bosses.

The researcher Olga Khoroshilova showed me an interesting photo that indirectly confirms this idea. It was published in the context of the history of dress, her main speciality. Olga has an amazing collection of queer photos, amongst them one from 1933 in which, judging by their uniform greatcoats, OGPU members pose for the camera. The back of the photo has a message on it: “Write about love? You don’t know me. Believe me when I say that this replaces everything for me, except my wife. There can be no return to the past — that’d be too cruel. But I hope we’ll live our lives as closely as in this photo. 1933. Your Nikolay”. There can be any number of interpretations, but I’m inclined to believe that in 1933 the subject of homosexuality was not unknown in the world of the secret police.

By the 1930s, sexuality was seen as political: a very different situation from before the revolution. Any non-normative sexuality was treated as potentially destabilising

There’s one final point which is crucial in understanding of Stalin’s anti-homosexual campaign and his biopolitics in general. By the 1930s, sexuality was seen as political: a very different situation from before the revolution. To put it bluntly, homosexuals were seen as a threat, on a level with “counter-revolutionaries” and “traitors”: sexuality had become as important a factor for purging as any narrowly political one. The persecution of homosexuals and the creation of an asexual façade were closely connected in the 1930s.

I can imagine that the government saw any non-normative sexuality as a potentially destabilising factor, and not just in the context of homophobia and the disgust felt by a former seminary student towards single sex relationships, which were in fact especially common in such institutions in the Russian Empire.

Can we make any guess at how many people were victims of Article 154a (and after 1960, Article 121) of the Soviet Penal Code (“Male homosexual relations”)? What happened afterwards to at least some of those who had spent time in the gulag?

IR: We know how many people were prosecuted under these two articles, but we don’t have an overall picture of the victims of Stalin’s anti-homosexual policies. Law enforcement in the Soviet Union is a separate issue, and I’m not a specialist here. But it’s obvious — there’s lots of evidence of this in memoirs — that the threat of being charged with this offence potent enough to persuade people to cooperate with the authorities.

No statistics on the use of these Penal Code articles have been published, but they were declassified in the 1990s and I worked with them in the archives. So, for example, in 1977, 877 men in Soviet Russia were convicted of having homosexual relations. By comparison, 85 men were convicted of the same crime in Soviet Ukraine that year, and 1320 men across the whole USSR (by 1990 this had fallen to 732). Interestingly enough, no distinction was made between consensual and non-consensual sex between men, and I don’t think this was an oversight. My colleague Vladimir Volodin and I compiled these statistics and some of them have been published — data from the 1940s and 1950s will be published a little later, and in any case we only see the figures, not the people behind them.

Criminal case papers are filed in the internal ministry system, which is even more closed than the FSB’s archives. It’s simply impossible to visit them. But there are clearly people still alive who were convicted under the article on “male homosexual relations” in the USSR. And unlike victims of the “political” article 58 on “counter-revolutionary crimes”, homosexuals were never “pardoned”, and the current semi-official homophobic environment in Russia doesn’t encourage them to talk about their past, nor expect public sympathy.

Unlike victims of article 58 on “counter-revolutionary crimes”, homosexuals were never pardoned, and the current environment in Russia doesn’t encourage them to talk about their past

Several vivid memoirs bear witness to these hardships. Archaeologist and historian Lev Klein’s “The World Turned Upside Down” (written under the pseudonym Vadim Samoilov) describes in detail how his conviction for “male homosexual relations” in the early 1980s was the result of some administrative machinations. Importantly, he gives a detailed description of prison life and the position of homosexuals there While his status as an academic guaranteed him a certain security, some of the things he mentions are hard to even think about. It’s a very traumatic read.

Lesbianism was an even more taboo subject, although Hungarian director Károly Makk’s film “Looking at One Another” (marketed in the US as “Another Way”), shows a relationship between two women after the Hungarian uprising of 1956 as being frowned upon but not punished. What “measures were taken” against lesbians who were “outed”?

IR: Lesbians were in a double bind. There was no legal ban on such relationships, no formal prosecutions, so their situation has barely been acknowledged. We have no accurate information on the subject.

Researchers have no access to any medical documentation, but lesbianism was seen as a psychological deviation, as opposed to male homosexuality, which was criminalised. Oral history could be a key element in unlocking the lives of gay Soviet women — how they socialised, their behavioural strategies – but public homophobia and a well founded fear of being open about their sexuality make older lesbians impossible to find.

You have of course examined all sources of information on LGBT people in the 1920s and 1930s — letters, notes, anything that can be found in archives. How did people from various social groups perceive their sexuality, bodies and lives?

IR: As I said, I’m mainly focusing on the 1920s and 1930s, although I have collected evidence from other periods, both pre-revolutionary and late Soviet. There’s an astonishing range of self-awareness and subjectivity. As far as social groups are concerned, lower class queer people in the 1920s were very open about their thoughts; they wrote about their own sexuality without shame or inhibitions, unlike people of a slightly different generation and social class.

“Wings”, the first Russian novel about homosexuality, was published as early as 1906, followed by two volumes of the diary of its author Mikhail Kuzmin. Despite including masses of interesting detail on the subculture, he did not attempt to write and think about his sexuality as a central element of his consciousness, as other writers later would.

“Wings”, the first Russian novel about homosexuality, was published as early as 1906

Another great example is the diary of the artist Konstantin Somov. One volume has come out so far, and the rest (there will be another seven, prepared by my colleague Pavel Golubev) will follow it soon. Somov was also openly about his homosexuality, but not to the extent of the lower class queers.

I suppose that is the main difference between people from different social backgrounds. Queers could have become the main gender emancipation force in Russia, were it not for the Terror of the 1930s and Stalin’s revision of the entire Soviet project.

Tell me about the “Soviet Queer” show staged at Teatr.doc, that came out of your work with dramatist Valery Pecheykin.

IR: In the course of my work in the St Petersburg archives, something amazing happened to me, which stunned me, changed my life and gave a whole new dimension to my work, which turned into a very personal story, although it’s debatable whether it’s good for my research as a whole. It started when I was working in the Central State Historical Archive, looking at the letters written by queer people in the Vladimir Bekhterev Collection, and there was one that was simply extraordinary.

Unlike the other handwritten letters, this one was typed and much longer than usual. Its style, depth of analysis and improbable facts it contained also marked it out from the others. But it wasn’t signed at the end, just initialled N.P., and none of the enormous amount of information in the text was verifiable.

N.P. wrote, for example, that he and his partner, who was a soldier, travelled to Germany on the eve of the First World War, “to study the daily lives of the German people”. When the war broke out, they were arrested as spies and spent time in solitary confinement before returning to Russia. N.P. described himself as coming from a large peasant family. But thinking about the inventive picture he gave of himself, it occurred to me that this might be a pastiche. Not a fake, but a document that mixed facts with fiction. Think about it: NP, the son of a peasant who, from what he told us, lacked even elementary education and at the age of 21 was “a totally illiterate lad”, wrote to Bekhterev in the 1920s that: “no conventions can persuade us that our actions are criminal and abnormal. Laws are written by people, and can be changed by them, and we believe that a time will come when we will have rights, that is to say a civil right to free homosexual relationships”.

“Laws are written by people, and can be changed by them, and we believe that a time will come when we will have a civil right to free homosexual relationships”, wrote N.P. in the 1920s

At the same time as studying this document, I was also looking through FSB archives — specifically a file on a criminal case against 200 Leningrad homosexuals arrested in the summer and autumn of 1933.

So on another grey day I opened another equally grey volume, leafed carefully through the disintegrating records of interrogations in fading ink (there were shortages of everything in the 1930s, and the paper was of terrible quality) and suddenly found myself looking at familiar phrases: “visited Germany”; spent time in prison”; “lived in Odessa after my return”; “was arrested together with my partner”. I turned another page over with a shaking hand, to discover the name of the person arrested. Nika Polyakov. N.P. It was the same person. Only now, in 1933, he was describing himself as a visitor to a “pederast den” and “an effeminate pederast”, as well as, naturally, someone who “rejects Soviet Power” and “seduces Red Navy sailors”.

It wasn’t easy to deal with this story alone; I was getting too emotional about it. So I decided that Nika Polyakov, and the subject of queer emancipation in general, deserved a wider audience than academia could provide. I went to see Valery Pecheykin, the dramatist at Moscow’s Gogol Centre. I already knew him a little, and knew that he wouldn’t be put off by the subject. At the premiere, which took place at Teatr.doc, we had a full house (admittedly, it’s not a very large space). The show did not contain a single made-up line, and afterwards we spent an hour and a half answering audience questions. People just couldn’t believe that it wasn’t fiction, but reality, that Nika’s words could sound so contemporary and relevant. Now Valery is putting the finishing touches to the show, and we hope that it will have a proper run in the winter.

Why is what you’re doing important at the present, less than wonderful stage in our LGBT movement?

IR: I can’t say exactly why it’s important in general: I try not to think about that too much. But I know it’s important for me and at least a few close friends who support and take an interest in my research. I am writing the history of my own social group and find it almost therapeutic. I think that putting people who were victims of both Stalin’s Terror and various conspiracies of silence on the map, has significance, even if no one else cares. You just know that you have to do it — and do it as well as you can.

This article first appeared on the site of the “Side by Side” Festival, and was translated by Liz Barnes.

A theatre production based on Irina Roldugina’s archival work will be staged at Teatr.Doc from 19 December.


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Dollars and desperation: how Russia’s financial crisis hit foreign currency mortgage-holders
December 15th, 2017, 04:38 PM

Three years on from Russia’s 2014 financial meltdown, people with foreign currency mortgages are still suffering — and are only getting more radical in their struggle. RU

Single pickets of the VDVZ participants near the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.Dmitry Yurin, a member of the National Movement of Foreign Currency Mortgage Holders from St Petersburg, does his best to survive on 200 roubles (£2.50) a day. Officially, Dmitry is unemployed and has no means to cover his monthly mortgage payment for the studio apartment he purchased: his wife left and now wants him to pay child support. But Dmitry, one of thousands of Russians in peril due to having taken out a foreign currency mortgage, has big plans for the future.

“By the beginning of March next year, I intend to either win back my apartment or go to jail,” Dmitry tells me. “It’ll be the election, and Putin most probably will be running. Right at that very moment I plan to go into a bank with an anti-Putin poster, in order to draw attention to my problem. I’ll become a political prisoner like Ildar Dadin. And then I’ll leave Russia. Why would I want to live in this country?”

Dmitry bought his 290 square-foot bedsit in 2007. The apartment was meant to be a starter home and Dmitry planned to pay off the mortgage in seven years. He was employed by a regional Panasonic office as a marketing expert, and was paid in U.S. dollars, which is why he decided to take out a mortgage in U.S. currency.

“At the time, everybody thought that financial crises and market crashes belonged to the past… in the era of primitive accumulation of capital. Then a true man of the people came to power, everything was on the rise, the country was reborn. I was a patriot back then. I supported the government right up until 2014,” Dmitry says.

Borrowers backed into a corner

Four months after Russia’s federal aid programme for people with foreign currency mortgages was relaunched this August, borrowers are still picketing government offices in Moscow, calling federal support measures a farce. Dmitry’s story shows why.

The Russian currency crisis of 2014 delivered the fatal blow to Dmitry’s family budget. By then, Panasonic had closed down its St Petersburg office, and Dmitry was running his own business in Veliky Novgorod. When the crisis struck, he made a decision to return to St Petersburg. He decided to earn some extra money as a cab driver, and he’s still working as one today. Nobody wants to take someone on with debts, even if they’ve got a good CV. Dmitry also realised that staying officially unemployed made his life easier.

Single pickets of the VDVZ participants near the Ministry of Housing and Communal Services.“Your mortgaged apartment is suddenly worth less than you owe,” Dmitry explains. “They seize the property, but you still owe a surplus debt that you must pay. Now you’ve got nothing, you’re working at the office and they’re still taking your money. The only option that remains in these circumstances is to become a person with ‘uncollectible’ debt, which basically means hiding away from the bailiffs. How could you possibly hide from them, when you spend your entire day at the office?”

Dmitry submitted an application to the federal aid programme for foreign currency mortgage borrowers, but the request was rejected by Unicredit bank. Instead, the bank proposed a 24-year mortgage extension — with a monthly payment of 22,000 roubles (£2,500). By the time Dmitry pays off his mortgage under this arrangement, he’ll be 64, and there’ll be no guarantee that the Khrushchev-era building where his apartment is located won’t be scheduled for demolition. Dmitry rejected this offer. He’s currently waiting for the outcome of his lawsuit against the bank and his foreclosed property to be sold off in an online auction.

“Your mortgaged apartment is suddenly worth less than you owe. They seize the property, but you still owe a surplus debt that you must pay”

Dmitry compares the National Movement of Foreign Currency Mortgage Holders (abbreviated in Russian as VDVZ), which he joined in 2014, with Gandhi’s Satyagraha movement. He recalls the numerous victories VDVZ achieved when crowds of mortgagors stormed bank premises and demanded that the management agree to meet and negotiate.

Dmitry believes that bank management refuses to negotiate with him now because of his involvement in VDVZ. Only a few individuals are calling attention to the situation with foreign currency mortgages today, he says. That’s because some borrowers managed to negotiate with the banks, some have simply bowed to reality, others have not lived to see the day.

A programme of discrimination

Russia’s federal aid programme for people with foreign currency mortgages was launched in June 2015. It cost the budget some 4.5 billion roubles (£57.2m). The Agency for Housing Mortgage Lending (AHML) was selected to implement the programme. The Russian government expected to see at least 22,500 mortgage borrowers receive aid and support. However, due to lax regulations it was mainly people with mortgages in roubles who participated. After the November 2016 amendments, any mortgage-holder with a 30% decrease in income could expect to receive federal aid.

The programme’s funds were wiped out by March 2017, three months before the scheduled deadline. Around the same time, VDVZ members met with Anton Siluanov, Russia’s Minister of Finances, and asked him to relaunch the programme and focus on foreign currency borrowers. The programme was rebooted in late August 2017, receiving additional two billion roubles (£25m) from the federal reserve fund. The government estimated a minimum of 1,300 mortgage debts to be restructured through funds allocated.

Most VDVZ members who took out mortgages in 2006-2008 claim that the banks were virtually imposing foreign currency mortgages on them, leaving no other choice

The aid package will focus primarily on debtors with annual mortgage payment increase exceeding 30% — i.e. foreign currency mortgage holders. However, this provision discriminates against some borrowers, namely those who had been diligently repaying their debt before the 2014 financial crisis, putting down larger monthly mortgage payments in the hope of paying off their loan early. Only Russian nationals with at least one minor or dependent student under the age of 24 are eligible for aid, though the aid package extends to combat veterans and persons with disabilities.

It is also imperative that a household income over the period of three months before the aid package application is submitted does not exceed the combined amount of two living wages per household member.

Borrowers who meet the eligibility criteria can submit an application to their respective bank. However, the bank can reject an applicant at this stage already by stating that it refuses to deal with customers in default or arrears, as in Dmitry’s case.

If the bank and the customer cannot come to an agreement, the customer submits the requisite papers to the bank, which in its turn forwards them to AHML. Subsequently, AHML allocates a lump sum payment to the bank in the amount of up to 30% of debt owed, but not exceeding 1.5m roubles (£19,000), while the bank concludes a new rouble-based agreement with the borrower.

In special circumstances, the agency can provide financial aid in larger amounts, as well as support individuals who are not immediately eligible, which however requires a decision by an interagency committee established by the Ministry of Construction, Housing and Public Utilities.

The media has practically turned a blind eye to these protests. Foreign currency borrowers are yesterday’s news

Representatives of VDVZ believe numerous programme requirements are discriminatory. They believe the aid package should extend to individuals of retirement and pre-retirement age, who would find it hard to solve their housing problems after having lost their residences. Such people are practically deprived of aid, since they usually have children older than 24 years of age and none of whom are students.

Borrowers also request that the programme be amended to include an additional provision regulating the financial involvement of banks in rehabilitation of mortgages. They believe that the absence of such a provision makes it possible for the creditor to abstain from co-funding and simply act as intermediary between the borrower and AHML. VDVZ representatives also claim that the programme leaves borrowers whose debt has been sold off to third parties exposed and vulnerable.

Protests resumed

Foreign currency mortgagors resumed their protests outside the Russian Parliament on 23 October and are still picketing the building. Pickets have also been held outside the Ministry of Construction, Housing and Public Utilities and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The borrowers believe that the latter must pay attention to the fact that foreign banks are reluctant to negotiate.

However, the media has practically turned a blind eye to these protests. Foreign currency borrowers are yesterday’s news. The past three years have had their fair share of mortgage protests. The borrowers went above and beyond rallying and picketing. They went on hunger strikes on bank premises a number of times, “occupied” community liaison offices of parliamentary deputy and Central Bank officials, set up roadblocks.

Borrowers also ran joint campaigns with long-haul truck drivers from the Russian Union of Truck Operators. The police and security services have long since identified their ringleaders. But borrowers refuse to stop.

Most interactions with state officials would kick off with the question: “What on earth made you take out a foreign currency mortgage?”

“Some banks had initially agreed to compromise and restructure the foreign currency mortgage rates before the federal aid programme was launched. This was the direct consequence of actions we took,” says Alexander Alexandrov, another VDVZ member from St. Petersburg. “I’m certain that the aid package itself is the outcome of our activities.”

Alexander explains that, as of recently, a number of elected officials are eager to engage in productive negotiations. Prior to this, most interactions with state officials would kick off with the question: “What on earth made you take out a foreign currency mortgage?”

Russian authorities have also alleged publicly that foreign currency borrowers have only themselves to blame. For example, Dmitry Peskov, Putin’s press secretary, told the media in January 2016 that “this [foreign currency mortgage] was a choice and gamble these people made in undertaking obligations on such terms that are currently putting them in dire straits.”

When banks leave customers without a choice

Most VDVZ members who took out mortgages in 2006-2008 claim that the banks were imposing foreign currency mortgages on them.

Alexander applied for a loan at Raiffeisenbank to purchase a completed apartment in 2007. His baby boy had just been born and the family needed to make a housing decision fast. The bank rejected a rouble-based mortgage, since Alexander monthly mortgage payment exceeded half of his monthly income by a mere 1,000 rubles. Yet the bank instantly offered a foreign currency mortgage that decreased the payment down to 24,000 rubles a month. These terms were valid only during the initial year of the mortgage. In 2008, a stronger U.S. dollar lead to a dramatic increase in monthly payments.

“I agreed to take out a foreign currency mortgage because I had no other choice. In addition, I strongly believed that we were living in a different country and no financial crisis of 1998 could ever be possible again,” explains Alexander.

According to the AHML, the 2008 crisis drastically cut down on foreign currency credits: 26% of total loans before the meltdown as compared to less than 1% by 2014. However, banks seemed to be in no hurry to convert the existing foreign currency debts into roubles.

“In 2012, I went to the bank office and submitted a request stating that I hadn’t recovered financially from the latest crisis and asked to convert my loan into roubles,” Alexander recalls. “The bank rejected my request, stating that no such programme existed.”

“I agreed to take out a foreign currency mortgage because I had no other choice”

Many borrowers believe that the banks intentionally refused to play ball with their customers in anticipation of generating excess profits in the impending crisis. Irina Vostrikova, a VDVZ activist, believes that both the banks and the government had been well aware of the upcoming devaluation of the Russian rouble and made no efforts to protect savings and loans.

Vostrikova quotes Guidelines for the Single State Monetary Policy in 2013 and for 2014 and 2015 approved by the Bank of Russia as proof: “[A change in Russian and international market sentiment], along with the Bank of Russia’s plans to abandon its exchange rate-based operational indicators, will increase uncertainty over rouble exchange rate dynamics in the medium term. In this situation, exchange rate risk management by economic agents in the real and financial sectors will become increasingly important.”

Last resort

Alexander has just one word to describe the first few weeks after the ruble collapse at the end of 2014: “Panic.” Dozens of borrowers are said to have perished in 2014-2017, with some taking their own lives.

Galina Samorokova

Galina Samorokova, a VDVZ activist from Moscow, tells me one such story: “Andrei Shcherbakov died less than six months ago, he was 40, he left behind three kids. Sovcombank, his creditor bank, refused to make concessions and Andrei shot himself… I will never understand this. If you’re going to shoot yourself, do it inside the bank building, draw at least some kind of public response,”

Galina has been active in borrowers’ protests since the start of the 2014 crisis. She had been a senior manager in a company but was sacked by top management who saw her on TV during coverage of a protest. Her husband left her. Galina is certain that her phone has been tapped by the police and that Raiffeisenbank, which she picketed with a poster saying “Austria is the birthplace of Raiffeisenbank and Hitler,” will never back down to her.

Yet Galina still hopes for the best: “We have been battling this financial monstrosity alone for some years now. Nobody wanted to help us, they said it was all our own fault, they called us incompetent fools despite the fact that many of us have master’s degrees in economics! But now we have become battle-hardened and self-confident individuals.”

The silence of the Russian state

Maria Litinetskaya, managing partner at Metrum Group real estate agency, believes that the main reason behind the issue of foreign currency mortgages in Russia is lack of government control and a laissez-faire policy toward interactions between borrowers and creditors.

“Despite the overall stability of currency, the Eurozone still is not immune to exchange rate movements. In light of this, the European Commission has adopted the Mortgage Credit Directive that ensured borrowers with a right to convert the loan into an alternative currency…The Russian authorities have never adopted such measures,” she says.

Various authorities and Central Bank representatives have been vocal about the necessity of providing aid packages to foreign currency mortgage borrowers since the first days of the 2014 crisis. Bills were put before the State Duma related to this issue: a law on mortgage holidays, a law prohibiting seizure in mortgage foreclosures, a law on translation of foreign currency debt into rubles. None of them were passed.

“The banks have got nothing to do with this. They suffered because of exchange rate slumps just like anybody else”

The Central Bank, in its turn, confined itself to recommending banks to translate problem mortgages into roubles at a “fair” rate of 39.34% (in accordance with the ruble exchange rate set by the Bank of Russia on 1 October 2014). Even the current federal aid package for mortgage borrowers cannot be applied without obtaining the bank’s consent.

Dmitry Speransky, head of Speransky Forecast Company, compares it with gambling: The state had set up a “casino” and borrowers banked on foreign currency loans, but their odds turned against them. The Russian government, seemingly incapable of fulfilling its duty as a guardian of national currency stability, refuses to take responsibility.

Single pickets of the VDVZ participants near the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.“You can shout yourself hoarse in finding who's to blame,” says Speransky. “Foreign currency loans were a juicy deal in many respects, but much riskier than their alternatives. The banks have got nothing to do with this. They suffered because of exchange rate slumps just like anybody else. They used dollar loans to lure dollar deposits. Now they must settle with creditors in dollars too.”

Yet stories of borrowers whose applications to convert their mortgages into roubles were denied before the downturn serve as a vivid testimony that disproves the very concept of creditors’ “innocence”.

Waiting for a moratorium

Following the 2014 rouble collapse, Russian establishment figures have repeatedly advocated a complete ban on foreign currency mortgages. The State Duma reviewed bills banning foreign currency mortgages, but never managed to pass them.

Foreign currency borrowers who had taken out mortgages before 2008 find little sense in such restrictions. They believe that their personal stories create enough negative publicity for foreign currency mortgages, while legislators should focus on more pressing matters.

Borrowers have been waiting for the Russian Parliament to announce a moratorium on seizures of foreclosed apartments, and introduce amendments to the current financial aid programme.

The State Duma meanwhile passed the law obligating banks to notify borrowers about risks associated with foreign currency loans only in November 2017. This belated regulation, passed after hundreds of lives have been shattered, feels more like a cruel joke than anything else.

 

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The scramble for data and the need for network self-determination
December 15th, 2017, 04:38 PM

The scramble for data is unleashing a new form of colonialism: turning a quintessentially open internet into a series of closed, controllable cyber-spaces, where a few players have unprecedented influence.

HRI Flickr/Martina Yach. CC-BY-2.0.Unless you lived in a cave over the past decade, you should have heard that “data is the new oil” or that data have become “the world’s most valuable resource.” However, rarely in our history has the emergence of new, extremely valuable, resources not resulted in power struggles leading to fundamental changes in political and social structures.

The Scramble for Data is unleashing a new breed of colonialism, aimed at controlling the networks and platforms that will redefine – and are already shaping – the economies, societies and private lives of all the colonised.

Worryingly, the yearning for data is turning a quintessentially open internet, able to empower billions of individuals, into a series of closed and easily controllable cyber-spaces, where a few dominant players have access to, and exert, unprecedented influence on every aspect of our lives.

The Scramble for Data is already unleashing a new breed of colonialism, already shaping the economies, societies and private lives of all the colonised.

It is important to realise that the internet, as we know it, is not immutable and that an open and user-empowering environment is a threat not only to authoritarians regimes but also to those corporations that base their profit on directing users’ behaviour according to their commercial interests.

The internet environment is empowering by default, allowing all users not only to be mere passive consumers but also producers of content and innovative services that can be freely shared and accessed by virtually all other users. However, such configuration is not incontrovertible and internet openness has been put under increasing pressure.

Indeed, data are “the new oil” not only because their collection and processing are extremely lucrative but also because they are powering an increasingly wide portion of the global economy.

The high profits and competitive advantages deriving from massive data extraction and processing are stimulating a vicious circle where the fundamental goal of any major internet company is monopolising users’ attention, to extract all possible data, profiling users’ tastes and habits, while understanding their weaknesses to ultimately direct how they behave, earning hefty profits out of this capacity. 

This is precisely why operators that integrate content and app providers have been trying to direct users’ attention to their vertically integrated partners, nurturing a never-ending Net Neutrality debate. This also why the purpose of any application provider is to hook individuals into its service, creating the most addictive configuration – just ponder how long does it take you to check your favourite app when you wake up in the morning.

A free internet user represents a risk

In a data-driven economy, limiting and steering users’ possibility to browse the open internet becomes much more lucrative than letting individuals freely explore the net as they wish and build new innovative – and competing – services. Attempts to limit internet openness have been at the core of Net Neutrality disputes, over the past decade, and the rationale of such attempts is quite straightforward.

When users are not tamed into predefined consumeristic experiences, they are free to develop and share new competing services or use services that are not controlled by the dominant providers, thus producing data for the dominant providers’ competitors. A user that freely produces and consumes innovation (for this reason called “prosumer”) represents a risk.

On the contrary, when users’ attention is artificially concentrated into your service or those provided by your vertically integrated partners, the prosumers turn into passive data wells to be drilled ad infinitum. The more time an individual spends on a given service, the more data on him can be extracted, refined and traded.

Crucially, the purpose of data collection is not limited to understanding users’ tastes anymore. It is increasingly aimed at identifying the vulnerabilities of users’ minds, that may be exploited to trigger desired reactions. This is precisely why Facebook brags about being able to identify when Australian and New Zealanders teenagers are more vulnerable or why Cambridge Analytica glorifies the efficiency of its psychological profiling of British and American voters to orientate the Brexit referendum and the last U.S. elections.

A user that freely produces and consumes innovation represents a risk.

Now, pose for a moment, think that this kind of influence is already possible in very developed countries, and try to imagine what type of control could be possible in developing or underdeveloped countries, where data are still untapped, digital policies are scarce or inexistent and, when they exist, they are implemented by severely under-resourced administrations.    

These concerns interest both developed and developing countries alike but are particularly relevant in the developing world, where digital colonizers are rushing to drill as much data as they can out of the currently unconnected individuals, who are increasingly seen as unexploited data wells.

Dominant application providers and telecom operators are rushing to offer zero rating plans, like Facebook’s controversial Free Basics programme, that provide low-income users with subsidised access to preselected applications – amongst which, obviously, Facebook. Try to think how addictive can be to provide to people with low level of literacy sponsored access to services that are explicitly conceived to create dependence

Providing sponsored access to applications designed to hook up users may remind the strategy of those tobacco companies providing free cigarettes to youngsters. The goal is not only enticing new users, it is clearly to create an exclusive addiction to one’s product.

Freebasing free basics

Sponsoring selected applications is a very astute stratagem to concentrate attention on specific services, particularly when the cost of Internet access is high and when operators impose very low download limits to their customers. Indeed, if I wanted to favour my own services, I would either block or downgrade my competitors or, if net neutrality frameworks forbade such discriminatory behaviour, I would contour the ban by defining very artificially low data caps while excluding from the cap my services.

With one move, you kill competitors that do not have the financial capacity to sponsor access to their service, you create dependence on your subsidised application, and you assure that low-income individuals – i.e. a considerable percentage of developing countries’ inhabitants – give up their “most valuable resource” not only willingly but also celebrating you as a philanthropist.

The purpose of data collection is not limited to understanding users’ tastes anymore. It is increasingly aimed at identifying the  vulnerabilities of users’ minds, that they may be exploited to trigger desired reactions.

The purpose of sponsoring access to a limited set of applications is evidently to make sure that (new) users develop an addiction to your services, always remaining passive consumers and never being able to create new apps competing with what you sponsor. While providing controlled communication free of charge, zero rating plans – the majority of which are based on the combination of low data caps with sponsored services – ensure that users’ data will keep on flowing unidirectionally into the servers of the applications’ sponsor.

This pattern is already quite visible in many countries, as highlighted by the Zero Rating Map that will be presented next week at the UN Internet Governance Forum. The most zero rated app in the world is Facebook. It may be argued that, in developed countries, consumers are driving demand for Facebook, but such rationale cannot be applied to developing countries where people are not even using the Internet. No wonder that in many such countries the majority of people is persuaded that “Facebook is the Internet” as a result of very effective zero rating strategies.

Securing collection and eternal use of personal data of individuals from developing countries, about which almost no data exist, is a great move, notably in the perspective of training Artificial Intelligence with more diverse data pools. Indeed, data are such precious resource also because they are essential to educate the deep learning networks that power AI, extracting unknown inferences via big data analytics and, ultimately, taking databased decisions on individuals. And so far, very few data are available about developing countries’ populations, thus making such data even more valuable.

With all due respect for the new cyber philanthropist, the offer of “free” services without even mentioning that the purpose is to collect (extremely valuable) personal data ad aeternum really reminds the image of sixteenth-century conquistadores offering mirrors to Indios in exchange for gold. Only if one were completely unaware that data are the world’s most valuable resource, one would give them away in exchange of free Facebook.

Uneducated individuals will be excused for this naïve behaviour but their governments will not. The lack of understanding of the governments of many developing countries is leading their citizens to be permanent free data producers for the benefit of few dominant players. Frankly, those that produce value, for free, for someone else, for their entire life are called slaves.

It may seem that, for low-income people living in the developing world, the only choice is to give a free and perpetual license to extract and exploit their data, in order to have digital crumbs in return. For these people, one may sadly conclude, the right to determine how their data can be disclosed and used, the right to freedom of expression and the possibility to freely innovate and become a digital entrepreneur are simply unattainable.

But is this true? Are low-income people really condemned to be exploited for the rest of their life? Luckily, there are alternatives to this bleak scenario and these bottom-up initiatives are starting not only to show they work but also to have the visibility they deserve.

Many groups of individuals around the world have not resigned to be digitally colonised and have decided to take their economic, social and cultural development in their hands, establishing their own crowd-sourced infrastructure, known as Community Networks.

Do it yourself

From Argentina to Spain, from Nepal to the UK, local communities have decided to be the protagonist of their digital futures and are building their own networks, to overcome lack of Internet coverage. These communities demonstrate that Internet openness and online privacy are not amenities for the privileged but basic needs to which everyone is entitled and that everyone can and must enjoy.

Importantly, community networks represent a new paradigm, where connectivity is considered and is managed as a common good. Indeed, these networks are designed, owned and managed by the local communities that decide to create them and that retain control on them.

Community networks respect net neutrality by design and by default because there is no need for the provider to favour a commercial partner or disfavour a competitor. The community is the provider and all network users are partners in developing shared connectivity. Therefore, community networks specifically focus on the needs of local populations, providing community-tailored services, creating new opportunities for learning, trading and creating new job opportunities for those living in previously disconnected areas.

These experiences tellingly demonstrate that, when the unconnected have basic information on how to build their network infrastructure and the freedom to choose this option, they can connect themselves with no need to be digitally colonialized. 

It is time to start realising that empowered individuals, able to decide how their data are used and free to access and share content and innovation, represent a great benefit for society and are a driving force of a sustainable Internet. On the contrary, mere consumers of predefined applications represent a great benefit only for the digital colonizers.

Open Internet policies are essential to protect individuals, but it is time for the people to understand they can build their sustainable connectivity themselves and reclaim their right to network self-determination. If governments are not up to the task of protecting individuals’ rights and expanding connectivity, people should simply do it themselves. 

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VIDEO: The man who debunked austerity
December 15th, 2017, 04:38 PM

Thomas Herndon shot to fame in 2013 when he found errors in a widely cited academic paper used to justify austerity policies in Europe and North America. Here he speaks to openDemocracy about austerity, the financial crisis and the future of economic policy.

In 2013 Thomas Herndon shot to fame when he found major errors in a widely cited academic paper by Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff which had been used to justify austerity policies in Europe and North America. We caught up with Thomas at this year's Festival for New Economic Thinking to discuss austerity, the financial crisis and the future of economic policy. [embed]https://youtu.be/CAcUvXjM14c[/embed]    

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From Bah Humbug to Oh Jeremy Corbyn – the best political books of 2017
December 15th, 2017, 04:38 PM

Never mind miserabilism - this Christmas Mark Perryman discovers plenty of books full of reasons to be cheerful.

lead Image: The Corbyn Comic Book

Trump, North Korea, sexual harassment, Grenfell, a weak and wobbly government shored up by a coalition of hell with the DUP. Much about 2017 seemed pretty bleak. But Christmas, whatever our faith or none, is a time of hope, so my selection of the year’s most compelling political books tend to err on the side of hopefulness, with no apologies.

Labour…and beyond

There’s plenty of the customary mix of pessimistic intellect and optimistic will in the sublimely good, and substantially updated post-election second edition of Richard Seymour’s Corbyn: The Strange Rebirth of Radical Politics. For a practical insight into how that radical politics is being organised in and around Labour, The Way of the Activist by Jamie Driscoll and Rachel Broadbent, published by the excellent Talk Socialism political education group, provides a how-to guide rare in the scale of its imagination and ambition.  

Chris Nineham’s How The Establishment Lost Control builds on his earlier account of the Stop the War movement The People v Tony Blair to make a compelling case for a left politics that is rooted in movement rather than party. The question is whether - without the leverage of a well-organised left within the Labour party, yet open to the movements Chris describes – the change can be effected. John Medhurst’s That Option No Other Exists since it was published in 2014 has become the definitive account of both these necessities – and of their limitations.

Perhaps the best way of combining both party and movement options, in other words in, but not restricted by, Labour, is the popularising of radical ideas. And there’s few better starting points for such an ambition than George Monbiot’s latest book Out of the Wreckage - which describes its purpose as “a new politics for an age of crisis.”

Or perhaps its best this Christmas simply to sit back, kick off the slippers and reflect on how the past twenty years has ended up with Jeremy Corbyn (Jeremy Corbyn!) closer to Number Ten than anyone, including himself, could ever have imagined. John O’Farrell tells the story of those two decades in his own unique, and richly amusing, style, Things Can Only Get Worse? And as for where it all started, Richard Power Sayeed establishes himself as the definitive critical chronicler of the Blair years with his superb book 1997: The Future That Never Happened.

Bigger ambitions

To make a success of Corbynism demands a wider perspective that both includes Labour but goes beyond it too. Helping us to understand the nature of the politics this now demands is Platform Capitalism by Nick Srnicek, a view of the economic terrain on which Labour would seek to govern for the many, and all that. 

To come anywhere close to fulfilling that ambition will require reinventing what we mean by the collective, aka ‘the many’. It’s a process made a tad easier by a reading of Lynne Seagal’s new book, Radical Happiness - a project she describes as rediscovering processes towards creating ‘moments of collective joy.’ The Mask and The Flag by Paulo Gerbaudo foregrounds the thinking of a new generation of activist-intellectuals as they also seek to map out a similar project towards reinventing collective action. And the collection Beautiful Rising showcases this process on a global scale with one inspiring example after another.

One domestic example was the 2010-11 resistance to the tripling of tuition fees, a story now retold in Student Revolt by Matt Myers. Matt describes the lasting political legacy of these protests as an ‘austerity generation’ many of whom are now supportive of, and involved in, Corbynism. But the broader impact remains the wholesale, and disastrous marketisation of higher education, the consequences of which are powerfully described by Sinéad Murphy in her book Zombie University, a right horror show.  

Trump & Brexit…

None of this pales into insignificance, of course, compared to the sheer horror show of Trump’s Presidential reign - but the sheer awfulness of him has proved more than enough to dominate much of 2017. Why Bad Governments Happen To Good People is Danny Katch’s handy explanation of how America ended up with Trump in charge. 

Back in Britain the next General Election, barring a major miracle, will be fought post-Brexit. So understanding the likely impact of this rupture is vital in preparing for Labour not just to do better next time but to win. In The Lure of Greatness author and openDemocracy founder Anthony Barnett gets away from the liberals’ blame game to explain the reasons why Brexit happened - and carves out a future politics that can reverse those reasons.

But before we get there there’s a very real likelihood of things turning nasty, with food prices, even shortages too, quite possibly at the centre of such tensions. Bittersweet Brexit by Charlie Clutterbuck is the first serious attempt to explore the #ToryBrexit consequences for farming, land and food inflation.

One of the chief architects of this almighty ‘uck up is Boris Johnson. For too long treated as a loveable rogue, he is in fact both hapless and dangerous, a lethal combination brilliantly exposed in Douglas Murphy’s account of his tenure as London Mayor Nincompoopolis

Memoir and culture

More ways out of this mess are offered by Harry Leslie Smith’s powerfully written Don’t Let My Past Be Your Future, which continues this ninetysomething author’s call to arms (of the metaphorical variety) with a passion and poignancy still all too rare in our body politic. Stuart Maconie revisits that past which framed Harry’s lifetime of views with his Long Road from Jarrow, an imaginative tracing of the 1936 Jarrow March, then and now.

Or for a very different take on how the legacy of yesteryear’s politics shapes the politics of today and tomorrow try the innovative, and very challenging approach of Revolutionary Keywords for a New Left where author Ian Parker offers a redefinition of the vocabulary of change, A-Z.

Precious few writers manage to effortlessly mix popular culture with radical politics. Yet without that combination any prospect of change is seriously reduced. One author who did combine the two was David Widgery, a selection of whose writings have been re-issued with the great title Against Miserabilism. One of the finest exponents today of making these kinds of connections is Laurie Penny. Her latest book of essays is Bitch Doctrine and not one of them fails to impress with the sharpness of wit, tone and politics. 

A towering influence over the indivisible connection of politics and culture remains Stuart Hall, so it’s hugely welcome that following other recent collections of Stuart’s work a new selection of his lectures on race, ethnicity and nation has been published as The Fateful Triangle. In this era of the revival of a populist-racist Right this is an absolutely essential read towards what Stuart Hall once described as an ‘alternative logic.’

But none of this historiography makes much sense if in the process the personal is divorced from the political. Michael Rosen’s So They Call You Pisher? avoids the latter pitfall. As a memoir of growing up in a London East End, Jewish Communist household the book combines sublimely rich humour and a sharp politics.

Corbynism hasn’t quite yet successfully fused radical politics with popular culture. An example of just how huge a part of the necessary struggle this is, is retold by Rich Blackman in his short book Forty Miles of Bad Road which uncovers how musicians came together to help promote unity after the 1958 Notting Hill Race Riots. A perhaps more familiar era is revisited by Matthew Worley’s No Future detailing the collision of punk, politics and youth culture 1976-84. Heady days for those who lived through them.

Beyond 1917…

The Left has a bit of a thing about its own history, in particular communist history. Too often trapped by the past, instead the inclination should be to be liberated by it, via an exploration of what became possible and what proved to be impossible. The ideal journal to accompany such an endeavour is Twentieth Century Communism whose latest edition uses the 1917 Centenary to revisit the differing politics of previous commemorations, testament to the journal’s unpredictable breadth and insightful depth.

A very different approach is taken by a long-time supporter of Philosophy Football Pete Ayrton with Revolution! – a revealing collection of original writing from those Ten Days that shook the proverbial one hundred years ago, and available as an exclusive signed first edition from here.

Easily the most challenging account of 1917 is provided by John Medhurst’s No Less Than Mystic. His deconstruction of the history is both scathing of the errors yet incontrovertibly hopeful about the unfulfilled potential. 

Any account of the Communist tradition has to be about more than just 1917. Another special edition from Twentieth Century Communism Weimar Communism details the extraordinary rise of the most powerful Communist Party outside of Revolutionary Russia, the German Communist Party, and its eventual eclipse by the parallel rise of Hitler’s Nazis. 

A splendidly different account is provided in Red International and Black Caribbean by Margaret Stevens where she uncovers the largely hidden history of Communist organisation in Mexico, the West Indies and New York City during the inter-ear years, 1919-1939. Of course the period since 1945, and again since ’89, have convulsed whatever remained of the Communist ideal after those early days shaking the world. Mike Makin-Waite’s Communism and Democracy provides an insightfully original account of the twists, turns and missed opportunities from there to here without ever losing sight what remains alive, if not always kicking.

The second volume edited by Evan Smith and Matthew Worley on the British Far Left Waiting for the Revolution is an account of post 1956 communists and revolutionaries of various varieties who lost their way on more than one occasion but for all that kept on, keeping on, a persistence which isn’t all bad, or all good either, and this collection helps us to understand why.

Poetry

One fusion of the political and the cultural is poetry. Rosy Carrick’s new edition of the epic Mayakovsky poem Valdimir Ilyich Lenin is 197 pages’ worth proof positive of that. Or for a more current exponent look no further than Michael Rosen (again) and his latest poetry collection Listening to a Pogrom on the Radio.

And there are plenty more from where Michael is coming from. The Bread and Roses 2017 Poetry Anthology On Fighting On! Brings together a selection of some of the many wordsmiths working on the poetry front.

Children

And amongst all this reading what about something for the children?

Detective Nosegoode and The Museum Robbery by Polish children’s author Marian Orton´ is every bit as good as the previous two in this series for junior crimefighters. A newly revised version of a familiar tale of all things Scroogelike Michael Rosen’s  (yes, that man again) Bah! Humbug! is an absolute seasonal treat.

And lastly the two must-have stocking fillers…

Apart from all these reads for the most stylishly political stocking-filler this year’s Verso Radical Diary is every much a must-have as the 2017 debut edition.  

And the political book of the seasonal quarter? After the year we’ve had combined with a passion for mixing politics, popular culture and humour there was only ever one contender. The incredibly original, with a vast range of wonderful artists contributing, The Corbyn Comic Book funny, touching, meaningful. Oh 2017… as the song might go, what could next year possibly bring?

Note No links in the review are to Amazon, if you can avoid buying from tax dodgers please do.

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Spycops inquiry - concerns over new Chair, as police continue to delay
December 15th, 2017, 04:38 PM

The inquiry into police spies deceiving activists into relationships has a new Chair – but will justice be served, or will police delays compound the harm they’ve already done?

Winding through the Royal Courts of Justice, we find Court 76 tucked into a lofty corner of this labyrinthine complex. As we take our seats a clerk intones, “Please all rise”, and in walks Sir John Mitting.

Mitting is the new chair of the Undercover Policing Public Inquiry and today sees his first public utterances since taking over from former chair Lord Justice Pitchford, who died this autumn. All eyes are on him as he promises “a statement on the future conduct of the inquiry”.

Pitchford, while attracting both criticism and praise, was widely viewed as disposed generally towards transparency and truth. More trepidation surrounds Mitting. A former chair of the Special Immigration Appeals Commission – whose secretive approach to evidence has been described as “Kafkaesque” - he is a current vice president of the Investigatory Powers Tribunal (IPT). The IPT addresses grievances against the intelligence services. It is known for secret hearings and failure to uphold complaints.

The hearing takes place two years to the day since the historic apology by the Metropolitan Police to eight women deceived into relationships by undercover officers. The women were targeted to provide cover for officers infiltrating activist networks. The officers were usually already married, often with families.

When the Met finally admitted responsibility, they did not defend their actions. On 20th November 2015 Assistant Commissioner Martin Hewitt stated those relationships were, “abusive, deceitful, manipulative and wrong… [they] were a violation of the women’s human rights, an abuse of police power and caused significant trauma. I unreservedly apologise on behalf of the Metropolitan police service…relationships like these should never have happened.”

Tying the inquiry in procedural knots

That apology suggests a force that will strive to right its wrongs. But it hasn’t quite gone that way. As Alison, one of the women affected, says, “After the apology, they should have cooperated fully with the Public Inquiry. Instead they have intentionally dragged their feet throughout the process”. Announced by Theresa May in spring 2015, the inquiry was originally scheduled to publish its final report a few months from now. Instead it has yet to begin; today’s hearing is purely preliminary.

Persistent obstruction by the police - missing deadlines, demanding extensions, tying the inquiry in procedural knots – has ground the inquiry’s progress to a near-halt. It is anticipated that the inquiry will not now even begin to hear evidence until the second half of 2019.

“[An inquiry] is a technique that has stood the test of time,” write Rob Evans and Paul Lewis in their book Undercover, “allowing those in power to duck responsibility and silence critics with one fell swoop and kick a controversy into a field of long grass, where they hope it will be forgotten”.

Back in Court 76, meanwhile, Mitting is making a statement. He makes some of the right noises, echoing his predecessor’s stated determination “to discover the truth”.

But then he sails into the eye of a storm by invoking the human rights of undercover police officers. That is too much for one core participant, who springs to his feet and interrupts. He says he cannot hold his silence when Mitting commits himself to protecting the human rights of undercover officers with no mention of the rights of those with lives blighted by the same police. He cites those present in the court who have been deceived into relationships by undercover police; been blacklisted; or had the identities of their dead children stolen to provide cover for officers.

The police have 8 barristers – those they spied on, just one between them

Other voices are raised from the public gallery. They rail loudly against the unfairness on show in the courtroom. Here the police are represented by 8 barristers and ranks of lawyers, all at public expense. Across the court more than 200 non-state core participants (those spied upon) make do with a solitary barrister between them; the inquiry will not fund more.

The room bristles with anger. The public gallery applauds each declamation. A chant of “No justice! No peace!” briefly breaks out. From the chair, Mitting tries to quell the uprising. He says he appreciates the strength of feeling but will have security remove anyone who interrupts further. How would it play in the media if victims of police abuse are dragged forcibly from his court? Perhaps fortunately for him, then, the rumpus eventually dies down. Uneasily, the hearing continues.

There will be many more hearings before this inquiry is done. Non-state core participants demand the inquiry release real names and cover names of undercover officers; that it release police files held on those spied upon; that it recommend legislative change to outlaw such abuses. For all its faults and flaws, the inquiry potentially offers a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to investigate the past and set things up differently for the future.

But success will not come easily. The delays sap energy and interest from the process. For some measure of justice to be served requires all those who care about the right of everyone to work for social, environmental or economic justice, to remain vigilant and engaged.

This inquiry is not relevant only for past victims. It is important for anyone who wants to see a future in which progressive political engagement is possible without fear of state abuse. It is going to be a long haul, but acting together we may yet burrow down to (at least some of) the truth.

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Honduras, the country where even the police are fed up with electoral fraud and violence
December 15th, 2017, 04:38 PM

In a country that lives from institutional crisis to institutional crisis since the coup d'état in 2009, the current president clings to power despite allegedly losing the elections. Español

Opposition supporters protesting during a rally against alleged electoral fraud in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, 03 December 2017. A victory by president Juan Orlando Hernandez looms over the horizon over a week after the disputed presidential elections in Honduras. The opposition accuses the government of electoral fraud and won't recognise the results. The situation could escalate. Photo: Delmer Membreno/DPA/PA Images. All rights reserved.

After the elections of November 26, when the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TES) – with an unprecedented 10-hour delay and under pressure from international observers – announced that the Alianza de Oposición’s candidate Salvador Nasralla had an advantage of 5% over the current president, Juan Orlando Hernández, citizens celebrated the triumph on social media, even though many citizens still suspected that fraud and institutional complicity before the final count count change the scenario. It also should be noted that the incumbent should not have been a candidate for the presidency to begin with because the Constitution prohibits reelection through an unmodifiable article. 

Despite the seemingly irreversible advantage in favor of the opposition, the president of the TSE refused to officially recognize Nasralla’s victory and advised that an announcement should not be made before the final count. In subsequent statements to the Salvadoran digital newspaper El Faro, Ramiro Lobo, substitute magistrate of the TSE, said that the president "did not want to disclose the results because his party, the National Party, was losing". According to him, the counting system machines, although slow, worked as expected in the first hours and days after, in which "Nasralla had an advantage that already set a trend. But when the system was back up after collapsing for a short time, the trend had already reversed and remained that way". After the apparent technical collapse and subsequent recovery of the system, the results disclosed by the TSE showed a clear advantage of the pro-government candidate over the opposition candidate. Thanks to the magic of the voting system’s collapse, a trend that seemed irreversible was reversed.

Protests and road blockades were immediate, as were police and military repression. Like a déjà vu, the events invoked the ghosts of the crisis that preceded the 2009 coup. However, determined Honduran citizens remained in the streets. In light of looting of the private sector and under political accusations of being the cause of the chaos, on December 1 the government decreed a State of Emergency for 10 days, in order to keep the population silenced in house arrest. But as in previous times in Argentina, an unprecedented “cacerolazo” – a common form of protest in Latin America consisting of banging pots and pans – came to life in different Honduran cities, breaking the curfew and challenging political power.

If he still has any dignity left, he must resign for the good of Honduras

Unfortunately, the challenges cost lives. According to the Committee of Relatives of the Detained and Disappeared in Honduras (COFADEH), from November 30 to December 4, 12 deaths by Military Police were recorded throughout the country. December 1 was the day that saw the most violent, the date on which the suspension of constitutional guarantees came into force. 

The European Union observer mission said that it would remain in the country "until the electoral process ends and each vote cast is taken into account”. Marisa Matias, head of that mission, also said she condemns the post-election riots, deeply regrets the deaths and the people who were injured and asked for clarification on the circumstances.

In another unprecedented event on December 4, police of different ranks and Cobras agents announced that they would not obey the orders from their superiors and declared a sit-down strike – that is, they would not go to the streets to repress protesters. In turn, they asked the TSE to respect the will of the people and to carry out a transparent vote count. However, the Armed Forces and the Military Police, put together by the president, continued – and still continue – to be active, so that it can not be said that the population has been safe from the abuse of the monopoly exercise of force.

Picture of a police officer taken during a protest rally against alleged electoral fraud in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, 03 December 2017. A victory by president Juan Orlando Hernandez looms over the horizon over a week after the disputed presidential elections in Honduras. The opposition accuses the government of electoral fraud and won't recognise the results. The situation could escalate. Photo: Delmer Membreno/DPA/PA Images. All rights reserved. Honduras ranks 130th in the Human Development Index and, according to the World Bank, 60% of its population lives in poverty. The basic health service is available only for a third of the population. The high rates of crime and unemployment, the involvement of political and influential figures in drug trafficking, as well as youth gangs and drug dealers, give an idea of the political, economic and social crisis that Honduras is experiencing. With a salary of approximately US$232, it is easy to conclude that many of those police officers who participated in the strike and their families belong to that great majority of Hondurans living in poverty. And that they too, apparently, are fed up with the violence – physical, but above all structural.

While the international community remains unmoved, the president clings to power in a country that has lived institutional crisis after institutional crisis since the coup d'état in 2009. The last straw is undoubtedly the looting and the use of funds from the Honduran Social Security Institute to finance political campaigns of the government party, whose main authors and beneficiaries remain unpunished. 

The population has been asking for the president’s resignation since 2015, with multitudinous marches with torches. The pretense of being re-elected despite the constitutional prohibition has been the trigger that explains the extent of the rejection and why the president lost the elections. If he still has any dignity left, he must resign for the good of Honduras.

 

This article was previously published by Asuntos del Sur.

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الريف بعد سنة من حادثة محسن فكري، مجروح
December 15th, 2017, 04:38 PM

بعد سنة على الحادثة المؤلمة، و سلسلة الاحتجاجات التي عاشها الريف، تلتها سلسلة اعتقالات شملت قادة نشطاء الحراك الشعبي، و عسكرة كاملة للمنطقة منذ أشهر. تبدو الحسيمة بعد سنة مجروحة.

محسن فكري. محسن فكري، القطرة التي أفاضت الكأس

بعد ليلة 28 أكتوبر، من سنة 2016 ليلة حادثة طحن محسن فكري في شاحنة النفايات، خرج الناس إلى الشارع في الريف و رفعوا شعارات تطالب بمعاقبة الجناة، المسؤولين بطريقة مباشرة أو غير مباشرة. و حملوا المخزن المسؤولية الأولى في حادثة طحن محسن فكري، و ما آلت إليه الأوضاع بسبب الفساد، باعتبار أن المخزن يمثل النظام.

الفظاعة التي تمت بها الوفاة، عبر الطحن في شاحنة تحمل النفايات أمام أنظار الشرطة كانت القطرة التي أفاضت غضب ساكنة الريف الذي كان محتقنا، فلم يكن ممكنا تمرير ما حدث في صمت، لأن الصمت وقتها كان سيكون بمثابة فتح الطريق أمام حوادث شبيهة أو أفظع.

نتائج التحقيق لم تكن عادلة حسب الشارع في الريف

أطوار الحادثة التي تناقلتها وسائل الإعلام الدولي و ظلت تتابع تطور القضية، و التضامن الدولي من طرف الأشخاص و المؤسسات، كان له تأثير غير مباشر على الناس في الريف. إذ منحهم هذا الدعم حافزا للاستمرار في رفع المطالب بدءا بمعاقبة المسؤولين عن الحادثة، و رفع التهميش عن المنطقة.

لكن رغم فتح التحقيق، و القبض على المتورطين في القضية ، و محاكمتهم، إلا أن نتائج التحقيق لم تكن عادلة حسب الشارع في الريف، فقد توبع المتهمون بثمانية أشهر سجنا نافذا فقط !

''التحقيق في مقتل أخي عرف الكثير من التزوير، و المتورطين الفعليين لم تتم متابعتهم و ظلوا مخفيين و أحرار، شخصيا لست راضيا عن نتائج التحقيق ولا عن كيفية تعامل الدولة مع قضية أخي أو مع القمع الذي واجهت به الناس الذين خرجوا للمطالبة بحقوقهم'' يقول عماد فكري أخ محسن فكري و يضيف: كيف يتهموننا بالانفصال وهم لا يبالون بما نعانيه من مشاكل اجتماعية و اقتصادية؟

ماذا تغير في الريف بعد سنة؟

 تبدو المدينة هادئة ، لكن وجوه الناس لا تخفي الإرهاق الذي ينتابها 

أعرف كيف كانت مدينة الحسيمة قبل سنة و كيف صارت، لم يتغير شيء إلى الأفضل. تبدو المدينة هادئة ، لكن وجوه الناس لا تخفي الإرهاق الذي ينتابها . التغيير في العسكرة التي تطوق المنطقة، و غياب العديد من شباب المنطقة خلف قضبان السجن مثقلين بتهم ثقيلة، لا علاقة لهم بها. فالريف يمر بأزمة إنسانية. صحيح أنها لا تخوض حربا بالأسلحة لكنها في حرب نفسية منذ بدء سلسلة الاعتقالات نهاية شهر مايو الماضي. إذ بلغ عدد المعتقلين حسب ما جاء في ندوة نظمها الاتحاد الأوروبي في شهر أكتوبر الماضي، 1005 معتقل، 500 منهم يقبعون في السجن، 51 منهم أطفال،7 منهم صحفيون، وأربع نساء في حالة متابعة.

يقبع أغلب هؤلاء المعتقلين، في سجن عكاشة، السجن الرئيسي و الأكبر في المملكة الكائن في العاصمة الإقتصادية ، الدارالبيضاء التي تبعد عن إقليم الحسيمة ب 559 كيلومتر. و بسبب هذا البعد تعيش عائلات المعتقلين المعاناة، هم بعيدون عن أبنائهم من جهة و الطريق لزيارتهم ذهابا و إيابا من الحسيمة نحو الدارالبيضاء يأخذ منهم 1200 كيلومترا من التعب، الجسدي و المعنوي أسبوعيا بالإضافة إلى المصاريف، من جهة أخرى.

عواطف الأصريحي، أخت المعتقل الصحفي، مدير موقع ريف24 الذي غطى الحراك خطوة بخطوة، محمد الأصريحي تقول: ''أصبحنا معتقلي الطريق، نعيش معاناة مضاعفة. سجن أخي، و عذاب الطريق كل ليلة أربعاء عندما ننطلق ذهابا لأزيد من 8 ساعات و الوصول هناك صباحا لبدأ الزيارة و العودة مساءا إلى الريف''.
المنطقة حاليا في حالة من الركود ، هذا ما يمكن سماعه من ساكنتها و حتى من القادمين إليها زيارة و الجميع يجمع على أن السبب في الوصول إلى هذه الحالة هو التدبير الخاطئ و القمعي للأزمة من طرف الحكومة، إذ استعملت القمع المباشر، الاعتقالات و غير المباشر، التضييق و ارسال استدعاءات للمتضامنين مع الحراك لتخويفهم، و طرق أخرى منها المراقبة. الركود الاقتصادي في الريف تزايد خلال هذه السنة أيضا، لأن السياحة التي تنعش المنطقة خلال الصيف تراجعت، فالسياح لم يختاروا قضاء عطلتهم في منطقة معسكرة !

و يمارس النظام نوعا من التعتيم على ما يحدث في الريف، من خلال التعتيم الإعلامي و تحوير الإنتباه نحو مواضيع أخرى في الإعلام الداخلي، و توقيف أي أحد يحاول التصوير، أو نقل الحقيقة. و منع أي محاولة للإعلام الأجنبي لنقل ما يحدث، و آخر صحفي ذهب إلى الريف من الغارديان البريطانية سعيد ديحان، تم ترحيله بعد ساعات فقط من حلوله بالمنطقة !

استطاعوا أن يعتقلوا أصدقائي لكنهم لن يستطيعوا قتل فكرة الحراك في أذهاننا

فبعد مسيرة العشرين يوليو الماضي، التي شارك فيها ساكنة مختلف مناطق الريف و التي عرفت تضامنا من نشطاء عدة قدموا إلى المدينة من مناطق مختلفة من البلاد. إلا أن هذه المسيرة عرفت عنفا رهيبا، نتج عنه مقتل الشاب عماد العتابي بسبب الضرب الذي تعرض له. و تضييق على كل من يحاول أن يخرج أو يتكلم أو يكتب، فإما يتم اعتقاله أو ترهيبه بطرق أخرى.

محمد سلطانة، فنان من الريف ناصر الحراك بطريقته، يقول: ''الحراك ليس مجرد احتجاج، إنه فكرة حية،" يضيف ، "استطاعوا أن يعتقلوا أصدقائي لكنهم لن يستطيعوا قتل فكرة الحراك في أذهاننا و الأزمة التي نعيشها الآن هي نتيجة سياسة قاصرة''. 

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How do the extractive industries and agribusiness repress rural communities in Latin America?
December 15th, 2017, 04:38 PM

Conflicts and resistances involving territories and natural resources have been increasing in Latin America in recent years. Where and how are these conflicts taking place, and who is most affected?

Hillside with 'No a Conga' carved on its side Anti Conga mine slogan carved on the hillside above the Peruvian city of Cajamarca. Image: Alan/Flickr. Some rights reserved.

This article is part of Right to Protest, a partnership project with human rights organisations CELS and INCLO, with support from the ACLU, examining the power of protest and its fundamental role in democratic society

Latin America’s human rights record has been challenged by the accelerated growth of the extractive industries in the region over the past few decades – ‘traditional’ industries such as mining and agriculture, as well as new technologies for oil extraction. Throughout the continent, resistance movements that campaign for alternatives to this hegemonic model continuously suffer violent repression, through the use of force, intimidation and submission to judicial processes. 

As we will see, contemporary extractive activity usually presents territorial conflicts through the dislodging of the populations that inhabit those territories. The extractive model therefore implicates accumulation by dispossession – a model based on the expansion of capital through the intensive use of the environment, which is interpreted as a commodity. This process of accumulation by dispossession is intertwined with the expanded reproduction of capital by the exploitation of labour and by a system of global capital.

Here I’ll present some of the most emblematic conflicts and resistances in Latin America in recent years involving territories and natural resources.

Hydrocarbons

Hydrocarbon exploration has generated huge territorial conflicts from the beginning – unsurprisingly, with a global capitalist system that depends on fossil fuels. Hydrocarbon activity has caused innumerable conflicts between countries as well as civil wars, and has also advanced into ancestral territories of indigenous peoples, peasants and medium-sized producers.

Although the advance into these territories in Latin America has occured since the beginning of the 20th century, developments in the oil and gas industry have brought the issue of land to the surface once again in the first decades of the 21st century. New technologies have allowed oil to be extracted from areas that were previously not profitable due to their geological conditions. These are the so-called unconventional hydrocarbons, whose main extraction technique consists of hydraulic fracturing (better known as fracking), which makes it possible to obtain hydrocarbons (shale gas and shale oil) trapped in rocks or compact sands (tight gas). Therefore, this century has experienced a growing cycle of conflicts over hydrocarbon activities, whether in the conventional or non-conventional format, that affect various Latin American territories.

Argentina is home to the Vaca Muerta deposit – in the provinces of Neuquén, Río Negro and Mendoza – which is the largest in the continent, just behind the deposits explored in the United States. It is estimated that almost 1,400 unconventional wells have been built in Vaca Muerta so far. There, the progress of the exploration of conventional and unconventional oil and gas is met with resistance from different communities of the Mapuche people in Neuquén (Campo Maripe, Tratayén, Kaxipayiñ, Paynemil, Winkul Newen, among many others), as well as the small producers of cattle, crianceros, of the region and medium-sized fruit producers of the Upper Valley of Rio Negro and Neuquén. The development of hydrocarbons has generated significant environmental and health impacts on populations, from spills and contamination of large areas by drilling, to gas emissions on the surface. This activity has also had a strong impact on the flora and fauna of the region, as perforations are conducted even in protected natural areas, such as Auca Mahuida.

Resistance to fracking has resulted in repressive acts by provincial and federal security forces, mainly against the Mapuche communities

Resistance to fracking has resulted in repressive acts by provincial and federal security forces, mainly against the Mapuche communities. For example, the community of Campo Maripe – where more than 200 conventional and unconventional oil wells operate – has experienced three repressive episodes, while the Community of Tratayén was recently evicted from part of its territory where hydrocarbon drilling occurs. Almost all Mapuche community leaders and authorities are prosecuted for participating in different protests (road and route cuts, taking oil installations, demonstrations, etc.) against the advance of hydrocarbons in their ancestral territories. These resistances and demonstrations have managed to pressure authorities to prohibit oil exploration in more than 50 municipalities throughout the country, although both the provincial and national governments continue to advance policies that promote the hydrocarbon industry in general and fracking in particular.

In Mexico, extraction and unconventional hydrocarbons have not expanded as much as in Argentina, but you can already see their social and environmental consequences. Almost 30 unconventional wells are estimated to exist in the country. A national organisation, the Allianza Mexicana contra el Fracking (Mexican Alliance Against Fracking), has already been formed to enable communication between indigenous communities, peasants and small and medium-sized towns that are affected by fracking. The organisation now joins other 44 social organisations that have already managed to ban this activity in some municipalities, such as Tanlajás and Xilitla in the State of San Luis Potosí, the municipality of Cuetzalan in the State of Puebla and hundreds of indigenous and peasant communities in zones where oil exploration occurs.

Additionally, in the municipality of San Martín in Colombia, there were several demonstrations and popular uprisings in opposition to fracking wells that were being built in their territories. For this, they suffered intimidation, threats and repression by police in 2016. These mobilisations managed to generate empathy in other areas where unconventional hydrocarbons are also being explored, culminating in a unanimous decision by the Department Assembly of Santander to reject the use of fracking in that department that same year.

 

Mega-mining

Mining is a constitutive activity of the Conquest and ransacking of America. Many of the Latin American countries have a strong mining tradition and these riches have been one of the bases of the domination and dependence of the entire continent. In the last decades, mining activity experienced a new boom through technological innovation that allows more valuable minerals (gold, silver, among others) to be retrieved through the use of leaching, a technique that consists of dynamiting large portions of the deposits in the mountains and then separating the valuable minerals from those remaining using a chemical mixture that contains cyanide and requires large amounts of water. Although mining is also a polluting activity, "open-air mega mining" – as this large-scale mining process is called in Latin America – causes strong social and environmental impacts, even greater than traditional mining.

The inhabitants of the Cajamarca region oppose the Conga Project, an open-pit mega-mining project that has destroyed almost 20 lagoons that were sources of fresh water

These large mining projects are found all along the Andes, and also in the jungles and forests of the continent, and with them come resistance movements. Here, too, indigenous peoples, peasant movements and small- and medium-urban populations are the protagonists of the resistance – attempting to defend their territories against the intensive use of water, the destruction of mountainous landscapes and the contamination of glaciers, streams, lakes, rivers and other sources of fresh water.

A paradigmatic example of these resistances against mega-mining can be observed in Peru. The inhabitants of the Cajamarca region oppose the Conga Project, an open-pit mega-mining project that has destroyed almost 20 lagoons that were sources of fresh water in the area. The same happened with the Yanacocha mega-mining enterprise, also in Cajamarca, the largest gold mining venture in the world, as well as that of Tía María in Arequipa, in the country’s south region. 

In all cases, thousands of residents – many of them peasants and indigenous – have made numerous protests demanding the cessation or non-implementation of these projects through petitions, referendums, demonstrations and roadblocks. Because of these protests, which began in 2002, the inhabitants of these regions have suffered strong repressions that have killed dozens, and injured and imprisoned hundreds. To this day, resistance to mega-mining is one of the most important reasons behind social protest, and also criminalisation of social protest, in Peru.

In Argentina, protests against mega-mining projects also began in 2002, with demonstrations in the southern city of Esquel. Its inhabitants, together with the indigenous communities of the area, opposed the development of a mega gold mining project and managed to stop it after a referendum where more than 80% of the population voted against the mine. In light of this success, no more referendums of this type have been officially accepted in Argentina, preventing local populations from having a say on the extractive projects to be carried out in their regions.

Thus, citizen assemblies have emerged in different areas of the mountain range to oppose different mega-mining ventures in the cities of Tinogasta and Andalgalá (Catamarca), Famatina and Chilecito (La Rioja), Jáchal (San Juan), Tupungato, San Martín, Lujan de Cuyo and Maipú (Mendoza), among many other towns in the Andean provinces. In these cases, locals chose demonstrations, assemblies and roadblocks as the tools to give their demands more visibility.

In all these cases, the modus operandi of the states’ authorities has been judicial persecution and repression of social protests

Simultaneously in Mexico there have also been strong movements of resistance to mega-mining in different states: Chihuahua has 13 such conflicts, Zacatecas 12, Puebla 8, Oaxaca 7, Chiapas, Michoacán and Baja California Sur 5 each, Sonora, San Luis Potosí, Durango, Guanajuato and Colima 4, Veracruz, Querétaro and Hidalgo 3, Jalisco, Coahuila and State of Mexico 2; and Baja California, Nayarit, Morelos and Aguascalientes 1, respectively. In Mexico, more than 100 conflicts are currently registered against mining projects, which makes it, according to Forbes magazine (2016), the country with the largest number of mining conflicts in Latin America.

In all these cases, the modus operandi of the states’ authorities has been judicial persecution and repression of social protests. In the case of Argentina, however, laws were passed banning open-air mega-mining projects in some provinces. Some of these laws were recently repealed, opening again the possibility for mega-mining companies to advance in those provinces, as is the case of La Rioja. 

Agribusiness

Since the late 20th century, hegemonic agriculture in Latin America has been marked by so-called ‘agribusiness’, which implies a deepening and intensifying of agroindustrial production oriented to produce for export. The logic of the international commodities market and the monopoly by multinationals determine the prices of products to the detriment of small and medium producers. This has occurred within a context of technological and business innovation that has given rise to the hegemony of transgenic crops in a large part of Latin America’s arable land. These crops, such as soy, corn and African palm, among others, create a uniform landscape of monocultures focused on export and a huge concentration of land in the hands of large establishments. This, in a continent with the highest inequality indexes in the world.

Agribusiness-related conflicts take place across all of Latin America; the protests and social movements resisting this territorial advance of agrarian capitalism are numerous. This productive model has the greatest territorial extension in Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay, but agribusiness also occurs with great intensity in Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador and Central America. Even in countries like Mexico, where land is more fairly distributed, this model has been growing exponentially.

The most important responses against agribusiness are carried out by indigenous peoples and various peasant movements that have been resisting evictions since the 1990s, and often occupy lands to work in an alternative way to the dominant model. Brazil has the two best-known cases of peasant movements: The Landless Workers’ Movement (MST, for its Portuguese acronym) and the Movimiento de Pequeños Agricultores (MPA) (Movement of Small Farmers), which have recovered thousands of hectares through their occupations and settlements. After occupying the land, they begin an alternative production process to the hegemonic one, which allows them to consolidate a de facto agrarian reform in their territories, as well as the construction of so-called "food sovereignty". 

These occupations have received strong reprisals from landowners and their private security guards. The peasants have also suffered strong repression by public security forces. Peasants have been murdered, wounded and imprisoned for protesting, which includes large demonstrations and occupation of public buildings.

Peasant movements resist the exponential process of "sojización" (“soyification”) of the Paraguayan countryside at the cost of repression, imprisonment and killings of dozens of peasants

Argentina also has several peasant movements – the Movimiento Nacional Campesino Indígena (MNCI), the Frente Nacional Campesino (FNC), the Organización de Trabajadores Rurales de Lavalle (OTRAL) and, more recently, the Unión de Trabajadores de la Tierra (UTT) – that resist evictions and/or have occupied land to implement productive schemes linked to rural logics, with an agro-ecological vision. At least ten peasants, indigenous people and/or activists have been killed for these occupations, eviction resistances and roadblocks in the last ten years – including Javier Chocobar, Miguel Galván, Cristián Ferreyra, Roberto López and Santiago Maldonado [LINK], the young man who disappeared during the repression of a protest of a Mapuche community in Cushamen in Argentine Patagonia, and appeared dead almost three months later.

In Paraguay, several peasant movements resist the exponential process of "sojización" (“soyification”) of the Paraguayan countryside at the cost of repression, imprisonment and killings of dozens of peasants in the last ten years. This scheme is replicated in other countries where agribusiness has been strengthened as a model of hegemonic production in rural regions. 

Other conflicts around extractivism

In addition to the aforementioned, there are a series of extractive activities and large-scale infrastructure projects that affect the rural areas of the American continent and generate processes of struggle and resistance from different social movements. For example, pine and/or eucalyptus forest enterprises of large paper mills, hydroelectric dams, nuclear plants, large roads, pipelines, gas pipelines, large commercial ports, etc., all cause significant social and environmental impacts.

Some of these resistances can be observed among the Mapuche communities in southern Chile who have been resisting pine plantations in their communal territories. These communities have been subjected to heavy repression by the Carabiniers – the Chilean national police force – and the imprisonment of their leaders, in addition to stigmatisation and social racism at the hands of the media, political elites and a large portion of the population. In recent years, hundreds of Mapuches have been taken to court, in addition to another dozen indigenous political prisoners from other communities, while several have been murdered and hundreds injured by repressive forces. Additionally, the increasing implementation of the anti-terrorist law has enabled authorities to persecute the Mapuche communities that protest against these extractive projects and for the recovery of its territory and ancestral culture.

Another example is the indigenous communities of the Moxeños, Tsimanaes and Yuracarés Indigenous Territories and Isiboro Secure National Park (TIPNIS) in Bolivia that, since 2011, oppose the construction of a highway that is projected to go through the national park and indigenous territory to connect the regions of Cochabamba and Beni. This highway is part of the planning of the Initiative for the Integration of the Regional Infrastructure of South America (IIRSA) that promotes large-scale infrastructure projects to improve the extraction of natural resources as well as the mobility of goods through "interoceanic corridors" between the Pacific and the Atlantic oceans. 

These people have led demonstrations and roadblocks to protest against this project, which is spearheaded by the administration of Evo Morales who supports this project that has divided part of the TIPNIS communities. The project has marked a turning point for his government in relation to the peasant and indigenous social movements: while some continue to support the government, other groups protest that, despite identifying itself as a "government of indigenous and social movements", the Morales’ government promotes extractivism, from activities related to hydrocarbons, mega-mining, agribusiness and large infrastructure projects, such as the TIPNIS highway.

Bottom-up alternatives to the hegemonic model

A series of lifestyles coexist within the extractive hegemonic model, even though they are presented as opposite: mostly indigenous peoples, peasant movements, Afro-descendant populations, artisanal fishermen and other subaltern actors of rural regions. Some of these social movements propose and build lifestyles in their territories that present an alternative to the extractive model.

Throughout Latin America, ancestral forms of food production and ways of life coexist – many times subsumed, while many others in frank dispute with the productive logics of hegemonic agrarian capitalism. These ancestral productive forms – which we can call alternative – are predominantly carried out by the indigenous peoples and peasant communities that inhabit a large part of the continent’s territories. In addition to these are the productive activities for self-support in complementarity with the production of food for local and/or national markets.

There is also a diverse range of small- and medium-scale producers who are not necessarily indigenous and/or peasants who produce food for the local and/or national market through different systems, although generally incorporated in part or totally in the production, distribution and commercialisation of the agribusiness or agroindustrial model. On the other hand, different currents within the agronomy sector were consolidated in the last few decades, which are linked to the peasant and indigenous struggles, that systematised forms of alternative production to the hegemonic model of agribusiness, thus combining technical and agronomic knowledge with the knowledge associated with peasants, indigenous people and other subaltern rural actors who excel in what is now called agroecology.

These experiences present possible alternatives to the mainstream lifestyle and propose new ways to produce healthy and cheap food. They represent, here and now, alternatives to extractive activities such as hydrocarbons, mega-mining and agribusiness that are presented as the bearers of "development" and "progress" but that end up generating greater social inequalities, the destruction of the environment and the disarticulation of other ways of life. These resistances and the alternatives that emerge from peasant, indigenous and rural struggles showcase the hope of social change, which has already begun in the re-existing territories of Latin America, Our America.

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“Our strategy is visibility”: the fight for LGBT rights in Romania
December 15th, 2017, 04:38 PM

Violence and anti-LGBT hate crime is on the rise in Romania, says activist Vlad Viski. But he and his colleagues refuse to stay silent.

Trans day of remembrance vigil in Bucharest. Photo: Sian Norris.It was freezing cold outside the Italian embassy in Romania’s capital city, Bucharest, on a late November evening. But the sudden drop in temperature didn't put off a group of LGBT right activists who gathered here for Trans Day of Remembrance.

Holding candles, they stood in front of a rainbow flag with "TransMem" penned across it. On the pavement were photocopied pictures of a young Romanian trans women, Laura, who was recently murdered in Italy.

A couple of people held each other, tears in their eyes, as a trans woman in jeans and a jacket shared Laura’s story. “She could have been me,” the woman said, her voice clear and determined. “She could have been so many of our brothers and sisters.”

Why have you come here today? I asked a young man carrying a tote bag emblazoned with a rainbow, the symbol of LGBT pride. “Because it is important to show our solidarity with the trans community,” he said. “It is the first Romanian trans person that we know who was killed.”

“Because it is important to show our solidarity with the trans community,” he said. “It is the first Romanian trans person that we know who was killed.”

Handing out candles to the assembled group was Vlad Viski, founding member of the activist group MozaiQ. Two days after the vigil we met in a Bucharest cafe, to discuss the challenges facing the LGBT rights movement in Romania.

“I came back to Romania in 2015, having studied abroad,” he told me, as tinny Euro-pop blared out from the TV screen behind us. “And there was already a group of activists, artists and people from the corporate world coming together to discuss the need for a new LGBT rights organisation.”

“At that time, there was only Accept, who focused on the legal and lobbying side of things,” he said, referring to the established, leading LGBT rights charity. “We wanted to create a group that dealt with the community itself, and MozaiQ became the missing piece of that puzzle.”

Viski and his colleagues wanted MozaiQ to be a political activist group, but also to provide social and cultural activities for the LGBT community. From sports clubs to board game nights, it aims to “forge bonds between people and take a more social approach to issues,” said Viski. “Not everyone wants to get involved in direct activism.”

But, a few months after MozaiQ was founded, the atmosphere around LGBT rights in Romania became a lot more hostile.

In November 2015, the Christian ‘family rights’ group, Coalition for Family, published a ‘Citizens’ Initiative’ and collected 3 million signatures seeking a referendum to change Romania’s constitution to define marriage as between a man and a woman exclusively.

Same-sex marriage is not currently legal in Romania; the proposed constitutional change would preempt efforts introduce marriage equality in the future. Last year, the Romanian parliament approved a referendum on the issue. However, the 2016 parliamentary elections delayed the vote and a date for the referendum is yet to be set.

This very public backlash against LGBT rights caused MozaiQ to evolve – and quickly. “On the day Romania’s constitutional court gave the green light to the Citizens’ Initiative,” Viski told me, “we went out in the streets to protest the decision.”

“A few months later, during the 2016 parliamentary elections, we organised a march called God Doesn’t Do Politics,” he added. “Our strategy now is visibility.”

But visibility in a country where homosexuality has only been legal for 16 years (same-sex relations were decriminalised in Romania in 2001) is not easy.

Bucharest. Photo: Sian Norris.Since the Coalition for Family launched its citizens’ initiative, Viski said there has been “an increase in hate speech in the public arena from the Coalition and from the Orthodox Church.”

Viski said he and and his colleagues in MozaiQ have seen “an increase in violent physical attacks against LGBT people, with more people being beaten on the streets and coming to us.”

This has not forced the LGBT community into hiding. Rather, Viski believes that being confronted with an emboldened and vocal opposition “kind of gave a boost to the community and the movement itself. It shook things up.”

“More LGBT people are coming out to their families and in the media,” he said, and the threat of a referendum has given MozaiQ and its allies more public exposure and attention.

MozaiQ has worked with partner organisations to host public debates in town halls across Romania, inviting politicians to share their views on LGBT issues, equal marriage and civil unions.

Pride poster in Accept offices in Bucharest. Photo: Sian Norris.Last year saw the country’s biggest ever Pride parade in Bucharest, with a sister march in Cluj. Viski became a familiar face on TV screens, keeping his cool as he debates conservative and Orthodox figures determined to, in his words, “trash gay people.”

“Before, maybe people were on the fence,” Viski told me. “Maybe they didn’t care about the issue. But having this public national debate has forced them to take a stand and join the movement. That’s the positive side of it.”

“Maybe they didn’t care about the issue. But having this public national debate has forced them to take a stand and join the movement. That’s the positive side of it.”

However, there’s a long way to go to create an LGBT-welcoming environment in Romania. There’s still a lack of LGBT voices in the media, where “conservative voices...are always present,” said Viski, adding: “we don’t have gay couples that are present in TV shows.”

We left the giddy Euro-pop behind us to go and sit on the upstairs terrace, despite the chilly weather. I asked Viski if he feels optimistic about LGBT rights in Romania. He smiled.

“I kind of have to be optimistic, it’s like – my job!” he said. But, he added: “We live in a regional context where you have a backlash against progressive rights in Poland, in Hungary, in Russia, in Turkey... you see this slip towards authoritarianism and that’s being done against gay rights.”

“At the same time, for the very first time since 2001 when homosexuality was decriminalised, we have this chance to tell our story. To shape our identity in the public arena,” he said.

The young man at the vigil told me something similar. He said: “Our greatest hope, whether we win or lose the referendum, is that the LGBT community will come together and be stronger. That we’ll be able to use that strength to one day win.”

Translation and research assistance by Alexandra Mitrofan-Norris.

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