Friday, April 27, 2012

Quebec students call for a social strike in solidarity with their struggle

In a previous post I asked if the time has arrived for a social strike by unions and social movements in support of the students and their fight against the Charest government’s tuition fee hikes. A reader referred me to a statement issued recently by the CLASSE that calls for such a strike. The CLASSE is the largest of the student coalitions or federations leading the strike movement. It represents more than half of the 180,000 students now on strike across Quebec.

Here is the full text of its appeal. My translation.

-- Richard Fidler

* * *

Toward a social strike

It’s a student strike, a people’s struggle

Hike in tuition fees is part of “the cultural revolution”

For several weeks now a student revolt has shaken the neoliberal consensus imposed for many years by the Quebec and Canadian governments. It was sparked by the announcement of a new, 75% increase in university tuition fees. Since its announcement in the 2010 Quebec budget, the media lackeys of the Liberal government have attempted to present this measure as inevitable. But behind this claimed inevitability we find an eminently political decision expressed in what the finance minister terms a “cultural revolution,” and the international economic authorities refer to as an “austerity budget.” Whatever the name given to it by governments, it clearly and definitively involves the dismantling of public services aimed at privatizing what remains of the commons.

The student movement has focused on the issue of tuition fees and the commoditization of the universities. However, it is not unaware that this measure is integrally linked to a larger project affecting elementary and secondary education, the healthcare sector and the unfettered development of natural resources. Our resistance to the Quebec government’s neoliberal measures has to take into account all of these sectors, establishing a social link that enables us to speak of a community. The government is trying to compartmentalize our strike by saying its tuition hike is designed to get the students to pay their “fair share.” However, the students have attempted from the outset of the strike to say that their policy goals went beyond the framework of a strict accounting and corporatist exercise with the government. Of course we want to see the government cancel this tuition fee increase, but at the same time we want to challenge the economic imperative that informs the policies of our governments.

If it is to do this, the student movement cannot remain alone, and must be joined by all of the forces that make up our society and make it live — whether it is the workers in healthcare, education and social services; the workers locked out by Rio Tinto and laid off by Aveos, victims of unfettered capitalism; the casual employees of the Couche-Tard convenience stores, denied the right of association; the women faced with Conservative threats to their rights; the elderly forced to work longer; or the Indigenous peoples seeing a new colonization that pillages the territory remaining to them.

From the student strike to the social strike

The striking students are aware of their inability by themselves to force the government to retreat from these various measures. Hence the necessity for the student movement to be joined by all social forces in our fight against Finance Minister Bachand’s cultural revolution. We not appealing here for some superficial support, with a few union full-timers writing a news release repeating for the umpteenth time their support for the student struggle. On the contrary, we are calling for a convergence of the Quebec people as a whole in opposition to the cutbacks and the commoditization of social services and our collective rights. Only a generalization of the student strike to the workplaces can make this convergence effective. It is therefore a call for a social strike that we are issuing to the population as a whole!

The government’s response to the students is to muzzle them through the courts and police truncheons. The education minister is making daily efforts to break the strike that the students voted for democratically. Our best response to the hardening of the state’s management of the strike is to widen it, to render impossible any isolated repression. Let us stop fearing the laws that fetter our discontent, let us collectively disobey and go together into the streets of Quebec. Alone, this disobedience will be marginalized and repressed by the government. But if all sectors of Quebec society act together the government will be unable to rely on the courts.

We must build this social strike from the bottom up, by initiating a discussion in the workplaces on how to desert our day-to-day occupations. Let us call for general meetings in our local unions to discuss the possibility of instituting such a strike. Let us contact the community groups in our neighborhoods, to hold citizens’ assemblies on the social strike. These assemblies are the expression of our capacity to deliberate together and to build a movement that goes beyond the limits established by the elite. May the streets, occupied for two months now, become the expression of our collective refusal.

The government is now scared, it is ready to yield. Let us seize the moment to insert a key into the gears of the cultural revolution and defend a society that puts people before profit.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Government ends negotiations with Quebec’s striking students

Has the time arrived for a general social strike?

On Wednesday, April 25, Education minister Line Beauchamp abruptly ended the negotiations with the student leaders to which she had reluctantly agreed two days earlier — before they had even got to the key issue of the $1625 fee hike. She refused, once again, to negotiate with the CLASSE, the largest student union, which represents about half of the 180,000 students now on strike in Quebec’s post-secondary colleges and universities. That effectively ended the negotiations, since the other two student unions refused to break their united front with the CLASSE and fall for the government’s blatant attempt to divide them.

The minister’s pretext this time was even flimsier than her earlier refusal to meet with the CLASSE. She claimed that an announcement of a demonstration that appeared on the CLASSE web site constituted a breach of the 48-hour “truce” on civil disobedience actions she had imposed on the students as a condition of the talks. However, the demonstration in question was not organized by the CLASSE, and had been announced on many websites, including Profs contre la hausse, which represents the thousands of professors who are supporting the students.

The strike is now at an impasse. The students are determined to continue their protest; thousands took to the streets of Montréal within hours of the minister’s announcement. And they are being joined by pupils in a growing number of high schools. But the two-month long strike by more than one third of Quebec’s college and university students has not sufficed to win even preservation of the status quo, a freeze on current tuition fees, let alone the free post-secondary education sought by the CLASSE.

The Liberal government’s hard line, supported by the far-right opposition party Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ), reflects their determination to preserve the entire neoliberal package represented by the recent federal Conservative and provincial Liberal budgets. It is not the expense of higher education that motivates them — that’s a mere bagatelle compared with many other state expenditures. They are determined to extend the user-pay ideology into additional social sectors, to provide more openings for the privatization of educational facilities, and to roll back the mounting public support for free education at all levels including university — one of the original goals of Quebec’s Quiet Revolution of the 1960s. Even a freeze on tuition fees, as won by the students in some previous mobilizations, is now seen as an acknowledgement of this principle of gratuité scolaire. And in the background is the downward pressure on Quebec’s relatively advanced, if limited, welfare state exerted by market forces bolstered by “free trade” agreements like NAFTA and the pending deal between Canada and the European Union.

It is now clear that in order to succeed the students must be joined by additional forces. Above all they need the active mobilization of the trade unions, the only social force that can quickly and qualitatively change the relationship of forces at the point of production and provision of services. The CSN[1] has voted in convention in favour of a 24-hour social strike by its 300,000 members; a good start could be made on May First, the now traditional labour day in Quebec celebrated by all the major unions, usually with a giant demonstration in Montréal. Unfortunately, there is no visible militant wing in the unions at present challenging the inertia of the union bureaucracy.

However, the issue has been debated recently in some circles in Quebec, including some unions. The following document was produced in 2010 by the committee on the social strike established by Quebec’s Coalition against privatization and user fees for public services.[2] It is republished in the current (April 24) issue of the web journal Presse-toi-à-gauche as a contribution to the discussion on the next steps facing the unions and social movements in the broadening and deepening mobilizations this spring against the neoliberal agenda of the government headed by Premier Jean Charest. It could provide fuel for the debate on the current political situation scheduled to be held at the delegated convention of Québec solidaire this coming weekend. Here are some major excerpts; my translation from the French.

-- Richard Fidler

* * *

Why discuss a social strike?

The Coalition against privatization and user fees for public services was formed to fight the neoliberal intentions of the Charest government, which is moving to reinforce the regressive nature of the revenues collected by the government while decreasing the resources devoted to social services, and thus opening the door to the private sector in many of the fundamental tasks that the government is supposed to assume. The coalition now groups more than one hundred community agencies, trade unions and popular organizations.[3] […]

In this context, the Coalition adopted the following proposal at its meeting of May 31, 2010:

“To begin thinking about the social strike in all the member organizations. That the members of the Coalition mandate the committee considering the social strike to produce a tool to accompany the groups in their thinking.”

The task is not to discuss the intrinsic value of the social strike, but to do so in relation to the present conjuncture. Is it relevant and feasible in the present struggle against the orientations of the Charest government?

What is a social strike?

A social strike is the widest possible stoppage of work and activities by workers in the public and private sectors as well as by other social movements, students, women working in the volunteer sector, etc. It does not fall within the legal bargaining framework of a collective agreement. It has objectives of a broad social and/or political scope. Unlike many European or South American countries, Quebec — like the rest of Canada and the United States — does not have a great tradition of social strikes. There are many reasons for this, but it is no doubt explained in part by the present statutory framework. The type of trade-union organization we have in Quebec, with the Rand formula,[4] also plays a role in configuring the way in which big social struggles are organized. Notwithstanding, we find some notable exceptions in history.

A. The May 1972 strike of the public sector workers

Although it was within the context of bargaining a collective agreement, the strike of the public and parapublic sector workers in May 1972 in Quebec had many characteristics of a social strike. Its objectives were social in their scope (a mininum weekly wage of $100). The walkout extended to a section of the private sector. And the actions used — for example, occupations of cities or media — went beyond the traditional frameworks.[5]

B. The general strike of October 14, 1976

The general strike of October 14, 1976 was organized on a Canadian scale. It had a clear political objective, the withdrawal of the wage-freeze Law C-73 adopted a year earlier by the federal government under Pierre-Elliott Trudeau, which affected the entire working class. It mobilized workers in private and public sectors, and was supported by many social movements. In all, more than 1 million workers staged a one-day walkout in 150 cities across Canada.

C. The 2004 debate on the general strike against the initial policies of the Charest government

In 2004, a proposal for a one-day general strike to oppose the orientations and laws adopted by the Charest government immediately upon taking office was debated in the local unions affiliated to the major trade-union centrals, and many of these unions adopted strike mandates. A discussion was also begun in the Réseau de vigilance, the erstwhile coalition formed to oppose the direction taken by the Charest government, about the relevance of extending the strike to other sectors, such as the community milieu, and to make it a social strike. The idea of a general strike was abandoned given the requirement posed from the outset of obtaining the participation of all the union centrals, which proved impossible. We might mention, however, that the mandate had been achieved in some centrales. A question for further discussion: Do we all agree on the proposed definition of a social strike? What form might it take in our milieu? […]

Is the social strike feasible in the present context?

A number of conditions must co-exist if a social strike as defined earlier can take place successfully. It is necessary to have the support of the largest possible number of groups in all sectors, including the trade unions. In the case of the latter, the participation of the public sector is essential if it is to have the bandwagon effect on the private sector. The social strike is impossible, however, without the participation of a least a section of the union centrals. The anger must be sufficient to justify the risks that will be taken. The government, or some of the measures it intends to take, must be considered illegitimate by broad segments of the population. The traditional means of struggle must have revealed their limitations; the social struggle must come in the wake of a mounting series of actions or appear to be justified by a breakdown in democracy.

Questions to discuss

Do we think all of the conditions set out above must exist in order for a social strike to be considered feasible? Do they in fact exist in the present context? If not, can they be assembled within the near future? […]

[1] Confédération des syndicats nationaux – Confederation of national trade unions.

[2] Coalition contre la privatisation et la tarification des services publics.

[3] For a current list of member organizations, see

[4] A reference to the industrial relations regime established following World War II, in which unions are granted some legal recognition and the automatic dues checkoff in return for abandoning the right to strike during the life of a contract, and the statutory provision of “residual rights” clauses for management, etc.

[5] The classic account of this strike is Les Travailleurs Contre l’État Bourgeois: avril et mai 1972, by Diane Éthier, Jean-Marc Piotte and Jean Reynolds (Montréal, Les Éditions L’Aurore, 1975).

Monday, April 23, 2012

Massive student upsurge fuels major debates in Quebec society

By Richard Fidler

A crowd estimated at 250,000 people or more wound its way through Montréal April 22 in Quebec’s largest ever Earth Day march. They raised many demands: an end to tar sands and shale gas development, opposition to the Quebec government’s Plan Nord mining expansion, support for radical measures to protect ecosystems, and other causes. And many wore the red felt square symbolizing support to the province’s students fighting the Liberal government’s 75 percent increase in post-secondary education fees over the next five years. The Earth Day march was the largest mobilization to date in a mounting wave of citizen protest throughout the province.

In the vanguard have been the students, now in the eleventh week of a strike that has effectively shut down Quebec’s universities and junior colleges. In recent days they have battled court injunctions and mounting police repression. Their resilience has astonished many Québécois and inspired strong statements of support from broad layers of the population.[1] Equally surprising to many has been the government’s stubborn refusal to even discuss the fee hike with student representatives.

Addressing the huge crowd assembled at the foot of Mount Royal, student leader Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois answered the taunts against the students by Premier Jean Charest and his deputy, Education Minister Line Beauchamp:

“In recent days they have been calling Quebec students hoodlums, vandals, violent people. That’s false! What is more violent than selling the lands of indigenous peoples to some multinationals? What is more violent than polluting the air that our children are going to breathe? We are not violent, it is they who are violent!”

The crunch

The student strike — the longest in Quebec history — is now in a crucial phase. If it continues for more than a few days, an entire semester will be sacrificed by the students. Yet the strike has held firm. There are still more than 170,000 students boycotting classes and they are now being joined by some high school students.[2] The movement has been sustained by frequent mass assemblies and debates as well as off-campus mobilizations. On March 22, more than 200,000 students and supporters marched through the streets of Montréal while throughout Quebec some 300,000 students struck their campuses.

Although the police have kept a low profile in the largest student actions, they have been emboldened by the government’s intransigence and the complicity of courts and academic authorities. During the past week, the cops have viciously attacked peaceful student demonstrations and arrested hundreds. Popular reactions in talk shows and letters to the editor indicate that many citizens are shocked at the repression, especially in regions outside the Montréal metropolitan area.

In Gatineau — a city adjacent to Ottawa, the federal capital — some dissident students at the regional campus of the Université du Québec (UQO) got a superior court judge to issue an injunction ordering professors to resume normal classes and barring student pickets within 25 metres of the university facilities. On April 18, I joined about 200 students, professors and supporters protesting the injunction. After demonstrating in front of the main campus, we marched peacefully (albeit noisily) through city streets, heading toward a secondary UQO campus less than two kilometres distant. Suddenly the municipal police tactical squad closed in, surrounded us and kept us “kettled” in close formation for a couple of hours before arresting more than 160 of us. We are being charged with “obstructing traffic” — although it was the police who closed off the road!

The next day, a similar demonstration, joined now by supporters bussed in from Montréal, was attacked at various points by the provincial police riot squad using pepper spray and truncheons. After leading the cops on a cat-and-mouse march through the city streets, some students found an unlocked door in a university building, entered and peacefully occupied the cafeteria. The cops swarmed in and stood in battle array along the walls. The students remained calm in the face of this intimidating spectacle. They observed a moment of silence and then held an hour-long free discussion on reforming the Quebec education system. The police then announced that they would be charged with “public mischief,” a serious criminal offense. In all, some 150 students and supporters were arrested that day.

The police occupation of campuses, as in Gatineau, is unprecedented and has shocked the academic community, resulting in several public statements of protest from professors and their unions. And even non-striking students have increasingly objected to the intimidating presence of police and massive private security forces on some campuses, including the University of Montréal.

A united front

Despite the provocation from government leaders and the cops, and the vitriolic verbal attacks on the students from much of the mass media — and notwithstanding a few minor incidents of attacks on property by a few unidentified agitators — the students have displayed a remarkably astute ability to remain united and strategically focused on the broader issues in their struggle.

When Education Minister Line Beauchamp, under mounting popular pressure, grudgingly offered to meet with student leaders (but not to discuss the fees increase), she ruled out meeting with the largest of the three groups, the CLASSE.[3] Her pretext? CLASSE leaders had not denounced violent attacks allegedly committed by a few students, including an incident in which her constituency office was invaded, staffers assaulted and some furnishings destroyed. Leaders of the other two federations[4] refused to meet with the minister in the absence of the CLASSE, and pointed out that under the CLASSE’s democratic structure and procedures, its leaders had no mandate to issue such a denunciation pending a decision by its weekly congress to do so.

This common front of the student organizations was a major change from the previous student strike, in 2005, when the two more conservative federations had abandoned the CLASSE predecessor, the CASSÉE,[5] and bargained an agreement with the minister that was subsequently criticized by many students, not just CASSÉE supporters, as grossly inadequate. In part, the change this year reflects the much greater weight of the CLASSE, the most militant wing of the movement, in the strike. It now represents about one half of the strikers, and has provided much of the political leadership for the movement as a whole.

(At the regular weekly congress of the CLASSE leadership, April 22, the delegates adopted a resolution “denouncing any deliberate physical violence toward individuals,” while reaffirming their support of actions of civil disobedience such as occupations of parliamentary deputies’ offices or blockages of certain sites such as bridges, roads, etc. In doing so, they effectively called the minister’s bluff. At this point she has not responded.)

A ‘débat de société’

The CLASSE began preparing for the strike early in 2011, publishing several issues during the year of an on-line tabloid journal, Ultimatum, containing detailed, well-argued articles on the issues and extensive reports on local activities. Each issue, up to 44 pages at one point, included reports on the popular upsurges in the Middle East and elsewhere internationally, with an emphasis on the leading role of students and youth. The Occupy movement was prominently covered. When the strike began in February of this year, Ultimatum switched to a two-page format issued almost weekly with updates on the strike’s progress.

Largely thanks to CLASSE’s intervention the strike has managed to move the public debate onto the students’ terrain, raising basic questions about the role of public education and its importance to the whole of Quebec society as a collective service that should be financed out of general government revenues, not on the backs of students as “consumers.” Thus, while the strike movement’s immediate goal is to “block the increase” in fees, the students have successfully placed the campaign in the context of an ongoing fight for la gratuité scolaire, free and universal access to post-secondary education. As the students argue, this remains a still unrealized objective of Quebec’s “Quiet Revolution” of the 1960s.

The students’ case has been endorsed by the eminent sociologist Guy Rocher, a member of the Quebec government-appointed Parent commission in the 1960s that laid the basis for a massive overhaul of the province’s educational system, proposing an end to church control of the schools and the creation of a vast network of post-secondary educational institutions. In an interview published in Le Devoir, Rocher described free education as a “societal choice” that would cost only 1% of the Quebec budget. And the Parent commission, he recalled, said free post-secondary education was “desirable in the long term” and even proposed that the neediest students be given a salary while they studied.

In fact, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, to which Canada is a signatory, provides that “Higher education shall be made equally accessible to all, on the basis of capacity, by every appropriate means, and in particular by the progressive introduction of free education” (Article 13(2)(c).

Aware that even stopping the current hike in fees requires a popular mobilization larger than what the students themselves can achieve, the CLASSE has called for creation of a broad united front of protest against the neoliberal offensive and linked the fees increase to a string of recent regressive measures. A statement issued for the April 14 march, “For a Quebec Spring,” stated:

“Cuts in social programs, lower taxes for corporations, record military expenditures, setbacks to women’s rights, massive layoffs, inaction on factory closings, raising the retirement threshold to 67 years, increase in education fees, imposition of the healthcare tax, increased electricity rates… The list of Liberal and Conservative injustices is a long one.”

From a speech by CLASSE co-spokesman Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois

Where are the unions?

And indeed, the students’ appeals have been supported by a wide array of organizations in civil society. The full list, regularly updated, can be found at the web site 1625$ de hausse, ça ne passe pas. But while all three trade-union centrals support the students and favour free education, they have so far failed to back their rhetoric with economic action – not even the one-day general strike in solidarity with the students promised by the CSN. A petition urging such action by the unions is now gathering mounting support. It urges the union leaders to speak out forcefully, to organize a “national mobilization, beginning perhaps with a one-day symbolic general strike across Quebec” and, if that proves insufficient to defeat the fee hike, to follow it up with stronger solidarity actions.

Meanwhile, the right-wing voices in the mass media — especially in English Canada — are becoming increasingly shrill in their attacks on the students. A case in point was a diatribe by Postmedia columnist Andrew Coyne, a regular member of CBC-TV’s “At Issue” panel, which the state television network presents as intelligent commentary on questions of the day. In an April 21 newspaper column, Coyne described the Quebec students as a “self-serving, self-satisfied, self-dramatizing collection of idiots,” and went on to propose that instead of paying the present 17% of the total cost of their education the students should pay the full tab — through a graduated tax on subsequent income! Such is the logic of the neoliberal “user pays” principle.

And the funding?

There is, of course, no truth whatever in claims that there is not enough money in current government budgets to support free education at all levels. The point was made quite compellingly in a statement by Cap sur l’indépendance, a network of groups agitating for an independent Quebec. It contrasted the projected revenues from the fee hike, $250 million, with the following documented unnecessary expenditures, among others:

  • Annual cost of Canadian monarchy: $49 million (Monarchist League of Canada, 2011)
  • Harper’s financing of oil companies since 2009: $3.5 billion (Suzuki Foundation, 2012)
  • Tax evasion of the five biggest Canadian banks (1993-2007): $16 billion (Lauzon and Hasbani, 2008)
  • Canada’s climate debt under Kyoto as of December 31, 2012: $19 billion (Le Devoir)
  • Canadian military expenditures (2007-08): $490 billion (Canada First Defence Strategy, 2008)

In fact, a single F-35 fighter plane ($482 million, according to the Auditor-General) would largely suffice to fund the re-investment in post-secondary education that Premier Jean Charest wants students to pay.

As Cap sur l’indépendance notes, all of the above are expenditures under the federal regime. No doubt many other needless expenses — and new revenue sources — could be found within Quebec government budgets. But it would be easier to tackle those in an independent Quebec, “in which we could flourish in all areas, starting with education.”

However, the major independentist party, the Parti Québécois, does not support free post-secondary education. Several weeks into the student strike, the PQ leadership promised only a freeze on student fees if elected — now a real possibility in the forthcoming general election, judging from opinion polls. Only the pro-independence left party, Québec solidaire, is solidly behind the demand for la gratuité scolaire.


DSC_0160 (2)

photo by Marc Bonhomme

[1] For an important statement early in the strike, see the appeal by Quebec post-secondary teachers.

[2] A list of associations voting for unlimited general strike can be found here.

[3] CLASSE stands for Coalition Large de l’Association pour une Solidarité Syndicale Étudiante, the Broad coalition of the Association for student union solidarity. Its web site explains that the CLASSE is “a temporary union type of organization comprising close to 100,000 members in many college and university student associations throughout Quebec. It represents the continuity of a current that for 40 years has made the student movement a ubiquitous actor in Quebec society and a major agent of social progress in education.” (The web site also contains materials in English; see the upper right corner.)

[4] These are the Fédération Universitaire du Québec (FEUQ) and the Fédération Étudiante Collégiale du Québec (FECQ).

[5] Coalition de l’Association pour une Solidarité Syndicale Étudiante Élargie (CASSÉE).

Friday, April 13, 2012

Overshadowing the Cartagena Summit: the militarization of Central America

Stephen Harper and Barack Obama will be attending the Sixth Summit of the Americas this weekend in Cartagena, Colombia. Expected to attend will be 33 heads of government representing all the members of the Organization of American States (OAS) except Ecuador, whose President Rafael Correa is courageously abstaining primarily on the ground that the summit excludes revolutionary Cuba, still denied OAS membership by Washington.

Ironically, the Summit meets under the theme “Connecting the Americas: Partners for Prosperity.” However, Obama made it clear that he would not attend the summit if Cuba was represented, and the host president, Colombia’s Juan Manuel Santos, bowed to this dictate.

The Cartagena summit follows on the heels of the inaugural summit of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC), a regional alliance comprised of all OAS members except Canada and the United States. A potential rival to the OAS, CELAC includes Cuba, of course. Its summit, which was held in Caracas in December, was hosted by one of CELAC’s principal architects, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez.

In the following article André Maltais, the well-informed Latin American specialist of the Quebec online and print newspaper L’aut’journal, draws attention to some disturbing developments in Central America and Mexico that overshadow the Cartagena summit. My translation from the French.

Richard Fidler

* * *

The Militarization of Central America

L’aut’journal, April 12, 2012

by André Maltais

Last December 5, the 23rd Summit of the Tuxtla Mechanism of Dialogue and Concerted Action, which includes Mexico, Colombia and the Central American countries, met in Merida, Mexico. The Summit normally discusses the progress of the Mesoamerica Project (formerly Plan Puebla Panama), a network of transportation infrastructures and a set of economic development projects designed to counterbalance the IIRSA (Initiative for the Integration of the Regional Infrastructure of South America).

But the Summit’s final document put the emphasis on a very fashionable theme: the region’s security problems and the fight against drug trafficking.

This was the ingredient that was missing, writes the Argentine political journalist Mariela Zunino, for the Mesoamerica Project clearly to become what it is — in addition to a new escalation of dispossession and appropriation of territory, a U.S. geostrategic plan that tells all of Latin America that Washington has absolutely not turned its back on the continent.

In fact, if the countries of the Pacific Alliance (Chile, Peru and Colombia) are hesitating to align themselves candidly with the United States, another, more resolute front against Latin American integration is now open to the north of the continent. And, in addition to Mexico, it now includes almost all of the states of Central America.

The free-trade agreements (CAFTA, NAFTA) and U.S. military bases like those in Honduras and Panama have already limited the leeway of the countries of Central America.

But the Central American portion of the Merida Initiative, the Mexican Plan Colombia to counter the drug cartels, has now become the CARSI (Central American Regional Security Initiative), a new security initiative sponsored by the United States, which is pressuring the weak states of Central American to assign their local armed forces to the fight against drug trafficking and organized crime.

As the CISPES (Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador) notes, these are the same armed forces which, in the 1980s, urged on by the United States, tortured, assassinated, burned villages and committed so many other horrors against the human rights of their own population, especially in Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua.

The CARSI also requires that U.S. military personnel train the local security forces under a program that the Pentagon refuses to make public, and with trainers it refuses to identify. This training is given at the International Law Enforcement Academy (ILEA), which since 2006 has operated at Antiguo Cuscatlan, El Salvador.

The 2009 election in El Salvador of President Mauricio Funes, the candidate of the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN), a former guerrilla force turned political party, has not prevented flagrant interference by the United States in the country’s affairs.

In recent months, threatened with cuts in a U.S. development assistance program (the Partnership for Growth: El Salvador), President Funes replaced two senior officials belonging to the FMLN — Carlos Ascencio, the national civil police chief, and Manuel Melgar, Minister of Justice and Public Security — with two generals who are graduates of the School of the Americas and, of course, more disposed to cooperate with the new U.S. regional security initiatives.

Unsurprisingly, therefore, the “left-wing” president announced on March 23 that his country’s armed forces were now going to fight delinquency and the drug cartels, thereby imitating the presidents of Mexico (Felipe Calderón), Honduras (Porfirio Lobo) and Guatemala (the former genocidal general Otto Pérez Molina).

So things are going very well for the United States in Central America, a region which, as Cuban journalist Oliver Zamora Oria notes, has always been geographically important for them, notwithstanding the negligible economies of the component countries.

While the guerrillas have disappeared, drug trafficking and violence, in addition to being profitable businesses for the U.S. banks and security industry, are now excellent pretexts for a permanent Pentagon military presence in the region. This need for permanence, says Oria, explains why the United States is not seriously trying to reduce their enormous domestic consumer market, which spurs drug production in Central America and the Andean countries.

The Costa Rican commentator Andres Mora Ramírez says the U.S. military never abandoned Central America after the peace agreements of the 1990s. It maintains military bases, training centres, air and sea patrol agreements, joint operations and exercises, donations of equipment, sales of weapons, etc. This ongoing threat, after the terror of the 1980s, has allowed the swing to the right in political life.

Expectations for improvements in social welfare and human development have been dashed, while new political elites and regional economic groups have aligned the countries in the region with the postulates of neoliberalism, fake free trade and U.S. geopolitics.

So much so that in a time of South American integration and the supposed global decline of the U.S. superpower, all the political regimes in the Central American countries are, in fact, right wing — with the sole exception of Nicaragua, which is attempting to swim against the regional current amidst immense obstacles and the numerous contradictions of President Daniel Ortega’s “Christian and solidaristic socialism.”[1]

Since 2006 the countries of the UNASUR, the Union of South American Nations, have observed without reacting the militarization of Central America and of a country as large as Mexico. A few days after the first meeting of the CELAC, the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States, Washington announced, while signing the free-trade agreement with Colombia, the creation of an operational centre for fighting narco-terrorism at Champerico, Guatemala, and the creation of a new military academy in Panama.

The CELAC was to bring together all the countries of Latin America and the Caribbean with the exception of Canada and the United States. However, two Central American countries have boycotted it: Costa Rica and El Salvador.

Last month the U.S. vice-president Joe Biden went to Mexico to remind each of the candidates in next July’s presidential election that President Calderón’s strategy of war on the drug cartels is untouchable.

Biden continued on to Honduras where he feels at home since the coup d’état of 2009. He met with the Central American presidents in order to nip in the bud an initiative by President Pérez Molina of Guatemala who was proposing to decriminalize the production, marketing and consumption of drugs.

The Guatemalan president was trying to win the support of the Central American presidents with a view to adopting a common position to present at the Summit of the Americas this month, in Cartagena de Indios, Colombia. Many voices had been raised in support of Pérez Molina, including those of Brazil’s former president Fernando Henrique Cardoso, and Colombia’s president Juan Manuel Santos.

But once Biden left, the governments of El Salvador, Honduras, Costa Rica and Panama announced that they would not support any Guatemala proposal for legalization of drugs.

As Laura Carlsen, director of the Mexico-based Americas Program, says, these presidents still prefer a system in which their peoples pay in blood and lives to fill the pockets of the U.S. defense industry contractors and spread the Pentagon’s influence in their region.

[1] For more on this, see “Washington threatens reprisals against Nicaragua’s voters,” an interview with Felipe Stuart Cournoyer. – RF