Gloria Martínez (Valencia)
(Translation by: A.L.C. Teen Translators-Asturias, Spain)
- The shortage of petroleum has culminated in the search for non-conventional gas using fracking
- This technique used in The US for decades has been strongly criticized for its supposed effects from pollutants and the risks for health
- In Spain, opposition among citizens is growing while the Popular Party, CIU and UPD voted against a motion by Izquierda Plural to ban this controversial practice in Spain
What is fracking?
It is the technique used to extract gas from the earth by drilling down through a land well. It involves pumping water and toxic products more than 2500 meters below the surface. The water pressure used breaks the rock and the gas freezes. “The fluid used contains a mixture of 596 chemical products. It is possible to hydro-fracture a well up to 18 times. The well is drilled vertically, through aquifers, until reaching the rock layer where the gas is trapped. There, they continue drilling horizontally, reaching as far as 3 kilometers down from the earth´s surface. Then high-pressure water is injected along with additives (biocides with low concentrations that can easily kill fish, carcinogenic products…) to enlarge the cracks and allow the gas to gravitate towards the well,” explains Aitor Urresti, a professor at Universidad del País Vasco, spokeman for EQUO in this area and member of the Anti-Fracking Advocacy Group from Bizkaia.
Until now we have been using a resource which could be extracted in a more or less easy way. The gas or oil is never in a big grotto but rather in the rock´s pores, normally in sandstone or limestone. Rocks that have a lot of porosity don´t allow the hydrocarbons to pass very well: slate gas, schist, shale gas, slate oil, schist oil…we need to think about clay, a material that absorbs water very well but is very impermeable in the other direction. The fractures are created for this reason, to increase permeability, the connection between the pores, violently forcing water inside them, breaks them,” Urresti explains.
The U.S. is the only country that has been using this technique on a large scale: they have already drilled more than 50,000 wells. Samuel Martín-Sosa, the manager of the international area of Ecologists in Action, explains to Human Journalism that “American and Canadian companies are trying to get their foot in but for now, as far as we know, there isn´t any exploitation as such. In Poland, Germany and The UK there are wells being tested but not on a large scale.” He continues saying that “some weeks ago there was a conference in Vienna with representatives from the industry who saw that in The U.S. the technique came with simplified norms which has allowed them to spread very fast. Americans were exempted from the regulations concerning the quality of drinking water and clean air and they made fiscal incentives easier. They also don´t have to declare the substances which are used and thought they were going to find the same here. However, reality has been a very strong popular pressure which has obliged The European Commission to rethink if it has the right to legislate regulation frameworks for the development of this activity.”
The European Parliament was one of the first that produced quite a critical report in 2011 and The European Commission is ordering new studies which show that there are a lot of holes in the law. “The industry has it clear that Europe must agree that there is a special law to try to win the media battle. What everyone seemed to assume was that once the first 100 wells were built, it would be unstoppable since a lot of governments wouldn´t be able to turn down this tasty treat in terms of employment, and that if the industry invests in research there wouldn´t be any way back. That´s why the media battle is so important”, says Martín-Sosa. “ In Spain there have been drilling tests but they haven´t drilled yet because of the citizen and town council pressure. There are countries where they have passed some prohibitions to moratoriums that have been used politically to contain popular protest and that are trying to be broken up by the industry” he adds.
“We have reached the maximum limit of coal production. The forecast is that the use of non-conventional gas will grow very fast. Due to shortage, we will use the last thing we have: pressurized water and chemical products, “ affirms Aitor Urresti.
Why in Spain?
“This comes from The U.S., who is the largest gas exporter only after Russia. Europe tries to copy but fortunately here the environmental laws are stricter, the owner of the natural resources isn´t the land-owner like in The U.S.-the environmental sensitivity of Europeans is a bit greater…Countries like France or Bulgaria have legislated against it”, Julio Barea, the manager of a residuals and energy campaign in Greenpeace, explains to Human Journalism.
The Ecologists in Action report “Fracking in Spain-Situation, Threats and Resistance”[pdf] shows how Aragón, Castilla-León and Andalucía are the most affected areas by the number of licenses. “The Basque Country is the one who most openly bets on fracking, with a public administration ready to change the law.”
In its study, Ecologists in Action protest that “there are especially problematic cases registered, like one of the licenses asked for in the Andalusian valley of Guadalquivir very near an aquifer. Also, there are notable threats to aquifers in the north of the peninsula (like that of Subijana), those from which hundreds of thousands of citizens depend on for their water supply. Other permits like those of Castilla-La Mancha could affect protected spaces like the Lagunas de Ruidera.”
Julio Barea says that in Spain there are requests for hundreds of authorizations to test-drill, in different provinces and autonomous communities, but only half are given and they still haven´t done any tests.“We are in the initial stages but there are four important business concerns that have formed a type of coalition and created Shell Gas Spain, which is coordinating the promotion of fracking since they have seen problems.”
In Congress this past February they voted on a motion presented by Izquierda Plural (IU-ICV-CHA) to ask for a fracking ban in Spain. The PP, CiU and UPyD voted in opposition to the ban, while the Izquierda Plural, PSOE and the rest of the Grupo Mixto were in favor of the ban…simultaneously, PNV, FAC, and UPN abstained.
What are the risks of fracking?
NGOs like Ecologists in Action or Greenpeace, among others, for months have run a campaign warning about the risks of fracking: underground water table pollution and atmospheric greenhouse gas emissions (methane), earthquakes (seismic induction), noise pollution as well as landscape impacts. Moreover, we must contemplate truck traffic routes for transporting extracted gas, along with water and land use.
Martín-Sosa claims that “the industry is tired of saying that there aren´t any cases of pollution or that the gas is harmless…until the end of last year The EPA (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency) stated that in Wyoming chemical substances had appeared in aquifers that provide drinking water to the nearby population coming from one of the fracked wells. Drilling crosses the aquifer, and 80% of the fracture flow fluid stays there…nobody can guarantee what will happen. It is a risk so unassumable that there´s no way to create a good regulation because it would still be dangerous.”
Ecologists in Action protest that 80% of research permits applied for and given are found on aquifers. “In addition, more than half are bituminous and carbonate rock aquifers, that turn out to be especially sensitive to pollution from chemical products ussed in the fracking fluids,” the NGO points out. They explain that “currently more than 30% of the Spanish population (14 million people) get their drinking water from aquifers. Given that there exist numerous municipalities in areas where they intend to carry out gas extraction by fracking and who are supplied directly from these very aquifers, they can see irreversible pollution using this technique and would assume serious risks to people´s health. Also, some research permits directly affect natural spaces of great interest like the Lagunas de Ruidera, in Cuidad Real, or the Merindades in Burgos, with the subsequent environmental damage to aquatic ecosystems.”
“If what we do is pump in high-pressured water that causes large fractures, we haven´t got any control over how these cracks will proceed, we don´t know if they are going to hit a weak point and instead of extending 10 meters they may go for a 100, which in turn could arrive through a fault to an aquifer. What this implies is direct pollution, but in The States there are cases of it occuring with toxins from abandoned wells reaching through to drinking water aquifers. In Álava, which is the area of most interest now, we have a hundred abandoned wells. The risk more than likely”, says Aitor Urresti.
Beyond polluting aquifers, the risk to the atmosphere stands out as a real possibility. Greenpeace shows in a report that “benzene, a highly-carcinogenic agent, has been registered in the vapors coming out of the “evaporation wells” where they usually store the fracking residual water. Leaks from the gas-wells and piping may also contribute to air pollution by increasing greenhouse gas emissions. The enormous number of vehicles needed (each well requires between 4,300 to 6,600 truck trips for transporting machinery, cleaning services, etc.) and the operations of the production plants may also cause significant atmospheric pollution if we consider the acidic gases, hydrocarbons and fine particles.”
Urresti corroborates that “the gas we extract is methane, and is several times more detrimental than CO2. In the gas wells there are always leaks because to operate machines we take advantage of those small stress leaks. When the wells are drilled, and the gas area is reached, its flume is burnt for months causing significant damage to the atmosphere. Also, in each well we are injecting between 9 and 30 thousand cubic meters of water containing toxic elements. There are many accidents as well on U.S. roads due to fracking.”
Urresti explains that we mustn´t forget risks like earthquakes. “If what we do is pump in pressurized water subterraneously, inevitably that is going to generate movements that may activate faults that were more or less latent, or reactivate seismic areas and set off earthquakes.”
What can we do?
However, without doubt the most impressive action taken was the documentary film, “Gasland” directed by Josh Fox and nominated for The Oscars in 2011. The film brought this issue out into the public opinion by denouncing slickwater fracking in 34 states, 450,000 wells, multiplied by 18 (the number of times a well can be fracked), times each occurrence by 28 million liters of water and getting a total of 40 billion liters of water with 596 chemical products. It showed not only the direct environmental harm, but also testimonies from people who had suffered problems with their drinking water and neurological health complications from the gas emissions following the drilling. There were even homes whose tap water was flammable. The film said that in Garfield (Colorado, USA) the first preliminary study was done on the effects of gas-wells on human health: seven researchers from The University of Colorado found alarming indices of pollutants in both air and water. They documented studies that confirm the repercussions from subsequent carcinogens and neurotoxins.
In Spain, there isn´t any protest yet but there are many citizens who have shown their opposition through advocacy groups like “Fracking Free Municipalities” formed by inhabitants from Araba, Guipúzkoa, Bizkaia, Burgos, Soria and Cantabria.
Some particular cases of struggle: Euskadi and Comunitat Valenciana.
The first group that was created, in December of 2011, was in Álava. The reality that the polls would be imminent caused people to gather from different areas. Their work was targeted at the municipal level: they wanted to create a stance of townships free of fracking. For that, they gave speeches and presented motions in their Town Halls.
“We want to present a Popular Legislative Initiative to ban not only fracking but also exploration and the exploitation of non-conventional hydro-carbon, in other words, not leave any door open” said Urresti. “In Euskadi, the expected research permits to drill 16 wells(one or two is the norm)aren´t for research but rather for production. They are a public company that uses tricks to evade taxes because the assessment is very different for research rather than production. They ask for a report from the water agency. Given that this specific report is near the well in Armendia and for some strange reason they decide that this area doesn´t need an environmental study. Then, they change it, in an area 100 meters away, in an area that is in the process of becoming a protected space. As this is not feasible, the same government changes the law to permit the hydro-carbon exploitation and mining activities. They´re looking for the support of the PNV party who are quite interested in mining in Euskadi. We want a total environmental impact study done but that hasn´t occurred. Rather, incomplete tests have been done in each of the wells, but as if they were all isolated cases. They have been able to stop the soundings that they were going to do in Álava and are giving work permits.”
Urresti explains that it isn´t known how many resources can be extracted but regardless “you damage all the territory. The funniest thing is that the company that wants to develop it is a public company, Hydro-Carbon Society of Euskadi. The same enterprise goes against the interests of their own citizens.”
In contrast to what the Basque group has done, there is the example of the Valencian Community where Comarques de Castelló is taking their first steps. They claim that 41 municipalities within an area of 1,950 square kilometres could be adversely affected-for the moment 16 municipalities have opposed the fracking. Sergi Alejos, one of the advocacy group members, says that “the Council hasn´t taken a stand yet and for the moment seem to respect us. We have been formed without any links to political parties. One of the problems is that the townships are really dispersed and is very difficult to organize. We are above the Maestrat aquifer, one of the biggest in the Mediterranean area, and it is completely exposed to three fracking projects. We say that there is a high risk and there are geologists that tell us the risk is inevitable. Half of the wells directly feed the Maestrat aquifer and therefore the drinking water of Castellón is in danger. The magnitude of this problem goes further than the 41 townships.”
Alejos asks for more information from the administration and says that on the 4th of February the Official Bulletin of the Generalitat published that the Proposition Bill to regulate fracking wasn’t admitted. “That means that it hasn´t even been debated. We believe this topic is serious enough to at least talk about. That´s what they´re trying to do, so that the citizenry knows the problem. We are focusing on putting pressure at all levels of government and giving information to the people because they have got no idea,” argues Sergi.
Are there alternatives?
Everybody agrees that the solution is a change in the energy plan. “The only justification that the hydraulic fracturing has is that we need a resource, and because we don´t want to change, we are capable of doing anything, even destroying our own environment and putting people´s health at risk”, says Aitor Urresti who mentions a report about the effects that the Barnett Shale working deposits in Texas have had on health and the environment.
Samuel Martín-Sosa explains that the percentage of land occupation has increased. “The wells have a very short life and extract from a very small area whose profitability is rather marginal. As technology has evolved we go for fossil fuels that before were unreachable, that are more costly to get and of lesser quality. It is an escape forward because industry sells it as a transitional fuel since gas combustion emits less CO2 than coal, but what must be done is an absolute turnaround in the energy model and the wager on fossil fuels only delays that change. Many things appear to suggest that gas will be shared with renewable. This is going to condition our future”.
“A year ago the Polish government had to deny that its gas reserves were as high as had been estimated. I think that there is hope. There may be speculative components that makes this collapse on its own, or strong regulations that force companies to retreat…and popular protest also does a lot. Shell Gas Spain has begun a media campaign and that is a sign. The advantage here is that the warning has arrived early. This can be stopped,” concludes Samuel.
Julio Barea opines that: “They sell it to you like `we are going to emit less CO2, this is an self-reliant form of energy, it´ll create jobs…´ As usual, they know they need to talk about employment although they aren´t certain. The scientists warn that we have to clean the atmosphere of CO2 now. How can they then propose we go for more? It would be a catastrophe on a planetary scale – climatic chaos. We are able to supply ourselves all the necessary energy with renewable ones. Let´s spend money directing policies towards them instead of planning for only a few to get very rich”.
- On Sunday night (24th of March) as the Cyprus authorities were choosing their doom from the troika’s menu, some two thousand protesters were shouting anti-European slogans in front of the European house in downtown Nicosia
- “What the troika is trying to impose has little to do with help. It is blackmail, plain and simple – they are trying to subjugate a nation by sheer force”, says professor Sypros Syprou
- “Any member of the eurozone should find the Eurogroup’s stance towards Cyprus offensive”, said Christopher Pissarides, the recipient of the 2010 Nobel Prize for Economic Sciences and Chair of Council of National Economy
On Sunday night (24th of March) as the Cyprus authorities were choosing their doom from the troika’s menu, some two thousand protesters were shouting anti-European slogans in front of the European house in downtown Nicosia. Not so long ago, this edifice epitomised every positive civic and social value in the region; now its gate looked more than slightly dilapidated and was being guarded by the members of special police forces. On its front hung a plaque commemorating the European Union as the recipient of the last year’s Nobel peace prize. “Your prize, your peace,” it smugly stated.
“Europe, leave us be!”, “Keep your hands off Cyprus!” and “Angela Merkel, The Fourth Reich!” were some of the sentiments expressed by the protesters. Many of them went out of their way to inform me that Brussels and Berlin, in conjunction with the international financial institutions, have decided to start a financial war between Europe’s north and south. In their view, the ultimate aim of this conflict is to transform the south of the continent into a stagnant pool of cheap labour with no rights, as well as to form a number of so-called free economic zones that, perversely, would help the north fare better in its competition with China. And that, of course, would only be possible if a part of Europe, namely the south, became Little China – a part of Asia inside the European Union. Little wonder that the rhetoric from the Greek and Spanish streets had quickly spread over Nicosia, a city with very little experience with such open protest. Seemingly overnight, things had gotten unimaginably bad here. The crisis looked all too ready to become a permanent state, and the latest ‘deal’ offered by Brussels was about to plunge an entire country into modern day slavery.
“What we’re seeing is something absolutely new! Ever since the Turkish invasion of 1974 when my generation realised it could lose everything, our quality of life has been improving. The younger people here have no real concept of loss: the very idea of a crisis leaves them shook up and bewildered. That is part of why our shock has been so great. It happened overnight, although there have been a number of signs of impending doom. But nothing could prepare us for a disaster of this magnitude. Fourteen days ago, when the president Nicos Anastasiades announced that all deposit-holders in Cyprian banks would lose a part of their savings, people went crazy. Quite rightly, they saw it as an announcement of blatant theft! In the end, the powers that be decided the small-time savers will be spared. But the rich will lose a great part of their wealth. Okay, so that could quite rightly be seen as a short-term co rrective measure, but it is also sure to wreck our banking sector and thus our entire economy! The major consequences are yet to be felt. Most people still have very little idea of what’s in store for them. Perhaps… Perhaps that is for the best,” claims dr. Sypros Syprou, a professor of anthropology at the European University in Nicosia.
The country may have been paralysed and its business life may have ground to a halt, but the sense of heavy despair hadn’t yet reached its streets and tavernas. Judging by the debates I overheard, it looked as if the residents of this tiny island state were still quietly hoping they would wake up from their nightmare, and that the slasher movie directed by Berlin and Brussels could somehow still have a happy ending.
They couldn’t have been more wrong.
“For twenty years, we have been living a materialistic illusion. There was shamefully little self-reflection. Hardly anyone was asking the right questions! We all knew that our economy was based around low taxes and an overly inflated financial sector which only grew and grew. It was only a matter of time when the bubble would burst. Now, when it did, people are set to lose their jobs, money, real estate and future. We will be forced to begin from scratch. Which would have been hard yet not impossible, but the problem is that all faith in our politicians and the EU itself is gone, irretrievably and justifiably, I might add. The European idea, which has been built around the notion of solidarity, met a grisly end here in Cyprus. What the troika is trying to impose has little to do with help. It is blackmail, plain and simple: they are trying to subjugate a nation by sheer force. The Germans are acting like a teacher who believes he can whack any pupil with a cane just because he is the teacher and he has that privilege. This is not the Europe we wished for, it is a club of politicians with a carefully planned political and economic agenda.
The damage already done is immeasurable. Brussels and Berlin are sure to continue pursuing their politics of dominance through arrogance, and I’m afraid that the European idea will take a long time to recover, if it ever will!” said professor Syprou, who was deeply concerned with the future of his students. Those who had already graduated had found it increasingly hard to get jobs; now, the anthropologist believed, getting work would be almost impossible. “After many years, we will once again experience a brain drain scenario. This is bound to prove a huge loss for our society, which will have to return to a traditional way of life. I am also afraid that the crisis will soon create the conditions for the spread of extreme political movements, even fascist ones styled after the Golden Dawn in Greece. If that happens, the European Union will be very much responsible.” Or, as The Economist recently put it: “The economy in the Eurozone is stagnant. The parties, which support the protests, are growing. Euro was established as a manifestation of a grand political project. Now, it seems, it’s more a loveless marriage in which the price of getting divorced is higher than staying together.”
A Lack of Self-reflection
“We have been asking ourselves far too few questions. All the time, we are seeking guilt abroad. But we must first admit a great part of the blame for this calamity can be placed with us!” dr. Sypros Syprou told me in his office at the European University. Despite the gravity of the situation, the entire university still seemed to be burbling with joy. In our conversation, professor Syprou was quick to note that the Cypriot society gladly looked the other way as the authorities made deals with Slobodan Milosević or the Russian mafia. The people of Cyprus also didn’t particularly mind when their country became an important part of the process of selling arms to the regime of the Syrian president Bashar al Assad (mind that Cyprus is the only EU country which borders Syria). Yet all this is far from being even close to the reason why Brussels and Berlin decided to ransack the Mediterranean island state.
“I’m badly afraid I’ll never wake up from this nightmare. The whole thing reminds me of 1974 and the Turkish occupation. Back then, my family was stripped of everything. Now, when our occupiers are the international financial institutions, much the same is bound to happen. Our savings are in danger, that is something people all over Europe should take note of! Apparently, there are no more rules. This is war! It is a horrible thing. I can’t seem to wrap my head around what’s happening. What a shock for each and every one of us! I don’t think any of us expected such disaster would strike overnight and rob us of our future! Look, the people of Cyprus, we’re all ready to contribute to save our country… But not like this, not under such a vicious dictate by the international financial elites! Not so long ago, the EU was an absolutely positive reference in our society. Now it is a horrible threat, an occupier, an aggressor! And exactly the same goes for Germany!” said Mrs. Despo Ioanou between tears. I spoke to her during the recent demonstrations. For the past 35 years, she has been working for the Laiki bank. She doesn’t have long before retirement, but – along with thousands of co-workers – she is now sure to lose her job.
The Russian Bride
At a recent conference in Nicosia, the recipient of the 2010 Nobel Prize for Economic Sciences and Chair of Council of National Economy Christopher Pissarides remarked that he saw no good reason for Cyprus to follow the troika’s dictate. “I’m unable to comprehend why the Eurogroup blocked funding to Cyprus when the economy’s main weakness was its banking system, as opposed to the situation in Greece, a country which received a large amount of EU funding,” said professor Pissarides. “Luxembourg is even more dependent on financial services than us and I did not hear anybody talking about that. We are not seeking a loan from Germany but from the euro system, which should help our banks.Could Cyprus’ treatment by the Eurogroup really be explained by the fact that many Russians, who are not wanted by eurozone ministers, use Cypriot banks? Any member of the eurozone should find the Eurogroup’s stance towards Cyprus offensive. The source of the problem in Cyprus and Europe in general is the issue of banking supervision which was never solved, but simply left to each state, causing a crisis of confidence,” is an opinion of a Nobel laureate from Cyprus.
Pissarides also believes that Cyprus will be able to use the large stores of natural gas near its southern coast to bounce back. But under the best of scenarios, the gas will hit the international markets no sooner than 2019. By then, Cyprus is sure to turn into a third-world country seeking its new allies outside the EU. One prime candidate will be Russia, who has already turned the island into its financial and touristic colony. Russian citizens have an estimated 30 billion euros parked in the currently frozen Cypriot bank accounts. But so far, the Russian government has failed to offer much assistance. The Kremlin potentates are well aware that, even at the cost of heavy financial losses, it makes more sense to remain on good terms with Germany than to start solving the probably unsolvable mess in Cyprus. This, the matter’s basic insolvability, was roughly the view of Hermes Solomon, a commentator with the Cyprus Mail daily newspaper, which is being published in the English language. According to him, the Cypriot parliament voting such a resounding NO! to the trimming of the bank accounts was merely a tactical ruse to buy the local political elites more time and to let Russia know that, if properly motivated, Cyprus stands ready to protect its assets.
“Voting no was just a show put on to quiet the little guy in the street and to retain as much of Russian money here as possible,” Solomon believes. He was quick to add that, days before the eruption of this latest episode of the financial blitzkrieg, a great deal of Russian money had already left the island and was now parked in Latvia, Malta, Zürich and London. Salomon also believed that the current austerity package was sure to fail, since it had been put together in such haste as to verge on panic. “Solidarity fund will prove an utter failure. No one will be crazy enough to entrust their money to our government. Robbing Petros in order to help Pavlos will not help. It will all end in tears. Now the shit has really hit the fan, and our trust in our banks and our authorities is gone for good.”
Salomon went on to explain that he was in no way supportive of the official EU policy, yet he also expressed the belief that his countrymen would do well to wake up and realise who the beggar was and who the master. “Here in Cyprus, no one is prepared to pay the price of our banking and political mistakes. I sense a great tragedy is brewing. ..”
“They’re trying to turn us into their slaves!”
For a number of years, Manolis Mihalis has been working for the Bank of Cyprus. His position had afforded him a front-row seat for observing the rise and fall of the most overblown financial sector in Europe. Sure, he nodded at me cautiously, the global financial meltdown did make itself known here, but not even in his most frightening dreams did he expect the state would simply go bankrupt overnight. “It came completely out of left field. It was a total, utter shock. We were all surprised to say the least. Over the years, I’ve climbed to a quite high position in the bank, I ought to have heard something, or at least got an inkling. But I didn’t. True, we weren’t doing so good for a while now, but after these last ten days of international pressure, all that’s in store for us is a mass funeral!”
I talked to Mihalis at a café in downtown Nicosia. He seemed visibly shook up and angry, though he wasn’t all that worried for his personal future, since his father in law owns a huge hog farm. But he was very much concerned about the future of his friends, co-workers and the entire country. “We’ve been utterly stripped of our sovereignty. We have no other choice – we must bow to the troika’s dictate. If our politicians were better negotiators, we would have got a better deal than this unconditional surrender, but as it is… There’s a financial war going on in Europe. There’ll be plenty casualties, just like in a real war. But right now, we are defenceless. Our adversary is too strong. The situation is truly tragic.”
Manolis cut our conversation short, since he was in a hurry to get to a protest. In parting, he said: “I believe that some 10 000 people are about to lose their jobs in the next few days. The Laiki bank is sure to go bust, my bank probably as well. And after that, the rest of them will gradually fall too. The domino effect will ruin our entire economy. Once trust is gone, it is impossible to recover. The offshore companies will leave our country. Social unrest is sure to break out, and that will lay waste to the third important branch of our economy – tourism. Before long, this entire island will be a wasteland. They have decided to destroy us. In my view, they didn’t so much do it because of the Russian money, they did it because of our natural gas. If we were allowed to tap it and sell it abroad, we would have become a strong country in our own right. They couldn’t let that happen, right? It is hard to imagine what Cyprus will look like in a year. But today is the first day of the rest of our lives. From today, for all of us, every euro counts!”
According to Mihalis, Berlin and Brussels are using Cyprus as a laboratory to test the limits of endurance of an entire society. “It is a grand-scale experiment, and our hands are tied. There is literally nothing we can do. We are about to become a so-called free enterprise zone, a tiny slice of Asia or Africa inside the European Union.” In stark contrast to the majority of his compatriots, Mihalis refused to place a shred of hope in Russia. “The Russians, too, are playing their own geo-strategic game. They’ll never take on the EU or Germany on our behalf. Why would they? It wasn’t the Russians who got us into this mess – it was our own politicians, both left and right, all of them lying through their teeth. We’ll pull through easily, they told us. There will be no cuts. Your savings are inviolable. The troika is really here to help. We are far too important to be left high and dry. Oh yeah? Well, look at us now – look at the situation a mere few weeks after the election!”
“Disaster! I can hardly believe what’s happening! They want to destroy us and turn us into their slaves. All this time, they knew perfectly well what was going on in our banks! Both Europe and Germany gave their explicit assent! They let our politicians bleed us dry and then betray us horribly. All they can do now is bury us!” I was told this by a woman named Maria at a mass protest organised by the workers of the Cypriot banking sector. She had been employed with the Laiki bank; at the time I talked to her, it was a well-known fact that particular bank would never open its gates again. On account of Laiki’s fall, sure to be followed by the destruction of several other banks, some 8000 people were about to lose their jobs. “What happens to my family?” Maria implored: “I have no savings! Even if I had, I couldn’t get to them! I have a substantial loan, and the instant I’m sacked I’ll no longer be able to make the payments. My sister works for the Bank of Cyprus, her husband does as well. Both of them will lose their jobs sooner or later. The entire banking system is about to topple. We, the normal people, will be left with nothing. They have ruined our lives. What are we to do? There is no way for us to fight our financial occupiers!”
The Death of the European Idea
In Cyprus, the dictatorship of the international financial markets in conjunction with the political elites of certain core countries is shaping history. The idea of the European Union, which, even a few years ago, meant a beacon of hope for the so-called New Europe, has been dealt a blow that it may never recover from.
“This is the German Union, not the EU!” an angry man roared in Nicosia square on the Thursday the banks were ready to reopen. All of my Cypriot interlocutors had been quick to raise the question of where the much-vaunted European solidarity had gone. In the streets of Cyprus, just as previously in Spain and in Greece, the word Europe is now just a tad milder curseword than Germany or troika.
Here in the beleaguered south, one conviction is daily gaining credence. It is that the rich of the Europe’s north have decided to yank the reins of debtocracy and turn a number of previously sovereign countries into their colonies so as to be able to better compete with China. It certainly seems as if the leading men and women of the European core have decided to get rid of a lot of what they perceive as dead weight. In this endavour, they are helped by the manipulative international financial institutions and a thoroughly corrupt press forever harping about ‘the lazy, hedonistic south‘, even though the official statistics tell a very different tale. The first step of this massive process has been taken on January 1, 2007, when both Romania and Bulgaria were admitted into the EU – two gigantic pools of dirt-cheap labour with a certain Asian looseness to their legislatures, especially concerning workers’ rights.
Ten years ago, the optimists were presuming the surge of economic growth would make China more like the EU politically. Now it is clear that exactly the opposite is taking place. In Greece, six years into its irreversible plunge into slavery, the process is nearing completion. The price of work, what little work is left, has plummeted. The young generations, in no way responsible for the sins of their corrupt political elites, have been robbed of their future. Everything they have been taught about Europe has proved a tawdry farce. The European south is being governed by a completely different set of rules than the north. But at least the north has now finally shown its true face, which is not at all democratic or compassionate. Rather, it is a cankerous maw which, among other things, is mainly responsible for the unstoppable rise of neo-nazism in Greece.
By Boštjan Videmšek I Photos: Jure Erzen (El Cairo, Egypt)
- Two years after the egyptian revolution, women have been forced to organize themselves in order to be able to demonstrate protected by bodyguardsand avoid sexual abuses.
- “The number of sexual agressions has increased hugely, and so the number of colective rapings”, says Heba Merayef, Humans Rights Watchs director in Egypt.
“At that moment, I didn’t understand anything… I had no idea what was happening… All I knew was that there were hundreds of hands stripping me of my clothes and brutally violating my body. Who were those men? There was no way out. Everyone was saying that they were protecting me, saving me even, but all I felt was the finger-rape of my body, both from the front and back. Someone was even trying to kiss me. I was completely naked, the mass surrounding me was pushing me toward an alley close to Hardee’s restaurant… So I’m in the middle of this tightly knit circle, and every time I try to scream, to defend myself, to call for help, the violence is only increased.«
This is but one of the testimonials of many Egyptian women brutally sexually assaulted during the recent mass protests against the president Mohammed Mursi. Nineteen of the victims decided to contact the newly founded non-governmental organization OpAntiSH (Operation against sexual harassment). None of them wish to speak up in public. They know all too well that in Egypt’s patriarchal society, that would mean the gravest possible humiliation for them and for their families.
Another one of the assaulted women says that all happened frightfully fast. Suddenly, she was surrounded: six men were coming at her from one side, six from another. With glazed eyes, they started groping her, scratching at her, tearing her clothes off. In no time, she was stripped naked. It went beyond mere sexual assault. “It was an intentional attempt to hurt me on every possible level,” says the victim.
“Friday, January 25, was one of the worst days on record. All of the cases were really, really bad. The worst case we dealt with involved a bladed weapon being used on the private parts of an assaulted woman,” claims Leil-Zahra Mortada, a spokesperson for OpAntiSH. In November, this organization was founded by a group of men and women to help turn back the tide of sexual aggression all over Egypt.
From 2008 until the present date, a mind-boggling 83 percent of all Egyptian women had suffered some form of a sexual assault, verbal or physical. Inside or outside their homes. The violence against women here has become nothing less than a political agenda. The new Egyptian constitution, extorted by the Muslim brotherhood through the president Mohammed Mursi, contains many elements of the Sharia law and completely disregards the question of women’s rights. The national parliament, two thirds of which are controlled by the Islamists, consists of 500 male and 8 female MPs. True, all parties running in the last election were required to include at least one female candidate on their list. But it was exceedingly rare that the female candidates found their way anywhere near the top of those lists.
The new electoral legislature recently passed by the Shura Council (the lower house of the Egyptian parliament) failed to address the issue in any relevant form whatsoever. “The new legislature is merely an outgrowth of our new constitution,” I was told by the activists of The National Front for Egypt’s Women, who bitterly protested the passing of the new laws for weeks. “The constitution had been drafted by the Muslim Brotherhood,” they assured me: “And the passing of this new law means the end of female participation in Egyptian politics.”
Those same activists had also been enraged by the ministry of education, which recently ordered the removal of the renowned feminist Doria Shafik from the official schoolbooks. During the British occupation, this fearless lady has been at the forefront of the struggle for women’s rights as well as women’s active participation in politics. The Islamists freshly in charge of the ministry decided to remove her picture from the schoolbooks because, in those pictures, she does not wear a veil. “Removing Doria’s picture under the pretext of not wearing the Hijab is an unacceptable approach to dealing with Egyptians. Egypt’s women uphold their right to maintain their status and will not accept any deliberate attempts to falsify history and reduce women’s rights,” reads the joint statement by the Egyptian non-governmental organisations fighting for women’s rights.
We refuse to stay at home!
Engy Gozlan is a member of the Operation Anti-Sexual Harassment organisation and a veteran fighter for women’s rights. She claims the recent assaults will fail to stop the women here from fighting for their rights and a free Egypt. On the contrary: “No, we refuse to stay at home! Nothing can stop us from joining the protests! Those streets, they belong to us just as much as they belong to the men. This is our country, and we refuse to keep quiet! We are going to speak out about sexual harassment! There is no Egyptian revolution without female participation and safety!” According to Gozlan, every sordid assault had been pure politics. “The goal is to banish us women from public life and remove us from public space. The assaults have all been very similar in nature. We are talking about organised violence against women!”
Hers is far from the only voice speaking out against the oppression. “The number of sexual assaults has seen a sharp increase, the number of mass rapes too! But the authorities fail to respond. Their only response is silence.” says Heba Morayef, director of the Egyptian office of the Human Rights Watch. At HRW, they feel that most of the sexual violence is the responsibility of the Egyptian security forces – meaning both the army and the police. The scope of such violence is not limited to women: many male journalists and activists have also been assaulted. Without question, these crimes have been perpetrated in the interests of a ruthless political agenda.
“We refuse to let our freedom be taken away from us! We refuse to become a caliphate or a fascist-run country like Saudi Arabia. We will not stand for our women being humiliated! We will not stand for our youth’s future being dictated by demented old men! We, the women of Egypt, have a past we can be proud of! Now we are fighting so that the same can be said of our future! We have been marching in the streets for the past two years! Yes, we may be tired, but we will never back down!” During the recent march of the Egyptian liberals toward the Tahrir Square, I was told this by Mrs. Noor, which is Arabic for light.
On a normal day, Mrs. Noor teaches English at a local high school, but on that Friday she was marching at the head of the column and shouting for president Mursi to get lost. She spoke to me about the increase in the violence against women, the staggering level of unemployment, the hopelessness taking root among the younger generations, the twice-stolen revolution. “But worst of all,” she said: “is what we now see happening to the women! Two years ago, we flooded the Tahrir square. Now, many women won’t even show their face in public without a male escort. Every day, you see more veils in the streets. This is not the Cairo I grew up in. This is fast becoming something like certain Gulf countries or even Iran!”
Arrogance and Silence
Farah Shash, a psychologist in charge of helping the victims of sexual violence, agrees that the authorities are the first to blame. By not sanctioning and sometimes openly encouraging violence against women, they are conveying the message that such instances are normal behaviour. Mrs. Shash, who works in the Nadim centre in Cairo, is also concerned about the organisations that have sprung up with the aim of protecting the women from being assaulted in the streets. However pure and selfless their motives, her view is that such organisations are promoting the wrong message. “It is unrealistic to expect our women to have bodyguards available whenever they need them. We should be protected by the state, not local militias! What we are seeing here are some of the most alarming symptoms of a failed state. We need to know that our men see us as something more than mere sexual objects and targets.”
Shash’s employers keep alerting the relevant ministries. Yet so far, the new Islamic masters of Egypt have replied only with arrogance or silence. “Whenever we try to debate them in parliament, they tell us that women’s rights and women’s safety aren’t a priority. They also tell us they don’t believe such issues evershould be a priority!” Shash is deeply disturbed by the new Egyptian constitution, which has officially turned the women here into third-class citizens.
“You must not fall into the trap of assuming violence against women is a new phenomenon around here,” this brave psychologist told me: “In the last years of the Mubarak regime, the police started harassing women in a very organised fashion. Rapes, too, were a regular occurrence – rapes in public! Also, we had the so-called virginity tests being performed at police stations. The difference is that such bestialities used to be the domain of policemen, and now the army has joined in. Another difference is that such violence has now severely escalated in scope. The numbers are dramatic. And the worst part is that most of the assaults go unreported. If you get raped, are you going to report it to the perpetrator – the police?! In Arabic culture, a raped woman is automatically stripped of all pride and social status. She is quite literally bereft of her future. Her family casts her out. According to the dominant school of thought, she herself is to blame for the rape. I’m also sad to note many Egyptian men are now much more tolerant toward violence against women than they used to be. We can blame this on the Muslim Brotherhood and their sharia constitution. Make no mistake: they know exactly what they’re doing. It is all very very frightening.”
According to Mrs. Shash, most of basic human decency is slowly vanishing from the streets of Cairo. The comradeship and the solidarity so typical of the revolutionary days are but a bitter memory. In her view, the violence is a powerful tool of the current regime. “The women, we’re actually the revolution’s victims. We are it’s collateral damage”, says Farah Shash, but she adds that she hasn’t yet lost all hope. She is well aware that the revolutions are known to devour their own children, and that serious political and economic change always takes time. “Sexually, we have long become a highly repressed society, and the illusion of freedom provided many men with the license for abuse. This is its own warped interpretation of freedom and also a symbolic portrayal of the real state of our society. The islamists, using the army and the police, are constantly assaulting our way of life. They are forcing upon us their values and their morality. Their minds would feel most at home in the middle ages. The entire Egypt is hurtling into the darkness. The pressures are also mounting in our schools. Soon, every little girl will be forced to wear a veil. In Luxor, many girls’ hair had been cut off. And the community is sort of accepting it, drowning in apathy. But this is something we will fight to the last. No matter what the consequences, we are prepared to bleed for our freedom!”
The Need for a Sexual Revolution
Both in the time of Mubarak and during the last two years, the Egyptian women have mostly been left to fend for themselves. Few international organisations reached out to help them, and most of what help they got had been of a symbolical nature. Yet in the last few days, the international community finally began responding to the ever more desperate pleas for help. Michelle Bachelet, the executive director of UN Women,released a statement expressing her profound concern about the escalating violence: “As a vibrant force in civil society, women continue to press for their rights, equal participation in decision making, and the upholding of the principles of the revolution by the highest levels of leadership in Egypt. UN Women is deeply disturbed by the gravity of recent attacks against women, including the reports of sexual assault, many of which occurred in the same Tahrir Square in which women rallied to contribute to a better future for their country.”
Mrs. Bachelet called upon both the government and the people of Egypt to immediately stop all forms of violence against women and to start promoting human rights for all, including the rights of women to live free of violence and to participate fully in social, economic and political life. In particular, the UN official underlined that, in order to safeguard the fundamental rights of women, »the Egyptian government has to adopt new laws and take additional measures as to ensure their protection and ability to exercise their rights.«
Yet words remain words, and decisive action is far away. Especially if one relies on the UN to provide it.
Amira Mikhail, an activist, claims the Egyptian society needs to be changed in its entirety: »The very mentality of our men and women has to change,” she told journalists in Cairo: “Policies need to be revolutionized, assault need to be criminalized, women have to be respected and protected and not made into scapegoats. The police and the military need to start protecting them rather than harassing or violating them, and all instances of violence need to be dealt with harshly and swiftly. This can be done through laws and the media and the re-education of our police and military forces. However, such a project requires an educated, active, and motivated citizenry. And this we simply do not have.” In Mikhail’s opinion, Egypt is in acute need of another revolution. Above all, it would have to be a sexual revolution. Mikhail draws much optimism from the fact that, in the last few weeks, the Egyptian media finally started noticing the tide of violence against women. Egypt Independent, a Cairo-based daily newspaper, was the first to tear down the wall of silence and publish some very graphic descriptions of the sexual abuse at Tahrir Square. “A woman was sexually assaulted with a bladed weapon on Friday night, leaving cuts on her genitals,’ the local reporters wrote: ‘in central Cairo, in the midst of what was purportedly a revolutionary demonstration. She was one among at least 19 women sexually assaulted in and around Tahrir Square on Friday night, according to accounts collated by Operation Anti-Sexual Harassment, an activist group. Several women were stripped, and raped, publicly, as men pushed their fingers inside them. There were other attacks involving bladed weapons. Six women required medical attention. No doubt there were more assaults, uncounted.«
For the past two weeks, the women planning to take part in the protests can rely on the help of an organisation called Body Guard Tahrir. On the streets, its members are doing what should be the army and the police’s job. One spokeswoman for the organisation claims that the sexual violence has become an integral part of the Egyptian culture. “Such incidents are by no means confined only to the Tahrir Square. Abuses are taking place all over Cairo and all over Egypt. It is something we need to deal with, and we need to do it now! The perpetrators know very well that, as things stand, no one is going to prosecute them for their crimes. And that in itself is a powerful incentive for further assaults.”
During the Friday’s mass demonstrations against Mursi and the Muslim Brotherhood, the members of the Tahrir Body Guard were a welcome sight among the crowd, protecting the attending women from any sort of abuse. The group had been founded by an activist named Soraya Baghat. Making clever use of social networks, she distributed video footage of organised assaults on women and followed it up with a heartfelt call for help. The response to her plea was extraordinary.
Jehane Noujaim, the director of a documentary called The Square, is convinced that no force in this world will be able to stop the women of Egypt from picking up their struggle. According to her, the ever more prevalent sexual violence is a sort of social epidemic. “The women will continue to march to the Tahrir Square to protest as loudly as they can,” she believes: “That is something that will not change. The violence against women is counter-productive since it will only fuel our righteousness and motivate us to protest even harder!”
There are several recorded instances where, when on-lookers tried to intervene on the assaulted women’s behalf, the perpetrators fended them off with knives. A number of mass brawls have also been recorded. »Testimonies from victims and those attempting to save them paint a frightening picture. Tens if not hundreds of men surrounding the victims with countless hands tearing-off clothes and veils, unzipping trousers and groping breasts, nipples and backsides,« writes the local researcher for the Amnesty International Diana Eltahawy on her blog. Like most other activists, Elthaway blames the brunt of the violence on the police who mostly do nothing. Egypt has become the land of absolute impunity as far as violence against women is concerned.
In front of the Helvan art academy on the Zamalek island in the middle of the Nile, a group of co-eds are using their day off to debate the next stages of the revolution. They are angry and disappointed because first the generals and then the islamists tried to run them into the ground. Violence against women is something of a taboo topic, so it is hard to get anything out of them at first. The mood here in this bastion of art and urbanity is chillingly different than in those heady first weeks of the revolution. It is hard to escape the feeling one of the main causes of the downbeat atmosphere is the escalation of the sexual violence against women.
Omar, who calls himself ‘a real revolutionary’ and believes that Mohammed Mursi is sooner or later bound to get assassinated, is one of the founders of the OpAntiSH. During the last three Friday protests he was there to shield his female comrades and was injured in the process. “I am horrified,” he said to me: “Every day, it gets worse. The pressure from the Islamists is mounting. This is nowhere near the Egypt we were fighting for. The Muslim Brotherhood is doing everything it can to consolidate its power. The assaults on our women are carefully organised. The aim is to intimidate them and thus drive them from the streets. They say they’re doing it for religious reasons. But it has nothing, nothing to do with religion. It is pure violence.”
Omar assured me that he and his friends were determined to keep providing assistance to his city’s women. His female colleagues were quick to jump in the conversation. A girl named Farida told me she still went to the protests and would continue to do so for as long as it took. This didn’t mean she was not afraid, for every female protester was running a very real risk of getting assaulted. “Personally, I haven’t been assaulted yet – ‘yet’ being the key word here. Unfortunately, I believe things will get a lot worse. The Islamists are trying to make us cover our faces and get out of the streets. But no way. In spite of the pressure, we must go on. In the streets, I have already had a number of episodes where men were yelling at me, making threats about what they would do to me if I don’t cover myself up. Things are turning really nasty around here.”
María Verza (Chiapas, Mexico)
( Translation by: A.L.C. Teen Translators – Asturias, Spain)
- Mexico is the country that consumes more soft drinks per person in the world and Chiapas one of the places where not only the most is drunk but also where malnutrition and obesity prevail.
- Experts warn, with 70% of Mexicans overweight, 30% of them obese, and diabetes the primary cause of death, that the health system will collapse by 2020.
- Any hopes? That Congress passes the initiative supported by The UN and 47 other organizations to increase beverage company taxes and that The PRI´s current “Crusade Against Hunger” is taken into account.
Next, some little kids go to center court where they dance around the Coca-Cola brand symbol drawn on the floor. If an extra-terrestrial arrived at this moment, surely they would think that Coke was something very important to the earthlings. Everyone is pleased that a woman is offering some cookies to accompany their soft drinks between performances. All the children are doing very well and today they will save their lunches, something important in a region where poverty affects eight out of ten people and malnutrition and hunger three out of ten.
The school in San Pedro Chenalhó is on the road that joins San Cristóbal de Las Casas with Pantelho, a bit further than 60 kilometers from the colonial city. During the trip, the red and white colors stand out against the green mountain landscape. Almost all the shops, but not the normal houses, are painted in these colors because this way the paint is free. Coca-Cola Femsa (the Mexican subsidiary that is Coca-Cola´s largest bottling plant in the world, with 2.6 billion cases produced in 2011 and which supplies all Latin America) knows that these indigenous and impoverished areas are an important market. Femsa opts for advertisements in native languages and have changed over the traditional welcoming billboards to villages into large publicity posters.
The strategy comes from afar. As the social anthropologist Jaime Page Pliego explains, in research about to be published in the magazine, Liminar, soft drink companies looked for local party leaders who had been supported by the PRI and who were in charge of pox production (a type of clear brandy made from sugar cane and used in Mayan ceremonies) and gave them exclusivity for Coke and Pepsi. Soon they became rich. Page Pliego cites the example of the Lopez Tuxum family from San Juan Chamula – a village today known for a large Syncretist Church where Mayan ceremonies take place in front of its altars of various virgins and saints. This family was offered the exclusive selling rights in 1962 to both brands and later both companies wanted the sole rights which Coca-Cola ended up winning. The Lopez Tuxums established themselves as money-lenders, controlled all transportation, and handed down the businesses from one generation to another. “The social prestige that Coke and Pepsi acquired in Chamula, primarily for Coke, at the family festivities and patron events, spread all over the Altos de Chiapas”, writes Page.
Little by little these refreshments have become an important focus for the communities of los Altos. Nowadays, it´s not only a beverage but rather almost a currency to pay debts or dowries and in fact even part of Prehispanic ceremonies and religious rituals. Since Evangelical churches have proliferated in the area they have also encouraged the local natives to replace their alcoholic drink pox with Coke or other sodas.
2-5 LITERS PER PERSON PER DAY
Mexico is the country where the most soft drinks are consumed worldwide and Coca-Cola Femsa are the leaders. When the heat bears down in some villages of northern Mexico´s Sonora Desert, a person can drink up to five liters of Coke, according to Page Pliego´s data. The average in the country, his research found, stands at 0.4 liters daily per Mexican, a figure that multiplies in Chiapas. In los Altos, each inhabitant drinks 2.25 liters daily and is the reason why the bottles there are extra-large and not sold anywhere else.
The Coca-Cola Femsa bottling plant in San Cristóbal de las Casas is, furthermore, one of the two largest in Mexico (the other is in Tlaxcala, near the capital) with guaranteed water access since it´s situated on the slopes of the Huitepec, known as the “volcano of water”. Page Pliego says that besides the actual well, which is used to supply all Chiapas and part of Oaxaca and Tabasco, another is being built. Various organizations have denounced agreementsbetween the company and officials for being able to access the water at a very low cost in a state where having rights to this resource causes major legal problems among communities.
That´s why Chiapas is the best example of what has become known as “Coca-Colization”,or the invasion of the soft drinks. While maybe not the only cause of what experts term as “the new war of the twenty-first century” or the obesity epidemic, it is clearly one of the main reasons why in Mexico, according to expert studies, 70% of the population is overweight and 30% of them are obese.
Yet for UN Food Program spokesperson Oliver de Schutter, the point where a marked change in the Mexicans´ food habits and also an increase in sugar and processed fats intake occurred, is when on the first of January 1994 The North American Free Trade Act was signed. Food imports soared and, in just a decade, Coke consumption doubled among children, according to Schutter.
SOFT DRINKS + MALNOURISHMENT= ALARM
In Chiapas this makes for an explosive combination: high soft drink consumption and high levels of malnourishment. “Most Mexican adults were malnourished as children, so their bodies are programmed for less and when suddenly there is an excess of sugar the metabolic damage is terrible” explains Dr. Abelardo Avila, researcher for The National Institute for Health and Nutrition. The consequences range from diabetes to heart-disease, blindness, amputations and lower work output.
According to the 2012 Health and Nutrition Survey, diabetes is the primary cause of death in the country, with an estimated 13 million affected and only half diagnosed and treated. This survey found that 70% of households demonstrated some level of food imbalance.
Nutritionist Marisol Vega knows what the combination of these factors mean. She has spent more than ten years working in several communities in los Altos de Chiapas with university or NGO projects and has seen “how traditional diets have been replaced by soft drinks and junk-food that is cheaper and easier to prepare”.
“For ten pesos (half a Euro) they can buy a large bottle of soda for the whole family to drink for breakfast, later another for lunch and perhaps even one more for dinner, because it´s cheap(less than bottled water)and thirst-quenching, especially when served with tortillas. In addition, it is also socially respected”, adds Vega. The researcher warns of the danger that this implies in some communities where there exists historically-inherited malnutrition. Breastfeeding is being given up early and soft drinks are even being served to infants. The result is that in the same family there are under-nourished children and obese adults. Not only has the rate of diabetes shot up, but Vega warns that the problem will multiply in the future.
CHEAPER AND MORE ACCESSIBLE THAN WATER
“Many schools, not only in Chiapas or Yucatan where the problem is more apparent, but also in the metropolitan area of the Mexican capital, haven´t got drinkable water and the children hydrate with soft drinks. This is a horrible problem”, points out Dr. Abelardo Avila. “I have even seen mothers who fill their baby bottles with Coca-Cola”, he adds. Also, schools have been converted into “junk-food paradises” even though their sale has already been prohibited. You only need to go to the schools´ entrances to see that what used to be sold inside, now has moved outside. “Right, during a few months we couldn´t sell” – says Señora Juana while she loads her small carriage with sweets at a centrally located school near the capital –“ but now there´s no problem”.
All experts agree, that although in some places like the capital anti-obesity and some nutritional programs have been launched, in general the state has not done enough to control the overweight epidemic and the diseases related to these problems. With diabetes at the top, the problems have grown so much that “if continued at the current rate, in 2020 the financial and public health damage for México will be unsustainable, a catastrophe” predicts Dr. Ávila.
“Coca Cola and the rest of the soft drink companies has done everything that the government has let them do”, protests Alejandro Calvillo, Director of the NGO “The Power of the Consumer”.
On several occasions their group has denounced the excessive permissiveness of the authorities regarding the expansion of beverage industries who have operated with very low costs and taxes and even with unfair practices. “We can demonstrate that agreements between Coca-Cola and school directors from Chiapas permitted their exclusive beverage sales on school property and that they paid them with bottles of Coke that were later resold for their own personal gain”. Calvillo also remembers that the relationship that this company has with the powers to be is very strong. “You just have to recall that not long ago, from 2000 to 2006, Mexico had a president that was the director of Coca-Cola (Vicente Fox)”.
Demands of the civil organizations and the UN itself to alleviate the problem have been the same for some years and they follow two directives: prohibiting soft drink and junk-food publicity aimed at children and raising taxes on the industry. But companies in the sector, very powerful and with double moral standards (some, for example, support nutritional programs developed by NGOs), have managed to skirt the measures by committing to self-regulation, stating that the problem isn’t soft drinks or some foods but rather nutritional habits, as Jaime Zabludovsky, President of ConMéxico and sector employer, explains.
Up for debate, the next Mexican Congressional Sessions will answer to the demands of 47 organizations to raise the taxes on the soft drink companies and to try to counteract the consumption of sweetened beverages. These groups also know that it will be necessary to invest in nutritional education as much in rural areas as in the urban ones and also to recover traditional diets with produce grown in their own community when possible.
UN Secretary Schutter agrees with this diagnosis. México must ”study the possibility of levying taxes to discourage energy-rich diets, especially soft drink consumption” he said this past March.
Mexico should also “grant subsidies so poorer communities are able to have water, fruit and vegetables” and work towards “agricultural and trade policies” which have a good effect on population diet, namely, policies supporting individual production in agricultural communities instead of imports.
As the experts agree, this should be one of the basic objectives of the “Crusade against Hunger“, which has just been set up by Enrique Peña Nieto’s government with 30,000 million pesos (about 1,800 million euros) focused on 400 highly marginalized towns in the country.
By Mónica Hernández / Translated by A.L.C.Teen Translators, Asturias-Spain
- Gloria, early-retired from Iberia Airlines, keeps nine homeless men in her home with her pension and has created a business where they work.
- She has already taken in 160 people in thirteen years.
“Gloria, the journalist is already here!” shouts Fede, looking up as he raises his voice. He leads me to the top floor of the thrift shop where Gloria appears to be waiting for me. I see her coming round sofas, lamps, picture frames, shelves and second-hand books.
We exchange glances and she smiles at me. “Hi, Monica” Gloria is a dark-haired cheerful woman around 60 years old with tiny bright eyes. From her early retirement pension from Iberia Airlines where she was an air-hostess, now live ten people – nine men without any family ties and herself. They are her only family and she loves them as if they were true family.
She has created two second-hand thrift shops with her pension and the earnings from people’s donations of their old furniture. “Her boys” as she likes to call them, go house to house with the van gathering items that later will be restored and sold. They also do odd-jobs at a good price, like painting if necessary, moving or whatever brings money home to where they all live – the home that Gloria rents for everyone. The place where they live, eat, sleep and are treated for both their physical and emotional illnesses – the latter ones being the ones that hurt the most. They dream about the crisis ending and that someday the world will be better. At the moment, since Gloria took them into her home, it already is.
Everything began 13 years ago when Gloria, who had been a volunteer helping children of prostitutes who had cancer or Down’s Syndrome, decided to set up her own NGO – Proyecto Gloria – taking in to her home drug-dependent homeless men from the street. Leer más
By Bostjan Videmsek (Athens)
Photos Jure Erzen
On November 7th, Athens was burning again. In front of the parliament, where another monstruous bargain had been struck, the special police units were hitting children and old women. The most brutal austerity package yet had just been rammed through. In the streets, molotov cocktails were crashing down, slogans were chanted, the teargas was making people weep openly. In this respect, Athens is now officially the weeping capital of Europe.
Again, all of it was probably to no avail. The vote behind the thick parliamentary walls had been fixed in advance. The public infrastructure is being dismantled back into the stone age, and these latest belt-tightening measures are only guaranteed to make things worse. The poor people in the giant laboratory called Greece have not been offered the luxury of choice. Their only option is to rant and protest. And that is so obviously not enough.
A country without sovereignity is hardly a country. Greece is now a grotesque puppet of the global financial markets. The Greek political elite is the sub-contractor hired by foreign interests, principally by the corporation called EU. These interests’ most immediate goal is to turn the land into a pocket of Asia right here in the middle of Europe – to bring East and West a little closer, one could sardonically say. In the name of the holy grail called competiteveness, the people of Greece are being stripped of their way of life.
This, incidentally, is what the future holds in store for the rest of us. How long before the »free-enterprise zones« start sprouting around all of us as well? The »free-enterprise zone« is the production unit favoured by the disaster capitalism set loose upon the world. 400 Euros of monthly pay with no benefits and lots of unpaid overtime: this is what the European worker of tomorrow can reasonably hope to expect. If in this more modern, more competitive Europe someone revolts, fifty other eager slaves will leap up to take his place. At this moment, we might as well put a giant sticker Made In China over the entire continent. Health and education are already the privilege of the rich.
Nazism rears its ugly head
At this stage, is there anything that can stop the neo-liberal rampage? The old, impotent, arrogant, totalitarian and justly beaten ‘left’ no longer has the right to try. The new left seems bashful and without clear ideas of its own. Whom can an angry young man turn to when he wants to enter the political arena? Is there even such a thing as a political solution to this mess? Can the protesters ever transcend the level of street theatre and stand their ground for as long as it takes? Is there really no alternative to widescale bloodshed? 2012 = 1937?
By Boštjan Videmšek, Shanghai, Xian, Beijing
We were standing in the memorial room of the elite University for political studies. For the past few decades, this illustrious institution served as a breeding ground for top party bigwigs. A small frail student with jerky motions, a waxy complexion and a Hitleresque parting in his hair was telling us a lot about the university’s glorious past and even more about China’s invincible future. The student was nineteen. Even though he looked completely lost – in time and space as well as in translation – he was positively smouldering with conviction.
The student’s terrifying earnestness, along with the image of his exhausted colleagues staring into their computer screens at the university’s library, offered a fascinating contrast to what one could see in the streets of downtown Beijing. In the past decade, these streets have been turned into a battlefield for the sort of architects who specialise in skyscrapers, classy shopping centres and other such palaces of robotised communication. In China, shopping has been transformed into a very basic human need. Both for the locals and for the visitors, it has been rendered all but obligatory.
But what happened to communism?
Perhaps we should simply call it something else – global-commo-capitalism, for example. Whatever it is, we at the very least need to name it correctly: after all, it seems it is what the future holds in store for all of us. Here and now. Or, if I may borrow the official slogan of Shanghai, the trade capital of the Universe: The Future Is Now.
The Dictatorship of Choice
I asked Li Jiahua, the university’s deputy dean, how his school, the nursery for the hardliner’s hardliner, managed to adapt to the radical socio-economical change of the last twenty years. »Oh,« he replied: »We simply went with the flow. We have indeed been facing countless challenges. The ever-increasing progress of our country posed many questions. So we opened courses in economics and financial management, though the brunt of our curriculum still consists of social and political studies. We discovered much of our technology was outdated. We had to answer many questions as we went along. Yet I would like to stress that moral education still represents the very core of our institution.«
In the last twenty years, the basic profile of the students at this ideological nest underwent a rapid change, too. What used to be the submissive party-liner with a fetishistic bent for military uniforms is now the digital consumer type entirely subservient to the dictatorship of choice. The army shirts have been exchanged for designer clothes, or at least the ‘original fakes’ of the world’s most prestigious brands. The bitter redguard face has been replaced by the cosmetic smile. Love more! is one of the jingles being peddled in Beijing by one of Europe’s most respected automobile makers. The behemoth called China may have been dormant for centuries, but now it is turning into every free-market guru’s wet dream.
The mood in Beijing is best described by evoking some classic futuristic movie. Think Blade Runner spliced with The Minority Report. Swarms of young people are chaotically racing in the streets, always on the go, always in a hurry. This is only to be expected. While they are growing up, time here in China is ticking by faster than anywhere else in the world. As you negotiate your way through the swarms, you quickly find out about the only remaining rule of the pedestrian flows in Beijing: ‘ME FIRST!’ Yet even with all this perilous commotion, the young always find the time to glance at their cameras, their laptops and post-modern mobile phones – a formidable army of gizmos dispassionately recording every moment, every face and every act in this consumerist hell. With an intelligence corps of this magnitude, why would the State even need security services? In their hectic surgings, the streets of China’s richest cities are now more uniform than they had ever been. There are also many more slogans – only this time around they are phrased in the aggressive lingo of the advertising agencies, designed to plow straight through your frontal lobe and start whispering about unmet needs.
Love more! indeed.
The Chinese economy has been growing for the past thirty years. The obstacles fell by the roadside one by one. The period of growth has been so turbo-charged that, as it stands, only the United States are still in front of the rising kraken – and even the US can’t last that much longer. For thirty years, the genie of economic growth uprooted everything in its path, deftly taking advantage of all the perks of totalitarian communism. The party bosses have gotten used to posing as enlightened absolutists, but they have long become merely corporate executives in that sun-eclipsing mother of all corporations called The People’s Republic of China. Leer más
By Mónica G. Prieto / Translation Blanca G. Bertolaza
- The Virtual Museum of Censorship promotes the knowledge of the cultural prohibitions in place in Lebanon to defend freedom of speech
- The organization in charge of banning works uses a law passed at the beginning of the 20th century during the French occupation
- “Politicians believe that declaring everything is taboo is the best way for them to remain in power”, explains Lea Baroudi, Museum manager
BEIRUT.- Some movies are never shown in Lebanese cinemas, even if they are available on the black market for one dollar. Some internationally-recognized artists never land in the country because the authorities have made out a link –close or far, real or imaginary- with Israel. Graffiti artists are arrested for expressing themselves on the walls, actors taken into custody for showing their underwear, singers jailed because one of their songs might refer to a politician…
In Lebanon, which until the regional revolts prided itself for being the only Arab democracy, freedom of speech is a vague concept and censorship an everyday problem. Cartoonist Mazen Karbaj said it best when he designed the cartoon that has become the flag of the MARCH movement, focused on promoting the citizens’ rights and obligations. In the drawing, a politician, a soldier and two clerics –one Sunni and one Shiite- hug each other smiling as they chant “yes to freedom of speech”. The small print reads: “Unless you talk about the State, Allah, the prophet, Jesus Christ, the president of the Republic, good manners, the Church, the Bible, the Koran, the Martyrs, the Resistance, the Army and its chief, the Pope, the Saudi King, the prophets, national unity, the civil war, confessionalism, friend countries and brother countries, the mufti, the patriarch, the prime minister, the Government, history books, the Palestinian refugee camps, and the origin of hummus”.
“It is one of our contradictions”, Lea Baroudi, MARCH founder, smiles broadly as she shrugs. Lebanese society is made up of a variety that can only be understood through huge amounts of tolerance and coexistence. “However, taboos are one of its most noticeable characteristics”, adds Lea. Anything that might disturb the status quo –not the stability, which is always absent- is seen by its leaders as a threat. And that includes from sex or domestic abuse to religion and politics.
MARCH’s fight is based precisely on promoting freedom of speech as a means to aspire to other fundamental freedoms. And also to live in peace. “We are a plural society, with people who think differently and we need to accept what others say”, Baroudi insists. However, the way the State has of dealing with these differences is hiding them. To that end, it has the Directorate for General Security’s Media and Theater Department, better known as the censorship office. They ban artistic works that, in this organization’s opinion, “threaten the peace”. Sometimes they make use of the armed forces, and too often, even if it is just for a few days, daring artists end up in a dark prison cell.
On Sunday, June 17, Antonis Samaras walked into the press centre as the winner of the repeated Greek parliamentary election. It was late at night, and the leader of the conservative New Democracy party was flanked by a gaggle of sweaty and decidedly rotund admirers. To a clued-in observer, the very girth of these men was a signal that the sordid operation jointly engineered by the international financial institutions, Bruxelles, Berlin, the world’s largest banks and the global corporate media was entering its next phase.
The ancient Greek elites that ran the country for the last forty years only to literally bring it to the brink of third-world destitution now finally handed it over to the international financial gamblers. What hurts the most is that almost a half of the Greek electorate decided to vote for them. The mandate the new government thus received is a mandate to implement the full gamut of its ‘modern economy’, a nightmarish vision certain to transcend the region in ever-gruesomer shockwaves.
Clearly collaborating with the international financial institutions, the EU had done all it could to hox the prospects of Syriza, the Greek coalition of radical leftist parties. Led by the charismatic Alexis Tsipras, Syriza is pushing for saying no to the drastic austerity measures. Its agenda is nationalising the banks, fighting to keep a strong public health-care and educational system, and positioning itself as a dam against the mad flood of privatisation threatening everything there is and ever will be.
How did the EU help the predators? One week before Greece’s election, Brussels granted Spain one hundred billion euros of aid – an action many Greek voters interpreted as the promise of a softer-cuts scenario for them as well, if only the conservative block is voted back into power. But this was only a skillful feint. Brussels, Berlin and Washington were simply nervous about Alexis Tsipras, the Syriza leader, possibly having some sort of a back-up plan to follow the country’s pullout from the Eurozone… A back-up plan that would probably be all about forging new alliances with Moscow or Beijing.
Global capitalism fighting for its own survival
»This election was crucial for the survival of global capitalism,« feels Statis Gourgouris, a professor of classic literature at the Columbia university in New York. »The election demonstrated that the majority of the Greek people is refusing to accept the dismantling of its social and economic infrastructure. The people are refusing to condone the flash impoverishment across the broad strata of society, the annihilation of the next generation’s future, and the vilification of an entire way of life. Even more important, Greek society demonstrated it would not accept being used as an experiment in neoliberal economics.« Leer más
Boštjan Videmšek, Athens
On Wednesday, April 4, nine in the morning saw a 77-year-old man yelling in the middle of the teeming Syntagma square – the emotional centre of the Greek protests against the dictat(orship) imposed by the international monetary institutions. The old man was screaming at the hated parliament building, and his cries amounted to a seething denunciation of the fact that his debt will have to be repaid by his children and his grandchildren. After he’d said his peace he leaned against a tree, pulled a pistol out of his pocket and shot himself in the head.
The suicide of this desperate Greek pensioner carries a heavy symbollic significance. It evokes the spirit of the Czech patriot Jan Pallach, 21, who – protesting the Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia – set himself on fire on January 16, 1969. It is also strongly evocative of the self-immolation of Mouhammed al Bouazizi, the Tunisian grocer who triggered off the Arab spring. Leer más